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Part 1 of 2
By Jamie Boughen
Oh dear, disclaimers. Okay, MCA owns Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny and Eponin. (Oh yes, they own Argo too.) I’m not making any money out of writing about them but I can still dream. MCA doesn’t own the Amazon Nation. We do. As for the rest of the characters and the story itself, I guess I’ll take the blame.
Yes, there are scenes of two women making very consensual love together, in very excruciating detail on at least two occasions. If for some mad reason, you are offended by such scenes, find it illegal in your country or state or are simply under the age of consent, then do delete now because neither I nor the wonderful people who work so hard to put this web site together will take any responsibility if the law (or worse, your mother) gets upset when they find you have this story on your hard-drive.
Many thanks, as always to my hard working team of test reader and editor. I promise to always try to remember the rules of grammar you have worked so hard to thump into this particular writers head. I also have a special thank you for Debbie (of confessionals-R-Us fame) for giving me the idea that became the ending of this story. The idea was wicked, the ending more so.
Comments are always welcomed. Flames are always deleted. J. july 97
"Tell me again why we have travelled nearly half-way across Greece to get here," Xena said, feeling a little tired and saddle-sore.
Here just happened to be a day’s ride from the outskirts of the Amazon hunting grounds. The forest around them was sparse and made up more of rock outcroppings than trees. Those few trees which stood were twisted and warped by the strong sun and the windstorms that frequented the area.
The forest had slowly been thickening as water became more available, but most of it was underground and could not be reached by the two travelling women. They had been living out of their waterbags for the past three days, and those were nearly empty. It would be yet another day’s ride from the edge of the hunting grounds before they reached the Amazon village and their first chance to rest in over a moon.
The warrior glanced down and could see Gabrielle looked even more tired than she felt herself, having walked almost the entire distance. It was not often the compact little bard pushed the pace, but on this occasion she had pushed both of them to get to the Amazon lands as quickly as possible. In a way, Xena was surprised Gabrielle had managed to keep her sturdy legs moving day after long day to get to the village in time. They had taken the fastest and safest route there, over the mountains and along the lesser known trails, and the terrain had been anything but easy on the bard, not to mention herself.
Gabrielle looked up, irritably, before answering. "Ephiny is organising a festival to celebrate the first anniversary of my being made an Amazon Princess."
"Still can’t see why they are making such a big deal out of it," The dark-haired woman muttered under her breath. Titles and positions didn’t mean all that much to the tall warrior seated on the golden mare. She knew they didn’t mean a lot to her travelling companion and lover either, so the rush to get to the Amazon Nation was a bit of a mystery to Xena.
"I heard that," Gabrielle said quickly. "Look, Xena, it’s important to them, and that is why we have to be there. Most of them still think of me as their Queen, even though Ephiny has been more of a leader than I could ever be."
Xena sighed quietly to herself. "Don’t underestimate yourself, Gabrielle. You’ve grown a lot over the past several seasons or so."
The bard couldn’t help but blush at Xena’s words. It was not often the warrior praised her for anything, which made the compliments all the sweeter when they did come out. Still blushing, she said, "It’s only two more days and we’ll be there. If we push it, we could probably do it in a day and a half."
"No," Xena replied. "The festival isn’t for another several days, and it won’t do either of us any good if we arrive exhausted. In fact," she said, glancing around and coming to a decision, "we stop and make camp now."
"B...but it’s only mid-afternoon," Gabrielle stuttered.
The warrior peered down at the bard with an "I-know-that" expression on her face. She spoke gently. "Gabrielle, we have barely stopped for the past moon, and we could both do with a few candlemarks to get cleaned up and rested before we reach the hunting grounds."
Glancing down at her clothes, Gabrielle could see Xena was right. There was dust and travel stains all over her skirt and top because she hadn’t wanted to take the time in washing them and then waiting for the leather to dry again. A good bath would probably go a long way towards making her feel a lot better too. Grit and dust from the road had worked its way into almost every crease and crevice on her body over the past few days, and it was starting to itch rather badly.
For a moment, she felt a little guilty. She had wanted to get to this festival so much she had forgotten about almost everything else. How did Xena feel with the same grit rubbing against her skin under those tight leathers and armour? "Okay. We stop and camp early tonight, if we can find a place with some water," Gabrielle said.
"Good. Can’t have your Amazon sisters thinking I don’t know how to take care of you," Xena replied, already dismounting from Argo. "I know just the place too." The warrior was leading the honey-coated mare off the road and through a small stand of saplings, deeper into the sparse forest.
"Hrump," Gabrielle grumped. "You planned this," she said to Xena’s rapidly retreating back as the taller woman and her mount disappeared into the trees.
Xena’s selective deafness chose that moment to kick in.
Almost groaning with pleasure, Gabrielle lay back in the shallow water at the edge of the little pond. "Xena, this is bliss." The water, warmed by the afternoon sun, was just the right temperature, not too cold for bathing but cool enough to take the heat of the day from her skin. "How do you know about this place?" the bard asked, barely lifting her head.
"I have..." Xena started.
"Many skills," Gabrielle laughed, finishing one of the warrior’s favourite sayings for her. The bard was starting to think stopping early was a very good idea indeed. Xena seemed to have a real knack for finding the best campsites, no matter where they were. She let her mind wander a bit. "Remember when we were trying to cross the Plains of Sorrow?" she said quietly, gearing up for a little story-telling now that she felt clean and relaxed for the first time in a couple of seven-days. Gabrielle could feel the little waves around her body as Xena moved up next to her.
"Shhh. I hear something," The warrior whispered into Gabrielle’s ear, as she moved passed the reclining bard. Xena was slipping silently out of the water, picking up her sword as she reached dry land again. She hadn’t expected problems this close to the Amazon hunting grounds, but years of habit, and trouble, had made her leave her sword and chakram close to the bank, just in case.
Gabrielle was also quietly leaving the pond and picking up her own fighting staff. For a moment, she wondered which imp of the perverse decided to interrupt them this time. Seemed just when she was getting comfortable, something always happened to make her uncomfortable again. And standing there naked and dripping definitely came under the heading of uncomfortable and embarrassing. Gabrielle didn’t have any problems being naked in front of Xena. After all, they had been lovers for almost an entire cycle of seasons now, but being seen the same way by anyone else was enough to set her face flaming with self-consciousness.
The raven-haired warrior wasn’t the least bit concerned with her state of dress at that moment, so long as she had her sword in her hand. Xena silently hand-signalled for Gabrielle to move more towards the right while she started stalking around to the left of the little clearing surrounding the waterhole. The warrior’s bare feet never made a whisper in the leaf litter as she slowly walked closer to the sounds she had heard from the water. Raking her eyes along the tree-line, Xena tried to find the maker of the faint noises her sharp ears had picked up. She spotted a small movement high in the trees ahead of her and quickly tossed her weapon to the ground. Clutching her hands over her head, she hissed at Gabrielle to do the same.
The bard saw what Xena was doing but didn’t drop her staff. She simply stood straight and tall with her feet planted firmly apart, one end of her staff on the ground, waiting almost defiantly. As a Princess and a former Queen, she didn’t have to worry about how she would be treated by the warriors of the Amazon Nation.
Suddenly, out of the trees dropped several Amazons. All were dressed in a similar fashion as Gabrielle. Their faces were covered by a mask, their weapons strapped across their backs. They rapidly approached the waiting bard, for the moment ignoring the tall warrior, and most knelt before Gabrielle. The one left standing came closer and lifted the mask from her face to identify herself to her Queen.
"Eponin!" Gabrielle screamed in delight and jumped into a strong embrace with the unmasked warrior, no longer caring about her unclothed body or the embarrassment of being seen naked by strangers.
"And so, Queen Ephiny has been sending out scouting parties for the past seven-day so we could escort you and Xena in. We didn’t know which direction you would come from so we’ve had parties covering all the roads and watering spots along the border. One of us had to find you sooner or later," Eponin explained around a mouthful of jerked deer meat. "I’m glad it was my party that found you, though," she said almost shyly.
Gabrielle sat, feeling Xena’s thigh tensing slightly against hers. "I don’t think we really need an escort. I mean, Xena and I could have found our way to the village without any problems. It isn’t exactly our first visit there, after all," Gabrielle replied, trying to be diplomatic about her answer.
"Queen Ephiny insisted that someone escort you in, Gabrielle," Eponin said quietly, still unaccustomed to the informality of the Amazon princess, even after all this time.
"Any particular reason?" Xena asked cautiously. Ephiny’s insistence on some kind of an escort had raised her own curiosity, especially considering the fact the Amazon Queen knew Xena could well take care of herself and anyone with her. Not that Gabrielle couldn’t take care of herself. Xena just felt more comfortable being around the blonde-haired bard when there was a fight.
Eponin glanced at the other warriors sprawled around the fire in various positions of relaxation. Xena silently noted the tiny nods made by several of them and the way some tensed up immediately afterwards. Dropping her head, almost embarrassed at having to admit it, she said, "Seems we have a shade loose in the forest."
"A what!" Gabrielle whispered.
"A shade," Eponin repeated.
One eyebrow on Xena’s face had risen to new heights at the information. "What makes you think you have a ghost running around here?" she asked, now more curious than ever.
"Because warriors have been disappearing, never leaving a trace behind. We haven’t been able to find so much as a disturbed twig or turned over leaf. All we know is they disappear into thin air and no amount of searching is able to find them again," The red-faced woman explained quietly.
"How long has this being going on?" Gabrielle asked nervously as she tried to peer through the darkness surrounding them.
Eponin stopped and thought for a moment before answering. "Close to a moon now. Actually, when I think about it, it all started a day or so after we sent that message to you asking you both to come to the festival." The warrior scratched her head as though trying to loosen an answer from her hair. "How odd," she commented.
