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Xena crossed the campsite, Solari trailing behind her. Pausing at the campfire, she touched Gabrielle's shoulder on the way by, her heart tugging at the sight of Solon curled up asleep on her lap. Indicating that the she should stay put and let Solon sleep some more, she continued on her way to where Aine lay. Ignoring the look Ephiny shot at her, she kneeled between Cairbre and the healer Agatha. Unhooking the sack from her belt she opened it, laying it on the ground to the front.
"Agatha, I need you to cut open the stitches, see if any one has a blade of silver or something sharp that hasn't been forged."
"She'll bleed to death, if we open those up." The healer did not sound pleased to be getting orders from the warrior.
"She's bleeding to death now." Looking at Cairbre, Xena indicated the decision was his.
They were all surprised when Ephiny cut in. "Trust her Cairbre, she's a good healer." Xena glanced sideways, trying to read the Consort's expression, but the other woman held her face impassive, a mask of stone.
He nodded, motioning for her to continue. Reaching to his waist, he removed a silver dagger and passed it to her. "Here, use this."
"I can't, you or Agatha will have to." She was aware of the scrutiny that last remark had suddenly brought her under. Cairbre, however, merely nodded as if he should have thought of it himself, and passed the knife to Agatha.
When the last of the thread had been removed, she and Agatha gently cleaned the gashes. Instructing the healer to excise the already dead flesh around the wounds she took a larger rock and pounded the stones in the bag at her feet. Satisfied that the fragments were as small as she could make them, Xena began packing them into the wounds. Covering Aine's chest with a piece of clean linen, she sat back on her heels. "Now, we wait."
Cairbre wondered if Ephiny, Gabrielle and Xena were aware that they sat in a perfect triangle. He didn't think so, although judging from the amerin of each of them, they were deliberately staying away from each other. There is enough energy flowing between those three to scorch the earth for leagues around. Fortunately, they didn't believe in such things, or he mused, this would be a very dangerous place to be right now. He could feel Xena staring at him intently, unasked question after question coming at him in waves. Maybe he was wrong, this one seemed to know something of the draoichtas after all.Meeting her gaze, he locked his eyes with hers, <<Later, warrior. I'll answer everything I can. My word on It.>> The startled flicker of her eyes and the sudden shift in her amerin revealed that she had felt his thought, or something. Shooting a level gaze directly at him, she seemed to say that he had better, or else. Then stood and moved off in the direction of the horses.
Amused he watched a smile quirk at the corner of the Amazon Queen's mouth as her gaze followed the warrior. She was compact and muscular, slight even by his people's standards. Yet, deciphering her amerin revealed an inner strength and mettle that left little doubt as to her fitness to be Queen. Untangling the colours a little further, he was able to read the creativity and passion that burned within. An image of a moth being drawn to a candle flame danced across his mind. He wondered how many people mistook her for the moth.
Inwardly smiling, he rested a gentle gaze on his sibling's still unconscious form, a lot like you, I bet. And how did you get Gwynn to leave his realm and follow you here? For that matter what was The Morrigan doing here? I think Xena, that I probably have as many questions as you do, and I'm supposed to be running this little escapade. And somehow, I think that neither of us are going to like some of the answers. He knew also that whether Aine lived or died, he was running out of time. Stroking her brow, as he had when they were children, he began first to hum, then sing meaningless words whose low intonations were full of a half soundless mystery.
He felt rather than saw her stir beneath his touch. With bated breath, he slid his eyes down, until his twin's face came into focus. With a wild cry that startled the camp, he wrapped her in a fierce hug.
"Cairbre, I didn't survive a Formori ambush to have you crush the life out of me." She reached down and ran her fingers over her chest, coming away with bloody bits of sand and rock. "Could you not have found a healer, who knows enough not to pack a wound with dirt?" Silver eyes identical to his own flashed their mirth at him.
"Well since you've got rocks in your head, I thought it might work for the rest of you as well." He put a firm grip on her shoulder to keep her from getting up. "Oh no you don't, you stay put until the healer has looked at that." Noticing that Xena had returned, he made room for her to join him. Whispering in Aine's ear. "Blame the rocks on her." Then sat back to allow them room to work.
Worriedly, he observed Xena and Agatha remove all the grit from the gashes in Aine's chest. The stench of the poison no longer assaulted his senses. He looked at Xena with awe, "What are those rocks?"
He swallowed as she grinned ferally at him, "I'll tell you what, you answer one of mine and I'll answer one of yours. Deal?" This was not a kid's game. She was in deadly earnest. "Let's start with a simple one, shall we? You're not human are you?" It was not in fact a question. It was a statement, daring him to lie to her.
The Formori King was furious. From far above, an eye was trained upon Bres. The crimson blaze of the single fiery pupil barely shuttered by its metal lid, visible as a mere thread of ruby light. "You failed me, Bres."
Judging it wiser not to speak, he warily watched the Formori for signs that his failure would prove to be fatal. He didn't think so, Bres knew he was crucial to retrieving the Four Treasures of Atland, and he was pretty sure that Balor was ignorant of both his true goals and his duplicity. If he wasn't then this was a doubly dangerous game he was playing and a quick death would be the best he could hope for. Time to play his holdback piece.
"Not entirely, My Lord, even as we speak the Lia Fail is accounted for, and we have tracked the Bard and the Princess to their allies. The Amazon Queen is within our grasp."
"Fool." The narrow beam of light from the single eye played over him, un-shuttered even one more inch and Bres knew he would be nothing more than a cone of cinders. He seen it happen and wasn't particularly anxious for first hand experience. "You underestimate the power that stands with them, even as you under estimate me."
Visibly paling, he swallowed nervously. Recovering his composure, he went on the offensive. "The Danaan's are pledged not to interfere in this. Their powers may not be invoked and the other three Treasures will soon be ours. It will take more than the tribe of Scathach to stand against the combined might of the Formori and Fir Bolg."
Growing tired of Bres' posturing he waved him away. "Leave Me. Do not return without The Treasures and the Queen. Or you will find, would be King of Celts, that a crown is difficult to wear without a head."
Bres left the Tower, not noticing the slim figure which entered the chamber as he left it.
M'Grath stood by his lord, contemplating the fallen Danaan King, "Do you think, My Lord, that Bres can be trusted to carry his end of the bargain?"
A low deep rumble answered him. "He must be, his throne is for him to win or lose, and only then will the Children of Danu fall sway to the Formori. I can do nothing directly, the same covenant that binds the Danaans binds me. But, perhaps a little incentive will assist him to concentrate better on the task at hand."
The retainer's face narrowed wolfishly, "As you wish Sire."
"No." Not human, something more, and something less. Separate. Struck by how much that thought saddened him.
Gabrielle caught the fleeting wistful look that passed over his features. Laying a hand on Xena's arm she silently entreated her partner to be gentle, sensing that whatever Cairbre and Aine were, they were not a threat. Xena nodded imperceptibly at her, indicating that Gabrielle should take the lead. "What then?"
It was Aine who answered her, "Faeiry, though not fully so."
Picking up his sister's thread, Cairbre continued, "Our mother is Queen Ethlinn, a human and our father Alain Midna, Prince of the Sidhe. Our birth sealed a compact between our two peoples." Arching an elegant eyebrow in his sister's direction, "Faeiry is a somewhat...imprecise term."
Aine stuck out her tongue, "For you perhaps."
The undercurrent to their wordplay did not escape either Xena's or Gabrielle's attention, and the Queen would have been surprised to discover that Solari was aware of it as well. "Are you mortal then?"
Gabrielle's question was rewarded with a shaky smile, "it would appear so." Aine stood and shook the remaining bits of debris from her body. Where there had been wounds there were now only pinkish traces. "Though I suppose, harder to kill than most." Paying no further heed to the assembled company, she stripped. Not hurriedly or languidly, but with an economy of motion that was in and of itself the definition of grace.
If she was aware of the embarrassed silence that suddenly fell over the party she didn't show it. Unbraiding her thigh length hair as she walked, she casually entered the nearby stream and began to remove the remaining traces of blood from her body.
For the second time that day Solon found Solari's hand planted firmly over his eyes.
Cairbre put his head in his hands, and took a deep breath. Realizing that everybody was now looking at him, he shrugged his shoulders and grinned before moving to the stream bank. "Honestly Aine, I cannae take you anywhere."
"Hand me your cloak will you? These'll take hours to dry." She held the tunic up between them, and he could see her through the holes in it. "Although perhaps a new tunic seems to be in order."
A low mutter caught his ear, "Ask Xena for one, she doesn't appear to have much use for hers." The flush appearing on the Queen's face and neck made it plain that he wasn't the only one to have heard the comment.
As casually as she had entered the stream, Aine left it, wrapping Cairbre's cloak around her as she headed for the fire. Settling herself against a log she looked at the rest of the company. "Well don't just stand there, do you nae want to know why we've come?"
She was enjoying this. Aine couldn't read amerin the way her brother could but she could sense enough to know that they didn't know what to make of her. Looking from the Queen to the dark warrior who had removed the rocks from her wounds she was able to feel the tension that ran between them and the one with the curly blonde hair. This could be trouble, mind it could be fun too! <<Behave Aine.>> Cairbre's mind voice admonished. Aine regretted that she hadn't yet come up with a way to mentally stick her tongue out at him.
"You could start by telling us why you were looking for Gabrielle." Ephiny settled herself next to Aine and added a log to the fire.
"Aye, 'tis time that you be knowing. Mayhap though dinner should be prepared first." A chuckle ran round the group as the Queen's stomach seconded his suggestion.
Twilight had settled around the camp before dinner and the evening chores were complete. They had eaten in relative silence and now sat ring-like by the fire, some of them sipping heated beverages and some drinking from wine skins.
Looking over to where Xena lounged talking to Solon, who seemed to be acting as a buffer between the warrior and the Queen, Cairbre addressed her playfully. "I believe you owe me an answer, Xena."
"Pardon?" judging by the quizzical expressions on the other faces he wasn't the only one to miss the reference.
"It's a mineral. One of my sailors used to swear by it for telling direction, but the bowl it floated in kept slopping all over the place and I was forever trying to keep the stuff off my sword." She shrugged offhandedly, "thought enough of it would attract the bits of iron floating around in the wound."
"You're not a Healer though are you?" This from Aine, who was regarding Xena with an intensity that had it been flame would have incinerated her.
Looking over at Gabrielle, she smiled, "I am many things." Then grinning wolfishly at Cairbre, "that would make it your turn again."
Sizing up his audience, Cairbre took note of the relative positions of their party. Sides, it seemed, were already being chosen, though it looked like at least a couple of the Amazons were attempting to appear neutral. Anger was no longer the dominate emotion in the camp. For that he was grateful. The anger and hurt had become tangible enough that his head had begun to hurt and he needed all of the energy he could muster for the upcoming tale. He had expected to feel fear, but was both relieved and puzzled as he read curiosity instead. Feeling naked without his harp, he looked to his sister for reassurance. <<All will be well braud, relax.>> Aine extended tendrils of her amerin in his direction, and he wove them into his own and began speaking, his voice changing, gathering power and carrying to the corners of the clearing.
"It is not just one tale that I must tell, nor is it our own that I must tell first. To understand what is, and what is to be, you must first know what has been."
Beauty, death and dreams,
are the substance of myth.
And even Gods fall in love.
"Hummph." Turning his gaze on Xena, he smiled at her reaction.
Ours do. And at least one of yours too.
And like us they sometimes love not wisely, but too well. And as sometimes happens with love, there is
So it was with Brighid, Child of the Danaans; and Bres the Beautiful - renowned for his beauty but unforgiving of spirit and arrogant of manner - Son of Immortal Elathan, King of the Formori and the Goddess Eriu. Hiding his Formori blood, his mother had raised him among the nobility of her people. Bres wanted to marry Brighid, for he felt that only her beauty, her gifts were good enough for him. He also coveted the Copper Crown.
