Right Of Cast
Some of the characters herein belong to Rob Tapert. It was not written for profit and no copyright infringement is intended.
This story can be read as a stand-alone, or it could be set sometime in the future of my X&G series. Background - my series begins after the 4th season Xena episode, "The Ides of March." X&G were brought back to life and moved to the Amazon village, where Gabrielle took her place as queen of the Amazons and Xena is her consort.
Pronunciations: Zoe/"Zoh-ee" (life); Fira/"Fear-uh" (fire); Charissa/"Kerr-EE-suh" (grace); Aura/"Awr-uh" (breeze - Xena's horse, Argo's daughter)
The sun was high in the sky, its light dancing across the surface of a babbling brook. Near a bend, the brook widened and grew deeper, then slowed until it ended and poured lazily over a wall of boulders, plummeting into a river that flowed past below, on across the land to the sea many miles away. Just above the falls a young girl stood, thigh-deep in the water, head bent, listening, her long, dark hair pulled back into a braid, its tip dipping into the brook as she moved a hand slowly above the water, her fingers twitching. Suddenly, she plunged both hands into the stream and with a jerk, pulled a fat salmon from below, and tossed it to the shore.
"Oh, that's the biggest one yet, Fira!" Another girl ran to gather up the slippery catch, attaching it to a stringer of three other fish that she lowered back into a pond off to the side.
"Whatcha think, Chari ? One more?" Fira called out to Charissa, her younger sister. Younger, with the same dark hair and green eyes, but almost as tall as Fira, even though at eight years old she was four years younger.
"Two more," a deep feminine voice replied from the shadows beneath the trees. "Daymon and his father are joining us for dinner this evening, remember?"
"Ohhhh, Daymon." Fira laughed and Charissa joined in, both of them making kissing noises. "Daymon and Zoe, sittin' in a tree ---"
"That will be enough." Xena stood, setting aside a harness she was mending long enough to properly chastise her daughters. Glancing over at Zoe, her oldest daughter, she received a grateful, silent smile.
"I think I'm going to go for a walk. Just up the hill." Zoe rolled up a scroll she was writing in, carefully tucking her quill beneath its weight to keep it from blowing away. "Do you think you could take this back to the hut for me? Please?"
"Yes, since you asked so nicely," Xena's tone was lightly teasing. "Tell Daymon I said 'hello'."
Zoe blushed, but smiled, tossing her long blonde hair back as she straightened the Amazon leathers that graced her tall, lean body. Her long legs and arms were all Xena, as were her bright blue eyes, but her golden hair was a gift from her other mother, Gabrielle, the Amazon queen. She wasn't as muscular as Xena, her limbs and torso thinner in build, thinner even than Gabrielle, even though she topped Gabrielle by a good four inches in height. "Is it alright if I --"
"Just bring him and his father back home with you in time for dinner," Xena cut her off with a knowing grin.
"I know I should help Mama," Zoe hesitated. "We're going to have a full table this evening."
"I think we'll survive one meal preparation without you, love." Xena moved closer, smoothing back her daughter's hair from her eyes. "You've more than pulled your weight in that department. Chari and Zoe can take on dinner duty this evening."
"Moooommmmm!" Chari whined from the creek shore. "I have horse-brushing duty tonight."
"Well, now you have horse brushing duty and meal prep duty," Xena informed her. "Might as well get used to it," she added quietly, so quietly that only Zoe could hear her.
"Oh, Mom." Zoe impulsively pulled Xena into a hug, and long arms closed around her. "You'll always be my Terra-Mom." She used the name they had called Xena by when they were younger, before it had gradually been shortened to just 'Mom'.
"And you'll always be my baby," Xena replied, her voice thick with emotion. "Go on." She gave Zoe a little swat on the backside. "Daymon's probably waiting for you under your tree."
"Our -- how did you know about the tree?" Zoe placed her hands on her hips, her posture slightly agitated.
"Do you honestly think I would let my first-born stay out with a boy under the stars until midnight , without making sure he treats her like the Amazon princess she is?" Xena reached across, touching Zoe's cheek. "I've known about that tree since the first time you two went walking."
"You -- you spied on us?" Zoe's voice rose in disbelief.
"Relax." Xena patted Zoe's shoulder. "Only a few times. Just until I was satisfied he was trust-worthy."
"Moommm!" Zoe blushed furiously. "So you saw the first time he --"
"Kissed you?" Xena smiled gently. "Yes. Though I promise I didn't watch too closely. He went a long way in earning my trust that night, though."
