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Editor's Choice Award

General Disclaimer: All characters depicted belong to Renaissance Pictures/Universal, etc. This story is just for fun, and no copyright infringement was intended.

Violence: It’s Xena, what can I tell you? But I will say that this is not a war story, it is first and foremost a love story.

Subtext: The subtext is here and shall not be denied. No gratuitous sex, just a fair bit of innuendo and flirtations involving women in love.

Lucy Lawless Alter-Ego disclaimer: Just for the hell of it I thought I’d have Lucy Lawless’ Xena meet up with one of her alter egos from the past, Lysia from "Hercules and the Amazon Women", but there’s no corny "hey you look familiar" jokes I promise....ohh well maybe just a couple in the beginning:-)

Spoiler disclaimer: This story is set after "Bitter Suite" but before "One Against an Army". I refer to the Herc telemovie "Hercules and the Amazon Women" but have chosen to ignore the whole "Zeus sends Herc back in time to fix everything" thing. I loved the Lysia character and wanted to use her, so...As far as I’m concerned Herc did go to Hippolyte’s Amazon village and Lysia did kick the living daylights out of him and it was a satisfying, feminine-affirming experience all round. None of this going-back-in-time-and-having-it-never-happen stuff. Iolaus just stayed home and stopped himself from getting killed. Or maybe he hung around to gawk at the Amazons. But since this is my fantasy world I get to decide what happened and what didn’t, and I make no apologies:)

Dedicated to all the writers involved on Xena:Warrior Princess, whose work I admire enormously.


The Game
by Poto


Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5

Part One

As the glowing embers of the banked fire flickered in the crisp Autumn air Xena stared anxiously up at the new moon. Her eyes slowly traced the edges of the trees, the shadows, anything they found.

She hated nights like these, restless nights, lying awake as Gabrielle sighed and moaned in her sleep. She sat, wondering if soon she would resort to counting blades of grass in order to lull herself into the longed for oblivion of sleep.

Shivering under her blankets, Xena knew that pretty soon they’d have to find some fairly permanent shelter for the winter. Not even a warrior princess likes to freeze on the cold ground for long, she thought grimly. Pity none of her old warlord enemies had ever realised that the one thing she really hated was the cold. She smiled tentatively to herself, unsure as always whether or not to be frightened or glad that she still found some memories of her warlord days easy to think back upon. She could imagine Borias would have gotten quite a kick out of leaving her defenceless in the snow of Chin if he had known, even suspected, that just the temperature would have driven her insane.

Wriggling impatiently she shifted to her side and watched the bard’s chest rise and fall with a steady rhythm.

If she was really unlucky Gabrielle would talk in her sleep again. She might talk about Ares. She might talk about Ming T’ien. About the coldness of the water in that hellish dungeon. About how she’d felt watching someone she loved chained and helpless and freezing.

Maybe not helpless. Never helpless.

She sensed immediately when Gabrielle awoke


"Hmm, yes?"

"I just wanted to see if you were sleeping."

"No." Xena shifted uncomfortably, her eyes meeting the bard’s in the last of the firelight.

"You cold?"

"A little" the warrior admitted, snuggling deeper into her cloak and blankets. "I left my boots on to keep my feet warm."

"Me too." Gabrielle let her eyes linger on Xena for a few seconds longer, and then closed them again with a deep sigh. As usual the mighty warrior princess who never under-estimated anyone was too blind to see that her best friend knew when she was having trouble sleeping. Reaching out a soft hand she stroked the warriors side. Xena’s eyes popped open in momentary panic, as if she didn’t quite know what to do with this show of affection, but she didn’t move away.

At least that’s a start, Gabrielle mused, resting her hand over Xena’s waist.

"Gabrielle, I..." Xena’s tongue caught in her throat and she cursed herself for her cowardice.

"It’s all right Xena, I know."

"No I don’t think you do." Xena caught Gabrielle’s hand and shifted it so it rested on her face, clutching its warmth as the soft fingers stroked her cheek.

Gabrielle read the warrior’s thoughts. "Xena, it’s understandable that things have been tense between us..."

"Damn it all!" Xena jumped up suddenly, her muscles twitching, as she grabbed a log and

hurled it onto the fire. The flames jumped and danced briskly with the new fuel, sending a

wave of heat across the blankets. "It wasn’t you, it wasn’t me, it was them! They did it all! I’m sick of feeling like some stupid plaything for the Gods, Gabrielle. At least when I was a warlord I felt like I was in control, taking destiny into my own hands, but this..?"

A sob rose in her throat and she choked on it, concentrating on easing the tide of anger that swelled within her. The bard swiftly rose and reached out for her partner’s cloak.

"You listen to me. Nothing that happens to us now can ever harm us again. We’ve been through the worst, we’ve survived! We survived their games, their tricks, we even survived each other." Her face softened and she raised a hand to wipe away the one, traitorous tear that Xena had been unable to prevent from rolling down her cheeks. Frustration. Emotions weren’t something the warrior could swipe at with her sword and have them obey her every word.

