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Author's Note:

Continued from "The Way of the Family."

Romantic love between consenting adult women Yes
Sex between consenting adult women Yes
Violence No
Sexual Violence No
Rough Language No

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The Way of War

by TZ Copyright January 18th, 1999

"All members are present. I call this council to order."

The Elder Council and the queen's advisors quieted. They all looked at Gabrielle expectantly.

The queen, Ephiny, Xena, Wolf, and Solari had a private meeting earlier with the scouts that returned from Athens and Sparta. The rest of the council was eager to know about the situation between the two super powers.

Getting straight to the point, Gabrielle stood and leaned on the table. "I am afraid that Sparta has declared war on Athens."

"For what reason?" Roesta asked.

"Sparta objects to the presence of the Athenian navy in many of its allies' ports as well as the harassment their cargo vessels are suffering when the Athenians board and search them." Gabrielle took a deep breath and denied herself the urge to slump back down into her chair. "When our scout left Sparta, troops had already been moved north towards Corinth."

"And what of Athens?"

"They have mobilized three-fourths of their fleet and have begun military conscription of non-citizens."

Whispers and murmurs erupted after a brief silence. All eyes turned to Xena.

The warrior returned each woman's stare until she was looking into the troubled green eyes of her wife. When the bard nodded for her to respond to the silent question, the warrior walked to the head of the table. "I suggest that we send out scout parties of no less than five warriors each to our southern-most borders. If a battle breaks out in our territory, it will take place in the western valley. With the two passes blocked to the south, all troop movements will be diverted through there. The scout parties will be able to detect and report any mass movement of force with enough time to warn us."

Roesta stood for the Elder Council and addressed the consort. "What reason would either side have to bring their war this far north?"

"Obviously, Sparta cannot match the Athenians at sea...they will have to fight a land battle. Athens has many supporters along the Aegean coast, including villages and cities in Thessaly and Thrace. To get to that support and those available resources, the Spartans will have to drive north through our forest and valley. It is possible that they would take the Legaian Pass to the west of the mountains, but if I was in command, I would want to save the time and take the chance of squeezing past a neutral"

The Elder sat back down and nodded. "I am in agreement."

Gabrielle took her seat also; she was acutely aware of Xena's presence at her side and Wolf's at her back. Ephiny sitting on her left completed the feeling of security and support that the queen desperately needed. "I would like to hear some suggestions from the Elders," she said as she bowed her head slightly in a show of respect. "Many of you repelled the Persians during the early wars. Your experience would be to our advantage."

Xena mentally applauded the queen's move. Elder Amazons were treated with great respect, for the life of an Amazon warrior rarely afforded one longevity. Those that served on the Elder Council were a fount of knowledge and sage advice.

"We would like time to study the maps and confer among ourselves, if it pleases the queen," Roesta said as she returned the given respect.

"Is two days sufficient time?" the queen asked.

"It is."

"Are there any objections to sending out the scout parties as suggested by Xena?"

Roesta looked and found agreement in her peers' faces. "No, your Majesty."

"I declare this meeting adjourned until two days time when we will meet after the noon meal."

The Elders remained in the Council Hut when the queen's party filed out quietly. Heavy parchment maps were taken from deep shelves; for several hours, the old warriors relived great battles of the past. Between them, they were able to recall no less than two dozen battles and major skirmishes that were fought in the Amazon valley. Together, they hoped to find a way to keep the Nation safe and neutral.

When Gabrielle led her advisors out of the hut, she saw Triva with a young Caregiver.

They were returning the queen's children to the Royal Hut where Gabrielle and Xena spent time with them before dinner. The older Amazon seemed tired and pale; faint circles under her eyes attested to the restless nights Wolf was suffering.

Since returning from Amphipolis, the demi-god was withdrawn almost to the point of brooding. She became obsessed with protecting Gabrielle and her family. In fact, it seemed as though the entire village was tense and high-strung.

Aside from dealing with the every-day issues that came with leading a Nation as unique as the Amazon's, the bard also had to handle problems that arose as a direct result of the war.

A faction of warriors separated from the general body; those women wanted to join the conflict. Despite their common military background, the Amazon and Spartans were traditional enemies. Some of the warriors wanted to join the Athenians against their common rival, even though their proposed ally was the one responsible for threatening the queen.

Great debates of an intensity long forgotten erupted during meal times. Fearing for the queen's safety, Wolf and Xena became even more vigilant. The queen's insistence upon neutrality disturbed them. Xena's reluctance to fight was seen as a weakness brought upon by her blind devotion to her wife.

Gabrielle bristled under the strict guard and found a way of handling the situation that appeased everyone. Wanting to head off an internal confrontation, Gabrielle called an open council and invited each person to speak her mind freely. As a result of the meeting, the queen appointed an equal number of supporting and opposing warriors to a War Advisement Council. A council representative of each side was invited to attend and to participate in the Queen's Council meetings.

