This story is categorized as fan fiction. The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, et al, which have appeared in the series Xena: Warrior Princess, belong to the producers, writers and executives of Renaissance Pictures and MCA/Universal Television/Studios USA. I claim only to have borrowed them, without intent to profit or infringe these rights, for the purpose of creating this story for enjoyment of the series' fans, of which I count myself one of many.
Additionally, the story below contains references, explicit and implied, of a sexual relationship between two consenting adults of the same sex. If you are not of legal age to read this story, or such material is illegal where you live, or you do not feel comfortable with such content, please refrain from reading this story.
This story is a sequel to New Territory, When We Dance, Who Leads? and Honeymoon's Over.
Returned to the web (Thanks DinaMarsh!) January 1999
You can find more work by LZClotho at her site Clotho's Tapestry and at The Royal Academy of Bards
Send feedback to LZClotho@cfl.rr.com
Mantles are Heavy
© June 1998
Bending to the fact that her two companions were on foot, Xena led Argo along the forest path. Stepping carefully along, she eyed her surroundings with all the ease of a caged lion.
"Problem, Xena?" Joxer, who'd been making practice swings with his sword, moved in longer strides for a few steps, bringing him quickly alongside the taller brunette.
She looked over, offering him a distracted half-smile. "We're almost to the markers," she informed him and then turned to Gabrielle. The small blonde woman quickly walked up on her other side.
Gabrielle shrugged and smiled. "Great. I can't wait to see Ephiny." Touching Xena's arm briefly, she added, "She'll be so excited."
Joxer however had been learning a little from Xena the last few days. While Gabrielle seemed unconcerned, she appeared to disregard the tension he noticed in Xena. "Something's still wrong though."
Xena stopped walking, causing Joxer and Gabrielle to do the same. "It might just be an animal." She put a hand on Joxer's shoulder.
Gabrielle twirled her staff, bounced it off the dirt and started leading the little group further on the road. Both Xena and Joxer watched her for a moment, admiring the lithe gaiety of the small woman's strides, before resuming their own pace.
Xena kept her eyes on Gabrielle. Joxer leaned close for a moment. "What was it?"
"We're being tracked by scouts already," she confided. "Up in the trees to the left." She stepped on his foot when he started to look. "Don't be obvious about it," she murmured.
Joxer nodded and moved a short distance away from Xena before looking around. Finally he looked up into the lower branches spread as a canopy over their heads. He didn't see anything, suspected that whoever was up there saw him watching and looked more intently. If Xena said there were scouts in the trees...
Then there were scouts in the trees. Joxer smiled finally noticing the different texture among the leaves. Amazon headdresses might blend in color with the autumn changed leaves, but feathers really looked nothing like leaves, if you knew how to look. He smiled and nodded again to Xena who had taught him the distinction using one of Gabrielle's decorative Amazon armbands playing hide and seek in the trees each night. The warrior returned the gesture.
A few strides more and they caught up with Gabrielle. Joxer cajoled the bard into a story to fill the remainder of their trip. After thinking for a moment, and grasping Xena's hand lightly, Gabrielle launched into the tale of Persephone.
The bard's animated voice drifted among the trees. Joxer and Xena both noticed the change in the trailing scouts' behavior. Argo whinnied when the traveling party reached the first Amazon marker. Xena turned absently to rub the mare's muzzle.
The leaves rustled overhead, signaling the arrival of the greeting party. Argo's reins were dropped. The bard and warrior both reached over their heads clasping their hands in the Amazon sign of peace. Joxer sheathed his sword and quickly followed suit as the masked women slid down sturdy ropes filling the path before the trio.
A quick head count told Joxer there were nearly twenty Amazons now in the road. He looked up at the trees, amazed that many could have hidden from view.
He started forward to ask and found several spears intercepting his approach. He looked over his shoulder at Xena, who shook her head, so he desisted.
The spears were lowered slowly. After another long moment of no movement from anyone, Xena, Gabrielle, Joxer or the Amazons, an Amazon near the front removed her mask.
Shaggy dirty blonde curls and sparkling brown eyes moved over all of them until she broke into a smile at the sight of the bard. "Gabrielle!"
Gabrielle fell into an embrace with the Amazon Regent. Other masks came off and Xena found herself in a warrior's clasp with Solari, head of the Amazon army.
Curious Amazons surrounded Joxer, who weren't examining him so much as a man, but his hand-assembled armor.
Gabrielle answered Eponin's questioning look. "That's Joxer. A friend."
"Do you wish for him to stay in the village or send him to the Centaurs, Queen Gabrielle?" This from Solari, who studied Joxer with a mixture of disdain and suspicion, as always concerned for the village's safety.
Xena looked at Joxer who was valiantly keeping his hands off the women around him. Staying in the village would be terrible on him. She shook her head at Gabrielle. But the bard didn't have the chance.
Joxer genially pushed away a hand trying to separate his armor and the secure netting. "It's nice of you to think...but... I really should move on."
Ephiny nodded. "You have helped return our queen. At least you could stay for the party."
"Party?" replied Joxer, his eyes lighting up.
"Party?" Xena's voice cracked in alarm.
"Party!" Gabrielle excitedly clasped her hands together.
Cheering and raucous banter circled the trio.
One of the younger Amazons in the party, her feathers threaded through mouse brown hair, tried to take Argo's reins helpfully. "I've got her," Xena insisted, keeping hold of the mare while giving her a mollified version of The Look. Nervously, the young woman stepped away and returned to the middle of the Amazon escort party.
Ephiny ushered Gabrielle quickly ahead of Xena and Joxer amid the mob. The party, it appeared, had already started. Xena pulled Joxer close. Tersely, she said, "The minute you touch anybody, you'll lose a hand. Be careful."
Joxer nodded, using his shoulder to angle through a group of Amazon girls who insisted on pulling at the netting holding his breastplate in place. "I figured that much out. Do you want me to take off?"
Xena spied Ephiny and Gabrielle up at the head of the swirl. "You can't. You're being acknowledged as an escort to the queen."
He nodded again. Xena watched a young Amazon eye him dramatically -- there was no accounting for taste, she thought. She watched Joxer smile -- he no doubt thought, enigmatically -- but Xena thought it made him look constipated. But then he vigorously shook his head at the young woman and moved close to Xena as they reached the perimeter of the village proper.
With a heavy heart, Xena watched Gabrielle being greeted by everyone. A few moments earlier she'd separated herself from Joxer, reminding him again to keep his hands to himself. Now he'd managed to wedge his way toward Gabrielle. She herself could have gotten close to the bard, but the effort would have required pulling one of her "terrible" faces. While the Amazons were not on the short list of people Xena cared to impress one way or the other, their opinion was important to Gabrielle, so the warrior resolved not to irritate anyone unnecessarily.
She saw Ephiny's hand on the small of Gabrielle's back and almost considered changing that plan. Acknowledging the tightness which suddenly squeezed her chest, she found herself caught between jealousy and thankful that Gabrielle had such a protector when she herself could not be close.
The warrior took a deep breath and dispelled the constriction of her chest. She put the regent out of her mind as she walked Argo to the Amazon corral. At Xena's light push on her rump, the golden mare slipped around the gate.
"You stay away from the master over there." She pointed the mare's nose toward the stallion leader of the small horse pack. Argo pawed the ground and snorted, then lipped Xena's hand. "You don't want to be stabled here while Gabrielle and I go off and have all the fun." The warrior patted her withers, then stepped back. Argo trotted off to mingle. The mare looked back and snorted again. Xena nodded. "Just so long as we understand each other."
She turned to walk back into the village center. By her third step she had stopped looking down at her boots and found Solari approaching quickly.
"Solari. Something on your mind?"
"Not at the moment. No." Solari took the lead, escorting Xena through the throngs of Amazons, some at daily chores, others buzzing with news of the queen's arrival.
Silence accompanied them to the entrance of the queen's hut. Xena entered after Solari, who went immediately to Ephiny's side, bent and whispered something to the regent. Ephiny nodded, and dismissed Solari. She sat in a small chair across the table from Gabrielle, who was passing a bowl of fruit to Joxer as the man circled, examining the wall hangings.
Gabrielle looked up at Xena, eyes warm and intimate. Ephiny was less warm, starting with a scrutiny of Xena's boots, moving slowly up absorbing the warrior's appearance. Her eyes narrowed and Xena felt ridiculously on display.
"Xena!" The bard came to her feet moving toward the warrior but stopped when Xena self-consciously dropped a hand to smooth the leather strips of her skirt. The bard cocked her head slightly, curious.
"Xena." Ephiny stood and waited as the warrior moved toward the center of the room.
"Hello. Ephiny." Xena was dismayed to find her strong voice unusually quiet. Joxer walked past. Xena liberated the bowl, snatching up an apple and biting quickly into it. Over the smooth skin of the apple, Xena eyed Ephiny. Ridiculously she noticed her own hand was shaking.
Joxer tried to take back the bowl. "Hey!"
"I'm hungry." Xena shrugged, biting again into the apple. Finally calm, she looked to Gabrielle. "Quite a welcome out there."
Gabrielle nodded and came closer. "Where'd you go?" She pulled a handful of cherries from the bowl and pulled Xena into another chair.
"Dropped Argo off at the corral."
"I'll see that your horse is well tended." Ephiny moved to the doorway. She looked once from Xena to Gabrielle and then back again. She added, "You should rest here, Gabrielle, until the festivities start." She looked at Joxer. "Come with us. You've been assigned a hut elsewhere." Joxer nodded and moved to the doorway. Ephiny looked back at Xena. "You have other quarters assigned too. When you have a moment, one of the others will show you."
Gabrielle started to say something, but Xena put a gentle hand to the bard's shoulder, a silent gesture to be still. "We'll see you at the evening meal," the Warrior Princess promised. Ephiny looked about to say something further but stopped and turned away, leaving Xena and Gabrielle alone.
The bard put down her apple and pulled Xena's from her hands. "What were you fidgeting about?"
"I don't fidget."
"Ephiny stared at you pretty hard. I don't understand why yet, but I'm sure you haven't done anything wrong. I know that makes you self-conscious."
"I'm not sure she believes that."
"For the gods' sake, Xena, you saved the village from Velasca." Gabrielle touched Xena's bracer and started unlacing it. The warrior stiffened and stepped back. "Stop fidgeting."
"I do not fidget." Xena turned to insist again and found herself being thoroughly kissed. Together they settled awkwardly into a chair. Xena found herself half straddling the arm, until she slid a little to the right.
Nuzzling and bubbly, Gabrielle hugged Xena. "I've been waiting to do that."
Xena was pleased to see the blonde happy, but she had trouble shaking the uneasy feeling which had risen, almost like a defensive battle instinct, under Ephiny's lengthy silent scrutiny. "The Amazons are very happy to see you. I figured you'd want the time to be with them for a while."
"Is that why you let them just lead me on, while you went and settled Argo?" Xena nodded. The bard nuzzled Xena's throat and straddled the warrior's lap. "Ephiny did say she had some laws she wanted me to review while I was here. I told her we could get started tomorrow." Gabrielle's hands roamed Xena's body, slipping fingers underneath leather straps and over the warrior's smooth back and shoulder muscles. "We have a few hours."
Xena sighed. "I'm sorry. I guess I'm distracted."
"Joxer's not here. Come on. I made Ephiny give him someplace else -- for his sake as well as ours." She ran a hand over the warrior's bicep, releasing the leather tie on the second bracer.
"You missed me, hmmm," sighed Xena, accepting Gabrielle's kisses on her forehead, cheeks and throat.
"Oh, yeah." The warrior slid her hands over Gabrielle's sleekness. "Do I have your attention now?" The affirmative murmur rumbled against the bard's cheek. "Good." The bard pulled back for a moment. "I am very tired of not being able to be this close to you." Xena stiffened. Gabrielle rubbed Xena's shoulders. "No. Stop. We talked to Joxer. While he's not completely comfortable, he's getting there."
Xena shook her head. "Don't you think Ephiny looked a little strange?" asked Xena, even as she sighed at the touch of her lover's hands in her hair. Gabrielle pulled free the small leather lacing which caught most of the warrior's long tresses and kept them out of her face.
Gabrielle shrugged. "Probably has to do with whatever I put off until tomorrow." She sat down. "Do you think she's worried about something? Should I cancel the party and find out what she needed instead?"
Xena thought a moment. The Regent's behavior, even though it set off warning bells, could just be tension related to leading the Amazons in Gabrielle's absence. "Maybe I'm overreacting. Ephiny did suggest the party herself."
"Still. Perhaps I should..."
The warrior put a finger to Gabrielle's lips. Obediently, the bard fell silent. "There's one thing worse than a worried Amazon."
"A challenged one. Ephiny thinks whatever it is that's bothering her can wait until after the party. Otherwise she would have said something."
"Umm hmmm," replied Gabrielle, as Xena kissed her. "So we wait." She nibbled Xena's lips.
Obligingly, Xena let go her tensions and nibbled back on soft lips. "But we don't have to sit on our hands."
Gabrielle giggled as Xena's hands slid under her skirt and massaged her rear. "Um, no, but I don't mind sitting on your hands."
Xena chuckled and swept Gabrielle up into her arms, bearing the bard to the goose-tick mattress. "Just a few hours," she murmured, kissing the bard tenderly. She stripped away the small green top, kissed taut abdomen muscles, delighting in their twitch beneath her tongue as she dipped it into the bard's navel. She revealed muscular, trim legs from beneath Gabrielle's leather skirt.
"Don't yell too loudly," she warned with a sensuous smile. "I don't want to be accused of trying to kill the queen." She stroked the juncture of the bard's thighs. Closing her eyes, she tried through touch to communicate her love for Gabrielle. The feelings swelled in her chest until there were tears welling in her eyes. A gentle hand brushed at her cheeks. Opening her eyes, she fell into Gabrielle's glistening green eyes. She breathed against the bard's ear, knowing, even as the bard's hips jumped, exactly what she was doing to her love.
Gabrielle growled and shoved Xena's shoulder, urging the woman downward where the heat was building rapidly. Her voice when it came was breathy, sending Xena's own senses spirally toward bliss. She whispered, "With what you're already doing, I'm already close to expiring..."
"With pleasure?" Xena eased a finger inside the bard's damp, hot center. Then she lowered her mouth to Gabrielle's breast, suckling the flesh gently as the nipple pebbled against her tongue.
The bard squirmed. "Definitely," she said, the words uttered on the end of a purring sigh.
For the time being they forgot Joxer and Ephiny, savoring this moment of each other's time... alone.
Gabrielle awakened, stretching luxuriantly against Xena's body as she heard the soft trumpet signaling the start of the evening festivities. She felt long fingers threading through her hair and looked up to see soft blue eyes looking down, a moment of unguarded tenderness filling them. "Sounds like the party's starting."
"Ummm hmmm." Xena stretched and shifted her legs from beneath Gabrielle's sprawled body. "Ready to greet your subjects, your majesty?"
Gabrielle flushed and pushed up, steepling her arms over Xena's abdomen, studying the warrior's face. "'Your majesty'? Come on, Xena. You've never called me that. You know I don't like it. Something you want to talk to me about?"
Xena shook her head. "You know how I am with the Amazons, Gabrielle."
"Yeah, I know." Gabrielle sat up. "But I thought this time might be different because you're with me now. Not just my friend."
Xena rolled over and pulled herself off the bed gracefully. Gabrielle watched the lithe body slide back into the supple leather. "They didn't expect me to be sleeping here. I think that says something."
Gabrielle shrugged. "You're staying with me." She paused. "I have the right to demand that, don't I?"
Xena pulled her hair free of the collar of her gambeson, and shrugged. "I'm sure you do." She examined her blade and slipped it into her sheath.
"I don't think you'll need that." Gabrielle spoke just as Xena buckled the sheath into place. The warrior raised her eyebrow and Gabrielle recanted. "But I suppose extra protection is always welcome."
Xena smiled lightly and settled to a chair to watch Gabrielle dress. The bard fetched her clothing from the various places around the floor. Every time she passed Xena's seat, the warrior would run an appreciative hand over whatever skin remained exposed.
The sensuously soft touch was driving Gabrielle back into passion's grip. Finally she tied her skirt into place and stood, smoothing the leather over her thighs. "How do I look?" Xena raised an eyebrow. "I know. I know. Wrong person to ask." Gabrielle continued to fidget slightly.
Xena stood and put a steadying hand on the slender bare shoulder. Gabrielle looked up at her, then squared her shoulders before heading for the door of the hut. The warrior realized the bard was anxious to make a good impression on her adopted people. "You'll be fine."
She made her voice fill with a confidence she no longer felt. The thought had come; Gabrielle's desire to please the Amazons created a knot of uneasiness in Xena's stomach. She definitely had felt something unwelcome in Ephiny's look. After all they had been through together she didn't like to think something she had done would harm Gabrielle's relationship with Ephiny and the other Amazons. But the hairs on her neck raised once again when Ephiny greeted them just outside the main square. Beyond, Xena could see, throngs upon throngs of assembled Amazons in celebratory leathers and decorative feathers.
