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Disclaimers: Characters Xena, Ephiny, Eponin, Argo, etc. are owned by MCA/Universal. Characters Charis, Sanshee, and a couple of others are my own. And, of course, the story is mine as well. I am not profiting from this and it is not meant to infringe on the rights of the owners of "Xena: Warrior Princess" in any way.

This story depicts/implies loving, sexual relationships between women and contains violence, mature situations, and language which some may find offensive. If any of this bothers you, if you are under the age of 18, or this type of material is illegal where you live, I recommend that you refrain from reading any further.

To those of you who sent all the wonderful emails in response to "When Friends Collide," I hope you’ll like this story as much and thanks so much for the support. I really appreciate it! Please feel free to send any comments to: As always, thanks to my partner, Crimson Blade, for tolerating my tendency to monopolize the computer night after night!

(c) 1999


(Sequel to "When Friends Collide")
by AztecAmazon


It had been nearly a year since the Amazon had seen her queen. Upon arriving in Athens, Gabrielle and Xena had spent several weeks with her and Charis before resuming their travels. They had enjoyed themselves immensely during their time together---shopping, sampling the wines from the nearby vineyards, taking Xenan hunting and fishing. And, of course, the bard had managed to convince them that attending the local theatrical productions was an essential step in familiarizing themselves with the ambiance of Athens.

Ephiny chuckled to herself as she thought about the elaborate speech her friend had rattled off in an effort to convince Xena to buy tickets---at eight dinars a piece---to opening night of the latest play based on Sappho’s scroll, "Heart’s Aspiration." The warrior finally caved and bought the tickets for, what turned out to be, a captivating show.

"Sweetheart? You in there?," Charis’ voice roused her from her thoughts.

"Yeah, I was just getting everything ready for dinner," she replied, placing the last of five earthen plates on the oblong table. "Where’s Xenan?"

"He’s with Paellar, as usual," she smiled, closing the door to the modest hut behind her.

"What are they doing now?," the Amazon raised an eyebrow, the corners of her mouth shifting to reveal a content smile. She was so glad her son was making friends. She had always heard that the locals were more tolerant in Athens and, based on their experiences since their arrival, the rumor had been proven to be well-founded. Xenan’s friend Paellar was the Centaur son of a peasant woman whose husband, like Phantes, had been killed while defending his family in the midst of a heated battle. Ephiny felt for the woman who, though she worked hard serving drinks to rowdy drunkards night after night in the tavern on the corner, could scarcely manage to provide for herself and her son.

"They’re trading arrows again," Charis answered her question, lulling her from her thoughts. Moving behind the Amazon, she wrapped her arms around Ephiny’s waist and held her close. "You’re really excited about seeing them again, aren’t you?," she grinned.

"I can’t wait!," she giddily announced.

"Think you two can manage to pry yourselves apart long enough to give somebody a hug?," Xena asked upon swinging the door open, letting herself and the bard in.

"Xena! Gabrielle!," Ephiny exclaimed, rushing across the floor, swathing both women in an exuberant embrace. "The gods, I’ve missed you!," she was squeezing so tightly she nearly cut off their circulation.

"Ephiny...," the bard’s voice faded, tears forming in her eyes as her sentimentality began to get the best of her.

"Don’t you dare get me started," her friend warned. "I haven’t cried in a long time and I must say, my eyes haven’t missed it a bit," she laughed.

"Well, then...what’s for dinner?," a huge grin surfaced on Gabrielle’s face as she joined in her laughter. "Charis!," she exclaimed, turning her attention to the other woman, giving her a huge hug.

"How are you?," Xena asked, a serious look in her eyes as she pulled Ephiny close.

"I’ve never been better, " she softly replied, the expression on her face the embodiment of her unending gratitude. The warrior had done so much for her, for Charis, for her son. She had given of herself on their behalf more times than the Amazon could count. And, no matter how much time passed between their reunions, she never forgot to thank Artemis for Xena’s friendship.

"Glad to hear it," the warrior grinned before turning to address Charis.

Once Xenan returned, the young Centaur and the four women gathered around the table for dinner, spending the remainder of the evening catching up---filling each other in on the events of the past year.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

"Aunt Xena’s taking Argo for a ride in the hills. Can I go with her?," Xenan beamed, the untainted shimmer of his eyes melting his mother’s heart.

"Yes, you may, but make sure you stay close to Xena. I don’t want you losing yourself out there," she answered, giving her son a playful tickle.

"Come on, Xena!," he gleefully requested, eagerly dragging the warrior toward the door by her wrist.

"I’m coming, I’m coming," Xena acceded, winking at Ephiny as they made their way by.

"Wanna come with us, Charis?," the Centaur asked his additional mother, allowing just enough time for Xena to give Gabrielle a quick kiss goodbye.

"You better believe I do!," Charis smiled, shoo-ing him out the door, following closely behind.

"He’s a great kid," the bard sighed, once she and Ephiny were alone. "You and Charis must be doing something right."

"Actually, we were really surprised at how quickly he managed to adjust to having two mothers. After all, I was the only parent he had ever known, but Charis has been absolutely wonderful and so patient with him. He adores her," she smiled.

"I knew he would. She’s an incredible woman."

"I’m not going to argue with you there," Ephiny responded, the look on her face conveying her unmistakable sense of contentment. She watched as the bard made her way into the kitchen and began rummaging through the cabinets. "Looking for anything in particular?," she chuckled.

"Well.....yes. I have a terrible craving for goat cheese and eel," she said, matter-of-factly.

"The goat cheese, I can help you with, but I’m afraid we’re fresh out of eel," the Amazon informed her as she handed her a small block of cheese and a dull knife. "Where does it all go?," she marveled, as she had so many times, at the bard’s ability to pack away so much food.

"Believe it or not, my stomach’s still rumbling," she announced. "Want to go shopping? I’ll be there are all kinds of goodies just waiting for me in the town square!"

"Ok, ok. Give me a second to round up some dinars."

The two women made their way to the center of town where the bard proceeded to purchase---and sample---a plethora of scrumptious treats. "Mmfff hhaa good," she muttered through a mouthful of wheat bread. The Amazon shook her head and laughed under her breath as the two rounded the next bend. "Sweet Aphrodite, Ephiny! Pie! Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve even looked at a pie?!," the bard blurted out, making a bee-line for the apple pastries.

With that, Ephiny burst into laughter, stepping up her pace in order to catch up with her famished friend.

"We’ll take three!," Gabrielle declared, handing the merchant three dinars.

"Three?," the Amazon said with a look of surprise.

"One for you and Charis...," the bard counted on her fingers, " for Xena and Xenan. And one for me."

"Gabrielle? A whole pie?," her stomach coiled at the thought of it.

"Wicked, isn’t it?," the bard giggled, passing one of the pies to the Amazon. "Now hold onto to this," she instructed, as though she were handing her a priceless treasure.

"Oh, I’ll guard it with my life," Ephiny groaned.

They slowly made their way back toward the hut, taking in the sights along the way. "You have to love it here," Gabrielle noted. "There’s so much to see, so much to do."

"Yes, we like it a lot. But sometimes I miss the Amazon village," she sighed. "Charis does too."

"Xena and I stopped there recently to check on things. Eponin’s managing nicely in our absence. You would be proud of her."

"Oh, I am. I’ve heard she’s doing a wonderful job," Ephiny replied. "So...Gabrielle, how’s life with Xena? Being bonded certainly seems to agree with you."

"It’s wonderful, Ephiny!," the bard swooned. "She treats me like....well, like the queen that I am," she joked, adopting the most arrogant tone she could muster in an attempt to mock the very idea that she, a bard from Poteidaia, should be placed on a pedestal. "Hey! Both hands on that pie!," she exclaimed, taking note of the fact that the Amazon was balancing the cherished prize with one hand.

"Pardon me, my queen," Ephiny teased, giving her a playful nod as she tightened her grip.

They managed to have dinner ready well before the others returned, though the bard sampled everything she touched, leaving most of the actual preparation to Ephiny. After dinner, the women entertained Xenan by playing a few rounds of pin-the-sword-on-the-warlord before retiring to bed.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

"That makes eleven," Charis chuckled, counting the names of the gods the bard had called out so far. Through the thin wall, she and the Amazon could hear everything that was happening in the next room and, from the sound of it, Xena was sending her beloved on an erotic quest.

When the noises finally ceased, Ephiny slithered across Charis’ chest, a mischievous glint in her eye. "Now...," she kissed her neck, gliding her tongue over her inviting flesh. "Let’s see how high they can count."

The two women tried to keep their exclamations of pleasure quiet as they relished every inch of each other. Just as Charis felt the room spinning, a rainbow of colors dancing in front of her eyes, she heard the warrior’s shout. "Way to go, Eph! Bravo! Encore!"

