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Gabrielle contentedly sat by the lake working on her daily journal. It had been several days since she had updated it and of course several days with Xena meant for a rather long entry of events to chronicle their adventures. Occasionally she looked up from her labors, looking for Xena who was somewhere nearby hunting for dinner.
They had been camped in the same spot for three days, an extraordinary length of time for the warrior who seemed always to be in need of motion. Gabrielle reflected that maybe her friend was mellowing, maybe with time she wouldn't need the constant movement as she tried to atone for her dark past. Sighing deeply, she shook off her reverie and scanned her surroundings, searching once again for her friend. Her gaze fixed on a movement in the distance, a rider heading towards her. It couldn't be Xena, Argo was grazing nearby. Gabrielle moved closer to the tree where her staff leaned, best to be prepared should this rider be trouble.
The rider seemed to be in quite a hurry. Gabrielle felt a warning flush through her as she reached for her staff. As the rider drew nearer her intuition told her to relax, there was something familiar and non-threatening about the rider. She was able to discern that it was a woman, and finally, from the way she rode, that she was an Amazon.
Gabrielle waved her arm in greeting as the woman and her mount came to a quick stop at her side.
"Eponin!" she said with surprise and delight, "What are you doing here?"
"Gabrielle, I'm so glad I've found you," the Amazon said breathlessly. "We've had riders out in all directions looking for you."
Gabrielle felt a wave of alarm from the urgency in the Amazon's voice. "What's wrong?" she asked excitedly.
"We need you to come to the village. Melosa is ill and there is trouble in the tribe. As the heir to the throne we need you there to stop the internal struggle that is threatening to tear us apart."
Gabrielle looked stunned by this sudden turn of events, "I'd better find Xena and you can tell us the whole story."
"No need to find me, Gabrielle, I'm right here," Xena said from behind her, startling the bard who spun around quickly, almost clipping her friend with the staff she held.
Xena caught the wayward end of the staff in her hand and laughed lightly, "Sorry, I should know better than to sneak up on a trained warrior like that. Your defensive reflexes are getting pretty good."
Gabrielle flushed at the near miss of her staff. Already unsettled by Eponin's dramatic arrival she tried to pull herself into a state of composure.
Xena laughed at Gabrielle's obvious fluster, "Come on, Eponin, get your horse cooled down, watered and fed and then we can get our meal prepared and you can tell us what's going on with the Amazons. Gabrielle, I left a couple of rabbits by the campfire, how about you get them cooking and I'll forage for some fruits and vegetables?"
Gabrielle and Eponin nodded their agreement and Xena headed into the woods at a trot to fulfill her end of the deal.
"There's something so different about her," Eponin observed wonderingly, watching the receding figure of the warrior. "She seems so much more... approachable, less rigid than when I last met her."
"Yeah, that's my Xena, Miss Warm and Fuzzy," Gabrielle grinned. "I'm going to take full credit for having civilized her, at least as much as one can consider Xena civilized."
Though Gabrielle was only kidding about her influence it was obvious to the Amazon that in that humor was a profound grain of truth.
The three women sat companionably around the campfire. Eponin ate greedily proclaiming the rabbit stew the most savory concoction she had ever eaten. Of course the fact that she hadn't eaten in two days in her dogged quest to track the Amazon Princess might have helped to enhance the flavor.
"So, Eponin, tell us what this is all about. What's wrong with Melosa?" Gabrielle queried.
"About three months ago Melosa started experiencing spells of weakness and dizziness. At first they were short spells, occurring infrequently. Then, they started getting worse, lasting longer, coming more frequently. About a month ago she became so incapacitated that she is now bedridden," said the Amazon sadly.
"Did she sustain any injuries, especially to the head?" Xena asked.
"No, everything has been peaceful since we settled our problems with the Centaurs. Our medicine women can't find any explanation for her condition," Eponin replied.
"This sounds pretty bad, Eponin. But you mentioned that it's going to destroy the tribe. What did you mean by that?" Gabrielle inquired.
"Amazon tradition holds that the queen must be a strong, physically capable leader," Eponin explained. "If the queen is permanently disabled the custom requires her to relinquish her throne. There are many in the tribe who feel that Melosa will never recover and therefore must step aside. That would of course mean that Gabrielle would assume the position of Queen of the Amazons."
Gabrielle's jaw dropped open in amazement. She looked at Xena who looked back at her with a growing look of unease about the unfolding situation.
"Whoa there!" Gabrielle cried in panic. "I don't think I'm really the 'Queen of the Amazons' material."
"And that's another part of the problem," Eponin continued. "There are many among the Amazons who would agree with you. You don't practice the Amazon ways, you've never even lived with the tribe, and you're not particularly ... fierce..."
"I can be fierce," Gabrielle interjected in her own defense.
Xena and Eponin exchanged an amused look at the bards proclamation of her prowess.
"Well, there are some Amazons who would challenge your claim to the throne. Particularly dangerous would be Renat. She is an Amazon of the 'old ways'. Someone who feels adamantly that Melosa has corrupted our society by making peace with the Centaurs and giving men a greater voice in political matters. She has many supporters behind her push to oust Melosa. She would challenge you to combat as soon you assumed the throne. A challenge which, by Amazon law, you would be required to accept," Concluded the Amazon.
Xena frowned deeply. She didn't like hearing about the discord among the Amazons, but it sounded like the situation was likely to turn ugly and Gabrielle would be at the center of the dispute. It could be a very dangerous place to be.
"So what's kept Renat in check so far?" Gabrielle asked.
"Melosa is tremendously respected among the Amazons. Her reign has brought us peace and prosperity. She is tough, strong, wise and just. Though all may not love her she is still an exceptional leader. Renat knows if she were to move against Melosa nearly the entire tribe would turn on her. She can't do anything while Melosa is queen."
"So why upset the balance of this standoff by having me take the throne?" Gabrielle asked.
"Because if Melosa dies while still in power Renat would wreck havoc preventing your succession to the throne," Xena responded. "This could factionalize the Amazons and create a civil war in the struggle for power."
"Exactly," Eponin agreed. "That's why Melosa sent out a dozen messengers looking for you, Gabrielle. I've been tracking you for over a week. Melosa needs you. The Amazons need you. Will you come?"
"Of course I'll come. But I think I'm only going to ignite an already volatile situation," Gabrielle responded apprehensively.
Xena looked at her friend with growing concern. "I just hope Melosa knows what she's doing. She's putting Gabrielle in great danger asking her to do this."
"She has no choice," Eponin said.
"We have no choice," Gabrielle agreed determinedly. "I assume we leave at dawn?"
"Yes, Gabrielle, you can switch between riding with me and riding with Eponin," Xena responded. "We should be in Amazon territory by sundown tomorrow."
"Oh joy, up at dawn and horseback riding all day. Sounds like lots of fun," Gabrielle said sarcastically.
"Could be worse," Xena teased.
"Oh yeah, how?" the bard asked.
"Could be raining," Xena said with a smirk.
Gabrielle grimaced at that thought. Xena laughed at her friend's reaction to her gentle mocking of the bard's aversion to traveling in rough weather. Gabrielle glared back playfully.
"Sorry," Xena apologized insincerely to her friend. "How about entertaining us with one of your stories?" she said to make amends. "Then we'll call it a night since we have to get up early."
Gabrielle brightened at the request for a performance. It wasn't that often that Xena actually encouraged her to talk more. She launched into a humorous story about a merchant and a warrior haggling over a sword. A story which Xena took great delight in interrupting every time Gabrielle made fun of this fictional warrior.
Eponin laughed at the friendly exchange of jibes between the warrior and the bard. She was one of a few people who glimpsed the personal side of the unlikely partnership between the cold, aloof warrior and the flighty, emotional bard. From her growing insight she could see that Xena wasn't as cold as she seemed and perhaps there was more depth to her young companion than was apparent as well.
It had been an uneventful ride for the trio. They had kept a quick pace, stopping only to rest the horses. They reached the main Amazon village shortly after sunset. A brilliant bonfire burned at the center of the village and the three headed towards it. Reaching the large open space at the center of the village where most tribal meetings congregated they were surprised to see a large number of boisterous Amazons gathered before the dais where the Amazon queen usually held court. Before them on the dais stood a tall, well muscled young woman who brandished her war staff as she addressed the feverish throng.
"That's Renat," Eponin informed her companions. "This doesn't look good. I can't believe she would be bold enough to instigate this kind of display. I'm afraid Melosa must have taken a turn for the worse."
Xena stood observing Renat for a few moments. She needed to assess this woman's skills and cunning. In both departments she was sure the Amazon would be a handful. It was obvious that she had been busy recruiting many of the tribe for her bid for power. This was not going to be easy.
"Xena, come on. We'd better find out about Melosa," Gabrielle said, tugging on the warrior's arm.
Reluctantly Xena followed her companions, casting a sharp glance back at the woman she was sure would soon be her adversary. "Whatever you do, Renat, you'd better not harm Gabrielle or you'll wish you'd never been born," she pledged silently to herself.
Eponin led Xena and Gabrielle to Melosa's lodge. There were two guards at the door who bowed slightly as Gabrielle walked by. They entered the lodge which was well lit by torches placed generously about the room.
Slumped in a chair at a table sat Ephiny, looking like she hadn't slept in a week. She sprang to her feet and sprinted to the trio, embracing Gabrielle tightly. "Thank the gods you're here," she said with relief. "Thank the gods you've come in time."
"How's Melosa?" Eponin asked.
"She's slipping fast. She has short periods of consciousness and then passes out from the strain. She's the toughest person I've ever known but I don't see how she can survive much longer," she said with a sob.
"Can we see her?" Gabrielle pleaded.
"Yes, of course. Follow me."
Ephiny led them through the fabric partition which led to Melosa's sleeping chambers. The room was quite stark except for a large bed in the center of the room and some Amazon weapons displayed on the walls. Apparently Melosa never succumbed to the temptations of her rank. There were two medicine women keeping constant vigil beside the bed to tend to their stricken ruler.
