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I Am Amazon

by ProudWarrioress
jengaf@sprynet.com


The events in this story take place before the story "Sacrifices" and refer to a small passage spoken by Artemis in that story where she refers to Gabrielle as the bringer of peace to the Amazon nation. The characters Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, Selari, Ephiny, and Velasca all belong to MCA/Universal and the author intends no copyright infringement in the writing of this fan fiction. The rest of this story is all mine.


The battle raged for days. To the combatants who were forced to endure it, it seemed as if it might never end. The tiny village had never known such suffering could exist. When the warlord Marleus turned his army on the quiet valley and began attacking villages, systematically destroying each within his path, the residents of Lamia knew it was only a matter of time. Xena and Gabrielle had arrived in the village little more than a week ago, and found the villagers making preparations to flee, leaving behind everything they had worked for, all of their dreams. But Xena was not yet ready to let them give up and through Gabrielle's words, convinced the men and women of Lamia that it was worth the effort to fight for their homes rather than surrender them.

Now they fought, not only for their homes and possessions, but also for their pride and for the opportunity to say that they had faced the evil and turned it aside. Xena led the villagers, instructing them in tactics to repel the invaders and in the art of defense. In a matter of days, they had turned this sleepy hamlet into a fortress, nearly impregnable. That should have been the end of it. Xena had bargained that Marleus would be looking for easy pickings, and finding the village prepared for his attack, move on to a more suitable target; but she had underestimated him. Rather than simply probing the outskirts of the town to determine the extent of their defenses, he had simply attacked with his entire force. Xena had not expected Marleus to act so foolishly, but was prepared for the eventuality nonetheless. The attack was soundly defeated, much to the exhilaration of the villagers, and the dismay of Marleus. He had been humiliated before his men, and he could not stand for that. So rather than withdraw his army, as Xena had hoped, he laid siege to the village, vowing to kill every living thing within.

That was 5 days ago. As the hours had stretched into days, and the frequent attacks on the village defenses became more intense, the casualties had mounted. Xena and Gabrielle set up a makeshift healing temple near the center of town. But as the attacks became more frequent, Gabrielle found herself caring for the wounded without Xena's knowledge, as the Warrior Princess was needed on the front lines to direct the defense. Gabrielle had enlisted some of the walking wounded to assist her, but it was never enough, and many had died. Gabrielle felt the death of each man and woman keenly, knowing deep down that there was little she could do, but that did not help the feelings of guilt and sadness at their deaths.

Gabrielle had been tending to the wounded for several hours without stopping for food or sleep when her attention was drawn to the front doors of the provisional temple. The doors had been thrown open, sunlight flooding in, obscuring the face of the warrior who now stood framed in the doorway. The figure stood imposingly in the light for a moment before moving the rest of the way through the doorframe and into the shadows within. Gabrielle immediately recognized the air of authority and command. Xena had finally left the barricades to rejoin her in the temple. As Xena walked slowly toward Gabrielle, the bard noticed a slight slump in her shoulders, a weariness she had never seen before, and as Xena stumbled slightly, Gabrielle instantly came to her feet and went to Xena's side, alarm and fear filling her.

"Xena? Are you ok?" Gabrielle asked, concern etched into her features as she moved to take the warrioress' arm over her shoulder, lending her support.

Xena looked down as if in a daze, surprised to find the bard lending her strength, guiding her toward one of the open beds.

"Gabrielle?" Xena asked weakly, her mind in an exhausted fog.

"I'm here, Xena." Gabrielle replied as she aided Xena to sit on the cot, quickly looking her friend over for any signs of injury. Xena noted the frank examination and tried to reassure the young woman, her mind clearing as she allowed herself to relax.

"I'm fine, Gabrielle. I'm not wounded."

"Are you sure?" Gabrielle asked, her fears not yet laid to rest.

"I'm sure, just a little tired." Xena said simply, but her face and body told another tale. Her normally beautiful jet black hair now hung limply about her face and shoulders, matted with sweat and the blood of the wounded. Her armor covered in the blood of the dead, her face ashen with fatigue, the warrioress was at the end of her formidable strength, and Gabrielle knew it.

"Xena, you're not just 'a little tired', you're exhausted. Let me get you some water." Before the warrioress could protest, Gabrielle had moved off in search of a water skin. She returned momentarily, a skin and clean cup in hand. Xena said nothing, accepting the cup, a grateful look in her eyes. She drank deeply, realizing only when the water touched her lips how thirsty she was.

Xena returned the empty cup to Gabrielle, a small smile upon her lips. Gabrielle returned the smile.

"Thank you, Gabrielle." Xena said simply.

"You should get some rest, Xena. I know you. You probably haven't slept in the last two days, have you?" Gabrielle queried firmly, the look on her face daring the Warrior Princess to deny it.

Xena began to argue, but her words died on her lips upon seeing the look on her friend's face. She knew better than to try to tell Gabrielle she was wrong. The bard had read her well, as always, and right now she was too fatigued to get into a verbal sparring match with the young woman.

"Just lay back, Xena, and get some rest. I promise I'll wake you if anything happens." Gabrielle said, reaching out to lay her hands on Xena's shoulders and gently push her down on the cot. She then unfolded a blanket lying nearby and covered Xena tenderly.

Xena looked up into the green eyes that now regarded her, "When did you get so good at giving orders?" Xena asked, humor glinting in her eyes.

"Hey, they didn't make me Queen of the Amazons for nothing!" Gabrielle replied, heartened to see Xena's spirits brighten somewhat. "Now sleep."

"What about you? When was the last time you slept?" Xena asked.

"Don't worry about me. I got a nap a few hours ago. I'll be fine." Gabrielle replied, hoping the half truth would convince her friend. The nap had actually been about ten minutes she had spent dozing before the next group of wounded had arrived.

Xena arched an eyebrow in response. She knew Gabrielle wasn't telling her the whole truth, but decided to trust that the bard would take the time to rest soon. At the very least, she would force Gabrielle to take a break when she awoke. She merely nodded and turned on her side to face the doors of the temporary healing temple, ever ready for the unexpected.

Gabrielle, satisfied that Xena would at least get a few uninterrupted hours of sleep, returned to her patients, pushing her own growing weariness aside. As she moved across the temple floor to the group of wounded men and women who had recently been brought in from the front lines, the doors to the temple opened to admit a lone woman who immediately began moving her eyes back and forth, searching. When her gaze fell upon Gabrielle, her face brightened and she immediately went to her.

Reaching the bard's side, she bowed her head respectfully, "My Queen."

Gabrielle's head jerked about at the unfamiliar greeting, pulling her attention from the man she had been treating. Recognition crossed her features as she stood to face the woman before her.

"Selari? What're you doing here? How did you get past Marleus' army and the city defenses?" Gabrielle asked, not believing her eyes.

The Amazon warrior raised her head to look into the face of her Queen. "Ephiny sent me to find you. I had to get into the city to get to you, so getting in wasn't a problem." Selari replied, ever confident.

Concern now flooded Gabrielle's mind. "What's wrong? Is Ephiny all right?"

Sadness flickered in Selari's eyes and Gabrielle feared the worst. "She is well, My Queen, but there is trouble in the village. She has asked that you return at once."

"What's wrong? What's happened?" Gabrielle asked, relieved that Ephiny was well, but anxious that she had felt the need to send for her.

"Ephiny sent me with this message: Velasca had many followers among our people when she became a God, many who still believe that her vision of the future for our people is the right one. They have a new voice now, Arleia. She is threatening to divide the Amazons and destroy me and those of us who do not share her ideas about our destiny." Selari stopped, and then added in her own words, "Ephiny fears that she may soon be able to gain enough power to try and take the Queenhood from her. If that happens it could mean civil war." Selari stated unemotionally, but her body betrayed her true feelings. Her limbs were tensed, ready for a fight, but she was frustrated at not having a release for her anger.

Gabrielle could see the emotions warring within the woman warrior and sympathized with her. Her own anger was beginning to rise at the thought of anyone attempting to destroy what Melosa and Ephiny had worked so hard to preserve, what she wanted to preserve, the survival of the Amazons.

"You must come quickly, My Queen. Even now Arleia grows stronger. Many were swayed from Velasca's side after she nearly destroyed our village with her power, but Arleia is drawing them back with talk of honor and glory." Selari said urgently.

Gabrielle's mind swirled. She could see that Selari, and Ephiny, believed she could help in some way, but how could she leave Xena and these people? Didn't they need her too? "Selari, I can't just leave. Xena needs me here."

Selari couldn't hide her disappointment. "Please. We need you, My Queen, or Ephiny fears all may be lost."

"Just what do you think I can do?" Gabrielle asked, voicing her concerns. "I'm not sure I can help."

"Ephiny feels that with you, the rightful Queen, at her side, together you may be able to turn the tide against Arleia."

Gabrielle felt her resolve begin to crumble, but didn't want to make any hasty decisions. She needed time to think. "Come on. I'll get you some food and water and you can rest while I decide what to do." She said, leading the Amazon to a quiet corner where she might take a respite from her journey.

Gabrielle brought Selari something to eat and drink and then left her to her meal. Gabrielle sought a quiet place to think, wanting only to find solace from the emotions battling within her. She wanted desperately to aid her sisters in their struggle to remain a united people, but at the same time she knew she couldn't abandon Xena and the people of Lamia. Gabrielle absently rubbed at her temples, the strain of the last few days and the news from Selari giving her an intense headache. She knew she needed food and rest in order to think things through clearly.

 


 

 

Xena awoke several hours later, and immediately went in search of Gabrielle. After looking through most of the wounded, she found the young bard sitting by herself against a far wall, away from nearly everyone, head in her hands. Xena was instantly concerned, and moved to Gabrielle's side.

"Gabrielle? Are you ok?" Xena asked gently as she knelt down. Gabrielle's head came up slowly at the sound of Xena's voice. The warrioress could see the pain in her face and wanted nothing less than to take it away. "Gabrielle? What's wrong?"

A pained expression passed over Gabrielle's face as she replied, "Xena, did you sleep?"

"Yes. And you're changing the subject. What's wrong?" Xena asked a bit more forcefully.

"Selari is here." Gabrielle said.

"Selari? How? Ephiny?" Xena started, the questions running together in her mouth, coming out in a jumble.

"Ephiny is fine, for now. Xena, she wants me to come back to the village. One of Velasca's followers is threatening her reign. She's trying to hold things together, but from what Selari says, she's fighting a losing battle. Arleia, Velasca's successor, is determined to take control, and she could destroy them all in the process. She could turn the Amazons against each other, Xena. If that happened...." Gabrielle trailed off, her exhaustion amplifying her emotions.

Xena was surprised by the news, but was even more alarmed at the look of utter defeat on Gabrielle's face. "So, what're you gonna do?"

Gabrielle shook her head, "I don't know. I want to help, if I can, but I don't want to leave you while you need me here."

"Gabrielle, I can manage. But I don't think you should make this decision until you've gotten some rest. Come on." Xena said as she came to her feet, lifting the bard up. "Let's get you something to eat and then you can get some sleep. We'll talk about this when you're feeling more yourself." Xena said. Gabrielle allowed the warrioress to lead her to the cot Xena had recently occupied and sat down wearily. She swung her legs up onto the bed and lay back, able to finally relax slightly. Xena looked down into her friend's face, pale and drawn with fatigue and worry.

"I'll be right back." Xena said as she went in search of something for them both to eat. When she returned, she helped Gabrielle to sit up and eat some of the meager fare she had managed to find. Gabrielle barely picked at her food, eating sparingly.

