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Argo's hooves thudded twice against the sun baked road, before Xena opened her eyes wide in mock surprise at the question. "Man.. What man?" She grinned as the Amazon turned to roll her eyes in exasperation.
"Xena, you know perfectly well that man has been following us since we left Potidea." Gabrielle pulled her fingers through the raven hair and traced the warrior's jawline lightly.
The grinning warrior closed her eye's to enjoy Gabrielle's touch. "Hmmmm...." She allowed an eyebrow to edge up. "Has he?" Xena's tone indicated this was all news to her. In fact, her wildcard militia man had watched them for several days before they left. She had told Karis to simply keep an eye on him. It would be bad publicity for the Amazons to kill another person during their visit, but she also had plans for the man once they reached Amphipolis.
Gabrielle's annoyance was building. "You know he has." She had thought about the various reasons the man would be allowed to trail them. She hoped that Xena was simply going to leave him to his observations and go about their business... that was the naïve theory and she knew it. She sighed to think that Xena's motives were part of some elaborate scheme of mystery and intrigue. Just as likely, The Conqueror simply didn't feel like killing him, yet.
Sensing her lover's frustration, she admitted. "I know." Xena slacked off on the reins and circled Gabrielle's shoulders with her arms. She hugged the bard gently, dropped her head to nuzzle the soft spot just behind and below her ear and took a moment to trace one of the most perfect ears she had ever seen with the tip of her tongue. "Mmmm..."
Gabrielle knew that Xena was trying to distract her. 'Doing a good job of it too.' She thought. She let herself succumb to the warm breath on her ear. When the arms around her loosened their grip, she almost protested. Long fingers tangling in her hair, holding her head in place for a renewed assault, stopped the protest mid-thought. "Gods.... Xena....." The passionate whispering in her ear made her shudder.
"Shhhh...." Xena felt waves of desire crashing through her. "Have I told you today, how beautiful you are?" The warrior brushed her fingertips through the silken hair of her love.
"Today...?" Argo's steady gait pounded in her ears, or maybe it was her own heartbeat but either way Gabrielle was having a hard time concentrating on anything. She turned to look at the woman behind her. "I don't remember."
Sky blue eye's immersed themselves in sea green and Xena chuckled deeply. She leaned in to capture waiting lips. They swallowed each others moans as the leaning motion signaled Argo to a faster gait.
Xena knew if she let this continue they might not reach Amphipolis tonight so, reluctantly, she broke the kiss and slowed Argo to a sedate walk. She chuckled at Gabrielle's resigned sigh.
"I hope there is a room at the inn available." The Amazon Queen cared about Cyrene too but at the moment the thought of being alone with Xena was quite tempting and very distracting.
"It's okay if there isn't." Xena smiled at the narrowed eyes of her love and purred. "Mother's house has a barn with an excellent hayloft."
Gabrielle closed her eyes to enjoy Xena's voice moving through her. "Uhmmm... Xena."
Xena saw the green eyes close and she knew why. She waited two slow hoofbeats and kept her voice at its lowest register. "Yes, Gabrielle."
"We are almost there aren't we?" She shook in anticipation of the response.
"Yes, Gabrielle." She felt the woman in front of her shudder.
"Your mother will probably be at the inn?" Gabrielle thought it would be the most likely place to find Cyrene, sick or not.
"Yes, Gabrielle." Xena smiled at Gabrielle's thoughtfulness.
"And if there aren't any rooms we can stay in your mother's barn?" A tiny shiver went through her, remembering Lila's loft.
"Yes Gabrielle." The warrior felt the shiver and grinned. She liked this game.
"Xena?" Gabrielle was not ready for Xena to stop saying her name.
The warrior again used Argo's slow steady pace as a timer for her response. "Yes, Gabrielle?" Something told her that the Amazon was enjoying hearing her name as much as she was enjoying saying it.
"Even if there IS a room available, can we stay at your mothers?" There was a tiny bit of pleading in that question.
Xena knew that even if ALL the rooms were available they would be staying in the loft tonight. "Yes, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle was silent for a long thoughtful moment. "Xena?"
Four hoofbeats passed and Xena grinned. "Yes, Gabrielle?"
"Amphipolis is just over that next ridge isn't it?" Gabrielle pointed toward the landmark.
"Yes, Gabrielle." She resisted the urge to nuzzle the Amazon's neck, and waited for the next question.
Gabrielle tilted her head to consider the ridge in question and also to expose more of her neck to the woman behind her. "Xena?"
Xena never took her eyes off the newly exposed flesh and licked her lips. This time she didn't resist the urge and nipped lightly at the offering as she mumbled. "Yes, Gabrielle?"
"Can we go faster?" Gabrielle was aware Xena had been using Argo's maddeningly slow pace as a timer for her responses and was now kissing her once for every other step the horse took.
Xena had time for one more kiss before she found Gabrielle's ear and whispered. "Yes, Gabrielle." She didn't bother to signal the trailing pack and simply urged Argo to gallop ahead. 'They know where we are going.' She thought.
The tavern was packed. Since the waterways were now reasonable to navigate without losing 9/10 of your profits, a steady flow of merchants had been passing through for three days now. Pale grey eye's watched a small woman move through the chaos with total ease. Crossing her arms, Velasca tilted her chair to lean back into her favorite corner and observe the room in general and the love of her life in particular. She grinned as Rayna bent to pick up a tumbler and a burly patron at the next table reached for the target presented, only to find an empty serving tray casually placed in the way. Meeting her love's rolling eyes with a raised eyebrow she signed. 'Do you want me to rough him up?'
Glancing at the man in question, Rayna responded with a mischievious smile. 'Me first.'
Cyrene gave the Amazon a little sideways grin, knowing where most of her attention was focused. "How did you two meet?" She was enjoying this opportunity to be up and hoped such a personal question didn't offend her new manager/bouncer.
"We grew up together." Velasca clenched her jaw. She didn't want to color the woman's judgement. Apparently Rayna had other ideas and Velasca caught the sign before the little cook returned to the kichen. 'Tell her.'
"Rayna was not born an Amazon." She glanced at Cyrene then looked back at the crowd. "She joined us when she was three and was adopted into the Nation a few years later."
"That's pretty young. Is that normal?" Cyrene was curious about Amazon ways. From what little she saw of Xena when she was here the tavern owner knew that the Amazon Queen was a major part of her daughter's life.
"Age really wasn't the issue. The circumstances were special." Velasca swallowed her revulsion at the actions Rayna's birth parents took. "Rayna's parents abandoned her at the edge of the hunting grounds." She glanced at Cyrene's gasp. "Apparently it took them a few years to notice that she couldn't hear." It took a moment to control the tears that threatened to overflow. "When the hunting party found her she was nearly dead. They think she had been on her own for more than a week." She looked into Cyrene's concerned eyes. "No one knows for sure."
"It's a miracle." The tavern owner couldn't imagine a child that young surviving so long on their own.
"She's the miracle.... her spirit... her courage and will to survive is just...." Velasca couldn't find words to adequately describe her depth of feeling for her life partner. She shook off the urge to try and continued the story. "When they brought her back to the village, I was working in the kitchen." She grinned at Cyrene's confused look. "We, the children, all take turns at different tasks until we find something we like. Our schools allow for that in addition to our regular studies." She took a sip of her drink and answered Cyrene's unspoken question. "And no, I didn't stay in the kitchen long." She smiled at the taven owners nodding reaction and continued the story. "I was there at the right time though. When the healer called for a bowl of broth I was assigned to take it." The scout fell silent for a moment remembering the first time she saw Rayna. No tears fell but Cyrene could hear them in the Amazon's whispering voice. "She was so small."
"You couldn't have been that big yourself." Cyrene eyed the tall lean frame of the woman next to her.
Velasca smiled. "I was always tall for my age and I am several years older than her." She drained her cup. "I didn't realize that she had been unconcious since they brought her in. The healer's were busy trying to figure out how to wake her but she looked so thin and pale I couldn't help myself. I sat down next to her, soaked a corner of a rag in the broth and brushed it against her lips." She looked at Cyrene and explained her knowledge. "Once when I was sick that's how mother fed me." Velasca felt the empty tumbler being pulled from her hand and looked up into the eye's of love.
Rayna smiled down at the seated scout and, knowing it would be translated for Cyrene signed. 'She saved me.' Looking at Velasca she motioned toward the tavern owner. 'Tell her.'
Grinning a wicked challenge she signed and spoke. "You tell her." It wasn't often she could get the little cook to talk about those times but it was always good for her. It had worried the scout that her partner would be awkward around strangers but if she felt comfortable enough with Cyrene to tell her this story then Velasca knew they would be very happy here.
Rayna huffed a breath of air in Velasca's general direction and began the tale. She knew if she didn't Cyrene would only hear half the story anyway. Closing her eyes she recalled the events and told them now just as she told them to the healer after she learned to communicate. 'I was in a green field with lots of nice people. There were blue skies and birds.' She opened her eyes and looked at the faces of the women watching her. 'Everyone was happy there. Then I saw a girl holding a bowl of broth. She called to me and I followed her. I was so hungry, and when I tasted the broth the field was gone and I was lying on a bed.' She looked at Velasca and smiled. 'But the girl was still there.'
Cyrene was facinated. "She pulled you back from the Elysian Fields?"
No translation was needed for the simple reply. Cyrene already knew the wrist flexing fist sign meant. 'Yes.' She was about to go on when boots stomping on the floor and empty mugs pounding on a table stopped her. She rolled her eyes and grinning at her love signed. 'Duty calls.... you finish.' Setting both women's now empty drinks on the tray she admonished. 'Don't leave anything out.' Rayna knew that the scout had a terrible habit of downplaying her part in their relationship.
Velasca knew what Rayna meant and with an emphatic. "Yes Ma'am" She promised to relate the rest of the story faithfully.
Cyrene watched the cook turned waitress turn and go directly towards the demanding patrons, even though she couldn't hear the calls for more ale. "How does she do that?"
Velasca shrugged. "Beats me. All I know is she does it and I can never sneak up on her." She watched the little Amazon sidestep a drunken grab and signed. 'Nice.' The saucy 'Thank You' got a wink and a grin returned before the bar and thirsty customers blocked their view of each other and effectively cut off the conversation.
"What about the hand signals? Where did she learn them?" Cyrene couldn't imagine that the parents that gave her up to the woods would have taught her anything as complex as the silent language seemed to be.