"You know, when you were a warlord you were more at the mercy of the Gods than any other time. You had lost all sens of who you really were, all direction. Ares was free to lead you around by the nose and you didn’t even realise he was doing it. But now you see everything."

Gabrielle forced her lover to look her deeply in the eyes. "You see everything." She repeated intensely, using both hands to trace the warrior’s harshly controlled features, calming and easing the tension as she went. "I saw nothing but darkness, in you, and especially in myself. I thought if I could just cleanse that darkness then nothing would be wrong between us, that we could go on like were before, that all we’d been through the past two years hadn’t been wasted...and now I see that we should have just trusted each other a little more."

"Gabrielle..." Xena started, moved. "You have an uncanny ability to make an awful lot of sense sometimes."

"Only sometimes?" The bard raised a playful eyebrow and Xena revelled in the smile that sat on the smaller woman’s lips. An urge overwhelmed her and she leant, touching those lips with her own, feeling their tingling warmth along her skin, her strong hands moving to cup Gabrielle’s face, moving it closer to her.

As they broke apart Gabrielle shivered in Xena’s arms. "It feels like forever since you’ve done that."

"It feels like an eternity since I felt I deserved to." Xena replied, a morose look threatening to creep across her face.

"Oh no you don’t." Gabrielle reached for her warrior once more and kissed her deeply, exploring all the wonders of that mouth she’d missed for so long. Drawing away, she fixed Xena with a satisfied grin. "So, what now?"

The implications were not lost on Xena who breathed in relief at the chance to change her mood.

"Now, we sleep! We have a long days travelling tomorrow if we want to reach the Amazons by nightfall."

"Ohh, you’re no fun." She pouted and the warrior laughed.

"Fun? Oh you want fun do you...?" Gabrielle squealed in delight as the first touch of a vicious tickle fight hit her exposed ribs.

As the fire died down, Xena fell asleep to the sound of a golden haired bard whispering stories, just for her, long into the night.

*   *   *

Xena snickered loudly as she caught Gabrielle launching into her third giant yawn of the morning.

"If you even think of saying I told you so, I’ll cut out your vocal cords and feed them to the fish." Gabrielle threatened, settling back into Argo’s saddle.

"But then you’ll never hear my dulcet tones waking you in the morning."

"Don’t try that innocence trick on me Warrior Princess, it doesn’t work. Besides, I don’t recall it being your voice that woke me this morning." Gabrielle was still shivering in disgust from the cold slimy trout that had slithered across her cheek waking her viciously from what had otherwise been a delicious dream.

"You know, you hurt that poor trout’s feelings. He was only trying to provide you with a good breakfast."

"Oh, is that why he tasted so crusty?"

"Nope, that was my cooking. Serves you right for not getting up to cook it yourself and forcing me to make you breakfast in bed."

"You know, in anyone else’s existence breakfast in bed is not a punishment."

Despite her tiredness Gabrielle savoured these few precious moments of banter she shared with her partner on the road. It had been so long since they’d been so easy with one another. Xena finally cracking the night before had eased a tension within them they’d stupidly clung to. It was time to let it go.

She hoped that was what the visit to the Amazons would achieve, a chance for Xena to let go of the things from the past.

Who am I kidding? It’s just as much for me as for her. Maybe more so.

Gabrielle wasn’t sure what force it was that had kept her alive through pain of being dragged viciously along the ground... through the even more intense pain of seeing Xena look at her with blind hatred, of feeling that hatred within herself...

And now they had to return so they could both make amends for the damage to the Amazon village their feud had caused. In Ephiny’s letters the regent had said that no one had been killed in Xena’s attack. There had been no casualties defending their Queen. As little as she felt she had to thank the Gods for, she could at least give them thanks for that. None of her people had died defending her from her best friend. There was no cruel irony that some one had had to die for.

Gabrielle snapped out of her reverie as she felt Xena’s body tense in front of her. Instinctively she jumped off Argo to give Xena room to manoeuvre, standing ready with her staff just a few paces behind.

Xena stayed in the saddle momentarily and then slid lithely down to the ground, not drawing her sword but cocking her head to the side straining her hearing to its limits.

"Either that is a wildcat lurking in the bushes, or an Amazon crawling through the undergrowth over..." she twitched her eyes and pinpointed a direction "...there."

"Amazons don’t crawl through the undergrowth." Gabrielle protested, leaning on her staff and placing a hand firmly on her hip.

"This one is."

"Maybe it’s a bear."

"Don’t you think I can tell the difference between a stalking Amazon and a bear? Even you could tell the difference."

"It’s definitely not one of my Amazons."

"You’re making it very difficult to hear anything at all at the moment."

"All I’m saying is..."

