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Disclaimers: The characters Xena and Gabrielle are owned by MCA/Universal, and are used here without permission. This is a work of Sapphic fiction. If you are under 18 years of age, you may read this only if a parent is reading it with you.
Edited by: Roxann.
The Poems of Sappho. (c) 1966, translated by Suzy Q. Groden.
Setting: Xena and Gabrielle meet under slightly different circumstances than as shown in Sins of the Past. For why Velasca is in this story, see Gabrielle's conversation with Ephiny in The Quest.
"Ackpf!" Gabrielle sputtered as a shovelful of dirt hit the back of her neck.
"Sorry!" Mnasidika apologized, crinkling her features. Setting down her shovel, she reached over to the other young woman's backstrap to help shake the dirt out.
"Good... good... ah!" the blonde cooed as the dirt was freed from her garment. "Oh no!"
"I think the rest went down my backside." Gabrielle complained, tugging at the back of her belt.
"I'm not helping you get that dirt out." her fellow Amazon teased. "Maybe you should ask Lariel, hmmm?"
"What?" Gabrielle turned to look at her, and noticed her mischievous expression. "Oh, of course." she smiled back at her. "Right. Lissen uh, do you think this hole is deep enough yet?"
"Lariel said it had to be twenty handspans." Mnasidika replied, shrugging.
"Yeah, but whose handspans?" Gabrielle said, throwing her shovel out of the hole they were in. "Did anyone really think this through? And why are we even doing this? Who would dig a hole out in the middle of the forest?"
The other young woman scratched her head for a moment. "I think this is for an enemy to fall in. You know, like a trap."
"Dika," Gabrielle replied, waving her hands out of the hole, "have you seen the size of this forest? It's larger than Athens! The odds are impossible that someone would just stumble across this. We would have to dig thousands of holes!"
"Who says you won't?" a voice said from above, and the young Amazons looked up to see it was their leader.
"Lariel!" Gabrielle exclaimed, grinning from ear to ear. "We ah, didn't hear you come up."
"As usual." Xena replied as she bent down to hand a waterskin to her. "I thought you might need some refreshment. You've got another four handspans to go."
"Four?!" the blonde said, making sure to take the waterskin first. "Why does it have to be so deep?"
"To hold an Amazon." Xena replied, getting back to her feet.
"Okay, stupid question:" Gabrielle started, "Why would an Amazon be stuck in a hole in the middle of the forest?"
"To await her prey."
"I see." Gabrielle nodded with exaggeration, taking a swig from the waterskin. "So what's to make her prey walk right over this spot?"
"You'll see." Xena smiled back at her. "It will be the rest of the hunting party's job to drive the prey to exactly this spot."
"Hunting party?" Dika asked, taking the waterskin from Gabrielle. "I thought we were training for battle."
"You are." Xena corrected. "But as hunters. And your enemy well, that's the prey. You'll see." Xena turned to walk off. "I expect you two to be done within the hour."
"Yes, sir." Gabrielle and Mnasidika chorused, getting back to work.
"Please don't call me that." Xena said over her shoulder. "Lariel will do."
"Lariel." they repeated as she left.
They shoveled for a few minutes more, and were satisfied the hole was deep enough. Gabrielle scrabbled her way out of the hole, and then assisted her fellow Amazon out. Dika decided to lie down against a tree, and Gabrielle simply gave up on getting clean and laid back against the mound of dirt they had created.
"Hmmm." the blonde replied, staring up at the mottled forest canopy.
"Me and the other girls were talking and-" Dika trailed off.
Gabrielle sat up. "Yes?"
"We were wondering. About Lariel." Dika finished.
"What about her?" Gabrielle replied, puzzled.
"What's she like?" the other Amazon asked. "Does she have a sharp tongue?"
"Oh no." Gabrielle shook her head. "She seems all tough and everything, but she's actually very nice. When I can get her to talk, that is."
"That's not what I was talking about." Dika corrected.
"Oh." Gabrielle said, realizing what she was implying. What could she tell her?
"Is she a good, you know, lover?" Dika asked.
"Oh, that she is! Ha!" Gabrielle beamed, waving her hand in the air. "She is the most incredible lover."
"Really?" Dika said, her eyes widening as she scooted closer.
"Oh, absolutely." Gabrielle nodded, getting into swing. "She satisfies me completely, every time."
"Wow." Dika gulped, leaning back so quickly that she hit her head on the tree trunk. "You're so lucky."
"Yep. That I am." the blonde nodded again, poking her tongue around in her cheek as she stared straight up. "Uh, can we change the subject, please?"
"Oh, of course. I'm sorry." Dika apologized. "It's none of my business."
"Mmm." Gabrielle murmured.
They sat in silence for a minute. Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, and then nervously glanced around, wondering if Lariel was still lurking in the area. Well, it was too late to worry about that now.
"Dika?" Gabrielle asked.
"Huh." the other Amazon muttered.
"Can I tell you something?"
"Yes, what?" Dika prompted.
"We uh, I mean I... I wasn't being exactly truthful a moment ago." Gabrielle said.
"About me and Lariel." Gabrielle said. "What I'm trying to say is... we haven't been intimate."
"You haven't?" Dika said, surprised. "But I, I mean, everyone assumed..."
"Yeah, I can pretty much imagine what they assumed." Gabrielle retorted, scraping her boot along the ground. "Lariel's little squeeze toy, huh?"
"That's not what I meant."
"Oh." Gabrielle said, looking up. "Thanks."
"You're welcome." Dika replied, getting up. She sat down next to Gabrielle against the dirt pile. "Are you interested in her?"
"Yes." Gabrielle replied softly.
"And she in you?"
"Not as far as I can tell." Gabrielle replied miserably.
"Maybe she just doesn't like women." Dika offered.
"Then why did she join an Amazon village?" Gabrielle asked.
"I don't know."
"Maybe she just doesn't like me." Gabrielle said wretchedly.
"Oh, I wouldn't think that." Dika said.
"Huh?" Gabrielle replied, digging a trench with her boot heel. "What makes you say that?"
"I've seen the way she looks at you." Dika chided, tapping her on the shoulder.
"You mean, like she's in love?"
"Ehh... She looked more like she wanted to rip your clothes off." Dika laughed. "But you two never seemed to do anything in bed together. I always figured you went off for a quickie together, or something."
Gabrielle guffawed at that, and wiped a forming tear off of her eye. "-Ahem- No, no quickies."
"Lariel doesn't strike me as the quickie-type, anyway."
"No, I suppose you're right." Gabrielle agreed as she thought about it. Then she turned her head and caught Dika's expression, and they both broke up laughing.
"Ha Ha Ha..." Gabrielle chuckled as they got to their feet. "Thanks, Dika. I really needed that."
"You're welcome." Dika replied. "So... have you made any passes at her yet? You two sleep together, for Zeus' sake."
"Yes..." Gabrielle said. "Actually, I was so careful, she probably thought I was stretching."
"That's your problem then." Dika said. "You have to be more aggressive."
"Yeah." Dika nodded. "She's probably the kind who likes that." She put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders. "You have to grab her by the shoulders, shove her against the wall, and tell her to take you, or else!"
Gabrielle grabbed the other Amazon's shoulders. "If I do that, she'd pick me up and throw me through the wall before I get any words out."
Dika let go of her. "Good point." She nibbled her lip as she thought for a moment. "Okay, then she'll like the direct approach. Just walk right up to her and say Lariel, I want to @#$% you."
"Just like that?"
"Just like that." Dika replied. "It worked on me."
"It did?!" Gabrielle gasped. "With who?"
"Wouldn't you like to know..." Dika trailed off, grinning.
Suddenly a mournful wailing keened through the forest. It was coming from the direction of the village.
"That's the Queen's horn!" Dika exclaimed.
"She's here?" Gabrielle said. Then she covered her mouth. "And I bet I know why. C'mon, let's get our stuff and go!"
"Hurry!" Xena shouted as Gabrielle and Mnasidika came running in from the woods. The other Amazons were already lined up in review, and Xena quickly motioned the two stragglers into place.
Gabrielle settled into position and stood ramrod straight, struggling to slow her beating heart. She looked down the dirt road that led out of the village, down past where it curved out of sight. From there, the distant rumble of hoofbeats could be heard, growing louder.
Xena took her place in front of her troops, as the Amazon villagers took their places on the opposite side of the road. She noticed Velasca also take her place among the villagers, sporting a huge cast on her sword hand. Their eyes met, and Xena redirected her gaze down the road.
Dark horses turned the curve of the road, galloping towards the village. The horseriders were dressed in drab clothes, and they were the Queen's honor guard. There were over a dozen of them, and they surrounded a single rider on a tan horse.
"The Queen." Gabrielle breathed, causing Xena to glance over at her. She knew she had spoken out of turn.
Xena smiled at her charge, and the blonde smiled back.
As the horses got closer, the villagers began breaking out in applause and cheers. One of Xena's warriors started to whistle, but a sharp glance from Xena forced her into silence.
"Alright girls," Xena bellowed, "just follow my lead."
The entourage thundered towards the village until they hauled their horses to a stop, knocking clods of dirt up in the air. The honor guard dismounted and proceeded to walk their horses between the warriors and the villagers. The Queen dismounted her horse, and Xena saw she was dressed in the traditional garb of the Amazons. She wore soft tan leather, a beautiful feathered headdress, and necklace upon necklace of semi-precious beads.
Xena immediately knelt down in obeisance, and was pleased at how quickly her troops followed her example. Her eyes never left the Queen, however. Some Amazon traditions, like staring at the ground when meeting the Queen, were not for her.
The Queen approached her. Her face was carved in a perpetual frown, and she looked like the years of rulership had weighed heavily on her. That is, until she smiled.
"You may rise." Queen Agrippa intoned, waving her hand. "You must be Lariel."
"Yes." Xena said simply.
"I had so wanted to meet the recruit who won her leadership so handily."
Xena stood up, waving to her troops to do the same. "The honor is mine, Queen Agrippa."
The Queen lost her smile, her eyes twinkling. "We shall see."
"So tell me, Lariel." the Queen asked as they sat down at the banquet table together. "You are little more than a recruit yourself, yet now you are responsible for running an Amazon village. How goes it?"