Gabrielle approached the bed and sat beside the sleeping queen. She was stunned to see that the mighty warrioress she remembered was now so pale and fragile looking. Taking hold of her hand she choked back tears and softly called, "Melosa, it's Gabrielle, I'm here."
As if summoning her last reservoir of strength the Amazon queen opened her eyes and looked at Gabrielle, a tear trailing down her cheek. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
Gabrielle looked stunned. "Sorry?" she said. "Sorry for what?"
"For having to bring you into this mess. It will be very dangerous for you. But I had to ask you.. I had to do it... for my people," she wheezed. "Ephiny, did you tell them the plan?"
"No, Melosa, they just arrived and wanted to see you."
Ephiny took a deep breath and began. "I'm sure Eponin has filled you in on the situation. In this past week Renat has been gaining more and more support as Melosa's health has gotten worse. It's critical that a transfer of rule be made with as little turmoil as possible. Melosa wants to abdicate her throne to the next in the royal line. Due to Tereas' bestowing her right of cast on her, that would be Gabrielle. There is, however, a special law regarding the crowning of a new sovereign. If at the coronation a challenger with a strong following contests the succession she can force a challenge fight for the crown. It's almost certain that's what Renat is planning to do."
"Yes, we saw her leading some sort of rally. It looks like she has a lot of supporters now," Xena said.
"We were hoping that Gabrielle could be found and the Ceremony of Succession performed before Renat had enough support to raise the challenge. Unfortunately, it looks like we're too late. There's no way to avoid the challenge," Ephiny replied.
"All right. It's not the best situation but still not impossible," Xena sighed. "Gabrielle can chose me as her champion and I'll fight Renat."
Ephiny, Melosa and Eponin exchanged uneasy glances.
"What is it?" Xena asked nervously.
Melosa whispered, "By Amazon law the Challenge of Succession must be fought between the challenger and the new sovereign. No champions can be picked. No interference can be allowed."
Xena went into a rage. "Are you people crazy? Do you really expect Gabrielle to fight Renat? No way, this is out of the question. She'll be killed for sure. Come on Gabrielle, we're leaving."
"No," Gabrielle responded softly.
Xena spun around, glowering at her friend. "Gabrielle, I know you've made tremendous improvements in your fighting skills, but look at this realistically. Renat is going to be out to kill you. You can't compete against that, she's a first level warrior skilled with all weapons."
"I'm not going, Xena," she said looking to her friend. Turning to the ailing queen she held her hand and calmly said, "When I accepted Tereas' right of cast I accepted this responsibility. I didn't know exactly what that entailed at that time but that doesn't matter. I didn't know Tereas well but what I knew of her was courageous and kind. I will not dishonor her by running away. We'll figure something out or I'll die trying."
Melosa reached up a shaking hand to touch the bard's cheek. "Thank you for caring so about my sister. You remind me so much of her. So gentle. So brave. So noble. My people could not have a better queen," she smiled weakly.
"So when is this Ceremony of Succession to take place?" Xena asked glumly.
"We'll need two days to make the arrangements. We'll need to make a public announcement and send messengers out to our sister tribes throughout the Amazon territory with the news of succession. The ceremony will be at mid-day on the third day," Ephiny replied.
"Ok. We have some time to work on some things so let's all get some rest and start fresh in the morning. And Melosa, don't worry. Save your strength and get some rest. Everything will be fine." Gabrielle said, leaning down and giving the queen a kiss on the cheek. "Everything will be fine."
Xena paced anxiously across the length of the room. "Everything will be fine? How can you possibly believe that!"
Gabrielle lay on her bed as relaxed as could be. "I believe it," she said quietly. "I feel it."
"You're being unrealistic, Gabrielle, totally unrealistic. How can you think that you'll defeat Renat? This isn't your fight. Walk away, please, walk away," Xena begged.
Xena sighed in exasperation. "Ok. Let's assume for a moment that somehow you win. You've beaten Renat and are now Queen of the Amazons. What next?"
"You're Queen of the Amazons, time to rule your queendom. You'll hold court every day. Settle disputes among your subjects. Plan public works. Make decisions on everything that affects your people. Your life is going to *change*, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle shot bolt upright. "By the gods, I hadn't thought about that. I was so concerned about stopping Renat and helping Melosa I wasn't thinking that far ahead," she said in shock.
"Well, I'll stop by whenever I'm in the area to see how you're doing, your highness," Xena said wryly.
"You'd *leave* me, Xena?"
"I'd rather we didn't have to part, Gabrielle, but I can't stay here and if you become queen you couldn't very well keep traveling with me. You'd have to be here, ruling your domain."
Gabrielle looked stricken. "This is really starting to look like a pretty bad deal," she whined. "First, I run the chance of getting killed. Then, if I don't get killed I have to give up my way of life and settle down to rule in a culture I know almost nothing about. What am I going to do, Xena?"
"Walk away, Gabrielle, walk away."
It was a bright, warm morning. Gabrielle and Xena walked towards the dining lodge where all meals were served. As they walked through the village they heard a buzz of excitement pass through the people. The news was obviously out, their future queen walked among them. Xena felt uneasy at all the attention turned their way. She was grateful when Eponin and Ephiny called to them and led them into a small, private dining area.
"Has anybody come up with any good ideas?" Gabrielle asked hopefully.
"Yes, walk away," Xena said dryly.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Xena, stop it."
"I won't stand by and see you get hurt," Xena said vehemently.
"If that's the way you feel then leave. Because I'm staying," Gabrielle replied stubbornly. "Now are we done with this?"
"Apparently," Xena said resignedly.
Eponin and Ephiny looked wide eyed at the brisk exchange between the warrior and the bard.
"Oh, don't mind us," Gabrielle said with a sly smile, trying to ease the tension. "Sometimes we get a little testy with each other. Especially if I don't do exactly what a certain warrior princess wants," she said with an affectionate glance at her friend.
"Sorry. I'm just afraid for you, that's all," Xena said contritely.
"I know," Gabrielle replied, giving the warrior a hug.
"Please, Gabrielle, not in front of the Amazons," Xena protested comically.
The four women smiled. But it was time to get down to business.
"I'd like to gather as much information on Renat as I can. Hear what people have to say about her. Maybe hear some of her speeches. Observe her as much as possible," Xena said. "Eponin and Ephiny, I'm counting on you to keep Gabrielle safe."
"I don't need a baby sitter," Gabrielle protested.
"I don't think you do either. I'm sure Renat is more than happy to wait to make the Challenge of Succession. But, there still is a chance she or someone else might make an early move against you if they get an opportunity. Be careful, all of you."
"I think it would be a good idea if Gabrielle got out among our people today so they can get a chance to meet her. Maybe if she joined the hunting party she could meet some of our warriors and win some support," Ephiny suggested.
"I don't know," Gabrielle squirmed. "Xena usually does all the hunting for us. I'm not that good at stalking. I guess I can't stop talking long enough to sneak up on anything. Perhaps there's a farming party I can join?"
Eponin, Ephiny and Xena rolled their eyes. This definitely wasn't going to be easy.
"No, Gabrielle. The hunting party is a good idea. It's important that you try to win the warriors support and that's the best place to start. Still, it will be dangerous out in the woods. You will be vulnerable. You three must stay close for protection," Xena said.
"Ok. But I don't think I'm going to like it," Gabrielle conceded.
"I'm going to start asking around about Renat. Be careful," Xena said with a concerned look towards Gabrielle.
The warrior left, leaving Eponin, Ephiny and a disquieted Gabrielle to their mission.
"The hunting party should be gathering soon," Ephiny said. We'll hear the drums calling it to order. We can wait here."
"I'd like to know more about Renat. What is she like?" Gabrielle asked as they waited.
"Renat was born and raised in a village on the northern edge of the Amazon territory," Eponin Responded. "She had worked her way up to a position on the village's tribal council, something quite remarkable for someone as young as she is. She is quite ambitious. She rose as high as she could on the village level but she wanted more. About a year ago she moved to this village, the central authority for the Amazon people. She insinuated herself in Melosa's court, doing everything she could to get close to Melosa."
"And Melosa didn't see through this?" Gabrielle asked.
"Melosa thought she could channel Renat's ambition. Renat is a charismatic leader and a superior warrior. But Melosa wasn't afraid of her because she knew that no matter how good Renat is, she could still beat her. At least she could until she got sick," Ephiny said.
"That's right," Eponin concurred. "Once Melosa started having those spells Renat turned against her. Renat started publicly renouncing Melosa's policies. In particular, Melosa's treaties with the Centaurs that give them hunting privileges in our territories and the inclusion of men on the village tribal councils. Renat is a zealot about women maintaining total domination over the men, a position which many if not most Amazons feel uncomfortable. Under Melosa's reign her policy has provided a balance to our society that seems to be working quite well. I'd hate to see us revert to the old ways."
"And the Centaurs?" queried Gabrielle.
"She hates the Centaurs," Ephiny related. "If she had her way they'd be the quarry for every hunting party. Her mother was killed during our war with the Centaurs several years ago. You can understand that she holds a grudge, but after all, we were at war. Now, we are not just at peace with them, we actually consider them our allies. That won't last for long if Renat wins the crown."
"This would start a bloody conflict that would be disastrous to both peoples," Gabrielle observed. "But would the Amazon people follow her against the Centaurs?"
"That's hard to say, Gabrielle," Eponin responded. "The feelings about the Centaurs run a broad range with most being indifferent. If Renat, as queen, makes public policy against them I'm sure the undecideds would fall in line behind her. "
Gabrielle looked concerned. "So where would that leave you, Ephiny? You're husband was a Centaur. You're son is a Centaur. What would you do?"
"I'd have no choice," The Amazon responded sadly. "I'd have to leave the tribe. My son is with his grandfather, Tyldus, right now. I sent him there for safety until this is settled. If things do not go well I may have to join him there and live out my life exiled from my people."
The sound of drums was heard. "Time to go," Ephiny said.
The trio walked to the center of the village where the hunting party was forming. Almost a dozen Amazons were assembled for the hunt.
"You'll have to carry a hunting spear, Gabrielle. We'll have to stop at the weapons hut to get each of us one," Ephiny said.
