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Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story iteslf are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
This story is an alternate timeline story, a "what if" beginning with the question: "What would have happened if Perdicas had not died?" It occurs five years after the events in Return Of Callisto.
Xena set her cup carefully down on the bar, trying not to drop it. Warily the barkeep approached, trying to decide whether he should risk her wrath by refusing to serve her any more. Seeming to sense his hesitation, Xena fixed him with a piercing blue stare.
"It's been five years, to the day, and I need another drink."
Crisp and clear, her words were not the slightest bit slurred. Indeed, the only evidence of the prodigious amounts of alcohol she'd consumed was the fact that she was moving so carefully; so precisely. Trembling, the barkeep lifted his pitcher, but a tanned hand reached over the bar and grabbed it from him.
"Go serve your other customers; I'll take care of this."
Not even turning her head, Xena growled.
"Ephiny, this is none of your business. Leave me alone."
Sighing, Ephiny lifted the pitcher in one hand.
"You're drinking yourself into a stupor in some no name village, the Amazon nation has all but lost it's war with the Centaurs, and our rightful Queen has stopped answering the messages we send to her; but it's none of my business? You may not care about the Amazons any longer, but I thought you at least cared enough for Gabrielle's safety to keep from turning into a surly drunk. What if Callisto decides to mount another campaign on your friends?"
Laughing, Xena grabbed a passing patron's drink and downed it, grinning ferally as they scurried away in terror.
"Callisto's dead, or hadn't you heard? I met her two months ago and wiped out half her army. When she challenged me to single combat, I crippled her, and she took her own life soon afterwards. Any enemies I have left have long since forgotten about Gabrielle anyway."
"Then why isn't she answering our messages?"
"Maybe she doesn't want to talk to you."
"Or maybe someone has tracked her to Poteidaia, and killed her!"
Xena whipped around, grabbing Ephiny around the neck and hoisting her up off the ground with one hand.
"Gabrielle is SAFE, and happy in her home town. She and Perdicas have two children, and a farm, and a lovely pony named Tympani; and the last thing she needs is interference from the likes of us! Or are you so set on making her a target again?"
Tossing Ephiny away, Xena stalked out of the bar. Intending to mount Argo and ride away, she was surprised when Solari and Eponin stepped into her path. Eponin held up her hand, weaponless, before Xena could draw her sword.
"Xena, please. We need your help. I've just come from Poteidaia... Gabrielle wouldn't even see me. I talked to Lila, but she wouldn't tell me anything. She just said that Gabrielle was too busy being a wife and mother to be an Amazon Princess anymore, and that we ought to find someone else to play our hoydenish games with."
Eponin sighed, her heart heavy with remembered pain.
"I always thought Lila liked us. She's never been so rude before... I know it's been a year since I was there last, and things could have changed, but I never thought they'd change this much. Something is wrong, Xena. I can feel it."
Eyes dark with sorrow, and suspicion, and drink, Xena felt behind her, collapsing bonelessly onto a nearby bench.
"Today is her fifth wedding anniversary. I'm sure they were busy preparing for a celebration. Maybe Lila was just having a bad day." Even Xena didn't sound convinced, she was just talking to cover her confusion. From the door, rubbing a sore neck, Ephiny spoke once more.
"Xena, I'm sorry. I had forgotten that today was the day... But you can't afford to give in to that. Not right now."
She gestured towards Solari, Eponin, and the handful of other Amazons standing around.
"This is all that's left of Gabrielle's people. So many are dead, Velasca rules the rest, and she's driving them single-mindedly towards destruction. We've been exiled for suggesting peace with the Centaurs, and it won't be long before Velasca starts thinking we're some kind of threat. She's just paranoid to come after us, and to start thinking about Gabrielle in the bargain. We have to know that she's all right, and that her town's defenses are adequate..."
Head in her hands, Xena asked the obvious question.
"And why did you come to me? You could have handled it yourselves, and I've been..."
"Drinking yourself to death, or at least giving it your best shot... Yes, we know. But we also remembered the way things were, and how much you," Ephiny paused, searching for the right words. "How much you cared for the bard. We thought you deserved to know, if she was in danger. Besides, she wouldn't see us before, she may not accept help from us now. But she could never refuse to see you."
Laughing bitterly, Xena shook her head.
"Don't be so sure of that. She probably hates me, by now. In all these years, I could never bring myself to go back, and she stopped writing to me a long time ago."
Ephiny crouched down, forcing Xena to meet her eyes.
"But you'll come with us and try?"
Fierce pain in her bloodshot eyes, Xena whispered.
"You knew I would..."
Gasping, Xena pulled her head out of the ice cold water, shivering as the freezing trickles made their way down her back, and into her cleavage. Solicitously Ephiny handed her a bit of toweling.
"Been a long time since you were sober enough to experience a hangover in all it's agonizing glory, huh?"
Wringing out her hair with a sour expression on her face, Xena nodded.
"And I'm guessing that employing my usual hangover cure would be a less than stellar idea... besides, I doubt you're carrying any uzo." Sighing, she shrugged into her armor.
"I guess I'll just have to go back to being the stoic warrior. At this point, it's not like I need any help with my scowl."
Chuckling, Ephiny handed Xena a bowl of porridge.
"Not the most appetizing thing, but it's what we have for breakfast. That and several skins of water, and you should be feeling more like your old self again."
A shadow passed over Xena's face, chilling the air between them.
"My 'old self' would never have let things slide this badly." Turning abruptly, she made her way to the other side of the fire.
Breaking camp didn't take long with the Amazons, and by an hour after sunrise they were on the road again. They traveled all day, stopping only to rest the horses and grab a quick bite, and by sundown they were only a few miles from Poteidaia.
Standing on a slight rise, silhouetted against a rising moon, the troupe of Amazons cut an impressive figure.
"Do you want us to come with you... or would you rather go in alone?"
Xena shook her head.
"Come along. This isn't a social call, and there's no need to pretend that it is. We're here to see to their safety, and to warn them about Velasca. Nothing more."
Ephiny opened her mouth, then shut it again, finally just nodding.
"Move out, ladies. We'll set up in the tavern for now, til we can make camp or rent a room..."
Lila blanched when she opened the door.
"Xena. . . I didn't expect to see you here."
Xena shook her head, motioning Ephiny through the door in front of her.
"I know. It's been a while, but I need to see Gabrielle."
Lila lifted her head, defiance glittering in her eyes.
"Gabrielle told me that she didn't want to see the Amazons any more, Xena. Why can't you just leave her alone. After all, you seem to be good at that."
Xena ducked her head, guilt written plain on her features. Cringing slightly, Ephiny stepped in.
"Look Lila, this is important. Gabrielle may be in danger. So may you all."
"So? We're in danger all the time. Crusading warlords, a bad growing season, a sickness... We're used to that. She doesn't want to see you."
Face cold and impassive once more, Xena took back the reins of the conversation.
"Think what you will, Lila. That's your right. But if Gabrielle doesn't want to see me, she can tell me herself. Just tell me where her farm is, and I'll leave you in peace."
Shaking her head, Lila turned her back on the two women, returning to her chores.
"Get out of my house."
Signaling Xena to go before her, Ephiny ducked out the front door.
"Well, now what?"
Xena looked around, thinking. Before inspiration could strike her, though, a small dark haired child poked his head around the corner. Eyes wide, he stared at the warriors.
"Are you Xena?" he asked in a small voice.
"Yes, I am. Do I know you?"
"Nope." Popping a thumb in his mouth, he came closer. "But I know who you are!"
"Really? How do you know?"
"My auntie used to tell us all stories about you. How you fought the giants that she woke up, how you helped Helen of Troy...Didja really know Helen? She's famous..."
"I did know Helen, she used to be a good friend of mine." Pausing to think, Xena cracked a big smile.
"This aunt of yours. The one that used to tell stories about me... can you show me where she lives? I'd like to pay her a visit."
Sucking harder on his thumb, the boy pondered this for a moment.
"You're not an Ama... Amaxa... Amazing, are you?"
Glancing at Ephiny, Xena shook her head.
"No, I'm not an Amazing. Why?"
"Well, my Mom told me that auntie didn't want to see any Amazings, and that I wasn't to pass messages or anything. But she didn't say anything about giving directions..."
He paused, and turned to look down the north road.
"You just go down that road, until you come to the big rock that looks like a hydra's head. Then you go down the little path to the side, and you get to cross the bridge. Have you ever seen a floating bridge before? Momma told me it was auntie's idea..."
"That's very clever, a floating bridge. Where do I go after that?"
"Oh, just follow the trail around. You can see their house, off all by itself. There aren't any others around there. They used to live here in town with us. I liked that, but then they moved, and now I can only go see them if somebody goes with me."
He paused, and an ingenious twinkle lit his eye as he continued, all innocence.
"I could show you where. I'm sure it would be okay for me to go, after all, you're a grownup. You even have a sword! Nobody would mess with you..."
Chuckling, Xena shook her head.
"I don't think so. Not tonight, anyway. I bet your mom is fixing diner right now, isn't she? Why don't you head on home, and get some food."
Nodding sagely in agreement, the boy scampered into the house, waving from the doorway.
Pleased with herself, Xena strode in the direction of the path he'd pointed out.
"There, you see. Got the information we needed, and I didn't even have to cut off the flow of blood to Lila's brain..."
Startled, Ephiny glanced over at her, trying to figure out if she were kidding.
"You wouldn't have...?"
"Oh, wouldn't I?"
Leaving the rest of the Amazons at the inn, Ephiny and Xena made their way towards Gabrielle's homestead on foot. The boy's directions proved quite adequate, and shortly they were climbing the hill, moving towards the twinkling light from several open windows. They could hear children laughing, and the clanking of pots and pans... homey sounds, and happy ones.
"Maybe we were mistaken." Xena said, her voice soft and cautious. "Everything sounds fine..."
Grabbing her arm, Ephiny dragged her forward.
"We need to go see, anyway. We have to know for sure."
"Maybe you should go in alone. She doesn't need to see me."
"And what if she won't talk to me, Xena? Come on... I never thought you were a coward."
Xena dug her heels in, dragging them to a stop and glaring at Ephiny in fury. But slowly, like water draining through a small hole, the rage filtered out of Xena's eyes, leaving only sorrow in it's wake.
"Well, then I guess you didn't know me as well as you thought. I've been nothing but a coward for the past five years..."
Spinning away from the pity in Ephiny's eyes, Xena stalked up the path the rest of the way, banging on the door with a heavy fist. After a moment of silence, the door swung open, a woman's frame shadowy against the backlighting.