But Brighid loved another, one more worthy of her. Through basest treachery and deceit Bres captured Brighid and tried to force her to wife. with the aid of her lover's kin Brighid escaped him and an eraic was demanded, its payment refused. Bres would not be balked, if he could not have her no one would. He called upon his father and there was war. A war between the Gods of three Peoples, all for the love of a woman.
His jealousy provoked a war and destroyed a nation. Sank it beneath the waves of an Ocean. And so The Children of Danu fled the disaster of Atland. So great was the wounding of the Earth that the Over Gods pledged not to interfere in the outcome, and left the survivors to make their way as best they could. The pact sundered Brighid from her love, for where Brighid went, the other could not yet follow.
Thus the Queen led the People of the Tuatha De Danaan back to land of their ancestors, the land of Nemed the Great, bearing with them their sacred treasures blazoned with the magical emblems of their stored magic and skill:
The Sun, The Plough and The Hazel Tree.
Out of Atland they also brought to Eire four Holy and most ancient things:
Lia Fail - The Stone of Destiny
Cliamh Solais - Called also Fragarach - The Sword of Light
Slea Bua - The Spear of Victory
And the Cauldron of the Dagda.
Those who stood closest to the Queen were:
Nuada One Hand who had been King, before o'er thrown by treachery. Dagda, the all father, large of girth, generous, bountiful and wise. His daughter Brighid, The Fiery Arrow, Lady of Awen, Mistress of the Forge. Powerful also in this Company was the three-fold sister-hood, The Babd. Chief among these the Morrigan, Battle Crow and Crone, wife of the Dagda and mother of Brighid.
Grian, Lady of the Fields and Diancecht of the Healing Hand also traveled from the drowned lands to the fields of green. They traveled into the setting sun guided by Manannan McLir himself.
But they were not the only ones to flee the fall of Atland.
Bres the Beautiful, who had been King for a Day, had with him the twelve sons of Gabhran, black of mane and soul, they fled the destruction his pettiness had wrought. With them went those of the Formori who survived the fall, though Elathan's anger with Bres' disastrous campaign caused the groups to part ways. Bres found a foot hold on the shores of the Island, and like the champion he had once been he challenged the Fir Bolg.
At their head was Eochai,
With him, Streng his champion, and Slaine his son.
Behind came Fathach, the poet. Cesar and his druids,
Rua the Bloody and the Sons of Mil
And after them the Fir Bolg host.
And that tale is the First Battle of Mag Tuireadh.
Thus when the Danaans arrived, Bres had a kingdom. But the Danaans had not come alone, for prior to parting Brighid's lover had pledged the Daughters of her Heart to Brighid's aid. They landed near a ford they called Muirthemne and found living there already a people quite unlike themselves. Co-existing peacefully, the land was divided between the Tuatha De Danaan, and the People of the Hollow Hills. The Danaans saddened by their loses increasingly spent more and more time beneath the hills with the Sidhe, and soon walked their new land only rarely. The Danaans brokered a peace between my father's people and the humans who had accompanied them into exile, leaving behind only myth and prophecy, but it was enough to hold the fragile peace.
Memory of Atland ran deep in the Formori too, and they kept a peace of sorts with their neighbors. So was Eire divided between the Dannans, Formori, and the peoples of Eire.
But the wheel of time has turned three hundred cycles and memories begin to fade. The Tuatha De Danaan are deemed aloof, no longer believed to have walked, laughed and loved upon the earth. The Fir Bolg grow discontented with their portion of land and the Formori have a new King, less mindful of peace than conquest.
And that is the fore tale.
Gabrielle stared intently at Cairbre, who seemed to still be lost in his tale. Something had run cold in her as the Bard recounted the fall of Atlantis and the war between Gods. Looking over to Xena, she could tell from her partner's hooded gaze that similar thoughts were passing through her mind. Solon sat eyes wide, excitement oozing from him. Glancing next at Ephiny, she was surprised to see tears on her cheeks. Turning back to look at Cairbre, she whispered, "Who was Brighid's lover?"
Gentle eyes met hers, as she waited for the answer, "That name is not mine to reveal, nor is the tale mine to tell, it has not yet been written."
"Tell us then, Son of Ethlinn, why this should matter to the Amazons?" Ephiny pressed.
Xena didn't need to hear the answer from the Bard. Daughters of the Heart, twin children of an Amazon Queen, A war between Gods. So she saved him the trouble of answering and raising her eyes to lock on his she answered for him. "Because their mother is an Amazon Queen, a Daughter of the Heart pledged to Brighid by her Lover. By Artemis."
A round of in drawn breaths quickly circled the fire, but before any one could formulate more questions, a soft glowing light descended into the clearing and slowly coalesced into the form of a woman.
"Artemis." Xena's words were flat, challenging.
"It's nice to see you too, Warrior Princess." Moving to stand next to the Bard and his sister, she looked down at them fondly. "You have done well, both of you, but the rest of the Tale is not yours to tell, it is ours." With those words, another figure quietly appeared next to the Huntress. "And this is not yet the time to tell it."
WOW. Solon was sure his face radiated the awe he felt, but he was too excited to worry about his image. Hades. Artemis herself. Wow. Methryn told stories about her adventures with the Gods sometimes, but to actually have one...no two, he realized standing there. Wow. Look Solon. Remember what Methryn taught you. Pushing his awe to the background he opened his senses and surveyed the tableau around him, eyes drinking in as many details as his mind could hold.
Xena had risen to her feet and was ...hovering..., - his memory supplied drawing on an image from their first meeting long ago, - protectively near Gabrielle who had also regained her feet. There were though subtle differences in their body language, the silent looks they exchanged, the air around them seemed different, which he figured was the result of the revelation Methryn had made over lunch. In fact Gabrielle seemed to be leaning unconsciously toward the larger woman, acting, as a buffer between Xena and the God. Protective. She's protecting Xena as much as Xena is protecting her.
The other Amazons simply sat and stared, blinking in awe at their patron goddess and her guest.
In distinct contrast to Xena's alert stance the two Celts appeared to be relaxed, standing easily next to the flame haired goddess who must, he reasoned, be Brighid.
She was, he thought, beautiful, and the smile she bestowed on Aine warmed him even from where he sat quietly. Where Artemis was tall and lean and favored the leather dress of the Amazons, the Irish Goddess was taller still, muscular and heavier of frame, clad in garments of similar cut and design to Cairbre's. Artemis' hair was the colour of sun touched wheat, a fiery golden brown, while Brighid's held the nuances of true flame.
Belatedly he became aware that the expectant silence binding the group had been broken and he shifted his attention from the visual to the aural. He hadn't caught the opening remarks, but Artemis was speaking in answer, fond laughter colouring her tones.
"Patience, my daughters." Casting amused eyes on the two male members of the group. "We will speak more of this later." She gestured for Aine and Cairbre to follow her and taking Brighid's hand led the group away from the light of the fire, melting into the darkness of the tree line.
Tearing his attention away from the no longer visible group, he watched the four Amazons assigned to patrol leave camp and likewise melt into the darkness. A hand touched his shoulder and he looked up.
"C'mon you. Bedtime for boys." Laying out his bedroll as she spoke Gabrielle mustered her counter argument for the protest that was sure to follow.
Finally getting Solon settled, with a promise to wake him when and if the others returned, she turned her attention to her own sleep arrangements. And froze. 'Oh boy, this could get sticky.' Common sense warred with her desire not to slight her lover. And she admitted to herself the simple desire to feel Xena's reassuring presence next to her. Compromising she laid her own roll next to the now sleeping Solon, and placed Xena's lengthwise across the top, her head closest to her son's.
"So you have some decency left after all." Whirling to find Ephiny angrily addressing her. "After that little display this afternoon I'm surprised you'd even bother to ..."
Her own anger rose in response to her consort's bitter accusation and she cut the other woman off in mid-sentence. "That was an accident, we didn't intend for..."
"For what? What did you think bringing her back with you was going to mean? Did you even think about the implications or were you thinking with your crotch?"
Green eyes flashed hard as emeralds, her voice a low warning growl. "Don't do this Ephiny. You sent me to see her remember?"
"I sent you to say goodbye, not to crawl into bed with her." Anguish and anger present in equal measure.
"This...is not...the time or place for this." Trying hard to keep her words calm and measured, fighting back tears.
"I didn't realize there was an appropriate time to discuss betrayal." Spinning away the sarcastic retort hung in the air behind her, stinging Gabrielle.
In spite of the pain it was almost a relief to have Ephiny's anger out in the open. The cloying sense of anticipation and fear generated by not knowing was gone. Now I know, this is not going to be easy. We should have stayed away. Don't go there Gabrielle, you are Queen you can't just walk away. And, as much as she hated to admit it she owed Ephiny the knowing and the right to have her anger acknowledged. Three weeks and this would have been different. I wouldn't be foresworn. Her breathing had returned to normal and the tears that had threatened to spill over so easily minutes before had vanished.
Feeling exhausted Gabrielle made her way slowly to where the horses were tethered, hoping to find Xena. So much had happened today and they hadn't yet had a chance to talk. It was all a little overwhelming. Coming up behind her lover she could clearly see fatigue in the set of those proud shoulders. Gabrielle reached out and draped her arm around Xena's waist. It was a gesture all at once consoling and protective. "I love you."
"How do you do that?" Xena had felt Gabrielle's approach but was unsure of what to say, the day had been awkward and tense, the presence of Ephiny in the camp making it even more so. She hadn't known what to say, how to behave. With the immediate threat to Aine's life over there didn't appear to be anyway to stave off the inevitable confrontation and up until Gabrielle had spoken a part of her had been afraid that the bard would back away from her, and toward Ephiny.
"I do the sensitive chats, remember?" Xena caught the quaver in her voice and turned to examine her lover carefully. Even in the dim light cast by the distant campfire she could see the toll the day and previous night had taken on the younger woman.
Enfolding Gabrielle in her arms, she brought her chin to rest on the top of her head. Softly she murmured into her partner's ear, "I love you too, my Queen." She gently captured soft lips with her own, sliding into a kiss that spoke of love and acceptance, and a future. The kiss muted into an embrace, each holding the other, soothing away the tensions of the day.
"Speaking of sensitive chats, I guess I need to have one with Ephiny a little sooner than we planned." The trepidation in her tone wasn't lost on Xena.
"I'll be there with you if you want." It was the last place Xena wanted to be, but if Gabrielle needed her, she'd defy Hades himself, never mind Ephiny.
A wry grin greeted her offer, "Something tells me warrior mine that this is a one person sensitive chat. Besides you have a sensitive chat of your own to attend to."
"What sensitive chat?" I'll apologize to the Bard for threatening him, but that hardly counts as a sensitive chat. Her expression conveying confusion which Gabrielle quickly dispelled with her next words.
"Solon, Xena. You need to tell him you're his mother." Xena felt the bard's fingers softly against her lips, asking her to listen. "It's written on his face Xena, I don't know why I hadn't seen it before, but this afternoon, watching him sleep, he has your profile, your eyes. He deserves to find out from one of us, and it should be you."
"You are all the mother he needs Gabrielle, the woman who bore him is dead." The bitterness and longing in her tone surprising even her.
Neither of them noticed the slim figure who darted back toward the campfire.
Gabrielle cupped her face and peered intently into her eyes, Xena swallowed trying to hold back tears. "Your past is dead Xena, it's time to reach out for the future, for our son. We'll work out the details as we go, remember? And I'm not going anywhere."
Our son, hearing those words out loud both warmed her heart and froze her soul. What if our son doesn't want to be my son? And Kaleipus? Gabrielle's soft voice cut in, "One day at a time love, what ever happens, we'll deal with it together."
Allowing a wan smile to curve her lips she kissed Gabrielle's forehead, "There you go reading my mind again."
"I too have many skills, love." Xena graciously bent her head and allowed the bard to demonstrate further.
"My Queen." Gabrielle's heart sank at the ice in Solari's voice. Turning to the Guard Captain, but not stepping away from Xena, she decided that now was as good a time as any to begin dealing with the fallout.