That solution so far, seemed to be working; there was open discussion about the Nation's position in regards to the war. Accordingly, there was less secrecy and Gabrielle knew which side each warrior supported. She treated the members of the faction with the utmost respect. She patiently listened to their concerns, she promised to consider their ideas.

And even though the formation of the Advisement Council dissipated some of the tension in the village, not everyone was able to breathe easier. Wolf drove herself to exhaustion every day. She never left the village to hunt or run the forest like she used to; she saw little of her children as she dedicated herself to personally guarding the queen every waking hour. On top of her self-imposed heavy workload, old dreams returned to haunt the demi-god's few hours of sleep.

Triva smiled wearily as the queen crossed the square to meet them. The tall Amazon handed Eponin over to Gabrielle's care; her gray eyes were troubled as they studied her vigilant lover that stood at the queen's back.

"Triva, why don't you get some sleep," Gabrielle urged with a gentle smile. "Aresha can watch the twins."

Aresha, the other Caregiver nodded quickly. "It's no problem, really Triv. The girls love me. I'll take them over to the nursery so that they can play." The young Amazon blushed when Xena reached for Larin.

Gabrielle shook her head in amusement. It was no secret that the young redhead with the dark blue eyes was deeply infatuated with the consort. "You go ahead and do that Aresha. I'll make sure that Triva lays down."

The young Caregiver looked to Wolf for consent. When the small warrior nodded curtly, Aresha turned and ran back to Wolf's hut.

"Now," the queen said as she gently spun Triva in a half-circle, "go get some sleep," she ordered.

The women waited until Triva entered the hut and Aresha came back out. The young Caregiver had one child in her arms and the other secured firmly in a carrier on her back. They returned the redhead's wave and watched her take the twins to the nursery.

Gabrielle turned to face her advisors. Ephiny and Solari were deep in discussion; the regent chewed her bottom lip as Solari squeezed her shoulders in assurance. Wolf was scanning the village perimeter.

Looking finally to her wife, Gabrielle fell into pools of pale blue water that were soft with undying love. The bard smiled shyly and cocked her head. "How about we get the girls to lay down for a nap?"

Xena smiled faintly and nodded. Wordlessly, the couple walked to their hut.

Wolf followed two paces behind. When the hut door fell closed behind the queen and consort, the guard took her position just outside.

When she entered the hut, Xena laid Eponin in the crib and crossed to each window to close the shutters. Gabrielle put Larin in the padded corral that Xena had made a month before when their oldest daughter began crawling into trouble. After giving Larin several toys with which to play, the bard turned to find her wife lighting a few candles to light the dim room.

Xena smiled when she sensed Gabrielle moving behind her. Her heart melted like it always did when the smaller woman wrapped her from behind in an embrace that spoke volumes for the tender love they shared. Leaning her head back against her wife's, Xena sighed. "I love you, Gabrielle."

The bard snuggled as close as Xena's scabbard would allow; she inhaled deeply. The combined scents of leather, cinnamon, and musk enveloped her like a blanket of security. "I love you, too," she whispered. "Xena, is it going to be like this until the war ends? Will it always be so tense?"

"That's what war does to people," the experienced woman replied. "Just thinking of battle can make a warrior edgy. Something of this magnitude is bound to increase that natural tendency."

"What about you? You seem a lot calmer than most of the Amazon warriors, even…" the bard left unsaid as she nodded towards the door.

Squeezing Gabrielle's arms once, Xena loosened them and turned in her wife's embrace. "For one thing, I am used to this. I've been in more wars than most of those women out there. Second, she," the warrior explained as she repeated the bard's head motion, "has seen very little war."

"But she's so strong and focused. I thought that she had seen a few of them."

"Gabrielle, she's scared. The only real war she ever participated in was that one in Chin. When she got back, she was involved with some minor skirmishes…nothing like this."

"Shouldn't we help her, then?"

"Later," Xena said firmly. "All I want to do right now," she whispered in a deep, sultry voice, "is to be with you. I want to forget about everything else for just a little while."

Despite her worry for Wolf, Gabrielle was overcome by her own desires that had been put on hold for the past two weeks. "I think I can arrange it so that your desires come true," she replied seductively and playfully.

Xena was desperate to forget that at any moment, the armies of Athens and Sparta could come crashing around them. She needed to remember that there were other things in life besides war. She once lived in a state of constant battle for ten long, dark years; she never wanted to lose herself like that again.

"What would you do?" she asked as she tucked a braid behind her wife's ear.

"Hmm…I suppose the first thing I would do is this," Gabrielle revealed; a moment later, she stepped back with Xena's scabbard and chakram in her hands.

"You are so good," the consort said huskily. "I didn't even feel that."

Gabrielle chuckled softly. "Well, it's good to know that I can create a diversion when I need to."

" tonguing my cleavage was part of a devious strategy, huh? I honestly thought that you loved my breasts. You spend so much time fawning over them."

