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Disclaimers: The characters Xena and Gabrielle are owned by MCA/Universal, and are used here without permission. This is a work of Sapphic fiction. If you are under 18 years of age, you may read this only if a parent is reading it with you.
Edited by: Roxann.
The Poems of Sappho. (c) 1966, translated by Suzy Q. Groden.
Setting: Xena and Gabrielle meet under slightly different circumstances than as shown in Sins of the Past.
Rough voices echoed from above, and the young woman looked up, wondering what was in store for her now. A foot stomped on a latch, and the rotted iron grate above her swung away, causing her to shield her eyes as bits of dirt fell down through the opening. She braced herself against the circular wall of the chamber, hoping that they weren't going to dump anything really bad on her.
She opened her eyes at the sound of something falling into the mud, something small, and was surprised to see a woman standing in front of her, up to her chest in mud. She had just jumped down into the prison with her, but she had not splashed a drop of mud on her when she went in. The latch clanged down roughly overhead, and was then locked. Her breath caught as she took in her new cellmate.
Stunning blue eyes stared at her through veils of eyelids, but the face around them seemed to radiate something else, a mixture of coldness and boredom. The raven-haired woman was wearing dark leather armor with rather interesting metalwork, from what she could see of it above the mud. She decided to say something.
"Uh... hi." she offered her new cellmate.
No response. But she continued to stare at her.
"My name is Gabrielle." she continued, giving a wary smile.
It was not returned, but the other woman averted her gaze.
"So you want to be an Amazon too, huh?" Gabrielle inquired, shrugging her shoulders out of mud.
"Yeah well uh..." Gabrielle continued, trying to offer as bright an expression as possible. She had to start making friends, somehow. "Now I know what you're thinking. What's a girl like me doing in a place like this, right? I mean, I don't look like an Amazon warrior, huh. Right. Well, it is a very interesting story."
The raven-haired woman inclined her head and looked back at her, her expression inscrutable. Gabrielle decided that she was on the right track.
"You see, last week I had just been captured by some slavers. Gods, that was frightening. It gives me shivers still thinking about it. Although the mud is kind of warm, isn't it? Anyway, the guards were making jokes about what they were going to do with us, and that was real creepy, and then things got all quiet. Some guy with tassels on his head shushed everyone, and all that could be heard was a bird chirping. Just one. In the whole forest."
Gabrielle took in a deep breath. The raven-haired woman crooked her mouth a little.
"Okay okay, I know, I'm speeding it up. So all of a sudden, all these warriors just burst out of the trees from everywhere, screaming their heads off like they were being chased by Hades himself. This made the slavers scream, and all of us started screaming, too. Things went kind of crazy from there. Anyway, I guess the warriors were winning or something, I'm guessing by the way because I had my face covered for most of it, and when all the noise stopped, I looked around us, and the only ones left standing were these warriors. And they were women. All of them. They were all skinny too, for some reason. Anyway, they were the most amazing thing I've ever seen."
The other woman stared impassively at her.
"So they let everyone free, and told them to return to our village. And then they started to move off. I asked to tag along. At first they didn't want me, but after I did some explaining, uh.. alright, a lot of begging, they agreed to let me come along with them. It took a lot of fancy-talking, but I was finally given permission to begin training as an Amazon, and well... Hah! Here I am."
Gabrielle sighed expectantly as she waited for the other woman to say something. The other woman didn't even blink, but continued staring at her without expression. If there was anything the young woman didn't like right now, it was silence.
"And you?" she offered, raising a hand out of the mud to gesture at her.
Nothing. The other woman looked away, and began studying the rough-hewn stone wall.
"Okay. So how do you like being in mud?" the blonde offered. Might as well try to be nice. "At first, I thought it might make me claustrophobic, but after a day, I kind of like it. Prospective Amazons are supposed to stay in this for two days, so they tell me, with only water given to us. Can you believe it? I mean, right now, I'm starting to fantasize things to eat. It's driving me crazy. I mean, I start thinking about stuffed pork, and candied yams, and nutbr-"
Gabrielle paused as she reached a dripping hand out of the mud to scrape the mud off of her left eye, and then her right. Opening her eyes again, she pushed her tongue around her mouth and spat out a gob of mud.
"You talk too much." the other woman finally said, a hint of a smile curling around her lips.
Gabrielle worked up some saliva and spat, careful not to spit in the mysterious woman's direction. "Well, you could have just said something."
"Sometimes actions speak louder than words."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle nodded with a frown. Then her eyes glinted towards the other woman. "You know, that's very true. So what say I give you a splash of mud? What do you think would happen then?"
The other woman was silent for a moment, and then smiled sweetly at her. "I don't know, but I think you would find it an interesting experience."
"I see." Gabrielle nodded, biting her lower lip. This lady was obviously a tough cookie.
The two women looked at each other for a moment, seemingly at an impasse.
"What if I were just to give you a... little splash?" the blonde suggested, raising her eyebrows.
"Then I would have to splash you back, a bigger splash." the other woman responded.
"Then I would just have to splash back bigger." Gabrielle insisted, folding her arms in front of her.
"Don't start something you can't finish." the blue-eyed woman intoned warningly.
Their eyes locked. Gabrielle's arms disappeared beneath the surface.
"Yah!" the blonde cried as she sent a huge splash of mud towards the other woman.
No sooner was the raven-haired woman drenched than she responded in kind, sending a one-handed glob of mud slinging up the blonde's chest and neck. She yelped in response and within moments, the circular chamber became a tempest of mud-slinging, with both women using both of their hands to literally shovel her opponent in mud.
Some time later...
Gabrielle cringed as she began raking huge flows of mud out of her hair, and off her face. Feeling that her eyelids were no longer dripping mud in any great measure, she tentatively opened her eyes.
The other woman had lost all semblance of humanity, as she was now a mud woman. Blue eyes blinked out at her, the only color at all coming from this woman right now, other than a dull brown.
"Warned ya." she chided, stroking a long drool of mud out of her raven locks.
"You had it coming." Gabrielle insisted.
She smiled back at the mud-covered blonde. "Yes, I suppose I did." she admitted. "What was your name again?"
The young woman offered her hand out from the mud. "Gabrielle."
Xena took her dripping hand and shook it. "My name is... Lariel." the raven-haired, blue-eyed woman offered, giving her a mysterious smile. "And you, Gabrielle, are full of spunk."
Gabrielle softly padded her bare feet through the main square of the Amazon village. Wearing only a loincloth, she protectively covered her bare breasts as she fell into line behind some similarly-attired women.
She couldn't believe that she was standing half-naked in the center of a village, but here she was. Then a thought occurred to her. There were no men in this village. No one was going to ogle her. She was just among women. It was alright, alright to stand free and bare, here with her fellow sisters. Gabrielle lowered her arms.
Two Amazons walked past her. One eyed her cleavage appreciatively, and the other made clucking sounds with her mouth, poking her tongue around inside her cheek as she passed. Gabrielle looked down at her bare chest, and then put her arms in front of her again, embarrassed. What was she doing here?
The line moved forward, and Gabrielle nearly jumped as someone tapped her on the shoulder. She turned around to see it was Lariel.
"Getting a bit chilly?" Xena playfully asked, nodding her head towards Gabrielle's protectively-covered chest.
"No, it's just uh..." Gabrielle stammered, half lowering her arms and then raising them again. With an effort of will, she finally lowered her arms to her sides. "I just feel silly, is all."
"Ah, the innocence of youth..." Xena noted, as she indifferently scratched her own bare chest.
"I'm not a child." Gabrielle insisted, attempting to strike a mature pose. "I've seen over twenty summers."
