A Nation's Pride
By Kennedy Northcutt ©2009
This story takes place several months after the events of the third season of Xena. It includes references to the episodes The Bitter Suite, One Against an Army and others that touched on Britannia, Chin, Velasca and the rift that developed between Xena and Gabrielle.
When Xena and Gabrielle arrive at the Amazon village, they are in for more than they bargained for. When a sudden illness takes Gabrielle down, Xena must help the Amazons deal with a threat that could undermine their chances for a peaceful future. Will Xena's efforts on behalf of the Amazons end in disaster? Will the gods interfere, once again? Or will past prejudices and present animosities change the landscape forever?
Disclaimers and other stuff: XWP and its characters belong to someone else. I'm just borrowing them temporarily with no monetary compensation.
This story depicts a loving relationship between two consenting adult women and contains some intimate moments, but nothing too explicit. If you are under 18 or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, do not read any further. If stories about two women in a loving relationship disturb you, go elsewhere.
There's some violence, of course. This is a Xena tale, after all. There is also a brief scene involving near-violence of a sexual nature involving one of the main characters. Nothing too graphic, but if it's not for you, be warned.
Feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. I would appreciate hearing from you. Happy reading!!!
Springtime in Greece. The ground was still soggy from recent showers and the first blooms were peeking out of the muddy ground. A few flowers had braved the cold wet and were boldly displaying their glory during a break in the weather. There were even a few courageous song birds flitting about in the crisp morning air. Their songs boldly heard on the gentle breeze spoke of the approaching summer months.
Xena and Gabrielle were on their way to the Amazon village to work on peace negotiations between the Amazons and several surrounding villages. The population around Amazon territory had grown exponentially in a few short years and the nation of warrior women were becoming more restless with the encroachment on their lands by neighbors who thought it was their right to use the surrounding Amazon lands and forests. After all, they reasoned, the Amazon women didn't seem to mind. That's what they thought.
This was an important step for the nation of women, who considered the villagers nothing more than unwelcome invaders. However, being a practical people, the Amazons also knew that progress would move forward with or without their participation. Despite their slowly-increasing numbers, the Amazons were still far from a vast majority. Truth be told, their population was losing ground, as much from disease and starvation as from war.
The surrounding villages did nothing to help the spread of infectious diseases. But the village numbers were increasing exponentially in the face of the Amazon decline. Having villages dedicated exclusively to women, without the benefit of a steady supply of men to provide the needed seed for procreation, didn't help matters. Things were becoming desperate enough for the Amazons of Thrace to seriously consider trading hunting and fishing rights on Amazon lands in exchange for "breeding" services.
That thought made Gabrielle want to scream in frustration. She knew how important new blood was to the Amazon sisterhood. But she was also adamantly against having her sisters use themselves as brood mares, simply to increase their numbers. Her own experience with Dahak contributed to her opinion on the subject, but Gabrielle didn't care. The very thought of her fellow Amazons prostituting themselves in the name of the Greater Good of the Amazon Nation made Gabrielle angry and had caused more than one argument over the course of her current travels with Xena.
"Do you think Ephiny will be glad to see us?" Gabrielle asked, trying to keep her voice even, despite an annoying scratchiness in her throat.
After three summers of traveling with the stoic Warrior Princess and countless battles, skirmishes and adventures together, the bard knew any weakness on her part would be met with impatience and worry. Their recent experiences in Britannia and Illusia still sat uneasily with both of them. They had reached a new plateau in their relationship, but were still unwilling to compromise completely when it came to the little things.
Gabrielle knew in the depths of her heart that she loved the tall warrior more than life itself. It had taken her no time at all to understand the truth of her feelings for Xena after the rift that nearly tore them apart forever. And, despite everything they had gone through together, she still wasn't sure what the warrior truly felt for her. They were more than friends. But for Gabrielle the feelings went far deeper, far beyond mere friendship. She just didn't know how to express those feelings without having Xena look at her like she'd suddenly become a hydra and sprouted an extra head.
For her part, Xena's thoughts ran in a totally different direction. Ever the consummate warrior, Xena was remembering their last visit to the Amazons. She hadn't made a good impression, to say the least, especially when it came to breaking their regent's arm, dragging their queen behind her horse and then falling off a cliff with the latter. Although Ephiny and the others had said they forgave her for what she'd done, there were still those in the tribe who eyed the dark Warrior Princess with trepidation and mistrust.
Now Gabrielle and Xena were returning to the Amazons. Gabrielle couldn't help the unreasoning worry that crept up from her deepest, darkest secret place. It was the same fear from all those years ago when they first travelled together-that the warrior would simply leave her someplace if Xena perceived any weakness from the bard. Would Xena abandon her to the Amazons? After all, Gabrielle was their queen now and would be a welcome addition to the village. Hadn't those been Ephiny's exact words just before the warrior and bard had last departed the village?
"You okay?" Xena's acute senses picked something up, regardless. "You sound a little rough this morning."
"I'm fine," Gabrielle answered. "Just a little hoarse from all the storytelling last night, I guess." She shrugged and continued walking with as much energy as she could muster.
Xena shrugged it off with her usual nonchalance. "If you say so, Gabrielle," she glanced around, listening closely to the sounds around them. "'Cause you sounded a little more stuffed up than usual, too. You're not coming down with something are you?" She looked pointedly at her traveling companion, who sped up enough to walk slightly ahead of her.
Xena was more than a little worried, but didn't want to let on. Ever since they almost killed each other such a short time ago, their relationship just wasn't the same. There was a vast distance between them that hadn't been there before Hope killed Solon-or before the lies started, for that matter. It annoyed her not to have Gabrielle exhaust every possible topic as they walked the roads of Greece. Actually, the bard hadn't said more than a few words since they started out that morning. That was more usual than not nowadays. Sure, she still did the bard thing when they were in a tavern, but when they traveled she remained virtually silent.
"I'm fine, Xena," Gabrielle answered shortly, still not willing to meet her companion's gaze for fear Xena would see just how lousy she felt. "Once we reach Amazon territory I'll be even better. I'm just a little tired of traveling." She sighed and stifled a cough that threatened to erupt from deep in her chest. "It'll be nice to stay put for a few days, even if it means I have to sit and listen to a bunch of argumentative, headstrong warriors and their village elders talk about how few Amazons there are now." She gingerly cleared her increasingly sore throat, as another tickle in her chest almost made her cough again. "I don't think this is going to be an easy undertaking for any of the parties involved." She sighed again, but kept quiet.
She knew how acute Xena's hearing was and could sense the warrior watching her closely. Did Xena suspect she was sick? Were her acute warrior senses picking up on Gabrielle's efforts to hide her misery and the lethargy that was slowing her strides?
Xena's gaze narrowed for a brief instant. "Maybe they'll surprise everyone and come to a quick and decisive agreement. Who knows, maybe they'll throw that breeding clause into the mix and close the deal." She turned her attention to their surroundings, while still keeping the bard in her peripheral vision. "Stranger things have happened you know."
"Yeah, and pigs fly," Gabrielle grumbled. Her eyes were starting to burn and she could feel a sneeze coming on, but stifled it just in time. She swallowed and grimaced at the increasing soreness in her throat. "I really don't want to talk about the Amazons, Xena."
She wished they hadn't stopped in that last village. She also wished she hadn't been compelled to tell a few stories in the healer's hut. The village had been overtaken by a coughing sickness that had left half the occupants ill and the other half taking care of the invalids. The sickness had claimed few casualties, but that didn't mean that it wasn't a damned inconvenience for everyone involved.
"Maybe pigs fly in that last village we visited," Xena smirked at her little joke, hoping it would bring her partner out of this funk she was obviously in. It didn't. "Come on, Gabrielle, you have to admit that was a good one."
Gabrielle wasn't really listening and tried not to shiver when an unexpected chill ran down her spine. Great, just great, she thought. I am not getting sick. I am not getting sick. I am not…she stifled another sneeze just in time.
Upon awakening that morning, the bard knew she was coming down with the same illness that had swept through the village. Xena had warned her not to get involved, but had she listened? The miserable bard tried to ignore the pounding and congestion in her head as she stifled another sneeze.
Unfortunately, she knew it wouldn't be long before she would have to acknowledge her illness to her erstwhile companion. The gods knew she didn't need this. Not now. They were far too busy and their relationship was too tenuous for an illness to get in the way. At least that's what Gabrielle's fevered mind kept telling her as she trudged onward.
She glanced up between the tree limbs hanging over the road and saw the approaching storm clouds, then squared her shoulders with an exasperated sigh. She realized that things were definitely not looking up for them, especially when a chest-deep cough erupted involuntarily and she was hard-pressed to hide it from her partner's uncanny hearing. Luckily, a rumble of thunder overhead drowned out all the noises around them, including the cough. Unfortunately, Gabrielle knew the approaching storm wouldn't be long in dumping torrents on them, making her even more miserable than she already was.
What started as a bright, sunshiny morning was quickly turning into something much more ominous. The clouds were moving in quickly and the wind had picked up considerably, blowing leaves, dust and debris around with gusty abandon. The few birds who had been happily singing that morning were now seeking shelter as the angry sky turned ugly shades of gray mixed with whirls of churning and rumbling black. Thunder continued rolling in the distance, and the impending storm's fury did not bode well for the remainder of their travels, much less her illness.
"Gonna rain soon," Xena commented absently, eyeing the approaching clouds and then glancing at her companion. "We should probably find somewhere to hole up until it passes."
"Yeah," Gabrielle agreed dejectedly, concentrating all her remaining energy on putting one foot in front of the other.
A long silence ensued, until Xena could no longer stand it. She was so used to her partner's constant former chattering that the silence was almost deafening. It was driving her nuts and not in a good way, either. There was no one on the road for her to take her aggressions out on and they hadn't seen anyone for her to rescue, either.
"You've been really quiet lately. What's up, Gabrielle?" Xena asked. "You won't even laugh at my jokes. And the last one was pretty funny."
Gabrielle, who was trying to think of something other than the increasing chills that were chasing up and down her spine with each gust of icy wind, glanced up to meet sky-blue eyes filled with concern, then quickly looked away. "Hmm?" Gabrielle uttered, as she realized Xena had asked a question. "I'm sorry, Xena. What did you say?"
"Are you okay? You seem a little…" she shrugged. "I don't know… distant? Distracted? It's not like you." The warrior shrugged and quirked a questioning brow at the smaller woman. "By now we've usually gone through two games of 'Guess the Warlord', taken stock of all the passing fauna, exhausted the philosophical and ethical meanderings of that beautiful mind of yours. You haven't even told me one of your latest stories and that's certainly not like you. What gives?"
Just then, a gust of wind blew down the collar of Gabrielle's coat, causing her to shiver unconsciously. She was so caught up in her misery that she completely missed the "beautiful" mixed in with the warrior's other words. On a good day, the bard would have caught the slip. But this just wasn't a good day.
At the same moment, Xena's attention was caught by something and she stopped dead. The warrior scanned the surrounding area for the danger she sensed. Something was out of place, and she patiently waited for that something to reveal itself.
"What?" Gabrielle asked after they stood there for several uncomfortably silent moments. Moments that gave her time to contemplate her precarious health and the approaching storm. "Xena?"
"Company," Xena answered as her senses went on high alert and her eyes scanned the trees around them.
"How many?" Gabrielle asked, slowly lifting her staff to a defensive position.
Gabrielle knew she wasn't up for a fight, not with the fever that was making her aching limbs feel like she was trying to move underwater. Even so, she couldn't leave her partner's back unprotected, no matter how confident she was that Xena could handle a fight on her own. In their years together this was the one concession she had reached in their relationship, and she wasn't about to give it up over a sore throat and sniffles.
"Just be ready," Xena said, drawing her sword and twirling it effortlessly, as her eyes scanned their surroundings. She smiled at the sudden opportunity to let her aggressions loose.
A moment later the road was filled with a dozen scruffy ruffians. The leader was a burly, bald thug dressed in black leather and sporting several silver hooped earrings. He had a tattoo down one arm and a rather large sword in his other hand. His companions were dressed in similar garb and were equally as scruffy. They all looked ready for a fight. Gabrielle merely groaned in silent protest.
"Give over," the leader growled, planting his feet and crossing his arms, so that his sword stuck straight up against his left shoulder. "Your dinars for your lives." His words earned a hearty laugh from his companions.
Xena merely stood there and gave him her most bored grin. "Give over? That the best you got?" She twirled her own sword casually, watching their faces for the usual reaction or recognition.
The leader looked a little befuddled at their lack of intimidation, but quickly recovered his bravado. "We'll take yer val'ables," he continued. "Startin' wif that sword and the round thing on yer hip there." A rumble of thunder made him look uncomfortably up at the sky before he regained his bravado.
"Xena," Gabrielle said loudly, watching for the man's reaction and getting the desired flash of recognition at the mention of her partner's name. "You think we can just skip all the chatter this time? I'm really not in the mood." She quirked a blond brow at the man and smirked knowingly, as she took up a casual stance next to her partner.
Xena smiled outright when she saw the surprise register in the man's eyes. "Oh, I think we can do just that."
"X-Xena?" The leader's voice suddenly displayed much less bravado and a slight squeak. "Y-yer not…the Xena," he swallowed visibly. "Are ya?"
"One and the same," she answered drolly, crossing her arms over her chest and giving him a hard, unwavering glare. "Now that the introductions are over, can we get on with this?" She glanced up at the sky. "I'd like to get my friend to shelter before the storm hits. She's been a little under the weather, so to speak." There were answering snickers from the leader's men.
He glared at his cronies and they argued for several long moments. There was a great deal of hand and sword waving, as well as unintelligible shouting. However, the leader finally turned back to the two women who hadn't moved.
"Get 'em, boys!" He yelled, raising his sword for emphasis.
Xena was ready when the first two attackers reached her. She swung for their heads and met their swords, blow-for-blow. Her battle cry was intimidating enough to cause both men to hesitate just long enough for her to get past their defenses. They were quickly dispatched to Hades, as the warrior's sword sliced across their respective mid-sections. The next three were not so easily intimidated and gave her a run for her money.
Gabrielle, who was silently girding herself for the first attack, met the man with a combination block-kick-backhanded-swing of her staff. She twirled the wooden stick and met the downward arc of his blade, catching the blade on the scarred wood. With practiced ease, she twisted the Amazon weapon and managed to disarm her opponent.
"Wanna give up now?" She asked hoarsely as she held the staff in front of her. "Save me the trouble of knocking you senseless." He merely growled in answer and attacked with renewed vigor. "Suit yourself." She shrugged as she met his attack blow-for-blow with as much energy as she could muster.
His swing just missed her head as he followed it up with a kick to her midsection. Gabrielle blocked the sword and managed to just dodge the foot that nearly collided with her exposed ribs. She pushed the sword up and brought the other end of the staff across the man's face. The blow didn't have much force behind it, however, and the man was only stunned for a brief instant, before he resumed his attack.
Just then, Gabrielle noticed another thug trying to sneak up behind her. Senses that she and Xena had been working on were attuned to the new threat. She turned and kicked out, but the move left her vulnerable to her first attacker and he took advantage. With a menacing growl he pounced, knocking Gabrielle to the ground in a heap of tangled arms and legs. The second attacker took advantage, as well, and soon Gabrielle found herself struggling for escape.
Xena, who was busy with three huge brutes of her own, caught a glimpse of her partner before Gabrielle was taken down. She was quite surprised to see the shorter woman, who could definitely hold her own in a fight, go down so easily. She was even more surprised to note that her partner wasn't emerging from the pile as easily as she should have.
"Gabrielle!" Xena yelled as she blocked a sword blow and took out the sword's owner with a swift swipe of her blade. "Gabrielle!! Are you all right?"
Gabrielle wasn't all right. She was being squashed by two men who were bent on suffocating her. She felt an elbow connect with her ribs and tried to kick out with all her might. Her staff was pinned beneath one of the thugs, and she knew it was completely useless to her. Hot, rancid breath on her neck brought a wave of shear panic, as she realized one of the men was grabbing for her skirt. His intentions were all too clear, and Gabrielle realized she was about to be raped by one or both of the sweaty, filthy brutes. Images of Dahak flashed through her mind and she felt bile burning her sore throat.
"Xena!!!!!!!!!" She screamed, as much strength as she could muster, her throat raw with the effort. "Xeeeeeenaaa!!!!!"
She struggled furiously, calling up every ounce of depleted reserves she could muster. With the hand that wasn't pinned, she managed to swing and connect with flesh. She heard a muffled curse, but still felt her skirt being pulled. She drew up her legs and struggled to break free with well-placed kicks that seemed to have absolutely no effect on her attackers.
"Keep fightin', girlie," a man growled against her ear. "Yeah, that's it. I love it when you fight me. Makes me hot for ye."
She turned her head and felt flesh next to her teeth. With renewed determination, she opened her mouth and clamped down on the ear that was within reach. The man screamed and grabbed for his bleeding ear. As he lifted off her, Gabrielle kicked out and connected with his groin with a satisfying thud that nearly sent him sprawling. Unfortunately, he was fast and swung a beefy fist at her head, connecting solidly with her jaw and sending a flash of bright stars that momentarily stunned her.
Just then, the man was suddenly lifted off her and thrown through the air. The other man, who didn't seem to notice his friend's absence, continued his assault. He was about to plunge his hand down Gabrielle's skirt, before he was quickly lifted off the stunned woman and thrown toward his friend. Both men crashed into each other and landed in unconscious heaps.
After removing the threats from her partner, Xena followed the action with a thrust of her sword to each man. They both lay dead as she finished them off with an angry snarl.
"No one touches Gabrielle," she growled.
"Xena," Gabrielle panted from her exertions, which brought the warrior's attention back to the matter at hand.
The exhausted bard struggled to sit up, but failed miserably. Her chest was tight, her jaw throbbed in time with her heartbeat, and her head was pounding incessantly. She was beyond miserable.
"Gabrielle," Xena knelt next to the still-prostrate bard and helped her sit up. The warrior could see scrapes and bruises on the bard's exposed flesh, but she otherwise seemed fine. "You okay?" Xena asked, pushing the blond hair out of her soulmate's eyes and assessing her external injuries with a healer's practiced eye.
Xena helped Gabrielle stand up and caught her when the bard wavered, leaning heavily against her for support. Gabrielle wanted nothing more than to collapse into the warrior's arms, but thought better of that.
"I'm…Are they gone?" She asked, finally looking around them at the few scattered bodies lying motionless on the ground.
"The ones who could still walk or limp? Yeah," Xena answered. She did a quick assessment of Gabrielle's state of dishevelment, noting a large bruise forming on the bard's jaw. She gingerly touched the spot and got a wince.
"Ow!" Gabrielle sucked in a breath and stifled a cough as Xena's gentle fingers touched her aching jaw. "Gods, that hurts."
"One of 'em got past your guard, huh?" Xena asked with more concern than she was truly willing to admit.
"You could say that," Gabrielle answered, then felt another cough erupt unexpectedly from deep in her chest. The one cough turned into a fit that tore at her battered body and left her feeling lightheaded and weak. She leaned against Xena, who supported her without a word. "Ugh, that was not good," she uttered miserably.
"No, definitely not good, Gabrielle," Xena agreed. "We need to keep moving before the weather turns uglier."
A flash of lightning quickly followed by a loud rumble of thunder overhead emphasized Xena's words. They both looked up to see that the skies were now beyond ugly. Storm clouds had moved in quickly and the wind was whipping up in an icy frenzy.
"Too late," Gabrielle grumbled dejectedly as a big, fat raindrop plopped onto her nose. "Just what we needed to make this a perfect day," she groused.
"Come on," Xena said, grabbing their stuff, including Gabrielle's forgotten staff, and retrieving Argo from where she was absently munching grass by the side of the road.
Gabrielle stumbled after her partner, trying not to think of the myriad aches, pains and other discomforts that were now plaguing her. She managed to compartmentalize all thoughts of what those men had attempted to that place in her mind where she kept all her bad memories. Unfortunately, she couldn't do the same with her physical discomforts. She swallowed with effort, her throat so sore now from all the screaming that it felt like it was on fire.
Miserable couldn't begin to describe what she was feeling. Her head was pounding and her body shivered, whether from the chill in the air, her illness or the fact that she'd almost been…she pushed the thought quickly away again, but Xena's adamant warning echoed in her mind.
"Don't ever let them take you down, Gabrielle." Xena had once said. "If you're on the ground you won't be able to fight them off. They'll have you and you're not big enough to fight from the ground. Don't ever let them take you down."
Gabrielle sniffled in an attempt to clear her nose. "Maybe we should just head for the closest village and take shelter until the storm passes, Xena," Gabrielle rasped, as another unchecked coughing fit left her feeling worse than ever.
More large droplets fell from the sky and quickly turned into a heavy downpour. Gabrielle looked up and let the rain wash the dirt and grime from her face. At first the rain was a welcome distraction from her other discomforts, but it soon became too much for her to deal with on top of everything else.
"We're better off continuing on, Gabrielle," Xena answered with a note of regret. "We're at the outskirts of Amazon territory. The closest village is a league in the wrong direction." Xena stopped to let Gabrielle and Argo catch up to her. She noticed her partner's miserable state and wondered briefly if they shouldn't just do what Gabrielle suggested. "Are you all right?"
"No," Gabrielle answered honestly. She looked up at Xena through bleary eyes and the warrior saw the abject misery reflected back at her, even in the midst of the pouring rain. "I'm sick, Xena. I'm sick. I'm tired. And I feel like a chariot ran over me back there-and not just once. But we have to keep going."
"You should have told me you were sick, Gabrielle," Xena chided gently, stroking the bard's wet cheek and feeling an uncustomary warmth beneath her fingers. "I would have found us some shelter long before this."
"If we don't keep moving," Gabrielle insisted, "I won't make it, Xena. I feel like sheep dung that's been sitting out in the sun for days. But I also know it'll only get worse if we stop now."
"You sure?" Xena asked, pushing the dripping hair from her partner's brow and feeling the uncharacteristic warmth beneath her fingers. Fever.
Gabrielle glanced up at the pouring rain and nodded. "I'm sure."
"Maybe I should just put you up on Argo and let her carry you, Gabrielle," Xena commented as they continued on up the road. "You have a fever."
"Walking will do me good, Xena," Gabrielle answered with more confidence than she felt and a half-hearted smile that did not reach her eyes. "Besides, if I don't keep moving, I might just pass out," she muttered quietly.
"I heard that," Xena replied with a worried frown.
"Of course you did," Gabrielle groused sullenly. "You hear everything."
"Apparently not everything," Xena mused quietly.
They continued on in silence and the rain continued, as well. After a candlemark, the downpour finally let up and turned into a steady, cold drizzle that did nothing to improve Gabrielle's mood or constitution. She continued putting one foot in front of the other, mindlessly following in the wake of Xena and Argo's steady pace. The blow to her jaw was throbbing so painfully that she just wished her head would explode and put her out of her misery, once and for all.
She looked up to catch a glimpse of her partner and saw the dark hair and soaked leather of Xena's silhouette a few yards ahead. She wondered briefly why Xena wasn't more concerned about her condition, then dismissed the thought. Xena probably didn't know just how miserable she was, because the bard had stubbornly decided to hide her condition. Just one more nail in the coffin of their already-strained relationship, Gabrielle realized.
Gabrielle drifted along in a half-daze, her mind wandering over the past few days. They had camped in a beautiful clearing a few days prior to reaching the infected village. The clearing was close to a small pool fed by a stumbling brook. Gabrielle imagined that she was back in the cool water, one of the rare occasions when they had playfully teased each other and shared a bath together. They had been so carefree and easy in their playfulness, until the moment was shattered when they inadvertently touched each other.
That simple touch had instantly melted both their resolves and ignited their deep-seated passion for each other. They swam in each other's arms, touching and tasting. Their bodies wrapped around each other as they reveled in the feel of the skin-on-skin contact. All thoughts of their estrangement had vanished as they shared in the heat of those stolen moments together.
Gabrielle remembered when, not so long ago, they had finally admitted their mutual attraction. They had been playfully spending an afternoon together, much like that day in the pool. However, when they came together on that occasion, it had been the result of a rare instance of clumsiness on Gabrielle's part. Gabrielle had tripped on a tree branch in the road and when Xena caught her they just stopped and stared.
Actually, everything seemed to stop around them as they gazed into each other's eyes. It was like a magical moment of discovery as they both leaned in close and their lips met. The searing heat was enough to consume them as their passions took them to places - and levels - they had never dared explore before. They had agreed to make camp and continue their explorations, which they did until well into the wee hours of the next morning.