"Sweetheart, that's not fawning...that's surveillance."

"Surveillance?" Xena asked as her armor fell to a heap on the floor.

"Uh, huh. They are the two most dangerous things I know. If I don't keep my...eye on them, who knows what trouble they'd get you into."

"I've got something I have to tell you, then, my bard."

"And what's that?"

"They're in league with your entire drive me to distraction."

"Tell me, Xena. Please tell me why," Gabrielle begged with a gasp when she was spun around and warm leather caressed her back.

Callused hands roamed lightly across the contours of Gabrielle's body. They mapped the hard planes of muscle that were exposed by the Amazon leathers that the queen wore. Fingertips tested the boundary between stomach and skirt; they infiltrated down into territory that was soft, warm, and becoming increasingly moist.

Gabrielle sucked in her stomach as much as possible in an effort to encourage Xena to go lower. She groaned when the cool metal on the warrior's bracer touched the sensitive skin below her navel.

Xena reached around with her left hand and unclasped Gabrielle's skirt. The rust-colored leather fell to the floor with a gentle wisp of sound. Her right hand continued on its mission, unencumbered by the snug garment while her left hand moved north to explore soft peaks and deep valleys.

Reaching out to steady herself against the table, Gabrielle hissed with pleasure when Xena's fingers teased blonde hair that was curled in wet expectation and squeezed a nipple that was rigid with anticipation. She was unprepared when the warrior withdrew her hands, grasped her by the hips, and spun her around and lifted her to sit on the table. The bard watched with breathlessly as her wife removed her leather battledress and breeches.

Grabbing a nearby chair, Xena swung it around so that she could sit facing the bard. She scooted the chair closer until she was sitting between Gabrielle's legs. Leaning forward, she grasped the smaller woman's feet and pulled them up to rest on the back of the chair. When she moved even closer, the bard's knees bent; they spread open, falling to either side.

Gabrielle could feel herself opening for Xena. She leaned back on her arms and watched hungrily as the warrior's tongue began to trail hotly up her parted thighs. Her hips bucked in anticipation; a cry refused to be stifled between trembling lips.

Xena paused to let Gabrielle's golden thatch tickle her nose. A hunger in her soul cried out for the taste of her lover's musky passion. Giving in to the call of her own desire, Xena sank into Gabrielle's sex until her nose and mouth were deeply entrenched.

Gabrielle groaned helplessly. Her hips rose and the muscles of her thighs quivered and flexed with each languid stroke of the warrior's tongue. She gasped sharply every time that her clitoris was teased.

Baring her teeth, Xena delicately caught the sensitive bundle of nerves. For a brief moment of sheer madness, she held it as a willing prisoner; the tip of her tongue lashed furiously over its prey.

A burst of heat exploded from the core of Gabrielle's sex. She fought vainly against the climax that was gathering energy with every calculated movement of Xena's mouth. The bard felt her passion rising with unbelievable speed. Just when she thought that she was going to crest and plummet, Xena stopped.

Xena purred in pleasure when Gabrielle whimpered in disappointment. "Not yet," she said. It was part statement, part command. Wrapping her arms around Gabrielle's legs, the warrior stood and pushed the chair back with her booted foot.

The bard's knees were hooked through the crooks of Xena's arms; her legs were forced up as the warrior leaned forward to capture her mouth. She tasted herself on her wife's lips and the smoldering fire in her loins burst anew.

As Xena's tongue sampled the flavors of Gabrielle's mouth, her hands rose to squeeze and fondle the bard's full breasts through her Amazon top. Her own neglected mound blindly sought contact with the silky wetness that her mouth had already explored. One callused hand reached down between their joined bodies so that she could spread the swollen lips of her own sex.

Gabrielle cried out in ecstasy when their bodies were intimately fused. She grunted when their sensitive buds slid wetly over each other with an ever-increasing pressure. Her breath came faster. Sucking desperately on her lover's lips and tongue, Gabrielle reached desperately for Xena's flexing buttocks; she pulled the warrior so close that she was sure they would be forever joined. She was confident that Xena would keep her from falling back onto the table.

Gritting her teeth with the exquisite onset of her orgasm, Xena abandoned Gabrielle's lips and fastened her mouth to the bard's sweaty neck. She bit down hard; her scream of release was muffled by delicious skin.

The moment that Xena bit her, Gabrielle was sent into an uncontrollable spin of pleasure and pain that ended with a choked sob. Even after the searing heat of climax had passed, her body continued to throb and tremble; her fingernails left shallow furrows of abused flesh along the contours of her lover's behind.

The two women gasped in unison as they came down from their ascent to blind ecstasy. Xena released her hold on Gabrielle's neck and the bard raised her hands to trail lingering caresses up and down her wife's back.

Wordlessly, Xena stood and cradled the smaller bard in her arms. When she was sure that her legs would support her, she carried Gabrielle to the bed. She gently laid her lover on the wide pallet and sank down next to her. Her tongue cleaned traces of blood from the smaller woman's neck as her fingers deftly removed her Amazon top.



