Gabrielle opened her eyes as dawn peeked in her window. She had long ago schooled herself to sleep when others did as a matter of course when she could. It reminded her of her humanity and made her continue to function somewhat normally.
She stretched slowly then hugged the pillow to her, remembering the warmth of Xena's presence in her dreams.
"Good morning, Xena. I miss you, but every new day brings me closer to you again."
She put a robe over her nakedness, knowing that the steward would be knocking shortly to bring in hot water for her bath. It was one of the luxuries she allowed herself and her mind went back to a time when it had still be a luxury that was rarely managed.
"Hey, Sweetcheeks! What's shakin'?"
Gabrielle turned from where she was putting things away. The boat she had hired wasn't long gone from the dock and though the Captain was somewhat skeptical of Gabrielle's directions, she and her crew were being well-paid to go where they were told.
Gabrielle had hired all the staterooms and though she really didn't need the space, she was happy with the privacy it afforded her. She fairly squealed when she heard the voice and rushed into Dite's arms with a glad cry.
Dite returned the embrace fervently, concerned by the reaction, but enjoying the hug nonetheless. She kissed the top of the blonde head. "You okay there, Gab?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah. I've just missed you... a lot. Seems like forever since we've had some girl talk."
A knock at the door caused them to pull away from one another slightly. "Yes?" Gabrielle called out as she turned towards the door.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, Mistress," a female voice said through the closed door. "But I thought I heard you scream." Gabrielle released her hold on Dite and fully faced the door.
"Everything's fine," Gabrielle answered, knowing without looking that Aphrodite was smirking at her back. "Thank you for your concern though."
"You're welcome, Mistress," was the response, though the doubt could be clearly heard through the closed door. "Do you require anything?"
"No, thank you," came the polite but firm reply.
"Very well, Mistress," the voice said, though it took another full minute before footsteps sounded leading away from Gabrielle's door.
Gabrielle turned around then and faced the full-fledged grin Aphrodite was sporting.
"Mistress, huh? Wow, babe, you're totally moving up in this radical little world. I so didn't know you were like, into that kinda thing."
Even though Gabrielle was truly a woman of the world, having seen, done or heard about just about everything in her exceptionally long lifetime, she had managed to retain the kernel of who she had always been. And it was the shy sheepherder from Poteidaia that blushed thoroughly at the love goddess's implication.
"Not that kind of mistress," Gabrielle grumbled as she scrubbed her face from embarrassment and crossed back over to the bed to finish her unpacking. "The crew didn't feel comfortable addressing me as Gabrielle. They chose 'Mistress' instead."
"Even though you're not comfortable with it?" Dite asked somewhat seriously.
"Yes. The Captain feels it's bad for discipline for them to address me by name."
Dite looked perplexed. "Why?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "Beats me, but she is the Captain. I'm gonna work on it though. I really don't want them calling me Mistress when we reach the Amazons."
Dite chuckled. "Oh yeah. Those rockin' babes would have a totally bitchin' time with that, wouldn't they? You could just teach them to call you 'My Queen'."
The look Gabrielle cast Aphrodite then would have frozen hot butter on a summer day.
"Hmm... guess not. Though if they're becoming Amazons, won't they like call you that eventually anyway?"
"I hope not. I'm not an Amazon Queen anymore, Aphrodite."
"Hon, haven't you like, heard that old adage? Once a Queen...."
"Besides," Gabrielle continued, overriding Dite's words. "There is no guarantee these women will become Amazons."
Aphrodite actually snorted. "C'mon, babe. Do you really think they *won't*? That's why they were chosen to go with you, isn't it?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "I dunno. I feel so out of touch with things these days."
A wave of sympathetic understanding washed over Aphrodite at those words and she took Gabrielle's hand, leading her towards the small bed. "I can totally understand that. C'mon," she added, sitting on the edge of the bed and tugging Gabrielle down beside her. "Let's sit and have a little of that girl talk we've been missing."
Gabrielle sat back on the smallish bed and wriggled around until she was comfortably reclined against the headboard. Dite took a clue from her and squirmed up beside her, both of them breaking out into giggles when Dite nearly fell off the bed when the ship suddenly lurched forward.
"So tell me what's up with you, Cutie. Seems like I haven't seen you in forever," Aphrodite said as she settled herself more firmly in the bed. They were sitting almost close enough to touch. Dite took a clue from Gabrielle and tried to brace herself, forgetting that the bard was braced against a corner.
Finally she gave an exasperated sigh and popped a padded railing up beside the bed. "There!" she exclaimed with not a little satisfaction. Gabrielle chuckled silently then leaned in and gave Dite another solid hug.
"Thank you, Aphrodite."
Confusion washed over the goddess's face. "'Kay... for...?"
"For being here." Gabrielle sighed and loosened her hold. "I know I seem to be depressed every time you visit and I appreciate your coming anyway."
"Babe, if *ANYONE* in the *entire world* TOTALLLY understands your depression and, you know, the reasons behind it, it'd be me. I mean, I've still got most of my family...." Dite paused in thought. "Although that in and of itself is sooo depressing some days. Anyway," catching Gabrielle's smile out of the corner of her eye and feeling inordinately pleased with herself for causing it.
"Like I was saying, even with the family around, I still get down. I miss the old days."
Silence fell then, Dite having become unexpectedly solemn at the turn in the conversation.
"I miss Xena," Gabrielle whispered, her eyes fixed on something Aphrodite could only guess at.
"Oh, babe," the goddess consoled, gathering the bard into her arms and gently stroking her hair and arms. "I know you do. I cannot like, tell you how awesome it was to see the two of you together. And ya wanna know a secret?" Dite waited until the blonde head nodded against her chest. "The only person looking forward to this reunion more than me is you. I get chills just thinking about it. The really good kind."