"Gabrielle, welcome back. We, the Amazons of Centaur Valley, welcome you home." Ephiny pulled the bard along with outstretched hands and then turned away, revealing to Gabrielle, and Xena who stood at the bard's shoulder, the formal center of the assembly.
Amazons in headdress and seated, cradling palm drums, filled the square to the right. Dancers stood at attention on the left.
Ephiny started to raise her hand in a signal to the dancers but then paused looking to Gabrielle. "Can they begin?"
Gabrielle nodded and said, "Of course. Please. Anything they have planned."
Ephiny frowned, but nodded to the lead dancers, who began undulating to the slow, heartbeat rhythm set by the palm drummers. The regent indicated that Gabrielle and Xena were to follow her. She led them around the outside of the dancers, Gabrielle studying the rhythmic movements while Xena gently, but unnoticed, guided her carefully behind Ephiny.
Ephiny reached a small raised platform constructed of bamboo and pine thatch. There were two seats set upon it, and she indicated with a nod that Gabrielle should take the one on the left as they stepped up.
Gabrielle looked around for another seat, and frowned. "Where can Xena sit?"
"This is only for the leadership," Ephiny explained. "The dancers must be able to see to take their cues from us."
Gabrielle must have felt the chill in Ephiny's voice because Xena saw her back stiffen. Before the bard could say anything untoward, the warrior leaned close and said simply, "I'd prefer to stand."
Ephiny looked over Gabrielle's shoulder a bit of surprise on her face. Nodding, Xena stepped behind Gabrielle's chair, holding it while the bard settled. Then she stood at relaxed attention just slightly off Gabrielle's right shoulder. Ephiny then seated herself, and three pairs of eyes scanned the festivities.
Gabrielle studied the dancers and listened to the cadence of the music, trying to absorb the rhythm. She was a terrible dancer and she knew it, but it was important to the Amazons, particularly Ephiny, who Gabrielle liked to call a friend. So she'd find a way to learn the dance. She was good at absorbing details if she could watch what was going on.
Part of being a good storyteller, she acknowledged. But a good storyteller wasn't needed in sizing up laws, or revisions to the Amazons penal codes.
The thought made the bard glance over her left shoulder at Ephiny, who watched the dancers with studied concentration. Gabrielle hoped to find a way to live up to the responsibilities of the queen's mask the regent had convinced her to accept. She shifted in her chair and returned her gaze to the dancers.
"Enjoying the dancers, Gabrielle?" The curly-haired regent leaned close to her shoulder.
The young queen nodded. "What's next?"
"You could dance if you like. Or request archery or hand-to-hand displays," Ephiny remarked.
Gabrielle's stomach took that moment to growl and remind the young blonde she hadn't eaten since a bite of apple in the hut hours before.
Ephiny smiled, and Gabrielle felt Xena's hand on her right shoulder. "Or you could request that the meal be brought out," the regent amended.
Ephiny rose and gestured for quiet. A hush fell over the assembly when drummers' hands stilled. The dancers slowly sank to relaxed crouches and awaited the regent's words.
"The queen has much enjoyed our display. You have certainly pleased Artemis. The huntresses have returned with the goddess' blessing. Let us bring forth the bounty and make our meal." Ephiny's full throated announcement was met with a round of cheering applause. She turned gesturing Gabrielle up.
As the bard rose slowly, she felt Xena's hand fall away from her back and experienced a twinge of uncertainty. She looked back over her right shoulder and up into the warrior's still face. Xena tilted her head briefly to the other side and Gabrielle turned back to the assembly.
"I really have enjoyed this. For all of you to welcome me... so warmly is... it makes me very happy." She smiled as the faces of the crowd began to single themselves out for her. She met Eponin's austere smile, then Solari, beside the Amazon captain, leaning on a tall drum. The pair smiled warmly back at their queen's notice. "Now, let's eat."
Laughter was the reply, and a scurry of women soon parted allowing the huge platters to be borne in to the center, and up to the dais, for her sampling.
When she was presented with the platter, Gabrielle started to reach for a biscuit-wrapped slice of sauced meat. Ephiny cleared her throat. The bard pulled her hand back and smiled quickly at the woman bearing the platter. "What?" she whispered to the regent.
"Offer thanks to Artemis."
"Isn't that the priestess' job?"
"No. The queen is the head priestess to Artemis. The women in the temple only --" Ephiny cut herself off realizing that everyone was waiting. "Just do it. Say something. I'll explain later."
Gabrielle nodded. Tentatively she opened her hands in the air over the array of food. "Artemis, goddess of both the Amazon and forest animal, you ... have provided well for both. We thank you."
That seemed to be acceptable as Ephiny nodded and the Amazons all stood at attention. Feeling distinctly uncomfortable, the bard turned away from the platter and announced, "Please eat and enjoy the rest of your night."
The formality of the evening was shattered in that short phrase. The women of the village broke their ranks and clustered around the other food trays being brought through the crowd.
Safely assuming she could now eat, Gabrielle snatched up the biscuit she'd started to take a moment earlier. Ephiny's own hand slipped over hers and snapped up another biscuit. "Thanks, Gabrielle."
The bard nibbled on the biscuit and then felt the close warmth as Xena came up on her right side and selected a corn cob from the platter. "Good?"
Mouth full, Gabrielle couldn't answer, but she stepped back, as Xena did, and settled on her chair. Ephiny left the dais to join the Amazons down in the throng, chattering and talking. The music had picked up in small groups again and they laughed, ate and sang.
The bard gestured toward Ephiny's now empty chair. "C'mon. Formalities are gone. Have a seat."
Xena nodded and moved around the bard to sit in the offered chair. "You did nicely."
"It... felt... well, odd."
"For you? You talk in public groups all the time."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Well, yes, but this was different. I don't know. I'm no priestess. What if instead of pleasing Artemis, my even pretending to this angered her?" The warrior met the bard's eyes but said nothing. "Xena?"
The warrior shrugged. "Can't help. Well, nothing beyond the myths and stories. You already know those."
Gabrielle nodded and finished her biscuit. "I have to get something to drink. Brave that crowd with me and find the punch?" She smiled at the warrior and put a hand on her arm near the elbow.
Nodding, Xena pulled the corn cob from her teeth and stood, offering Gabrielle a hand up.
"Queen Gabrielle?" A voice popped up behind the pair.
Gabrielle turned as they approached the small steps to see the woman who had spoken. She was willowy and looked rather young. Her brown shoulder-length hairpulled off her face in two braids woven with rank feathers. "Yes?"
"I'm one of your new guards, my queen. I earned the position in the last moon's competition."
"Congratulations. What is your name?"
Brown eyes sparkled with enjoyment. "Kieran. I'm born Amazon," she added proudly, puffing out her chest slightly.
"Amazons are many made one," Xena said quietly.
Kieran, who had been only studying Gabrielle, now looked up past the bard's shoulder. Xena noticed the slight lift of her lips, but then there was a pause as she wiped her face clear of emotion and responded, "Born Amazons know their roots."
Gabrielle nodded. "Of course they do." She stepped down one of the steps. "Kieran? Xena and I would like to find the drinks. Could you show us?"
Kieran returned her gaze to Gabrielle and nodded. "Certainly. Please come this way." She stepped back, gesturing for the queen to step down and precede her, then moved quickly into place behind the blonde. Xena fell into step behind Kieran's presented back.
Xena couldn't voice her thoughts, finding it disturbing she was even thinking the remarkably uncharitable words. She felt pinned down and the feeling bothered her intensely. She wanted suddenly to ... "Gabrielle."
She tried to hide her disturbed thoughts from the bard's curious green eyes. She didn't want to talk about this right now. Gabrielle apparently was just enough distracted for the warrior to carry it off. Mild query only was in the bard's voice when she responded. "Yes?"
"I'm going to talk to Solari." Xena accepted the bard's nod. "See you later."
Gabrielle watched Xena walk away. Now why did I say that? We're among the Amazons, my people. What could happen here? But Xena had taught her to pay attention to her intuition. And in dealing with the warrior since their relationship had begun, Gabrielle had found that to be sound advice. So, what was worrying her? Kieran had stopped while Gabrielle and Xena conferred and now started walking again when the warrior walked away. "Kieran?"
"Can I ask you a question?"
"If I have the answer, I swear I will tell you."
Gabrielle sighed. "Um. All right. Do you like being a queen's guard?"
"Certainly. To protect the queen for Artemis is a high honor. The highest. Every Amazon aspires to the formal post, though most take an informal protective position of both the queen and in turn the Nation."
"Why then do I get the distinct impression that the same is not to be said for the queen's friends?"
"Joxer is a man. Men are inferior friend or not."
Gabrielle frowned at the vehemence of Kieran's tone. "I disagree. However that was not who I was speaking of." She stepped up to the refreshment table and picked up a large mug. "I was speaking of..." She took a deep swallow of what she thought was cider. Coughing and sputtering she stared into the mug and realized she'd instead picked up a mug of sharp ale. She took a deep breath, and turned back to Kieran.
"Are you all right, my queen?"
Gabrielle's eyes watered but she nodded. "I'm fine. Back to what I was saying." Kieran waited quietly. The bard carefully searched for a cider and finally was successful with a mug toward the far side of the table. "Xena is my friend. My very closest friend. You have been unkind to her. I would ask you to stop."
"Xena is not Amazon."
Gabrielle shot back, "She has served this nation better than any Amazon."
Kieran raised her staff then recalled herself. "She is not Amazon."
Gabrielle tried a different tactic. "If I order you to be nice to her will you do it?"
"I must obey every order of my queen."
"And will you feel angry while doing it?"
Kieran squared her jaw and looked away.
"I asked you a question, Kieran."
"I will not like it."
"Xena is not worth my time to like or dislike."
"You certainly dislike her enough. Take the time to know her. I promise you will like her."
"Is that an order, my queen?"
The woman's posture was still defensive. "No. Please go away." Suddenly Gabrielle desperately wanted to go to a corner and think in the dark and quiet. Kieran, jaw squared, moved away into the crowd, leaving Gabrielle at the refreshments. Almost immediately a pair of Amazons, older than Kieran, took up positions near the young queen.
The bard noticed the activity out of the corner of her eye and shook her head. Not talking to either shadow, she simply moved away among the partying Amazons, nibbling a meat wrap and sipping her cider. Her escorts followed, but never came closer than several arm lengths away. What am I going to do? thought the bard. This is intolerable. She decided to seek out Ephiny and find out once and for all what in Artemis' name was going on.
Xena, meanwhile had found, not Solari, but Joxer, amid the crowd. She was tense, anxious, and aggravated. And she wanted to spar. While thinking about sparring with Solari had crossed her mind, she'd discarded the thought for the simple reason she was in a "real" fighting mood and didn't want to damage her tentative relationship with the Amazon military commander by striking too hard.
Joxer, on the other hand, would appreciate the harder exercise. She'd probably surprise him a bit, but hey, he asked for this training. "C'mon, Joxer. I wanna show you a few moves." She grabbed the warrior out of a small group of Amazons. "Excuse me, but he has a ... meeting." She pulled him free, listening in pained amusement as he made his stumbling excuses and the women -- she recognized the healer, a middle-aged woman of some forty winters, among the group. Again, she was struck by the thought, to each her own.
"What's up, Xena?" He lifted his hands and showed them to her. "I've been keeping to myself."
"Congratulations." She sighed. "I want to spar. Got some time?"
"Of course." He reached for his sword.
"Don't pull it here. Wait'll we get to the training ground."
She eyed Joxer, having finally noticed his excessive joviality. She paused at the edge of the village and grabbed his shoulders. He focused on her with a bit of difficulty. "Damn, you're drunk."
"Well, they kept pressing ale in my hands. You know how good that stuff is?" He gestured back to the party and smiled, stifling a giggle. Xena nearly cried with frustration and disgust. "I can still spar with you if you want."
"I ought to, just to teach you a lesson." She sighed. "But I won't. Go on back to the party, Joxer."
He smiled and turned around, stumbling back to the party. Once he stepped wrong and stubbed his foot against a rock. "Damn," he muttered, then turned back to her, rubbed the brim of his tall hat in farewell. "Night, Xena."
"Joxer, if you are crazy enough to seek companionship tonight, I hope she's as drunk as you are, or there'll be quite a mess for me to clean up in the morning." He nodded and kept walking. Xena stood in the waning torchlight and watched him go. Why did she suddenly feel he was going to have the time of his life, while she, on the other hand, would spend a miserable night alone?
Her body sense pricked up. She looked around and noticed the Amazons only as the bodies came flying out of the shadows. She hit the ground protecting her head against the onslaught of their bodies, kicks, punches and, was that a short club?
She rolled over and pushed herself to her feet, using that part of her skills that could ignore being punched, hit and otherwise in discomfort, in order to stand. She reached for her sword and pulled it free.
The Amazons backed up, but still surrounded her when she brandished her sword and barked, "What the Hades is going on?!"
"Get out, Xena."
"We don't want you here."
The warrior looked from one face to another. She noticed Kieran, the guard who had escorted Gabrielle and herself from the dais. "Why?" No answers were forthcoming from stoic faces. She turned on her heel and pushed her way out of the tightened circle of Amazons. "Well, until someone has the guts to tell me what the problem is, I'll be on the perimeter watch."
Someone whispered frantically to a neighbor and Xena was stopped. "Wait."
"So, I get an explanation now?" She turned, arms crossed over her chest. She could take this group and make pulverized Amazon stew, but she really wanted to find out what was going on, and hopefully keep Gabrielle from being upset with her or the Amazons.
"Gabrielle is our queen."
"No argument here. I made sure she could get back to you whenever you needed her."
"Our queen should be with us," added another one.
Xena sighed. "I've suggested it. She says no. Is that the problem?"
"She says no because of you," someone accused.
"What's your name?"
"Rayna," replied the accuser, a young Amazon, certainly no older than Gabrielle. She was slender, and well-muscled. She had a bow strapped to her back. One of the huntresses for the tribe obviously.
Xena nodded. "I'm sorry you feel slighted. We'll stay as long as necessary to ..."
"We don't need you. We need our queen."
Xena bristled. "I am not leaving without Gabrielle. And she's not staying without me." An Amazon punched her, and the warrior allowed the hit because she felt stupid for having issued an ultimatum in the first place. But when the second fist came flying, she stopped it. "I got the message," she said dryly.
Xena watched muscles flexing, fists opening and closing and prayed quickly for Gabrielle's gift of negotiation. "Ephiny mentioned a separate hut. How about we start there?"
"You're the queen's consort?" This in an amazed tone.
"By Artemis. No wonder she won't leave you."
Xena thought for a moment to take that as a compliment, but then another voice ruined it.
"You must be intimidating her."
"Don't you? Xena, remember we know the Warrior Princess. The Centaurs. Corinth. Nearly half of Greece. You use intimidation to get your way." That long-winded brief history of the warrior's worst past came from Kieran.
"I've done a lot, Kieran. Someday we'll all sit back and I'll tell you about it over some ales. But the last thing I'd ever ... I would never intimidate Gabrielle. Gods, when we first met, I was a sour..."
"She was pretty bad. Silent as a mouse most of the time. Couldn't get two words out of her."
Everyone turned to see Gabrielle coming up the walk toward the group. They parted and the bard stepped up to Xena. "You'd gone off. Thought you might be at the training ground." She looked around at the Amazons, who reacted with a variety of emotions, from surprise to chagrin, to frustration. Xena smiled warmly for Gabrielle.
"Oh, I was just on my way back. They thought they'd escort me."
"Good." The bard slipped her right hand into Xena's left and walked the warrior back to the party. "But I've got you now." She turned to the group still standing a bit stunned. "You can go back and enjoy the party. Thank you for finding Xena for me."
"Queen Gabrielle." One collected herself and sketched a bow.
"My queen." Another lifted her short Amazon sword in salute.
"By the grace of Artemis," said another. Gabrielle accepted each response with a nod and then walked away, leading Xena.
Once they were alone on the walk. "Xena, I was looking for Ephiny when I came up on that." She looked back for a moment. "What's going on?"
Xena met the bard's eyes and shook her head. "They think I'm keeping you from your responsibilities here."
"You don't control me, or my choices."
"I thought about telling them that."
"But you didn't."
"I was dodging a fist at the time."
Gabrielle fell silent for a moment. "Let's find Ephiny," she finally said, leading the warrior back into the crowd. "You're taller, so tell me if you see her."
Xena looked over the collection of faces still drifting around the square, dancing, eating, and drinking. She finally spotted the blonde regent talking with one of the drummers. "This way."
Gabrielle followed Xena as the warrior wended her way through the crowd. No one spoke to them. They had little trouble reaching Ephiny when it became pretty clear that the bard and the warrior were headed right for her.
Even she sensed them coming up behind her and glanced from one to the other when she turned and faced them. "Enjoying the party?"
"We have a few questions."
Showing no signs of surprise or curiosity, a remarkably poised Ephiny nodded curtly. "Let's go somewhere."
Gabrielle and Xena fell in beside Ephiny as the regent led the way to her hut. Women eyed them intently and a few steps later, Ephiny turned to Xena. "Can we talk alone?"