"Can you believe her?," the Amazon snickered, her mouth hanging open. "You were pretty impressive yourself, Xena!," Ephiny couldn’t resist retorting. Thank the gods Xenan was a heavy sleeper.

"Thanks!," the final shout resounded in the dark, followed by the faint laughter of all four women.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Ephiny waited for the bard to dismount and tied her horse to a tree. They headed into the forest, their sizzling flesh grateful to be out of the scorching sunlight. After walking for quite some time, the Amazon noticed that Gabrielle was lagging behind. "Something wrong?," she inquired, noting that she looked a little green.

"I just feel sort of queasy. It came over me all of a sudden," she explained, catching up to her friend.

"Whoa!," Ephiny exclaimed, extending an arm to catch her when she lost her balance, nearly stumbling over a rock.

"Ephiny...," the bard swallowed hard. "I think I’m going to...," unable to finish her sentence, she abruptly turned her head as her stomach betrayed her, expelling the left-over apple pie she had eaten for breakfast.

"Better?," the Amazon asked when she finally stopped puking.

"N...not really," the bard was clutching her stomach.

"You need to get out of the heat and a cold bath probably wouldn’t hurt," Ephiny suggested, her concern for her friend evident.

Gabrielle leaned against her as they made their way toward the Amazon’s horse. "I don’t know what’s wrong with me," she groaned. "But...," she doubled over and retched again.

"Gods, Gabrielle...," Ephiny picked her up and carried her over the final paces, helping her onto the horse before climbing in the saddle behind her.

The warrior was outside watching Xenan sharpen her sword when she saw them approaching. "She’s sick," the Amazon told her as she directed the horse to a halt.

"Sick?," Xena’s brow crinkled. Gabrielle was rarely ill. "What’s the matter?," she reached up to help the bard down off the horse.

"I just don’t feel very well," she managed, gulping in air in an attempt to quash her nausea.

The warrior picked her up and carried her inside, placing her on the bed. "Here. These might help," Ephiny handed her a stack of cool, damp cloths. Xena helped her undress and began to apply the compresses. "How long have you felt this way?"

"It came over me all of a sudden," the bard answered. "One minute I was fine and the next...," she groaned in her misery, not bothering to finish her sentence.

The warrior continued to rub her down, cooling her body, until the cloths grew warm from the heat of her clammy skin. By that time, Gabrielle was asleep. Xena stayed with her, smoothing her sweat-soaked hair away from her face. The gods, she looked so pale. She stretched out beside her love, keeping vigil over her for the rest of the day.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Xena woke in the middle of the night to discover that she was alone in the bed. Gabrielle must be feeling better, she guessed. She’s probably in the kitchen stuffing her face. The warrior planted her feet on the floor and made her way to the other room. "Gabrielle?," she whispered, trying not to wake the others. "Gabrielle?" She went out onto the porch, straining her eyes to see through the darkness, but there was no sign of the bard. She crept into Ephiny and Charis’ room, kneeling next to the Amazon. "Ephiny? Ephiny, wake up."

"Hmm...Xena? What is it?," the drowsy Amazon yawned.

"Where’s Gabrielle?," she looked puzzled. "She’s not in our room. She’s not anywhere in the hut."

"I...I don’t know...," she sat up and crawled out from under the blankets. "Have you checked outside?"

"Yes, she’s not out there."

"We’d better go take a look," she pulled on her shift and headed for the door.

The warrior walked out into the street, shifting her gaze from hut to hut. "Xena...," the Amazon was rapidly approaching. "I just checked the stables...Argo’s gone," she told her through a worried expression.

"Can I borrow your horse?," the warrior felt her heart move into her throat.

"Take Charis’ horse. I’m coming with you. Saddle them up," she called out as she dashed back inside the hut, emerging moments later fully dressed, sliding her sword into its sheath as she mounted her horse.

Xena’s heart pounded in time with the horses’ hooves. Gabrielle never did things like this. She wouldn’t just take off in the middle of the night without telling her where she was going. "Ephiny! Stop!," she shouted. "There’s Argo," she pointed a finger east and jumped off the horse, running through the weeds, the Amazon trailing closely behind. Abruptly stopping in her tracks, she placed a hand on Ephiny’s arm to still her, cocking her head, indicating that she heard something. The groans grew louder as the two women approached, each wielding a sword as they fought their way through the thick underbrush.

"What the...," Ephiny’s eyes grew wide as she stared ahead.

"Don’t come near me!," the bard screamed out in agony.

But Xena was already kneeling between her legs, pulling her skirt up around her waist. "Push, Gabrielle!," she yelled, knowing that whatever was trying to get out of her body was about to rip her open. "Ephiny, give me your dagger!," she frantically ordered.

"Is she...having a baby?," the Amazon uttered in sheer disbelief.

"Yes! The dagger!," she yelled again. After hastily swiping the weapon from Ephiny’s trembling hand, she carefully made the incision. "That’s it, Gabrielle. Push," she coached, terrified of what was about to reveal itself.

"Xena, what’s happening to me?!," the bard screamed, writhing in pain. "I can’t go through this again!," she repeated over and over again as her muscles contracted, forcing her to bear down.

The warrior cringed as the form emerged. The Amazon cut the cord, an unexpected smile emerging on her face when she heard the baby boy cry. Xena held the infant in her arms, doubt and desperation simultaneously surging through her veins. She didn’t know what to do next.

"Kill it, Xena," Gabrielle pleaded through clinched teeth, tears streaming down her cheeks. "Kill it!"

"Gabrielle?...," Ephiny began.

"You weren’t there! You don’t know!," the queen shrieked, remembrances of Dahak’s evil seizing her mind. The dark one had planted his seed in her once before, the birth of his offspring transpiring much as the birth of this child. And now, it was happening again. "Dammit, Xena, kill it!"

The warrior laid the infant on the ground and drew her blade. Babies didn’t just appear out of no where. This child had to be the son of Dahak and, after what the last seemingly innocent child had done to her son, she knew what she had to do. Gabrielle closed her eyes, while Ephiny turned her back, both unable to watch--what appeared to be--a perfectly healthy baby boy die at the end of a sword. Just as she was prepared to strike the fatal blow, the infant faded into the night, vanishing before their eyes.

"Xena?...," the Amazon’s jaw dropped as she frantically looked around, searching the tree tops.

"I...I don’t know...," the warrior mumbled, dropping to her knees next to the bard. "Gabrielle? Are you alright?," she whispered, unable to believe what had just transpired.

"I’m...I’m not sure...," she forced a reply through her sobs.

"We have to stitch this incision," Xena stated, looking up at the Amazon.

Ephiny ran back to her horse and retrieved her saddlebag, returning with some leather twine and a needle. Gabrielle squeezed the Amazon’s hand, trying not to scream in pain as Xena worked to close the laceration.

"Help me get her up," the warrior said, once she was finished. The two women carried the bard back to the hut, leaving the horses behind. When she was safely in bed, Charis and Ephiny set out to retrieve the animals.

"Ephiny, what happened to her?," Charis quietly asked as they made their way up the hill.

"Charis...," she hesitated, taking in a deep breath, still unable to fathom what had happened. "She gave birth to...something...," her voice faded.

"Gave birth? Ephiny, her stomach was as flat as..."

"I know. It happened really fast. The strange thing is...whatever she conceived disappeared from sight...right in front of us...," she gave her a sidelong look.

"You’re going to have to start from the beginning," Charis requested, unable to comprehend what she was trying to tell her.

The Amazon did the best she could to explain the whole incident, intermittently pausing to choke back her tears. "Ephiny...," Charis put an arm around her and drew her close when she finished speaking. "She’s going to be ok," she uttered, attempting to console her though she was unsure what might happen next.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The most prestigious healer in Athens examined the bard while the warrior and Ephiny waited in the next room. "Hmmm....," she placed a hand on her chin as she stared at the incision.

"What is it?," Gabrielle quietly asked.

"These sutures...," she muttered.

"What about them? Do I have an infection?," she asked, though she didn’t think that was possible considering that she wasn’t in any pain.

"Actually...," she reached for a pair of scissors. "The stitches are unnecessary," she informed her, snipping away at the twine.

"Wh...what?," the bard thought she had misunderstood.

"There’s no wound. And, from the looks of it, there never has been. Why would you claim you recently gave birth when it’s obvious you haven’t?," she sighed heavily, looking at the bard as though she were some sort of degenerate.

"Because I did!," she blurted out. "Dahak..."

The warrior abruptly pushed the door to the room open and cut her off before she could get any further. "What’s going on in here?," she growled, noting that the bard was in tears. Ephiny moved in behind her, glaring at the healer, waiting for an explanation.

"Dahak?," the healer mumbled under her breath, turning her back to the women.