Gabrielle laughed softly. "Me too," then blushed. "Thanks, Dite. I'm glad I don't have to do this alone."
Aphrodite didn't answer immediately, just continued her gentle stroking for a few more minutes. Then she kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. "So, do you like, wanna hear the latest on Cecrops? I talked to Ch'uang before I came here."
It wasn't long before the two of them were catching up on all the gossip.
The weeks on board ship passed pleasantly enough. Mornings Gabrielle continued to dedicate to physical exercise and she was trained in enough disciplines and weapons to make for interesting, varied workouts. Several of the women on board asked to learn and she agreed, as long as they dropped the title Mistress and simply stuck with Gabrielle. It was an arrangement they were all happy with.
Afternoons she spent meditating or reading, though again, her teaching skills were called upon. She found it inconceivable that even in the fourteenth century, literacy was such a struggle for the masses. And she was happy to eliminate illiteracy whenever the opportunity to do so arose.
Evenings she spent alone, or with Aphrodite when she could get away, which was more often than Gabrielle expected. Apparently her being away from the mainland made it harder for the gods to discover her.
Finally, though, they were within sight of their goal and Gabrielle sighed. She hadn't been this nervous in centuries, to tell the truth. Not since she'd felt forced to leave the comfort of her Amazon home. She wondered many things, not the least of which was what the acceptance level of the Amazons would be towards her.
Now as they approached the dock, she could see many changes had taken place during her self-imposed exile. The small fleet was well-maintained and she could see an outpost cum shipyard. As the ship came to a stop, a contingent of armed, masked women waited with not-quite-hostile curiosity.
A gangplank was lowered and Gabrielle walked down first, holding her arms up in the ancient symbol of peace. The leader among the Amazons stepped forward with a hand upraised and spoke with a muffled voice from beneath her mask.
"Halt, stranger. You know of our signs, but you are not known to us. Who are you and what business do you have with the Amazons?"
"I am Gabrielle and I come home to my sisters in peace."
A gasp was heard from beneath a mask. The leader gave a brief hand signal without removing her eyes from Gabrielle's face.
"Impossible. Queen Gabrielle and her immortality are nothing but a legend... a fable for our children at night."
Gabrielle sighed. She'd known this wouldn't be easy, but she had hoped....
She removed the long Chinese robe she'd wrapped around herself. When it dropped, every Amazon present dropped to her knees.
Gone were the bard, the woman of the world and the traveler. In their place stood an Amazon Queen, easily recognized by her regalia, her signet ring and the tattoo she still bore. Gabrielle moved until she stood directly in front of the leader.
"I am no myth, no legend. I am a real flesh and blood human being."
The head was already bowed and it seemed to shrink further within herself at Gabrielle's soft words. Gabrielle placed gentle fingers under the woman's chin.
"You did the right thing, though, in questioning. Not like immortality happens to that many people," Gabrielle smiled, feeling the woman relax at her words. "Now, rise and walk with me. And please," reaching for her robe and donning it again, "take off the mask and introduce yourself."
"Yes, my Queen," came the expected response as the woman removed the mask. Blonde curly hair was revealed first and Gabrielle found her knees weaken as a face from the past met her present. The Amazon dropped her mask just as Gabrielle's knees unbuckled, catching the Queen before she hit the ground.
Gabrielle reached up a shaky hand to the woman's familiar face.
"Yes, my Queen?"
Then conversation stopped when Gabrielle lost her fight with conscious thought.
There comes a point when the mind simply cannot handle any more impossible, inconceivable ideas... especially a mind that has been exposed to new ideas for more than a millennium. It is a self-defense mechanism more than anything else. It gives the mind a chance to process the impossibilities without allowing conscious thought to interfere.
That is what happened to Gabrielle when the spitting image of a woman she knew to be long dead suddenly stood in front of her again, answering to the same name. Gabrielle had been surprised to see Eponin, but it was well within the realm of possibilities for her to imagine. Cecrops had been a surprise as well, but once again, well within the scope of imagined possibilities.
Ephiny though... Gabrielle had never thought to see her again as flesh and blood. And this new Amazon... this spitting image of the woman who had at first disdained her presence, whom she had finally won over and been proud to call friend, the sight of her had rocked Gabrielle to the core. She had been alone, without true friends for so very long and the harsh reminder standing very real and alive in front of her was overwhelming. She welcomed the darkness when it came, simply for the momentary respite it provided her.
She never knew the chaos her reaction caused in the Amazons around her.
"MY QUEEN!!" Ephiny yelled as Gabrielle crumpled. The Amazon caught her before she hit the dock. Ephiny sank to her knees with Gabrielle in her grasp, unable to lift the Queen into her arms. For her size, Gabrielle was quite a heavyweight, being nothing but pure muscle and Ephiny had been unprepared for the Queen's reaction to her.
The ship's Captain motioned for her own crew to retrieve a cot and without further ado, they quickly ran down the gangplank and made for Gabrielle. The amazons bristled and surrounded the two women. Ephiny sighed shakily. This wasn't the way her day was supposed to go.
"Amazons, stand aside. They offer aid."
The merest hesitation, then the Amazons formed a double line for the sailors to pass through. Two took the ends of the cot and held it steady, while the third and fourth woman reached out to help Ephiny lift Gabrielle onto it. Then everyone stopped and waited for Ephiny to speak.
"Well," she said scratching her forehead. "Ask the Captain to join us. You were kind enough to bring our Queen home. The least we can do is show you some Amazon hospitality."