Xena stopped and looked to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle looked from Xena to Ephiny. "Go ahead, Xena. Wait in my hut. I'll be right there."
"Are you sure?"
"I'll be all right."
Xena nodded and walked away from the pair taking the path to the queen's hut quickly in the growing darkness. The torches along the path were well-burned down now. She felt the presence nearing before she saw it. "Whoever you are. I'm headed for some quiet. If you really want to disturb that, I suggest you talk to Gabrielle first."
The presence stopped, then moved off. The warrior sighed.
Ephiny wandered the interior of her hut and picked up one of Xenan's small, carved toys. Gabrielle noticed it was a wolf. "Ephiny?"
The regent turned. Her fingers flowed over the wooden toy nervously. "Yes, Gabrielle?"
"Something is wrong. Are you going to tell me what it is?"
Ephiny gestured the bard to a chair. "We've had a few problems. I was hoping it would wait until morning." She took a deep breath. "I guess it can't now."
Gabrielle settled into the chair, and studied Ephiny. "So this awful treatment of Xena has to do with what we were going to discuss in the morning? Why? Why is everyone suddenly against Xena?"
Ephiny shook her head. "First of all, it isn't everyone." She held up her hands. "Just a few people."
"No, by the goddess. I swear."
"But she saved this village, and everyone in it when Velasca attacked." Gabrielle stood again, walking to the wash basin and bracing her hands on the tabletop before turning back and continuing. "Why, Ephiny? What's changed?"
"There were many who followed Velasca, Gabrielle."
"I thought they all left when Velasca did."
"Where would they go?" Ephiny shook her head. "No, most of them stayed. And we've been trying to work with them ever since. They want concessions. Lots of them."
"How is it I haven't heard - "
"Because you haven't been here."
"You could have written."
Ephiny sighed. She took a deep breath. "They've asked me to step down."
"Tradition must be satisfied somehow, Gabrielle. They want a queen. They don't like an Amazon who's slept with a Centaur leading them in place of a woman who'd rather wander the countryside than lead the Nation either."
Gabrielle shook her head. "But you're a good leader."
"Tradition matters to them..." Ephiny sat down, her shoulders slumping as she allowed the aggravations and troubles of the last moons to overtake her. "And to me. Please, Gabrielle. Please come back?"
Gabrielle sat down. "But what does this have to do with Xena? Why are they challenging her at every turn? Why were they actually attacking her?"
"It comes back to you. The way they see it, she's keeping you from them."
"Xena said something like that." Gabrielle stood and paced, as Ephiny sat down. "Come on, we'll just talk to them. Make them understand."
"It won't help, Gabrielle. She's not an Amazon. To their mind that makes her nothing in their eyes. If you defend her, you'll be scorned. They may then split the Nation, encouraging naming a new queen. Maybe even civil war."
Gabrielle sighed. Gods, what a mess. Xena, I wish I could have your counsel. She turned to Ephiny and said, "All right, I'm listening. Tell me what you think I should do."
Ephiny nodded and rose, fetching some scrolls from a chest at the foot of her bed. Gabrielle settled in a chair at the table and watched as the Amazon regent spread the parchments out before her. Both of them sighed deeply and began reading.
Xena stepped through the doorway, and found tallow candles to ignite, bathing the hut's dark interior with a soft light. Distantly she heard the sounds of the party continuing. Taking several deep breaths, she worked to blow off the edge of her nervous energy. Finding Joxer drunk had caused an unexpected delay to her satisfaction. Then finding several Amazons physically challenging her, but having to restrain her reaction for Gabrielle's sake. She rubbed her shoulder. It was a wonder she wasn't already one big knot. She sat on the bed and wondered what to do.
Her body was being pulled in two different directions and the conflict brought on a serious headache. She rubbed her temples while searching for her medicinal pouch among her and Gabrielle's things. A pinch of powder and a swish of water from the wash basin and the warrior took a deep breath of relief.
Xena acknowledged, though she would never tell Gabrielle this, that she was having trouble maintaining the line between wanting to rough up some Amazons for their slights of her, and keeping her hands to herself so she didn't ruin Gabrielle's relationship with them. But she was beginning to think that no matter what she did it was going to cause problems for Gabrielle.
And she really wished that wasn't going to happen.
She'd listened as Kieran and Rayna and the others tore at her about keeping Gabrielle from them.
Could they be right? Do I keep her from them? Xena asked herself. Since recovering from her death experience, she'd kept herself and the bard on the move, from town to town. No... Well... Xena acknowledged that going to the eastern side of Greece, where she knew the terrain less was a chance for her to find new places to spread her name. Gods, I am vain.
But as soon as Gabrielle had said she wanted to go visit the Amazons, Xena had turned their little expedition around. Her relationship with the bard was too new. She wasn't sure if... well... she could ask Gabrielle... Right?
She sat down, fingers drumming the tabletop, intending to wait for Gabrielle's return.
The bard returned to her hut deep in thought. The scrolls seemed to make things pretty clear. The Amazons was a queendom. Terreis' Right of Caste and then Melosa's death had unquestionably made her queen. Appointing Ephiny had been all right, interpretable as a recovery period after the trauma of losing, and then regaining, Xena. But the traditionalists had accepted that only for a while. A queen was expected to pray for her Amazons, curry Artemis' favor and lead her village to safety, security and fully stocked storehouses. To do that, she had to be here.
Smiling at the shadowed form seated at the table, head down, Gabrielle noticed the gutted candle. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she felt a warmth seep into her watching the warrior sleep. Gods, I do love her. Xena's hand lightly cupped the broad base of the pounded metal holder. The warrior's head rested on her other arm, eyes closed, breathing evenly.
Gabrielle sighed, pulling a blanket over the warrior's shoulders, so she wouldn't catch a chill as the night deepened. Lightly she brushed her hand over the warrior's hair, and bent close breathing in the clean scent of herbs. She'd tried so hard...
It didn't matter one stinking whit. Standing straight again she frowned and bit her lip. The final law Ephiny had pointed out affected Xena and Gabrielle the most. A mere moon ago it might not have mattered a single iota. But they'd stepped over a line the Amazons were vehemently against crossing.
No queen in recent history had ever been allowed to keep her mask after taking a non-Amazon consort. Ephiny said there had been one... and it hadn't turned out at all well, which is why the law had been made. Tired and irritated, Gabrielle had demanded to see the scroll. Ephiny didn't have it in her hut, but sent the bard on to bed and promised to bring it in the morning.
Her stroking of the warrior's hair awakened Xena. Crystal blue eyes immediately alert, she looked up. Answering that looks, Gabrielle said quietly, "I'm back."
"Everything all right?"
"Well, I have more of an explanation. More than I cared to learn, though." She backed up, holding the warrior's hand. "Come to bed?"
Xena followed Gabrielle. As they lay down, the bard nuzzled into Xena's shoulder and kissed her cheek. "What was that for?"
"For not pounding anyone tonight."
"I don't think it helped."
"I'll find a way to make it help, Xena. I promise you."
"Please, Gabrielle. Do what you have to. Don't worry about me. The Amazons are yours. I won't interfere."
"They hurt you." Gabrielle's voice was firm, full of aggravation. Xena knew it wasn't directed at her, but felt bad all the same.
"Don't tell me you haven't been thinking about what they said. Kieran. Rayna. The others." Xena said nothing. Gabrielle put her head back down on the warrior's shoulder. There was a gentle pressure as the older woman pressed her lips to the bard's hair. "I love you, Xena."
There was no answer, though Gabrielle felt Xena's arms tighten slightly around her shoulders. In each other's arms, the bard and warrior drifted in and out of a troubled sleep.
Ephiny arrived at the queen's hut the next morning just as dawn peeked into the village from the mountain pass. Most Amazons were already awake tending to morning chores, collecting fresh supplies in the fields. She could hear them whistling Amazon marches or children's tunes. The sounds had always been comforting to her as a child. Everything was right with the world and all that, she thought dejectedly, knowing how much of a lie the veneer really was. The sound of traditional tempos caused her heart to race unpleasantly. Damn. By the goddess, I wish this mess would resolve itself without me.
But it wouldn't. She was regent, and responsible for preserving the Amazons ways and traditions, borders and treaties in the absence of the queen. On top of that, Ephiny considered it her duty because she'd put Gabrielle in the middle of this. She'd convinced the grieving woman to accept full responsibility for the mask when Xena had been dead.
She'd expected that the bard would hand back the mask after Xena's miraculous return to life. But by then Ephiny realized, Gabrielle had displayed the traits every Amazon wanted in a queen. So, despite her own personal desire to give up leadership, she'd finagled Gabrielle's agreement that she rule as regent in her absence. Now they had a rebellion to quell. Sighing she knocked on the door, and found it pushed open easily, unlatched from the inside. Cautiously she pushed against it and stepped through.
A hand shot out, grasping her shoulder. Stifling the urge to scream, Ephiny looked up to find Xena's eyes glowing in the dark. "Xena."
The regent frowned. "I'm sorry about last night. I didn't think they'd attack you like that."
"Did you know about them?"
Ephiny winced at the faint tone of accusation she heard in the warrior's voice. She swallowed and nodded. "We've had a few problems with those who followed Velasca."
Xena nodded. "Um hmmm," she issued noncommittally. "I'll wake Gabrielle." She indicated the scrolls of parchment tucked under Ephiny's left elbow. "I assume those are for her."
Ephiny lifted a hand. "Wait." An eyebrow arched in her direction. "Um, well, what I mean is... Can we talk for a minute? Before we wake her?"
Economical in movement as always, the warrior simply stopped crossing the room, and turned away from the bed. "Sit." Xena herself remained standing as Ephiny went to the table and pulled up a chair.
Ephiny quickly unrolled two parchments and pointed to them. "Tell me something?" The warrior eyed Gabrielle then turned back and warily nodded. "Are you and she lovers?"
Xena drew herself up carefully. "Yes."
"Just over a moon."
Ephiny stood quickly and pointed at Gabrielle. "Why did you have to seduce her? Things would have been perfect if -"
"I didn't seduce her."
"C'mon, Xena. You, a woman of the world? Gabrielle an innocent --"
"Xena doesn't lie, Ephiny." Brown and blue eyes shot back quickly to the bed to see Gabrielle pull herself free of the bedcovers. "And I'd really appreciate it if everyone would understand I can make decisions for myself."
Ephiny watched Xena meet Gabrielle halfway across the room, lifting a robe from the back of a chair. The small blonde wrapped it around herself and secured the belt. The queen lifted her chin, and briefly the warrior brushed her lips against the Gabrielle's. Shoulders squaring, the young woman came over to the table holding Xena's arm.
"Juice?" asked Xena.
"Please." Gabrielle released Xena's hand and studied the regent while the warrior went to the side table and poured two small cups of juice. "Ephiny," the bard said, as Xena pressed a cup into her hand. "Xena is very important to me. I will not discuss anything until you understand that."
"Thank you," Ephiny responded.
"Gabrielle," Xena moved from one foot to the other. "Maybe I ought to leave you two..."
"No, Xena. You'd better hear this. You'll understand what happened last night." Ephiny looked up into a sight she never expected: pain-filled blue eyes.
She'd seen tenderness in those eyes, yes, when Gabrielle hugged her at the end of her first day back to life. Stern, but compassionate command she had seen when the warrior helped her deliver Xenan. She'd seen these same pain-filled eyes only once before... When Gabrielle died in Thessaly.
"You've got a problem," said Ephiny slowly, still looking at Xena.
"Did you bring the scroll?"
Ephiny pointed it out on the table. Gabrielle picked it up and began reading. She gripped Xena's hand where it rested on her shoulder.
"I don't know if there is anything I can do. You've made your intentions clear. The traditionalists have the law on their side. The only solution I can see is giving up the mask, go where you and Xena can be happy."
"This is my village, Ephiny. Terreis' village. She wanted me to be her successor. I took the queen's mask when I had nothing else. I wanted then to live up to the responsibilities. I still do." She put down the parchment and met the Amazon regent's brown eyes. "And I will. With Xena at my side."
"You can't have a non-Amazon at your side." For a moment Ephiny experienced a flash of insight. "You're going to pass through the rites, Xena?"
The warrior stepped back. "No."
There was a pause as Gabrielle apparently absorbed something. "She doesn't have to," she said finally.
Xena's frown changed to a smile, and she said wryly, "Thanks, Gabrielle."
"I didn't mean --"
"I know you didn't." The warrior smiled back and squeezed the queen's hand. "So, the Amazon queen can only have an Amazon consort? Is that the problem?"
"Either she gives you up or she gives up the mask. At least... that's what their demands are going to be."
"They're on their way here right now, I'm sure."
"I'll be ready. Ephiny, go on. Tell them I'll meet them in the dining hut."
The warrior grasped her young lover's shoulder drawing the green eyes up to search hers. "Gabrielle?"
The green took on a note of steel. "No. They're asking me to give you up. To give up what we have in the face of politics and an unreasonable fear. I won't do it."
"But they'll make it a fight."
"You?" Gabrielle nailed Ephiny with a look that demanded an apology. "I'm sorry," the regent amended. "All right, you'll fight."
"Ephiny." The warriors's questioning tone drew the regent's brown eyes up. "Just for argument's sake, where do you stand?"
"I want what's best for the Nation." She looked over to Gabrielle. "I believe Gabrielle makes an excellent queen."
"But not if she compromises her loyalties by allying herself with me." There was sharp resignation in the voice, no matter how matter-of-fact the warrior's words were. Now Gabrielle's hand came up to the warrior's shoulder to offer a warm squeeze. "It's all right. I'd guessed as much."
"I don't mean that as harshly as you make it sound."
"Don't you?" The warrior shrugged.
"No, I don't." Ephiny stood. "You saved my life. You saved Xenan's life. I can't forget that."
"But the Amazons come first? Ephiny, that's ludicrous. You married a Centaur. Come on. If anyone understands..." Gabrielle pointed out.
"Tradition is important."
Gabrielle sighed. "All right."
Ephiny stood and looked from Xena, who wasn't smiling, but didn't appear mad, to Gabrielle, who was as close to fuming as the regent had ever seen her. "I'll see you in a little while, at the dining hut?"
Xena responded quietly. "Yes."
As the regent reached the door a quiet voice stopped her. "Ephiny?"
Turning back with her hand on the door's catch, the regent met worried green eyes. "Yes, Gabrielle?"
"If I can't convince them. What happens?"
"They'll take the mask."
"By a challenge."
"Who?" Xena posed.
"Who do you think they'll put out to fight?"
Ephiny thought a moment. "Probably Rayna. She's their leader."
"Is she good?"
"Eponin says she's very good."
Gabrielle nodded grimly. Ephiny turned and let herself out of the hut, pulling the door closed behind her.
"Gabrielle?" Xena put a hand on her bard's shoulder and felt the shiver of indecision.
"Xena, what am I going to do? I can't fight Rayna, but I won't give you up either."
"Do you want to leave?"
Knowing the answer before she even asked the question, Gabrielle responded with a question of her own. "What would you do?" Their path was already set. She had to stay. But she wanted to hear Xena say it.
But Xena's response surprised her. "I can't tell you that."
"Because I'd give me up, and stay as queen."
"Terreis felt I could do this. Otherwise, why would she have given me the Right of Caste?"
"That's probably true."
"You don't think so?"
"Terreis couldn't see the future, Gabrielle. She was rewarding your act of trying to save her life."
"I feel like the Amazons are part of my fate, Xena."
"So, you want me to leave?"
"No!" Gabrielle grasped Xena's arm.
"What else can you do?"
Gabrielle ventured. "You could become an Amazon."
"You said that exactly the same way when Ephiny brought it up. What's wrong with becoming an Amazon?"
"I won't do it." And please, Gabrielle, don't ask me why.
Gabrielle sat on the edge of the bed and studied Xena standing at the window across the hut. "You can't?" Without turning around, Xena nodded. She said nothing. The bard stood, and hearing her, Xena turned toward her. Gabrielle had a moment to see the warrior's face in the light. There was a terrible pain there, and Gabrielle could not figure out why it should be there. Do I make her that uncomfortable?
She was unable to contemplate an answer to her question with the sudden interruption of a sharp double-rap on the door.
Xena ran a hand over the top of her chakram, though she left the deadly weapon on her belt. Gabrielle put a hand out toward Xena, who shook her head. Squaring her shoulders, the bard approached the door alone. She pulled it open to find a tall Amazon holding Joxer's arm as the man wobbled on his feet. "This yours?"
Gabrielle sighed and reached for the lanky warrior. "No, but I'll take him."
"Good. Tell him I want my dinars back when he wakes up."
"What?" Joxer's head shot up, then lolled back, his chin dragging against his chest.
"Joxer," Xena's voice behind Gabrielle was deep, firm, almost reprimanding.
Gabrielle pulled Joxer into the hut and found him taken out of her hands. "Xena, he's in no shape --"
"Oh, I'm not going to wake him up, Gabrielle."
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to scare the daylight out of him." The warrior smirked.