Xena motioned forward at her, and Gabrielle turned to see the line had moved up. "Anyway, what does standing naked out in front of the whole village have to do with becoming an Amazon?"
Xena sighed. "The Amazons believe that by shedding the clothing you came in with, you embrace that which is Amazon, yourself."
"Oh." Gabrielle nodded thoughtfully. Then she looked at Xena, raising an eyebrow. "You seem to know their ways pretty well. What made you want to become an Amazon? If you don't mind me asking."
"Yes, I do mind." Xena chided, looking up ahead of the strawberry-blonde. "I just have some debts to pay, is all. This seemed as good a place to start as any."
"No matter where you go, there you are." Gabrielle nodded sagely, smiling at her. She knew she sounded silly, but she didn't care. She liked talking to this tall woman.
"Next!" an aged Amazon bellowed from the hut before her. Gabrielle was next in line.
"Sorry." Gabrielle apologized as she stepped closer. The old woman took out some measuring tape and began measuring her. Then she went back into her hut, and came out with a stack of clothes. Gabrielle held out her arms just in time as she dumped them on her. She was holding a pair of boots, a brown fighting skirt, and a small Amazon halter top.
"Next!" the aged woman bellowed past her.
"Yes, thank you." Gabrielle smiled at her, beginning to move off. Then she stopped. "Uh, pardon me. I don't know if brown is exactly my color. Would you have one of these in green?" she asked, indicating the top.
The old woman shrugged at her, and then looked out towards the next in line. Gabrielle decided to move along.
Xena rolled up her eyes, allowing herself a small smile before walking forward.
"Lariel..." Gabrielle asked, getting up from her bunk after lacing up her boots.
"Hmmm?" Xena responded.
"I think she measured me wrong." the blonde indicated, cupping her halter top. "This is way too tight."
Xena glanced up at her as she fitted her own fighting skirt on. "No, it's just right. It's supposed to exaggerate your bosom. That makes a nice distraction during battle."
"Oh." Gabrielle realized. She walked over to a polished brass plate that served as a body mirror. She turned to see her outfit in profile, exaggerated chest and all. "Lookin' good..." she nodded to herself, smiling.
"Oh, get over yourself." Xena chided, turning to look at Gabrielle's reflection.
"I was being sarcastic." Gabrielle replied dejectedly.
"Oh, you look alright."
"Really?" Gabrielle asked, turning back to her.
"Yeah, listen." Xena responded. "The Amazons will be more concerned with what you can do, not how you look."
Another prospective Amazon pushed past Xena on her way out of the barracks. Although Xena no longer had an army of her own, it felt good to be in one again, even if it was only a defensive force. As she looked down at the row upon row of bunks, images flashed before Xena's eyes. Images of blood, death. Her men beating her senseless, one after the other. The shock of the blows.
"Fall out!" a stern voice shouted from outside of the tent.
"Looks like we'd better get moving." Gabrielle said, touching Xena on the shoulder.
The warrior jumped, and looked at her with wide eyes. "What?"
"Do I look alright?" Gabrielle insisted.
Xena's expression relaxed into a smile. "Enough about your looks. Come on."
Xena and Gabrielle made their way outside, as other prospective Amazons followed suit. They were all heading out to a clearing at the edge of a village. Gabrielle noticed a group of Amazons planting some stakes in the ground, preparing to mount a grain urn on top of it. She had these in her own village, it was intended to keep the rats out. Somehow, it seemed reassuring to see something familiar. She looked back to where she was going, and almost ran into someone.
"Oops! I'm sorry." she apologized to the woman she almost knocked over. She steadied her to help her regain her balance. It was then she noticed that the woman was very heavy with child. "Oh, I'm so sorry!"
"Anneka!" another woman called from behind a hut, running over. The pregnant woman smiled at Gabrielle, as her lifemate arrived to lead her away.
Gabrielle looked over at Xena. "A pregnant Amazon?"
"Uh huh." Xena nodded, smiling as she watched the couple pass.
"How is that possible?"
"You mean you don't know?" Xena asked matter-of-factly, looking at her.
Gabrielle shook her head, her eyes widening.
"Women can have children together, the same as men and women." Xena informed her.
Xena quirked an eyebrow at her, as if the answer were self-evident.
"Oh." Gabrielle replied, trying to act as if she understood.
"C'mon, let's not keep our new leader waiting." Xena warned as she turned her shoulder.
Gabrielle turned and followed her to the clearing, still trying to work out the maneuvers involved.
Velasca carefully stepped past each of her new recruits, looking each of them in the eye as she passed. Brushing back the feathers on her headband, she walked past the last and circled around to face them.
"My name is Velasca, but you may address me as sir. For the next three weeks, it is my task to train you in basic fighting techniques. When this is complete, those of you who are worthy will go on to become Amazon warriors."
"But how can I start? Seldom have I seen such a sorry lot to begin with." she glanced at Gabrielle, tapping her riding crop. "Soft, out-of-shape. Pretty little playthings for the village boys, aren't you? I doubt if any of you have had a hard life."
She continued pacing before them. "Well I'm going to make it hard. Harder than you've ever known before. I expect a lot out of you, but I really don't expect you to succeed. On the contrary, I expect you to fail, miserably."
Velasca stopped, and turned in the general direction of the sound. But she could not tell who had coughed. "Who was that?"
A hand slowly raised from the front row.
"Ah, an original thinker." Velasca laughed, smiling for the first time. But it was not a nice smile. "I love independent thinkers. And what is your name, my dear?"
"Gabrielle." the blonde said brightly, giving her her best smile.
"Ha! A likely name." the Amazon leader mocked. "Very well, keep your secrets." She turned to address the others. "No one cares who you were in times past. You are Amazons now. Anyway, go on. You have a question?"
"Well, a suggestion, really."
"Oh?" Velasca feigned interest, closing the distance between them. She smiled deceptively at the younger woman.
Gabrielle's voice dropped to a whisper. "It's just that you can attract a lot more bees with honey than with vinegar." she finished helpfully, nodding at her.
Velasca's smile deepened.
Gabrielle's axeblow hit home, carving deep into the pine tree's bark. "I hit it this time!"
"Good." Xena replied dejectedly, bringing her own axe down on the same mark. "Just this one, and four more to go."
Gabrielle swung again, this time carving a huge length of bark down the trunk. "I'm sorry you got punished, too."
"Here." Xena corrected, setting down her axe to guide her through a practice swing. "Use the weight of the warhead to your advantage. Feel where it's supposed to hit."
"And don't apologize, I shouldn't have spoken up." Xena said. "Some people will take that as a challenge to their authority. Velasca, for one."
Xena's blow sent a huge wedge out of the tree onto the ground. If she focused her power, she could send the entire blade through the tree in one stroke. But that would arouse suspicion. And so, she slowly chopped down the tree with her new friend, confident they would not finish until sundown. No doubt what Velasca intended.
"Ouch!" Gabrielle yelped, pulling her hands off her axe, her hands quite red already.
"Looks like you'll build up some calluses real fast." Xena observed.
"No I won't." Gabrielle insisted, holding her hands out to her. "Feel them."
Xena set her axe down again and touched the other woman's palms. "Oh, they're quite callused already."
"Yep." Gabrielle nodded, taking them back. "I'm a farm girl. I've worked hard all my life."
"Sorry for doubting you." Xena smiled, going back to work. "Let's get this tree done, okay? Bumpkin."
"Oh, nothing." Xena innocently offered, taking another swing at the tree.
"Don't start with the farm girl jokes." Gabrielle admonished, connecting with the tree trunk herself. "I've had a really rotten day so far."