One of the women scrambled away, to be followed back a moment later by not only the Captain, but the rest of the crew. The two groups of women took one another's measure, each liking what they found. With a nod, they moved forward as one into the Amazon outpost village.
It wasn't much as villages went. There was a mess hall, complete with a garden; a bathing hut; a blacksmith/armory, two barracks and a single hut that served as the healer's hut as well as the village office. Aside from the shipyard, that was it. Enough to make it a functional workplace, but no frills.
Rotations took place in six month increments and everyone except the regent served on a regular basis. Usually every five years.
All activity within the village ceased as the procession made its way through the village, stopping only when they reached the single hut.
"Okay, there's not room in here for everyone." Ephiny pulled open the door to let the cot bearers inside. "Katrina, go find the healer. Captain if you and your crew would follow Tisha and Morrin to the mess hall, I will meet with you as soon as I speak to the healer. Janus, you and Lissa take up posts at the door."
Women started moving as Ephiny spoke and the Captain nodded her acceptance of the directive. Gabrielle had spent some of their crossing explaining Amazon society as she remembered it and the Captain was willing to give it a go. It didn't hurt that she found Ephiny cute.
"So you're our immortal Queen Gabrielle, huh?" Ephiny commented to the still silent figure now resting comfortably on the lone bed. She brushed the hair back off Gabrielle's forehead. "Funny, the scrolls don't mention your beauty. Nor your strength."
She might have said more, but at that moment, Nora crossed the threshold and cast a cursory glance in Ephiny's direction before turning her full attention to the patient that now lay on the bed.
Ephiny shrugged. "This is Queen Gabrielle... THE Queen Gabrielle." Nora turned disbelieving eyes her way. Ephiny nodded. "That was my reaction, too. But it's her. The tattoo is the clincher, though she still has her leathers and signet ring."
"So what happened?"
"I dunno. She took a look at my face, whispered my name, then keeled over. Don't laugh, Nora," Ephiny scolded the smirking woman.
"Aw, c'mon Eph. How many women have you got falling at your feet? You oughta be used to it by now."
"I'm gonna have to hurt you," Ephiny growled. "Look, just keep an eye on her, all right? I need to go talk to the newcomers and get the full story. I'll leave Janus and Lissa at the doors just in case you need something. I'll be back when I get some answers."
Nora waved her out. "Go on. I'll send someone for you if she wakens, but if it's what I think it is, you'll be back before she opens her eyes again."
Ephiny nodded, then left with a single backwards glance.
The time spent with the Captain and crew was beneficial to both sides and the Amazons realized that they would soon be welcoming new members into their Nation at the next induction ceremony. Ephiny smiled to herself. Gabrielle had taught them well and Ephiny for one was thankful. The Captain, Elizabeth, was... interesting, to say the least.
It was fully dark when she made her way back to the healer's hut. Nora hadn't sent for her, so she could only assume that Gabrielle was still not awake.
Just as she reached the door, Ephiny was nearly knocked flat by Nora who was coming out.
"Oh, Ephiny, good," the healer said when they'd both recovered from their backward stumble. "Gab... Queen Gabrielle seems to be stirring. I expect her to come around very shortly."
"Thanks, Nora. Why don't you go get some dinner? I'll sit with her a while."
"Thanks, Eph. How'd things go with the visitors?" Nora asked as they both stepped inside the hut. Ephiny took a seat by the bed and Nora moved to wash-up for dinner.
"Very well," Ephiny said thoughtfully. "We'll be adding to the tribe soon."
"Good! Now if you'll excuse me...."
Ephiny nodded her head and Nora took her leave. Ephiny returned her attention to the figure reclined on the bed. She watched for many minutes, not consciously realizing when Nora came back from dinner to check on them both.
Gabrielle was slowly stirring and from her bits of conversation, she was relieving a time in her life long passed. Ephiny found herself growing anxious to talk to the Queen, curious to speak to the woman who had known her ancestors.
Without warning, Gabrielle shot upright in the bed. She uttered no sound, save for the heavy breathing caused by whatever disturbing dreams she'd been experiencing. Ephiny had stood at her very first motion and now remained silent while Gabrielle took in her surroundings.
Finally Gabrielle's focus came to rest on Ephiny's form and she took in every single detail very carefully. She recognized as she examined the young Amazon that there were indeed slight differences between herself and the ancestor she'd been named for.
It took Ephiny a moment to grasp the fact that the two of them had been staring at one another and she began to look away. Instead, Gabrielle reached out a shaky hand to her, which Ephiny readily accepted. Then Gabrielle tugged lightly and Ephiny assumed a position sitting on the edge of the bed.
Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, then cleared her throat. Ephiny reached for the small cup Nora had placed by the bedside and stuck the wooden straw between Gabrielle's lips. "Suck," she commanded softly, then added, "drink slowly. I think Nora may have added more than water to this," said with a slight grin.
Nora had indeed and the concoction was cool and tingly and very refreshing. Gabrielle swallowed a few mouthfuls before turning her head away. Ephiny removed the cup and set it back down.
"My apologies, my Queen. I didn't mean to...." Ephiny started, eyes still focused on the cup. The touch of Gabrielle's hands on her own again brought her to a quick halt. Gabrielle raised one hand and cupped Ephiny's face, urging her to meet Gabrielle's eyes.
"My name is Gabrielle, Ephiny and you have nothing to apologize for, my young friend," Gabrielle replied with a small smile. "I doubt you know just how much you look like the ancestor you were named for."
Ephiny shook her curly head.
Gabrielle chuckled. "Have you ever heard the term spitting image?" Now the curls bounced affirmatively. "Good, because you are. So I apologize... for dropping out on you... like that. It's just that...."