"Quite well, actually." Xena replied. "Our crops have just been planted, and I plan to build a water tower for the village as well."
"Indeed." the Queen noted, raising an eyebrow. "Yet you are also responsible for completing your fellow recruits' Amazon training. How goes that?"
"It's going adequately." Xena said simply, taking a gulp from her mug. "I have been continuously training them in basic combat techniques. I'll let you know how that develops."
"I have a request however, for my warriors." Xena said.
"This village has no horses. I would prefer to have some to better safeguard our territory. Would that be possible?"
"We are a rather poor Amazon tribe, Lariel." the Queen replied. "War horses cost a lot of dinars to feed and maintain. In fact, you have already seen all the horses we have in our territory. We rode in on them."
"I see." Xena smiled. "Well then, I'll simply have to make do. I have a few techniques I can teach them to overcome this."
"Ah yes, but what about Amazon techniques?" the Queen asked, sipping from her own chalice. "Can you turn those new Amazons into the warriors you see around you?"
Xena deigned to look up. Standing around her were all of the Queen's warriors, each of them armed to the teeth. They would kill her in a heartbeat if the Queen gave the command. Of course, she would deck the Amazon behind her and jump up through the roof before that could happen.
"Something amuses you, battalion leader?" the Queen asked.
Xena bit down her smile. "No." she replied, deliberately eschewing her royal title. "And I think I'll manage with the recruits, if it's all the same to you."
"While you may be a capable warrior in the outside world," the Queen continued, "you do not know of our ways sufficiently to train those women to be Amazons. I believe you need an assistant in this."
The Queen gestured to the doorway. Her guards opened the heavy doorflaps, and a familiar figure walked in.
"Velasca?!" Xena said, getting up. "Your Majesty, will all due respect, I'd sooner clasp an adder to my breast than work with her again."
"That can be arranged." Velasca cooed, stepping into the torchlight.
"Are you saying I made a mistake in letting you remain in the village, Velasca?" Xena coolly asked.
"You made a mistake in leaving me breathing." the Amazon retorted.
"Easily corrected." Xena said coldly.
"Cease this!" the Queen interjected. "I will not stand for this petty bickering. We are Amazons, not common thugs."
"But is Lariel truly an Amazon?" Velasca asked.
"What do you mean, Velasca?" the Queen asked in response. "You know our kingdom is open to all women seeking a new life. You especially, Velasca."
"I am aware of that, my Queen, and grateful." Velasca demurred. "But I do not believe she is worthy of leadership. We have no idea who she is or where she came from. And don't tell me Lariel's your real name, either."
Xena opened her mouth to speak, but thought better of it.
The Queen directed her gaze at Xena. "Is Lariel your real name?"
"No, it's not." Xena honestly replied.
"And what is it?" the Queen asked.
"Telling you my name..." Xena paused, "will only bring you trouble."
"I've made a lot of enemies in the outside world." Xena admitted. "And I've done some terrible things in my life. A friend helped convince me that my life was wrong, and I was frankly tired of the person I was, am." she added. "Anyway... I needed to make a new start, somewhere where I could do some good. And here I am."
"That simple, huh?" Velasca sneered.
"For the first time in my life, it really is that simple, yes."
"Very well." the Queen continued. "I know what kind of fighter you are, Velasca. It would take an exceptional warrior to defeat you, yet do so without taking your life. This proves to me that Lariel is worthy of leadership."
The Queen leveled her gaze at Xena, who gave her a slight nod of appreciation.
"At the same time, she is ignorant of our ways, and I have decided that you are best qualified to assist her in this, Velasca. You will both accept this duty."
"Yes, my Queen." the redhead quietly replied.
"Any questions?" the Queen directed at Xena.
"No, ma'am." Xena replied, interlocking her fingers behind her back.
"Good then." the Queen nodded. "Now that this is out of the way, I can concentrate on my real reason for being here. You are dismissed."
Xena and Velasca left the banquet hall. As Xena started to walk past, Velasca held up her hand.
"Let's get something clear." Velasca said, quietly this time. "I don't like this any more than you do. It is humiliating for me to have to face those recruits again, like this." she illustrated as she held up her broken hand.
"I never wanted your command, Velasca." Xena replied.
"You must be jesting."
"Oh, I've commanded before, and I am good at what I do." Xena continued, raising an eyebrow. "But I didn't want this."
"Oh?" Velasca sneered, her face turning cruel again. "And what was this for, for Gabrielle?"
"Something like that."
"I may have been a little rough with her here and there," Velasca said, "but that's my job, to root out unfit Amazon warriors. And she will never make it. She's too weak."
"She has strengths that you'll never see." Xena replied. "Her gentleness is her strength. Not everyone has to have a bloodlust to be a great fighter."
"We shall see." Velasca smiled at her. "I'll get back with you on our regimen. Assuming the recruits haven't fallen out of shape."
Xena watched her stalk off. If there was one Amazon who deserved to be impaled on a tree branch, Xena decided, it was her.
"Lariel!" a voice called, and Xena turned to see it was Gabrielle.
Now that she had her attention, Gabrielle glanced over at Dika, who gave her a thumbs up. Deliberately swaying her hips, Gabrielle seductively walked up to Xena. She enjoyed the fact that the battalion leader's eyes were on her, it really made her feel like a woman.
"What is it, Gabrielle?" Xena asked. "Is there something wrong with you?"
"No, why?" Gabrielle asked, surprised.
"The way you were walking."
"I was trying to walk alluringly." Gabrielle retorted, feeling a bit miffed.
"Oh, well you're doing it all wrong." Xena chided. "You looked like you were trying to practice the warrior dance again."
"Thanks a lot!"
"I didn't mean it like that." Xena apologized, taking a few steps back. "Here, watch me."
Xena liltingly lowered her hand to her side, and then took a step towards Gabrielle. And then another. But her steps were more like the passing breeze, and Gabrielle was riveted by the sensuality of her walk. It was a walk that said I'm coming to take you, I'm going to have you right now.
Xena closed the distance until she was face to face with the younger woman. "That's how you do it."
"Oh. Wow." was all Gabrielle could manage. She had been intent on seducing Lariel, and that woman had just knocked her heart somewhere down into her stomach. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking right now?"
"I dunno." Xena replied. "I'm thinking about plucking out Velasca's eyes and roasting them over an open fire. Why?"
"Listen, isn't there something else you'd like to do?" the blonde whispered. "I've got something I could show you over at the swimming hole."
"Gabrielle!" Xena exclaimed, then lowered her voice as she looked around. "Are you trying to seduce me?"
"You think?" Gabrielle replied, putting her hands on her hips. "We have to work on some hand signals or something."
"I just um, thought you were looking for friendship, is all."
"Friendship, a little necking, something along those lines." Gabrielle purred, looking up into her eyes. "What's wrong with that?"
"Nothing." Xena said, backing up a bit. "I just..."
Gabrielle was looking her in her eyes, so hopeful.
"It's just that I'm not ready for a relationship right now." Xena said finally. "I'm sorry."
"Is it something I did?"
"No. No, goodness no." Xena shook her head. "It's me. I'm not what you think I am."
"What I think you are..." Gabrielle purred, pacing around the Warrior Princess, "is smart, sexy, honest, and a wonderful person."
Xena's gaze darkened. "That's where you're wrong."
"Well, one of us is." Gabrielle sighed in resignation, folding her arms. "Alright, spill it. What was that all about with Velasca?"
"The Queen has decided in her wisdom that I need a special assistant to train all of you in Amazon ways."
"Oh no..." Gabrielle said, her eyes widening.
"Yes." Xena confirmed. "Velasca is going to be my assistant from now on."
"Not happy news."
Queen Agrippa took to the podium to the cheers of villagers and warriors alike. She waved her hand out to the audience as all the Queens before her had been taught, and waited until they settled into silence.
"That was a very rousing rendition of The Warrior Dance." she said, smiling at the circle of sweating young women. "I am proud to have you as my newest Amazon warriors. Well done."
Gabrielle and the other dancers bowed to their Queen, and dispersed through the crowd. Gabrielle went over to the drink stand to pour herself a tea, and Mnasidika joined her.
"So, how did -pant- it go with our fearless leader?" Dika whispered.
"-gasp- I don't know." Gabrielle replied. "She's in -pant- one of her mysterious moods again. -pant- I hate that!"
"You could -pant- always hit her over the head with a chobo and drag her into your hut." Dika laughed, taking the tea that Gabrielle offered her.
"I haven't made progress on my hut-building yet." Gabrielle opined, now pouring herself a tea. "You think I could live by leaning against a couple of poles?"
"Not very comfortably." Dika said. "I could help you build yours, but Irana would probably get jealous."
"Irana?" Gabrielle gasped, leaning in closer. "She's your girlfriend?"
"Uh huh." Dika grinned. "Our star athlete is my steady."
"Wow, she is something." the blonde responded. "I was watching her do handsprings during practice."
"You and about half of the others."
"Yeah. Congratulations." Gabrielle said listlessly. "I think I'm going to end up as the village old maid."
"Don't be so down on yourself." Dika chided.
Gabrielle looked at her strangely.
"Uh, you know what I mean." Dika added.
"Unfortunately, I do." Gabrielle said. "I've got a huge problem, Dika. I think I'm falling in love with her."
"You are?" Dika gasped. "But that's wonderful!"
"No, it's not." Gabrielle replied, waving her hands. "All the love poetry, all the stories I've read, they all talk about how wonderful love is when it is shared between two people, Dika. They don't tell you what to do when you're in love, and the other person couldn't care less."
"Bummer." Dika observed. "Hey, maybe I can swing by tomorrow to help with your hut."
"Don't worry about it. I can handle it." Gabrielle said. "Alone."
A horrible-sounding horn sounded through the village, and it was coming from the podium. Xena had just let out a tremendous blast, and took the horn from her lips.
"Er, yes. Thank you, Lariel." the Queen commended, stepping up before her. "It was getting a little too noisy to be heard. I am pleased to announce my reason for being here, to announce the coming of our annual Amazon Festival!"