"We're still wearing our boots," Gabrielle said with a chuckle.

The warrior arched a brow as she looked at their entangled feet. "So we are," she murmured. With a wicked grin and a saucy wink, the warrior sat and scooted to the end of the bed. Slowly, she unlaced Gabrielle's boots. Each time that the leather slipped through an eye, she bent her head and kissed a different spot on the bard's legs.

By the time that Gabrielle was bootless, she was once more writhing in anticipation.

Xena quickly shed her own boots and crawled up next to her wife. She looked down into Gabrielle's face; she was pleased to see the previous traces of worry and stress replaced by the soft lines of love and passion. "I love you, my bard," the warrior whispered as she lowered her mouth.

Their lips tangled in a slow dance of pleasure and discovery. Their bodies came alive under mutual touches that were full of trust and devotion. Their lovemaking this time was leisurely; it was if for one afternoon, the world faded out of existence. Even the children respected their need to lose themselves in each other, falling asleep despite the soft cries of love.

As their daughters slept on in the candle-lit hut, the bard queen and her warrior consort were reminded of the soul-deep love that had bonded them since the beginning.

A few moments after the bell for dinner was rung, Xena and Gabrielle emerged from the Royal Hut with their children.

Wolf and three other guards fell into step behind them. The demi-god was unusually quiet after having heard the earlier activity in the hut. Normally, the small warrior would make some comment to the women about their proclivity towards ear-busting pleasure. Since returning to Amazonia from Amphipolis, however, Wolf was intense and quiet. Her deep brown eyes were now hard when they used to be soft with humor and affection.

When they entered the dining hall, the gathered Amazons went silent until the queen and her family reached the head table and sat. At a smile from Gabrielle, conversations buzzed anew.

A couple of serving girls brought tray upon tray laden with stew, bread, butter, spices, and drinks. Their stew was still steaming and the butter was soft and sweet. Savory aromas titillated the diners' hunger.

Inhaling the tempting odors, Gabrielle clapped her hands together and rubbed them vigorously.

Larin, who was sitting in the queen's lap, giggled at the action.

Another tray was delivered for the Amazon Princess. There was a small bowl of mashed carrots, unseasoned chicken, and a bladder of goat's milk.

As Xena quietly discussed the scout parties with Ephiny and Solari over dinner, Gabrielle fed Larin and herself.

When the princess was pleasantly filled, she lay back in her mother's arms and played with a wooden spoon.

Gabrielle took the momentary reprieve and finished her meal leisurely.

While she was eating, Gabrielle listened to the various conversations she could hear. She had finally taken the mask of queen when she and Xena returned to Amazonia to raise their family. Since then, she had not dealt with anything more serious than relocating the refugees of Terlava. The war between Sparta and Athens, however, was more than she ever thought she would see.

The war for her, was a test of her ability to lead; she still had doubts regarding the decision to send the Nation headlong into that war. After some serious consideration, however, she knew that if the Amazons were threatened, she would not think twice about it. She was grateful to have the advisors that she did. They were all friends whose experience and loyalty she could trust.

Looking at the small group that made her job as ruler of the Amazons easier, Gabrielle realized that Wolf was standing behind her chair. The queen sighed; she spotted Triva at one of the lower tables with Aresha, feeding Zasha and Perran. "Wolf," she said softly, for she knew that the demi-god could hear her, "would you please sit down and get something to eat. You won't be in any shape to fight a child if you keep up like this."

Wolf looked Gabrielle in the eye and saw only genuine concern. She softened at the gentle smile bestowed upon her. With a slight nod, the small warrior agreed and took the seat to the left of the bard. She blushed profusely when Gabrielle began to serve her. "Please, don't do that," she said as she laid a callused hand over the queen's. "I serve you, not the other way around."

Gabrielle gritted her teeth; she set her jaw firm. "Don't be silly. If I want to prepare a tray for a friend, then I'll do it. Don't be so damn difficult."

Grumbling under her breath, the guard relented and removed her restraining grip. "Thank you," she finally whispered after a bowl of stew and a chunk of bread was set before her.

"And you better eat it all," Gabrielle ordered with a curt nod. "If you don't, I'll sic Xena on you."

The small demi-god snorted in amusement. "You would, too."

Gabrielle smiled when she felt a warm hand settle on her thigh. She looked aside to her wife and found the warrior's blue eyes on her, soft with approval. "Hades," the queen commented with an arched brow, "I never thought I'd see anyone more uptight than my Warrior Princess." Turning to Wolf, she grinned. "Do you have any idea how long it took me to nag her into smiling more?" she asked conspiratorially.

Wolf leaned forward to look at Xena. The usually stern warrior was speaking tenderly to the infant in her arms. An unexpected smile lit up her face, leaving Wolf breathless for a moment. "We should all thank you for that," the demi-god answered sincerely. Then, she grinned wryly. "I guess I've been a total stiff lately."