"But remember," Xena recited, "no matter where you go, there you are."
"Very good." Xena nodded, struggling to keep from chuckling. "Now you're talking like an Amazon warrior."
Gabrielle balanced the serving tray against her chest as she walked through the village square. She passed by the rows of urns, nearly losing her balance as she stubbed her toe on a rock.
"Ow..Ow..Ow!" she muttered as she spun around to push her back through the heavy tent flap of the banquet hall. She spun around to see a good two dozen Amazons sitting attentively at the long banquet table, awaiting their meal. Other women before her were already setting down their trays along the length of the table, so she moved forward with her burden.
Velasca entered from the other end of the massive log cabin, and as soon as she was noticed, all assembled pushed their chairs back and stood up.
The Amazon leader waved her hand down. "At ease. Although I would prefer to start you off less extravagantly for your basic training, Queen Agrippa has decided that you new arrivals should be welcomed first with a feast."
Gabrielle carefully set her heavy tray down in the middle of the table, nearly losing her balance as she heaved herself upright with an effort. She stood back as she watched tray upon tray being brought in, until they spanned the length of the table. Boiled cabbage, beets, radishes, yams, roast venison and steaming chicken were arrayed on several trays, and the assembled Amazons eyed the feast hungrily.
Her eyes caught Xena's, and the dark-haired woman gave her a small smile and nodded her head, as if to say well done. Gabrielle held her palms up to her, smiling back, and lowered them.
"We dedicate this feast to Athena, Goddess of Wisdom. May she bless and sanctify this meal, and those who partake of it. And may she convey some wisdom to those of you who are thinking of eating too much. I plan to work off everything you eat the next day, so be warned. Let us begin."
Velasca sat down in her chair at the head of the table, and the other Amazons followed suit. Gabrielle pulled back a chair to sit down.
"Hold." Velasca pronounced, raising her hand. "All except for you, Gabrielle. You still need a lesson in endurance I think, and this is yet another opportunity to prove yourself to me. You may watch."
Gabrielle watched in horror as the Amazon leader began eating, and the others quickly followed suit. She had not eaten since she woke up, and after chopping wood all day, had really worked up an appetite. She looked down at the tray she had brought in. It was a tray of fancy pastries and pies made of mint thistle, blackberries, and gooseberries. One of the girls put a pastry on her plate and cut it in half, causing fumes of steam to flow up from the hot filling.
Gabrielle caught the scent of the delicious pastry, and it was almost more than she could stand. She looked back and forth across the trays of food being dug into by the Amazons, almost in fright. She looked at Xena, who returned her look for a moment, before reaching forward to brush a fly off her venison. Gabrielle felt a sense of helplessness sweep through her, until she looked back at the Amazon leader. Velasca met her with a cool look, and so the blonde decided to lean against the wall, and look as bored as possible.
Velasca smiled to herself, and leaned forward to resume eating her meal. Suddenly something landed on her nose, a fly. She waved it away, only to have it fly back and land on her cup.
"Gabrielle!" she called, motioning the new recruit over.
Gabrielle snapped to attention and quickly walked over, hoping against hope that the leader had relented and decided to allow her to eat.
"I don't want flies at my feast." the leader declared, waving another fly away. "Go get a fly-swatter and take care of it."
Xena watched the blonde go, and went back to eating her venison. She could get used to eating like this, although it probably was not for long. She put her knife to her steak and cut into it. Suddenly an image flashed into her mind, an image of Queen Cyane dying, impaled through a tree branch. Where Xena had put her. She withdrew the knife.
Slowly chewing the meat in her mouth, Xena swallowed it with a grimace. She pushed the plate of meat away from her, and reached for a bowl of lima beans. She berated herself for letting her mind drift like that, and reminded herself of why she was here.
"B-Battle leader Velasca?" one of the new recruits nervously asked.
"Yes, Irana is it?"
"Yes sir, I mean ma'am." Irana hastily corrected. Actually, she wasn't sure which way she was supposed to address her.
"Sir is fine. Get used to it." Velasca chuckled, taking a swig of wine from her cup. "What is it?"
"It's just that I had heard that the patron of the Amazons was Artemis."
"Oh, she is." Velasca explained, cutting into her venison. "For the Amazons of Northern Greece."
"And who is their Queen?"
Velasca's face became a scowl, before calming again. "Queen Melosa. I used to be one of... hers."
"Oh." Irana lowered her eyes, it dawning on her that she was going where she shouldn't. "And now you're here." she couldn't help but finish.
"Yes." the Amazon leader smiled again. "Queen Agrippa has come to see that her Amazons need a military force, too. It's a dangerous world out there. And we must prepare for the coming of conquerors."
Xena looked up at that, surprising herself, and slowly picked up her cup to take a sip. It was then that Gabrielle re-entered the banquet hall.
Gabrielle paced around the room, looking for the places the errant flies would land next. The room was thick with conversation as the Amazons lustily ate and drank. She saw one fly whir around and settle onto a log in the wall, and she carefully approached it.
"Gotcha!" she yelped as she swung her fly-swatter down, making a clean miss. Disappointed, the blonde began moving around the room again, looking for her next victim.
"So Lariel," Velasca intoned as she wiped her mouth with her napkin, "you really impressed me during practice earlier today. Have you had any military training?"
Xena winced inwardly. She had tried to act as clumsy as she could manage during the exercises, but her natural agility was apparently too good to hide completely.
"I had to take to arms years ago when a warlord named Cortese raided my village." Xena offered, deciding a half-truth served better than a lie. "I've been keeping myself up ever since."
"Well, I can't wait to see what you're capable of." Velasca smiled at her, her eyes glinting menace.
If a viper could be capable of smiling, Xena decided, it would look pretty much like this. She decided to change the subject. "I was surprised to see the village is surrounded by crops. I thought the Amazons were hunters."
"We are." Velasca insisted, taking a chunk of meat into her mouth as Gabrielle walked past her. "But the Queen believes the Nation is better served by taking up the ways of our neighbors. It is not traditional, however."
"And what do you think?" Xena asked, idly picking up a grape.
"It is not my place or yours to say." Velasca warned. "She is our Queen, so we are bound to obey."
"Of course." Xena nodded in deference to her. She noticed Gabrielle intently following something with her eyes.
"But there is a price to pay for such a life." Velasca continued, her voice rising. "Having a fixed village, living in one place, makes us a target. And one day, invaders may come to take it all from us. But I will not let them. And that is why we prepare for battle, for victory..."
Gabrielle's eyes fixed on the path of her last fly, awaiting its landing with the relish a tiger might have. Suddenly, it swerved in a lazy curve and landed. She swung!
"And to crush our enemies!!" Velasca finished, slamming her fist down on the table just as Gabrielle's fly-swatter hit the tray beside her. Velasca never noticed however, as she drank in the rejoining cheers from some of the women at the table. She reached over to the tray at her right.
Gabrielle raised the fly-swatter almost up to her face, panicked at what she had done. She had squashed the fly alright, right onto a slice of raisin bread. The slice of raisin bread that her commander was now reaching for.
"Sir!" the blonde piped out, extreme urgency turning her voice into a squeak.
"Oh, what now?" Velasca hissed, picking up the bread.
"Uh... I-I'm all done, sir." Gabrielle stammered, her heart pounding in her chest. She attempted a smile, but her face crinkled up into a grimace as her eyes fixed on the upraised slice of bread.
"Very well, then." the leader commanded, taking a huge chomp out of it. "You may turn in for the night. Dismiffed!" she slurred between chewings of mashed raisins.