The Queen was momentarily drowned out by cheers, and she paused until they subsided. "This Festival is for our new recruits, and yes Amazons you are, but the Festival will make you women. You are no doubt aware of the neighboring Scythian villages that lie within our territory. They are there for a very good reason. In exchange for trade with our community, they enjoy the protection of our Amazon warriors. It is in this way that we have lived together for centuries. But once a year, we demand an additional price to be paid, the Hunt."
The Queen paused in her narrative as her honor guard beat a salute on their drums.
"You have been training for several moons now, training for the hunt, for the battle. This is the Festival. Down you will swoop on the villagers like the fearsome creatures whose masks you represent. You will take what you need, and then depart. Some of you will die in the process, but there is always that risk. That is the way of the Hunt."
The drums beat again, and Gabrielle was seized by fear. They were going on a raiding party? She hadn't been told this. Was this what all their training had been for?
"I salute you, warriors of the Hunt." the Queen shouted, raising her fist. "I wish you success. Bring home the Amazon Nation's bounty."
The drums beat for a final time, and the new Amazons began huddling around in clusters, questioning each other about their Queen's words.
The Queen nodded in satisfaction, and stepped back to confer with the battalion leader.
"Have you told them anything on the nature of the Festival?" the Queen asked.
"Not a word." Xena replied.
"And you?" the Queen asked. "How do you, an outsider, feel about this?"
"I will do my duty." Xena replied. "And so will my troops."
"Ooooo!! Stupid hammer!" Gabrielle cursed as she put her thumb in her mouth. Building a home was a lot harder than she thought. But anything was better than staying in the general barracks.
"Can I help?" Xena asked. Setting down a stack of lumber, she knelt down in front of Gabrielle's hut poles.
"Why should you care?"
Xena was taken aback for a moment, but recovered quickly.
"Because I can't have my recruits not finishing their huts, sitting out in the rain, getting a cold, and dying on me, that's why." Xena said. "And because I wanted to apologize for brushing you off yesterday."
"Why?" Gabrielle said under her breath. "You must think I'm a tramp. I practically threw myself at you."
"Don't talk like that." Xena softly said. "I just didn't want to hurt you."
"Mentally or physically?" Gabrielle asked, setting down her hammer.
"Both." Xena replied. She smiled at Gabrielle's reaction. "Just kidding."
"Well, what is it then?"
Xena crawled around the post and sat down in front of Gabrielle.
"I'm not the person you think I am." Xena said. "In more ways than one."
Gabrielle stared at her.
"My real name is Xena." Xena said with relief. "The Warrior Princess."
"You're Xena?" Gabrielle asked, incredulous.
"Ha! I don't believe this." Gabrielle laughed to herself, marveling at the revelation. "I never imagined you would be so... beautiful."
"Yes you are, don't try to sidestep it." Gabrielle chided. "It's just that... the Warrior Princess. Wow. You were what Poteidaian mothers would use to frighten their children with. Eat your vegetables, or Xena will come and get you."
"That bad, huh?" Xena said, smiling at her. Simply watching Gabrielle talk filled her with warmth. Warmth she didn't think she was capable of anymore.
"Oh, worse!" the blonde gushed, getting caught up in her narrative. "They said you had huge bat-like wings, horns on your head, and the breath of a dragon!"
"Well, the last one is true." Xena noted, clearing her throat. "I'll show you sometime."
"That'd be great!" Gabrielle said, turning to face her. "Wow. Xena is helping me build my hut."
"I'd prefer it if you kept this our little secret." Xena said.
"Um, okay." Gabrielle agreed. "But why would you want to hide who you are? I'm sure the Amazons would welcome a warrior like you."
"Maybe, and maybe not." Xena said. "There a lot of people who would like to see me dead on the outside world, and I'd prefer to keep a low profile here. I hope you understand."
"Will do, sir." Gabrielle saluted.
"Please don't call me that." Xena said, rolling her eyes. "I am a woman."
"I noticed." Gabrielle observed. "But Velasca wanted to be called sir."
"That's because Velasca is a fruitcake." Xena said.
"Oh, right." Gabrielle said. "Should I keep that a secret, too?"
"Like that's a secret!" Xena laughed.
"I like that."
"Like what?" Xena asked.
"Seeing you laugh." Gabrielle said. "You always look so serious all the time."
"I am what I am." Xena replied. "C'mon, let's get your hut built."
"Steady." Xena said.
"Got it!" Gabrielle said triumphantly, nailing the final roof support tight.
"You're almost done."
"Yeah," Gabrielle agreed, wiping her hair back with the sweat from her face, "now all I need is to put on the roof, walls, furnishings, and that's it."
"Good things take time." Xena said, as Gabrielle caught her eyes.
"Maybe tomorrow." Gabrielle sighed, slumping down against a post. "Tonight I'll look up at the stars."
"Right." Xena agreed, sitting down. "We'll start on your hut again then."
"Hmmm." Xena murmured, quite ready to relax.
Gabrielle leaned forward, taking Xena's hand in hers. "It could be our hut."
Xena looked down at her belt for a moment. "I..."
"Would you like that?" Gabrielle asked, hope in her eyes.
"Yes I would. Very much." Xena said. "It's just that..."
Xena was silent.
"Is it me?" the blonde asked, withdrawing her hand. "What, am I too young, or something? I'm not that many years younger than you."
"Yes, yes it is you." Xena said simply, averting her gaze. "But not that."
"Well what then?" Gabrielle asked, exasperated. It was like she had to pry every word out of this woman. Was this how it was always going to be talking to her?
Xena held up her hands. "You can't see it, but there's blood on my hands. Rivers of blood. For most of my life, I commanded my army with only one goal in mind: Conquest. Oh sure, I came up with excuses. Ways to justify what I was doing. It started out defending my village from a warlord. Then I went on to conquer the neighboring villages. As a buffer zone, I told myself."
"What happened then?"
Xena motioned for the waterskin. After taking a gulp, she continued.
"Oh, a lot of things." Xena said. "I wore a lot of hats. I became a pirate, I traveled the oriental steppes, went to Ch'in, went north, and came back to Greece again."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle prompted, spellbound. "As a conqueror."
"Yes, as a conqueror." Xena said, closing her eyes. "And more. There were times when I tried to change, tried to make my troops more responsible. Isn't that ridiculous? Nicer pillagers. Don't burn the village that didn't pay up. Let the women and children live. Don't rape. Don't beat up the elderly. Sometimes it worked. And other times..."
"Xena, you can't blame yourself for what your men did." Gabrielle said, leaning forward. "Things like that happen in war."
"Perhaps not." Xena said. "But they weren't alone."
Gabrielle gulped. Some people had skeletons in their closet. Xena must have an entire graveyard in hers.
"Tell me about it." the blonde finally said.
"There was this girl, about your age..." Xena began, but cut herself off. "Zeus, Gabrielle! I-It's too much! It would take me a week to talk about all the people I've hurt, innocent people like you. They weren't bandits, they weren't rivals, and they weren't a threat to me. They were just people who got in my way, and I... I took care of them. Do you understand?"
Gabrielle nodded, not saying a word.
Xena knew this wouldn't be easy, but it had to be done. She then went on to tell her about the change, when she decided to spare an infant that one of her men wanted to kill. She told her about her gauntlet, which was the beating she took in leaving her army. Then she told her how she was helped by a former enemy, Hercules. It was her encounter with the son of Zeus that helped her break away from her old life, and start anew.
The sky had darkened around them, but Gabrielle hadn't noticed. She had just been told the most incredible story she had ever heard. And it was real. Gabrielle wiped her eyes off. Xena's vivid recreation of the beating she had taken at the hands of her own troops had made her weep.
"I had thought that walking the gauntlet would make things right." Xena said softly, glancing at Gabrielle's wet face in the moonlight.
Xena reached up to wipe Gabrielle's cheek. "It didn't. Not a thousand beatings would make up for the things I've done in my life. Nor would the fires of Tartarus."
"And... that's when you decided to come to this village."
"Score one for the Poteidaian." Xena observed, smiling. "I had to start someplace."
"It's never too late to start over, Xena." Gabrielle said, reaching out to her arm. "You proved that by coming here. And you have to forgive yourself. You can't keep going through life beating yourself up."
"It was that obvious, huh?" Xena raised an eyebrow. "I guess I have been a little wrapped up in myself, haven't I?"
"You could say that." Gabrielle said. "I guess you had good reason. About everything."
Xena pulled herself close to the younger woman, until their knees were touching. "Gabrielle, you are everything a woman could ever want. You are so thoughtful, and intelligent. You could make my life complete."
Gabrielle was silent, she didn't dare say a word to break the moment. Then her view of Xena's face filled with darkness, to be followed with a warm kiss. Gabrielle curled and uncurled her toes a couple of times before Xena broke contact.
"You're caring, and warm..." Xena continued.
"Yes, very warm." Gabrielle observed, closing in for another kiss.
The kiss was more passionate this time, and Xena felt Gabrielle's hands wrapping in around her shoulders. Xena broke contact.
"What?" Gabrielle gasped, feeling quite energized.
Xena disentangled herself from the blonde, and stood up.
"I ah... I'd better go." Xena said.
"I'd like you to stay."
"I'd like to, too." Xena said in a whisper. "Look, I'm sorry. I... I just feel very dirty right now, Gabrielle. Goodnight."
"Xe- Lariel!" Gabrielle called out after her as she left, but it was too late. She was alone.
"Oh fudge." Gabrielle cursed, laying back against a pole. "I can't even curse properly..."
She looked over the solid frame of her new home. Thanks to Lariel, it wouldn't collapse around her. Xena, that is. "Goodnight, poles. Let's settle down for tonight, shall we? -sigh-"
"Today we will begin training in the secret Amazon techniques." Xena said to her Amazon troops. Half of them were staring at her, and the other half at the person next to her.
"I would also like to announce that the Queen has decided we will need assistance in learning their techniques." Xena said. "To this end I have selected Velasca to be my assistant."
Velasca had taken off her cast, and was now wearing a smaller hand brace, but that didn't erase her shame. She tried putting on an intimidating look, but several of the Amazons were giggling to each other as they stole looks at her.