Entering the weapons hut Gabrielle was unhappy to relinquish her staff in exchange for the spear but recognizing that it was necessary she did what she had to do. Selecting one of the shorter spears more appropriate to her stature she held it distastefully, "This really isn't me, you know."
Her companions grinned. Amused at the discomfort of their princess but both totally charmed by her fortitude and dedication.
"Looking fierce, Gabrielle, looking really fierce," Eponin teased.
Eponin and Ephiny each selected spears of their own and hunting bows with a quiver of arrows. The trio headed back to join the hunting party.
The collected Amazons waited expectantly. Finally, one woman stepped forward. It was Renat. "Ordinarily I would volunteer to lead the hunt, but I see our Princess has joined us so it would be her place to lead us today," she said slyly.
Gabrielle was startled by this sudden shift of attention directly on her and already unnerved by Renat's presence, but she deftly responded to Renat's move to embarrass her by forcing her to lead the hunt. "No, Renat, I'm unfamiliar with your hunting grounds. It would be wiser for you to lead us since the success of the hunt is important to feeding the tribe," she said graciously.
The rest of the hunting party nodded in obvious agreement with Gabrielle's reasoning. Eponin and Ephiny smirked appreciatively. Renat glowered at Gabrielle's having eluded her ploy.
"Ok, then. We'll head to the east forest. I tracked a large herd of deer there yesterday. If the goddess Artemis smiles on us we should have enough to feed the village for a week," Renat grumbled.
The hunting party moved at a brisk pace towards the hunting grounds. Gabrielle kept close to Renat to show her she couldn't be intimidated. Occasionally she chattered to the warrior about the scenery and the weather, sensing that it annoyed her and enjoying that fact immensely.
Reaching the edge of the forest Renat brought the group to a halt. "We will split into three groups," she said. "One group circle up to the north then drive south. Another group circle down to the south and drive north. The third group will wait in the center for the prey that gets flushed towards it by the other two groups."
Gabrielle, Ephiny and Eponin formed up one group.
Renat spoke privately with one of the Amazons who appeared not too happy with what she was hearing, but she nodded her head in agreement and joined one of the groups. Surprisingly, Renat joined Gabrielle's group. "We'll take to the north," Renat said. Indicating to each of the other groups which direction they should take. "We'll head north half a league then east half a league then start driving south. The southern group should go about the same distance. If the center group has themselves set in place this should yield several kills. Let's go."
The groups headed out in their appointed directions. The members of each group drifting apart somewhat as they threaded their way through the dense forest.
Gabrielle's nerves were on edge as she plodded along. She felt very vulnerable being in this unfamiliar forest. The growth was so thick that she frequently lost sight of everyone in her party even though Eponin and Ephiny were trying their best to stay close without appearing to be guarding her. She also was perplexed by Renat's joining her party. She was sure the warrior would have wanted to distance herself from her jabbering.
The group had walked about as far north as they intended. With a short whistle from Renat to get everybody's attention she indicated that they were to head east.
Gabrielle climbed up a large tree felled across her path when she heard a whistling sound. Turning abruptly she reacted instinctively and caught an arrow headed straight for her heart. Losing her footing she fell from the tree trunk and landed with a loud grunt. Ephiny and Eponin were at her side in a second. "Are you all right?" they said in unison.
Gabrielle jumped up, surveying the direction from which the arrow had come. "I'm fine," she said. "Just fine. "
A flash of movement a distance away revealed the perpetrator in flight.
"Stay here!" Ephiny ordered as she and Eponin took off in pursuit.
Gabrielle gazed disbelievingly at the arrow she held in her hand. "Wow, I caught it! Xena's going to be so proud of me," she thought. Then another thought occurred, "Uh oh, she's not going to be too happy about this. Maybe I better not tell her. I'll just get another lecture about not being careful enough and she'll never let me out of her sight."
"Nice catch." a voice said from behind her.
Gabrielle jumped and whirled around to see Renat standing there. Her heart, already racing from the attempt on her life, was now pounding like the Amazons' big war drum at the added shock of Renat's unexpected voice.
"Thanks," the bard said shakily.
"It would appear that this is a dangerous place for you, Princess," Renat said evenly.
Gabrielle stood her ground. "Hey, I've been traveling with Xena for almost two years. Compared to that this is a walk in the Elysian Fields," she said casually, unwilling to give the Amazon the satisfaction of seeing her unsettled.
"Interesting that you should mention the Elysian Fields. You'd better be more careful or you might just end up there," Renat said with a sneer.
"Are you threatening me?" Gabrielle confronted.
"No, I'm not threatening you. Just trying to give you some advice. You should leave here. You aren't an Amazon. You'll never take the throne."
"Thanks for the advice, Renat. But I'm not planning on going anywhere," Gabrielle said defiantly.
The Amazon glared hard at the bard who glared right back. Aggravated that the bard had not shown even the slightest fear Renat stormed off.
Gabrielle sat on the fallen tree, trying to recover her shattered nerves, when a figure leapt from a nearby tree and landed only feet from her. She gasped in surprise and quickly brought her spear up in defense.
"Xena!" she cried at the sight of her friend. "Couldn't you have made a little less abrupt of an entrance?" she said as she tried once again to quiet her pounding heart.
"Sorry. A bit nervous, eh?" the warrior said.
"It's been a rough day."
"So I've seen."
"How long have you been following us?"
"Actually, I've been following you the whole time."
"Did you see it? Did you see I caught the arrow?" Gabrielle asked excitedly.
"Yes, I saw. That was very lucky. You could have been killed," Xena said gravely, concern etched across her face.
"Yeah, well I'm ok. No harm done. Did you see who shot the arrow?"
"No, this forest is too thick, there was too much cover to hide behind."
"You heard my conversation with Renat?"
"Every word. She probably arranged for that archer, hoping you'd be dead or at least scared enough to be driven away. She's going to be even more dangerous now. You were right to defy her, but now she knows you can't be scared off."
Eponin and Ephiny came trotting back. Both panting for breath.
"We lost the trail," Eponin said.
Xena glared at the two Amazons. "I thought you were guarding Gabrielle," she growled. "How could you let yourselves be lured away like that?"
"But we thought we might catch the archer," Eponin stammered.
"So you left Gabrielle alone. What if that archer had accomplices waiting to get Gabrielle alone? What if Renat had seized the opportunity to kill her when no one was around?" Xena raged.
The two Amazons looked like they were ready to impale themselves on their own daggers in contrition. Unable to meet Xena's eyes they stood staring at the ground, accepting Xena's wrath without protest.
"That's enough, Xena," Gabrielle said tersely. "You're afraid because I'm in danger and you're taking it out on our two friends. I'm fine, now let's move on from here."
Eponin and Ephiny cast thankful looks at the bard.
Xena managed to calm herself and apologized to the crestfallen women. "I'm sorry," she said in an unsteady voice. "Gabrielle's right, we need to stick together."
"So, what now?" Gabrielle asked.
"I guess we should head back towards the rest of the hunting party. No use making this a total loss," Eponin suggested.
"Yes," Xena concurred. "But let's keep this attempt on Gabrielle's life a secret for now. It would only increase tensions in the village."
The four made their way through the forest. Xena never more that a spears length away from her friend. Eventually they met up with the rest of the hunting party who had managed to kill five deer and a boar. The Amazons quickly gutted the beasts and prepared them for the trip back to the village by tying the front legs together and the hind legs together then passing a spear through the legs, each animal was carried by two women. Gabrielle and Xena shouldered a load. Eponin and Ephiny did likewise. Renat picked up a deer with another Amazon, avoiding eye contact with Gabrielle and her friends.
Back at the Amazon village Xena and Gabrielle returned to their hut to rest and clean up before heading to the dining lodge for dinner. Pouring water into a basin from a jar left in their room they each took a turn at the basin.
"Whew, that feels better," Gabrielle said. "I'm starving. I can't wait for a big platter of that venison."
Xena smiled at her friend. She knew quite well what this girl was capable of eating and after today's exertions she was sure this would be a major feeding frenzy. She sighed deeply as she watched her friend primp her hair. It seemed like things just got more and more dangerous for the bard who was either incredibly brave or incredibly oblivious to this fact. Knowing Gabrielle, it was definitely the former.
"Better keep that appetite of yours under control or they'll have to send out another hunting party tomorrow for all the food their going to need for your coronation celebration, your highness," Xena teased.
Gabrielle laughed at her friend's gentle ribbing. "Keep it up, Xena. Another disparaging remark about my appetite and you'll incur my wrath! My first act as queen will be to have you executed. I'm sure Renat would be happy to follow that royal command." the bard jested.
"Come on, let's go eat." Xena tugged her friend by the arm. "Then we'll go see Melosa."
They walked slowly through the village. Greeted with warm smiles from everyone they passed. Apparently Gabrielle's participation in today's hunt had pleased the populace. Chalk one up for the good guys.
Entering the large dining hall they were struck by the delectable aromas of the foods prepared by the Amazon cooks. Taking a plate, spoon and fork from a stack at the head of the table they passed along a series of serving tables where they heaped mouth watering piles of vegetables, tubers and finally the much anticipated venison upon their plates. Reaching the end of the serving tables they were immediately invited to join a table with several women they recognized from their hunting party. A flagon of ale stood on the table and mugs were quickly dispensed for the Amazon Princess and her friend.
Gabrielle was quite taken by the warm reception she felt from the hunters. She had indeed been hungry and her prodigious appetite seemed to raise her in the esteem of the Amazons. After several mugs of ale she was really enjoying herself and regaling her dining companions with her stories.
Xena watched in amusement as Gabrielle effortlessly charmed everyone around her. She noticed that it wasn't just the handful at their table who were entranced by the bards luminous personality. Nearly the whole room was covertly observing their Princess, with many smiles and nods of approval.
Things were definitely going good until Renat arrived. She seated herself at their table, glaring accusingly at the other hunters for their crime of fraternizing with her enemy. Everyone at the table lapsed into silence as a nervous buzz swept the room.