This time, it was Ephiny who halted the hesitant speech. "No apologies, my Queen. I doubt it is everyday that you come across a living part of a past that is long dead."
Ephiny winced at the flash of pain her words caused, but Gabrielle spoke before she could draw breath.
"No, but once my mind got wrapped around the idea, it really was quite welcome." Gabrielle gave a tremulous smile that became a genuine one when Ephiny returned it fully. "I'll make a deal with you. You give me a history of the amazons since I was here last and I'll share some tales of your ancestors with you."
"You still tell stories?! You bet it's a deal!" The scrolls Gabrielle had left were a favorite among the Amazons and to be able to hear fresh stories right from the source was an offer Ephiny wasn't about to turn down. A closer look at her Queen though toned down her enthusiasm in a hurry.
"However, it will wait until tomorrow. You need to recover." Ephiny rose from the bed and firmly tucked Gabrielle in. "Do you need anything? Something to eat perhaps?"
The mention of food reminded Gabrielle how long it had been since she'd fed and the thought stirred the burning in her blood. She shook her head.
"No thanks. I think I mostly need to rest tonight. Funny since I slept most of the day away, but I think all that processing my mind did just exhausted it."
Ephiny nodded. "I can believe that, my Queen. I know how tired I used to get after school testing and I knew those were coming. Not like you can prepare for something like what happened this morning."
Gabrielle smiled. "True, but it really was a nice surprise once my mind got wrapped around the idea." She motioned to the door. "Go on, now. I'm sure you'd much rather be talking to the Captain and crew that came in today than hanging out with me. I'll be fine. We'll talk in the morning."
"Actually, I'd rather talk to you right now, my Queen, but you need to recover. I'll be by... or would you prefer to summon me when you are ready?"
"Ephiny, regardless of the title that you can't seem to get by, I am just Gabrielle. Come by in the morning whenever you're ready. I'll be glad to have you here."
"Thank you, my Queen," Ephiny said, bowing her head and moving to the door. "Goodnight."
Gabrielle watched the Amazon leave and shook her head.
Nora had come by a short while later and offered Gabrielle a sleeping draught which she politely refused. Then she set herself to wait.
It took a while, but Gabrielle had not lived so long without garnering an almost infinite amount of patience. At the very darkest part of the night, she slipped unseen into the shadows and went hunting for blood satisfaction.
Even after more than a thousand years, it was a hunger that she couldn't completely control, though she managed it very well. Still, the need shamed her and she kept to the shadows until her task was done.
Just after dawn, Ephiny knocked lightly on the door of the hut. She knew it was still very early and hoped that Gabrielle had meant what she'd said the previous evening. She couldn't contain her enthusiasm and it had made it difficult to sleep.
Ephiny had read the scrolls - both Gabrielle's as well as those her own ancestors had penned and passed down through the years. Some of her very favorites were those her forebearer had transcribed of her own adventures with the youthful, na´ve Gabrielle.
She watched them grow up together, going from unsure antagonists to friends and confidants. Ephiny suspected her many-times-removed grandmother had been half in love with the woman she called Queen, though she never said a word to Gabrielle. Anyone with half an eye could see she and Xena belonged together and had gone through heaven and hell to stay that way. Ephiny looked forward to getting to know the woman who had so enamored her predecessor.
Her musings were interrupted by the soft call, "Come in."
Gabrielle sat at the small desk, looking over a thick journal. She was dressed in trousers and a tunic this morning and Ephiny wondered what had become of her Amazon leathers.
"Good morning, my Queen."
"Please Ephiny... just Gabrielle. I'm not Queen of the Amazons anymore. I never really was." The last was said softly and with a bit of sadness.
"I must disagree with you, my queen... Gabrielle. The Nation still looks to you as our queen. One of our greatest. However, I would be honored to call you Gabrielle, if you'll explain it to Regent Narmia when we see her in the main village. I'm not sure she would appreciate the informality."
"I'll deal with the regent. Thank you, Ephiny. Now c'mon and show me where we can get some breakfast around here, then we can take a tour of the outpost before we head inland for the main village."
Ephiny nodded and gestured towards the door. "Would you like me to arrange a guard for you...?" stopping when Gabrielle turned outraged green eyes in her direction. "Hey, just asking," Ephiny said, holding up her hands. "I'm supposed to."
Gabrielle sighed. "I know. I think Melosa charged Ephiny with looking out for me as much as she did telling her to make me an Amazon princess."
Ephiny nodded, knowing it for the truth. She led the way into the mess hall that was sending out all kinds of interesting scents. Word had quickly gone round that the Queen had returned and the small kitchen staff had scrambled to find the old recipes she had shared with them so many centuries before.
They sat down and were immediately served something that made Ephiny hesitate, sniffing cautiously. Gabrielle on the other hand scooped up the fresh rolls and began devouring them.
"Ah, cinnamon rolls. I can't tell you the last time I had them and so fresh." She looked at Ephiny, who was still eyeing the suspiciously. "Ephiny? Don't you like cinnamon rolls?"
"I dunno. I've never had them." She looked at Gabrielle. "I've had oatmeal every morning of my life for as long as I can remember."
"Oh, you've gotta be kidding me."
Ephiny shook her head as she gingerly took a small bite. She chewed slowly and Gabrielle watched her face for a reaction. Ephiny put the roll down and continued to chew.
"My Queen, I'm afraid you will have to remain her indeterminately."
"Ephiny? Is there a problem?"
"No, my Queen, but if this is the food we get when you visit, I'm not sure I can let you leave." Ephiny grinned and picked up the roll, taking a big bite and closing her eyes in delighted ecstasy.
