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Ephiny crouched on a tree limb, balancing her weight easily, and watched the stranger approach. She spared a quick glance over at Solari, taking in the tension of the other woman's stance.
Returning her gaze to the mounted man she studied him, seeking to gain clues about his intent before he became aware that he was being watched. In her experience people were less open, and more apt to hide behind facades when being observed. His mount appeared well cared for and Ephiny could see no signs that she was being ridden hard. The stranger slowed the horse gradually through a canter down to a walk, finally stopping just on the other side of the border.
To the Amazon monarch he appeared to being weighing his options, watching him dismount she was able to discern that his dress was foreign, or at least from a region she hadn't seen before. A long dark cloak was draped over his left shoulder and cinched at his waist by a broad belt, leaving - she guessed - his sword arm free. A flowing, light coloured shirt and baggy, slightly darker trews tucked into calf high brown boots completed the ensemble.
It looked as though he had come to a decision as too the best possible course of action, because he removed the sword belt from the pommel of the bay horse's saddle and threw it to the ground - on the other side of the boundary.
It was a toss up after that to decide who was the most surprised at what happened next.
"Beannacht, I seek the Ard-rian Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons." Clear tones rang out across the clearing as the dark haired man put both arms in the air, clasped his left wrist with his right hand and waited.
Ephiny heard the drawn intake of breath from the scouts around her and signaled for an escort. Six Amazons dropped from the trees and surrounded the stranger.
"What do you want with the Queen?" Solari punctuated her words with a jab to the man's ribs.
"I claim coire ainsec, the guest right. My sword as your sword, my blood to your hearth."
"You are a man, you have no guest right here. I'm not going to ask you again, what business do you have with the Queen of the Amazons."
From her vantage point in the tree, Ephiny watched as the stranger absorbed the blow without flinching, his hands remaining clasped above his head. His next words forced her decision and she descended from her perch.
"So I am to be judged not by my conduct but by my gender?"
Landing in front of Solari, she intercepted the next blow. "Hold Solari. He has invoked the guest right." Ephiny turned to completely face their new guest, "My fire to your warmth, my shield to your safety. The Queen is away, I am Regent in her place." She was peripherally aware of the quizzical look shot her way by Solari at her use of the term regent.
"I am Cairbre son of Ethlinn, Queen of the House of Scathach."
"Ephiny," she motioned for Cairbre to retrieve his sword and to follow her and Solari into the village.
"Alright Solari, out with it."
"You don't know anything about him, or about his intentions, he never told us why he wants to speak with Gabrielle or why he showed up on our borders in the dead of night, and you just welcome him into the village, giving him guest right." It was clear that the Captain of the Guard was angry, it was the why of it that eluded Ephiny.
"He clearly understood our border protocols and asked for guest right in the old tongue. Male or not we have to honour that. And," she paused wanting to be sure she had Solari's undivided attention, "he is the son of an Amazon Queen."
"The old stories and scrolls speak of a warrior and Queen called Scathach, who was given a quest by Artemis herself. She took three score women, gathered from all the tribes of the Amazon nation and sailed into the setting sun. The remaining scrolls are too badly damaged and Gabrielle was unable to discover exactly where they went or why."
"You believe he is descended from this same Queen Scathach? Since when did the Amazon nation include male children?" Ephiny was startled, did her friend not consider her son part of the Amazon legacy?
The subject of the intense debate in the Queen's hut was aware of the discord his presence was causing among his sisters. Being Cairbre he did the only thing he could think of. He sang.
He let the powerful tide of awen wash over him, carrying him along on its twin currents of rhythm and poetry. Reaching outward with his bardaugh sight even as his other senses turned inward tapping the source, praying for she of the flaming arrow to guide his words that he might win peace.
Pouring his love for his nation and his land into the poetry, he sang the history of his people; sang the courage of his many times grandmother; sang of the Tuatha de Danaan and the People of the Sidhe; sang of shattered peace and a land in turmoil; sang of hope and prophesy; sang of who he was and what had shaped him. All this and more ran through words he knew they couldn't understand, but hoped they could hear, could feel.
Only the last refrain did he translate - letting its echo fill the night.
"The end of each strife is peace."
"'Sé deireadh gach cogadh s'ith."
"Xena, we're never going to get to Rome if you keep this up you know."
"I thought we were going to Poteidia?"
"Funny, very funny. Not."
Xena held up a hand, motioning Gabrielle to be alert, listening the bard could hear the out of tune rustle of leaves telling her some thing or someone was lurking on their right. Three someones, she hazarded, one much bigger than the other two. Bringing other senses into play, she discerned the smell of sour sweat and the mix of fear and adrenaline that indicated their observers did not harbor benign intentions.
Dropping Quill's reins she removed her staff from its sheath and made ready to defend herself. She watched from the corner of one eye as Xena likewise freed Argo and reached for her own staff.
"All right boys, are you gonna come out and play?" Xena's voice carried all the characteristic menace Gabrielle remembered, but seeing her without her signature brown leathers, spiral breastplate and sword unnerved her. Only grieves and the chakrum remained, and the bard had watched the warrior pack that in a saddle bag.
"We'll play with you sure enough." The apparent leader leered at them.
"Ready or not here I come." Xena swung her staff in a vicious arc, sweeping two of the men into the third.
Gabrielle watched entranced as Xena fluidly brought the end of the staff around again, striking one of the fallen men solidly on the head, rendering him unconscious. So much for a kinder, gentler Xena. Then the bard's attention was absorbed by an opponent of her own.
Reversing her weapon, she rolled it across her back and caught the raider a sharp blow on his ribs with her off hand. Shifting her balance, she dropped low to the ground and returned the staff to her right hand, taking her adversary's feet out from under him as she did so. Glancing over to her left, she spotted Xena busily parrying the sword strokes of the remaining outlaw with her staff.
Pressing her own advantage, she delivered a stinging crack to the side of the prone man's head, dazing him. Using a trick Eponin had taught her, she wrapped a muscular forearm arm around his neck from behind and squeezed until she felt him sag against her, unconscious.
Inhaling deeply to steady her racing pulse she turned back around to watch her partner. Xena's staff lay shattered on the ground and she was circling the brigand leader. The bard watched as she sprang into the air, twisting around to land where she had begun. He didn't fall for the trick and grasping his opening before Xena could recover her balance, he flickered his sword toward the warrior's unprotected stomach.