"How odd, indeed," Xena replied, a little sarcastically. "Just how many warriors have gone missing?"
Gabrielle had immediately noticed the change in Xena’s wording from "disappeared"’ to "missing." She unconsciously nodded with approval in Xena’s tactic. "Missing" meant finding the warriors again. "Disappear" usually meant something far more sinister.
Carefully counting up the total in her head, Eponin answered, "About six, but we haven’t been back to the village for the past few days so there might be one or two more gone by now."
"Hmmmm. A shade, or a god," Xena mumbled to herself, not realising she was thinking out loud.
The two weary travellers could hear the sound of the drums beating in the Amazon village long before they and their escort arrived. Xena glanced at Eponin when she picked up the first vibrations in the air, but the Amazon warrior merely shrugged her shoulders, indicating there was little she could do to stop the welcoming celebrations she knew were already under way. A runner had been sent ahead of them to let everyone know the travellers had arrived at last. Xena resigned herself to a very public and somewhat embarrassing welcome once they stepped out of the forest and into the village. She would have much preferred a quiet entrance and a chance to rest before meeting with the rest of the women.
For some reason, they insisted on accepting and treating her as though she was an honoured warrior, even though she had tried to explain, on several occasions, she was not an Amazon. Xena found the adoration from many of the women a little hard to deal with sometimes because she simply saw herself as someone trying to make good on the evil she had done in her past. She honestly didn’t believe she deserved the position she found herself holding in Amazon society, but like Gabrielle, she had learned to tolerate it.
Thinking of Gabrielle, Xena looked over to her best and dearest friend, deep in conversation with several of the warriors who had met them just outside the hunting grounds. The blue-eyed woman could tell from Gabrielle’s animated hand gestures that she was telling some tale to the fascinated women. Xena couldn’t help smiling to herself. Knowing the bard, it was probably another story about their adventures together, though the bard always seemed to downplay her role in anything they may have done. Xena knew the bard was as courageous as any warrior, more so sometimes, and was just as skilled with her chosen weapons, the staff and her words, as Xena was with her sword and chakram. However, Gabrielle lived to her own code, one Xena was just starting to understand.
Through the trees ahead, Xena could just make out the first of the huts of the village and mentally steeled herself for the welcome she knew would be ahead. She really didn’t like all the carry on, but as Gabrielle had said, it was important to the Amazon women, and that gave the warrior a grudging willingness to endure it, for a while anyway.
From the moment Xena and Gabrielle stepped from the covering trees, both could see the exhaustion and worry etched into the usually serene features of the Amazon Queen. Ephiny was standing straight and tall, watching the dancers below her platform, but Xena noticed the way her hands slowly clenched and unclenched at her sides, bunching the material of her skirt. The expression of sheer relief that flashed across her face was so evident when she spotted the two travellers, Gabrielle was left wishing they could have somehow gotten to the village sooner.
"I’ll take care of your mount, Xena," One of the warriors who had escorted them said quietly, as the reins were gently taken from the tall woman’s hand. "Ephiny will want to see you right away. Argo will be fine with me."
Xena glanced at the woman now holding Argo’s reins. The warrior could see the look of pure appreciation in the other woman’s eyes and knew her beloved mare would be more than well cared for. Argo would most likely end up being positively spoiled. "I know she will, Evdokia. By the way, she really likes apples," Xena whispered back.
The woman nodded before leading the mare off to the stables on the other side of the compound. Their gear would be stripped from Argo’s back and would appear, almost magically, in one of the rooms in the Queen’s palace. Xena would have preferred somewhere a little more open, such as one of the huts near the edge of the village, but Gabrielle had once accepted the mask of Queen and she had to stay with Ephiny when they came to visit the Amazons. So, wherever the bard slept, Xena slept also. Neither woman would have had it any other way.
Gabrielle stepped up beside Xena and whispered to her. "Ready to be treated like a demi-god?" she asked, her lips twitching to keep from smiling.
"Ready to be spanked for impertinence by the same demi-god?" the tall warrior whispered back just as quietly. Catching the signal from Eponin, Xena started striding across the compound towards Ephiny’s platform, the bard a bare half-step behind her.
Gabrielle was still blushing as they approached the Queen’s platform, but she had managed to stop spluttering long before Ephiny could have noticed. Xena really did have a wicked sense of humour sometimes, Gabrielle thought to herself.
Thankfully for Xena’s small store of patience with such events, the greetings and welcoming ceremony were mercifully short. In less than a candlemark, Gabrielle and Xena found themselves inside the palace and being escorted to their rooms. The young girl showing them the way was obviously a little dazzled by Xena’s close proximity and was almost babbling in consequence.
"New rooms were set up for you both when you come and visit. If you need anything, all you have to do is ask the guard at the door for it and they will get anything you want. We piped hot water into the bathing room from the hot spring so you could bathe without having everyone standing around. Once I have shown you to your room, I’ll get something for you to eat. The Queen made sure I understood you were to eat as soon as you were settled. We made fresh nutbread this morning, even though we weren’t sure if you would be here today, and there’s a really nice deer stew as well," the girl said all in one breath.
Xena rolled her eyes to the ceiling. Hopefully, not everyone was going to behave like this around her. She could feel Gabrielle fighting to hold her laughter in to avoid further inciting their awe-struck escort. The young girl finally stopped to open a door for them, still talking so fast neither woman could have gotten a word in edgeways if they had tried. Xena sighed with relief when Gabrielle finally closed the door behind them, after letting the still babbling girl know they would like to eat just as soon as they had bathed, though the bard found herself having to try to talk over the girl’s high pitched voice. Gabrielle doubted the girl had heard a word she’d said anyway.
"Get used to it, Xena. Most of the younger girls are like that here," Gabrielle giggled, as she leant against the door.
"Uh huh! You’d think I’d be used to overly chatty young women by now," Xena replied as she saw their saddle-bags had arrived ahead of them.
"Meaning??" Gabrielle asked, her green eyes flashing a little.
Wrapping her strong arms around her lover, Xena answered, "Not a thing, Gabrielle. Not a thing." Feeling Gabrielle’s body relaxing into the embrace, Xena leaned down and gently kissed the woman. She had only meant it as a single soft kiss but was not surprised when it deepened into something far more passionate. Only the sound of someone knocking at the door broke them apart. "That was fast. Must be the nutbread we were told about," Xena said quietly. "And we both know how much you love that stuff." Xena grinned wickedly as Gabrielle slapped playfully at the taller woman’s breast armour.
"You’re no slouch in the appetite department either, I’ve noticed." Gabrielle said as she opened the door.
Two women from the kitchens walked quickly through the open door and placed a couple of trays on the small table by the window. A short bow to both Xena and Gabrielle and the women were gone again. The two travellers could smell the deer stew steaming invitingly as well the nutty odour of the bread.
"Mmmm, I think I’ll eat before I have a wash." Gabrielle said. Her eyes were feasting over the assortment of goodies brought from the kitchen. Someone had even remembered that the bard liked to drink cider and that Xena preferred port.
"You’d rather eat before doing just about anything else I can think of," Xena said as she reached for the dates.
That statement earned Xena a slap on the shoulder. "And whose stomach was rumbling all the way through the forest? Or was I merely hearing the sound of distant thunder?" the bard replied, trying to be serious, the laughter lighting up her sea-green eyes.
"Distant thunder," Xena stated firmly before popping a date into her mouth. It tasted so sweet she couldn’t resist feeding one to Gabrielle as well.
The bard gave the taller warrior a narrow-eyed look before sitting down to enjoy her meal.
Xena had just finished running an oiled cloth over her leathers and boots when Gabrielle entered the room, a linen wrapped around her still damp body. The sight of the blonde woman’s muscular curves silhouetted through the light material was enough to stay the breathing in Xena’s chest for a moment. Reminding herself to breathe again, the warrior quietly approached the bard from behind before embracing her gently. Xena’s lips nuzzling into the other woman’s inviting neck were just starting to raise havoc with Gabrielle’s heart rate when a knock sounded at the door.
"You answer it, Xena, while I get myself dressed again," Gabrielle said, making shooing motions with one hand. "I really must speak to someone about all these inconvenient interruptions," she muttered to herself as she headed back into the bathing room to put on her clothes.
Xena smiled at the bard’s retreating and very shapely behind before turning to answer the door. Opening it, the tall warrior was surprised to see Ephiny standing there trying to look as though she popped into their rooms all the time. Moving the door wider, she silently invited the Amazon Queen to enter.
As Ephiny entered and tiredly sank into a chair, Xena noted the despondent look of the Amazon Queen, the dark circles under her eyes and the slight gauntness showing on her usually well-rounded cheekbones. Whatever had been going on around here for the past moon was having quite a noticeable effect on Ephiny.
A fully dressed Gabrielle bounced back into the room, the picture of vibrant health and joyful happiness. It served to make the Queen look even more exhausted than she really was.
"What’s been going on around here, Ephiny?" Xena asked without fanfare. "You didn’t look this bad when Valeska was here."
The Amazon Queen sighed deeply before answering. Taking a moment to organise her thoughts, she said, "At least with her, I knew who the enemy was. This time none of us have any idea what is going on. All we know for sure is that warriors are disappearing without a trace and nothing I do seems able to stop it. Even sending guards out in pairs or teams of three and four doesn’t seem to help. Warriors still disappear." Ephiny looked as though she was about to burst into tears at any moment. Gabrielle quickly sat beside the unhappy woman and wrapped her arms about Ephiny to support her.
Xena thought there had to be a little more to all this. The way Ephiny would not quite make eye contact meant the Amazon Queen was not telling all there was. "What’s the rest of the story?" she asked bluntly, not at all surprised at the sharp intake of breath made by the woman encircled by Gabrielle’s arms.
