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The Once and Future Queen Title Graphic, art by Barbara Maclay.

Graphic courtesy of Barbara Maclay

The Once And Future Queen

The Third Branch of the Reparations Cycle

BY LLACHLAN

 

Disclaimer: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle et al belong to the folks at Universal/MCA, I just borrowed them for awhile and intend no copyright infringement or other damage. The Gods as you can plainly see, belong to themselves and answer to no one. (Mostly)

Violence: From this point on, it's safe to assume that this ain't just a love story anymore. I mean you've got Xena and Celts in the same epic - what do you expect?

Sextext: Yep, and if knowing some of what two women who love each other can share between them doesn't bother you read on - but - if its illegal where you live, or if it offends you find something else to read. If you're not of legal age where you live... it'll keep.

Special Thanks and Silver Chakrums: As always to my wonderful beta crew and the other seven of you reading this, especially to Garnet, Barbara Maclay (who drew a graphic so wonderful I had to write the story), Agatha, RedHawk (Meirneal an Dearg), and BS:Stormrider (Anfa Marcach)

Story Disclaimer: <G> No Hercules episodes were intentionally ignored in the production of this fan fic.

 

EMAIL llachlan

 

PROLOGUE

 

"It is done." M'Grath bowed perfunctorily and awaited his master's pleasure.

With a faint whine of its mechanism, Balor's head turned to his minion, the eye shield lifting slightly, then stopping. "Let Bres know of the arrival of our guest."

"Sire."

Soon Bres would have the Treasures of Atland, and he...he would have Bres.

 

Chapter One

 

She wished she were back on the ship. The ruins of what had been Teamhair lay sprawled, smoking and destroyed in front of them. Gods how she wished she were back on the ship. A gentle squeeze and Xena's hand slipped reassuringly into hers.

The warrior's face was set in the impenetrable mask that Gabrielle had come to realize did not mean Xena was detached, but rather meant exactly the opposite, that what ever she was feeling cut bone deep. She squeezed the larger hand back, imparting her own support, sure that Xena was reliving the images of another decimated village.

It was then that she noticed Cairbre picking his way back toward them, a small figure cradled in his arms, he looked numb and the light was gone from the normally flashing eyes.

"Cairbre?" Aine's gentle inquiry went unanswered. Gabrielle could see his despair mirrored in the eyes of his twin, and then it was gone, replaced by an expression of implacable hatred as the younger woman threaded her way into the ruins.

Other forms resolved themselves from the edges of the forest, as the survivors struggled to face the new comers.

"Solari, take a scouting party and secure the perimeter. Cat and Ep, each of you take a group and begin looking for..." swallowing "...survivors." And bodies, but no one needed that thought voiced, it hung in the air over all of them, reinforced by the small body in Cairbre's arms. Running through a mental checklist she looked at her partner, 'time to clarify your role isn't it? I wish the circumstances had been better.' "Xena, I need you to ride back to the landing, they need to be prepared in case whoever did this is still around, and I need healers and food, detail who ever you think is best." She had expected protest and was surprised and pleased to see pride in Xena's eyes instead.

"My Queen." With those words and the accompanying nod of the head, Xena sent a message of her own to the other Amazons, and Gabrielle felt a weight she hadn't realized she was carrying slid from her shoulders.

Camp had been quickly established against a still standing section of stone wall. The scouting parties were trickling in with a discouragingly small number of survivors from the ruins, those that had made their own way into camp earlier sat huddled around the fire or helped to tend the wounded, shock evident on all their faces.

"Gabrielle." Catran hesitated. "They found Queen Ethlinn."

"Good. With her help we can get a better idea of how many are missing and what happened." She was already moving for the door when Catran placed a restraining hand on her shoulder.

"She's dead Gabrielle...her body was left...as a message. We can't find Aine and Cairbre still hasn't moved."

Now she was sure she had a headache.

"Queen Gabrielle!" A young Amazon pounded across the camp. "The beach...come quick...they're fighting."

Gabrielle groaned. 'Not there's fighting but they're fighting. Oh Gods, please don't kill her Xena.' "Catran, take over here, do what you think is best and find someone to sit with Cairbre."

Anxiety got the better of her and she rode Quill far faster than she preferred and suddenly reined in the horse as the scene on the beach registered. A ring of spectators had formed loosely around the combatants hemming them in.

With an exasperated sigh she flung herself from the saddle and forced her way through the ring. She had no idea what had started this, but she was going to put a stop to it now. As if sensing the roiling anger from the Queen, the remainder of the crowd parted, opening the fighters to view.

Xena had the smaller form pinned under her and seemed to be holding on more to prevent injury than from any great desire to inflict harm.

"Let her up Xena."

Confusion was evident in the warrior's eyes and as Gabrielle moved around the pair the answer became obvious.

"Solon?" She looked from her partner to her son, trying to absorb the information.

"If I let you up are you going to behave?"

He said nothing, the angry scowl remained on his face.

"I'll take that as a yes." Jumping lightly to her feet. The hand Xena extended was refused and Solon stood on his own, turning to face Gabrielle defiantly.

She pinched the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefingers, feeling the pounding in her head increase its tempo.

Intending to turn control of the landing site over to Ephiny she searched the dwindling group of onlookers. Ephiny stood off to one side, watching them, a faint smirk on her lips. That was the last straw. The rigours of the day finally got to Gabrielle and her tenuous control on her temper let go.

"An entire village has been slaughtered and I find the three of you behaving like children. I have enough to do without wondering which one of you is going to kill the other one. And as for you..." Glaring directly at Solon. "I don't know what started this but she is your mother and you will not behave that way again..."

"I'm not a child."

"Then stop behaving like one." She turned her attention to Ephiny. "I'm going to assume that he was on your boat. I'd like to think it was without your knowledge, but I know better. I will not tolerate you using Solon to get back at Xena. Is that clear?"

Seeing sudden comprehension and the flickering sparks of rage ignite in Xena's eyes she moved between the two women. "I said enough! Xena finish preparing the way for everyone to move to the main camp, take Solon with you."

"No. I won't go with her." He had folded his arms across his chest and stood chin square, eyes flashing.

"Solon you have two choices. One you are a child, and as such will go with your mother - or - two, you are an adult who has just been given an order by your lawful sovereign. Chose."

For a minute she thought he would continue to resist but then he nodded and replied. "As you wish Methryn." Sending a message of his own.

Dropping her voice she gentled her tone. "Thank-you. We have a lot to do and I can use every capable mind I can find. Now go, we'll join you shortly."

Left alone with Ephiny and Xena she looked from one to the other and decided she couldn't deal with them just now, more important things had to be handled before their personal problems could be worked out. She had hoped that separate ships and a little time would have diffused the tension, but while the hostility was less open, this incident clearly illustrated that they were not in the clear yet. Rubbing her temples again she began detailing earlier events for the two.

"...so we need to find out who held the Right of Caste, if they still even have such a thing, and perform the burial."

"What about Aine?" Xena who had been uncharacteristically silent during Gabrielle's tirade looked curiously at Ephiny, arching an eyebrow at the question.

"We can't find her, she hasn't returned with her scouting team yet."

Xena snorted. "Big surprise."

Long familiarity with both women told Gabrielle that this line of thought was heading someplace she didn't want to go. "Ephiny see if you can find Brighid and Artemis, have them meet us back at Teamhair at sundown." The curly blonde nodded and left.

Long fingers began moving around her temples in slow spirals as Xena moved in behind her. Resting her weight against her lover she closed her eyes and sank into the comforting presence, allowing some of the day's tension to dissolve.

"I'm still mad at you too, you know."

"Umm hmm. Figured." Xena didn't stop the slow massage.

"Going to tell me what happened?"

"Later."

"Sure you will warrior mine." Reluctantly breaking the soothing contact with her temples she turned and caught Xena's eyes. "Just remember I'm here when you do want to talk okay?" Her answer was a languorous kiss, that reached deep inside removing the tension the massage had not.

They stood together on the beach a little longer, taking respite from the events unfolding around them. The horrors of the death and destruction at Teamhair and the sounds of a thousand people preparing for life in this suddenly hostile land forgotten momentarily as they grounded themselves in each other.

 

Chapter Two

 

The glow of firelight bathed the remains of the village in a light as bright as day. Pyre after pyre was set alight by flaming arrows, as two hundred and thirty souls were speeded on their way.

The song of the survivors mixed with the voices of the newly arrived in a mournful chorus, two halves of a nation joined in grief.

Solari waited until the voices stilled then raised the final arrow waiting for Aine to light the end before releasing it and setting the bier of the fallen Queen and Princess alight.

For a moment the only sound was the crackling of wood as the flames took hold, then a tall form stepped from his place at Aine's side and began to sing.

She felt a tear escape, the pain of loss was so easily read in the low mournful song. Then the cadence changed and the song lightened, Aine added her voice in a cheerful counterpoint moving to hold her twin's hand as together they sang a song for the child. The tempo changed again and Solari found herself joining Cairbre adding her voice to theirs.

He squeezed the hand he was holding, and she felt her other hand taken by Gabrielle as she and Xena joined them. As the last notes died away Solari glanced to her right, noting that Ephiny and Solon had taken up places by Aine.

She was both disturbed and guilty to discover that when Cairbre dropped his hand away she missed the feel of its' warmth. She didn't have time to reflect further on this as Artemis moved to the front of the small group.

"It is time Aine."

"This was not supposed to happen." To Xena the young woman looked drained and not a trace of the impish grin which seemed to perpetually frame her features was evident.

"Nevertheless the mask is yours, wear it well."

At this the crowd behind them began to murmur, the villagers were clearly displeased by this development. An elder stepped forward. "And what of Right of Caste? It is not hers."

"True but it is mine to confer. Aine will wear the Mask." Xena listened to the exchange, idly wondering how long Artemis could keep from losing her temper.

"And you are?" In spite of the gravity of the situation she had to hold in a chuckle, and the shake than ran through Gabrielle's shoulders told her that her partner was also trying hard not to laugh.

Artemis on the other hand was having a difficult time trying not to explode. Xena watched as Brighid surreptitiously laid a calming hand on the God's forearm, reminding the warrior of Gabrielle. Only the bright glow of Artemis' eyes revealed her anger as she replied. "Artemis. And you?"

The Gaelic Amazons quieted as if one, whereas the Greek contingent who had grown, if not completely at ease with the presence of the Huntress were at least no longer in terrified awe and continued to chatter away in only slightly subdued tones.

"I am called Sorcha, I lead the council. Aine is not fit to rule, the council challenges." Looking from a tooth grinding Aine to a glowing Artemis, Xena marveled at the temerity of the elderly Amazon. Not many mortals would dare to gainsay a God.

"You challenge...my will?" Nonplussed. "Your village is in tatters, on the eve of a war for its very survival and you challenge my will? Amazons!"

Xena couldn't help it, she snorted, catching Artemis' attention.

"Wait for it Xena. .. or haven't you considered the implications of your relationship with My Chosen?" A low aside pitched for the warrior's ears alone.

Three other women now stood lending their support to Sorcha's position. "We do, It is within our right, and our duty."

Even with her hearing Xena was unable to distinguish the next words muttered by the increasingly frustrated Olympian. Brighid moved closer and whispered something into Artemis' ear, bringing a feral grin to the brunette's face. Gabrielle tensed against her and Xena leaned down and whispered reassuringly into her ear. "You're gonna like this."

"Okay. You challenged, therefore the designated sovereign may chose a champion." She moved to stand next to Aine, draping an arm casually over the Celt's shoulders. "Who would you like to name as your champion, my Queen."

Not surprisingly the challenge was abruptly dropped, and Aine went to bed a Queen.

"And I thought my Amazons were a fractious lot. Did you see the look on Sorcha's face when she realized who Aine's champion was going to be?" Gabrielle grinned impishly up at her, before continuing. "I still got the best Champion though." Together they moved to their bedroll.

"Think so my Queen? I dunno, my eyes don't glow and I can't shoot fireballs from my finger tips." Planting a kiss on soft lips.

"Really? My body begs to differ on that last point, and I know exactly how to make your eyes glow." Increasing the passion of their kisses.

"Umm, not exactly appropriate for defending your title though." She was rapidly losing her train of thought under Gabrielle's continuing exploration of her body.