"Thank you sir. Good night sir." Gabrielle bowed obsequiously, slowly walking away. Her eyes caught Xena's, and the blue-eyed woman winked at her, giving a bitten-down smile. Gabrielle blushed furiously, and quickened her pace to get out of there as soon as possible.
Xena set her cup down and looked over at Velasca, who was just popping the last of the raisin bread into her mouth. Velasca chewed it and swallowed, nodding to herself with satisfaction.
Velasca caught her gaze. "Well, I think I've given her a taste of Amazon leadership."
"You have indeed." Xena observed, raising her cup to toast her, before swallowing it in one gulp.
"Hut hut hut hut!" Velasca barked out as her troops marched alongside her. She took out a cloth and wiped her forehead as she watched them march in total disarray. Eventually, they would get it right. But for now, she decided, they were horrible.
Xena exhaled in measured doses, not even breaking a sweat. Everyone else was soaked in perspiration, everyone except for Velasca. They had been marching at this pace for about fifteen minutes now, and the effort was really beginning to show on the other recruits, especially-
"Gabrielle!" Velasca shouted as she stepped up her pace, moving to the front of the column. The blonde was at the head of the column, balancing a heavy pack on her head as punishment. Velasca watched the blonde wheeze and nearly stumble. She was very close to failing now. "You are slowing down the rest of the formation. Hurry it up."
Gabrielle pulled out some last reserve of energy, increasing her pace. She managed the faster speed for almost a minute, but her energy was waning fast. Finally she collapsed to the ground, dropping her pack before her. The other Amazons began to slow to a stop.
"No, keep going! I want the formation at the swimming hole before noon." Velasca ordered. She continued moving with the formation as they passed the panting young woman. She would leave her there, and Artemis help her if she got lost following them.
As they were about to pass around a bend, the Amazon leader decided to give a last glance back at her charge, and stared. The girl's bunkmate, Lariel was it?, had stopped to help her. Velasca decided to walk back to them. If there was any mercy to be meted out, it would be hers to give, or not.
As she stormed up to them, Velasca noticed that Lariel was not helping up the younger woman, but leaning over her. Lariel was saying something to her, but the Amazon leader couldn't hear what. As she reached them, both of her recruits got to their feet.
Velasca watched Gabrielle place the pack on her head again, her expression grim. Then she looked straight ahead and shouted "Amazons!"
The Amazon leader watched in astonishment as the blond wheeled past her and began marching at double-time speed to catch up with the rest of the recruits. She turned back to look at Lariel, who had a smug expression on her face. "What did you say to her?" the Amazon leader asked.
"I said 'Don't give the bitch the satisfaction', sir." Xena remarked, brushing past her to follow.
Velasca turned to glare at the departing recruit, staring daggers into her back. This new Amazon, Lariel, she was no farm girl. She was a warrior, and a leader. Velasca decided it would do to pay to keep a closer watch on her from now on.
"Wa Hoo!!" Irana whooped as she jumped straight off the cliff, pulling her body into a ball. She hit the water quickly, sending up a huge geyser as she plunged in. She surfaced to the cheers and applause of the others looking down from the cliff above. She raised her arms in triumph.
"Congratulations go to -pant- Irana for winning the final -pant- sprint." Velasca commended, a bit out of breath herself. "I noticed the rest of you were -pant- some distance behind her, I want to see a closer race next time. Ah ah ah!" she wagged a finger at a girl edging towards the cliffside.
She turned back to face the others. "Even an act as simply as visiting a swimming hole can be dangerous. Several Amazons must take watch if others are to let their guard down. Anactoria, you go take watch over there. Mnasidika, over here. And Doricha, on the other side of the lake there."
"What do we do?" Doricha asked.
"If you see something weird, just yell." Velasca instructed.
"Ah!" the girl yelped, pointing at Mnasidika.
"Shut up!" Mnasidika retorted, smacking the other girl.
"I thought Amazons used birdcalls." Anactoria piped up.
"We do." the Amazon leader wearily responded. "But for now, just yell. Okay everybody else, follow me!"
Velasca ran off the cliff, as the laughing recruits followed suit.
Velasca reclined on the grassy hill that sloped down to the water's edge, contentedly watching her new recruits swim. Some of them, she knew, would never finish her training regimen. For them, the Nation would find other uses for, such as candle-makers or leather-workers. As for the others, the part they would play would be far more important, Velasca smiled to herself. It was two months ago to a day that Queen Melosa had made Terreis heir to the mask, something that was rightfully hers. One day, perhaps not too far off, she would return to her adopted Amazon tribe and confront Terreis, with an Amazon army at her back. But for now... Velasca nodded to herself, content to let her dreams simmer. Her attention returned to the present, and she finally noticed four recruits huddled down at the far edge of the shore, doing something together.
"What is this?!" Velasca shrieked, causing startled recruits around her to jump. The Amazon leader got to her feet and began storming over to the other side of the pond.
"Amazons, attend me!" she bellowed, causing a head to peek out from the shrubbery above her. "Not you guards! You stay put. The rest of you, come here!"
The rest of the recruits ran around the lake or got out of the water to see what was up. Xena lightly rose out of some backstrokes to stand up in the pond. She waded out to the grassy shore and walked around the water's edge to see who was the cause of their leader's ire this time. Four recruits cowered before Velasca, and Xena was not surprised to see Gabrielle was one of them. As she approached, she raised an eyebrow at what they had been doing together.
Velasca looked down with contempt at Gabrielle, and then down to her legs. They were covered with lather. The Amazon leader held her hand out expectantly, and the blonde quickly put her razor in her hand.
"Why are you four shaving your legs?" Velasca sweetly asked, which was not a very nice effect at all.
The young women were blushing furiously, but did not dare to respond as the other recruits huddled in around them.
"Hmmm?" Velasca prompted. "Preparing for a night out on the town? Hoping the village boys will take a fancy to you, is that it?"
"No, ma'am, sir." Timas weakly offered.
"Then why are you doing it?" Velasca sweetly offered again. "Go on, Gabrielle. You may speak freely."
"Uh..." Gabrielle started, thinking back on it. A few years ago, it had started as a fashion craze that had swept all the Greek villages. Then she actually thought about it. "Um, I don't know why."
"Exactly." Velasca said triumphantly. "Some stupid fad that you are blindly following. But you are Amazons now, and you will follow Amazon traditions."
Velasca held the razor up in the air. "You are Amazon warriors! Razors are for cutting your enemies' throats, not for fashion! While you are under my instruction, you are not permitted to shave. Is this clear?"
Velasca surveyed her troops, satisfied with their sharp response. But she noticed two recruits in the back whispering to each other. One of them was her star pupil of the moment.
"You have something to add to this discussion, Irana?"
Several recruits moved out of the way, giving a clear shot between the Amazon leader and her prey.
Irana blushed, looking around awkwardly. She found no sympathetic gazes where she looked, so she forced herself to look at their leader. "It's just that... Oh, you'll get mad at me."
"Perhaps I will, but when you are commanded to speak to your leader, you will obey." Velasca admonished. "What were you talking about?"
"Well..." Irana began, then steeled herself. "It's just that I noticed that you shave your legs, uh sir."
"That's because I like pain." Velasca smiled at her. "And as such it is a prerogative of leadership, something I doubt any of you will be concerned with."
Velasca looked down at Gabrielle, smiling at her. "As for shaving, there is an Amazon tradition concerning that, but only at Graduation."
"Not that any of you are in danger of passing. Dismissed!"
The Amazon leader stalked off, and the gathered recruits disbanded, leaving the four sitting at the pond shore to breath a sigh of relief. Gabrielle looked at the others, and began hurriedly splashing the lather off of her legs.