Gabrielle glanced at Xena who had a look of cold steel in her icy blue eyes as she glared at Renat. Unwilling to let Renat win in this silent battle for control Gabrielle decided to kill her with kindness. "That was a brilliant hunting tactic you used today," she complimented her sweetly.
Renat nearly choked at the praise. "Standard Amazon hunting technique which you would know if you knew anything about our ways," she growled condescendingly.
"Yes, I have a lot to learn about my people," Gabrielle quietly baited the angry Amazon.
Renat rose to her feet bellowing angrily, "These are not your people, girl! Your claim to the throne will not stand!"
The room was dead silent. Gabrielle stayed seated, unconcernedly finishing her dinner. "The laws of succession are quite clear, I will be your queen," she said conclusively.
Something inside Renat snapped. She flew towards Gabrielle, unsheathing her sword and bent on murder. The surrounding Amazons were frozen in disbelief. Only Xena retained the ability to move. Vaulting across the table and drawing her sword in one fluid motion she landed between Gabrielle and the enraged Amazon. Renat continued her charge, making the rather imprudent choice of attacking Xena. Several exchanges of blows later Renat lay on the ground under Xena's boot, sword and near lethal gaze.
Xena hesitated. Her emotions running rampant as the temptation crossed her mind to take this opportunity to kill Renat and remove the threat to Gabrielle.
"I yield," Renat gasped.
Xena's adrenaline pumped so hard that she had to fight for the self control she needed to stand down.
"It's over, Xena," Gabrielle whispered, a gentling hand on the warrior's arm.
Xena pulled her sword away from Renat's throat and stepped back. Ready to react should Renat not have learned her lesson.
The humiliated Amazon stood and brushed herself off. She glowered at Gabrielle. "Your friend can intercede for you today, Princess. But she can't interfere in the Challenge of Succession. You'll have to do your own fighting then," she snarled. Turning brusquely, she stormed from the room.
Sensing the unreleased tension in the room, Gabrielle cracked, "We hope you all enjoyed this evenings exhibition and invite you back same time tomorrow for another exciting demonstration of 'Looks That Could Kill'."
A nervous twitter ran through the crowd and then resolved into a full out chuckle as everyone relaxed and went back to their meal. The noise level was almost deafening as everyone discussed what had just happened.
Gabrielle bid a good evening to their dinner companions and dragged her still livid friend outside.
"I could have killed her," Xena quaked. Trying to bring her rage under control.
"I know, but you did the right thing," Gabrielle said comfortingly, an arm wrapped lovingly around her trembling friend.
"Did I? I don't know about that. If she kills you in the Challenge I'd have to think that it's my fault. I could have stopped her here."
"Hold it, Xena. First of all, she is not going to kill me, you've got to give me some credit. Everything will be fine. Secondly, no matter what happens there would have been no justification for you to have killed Renat just now. You had her beaten and defenseless and to have killed her would have been murder, and you know that would have been wrong."
Xena leaned her head against her friend's shoulder for the emotional support she needed. "You're right, it would have been murder. But if she hurts you I don't know how I could handle it."
Gabrielle stroked the warrior's hair. "Remember your promise, Xena? You won't seek revenge. You won't become a monster."
Xena looked at her friend. Barely a whisper she said, "I remember."
"Ok. Now pull yourself together. You don't want the Amazons to see you all mushy now, do you?" Gabrielle cajoled.
A smile flitted across Xena's face. How easily Gabrielle could emotionally disarm her. "What would become of me without Gabrielle there to ground me?" she wondered. "Maybe settling in the Amazon village isn't an impossibility if Gabrielle did choose to stay here," she thought.
"Gabrielle, whatever possessed you to goad Renat like that? She's not someone to toy with."
"Actually, I don't quite know what happened there. I was only trying to not let her presence overshadow the good time we were having before she showed up. Then things got rolling and the next thing you know you had a sword at her throat. Oh, and thanks for saving my life... again."
"Next time could you maybe try not to infuriate a crazy person like that? And your welcome." The warrior smiled. "Now let's go see Melosa."
The two friends walked across the village to Melosa's lodge. Gabrielle rambled on unconcernedly with her stream of banter. Xena acutely alert to the dangers that could lurk in every shadow. Entering the lodge, they found Ephiny and Eponin.
"Well, we heard you two had a little excitement at the dining lodge. What happened?" Ephiny asked.
"Wow, news sure travels fast around here," Gabrielle observed. "Is Melosa awake? Did you tell her about the hunt today? She should hear all this."
"We didn't want to disturb Melosa. We were waiting for her to wake up to tell her about the hunt. I'm sure she would want us to wake her to fill her in on all that's happened," Ephiny replied.
The four women passed through the curtain to Melosa's sleeping chamber. Gabrielle sat on the bed. Holding Melosa's hand she called softly, "Melosa, are you awake? Melosa?"
The ailing queen opened her eyes and smiled broadly. "Gabrielle, I was just having the most wonderful dream. I was talking with Tereas. She sends her love and says be brave, everything will be fine."
Gabrielle smiled back. "Yes, everything will be fine," she said gently. "We have some news that you should hear. It's been a pretty eventful day."
Gabrielle related the days events, telling about the hunt, the attempt on her life and the warning from Renat. Melosa cast a disapproving look at Ephiny and Eponin when she heard how they had left Gabrielle unprotected. Gabrielle finished with the description of what transpired in the dining lodge. Eponin and Ephiny looked shocked at Renat's bold attack on Gabrielle. Melosa, however, displayed a cunning smile of satisfaction.
"Melosa, I fail to see what you find so amusing about Renat trying to kill Gabrielle," Xena said angrily.
"It's terrible that Gabrielle was placed in such danger, but don't you see? Renat made a PUBLIC display of violence. She made a major mistake losing her self control. And there seems to be a growing positive sentiment for Gabrielle. Renat's going to lose some supporters over this, and Gabrielle's going to gain some. This could work to our advantage," Melosa explained.
"You're right," Xena said, admiring the insight Melosa shed on the day's events. "But Renat is even more unpredictable now. Her pride has been wounded and she's capable of anything. Any ideas what we should do next?"
"You must all be very careful. There's no way of knowing who she might strike against. But I'd like to make a suggestion that might just work..." Melosa said, a spark of mischief in her eyes.
Gabrielle, Xena, Eponin and Ephiny stood at the edge of the crowd in the village square. Renat was again on the dais, addressing an assembly of about 50 Amazons. Though Renat spoke fervently about her favorite issues, removing men from the village councils and breaking ties with the Centaurs, only about half the crowd seemed to be responding to her emotional presentation, the rest seemed to be listening attentively without leaning toward or against the views she espoused.
Eponin and Ephiny fidgeted nervously, watching the crowd for any threatening moves towards Gabrielle.
"I don't like this," Xena growled.
"I know, Xena," Gabrielle said.
"This is not a good idea," Xena growled again in protest.
"This is going to work. Just keep cool," Gabrielle reassured her.
On stage, Renat finished her litany and stood with her war staff raised over her head in a pose of power and confidence. Her supporters gave war whoops and shrill whistles of support. The rest of the crowd seemed unimpressed by the boisterous cheering.
"Here we go," Gabrielle said with a hard swallow. She quickly made her way to the dais and stood on the opposite end of the stage from Renat.
A pall of silence fell across the crowd at Gabrielle's entrance. Renat turned to see what had affected the crowd so and her jaw dropped to see Gabrielle on the stage.
"I'd like to speak with you for a moment, if I may," Gabrielle began commandingly. "We all know that a great change is in store for the Amazon nation. In two days your great leader, Melosa, will abdicate her throne. There will be a new sovereign crowned. A new sovereign who will guide the tribe for many years to come."
Renat stood staring rabidly at Gabrielle. Her shock at the bard's audacity was enough to leave her physically immobile even as her mind raced to discern how to react to this situation. She had realized immediately after the incident in the dining lodge that any move of violence against the interloper would be met with disapproval by the populace. She would not make that mistake again.
Xena stood at the edge of the stage watching Renat for even a twitch of a movement towards Gabrielle. Her adrenaline was pumping furiously as her concern for her friend wrecked havoc on her nerves.
Gabrielle continued in a firm, confident voice. Her bard experience for public oratory working to her advantage. "The Amazon people will be making a choice, a very serious choice. Here is Renat, a brave and powerful Amazon warrior. Educated in all the laws and traditions of the Amazon people. A woman of formidable fighting and hunting skills. A woman who believes to the core of her being that the Amazon sisterhood must dominate all who live in their territory."
Gabrielle slowly paced towards Renat as she spoke. Stopping a mere arms length away, facing the crowd. Renat seethed. Xena's heart pounded at her friends imprudent proximity to the Amazon. The crowd was mesmerized by the drama unfolding before them.
"Then there is your other choice, there is me. An Amazon Princess by inheritance of the right of cast. I do not know the specifics of your laws and customs, I do not fight unless attacked first, and I do not kill. But though I might not know the letter of your laws I do know their spirit and I have lived it. For two years I have traveled with my friend and we have fought despots and warlords, murderers and thugs. Using our strength only to right a wrong, not just to dominate. This, my friends, is my vision for the Amazon nation. It is a vision which I believe is shared by Melosa," Gabrielle concluded passionately.
Renat regained her composure and sought to wrest back the crowd's attention. "Sounds very pretty, this picture she paints. But every day the Centaurs help themselves to more of our resources! The Amazons must exterminate these poachers from our land! We must take back what is rightfully ours!" She raised her fist to punctuate her point.
A handful of cheers and whoops came from Renat's supporters.
"A wise friend once told me 'Only fools and profiteers ask for war,'" Gabrielle rebutted, "and the Amazons are neither of these. Melosa made that treaty in the best interests of her people. To stop the years of bloodshed between your people and the Centaurs. And what has happened? You have a thriving, profitable trade with the Centaurs. Do you really want to relinquish this peace and prosperity and return to war? Is that what you want for your children? You have a choice to make. Make it wisely."
The crowd was riveted to the impassioned bard. Without another word she walked across the stage and left the square followed closely by her three companions.