"Like I said, I didn't stay in the kitchen long but while I was there I took the meals to the healer's hut every day. When my time in the kitchen was over..." Velasca looked sheepishly at Cyrene. "I asked to go to the healer's next. Everyone goes everywhere for awhile but I mostly just wanted to see her. She was my friend and I was worried about her. She was strong enough by then to take walks and I would go with her to the dining hall to eat." The scout smiled at the memory. "She was facinated by the kitchen and spent most of her time watching the cooks prepare meals. Lyssa, the head cook, liked her and took her under her wing. When my time to start weapons and hunting training came around I wasn't worried because I knew Lyssa would take care of her."
"But you still came to see her right?" Cyrene didn't like to think of the little girl being abandoned by her friend as well as her parents.
Velasca patted the concerned woman's arm and nodded. "Every chance I got. Amazon hunters, scouts, and guards use a combination of hand gestures and whistles to communicate. Hand gestures if the line of sight isn't obscured and it's daytime. Whistles for distant messages. I was just starting training so when I went to see her I was also practicing the gestures."
"She picked up on them?" Cyrene was becoming quietly amazed at the woman who was now her cook.
"Yes. She picked them up faster than anyone." She dragged her fingers through her hair. "Picked them up and... expanded on them."
Cyrene stared wide eyed at the scout next to her. "You're telling me she taught herself?"
"Herself and me at the same time." Velasca nodded affirmative as she spoke."I didn't know it at the time though. I thought it was a game we played." She scanned the taven for problems and finding a potential troublemaker discretely watched him as she continued. "When Lyssa petitioned to adopt her, the council was reluctant. For several weeks we endured the debates and protests. Rayna's ability to communicate with them was the only thing that saved her. They said they had never heard such a passionate plea from anyone much less someone as young as she was."
"You translated for her?" Cyrene waited for the acknowledgement before continuing. "What did she say?"
"I don't remember exactly." The Amazon lied. "Basically she told them about how happy she was and how much she loved Lyssa." The rest of the details were too personal to convey.
Cyrene suspected part of the plea also had to do with friendship and a certain young scout. "So that's why she is such a great cook, because Lyssa taught her?"
Velasca nodded. "If anyone asks her she will say she learned from her mother." She rose to take care of her troublemaker. "Excuse me."
The innkeeper took the opportunity to watch Velasca quietly and efficiently escort the rowdy drunk outside. She watched the returning bouncer and considered the story. She spoke quietly to herself. "She said WE endured." Cyrene's heart went out the the young friends and thought about her own daughter. 'I wonder how different things would be if Xena had a friend back then to help her through the tough times.' When Velasca returned to their table, Cyrene summed up the story. "Your friendship saved her."
The bouncer smiled grimly. "If you ask her she will agree."
"You don't?" Cyrene was puzzled by the half agreement.
Velasca shook her head. "She would have been fine without me...." She felt a sad smile cross her face as Rayna reemerged from the kitchen with a fully loaded tray. "...but I shudder to think where I would be without her."
Rayna noticed the sad expression on her partner's face, distributed her burden to the appropriate customers and quickly joined the occupants of the corner table, sliding next to Velasca with practiced ease. 'You Okay?' Earth brown eyes peered into misty gray for a long moment before the smile she loved to see reappeared.
"I'm fine now." Velasca hugged the smaller woman tightly.
'Do you want me to finish the tale?' Rayna knew what point they were to because her love always got that expression during this part.
The scout smiled, grateful for the offer. "No. I can do it." She glanced around the room and grinned at her love. "You better get back to work or Sari will be jealous of your break time."
Cyrene had been watching the exchange but was amazed at the response Sari's name caused in the small Amazon. The rapid gestures and scowling face suggested to her that the cook had also seen the barmaid's attempts to.... umm.. satisfy her...... curiosity.. about Amazons and their rituals, apparently their..... mating rituals were quite...... interesting.
Velasca too raised her eyebrows at the tirade and started an indignant protest. "I would never...."
Rayna sighed and sandwiched the scout's hands in her own, effectively stopping the protest. 'Sorry.'
Pulling her hands from the hold, Velasca gently brushed the back of her fingers against the blushing cheek of her love. Caught in the deep brown eyes she barely managed a whisper. "I would never......"
It was Cyrene's turn to blush as her new employees shared a tender kiss. She took a deep breath to try and contain her emotions only to find hersef in the middle of a coughing fit. She sighed and thought. 'Nearly time to go home.'
When the kiss was over Rayna stood and with gentle authority signed. 'You don't have to...' Velasca's raised hand stopped the gestures.
"It's okay. She asked and it's part of the story." Velasca smiled and nodded to reassure her partner. "I'll be fine." As Rayna moved off into the crowd, the scout turned to Cyrene. "My mother was killed during the Great War with the Centaurs. I was devestated. I pushed everyone that ever meant anything to me away and filled myself with hate. I hated Centaurs for killing my mother, I hated my mother for leaving me, I hated Amazon's in general for getting into the war, I hated and hated until that's all there was for me... blind hate." She sought out the small form of her love moving through the tables. "She wouldn't let me push her away. My mother and Queen Melosa were close friends and when Melosa adopted me I saw my opportunity for revenge on everyone. I was going to be Queen and then they would all pay... the Centaurs, the Amazons, everyone. I was so full of anger, when Melosa decided to name her sister heir to the Mask of Queen I almost challenged it." The scout pulled her fingers through her hair. "Rayna stopped me from making that mistake." She glanced at Cyrene and then kept her eye on another potential troublemaker. "Her friendship and love pulled me through the darkest time of my life." A slight change in air pressure forced her to look towards the door. "Speaking of Dark." She directed Cyrene's gaze to the door and smiled at the innkeeper's gasp.
Xena stood in the doorway and assessed the crowded tavern. Instinctively her gaze landed on her favorite corner spot. She smiled when she saw her mother. Glancing at the patrons again, she only saw one potential troublemaker and gestured Gabrielle forward.
The taven owner and the bouncer both smiled as, even dusty and windblown from travel, the appearance of the royal couple stopped all conversation in the room. Every head turned to watch them until they stood in front of the occupants of the corner table.
It took a glare from Xena and a sharp "What?!" to break the silence and bring the noise level back to it's usual din. She raised an eyebrow at Gabrielle's chuckle and inquired with a quieter. "What?"
"Don't be too hard on them, love." Gabrielle nudged the irate warrior with her shoulder. "They just can't imagine being in the same room with someone so beautiful."
For that comment, Gabrielle was rewarded with a smile and a chuckle that was as close to a laugh as any could be. "I guess you're right.... " She tapped the end of the Amazon's nose with her index finger. "....They were looking at you."
Velasca rose gracefully and motioned Xena to take her place. "Excuse me I have some business to take care of."
Xena watched the scout walk purposefully toward the potential troublemaker she noticed earlier, before rounding the table and hugging her mother soundly. "You look great! What do the healers say?"
Cyrene returned her daughter's hug and smiled at the Amazon Queen. "Kima left with the first merchant caravan to Corinth. Salla says as long as I don't overdo I'll be fine." She snorted and glanced at Gabrielle. "Not that Velasca or Rayna will let me do anything anyway.... Gods I feel like such a lazy bum sometimes, letting everyone else do my work."
Kima's desertion caused an exchanged look between the royal couple. Xena had expected as much and simply chuckled. "You shouldn't have to do anything." She raised an eyebrow at the reaction to that. "You are MY mother after all." She grinned. "I could send a whole army of people to be at your beck and call if you want."
Cyrene held up her hand to forestall even the thought of that. "No Thanks! Two Amazons are enough 'help' for me... I think any more would drive me crazy."
Velasca walked back to the table and dusted off her hands in satisfaction. She looked at Gabrielle and smiled. "I met the pack outside. There is enough room for the horses in Cyrene's barn and since all the rooms here are taken I told them they could stay in the loft tonight." She watched the twinkle in her Queen's eye die out and suddenly realized she had made a mistake. "I'm sorry, I naturally assumed that you would be staying in Xena's room."
"Haven't you turned that into storage yet?" Xena had never even considered her old room would be available.
"Never." Cyrene grimly. "Not as long as you were alive." She had always hoped her daughter would come back to her.
Velasca cleared her throat. "I really don't want to change the subject but....umm. who's your friend?" She discretely indicated the wildcard militia man sitting at the bar. "He followed the pack into town but not to the stables. He has been watching you ever since he came in."
Pushing down a sudden surge of emotion from her mother's statement, Xena answered casually. "He has been following us since Potidea. I'll take care of him later."
"Oh." Velasca smiled. "So I passed the test?"
The warrior glanced at her mother and then settled her gaze on the confident scout. "You passed." That was the final nail in the man's coffin. Xena had only wanted to test Velasca in matters of security before she disposed of the nuisance. Gabrielle's chuckle shifted her attention.
"I told you she was the best." Gabrielle was not only speaking of a fellow Amazon but also about a friend, as close to family as she had in the Nation. "I guess you don't trust my judgement."
Xena's blue eyes twinkled mischieviously. "Really? I think maybe your judgement may be suspect.... just last night you said I was the best." She licked her lips and smiled at her blushing love. "You said it quite loudly as a matter of fact."
"Xena could you walk me home now, please?" Cyrene was sure Gabrielle could use some fresh air and she was feeling the tightness in her chest returning.
A little voice in her head whispered to her and Xena playfully whined. "Aww... Mom we were just gonna have a drink... do we have to...."
The pressure in her chest now had more to do with the sudden leap backward in time than with her illness. Cyrene played along with the trip down memory lane and fell into her standard motherly response. "I said now. I meant now. That means now!"
Xena, hastily held up her hands in defeat. "All right already!" She stood and offered one arm to her love and the other to her mother. Tears that threatened to overflow the older woman's eyes seemed to have found their way to Xena's as well but, thanks to a small squeeze from Gabrielle, the warrior managed a small whisper. "Let's go home."
Velasca watched the trio exit and marveled at the tavern owners quick dominance over Xena then smiled to herself. She knew if her mother or even Melosa were still alive they would have just that power over her too.
In deference to Cyrene's condition the trio walked slowly from the tavern to the house. Xena enjoyed the leisurely pace and took the rare opportunity to remember good times. "Not much has changed."
Cyrene spoke through the burning in her chest. "We tried to rebuild as close to the original as possible." She was unable to control the coughing brought on by walking and talking.
Xena supported her and Gabrielle was instantly on the other side with a helping hand. They continued walking but now they both paid more attention to Cyrene than their surroundings until the older woman stopped in her tracks. Xena looked up and gasped.
"What?" Gabrielle looked at the building warily.
"My son's tomb." Cyrene answered and looked up at Xena. "Do you need a moment?"