Their lovemaking in the clearing had been more tender and exploratory, as they lazily re-discovered what the other enjoyed most. Gabrielle decided that Xena was much more experienced than she was. The warrior had found each and every one of Gabrielle's most intimate trigger points. There was the one behind her ear, just below the lobe, that made her toes curl when Xena's warm tongue licked and played, sending shivers down Gabrielle's spine.
Despite the time together, though, they still had not professed love for each other. Gabrielle wondered if their attraction was merely physical, a bonding of sorts after all the emotional turmoil of the past few moons. She knew her own answers to that question. If only she knew how Xena felt.
"Gabrielle?" Xena's voice was low and held a hint of worry that brought Gabrielle instantly out of her reverie.
"Huh?" Gabrielle looked up to see concerned blue eyes gazing down at her from beneath wet lashes. "What happened? Why are you up there?" She asked in utter bewilderment.
"You're on the ground, Gabrielle," Xena was kneeling next to her and could now see her partner's slightly grayish pallor. She reached a hand up to Gabrielle's brow and felt the heat even before she touched the damp skin. "You're burning up." Xena helped Gabrielle to sit up and kept a steady hand on her partner's back as the bard wavered slightly.
"Ugh," Gabrielle felt her world tilt when she was upright. Her chest felt like Argo was sitting on her. Her head was pounding, her jaw ached, and she didn't know exactly where she was through the fog in her brain. "Is it still raining?"
"No, it stopped a little while ago," Xena answered with a frown. "We need to get you out of those wet clothes before you catch your death."
"Too late," Gabrielle shot back with a hoarse croak.
"Let's hope not," Xena said, pulling Gabrielle to her feet and steadying her as the bard wavered again.
"How far are we from where we're headed?" Gabrielle asked absently, looking around at the trees surrounding them. "Where are we headed, anyway?"
Xena shot Gabrielle a serious look of confusion. "Don't you remember? We're going to see the Amazons."
Gabrielle considered Xena's words for a moment. She wanted to remember, but the fog in her mind was making everything really fuzzy. She felt like she was suddenly living in a strange haze that she couldn't shake. She hurt all over and the chills racing down her spine weren't helping.
"Xena?" Gabrielle just stood there watching her partner move away a few feet.
Xena turned back to face her. "Yes?"
"Can we just…" she never finished the sentence as the world suddenly tilted up to meet her again.
Xena caught Gabrielle before she landed in the mud, again. Realization hit her that the bard was seriously ill and needed immediate attention. Unfortunately, they weren't anywhere close to the Amazon village, or any other village for that matter. Amazon lands were still a good day's travel away by foot and the nearest village was at least another day's ride beyond that. Xena considered mounting Argo and riding to the Amazons, but discarded that notion. The wet ground would make the mare's footing precarious at best. Add their combined weight and Argo would be hard-pressed to keep from breaking a leg.
Xena wracked her brain for a place nearby that she could take Gabrielle, but came up with nothing. They were in the middle of a wooded area that probably went on for several leagues. The only shelter was under a tree. She could put something together from the branches of the various trees, but that would only go so far to protect them. The ground was already soaking wet and would not be conducive to the bard's condition.
"Damn," she quietly exclaimed as she lifted Gabrielle into her arms. "Not much to do but keep going."
She could feel the heat from Gabrielle's fever through the bard's skimpy, damp clothing and knew from their recent experience in the infected village that the bard's condition would only worsen before it got better. She refused to consider the dire possibility that Gabrielle could actually die. That just wasn't an option.
"What were you thinking?" Xena asked the unconscious woman in her arms.
The normally-stoic warrior was frustrated and knew she couldn't take those frustrations out on the woman she loved. After all, wasn't she partly to blame for not paying closer attention to her partner's condition?
"Xena?" Gabrielle's weak, raspy voice penetrated the warrior's reverie.
"Yes, love," Xena replied softly.
"What's going on?" The bard asked weakly, leaning her head wearily against Xena's breastplate and finding some comfort in the cold metal against her fevered cheek.
"I'm trying to figure out what to do," Xena answered absently.
"Do?" Gabrielle asked innocently. "Why? Don't you have a plan?" The bard's words were mumbled, incoherent ramblings.
Xena gritted her teeth and hefted Gabrielle higher in her arms as she moved to Argo's side. "Can you stand up for me, so I can get us both up onto Argo's back?"
"Uh huh," Gabrielle answered with a slight nod.
Xena put Gabrielle's feet on the ground and leaned the bard against the mare's side. She caught a look from the horse-annoyance? "What?" Xena commented to the mare and jumped into the damp saddle. "All right, Gabrielle," Xena said, reaching a hand down to the woman. "Give me your hand and I'll pull you up."
Mustering as much strength as she could, Gabrielle lifted her head to look at Xena. In her delirium, the sun shining behind the warrior made her look like a goddess and the bard merely stood transfixed by the vision, until Argo moved slightly and nearly sent her sprawling.
"What did you want me to do, Xena?" Gabrielle's expression mirrored her confusion as her voice cracked. "Do you know how beautiful you are?"
"Give me your hand, Gabrielle," Xena answered, reaching down even further to grab the bard's arm.
Absently, Gabrielle reached her hand up and felt herself being lifted into the air. She watched the world spin dizzily around her, then felt a firm surface behind her. She leaned against that solid surface, reveling in the strength that wrapped itself around her.
"I like this," came a hoarse whisper as Gabrielle let her face rest against the damp leather of the warrior's armor-covered chest.
Xena wrapped her arms securely around the bard to keep her in place. The last thing she needed was for Gabrielle to lose consciousness again and slip off Argo's back.
"Stay with me, Gabrielle," Xena said against the bard's damp hair. "I'm going to pick up the pace and get us to the Amazons as quickly as Argo can manage."
"No probl'm," Gabrielle uttered sub-vocally, her voice little more than a weak squeak.
They rode for hours across the landscape. As the sun dried the ground, Xena increased Argo's pace in an effort to reach the Amazon village before nightfall. She'd stopped the horse hours ago to give her a rest near a small stream. She had also totally immersed Gabrielle in the cool water in an attempt to bring the bard's dangerously high fever under control. It had worked, mostly.
When they had remounted, Xena had wrapped the bard in both their cloaks to stave off the growing chill in the air. The bard's illness had progressed quickly and Xena was beside herself with worry, as she heard the rattling congestion take a firm hold within the bard's chest. Xena's hopes sank with each passing league as her partner's condition worsened. The bard was sweating profusely and chills wracked her body as the fever raged. She mumbled incoherently in her delirium and occasionally shouted at some unnamed demon from her nightmares.
Xena stroked Gabrielle's arm to soothe her, but the bard was beyond coherent thought. Her head tossed back and forth in her fevered delirium.
"No, Xena…" the bard's hoarse whisper was unrecognizable as she suddenly sat bolt upright and struggled in the warrior's arms.
"Settle down, Gabrielle," Xena soothed. "Shhh, you're okay."
"Xena…" Gabrielle's breathing was more labored as she gasped for breath. "Help…me…"
Fear gripped the warrior as she noted the glazed eyes staring unseeingly up at her. "It's okay, Gabrielle. I have you. You're all right."
"They're…coming…" Gabrielle said, her chest heaving as she struggled weakly for another breath.
"I can see them," Gabrielle continued. "They're coming…for me…"
Xena looked around her and saw no one. She reached out her other senses - her incredible hearing and her sense of smell - but nothing came back to her except their natural surroundings. There were trees on both sides of the road, and she knew they had crossed into Amazon territory several candlemarks earlier.
"Please…Xena…don't let them…get me," the tears in Gabrielle's eyes spilled unheeded down her cheeks. "Scared…so scared…" her whisper trailed off as she sank back into unconsciousness.
Despite the uncomfortable heat radiating from the smaller woman, Xena hugged Gabrielle to her and reassured in a soothing voice, "They won't get you. I promise, sweetheart. Just hold on for a little while longer. We're almost there."
She kicked Argo into a canter, despite the precarious footing of the seldom-used road. She knew it was imperative to get Gabrielle to the village as quickly as possible. Time was running out. She just hoped the Amazons didn't try to stop her in her haste and that they forgave her for not heeding their normal customs.
Xena pulled Argo to a halt within a stand of trees. It was dusk and the shadows around her were growing steadily. Her senses were on high alert and she knew she was surrounded.
"May we pass?" She asked the trees around her. "I have Queen Gabrielle with me."
A masked figure dropped from the nearest tree and landed just in front of Argo. Shortly thereafter, several others joined the masked figure, who quickly removed the imposing head gear.
"Welcome, Xena," a young brunette said. "We've been expecting you. The queen's regent told us to be ready for your arrival." She glanced at the restlessly sleeping woman in Xena's arms. Her eyes tracked back to Xena's face, and she saw deep concern there. "Is everything all right?"
"Can you send word ahead that we need a healer to meet us when we reach the village?" Xena asked without preamble. "Gabrielle is deathly ill and needs immediate attention."
The young woman's eyes went wide at the news. She turned to the woman to her right and quietly issued orders. The masked woman nodded once and disappeared back into the trees as quickly as she had dropped from them.
"Would you like us to escort you to the village, Xena?" The young sentry offered. "T'laia will take word to Queen Ephiny."
"No," Xena said. "I can get Gabrielle there faster by myself. Thanks anyway."
Without another word Xena kicked Argo into a trot, as the women before her parted to let her pass. She wondered briefly who the young women were, but dismissed the notion. The tribe was growing, of that there was no doubt. New warriors were being recruited and trained daily. Xena just couldn't remember the sentries being so young before.
They reached the village a short time later and Gabrielle hadn't made a sound the entire remainder of the ride. Actually, Xena realized her partner and lover hadn't made a sound in quite some time, which worried her even more than her delirious ramblings had.
As they reached the outer gate, Xena pulled Argo to a halt and waited for the sentry to open the low wooden barrier. Sensing her mistress' distress, Argo paced a few steps in impatience as the gate was lifted. As soon as the barrier was clear, Xena gave the horse her head and let her take them to the main square.
"Xena! Ho!" A voice called from the doorway of one of the larger huts.
Torches scattered around the village were casting a golden glow throughout the village. There was also a large communal cooking fire, where a spit of roasting meat was being turned constantly by two youths. Several other women were busy preparing the evening meal and adding various dishes to twin roast pigs on additional spits.
Xena turned to find Eponin headed her way. The weapons master was at least thirty winters old and not slowing in the least. Her auburn hair was pulled back with a leather thong and she wore the customary Amazon leathers so common to this particular tribe. A plain leather cape was draped over one of the weapons master's shoulders to stave off the evening chill.
"Eph and the healer are waiting in the Queen's hut," Eponin's concern was evident as she approached the warrior and her companion. "How's Gabrielle doing?"
Xena didn't have time for idle chitchat, but knew Eponin meant well. "I'll let you know, Eponin. Thanks."
She kicked Argo into a trot and headed toward the large hut at the far end of the village. As she pulled up in front of the structure, two women emerged. Xena recognized the curly blond Ephiny immediately, but had never seen the other woman before.
"Hello, Xena," the regent stepped up next to Argo. "We have the hut ready and Aestia will take Argo for you."
An eager young warrior stepped from the shadows and collected Argo's reins, as Xena dismounted with Gabrielle in her arms. The tall warrior easily climbed the six steps and entered the hut without pause. She cradled the woman in her arms with a worried frown.
"Our healer, Nissia, will see to Gabrielle," Ephiny said, indicating the slightly older woman in the fur robe, who waited patiently to one side.
After Xena had Gabrielle comfortably situated in the large bed, she turned to Ephiny. "Thanks, Eph. Sorry we didn't make it in one piece."
Ephiny smiled warmly up at the taller warrior. "I'm just glad you made it at all. Did you have trouble on the way…other than Gabrielle's illness, of course?"
"We met up with our share of unsavory characters, some just a few leagues from your border earlier this morning," Xena answered. "They won't be bothering anyone anymore."
"Yeah, that's become more common these days," Ephiny answered with a slight frown. "The local riffraff think we're easy pickings now that we've agreed to sign treaties with the surrounding villages. I guess they're trying to get a piece of the action."
The two women stood by as the healer examined the unconscious woman. Gabrielle was deathly pale, even in the soft glow of the torches mounted on the walls. A frown marred Xena's brow as she watched the healer work.
When the woman finally finished her assessment, she rose to her feet and headed to the door without a word. This surprised Xena and Ephiny, both of whom followed her outside. Xena's long strides brought her to the woman first. She grabbed the healer's arm and turned her.
"So?" The warrior gave the woman an accusing glare.
"She is gravely ill with the coughing sickness and something else I've never seen," the healer answered matter-of-factly and turned away to continue on.
Xena stepped in front of the woman, who tried to sidestep her. "I could have told you that, old woman," Xena said shortly. "Do you have the proper herbs to treat her?"
When Xena wouldn't let her pass, the woman glared up at the warrior with hard eyes full of undisguised malice. She was not intimidated in the least by the warrior's larger size. "If you want the queen to live, you'll step out of my way, warrior," the woman barked with impatience and a glare that spoke volumes.
The two continued to glare at each other for a timeless moment, until Xena finally relented and moved out of the way. She stared after the healer, who continued on toward a hut on the other side of the common area.
"She always so personable?" Xena asked the blond next to her.
"You're just lucky she's in a good mood," Ephiny quipped with a smirk.
They exchanged wry looks before they headed back inside the hut where Gabrielle was. As they entered they both noticed the bard was lying as still as death in exactly the same position that Xena had left her in.
Xena strode to the bedside, knelt down and gently brushed the bard's damp bangs away from her forehead. She frowned to still feel the heat radiating from the younger woman's skin.
"Hang in there, Gabrielle," she whispered quietly in the bard's ear. "Don't you dare leave me, love."
"Would you like me to have some food and drink brought over for you, Xena?" Ephiny asked. "You said you've been traveling all day. I'm sure you didn't have time to stop and eat anything. And Gabrielle would kill me if she knew I didn't take care of you in her absence."
Xena didn't answer right away, but kept her face close to her partner's. She was listening to Gabrielle's shallow, labored breathing and wondered what was taking the healer so long. She watched as the bard tried to take a deeper breath and ended up coughing weakly instead. The coughing fit only lasted a moment, but left the bard wheezing in fitful sleep.
"Xena?" Ephiny prodded, pulling a chair up next to the bed and taking a seat. The regent put a tentative hand on Xena's shoulder. When the warrior's eyes met hers, Ephiny saw raw pain in their depths. It tugged her heartstrings to see Xena in such an emotional state. "She'll pull through this, Xena. She's strong." She gave the shoulder beneath her hand a gentle squeeze.
"She has to," Xena said softly, her eyes returning to the still form on the bed. The usually stoic warrior sighed wearily. "I'm sorry, Eph, for…for everything." She shook her head and tried hard to stave off the tears that were threatening.
Ephiny noticed the uncharacteristic display of emotion from the otherwise stoic warrior and briefly wondered what her two friends had been through recently to strip away Xena's emotional barriers so easily. She put the matter aside and decided to just ease her friend's burden as much as possible.
Ephiny leaned forward until her face was right next to the dark head. "Me, too," she said, her own eyes watching the still figure in front of her. "It was a hard time for all of us."
Ephiny tried to muster some optimism as she gazed at her rather small queen, but the bard's deathly pale complexion gave her pause. She had been there when Gabrielle nearly died from the life-threatening injuries she received during the war between Thessaly and Mitoa. Having been caught in the crossfire, the bard had attempted to rescue a child, only to be shot several times and rushed to the makeshift hospital. That's where Xena had tended the many injured, both Thessalian and Mitoan, with expert care. Ephiny still remembered Xena's absolute determination to bring Gabrielle back to life when the bard nearly succumbed to seizures that resulted from her injuries.
"What is taking that damned healer so long?" Xena suddenly stood up to pace restlessly.
"I had to gather the herbs needed to save our queen, warrior," the woman groused as she reentered the hut. "Unfortunately, these old bones move more slowly than they once did." She quickly got to work crushing various herbs in several bowls she set on a side table.
Xena curiously approached the woman and watched her mix a number of herbs into a bowl, then crush them into a fine powder. Xena reached into the bowl, took a pinch between her fingers and sniffed the concoction.
"Does it meet with your approval?" The healer asked in a slightly sarcastic tone.
Xena sniffed again, then eyed the woman. "You might have asked me if the herbs would affect her at all and which ones to use." She sniffed again, then returned the herbs to the bowl.
"Are you a healer then, too, warrior?" The healer asked skeptically. "Maybe you should be the one to see to her care. Hmm?"
"Let's just say…" Xena shot back with a frown.
"Xena was at Thessaly during the war with the Mitoans," Ephiny interjected. "I would trust Xena's healing skills with my life. Actually, I did trust her with my life and the life of my son. She also saved the queen's life that day."
Xena glanced gratefully at the regent, then returned her attention to the healer and crossed her arms over her chest with a satisfied "I told you so" gleam in her pale blue eyes.
"I've been a healer for nearly fifty winters," Nissia stated flatly. "Do you not trust that I can do well by the queen, warrior? After all, you did bring her here and put her in my care."
"Gabrielle is sensitive to certain herbs," Xena answered, standing her ground. "Since you know very little about her, I'm sure you can understand why I'm cautious about which herbs you use to treat her illness."
Nissia nodded once, then recited a list of the herbs she was using. Truth be told, the Amazon healer was impressed by the taller woman's protectiveness toward their small queen. It was a trait she admired and respected, even if she wasn't willing to show it just yet.
"Satisfied?" Nissia asked with a raised salt-and-pepper brow.
Xena and Ephiny exchanged a glance. "Yes," Xena answered with a nod. "Those are the exact herbs I would use, if I had them with me."
The healer nodded, then resumed her preparations without another glance at either woman.
"Come, Xena," Ephiny said, gingerly grabbing the warrior's elbow and ushering her out of the hut. "The evening meal should be prepared by now. We'll get something to eat and let Nissia take care of Gabrielle."
"She is in good hands, warrior," the healer said without turning from her work.
Xena reluctantly allowed Ephiny to usher her out of the hut and toward the square, which was now packed with a crowd of scantily-clad women. They headed for the communal meal hut and entered without ceremony. As Ephiny led Xena to a table, several heads turned their way. When the other Amazons recognized the warrior with Ephiny, their curious gazes turned to a mixture of curiosity, awe, distrust and outright anger at her presence among them. Obviously they still remembered that visit not so long ago, when the warrior unceremoniously broke their regent's arm and dragged their young queen away behind a horse.
"There's still some hard feelings," the regent commented as they sat down at the queen's table.
Xena shrugged. "It's to be expected after what I did." Her eyes met Ephiny's. "And you?"
Ephiny's eyes remained fixed on Xena's for a moment, then she shrugged and looked away. "I'm over it." She flexed her arm to show that there were no residual effects from the injury. "It was a clean break, so it hasn't hurt at all since it healed. I guess I should thank you for that," she smirked.
Xena didn't take the bait and, instead, her expression was solemn. "I really don't expect to be forgiven for what I did," she paused and looked away, before returning her attention to the regent with a sad smile. "I just wish they would move on," she nodded toward the onlookers, "for Gabrielle's sake. She has a thing about people who hold grudges against me."
Ephiny glanced at the women around them, glaring at some who met her gaze with defiance until they looked away. "Give it time, Xena. This is your first visit with us since then, and you didn't exactly show up with our queen healthy and whole."
Xena's expression hardened. "No, I didn't."
"Xena," the regent put a hand on the warrior's arm and felt the tension there. "I didn't mean that like it sounded. What I meant to say is…"
Xena's cool eyes met the regent's and then softened. "I know what you meant, Ephiny. But I didn't exactly plan for her to get sick." She looked away to hide the tears that had come unbidden. "I also didn't plan for her to hide her illness from me or for those bandits to attack us or for that storm…" the words trailed off as she put a hand to her mouth and shut her eyes tight against the sudden onslaught of overwhelming emotions.
"Xena, it's gonna be alright." Ephiny placed a comforting hand on the warrior's shoulder. "Like I said before, she's strong. She'll pull through this."
Xena took a moment to pull herself together. She sighed inwardly at just how the negative emotions in the room were rubbing against her already raw nerves. These women would protect their queen with their lives. Some of them had even stepped in front of her when she'd come to confront Gabrielle. Her peripheral vision caught Ephiny meeting the gazes of several other women who were still glaring at her. Xena silently thanked the regent for her attempts to silently quell the animosity.
Xena's thoughts returned to her partner and she remembered the determined look in her soulmate's eyes on that not-so-long-ago day, when the warrior could see nothing but blood-red rage and bitter resentment at the loss of her son. Despite her own suffering at the losses she blamed herself for, Gabrielle had faced Xena without fear, without a thought for what the enraged warrior might do to her. Even when poor Joxer had tried to intervene-Xena smirked at the memory of their bumbling friend's bravery and willingness to stand up for his young friend-Gabrielle would have none of it. She stepped up to face the anger. Why?
"How is she?" Eponin's voice broke the silence that had descended over the head table, as the weapons master sat down across from Xena and Ephiny.
Xena had mostly compartmentalized her emotions behind her warrior's mask at that point. She was worried that Gabrielle would die without knowing how she truly felt about her. And all Xena really wanted to do was go back to the queen's hut and sit by the bard's bedside. Her emotions were so close to the surface that she thought they would just burst forth at any moment again.
Ephiny realized that Xena was distracted and decided to answer for her. "Nissia is tending her."
"Oh," Eponin answered, looking from her regent to the stoic warrior princess. "Xena, you okay?"
"I'm fine," Xena cleared her throat absently.
A mug of ale was set in front of her and she picked it up, emptying its contents in a few gulps. Another landed in its place and she took that one up as well. This time she merely stared into the amber liquid, her thoughts elsewhere.
Both Ephiny and Eponin watched the warrior down the mug of ale then stare into the second. They exchanged a brief look of disbelief and shrugged.
"Xena," Ephiny decided to change the subject. "I'm really glad you made it when you did."
"Yeah," Eponin chimed in at the raised eyebrow directed at her from the regent. "We've been having some trouble with raiders along our borders. I think we could really use someone with your expertise to clear these guys from our lands before the big meeting."
"We've sent out small patrols to deal with them," Ephiny picked up where Eponin left off. "Unfortunately, our warriors haven't been as successful at getting rid of them as I'd hoped."
"Yeah," Eponin added. "For one thing, we can't catch them in the act. If it weren't for the eye witnesses, we would think there were ghosts involved."
Xena looked from the regent to the weapons master with a raised brow. "Any idea what they're after?"
Both Amazons shrugged.
"Could be a warlord wanting a piece of the action," Eponin grabbed a piece of bread from the center of the table, tore a chunk off and proceeded to eat.
"It could also be someone hired by one of the surrounding villages to cause trouble before the meeting," Ephiny grabbed a trencher filled with steaming stew that a young Amazon set down on the table. "We've heard rumors that a few of the villagers aren't too happy about the treaties we're about to sign. You remember how that went over with Tildus, when we were dealing with the Centaurs."
"Could also be Centaurs," Eponin shrugged between bites of bread and cheese that she was dipping into her own bowl of stew. "They haven't all exactly been keen on having the surrounding villages trading with us on a regular basis." Eponin noticed the glare Ephiny was giving her. "What?" The weapons master responded defensively. "Last time I checked it wasn't a secret that the younger Centaurs are a bit skittish about mixin' with the surrounding villages."
"I don't think the Centaurs are our problem, Pon," Ephiny scowled.
"So who is?" Xena intervened.
"I was hoping maybe you might help us find out," Ephiny answered.
Xena looked thoughtful for a moment as Ephiny set a bowl of stew in front of her. "Do you at least know how many of them there are? Where they're operating from?"
Eponin snorted, then looked up and met two annoyed expressions. "What?"
"Nice," Ephiny commented, before turning her attention back to Xena. "We have no idea how many there are and, so far, they haven't taken anything of value. They also haven't killed anyone…yet."
"Of value?" Xena raised a questioning eyebrow. "So what have they taken?"
"Sheep," Eponin mumbled into her mug of ale.
Xena glanced from the regent to the weapons master and back. "Sheep? You're worried about raiders stealing sheep?"
Ephiny sighed heavily. "They've stolen a few sheep…"
"…and chickens," Eponin added with an amused chuckle.
"Funny," Ephiny scowled.
Xena hid a smirk behind her stoic mask. "And no one knows anything, I suppose."
Two Amazon heads shook in answer.
"Well," Xena continued. "If they're anything like those idiots who attacked us this morning, it's no wonder their pickings have been slim."
"You were attacked?" Eponin perked up.
"Yeah," Xena answered between bites of stew. "They seemed more interested in getting their rocks off with Gabrielle than saving their own skins, though."