Xena could see her friend's indecision and her conflict and tried to reassure her. "Don't worry, Gabrielle. We'll figure something out. We always do." Xena said, a crooked smile on her face. Gabrielle eased somewhat at Xena's words and managed a half smile. "I know."

"Go on now, your turn. Get some sleep. I want to talk with Selari."

Gabrielle nodded and lay back once again, drawing the blanket up around her shoulders. Xena lay a reassuring hand on Gabrielle's forehead, then moved quickly away, as if embarrassed at the outward show of affection. Gabrielle closed her eyes, hoping fervently for the release of sleep.

 

 

PART II: DECISION

 

 

Sleep came slowly to Gabrielle, and once it did, was anything but restful. Her mind was still torn by the decision she had been forced into by the urgent message from Ephiny. Gabrielle had tossed and turned for nearly half an hour before she was finally so exhausted that she drifted into an uneasy sleep. But her mind would not give her solace even in her dreams. Images of the Amazon village, torn apart by civil war came to her over and over. The visions of her friends, her Amazon sisters broken by war, suffering in their plight plagued her. When she finally awoke, her mind was set.

Gabrielle arose from her cot and went in search of Xena and Selari to inform them of her decision. When she found the two women, they were huddled in a secluded corner of the temple, their heads together in quiet conversation. As she neared, Gabrielle noticed that Xena had become rather animated and Selari seemed to cower slightly at the Warrior Princess' words. Xena's head swiveled sharply toward her as Gabrielle approached, and she seemed to bite back the words on the tip of her tongue.

"Gabrielle. What are you doing up?" The warrioress asked, "I thought you were going to get some rest."

"I did get some rest, Xena. I'm fine, really." Gabrielle said, trying to hide the fact that she didn't feel rested at all. Her ruse was only half successful.

"Gabrielle..." Xena began, but was cut off by a wave of Gabrielle's hand.

"Xena, I don't want to argue. I just came over to tell you I've decided to go with Selari back to the village. If Ephiny feels that I can help, I owe it to her to go. I'm still not sure what I can do, but if my just being there can strengthen Ephiny's position and hold the village together, then so be it." Gabrielle said determinedly.

A look of relief washed across Selari's face, and she openly smiled. "Thank you, My Queen." She said simply. "I'll go and make preparations for us to leave." Selari rose and strode from the temple, eager now to be gone and headed back to the village. Xena was now concerned, she was not sure Gabrielle knew what she was getting herself into, but at the same time, she was glad that Gabrielle would be getting out of Lamia and away from the immediate danger it presented.

But now that Gabrielle had actually made the decision to go, a whole new set of dangers presented themselves. Xena feared that the dissention among the Amazons could mean a very real threat to Gabrielle's life, should she be challenged to any type of one on one combat by Arleia. Xena knew Gabrielle had become quite skilled at defending herself, but not good enough to take on a trained Amazon warrior. But she had covered that well enough with Selari.

Xena had given the warrior a message to carry to Ephiny. Xena had instructed Selari to warn Ephiny of the need to protect Gabrielle in her absence, and of her insistence that Gabrielle know nothing of her message. Xena knew of the young woman's pride and did not want to hurt her, but she also felt that a little prodding from the Warrior Princess would impress upon Ephiny and her followers Xena's wishes that Gabrielle's life be defended, at all costs. Xena realized this message should be unnecessary, knowing of Ephiny's love for the girl, but she had to feel as if she were doing something, even if all she could do was send her own words of warning.

"Gabrielle, I know I can't change your mind, and I'm not even sure I should try. The Amazons seem to need you, but more importantly, Ephiny needs you right now. Just promise me you'll be careful." Xena said, a look of pleading in her eyes.

The look was not lost on Gabrielle, "I promise. I just wish I didn't have to leave you here alone."

"Don't worry about me, go with Selari. I'll be there just as soon as I can. Just try to stay out of trouble until I get there." Xena said, a hint of amusement in her voice.

Gabrielle allowed a small smile to touch her eyes. "Oh, I promise, no trouble until you get there." Gabrielle said as the smile reached her lips.

Xena smiled slightly in return, but she was still uneasy. If the situation had been any different, she would have left the small town and accompanied Gabrielle, but these people needed her now, so she would just have to trust in Gabrielle, and her ability to handle herself if things got difficult. That and her message to Ephiny would have to be enough.

It was barely two hours later, and all the preparations were complete. Selari had secured a horse and provisions from one of the villagers and she and Gabrielle were now ready to depart. Xena had formed a small detail of men from the town's defenses to escort them out of the city through a small gap she had detected in the siege lines laid out by Marleus. Xena hoped to lure Marleus and his soldiers by creating a small distraction on the other side of the town, hoping to draw them away from Gabrielle's route.

Xena approached Selari and Gabrielle as they mounted the chestnut mare.

"Don't forget your promise, Gabrielle. No trouble until I get there." Xena said, wanting to say so much more, but unsure of herself in front of Selari and the townspeople.

Gabrielle knew her friend well enough to read the emotions that lay beneath her words. "Don't worry, Xena. I'll be all right. I'll see you soon, ok?"

"Soon." Xena replied simply. Selari spurred the horse to a slow trot, followed closely by the guard detail. Xena caught Selari's eye as she turned away. The look of warning hit home, and Selari silently vowed to protect the young Queen at the cost of her own life, if needs be. She knew to do any less would be to incur the wrath of the Warrior Princess, and then she might as well be dead.

Xena watched them go, wanting nothing more than to be at Gabrielle's side. She had nearly whistled for Argo and left Lamia and its problems behind, but her conscience wouldn't allow it, and neither would Gabrielle. No, she was needed here, but she was no longer willing to play the waiting game with Marleus and had already devised a plan to end this and end it quickly, determined to join the Amazons in their struggle and lend whatever assistance she could.

"Stay safe, Gabrielle." Xena prayed quietly, knowing that for now, praying was all she could do for her friend.


 

Once Gabrielle had made her decision to join the Ephiny in her struggle against Arleia and her followers, she had been anxious to leave, determined to end the threat to the Amazon nation as soon as possible. She and Selari made good progress before they were forced to stop and make camp for the night. They passed a quiet evening, each enjoying the company of the other. Selari patiently answered all of Gabrielle's questions about the village, the reconstruction and Arleia's rise to favor among some of the Amazon people.

Gabrielle discovered that Arleia had become quite popular, garnering all the feelings of the old days that Velasca had instilled in the more blood thirsty among them. She knew that overthrowing Arleia would not be easy and she had absolutely no intentions of allowing the village to be turned into a war zone. Gabrielle lived by a code that did not allow killing, and she intended to use that code in this situation as well. So long as she was Queen, and had any sway at all over any of the Amazons, one Amazon would not kill another to achieve their goal. Gabrielle knew that her code would be viewed as naivete by some, but she did not care. She could not, and would not, be a party to killing her sister Amazons and if that meant her own death, then so be it.

Gabrielle had told Xena none of this, knowing the Warrior Princess would not allow her to offer herself in exchange for the life of the Amazon nation. But Gabrielle had already made up her mind. What is one life in exchange for hundreds? She asked herself. Small price to pay. She had decided. She now prayed that sacrificing her life would not become necessary.

Gabrielle and Selari turned in early that evening, eager to rise and continue their journey. At dawn they were back on the road to the village, travelling mostly in silence, each lost in her own thoughts and fears as to what they may find when they arrived. It was near sundown when they encountered the first of the Amazon patrols near the outskirts of their traditional hunting grounds. Gabrielle was greeted as was befitting a Queen, and was escorted by an honor guard into the village and Ephiny's quarters.

As she entered the small hut and her eyes adjusted to the dim candlelight, Gabrielle saw Ephiny, standing in the center of the room, her head bent over a small table examining a parchment that appeared to contain a map of the village and surrounding area.

"Ephiny?" Gabrielle called quietly. At the sound of her voice, Ephiny's head came up, a look of joy on her face.

"Gabrielle!" She replied, crossing the room to envelop the young Queen in a great hug. Gabrielle returned the embrace, grateful to find Ephiny well and the village peaceful. Gabrielle pulled away slightly to get a better look at her successor. Ephiny appeared haggard and tired, the last few weeks telling of her struggle with Arleia. Gabrielle suddenly felt guilty that she had not been there for her friend when she had needed her. But she was here now, and was determined to help in any way she could. But for right now, her first priority was to get Ephiny to rest, at least for one night.

"Ephiny, you look exhausted. Come and sit down." Gabrielle said, leading Ephiny to a cot toward the back of the room, but Ephiny resisted.

"No, I need to review these maps. We need to be prepared in case Arleia decides to attack in full force." Gabrielle was taken aback by Ephiny's words, fear suddenly welling up within her.

"Attack? Ephiny, what's happened?"

"Arleia led her supporters from the village six days ago. They have been hiding in the forest outlying the village, engaging in small raids on our defenses from time to time. They've even been so bold as to cross the river and attack a Centaur patrol. Gabrielle half the Centaurs were killed." Ephiny said, sadness filling her voice.

"Tyldus sent word that he would hold off any retaliation as long as he could. But that if the raids continued, he wouldn't be able to control his warriors and they may attack without his approval."

Gabrielle was stunned by the news. She had sincerely hoped that Arleia and her followers had not yet resorted to violence, that would have made matters easier. But now that they had attacked not only the Amazons but the Centaurs, their task of reuniting the people was going to be infinitely more difficult. Her mind swam with the implications of Arleia's actions, but for now she pushed her doubts and fears aside, concerned only with getting Ephiny to rest.

"Ephiny, we'll discuss this later. You need to rest." Gabrielle said, gently but firmly pushing Ephiny down onto the bed. Ephiny opened her mouth to protest, but Gabrielle interrupted her, "Ephiny, not another word. I'm still Queen, remember? I'll stay here tonight until another hut can be found for me. We'll have time to talk in the morning, ok?"

Ephiny allowed herself to look properly chastised, but a glint of a smile touched her eyes, the corners of her mouth upturned slightly. "Yes My Queen. I hear and obey."

"That's better." Gabrielle replied, grinning. "I'll see you in the morning." She said as she moved to the accompanying room to stow her gear and found another cot already set up for her. She turned to look over her shoulder at Ephiny, eyebrows raised.

"I thought you might like to stay with me, at least for a while." Ephiny replied, shrugging. Gabrielle merely smiled in response, nodding slightly before turning to enter her room.

Sleep did not come easily to either woman. Ephiny could not seem to quiet the voices that taunted her with her fears for her people, but at least they were not so insistent, now that Gabrielle had returned. She wasn't sure why, but just having the young Queen at her side gave her a sense of confidence, a feeling that things were going to work out. Gabrielle's fears, however, were twofold. First she worried for Xena, wondering if she was all right, guilt at leaving her still nagging at the corners of the bard's mind. But Gabrielle also worried for her people, for she saw them as just that, HER people. She was here, but now what? The weight of responsibility fell heavily upon her, and she could only pray that she proved to be strong enough to shoulder it. As sleep finally claimed her, Gabrielle imagined Xena's face before her, drawing strength from the vision, feeling that even with the distance that separated them, she was not alone.

 

 

PART III: PREPARATION

 

 

Gabrielle awakened early the next morning, the memory of her dreams still foremost in her mind, the emotions they evoked heavy on her thoughts. She arose and entered the adjoining room, hoping to find Ephiny still asleep, but was greeted by the sight of the interim Queen in quiet contemplation. She looked up from the plans on the table before her as Gabrielle entered the room.