Gabrielle walked briskly, feeling the pace she wanted to take. Every muscle in body was singing to her, but in a good way. This was her fifth endurance hike up the small mountain the Amazons used as their training ground. Her performance had increased each time, and on the last hike she even obtained the grudging respect of their Amazon leader, simply by not being publicly dressed-down by her.
The blonde smiled to herself at the thought. She glanced up ahead to see she had lost sight of the recruit in front of her, but that was alright. The meter-wide trail she was following was deeply marked. One of the older Amazons told her that this has been used as a training course by the Amazons for over five generations. It was a wonder to her that they had been here for that long, yet outside of the Nation the Amazons were still only a legend. Perhaps that was for the best.
A twig snapped off to Gabrielle's right, and she stopped, tensed. She was about to turn, but suddenly rough hands closed over her mouth, and she was quickly pulled into the bushes.
Her attacker let go of her, and Gabrielle spun herself around, hoping to form a fearsome fighting stance. Instead, she landed smartly on her rear. Then she received another shock.
"Lariel!" she exclaimed, her face drained white. "What are you playing at? You nearly scared me to death!"
"Just testing your new-found Amazon reflexes." Xena chided, offering her hand to help her up. "You have lousy hearing."
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle retorted, clambering up. "I heard you step on a twig."
"I stepped on that on purpose, after I was already standing behind you."
"Oh." the blonde nodded. Then she shrugged. "Well come on, we'd better catch up."
"Oh, that can wait." Xena said, walking deeper into the brush. "Follow me, I want to show you something."
Gabrielle's watched Lariel brush her way through the brush, and decided on a lark to follow. She and Lariel had settled into being best friends pretty easily, which was good considering they were bunkmates. Sleeping was an interesting experience. The camp was dead silent at night, and the recruits could hear the Amazon couples in the adjoining huts, making love. It made it hard for Gabrielle to fall asleep, but Lariel would conk out within a minute of lying down. Did she even notice, like she did?
Lost in her thoughts, Gabrielle hit a branch with her head, bringing her attention abruptly back to the present.
"Here it is." Xena announced, stopping in front of a thick tangle of vines.
Gabrielle pushed past some tree branches to join her, and her eyes grew wide. "Blackberries! Hundreds of 'em!"
"Yep." Xena smiled at her, kneeling before a thick cluster. "And they're all ours."
"But we'll get in trouble..."
"Gabrielle." Xena said her name slowly. "Not everything is about training and fighting. C'mon, let's treat ourselves."
"Okay!" Gabrielle agreed, not needing much prompting.
Xena rubbed a crushed blackberry back and forth across her lips. "There. How does that look?"
"Perfect. You now have purple lips." Gabrielle laughed, instead choosing to eat her blackberry. Her hands were now covered with scratches where the thorns had tried to keep her from getting the berries, but it was worth it. She carefully navigated her hand through a labyrinth of thorns, to reach a berry that was deep in the thicket. A thorn dug sharply into her wrist, but she persevered, and claimed her prize.
Holding her berry in front of her, Gabrielle noticed an insect running frantically around its surface. "Pardon me friend ant, but this is my berry. Shoo!" and with that she blew the ant off and popped the berry in her mouth.
Gabrielle chewed the fruit with satisfaction, savoring the taste. It was the first sweet snack she had eaten since joining the Amazons. Then her expression crinkled into a frown, and she put her stained hand down to her belly. "Ugh, I think I ate too many."
"Somehow I think you'll survive." Xena said, brushing the juice off on her thigh. She reclined back on the soft grass, and looked up at the forest canopy.
"Now if only I can survive basic training." the blonde noted. "I guess I should have started out by kissing up to Velasca."
"I don't think that would have helped." Xena replied. "You're just not her type."
"What do you mean?"
Xena turned over to look at her. "Gabrielle, you have a warm and nice personality. You're kind, and giving..."
"Go on." Gabrielle prompted. She waited for a reaction, and smirked when she saw it.
"Anyway, Velasca has none of those traits, and hates seeing them in others." Xena continued, her eyes focusing off in the distance. "That kind of hate can twist a person..."
Gabrielle was silent for a moment. Was Lariel talking about herself, too? She decided not to ask.
"And what do you think of those traits?" Gabrielle asked. "Do they make me warrior material?"
Xena sat up, and pulled herself closer to her. "I don't know." She reached out to brush the younger woman's cheek. "But they do make for a good friend."
Gabrielle responded to the touch, nudging her face against Xena's hand, but the other woman abruptly stood up.
"What is it?"
"I think we're about to have company, the other Amazons." Xena noted, cocking her head. "Come on, let's go find them before they find this blackberry patch."
"Right!" Gabrielle responded, getting up.
"This way." the woman known as Lariel said, taking Gabrielle's hand as she pulled her through some bushes. "I want to lead them away from here before they catch up with us."
"Uh huh." the blonde agreed, giddily following. Her heart was pounding, and she knew it wasn't from the fear of being caught by their leader.
Velasca gestured at the weapons rack beside her. "These are the basic weapons of choice by the outside world. The sword, the dagger, the spear, the bow. You will learn these well, for to learn them is to know your enemy. Later, those of you who are worthy will be taught our secret fighting techniques. But for now, you will learn these. We will begin with sword practice."
She gestured to her assistant Atthis, and the other Amazon began passing out swords. Xena took her sword, it was a cheap Greek sword about a meter long, little more than a large dagger. She started to give it a practice twirl, then caught herself, dropping the weapon. She was supposed to be skilled with a sword, not a grandmaster.
"Careful." Velasca warned, seeing it. "These practice swords were forged for bluntness, but they are not for play."
Gabrielle took the hilt that was offered her, and nearly dropped it. Her biceps moaned at her as it took both hands to lift the weapon upright. Normally she would have no problem lifting it, but the push-ups they had been doing this morning left little energy for anything else.
"For now, nothing fancy. You will pair up, and learn how to block and parry. It will be slow, and you will make mistakes, but you will have to have this down for the finals."
"Now you will learn the art of spear-throwing." Velasca instructed, gesturing towards three painted haybales. "The spear is an old weapon but still current, as it makes an effective weapon against horse-riders."
She flipped her hand up, and her assistant tossed her a spear. The Amazon leader held it level before her recruits. "The feather tassel at the warhead serves a purpose beyond decoration. It is for distracting your enemy." She waved the spearhead around for effect. "If they are watching that move around, they're not looking at you. Just another small thing that may mean the difference between life and death."
Velasca tapped the spearshaft against her palm. "Who shall be my first volunteer? Let us see..."
Gabrielle glanced up at the sky, knowing full well who it would be.
"Gabrielle." Velasca decided, to the muted chuckles of the other recruits. "Come here."
The blonde stepped forward, dreading this as she did all the other times she was made an example of before the others. The Amazon leader offered her the spear, and she took it. Velasca nodded her head, and her assistant came over. She positioned her hand up, and guided her through a practice toss, and then stood back.
"Gabrielle," the leader began, "I want this spear to travel at least ten yards. Not nine yards, and not eight. Failure is not an option, do you understand? Now throw."
Gabrielle nodded nervously, and prepared her stance like she had been shown. Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle closed her eyes and gave the spear her mightiest heave.
The Amazons gasped behind her, and Gabrielle opened her eyes to see an empty target. Then she looked up. The spear seemed to be hanging in the air high over their heads, and then the warhead end flipped over, and it came straight down. The other recruits yelped and began barreling out of the way, as Gabrielle knelt down into a ball and covered her head.
Xena saw the spear was heading straight for the cluster of recruits around her. She looked around and saw that several of them were just frozen to the spot, they hadn't moved. Moving quickly, she stepped forward just as the spear was about to land on one recruit's back.