"I will take any disrespect shown to her as a similar attack on me." Xena continued. "Foremost of lessons I want you to learn is that the needs of the group outweigh... personal differences."
Velasca inclined her head slightly towards Xena, stifling a chuckle. Let her believe what she wants, Velasca thought to herself.
"First," Xena said, "the Queen has graciously permitted us to arrange a brief demonstration. Velasca?"
Velasca pulled a white handkerchief from her bodice. Folding it carefully, she then threw it onto the grass.
-Slik slik slik slik!-
The assembled Amazons gasped as four arrows instantly pinned the cloth to the ground. Irana ran forward and looked around, but there was no one in sight. She tentatively touched one of the arrows.
"Where did they come from??" she asked.
"From the air." Xena simply said.
The warriors looked around to the surrounding trees, but couldn't see anyone.
Xena raised her arms in the Amazon peace gesture.
Seemingly floating down on air, the Queen's honor guard dropped from the trees. Gabrielle strained her eyes, but could only barely make out the black lines that they came down on. They seemed so practiced at it however, that they seemed to be practically flying.
"Thank you." Xena nodded at the Queen's guard, lowering her arms. They snapped off their lines and stalked off, confident that they had impressed the newbies.
"In the coming weeks you will be taught these skills." Xena said. "But for now you'll be taking baby steps."
The battalion leader nodded at her assistant.
"Fall out!" Velasca bellowed, and the assembled Amazons cringed. It was as if they were back in boot camp again.
Velasca brought her troops to a halt, they had really come a long way since she first met them. Well, they weren't really her troops, but Xena had taken half of them off with her, Gabrielle included. So she had some troops, if only for a little while.
"You are physically smaller than men, and most of you are not as strong as the men you will be facing. They believe this gives them an advantage over you. They are wrong."
Velasca unslung her chobos from her belt, the ones they had seen her use on Gabrielle, and began pacing around her troops.
"Your battle must be on Amazon terms. Don't misunderstand, in toe-to-toe combat, our warriors are superior to any foot soldier. But our goal is not just victory, but to not spill a drop of Amazon blood."
She stopped her pacing and held up one of her weapons. "Anactoria, what is this?"
"That's a chobo." the girl responded.
"No, this is a club." Velasca corrected, raising the other club as well. "This is chobos."
And with that she began a slow display of the chobos movements. She favored her healing wrist, but the moves were still there. Her students stood there slackjawed at she brought the weapons through several mesmerizing patterns.
"Doesn't that hurt?" Anactoria asked.
Velasca brought her weapons to a stop. "Yes! Like Hades. But pain is good, it means life. Now take up your chobos."
The Amazons gathered around the weapon basket and took their clubs.
"Your first goal is not to hit yourself in the head." Velasca instructed. "The rest is easier."
"Your aim is atrocious." Xena observed.
The other recruits giggled as Gabrielle drew another arrow.
"You know how I am with spears." Gabrielle said, aiming. "You should keep me away from projectiles."
The arrow missed the target entirely, instead neatly pinning a squirrel against a tree.
"Oh no!" Gabrielle exclaimed, as she and the other Amazons ran over to the tree.
They reached the squirrel just in time to see it give a final twitch, and then it lay hanging lifelessly from the quarrel.
"Is it dead? Is it dead?" Gabrielle asked frantically, afraid to touch it.
Irana lifted up its tail, and let go. The tail hung down limply. "Looks dead."
Xena watched her troops crowd around the tiny corpse. It was silly. Velasca would have berated them, chastised them for getting all worked up over a rodent. But Xena simply smiled. She would rather have these young women as themselves, than cold warriors like herself. She approached them.
"Bury it." Xena commanded. "Unless anyone wants the pelt?"
Gabrielle looked up, her eyes reddening. Xena wondered how anyone so gentle could be trained into a killer. Oh well, that was life.
"No, didn't think so." Xena said as they withdrew the arrow. "Make it quick. We'll resume in 10 minutes."
"So this is how you train your recruits, Lariel?" Velasca sneered. She and her contingent had returned just as the burial was being completed.
"A reverence for death is important." Xena replied. "I would expect them to do the same to any fallen enemy."
The two Amazon groups gathered together around the small plot, and Gabrielle said a few words. Then they dispersed.
"What did Gabrielle kill?" Anactoria asked.
"A squirrel." Dika replied.
"Hail Gabrielle, mighty slayer of squirrels!" Irana proclaimed.
"Here here!" Dika cheered.
"Shut up!" Gabrielle said as they reached Xena and Velasca. "I'm feeling bad enough as it is."
"But how will you feel when you kill a man?" Velasca asked. "Are you prepared for that?"
"No, I'm not." Gabrielle hotly retorted. Then she turned to face Xena. "Lariel, I am prepared to defend my village, but not to kill! That's not what I signed up for."
"Well hopefully it won't come to that." Xena replied.
"Then what was the Queen talking about with the Festival?" the blonde asked. "The Festival, the hunt. What is all this? Are you training us to be a raiding party?"
Xena was silent for a moment. "Yes."
"Lariel, I can't come running into some village and beat up some farmers, just to... to take their booty!"
Velasca failed to stifle a laugh at that, and Gabrielle glared at her. Not bothering to conceal her delight, the former Amazon leader turned to look at Xena.
"Well Lariel," Velasca laughed, "you wanted leadership so bad, you handle this. I'm taking a break."
Xena watched her new assistant stalk off, and turned to face her troops. "Well ah, you want to know about the hunt, right?"
Expectant faces looked at her.
"Okay. You already know some of what is expected of you in the Festival." Xena said. "You will ride into a neighboring village, take what the Amazon Nation requires, and leave."
"Yes?" Irana asked.
"In case you hadn't noticed, there are no men in this village. And while the Amazon Nation will occasionally take in outsiders, that being us, that is not enough. The Nation needs to replenish itself. That is the Festival."
"What is the Festival?" Gabrielle asked.
"You will each go to a hut that has been selected for you, and enter. There, one of the village men will be waiting for you. Then you will both... do your duty."
Gasps flooded through the group of Amazons, and Gabrielle simply stared at her.
"Do my duty?" Then a light seemed to dawn on her. "Oh no!"
"Yes." Xena said to her seriously. "New blood must be brought into the Nation. You will mate with a villager, and hopefully, bring forth the next generation of Amazons."
"B-But I can't do that!" Gabrielle exclaimed in shock. The other Amazons began chorusing their agreement.
"Yes you can." Xena shrugged. "It is the Amazon tradition. It is considered an honor exclusive for the warriors."
"Well I don't consider it an honor!"
"Do you have to do this, too?" Gabrielle asked.
"No." Xena said, poking her tongue around in her cheek. "Battalion leaders are exempt."
"Well how convenient." Irana opined.
"Now that's enough. Settle down!" Xena said. "Now this is not what I want those men to see meekly tiptoeing up to their village. I want them to see Amazons who are armed to the teeth. Brave, proud warriors."
"I feel like I'm going to puke." Anactoria whined.
Gabrielle shook her head and stalked off, and Xena rolled her eyes up to the firmament.
Off to the side, Velasca smiled to herself. This was just too sweet. Lariel thought she could handle leadership, so let her screw it up. She would be there waiting to pick up the pieces.
"Before we start on your training today," Xena began, "I wanted to inform you that you will be going to the village of Pythos next week to meet your partners."
Xena paused as she let this news sink in. "Today, we shall show you our final techniques." She motioned to her assistant.
Velasca held up a pair of iron claws. "These are your tree-climbing claws. They will be used in conjunction with your harness lines to frighten the Bacchus out of your enemies. As they are very sharp, they can also double as weapons in a pinch."
Xena held out a strapped contraption. "This is your harness line. The pulley mechanism on the back stores the harness wire. At the end of the wire is your grappling hook. Today you will learn the basics for how this works. But for now, we need a volunteer."
Gabrielle closed her eyes, but then opened them when she felt Xena's hand close on her shoulder.
"Hey, I didn't volunteer!"
"We can't have them think I'm playing favorites, can we?"
Gabrielle fluttered her eyelids. "Nooo, wouldn't we?"
"Alright, now throw your grappling hook up to the tree branch above." Xena instructed. "If you miss, you can put your eye out with that thing."
"Kind of like your chest." Gabrielle said under her breath. She gave the grappling hook a couple of practice swings, and then heaved it upward. The hook wrapped around the tree branch once and hooked itself, a perfect toss. She turned to smirk at Xena.
"Now the spinner doesn't have the power to pull you up." Xena said. "You have to give a heave with your legs."
"I know, I know." Gabrielle said. Crouching down a little, she jumped up, vaulting into the air.
"Whooo!!" she called as she went up about halfway to the branch, then began going back down. The line slowed her descent, but she still hit the ground hard enough to knock her over.
"Ouch." Gabrielle said as she got up, rubbing her backside. "Do these things come with a manual?"
"Just experience." Xena replied. "Now try again, but with your tiger claws."
Gabrielle's skin crawled as Velasca came over and began fitting her with the claws. After tying the foot claws on, Velasca strapped on the hand claws.
"Not so tight." Gabrielle complained, touching her hands together awkwardly.
"For safety." the former leader said. "We wouldn't want an accident to happen."
"Huh." Gabrielle grunted as she got back into position. She looked up at the tree branch far above. She would have to jump hard enough to reach it, but not hard enough to bash her head against it.
Gabrielle crouched down till her thighs were even with the ground, and jumped.
"You go, Gabrielle!" Dika shouted as she went up, to the cheers of the rest of the Amazons.
Gabrielle looked up to see the tree branch coming at her sooner than expected. Putting her foot out, she skidded along the tree trunk until she came to a stop just below the branch. Snagging the branch with her hand claws, she heaved herself up onto it to the cheers from below.
"Now what?" Gabrielle called out, hanging on for dear life.
"Now come down." Xena yelled.
"Easier said than done..." Gabrielle muttered to herself. Clambering around, she sat herself upright on the branch. Suddenly a wave of dizziness hit her, and she reached out to the tree for balance. But the tree trunk wasn't where she had expected it, and then the world tipped over.