"Who... Xena?" Turning away, head down, Gabrielle refused to meet the sky blue eyes; instead she walked away from the door and picked up the dishes she'd been washing, continuing her task as though she'd never been interrupted.
Her back to the two warriors, perhaps taking comfort from the familiar motions, she gathered the nerve to speak again.
"It's... it's been a long time, hasn't it?"
"Yes, it has." Ephiny stepped closer to Gabrielle, trying to make eye contact, but the small bard kept her face turned away, not quite cringing.
"Gabrielle, why did you stop answering our letters? We were terribly worried about you!"
"I'm sorry, Ephiny, I guess I thought I'd made it pretty clear. I have too many other responsibilities these days to play at being an Amazon Princess. I told you to find someone else, someone who deserved it, and give them my right of caste."
The bard's voice was small, flat, bereft of the vibrant tones that had once wowed audiences. It was disturbing, but Ephiny forged ahead anyway.
"Gabrielle, we don't want anyone else. You are our Princess. Since Velasca killed Melosa, our rightful QUEEN."
Gabrielle was silent for a moment, then answered with a small shake of her head.
"I'm a wife, and a mother, and a farmer, Ephiny. I don't have time to be a queen."
Defeated, Ephiny slumped into a chair, shaking her head.
"I can't even believe my ears. The Gabrielle I knew would never desert her people because she was busy. She would have made time, or found another way..."
"Well I'm not the Gabrielle you knew. She was an innocent little girl, with no idea of how the world really works. That Gabrielle doesn't exist anymore, so you might as well go home and stop looking for her. There are some things you'll just never find."
In answering Ephiny, Gabrielle had unconsciously let her head drift around, and Xena caught a glimpse of dark shadows on the bard's face. In a flash she was across the room, Gabrielle's chin in her hand, tilting her head up to the light. She only held it that way for a moment before Gabrielle jerked away, looking down at the floor, but it was enough time for her to get a good look at the spreading purple and yellow bruises all across the left side of her jawline.
"Gabrielle, who did this to you? A local warlord? I'll kill him myself..."
"No one, Xena. Don't be silly. It looks much worse than it really is... I fell off the stool and hit my head on the cupboard, trying to reach the taller shelves. You know how clumsy I am..."
"You fell, huh?" Xena's tone was disbelieving. "How many times? Some of those bruises are weeks old. Do you make a habit of falling off things?"
"Maybe I do! Look, it was an accident, okay. Nothing more."
Scowling fiercely, Xena let it drop for the moment, moving on to other things.
"Look, I don't know what's going on in your life that would make you forsake the Amazon nation, but if you'd kept in touch with them you would know that Ephiny can't go home. Velasca has exiled her, and several others, for suggesting a cease fire with the Centaurs. Ephiny has no home now, and Velasca is driving the rest of the Amazons to destruction. Their numbers have reduced by half since she became the queen, and more die every day."
"No . . ." The whispery cry, dragged unwilling from Gabrielle's heart, suggested a whole ocean of unshed tears.
"I... I'm sorry. Ephiny, take my right of caste. That would make you the rightful queen. You could stop her, you don't need me..."
Ephiny shook her head.
"Do you really think they'd believe me? And exile comes back with a story of receiving the right of caste from our conveniently distant princess, and asks to be made queen. I'm sure Velasca would be only too happy to step down for me..."
"But, surely... can't your people see that she is leading them towards death? Why don't they depose her?"
"Gabrielle, above all else, the Amazons are creatures of tradition. Sometimes it helps us keep our identity, sometimes it leads us astray. Some can get beyond it, but not many. Only a woman of royal blood may make the challenge. None other will do, and even if I tried, they would not accept it."
"Then it's hopeless. There's nothing to be done."
Hope pressing against her heart, Ephiny sat forward, staring intensely.
"But there IS. Come back with us! Face Velasca and depose her. Xena could be your champion, as she was before. Velasca is good, but not good enough to stand against the Warrior Princess! Please, Gabrielle... Princess... come and save your people!"
For a moment Xena saw a flicker of the old spirit burn in the bard's face, but then it returned to that dead flatness that made her stomach churn and her soul ache with remembered darkness. Gods how she wanted to hurt someone, something. Whatever was responsible for this transformation...
"I can't. Perdicas has been... he hasn't been able to work in the fields for a while, and if I don't get the harvest in we won't eat this winter. And who would watch my children? What if Velasca decided to retaliate against us while we were away? It just... I just can't. I'm... I'm sorry. Please, you have to go now. You're putting us in danger just by coming here. Please, just go."
Before Xena could respond, the back door banged open loudly. The children, who'd been playing and laughing in the other room, fell silent, then a small girl's voice raised tentatively.
"Hi, honey. Have you two been good?"
"Sure we have! We helped mommy all day today."
"Well that's good. Mommy in the kitchen?"
The dividing curtain that hung in the door swished aside, and Perdicas stepped into the room. Thicker set now, and heavier, but still recognizably the same man; his eyes were bloodshot and his face flushed. From the careful way he moved, it was obvious he was drunk. It took him a moment to focus on the fact that there were other women in the room besides Gabrielle, but when he did, his face flushed even further: this time with rage.
"What are these Amazon bitches doing here?!?"
Hand moving unconsciously towards her sword, Xena stood a little straighter.
"I'm not an Amazon, Perdicas; you know that. And we're here to see Gabrielle, on business that doesn't really concern you."
"And thing to do with MY family concerns me, Xena." Focusing accusingly on Gabrielle, he took a step forward.
"I thought you told me you were through with all of this. Warlords, and trouble, and people who GET you in trouble... and now I see you've let them bring weapons into our house!"
Staring fixedly at the floor, Gabrielle stammered,
"I... I am, I swear. Ephiny just came by to check and see how I was doing. We were wrapping up some things so that they wouldn't have to come back any more."
"Well whatever it is, it's finished."
Turning back to Xena, he continued.
"I won't have war mongers in my home... Get out. Get OUT!"
Xena considered putting him in his place, but Gabrielle caught her eye, pleading. Frustrated, Xena sighed.
"All right, we're going. But Gabrielle, we're not quite finished yet. I won't come back here unless you ask me to, but we still need to talk. I'll be at the inn, and I'm not leaving until you come down to see me."
With that, the two warrior women walked out the door, wincing as it slammed behind them. They went in silence for a time, but eventually Ephiny spoke.
"Xena, I don't like this. I don't like it at all."
"That's an understatement. I'll wager any odds you like that it was no cupboard door gave her those bruises. If Gabrielle and the children hadn't been standing right there, I would have killed him where he stood. And to think, I saved his life..." Xena shook her head, fingering the long scar that traced along her jawbone; a memento from her desperate diving block, and subsequent up close and personal with Callisto's blade.
"I should have let him die."
Two days later, Gabrielle still had not come into town to talk to Xena. And the Amazons had had no luck in their efforts to get the townsfolk to improve their defenses. In fact, the village elders had drawn the line, telling the women that if they didn't mind their own business, they would be asked to leave town.
"I don't understand these people!" Ephiny growled in frustration, slamming the door shut. In the small room they had rented, the other Amazons and a brooding Warrior Princess sat, staring into the fire. Sighing, Xena stirred, stretching up from her crouch like a sleepy jungle cat.
"You won't get through to them, Ephiny. Why do you think Gabrielle left home the first time? These folks are set in their ways, bound in tradition as firmly as any Amazon. They don't want things to change, and they'll go to any length to protect the status quo. Give it up."
"What, so we just leave them to be slaughtered when Velasca comes in search of Gabrielle?"
Xena shook her head.
"No. We need to get Gabrielle and her children out of here, so that the town people are no longer in the line of fire."
"But Gabrielle hasn't even come down..."
"I know. We need to find a way to force her to come here."
"That's the question, isn't it?"
Xena was still sitting by the fire, thinking, when Solari burst into the room.
"Xena! I just saw Gabrielle come running into town. She ran straight to the healer's house..."
In an instant Xena was out the door, through the tavern, and into the street. She arrived in time to see Gabrielle stumble out of the healer's hut in tears. Grabbing the nearest passerby, she asked them urgently:
"Where is Terebinus? I need him, please..."
The woman shook her head.
"Bin went out to the Antelus place, down past the river bend. He won't be back until nightfall, maybe tomorrow..."
Touching Gabrielle gently on the arm, Xena interrupted.
"Gabrielle, what's wrong?"
Hope dawning in the bard's frightened eyes, she grabbed Xena's arm.
"Xena, please, you have to come with me, out to the farm. Not for me... it's my son. Xenon fell out of a tree, and broke his arm... hit his head... I think he may be bleeding on the inside, I can't tell."
"Hush, of course I'll come. For him, or for you... Just let me get Argo out of the stable, and we can get back there in half the time it took you to get here...."
An hour later, washing her hands in the kitchen basin, Xena let out a contented sigh.
"He's going to be fine, Gabrielle. A badly broken arm and a concussion, but no internal bleeding. I think I got all the pieces put back together right, his arm should heal up fine, but don't take the splint off for at least six weeks. That bruising on his ribs and chest isn't going to go away for a while, you might want to feed him more red meat and greens. Spinach especially, it'll help him heal from the bruises sooner."
Reaching out and tilting the red head's face up to the light, Xena shook her head.
"You might want to do the same for yourself, those marks of yours are pretty severe, too."
Gabrielle nodded, collapsing onto a handy stool.
"Oh gods, Xena, I was so afraid he was going to die..."
Hesitating for a moment, then kneeling in front of her friend and taking her in a comforting embrace, Xena rested her cheek against soft hair as the bard shuddered with pent up tears.
When she'd cried herself out, Xena gently pushed her back to arm length and looked at the tear stained face.
"Now... would you like to tell me what really happened? Xenon didn't fall out of any tree, did he?"
Gabrielle bit her lip, trying to look away, but Xena held her firmly, prolonging their eye contact.
"Come on Gabrielle, when did Perdicas start hitting you and the children?"
"No, Xena, it isn't like that. This is the first time he's hurt one of the kids..."
"And that makes it all right?"
"Of course not. But he's been under so much strain, lately. After he hurt his back, and couldn't do the farm work anymore, he got very depressed for a while. That's when things got really bad. But he was getting better. He hadn't hit me at all lately, things were even starting to get back to normal, and then you came along and he just... I don't know. He went out to the barn after you came, I hadn't seen him until this afternoon, and he was so drunk... he accused me of plotting to leave him, of going off to be an Amazon now that the work on the farm has gotten so hard. Xenon hadn't even seen him come into the house, he just came running in, playing, and accidentally ran into Perdicas. He had shaped a stick into a toy sword, and Perdicas has told them that they can't have toy weapons. Perdicas got angry, grabbed the sword away from him and hit him with it. He was yelling, 'So you want to be a warrior, huh? How do you like it now? Come on, defend yourself!' He didn't really mean to hit him so hard, he was just trying to teach him a lesson, Xena. When he realized that Xenon was really hurt, and not just faking, he fell apart and ran off..."