In his glee, he failed to watch his footing and tripped over one of the staff pieces lying on the ground. Leaping forward as she realized the danger, Gabrielle hurled her own weapon, butt end forward, at the man's head. It connected with a dull thud, but not before his blade had cut a gash into Xena's upper thigh.
Shaking, she looked at her lover, surprised by the shocked and haunted look in her eyes.
"Hold still and it won't hurt so much. What were you thinking? You goaded them into attacking us. You're just lucky that oaf tripped or you'd have been skewered."
"Yeah, real lucky."
Gabrielle continued to stitch the gash on Xena's thigh, worrying more about her lover's frame of mind than the wound itself. Watching her pack this morning, the air had been thick with tension and things left unsaid. The bard hadn't asked about the wardrobe change, and Xena, not surprisingly hadn't volunteered anything. Having watched surreptitiously as Xena had done drills her second morning in the valley she knew that the rhythm of the sword still called her warrior, so exactly why the sword had been left behind, she didn't know. But she had a guess - Ares.
"Xena, we need to talk."
"No good conversation ever started with those words. No short one either."
"We can't keep pretending that everything is ok, because it's not. And we need to talk about it before it gets worse."
"Alright, but let's finish setting up camp and eat first." She made to get up but Gabrielle placed a hand on her shoulder, "I'll do it, you can owe me."
She was acutely conscious of the warrior's eyes following her as she finished setting up the camp and walked down to the water's edge. She waded out into the stream and listened carefully to the sounds of the river, head cocked, ready. With practiced speed she quickly grabbed a large trout and flung it to the shore. Returning her attention to her quarry, it was not long before she added two more to the one on the shore. Satisfied that they had enough for dinner, Gabrielle walked back to the river bank and began to clean her catch, already imagining how they would taste and which seasonings to use. Returning to the camp she was surprised to find that Xena had laid out their bedrolls and had gathered a small pile of firewood to tide them through the night.
"I thought I told you that I would take care of things tonight."
Xena just grunted and reached for the trout. Gabrielle pulled them back out of reach and moved closer to the fire.
"Look, I really can take care of everything..."
"Yes, I guess you can." Xena turned and walked away from camp.
"Where are you going?"
"Got a call of nature, or are you going to take care of that too?"
Was this a huge mistake? Am I in love with the woman in front of me or the one who left me behind a long time ago? Anger simmered just beneath the bard's surface calm. Unable to eat, she had instead grabbed her journal and tried to make sense of what she was feeling. A passage caught her eye and she reread the words that had led to her argument with Ephiny. Closing the book and laying down, she stared into the fire, losing herself in memory and thought.
' "...signal's cross and love gets lost and time passed makes it plain, of all my demon spirits - I need you the most.
I'm in love with your ghost...I'm in love with your ghost
Dark and dangerous like a secret that gets whispered in a hush when I wake the things I dreamt about you last night make me blush.
When you kiss me like a lover then you sting me like a viper I go follow to the river..."
But was she? Ephiny had thought so. She had walked into the hut to find tears of hurt and anger running down Eph's face, the scroll lying on the table in front of her. You're still in love with her aren't you? Yes. You can't have both of us. No more hand-fasting - its all or nothing. Watching her leave, slumped against a tree.
The wooden bleating lamb, holding Xena as she cried over Cirra, her fierce protectiveness of Solon and Gabriel, fishing lessons. The pain of Mount Nestos, the joy of their short lived reunion. Destiny.'
It was well past moonrise when Gabrielle woke and realized she was being observed. Opening her eyes slightly, she saw Xena leaning back against a log watching her sleep. An expression on her face that could only be described as sad. Something was going to have to give and soon, but not tonight, tomorrow was soon enough. Maybe a nights sleep would ease the tension which had, after the fight, replaced their earlier camaraderie. She hoped. It took her a long time to fall back asleep.
She had vague impressions of a battle being fought and a large stone ringed with flashing light. Solon's voice mingled with ones she didn't recognize, calling her name. The sound of a stone splitting startled her from sleep. I need to tell Xena about Solon before we get to the Amazons. Chalking the dream up to combination of guilt and anxiety she drifted back into Morpheus' arms.
Her hopes for a return to peace were not to be. Gabrielle had expected things to carry on pretty much as they had in the valley, and inwardly berated herself for not realizing sooner that this was not the Valley and this was most definitely not her travelling companion of five years ago.
Truth be told, she thought to herself, I'm not the travelling companion of then either. Watching Xena's retreating form after still another argument about - God's what was the argument about anyway, it had started shortly after breakfast and had left the pair shrouded in an uneasy silence for the remainder of the day.
With a clarity of thought it struck her, that's it isn't it. The raiders, catching dinner, those things used to be Xena's responsibility, and then I compounded it when I wouldn't let her help with the things that used to be my job. She's a warrior without a sword, without a role. In the Valley she was just Xena, but yesterday she had to become the Warrior Princess again, only now the role doesn't fit.
Following her companion into the woods, she tracked Xena to the edge of a stream. Coming to a stop at the edge of the bank she watched rock after rock being hurled into the water. Taking a deep breath she walked up to Xena and sat down on the mossy ground next to her.
"Xena, I'm sorry."
"Sorry for what Gabrielle?" Sorry that you don't need me, that I can't protect you anymore, that as a warrior I'm useless, sorry that you've shut me out, or sorry that we became lovers?
"Sorry that you're hurting, and that I was so wrapped up in my own fears that I didn't see yours. That I didn't share mine."
"I watched you when you cried and figured you'd talk to me about it, that I just had to be patient. And I think I was afraid of what your tears might mean." Seeing new tears rolling down the bard's cheeks she moved until she was holding Gabrielle. "Talk to me cariad, let me in."
"I will. I promise, but can I ask you something first?" Her voice was earnest, almost pleading, Xena steeled herself for the question.
"Did you make a deal with Ares?" Not the question she'd been expecting, but then Gabrielle had always been perceptive. Do I explain that without you there to meet me in the Elysian Fields, atonement seemed pointless, that I was tired and only your faith in me ever really convinced me that I could atone. That he promised you wouldn't die in a war, that the world would forget me, that at least for this life time I could have peace.