"That my love, depends entirely on the battleground." Slipping a hand inside her shift, Gabrielle teased a dark nipple into erection before tracing her way lower.

As the bard's lips came into contact with the sensitive skin around her naval, Xena tried to stifle a moan, aware of the proximity of the guard and other Amazons. When Gabrielle descended further and she felt the gentle caress of warm breath on her dark curls, she forgot about the potential audience and gave herself over to the rising hunger in her loins.

As the last contractions of release settled into her muscles, Xena felt Gabrielle move slowly back to rest in the crook of her arm. Dropping a hand to stroke the soft skin of the Queen's shoulder she could feel the lingering tension in Gabrielle's body. She waited for her lover to begin talking.

"I'm sorry Xena. I jumped to a conclusion."

'Damn, how does she do that, never fails.' Drawing her lover closer, she left a trail of kisses along a tanned shoulder. "You had cause after what happened in the healer's hall." She paused. "And if you hadn't intervened I would have done...something that I'd have had cause to regret. I wanted to."

Body weight shifted and her eyes were held by Gabrielle's. "I know. I wanted to too." Then she settled back onto Xena's chest, chin in hand still holding the warrior's eyes. "What are we going to do about Solon?"

"I don't know Gabrielle. I don't know."

"What happened?"

Xena remained quiet.

"Xena?"

"Just thinking." Drawing the blanket up to cover more of Gabrielle's back. "I got jealous, and I yelled at him. The next thing I knew he had tackled me, then you showed up." Relayed in typically Spartan fashion.

Deciding details weren't important she tried a different tack. "Why do you suppose he came?"

When Xena didn't reply she gently explained. "He came because you were here, because he wants to know you. You have to have faith in that."

"How Gabrielle? How do I trust in that?"

"He's here isn't he. Talk to him." Gabrielle could feel Xena's muscles knotting in tension, worried that her partner would be unable to sleep, she shifted her focus to kneading the smooth flesh under her fingers.

"Trying to distract me?"

"Umm hmm." Words indistinct as her tongue snaked against an earlobe, while small fingers danced against a hardening nub. "Is it working?"

A low moan was all the reply needed to encourage her explorations and she lost herself in the joy of their lovemaking.

 

Chapter Three

 

He wasn't sure how he arrived at the beach. Unable to get back to sleep after waking from another vivid dream of battle and the sound of Gabrielle's name echoing in his skull, he had begun to walk.

Solon pushed steadily onward feeling the pull of the ocean. As long as he could remember the sounds of water and the soft lapping of current had always helped him think. He missed Xenan and for the first time in the three weeks since they'd left Greece, wished that he had listened to Kaleipus and stayed with the centaurs.

Poking along the rocky shore he could feel a low pulsing, like the vibration of a drum, running along his body. Instinctively he turned and allowed the sound to lead him to a small cave set halfway up the cliff face.

Studying the outcroppings and fissures, he decided that while not easy, the climb was within his limits. Moving steadily from hold to hold he gain his target and slid gingerly over the lip of the cave mouth.

"Smart Solon, no torch." His voice echoed weirdly in the dark. Striking a flint the momentary spark of light revealed fresco covered walls and some kind of raised dais at the far end. Moving closer to a wall he struck the flint again, searching for a wall torch or candle. Noting the position of what he was looking for he felt his way along the wall and again struck the flint setting the candle alight.

As the wall in front of him was illuminated he could discern images of what looked to be ships. The next section depicted a map of sorts, tracing his fingers along the surface he traced the area leading to the Aegean, then farther to lands whose name he couldn't read. It looked to him as though the left side was meant to connect back to the right hand one. 'But that would mean...'

"Yes lad it would." Solon jumped, banging his head on the low ceiling. "Whoa there. I dinnae mean ye no harm." A strong arm lifted him back to his feet as though he weighed nothing.

"What is this place?" Curiousity winning over fear.

"Since ye've found it on yer own. I can tell ya that it is here that ye must needs bring your Queen. There is that here which she must see." The deep voice rumbled making Solon feel safe. "Are ye no gonna ask me who I am then?"

Solon looked away from the inscription on the wall which he had been unsuccessfully trying to decipher. "Did you want me too. Ask I mean? Cairbre told me names here are powerful and they are not usually asked for, but rather given."

"Aye, t'is true that." Rubbing his beard thoughtfully. "Does it bother ye to ken that the world is round?"

Solon shrugged. "No. That's what my Methryn has always thought anyway."

"Does she now?"

Solon moved across the cavern approaching the raised platform, a carving on the wall having caught his eye. Leaning forward for a closer look he could put a name to one of the faces and - glancing back at the large man in the cave with him - recognized another. Looking at the carved faces he tried to remember Cairbre's telling of the flight from Atlantis. "You're The Dagda, Brighid's father." In slightly reverent tones.

The Dagda laughed, a full deep sound that filled the cavern. "Ach, That I am. And if ye be knowing my daughter then that explains your lack of fear then."

"I don't know as many Gods as my mother does, but I like Brighid, she's nice." He turned his attention back to the dais.

"Aye she is." The laughter left his voice momentarily. "Should ye be no getting back afore someone misses ye."

"I doubt anyone there would even notice." He was reminded of the scene earlier on the beach.

A friendly head was turned in his direction, dark eyes meeting his light ones. "Ye'd be sorely missed lad, ne'er doubt that."

Then Solon found himself standing on the beach feeling curiously rested. The first rays of dawn were breaking over the ocean, framing the ships that still sat at harbor, their cargo not yet unloaded. "Whaa...t." Startled by the transition he whirled around to check the cliff. No cave. 'Did it really happen?' His musings were interrupted by the sound of hoof beats along the sand.

Lifting a hand to shield his eyes from the glare of sun on water he strained to see the approaching rider. 'Mother. Hades.' Steeling himself he stood and waited, fully expecting to be raked over the coals.

'Magnificent.' That was the only word he could think to describe her. Watching her ride Argo through the pounding surf he could see the woman from Gabrielle's scrolls. Somewhere she had acquired a cloak that streamed out behind her like the sail on a ship. She looked 'heroic'. As she moved closer Solon could see that she was smiling, reveling in the feel of the horse and the sea. Maybe he wasn't in as much trouble as he thought.

Solon stood watching her, a rapt expression on his face. Reigning Argo in she cut across to join him. "Good run girl. You needed that eh." Chuckling as she patted the horse's flank. "I think we both did." She hopped lightly from the saddle. "Morning."

He nodded.

'Funny I can face down Ares, take on an army but talking to my son scares me to death.' She drew a deep breath. "About yesterday. I'm sorry."

"Gabrielle send you?"

"No. But she is worried."

"She mad at me?"

"No more than she is at me." She grinned conspiratorially. "But I bet I know how we can get back in her good books."

"Berries."

"Yep. Find any?"

"No but you won't believe what I did find." He fell into step next to her. Listening to him animatedly describe his encounter brought back strong images of walking next to a younger Gabrielle. 'I won't push you away too. Have faith she said. Right.'

"So he said you need to show the cave to Gabrielle?" Not sensing a threat, she was none the less going take no chances with Gabrielle's safety, especially when there were Gods involved.

"He said the Queen, I suppose he could have meant Aine, but I don't think so."

She remounted and offered a hand up to Solon. "Want a lift?" His face lit up and she smiled in return as he practically leaped up behind her. Shifting to look at him she was surprised to realize that their eyes were level. "I'm glad you're here Solon. It was quite a chance you took, and we still need to talk about a few things." She narrowed her gaze. "Like running off in the middle of the night without a weapon. But it means a lot that you came." Smiling again she turned back around.

"I'm sorry too Mother." Slipping his arms around her waist.

She faced him again, eyebrow raised, a half grin tugging at her lips. "Don't be sorry Solon, just improve."

 

Chapter Four

 

"Eph?"

"Ya, Ari." Absently answering her friend.

"What's wrong? There was more to the question but Solari didn't dare voice it.

Not answering Solari right away, Ephiny moved to the table and poured herself a drink. "Nothing...Everything."

"Well that certainly narrows it down." She accepted the proffered glass. "It's still Gabrielle isn't it?"

"I try Solari, I really do. But then I see Xena and something just shifts, and I end up saying or doing something I wish I hadn't."

'Watching Xena and Solon arrive back in camp yesterday morning had set her teeth on edge. Why did she get to have everything so easily? Gabrielle, Solon...she'd enjoyed his company on the voyage, his easy humour easing the pain of leaving Xenan behind. She knew Gabrielle thought she'd done it only to get back at Xena, but in truth he'd asked for her silence, no longer a child, and she'd agreed - it was his decision. When she'd said goodbye to Xenan, Kaleipus had taken her aside, telling her he knew that Solon was going, that he had his own path to find. She'd nodded and they clasped hands, she leaving behind her son, and he sending his out to find a destiny.'

"Have you talked to Gabrielle?"

"I don't think that would help." She knew it wouldn't help. Gabrielle wasn't the problem.

"Why not?" Solari hated having to pick and dig for information.

"It just wouldn't."

Solari blew a breath upwards, disturbing a hanging lock of hair. "Then talk to me. I can't stand seeing you like this."

"Like what?" Ephiny's tone hardened.

Solari had come too far to back down now. Somebody needed to say it - before something really nasty happened - and better it came from a friend in private than in a confrontation. "You're behaving like a petulant child at Solstice.

"I'm what!" Hazel eyes flashed in anger.

"You heard me. Somebody else has got something you think should be yours and you're behaving like a spoiled child, throwing brooding looks and making snarky comments. It's not very becoming."

Ephiny froze, her denial hanging unspoken on her lips as the truth in the statement slammed home.

Solari's voice gentled. "You're my best friend and watching you do this to yourself is eating me up inside. Ep and Catran too."

"Go. Just go." She was fighting hard to remain in control. "I need to think. Go."

Not knowing what else to say Solari nodded and started for the door before pausing and gripping Ephiny's shoulder in a gesture of solidarity.

A commotion from outside the newly repaired house prevented Ephiny from further contemplation and she made her way outside.

Riders. From the valley below them mounted riders were converging on the recovering village from two different directions. If something wasn't done they would be pinned between the advancing groups. After a split second of indecision she went in search of the Queen.

The Queen in question was halfway up a cliff, trying unsuccessfully to forget how high above the ground she was.

A small shower of sharp stones and gravel fell against her head as above her Solon lifted himself over the edge and into the cave. "Solon!"

"What?" Spotting the debris covering her head. "Sorry. Grab hold." Bracing himself against the entrance he threw down the rope, assisting Gabrielle.

Heaving herself over the edge her tired arms let go of the rope. She lay there trying to regain her breath as Solon moved to light the torch.

"Umm, Methryn."

"What." Sucking water from the skin.

"It's empty, gone." Distress and confusion were clearly evident in his voice. "It was here, it really was."

Moving to stand next to him she laid a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "I know." Walking back to the entrance she looked out at the beach. "I think we should rest awhile before climbing back down."

"You won't have to climb child."

Whipping around Gabrielle found a woman of indeterminate years regarding her warmly. The cave had taken on a soft glow and looked as Solon had originally described it. "Where's my son?"

"Safe. My words are for you alone." With that the woman moved to stand in front of her. Ageless eyes whose colour was beyond Gabrielle's ability to describe felt as though they were looking deep into her soul.

Bright music and dancing lights, a pattern of colours waving in the moonlight. Eyes of amber in unbearable pain, silver ones in anguish. Screams of the dead. Wooden masks with mud trampled feathers. Love and safety in eyes of blue. Water. Incredible pain, then floating as if in nothing, loss.

Apparently satisfied the Goddess - Gabrielle was sure that was what this woman was - released her and moved across the chamber to stand in front of the low dais. Shaken she tried to make sense of the images, sure their meanings hovered just at the edges of her mind, if she could only get them to hold still long enough.

Gabrielle waited for the Goddess to begin, noticing for the first time the detailed frescos lining one wall. Recognizing that the images told a story, she delicately ran a finger across the stone. 'Brighid, then seeing a quiver, this must be Artemis. The male figure to the left could only then be Bres.' Below and to the side two figures rested on funeral pyres and Gabrielle felt a sudden inexplicable sadness steal over her, and a tear ran unbidden down her cheek, only to be wiped away by a gentle hand.

