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Festival of Flowers

by Quest

Gabrielle had been quiet ever since they passed the first Amazon territory markers, so Xena was startled when she finally broke her silence. "I really wanted to thank you, you know, for coming all the way out here." Xena shrugged, continuing to lead Argo carefully around deadfalls and trees. "Well it's not like we had any place else we had to be, after we dealt with that idiot mayor and his tax collector bully boy. . ."

Gabrielle nodded. "Yeah, but it is still a long way from Corinth. And I really do appreciate your coming with me. Especially since I know that you, um, don't really get along with some of the Amazons very well . .."

Xena flashed a wry smile at Gabrielle, chuckling. " Well, this festival only happens once a year, and Queen Melosa DID send a special messenger to find their Princess. She said it was very important to them, to have you there. We wouldn't want to disappoint your Amazons, now would we?"

Soon after they passed the inner set of markers, and were truly on Amazon ground, they set up camp for the night. Xena set a snare when they found a sheltered spot, and by the time Gabrielle had the fire going, she was skinning a hare for dinner. Gabrielle watched her, still fascinated by Xena's deft handling of the blade, even after all this time.

"What do you suppose this Festival of Flowers is, anyway?" Gabrielle asked. Xena paused, setting the hare aside for a moment and wiping her hands. "Well, I know a lot of people have some kind of spring celebration. They mark the time when Persephone leaves the Underworld, and Demeter finally allows us to be warm again. Didn't you have something like it at your village?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Sure we did. But it wasn't any big deal, just some dancing, some drinking, and a priest going on about Demeter for a while. . ."

"Well, in some cities it IS a big deal. If we're near Athens next spring, I'll have to remember to show you the decorations on Demeter's shrine. . . A lot of people get married there, too. Something about new life and getting the blessing of the goddess. It always seemed like a waste of time to me, but the decorations were beautiful . . ."

Gabrielle sighed wistfully, and when she slept, she dreamed of dancing before Demeter's shrine.

They arrived at the Amazon encampment just before mid-day, and were greeted warmly by the Queen herself.

"Gabrielle, I am so glad that you could make it here for the festival tomorrow. When Nerena told me how far she'd had to go to find you, and that you had business that might keep you for a while yet, I feared you wouldn't get here in time. But here you are, and Xena as well. I've set aside huts for you both, and stabling for Argo; I think that we've got plenty of feed for her, but you might want to check on that. Anera will show you where."

The Queen raised her hand, and a young, fair haired Amazon came trotting over from the group of on-lookers. The Queen turned back to her guests, "I'm sorry I can't talk with you longer. I want to know all about your travels since you were last here, but I still have so many preparations to make before tomorrow evening. . ."

Gabrielle nodded knowingly, "I'm sure organizing such a big event must be complicated . . ." She trailed off in confusion as Melosa, already deep in discussion with a tall redhead, walked away. Gabrielle was silent for a moment, regrouping, then she dusted her hands together and turned to Anera. "Well, I guess we'd better see about those huts then."

Anera nodded seriously, smiling behind her hand as she led the two women off towards their accommodations.

The huts were small, containing only a bed, a table, and a chest for clothing. But they were warm, and comfortable, and the hangings that served as doors were of a fine cloth decorated with hanging strings of beads and feathers. Gabrielle looked around the inside of her hut, taking stock. After a bit, she decided she liked it. Understated, but comfortable. Humming, she unpacked her few belongings, setting her staff by the door. Sitting on the bed, looking around at the small rooms, she wondered what it would be like to stay for a while: A princess among a band of warrior women.

She stretched out of the bed, daydreaming and gazing at the ceiling, which was painted with patterns and pictures, cunningly worked in rich earth tones. As her eye traced the flow of the work, she realized it told a story. There were battles, and celebrations; pictures of lovers, and children. The farther she traced the story, the more involved she became in the painting. She could almost hear the stamping of the centaur's hooves, feel the anguish of lives lost, never to return. Then, nearing the end, she saw pictures that seemed somehow familiar . . . as if this was a story she'd heard before. There, a redheaded heroine, battling the centaurs. Then, the arrival of two others, dark and fair, bringing with them the death of the redheaded girl. . .

Gabrielle gasped as she realized why the story seemed so familiar. She scrambled up on to the bed, tracing the designs on the low ceiling with her fingers. Yes, here was her OWN arrival, the plot to start a war, there - Xena's battle against Melosa, and their departure. After that, the painting stopped abruptly, the sharp ending disguised by more swirling patterns.