Xena stood dumbstruck in front of her brothers tomb. She could only nod negative to her mother's question. "Not tonight." The cool twilight breeze prompted her to action. Unfastening her cloak, she wrapped it snugly around her mother and took Gabrielle's hand at the same time. "We need to get mother inside." They walked the remaining distance to the house in silence.
Karis leaned back against the solid barn. She closed her eyes
against the dimming light and
tried to identify the sounds that drifted on the breeze. It was a game to keep her mind from wandering back to the barn loft in Potidea. 'I thought I was over that.' She thought. It had nearly taken her knees out from under her when the wave of memory hit her. Only force of will alone allowed her to exit the barn without anyone getting suspicious. Once outside she calmed down and understood what had happened. The warmth of the barn, combined with the sound and smell of rustling hay and snuffling horses had taken her back to the encounter with Xena. Solan had gotten into his mother's saddlebag for a clean shirt and the small bundle of lilacs tucked away there was enough to engage all her senses in the memory. 'Gods... I have to sleep in there!' That thought was nearly enough to set her knees shaking on it's own. She tried to control her reaction to this latest revelation and as she heard the barn door creak open had almost succeeded. Then another thought occured to her. 'Solan will be in there too.' She groaned at the self control it was going to take to stay away from him.
Solan peeked out the barn door and heard Karis' groan. Instantly concerned he moved purposefully toward the seemingly relaxed figure. When he opened his mouth to speak, he found out that looks can be decieving. Before one sound was uttered his back was against the wall and one strong forearm across his neck pinned his head immobile. "Uh... hi?" He grinned weakly and looked into flashing brown eyes.
"Don't Do That!" Karis released her hold and before she knew it her back was against the wall with Solan's arm pinning her across her chest.
"Do what?" Solan grinned mischeiviously and relaxed his hold.
Karis was not quite over her earlier feelings and now having Solan this achingly close to her was as near to sweet torture she ever wanted to be. Emotions deepened her voice to a sultry level. "Don't sneak up on me."
Looking into her deep brown eyes, Solan could almost feel Karis' words pulling him closer. Closing the distance between them he slid the arm that was pinning her to the wall around to pin her to him. When he felt her soft tongue slide past his lips and a delicate hand behind his neck, both his arms joined in the extremely easy effort to keep her close to him. Neither of them heard the footsteps approaching.
Xena licked her lips and glanced sideways at her companions. Her mother had her hand over her mouth and her shoulders were shaking suspiciously like a woman supressing a laugh. Gabrielle to Xena's surprise wore a grim smile and looked a little sad. 'Yes, my love. He is growing up.' She thought and looked back at the couple. 'Ok that's enough.' She grinned at Gabrielle before she put her hands on her hips and 'The Look' on her face, then cleared her throat. The sudden stillness of the two nearly wiped out the look but she got it back into place before Solan turned around.
"Solan, I want to speak with you." Xena didn't know how she kept the amusement out of her voice but she continued in the low dangerous tone most of her entourage knew well. "You Karis will go inside."
Karis was mortified. First she had let her emotional state take over where Solan was concerned and second she had gotten caught......by his MOTHERS. She hoped he wasn't in too much trouble.
When Karis hesitated to comply with her order, Xena grabbed her by the arm and dragged her to the door. She yanked open the door and pushed Karis roughly through, never letting go of her arm. From the corner of her eye, she caught the rest of the Amazons watching from the loft but pretended not to notice. She looked back toward the door in an obvious attempt to see if Gabrielle had followed before she released the guard's arm and sliding her hand into the thick brown hair pulled Karis close and whispered in her ear. "I want a guard on the door and on the perimeter tonight." Hearing the guard's affirmative acknowlegement, Xena chuckled deeply. "Next time try making out BEHIND the barn."
The stunned guard could only nod affirmative as the warrior released her hold and exited. Karis put her hands on the door and rested her forehead on the back of them. She chuckled quietly and thought. 'Gods... only Xena could take THAT situation and turn it into grist for the rumor mill.' It was a long moment before she heard the rustling of hay and knew that the pack had moved away from the edge of the loft. She took a deep breath and pushed off the door. "Hey." She looked up toward the loft. "Anybody up there?"
Solari supressed a surge of anger and motioning the other shocked Amazons into silence, poked her head over the edge of the loft. "Yeah... we're all up here." She tracked her leader's path across the barn as she moved to the ladder.
"Good." Karis let out an exaggerated grunt as she climbed up. "I won't have to repeat myself then." She stepped onto the all to familiar loft setting and let the emotional turmoil that hit her turn to anger when she saw the four bedrolls laid out. "You're going to sleep when that man is following us?" She snarled at their guilty expressions. "You are members of the Royal Amazon Guard! For the love of Artemis and our Queen...." She looked directly at Solari. "....we do this by the book!" Turning back to the others she continued. "I want standard sentry and perimeter patrols. No one is to come within arrow range." She looked them all in the eye. "You got that?" She waited for each of them to nod affirmative before she unrolled her own bedroll and laid down. Because there were only five of them standard patrol and sentry meant that her shift would start early in the morning. With her back turned toward the pack, she allowed a smile to cross her face as Solari took command. 'I can't tell her.' Karis hugged herself, thinking about the Solari situation. 'But if she realizes what I'm doing maybe she will back off.' Karis had caught the angry looks Solari had been tossing her way and knew the attitude could turn into a big problem. Doing things by the book may be the solution. 'I really don't want to leave her behind when we go to Corinth.' Solari, after all, was one of the best. Karis sighed and thought. 'That's the problem.' Hearing Solari and Bekka leave for duty and Norin and Jana settle in to grab some sleep before their shift, she closed her eyes, hoping her dreams would ease the ache in her heart. It was a futile hope, she knew no dream no matter how vivid, could fill the cold spot next to her.
Xena stepped out of the barn and using the door to shield her expression from Solan, grinned and winked at Gabrielle before closing the door behind her. She looked at Solan with no expression at all. "You, young man, are coming with us." She held is elbow gently and guided him toward the house without another word. Cyrene and Gabrielle followed silently, both trying to figure out what Xena was going to do next.
For once Gabrielle couldn't fathom what was going on behind those beautiful blue eyes but after the grin and wink, the Amazon Queen knew it was going to be something unexpected and wonderful. She patted Cyrene's arm reassuringly and gestured the woman to preceed her through the door. She absently noted Solari and Bekka exiting the barn and closed the door.
The innkeeper had already found a seat next to her grandson on the low sofa and Gabrielle moved quickly to sit on the other side of him. Gabrielle took the short time during the walk from the door to the sofa to look around the room. It was warm and cozy with a fire blazing in the large fireplace. A long low table sat in front of the sofa. Wall hangings and narrow wall hugging tables filled with nick nacks completed the room and Gabrielle tried to imagine what it must have been like to grow up here. Xena stood in front of the fire glaring at the middle occupant of the couch. Wrapping her arm around his shoulders, the Amazon shook him slightly and whispered. "You okay?" He nodded and reassured by the warm protective arm found his voice.
"Where is Karis?" He didn't like to be seperated from her at all, much less under these circumstances.
"Quiet." Xena's growl didn't do much to reassure the boy but now Gabrielle was certain that the warrior had something planned. She watched as the ice blue eyes closed, the raven head turned slightly as she redirected her intense gaze to Cyrene. "When did Kima leave?"
"Yesterday morning?" Cyrene's questioning tone made it obvious to Gabrielle that the innkeeper didn't understand why Xena wanted to know. Unfortunately, the Amazon Queen did know why.
'She's going to have to leave in the morning.' It was a thought that tied her stomach in knots and she nearly gasped when she realized. 'We won't be able to spend Solstice together.'
Xena saw the look in Gabrielle's eye and smiled sadly. 'Yes my love.' She thought. 'This will be our last night together..... for awhile.' Turning her sad smile into a frown she looked a Solan. "To answer your question. Karis is probably asleep."
"What did you say to her?" Solan was finding his embarrassment turning to anger, for no other reason than Karis was asleep and he wasn't there to hold her.
"I ordered standard sentry and perimeter patrol." Xena now smiled a wide toothy grin. "And I told her that next time she should try making out BEHIND the barn." It was impossible not to laugh at the incredulous expression on Solan's face at that statement. Impossible until Cyrene spoke up.
"If you do that." She patted her grandson's knee and looked up into twinkling blue eyes. "Make sure no one is getting water from the well, first." Cyrene's grin matched Xena's tooth for tooth and her laugh took over when Xena's fell silent.
"You saw......" The warrior ran her fingers through her hair. "Gods...."
"Maphias was a cute guy." Cyrene glanced at her seated companions and winked. "And so was..." The innkeeper held up her hands to begin counting off on her fingers.
"Hey!" Xena cut in and when her mother's list making stopped she breathed a sigh of relief. A wry smile held Gabrielle's gaze. "They weren't my type anyway."
"Was my father your type?" Solan's quiet voice floated through the room. "Did you..... love him?"
Xena sat on the table directly in front of Solan. She reached up to brush his hair from his eyes. "I loved him as much as I could love anyone at that time." She smiled at the hope shining in his eyes, Borias' eyes. "More than that, he loved me." She inwardly cringed at the memory of telling her son's father that she would puke if he said the word family. "I won't be able to stay for Solstice." She reached into a pouch hanging at her side. "So I want to give this to you now." Holding her son's hand by the wrist she dropped a small object into his open palm.
Solan examined the ring he had been given. It was much too large for his finger but the design was familiar. Suddenly he caught a sparkle from Xena's ring and realized. "It's just like yours!"
"Not quite." Xena's voice was now quiet and she knew that both her mother and Gabrielle were watching her. "See." She pointed to a spot on her ring. "This is the symbol for warrior and this..." She moved her finger slightly. "..Is the symbol for woman. On yours..." She took the ring from him and pointed to the same spots. "It's leader, and man." She handed the band back to him. "This was your father's." She smiled at the reverent look on her son's face and wiped a tear from her eye. "He always wanted to have a kingdom of his own.... to pass down to his children."
Gabrielle wanted nothing more than to ease the warrior's distress and slid off the couch. Sitting on the floor she leaned her head on Xena's leg just above the top of her boot, and gently patted the exposed skin. A grateful hand stroked her hair a moment, before she heard the warrior take a deep breath and felt the warm fingers under her chin. Looking up into an ocean of love, Gabrielle reclaimed her seat and watched Xena move to give her gift to Cyrene.