"You always were good at getting to the truth, weren’t you, Xena?" Ephiny replied, seemingly relieved at finally being able to the tell the two travellers the complete story. "Someone actually saw the shade two nights ago," she answered in a rush.
"Who?" Gabrielle questioned. "And where?" The bard knew these would be the first two questions Xena would ask herself anyway, and Gabrielle was just as curious as the warrior about the missing women.
"Kaliope," Ephiny replied. "She is one of the border guards on the mountain pass. Said she saw a faintly glowing shape flying across the ravine and when she went to investigate, she found the guard who should have been on the lookout point was gone. No sign of a struggle and no marks on the ground, as usual. She was pretty spooked by the time she got back here."
"I’d like to talk to her myself," Xena said, her eyes looking out the open window towards the nearby mountains.
"I’ll see that it is arranged," Ephiny stated firmly. She was starting to feel a little better now that Gabrielle and Xena had arrived in the village. Maybe they would finally get some answers and find the missing women. Nothing she has done to date seemed to stop this shade from taking warriors as and when it pleased.
"Gabrielle?" Xena said.
"I know, I get to wander about the village and chat with whoever will talk to me." Gabrielle couldn’t help smiling at her warrior lover. They each knew their own skills and trusted each other enough to allow their partner to use them to best advantage. It had taken time, lots of time, but they were well past the carer and the child routine from the early days they had spent together. This partnership was much more equal.
Ephiny glanced quickly at Xena before speaking to Gabrielle. "I’ll organise a guard for you," she said.
"No. I don’t need one, and it might intimidate someone into not talking to me," the bard replied. "Besides, with this," and she picked up her staff, "I don’t really need anyone else to help me, at least not here in the village anyway."
"But you’re an Amazon Princess..." Ephiny started to say.
With a speed that amazed her, Gabrielle had spun behind Ephiny and lightly tapped her in the kidneys and then the back of her head. It certainly wasn’t hard enough to hurt in the least, just a light tap to show what she could have done if she chose, but it was more than enough to demonstrate that Gabrielle had the speed and knowledge to use her favoured weapon very effectively indeed. Where had the bard learned to move so fast, Ephiny wondered to herself. Then again, Xena had been training Gabrielle somewhat, and even a little training from the Warrior Princess was worth days and days from any Amazon trainer here.
"Okay, no guard," Ephiny said, still stunned at Gabrielle’s quick use of the staff. If any of her own guards had seen the moves the bard had just made, the blonde would have found herself on the end of a few arrows, abdicated Queen or not. But then again, maybe that is why she chose to do it here behind the privacy of closed doors. "And I know you don’t need anyone else with you, Xena," the Queen said a little shakily.
Xena was still leaning against the wall, arms folded, an almost smug expression on her face. She had known what Gabrielle was doing because they had trained together for just this particular occasion. On every visit they made to the Amazon Nation, Gabrielle ended up having some kind an escort or guard placed on her simply because she had once been the Queen, even though she had happily abdicated that position in favour of Ephiny. Gabrielle had accept the title of Princess, but most of the village still thought of her as the Queen though they had learned to call her by her current title. She hated having any kind of escort when they came visiting and felt it got in the way of her getting to know the women of the village better. Being a former Queen, now princess, made starting a normal conversation hard enough. Having a guard or escort around made it almost impossible.
So she and Xena had hatched a quiet plot of their own for the next time they came to the village. It meant taking a small risk, but Xena knew she was fast enough to catch any arrows that might be headed in Gabrielle’s direction if she had chosen to demonstrate her speed and accuracy somewhere a little more public. This had been perfect. A nicely closed door and Ephiny without a guard in sight. If nothing else, the Queen might listen now when Gabrielle said she didn’t want an escort. Both Xena and Gabrielle knew the bard was safe in the village surrounded by Amazon warriors. And if that wasn’t enough, the blonde woman really was as good with her staff as anyone Xena had seen in the past, other than herself.
"I’ll organise with Kaliope to met with you, Xena," Ephiny said as she started to leave the room, the relief open on her face.
"Send her to the stables. I want to check that Argo is being as spoiled as I think she is. It’s as good a place as any to talk," Xena replied. It is also about the most private place around, aside from our rooms, she thought to herself. No matter from what angle the tall woman approached the problem, there was something here that just wasn’t quite adding up, and she was going to find out exactly what that was.
That night as the two women met up again in their rooms, they discussed any discoveries—or lack of them—they had made during the afternoon. Xena had been a little surprised when she met with Kaliope in the stables earlier in the day. She stood even taller than Xena herself, towering over the warrior in fact, and was considerably broader across the shoulders and chest. Muscle bulged with every movement the Amazon had made, legs and arms like oak branches with their corded tendons and the flesh beneath appearing to almost split the skin at times. Xena was still having trouble believing this mountain of a woman could be spooked by anything, including a glowing airborne shape in the darkness.
"So what did you think of Kaliope?" Gabrielle asked as she poured herself a second mug of cider.
"That she is quite a formidable Amazon," Xena replied. The warrior had tipped her chair onto its back legs and was leaning against the wall behind her. One booted foot was resting on the table edge beside her as she gently rocked the chair back and forth.
"She’s adopted, you know," the bard supplied. At Xena’s raised eyebrow, Gabrielle continued. "What? She didn’t tell you that? I wonder why?" Gabrielle mused for a moment. "Almost as soon as I mentioned her name, my training partner told me."
"So that’s where you spent the afternoon." The other woman smiled at the bard sitting across from her. "Wondered where you had gotten to."
Gabrielle laughed a little as she answered, "It’s surprising how willing people are to talk when they have had a chance to beat the stuffing out of the Princess for a while."
"Didn’t get hurt, did you?" Xena asked, a little concerned.
Feeling up and down her ribs dramatically, Gabrielle replied, "Not in the least. After training with you, the warriors here are like molasses on a winter’s morning. I mean, they’re good, but you’re something else again. I let them get the odd hit in just to make them feel better about working out with me, though. Nothing like clobbering Princess Gabrielle a few times to loosen their tongues." She laughed quietly.
Xena settled back into her chair again. "So Kaliope was adopted into the Nation. How long ago?" the tall woman asked.
"Hmmm, about three moons. She turned up on the edge of the hunting grounds asking to be an Amazon warrior. Apparently, her village had tossed her out because she was seen as too different to fit in. Wouldn’t take a husband, that kind of thing," the bard explained. "I pity any man who might have tried taking her to his bed against her will. She could break his head open like a melon with those huge hands of hers. One of my training partners did tell me Kaliope isn’t all that good with weapons, but she really doesn’t need to be. Her sheer size alone is pretty intimidating to most people. Oh, and she actually volunteered to take the mountain pass lookout."
"She didn’t tell me that, either," Xena said, wondering what other little tidbits the warrior had chosen not to reveal. "Think I might go and have a look at that mountain pass tomorrow. Want to come with me?" Xena asked, already knowing what the answer would be.
"Might take you up on that. A few candlemarks spent alone in the forest could be very relaxing, you know," Gabrielle replied, a wicked grin on her face, desire burning brightly in her sea-green eyes. Ever since they had been met by the Amazon escort, someone would come along and interrupt them whenever they wanted to be a little intimate with each other. As far as the bard was concerned, it was all getting to be a bit too much, even for an Amazon Princess.
The sound of chair legs thumping onto the floor drew Gabrielle’s attention back to her warrior partner. "We’re alone now," Xena said, already reaching out to pull the bard onto her lap. "First person to knock on that door will just have to deal with my sword."
Gabrielle found herself straddled across the tall warrior’s lap, Xena’s hands stroking their way up her back and tangling themselves in her blonde hair. Arching her back, the bard invited Xena to kiss her breasts through the material of her top. It was an invitation the warrior did not turn down.
The bard let her head fall forward against the other woman’s shoulder as Xena’s teeth and tongue quickly found the apex of her breasts through the cloth. "How about we get more comfortable on the bed?" she managed to get past her own clenched teeth.
"Too far away," Xena replied, moving her mouth away for a moment. Taking her hands out of Gabrielle’s hair, she quickly untied the laces of the other woman’s top and stripped it from her shoulders in one slow movement. The slightest sheen of moisture glistened in the candlelight where the warrior’s wet kisses had soaked through the material.
"Your breasts are so beautiful, Gabrielle," the blue-eyed warrior whispered.
"Only for you, my Warrior Princess. Only for you," the bard said huskily. She could already feel her face flushing and her heart beating faster in her chest. Even after being lovers for almost a full cycle of seasons, Gabrielle still couldn’t quite believe how truly exciting making love with this woman was to her. Every time was like the first—pleasurable, slow, passionate. Sometimes Xena took the lead, sometimes Gabrielle, but the bard knew, deep in the core of her soul, that her Warrior Princess, her woman with such a dark past, would never knowingly hurt her or frighten her in any way. This knowledge alone gave her the courage to take chances with their lovemaking that she might never have tried otherwise.
Xena’s sword-calloused hands were gently cupped around the soft globes of the bard’s breasts as she kissed and fondled the sensitive flesh. Gabrielle had worked her fingers under the leather straps at Xena’s shoulders and was slowly caressing the skin at the top of the warrior’s back. She could feel the muscles jumping in response to the unhurried touch of her fingers. "Stand up a second, Gabrielle," Xena said.
The bard let herself be helped to her feet and watched as Xena stripped her leathers and underclothing in one swift movement down her body. Xena was still wearing her gauntlets, upper arm protectors and boots, but the raven-haired woman didn’t bother removing those. Sometimes the bard liked the feel of cool metal against her burning skin as they made love together. Working her fingers under the belt of Gabrielle’s skirt, the warrior exposed the other woman’s bare skin just as quickly as she had her own. Gently pulling at the bard’s hips, she urged Gabrielle to straddle her lap once more. Feeling Xena’s bare thighs hot under her legs, the warrior’s breasts brushing against hers, Gabrielle gave herself over to the passion she felt for this remarkable woman.