"Gabrielle look out!" Her words were cut off swiftly as Xena came flying through the air, deftly catching the arrow that had burst from the bushes and was spinning its way towards the bard.

Landing with an uncomfortable thud that made Gabrielle flinch in sympathy Xena rolled away dexterously, landing firmly on her feet to anticipate the next attack.

"That came from the other direction, maybe there’s two of them." Gabrielle cried, searching desperately around for a place to take cover. This patch of open road offered them little chance for protection, something their attacker had obviously thought out in advance.

Xena examined the arrow carefully. "It’s Amazon all right, just with colours I’ve never seen before. Gabrielle, come with me, but stay back." The smaller woman obeyed as they crept along the side of the road.

"Xena, that’s ridiculous. Why would Amazons be attacking us?"

"I don’t know. I’ve got a feeling we’re about to find out. I have a theory I’m going to try out."

"Well, that works for me." The bard mused, half sarcastically.

"Trust me" Xena grunted. Gabrielle laughed nervously and forced a smile.

The warrior stood slowly, walking upright into the centre of the road, in full view of the bushes where the arrow had been fired from. Not that whoever it was will be anywhere near there by now, Xena reasoned.

"Now Gabrielle, put your staff down on the ground here, by my sword, where you can still kick it up with your feet if you need to get to it in a hurry." Xena whispered harshly. She was already unsheathing her sword and laying it slowly on the ground, making sure the archer in the undergrowth could see every movement.

"Xena, are you sure about this?"

"Just do it."

The bard dropped her staff gingerly to the ground, emulating Xena’s open movements, and Xena nodded.

"Good, now stand straight up, and place your hand on your forearm like this, with your left arm stretched out. Make sure our friend can see both of us. Look like you’ve been doing this all your life."


"If I’m right, yes."

After a few long, tense moments the two women heard muffled noises coming from the bushes to their far right. Eventually the leaves parted and two apprehensive eyes peered out from the greenery. A few more seconds passed before a long, cat like body stretched itself out onto the road.

The woman who approached them was dressed like an Amazon, with feathers hanging from her wraparound skirt and a short, leather fringed top. Long blond hair with a braided fringe on either side framed her face. She was fit, but lean, her thin frame hiding an obvious strength built up from years of training with the weapons that hung about her body.

"You use the greeting of my people. You are not of my blood. Who are you?" The girl spoke carefully. Treading lightly on her toes she looked poised to jump back into the undergrowth at the smallest threat from the tall warrior.

Xena held out an arm to the woman in a common warrior’s greeting.

"My name’s Xena. Hercules told me about your people. He told me the stories... and lessons he learned from your village."

Gabrielle stared confused at the warrior who bore almost no resemblance to her own Amazons. Even the mask that hung at her side was different, not large and feathered like the masks she knew, but shaped and formed into the head of a wolf. The two warriors clasped arms, the young Amazon’s eyes darting nervously. Gabrielle smiled at Xena’s best attempts not to look intimidating.

"Xena? It is not a name I recognise. Hercules didn’t speak of you."

"He met me a long time after his time in your village. You could say he saved me as much as he did your people. Perhaps more."

"And when did all this happen?" Gabrielle piped up from around the corner. Xena nodded to the Amazon girl who launched into her story.

"About three years ago Hercules came to our village at the request of the men in our neighbouring village of Gargaranthia. He came to destroy us, and we tried to destroy him. We realised much later that both had misunderstood the others intentions. He fell deeply in love with our Queen, Hippolyte."

"Before she was killed by Hera" Xena added bitterly.

"You have no love for the Gods, obviously." The girl’s eyebrows shot up. Xena shook her head.

"I have no peace with Gods who intervene in people’s lives for their own selfish entertainment."

"Xena..." Gabrielle placed a hand on Xena’s arm, and the anger began to drain visibly from her face. The gesture was not lost on the Amazon girl who stared at the small woman in fascination.

"I was touched by a God once." Lysia replied, cryptically.

Xena smiled briefly in understanding, Gabrielle looked blank, missing the point.

"I am Lysia, of Hippolyte’s tribe. Though she is dead we still called ourselves by that name."

"I’m Gabrielle. What do mean, called?"

"Hippolyte’s tribe no longer exists. Our village voted to disband the tribe and join with the men of Gargaranthia."

"So what are you doing so far to the East?" Xena inquired, her guard relaxing. She took Argo’s reins and began petting her mane to soothe the jittery mare.

"The settled life as wife to a man did not suit me, however many the advantages - I was Hippolyte’s weapons master, I’ve been raised to carry a sword." She shrugged her shoulders and allowed herself a small grin. "There were no suitable candidates anyway. Gargaranthia is a small village. Hippolyte talked often when I was a child of a nation of Amazons that lived far to the East of our homelands. After our village joined with the men of Gargaranthia I decided to travel and see for myself."