"Mother...." She started to say something and then simply pulled a folded piece of parchment from the pouch. "I didn't know what to get you." Cyrene interrupted the halting speech.
"You didn't have to get me anything. Your being here is enough of a gift to me." She smiled and brushed raven tresses from her daughter's pale blue eyes. Much like Xena had just done with Solan.
"I thought you might say that." Xena smiled and handed her mother the parchement. "So I got you this." When the puzzled look appeared on the innkeeper's face she continued. "If you ever need me... for anything... send this. I'll be here as fast as I can."
Cyrene felt the tears falling unchecked from her eyes and looked at
the large lettering again.
'Come Home.' Two words had never touched her heart as much as that simple phrase. She hugged her wayward daughter fiercely, before the emotional moment was set aside for a round of violent coughing.
"Where is the healer?" Xena was worried about the sound of that cough.
Cyrene patted her daughter's hand. "Salla sleeps on a cot at the foot of my bed." It had worried the sick woman that the healer slept so much but Velasca and Rayna had both informed her that the healer slept most of the time she wasn't actually helping a patient. Salla herself claimed she was saving up sleep so that when she needed to stay awake she could. Cyrene couldn't think of a time when she had needed the woman and she hadn't been there so the quirk was accepted and dealt with. "She is probably asleep right now." She looked at her grandson's shining eyes. "You should probably get some sleep too." She rose and gestured to Xena. "Show him where Lyceus' room is okay?"
"Sure." Xena nodded and helped the older woman all the way to her bedroom door before saying goodnight. Returning to the main room she gestured for Solan to follow her to his room.
"Aren't you going to give mother her present?" Solan was upset that they had gotten something and Gabrielle hadn't.
"Solan." Gabrielle admonished her son for his rudeness.
"No. No no that's all right. I can give you your present now." Xena crossed the room quickly and took Gabrielle in her arms, kissing her until she had to come up for air. Grinning mischievously at her son she laughed. "There's more.... do you want to see that too?"
Solan held up his hands in defeat and to cover his eyes. "No thanks..... Nevermind.... Geez..."
Keeping on arm around Gabrielle's shoulders, she guided Solan to his room and with a quick hug goodnight left him to settle in. Upon entering their own room, she was unprepared for Gabrielle's laughter. "What's so funny?"
The laughing Amazon took a deep breath and wiped a tear from her eye. "I was just wondering what you would have done if he HAD wanted to watch."
"I would have given you your present." Xena reached for the pouch but her hand was stilled by warm fingers wrapping around her wrist.
"Me first." Flashing green eyes caught questioning blue as she reached into her own belt pouch and withdrew a necklace. "This is for you my Warrior Princess." She looped the chain over Xena's head.
Blue eyes dropped to the charm now hanging from her neck and as her left hand reached up to examine the gift The Conqueror's voice rang through her head. 'What about me?' Xena only had enough time for the design to register on her brain. 'It's a chakram.' Then she realized. 'It's half a chakram.' Gabrielle's voice brought her out of her thoughts.
"And this is for you my Conqueror." She looped another chain over the dark tresses.
Xena now saw her own right hand holding the new gift, each charm was half of a broken chakram. She felt Gabrielle's small hands on hers and yielding to the pressure they exerted felt the jagged edges snap together seamlessly. "Together you make the soul that I love."
The warrior looked down at the now complete circle and shook her head. "No." Snapping the halves apart with a quick motion, she looked at Gabrielle. "That's not true." Removing her half The Warrior Princess looped it over the silken honey hair and whispered. "You, are the other half of our soul."
"Oh Xena..." Gabrielle's protest was cut off by Xena's questing lips and swift sweeping motion that landed her first in powerful arms and then on a soft bed. She reveled in the feeling of Xena pressing her back into the softness and groaned when the warrior moved to stretch out by her side.
Xena chuckled at her lover's groan. "I haven't given you your present yet." Dragging her hand teasingly slow across the Amazon's navel, Xena reached into the small pouch at her waist once more.
Gabrielle closed her eyes when she felt the touch on her stomach and only opened them again when she felt the cool metal band slip on her finger. Holding up her hand she gasped at the ring she now wore. "It's my seal." The Amazon brought her hand closer to her face and examined the ornate ring in detail. It was oval shaped and carved with her royal seal in the same metal that Xena's ring was made of.
"Not only yours." Xena smiled and pulling a small pin out slightly turned the signet on it's long axis to reveal another design. Pushing the pin back in she breathed a deep breath. "There."
Gabrielle looked at the new formation and gasped. It was Xena's seal and this time it WAS exactly the same only smaller. The implication of equal power rocked her. "Xena. I told you before, I don't want the world....." She closed her eyes as Xena began to make small circular motions on her exposed abs. ".... all I ever wanted was you." Xena's warm chuckle sent a wave of heat racing through her.
"But you already have me, Gabrielle." Xena leaned to kiss the middle of the circle she had been tracing. "The world is all I have....." She laid her head down on the soft skin and listened to the heart she valued more than her own. ".... I would give you more if I could." The Amazon's soft chuckle tickled her ear.
"More?? Like what? The moon and stars?" Gabrielle's laughter stopped abruptly when the dark head raised. Deep blue eyes searched her face.
"Is that what you want?" Xena was totally serious. "The moon would be easy... Artemis likes you.... " She stretched out next to the dumbstruck Amazon and nuzzled her neck. "......The stars may take awhile."
Gabrielle savored the feeling of soft lips caressing her and believed at that moment, Xena would get the stars for her if she wanted her to
The smell of hot candle wax and the soft rustle of turning pages forced Gabrielle's eyes open a fraction. Keeping her breathing rhythmic and even, she watched the flickering light play across her lover's features as the warrior rose from the desk and quietly dressed. Only after Xena's shadow was fully gone from the doorway did she rise from the bed, don her own warm tunic and follow the silent woman.
Nodding to Solari, who was standing guard at the door, Gabrielle watched as Xena's dark form melted into the pre-morning mist. She heard the guard's gasp as first one and then two shadows trailed after the vanishing woman. 'The milita man and Karis.' She thought.
"Is she going to kill him?" Solari spoke in low tones even though all of the figures were too far away to hear.
"Karis won't unless he attacks her....or me." The Amazon Queen spoke confidently about the leader of the guard. Her tone took on a speculative quality, and she played with the pendant hanging from her neck, when she spoke of the warrior. "I'm not sure what Xena will do though." She patted Solari reassuringly on the arm. "Hold your post. I want Solan protected." Moving silently through the night, Gabrielle went unerringly toward Xena. Even in the dimly moonlit mist she knew exactly where the other half of her soul was located.
Xena waited until she was nearly to her destination before doubling back on the man. 'He's a good tracker.' She thought. Fog and darkness were not the most ideal conditions for tracking and he had done an admirable job of keeping up with her. She couldn't give him all the credit though. 'Of course it is disipating and I wanted him to follow me.....' From her tree branch vantage point she watched him pass below her. '....so I guess he's not THAT good.'
The Conqueror felt a surge of excitement pass through her as she dropped silently behind her victim. 'Just a quick snap of the head and it will all be over.' That thought was quickly replaced by another option. 'Of course, the feel of the chakram slicing the skin is also nice.' She was closing on her prey and had nearly decided on a combination slice and snap when the Warrior Princess made her opinion known. 'I want to question him first.' The tone was firm and The Conqueror knew her fun was going to be put off..... for awhile.
Karis stopped dead in her tracks when she saw the dark form fall from the tree and pace after the man. On reflex she grabbed an arrow and had it nocked in the bow before she realized it was Xena and not a predatory cat stalking him. "Gods..." Her breathless curse was followed by a chuckle from above.
Gabrielle's quiet laughter was cut short when she found herself looking at the business end of an arrow aimed at her. She prepared herself to catch the projectile when the archer realized her error and lowered the weapon.
'Sweet Artemis.... ' The thought made her blood run cold. 'I nearly killed the Queen!'
Gabrielle held her finger to her lips indicating silence. A slight breeze rattling dead leaves on the trees around them covered the sound of her impact with the dew-laden ground. Twinkling green eyes took in the guards horrified pale face and the Queen whispered. "Don't worry Karis, one arrow that I know is coming will never touch me." It was not a boast but a simple statement of fact. Queen Melosa had insisted that she learn to dodge and/or catch arrows shot at her. The former Amazon Queen was not about to lose two heirs to the mask if she could prevent it at all. 'She should have taken that training with me.' Gabrielle thought sadly. Shaking her mind clear of the past, she focused on the present and gestured to a tree branch several feet ahead.
Karis nodded, understanding that from there Xena's handling of the man could be seen clearly in the dissipating mist. Both Amazons climbed quietly to the vantagepoint and watched The Conqueror move in for the kill. As the man dropped to his knees and gasped for breath, the Warrior began her interrogation. An added bonus to their position was a clear view of both the man's face and Xena's. Neither of them would have needed to see the first question though, it was the obvious one.
"Who are you." She could see that the low rumbling growl frightened him almost as much as the fact that he couldn't breath.
"Spiros." He gasped his name and clutched his throat.
"Why are you following me." Xena's eyes narrowed at the dying man. She didn't recognize the name.
He looked up at her with hatred in his eyes. "I am a Survivor of Cirra."
When she saw the name of the town form on his lips and the anguish on her partner's face, Gabrielle nearly jumped off the branch and ran to Xena's side. Karis stopped her. "No." The authority in her low voice and the firm grip on her queen's arm surprised both of them. "Let her finish." Green eyes flashed anger at the woman who dared to keep her from Xena. The guard steeled her eyes to match her grip until the Queen nodded. Karis released her and they turned to watch the rest of the interrogation.
The Warrior Princess' initial reaction turned to rage at the mention of the town. She immediately released the pressure points though. The liar would die otherwise and she wanted to ask him some more questions. As he supported himself on all fours, The Conqueror grabbed a handful of thick black hair and forced him to look at her. "You are NOT a survivor of Cirra." She hissed. "There were only a handful of survivors and all the men were older than you then." She remembered seeing the little group of survivors, all of them terrified except one little blonde haired girl. The feeling shining from her young brown eyes was not terror, it was an expression Xena knew as well as her own reflection. Hate filled eyes always took on a fire of their own.
"No I didn't live there, I joined them later." Spiros glared at his captor. "After your army destroyed my village and killed my wife and baby."