Two sets of eyes now bulged in shock at her words.
"Should we tell Nissia?" Ephiny recovered first. "She can do an examination…"
"No," Xena stopped to stare into her half-eaten bowl of stew. "I should have known…" She shook the thoughts off. "Damned idiots got the drop on her because she was too sick to fight them off properly."
"Did they…" Eponin asked with concern.
"Never mind," Xena answered, swiping a tired hand down her face. "They didn't have a chance to do anything to her, except get a few lucky knocks in after she went down. She's going to have a nice shiner on her jaw when she wakes up."
"The queen was hit?!?" Eponin was suddenly on her feet in exasperation, until Ephiny quickly reached across the table to settle her down.
"She's just a little banged up," Ephiny reassured the distraught weapons master. "And very, very ill." She caught the guilty look from Xena and inwardly winced at the effect her words were having on the woman. "Finish your stew, Xena. You need to keep up your strength for Gabrielle's sake. She doesn't need you sick, too."
Actually, Ephiny knew just how physically strong and emotionally fragile Xena could be. She'd experienced the physical strength first-hand and could see how much of an emotional toll the queen's illness was taking on the otherwise stoic warrior. It was ironic that the queen was probably the more emotionally stable of the two women, which would explain why Xena erupted into physical violence so easily.
Xena's sudden appearance in the village wasn't entirely unexpected on that fateful day after Solon's death. They'd all known, at some level, that the warrior wouldn't let what happened go without some kind of retribution. They just weren't expecting their queen's best friend to come storming into the village to physically drag the young woman behind her horse. It was brutal and the mere thought of it made Ephiny cringe in remembrance. She still wondered how Gabrielle had survived the attack and without a single scar to show for it.
Ephiny glanced sidelong at the woman next to her and realized just how far Xena and Gabrielle had come in that short period of time. She could see dark circles under the warrior's eyes. Those same eyes were filled with deep worry for the woman fighting for her life just across the way. She just hoped Gabrielle didn't disappoint any of them, especially Xena.
Xena continued to pick at her food as the talk at the table centered around the impending treaty. The warrior managed to tune out her companions, as her thoughts returned to her partner. She thought about what Gabrielle had been like that morning and realized she'd been completely oblivious, because she'd been thinking about other things. Her thoughts had been filled with Amazons and forgiveness and treaties, not Gabrielle or her condition. Xena wanted nothing more than to beat herself up for not paying attention to her best friend at a time when the bard needed her most. So she silently vowed to never let it happen again.
"Why?" Xena asked in a whisper.
"What?" Ephiny asked as her attention was drawn away from Eponin. "Did you say something, Xena?"
"No," Xena answered, shaking her head. "I was just…" she sighed heavily and shook her head again as she absently picked at the last of her stew. "I'm not really hungry anymore," she sighed, pushing the food away.
"Come on, Xena," Ephiny said, getting to her feet. "Let's go for a walk, get some fresh air. This place is a little crowded for me, too."
Xena stood, but held a staying hand out to the regent. "I'm going back to sit with Gabrielle," she stated, her eyes meeting the regent's and pleading for understanding.
Ephiny did understand and nodded her agreement. She watched as the warrior turned away from her and left the table without a backward glance.
"What's eating her?" Eponin asked. "You'd think she's got the hots for the queen or something."
Ephiny gave her weapons master an incredulous glare and rolled her eyes at the woman. "Sometimes, my friend, you can be such a clueless blockhead."
"Hey!" Eponin was offended as the regent walked away from her. "What the Hades does that mean, Eph?"
Ephiny just shook her head as she headed out of the dining hut and turned toward her own hut. She would await word of the queen's condition from the comfort of her own quarters, since she figured a certain warrior would make sure to keep a close eye on a certain green-eyed bard. Ephiny just hoped her sense of how that certain Warrior Princess felt about their queen would reveal itself soon enough. She didn't want to contemplate having Xena regret never revealing her true feelings to her young companion.
She couldn't breathe. The air around her was thick and her chest felt so heavy. Was something sitting on top of her? She tried to open her eyes, but they too were far too heavy to obey her wishes. She tried to move, but her body betrayed her as well. She tried again to take a deep breath, but the heaviness was too much. It overwhelmed her and kept her breathing shallow and raspy.
It was so dark where she was. Quiet, too. Where was she? More importantly, where was Xena? Had the warrior set up camp somewhere? She tried to listen for the crackling of a fire. There it was. She tried to breathe in the scent of wood smoke, but her nose was too congested to smell anything. Was she dead? That thought made her shudder and brought the aches to the fore. Even her head hurt. She didn't know why and didn't care. She realized she was alive. At least that was something.
Gabrielle tried to think of why she felt so miserable. Was there a fight? Was she trapped somewhere? Images of a coffin surrounded by blisteringly hot air flashed through her mind and brought with it an unreasoning panic. She wanted to struggle against the fear, but couldn't. She couldn't move, couldn't breathe, couldn't see, couldn't scream for help…
A painful cough erupted deep in her chest, and she knew another instant of panic as the little breath left in her congested lungs suddenly vanished.
"Hand me that cup of water, warrior," Nissia ordered as Xena stepped inside the dimly lit hut. A single lamp burned low on the bedside table, casting eerie shadows on the walls.
Xena retrieved the cup, sniffed its contents and handed it into the healer's outstretched hand. Xena stepped to the other side of the bed as the healer tipped the cup to the bard's pale lips and carefully trickled a small amount of liquid into Gabrielle's mouth. The healer waited for the bard to swallow before patiently repeating the process.
"How is she?" Xena asked quietly, her eyes never leaving the pale face against the brown material of the pillow.
Nissia glanced up and caught a look of tenderness in the warrior's expression that she never would have imagined. "She still lives," was the short reply, as she slowly administered the herbal tea. "Too soon to tell if the herbs will take effect or not."
Even without her extraordinary hearing, Xena would have still been able to hear Gabrielle's raspy, labored breathing. As she reached a tentative hand to the bard's forehead, she felt the heat radiating from the woman's skin. Gabrielle was still burning up and her chest was almost completely full. The rattling coming with each shallow breath deepened the frown on Xena's brow.
Without a word, Xena bolted from the hut and nearly collided with an approaching Ephiny, who had decided to check on Gabrielle before retiring for the night.
"Whoa, Xena! Where's the fire?" The regent's expression showed her deep concern at the warrior's sudden appearance. "What is it, Xena? Is Gabrielle…"
"I need you to find as many pillows as you can and bring them back here, Eph," Xena responded. "Also, have someone gather as many onions as they can find and bring them over, too."
The regent was completely confused by the request, but simply nodded in understanding. "I'll take care of it myself." She started away. "Anything else?"
Xena thought for a moment. "Have a runner standing by, just in case?"
Ephiny caught the hint. "No problem," Ephiny said, as she took off at a run.
Xena returned to the queen's hut and gingerly slipped in behind Gabrielle, until the bard was sitting almost completely upright against her.
Nissia watched the warrior's actions with a raised brow and merely nodded her understanding. When Xena met her eyes, the healer merely shrugged and continued her slow ministrations.
"I have very little experience with this type of illness," Nissia admitted. "Maybe you should be the one to treat her? You seem to know what she needs."
Xena gently stroked the bard's flushed cheek. "Maybe between the two of us…" she let the words hang as her pale blue eyes met the healer's in an uncharacteristic plea for understanding.
Nissia conceded the moment with a nod of her gray head. "She will require constant care."
"We need to clear some of the congestion from her lungs," Xena placed a hand on the bard's chest and could feel the woman's struggles for each and every breath. "I've asked Ephiny to gather onions for poultices. If you have any other suggestions, I'm more than willing to hear you out."
Nissia's brows rose at Xena's mention of an onion poultice and she nodded her agreement with that particular treatment choice. "I also have a few tricks up my sleeve, warrior," Nissia conceded as she struggled to her feet and slowly moved toward the door. "Stay with her while I gather the supplies I need. Between the two of us, the queen will not be allowed to leave this life anytime soon." She left the hut without a backward glance.
Xena made no move to answer or move, as the elderly woman left the hut. Instead, she turned her full attention to the woman in her arms. The bard appeared to be sleeping, but the constant wheezing told another story.
"Hang in there, Gabrielle," Xena whispered close to the bard's ear. "I still have a lot I need to say to you. So, please…" She reached down and clasped their hands, bringing them up and kissing the back of the bard's knuckles tenderly. "We have so much left to do…together. So, don't you leave me, my bard."
She continued to stroke Gabrielle's flushed cheek with her thumb as her thoughts turned to a recent conversation between them.
"Xena, do you ever think about what you want to do in ten years?" The bard's voice traveled across the fire to where Xena was sharpening her sword. The daily activity was a balm to the warrior's often jumbled thoughts.
It had been a tough day for both of them. Not only had they fought a band of bloodthirsty ruffians who hadn't wanted to give up-even after Xena killed a third of their number-but the nearby village had rallied against Gabrielle's offer to help them rebuild a section of town destroyed in a fire. After much arguing and finagling on the persistent bard's part, the village council finally relented.
Both Xena and Gabrielle had then spent the better part of the day cleaning up the burned out mess and helping rebuild the stables and the granary. They were offered a room in the inn, but after one look at the small, run-down place and a whiff of the less-than-appetizing faire, they decided to take their chances on the road.
"Xena?" Gabrielle broke into the warrior's reverie.
"Hmm?" Xena looked up to find a pair of green eyes watching her anxiously. "Oh, sorry, Gabrielle, I was just thinking. Did you say something?"
"Have you ever thought about what the next ten years will bring?"
"Not really, no," Xena answered matter-of-factly.
Xena sighed and set her sword across her bare legs. She leaned both arms on the blade and stared into the fire for a moment. Xena could tell that Gabrielle was waiting for a response, probably certain her usually silent companion wasn't going to answer at all.
"To tell you the truth," Xena's tone was quiet, thoughtful, "I never gave it a thought, simply because I never thought I'd live this long."
A raised brow greeted her words. "You didn't?"
"No," Xena answered sincerely. "Let's face it, how many old warlords do you see wandering the battlefields of Greece, Gabrielle?" She smirked. "I'm not exactly going to become a relic, much less live to have a full head of gray hair."
Gabrielle stood up and moved around the fire to stand next to the seated warrior. The bard gently combed her fingers through Xena's dark hair, before seating herself next to her friend. She gingerly put her head down on Xena's shoulder and placed a comforting hand on the warrior's bare knee.
"No grays yet," she smirked. "But if it's any consolation, I believe you'll live to a ripe old age, Xena." The words struck the warrior with a sense of hopefulness that seemed to chase her doubts away. "I don't want you to die anytime soon, because I've grown quite attached to you over these last few years."
Gabrielle's inner light - that innocent part of her that saw nothing but good in people - seemed to penetrate a corner of Xena's darkness, melting it a little more and giving her more hope than she'd ever imagined. Xena felt an aching tug at her heartstrings, as the bard put an arm around her waist and she reciprocated with an arm around the smaller woman's shoulders.
"Please don't ever change, Gabrielle," Xena said, trying desperately to keep the tears at bay as she placed a chaste kiss on the bard's forehead. "You're the best thing that's ever happened to me. I mean that, most sincerely."
The bard merely smiled as she rested her head against Xena's shoulder and they sat in companionable silence, watching the flames flicker and crackle as the fire continued to burn.
It had been one of the rare times since their estrangement that Xena felt like things would return to normal again. Xena gazed down at the top of her companion's head and wondered why Gabrielle chose not to tell her of her illness, before a sudden realization hit her. Only one thing would keep Gabrielle from telling the truth - trust. The thought brought a chill of fear to her heart. It had been a while since they both trusted each other enough to share their inner-most thoughts and feelings.
Their estrangement had taught them a lot. But mostly they had learned not to take their relationship for granted. They were strong-willed women who had been to Tartarus and back. Whether or not they survived the trip with their relationship intact remained to be seen. But Xena also knew that it was time to take things to the next level. She loved Gabrielle with all her heart and soul, and it was time to let her feelings show in word, as well as deed.
"Hang on, Gabrielle," Xena kissed the bard's head as a single tear spilled down her cheek onto their joined hands.
Xena turned as the door to the hut opened and the healer shuffled in, followed by several Amazons laden with various items. Ephiny brought up the rear with a leather satchel in her arms, which she proceeded to drop near the fireplace.
"Brought you as many onions as the kitchen and the storage hut could spare," Ephiny commented as a young Amazon deposited a large pan next to the onions. "Thanks, Eustine."
"Where do you want the pillows, my queen?" A tall blond Amazon, M'Lina, eyed the warrior propped in bed behind their queen, before turning her gaze on the regent.
Xena took that as her cue and gingerly extricated herself from behind her ailing partner. "Bring them over here."
The three Amazons gathered next to the bed and handed off their feather-stuffed burdens to the warrior. Xena held Gabrielle in one arm while adjusting the pillows with her other hand, until she had them where she wanted them. Then she gently propped the still-unconscious bard against the pile so that she was nearly sitting upright. Xena made a few minor adjustments until she was satisfied with the bard's new position.
"You want me to start peeling and cooking the onions?" Ephiny asked from the fireplace. She had stoked the fire until it was blazing warmly.
"Yeah," Xena answered as she gently stroked the bard's forehead. "If you don't mind, Eph. That would be great."
"You sure you don't want her to do that outside at the communal bonfire, warrior?" The healer piped in. "Those onions are going to give off a powerful smell when you start cooking them."
Ephiny looked to Xena with a questioning quirk of her eyebrow.
"Probably a good idea. I guess I didn't think of that," Xena was thoughtful for a moment. "I'm just not sure how efficient that'll be, though. We need that poultice to be hot for the steam from the onions to work effectively."
"What if I have a fire pit built right outside the hut here," Ephiny offered. "That way we can make the poultices and bring them right in."
Xena and the healer exchanged a look and a shrug.
"Works for me," Xena answered. "Thanks, Eph."
Ephiny moved to the warrior's side and placed a comforting hand on Xena's shoulder. "Whatever you need."
Xena placed a hand over Ephiny's and squeezed. She gave the regent a grateful smile before returning her attention to the occupant of the bed.
"All right, Amazons," Eph shooed her entourage out of the crowded hut. "You heard Xena. We need to get to work on a fire pit right outside. Move it!"
Xena watched as the small group of scantily-clad women shuffled back outside, followed by their regent, who turned and gave Xena a wink and a reassuring smile before closing the door behind her.
Xena shook her head at their antics. "Amazons."
"Watch it, warrior," came a teasing tone from across the room.
The room was suddenly quiet, except for the constant wheezing from the bed and a steady grinding from the healer's mortar and pestle. Xena pulled a chair up next to the bed and sat down, grasping Gabrielle's pale hand in her own. She watched the shallow rise and fall of the bard's blanket-covered chest and gently stroked the hand in hers with her thumb. She let her mind go blank and just watched her partner's face intently. She suddenly heard another noise outside and figured the Amazons were busy digging the fire pit.
"Here," the healer's voice broke into Xena's silent reverie. "Let's try this."
Xena watched silently as the healer moved to the other side of the bed with a small bowl in her gnarled hands.
"What is it?"
"A paste of eucalyptus, mint leaves and a special ingredient that I've used a time or two," the healer answered, as she used her fingers to spread the dark green goop onto Gabrielle's throat and chest. "I call it mentholyptus."
Xena leaned forward and sniffed. "Mmm, smells a lot better than those onion poultices will."
The healer smiled briefly. "Your onion poultices will do a better job of completely opening up her airway. This will help ease the cough once she is able to breathe again."
Xena nodded sagely. "I just hope she appreciates the vile aroma. Gabrielle's a little picky about the smells around her."
They shared a brief chuckle, before they were interrupted by the door opening again. Ephiny stepped back inside and stamped her feet. Xena noticed that the regent was wet and muddy from head to toe.
"Raining again, huh?" The warrior idly commented.
Ephiny moved over to the fire and reached out to its warmth. "It's a steady drizzle. A little colder than usual, too." She ran an impatient hand through her damp, curly hair to put it back into some semblance of order. "Can't say that I'm disappointed. This'll make it a lot harder for those raiders to do their thing."
"You better change out of those wet leathers, before you catch the queen's illness and I'm stuck treating two patients," the healer commented dryly.
"I will, just as soon as I get the onions cooking," Ephiny said, as she lifted the sack to her shoulder. "The others are just finishing up with the pit and getting the fire going."
Eustine re-entered the hut. "The fire is blazing, my queen."
"Let's go start peeling, then," Ephiny said as she grabbed a sharp knife from one of the side tables.
They headed outside, while the healer closed the door behind them. Nissia then moved to a chair near the fireplace and sat down. She had a clear view of her patient, but was far enough away to give some modicum of privacy.
"So, where were the two of you when Ephiny's messenger reached you?" Nissia asked conversationally.
"Athens," Xena answered.
Nissia nodded. "Everything all right in Athens?"
"Just a minor squabble between some politicos and a few Roman merchants."
"Yeah," Xena answered with a grimace. "It seems Athens is becoming more diverse in its citizenry these days."
"So it seems," the healer nodded sagely, as she stared at the dancing flames of the fire.
Xena was grateful to the healer for the brief conversation. It took her mind off worrying about the pale woman lying before her.
"Things are ever-changing and yet they really don't change at all," the healer commented absently. "People are still afraid of change and will resist it, no matter the cost."
"It's not easy for anyone," Xena agreed. "Even Amazons." She hiked a brow as she glanced across at the healer.
Nissia smiled and nodded sagely. "Will you forgive us for our short-sightedness, warrior?"
Xena appeared to consider the request for a moment. "I think it depends," she finally answered thoughtfully.
"How this turns out."
"Queen Gabrielle is a strong woman," Nissia assured. "She'll pull through this. You just wait and see."
"I hope you're right," Xena answered with a wistful glance at the still-sleeping bard. "And I'm not saying that for the Amazons' sake."
Xena reached up and gently stroked Gabrielle's flushed cheek. Gabrielle seemed to sense the touch and moved into Xena's hand with a barely-audible moan.
"I'm here, Gabrielle," Xena whispered close to the bard's ear, as she squeezed Gabrielle's hand reassuringly.
Outside the hut things were progressing. Ephiny was intermittently peeling and stirring onions, tears flowing down her cheeks as the steam rose up around her. It was still raining steadily, which was why it had taken so long to get the fire started in the first place.
"Hey, Eph," Eponin stepped up beside the regent. "Ugh. What's that smell?"
"Hey!" Ephiny gave the weapons master an irritated scowl as she sniffed. "Oh, you mean the onions."
Eponin snickered. "Yeah, the onions. What else would I mean?"
Ephiny continued to stir, occasionally swiping at her watery eyes. "Never mind."
Eponin stood with her hands on her hips, her eyes tracking from the steaming pan to the regent to the cabin beyond. Her attention returned to the regent, as she turned to take in the setting sun.
"Xena got you doing cooking duty?" Eponin scoffed. "Don't seem right."
Ephiny frowned. "No."
"Then why are you out here cooking onions, Eph?"
Ephiny stopped long enough to give the weapons master a look of watery consternation. "Because I said I would. That okay with you?"
"No skin off my nose," the weapons master shot back. "Just seems a little…I don't know," she shrugged, "beneath you, that's all."
"I'm an Amazon, like any other woman in this tribe, Pony," Ephiny huffed. "I put my leathers on one leg at a time, just like you. Being regent is just another job around here."
"Yeah, but you're the Queen's regent," Eponin was suddenly serious. "You could have a dozen youngsters over here doing this menial labor, while you take care of more important matters."
"This is important," Ephiny resumed her peeling. "I'm doing this for Gabrielle."
Eponin crossed her arms over her chest. "You still have a thing for her?"
Ephiny shot the weapons master a warning look. "Excuse me?"
"Look, Eph," Eponin continued, adjusting her stance uncomfortably and placing her hands on her hips. "Half the tribe is in love with Gabrielle…"
"That's Queen Gabrielle to you."
"Okay, Queen Gabrielle," Eponin quickly amended. "Anyway, the other half is in love with the Warrior Princess. So it stands to reason that you would have feelings for one or the other. I just figured it would be Gabr-I mean, Queen Gabrielle." She gave the regent the once-over. "You two are about the same height."
"For your information, Eponin," Ephiny stopped stirring to face off against the weapons master. "Not that it is any of your business, but I am not in love with either Xena or Gabrielle. I don't care what the rest of the tribe is or is not doing. It's just that simple." She glared at the slightly-taller, dark-haired warrior. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a job to finish before I cry enough tears to fill the Aegean."
Eponin watched as the regent resumed peeling the powerful onions. She knew she had been summarily dismissed, but just couldn't bring herself to leave.
"Here," Eponin stepped up to the regent and deftly grabbed the knife from Ephiny's hands. "Let me do that for a while. Wouldn't want the tribe to see their regent bawling like a baby over a bunch of onions. Not very dignified for any Amazon, much less the Queen's Regent."
Ephiny stepped back with a grateful half-smile at the weapons master's antics. She watched as the smell of the onions rose into Eponin's face and her eyes immediately filled with tears. Ephiny stifled a chuckle, as the usually stoic warrior tried valiantly not to let the tears fall and failed miserably.
"You sure you want to do this?" Ephiny whispered with a raised brow. "It doesn't seem very dignified for the weapons master to be crying her eyes out, either."
"Hardy, har, har," Eponin shot back. "At least I'm an expert with weapons." She raised the knife for emphasis.
A throat cleared behind them and both women turned to see Xena standing there with her arms crossed over her chest.
"Don't even…" Eponin glared at the warrior before returning her attention to her task.
"I just came to check on the onions," Xena said casually. She moved up to the pan and leaned toward it, then pulled back with a grimace. "You two doing okay out here?"
"My nose is really clear," Ephiny smirked. "Can't say I've been able to breathe this well in a long time."
"That's the idea," Xena answered. She handed the regent a large cloth and bowl. "Give them another few minutes and then put them in the cloth. You'll need to carry them in the bowl so you don't burn yourself. Make sure you bring them in right away. We need them steaming for the poultices to work."
As the warrior turned back to the cabin, Ephiny put a hand on Xena's shoulder. "How's she doing?"
Xena's eyes met Ephiny's and the regent could see the worry still behind their blue depths. She knew to be concerned herself, since the warrior rarely showed fear of any kind. The only time Ephiny had really seen Xena show this much emotion was when they were all in Thessaly, during the war with the Mitoans. Gabrielle had been severely injured and had nearly died from her wounds. Ephiny sure didn't want a repeat of those horribly tense moments when Gabrielle had almost succumbed to her injuries.
"Nissia spread a fairly potent salve on her chest and neck to help open things up," Xena answered. "But we really need those onions to loosen the congestion in her chest. The salve only works for the head congestion." Ephiny nodded and Xena glanced worriedly at the cabin. "I need to get back in there." She turned to leave.
"Xena," Ephiny's voice reflected her own concern. "Let us know if there's anything else we can do for her-or you."
She nodded. "I will."
As Xena returned to the cabin, Ephiny resumed her vigil next to Eponin. The two exchanged silent nods of understanding, as the gravity of the situation came home to roost. They both knew how dire their young queen's condition really was, and each woman offered up a silent prayer to Artemis that Gabrielle would survive the night and pull through.
Xena resumed her place next to Gabrielle's bed. She went right to work and grabbed up a cloth sitting in a bowl of water, wrung out the cloth and gently ran it over the young bard's exposed skin. She put a hand to Gabrielle's forehead and felt the heat still radiating from the bard's skin. Her eyes met the healer's across the room.
"Her fever's still really high," Xena commented.
"How are the onions coming?" Nissia asked.
"They should be ready soon," Xena answered. "I'm just really worried that we'll get her chest clear only to have her succumb to this damned fever."
Nissia got up from her chair with an effort born of years of hard living. She shuffled over to the bed and placed the back of a gnarled hand against Gabrielle's flushed cheek.
"The fever is quite high," she commented. Her eyes met the warrior's intense gaze. "Do we risk another immersion?"
Xena closed her eyes a moment to gather her thoughts. When she opened them, her attention was riveted on the still figure in the bed. "I don't think we have a choice at this point. We need to get her fever down before she goes into convulsions…or worse."
Nissia nodded sagely. "I'll let Ephiny know."
As the healer shuffled toward the door, Xena continued to use the damp cloth as a cold compress against the bard's forehead. She listened to the wheezing in the bard's chest as Gabrielle's breathing became shallower with each passing moment.
"Hang in there, love," Xena wrung the cloth out again and placed it against the bard's forehead.