Gabrielle returned the grin and smacked Ephiny lightly on the arm. "I can see we're gonna have a lot of fun together."
Then they got down to the serious business of eating.
Ephiny took Gabrielle around the outpost, introducing her to everyone in the village. Gabrielle had a word for each and every one of them, though many of them could not respond in kind. They were completely awestruck. Gabrielle handled the attention with good humor and grace however, and agreed to a storytelling session before her departure the following day.
Even though she herself was in no rush, protocol demanded that she get to the main village and the regent expediently. She was fairly certain a runner had been dispatched to the main village as soon as they knew who she was. But Gabrielle was going to take a bit of time with these women as well, especially as she didn't know how long she would be with the Amazons. She'd learned long ago to keep her plans fluid.
"I think the Captain is a little jealous," Gabrielle commented as Ephiny escorted her back to her hut after the festivities were over much later that evening.
Ephiny flushed, not meeting Gabrielle's eyes. "What do you mean?"
Gabrielle stopped and put a hand on Ephiny's arm, effectively stopping her as well. "C'mon, Eph," not noticing the startled look the shortened moniker garnered her. "You don't get to be my age without having seen everything at least once and the ability to recognize it almost immediately."
She turned and started walking towards the healer's hut once more. Ephiny rushed to catch up.
"Ephiny, I'm a big girl. I can get to the hut on my own. Why don't you go spend some time with Elizabeth? We'll have time on our journey to the main village to exchange stories. I promise."
Ephiny nodded, understanding the politely worded order clearly. "Let me walk you to the door and then I'll go. She understands I have responsibilities, she just...."
"She just knows what she wants and is anxious to pursue it."
Ephiny chuckled. "Yeah, something like that."
"Ephiny, can I give you a piece of advice without interfering too much?"
They stopped outside the door and it occurred to Gabrielle in passing to wonder if Nora had given up her own bed. She shook the thought free from her mind as Ephiny turned questioning eyes to her.
"You don't know how long you've got... not for life and not for love." She paused and drew a painful breath. Sometimes life cut a little too close for her liking, but Ephiny deserved the truth of her words... for the friendship Gabrielle had had with her ancestor, if not for her own sake. And Gabrielle had decided that she liked this Ephiny for herself. She reminded the bard so much of the Amazon she had once made her regent.
Gabrielle held her hands up and while collecting her thoughts. Ephiny waited patiently, not interrupting. "If the opportunity presents itself, Ephiny, seize it. Maybe you and Elizabeth will hit it off, maybe you won't. But you won't know if you don't give it a chance and you don't want to live with regrets."
Ephiny recognized that the advice came from experience and nodded solemnly. "Thank you, my Queen... Gabrielle. Goodnight."
Gabrielle waved and waited until Ephiny had passed back to the mess hall where activity was still taking place even at the late hour.
"Amazons still love to party," she commented to herself with a shake of her head. "Guess some things really are born into the blood," chuckling as she crossed the threshold and closed the door behind her.
It was quite the procession that gathered at dawn. Gabrielle took one look around and immediately sought out Ephiny.
"Hey, Ephiny... what gives?" Gabrielle asked, motioning around to the numerous people making preparations to head inland to the main village. "I know we need to get the ship's crew back, but do we really need half the outpost to accompany us? Seems like those left behind are getting shafted pretty badly."
Ephiny flushed lightly at the implied criticism. Gabrielle still resembled a twenty-five year old woman and it was sometimes hard to remember that she was an immortal with a more than a thousand years of experience behind her. Regardless, though, Ephiny had a duty to perform and so she would to the best of her ability. She took Gabrielle by the elbow and led her away from the gather women to a secluded spot to speak to her privately.
"Gabrielle... my Queen. It's my responsibility to get you to the main village safely. Every woman here wanted the privilege of joining your entourage. I cut it down to fifteen by drawing lots. Everyone else is here to say goodbye." Ephiny shrugged. "You made quite an impression last night."
Gabrielle blushed slightly. "I'm sorry, Ephiny. I didn't mean to undermine your authority. I'm just...."
"You were never real fond of the pomp and circumstance accorded you as Queen, were you?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "No, not really. I never truly understood the need for it. And I never had an honor guard... even... even after...."
Ephiny nodded her understanding. "Well, please let us give you one this once. You don't know Regent Narmia. She is a stickler for rules and protocol. If I allow you to show up in the village without one...."
"Even by my command?"
"Even then. Until and unless you assume the mask again, she is still the ruler."
Gabrielle frowned and muttered mostly to herself, "May just have to do something about that." She missed Ephiny's smile at her words. Then she turned and faced the large group of women patiently waiting.
"Thank you all so much for welcoming me home to the Amazons," Gabrielle said to the crowd. The woman cheered and whistled, their calls ringing out in the still morning air. "It has been great to meet so many new friends and I hope to have the chance to visit with you all again in the future."
The cheering rang out again and Gabrielle nodded an acknowledgement before stepping down and indicating to Ephiny that she was ready. Ephiny nodded and began leading the entourage out of the outpost and towards the main village.
Just as the troupe was exiting the gates, one of the cooks came running up to Gabrielle with a sack. She pressed it into Gabrielle's hands and then turned and headed back the way she had come as fast as she could go. Gabrielle looked after the woman with a puzzled expression. Then she opened the sack and puzzlement turned to happiness.
Ephiny, noting that Gabrielle had not yet joined them, ran back to see what the hold-up was.
"Gabrielle? My Queen?"
Gabrielle held up the sack and Ephiny knew what it was from the scent before she even opened the bag.