"Will it turn out for them?"

"The tale is yet unfinished. I do not know for certain, but I think with such as you to stand for them, that yes, things will work out."

Gabrielle thought about this before replying. "What do I need to do?"

Gentle laughter wrapped around her. "What you've always done Little Queen, love."

"I don't understand."

"Come here." The Goddess' hand felt soft against the skin of her palm as she was led to the opposite wall. Words were cut deep into the rock, the symbols strange to her eye. Kneeling she stared at the pattern, unable to decipher its exact meaning.

"It's the prophecy Cairbre and Aine talked about isn't it?"

"It is." Gabrielle could have sworn she heard both joy and anger in the Goddess' words.

Two halves made whole, a sundered soul
Light from Darkness.
A Healed wound,
Destiny's Stone
Sword without Blade
The Arrow's Spear.
To Bind them all,
Unblooded Queen,
Above them all
The Shield.
She who was, will be.
Ard-Rian,
She who was, is.

"What kind of prophecy is that?" Gabrielle spoke without thinking. "I mean even Apollo's oracles are clearer than that is." The Amazon Queen watched confused as the other woman laughed so hard tears began rolling down her cheeks.

Gasping for breath the Goddess finally regained control over her ability to speak. "Who do you think wrote the prophecy?" She began laughing again, joined by Gabrielle.

When the laughter subsided for a second time Gabrielle spoke. " What does it have to do with what I'm supposed to do?"

The Goddess brushed a hand across her cheek, tilting Gabrielle's head so their eyes were again level. "It has everything to do with you, with who you are."

Something clicked. "The unblooded Queen is me."

Instead of an answer a light kiss was placed on her forehead, and when she opened her eyes she was standing on the beach below the cave. Thoughtfully she began walking in search of Solon and Xena, almost as an afterthought she glanced back up at the cliff, not surprised to find the entrance had vanished.

Having no way to judge how long she had been in the cave she hoped Xena hadn't gotten too worried about her. She really wished the warrior had be able to come with her, but for some reason if Xena got within sight of the cave the opening would just - vanish. Finally they had decided that she and Solon would go to the cave, while Xena waited out of sight with the horses. Gabrielle giggled, given the warrior's excellent vision, that had turned out to be quite some distance away.

 

Chapter Five

 

Plunk. Plunk. Splosh. Plunk.

Picking up another handful of beach stones Xena began methodically adding more rocks to the small tidal pool.

It was funny really - well funny in an annoying way - she supposed. Usually she was the one suffering from divine intervention. Plonk. Though when she thought about it some more, Gabrielle did have her own tendency to encounter various deities.

In fact before Gabrielle had become part of her life Ares was pretty much the only God she had had anything to do with, unless you counted that little incident with Poseidon.

Ares. Sploosh. Something about their last meeting kept niggling at the corner of her mind, but she couldn't seem to bring it into focus. Standing to stretch she took in the smell of the salt air, letting it sting her nostrils. In truth, she mused, this whole thing didn't feel quite right. There were too many holes, inconsistencies, and she sighed, Gods for her to be really comfortable with what was going on.

It just didn't make sense.

She'd caught Artemis watching them almost apologetically at odd moments during the voyage. Maybe it was time to have a chat with the Amazon Goddess and find out what was really going on.

Relaxing against a log she continued to let her mind drift, relishing the rare opportunity to be alone with her thoughts. Carefully she began to unwrap those things she had stuffed into the back of her mind. Once again she found herself thinking about her meeting with Ares.

He was right, she could feel it, feel the wolf inside stirring to life. Leaving Amphipolous had meant leaving the numbing blanket of her deal with Ares behind, exposing nerve endings and instincts raw from disuse. And yesterday amid the acrid smell of smoke and the tang of spilled blood she had felt her pulse quicken with desire. The desire to fight, to exact some measure of vengeance for the pain she had seen in Cairbre's eyes as he had carried his daughter from the ruins of her childhood.

And Gods help her she had liked it.

Craved it.

Maybe that was it, why she hadn't asked Artemis the questions that demanded answers, why she had let Aine's evasive half-truths go unchallenged. The newly reawakened part of her craved the adrenaline of the fight, of the planning and execution of complex tactical strategy.

Her first impulse yesterday had been to organize a strike team and track down those responsible. She'd been about to, then Gabrielle had begun organizing things and Xena had followed her lead.

For the briefest of instants she had hung undecided, then with a nod had accepted the role given her. Which brought up a whole different set of problems. Amazons. Artemis' little crack forced her to think about a subject she had for the most part ignored. Did she really want to be an Amazon?

As easily as the decision to follow Gabrielle had been to make, this one was easier still. Yes. As simple as that. Shifting uneasily in recognition of the complications likely to arise from that little admission Xena again began pitching rocks into the tidal pool, watching the ripples spread gently toward the edges.

The ocean voyage had been a much-needed respite from the tensions that continued to flow around the three of them. Problem was Gabrielle refused to see what was happening, and Xena was in no position to 'help' the other woman out. It was, after all her position that was the problem. Drifting her mind's eye replayed their first meeting.

"Something about me you find interesting?"

"Yes."

"Wanna tell me what it is?"

"No."

"Then quit staring at me before I rip your eyes out."

Hazel eyes had lingered on her blue ones a fraction too long, and by unthinking consent they had met later on the practice field. The younger woman had yielded only after exhaustion had set into overstressed muscles. Looking down she had quirked an eyebrow and drawled. "You're staring again." Drawing a saucy reply.

"So what are you going to do? Rip my eyes out?"

"Not hardly." Claiming a victor's kiss and gaining a friend.

One, she realized returning to the present, that she was sorry to lose.

 

Racing for the stone house Gabrielle had claimed Ephiny barely registered the presence of two Royal Guards who fell into step behind her. Entering the dwelling she found Aine waving her arms excitedly.

"Who is it?" Looking from face to face, none of which registered alarm, she relaxed allowing Aine's light-heartedness to reassure her.

"If I understand the gist of what Aine is trying to say." Catran favored the girl with a wry grin. "They're allies of some sort."

"Allies?"

"Not just any allies. You'll see." Aine grinned wickedly.

Cairbre heaved himself up from where he had been quietly listening to stand behind his sister. "Behave." The teasing admonishment was missing its' normally light tone, and the Bard looked haggard.

Unable to resist, Ephiny stuck out her tongue, "Ya, Aine, behave." During the time they spent together on the voyage Ephiny had come to appreciate the Gaelic Queen's sense of the absurd, realizing that what most mistook for feyness was front. It had, she thought looking back, been good to laugh again. Looking up at Catran she found herself being regarded thoughtfully, and felt a blush creep up her neck. Now what was that for. Giants balls, she must think...what? You and Aine. No way.

A knock at the door refocused the group's attention as a herald stood surveying the room's occupants, a parchment scroll in one hand. Seeing the quizzical looks the messenger added, "Pardon Queen Aine, but the warrior, she said to give this to Queen Gabrielle. I'm to await a reply."

Grinning Aine indicated that the scroll should be given to Ephiny. "You'd be wanting The Regent here then."

Not bothering to shoot Aine the dirty look she knew she was expecting Ephiny read the scroll through twice before reading it aloud.

 

"Beannacht and be welcome

We claim the right of coire ainsec.

Brighid's blessing on Beltane's Eve.

My sword as your sword, my blood to your hearth."

 

"Beltane's Eve? What's that?"

"That my dear Ephiny is only the most significant religious holiday of the entire cycle... well except for Samhain."

Catching the glint in Aine's eye Ephiny responded. "Ah. A party."

"Exactly."

Catran interjected. "Hel-lo, not that I'd object to a good party but could someone explain why exactly it takes two armies to celebrate a religious festival?"

Aine's grin grew wider. "Because on Beltane we crown the May Queen and then..." Her grin suddenly feral. "We party...on the blood of the Formori."

Catran, Solari and Ephiny looked at each other and then at the chuckling figure departing the room, then back at each other before letting their eyes come to rest on a mildly exasperated Bard.

Solari smiled sweetly and took his arm. "Now suppose you explain, just what in Tartarus that was about hmm."

 

Chapter Six

 

"We're playing with fire you know." Of course with Artemis nuzzling her neck it didn't come out at all as the deterrent she'd meant it to be.

"Playing is good." Playfully nipping Brighid's collarbone. Age old banter between them.

"That too." Pulling away to catch the Olympian's eyes. "But I was talking about our involvement with what's going on in the village."

"Championing Aine was...I believe...your idea." Artemis continued to trace lazy circles on her partner's abdomen, all the while chasing Brighid's lips.

"Work with me here, will you." Shifting onto her side, but maintaining the delicious contact with Artemis' gentle touch. "Beltane."

"And giving my Amazons an excuse to party is a problem... how?" Silver eyes held hers for a moment, adding layers to her words. "Oh. That might be a problem."

Brighid laughed. "Has anyone mentioned that you have a real gift for understatement?" Then sobering. "Do you think she's ready?"

"Yes. She has to be." As much wish as belief.

Brighid strolled along the cliff tops watching the small mounted party wend its way up from the beach on their way back to the village. Recognizing the slight figure nestled behind the taller warrior she altered her path in order to join them.

"Well met." Quirking an expectant eyebrow at the rider-less sorrel whose reins were being loosely held by Solon. "Going my way?"

"Horseback? Little conventional for you isn't it?" A matching eyebrow raised over eyes of blue.

Ah, so Xena had noticed her...umm glide, yeah that was it...glide. "Yes, well why walk when you can glide." Wiggling her bare toes. This earned a delighted laugh from Gabrielle. Taking the proffered reins from Solon she vaulted effortlessly into the saddle.

Feeling the ripple of powerful muscles shift beneath her weight a tingle of anticipation shot through her own muscles. Memories of another field and another time stirred. "Count of three?"

Picking up the cheeky, playful tone in the Goddesses' invitation Xena grinned and helped Gabrielle slide onto Solon's horse. 'She's playing with me. Not toying...playing.' It felt good. She stole a kiss for luck.

"Be careful."

"Gabrielle!"

"Gabrielle!" Two laughingly indignant responses a heartbeat apart. Reaching around Solon she grasped the reins and maneuvered his horse around to stand in front of and between the other two. Winking at Brighid as Xena looked down to pat Argo's neck, she stretched her arms out.

"One." Pause. "Two." And dropped her arms as Brighid let her mount course forward, a startled Xena following.

"Three." She handed the reins back to Solon and ruffled his hair. "C'mon, it's nearly lunchtime." Her stomach cheerfully seconded her as they set off toward the village.

Ducking through the low entrance to the Great Hall and making a beeline for the food table, Gabrielle swept her eyes around the room looking for her soulmate.

"You would think I'd have learned not to let you count down a race start by now wouldn't you?" The low contralto voice whispered into her ear before nibbling the lobe gently.

Taking Xena's hand she allowed herself to be steered to a vacant table. "What? You won didn't you?"

A smug grin confirmed the fact.

"Oh yeah she won. Shoulda seen the two of them come thundering up through the field. Thought Artemis was gonna have a heart attack." Eponin snorted. "Course when Xena caught sight of the army camped in the field below the village, looked like she was gonna have one too, ain't never seen a horse stop on a dinar before." She paused. "Come to think of it - I have seen a horse stop on a dinar, just usually the rider keeps going."

Gabrielle laughed. Eponin and Catran had sailed on their ship and they had had a chance to smooth the edges of an initially awkward situation, resettling into an easy friendship that had expanded to include the warrior. "Whoa. Army? What army?"

"Funny you should ask." Catran's eyes twinkled. "Your army."

"My army?" Gabrielle knew her eyes were wide with shock and she shook her head. "You must have me mixed up with tall, dark and gorgeous here. She does armies, I do treaties and stories."

Chuckles filled the air as her table mates couldn't restrain their laughter at the pained expression on Xena's face.

"What..." Colouring as the entendre registered. Xena couldn't hold back and her laughter joined the rest.

"Does this army have anything to do with why there's a huge pole being planted in the field?"

"Funny you should ask." Artemis winked at Catran as she slid into the seat next to the Amazon. "It's the Maypole."