Sighing, Xena shook her head.
"So to teach the child not to be violent, he beats him nearly to death. Great lesson."
"Xena, please. He didn't mean it. He really is a good man..."
"Sure, when he's not drunk. But when he is, it's a totally different story, isn't it?"
"I never thought it would get this bad...."
Xena stood, drawing Gabrielle up after her.
"Gabrielle, he almost killed your son. If you don't care about your own safety, think about your children! You need to leave this place."
"But Xena, things will get better. He just needs a little more time... I can't leave him, not when he needs me so much..."
Before Xena could argue further, the front door swung open... a fairly sober and remorseful looking Perdicas entered, Terebinus the Healer in tow. But his remorseful look didn't last long. As soon as he saw Xena, his face suffused with rage.
"*YOU*! What are you doing in my house?!?"
Whirling on Gabrielle, he advance, hand held ready to strike.
"Lying bitch! You told me you were never going to see her again, and here you are, going behind my back... doing gods know what kind of disgusting Amazon things while my son lies injured in the back room!!!"
Hand descending towards Gabrielle's face, Perdicas jerked in shock as he was restrained from behind. Spinning, he looked up into ice blue eyes.
"Keep your hands off her, Perdicas."
"It's none of your business what I do with my wife! I won't have you corrupting her, get out of my house!!!!"
Wrenching his arm free of Xena's grip, Perdicas backed away, looking around the room. Eye fixing on a long kitchen knife, he was at it before anyone could even blink. Growling, he held it in front of him like a short sword.
"This is none of your business, get out!"
Stunned into silence by Perdicas' behavior, Terebinus had not intervened. But now he stepped forward, holding out his hand.
"And is it any of my business, Perdicas? I delivered both your children, tended you when you were hurt, helped you get your strength back... Is it my business what goes on in your home? You are a man of peace, put down the blade."
"You're in league with her! Get out!! All of you!" Snarling, he lunged forward, swiping at Terebinus with the knife. Scoring a shallow cut along the healer's arm, he followed the arc of the swing, turning it into a lunge at Xena.
Lighting quick, she caught the blade between her hands, pressed flat, point hovering a mere inch from her solar plexus.
Before she could do anything else, a frying pan arced high in the air, cracking into Perdicas's skull with a resounding clang. He slumped to the floor, falling bonelessly at Gabrielle's feet. Tears in her eyes, she looked down at his still form.
Xena crouched, touching fingers to his neck.
"He's unconscious, but he'll live..."
Carefully putting the frying pan back on the counter, Gabrielle put her face in her hands and slid to the ground, sobbing. Terebinus beat Xena to her side, holding her while she cried. After a few moments, when the tears slowed, he patted her on the head.
"Gabrielle, I had no idea it had gotten this bad. Why didn't' you tell me?"
"He needed another chance, he begged me. Said it would be different, that he wouldn't drink... he was keeping his promise until... until some things happened recently. I didn't think it would be this bad. I never thought he would attack anybody..."
Terebinus stroked her hair, making clucking mother hen noises.
"You know you can't stay with him."
Cringing, she nodded slowly.
"He might hurt someone..."
"Yes child, and that someone is you."
"But what will he do, if I leave? He can't run the farm... he needs me!"
Terebinus stood up, dusting off his tunic.
"His family can help with the farm, the village won't let the land lie fallow. And I will keep an eye on him, until he calms down. I won't let him follow you..."
"No buts. Go and get your things. Take the small cart, and the pony. They aren't really needed to run things around here anyway, and they'll help you on your way. Now go, and don't come back..."
Three hours later, Gabrielle stood in front of the small tavern, holding Tympani's lead and waiting for the Amazons to finish settling accounts with the innkeeper. The children were settled firmly in the cart, Xenon sleeping soundly on a pile of furs. Her good-byes with Lila had not gone well, her sister accusing her of abandoning her responsibilities and taking the children into the dangers of the outside world. She had refused to believe that Perdicas, so known for being a man of peace, would turn against his own family...
Now, on the verge of tears, she stood and waited; wondering if she was doing the right thing. Several times already, she had almost changed her mind, turning the cart around and heading back to the farm. But every time she thought of that, she also saw Perdicas, knife in hand, threatening the gentle village Healer. It didn't take much to imagine that knife pointed at her, or one of the children...
"Mamma, are we going to go be Amazon princesses now?"
Gabrielle looked at her younger child in amazement. She didn't think she'd told any of those stories since before the three year old girl was even talking, never mind listening...
"No, honey. If we went to live with the Amazons, your brother wouldn't be able to stay with us. That's one of their rules.
"Because Amazons are women. They don't live with any men, and your brother is going to grow up to be a fine, strong man someday."
Pondering that, the small girl popped her thumb in her mouth, clutching her favorite rag doll to her chest. With blue button eyes and black yarn hair, the doll had originally been meant to look like Xena, but Gabrielle had sewn her a dress when Perdicas threatened to throw the warrior doll on the fire. Now, though, it was back in it's original clothing: a miniature version of Xena's leathers with the breastplate stitched on in yellow embroidery thread.
Grinning at the sight of the tiny Xena doll clutched in the child's hands, Ephiny walked over and patted the kid on the head.
"Xenon I've heard about, but what's this little one's name?"
Blushing, Gabrielle looked down at the ground.
"I, uh.. I named her Ephiny... I hope you don't mind."
"Mind? Why would I mind? That's wonderful!"
Grinning like a cheshire cat, Ephiny reached out to clasp the child's arm in an Amazon greeting.
"Hello, little Ephiny. My name is Ephiny, too."
Eyes wide with wonder, the girl shyly reached out, touching the Amazon's hand.
Soon the rest of the troupe was standing around, gear piled neatly on the ground outside the inn door. Various weapons littered the pile, and the Amazons were in the process of arming up. A thoughtful look on her face, Ephiny walked over and picked up a sturdy looking staff from among the weapons. Returning to the cart, she offered it to Gabrielle.
"Oh, no... I couldn't. I haven't used one of those in five years..."
"Gabrielle, you're an Amazon, and we're going to be on the road. You need to be able to defend yourself. Take it."
Leading Argo around from the stables, Xena caught the tail end of the argument.
Both women turned to look at her.
"If you'd had your staff with you, Perdicas would never have been able to hurt Xenon. You could have stopped him before it got ugly. The rest of us may not always be around to protect your children, don't you think you owe it to them to be ready?"
Without another word, Gabrielle took the staff, setting it in the cart where she could grab it at a moment's notice. Then she busied herself with the children, effectively ending the conversation.
That night, camped a good distance from Potiedaia the troupe shared a meal, savoring Gabrielle's fine cooking.
"Gabrielle, I know your focus today has been getting away from home, getting your kids out of danger, but have you given any thought to where you want to go? I mean, we're outlaws... we can't just take you back to Amazon lands and set up housekeeping there. We'd have to overthrow Velasca, first..."
Solari came around the fire, settling near the red head.
"No, I... I really hadn't thought about it. I don't want to be a burden on you all..."
Listening in, Ephiny shook her head, coming over to kneel in front of the seated Gabrielle.
"A burden? Gabrielle, you are a woman, our friend, and our rightful queen. Even if we weren't bound to help you by the first, the second would insure it, and the third means that you not only have our willing help, but our loyalty and allegiance. Don't call yourself a burden. You are our hope for the future."
"So if we're not going to Amazon lands..." Xena left the question hanging in the air until Gabrielle shook her head, "...then where are we going?"
"My main concerns were getting Gabrielle out of whatever danger she was in, and installing her as queen of the Amazons. The one is accomplished, and the other, well... For the moment, as long as we stay out of Velasca's reach, I'll be satisfied."
Xena nodded curtly, thinking.
"All right then, here's what we'll do. We'll go up the road a ways, as if we were heading to Amphipolis. It's a natural thing to do, and something Velasca would probably expect. At some point along the way we'll split up. I'll take Gabrielle, the children, and a couple of you some place safe. The rest of you continue on, making sure you're seen along the way. Stable Tympani at an inn, make sure he's well cared for, and then circle back to meet us. We can figure out what to do from there."
Once a plan of action was decided on, it didn't take long to get it underway. By noon of the following day, they'd reached the place where Xena intended to leave the trail.
Splitting the forces was an easy decision as well. Ephiny was too much a target to be gallivanting about, so she and Eponin went with Xena, while Solari took the rest of the troupe North towards Amphipolis. One of the shorter, red headed Amazons went dressed in Gabrielle's spare clothing, and they made sure that a couple of sacks of grain in the cart looked like sleeping children. Hopeful that Velasca would be fooled by the ruse, they parted ways, set to meet again in ten days.
The two children perched on Argo's back were having a grand time, little Xenon having forgotten all about his broken arm in their delight at being on such a tall horse. The rest of the bunch, however, were not having nearly as much fun as they slogged through incredibly dense underbrush. The springy new growth bounced back like whips, and while it was good (because it didn't lend to easy tracking), it was annoying to say the least. Eponin was on point, Gabrielle behind her, when Ephiny dropped back to talk to Xena.
"All right, Xena. Don't you think it's about time you gave me the bottle?"
"What're you talking about?"
"Oh, don't play games with me Warrior Princess. I know how people get, when they drink. And I know how they get when they stop. You haven't shown any of the signs of stopping, which means you're hiding a bottle in among your things. I imagine you picked it up in Poteidaia, from the inn keeper, no?"
For a moment, Xena seemed to contemplate denial, but something about the look in Ephiny's eyes argued against it.
"I'm not drunk."
"I know." The silence stretched out.
"Look, I need to be at my peak efficiency. I won't do anyone any good if I'm shaking and sweating, and jumping at shadows. I only drink enough to keep the edge off."
"Xena, we both know you won't be at peak efficiency until you stop this."
"You're wrong, Ephiny! I think I know my own body better than you do!"
Sighing, Ephiny turned away. Without warning she spun back towards Xena, delivering a stinging slap to the side of Xena's face. Xena brought her hand up to block, a split second too late, and caught Ephiny's hand in a crushing grip. Wincing at the pain, Ephiny none the less kept her eyes locked into the angry blue that stared back at her.
"If you were at your peak, I would never have been able to touch you. If I were Velasca, you'd be dead."