Xena was struggling to hold on to the control of her own passions, afraid if she let them go completely she might hurt the bard in some way. It was a struggle she went through every time they made love, and so far she had won every battle. In the past, before Gabrielle, it hadn’t mattered to Xena in the least if she injured a lover a little. A few bruises or scrapes, even the odd broken bone, had meant nothing to her. But with the gentle bard, she was determined never to give her story-teller a reason to fear the love the warrior felt or the passions Gabrielle invoked in her soul. So she fought to always maintain the control she had over herself.
Letting her fingers once again stroke softly over the sensitive skin of Gabrielle’s back, Xena dropped her head to the bard’s breasts. The bard’s own hands were rubbing across Xena’s upper arms as her lips and teeth nipped at the delicate places along the warrior’s neck and shoulder. Gabrielle revelled in the softness of Xena’s skin with the feeling of hard muscle and tendons underneath. The smell of leather, strong and almost overwhelming, mixed with the scent of Xena’s own skin, served only to excite the bard even more. She would have happily stayed there forever, absorbing the smells of the woman she loved above all others.
Feeling Xena’s hands move down her back and begin caressing the outside of her thighs was enough to bring a gasp to Gabrielle’s throat and a smile to Xena’s face at the bard’s reaction. It wasn’t until the first time she had made love with the warrior woman that Gabrielle realised just how sensitive her thighs were to the gentle touch of another person. Even when the bard had touched herself, she hadn’t known the feelings which would shudder through her.
Xena raised her head, seeking out Gabrielle’s lips. Two mouths joined in a passionate embrace of their own as the warrior’s hands continued to stroke and caress the bard’s thighs, occasionally reaching around to Gabrielle’s back to run knowledgable fingers along the well-toned muscles. For several minutes, Gabrielle’s world centred on the feeling of Xena’s soft lips against her own and the warrior’s sure hands drawing trembling responses from her body. The cool brush of Xena’s gauntlet armour against her flushed skin would cause a soft moan to flow from deep within Gabrielle’s chest, to be echoed by one from Xena.
Slowly, with each tantalising caress of Gabrielle’s inner thighs, Xena let her fingers move closer to the warm, wet centre of the bard’s passions. For the bard, this was the sweetest torture she had ever endured, but she did nothing to hurry the warrior’s gentle lovemaking. Xena’s knowing hands could draw sensations from Gabrielle’s body that even the bard herself had never conceived could be there until Xena had finally come to her one night four seasons ago. Trusting the warrior with both her heart and her passion, Gabrielle was willing to permit the warrior to do whatever she pleased. She surrendered her soul completely to the other woman. Xena would never hurt her, and her desires would be fulfilled in ways Gabrielle had never thought possible before.
Xena’s fingertips finally brushed against Gabrielle’s aroused centre, causing the bard to groan with pleasure, her hips rocking forward, encouraging the warrior the deepen the touch. Gabrielle could feel the brush of armoured forearm along her inner thigh, the contrast in temperatures, hot skin and cool metal, arousing her further. Slow, gentle fingers circled the bard’s centre, already bringing a moaning reply from the younger woman. Gabrielle reached over Xena’s shoulders and grasped the uprights on the back of the chair, having given up the struggle to hold on to her own mind. Now it was just her body and the sensations Xena was bringing out with the soft touch of her fingers.
The warrior carefully wrapped her other arm around her lover so Gabrielle wouldn’t slip or fall. The bard had lifted her legs, enveloping Xena’s waist and the back of the chair, trusting the tall woman to keep her safe. Their lips locked together, the unhurried movements of the warrior’s hand slowly pushed Gabrielle out onto the edge of her passion, holding her there for a seeming eternity. Gabrielle’s entire body was shuddering in barely restrained orgasm, Xena holding the bard over the chasm of her own release. Unable to continue the kiss any longer, the bard allowed her head to drop once more onto Xena’s broad shoulder. Shaking violently, Gabrielle’s legs tightened their grip around Xena’s waist, her hands clutching strongly at the chair’s uprights until her knuckles showed whitely through her tanned skin. The bard’s lips were pressed hard against Xena’s shoulder, barely muffling the cries coming from her throat. Tears of joy and pleasure flowed down the bard’s cheeks, the warrior feeling their hot wetness as they rolled down her bare back.
Xena applied a fraction more pressure against Gabrielle and felt the sudden tightening of every muscle in the bard’s body, the shaking so strong it almost threatened to throw both women from the chair. Gabrielle’s head snapped back and an almost primal scream roared from her throat as the breaking of the tension within her body tore through her. Xena held on firmly, never stopping the slow circling of Gabrielle’s centre, drawing the release out for as long as the other woman could stand.
The bard finally relaxed, crying and shuddering in Xena’s strong, loving arms. The warrior gently wrapped her hands around Gabrielle’s thighs and lifted her limp, unprotesting body against her own chest. Walking slowly, Xena lowered the bard onto the bed and lay down beside her, letting the still weeping woman burrow into the comfort of her embrace. After several minutes, Gabrielle calmed and simply lay in Xena’s arms enjoying the closeness, listening to the taller woman’s even heartbeat.
"You make me feel so special sometimes, Xena," Gabrielle whispered. "I’ll always love you for the way you make me feel." The bard’s lips began to softly kiss the valley between Xena’s breasts.
"Relax a while, Gabrielle. We have all night," Xena said, gently placing her own lips against the blonde hair under her chin. "I’ll always love you too. You gave me hope when I honestly thought there was none."
Xena listened while Gabrielle’s breathing deepened slightly as she allowed herself to slide into a light doze. Still embracing the bard closely, the warrior permitted her own eyes to close for a few moments. She was anything but sleepy, though. Xena concentrated on unlocking the tight muscles along her back and shoulders. Once again she had won her battle to maintain control over her passions and not let them go completely. More than anything she feared losing that control over herself. In many ways, it was like walking a knife-edge. It didn’t matter whether it was her passions, her anger, her rage or even her sense of humour; she was terrified of letting any of her emotions have full rein, afraid she would be unable to bring them back under control if they should ever be released.
Though she feared a full release of her passion, she was more afraid of the anger and rage she knew was burning deep in her soul. Stepping off the path of destruction she had been on may have changed her life, but it didn’t stop the red heat of her rage from burning within. It was only the iron control she had over it that kept it in check.
Even the decision to always be a gentle lover with Gabrielle had been a conscious choice on the warrior’s part. It had meant seeking something of herself that she thought was long gone, and that was why it had taken the tall woman so long before she could bring herself to go to the bard. She’d had to find the gentle part of herself that existed before the Warrior Princess, before Cortese. Xena hoped she had found that part of herself because she knew, lurking just beneath the surface, there was that other Xena, the one that didn’t care how painfully or roughly she made love to another. That Xena sought only the physical release of orgasm, having little or no regard for the person she was with. Gabrielle deserved better than that, and Xena knew it. However much she loved Gabrielle, that other Xena was always hidden nearby, waiting to take from the other woman what the bard was freely giving from her heart.
Xena felt the dozing bard stir against her chest as the younger woman slowly woke. Soft lips began to explore the curves and planes of the warrior’s breast, reigniting the passion in Xena’s soul. Taking a moment to strengthen the control she had on her emotions, she allowed herself to enjoy, at least in part, the feeling of raw passion flowing through her veins. Regardless of how hard the battle may be to always maintain control over herself, Xena was not prepared to give up on the wonderful feelings the younger woman drew from her heart and soul, even though she could never allow herself to feel them completely. The little she did experience was barely enough to quench the hunger in her soul.
"Did you notice the look the guard on the door gave us this morning?" Gabrielle asked as the two travellers made their way across the compound headed for the stable.
"What look?" Xena queried back. She had seen it but hadn’t wanted to embarrass the bard by saying anything.
"That raised eyebrow and a blush like I haven’t seen anywhere except inside a pomegranate," Gabrielle replied.
"What do you expect? Someone was screaming loud enough to outdo a harpy last night. And I am pretty sure it wasn’t me." The wicked grin on Xena’s face told the bard everything she had wanted, and not wanted, to know. "Just because parts of the palace are made of thick cave walls, not all of it is, especially the door to our rooms. But you tend to forget things like that in moments of, um, passion."
Gabrielle poked the warrior striding along next to her just under her side armour. It was like poking a rock wall. "So gag me next time, will you?" the bard grumped.
Xena glanced down at the other woman, grateful she was still too sleepy to see the look in her blue eyes. Gagging the bard was never going to be an option as far as the warrior was concerned, not even as a joke. Aside from genuinely enjoying the sounds of love Gabrielle made when they were together, it was just too close to some of the things she had done to other people long ago, things she never wanted to do with the gentle bard. If Xena ever permitted herself to perform even that small act, who knows how long it would be before the warrior was doing far worse. She shuddered at the thought.
"You all right, Xena?" Gabrielle asked, noticing the slight trembling from the warrior beside her.
"Yea, I’m fine. Just a little cool this morning," the warrior quickly replied, hoping the other woman didn’t see the look of bleak fear in her usually icy eyes.
"Thought you warrior types didn’t feel the cold. Glad to see you’re human after all," the bard muttered to herself as they entered the stable.
Xena immediately headed for the stall where Argo was being stabled, picking up her saddle as she passed. Gabrielle stood in the warming patch of sunshine at the open doors, enjoying the smells of the building. She had fond memories of another stable, far away from the Amazon Nation, where the two of them had taken shelter from a thunderstorm. Surrounded by sweet smelling hay and fresh grain, Xena had finally come to the bard and offered herself as a lover, an offer the younger woman had willingly accepted. Gabrielle smiled to herself. She could still remember the hesitant approach the warrior had made, even though it was the one thing the bard had wanted above all else. It had been like the warrior was afraid of something, something that Gabrielle was still trying to figure out after all this time.