Gabrielle walked silently to the hut she shared with Xena and collapsed on the bed. She was emotionally exhausted from the performance she had just completed. Melosa's plan had been a good one, she had done her best to pull it off.
Xena entered the hut and sat on the bed next to Gabrielle, stroking the bard's hair. "You were wonderful," she said gently. "I am so proud of you."
Gabrielle rolled over and sat up on the bed. Wrapping her arms around the warrior's waist she leaned against her shoulder. "I'm so scared, Xena," she confessed.
Xena put her arms around her friend's shoulders and hugged her protectively, gently rocking her friend in consolation. "Hush," she whispered. "Everything will be fine."
Gabrielle awakened feeling well rested, she should since she had slept almost to mid-day. She was surprised that Xena wasn't there but figured the warrior wouldn't be far. She rose, dressed, and headed outside.
"Good morning, Princess," Eponin said from her seat at the right of the entrance to the hut.
"Good morning, Gabrielle," Ephiny smiled from her seat on the left.
"Oh, so what are you two doing?" Gabrielle asked with a wry grin.
"We're just sitting here enjoying the warmth of the sun," Eponin responded.
"Uh huh. So, where's Xena?" Gabrielle inquired.
"She's looking for someone," Eponin volunteered.
"Looking for someone? Who?" Gabrielle pursued.
"She wants to talk to Tyrel. She was in the hunting party with us yesterday. Renat spoke with her just before we split into groups," Ephiny said.
"Yeah, I remember her. What does Xena want with her?" the bard pondered.
"She didn't say," Ephiny responded.
"Well, aren't you two just a wealth of information," Gabrielle teased. "I guess we'll find out when she gets back."
Gabrielle headed towards the dining lodge. Eponin and Ephiny jumped up and took up position at her elbows. Gabrielle stopped suddenly. The two Amazons ground to an immediate halt at her side.
"Is this really necessary?" the bard queried in annoyance.
"Listen, Gabrielle. We'd be pretty upset if anything happened to you. We're not going to screw up like we did yesterday. And of course, Xena would skin us alive, boil us in oil and spread our remains in the desert for the vultures to pick clean. So, yeah, this *IS* necessary," Ephiny explained.
The bard shrugged in acceptance and started off once again for the dining lodge, her Amazon escort at her heels. The lodge was deserted except for a couple of women preparing for the mid-day meal. Gabrielle helped herself to the slim pickings left over from the morning meal. Having eaten heartily under the bemused gaze of her companions she was ready to face the day.
"I would really love to bathe right now and get some clean clothes," Gabrielle wished aloud.
"I still have the chest of Tereas' clothes you asked me to keep for you," Ephiny offered. "And the communal bath shouldn't be very crowded this time of day."
"Wearing Tereas' clothes would be a fitting remembrance of her now," Gabrielle said agreeably. "But the way everybody keeps staring at me, I'd really like to bathe somewhere a little more private."
"Well, the river on the west side of the village is running extremely fast from the snow melting in the mountains this time of year. There's a small cove cut into the riverbank a little downstream that is pretty calm, but it will be pretty cold," Ephiny offered in understanding.
"Cold I can handle. Let's go," the bard said with enthusiasm.
The three women went to Ephiny's hut to get the change of clothes, soap and some cloth for drying off. Finally making their way to the banks of the fast moving river.
Gabrielle stared at the cascading torrent. "That looks a little too rough," she said in disappointment.
"It's much calmer in the cove," Ephiny encouraged. "You'll see."
They headed downstream and soon came to the cove. It was actually a large portion of the bank washed out by some long ago flood which formed a sheltered pool at a curve in the river. The water did indeed look manageable and inviting.
Gabrielle climbed down the bank and stripped off her top and skirt. Wading into the chilling water in her modest undergarments she plunged into the deep pool and cried out at the cold shock. Her skin tingled from the cold but after a couple of minutes she was able to tolerate the chill. She rubbed herself frantically with the soap, trying to minimize the time spent in the near freezing water. Eponin and Ephiny watched Gabrielle's frenzied bathing in amusement, knowing full well the icy needles Gabrielle was experiencing.
A loud commotion was heard coming from the village. Eponin and Ephiny looked upriver toward the village. The cacophony seemed to be moving quickly in their direction.
"What's going on?" Gabrielle yelled from the cove.
"I can't see anything!" Eponin responded.
Ephiny quickly climbed a tree for a better view of the village. Her eyes opened wide at what she saw. "There's someone in the river!" she yelled. "By the gods, it's a child! She's caught in the current!"
"How far away is she?" Gabrielle yelled excitedly.
"What?" Ephiny called, unable to hear the bard over the growing clamor of the women who raced along the riverbank trying to keep up with the flailing child.
"HOW FAR AWAY IS SHE?" the bard shouted in repetition.
"SHE'S ALMOST HERE!" Ephiny shouted back.
Gabrielle made her way towards the raging torrent, steadying herself against the force of the waters powerful flow.
"GABRIELLE! NO!" screamed Eponin, realizing the bard's intent. "STOP! THE CURRENT'S TOO STRONG!"
Gabrielle watched the churning water rushing towards her. For an instant she spotted a small, dark shape being mercilessly flung about. Without thought for her own safety she dove into the turbulent river. By virtue of some miracle, sheer luck or the will of her heart Gabrielle managed to grab onto the struggling child, wrapping one arm around her waist she used the other to try to keep her head above water.
"GABRIELLE!" Ephiny and Eponin screamed in horror. "GABRIELLE!"
A mob of women reached Eponin and Ephiny's position. The two women joined the mad race to follow Gabrielle and the child's death dance with the river.
One figure burst through the mob, gaining distance on the thrashing pair. It was Xena. Her heart and legs pumping furiously. Her lungs about to burst. Her powerful leg muscles screaming in protest. Intent on catching up to her friend and the child or drop dead trying.
Gabrielle fought furiously to hold onto the terrified child. Her free arm working to keep them from being dragged under by the wicked currents. Gabrielle was slammed into a huge tree trunk protruding just barely above the surface of the water. Her arm was locked determinedly around the child and would not allow the river to wrest her from her grip. Her other arm caught a branch jutting from the trunk. She held on for dear life.
Xena desperately flew along the riverbank. Oblivious to the scratches she received from low branches that jabbed her as she ran. A spark of hope leapt to her heart when she saw Gabrielle grab onto the tree. "Hang on, Gabrielle!" she shouted. "I'm coming!"
Xena leaped ten feet up to a branch on a tree along the river bank. Swinging up and around she used her momentum to propel herself even higher to a thick branch that drooped out over the river, directly over her struggling friend. She quickly ran across the branch, bending her knees for balance. When she was directly over Gabrielle she laid down on the branch. Untying the whip from her waist, she sent an end down to Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle!" she yelled. "Get the whip. Wrap it around the girl!"
Gabrielle struggled to hold herself and the child against the punishing torrent. She saw the whip dangling within her reach but she could not let go of the tree or she would be swept away and she certainly could not let go of the child. Struggling against the violent water she managed to wedge herself precariously in the vee formed by the branch and the tree trunk. With a desperate move she released her hold on the branch and reached for the whip.
Xena watched the struggle below her. Reaching out in an effort to get the dangling whip closer to her friend she was herself dangerously close to losing her balance and falling to the unmerciful water below.
Gabrielle caught the whip by her fingertips. She pulled the whip in and circled it around the child's chest. Her numb fingers working frantically to tie a knot. "Now, Xena! Pull!"
The warrior hauled up on the whip, pulling the panic stricken child from the river. Finally she had the child in her arms and stood to carry her to safety. She retraced her steps along the branch and jumped to the ground to hand the child over to her grateful mother. Turning back to the river she saw the limb Gabrielle clung to break off from the trunk. The bard disappeared under the churning froth.
"NO! GABRIELLE! NO!" Xena screamed. Her arms were grabbed by Ephiny and Eponin, restraining her from diving in after her friend. She struggled frantically but they managed to hold on.
The current pushed Gabrielle under the submerged tree trunk, the force of the water literally pinning her against it. Darkness invaded the edges of her vision as her brain screamed for oxygen. Groping the massive log with her hands she felt a deep knot along the downstream side. She grabbed the knot tightly with her right hand and with her last ounce of strength pulled herself out from under the log. Her head broke the surface of the water and she gasped for air. Her fingers ached from the cold and the bruising they had suffered from their efforts to find purchase on the rough bark of the tree. She held on for her life.
An incredulous gasp rose from the crowd when Gabrielle broke to the surface. Xena broke the hold of Ephiny and Eponin and ran to the river's edge. "Gabrielle, catch the whip!" She sent the whip out to Gabrielle, it landed only inches from the bard who had made no effort to catch it. The current immediately carried it out of reach.
Xena reeled the whip back in. Panicked by Gabrielle's lack of effort to reach for the whip. "She's in shock," she thought. "The struggle against the force of the river and the loss of body heat in the cold water, she must be ready to pass out."
"Gabrielle, please. Try to get the whip," Xena pleaded. She saw a glint of determination flash in the bard's eyes.
"Now, Xena," Gabrielle rasped almost inaudibly. "Now."
Xena sent the whip out one more time. Praying with all her heart that her aim was accurate. The whip dropped to the surface of the water and the current carried it to the bard's outstretched hand. Somehow Gabrielle was able to force her near frozen hand to clutch the thin whip and wrap it around her wrist. She let go of the tree trunk, placing her faith in Xena's strength to pull her in and surrendering to the cold darkness.
Frantically, Xena pulled the whip in. The current was pulling hard against Gabrielle's body but it was no match for the warrior. In seconds she had pulled Gabrielle to shore where Eponin and Ephiny grabbed her arms and pulled her from the water. Xena knelt by her friend and felt for a pulse, her heart ached at the faint beat she felt at her finger tips. "Hang on, Gabrielle," she begged. "Don't you leave me."
Xena stood and gave a sharp whistle.
"We've got to get her warm. Ephiny, bring blankets to our hut," Xena ordered. "Eponin, bring wine."