"She...she doesn’t know what she’s saying. She’s for the past few days," Xena stammered, giving the Amazon a look.

"Yes...," Ephiny confirmed, recognizing that the warrior was growing anxious. "She’s been quite ill. We’ve been really worried about her."

"I see....," the healer uttered, not bothering to face the women. "You can take her with you now. She’s going to be fine," she concluded, holding her breath as she listened for the door to close behind them.

"What did she say?," Xena asked, once they were outside.

"She said I’m completely healed....that it never happened," she gasped for air as she tried to stop crying.

"Healed?...," the warrior thought aloud. "How can that be?," she reached for Gabrielle’s hand as Ephiny looked at them both with wonder.

When they returned to the hut, Xena conducted her own examination, surprised to find that the healer was right. The bard showed no indication of having given birth the night before.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

"Gabrielle! Wake up!," the warrior shouted as she jumped to her feet and grabbed her sword.

Ephiny and Charis woke to sound of clashing metal. "What in Tartarus is that?!," Charis jumped out of bed and rushed to the other room. In no time, the four armed women had the three intruders pinned to the floor. "What do you want?," Xena gritted her teeth, pressing her heel into one of the men’s chest.

"She’s evil!," he declared, pointing a finger at the bard. "And we’ve come here to destroy her," he snarled.

"You revolting bastard!," Ephiny lunged toward him, only to be held back when Charis grabbed her arm. "Xenan, get back!," she screamed when she saw their son standing in the doorway. The wide-eyed Centaur obediently retreated to his room.

"I’m only going to ask you this once," the warrior growled. "What in Hades’ name are you talking about?"

"She belongs to Dahak. She’s the deliverer of evil---the downfall of human-kind," he squeaked, the warrior’s hand clamped around his throat.

"Ephiny, Charis---tie them up," she ordered. "We’ve got to get out of here," she looked at the bard, her heart breaking at the sight of the forlorn expression on her face.

Gabrielle and the warrior were forced to say their good-byes and head out before sunrise. The bard couldn’t stay in a town filled with henchmen who were intent on her demise.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Weeks had passed and the two women had managed to put some distance between themselves and Athens. Gabrielle, after a serious bout with depression and anxiety attacks, was slowly beginning to return to normal.

Xena carried the string of fish toward the clearing, hoping that the bard had returned from gathering fire wood. "Gabrielle?," she called her name when she realized she hadn’t made it back to the campsite. "Gabrielle?!," she shouted louder. Looking down at the ground, she felt her chest cave. Unable to breath, she bent down and picked up the tattered cloth. The clothes the bard had been wearing were shredded, lying on the ground. "Gabrielle!," she screamed in terror, though she knew it was pointless.

She grabbed the supplies she would need and jumped on Argo’s back, digging her heals into the horse’s sides. Tearing through the trees, she called out the bard’s name, the panic spreading over her making her head spin. The gods be with her, she prayed to herself---her tears burning her eyes, clouding her vision.

She searched for days---in the forest, in every village, asking questions, following even the slightest hunch. Still, her love was missing. It was beginning to look as though she may never see her again and the mere thought shattered her soul. She couldn’t accept that she had lost her---refused to believe that she was going to have to go on without her. She wasn’t going to allow herself to give up, no matter how bleak the circumstances.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

"Xena!," the voice startled the warrior. Abruptly turning around on her horse, she looked back at the approaching rider.

"Charis?," she mumbled.

Charis climbed off her horse and moved toward the warrior. "I...I have news," she began, struggling to catch her breath.

"Gabrielle?!," she exclaimed.

"She’s not with you?," her voice trembled.

"No...Charis, something’s happened. I just found her clothes...over there...," she choked back her tears. "Somebody has her."

"Y...yes, Xena," she stuttered, shifting from one foot to the other. She didn’t want to tell her, but she knew she had no choice. Apparently Ephiny hadn’t made it time to warn them.

"What is it, Charis?," the warrior held her breath, a single tear trickling down her cheek as she awaited an answer.

"Xena, I think she’s alive," she quickly blurted out, aware that the warrior was bracing herself for the worst.

"Where is she?," she managed to breathe again.

"Ephiny set out to find you two some time ago," Charis continued. "We went back to see the healer in Athens--the one who examined Gabrielle. We had a feeling that she knew something about the attack on the queen. Turns out we were right. She spread the news that Gabrielle is Dahak’s deliverer---that the child she had is the son of the dark one..."

"They must have heard about Hope...," the warrior thought aloud. "I guess they figure if she brought Dahak’s daughter into the world, why not his son as well?"

"You have to admit, this whole thing is a far cry from normal..."

The warrior closed her eyes, the weight of what was happening crushing her insides. "It happened the same way it did before," she sighed. "The pregnancy, the birth...the child has to be another of Dahak’s descendants. What else did the healer say?"

"She told us that Ares has organized an army. Several of the best warlords he could recruit have joined forces. Their mission is to prevent the coming of the dark one..."

"How? Where’s Gabrielle?," the warrior hastily interrupted.

"The healer said that the only way to prevent the arrival of Dahak is to kill the deliverer...Gabrielle..."

"How do you know they haven’t already?!," Xena was loosing her patience as her frazzled nerves began to twitch beneath the surface of her skin.

"They have to use the Sword of Hilgist for the sacrifice...nothing else will work. They can take her life with any weapon they choose, but the only way to destroy Dahak’s essence is to kill her with the Sword of Hilgist and they don’t have it least, they didn’t," Charis explained.

"Who has it?"

"Nobody knows."

"So they’re holding her until they can find it?," the warrior squinted her eyes as she mulled over the information.

"They must be. They can’t kill her until they have it," she confirmed.

"Ares...," she said in disgust. "I should have known. He’s always felt threatened by the notion of a god who holds more power than he does. Charis...," she looked her in the eyes. "The child? Did the healer mention the child?"

"Other than to say that he’s the child of evil---the son of Dahak---no, she didn’t," she answered. "Xena...there is one other place Gabrielle could be...," she continued. The warrior stared at her with questioning eyes. "Dahak’s followers are also looking for her...and the baby she gave birth to. They revere her and want her to join them in their mission. If they have her, they won’t hurt her."

"We have to get moving," the warrior said, her mind a thousand miles away.

"You haven’t seen Ephiny?," Charis asked quietly.

"No. How long has it been since she set out to look for us?"

"It’s been nearly a week. She asked me to take Xenan to the Centaur village. I was hoping I’d catch up with her before now...," her voice dissipated, a fretful look emerging on her face.

"I’m sure she’s not far away," Xena attempted to ease her mind. "We’ll find them both," she assured her, hoping she was right.

"I sent word to Eponin telling her that the queen was in danger," Charis informed her as she climbed back on her horse. "She’ll send out a war party but first we’ll have to let her know that she’s been captured. I was just hoping that Ephiny would get to you in time to warn you...before they were able to take her."

"We’ll find her, Charis. And we’ll find Ephiny too," she reiterated. "From the looks of it, they headed this way," she nudged Argo’s ribs and headed through the trees, following the trail of what appeared to be several riders.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

"Get in there, you lazy wench!," the soldier shouted, giving the slave a shove which brought her to her knees. Despite the fall, she somehow managed to balance the tray she held in her hands. "Make sure she eats," he growled. "We have to keep her alive...for now," he smirked.

The slave kept her head low, fixing her eyes on the floor until the guard left, locking the door behind him. Slowly she stood with her back to the cage which housed the prisoner and peered through the tiny crack in the door, catching a glimpse of the two men stationed outside the hut. Her hooded cloak made her look like a ghost as the moonlight flickered through the tiny opening.

"Are you alright?," the bard whispered, concerned that the soldier had injured the woman.

The slave slowly approached the cage, keeping her head bowed, her chin against her chest. After placing the tray on a barrel, she reached up to remove the faded gray hood from her head, lifting her eyes to meet the prisoner’s. "Ephiny?," Gabrielle gasped in a hushed tone.

"Have they hurt you?," the Amazon whispered, tears glistening in her eyes.

", I’m fine. How did you..."

"These warlords love Amazon slaves," she rolled her eyes. "Here. You need to eat," she passed the bread and an apple through the bars.

"Have you eaten?," the bard asked, guessing that she hadn’t.


"Ephinyyy...," she glared at her friend, sensing that she was lying.

"Well, no...I mean, not today. They’ll give me something tomorrow," she insisted.

"That’s what I thought," the bard handed her half of the bread.

"Gabrielle, I’m going to get you out of here, but I have to wait for back up. I’ve sent word to Eponin. I know she’ll send help soon and, of course, you can bet Xena and Charis will show up before long," she forced a smile.

"Gods, Ephiny...Xena’s got to be worried sick. And Charis? Does she know you’re here?"