Grinding her teeth in frustration, and not incidentally grinding the bones of Ephiny's arm together, Xena fought with her anger for a moment. Finally, realizing that everyone had stopped and was staring at them, she let Ephiny go. Rummaging in the saddlebag for a small flask, she handed it to Ephiny, who promptly uncorked it and emptied the contents onto the ground. Silently she handed it back, and with no further comments the group resumed traveling.
"Ephiny... Can I, that is, would you like me to bind that for you?" Ephiny looked up from rubbing her wrist distractedly to see Gabrielle with a strip of fabric and a pot of cool water.
"It's bruised pretty badly, and it might even be fractured... you probably shouldn't use it for a while, and that'll be easier to remember if you have it in a sling..." So hesitant, Gabrielle sounded as though she expected to be rebuffed at any moment. Even if she hadn't be right, Ephiny would have agreed, just to reassure her...
"You know, you're absolutely right. I probably should rest this for a while. Actually, I'm surprised I didn't come out of that with worse. Not many people strike Xena and get away with it."
For her kind reply, Ephiny was rewarded with a soothing, cool dressing on her pained wrist, and one of Gabrielle's all too rare smiles.
"Actually, I have, too."
"Really?" Ephiny raised an eyebrow. "I was always under the impression that you two got along far too well for that sort of thing."
"Oh, it wasn't like that." Gabrielle blushed ever so slightly, eyes downcast. "We weren't fighting. Xena had been tricked by Ares, she thought she'd found her father, and then he'd been killed... she went a little crazy, I had to remind her who she was, what she was doing."
"How'd you do that?"
"I... uhm, I hit her with a pitchfork."
"And she let you live?!"
"Well, it was a close thing there, for a moment, but yeah."
"And she didn't hold it against you, later?"
Gabrielle looked surprised.
"No, not at all. She thanked me. I'd kept her from doing something she would have regretted later...."
"Well," Ephiny sighed, "the maybe there's hope for me, too. Let's hope she still deals with things the same way."
"Can I ask... what were you talking about? Why did you hit her?"
Ephiny paused for a moment, pondering how much to tell Gabrielle.
"Let's just say I was doing the same thing you did: reminding her who she was, what she was doing."
It was almost nightfall when they reached the small valley Xena had been aiming them towards. The setting sun rested gently between the crests of the hills: pouring red gold over the lush meadow; setting the tiny, perfect lake and waterfall ablaze with brilliant crimson. The stunning beauty of the scene took everyone's breath away, even the children were silent with awe.
"Xena, it's beautiful." Gabrielle breathed, resting her hand on the warrior's arm.
"And hidden, and defensible, which makes it just about perfect. Come on, there are some caves down here where we can camp." With that, Xena took Argo's reigns and headed down into the shimmering light.
"Wow, when she said there were caves, she wasn't kidding!" Eponin turned around in a slow circle, taking in the vastness of the caverns. Though the entrance was deceptively small, and quite well hidden, the rest of the caves made up for the unimposing entrance.
Huge vaulting ceilings, tunnels that lead off in every direction, glittering mica and granite shot through the softer stone of the cave walls. In it's own way, it was as beautiful as the lush valley outside.
One side tunnel lead to a bubbling hot spring, which in turn fed out into the lake. There, hot mineral water mixed with the icy glacial runoff stream from the waterfall, producing remarkably comfortable bathing temperatures in the lake.
"Xena, this place is paradise. I can't believe no one lives here!" Xena turned from unsaddling Argo to reply to Eponin's remark.
"People did, once."
"Oh." Wisely, Eponin decided to let things go at that.
Raising an eyebrow at Eponin, Xena gestured to the winding passages.
"Feel free to explore, and pick a cubby that seems comfortable to you. All the dangerous caves have been sealed off, and the way back is marked with these glyphs." Xena pointed to a swirling rune carved into the cave mouth. "If your torch goes out, they're lined with a glowing lichen, so you really can't get lost. I'm going to stable Argo in the main cavern here, and sleep here myself. I want to make sure no one comes in and surprises us." With that Xena set out her bed roll near the cave mouth, tethering Argo to a convenient stalagmite, and proceeded to set up a fire in a convenient circle of rocks.
The children squealed in delight, and after making sure it was all right with their mother, ran off into the passage ways, trailing a laughing Ephiny behind them.
"I wanna find the hidden treasure! Caves always have hidden treasure! Come on, auntie Ephiny, or we'll beat you to it!"
Not really wanting to be alone, Gabrielle set her things down in the main cavern as well, leaning up against the cave wall and closing her eyes.
"You know, if you're going to be in here anyway, you might as well come sit by the fire."
Gabrielle jumped, startled out of her reverie by Xena's curt words.
"Oh, I... I just didn't want to be any bother."
"Bother? Don't be silly. You can help me cook some diner, if it makes you feel more useful. I doubt you really want to eat my cooking anyway..."
Smiling shyly, Gabrielle dragged her blankets closer to the fire.
"Not if I have a choice I don't. I remember your cooking all too well, even after all this time."
"It has been a long time, hasn't it?"
"Yeah... yeah, it has."
The night passed uneventfully, everyone choosing to sleep in the main cavern; each unwilling to face the darkness alone for their own reasons. Then daybreak sent gentle tendrils of light wending into the cavern, waking them one by one and calling them outside. Carefree, with nothing to do for the moment but wait, swimming was the order of the day, and catching fish for lunch. After lunch the children settled in for a nap on the grass, but insisted on having a story first.
"Come on, mommy, tell us a story!"
"No, Xenon. Now lie down."
"No. We can't, because..." Gabrielle trailed off mid sentence, a dumbstruck look on her face. Concerned, Ephiny leaned in.
"What's wrong, Gabrielle?"
"Nothing. It's just, I just realized that... there's nothing stopping me from telling them a story. Perdicas didn't... well, he didn't like stories of fighting, and it was just easier to let them go completely, but... he's not here, is he?"
"No, he's not."
The words hit Gabrielle like an avalanche, and conflicting emotions played across her mobile features: relief, hope, pain, exhaustion, grief... Tears welling up in her eyes she groped blindly, caught up in Ephiny's strong embrace she shed the hot tears that burned behind her eyes.
"Shhhhh, hey, it's okay. It's all going to work out all right, you'll see..." Ephiny made comforting noises as Gabrielle shook in her arms. After a moment, small hands patted her head, small voices calling:
"Mommy, it's okay. Don't cry. You don't have to tell us a story, we'll take a nap. It's okay. Please, mommy, don't cry."
Sweeping them into her embrace, Gabrielle scrubbed her tears away with the back of a hand.
"Oh, no, it's not your fault. Mommy's just had a hard day. You can have your story, I promise. When you wake up, I'll tell you all about the time that Xena beat the Titans, and turned them back into stone, okay?"
It took a little while longer to comfort the confused children, but soon enough they were fast asleep on the warm grass.
Once they were settled, Gabrielle looked around.
"Where're the others?"
"After lunch, Eponin said she wanted to go check our back trail, make sure all of Argo's hoof prints were erased. Personally, I think she's just restless, and worried about Solari. They were handfasted only two moons ago, and they still aren't over the first blush of 'I can never leave my love's side'..."
Surprised, Gabrielle looked away shyly.
"Handfasted? Eponin and Solari... I had no idea. I mean, I knew they were friends, but..."
Ephiny raised an eyebrow.
"You mean you couldn't tell? The lingering looks, the walking as though they were joined at the hip?"
Gabrielle blushed even harder, answering defensively.
"Well how should I have known? They didn't act any differently than Xena and I when we were traveling together..."
Gabrielle shot a sharp look at the Amazon, unable to tell exactly what she'd meant by her oh-so carefully neutral answer. Before she could press further, Ephiny went on.
"Anyway, Eponin went to take care of our back trail, and Xena said something about brushing Argo and went back to the caves. Personally I just think she wanted to be alone..."
"Is she all right?"
"I'm not sure..." Ephiny wavered, torn between protecting Xena and making sure Gabrielle had all the information she needed. Finally, she decided.
"Gabrielle, I know that Xena didn't visit much, after your wedding..."
"Much? Hah. Try at all." Gabrielle laughed bitterly.
"You won't be able to keep me away, she said. But whenever I'd suggest a visit, there was always an uprising to put down, or a warlord to overthrow. She didn't even come when Xenon was born."
"But, you two kept in touch with letters?"
"For a while. But you know Xena, she was never big on words. She'd write, 'It's been kinda damp here.' and I'd find out that the area of the country she was in was experiencing the worst floods since Zeus and Poseidon had that little tiff a hundred years ago... For a while I wrote her everything: how our harvest was doing, that I had a pony of my own. But her replies got more and more terse, and... well, when Perdicas started having his nightmares again, and insisting that we cut off contact with our warlike friends... it didn't seem like she would even notice if I stopped writing."
Ephiny sighed, running her hands through her hair.
"Things were different, after you left. Xena, she... changed." Catching the bard's stricken look, Ephiny rushed on.
"Oh, she didn't go back to her pillaging days or anything. She didn't hurt anyone. Well, anyone but herself. She just, pulled back. She spent a lot of time alone, when she wasn't helping people... eventually she spent a lot of time drinking..."
"Drinking, huh? So that's what the scene on the road out there was about?"
"Well, yeah. She just, needed to be reminded. You know?"
"Yeah, I know." Standing up, Gabrielle looked down at her two children: Xenon, dark hair and fair skin like his namesake, and little Ephiny, as blonde and tan as hers...
"Will you keep an eye on them for a while? I... I think I'll walk back down to the cavern, see how Xena's doing."
"Sure. I'll be here."
Feeling more than a little edgy, Xena had come back to the cave for some peace and quiet, but some how the silence wasn't helping. Argo shone like a new minted dinar, her tack was cleaner than the day it was made, even the scuffed up sand around the fire circle had been smoothed out... but Xena didn't feel much like rejoining the group outside. Her head throbbed with a steady beat, her mouth was dry, and a swig from the water skin did nothing to alleviate the churning nausea that was building in her stomach. Hoping to distract herself, the warrior rummaged through her saddle bags to find her whetstone and oil, and was amazed to see her hand tremble as she withdrew the small packet.
"Xena?" Gabrielle pulled aside the vegetation they'd used to disguise the cave entrance and stepped inside. It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the relative darkness, but then she say her friend sitting at the fireside, sharpening her sword with slow, deliberate strokes.
"Oh, there you are. Is everything okay?"
"Sure. Why wouldn't it be?"
"I don't know, I just... just thought I'd check. The kids are asleep, Ephiny's watching them, so I wandered back down here. I'm not disturbing you, am I?"