"Is that why you left your sword back in the valley?"
"That's two questions Gabrielle, but yes, that's why." Xena wanted to move the direction of the conversation before the bard could read the fear and despair in her eyes, but Gabrielle pushed on.
"What was the deal?"
"I can't draw steel outside of the valley again. Ever." Or I return to him, and your safety, and Amphipolous' is forfeit, I'm forfeit.
"Ares gets his Chosen back." So you see my love I'm useless to you now, you'd be a Queen without a champion. I have nothing to offer you except my love. And judging from last night you don't need anything from me anyway.
"What about your chakrum? A dagger? Meat knife?" A smile tugged at the corner of Xena's mouth, ever practical Gabrielle.
"Don't know about the chakrum, I need to find out what it's made from, as for daggers and meat knives, if I use them for everyday tasks like cutting twine or meat then nothing, but should I so much as throw one at somebody then presto. Welcome back Warlord." She snapped her fingers and felt Gabrielle flinch.
They sat in silence awhile before Gabrielle began speaking again. "It scares you, doesn't it?"
"Yes." Such a simple answer. "Gabrielle, I can't protect you now, not like I used too." It was in the open now - does she love me for who I am, or who she remembers me to be? Is what I am now enough?
"You are more than your sword Xena, you always have been. I've seen you be diplomat, trickster, ambassador, healer, mother, farmer, friend and lover. You have...many skills, and I think sometimes swinging that sword got in the way of your using them. I'll admit that a couple of times during the last few days I wondered if my feelings for you are based on who you were or who you are."
Xena was torn between watching sea green eyes or focusing on the rippling water, a decision rendered moot when Gabrielle reached up and turned her face so that she had no choice but to look directly into the bard's eyes.
"I realized that they are inseparable, only the balances have changed. I love you - all of you, past, present and future. Your honour, and warmth, that quirky sense of humour, the way I feel safe in your arms. Not the safety of force of arms, but the safety of having all that you are and that you want to be accepted and cherished. You encouraged my hopes and dreams when my own family wouldn't, you taught me that I could stand on my own two feet, that my dreams were mine for the taking. I have an entire Amazon guard with swords to protect me but only you give me that feeling of safety." She grinned slyly at her lover, "And since when did you need a sword to be lethal?"
Relief flowed through Xena, her own tears ran down her cheeks, dropping into Gabrielle's hair as she pulled her close. Soft reassuring kisses gave way too increasingly passionate ones. Xena needed the physical contact with which to ground the emotional and verbal intimacy. She was surprised when Gabrielle pulled back and looked up at her with a mischievous cant to her features.
"You'd do anything to keep from finishing this conversation wouldn't you?" The laughter in her tone belaying any angry connotations the words might otherwise have had.
Xena nuzzled Gabrielle's neck, eliciting a low moan, trailing her lips lower she murmured into the soft skin above the bard's breasts, "Are you complaining about my diplomatic skills?"
Gabrielle's answer was lost in a gasp of pleasure as Xena's mouth found a nipple and began rolling it against her tongue. Feeling an answering current of passion rise in the bard, Xena let herself melt into their lovemaking.
A low throbbing pulse could be felt emanating from the room at the end of the hall, the vibrations transmitting themselves via the stone floor and travelling throughout the castle. The throbbing made his teeth ache, but soon, soon the contents of the room would be his to control and all he had to do was find one tiny chit of a Queen.
The song of the stone continued to reverberate throughout the castle - walls and floors carried its lament to the waves pounding at the fortress walls - out into the ocean beyond. Swept along on the tide, the song gathered momentum, calling for an answering refrain.
Crashing into a cliff side cave, the stone's song poured over a silver hilt, and the unforged blade's voice was added to the song. The land herself joined in the chorus, flinging her voice to the winds, searching for the silent voices. Searing for the Spear, calling out to the Cauldron. The complex melody played across the land, and the air crackled with the music, which mankind in his ignorance called magic.
High on the fortress rampart, a king tilted back his head and laughed into night sky. And the song paid him no mind.
Cairbre awoke to the sounds of a busy village preparing itself for the day. Soft women's voices rang out over the excited play of children. Bird calls echoed around the village passing the news of the night before. He was suddenly homesick.
Reaching for his harp, he ran his fingers gently over her strings, drawing forth the sweet notes of his homeland. Losing himself in the images the music evoked in him, he was unaware that someone was pounding on the door to the guest hut he had been given. When he finally looked up, it was into the face of a young boy with curly blonde hair. And four hooves.
Hiding his surprise, he smiled and said, "Hello, come to hear me play, ha' ye then?" Keeping his tones low so as not to scare the lad he continued, "my name is Cairbre, and in my village I am a bard."
"My methryn is a bard but she can't sing as well as you can. She tells really neat stories though. Do you know any stories?" Xenan's questions tumbled out like a landslide. "My mother says you're a Queen's son just like me, well sort of, my mother is the Queen Consort, but my methryn is Queen."
Laughing Cairbre held up a hand, "Whoa lad, one question at a time. I'll answer one of yours and then you answer one of mine, ok?" Seeing the guarded look which passed across the child's face he amended, "I promise that if it's something you're not supposed to tell then you don't have to ok?" Although he's told me quite a bit already, I wouldn't want him to get into trouble over it.
"Right, yes I know lots of stories, in fact I know some about a magical race we call the Pukka, they are neither horse nor man, but both and more. It is said that as long as the Pukka roam free so shall my homeland be free."
"You have Centaurs like me where you're from?" Ah, so that's what he is called, a centaur, I would have thought the magical people had all left Greece ere now.
"My turn." The disappointed look on the centaur's face made him relent. "Not centaurs exactly but something similar, now I gave you my name, what's yours?"
"I'm sorry, that was rude of me, my name is Xenan."
"Pleased I am to make your acquaintance Xenan, I believe I owe you another answer. Yes, My mother is a Queen, though my methryn is a blacksmith. My turn again, you don't happen to know where I can get breakfast and a bath do you?"
This time Xenan laughed, "That's two questions, so I get two new ones." Before he could answer, however, his mother entered the hut.
Standing protectively next to her son Ephiny tousled his hair and apologized to Cairbre. "I hope he wasn't disturbing you." She shooed her son to the door, "Go on, your chores are waiting for you, then go find Ara, she was looking for you earlier."