Less than a quarter candlemark later Ephiny rushed into the hut carrying the steaming bowl of cooked onions. She set the bowl down on the table next to Xena and watched as the warrior immediately grabbed a smaller muslin cloth and picked up the onions with her bare hands. The warrior placed them into the cloth, before settling the poultice directly onto the bard's bare chest.
With her attention still riveted on Gabrielle, Xena said, "We'll need more."
"I figured as much," the regent nodded knowingly. "I have Eponin and a couple youngsters working on another batch as we speak."
"I have another group bringing a tub. They'll heat water at the communal fire pit," the regent interrupted. "They should be bringing everything over just as soon as the water's ready."
Xena nodded and grabbed more onions, placing them into another poultice pouch.
"Help me turn her over?"
"Sure," the regent moved to the other side of the bed and removed a few of the pillows from behind the bard.
Together they turned the unconscious bard until she was lying on her side. Xena then placed the second poultice onto the bard's back, between her shoulder blades.
Xena's voice was low as she spoke. "We'll need to keep alternating poultices until the onions have a chance to do their job."
"What will the effect be, Xena?"
"Coughing," Xena answered. "Hopefully lots of it."
The regent gave a questioning look across her queen's bare shoulder. "You want her to cough?" She asked in confusion. "Wasn't the goal to rid her of the illness, not to make her worse?"
"Hear that?" Xena asked and let the sound of Gabrielle's wheezing emphasize her point. "Her chest is full, but she hasn't coughed since she lost consciousness earlier. If her lungs don't rid themselves of the stuff inside them she'll die. She'll drown."
A worried frown came over the regent's expression. "Die?"
"Yeah," Xena continued. "I've seen it before. The lungs fill up with fluid and you just…stop breathing. It's like swallowing water from a lake. The lungs can't get rid of it and you die."
Ephiny was thoughtful for a moment as she pulled a chair up and sat down to watch over her friend and queen. She finally met the warrior's eyes and there was such sadness there that the regent almost broke down in tears herself. This was not the same woman who had dragged Gabrielle from their midst and tried to kill her. Xena was definitely a different woman. It was in her eyes, and Ephiny couldn't help but see the love there, too.
"Should I prepare the council for the possibility…" she couldn't finish the question.
Xena ran a hand through hair and slowly shook her head. "Not yet," she answered with a heavy sigh. "Let's get through the night and see how she is in the morning."
Ephiny rested her chin on her hands and rested her elbows on her knees. "And the fever?" She reached over and pushed damp bangs away from Gabrielle's forehead.
"We'll try to keep it down as much as possible, but it's her body's way of fighting off the infection," Xena answered. "Her lungs continue to fill because of the infection. I don't know why, but that's how it works for Gabrielle. She's one of the lucky few I know of who suffers the coughing sickness like this." She smirked, but there was no humor in her pale eyes.
They continued to alternate the poultices between the bard's chest and back until a full candlemark had passed. During that time a tub had been brought in and filled with tepid water until it was completely full. Several Amazons had silently filled the tub, each one glancing at the still figure on the bed with open curiosity. Nissia finally shuffled back into the hut when the procession of bucket-wielding Amazons had finally finished their task.
"How is she?" The healer asked, as she pulled a chair up to the foot of the bed.
"Still with us," Ephiny answered. She had traded jobs with Xena and was now filling poultice bags with freshly cooked, steaming onions that were being brought in at quarter-candlemark intervals.
Nissia soon joined in to help treat the ailing queen and they were all consumed in the constant regimen. The treatment included immersing Gabrielle in the tepid water, then slathering her chest and neck in mentholyptus salve, after which they would alternate poultices to her chest and back. The routine continued for several candlemarks and all the while the bard remained completely oblivious to everything. She didn't even realize that her chest and back were blistered from the steady stream of hot poultices.
She felt so light, as if she could jump up and fly into the clear blue sky with little effort. She wanted to run like a child across the open field and dance with wild abandon. It would be so easy and she knew it would be fun. There was such joy inside her that she could feel it trying to break free. The joy was so intense that she almost ached to express it.
Gabrielle could see a dazzling light drawing her irresistibly. The light was far away, across a green meadow dotted with flowers of all colors - purples, yellows, pinks, reds, oranges and blues. The light bathed the meadow in a soft glow, even at this distance, and the young bard felt it pulling her. She marveled at the explosion of color around her and longed to pause long enough to examine each flower, savor their smell, as she slowly walked toward that irresistible brilliance.
She stopped at the edge of an unseen barrier and gazed ahead of her. The meadow spread out before her in such vivid sharpness that she just knew if she crossed that hidden barrier she would be filled with the elusive peace she so longed for. Bathed in the light's brilliance, the leaves on the trees and blossoms on the flowers seemed to glow with inner luminescence. It was palpable, even from where she stood rooted to the ground.
A decision. She had to make a decision. But what decision did she need to make in the midst of such beauty? What could possibly compare to the peace that awaited her?
Gabrielle could feel that peace beckoning so strongly that she almost stepped through that unseen barrier. She just knew that to do so would change her forever. Forever. And there was the rub. She realized it with a pang of finality. This was forever. Across that barrier were the Elysian Fields. She just knew it. Elysia meant she would no longer be able to go back. No one returned once they stepped into the Fields. Did they?
As she stood there, feeling the peace of the Fields wash over her, she watched a group of children race in front of her. One of those children was vaguely familiar to the young bard. His blond hair bobbed as he made it to the edge of a bubbling stream and jumped up and down in triumph. His face turned toward her and Gabrielle recognized Solon's sky-blue eyes immediately, as he smiled fondly at her. He was so happy and full of child-like abandon that Gabrielle's heart soared. Gabrielle did not recognize any of the other children, but she knew Xena's son the instant she saw him.
Love surrounded all the children, and Gabrielle felt the strong pull of that innocent love as they danced and played with wild abandon. The children were all dressed in brilliant colors that rivaled those of the flowers in the meadow. Gabrielle had always cherished color and light, feeling it deep within her very soul at times when only darkness seemed to surround her.
But here, in this place, in these colorful fields, Gabrielle saw color and light in such a way that she had only seen once. The last time she had died. But something…someone had brought her back. This time the sounds of the children's laughter were like a sweet, tempting song enticing her to cross that invisible barrier. The pull was so strong that she felt her resolve quickly melting away.
And then she heard her name called from a great distance. The voice was familiar and held such longing. But it was so far away that Gabrielle couldn't quite place it. She listened intently, but the children's laughter almost drowned out the other voice. She could barely hear anything above the children's laughter. She looked longingly at the children and wanted nothing more than to cross the barrier. It would be so easy to join them in their play. But the familiar voice called her name more persistently.
The voice pulled Gabrielle backward into a dark void that suddenly replaced the brilliant glade she had walked through only moments before. The voice called again, this time louder and more insistent. Gabrielle felt the heaviness return to her body and every ache and pain returned with full force. Her longing to cross the barrier was suddenly replaced by need to return to the world of the living.
She could no longer hear the children's voices over that familiar one that was getting louder and louder. With each utterance of her name, she felt deep love infuse her, as her body grew heavier. There was such love and longing in that voice that Gabrielle knew she could not ignore its calling. She glanced one last time at the brilliance of the scene quickly fading in front of her, until finally the darkness completely surrounded her. She wanted to call out into the darkness, to reassure the loving voice that she was still there, but when she opened her mouth to speak, nothing came out. Nothing, that is, except a chest-deep feeling that gave her the strength she needed to lift her leaden body.
It was the last candlemark before dawn. The candles in the room had burned down to mere puddles of wax and the fire was now only a pile of glowing embers. It was deathly quiet in the queen's hut, except for the steady, shallow wheezing sound that seemed to echo loudly in the open space.
Xena had kept a constant vigil at Gabrielle's bedside throughout the night, changing the poultices every quarter candlemark and bathing the ailing woman's feverish body with the damp cloth at every opportunity. The entire Amazon village was silently waiting. The warrior women had kept a constant vigil within their individual huts, some even entering the Temple of Artemis to pray for their ailing queen.
Ephiny had long ago retired to her own hut, leaving Xena and the aged healer to care for her young friend. She knew she needed to get some rest, in case Gabrielle passed away during the night. If that were to happen, Ephiny would have to quickly be instated to the full status of queen to firmly maintain the balance of power.
She knew it was merely a formality, since the young queen was seldom in residence. Gabrielle's extended absence left all of the day-to-day running of the village and tribal decisions in the regent's hands anyway. But Ephiny also knew there were those from Velasca's insurgence and others who were just waiting for an opportunity to pounce. A coup would be a definite possibility if there were even the slightest perception that a power vacuum existed.
Xena lifted her head off the pillow that Gabrielle's head also rested on. She had been gently calling the young bard's name over and over again in an anguished, tearful mantra. For whatever reason, the warrior could feel her partner slipping further and further from her, despite the constant ministrations. Gabrielle was dying.
"Don't you leave me, Gabrielle," Xena whispered into the bard's ear. "I couldn't bear to go on without you. You're my light…" she choked back a sob as she watched the young woman struggle for another shallow breath. "Come on, Gabrielle, fight!" She lifted her face and rested her forehead against the bard's pale forehead. "You can't leave me, Gabrielle. Fight!!!" Then in a quiet plea, she added, "Please, Gabrielle."
Suddenly, without warning, the bard shot up from the pillow and took in a deep, rattling breath. The result was a sudden chest-deep, violent coughing fit. The cough was loose and shook the bard's entire body. Xena quickly moved in behind Gabrielle to support her, while Nissia, who had been dozing in a nearby chair, grabbed a small bucket that she set in front of the still-coughing bard. All at once, a stream of dark red and yellow bile and mucous poured from Gabrielle's mouth and was caught by the wooden bucket.
Xena and Nissia exchanged a quick glance, before another cough racked the bard's small frame. Another round of mucous and bile poured from Gabrielle's mouth. All Xena could do was watch helplessly and support the bard's head to keep her face from falling into the bucket.
"That's it, Gabrielle. Get it all out," Xena crooned into the still-coughing and vomiting woman's ear. "That's exactly what we've been waiting for, love. Get rid of it all, Gabrielle. That's my girl."
Another chest-deep cough erupted and strings of yellow and pink phlegm emptied into the bucket, before the exhausted bard collapsed back against Xena's chest.
"Can't…" Gabrielle's raspy whisper was hoarse and raw, but her breathing was less shallow and did not have the constricted wheezing to it any longer.
She was still sweating profusely, but Xena could feel that Gabrielle's fever was down. The constant vigil had finally paid off, at least Xena hoped it had. Xena held tightly to her ailing companion and crooned in her ear as Nissia quickly removed the bucket and carried it to the door.
"It's okay, love," Xena soothed. "That's enough for now. You did great, Gabrielle. Really, really great. Shhhh, rest now, love." She kissed the bard's damp temple and eased out from behind her, gently placing Gabrielle back against the pillows.
Nissia approached the bed with a satisfied half-smile. "Her breathing sounds much improved."
"Yeah," Xena agreed with a heavy sigh. "She's still not out of the woods yet, but I think this is a step in the right direction." She gently stroked a still-pale cheek and was relieved to feel considerably less heat radiating from the bard's damp skin. "Her fever seems to have broken, too."
"Thank Artemis," Nissia sighed.
The weary healer moved to a side table and mixed some herbs with water. She returned to the bedside with the cup and handed it to Xena. The herb mixture had a strong aroma of peppermint, lemon and honey with the slight tinge of a sleeping draught in it.
"See if you can get her to drink the entire cup, Xena," Nissia said. "We should also push her to drink more liquids from here on out. I'll have the cooks make up a healing broth that we can start giving her once she's awake again."
Xena nodded her understanding. Her mind was so full of relief at the bard's sudden change in condition that she almost couldn't process it all. She was also bone-tired and knew in the back of her mind that she should get some rest. But there was time for that later. Right now she had to continue being there for her ailing partner.
Nissia left the hut and Xena returned to her vigil, as she dipped the cloth back into the small bowl of water, wrung it out and replaced it on the bard's head.
"You're gonna be okay, love," Xena whispered as she kissed the bard's damp cheek.
Ephiny awoke to the sound of a persistent, annoying pounding on the outside door to her hut. She threw off her coverings and quickly donned her Amazon leathers. While shaking her hair into some semblance of order, the regent walked bare-footed to the door and pulled it open unceremoniously.
"What is it?" She barked to a surprised Solari, as she gazed outside and noticed the activity going on in the light of a new day. Her demeanor suddenly changed as the light hit her full in the face. "What time is it, Sol?" An inadvertent yawn escaped as she sleepily wiped her eyes.
"Good morning, my Queen," the brunette greeted brightly. "It is three candlemarks before the noontime meal. Xena sent me to tell you that Queen Gabrielle's condition has improved."
Ephiny was suddenly wide-awake. "How much has it improved?" She asked, as she started out of the hut without thinking.
"Uh, my queen," Solari put out a staying hand and glanced down at the regent's bare feet. "Don't you think you should put some shoes on before you go racing across the village in such an unstately manner? You might also want to put something more appropriate on. Those leathers are a bit wrinkled. Not the best outfit to wear when you greet the queen."
Ephiny blushed, "Yeah, I guess so. Hold on a sec."
Ephiny raced back inside, donned a pair of clean leathers and grabbed her shoes, strapping them on her feet in haste as she hopped back toward the door. She was elated to hear the news. Gabrielle was alive! She had survived the night! The thought put a wide grin on the regent's face as she emerged once again from her hut and stepped out into the bright sunlight. She inhaled deeply of the fresh, rain-tinged air.
"Did Xena give you any indication of how improved the queen's health is?" Ephiny asked Solari, who had fallen into step next to her.
"Nope," Solari answered rather abruptly.
"Aren't you supposed to be on guard duty, Sol?" Ephiny asked absently as she made her way across the village to Gabrielle's hut. "I thought Ep scheduled you for noon today."
"I took the early watch outside Queen Gabrielle's hut this morning," Solari answered. "Thought I'd give some of the young ones a break. They were nodding off on their watches. Even Eustine and M'Lina could barely keep their eyes open. I was worried one of them would lose a finger while cutting those onions."
Ephiny answered with only a grunt. She knew the entire village was on pins and needles to hear any news of their ailing queen. She figured Solari had used her status as the head of the army to be the one to hear the news first. The regent mentally shrugged at her friend's dedication to their often-absent monarch.
"Thanks, Sol," Ephiny smiled at the other woman. "I'm glad it was you who brought me the news."
Solari shrugged. "She's the queen and you're her regent, it was the least I could do." She smiled proudly.
They reached the queen's hut and quickly climbed the stairs up to the porch. As Ephiny knocked on the closed door, she glanced down at a bucket sitting next to the door. She picked it up and glanced at its contents, before quickly thrusting it from her.
"Solari," the regent tried hard not to gag. "Would you please get someone to empty this and thoroughly clean it out?" She handed the bucket over to the brunette, who merely took it without glancing inside. "I don't think Gabrielle would appreciate having the evidence of her illness out here for all to see."
"By your command, my queen," Solari answered as she carried the bucket away without a backward glance.
The door finally opened and Ephiny watched the healer slowly move to one side. Ephiny entered the dimly-lit hut and let her eyes adjust to the semi-darkness. The strong smell of onions still hung cloyingly in the stale air. Ephiny noticed Xena dozing in a chair that was now leaning precariously against the wall next to the queen's bed. The regent also noticed a silence in the room that hadn't been there the night before. No wheezing from the still figure in the bed.
"Sleeping more peacefully," Nissia answered in a low tone.
Ephiny raised a questioning brow and pointed a thumb towards the door. "The bucket outside?"
Nissia nodded sagely. "She coughed up a great deal of the infection just before dawn. That was when her fever also broke."
Ephiny moved closer to the foot of the bed and stared at its sleeping occupant. "She's not wheezing anymore, at least not like she was last night."
"Her lungs are less congested," came a low voice next to the bed.
Blue eyes opened and met Ephiny's. Ephiny could see how tired Xena was by the rigid set of her shoulders and the purple shadows under her eyes. The regent felt a tug at her heartstrings for the warrior. Xena had certainly done her part to keep Gabrielle alive.
"You should get some sleep, Xena," Ephiny advised in a low, but stern tone. "You look like Death warmed over."
Xena smiled tiredly. "Thanks, Eph. I'm sure Celeste appreciates the sentiment."
"No problem," Ephiny said with a wry grin, as she pulled up a chair on the other side of the bed. "Maybe you both should get some sleep. Xena, you can use my hut if you want to." She looked at the warrior then turned her gaze to the healer.
"I, for one, won't argue with you, my queen," Nissia said with a heavy sigh. "These old bones need more rest than they used to." She shuffled toward the door and left the hut without another word.
"What about you, Xena?" Ephiny watched the warrior gently stroke the bard's cheek.
"I'm fine," Xena answered absently.
"I'll stay with her," Ephiny urged. "I promise to immediately send someone for you if there's any change or if she wakes up." She watched hopefully as Xena considered the offer.
"Okay," the warrior finally conceded on a tired yawn. "Just a couple candlemarks and I'll be good as new."
Xena lifted her tired body and stretched out muscles wound tight from candlemarks of sitting in the uncomfortable chair. She then leaned down and kissed the bard's forehead in an uncharacteristic show of affection that nearly had Ephiny's jaw dropping in surprise. Luckily, the warrior moved toward the door and Ephiny was able to recover her composure.
"Get something to eat at the meal hut first, though," Ephiny shot at the warrior's back, as Xena made her way to the door. "Don't want you keeling over on us."
Xena stopped with her hand on the door latch and turned to glance at her friend. "Take care of her, Eph."
"I will, Xena," Ephiny answered with a companionable wink.
Gabrielle was annoyed. A light, persistent tapping noise had brought her out of the first deep, restful sleep she'd had in…well, she didn't know how long. Had it been days? She couldn't remember. But that tapping noise had to stop. It was making the pounding in her head more annoying with each passing moment.
"Stop," the usually vocal bard rasped in a very hoarse and weak whisper.
"Did you say something?" A vaguely familiar voice said.
Gabrielle summoned her reserves in order to simply consider opening her eyes. Her entire body ached and her chest felt so heavy that she thought for a moment that someone was sitting on top of her. She opened her eyes and was finally able to focus on the thatched ceiling above her.
"Oh, you're awake," that familiar voice said, as someone quickly moved out of Gabrielle's line of sight.
The bard took a tentative breath and was relieved to feel some of the heaviness dissipate. A loose cough from deep in her chest suddenly erupted and she found herself gently lifted into a half-sitting position. A bucket was placed in front of her and caught the crap that came from her mouth. With a weary groan, Gabrielle continued to cough up more of the infection from her chest. A damp cloth wiped her mouth and chin, then suddenly the bucket was gone.
"Better?" The familiar voice asked. Gabrielle had just enough energy left to nod once, as she felt herself lowered back to the pillows. "That's a plus, at least."
Gabrielle watched blond, curly hair pass in front of her, as her caretaker extricated herself from behind the bard. As the woman's face came into focus, Gabrielle smiled her recognition. She welcomed that warm smile as much as she would Xena's own mother.
"Eph," Gabrielle managed a weak, raspy croak.
"Hey there, kiddo," Ephiny stroked the bangs away from her friend's forehead. "Good to see you awake at last. We were beginning to think you would choose the Elysian Fields or the Amazon Hunting Grounds over us. You gave us all quite a scare, including tall, dark and…well, you know who I'm talking about. She's been here non-stop the entire time."
Gabrielle felt her strength waning again, but fought valiantly to stay awake long enough to find out what was going on. Without turning her head she could tell that Xena was not in the room. It was as if she could sense that her partner was gone. The feeling was uncomfortable and a little disconcerting.
"Where's Xena?" She tried to clear her throat, but found that the attempt only caused her to cough again. This time, at least, she didn't cough anything up.
"Take it easy, Gabrielle," Ephiny answered with a gentle smile. "You've been very ill and Xena was here taking care of you all night. I sent her to my hut to get some sleep. She looked about ready to drop and that was when she was sitting down." She smiled to take the edge off her words.
Gabrielle nodded her understanding. She let her eyes close and felt reassured by a gentle caress to her cheek.
"I sent a runner to let Xena know you're
awake," Ephiny continued. "Can you stay awake long enough for her
to get here?"
Just then, Xena burst through the door and was kneeling next to the bed. She grabbed one of Gabrielle's hands and lifted it to her lips.
"Hey," Gabrielle managed to open her eyes and found teary blue eyes fixed on her.
"Hey, yourself," Xena answered, barely aware of Ephiny's quiet departure. "Thanks, Eph."
"No problem, Xena," Ephiny said as she left the two women alone and closed the door behind her.
Xena returned her attention to Gabrielle and smiled reassuringly, as her fingers gently stroked the hand still held in hers. "I'm so glad to see you awake, sweetheart."
Gabrielle barely registered the endearment as she tried hard to keep her eyes locked on Xena's. She smiled as she realized what Xena had actually said. The single word warmed her to the core and sent a tingle of desire through her, despite the fatigue pulling incessantly at her.
"Sweetheart?" She rasped.
"Yeah," Xena answered, her free hand moving up to caress Gabrielle's cheek and stroke her brow. "I was so scared…"
"Shhh," the weary bard soothed as Xena began to cry in earnest. Xena's face moved in close and Gabrielle felt warm lips on her forehead. "Wha's that for?"
"I…" Xena began, then cleared her throat. "I just want to make sure you know how much I…I love you, Gabrielle."
Tears sprang to the bard's eyes at the unexpected revelation from the otherwise stoic warrior. She blinked back the tears and sniffed, which then caused a painful cough to erupt from her chest. One cough led to another until she felt like she was being torn apart from the inside out.
"Ugh," the bard groaned when the coughing fit finally subsided. Her eyes closed involuntarily, despite her best efforts to keep them open. She didn't want the moment to end, but she was too tired to fight. "So…sssleepy."
"It's okay, love," Xena's lips touched her forehead again and the even-more-intimate endearment warmed her heart.
"Love you…too," Gabrielle whispered quietly as she let the peaceful darkness envelope her in dreamless sleep.
Xena sat there for a while longer with a love-struck grin on her face, as she absently continued to stroke the bard's forehead with her thumb. That was how Ephiny found her when she quietly stepped back inside the hut.
"You two kiss and make up?" The regent teased at seeing the warrior's starry-eyed expression.
"Never mind," Ephiny said with a shake of her head as she approached the bed and sat across from the warrior. "How is she?"
"She was awake long enough to say a few words," Xena answered, the grin reappearing unconsciously. "She won't be doing the bard thing until her voice comes back, but…"
"Xena, can I ask you something without getting my head knocked off?"
"What is it, Eph?" Xena asked with a touch of her customary cynicism.
"Should we be planning a joining ceremony for you two?" The regent smirked and then chuckled at the warrior's scowl. "When you haven't been wracked with worry, you've been mooning over her like a love struck kid."
"That obvious, huh?" Xena blushed.
"To anyone with eyes," Ephiny scoffed, then sobered. "Does Gabrielle know?"
"She does now," Xena answered, both hands still stroking the sleeping woman. "I just hope she remembers."
Xena smiled winningly. "She definitely returns the sentiment."
"I'm happy for you, my friend," Ephiny said. "You both deserve a break after all you've been through."
"Yeah," Xena grew sober again. "I was going to tell her anyway, before she took ill. I couldn't let things go on the way they've been, especially since we've been so distant." Her gaze remained fixed on the sleeping bard. "We were a lot more open before Hope…killed Solon," she smiled wistfully at the mention of her son. Then the smile faded as realization hit her. "I almost lost her last night, Eph." The words came out in a quiet whisper.
Ephiny almost didn't hear the warrior's confession it was spoken so softly. She could tell that Xena was also struggling with something else, but had no idea what that could be, not until that moment.
"Can the two of you put the past behind you long enough to move forward?" The regent asked.
Xena's teary eyes met Ephiny's and she nodded. "We will, one way or another. We just need to talk about things, get them out in the open and work through them together." She shrugged. "Kinda like the Amazons and all these treaties you guys are trying to work through. Communication is the key. We'll get through it as long as we stick together."
"Together," the regent smiled wistfully. "Like I said, Xena, I'm happy for you-for you both." A twinkle of mischief entered her eyes. "Let me know when to plan for the celebration. You know how much we Amazons love parties."
"Yeah," Xena snickered and shook her head. "Amazons."
"Hey," Ephiny returned with a pseudo-offended look that melted into a teasing smirk. "We're not all bad."
"Didn't say you were bad. I just think Amazons can find the smallest reason to get plastered."