"I'm sorry. Did I wake you?" Ephiny asked, straightening from her hunched position.

"No, I didn't even hear you out here." Gabrielle replied, crossing the room to gaze over Ephiny's shoulder. "Did you sleep well?"

"Well enough." Ephiny replied, not wanting to discuss her sleep further. Gabrielle got the message and let the subject drop.

"What are these?" The young Queen asked, studying the parchments arrayed on the table.

"Maps of the village and the forests for several miles. I've been trying to figure out where Arleia and her supporters may be hiding. If we can find them, then perhaps we can capture them and return them to the village for trial." Ephiny replied, turning back toward the table.

"Trial?" Gabrielle asked.

"Yes. They must be tried for their crimes. They have committed treason against the Amazon nation, Gabrielle. I cannot allow that to go unpunished." Ephiny said, a hard edge to her voice.

Gabrielle was slightly taken aback, but managed to cover it well. She had not considered that Ephiny would want the rebels punished, she had been merely concerned with reuniting the two factions. Now she was confronted with the grim reminder that these were warrior women and a peaceful solution may not be possible. But that wasn't going to stop her from trying to settle this all nonviolently.

Gabrielle turned to face Ephiny, determination on her face. "Ephiny, revenge is not the way. We must be willing to reunite with Arleia and her followers."

"Gabrielle, these women have committed very serious crimes against their sister Amazons. They have committed treason, but more than that, they have committed murder. Four have already been killed in their raids." Ephiny said, her voice raising in anger. "The village will accept nothing less than justice for what Arleia has done, nothing! And neither will I."

"Ephiny, I'm sorry. It's just that...I can't be a part of an execution, I won't." Gabrielle replied, calm in the face of Ephiny's tirade.

"Then maybe I shouldn't have sent for you." Ephiny snapped, immediately sorry for her sharp words.

Gabrielle was hurt and tried, unsuccessfully, not to let it show. "Ephiny, I want to help. You are all my sisters. I feel like you are my people, and I can't just stand by and watch while all of the Amazons, all that Melosa lived to protect, is destroyed, piece by piece. But you know I won't take part in killing, not like that."

"Gabrielle, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that. I need you at my side, the rest of the village needs to see that we are united in this. Together, I know we can defeat Arleia." Ephiny said.

Gabrielle was still skeptical. "Ephiny, I still don't see how I can help..."

"Gabrielle, when you stood up to Velasca, you gained the respect of the entire Amazon nation. Even her followers respected you, who was not born Amazon or trained in the Amazon ways. The way you were willing to accept the Queenhood and fight to keep it took courage, and courage we Amazons respect. When you openly defied Velasca on that dias when you were crowned, that took a great deal of strength. She could have killed you then and there, and I'm not sure I could have stopped it." Ephiny paused, considering her words carefully.

"Gabrielle, not many people have held the position you do in the eyes of our people. And I don't mean just being Queen. People will do anything for someone they respect. I just don't hold that kind of place anymore."

Gabrielle was pleased to hear Ephiny refer to the Amazons as "their" people, but was uncertain why Ephiny doubted herself. "What do you mean?"

"Velasca raised doubt among the people when she questioned my loyalty that day you became Queen. Gabrielle, I married. No Amazon who has dared marry a man has ever risen to become Queen. It is considered something of a betrayal to become the property of a man." Ephiny replied, her eyes lowered.

"Ephiny, you were never Phantes' property."

"I know that, but in the eyes of the law, once you marry, you are his. That is why most Amazons never enter into marriage. To become a man's possession is unthinkable for us. In our tradition, men are to be used, loved if we must, but we never to belong to them." Ephiny said, her eyes rising to meet Gabrielle's to emphasize her point.

Gabrielle could see the truth in what Ephiny said. For the Amazons, men were nothing more than tools, a means to an end, to be discarded when you were finished with them. Suddenly a doubt surfaced and Gabrielle gave it voice, "But Ephiny, I was married once."

Ephiny could see the hurt in Gabrielle's eyes, hear it in her voice at the memory of her dead husband. She replied confidently, "Yes, but you were not raised Amazon, and you they can forgive. All they see is your courage and your nobility, Gabrielle. These people, YOUR people, would follow you to the ends of the earth, if you asked them to. I need that power now. Please Gabrielle, help me. At least help to end the raids so that no one else has to die needlessly. After that, maybe we can come up with a solution that everyone can live with."

Gabrielle could see the faith reflected in the eyes that now calmly regarded her. She was still not completely convinced, but was at least ready to trust in Ephiny's faith in her. "OK, Ephiny. I'll try." A smile covered Ephiny's face, relief washing over her. She knew her people well, and also knew that it would not be easy to hold them back from the blood they had been crying out for, but she would try, for Gabrielle's sake if for no other reason.

"I'm going out to have a look around the village." Gabrielle said, suddenly needing to be alone for awhile.

"Wait, I'll summon Selari..." Ephiny began, but Gabrielle would hear none of it.

"No Ephiny. I'll be fine by myself, don't worry."

"But Gabrielle, it may not be safe." Ephiny said, worry etched into her face. Xena's warning had been quite clear and Selari had volunteered to be the young Queen's personal bodyguard.

"I promise not to go too close to the outskirts of the village, I just need to clear my head a bit, ok?" Gabrielle said.

Ephiny knew of the bard's stubborn streak, had seen it first hand in the healing temple in Thessilay when she had nearly died, and let the matter drop. Besides, she had already decided to send for Selari anyway, to keep a discreet eye on the Queen. "All right, just be careful."

"I will." Gabrielle reassured her. As she turned to leave the hut, she reached for her staff leaning against the doorframe. Never can be too careful. She thought to herself as she strode through the door and into the sunlight beyond.

 


 

Arleia had never spent this much time away from her home village before in her life. The feelings of homesickness were entirely new to her, and she was frankly having a hard time dealing with them. But her drive, her ambition, was stronger than her loneliness for the comforts of the village. When Velasca challenged Melosa and became Queen, she had been as ambiguous as many of the Amazons, but then Velasca had begun to preach. Her oratory had inspired many that, deep down, felt that the Amazon people were destined for so much more than what they had become. Those speeches had awakened something deep within the young Amazon warrior, a yearning for the old days, when the Amazons were strong, feared. And now it was her turn.

Arleia felt in her heart that it was she who was entrusted now to lead the Amazons into the future, toward their destiny. Ephiny was a fool. Peace with the Centaurs was ludicrous! How could they possibly make peace with those who had for years killed their mothers and sisters? It was unthinkable to many, but while Melosa was Queen, few dared to challenge the peace. Then came Velasca, and all that had changed. When Velasca had become a god, Arleia saw her chance. She knew that with a god on her side, she could take control and return the Amazons to their destiny. Even now, with her patron deity at the bottom of a river of lava, Arleia had faith that one day Velasca would free herself from her prison and the warrior intended to be ready for that day.

The attacks would continue, and she would tear apart the resistance to her faction piece by piece. Even the news that the true Amazon Queen had returned did little to deny Arleia's conviction that eventually she would be successful. She knew the kind of feeling the Amazon Queen would be able to arise in the women of the village, and she needed to come up with a way to neutralize Gabrielle's power. Killing her outright would only serve to make her a martyr, and a martyr you can never silence. No, there had to be another way. She had to prevent Queen Gabrielle from igniting any passion in the Amazon warriors arrayed on her side, and at the same time stay within the bounds of Amazon law.

Arleia knew she had to tread very carefully, for to alienate her own followers by outright murder would do her no good either. Even though they had openly defied Amazon law, they still held their honor close to their hearts, and without honor, they might as well be dead.

Arleia summoned her Lieutenants to her, preparing the strategy for the coming days. The overall plan was to wear down the Queen and her warriors, that had not changed. If the price to continue the fight became too high, Arleia could take over the crown easily by offering peace in exchange for the mask of the Queen. And so, she dispatched her warriors yet again, with instructions to kill if they must, destroy what they could. They could always rebuild, but rebuild in her vision. She would remake the Amazons in her own image, and they would once again be the strong, feared warrior women of Greece.

 

 

PART IV: QUEEN

 

 

Gabrielle had kept true to her word, and stayed near to the central part of the village. It had been pitch black when she had arrived the night before, but now in the light of day, she could see the remnants of the destruction Velasca had brought down on the Amazons. Everywhere she looked, the huts seemed to be pieced together haphazardly, as if there was no time to take better care in the repairs. Even though t a month had passed since Velasca had nearly destroyed everyone in the village, little progress had been made on the reconstruction. Gabrielle could now appreciate the levels of animosity that must have been felt within the village to keep them from such important work. She could see why Ephiny had needed her to help, in whatever way she could, to unify them. These people needed a direction in which to travel, and she only hoped that she could help to give them what they needed.

Everywhere she looked there was activity, and the entire village seemed to be alive with vitality. Gabrielle could see women mending armor here, cooking there, rebuilding wherever necessary and it all had an urgency to it. She could feel it like a current running through her, filling her with a nervous energy. Gabrielle suddenly realized it was the same feeling she sensed when she and Xena were about to enter into some sort of hostile situation, and on some primal level, she relished it.

Several women, who had paused in their labors to bow low before her, greeted her as she passed by. The typical greeting for an Amazon Queen was foreign to Gabrielle, and it made her more than a little uncomfortable. She returned the respect she was shown with a slight inclination of her head to satisfy the Amazon tradition and a grin to satisfy herself. Gabrielle wanted to feel a part of these women and their lives, but there was some part of herself she felt she needed to hang onto, and her smile was the outward expression of that part.

As she surveyed the village and its occupants, Gabrielle's mind wandered to Xena and she wondered, not for the first time, if the Warrior Princess was all right. She knew Xena could handle herself in just about any situation, it was just that if she wasn't there herself to see that she was ok, Gabrielle worried. But for now all she could do was wait for the warrioress to join her.

Just as she completed her round of the village, the sounds of swords clashing just beyond the surrounding trees greeted her ears and she turned sharply, seeking the source of the battle. The Amazons, who moments ago were simply going about their daily chores, now sprang into action, grasping weapons that were never out of arms reach. Gabrielle followed them toward the sounds of fighting that were now drawing ever closer to the village. As she reached the edge of the trees, she felt a hand on her arm and spun around to see Ephiny standing before her.

"Please, Gabrielle, stay here." Ephiny said urgently.

"Ephiny, I can help!" Gabrielle cried.

"Gabrielle..." Ephiny began, but was interrupted by a piercing cry that startled both women. Ephiny turned and ran toward the dying scream, her protest forgotten. Gabrielle turned to follow, her staff at the ready. As they broke through the trees into a tiny clearing, Ephiny and Gabrielle were greeted by a sight that horrified them both. The patrol that Ephiny had dispatched only that morning, then had numbered five, and was now reduced to two. And those two were in a fight for their lives. The loyal Amazons had been ambushed by Arleia's rebels and caught nearly unawares, not expecting the enemy to be able to reach so close to the village. For three of their number, it was their last mistake.

Gabrielle felt her anger rise at the sight of the dead Amazons lying in pools of their own blood and charged into the battle, heedless of the danger to herself.

"Gabrielle! Wait!" Ephiny cried as she watched the Queen attack, her staff cutting a swath through the ranks of the rebels. The opposition was only six in number, and they now found themselves embroiled in battle with nearly twenty Amazons loyal to the Queen. As the rebels fought, one of them noticed the Queen join the fray and immediately turned her attack on Gabrielle. Breaking off from her attack with a viscious blow that left her opponent semiconscious, the rebel came at Gabrielle, her sword upraised. Gabrielle sensed, rather that saw the impending blow and ducked under it, rolling to her left and coming up to stand facing her aggressor.