"No, not exactly. I was trying to catch up to you and warn you. But, when I arrived at your campsite, I saw them dragging you away. Gabrielle, there were too many of them for me to take on alone...," she looked apologetic. "So I followed them here. I thought I’d have a better chance of getting you out of here in one piece."

"I’m just glad you’re ok," the bard sighed. "Do you know why I’m here?"

"Yes...Dahak...," Ephiny muttered.

"They think I’m the key to his arrival...What I don’t understand is why they haven’t killed me yet..."

The Amazon shuddered at the thought of anyone trying to harm her queen. "Gabrielle, they could kill you right now if they wanted to...but they won’t. They believe that the only way to eliminate Dahak’s evil and therefore, his passage into the world, is to sacrifice you using the Sword of Hilgist. The good news is, they don’t know where to find the sword." She reached through the bars, taking the bard’s hand in her own. "Gabrielle, I’ll get you out of here. I promise," she whispered, gently caressing her hand with the tips of her fingers.

"What’s going on in there?," one of the guards burst through the door, abruptly grabbing Ephiny by the hair.

"I’m doing what I was told to do," she gritted her teeth, trying to keep herself from beating him into oblivion. She knew if she did, she would likely be killed and she certainly wouldn’t be of any use to her queen if that happened.

"Get out of here, filthy Amazon," he snarled, slapping her across the face.

The bard stood, poised to speak her mind, but quickly stifled herself when Ephiny shot her a look. Forcing herself to remain silent, she looked on in anger as blood started to trickle from her friend’s lip. She was clenching her fists so tightly that her fingernails nearly drew blood from her palms as she watched the Amazon pull her hood over her head, pick up the tray, and leave without uttering a sound.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

"Dammit! The trail’s gone cold," Charis angrily kicked at the ground with her boot. "Xena, where are they?," she lamented, fear growing inside her with every passing moment.

"We need to stop for the night," the warrior replied, recognizing that both Charis and the horses could use some rest. "We won’t stop for long," she added, taking note of the disapproving scowl on her companion’s face.

Charis dismounted in a huff, hastily grabbing her water skin, taking a much-needed swig. She didn’t know how much longer she could stand this. Where were they? Why hadn’t Ephiny caught up to them yet?

"Track down a squirrel and I’ll roast it," the warrior offered, though she didn’t feel much like eating.

Charis grabbed her bow and some arrows and headed into the trees without saying a word. Xena gathered wood and got a fire going before sitting down to sharpen her sword. She knew they had to find Gabrielle soon. It was only a matter of time before the warlords located the Sword of Hilgist and, if she didn’t get to her before they found it...She couldn’t bear to think about it anymore. She had to clear her head and focus. She had to figure out where the warlords were holding her love.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The bard could hear the crack of the whip as it uncoiled with a resounding snap. Yet the only voices she heard were those of the soldiers outside the hut. "That’ll teach you a lesson, bitch!," one of them shouted before the ear-splitting pop rang out again. Gabrielle lay still and closed her eyes, the mere thought of the whip connecting with vulnerable flesh making her flinch. Soulless monsters, she thought. Standing around jeering while some poor slave was being beaten senseless.

Thank the gods, she whispered to herself when the commotion finally ceased. She was going crazy sitting alone in that cage, day after day. The only thing she could do was think about the child she had given birth to that night in the woods. What had become of it? What did the birth signify in the scheme of things? There were moments when the bard believed that perhaps she was infected with Dahak’s evil. After all, she had thought it had all ended with Hope’s death. But now...she wasn’t sure. Maybe she would never be free from the clutches of the dark one.

"Ephiny!," she exclaimed when she saw her friend enter the hut. "Shhh," the Amazon lifted a finger to her lips. She peered through the crack in the door and, upon making sure no one was listening, made her way toward the cage. "I managed to get some deer meat for you," she whispered, passing the meat and a slice of bread through the bars.

"You don’t know how much I’ve craved meat lately," she sounded almost enthusiastic. "Thank you," she added, gnawing away at the offering.

"I though you’d like that," the Amazon managed a faint smile.

"Ephiny?...," the bard stared at her friend. "What...," she reached through the bars, her voice growing silent.

The Amazon backed away, momentarily lowering her head before looking up at her again. Taking in a deep breath, she pushed her shoulders back and tightened her jaw.

"’re bleeding," Gabrielle mumbled under her breath, her eyes fixed on the bright red lines on the Amazon’s cloak as the blood continued to seep through the worn fabric. "They beat you?!," she shouted, her face transforming as her anger surfaced. No wonder she hadn’t heard the slave scream. The Amazon wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. "Gods, Ephiny, get out of here! Go back to Charis!," she screamed, tears of rage streaming down her face.

"Gabrielle!," the Amazon said in a harsh whisper. "Stop it," she looked into her eyes, placing her arms through the bars to pull her as close to her as possible. Once she was cheek to cheek with the queen, she whispered in her ear. "Don’t let them break you. That’s what the bastards want and I, for one, don’t intend to let that happen."

"Are you ok?," the bard touched her shoulder, the blood on Ephiny’s cloak easily rubbing off on her finger tips.

"It looks worse than it is," she insisted, though her skin was on fire, each bloody stripe blistering her flesh to the bone. "I have to go," she told her, suddenly turning toward the door.

"You’ve had enough time, Amazon harlot," the soldier declared upon entering the hut.

Ephiny made her way through the door, forcing herself to keep moving when the man slapped her backside as she passed.

"What makes men think they have the right to do that to a woman?," the bard blurted out before she could stop herself.

"Here’s a simple answer to a simple question...," the soldier smirked. "We think we have the right because we do have the right."

From her cell, Gabrielle could see the Amazon standing only a few paces beyond the doorway, glaring over her shoulder into the hut. She knew if she said anything else, the soldier would make Ephiny pay the price. Stilling her tongue, the bard slumped onto the pallet in the rear of the cage.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

"Charis?," the warrior’s heart skipped a beat. "Isn’t that Ephiny’s horse?," she stared across the clearing at the animal, watching as it grazed in the sun.

"Yah!," Charis’ voice rang out, her horse taking off like a shot.

Xena jumped off Argo’s back and approached her friend, now frantically digging through the saddlebag still strapped to the stray animal’s back. She watched as Charis unfurled the parchment she found in the satchel. "It’s from Ephiny...," the distraught woman uttered under breath as she read.

"What is it?," the warrior hesitantly asked.

She read fragments of the message aloud, "’I’m ok......I’ve gone after Gabrielle......the queen’s being held by......received word from Eponin ...... Amazon war party on the way.... ‘ Thank Artemis, Xena!," she suddenly exclaimed, throwing her arms around the warrior’s neck. "She gave us the location of the compound! Ephiny and Gabrielle are here...see," she placed her finger on the parchment, showing the warrior the map the Amazon had drawn.

The two women easily located the campsite and proceeded to survey the area from a cliff just above. "I’ve seen at least three warlords so far," Xena noted. "I recognize Garrian and Trakis...I’m not sure who the third man is...," she continued to take inventory. "A few slaves, several prisoners, and more soldiers than I counted on," she added.

"Any idea where they might be keeping Gabrielle?," Charis inquired.

"I used to house my prisoners where I could keep an eye on them. So...I’m guessing that large tent in the center belongs to whoever is in charge," she replied. "And, more than likely, Gabrielle is being held in one of those two small huts behind it."

"Xena, I was expecting to run into Ephiny by now," she held up a hand to block the sun as her eyes scanned the area for any sign of her love.

"Charis...," the warrior spoke through a heavy sigh. "I’m guessing she’s somewhere in the compound," she reluctantly stated.

"I...I know...I was just...just hoping she would have waited for reinforcements," she replied, the expression on her face disclosing her concern.

Xena raised an eyebrow, giving her a sidelong look. She should know there was no way Ephiny was going to hide in the bushes and do nothing.

"I know, I know. Just wishful thinking, I guess," she shrugged her shoulders, knowing exactly what the warrior was thinking. Ephiny wasn’t the type to sit idly by, particularly when someone she loved was in trouble. She could only hope the Amazon hadn’t gotten hurt.....or worse. The gods, she had to be alright. She needed her desperately---loved her more than she had ever loved anyone and, at that moment, all she wanted to do was hold her in her arms.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The Amazon glanced around the corner of the hut at the two armed guards stationed near the door. Pressing her back against the wall, she contemplated her next move. She held the wine skin in plain view and slowly made her move. As she walked by the soldiers, one of the men called out, "Is that wine you’re carrying, slave girl? Because I could swear I spell spirits."

"Yes...yes, it is," Ephiny mumbled, averting her eyes.

"You can leave that here," he grinned, slapping his comrade on the back.

The Amazon handed over the skin and disappeared behind the hut, patiently waiting for the herb to take effect. Within moments, the two men were out cold. "Worthless bastards," Ephiny growled, stepping over the listless forms.