"The Queen's joining isn't a small occasion," Ephiny shot back. "It's actually a really big deal, Xena. Although," another gleam of mischief came into her eyes, "the birth of a princess is an even bigger deal." She raised her brows a few times to emphasize her point. "You wouldn't…"
"Yeah, I don't have the…um," she looked down at her lap, "the equipment to make that one happen," Xena glanced up with a teasing smirk of her own. "Sorry."
"Shhhh, some of us are trying to sleep here," came a raspy whisper that caught their attention.
Ephiny and Xena gave each other surprised looks before turning their attention to their patient. They watched with anticipation as a pair of green eyes slowly fluttered open.
"Hey, you," Xena leaned in close and gently lifted their clasped hands. "Welcome back." Xena caught an amused twinkle in Ephiny's eye. "Guess who's here?"
"Hey, Gabrielle," Ephiny also leaned in close. "Welcome back, again. It's good to hear your voice, such as it is."
Gabrielle nodded as her eyes drifted shut again. The effort to keep them open was too much at this point. She wanted to say more, but felt sleep tugging her down again.
"Water?" She added in a raspy whisper.
Xena instantly lifted the bard up from the pillow and put a cup of water to Gabrielle's parched lips. The bard drank deeply from the cup until all its contents were emptied.
"More," Gabrielle croaked.
"Sure," Xena handed the cup to Ephiny, who quickly refilled it from a pitcher on the table next to her and handed it back. "Here you go, sweetheart. Easy, now."
Gabrielle drained half of the cup's contents before the effort took its toll. She breathed deeply and instantly regretted that, as a coughing fit leached what little strength she had left. When the fit finally subsided, she lay silently catching her breath. Her chest hurt and she felt as if a chariot had run her over…again.
"Ugh," Gabrielle groaned, her eyes still closed.
"Is there something else I can get you, Gabrielle?" Ephiny asked with concern. "Some soup or another pillow? Something?"
The bard simply shook her head and managed a weak smile. Her breathing finally evened out and soon she was fast asleep.
Xena looked at Ephiny with concern, as her hand gently stroked the bard's forehead and she noticed Gabrielle's fever had returned. "I think we may have another challenging night ahead of us."
"She doesn't seem to be as congested as she was last night," Ephiny commented.
"Her fever's returned," Xena sighed and shook her head. "I can give her something for it, but I'd much rather know what's causing it."
"Do you want me to fetch Nissia?"
Xena shook her head. "I have all I need here, for now. Let the healer get her rest, and we'll see how things go."
"All right," Ephiny answered and rose from her seat. "I really need to go take care of a few important matters. Will you be okay for a while or would you like me to send someone in here to help you out?"
"I'll be fine," Xena answered with a tired half-smile. "I think I can handle things just fine for a while. You go ahead and take care of your Amazons. Maybe have someone bring me something to munch on when you get a chance."
"Will do, Xena," Ephiny made her way around the bed and squeezed the warrior's shoulder. "Let the guards outside know if you need anything. I'll return this evening, after I get things squared away."
Xena put her free hand on Ephiny's. "Thanks, Eph, I really appreciate all you've done. I mean that sincerely."
The regent nodded and left the hut. Xena resumed her vigil, her brow furrowed in deep concern at the turn her partner was taking. Xena knew that recovery from this type of illness was always slow-going and could include setbacks. She just hadn't counted on a setback happening so soon.
That night the communal meal hut was nearly empty by the time Ephiny entered. The head table was completely empty-not surprising since Eponin and Solari had joined a patrol at the southern border. Just after the midday meal a runner was dispatched from one of the outposts to report raiders on Amazon lands.
Ephiny had immediately ordered a patrol to investigate. Eponin and Solari were both eager to ride out with the patrol of six Amazon warriors. The regent had been slightly perturbed by their seeming abandonment, but simply chalked it up to their need to do something more than sit around worrying about Gabrielle.
Unfortunately, idly sitting around wasn't something the regent could afford to do, either. With Gabrielle laid up, Ephiny had been busy all day with matters concerning the treaties. A Centaur envoy and three village envoys had arrived just after the midday meal to go over their treaties, which left the regent very little time to do anything more than play hostess, answer questions and see to the comfort of her unexpected guests.
It was three candlemarks past sunset when Ephiny was finally able to pull herself away to get a bite to eat. She had made sure to have the cooks send the midday and evening meal over to Xena, along with some broth in case Gabrielle awoke hungry. Word from one of the cooks was that Xena had eaten most of both meals, but the broth remained untouched. Ephiny had been unable to pull herself away from her responsibilities long enough to get a status report on Gabrielle's condition.
"Dinar for your thoughts," Eponin's voice cut into the regent's reverie as she absently picked at a piece of bread that had been placed in front of her.
"You're back," Ephiny blurted happily before she caught herself and sobered instantly. "Um, I mean, how did it go?"
Eponin repressed the chuckle that threatened to erupt at the regent's words. "Good to see you too, Eph." She grabbed the bread and broke off a generous chunk, then nodded to the Amazon server who set a large bowl of steaming stew on the table in front of her. "We didn't see the raiders, but Solari is tracking them to find out where they ran off to, the bastards. They slipped past us in the dark and managed to slither away before we could grab 'em."
Eponin ladled up two generous portions of stew and handed one bowl to the regent. She watched as Ephiny absently stirred her bowl with her wooden spoon.
"Did they do any damage this time?" Ephiny asked. "Any sheep missing? Chickens still pecking away happily?"
Eponin shrugged between bites. "Took some livestock from a nearby village and burned one of their grain sheds to the ground."
Ephiny placed a piece of cheese on her bread, dunked both in the stew and took a bite. She chewed absently and swallowed before continuing. "Was the shed full?"
"Nah, just a few bushels of apples left over from last harvest," Eponin answered. "I think Jerelyn was more concerned about the two heifers that were taken. He Sheep didn't seem to interest the raiders, but the heifers will be good milking cows come fall."
Ephiny paused with her spoon to her lips. "Are the villagers blaming us again?"
"No," Eponin answered with a sigh. "They understand that we don't have much control over raiders, especially when they seem to vanish into thin air. Bastards are probably half-way to Athens, by now."
"Well, that's positive, at least," the regent snorted. "Not the raiders escaping part, but the part where the villagers aren't blaming us." Ephiny corrected with a blush. "The other villages are petitioning us to provide protection as an added stipulation to their respective treaties. I just can't see how we can do that and continue to protect our own borders. We're not mercenaries-for-hire, nor are we equipped to provide militia services to the outlying villages." She ran a tired hand through her hair. "I had to meet with three contingencies of those village representatives and an envoy from the Centaurs today."
"Oooo," Eponin sympathized. "Tough day at the Forum, huh?"
"Ha, very funny, Pony," Ephiny smirked. "I just wish…"
"Her Maj was up to taking some of the load off your shoulders?" Eponin finished with a knowing nod. "Yeah, I think Gabrielle has a lot more negotiating experience than any of us combined. Traveling with Xena has given her a perspective that most people can only dream of."
"Yeah, not to mention the fighting skills," Ephiny added. "Do you remember what she was like when she first came to us? When Melosa was still queen and Gabrielle tried to save Terreis from those arrows?" She shook her head and chuckled softly. "I don't even know how she survived without a scratch, much less accepted Terreis' right of caste."
Eponin chuckled. "She was so green. So naïve that it made my teeth hurt just listening to her go on and on about how amazing Xena was and how awesome being an Amazon was." She shook her head at the distant memories. "Frankly, I don't know how we survived having her here with us. She was a major pain in the…um…well, you know."
"She couldn't even hold a staff properly," Ephiny added with a nod. "What a difference a few years and traveling with Xena have made."
Eponin finished her stew and set her bowl aside. "Not that I want to spoil your trip down memory lane or anything, but what are we going to do about those raiders, Eph? We can't just let them run roughshod over us. I don't give a centaur's fart about the surrounding villages, except that eventually the raiders are gonna get tired of chickens, sheep, cows and goats. Then they'll be looking for slaves, instead. I don't want anyone having to go through that crap."
Ephiny rubbed her eyes. "I'm headed over to see how Gabrielle's doing. While I'm there I'll find out what Xena thinks about the situation. We really need to get this under control before we commit to anything over the long term."
"You think Xena will get involved?" Eponin was skeptical. "She ain't exactly an Amazon, so there's no loyalty there."
"I'm not sure at this point." Ephiny scowled.
"Because of how things went the last time they were here?" Eponin asked knowingly.
"No," Ephiny answered with a bemused grin. "Because there's a lot more going on with those two now than there was the last time we saw them. Things have changed."
"Oh? Something I should know about?" Eponin was practically salivating at the prospect of a little gossip.
Ephiny gave the weapons master a stern glare. "Down, Pony. You'll figure it out for yourself soon enough."
"Ah, come on, Eph," Eponin whined. "You can't drop a hint about the dynamic duo and then just…" she shrugged, "…keep me dangling. That's not fair and you know it."
"Sorry, Pony," Ephiny finished off the rest of her stew and pushed back from the table. "I need to get over there to check on Gabrielle. I told Xena I'd drop by earlier, but you know what kind of day I've had."
"Want some company?" Eponin pushed away from the table and moved to join the regent.
"Yeah, sure," Ephiny nodded.
Xena was dozing in her chair with one hand tucked into one of the soundly sleeping bard's hands. Nissia had settled her withered frame in a chair next to the roaring fire. The healer was staring absently into the flames when a tentative knock sounded at the door to the hut.
"Come," Nissia called without moving.
Ephiny poked her head inside. "Mind if we come in?"
"Join the fun, Eph," Xena responded.
Ephiny and Eponin stepped into the warmth of the hut and gathered at the foot of the bed.
"How's she doing?" Ephiny asked.
Xena shook her head, moved her hand to the sleeping bard's damp forehead and stroked her brow with her thumb. "Still has a fever."
"It's not as high as it was last night, but it's higher than I would like it to be at this point," Nissia added. "Her body is still trying to fight off the infection in her lungs."
"I thought she got rid of all that," Ephiny said with a grimace. "I saw the bucket by the door earlier."
"Apparently not all of it," Xena answered.
Ephiny and Eponin watched with interest as Xena continued to stroke Gabrielle's forehead. Eponin exchanged a questioning look with the regent, who merely shook her head and mouthed "later" to the curious weapons master.
"Is there anything else we can do?" Ephiny added.
"We've done all we can for now," the healer answered. "The queen is strong and was healthy before this illness came over her, but the fever is taking its toll."
"She's strong," Xena emphatically stated, without looking away from the still woman on the bed. "She'll fight this and win. She will."
Nissia looked imploringly at the two Amazons and received knowing looks in return.
"Uh, Xena?" Eponin piped up uncomfortably. She hated being put on the spot, but knew this was one of those instances where being a warrior paid off. "Can I talk to you outside? I really need your…um, your advice on something."
Xena glanced over at the weapons master with irritation. "I'm a little busy right now, Eponin."
Eponin stood up and moved toward the door. "Xena, I really need to talk to you. It's important. You know I wouldn't ask if it weren't."
Xena sighed, then leaned forward to place a gentle kiss on the forehead she had been stroking. The move did not go unnoticed by anyone in the room, including Eponin. Xena then stood up and hesitantly moved away from Gabrielle's bedside, glancing back one last time before following Eponin outside onto the porch.
"All right, Eponin," she stood with her hands on her hips and stared down with irritation at the weapons master. "What's so important and private that we couldn't stay inside and talk?"
Eponin stepped off the porch and absently looked up at the starry sky overhead. "It's a beautiful night, but a little chilly. Don't you think?"
Xena huffed exasperatedly and followed the Amazon. "What is it, Pony?" There was a note of tired resignation in her voice as she used the weapons master's nickname. "I don't really want to leave Gabrielle for very long. Every time I do some new development suddenly rears its ugly head. Now, what is it?"
Eponin continued to gaze up at the stars overhead. "I know you love her, but you need some time away, Xe. You can't keep hovering over her like that and expect her to recover. Walk with me?" She didn't wait for a response and started walking across the village.
Xena stood there a moment in stunned silence, before she followed after the weapons master with a resigned sigh. They walked quietly to the edge of the village and into the dark woods beyond. When they were deep within the shadows, Eponin led them into a moonlit clearing next to a small pond. It was a beautiful place and the weapons master hoped it would bring a sense of peace to the restless warrior.
"Was there really anything you wanted to talk about? Or was this just a ploy to get me out of the hut?" Xena asked.
"She'll be fine with Nissia and Ephiny," Eponin dodged the question as she gazed out over the moonlit pond with her arms folded over her chest. "You love her, huh?"
The question didn't really shock Xena at this point. "That obvious, eh?"
"Yeah," Eponin answered quietly. "It's written all over your face when you look at her like you were doing in there. Didn't hit me, what Ephiny was getting at, until just then. Can't believe I'm such a dunderhead."
Xena sighed heavily. "She's become…" she cleared her throat uncomfortably, "She's my entire world. I don't think I can live without her anymore. She's such a part of me now that I…"
Eponin glanced at the warrior and saw tears swimming in the pale eyes. "I know what you mean."
Xena raised a brow at the confession. "Who?"
Eponin shrugged. "Who do you think?" She glanced back the way they'd come. "We're a village of women. It ain't like I got a gaggle of boys chasin' after this old hide."
"Ephiny?" Xena's expression mirrored her sudden understanding.
Eponin shifted uncomfortably. "Yeah," she nodded. "And if you say anything to anyone about it, I'll knock your block off." She returned her attention to the pond. "Don't think your reputation holds much weight around here, Xena. I still think I can take ya."
They stood there in silence for a few moments, each lost in their own thoughts. Xena was stunned by the admission from the usually stoic Amazon. It had just never occurred to her that Eponin could have those kinds of feelings, much less for the Amazon Regent.
"You tell her yet?" Xena broke the silence first.
Eponin met Xena's questioning gaze. "You tell Gabrielle yet?"
Xena smirked. "Yeah, but I'm not sure she was coherent enough to really comprehend what I was telling her."
"Yeah," Eponin nodded sagely. "She'll pull through this, Xe. I know she will." She placed a comforting hand on the warrior's shoulder. "She's stronger than she looks, for a little squirt," she smirked. "Can't believe you'd fall for someone who talks as much as she does. Must drive ya nuts to have her yammerin' on all the time."
Xena couldn't stop the single tear from spilling down her cheek. She sniffed and wiped impatiently at the wetness, then gazed out over the scene spread out before them with unseeing eyes.
"I don't know what I'd do without her, Pon," Xena added in a small voice as more tears fell unheeded down her cheeks. "Yammerin' and all." She smirked.
Eponin took the tall warrior into an awkward hug, as Xena finally let her emotions go. The tall warrior cried in the weapons master's arms for several long moments before both women finally pulled away in mutual embarrassment. Xena wiped the tears from her face, while Eponin tried to regain what little composure she had left.
"Thanks, Pon," Xena smiled at the woman's awkwardness. "You're a really good friend."
Eponin shrugged nonchalantly. "It was nothing," she smirked at Xena's tentative smile. "You tell anyone about this and I'll kill ya." She smirked.
"So, when you going to tell Ephiny that you're in love with her?" Xena asked with a teasing gleam in her eyes.
Eponin sighed heavily as she sat down on a fallen log. "Ugh! Why are these things so hard? Why can't they be as easy as slicing a man in two or gutting a pig?" She mimed several sword jabs. "Uh, uh, uh and it's all over."
Xena sat down next to her friend and put an arm around the smaller woman's shoulder. "Relationships are never easy, Pon. If they were, then everyone would be able to make them work."
"Says the woman who waited until her girlfriend was on Death's doorstep to tell her that she loves her," Eponin scoffed. They sat there in silence again. "We're pathetic. You know that?"
"Yeah," Xena agreed, patting Eponin's shoulder. "Give me a dozen smelly ruffians to tangle with any day. It's a lot easier than trying to figure out how to deal with my feelings for Gabrielle."
Eponin nodded. "Every time I look at Ephiny, I mean really look at her, I get this…this grinding in my gut and my knees go all weak." She raised her hands. "My palms get all sweaty just thinking about it. It's like I want to tell her how much I really care about her, but then…ugh…"
"Your thick head kicks in and seals your lips tighter than an Amazon coffin," Xena agreed. "I know."
They continued to sit there in silence for a few more moments, until a cloud passed in front of the moon and plunged them into darkness. Xena's acute hearing kicked in as the darkness surrounded them, and she realized they weren't alone anymore.
"Well, that's my cue," Xena slapped her knees and abruptly stood up. She turned to greet the newcomer. "Is something up, Eph?"
The regent noisily emerged from the woods into the clearing and stepped up next to the pair of warriors.
"You two have a nice chat?" The regent asked with a curious smirk, as she surveyed each woman in turn.
"We were just clearing the air," Eponin answered as she self-consciously stood up to face the regent. "You know, battle tactics and stuff like that. Warrior stuff. Nothin' of interest to someone of your austere sensibilities."
"Oookay," the regent certainly wasn't convinced. "Did you ask her advice on the raider issue then?"
The two warriors exchanged uncomfortable looks that were not lost on the observant regent. Ephiny knew there was more going on than either woman would ever admit. The question was what were they discussing that seemed to make both warriors so uncomfortable.
"Um, it wasn't quite…uh…" Eponin stammered and rubbed the back of her neck.
"We didn't quite get that far," Xena piped in. She turned her full attention to Ephiny. "So, what advice do you need to hear?"
"It can wait," Ephiny answered with a frown, still not quite sure what was going on between the two women, but realizing they were hiding something. She met Xena's gaze, all levity gone from her expression. "Gabrielle is awake and asking for you."
She barely finished her statement before Xena took off through the woods toward the village, leaving the two Amazons alone in the small clearing. Ephiny turned to face the weapons master with her hands on her hips and noticed Eponin was fidgeting.
"You want to tell me what you and Xena talked about that's got your leathers in a bunch?" Ephiny inquired with a raised brow.
Eponin tried to shrug nonchalantly, but knew she failed miserably at being very convincing. "I think I should…" she pointed a thumb over her shoulder as she backed toward the woods. "I should, you know, go check on the perimeter watch. Make sure everything's quiet and there haven't been anymore…uh, you know, disturbances. Maybe Solari's back and can tell us where those raiders are holed up."
Ephiny was about to reply when Eponin suddenly darted back into the woods in Xena's wake. The regent stood there for a moment, shaking her head and staring out at the moonlit pond. Her brow creased into a frown to think that two such stoic warriors had chosen this particular spot to have a discussion about battle tactics.
"Warriors!" She shouted in frustration to the darkness. "Ugh!!!"
Xena entered the candlelit interior of the hut to find Nissia bent over and whispering to Gabrielle. The healer looked up when the warrior burst through the door.
"You're back," the aged woman stated matter-of-factly, as she straightened up. "I just finished giving her a dose of medicine." She pointedly set a cup on the side table and went back to her seat next to the fireplace.
Xena's full attention was on the woman in the bed as she approached and sat in her customary chair. Gabrielle was awake and even looked aware of her surroundings.
"Hey," Xena smiled down to see a slight sparkle in the bard's eyes. "How're you feeling?"
Gabrielle cleared her throat, "A little better," she rasped. "Still tired."
"That's to be expected," Xena replied as she felt Gabrielle's forehead. "Your fever is down a bit, but you're still warm." She got a tired nod in answer.
"Where were you?" Gabrielle asked. "I woke up and you weren't here." Her bottom lip quivered. "I thought…"
"Shhh," Xena soothed as she lovingly stroked the bard's cheek. "I'm here now. Just needed to have a little heart-to-heart with Eponin."
Gabrielle looked skeptical. "You and Eponin…talked?"
"Yeah," Xena smiled reassuringly. "Even warriors do that from time to time."
"Stuff," the warrior shrugged.
Xena shrugged again. "Life, love." This time she smiled. "Just normal stuff that warriors talk about."
Gabrielle couldn't help the chuckle that erupted at the warrior's words. Unfortunately, the chuckle elicited a chest-deep coughing fit that left her weak and achy.
"Please don't make me laugh, Xena," Gabrielle rasped when she finally had the cough under control again.
"Sorry, love." Xena gave the bard an apologetic smile.
Gabrielle noticed the look and saw tears swimming in the warrior's baby blues. "Hey," she reached up and clasped Xena's hand, holding it tightly in hers. "What's the matter, Xena?"
Xena blinked back the tears and just shook her head. "I'm just being…I don't know," she shrugged. "I guess I'm just a little scared is all."
"Scared?" Gabrielle whispered quietly. "You're not afraid of anything, Xena." It was a statement of fact.
Xena leaned in close and gave the bard a gentle kiss on the cheek, then leaned her forehead against the bard's. "I don't want to lose you, Gabrielle."
The gentle admission touched the bard deeply. "I'm not going anywhere, Xe. I'm fighting this with every ounce of my being, because I want us to be together. I want…us."
Their eyes met and they just gazed at each other for a timeless moment, until a gentle throat clearing nearby brought them back to the fact they were not alone.
"You two want me to get you something to eat?" Nissia asked from her place near the fireplace. "Or would you rather I simply left you alone for the night?"
Gabrielle blushed to her roots, while Xena put on her best stoic warrior face and frowned at the interruption. The warrior stood up to her full height and crossed her arms over her chest in her best intimidation stance.
"That doesn't work on me, warrior, remember?" Nissia scoffed as she managed to get to her feet and shuffle to the door. "I'll see you in the morning. These old bones need their rest."
As the healer closed the door behind her, the two companions chuckled like of couple of love-struck girls. Gabrielle's giggles, however, turned into coughing that rocked her to the core. Xena sat back down and grabbed a cup from the side table. She lifted the bard into a sitting position and held the cup to the bard's lips.
Gabrielle sniffed the concoction, but could smell nothing through the congestion in her nose. She drank from the cup and tasted the sweet flavor of lemon, mint and honey on her tongue.
"Mmm, my favorite," the bard rasped as Xena gently laid her back against the pillows. Gabrielle reached up again to push Xena's hair behind an ear. "Beautiful."
Xena studied her young companion for a moment, as she tucked the covers up around Gabrielle's chin. "I think your fever has made you a little delirious."
Gabrielle shook her head and continued to study the tall warrior with open admiration. She could see the dark circles under the warrior's pale blue eyes. There was also a tenseness to Xena's posture that reflected the warrior's exhaustion. Gabrielle felt bad for the part she was playing in Xena's obvious lack of rest.
"Do me a favor?" Gabrielle rasped, as Xena sat back down on the uncomfortable-looking wooden chair next to the bed. "I'm a little cold, even with all these covers. Could you…could you climb in here and share some of your warmth?" The last was said in a timid whisper. "This bed's definitely big enough for two," she continued with more courage than she felt. "Please, Xena?"
Xena hesitated a moment to consider the bard's request. "Hold that thought," she said with a reassuring smile.
The warrior went to her saddle bags and dug out a cotton shift. She quickly removed her leathers and donned the shift, before returning to the bedside.
"You sure about this?" Xena quietly asked.
The bard nodded and watched as Xena extinguished all the candles in the hut, except for the one next to the bed. Xena then went to the other side of the room and banked the coals in the fireplace. Once she had everything to her satisfaction, she moved to the bed and lifted the covers. Gabrielle felt herself relax as the warrior moved up to her left side and pulled her close. The bard breathed a sigh of relief as she rested her head on the warrior's shoulder.
"Perfect," Gabrielle purred.
"Mmm," Xena uttered, as she too let herself relax for the first time in two days. She gently brushed the bard's hair off her forehead and placed a light kiss on top of Gabrielle's head. "Feels really good," she muttered as she felt sleep pulling at her with an intensity she hadn't felt in a really long time.
A moment later the two were fast asleep in each other's arms. A cricket chirped outside an open window, but neither of the bed's occupants heard its persistent chatter.
It was dark. Pitch black. And hot. So hot. She reached out in front of her, but could see nor feel anything. She tried to call out into the darkness, but her voice was gone, replaced by a raspy wheeze.
A light suddenly emerged from the darkness and grew in intensity as someone approached. Gabrielle tried to focus on the approaching figure, but her vision was blurry. For a moment she thought she was back in that place again-Elysia? But no. This felt different. There was no peace in this place, just a stifling heat that wouldn't go away. And then she sensed another presence besides her own.
"Who's there?" She rasped into the darkness. She was mildly surprised when she could actually speak.
Cold male laughter greeted her and sent a chill down her spine. She knew that laugh and dreaded the confrontation. Why would he be here?
"What do you want, Ares?"
The laughter continued as the figure stood a few paces away. Gabrielle tried to lift her hands to rub her eyes, but her limbs were leaden and would not move.
"What do you want, Ares?" She rasped again. "Talk to me, you son of a bacchae!"