"No, not at all."
As they spoke, Xena continued to sharpen her sword, but Gabrielle noticed a slight hesitation... a tremor that she'd never seen in Xena's movements before. The closer she looked, the more concerned she became. A slight sheen of sweat stood out on the warrior's brow, her face a little paler than it ought to have been...
"So... Xena... We, uhm, haven't really had a chance to talk much, what with the way things have been going. How have you been?" Mentally Gabrielle kicked herself : 'Great way to start off a conversation, bard. Any other stupid things you'd like to say to your estranged best friend while you're at it?'
But Xena didn't really seem to notice anything odd about Gabrielle's words, in fact she barely acknowledged them, responding with a shrug and a grunt. She seemed entirely focused on the task at hand, moving the whetstone with a rhythmic precision.
Suddenly the wind picked up outside the cave, rattling the brush, and Xena nearly jumped out of her skin in surprise; dropping the whetstone and cutting herself on her sword in the process.
"OW! Damn, I can't believe I did that." Xena laughed unsteadily, swaying a little where she sat. In a flash Gabrielle was at her side, kneeling in front of her, taking the wounded hand in hers and applying pressure to stop the bleeding. After a moment it slowed, and Gabrielle looked up into the trembling warrior's face, amazed when Xena refused to meet her eyes.
"Xena, look at me."
Slowly, agonizingly, Xena forced herself to look into the green fire of Gabrielle's gaze.
"Xena, in all the time we traveled together, I never saw you have even the slightest mishap with your weapons. Not once. And now, here you are jumping at the slightest sound, trembling like a leaf, cutting yourself for goodness sake. What's wrong? Please, tell me what's going on..."
"What's wrong?" Xena laughed bitterly."I'm a washed up old drunk, that's what's wrong. A has-been warrior who's lived too long. I drank to blank out the pain, drank to forget that I was drinking too much, drank in the hopes that it would slow me down enough that someone would come along and take me out. But somehow I managed to live through it, and I never had the courage to kill myself, so now I'm sitting here, useless, wishing I had another drink in my hand..."
"Xena, stop. Stop it!"
"Why should I, it's the truth..."
"No. No it's not. Xena, you helped me see something that I should have seen on my own five years ago. You gave me the strength to protect my children, and... and myself. You're not washed up, or a has-been. You're my rescuer, again. I can't stand to hear you hurt yourself this way. Please..." Gabrielle trailed off, tears trickling unnoticed down her cheeks, at a loss as to how to continue.
Those tears tore at Xena's heart, and she berated herself for inflicting any more pain on the bard. Retrieving her hand from the comforting grasp, she wiped away the glittering dampness.
"Don't cry. Shhhh, it's all right. Don't listen to me, I'm just short tempered today..."
Taking Gabrielle in her arms, Xena held her gently as Gabrielle cried herself out... unable to stop once the tears had started. Finally the sobs began to die down, a little composure returning, but Gabrielle made no move to pull away from the embrace. It had been so long since Xena had held her, so long since they'd had any contact at all; she was more than content to stay in the sheltering embrace: safe, warm, loved... Gabrielle couldn't remember the last time she'd felt this way.
And Xena, holding the bard as though she were fragile porcelain, as though she might shatter into a thousand pieces at any moment... she could not even bring herself to contemplate pushing Gabrielle away. It might only last for a moment more, but while it lasted it was pure ambrosia.
Neither willing to pull away, they sat there, clasped in an embrace for nearly an hour. In the end, it was Xena's growing nausea that interrupted their communion. Shuddering violently she fought for control, but it startled Gabrielle into sitting up straight.
"Gabrielle, this withdrawl is going to get worse before it gets better. I have to..." Pale and wan, Xena swallowed hard. She tried to stand up, but didn't have much success.
"Here, let me help you. Do you need to go outside?"
Mute, Xena nodded, throwing an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and staggering towards the cave mouth. They made it a few steps into the bright sunlight before Xena fell to her knees, heaving her breakfast into the bushes. Gabrielle held her hair back, resting a gentle hand on her back, and fetched water and a clean cloth when she was done. Ephiny, having come down from the lake, helped her get Xena back inside and into a bed roll, stripping away the armor and leather gambeson.
That evening, Xena woke to the smell of stewing rabbit and fresh herbs. Surprisingly, her stomach didn't roll over at the thought.
"Hey sleepyhead, you ready for some food?" Gabrielle brought a bowl over, sitting down next to her head and reshuffling the head rest so she could sit up.
"I was pretty worried there, for a moment, but Ephiny says she's seen this before... and it could have been much worse. She thinks you're over the worst of it now."
"She's right." Xena smiled weakly.
"I was afraid I was going to be in trouble for a while there, but it looks like I got lucky. I saw this with a few of my men, some of them just shook for a while, some of them had convulsions and hallucinations... a couple died."
"Well don't you go dying on me, Warrior Princess... otherwise who will I tell stories about?" She laughed, but there was something slightly strained in her voice, a tightening around the eyes that told Xena she was truly worried. Taking Gabrielle's hand, Xena made deliberate eye contact.
"Don't worry, it doesn't look like I'm going anywhere for a while."
"Xena, are you sure you're strong enough to be up and around?"
"Gabrielle, I smell strong enough to bring Velasca down on us all the way from Amazon country. I need a bath, and I need it now."
Giggling, Gabrielle lent the warrior her shoulder as they staggered deeper into the caverns.
"Well, you have a point there. But why are we heading deeper in? The lake is outside...."
"I know. There's a place I've been wanting to show you for a while now. Not much further..."
Any reply Gabrielle might have made was lost in her gasp of wonder, as they squeezed through a tiny entryway: from darkness into scintillating light.
A relatively small room, with a lofting ceiling, the majority of the space in the cave was taken up with a steaming pool, fed by the hot springs that flowed through the caves. The walls of the cavern glittered brightly, strewn with chips of mica and veins of quartz, lit by a huge shaft of clear crystal that ran up one wall and into the ceiling. Gabrielle had never seen anything more breathtaking.
"By the gods, Xena... this is..."
Xena smirked with delight at being able to render her friend speechless. Finally Gabrielle stopped struggling to find the right words.
"It's just... beautiful. Thank you." Gabrielle caught Xena in a fierce hug, hoping to express what she could not articulate. After a moment she let go, suddenly self conscious. Thinking quickly, she covered with humor.
"Whew, let's get you into that water immediately. Otherwise Velasca will find us, and I'm not in the mood to be interrupted..."
The heat of the water was hard to stand at first, but deliciously relaxing anyway. Xena groaned as muscles that she hadn't even realized were tense unknotted.
"When will the rest of them be joining us here?"
"Any day now. Maybe tomorrow, likely not later than the next day. Why?"
"I've been thinking. A lot."
"Come to any decisions?"
Gabrielle sighed heavily.
"No. I feel so... The kids miss Perdicas. this morning Xenon asked me when we were going back, and I didn't know what to tell him." Suddenly small and lost looking, Gabrielle searched for comfort in her friend's eyes.
"I can't go back, can I?"
"Gabrielle, in the end only you can make that decision. But..."
"But we both know that I can't risk them there, with him. If he hurt them, it would be as much my fault as his."
"Yes, in a way it would." Xena reached out, smoothing a strand of hair away from the bard's face.
"Do you miss him?"
Gabrielle shrugged, staring into the swirling water.
"Yes. And, no. I don't know. When he came to me, he needed me so much. I couldn't stand to see him suffer. I never could. And we were happy, for a while, I think."
"Did... did you love him?"
"In a way. I cared for him, but... looking back, I don't think I was in love. I wanted so much to heal, to help, to gentle the warrior's dark past. He reminded me so much of you, but he didn't have your strength..."
Looking up, Gabrielle caught Xena's eyes: brilliant, intense, staring into her soul. They locked gazes for a moment, then Xena flicked her eyes away, clearing her throat.
"So, then, if you're not going to go back there... have you thought about what you will do?"
"I don't know, Xena. The Amazons... they need me. Not to be their Queen, the gods know I'm hardly qualified for that. I couldn't even keep my own house in order. But at least to challenge Velasca, or pass the right of Caste on to Ephiny in front of witnesses. Eponin was telling me how many were gone, people I knew... Amazons, Centaurs... Phantes is dead, he and Ephiny were split by the fighting and Eponin says she mourns him still. I can't let that go on... it's so wrong."
"Then don't. When the rest of the group catches up with us, we can go find Velasca, challenge her. It doesn't have to go on like this!"
"But Xena, what about the children? If it's dangerous for them with Perdicas, how much more so when we're on the war path?"
Xena shook her head, thinking.
"Is there someone you can leave them with?"
"No one in Poteidaia... too dangerous. I'd gladly leave them with your mother, but they'd be in as much danger there. It's the second place Velasca would likely look..."
"What about here?"
"Sure, why not? After all, if we're safe here, so are they... We could leave one or two of the Amazons to watch over them, and send for them when things calmed down."
"Do you really think they'd be safe?"
"Safer here than anywhere else."
Nodding, Gabrielle looked thoughtful.
"I... I'll think about it."
Silence fell, as the two women leaned back in the pool, each lost in their own thoughts. Eventually Xena shook herself out of her reverie and caught Gabrielle's attention.
"Hand me that sponge, will you? My back itches something fierce... needs a good scrubbing."
"I'll do better than that. Turn around."
Raising an eyebrow, Xena complied. Gabrielle lifted her dark hair out of the way, scrubbing along the fine boned back with a soapy sponge, wondering at the lines of muscle.
"Have I ever told you that you have an amazing back?"
"An amazing back?" Xena sounded incredulous.
"No, it's true. I think backs say a lot about a person. Yours is smooth, the muscles like carved alabaster... A lot of scars, but they don't mar the picture at all. It's like your back is a blank page, and the scars write across it, telling the story of your battles... they tell it better than I ever could."
Xena laughed, shaking her head, but Gabrielle could see a delicate coral blush spread ever so slightly as she traced the line of on scar that went from shoulder to hip. A whip scar, or maybe a sword...
"You must be a bard. Only a poet could romanticize my scars, for goodness sake."
Smiling, Gabrielle swam around to face Xena, reaching out and tilting her chin up to look at the scar that ran along her jawbone.
"How could I not? You got so many of them protecting me..."
The warmth of the pool paled in comparison to the heat in Xena's eyes, electric blue arcing across the intervening distance. For an eternity Gabrielle lost herself in them, mesmerized, forgetting that she still had her hand on Xena's face. How long she could have stayed that way she did not know, but eventually Xena shook her head, tearing her gaze away. When she spoke, her voice was rough and broken.