'Joined them.' Suddenly the resistance had a name. The Survivors of Cirra. 'Gods... ' Xena had not realized that the apparently well organized group against her had been in operation for so long. Then the reality of his words penetrated The Conqueror's quickly working mind. 'I NEVER ordered my army to kill women and children! They acted against orders when they did.' The Warrior Princess supplied the memory of one such event and they both recognized the chance to gain an ally, a slim chance. She released his hair roughly. "Get up." She watched him rise slowly, suspicion warring with the hatred in his eyes. "How do you know your child is dead?"
"The entire village was burned. EVERYONE was dead." His grief was as fresh today as it was all those years ago. "Your army killed everyone." His accusation was wasted. She knew the truth.
"My army." She countered. "Acted AGAINST my orders....." Recalling her order clearly she thought. 'They were supposed to wait 'til morning.' Shaking off her memory The Conqueror continued. ".....and the person responsible was severely punished." A picture of Darphus' back and the whip marks he acquired from that act of disobediance flashed behind her eyes. 'I should have killed him then.' The Conqueror thought but The Warrior continued speaking to her captive. "They didn't kill everyone." She saw a flare of hope in his expression. 'He never found the baby's body.' She thought and continued. "When I returned from my scouting mission the village had already been taken....." She studied his face closely and thought about the young stable boy and his adopted mother. "..... but there was a baby still alive and I wouldn't let them kill it."
The flash of hope returned and filtered into his voice. "Was the baby a boy?" It was almost too much to wish for after all these years but his heart still lurched when Xena's head nodded affirmative. Past a dry throat he asked the most important question he had ever contemplated. "Did he have a birthmark on his left leg?" Every fiber of his being ached to hear her say yes, and steeled itself to hear no. The yes answer nearly brought him to his knees and the breath he didn't know he was holding was enough to utter. "That's my son." Gratitude edged its way into his expression and before he could ask Xena volunteered the information.
"He was adopted by a shepherd woman. They live just outside my palace in Corinth and work in the stable. She named him Bennett." The look of determination in his eyes prompted The Warrior Princess to add. "He's a good boy and loves his mother." She continued in a near Conqueror tone. "If you try to seperate them I will, personally, hunt you down." She had occasionally visited the stable to retrieve Argo and, since he had a tendency to hang around when his mother worked, had given him a job not too long before her first visit to the Amazon Nation. After Gabrielle opened her heart to love and she returned to Corinth it was a great surprise to find that Bennett held a small portion of her feelings. 'Not family.' She told herself. 'But special.' No one but his mother knew of her involvement with his rescue and the only time she saw him was to get Argo from the stables, so he was safe from being associated with her. Still she knew if he wasn't there she would miss him.
"Bennett." Spiros rolled the name on his tongue. 'Little Blessed One.' He looked at the fierce woman in front of him and decided the name was appropriate for his son. He offered his hand in thanks.
Xena gripped the arm offered warrior style and The Conqueror knew that her fun with this man was deferred indefinitely. She watched him check the few remaining star's positions and head off in exactly the same direction she would soon be going herself. He was dismissed quickly from her thoughts as she tried to organize things for her departure. 'Just a few things to take care of before I go.' She thought and turned toward the building now visible in the clearing mist. 'First, I say hello....and goodbye to Lyceus.' She walked slowly toward the tomb and the past that helped create her.
The pair of watchers lost sight of their subject's faces when Xena grabbed the man by the hair. It was obvious that there was something intense going on though. Both women raised both eyebrows in astonishment when Xena and the man shook hands. Even more astounding, Xena let him go.
"Why did she let him go?" Karis didn't claim to understand the workings of Xena's mind but knew that many times Gabrielle had anticipated her moves with great accuracy.
"I'm not sure." Gabrielle wasn't able to hear most of the words but the tones of the conversation seemed to indicate he was grateful for something Xena had done. 'At Cirra?' She thought. 'Gods...that was terrible story.' The story of the town's destruction was etched into her mind. Shaking off nightmare images, she became worried when the warrior walked slowly toward the tomb.
"He's not going back to Potidiea." Karis wondered where the man was headed now. With an apologetic smile, she dropped from the limb and followed him silently.
Gabrielle chuckled and spoke quietly even though the guard was already out of earshot. "It's easier just to ask." She too dropped silently to the ground but instead of following the man, the concerned Queen slowly closed the distance between her and her love.
Xena stopped cold at the threshold of the tomb. The flickering torchlight beckoned her forward but she could not move. 'We have to say goodbye.' The Warrior Princess urged. 'I don't want to.' The Conqueror held her ground. The torchlight was all that allowed her to see inside her brother's burial-chamber. The large vault was farthest back in the cave as a tribute to his bravery in defense of the town. The intricately carved sarcophagus, placed on the raised dais in the center of the room, caused tears to well up in her eyes. She felt a chill, not attributable to the damp cave, shake her and still she couldn't move.
Gabrielle walked through the entrance to the building and saw a large room with many seats and benches arranged to face a podium and a large empty space. 'They have services here.' She thought.
Amazon funerals were centered around the pyre and could last for days. 'Melosa's lasted five days.' She thought. 'I heard Karis' mother's took seven.' Unable to stop her morbid thoughts as she passed through the room to the entrance of the cave and the interred bodies. 'I wonder how long my funeral will last?' Looking down the hall she saw Xena standing at the entrance to one of the burial-chambers. The visible tremor that raced through her love caused the Amazon to move faster.
Xena felt the tension in her muscles relax as two warm, familiar arms wrapped around her waist.
"You really shouldn't sneak up on me like that." The Conqueror looked down at the small woman and growled. "I might hurt you."
Green eyes, filled with nothing but love, returned the gaze. "You would never hurt me."
"The morning Perdicus came home, you were scared of me." The anguish in The Conqueror's voice was only thinly veiled. "I frightened you."
"You surprised me." Gabrielle corrected and thought about the incident. "I was scared that Perdicus was going after Lila..... Otherwise..." She shifted her hold to move face to face with her dark lover, well aware that she was talking to The Conqueror. "... I would have stayed with you for as long as you wanted me to." Long arms wrapping around her shoulders rewarded her pledge.
Xena rested her chin on top of Gabrielle's head and knew that even if they spent an eternity together... it wouldn't be long enough for her. A deep breath of contentment was cut short by the sight of her brother's sarcophagus.
"Do you want a minute with your brother?" Gabrielle was confused at Xena's reaction and started to release her hold on the warrior.
"No!" Xena tightened her hold. Taking another deep breath she looked over the Amazon's head at Lyceus' final resting-place. 'I don't want to forget him.' She thought.
"Xena." Gabrielle's gentle voice floated to her ears. "You will never forget him." She placed one hand on the warrior's chest. "He lives in your heart."
Xena was always amazed at Gabrielle's ability to read her thoughts and taking the hand over her heart, lifted it to her lips. "With you."
Gabrielle smiled. "With me....and Solan...and your mother..."
"Careful." The warrior chuckled. "It's gonna get pretty crowded in there."
"Funny thing about hearts..." Gabrielle's eyes twinkled up at her love. "...the more people you let in, the more room there is." She smiled and slid her arms away from the warrior. "I'll let you talk to your brother." Brushing the back of her fingers against the tan cheek, she continued. "I'll wait for you in your room."
Xena caught the hand, kissing the palm and playing with the new ring. "I don't have anything that is not yours too. I'll be back to our room shortly."
Gabrielle nodded and watched Xena walk slowly toward the dais. She only stayed long enough to see the Warrior brush some dirt off the engraving and chide her brother for not keeping his face clean before she walked out of the mausoleum.
Solari watched her Queen return to the house and when she was close enough reported. "No one has left the house." The guard took a deep breath and smiled. "But I think someone is up."
Gabrielle also inhaled deeply and upon recognizing the cinnamon and sugar combinations she smiled at Solari. "I do love Rayna's cinnamon rolls." She patted the guard on the arm. "Tell Xena that I'll be in the kitchen."
"Yes, My Queen." Solari smiled at the rolling green eyes. Everyone in the Royal Guard knew how the Queen hated formalities. She retained her smile as she watched Gabrielle's chuckling form disappeared into the house. Her smile vanished when Karis trotted up.
"Hey was that Gabrielle?" The Captain of the Guard indicated the now closed door.
"Yes." Solari bristled at Karis using the Queen's name.
"Was Xena with her?" The casual question was accompanied with a smile and Karis could tell that the guard didn't want to answer.
"No." Solari ground out.
"Hmmm...." Karis grinned at the sentry. "Guess it's back to patrol for me." She winked and turned to walk off in the same direction Xena had gone earlier.
Solari noted the direction. 'It's gonna be hard to stop the rumors from circulating.' She thought. 'But, I'm gonna try. The Queen shouldn't hear about it like that.' She knew, if the former Queen were alive she would agree. 'Melosa was the one who assigned me to protect Gabrielle when she first joined us.' Solari wanted very much to prove she was worthy of that trust.
Karis was thinking of options to handle the Solari issue, when she met Xena emerging from the interment building. The expression on the warrior's face concerned the guard. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah. I'm fine." She managed a half-smile for the worried woman. She had seen the guard's far away look and asked. "What's up?"
Running her fingers through her hair, Karis sighed. "Solari is becoming a problem." She explained that Solari's fierce loyalty to the Queen would compel her to stop the rumors. The fact that the guard's loyalty might be a threat to Karis' own life was also mentioned.
Xena considered this development and shrugged. "Then we have to take her out of the picture."
"What!!" Karis was appalled. "We can't just...." Her outburst was halted by Xena's chuckle.
"Calm down." Xena patted Karis on the arm. "I didn't mean kill her." She smiled at Karis' relieved expression. "Just leave her here to guard mother."
Karis hedged at that. "Well, She is a problem but... I want her with
us in Corinth." Karis looked Xena directly in the eye. "I won't be
able to protect Gabrielle all the time while we are there." She saw the
warrior bristle and continued quickly. "Neither will you." The guard
waited for Xena's acknowledgement of that statement before she went on.
"I want to make Solari my second in command and tell her the plan."
The rest of her explanation was cut off by Xena's rough voice.
"NO." The warrior took a deep breath and continued calmly. "Promote her but don't tell her." Xena stopped Karis' protest with a look. "Leave her here. When you get back to the village send a replacement for her. That will give the rumor mill time to work and she will be back in time to get her promotion and accompany you to Corinth."
Karis didn't like keeping Solari in the dark but agreed, for the moment. No one's safety was as important as Gabrielle's, even hers and the guard knew it. "So we have to endure an entire month of Gabrielle being separated from you?" Karis rolled her eyes. "Ye Gods, I hope the Nation is prepared."
"What are you talking about?" Xena began moving toward the house as she questioned the head guard.