"Gabrielle?," she said softly to the sleeping bard.

"Ephiny!," she immediately opened her eyes and sat upright.

"That didn’t take much effort. You’re usually harder to wake than a dead man," the Amazon joked.

"I guess I’m too edgy to really sleep," the bard yawned, standing to approach her friend. "How did you get in here?"

"The two dimwits guarding the door suddenly decided to take a nap," she grinned.

"How are you feeling?," the bard asked, noticing that the Amazon was still wearing the same blood-stained cloak.

"It doesn’t hurt as much tonight," she lied. "I washed the wounds earlier in the creek when no one was looking."

"Ephiny, I’m so sorry," Gabrielle whispered, reaching out to gently place a hand on the Amazon’s cheek.

"You don’t owe me an apology," she insisted, tenderly kissing the palm of the bard’s hand.

"I can’t stop thinking about it...," she confessed. "I’m responsible for bringing evil into the world...and I don’t know what that means ...for any of us. Where is the baby I gave birth to that night, Ephiny? What if it’s here for the same reason as Hope? What if it’s already killed?," she agonized.

The Amazon’s mind flashed to the Centaur village and her son. The gods, if that beast harmed him....."They still haven’t found the Sword of Hilgist," she stated as she emerged from her thoughts.

"It’s only a matter of time," the bard sighed. "Maybe I’m meant to die here, Ephiny. Maybe it’s my destiny to be destroyed along with the rest of Dahak’s evil."

"Listen to me," the Amazon spoke up. "This world needs you. Don’t let these demented zealots affect your judgment. Dahak may be an evil force and possibly even a force more powerful than all the gods combined. But I’m telling you, Gabrielle---there is no way in Tartarus you’re one of his. There’s too much good in you---too much light," the she maintained, her eyes fixed on her queen’s.

Gabrielle tightened her grip on her friend’s hand and rested her forehead against the cold bars. Ephiny felt her heart break when the bard began to sob.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

"Charis, these men are organized and they’re prepared to kill anyone who gets in their way," the warrior reminded her friend who, in her desperation, wanted to enter the compound without any reinforcement. "Now, we just might be able to get Gabrielle and Ephiny out of there without any backup but not without a solid plan of action," she insisted.

"I know, Xena. I just can’t stand the thought of them being trapped in there," she clenched her jaw, grinding her teeth together.

"This isn’t easy for me either!," the warrior snapped, taking her companion off guard.

"Xena...," she said quietly, putting her arm around the warrior. "We’ll get to them in time."

Xena drew her near in a lingering embrace. She could hear her friend’s staggering breaths---feel her body beginning to tremble. Her soul empathizing with her suffering, the warrior held her in her arms until her tears, at last, subsided.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Xena and Charis crouched in the bushes, keeping a watchful eye of the warlord, Trakis. He had summoned two other warlords and his best men and was preparing to address them when Charis caught a glimpse of a slave who looked a lot like Ephiny, though from this distance, it was hard to be certain. She nudged the warrior and pointed toward the woman who was hauling fire wood across the campsite. Xena’s eyes zoomed in on the figure. After a moment, she turned to Charis, giving her a nod, indicating that the woman was indeed Ephiny.

It was all Charis could do to keep from bolting through the middle of the compound toward her, but she knew she would only be captured if she tried it. Silently, the two women waited for Trakis to begin his oration.

Xena watched the warlord closely, while Charis kept her eyes fixed on Ephiny. Without warning, Charis jumped to her feet and attempted to make a run for it. The warrior wrapped her arms around her friend’s legs, taking her down. She crawled on top of her and pinned her to the ground, covering her mouth with her hand, a menacing glint in her eyes. Charis wriggled beneath her, trying to break free. Xena could hear one of the soldiers approaching. The warrior knew her friend was only responding to what she had just witnessed. A passing soldier had just shoved his boot into Ephiny’s back with a force that sent her tumbling to the ground. The warrior knew if she had seen someone do that to Gabrielle, she would likely be the one needing to be restrained, but she couldn’t allow Charis to give them away. There was too much riding on this.

The soldier was close. The warrior held her breath, pressing her hand against Charis’ mouth. After briefly shifting through the nearby brush, the man assumed the noise he had heard was only a rabbit or some other small animal and headed back toward Trakis. Xena glared into Charis’ eyes before leaning down to whisper in her ear. "I’m going to let you up now. Don’t blow it. We’ll never get them out if you keep pulling stunts like that." With that, she released her hold on her. Though she could feel her blood boiling, Charis managed to regain control over herself and cooperate. Reluctantly, she forced herself to remain still long enough to listen to Trakis address his troops.

The warlord laid something on the ground in the center of the circle of soldiers. Kneeling down next to the shrouded object, he began to speak, "The God of War will be pleased, as I’m sure you will be also..." He paused, unfolding the blanket which enveloped the object. "Gentlemen...the Sword of Hilgist," a huge grin washed over his face as he revealed the ornate weapon. The surrounding men immediately erupted in celebratory cheers, marveling at the magnificent work of art. "Tonight, when the moon is high...," Trakis continued. "We sacrifice the deliverer and eliminate Dahak’s power. In doing so, we guarantee that the gods will not fall from authority and--more importantly--that Ares will be indebted to us. The God of War has promised that, if we succeed, we’ll command the greatest legion the world’s ever seen!," he shouted with exhilaration, rallying the ambitious soldiers.

The warrior and Charis, upon hearing the words, scrambled up the hill toward their horses. They couldn’t wait any longer. Time was running out and they had to make a move, with or without reinforcement.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Ephiny limped across the floor toward the cage, her back sore from the brutal blow she had just received. "Today," she whispered, passing food between the bars. The bard’s eyes narrowed, a perplexed expression emerging on her face. "I’m getting you out of here today," the Amazon declared. "Be ready. I have to go. They’re watching me," she whispered before turning and heading for the door.

Tears formed in Gabrielle’s eyes as she watched her friend hobble away. This was her fault. She should have known that Dahak’s corruption was permanent---that the moment the dark one planted his seed within her, any goodness she may have possessed was lost forever.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

"Do you two really want to do this by yourselves?," the voice came from behind them.

"Eponin! Thank the gods!," Charis blurted out upon seeing the regent.

Xena extended her arm, greeting the masked Amazon with a firm hold on her wrist. The war party moved in when they heard the regent sound the all-clear signal. The warrior and Charis explained the situation to the Amazons, giving them a detailed account of the information they had managed to gather.

The women then quickly moved into position, completely surrounding the compound. "Amazons, attack!," Eponin’s voice rang out, sending a sea of warriors storming down on the unsuspecting soldiers.

Xena easily fought her way through the first wave of men, slicing through one after the other with her sword. When she found herself outside the commanders’ tent, things became more difficult. The guards were all around her, swarming on her like flies. With a furious thrust, she shoved her blade through two of them at once before retracting it and forcing it behind her, taking out the soldier at her back. When one of the men managed to knock her sword from her hand, she quickly reached for her whip, coiling it around the man’s ankles with a jerk that sent him crashing to the ground. "Ayiyiyiyiyi!," she bellowed, somersaulting through mid-air, head over heals and right through the opening of the tent. "Heads up, boys!," she shouted, picking up a half-empty keg and hurling it in the men’s direction, knocking the warlords off their chairs.

Her eyes shifted, scouring the tent for the sword they intended to use to take her love’s life. In the corner, she noticed a flat box with a lock on it. That had to be it. She flipped through the air, scooped up the box, and bolted outside before the warlords or the remaining guards could lay a hand on her.

"We’ve got her!," Ephiny and Charis called out to Xena, allowing the warrior to head into the hills with the sword. Xena knew the two Amazons would get Gabrielle out of there. Right now, she had to get rid of the Sword of Hilgist. As long as the weapon remained, the bard would continue to be a target. The mere mention of Dahak had a way of sparking, not only fear, but marked irrationality as well. The combination of the two seemed to move people to do almost anything, the warrior thought. Anyone who truly believed that Gabrielle was the essence of evil had at least one screw loose. She had to get rid of the sword and find a way to protect the bard from these fanatics. Nudging Argo’s ribs, she coaxed the horse into a gallop and headed toward the neighboring village.

Eponin and Salir took out the last of the guards surrounding the small hut while Ephiny and Charis secured the keys to the cell that held the queen and made their way inside. "Let’s go, Gabrielle!," Ephiny announced as the four Amazons approached the cage.

Ephiny looked up, the keys slipping from her hand. Tears burned in her eyes as a wave of rage formed in the pit of her stomach, spreading over her quaking body. "Cut her down!," she screamed.