"Because I still need to work out a few frustrations and he's a reasonable target."
"No, he's not."
"I won't hurt him."
"Xena --" Gabrielle protested as Joxer dropped into a chair. As the wooden seat tottered from the sudden, unstable weight, Xena took a couple steps backward and let out a sharp, high-pitched version of her warcry. She rotated on one foot and brought the other leg up in a spin. Her booted foot passed within a breath of Joxer's head.
The warrior yelled in surprise and kicked the chair completely over. "Damn!" he groused, pushing himself to his feet.
He held his head, rubbing his temple and trying to uncross his eyes and focus on Xena's and Gabrielle's faces above him. "Yeah. Don' yell."
Xena smiled, and though she didn't yell again, she did raise her voice so it carried like a rumble of thunder. "So what trouble did you get yourself into this time?"
"Oooohh," he moaned. "I played a few games."
"With the Amazons?" Gabrielle piped in, looking past Xena's shoulder. She felt a moment of sorrow for Joxer's condition, then giggled.
"Hey, Amazons make great ale."
"Yeah, and it looks like you swam in it," Gabrielle snickered. "C'mon. What games, Joxer?"
"Didja know I'm a good with a bow?" He settled into the chair again, and put his head in his hands, massaging his temple.
Xena groaned. "Who'd you hit?"
"Nobody. I drove three arrows into a circular target." He straightened abruptly and slapped his chest proudly, then groaned in pain. "They bet me I couldn't do it."
Gabrielle shook her head. "I don't understand."
Xena lifted Joxer's chin and studied the rheumy eyes. "You are too drunk to have shot an arrow from a bow. How'd you hit the target?"
"With the bow," he replied huffily. Then he ruined the whole effect by falling out of the chair once again and hiccuping.
"I did. I hit an arrow with the bow, and bam, it plunked right down in the center of the target."
Gabrielle laughed. "No kidding?"
He pursed his lips and grinned. "No kidding." He looked around at the hut. "So, you two having a good time?" Gabrielle shook her head. "What's wrong?"
"We've discovered there are a few unhappy Amazons."
"Eh, you'll fix that, Gabrielle. You're the greatest queen the Amazons have ever had."
"How could you determine that, Joxer? How many Amazon queens have you known?"
"That makes you an expert, huh?" He smiled; it came out lopsided -- one side up and one down. Xena bit her lip to keep from giggling.
"Mom made it seem pretty important that I learn about it." He stood and put his hands on his hips.
"Your mother was an Amazon?"
"Yeah. How else was she going to meet and become a warlord's wife?"
Xena shook her head. "Joxer --"
"What?" He leaned into her, and she waved her hand in between their faces. He backed up and continued. "I may not have learned warrior skills well, but I know my history."
Gabrielle pursed her lips and pointed him to the bed. "Sleep it off, Joxer. Xena and I have some things to do."
"Right." Joxer closed his eyes and fell toward the bed. He landed against the mattress with an audible thump and within seconds both women could hear him snoring.
"Can you believe that, Xena?"
"I don't know. But I think Joxer has definitely had it. Amazon revelry obviously agrees with him... too much."
Gabrielle nodded. "Ready?"
"I'm going to meet with Rayna. Find out exactly what their demands are."
"I'm not going with you."
"Why not? This concerns you as much as it does me."
"I have to --" She looked around the hut quickly and pointed to Joxer. "I'd better make sure he sleeps it off."
"You can't back down."
"The Amazons are your business, Gabrielle."
"So are you."
"Why are you pushing about this?"
"Because I want to work things out." She paused, hand on the door handle and looked nervously back over her shoulder at the warrior. Sighing she took her hand off the door. "Don't you?"
"I don't want to become an Amazon."
Gabrielle bit her lower lip, afraid to say something she might regret. Her emotions were drawn taut and her anxiety about the upcoming meeting with Rayna left her defenses kind of low where the warrior was concerned. Xena remained still, studying the bard's face, her own immobile. "I can't figure you out, Xena." She frowned and looked up again into blue eyes. Painfully she said, "Maybe this isn't going to work."
Xena watched the bard disappear, and wondered if the bard meant the situation... or their relationship?
Behind her Joxer's rough snoring suddenly broke through the painful silence. The warrior settled quietly in a chair to wait. She fingered the scrolls left behind by Ephiny, and turned the problem over and over again in her mind. Her nerves created a hum in her body and she stood quickly, tossing the parchments away. The wooden stakes on which the parchments were tied created a loud clatter as they hit the wall then the floor.
Though it had been six years, Xena could still smell the coppery scent of blood in the air on that crisp autumn afternoon as she stood on the mountainside, her men sweeping through the valley triumphantly. Their cries of victory mingled with the crying of the dying... women carrying swords and bows, and dressed in masks and feathers, lay all along the valley paths, dangling over tree limbs, and caught in pit traps... Amazons.
They had entered her hunting territory. She'd staked it out in preparation for the long winter coming. Amazons had heard a woman was leading the army and came with a negotiating party to discuss things.
But in those days she'd discussed nothing... Only taken everything she wanted. Affronted by her refusal, they had departed her camp... and she'd attacked before they could return to the relatively safe confines of their village. A small group of her men slaughtered the messenger party, and the others, led by her, had ridden into the village itself. Cries of 'Xena!' filled the air, and hundreds of Amazon warriors fell to her army's blades by dusk. The survivors fled.
But that hadn't been enough for Xena. She'd had to go to the Amazons' temple and order horse teams to the towering columns. With a single shout of "Ho!" she ordered the destruction of the temple to Artemis.
Xena closed her eyes falling back in time to the next moment:
The sky filled with thunder. At first she thought it was an army on horseback thundering through the mountain pass. Xena spun in the saddle aboard her bay warhorse. The sight that greeted her eyes, and those of her men who remained standing as the ground shook and the trees trembled in the growing wind, shook her to her very core.
But brashness won the battle for her tongue and she looked up at the massive giantess suddenly towering over her "Artemis! Fight me! I have taken your babies from you! I claim this land in my name."
A flood of light suddenly blinded her and threw her off her mount's back. It felt like being tossed into a wall, then pushing through it only to slam into another, and another, then... mercilessly, another.
Her men watched her come to her feet, and she shouted Ares' name: calling him to her aid. Infused with his energies, Xena challenged the goddess herself. For her troubles, she ended up with every bone in her body broken in at least two places.
Xena had hoped, at one time, to find a place among the Amazons. In an Ares haze she had ended all possibility of that ever happening. For Gabrielle's sake, she ought to just leave. If the Amazons were to be an important part of Gabrielle's life, then Xena could not. She would not force Gabrielle away from something she loved.
"What's the matter, Xena?"
Xena snapped herself from her reverie and stood, looking over as Joxer struggled onto his back and then sitting up. "So, you're awake? Feeling better?"
"I feel like I swallowed a ball of flax. Mouth's as dry as the Egyptian desert."
Xena nodded. "Yep, you're feeling better." She passed him a mug of juice. He downed it quickly. Big mistake. She averted her eyes as the warrior brought up half his stomach's contents on the floor next to the bed. "I suggest you clean that up."
Groaning, Joxer nodded. "Yeah."
"I'm going out."
Joxer noted that she put a pack on her shoulder. "Going for a ride?"
"Want me to tell Gabrielle?"
"No. She has a few other things to worry about right now."
Xena watched Joxer's eyes glaze over and took pity on him. She fished in her pack and tossed him a small tied off pouch. "Here, mix this with some water and you'll feel better soon."
He reached out to catch the pouch, but it missed his hands by an arm's length. Sheepishly he picked it up from the bedcovers and opened it. "What is it?"
"Knockroot." He turned up his nose. "It doesn't have to taste good, Joxer. I promise it'll work."
"'K, thanks." He waved the pouch and slapped it back down on the bedcovers.
Xena nodded, shouldered her pack again, and let herself out of the hut.
Looking both ways to assure herself she was alone, Xena leapt quickly up, landing on another rooftop. Scaling several roofs quickly in succession, the warrior made her way to the edge of the village. Finally she dropped onto the path leading away. She whistled; Argo joined her. Mounting up, the warrior turned the horse's head. "Hee-ya," she barked. In response, the golden mare stretched out and rider and horse galloped away into the midday sun.
Good luck, Gabrielle. Xena brushed her cheeks, not surprised to find them slightly damp, and then placed her hands back on the reins with purpose. Time to find another path. She veered Argo south.
Gabrielle walked along the path down the center of the Amazon village. She tried focusing on her coming meeting with Rayna, but the activity around her caught her attention.
She paused at the horse corral fence, leaning against the wooden rails. A pair of Amazons led horses around a tightly guided circle. In one hand they each held halter ropes and in the other they shook dried branches. Their eyes focused on the horses, light smiles on their faces when the horses didn't flinch.
The bard sighed, having often pictured Xena here, with Argo's offspring perhaps, training horses to the same magic she'd witnessed in Argo on so many occasions. Whenever Xena was with the golden mare, she too, had that indulgent smile playing on her lips. Gods, I want to be happy, the bard thought dispiritedly.
The dirt scuffed behind her. Gabrielle turned to watch a pair of Amazons walking the path chatting. One glanced at her, and she felt discomfort realizing that she and Xena were the topic of conversation. Turning away she leaned hard on the wooden fence and sighed. She wished Xena hadn't sounded so ... final. She wasn't sure whether the warrior was being typically obstinate and could be talked around ... or was she really completely opposed to the Amazon way?
Gabrielle looked at the Amazons, and saw a group of people who made her feel like she belonged. People who made it clear she was worth their time and energy to get to know. It had always been easy to feel welcome here. With Ephiny, who was her friend, and mentor in the Amazon customs, and Eponin -- Gabrielle smiled at the last memory of the stern warrior's lesson in staff fighting.
Eponin had always made it clear that an Amazon might fight... but her heart was always for peace... A very attractive philosophy, Gabrielle admitted, after a childhood and village life like hers had been.
The villagers of Poteidaia, her family, friends and neighbors, had been very placid... And as such, the place had been overrun time and again by one warlord or another. When Draco had come to take slaves from Poteidaia's population, he'd been interrupting the longest stretch of peace the village had experienced in the bard's young lifetime.
She'd wanted so badly to fight off Draco's men... Then Xena had appeared. The bravery she'd felt bubbling inside ... which had prompted her foolhardy speaking out... had exploded out when she saw the warrior woman, dressed only in a shift, punch, hit, and kick her way out from the center of a collapsing circle of soldiers.
She caught sight of the chakram -- she hadn't known what it was called then -- the circular weapon caught the sunlight when Xena raised it above her head. Then it flew around the small clearing, bouncing off trees as well as soldiers' heads...
Gabrielle realized she'd fallen in love then, not only with the idea of adventuring with the warrior... but with the warrior herself. A woman trying to bury her past, in order to secure a happier future.
She blew her bangs from her face in frustration and turned to walk on. She'd thought they were on the same path, headed for a settled life at peace with themselves and their surroundings. They could have it here. The bard's shoulders slumped and she turned away from the corral fence, walking once more toward her meeting with Rayna and the traditionalists. But it appeared Xena didn't want that. She scuffed the toe of her boot in the dirt.
"Where'd she go?"
Gabrielle looked up to find Kieran walking alongside her. "What?"
"The scouts reported she left a candlemark ago." Kieran paused. "I thought you might have sent her on an errand, fond as you are of her being your champion and all."
Gabrielle sighed. "She's my champion because she cares about me."
"I'd be your champion, Gabrielle."
Kieran's eyes were earnest. Gabrielle recognized hero-worship when she saw it. Hadn't she felt the same about Xena at first? "Kieran, I don't want another champion. When Melosa refused to listen about the Centaurs, we needed to avert a war."
"Melosa knew what it meant to be Amazon. She wasn't afraid."
"She may have been unafraid, but Terreis' death had blinded her to the sense Xena was trying to point out."
"Outsiders have no business advising the queen."
Gabrielle sighed. It was obvious Kieran was referring both to the incident between Melosa and Xena as well as currently under the impression that Xena advised Gabrielle now. "She won't give me any advice, Kieran."
"Hmph. I find that hard to believe. A nosy, controlling warrior like Xena isn't offering the slightest opinion?"
Gabrielle frowned. "I wish you could get to know her, Kieran. Xena has a lot of honor. What she considers none of her business, she doesn't meddle in." Kieran shook her head, obviously disbelieving. Gabrielle sighed. "Never mind. Just take me to Rayna."
"Well, I have to find out what the demands are before I can work out a compromise."
"Amazons don't compromise."
"Well, maybe it's time they should. You can't survive without a few compromises in life," Gabrielle shot back, finally irritated by Kieran's unwavering "Amazons know best" philosophy. "Everybody makes mistakes," she added.
"Not your precious Xena."
"Oh, she makes mistakes too. She's made plenty, and she's been trying to fix them every day since I've met her."
Kieran shrugged; Gabrielle quieted. The young Amazon guard pointed over her shoulder. "Rayna's over at the temple, offering Artemis the daily portion."
Gabrielle nodded. "Tell me more. While we walk?"
Kieran curtly dipped her head. "The priestess at the temple would be better suited -- "
"I'd prefer to hear it from you."
"All right." Gabrielle and Kieran fell into step side by side and walked toward the temple grounds, at the outskirt of the village.
"Every morning there are offerings made to Artemis. We affirm ourselves as her chosen. The queen... you... are her chief Chosen." Kieran smiled fondly. "We promise to be her representatives to the male world, teaching them to take women seriously, to treat us as equals... or die trying."
Gabrielle pursed her lips. "Die trying?"
"The noblest death is at the hands of a man in battle."
"What of peace?"
"Only when all men are subjugated will we have peace."
Gabrielle sighed again. "Um hmm."
Kieran stopped at the foot of the steps of the Temple of Artemis. The bard queen looked up at the structure. The only one made of stone instead of wood, it stood out, finely polished and gleaming in the sunlight. The wide front steps led up to the columned entrance. Two thick doors were swung wide open. Amazon guards stood to either side, their demeanors suggesting both serious duty and giddy pride.
Stepping up, Gabrielle watched their faces as she approached. Behind her she felt Kieran remaining close. "Hello," she said, first to one, then the other.
"Hello," they answered in perfect tandem echo. Gabrielle smiled.
"The queen is here to speak with Rayna. Is she within?" Kieran asked over the bard's shoulder.
"She is here. Please join her in worship, our queen."
Gabrielle looked over her shoulder at Kieran. "Is Rayna the head priestess?"
"No. She takes her responsibilities seriously."
Gabrielle bristled. The tone of Kieran's voice distinctly suggested that she felt Gabrielle did not. She was this woman's senior by only a few years, but she felt a world of difference engulfing the distance between their experiences. "I'll find Rayna on my own. I want you to find Ephiny and tell her to meet me in the queen's hut when I'm finished here."
"Yes, my queen."
Gabrielle watched Kieran go. She wondered if she'd ever get the young woman to lighten up her stance.
"Kieran is young."
Spinning in place, Gabrielle found herself face to face with a very placid-looking woman, perhaps only a year older than the bard herself. "Hello. I'm --"
"You're Gabrielle. Yes, I know."
The bard bit her lip and realized, "You're Rayna."
Gabrielle remembered something Ephiny had said about Rayna being the likely challenger. She's strong enough to fight better than me? Gabrielle studied the woman's slender arms, and flowing robe attire. She had swirling brown eyes. Her hair, pulled back in a single thick braid down her back, was a deep brown, the color of a wood duck's back feathers. She smiled and her face had no severity. Compared to Gabrielle's stocky build, Rayna was a reed. "I'm sorry. I was under the impression you were a fighter."
"I am whatever the goddess commands of me."
"She commands that you direct Amazons against my friends?"
Rayna shook her head. "You misunderstood."
"No, I didn't. Neither did Xena. Your fellow Amazons attacked her at the party last night."
"Shh. We need not speak of that now. You have questions?"
Though she wanted, desperately in fact, to talk about the treatment of Xena, Gabrielle accepted the change in subject as graciously as possible. She leaned back against a column. "I'm obviously behind in traditions, but I've been traveling. I thought I might talk with you about your concerns about my lack of traditionalism."
"You can learn. The goddess has great plans for you."
"You've spoken with her about me?"
"Of course I have. Every Amazon hopes and prays her queen is favored. And you are, Gabrielle." Rayna put a hand over the bard's shoulder and guided her into the temple interior. The bard absorbed the surroundings and listened as Rayna explained how and when the temple was built.
"Amazons spent the first millennium of our existence traveling. We came to Greece, a man's world, and Artemis found us intriguing. Men drove us from our homes afraid of our power, of our history, and our strength. She admired us for our fortitude. As we traveled, she would appear to the small scout groups. At that moment the visions were reported, a temple erected and a village established."
Rayna gestured to the surrounding walls, pointing out the fresco that told, in images, the story of the founding of the village. "We were the last group, Gabrielle. One of our ancestors crossing the mountains stumbled. She was tired, hungry, and weak from lack of water or food. She fell at the bank of the river that flows just outside these walls.