"Good," she said matter-of-factly as she took Gabrielle's elbow. "Maybe we'll start getting cinnamon rolls once in a while too," she added in a loud voice, smiling when cheers and chuckles followed her pronouncement.
They had been traveling steadily for a few days making good time. For the most part, the women spent their time forging new friendships between them. Gabrielle and Ephiny spent much of their time exchanging stories, Gabrielle always careful to include Elizabeth when she could. Evenings were spent sharing tales between them, though Gabrielle by far was the most popular bard among them.
Midmorning of the sixth day gave them and unexpected and unwelcome surprise. Without warning, marauders swooped down on them, wreaking havoc among the traveling party. The Amazons crowded around their Queen and both they and the ship's crew struggled to arm themselves for the skirmish.
The raiders were covered from head to toe in black cloth, only their eyes showing from the slit left for them. They came in swinging and the women were quick to fight back... except for Gabrielle. They wouldn't move to allow her a chance to fight... or be killed.
"Ephiny, move. I can handle myself," fighting to get out of the circle without getting anyone protecting her killed.
"Please, my Queen. It's our duty," Ephiny panted as she ducked a wild swing and thrust forward into her opponent.
"To protect an immortal?!? Ephiny, please. I have been doing this for hundreds of years." Gabrielle easily felt the bloodlust rise and knew bad things were going to happen if she didn't get the opportunity to bleed it out through fighting soon. Already she felt her fangs come to the fore and she was hard-pressed to keep them contained.
She slid the seldom used katana from its sheath and pushed her way to the forefront of the fighting. The fury she unleashed caused both Amazons and sailors to stand still and watch the pure beauty of her violence in motion.
When the attackers realized there was a samurai in their midst, they disappeared as rapidly as they had come. Gabrielle stood apart watching them, willing her blood to calm. She stood breathing hard until she felt a light touch on her back.
"Your majesty? Are you all right?" Ephiny asked softly. Truthfully, Gabrielle had stunned all of them. They knew the stories of the young bard who had traveled with Xena and even when she had chosen to bear arms, she had never been a ferocious warrior. She did what it took to get the job done and no more.
The stories they had of her during her three hundred year stay were a little more vague, but it was well known that Gabrielle never considered herself a warrior, though she did teach some of the warrior arts she had learned. They had, in fact, been incorporated into the regular warrior regimen and were now part of the curriculum.
Nothing, however, had prepared them for the raw fury, the pure grace or poetry of motion that dictated her fighting abilities. She was so far above them on so many levels and suddenly each one realized how futile their efforts to protect her had been.
The bard had stood silently so long that Ephiny had been compelled to address her again. Finally, she turned and looked at the many women accompanying her. She shook her head to clear it and looked at Ephiny, glad that the Amazon did not retreat before her gaze.
"I'm fine, Ephiny. Thank you. What about everyone else?"
Two women, both from the ship's crew, were dead. Another half dozen or so were wounded. A dozen raiders lay dead around them.
"We'll need to stop for the day. To take care of our wounded and bury our dead."
"And then you can explain to me what exactly happened here. Though I imagine that is why we weren't taking the direct route."
"Yes, my Queen," recognizing a royal decree easily and agreeing with Gabrielle's assumption.
They divided themselves into different assignments, with Gabrielle being the healer. Through some twist of fate, she and Elizabeth, the ship's captain, ended up setting up the camp together.
"You're very different from what I'd come to expect, my Queen," Elizabeth commented quietly. She has never relinquished her need for formal address of Gabrielle and was quite happy to switch to her royal title. Gabrielle had rolled her eyes and accepted the change. It was better than Mistress.
"I have learned to adapt myself to all sorts of situations, Captain. I use what I need and save the rest."
Elizabeth nodded her head. "So are you really an immortal being?"
"Yep, but that's not something I share around either. I would appreciate...."
The Captain held up a hand. "Not to worry, my Queen. I have waited too long to be an Amazon to jeopardize my chances to stay."
"Oh? I didn't know the world remembered the Amazons," knowing full well they didn't. But Gabrielle was interested in Elizabeth's words.
The Captain shook her head. "The world doesn't. But women in the know do. Those who can read the signs... those who know the tales."
"So that is why you and your crew agreed to bring me here?"
"No, my Queen. Well, not exactly. We accepted your commission because it was intriguing and it paid well. The Amazons were an unexpected, but very welcome bonus. There are still many of us out there who would much prefer to come here... who dream of a place like this for us. I consider myself very lucky for the opportunity to be a part."
Gabrielle nodded, but said nothing and their work continued in silence. That evening, they lit the fires and once again, Ephiny took up the funeral dirge that brought back aching memories to Gabrielle's mind.
Even after centuries have passed, nothing makes that pain any easier. She closed her eyes, willing the images and the grief away. When it was over, she walked into the darkness alone.
Finally, they reached the main village and Gabrielle was welcomed with much fanfare by all with one obvious exception. The Regent Narmia felt Gabrielle to be an interloper... a pretender trying to claim her throne and the affection of the people.
"And what do you want from us, Gabrielle?" said with oozing sarcasm. "What do you expect?"
"I expect a bit of common courtesy, though if you can't manage it, I'm sure I can teach you a few manners."
Ephiny bit her lips to keep from laughing, as did the rest of the Amazons who had traveled with Gabrielle from the outpost. The ship's crew, however, wasn't quite so considerate and their laughter merely fueled the fire.
"How dare you!!" Narmia bellowed at Gabrielle. "Who do you think you are?!?"
Now Gabrielle called upon a persona she rarely had need of any longer and before the watching eyes of the Amazons, became THE Amazon Queen.