"Captain, what is it you need?" She was pleased that she had kept her tone neutral. As if being caught stealing kisses by your honour guard is a neutral sort of event.
"Artemis and the others have returned. The Queen Consort sent us to find you and Xena." Seeing the flinch on both their faces at the mention of Ephiny she nodded in satisfaction. Heading back toward the fire, she paused and addressed the Queen. "You know Gabrielle, this I would have expected from her, but I never expected it from you. What if Ephiny had been the one to find you?" Not giving either of them a chance to explain, she turned on her heel and left.
Gabrielle looked up at the stricken expression on Xena's face, and squeezed her hand, "Hey, are you alright?"
"I think you probably have a few sensitive chats to do before this is sorted out."
Ruefully she allowed that that might be the case. "Yeah, but if all else fails I can always abdicate." Trying with humour to cover the sadness that thought caused.
"C'mon you, better not keep your Goddess waiting, or you could end up Queen of Mice." It was however, a relief that some of the teasing tones from early in their journey were back.
Together they moved back to where the rest of the group was waiting.
By the time they arrived the others had reseated themselves and were regarding the two Goddesses with expressions ranging from reverent awe to stunned surprise. Except for, Gabrielle noted wryly, Xena and the two Gaels.
Dropping casually to an empty spot between Agatha and the now alert Solon, she read the hesitation in Xena's body language and indicated that Xena should join her.
No sooner had they seated themselves than Aine began to speak.
Looking directly at Gabrielle, the Gael spoke in quiet somber tones, quite at odds with the initial impression the Queen had formed of the young woman.
"We need your help. The halves of the Amazon Nation must again be made whole." Aine glanced over to where Artemis and Brighid were sitting as though seeking and receiving permission to elaborate. "In order to defeat the combined power of the Fir Bolg and the Formori we need to use the Great Treasures, and this we cannot do alone. The weapons chose their own masters and must have the whole nation to chose from. The Gods to whom these weapons belong cannot aid us in the fight either, they are, as my brother has mentioned precluded from direct interference in the final outcome of this matter." Briefly the impish smile Gabrielle had begun to associate with her flitted across Aine's face as she caught Brighid's eye. "Although it seems a little nudging here and there is permitted."
"I must be missing something, because I don't understand why you need to fight them. Returning to Greece would reunite the halves just as effectively wouldn't it?" Gabrielle asked.
Again looks were exchanged between the Goddesses and the Celts, and this time it was Artemis who answered. "No, my chosen one, this battle must be fought, though I applaud your effort to avoid war. And war it shall be. Your skills and diplomatic talents have brought the nation growth and prosperity. But the clime here in Greece is changing, for all of us." A sad far away look settled over her features before she continued. "If the nation is to survive you must leave Greece."
"That's why you sent Queen Scathach away isn't it? To prepare the way?" Gabrielle's question went unanswered as Xena interjected a question of her own.
"There's more to this than you're telling us. Or you would simply have sent the Nation with Queen Scathach three hundred years ago. What's in this for you Artemis? More fun and games with mortal lives?" Xena's eyes were hard as flints.
"This is none of your affair Xena, this is a matter for Amazons. Stay out of it." The tension around the fire magnifying with Ephiny's rebuke.
Gabrielle rounded on her Consort but was cut off by Artemis' angry shout. "Enough."
Without giving anyone a chance to ask any more questions Artemis pointed imperiously at Gabrielle, "come with me. We need to talk." Shooting a look at Xena that could have been equal parts understanding and frustration she sighed, "As for you. You will take this little group back to Arborea - all of them." She was gone as quickly as she came taking The Queen and Consort with her.
Brighid looked at the stunned awe on the faces of the Amazons and shook her head in barely concealed mirth, slowing dematerializing and following Artemis. Bare seconds went by before she reappeared, no one had shifted position or yet began to talk, so her lilting words broke the silence left by her lover. "Forgot someone." Then she and Aine were gone.
Gabrielle didn't know what she had been expecting to happen when the Amazon Goddess had taken her and Ephiny away from the others, but this was definitely not it. She was sitting on a hill in a meadow, in broad daylight. Alone. Fields of green stretched before her as far as the eye could see, the only break on the horizon a far off mountain peak, its snow capped heights barely discernable. The air around her was as devoid of sound as the panorama was of variation in topography.
Lying back onto the carpet of green she let some of the tension leach from her body into the ground below. This place felt safe, and it was a relief not to have any one else around. Lost in thought she didn't hear the other woman approach.
"Difficult position to be in."
The kind words conveyed a sense of understanding and empathy that she hadn't expected to hear from a Goddess, "You're not much like our Gods are you?"
Delighted laughter was the first response. "Mayhap because I'm not a God by your standards."
Reflecting on this for a bit they sat in silence. "Are you faeiry then like Aine?"
"No, we are more than mortal and powerful in our own ways, but that power comes from knowledge and from our Mother Goddess."
"Where are we? It's so peaceful here." Not like back at the camp.
"You are a curious one. We are in Tir na n'Og, which is for my kin what Olympus is to your Gods."
"But Cairbre said your people had gone to live with the Sidhe."
"I suppose that is what it looks like to the mortals, we merely removed ourselves from mortal sight, we have not abandoned them. But these are things best left for another time and place."
"Do you and Artemis spend much time here?" Feeling safe, the bard's natural curiosity took over.
"For a long time we didn't dare, and then the couple of times we tried, her absence was taken advantage of." She squeezed the Amazon Queen's hand, "she was really upset that you had to face Velaska unaided."
"Oh." Nothing else to say really, though she'd always wondered how Artemis could have allowed the destruction of her temple and Arborea. Something Iolaus had mentioned came to mind. That explains how Autolycus was able to steal her bow.
She seems so human, I can hear the concern and pain in her voice. So unlike Ares and Aphrodite, hmm I bet she and Cupid get along. A giggle escaped. Poor Brighid, what a nasty lot of in-laws she's getting. Sobering she regarded the slim figure next to her, feeling bad that for what ever reason she and Artemis were separated. "Want to talk about it?"
"I was supposed to ask you that." Gabrielle's earlier giggles returned in full force, she couldn't help it. The Goddess regarded her quizzically.
It was all she could manage to get her sentence out, "Artemis doesn't do sensitive chats either hunh?" Wonder what you'd think if you knew you had something in common with a Goddess. Not very pleased probably.
"No, her talks are more along the 'knock some sense into you' variety, but don't tell her that. She seems to think she does them quite well." The indulgent smile on her face made plain to Gabrielle how Brighid felt about Artemis.
Imagine Xena, me the little girl from Poteidia, grew up to be an Amazon Queen with a Goddess sitting here willing to listen to my problems, who'd have thought? Deciding she liked Brighid she began to talk. "I don't want to hurt Ephiny, but my future is with Xena. I can't explain it but it feels right. It's like she fills a place in my soul I didn't even know was empty." Looking over at Brighid she paused judging the other's reaction.
A warm hand gently held hers, warm eyes glistening with the pain of her own memories. Gabrielle realized that this Goddess - this woman - understood her pain and dilemma in ways only hinted at by Cairbre's tale. "You loved him once."
"Yes. And then the other half of my soul walked into my life and everything changed."
"Are you sorry?"
"No. I regret the things that happened to innocent souls because Bres couldn't let go. But those were his choices not ours. We did the best we could." Tears were flowing down her cheeks, dropping softly to the ground below.
Impulsively Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the Irish Goddess, each finding peace in the presence of the other. Bard and Goddess, Queen and Immortal, joined and made equal.
Both would have laughed to see Artemis land on the hard packed floor of a forest clearing with what could only be described as a whomph.
Dusting herself off, she warily circled the Consort, shifting her grip on the wooden staff in her hand she aimed a swipe low at Ephiny's feet. "You need to let her go."
Ephiny leaped over the sweeping staff, missing until too late the blow that followed it, and landed hard on the ground. Grunting she brought herself to knees and shot a withering glance at her patron Goddess, "shoulda known you'd take her side."
Ducking the return parry Artemis leveled a blow at her companion's head. "It's not about taking sides."
Whipping an anger filled blow back at the Goddess she snarled, "She used me, I was just a convenient substitute."
Using the resulting lack of balance against Ephiny, she hooked her staff under the smaller woman's knee and sent her crashing to the ground again. Placing the butt end of the staff against the mortal's neck she whispered, "and you weren't using her? Weren't hiding your own fears behind Gabrielle's safety. You knew all along where her heart lay. Let her go, you were never hers, nor she yours."
The truth in the God's words stung and forgoing the staff Ephiny leaped on the Goddess and wrapping her in a three-quarter hold pinned her to the ground. "Easy for you say. Could you let Brighid go, just like that?"
Twisting around and breaking the hold, she quickly reversed their positions, sitting on Ephiny and pinning her arms to the ground. "No, I couldn't, because she completes me, is a part of me in ways that I never dreamed were possible. Even apart we are together. Can you say the same about Gabrielle? Don't settle for less Ephiny. It's out there for you, but not with Gabrielle." Misreading the look of fear and pain in the blonde's eyes, she relaxed her hold and ran her hand across Ephiny's cheek. "Don't let the fear of what happened to Phantes hold you back."
Relaxing into the gentle caress she let the anger drain from her aching muscles, Way to go warrior, you could've talked about this with Solari, but no, you had to go ten rounds with a Goddess. How do I explain - I'm not afraid of losing love, I'm afraid of not finding it, afraid of being achingly alone. Why couldn't it have been you Gabrielle? Because your heart was no longer yours to give, she had it, her and Solon. Fresh tendrils of anger flared when she remembered what it had felt like to hear that Solon was Xena's son, and that Gabrielle had known all along. There had been no passion in their relationship, true, but had it all been lies? Being honest even she had to admit that it was more like a friendship with fringe benefits than a marriage, but even so it rankled to think that Gabrielle was recreating something with her she couldn't have with Xena. She had wanted to deepen things, but Gabrielle had kept her just outside, intimate, close yet apart. The gamble had been all or nothing, she had lost. Artemis is right, it's time to let go.
Artemis watched the warring emotions dance across the warriors face, and tensed as the wistful look had turned stormy, when the storm broke and the tears came she held Ephiny close. Murmuring gentle reassurances into her ear, she cradled the smaller woman until Morpheus claimed her. Materializing a pillow and bedroll she tucked Ephiny in, allowing her to rest undisturbed in her private bower.
Coming to her feet she winced, that's it - that's the last time I spar with a mortal on even terms. Glancing at the peacefully slumbering woman, a self satisfied grin lit up her features, Who said I can't do sensitive chats?
The even breathing of a camp asleep surrounded her, off to the side she could just make out the scrape of leather against rock as Solari shifted position. Deciding that sleep was not her lot for the evening she rose from the bedroll, acutely conscious of Gabrielle's absence, and made her way to where Solari sat keeping watch.
"I'll take over." Her tone carefully neutral.
Solari stood and faced Xena, swallowing nervously. "Look about earlier, I was out of line. They're both my friends - you know? I worry about them. About both of them." Not flinching she continued to hold Xena's eyes, waiting.
"Apologize to Gabrielle not me. Now go on, get some sleep, long ride tomorrow." Shutting the door firmly but politely on the other's peace overture. Watching the guard captain return to the campfire, her gaze lingered on the spot where she knew Solon lay.
How exactly am I going tell you? You think I'm dead, that I was some kind of hero, like your father. I'm not. I'll tell him Gabrielle but you're going to have to help me figure out how. A nagging fear gripped her, as she thought about Gabrielle. She should have been back by now. Where are you my love? Artemis needs something from you and she probably isn't taking this upheaval in Amazon politics well. Wherever you are remember that I love you. Icy tendrils snaked into her guts, an old fear gripping her anew. Please don't change your mind Gabrielle, I couldn't take it, not now ...not after this. I don't know how I stood it the first time, when you told me you'd changed your mind, that you were going to marry him, and then you did. You left and Callisto gave you back to me. We've lost so much time, I won't just give up like the last time and like I did with Perdicus.
Her skin began to crawl, a tingling sensation running up her spine to the base of her skull. "I was wondering when you were gonna show."