The bard was still re-playing the wonderful memories of that entire night inside her head when she heard a faint sound above her. Pulling herself back into the here and now, she glanced over her head. All she could see was the ladder leading up to the hay loft and the dark hole of its entrance. A quick glance at Xena showed she was still busy talking to Argo and getting her saddled up for the day ahead. The bard thought it wouldn’t take a moment to investigate the noise she’d heard. Putting thought into action, Gabrielle decided to see what the sound had been, knowing Xena was close by if there was any trouble. Grabbing the rope to pull the ladder down, the bard quickly climbed into the loft above.
Usually the hay loft was bright and airy, but someone had closed the big bay doors they used when hauling the hay bales into the loft. It left the room dim and warm, filled with the scent of summer hay, the smell of horses rising up from below. There was some light coming in from the hatchway behind her, and Gabrielle used this to see if there was anyone in the loft. Moving as silently as she could over the hay covering the floor of the loft, Gabrielle tried to listen for any sounds above the slight rustling she was making. Stopping for a moment, she focused her ears carefully. Over in the far corner she could just make out the faint noise of someone weeping softly.
Not wishing to startle whoever it might have been, Gabrielle walked as quietly as she knew how through the bales towards the whimpering little cries. To the bard’s ears, it didn’t sound like a child, and she guessed it might be one of the grown women. Common sense also told the bard that only a grown warrior could have pulled the ladder up behind her. Gabrielle’s soft heart was already reaching out to the unknown woman just on the other side of the bales. Stepping around the last of them, the bard could faintly make out the sight of a small Amazon warrior sitting hunched over her knees, trying to stifle the sound of her tears by wrapping her arms around her face. She must have been moving more quietly than she realised, because the warrior suddenly leapt to her feet, surprised, her hands coming up defensively.
Gabrielle stood very still, holding her hands out in front of her. "It’s all right. Really. It’s just that I heard you crying from downstairs and thought you might like to talk to someone," she said softly.
The warrior’s eyes grew wider as she realised just who was standing in front of her. "P...P...Princess G...Gabrielle. I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was you," the woman stammered, quickly dropping her defensive stance. "I’m fine. Truly. I don’t need anyone to talk to," she continued, embarrassed.
"For someone with tears all down her face and such a woebegone expression, something tells me you might like to talk with someone. You just feel uncomfortable with the idea of talking to me because I am supposed to be a princess," Gabrielle said, putting her most winning tones into the words.
The warrior hung her head. That was exactly how she was feeling. She hadn’t thought the Princess could be quite that perceptive. Then again, she had only ever seen Gabrielle working out on the training ground or standing beside the Queen on the platform in the compound; she had never really spoken to her at all. "I really don’t want to take up your time, Princess. You have too many other important things to do," the warrior said, barely raising her head to speak.
"And you’re not important enough to rate some of that time?" Gabrielle countered firmly. "Perhaps you could start by telling me your name, seeing as you already know mine," she said, softening her tone.
"I am called Jadaxious, Jadax for short, Princess," the warrior answered, her fingers twisting in the ties of her short Amazon skirt.
"Please, just call me Gabrielle. Most of the time I don’t feel the least bit like an Amazon Princess," the bard said as she moved closer to the tearful warrior. "Why don’t we sit right here and chat for a while? No one will bother us up here, and it is nice and warm."
The two women sat down together between the bales of hay, Jadaxious trying not to look uncomfortable with the way Gabrielle nestled in close. In a strange kind of way, it made her feel protected, and she felt herself slowly relaxing against the other woman. Perhaps she could talk to the Princ... Gabrielle, she thought. Jadaxious felt as though she had been carrying her secret forever, and it might be a relief to finally tell someone else about it.
"So tell me, Jadax. What is so awful that you have to hide in the hayloft to cry about it?" Gabrielle asked gently.
The warrior swallowed back on her tears for a moment and whispered, "I’m in love with Queen Ephiny." Being able to give voice to her secret at last broke the fragile dam she had been using to hold the majority of the tears in check, and Jadaxious gratefully collapsed into Gabrielle’s supportive arms, weeping despondently. Somehow, through the sobs she managed to force out one more sentence. "And she doesn’t even know I am alive," she wailed.
Gabrielle held the weeping woman gently against her shoulder as Jadaxious’s tears seemed to pour from some deeply hidden well-spring. She was crying so hard, she didn’t even notice the appearance of a tall, dark-haired warrior woman as she stepped around the hay bales. Gabrielle half whispered, half mouthed silently to Xena and her questioning eyebrow at the sight of the distraught warrior, "This might take a while. Why don’t you go on without me."
Xena shook her head, feeling a little irritated. She had been looking forward to spending some time completely alone with the bard in the forest before examining the mountain pass, and she wasn’t going to lose that opportunity for anything. She quickly pointed to herself and made eating gestures with one hand, indicating she would go and have some breakfast while she waited for the bard. Pointing to Gabrielle, the warrior silently asked if she wanted anything brought up to the hayloft.
Glancing down at the woman still sobbing in her arms, Gabrielle nodded. "In about two candlemarks or so," she whispered to the tall woman standing next to her.
Xena nodded in reply before walking back through the hayloft. She was starting to understand what the bard had meant about inconvenient interruptions. Smiling to herself as she stepped off the bottom of the ladder, she wondered if any of the other women would be up to a little training session with her. Some light exercise would be just the thing to take some of the kinks out of her back after spending the night on a far too soft bed.
Gabrielle waited patiently as the worst of the storm of weeping passed. By the time the tears had slowed to a trickle down the warrior’s face, the bard thought it might be time to start talking. "Feeling better?" she asked gently, wiping the last of the tears from the woman’s face with her fingers.
"Mmmm. A little," Jadaxious replied, not moving from the support of the other woman’s arms.
Thinking to herself, Gabrielle remembered a little helpful hint from Xena when the bard was unsure of where to start something. Begin at the beginning. Good advice to use now, she thought. "Can you tell me the first time you saw Ephiny, Jadax?"
The warrior sighed deeply before answering. "About three summers ago, in my village. She was with a party of warriors who had come to negotiate something, I don’t know what; I wasn’t a warrior myself yet and they wouldn’t let me too close to the meeting. I had to watch everything from the back. I stood on a box so I could see over the other women, though. I can remember thinking how beautiful she was, even from behind," the woman said quietly, her face starting to glow with the memory.
"Then what happened?" Gabrielle prompted. She could feel that Jadaxious badly wanted to talk about this, having had it locked inside for so long. All she needed was an opening and the bard was giving her that.
The warrior’s head lifted as she stared at the low ceiling over them. "After the negotiating party left, I found I couldn’t shake her image from my mind. I dreamed about her every night. I knew I had to see her again, but I couldn’t leave the village until I was a warrior myself. So I trained hard and learned as much as I could." A look of intense sadness crossed Jadaxious’s face and she dropped her head to look into her lap. "But when I finished my training, well, I wasn’t much of a warrior, being so short and thin."
Gabrielle took a moment to have a long look at the warrior still wrapped in her arms. It was true that Jadaxious was on the small side, but so was the bard, and that had never stopped Gabrielle from doing anything she wanted, including fighting with Xena. Running her eyes quickly along the other woman’s body, the bard could see she didn’t have the muscular development Gabrielle was used to seeing on the other Amazons, or even herself for that matter. The warrior’s strength appeared more whip-cord. And there was nothing wrong with that at all.
"So what did you decide to do?" the bard asked.
"I decided to become a forest scout. Being so small, I was very fast. No one can travel through the trees faster than I can, and I could get into places other warriors would never fit. I can run like the wind too. I’ve never met anyone who can run as fast or for as long as I can," Jadaxious replied.
"Uh huh. And then?" Gabrielle said.
"About three seasons ago, I heard that the village here needed some forest scouts. Something about a lot of the warriors being killed or injured. The news had gotten a little distorted when it travelled, I think," the other woman answered, thinking carefully about what exactly she had heard at the time.
Gabrielle stopped to think for a moment too. It probably would have taken a full season for the news of Valeska’s attack to get out, and there had been several injuries among the warriors, many of them quite serious. The bard hadn’t realised it at the time, but somehow the news of Valeska turning herself into a god with the ambrosia must have travelled beyond the village and been heard by who knew how many others by now.
Gabrielle found herself thinking about Jadaxious in a new light. It would have taken a lot of courage, Amazon or not, to leave her home village, travelling alone to finally arrive here, all the while not knowing if she would be accepted by the warriors of this village. What the small warrior felt for Ephiny must be very strong indeed for her to do all that, but Gabrielle herself had taken off after Xena, admittedly for the adventure, yet she had still followed the warrior even though Xena hadn’t been too happy about it to start with. "So after you arrived, what happened?" she asked, now curious.
The woman sighed sadly. "Oh, I found they did need warriors, all right. The big, tall, muscly kind. And that wasn’t me." A single tear slipped from the corner of Jadaxious’s eye and ran down the side of her face.
"I don’t understand. If they didn’t need warriors like you, how come you’re still here?" Gabrielle queried.
Jadaxious smiled. "Eponin saw me just as I was getting ready to leave and sorta challenged me to a race through the treetops. I don’t know why she did it, but I’ve never turned down a challenge in my life, so I accepted. Beat her fair and square too. After she came down herself, she said I should stay because my talents would be wasted anywhere else. So I did," she explained, still not understanding the other warrior’s reasoning at the time. "I usually patrol the western border region, but I broke my ankle in a small battle with some raiders and have been back in the village recovering for the past moon and a half. In fact, the splints were only taken off this morning, but it will be a few seven-days more yet before I can go back on patrol again."