"So this is your first time away from your homelands?" Gabrielle asked surprised, amazed at Lysia’s story. "I understand how that feels. Though..." She waved the arrow in Lysia’s face with a wry smile."’re not quite as defenceless as I was when I ran away from home." Lysia raised an eyebrow. Xena raised an eyebrow back at Lysia.

Gabrielle looked between the two women and gaped. That’s just uncanny.

"Unprovoked attacks? That’s hardly Amazon style." Xena remarked. Lysia blushed a little.

"Yeah, well, I get nervous from time to time."

"Xena can do that to people." Gabrielle offered casually, ignoring the steely glare she got from the warrior in return. She pretended to search for something in Argo’s saddlebags. She found some of their riding rations and decided to try a little hospitality.

"Are you hungry? We have some food." The bard offered, holding out the sticky mass of nuts and dried fruit.

"Actually, I was just about to break camp and keep riding on."

"We can ride with you, if you like. We’re heading for the Amazon village ourselves."

For the first time Lysia took a good look at the clothes the two women were wearing and expressed her confusion.

"You perhaps, are an Amazon?" She pointed to Gabrielle who nodded briefly, unwilling to delve further into her Amazon status. The girl would find out soon enough.

Gabrielle looked briefly at Xena who nodded as if she understood. Lysia missed the exchange, instead turning her gaze to Xena and running her eyes over the warriors dark brown leathers. The bard felt a jealous surge flow through her but ignored it, used to the casual appreciation Xena always seemed to receive from strangers in her warrior garb.

"You?" Lysia asked sceptically.

Xena laughed and shook her head. "Not officially. But I know all about Amazons. Intimately."

The warrior enjoyed the blush her comment elicited from Gabrielle but refrained from teasing her further. Lysia’s eyes squinted with humour and Xena relaxed. The girl seemed fine, if a little tense and inclined to rash acts if her attack on them on the road was any indication. Ephiny could probably make good use of her fighting skills. But we just might leave out the part about her trying to kill the Amazon queen, at least in the initial introductions.

A short time later they had collected Lysia’s horse and belongings and were ready to start making their way back down the road. As Xena took a path to the west Lysia halted.

"The innkeeper in the last village told me to keep taking the southern road and that the Amazons would find me."

"Ahh, well, we rarely walk in the front gates of the village when we come for a visit. That’s just too easy. We like to surprise them from time to time." Xena’s eyes glinted with playful menace and Gabrielle slapped her shoulder from behind.

"Xena, you’re not going to harass poor Solari again!"

"Now look who isn’t being any fun." Gabrielle turned to Lysia, a look of extreme patience on her face.

"Xena prefers to test the village defences when we come in, to see if they notice a few strangers riding into Amazon nation territory."

"You up for a little sport, Lysia?"

"Always." The smile the two warriors exchanged elicited a deep groan from the bard who could only hold tight and hang on.

"Xena, this is not a good idea..." the bard’s words were lost in the pounding of hoofs as they spurred their horses onto the western road up towards Xena’s "back entrance" to the Amazon village.

*   *   *

"You see up there? They have a twin tower defence system with bird call signals between the two."


"Staffs and swords mainly, but there’s some archers on the towers so be careful. If they spot me they know me so it’s just another game to them. If they spot you and it’s someone they’ve never seen before sneaking into Amazon territory it stops being a game. We’ll stay together, just in case."

"Xena, can I talk to you for a second?" Gabrielle sat behind them, holding on to the reins of Argo and Lysia’s dark grey mare who were eyeing each other off warily. Xena nodded quickly to Gabrielle and turned to follow the bard a little off down the path.

"Xena, I don’t mean to question your judgement here, but is it so incredibly smart to be revealing all the Amazon defences to someone we hardly even know? Don’t you think that compromises the Amazon’s security?" Gabrielle was amazed at how quickly she could slip into her role as queen as soon as they were the vicinity of the Amazon nation.

"Gabrielle, I’ve been watching her like a hawk since we first met, she hasn’t done a single thing to make me suspect her story. It’ll be fine." Xena glanced back to where Lysia knelt, she could almost see the whirring of the young warrior’s brain as it examined the towers they could just see amongst the background of trees. "We can trust her. I can’t really explain it, it’s just a feeling."

"You know, I could order you not to do this." Gabrielle said exasperated.

"No, you couldn’t. I’m not one of your Amazons. Do we have to do this power game every time we visit the Amazons, Gabrielle?"

"I just want you to recognise how potentially dangerous this is." The two women stared each other down until Xena’s eyes started to sparkle. Gabrielle recognised that look in her partner’s eyes.

"Oh no, you have an idea, don’t you?" It was hardly a question, Gabrielle knew the answer as well as she knew every look that ever flashed across her lover’s face. Xena nodded dangerously, a smile playing on her lips.

"Why don’t you go and tell Ephiny we’re coming?"