"I *KNOW* who I am, Narmia. *I* am the Amazon Queen and you need to get the bug out of your butt and get over yourself."
"You can't speak to me that way! Guards, remove her!"
But not a single guard moved to raise a hand to the Queen. Ephiny was well-liked among her peers and a simple hand signal from her had halted any perceived movement on the part of the guards. Narmia had become an increasingly disliked regent for her actions and attitude and Ephiny figured Gabrielle was just the person to fix that little problem.
Gabrielle looked around, noting the crowd watching with interest, but not one moving to help Narmia. The Regent also looked around, her lips curling with disdain when she realized she was alone. She stepped down from the dais she had been seated on.
"You will all end up in the eastern colony for your disobedience, but first I will show you who the true Amazon Queen is!"
She drew her sword and came at Gabrielle with fury in her eyes. Gabrielle rolled hers, suddenly remembering one reason she had stayed away so long. Too much estrogen was just as bad as too much testosterone and the Amazons definitely had more than their share of estrogen.
When Narmia swung, she fell to the ground and blinked. Her target hadn't been where she'd expected her to be. Gabrielle accepted the katana from Ephiny and stood waiting for Narmia to recover herself.
Narmia stood and swung again and Gabrielle humored her for a while, trading blows back and forth and stretching muscles that rarely got used for that purpose except in sparring. Without warning, though, Gabrielle went on the offensive and in a matter of a few strokes, had disarmed the regent and had the blade at her throat.
"Consider yourself removed from office," Gabrielle said quietly. "Ephiny, take Narmia to the jail until such time as the council has made a decision on her fate. Then please call the council together. Apparently I need to catch up on a few things."
"Yes, my Queen," Ephiny answered. She nodded to the guards, who now finally moved. Narmia stood and went with them quietly, unsure what had just happened, but well aware she had ultimately pushed too far.
"Elizabeth, if you and your crew will go with Janus, she will get you settled into the barracks until you can begin your Amazon training. Ephiny, do I still have...."
"Your home has been preserved just the way you left it, Gabrielle. We've always hoped you'd come home to us." Gabrielle smiled weakly, knowing she wasn't going to stay. But she said nothing and moved to the cave she had called home for three hundred years.
Everything really was the same, though the lack of dust showed it had been carefully tended in her absence. The down mattress had been freshly washed and restuffed and the furs that covered it were equally clean. The desk had a small pile of parchment on one corner and the shelves were overflowing with the scrolls she'd left in place.
Gabrielle crossed to the bed and laid down, obscenely glad for its soft comfort. She grown to like her little luxuries and was so looking forward to a soak in the hot spring. Hot baths were something she'd grown to appreciate even more as she'd gotten older and Gabrielle had loved them to begin with.
She got up and went to the spring, cleaning up before she went back to the council house to catch up on the rest of the news of the Amazon Nation.
Ephiny had been bringing her up-to-date, but they hadn't reached the present. Gabrielle now had the distinct impression that Ephiny had been deliberately vague to allow Gabrielle to make her own judgments on the situation. Gabrielle approved heartily the young woman's prudence and wondered about the possibility of making her the new regent. Another full circle completed, Gabrielle thought with a smile.
The council meeting was very informative. The raiders had turned up some two hundred years previously and their increasing attacks on the Amazon had caused them to split the Nation into several splinter tribes. The tribes had spread across the continent, each naming a regent and the regents had met on a yearly basis to share news and information. They still considered themselves to be a single Nation, united under one Queen.
Narmia was chosen to be regent because she had been an effective leader against the raiders, driving them out of the Amazonian lands. Making her regent had been a mistake, however because the power of ruling had made her harsh and stringent. She abided strictly by the law and gave no quarter for mercy.
"Why wasn't she removed from office?" Gabrielle asked logically.
"By law, we can only remove a regent for treasonous offenses or if she continually breaks the laws of the Nation. Narmia didn't break any laws," replied one elder.
"No, she was simply suffocating us with them," said another.
"Then I think we need to change the laws," Gabrielle said. "If the system that's in place isn't working, we need to try something else."
"Actually, your majesty," Ephiny spoke. "The system works just fine. Perhaps we should mend the law, though, allowing for a little common sense."
Gabrielle chuckled. "Common sense is always a good thing. Makes for a much easier way of life."
"Agreed," another of the members said. "And may I say we are happy to welcome you home, my Queen. It has been far too long."
"Thank you," Gabrielle replied. "I don't know how long I'll be here, but it is always nice to be back among my sisters. One thing, however." She looked at each of them, allowing them to see the seriousness of her words. "My name is Gabrielle. I'd appreciate it if everyone would use that."
"Listen, part of the reason there was a problem with Narmia is because she wanted to be Queen. Maybe it's time to let that tradition die and have a democratic society. One where a council is chosen by vote every few years."
The oldest elder stood then and the room fell into silence. Gabrielle looked at her, waiting patiently for the old woman to continue.
"My Queen," the woman said, bowing low and Gabrielle scrambled through her mind for the elder's name.
"Speak, Halina. You're among friends here."
"My Queen, I agree with some of your reasoning. I do think we would do well with a democracy... an elected council *if* we could get coverage of a widespread demographic area. All ages and ways of life should be fairly represented." She waited for Gabrielle to nod her understanding. "But I do not think we should give you up as our Queen, or the woman who stands in your stead while you are gone."
Halina held up a hand when Gabrielle would have spoken.
"I know you're not here much... certainly not nearly as often as we would like to have you. But there is so much history wrapped up in you and your title that I hate for us to lose that completely."
Halina took a deep breath and Gabrielle waited for her to finish.