The bard looked at the warrior beside her, thinking she knew why Eponin had challenged Jadaxious. Every time the small woman mentioned Ephiny’s name, she lit up like someone had placed a brightly burning torch inside her. Eponin must have noticed it from the beginning and had found a way to keep Jadaxious in the village. Hiding a smile, Gabrielle thought she really must have a chat with Eponin about this and see what could be done to get Ephiny to notice the compact little warrior. Something deep inside the bard told her this gutsy woman might be just the person Ephiny needed to ease some of her burden as Queen, not to mention the fact Gabrielle did want to see her Amazon friend happy as well. Anyone who could hold that much love inside and not say or do a thing about it for so long must have a very strong character indeed.
"Look, I won’t say anything to Ephiny about this," Gabrielle started to say. Jadaxious shot the bard a look of gratitude. "But if you feel the need to talk some more. You know where my rooms are and you’re welcome to visit whenever you want."
The sound of hay rustling behind them told both women that Xena had returned with whatever was being served up for breakfast that morning.
"Why don’t you have something to eat and rest here for a while? I’m sure no one will bother you, and if you’re supposed to be recovering, then no one will miss you on a patrol detail either," Gabrielle said just as Xena’s long legs came into view from around the edge of the hay bales.
Jadaxious nodded in agreement, feeling much better for having talked to someone about what was in her heart.
"You ready to go, Gabrielle?" Xena asked as she squatted down and placed a tray of food in front of the two seated women.
"Just give me a heartbeat, Xena," Gabrielle replied. She quickly stuffed meat and softly cooked grains into the pocket of some flatbread and then climbed to her feet. "Ready when you are," she said, taking a large bite from the bread. Gently patting the shoulder of the other woman, the two travellers left the hay loft.
Once they were well out of hearing range, Gabrielle asked, "Could we make a short stop at Epinon’s hut, Xena? There is something I need to talk to her about for a little bit."
"Something I should know about?" Xena questioned.
"Only if you want to, Xena." Gabrielle replied, stuffing another mouthful of bread and meat between her hungry teeth.
Sitting astride Argo, both women left the last the trees behind them, slowly moving up the rocky path that would take them to the mountain pass. Gabrielle had her arms wrapped loosely around Xena’s waist, her head resting against the taller woman’s shoulder. The bard quietly hummed some song from her home village as she relaxed into the gentle sway of the horse beneath her. Xena could feel her own muscles starting to unlock again after the brief but intense lovemaking they had just done in the woods. She had been finding it harder and harder to control her emotions over the past several moons, and the last few days had been particularly so. Under normal circumstances, she would not have stopped at all, simply because she had a mission she should be focused on, but for some reason, surprisingly, she had given in to her own arousal. The candlemark or so they had spent rolling naked in the leaf litter wasn’t going to make any real difference to what they were supposed to be doing anyway, or so Xena kept telling herself.
Xena let Gabrielle’s soft humming soothe her a little. Bubbling away, just beneath the surface, was the anger and rage she feared releasing so much. Her iron control on them was starting to slip, and Xena dreaded to think what would happen if they were ever unleashed. She hoped it would never happen, but nothing she did seemed to ease the sense of impending doom she felt hovering close by. Deep in her heart, Xena knew she still carried all those years of anger, rage and hate inside her. Fighting for good was not going to take away all of horrors she had seen or done. Even working out with several of the Amazon warriors that morning had felt, well, too good. She had called a halt to the training session early before the anger had gotten a chance to come bursting out. It was a close call but she’d managed to clamp down on it again, though it was just barely in time.
Passing around a final outcropping of rocks, Xena and Gabrielle reached the post where the last guard had been taken. The small hide the guards usually stayed in was still there, along with a tiny stone-lined firepit. Any other sign of life was either well-hidden or simply not there. This had been one of the least favoured of the guard sites because the stiff breeze whistled up the from the ravine below almost constantly. It was a hot, windy post by day and freezing cold and even windier at night.
"Hard to believe someone would volunteer for this post," Gabrielle said as she quickly dismounted from behind Xena. "There’s nothing up here except wind, rocks and more wind."
Xena took a moment to poke her head into the small hide before answering. "Some people are just like that, Gabrielle. Like to be alone with their thoughts," she replied, seeing why Kaliope would find this place attractive. A person could do a lot to thinking up here. "Ephiny said that Kaliope saw the shade from the next guard post down," Xena said, almost to herself.
Stepping towards the edge of the cliff, Xena looked over carefully, running her eyes over the rock for anything that seemed out of the ordinary. At a point almost directly under her feet but several body lengths down, there was a shadow which didn’t look quite right to her. The edges were too distinct and the angle appeared at odds with the way the sun was shining above them. "Gabrielle, there something down there I want to have a closer look at," the warrior said over one shoulder.
"Fine with me. I’ll be happy to stay right here with Argo for the time being. That edge is just a little too high for my liking. Besides, you’re the one who always plays rock-spider anyway," Gabrielle answered.
Xena gave the bard a grin and a nod before lying down on her stomach and carefully swinging her long legs over the edge of the precipice. Feeling with her toes, she found the first of the footholds and began a slow climb down to the strange shadow. A few moments later, the tall warrior was level with it and staring at another clue to the puzzle.
Embedded directly into the rock was a solid iron eye-bolt, with a tiny length of cow gut rope still attached. The colour of the rope almost matched the surrounding rock, and Xena was sure that if not for what she had thought was a strange shadow, she would have never seen it from above. Rubbing the gut rope between her fingers, Xena muttered to herself, "This stuff costs the earth to buy, and iron eye-bolts aren’t exactly a dinar a dozen either." Taking the breast dagger from the top of her bodice, she inserted it into the eye of the bolt and carefully unscrewed it from the stone. "Must have taken quite some time to get this thing in," Xena mumbled to herself as the bolt slowly emerged.
Above her, Xena could hear the crunch of gravel as Gabrielle moved around, probably doing everything she could to avoid looking over the edge of the ravine. The sudden clatter of Gabrielle’s staff hitting the ground startled the warrior, and she almost dropped the bolt as its last thread loosened. "You all right up there, Gabrielle?" Xena called out. There was silence for a few moments, broken only by the whistling of the wind as it passed her ears. "Answer me, Gabrielle. This isn’t funny," she shouted above the wind noise. The only answer she got was a nicker from Argo. There was no reply from the bard herself.
Tucking the bolt into the top of her bodice along with her breast dagger, Xena quickly scrambled up the rock face again. Slowly raising her head so just her eyes were above the edge of the ravine, she looked around, searching for the bard. Spotting the other woman’s staff lying on the stone near the little firepit, Xena wrenched herself up the last body length, her armour scraping on the edge of the ravine as she passed, and drew her sword the moment her feet hit the ground. Crouching slightly, Xena spun in a tight semi-circle trying to see any sign of Gabrielle. She fully expected the bard to pop out from behind a rock outcropping with a silly grin on her face. Stalking carefully towards Argo, eyes seeming to look in every direction at once, Xena quickly realised that Gabrielle was not playing some kind of game.
Gabrielle had disappeared in the same way as the seven other women before her.
Xena could feel herself getting angry. She was no longer trying to puzzle out which god was interfering with the Amazon Nation, nor was she trying to understand how a shade could be taking the women. After seeing that eye-bolt, Xena knew she was dealing with a flesh and blood person. What she didn’t understand, and had not given a lot of thought to yet, was what in Tartarus this unknown person had to gain from kidnapping the Amazons or Gabrielle.
A quick search of the immediate area and the nearby rock outcroppings didn’t offer up a single clue about who had taken Gabrielle or how they had managed to disappear so completely and quickly afterwards. Packing Gabrielle’s staff into the saddle-bags, Xena mounted, trying to decide with path would lead her to her lover. There were at least six paths away from the lookout post. Some led into the forest, below and others moved further down the mountain following the edge of the ravine.
The warrior cleared the anger from her mind for a moment to think things through logically. It took more effort than she was used to, but eventually she felt she had regained control over herself again. Any path along the ravine rim would have little cover and plenty of open spaces between the rock outcroppings where an enemy could be spotted. Logic dictated a more hidden retreat. That eliminated two of the paths straight away, the one they had travelled up on and another leading down the other side. But it still left four paths Gabrielle could have been taken along, and she was getting further and further away as Xena sat there trying to figure out where to go. Taking the path which made the quickest return to the forest below, Xena set off in search of Gabrielle, the barely controlled rage making her eyes icy and her face hard.
Her eyes scanned intently over the path and into the undergrowth on both sides looking for any sign of someone having recently passed. All the marks Xena did see were old and worn. Very few people went up to the mountain lookout unless they had to be there, and the guards usually took the same path up that Xena and Gabrielle had used.
Right at the bottom of the path, long before it would meet up with the main path to the village, Xena finally spotted something in the undergrowth. Quickly dismounting, she walked over to the tiny, brightly coloured thread caught on a small thorn in the bushes. Its very brightness was what had made it so easy for her to see against the dark greens and browns of the forest. After working it loose with gentle fingers, she carefully ran her fingertips over it. "Homespun," she muttered to herself. "No one wears much of this here. Most of the women wear leather or buckskin." Letting the light shine on the thread from over her shoulder, the warrior noticed the colour seemed too bright for something which should have been hanging on the thorn for days if not longer, according to the other marks she had seen along the path. Someone had passed through these bushes very recently indeed.