Velasca was stunned at what she had just seen. Lariel had simply reached forward and caught the spear before it landed, saving a recruit in the process. She stared at her for a few moments, then recovered her composure.
"Calm down! Everyone, calm down." Velasca bellowed. "No harm done. Lariel, that was quick thinking, well done. -Whew- Alright Gabrielle, you and I are going to spend the rest of the day on the third target here, until you are no longer a danger to your fellow Amazons. The rest of you, get your spears and practice on the other two. Fall out!"
Gabrielle gulped as Velasca deliberately walked up to her.
"But it traveled more than ten yards- Ow-ow!!" the blonde yelped as the leader took her by the ear and led her over to the third target.
"-Oof! Watch it." Xena warned as Gabrielle clambered into bed beside her. "I hope you bathed this time."
"Likewise." the blonde whispered, settling in. "Nothing like a tentful of sweaty Amazons to sweeten the night air."
Xena held her breath as she felt Gabrielle's shoulder touch against hers. Ever-so-softly, Xena edged herself away from the other woman's contact. "Just let me get some sleep."
"Oh, me too!" Gabrielle sighed with exaggeration. "Every muscle in my body feels like lead. I don't want to move ever again."
"Quiet down!" one of the other recruits growled, probably Doricha.
"Mmm hmm." Xena murmured.
Gabrielle exhaled slowly, and settled her hands on her belly. Her heart was racing next to Lariel, but she tried to relax her focus and listen to the sounds of the night. She slowed her breathing deliberately, and listened.
From some nearby trees, an owl hooted. After a certain time, a returning hoot sounded from far away. Crickets creaked their songs to each other, and Gabrielle relaxed as a cool breeze softly flowed underneath the barrack flaps. The songs of nature. Things she had heard all her life, but that she never tired of. She began to lose herself in nothingness...
Playful giggles woke her out of her reverie, and she cocked her head up. A door slammed on the hut next to their barracks, and the laughing continued, but more muted this time.
"Oh no..." Gabrielle whispered to herself. "Not again..."
The rest of the village was dead silent, and she was forced to listen. The conversation stopped, and she heard the sound of wood creaking, a heavy weight settling on a bed. Then again, as someone else got in bed. Interminable minutes passed, as Gabrielle couldn't help but listen with interest at their activity. Muffled conversation gave way to soft panting, which increased in urgency. She wondered if this was something she would be looking forward to when she became a full Amazon. Yet who could be attracted to her? Surely Velasca had shamed her before the entire village by now. They probably laughed at her when she passed. Virginal and clueless, that was her. Suddenly-
"Yes!! Oh Zeus yes!" a voice from the hut screamed, amidst much panting. "Don't stop! Y-Yyyyesssss!!!!"
Gabrielle covered her ears in embarrassment. Had they no shame? Yelling out like that for the whole village to hear. She wondered about that for a moment. What could make her cry out like that, to not care if anyone heard her? What was her lover doing to her?
Gabrielle looked over to her bedmate in the dim light, and saw her eyelids flash. She was awake, too.
"Can't sleep, huh?" Gabrielle whispered to her bedmate.
"Not with them carrying on like that." Xena replied, as the panting nearby softened to a warbling, and then abruptly shifted into something else.
"Did you hear that?" Gabrielle whispered intensely. "She's meowing! I didn't know that was possible."
"It happens." Xena replied, deciding not to elaborate.
"I thought sleeping with Lila was bad enough."
"Lila?" Xena asked, curious.
"Oh." Xena replied. "Why, was she a bed-wetter?"
"No..." Gabrielle chided, tapping Xena's shoulder. "At least not since she was a kid. No, she was a snorer."
"Uh huh." Xena replied, really wanting to sleep.
"I had a solution, though."
"Which was?" Xena asked.
"I stuffed pieces of tissue up her nose after she fell asleep."
"Good for you." Xena replied, trying to picture the image. "What happened when she woke up?"
"That was the bad part." her bedmate responded. "When she woke up, she went -Snurrrk-, and the tissues went right up her nose."
Xena bit down a laugh, as the lovemaking from next door seemed to abate.
"She jumped out of bed yelling for mother," Gabrielle continued, trying to finish the story without breaking up, "but it was 'Monner! Monner!'"
Xena busted out laughing, and Gabrielle joined in, until the chorus of shushes from their roommates quieted them down. Gabrielle sighed.
Gabrielle wiped her eyes in the dark, and then looked over at Xena. "It's good that you don't snore, Lariel." she whispered conspiratorially.
"Uh huh." Xena replied, considering the implied threat. "If you tried that, you'd have a blanket stuffed in your mouth."
"That might help those two." Gabrielle whispered back.
"I know what would help me sleep." Xena whispered.
Gabrielle's eyes widened in the dark. This was a surprise. "Um, yes?"
"Give me your hand."
Gabrielle raised her hand up over Xena, and she clasped it and held it to her side.
"Thanks." Xena said simply.
Gabrielle tried to swallow as quietly as possible, but her heart had begun pounding again. She was certain the sound of her heartbeat would start resounding through the bunk. Was Lariel going to seduce her? She was holding her hand. What would she do next? She wasn't exactly sure, she hadn't thought this all the way through. Although she claimed to know what it was Amazons did together, in truth she really wasn't sure. Gabrielle decided to prepare herself for whatever Lariel had in mind, and waited.
And waited. And waited. Lariel's grip relaxed.
Gabrielle looked over, and listened. Lariel had fallen fast asleep.
Feeling vaguely insulted, Gabrielle snuggled up against Lariel and went to sleep as well.
"I don't want to get up!" Gabrielle complained as Xena shoved her through the barrack flaps. "The sun's barely out."
"All the Amazons get up at daybreak." Xena replied, stretching her arms out in the open air.
"Stupid tradition." Gabrielle rubbed her eyes as other recruits pushed past them. Then she heard some laughing from off to the side.
"Lariel, look!" the blonde pointed. "That Amazon couple is getting up, too. Let's see who they are."
"Gabrielle, don't pry." Xena chided, deciding to look as well.
The door to the Amazons' hut creaked open, and Gabrielle gasped. Leaning on her cane, a gray-haired Amazon hobbled out of the hut. A voice cackled behind the old woman, and Gabrielle looked to see her lifemate come out as well, with the assistance of a walker.
"Can you believe it?" Gabrielle laughed, burying her face on Xena's shoulder to keep them from seeing her.
"I believe it." Xena replied, smiling at the touch. "Love conquers all."
"Love conquers all..." Gabrielle repeated, thinking. "Hey, I should write that down."
"C'mon." Xena said, leading her away. "Let's get to your favorite love, sit-ups."
"But I hate sit-ups." Gabrielle complained, tearing her eyes off the couple.
"You've got to do them." Xena warned as they walked. "Finals are coming up."
"I'm ready." Gabrielle brightly said.
"You're always ready, Gabrielle." Irana joked as she passed, sticking her tongue out at her.
Gabrielle wisely decided to keep her retort to herself.
"Ah!!" Irana exclaimed, twisting her ankle. She collapsed to the ground as her opponent moved in to take advantage. Despite the pain, she swept her staff out behind her opponent's knee, taking her down.
The trained Amazon recovered though, and brought herself around to level her spear at the recruit's throat.
"Match end!" Velasca bellowed, raising her sword.
The other recruits drew close around the combatants, as Irana's opponent helped her lay out her injured leg. Irana was sobbing, but it was not from the pain.
"No, I didn't fail! Let me do it again! I can do it again!"