At this news he scampered excitedly for the door, pausing only to remind the bard, "Remember, you promised me a story."
"Not at all, I love children. I think that of all my duties as clan bard, I enjoy teaching most." Answering her earlier question.
"So you are a bard then, not a warrior?" Curiosity tinged her voice.
"My sword, I fear, is largely for show and though I can use it, I prefer not to. And in my land I do not carry one at all."
"And where exactly is your home?" Cairbre knew her interest in the answer to that question was more than a matter of simple curiosity.
"I come from an island past the shores of Britannia, called Eire." He wanted to describe for her the hundred shades of green that painted the landscape, wanted to help her see his birthplace, see a destiny.
"You asked after breaking your fast and a bath? Which would you prefer first?."
"A bath I think." Looking down at the travel grime on his arms and hands he smiled wryly at Ephiny, "definitely a bath."
"I'll have someone escort you to the river, where you can have some privacy. You will have the freedom of the village, but," she stressed the but, "a member of the royal guard will be with you at all times. Men are not often allowed within these borders and we want to prevent any misunderstandings that might occur."
She and Solari had argued long into the night about how to house their guest until finally Eponin and Catran, unable to sleep had proposed a simple solution. Solari would be his daytime minder and the nighttime duties would rotate through the rest of the Queen's guard.
"After you have eaten, you will be brought before the council. You will tell the council why you search for the Queen, and we will then determine how to proceed."
"Is the Queen expected back soon?"
Keeping the pain out of her voice and the mask of royalty firmly on her features, she shrugged. "I don't know." And left the hut.
Cairbre watched her leave, reading the subtle shifting of her amerin, reading hurt and pain. Things couldn't stay simple could they? A missing Queen, a consort who couldn't decide if she were the Consort or Regent, and a definite shortage of time. Where are you Aine? You and Your foolproof plans. I told you I should have gone for the warrior. A knock on the door roused him from his musings.
"You ready?" Oh and this just gets better and better doesn't it?
"That depends on whether you plan to hit me again if I'm not." He allowed his eyes to twinkle and body to stand at complete relaxation, voice projecting acceptance of an untendered apology.
"No, I thought this morning I'd try drowning you, punching seems so overdone," Solari deadpanned.
Cairbre laughed, pleased to discover that his personal antagonist at least had a sense of humour. Grabbing a clean pair of breeches and a shirt, he bowed, "After you."
Ephiny wearily sat back in her chair, wishing Gabrielle were here to talk some sense into the council. Or at least to get them to stop bickering long enough to listen to the Gaelic bard. That's about all we've learned this afternoon, not that you've been a great help. She shot Cairbre a disgusted look and was surprised to find him watching her intently, a speculative look framing his normally open features. At least I think they're normally open, Gods, Solari's right. I know nothing of him, but yet he is, I think a man of honour, and he is here for a reason. Now if the Tartarus be damned council would just listen, maybe we could find out what that reason is.
When the meeting was called to a halt two candle marks past eventide, not much beyond a decision to house Cairbre with the centaurs had been accomplished. And this only after much spirited debate about the veracity of the Bard's claim of kinship to a revered Queen of the Amazons.
She snorted, recalling the looks of skepticism the council members wore as Cairbre, rising from his place, decided at last to speak. Exasperated she had listened as his words fell on seemingly deaf ears. Just when she had thought the debate hopeless, neither side able to prove its claim conclusively, Cairbre had silenced them all. Reaching into the recesses of his cloak he had pulled out an arrow. Ephiny had watched, in stunned awe like the rest as it had begun to glow silver, and then flame without burning. An arrow of Artemis.
He had handed it to Ephiny and left the council chamber.
Finishing her circuit of the village, the Queen Consort returned to her hut, to find Solari awaiting her.
"Hungry?" Solari offered her a meat roll which she accepted gratefully, sinking down into a chair. "You look exhausted Eph."
"No, I'm fine, really. It's just been a long couple of days."
"The nightmares are back aren't they?"
"Yes." Hades, do you have to notice everything? You're worse than Gabrielle. Always mother henning.
'You want to talk about it?" Solari had moved to an empty chair and pulled it around to face her friend.
"Ephiny, people are starting to ask questions, and you can bet that if Gabrielle isn't back soon the council will have some of its own. Now what's going on?"
"Gabrielle just had some things to take care of that's all."
"You can't keep this bottled up inside. Your hurt is written all over your face every time someone mentions her name. We've been friends along time, let me in, talk to me."
Looking over at Solari the weight of the last seven day suddenly crashed over her. I need to talk to someone, I can't do this alone and you're not here to talk to Gabrielle, although I guess part of this is not exactly something I could talk to you about anyway is it? Haltingly at first, then with increasing urgency she opened up to her childhood friend. Words and feelings spilling out in a rush.
"...and so I sent her to talk to Xena, hoping that maybe she could put some kind of closure on their relationship. It isn't enough anymore. I thought that having any part of her was better than being alone. It's not." Tears rolled down her cheeks and she allowed herself to be held until she fell asleep.
A low humming coursed through her - making the woods where she lie hidden shake. Dark shadows loomed over her and the voices of men dying rang out from the surrounding air. The familiar dream changed and woods melded into the open sea, the cries of gulls replacing the screams of the dying. The humming increased in volume until Ephiny's blood sang with its music. Its melody wrapped her in its cocoon, easing her back into a dreamless slumber, and for the first night in many she slept until the sun broke the horizon.
"Xena, maybe we should skip Poteidia this trip. Spend the extra travel time being together."
"Works for me."
Gabrielle shifted position until she was leaning on Xena's prone form, propped on one elbow against her lover's chest, and looked down at the strong face framed by firelight. It was time, she couldn't hide any more. Taking a deep breathe she decided to just dive in.
"It hurts inside. Knowing that for me to be happy, other people are going to be hurt. I'm still hand-fasted to Ephiny and that really complicates things, because the Queen, above anyone else must adhere to the law."
Gabrielle paused to think about how to explain her feelings without hurting her companion. Feeling a strong hand caress her shoulder she looked down and saw only encouragement and love in Xena's eyes.
"Tell me cariad, let it out, let me in."