"Ayyiyiyiyiyi!" Xena cried as she leapt twenty feet into the air. She didn't think as she tapped her foot against the tree trunk, sending her up another ten feet. Gabrielle was falling too fast, and sideways. Catching her charge in her arms, Xena proceeded through a series of flips as they fell towards the ground.
"Ayyiyiyip!" Xena cried as she landed feet-first, to the astonishment of the crowd of Amazons. Bending over, she gently laid Gabrielle down on the grass, who seemed none the worse for wear.
"Great Hera!" Irana said, wide-eyed. "That was some catch!"
"What happened?" Gabrielle asked at all the faces peering down at her.
"You just seemed to fall over." Xena said, her heart pounding.
"I got dizzy." Gabrielle said, sitting up. "I've had the cycle really bad today."
"Well, you should have said something." Xena admonished, reaching out a hand to help her up.
"That would explain why she hasn't been givin' her any." Dika whispered to Irana.
"Hey! I heard that." Xena exclaimed, looking up. "And I'd ask you to keep our private life private, if you don't mind."
"Sorry." Dika squeaked.
"And I didn't know you were cycling right now." Xena apologized.
"You should have noticed." the blonde replied as she got up.
"I did." Xena said. "I just thought you were being... Well, I'd better not go there."
"Now my harness line's all tangled." Gabrielle said, reaching up to her back. Then she looked at Xena. "Thank you, though."
"That was great, Lariel!" Dika gushed.
"Really." Irana nodded.
Xena clapped her hands. "Alright, the show's over. Go take a break while I untangle our brave warrior here."
"Congratulations, Lariel." Velasca said insincerely. "That was quite an unbelievable feat you just performed."
"I have many skills." Xena said coldly, turning away from her.
Velasca stared at her for a moment, before walking away.
"So where's Lariel?" Irana asked.
"I don't know." Gabrielle replied, taking her mask off. "She just wanted us all here."
Mnasidika walked up to her. "Look Gabrielle. We all wanted to say we were sorry about judging you. You know, about you and Lariel."
"That's alright." Gabrielle said. "You know, I had to put up with gossiping in my hometown."
"Yes." Gabrielle smiled. "But Lariel and I have found a way of dealing with it."
"Really?" Irana asked. "How?"
Gabrielle's face went expressionless.
"Boo!" a furry monster shouted, bursting out of the bushes.
Every recruit jumped, even Gabrielle, although she knew it was coming. The fur monster stood up.
"Lariel!" Irana yelled. "I nearly jumped out of my skin."
Gabrielle looked Xena over. She was dressed in the pelts of a half-dozen critters, had branches stuck on her shoulders, and was wearing a headdress with-
"Ha!" Gabrielle laughed, pointing. "Lariel, those antlers are a hoot! You look like a reindeer!"
Xena blinked once, and stared at her.
"Although not funny in this instance, I can see." Gabrielle quietly added, looking down at the ground.
"Surprise is paramount to an Amazon." Xena said. "If your enemy sees you, he should be frightened out of his wits. If he never sees you, so much the better."
"That's how I want to approach my villager." Irana laughed.
"Alright everyone." Xena commanded. "Get into your harnesses. We'll start practicing in earnest, and I don't want any repeats like this morning."
Wiping her face off, Xena wrapped the towel around her head. She had really needed that bath, what from climbing into those furs. Although she wouldn't admit it, it had hurt that Gabrielle made fun of her antlers. She liked that particular look.
Coming out of the bathhouse, she flipped her hair out of her eyes to see the entire Queen's honor guard, all pointing their swords and spears in her direction. Behind them stood the Queen, and beside her was a familiar nemesis.
"Is this a group thing?" Xena asked.
The Queen brushed her way between her guards to face her. "Velasca has told me of your physical feats earlier today."
"Oh?" Xena replied dangerously.
"She has suspicions of who, what you really are."
"And that is?" Xena asked.
"She's a Bacchae!" Velasca screeched from behind the guards. "I'm one of the few who has seen them and lived, and they flew through the air like she did today."
Xena glared at her, but noticed some commotion behind her. It seemed like everyone in the village was coming out to see what the fuss was about. Goody.
"And your views on this?" Xena asked the Queen.
"I am inclined to believing an Amazon over an outsider, but speak." the Queen replied.
"What I'm inclined to do is jump over these guards and kick Vel's butt." Xena replied, her eyes flashing. "I may yet do so. But your concerns are not necessary."
"And how is that?" Velasca sneered.
"Because I'm much worse than a Bacchae." Xena said with deadly intent. "My name is Xena, the Warrior Princess."
Xena was pleased to see the reaction spread through the guards, and Velasca. Although few were left alive who would be able to recognize her face, her name was dreaded far and wide, even in these distant lands.
"X-Xena?" the Queen stammered, her face paling even in the torchlight. "Why are you here?"
"I've already told you." Xena replied. She looked beyond the small force to see Gabrielle and the other warriors had arrived as well.
"She is here to scout out the village," Velasca pointed, "to make it easier pickings for her army!"
The Queen looked at Velasca, and then back to Xena. "Is this true?"
"I disbanded my army several months ago," Xena said, "with the help of Hercules and others. I am here alone, for exactly the reasons I said."
"How can we trust you?" the Queen asked. "For one who is so notorious?"
"There must be a half-dozen bounties on her head." Velasca said. "Dead or alive."
"Is that why you came here, for sanctuary?" the Queen asked again.
"Not sanctuary, atonement." Xena said loud enough for all to hear. She stepped closer to the Queen, until the spearpoints almost touched her chest. "And Velasca's right. You could collect a lot of money by turning me in to various parties. Or you could seek justice yourself, and simply execute me now for the greater good."
Xena darted her gaze beyond the guards to the one face she wanted to see. Gabrielle returned her look, although it was one of concern.
"What are you saying?" the Queen asked.
"I'm saying that you can kill me, or do any number of things." Xena said. "But I meant what I said before. I came here to start making amends for the wrongs of my life, by helping others. Stupid, and maybe foolhardy." she added, looking over at Velasca. "But the right thing to do."
Then Xena did what no one would have expected. She turned her back on them.
"It's in your hands, Queen Agrippa." Xena said simply. "It's your decision. Either take my life, or let me stay here and help. Either way, justice will be served. It's up to you."
Velasca stared at Xena, certain that it must be some sort of trick. Then she looked back at the Queen, and saw uncertainty in her eyes. Then she looked back at Xena again. Velasca was watching her command slip away again, all to this imposter's tricks. She drew her hip dagger from its sheath.
"Hold." the Queen intoned, holding her hand out at Velasca. "Xena, turn around."
Xena turned, and looked in the Queen's eyes. She saw only strength there.
"Xena, I now understand what you meant when you said telling me your name would only bring me trouble." the Queen said, rubbing her eyes. "Yes, perhaps there are those on the outside world who would seek to do you harm, or perhaps gain a bounty. But the Nation was founded on the idea that it would be a place for women to go to, whether they fled abusive husbands, wars... or their own pasts."
Xena nodded in acceptance.
"Hear me!" the Queen called out to the assembled villagers. "Xena, the Warrior Princess, never came here. This is Xena the Amazon. Anyone who has a problem with that will answer to me. Clear?"
Murmurs and shouts of assent echoed through the crowd. Gabrielle broke out in a smile and applauded the Queen's decision. So did many others, save for one in particular.
"I object!" Velasca bellowed, causing the crowd to go silent. The former battalion leader pushed her way through the Queen's guards to face her.
"You will be silent." the Queen coolly replied.
"I've had enough of your objections, Velasca." the Queen said. "After you lost your duel with Terreis, I agreed to take you in. You said that she had cheated, and that if I were to take you in, you would train my women to be the best warriors they could be. Now I see that my decision was flawed."
Fury flashed across Velasca's face, but she kept silent.
"I see little in you that I want instilled in my warriors." the Queen continued. "You are unfit for command. I suggest you return to Queen Melosa's territory. You are no longer welcome in mine."
"You say I am unfit for command?!" Velasca was so angry she sputtered her words out. "You! You call these silly girls warriors? They couldn't fight their way out of a paper bag!"
"Hey!" Irana complained, indignant.
Velasca then turned to her successor. "You've had your day, Xena. But mark my words. I'll get you, my pretty, and your little friend, too!" and with that, Velasca left.
Gabrielle came running up to Xena. "What a witch."
"Now Gabrielle," Xena smiled, "I think the correct term is bitch."
"Oh, right." Gabrielle relented, sweeping Xena into a hug.
Xena hugged her back, and looked over her shoulder to the Queen. "You won't regret this, Queen Agrippa. I'll do right by your Amazons."
"I'm already sorry." the Queen said disgustedly. "I have to tell Melosa that I'm sending her favorite adopted daughter back."
"Velasca is royalty?" Gabrielle asked, turning to the Queen.
"Yes." the Queen replied. "Queen Melosa adopted her after her Siberian tribe of Amazons had been wiped out."
Xena's eyes went wide. She looked down at Gabrielle as the younger woman turned back to her.
"We should celebrate." the blonde said.
"What? Oh, yes." Xena replied numbly, looking at her in horror. It was her fault. It was all her fault. For she was the very person who had wiped out Velasca's tribe. If Velasca was all twisted up inside, it was because of her.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked. Then her expression changed to surprise. "You-You're crying! I've never seen you cry."
Xena sniffled, and rolled her watering eyes. "I ah, I was just thinking about Velasca, is all."
"I wouldn't shed any tears on her, Xena." Gabrielle attempted to comfort. "She'll get what's coming to her someday."
"Yes." Xena replied.
Gabrielle hugged her again, and Xena hugged back fiercely, her tears soaking Gabrielle's garment.
Xena separated from her, surprising herself that she could burst out crying, yet here she was. She looked in horror at the love that shone in Gabrielle's eyes. Love that she didn't deserve.
"I-I'd like to be alone right now, if that's alright." Xena managed, struggling to keep more tears from forming.
"But Xena-" Gabrielle whispered, drawing close to her.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle." Xena said, drawing away. "It was all my fault."
Gabrielle watched the woman who meant the world to her slip away in the dark. She folded her arms and sighed. "Well. Whatever inner demons you've got in that head of yours Xena, I hope you have room enough for me."