"The Maypole?" Gabrielle shifted to look at Xena. "You've been giving them storytelling lessons haven't you?" Bringing a fresh round of laughter.

"Umm, yep Maypole. For the Beltane Fire and the May Queen." Artemis was trying not to let on how much she was enjoying teasing the normally eloquent bard, but nearly lost it when she looked up and saw Brighid approaching the group.

"What's a May Queen?"

"Not what, Gabrielle, who."

'Just go with it Gabrielle, just go with it.' Adding a teasing note of her own to her voice Gabrielle addressed the newly arrived Goddess. "Et tu? Alright I'll bite, who is the May Queen?"

Brighid wrapped her arms around her soulmate's shoulders and returned Gabrielle's smile. "You are." As they faded from view a parting comment lingered in the air. "And the army is for Xena, not you."

Green eyes met blue ones and she felt her heartbeat calm under her partner's reassuring gaze. "You know I hate it when they do that." Looking back at her friends she quipped. "See, I told you the army wasn't for me." A thoughtful expression stole across her face. "Wonder what I need a pole that size for?" She mused aloud.

Eponin's ale suddenly spewed across the table as she began laughing so hard she nearly fell off the bench taking Catran with her.

"You guys have way too much time on your hands." Feeling her face and neck go crimson.

"Nice colour love." Xena drawled. "C'mon, time to go find Aine and get some straight answers."

"Think about that statement for a minute Xena."

"Cairbre." They said in unison, leaving gasping, breathless Amazons behind.

 

Chapter Seven

 

Re-reading the missive from Meirneal an Dearg, her eyes lingered on a word. Gabrielle looked at Cairbre. "What does Ard-rian mean? You've called me it twice and now so does she."

"High Queen." Cairbre could almost see the Amazon Queen clicking pieces into place.

 

"To Bind them all,

Unblooded Queen,

Above them all

The Shield.

She who was, will be.

Ard-Rian,

She who was, is."

 

Gabrielle recited a piece of the inscription from the cave and proceeded to fill Cairbre in on the details of her earlier meeting with the older Irish Goddess.

Wonder filled Cairbre's face and his face took on an animation that had been missing since their return to Eire. "The Mother Goddess herself." His brow furrowed as he mulled over the implications of Gabrielle's meeting. "But..."

A knock at the door interrupted them. Xena moved across the workroom and opened the door, momentarily startled by the identity of the arrivals. "Nice timing, I think your Bard here was about to take at least one of your names in vain." Ushering the two Goddesses into the room. "Kinda conventional an entrance for you isn't it?" An aside pitched for Brighid's ear alone.

 

Gesturing to empty places around the hearth, she leaned in to whisper in her partner's ear. "I think if we are going to have the discussion I think we are that somebody is missing."

Gabrielle looked puzzled. "Who?" Taking in the serious tone and tensing of the warrior's shoulder muscles she knew and with a sickening clarity she understood what Xena was trying to tell her. 'By the Gods why didn't I see it before, oh Ephiny I'm sorry.' Quickly she dispatched a runner to find the Co-Queen as well as Aine and settled back against Xena, while they waited.

Ephiny was wiped. There were over 500 warriors gathered in the vale below the village and she was certain she had greeted each and every one of them personally. Twice.

Running her fingers through tangled blonde curls she glanced at her companion. "How do you keep that from tangling?" Indicating the long braid that hung below Aine's knees.

Aine grinned. "Magic."

"Well if you've got any of that Faeiry dust hanging around dust some of it my way willya." Finally managing to extricate the small twig that had lodged itself in the hair below her crown.

Laughing Aine reached over. "I don't know, if your hair wasn't all lovely curls where would you keep things like this?" Threading a posy through her curls.

Aine's movement had brought them within inches, and Ephiny could see the tiny pulse beating at the junction of the taller woman's throat. And then just as casually Aine stepped away and continued walking toward the village.

'Whoa. What was that? Lovely curls? Don't go there Eph.' Hurrying she rushed to catch up with the Gaelic Queen.

"Big pole." They were within sight of the village wall now and Ephiny watched with interest as a mixed group of Greek and Irish Amazons along with villagers and some of the visiting warriors finished erecting the Maypole and stacking the fire wood.

"Big party." Aine waved at a couple of the Amazons before continuing to speak. "After what they've just gone through and what's about to come they need it. We all do."

"My Queens." A slightly out of breath messenger which Ephiny recognized as Cat's niece Miribel ran up to them. "Queen Gabrielle sent me to find you." She paused in order to get the words right. Gabrielle had been especially insistent that she could repeat them back precisely. "She said to tell you that they are waiting for you in her quarters and that a chorus can't sing without all its voices."

Smiling to herself, she failed to notice the satisfied expression that had settled on Aine's face. "G'wan with you. Tell the Queen we'll be there in a minute. I need to grab something to eat first, she should understand that."

The young girl laughed and ran back the way she had come.

"Wonder what's up with that?"

Forgoing the opportunity to further tease her friend Aine replied seriously. "I think Gabrielle has just found out that she is about to become Ard-rian." Breaking into a mischievous grin she added. "And what the Maypole's for."

 Wiping the last of the crumbs from her bodice Ephiny followed Aine into Gabrielle's quarters, somewhat surprised to find the waiting group assembled almost casually around the hearth.

Artemis was leaning contentedly against Brighid, who had evidently just murmured something amusing to the younger Goddess. Unlike Gabrielle she hadn't been around the two of them as often and it still unnerved her a little to see how...mortal they really were.

To the left Gabrielle was animatedly relating some tale or other to Xena, Catran, Ep and Solari. The warrior injected a droll comment of her own and the small group broke into laughter which tailed off as Catran and Eponin spotted her, guilty looks flashing across their faces. Gods Eph, they feel guilty for what... laughing? No for laughing with Xena and Gabrielle. Solari caught her eye and she felt the weight of the stare.

Smiling she winked at Catran and was relieved to see her friend visibly relax as she dropped to the floor next to Solari. As Aine settled next to her brother the air in the room became charged with anticipation, even the two members of the council in attendance couldn't keep the curious glint from their faces.

With a start Gabrielle realized that everyone was looking at her. More questions than there were stars in the night sky zipped through her mind until she finally settled on one. "I get a new crown, Xena gets an army, what do you get?"

Silence wrapped the room as Artemis returned the Queen's piercing look with one of her own. Gabrielle noted the gentle squeeze of Brighid's hand against the other God's shoulder. Shards, I don't think I've ever seen her look so serious, and scared. She looks scared. What could scare a God?

"Married." Not the answer any of them had been expecting.

Nobody spoke, waiting instead for the Huntress to continue, until it became apparent, at least to Gabrielle that she wasn't going to.

"Did you teach her that?" Gabrielle accused Xena and received a - What? Who me look in return.

"Yes. Artemis and I will wed beneath the stones before the Beltane Fires."

"Why this Beltane? I mean it's been what three hundred years - give or take - why now?" Gabrielle was sure she had missed something.

Instead of Brighid, it was Ephiny who spoke. "I think I know." Handing Gabrielle the scroll she had received earlier. "Brighid's blessing on Beltane Eve. It's your festival right?"

"Not exactly." The Irish Goddess gestured to Cairbre. "Your turn."

Having watched Gabrielle enter 'story' mode Xena recognized the change in Cairbre's body language as he mulled over his words.

"The seasons follow one another in an unending wheel, just as day follows night, and light follows dark. Beltane marks the point on the wheel where darkness turns to light and the land returns to life. On Beltane the Goddess changes her aspect from Maiden to Mother, much like your Persephone and Demeter. On this day we celebrate the divine marriage that ensures the fertility of the land. It is the first day of summer; it opens the light half of the year. It is a celebration of youth, of love and fun, and the night of the Great Hunt."

"So it is your festival." Her brow wrinkled in confusion and looking at the others Gabrielle could see she wasn't alone.

"No. Technically speaking my festival was three moons ago, but we are not as..." Here her mouth quirked into a grin. "...specialized as the Gods you are used to, so yes I do have a part to play in tomorrow night's ceremony."

"Weird." Realizing what that must have sounded like she hastened to explain. "Not bad weird, just weird weird. You're my friend. I mean even though you're constantly fading in and out and stuff, I just forgot that there is like a whole land full of people who worship you." Her eyes widened. "You're as powerful as Artemis aren't you?"

"More." Came Artemis' sardonic response.

"Does that bother you Gabrielle?" Brighid looked concerned and didn't seem to notice the shocked awe on the faces of the council elders at the revelation of her identity.

"Is it supposed too?" The warm smile, which accompanied her jest providing Brighid's answer and the Goddess smiled back in relief.

"I'm glad."

"If you guys are finished with your sensitive chat..."

"Behave." Gabrielle poked Xena.

"I am. You would prefer I used the pinch?" Her comment lightened some of the tension in the room, although Sorcha was now regarding the group's irreverence with a mix of disgust and disapproval.

"I still don't understand why it has to be this Beltane."

Brighid and Artemis exchanged a long look letting Gabrielle's question hang in the air momentarily, then Artemis nodded slowly and fixed her gaze on the Amazon Queen. "It's kind of complicated, and not so much about the when as the what."

"Complicated. I can do complicated." Gabrielle exchanged knowing looks with her friends.

"Tell them love, they need to know." Artemis smiled wanly at Brighid's soft encouragement.

"After I wed Brighid I will lose my Godhood." Her voice sounded flat in her ears and she could hear the sharp hiss of intaken breaths that ran around the room.

"Why?" The question escaped before Gabrielle could stop herself.

Focusing on the wall in front and the feel of Brighid's warm presence behind Artemis continued. "You already know that each God has a symbol of office, a repository of their power."

Gabrielle nodded remembering both Hades' and Ares' little misadventures. "What's your bow got to do the wedding?" Confused she could have sworn she saw Artemis colour.

"Good guess, but as my brother would say...annhhh, wrong. My Godhood isn't symbolized by my bow, my Godhood lies in my virginity."

"But that means..." Gabrielle stopped embarrassed with the direction her question was taking her and feeling her own face flush. "Oh."

"That's why the Amazons had to leave Greece...I can no longer protect you there." Thankful that Gabrielle had dropped the virginity question and carrying on before anyone else could comment.

"How will you be able to protect them here if you're mortal?" The raised eyebrow and smirk conveying to Artemis that Xena was letting her off the hook by changing tacks.

"I won't be able to."

"But I will." Letting a little of her true nature shine into the room Brighid left no doubt that she meant it.

"Why do I sense a really big if hanging on the end of that statement."

"You don't miss much do you Xena?" Brighid asked

"No. And I suspect that's why I'm here." Blunt words

"Point." Brighid nodded her head at the warrior. "My power comes from the land and the people. Without their homage and belief I can no longer exist on the mortal plane. Unlike the Olympians you are used to, the Danaans cannot exist without a people to believe in us." Shooting a fond look at her partner before continuing. "Which tends to make us a little more responsible than our global counterparts. It also makes us more vulnerable."

Gabrielle had been content to allow Xena to ask questions while she mulled over the answers, but looking over at Aine's pale face she knew. "If the Formori destroy your people they destroy you."

"Yes." Sadness reflected in Brighid's silver eyes.

"It's a good thing we're here then isn't it?" Nods of agreement from the other Amazons accompanied her determined words. Xena, however, appeared not to be listening and the sudden tensing of the powerful thigh muscles next to her alerted Gabrielle that her partner was no longer an amused bystander to her question and answer period.

Xena didn't need to be told more, and what had been bothering her about her last conversation with Ares snapped into place. She leaned forward, her voice a menacing growl. "Wedding gift. Ares gave me to you as a wedding gift." Unexpectedly she found the thought that she had been used by Artemis hurt, and the rage that was her traditional response to betrayal thundered in her ears and she launched herself at Artemis.

"Xena! No!" Ignoring Gabrielle she landed a right cross to the slender brunette's jaw, her weight taking both of them to the floor.

"Some things never change do they?" Her presence seemed to fill the room as standing Brighid grabbed Goddess and warrior as if both were no more than small children, separating them. That she so easily handled the Olympian and the Warrior Princess was surprise enough, that she continued to hold them motionless without using her powerful frame shocked the room into silent awe. For the first time since meeting Brighid, her friends were treated to a glimpse of how powerful the Irish Goddess really was.