"He's a good man," Zoe commented.
"Yes, he is." Xena gentled her voice. "And he loves you very much."
"I love him too, Mom." Zoe looked down, kicking at a water-smoothed stone with her toe. "I think I need to have a talk with Mama tonight."
"I think your Mama is expecting it," Xena replied. "Go on." She gestured toward the hill with a shooing motion. "We'll see you at dinner."
"Thanks, Mom." Zoe flung her arms around Xena's neck one more time, then turned, half-running, half-skipping up the hill.
"Did Daymon really earn your trust after one night?" Gabrielle appeared from around the rock wall that ringed the pond.
"I knew you were back there." Xena turned, holding out a hand, which Gabrielle took. "And no, not entirely."
"I remember you following them." Gabrielle smiled in memory. "Not that I disapproved, but I seem to recall it was more than a few times."
"Yeah, well." Xena led her over to the blanket where she was working on tack, and they took a seat, enjoying the light summer breeze that kept the day from being too hot.
"When did you finally decide you could trust them alone?" Gabrielle shaded her eyes, watching their two youngest daughters, who had forgotten about fishing long enough to have a water fight.
"After I had a little talk with him." Xena looked down, fiddling with a buckle she needed to repair. "Told him if he didn't keep it in his pants, I'd cut it off."
Gabrielle burst out laughing. "You didn't!" She gave Xena a little slap on the leg.
"You bet I did." Xena laughed lightly. "I trust Zoe, but I didn't want to take any chances. I wanted her to have all her options open, for as long as she needed them, and getting pregnant would have narrowed some of those options considerably."
"True." Gabrielle nibbled her lower lip. "I've put off my talk with the main council for too long. And with Fira."
"She knows." Xena studied their middle daughter from afar, as they spoke. Fira had Xena's muscles and Gabrielle's compact body. At the age of twelve, she was already a fierce fighter, having bested more seasoned Amazons in both staff and sais competitions. Xena had yet to allow her to use a sword. "She wants it, sweetheart."
"You talked to her?" Gabrielle sounded relieved. "When? Why didn't you tell me?"
"Just this morning, actually," Xena replied. "I wanted to find you and tell you, but you were tied up with the elders." Xena made a face. "I wish they'd quit asking me to join the elder council."
"Well, you are old enough to --"
"One more year and you will be, too." A hand clamped over Gabrielle's mouth. "I know. But I have no intention of putting myself in the middle of their daily drama, Gabrielle. Best I stay neutral as much as possible. I am your consort, after all."
"I know. And you're right." Gabrielle soothed her partner, giving a tug to a lock of hair, then stroking her head. "So what happened with Fira?"
"I told her Daymon's father had asked to sit at our table tonight." Xena smiled. "So Fira says, matter-of-factly, 'So Zoe's going to have babies and I'm going to be queen'."
Gabrielle spit out a mouthful of water she'd just sipped from a flask, then swiped the back of her hand across her mouth. "She said that?"
"Yeah." Xena drew one knee up and wrapped her arms around it. "I asked her how she felt about it, and she kind of shrugged. Said Zoe had been hinting around for a while that Fira would make a good queen. I told her I agreed with Zoe. You know what she said?"
"What?" Gabrielle gazed fondly from her daughters to her partner.
"She said she hoped she could be even half as good a queen as her Mama." Xena reached across, ruffling Gabrielle's head.
Blue and green eyes met. "You haven't done that to me in ages." Gabrielle reached up, ordering her mussed hair. "Gods, Xe. How did we get so lucky? They're all healthy, beautiful, strong, kind, and smart. She'll be ten times better than me," she added softly.
"I beg to differ," Xena scooted closer, draping an arm across Gabrielle's shoulders. "I'm proud as hell of all of them, but they wouldn't be who they are if not for you."
"And for you," Gabrielle added. She paused, pursing her lips inward, looking down. Slowly, she looked up, her eyes shining with unshed tears. "My baby's getting betrothed tonight, isn't she?"
"Ninety-nine point nine per cent sure of it, yes," Xena answered gently, reaching out with her thumb to brush a tear from an eyelash.
"I'm so torn," Gabrielle fretted. "Daymon's a good man. And they're obviously in love. It's just --"
"She's chosen everything you ran away from Potadeia to escape?" Xena helpfully finished for her.
"Is that terrible?" Gabrielle searched Xena's face for reassurance, finding gentle understanding there.