Gabrielle sagged back down onto the bed, wondering who had painted these stories so exquisitely. She had a strange vision of the artist sneaking in while she slept, painting in the next scenes, so that every time she looked up at the ceiling, the history would be up to date.

A knock on the wall beside the entryway startled her out of her reverie, and at her permission, the curtain was swept aside, revealing an Amazon Gabrielle knew well. "Eponin! It's so good to see you," Gabrielle grinned, gesturing animatedly, "You know, the things you taught me have saved my life more than once! Why I remember this one time . . . . ."

Before Gabrielle could get any further in her story, Eponin interrupted her, taking her arm and guiding her out of the hut. "I'd love to hear all about it, Gabrielle. But while you tell me, why don't we go spar a bit? I want to see if you've been practicing that feint/spin strike I showed you right before you left . . ."

Xena set her packs down, nodding with approval at the Spartan furnishings. Not to much to get in the way, if you should have to maneuver in a fight. She frowned though, wishing that the hut had a solid door instead of just a curtain. Oh well, at least those beads would jangle if anyone tried to sneak in . . .

Sweeping the curtains aside, she stalked towards the stables to check on Argo's feed. The stables were comfortingly dim, and the smell of hay reminded Xena of long past days in her mother's inn. With out even realizing she'd been tense, Xena relaxed, falling into old patterns well remembered. She made sure that Argo had enough hay, and then got out the brushes. In the quiet dark, she shared a rare moment of quiet companionship with her horse, grooming Argo and rubbing her nose. The horse butted gently against Xena's stomach, begging to be scratched more actively between the ears. Xena laughed and scratched harder, 'till Argo whickered with contentment.

"Well, well, well. What do you know, Xena the Amazing Warrior Princess does have a human side after all." Xena whirled, sword out and ready, to find Ephiny leaning against the doorjamb. Scowling, Xena re-sheathed her sword and stepped out of Argo's stall. "What do you want?" Ephiny shrugged. "Melosa asked me to check on the horses, and make sure Argo had enough feed. But I see you've already taken care of that. She also asked me to let you know that you could drop by the community kitchen, if you get hungry. There won't be a formal dinner tonight. Everyone is busy with preparations."

Xena brushed past her, nodding curtly. "Thanks for the message. I'll be sure to do that." Without looking back, Xena walked back towards her hut, alertness and tension written in every muscle. And, since she never looked back, she didn't see the odd, almost wistful look Ephiny gave her, before shrugging and heading back into the stables.

The next morning Gabrielle woke, sore and bruised from sparring with Eponin. Groaning she rolled out of bed and went looking for something to eat. She settled down gingerly at a bench with several other Amazons, including Magdelus the Swift. Magda had been pretty friendly before, so she seemed like a safe bet for a companionable chat over breakfast. Always the clothes maven, Magdelus looked at her disapprovingly over a bowl of porridge. "Gabrielle, isn't that the same outfit you had on ..."

Feeling tired, and a bit defensive, Gabrielle interrupted her mid sentence. "Hey, there's not a lot of room for extra stuff in those saddlebags when you're traveling around, you know. Besides, I've usually got more important things to worry about than what I'm wearing."

Magda shook her head, making tisking noises. "Well, maybe so, but that will never to for the Festival tonight. You've GOT to have something a little more . . . well, on second thought, maybe a little less . . . but definitely SOMETHING." She pondered for a moment. "Tell you what, I've been saving a couple of outfits for a special occasion, why don't you come over to my place and we'll find you something to wear."

Gabrielle warily agreed, and they got up to put away their dishes. As they rinsed their plates in the bucket, they could hear the women at the table whispering among themselves, and as the two them walked away, one of the rowdier bunch called loudly, "Hey peacock! Planning on getting an early start celebrating, are we?"

Magda flushed bright red and spun around, hands on her hips, stamping her foot at the offending Amazon. "Peacock, oh please! And I suppose you'd rather have the Princess dressed in rags at the party tonight? As for the rest, well, it's none of your business anyway; nosy old busybody!" Grabbing Gabrielle by the arm, she stalked away from the raucous laughter of her comrades. "Come on Gabrielle, never mind those old biddies." She marched them away, not slowing until the breakfast crowd was out of sight.