Charis wrapped her arms around her love, looking on as Eponin and Salir unlocked the door and moved inside the cage. She held the weeping Amazon while she watched the two women sawing away at the shredded blanket with their daggers. Eponin glanced out the window, making sure the Amazon warriors were still in control outside the hut, before lowering the queen’s limp body onto the pallet. Blinking her eyes to suppress her tears, she gazed at her queen’s colorless face. Why would she hang herself? Didn’t she know they would get there in time? Didn’t she know her sisters would never let her die at the hands of some deluded mob? And were they going to tell the warrior that Gabrielle had taken her own life?

Ephiny tore herself away from Charis’ arms and rushed to the bard’s side, pulling her close. "Damn you!," she shouted, pounding on the queen’s chest with her fist. "How could you do this?!," she screamed through her tears before collapsing onto her friend’s lifeless body.

"Ephiny...," Charis cautiously approached her. "We have to get her out of here," she whispered, gently caressing the Amazon’s back, cringing at the sight of the crimson stripes on her raw flesh.

Ephiny lifted her head, choking back her tears. Her anger shown in her eyes as she slowly stood and backed away from her deceased friend. Without a word, she exited the cage and walked outside. The three women, already beginning to mourn, carried the queen’s body outside. Eponin secured the body to her horse and called for a retreat. The Amazon warriors flanked their regent, somberly escorting their queen’s remains back to the Amazon village.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Ephiny stoically rode alongside Charis, her mind brimming with thoughts of Gabrielle. She held back her tears as she reflected on all that they had shared, nearly loosing it when she acknowledged that---only weeks before---she and the bard had been walking through Athens, happily bantering back and forth about the theater and apple pie. She couldn’t believe this was happening---couldn’t believe that soon she would watch the blaze of the funeral fire consume the best friend she had ever known.

Charis watched her love, her heart aching at the sight of her desolate expression. Without a word, she dismounted her horse, passed the reins to Salir, and climbed into the saddle behind her, wrapping her in her arms. Ephiny sank into her comforting embrace, silently thanking the goddess for the woman who, though she may not realize it, was the only thing keeping her from falling apart.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Xena stopped just outside of town and opened the box containing the sword, the craftsmanship of the weapon mesmerizing her. Retrieving her breast dagger from her cleavage, she immediately went to work, first removing the precious stones before detaching the blade from the handgrip. She buried the handle deep in the ground before making her way into town.

"My horse needs new shoes," she told the blacksmith.

"Well, that’s what I’m here for," the stocky man answered, lifting Argo’s back leg to take a look at her hoof.

"I have a special request," the warrior’s eyes narrowed.

"Let’s hear it," the man replied, his brow furrowed.

"I have this...," she removed the blade from the case. "I want it melted down with the iron. It was my father’s so it means a lot to me. Could you manage?"

"Well, I think so," he took the blade from her hands and proceeded to inspect the metal. "I can have her ready to go by tomorrow morning," he announced.

"," she abruptly replied. "I...I need it done as soon as possible. I’m in a bit of a hurry," she tried not to sound impatient.

"That’s going to cost you extra," he looked up at her.

"How much?"

"I can have it done in...oh let’s see...," he pondered. "Less than two candlemarks for fifteen dinars," he offered.

"You drive a hard bargain, but I’ll take it," she nodded. Hesitantly, she made a final request. "Mind if I watch you melt it down? It would mean so much to me."

"You sure?," the man asked, holding the blade above the boiling cauldron.

"Go ahead," she answered, folding her arms over her chest, watching as the heat consumed the blade.

The warrior left the horse behind and headed to the outskirts of town.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

"Come in, Xena," a voice called out before she had a chance to knock on the door. "Let’s see what you have, child," the oracle requested, patting her hand on the chair next to her, urging the warrior to sit.

Xena opened the pouch containing the jewels. The oracle examined them one by one, holding each up to the light. "Fine...lovely...," she muttered under her breath. "Valuable," she noted, raising an eyebrow as she shifted her gaze in the warrior’s direction.

"Sanshee, I know you’re aware of why I’m here and what I’m doing," Xena stated. "You also have to know how important this is to me...," her voice trailed off.

"I know, Xena. And I assure you, these will be of no use to anyone now that the Sword of Hilgist has been destroyed," she patted the warrior’s hand.

"I just didn’t want them to fall into the wrong hands," Xena explained.

"I’ll watch over them, my child. Don’t you worry about that. much do you want for them?," she inquired.

"I just need enough to pay for...," she paused, not wanting to say too much. "Can you manage twenty dinars?"

"Xena, these jewels are priceless..."

"Twenty dinars," the warrior reaffirmed. "I don’t need more," she insisted.

The oracle agreed and the deal was finalized. "You’re needed in the Amazon village," Sanshee informed her, a haunting look in her eyes as she placed a hand on her shoulder. "You must get there quickly."

"Gabrielle?," her eyes grew wide. "Sanshee, what’s...."

"Go, child," the oracle interrupted, refusing to say anything more.

Xena thanked her and headed back into town to retrieve Argo. After settling her debt with the blacksmith, she mounted the horse and left the village. She had to see Gabrielle. The fact that the bard was in the Amazon village was a good sign. At least they had managed to get her out of the compound. "Yah!," she shouted, directing Argo to pick up the pace as they entered the forest.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Eponin stood alone in the hut, staring down at Gabrielle’s vacant body. "I’d give anything to return this mask to you," she said softly, glancing at the queen’s mask she held in her hands. "You were one of the greatest leaders this nation’s ever known and I...," she fought her tears. "I’ll do my best to pick up where you left off."

"Eponin, am I disturbing you?," Ephiny quietly asked, slowly pushing the door open.

"Oh...Ephiny....," she whispered, her mind wandering. "No, come in," she granted.

The Amazon closed the door behind her and gradually approached. The two women stood in silence, their thoughts drifting back to better times. "I know I’m supposed to be honored to receive the queen’s mask, but...," Eponin hesitated before continuing. "I didn’t want it...not like this," she sighed.

"She would’ve wanted you to have it, Eponin. She held you in high regard."

The new queen turned to face the Amazon. "I’m going to give you some time alone," she said, brushing her hand over Ephiny’s back on her way out.

Ephiny stood motionless, staring straight ahead until she heard the latch on the door catch. Alone with her dearest friend, she moved closer to the body. "The dead can hear our thoughts," she muttered under her breath, taking the bard’s cold hand in her own. "I came here to tell you, one last time, what a difference you’ve made in my life. When I first met you, my heart was dormant and cold. But you managed to break through my defenses and chip away at the ice. Unfortunately, right now my heart’s lying in a puddle on the floor," she chuckled, her laughter quickly giving way to tears as she began to break down. "Dammit, I need you! I always will! Don’t you know that?!," she cried out in anguish. The Amazon embraced her friend and wept, unable to repress her grief. Moment after moment passed and still, she couldn’t bring herself to let her go.

"Ephiny?," Eponin cracked the door open. "I need to see you outside.....," she took in a deep breath. "Xena’s here."

"I...I’ll be right there," the Amazon answered, lifting her head. "Gabrielle...," she whispered. "I hope you find the peace you were looking for. I love you, my queen, " she kissed her lips, gently caressing her cheek, before turning away.

"Ephiny!," the warrior called out from the stables where she was securing Argo.

The Amazon felt like someone had just knocked the wind out of her, expelling the air from her lungs with a powerful blow. Charis and Eponin moved beside her and, together, the three women approached Xena. "Where’s Gabrielle?," the warrior smiled, eager to see her love. "What’s wrong?," the smile quickly faded when she noticed Ephiny’s tear stained cheeks. "Eph...Ephiny?," she stuttered, her eyes wide open.

"Xena...," the Amazon began, moving close to the warrior, taking both of her hands in her own. "Gab...Gabrielle...," she faltered, momentarily unable to continue.

"What’s going on, Ephiny?," tears welled up in the warrior’s eyes as her fear overwhelmed her.

"Xena...," her muscles tensed as she tried again. "Gabrielle’s dead," the Amazon forced the words through her lips. "She took her own life...hung herself in her cell before we could..."

"You’re lying!," the warrior shouted, jerking her hands away from the Amazon. "She wouldn’t do that!," she screamed, taking off toward the hut she had just seen Ephiny exit.

"Xena! Xe...," Ephiny started to follow, only to be held back by Charis.

"Let her go," Charis whispered, taking the sobbing Amazon into her arms.

The warrior shoved the door open and stared ahead in disbelief. Charis, Ephiny, and the queen watched as her body began to falter. Xena felt the earth moving beneath her feet---saw the room spinning before her eyes as she started to stumble, collapsing in the doorway.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

"Sweetheart?," Charis said softly, approaching the Amazon from behind.

"Would you mind leaving me alone to change?," Ephiny answered, stifling her tears.