"No. Every parent wants the best for their children, but sweetheart, she's not exactly a naïve village girl." Xena gave her partner's shoulders a squeeze. "Not many women I knew in Amphipolis could put an arrow dead center through a target from half a field away, or track deer, or identify edible plants in the forest. Our daughter's an Amazon. It's one of the things I believe Daymon loves about her: she's strong and capable. She's certainly not going to be the doting housewife."
"True," Gabrielle grudgingly agreed. "I just thought, up until Daymon came waltzing into our lives at that harvest festival two years ago, that she would take my rite of cast someday. She's intelligent and she has a good heart. She'd do well by the Amazons."
"She's no warrior," Xena commented. "And don't say 'neither am I', Gab. We both know that's no longer true."
"I know." Gabrielle sighed. "That hasn't been true for a very long time. But I wasn't a warrior when I first took up the mask."
"You were by the time you decided to take your place as queen," Xena reminded her. "You didn't come by it naturally, and neither would Zoe. She could certainly find that inside herself if she needed to, but I don't think it's what she wants or what either of us truly wants that for her, do we?"
"Nooooo." Gabrielle admitted. "I think it would hurt her soul, eventually."
"Like it did yours?" Xena's eyes were sad with shared truth.
"Xena, are we really going to go down that road again, after all these years?" Gabrielle turned, touching her partner's face, cupping her cheek, feeling the pressure of smooth, warm skin against her palm. "I thought we long ago settled that I am exactly where I want to be, and I've come to terms with that part of my life."
"No. I know." Xena shook her head and smiled sadly. "Sorry. I think it's getting to me, knowing she'll be leaving home soon."
"At least they'll live just in the next village." Gabrielle drew in a deep breath and slowly released it. "Close enough to visit often."
And watch our grandkids grow up?" Xena nudged Gabrielle's shoulder.
"Oh, gods. Do not make a grandmother out of me just yet. Mother of the bride is as far ahead as I care to think at present, thank you very much." Gabrielle laughed ruefully. "No. This is right for Zoe. I feel it in my heart. Luckily I have two more daughters. You know, one thing I've always been at peace with, is that being queen of the Amazons, and giving birth to the future queen, we have the opportunity to mold all our daughters to be the good women the nation will need to lead them." She looked up, watching as Fira and Charissa went back to fishing, both girls laughing as Fira grabbed a fish from the water and then jumped in the air to catch it as it flew out of her hands, turning a flip exactly liken Xena, before she landed with a splash that soaked her sister from head to foot.
"Yahhh!" Charissa shrieked, then plowed into the water and tackled Fira, who merely took it in stride, tossing the fish to the bank and then lifting Charissa and dumping her unceremoniously on her backside into the shallow water. "Fira! No fair! You're bigger than me!"
"You attacked me first!" Fira grinned, both hands on her hips. "I can't help it if you were standing too close to the brook and got wet."
"She's so much like you," Gabrielle observed fondly. A thought occurred to her and she looked at Xena in mild panic. "What if both of them want to marry men as well?"
"Then we'll find someone else to be queen," Xena replied matter-of-factly. "Don't fret. Chari is a tossup, but Fira, not a chance. She's been watching the Amazons in the bathing hut a lot more attentively lately."
"Xena!" Gabrielle's eyes widened in mild outrage.
"And I caught her kissing Rianne in the barn last week." The warrior enjoyed her partner's shocked expression.
"Ri?! Fira's only twelve!" Gabrielle fumed. "Ep needs to keep an eye on her kid."
"Ri's fourteen, babe. Not exactly a kid, and neither is Fira." Xena leaned back, lounging lazily on her side. "Come here." She patted the space next to her, and Gabrielle reluctantly eased down next to her. "You know --" Xena touched the tip of the bard's nose. "I was leading an army at Zoe's age. And I seem to recall a certain young woman from Potadeia who was only two years older than Rianne, crushing on a certain warrior from Amphipolis quite a few years ago. From what I hear, she never got over it and they both fell madly in love."
Gabrielle laughed. "Point taken. Ohhhhh!" She flopped onto her back, covering her eyes with her forearm. "They're growing up too fast!"
"Oh, I don't know." Xena leaned over, lifting the bard's arm and brushing her bangs out of her eyes, then leaned ever closer, indulging in a long, heartfelt kiss, ignoring the chorus of 'ewwwws' coming from the creek. "Having the house to ourselves again might have a few advantages. How long has it been since I chased you naked around the hut, huh?" Gabrielle laughed and Xena joined in. "Or we could have another one. You're still young enough."