Once they slowed down enough for conversation, Gabrielle looked at her friend quizzically. "What was that all about?" To her surprise, Magda blushed again, mumbling something she couldn't quite make out. Before Gabrielle could ask anything else, they were walking into Magda's house, and everything outside was forgotten as soon as Magdelus opened her wardrobe.

A magnificent blue green silk robe, stunning in it's simple beauty, was the first thing to catch Gabrielle's eye. The dark sash was edged with tiny hand painted waves in silver and blue, and the undershift was a thin gray cotton, so fine it might have been silk as well. It was paired with a mask in the shape of a stylized wave, which tied with a velvet ribbon.

Gabrielle picked it up almost reverently. "Oh, Magda. Did you make this?" Magda nodded, eyes shining with pleasure at Gabrielle's reaction. "This is magnificent. I know you were just offering an outfit to me, but . . . my friend Xena would look amazing in something like this." She paused, "Unless you were planning on wearing it, of course. Because I wouldn't want to presume to . . ."

Magda shook her head. "No, no. I already have my outfit laid out. Here," she reached out and took therobe from Gabrielle's hands. "I'll have one of the others take it over to Xena. You're right, she'd look wonderful in it."

She set that robe aside, and pulled out another outfit from the amazing array hanging in the closet. "I was rather thinking of this one for you; if you like it . . ."

Gabrielle caught her breath, staring at the marvelous dress Magda held. A deep, rich, vibrant green, the skirt was just the right length for dancing in without getting tangled. The bodice of the dress was cut close, and the collar flared high, but opened up to a heart shaped cutout neckline. A delicate enameled clasp would hold the collar closed, and thin gold chains looped from it. They would hang over a bare chest, once the dress was on. Subtle decorations in deep reds and purples made the green of the dress even more vivid, and a light cloak clasped at each shoulder with a gold brooch completed the picture. It also had a mask of feathers dyed different shades of green to look remarkably like the leaves of a springtime forest.

She insisted on trying it on, right then, so Magda had helped her put up her hair, then showed Gabrielle her reflection in a polished brass mirror.

The dress was the perfect shade for her complexion, it made her cheeks rosy and her hair flame twice as red as it really was. She had thought it would end up being a trifle overstated, but once wearing it she could see it was perfect. She laughed, twirling in front of the mirror. Then, a sneaking suspicion crept across her face.

"You made this dress specifically for me, didn't you?"

Magda blushed prettily and looked down at the floor. "Well, the Princess should have something to wear, when she is here with her people. . . "

Gabrielle grabbed her hand, "Well, it's the most magnificent gift I've ever gotten. Thank you. "

Magda looked down at their linked hands for a moment, then up into Gabrielle's eyes. Their gazes locked for several long seconds, until Gabrielle looked away, strange little butterflies crawling around in her stomach. Magda dropped her hand, and picked up Xena's robe. In a subdued voice she said, "I'll just run this over now. You can change, if you want, and bring your dress over ... Don't want to get it dirty before tonight, or let anybody see it, either. . . " With that, she ducked out the door and trotted off.

Later Gabrielle walked back towards her room, carrying the dress in an extra bit of fabric sacking. Lost in thought she paid no attention to where she was going until she ran directly into Eponin, almost dropping her new dress in the process. Only a quick juggling act saved her prize from the dirt.

"Whatcha got there, Honey-tongue?" Eponin asked, lending a steadying hand.

"Oh, just a new outfit for the Festival tonight."

Eponin nodded knowingly. "The Festival, eh? Good for you. I think even the drabbest birds have grown new plumage for tonight . . . and all to impress their new Princess. Can't have them out shining you, it wouldn't be proper. So, are you looking forward to it?"

"Well, yes, but . . ." Gabrielle looked a bit forlorn, and Eponin gave her a mock punch to the arm. "But what? It should be marvelous fun! Don't tell me you don't like to dance?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "No, it's not that. It's just that, well, I'm not entirely certain what to expect. I've never been to one of these before, so . . . I don't know. Is there anything in particular I need to know? Anything I'm supposed to do?"

Eponin looked surprised. "Why, You mean Xena hasn't explained it all to you? She knows our ways so well, I just sort of assumed that she knew about this as well . . ."

Gabrielle shook her head. "She guessed it was some sort of Spring celebration thing, but . . ."