"Will you listen or do I have to hold you here?" Receiving a wary nod from Xena, Brighid released her. Maintaining her hold on Artemis she spoke quietly to her partner, who visibly relaxed as they spoke.

Shaking off Ephiny's restraining hand Gabrielle moved next to Xena, the warrior's anger tangible against the bard's skin. Pressing against Xena's back she was startled to feel Xena's muscles flinch at her touch before relaxing back against her. Looking down she could see the warrior's large hands clenched into tight fists, and knew that Xena's control over her temper was tenuous. She's not usually this volatile, come to think of it she has been fairly short fused since...well since we left the Valley.

Xena felt herself flinch at Gabrielle's touch, her senses on a hair trigger. C'mon Xena, it's not the first time you've been used by a God, breathe, just breathe. Deliberately she forced her muscles to contract and allowed herself to relax against her partner. Taking a deep breath, and unclenching her doubled fists, Xena crossed her arms and waited.

"I ah...that is....we" Artemis looked at Brighid as if to say -'C'mon here help me out'- receiving only a shake of fiery locks and a reassuring smile. "Look all my relatives each gave me one gift, that I could call in at anytime, I used Poseidon's to help get us here, Hecate's to guard those left behind..."

"Ares. What was Ares gift?" Xena cut the Goddess off.

"You not being able to wield a blade in battle." Even though she was a Goddess, Artemis stepped behind Brighid as the cords on Xena's neck became visible. "Which incidentally matched what he'd already planned for the deal you cut with him. Except..." Her words began to pour out in a rush, hoping the explanation would be finished before Xena lost her temper again. "...he screwed it up and you couldn't use any metal on anyone, which was limiting to say the least...so I used his gift to undo everything except the battle part."

"So you used one of your wedding gifts to undo a deal Xena made with Ares?" asked Gabrielle, successfully catching the warrior's attention.

"Exactly. I'm sorry Xena." Artemis stepped back around and faced the taller warrior. Conscious of the fact the room had gone silent again. Probably getting ready to have congestive heart failure. Meeting ice blue eyes with her amber ones, she held Xena's gaze.

She's right I cut that deal with Ares. Why am I so angry then? Because your pride lived in your scabbard that's why. Sometimes that little voice in her head could be sooo annoying. "Any particular reason I get an army then?" Curving an eyebrow and allowing a small grin to play at the corner of her lips.

"No some things just don't change." Brighid watched the two fondly, talking to herself.

Gabrielle heard Brighid's muttered comment and arched an eyebrow of her own, before deciding the room had had enough tension for a while. "So what exactly is the Maypole for anyway?" And was relieved when the room erupted into laughter.

 

Chapter Eight

 

The ship glided on in silence save for the soft gurgle of water under the sleek keel. Bres stood braced against the rail, knees bent to absorb the rocking motion of the ship. They were close, he could feel it. He would take them at the Beltane Fire, after all he was the Year King. He was though surprised that Brighid would chose now to hold the Great Hunt, the Danaans would be unable to prevent his forces from crushing the piddling mortals under their protection, and prohibited from attacking him directly there was nothing they could do to stop him.

The dark edges of land resolved from the fog and the crew scurried to prepare for docking. He looked to the dock and recognized the slim figure awaiting him. M'Grath. I hate him, I really, really hate him. When I finish with Artemis and Balor, you little man will die a slow and painful death. So slow it will take you several lifetimes to die.

Masking his thoughts he stepped away from the ship. "Are your people ready to ride?"

M'Grath nodded affirmatively and Bres swept past him. "Good. We leave at first light."

"My Lord, a moment please." Waiting for the Fir Bolg ruler to swing back around. "My sire sends a token of his...faith in your abilities."

Snatching the packet from the outstretched hand Bres removed the cloth wrapping and froze. Ruadan. Not allowing his panic to show, Bres casually tossed the cloak pin into the air, juggling it. "I see you've met my son. That ought to unbalance his mother nicely. Pity I hadn't thought of it, but then I guess that's why Balor is the King of the Formori." Not, he was certain, the response Balor or M'Grath was expecting.

Tossing the bit of jewelry into the air again he turned on his heel and made his way to the camp, already plotting how to best turn this new development into a decisive advantage. It really was, he mused, a pity he hadn't thought of it sooner. He couldn't wait to see Brighid's reaction. Oh, this was going to be fun. And M'Grath you will wish I'd only killed you when I'm done with you.

 

"You're mad at me aren't you?"

"You first clue would be what?"

"Bri please, talk to me." Artemis pleaded.

"You want me to talk to you. Funny that would involve exchanging information, something you seem either unwilling or unable to do. You lied to her Artemis, you out and out lied."

"What was I supposed to do? Tell her everything? Tell her that helping us already got her killed once? Tell her that I stole five years of her life? Tell her why I stole them?"

Brighid felt some of her righteous indignation evaporate under her mate's fierce onslaught. "No. I don't know. But you shouldn't have lied to her."

"I know."

I hate it when she does that. How can I argue with you when you admit you were wrong. Agghh. "Maybe you should go spar with her or something tomorrow." Maybe getting a chance to beat up on each other would patch up their relationship.

"Is black and blue a wedding colour in this country?" Artemis inquired.

"Any colour looks good on you cariad." Brighid teased back.

Settling into the bed next to Brighid she turned on her side to face her betrothed. Not really needing to sleep they had, non-the-less fallen into the habit of retiring at night along with their mortal companions. "Flatterer...So how long do you think it will take Gabrielle to find out what the Maypole is for?"

Brighid laughed. "I would say that depends on how long she's had the Warrior Princess alone."

 

"They dance around it? That's it?" Gabrielle looked into the smirking face of the warrior pinned under her. "Ugg. You are so gonna pay for that, warrior."

"Promise?" Swiftly twisting her back muscles and dislodging Gabrielle from her perch.

"Oh Yeah. I promise." Moving closer and allowing Xena to steal a kiss.

They lay quietly together savoring each other's company, content for the moment in their solitary thoughts.

A raven cawed breaking the silence, causing Xena's heart rate to accelerate under Gabrielle's circling hand.

"Whoa, love, it's just a bird. You've been wound tighter than a bowstring lately - what's up?" Trying to keep her tone curious instead of judgmental

What do I tell her? The truth idiot. Will you shut up already. Right. The Truth. "I don't know Gabrielle, its like for five years I was mostly numb and then when I left the valley..." Leaving unspoken the - when you walked back into my life. "...everything came rushing back, all at once." She waited for Gabrielle to say something, mildly surprised when the bard just motioned for her to continue. "I killed that man on the road. Snapped his neck. It felt...good, like something had been missing." This time Gabrielle did speak.

"I know."

"You knew? And you didn't..."

"Didn't what Xena? Leave? Lecture you? I'm not blind to who you are or who you were. I wasn't five years ago and I'm not now."

"But..."

"So help me Xena, if the next words out of your mouth have anything to do with your darkness and my innocence you are finally going to find out if an Amazon Queen beats a Warrior Princess." Gabrielle glared down, hands on hips, daring Xena to put her threat to the test. Softening her stance when Xena remained quiet she spoke. "I love you. All of you. Maybe you need to find a way to love yourself too."

"It's not that simple Gabrielle."

"Yes Xena it is. Have faith in yourself, in us." Settling down into the warrior's embrace. "Just remember to give Brighid back her army when you're done with it okay?" Surprising a laugh from a pensive Xena.

"Which brings up another point. How am I supposed to lead an army into battle if I can't use a sword?" Not really expecting an answer.

"Well actually, I have a theory about that."

"You do hmmm. Alright let's hear it." Gabrielle's speculations were nothing if not creative, comes of being a bard, thought Xena, rolling onto her side so she could watch the spark in Gabrielle's eyes as the excitement of relaying her theory infected her.

"Remember the prophecy from the cave? 'Two halves made whole, a sundered soul. Light from Darkness. A Healed wound, Destiny's Stone. Sword without Blade. The Arrow's Spear.' " Reciting the relevant portion. "What I think is that you are the Sword without Blade. Just like I'm the Unblooded Queen."

"And Artemis and Brighid are the two halves made whole. You could be right Gabrielle."

Privately Gabrielle had her own idea about just who the two halves of the sundered soul were, but decided with an inward giggle to keep her light - so to speak - under a bushel a little while yet.

 

Chapter Nine

 

The first rays of dawn were conquering the last of the nightís shadows and Xena watched spellbound as her partnerís hair took on the burnished glow of polished metal in the sunlight. Since that first morning back at the valley this had become her favorite time of the day. The comforting weight of the small body draped casually over hers, the strong rhythm of Gabrielleís heart beating against her chest, keeping time with the warriorís. Only in sleep was the bard motionless, and only the soft rise and fall of her back and the warmth of her skin gave evidence that she was even alive.

Not wanting to wake Gabrielle she remained where she was, content to allow the day to start slowly. And as always happened when her body was inactive, her mind began to roam over the bits and pieces of things she had filed away. She still believes in me. That she loved me- not a doubt, but that she still believes in me…it is that simple for you isnít Gabrielle? No quarter for doubt Ė just belief. But by Hades, an army, was that even a good idea? What are you up to Artemis?

The soft creak of wood rubbing against leather hinges returned Xenaís attention to her surroundings. "Morning Solon." A thump and a muffled oath as startled he dropped a boot. Drawing the blanket higher on Gabrielleís back she motioned him farther into the small bedroom.

If he was surprised to see Gabrielle using his mother as a pillow he didnít show it. "Morning."

"Do me a favour?" Gabrielle had suggested treating him like an adult, and she was pleased to note the happy surprise on his face when she asked instead of commanded.

"Sure."

"Put some water on to boil for tea, and if see if you can round up some fruit and bread for sleeping beauty here." Meeting Gabrielleís needs seemed to be the one safe area they had in common.

"No problem." He moved to the door and hesitated. "I...Iíll leave the tray out here on the table." He finished in a rush. Watching his body language Xena felt certain that that was not what he had originally intended to say. She realized that the next overture had to come from her.

"I have to ride down to meet with the new arrivals, interested?"

A smile and a nod. "Big time."

"Meet me back here in…" calculating how long to let Gabrielle sleep and then factoring in how long her partner would try to keep her abed "…two candlemarks." Solon smiled again and shut the door tightly behind him.

"Two candlemarks." A sleepy voice chimed in. "Whatever are we going to do that would take two candlemarks?" Gabrielle was using her most innocent tone.

"Youíre the bard with the imagination, Iím sure youíll think of something." And just in case she couldnít Xena moved her head and planted a trail of feathery kisses along an exposed shoulder to help in the creative process.

The bard proved her usual creative self and Xena gladly surrendered the next candlemark to her passionate mate. This was the warrior's second favorite time of the day - that special span of time and space after their lovemaking in which only the two them existed, joined by a deepening connection. A time when they would laugh and talk, sharing bits and pieces of who they were and what they thought. It was, thought Xena, something she'd never expected to find, or believed she even deserved. To think I let my pride rob me of this once.

"You're not by any chance brooding about deserving happiness are you?" A soft inquiry that was accompanied by the gentle motion of hands over exposed skin.

Startled, Xena looked at Gabrielle, concern apparent in the gold flecked green eyes that seemed to reach deep inside her, gathering the truth before Xena could deny it. "Are you sure you're not telepathic?"

Gabrielle laughed. "No. Sometimes with you I wish I were, but no. You get this…" and she traced her finger over the muscle in question. "…dimple here, and your breathing goes shallow, whenever you think about the past, or about not deserving something you have."

"Oh." Xena thought about that for a minute, taking an unexpected comfort from the revelation that her soul mate was that in tune with her moods and nervous habits. "Actually, I wasn't brooding so much as appreciating this." Sweeping her hand to indicate the two of them.

Nestling deeper into the warrior's shoulder, Gabrielle allowed a smile to curve her lips. "I know. Sometimes it seems as if we've never been apart, and I wonder how we ever allowed pride and misunderstanding to nearly steal it away from us."

"It wasn't the first-time, but I promise it was the last." Fierce words that were both promise and oath. It was in these quiet conversations that they healed the damage from the past, coming to grips with the choices they had made in the intervening years and moving past them to plan for their future.