"Now I know you’ve lost your mind. Are the Furies punishing you for something you forgot to tell me about?"

"Naah, think about it. This makes it even better with no risk involved. We give you time to ride around to the front gates, set the whole Amazon nation on full alert, give them Lysia’s description so they don’t hurt her if they catch her, and then we try to break in."

"How does that solve the problem of Lysia learning all the Amazons defences?"

"Gabrielle, if we get in, they needed to be changed anyway, and if we don’t, obviously we missed something, then even I obviously don’t know the Amazon defences as well as I think I do."

"Solari isn’t going to like this one bit."

"Yeah, but if I know Ephiny, I think she’ll encourage Solari to be up to the challenge. Come on Gabrielle, it’s just two against the entire Amazon nation. Don’t you want to see how your Amazons are shaping up?" Gabrielle ignored the barb, but felt herself giving in.

"Yes, well, when one of the two is you, there is no ‘just’ about it." Gabrielle sighed. "Xena, I’m just worried. Your last visit here wasn’t exactly cordial."

"Gabrielle, I can’t just walk in there, it wouldn’t be right somehow."

"So you’re giving them a chance to bring you in all tied up?"

"Not a chance. But at least they’ll think they’ve gained some honour trying." Xena grinned and returned to Lysia to let her in on the change in plans. The girl’s eyes lit up, stretching themselves as widely as they could go, but she nodded as Xena asked if she was still daring enough to try it. Gabrielle couldn’t help smiling at the strange woman. She seemed all enthusiasm and honour, nothing hidden or secretive about her character at all. Lysia followed Xena like a battle commander, ready to do whatever it took to prove herself in her leader’s eyes. She’d seen Xena inspire people like that before, both for good and for evil.

Something still gnawed away at the bard’s insides, but she kept her fears to herself. Xena was going out into this with her eyes open, if anything happened along the way she knew how to handle it, and Gabrielle knew there was nothing she could do to protect Xena better than Xena could protect herself.

"Lysia, take off all your weapons and give them to Gabrielle. She’ll tie them to the back of your horse, they’ll be safe."

"But how are we going to get in without weapons?"

"The trick is stealth, not force. Going without weapons minimises the chances for any accidents."

Gabrielle’s eyes shone with approval and Xena knew she was becoming less apprehensive about the plan. She removed her sword and dagger, shoving them into a hook on Argo’s saddlebags. Gabrielle strode through the bushes to find pieces of vine to use in securing Lysia’s weapons to the horse.

"What about that?" Lysia said, pointing to Xena’s chakram.

"That, I keep, it comes in far more handy than just as a weapon sometimes. Besides, I know I’m not going to accidentally kill someone with it." Lysia nodded, not comprehending, but obediently gave up her sword, bow and a myriad of daggers she had hidden around her person. The position of one of the daggers caught Xena’s eye.

"That’s a good spot, I never thought of that." Xena commented as Lysia started to unstrap the sheath.

"Yeah, Hippolyte taught me how to get to that one fast. Watch." She demonstrated the technique quickly for Xena, ending with the dagger planted squarely in a nearby tree. The warrior nodded, impressed.

"Nice move. You’ll have to teach me that. Can you do it without bending over so far...?"

Xena was practicing the technique when Gabrielle strode back into the clearing. "I’m not even going to ask."

"Oh we were...never mind. Are you all set?"

"Yes, just need to get Lysia’s weapons and we’re off. It’ll take me a couple of hours to double back and get on the other road, and then another hour to make it into the village. Then it will be dark."

"We’ll camp down here for the night and then make our move at dawn. That gives Solari enough time to make whatever adjustments she wants to make to the watch. You know I’m really looking forward to this."

"I didn’t notice." Gabrielle said dryly, pulling a face.

Xena drew Gabrielle off into the woods for a little privacy as Lysia dealt with the horses, discreetly averting her eyes.

"Thankyou Gabrielle, for doing this."

"I know you just want to do something to take your mind off...what happened. I’m still not sure having Xena sneaking into their camp is what the Amazons most need right now after everything we’ve all been through. Some of them aren’t going to be very friendly about this."

"I thought about that, but maybe it’ll put some of the camaraderie back into everything. That’s one of the reasons I gave you my sword. They know what it looks like. They need to know I’m not coming rampaging in this time." Xena let out a heavy breath. "I don’t know what else to do Gabrielle. There’s not much I can do to make up for what happened."

"Some of them might be hunting for you bearing a few grudges." Gabrielle sighed, unable to remove the worry completely from her eyes and she knew it.

"I’m counting on it, at least it makes them predictable."

The warrior leaned in and captured the bards lips with a gentle caress, growing deeper and deeper until Gabrielle could no longer tell if she was standing or floating. One look in Xena’s eyes confirmed her warrior felt the same.

"Just ask Ephiny to make sure all the swords and arrows are blunted. I don’t want our new friend having an unfortunate accident just because a few Amazons get over-zealous in their annoyance with me."