"It's just that.....well..." Karis walked briskly to keep up with the warrior's stride and tried to think of the right words. "The Queen becomes very.... intense........ about Nation business when you are away..... " She felt the grim smile on her face. "Last time the situation kept her inside for the most part and almost drove her crazy." She rolled her eyes and looked up at the grinning warrior. "This time she will be able to go out ..... " Karis grinned and gave an exaggerated shudder at the possibilities. She could only imagine the projects Gabrielle would concoct to keep her mind off the loneliness.
Xena saw the shudder and grinning draped one arm companionably around the guard's shoulder. "I might be able to do something about that."
The easy conversation put Karis into a playful mood and upon hearing the near promise of stalling the impending frenzy of activity, she dropped to her knees in front of the startled warrior.
First clasping her hands in front of her heart, then spreading her arms wide she bowed almost low enough to touch her forehead to the ground. "Oh mighty Xena, if you can do that, we will be forever in your debt."
Putting on her best fake royal pose, Xena spoke nasally. "Rise, Lady Karis." She offered her hand to help the young woman up.
Karis accepted the hand and rose with a chuckle. "Lady Karis....." She laughed. "....like I'm royalty or something." She snorted. "...Not likely."
Holding the guard's hands in front of her, Xena looked into the deep brown eyes. "He is still very young but if my son has anything to say about it...." She smiled gently at the confusion in Karis' eyes. ".... I'd say......very likely."
'What does Solan have to do with my being royalty?' She thought. 'Sure as Gabrielle's son he was considered a Prince but.....' Suddenly she realized that Gabrielle was not his only mother and as Xena's son........... She swallowed hard at the thought of who the woman she was so casually talking to really was and the Realm her son would inherit. "Gods..."
The exclamation was enough for Xena to throw her head back and laugh loudly. "No.. They are safe...." She released the guard's hands and resumed her arm around the shoulder embrace. With a slight shake of the guard's frame, a wink and a sideways grin, she continued. "...For now." She grimaced and wrinkled her nose disdainfully. "Olympus is too high up anyway."
They took several steps before Karis brought their progress to an abrupt halt. "You've been to Olympus?" The awe in her voice was evident.
The memories of those excursions were not pleasant for her, despite the impression she left Ares with, and she grimaced as they flashed in her mind. "I have."
Karis could feel the tension in the arm around her. Deciding not to press the subject, she cleared her throat. "I really should get back on patrol."
"Sure." The warrior dropped her arm from the young woman's shoulders, took a deep breath and smiled. "One more circuit before your relief arrives?" She waited for the guard's acknowledgement before offering. "Join us for breakfast?" From the fragrance in the air alone, she could almost taste the cinnamon rolls. 'Raspberry tea would be great with those.' She thought.
Karis couldn't have stopped her smile if she had tried. "I'd love to." Earlier, Xena had indicated that Solan still wanted to see her but the status of their relationship in his mother's eyes, especially Gabrielle's, was still very much in question. The guard had worried that getting caught by the barn was going to cause the women to mistrust her intentions but she knew that Xena wouldn't invite her if Gabrielle was upset. Karis gave the warrior a jaunty wave as she trotted off to finish her duties.
Walking on toward the house Xena saw the hard look on Solari's face. She breathed deeply and winked at the guard. "Gabrielle in the kitchen?" The warrior rewarded the guard's grudging mumbled affirmative with a fierce scowl. "I am not used to defiant guards. Don't think your disrespect will go unpunished just because you are an Amazon." She grinned wickedly at Solari's expression. "I am not without influence where your Queen is concerned."
Solari was embarrassed that she had been unable to keep her emotions in check and responded automatically. "Karis will protest....." Xena's chuckle stopped her angry retort.
"I am not without influence where Karis is concerned either." The Conqueror laughed louder at the guard's darkening face. "You're lucky though.... If you were one of my guards, with that attitude......" She leaned closer and growled. "....I'd kill you where you stand."
Solari couldn't quite keep the hardness from her eyes as the dark woman disappeared into the house. 'Influence with Karis indeed.' If she had not actually seen the kiss that night in Potidea Solari would not have believed Xena's boast. As things stood now, inconceivable as it was, the only assumption possible was that Karis was betraying the Queen. 'That can't be.' Solari warred with herself. 'She wouldn't do that.... I'm missing something.' Solari decided that a discreet surveillance of Karis would get her the answers she needed. 'If I confront Karis directly.' She thought. 'She will throw me out of the guard and I will miss my chance to find out what is going on.'
Gabrielle was pleased to find that she was just in time for the first batch of rolls to come out of the oven. Joining Cyrene and Velasca at a large table in the corner she nibbled at the treats as she related the events of the last week in Potidea. She could already feel herself slipping in to a rhythmic pattern of speech and knew that before long she would have a polished story to tell anyone who wanted to listen.
Her audience was amazed at the bond between Brie and Gabe. Although Velasca was curious, Cyrene asked. "Does that sort of thing run in your family?"
Gabrielle drained the last of her tea and rose to get some more. She thought about the question as she absently poured the fragrant liquid into two mugs. Snagging another plate on her way back to the table she sat and put a roll on the new plate and another in front of her. "I don't think so." She nibbled on her roll. "Mother never mentioned anything like that to me." She smiled as Xena walked through the door and the Queen indicated the place setting next to her.
Xena saw Cyrene and Velasca exchange a look and quickly took her place next to Gabrielle. She sipped the tea appreciatively. 'Mint.' She thought. 'Not bad.' She nudged the Amazon Queen's shoulder. "Thanks."
Gabrielle smiled as she swallowed a bite of roll. "Well, it's not raspberry but it's pretty good."
The royal couple enjoyed their quick breakfast together. Knowing it was their last for awhile, the occasional brush of arm on arm as they reached for another roll or thigh on thigh as they shifted positions slightly was enough to focus all their attention on each other. A coughing fit from Cyrene pulled each of them out of their absorption in the other.
The innkeeper's waving hand kept them from rushing to her side. Sighing at the sick woman's stubbornness and at the inevitable, Gabrielle looked at her lover and spoke quietly. "I think Rayna is finished packing your supplies."
"Yeah...." The warrior sighed sadly. "I need to get going." She knew that the merchant caravan that Kima left on would take longer to get to Corinth than it would for a single rider but since they left two days ago she was going to have to take at least one of the shortcut she knew, just to catch up. Glancing at Gabrielle she rose gracefully and offered the Queen her hand. "I need to talk to you."
Nodding, Gabrielle rose and let a gentle hand on her back guide her to the room they shared.
Karis walked into the kitchen expectantly and deflated slightly when Solan, Gabrielle, or Xena were nowhere to be seen. 'Great, they've already finished breakfast' She thought and simultaneously planned all sorts of odd and disgusting jobs for Jana. 'She is always late for patrol.' The problem was, once Jana was there and on duty, nothing got by her. Karis sighed. 'She is a member of the Royal Guard so she has to be the best.... late or not.'
Cyrene saw the guard's smile disappear and she knew why. "He's not up yet." She indicated the door leading to the main room and the hallway beyond with her thumb. "Second door on the right." It would have been impossible for the grandmother not to chuckle at the speed the young woman exited the kitchen.
For one long soul-soothing moment Xena stood in the middle of her childhood room, holding the love of her life in her arms. 'I don't care where I'm standing.' She thought and breathed deeply the lilac/leather/Gabrielle combination that was ingrained on her senses. 'As long as Gabrielle is in my arms..... I'm home.'
"I will miss you." The Amazon Queen buried her face in the raven hair cascading over the warrior's collarbone. She knew her tears only made things worse but she couldn't help it.
Xena felt the warm droplets wetting the ends of her hair and the skin below. "Hey." She tilted the tear-stained face up to catch her eye. "Tears from the ruthless Spider Queen?" She wiped the water away with her thumbs. "Think of your image."
A short bark of laughter and a sniffle stopped the drops from falling. "My image." Gabrielle forced a smile. "I think your image could be in trouble if anyone saw you consoling a blubbering woman."
Xena nodded and frowned. "It's my image I wanted to talk to you about." She released the Amazon and sat on the edge of the bed.
"Xena, don't worry." Gabrielle sat next to the warrior and patted her
knee. "Your ruthless image is still intact."
"No." The Warrior Princess stilled the hand on her knee. "You don't
understand." She turned to face the Amazon. "When you were telling
Solan the story on his birthday I realized how much of the bad stuff you
glossed over.... for his sake and for mine." She walked over to the
desk and gently rested her fingertips on the book she was reading earlier.
"I understand that most stories about me go the opposite way." Picking
up the book she turned to look at Gabrielle. "I know that it can't be told
while I still rule, but I want you to write about me... the whole me..
the one that you know...the one I would like Solan and his children to
know.....not just what some bard wants to blow out of proportion......
to do that, you need to know.... everything....the truth,
good and bad......" Looking at the wide green eyes of her only love, Xena took a deep breath and continued. "This is my journal, from when I was young." She handed Gabrielle the book. "I have others from my later years, those are in my rooms at the Palace." She sat next to the stunned Amazon and examined the palms of her hands. "I want my family at least to know the true story."
"Xena....." Gabrielle was speechless for once. The implicit trust it took for Xena to give up her journals was overwhelming.
Gabrielle's hesitation sent The Conqueror pacing around the room. 'I told you she wouldn't. It's too much to ask her...' The Warrior Princess ran her fingers through her hair. 'No she will do it... she's the only one who can.' Shaking her head and continuing to pace The Conqueror continued. 'I don't want her to know the horrible things I've done...' The Warrior Princess interrupted the gruesome scenes flashing behind her eyes. 'She loves us, despite what we have done.' The Conqueror nearly wailed. 'How can she? She doesn't know.....' A flash of a woman being impaled on a tree limb was dismissed as Gabrielle's gentle voice interrupted the internal battle.
"Xena." She wiped a tear from her eye and waited until the dark woman turned to face her before gesturing. "Com'ere, please?"
The Conqueror snarled. 'Now see what you've done. She's crying.' The Warrior Princess crossed the room and took the Amazon's outstretched hand. 'No she isn't .... look.'
At Gabrielle's gentle insistence Xena dropped to both knees in front of her. "I love you, you know that right?" She waited for the hesitant nod, took a deep breath and continued. "I was able to gloss over the story for Solan because I already know a lot of the events in your life ....." She put her fingers to stop the warrior's protest. "I've been watching you for a long time..... and I have already started this story." She smiled at the confused blue eyes and hugged the journal to her chest. "This will help fill in the missing parts." Brushing the warrior's dark hair with her fingertips, Gabrielle leaned in to gently kiss her love. "Thank you."