"I thought as long as you were renewing old relationships that I'd drop in and say hello."
"What do you want Ares?"
"You left Amphipolous."
"Did you figure that out without a map?" Anger flaring in her voice.
"There's that fire." Running a finger down her jaw line, he stepped behind her. "Is your blood singing yet Xena? Did your pulse quicken when you felt the raider's vertebrae snap under your hands? Are you remembering what it feels like to be alive?" His warm breath softly caressed her ear. "You can lie to yourself Xena, but you can't lie to me."
She could feel it even as he spoke. Alive. Yes. Unlocking the place she'd buried Gabrielle had unlocked other - deeper - blacker - things. Unlocking joy and passion had meant unlocking the other sides of those coins. She shuddered and came toe to toe with Ares, "what do you want Ares?"
He slid his hand across her face, rubbing his thumb gently across her cheek bone. "Nothing. I have everything already. You stay with her and you'll wage war and shed blood. With or without your sword Xena, blood is blood." He was so close to her that she could feel the heat of his body, his breath brushing along her ear in a lover's caress.
"Release me Ares." Twofold meaning to her words as she stepped back from the God.
"Sorry can't do that. Wield a sword in battle again and you're mine. But, this I will allow - use of a blade in any other task, save as a weapon." He stepped around her and pressed against her back before drawling, "consider it a wedding gift," leaving sudden silence behind him.
Unaware that she had wrapped her arms around her torso, she sank to the ground. Damn you to Tartarus, why can't you just leave me alone. He'd been right though, her blood had sang, and it scared her, that sudden realization of how easy it was to slide back into the darkness and kill. Gabrielle was wrong - she hadn't changed, all she'd done was hide, she was exactly who she'd always been. Beyond redemption, isn't that why she'd stopped trying? Will you still be there Gabrielle? Did you suspect Elin? Or had she fooled herself so completely that others had believed too? You believe don't you Gabrielle - you always believed. I will not be yours Ares -ever, I am hers, body and soul.
Soft rays of the breaking dawn began to light the morning sky as Apollo rode his chariot through the heavens. Shaking off the night's brooding melancholy Xena stretched and padded through the crisp morning air over to the fire where Agatha and one of the other Amazons, she didn't know the woman's name, were preparing breakfast for the group. Nodding, she accepted a steaming mug and sat down.
Xena looked over as Cairbre nudged his mount up closer to Argo. She was glad to see that Aine had been deposited somewhere else. When the Celt had sauntered into camp this morning whistling a jaunty air it had been all she could do not to reach over and wipe the contented smirk from his twin's face, and the long ride hadn't improved her mood. She was surprised when he didn't immediately begin talking and enjoyed the companionable silence.
Taking the opportunity to study him, she noted he was as tall as she, but lighter of frame, clean shaven his hair hung round his face and broad shoulders in a tangle of loose curls, as though he was unaware it existed. Cairbre didn't simply occupy the air around him, he wore it, fitting into the space as though he were a part of it. In balance. Xena found herself liking him in spite of the myriad of questions left unanswered last night.
"Worried?" The unexpected question startled her.
Gabrielle hasn't returned, I have no idea what attacked Aine or why; I'm riding into an armed Amazon village without the Queen or her Consort; and if that weren't enough instead of normally capricious Olympian gods to deal with, I've got yours as well. Nope I can't think of a single thing. Not that she was going to tell him that. "Should I be?"
"You don't have much use for Gods do you?" Changing tack.
"Oh, I can think of plenty of uses for them, none of them good, or painless."
Feeling the air change, an anticipatory shiver ran through her - igniting her senses - and she held her hand up for silence.
Cocking her head to the side, she darted her eyes around. Ah, where are you? Looking up, blue eyes quickly scanned the foliage with no result. You are up to something. Solari called her name and she turned round, right into a jet of ice cold water, being shot expertly from a water skin held by the subject of her search.
"Gotcha." A squeal of laughter was all that was left behind as Solon dashed for the relative safety of the forest.
Flipping in a lazy arc, her feet landed solidly on the ground. Grabbing her own skin she bounded after the fleeing boy. Swiftly making up ground she took aim and let lose a stream of water. Only to have it splash harmlessly against the tree in front of her, and another stream hit her in the back of the head. Looking over her left shoulder, Solon was visible standing on an upper branch of a large tree, leaning jauntily against its trunk.
"Cocky aren't we." Landing on the branch above him and returning fire.
Running his fingers through wet hair, he bounced lightly on the branch he was standing on, testing its spring. He launched himself into the air readying his weapon for a final volley.
Tracking his movements a grin spreading across her face, Xena waited until he had hit the apex of his flip, then launched herself into the air. Snaking her left arm out to push on his foot, she added rotation to his spin, catching him neatly when he twisted trying to compensate. Forgoing the water skin, long fingers found new targets as she reduced him to helpless laughter.
"Mercy ...Xena...mercy...uncle." Relenting she swung him to the ground and flopped down next to him.
Their chase had carried them away from the main group, the forest air cooler than it had been on the road. Woodland sounds carried on the slight breeze
"Gabrielle taught me."
"Gabrielle can do flips?" She knew her jaw was hanging, but this she was going to have to see.
Remembering all the bruises they had earned trying to learn to use the tree paths and turn flips made him laugh all over again. "Sorta, but she's scared of heights, so she doesn't do em very often, I think she only learned so she could teach me." He couldn't help the wistful note that crept into his voice.
Her heart clenched as his smile faded briefly and watching the shifting expressions moving across his face she realized Gabrielle was right, his parentage was written all over him. His build was more like Borias' than hers, but those eyes and cheekbones, they were unmistakably hers.
Pulling a stalk of grass up by its roots, she methodically stripped away its outer layers, laying bare the soft shoot. Chewing the tender stalk she thought about what to say. Do you want to know me I wonder? No time now this'll have to wait. Flashing a full warm smile she leaned over and ruffled his sandy locks, "You learned 'em pretty well, it's been a long time since any one has nailed me in a water fight. Even if you had to cheat." Pride filled her tone.
"I wasn't cheating, I was being tactical." Solon protested with laughing indignation.
"S'alright, what say we turn the tables on Solari?" Leaning forward she whispered conspiratorially in his ear and watched with pleasure as his eyes widened and another smile plastered his face. You are definitely my son.
"C'mon you, before they send a search party out for us."
Xena maneuvered Argo through the group until she reached Cairbre. The closer they had gotten to the village the more distant he appeared, avoiding even his sister. She pulled up short and looked over the riders. 'Damn'. Whistling to the other Amazons she gave the signal for a halt.
"Solari, take over here, we seem to have misplaced someone. Solon take Arden with you and let Kaleipus know where you are and that you are required in Arborea, then meet us in the village." Shooting a resigned look at Cairbre, she nodded back in the direction they had come, "Let's go find your sister."
"Xena, if she doesn't want to be found, we are not going to find her." Considering the look on Xena's face, he almost hoped they didn't find her.
"Oh, we'll find her all right."
He definitely didn't want to be there when Xena found her, What are you up to now. He really hated it when she did that, and why did everyone always expect that he either knew where she was or could find her. He sighed and spurred his own mount after hers.
Aine watched from the safety of her perch in the trees above as her brother and Xena rode back along their route, not moving until their backs had retreated around a bend and out of sight. Moving forward through the foliage with preternatural speed she made her way to the small clearing half a league in front of the main group where she had secreted her mount. Why is it no one ever looks for me in front of them? You'd think Cairbre at least would have caught on by now.
<<What makes you think I haven't?>> Aine nearly blew her cover suppressing her laughter. <<Going to find Gwynn are you then?>> It always surprised her how much deeper and richer his voice sounded in her mind, especially since the words were pure thought, with no sound at all. Mulling over her words she replied impishly, <<among other things.>>
The answering sigh reached her just before he moved out of range, <<You know I hate it when you do that.>>
Sobering she mounted the mare and goaded her into a brisk canter, heading for the coast and the ships she hoped to find waiting for her. With any luck Gwynn would have arrived before her and they could begin finalizing the details for the evacuation. Noting the position of the sun and how little time was left before she would be needed in Arborea she increased the pace of the horse.
Alone, her face settled into a serious expression completely at odds with her earlier behavior. The flashing silver eyes no longer shone with mirth, replaced instead with determination.
'It has begun.' The three words spoken by Brighid during their meeting last night rolled through her mind causing fresh bolts of fear to lance through her.
Opening her eyes, Ephiny could see blue sky peaking at her from behind the tops of large trees, her ears detected the soft burbling of gently running water. Momentarily confused she mistook her surroundings for the camp. As her mind cleared she realized that she lay in a clearing just inside the border, near where they had first encountered Cairbre.
Rising unsteadily to her feet, she stretched the last vestiges of sleep from her body. "Ow." A twinge in her lower back and a quick touch to the bruise on her cheek attested that her talk with Artemis had been reality. A quick glance at the sun told her that it was already a candle mark past mid-day, so after a quick drink she headed toward the village.
She had not gone far before Catran descended from the trees above her. Crossing her arms over her chest she regarded the other Amazon sternly. "Security seems to be a little ...lacking." Then smiled warmly before Catran could bust a gut trying to explain. "Relax, wasn't your fault, blame it on the moon."
"Eph?" Tentative and a little worried.
"What happened to your face? And where is everyone else?"
They continued walking as she tried to formulate an explanation. How much do I really want or need to say right now? I need to talk to Gabrielle first. Figure out how this ...change...is gonna affect things, decide what to do. Definitely need more information from Cairbre and Aine, unbidden an image of the woman's naked form flashed through her memory. "Every one else is on their way back, should be here later today, I had a separate task to deal with."
Catran nodded and then stopped, something obviously still on her mind.
"What is it? Did anything happen while I was gone?" Watching the warrior shift from foot to foot only served to increase Ephiny's anxiety, "Out with it."
Not meeting her eyes Cat whispered, "Queen Gabrielle returned this morning, and she's called a full council meeting for first thing tomorrow."
Hera's left tit - it's started. Deep breathe Ephiny m'girl. Damage control. Laying a reassuring hand on her friend's shoulder, "Good, that'll give the others time to arrive and for some discussion before we go in front of those cranky elders."
Without realizing it both women had completed the trip to the village, and together made the journey toward the food hut. The normally boisterous conversations deadened to immediate silence as they entered the hut.
Catran could sense Ephiny's discomfort and squeezed her hand, drawing a smile. "C'mon you gotta be starved."
"What are you doing back?" Eponin came to stand behind Catran and rested her arm around her lover's waist. "Hmm?"
Looking at each other Catran and Ephiny both laughed. "Which one of us?" They chorused.
Noting the resumption of the various conversations around the hall she decided her laughter must have cued the other Amazons that things were ok at least for now. But if anticipation was running this high now, things are going to get real uncomfortable once Xena and the others arrive. The sooner I talk to Gabrielle the better. No longer hungry, she accepted a mug of tea sipping it thoughtfully.
With half an ear she listened to Catran report on the goings on of the last day and night. Perking up at a particularly vivid description of some trouble Xenan had gotten into - involving it seemed some bees, a manure pile and a drum - she felt some of her earlier tension dissolve.
Rising she stepped away from the table. "I'll see you guys later for an informal meeting before the full council meets in the morning."
Nodding they watched her leave. "So, what's up with the shiner?"
Catran shrugged. "Dunno, she wouldn't say but I'd hate to see the other guy."
"Wedding gift. Wed-d-ing gift. What in the name of Hades were you thinking?" Artemis was furious, advancing on her brother, and only Apollo's hastily outstretched hand prevented Ares from being knocked into the wall.
"You asked for the gift, you didn't say anything about how, when or where."
"You weren't supposed to tell her that. So help me Ar if your meddling blows this for me you will wish I'd only made you God of Peacocks." Artemis glared at her brother, holding her bow in a way that left no doubt as to her intentions.
Raising his hands in defeat, Ares mumbled an apology and withdrew, wisely forgoing for once to tease her about Brighid.