"Please let me take a look at your wounds. I’m worried about you," she hesitantly replied, taking a step toward her love.

"Charis....I....I don’t want you to see me like this," she bit her lip, looking down at the floor, refusing to face her.

Charis moved closer, gently placing her arms around her waist. "I won’t force you, but I’d like it if you would let me take care of you for once," she whispered, tenderly kissing her cheek.

Ephiny remained still, feeling the warmth of her breath on her cheek. "I...I’m afraid I let my sisters down," she sighed.

"Ephiny, you did what you had to do for...for the queen," the words caught in her throat as she was reminded of Gabrielle. "No one’s going to think any less of you for that."

"I let them beat me, Charis. I didn’t fight back. I just stood there and took it," she confessed, obviously angry at herself.

"Why, Ephiny? Why didn’t you fight back?," she asked, pulling her closer.

"Because...because I wanted to stay alive long enough to save her," she grumbled.

Charis gently shifted her hands, guiding the Amazon around until they were face to face. "Yes, my love, you conceded for the queen’s sake alone. I know you...if it hadn’t been for Gabrielle, you would have defended yourself...fought them to the death before you surrendered."

Ephiny knew she was right. She just felt so guilty---so enraged. She had forsaken her body, her dignity, and her honor for her queen and, though she tried not to, she resented the bard for taking her own life.

Reluctantly, the Amazon removed her cloak. Charis tried not to cry when she saw the swollen gashes covering her back and shoulders. Unable to speak, she embraced her love, careful not to aggravate her wounds. "I’ll draw you a bath," she finally managed to say.

Ephiny sank into the tub, slowly lowering her body, the warm water stinging the open cuts. Charis gently moved the sponge over her raw flesh, cleansing each wound. "You’re a courageous woman. I admire that," she winked, inciting a faint smile on her love’s face.

"What would I do without you?," the Amazon sighed.

Charis leaned over, softly kissing her. Ephiny placed her hands on her face, guiding her closer, ravenously claiming her mouth with her own.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The warrior had been asleep for nearly a full day, Ephiny and Charis keeping vigil at her side. She opened her eyes briefly before drifting away once more. She had the same dream over and over again. Obsessively, relentlessly---the haunting images filled her mind, invading her slumber.

Gabrielle is lying on the ground, flat on her back, wailing in anguish. Xena is standing on a cliff high above, a smile adorning her face as she gazes down on her love. A baby’s cry resounds and two luminous forms appear next to the warrior, taking her arms---soaring through the air, placing her gently on the ground at the bard’s feet. Gabrielle’s tears subside and a tender smile emerges on her face as she hands Xena the newborn. The warrior holds the child close and places her lips against the infant’s forehead, a single tear trickling down her cheek. The two ghostly forms begin to speak..........

"Xena? Xena?," Ephiny whispered, shaking her gently in an attempt to wake her. The groggy warrior forced her eyes open, taking in the blurred image in front of her.

"Gabrielle...the baby...," Xena uttered, barely able to keep herself from slipping back into her slumberous haze.

The Amazon stretched out on the bed next to the warrior and planted a lingering kiss on her cheek. "You were dreaming, Xena. You’ve been sleeping for a long while. Will you let me get you something to eat?," she asked.

"I’m not hungry," the warrior uttered, reality reminding her that the bard was no longer there with her.

"At least drink some cider," she persisted, rising to her feet. "Come sit with me," she extended her hand to her friend in an effort to coax her out of bed.

"I...I can’t, Ephiny. I have to...have to hear what she has to say," she mumbled, closing her eyes.

"What who has to say? Xena, what...," but her friend was already fast asleep.

Ephiny watched the warrior’s eyelids twitch as she lapsed into her dream.

The warrior holds the child close and places her lips against the infant’s forehead, a single tear trickling down her cheek. The two ghostly forms begin to speak. Artemis begins, "I speak to you as goddess of the moon, of the hunt, and patroness of childbirth. Will you accept my gift?" The Moon Goddess fades away and the second spirit speaks, "I am Diana, Roman goddess of nature, of fertility, and of childbirth. Will you accept my gift?" The warrior stammers, stumbling over her words, trying in vain to speak...............

Xena’s body flinched, jolting her awake. "Are you ok?," Charis asked, a look of concern on her face.

"The dream....the goddess....I have to...," she mumbled and closed her eyes again.

The Moon Goddess fades away and the second spirit speaks, "I am Diana, Roman goddess of nature, of fertility, and of childbirth. Will you accept my gift?" The warrior stammers, stumbling over her words, trying in vain to speak as the goddess vanishes. Feeling light as down, she finds herself drifting toward the sky, disappearing in the midst of the clouds, calling out to her love. The baby has disappeared from her arms and she has no choice but to follow the wind as it urges her on. Gazing down, she can see a small cabin nestled among the trees, a soft purple glow illuminating the dwelling---beckoning--- summoning her.

The warrior abruptly sat upright, yet remained asleep. "Xena...Xena, wake up," Ephiny pleaded. The warrior opened her eyes wide and stared blankly at the Amazon. "Xena?," Ephiny muttered, growing increasingly distraught.

"I need your help," the warrior suddenly exclaimed, gripping the Amazon’s arms.

"Wh...what do you need?," she stammered.

"Come with me....please," she looked deep into her eyes.

"Where, Xena?," she asked, her confusion evident.

"The abandoned cabin in the forest just across the it still there?"

"Y...yes, it is.....why?"

"We have to take her there," the warrior insisted. "We have to..."

"Who, Xena?.....," the Amazon interrupted. "Ga...Gabrielle?," her eyes widened.

"Ephiny, I can’t explain it, but I know what I have to do. I’m taking her. And there’s nothing you can do to stop me," she firmly declared. "I realize that she’s your queen, but we were bonded for life. I’m asking you to respect that union and let me leave in peace. Now...I need your help, but I’ll do this without you if I have to."

"Xena, you can’t just....."

"I’m going," the warrior cut her off, standing to put on her armor. When she finished lacing her boots, she gave the Amazon a quick hug before turning toward the door. "You’ll understand soon," she assured her as she made her way outside.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

The warrior wrapped the bard in a blanket, saddled Argo, and set out by the light of the moon. The cabin wasn’t far from the Amazon village. It wouldn’t take her long to get there. Though she didn’t know whether or not she was doing the right thing, she knew she had to try. A strange sensation moved over her as she forged ahead---an eerie calm settling in her chest, taking over her body. She talked to her love along the way, praying to the gods that---somehow---she would hear her words.

When she arrived at the cabin, the warrior carried Gabrielle inside. She placed her on the bed and covered her with a blanket before quickly bringing in wood from the pile outside and lighting the fire. She moved an old crate next to the bed and kept watch over the bard, patiently waiting---for what, she wasn’t sure.

After a while, she heard something outside---footsteps on the porch. Picking up her sword, she moved across the room, positioning herself behind the door. The door shifted on its hinges and two figures entered the room. She lunged forward, wrapping an arm around each of the unsuspecting women’s necks. "Xena, it’s us!," the startled Amazon protested.

"Ephiny?," she loosened her grip, spinning the woman around to face her. "What made you change your mind?," she smiled.

"We want to help," Ephiny answered.

"Xena, I don’t know what you’re up to, but I trust your judgment," Charis said, extending her arm. The warrior clutched her friend’s forearm, obviously pleased to see them both.

Together, they sat next to the fire, keeping a watchful eye on the bard, alternating between laughter and tears as they reflected on their departed friend’s antics. Suddenly the warrior looked as though she was in a trance, staring ahead. Though they tried, Ephiny and Charis were unable to reach her. In her hypnotic state, she was no longer aware of their presence.

The two Amazons quickly turned their heads, their eyes instantly fixed on the queen. What was happening? They couldn’t believe their eyes as they looked on in awe, watching her body transform. "Xena?! Xena?!," they both tried in desperation to rouse the warrior.

Xena’s eyes glistened, enchanted by the glowing forms before her. The goddesses hovered slightly above the floor. Diana, holding a baby in her arms, began to speak. This is the child your love is about to bring into the world. He is not a child of darkness, but a child of the light. Artemis moved closer, the light illuminating from her form sparkling in the warrior’s eyes. The queen is about to give birth to your son. He’ll have your eyes and Gabrielle’s royal blood. He is born of your love.

"Gabrielle!," Xena suddenly exclaimed, focusing her attention on the bard.

"Xena, what’s happening?," Ephiny asked, her fear intensifying---growing as rapidly as the queen’s stomach.

"Move over, momma! I’m about to be a momma!," the warrior joyfully shouted, kissing the Amazon square on the mouth.

"Xena, what in Tartarus are you talking about?," she chuckled despite herself.

"Umm...should I being doing something here?," Charis interjected, a stupefied expression on her face.