"Something like that," Gabrielle agreed with a nod. "I understand that things have been tense lately, but you really need to relax. Who knows how long this war might could be a few months, it could be a few years. Were you planning on being anally retentive the entire time?"

The demi-god choked on a mouthful of food she was chewing. She had not expected such a blunt question from the sweet bard. "Well," Wolf replied after she took a drink of water to clear her throat, "the thought had occurred to me."

"Don't consider it, then," the queen ordered. "You are miserable, Triva looks terrible, and I'm sure the girls miss you."

"But it is my duty...."

"Do not give me that line, Wolf. I happen to know that ever since Atronos' brother caught us by surprise, you have drilled day in and day out with the guards and scouts. I have a better-trained personal guard than the King of Persia." Gabrielle laid a gentle hand on Wolf's shoulder. "Let all of your hard work be put to use. You don't have to be at my side from the moment I wake to the time I go to bed."

"Are you ordering me to another vacation?" the demi-god asked suspiciously.

Gabrielle chuckled deeply. "If you don't listen, I might just have to." The queen turned serious once more and she looked into her friend's deep brown eyes. "I mean it, Wolf. You are running yourself too hard. If you keep it up, you are going to end up sick or worse. What good will you be to the Nation if you're all burned out?"

Wolf nodded her head finally. "All right, Gabrielle, I get the picture. From now on, I'll only take the standard six hour shift."

"And you'll relax and have some fun."

"And I'll relax...." Wolf's eyes narrowed in question. "Gabrielle, how am I supposed to have fun when there is a war going on?"

"Start sparring with Xena again," Gabrielle whispered as she leaned close. "She misses it. She thinks you're the only one who can whip her into shape."

Wolf arched a brow and grinned evilly. "You just sent a million images through my mind."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes and sat back in her chair. "From one extreme to another...what is it with warriors?"

After the gentle lecture from Gabrielle, Wolf followed the queen's advice. Although she remained ever vigilant while on duty, her off time was spent with her family or with Xena. The two warriors often went riding into the valley and the forest. They sparred with the intent of strengthening their bodies and honing their skills and minds.

At dinner and during the night, the demi-god retired to her hut where she spent time with Triva and her daughters.

Even though war was a threat to the Nation, Gabrielle strove to keep life as normal as possible for the women over whom she ruled. Ceremonies were still held; the young warriors still took their lessons on the practice field. The weekly meetings of the Queen's Council and the War Advisement Council, as well as the scouts that regularly reported from the various battle fronts, were the only indications that something out of the norm was occurring outside of the Nation's self-imposed isolation.

Two months after the war broke out, a breathless scout stumbled into the village.

Wolf caught the young Amazon as she fell to her knees in front of the Royal Hut. "Yaric, what is it?" the demi-god asked.

Yaric struggled to stand and catch her breath. "Southern border," she gasped, "there's a flag-bearer and a Spartan officer seeking audience with Queen Gabrielle."

The crowd that had gathered around the scene erupted into whispers of conjecture. Ephiny stepped out of the circle and raised her hands. As she was addressing the crowd, Xena and Gabrielle stepped from their hut, adjusting their clothes. "Amazons," the regent called loud enough to be heard over the other voices, "the queen will hear the news and a meeting will be held. Go back to what you were doing before. You will be informed of any action that is taken."

There was another eruption of noise before the women began to slip away in small groups that gathered around the edges of the village square; they continued to speak among themselves as they awaited the queen's decision.

Turning to Gabrielle, who was helping to support Yaric's exhausted body, Ephiny bowed her head. "I'll call the meeting."

Gabrielle nodded as she lost her position to Xena. "Make sure that the Advisement leaders are invited," she ordered.

The blonde Amazon bowed once more before speaking softly to Solari. The dark-haired advisor crossed the square to two separate groups and spoke with a couple of warriors.

The queen and regent led the way to the Council Hut while Xena and Wolf supported Yaric's shuddering body the short distance.

When all of the Council was present, Gabrielle dispensed with formalities. She turned to the messenger that was drinking slowly from a tankard of water. "The news, Yaric?"

The Amazon scout nodded and took another small swallow of water. Setting her drink down, she began to rub her cramping legs. "At the southern marker by the ancient tree, there is a Spartan officer and a bearer of a white flag. The officer was calling out that he wanted an audience with you, my queen," she replied. "As soon as one of the passing guard squadrons heard him, I was sent here right away."

Gabrielle faced the council; she laced her fingers in an effort to keep them from tapping nervously against the table. "Any thoughts?" she asked.

Roesta and Laera looked at each other; their brows were clouded with foreboding. Roesta declined the offer and let her peer address the queen.

"My queen," the Elder began, "I do not think that it would be wise to bring the Spartan here. If you wish to grant his request, you might want to do it at the border under heavy guard."