Moving Argo off the track and into the trees on the other side, Xena thought for a moment about taking Gabrielle’s staff with her. A quick glance told her the undergrowth was too thick and it would be a hindrance long before she or Gabrielle found it useful. She quickly walked back to the side of the path where she had found the thread and pushed the thorny branches aside with her sword before carefully stepping through. The forest wasn’t much more open on the other side, and Xena knew it would take her candlemarks if she tried to proceed through it on foot. Looking over her head, she spotted a horizontal branch she could jump onto without too much trouble. Flexing her knees, she bounded up and was soon standing securely on the branch. Scanning the ground below her, she could just make out the faint track someone had made as they forced their way through the brambles and thorny bushes. Whoever it was, they had been very careful to try to cover their passing, but they obviously hadn’t counted on a certain Warrior Princess following behind.
Xena followed the trace relentlessly, league after league, moving as quickly as she could through the trees. On several occasions, she had to climb down from the branches to pick up the trail again as it crossed a rocky area or simply disappeared for a time. It was well into the late afternoon, the surrounding forest already in deep gloom, when her sharp ears picked up the sound of voices ahead. Echoing faintly under the voices was the burble of water running over rocks and boulders. Stopping for a moment to orient herself, Xena realised she was just a candlemark’s fast walk from the western edge of the Amazon hunting grounds. Something told her this was not an Amazon border patrol, nor would it be a hunting party.
Moving silently through the last of the covering branches, Xena crept up on whoever was camped in the clearing. Peering through the last of the branches, she could see no sign of the captured Amazons or of Gabrielle. It made sense in a way. The women were probably being held somewhere else. Xena would simply have to ask where, after she had pinched off the blood flow to some poor soul’s brain.
She carefully counted the number of people in the clearing. She could see about a dozen men, but from the number of bedrolls and lean-tos scattered about, there were bound to be more somewhere, probably close by. Xena decided to wait until nightfall before making her entrance into the camp below. It would be much more frightening that way, she thought.
By the time true night had arrived, Xena’s anger was barely held in check. She had been listening to the men talk, and most of what they had been saying would have been enough to anger anyone. One conversation in particular had set her off. Two men had stood less than twenty paces from her hiding place and discussed the possibility of taking one of the very young girls from the Amazon village. The acts they were describing in such graphic terms would have been enough to turn her stomach if she hadn’t been so filled with rage at the very idea of abusing a youngster in such a way. Even when she had been a warlord herself, she had never condoned that kind of behaviour from her men. They may have done other things far more monstrous, but when she could, Xena had tried to stop them from harming women and children.
As Xena had watched and listened to the men in the encampment below, the anger and rage she had fought with for so long pushed against the weakening barrier of her self-control. Part of her wanted nothing more than to let it go so she could simply kill and kill and kill, feeling nothing more than the satisfaction of causing so much pain and death. But the other side, that part of her Hercules had made her see was still there, that part Gabrielle nurtured so lovingly, struggled to maintain the control she felt she needed so desperately if she was to make up for her years of evil. Crouched in the branches, Xena fought with herself. Her hands had fisted together until her short nails had pierced her strong palms, the blood dripping along her forearms and over her gauntlets. Every muscle in her body was locked tight in the silent battle with her anger and hate. In the deepest, most hidden part of her soul, she really didn’t want to win this battle. Two summers of fighting for good had not stilled the silent desire in her heart to wipe out everyone and everything in her path. All the blind anger and unthinking rage needed now was a final trigger.
A man suddenly came scrambling up from the river side of the camp, his face glowing with the excitement of his news. "Hey!! We’ve got Xena’s whore!" he yelled happily around the clearing for all the hear.
Xena’s mind snapped closed at his words, and any hope she may have had of controlling the anger within her evaporated. The only thing left was the rage pouring through her heart and soul, the desire to kill as many as she could for as long as she was able. Snatching her sword from the sheath on her back, she shot through the last of the branches like an angry arrow shot from a bow. Most of the men never knew what killed them.
"Are you all right, Princess?" a gentle voice asked through the incredibly loud ringing in Gabrielle’s ears.
Opening her eyes, the bard saw the face of an Amazon warrior leaning over her worriedly. "Yea. Ouch. I think so. Just a few scrapes from the rock is all," she replied as she patted her hands over her body feeling for anything more serious.
In the dim light, Gabrielle looked around the place she had landed. It resembled a rough stone bubble with a nearly flat floor, several cracks along one side allowing some light to filter in. Overhead was the opening she had been thrown down. She had taken a several-body-length fall through a rock tunnel before dropping out the other end and into the little cavern. Even from where she lay, Gabrielle could see the overhead entrance had been blocked off with the same large, flat stone her abductor had removed just before tossing her into the hole beneath. A quick head count gave her seven other women with her, some looking decidedly worse for wear. A few bedrolls were scattered along one side, and there were several baskets stacked near them. Aside from the light coming through the cracks in the walls, there were no torches and no fire. This was going to be one cold place come nightfall, she thought to herself.
"I’m assuming you all got here the same way I just did," Gabrielle said as she slowly climbed to her feet, waving away the assistance of one of the warriors.
Every woman nodded at her, confirming they had been captured and then thrown down the rock tunnel.
Limping around the cavern, working out some of the pain in her legs from the fall, Gabrielle asked, "Did anyone get a look at the behemoth that grabbed us?" The bard wasn’t surprised when no one had.
"Can you tell us what happened to you?" one of the other warriors questioned.
"Xena and I were up on the mountain lookout. She had gone over the side of the ravine to look at something, and I was just standing there, trying to work up the courage to peek over the edge. A huge gloved hand suddenly appeared in front of my face and clamped itself over my mouth, and I felt an even larger body behind me. Then it was like the mountain fell on me. That’s the last thing I remember until just before I saw that big black hole under me," Gabrielle explained. Looking at the other women gathered around her, the bard decided she had better get everyone else’s story as well. "So, who was the first to do that pleasant little drop?"
It didn’t take long to find out what had happened to each woman. All but one told an almost identical tale of a black gloved hand appearing out of nowhere, being ‘helped’ into unconsciousness and then the drop into the cavern. Only the last woman told a different story.
Deonisia had been the guard taken from the mountain pass lookout. She had seen something flashing across the ravine from the other side, and when she went to investigate, a large glowing shape had risen from the edge of the ravine at her feet. She had barely had a chance to move when a glowing fist had connected with the side of her head and the next thing she knew she was here with the others.
"There was something else different about Deonisia’s arrival, though," Hariklea said. "When she was dumped down here it was still quite late at night, and where she had been hit, as well as some of her clothing, was glowing in the darkness. You’ll probably see it for yourself tonight after the sun sets, Princess Gabrielle."
"Please, just call me Gabrielle. We’re all in this one together, you know," the bard said. When are the Amazons ever going to relax around me? she thought a little irritably. "Can I see your clothing, Deonisia?" the blonde-haired woman asked.
The Amazon turned until the area of her clothing that glowed at night was in plain view. Gabrielle gently rubbed her fingers over the leather, feeling a light dust come away under them. Cupping her other hand over her fingertips and peering into a small crack she made between her cupped fingers, she could see a faint glow from the dust. "Nothing too special about this," she said as she wiped the dust residue from her hand. "It’s a cave fungus that makes its own cold light. Xena showed it to me one time. Looks pretty spooky at night, I guess, if you don’t know what it is. Some people collect it, dry it out and then sell for it special festivals and such. Xena told me it costs a small fortune in dinars, though, because it is so hard to get. Nice to have that part of the mystery solved, anyway. I just wish I could tell Xena about it."
Gabrielle had begun to walk around the small cavern looking for any possible way out. If there had been one, the other women probably would have found it by now themselves, but she needed something to take her mind off being trapped. She knew Xena would move mountains, literally if necessary, to find her again, but the bard hated feeling this helpless. Carefully examining the cracks in the stone wall, she saw that they were a body length or so long but not one of them was wide enough for her to crawl along.
Giggling emotionally a little, she thought a fat snake would have trouble getting through most of the openings. Finally settling again with the women, she decided she needed something that would take everyone’s mind of the situation. "How about I tell you a story or two," she asked quietly. The women nodded in agreement, grateful for something to do other than worry. Thinking for a moment, Gabrielle began, "I sing a song of Xena, Warrior Princess, protector of nations..."
Ephiny stood in the darkness near the entrance of her palace. A couple of her personal guards were standing further back in the darkness behind her. They were always behind her. She was really starting to understand why Gabrielle hated having an escort around when she came to visit. What few moments of complete privacy she managed to find in a day were truly precious to her now. Maybe the Princess had the right idea. No one could possibly get to her in the village proper, but as far as the other Amazons were concerned, it just wasn’t right for a Queen not to have some kind of an escort or guard with her at all times. Ephiny sighed deeply. It was really putting a cramp in her social life. She missed the long nights by the fire, talking and drinking and telling unbelievable tales of battles past. Smiling sadly, she realised she missed some of the things that happened away from the light of the fire more.
Spotting Eponin striding a little angrily across the compound, Ephiny pursed her lips and gave a soft, three note whistle. The warrior’s head snapped around at the sound. It was a private code they had worked out between them summers before, and Eponin knew the Queen was the only one who would use it. She couldn’t see Ephiny standing in the darkness, but the whistle had come from there. Changing direction, Eponin quickly closed the distance between herself and the Queen. As she drew near, the warrior could just make out Ephiny standing in the gloom waiting for her.
"Hi, Eponin," The Amazon Queen said quietly.
"Evening, Your Majesty," Eponin replied formally, bowing slightly from the waist.
"Oh, please, I’ve been just about Majesty-ed to death lately. Call me Ephiny, will you," the woman chuckled, a little sadly.
"Okay, Ephiny. What can I do for you?" the warrior asked, moving further into the darkness with the other woman.
"From the way your feet were throwing up the dust, you looked annoyed about something. Lose someone?" the Queen asked. "Want me to toss them into the cells, perhaps?" Ephiny laughed.