"What?" She asked. Apollo was looking at her with a mixture of awe and curiousity.
When he waggled his brows, her stern expression was replaced with a grin. "You know you're the only one he takes that from?"
"I know, I suppose asking Ares for a wedding gift involving Xena, and expecting him not to meddle was asking a bit too much. It's just that that mortal is way to smart." Tossing her bow casually on the table she picked up a goblet.
"Can I ask you something?" Before she could protest he deftly snatched the goblet and took a long swallow before returning it.
"Would a no stop you?" A mock scowl hugging her lips.
"I was just wondering how many of your betrothal and wedding gifts you've used up already?"
"Eight." Casting a wary eye on her brother as his eyes sparked with a speculative gleam.
"Who did you add? Never mind, I don't want to know." Eyes twinkling he continued, "I was just wondering if you were going to use them all on mortals or if you guys planned on using any of them yourselves?"
Artemis lunged at him intending to add the remaining contents of her cup to his wardrobe but he vanished leaving the liquid to splash against the polished marble floor. "You, brother dear, are too cheeky by half." Her words echoed into the empty hall.
Checking the time she headed across the Hall of Gods in search of Aphrodite and Athena.
Seeing a shadow fall across the table where she sat writing in her journal, Gabrielle looked up and froze. Time seemed to suspend itself, locking everything into place, the only movement came from the tiny pulse she could see throbbing at the base of Ephiny's jaw. Her own palms grew moist and she could feel the blood throbbing in her own pulse points. There were still no words, even had her mouth not suddenly become to dry to speak.
"Why Gabrielle?" It wasn't what she'd planned to say. "No don't, I know why, I can understand why, what I really want to know is - was it ever me?" Anger laced her tone.
"Ephiny, I ..." She drew back as the other woman advanced on her.
"No. Answer the question, I deserve that much, did you ever love me or was I just a body, a substitute."
Anger of her own flared in response to the accusation. "How dare you. I never lied to you, you knew from the beginning." Taking another step back as she found herself inches from angry hazel eyes.
"I suppose you just forgot to tell me whose son Solon really was." It was too much, the anger to hard to sustain, it didn't matter what she said, or what Gabrielle said it was over. No longer bothering to fight back tears she let them fall.
She knows, how, Solari's words - what if Ephiny had been the one to find you? She saw Ephiny's shoulders slump, and placed a hand on her cheek, feeling the tears pool against her thumb. "What I felt for you was different from what I feel for Xena, but it was you - it was real. I love you Ephiny." Drawing a ragged breath she continued, "But she reaches places in me that no one else can. I never wanted to hurt you, never meant to lie to you."
Together they slid to the floor, leaning against the wall and each other. Feeling the maelstrom around them lessening. Knowing if their friendship were to survive, they had to fight this out together.
"It does hurt though, I wanted it to be me, I never believed in love before..." her voice cracked a little, "...Phantes, and when he died a piece of me went with him, but I knew then what was possible between two people and I wanted it again."
"I'm sorry I couldn't tell you about Solon. I love him because of who he is, not just because he's Xena's son. I wanted to give him a home, a place, a family, and we did that, you, me and Xenan."
Shifting to look into Gabrielle's eyes, searching for a clue as to where to go now. "Where do we go from here?"
Soft words, "I don't know, it all seems kind of complicated." Fresh tears rolled down her cheeks, "I don't want to lose your friendship."
Smiling through her own tears she hugged Gabrielle, "you honestly expected something you were involved in not to be complicated?"
And she knew then, that it was going to be okay, they really would find a way to salvage their friendship. Running her fingers through curly blonde locks she held her Consort close and let go of the tension winding her body into knots. Feeling Ephiny flinch as her fingers brushed her cheek, she drew back and took a closer look. "Eph, what happened to your face?"
"Let's just say that Artemis isn't going to have a huge problem granting your...our petition to dissolve the hand-fasting." A sheepish grin was lighting her face.
"Do I want to know the details?" Glad that she had drawn Brighid for her 'chat'.
"Nope, that pretty much covers it."
"Oh." Just go with it Gabrielle. In for a dinar... "Eph?"
Reading the tentativeness in Gabrielle's tone her face lost its grin, and she steeled herself in preparation for the question that her Consort's tone was telegraphing. "Yes Gabrielle?" A slight questioning tone in her own voice.
"Are we okay? I mean umm," Shards, how do I put this. "You're not going to challenge Xena or anything are you?"
She never asks the easy ones does she? Just comes right out and wham. Yeah and you wouldn't have it any other way. She broke off her ribbon of thought and became aware of Gabrielle watching her intensely. It's my choice right now, right here. How much am I going to lose?
Unaware that she had tensed her entire body, she sat and watched the emotions flicker across Ephiny's countenance. It seemed like a lifetime before she saw the twitch of muscles telling her that an answer was forthcoming.
"Do you remember when you asked me about the extra attention you'd been getting from the other Amazons?" She nodded and Ephiny continued, her voice quiet, reassuring. "I told you about the difference between hand-fast unions and a joining. I think I knew even then that if you ever joined it would be to Xena, and no one else. Truth be told, I was kind of floored when I had to explain sapphistry to you, I mean we'd all assumed the two of you were lovers."
A wistful edge crept into Ephiny's words as her voice dropped another level and she had to lean forward slightly to catch the next words. "You two just seemed to connect, I always wondered how, after watching you when she died, you made it through when she left you here that last time." Hazel eyes held hers solemnly, "no I won't challenge her, or you. I love you too much, your friendship means too much. It just hurts, watching her walk back in to your life and effortlessly claim something I wanted but couldn't have and it will for a while."
Pensively she stared into the fire, absorbing Ephiny's words. You'll never know how close I came to not making it through. Appreciating the honesty of Ephiny's words. "I really tried. Didn't even realize that I'd locked part of myself away."
"I knew." A quiet confession. "I hoped our friendship and time would be enough. It's just hard letting go of dreams sometimes."
Steadying herself she readied her next words and in a strong confident tone, at odds with her nerves, began to speak. "I called a council meeting for tomorrow. I want you there, as..." She hoped Ephiny would agree, Brighid had looked thoughtful when she'd first proposed it, but had allowed that it might work. "...Co-Queen. Hear me out, something really dangerous and important is beginning, we can't weaken the nation, it needs us, both of us. It more or less just formalizes what's been the case all along anyway."
"And Xena?" No rancor this time, just genuine curiosity. This had the potential to get beyond complicated, well into ugly.
"I don't know, we will cross that bridge when we come to it. But I won't just take away everything you've worked for either."
Settling herself more comfortably against both the wall and the Queen, a thoughtful grin lit her face, "Only you Gabrielle, only you."
"You do realize don't you, that we could end up with the equivalent of four Queens for one nation?"
"I never thought of that, but" a mischievous gleam lit in her eyes, "maybe that way we'd finally get a vacation." Chuckling, she kissed the top of Ephiny's head and stood, stretching in an attempt to dislodge the kink forming in her lower back. The room around her came into a sharper focus as she realized that this was no longer home. There would be no more tripping over wooden soldiers, no more laying by the fire and drifting off to sleep watching Ephiny fletch arrows, a sense of loss far deeper than she had expected swept over her and her tears began to fall anew.
Concerned at the sudden change in mood, Ephiny rose and stood next to Gabrielle, touching the other woman on the shoulder, she turned her around until they were facing. "What is it?"
Brushing her hair back from her face with one hand, her voice subdued. "I'll move. You two stay, Xenan shouldn't have too many things changing all at one time." In even quieter tones she added, "this place was more my home than Poteidia ever was. I am so sorry Eph." Feeling a fresh wave of tears ready to break over her, she moved to their bed and sat, wrapping her arms around a pillow and let the tears come.
"I know, I'm sorry too." Her own tears beginning again. She joined Gabrielle on the bed, folding her form in behind Gabrielle's.
Neither was aware when the gentle reassurances and caresses changed and became more, and when their mouths met neither pulled back. Their lovemaking was slow and tender, an affirmation of what they had meant to each other and a sad acknowledgement of what they were letting go of.
There was sadness, but joy too, because in the letting go they each found the confirmation of a friendship and love that would continue to bind them, if not romantically then as sisters for as long as they chose.
In their haven they were unaware of the storm brewing around them.
He was about to enter the Queen's quarters when the sound of angry voices stopped him.
"No. Answer the question, I deserve that much, did you ever love me or was I just a body, a substitute." Ephiny
"How dare you. I never lied to you, you knew from the beginning." Gabrielle. About to turn away Ephiny's next words halted the motion.
"I suppose you just forgot to tell me whose son Solon really was." Whose son I really am? Unconsciously he leaned forward, knowing he shouldn't be there but needing to hear more. And then his whole world came crashing down and he turned and ran, numbness spreading through the pain of betrayal as the puzzle pieces clicked sharply into place.
Unaware of the carnage he left behind as he sped through the village, knocking over carts and buckets in his haste to escape from the truth, he raced for the paddock.
Xena had just finished currying and stabling Argo and Quill when a small bundle hurled itself over the fence and began to throw a halter over a roan mare. Solon. Catching sight of his tear streaked face as he turned slightly, she dropped the comb and walked over to him, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Solon?"
Her heart thudded in her chest as he brought his eyes level with hers. Identical ice blue orbs locked, and the truth passed between them in that instant. Her arm was thrown roughly aside. "It's true isn't it, what Ephiny said to Gabrielle?"
He backed away from her, "Why?" Sounding lost and confused. Then his voice dropped a register as she started to speak. "Sol.."
"Save it Mother." Sarcasm and anger dripping from his voice. "I'm sorry Solon won't cut it, from either of you." He mounted the horse and digging his heels into her sides, jumped her over the corral fence, reigning up on the other side. A plaintive, wistful look stole across his features, "what did I do wrong?" And he was gone.
Recovering, Xena quickly crossed to where Argo stood waiting and picked up the discarded halter, preparing to slip it on the horse's muzzle. "Let him go, he needs time to think, he's confused and scared."
Snarling she rounded on the intruder, "what do you know about it?"
Cairbre didn't flinch, merely turned and faced her, his own pain written plainly on his face, shadowing his eyes. "More than you could possibly understand, Xena. I know exactly what he's feeling, the difference is when he gets his feelings sorted out you will be waiting for him." The same tone from the other night tinged his words. "He loves you Xena, that I can tell you, give him the time he needs." Before he could say anything else Solari summoned him, and he left, squeezing her arm as he went.
Argo nudged her and she turned to the horse, burying her face in the soft hide. "That certainly went well. I hope he's right Argo, cause I don't think I could take it if Solon hated me."
Moving away from the horse she climbed over the fence, worry for Gabrielle adding itself to her turmoil. He must have overheard you two fighting.
Without realizing it she found herself in front of the Queen's quarters, pausing she called out softly, "Gabrielle." Not getting a response she decided to check the mess hall, passing by the side of the house a small sound caught her attention. Turning to look through the open window, her eyes found her lover.
Her legs shook as she surveyed the scene on the bed, stumbling back a hoarse cry tore involuntarily from her throat. "No." Hades no, not this time, no. And then she hit the ground as her knees finally gave out, nerves over stressed and her emotions a tumultuous vortex. "Gabrielle..."
Teetering on the border between sleep and waking Ephiny was hauled forcefully into wakefulness when she heard Xena's voice, "Damn." Removing her arm from where Gabrielle's head lay resting she began to shake a groggy Queen. "Wake up Gabrielle, Xena's here." The urgency in her tone must have cut through to Gabrielle because the younger woman flung herself out of bed with an oath.
"Gods Ephiny, she must think..." She didn't want to finish that thought. Deftly she caught the skirt thrown to her and lacing up her top ran out of the hut. Xena sat slumped on the ground outside of the hut, rocking slowly, head hung. A lump formed in her throat at her lover's obvious pain.
Kneeling in the hard packed earth, she raised a hand hesitantly to Xena's cheek, softly cradling her face she tilted it until their eyes met. "Xena?" Waiting for blue eyes to focus. "Nothing's changed. You are the other half of my soul, my tree in the forest. I love you. I choose you. Forever." She continued to murmur until she felt her lover slump into her.