Shrugging, Eponin began to tell her about the night's plans. "Well, everything starts off fairly serious. Melosa talks about Demeter and Persephone, and the significance of the cycles of death and re-birth. Then we celebrate the memories of the dead by giving their names new life. Children are always named at the Festival. so that the names can be passed on. After that, the feast, and then the dancing, drinking, and merriment really get started."

Eponin chuckled, obviously enjoying fond memories of past festivals. "That's when flowers are given as tokens of . . . affection. It's considered very bad luck for the tribe, if anyone ends the night without receiving a flower. It's like an insult to the goddess, you know, turning away her gifts . . .

Anyway, some of the women go out into the surrounding villages. They take their flower to a man close to their heart, and many's the child that's born from those Festival nights. But more of us stay here, and celebrate life with our sisters."

Pausing, Eponin looked at Gabrielle with a wicked glimmer in her eye. "It's also tradition that, on this one night of the year, you should gift the flower to someone other than the person you spend most of your time with. So, if you and Xena . . ." She left the question hanging, curiosity written frankly on her face.

Gabrielle blushed vivid scarlet and stuttered for a moment, gesturing helplessly "Oh, no. No-no-no, no. We, we aren't ; I mean, we haven't . . . That is, we're just good friends."

Laughing merrily Eponin turned and walked away. Looking back over her shoulder she delivered one last parting shot. "I'll take your word for it. But you know what everyone else will be thinking, so you'd best pick someone else for your flower tonight. Else your people will feel left out! You wouldn't want them to believe that their new Princess thought she was too good for them, would you?"

Gabrielle smiled weakly. "No, we wouldn't want that . . ."

As the sun gently rested on the horizon, a crowd of somberly clad Amazons gathered before Melosa's throne.

"Today Persephone returns from the Underworld, and Life itself is re-born. Demeter dresses in new finery to greet her returning daughter, and the chill misery of Winter is forgotten. The goddess lets go her grudge against Hades, and all the world rejoices. Let us honor her, then, by doing the same, for today is a day to lay old quarrels to rest. If you have a dispute with your sister, put it aside. If you yet cling to the chill of a feud with a long time enemy, let the warmth of our companionship thaw your heart. Do not let this Winter sun set on your anger. Let it go, and seek a new beginning. Today is also the day that we give final honor to our dead, by letting go of the grief we have held so long within. While we hold the memory of their lives ever dearer, let us give that memory new life by sharing it with someone who never knew them."

One by one women stepped forward, babies and young children cradled in their arms. They gathered in the space before the throne, forming a loose circle.

Gabrielle, sitting at Melosa's right hand, marveled at the power this simple ceremony held. She felt as though she could forgive anyone anything at this moment, and she waited as breathlessly as the rest of the crowd for whatever would come next.

"One year ago, less than a month after the last Festival, Terreis Flamehair died. She was my heir, the daughter of my heart, and we all loved her well. She would have made a good Queen. But in this year we have mourned her death. Now, the cycle turns, and we must celebrate life." Melosa paused, letting her words echo across the crowd, and then turned towards Gabrielle. "As Terreis' chosen successor, Gabrielle, I think it only fitting that it should be you who sets her name and heritage free to live again. Look among the children, and choose. Which among them shall be the next Terreis?"

Gabrielle swallowed hard, aware that every eye in the crowd was suddenly focused on her. She didn't know these children, how was she to know which to name for a woman she had barely met?

Xena, seeing her friends distress, caught Gabrielle's eye. Smiling her support, she mouthed words of encouragement. "Relax. Focus. Then choose."

Gabrielle nodded, and taking a deep breath, she looked at the faces of the children. There, a girl with red hair slept peacefully in her mother's arms. Here in front, one whimpered, tired and cranky, and probably hungry. Innocent, cherubic faces blurred together, and Gabrielle sighed.

Just as she was about to give in and pick one at random, a scuffling movement behind the diner tables caught her attention. There, a small dark child had escaped her mother's grasp and run off. Arming herself with a table knife and pot lid, she was valiantly resisting any effort to bring her back to the ceremony quietly.

Grinning, Gabrielle walked over and scooped up the girl, disarming her and handing her weapons to the mother. "I never got to know Terreis Flamehair. She died the day I met her, so I never got the chance. I knew her for less than a day, for one hour. But in that hour, she showed me courage, loyalty, dedication . . . She was a Princess, and a warrior. And I think that she would be proud to have this young lioness carry her name into the future."