The rebel Amazon was undeterred and pressed her attack once again, lunging, the tip of her sword aimed directly for Gabrielle's heart. Gabrielle brought up her staff across her body, blocking the sword cleanly away from her body and then using her momentum, brought down a crushing blow to her attackers' sword arm, forcing her to drop the weapon. The rebel had severely underestimated the Amazon Queen's abilities, and knew better than to force a bad situation. She turned and fled into the forest, calling her fellow Amazons to her as she went. The two that still remained on their feet quickly broke away as well, fleeing to the trees, and their escape.

Several of the Amazons from the village tore off in pursuit, but a call from their Queen stopped them in their tracks.

"Stop!" Gabrielle commanded. "Let them go."

"But, Gabrielle...." Ephiny protested, but a warning look from Gabrielle compelled her to hold her tongue.

"Ephiny, the last thing we need to do now is split up. If we go chasing Arleia's warriors into the trees, they have the advantage. No, we have to wait until we are ready to pursue them. Charging off blindly will only get us killed."

Ephiny had no argument for Gabrielle's cool logic, and silently bowed her head slightly in deference to her Queen's decision. "Of course, you're right, My Queen."

Gabrielle was surprised to hear the formal words spoken by her friend, but the effect on the Amazon warriors watching the exchange was unmistakable. Where before there had been only respect for their young Queen, now there was also a new found loyalty and fire. Gabrielle had proven to be a cunning fighter, and a wise leader all in the space of a few minutes. Any lingering doubts as to their Queen's ability to lead them against Arleia now vanished, replaced by rock hard faith and a determination that they would die for this woman before them, if she commanded it. Not many in the history of the Amazons had been able to gain such levels of loyalty and respect so quickly. Melosa had, and now so did Gabrielle.

Gabrielle now realized that Ephiny was awaiting her instructions as to what to do next, and she hesitated, unsure of her next move. The responsibility she had felt weighing upon her back in Lamia when Selari had first approached her now seemed to be crushing the young woman. In her mind Xena's words from long ago came to her, 'Act, don't react', and she knew what she had to do.

Gabrielle turned to the warriors, now looking to her for guidance. "Selari, take three others and see to the dead. I want their pyres prepared by nightfall. Ephiny, gather together your best hunters, I want to see you all in my quarters once we are safely back within the walls of the village. I don't want us to be caught like this again. You," Gabrielle said, pointing to a young, strong Amazon warrior.

"Yes, My Queen." The warrior responded immediately, eagerness in her voice and stance.

"I want you to see to the prisoners," Gabrielle ordered, gesturing to the wounded rebels. "See to it they are put in jail, and their wounds are tended to." The warrior nodded once in assent.

"The rest of you, get back within the village until we can come up with a new patrol strategy." Gabrielle paused to gauge their reactions. When no one made a move, she raised her voice, "Go!" At the command, the Amazons came to life, carrying out their assigned tasks, or simply assisting the wounded back to the confines of the stronghold.

Gabrielle re-entered the village, flanked by Ephiny and Selari, her face a controlled mask that belied none of the emotions raging beneath the surface. She only hoped that no one could see that she was faking it all. She had no idea if what she was doing was right or not, and felt none of the confidence she showed in that small clearing. But the mask was firmly in place, and Gabrielle silently wondered if her false confidence and show of bravado would at all surprise Xena. No. Thought Gabrielle, I think she just might be proud of me. Just goes to show I did learn SOMETHING from watching her these last couple of years. You can do this, Gabrielle. For them and for you. The Queen told herself firmly, feeling slightly more sure of herself and her ability to deal with what happened and her new found position of authority. The Amazons would now look exclusively to her for leadership, and she was determined not to let them down.

 

 

PART V: RIFT

 

 

Xena rode Argo hard through the night and into the next morning, eager to put Lamia and its problems behind her. The siege had ended rather quickly when Xena challenged Marleus to single combat, winner take all. At first he had refused, but Xena wouldn't give up. She had sent several messages to his camp, calling him everything but a horseís ass and making it known that she thought him an incredible coward. Xena was all too familiar with how quickly news travels in a war camp, even the news contained in the private messages meant for a warlord's eyes alone. Before the day was out, the entire camp knew of Xena's challenge and they were calling for her blood. Marleus knew that should he delay, Xena's label of coward could lose him what little respect he still held with his men.

Xena and Marleus met on the battlefield, each eager to end it all quickly. Marleus turned out to be even easier to defeat than Xena had hoped. She simply used his temper against him, and once he lost control over his emotions in battle, he became hers. She had let him live, but had placed his army under the control of the Lamia citizens, trusting that they could handle the situation until reinforcements from Athens arrived to take them into custody.

As she neared the outskirts of the Amazon hunting grounds, she was alerted to the presence of several Amazon warriors hidden among the branches of the trees overhead. Not knowing if they were loyal to Ephiny and Gabrielle or supporters of Arleia, she silently dismounted, drawing her sword from its scabbard as she reached the ground. The Amazons in the trees took no chances and sent in only four of their number to confront the Warrior Princess, leaving the other four as reinforcements, should they be necessary.

As the warriors descended from their treetop lookouts, Xena tensed, her sword weaving slowly before her, ever at the ready. The Amazons stood before the warrioress, their weapons drawn. One of them stepped forward boldly, pushing back her mask.

"Xena. Have no fear, it's me, Selari."

"Selari." Xena replied simply, allowing her sword arm to drop. "Is everything all right? How are Ephiny and Gabrielle?" Xena had hoped the question would sound casual, instead she feared it spoke volumes. She had worried about the young bard ever since she had left Xena behind in Lamia, and now was eager for any news of her.

"They are fine, Xena. But the struggle does not go well. The Queen has left standing orders that you are to be brought to her as soon as you arrive. Come, I'll take you to her." Selari stated, turning to lead Xena through the brush. They arrived in the village nearly an hour later, their trip uneventful, to Selari's relief. Since the confrontation near the village three days ago, the raids had become even more frequent. Arleia had not lost any of her warriors in a raid until Gabrielle arrived, now they had lost five. Three had been captured in that small clearing three days ago, two more the day after, and Arleia was beginning to lose her patience. After Gabrielleís forces captured her warriors, Arleia became enraged and had doubled the attacks on the village defenses, turning her attention away from the Centaurs to focus completely on the Amazons.

Xena and Selari entered the village unchallenged, but not unnoticed. The sentries had seen them coming several minutes before they reached the village gates. Xena saw the precautions the Amazons had taken and was frankly rather impressed. The layout of the village patrols and sentries was very much like those that she herself would have designed. As they neared the Queen's hut, she noticed the heavily armed honor guard and was pleased to see that Ephiny had taken her warning about Gabrielle's safety quite seriously. As they entered the dwelling, Xena allowed her eyes to adjust to the dim light, trying to make out the figure that sat upon the throne. She had expected to see Ephiny fulfilling the position that Gabrielle had left to her, but to her surprise was greeted by a warm smile and green eyes alight with joy at seeing her.

"Xena!" Gabrielle exclaimed, setting aside the parchments she had been studying to rise and greet the Warrior Princess. Ever aware of Xena's discomfort at any display of affection, Gabrielle merely extended her hand to rest lightly on Xena's forearm, allowing her touch to linger for just a moment before withdrawing.

"Did everything go well in Lamia? Are you tired? Do you want to eat?" Gabrielle asked in a rush, relieved that Xena had arrived, safe and sound. With the increased raids, Gabrielle had worried that Xena would walk into a situation that she was unprepared for, and had dispatched several groups of warriors with instructions to look out for the warrioress while on their assigned patrols.

"Gabrielle, one question at a time, ok?" Xena responded, glad to be able to see for herself that the bard was indeed safe and sound. "Lamia is safe, and yes, rest and a meal sound good. Where's Ephiny?"

"She's out on guard duty right now. She'll be back in a couple of hours. Jana," Gabrielle called over her shoulder. Momentarily, a young Amazon girl emerged from the adjoining room.

"Yes, My Queen." The girl answered.

"Jana, have a meal brought here for myself and my friend, and have an extra palette made up, ok?" Gabrielle ordered, but somehow her orders still came out sounding like polite requests.

"As you wish, My Queen." The girl replied and disappeared through the doorway and into the village beyond.

Xena looked at Gabrielle, her eyebrows raised in surprise. "Gabrielle, what happened? Why isn't Ephiny holding the throne?"

"That's a long story, Xena. I'll tell you over lunch, ok? There's a fresh bath I just had drawn in the other room, go ahead, I've got some things to discuss with Selari. We'll eat after you've finished and I'll tell you all that's happened." Gabrielle said as she gestured toward the small room beyond the doorway to her right.

Xena merely nodded her assent, eager to rid herself of the stench of the battles she had recently fought. She entered the small room and began removing her armor and leathers. As she lowered herself into the water, Xena wondered at the change in Gabrielle. When did she start giving orders? And when did the Amazons begin following her leadership? Xena suddenly began to worry yet again, if Gabrielle had become a more prominent figure to the Amazons, that would most definitely make her a target for Arleia, and that could only mean trouble. But then again, trouble is what Gabrielle excels at! Xena thought, a small smile tugging at her lips. Well, I'm here now. And I won't let anything happen to her.

Once Xena had thoroughly washed herself and redressed, she rejoined Gabrielle in the great room. The young Queen was bent over an array of maps and scrolls, her brow furrowed in concentration. Gabrielle looked up from the parchments before her as Xena approached. She had dispatched Selari and Jana to carry out her latest requests, and Xena and Gabrielle were now alone in the hut. Xena felt refreshed after her bath, ready to hear exactly what had been happening over the last few days. She settled herself into a high backed chair at one end of the low table Gabrielle was leaning against.

"What's all this?" Xena asked, surveying the clutter on top of the table.

"This," Gabrielle said with a sweep of her hand as she moved to draw her chair closer to Xena's, "is something I need your help with. So far we've been able to fend off Arleia's attacks, but Xena, she's getting bolder every day. I'm afraid that soon she'll be able to break through our defenses." Gabrielle explained, concern in her voice.

"Let me see what they've got so far." Xena said, reaching for the maps. She quickly scanned the plans mapped out in front of her, and slowly began to recognize the strategy it laid out.

"Gabrielle, did YOU come up with these?" Xena asked incredulously.

"No Xena, actually you did. I did pay attention to what was going on, you know." Gabrielle replied, a sheepish grin tugging at the corners of her mouth.

"This is the plan I had set up for Lamia, sort of." Xena said, now studying the maps more closely. "But you've made some changes."

"Well we weren't under siege, so I used some of the sentries for patrols to give us a little warning for when Arleia's warriors attacked. Which they have been doing on a pretty regular basis for the last three days." Gabrielle stated, shaking her head slightly.

Xena's warlord half took over as she studied the plans carefully. For the most part, Gabrielle's plan was a sound one, but she could see some holes in her defenses that were sure to be found and exploited before too much longer.

"Gabrielle, I think you should move these sentries posted here, and here," Xena said as she gestured to the north and south ends of the village, "they would be more effective further Northeast and southwest of their current positions."

"Ok, ok I see." Gabrielle responded, making a mental note to inform Ephiny and Selari of the changes so that they could see to their execution.