"It won't just be me that Ephiny loses this season, Xenan has to leave the village for formal fostering. I helped arrange his fostering. Tyldus told us that he was too old to chase a growing centaur, so I arranged for Xenan to go to Kaleipus. With Solon."
"Solon." Xena's voice a barely heard whisper.
Now for the difficult bit. Hades why does everything I do have to get so complicated. It seemed simple enough back then. Be honest Gabrielle, if it had been simple you would have told Ephiny from the beginning who Solon was, you wanted a piece of Xena, and that was something you couldn't tell anyone. So I helped to raise your son. Our son. Words failed her and she looked helplessly at Xena.
Xena sat up facing Gabrielle. "Tell me about him." With that simple request the bard knew that somehow it would be okay, that Xena wasn't furious, didn't feel betrayed. She sat and thought about how to describe the young man the child of Xena's memory had become. Settling herself against his mother she began.
"When I watch him, I can't help but think he is a lot like you would have been, without Cortese, without having lost Lyceus. He has a ready humour, a quick smile and an even quicker wit. He tried to rig the village well handle to turn on its own and pour the drawn water into a trough connected to smaller troughs. It worked too, but only in one direction." A smile spread across Xena's face and she drew Gabrielle closer.
"Let me guess - once the rope had drawn the bucket up, he couldn't figure out how to send it down again."
"Unh hunh, and he spent days drawing these little pictures over everything, even the corner of one of my scrolls." She grinned at the sheepish look on Xena's face.
"Like mother, like son."
"Umm definitely, he has a beautiful singing voice, he sang a song he had written for my birthday and the whole Amazon village was transfixed, the younger children are always after him to make up stories where they are the heroes and travel to far away lands. This past year he has been helping his father with the negotiations for unifying the centaur tribes." There was so much she wanted to tell Xena, wanted to make her proud of Solon.
"It sounds love, that he's as much like you as he is me." Gabrielle studied Xena's face afraid that she had hurt her, worried that Xena thought she had stolen her son.
"Xena, I didn...", a finger was gently placed over her lips, cutting her off before she could continue.
"Thank you." Tears began running down her own cheeks as Xena kissed her forehead. "Thank you for being there for him, for loving him."
Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena and held her close, absorbing the sobs. Keeping her voice low she spoke of the trip they had taken to Athens, and of Solon's declining to enter the Academy, saying that he didn't know what his path was yet, but that this wasn't it. Described the joy he took in riding pell mell across open fields and through ocean waves. She spoke too of the far away look in his eyes when he watched Xenan and Ephiny, and of her own sadness as his visits came less frequently as he grew older. Told of the mutual hero worship that had begun the solid bond he shared with Xenan. Every morsel of insight and memory she gave to Xena, opening the bond to include the warrior, holding nothing back.
Laughing, she detailed his reaction to his first kiss. Mimicking with her face Solon's combined look of shock, horror and curiosity as she had come around the corner of a wagon at Solstice and found him sitting in the dirt, the retreating form of a young Amazon turning the opposite corner. And laughed some more as Xena's face took on its own look of horror at the thought of her son being set upon by young Amazons.
"He obviously inherited your charm too." Gabrielle tweaked Xena's nose.
"Watch it Bard," the warrior purred, tweaking her back.
"Hey! You're not playing fair."
"I thought you liked it when I did this," and tweaked the other nipple.
Since the only possible course left open to her involved an escalation of target areas, it was not long before tweaks became caresses, and the sounds of lovemaking spread through the clearing.
Xena fondly watched the rise and fall of Gabrielle's chest, mentally allowing herself to settle into the growing intimacy developing between them. So much has changed, so much time lost. It was exhilarating. And terrifying. Solon. Would he welcome her? Did Gabrielle understand how precious a gift she had given Xena? No, you always underestimate your worth and strength. He's not just my son anymore, he's yours too. Ours. Our son. A family? I want that with you. And the depth of that wanting stunned her.
Stroking the sleeping bard's honey gold hair, she drifted farther into thought, touching on hidden anxieties. Life is never simple where you're concerned, is it love? Solon's best friend and fostern is your wife's son. It should be an interesting welcoming committee that greets us at the border. Why haven't you told me the details about why Ephiny sent you to me?. She doesn't know about Elin's death, so she must be expecting you back. I won't let you go again Gabrielle.
Sharp barks pierced the night air, snapping the thread of her thoughts. Xena jumped to her feet, listening. Dry twigs were breaking to her left, and she could dimly make out the shape of a dog. Relaxing, she exhaled and called out softly, "Come here you, we were wondering where you'd got off to."
She was reaching for something to feed him, when she detected movement to her right. Before she could zero in on what was disturbing the underbrush the dog shot across the campsite and into the darkened woods. Grabbing Gabrielle's staff she followed.
An angry howl was followed by a yelp of pain, and then silence. Cautiously, she moved forward, eyes and ears straining for clues as to what lie ahead of her. She found the dog's body first, wet, warm blood was pooling on the ground under him. Reaching a hand down to the wiry gray fur, she realized that he had been eviscerated. Sickened she pulled back and spotted another body just beyond the dog's. It looks my friend, like you gave as good as you got.
Xena continued to scan the area around her even as she bent to examine the new body. Before she could take a closer look, a shadow on the ground to her right resolved itself into a body and moved feebly. Moving next to the prone form of a woman, she knelt down, taking stock of injuries.
A strong hand grabbed her shoulder pulling Xena closer. Gesturing with her other hand she pointed toward the dog, "Finnegan?"
Biting back questions and a growing unease, she shook her head. "I'm sorry, he's dead." So you had a name you'd answer to after all.
The woman slumped back into the ground, and opened her eyes. Xena's alarm bells sounded full alert as recognition flashed across the injured woman's bloodied features. Her next words solidified the feeling of dread creeping over the warrior. "The Queen?..."
Xena was torn between the woman slowly bleeding to death in front of her and Gabrielle. "Go...The Queen...," the weak words ending her dilemma.
Removing her shift she pressed it against the bleeding figure, "Hold on, I'll be back." She rose up and threaded her way back through the darkness toward the camp. Toward Gabrielle.
A raven watched from a tree as a ghostly form dodged branches and fallen stumps. Pale skin gleamed in the moonlight, a dark mane of wild hair trailing behind. The bird cawed into the night, speeding the warrior on her way, before taking flight and disappearing into the sky.