The crowd roared, cheering the old Terreis and the new; cheering Terreis: the Princess who'd died, and Gabrielle: the one who lived. And when the cheering finally died down, Melosa continued the ceremony . . . naming the names of the living, and the dead.

Once the Amazons moved to the feasting tables, the night became less serious. The younger Amazons finished their food quickly, and then got up to entertain. They staged impromptu foot races and mock battles, there was even a short Comedy. Once the meal was finished, a group of strong armed women dragged several huge drums out, while others lit the waiting bonfires.

The drumming was deep and resonant, and full of vitality. Gabrielle would not have been surprised to find that every village for miles around could hear the Amazon's festivities beginning. She didn't join the dancing right away, waiting to see what Melosa would do so she could take her cue from that. She quickly noticed that the drab clothes around the fires were being replaced, as if by magic, with wild costumes and bright decorations. Soon she was able to pick out women slipping away to change, quietly leaving along back paths and returning the same way to insinuate themselves back into the dancing.

So intent was she on watching this interplay that she didn't hear Melosa clear her throat. She jumped when the Queen laid a hand on her shoulder. "Go change into dancing clothes. I'll keep an eye on them till you get back . . ."

Ducking into her hut, Gabrielle discovered that someone had left a beautiful bouquet of red and purple flowers laid carefully on the bed next to her dress. She picked them up, inhaling their subtle fragrance. It reminded her of night blooming Jasmine. . .

Once she was dressed she returned to the fires, looking around for Xena out of long habit. She finally spotted the blue silk robe, kilted up and with sleeves rolled back so that Xena could more easily wield the heavy drumsticks in her hands. It looked as though she'd taken over the drumming so that one of the other women could go dance.

Satisfied that her friend was having fun, Gabrielle was just about to seek out Magdelus to thank her for the dress and the flowers when Eponin danced to a stop in front of her. Grabbing her arm and handing her a drink, Eponin dragged her towards the dancing. "What are you standing around here for, Honey-tongue? Let's DANCE!"

Xena wiped her brow with the proffered rag, and sat down on the verge of the firelight breathing heavily from her long stint at the Thunder Drums. It wouldn't be long now, she knew, before the big drums fell silent. Then the smaller drums, and other musical instruments would come out, slowing the dancing to something more intimate . . .

She looked around for Gabrielle, spotting her in the largest circle of dancers: laughing and tromping wildly around the fire. Right now they seemed to be doing a (rather poor) imitation of a troupe of Centaurs. . . .

Satisfied that her friend was well occupied, Xena slipped quietly away from the fire circle, returning to her own small hut. Once inside she carefully hung up the blue silk robe, once again admiring it's simple, stark beauty. Whoever had left it on her bed had certainly known her tastes.

Clad only in the brief cotton undershirt, Xena washed slowly at the basin on her night stand. Running a damp cloth over limbs still overheated from the drumming, Xena took her time, savoring the coolness of the fresh water.

A small breath of wind rustled the curtains, alerting her to another's presence just before a timid knock sounded on the door frame. "Come in." Xena drawled, curious who had noticed her leaving the party. The curtain brushed aside, and Ephiny was silhouetted against the full moon for a moment before stepping inside and letting the curtain fall closed. She was wearing a rust colored tunic, edged in honey-wheat embroidery in a running horse pattern that seemed almost to live on it's own. She was still flushed from the dancing, and her mask and flowers dangled unnoticed from one hand.

"Listen, Xena . . . I've been thinking. I want to apologize for being such a jerk yesterday." She didn't meet Xena's eyes, looking anywhere else in the room instead. "Sometimes I just say things . . . You know, they slip out before I really have a chance to think about what I'm saying. I really didn't mean to be so rude, in the stables. It just, kind of . . ." Ephiny let the sentence trail off, finally meeting Xena's eyes to try to judge her reaction.

Xena scowled, trying to look serious, but a half smile twitched around her lips as she answered. "Well, I do know what it's like to have a temper. Mine's gotten me into trouble more than once, I suppose."

Ephiny smiled charmingly, sticking out a friendly hand. "So, my bad behavior of yesterday is forgiven, then?"

Xena laughed aloud, clasping Ephiny's forearm in a warrior's grip. "In the spirit of the night, consider it forgotten."

Grinning, Ephiny moved towards the door. But just before she swept out the curtain she paused, and turned to look around Xena's room again. An odd expression on her face, she looked searchingly at Xena. "Are you planning on heading back out to the dancing later?"