"No!" Gabrielle sat up, pushing her away. "Oh, no. Not a chance in Tartarus, Xena, Warrior Stud. I am done birthing babies. You want another one, you can carry it this time."
"Too old," Xena quipped.
"Your cycles are still regular." Gabrielle crossed her arms.
"Not for much longer." The warrior patted her belly. "Besides. I have no problem walking these three down the aisle when their time comes, but I have no desire to do it at near-seventy."
"Ugh." Gabrielle sat up. "Good point. Empty nest, it is. I'd like some naked Olympics while we're still young enough to enjoy them."
"That's my girl." Xena grinned.
"Am I?" Gabrielle grinned back.
"Always." The warrior sat up with her. "We need to get back home and prepare the betrothal feast. Fira just caught the last fish we needed. Damn, I'm glad she's good at that. Eases up my time. And yours."
"She's good at a lot of things." Gabrielle smiled fondly. "She takes after you. I think tonight after dinner, I need to have that talk with her and Fira together. Do you mind watching Charissa for a while, after Daymon and Darius leave?"
"I think I can handle that." Xena winked and stood, holding out a hand, hauling her partner to her feet. "Home?"
"Yes." Gabrielle stood. "If you'll round up our things here, I'll gather up our daughters. You cleaning the fish?"
"If you're cooking them." Xena leaned over, picking up the half-mended harness.
They looked at each other and grinned. "Deal."
A cheerful fire burned brightly in the stone fireplace, its friendly popping and crackling mingling with the low voices murmuring nearby. Xena and Darius both sat near the hearth, smoking pipes that the warrior had filled with fragrant, dried tobacco from the Amazon gardens. Their bellies were full of the delicious dinner they had shared, and they were alone in the Amazon Queen's hut. Gabrielle had excused herself with Fira and Charissa, for a visit out to the communal dining hall to visit with the rest of the village, and Zoe and Daymon, both of them blushing, had beaten a hasty retreat for a walk as soon as dinner was over.
"We have not much of a dowry," the warrior advised. "Material possessions are shared among the Amazons. What we have is not mine to give away, not without a meeting of the Amazon council, and they wouldn't look too kindly upon such traditions. They're a proud, independent people and they wouldn't think too much of a man who would take valuables in payment for his child's life-bond."
"Ah, Xena." Darius clapped her on the shoulder. "Your daughter is gift enough. My son loves her very much. And your family. He barely remembers his mother, she died when he was so young. And his sisters are both grown and married. They live close by, but it's here in your home that he has found the mother he lost. He thinks very highly of your Gabrielle."
"He has good taste. And she thinks highly of him." Xena smiled. "You've raised a good son, Darius. He's done right by my daughter. If they wish to marry, I freely give her hand, though Zoe is not, and never has been, my property. She's her own woman. I'm sure Daymon knows that by now."
"We both know it." Darius chuckled, blowing a smoke ring. "She's a better hunter than he is. Will it be a problem for your village, our children marrying? I realize she's an Amazon princess. Will they require something of us for it?"
"No, no requirements on your part, though of course they can't live in this village." Xena assured him. "They've grown used to my wife shaking up long-standing traditions, though, so you never know what might happen down the road. If she told them tomorrow they are to all start dying their hair purple, they'd do it, and I have no doubt, if Zoe and Daymon ever needed to take shelter here, the entire Amazon council couldn't stop Gabrielle from making a place for them. For now, though, Zoe desires a life with your son in your village, more than she desires the queen's mask. That will be the only concession. She'll have to pass that responsibility on to Fira."
"Yes, Daymon told me she would forfeit that right." He shook his head gravely. "She makes a great sacrifice for my son."
"Just between you and me --" Xena leaned over conspiratorially. "She's trading the headache of leading a village full of simultaneously cycling women, for what will hopefully be a life of peaceful happiness with your son."
"Ahhh!" Darius laughed heartily. "Ah-ha-ha! I had not thought of it like that. Very well." He held out his forearm. "To our children's future happiness."
Xena clasped the proffered arm. "To our grandchildren, and our joined families." They smoked for a moment in silent agreement, then Xena tilted her head to the side. "Zoe and Daymon are back from their walk."
"I will never understand how you do that." Darius strained his ears, hearing nothing.
A moment later, the door to the hut opened and the two love-struck teens entered the room. Zoe peered uncertainly from Xena to Darius and back, noting a hint of sadness in her mother's eyes. "Mom?" She stepped forward, dragging Daymon with her by the hand.