Xena turned toward her friend, the look of seriousness on the bard's face giving her pause.

"Gabrielle, tell me about what happened. How did you end up assuming the throne again? Why isn't Ephiny doing this?"

Gabrielle could see the concern in her friends eyes, concern for her safety, and sighed deeply. She told Xena of the events of the clearing and her defeat of the rebel Amazon and her subsequent command not to pursue the fleeing rebels. Xena's eyes widened at the thought of Gabrielle putting herself deliberately in harms' way, but refrained from comment until Gabrielle had finished. The young Queen could see that Xena was upset with her actions, but she could do nothing to take them back now. After several moments of silence, Xena finally spoke.

"Gabrielle, do you have any idea how foolish that was?" Xena asked quietly, fear for what might have been gripping her heart and a fear for what may now come to pass filling her.

Gabrielle was taken aback by the rebuke. "What? Xena I..." Gabrielle stuttered.

"Gabrielle, you could have been killed!" Xena nearly shouted as she rose suddenly to her feet. "That Amazon was a trained warrior, she could have killed you had you not been so lucky."

"But she didn't Xena." Gabrielle replied, finding her voice.

"And now, you've become 'Queen'! Do you have any idea the danger that puts you in? Gabrielle, Arleia will now see YOU as a direct threat to what she wants. From what I've heard from Selari, she'll stop at nothing to get what she desires, and right now that's your Queenhood, your Mask." Xena said as the full weight of the decision Gabrielle had made now made itself clear, she only hoped that Gabrielle could also see the gravity of her situation.

"Well, she's not going to get it Xena. I stopped Velasca from getting it, I can stop Arleia too." Gabrielle said, the hurt she felt at Xena's stinging words preventing her from hearing what the warrioress was really trying to say. "I can handle her, Xena."

"No you can't!" The Warrior Princess shouted, now suddenly desperate. "Gabrielle you don't know what you're doing! These are Amazons! Warriors! They don't settle their problems with talk and stories! They settle them with swords and daggers!"

"Xena, what are you saying?" Gabrielle started, not believing her friend would dare speak to her in this way. She had hoped that Xena would be proud of her, instead she was treating her as if she were some spoiled child needing to be punished for some wrong she had committed.

"Gabrielle, you are no Amazon. What these people need is a warrior, not a bard! You can't lead these women!" Xena shouted, her fear for her friend overwhelming any need to be sensitive to Gabrielle's feelings at the moment. The bard stubbornly refused to acknowledge the danger she faced, and Xena was determined to make her look into its ugly heart and accept its presence so near to her.

The Amazon Queen emerged at the warrioress' words, and she flew into a rage. "I AM AMAZON!" Gabrielle shouted, her anger building, "If not by birth, then at least in my heart! These ARE my people, Xena. They became mine when I decided to put on that mask and become Queen."

Xena's anger at Gabrielle's stubbornness now reached a peak. "Gabrielle, are you sure you didn't do that just because you were upset? You felt lost and alone, and Ephiny offered you the perfect way out, a new home and a new family. Gabrielle, she practically bullied you into accepting the Mask!"

Gabrielle couldn't believe what she was hearing. Xena had never doubted her in this way before, and it cut deeply. Gabrielle felt as though she had been wounded to her very core, her soul left bleeding from the attack by one she thought to never pick up a weapon and wield it against her. "Are you saying I didn't know what I was doing? That I only accepted the Mask out of grief for you?" Gabrielle felt her resolve harden as the Warrior Princess, whom she had called friend, now appeared before her as her foe. Gabrielle, hurt and bewildered, did the only thing she knew, she picked up a weapon of her own and wielded it with all her might.

"You overestimate yourself, Xena."

The blow had a devastating affect on the warrioress, who visibly staggered under the Queen's assault. She knew she had pushed Gabrielle too far, she just hadn't realized how far. Everyone had their breaking point, and she had taken Gabrielle to hers. But instead of breaking, the Queen had fought back, and had proven to be a cunning opponent, willing to use all the weapons at her disposal.

Gabrielle suddenly felt numb, the emotions rolling through her from Xena's tirade receding, leaving nothing in their place but a coldness, an emptiness she hadn't felt in weeks, not since Xena had died. It was a feeling she had hoped to never experience again.

"I guess I never realized how little you respect me and my feelings, my decisions. This is just like with Callisto, Xena. I pleaded with you not to free her, yet you did it anyway. Do you know what she did to me? How she taunted and tormented me with Perdicas' memory of what she did to him?" Gabrielle paused. "I took the mask because it was the right thing to do, for the Amazons and for me. Just like now. This is the right thing for me, Xena. MY people need me to lead them. They're looking to me, and I won't turn my back on them, I won't leave them the way you left me. If you can't deal with that, then I guess it's time for us to say good bye. I'm staying right here." Her face a mask that completely covered any feelings she may have been harboring, Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons, turned and stalked from the hut, leaving a stunned Warrior Princess in her wake.

 

 

PART VI: TRUCE

 

 

Two days had passed since Xena and Gabrielle had last spoken, and those words had been uttered in anger. Gabrielle immersed herself in the affairs of the village, personally overseeing every facet of the village defenses and the ongoing rebuilding process. The attacks on the village had taken on a ferocity in the last two days, and several of the Amazons under Gabrielle's command had been killed or wounded. Gabrielle felt each death personally, and knew that she was going to have to do something, and soon, or the killing would simply continue. That, coupled with the separation from Xena, had begun to weigh heavily on the young woman. The tension that was hanging over the Amazon Queen was palpable, and few dared to approach her with anything but the most urgent of messages.

Xena had taken up residence on the very outskirts of the village, pulling guard duty and going out on patrols when Ephiny or Selari asked her. What happened between she and Gabrielle devastated the Warrior Princess, and she did not know how to deal with the situation. She had said things to Gabrielle that she now regretted, and she didn't know how to take them back, or even if Gabrielle wanted the warrioress in her life anymore. The thought that she may have destroyed the one pure thing in her life, her love and friendship with the bard, sickened Xena. The warrioress decided to throw herself into defending the village, knowing that Gabrielle didn't want her near, but unable to stray far, for she still feared for the Queen's life, and she still cared about what happened to her.

Only Ephiny and Selari spent any amount of time with the Queen, and they both worried about Gabrielle. She had not spoken of the argument with Xena, sticking solely to Amazon affairs whenever they met. Many had expected that Gabrielle would banish Xena from the village, but were surprised to learn that their Queen allowed Xena to remain, neither giving her permission to stay, nor commanding her to leave. By the end of the second day, Ephiny decided to confront Gabrielle about what happened, determined to help her friend deal with whatever had come between the two best friends.

As she entered the Queen's quarters, Ephiny found Gabrielle in her usual position, hunched over the newest maps and layouts of the village defenses. As she approached, Gabrielle looked up, and what Ephiny saw in the young woman's eyes troubled her deeply. Gabrielle's carefully controlled mask was beginning to slip, and Ephiny could see the look of utter defeat that could no longer be hidden. Upon seeing Ephiny's look of concern, Gabrielle struggled with the cumbersome emotional mask, until she had it in place once again.

Ephiny witnessed the struggle, and it convinced her that she could not remain silent any longer. "My Queen," Ephiny began formally, then thought better of it. "Gabrielle, talk to me, please. What happened with Xena?"

The look of pain that washed over Gabrielle's features at the mention of the Warrior Princess' name was unmistakable, and this time the mask could not be replaced. Gabrielle did not respond, dropping her head to stare at her hands, now clutched uselessly in her lap. When she looked up again, the pain had been replaced by an undeniable sadness that tore at Ephiny's heart. She crossed the room and knelt down at Gabrielle's side, bringing the two eye to eye.

"Please talk to me, Gabrielle. It'll help." Ephiny said, her heart going out to her friend.

"Ephiny, really, I don't want to talk about it." Gabrielle said quietly, the emotions still too raw, too fresh for her to deal with just yet.

"But, Gabrielle..." Ephiny began, only to be cut off by the Queen's angry shout.

"Ephiny! I said not now." Gabrielle said through clenched teeth, the feelings of pain and sadness giving way to anger at being pressed. She felt as though Ephiny were crowding her, even though the Amazon had said very little. Gabrielle's temper was very short and she no longer had any patience for any defiance of her wishes, even from her friend.

"Leave me." The young Queen commanded quietly. Ephiny stood at the command, turning to leave, she glanced back over her shoulder. "I'll be here, if you want to talk." And with that she left the hut. Gabrielle knew she shouldn't have been so short with her friend. I know she only wanted to help, but I just don't want to think about Xena right now. Gabrielle said to herself. Maybe in a few days.... The pain Gabrielle felt ran so deep that she doubted she would ever truly be able to live without feeling it. Xena's words had touched upon feelings she didn't even know she had. Gabrielle, more than anything, wanted Xena's acceptance and understanding, and when the warrioress had become angry with the very decision Gabrielle had been most proud, the feelings that had lurked beneath the surface since Xena had died, came roaring to life. All the hurt, all the loss, and it had been more than she could handle. She had severed the bond she had once shared with Xena, a bond that had now become too painful.

 


 

Across the village, in a ramshackle hut that seemed to be barely standing, Xena had spent the last several hours in quiet meditation. Once the meditation techniques she learned nearly ten years ago would have calmed her, helped her to focus. Now however, they offered no solace from her thoughts. She deeply regretted her harsh words spoken to Gabrielle, and she knew, deep down, she had uttered them out of fear, and yes, out of love. All she ever wanted was to keep Gabrielle safe, but that had failed miserably. Now she had destroyed all she held dear, and she felt its loss like a crushing weight upon her chest.

The Warrior Princess had never been adept at handling her emotions, and when she became a ruthless warlord, she never seemed to stop long enough to feel anything. Occasionally someone would dare to get close to her, and she would begin to allow her emotions to creep through. Then would come the pain, and she would wall herself off again.

That is, until one man came into her life and taught her how to live, truly live, once more. If not for Hercules, Xena would never have had the courage to turn her back on what she had become. But it wasn't until Gabrielle came into her life that Xena felt the courage to let someone get close to her again. She had lost so many dear to her and at first she had kept the young bard at a firm distance from her heart. Over the months, however, Xena could feel Gabrielle's quiet acceptance and understanding slowly chip away at the walls around her heart. But it wasn't until that horrible moment in Thessilay, when she knew Gabrielle was dead, that she felt for certain the bard had become a part of her heart and soul. Xena had done everything, tried all she could think of, to no avail. Her Gabrielle was dead. Even Marmax had urged her to let the bard go, and she had been on the verge of doing just that.

She had nearly given up, and in that moment glimpsed her life without Gabrielle, and it had terrified her. It was then that the fury had taken over. She had beaten her fists on Gabrielle's lifeless body, giving vent to her anger and frustration. Her rational mind told her that Gabrielle was dead, but her heart had refused to accept it, could not accept it. Just as her heart felt that it would burst from the grief and rage, Gabrielle had suddenly taken a breath, then two, her eyes flying open, pain and confusion on her face. Xena felt in that moment looking into those eyes she had thought closed forever, as if she had been reborn.

But as desolate as Xena had been, looking at Gabrielle still and pale in death, it could not compare with the pain and loss she was experiencing now. Xena felt as if her soul had been rended in two, and the agony threatened to overwhelm her. A sudden knock brought Xena out of her reverie, and she slowly rose to answer the call. Xena pulled aside the curtain covering the doorway to find Selari standing in the afternoon sun, waiting patiently.