Nearing the campsite Xena realized that she was weaponless, and her belly tightened as a wave of fear hit her. Be okay Gabrielle, please be ok.
Arriving at the campsite, she halted, all was as she left it. Relief flooded through her and she felt her knees begin to buckle. It was only sheer willpower that kept her standing.
"Xena, is that blood?" a sleepy voice inquired.
"Yes, but not mine. Grab some water, I'm going to need your help." Electing not to mention that she didn't want to leave Gabrielle alone until she had some answers. No sense in worrying her anymore than necessary.
Swiftly they made the return journey to where Xena had left the wounded woman. She heard the bard's sharp intake of breath as she found the dog's body. Turning to Gabrielle she spotted the still form of the mysterious woman. "Here, help me roll her over." Xena rolled the woman toward her and was dismayed to find the shift soaked in blood, it seemed the bleeding hadn't slowed at all.
"Xena what happened here?"
"I don't know, I followed The Dog, but when I arrived he was dead, two other bodies were here and here." Pointing each spot out. As she did so visual images assaulted her senses, and a memory of the acrid smell of blood and decay she had encountered upon initially entering the clearing hit her. Gods, it's been too long, I can't go back to this. Indicating the form in front of them, "she knew you were the Queen...she called the dog Finnegan."
If Xena hadn't looked so grave Gabrielle would have laughed. Funny, she uses more words now but her stories don't make any more sense.
The wounds on the woman's chest wouldn't stop bleeding. They had finished stitching her up almost two candle marks ago, and still the blood continued to ooze between the threads. Gabrielle had made the stitches as tiny and as close together as possible, and the bleeding should have stopped. She glanced at her partner's worried face.
Xena's eyebrows furrowed and she looked puzzled, "I think that all this shift is doing is drawing out more blood, the wound won't clot for some reason. I don't know what else to do." She threw the shift into the fire. "We need help."
Gabrielle stood and dusted the needles from her clothes. "Right. I'll go and pack up the camp and get the horses."
"No. It's too dangerous. Whatever did this to her is still out there."
"Xena, you need to stay here, I'll be fine and besides it's nearly dawn." Grabbing her staff from the ground near Xena, she leaned down and kissed her soul mate. "I won't be long."
Running swiftly through the lightening forest, the bard made her way back to their abandoned camp. As she left the warrior farther behind, she grew increasingly aware of being watched. Please don't let that be what I think it is. Whatever it is doesn't seem to be moving closer, just shadowing me. Great, I'm being stalked. Hurry up, O'Mighty Amazon Queen. She laughed to herself as she broke into the clearing they had set camp up in the night before.
Quickly, she doused the fire and packed their belongings onto the horses. Returning by a slightly different route to accommodate the horses, she failed to see the imprints of large paws in the soft forest floor.
A large black bear ambled along parallel to the Amazon Queen, pausing every so often to stand on her hind legs and swing her muzzle to and fro in the dawn air. Satisfied that nothing moved in the early morning light but the Queen and the horses she disappeared into the trees.
A large black raven came to rest on the sill of a hut in the Centaur village, cocking her head slightly to one side, she hopped through the window and came to rest on the floor in front of the bard's bed. Opening her wing's to their full span she arched her neck upwards, feathers fluidly melting into skin. Moving to stand over the sleeping Gael, the dark woman placed her palm on his forehead. Satisfied that his dreams had been interrupted, she resumed the raven form.
Cairbre shifted in his sleep as his dreams changed. The pounding rhythm gave way to the night sounds of a forest. Watching, he saw two women leaning over a third. The dreamscape shifted and suddenly he was standing next to them. He watched helplessly as they tried to staunch the flow of blood from the wounds on her chest. NO!
Aine, something was wrong with Aine, sweet Danu, he had to get to her. How? A horse, I need a horse. A wry thought intruded, a village full of centaurs and nary a horse. Ephiny, she'll help. He sprang out of the bed to find himself under observation from small black eyes. The raven cawed once and flew up to the sill, and cawed again, hopping about.
Dressing hurriedly he stepped into the night to find the raven perched in a tree, looking at him almost expectantly, pausing to get his bearings he began running toward the Amazon village and help. The raven had other ideas. He had to duck and roll as the raven swooped down at him, attempting to turn him in the opposite direction. Lying on his stomach, his eyes locked with the raven's fathomless black orbs.
The truth dawned on him. In her eyes he saw death and blood, rivers of red that wound their way through fields of green, he saw madness and purpose. And he knew he looked upon the face of death herself. Cairbre knew that the Goddess would brook no misstep, for she had obviously come for a reason, but he also knew that he could not save his sister by himself, even with one of the Tuatha d' Danaan helping him.
"Who is it? Who's out there?" Clear tones piped from beyond a hut. A young man came round the corner and stared down at him. "You're the Bard, aren't you? What are you doing lying in the dirt?"
At the intrusion the raven had flown up to sit in the branches of a nearby tree. Weighing his options, he decided he needed the youth.
"I needed to get to the Amazons, and I tripped in the dark. Look, I don't have time to explain but I need a healer and my horse."
Solon looked at the face in front of him, he could see the anxiety in the set of his features, and made his decision. "It's not a good idea to just run into their village in the dead of night, as I think you are already well aware. I'll go, I'm well known there and I'll bring back some help, your horse and a healer." He turned in the direction of the village, and paused looking back at the Bard. "I don't suppose you'd care to tell me why you need a healer?"
"Aine...my sister...she's hurt and if I can't get to her in time..." Cairbre's voice trailed off. Solon heard the fear in the man's words, but looking at his eyes he realized that more than the possible death of his sister was sparking that fear.
A short time later Solon was at the boundary to the village. Raising his arms over his head he whistled the calls which would give the scouts both his identity and the information that this was an emergency. He didn't have long to wait as the two woman patrol dropped from the trees.
"Are you all right? What's wrong?" Catran raked her eyes over every visible inch of the Queen's foster son, searching for a wound. Finding none, she exhaled with relief.
Aware that he had caused them some worry, he hastened to explain. "I'm fine, it's the Bard, he was on his way here to get his horse and a healer, I thought it would be better if I came. Catran, I think it's serious."
"Raye, run ahead and wake Solari, and Agatha. Go."