"Why don't you go over to the dining hut for a while?" Xena grasped Zoe's free hand and gave it a squeeze. "Your Mama needs to talk with you, and I need to have a chat with Daymon. Alone." She glanced at Darius. "You know, my prize mare, Aura, dropped a nice foal last month. They're out in the barn, if -- "
"I do love a good piece of horse flesh," Darius hastily cut in. "I believe I'll go have a look. Good evening, Xena. Daymon, you'll come find me later?" With a clap to Daymon's shoulder, Darius exited the hut.
"I think I'll go find Mama and the girls." Zoe kissed Daymon lightly on the cheek, and then Xena as well. "Don't terrify him too much, please?" She whispered in her mother's ear. Sharing a smile, she backed away and quietly left them to talk.
"So." Xena retrieved a pipe from the mantle, filled it with tobacco and tamped it down, and lit it, offering it over to Daymon. "Smoke?"
"Yes. I mean, not very often," Daymon stammered, accepting the offering. "Just took it up recently. The guys in the village --"
"Relax." Xena smiled sympathetically. "A man old enough to marry my daughter is old enough to enjoy the pleasures of men." She eyed him for a moment. "Though my one threat holds firm until she officially takes your name."
Daymon reddened from his collar to the roots of his brown hair. "I have the utmost respect for Zoe. I would never dream -- I mean I do dream -- but --"
"Daymon." Xena drew him over to take a seat near the hearth. "You have my blessing. I'd be proud to call you a member of my family. I know you'll take good care of her. I've seen the way you treat her."
"I've watched you with Gabrielle." Daymon took a long drag from the pipe, drawing in courage with the smoke. "I've not had a mother around to observe, you know that. So I've tried to treat Zoe the way you treat your wife."
Xena was momentarily speechless. Slowly she stood, pacing back and forth a few times before she sat back down. "I didn't always treat her so well," she finally confessed. "But by the gods she stood by me through some very hard times, until finally I got some sense in my fool head, and realized she was a gift I absolutely did not deserve."
"I feel the same about Zoe." Daymon smiled. "She's not like the other girls. She's so accomplished, at so many things. She loves me, but she doesn't need me. Does that make sense?"
"Yes and no." Xena puffed at her pipe. "Gabrielle is also very independent. But don't mistake strength for lack of need. Zoe needs you. Just because she can hunt and dress a deer doesn't mean she doesn't need you. It's just a different kind of need - for love and support. You have the chance at something rare, something I've been lucky enough to share with Gabrielle -- an equal partnership."
"I think I'd like that," Daymon replied quietly.
"It's am amazing thing," Xena assured him. "Especially the day you wake up and realize that you'd do anything to make her happy, because you understand that you need her way more than she needs you."
"You?" Daymon's brows rose in surprise. "You're amazing. I can only aspire to a fraction of your abilities. It terrifies me, knowing what I have to live up to."
Xena looked at him for a long moment. "I'm a beat-up ex-warlord with the social skills of a hedgehog. I am who I am today because of Gabrielle."
"I know Zoe will make a better man of me," Daymon replied humbly. "She already has." He turned to her, reaching out hesitantly, his palm up. "Thank you, Xena. And to Gabrielle when next I see her. I promise you won't live to regret your blessing."
Xena took his hand and grew stone cold sober. "And I promise you won't live if I do." With a clasp so firm his knuckles turned white, she held him there, allowing the destroyer of nations to surface for a moment.
He swallowed and relaxed his grip in submission. "You won't," he stated resolutely.
Xena nodded and released him. "I would do anything to protect my family. You'll understand that all too soon."
"Well." Slightly rattled, Daymon fidgeted, arranging the sash he wore at his waist. "I should probably go find Zoe."
"Not tonight," Xena warned him off. "Tonight is for her and her mother and Fira. Charissa will be coming back soon to join me for the evening."
"Charissa?" Daymon cocked his head to the side. "Why not the others?"
"The others will be out late. You're going to be with her for the rest of your life, son." Xena set her pipe in a small holder on the mantle. "Tonight she passes on her right to the queen's mask to Fira. She's chosen you over leading the Amazons, but you knew that. But understand this, she will always be a part of the Amazon nation. When Zoe was born, they had a celebration in her honor. She represented hope and life to these women. This village is the only home she's ever known, and the Amazons are her extended family. You aren't just marrying Zoe, you're marrying Amazon traditions that go back further than written history. And she will certainly always be my daughter, so you get me as part of the deal, like it or not."