"Hello morning!" Gabrielle enthused as she stretched her arms. She watched a bumblebee lazily fly past her, only to stop and fly back to stare at her. She carefully stepped a yard off to the side. The bumblebee followed, still watching her. She stepped back the other way, and the insect followed her there as well. Creeped out, Gabrielle covered her face and ran off to the side as fast as she could.
Ducking around the outhouse, Gabrielle dared to peek around the corner. No bug. Smiling to herself, she decided there was such a thing as being too cheerful in the morning, but she had a lot to be happy about.
"Hiding from someone?" Xena playfully asked as she walked up.
"Xena!" Gabrielle said. "I am so glad I can call you that now."
"Well, I'm glad you're not calling me other things." Xena said as the blonde gave her a hug.
Gabrielle relaxed her grip. "Why would I, when I'd rather be doing this?" and with that she kissed her.
Xena let her kiss her, and then returned it. It was a good kiss.
"-Smack-" Gabrielle popped her mouth free. "See what you missed last night?"
"I think I'm getting an idea." Xena purred. "I think I need another example."
"Mmmm Hmmm." Gabrielle agreed, leaning forward for another kiss. Just then, a shrill whistle keened through the morning air.
"The sentries!" Xena exclaimed.
"Which alarm is that?" Gabrielle asked. She was still trying to sort them all out.
"We have an intruder."
Suddenly an Amazon came running around the corner, she was in her warrior mask.
"Xena, there you are, thank the Gods!" Dika said in a near panic. "Irana and the others have someone in custody, a man."
"Where are they?" Xena asked.
"On the main road." the warrior excitedly said. Then she looked at Gabrielle and then back to Xena. "So this is where you two have been sneaking off to all this time."
"Oh no, we haven't." Gabrielle said as they hurried around the outhouse. "She's still giving me these speeches about how I'm a delicate little flower, whose petals she does not want to crush."
She and Dika shared a good laugh over that one. Then Gabrielle felt a hand land on her bottom and give it a good squeeze. She turned in shock to Xena.
"When I decide to crush your petals," Xena said closely, "I won't be giving you any speeches."
"Xena!" Dika chided, motioning them forward.
"Sorry." Xena said, drawing her Amazon sword. "Tell me about the intruder."
"He's some sort of merchant." Dika said as they rushed through the village. "He also claims to be a male lesbian."
"A male lesbian?" Gabrielle asked. "This I gotta see."
"Is he armed?" Xena asked as they jogged down the road.
"Not that I could see." the Amazon said, nearing the limits of her breath. "But his sandals make farting noises."
"Maybe he's a clown." Gabrielle guessed as they turned the curve.
Xena's eyes flashed as they got closer. She recognized that rotund physique immediately. "He's a clown, alright."
"Masks." Xena advised, putting her mask on as Gabrielle followed suit.
Xena could see a gaggle of her warriors down the road, standing around a somewhat well-fed man. Behind him was a mule-drawn cart.
"What's going on here?" Xena asked as she came up. Irana turned to face her, her sword still pointing at the man.
"We caught this intruder trying to gain entry!" the warrior said.
"Now intruder is such a strong term, don't you think?" the man said, holding his hands up in the air. "I'm just a humble merchant, really."
"How did you come passing this way?" Xena coldly asked. "We do not welcome strangers. You're lucky you didn't get an arrow through your gut."
The man looked around nervously as several of the Amazons giggled and pointed at his belly. He swallowed nervously. "I ah, the villagers of Scrabros sent me this way. They said I would get a warm welcome."
"Indeed." Xena replied. She stepped a little closer, and leaned over to him. "Are you truly a male lesbian?"
"Born and bred on the isle of Lesbos, that's me." the man chuckled. "My name is Salmoneus, but my friends call me Sal."
Salmoneus shifted his weight, and his left sandal let out a disgusting noise.
"Well Salmoneus," Xena said pointedly, looking down at his feet, "what do you have to barter today?"
"May I?" he said, indicating his raised hands. Xena nodded, and the Amazons lowered and began sheathing their weapons.
"Doff your masks." Xena ordered, deliberately keeping her own mask on.
Salmoneus gaped at them for several moments, stunned that he was being held captive by such lovely young women. Why, they could be in a beauty contest, he decided. Shaking his head, he raised his foot up and slipped his sandal off. Then he held it in front of the masked leader.
"This is the Air Sole." he proudly explained. "My greatest creation. You can see here how the sole is lined with several inflated squirrel bladders, to give you a cushiony walk wherever you go. It's like you're walking on air, get it?"
Xena raised an eyebrow, but then remembered that he couldn't see her face.
He lifted up a small flap on the back of the sandal. "Then if you want to adjust the level of inflation, just blow on this -puff puff puff- and it gets bouncy again."
"Uh huh." Xena said in a bored manner. For this she had been dragged away from a good necking? "They don't look like they'd last."
"These have a lifetime guarantee!" Salmoneus enthused, grinning. "And no one has ever complained about them. Everyone loves them."
"What do the squirrels think of them?" Gabrielle brightly asked.
All eyes were on Salmoneus.
"Well, ah, you s-see..." Sal stammered, thinking about it for the first time. "That is... Uh, I guess no one ever polled them. Sorry."
"We're not interested." Xena said simply, her icy blue eyes boring into him.
"Yes, but I know how to cater to the customer's needs!" Sal said enthusiastically, clapping his hands together. "Let me show you my prize wares..."
Xena watched the man rummage around in the back of his cart. Salmoneus was either very brave, or very stupid.
Sal turned back around with an armful of things. "I can see you ladies are living a uh, pastoral existence. Back to nature, I'm all for that!" he looked over their faces. "But I see you have a lack of beauty supplies out here in the forest." He held up a small vial.
"How about you, my dear?" he asked Irana. "Surely you would like those plain nails of yours to shine, perhaps with a light shade of burgundy nail polish?"
Irana looked at her nails. She had only trimmed them this morning with her pocket knife, they looked fine. She shook her head.
"No, well how 'bout you?" he turned to Mnasidika, offering another item. "This eyeliner is made from crushed abalone shells, and is considered a treasure in distant Egypt. It would go perfectly with your lovely brown eyes."
Dika smiled at the compliment, but shook her head. "What if it got in my eyes? No thanks."
Sal moved on to a blonde. This was not going very well. "You, my dear." he said, holding up a compact. "This blusher would bring out those lovely cheeks of yours."
Gabrielle accepted the brush as he opened the compact for her. She made some dabs on her cheeks with the substance, and handed the brush back to him. Shifting his bundle of items, Sal held a mirror up in front of her.
"You see, lovely!" he gushed.
"Ooo, I like it." Gabrielle said, turning to Xena. "What do you think?"
Xena shook her head back and forth, making a clucking sound with her tongue. Gabrielle looked over to the other Amazons, to see similar expressions.
"Uh, it's just not for me." Gabrielle said, pushing the compact back to his chest. She watched with disappointment as he pocketed it.
"Okay... moving right along!" Sal said, turning back and forth. "Anyone else? Mascara? Lipstick? An eyebrow plucker? Eyelash extender? Fake nails? No? Help me out here, folks."
Xena reached up and took her mask off.
"Ack! Xena!!" Salmoneus gagged, his eyes bugging out. "Please don't kill me! I can get something for you, too!"
He looked closely at her face. "I know, facial creme! I have just the thing to take care of those little lines right here." Sal drew his fingers across his sinuses.
Xena hung her mouth open. She reached up and touched her face, and then lowered her hands, her expression turning grim.
"Oh!" Salmoneus blanched, putting his knuckle to his mouth. "Not to say your beauty is fading! No, I did not say that! I uh, lemme think. I've got to have something you'd like. Wait!"
Salmoneus was pointing to Gabrielle's legs. "Lift one of your legs up, my dear."
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow, but looked over at Xena, who winked at her. Gabrielle raised one of her tanned legs up, and her blonde leg hairs glistened in the sunlight.
"Aha! I have just the thing for you!" Sal said, dumping all his other items back into his cart. After some searching, he turned around with a razor.
"This is the Sal Sensor." he beamed, holding up the wedge-shaped item. "It has imported Roman blades, and is so smooth, you can use it in the bath!"
Gabrielle lowered her leg, shaking her head. "I'm sorry, Sal. I've gotten used to not shaving them. It's kind of nice not to have to."
"Give me that." Xena said, stepping forward and taking Sal's razor. She turned to his cart and began searching through his belongings. "Junk, junk, and more junk."
She turned back to the merchant, waving the razor in front of him. "Do you know what the penalty is for selling junk to the Amazons?"
Sal dabbed his face with a handkerchief and shook his head.
Xena turned to her Amazons. "Does anyone here know?"
A dozen hands shot up.
"Me me!" said one.
"Pick me!" another said.
"Irana." Xena said, nodding at her.
"An arrow through the heart." she grinned.
Salmoneus turned white.
"No." Xena said. "You, Doricha."
"Thrown into boiling oil?" she offered helpfully.
Salmoneus began shaking.
"Wrong again." Xena said, pointing to someone else.
"Covered in honey and staked out over an anthill?" Dika said.
Everyone turned and stared at her.
Sal cringed, showing his teeth.
"No, but that's very creative." Xena commended, pointing to other upraised hands. "You. No, not you. You."
"A bowwoman firing squad?" Anactoria offered helpfully.
"Yes Anactoria, that is the penalty!" Xena said, turning back to the quivering man before her. "Death by volley of arrows. It would be a terrible fate indeed. Unless-"
"Unless?" Sal screeched.
"Unless you were to make amends." Xena said slowly. "Perhaps by obtaining goods that we could use."
"Anything, anything!" he cried, dabbing his forehead with his handkerchief.
"We do need some supplies," Xena continued, "things that the local villages don't readily have."
"The sentence is... commuted." Xena sighed. "I think we can do business, Salmoneus. Irana, you and Dika will conduct him into the village. The rest of you with me."
"Thank you! Thank you!" Sal bowed repeatedly as she turned to leave.
"And Sal?" she asked, looking back at him.
"Lose the fart sandals."
"Yes Xena, your warrior-ness!" he enthused, slipping his other sandal off.