The sight of a rather disheveled Warrior Princess who looked like she hadnít slept in days greeted Selari. "Xena, Iíve come to ask your help."

Xena was grateful for the Amazons warrior's attentions lately. Selari seemed to know what to say, and not to say, just when the warrioress needed to her. It had been Selari who had first approached Xena after she had left Gabrielle's quarters two days ago. Xena had been hurt and angry, and Selari offered her the opportunity to join them on a patrol that very afternoon. Something, anything to take her mind of what had happened at that point had been welcomed. And now, when Xena felt as if she could not take another moment alone, there again was Selari, offering her action in the place of contemplation.

"What do you want of me?" Xena asked the warrior woman, relieved to have something else to think about.

"We are organizing a rather unique patrol for tonight. I thought you might be of assistance. We have been ordered to scout further out than normal tonight to see if we might determine the location of Arleia's camp. I have heard of your skill as a tracker, and I thought..."

"Does Gabrielle know you've asked me to go with you?" Xena interrupted.

Selari hesitated before replying. "No." She answered truthfully.

Xena sighed, rubbing at her eyes absently. "Of course I'll help, Selari."

"Good. We leave at sundown."

"I'll meet you beyond the village, just past the clearing you spoke of yesterday." Xena replied, knowing that if Gabrielle saw her joining the group it could lead to a confrontation she would rather avoid. If Selari was asking her to join the patrol without Gabrielle's knowledge, it had to be for a very good reason. Up until now, Gabrielle had been made aware of Xena's presence among the village defenders, and the Queen had said nothing, not acknowledging the warrioress' at all. Perhaps it was that stark refusal to even admit to Xena's existence that had cut more deeply than any.

It was nearly full dark when Queen Gabrielle finally bid the Amazon warriors leave the village in search of the rebel camp. Xena had left well in advance, and now waited for their arrival. As the patrol entered the clearing, Selari approached Xena.

"Xena." She said, nodding slightly to the warrioress.

"Selari." Xena returned. "Are you going to tell me what this is all about now?"

Selari hesitated, picking her words carefully. "What I told you this afternoon was true, we have been charged with finding Arleia's camp, but our purpose is not combat, it's to deliver a message from the Queen."

Xena steeled herself before asking her next question. "What's the message, Selari?"

"Queen Gabrielle has offered Arleia the Royal Challenge."

Xena's breath caught in her throat. She knew that Arleia would not refuse the Challenge, for if she defeated the Queen in mortal combat, she would gain all that she sought, control over the Amazon nation. Since she was not of royal blood, she could not demand the Challenge herself, but Gabrielle had eliminated that problem. By handing Arleia the Challenge, Gabrielle waived the stipulation of royal blood. It was an old custom, used in the past to eliminate rivals to the Queen's control over the Amazon Nation, and was nearly obsolete, until now.

Xena now understood why Selari had asked her to join the patrol, and why Gabrielle had not been told. If she was with them, there was always the chance that she could kill Arleia when they found her, eliminating the need for Gabrielle to face a combat to the death. She knew that Gabrielle might never forgive her for what had happened between them, but at least Xena could try to save her life. After all that taken place, Xena still loved Gabrielle, and could never sit by while her life was in danger.

Selari waited as Xena took in what she had said. When Xena's eyes again met hers, Selari knew the warrioress had made her decision. Saying nothing, Selari turned and led the way through the dense copse of trees. The latest information they had been able to piece together from their own patrols and the Centaurs, who were still keeping a close eye on the civil war raging just across the river from their lands, was that Arleia's camp must lie to the northeast of the village. All the reports had pointed to the same conclusion. Each time an attack was thrown back from the village, the raiders chose a different path in retreat, but Ephiny and her scouts had finally discovered their rally point deep in the forest, and the tracks unmistakably led to the northeast. Messengers from the Centaurs, who had recently observed the same patterns, had confirmed this information.

They traveled in silence for several hours, the darkness giving them the cover they lacked in the daylight. Under a cloak of darkness, the Amazons hoped to draw close enough to the camp to deliver their message before being attacked. It was a simple plan, get within bow shot of the rebels and fire the message bearing the royal crest into the camp and then melt once again into the darkness to return to the village. They would know soon enough if the challenge had been accepted.

As they moved through the forest, Xena became increasingly concerned. It was taking longer than it should to discover the camp, and she feared dawn would be upon them before they found it. The success of their mission could be jeopardized if the rebels learned of their position before they got close enough. Xena had no intention of delivering Gabrielle's message, she only needed to get close enough to kill Arleia, but the others would have a better chance of making back to the village if they were not detected. Xena cared little if she herself ended up in the hands of the rebels, all she was concerned with was Arleia and the Challenge.

It was still four hours before dawn when the patrol discovered the first of the rebel sentries. The first of the Amazons to encounter the rebels slipped silently up to their position and were able to incapacitate two of the three members of the detail. Unfortunately the third was able to escape and raise the alarm to her compatriots in other lookouts hidden among the trees. Xena had been toward the rear of the column when she heard the alarm. She swore silently, knowing that their escape may now be impossible.

Xena drew her sword from its scabbard on her back, quickening her pace to join the fight up ahead. As she approached the sounds of battle, she sensed a presence behind her and turned to meet it. The Amazon rebel swung down from her perch in the trees to stand before the Warrior Princess, sword at the ready, her face obscured by her ritual mask. Xena sized up her opponent carefully, watching for any indication of an opening. As she slowly twirled her weapon before her, the Amazon attacked, charging straight for Xena, her sword leveled at Xena's heart. Xena brought down her blade in a sweeping arc, deflecting the tip of the sword easily. The warrioress used her downward momentum to bring her own sword back up above her head and changing direction, sliced toward her opponent's now undefended body. But the warrior woman who faced her was more agile than Xena had expected and was able to side step the blow that nearly sliced through her abdomen.

Xena had miscalculated her foe, and now she was left off balance and at a disadvantage. The Amazon took control of the battle now, and pressed her attack, keeping Xena continually off balance with thrusts and parries to either side of her body. Xena had been on the verge of regaining her balance and beginning an attack of her own, when a cry pierced the darkness.

"STOP! Stop or I'll kill them all!"

The power behind the words was compelling, and both Xena and her foe stopped their attack. Xena turned to see a striking Amazon, standing nearly as tall as her, holding a dagger to Selari's throat. The other members of the patrol had been similarly disarmed, and now stood at the mercy of the rebels. Xena knew immediately whom it was she now faced. Only a true leader could command that type of presence.

"Arleia." Xena spat, as if the name itself were evil.

"Xena, I'm flattered." Arleia began as she pushed the mask away from her face. "Well, what do we have here, hmm?" Arleia taunted, supremely confident in her position. Xena longed to wipe the smug look of victory from Arleia's face, but she did not dare attack. She couldn't risk the lives of the Amazons who had traveled with her, Xena wouldn't add their blood to her conscience.

One of the rebel Amazons stepped forward toward her leader, her arms outstretched, in her hands lay the parchment containing the Royal Challenge. "We found this, My Queen."

Xena's heart sank as she recognized the crest of the House of Melosa. Arleia unrolled the parchment and read it carefully, her expression one of barely constrained joy.

"So the new Queen wants to Challenge me!" Arleia said incredulously. "Well, I think I just may have to accept her challenge. Take them!" She commanded, and Xena found herself with a sword tip to her back. The Warrior Princess reluctantly surrendered her weapons, knowing that now was not the time to press an attack. She would simply have to bide her time, and look for an opportunity to break free during the journey back to the village. That is, if Arleia let any of them live that long.

"Bind their arms. We'll execute them, after they watch me kill their Queen!" Xena inwardly flinched at Arleia's prophecy, vowing that the Amazon would never live long enough to harm Gabrielle. Xena's eyes were cold as steel as her arms were bound behind her back, allowing her little freedom to move her hands. She knew she simply had to watch and wait, hoping the opening to strike at Arleia presented itself before they reached the village.

 

 

PART VII: FIGHT FOR LIFE

 

 

Gabrielle had begun to worry. The patrol she had sent out the night before had yet to return. She and Ephiny had hoped that they would be able to locate the camp, deliver their message, and return all before sunrise, but the sun was now high in the sky, and there was still no sign of them. She was just about ready to send Ephiny out to look for them, when the sound of the perimeter alarm reached her ears. Queen Gabrielle raced outside, her staff clutched in her hands. The village had sprung to life at the alarm, each warrior running at top speed toward her assigned post. Gabrielle took her place at the top of the lookout tower nearest the outer rim of the village defenses, waiting anxiously for word from the advanced scouts who had raised the warning. She didn't have long to wait.

Bursting through the edge of the forest came a young warrior. She skidded to a halt in front of the walls to the village, panting and out of breath.

"What's happened?" Asked Gabrielle, anxiety over the impending attack evident.

The warrior woman gulped in a few breaths of air before responding. "It's our patrol from last night, My Queen. They have been captured. Arleia's troops are leading them this way now."

Gabrielle's heart nearly stopped at the news. Her plans had backfired, and now she was at Arleia's mercy. She had hoped to draw the warrior to the village and face her alone, putting no one but herself in danger. Now that was impossible. As she raised her eyes to focus on the edge of the treeline, she could just make out the figures as they approached, moving into the open. At the head of the column was a most powerful figure, commanding the attention of all whom looked upon her. Gabrielle knew with utmost certainty that this was Arleia.

Gabrielle tore her attention away from the rebel leader to search the group for her warriors. As Selari was led from the cover of the trees, Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief, grateful that she had not been harmed during her capture. As the rest of the patrol was brought into the open, Gabrielle did a quick head count and was gratified that they all had returned and did not appear seriously injured. As the rear of the group came into view, Gabrielle could see that several of the rebel warriors seemed to be grouped around one last figure, as if afraid that the prisoner might escape, the terror in their eyes evident. They feared their charge, and with good reason.

Gabrielle's eyes narrowed as she realized the prisoner under such heavy guard was Xena. Suddenly furious that the Warrior Princess had been a part of the detail, the Queen knew that it had to have been Selari who informed Xena where they were going and to what purpose. 'Xena, by the gods, why do you have to keep interfering!' Gabrielle thought, her anger convincing her that Xena must have been at least partly responsible for her warriors capture. Gabrielle was so angry that she failed to notice the blood trickling down the left side of Xena's face, her expression a mixture of pain and rage.

Xena had waited as long as she could during the journey back to the village, searching for her opportunity to strike at Arleia. She had worked at the bonds around her wrists until they had become loose enough that she thought she could pull her hands free, once the time was right. She thought her chance had come when one of the rebels charged with guarding her became distracted by a sudden noise off in the trees. Xena had reacted, yanking her arms out of their restraints and leaping on the nearest rebel in an attempt to disarm her. As Xena's hands closed around the woman's sword, the rebel cried out a warning, and instantly three more of Arleia's troops were upon the Warrior Princess, pulling her down. The warrioress had fought well, landing several blows before finally succumbing to a sharp blow to her head that left her dazed. It was a nothing short of amazing that Arleia didn't have her killed on the spot, but the Amazon seemed to be enjoying seeing Xena supplicated before her, and decided to execute her, after she claimed the Mask. For the time being, Arleia had been content with merely doubling Xena's guards. It was in that fashion that Xena had been brought the rest of the way to the Amazon village.

"Queen Gabrielle!" Came the call from below, drawing the young Queen's attention back to Arleia. "I have come to accept the Challenge!" The words were all that was necessary to satisfy Amazon law and tradition. Gabrielle was now bound to uphold her challenge to Arleia, and they both knew it. There would be no talking her way out of this one, but she knew that talking her way out of it had never truly been an option.