"Do you think it would have worked between us then?"

She thought about how to answer that for a minute, debating whether to give Gabrielle the answer she had arrived at brooding over the question on her own, or a pat reassuring one. It all comes down to trust though - doesn't it Xena? Wrapping her arm securely around Gabrielle's shoulder, holding her close, she answered. "No. Maybe for a while it would have, but I would have hurt you eventually."

Gabrielle angrily shifted and began to speak, defending her partner. "You would…"

Placing a finger gently against Gabrielle's lips, Xena quieted her upset friend. "Shhh love, hear me out. Not physically no, but out of sheer ignorance and intensity…I think you might have begun to chafe under my being in control all the time." She kissed the bard's forehead while thinking about her next words. "You asked me once if you were who you were or who I 'd made you."

"You told me I was Gabrielle, Bard, Amazon Princess, Best Friend, that all those things were already in me." She wasn't sure where this was going but she smiled in encouragement.

"And asked where would I be without you? I know now it was possible for me to keep my promise - I didn't become a monster and even if I did cut a deal with Ares, as a healer I made a difference in some peoples lives. You got to be an Amazon Queen, you…" she gentled her tone, "…couldn't have become the leader you are under my shadow. You wouldn't have had the chance. We're not hero and sidekick anymore, we needed the time to become equals." Xena drew Gabrielle's face closer to her own. "We learned what it meant to live without each other, and I don't want to go through that again. You…balance…me." Punctuating each word with a soft kiss.

The bard paused before replying "Like we couldn't appreciate what we had without something to compare it too, until it wasn't there anymore." Xena didn't tell Gabrielle that she had had lots to compare it too, and had known even then that with the bard it would be as good as it got, that no one would match her the way Gabrielle did.

She just smiled. "Something like that." The angle of sunlight streaming through the cracks in the caulking told her that she would need to get up soon if she were going to be ready in time.

"So warrior mine, what's up for today?" Gabrielle had followed the line of Xena's sight and recognized the lateness of the hour. Inwardly smiling, lateness was a relative term, she was sure that most everyone else was still abed and asleep.

Hearing the faint rumblings of hungry stomachs, she patted the bard's abdomen and rolled nimbly from beneath the covers. She swiftly made her way to the door before Gabrielle interrupted her progress. "Xena?" She turned, brow raised curiously. "Don't you think maybe you should put something on?"

"I suppose." One elegant brow furrowed in confusion.

"Solon. Remember him? Tall kid, killer smile."

"He's been and gone, and…" She triumphantly scooped a tray from the wooden table, noting that Solon had brought enough food for two and laid out the herbs for tea. "left breakfast. As for what's up, I invited Solon to join me down at the camp." Balancing the tray and the water pot she rejoined Gabrielle on the bed.

"Ooh, I like these." Poking around in the basket, Gabrielle liberated another chunk of fried dough and added it to the apple already on her lap. "I'm glad you two will get some time together, but that brings up another problem."

"What's that?" Xena bit into the apple, savoring the explosion of sweet juice over her tongue as the crisp outer skin ruptured.

"He can't stay here with us, I meant to talk to you about it yesterday but with everything else I never had a chance." Not that she'd tried really hard, wanting to keep him around as long as she could. Their relationship had altered subtly since the revelation that Xena was his mother, and Gabrielle was reluctant send him away until they had had more opportunity to spend time together. "This is still an Amazon village, he needs to go down to the town."

"This is part of treating him like an adult isn't it? But dammit Gabrielle he's just a boy."

"He's very nearly a man, he would be undergoing his ritual this summer solstice if we were still at home." Solon was, she knew, still stuck at ten in her partner's eyes and only time would change that. "If it's okay with you I talked to Cairbre, Solon can stay with him, Cairbre's up here a lot anyway so it would give Solon someone to travel with and I think it would be good for both of them." She crossed her fingers, hoping she hadn't been too presumptuous.

In the short-time they'd been in Eire, parenting issues had yet to arise and so still hadn't been discussed. Gabrielle could see the muscles along Xena's jaw working, as the warrior mulled over the situation. Solon had, for the most part, fended for himself since their arrival, sharing first their campsite and then the newly repaired stone house Aine had assigned them. Xena had been giving the boy space and room, allowing him to set the pace of their relationship, which she had to admit seemed to be working itself out - and the rare occasions he needed to be set straight that duty had fallen to her, Xena deferring to the bard on matters of discipline.

Xena nodded. "Its pretty much what he's used too anyway."

Now for the tough part. Gabrielle took a deep breath. "I want you to tell him."

The warrior stopped chewing and just stared at her, incredulous, and judging by the look in her eyes scared. "Oh, no bard o'mine, that definitely falls under the aegis of the Amazon Queen."

The morning air was still crisp and cool, and the steaming breath of the horses hung fog like in the air. How in the name of Ares did I let Gabrielle con me into doing this. You know damn well, she said please, and you caved. You're right about one thing though love, he is nearly a man. "Solon, I need to talk to you about something."

Curious blue eyes the same shade as her own, met hers as their owner waited for her to continue.

Nudging Argo around Xena moved so that she could look at him without either of them turning their heads. "You know Teamhair is an Amazon village right?" She hoped he would put it together himself, she didn't want to tell him that he couldn't live with them, didn't want to seem to be rejecting him.

"I know. There's a separate town where the men live and some of the women too. Cairbre lives there. Why?" A funny looked passed across his face as the answer to his question registered. "Oh."

One small word and it tore at Xena's heart. It was time to choose, a lifetime of putting her fears before her son, or in the here and now choosing her son over…Gabrielle. No. it wouldn't be him over Gabrielle at all, not all or nothing, Gabrielle would understand, and since Solon had often visited Arborea overnight, there really was no reason to think that something similar couldn't be worked out - was there? No. no reason she could think of, and with warfare looming on the horizon, perhaps it was best that she stayed with him a while. Settled then. Feeling better, she smiled. "Exactly. So you've got some choices to make. One, you can stay with Cairbre or two…" she drew a deep breath, "…I can move into Caerdroia with you."

He looked thoughtful. Not quite the reaction you were expecting was it? What and he's supposed to fling his arms around you and the wounds of fifteen years will magically heal? Wishing the little voice in her head would give her a break she waited tensely for Solon's answer.

"What about Gabrielle? I mean she has to live in the Amazon village right?"

"Yes she does. But I'm not an Amazon."

He shook his head smiling at her. For the first-time since he had found out that she was his mother, his smile reached his eyes, and it lit his face in a way that brought to mind an uncle he would never know. "Not yet anyway, I think Methryn's got plans for you in that regard. If it's okay with you I'd like to live with Cairbre, I can still come up to Teamhair and it won't be much different from when I lived with father. Besides, if we both moved out who would keep the Queen fed?"

She laughed. "You sure?"

"Yes. And nothing says you can't come stay with me sometimes. Cairbre told me that things are a little different here than home. The women who choose to be Amazons live in Teamhair, but they maintain close ties to the village, and some women move between the two depending on their ages and interests. It allows them, he said, to be who they are without losing their families and choices. I get the feeling listening to him that gender doesn't play as large a part in dividing up roles here as it does back home, so the Amazons here can afford closer ties with their men folk. That's why Cairbre's daughter had Right of Caste, even though she was born in Caerdroia."

They continued to chat about the things he had learned on the voyage over, and Xena realized her son truly had a gift for words. Maybe going to live with Cairbre would be a good thing for Solon, after all. "Solon, I want you to see everything you can, and later we'll talk about what you saw and what your impressions were, okay?"

"What am I looking for?"

"Nothing and everything. You watch the flow of things, feel the undercurrents that let you know if the soldiers have high or low moral, or if they're lacking discipline, try to see the bigger picture, but observing the bits and pieces. It's one of the things Gabrielle did in order to gather the material she used to weave stories."

When she saw him nod in understanding she turned her own attention to the encampment. Pausing, she looked over at Solon. "Does Gabrielle still tell stories?" A guilty look flashed across his open features before he could bury it, intriguing her.

"Yes, 'specially at festivals and she makes time for the young ones every sevenday or so. Why?"

"Aren't you just full of questions today?" Taking a chance she reached over and ruffled his hair, pleased when he grinned in return. "C'mon lets go inspect your Methryn's new army."

 

Chapter Ten

 

"So you think you can do it?"

"Ayuh. When?" The carver's hands never stopped moving over the wood, fingers expertly guiding the blade even as her eyes were focused on the Queen.

"Tonight."

"It's that important to you then?"

"Yes. Things have been unsettled enough, it's time to make a few things clear to everyone." Gabrielle continued to watch in fascination as a face took shape from the piece of wood in Ara's hands. Ara deftly smoothed a couple of edges and reached for a paint brush, adding twin swipes of green to where the eyes would be.

Inserting the neck piece into a battered linen body, nimble fingers tied off the ends of the cord before cutting them even with a small knife.

Gabrielle reached for the doll. "May I?" Ara carved the ceremonial masks for the Amazon Nation and the Queen had long admired her workmanship, but it was only in seeing the carver produce this small toy that Gabrielle realized the source of various wooden knick knacks and toys that had gone to the residents of the nearby village after a flood had nearly wiped it out last Solstice. "It's beautiful, but why green?" Pointing at the eyes.

Ara looked directly into her eyes, "You're right, needs a little of this." Dabbing a hint of gold into each eye, and smearing the paint slightly so that the two colours layered each other. Holding the doll up next to Gabrielle's blushing face, she gave a satisfied snort, before turning to call one of the nearby children. "You Lara, run this up to young Seli, will you?"

The artisan moved over to a low workbench and picked up a large cloth wrapped bundle. "Tonight it is then. It happens you're not the first to think of it and I've got something here that might suit." She sat the bundle in front of Gabrielle and motioned for her to remove the wrapping.

Gabrielle gingerly unwrapped the bundle, letting the soft cloth fall onto the table with a low exclamation as she saw what the cloth had concealed. It was perfect. Picking it up and rotating it, she marveled that the carver had so perfectly captured her soul mate. The mask was unlike any other Amazon mask she had ever seen, but then her soul mate was unlike any other Amazon. Even the feathers seemed to suit Xena, they had been dyed a deep blue along the edges, highlighting the darker wooden mask perfectly. "It's perfect. But when did you…" she stopped as Ara shook her head negatively.

"T'wasn't me my Queen. It was Xenan, he said it was a gift to Solon and to you." Ara took the mask from the Queen and returned it to its wrapping.

Gabrielle was so surprised that she didn't even realize she was no longer holding the mask or that Ara had moved back outside. She'd found time to talk to Xenan before they'd left, and explained as best she could why she and Ephiny were no longer together. He'd looked confused and sad and she'd held him until he'd cried himself out, then they'd talked about it some more until he'd understood that she didn't love him any less and that she would always be his methryn. It had been hard leaving him and Gabrielle had worried that his hurt would turn to anger and she'd lose another relationship she valued.

Drawing herself from her reverie, Gabrielle stepped outside the craft hall and set about phase two of her plan, mind lighter due to Xenan's gift. Now, if only his mother were as forgiving. No that's not fair and you know it, both of you are to blame for this. Still, the smile refused to leave her lips and she went in search of the Co-Queen.

Ara watched the Queen leave, wincing at the out of tune melody she was whistling. "Nice to see there's at least one thing her Majesty can be bested at." Her smile and the friendly shake of her head revealed the comment for jest, not malice.

"And what would that be?" Ara turned to see the Amazon Goddess leaning nonchalantly against the door frame.

"For a bard, the Queen couldn't carry a tune if'n someone put it in a basket for her. What can I do for you?"

Artemis appeared to be listening intently to something and then smiled at the carver as she in turn winced. "You're right she gives dissonance a whole new meaning." Moving fluidly she came to stand next to Ara. "I need you to make a mask."

Ara looked over in surprise. "A mask. This'n wouldn't be for the Consort as well would it?"

It was Artemis' turn to look surprised. "Is that what Gabrielle was here about?" Well, well maybe I won't have to push that idea at all.

"Yes, and the mask is already done, so you needn't worry." Although it seemed to her that if a God wanted an Amazon mask, she ought to just be able to snap her fingers and boom, there it is.

Artemis leaned in conspiratorially. "Actually, it's for the Queen."