Looking up she caught Eponin's eye and indicated the women who had begun to gather near them. Gratefully she nodded at Solari and Cairbre as they assisted Eponin and Catran in clearing off the curious onlookers. Just before she could return her full attention to Xena, a light touch on her shoulder made her look up.
"Solon." The Celt mouthed only a single word, but the message was clear. Solon knew and it hadn't gone well. Oh, love. I'm so sorry you had to see this on top of whatever happened between you and Solon. Cradling Xena against her she gently whispered, "up you go Xena, let's take a walk, its okay love, I'm right here."
"What?" Her voice sounded distant and strange in her ears, and she felt like she'd been drug round the coliseum by a chariot - twice. Then the tears were being gently kissed from her cheeks and Gabrielle's words filtered through. "But..."
"Shh, Its okay - I'll explain everything later, I'm here and I'm not going anywhere. I love you, Xena." Nodding acceptance of Gabrielle's words she struggled to her feet, letting her lover guide her away from the cluster of huts towards the springs.
Sure steady hands carefully unlaced her boots and she was barely conscious of the gentle fingers that skillfully removed her travel-stained tunic. Not until the warm spring water began to lap against her thighs did the fog lift and the first tendrils of anger flame in her heart. Jerkily she spun away from Gabrielle and stared down at the smaller woman. Rough anger tinged her words. "So explain."
Hooded blue eyes waited for the axe to fall, waited for the explanation that would rip Gabrielle away for the third time. Like drowning. The same eyes took in the twitch of the muscles along Gabrielle's jaw as she chewed her bottom lip. She's trying to figure out how say it. She had the same look when...after Perdicus. Breathe Xena.
"What you saw was goodbye. I made my choice that night at your house." A pause and she waited for Gabrielle to continue, not yet daring to believe the quiet words. "With or without you there is no going back. You are the other half of my soul. I am yours. If you still want me." Xena heard a fear in Gabrielle's last words to match the one that had been eating at her since Artemis had taken the Queen away the night before. Numbly she watched tears slide away from Gabrielle's eyes. Say something Xena. No... she corrected...Do something. So she did.
Strong arms pulled Gabrielle deeper into the spring and she was folded into Xena. Parting her lips she returned her lover's kiss with equal fervor. For the second time in as many candle marks she found herself speaking with her body feelings that no mere words could express and long moments passed as she became aware of the strong muscles that were shifting against her body.
Her nipples hardened in response to the sensation of the wet skin sliding over hers, the fine hairs along her torso transmitting and magnifying each touch a thousand times. Teetering on the edge of total surrender she remembered where they were and reluctantly pulled out of the kiss, keeping her eyes locked on Xena's.
Injecting humour into her tone she teased, "glad you're here. You can help me move my stuff into our quarters. I was gonna get Eponin to, but I'd much rather you helped, she's kinda ham-fisted sometimes."
Surprising the bard, Xena, leaned forward and lifted her as she stood. Curving an eyebrow she watched as under her intense gaze a flush spread up Gabrielle's neck and face.
Satisfied that Gabrielle was serious, she began walking toward the guest hut she'd been assigned, the bard's weight resting comfortably in her arms. Their clothing draped loosely over her shoulder and the Queen.
Nearing her destination, she stopped and took a deep breath. "Gabrielle."
"Are you sure?"
"Just go with it Xena."
Grinning, she resumed the walk to the hut and pushed open the door. Arching a brow she grinned wickedly at her lover. "If I'm going to be your consort maybe you should carry me across the threshold."
"Just go with it Gabrielle." Stepping across and shutting the door firmly behind her.
The thundering hooves of the horse kept perfect time with his racing heart as he let the animal have its head. Not caring where they went or how long it took to get there. Nowhere was far enough.
Eventually the horse slowed and Solon took the time to look around, they had traveled a considerable distance west of Arborea and were now running parallel to the coast. Clucking, he stopped the horse and slid from her back. Absently he ran his fingers through the brownish mane, his attention focused on the distant horizon where sea met sky in a total embrace.
He didn't know what to think, how to feel. His deepest wish, now a reality, left him shaking with anger. Without being aware of his motion, Solon had clamored down the rock face and leaned heavily against its cool, reassuring facets. The ocean spray dusting his face slowly brought his surroundings back into focus and running his fingers through windblown hair he began walking along the rock strewn shore until he arrived at the opening to a small cave hidden above the high tide mark.
Dropping to his hands and knees he scrambled through the entrance and made his way to the pile of furs in the corner. Lighting a torch and placing it in a wall bracket he let his thoughts wander.
Another cave, another afternoon, trying not to let on how much his arm hurt. Surprised by the gentleness and warmth in the warrior's eyes. Warrior's eyes. My eyes. Shying away from that thought, he scooped up a hand full of pebbles from the floor next to him and began tossing them back through the entrance, listening as they bounced off the surrounding rocks.
"Ow! Solon quit it." Xenan winced from just outside.
Crawling to the rim he looked out at his friend. "What are you doing here? You're not supposed to come here by yourself." Affection warring with anxiety.
"You're here." The young centaur's words and subsequent toss of his shoulders filling in the details his tone didn't.
Moving to the back of the cave Solon grabbed the long plank they had scavenged from a nearby wreck and slid it out over the rim, resting one edge against the rock lip. "All right then up you come." Xenan had to hunch over in order to clear the opening. "Either we're going to need a new hideout soon or you have to stop growing." The centaur smiled at the jest but Solon could tell he was still upset.
Withdrawing the ramp he moved back to the fur covered pallet making room in front for Xenan. He could feel his foster brother watching him closely -clearly deciding whether or not to speak. Are we still brothers?
"What happened this afternoon? I saw you arguing with Xena, then you took off. And then something happened with Methryn and Xena and made them cry, then Mum was crying and nobody will tell me anything. Except 'Its okay Xenan, its just grownup stuff.' That means something bad happened and they don't think I can handle it." Now Xenan was chucking rocks outside, unsuccessfully trying to hold back tears.
Solon ran his hand across the smooth hide below Xenan's withers while he thought about what to say. Looking at his friend's worried, tear stained face, he tried to sound as reassuring as possible. "Its all a little complicated Xe, and I don't know everything but I'll tell you what I do know." As he talked Xenan nodded in seeming understanding now and again and by the time Solon finished telling him everything he knew about the last couple of days a thoughtful, and curious expression mingled with the worried one.
"If Xena is your mother and Methryn goes to live with her, will you still be my brother?" His jaw quavered on the last syllable.
Solon swung round until he could hold Xenan's eyes with his own and placed his hands on the younger boy's shoulders. "Some families you are born into and some you make. Our bond binds us tighter than blood ever could. You are and will always be my brother." He could feel Xenan relax and his words were rewarded with a full faced grin.
"Wow. Your mother is Xena. Major cool."
Solon tried to bite off his words but they were out before he could pull them back. "Xena is not my mother." Wincing at the hurt look on Xenan's face. "I'm sorry, I'm not mad at you. I don't need a mother that's all. She can't just walk into my life and say here I am. I have Methryn..." he paused You lied to me too didn't you Gabrielle, and Kaleipus, he must have known who my mother was. If they could know, why couldn't I?
Angry hot tears flowed over his cheeks and he was only peripherally aware of Xenan feeding him rocks as he fired stone after stone into the growing twilight. The rocks ran out long before his anger abated and so he sat staring into darkness with only the steady breathing of his friend anchoring him.
He hates me. Before she could descend deeper into those thoughts Gabrielle moved against her stretching into wakefulness.
"So you want to talk about it?" Sleep slurring her voice.
"Which it Gabrielle? Solon or this afternoon?" Carefully keeping her tone as level as possible.
She felt the catch in her lover's breathing as the implications of Xena's response sank in. "Are you mad at me?"
"I want to explain to you but you have to promise not to interrupt me..."
"Oh sorry." Drawing her hand across her lips.
"Not to interrupt me and to wait until I finish before you react." Seeing Gabrielle nod in acquiescence she turned on her side so she could track Gabrielle's reactions.
"I'm not angry. I can even understand how it probably happened, but coming on top of Solon's reaction to what he overheard it was just too much. For a while it seemed as though my two worst fears were coming true." She watched the dust motes suspended in the waning rays of light pouring through the window, phrasing her next words with care. "That night in the village, when Perdicus dropped his sword and walked away and I asked you what was wrong. You said, "The answer is yes Xena...I'm going to marry him" - it stunned me. I remember standing there, the village burning around me, and all I could see was your face. When I saw you and Ephiny - I was afraid you'd changed your mind again. I won't share you, and..." She paused to steady her breathing, wanting to get it out right - her partner's flinches indicating that the Queen was verging on tears.
"I don't think I could watch you walk away again. It would destroy me."
Xena's quiet admission of vulnerability startled her, and she wasn't sure what to say. Perdicus - she loved me even then? Oh Xena. And the answer came, there was only one thing to say. Twisting she moved to her knees and leaned over the larger woman, her hair tumbling across Xena's chest. "Join with me." Unsure of the response, she tensed, waiting and was engulfed by six feet of joy.
Gabrielle wriggled until she could draw air again. "So can I take that as a yes?"
Cerulean eyes locked onto hers, hiding nothing, it was all there, love, desire, fear, joy and her answer.
The distance between them closed and Xena's soft lips covered hers, responding she deepened the kiss and felt her body react to the intimate touch of her lover. Xena's hands spread tendrils of flame as they roved over the surfaces of her body, leaving nothing untouched.
Kisses followed fingers, lingering in hollows and curves. Each area of skin was claimed and marked by touch and tongue. Fire trailed up the base of her throat and along the hollow of her jaw, liquid tones poured into her ears. "What do you want Gabrielle?" And again searing heat slithered across her jawline, along her chin, reaching finally her waiting lips.
Her hands were pinned above her head, held firm in the safety of Xena's iron grip, her larger hand easily capturing both her smaller ones. Leaving her lips, her lover's mouth continued its path along her jaw, stopping to nibble on the other ear before repeating the question. "What do you want Gabrielle?"
Long tapered fingers were dancing around her nipple, making it difficult to think. "Tell me." Xena's words were a mix of gentle command and urgent plea. The weight of the warrior's thigh pinned her own legs against the bed, restricting her ability to move against the insistent touches, to seek release.
And again the silk voice cut through the sensual haze enveloping her. "Tell me."
Some how she formed the words and they slid from her lips. "You." She was rewarded with another touch of lips against hers, and felt her top lip sucked in and nibbled, before the delicious contact was broken.
Xena's breath vibrated against the skin of her cheek, and smoky nearly indigo eyes pinned her own. "Say my name Gabrielle." Hearing her own name rumble sent the first shivers of her nearing peak racing through taut muscles.
"You, Xena. I want you." Pouring the depth of her love and desire into her words. Arching her head up she brought her lips to meet Xena's continuing to convey with lips and tongue what her words had already spoken.
Her hands were abruptly freed and the weight pinning her legs shifted as access to her core was sought by skilful fingers. Moving her body she tried to maximize their contact. Xena's words had enflamed her more than she had thought possible, unlocking depths to her passion that she had previously been unaware of.
Lifting her head so she would be able to see Xena's face, she twined her fingers in the raven locks brushing against her thighs, and pulled forcing the meeting of their eyes. "Take me, Xena. I'm yours. Always."
Not releasing Xena she opened herself to receive the warrior's probing touch, arcing upwards as a delicate pass was made across her center. Knowing that she could possess Xena as surely with her words as Xena was with her touch Gabrielle moaned, drawing out the syllables. "Xee...na." The wetness triggered by her whisper coated her leg, and Xena moved against her in time to the rhythm she had already established.
Close, so very close. Yours love, always yours. Her muscles contracted against the curled ball of Xena's hand, tensing and releasing as her orgasm ripped through her body. Her lover's muscular frame crawled upwards and her face and lips were covered in butterfly soft touches as the last tingles of release swept through her.