"The scout scooped up the clear waters in her cupped hands and bathed her face, her arms and her throat in the water. Its touch was so magnificent, so refreshing, she had no need of drink any more. She felt a presence, warm, comforting. When she looked up, there before her was the magnificence of the goddess, floating above the ground, smiling.
"The goddess spoke. 'Belrayna,' she said. 'You have pleased me with your fortitude. Take this land, here in this valley, make it your home and that of your sisters. Hunt in these woods and be my people.' "
Gabrielle watched Rayna's face as the woman told her story. When the goddess said the name of the ancestral scout, she realized the connection. "Belrayna was your ancestor."
Rayna nodded. "I owe to Artemis all that I am, and all that I have been able to accomplish. I have two fine daughters, guided to my home by the blessing of Artemis in the spring rites. They are blood of my blood, and share my heart."
Gabrielle nodded. "Sounds wonderful."
"There is nothing like having an Amazon heart, Gabrielle." Rayna smiled. "Terreis saw her heart in you when you tried to protect her life. That's why she passed her Right of Caste to you. You are Amazon, blood, body and soul." Rayna grasped Gabrielle hand and the bard felt a pulsating sensation pass between them. "Can you not feel the power of your heart?"
Gabrielle swallowed and nodded. "I can feel it." She smiled up into Rayna's face. "I am Amazon."
"Come meet your goddess, my queen," Rayna tugged their joined hands to her own chest, pressing it gently against her robe's breast. "She has waited a long time to meet you."
Gabrielle followed Rayna to the interior chamber, to kneel in prayer at the altar of Artemis, guardian of the Amazon way.
Eponin ducked through the trees, following just out of sight and sense of the warrior she tracked. She'd followed Xena on many occasions since first meeting the warrior at Gabrielle's side when the Centaur army and the Amazon army joined forces to fight Krykus nearly two full sun cycles ago.
She carried no weapons, knowing the warrior could sense threat sooner than a body. Xena was amazing. Just by watching her, Eponin knew she'd become a better warrior herself. Her boots fell against the earth in silent patter. Her ears detected neither her own movements nor those of the warrior's which she could see leading her horse through the shadows ahead.
Where are you going, Xena? The relationship between the young Amazon queen and the warrior puzzled Eponin. It seemed, from the beginning, they were close. Eponin recognized Gabrielle's hero worship of Xena from the moment they worked out on the training field with her staff.
"I hope Xena approves." The young woman was barely out of her girlhood, her face still piquant and unlined by the weightier questions. She walked gingerly with the staff, examining it, and stopped when Eponin gestured.
"Approves?" Eponin responded twirling her staff over and around her left arm. "She has no say in this. She's an Amazon."
"She's my friend," Gabrielle replied. "I want her approval."
"Why are you following me?"
Eponin mentally kicked herself. She shrugged and stood straight, no longer trying to conceal herself or silence her movements. When she turned around, the dark-haired warrior stood behind her, hands on hips. She seemed distinctly amused only for a moment. The Amazon tried to make light of her situation and smiled. "When you left the village, I thought I'd find out exactly where you were going." Xena frowned.
"Ummm hmmm." The warrior crossed her arms over her chest and waited.
"Gabrielle didn't leave her hut smiling this morning. Then you sneak out and crawl across rooftops to escape the village. Even you have to admit that on curiosity alone, I had to follow." She smiled as she finished and the warrior shook her head.
Xena uncrossed her arms and shrugged her shoulders. "Well, putting it that way, I guess, in your position, I'd have followed me too."
"Good, glad to know I have some skills."
"Are you on their side, Eponin?"
"I'm on the side that protects Gabrielle." Eponin leaned her staff against a tree and then sat on a stump. "So, are you. You're still her champion."
Xena shook her head, her long hair falling forward over her face. "I can't do it anymore."
"I can't be Amazon."
"Hell, Xena, the rites are a piece of cake for someone like you."
"It's not the rites, Eponin. I could stand all that."
Eponin shook her head. "Is it the swearing fealty thing?" She waved her hand. "Sheesh, Xena, we all know how it'd be hard submit when you've led armies. But it's really to Gabrielle. You can't have objections --"
"Will you take over as the queen's champion, Eponin?"
"Why? With all our infighting... seems to me you'd feel it more important to stay close."
"I'm really sorry for the Amazons' troubles, but it's not my problem."
Eponin squared her shoulders and admitted to herself she was stupidly going out on a limb here, but the brunette warrior's obstinance was ridiculous. "Xena, I have never seen you afraid of anything. You love her. Fight for her."
"I'm not afraid."
Eponin put her hands on her hips. "Hmph. Well, Gabrielle went to see Rayna. When she comes out of the temple, I'm sure everything will be solved."
"She'll have to make concessions."
"We'll figure out something. Ephiny's quite good at that. And Gabrielle... well, the queen has a head on her shoulders too. We'll quell this rebellion, and things'll get back to normal quickly." She gestured toward the village behind her. "Come on back. I do not want to tell Gabrielle that you weren't around when she comes out of there."
Xena felt Argo trot up behind her and rub her muzzle in the small of her back. "Eponin, can I ask you a question?"
"If I have an answer, I'll give it."
"Is there a story in the village's scrolls about a wiped out Amazon tribe?"
"I don't have the answer to that. I prefer the battlefield to the library." She fell into step beside Xena as the warrior led Argo back along the path. "Why?"
"Just a story I heard once. But I wasn't sure I believed it."
Eponin shrugged. "I'm sure many of us have been wiped out by one warlord or another. We're not invincible."
"Now, I know you're not on their side, Ep."
"Because I recognize that the Amazons are not perfect?" She shrugged again. "Seems a little unreasonable to think we're perfect. Perfect people don't need to practice." She plucked her staff from the ground and spun it experimentally. "And I have to practice, a lot."
"Have you personally had problems with the traditionalists?"
"No. They seem to be focused on Eph and Gabrielle for the moment." The Amazon's brow furrowed.
"Something up between you and Eph?"
"Don't you dare tell her I said so, but I worry about Xenan's safety."
"You think they'd harm a child?"
"They think he's an abomination. A centaur."
"You promise to tell me if they do anything against him?" Xena bit her lip.
"I thought you were leaving?" Xena remained silent. "I thought so. Come on, let's get back and give Argo a nice bag of oats."
The two women walked side by side back into the village. Many eyes followed them but Eponin squared her shoulders and Xena did the same. Crossing through, they soon found the corral and let Argo inside. Eponin introduced Xena to a young horse handler named Lira.
"Xena? The Warrior Princess?"
"She was called that, yes," responded Eponin. "But now she's in need of oats for her horse."
"Argo! This is Argo?!" Lira's grin widened immeasurably. She rubbed the mare's nose and scratched under her jaw. Appreciatively Argo dropped her ears back and closed her eyes. Xena smiled faintly. "Every horse handler knows Argo! She's magnificent." She studied the warrior a moment. "Would you consider breeding her?"
Xena smiled. "I still need her as a mount."
"In a few years then?"
"Tell you what. You take care of Argo now and I'll be sure you have a chance to see her again."
"Deal." Lira offered her hand to Xena who shook it, then coaxed the golden mare to follow her. "C'mon, Argo, have I got a treat for you."
Xena watched the mare's ears perk up as she trotted after her admirer.
Eponin came and stood at the warrior's shoulder, watching horse and handler walking away. "Made a friend?"
"Nah, Argo did." Xena mused. "I didn't think my horse would be famous."
"You'll have to find out what stories they've heard."
Eponin watched Xena's eyes darken as she replied with a thickness to her voice, "I doubt I'll be around long enough."
The weapons master said nothing and shook her head, leading the way again. "The temple's this way."
"Do you pray, Ep?"
"Every time I pick up my staff," she responded with a chuckle. "C'mon."
Gabrielle had followed Rayna into the temple interior and watched as the woman prepared a place for kneeling at the altar by laying down reeds and moss. "Think of the goddess," said Rayna as she grasped Gabrielle's hand and settled the bard to her knees. She put her hands then on her own lap, palms upward. "Follow my example."
In response the bard mimicked Rayna' positioning, and looked up at the statue of Artemis. Its feature were smooth, a proud nose in gently arched cheeks. Full lips looked almost wet in the shine on the stone. The goddess' trademark quiver rested across the statue's back carved in exquisite detail. The arrow feathers looked delicate and very real. The short skirt and tunic were detailed down to the soft folds and creasing over the generous breasts. In her right hand Artemis held a bow about halfway down its length, the string, amazingly also carved stone, rested against the inside of her forearm. Her left hand clasped an arrow shaft gently near the feathers, the point already outward, as it seemed she prepared to nock the missile.
She searched the statue's alabaster features for a sign of warmth, of acceptance. The stone did not change. She hadn't known what to expect, but continued silence was not among the choices. When the temple fell so quiet all she heard was her own heart beating, her breathing and Rayna's seemed obscenely loud. She closed her lips tightly and silenced the rushing sound of her own breath. The air seemed to thin around her. Her chest felt lighter and behind her eyes, rims of reddish light pulsed in time with her heart.
"Hail!" Gabrielle flinched at the explosion of sound next to her head. "Your queen wishes to hear from you!"
The quality of the light appeared to change and the bard opened one eye to a slit to see what was happening. A warm light flowed over the statue of Artemis, changing the white surface to a faint orange. Gabrielle opened both eyes wide in surprise as the statue's mouth opened!
"Hello, Gabrielle," came a smooth womanly voice. It seemed to echo throughout the temple and within her own head. Out of the corner of her eyes, Gabrielle watched Rayna rock backward and come up on her feet behind the bard. A hand came to rest lightly on her bare shoulder.
"See?" whispered Rayna. "She is appearing to you. You are Chosen."
Gabrielle remained quiet, green eyes only on the mouth of the statue. Silence fell for a long moment and she began thinking of all the things she wanted to ask of the moon goddess. As the words began to form on her tongue, there was a soft rumble. The lips began moving once again.
"Gabrielle, you are a child of mine as surely as if you'd been born among my flock. I will have no one calling my Chosen a shame to the Nation."
"But I --"
"And you would be a shame if you joined with someone whose interests are counter to mine."
"But Xena --"
Lightning crackled and thunder rolled through the temple. "Silence!"
Gabrielle worried her hands at the hem of her skirt. "I don't understand."
"Xena has no respect for the Amazon way."
Gabrielle felt her shoulders bow under the accusations. It was true, the bard thought. Xena wasn't Amazon... because she didn't hold to any gods. But I can't let her go. "If it please you, I would honor your name in everything."
"But you lie with the Warrior Princess. It is irreverent. This act does not please me."
Rayna leaned close and whispered. "The goddess cannot be denied, Gabrielle. Follow her will."
Gabrielle looked over her shoulder and caught the shine of something in the brown eyes. "How can I stop loving Xena?"
"You love the goddess. It is sufficient for a good life. She is pure. You must be as well." Rayna gestured to the statue. "She cannot abide Xena. You must fulfill her will."
"But she knows my heart." Gabrielle looked up into the face of the implacable Artemis. "Please, goddess, I will always honor the role I have been given." She shook her head and started to her feet. Rayna's hand on her shoulder stopped her. Biting her lip, Gabrielle raised her hands in supplication. "Please. I'll govern as wisely as I can. I swear it."
Lightning flashed from the statue over Gabrielle's hands and into her chest, stealing her breath. The bard fell to her hands and knees and gasped in shock. "End your association with the Warrior Princess, or I will have you cast into the same lava pit you cast Velasca, my servant."
Gabrielle looked up. "Velasca?" But... "Artemis, please."
"There will be no challenge. You either obey, or you will be cast aside."
Gabrielle bit her lip and nodded stiffly. "How long do I have to fulfill your will?"
"You will be taken in irons to the cliffs by dawn."
The thundering rumble ceased and Rayna stood in silence at Gabrielle's shoulder as the bard came to her feet. Green eyes locked on the face of the statue. The orange light had gone from the alabaster and it resembled lifelessness once more.
"No more than my heart," murmured Gabrielle, feeling an empty hole begin forming in her chest.
Rayna grasped her shoulder and smiled. "She is giving you a chance to redeem yourself, Gabrielle."
"Go now. Fulfill the goddess' will. You can do no less."
Gabrielle twisted her fingers in the strings of a pouch at her belt. Inside was a small piece of pounded steel and a flint. Xena had given the bard the tools when she'd successfully made a fire during their first season on the road together. In the bottom of her scroll pouch was a small note Xena had scrawled when they'd had to be separated during their first year traveling.
The bard had chosen to go to the Athens Academy of Performing Bards and study the storytelling she loved so much. The warrior hadn't said much, but there was support in her eyes. "Don't worry about anything. Go. Follow your dream."
Gabrielle had a dream of finding a home and a family to call her own. Poteidaia had been ages ago the answer to that prayer, but a more false answer there had never been. The Amazons had given her a home, an identity, and a promise of safety in times of peril.
In exchange for that now they asked her to give up her heart. Clutching the small pouch to her chest, she looked once at Rayna and then stumbled out into the light, blinking as moisture gathered from the painfully bright sunshine. She looked around as the village went about its daily business.
"Refreshing, isn't it?" Rayna offered beside her. "To commune with the goddess and then to find oneself among all those who have felt the same connection."
Gabrielle rubbed her eyes, trying to soothe the sting and nodded absently. Rayna skipped down off the temple steps. When Gabrielle remained paused at the top, the young woman turned back and gestured. "Come on."
"I should find out what Ephiny is doing," replied the bard, noting the distasteful curl of Rayna's lip at the Regent's name. "I'm sure she has found those scrolls I requested," Gabrielle added. "I wanted the history scrolls," she went on, "...to assure that I handle things properly."
"You are still determined to seek Xena as a partner?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Why wouldn't I? I love her."
"I don't want to drag you to the cliffs." Rayna drew herself up. "But I will if I have to, Gabrielle. I have shown you the goddess' way. It is the pure way."
"Xena's as pure of heart as anyone I've met."
"Then convince her to take the rites."
Gabrielle shook her head. "She won't."
"Then you must drop her." Rayna was firm. "You are queen."
Gabrielle started to retort, but found the young woman's eyes quite piercing and unapproachable. The bard simply shook her head and turned away, walking down the steps past Rayna.
"Where are you going?"
"I've decided I'm fatigued. I need to rest."
Rayna's eyes flared, but she said nothing. Without another word, the bard left the young Amazon at the steps of the Temple, and moved, with as much purpose as she could muster in her confused state, down the path back into the heart of the village.
Gabrielle managed to keep the tears at bay until she reached the inner square. There, seated at a loom, sharing the chore of weaving a mat for their hut were two Amazons, lovingly entwined, handing the weaving threads back and forth through the spittle. The intimate picture, somehow reserved for others but unattainable for herself, broke through the last of the young woman's control and she wept, pushing her way blindly past the guards standing at attention outside the queen's hut. She ignored their upraised hands and glances of question.
Firmly she put a hand over her eyes, demanding of herself to stop crying. I am the Amazon queen, for Artemis' sake! The thought only made the pain in her chest worse and she dropped onto the bedding, fighting with herself between crying for her Nation and crying for her soul.
The late afternoon sun was slipping through the slats in the hut's western wall when Xena waved Eponin away with a promise to talk to Gabrielle.
"Take care of our queen, Xena."
"I'll try," she replied, having renewed her hopes that perhaps some arrangement could be reached... if she at least could talk to the bard, find out what the traditionalists' really wanted.
Maybe with her typical eloquence, Gabrielle had talked them around to seeing reason.
"I don't want to lose Gabrielle," she thought as she pushed open the hut door and glanced inside. Had she seen Ephiny, or Rayna, she'd have turned around, to give them time to complete their conversation before coming upon them. But neither one was there. She looked more closely, separating shadows and forms, and realized that there was someone there asleep on the bed.
Gabrielle? She thought with alarm, stepping in quickly and pushing the door shut behind her. She came near the bed and saw the bard had simply sprawled across the bed. The akimbo set of her arms and legs alarmed Xena for a long moment until she reached out and found the bard's back rising and falling lightly. The blonde was asleep.
Coming nearer she pushed blonde hair off cheeks and studied closed eyes, slightly parted lips and the aquiline nose. She'd been sleeping only a short while. Xena smiled, thinking the bard had come back to wait for her and fallen asleep. But then she noticed a patchy sheen on Gabrielle's right cheek. Crying? Gabrielle almost never cried. The revelation unnerved Xena, who stood and fretted, then sat back down and put a hand on the rise of the bard's shoulder.
"Gabrielle?" she whispered in a gentle voice. "Gabrielle, I'm back."
The bard raised her head slowly and opened her eyes. Softly blurred green eyes met Xena's blue. Suddenly Gabrielle sat up quickly, turning her head away from the warrior and trying to unobtrusively brush her cheeks and eyes free of tears. "I'm sorry. Must've fallen asleep waiting for you."
Xena moved onto the bed and put her big hand comfortingly on the bard's shoulder. "I..." No, she decided. I won't tell her I was leaving. "Eponin and I were out."
Gabrielle nodded, accepting the lie, since she knew from Kieran that Xena had left the village alone. "It's all right." She thought a moment. "I have a solution, I think."