"I'd much rather have you as an ally than an enemy." Daymon smiled nervously. "The Amazons as well."
"Smart man." Xena grinned. "Go find your father. I'm sure he'd like to talk with you. Come back for dinner tomorrow night, if you'd like."
"I'd like that very much." Daymon held out a hand and they shook once more, then he quietly left, just as Charissa came hopping up the steps to the hut.
"Mom!" She cried out. "Mama said you were going to play with just me until bedtime!"
"That's right." Xena scooped her up and swung her around until she was giddy with laughter. "Anything you want to do, I'm game."
"Sword fight?!" Charissa squealed in delight.
"Wooden ones, okay?" Xena set her down.
"Okay!" Charissa took off for the room she shared with Fira, and a chest full of toys.
"Hi Mama." Zoe shyly approached Gabrielle and Fira, who were seated at a table with Eponin, Raella, and Kallerine, enjoying the chocolate cake that was the evening's dessert offering in the Amazon communal dining hall.
"Hey!" Eponin stood and motioned Zoe to an empty seat. "I hear congratulations are in order."
"Yes." Zoe smiled. "I thought we were going to keep it quiet until you could talk with the council." She sat down next to Gabrielle.
"Too late." Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "A few people saw Daymon and Darius entering our hut dressed in their finest, and it didn't take much brilliance to put two and two together."
"Oh, no. Are they freaked?" Zoe accepted a piece of cake Kallerine shoved toward her. "Thanks."
"You're welcome." The guard unit leader smiled.
"No, actually," Gabrielle responded in a surprised tone. "It seems they've been expecting it. And the decision we've made. Or need to make," she corrected herself. "I know your Mom has talked with Fira, but I haven't really talked formally with either of you. I guess I'm not used to having formal conversations with my daughters." She laughed lightly. "If you'll excuse us." Gabrielle stood. "Fira, Zoe, let's go have a chat in the steam hut, shall we?"
"At night?" Fira's features brightened with excitement. "Mama, that's fun!"
"Fearless," Eponin commented. "Nice quality in a leader."
Fira turned to her and smiled. "But it is fun. Ri and I went in there last week after dark. No snakes or anything scary at all. It was nice."
"Ummm." Raella scrubbed at her own neck. "Pon, honey, I've been telling you we need to have a talk with Ri."
"Alright. I will." Eponin looked up at Gabrielle. "Please don't kill my kid."
"Oh, please." Gabrielle waved her off. "Like mine didn't play her own part in it. Xena reminded me of something earlier today. I was only two years older than Ri when I fell head over heels myself."
"Mama!" Fira moaned, mortified.
"Love?" Eponin's eyes grew wide as saucers. "Where's Ri?" She started to stand, only to have Raella grab her arm and pull her back to the table.
"Studying. For once." She gave another tug to her partner's arm until the weapons master reluctantly eased all the way back into her chair. "It can wait until tomorrow."
"We'll catch up with you all later." Gabrielle ushered her daughters out into the pleasant, starlit night. "Change of plans." She grabbed her staff from where she'd propped it against the dining hut wall outside, and started up a path that led outside the village. "Let's go to the crystal cave. It's a nice night. And I don't want any prying ears wandering in while we talk."
"Even better," Zoe replied. "I love that place."
"It holds some fond memories for me as well," Gabrielle commented.
In a short time they were passing across the ledge that led from the bank of a pond to the cave hidden behind a waterfall. Fira pulled a flint and striker from her pocket and set a torch alight, the placed it in a sconce on the wall, causing the crystals that clung to the cave's walls and ceiling to sparkle, sending rainbows reflecting around the room. "It's so beautiful here." Fira sighed.
"Yes. It is. So." Gabrielle removed a folded blanket from an alcove and spread it out for them to sit on. "My two oldest daughters, all grown up. Or almost." She looked lovingly at Fira and Zoe. "Zoe, your Mom and I have been talking for a while, well, really almost since you and Daymon first met. We had a feeling early on things were going to lead us to tonight."
"I'm happy, Mama. I want you to be happy for me." Zoe looked down, plucking at the fringe on her skirt.
"Oh, I am happy for you." Gabrielle reached over, taking Zoe's hand. "Daymon's a good man and I know you love each other. I'm just sad that my oldest is leaving home and won't be sitting at our breakfast table every morning."
"And your rite of cast?" Zoe's question hung in the air for a quiet moment.