Ara started. "When would you be needing this mask of yourn then?" Couldn't anybody in this village plan ahead?

"Tomorrow. This is what it should look like." Artemis unfurled a drawing and passed it to Ara. "Can you do it?"

Tracing a finger over the crisp, precise lines on the parchment, Ara thought she recognized the style and looked shrewdly up at her Goddess. "You've been talking to Xenan haven't you? This is similar to the mask he carved for the Warrior Princess."

Artemis smiled, not taking offense with the artist's curiousity, but shook her head. "Not me, Brighid, she thinks he may become one of the greatest artists Greece has ever produced, you taught him well."

She flushed at the compliment. "I taught him naught, he merely needed a place to practice with his hands the things his heart already knew."

Bestowing a fond look at the craftswoman, Artemis lowered her voice. "It is in recognizing that which makes you a great teacher and he owes you much. You make wonderful masks in your own right. The mask you made to replace the one destroyed by Velaska is beautiful, but a new mask is needed. Can you do it?"

Taking a last glance at the drawing spread before her, Ara nodded. "Yes."

Keeping in mind how uncomfortable mortals were with her abrupt departures and arrivals, Artemis left via the low door, waiting until she was out of sight before vanishing.

Leaving the craft hall, Gabrielle took the time to study Teamhair. The village was unlike any she had seen before, the houses were all stone or a hardened clay she had heard called daub, and each was topped by a sturdy thatched roof. Those things were common enough in any village, but what set Teamhair apart was its layout. Walking through she had realized it was laid out in a wheel, with the Great Hall the center of the hub. Well kept lane ways acted like spokes, with dwellings arranged neatly in the triangle slices between them. You could, she realized quickly get anywhere in the village by cutting across the spokes or by travelling along the rim. Nice.

At the end of each lane way was a large hall, all of which were joined one to another by a stout series of fences, completing the circle. Something occurred to her and she wondered of her partner had realized the same thing. They should have been able to hold off an attack by anything except an army with siege engines, we have more than Bres and the Formori to worry about. Mulling this over she didn't see the small figure exiting the healer's hall until it was too late.

Ephiny looked up at her from amid the parcels and packets she had been carrying. "Morning Gabrielle." She said wryly.

Gabrielle smiled as she stooped to help pick the spilled treasures from the ground. "I was hoping to run into you this morning, but this isn't quite what I had in mind."

Gabrielle easily read the worried look that the announcement she had been looking for her Co-Queen caused in the older woman, and waited patiently for Ephiny's response. "Really, and I thought you always ran people down to get them to sit still long enough." So, Eph was going to go the humour route. Warriors.

"Want to take a walk? I'd like to go take an up close and personal look at this Maypole I keep hearing so much about." There, non-threatening, a little light humour, works for me.

"Sounds like a plan." Casting a sly look at Gabrielle. "So how long did it take you to find out what it's for anyway?"

"Half a candlemark." They were approaching the gate that opened into the field where the Beltane ritual would take place and had in the process acquired four Royal Guards, two for each of them she supposed. "So who won the pool?"

"Brighid."

They both laughed and walked in silence for a bit, each aware of the issues between them, but trying for a small space of time to just enjoy each others company before delving into matters that might lead to irreconcilable positions.

They were about half way to where the new army was camped before she found a place to sit that she thought looked peaceful enough. With subtle hand signs, Gabrielle instructed the guards to back off and allow them space. It had taken the whole of the first year she'd been Queen to get accustomed to being guarded, babysat was how she'd termed it, and had come up with a working arrangement that saw her only use the Royal Guard in emergencies and on formal progresses. She sighed, having them hanging all over her again was going to take some getting used too.

In the distance if she listened closely she could just make out the sounds of an army being put through its paces, the faint metallic clang of swords coming together rose and fell on the morning breeze. Hope you're having more fun than I am, love.

Returning her attention to the matter at hand, she addressed Ephiny. "This has got to stop."

To her credit Ephiny didn't pretend not to know what Gabrielle was talking about. "I know." She grabbed a handful of the river grass and began methodically shredding the blades. "I just…it's that…oh Hades Gabrielle, I don't know what it is exactly, but sometimes I get this…I don't know…ache, I guess, and then wham, Xena and I are at each other again."

"I think you do know, and for what it's worth I'm sorry. I've handled the whole thing badly." A shot in the dark, but from what Xena had said yesterday, probably a good one. Gabrielle continued. "Everything is all muddled, there is no clear power structure, everyone is confused, not just you, and now with coming here, everything is even more unclear, there's no one clearly in charge."

The startled expression Ephiny wore told Gabrielle, she'd hit the target, if not the bulls eye. Deciding not to press further just yet, she fell quiet, letting Ephiny digest her words.

She watched with growing concern as tears began sliding away from hazel eyes, spilling onto the ground. As Gabrielle was trying to decide whether or not to say something to reassure her friend…my friend, even with everything, I still consider her a friend, Good. I needed to know that…Ephiny wiped the tears from her cheeks with the back of one callused hand and broke the silence on her own.

"So much has changed. I'm not sure where I fit in anymore. Not sure what my role is or who I am. It's hard when you watch somebody else filling up the spaces you used too."

Ah, this is about more than just Xena and I, or even about the Right of Caste. Spouse, sons and title, how must it feel to have everything change at once? How would I feel if I lost everything? I don't want to know, I've just gotten the most important part of myself back, I don't even want to think about losing her. I'm sorry Eph. She reached over and pulled Ephiny in for a hug, holding her while she cried. "I miss him too."

Ephiny looked over and saw genuine grief reflected in her eyes. "I think Solon misses him the most. I know I did the right thing leaving him, but it hurts knowing that here in this land I could have spent more time with him."

"He has a destiny of his own to fill, and he can't fulfill it here, the Centaurs need their Prince." She took a calming breath. "And I need my Co-Queen and my friend. I miss you, miss our talks."

"Me too. So what's your plan?"

"What makes you think I have a plan?" Ephiny just continued to look her straight in the eyes and she felt a grin quirk at her lips in spite of herself. "Okay so I have a few ideas, its not perfect, but in trying not to hurt anyone's feelings or step on toes, I've let everything get muddled, so I think it's best to formalize a few things."

"Go on." Ephiny really was curious, Gabrielle was an accomplished negotiator and had often brokered treaties in situations where all out war seemed to be the only possible outcome. Her solutions were usually as creative and unique as she herself was.

"First…" She held up a hand and ticked a finger. "…we need to divvy up some responsibilities so that every one is clear that we are both in overall charge but that takes advantage of our individual strengths."

Ephiny nodded, that made sense. "So what, you do treaties, legal stuff and that sort of thing?"

"Exactly, and you'll be responsible for overseeing the mechanics of things like food distribution, festivals, a lot of the daily details, except for the elder's council and you don't like dealing with them anyway. Any major stuff we can meet on before we decide. I'd like to change the primary council structure a bit and make the monarchy more like a parliament, with each member in charge of a specific portfolio and we'll just oversee and coordinate everything. But…" and here Gabrielle smiled. "…given the nature of our charges, we'd make it clear that our word was final, and that between us we would approve all policy."

"That would clear some of the confusion and given the huge numbers of people it makes more sense than the way we've been doing it. But I have a question for you." Ephiny wasn't sure if the omission of the martial aspect of the Amazons was left out deliberately or if Gabrielle just hadn't gotten around to it yet.

The warriors, she's going to ask about the warriors. She steeled herself for the expected question but Ephiny surprised her.

"What's second?" Holding up two fingers.

Gabrielle thought the whole valley could hear her exhale in relief. "Second, I'm going to turn over village defense and warrior training to Xena. She will also be in charge of any offensive forces we mount." She waited for Ephiny's reaction.

The curly blonde head was bowed in thought, so Gabrielle added some more information. "Exactly what that looks like will depend on Aine and how we decide to combine the two halves of the Nation, but I think it's the best solution for us all."

"What about Pony and Solari?"

"Solari will remain Captain of the Guard and Pony will still be weapons master, but those will fall under Xena's overall command, much like Agatha will still be our chief healer, but in terms of receiving supplies, requisitioning extra labour or apprentices she would come to you."

"You know, Gabrielle, that might work, there's just one problem that I can see."

She allowed the relief she felt to flood her voice and face. "What's that?"

"Xena's not an Amazon." Ephiny was pretty sure where this was headed but hey, might as well have some fun.

"That's the third thing." She lowered her voice, hoping that if she spoke softly enough it would lessen the impact of her words. "I intend to announce that it's my intention to court a Consort and that means making Xena an Amazon."

Here it was, the moment of truth, with her next words Ephiny would either continue to mend her relationship with Gabrielle or destroy it. The choice was surprisingly easy. "Good. You two really do belong together, I'm glad things worked out for you guys."

Gabrielle knew how hard it was for Ephiny to say that out loud and hugged her friend. "Thanks Eph. Now if I can just get the Warrior Princess to agree to become an Amazon Princess."

Ephiny looked surprised. "You haven't asked her yet?"

Sheepishly, she answered. "Umm not exactly no. I mean I asked her to join with me and stuff, but in a general way."

"When exactly are you planning this announcement?" Ephiny was laughing.

"Tonight."

"Tonight?"

"Yep. And here's what I need you to do." Glancing to make sure no one could over hear them she laid out her plan.

 

Chapter Eleven

 

The door to the Great Hall was open so Solon stepped into the dark interior, hoping to find Cairbre. Moving into the room he could see the Bard and Queen Aine facing each other. It looked like they were arguing except there were no words. Lots of angry looks and hand movements but no sounds. He cleared his throat. "Is this a bad time?"

They turned to look at him, moving in unison, then looked at each other and started to laugh.

Must be a twin thing. His eyes fell on a scroll pinned to the large table with an ornate silver knife. "Hey, what's that?"

"That would be an invitation to dinner."

Aine swatted her brother. "Don't make it sound like you're on the menu."

"Aren't I?" Pulling the dagger from the table, passing it to Solon, who examined it closely, fascinated by the detailed images dancing over the hilt and blade. "And that would be my dinner knife."

"Cairbre." Aine was grinning at Solon.

"What?"

"Behave." She ducked behind Solon just in time to avoid Cairbre's attempt at digging his fingers into her ribs and tickling her, causing the Bard to get tangled in his own feet as he tried to avoid knocking Solon over.

Cairbre glared up at Aine from the floor, waiting for Solon to untangle himself and let him up. "You've just been dying to say that to me haven't you?" Extending a hand for help up.

With an oomph, Aine landed on top of Solon and all hell broke loose as she dug into the back of Cairbre's knee with skilful fingers and the Bard got Solon's mid-section in a misguided attempt at tickling his sister. Before long, they were a thoroughly enmeshed pile of limbs and cloaks, laughing so hard they were crying.

"Is this a private party or can anyone join in?"

Solon broke free at the sound of his mother's voice and looked backwards at the solemn figure looking down at them. Oh oh, she's still in Warlord mode. It had been incredible watching her assess and work the troops, she had changed before his very eyes as she strode across the encampment to meet the troop commanders.

The easy humour and relaxed posture had evaporated, replaced by an easy arrogance and nearly inscrutable mien. Power radiated from her and she'd even seemed…bigger…, every eye had been drawn to her, every man and woman in the camp had stopped what they were doing and just watched her walk up to the commander. Observing this meeting it had struck him that she wasn't accepting command of the new forces, she was taking it.

Only once had someone questioned her lack of steel, and challenging him and ten others, his mother had quickly proven that lethal was as lethal does, and in her case it had little to do with wielding a sword.

Remembering this as he continued to meet her pale eyes, Solon swallowed nervously, his own eyes searching for traces of his mother in the warlord. "I..ah..we…" he stammered.

Aine broke in. "We were playing. Except it seems that sonny boy here isn't ticklish, got any ideas?" She studied Xena carefully, seeing the wolf front and center. But even wolves play with their cubs. Mesmerized, she watched as the warrior consciously relaxed her stance and softened her expression, until only her eyes belied the intensity of the after effects of the morning.

"Really." Xena drawled and pounced on her son, pinning him against Cairbre. "Here hold his hands."

"Mother…please no..umghh…ahh…uncle…uncle." He twisted furiously, trying to evade her long slender fingers.