"Warm water and lots of clean cloths would be greatly appreciated!," the warrior gaily requested through a grin so goofy the sight of it almost made the Amazon trip over her own feet.

Gabrielle’s body suddenly jolted. She gasped as the air filled her lungs. Her vision still hazy, her eyes sought out the warrior. "Xena," she whispered at the sight of her love. The warrior leaned over her, tenderly kissing her lips. "Xena, please don’t harm it," the bard pleaded. "It’s...he’s..."

"He’s our son," the warrior said softly, a smile emerging through her tears as her emotion overwhelmed her. "I know, Gabrielle," she brushed her finger tips softly over the bard’s face, gazing into her eyes with wonder. "I thought I had lost you," she pulled her near, holding her tight.

"I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to..."

"Shh...don’t," the warrior interrupted, gently placing her finger tips on her lips. "It’s over," she sighed, drawing her even closer.

"Ephiny...Charis," the bard gazed up at her friends. "I’m so glad you’re here," she smiled warmly.

"We’re just glad you’re here," Ephiny reciprocated, leaning down to embrace the queen. "It’s good to see you again, my friend."

The bard suddenly cried out in pain, her abdomen contorting, growing several sizes before settling in an expanse so enormous the sight of it made Ephiny groan with discomfort. "The gods...," the Amazon muttered, her mouth gaping wide.

Xena removed her armor, hastily throwing each article across the room, before settling between the queen’s legs. Shifting her weight from side to side, a wild look in her eyes, she held out her hands as though she thought the child might be catapulted from the womb at the speed of sound.

"Gods! Somebody do something! I’M GONNA BLOW!," the bard suddenly shrieked as intense contractions began to wrack her body.

"Breathe, Gabrielle. Focus on your breathing.," Ephiny coached.

The bard concentrated, rhythmically inhaling and exhaling. "You’re doing great, sweetie. Give me a push," the warrior urged, gently massaging the bard’s thighs.

"Ok. Ok, Xena," Gabrielle panted. "I’ll give you a push!," she suddenly erupted. "A big push for making me give birth to a GIGANTIC WARRIOR BABY! He’s huuuge," she groaned.

The warrior chuckled under her breath. "You’re doing fine, sweetie. Everything’s fine," she assured her.

"," Ephiny reminded her.

"Ephiny...," the bard grabbed the Amazon by her tunic and forced her closer. "Could you please stop? I mean, I’m doing ok with the ‘out’ part, but every time you say ‘in’, my muscles contract and I suck this baby BACK IN!," she clinched her teeth. "Do you understand?," she lowered her voice in an attempt to sound reasonable. "I’ll never get anywhere at this rate."

"Sing to me, Charis," the bard batted her eyes at her friend.

"I..I can’t...I don’t know...," she stuttered.

"SING, WOMAN! As your queen, I demand it!"

"Umm...ok...," she proceeded to sing the Amazon hunting song---very badly. Ephiny covered her mouth with her hand, trying not to laugh as the queen’s eyes burned a hole through Charis.

"ENOUGH! Holy Hades on a stick, you’re bad," the bard groaned, taking in a deep breath.

"In....oops....out....out....," Ephiny attempted, but fell silent when she realized it just wasn’t working.

"I see his head!," Xena exclaimed. "Push, Gabrielle!"

"His head? You see his little head?," the bard asked, her tone suddenly becoming sweet as she looked down at the warrior with tears in her eyes.

Charis and Ephiny knelt beside her. Ephiny held her close, whispering in her ear---telling her what wonderful parents she and Xena were going to be, telling her that she believed in her, that she loved her, that the world was a better place because she was in it.

"One more push, Gabrielle," the warrior urged, her heart skipping several beats.

Squeezing Charis’ hand, gritting her teeth, her cheek pressed against Ephiny’s, she found the strength to bear down one last time. Xena cut the cord and held up the newborn, the sound of her son’s first cry sparking tears of elation in the four women’s eyes.

Ephiny and Charis backed away, huddling close to each other as they watched Xena place the infant in Gabrielle’s arms. Together, they coddled their son, tenderly stroking his velvet skin, basking in the splendor of the confirmation of their love. With eyes as blue as the sky and hair as fair as ivory, he was the very essence of his doting mothers.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Xena held the bard in her arms, watching her suckle their son. "I’m retiring," she quietly announced. Gabrielle abruptly turned to look at the warrior, unable to grasp what she had just heard.

"I mean it, Gabrielle. I’m ready to give up life on the road---sleeping on the ground, fighting the elements. We have a child to think about now and I’m not about to drag the two of you from village to village and there’s no way I’d even consider traveling without you," she insisted.

"Xena, you’ll never be happy if you deny your purpose. What will you do with yourself?"

"Gabrielle, you are my purpose. You know, we really have to agree on a name," she went off on a brief tangent before continuing. "I thought we would fix this place up. It’s isolated, it’s peaceful, and the scenery couldn’t be any more beautiful. It’s perfect and, besides, you always said you wanted to live in a cabin in the woods, far away from everything...."

"Xena...," she sighed, kissing her tenderly, lovingly, deeply.

"One more thing...," the warrior said, tearing herself from the most amazing kiss she had ever experienced.

"Hmm?," the bard muttered.

"I was thinking about asking Ephiny and Charis if they would like to join us. You know---with Xenan. After all, there’s more than enough room and there is a lot of work to be done," she smiled.

"I would love that," she sighed, overwhelmed by the love sparkling in the warrior’s eyes.

"We’ll ask them when they return from their ride. Now...we need to name our son. Do you have anything in mind?"

Both women looked down at the infant, now sleeping peacefully. "What about Galen?," the bard suggested, trying to read the expression on the warrior’s face. "It means ‘calm.’"

"Galen...," Xena whispered, giving the name careful consideration. "I love it," she easily agreed, leaning into her love for yet another heart-rending kiss.

"We don’t mean to interrupt," Ephiny said in a hushed tone, trying not to wake the infant, as she and Charis entered the cabin. "Do you need some more time alone?," she understandingly inquired.

"No, come in...please," Gabrielle responded. "Would you like to put Galen down for the night?," she gave the Amazon a warm smile.

"Galen...calm...what a wonderful name," she whispered as the bard placed the child in her arms. She carried the infant across the room, sitting on the side of the bed, lost in the newborn’s innocence. Charis, unable to resist, joined her, both women making over the child.

"They’re going to spoil him rotten," the warrior whispered to the bard.

"You bet we are!," Ephiny exclaimed, glancing over her shoulder at the two lovers. The Amazon kissed the infant’s forehead before placing him in the cradle. The warrior, in her enthusiasm, had recruited Charis and the two women had crafted the most beautiful cradle the bard had ever seen.

"Have a seat," the warrior addressed the two Amazons.

"What is it?," Ephiny inquired, noting the serious expression on her face. "Is something wrong?," her brow crinkled.

"No, everything’s fine," Xena assured her. "We’ve been discussing it and...," she smiled at the bard before returning her attention to the two women. "Gabrielle and I have decided to settle here. We’ve always wanted a place like this," she sighed. "We were wondering if maybe you two and Xenan, of course, would like to stay here with us."

The two Amazon’s looked at each other, a hint of surprise on both their faces. "We were just talking about how much we like it here. In fact, we were considering settling here if the two of you decided to move on," Charis replied, glancing at Ephiny.

"It would work out quite well. I mean, Charis and I would be here with Gabrielle and Galen when you’re away," Ephiny pointed out.

"Actually...," the bard beamed. "Xena’s decided to hang up her chakram."

The two Amazons looked at each other in disbelief, their jaws dropping to the floor. "You’re retiring?," a wide-eyed Ephiny asked.

"Yes," the warrior replied through a huge grin. "It’s time," she insisted. "We could really use your help getting the place in shape. And we would honestly love to have you here with us," she smiled.

"Charis?," the Amazon turned to face her, waiting for her response.

"Absolutely!," Charis gladly approved. "If we send word to the Centaur colony in the morning, we can have Xenan here by sunset," she noted. Ephiny’s heart soared as the words fell on her ears.

Xena and Charis spent most of the evening conspiring---discussing which projects were most pressing, mapping out a plan of action for getting the place in shape. Ephiny sat with Gabrielle, her body still recovering from all that it had recently endured. The four women remained awake late into the evening, deliberating their future, dreaming aloud of raising their sons together.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

"Mmmm yes, Charis...yeesss...oh gods!...oh GODS!," Ephiny cried out in ecstasy.

"Could you be more specific, Ephiny?! Which gods?!," the warrior called out from the next room, chuckling under her breath as she snuggled close to the bard.

"All of ‘em!," Ephiny blurted out, still trying to catch her breath. "We gotta build thicker walls," she whispered in Charis’ ear as her laughter overcame her.

The End

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