Xena nodded. "Let's hear it."
"Inside the temple, I learned a few things."
"And?" Xena was uncertain where this was going; if Gabrielle had been in communication with Artemis... She squared her shoulders. "What did you learn?"
Gabrielle sighed. "That not everyone sees things the same way." She put her hands in Xena's on the warrior's lap, studying their intertwined fingers. Then she looked up. "The law is quite clear." Xena's heartbeat picked up nervously, and she started to pull away from the bard, despite the soft welcome of the touch. There was a brief moment when Gabrielle squeezed her hands. "It's pretty clear, I'll have to fight to change things."
Xena swallowed. "You can talk them around to anything," she murmured. Then she smiled. "You've talked me around often enough."
"No, Xena. I mean fight."
Xena pulled away and stood. "No." She turned back to Gabrielle and saw the determination glinting in the bard's green eyes. "No!"
"If I denounce you I get to keep the mask. If I lose the mask, I will lose my life." Gabrielle sighed. "The only solution is to fight to have both. You and the mask."
"What brought you to that conclusion?" She searched the bard's face for any sign of indecision. Gabrielle fight? The idea terrified Xena in the deepest part of her heart.
"Artemis said so."
Xena put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders. "Then I'll leave."
Gabrielle shook her head. "No!"
"I won't let you die."
"You can't stop me."
"I can't stand by and watch them kill you."
"I won't give up the mask."
Xena sat down and studied Gabrielle. "It's obvious they don't care what you want." She sighed. "Let's just go?"
"But I care about them."
"Artemis has spoken."
"I'm going to try and change Artemis' mind."
Xena stood up. "Gabrielle, that's crazy."
"Is it?" Gabrielle looked from the scrolls to Xena. "You fought off Ares' influence. They said that a Chosen can't ever unchoose themself. But you did it."
"Artemis isn't an evil goddess, Gabrielle."
"Xena, she's demanded I subjugate everything for her. Asking me to deny my heart isn't evil?"
Xena sighed. "It isn't the same thing. Ares wants me to kill people. For sport."
Gabrielle shivered. "Yes, I know." She squared her shoulders. "Artemis hasn't asked me to do that... yet."
"You think she will?"
"I don't know. She wasn't at all what I expected."
"You could just leave Ephiny in charge."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Xena, I swear, if you ask me to do that one more time..."
"I cannot give up the Amazons. Terreis counted on me."
"What have they given you except grief? You want a life on the road; they want you here. You want me; Artemis says no. You want a future; they've threatened to take that from you."
The bard paced the room. "Why does Artemis hate you so much? You never attacked Amazons in your warlord days." Gabrielle turned. "At least you've never told me about any."
"Once I thought I could be an Amazon, Gabrielle."
"Well, now let's do it."
"I can't swear fealty to Artemis."
The bard shook her head. "You want to start on a new path, Xena. Come on. This is your chance." The warrior shook her head. "If I wanted to go back to Poteidaia, would you go with me?"
Xena looked up from the table where she stood fingering a scroll. The bard's green eyes challenged her. She hadn't seen a challenge in those eyes in moons. Painfully swallowing the lump in her throat, she nodded her head.
"Why there and not here?"
"Because there life is simple. Not bound up with the gods at all."
"I'm serious Gabrielle. I can't change this."
"It's over then?"
Xena bit her lip. "I'll leave."
"Like you started to this morning?"
"How'd you find out about that?"
"Xena, you are the most strikingly attractive woman in this entire region. At least half the village noticed you leaving after I left to meet Rayna."
"Well, only Eponin followed me."
"She convinced you to come back?" Xena nodded. "And if she hadn't followed you?" Gabrielle crossed her arms over her chest and asked the painful question. "Where would you be now if she hadn't turned you back?"
Xena shrugged. "Gone."
"Just like that?" The warrior remained still; the bard recognized the stance. Xena was awaiting an explosion, preparing for a fight. Well, Gabrielle was ready for a fight. Frustration, anxiety and nervousness had been building inside her since leaving the hut that morning. "You like running Xena? Then just go ahead." Her voice raised a bit in pitch, pierced through with a combination of fear and desperation. "The Amazons welcomed me when you died. Open arms and everything! I have to honor that somehow." Xena backed up and said nothing. Gabrielle sat down hard. "Say something!"
"You've made your choice. I'm sorry I came back and complicated your life." The warrior strode to the door and pushed on the wooden frame. She looked over her shoulder once at the bard, who could see tears in the blue eyes, through the veil of her own. Then the warrior was gone.
Gabrielle put her head on the table and held back the tears with only force of will. It seemed that was the only thing left she had any control over. I will not cry. She went to the door and stepped outside. Looking around quickly she noticed no sign of Xena and turned toward the temple. "Maybe if I have another talk with Artemis."
Just then, Ephiny came around the side of the building. "Gabrielle!"
The bard looked up. "Oh hi."
"I saw Artemis with Rayna today."
Ephiny nodded. "You are Chosen then. I have never witnessed her presence."
"Then how do you know she is there?"
Ephiny shrugged. "I just do, I guess. I've never doubted. Sometimes I wonder if I'm doing it exactly right, but..." The Regent smiled. "I haven't been struck dumb or blind yet."
"That's the punishment for non-believers?"
"According to the teachings."
"Xena was struck blind once."
Ephiny shivered. "Her? Really?" She looked around. "Where is she?"
Ephiny looked at Gabrielle in surprise. "She's left you here?"
The bard nodded. "We ... agreed it would be best."
"After what Ep told me, it seemed Xena was planning to stick close. Help you out."
"Well, I guess she changed her mind."
"Are you sure she left?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "Ephiny, I'm sure." She grasped the Regent's hand. "Will you come with me to the Temple?"
"I want to try talking to Artemis again." The bard started to walk, pulling Ephiny with her.
Ephiny's shoulder bag almost slipped off. She stopped. "Oh. I almost forgot. I found those scrolls you wanted." Ephiny pulled a set of scrolls from a pouch she'd slung over her shoulder.
"The history?" Gabrielle took a scroll walked along the path while unrolling it. "Have you read them?"
The regent shook her head. "I just brought them."
The bard read a few passages. "Hmmm... This is somewhere near the end. There's a passage here about Artemis speaking through the priestess, sentencing the queen." She rolled it up. "How many ways does the goddess speak to people?"
"Just a couple as far as I know. She either inhabits her priestess or appears to the selected woman in a dream."
"But the statue..." Gabrielle sighed. "Oh, I ... Well, I guess Artemis had her reasons."
"Well, she spoke to me through the statue in the temple." Gabrielle shrugged. "Guess she wanted to be sure Rayna heard everything said too."
Ephiny shook her head, now, clearly confused. "But no two women have ever shared a vision of Artemis." Gabrielle began to hurry down the path; Ephiny worked to keep up. "Where are we going?"
"I'm going to find Artemis."
"You said -- "
"Ephiny, I think someone else spoke to me in the temple."
The regent gasped. "Who?"
"I don't know, but if I can talk with Artemis... the real Artemis, I think I can find out."
The bard and regent hurried down the path toward the temple. Amazons stopped briefly to watch the two, then turned back to their work.
Rayna and Kieran caught sight of the two as they themselves came from the practice field. "Where are they going?"
"I heard Xena left."
Rayna nodded. "Gabrielle must've really be shaken by the temple." She rotated her staff over and around her hands. "Next things'll be easy enough. We can give the goddess what she wants."
Kieran nodded. "This isn't going to hurt the queen is it?"
Rayna laughed. "Oh no, it won't hurt, Kieran. The little bard'll be dead too quickly."
Gabrielle moved along the path and felt Ephiny's confidence that the bard knew what she was doing. But truthfully, Gabrielle thought, I have no clue. She sighed and pushed onward. There was only one place to get the truth, Xena always said. From the source. If she could manage it, Gabrielle hoped she could summon Artemis on her own.
"What do you think will happen?" asked Ephiny at her shoulder.
Gabrielle stepped out in front of the temple and nodded to the two guards before answering Ephiny. "I'm playing a hunch."
Ephiny frowned. "That sounds like Xena talking." Gabrielle stopped, turned and frowned. "Hey, no disrespect meant." Ephiny raised her arms in surrender. "This means a lot to you, doesn't it?"
Gabrielle nodded. "You and the others, you gave me a home, a place to be when I was really devastated. You supported me. What concerns the Amazons concerns me. You asked me to take the queen's mask from Velasca. Whether it was a good or bad decision, I chose to confront Velasca, to take the position."
Ephiny shook her head. "But that was before..."
Gabrielle shook her head. "No it wasn't. I loved Xena then too."
Gabrielle chuckled. "I didn't say I was the fastest person at realizing it. But the fact remains. I have always had loyalty to Xena married to my loyalty for the Amazons."
Ephiny studied the bard's face. Earnest green eyes implored her to understand. The regent remembered witnessing the bard's reunion with Xena in the cavern of ambrosia. Watching the bard's face the whole time, Ephiny had felt the glow spark between the two women as the ambrosia worked its miracle.
A deep groan came from the coffin's occupant. Ephiny had witnessed few miracles in her life. Watching Gabrielle's hands reach out and grasp Xena's shoulders, her face so glowing with a smile that it seemed to possess a life of its own, the regent felt enormously intrusive and stepped back.
Coming back to the present, Ephiny smiled. "There has to be a reason for all this."
"Does that mean you're with me?"
The bard and regent crossed the broad walk.
"May we help you?"
Ephiny glanced up at the face of the speaking guard and saw challenge.
"We're going in to pray." Gabrielle inserted herself subtly across Ephiny's body and pressed against the heel of Ephiny's hand that had grabbed her sword.
"Be welcome." The guard stepped back and Gabrielle smiled, then led Ephiny inside.
"What?" Ephiny asked once they were inside.
"I don't want a fight when we can avoid it." Gabrielle looked around the corridor. "Now, let's get to the altar."
The two women walked along the corridor. The bard had been focused on Rayna when she first came in and now took a moment to take stock of the temple's interior. Art, mostly painted, adorned the walls. A few bas-relief sculptures depicted benevolent acts of the goddess. Village women collecting bountiful crops, hunting parties bringing in huge fat bucks. Victory in battles too. "Does the goddess preside at joinings?" Gabrielle asked. She noticed the fresco which Rayna had pointed out telling the history of the village's founding.
"In the form of Priestess Anaria." Ephiny pointed to a depiction.
Gabrielle paused and studied the painted wall. Two women, hands joined with a delicately tooled leather strap, stood in full Amazon regalia. Masks rested atop their heads, faces bright and smiling. Between them, a woman in golden armor styled after the depiction of Artemis Gabrielle had seen in the altar room, raised her hands over their heads, mouth open issuing blessings, which Gabrielle could read written to the side of the painting. "Is this Anaria?"
"No, that's a depiction of the Great Joining."
Gabrielle shook her head. "The what?"
"The Great Joining. This is our fourth queen, Hippolyta. About 10 years before Melosa. And her captain of the guard, Lyla. They discovered their love on a journey to make peace with the neighboring Spartans." Gabrielle studied the faces more closely. Hippolyta was a considerably older woman, certainly past childbearing, dark swirling tresses framed a delicate face. Her bondmate, Lyla, was a slight, tall woman with perfectly straight long dark hair. Gabrielle was immediately put in mind of Xena, though the bearing was stiffer and the face more severe.
The comparison was a disheartening turn of mind and the bard abruptly turned away. "They look very happy," she said quickly to fill the silence.
"They were. They did everything together. Ruled. Served. Led the army. Led the harvesting. Led the planting. Welcomed every new birth in the village. Presided over every death. Their love consumed the entire village for their bonded life."
"It wasn't all that long ago. What happened?"
"Once," replied Ephiny, sitting on a nearby chair as they entered the altar room. "They were separated during a battle. Lyla had taken a mounted patrol into the mountain to get above the enemy. Hippolyta's responsibility was to maintain the troops in the valley to push the enemy back into the descending group, to crush them between the two forces.
"But the enemy had split her forces as well. There was a party further up the mountain. Lyla's forces were slaughtered. Nearly everyone died. A young scout returned down the mountain to find Hippolyta pushing her troops upward already. Knowing the appearance of the scout meant trouble, Hippolyta backed her troops up and ordered a strategic retreat.
"The enemy was behind her, between the Amazons and the village's safe confines."
Gabrielle gasped. "No."
Ephiny nodded. "The queen fell in battle that day. Lyla had sent the scout ahead because she'd been wounded, but had hoped to hit the enemy in the heel. Take out the division leader. She'd climbed into the trees and fallen on the division's general.
"She killed him and rode toward the village, having scattered his men."
"Lyla rode in and saw Hippolyta fall to her opponent."
Gabrielle leaned back against the wall, closing her eyes against the all-too-easy image forming in her mind of the lovers bent together, one dying in the other's arms. Tears tracked down her cheeks.
Gabrielle brushed Ephiny's hand off her arm. "No, I asked."
Gabrielle bit her lip and looked at the altar. "Ephiny, I want the right to die in Xena's arms."
Ephiny nodded and followed the bard to the altar. Gabrielle didn't see the reeds and moss Rayna had used to kneel. She walked up to the base of the statue and touched the carved marble knee that was at shoulder height for the short blonde.
Please, Artemis, tell me your wishes. The bard reverently stroked base of the statue and then settled on her knees against the brief steps. Next to her, Ephiny drifted carefully to her own knees, trying futilely to get comfortable. Finally the regent stood again.
And paced. Gabrielle tried to concentrate, eyes closed, while Ephiny's boots thumped a steady rhythm behind her. The altar room dimmed around her as she lulled herself into a quiet that brought an enormous amount of peace just because the silence wasn't filled with recriminations, argument, or testiness. For a long while, Gabrielle kept her eyes closed, just relaxing in the dim light. She could feel the candlelight flickering around her. The pungent smell of apples and grapes and hot candle wax filled her nose. She took a deep breath.
"Gabrielle, Gabrielle. My queen. Arise."
The bard opened her eyes and glanced around. Ephiny paced, studying the frescos adorning the walls. The colors were sharper. She was surrounded by the smells of the offerings. The sounds of the regent's boots broke the silence caressing the bard.
"It's all right. I'm glad you sought me."
Pushing to her feet, Gabrielle backed up and looked up the tall statue.
"I'm not there, Gabrielle. I'm here."
Gabrielle turned slightly to find a woman standing beside her. She glanced over her shoulder again at Ephiny, who continued obliviously pacing.
"Don't worry about Ephiny," the vision said. "I'm not here to see her. I'm here to see you."
Gabrielle bit her lip. "What happened earlier?"
"You already know."
"It was a fake."
The goddess nodded. The bard felt a warm touch on her shoulder and looked to see the ephemeral hand resting on her leather top.
"Why did they do that?"
"You are my champion, Gabrielle. You must depose them before all my children. Restore my honor among the Amazons."
"Why can't you do it yourself?"
"That's not a Chosen speaking."
"But why me?"
"Because your heart is for peace."
"How can I debunk their ruse? Who's behind this? If it's Rayna..." Gabrielle shook her head. "I can't fight her."
"You can fight her, Gabrielle. I'll be with you." The goddess rested one hand on each of Gabrielle's shoulders, compelling the bard to meet her eyes. "Do you believe?"
The bard looked up into the brown eyes of the Goddess Artemis. "I want to. But what is real?"
The goddess nodded. "Tell me, what made you seek this audience with me?"
"I felt something was wrong. The... Rayna was so convincing. I expected to have to fight you."
"And if you did?"
Gabrielle bit her lip. "I'm not sure. I expected a lot of pain?"
The goddess smiled and brushed a hand against the bard's cheek. "You are a brave one, my young queen. They were foolish to challenge your heart."
"I'm confused. Rayna and the others felt you would oppose Xena as my bondmate. Would you support my choice for bondmate or not?"
The goddess was quiet for a long moment. "I would... if she were willing."
"Why isn't she? She won't tell me."
"You are brave hearted in some things, but not others?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "Please tell me what I should do?"
"In the morning they will come to see if you have sent Xena away. You have, so you will have no reason to be dragged to the cliffs."
"You heard all that?" The goddess nodded. "Why didn't you speak up sooner?"
"I prefer my Amazons solve their own problems, Gabrielle. How weak would you be if I always bailed you out?"
Gabrielle frowned. "Sometimes it'd be easier."
The goddess laughed which made Gabrielle smile slightly. "You'll learn."
"Thank you for talking to me."
"Thank you for realizing you were being hoaxed."
Gabrielle smiled, quirked her nose and giggled. "That's a backhanded compliment." She smiled. "Xena would say something like that."
"Oh, I doubt she'd be pleased to hear that."
"Maybe I'll tell her someday when we're old and gray."
The goddess smiled and brushed Gabrielle's cheek. The bard stepped back and watched the goddess slowly fade away.
The glow in the room subsided. The bard found herself kneeling at the altar, head bent, staring at the floor in front of her knees. Behind her Ephiny's pacing could still be heard. When she stood, however, the regent stopped pacing and rushed to Gabrielle's side. "Did you have any success?"