The queen nodded her understanding and turned to the two warriors that served on the Advisement Council. "Your thoughts?" she asked Phelisya, the leader of the opposition.

"I agree with the Elders. I don't think we can trust the Spartan in the heart of our village." The warrior seemed as if she was going to speak more, but she sat back down and began to pinch her lips together.


The leader of the supporting faction stood and bowed respectfully. "This is one matter we all agree on, my queen. The Spartans cannot know our numbers and strengths. They must not learn of our capacities."

"Agreed, then," Gabrielle said as she smiled thinly. "If we agree to a meeting, we take it to him." Taking a deep breath, the queen asked, "Are there any objections to meeting with the Spartan?"

Laera stood and clasped her hands together. She stood tall as she addressed the Council. "While I agree to our queen's position of neutrality in this war, I believe meeting with the Spartans can only serve to our advantage. It will help us gain insight as to what that nation is planning."

When the Elder took her seat, Gabrielle recognized Kepra.

"I think we should be careful, though. It could be some kind of trap. What if the Spartans heard about the kidnap attempt and want to try the same?"

Xena shook her head as she stepped forward to be recognized. "I don't think they would try that," the consort said as she laid a powerful hand on the back of Gabrielle's chair. "If they even heard of the attempt, they would know that I refused the Athenians."

"Why do you think they're out there?" Gabrielle asked the tall warrior.

Turning to look at the map that hung from the wall at their backs, Xena's brows furrowed in thought. "Given the time since our last scout reported back, I would say that our visitors represent General Kidian's force. It's a small group…they probably want safe passage through the valley."

Gabrielle darted a glance to the other women at the table; she panicked at the thought of having to make a decision about such a request. Her wide eyes sought help from her regent.

Ephiny leaned close and laid a comforting hand on the queen's forearm. "You don't have to make any decision right away, Gabrielle," she advised. "The Spartans can wait until you've had time to consider what their proposal might be. This is our territory and we hold the power here…don't let them take it from you."

The queen nodded and inhaled slowly. "All right," Gabrielle answered softly. Aloud, she said, "Let's assume that Xena is right. I wish to entertain a debate in regards to the Spartan force's passage."

For over an hour, the Council members argued back and forth for and against allowing passage. One side believed that it would be safer to just allow the army use of the valley and that it would not compromise the Nation's neutrality. Another side believed that it showed favor to the Spartans, which in turn would anger the Athenians. Phelisya suggested that a squadron of Amazon warriors simply sweep down and destroy the Spartan contingent with none the wiser.

Gabrielle listened to each speaker carefully. She nodded intermittently and frowned at Phelisya's advice. When they were finished, she stood and bowed respectfully. "I wish to speak with my advisors now," she said authoritatively. "I will call you in an hour to present my decision."

The women filed slowly out of the hut. Phelisya and Kepra began a heated argument outside; Wolf moved quickly to calm the women and send them on their separate ways.

When the demi-god returned, a heavy pall of indecision hung over the room. Instead of taking her position behind Gabrielle, the small guard stood near the door; her senses were attuned to any movement outside.

The queen sighed wearily and stood to pace the floor. "What am I supposed to do?" she asked softly. "They all had good points," she said and then smirked, "except for Phelisya. I will rule out attacking the Spartans unprovoked," she finished firmly.

Ephiny leaned forward and braced her elbows on the table. She shook her head and replied, "It's not an easy decision, Gabrielle. We can either risk war with the Spartans by not allowing them passage or we can risk war with Athenians by showing a preference."

"Chances are that if we allow the Spartans passage, the Athenians will want it too," Solari added as she poured the regent a tankard of water. "Then the valley would become a main thoroughfare for both armies as they moved troops between the fronts."

"And if they ever meet there," the bard said with a shudder, "we'll be caught in the middle." Troubled green eyes sought out their blue mates for help.

Xena shrugged apologetically and laid a strong hand on the queen's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. There are no easy answers here. It's a judgement call that you have to make."

"What would you do, Xena?" Gabrielle asked.

"If it was just me, you, and the kids, I would run the other way. Before, with my army, I would probably have slaughtered the Spartans and taken what I could from them. Neither of those matter, though, because we have responsibilities here and I don't have my army anymore, nor do I want it."

Gabrielle lowered her eyes after seeing the truth in Xena's. There was no way out of making the decision and despite Ephiny's advice, the queen was feeling the pressure to render one. "What are the chances that the Spartans want something totally different?"

"Slim," Xena answered as she raised the other hand to gently squeeze her lover's shoulders.

Ephiny glanced up into the trees; her trained eyes could barely make out the two dozen warriors in the trees that surrounded the small clearing. She tore her gaze away from the trees above and looked down the path; she was alerted by a birdcall that announced the arrival of their visitors.