Xena glanced down at her short tunic, and then shook her head with a small smile.

"Not particularly, no."

"Oh." Ephiny looked a little uncomfortable as the silence dragged out. "Well, you know, " the corner of her mouth twitched up into a wry little smile, "It's bad luck for anyone to spend this night alone . . . even you. You could single-handedly doom my people to a year of bad hunting and worse harvests . . ."

Xena froze, absolutely still for a fleeting moment, then raised an eyebrow archly. "Why Ephiny . . . is that an offer?"

Ephiny disentangled one tiny golden flower from her bunch, and silently held it out.

Xena made her wait for a long breath before, chuckling deep in her throat, she accepted the flower and turned away to set it on her bed stand. "I think I have quite enough on my conscience without being responsible for that, don't you?"

Gabrielle coughed and spluttered, handing the drinking horn to Eponin. "Ugh! What IS that stuff?" Eponin shrugged, knocking back a huge swallow. "I don't know. It's what everyone else is drinking . . ."

Gabrielle shuddered. "Well, maybe it's something you develop a taste for." The two girls were standing off to the side of the fire circle, where the dancing had finally died down to a slower pace. Gabrielle shook her head, draping an arm around Eponin's shoulders.

"I don't know about you, but I think this is getting a little boring. Way too slow for my tastes, I was just getting warmed up! What else is going on around here, anyway?"

Eponin shrugged. "Not much, really. It's pretty late, you know." Gabrielle waved her hand, shrugging. "Late? Who cares. This is supposed to be a party! Is there any place to go swimming around here?"

Eponin shook her head. "It's a long walk, and besides, it's not a good idea to swim when you're drunk. Too easy to drown."

An indignant look transformed Gabrielle's face. "I am NOT drunk! Ab-soutely not. Nope. So, let's go swimming."

Eponin shook her head more emphatically. "No swimming. Hey, I have an idea. Let's head over to the stables. There's some fighting staffs in a corner there that I hadn't gotten around to putting away. I can show you that special disarm twirl we didn't have time to work out yesterday . . ."

Gabrielle thought for a moment, hand on her chin. "Ok. But afterwards we go swimming." Sighing and shaking her head Eponin led the way towards the stables. Once inside, she dug up the staves, attempting to show Gabrielle the complicated move they'd discussed earlier. She managed to get all the way through it without smacking herself in the head, but only barely.

Then it was Gabrielle's turn.

She lifted the staff, spinning it through the complicated maneuver flawlessly. Twice. Then, with an emphatic snap she planted the staff.

Eyes wide, Eponin began to laugh hysterically.

Gabrielle, looking confused and hurt, glanced around trying to figure out what she'd done wrong. Finally she looked down at the end of her staff, only then feeling the pain of the staff planted firmly on her foot.

Dropping the staff and howling, she clutched her foot, hopping around on one leg. Eponin, unable to control her laughter, watched helplessly as Gabrielle collapsed in the straw. When she tried to help her up, she only ended up on the ground as well, crushing both their garlands.

Finally they ended up leaning against a hay bale, breathing deeply to control the fits of giggling. Eponin leaned against Gabrielle, poking her in the ribs. "See, I told you. You're drunk!" Gabrielle tried to fend off the poke, and they ended up wrestling in the straw.

Finally Eponin got the upper hand, pinning Gabrielle's arms above her head. "Admit it. You're drunk." Gabrielle flushed and shook her head. "Nope. A little fuzzy, maybe. But not drunk. No way."

They argued back and forth, until finally Eponin leaned in, mock-threatening. "Listen you, I think I should know. I drank just as much as you did, and I'm plastered. Since I out mass you, you might as well just admit it."

Gabrielle lifted a defiant chin, "Or what?"

Listing to the side, Eponin had to let go of Gabrielle's wrists to keep from falling over. She steadied herself against the ground and looked down at the flushed face, not so very far from her own. Still breathing hard she felt around in the straw, eventually coming up with a rather mangled blue flower. "You think you're so clever. Or what? Or I just might give you one of these. That'd shut you up, one way or the other . . . "

Gabrielle glanced over at the blue flower, and then back up at Eponin. Taking a deep breath, she shook her head slightly. "Definitely. Not. Drunk. Nope. No way. Absolutely not."