"A hundred dinars?!" Sal exclaimed, looking over Xena's supply sheet. "I'll barely turn a profit!"
"We'll be able to pay you more, later." Xena said. "Once we know we can trust you."
"Would these eyes lie?" Sal said, fluttering his eyelids.
"Not to me, they'd better not." Xena warned, standing up. She held out her hand and spit in it. "Do we have a deal?"
Sal grimaced, but spit in his own hand and shook hers.
"Something wrong?" Xena asked.
"That wasn't nearly as thrilling as I thought it would be." Sal said, still grimacing.
"What, swapping spit?" Xena chuckled, letting go. "Trust me, you don't want to go there."
Sal wiped his hand off. "I thought as much. Well if you don't mind, I'll be leaving now."
"Actually Sal, wait." Xena said, walking up to him. "You've given me an idea. Would you mind helping me out with one little thing before you go?"
"Good." Xena smiled darkly.
Gabrielle and the other recruits gathered around Anactoria's hut, as Xena and Salmoneus stood before them.
"You'll be meeting your selected villagers in a few days," Xena began, "but I'd like you to get an idea of how you'll be approaching them upon the Festival."
Gabrielle folded her arms and looked skeptically at Xena.
"Salmoneus has graciously agreed to assist in this demonstration." Xena smiled, gesturing out at him.
"What do I do?" Sal asked, totally clueless.
"Just go into the cabin and close the door."
"Okay." he replied, opening the door and going in.
"Now the rest of you gather around the windows," Xena instructed as he closed the door from within, "and watch me."
Sal stood waiting inside the hut, and decided to look around. The hut was full of women stuff. His eyes fell on a dress hanging on the wall, reminding him of his last encounter with the Warrior Princess. He wondered what she-
Sal jumped as the door was kicked in, and in strode the battalion leader.
"Hey, that's my door!" Anactoria complained, peeking in around Xena.
"Can I help you?" Sal managed, holding his hands out in front of him.
"Sit down." Xena said brusquely, shoving him onto the bed.
"Hey, there's no need for roughness!" Sal complained as Xena towered over him.
"Shut up." Xena commanded, moving over him. "I'm here for sex, not talking."
Sal's eyes bugged out wider than they did earlier, as Xena draped her legs around his sides and sat down on his lap. Thighs that were strong enough to break bones closed in around him, and Sal looked up into her deadly, but beautiful, face.
Xena looked over to the window that Gabrielle was at, who was looking at her with wide eyes. "Sometimes they need a little encouragement, to get them going." she added, leaning in to smother him in a kiss.
"Ooooo..." the sound erupted throughout the Amazons watching in.
"Gee, Gabrielle." Dika prodded her with her elbow. "Does Xena kiss you like that?"
"No, no she hasn't." Gabrielle honestly replied, feeling a slow burn coming on. Xena seemed to be enjoying her demonstration just a little too much.
"-Smack-" Xena separated from her victim, who looked a trifle dazed. "And that's it. I think you can follow it from there."
Xena slid herself off of Salmoneus, and offered a hand to help him up. "You were wonderful Sal, thanks."
"I-It was my pleasure to service you- I mean serve you!" Sal stammered, standing up unsteadily.
"I'm sorry for the way I treated you the first time we met." Xena softly said. "I hope we're even now."
"Absolutely!" Sal gushed, shaking her hand. "If you ever need my services again, you just yell. You'll have your shipment, Xena, even if I have to pull the wagon here myself."
Xena freed herself from his grip, as the Amazons crowded in around them. "Be still my heart."
A red-tailed squirrel scurried up the tree trunk. Looking around carefully for jays or woodpeckers, the squirrel secreted an acorn inside its secret stash in the tree. Suddenly, a branch moved nearby, but there was no breeze. The squirrel cocked its head, and then skittered closer to have a look.
"Boo!" the branch said. The squirrel was so startled that she jumped straight off the tree and fell into some bushes.
"Aww..." Gabrielle said to herself, shifting her position slightly. That goop that Xena had given them to put on worked great. Her scent was completely masked from all the animals of the forest. To them, as long as she stayed still, she wasn't even there. She wondered how much longer she would have to wait. Then her breath caught. Her prey was approaching.
Xena lightly stepped over piles of leaves, making sure to walk only on the wet ones. In fairness, Gabrielle was doing a good job of hiding herself from her. Too bad I don't fight fair, Xena thought to herself, smiling. Reaching out with her senses, she felt the life flowing through the trees, the bugs on and in the ground around her, and the swirls of the delicate air currents moving through the forest. Then she sensed something else, something out of place, something that should not be here. And then it dropped down on her.
Xena neatly sidestepped whatever was falling and turned her back to it. At the same time, she kicked out behind her at something that felt very dense to her senses.
"Yiie!" Gabrielle yelped as her sword was kicked out of her hand. Her feet hit the ground firmly, and she pulled out her chobos as a counter.
Xena turned around to her foe, who was standing there with her weapons at the ready. "Very good. You nearly got me that time."
"Really?" Gabrielle said, lowering her weapons. "You're not just saying that, are you?"
"I don't play favorites, Gabrielle." Xena closed the distance between them. "You really have come a long way."
"Thank you." Gabrielle said, feeling back to her harness line. "Here, watch this."
Gabrielle jumped off the ground and soared up. When she neared the tree branch she reached up and grabbed it with both hands, and hauled herself up on it.
"Come on and join me." Gabrielle said from far above, sitting on the tree branch.
Gabrielle watched Xena seem to fly up like she was on a harness wire, but there was nothing there. She watched in astonishment as Xena came up just above the branch, to lightly set her feet down on it.
"I'll say it again, wow." the blonde opined as Xena sat down on the branch next to her. "How can you do that?"
"A lot of people made me what I am today." Xena said, idly kicking her legs. "The ones I cared about are dead."
"And the ones who are alive?"
A chill ran across Xena as an image of Arti came to mind. "Are ones I never want to meet again."
They sat together in silence for a few moments, listening to the noises of the forest.
"Xena, we need to talk." Gabrielle said finally. "I didn't tell you why I wanted to become an Amazon so bad. Back in my hometown, I was betrothed to some boy my parents liked."
"A dirt-clod farmer?" Xena chuckled.
"Yes." Gabrielle replied. "With the emphasis on the clod part."
"So what's the problem?"
"The problem?" Gabrielle repeated. "You've arranged practically the same thing for me! I'm supposed to give myself over to some guy I've never met before."
"I didn't make the rules, Gabrielle."
"But you could bend them, couldn't you?" the blonde asked.
"I could..." Xena said slowly. "But I already told you I don't play favorites. And the other girls would want to be exempted, too."
"What's so bad about that?"
"Well, the village runs out of women, we all get old, and the Nation is wiped from the face of the earth." Xena said.
"Trust you to always put a positive spin on things."
"I'm sorry Gabrielle, really." Xena apologized. "But it will only be for one night."
"No, it won't." Gabrielle replied. "I can only be a virgin once in my life, Xena."
"It's no big deal." Xena said matter-of-factly. "I lost mine when I was younger than you."
"Xena, I want it to be special, to be with the one that I love. Not Perdicus, and not some village guy."
"His name was Perdicus?" Xena asked, smiling. "What a stupid name."
"Yeah, this here is my husband, Perdicus." Gabrielle joined in. "It does sound awful, doesn't it?"
"I'll say." Xena agreed. Then her expression grew serious again. "If you do get pregnant, I hope it's a girl."
"Wait a minute." Gabrielle said, turning to her as much as she could. "What's wrong with a boy?"
"If you have a boy, you have to give him to his father."
"Oh." Gabrielle realized. "I hadn't thought about that. Xena, is this right? Is it right that a father or mother can't see their children?"
"Maybe not." Xena admitted. "But it's a hard world. The Amazon Nation arose out of a need to protect women. Their customs may seem harsh, but it has worked for them for centuries."
"Alright, back to me."
"Why is it always about you?" Xena asked. "You know, I'm going to have a hard time with the Festival, too."
"Well, I don't exactly like the idea of you being with someone else." Xena admitted. "I don't like it at all, to be honest."
"Then why go through with it?"
"Ouch." Xena winced. "You fight dirty."
"When I have to." Gabrielle said. Then she looked over at her again. "I'd rather have you be my first."
"Gabrielle, do you remember how I was with that merchant?"
"Salmoneus?" Gabrielle laughed. "How could I forget? I thought you were going to give him a heart attack."
"For most of my life," Xena continued, "that's what I was best at. Using my body to ensnare others, make them do what I want. Sex was very cheap to me. Do you understand?"
"If we do... go there," Xena said, "I want it to be special for you, too. I don't want it to be cheap."
"I'd be satisfied if you gave me what you gave Hercules."
"Gabrielle!" Xena said. "I never said I slept with him."
"I pretty much guessed from what you told me." Gabrielle grinned. "Was he handsome?"
"Oh, he's very handsome." Xena noted. "And so was his sidekick, Iolaus."
"Sidekick?" Gabrielle asked. "And did you uh..."
"Did I what? Sleep with him?" Xena said. "Gabrielle, I didn't sleep with every man I came across."
"Oh, okay." Gabrielle nodded.
Xena winced inwardly. "Yes, I had sex with him, too."
"Well, it was for a reason." Xena said. "I was going to turn him against Hercules."
"Oooo, nasty." Gabrielle bit her lip. "I think I got the short version, earlier."
"I think I've said more than I should have." Xena replied, folding her arms.
Gabrielle sat quietly for a moment, peering off through the treetop. Then a slow smile spread across her face. "One or both?"
"Excuse me?" Xena asked.
"You heard me." Gabrielle said, raising her eyebrows. "Did you have them singly, or both at the same time?"
Xena made a whistling expression with her mouth. "Wouldn't you like to know." and with that, she dropped off the tree branch.
"Xena!" Gabrielle called after her, but it was too late. She looked down to see Xena easily land on her feet. Gabrielle shook her head. It was a fall that should have shattered every bone in her body, yet she just walked away.
"That's a pleasant thought." Gabrielle said to herself, reaching over to her grappling hook. If she untied it now, she figured, she wouldn't have to disattach it after she reached the ground.