Gabrielle's features softened and she smiled. "I always assumed, because you're my oldest, and by tradition, that one day I'd be passing that on to you, yes." She glanced over at Fira, who was looking down at the ground, arranging small stones in a pile. "But as you both grew older and each of you started to become your own unique selves, I realized that life was always going to be throwing surprises in my path."
Fira looked up and timidly smiled. "Is this a surprise?"
"That it happened so soon? Oh, yes. But a good one, nonetheless. I've had a lot of good surprises." Gabrielle smiled. "Your mother. Meeting her. Now that was a surprise. And the way I became an Amazon princess in the first place, and eventually their queen, you've both heard that story. Definitely a surprise. Getting pregnant with you two and Charissa. An almost unexplainable surprise." Her tone softened. "That you would both grow up and find love and a way in the world that belonged only to you? No surprise at all. Not given who your parents are."
"So you're not disappointed?" Zoe's eyes shone and she sniffled, as a tear escaped.
"No. Oh, no. Honey." Gabrielle pulled Zoe into a hug. "You've found someone you love and Fira will be a fine leader. How could I ever be disappointed in that? I just want you both to be happy, and its obvious you are."
"I am." Zoe swiped at her eyes.
"Me, too," Fira answered quietly. "Mama, can I say something?"
"Sure, baby." Gabrielle scooted closer and her daughters followed suit, until they were all huddled in a circle, knees touching.
"Is it alright that I want to be the queen?" She looked uncertainly from Zoe to Gabrielle. "I know it was supposed to be Zoe, but I always wondered what I was going to do when I grow up. Kallerine leads the guard unit. Aunt Ep is the weapons master. And me, I wanted to be more than just another Amazon."
"Oh, Fira." Gabrielle hugged her middle daughter to her side. "You will never be just another Amazon, but I think you'll make a very good queen, if that's what you want to be."
"I do." Fira's eyes shone with an inner fire that was all-too-familiar to Gabrielle.
"Zoe would have been a good queen as well, just in a different way. You both have skill and talent that would lend your own unique method of leadership to this nation. No two queens are alike. Melosa was a fierce, proud warrior. Ephiny was a warrior in her own right as well, but more inclined to talk it out before drawing a weapon. Chilapa was quietly intelligent. Me, I'm a peace-lover, and I chose to walk that path as much as possible, with my own personal warrior to back me up in your Mom. Four queens, four different ways of doing things. And Fira will be different yet again."
"What do we have to do?" Zoe twisted the simple woven gold band that now adorned her left ring finger, a gift Daymon had presented to her before dinner, and which had been properly fawned over by both her mothers and sisters.
"I'll talk to the main council and then the elder council. You were dedicated as the future queen shortly after birth, so there will be a ceremony, eventually, to formally pass my rite of cast on to Fira, probably at the harvest later this year. There's no rush. The ceremony doesn't make Fira my successor. Right here and now, I'm informally passing that right to you, Fira, with Zoe as my witness." Gabrielle beamed at her middle daughter, whose face continued to shine in wonder. "And of course Fira's schooling will be more tailored from here on out, to prepare you to take the mask one day."
"I think Daymon and I want to marry near the harvest as well." Zoe hesitated, then drew in a breath and continued. "We want to be married in the Amazon village, Mama, with Daymon's village as invited guests. I know it's not been done before -- a man and woman marrying there. But the Amazons are my family. Is it possible for us?"
"Of course," Gabrielle responded, without batting an eyelash. "I'm the queen. Anyone who doesn't like it can stay confined to their hut until the wedding and the party afterward are over." Her eyes twinkled. "And you know no one wants to miss a good party."
"Thanks, Mama." Zoe threw her arms around Gabrielle's neck. "And you, sis." She turned to Fira, hugging her as well. "You're going to be such a fine queen. I couldn't be more proud."
"Ohhhhhh." Fira held out her arms and they shared a group hug. "Hey," Fira whispered. "Mom and Chari are coming."'
"You have your Mom's ears," Gabrielle commented and looked up, just as Xena entered the cave with Charissa at her side and a bundle on her back. "What's this?"
"Family camp-out? Charissa the Mighty wore me out sword-fighting, so I tracked you all, and here we are." Xena dropped the roll of bedding and supplies near the cave wall, and quickly arranged a few logs in the nearby fire pit, setting them ablaze. "Hey, girls. There's a meteor shower tonight. I think you can see it if you take the path east of here up the next hill. It's not that far away."
"But far enough." Zoe smiled knowingly. "Come on." She stood and dragged her sisters up with her. "I think we'll be gone a while. I'll yell when we get ready to come back inside."