Xena ground against her, the new friction, heat and wetness sending her spiraling upwards again. She could feel Xena's own essence mingling with her own, the spicy scent filling the air around them. Wrapping her arms around the broad muscular back of her partner, she drew them as close together as she could, mashing their breasts together, nipple brushing nipple.
The tempo increased as they rocked together in time to the racing of their heartbeats, she could hear the telltale hitch in Xena's breathing that told her that her lover was almost there, as close to the edge as she was. "I love you." Her whispered words took them both over the precipice they dangled on, each spasm driving them closer together and bringing a fresh wave of pleasure in its wake.
"Love you too, Gabrielle."
They lay there together arms and legs entangled content to watch the shadows gather in the corners as day wound its journey down into dusk. Xena's fingers were tracing lazy patterns across her shoulder, while her own hand played absently with a lock of raven hair.
Breaking the silence she moved her thumb to slowly trace the edges of Xena's jaw and mouth. "You never answered my question." Her thumb was captured and drawn slowly into Xena's mouth, her tongue circling its tip and trailing down to the base, where teeth gently nipped at the fleshy pad, before being slowly released.
"The answer is yes Gabrielle. I'll join with you." This time when she held Xena's gaze there was only love, desire and trust. Shifting her head she brought their lips together again and allowed the joy she felt to engulf them both, re-igniting their passion.
Gabrielle looked up at the sound of boots scrapping against the rough hewn planks of the meeting hall. Catran and Eponin filed in and moved to empty chairs on her right.
The arched brows and questioning looks passing between them did not go unnoticed by the Queen and she shifted her own a chair a little closer to Xena, even as she smiled broadly at the new arrivals.
Sparring a quick glance at her partner she became aware of the subtle change in how the warrior was holding herself. Following her hunch she watched the muscles along Xena's shoulders, visually tracing the smooth lines upward she recognized the hooded almost anticipatory glint in the piercing eyes. Amazing, she's back. Just like that. Welcome back Warrior Princess. How different you are with me love, and so guarded with everyone else. A little mellower around the edges perhaps, but no less intimidating for all that.
"You're staring my Queen." A low drawl pitched so that only she could her it.
Pitching her voice equally low, counting on her lover's much vaunted hearing, she whispered, "can I help it if you are the best looking warrior in the room?" She chuckled as Xena merely raised an elegant eyebrow in response.
During this by-play Solari had joined them and had taken up a seat on Xena's right.
Solari flashed a greeting smile at Xena and she was pleasantly surprised to see it returned. What's up with that I wonder? Making small talk she tried to reign in her nerves as she waited for the rest of the group to arrive. They had to sort some things out before the full council meeting tomorrow, chiefly the announcement that she and Ephiny would be dissolving their hand-fasting early and by consent. When the furor over that died, then the announcement of Ephiny's new status as Co-Queen would be made. The less said officially about Xena's role in events the better, opting to let presence of the warrior at her side speak for itself.
She was afraid that the council would see the move as an attempt to buy Ephiny's silence. Together they hoped that with their closet friends privy to the details before hand it would lessen the debate in the full council hall. Leaving, she hoped, the time and energy necessary to deal with the intriguing events surrounding the Amazon Princess and her brother.
As if on cue Aine entered the hall, an uncharacteristically intense expression framing her finely chiseled features. Hastily Gabrielle darted her eyes back toward Xena, half expecting, after being told about the woman's earlier disappearing act, to see Xena preparing to pin Aine to a wall.
Catching her soul mate's eye, Xena winked and mouthed, "paybacks are a bitch." Then her body moved to instant alertness as Ephiny barreled through the entrance, panic clearly visible on her features and fear shining from her eyes.
"The boys...they're not back yet and the scouts report landing activity on the beach above where they were last spotted." Ephiny's words had risen in tone, verging on hysteria.
"Solon." Gabrielle was unaware she had spoken aloud.
The sharp inhalation from next to her drew her attention away form the fearful look in Ephiny's eyes, finding a matching one in Xena's.
Then Xena sprang for the door flanked by Eponin, Catran, and Solari. Gabrielle leaped to her own feet and stopped in front of the soon to be Co-Queen. Swallowing her own fear she put as much reassurance in her tone as she could muster. "We'll find them Eph." Squeezing Ephiny's hand on the way out, the others following behind.
Solon awoke with a jerk, angry noises from the beach cutting through his exhausted slumber. A quick glance told him Xenan was also awake. Signing for quiet he crept back to the cave entrance and tried to peer into the moonlit night.
Dimly he could make out the sleek lines of a ship riding high in the water. Empty then. Too late he realized that his profile was clearly illuminated by the torch burning brightly in the cave behind him. A half dozen forms broke away from the main group and ran towards them. Suddenly, how he felt about his parents was the least of his immediate problems.
He made his decision in a split second and brought the hilt of his knife swiftly down on the back of Xenan's head, rendering him unconscious. Flinging the sleeping furs over his brother's prostrate form he doused the torch, making it harder for the men on the beach to locate the cave. Taking a last look back, Sorry Xe, he barrel rolled out of the cave, sweeping away the tracks and hoof prints outside as he landed.
Coming to his feet he ran up the shore angling for the path, hoping to draw pursuit. Hoping that they would be unable to locate the opening to the cave in the dark and that Xenan would remain unconscious long enough..., don't go there, focus.
Loud shouts in a language he hadn't before heard told him that he had been spotted, glancing back he caught sight of his pursuers. He nearly stumbled as a wave of fear and revulsion struck him almost palpably. Gods, what are they? They're not men, they can't be.
Whatever they were they were gaining on him, making up ground in spite of their choppy gaits and awkward strides. Tiring Solon made for the cliff face, hoping that up would be a more successful direction.
Bunching his legs under him, coiling all the power he could muster he sprang at the cliff, barely retaining his purchase as his weight settled on his arms. The misshapen forms swarmed the base and one of them scrambled - no sidled - rapidly parallel to where he was wearily climbing. A spider, that thing climbs like a spider.
Then he was falling, landing heavily on the sand below, losing consciousness as his head bounced off of the hard packed sand and onto a rock.
Thick ropes bound his outstretched hands to a board behind his back, cross like. Concentrating on the bright spot in front of him he realized it was a fire, a dull ache in the back of his skull combined with his blurry vision and nausea told him that he most likely had a concussion.
Fresh pain exploded in his head as a heavy blow landed above his temple, driving his head back. Dimly he could make out a voice speaking in harsh guttural, heavily accented Greek. Unable to make out the words he remained silent, earning another sharp blow to his mouth for his silence.
Blood trickled from his now split lip and dripped off his chin. Defiantly he squared his shoulders and readied himself for another blow. Instead his head was jerked back by the hair and a blade pressed against his throat, as an undulating cry and the thunder of hoof beats pounding along the shore tore through the night air.
"Yiyiyiyiyiyiyi." Flying across the hard packed beach Xena could make out the bent and trussed form of her son. Not enough time. It's too far. In sickening slow motion she saw the man...the thing yank Solon's head back, and the sudden gleam of steel in the fire light.
A movement from the water caught her eye, raising up in her stirrups she unhooked her whip, spurring Argo on. "C'mon girl, give me all you've got." Just let him live. I don't care if he hates me, as long as he's alive to do it.
A flick of her wrist sent the whip hurtling forward arriving at its destination as an arrow buried itself in the throat of Solon's captor. Tugging on the handle she toppled her son to the ground, out of the path of the hail of arrows released by the Solari and the others.
Following the path of the arrow embedded in the dead man back to its origin her breath caught. Aine stood thigh deep in the ocean water...glowing. Her silver eyes gathered the light from the moon and reflected it back, twin orbs providing ethereal light to her fine features.
Absently cracking a boot heel against the skull of an attacker, she looked for Gabrielle. The Queen had fought her way to Solon and had taken a defensive stance over his inert form.
The ship's crew had been unprepared for an attack and the hail of Amazon arrows had decimated their ranks, and only scattered skirmishes were still being fought. Dispatching another of the men-things, she pulled up next to Gabrielle and dismounted.
"Is he?" She couldn't bring herself to ask more.
"No. Badly beaten yes, but alive. Oh Xena, he's alive." Gently the Queen untied the cords binding him.
Lifting an eyelid she peered around swollen flesh. "His pupil is dilated, but everything looks intact. We should get him to a healer." Xena allowed relief to flood her voice.
"Xe..is Xe okay?" The words were croaked out over mashed and bleeding lips. Xena looked at Gabrielle then around the carnage on the beach.
"I didn't see him Xena." Gabrielle whispered in her ear. "I'll stay here, find him please."
Xena nodded affirmatively but before she could leave Catran, Solari and Ephiny came running up to them and she left it for Gabrielle to address the group. "Xenan's still missing, Xena was just leaving to search, we should try the cave first."
The mixed expression of anger and relief which flitted across Ephiny's face at the mention of Xena's name and Xenan's in the same sentence was not lost on the warrior. Solon stirred again and she turned her attention back to him.
"Ephiny." A pause as he struggled to form the words. "I'm sorry. I had to hit him." Then mercifully he passed out.
"Hit him? Why would.." A joyous shout interrupted Ephiny's confused inquiry.
"We found him. He's alive." Solari came running up to the group, panting she leaned her hands on her knees, catching her breath. "He's unconscious though, looks like he took a blow to the back of his head. Probably saved his life, we nearly didn't see him, he was covered in sleeping furs, lying there in the dark. We'll have to wait until he wakes up to move him, we'll need his cooperation to get him out of there." Ephiny was running for the cave before Solari had finished speaking.
Xena left the healer's quarters and made her way slowly across the compound. Solon still hadn't regained consciousness and she had left Gabrielle monitoring his condition from a pallet next to him, finding it awkward to sit and wait. Xenan had woken and except for some momentary confusion was fine. Not wanting to risk anything though Agatha had decided he should remain under observation for the remainder of the night.
Arriving at her destination and not receiving a reply to her knock she gingerly opened the door and confirming that it was empty, continued her search.
Turning toward Cairbre's assigned quarters she detoured briefly past the food hall and packed a light meal for Gabrielle, before helping herself to some bread and cheese. The rising of the fine hairs along the back of her neck alerted her to the other woman's presence before she spoke.
"Looking for me?" Aine helped herself to a slice of bread Xena had just cut for herself. "Thank-you." A mumbled after thought.
"So you do have some manners." Carving the remainder of the loaf she handed another slice to Aine. "Yes I was looking for you, and was having about as much luck as earlier in the day." Signaling with the banter that if all wasn't forgiven - it was at least past history.
Eyeing the Celt speculatively she reached a decision. "Can you use a sword as well as you use that bow?" Unable to perform her morning sword drills, she needed to release the tension of the day and if she could take Aine's measure, so much the better. The lithe woman was an enigma to Xena. She seemed almost...flighty, and then just as quickly serious and focused. She certainly didn't care about observing most of the forms of social interaction. She reminded Xena of a character in a tale she'd heard from the Northlands.
"Can you use a sword as well as you can a whip?" Accepting the challenge with a verbal parry.
They finished eating in silence and together moved back into the compound, heading by unspoken agreement for the practice ground.
"Thank you." Simple plain words to convey a gratitude beyond measure.
"He's your son?" More a statement than a question.
"He is." How can I claim something I walked away from so long ago?
"I'm glad I was there." Aine twirled the practice blade, testing its balance.
Selecting another for herself she squared off against the slight young Celt. "Begin."
And the complex dance was joined, muscle, blade, sinew and heart moving in a symphony of attack and counterpoint. Rhythmic cracks filled the night air as the wooden blades met. Parted and met again and again in fierce blows and lightening quick strokes.
Neither pushed the limits of the other, instead they reveled in the powerful cadence and simplicity of the experience.
Unbidden Xena felt a laugh well up from a part of her left too long dormant. Studying Aine she could see an equal measure of pleasure radiating from the Amazon Princess. Increasing the intensity of the rhythm Xena sprang forward in the air, catapulting over Aine, only to find empty space where once her opponent stood. A peel of light bubbling laughter reached her as Aine landed neatly on her feet with an impish smile that seemed to say "I know something you don't know."