In answer to her mistresses whistle Argo came thundering through the crowd of Amazons who parted to let the big mare pass. Xena mounted the horse bareback and Ephiny and Eponin gently handed the unconscious bard into her arms. With the pressure of her knees Xena turned Argo back towards the village, a light kick and a "Yah" set her off at a gallop. Xena held her friend tightly, praying that the faint spark of life she had felt would not go out.
Eponin and Ephiny ran as fast as they could back to the village. Each had an assignment they were desperate to fulfill.
Xena carried her friend to their hut. Laying her on the bed, she pulled the thin blanket over her and got the blanket from her own bed as well. Xena crawled under the covers and pressed her body against Gabrielle's to give her some warmth with her own body heat. Pressed against her, she could feel how cold the bard's flesh was and started rubbing her arms briskly trying to bring circulation back.
Ephiny and Eponin nearly collided as they ran through the door of the small hut. Ephiny was carrying several heavy furs which she heaped on Gabrielle. Xena crawled out from under the blankets, tucking Gabrielle in as tightly as possible.
Xena sat next to the bard, her head in her hands. Having done all she could she now felt powerless as she waited while Gabrielle once again walked the fine line between life and death. Looking up, she saw the stricken faces of Eponin and Ephiny.
"I trusted you to keep her safe," Xena said venomously. "How could you let this happen?"
'Xena, it happened so fast. She only wanted to bathe. How could there be any harm in that?" Ephiny tried to explain.
Xena glared at the two Amazons. "How could there be any harm? In that raging river? In water as cold as ice?" she snarled.
"Xena, how many times do I have to tell you, stop yelling at our friends," Gabrielle's nearly inaudible voice spoke from under the pile of blankets.
Xena spun around to see the gentle blue eyes of the bard peeping out from the pile of furs. She knelt beside the bed, concern chiseled in the furrows across her brow. "How do you feel? Any broken bones? Does it hurt anywhere?" she asked in an unsteady voice.
"So cold," Gabrielle confessed in a weak voice as a series of shivers tore through her body. "My hands hurt some, and my back where I hit the tree but I don't think anything is broken."
"That's good. We'll get you warmed up, then have a look at your injuries. I want you to drink some wine, it will help warm you up," the warrior said in relief. "Let me help you sit up."
Xena put her arms under her friend's shoulders and neck and helped raise her to a sitting position. Gabrielle winced at the pain in her back. A cry of pain escaped her lips though she had fought to suppress it. "I'm sorry," Xena said guilty. "I'm trying not to hurt you."
Gabrielle gritted her teeth. "I know, Xena. It's not your fault."
Eponin held a goblet of wine for the bard to drink. Giving her small sips until the goblet was drained. She looked to Xena and Gabrielle. "More?"
"No. That's enough. It does help to make me feel warm inside," Gabrielle said with a hint of a smile of gratitude. "Is the girl ok?"
"She was conscious but extremely cold and frightened when I handed her to her mother. We'll check on her later," Xena answered.
"Thank the gods," Gabrielle said through chattering teeth.
"Is there anything we can get for you or do for you, Gabrielle?" Ephiny offered.
"No, thank you. I am really tired though, I think I could use some sleep," the bard replied.
"We'll be right outside. Call if you need anything," Xena said, giving Gabrielle a kiss on the forehead.
"Please, Xena, not in front of the Amazons," Gabrielle quipped with a tug of a smile on her lips.
Eponin, Ephiny and Xena smiled at this now familiar joke. Their friend would be ok. They exited the hut to give Gabrielle a chance to sleep.
Outside the small hut at least a hundred Amazons waited in silence. The three friends stared in dismay at the assembled crowd. One woman took a step forward and asked, "We'd like to know, how is Gabrielle?"
Xena was moved by this show of concern. "She's resting comfortably. She took a couple of hard knocks, but she will be fine. She'd like to know how the little girl is. Can someone tell me where I can find her?"
"I can show you where she lives," One of the women volunteered.
"I'd appreciate that," Xena said. The warrior turned her attention to Eponin and Ephiny.
"We know, Xena. Stay close to Gabrielle and don't let anything happen to her," Eponin offered.
"Don't worry, Xena, we will guard her with our lives," Ephiny confirmed.
Xena followed her guide to a small hut on the outskirts of the village. She rapped lightly on the door frame.
"Come in," a voice called from inside.
Xena entered the hut where a woman sat beside a child on a cot.
"It's you! Welcome, my friend. Thank you for saving my daughter!" the woman effused. "Please, come in, sit down. How is Gabrielle?"
"Gabrielle is fine," Xena replied. "She's resting, but she wanted to know about the girl. How is she?"
"She'll be fine, too," he woman responded, relief apparent in her voice. "And she'll never be allowed to play near that river again. Though I doubt that she'll ever want to anyhow. Do you think I can stop in later to see Gabrielle? I'd like to thank her for saving my daughter."
"I think that would be fine," Xena said with a smile.
"That was an incredibly brave thing she did. The Amazon legends will sing the story of this deed for generations to come," the Amazon said.
Xena thought how appropriate it seemed that the bard would be immortalized in a legend of her own. She rose and bid the woman good bye and hurried back to be by Gabrielle's side.
Approaching their small hut she noted that the crowd of Amazons had dispersed but she also noticed with much concern that Eponin and Ephiny were not at guard at the door to the hut. She ran to the hut and soon saw why.
"Gabrielle, get back in bed. You're skin feels cold still, please get back under the blankets," Ephiny begged.
"I'm fine," The bard said as she dressed in the Amazon clothing.
"Please, Gabrielle, Xena will kill us if we let you go anywhere," Eponin whined fearfully.
"I just want to go out in the sun and move around some. I think that would do more to warm me than lying here," she reasoned. "And really, why are you two so afraid of Xena?"
"Because I will kill them if they let anything else happen to you," Xena said flatly.
Ephiny, Eponin and Gabrielle jumped with a start at Xena's voice.
Ephiny and Eponin had a look of concern at the warrior's words.
Gabrielle laughed and smiled broadly at her friend. "Yeah, right."
Xena broke into an impish grin at Eponin and Ephiny's discomfort, they smiled back at her when they realized she was only kidding with them.
"Are you sure you're up to going out? How are your hands and back feeling?" Xena asked worriedly.
"I feel fine," Gabrielle reassured her friend. "And actually my hands don't feel too bad now that the numbness from the cold is gone. And my back feels better too."
A look of relief crossed Xena's face. With a sigh she allowed, "Ok, you can go outside, but take it easy."
"Yes, mother," Gabrielle teased, earning her a cool glare from her friend. "Did you find out about the girl?"
"She's fine. Her mother sends her gratitude and will stop by later to personally thank you," Xena replied.
"I'm glad she's all right. I'd like to go see how Melosa is doing. Anyone want to come?" Gabrielle invited.
"I don't think there's any way you can get rid of us," Eponin said affectionately.
The four women set out for Melosa's lodge. Xena kept a constant eye on Gabrielle should she look faint or tired. But the bard had indeed recovered from her swim and bounded along happily. They were constantly hailed with bright smiles and greetings as they made their way through the village. Xena doubted that there was anyone in the village who hadn't heard about the rescue of the child.
Entering Melosa's lodge they found one of the medicine women preparing a potion. Hoping to learn some of the Amazon medicines Xena went to see what it was.
"This is a potion Melosa has taken every day since she was a child," the woman explained. "Few people know this, but Melosa has had an irregular heartbeat all her life. This combination of herbs controls the problem," she said, putting the jar of medicine back on a shelf. "If you'd like, I will have the apothecary show you how we prepare the mixture."
Xena accepted the invitation to see how Amazon medicines were prepared. She and the others followed the medicine woman to Melosa's sleeping chamber where they were surprised to see the queen sitting up in bed.
Melosa gulped her medicine quickly, wincing a little at the acrid taste. "This stuff didn't used to taste so bad," she complained. Turning her attention to her visitors, a tear trickled down her cheek at the sight of Gabrielle. "That was Tereas' favorite outfit," she choked. "It looks beautiful on you, Gabrielle."
"I wanted to wear it to honor her memory," Gabrielle said with a flush from the compliment. "I also thought it might help if I dressed in Amazon clothes since I'm trying to be accepted by the tribe. How do you feel, Melosa?"
"Today has been a good day," Melosa stated. "I'm feeling a little stronger. I think having you and Xena here has relieved me of a lot of the strain that was wearing me down. I feel that everything is going to be fine for my people. But you look a little pale, Gabrielle, are you all right?"
"Kind of had a little excitement this morning, but I'm fine now," Gabrielle replied. She told the queen of her rescue of the girl in the river. Eponin, Ephiny and Xena were annoyed how she played down her heroism in the event, but they kept silent, letting the bard tell the story as she would.
Melosa looked at Gabrielle, wide eyed. "Gabrielle, you must be more careful," she chastised the bard. "I am depending on you to lead my people. Try a little harder to not get yourself killed, won't you?"
Xena looked smug at the lecture Melosa was giving Gabrielle. For once it wasn't her nagging at the bard.
"Eponin, Ephiny, can't you keep this woman safe?" she eyed her two subjects icily.
"We've tried, Melosa, put she has such a talent for getting into trouble. Xena, how do you deal with this?" Ephiny whined.
"She does get into some pretty good jams. You kind of get used to it," Xena agreed sympathetically, a wry smile directed to the bard.
"Hey!" Gabrielle protested. "It's not my fault! Things just happen."
They all smiled warmly at the indignant bard.
"Time for some lessons, Gabrielle," Melosa said, bringing them all back to business.
"Lessons? What lessons?" Gabrielle inquired.
"We have to go over the Ceremony of Succession. You must know what you will have to do tomorrow," Melosa replied. "Eponin and Ephiny and I should be able to prepare you, this might take several hours."
"If the three of you can manage to keep Gabrielle out of trouble I'd like to find someone," Xena said.
"Still looking for Tyrel?" Ephiny asked.
"Yes," Xena replied. "Any ideas where I might find her?"
"She usually works on the farming party. She's one of the Amazons most knowledgeable people when it comes to plants. I was surprised to see her on the hunt yesterday. Try the grain fields to the west," Ephiny advised.