Gabrielle stopped herself halfway through untying it. "Dumb dumb dumb!" she admonished herself, tying it back on. "I'm never gonna get this Amazon stuff down."
"Today you will meet your mates for the Festival." Xena announced to the assembled warriors. "To this end I have secured the services of our match-maker, Yenta."
Gabrielle recognized the old woman hobbling up on the stage. It was one of the Amazons she and Xena had overheard when they lived in the barracks together. For now Xena was living in the leader quarters that she won from Velasca. Even though her hut was now finished, Xena still hadn't given her an answer on moving in with her.
The aged Amazon hobbled up to Xena and motioned her down with her hand. Xena leaned over as the old woman whispered to her, and then stood up.
"Uh, there's been a change." Xena said reluctantly. "Phlitus did not pass Yenta's inspection, he seems to have acquired some strange blisters during his travels in the outside world, so he is disqualified."
"Yuck!" Gabrielle grimaced, making a face at Anactoria. "Could this get any more disgusting?"
"Thus, Yenta has ruled that two of you will have to double up." Xena continued.
"Ask a stupid question." Gabrielle observed.
Irana and Dika exchanged glances, and their hands immediately shot up.
"Pick us! Pick us!" they chorused.
"We have some volunteers, I see." Xena said, as the other recruits laughed. She looked over at Yenta, who nodded her approval. "Alright, you two can pair together. Irana, I hope you don't kill the poor fellow."
"I make no promises." the warrior seriously intoned, only to break down in giggles as she met Dika's expression.
"Why not just make it an orgy while you're at it?" Gabrielle fumed to no one in particular.
"The rules will be followed." Xena warned. "On the Festival night, Yenta will be peeking in on each of you to make sure you do your duty. Alright? Now let's go meet them. I'm sure they're just as nervous as you."
"Not likely." Gabrielle said as Xena rejoined her. The Amazon leader brought a donkey around for Yenta to ride on, and then they set off for the village of Pythos.
With dread filling her stomach, Gabrielle followed the other Amazons through the small village. They were led through an alley into a courtyard which served as the village square. There she noticed a good number of village men lined up. She gulped audibly as they made their way towards them.
As soon as the Amazons finished filing in, a village elder stepped forward.
"We are honored to receive the Amazon warriors." he said gravely, bowing. "For you will bring forth the next generation of warriors who will protect us. I bid you welcome."
"We feel welcome, Narcis." Yenta replied, stepping forward. "You're looking good."
"Oh, my eyes always feel twenty years younger when they fall upon you, Yenta."
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged knowing glances.
"Ahem!" Yenta cleared her throat. "Anyway, I have brought the warriors here to meet your men. Are they all here?"
"Er yes," the village elder began, "all except for -cough- Phlitus."
"Good." the aged Amazon replied. She began leading individual Amazons up to meet each of their partners. Or in the case of one delighted farmer, his two partners. Eventually, she got to Gabrielle. Taking her charge by the hand, Yenta led her up to the last man.
The farmer doffed his cap respectfully, revealing a balding, middle-aged man.
This is mine, Gabrielle thought as she doffed her mask. She forced a smile at him as he took in the sight of her. "Hello."
"Pleased to meet you." the farmer said, offering his hand. "My name is Hraedar. I'm a baker."
"You are?" Gabrielle asked, shaking his hand. "What kind of breads do you make?"
"Well, let's see..." the farmer pondered, rubbing his chin. "Blackbread, gingerbread, egg loaf, rye, and uh, wheat twists."
"No nutbread?" Gabrielle asked hopefully.
"Oh goodness, no." the farmer chuckled. "We haven't made any of that since old man Hossus got the runs from one."
Gabrielle forced another smile. "Well Hraedar, I'm pleased to mate you, I mean, meet you! Ha. Little slip there. Well, goodbye."
"The pleasure's mine." he smiled at her, nodding.
Gabrielle turned away from him and returned to Xena as soon as possible.
"Well?" Xena asked.
"I hate him." the blonde hissed at her.
"Well, he doesn't look that bad." Xena shrugged.
"Yes, I'm sure he's very nice." Gabrielle said gratingly. "I'm just set on disliking him."
"Oh, then good."
"Xena," the blonde asked, putting her arms around Xena's waist, "what was the Queen talking about a while back, you know, that some of us will die? These men don't look like they'd put up much of a fight."
Xena's eyes narrowed. "In childbirth, Gabrielle." she said softly. "You know how it is."
Gabrielle turned white. While she was growing up in Poteidaia, no less than four women there had died from their pregnancies. She and her sister Lila discussed it constantly, it was as if love were a death sentence. She realized the Amazons wouldn't have it much different.
"I think I'd like to go back now." Gabrielle said tonelessly.
"Ow!!" Dika yelped as an ember fell from her torch onto her hand. A torch like all the other Amazons were wielding.
"Don't hold it straight up." Xena said. "Hold it at an angle."
The Amazons trudged on in silence. Just up the road, they could see the lights of the village of Pythos growing brighter.
"Xena," Gabrielle began, "I did a little research on the Festival."
"Yes?" the raven-haired woman prompted.
"We're supposed to be galloping in on horseback, shouting and yelling like maniacs." Gabrielle said. "Yet here we are, walking to the village we're supposed to attack."
"We can't afford horses, not yet." Xena said.
"And so we walk."
"Yes, we walk." Xena said. "What do you want me to say? It's the best we can manage."
"Just making conversation." Gabrielle said back.
As they reached the edge of the town, Xena brought them to a stop.
"Okay, here's where I leave you off." Xena said, holding her torch in front of her face. "Yenta will be waiting for you in the town square, she will lead you off to your various huts. Success to you, my Amazons. Bring home the Nation's bounty."
And with that, Xena disappeared into the darkness, leaving her torch-wielding warriors standing alone. They shuffled around a bit for a moment, and then Gabrielle spoke.
"We have a mission to do, Amazons." she said. "So, let's carry it out."
Gabrielle stood in front of the cabin she was supposed to go into, and stared. She took a deep breath and reached for the door handle, but then lost her nerve.
"This is so ridiculous." she said quietly. "If they're gonna prostitute me for the Nation, I outta at least get paid for it. What am I doing here?"
Clearing her throat, Gabrielle steeled her nerve, and prepared to kick in the door. Then she stopped and leaned forward to examine the door. It was designed to turn inward, she told herself, this would work. Taking a few quick breaths, Gabrielle backed up a bit, and charged the door.
Gabrielle kicked the door open, and burst inside. "I'm here for your services! -Gasp-"
Gabrielle lifted up her mask and took it off. The cabin was bedecked with over a dozen candles, they gave it a warm, comfortable glow. Incense was burning in two braziers, and a table was laid out with a platter of sliced bread, and a silver pitcher. Gabrielle's eyes trailed over to the bed, on which her shawl-covered suitor sat.
"Are you feeling alright?" Gabrielle asked, shutting the door behind her.
The figure coughed, and his face was still covered. Gabrielle looked him over. Was he feverish? She wondered if he had come down with some disease. What if she got diseased in return? This was ridiculous.
"Can I do something for you?" Gabrielle asked uncertainly.
"Yes." the figure said. "Be gentle with me."
The shawl was pulled back, revealing dark hair and blue eyes.
"Xena!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "I can't believe it! How did you get in here? Where is Hraedar?"
"He was complaining of stomach pains," Xena deadpanned, "and couldn't make it."
"Oh." Gabrielle said. There was something curious about the way Xena said it, but she felt it best not to ask. Then she looked back at the platter.
"Nutbread!" Gabrielle enthused, reaching for a piece. "I thought he didn't bake nutbread."
"He doesn't." Xena explained, smacking her hand. "I baked it."
"What?" Gabrielle said, withdrawing her hand.
"That's for after." Xena said slowly, leaning back. "You still have a duty to perform."
"But what du- Oh." Gabrielle realized, as Xena gestured out at the bed.
"Are you ready for me?" Xena asked.
"But..." Gabrielle started, tossing her mask aside. "How can I go through with this? We hardly know each other."
Xena smiled as the blonde laid down on the bed beside her.
"I don't know what to tell you, Gabrielle." Xena said. "Do it for Queen and country."
Gabrielle looked at her. "Serious now, Xena. I can't tell you what this means for me. This is how I always- mmmmf!"
Xena kissed her roughly for long moments, and then released her. "Enough talk." she added, moving in again.
"Mmmmm...." Gabrielle murmured, as Xena's steady pressure laid her back on the bed. Right now, there was nowhere else she wanted to be in the world.
"Hello?" Hraedar shouted as he pounded on the door. It sounded like quite a commotion was going on inside.
"Listen, Xena said you needed another man over here." Hraedar shouted. "Hello?"
The door flung open, and a naked man came out, utterly terrified. He grabbed Hraedar by the shoulders. "Help! Help! They're gonna kill me!"
"Who's-" was all Hraedar could get out, before the man ran past him in terror. Then he looked into the cabin.
"Come on in." Irana cooed.
"We won't bite, much." Dika seconded as he stepped inside.
Irana closed the door behind him.
"Well?" Xena asked, kissing Gabrielle gently along her forehead.
"Was that earth-shattering?" Xena chuckled. "I did my best."
"Yes, it was." Gabrielle replied, reaching up to her bare shoulder. "I'm just sorry about the mess I made."
"Don't be, Gabrielle." Xena said softly, caressing her hair. "You let me take your virginity. I didn't know it could be so precious."
"I'm glad it was you." Gabrielle replied, looking at her. "You're forgetting another thing to be grateful for, though."
"Hraedar gets to clean the sheets." Gabrielle smirked.
They laughed together at that, and Xena leaned forward to give her a lingering kiss.
Gabrielle slid her hand down the other woman's side as she separated. "What was that for? Are you ready for another go at it?"
"Maybe in a while..." Xena said dreamily. "Gabrielle, I said some things before, while we were making love."
"It wasn't just pillow talk." Xena said, laying her head down on Gabrielle's shoulder. "I meant what I said. You are the joy of my life."
Gabrielle closed her eyes, and relished the feeling of falling asleep in Xena's arms. If there was a better sensation in all the world, she couldn't imagine what it could be.
The Trilogy Concludes in Book Three
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