The Conqueror pulled back from the kiss. "You've already started?" Hands strengthened from years of staff use kept the dark woman from rising.
"Yes. At first, I just wanted to be able to tell them what happened...... " Gabrielle's explanation was interrupted.
"Them?" Xena didn't know who Gabrielle was talking about. "You mean Solan?" She watched green eyes close as Gabrielle bit her lower lip and nodded. Suddenly, The Warrior Princess whispered quietly to her dark sister. 'Centaurs....' Xena had been overwhelmed when the little Centaur had thanked her for sparing his mother's life... 'I killed them all...' The Warrior Princess felt her guts twist. 'NO!' The Conqueror corrected. 'I did.' The Warrior sighed. 'That's what I said.' Blue eyes gazed into a field of green. "And little Phantes...?" Gabrielle nodded.
"Yes, It's like the story you told me of his father's death... " She rubbed her palm against the smooth leather book. "...these will fill in ......the missing parts." She leaned over, placed the book on the small table next to the bed and, with her now free hands, began to caress Xena's face and stroke her hair.
The Conqueror closed her eyes to savor the gentle touch but wasn't quite finished with the conversation. "You mean when there were no survivors." She thought about it and knew there were too many instances of that. Sighing and hanging her head, she admitted. "There are a lot of those." Delicate fingers under her chin gently forced her head to tilt up. The Conqueror looked into pure green desire and swallowed hard, hoping the Queen would answer the way she wanted.
"Gabrielle?" The Conqueror closed her eyes as Gabrielle's fingers lightly traced her jaw.
Keeping her eyes focused on her fingertips, Gabrielle smiled and murmured. "Yes Xena?"
"You know why I want to get to Corinth before Kima, right?" The dark frame shuddered as the Amazon brushed locks of raven hair from her shoulders.
"Yes Xena." She did know why but thought the warrior was going to tell her anyway.
"So I can follow her and find out who her contact in the Resistance is." The soft skin now exposed was too much of a temptation and Xena felt Gabrielle's mumbling response on her neck.
"Yes Xena." The spy would go directly to her contact thinking that she was safe as long as Xena was still out of Corinth. A warm whispering breath on her ear made her shudder.
"Gabrielle?" The Conqueror tangled her hand in the honey hair.
"Yes Xena?" Quickly losing all semblance of self-control Gabrielle moved closer to her love.
From her kneeling position the warrior had to look slightly up at the Amazon. The feel of Gabrielle's knees on either side of her waist increased her heartbeat nearly double. "If I got there too soon then I will have to hide and wait for the caravan to arrive, right?" Pulling Gabrielle even closer to the edge of the bed exposed a good portion of the Amazon's shapely leg. A portion that Xena explored thoroughly as the Queen answered.
It took a moment to focus on the next question. "If that's the case, then don't you think I should wait awhile to leave?"
"Yes Xena." Gabrielle wrapped her legs firmly around the warrior's waist as the kneeling woman stood.
Holding her love tightly to her, Xena looked into deep green eyes. "Do you have any ideas on what we can do 'til then?"
Closing the intolerable space between their lips, Gabrielle whispered. "Yes. Xena." She echoed Xena's groan as the exquisite pressure from the woman above her pressed her back against the soft bed. Questing hands and lips forced the Amazon to gasp. "Oh, Yes Xena." Before the ability for rational thought was driven from her and coherent speech was not even an option.
Karis knocked quietly on the door. No answer. Concerned she poked her head inside the door and seeing Solan still sleeping she approached the bed quietly. Resisting the urge to wake him Guard trainee style, which involved the entire bed being turned over, Karis shook his bare shoulder gently. "Hey there, Sleepyhead.... wake up."
"Wha...hmmm." Solan opened his eyes and smiled at the guard. "Morning already?" He stretched leisurely and reached out for a hug.
The guard watched, fascinated, as Solan's biceps flexed with his stretching motion. She sat on the edge of the bed and leaned into the open arms eagerly. It was amazingly easy to stretch out beside him and just relax quietly in his arms. She let her hand trace up and down his smooth stomach, feeling the toned muscle underneath. Slowly, so he wouldn't notice, she moved her hand closer to his side. Just before she began to tickle him he grabbed her hand.
"Don't" He smiled at her. When she persisted in attacking other known ticklish spots he used both hands to capture hers. She immediately spotted the ring.
"What's that?" She tried to get a better look at his hand as he moved it rapidly around, over, behind and beside him, trying to keep her from seeing it.
"What's what?" He grinned. "Ohh... you mean this." Allowing Karis to capture his arm, he explained. "Xena's Solstice present to me."
Karis examined the ring... it was much too large for Solan but a string had been wrapped around the bottom half of the circle resizing it to fit his still growing finger. It was the design that struck her. "It's Xena's seal."
Solan smiled a little sadly and shook his head. "I thought so too but on Mother's this and this are different.... " He looked into deep brown eyes and whispered. "... this one was my Father's"
"Oh Solan." Karis hugged him tightly. She knew that he loved his Centaur Uncle but in his heart he wanted to know his father. He returned the hug gratefully and took a deep breath.
"Hey are those cinnamon rolls I smell?" He smiled then looked panicked, jumped up, grabbed his shirt from the back of the chair and headed toward the door, dragging Karis behind him. "Com'on. If Mom gets there first we will miss them!"
Karis laughed at that. She had seen the trays of rolls Rayna was baking, most of them to be taken to the inn for the breakfast crowd and then she thought. 'It is Gabrielle we are talking about.' She increased her speed just to be on the safe side.
Cyrene watched happily as her grandson and the Amazon he obviously adored
ate breakfast. She grinned at Velasca, who rolled her eyes and chuckled.
The young couple did not require her full attention, however, and she found
herself glancing often in the direction of the sleeping rooms. To
her relief, when Solan and Karis were nearly finished, Xena and Gabrielle
returned to the kitchen.
"Mother. I have to go." Xena hugged the older woman tightly before turning to Solan. "Behave." She wasn't sure if the exasperated sound he made was from her comment or her hug. Glancing once at Gabrielle, she pulled Karis into a quick hug, whispering. "I think I took care of that little problem we discussed... the Nation can rest easy." Releasing the astonished guard, Xena took her place beside Gabrielle. One hand automatically wrapping around the Queen's waist. "Walk with me?" Only a touch of sadness seeped into her words.
"Of course." Gabrielle slid her hand between the sword scabbard and armor to wrap her arm around the warrior's waist and walked quietly to the barn. It was a peaceful morning. Warm for this time of year. The sun was shining brightly in the blue morning sky. Birds were singing. Small animals scurried to find their stored food. She thought she could hear children playing in the distance. Xena was walking next to her. It was perfect and it was horrible. Xena was leaving. The Queen sighed. 'At least I can stay busy writing some missing parts of her story.' She thought and chuckled remembering some of the busy work she had initiated last time. 'Ephiny will be glad to hear that. ' She looked at Xena with suspicious eyes. 'I wonder....'
Twinkling blue with as much innocence as Xena could muster met the green gaze. "What?"
Pursing her lips, Gabrielle exhaled sharply and shook her head. "Nothing." She watched as Xena checked the tack and saddled Argo. So lost in the play of light along well defined muscles, she barely noticed Xena reaching into one of the saddlebags.
Xena grinned at Gabrielle's observations and put her hands behind her back as she walked toward the now blushing Queen. "These are for you." She produced a small bunch of wildflowers surrounding a sprig of lilac.
"Oh Xena." Gabrielle could feel the tears welling up in her eyes. "They are beautiful."
"No." The Warrior Princess corrected. "They.... are flowers." Caressing the Queen's cheek with her thumb she continued. "You... are beautiful." She leaned in to taste the softness of the lips she knew so well, one last time. 'Okay you've said your goodbye.' The Conqueror said. 'Now it's my turn.' The Warrior Princess gave way without a fight. It was The Conqueror that ruled and she was the one that should be in charge now.
Gabrielle felt the intensity of the kiss change and matched it. She knew that The Conqueror had arrived. When Xena broke the kiss and jumped into the saddle, The Queen looked up into shining blue eyes and patted the exposed portion of Xena's leg. "Take care of yourself."
She stopped the hand from patting her leg and gripped it tightly. "You too."
Sheer force of will stopped the tears that threatened to overflow Gabrielle's eyes and she nodded. Biting her lip, not trusting that a sound could pass the lump in her throat, she simply waved and slowly lowered her arm as Xena rode out of sight.
'It's not forever.' She thought. 'I'll see her again, soon.' Reassured by that thought, Gabrielle cleared her throat and wiped her eyes. 'Now we get something done.' Running her fingers through her hair she whistled the code for report and walked back to the house. She was not surprised to see that all the guards and all their packs had gathered in front of the house by the time she got there. Seizing the opportunity to reinforce the rift between her and the head guard, Gabrielle turned on Karis. "You told them to pack?"
A moment of panic gripped Karis' heart. 'She is angry at me.' She thought before a calming voice soothed. 'No, she's helping you.' Swallowing hard Karis nodded. "Yes. Did you not want to leave today too?"
Gabrielle thought about that question. Yes she most certainly did want to leave today. She wanted to leave and follow a lone rider on a large golden horse and when she caught up to them she wanted to stay with them forever. Sighing, Gabrielle acceded the point. "Yes I do but..." She put on her long unused royal pose and turned to the rest of the guards. "Since the waterways are useable again, Velasca is busy at the inn.... I worry about Xena's mother and so does she so one of you will stay as guard." She turned back to Karis. "Your choice... who stays?"
All the guards were dismayed at the news. None of them wanted to stay, each for their own reasons. Bekka had overheard a snippet of conversation between Karis and Xena and knew that a trip was being planned for Corinth. She thought that whoever stayed wouldn't get to go. Jana thought she was going to have to stay as a punishment for being late this morning. Karis had been very upset. Norin wanted to get back to the Nation and tell the rest of her friends all about the trip, especially about Karis and Xena. She still couldn't believe what Bekka had told her about the hayloft kiss. Solari, naturally, wanted to watch Karis but never seriously considered herself a candidate for staying. After all she was the most experienced of the group and guard duty was not her area of expertise.
Karis watched them all carefully and took a deep breath. "Solari will stay." It took every ounce of self-control she had not to smile at the gasps of all the guards. The hard look Solari gave her was not lost on the head guard. "You have a problem Solari?"
"Yes I do..." The angry guard began and then saw the questioning look on Gabrielle's face and sighed. "......but I will deal with it."