"Well, anything for a good cause. And what cause could be better?"
"I think... I think, more than anyone else in this world, I owe you an apology."
"For running away."
"Don't be silly. You needed a house, a family. Things that I could never..."
Shaking her head, Gabrielle put her finger to Xena's lips, stilling the spill of words.
"No. We both know it wasn't just that. I was young, and stupid. I didn't know what I had until it was too late... I thought... I don't know what I thought. Maybe I thought you really didn't need me, that I was a liability. I was afraid that I would loose you, afraid that I wouldn't... I was afraid of the intensity, and I didn't think you'd ever really let me in... It was an eternity ago, and I was so different, I hardly know the girl I was, I can't explain her reasons. But I know that I made a mistake, and it cost us both. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry..."
Heartsore, Xena caught Gabrielle in a fierce embrace, stroking the bard's hair tenderly.
"No, gods no, Gabrielle. It was as much my fault as yours... I should have told you, so much sooner, how much you meant to me. But I was afraid... afraid that you'd get hurt if you stayed with me, afraid you wouldn't be happy on the road... I thought I knew what you needed, and I thought it wasn't anything I could give you..."
"Xena... maybe we can call it even. I don't know how to figure out what went wrong, but maybe it doesn't matter so much, now. What does matter is what we do from now on. Can we leave our mistakes behind? Do you... do you want to try?"
Heart in her mouth, she searched Xena's face for answers, hoping to find her soul mirrored there. And the warrior, at a loss for words, replied the only way she knew how. Ever so slowly she leaned in, brushing her lips across the bard's, trembling.
What started as a timid affirmation quickly turned into something more, and by the end of the kiss, Xena wasn't the only one trembling. Gabrielle's breath caught in her throat, escaping in a tiny whimper, and she broke away: blushing brilliant crimson and looking anywhere but Xena's face.
"I... I don't know about you, but... I, uh, I'm getting a little light headed. Can we get out of this hot water?"
"Sure, I'm turning into a prune anyway..."
Before either of them had a chance to collect their wits, Eponin's voice range through the tunnels, searching for them.
"Xeeeeeeeeena! Gabrielle... Solari is here, and she has news!"
"Velasca's people caught up with us barely a day after you left. They figured out pretty quickly that you weren't with us, but I guess they had orders to bring back as many as they could find. Which, of course, was fine with me. It let us lead them further and further away from you all. They know the general area where you left us, but by this time, they'll never be able to find the trail; your tracks are days old, and well concealed anyway.
We finally lost them up near Cerus; fortunately I knew the mountain trails up there better than Antea, and we managed to get behind us. They probably tracked us, but we got back onto well traveled roads nearly a day ahead of them. We came up over the hills, by the alternate route you told me about, and it took us less time than I expected, so here we are."
Xena nodded in satisfaction as Solari finished her report.
"It's rare that anything goes exactly as planned, but this came awfully close. Good work. Any casualties?"
Solari's face clouded over.
"One, Theora. They never got close enough for anything but range weapons, and Theora was our rear guard. She caught an arrow in the back, it severed her spine. She died almost instantly, and we couldn't carry the body and stay ahead of them..."
"I'm sorry, she was a fine warrior..."
"And a good friend. But she died fighting for something she believed in, and she would have wanted that."
Solari sighed, shaking her head.
"I will miss her, though. So many gone... Well, we've achieved our objective. Gabrielle and the children are at a safe have, Velasca won't find them without mobilizing the whole Amazon nation and scouring this area... and she's too busy fighting the Centaurs to do that. So the question is, what now? Where do we go from here?"
"I have some thoughts on that." All eyes snapped to Gabrielle as she stood, moving to the center of the group.
"I've been spending a lot of time thinking, the past few days. Haven't had much else to do, I guess. And the more I think about it, the harder it is to get away from the realization that everything that has happened here has happened because of me. No, hear me out..." Gabrielle held up her hand, forestalling protestations from the Amazons.
"I not indulging in guilt, at least, not at the moment. What I'm trying to say is that I have certain responsibilities, and I haven't done a very good job of balancing them out up till now. I want to do something to change that. And I don't want anyone else to get hurt, or killed, because I wasn't willing to face up to my responsibilities. There's been too much of that already.
So, I want to go back, and face Velasca... but I want to do it alone." Gabrielle smiled as Xena leapt to her feet, a protest on her lips.
"Not completely alone. But I don't need to take all of you into danger. I know you want to fight for your people, but if I take all of you into Amazon lands, we'll never make it to Velasca. We can't fight our way in, the odds are just too great. A small party would have a better chance. We sneak in, and then challenge Velasca in front of the other Amazons... in a situation where she can't turn me down. Then, one way or another, things will be settled. And if I don't win, then at least I'll know that you are still alive... and even if Velasca wipes the rest of the Amazons from the face of the world, you will remain to rebuild our people."
As Gabrielle finished her impassioned speech, she could see she'd had an affect on the women surrounding her. Conflicting emotions warred on their faces, whether to cheer for her and follow her whole heartedly, or argue against the folly of her going into danger alone...
Finally, Eponin stood.
"How many would you take with you, then? And who?"
"Two." She replied, smiling tenderly as she glanced at Xena.
"One hard headed warrior, who I doubt I could talk into staying behind even if I wanted to, and one Amazon who I think would make a far better queen than I ever could. Xena will be my champion in the challenge, and Ephiny will wear the mask in my place, once we've won. Is that acceptable to you all?"
One by one the Amazons nodded, all but Ephiny.
"Gabrielle, my Princess, you know I would follow you anywhere... but I don't understand why you are so insistent on giving up the mask before you've even worn it. Why won't you be our Queen?"
"Because Terreis made a mistake, giving me the right of Caste, and it's my duty to correct that. I'm no Amazon, Ephiny. Not by a long shot." Gabrielle sighed, regret etched into the fine lines around her eyes. "Maybe I could have been, once. But that time is long past. I don't have the strength of will, nor the courage for it. Now, if you all will excuse me, I have to go get Xenon and little Ephiny something to eat, they slept through breakfast..." With that she headed out of the cavern, leaving a bewildered circle of Amazons behind her.
"Doesn't have the courage?!' Ephiny shook her head, disbelieving.
"This from a woman who just proposed a trek into enemy territory, to confront a Queen who wants her dead and has an army to back it up, with only two escorts. What, is she blind?"
Sighing, Xena nodded.
"In a way, she is. She's gotten used to thinking of herself in a certain light. Take it from me, that can be very... limiting."
"Eponin, Solari... Thank you. I can't think of anyone I'd rather trust my kids to. I know you'll keep them safe. And, if... if anything should happen to us... I know you'll raise them well. Teach them to be true to their hearts, no matter what. That's one lesson I didn't learn soon enough, myself."
"Oh, hush!" Eponin glanced down, surreptitiously wiping a tear from her eye.
"This is just silly. You'll be back for them in no time, there's no need to leave those kind of instructions..."
"Eponin," Gabrielle tilted her friend's head up, finger under chin, to make eye contact... deadly serious.
"Promise me. This journey is just barely one step above a suicide mission, and that's only because we have Xena... so please, promise me that if we don't come back, you will raise them to follow their dreams, and be true to themselves."
"We promise, my queen. You have my word..." Eponin placed a hand over her heart, dropping to one knee before a startled Gabrielle.
"Get up..." the red head grabbed Eponin's arm, dragging her up off the ground into an awkward embrace.
"I'm no queen. If anything, call me friend."
"One does not necessarily preclude the other... my friend."
After taking her leave of Eponin and Solari, it was only a matter of slinging her knapsack over her shoulder, picking up her staff, and joining Xena and Ephiny at the cave mouth.
"Ready to go?" Xena asked, preparing to swing into the saddle.
"Ready as I'll ever be, I guess."
"Good, we've got a long road ahead of us."
They traveled for several days, pushing into the night, making cold camps. Xena left Argo behind, sacrificing the greater speed and comfort of having her horse along so that they could move over rocky ground and take to the trees, moving with greater stealth and leaving fewer tracks to follow. The daylight hours passed in silence: Ephiny far ahead scouting the path, Xena lost in thoughts of her own, and Gabrielle too out of breath to even consider talking. It had been some time since she'd done this kind of traveling, and it showed. Working the farm had kept her strong, but it used different muscles, and Gabrielle was too weary to even complain at the end of their long days. She just collapsed into her bed roll, gnawed listlessly on some hard tack and beef jerky, and then fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
At the end of the third day, Xena looked down at her weary companion. Already in her bedroll, she was looking drawn out even in her sleep.
"Ephiny, how much further do we have to go?"
"This is the border area. Tomorrow around noon we ought to cross the actual border itself. After that, half a day. We should be at the village by nightfall."
"We need to scout around before we go barging in..."
"Mmm hmm. We have to find out what Velasca's up to, figure out where we're going to challenge her. I was going to suggest that perhaps you and Gabrielle should hole up for a day while I take to the trees. When I get back we can plan our strategy."
"Good plan. I was going to suggest that I go, but you know these woods in and out... Is there a place to hide near here?"
"Sure, all kinds of places. Especially if you're willing to be cozy." Ephiny smiled impishly at Xena's playful growl, ducking the bit of hard tack flung in her direction. Instead of taking her full in the face, the dry biscuit shattered against a tree branch, showering her with tiny crumbs.
In the morning they moved to Ephiny's "hiding place", an odd little indentation under an outcropping of boulders that looked completely inconspicuous from any kind of distance, but in truth lead to a small cave, barely big enough for two people to sit up in. Surprisingly there was a miniature fire circle in the back, and a thick fur rolled up inside a burlap bag against the back wall.
"All the comforts of home?" Xena raised an eyebrow at Ephiny after peering under the ledge.
"Well, you know. It's always good to have some place out of the way, for those... private meetings."
"Uh huh. I'm sure it is..."
One had to get down on the ground and roll into the little cave to get inside, but it was quite cozy once the fur was spread out and the bed rolls set against one wall for back support.
Once inside, Gabrielle moved to the inside wall, curled up, and promptly went back to sleep, the exhaustion of three days of hard travel still weighing heavy on her. Smiling tenderly, Xena spread a blanket over the still bard and leaned back, taking advantage of the down time to catch a little more rest herself. After all, a good soldier sleeps where and when she can: she never knows when the next opportunity will be.
Still, she woke before Gabrielle, and decided to put the afternoon to good use. Taking off all her armor, she sat in her leather under tunic, going over every piece of her equipment carefully. Satisfied with it's condition, she had just moved on to sharpening the chakram when Gabrielle stirred.
"Hey there, sleepy head. Feeling a little more human now?"