The laughter continued as the image before her swam and shifted into a miasma of incomprehensible colors. The heat radiated around her and she could feel sweat pouring off her body.
"Hades?" Gabrielle rasped, trying to make sense of what was happening. "Am I in the Underworld? Where's Xena? Why am I here? What's going on?"
The laughter ceased abruptly and the figure before her suddenly swam into focus. Hope stood there in front of her with her customary leering smirk. Gabrielle wanted to step back from her daughter, but her feet were as leaden as her arms.
"Mother," the demon look-alike sneered at her. "You're looking…" she surveyed Gabrielle up and down, "a little pale and sickly these days. Traveling with the warrior bitch finally catching up with you?"
"Hope," Gabrielle's breathing became labored as fear of her daughter suddenly threatened to overwhelm her. Her chest was heavy and she felt as if the heat would consume her at any moment. "What are you doing here? You're dead. I…I made sure of that. Why aren't you dead?"
The look-alike chuckled evilly. "You wish, Mother. I guess all that love you claimed to have for me wasn't enough to turn you away from…her. Xena still pushing all your buttons? I'm sure she found a few new ones to push."
Gabrielle looked at her daughter in confusion. "What? How can you say that? I loved you. I just had to stop you," she stood her ground. "Besides, you killed Solon-you and Callisto. I will never forgive you for that. Never! Xena nearly killed me because of the scheme the two of you concocted."
Hope circled her mother until she was standing directly face-to-face with Gabrielle again. The two were exactly the same height, but there was a chill in Hope's eyes that did not mirror the warmth in Gabrielle's.
"You're pathetic," the demon child hissed. "Xena is your greatest weakness. Can't you see that? Don't you know what her darkness will do to you? Can't you see that she's dragging you down with her? You had your chance to spend eternity in the Elysian Fields. Now you'll know what it's really like to suffer in death."
"No," Gabrielle's breathing became even more labored as the tightness in her chest seemed to multiply exponentially.
Her entire body felt like it was on fire and she thought she was going to succumb to the burning fire within. Hope's taunting laughter became louder as her gaze intensified. Blazing hate emanated from the demon woman's eyes as she leered at the woman standing before her.
"You've made your bed, Mother," Hope hissed. "She will be your ultimate downfall and soon you will join me in the darkness. Father will be so pleased…" Hope started to back away. "He will be very pleased to finally have you all to himself." She chuckled wickedly as she faded into the darkness. "He was so pleased to take your innocence and now he'll have you for all eternity."
"No!" Gabrielle rasped as her daughter suddenly disappeared and plunged her into darkness again.
Gabrielle struggled to move under the oppressive weight that had settled over her entire body. The heat was unbearable, but she could not place its source. Her breathing became even more ragged as a myriad of colors suddenly danced around her.
"Gabrielle!!!" A voice called to her.
She wanted to move toward the familiar voice, but couldn't. She wanted to call out, but couldn't. She was trapped in the darkness.
"Gabrielle! Gabrielle! Sweetheart, wake up," Xena called to her delirious bedmate.
The warrior had extricated herself from the bed when the bard started thrashing around in her delirium. The front of Xena's shift was soaked from the sweat pouring off the bard's body, as her fever rose dangerously.
"Come on, Gabrielle," Xena wiped the ailing bard's brow with the damp cloth.
"Let go!" The weak bard rasped as she thrashed violently, her head tossing from side to side in her delirium. Green eyes rolled back in the bard's head until only the whites of her eyes shone.
"It's okay, love, I'm here," Xena tried to calm Gabrielle.
Gabrielle's eyes suddenly flew open and she turned her gaze on Xena. "Leave me alone!" She rasped as her face contorted in utter panic. "Go away!!!"
Xena's heart constricted at the look in Gabrielle's eyes, but she pushed her own feelings down in the face of the bard's dire condition. Gabrielle's fever had spiked dangerously, which Xena was sure was the cause for her frantic delirium.
"Shh, sweetheart, it's just me. It's Xena," Xena stroked the bard's damp cheek. A trickle of sweat trailed down Gabrielle's cheek and Xena wiped it away with the damp cloth.
"Xena?" The bard turned confused eyes on her and Xena could tell Gabrielle wasn't quite with her yet. "Why is it so hot? I can't…I can't breathe…"
"You have a fever, Gabrielle," Xena answered quietly. "You're very ill, sweetheart, but I'm here. I won't let anything happen to you."
Xena watched as Gabrielle's eyes left hers and looked around in confusion. Something seemed to catch the bard's attention for a moment and Xena watched as Gabrielle's expression turned to one of sheer terror.
"Gabrielle? What is it, love?" Xena asked with growing panic. "What do you see?"
Gabrielle's eyes returned to hers and Xena recognized the look in them. She had seen that look the night that Gabrielle had been out of her head with fever from a poisoned arrow to her chest. The Persians had been about to attack and Xena was caught between nursing the woman she couldn't admit to loving and facing the army alone. She had almost packed up their belongings and carted Gabrielle off to Athens to find the antidote to the poison coursing through the young bard's body.
"I love you," Gabrielle rasped in a weak whisper. "I…I will wait for you…"
Xena watched as Gabrielle's eyes rolled back in her head again and her breathing became entirely too shallow and slow.
"No! Don't you dare leave me!!" The panic escalated, as the full force of Gabrielle's condition slammed into Xena. "You fight! Do you hear me? Fight, Gabrielle!!! Don't you dare leave me like this!!"
Tears coursed down the warrior's face as she leaned over the woman she loved more than life itself. She saw her life slipping away and couldn't help the cry of anguish that tore from her, as she leaned close to Gabrielle and placed her hands on either side of the woman's face.
"I can't live without you," she cried desperately against Gabrielle's fevered forehead. "You can't leave me, please."
The door to the hut suddenly flew open and an unfamiliar Amazon's face peeked inside.
"What's going on?" The young woman asked anxiously, only to realize a heartbeat later what was happening. She didn't hesitate and left the hut in search of the regent.
Xena ignored the interruption and continued to hold onto Gabrielle. She could feel the bard's breathing becoming shallower with each passing moment and knew a sense of overwhelming panic.
"My Queen!" The young Amazon burst into the regent's hut unceremoniously.
Ephiny sat bolt upright and searched the darkness. "What the Hades?!?" She finally recognized the Amazon standing in front of her. "What's going on, Chalinda? Is the queen…"
"You need to come immediately," the young Amazon continued in a breathless voice. "It's Queen Gabrielle."
Ephiny jumped from her bed, unmindful of her nudity as she quickly donned her discarded leathers. She didn't wait for further explanation as she pulled her boots on. A myriad of thoughts raced through her still-sleep-fogged mind, but she pushed them aside until she knew all the facts.
"Go alert the council members, Chalinda!" She shouted to the dark shadow panting breathlessly near the door. "And tell Eponin and Nissia to meet me at the queen's hut. Go!!"
"I already alerted the healer," the young Amazon responded. "She's on her way."
"Good," Ephiny continued. "Let the priestesses know, as well."
"Yes, my queen."
The young Amazon darted from the hut as quickly as she had burst into it. Ephiny finished lacing her boots and charged from the hut, nearly colliding with a breathless Solari in her haste. The two women stood there a moment, catching their collective breaths - Ephiny from surprise and Solari from her cross-country sprint.
"Solari," Ephiny finally said. "What's the word?"
"Trouble," Solari said. "We tracked the raiders several leagues to the south and west. They split up and tried to throw us off their trail, but I managed to stay with the main group. I ran back here as soon as I discovered their main camp."
Ephiny waited a moment for Solari to continue, then, "Well?"
"There's an army camped twelve leagues beyond our southern border," Solari continued solemnly.
"Gods on Olympus! What else can go wrong?" Ephiny sighed. "How big is the army?"
"At least a hundred campfires and several large tents," the tracker answered. "It looks like they've been there a while."
"Ten soldiers per campfire…" Ephiny calculated softly. She met Solari's gaze with a grave expression. "We don't have enough warriors to face a thousand soldiers. Did you see what banner they're flying?"
"Not at all, no," Solari answered. "I don't think they had one in sight."
"That's just great!" Ephiny exclaimed with a hiss. "Add that to the fact that our queen is dying. Artemis' left tit! We don't need this right now." Ephiny paced a few steps away, her right hand rubbing her forehead in agitation.
"Gabrielle is dying?" Solari asked with sudden sadness, as her eyes tracked to the well-lit hut across the way.
"I was on my way there," Ephiny stopped pacing and sighed heavily. "Come." Without waiting for a response she headed towards the queen's hut at a quick walk.
Solari caught up with her after a few quick steps. "You think Xena can help us? With the army, I mean."
Ephiny stopped short and swung around to face the dark-haired Amazon. "Despite what Gabrielle puts in those stories of hers, I don't think even Xena could help us defeat an army that size. And with Gabrielle's condition as grave as it is right now, I don't think Xena's of a mind to leave her side."
"Eph, she's done it before," Solari insisted.
The Amazon regent shook her head. "Not against those numbers." Then she continued walking at a slower pace.
They reached the hut and Ephiny nodded to the guards as she climbed the steps to the porch. The regent knocked once and unceremoniously entered without waiting for a response. The scene that greeted her made her stop dead in her tracks, which caused Solari to collide with her back.
"What's the ho…" Solari's words died on her lips as she peered over Ephiny's shoulder.
Both Amazons stood in shocked silence as Xena, a bloody knife gleaming in her hand, pierced Gabrielle's side. The warrior was so focused on her task that she barely registered the intrusion and merely continued her work. Ephiny slowly approached the foot of the bed and stared in disbelief. She glanced at the unconscious woman in the bed and noted something different about her, besides Xena's actions - Gabrielle's hair had been shorn and was now sticking out in all directions.
Gabrielle was lying on her side, barely breathing, while Xena removed the blade from the bard's side and began digging around in the open wound.
"Xena, what in the name of Artemis is going on here?!?" The regent finally found her voice. "What happened to Gabrielle's hair? And what are you doing to her?"
"Shhhh," Nissia, who was standing off to one side and out of the way, hissed as she stood on the other side of the bed holding a glowing candle close to where the warrior worked.
Ephiny and Solari watched with rapt fascination as Xena continued to probe the bloody wound. The warrior grabbed a thin reed from the table and inserted it into the hole where her fingers still resided. She slowly guided the reed along one finger as she probed further.
"Keep that light steady, Nissia," Xena ordered.
The healer heeded Xena's command as she continued to gaze down at their patient. This was not something that Nissia had been prepared for when she entered the hut to find the young queen barely clinging to life. Xena had looked up with such sorrow in her eyes that the healer knew instantly how grave the situation was. Then the tall warrior had suddenly steeled herself and explained a procedure so far-fetched that the aged healer, who had seen and tried practically everything in her long-standing career, had been taken aback.
It still amazed the Amazon healer to think that their queen had been cut open in order to save her life. What a preposterous undertaking, yet they were doing exactly that. Xena suddenly hissed and all movement in the room ceased instantly. No one even dared to breathe.
"What is it?" Nissia asked tentatively.
Xena frowned then gritted her teeth as she resumed her task much more slowly and carefully. Her bloody fingers remained steady and sure as the reed moved further into the wound.
"Nothing," Xena exhaled slowly. "There was just a bit of resistance when I tried to move the reed between her ribs." Xena finished placing the thin reed and gently slid her hand from the incision. "Hand me the needle and thread, please."
Nissia kept the candle steady with one hand as she grabbed a small bone needle and thread from a bowl of liquid on the table next to her. She handed them over to the warrior, who took the needle in her bloody hand. Xena quickly stitched the hole around the reed until she had it closed to her satisfaction. Only then did she turn to the two Amazons waiting silently at the foot of the bed.
"Can you two come over here and help prop her up against the pillows?" Xena asked, holding her bloody hands up and away from her body. "We need to get her as upright as possible. The drainage tube needs to do its job."
The two Amazons nodded mutely as they moved to either side of the bed and did as Xena requested. Xena kept a hold of the reed to keep it in place with one hand and put a bowl beneath the reed's opening with the other.
Solari, who was on Xena's side, noticed a steady stream of bloody fluids draining from the reed into the bowl Xena held. She looked at the warrior and watched as Xena's gaze shifted to the still-unconscious bard. Xena's brow was knit in deep concern as she gazed expectantly at Gabrielle.
All eyes locked on the smaller bard, as they held a collective breath. Several still moments passed with only the fire's crackling and the sound of liquid draining to break the silence. Solari and Ephiny studied the queen's new hairdo, while Xena and Nissia watched the reed with rapt attention.
Xena knew the procedure was a long shot. When she had seen Nissia enter the hut her heart was aching to know that there was nothing she could do for the woman she loved, who lay dying on the bed before her. Gabrielle's fever had spiked dangerously high, which prompted the warrior to cut off her beautiful blond hair off in an effort to cool her. As each lock fell to the floor beside the bed, Xena had wracked her brain for a way to save the young bard's life. When the last sweat-soaked lock drifted to the floor, the healer stepped into the hut and suddenly Xena knew what to do.
As if a torch had suddenly come to life within her, she remembered the reed and bladder trick she had used on a soldier during the war between Thessaly and Mitoa. The man had been drowning in the blood that was filling his lungs. Unfortunately, his wounds were too extensive for the procedure to have saved his life. Gabrielle had been devastated.
And now, Xena was using a very similar procedure to try to save the young bard's life. She knew Gabrielle was also drowning, as fluid filled her lungs to the point where they were almost too full for her to breathe. The lung infection had reached the point where the bard would surely die, not to mention her fever was out of control. She knew the procedure was dangerous, but she also couldn't let Gabrielle die.
"Xena?" Ephiny's soft voice broke into the warrior's reverie.
Xena's focus returned to the still woman on the bed, and she realized Gabrielle's breathing was coming a little easier. She looked down at the end of the reed and saw that only a few drops of liquid were dripping out, while the bowl was nearly full.
Xena looked up to find three pairs of Amazon eyes watching her expectantly. She breathed an internal sigh of relief, but knew that the danger was far from over. Only Gabrielle's right lung was now free of the constricting fluid that now filled the bowl. Xena knew she couldn't perform the same procedure on the other lung without compromising Gabrielle's life completely. It was just too dangerous.
She unconsciously brushed the short hair from the bard's sweaty forehead and noted how cherubic the hairdo made Gabrielle look. For a brief moment she wondered how her partner would react to the new style when she awoke, then quickly shoved the thought away. First things first, the warrior realized.
Xena shook her head. "I don't know," she stated. "I just knew I had to do something. She was..." She cleared her throat at the sudden constriction. "She said goodbye and told me she would wait for me on the other side."
Ephiny saw the intense set to the warrior's shoulders and knew how much pressure Xena was under to keep Gabrielle alive. This sudden turn in Gabrielle's illness was not something any of them could have foreseen, and the regent realized just how much danger their queen had put them all in with her simple presence.
"Solari, stay here with Nissia and watch over Gabrielle," Ephiny ordered. "Xena, come with me, please."
The regent didn't wait for Xena to agree, but turned and headed toward the door. She stepped outside into the darkness and stood against the porch rail. It was a starless night, with just a hint of moonlight peeking through some late-night cloud cover. Ephiny watched the clouds move across the sky and sniffed the dewy air, as Xena stepped up next to her. The warrior rubbed her eyes with hands that were now mostly cleaned of blood. Ephiny watched from the corner of her eye as Xena closely examined her hands before placing them on the porch rail with an exhausted sigh.
"You need a break, Xena," Ephiny said. "You're exhausted."
"Mmm," the warrior agreed.
"Is she out of danger?"
Ephiny turned to look at her friend solemnly. "Will she die?" The question was straightforward.
Xena kept her eyes on her hands before looking up to meet the shorter woman's gaze. "I really don't know, Eph."
"I sent a messenger to the council members and the priestesses. They need to be prepared, just in case," the regent said with more calm than she felt. "We also need to be sure this won't spread to others in the village."
"I understand," Xena nodded. "I just…" Xena looked uncomfortably away from the regent's intense gaze. "I honestly don't know if anyone else is in danger." She shrugged and bowed her head in supplication. "It didn't really spread in the village we came from. The few who were infected already had it when we got there, and there weren't any others who came down with it while we were there. I honestly don't know how Gabrielle caught it or if it's even the same illness. She wasn't even near any of those who were infected. She just told a few stories to some children whose parents were ill."
Ephiny saw the defeat in the warrior's stance. "I'm sorry. I know how much this is upsetting you. I just...I have an entire village to consider…" she shrugged. "Gabrielle would understand…"
"It's alright, Eph, I do understand," Xena faced the shorter woman and smiled wanly. "I should have thought of that before I brought her here. I just…I didn't know what else to do."
Ephiny placed a comforting hand on Xena's shoulder and gave her a pat. "It's okay. We'll just take extra precautions. That's all."
"As far as Gabrielle is concerned," the sadness returned to Xena's expression. "I don't know if she'll survive this. She made you regent, so there shouldn't be any contention to the throne."
"Not my main concern at this point," Ephiny leaned forward with her arms on the rail and her head hanging low. "The Nation is facing a bigger problem than…well, than the passing of a queen," she choked on the last words as the realization finally hit her. "I'm sorry. That came out much more cold and callous than I intended. She's more to me than just queen of a bunch of cycling Amazons. She's one of my best friends, and it was really hard to watch you do that to her. And her hair…" she let the words hang.
"Yeah," Xena leaned down on the same level with the regent and looked out at the darkness. "I didn't plan any of it, but I had no choice. She was drowning in the infection and her fever..." She felt a wave of nausea hit her and managed to push it back down. "I cut her hair…" She did choke on those words, but quickly regained her composure. "She's gonna kill me when she wakes up."
Ephiny smirked. "I think it looks good on her. With a bit of a trim to even it out, she just might like the new look. You never know. Then again, it's hair. It'll grow out, eventually."
The words came out so matter-of-factly that Xena couldn't help but chuckle. Ephiny joined her until they both realized what they were doing and sobered instantly.
"I'm not really sure what you did to her in there, but it seemed to work," Ephiny shrugged. "If it helps…"
Xena worked valiantly not to break down in front of the Amazon regent. "I just don't know what else to do for her at this point." She turned her head and met the regent's gaze. "She's never been this sick before."
Ephiny could see tears swimming in the warrior's eyes and reached a comforting hand to Xena's arm. "She's a fighter, Xena. She'll pull through. I know she will. She came back to us at Thessaly and again when you two faced the Persians. Gabrielle won't give up without a fight."
Xena sniffed. "I'm not so sure. This was just too close and came on so fast." A tear escaped and Xena swiped it away impatiently.
"It's okay to cry, Xena," Ephiny put her arm around the warrior's shoulder and pulled her into a hug. "I understand how much she means to you. She means a lot to all of us."
Xena couldn't stop the flow of tears once they started and having Ephiny's comforting arms around her just seemed to bring them on full-force. And that's how Eponin found the two women, as she stepped quietly out of the darkness.
"Hey, you two," Eponin said quietly as she stepped up onto the porch. "Can a crusty old Amazon warrior join this hug fest?"
Ephiny pulled the weapons master into the hug without hesitation, and Xena was grateful for the smirks and chuckles that ensued. The brief moment of humor was doing wonders for her mood. But the moment couldn't last and Xena knew it was her job to bring levity back to the situation. She finally straightened up to her full height and wiped the tears from her cheeks.
"Thanks, you two," Xena said as she sighed heavily. "I really needed that."
"Okay, so what'd I miss?" Eponin asked with her usual straightforward bravado.
"I'll fill you in later," Ephiny said quietly with a reassuring smile.
"So, how's Her Maj doing?" Eponin looked to both women and noted the concern knitting both their brows.
"Why don't we go back inside and find out?" Ephiny looked pointedly at Xena for confirmation.
"Sounds good to me," Xena agreed.
The three entered the hut and found a quiet scene before them. Nissia had pulled her chair close to the bed and was watching over Gabrielle with a practiced healer's eye, while Solari set a kettle of water on the fire to heat.
Xena took her place on the other side of the bed from Nissia and watched Gabrielle's breathing. The steady rise and fall of the bard's chest brought a small sense of relief to the tense warrior, who reached up to feel Gabrielle's forehead for fever.
"Her fever's down," Xena spoke quietly, as she gently and unconsciously ordered the shorn locks.
Nissia shifted in her chair. "I have one more trick up my sleeve to keep it that way," she said as she got to her feet and shuffled toward the door. "I'll be back before dawn." She didn't wait for a reply as she left the hut.
Xena nodded, while Ephiny and Eponin pulled up chairs around the bed. Eponin noticed Gabrielle's hair and cast a questioning glance at Ephiny, who merely shook her head and mouthed "later." Eponin took the hint and settled in to wait with the other two.
The four women remained silent as their vigil continued for a good candlemark, each woman lost in her own musings. The mood in the hut was heavy with anticipation and worry for the young woman who had endured so much suffering in such a short time. It was also filled with speculation as to the nearby army, at least for the three Amazons who knew of its existence.
"Well, if that'll be all, my queen, I think I'll retire for some much-needed rest," Solari yawned and broke the heavy silence. "It's been a long day…and night."
"Go get some sleep, Sol," Ephiny answered with a grateful smile. "Thank you for everything. I'll convene the war council first thing in the morning."
"Yes, my queen," Solari responded as she left the hut. "Artemis bless us," she whispered quietly as the door closed behind her.
Xena looked at Ephiny curiously. "The war council?"
"Yeah," Ephiny answered. "There's an army camped about twelve leagues from our southern border. That's where the raiders are based. I think they're trying to feel us out, see how far we're willing to go to protect our borders."
"Artemis' left tit!!!" Eponin exclaimed softly. "How big's the army?"
"More than a thousand foot soldiers and cavalry, by my calculations," Ephiny answered gravely. "Maybe some heavy artillery, but Solari couldn't be sure."
"So, when were you going to tell me?" Xena asked incredulously.
"You have a lot to worry about right now, Xena," Ephiny shot back with a frown. She shrugged and her expression softened. "Besides, I tried when we were out on the porch. You just didn't really hear what I said. I think your mind was on…other things." She looked pointedly at their patient.
Xena returned her attention to her partner. She checked the drainage tube and noticed it was completely free of fluid. She swiped a tired hand across her face as she sat back and sighed heavily.
"Yeah," she said, letting her guard down in front of her friends. "Sorry. How long have you known about the army?"
"I just found out when Solari returned from patrol," Ephiny answered. "I was waiting for the right moment, and when I walked in here it didn't seem like a good time to bring it up. You had your hands full saving Gabrielle's life."
Xena frowned, but nodded. She pinched the bridge of her nose in an attempt to stave off the headache that was hovering just behind her eyes. She knew she was exhausted and her body was trying to tell her that it had reached its limit, but she chose to ignore the warning signs.
"You need rest, Xe," Ephiny's quiet voice interrupted the silence. "Why don't you go crash in my hut for a while? I'll let you know if there's any change in Gabrielle's condition. I promise."
"We'll keep a close eye on her for you," Eponin added. "No worries."
Xena looked from one Amazon to the other and smiled tiredly. "Okay."
Two sets of eyebrows shot up in utter astonishment as both women watched the stoic warrior lift herself wearily from her seat and walk from the hut without a single argument. The two Amazons exchanged a look once Xena was gone.
"Huh, that was way too easy," Eponin commented as soon as the door closed. She folded her arms over her chest and found a reasonably comfortable position in the uncomfortable chair.
"She must really be tired," Ephiny agreed. "I've never seen her do that before, not even with Gabrielle, and they don't hold anything back from each other anymore."
"At least they didn't before…" she let her words trail off as Ephiny realized Eponin was referring to the rift between her two friends.
The silence in the room was palpable as the two women considered the implications of Eponin's words. Their patient continued to sleep peacefully, oblivious to the somber mood in the room around her. Eponin glanced at Gabrielle and suppressed an urge to touch the younger woman's shorn locks.
"You gonna tell me about the hair?" The weapons master motioned with her chin. "I know she came in here with a lot more than that."
Ephiny sighed. "Fever," she answered shortly. "Xena cut it. She thought it would help I guess."
"Huh," Eponin commented with a wry grin. "Can't wait til Her Maj wakes up and realizes she's been shorn like one of the sheep in her village." She smirked. "She is gonna be soooooo pissed."
Ephiny chuckled. "She's gonna flip."
"Or not," Eponin added. "Maybe she'll like having less hair to deal with. No more worrying about it getting in the way when they're out on the road. It'll sure be a lot easier to wash and won't take long to dry. She can just run a hand through it and voila."
Ephiny raised a skeptical brow. "I'm not so sure your optimism will be shared. After all, she didn't have a choice in the matter, and we both know how Gabrielle is about getting her way."