Gabrielle looked up at the statue then back to her friend. "I learned what I needed to know."
Ephiny rubbed the bard's arms up and down, seeming to check for soundness in her limbs. "What's next?"
"We have to expose a hoax, Eph." Gabrielle pulled the regent's hands away and held them tightly.
"How?" Ephiny looked up at the bard's face. "Want me to send someone to find Xena?"
"No." Gabrielle looked up at the statue again and smiled ruefully. "Sometimes we have to do things on our own. I don't want her compelled. Besides, if I expose the hoax, I'll be more accepted than if Xena helps me."
Ephiny nodded. "Well, what do we need to do?"
Gabrielle was already thinking. She led the way from the temple and searched through the village, picking up things here and there. A loom spoke, a sheet drying in the wind, a thread spool of sinew. She passed each to Ephiny, who looked them over once, bringing her attention back just in time to catch another object from the queen.
Ephiny watched Gabrielle become animated with the other Amazons they passed walking through the village. The bard smiled and giggled with the toddlers. She exchanged suitably serious conversation with the Amazons in the training field. When she encountered Kieran on the path near the queen's hut, she sent the young woman a contemplative look before ducking inside, pulling Ephiny in behind her with her armload of supplies.
Solari watched Gabrielle and Ephiny leave the training field carrying a spiked fighting staff and two maces. The bard had exchanged pleasantries with the trainees, who paused in their formations to greet the Amazon queen. There was an excitement around the bard that ran counter to Eponin's report that Gabrielle was despondent and confused.
"Ready to get back to the practice, Sol?" called Joly. The military second leaned on her sword.
"What d'you make of that?" asked Solari, who came close as she waved for the practice to resume.
"The queen comes to look over her troops. Looks like the little one's gonna take her responsibilities seriously."
"Gabrielle's all right."
"Yeah, well, 'all right' doesn't usually rile your curiosity. G'on. I'll finish up here."
Solari offered her hand. Joly grasped her forearm. "Thanks."
Joly nodded and turned to supervise a pair of women sparring with swords, shouting corrections to their holds and stance. Solari picked up her staff and gloves and jogged off the field as dusk collected on the ridges overlooking the village.
The growing darkness didn't bother the woman mounted on horseback. She and the golden horse had ridden alone before. But that hadn't been for many years.
Argo started off the trail. Her rider had been motionless in the saddle for the last several hours. Figuring they both needed rest, the horse started toward the smell of water which would be a likely place to put her rider down for the night.
But the sudden change in direction woke Xena. She tried tugging Argo back onto the trail out of Amazon land, but the mare would not go. "Argo, we keep moving." The mare tossed her head and instead of changing direction as commanded, simply stopped on the path. Xena nudged with her knees to no avail. The warhorse wouldn't budge.The warrior dismounted and came around to Argo's head. "What's up?" The mare tossed her head again and neighed. "Come on. I want to be out of Amazon land by dawn." The mare leveled her gaze with Xena's and the warrior felt distinctly dressed down by that steady look. "There's nothing I can do. She wanted to stay. I can't. That's all there is to it." The mare snorted. "Okay. Okay. We'll put up here for the night. But in the morning we're moving on." Sighing, Xena grabbed the mare's reins, walking to a clearing.
In the growing darkness, Xena quickly pulled off the saddle, bags and bedding. She started a small fire circle with twigs, dug in her pack for some dried meat or fruit and the wineskin.
The wineskin was readily on top, and she took a long draught before setting it aside and going after the rest. Digging through the pack, she came up with... a scroll?
She unrolled it and found its lower right corner missing. She frowned, remembering when the parchment had been torn.
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry. There weren't any suitable leaves in the bush."
"You used my scroll! Xena --"
"I only used a little. I tore a piece that didn't have much writing on it."
Thud. Impeccably timed before Gabrielle's ire could spend itself on her, the ground-shaking steps of Gareth the Giant interrupted their argument.
The warrior found herself swept back to that painful period of her travels. The bard had run into her former betrothed, Perdicas, a mild enough fellow who'd thought himself a warrior, so he'd been fighting in the Trojan War. When that conflict ended, he'd seen enough. On the way home from the battlefield, he'd encountered conflict after conflict. He fought, but slowly inside bits of him died...
Until he sat by a river, sword at his own throat and contemplated ending his life. Xena considered self-destruction a cowardly weakness, one she'd squelched in many of her men... permanently. She read Gabrielle's thoughts:
I looked at Xena. As uncertain as she can be about her path, compared to Perdicas, she is confidence incarnate. I could help him. She wasn't letting me any closer; maybe this was the moment our paths were to diverge... for good.
He asked. He was kind of sweet about it too. Down on one knee... that sort of thing. I said yes, looking over at Xena as he hugged me. She smiled, that half smile of hers that says she's thinking something, but damned if she'll tell me.
She retrieved the wineskin and continued drinking while reading. Soon the wine was gone, but the parchment went on... painfully right through the end... Perdicas' death... And Callisto's.
The next moment we both heard this thundering. I thought it might have been Xena, coming by for a late good-bye. But instead of Argo's goldenness, a drab brown stallion galloped into our clearing. Callisto, yelling her war cry, hurtled from its back. She was upon us before I could think much, and Perdicas stood to challenge her.
That was a mistake. Callisto doesn't care, she certainly didn't then. She raised a sword to strike us both.
Then Xena charged over the other hill, coming down on us on Argo. I yelled for her. I remember that. Then Callisto said something, yelled and ran Perdicas through on her sword. He screamed. How could he not. I wanted to scream, but all I heard was my throat closing over a single syllable: "No!"
Xena was there. I cradled Perdicas and she told me "I'm sorry." I heard her say she'd be right back. I cradled Perdicas and at the same time I wished I had strength enough to follow her... kill Callisto myself.
But then again, I wanted her back. For all the reasons I've told her... and those I never have the courage to say. I know she knows best, but sometimes I wish she'd tell me more.
The warrior finally put down the parchment, and rolled it again. She finished off the wine and dropped her head to her blankets.
A crash in the bushes disrupted the calm that had overcome the glade. Xena came to her feet and had her sword in her hand in the same step.
"Don't you want to be an Amazon, Xena?"
Xena spun, sword extended toward the voice. The weapon was wrenched from her hand.
"Oh, yes, I know you're heart. I'm a goddess."
"You have no idea what you want, do you? You want Gabrielle. You want to keep traveling. You want a home. You want redemption. And when it's staring you right in the face, you can't take it."
"Why drag all this out, Artemis? You and I both know why I am not good enough to be an Amazon!" Xena circled the clearing, nudging Argo out of the firelight. "Just kill me and get it over with."
"You'd like that wouldn't you? To die out here, by someone else's hand, now that you feel more alone than you've ever felt."
Xena swore. "I'd prefer to die by what I can see."
"Oh." A figure stepped from the foliage, and took on a light of its own. "I think I can accommodate that."
The warrior stepped back, swinging her sword in a tight circle. But it wouldn't help against lightning bolts... Which this one person was capable of inflicting. "Velasca," she hissed.
Xena adjusted her stance carefully assessing the brown-haired, leather-clad immortal. Brown eyes flashed with anger, and amusement at surprising the unsurprisable Warrior Princess. The warrior thought quickly and erased the expression from her face before any more silence passed.
"You seem a bit surprised to see me, Xena." Velasca circled hands relaxed at her sides. "You shouldn't be. This is my land."
"This is Amazon land, Velasca. How'd you get out of the lava pit?" If Velasca had freed herself, Xena feared Callisto could do the same. She looked around quickly. There was no sign of the blonde immortal. "Callisto with you?"
"Certainly not." Velasca raised a hand and lightning erupted from her fingertips, flashing in an instant across the short space separating them. "I don't need her help to defeat you."
Xena leapt aside, booted feet bouncing from tree trunk then back to the dirt, a safer distance away. "Velasca, you said the Amazons didn't matter to you any more. Something changed?"
The goddess tossed her chin up and laughed. "There were quite a few people upset that your little bratling friend challenged me about the mask." She smiled and more lightning flashed from her hands. "Stand still, you annoying fool!"
Xena smiled, pleased to rile this woman who had threatened Gabrielle. "Having trouble, Velasca? I'm only a mortal. C'mon, you can do better than that."
Velasca scowled, yelled and rushed Xena. The warrior sidestepped at the last second. Velasca didn't fall for it, only moving one step past before turning and locking her hands around the warrior's throat.
Xena's hands came up, but the goddess' grip was unbreakable. Images swam before the warrior's eyes, flashes of light mostly, then she dropped her head fast against Velasca's, startling the goddess with a sharp blow to her forehead.
Leaning back quickly, Xena crouched and then sprang upward, plowing her boots into Velasca's chest. The surprise more than the strength of her action gained her freedom. She launched herself quickly into the trees. The goddess growled, trying to find the warrior hidden in the foliage.
Xena circled high above, and called out to Velasca from a position opposite where she'd leapt into the branches. "I don't know what you're plans are, Velasca, but I'll stop you."
"You think to stop me? I hold the power here, Xena. Your little Gabrielle will be dead at dawn." Velasca cackled, and started to saunter away. "She's going to be the first in a long line of sacrifices... to me, Goddess of Chaos!"
Xena blanched, but jumped aside just in time to avoid another lightning bolt, shot very accurately, into the trees right at her position.
The branches erupted into flames around her. With the casualness of a thought, the goddess had trapped Xena inside a conflagration, and vanished.
Xena studied her situation and rolled out away from the trunk, grasping the branch. With a careful leap upward, she found another perch when the branch which had been under her feet cracked and fell away into the fire.
She looked down to find the forest floor ablaze at the base of the tree. She had to get down, but leap clear of the flames. She could see the edge of the fire, but the darkness of night made it difficult to determine what was outside the fire where she had to land.
Then she remembered that Velasca had said Gabrielle was to be sacrificed at dawn. The determination to prevent Gabrielle's harm made indecision moot. She barely had time to get back to the village before daybreak. So she leapt outward, rolling head over heels through the air. She landed on her feet... in the middle of a large bramble.
The sharp spiny branches scratched her skin, drawing blood, from her thighs, arms and hands. A squirrel and two rabbits leapt in front of her. Startled she fell backward, landing hard against rocks on the path. The fire licked at her back and she jumped to her feet. She had to put out the fire first.
She crossed to a small stream running through the woods nearby and filled her sheath with the water. She emptied it over the base of the tree, snuffing a small segment near the far edge of the fire. Argo whinnied. The warrior grabbed her blanket and doused it in the stream, using the larger wet surface to beat down the flames. Soon, though the wood smoked, the flames were out. Xena's muscles protested her steady swinging of the heavy wet blanket. She shook the blanket once, wrapping it around herself.
Sweat-soaked Xena leaned against Argo for a moment to catch her breath. Over the mare's withers, she caught sight of the eastern sky, a pale blue, tinged with soft red. Dawn.
Taking a deep breath, Xena straightened. Quickly she draped the blanket over Argo's back after wetting it again. Xena leapt onto the mare's back and yelled, "Hee-yah. Back to the village!"
Mare and rider were off.
Ephiny stirred. She lifted her head from her chest, where she'd fallen asleep in a chair in the queen's hut. Looking over, she found Gabrielle asleep sprawled across the bed. The regent jumped as the silence was broken by a knock at the door.
Quickly, knowing a foe or a friend could just as easily be at that door, Ephiny got to her feet and snapped up her sheath, pulling the short Amazon sword from it. "Come in." The door was pushed open by a well-tanned hand. Eponin, dark hair braided from her early morning workout, came through the door. The blonde regent breathed a sigh of relief and dropped her sword. "Am I glad to see you."
"Everything is ready." Eponin stepped through the doorway. "Are you sure this'll work?" She grasped Ephiny's arms and held the regent close.
"She's sure. That's all that matters. Right?"
Eponin looked at Gabrielle, who still slept. "As we were coming back from the challenge field, I saw Rayna and Kieran and a few of the others come from the other direction."
"Amazon against Amazon." Ephiny sighed. "I wonder if Artemis ever thought it would come to this."
Eponin shook her head. "From what Gabrielle said, Artemis figured we could take care of ourselves."
"We're supposed to be protected, not constantly tested!" Ephiny retorted, strained to her last measure by the events of the last weeks.
Eponin saw Gabrielle stir. "Shh, c'mon. They won't let her sleep much longer. We might as well be as ready as we can when Rayna comes."
"I wish Xena were here."
Eponin shook her head. "What's more important? That Gabrielle resolve this? Or that Xena resolve it for her?"
Ephiny nodded, having already seen the wisdom in Gabrielle's plan, but worried for the young bard nonetheless. "I know. I know."
The two women turned to leave when more noise came at the door. The exchanged glances. "Already?"
Eponin set Ephiny aside and drew her sword. She could hear the guards outside Gabrielle's hut exchanging words with the new arrival. "It's Rayna. Kieran is telling her that I came in a few moments ago," the Amazon warrior told the regent.
Behind them, Gabrielle rolled over and sat up. She rubbed her eyes and shook her head, tossing her hair into place. "So, it's time?" She pulled herself from the bed and pulled on the armguards woven with the insignia of the queen. "Well, let's see what they want."
Eponin exchanged a look with Ephiny, who merely stepped back to stand shoulder to shoulder with their young queen. Shaking her head, Eponin opened the door, pulling it wide so everyone inside could see everyone outside. "The queen grants you good morning," she said formally. "She has requested that you break your fast with her here."
Eponin stepped back and bowed Rayna inside. The brown-haired Amazon looked severely from Eponin, to Ephiny and then with scorn on Gabrielle, who stepped forward. "I see you wear the marks of your station."
Gabrielle nodded tersely. "Eponin will fetch our trays. Come sit at the table."
Rayna looked around. "Where's the Warrior Princess?"
"She's gone." The explanation came from Eponin who then left. Rayna turned to Gabrielle for confirmation.
The bard nodded. "She and I had a disagreement and decided it was best."
"She won't be coming back?"
The bard shook her head, tears slipping over her cheeks. "She's halfway to the other side of Greece by now."
"You really are better off without her, y'know," said Rayna. "The goddess will be very pleased to know you will be hers alone."
"After our meal, we should go for our morning prayers?"
Rayna nodded. "I have a special place for you to go this morning. The goddess has asked that we go out onto the mountain."
Gabrielle looked away from Rayna as Eponin returned with several young Amazons bearing trays. The regent, the queen and Rayna were all given the plentiful fruit bowls and juice. Eponin ushered everyone out again and pulled the door firmly shut.
"Now that the food is here," Gabrielle suggested. "Let us thank Artemis for her guidance, today and always." Rayna nodded, placing her hands over her fruit bowl. Everyone else present did the same. "Blessed Artemis, queen of our hearts and protector of our ways, you have taught us the things we need to grow, the Amazon path to peace and given us the love of our sisters. We eat in honor of you."
Rayna smiled as Gabrielle concluded the prayer. "You honor the goddess with your words, Queen Gabrielle."
"Will you challenge me as queen, Rayna?"
"You have seen the light, how could I challenge the goddess' will?"
Ephiny nodded. "We'll go to the square and let everyone know the good news."
Gabrielle put a hand on the regent's wrist. "After breakfast."
Rayna smiled and the three women set to their food.
Gabrielle watched Rayna carefully, in the back of her mind hoping her plan would work. With Eponin outside, the first part was entirely up to her. There was a shiver of the thatch over her head. She resisted the urge to look up. She looked to see if Rayna noticed. The Amazon shifted in her chair but didn't look around, instead biting into a piece of melon.
Ephiny looked at Gabrielle. The regent's brown eyes widened slightly. There was a scuffle outside. All three women stood as the door crashed in. The young Amazon Kieran picked herself up among the broken wood and charged back out the door.
Ephiny, Gabrielle and Rayna charged to the door. The regent tripped over Rayna's feet, however. Only Gabrielle's quick hand steadying her kept the blonde on her feet. The three women fell out the doorway to find Kieran charging across the open path. They all looked at the young Amazon's quarry, currently battling with several other Amazons. If they hadn't recognized the fluid, tall brunette warrior in heavy leather gambeson and wielding a sword, they instantly identified the battle cry issuing from the bottom of a pile as the warrior flung her attackers aside like rag dolls.
"Xena!" Gabrielle yelled.
"Stay right there!" The warrior flashed her chakram, and released it, shoving aside Amazons with the blunt side throughout its flight path.
"No! Xena!" Gabrielle charged forward.
Rayna grabbed her arm, pulling her to a stop. "What's going on?" Gabrielle shook her head. She had no chance to answer when Rayna grabbed her and pulled her back against her chest, a short knife held to the slight blonde's throat. "Xena, cease!"
The warrior looked up to see Rayna's threat against the bard. Behind Rayna, someone else sympathetic had grabbed Ephiny. She shook her shoulders out of some of their tension, but did not drop her weapons.
"Put it down!" Rayna yanked Gabrielle back, the bard's hands reflexively went up to prevent the crush against her windpipe.