"Why are you looking for her, Xena?" Melosa asked curiously.
"Because Renat had spoken to her on the hunt and Tyrel didn't look too happy with what Renat was saying. I know it's only a hunch, but I suspect that Tyrel shot the arrow at Gabrielle," Xena revealed.
"She'll die, if she had a part in that!" Melosa said angrily.
"If I can prove that she did it, she'll be wishing she were dead," Xena said with a steely look in her eyes.
"Be careful, Xena," Gabrielle said, placing a concerned hand on the warrior's arm.
Xena left on her mission. The others got down to the business of rehearsing the ceremony that was to be held the next day.
Xena tossed and turned in her bed. She was frustrated that she hadn't been able to find Tyrel. It made her even more suspicious that her hunch was right, the woman seemed to have gone into hiding. Thoughts of the next day's events plagued her. She was too worried about the challenge fight to be able to sleep.
What she had been told was that the fight would be fought with both combatants fully armed with traditional Amazon weapons: a spear, sword, dagger, and chobos. The only weapon which Gabrielle was good with was the staff. Xena had given her some lessons in sword play when the bard wanted to take on Callisto, but she hadn't practiced since then and probably remembered very little. Xena berated herself for not having insisted on Gabrielle's education with other weapons.
Xena rolled over once again, trying to capture the elusive sleep. She could faintly see the outline of her friend on her bed. For a moment she heard soft snoring till Gabrielle rolled over and mumbled, "Everything will be fine." in her sleep.
The bard had been exhausted. After the battle with the raging river she had spent several grueling hours learning her part of the ceremony. Melosa's strength hadn't lasted very long so it had fallen to Ephiny and Eponin to finish the instruction. Despite the apprehension she must be feeling about the next day Gabrielle had fallen into a deep sleep only minutes after collapsing on the bed. Xena had put an extra blanket on her friend and tucked her in snugly, remembering the cold shivers that had wracked through her earlier that day.
Xena tossed again. Waiting in vain for the sweet release of sleep.
The morning was bright and clear, a warm breeze blew as Xena escorted Gabrielle through the village to Melosa's Lodge. The excitement in the air was intense. Gabrielle walked quietly beside her friend, determined to face whatever was in store.
They entered Melosa's lodge to find a buzz of activity as preparations were made. Xena went to see Melosa. Gabrielle went with Ephiny and Eponin to get ready.
Melosa was sitting up in her bed. She was dressed in her ceremonial garments and looked majestic.
"Will you have the strength to get through this?" Xena asked worriedly.
"The medicine women have given me some powerful elixirs to help fortify me for this day, but even without that I would will myself through it," the queen replied resolutely.
Xena smiled knowingly. She had developed a deep respect and affection for this queen who once had been her opponent in battle.
"Xena, there's something I need to say to you," Melosa began hesitantly. "Gabrielle is accepting quite a burden assuming the leadership of the Amazons. She will have many here to assist and guide her: Eponin, Ephiny, the Council... but they can never take your place. There is a bond between you two that would be a terrible thing to lose. I feel that of all that I've asked of Gabrielle, this is just too great a sacrifice to ask of her. I don't know what your plans are after today, but please consider staying here. Stay by her side. She needs you and you know you need her."
Xena was shaken by Melosa's emotional plea. She had already been considering what she would do but kept postponing making any real decision hoping that the situation would change and she wouldn't have to make that choice. "I know I need her, Melosa. She keeps me from falling to my darker instincts. She is the beacon that I follow to my own redemption. I don't know what would become of me without her," Xena confessed softly. "I don't know if I could fit in with the Amazons. And as for Gabrielle, I would give my life to help her in any way I can. I will try to stay by her side for her sake and for mine, but I can't promise more than that."
"Fair enough," Melosa said in understanding.
"I'm going to see if I can find Tyrel. I'll be close by at the ceremony. But know this, Melosa, if things get out of hand and Gabrielle is in danger I *WILL* do what I have to do to protect her, regardless of the Amazon laws barring interference."
"Agreed. Gabrielle's safety is our top priority. The Amazons will just have to work out our problems some other way before I'll let her sacrifice herself," Melosa concurred sincerely.
Xena strode out to the main room of the lodge. Several Amazons surrounded Gabrielle who uneasily submitted to all the attention, helping her with her hair and ceremonial clothes. Xena grinned at her friend's obvious disgruntlement and continued out the door in search of her quarry.
Xena watched the crowd of Amazons gathered to witness the crowning of their new sovereign. She had once again been unsuccessful in her search for Tyrel. The village square was packed, making it nearly impossible to move. She estimated that there must be at least 300 Amazons gathered in the square. She had earlier spotted Renat and a knot of supporters gathered near the stairs to the dais, apparently she wanted to be in good position when the time came to make her challenge.
The Amazon war drums started beating in a tight rhythm as the crowd turned in unison towards Melosa's lodge. Four Amazons bore the queen on a throne supported on their shoulders, four others marched as escort, two in front, two behind. Melosa wore her armor, sword, dagger and chobos and held an ornate spear. The crowd slipped back allowing the Queen's entourage to pass to the stage. Melosa was carried to the center of the stage where her throne was placed facing her people. Her honor guard marched back off the stage.
With a quick series of drum beats the crowds attention was once more directed towards Melosa's lodge. The drums resumed their regular rhythms as a troop of twelve Amazons, two abreast, marched towards the square. They were followed close behind by Gabrielle.
Xena's jaw dropped open in awe at the sight of her friend. She was dressed in a golden tunic cinched tight by a golden band at her waist. She wore intricate arm and breast armor and bore a sword in a scabbard on her back, a knife and chobos dangled from her belt. Ordinarily Xena would have laughed heartily at the sight of her gentle friend so adorned with weapons, but Gabrielle wore the Amazon garments with pride, courage and dignity and she looked absolutely radiant.
The crowd parted once again to make way for the honor guard to reach the stage. The Amazon guard stopped when they reached the stairs to the dais and parted to form two lines facing in. Holding their spears high, they created an arch which Gabrielle walked under on her way to the dais.
Xena tore her attention away from her friend to scan the crowd for any danger, her vision landing on the elusive Tyrel not far from her own position. Tyrel happened to look at Xena at that moment and realized that she had been spotted. Fear flared in her eyes. Like a scared rabbit, she bolted. Xena took off in pursuit.
Forcing her way through the throng, Xena saw Tyrel break out of the crowd and head for cover. "Oh, no, Tyrel. You're not gonna get away," Xena vowed, bullying her way through and heading after the fleeing Amazon. Running in the open, Xena quickly closed the distance on her terrified quarry. Tyrel realized that she couldn't outrun the warrior, she unwisely turned to fight. Drawing her sword, she waited for Xena to catch up to her.
Xena saw Tyrel take her stand and drew her sword as she raced towards the Amazon, she flipped through the air and landed within swords reach of her prey. "I've been wanting to talk to you," she said with a triumphant smile.
Gabrielle walked across the dais and stood beside the throne. She and Melosa faced the spellbound crowd.
"My people, we are gathered here today for the Ceremony of Succession," Melosa said in a surprisingly strong voice. "As you all know, I have for some time now been in poor health. I feel that my infirmity has compromised my ability to rule and so, by Amazon custom, I now freely choose to abdicate my position as your queen and step aside for my successor."
Melosa paused for a moment to catch her breath and shake off the fatigue that was already draining her energy.
Gabrielle looked at the queen worriedly. "Can you go on?" she whispered.
Melosa nodded her head and continued. "The laws of succession are clear. First in line would be my female offspring, but I am childless. Next in line is my blood sister. As you all know my only sister, Tereas, was killed by the warlord Krykus, but before she died she passed her right of cast to the woman who stands beside me. This passage of cast, by Amazon law, places Gabrielle first in line of succession. Though she is not my blood sister, I must say that she has become my sister in my heart."
Gabrielle stepped before Melosa and turned to face the throne. She knelt on one knee and bowed her head.
"By this act I pass to you the leadership of the Amazon people," Melosa said extending her spear to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle took the spear and rose, facing the crowd once again. "By the Amazon laws of succession I claim this throne," she said commandingly. "I vow to follow the laws and customs of the Amazon people. I vow to serve you, my people, with my heart, my body and my soul. Nothing shall deter me from my duties, not hardship nor fear of death. If anyone challenges my right to succession let them come forward now and state their claim."
A hush hung over the crowd as the moment they were all waiting for arrived.
"I make the challenge to your right to succession," Renat shouted from the stairs to the dais. She mounted the stairs and strode half the distance across the stage and stopped, facing Gabrielle. She was armed in the traditional Amazon style: armor, sword, spear, dagger and chobos.
Gabrielle moved several steps towards Renat and stood facing her challenger. "On what basis do you make your challenge?" she asked, following the Amazon ritual taught to her the previous day.
"By the will of the people," Renat responded boastfully. "You are unfit to rule. I have sufficient support to make the Challenge of Succession and demand the challenge of combat. I do so now."
Gabrielle faced the Amazon people. In a firm voice she demanded, "Who here would support this challenge?"
War cries and whistles were heard from about 35 Amazons clustered at the stairs to the dais. As the noise subsided Gabrielle called again, "Who here would reject this challenge?" A loud roar of cheers, whistles and applause washed over the grinning bard. After several minutes of thunderous support Gabrielle managed to quiet the crowd.
"You do not have the support necessary to make the challenge," Melosa said, a broad smile of relief on her face. "Step down, Renat."
Renat refused to accept defeat, she turned to the assemblage and bellowed savagely, "She is unfit to rule! Can't you see that? She must be stopped or she will destroy the Amazon people! Who here will support my challenge?"
About twenty people responded with half hearted enthusiasm. Renat realized that her plans had been beaten by this woman she despised. Something within her snapped. This pathetic woman would never take the throne. She charged Gabrielle with her spear.
Gabrielle was prepared for Renat's assault. She and her friends had discussed Renat's possible responses in several scenarios and it had been speculated that this would happen. She held her spear horizontally, using her staff wielding skills to defend herself. She deflected Renat's spear and swept the end of her own spear down hard on the Amazon's arm throwing the stunned warrior's spear over the side of the dais.