Brushing her hair back from her face, Gabrielle nodded.
"I haven't hurt like this since the first time I set out on the road with you... No, I take it back. Even that wasn't this bad."
"Well, we were both younger then. Younger by a lifetime... Here, roll over and I'll see if I can't rub some of the kinks out. We don't want you collapsing from a leg cramp when you're about to be crowned Queen of the Amazons... it's not dignified."
Sighing gratefully, Gabrielle spread out, allowing Xena's strong hands to massage away the stress and strain of the road.
"Oh, by the gods, I'd forgotten how good at this you were."
Chuckling, Xena snapped back with her old response.
"How could you forget: I have many skills!"
"I know, I know. Many skills. You have no idea how many times, back at the farm after a long day of weeding or plowing, I wished you were there with your many skills, and that old pot of horse liniment you used to rub me down with..."
Gabrielle trailed off, flipping over to meet Xena's eyes.
"Or without it. I just... wished you were there." A single tear trembled at the corner of Gabrielle's eye, and Xena reached up to brush it away.
Gabrielle shook her head, putting a finger on Xena's lips to forestall any apology.
"It doesn't matter. You're here now, and that's enough."
Xena sighed with relief, pulling Gabrielle into the circle of her arms.
"I was afraid it wouldn't be. It... it wasn't last time, and it seems like so little to offer for the future."
Gabrielle pulled back for a moment, wanting to see Xena's face.
"It's enough for an eternity, Xena. But for now, for this moment, let's pretend we don't know what tomorrow will bring. No past, no future, no danger. Just us. All right? Can we have this small space of time for our own?"
"All right. Nothing else exists, for this moment."
"Good." Gabrielle laid her head on Xena's shoulder again, reveling in the closeness. They lay there in stillness for what seemed like an eternity. Breathing together, content with the moment, they let time slide by on it's own, ignoring them completely. And eventually Gabrielle's lips found the small hollow between Xena's collar bone and neck, and she planted a small kiss there. And it seemed natural that another should flow from that, and another. Twitching, the warrior lay there, eyes closed.
Smiling that she should have such a visible effect with so little effort, Gabrielle shifted, bringing her face even with Xena's. She waited until the blue eyes popped open, and then leaned in... taking an eternity to claim the waiting lips with her own. If their first kiss had been lighting, this one was a slow fire, dripping along nerve endings like honey, clouding their eyes with dark smoke.
"Gabrielle..." Xena's voice was rough with passion.
"I love you."
"I love you, too, my Warrior Princess. I love you, too."
In the still light of dawn, when the birds were just beginning to take the measure of the day and the gray mist still clung to forest with grasping, fading fingers, the three women moved silently towards their objective.
Velasca had pulled the Amazons back even further, their line of defense was now well into Amazon lands. Camped at the edge of a small river, cut off from the village, there was no denying that they were on the run. The only thing that had saved them so far was the fact that if they lost a skirmish, they could take to the trees in retreat.
The very young and very old were still at the village, guarded by a small band of warriors, and fortunately the Centaurs had left them alone to this point, but the gods only knew how much longer that mercy would hold.
Ephiny had found the Amazon army easily enough, and now lead them towards it.
"If we go in through the trees, we may catch them unaware. They're tired, and the only attack they're expecting is from the Centaurs. Centaurs don't climb trees, so they may not have sentries there. " Ephiny explained, as she got out her climbing rope and hook.
"The only question, Gabrielle, is if you're up to it?"
Gabrielle looked up at the tall trees, visibly shaken.
"I'll do my best..."
"Don't worry," Ephiny squeezed her arm, tossing a loop of the rope around her waist in a crude harness.
"We won't let you fall."
Ephiny went up first, then Gabrielle, Xena drawing the rest of the rope up behind them. Once up in the canopy it wasn't so bad. The branches were wide and fairly stable, the leaves screening them from the sight of the distant earth. Gabrielle could almost forget that they were a hundred feet in the air, perched in the sky with nothing to stop their fall should they go astray.
Ephiny had plotted their route carefully, leaving them no open spaces to cross without cover, and they approached the Amazon camp in good time and without incident.
The Amazons were stirring, dawn fully under way, when the three women finally made it to their position above and in front of Velasca's fire. Communicating more by reading each other's lips than by hearing the low whispers, they made their final plans.
"Ephiny and I will go first, you start down when we've reached the half way mark. That gives you time to abort if they start shooting arrows at us. If they do, stay where you are. Your best hope is to stay hidden, 'cause you'll never out run them in the trees." Gabrielle nodded, holding Xena's eyes a moment longer, trying to pour all the love she could down that bond before they went sailing into the fire.
Touching Gabrielle's arm, Ephiny got her attention.
"Remember to hold tight to that piece of leather I gave you, or you'll get rope burns on your hands like you wouldn't believe..."
With that she nodded to Xena, and they both stepped off the branch at the same time. Gabrielle watched them plummet towards the ground, heart in her throat, blood pounding like the beating of the tide. Almost half way, and they'd only just now been spotted. So far no one was aiming weaponry, they were only just registering that these were not their own scouts returning... and now it was time for her to go.
Grabbing onto the piece of leather, wrapping it around the rope, time moving slowly past her like an eddy of slow moving water. She stared over the edge, watching Xena and Ephiny drift towards the earth like feathers. A thousand feet above the earth, higher than the stars, Gabrielle closed her eyes as a wave of nausea threatened to send her plummeting.
"I can't do this... I can't... I have to..."
Eyes screwed shut Gabrielle turned and stepped off the branch, heart stopping as she plummeted towards the ground. Then she squeezed down on the leather in her hand, and her pace slowed somewhat. Opening her eyes, she realized that Xena and Ephiny had just touched earth. The Amazons were only now drawing weapons, and every eye in camp was on her. Feeling the earth loom up beneath her, Gabrielle touched down like she had been born to flight, letting the rope go quite casually and straightening her shoulders. Before the Amazons could draw bow, she drew in a deep breath and called out.
"Hold! I am Gabrielle, Princess of the Amazons by Right of Caste, and I call challenge on the usurper Velasca! Let her stand forth and face me!"
A murmur moved through the small crowd, only a bare score of women left that could stand and fight. Gabrielle's heart broke as she realized how small their numbers had grown.
Stalking forward out of the crowd, Velasca's eyes burned with hatred, one arm in a sling, a fresh red scar puckering one corner of her mouth into a perpetual sneer.
"What are you waiting for? Shoot them!"
One of the archers shook her head slowly, a determined look growing in her eyes.
"Velasca, she's challenged you. She is a Princess, she has that right."
"Don't be an idiot, she's no Amazon! Certainly not our Princess! I'M the Queen, and I say kill them!"
Another Amazon stepped forward.
"I was there when Terrais granted her the Right of Caste, Velasca. Will you question my word? I who have fought for you these five years, who have risked my life for yours..."
Velasca stopped for a moment, taken aback.
"No, Lygia. I would never question your word, you are a true Amazon. But Terrais did not know Gabrielle when she granted her the Right, she was dying, not in her right mind. She made a mistake, and surely you can see that? Gabrielle is no Amazon. She has been living with a man, having his children, letting him beat her, for Artemis sake! What Amazon would stand that? Or let him raise a hand to her children? She would not even stand up to him to protect them. She has no fighting spirit. Do you want someone like that for your Queen? Why, I'll bet she wont even fight me herself. She'll want Xena to be her champion. Would an Amazon refuse to fight for herself?" The last came out with a sneer, and Gabrielle could see that the Amazons were wavering.
Desperate, she wracked her brain for a way to turn this to her advantage. But she could only come up with one solution, and it wasn't one that she cared for very much. Still, as Velasca drew breath to denounce her again, the bard held up her hand.
"What Velasca says is true." Xena's head whipped around, and she stared piercingly at the redhead, but did not interrupt as Gabrielle drew a steadying breath and continued.
"You need a Queen who is strong, and brave, one who can fight her own battles. But you also need a Queen who is wise, who knows the ways of the outside world, one who will not lead the Nation into complete destruction. Velasca is strength without wisdom, energy without direction, and you can see where that has gotten you! The Centaurs are ready to attack, they outnumber you by at least two to one. The Amazons are about to be wiped out. Is that what you want?"
Velasca sneered, stepping menacingly towards Gabrielle.
"And what do you know of war, little wife? Can you lead them free of this so called loosing battle? I don't think so! You've never directed anything more dangerous than your plow oxen. The Amazons need a warrior's leadership now more than ever, and you're no warrior!"
Lygia shook her head, stepping between them.
"Gabrielle, we respect your royal blood, but we are at war. What assurance can you give us that you will lead us with courage, with skill?"
"If coming here, almost surely to my death is not assurance enough..." Lygia shook her head.
"Then I will fight Velasca, myself. Win or loose, I would think that should be proof enough for anyone that I'm no coward."
Lygia nodded, stepping back. Closing the distance between them, Xena grabbed Gabrielle's arm, hissing a question under her breath.
"What are you thinking? You haven't practiced with your staff in years, she'll kill you before you get your defense in place!"
Gabrielle shook her head.
"I have to do this, Xena. Her arm is wounded, that may help my cause. But even if I loose, I think I can manage to take her with me. Then the Amazons will have to choose a new Queen anyway. Please, make sure that it ends up being Ephiny."
Xena searched her love's face, agony clouding her eyes.
"You would die for them?"
Gabrielle nodded, laying a hand on Xena's face. Slowly acceptance dawned in the blue eyes, though it did not replace the fear or pain. Satisfied, Gabrielle nodded, smiling sadly and placing a light kiss before turning to face Velasca. The Amazon now held a sword, standing confidently in the center of the clearing.
"Are you done, little Princess? It's time we settled this, I have other work to do."
Gabrielle nodded as Lygia handed her a staff, twirling it once in her hands to get the balance of it. Then she stepped forward, facing off with Velasca. For a moment there was complete stillness, as everyone waited for one to make the first move. Again time stretched out for Gabrielle, and all the lessons Xena had taught her so long ago replayed behind her eyes. She remembered listening with her whole body, catching an arrow mid-flight... And as time moved past, trailing across her body with delicate fingers, she saw Velasca begin to move.
The sword came up in a high arc, a contemptuous blow that said Velasca didn't care if she left her midsection open, she didn't believe Gabrielle was good enough to take advantage of it.
Instinct setting her into motion, Gabrielle ducked low, moving forward at the same time. The sword whistled by harmlessly over her head, and she brought the end of her staff up smartly, rapping Velasca in the ribs. The blow connected with a satisfying crunch, and Gabrielle thought she might have broken one of Velsca's ribs.