“Now I know Cyrene will be well protected.” The Queen complimented. With that settled she started to enter the house. "Saddle up the horses.... I'll pack and get Solan." She continued inside and grinned at the flurry of Amazons grabbing their packs and heading toward the barn.
She had packed her things when Xena did so it didn't take long to pick them up from their room, grab her cloak and find Solan. He didn't have to report when she whistled so he opted to stay in the kitchen and talk to his grandmother and aunts. When Gabrielle entered the kitchen, Velasca was examining the ring Xena had given Solan.
"Very nice." She handed the signet back to the boy.
"Thanks." He slipped it back on his finger.
Gabrielle subtly checked to make sure her ring had the Amazon seal facing out before she approached the table. She held out her hand, the one with the ring on it, to Solan. "You ready to go?"
"Hey! Wow! Is that your present from Xena?" Solan's eyes tracked the ring.
She smiled at his enthusiasm. "Yup... See.. " She held it closer. "It's my seal."
"That is so cool." He grinned up at his mother. Karis' arrival at the door interrupted his comments.
"The horses are ready my Queen." She bowed and left quickly.
"Why is she being so formal?" He knew she took her job seriously but com'on it was just them here.
"It's necessary." She smiled and tapped him on the cheek. "Ready?"
He understood that the formality was a necessary part of the plan Karis had told him about. She had also told him a little about covert communication. "Already?" That one word conveyed his reluctance to leave but also asked about the plan being set in motion.
"I'm afraid so." Gabrielle smiled indulgently at her son. 'He is growing up....' She thought. 'I wonder if I should put his first covert conversation in his scrapbook?'
He heaved himself up from the table and hugged Velasca and Rayna goodbye before turning to his grandmother. "It was very nice to meet you." It had come as a great shock to meet so much of his family in such a short amount of time but he felt very strongly toward this woman. He guessed it was because he looked like her son but she watched him all the time and sometimes tears would well up in her eyes, like they were now.
"It was nice to meet you too." The innkeeper opened her arms for a hug. She held him tightly forcing herself to remember that she would see him again, sometime.
Gabrielle waited until the hug was over before she spoke. "Solan, go tell Karis I'll be there in a minute." She smiled as he grabbed a leftover roll off the tray by the door. Reaching out to touch the innkeeper's arm she spoke quietly. "I know Xena said she would come if you needed her but the Nation is closer than Corinth so if you need anything send one of the Amazons and I promise you, we will do all we can to help."
Cyrene held the hand on her arm and played with the ring for a moment before pulling Gabrielle into a hug similar to the one she gave Solan but she also whispered in the woman's ear. "Thank you, daughter." The Amazon's shining green eyes were all she needed to see for a proper 'Your Welcome, Mother'
The tired band of travelers made their way across the village commons. It was a long trip from Amphipolis to the Nation, over seven days if you didn't push. Gabrielle was amazed that Ephiny, Eponin and little Phantes had made it in four. 'Even on horseback it took us nearly six.' The Queen thought and chuckled. 'Wasn't everyone surprised when you jumped into the saddle.' Taking full advantage of Xena's many skills, she had coaxed a few lessons from the warrior. She still didn't like it but would ride when she had to.
Sending Jana and Norin to the stables with the horses, and Solan off to his own quarters, she longingly eyed her own hut as she continued with Karis and Bekka toward the Council Chamber. 'I have things to do first.' A long hot bath was going to feel very good though.
Ephiny ran her hand through her dark blonde curls as Gabrielle entered the hut. The Queen stood at the doorway for a moment to adjust her eyes to the dimmer interior and to remove her cloak. The Regent took that moment to examine her Queen in detail. Her hair was longer, naturally, she had been gone a long time. When the cloak was removed Ephiny saw the full extent of the changes travel had made on their young Queen. Gabrielle was much thinner than she remembered. Every movement caused well defined muscles in her arms, legs, and stomach to flex and shift. She would have been concerned that the Queen wasn't eating enough or was sick if not for the glowing smile and shining eyes. 'No one who is sick glows like that.' Now that Gabrielle's well being was confirmed in her mind, Ephiny's thoughts turned personal and she worried as the long absent Queen approached the throne. The Regent instinctively found Eponin's hand for support. "You look well my Queen."
Gabrielle smiled at the compliment and at the linked hands. "Thank You. I'm a little tired though...long trip." She grinned at Ephiny's knowing expression and continued. "I probably ought to sit down." Biting her lip to keep from smiling didn't help as Ephiny simply nodded in agreement. Laughing outright, Gabrielle licked her lips and asked. "So are you gonna get outta my chair or what?"
Ephiny looked stricken and shot up off the throne as if someone had set it on fire. "Gods.. I'm sorry I just forgot..." Her apology was cut off by the sight of her Queen rolling on the floor laughing.
Residual bubbles of laughter escaped her as Gabrielle hauled herself to her feet and wiped a tear from her eye. "Oh thank you Ephiny. I haven't laughed that hard in days......" She smiled and quickly hugged the Regent. It was one step up to the vacated seat and Gabrielle was too much of a bard not to stand in front of the empty throne and survey the room for a dramatic moment before accepting the responsibility of sitting in the ornate chair.
As soon as Gabrielle reclaimed the throne, Ephiny knelt in front of her and held out a small scroll. "This was delivered a few days ago." She needed to get the formalities out of the way first before she could ask about the personal issues.
Gabrielle removed her traveling pack and placed it on the floor next to the throne. When she reached for the offered message, Ephiny noticed her ring and grabbed her hand. Quickly stopping Karis' reflex action with an upraised hand, Gabrielle smiled at the Regent. "You like that?" Showing even more teeth at Ephiny's nod she rose, placed the scroll on the arm of the throne and gestured her to the corner supply table. It wasn't safe for everyone to know but Ephiny at least should be aware of the depth of feeling Xena held for her. She turned the ring to show Ephiny the design on the other side and smiled at The Regent.
"Is that.... Xena's seal?" Ephiny spoke in a whisper partially to keep the others from hearing and partially in awe.
"Yes." Twinkling green eyes watched as Ephiny's expression went from happiness for a friend to astonishment, to awe.
"That means...." Ephiny couldn't believe that Xena would give anyone that kind of power. No one could dispute a document with The Conqueror's seal on it. With it Gabrielle could sign anything and by putting the Empress' seal on it, it would be law, no matter where she was. "Gods... she gave you..."
Gabrielle smiled quietly, turned the ring so the Amazon seal was facing out and confirmed. "She gave me the world." The Queen closed her eyes, savoring the memory.
Ephiny let Gabrielle drift in her memory as she tried to reconcile her Queen's relationship with the Ruler of the World. A deep breath from Gabrielle drew her out of her thoughts.
"I guess we have some business to take care of." She smiled at the still stunned Amazon. Gathering a blank parchment, a pen and ink, she returned to the throne. Setting aside the supplies for the moment she unrolled the message. The scroll was, as she suspected, an invitation to the Imperial Palace in Corinth for the annual Winter Festival. She knew that the guest lists for such occasions were made out well in advance and she wondered how long The Amazon Queen and entourage had been included among the invited. She could imagine the look on the subordinate's face as Xena gave the order for the Amazons to be included. Ephiny's nervous shuffling brought her out of her daydream. 'Gods... how could I be so stupid.' She thought and quickly rummaged through her pack for the parchment. Handing the document to the Regent she smiled. "Congratulations.... It's a girl!"
Ephiny knew that without Eponin's arm around her she would have fallen. "You saw her.... she signed?" The relief in her voice was evident. In the months since her mother had left Micha had become family and now that Brenin had signed the adoption papers, no one could take her away.
"Yes." Gabrielle took a sheet of blank parchment and wrote a list of names. Handing it to Karis she spoke quietly. "Have these guards report to my hut for the evening meal." She saw Karis' eyes widen at the list. "You come too." As Karis left to find the women, Gabrielle rose and linked arms with Ephiny. "I know that you and Poni want to celebrate but I have a long story to tell you.... and I need a bath." She could feel the grit of the road on her neck. "I'll try not to take too long..........."
Xena heard the brook and dismounted to walk through the trees to the water. It was more than she had hoped for. A small tree had fallen across the stream and trapped a pool of water behind it. She had taken every shortcut she knew and by her estimation was only a few more days from Corinth. She had passed the merchant's caravan Kima was traveling with two days ago, they were traveling slower than she thought, and now had the luxury of stopping to bathe. Quickly stripping down to her shift she began to wash the travel grime off and think about the upcoming confrontation. 'Iolaus will have been back in Corinth for seven days or so by now.' The Warrior Princess warned. 'There is no telling what kind of surprises he has for you.' The Conqueror sighed. 'I know.... but the first step in avoiding a trap, is to be aware of it's existence.' From far down the road she heard hoofbeats. 'Four horses.' She thought absently and continued to wash thinking about how much more fun baths were when Gabrielle was around until the hoofbeats stopped and Argo neighed. Quickly returning to the road she found four large men, dressed in worn leather armor trying to catch Argo's reins.
"I wouldn't do that." Narrowed blue eyes sized up her opponents. 'Big... ' They turned at the sound of her voice and she continued her assessment. '.....but slow.'
"Well, well, well... lookee here boys.... maybe we will have some fun
after all." The apparent leader of the group sauntered forward. "The
only woman in the caravan we raided died before we had any fun at all."
He played with a pendant hanging from his neck
She looked at the pendant and recognized it. "That is the medallion of an Imperial Healer." She was angry now. Kima was dead and all her travel was for nothing... she could have stayed with Gabrielle. Of course she had planned on explaining her traveling companions absence by saying she had sold them as slaves to some merchant. Now she could say they had died in a raider's attack.
"Yeah... so?" He laughed loudly and shook his thumb in the direction of his comrades. "It's not like any of us haven't killed people before." They all agreed to that.
"The punishment for killing a member of the Imperial household is death." She smiled as the tone of her voice caused one of them to step back.
"Who's gonna tell?" The leader insanely took a step toward her.
Whistling a command to Argo the horse pushed through the men and stopped
next to her. Retrieving her sword and chakram, The Conqueror laughed.
"No one." The men were going to die and The Warrior Princess was
powerless to stop it. 'That's right, my sister.' The Conqueror's
gleeful claim rang in her head. 'It's MY time now.' In a blur of
motion the chakram found it's mark on the three lackeys and they hit the
ground before she caught the bloody ring. Turning to the leader,
she smiled savoring the fear in his eyes and reveling in the power that
coursed through her. Laughing at the sheer exhilaration of it she purred.
"No one at all."
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