Gabrielle didn’t comment on the fact that Xena just assumed she wouldn’t get hurt, but she admitted easily to herself that the warriors self-confidence was not misplaced. That surety in herself and her own skills was Xena’s most powerful weapon, with it she was never ever defenceless.

"This is just a game, remember?"

Gabrielle felt the chill of premonition creep up her spine. "Don’t say things like that, it only invites trouble."

"And inviting a whole nation of Amazons to try and stop you coming through the gates isn’t inviting trouble?" Xena laughed.

"You know what I mean." Gabrielle could feel herself already just wanting this particular game to be over. "Xena, be careful. You seem a little more...I don’t know... careless than usual. I don’t want this to turn into something everyone is going to regret."

"Well the sooner you get on the horse and get to the village the sooner it will be over." Xena replied to her unspoken words.

"I really hate it when you read my thoughts."

"Well, when you plaster them on your forehead it’s impossible not to."

They walked together over to where Argo stood, patiently waiting. Gabrielle pointed to the horse and scowled. "And that’s another problem, how am I going to get Argo to behave?"

"All this time and I can’t believe you two still haven’t gotten your jealousies worked out."

"They’re not jealousies! They’re just...personality differences."

"Whatever. I’m sure you’ll be fine."

Minutes later Gabrielle was mounted on Argo and headed out towards the road they’d come from. Lysia looked down at her unarmed body and grimaced.

"I feel naked without my weapons, I’ve been wearing a sword since I was five." She slumped her shoulders and started gathering some fuel for a fire.

"It’s for your own protection - and don’t bristle at me like that, I know you don’t think you’d need protection, but imagine going up against an entire village full of your old warriors."

"I don’t think I was ever stupid enough to think of attempting it."

"Then why are you agreeing to come with me now?" Xena asked, taking out her chakram and spinning it mindlessly.

"I’m not sure. I think I’m curious about you. I mean, I saw you catch that arrow, which I’ve never seen anyone do before..." Lysia trailed off as she saw a look in Xena’s eyes. "What is it?"

"You’re such a rarity to me, like you’re from a different world." Xena replied, obliquely.

"I don’t think I understand, I mean, I am from a different world in a way..."

"But still from this country, still from this land where I grew up and became who I was, and then who I am."

"Who you were?" Lysia narrowed her eyes and stared unrelenting at the leather-clad warrior. Xena’s eyes had clouded over, as if she were looking back into a dark dream.

"You’re the only person I’ve met in the past two years who hasn’t heard the name ‘Xena’ and shivered when they thought I wasn’t looking. You meet me now as me, not as someone you’ve heard about in stories told in taverns. ‘Xena - Warrior Princess, the destroyer of nations, murderer...’ you’ve been isolated from the world that I created for myself, and that I destroyed."

"I can’t imagine you as all those things." Lysia said, and regretted it as Xena’s eyes, so open before, ducked back behind their veil of...what was it she was hiding behind? Shame? Guilt?

"You don’t know me. Not like everyone else does."

"Not like Gabrielle does?"

"No one knows me like Gabrielle."

"She doesn’t seem the kind of company a murderer would keep." Lysia stated matter of factly.

Xena looked up surprised, but didn’t comment, just rested her eyes on the kindling she was preparing for the fire.

Lysia sighed. "You don’t have to tell me about your past, and I won’t ask because frankly it’s none of my business. But I’ll just say this. I’m more likely to judge you on what we do together tomorrow than anything you could tell me around a campfire at night, true or not." She flexed her fingers, ignoring the warrior’s intense stare, and reached inside her pack to pull out a sharpening stone, then felt at her waist to grasp empty air. "Ahh, Gods be damned, I forgot. I guess I won’t have to sharpen my sword tonight."

Xena kept her solemn face somehow and resisted the urge to pull out her own identical stone.

"Well, how about some dinner?" Xena pulled her chakram from her belt and hefted it lightly. "What do you feel like Lysia, rabbit or rabbit?"

"I guess rabbit will be fine." Lysia smiled as Xena picked herself up and wandered into the woods. Ten minutes later a roaring fire was just settling down enough to place a spit, and Xena trudged back into the campsite, a string of three rabbits at her belt. Picking a few dead leaves from the ground she wiped the blood smeared chakram and replaced it on the hook at her belt.

"I don’t usually cheat like that, but the snares are in the saddlebags and I didn’t feel like waiting for the rabbits to come to me."

"As long as they end up in my stomach I don’t really care how they got there."

"Well, you might regret saying that after you taste my cooking."

"You can’t cook? I thought someone like you could do anything." Lysia stated, a sardonic grin stretching over her face. Xena snorted.

"I have many skills, cooking is not one of them."