Gabrielle took a deep breath, raising her voice to answer. "Open the gates." She ordered. Gabrielle then turned and made her way down from the lookout just as Arleia and her warriors entered the city. The Amazon Queen stood defiantly before the rebel, the end of her staff resting on the ground, her hand clutching the traditional Amazon weapon, attempting to draw strength from its smooth surface. Arleia strode boldly through the open portal, carrying herself as if she had already defeated Gabrielle and now held the Mask of the Queen.

Arleia walked up to stand directly before Gabrielle, forcing the Queen to look up to meet her eyes. "Choose the weapons, Queen Gabrielle. I bow to your decision." Arleia said as she gazed down at the woman before her. She looks even smaller than I remember. Thought Arleia.

"Staffs." Gabrielle replied tersely, tightening her grip on her weapon of choice. Arleia inclined her head slightly, and moved to take up a position within the battle circle near the center of the village. The ceremonial area had been prepared the night before, as per the Queen's orders, she simply had not expected to use it so soon.

"Wait." Gabrielle called, "release my warriors first."

"Why should I?" Arleia asked, turning back to face the Queen.

"Because I ask it of you. They have all sworn an oath, they will not interfere. This is between you and me now. Let them go." Gabrielle repeated.

Arleia considered the request. Even if she didn't have them under guard, she knew that Gabrielle was right. Their sense of honor would keep the Amazons from becoming involved in the Challenge, but as for Xena, she was not so sure. "And what of the Warrior Princess? Did she take an oath?"

Gabrielle had not considered that Arleia would bring up the warrioress, and now that she had, Gabrielle was not at all sure she could vouch for Xena's noninterference in the combat. Gabrielle frowned as she turned to look at Xena. The Warrior Princess had raised her head at the mention of her name, and now gazed unflinchingly into Gabrielle's eyes. Even through her anger, Gabrielle could see the emotions fighting for control in Xena's soul: rage, fear, sadness, regret, they all fought for domination. Gabrielle began to feel the anger she held in her heart recede somewhat and she gathered the courage to speak to the warrioress.

Gabrielle approached Xena slowly and deliberately, and the guards flanking her made no move to stop the Queen. Standing before the Warrior Princess she framed her words carefully.

"Xena, do I have your word you won't interfere?" Gabrielle uttered each word as if it was an effort to get them past her lips. It was the first time they had spoken in days, and it felt awkward to her. Xena struggled with the decision. She knew herself too well, and if Gabrielle were in danger of being killed, if it was within her power, she would stop it.

"Gabrielle, you know I can't do that." Xena replied honestly.

"Xena please, stay out of this. This is my fight, not yours." Gabrielle said.

At those words, Xena suddenly had an idea. "Gabrielle, let me be your champion. Let me fight this one for you, please."

Gabrielle heard the plea, and the anger she had felt now fell away as she looked into Xena's soul and saw only sadness and shame. But Gabrielle knew she had to do this herself, no one could fight this battle for her. She just had to convince Xena of that fact.

"Xena, this isn't about me. This is about the survival of the Amazon Nation. I have to do this, and it must be me who faces the danger, faces death. If I win, the war ends, that was part of the Challenge I sent to Arleia. If she loses, then her followers have to swear to lay down their arms, never to take them up against their sister Amazons again. They will do as she bids them, Xena. They will swear to it before the combat begins. But if I should lose.." Gabrielle paused at the look of anguish on Xena's face. "If I should lose, Amazon law is very clear. The leadership of the Amazon nation would fall to Arleia, and all Amazons must pledge allegiance to her or face banishment. Don't you see? Either way, I win. Either way, the killing ends, here and now." Gabrielle concluded, determination hardening her resolve.

Xena looked into the green eyes that now calmly regarded her, and saw none of the fury that had been present during their last encounter. Now all Xena could see was a Queen, desperate to protect her people. Her heart felt as if it might pound out of her chest at the thought of Gabrielle fighting the Amazon. She was clearly at a disadvantage going up against a trained Amazon warrior, and Xena was almost certain Gabrielle would not survive. But Xena was also weary of fighting with Gabrielle, and the thought of another verbal battle with the young woman became unthinkable.

Xena was now faced with the most difficult decision of her life. If she agreed to stay out of the combat, and Gabrielle lost, she would never be able to forgive herself. And if she didn't agree, Arleia would probably kill them both. In the end it was Gabrielle's cool logic and heated passion that made up Xena's mind. She had doubted Gabrielle's ability to lead the Amazons, and she had been proven quite wrong. Gabrielle was a calm and confident leader, able to stir the Amazons to action with a simple command. Xena could only pray she was wrong this time as well, the guilt she carried with her every day was already nearly unbearable. If she were to add the guilt of Gabrielle's death to her conscience, she didn't know if her fragile soul could survive. Somehow, Xena found the strength to respond. But the guilt would not be hers alone.

"All right, Gabrielle. I promise." Xena said, her voice no more than a hushed whisper.

"Thank you." Gabrielle replied simply. She could feel the depth of feeling behind Xena's simple words, and knew that, once again, she had greatly underestimated her friend. Gabrielle's only wish, as she entered the arena to face Arleia, was to take back the last two days. To replay her life and take back all she had said and done. But now it was too late, and Xena would never know how much she truly did love her. Perhaps that was the real reason Xena's words had hurt so much. Gabrielle loved the Warrior Princess in a way she had never loved anyone before, not her sister, Perdicas, no one. Now she would never be able to explore the depth of the bond she shared with Xena, and that was something she would deeply regret, for Gabrielle fully expected to die in the next few minutes.

"All right, they have all sworn to abide by my orders, no one will interfere. Release them." Gabrielle said, this time the request sounding much more like an order.

Arleia was nothing if not a creature of honor. If they had taken an oath, then she would respect it. With a wave of her hand, the guards moved to release their prisoners. As their bonds were removed, Selari, Xena, and the other members of the patrol moved to stand with Ephiny and the Amazons loyal to Gabrielle.

"I'm sure you know the law." Arleia began, supremely confident. "We fight until one of us is dead."

"First things first. Have them pledge their loyalty to me, as was the agreement in the Challenge." Gabrielle replied.

Arleia turned to her troops and addressed them. "You heard the Queen," the rebel sneered, "swear it!" She never considered that her followers would ever have to live up to the oath they were about to take, and so, had no misgivings about ordering them to take it. Soon, she would be Queen, and none of this will have mattered.

Her warriors did not question the order, and drawing their swords, drew them across their breast in the traditional Amazon salute. "I swear!" Each proclaimed in her own voice, without any hint of reservation.

Gabrielle nodded solemnly, bringing up her weapon, holding it in front of her, ready to begin. Arleia motioned to one of her followers, who tossed her a staff. She twirled it in an intricate pattern in front of her body, slowly circling the Amazon Queen before her. As the two combatants circled, each looking for the opportunity to strike, Xena moved to stand next to Ephiny. Arleia made the first move, lunging toward Gabrielle, the butt of her staff lowered toward Gabrielle's abdomen. Gabrielle brought up her weapon in a sweeping arc, blocking the blow easily, and continued to circle.

Xena watched the cat and mouse game Arleia was playing with a growing sense of dread. She knew that the warrior was toying with Gabrielle, testing her. Watching it was becoming difficult and Xena turned to Ephiny, taking firm hold of her arm.

"You summoned her here Ephiny." Xena breathed, speaking only loud enough so that Ephiny could hear. "If she dies, you will have killed her, same as if you had run her through yourself. And I will NEVER forgive you."

Ephiny looked up sharply at Xena's words, but said nothing. She felt guilty at putting Gabrielle in this position in the first place. When she had learned of Gabrielle's plan to challenge Arleia, she had tried to talk her out of it. When she was unsuccessful, the guilt had nearly engulfed her. Ephiny knew that she had pressured Gabrielle into coming back to help, but at the time, she saw no other choice. Now Ephiny only wished it was she in that circle, and not Gabrielle. Xena's words had cut to the very heart of her guilt and exposed it to the harsh light of day. Their attention was pulled back to the combat, as the sharp CRACK of wood against wood could be heard resounding throughout the village.

Arleia had attacked again, this time bringing her staff overhead in a devastating arc. Gabrielle barely managed to deflect the blow. The young Queen was now completely off balance, and she found herself backpedaling frantically, scarcely able to keep on her feet. Arleia saw the opportunity she had hoped for, and moved in for the kill. But Gabrielle was not ready to give in just yet.

Just as Arleia was poised to deliver the final overhead blow, Gabrielle planted her left foot firmly, stopping her backward motion, and bringing up her staff in both hands, she cleanly blocked the strike, stunning the warrior. But her surprise was brief, and Arleia quickly changed the direction of her attack, bringing up her staff in an underhanded movement that struck Gabrielle in the thigh. The Queen went down to one knee, but anticipating the next strike, rolled to her right to avoid it. Gabrielle came up standing and using her momentum, charged Arleia. The Queen landed two blows to Arleia's unprotected sides with either end of her staff before the rebel was able to recover herself and block the attack, moving out of range of Gabrielle's weapon.

The clash ended, and the two combatants resumed circling each other, once again looking for an opening. It was not until it was over, and Gabrielle was still standing, that Xena realized she had been holding her breath, her body tensed with fear. She visibly relaxed when Gabrielle escaped the deadly blows without serious injury. Watching the dance of death, Xena could feel her blood boiling, her anger rising at her promise and the boundaries it placed on her, forcing her to stand by and do nothing. She felt Ephiny's hand on her arm, gently restraining her from entering the ring and ending it all, her promise be damned. Xena turned to look into the cool eyes that silently regarded her.

"Don't do it Xena. She'd never forgive you." Ephiny said simply, reading the warrioress' thoughts. Xena turned her attention back to the spectacle playing itself out before her and knew Ephiny was right. But more than that, Xena gained had too much respect for Gabrielle to back down on her promise. She gave Gabrielle her word, and if nothing else, she would keep it. She had hurt her friend too much in the last few days, and if this was the only way to make it up to her, then so be it. But if Arleia became the victor, Xena swore to avenge Gabrielle's death. She knew with absolute certainty that if Gabrielle were to die, her life could never possibly be the same again. Without Gabrielle, her purpose would be gone, and life would become meaningless.

Gabrielle eyed Arleia warily, watching the intricate patterns she wove with her staff through the still air. She was tiring quickly and knew that if she were to have any hope for survival, she needed to end this soon, but that hope was dwindling along with her strength. Gabrielle hadn't expected to live this long, and the fact that she was still on her feet had frankly surprised her. After landing the first blow, and seeing Arleia stunned, Gabrielle's hope began to grow until now, she felt that she might actually have a small chance at winning. But victory would mean Arleia's death, and Gabrielle would not kill. She had to find some way of ending the combat without killing the rebel leader and that may be impossible.

As Arleia charged yet again, Gabrielle found herself put on the defensive once more. The young Queen was able to block each of the rebel's thrusts but found herself steadily giving up ground under the constant attack, never able to mount an offense of her own. It was then that Arleia made a costly mistake. Seeing her quarry giving way under the ferocity of her attack, her confidence and pride took over, and she decided to toy with the Queen first before ending her life. It was this hubris that gave Gabrielle the opening she needed. As Arleia slowed the pace at which she advanced on Gabrielle, she lowered her staff ever so slightly, taking her attention off the Queen to look smugly into the eyes of those arrayed around the battle circle.