"I'm an old woman, relatively speaking," she added with a chuckle. Gabrielle had to grin and the women in the room tittered. "And I've seen a lot in my years here. Narmia was an exception, not the rule. Most of the regents have served with pride and honor. If the reason you think we should be strictly democratic is because you really dislike being Queen that is one thing. Otherwise, I'd really like to see some sort of merging of the two, because you're an important part of the Amazons, Queen Gabrielle. And I'd like to see you stay that way."
Gabrielle sat silently, considering Halina's words. "I'll think about it," she finally said quietly. The council accepted her words and filed out.
Time passed and the Amazons reached the compromise that Halina had been hoping for. Gabrielle remained as the Queen and a council was chosen in each village. Each guild had a representative on the council and they varied in age from young to old. The council then proposed three candidates for Regent that was then voted on by the populous of the village. A regent's term was unlimited, but she could be removed from office if it was decided by either the council or a majority of the village that she was acting against the greater good of all.
"You really don't like this, do you?" Ephiny asked as she helped Gabrielle dress for the ceremony. All the councils and regents had been chosen and Gabrielle as Queen was to preside over their swearing in. Gabrielle looked at herself critically, seeing so many differences from the feckless kid she had been the first time she'd worn the leathers.
"I've never felt like an Amazon Queen. It's never been who I am and that's all I'm allowed to be here. It just...."
"Would you believe me if I said I think I understand?" Ephiny said, tying off the vambraces. "It's one of the reasons I turned down the regency."
"I was curious about that."
Ephiny shrugged. "I know we aren't more than friends... can never be more than friends, Gabrielle. But we *are* friends and I think you need a friend with you, even if it's only for a little while."
Gabrielle bit her lip. "You know that I'm not coming back this way... at least not for a very long time. Are you sure you want to leave everything, everyone you know, just to go traipsing off with me for a little while? What about Elizabeth?"
Ephiny shrugged again. "We need some time apart." Not mentioning the jealousy issues. "Maybe... I dunno. But I do know that I'm going on with you, at least for a little while."
"I prefer to think of it as running to." Ephiny smiled. "Besides, the Queen has to have some sort of honor guard... even if it is only an honor guard of one."
"Well, I'm glad to have you along, my friend. You really do remind me of your many times removed ancestor, Ephiny."
"I take that as a compliment. I'm actually looking forward to visiting the rest of the tribes."
Gabrielle smiled, the first real one Ephiny had seen since she'd put on her Queen's leathers and she felt herself smile in reflex. "Me too," Gabrielle confided. "I haven't seen the rest of this land. We visit the Uluru tribe first, right?"
"Yes, my Queen. They've ask for a bit of a head start to insure everything is prepared for your arrival."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "I know. I'd rather travel with them, but it is probably for the best. Less complications."
She didn't say anything else, but Ephiny was pretty sure she got the inference. She'd seen more than her share of drama growing up in the main Amazon village. Gods knew she didn't have the patience for it and she was fairly certain Gabrielle didn't either.
"Besides, it'll give us the chance to do a little exploring and meet the neighbors."
"Yep. I'm looking forward to it," Ephiny said.
"Good. Now let's go get these women sworn in so we can kick off the party I've heard about for the last two weeks." Gabrielle laughed. "You'd think the Amazons had discovered something new the way they've been carrying on."
"Yeah, well, any excuse for a party...." Ephiny let the thought trail off.
"Absolutely. And the bigger the better."
The Amazons wondered what the joke was when the two emerged from the dressing room laughing like they'd never stop.
The next morning, the coastal tribe headed back to the western outpost. They would sail their small fleet back around the island to the eastern side of the continent, arriving at their home in plenty of time to prepare for Gabrielle's arrival.
The Uluru tribe headed immediately east, making their best speed to the center of the island that was now their home. They were anxious to welcome Gabrielle and hurried as fast as they dared.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle went to the glade she had not visited in a millennium. It was so much larger, now and filled with a vast number of graves. Though the Amazons still practiced cremation, a marker was left with names and dates of each sister when she died. Gabrielle looked for one in particular, dusting it off lightly before sitting down next to it. She never saw her friends step from the shadows and gather round to hear her words.
"Hello, Eponin. It's been a long, long time... a lifetime and more. I still miss you and the others. I find myself wondering what it would have been like if I had been normal." Gabrielle stilled the thought with a chuckle. "Okay, if I had been mortal. Happy now?"
The warriors surrounding her laughed as well and their laughter was like a whisper of wind. Gabrielle's smile was melancholy as it caressed her gently.
"Anyway, I think you'd all be proud to see what the Amazon Nation has become. The women are vital, healthy and strong. They make a difference for each other. Even Narmia." The former regent had been assigned to the training fields and had done an exceptional job teaching new recruits the fundamentals of battle planning.
"I don't know when I'll get back here again. Ephiny's many times great-granddaughter and I are going to do a bit of exploring... a little bit like Xena and I did, once upon a time. You'd like Ephiny. She reminds me so much of our Ephiny and I'm every bit as glad for her friendship as I was for yours and hers. She's the first real human friend I've had in... well, I'm not sure I want to think about how long it's been. She doesn't know about me yet. Well, I mean the immortal thing she does, yeah. All the Amazons know that. I haven't figured out how or even if I should tell her about WHY I'm immortal. Guess we'll worry about that when the time comes."
Gabrielle took a deep breath and stood. "Enjoy your rest, my friend. And when you see the others, give them my love." She bowed her head briefly.
"Goodbye, Eponin," she whispered and left the glade without a backwards glance.
There wasn't a warrior there who didn't dry their eyes, before merging back into the shadows of the underworld.