Almost in slow motion, Eponin leaned forward while Gabrielle babbled on, silencing her with a long, slow kiss. When they broke apart, Gabrielle's eyes were wide, her breathing slightly ragged, and her hand trembled slightly as she brushed Eponin's hair back from her face. "Well, I have to hand it to you. That's one way to win an argument that I've never used. Quite an effective technique. Of course, I still have to disagree with you about being drunk. . ."

After that there were no more words. Moving, at first gently, but with ever increasing passion, Eponin trailed light fingers along Gabrielle's sides. She undid the clasp at her throat, laying neck and shoulders bare, and laid kisses along the fine white collar bone. Soon the dress had loosened even more, slipping down so that it barely covered Gabrielle's breasts.

For a long eon, the only sounds were small gasps, rapid breathing, and the occasional stamp of a horse's hoof. The moments ran together, a blur of light kisses and tentative, searching touches. But finally their bed of straw began to make itself felt, scratching sensitive skin and causing the two to sneeze.

In a moment of inspiration Eponin jumped up to get a clean horse blanket, and finding a corner sheltered by stacks of hay, laid it out on the ground there. Gallantly helping Gabrielle to her feet, Eponin led her to their newly created bower, sitting down and patting the blanket next to her. Gabrielle stepped onto the corner of the blanket, and then paused. Shyly, she reached behind her back, unfastening the rest of the dress's lacing and letting it slip to the ground.

After a long, languorous look that had Gabrielle blushing fiercely, Eponin grinned and pulled her own tunic off over her head. Setting it aside she reached up and took Gabrielle's hand, drawing her down to their blanket bower in the hay.

The moon shone through one small window, highlighting two bodies twined together on one small bed. Head cradled in the hollow of Xena's shoulder, Ephiny trailed a lazy hand across the taut stomach muscles, smiling as Xena shivered under her touch.

"You knew I was going to come after you, didn't you?" Ephiny asked.

Xena shook her head. "I didn't know. I was fairly sure that someone would, all things considered. But I only suspected it would be you. .."

Ephiny propped herself up on one elbow, looking at Xena with dawning comprehension. "Wait a minute. You knew about the Festival all the time, didn't you?"

Xena nodded, an eyebrow shooting up in inquiry. "I never denied it. Of course I knew. Why?"

Shaking her head, Ephiny laughed. "I talked to Eponin earlier today, and she said Gabrielle didn't have a clue. She had to fill her in, just so the girl wouldn't make a fool of herself if someone handed her a bunch of flowers. We were amazed that you hadn't explained it to her, and figured you just didn't know. Why didn't you tell her?"

Xena sat up, looking away from Ephiny's steady gaze to stare off into the distance. "There are times a person just has to learn something for herself. I thought that this was one thing she could handle without any interference from me . . ."

Ephiny reached out and gently turned Xena's face back to where she could make eye contact again, brushing a finger across her lips. "I see. . ."

Those two words spoke volumes, then Ephiny silenced any further conversation with a warm kiss. Soon thought splintered and fled, leaving only rushing light and sound, and sensation in it's wake.

The next morning it was close to noon before any in the Amazon camp were stirring. Xena shaded her eyes against the bright light as she left her hut, clad again in her familiar armor. A long drink from the well and a small piece of bread and the headache began to subside, leaving only a dull throbbing to remind her that drumming and drinking just weren't a good idea.

After refreshing herself she headed over to the stables to check on Argo. Just outside the doors she passed Eponin, raising an eyebrow as the girl repressed a small fit of giggles and took off towards the well.

Once inside she briskly went about forking hay into Argo's stall. A rustle behind her caused he to turn quickly around, searching for the source. Then Gabrielle stood up from behind a pile of straw, tugging at her dress and straightening her hair. "Xena ! Hi ! Wow, you sure missed a great party by leaving early last night." She gestured animatedly, "You should have seen some of the races. They were jumping over tall fires and dancing on coals, it was pretty wild. They must have the most amazing calluses on their feet. I almost couldn't believe it, and I was right there watching!"

She eventually stopped chattering,becoming aware of Xena's amused but tolerant expression.

Self consciously, she tugged once more at her skirt, bending to pick up a small crumpled blue flower off the ground. "Well, anyway, you should've been there. Those Amazons sure know how to throw a party."

Xena smiled enigmatically as she went back to shoveling straw, "Yes, they certainly do . . . "


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