"Calm yourself, Irana." the Amazon leader advised as she knelt down before her.
"Oh Athena, let me try one more time!"
"I said calm down." Velasca admonished, inspecting the injury. "You lost the match, but you kept on fighting despite your injury."
"Yes?" the young woman's crying stopped.
"And that proves that you have what it takes to become an Amazon warrior." Velasca commended, standing up. "All hail our newest Amazon warrior, Irana."
"Hail Hail!" the other recruits shouted, giddy and nervous at the same time. Irana had been the first unlucky recruit to spar for the Finals. Watching her getting swaths of gauze wrapped around her ankle did not help their confidence levels very much.
"Learn well Irana's lesson." Velasca intoned. "Never give up, never surrender. Overcome, adapt. Only by showing initiative can you hope to be victorious."
Gabrielle leaned over to whisper to Xena. "An Amazon warrior named Peace. Who would have thought it, hmmm?"
"Peace sounds wonderful to me." Xena replied mysteriously. "It's about time."
Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at her, but turned to look back at their Amazon leader.
"Atthis, carry Irana to the shaman's hut." Velasca commanded, as she surveyed the eyes of her remaining recruits. "I shall be your sparring partner for now."
Subdued groans rolled through the crowd, as they all knew Velasca was a better fighter than her assistant. Velasca's gaze settled on one.
Gabrielle looked right back at her, trying to evoke determination. "Let's get it on."
"Unnf!" Gabrielle exclaimed as she hit the ground hard. That was the fourth time that the Amazon leader had belted her with her clubs. She looked up.
Velasca stepped towards her, twirling her clubs. She had a really sick look on her face, like beating people turned her on.
Gabrielle knew that she was accumulating a nice collection of bruises, but she didn't care. She rolled herself back as she had been taught and shifted herself upright. She saw that the Amazon leader had deliberately waited for her to get up, as if to prolong the punishment.
"Ready to give it up?" Velasca asked.
Gabrielle spat upon the ground, and raised her staff.
"Good." the Amazon leader sneered. She began twirling her clubs in a display of intimidation.
At first Gabrielle watched the clubs, but then recognized their purpose was to distract. Looking her enemy in the eyes as Lariel had taught her, Gabrielle closed the distance between them.
Wood impacted wood, and Gabrielle desperately tried to counter the incoming blows, but Valesca was too skilled for her. Within moments, she was tangled up in her own staff and given a vicious hit to the ribs.
"Ahh!!" Gabrielle cried out, tumbling to the ground.
Velasca followed her movements, kicking her in the side as she fell, and knocking her over on her back. With her prey helpless, Velasca lunged, jabbing one of her clubs down on the stubborn recruit's neck.
Gabrielle's eyes went wild, as she realized the older woman was choking her, slowly but surely.
"Yield..." Velasca spat at her, leaning in. "You were not cut out to be an Amazon warrior."
Gabrielle knew she was right, knew she could never beat a warrior like Velasca. She also knew that she had a handful of sand. Gritting her teeth, she hurled it at her.
"Ack!" Velasca winced as Gabrielle caught her in both eyes with the sand. She lurched back, instinctively reaching for her eyes to rub them, and then stopped herself as she knew that would make it worse.
Gabrielle knew this was her chance, and lifted back her leg to kick her tormentor square in the chest. Velasca fell back heavily, and Gabrielle flipped herself up. Cursing, Velasca raised a club up in her defense, only to have Gabrielle knock it out of her hand with her staff.
Putting her foot down on Velasca's other wrist, Gabrielle braced her staff against the other woman's throat.
Velasca sputtered more obscenities, most having to do with Gabrielle's ancestry, only to have the staff end pressed harder into her throat.
"Yield." Gabrielle repeated.
"Match end!" Velasca shouted, wincing her eyes in pain. Gabrielle stepped back as the Amazon leader's assistant came over with a waterskin. She tipped Velasca's head back as she began squirting the contents across her eyes. Purple juice squirted across her squinting pupils.
"Agghhh!!!!" the Amazon leader screamed, pushing the wineskin away. "You idiot! Bring me a waterskin! @#$%&!"
Chastened, Atthis went away and returned with a real waterskin and towel, and worked on her until almost all of the sand had been cleared away. Her eyes and nose deeply reddened, Velasca arose to confront her sparring partner.
"Gabrielle!" the name growled out of her throat. "You cheated! You could never defeat me in combat, never. You are no warrior, and you will not be an Amazon! You will never join my army. I cast you out of the Nation, and you are never to return! Dismissed!"
Gabrielle began shaking as the weight of Velasca's decision hit her. All these weeks, all this trouble and work, it was all for nothing. She was a cast-off, a reject. Her eyes began to water, more out of outrage than anything else, when suddenly a hand landed on her shoulder.
"I don't think so." Xena said, standing alongside her.
"She cheated!" Velasca barked, wiping her running nose off.
"She overcame, she adapted!" Xena retorted. "She showed initiative!"
"My decision is final." Velasca sneered. "Recruits have no say in the matter."
"That's true." Xena noted, stepping forward. "But I just defeated Atthis in fair combat."
Velasca glanced over at her assistant, who wisely lowered her gaze.
"So that makes me an Amazon warrior, and your equal." Xena coolly noted. "You've gone too far."
Velasca did a double-take. "And what are you going to do about it?"
"I, Lariel, contest your decision, and challenge you for your leadership." Xena said, stepping nose to nose with her. "As is my right."
One hour later...
Velasca drew her battle sword, as the entire village closed in a circle around them. It was a wide circle, though. Nobody wanted to become part of the action. Gabrielle watched from Xena's side, awed and somewhat frightened at the events she was witnessing. It felt very gratifying to see two women fight over her, and then she caught herself, horrified at what she was feeling. Saying a silent prayer for Lariel, she swallowed and steeled herself to the battle.
Velasca inclined her head towards Xena, and Xena half-bowed in response. As was custom, Velasca began going through a basic set of sword maneuvers, to demonstrate her prowess to her opponent.
Xena took her eyes off her opponent to study her sword movements. They were tight, and focused. Velasca could probably cut the wings off of a fly with strokes like that.
Suddenly Velasca's sword movements became more elaborate. She twirled her sword in a movement that seemed to blur up and down, and side to side. The spectators gasped at the sound of the sword cutting through the air until, with a final flourish of speed, Velasca brought her demonstration to a stop.
Smirking confidently at her opponent, Velasca stuck the point of her sword down in the dirt and waited.
Xena returned her look dispassionately, and then walked over to the weapons rack held by Atthis. She selected one sword, and Atthis began to walk away.
"Just one moment." Xena asked, and the Amazon turned. "I'm not done yet."
Xena took a second sword of equal length, and turned to face her opponent.
Velasca watched with puzzlement as Lariel turned to face her with two swords upraised. Then she almost gasped as she saw her let go of them. Xena's hands instantly became a blur, and the swords took on a life of their own.
The crowd gasped again as the sound of Xena's swords filled the air. Velasca openly gaped at the display she was privy to, as Xena's swords cut and intercut again with each other. The slightest mistake would have cut off her fingers or an arm, yet Xena simply stared at her impassively.
Xena brought her display to a halt with a clang, crossing the swords in front of her. Under any other situation, she would be a fool for openly displaying her combat abilities. But honor demanded that she give this knowledge to her opponent, as per Amazon custom.
Atthis clapped her hands once, and Velasca charged her opponent without hesitation.
Xena easily blocked her blow, only to discover that it was a decoy, and she had to backpedal to keep Velasca from following through. Leaving her left sword down as a guard, Xena concentrated on parrying with her right. Hot sparks stung Xena's cheek as their weapons collided, and she could tell Velasca was not going to be an easy opponent.