Renat glared insanely at her adversary and drew her sword.
The Amazon people gasped in shock at Renat's attack. With Renat's confused supporters blocking the stairs to the dais they watched the deadly combat before them, unable to intervene.
"Renat, stop! I command you!" Melosa yelled to no avail.
"She must be stopped!" Renat yelled rabidly. She charged Gabrielle, striking blow after blow, each deflected by the bard's capable handling of the spear. With an especially powerful blow Renat's sword broke the spear in half.
"Uh oh. I'm in trouble," Gabrielle thought. "Where the heck is Xena?" She clumsily drew her own sword from it's sheath on her back, holding it's point toward the evilly grinning Renat. "What did Xena say about fighting with a sword?" Gabrielle tried to recall frantically. "Watch the eyes. Yeah, that's it, watch the eyes. They'll tell which way the attack will come."
"Looks like your going to the Elysian Fields, bard," Renat sneered, stepping towards Gabrielle.
A chilling cry cut through the air. "Yiyiyiyiyiyi." Xena ran towards the side of the dais and with a mighty leap and flip landed on the edge of the stage. "It's over Renat, give up," she said, drawing her sword.
Renat shook with the fury that raged within her. "No! I won't let you outsiders ruin my plans. I will be Queen of the Amazons!" She turned her attention back to Gabrielle and with her first stroke she knocked the sword from the bard's inexperienced hands. She grabbed Gabrielle in a powerful embrace and threw her own sword down, pulling her dagger from it's sheath and placing it against her captive's throat.
Xena took a step towards Renat who warned her back. "One more move, Xena, and I slit her throat."
Xena took a step backwards, hoping to keep the deranged warrior from carrying through on her threat.
"You must know it's over, Renat," Xena spoke smoothly, hoping to reason with the insane warrior. "I know everything. I have a friend of yours." Xena waved a hand to Eponin and Ephiny who escorted the somewhat bruised and disheveled Tyrel to the stage, pushing their way past Renat's supporters. "She's told me everything. That she was the one who shot the arrow at Gabrielle, and that you mixed poison into the medication that Melosa takes every day. Melosa isn't sick, it's the effects of your poison. The poison Tyrel's knowledge of plants provided for you. Drop your weapons, Renat, and you won't be harmed," she coaxed softly.
"TRAITOR!" Renat screamed throwing her knife at Tyrel, embedding the blade in her heart and killing her instantly. Renat quickly pulled the knife from the sheath on Gabrielle's belt and placed it against her hostage's throat.
While Renat's attention was turned to Tyrel, Xena had moved several steps closer. The raging Amazon tightened her grip on Gabrielle and drew the blade lightly across the bard's throat, a trickle of blood ran down her neck. "Do you want to see her die, Xena?" she growled.
Xena retreated. Her heart beating wildly.
Gabrielle remained frozen in Renat's grip. "Let me go, Renat, you'll never get out of this alive if you don't," she said calmly.
The sound of the hated bard's voice drove the Amazon mad. "Shut up!" she screamed. "I'll kill you if you speak again."
Gabrielle looked helplessly at Xena. Staring into those icy blue eyes she saw the dark rage in her friend's heart that could be unleashed if Renat carried through on her threat. In that moment Gabrielle realized that there was more than her life at stake here, there was also her friend's soul. "Remember your promise, Xena," she begged in her thoughts, afraid to speak should it push Renat over the edge.
The Amazon people watched in horror as the stand off continued. Not a soul moved, fearful that any movement might push their insane sister to slit Gabrielle's throat.
Renat screamed furiously at Xena. "Do you realize what it took to rise to my position and influence? How I had to ingratiate myself to that fool, Melosa. Being at her beck and call, doing all those dirty little jobs for her while all the while watching her ludicrous policies destroying my people!" she railed. "I can't believe she's still alive considering all the poison she's ingested. She should be dead by now!"
"RENAT!" Melosa called.
The crazed Amazon turned her head to look at the Amazon Queen behind her. Her eyes widened at what she saw.
Melosa was *standing* before her throne. She had her dagger in her hand and in a blur of motion she threw it at Renat. Her aim was true, it embedded in Renat's back, only the hilt protruding.
The whole world hung motionless for an instant as Renat stood with a look of disbelief on her face. She dropped the knife from her hand and staggered a few steps, finally collapsing dead at Gabrielle's feet.
Gabrielle turned to see Melosa crumbling to the ground. She sprinted to the queen and caught her and held her till Xena ran to her aid. The two women laid the unconscious woman on the ground. Eponin and Ephiny ran to help.
"Get a litter," Xena barked. Ephiny ran to do her bidding. "Let's get some of this stuff off her."
Xena pulled the sword and armor off the limp form of the Amazon Queen. Gabrielle removed her belt and loosened the ties to her tunic to try to ease her breathing. Ephiny returned with a litter and the four friends gently lifted Melosa on. They each grabbed a handle and hurriedly bore Melosa back to her lodge.
While the Amazon medicine women tended to the queen, Ephiny, Eponin and Xena paced nervously about the lodge. Gabrielle sat in a chair with her head laying on her arms on the table, the events of the last three days not leaving her enough energy to join her friends in their frenetic pacing.
After what seemed like an eternity one of the medicine women emerged from Melosa's sleeping chamber. "She's out of danger," she said. "Her breathing is normal but her pulse is a little weak. Miraculously, she is awake."
"Can we see her?" Gabrielle asked.
"Ordinarily I would refuse because of her exhaustion, but Melosa demands to see all of you. Don't stay long, even if she wants you to, she needs to rest. It will take several days for the poison to pass through her system, we have no antidote for the type Renat used, but she will make a full recovery," the medicine woman replied. "I want to make an announcement to the people about Melosa's condition, they will be waiting for word."
"That's a good idea," Gabrielle concurred.
The medicine woman headed outside.
The four friends entered Melosa's sleeping chamber. Gabrielle sat on the edge of the queen's bed and held her hand.
"I'm afraid you're not going to be Queen of the Amazons, Gabrielle, at least not yet," Melosa whispered with a slight smile.
"Now there's a real disappointment," the bard said sarcastically.
"I must thank you all," Melosa said, shifting her gaze to each of the four women. "Eponin, Ephiny, you have shown unflagging loyalty and bravery through all of this. You are a credit to our people. I will have to find some way to reward you both."
Ephiny and Eponin beamed at the praise from their beloved queen.
"I don't want a reward, Melosa," Ephiny said. "I want you to get well and take your place as our queen.
Eponin nodded in agreement.
"Xena, again you've saved the Amazons from disaster. What can I say? Thank you seems so inadequate. And we almost had you here with us permanently," Melosa smiled mischievously.
"You were going to stay?" Gabrielle asked in astonishment.
Xena stared at the floor and fidgeted. "I only said I would try it," she admitted.
Gabrielle walked over and gave Xena a big hug. Xena rolled her eyes in discomfort.
"Gabrielle, not in front of the Amazons," Eponin and Ephiny said in unison, giggling madly.
When the laughter subsided Melosa turned her gaze to Gabrielle. "Come and sit by me," she said.
Melosa took Gabrielle's hand and held it tightly. "You would make a wonderful queen for my people," she said. "You're courage and spirit alone qualify you and your compassion and determination would serve my people well. You have brought great honor to Tereas' memory and I know my sister lives on in you," she finished with a gentle sob.
Gabrielle kissed the queen's trembling hand. "Thank you, Melosa," she whispered, her voice cracking with emotion. "You should rest. Actually, I think we all need to rest."
"Of course, you're right," Melosa said. "There will be time enough to talk tomorrow."
The four women returned to the main room.
"I am starved," Gabrielle whined, "but I'm too tired to eat."
Xena looked at her friend with an exaggerated look of concern. "Now *that's* tired," she teased.
Everyone laughed except Gabrielle, who tried her best to give Xena "the look" causing her friends to dissolve into spasms of laughter. Giving up on her effort to imitate Xena's intimidating expression, Gabrielle joined them in their fit of laughter.
Three days had passed. Gabrielle and Xena were packing their things, getting ready to take to the road once again. They each harbored their private feelings about moving on.
Gabrielle was saddened to leave her friends. She had developed deep affections for Eponin and Ephiny, and Melosa now held a special place in her heart. The partings would be painful.
Xena was experiencing an ambiguous sense of disappointment. She had actually come very close to settling down. Something that hadn't crossed her mind in almost two years.
Finished with their packing, the two friends led Argo to Melosa's lodge where they were delighted to see the much improved Amazon Queen sitting outside, enjoying the sunshine. Eponin and Ephiny sat nearby, ready to wait on her every need.
"We've come to say good bye," Gabrielle said, tears quickly welling up in her eyes.
"Are you sure I can't convince you to stay?" Melosa asked hopefully.
Gabrielle looked to Xena who saw the hope in the bard's eyes. "It's your choice, Gabrielle, stay if you want."
"What about you?" Gabrielle asked.
"I have to leave," Xena said with a sad smile.
"Then so do I," Gabrielle said.
"It was worth a try," Melosa smiled.
"Take care of yourself, Melosa, I don't think I want your job anytime soon," Gabrielle grinned.
Melosa rose unsteadily and walked to Gabrielle, giving her a hug that was strong enough to make the bard squeak. She was well on the way to recovery.
Melosa walked to Xena and extended her arm, Xena clasped the arm in a warriors handshake. The two warriors exchanging looks of deep respect and affection.
Ephiny and Eponin both took a turn hugging Gabrielle and when they came to bid their farewell to Xena they were shocked and delighted when the warrior gave each of them a brief hug.
"Let's go, Gabrielle," Xena said, taking hold of Argo's reins and starting towards the road.
Gabrielle gave Melosa a final hug then scampered to catch up.
Ephiny, Eponin and Melosa watched until Xena and Gabrielle disappeared from sight.
"You're right, Eponin. She is kinda warm and fuzzy," Ephiny said with an impish grin.
Eponin and Ephiny laughed uproariously while Melosa looked at her two subjects, wondering what was so funny.
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