The blonde hardened her eyes and straightened her shoulders. She stood proud in her ceremonial attire that declared her to be the Amazon Regent. When Xena and Kepra came into the clearing, the Ephiny's eyes barely flickered with relief. The only reason that Gabrielle had consented to staying behind in the village was that her regent had promised Xena's safe return.

Seeing the warrior all in one piece physically boosted Ephiny's spirits somewhat, although the foreboding ice in the other woman's eyes spelled trouble.

Since Xena was at best barely cordial on her good days, Kepra stepped forward. The sun filtering through the trees glossed off her pale blonde hair. "My Regent," the warrior said with a respectful nod, "I introduce General Kidian of Sparta. He wishes a boon from the Amazon Nation."

"On behalf of the Amazon Nation and my queen," Ephiny said with regal authority, "I agree to hear your request."

The general stood awkwardly, unsure of how the protocol demanded that he act. Instinctively, he bowed his head as Kepra had. Frowning at the unaccustomed discomfort he felt, the Spartan cleared his throat and cut to the chase. "I come to ask that my force be allowed passage through your valley without molestation."

Ephiny's eyebrow arched; the regent flashed Xena a smug look. "General, Amazons do not molest men," she deadpanned in a humorless imitation of the Warrior Princess. She paused momentarily and added, "Unless they deserve it."

Xena smirked behind the Spartan's back. She nodded towards the scroll that Ephiny was tapping against her thigh.

The Amazon looked down and remembered that she was carrying Gabrielle's missive. "You're lucky, you know," she said almost conversationally, "our queen is a peace-loving woman."

Opening the scroll, Ephiny quickly read through Gabrielle's flowing prose and dismissed the effort it would take to repeat the entire thing. Instead, she bared her teeth in the semblance of a smile and rolled it back up. "You will be allotted one day's travel through the valley starting at sunrise tomorrow," she announced officially. "You will consider this your first and last request to do so. If your men are not off of Amazon territory by sundown tomorrow, our warriors will attack. If we find your men anywhere near our borders or lands once you have cleared the valley, our warriors will attack. Is that understood and accepted?"

General Kidian recalled the map he had studied yesterday. The valley was not so long that he and his men could not travel it on a slow day. With a curt nod, the Spartan agreed. He blinked when the regent handed him a quill.

"Sign here, if you will," the Amazon said as she pointed at the bottom of the scroll.

Kidian's eyes narrowed as he read through the Amazon Queen's words. Although they were much more numerous and full of metaphor and emotion, he understood them to be the same as what Ephiny had already outlined. "Done," he said curtly as he signed the parchment.

Ephiny nodded and handed the scroll and quill to the flag bearer. "The queen also wishes you to sign it so that she knows that you witnessed the agreement.

The young Spartan looked at his commander. When the general nodded his assent, the boy took the quill and carefully shaped the letters that formed his name.

When he finished, Ephiny handed the quill to Xena. The regent shook her head ruefully when the tall warrior, with two diagonal slashes of the instrument, made her mark on the paper.

"You may enter the valley at sunrise tomorrow," Ephiny said as she rolled the scroll once more. "We will have scouts monitoring your progress to ensure that you do not break this treaty."

"Understood," the general said brusquely as he bowed his head again.

Ephiny nodded and looked at Kepra and Xena. "You may return him to the border," she said as she began to tap the scroll on her thigh again.

The warriors complied with the regent's order with due haste. When they returned ten minutes later, half of the warriors in the trees descended to escort the party back to the village. The other half remained in the canopy's cover to make sure that no one followed.

When they arrived back at the village, Gabrielle met them; she was wringing her hands with curious anxiety. "Well?"

Ephiny smiled thinly and nodded. "He accepted it. They'll enter the valley at sunrise tomorrow and be out by nightfall."

"We'll need to arrange a general meeting tomorrow to let all the Amazons know that they will be on our territory with my consent and that they are not to be harmed."

"I'll arrange it," the regent replied with a short nod.

When Ephiny left, Gabrielle took a deep sigh. "So it went well?" she asked Xena who was the only one left standing with her.

"Nothing happened but what we expected." Focusing her gaze upon the guard captain behind the queen, Xena asked, "Have the scouts been selected?"

Wolf cocked her head towards a group of twenty women. "You could say that," she replied. "Solari explained what was going on and we actually had to deny half of them."

"Can you trust that none of them will break the treaty?"

The demi-god scrutinized the Amazon scouts. "They know what will happen if they do," she said ominously. "I explained that to them in great detail."

"Good," Xena murmured. Looking down at her wife, Xena's eyes filled with love. "How are you doing?"

Taking the warrior's arm, the queen shrugged slightly. "I was worried about you," she began as she guided the taller woman towards their hut. "I lost count of how many times Wolf growled at me."

Xena chuckled and reached across to squeeze the hand that rested at the crook of her opposite arm. "You make her nervous when you pace. Besides," the warrior said as she pushed aside the covering over their door, "I was in no danger. You sent enough warriors to guard me."