For anyone else that is. Xena abruptly changed tactics, switching to offense, and brought her second sword into play. Velasca staggered back as every one of her whirling attacks was blunted and diverted. Xena was trying to get her defense down to work a strike in, and as she was pushed back, Velasca's demeanor changed from confidence to panic.
Xena's weapons were everywhere in front of her, a whirlwind of death, and that death was coming straight for her. Suddenly, Velasca felt a coolness across her throat, and jumped back in shock. Had Lariel just killed her?
Xena paused in her attack as Velasca stood there stunned, waiting to die. Velasca's leather collar parted right at the windpipe, and fell open. Velasca reached up to find her throat intact, and then screamed, enraged.
Letting her anger get the better of her, Velasca charged Xena again, committing herself to a direct attack. She knew it left her wide open to a counter, but she also knew that she would plunge this strike directly through her opponent's belly.
Faster than anyone should be able to move, Xena sidestepped her attack and caught Velasca's sword between her own. Xena slid her swords down the length of Velasca's blade until they hit her hilt, and then Xena brutally twisted her weapons sideways.
Velasca fell back, stunned as Xena disentangled herself from her. Her own sword fell uselessly out of her hand, and the pain was so bad she could not even scream.
"Y-You! You've broken my arm!" Velasca managed, horrified and shocked at her abrupt defeat.
"Wrist, actually." Xena corrected, swinging her swordhilt down at Velasca's face.
Blood spattered from Velasca's nose as Xena's punch connected, and the Amazon fell on her back, nearly senseless.
"That was for Gabrielle." Xena said as she lowered her own swords to the ground. "You will never touch her again, understand?"
Velasca managed to prop herself up on her elbows, as blood streamed from her nose.
"Atthis, attend her." Xena commanded, a slight sheen of sweat dotting her forehead.
The Amazon warrior jumped to obey, as Velasca grudgingly looked up into Xena's eyes.
"Velasca, as the new Amazon leader of this battalion, I hereby spare you your life." Xena intoned, looking down at her with disdain. "You are no longer an Amazon leader. However, you may continue to serve the village in your own capacity."
And with that she turned her back on the fallen leader, as the crowd erupted in cheers and accolades, some more enthusiastic than others.
Gabrielle pushed her way through the crowd and rushed forward, calling Xena's false name. Xena halted her with a gesture. The villagers dispersed as Atthis helped Velasca away, leaving the remaining recruits to assemble around their new leader.
"Gabrielle..." Xena said, wiping the sweat off her brow. "I hereby rescind the previous leader's decision, and restore your citizenship in the Nation to you. You have passed the Finals."
Gabrielle stepped forward, wanting to hug her right there. But Xena warned her off with her eyes, and nodded to her officiously. Gabrielle offered her the Amazon peace gesture, clasping her hands upright before her. Satisfied, Xena turned to face the assembled recruits.
"All right, who's next?" Xena said brightly, flinging her swords down into the ground.
The assembled recruits huddled together and stepped back as one, competing as to who could edge the farthest away from their new Amazon leader, without actually running in terror.
Gabrielle leaned forward and whispered, "You really have a way with people."
"Shh!" Xena chided.
Xena took the mask from Atthis, and offered it out to the young woman before her.
Irana accepted the mask, and bowed as low as she could before her Amazon leader while leaning on a crutch.
"Welcome Irana, Amazon warrior!" Xena shouted to the assembly.
"Irana!" the crowd shouted in return, to much clapping and whistles from her fellow recruits.
Xena saluted her, and Irana nodded, making her way off the stage.
Xena knew who the blonde was next in line, and accepted the next mask from her assistant.
"Gabrielle." Xena began. "I am truly honored to present you with this token. It is your identity, and you should wear it with pride. Welcome Gabrielle, Amazon warrior!"
The crowd repeated her again, cheering and applauding. Gabrielle looked out to the crowd, and could see the knowing winks among some of the Amazons to each other. She already knew what they thought of her and her relationship with the new Amazon leader, and she didn't care. The only person that mattered was the one standing before her.
Xena allowed a smile to play across her features for a moment, before snapping to attention and saluting the newest Amazon warrior. Gabrielle nodded in deference to her, and began to move off the stage.
"Hmmm." Gabrielle responded, as Xena offered the mask out to her.
"Don't forget this." Xena chided, struggling to keep a straight face.
Gabrielle snapped the mask out of her hand, forcing a stern expression, and then turned to the crowd and waved the mask in the air, cheering.
"Where did Timas go?" Gabrielle asked.
"Oh, two Amazons led her into the ceremony hut." Xena replied.
"Ceremony hut?" Gabrielle asked. "I thought we were done with the ceremony."
"I think there's one left." Xena replied, nodding in the hut's direction.
Gabrielle looked over at the hut, and saw Timas just coming out. She was walking haltingly, and she knew that the Amazon had not been injured in her sparring. What had they done to her?
Two other recruits came out of the hut, and looked like they were looking for someone. They looked Gabrielle's way, and started running towards her.
Gabrielle looked over to Xena to see she had raised her arm at them. She looked back in growing terror as the recruits reached her and grabbed her by her arms, wearing huge grins on their faces.
"What is it?" Gabrielle asked, as they began pulling her away. "Where are you taking me?"
"To be shaved!" Anactoria gleefully replied as they dragged her away.
"Shaved?!" Gabrielle yelped, looking back at Xena. "Lariel, help me!"
"You'll be alright." Xena replied, plucking her mask from her as she went. She raised an eyebrow as they hurried a struggling Gabrielle through the tent flaps, disappearing with their prey. Actually, she had no idea what this shaving ceremony was about. Each Amazon tribe had their own customs, and she was as clueless about this as Gabrielle was. She had a naughty thought. They wouldn't actually shave...? Xena shook her head. Whatever it was, she knew she would find out eventually.
A short time later...
Xena finally saw Gabrielle emerge from the hut. She had a frown on her face, and then the blonde caught sight of her. Xena's concern deepened as Gabrielle walked towards her, each step a halting one. It seemed to be hurting her to move. Finally, she reached her.
"Gabrielle?" Xena asked, really wondering now. "What did they shave?"
Gabrielle did not respond, but instead lifted her arms.
Xena gasped, and then laughed as she saw the red hackles on Gabrielle's shaved underarms.
"They shaved your armpits?" Xena laughed, incredulous. "That's the secret shaving ceremony?"
"Yes." the blonde replied, quite irritated. "No lather, either. I can barely move my arms."
"Ha Ha!" Xena nodded at her, beaming. "Well, that wasn't quite as bad as I thought."
"What?" Gabrielle asked, raising an eyebrow at her. "What did you think they were going to shave?"
Xena shook her head innocently, but began blushing beet red. "Uh, well I..."
Gabrielle looked at her vaguely for a moment, not quite understanding. Then realization flashed across her face. "Oh, that's disgusting!"
"Well, it wasn't the first thing that came to mind." Xena defended herself, handing Gabrielle's mask back to her.
"But it was right up there, right?" Gabrielle responded, now blushing equally. "I'm gonna go back there and tell them what to shave on you."
Gabrielle turned to leave, and Xena grabbed her arm. "Oh no you don't!"
"I was only joking." the blonde laughed at her, tapping her mask against her side.
Flipping her mask up in her hand, Gabrielle raised it up over her head, and slid it down into place.
"Congratulations." Xena said seriously, smiling at the masked woman. "You are now an Amazon warrior."
Gabrielle struck a pose. "And lookin' good, too."
The Trilogy Continues in Book Two
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