The moon had risen high in the night sky during their bout and both women were bathed in the silver glow, burnished by the light sheen of perspiration covering them. The tempo shifted and slowed, winding down, finally ending with a final flurry of well placed thrusts and parries.
"You were on your way to find me when you were attacked." Details and oddities were beginning to put themselves together in Xena's tactical mind. They sat reclining on the dew moistened grass at he edge of the grounds.
"I had a detour to make first, but yes I was on my way to you." Wary silver eyes slid past her alert blue ones.
"And The Dog?"
Aine looked startled then grinned. "You don't miss much do you? My brother, Gwynn."
My brother, not our brother. Something still not revealed here I think. Leaving the thought for later examination she moved in another direction. "Those men on the beach, who were they?"
Aine's impish expression sobered as she replied. "Fir Bolg. Bres' people." The younger woman was regarding her with a mixture of fear and hope.
More pieces clicked. The Queen she had said, lying in the clearing. The Queen. Her face remained mask-like not revealing her own fear. "Gabrielle. She's the target."
"And you - her Champion." The softly spoken acknowledgement almost unheard.
Champion? Hadn't she been released from that vow? Hades - how can I champion her now? "No." Not aware the words had been spoken aloud.
Intense silver eyes pinned her in place. "You are her sword and she is your shield. It has always been and will always be thus." Her eyes had taken on the strange glow Xena remembered from the beach. Then Aine's voice changed timbre, became almost reassuring, answering the unspoken objection, "not with a sword Xena, you are the sword." The silver glow sparkled brilliantly, then was gone, along with Aine who seemed to melt into the darkness.
It has always been and will always be thus. The echo of the Faeiry's words resounded in her skull, leaving behind an inexplicable sense of calm. Silently she padded back across the compound, making for the healer's hall.
Footsteps on the stairs brought Ephiny to instant wakefulness and she straightened in her chair as Xena entered the room. Temporarily unnoticed she sat and observed, keeping a lid on the swirl of emotions tearing through her.
The healer she had encountered long ago in Thessaly had emerged again and she watched fascinated as Solon's wounds were gently and thoroughly examined and an exhalation of relief broke the quiet. She stiffened as Xena approached the pallet where Xenan lay. Her motion did not go unseen and Xena swung round to face her, a guarded expression replacing the open relief of a moment ago. How awkward is this? I should hate you, I could hate you and no one would blame me for it. Almost no one. Nodding she gave permission for Xena to look at Xenan.
"How is he?" The words coming out much calmer than she expected.
"He's fine, probably have a headache for a while, but fine."
"And Solon?" The brief thought that he's more mine son than yours flickered uncharitably through her mind, mirrored in her eyes and she saw that Xena registered it too. For a second it seemed that no answer would be given.
"He's sleeping now, instead of unconscious and there doesn't appear to be any swelling around the area where he hit his head. We'll know more in the morning." To her ears Xena's words sounded cold, dispassionate and the thin cord binding her control snapped.
"Are you going to leave him again too, like you left her." Ephiny angrily hurled the words across the space separating them, and was rewarded by the smallest of flinches before Xena's features settled into impenetrable. "Who's going to pick up the pieces next time?"
A low growl sounded in Xena's throat and then she was lifted out of the chair, her back pressed against the wall, strong hands pinning her shoulders against the rough surface. Ephiny held her breath, watching Xena suddenly become the warlord she remembered.
Xena's next words burned through her. "What Solon wants from me is for him to decide. And as for Gabrielle..." her face darkening with anger, "that too is her decision, always has been." And just as suddenly she was released and had to reach for the edge of a nearby linen press to keep from falling to the floor.
Pride kicked in and against her better judgement she advanced on her rival. "Be that as it may, hurt her again and Artemis won't be enough to stop me this time."
The wolf was in full evidence in the set of Xena's eyes, and she purred dangerously, "Is that a threat Ephiny?"
Mustering all her pain and courage she stood toe to toe with the warrior and spoke in quiet threatening tones of her own. "No Xena, that is a promise."
"Xena?" The sleepy question from the pallet in the corner caused her to step back, eyes remaining fixed on Xena's before releasing them and turning away.
"Xena?" Gabrielle asked again, sensing the tension smothering the air in the room. In momentary confusion her gaze swung between the two women, then their rigid postures registered and she understood that something unpleasant had been interrupted by her question. Another quick glance, this time at Ephiny confirmed her suspicion as to who the instigator had been, though she wouldn't put it past Xena to have over reacted, but since Ephiny appeared unharmed that must not have been the case.
Standing up and walking across the narrow space she placed herself between them. "I'm disappointed in you Ephiny." A moan from the pallet she had just left prevented her from continuing and she turned back to face Solon.
Behind her Ephiny dropped back into her chair beside Xenan, and her partner moved with her next to their son, still silent.
Pale blue eyes regarded her foggily. "Sorry." He mumbled. "Is ...?"
"Yeah kiddo, he's fine. You did a really brave thing." She absently stroked his curls back from his brow.
"You're not mad at me?"
Sighing she caught his eye, "No. Are you mad at me?" Xena was hovering just out of his line of sight a quirky grin on her lips. Wonder why...then it hit her. I wonder how many times I've asked her the same question?
"Yes, a little." His face darkened a little, then brightened. "But I am glad to see you."
She squeezed his hand. "I understand, we'll talk about it later, right now I think there is someone else who would like to say hello." Lifting her head to look at the figure standing beyond Solon, panic was clearly visible in Xena's expression. She reached up and tugged on a long sleeve, forcing the warrior to step forward into view.
Awkward silence hovered in the air between them. Sensing their need for privacy she planted a kiss on each of their cheeks before turning to address Ephiny. "Come on, it's nearly dawn and we have a lot to do before the council meets." Rebellion flared briefly in the blonde's eyes and then with a tug at Xenan's covers she walked out of the hall. Gabrielle smiled encouragingly at her lover then followed Ephiny out of the room, shutting the door behind her.
Listening to the echo of their steps fading in the predawn, she stood, at a loss for words. Not, that that is at all unusual. Borrow Gabrielle's opening? No. I know he's mad at me. What then? He doesn't want an apology. She remembered his question. The truth.
"You didn't do anything wrong. Not when you were born, and not six years ago." Clearly this was not what he expected, but he looked willing to listen so she continued, her normally low, vibrant voice sounding faraway, locked in memory. "I did the wrong things, for what I thought were the right reasons. I was blinded by power and greed. But of all the things I did then, of all the darkness in my life, there was one good thing, one small ray of light. You."
Pacing to the window she took in the first soft glow of light spilling over the horizon and lighting the spaces among the leaves in the trees that ringed the village. Memories of another breaking dawn long ago, not far away, superimposing themselves. Shuddering she returned to the present and perched on the edge of the bed next to a now reclining Solon. His face composed in a mask torn between anger and sadness.
"I couldn't let my darkness overtake your light. And a battle field was no place for a baby." This last said with near brutal honesty. "You would have been an easy target, so I gave you to Kaleipus. And promised I'd stay away from the centaurs, and you. I thought it was safer for you, and I wanted more for you than a life of death." Steeling herself she continued, "It's okay to hate me." She paused giving him a chance to speak if he wished.
"That makes sense even to me Xena, but that's not what hurts." His brow furrowed in thought, struggling to give a voice to his feelings. "You let me think my mother was dead. Let me mourn and hurt for her and me. You let me wonder about the things I did and where they came from." His pain clearly showed in the set of his body, the moisture in his eyes, nearly crushing her under the burden of guilt. "You should have told me when we met. It wasn't just your secret anymore - it was mine too. That's what hurts, that other people could know, that you trusted them but not me."
She digested what she'd heard, didn't answer that last part though - do you hate me? Do I want to know the answer to that. Meeting his eyes she let him see her own pain. "You're right." She acknowledged.
If her admission surprised or pleased him he didn't show it, instead he shifted his balance and sank back into the bed. "I feel kind of nauseous right now. Can we talk some more later...Please."
Hope sparked. He hasn't said he hates me and he's willing to talk some more. That's more than I had a right to expect, more than I deserve. Nodding she adjusted his covers. "That'd be nice, I'd like that, now get some sleep it'll help the healing process." She moved for the exit and was nearly out the door when a sleepy call halted her progress.
"Yes, Solon." Waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"Thanks for saving me. I knew you'd come."
"You're welcome Solon." A smile played on her lips as she walked into the coming dawn. Maybe, just maybe, things were going to work out after all.
The ships were nearly loaded and soon the Amazon nation would be a memory, turned slowly to myth as time passed. Artemis leaned back in Brighid's protective embrace, and felt the reassuring kiss that was planted on her crown.
The council meeting had proven to be a mere formality once Artemis had made her presence and wishes known. She had half expected Xena to question her motives further, but the warrior had simply given her a "Gabrielle is willing to follow so I'll keep my mouth shut, but you better be on your toes" look, and ridden off on an errand, not returning until three days ago. Only the very old and those with extremely strong ties to families and kin in outlying villages chose to remain behind, Hecate had said she would keep watch over the oldsters and kissed her niece goodbye.
"Are we doing the right thing love?" Chronos had only let her see so much, and an uncharacteristic feeling of self doubt was settling in, as the finality of some of her decisions and the realization of how close to they were to realizing their dreams hit home.
"I don't know, I know that you are doing your best to protect them while you can. Whether they are in more danger facing Bres and his minions or the new God and his followers only time will tell us for sure."
"Time." For so long that word had been meaningless to her, and now it filled her with dread, this mortal concept of measured spans and allotted threads.
"You can still change your mind you know."
Artemis turned and faced her intended, their eyes nearly level. "No, I couldn't." Eloquent in its' direct honesty.
"I love you my Huntress, for all the days of our lives, into tomorrow and beyond."
Artemis leaned in and tilted her head, folding her arms around Brighid's neck, pulling her close before whispering her reply. "Ard-rian o'mo chroi." And claimed the lips of her heart.
Breaking apart slowly they lingered over the physical closeness they had so rarely permitted themselves and still holding hands began the long walk up the beach to the waiting ships.
"Even with Manannan's blessing it's still going to be a long journey, we don't have to sail with them you know." Brighid had enjoyed the company of the Amazons and had grown especially close to their Queen, but she wasn't so sure the Olympian knew what she was letting herself in for.
Artemis grinned mischievously. "My Uncle Poseidon promised he'd shorten the trip as much as he could." Her tone sobered a little but the glint remained in her eyes. "Besides, if I'm going to be mortal, I might as well get used to their company while I still have the power to 'take breaks' when my patience wears thin."
"Your relatives just can't wait to be rid of you can they? But you are going to save one or two wedding gifts for just us aren't you ?"
Artemis laughed, "for the answer to that you'll have to wait until we stand under the stones and are wed." The devilish grin spread back across her face. "But I promise you a wedding night you won't soon forget."
"After waiting over three hundred years I certainly hope so." Before Artemis could fire off a suitable retort Brighid silenced her with another kiss, delaying their progress significantly longer.
Breathing raggedly Artemis dropped her head against Brighid's chest, "I'm glad we won't have to wait another three hundred."
"Me too cariad." Leaving their arms around each other they resumed their walk along the shoreline, reaching the loading area just as a group of centaurs was leaving.
The first ships of the flotilla had already hoisted their sails, and only one long boat remained to ferry the last of the travelers aboard the ships waiting to take them to their new home.
Grinning at Brighid she turned and blew a kiss at the passengers in the boat and faded from view lingering only long enough to hear the expected comment and its laughing response.
The Amazon Queen arched a brow of her own. "And you warrior mine are one to talk."
Brighid laughed and clambered aboard as the longboat headed for the ship, her love and tomorrow.
The End of Second Chances
Completed 7 September, 1998
This story-line is continued in The Once and Future Queen.
The Pre-quel to both Second Chances and The Once and Future Queen is When the Wave Breaks.
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