"Wow, we get to stay up really late?" Fira danced a happy circle around her sister as they made their way to the cave's entrance.
"Yes. It's not everyday one of my daughters gets betrothed and another becomes the future Amazon queen. Hold on." Xena approached them, holding all three girls close in her arms. "I'm so proud of all of you. Now go on. I saw the first shooting star walking in here, so it's just starting."
"Nice." Gabrielle reclined on one of the bedrolls she'd spread out, watching her brood as they disappeared, their excited, chattering voices carrying behind them on the night air.
"More than nice." Xena stretched out beside her and scooted close, drawing Gabrielle into her arms and exploring her lips and then her jaw. "How are you?" She pressed her forehead against the bard's, rubbing noses with her.
"Sad. Happy." Gabrielle sighed so hard her entire body trembled. "I think I need a snuggle."
"Just a snuggle?" Xena slid one hand up her partner's side, slipping it beneath her tunic.
"Mmmmm." Gabrielle pressed against the long body, Xena's touches already setting her skin on fire. "One of those snuggles that turns me inside out." She nipped at Xena's neck, reaching to unlace the warrior's top, and pushing it back off her shoulders. "Ungh."
"Ungh?" Xena chuckled and caressed a soft breast, teasing a nipple with her thumb. "Ohhh."
"Heh." Gabrielle eased a knee between long legs and quickly found a firm thigh returning the favor. "Oh, Xe."
"Been a long time since we made love in this cave," Xena murmured, as they shed the rest of their clothing and she moved against her partner, feeling the explosion of pleasure as their now-naked bodies slid together in familiarity.
"Too long." Gabrielle sighed and held on, feeling a firm pressure between her thighs, a knowing, stroking motion, and a pair of lips teasing her neck before they moved lower. She reveled in it, love-making born of their shared years and a touch that knew her body almost better than she knew it herself, Xena's low, sexy words adding to her excitement, as her body rose and crested, then crashed against her partner's, as waves of pleasure wracked her. She felt Xena responding as well, long arms clutching at Gabrielle's back, as the warrior cried out softly and they collapsed together on the bedroll, happily spent.
After a short wile, Xena got up to stoke the fire, and brought back a flask of wine. "Hey." She lay back down and they shared the sweet, rich drink. Xena then set the flask aside and pulled Gabrielle to her, stroking her hair and back, and kissing her head. "I love you, sweetheart."
"Love you, too." Gabrielle curled against her, soaking in the closeness and deliciously-warm, naked skin.
"We need to get dressed," Xena reluctantly informed her. "Zoe knows what we're doing, but I don't think she'd recover from the sight of a double mother moon." She gave Gabrielle a little pat on her bare behind.
"Are they on their way back?" Gabrielle sat up, tugging her tunic back over her head and tossing Xena's to her.
"Not yet. We still have some spooning time left." Xena leaned in, sharing a long, sensual kiss. "And a little more time for that as well."
They lay back down, sharing loving touches and kisses, until they both dozed off. Sometime later Xena awoke, hearing three pairs of quiet feet approaching. She picked up a stone and tossed it outside, making a soft cracking sound as it hit the outside cave wall. The feet stopped and only one pair approached. Zoe peered inside, her face glowing in the low torchlight. "Okay to come in?" She whispered.
Xena nodded and waved them in, holding a finger to her lips so Charissa and Fira would be quiet and not wake Gabrielle. All three girls quickly spread out their bedrolls nearby, and soon the entire family was bedded down around the fire. "This is nice," Zoe whispered.
"Yeah." Xena smiled, glancing down at Gabrielle, who was out for the count, her head on Xena's shoulder.
"It was a pretty star shower," Fira also whispered.
"I'm glad you enjoyed it," Xena answered quietly.
"You missed it," Fira sadly pointed out.
"I needed time with your Mama. I'll catch the next one." Xena grinned. "Goodnight, girls."
"Night, Mom," Fira and Zoe responded. Charissa began snoring quietly, already asleep.
Xena lay back, idly stroking Gabrielle's back. Soon she could hear the even breathing of sleep from all four of the women in her life, and she smiled up at the crystals overhead, now reddish pink in the dying firelight. In the coming days there would be wedding plans and cast ceremonies, and one empty bed in the house, but on this one, magical night, she was content to immerse herself in almost overwhelming emotion, the love of her life in her arms, and the daughters born of that love surrounding her. After all they'd been through, through all the years, life had chosen to smile kindly upon her. Sleep could wait.
THE END, FOR NOW