Gabrielle blushed as she bit her lip. A moment later, she chuckled lightly. "Imagine, the Warrior Princess in need of protection." The bard sighed as she removed her hand from Xena's arm; she began to pace with growing agitation. "I worry about you, Xena," she finally said. "I'm afraid that this war is going to come home to us and I know how responsible you are to the Nation…."

"To you," the warrior interrupted as she caught the restless bard by the shoulders. "I am responsible to you and our children. You come first and then the Amazons."

Raising her hands to push her hair from her face, the queen sighed. "Either way, I know that if that war comes into our valley that you'll be right there in the thick of it. I can't help but worry…and we're not getting any younger."

The warrior snorted in disbelief. "Are you saying that I'm old?"

At first, Gabrielle was afraid that she had offended her partner, but then she saw the lights of humor dancing in the warrior's eyes. "Well…" she teased with a slight smile. "You are almost forty."

"I am nowhere near forty," Xena retorted, "and I can still beat even the best warrior you have."

Seductively, the queen's delicate hands began to trace armored swirls that she memorized long ago. "What if I told you that you were the best warrior I have? Hmm?"

Xena pulled the smaller woman closer and whispered, "Would you like me to prove that I'm in the prime of my life, woman? I'm sure there are many tests you can put me through."

"Stamina," the bard said with a slight nod before Xena captured her lips.

"Strength," the warrior added as she lifted the smaller woman easily and carried her to the bed.

"Skill," Gabrielle said breathlessly while Xena nibbled a path down her neck.

"Mmm, I have many skills," Xena reminded her before stealing another kiss.

Gabrielle was about to chastise the warrior for the often-repeated phrase, but there was a soft knock on the doorpost of their hut.

Xena exhaled raggedly before lifting her head from Gabrielle's warm skin. "Who is it?"

"The children are here."

Smiling wide, Xena pushed up from Gabrielle and rolled from the bed to stand. Running a hand through her hair, she opened the door to allow Triva admittance. Before the Caregiver could take one step into the hut, the warrior gently took Larin from her arms.

"I missed you," Xena whispered into her daughter's fair hair.

The child gurgled happily and tangled her hands in her mother's raven locks.

The warrior gazed fondly at Larin and then at Eponin whom Gabrielle gathered into her arms. Her heart swelled with pride; she fought against the fear that threatened to rise in its stead. She would not allow the specter of war dampen her spirits, not when she realized more than ever how precious life was.

Sighing deeply, Xena grinned at Gabrielle. "What do think about having dinner in our hut tonight? Tomorrow, I want to go down with Wolf to keep an eye on Kidian and his men…I won't get a chance to see you and the girls."

The queen smiled in response and nodded. "That sounds wonderful. I'll let the guard know."

As her wife stepped out of the hut to speak with her guard, Xena listened as Triva detailed the day that the children had. The warrior's heart swelled with pride as she heard of the girls' triumphs of the day.

Larin was beginning to stand without assistance and Xena knew that it was only a matter of time before the child was walking and then running around. Silently, the warrior prayed that it did not happen tomorrow when she would be away. Even though she made a personal vow to live long to see her children grown, she knew that it would only take a stray arrow or a lucky sword strike to separate her from this life. In war, nothing was guaranteed.

With this in mind, Xena was determined to enjoy life with her family as much as possible before the forces of Athens and Sparta trampled into the relatively isolated Amazon territory.

With the history of the two powers and their own fervent patriotism, Xena knew that it would get bad. She could only pray that it would not touch her family, and if it did, that she would be strong enough to keep them safe. Should the Nation become involved, it would take every one of her skills to protect that which she valued most.

When Gabrielle entered the hut again, Xena cast aside all thoughts but those of her wife and children. The queen's warm, loving gaze made everything else fade to shadows.

"It's all set," the bard said as she crossed the hut to her wife. Kissing both the princess and her consort, Gabrielle sat upon the thick fur that served as the children's play area. "Come join us," she whispered with a glint of stubbornness in her eyes.

It was then that Xena realized something about her wife.

Gabrielle knew exactly what was happening, what could happen, and she was as determined to forget it for the rest of the day while they were together as a family.

The warrior smiled gratefully and settled next to the smaller queen. She kissed her oldest daughter before setting her down to crawl amid the toys that were scattered on the fur. She watched as the child carried an intelligible conversation with one stuffed Amazon doll until Eponin began to fuss for nourishment.

With a silent whisper of thanks, Xena removed her armor and lowered her battledress. Gabrielle laid the baby in her arms and then sat close at her side to watch. Even Larin, sensing the magic of the moment, came closer to watch. When the baby began nurse, Xena closed her eyes and forgot about the two armies that would eventually destroy much of Greece.

Right now, there was only the four of them wrapped in a cocoon of love and blissful ignorance.

To be continued in The Way of Honor

The Way of Love

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

The Way of the Family

The Way of War

The Way of Honor

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