Solon and Catran walked into the village, the Amazon having decided that he had run far enough for one night. When they reached the cluster of huts, Catran broke off and headed for where Solari and the others were waiting. He stood for a minute before deciding to go and wake Ephiny.
Entering the hut that Xenan and Ephiny shared with his methryn, he paused, unsure if he should wake the Consort. How could he explain the strange dreams he'd been having, and seeing the Gael... that had jolted him. That man had walked in his dreams. And this Aine, he had heard her name in his dreams too, and Gabrielle's, only when he heard her name it had been an anguished scream torn from the throat of someone he couldn't quite recognize. It scared him.
Tightening his hand into a fist, he gathered his resolve and crossed to the bedchamber. "Ephiny.." he whispered, "it's me, Solon. Wake-up." He laughed, when it occurred to him that whispering was probably a little counter productive. Clearing his throat, he took a deep breath, "Ephiny, wake up, please."
"Solon...what are you doing here? Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, although with the number of people that keep asking me that, you'd think I was made of glass."
Ephiny got out of bed and ruffled his hair, "Its just that if anything happened to you, Gabrielle would kill us. Now what brings you here in the middle of the night?"
A knock at the door prevented him from answering her question, and she waved him into a chair. "Come."
She turned to face the door, mildly amused at her late night popularity. The tight look on Solari's face quickly dispelling her light mood.
"Apparently the Bard needs a healer and his horse." Her tone leaving no doubt in the consort's mind as to who was being referred to. "If you want more details ask him." Jerking her thumb at Solon.
Ephiny motioned him over, and regarded him solemnly, "Its important isn't it?"
"Yes. I've been having these dreams. And he's part of it, but I think Gabrielle's in trouble too, not just his sister."
Dreams - a memory of a pounding rhythm and boundless ocean overtaking her, what do you see in your dreams Solon?
"Gabrielle?" Putting her arm around Solon, she turned and faced the Captain of the Guard, "Get six warriors, his horse and the healer. Meet me by the corral in a quarter candle mark." She held up a hand, forestalling Solari's inevitable argument. Then turned back to Solon, "And you, off to bed, you can go home in the morning."
"No." Quiet determination. "I'm not a child anymore Ephiny."
Ephiny studied him, wondering when he'd become the young man standing in front of her. He was taller than she was, and something in his voice told her that he was right - that this was important to him. "Alright, let's go." Gabrielle is going to kill me if anything happens to him. And if she doesn't his father will.
They met up with the Bard about half a league from the village, and if Ephiny hadn't known better she'd have sworn he was arguing with a bird, and losing.
"You shouldn't have done that."
"You know very well what I mean. The bear thing."
"Oh that, well I needed the exercise."
"You were cheating, love, admit it."
"If your mother can so can I."
"My mother is not exactly playing with a complete quiver of arrows either. And if you get caught..."
"I didn't." She moved in to claim a kiss that left both of them reeling. Breaking apart reluctantly they stepped away from each other. Breathing some what raggedly she laid a reassuring kiss on her partner's forehead. "Soon, mo'charra. It's almost time."
"Is this really what you want?"
Wrapping her arms securely around the slim red-head, she teased. "What? Three hundred years hasn't convinced you?"
They stood quietly entwined for some time before the silence was again broken. "I need to go."
"I know." The brunette watched the other fade into the morning light. Moments later a reassuring hand was laid across her shoulder, and she turned to look at her twin.
"Are you sure about this Artemis? Is she worth losing your Godhood for?" Apollo inquired gently, not to provoke anger, but to reassure himself that this was what his sister truly wanted. If it was he would do everything in his power to see that she got it.
"Yes." A single simple word, barely breathed and yet it spoke volumes. No hesitation or reservation. This was what she wanted.
Trying to lighten mood, he punched his sister on the shoulder, "I thought brothers were supposed to keep their sister's from losing their virginity, not conspiring to help them." He threw back his head and laughed as a blush spread up Artemis' neck and her face glowed crimson. "I didn't think we could do that." He managed to sputter between guffaws.
Deciding that turn about was fair play, she grabbed his air board, and sprang into the sky above him. "And I suppose Phoebe is a mere dalliance?"
Laughing the Sun chased the Moon across the sky to the heights of Mount Olympus.
"How is she?"
"The wounds still haven't stopped oozing blood, and I don't know how much longer she can hold out. Gabrielle, I think you need to ride for help."
They had stopped next to a stream to rest and water the horses. Xena wouldn't admit it but her shoulders needed the rest too. They had been walking since just after first light and it was nearly noon. Rigging a stretcher, she had placed the left front in Argo's stirrup and the right front in Quill's, leaving her to walk between the two horses carrying both rear handles. The result was a smooth ride for the patient and sore back muscles for Xena. Gabrielle had walked point, but so far they had traveled unmolested.
"Okay, but first things first."
Grinning as Gabrielle moved behind her, "And what might that be?"
"Take off your tunic, O Stoic one." Xena winced as the bard dug strong fingers into her shoulders and began working out the stiffness. "Didn't think I'd notice did you?"
Xena allowed herself to relax into the massage, the Amazon's fingers taking away more than just the knots from over stressed muscles. "Umm, I could get used to this. Yep, very used to this."
Whatever reply the bard had been about to make was lost in the sound of hoof beats coming along the trail in front of them. Xena listened tensely for a moment, before relaxing and getting to her feet. "Help may have found us."
As the mounted group came into view and became recognizable, Xena realized too late that her tunic lay discarded on the ground in front of them. A strangled sound from Gabrielle's throat told her that the same thought had just occurred to her. Stepping to stand closer to Gabrielle, she lifted her eyes to meet the icy stare of the Amazon Consort.
If not for her stirrups, Ephiny was sure she would have fallen off her horse. As it was she wanted to leap down and pummel Xena. Unaware of her body moving, she dismounted in front of her wife. Deadly calm had replaced the searing anger that had held her in its grip. Reaching down she gathered up the fallen tunic, and stepped forward, once again locking her hazel eyes on ones of ice blue. Letting her eyes speak for her, she handed Xena her tunic, not daring to look at Gabrielle. Not wanting to see the confirmation of her worst fear in those eyes of green. Holding betrayal at arms length.