The warrior complied, dropping the sword on the ground. Kieran snapped up the weapon and sheathed it on her own back. She held out her hand for the chakram as well. Xena looked around at the other Amazons coming to their feet. Nearby, behind Rayna, Gabrielle, Ephiny and her captor, Xena could see Eponin and a couple other Amazons atop the queen's hut. Their hands worked a pulley system, and the warrior traced the cords to a construction.
The warrior's examination of something behind her distracted Rayna, who now turned around to see behind her. "Get them down! Now!" She returned her attention to the imposing warrior. "You have something planned for me, Xena?"
"I had a very interesting conversation, Rayna. I thought I'd come back and ask you about it."
Rayna shook her head. She shoved Gabrielle further into her shoulder, trapping the bard more effectively with a headlock. "Let's go, my queen." The sneer was back in the Amazon's voice. Gabrielle struggled; Rayna hit the bard alongside her temple, dropping the bard into unconsciousness. Xena started forward only to stop at the warriors' hands on her arms and Rayna trailing the knife over the bard's throat, drawing a very thin line of blood from the bard's soft skin. The threat was clear. There was little Xena could do until Rayna moved away from Gabrielle. "To the cliffs," Rayna ordered.
The warrior finally handed over her chakram and allowed herself to be led alongside Eponin, Ephiny, and others sympathetic to Gabrielle's cause, behind the bard imprisoned in Rayna's firm grip and surrounded by other renegade Amazons. Kieran, whom she could easily lay flat with a punch, gripped her arm and led her. "Why kill Gabrielle, Kieran?"
Kieran looked slightly upset at the prospect, but answered firmly, "Artemis wills it."
Xena pressed carefully. "That can't be true. Look at her. She's as peaceful as they come."
Kieran pulled the warrior's arm sharply. "Shut up. The goddess' will must be done."
"Or what? What did Rayna say would happen?"
"The crops will fail. The water will dry up. The goddess will abandon us."
"Have you seen the goddess?"
"No, but Rayna has. She tells me what I need to know." She pushed Xena ahead of her. "Now, shut up. And keep walking."
Xena shook her head, but did fall silent, watching Rayna and Gabrielle ahead. She looked over once at Eponin and Ephiny, both also held firmly. She looked up at the sky and saw a bank of dark clouds gathering near the crest of the mountain ahead. She looked at the bard, noticing the lolling head and the dark bruise already forming on her temple. Xena gave her thoughts soft voice. "Artemis, if she's your Chosen, you've got to protect her."
Gabrielle's head came up slightly and her eyes blinked open. She winced and looked around, trying to see where they were headed as well as where everyone else was in the party marching to the mountaintop.
"Where're we going?" she asked with her voice low, feeling the rawness where Rayna had scratched her knife on her skin. "What'd you do to me?"
"Gave your warrior a warning," replied Rayna. "She's really a wimp when it comes to you, isn't she?"
"Xena is not!" Rayna shoved Gabrielle around giving the bard a clear view of Xena walking along with Kieran. The younger warrior had only a light hand on the brunette's arm, whose head was down. Gabrielle sighed. She'd hoped Xena would return, but not until everything was over. Rayna shoved her around again and out of the corner of her eye she now caught sight of Eponin and Ephiny also being led along. "What do you have planned?"
"The goddess knows. She wants you, and I'll give you to her."
"I know you faked the temple appearance." Gabrielle gasped when the Amazon's fist plowed into her stomach. Behind her she heard Xena shout. Taking a deep breath she waved off whatever Xena would have done. "I'm okay." She glanced up at Rayna. "Well?"
"The goddess said it was necessary to convince you."
"Why couldn't she come convince me herself?" Rayna pulled the bard's face close to hers. Gabrielle swallowed hard, refusing to show her anxiety.
"That's your biggest problem. You always ask questions."
"What am I supposed to do?"
"It's faith, Gabrielle!" Rayna shook her in frustration. "Faith!"
Xena backhanded Kieran and took a quick step toward Rayna and Gabrielle. "Put her down!" She growled toward the enraged Rayna.
The Amazon turned to Xena, brandishing her knife against Gabrielle's throat. "When we get to the mountaintop, disbeliever, you will see! Artemis will take your life for your unfaithfulness."
Kieran stood and grabbed Xena's arm. The bard, warrior, and the Amazon prisoners were surrounded quickly by Amazons, bows nocked with arrows. Gabrielle's shoulders dropped and Xena's dropped as well. Gaining control of the group once again, Rayna led the way onto the mountain path.
Gabrielle and Xena now walked side by side, Kieran and Rayna to their outside.
"Gabrielle?" Xena's voice was low, only carrying to the bard, who looked up. "Are you okay?" The bard didn't answer, but the woman's green eyes were hooded before she looked away. Xena took that as sadness. "I'm sorry I tried to make you choose."
"The Amazons are important to me. But the same as you. Not more or less."
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to get through this, and so are you."
"I can take care of myself."
"What do you know about what happened yesterday?"
"I know that Rayna thinks she is serving Artemis."
"Yes, I know."
"But she isn't. She's being hoaxed."
"Yes, I know that too."
"How'd you know that?" Xena was used to discovering things and having to share them with Gabrielle, to the bard's surprise.
"I had a conversation with Artemis," Gabrielle whispered back.
"I just told you that was faked."
"No. Last night, I went to the temple alone... Artemis appeared to me."
Xena frowned and leaned closer to Gabrielle, only to be pulled back by Kieran's firm hand on her arm. "What did she say?"
Gabrielle's green eyes lifted to Xena and the bard smiled slowly. "She said she'd approve you as my consort... if you wanted it."
"Then I know you were fooled, Gabrielle. Artemis would never say that about me."
"Why not? She seemed rather sincere about it."
"Maybe it was Ares playing with us again, or Aphrodite. Hmm?"
"No, Xena, it was Artemis. She told me she lets us choose our own way."
"Would you shut up," Rayna pulled Gabrielle away from Xena. "Saying good bye?"
The bard looked from Xena, who couldn't seem to wipe the worry off her face, to Rayna, who couldn't seem to wipe the sneer off hers. "Rayna, what were you promised for delivering me?"
The Amazon was taken aback. "You wouldn't find it important. You don't care about the Amazon ways."
Gabrielle tripped on an exposed root. Rayna would have let her fall, but Xena's hand was there to catch her. The bard looked gratefully back at Xena and stood, straightening herself before Rayna. "Well?"
Rayna shook her head and walked away, continuing the walk to the summit.
Ephiny and Eponin came close to Xena. "What's going on?"
"I don't know," responded Xena. "But Gabrielle seems to know what she's doing." Indeed twice now she'd garnered a severe response from Rayna, but the bard's confidence had yet to falter. "She seems to think she's really had a meeting with Artemis."
Ephiny nodded. "She came out of the temple really positive."
"No, with me. She told me she wanted to go back. She thought Rayna had faked the first vision."
Xena studied Gabrielle, who walked slightly ahead with Rayna. "Did she tell you what she said?"
"No. Only that Artemis wanted her to prove Rayna was false."
Xena revealed her own encounter with an immortal. "Last night I saw Velasca."
Ephiny was startled. "When? Where?"
"I have a feeling we're about to meet her again," replied Xena as the group attained the summit.
The Amazons and their prisoners looked out across the craggy peaks and the valley below. At the bottom was a lava flow which Xena and Gabrielle both remembered. Xena noticed the peak now held a rock carved into the shape of a flat platform about half a person high. "Your altar?" The warrior drew Rayna's attention. Gabrielle moved around the edge of the ravine, until she was out of Rayna's direct line of sight.
The warrior stepped forward. "Well, are you going to summon Artemis?" Gabrielle eyed Xena who seemed to be doing her best to irritate Rayna to violence. Xena imperceptibly shook her head, forestalling the bard's comment.
Rayna raised her hands to the sky as lightning flashed around her. She stepped aside. The goddess Velasca, which Gabrielle had last seen falling to the lava with Callisto, stepped forward. Lightning kept swirling, crackling in the air around the vengeful goddess. Of those assembled, only Xena was unsurprised. Ephiny, Eponin, Solari, and Kieran, as well as many others, gasped and dropped in surprise. Rayna stood. Xena could not determine if the look suddenly covering the young face was surprise, adulation, or fear.
"Hello, Gabrielle." Velasca sneered. "Bet you didn't expect to see me."
Kieran stepped forward. "We've brought you Gabrielle, now bring glory to the Amazons."
"Glory already belongs to the Amazons," Gabrielle said, looking at the immortal. "You are not the Amazon future, Velasca. People like Kieran, Lira, and Eponin, and Ephiny... and yes, me. We're the future of the Amazons. A future of peace. What Artemis truly wants." She raised her hand to the sky. A white bird fluttered upward from her palm.
"A dove!" Several of the Amazons fell back in awe at the queen's display. "The queen is blessed by Artemis."
Rayna fell back when the bird dove at her. Velasca flashed lightning through the sky again, but the dove flew without trouble.
Gabrielle picked up Rayna's discarded staff and threw it at the goddess. In flight it became a wide white cover, floating down over the goddess, impeding her hands.
Velasca sparked her power and the cover vanished in fire. The goddess flashed lightning directly toward Gabrielle, but Xena's sword, commandeered from a surprised Kieran, deflected it.
Rayna caught the redirected blast full in the chest, falling backward.
Gabrielle picked up the unconscious woman. "Velasca! You have attacked Artemis' Chosen."
"What's the old windbag gonna do?" Velasca retorted. "I'm more active than she ever was. They are mine now."
A bright light appeared over Gabrielle's shoulder. All eyes looked up as the bard seemed to sit in the center of the light, which grew wider, encompassing both the unconscious Rayna and their queen.
"Gabrielle!" Xena stepped forward.
"No, Xena. Stay back." Gabrielle lifted a hand to hold off the warrior but kept her eyes on Rayna.
When Rayna opened her eyes, Gabrielle smiled. "Important difference there, hmmm?"
Rayna shivered. "I thought..." She looked up at Gabrielle. "I really thought."
The bard's voice was soothing, forgiving. "I know you did." Behind her, Velasca screamed. The light shifted from Gabrielle and Rayna to envelop the goddess. It seared, growing so bright no one could distinguish Velasca within the light. The goddess screamed, her voice piercing and afraid.
Slowly the light faded. The Amazons who had fallen back, fear still gleaming in most eyes, clustered around Gabrielle and Rayna. The latter was struggling to sit up and shaking her head, crying.
"Rayna!" Alarm filled the voice.
The fallen Amazon grasped the concerned hands reaching for her. "I'm all right, Kieran."
The young warrior asked, "What happened?"
Gabrielle gave Rayna off to Kieran and started to push herself to her feet. Only she found Xena at her side, offering a hand. Looking up, she met the warrior's eyes with a smile. "Thanks." Gabrielle let Xena throw her weight into lifting them both. Relief flowed as she fell into an embrace with the warrior. Xena's hands and arms slipped tightly around the bard's back, warm comfort flowing from one woman to the other and back again in a healing hug.
"I'm glad that's over."
The bard lifted her head and watched Kieran leading Rayna away. A pair of Amazons stopped them. "My queen," one asked pointedly.
"Let them go," Gabrielle replied. "Rayna knows what was wrong now."
"Would you explain it to me?" Ephiny asked.
Kieran and Rayna disappeared down the mountain path. Ephiny and Eponin grasped Gabrielle's shoulders. Looking from one to the other, she explained, "Velasca appeared to Rayna as Artemis."
Ephiny and Eponin shook their head. "How is that possible?"
"Rayna learned about her ancestor. Her pride was stung when it seemed Artemis had forsaken the Amazons because I was not really an Amazon, but everyone wanted me to lead." Gabrielle reached out and laced her fingers with Xena's. "Velasca in the guise of Artemis convinced Rayna that a sacrifice -- my sacrifice -- was going to make things right."
"So why didn't Artemis fix things herself? Impersonating a goddess has to be one of the worst offenses." Eponin asked, squeezing Ephiny's hand.
"Artemis likes to think we can take care of ourselves. That I figured out the vision Rayna gave me was a fake."
"Why was that anyway?"
"Because one god can't act within the temple of another." Xena answered, meeting Gabrielle's eyes.
"Right," the bard replied. Silence fell for a few moments and Gabrielle decided it was time to talk with Xena. "Eph. Ep. Could you lead everyone back to the village?"
"What about you?"
"I need a little time alone." She kept hold of Xena's hand however which told the warrior that the 'alone' didn't include her leaving too.
Ephiny and Eponin nodded and turned, jogging down the mountain pass.
"Something you wanted to talk about?"
"Are you going to tell me why you don't want to be an Amazon?"
"Didn't Artemis tell you?"
"No, she told me to ask you. She said she'd accept you... if you were willing."
Xena shook her head. "I don't understand."
"I showed no mercy."
"Mercy, about what?"
Xena sighed. "You'll probably want to ask me to leave after I've told you."
"Xena. Usually things are less bad than you think they are."
"I don't think wiping out an entire Amazon village counts as 'less bad than I think'."
The bard gasped. "A whole village? When?"
"About ten years ago. Just before my campaign against the Centaurs."
The warrior nodded. "I wiped out everything."
Gabrielle shook her head. "Artemis apparently forgives you."
"How can she?"
"Maybe she knows it wasn't you who did it."
"But Ares --"
"You let her worry about Ares, okay? If she has a beef with another god, she'll handle it." She glanced pointedly over her shoulder to where Velasca had vanished in the center of Artemis' glow.
"She got you to prove Velasca's hoax."
Gabrielle put her arm through Xena's. "We all make choices when we're not influenced that prove who we really are."
"And which one did I make?"
"You chose to come back."
Gabrielle smiled and finally the light shining from the bard's eyes infected Xena, bringing a smile to the dour warrior's face. Arm in arm they walked down the mountainside. Once Xena looked over her shoulder and saw the altar stone bathed in a stream of sunlight. A slender woman in hunting leathers, and a bow slung over her shoulder, smiled at the warrior.
"How did you do that dove thing?"
Gabrielle smiled. "Artemis helped." Xena nodded. "You really arrived in the village at a bad time."
"I did?" Xena was hurt, but curious. "How so?"
"I had planned a bit of hoaxing of my own back at the queen's hut. I didn't think Rayna had thought it was Artemis she was speaking to. I really thought she was working with whoever wanted me out of the way."
Xena nodded. They were both surprised to hear a short barking guffaw among the feminine laughter. "Joxer?" Through all the troubles they'd had, both Xena and Gabrielle had forgotten the warrior accompanied them to the Amazon village. The two women stepped forward, parting the group to find the warrior in the middle.
Joxer smiled, weaving slightly on his feet. "Hiya, guys. Been a Hades of a party."
"Joxer, what'd you do?" Xena asked suspiciously, seeing his arm draped over a nearby Amazon's bare shoulders.
"I found a friend."
Gabrielle and Xena groaned in unison. The Amazon who'd caught the warrior-wanna-be's attention giggled and pinched Joxer's behind. He yelped, and turned to chase her. Watching them go, Gabrielle and Xena shook their heads and laughed. "Seems that your confidence training worked."
The warrior nodded. "I still want to pop him one."
"For getting too drunk to spar with me the night of the party."
"You really needed out that badly, huh?"
The warrior thought back to the uncomfortable feeling of being caught in the middle yet on the outside looking in at her bard's happiness. "Yes."
"How about we spar this afternoon?"
"Time to show the Amazons what they're going to get when my champion fights for them."
"It'd make you happy if I became an Amazon?"
Gabrielle rubbed her palm over Xena's and then up over the warrior's wrist and arm. "I want us to have a home."
"Do I have to do anything weird?"
Gabrielle chuckled, then turned serious. "I'll find a streamlined version if you like. Fewer 'weird' things."
Xena nodded. "It's important to you, I'll do it. All I want is for you to be happy, Gabrielle."
"Why just me?"
"Because you deserve it."
"So do you." She cleared her throat and changed the subject slightly. "We'll have to stick around a while. I have a little work to do to make ourselves capable of still traveling."
"I'm going to divest power. Turn the job of ruling over to the council."
"Can you do that?" Gabrielle arched an eyebrow making Xena's own rise in reply. "Okay, you can do anything you set your mind to."
The tall dark warrior and the young blonde queen walked through the village smiling at the Amazons going about their business. From the hushed reverent smiles, it was evident the news of what had happened on the mountain had already spread. The two women ignored the eyes as best they could, feeling self-conscious as they entered the queen's hut.
Xena worried the most about the looks. Taking the bard in her arms, she offered up exactly what she was thinking, "Gabrielle, please don't put me on display."
"It may be your job as champion to protect me, Xena, but I consider it part of my job to protect you, too." The bard wrapped her arms around the warrior's neck, and noticed the damp collar of the gambeson. She pulled back. "What happened to you?"
"I had to get a little wet."
Gabrielle smiled seductively. "Really?"
The warrior smiled back, but said reasonably, before the bard's lips claimed hers, "I had a fire to put out."
Whispering, Gabrielle replied, "Well, there's another one starting. Time to put it out."
Warrior and bard chuckled, and kissed, falling to the bed, stripping out of their garments as they went.