"Me neither. I cook well enough for my own stomach, but I draw the line at poisoning anyone else." Lysia grabbed one of the rabbits, took out an eating knife and started to skin the hapless creature. "Poor little bunny, you deserve to be a rich, tasty stew." Lysia caught Xena frowning at the knife and shrugged. "You said weapons, I’ve never killed anyone with my eating knife."

After a second Xena relented. "I never met an Amazon yet that could cook, except Gabrielle, and she wasn’t born an Amazon."

"Now that’s a story I’d like to hear." Lysia exclaimed, interested.

"She’s the storyteller in our partnership, not me."

"Well then, I guess I’ll just stare at the fire and think about every way I’ve ever been taught to sneak into an Amazon village."

Xena looked up at Lysia, raised an eyebrow in appreciation, and chuckled lightly to herself.

*   *   *

"This was all Xena’s idea Solari. I promise, I had no hand in it." The beautiful Amazon

second in command was threatening to turn purple, and Gabrielle swore she’d already seen four shades of green and one rather lovely blue tint to her ears.

"When is she coming?" Ephiny asked, mildly bemused at Solari’s reaction. Every time Xena snuck into the camp unannounced past their defences, Solari was forced to spend months coming up with the next "absolutely impenetrable" defence system for the village. More sobering was the thought that the last time it had happened was when Xena had raged into the village to kidnap Gabrielle. Seeing Gabrielle alive and in good health was all Ephiny’s hopes for the past weeks fulfilled.

"You mean when are they coming. Tomorrow morning at dawn."

"They?" Ephiny and Solari echoed at once. Gabrielle sighed and launched into an account of meeting the Amazon warrior outside the boundaries of the Amazon nation.

"I’ve heard stories about Hippolyte’s tribe, but I never really took them seriously." Solari mused after Gabrielle had finished the story.

"You’re telling us that an Amazon nation we hardly believed existed, now doesn’t exist and some lost soul Amazon is wandering around searching for a new home?" Ephiny let out a tiny laugh in spite of herself.

"Yep, that about covers it." Gabrielle threw up her arms in mock frustration. "You get used to this kind of thing after a while with Xena, she just gets in these moods..."

Ephiny interrupted Gabrielle before she could launch into her Xena speech. "And this Amazon, she’s teamed up with Xena to figure out a way into the village, with us on full alert? Xena certainly does like her challenges."

"She said she thought you’d appreciate it." Gabrielle replied.

Ephiny shrugged in delight. "Well, aren’t we glad the real Amazon queen has returned to lead us in this challenge of honour!"

"Don’t even think about it Ephiny, you know this is not my department, and if you try to make me, I’ll order you to do it." Gabrielle cried to the mocking faces around her. "I’m taking a bath, that’s a suitable queen thing to do I think." Ephiny and Solari exchanged glances, nodded laughingly to Gabrielle and started to exit the queens hut.

"Wait a second, Xena asked me to make sure everyone uses blunted weapons. She doesn’t want this game to turn into anything that could get out of hand. She said to show you this." Gabrielle pulled the sword out of the bag and showed it to Solari.

"That’s Xena’s sword all right, I remember having it shoved in my face." Solari snapped, and then looked apologetically at Gabrielle. The queen just shook her head sadly.

"She’s unarmed? No, obviously she’s kept her chakram. How about the Amazon?"

Ephiny knitted her brows.

"The same. The rules are if anyone captures either of them the game is up, everyone comes home, nobody gets hurt. Xena wants to make up for what happened Solari, she figures this game could be the best way. Lysia just happened along at the right moment."

"So we have about eight hours to come up with a Xena-proof plan." Ephiny sighed, wishing she and Solari had gotten more sleep the night before. Xena certainly knew how to pick her moments.

"I’m beginning to wonder if such a thing really exists." Solari replied, her warrior’s mind already spinning with options. Gabrielle snorted and waved them both away. They were as bad as Xena. This was a game for warriors, and, far from feeling left out, she wanted no part of it.

*   *   *

Word spread quickly that the game was on. The Amazon nation was on full alert until Xena and the strange Amazon were either captured, or suddenly standing in the centre of the village courtyard.

Ephiny wandered around the compound listening half heartedly to the excited whisperings as the women went about their evening chores. Some sounded off angrily about Xena’s return. Other younger warriors chattered eagerly about their chances of capturing the legendary warrior. In a strange way she appreciated what it was Xena was trying to do, getting the Amazons to take out their aggressions on Xena. The Warrior Princess herself understood better than anyone that it wasn’t just murderous warlords who dreamed of victorious combat against one of the greatest warriors who ever lived.

She wondered at the chances of that happening at all, since if it were at all possible for anyone to capture Xena she would probably be dead by now. Maybe she was counting on the capture of the strange Amazon? Was it possible Xena had everything planned already and the whole game was just a farce so Xena could carry out some kind of design of her own choosing? Ephiny snorted cynically, maybe the Warrior Princess is just bored!