The three women hung locked by their eyes for what seemed like an eternity, unable to look away. Then the bustle of the rescue party swept over them and the spell was broken.
Cairbre was aware of the sudden dangerous shift in the amerin of the group, noting its source he filed it away to examine later and moved to the prone form on the stretcher. "Aine, it's me. You and your fool proof plans. No matter now, we'll soon get you put to rights." Who am I trying to convince, you or me, lor but this does nae look good at all. Searching around his eyes fell on the tall raven haired woman from his dream, "What happened?"
"There was some sort of battle, and she was wounded. Her dog died trying to save her." The words were delivered in a matter of fact way that belied the curiosity he could feel rolling from her in waves.
"Dog?" It couldn't be, no, even he wouldn't dare, would he?
"She called him Finnegan."
He startled himself and them by laughing out loud. I guess he would dare then. And as long as you haven't cremated him, he'll be following Aine around again in no time.
Sobering, he bent once again over his sister and pulled back her slit tunic. He could smell the poison clinging to the flesh around her wounds, and sank back against the ground, head bowed in defeat. "Sweet Danu, no, not like this. It can't end like this." A woman he didn't recognize wrapped her arms around him and held him while he cried. Regaining control, he reached over and stroked his sister's brow, feeling the faint pulse under the skin at her temples. A strong voice cut in.
"What is it? Why won't the wounds close?" The raven haired woman demanded.
"Iron." He spit the word out like a curse. "The metal is poisoning the wound, and weakening her." He didn't bother to look up.
"Iron." It was a statement. A long pause ensued, then he heard the same voice conversing with the woman next to her. Nodding at Cairbre she then headed deep into the undergrowth, while the woman she had been talking to began issuing instructions to those remaining in the camp.
Taking note of the alacrity at which her instructions were carried out he realized that this then was the missing Amazon Queen. The lad who had gone for help came to stand next to the Queen, and smiled at Cairbre reassuringly.
"That was Xena, she'll figure something out, you'll see."
Finished delegating the details of setting up the new camp and moving Aine, Gabrielle turned her attention to Solon. "And what are you doing here?" It probably would have come out sterner if she hadn't been genuinely glad to see him.
Solon shrugged and grinned at her, "He needed help, I was there. And...I decided this was one tale I didn't want to hear about second hand."
"Hummph. Hungry?" Her own stomach obviously remembered that her lunch had been forgotten with the arrival of the rescue party.
Laughing Solon reached into his belt pouch and pulled out a sweet roll, bowed then handed it over. "For you my Queen."
"Don't get cheeky young man." Words slightly muffled by the roll. "C'mon, let's find some proper lunch."
Solon had drifted off to sleep not long after lunch, leaving Gabrielle time to think. Timing really isn't my forte is it? She felt drained. Life had been a whirlwind of emotional highs and lows over the last few seven days. And the look on Ephiny's face as she had ridden round the corner. There hadn't been opportunity to discuss it at the time and she could feel the incident hanging over the camp. Would their friendship survive this? It was friendship that had started it. She wanted to walk up to Ephiny and say she was sorry, that ...that what? There were no words adequate enough, no phrases pretty enough to sooth that kind of hurt. Only time could do that. And so she had stayed away from Ephiny. Each of them had found things to do, taking refuge in protocol and duty. Shifting her weight to ease the strain on her back, she watched her son sleep, his face losing the edge of exhaustion. Brushing a stray lock back from his face, she could see how very like his mother's, his profile was. Blood would, she thought, soon begin to tell.
Shifting her focus to the leaping flames, she allowed herself to become mesmerized by the flickering dance. Solari had quickly filled her in on what had happened since her departure. The idea of a Bard from a foreign land seeking her out was both exciting and scary at the same time. It was obvious from the way Solari spoke about Cairbre that she couldn't decide whether she liked him or wanted to hit him some more. Solon had opted to trust him, and that had ultimately lead to the rescue team finding them before Aine had bleed to death. Gabrielle wondered if some magical force dictated that putting her and Xena within a league of one another automatically led to trouble. She snorted, if not magic then probably the Gods.
Peripherally, she became aware of a low quiet song. It was melodic and soothing, wrapping the camp in its tones. Allowing the gentle tones to envelop her she drifted off to sleep.
Solari was leaning against a tree, having removed herself from the immediate circle of the campfire. Things over there were just a little too hot for her liking. Gabrielle and Ephiny hadn't looked directly at each other since the rescue party had first arrived, and the growing tension between them was palpable. That was one conversation she was going to be happy not to be anywhere around. She swept her eyes around to the other groups clustered about the fire. Gabrielle dozed slumped against a log, Solon's head cradled in her lap, as the exhausted boy got some much needed sleep. She chuckled, of course, before he'd been allowed to sleep, he'd been thoroughly checked for any signs of injury and stuffed with food.
She noted the weary lines of the Bard's body propped against his mount's saddle. His face was still streaked with the anguished tears he had shed earlier. He puzzled her. Solari had never seen a man cry just because he was hurting. Sure, she'd made a few snivel and plead for their pathetic lives, even made a few of them cry, but never had she seen honest sorrow from one. His songs too, were coloured by emotions, feelings painting pictures where words simply weren't enough. She ceased her study of him, becoming aware that he broken off his song and was studying her in return.
Continuing her sweep her gaze fell on Ephiny, she was sitting next to Cairbre and his sister, occasionally passing a cool cloth over Aine's forehead. She was worried about her friend. Worried about both her friends. Damn that warlord to Tartarus any way. No, what ever happened it wasn't all Xena's fault, Gabrielle had gone looking for the warrior and Ephiny had sent her. She just hoped the fallout didn't tear the whole damn Nation apart while they sorted it out. In fact, she kind of felt sorry for Xena, knowing that the warrior was about to be caught between an immovable object and an unstoppable force. Thank the gods, my love life isn't nearly so complicated. She snorted, love life, ya, what lovelife?
Hearing rustling in the trees up ahead she got to her feet, motioning for the other Amazons to be ready. Drawing her blade, she moved toward the sound, only to have her sword deftly removed from her grip and Xena's low voice drawl in her ear, "I hope that means you're just glad to see me?" Turning to the warrior, she found herself staring into the bluest eyes she'd ever seen, surprised to find humour mirrored in their depths. You never stood a chance did you, My Queen?
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