They shared a companionable chuckle before settling in for another long night's vigil.
Xena had only intended to sleep for a few candlemarks when she entered Ephiny's hut with a heavy heart. Her worry over her partner's condition was compounded by the silence in the hut. She was so exhausted, however, that she didn't even bother to remove her leathers before collapsing onto the unmade bed. When she awoke again, dawn was just creeping into the windows. The first rays of sunlight peeked through the open shutters and one spilled across the floor next to the bed. Xena absently watched tiny dust motes drift in the sunlight, before she finally rousted herself and sat up.
She scanned her surroundings and heard the first stirrings of the villagers. Her thoughts immediately turned to a certain bard and she was upright in an instant.
Xena quickly donned her boots and armor, emerging from the hut to a sea of ordered chaos. There were a number of Amazons moving about the village in the early morning hours. A few waved greetings to the tall warrior in their midst, as Xena made her way toward the Queen's hut. She only barely acknowledged their waves with a few brief nods of her own. It wasn't her custom to interact with the Amazons, even when they were being overly polite to her.
As Xena stepped up onto the porch, the door opened and a groggy Eponin emerged sporting a huge yawn. The Amazon looked exhausted and was still wearing the same leathers Xena had seen her in the night before.
"Ugh! I hate mornings," Eponin grumbled as she stretched her warrior's body to relieve the kinks that had developed during the long night. "Hey, Xena. How'd you sleep?"
"Fine," Xena answered distractedly. "How's Gabrielle?"
Eponin shrugged. "She slept quietly the rest of the night. Didn't make a single peep."
Xena barely heard the words as she pushed past the Amazon and entered the hut. She stopped dead at the scene that greeted her. Gabrielle was propped up against several pillows with the blanket pulled up to her bare chest.
"Hey, stranger," Gabrielle greeted her partner with a tired smile. Her voice was still raspy, but was stronger than Xena had heard it in days.
Xena didn't hesitate and moved to sit on the side of the bed. "Hey, yourself," she answered with a warm smile that turned her eyes to a soft shade of light blue. She studied the bard's face and noted that Gabrielle's color was more normal than it had been for the last three days. "How are you feeling?" She emphasized her words by feeling the bard's brow. "Fever's gone."
"I feel a lot better," Gabrielle replied with a sigh. "Thirsty. Tired. Sore. But definitely much better."
Xena poured water into a cup and held it to Gabrielle's lips. The bard drank deeply from the cup until her thirst was sated. She took a tentative breath that did not yield the customary cough that had plagued her. When it didn't come, she sighed with relief.
Xena leaned close to the bard's chest. "Take another deep breath," she ordered and listened as Gabrielle complied. "Sounds a lot clearer today."
"Feels a lot better, not so heavy," Gabrielle answered, then reached down with a tentative hand to the reed hanging from beneath the covers. Her questioning look caught Xena's attention. "What's this?"
"A drainage tube," Xena answered, sitting up and checking the reed for any seepage. There was nothing there at all. "I think we can go ahead and remove it a little later today, if you're feeling up to it."
Gabrielle nodded, then suddenly realized they weren't alone. "So, what's been going on while I've been…um, out of it?" She met Ephiny's gaze before returning her attention to her partner.
Xena smirked at the frank question. "Nothing ever changes," she mumbled as she shook her head, rolled her eyes and adjusted the blanket more snugly around Gabrielle's chest. "Other than the fact that you almost left me, not once, not twice, but three times…?"
"Almost left us," Ephiny piped in with a grin that turned sober. "You had us really worried, Gabrielle."
"Yeah," Eponin added, as she reentered the hut. "Made tall, dark and deadly cry a few times." Xena shot the weapons master an intimidating glare, while Ephiny elbowed Eponin in the ribs. "Ow! What the Hades was that for, Eph?"
Gabrielle tried valiantly to hide a giggle, but failed miserably. The effort cost her when she coughed several times, which sapped what little strength remained in her weakened body. She held an arm to her ribs and frowned as her body protested against the coughing.
"Okay, that's enough," Xena shot the two Amazons a pointed look. "The Queen needs rest. Out!"
The two Amazons didn't wait to be booted out of the hut and made a hasty retreat. Eponin was out first, followed by Ephiny, who stuck her head back in for a parting shot.
"I'll be by later to fill you in on the goings-on around here, Gabrielle," Ephiny said as she pulled the door closed.
"Oh, goody," Gabrielle turned her full attention on the brooding warrior sitting next to her. "Want to fill me in before Eph comes back for round two?"
Xena eyed her partner critically for a moment. "Are you sure you're up to hearing all the gory details?"
Gabrielle sighed. "That bad, eh?"
Gabrielle considered whether or not she really wanted to know what was happening around them. She was sure it didn't bode well and wasn't sure she was quite up to dealing with a crisis or two at the moment. Especially not after everything she had gone through to fight off the illness that Xena had openly admitted nearly took her life on three occasions. Xena's admission, in and of itself, was a sign that things were not rosy.
"Maybe you should get some rest first," Xena suggested. She could see the strain in the bard's expression and knew Gabrielle needed a great deal of rest if she was to fully recover from her illness. And the bard would recover, of that Xena was certain. "I'll be sure to fill you in on everything as soon as you wake up again. I promise." She gave Gabrielle a peck on the forehead.
"An unsolicited promise and a kiss?" Gabrielle asked with a skeptical smirk. "I really must have been at Death's door to earn such attention."
Xena lifted Gabrielle's hand in hers and kissed the bard's knuckles, then gently stroked the bard's hand with her thumb. "Rest, sweetheart. We'll talk later."
"Will you be here when I wake up?" Gabrielle asked in a small voice punctuated by a huge yawn.
"You betcha," Xena answered with a warm smile. She watched Gabrielle's eyelids drift shut as she drifted off to sleep. Xena continued to stroke the back of Gabrielle's hand with her thumb. "Sleep well, sweetheart," she said and leaned forward to place another kiss on the bard's forehead.
Nissia entered the Queen's hut to find both Xena and Gabrielle fast asleep. The healer studied the two for a moment and noticed their clasped hands. Her aged eyes tracked up to their faces and she was almost taken aback to see a pair of sky blue eyes gazing back at her. A raised dark eyebrow was the only movement from the two, as Xena silently watched her enter. The healer could see faded dark shadows under the warrior's eyes and knew the queen's illness had taken its toll on Xena as well.
"I did not mean to wake you," Nissia whispered softly, fully aware of Xena's acute hearing.
"You didn't," Xena answered just as softly. "I've just been sitting here listening."
Nissia smirked. "I brought some broth for her," she said, holding up a covered basket. "I also asked the cooks to send over some stew when it has finished cooking."
"Thanks," Xena answered, still remaining perfectly still.
"How is she doing?" Nissia asked. "I ran into Queen Ephiny on my way over here, and she told me Queen Gabrielle was awake earlier this morning."
Xena nodded and glanced out the window. "How late is it?"
"A candlemark past the noon hour," Nissia answered.
"Hm," Xena finally moved from her position enough that she was sitting upright. Her hand was still firmly clasped in Gabrielle's, which did not go unnoticed by the healer. "She was awake and seems to be doing much better. The coughing has mostly subsided, her fever is down, and her chest sounds clearer."
"All positive steps in the right direction," Nissia responded with a nod as she moved to the fireplace and placed a small pot over the low flames. "Would you like me to have the stew brought over right away? You must be hungry."
"Yes," came an unexpected answer from the bed's occupant. A pair of green eyes fluttered open and gazed at the two women who hid their surprise well. "She needs to eat something. Those leathers are hanging much too loosely for my tastes."
"It is very nice to see you awake, my queen," Nissia smiled. "You look much more alert than I've seen since your arrival."
"I feel much better, thank you," Gabrielle answered with a gentle smile. "I'm starving, though." Xena snickered next to her, receiving an answering frown from the bard and a low chuckle from the healer. "What's that supposed to mean, you?" She accused, weakly squeezing the hand still holding hers.
"Nothing, nothing," Xena regained her composure quickly. "I just know you." She unconsciously reached over to feather Gabrielle's hair. "It's a sure sign that you're well on your way to a full recovery."
Gabrielle felt Xena's hand in her hair and an odd expression crossed her features. The feeling was different for some reason, so the bard reached a hand up to touch her hair.
"Wha…what happened to my hair?" Gabrielle asked in a breathless squeak, her eyes meeting Xena's and finding an "uh oh" expression there. "Xena?"
"I had to do it, Gabrielle," Xena quietly explained. "Your fever was really high and your hair was soaking wet and…"
"So you cut it?" Gabrielle asked incredulously. "I can't believe you cut my hair." She frantically felt the shorn locks and pulled them toward her face, but they were too short to see. "It's so…so short."
Xena gently placed both hands on either side of Gabrielle's face and turned it so they were eye-to-eye. "It'll grow," she whispered and then smiled reassuringly.
Gabrielle became lost in the warm gaze meeting hers and finally smiled. "Okay."
"Besides," Xena continued, her gaze shifting to the short blond locks. "I think I did a pretty good job. You look years younger with this new style."
Gabrielle frowned. "Yeah, that's what I needed to hear," her eyes rolled and she flopped back against the pillows. "I really need to look younger than the kid that the Amazons already see me as. Yeah, that's just great."
"Speaking of…" Xena cocked her head to listen.
A moment later a knock sounded at the door.
"Come," Xena commanded. Ephiny stepped into the hut. "Join the party, Eph."
"Xena," Ephiny's expression was dire, except that she smiled to see Gabrielle awake and alert. "Good to see you awake, Gabrielle."
"It's good to be…" a chest-deep cough interrupted her reply and Gabrielle was acutely aware of Xena's hovering presence next to her.
Nissia handed Xena a cup of steaming liquid, which Xena took gratefully.
"Here, drink this," Xena tipped the cup towards Gabrielle's lips without preamble.
Gabrielle had no choice but to sip the steaming brew. It tasted of mint, honey and something she couldn't identify, but that had a rather pungent odor that was almost masked by the other two ingredients. If it hadn't been for the mint and honey Gabrielle knew she would not have been able to drink the concoction. She eyed the healer and then finished off the remains in the cup.
"Let me guess," Gabrielle commented wryly, "something to help me sleep?" She watched Nissia shrug in acknowledgement, before turning an accusing gaze back on Xena. "I'm fine, Xena. Just had a tickle in my throat." She then turned her attention back to the impatiently waiting regent. "So, what's going on Ephiny? You look like you're here for more than a report on the weather or a benign social call."
Ephiny glanced at Xena and tried to convey her message silently to the warrior. Xena merely shrugged.
"Okay," the regent finally conceded. "We have a problem, and I was wondering if I could borrow Xena for a little while."
Gabrielle yawned as the herbs quickly took effect. She wanted to know what was going on, but also knew that it was only a matter of heartbeats before her exhausted body and the herbs caught up to her. Sleep was already persistently pulling at her and enticing her to forget the cares around her. Her eyelids were growing heavier with each passing moment and soon she would have to give in to another plunge into oblivion.
"I'll be here when you wake up, love," Xena added, sensing her partner's growing lethargy. She kissed Gabrielle's forehead gently, her lips lingering on the downy skin for a heartbeat longer than necessary. "Sweet dreams, Gabrielle."
"Hmm," was Gabrielle's only answer as the darkness dragged her under. Her eyes closed of their own accord and soon she was drifting off into the welcome arms of a dreamless sleep.
Xena ushered Ephiny to the front door and together they quietly left the hut. Once they were on the porch, however, Xena turned to face the regent expectantly.
"Spill it," Xena demanded with an unusual display of authority.
She was a little surprised when Ephiny didn't take the bait. The regent continued on past her and hurried down the stairs.
"Follow me," Ephiny commanded in a somber tone, no longer intimidated by the warrior's gruff demeanor. "I'll tell you on the way to the gathering hut."
Xena easily caught up to the shorter woman and matched her pace, stride for stride. "Well?" Xena asked after several paces.
"A patrol came in this morning from our southern border," Ephiny said, continuing across the village and occasionally waving to a passerby.
"And?" Xena prodded impatiently.
"They didn't return alone," Ephiny said as they approached the gathering hut.
There was a crowd of agitated people standing outside the hut, both men and women. Several masked and armed Amazons stood around the perimeter of the crowd, waiting. Xena could see that the Amazons were almost as anxious as those they were guarding. Xena knew immediately that those in the crowd were villagers by their distinctly non-Amazon dress, if not by the fact that there were men among them. Ephiny plowed through the crowd unceremoniously and entered the hut without a word. Xena followed.
"You promised to protect us!" One angry villager shouted to their backs and his supporters vehemently agreed.
Xena spared a brief glance at the anxious faces, just before she closed the door behind her and came face-to-face with another, smaller crowd of villagers and Amazons.
"This is an outrage!" A male villager shouted as he raised a fist to an armed Amazon in a mask.
Xena looked around the assemblage. She noticed there were about ten villagers inside the hut and at least twenty masked and armed Amazons standing around the perimeter. Ephiny marched to a low dais that held ten chairs, the middle of which had the Queen's mask hung on the wall behind it in deference to Gabrielle's presence in the village. The chairs were carved with intricate designs and each was unique, but all of them were of the same hard walnut-durable and strong to symbolize the strength of the Amazons themselves.
Ephiny took a seat in the chair to the right of the Queen's throne, the one reserved for the regent and bearing her mask and the carving of a sleek panther. Eight additional Amazons took seats in the remaining chairs, leaving the Queen's throne conspicuously vacant. The eight council members - who were all elders in the village - turned their attention immediately to their regent and bowed their gray heads in deference to her.
Ephiny stood up from her seat and raised her hands. "Order!!!" She shouted to be heard above the din. "Order, this instant!!"
The room was instantly silent as all eyes in the room turned to her. The assemblage waited with baited breath for Ephiny to speak again. She took several moments to meet the expectant stares of each of the visitors, as well as her own Amazons. It gave her the opportunity to bring some semblance of order to the assemblage and was a tactic she had learned from one of their former queens-Melosa.
"This meeting will come to order," Ephiny finally said in a more normal tone. "We will hear the concerns of our guests, one at a time." She resumed her seat and nodded to the man who had shouted earlier. "What is your business here?"
"My name is Melton," the man said, as he stepped forward. "I'm from a small village to the south - Antros. We are one of the villages who petitioned to sign a treaty with your people."
The man was slim, with a shock of dark brown hair covered by a multi-colored cap. His beaky nose seemed to be the only feature on his face that stood out enough to make him appear a bit more than ordinary. His bearing, however, spoke of one who knew how to make his opinions known.
Xena watched Melton with a critical eye as she leaned casually against the wall near the dais. Her presence went mostly unnoticed by the assembled throng, despite her warrior attire, the silver chakram at her hip and the sword strapped to her back. She knew it was only a matter of time before someone in the crowd recognized her. For the moment, however, she remained inconspicuous and was able to get a feel for the gathered throng.
"So, why is it you have come here, Melton?" Ephiny asked.
"You promised to protect us," Melton continued, glancing sidelong at his companions as they nodded their agreement. "Our treaty…"
"First of all," Ephiny stood up and took an intimidating stance. "We haven't signed treaties with anyone except the Centaurs. We've been going over the details of the treaties that were given to us and haven't had the chance to complete our assessment. There have been other pressing matters that we have had to address first."
The crowd of villagers erupted in shouts and raised fists. The Amazons seemed to bristle in response, but no one made a move toward the assembled villagers. The villagers' eyes were on Melton, who had apparently become spokesman for the entire group.
"So you're just going to let that army ravage our villages and terrorize our people?" Melton finally shouted above the din. "You're warriors! You have weapons!"
Ephiny stood her ground. "We don't antagonize unless we're being antagonized."
Those words got another reaction from the villagers who were on the verge of becoming hostile. If her warriors had not been present, Ephiny was sure the villagers would have rushed the dais and tried to harm her. She caught a slight movement just to her left and noticed that Xena was standing menacingly behind her throne.
"Exactly what would you have us do, Melton?" Ephiny continued with an irritated scowl. "The raiders haven't breeched Amazon lands. I'm not about to send my warriors across our borders to confront an entire army without just cause."
"It's only a matter of time until they do so," one of the council members - Ignesia - commented under her breath with a wry smirk.
Ephiny looked sternly to her right and locked gazes with Ignesia, one of Velasca's staunch supporters. Anger flared in Ephiny's eyes, but her attention was diverted back to the crowd of villagers, as Melton took another step closer to the dais. Ephiny noticed her guard edging in and unsheathing their swords in an obvious show of warning.
"If you know what's good for you, Melton," Ephiny said in a menacing tone. "You'll back off." She looked pointedly at the three warriors who now had their swords held at the ready.
Melton glanced at the Amazons with their swords and glanced up to meet a pair of icy blue eyes. A shiver of pure fear raced down his spine, and he decided to heed Ephiny's warning. He put his arms out as he stepped back and helped move those around him back a few steps.
"We mean no disrespect," Melton conceded. "It's just been very difficult watching our homes and businesses go up in flames during these raids. They've been stealing our livestock and burning our outbuildings. And that army has been camped not far away for weeks... This whole thing is unacceptable."
"How do you know about the army?" Xena suddenly asked curiously, as all eyes turned to her and hushed gasps of recognition spread throughout the room. She stepped around Ephiny's throne and moved to stand next to the regent. "The Amazons just found out about it yesterday when a patrol happened upon it. Before that, it's my understanding that these raids were believed to be random acts by small groups of raiders."
"We…uh…" Melton stammered as his eyes darted from one villager to another, frantically searching for a ready response to the warrior's question. "Aren't…aren't you Xena?"
"Yessss," Xena drew out her response as she crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him. "Now answer the question, Melton. How do you know about the army?"
Melton seemed to ponder his response for a moment, then girded himself for his answer. "We've known about them for a while now. They showed up more than a moon ago but didn't make any further advances toward our village. We just figured they were there to guard the southern passes."
Xena took another step toward him and he took an answering step back. "And you just conveniently decided not to let the Amazons in on your little secret?"
"We didn't want anything to interfere with the treaties," another, older man stepped up next to Melton. He looked to the taller man for confirmation. "We need the protection the Amazons will provide our village."
"Bresius speaks the truth," Melton agreed. He looked around at the other assembled villagers and then returned his attention to the imposing warrior standing in front of him. "We agreed it would be for the best to keep that to ourselves, until after everything was settled."
Ephiny stepped forward and crossed her arms over her chest. "Did it ever occur to you that we would eventually figure it out for ourselves? Did it ever occur to you pathetic idiots that our discovery would not bode well for the negotiations? How dare you think we're that ignorant and stupid!"
Her words carried as much menace as Xena's imposing figure did. The taller warrior raised a questioning brow as Melton and Bresius took a moment to actually consider the regent's words.
"N-no," Melton finally answered with much less bravado. "We never gave that a thought. We just…"
"Idiots!" Ephiny spat as she turned her back on them and resumed her seat on her throne.
Xena leaned close to the two men, her eyes on the crowd of villagers behind them. "You might want to rethink your situation," Xena confided quietly to them. "Amazons aren't very forgiving when it comes to being deceived like this."
Melton's eyes were suddenly wide as he surveyed the imposing masked and unmasked women surrounding them. "Uh, Bresius," he took another couple steps back and grabbed the older man's arm. When they were a few paces away, Melton leaned in close to those nearest him. "Maybe we should go. We've obviously made a grave miscalculation."
"Are you serious, Melton?" Bresius hissed. "We can't back down and let these…these women…"
Melton had his hand over Bresius' mouth before the man could finish his insult, as his eyes met Xena's and he saw the hidden menace in their icy depths. "Quit while you're ahead. Or, rather, while you still have your head, man." He pulled his hand away and looked pointedly at those around him. "We need to leave while there are still treaties to be considered. You all know that the Amazons could just as easily turn on us, as they surely will on that army out there. After all, the army hasn't breached Amazon lands and we have."
"I still think…" Bresius added, but cut himself off as he saw the pointed look Melton gave him. "Oh, all right. We'll let them be, for now."
Melton nodded and stepped back toward Xena with much less bravado than he had before. His shoulders slumped slightly in resignation.
"We're sorry for this…uh, for bothering you," he said. "We hope that this will not do anything to hinder the negotiations. Our villages really do wish to sign the treaties with your people." He looked from Xena to Ephiny. "We only wish for peace in the area."
Ephiny considered the man's words for a moment. "You know we could just tell you to forget the treaties all together." Her gaze tracked from Melton to Bresius and back to Melton again. "The Amazon Nation doesn't need treaties to survive. We're perfectly capable of existing without any of you."
"Y-yes, we understand," Melton answered without hesitation.
"You also know that keeping a secret of this magnitude from us is a serious breach of protocol," one of the silent council members - Kesstra - broke the long silence that stretched on for several moments. "Amazons are reasonable, unless we are deceived."
"Or lied to," Arestia, another council member added. "We do not tolerate deception of any kind. We are an honorable people and, as such, we expect nothing but honesty from those we count as allies."
Xena's head snapped around to the elder, who was watching her pointedly for a reaction. The warrior kept her silence, but filed this bit of information away for further review. She wondered briefly what the elder had meant and why she had looked so pointedly at her. What had she done to the Amazons-other than dragging their queen away behind her horse, of course-to earn such a rebuke?
The council member's words and Xena's response did not go unnoticed by Ephiny, who decided to sort it all out later, after they were done with the current situation. It briefly occurred to her that there was still some residual anxiety over Xena's presence in the village, but she didn't have time to deal with that now.
"Are we done here?" Ephiny finally spoke aloud, her eyes meeting Melton's.
"Yes," he answered without preamble.
"Escort them from the village and back to the border," Ephiny ordered to one of the masked guards standing by. "And be sure that crowd out there goes peacefully, as well."
The guard nodded and motioned for the other guards to usher the villagers from the room. Ephiny waited patiently for the room to clear before addressing those who remained.
"Is there anything else we need to discuss?" Her eyes tracked to the elders, who merely shook their heads. "Then we are adjourned until later this afternoon."
The council members shuffled as quickly as they could from the hut, leaving Xena and Ephiny alone at last.
"Well?" Ephiny quirked a blond brow at the warrior. "That certainly could have gone better than it did."
"And a lot worse," Xena snorted.
"Do you think the army sent feelers into the villages, to see how people would respond to their presence?" Ephiny asked the question that hung between them. "No army is without its spies."
"I don't doubt it," Xena answered. "It's what I used to do. Get a taste for how the locals feel about those around them, before sending in my army and leveling everything. Helps to know if there are any who would willingly join up with us or not."
"The villages around here are mostly content with how things are, though," Ephiny said. "I don't think they would want to even consider treaties with us if they weren't."
"Probably why the army's been sending raiders," Xena continued with a knowing smirk. "Try to turn them away from the whole treaty situation."
"Why not just annihilate them?" Ephiny asked with a shrug. "Take what they want and leave us exposed without the surrounding villages to deal with. What is that army doing just sitting there?"
Xena's brow quirked. "Don't know. Good question, though. An army of more than a thousand soldiers doesn't just sit and wait for opportunities to present themselves. Too many variables go into keeping morale up and making sure there's enough food in their bellies. Something else is definitely going on."
Ephiny considered Xena's answer. "Yeah, that's a really good point. And begs the question: Who is heading that army and what do they want from us?"
"Maybe we need to do a little reconnaissance of our own and get some answers," Xena suggested. "Have a certain someone, with a certain reputation as a warlord, feel them out and find out what they're after."
"And who has a certain reputation as a warlord?" Ephiny added with a sideways smirk. "You got anyone in mind?"
"Oh, I definitely know someone who fits the bill," Xena answered with a knowing glance. "I just hope I can convince a certain Amazon Queen that I'm not deserting her in her hour of need."
They moved to the door of the hut.
"Hmm," Ephiny uttered thoughtfully from behind Xena. "Good luck with that."
"Thanks," Xena responded with a definite lack of enthusiasm.
Xena didn't wish to leave Gabrielle anymore than she knew Gabrielle would want her to leave. But the warrior also knew she was the only one who could infiltrate the army and get the needed answers. She also wanted a first-hand account of who was behind the army's presence and why. The whole thing reeked of a certain Roman ruler and his ugly political machinations. Or were the gods somehow involved? Xena hoped not.
Then again, how had the Romans penetrated to the very interior of Greece without mobilizing the Athenian army against them? The location of the army wasn't very conducive to sneaking across borders, not with the mountains that surrounded the area on all sides.
Xena's musings continued as she made her way to a certain hut and the woman who held her heart. That thought brought a definite smile to her lips.