Both eyebrows climbed up Eponin’s forehead in surprise. "How did you know?" the warrior took another breath. "How you knew doesn’t really matter, I suppose, but Xena and Gabrielle arranged to meet with me for evemeal tonight and they didn’t turn up," the woman explained. "And we both know how the Princess loves my cooking."
"Gabrielle loves everyone’s cooking," Eponin said, knowing from her own experience how much the bard loved to eat.
"Except Xena’s," they both said together and leaned against each other for a moment, laughing.
Sobering, Ephiny thought for a minute. "Well, it’s not like Xena to miss an appointment, especially one involving food and her bard. The least she would have done is send a message letting you know she wasn’t coming. Do you know where they were headed today?" she asked seriously.
"Up to the mountain pass lookout. Xena wanted to have a look around up there," Eponin said without hesitation.
"And Gabrielle was going with her?" Ephiny questioned further.
"As far as I know. I think they were planning a little stop along the way, if you know what I mean," Eponin replied. Eponin couldn’t keep the wicked grin out of her voice. Four seasons coupled and that pair were still as passionate as the day they had first gotten together.
"Hmmm, not like Xena to miss an appointment, regardless of what other, um, distractions are about, so my guess is there may have been trouble somewhere between here and the lookout," Ephiny said, fingering the handle of a short knife on her waist. "Do we have a runner available tonight?" the Queen asked, already thinking of what she might need to do.
"I know just the warrior for the job," Eponin said quickly. "Meet you back here in a heartbeat," she said as she ran off across the compound.
The Amazon Queen stood for several impatient minutes waiting for Eponin to return with a runner. She forced herself not to think about what may have happened at the lookout, but with so many warriors disappearing over the past moon, she was concerned the same may have occurred to Xena and Gabrielle. However, Xena would have put up a good fight if something had tried to grab either of them. Just as she was starting to lose what little patience she had left, the sound of running footsteps filled her ears through the darkness.
"Sorry to take so long, Ephiny, but she was up in the hayloft," Eponin gasped, trying to drag air into her labouring chest.
Ephiny took a good, long look at the warrior Eponin had dragged out of the hayloft. The Queen didn’t even want to think about what she had been doing up there. There had been too little of that happening in her own life to make her happy. For some reason, she couldn’t remember ever meeting this warrior, and she thought she knew everyone at least by face. She was positively tiny, smaller than any other Amazon Ephiny had ever seen in her life, and so thin. It was like there was nothing more to her than a few bones covered with deeply tanned skin. She carried no bow or sword at all; Ephiny doubted she could have pulled or lifted either. Her only weapons seemed to be a knife dwarfing her waist and a long coil of rope she wore over one thin shoulder. Ephiny also noticed the way she seemed to be favouring one ankle as she stood waiting for her orders.
"Are you sure?" the Queen started to ask, hesitating to insult someone who was obviously an Amazon, though a very tiny one.
"You’ll find no one faster on two feet than Jadaxious. She can be at the mountain pass lookout and back in two candlemarks," Eponin said quickly, seeing the hesitation in the Queen.
"Excuse me, Your Majesty, Eponin. I can make that run in about one and a half. I’ve done it before," the compact little warrior stated surely. She had made the run in that time in the past, but she had just gotten the splints taken off her ankle that morning, the bone barely healed after its break. She would really have to push herself if she wanted to do it in the same time tonight.
The Amazon Queen nodded. "You’re looking for any sign of Xena or Princess Gabrielle. They probably took the lower forest road to the top. Get back here as fast as you can. Please. It’s important," Ephiny said, almost pleading the last few words.
"I’ll do my best, My Queen." Briefly laying one hand over her heart before turning away, Jadaxious took off faster than a banshee in the night, headed for the pass.
"Why don’t we wait in your quarters, Ephiny?" Eponin asked quietly. This was going to be a long night for all of them.
Shaking her head as though in a daze, the Amazon Queen nodded. Eponin saw the expression on Ephiny’s face and couldn’t help smiling to herself. Seems our Queen has finally realised Jadaxious is alive, she thought wickedly to herself. The next move would be entirely up to Ephiny.
Jadax jogged quickly along the lower forest path headed for the pass, the thin moonlight shining through the treetops overhead. She didn’t really need to see her way; her feet had travelled this path before and they remembered. Letting her legs simply carry her along, the tiny warrior swept her eyes from left to right looking for any sign of Xena and Gabrielle having passed this way. It wasn’t until she was well out of the area usually travelled by the other Amazons that she picked up the lone prints of a single horse with someone walking closely beside it. None of the mountain guards would have ridden up here. They usually walked, so she assumed it had to be Xena and Gabrielle. The damp side of overturned leaves showed darkly against the leaf litter and were easy to follow, even in the moonlight.
She was still in the forest but already feeling the upward climb towards the mountain pass in her calf and thigh muscles when she spotted the trail of scuffed up ground leaving the path and heading deeper into the woods. Still following, Jadaxious came across the little clearing where Xena and Gabrielle had stopped to make love. All the signs of what had gone on there were clear to the forest scout. "Passionate pair," she whispered to herself before picking up the trail again and continuing up the track. The prints she was following had changed from a horse and a walker to just the horse alone. Jadax assumed Gabrielle had mounted behind Xena after making love together. Not surprising, if the signs in the clearing where anything to go by, she thought.
Reaching the top, barely out of breath from the run, Jadaxious looked around the windy guard post. There was no sign of either Xena or Gabrielle anywhere. In fact, there was no one there at all. Being so short of guards, this particular post was being left empty for the moment. There were other guard posts further along on both sides, though Jadax knew the one on her right was also empty for the same reasons. Carefully stepping closer to the edge, she peered through the darkness below, just in case they had fallen or been pushed into the ravine. Not seeing anything there, Jadaxious went to step back. Just as she did, her eye caught something on the rock at her feet. Kneeling down to see better, she noticed a new looking scrape right on the edge. "Like someone’s armour had been dragged across it," she muttered to herself. From the angle of the scrape, she could see the someone had been on their way up, and not on their way down. It had to be Xena, she thought, remembering the beautiful swirling breast armour the woman wore.
Thinking that maybe the pair had decided to check the next empty guard post along, Jadaxious began to weave her way through the rock outcroppings heading down to it. She didn’t bother with the usual path simply because the way she was going would be quicker and she had promised Queen Ephiny to get up here and back to the village as fast as she could. She spent most of the time walking a bare pace from the lip of the ravine. Like most of the paths she followed, she knew them well, and she certainly wasn’t afraid of a little height. She was a forest scout, after all.
Jadaxious had gotten about halfway to the next empty guard post when her sensitive ears picked up a sound that shouldn’t have been there. Shaking her head, she listened closely. Hearing nothing, she thought it must have been the wind which blew constantly up the ravine wall. Lifting her foot to take the next step, she heard it again. She was sure this time. It was a voice; more importantly, it was Princess Gabrielle’s voice. Glancing around, she couldn’t see any sign of a cave or an overhang where the woman might be, so that left the rock face itself.
Quickly tying off her rope to one of the outcroppings, Jadax carefully lowered herself down the face of the ravine, searching for any openings large enough to hold a person. As she moved down the rock, Gabrielle’s voice was getting louder and clearer until the forest scout thought she must be standing right on top of the Amazon Princess, but she still couldn’t see any sign of her. Deciding to risk it, Jadaxious whispered loudly. "Gabrielle? Gabrielle? Can you hear me?"
The bard’s voice stopped and Jadax could hear the sound of someone calling to her from just below. "Hello? Who’s out there? Can you help us?" the voice asked, an echo partially disguising who was talking.
The scout dropped a little further down her rope and came across several vertical splits in the rock face. Now that she was level with the voice, it sounded clearly in her ears. It was Deonisia, the guard who had been taken from the lookout post. "Who’s in there with you, Deonisia?" Jadax asked quickly.
"Everyone who was taken, including the Princess," the guard replied.
"Is Xena in there too?" the scout questioned. She would like to have found both women, knowing it would make the Queen happy.
"No. The last I know she was still on the rock face looking at something. I haven’t got any idea where she is now, though," Gabrielle’s voice floated out of the nearest split.
Jadaxious was carefully examining the splits to see if one was wide enough for her small body to slip through. Finding one she thought would do, she started to wriggle herself into it. It was a tight squeeze, even for her, but it was only a matter of several heartbeats before she felt the strong hands of her sister warriors helping her to her feet. "Cosy place you have here," she joked with everyone. In the small amount of moonlight that managed to get through the cracks, Jadaxious could just make out several people standing near her. "Is everyone all right?" she asked.
"We’re all fine, though it’s a little cold in here at night," a voice said quietly.
"The Queen was worried when Xena and the Princess didn’t return to the village, and she sent me up to have a look around," Jadax explained.
"Hurray for Queen Mother Hen," Gabrielle’s voice sounded happily to Jadax’s left.
Thinking quickly, the little scout said to the trapped women, "I think I know where the entrance to this place is, and I am assuming it is blocked in some way, right?"
Several murmurs of agreement came from around the small cavern.
"And I am certainly not big enough to move it alone. So, I’ll get back to the village as fast as I can to organise a rescue party for you," she continued.
"Sounds like just the plan to me," Deonisia said. "Here. Let me give you a hand back up again."
The guard soon had Jadaxious on her way out of the crack and back up the rock face.
Coiling the rope again and looping it over her shoulder, the scout thought about the fastest way back to the village. Terrain didn’t matter now to the woman or her healing ankle. She needed to get back to the Queen and get a party of warriors up here as soon as she could. There was really only one option open to her—the fast path straight down the mountainside. Jogging back up to the top, Jadaxious hoped she could make it okay. It was a steep path, and more than one person had slipped over the seasons and broken a bone or two. That was the last thing she needed right now.