Gabrielle, exhausted from the unaccustomed exertion, sweat running in rivulets down her face, clouding her vision, nearly missed the momentary lapse in concentration. But when she saw it, immediately took advantage. She shifted her staff to her right hand, her left extended to lend her balance as she swung the weapon outward in a viscious circle that ended with the butt of the staff connecting with Arleia's temple, crumpling her instantly. Gabrielle had delivered the blow with all of her remaining strength and now stood over her opponent, her muscles quivering with fatigue. She slowly became aware of her surroundings again, her concentration no longer dominated by the woman now lying dazed at her feet.

The Queen looked around at the faces of her people, those she had risked her life to protect. Now those people were crying for Arleia's blood, calling to their Queen to give it to them. Gabrielle looked down at the figure helpless at her feet and knew that it was over. She lowered her staff to the ground, breathing a sigh of relief that she was still alive. It was then that the throng began to cry out more insistently for Arleia to pay for her crimes.

"Kill her!" Some shouted. "Kill her now! We demand justice!" Came the clamoring of others.

"NO!" Gabrielle shouted, finding the strength to address the crowd. "No more killing."

The force of the Queen's shout brought a stop to the din and silence settled over the arena like a heavy blanket. Gabrielle looked into the eyes of each of the Amazon warriors before her and realized that this was her chance. She may never again have the opportunity to affect the lives of so many so profoundly, and the gravity of the situation was not lost on her.

Xena watched the battle draw to a close, feelings of elation and awe running through her. She could barely believe what she had seen. Gabrielle had survived, the young Queen's skill stunning the warrior woman. She had managed to severely underestimate Gabrielle's strength and courage once again. Xena was now as enraptured as the Amazon warriors around her as she listened to their Queen speak.

"I will not take her life." Gabrielle continued. "There has been enough death. We must find another way, my sisters. Yes, she deserves to be punished, that I don't deny. But murder is not justice. Selari, take her to the prison." Gabrielle commanded.

"NO!" Came the cry from the crowd, unwilling to allow Arleia to live another moment. "The blood of our dead cry for vengeance! And we will have it!" Some of their number began to advance on the Queen and her opponent, still lying on the ground. Arleia was amazed she was still alive, and was awaiting her fate quietly, there was nothing to say. Honor demanded that she accept her fate stoically, without any hint of fear.

The Amazons loyal to the Queen had come to respect her and obey her orders without question, but this was too much to ask. Amazon law demanded nothing less than Arleia's death, and they meant to have it. As they closed in on the rebel leader, Gabrielle moved to stand between her and the mob.

"NO! If you want to kill her, then you'll have to kill me too!" The Queen yelled defiantly, suddenly aware that Ephiny had taken up position on her right hand. Gabrielle looked at Ephiny, surprised. She had thought the Amazon warrior would join those demanding blood. Ephiny returned the gaze, a small smile touching her lips.

"I stand with you, My Queen." Ephiny said simply, squaring her shoulders to face the warriors she had so recently led. At the sight of their Queen and her second in command standing defending the traitor, ready to sacrifice their lives to protect her, the throng stopped in their advance, now uncertain of their chosen course of action.

Gabrielle saw their hesitation. "The time for killing each other has past and we must now find another way. I call upon the council to convene and decide the traitor's fate. We have been wrong to seek vengeance on one another. It's now time for forgiveness." Gabrielle studied the faces of those before her, attempting to ascertain their sentiment. She could see the conflict that waged within many of them, and it gave her hope. If they at least were able to doubt their conviction that Arleia must die, then there would be hope for their survival as a race.

"My sisters, I am not asking you to give up your faith in the traditions of our elders. I only ask that you consider that those traditions may now be outdated, and it is time for a change. The time has come for us to create a new tradition." Gabrielle looked to Xena, who nodded her head ever so slightly in approval.

 

 

PART VIII: EPILOGUE

 

 

Two days had passed since the council had met to consider Arleia's fate. The traitor had been conspicuously silent throughout the proceedings, never once speaking on her own behalf. The council had decided upon the most severe punishment they could hand down, short of an execution. Arleia was to be banished, never again to live among the Amazon people she had so wanted to rule. Should she ever attempt to return or to take control of the Amazons by force, she was to be killed without question. Queen Gabrielle had not been overly pleased with the final part of the sentence, but was willing to make the compromise, if it meant that Arleia would live, at least for now. Whether or not the rebel would die was now completely up to her. The very day the judgement was passed, Arleia quietly left the village, taking with her only what she could carry. No one could say for certain if she would ever attempt to return.

The warriors who had chosen to fight at Arleia's side were allowed to return to the village, but mistrust would follow them wherever they went. They were no longer entrusted with any facet of the village defenses, relegated to the more menial tasks of day to day life in the village. The peace was an uneasy one, and Ephiny and Gabrielle both knew that it would take many months for the memories of what they had all endured to fade. But they were united once again, and both women felt certain that they were stronger for it.

It was late in the day when Xena finally gathered the courage to confront Gabrielle. Her joy that the young bard had survived the ordeal was only outmatched by her sheer amazement at Gabrielle's ability to shape the Amazon Nation into something that would hopefully stand the test of time. The warrioress had spent the last two days contemplating what she would say to Gabrielle when she was finally able to get close enough to the Queen to really talk to her. The young woman had been preoccupied with the trial, and now that it was over Xena hoped to get her alone long enough to say what was in her heart.

As the Warrior Princess approached the Queen's hut, she felt her heart begin to pound. What if she won't see me? She thought frantically. She must! Even if she wants me to leave, I'll not go before I've said what I came to tell her. The guards at the entrance to the Queen's quarters stopped Xena at the door while one entered to announce her. The warrior returned momentarily, ushering Xena into the interior chambers.

Xena entered to find the room empty, and looked at the guard questioningly.

"The Queen has asked that you wait for her here." She said curtly, and then turned and left the room, leaving Xena alone. The Warrior Princess paced impatiently, doubts clouding her mind. This was a mistake. She couldn't possibly want me in her life after I hurt her the way I did. She was turning to leave, when Gabrielle entered from her private quarters, no longer dressed as an Amazon Queen, but in her accustomed garb. She faced Xena coolly, her expression belying nothing of what she was feeling.

"Leaving already, Xena?" Gabrielle asked.

"This was a mistake, Gabrielle. I shouldn't have come." Xena replied.

"No, Xena. I'm glad you did. We need to talk." Gabrielle said as she turned to face away from the warrioress. "Xena, I'm sorry for what happened between us."

"Gabrielle, no. It wasn't your fault. I won't let you take the blame for any of it. You were only doing what you felt you had to do. I should've had more respect for your decision. I'm the one who's sorry." Xena explained, fearing she wasn't saying any of this all that well. Words had never been her allies, and she always seemed to be saying the wrong things and hurting those she loved the most.

"Xena, I know you were only trying to protect me but sometimes you just have to let me live my own life. That's what friendship is all about. That's something I forgot. I was so hurt by what you said, that I couldn't see what you were feeling, and why you would say things that hurt me. We both made mistakes, Xena. The only thing I want to know, is can we move on from here?" Gabrielle asked, as she turned back to face her friend, hope lingering in her soul.

"Gabrielle..." Xena began, unsure of what to say. Gabrielle had skillfully taken all the guilt and shame the Warrior Princess had been feeling and transformed them into hope and expectation. She knew she had to tell the young bard what she had been feeling since they had parted. "Gabrielle, you know I have never been good with my emotions. But that is especially true where you are concerned. I told you once that our friendship binds us closer than blood and that is still true. I feel a bond between us like I have never known before, and when I thought I had destroyed that..." Xena paused, searching for the right words. "I thought that was the end for me. I could see no reason to go on. Gabrielle I could take almost anything, except you hating me."

Gabrielle was shocked at Xena's confession. She had known the rift between them had been difficult for Xena, but she had not realized how hard it had been for her until now. Gabrielle's gift of words now deserted her, and the woman whose voice could calm an angry mob, found herself silent. She struggled with her own feelings as she found her voice again.

"Xena, I could never truly hate you. Furious with you, yes. But not hate." Gabrielle said, taking a few steps to bring her closer to the warrior woman. "I think we have both learned a lot from this, Xena. I told you once that I couldn't bear to lose you again. I want to have you in my life, Xena. You're still my home. I'm now more sure of that than ever." Gabrielle concluded, taking a few steps to close the distance between them.

Xena could no longer stem her emotions, and the joy she felt at Gabrielle's return was greater than anything she had ever experienced. She broke into a wide smile, her eyes shining with unshed tears. Gabrielle saw the relief in Xena's eyes, and reached out to draw her into a deep embrace. They remained this way for several minutes, neither wishing to break the spell. Both women realized how close they had come to losing the bond they shared, the love that was stronger now than before. The bards said, 'What doesn't kill us, can only make us strongerí and for Xena and Gabrielle that was certainly true. It wasn't until there came a soft knock, that they reluctantly drew away from each other, turning to face the door.

"Come." Gabrielle said.

Ephiny entered the hut slowly, surprise registering at Xena's presence. "Am I interrupting?" she asked hesitantly.

"Of course not, Ephiny. Please, come in." Gabrielle replied, motioning the Amazon to come the rest of the way into the room. "Is there something you needed?"

"I wanted to apologize to you, Gabrielle." Ephiny said, lowering her eyes. "I had no right to force you into coming here and getting involved in all of this. It was wrong of me, and I'm sorry. Will you forgive me?"

Gabrielle left Xena's side and crossed over to stand in front of Ephiny. "You have nothing to be sorry for. I'm a part of this village, Ephiny. I wouldn't have stayed if I didn't believe that this was where I needed to be. And I learned a lot, about myself and about life. Nothing is nearly as simple as I had imagined. I think I'm finally starting to figure that out." Gabrielle said, glancing over at Xena, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. "Please, Ephiny, don't ever hesitate to send for me if you ever need me again."

"You mean you're not staying?" Ephiny asked, raising her eyes to meet Gabrielle's gaze.

"No. Xena and I have to be leaving."

"How soon do you have to go?" Ephiny asked, her voice tinged with sadness.

"First light." Gabrielle responded, knowing Xena would be eager to get back on the road, her journey not yet completed.

"Then tonight we'll feast! In honor of our Queen, and our newfound peace." Ephiny said enthusiastically. "If you'll excuse me, I've got some preparations to attend to."

Xena and Gabrielle watched her leave, and then turned to face one another again.

"Gabrielle, we can stay a while longer if you want." Xena offered.

"No, Xena. I think I'm ready to leave. I'm ready to be just Gabrielle the bard again." She said, a wide grin on her face. Xena returned her smile.

"Gabrielle, I wanted to tell you I'm proud of you. The way you were able to guide the Amazons during this whole thing. That wasn't an easy thing to do. You are much stronger than I had given you credit. I underestimated you, and that's not something I'll do again in the future." Xena affirmed.

Gabrielle accepted the praise from her friend graciously. "Thank you, Xena." Gabrielle said sincerely.

There was silence for a moment before Gabrielle spoke again. "So, do you want to rethink your answer?" Gabrielle asked, a mischievous grin crossing her features.

"My answer? What was the question?" Xena asked, confusion reflected in her icy blue eyes.

"You know, 'Does an Amazon Queen beat a Warrior Princess?' That question."

Xena paused slightly, considering her answer carefully. "Gabrielle, I think this time we both win."

 

THE END

As always, this work is lovingly dedicated to my husband, Robert. You are my muse, my life, my home.


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