Then time jumped into full motion again as she spun away, coming around in a guard position. Velasca was shocked by the blow, but not feeling the pain yet, and she didn't let it slow her down. Screaming a battle cry she lunged forward, more canny this time, taking Gabrielle seriously as an opponent.
Blows rattled back and forth in silence for a moment, a rapid exchange. Velasca was definitely favoring her left side, hampered by sling and cracked ribs. But not as hampered as Gabrielle had hoped. A slight miscalculation on the bard's part, and she came away from an exchange with a line of blood dripping down her arm. More psychological damage than physical, it would take a while for the blood loss to weaken her, but it was as if she could feel her strength seeping away.
"Look at the blood drip, little girl. Your life, falling to the ground, drop by drop, draining away."
Gabrielle shook her head, refusing to let her eyes be drawn away from her opponent. Laughing Velasca charged her, trying to get inside her optimum striking range where the shorter sword would give her an advantage. Rapidly back pedaling Gabrielle tried to watch for snags, but it was only moments before she tripped over a leaf covered branch, dropping to one knee. Velasca was on her in a heartbeat, sword coming in low and deadly.
Gabrielle wrenched her staff up, barely blocking in time, and Velasca's sword buried itself halfway through the wood. Abandoning the stick Gabrielle launched herself at Velasca, grappling close.
Both disarmed the rolled over and over, neither able to pin the other. Velasca was stronger, but Gabrielle had both hands.
Finally Gabrielle managed to free a fist, driving it repeatedly into her opponent's ribs, targeting the ever spreading bruise.
Standing up and backing off a step, Gabrielle left Velasca lying curled on her side, coughing up blood.
"It's done. Does anyone dispute that I've won this contest?"
"It's a fight to the death, Gabrielle. Velasca still lives." Lygia stood toe to toe with the bard, locking eyes with her.
"So you want me to pick up a sword and skewer her where she lies? Is that the kind of Queen you'd have me be?"
Lygia was the first to look away, bowing her head.
"No, my Queen. You're right, there's nothing more to prove."
The Amazons raised their swords, Xena and Ephiny shoved to the outskirts of the crowd as they pushed in to get close to their new Queen. From many voices, a single cry:
"Long live Queen Gabrielle!"
Lygia shouted with the rest of them, cheering her new queen whole heartedly. Then, suddenly, a flicker of movement caught her eye. With a shout she knocked Gabrielle aside, bringing her sword up as Velasca lunged forward. A sickening crunch silenced the crowd, as two swords slid home. Velasca looked down in surprise at the sword buried in her chest, and then to the pain filled eyes of Lygia. Struggling to form words around the pain, a ragged sigh escaped.
"My love, why?"
Catching Velasca as she fell, and laying her gently to earth, Lygia knelt next to her, oblivious to her own blood as it pumped into the earth.
"For love, and for the good heart I once knew. She would have wanted it this way. Rest, now, in peace at last."
And peace did enter Velasca's eyes, for a moment, before they fluttered shut.
Tears streaming down her face, Gabrielle knelt next to Lygia.
"Xena! Xena, what do we do? Can we... stop the bleeding, somehow? We... there must be something..."
Shaking her head, Lygia took Gabrielle's hands in hers.
"No, Gabrielle. Even the Warrior Princess cannot staunch this flow. I'll die, now or in a day or two, when the wound festers. Stomach wounds are... There really isn't very much pain. Please, just let me go."
"Shhhhh. She was wrong, and I've known it. We've all known it, for a while now. But we let our hatred blind us, and our love. A blessing on your reign, and may you bring our people back to wisdom..."
And with a last whisper of breath, Lygia slipped away.
Standing and staggering blindly to Xena, covered in the blood of her people, Gabrielle buried her face in the warrior's shoulder and sobbed unashamedly.
Much sooner than Xena had expected, Gabrielle got ahold of herself, scrubbing the tears and blood away with a spare bit of cloth.
"Queen Gabrielle!" A winded sentry knelt in front of the tear stained bard.
"The Centaurs are on the move. What are your orders?"
"How close are they?"
"Across the river. It will take them a few minutes to get here, but not much longer than that..."
"Is Tyldus still their leader?"
"No, my Queen. Tyldus is dead. Their ruler is a young Centaur named Demophon."
Shaking her head, Gabrielle sighed.
"Xena, can you help me get the Amazons out of here? We can't afford this conflict, and if the two sides meet, there will be no chance of anything else."
All business, Xena nodded.
"You're right, we can't. I'll take them to the trees, head back towards the village. What are you going to do?"
"Try to find a way to talk us out of a war."
Within moments, Xena and the Amazon army were swarming away, their passage marked only by the whisper of leaves. Ephiny and five other Amazons scurried around the clearing, gathering the last of the wood from the camp fires and piling it into one large double-wide pyre.
"Thank you, Ephiny. Set Velasca and Lygia's bodies there, and then go."
"But Gabrielle, I thought we were going to stay."
"I am. You're not."
"I know, she asked you to keep me safe. But the only way to do that is to obey me. Do you trust me, Ephiny?"
"Of course I do."
"Yes, my Queen."
Once she was alone amidst the remains of the Amazon encampment, the silence pressed in around Gabrielle, stifling in it's intensity. She tried to distract herself from the fear, clearing the leaves further away from the pyre, dumping the contents of any oil skin she could find over the two bodies. Making sure she had a lit torch nearby, she finally had nothing to do but stand and wait. The minutes crawled by, and her mind was a whirl with doubts. Finally, as her nerve was about to break, a twig snapped and Gabrielle heard the creak of drawn bowstrings.
"Demophon, wait! I'm alone, and unarmed. I want to parley!"
For a moment there was no response, and Gabrielle was afraid that her ploy had failed. Her shoulder blades itched, and she could almost feel arrow fletching sticking out from between them. But the sight of two dead Amazons on a pyre, guarded only by a slip of a woman who was obviously not an Amazon, must have been enough to peak their curiosity, because the flight of arrows never materialized. A voice from the cover of the brush called out, instead.
"Who are you, to parley for the Amazons?"
Taking the torch in hand, and raising it high for dramatic effect, Gabrielle declared herself.
"I am Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons!"
"Velasca is their Queen, impostor!"
"Velasca lies dead before me. Come and see for yourselves, if you doubt my word!"
Gabrielle stepped back, holding the torch at the ready. Slowly Centaur forms began to work their way out of the encumbering brush, stalking forward with weapons drawn. One, dark skinned and bright eyed, wore the ornaments of the Centaur King. He might have been handsome, but for the vivid scarring that marred his face, and his chest, and his roan hide. Feral was the word that came to mind to describe him, and Gabrielle's heart sank at the look in his eyes. This was not a man of peace.
He approached, looking carefully at Velasca's still form.
"You defeated her in battle?"
"I did. She was a pretender to the throne, and I the rightful heir. She would not step aside, so I fought her, and won."
"What of the other?"
"She died defending me against a cowardly attack afterwards."
Demophon studied Gabrielle carefully, she felt like a bug under and enlarging glass. Conscious of her battered state, she did her best to stand proud.
"So you are their new Queen. You hardly look the type. And tell me, Queen of the Amazons, what difference does this make to me? Why are you here?"
"Because I don't want to fight this war."
"I'm not surprised. You're loosing."
"Demophon, I won't try to pretend we're not. I have only a handful of warriors left. The Amazon nation is almost dead. We're no threat to you any more. But as long as I'm Queen, we could be a thousand strong and we'd be no threat to you. I don't want war, Demophon. I want peace. So many of my friends are dead, women I respected. Children without mothers, grandmothers who have outlived their whole family and watched them die one by one. Why? Why must this continue. What do we gain?"
Stepping forward, Gabrielle tossed the lighted torch on Velasca's pyre. It spluttered for a moment, then caught in a rush, flames licking over the two bodies, obscuring them from sight.
"The old Amazon Nation is dead, King of the Centaurs. Your enemies died with it, and you stand before their pyre. Is that not enough?"
Demophon flicked his tale, staring into the flames.
"Is it? Will it erase the horror from our minds. The scars from our bodies? Do you expect us to simply throw down our arms and be friends again?"
"No, Demephon. There is too much hatred, too much pain between our peoples. Too much history, and all of it dark. Perhaps our children can learn to be friends once more, or maybe they never will. That's for the gods to say. But we can stop killing one another, and give them that chance. I'm not asking for brotherhood, just a cease fire. The rest will come in time, or not."
"We will not give up the territory we've taken."
"Nor do you have to. It will be generations before we can even come close to needing that room again. We'll stay on our side of the river, and you on yours."
Sighing, Demephon nodded.
"I sent my young son to offer a cease fire a year ago. I thought a child would be safe, even in Amazon hands. Velasca took him hostage, and demanded I turn myself over to her in exchange for his life. When I did, she killed him anyway. I got these wounds fighting free. When I saw you standing here, my first thought was revenge. You don't know how close you came to being the sacrifice for Velasca's sins."
"Why didn't you kill me?"
"You reminded me of my wife, before she died in child birth. She was peasant stock, like you. Had an innocent look about her. She was friends with the Amazons, and their healer tried to save her life. It's been years since I remembered her with anything but anger. Perhaps, if I can stop fighting for a while, I can find a way to remember love."
Nodding solemnly, Gabrielle extended her hand. Demephon looked at it, and shook his head. With a twitch of his tail, he leapt into motion, galloping for the edge of the clearing.
"Don't come into Centaur lands, Amazon Queen. I have not found love in my heart yet, and we won't forgive trespassers."
And with a thunder of hooves, the Centaurs were gone.
Gabrielle breathed a sigh of utter relief, her knees buckling beneath her. Quickly she found a rock to sit on, facing to raging pyre.
"Xena, Ephiny, you can come down out of the trees now. I know you're up there."
The leaves above her head rustled, and then a chagrined pair of women slid down twin ropes to land in front of the Amazon Queen.
"Come on, Xena. You didn't even argue with me about leaving me here. I know you better than that. And I appreciate it."
Xena chuckled wryly.
"That transparent, am I?"
"You took charge quite handily, today, my Queen."
"I'm sorry, Ephiny. There just wasn't time to explain things to the Amazons, to give you the mask..."
"Don't apologize. You were born for the job."
"When we get back to the village, I'll arrange for the ceremony."
"No you wont."
"Gabrielle, you are the Queen. I wont take it, period."
"Are you sure?"
Smiling broadly, Xena stepped back, pulling Ephiny with her, and dropped to her knees.
"HAIL GABRIELLE, QUEEN OF THE AMAZONS!!"
copyright 1997 Quest
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