And Gabrielle didn’t seem to have the answers to anyone’s questions. When she had mentioned Xena’s attack on the village the queen had stared morosely down at her bootlaces and refused to comment. The Gods only knew what had happened between the two of them, but they were together still, and Gabrielle hadn’t lost a shred of loyalty for her dark warrior.

But when she thought of the funeral... Tears came unbidden to her eyes and she sniffled loudly, trying to erase the image of Xena’s powerful face as it stared blankly into the flames licking around Solan’s small body. The herbs that the Amazons and Centaurs had sprayed on the bodies had gathered thickly in the air, and Ephiny thought she would almost have preferred the stench of charring flesh to the scents of rosemary and mint that had masked the smell. Even now the Amazon regent had banned those herbs from her food, their aroma still made her sick to her stomach.

Gabrielle had been distraught, for hers had been almost the greater loss, losing both the children she had loved. No one doubted that Gabrielle had been devoted to Solan. It had torn out a piece of the queen’s heart to cause her lover so much pain.

And Gabrielle’s child. Evil? She didn’t claim to understand it all even now. Ephiny swore she’d never forget the look of agony on Xena’s face, only marginally less terrifying than the rage she had faced as Xena had rode into the village, her long, dark hair whipping savagely in the wind. Standing in her path had been the single most difficult thing she’d ever done in her life.

Three times she’d felt Xena’s fist across her face before falling. She could still feel her knees buckling beneath her as she fell. She’d seen the whip flick across the courtyard, heard Joxer’s screams of anguish, and then Gabrielle had been gone.

It was only Gabrielle Xena had wanted to kill. Every one of her warriors had survived the attack, and even Joxer had survived trying to escape with the queen. Every one of them powerless to stop the Warrior Princess.

Yet Gabrielle was alive.

The regent of the Amazons shook her head free of the images of the fiery corpses as Solari approached cautiously, careful not to surprise her out of her reverie.

"My queen?" Solari prodded carefully, "Ephiny?"

"Yes, Solari."

"The defences are all in position, all we have to do now is wait."

"That sounds good..."

"I didn’t change much, just added a few sentries along the eastern border near the cemetery..." Solari’s voice faded alarmingly into the background of Ephiny’s consciousness.

When she realised that Ephiny wasn’t listening, Solari stopped speaking abruptly. "Ephiny, tell me what’s plaguing you."

Ephiny forced herself away from her nightmare visions, and held her hands out to the worried friend of her childhood. "I’m sorry, forgive me. Thank you, for organising the militia, I couldn’t have dealt with it."

"That was just my duty." The dark haired Amazon replied dismissively. "Is there something I can do for you now?" Solari asked gently, sliding her hands up Ephiny’s muscled shoulders and massaging the back of her neck.

"Hmmm, keep doing that for a start." The warm familiar hands touched her most tender muscles, cramped from exhaustion and worry, massaging them into submission.

"I think we need a more private place to continue seeing what I can do for you." Solari whispered playfully in her ear. The regent was about to decline the invitation, and then abruptly changed her mind as Solari’s sure fingers moved up to massage her long neck. Relaxing into trusted hands, she sighed deeply. Not forgetting, just shoving thoughts roughly aside.

"I think I know just the place..."

*   *   *

Lysia woke with a start to the sound of Xena pulling on her armour. Jumping up to help with the most difficult of the buckles, she stretched out and let out a loud belch.

"Zeus himself would have been proud of that one." Xena commented.

"You sound genuinely impressed." Lysia sniggered and fastened the last of the leather straps connecting the armour plates under Xena’s arms.

"I try to keep my belching to a minimum these days, but once upon a time it was skill I took great care in cultivating, when I had the right audience." Joked the warrior, a wicked smile settling on her features. Lysia shivered, a horrified grin on her face.

"What?" Xena demanded.

The Amazon snorted. "I’m just trying to picture ‘the right audience’."

Lysia knelt down and replaced her Amazon mask at her belt. Touching the wolf skin and feeling it pressed against her side comforted her somehow, made her feel like she did when she was twelve winters old and accompanying Hippolyte on her first lessons with the bow, hunting in the forests around the village. She smiled at the memory.

"There’s a few pieces of rabbit sitting over there if you want something before we get started." Xena offered, making no moves to take any for herself.

"No thanks, I’m too nervous."

"Bah, don’t worry, it’s just a bunch of Amazons."

"I don't know whether I should feel challenged or insulted."

"Well, whatever happens, don't feel bad for any of them. After all, you didn’t train them."

The Amazon was too nervous to laugh, she just stood, dressed, and waited for Xena to pick up the last of her arm bracers, fastening the laces tightly.

When they were ready to move out the two warriors stared at each other expectantly.

"Let’s go." Xena said finally. She took off at a slow run down the valley towards the first of the Amazon towers, Lysia pouncing silently at her heels.


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