Relenting she sat back on her thighs. "Nope, still seems ticklish enough to me."

"You don't play fair." He was laying on his back, gulping air, grinning.

"You live with Gabrielle and you think I don't play fair?"

"Did I hear my name?" They looked over and spotted an amused Amazon Queen. "Just the people I was looking for." She moved next to Xena. "You guys get everything sorted?"

"That's what we came in to do, still want to live with Cairbre?" Receiving his confirming nod she looked next at the Gael. "Still okay with you?"

"Yes." He had dusted off his trews and was in the process of untangling his cloak.

"Then everything's sorted." Xena had also regained her feet, and after helping Aine and Solon to their feet had wrapped an arm casually around Gabrielle's waist.

"Good. We can have the fostering ceremony tonight then." Exchanging, what Xena thought was a conspiratorial wink with Aine, Gabrielle continued. "Aine, have you got a candlemark or so to meet with Ephiny and I, we've got some logistical details we should sort out before much more time passes."

Now Xena was definitely suspicious, the bard didn't use that many words and say nothing unless she was hiding something. No matter, I'll get it out of you later anyway My Queen - you're really not very good at keeping secrets. Her thoughts were interrupted as she realized Gabrielle was talking to her and Solon again.

"…Why don't you two go and get Solon packed and moved down to Caerdroia?"

Capitulating Xena nodded agreement and surprised Gabrielle by kissing her soundly before leaving with Solon.

 

 

As Gabrielle looked down the table at the remnants of the evening meal she studied the seating arrangements, amused at the pairings that were beginning to sort themselves out, and feeling smug for an entirely different reason as she watched Xena laugh at something Solon said to Catran.

The sun had set and full dark was upon them, the only light coming from the evenly spaced torches which ringed the dais they were seated on and which continued in a ring around the lower tables. Studying the flame light reflected back from her soul mate's dark locks Gabrielle felt her chest tighten. Gods, she's beautiful. I love you Xena.

As if she could her the bard's words, pale eyes captured hers and suddenly they were alone in a hall full of people. She could count the beats of her heart as time slowed and she lost herself in Xena's eyes, communicating with her own everything she felt. And when Xena mouthed, "You are the Queen of my heart.", the sudden burst of warmth that wrapped itself around her heart, told her clearer than any words could have that she was home. That she had made the right choices and she was home.

Suddenly Gabrielle couldn't stand it anymore and she rose to her feet, needing to make tangible her feelings and her love for the warrior.

The room fell into silence as the mixed group of Irish and Greek Amazons waited to hear her. Taking one last look at Xena, she moved her chair back a little more and prepared to speak. Aine and Ephiny joined her, standing to her left, leaving vacant space on her right for the Queen's Champion.

Thankful for the shipboard Gaelic lessons she let the words roll from her tongue in the fluid language of her new homeland. "Tonight we gather in the shadow of Beltane Eve to join two nations as one." Meeting as many eyes as possible, excluding no one. She introduced herself and Ephiny, then her council, waiting while Aine did the same with hers. Gabrielle then introduced the two army commanders who had joined their ranks. Meirneal an Dearg and Anfa Marcach weren't entirely unknown and many good natured greetings were called out across the crowed hall.

Excitement hung in the air like another invited guest, and as the women and scattered male guests realized that the three monarchs had an amiable working relationship, the earlier edginess vanished from the room, leaving a celebratory atmosphere behind.

Waiting for the din to settle some what she moved to the next phase of the ceremony. "As we join our two nations so too do I join my house, through the fosterage of my son, to the house of Scathach." Solon and Cairbre moved to the floor in front of the dais, Aine and Xena each descended to stand next to them. "Cairbre ac Ethlinn mab Scathach, will you teach, respect and protect, holding dear his life above your own, he who is placed in your care this day?" They'd had to alter the ritual a little given that Solon was no longer a child.

"I, Cairbre ac Ethlinn mab Scathach, do so swear."

"Who vouchsafes, his commitment to do so?"

"I, Aine ap Ethlinn mab Scathach, Queen of the House, do stand witness for my house.

"Solon Mac Liuth, will you learn what is taught, respecting and honouring your teacher?"

"I, Solon Mac Liuth, do so swear."

"Xena of Amphipolous, do you accept the oaths for the care of your son?"

"I, Xena of Amphipolous, do accept the oaths."

"I, Queen Gabrielle do stand witness for my house the joining of my family to yours, let it be henceforth known that Solon Mac Luith may claim by right of fosterage royal privilege in the House of Scathach, and that by duty the House of Artemis swears to uphold the rights of the House of Scathach, taking said house to kin. May the Goddess Bless."

She smiled and waited for Solon and Cairbre to retake their seats, motioning Xena to take up the Champion's place at her right. "Families are often what you make and tonight we have by extension forged the first bonds of a new family, joining our sisters and uniting two halves of a nation divided. It is a wondrous thing when sundered parts rejoin and two halves are again made whole. I rejoice to see it in our nation and I wish it for each of you personally." Turning to face Xena, she projected her voice for the entire room, but her words and eyes were for her soul mate alone. "I have found the other half of my soul, and do hereby announce my intention to court the woman, known as Xena: Warrior Princess, Queen's Champion, for the purpose of making her my Consort. How say you?"

Stunned. Yep that sums it up stunned. I knew you were up to something. Yes. YES. Realizing she needed to speak out loud, Xena swallowed, and managed to whisper through her joy. "Yes." Catching the expectant glint in Gabrielle's eye she realized something was up. What are you up to now my bard? She didn't have to wait long.

"The offer is accepted. How say you all?"

Xena couldn't help but to steal a glance at Ephiny - one nay and the Queen would be denied her choice of consorts - and she was the one most likely to object. But Ephiny remained impassive and silent. Xena relaxed.

"Your Majesty. I would like to tender an objection." Xena whipped her head around in shock as Catran spoke, the objection coming from an unexpected quarter.

"I second the objection." Eponin had risen to stand next to her partner.

"I see." Gabrielle's voice was calm. Too calm. Allowing the sudden burst of adrenaline to bleed off, Xena relaxed slightly waiting to see what would happen next. Gabrielle spoke again. "What are your grounds?"

"The Consort-to-be of the Queen must be an Amazon, Xena, while Queen's Champion, is not an Amazon.

Gabrielle made a show of looking at Aine for confirmation. "That is so, the consort-to-be must be elevated to royal standing, and therefore must be an Amazon."

"Well then, I'll just make Xena an Amazon."

Aine again answered. "The Queen may not sponsor her own candidate." Silence hung over the room as the festive air departed in the wake of the current conflict.

"Queen Gabrielle, should Xena wish to stand for initiation, I will be her primary sponsor."

Idly watching events around her unfold, curious to see what convoluted plan Gabrielle was acting out she had let her attention wander slightly. Ephiny's words brought her senses fully and sharply back into focus.

Shocked whispers ran around the room, rumors of the dynamic which existed between the three Greek Amazons had already spread through the Celts. Before the first whisperings had died down, a second wave was sent flowing as another woman stood and spoke, and the crowd recognized the Amazon Goddess herself.

"I will stand as her secondary sponsor." Artemis smiled mischievously at a further shocked Xena. "So, what do you say. Wanna become an Amazon?"

Looking down into her soul mate's gold flecked eyes, Xena knew there could only be one answer to that question. "Yes. I, Xena of Amphipolous petition for acceptance into the Amazon Nation." It was brilliant, Gabrielle had contrived to make her an Amazon in such a way as too forestall any rumours by getting the approval of not only the Goddess herself but the Co-Queen as well, thereby presenting a unified front. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant, and I didn't even see it coming. She didn't take her eyes from Gabrielle's. Their eye contact was only broken as the Queen slipped on her mask.

"So be it."

At Gabrielle's words the doors to the hall were sealed and a quick glance confirmed that their male guests had all departed. A semi-circle of masked Amazons materialized in front of the dais, which had been stripped of its table and chairs.

Looking closely she recognized the masked women as being Catran, Eponin, Solari, Aine, Brighid and Agatha, the other three masks she didn't recognize, nor could she place their owners in the darkened hall.

A brazier was brought to the center of the circle they had loosely formed in combination with the women still on the platform. Behind them the remainder of the Amazons stood in a respectful silence, which was broken only by the steady drumbeat.

The vibration of the drum swelled throughout the confines of the hall, reverberating off the rafters and walls, multiplying in intensity with every bounce until it throbbed deep with in them all, driving the unified heartbeats of the Nation, making them one.

As the steady rhythm matched her heartbeat, Xena felt a sense of peace steal over her, she felt welcome, accepted.

A robed woman, Xena recognized as a priestess entered the circle, carrying a small knife and silver chalice. Taking the knife, Gabrielle moved to the center next to the brazier, leaving Xena alone on the dais, flanked by her two sponsors.

"On the question of martial merit, who speaks?"

"I do." Eponin stepped forth a pace, extending her left arm palm up, passing the blade through the flame Gabrielle drew the edge across Eponin's skin, leaving a bright line of blood behind.

"On the question of vitality and health, who speaks?"

"I do." Agatha moved forward and she too extended her palm.

Each woman answered a question and in turn had her palm opened, until Gabrielle was again facing Xena and her sponsors. "Who sponsors this woman to our sisterhood?"

"We do." Ephiny and Artemis both stepped forward and extended their palms. Xena wondered if the knife would draw blood from the Goddess, and was vaguely amused that a full thirty count passed before any showed.

"Who petitions for acceptance?"

"I do." Xena stepped forward palm extended as the silver knife opened her own palm, mingling the blood of her new sisters with her own.

Gabrielle handed her the knife, which she then held loosely in her right hand. "Each woman represents a facet of our nation, each face integral to the well being of the whole, together forming the life's blood of the Nation, of the sisterhood. Now too does the shared blood of our Nation run strong through your veins, just as the shared heartbeat is sounded by the single drum. Will you uphold all we believe, all we stand for, putting the good of the Nation ahead of your own desires? But above all will you stand true to yourself and to your nature, celebrating the unique heartbeat that enriches us all?"

"I swear." And it was a thousand times easier to bind herself to these women than she had ever thought possible.

Stepping back from her, Gabrielle raised both hands above her head, and the other women followed suit. Xena didn't know whether or not to raise her own arms and barring evidence to the contrary remained the way she was.

The arc in front of her parted and a masked Amazon entered the area, a cloth wrapped bundle held securely in her hands. Gabrielle blocked her view as she turned and uncovered the object, holding it aloft for the Nation to see. "As the knife serves to remind Xena of her vow to defend the Nation and its ideals, so too does this mask remind her to treasure who she is and to be true to that nature."

As Gabrielle turned Xena got a look at the mask, and her breath caught in her throat. Meeting Gabrielle's eyes, she could read the message of love and acceptance that shone through the Queen's mask as if to say. 'See we'll take you on your terms.'

It was there, carved in wood, laid out for the world to see if they choose to look. The predatory wolf, framing the strong profile of a hawk. Amazingly, the eyes belonged to both, causing it to appear as though both animals were equally present, depending on your viewpoint. It was exquisite, and unlike any other mask she had seen.

Bowing her head, she allowed Gabrielle to slide the mask over her head and settle it onto her face. "Be Welcome." The unspoken 'I love you' hanging in the air between them.

Gabrielle stepped back off the dais, standing directly in front of Xena, facing Eponin and the others. "The circle is open, yet unbroken, Merry do we meet, merry do we part, and merry to meet again." With those word the tempo of the drum changed, picking up speed as women began to dance in celebration.

Xena gingerly removed her mask as a mask-less Gabrielle slid her arms around the warrior's waist. She held it in one hand as she gathered the Queen into her chest, imparting with the embrace all the emotions she had concealed during the ceremony. "I love you Gabrielle." She whispered into a delicate ear, senses heightened by the drum beat and the sudden intoxicating aroma of the bard's honey tresses. Hmm, sandalwood and a trace of chamomile.

Pulling back she rested her forehead against her soul mate's. Green pools mirrored the light of the surrounding flames and as she watched the dancing light, the room receded from her awareness, and when Gabrielle hungrily captured her lips, she willingly surrendered, and for the second time that night they were the only two people in a crowded hall.

 

To be continued.

Updated October 25, 1998