Gabrielle was awake and itching to do something, anything. It had been candlemarks since Xena and Ephiny had left on a mysterious mission. Gabrielle was feeling much better than she had since their arrival in the Amazon village. Her chest was still slightly congested, but the fever that had plagued her was finally almost gone.
She was propped against several pillows and had a pile of treaties in her lap. She'd spent the better part of the morning reading treaty after treaty. Each one was fairly straightforward and included concessions for both sides. The concessions mostly had to do with trade agreements and land use, but also included protective services provided by the Amazons. Those particular concessions put a scowl on Gabrielle's face. But the Amazons had also provided some interesting requests that made her smile. The one demand that had her hackles up and her skin crawling was the one concerning procreation rights between the male villagers and her Amazon sisters.
Gabrielle was in the midst of editing a treaty between the Amazons and one of the southern villages, when Xena and Ephiny finally returned. The warrior entered the hut with a smile of triumph that turned into a warm look of absolute joy when she saw Gabrielle awake and alert.
"Hey there," Xena said as she took a seat next to the bed. "You're looking much better." Her hand unconsciously touched Gabrielle's brow, checking for fever.
"I'm fine, Xena," Gabrielle reassured the warrior. "Fever's gone."
Xena glanced at the pile of treaties and frowned. "Please don't overdo it, sweetheart. You've been really sick and I don't want you to have another relapse."
Gabrielle glanced up to see Ephiny standing at the foot of the bed with a bemused grin on her face. "Laugh it up, Amazon."
"Me?" Ephiny pointed to her own chest with false innocence. She couldn't hold the chuckle back for long, though. "You two are priceless, I must say. Who'da thought the great Warrior Princess would become a mushball in the face of true love?"
"Grrrr," Xena growled teasingly. "I am not a mushball."
"Are, too," Ephiny said. "A big ball of gooey mush with goat's cheese fluff on top."
Gabrielle saw the flash of temper in Xena's eyes and grabbed the warrior's hand in hers. "Eph, is there something you were going to tell me about your little side trip with Xena?"
"Oh," Ephiny realized she'd pushed Xena a bit too far and was grateful to Gabrielle for the timely interruption. "Yeah," she looked at Xena. "Do you want to fill her in? Or shall I?"
Xena sighed as she pulled the reins back in on her temper. She wasn't angry at the Amazon regent for her teasing, but she had no idea why her temper flared so unexpectedly. She wondered if she was about to cycle, then realized it was a distinct possibility.
"We had some visitors," Xena said as her gaze met Gabrielle's expectant one.
"Yeah," Xena answered. "Villagers from the south wanted the Amazons to protect them from the army camped nearby."
"Army?" Gabrielle's tone became more alarmed as she glanced from one woman to the other. "There's an army camped nearby? Why didn't someone tell me this before now?"
"Um, you were a bit…well…" Ephiny shrugged and waggled a hand in front of her.
"Settle down, Gabrielle," Xena put a staying hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "It's not like you can do anything about it, especially since you've been out of your head for the better part of the last few days."
"I know that, but still…" Gabrielle conceded. "You could have told me about the army before you two went rushing off to that meeting. I am still the queen, after all. It's my job to know what's happening around here…at least, when I'm here."
Ephiny nodded. "You're right, my queen. We should have told you about the army. The simple fact of the matter is, though, that you now know about it."
"And there still isn't anything you can do about it, Gabrielle," Xena added.
"And the villagers?" Gabrielle eyed both women. "What did you tell them?"
"Xena basically told them to back off and stop bugging us," Ephiny smirked. "They wanted to bully us into sending a contingent of warriors to protect them."
"They're scared, but they also lied about the army," Xena said. "They've known about it for quite some time and didn't tell the Amazons until today."
"The army probably offered them something in exchange for leaving them alone," Gabrielle added. "I'm sure the villagers seriously considered the alternative."
"That would work, except the raiders are mostly concentrating their attacks on the villages along our borders," Ephiny said. "If the army were protecting them, then why send raiders to steal their livestock and burn their outbuildings?"
"You're sure the raiders came from the army?" Gabrielle asked. "Maybe the raids are separate from the army problem."
"I'm positive," Ephiny acknowledged. "Solari tracked them back to the encampment just yesterday. She said the raider leader reported directly to the main command tent when he got there."
Gabrielle nodded and silently pondered the predicament, while Xena also sat silently next to her. Gabrielle knew from long experience that Xena would not interfere in this unless she was asked to directly. Gabrielle also knew Xena was waiting for her to give the word. As queen, it was Gabrielle's call and only she could put this problem into her warrior companion's hands.
"What's the plan?" Gabrielle turned her gaze directly on Xena. "I know you and Eph have been cooking something up while I've been lying here in utter isolation."
Xena smirked and spared a brief glance at Ephiny before meeting Gabrielle's green gaze. "No plan as of yet. We've been throwing some ideas back and forth, but they need the approval of the queen."
Gabrielle's gaze met Ephiny's. "A meeting of the war council seems to be in order."
"Already scheduled for later this afternoon," Ephiny nodded. "I had Solari postpone it in the hope that you might feel up to attending." That got her a quick scowl from a certain warrior. "She is our queen, Xena."
"And she almost died fighting off this lung infection," Xena shot back. "She isn't up to attending a meeting of a bunch of…"
"I'm right here, you two," Gabrielle interjected. "Don't talk about me as if I'm not in the room."
"Sorry," both Ephiny and Xena replied in unison.
Gabrielle took Xena's hand in hers and gave her a look that begged understanding. "I need to attend that meeting, Xena. You and I both know that my presence in the village is already causing problems. The Amazons need to know their queen is up for this challenge. The treaties depend on it."
"To Hades with the treaties," Xena hissed. "Your health is much more important than the Amazons or their treaties." She glanced at Ephiny. "Sorry, Eph, no offense intended."
"As much as I hate to admit it, Gabrielle, Xena's right," Ephiny agreed. "The war council can meet without you. I'll be sure to have one of the scribes take down everything that's discussed, so you have the whole picture and can add your opinion. But I'm with Xena that you need to rest and regain your strength."
"I'm not an invalid," Gabrielle said and tossed the covers aside to prove her point. "I can do this. I need to do this."
Xena and Ephiny exchanged worried glances. They both knew how stubborn Gabrielle was when she had a mind to do something. This obviously was one of those times.
"Suit yourself," Xena shrugged. "But if you have a relapse because of this, it's not on my head."
"I won't," Gabrielle said as she swung her legs over the side of the bed and steadied herself.
Her head was swimming and she had no idea if she could stand or not. The mere thought of getting out of bed in her weakened condition gave her pause. But she knew the stakes. She also knew she would get the "I told you so" look and speech if she backed down now. Not to mention what would happen if she fell on her face and had to be put back to bed.
She took a deep breath to dispel the dizziness and planted her feet firmly on the cold wooden floor. Her gaze met Xena's and she knew she was being stupid and stubborn. The look in Xena's eyes gave her pause, though.
"I really don't want you to do this, Gabrielle," Xena said in a low, pleading tone.
Xena's hand on her leg made Gabrielle seriously consider what she was about to do. Why was she being so stubborn? Why did she feel so compelled to attend a meeting that would probably just drag on until she couldn't stand it any longer? And why risk a relapse? She hated being sick and didn't want to prolong the agony any more than necessary.
"Please," Xena's low voice pleaded in one final, uncharacteristic show of open emotion. "Please don't do this, Gabrielle. I almost lost you and I can't…"
Gabrielle's eyes met Xena's and she saw tears swimming in them. She reached up and caressed Xena's soft cheek and felt a tear drop onto her hand. "You really don't want me to do this?" A nod on the dark head. "Okay."
Gabrielle shifted and pulled her legs back into bed, while Xena hurriedly adjusted the covers around her. Truth be told, Gabrielle really didn't think she could have even stood on her shaky legs. The few movements she made had sapped what little strength she was able to conjure, which wasn't all that much. As she lay back against the pillows the dizziness finally subsided enough for her to get her bearings and clear her head.
Gabrielle's gaze met Ephiny's. "I guess you're alone on this one, Eph."
Ephiny nodded with a half-grin. "We'll keep you in the loop, my queen." She glanced at Xena who was trying to be inconspicuous as she wiped the tears from her cheeks and then returned her attention to Gabrielle. "Can I borrow Xena for the meeting?"
Gabrielle sighed heavily and nodded. "I can't believe I'm going to miss all the fun and excitement." She pulled the blanket up further and settled back with a huff. "Try not to be gone too long. I don't think I can sit here by myself with nothing to do."
Xena brushed the hair off Gabrielle's forehead and smirked. "Rest, love. We'll be done before you know it."
"I could always send you someone to keep you company," Ephiny offered. "A few of the youngsters have been begging me to tell them stories about our queen. I'm sure they would love to hear them directly from the horse's mouth, instead."
"That isn't exactly the rest I was speaking of, Eph," Xena frowned.
"Oh, come on, Xena," Ephiny urged. "It would do Gabrielle good to meet some of the younger Amazons and vice versa. The kids need to know that their monarch is just as human as they are."
Xena glanced at Gabrielle and received a shrugged response. "You sure you're up to having a bunch of giggly girls congregating in here with you?"
Gabrielle yawned and then looked pointedly at her regent. "Tell them to come by in a candlemark."
"Will do," Ephiny answered with a grin. "I'll make sure to only send the older ones over. That way you don't have to deal with too much unnecessary giggling."
"Thanks, Eph," Gabrielle smirked.
"No problem," Ephiny answered. "Feel free to send them away if they get too unruly or if they get on your nerves."
"I'll do that," Gabrielle said.
"Well, then," Ephiny backed toward the door. "I'll leave you two alone. See you at the meeting, Xena."
Ephiny was only gone for a moment before Xena turned a scowl on her young companion. "I can't believe you agreed to allow a bunch of kids in here while you're recovering."
"Xeeeeena," Gabrielle growled. "Please don't."
"Gabrielle," Xena returned. "You've been at Death's door for the better part of three days. You need to rest and regain your strength, not play bard to a bunch of overzealous warrior wannabes."
"I'm feeling much better," Gabrielle argued as she pointedly met Xena's icy glare. "I won't overdo it. I promise, Xena. Besides, it'll be good to get to know some of the younger Amazons and for them to get to know me as more than just their queen. How else will they see me as a person and not just some figurehead that they need to bow down to every time I walk through the village? You know how much I hate that, Xena."
Xena considered. "Yeah, I guess you're right," she mumbled.
"What was that? I didn't quite hear you, there, Warrior-Overprotecter," Gabrielle said smugly.
"Gaaaaabrieeeeelle." It was Xena's turn to growl.
They both chuckled, which elicited a hoarse coughing fit from the younger woman that earned her an I-told-you-so look from the warrior. Gabrielle returned a don't-even-think-about-it look that elicited a look that said Xena was willing to compromise.
"Okay, I'll take it slow and easy," Gabrielle sighed and lowered her gaze to the hands in her lap.
"That's all I ask, sweetheart," Xena placed a comforting hand in Gabrielle's and smiled. "I really don't want to lose you anytime soon. Not when we've come such a long way."
Gabrielle met Xena's gaze and searched the warrior's eyes for a moment. "Have we, really?"
Xena's smiled turned reassuring as she nodded. "Yes, we have. And I promise to come back here tonight and talk about just how far we've come."
That got the bard's attention in an instant. "Okay, who are you and what have you done with Xena?" There was a hint of a teasing grin on her lips.
Xena gently caressed the hand in hers. "She's right here, love." Then she leaned close and met Gabrielle's steady gaze. "I want us to have a nice, long life together."
Emboldened by Xena's words, Gabrielle bridged the gap between them and met the warrior's lips with her own. The kiss was slow and chaste at first, but held such promise for both of them. Gabrielle's eyes closed as she felt the softness against her lips and savored the feel of Xena's skin on hers. Gabrielle let her lips open just enough to taste the warrior's skin on her tongue. It was heavenly. The feelings that surfaced were so intense that her breath caught, until she heard a throat cleared somewhere behind Xena.
"Uh, sorry to interrupt again," Ephiny's voice carried across the room to the two women. "But we need to go, Xena."
Xena reluctantly pulled back without letting her gaze leave Gabrielle's, as the bard's eyes fluttered open and a smile lit her eyes. Xena returned the smile with a dazzling one of her own.
"Hold that thought," she said quietly for the bard's ears alone. "I'll make sure they cut to the chase and get this over with minimal fuss."
"I'll count the candle flickers," Gabrielle answered with a nod. "Hurry back."
"I won't be gone a moment longer than necessary," Xena said as she rose to her feet and turned to face the Amazon slinking near the door. "Let's get this over with. I have…things…to take care of." She spared a brief last glance at Gabrielle and winked before disappearing from the cabin.
"I let the youngsters know that they can visit with you for a little while, Gabrielle," Ephiny said from the doorway to her still-reclining queen. "They should be by in a candlemark."
Gabrielle nodded and then found herself alone in the cabin again. The emptiness seemed so foreign without her warrior's austere presence to fill it. Then she touched her still-tingling lips and smiled. Things certainly had changed between them. Xena had never openly shown such affection to her, except when she was at Death's door during that fiasco with the Persians. Gabrielle had chalked those brief moments up to the fact that the poison was coursing through her body, and Xena thought she would surely die.
Gabrielle was certainly looking forward to that sensitive chat they would share when Xena returned. The smile broadened.
"Maybe we'll just skip the talking part and get right back to kissing," Gabrielle mused.
The meeting was dragging on interminably and Xena's patience was running thin. Amazons! she mentally shouted for the nth time in a candlemark and just kept from rolling her eyes again. Why couldn't they just put the facts out there and make a damned decision about their next course of action?
No. They were still debating the pros and cons of each and every nitpicky little battle tactic. It was almost as exasperating as listening to her mother and the townswomen of Amphipolis argue over which dishes to use for a festival-debating which place service would fit the occasion, which ale keg to tap first…ugh! The ants in Xena's pants were growing exponentially with each passing flicker of the torches, and she was sure her head would soon explode from all the bickering.
"Can we at least agree that we need to step up our patrols and maybe double the number of guards on the perimeters, until we have a good idea what it is the army wants?" Chilapa asked the gathered assembly. "Maybe they're just passing through."
Eponin stood up to face the group. "We've already doubled the guard. I've also sent out three additional seasoned Amazon warriors with each patrol. There's nothing more we can do that we aren't already doing."
Xena could tell the weapons master was a little offended by Chilapa's suggestion. Amazons! she silently huffed as she continued to lean against the shadowy doorway with her arms crossed over her chest. She had remained silent for the entire meeting, per Ephiny's orders. After all, she wasn't an Amazon and had no voice on the war council. Only Amazons were allowed to speak, unless the council deemed it necessary to acknowledge an outsider, which they had yet to do with her. Xena knew the damned Amazons weren't getting any closer to a viable solution to the army problem they were facing.
"Xena, what do you suggest?" Ephiny suddenly asked out of the blue. "After all, you have the queen's ear. Besides, who better to plan battle strategies than the former Destroyer of Nations?"
Xena was instantly alert, as all eyes immediately turned her way. She straightened and walked to the center of the assemblage. "Someone needs to infiltrate that army and find out what they're up to. That's what I think," she said as she put her hands on her hips and turned a full circle to gaze at each of the seated warriors. "Sitting here debating the pros and cons of your actions isn't going to get you any closer to discovering who is behind this. And the army is still out there, planning their next move or putting their plans into action."
Ephiny's brow rose thoughtfully. "She has a point. We're wasting time."
"We can't infiltrate the army," Eponin pointed out. "They're men. They'll know there's a woman in their midst." She lifted her ample bosoms for emphasis. "After all, I ain't been able to hide these since I grew 'em." The assemblage chuckled at Eponin's jibe, then sobered as they nodded in agreement. Eponin looked around at the others in the circle. "I don't see anyone else who could pass as a man, either."
Xena scowled at the outspoken weapons master. She wanted to slap a hand to her forehead in frustration, but refrained. "I wasn't suggesting that option, Eponin." She did another slow circle and met each gaze boldly. "I'm suggesting you send someone in there who has a reputation that these guys know and respect."
Ephiny had a pretty good idea what Xena was suggesting. "You want to volunteer, Xena?"
The other council members erupted in grumbles and murmurs of disagreement. Suddenly one of the women across the room from Ephiny stood up and the grumbling subsided. The Amazon was tall and slender with a shock of white hair amidst dark brown that framed her face. Her eyes were the color of dark ale and held mistrust in their depths. The muscles bulging from her arms and chest, as well as her many battle scars, spoke volumes as to her experience as a warrior.
"How do we know you can be trusted?" Ignesia stated. The gray streak and dark hair pulled back from an angular face full of open suspicion and loathing made her look more intimidating than others of her group. She was not nearly as tall as Xena, but that didn't matter. Her gaze met the warrior's with confidence and a bit too much pride. The woman's attitude sent the hackles at the back of Xena's neck to standing on end.
Xena merely stood there. The only sign that she was slightly irritated with the woman was a raised brow. "The queen trusts me." She answered. "She knows what I'm capable of and trusts me to protect her with my life. Can you say the same…Ignesia?" She knew the woman from Ephiny's brief description.
"The queen is a child," Ignesia shot back with malice. "Melosa had no idea what she was doing when she allowed Terreis' right of caste to be passed on to that…that…"
Xena's move was so fast that no one had time to react, much less Ignesia. The woman suddenly found herself in a throat lock that cut her words off in mid-breath. The arm around her throat was like an iron vice that wouldn't let up.
"That woman you're talking about is the woman I love," Xena hissed against the woman's suddenly-pale cheek. "You'd better watch what you say about her. She is your queen, after all." Xena's arm loosened enough for the woman to take in a deep breath of much-needed air. "Show Gabrielle the respect she deserves and stop spouting Velasca's tired rhetoric. She's gone and isn't coming back anytime soon."
"Xena!" Ephiny finally stood up and got the attention of the assemblage. "That's enough! Let her go!"
Xena pushed Ignesia away from her and watched with satisfaction as the Amazon stumbled back to her seat, holding her throat and rubbing it absently as she stared daggers at the taller warrior. Xena turned toward the regent and plastered her warrior's stoic expression in place as she crossed her arms over her plated chest.
"She kinda deserved it, Eph," Eponin said just loud enough for the regent to hear and received a glare that could melt a glacier. The weapons master raised her hands in a show of surrender. "Okay, okay. Ya don't have ta burn it into me. I get it." She made to zip her lips shut and threw an imaginary key over her shoulder.
Ephiny returned her attention to the assemblage and rose from her chair. The war council room was nothing more than a hut decorated with the accoutrements that the Amazons valued-weapons of war. Unlike the hut where the queen and elders met to make decisions, this place was strictly dedicated to war. Battles had been planned in this place and a large hide map covered one wall. Every weapon that the Amazons wielded was also on display in the large hut. The meaning of the place was more than clear.
"Amazons!" Ephiny's clear voice rang out into the circular assembly. "We are not here to fight amongst ourselves. This is a time for unity, a time to rise up as a nation and show our enemies that we will not be cowed. We are a proud people who will not cower under any man's threats. It is time for us to stand together as sisters under the mask of our queen. We must honor our ancestors and show the world that we are courageous warriors who do not back down from a fight." Murmurs and nods from the circle of seated warriors greeted her words and Ephiny paused long enough to let those words sink in, as she met the gazes of those around her.
"Queen Gabrielle may not be with us in this room, but she sent Xena as her personal representative." She looked pointedly at Ignesia, who was still absently rubbing her throat. "And if the queen trusts Xena to speak for her and listen to what we have to say, then we must trust her, as well." Her eyes remained locked with Ignesia's. "Queen Gabrielle may be young by our standards, but she has a great deal more experience dealing with these kinds of situations than many of us do. Her extensive travels have given her the knowledge and the skills to survive the worst the world has to offer." She turned her gaze on Xena. "And who better than the Warrior Princess herself to show our queen the wisdom needed to lead this nation to greatness?" Ephiny watched in satisfaction, and with a secret sense of triumph, as a blush colored the otherwise stoic warrior's cheeks. "I, for one, will accept Xena's word and her offer of assistance in this matter."
She paused long enough to allow her words to sink in and watched as the others grudgingly nodded their agreement-all of them, except Ignesia and the two women seated on either side of her. "Those in favor of allowing Xena to infiltrate the army to learn what they're planning, say aye." A unanimous chorus of 'ayes' were uttered. "Those opposed?" Ignesia and her two cohorts gave resounding 'nays' that echoed hollowly in the otherwise silent hut. "The ayes have it," Ephiny smiled, then watched from the corner of her eye as Ignesia and the other two immediately stormed from the hut. "We're done here, Amazons. Go back to your duties until further notice."
Ephiny waited for the gathered throng to disperse, watching and listening to the passing conversations and the women she knew. Most of those gathered were eagerly anticipating some kind of clash with the army, while others just wanted to go on with business as usual.
Ephiny stepped up next to Xena and leaned in close. "There's bound to be trouble from the Velasca faction over this, you know."
Xena nodded as the remainder of the warriors slowly left the hut. Eponin remained behind with an expectant grin on her face.
"So, Xena," the weapons master rubbed her hands together eagerly. "You need anyone to watch your back out there, in case things don't go quite according to plan?"
"Why? Are you volunteering, Eponin?" Xena smirked.
"I can round up two or three others to go with us, you know, to make sure you get out of there in one piece," Eponin was practically bouncing on the balls of her feet with anticipation. "It would be a great honor to see the Warrior Princess in action. Not to mention how great it would be to finally play a part in one of those stories the queen's always telling us."
Xena was hard-pressed to keep from rolling her eyes at the adult Amazon practically dancing in front of her with childish glee. She sighed, "I suppose I could use an extra pair of eyes and ears or two or three out there. You never know what Ignesia and her cronies are hatching in those leathers of theirs." She patted Eponin's shoulder companionably. "I'd appreciate it if you and a few others would tag along, Eponin."
Eponin practically shivered with enthusiasm at being included in Xena's plans. She clasped Xena's arm in hers and gave her a warrior shake before running off to find the three Amazons she had in mind for the mission.
"You made her day, Xena," Ephiny shook her head. "You sure you're up to having an Amazon fan club trailing after you on this mission?"
Xena blew out a breath and scratched the nape of her neck. "No worse than having Gabrielle there to add her special little touches."
The regent smirked. "So it's true?"
"She does tend to get into trouble more often than not?"
"Not anymore," Xena answered with a gleam of pride in her tone. "It was like that at first, but things have changed," she shrugged, "at least for the most part."
"For the most part?"
"She still tends to see the tankard as half-full rather than half-empty. She also tries to hold onto that, even when things go wrong," Xena answered. "It's put us at odds a time or two."
"Gabrielle was always an idealist, an optimist. It's what I love about her," Ephiny shrugged. "It's one of the things that makes her so unlike our former queens. She doesn't just want to go to war for the sake of fighting. Makes the rest of us stop and consider other possibilities."
"Yeah," Xena's mood turned somber. "Still…" she shrugged.
There was a long moment of silence as Ephiny wrestled with something that had been nagging at her for quite some time. She didn't know if the stoic warrior would answer the question for her or if she should put it to Gabrielle, instead.
"Can I ask you something, Xena?"
"Sure," Xena shrugged as they made their way out of the hut into the bright sunshine of a warm summer-like day.
"What happened after the two of you left here?" Ephiny kept her gaze on her surroundings without meeting the taller woman's piercing blue gaze. "I mean, after you dragged her out of here behind your horse?" There, she'd said it. "I'm…I'm sorry. That didn't quite come out like I meant it to."
Xena didn't answer immediately. Instead, she slowed her pace and took in her surroundings with new eyes. "I almost killed her, Eph." She stopped and faced the regent with sorrowful eyes. "We went over a cliff and ended up in a place that…well, I just can't explain it." She shrugged and looked away from the regent's intense hazel gaze. "We were both hurting and blaming each other for everything that happened…There was so much pain…" She paused to swallow down the lump in her throat. "Then we realized what we were doing and…" she shrugged again. "We came back, and I almost lost her again."
Ephiny listened intently to the woman's tale, but couldn't quite put the pieces together with any clarity. She knew Gabrielle was the storyteller in the partnership and vowed to get the whole story from her when the time was right.
"But she didn't die then, either," Ephiny prodded when it seemed Xena wasn't going to continue.
"You heard about the Persian invasion?" Xena got a nod from her companion. "We were all that stood between them and Athens. We just managed to stop their advance," Xena resumed her slow pace toward the mess hut. "Turns out it was the main force." Tears suddenly sprang to her eyes, but she refused to let them fall. "I had to fight the Persians while my…while Gabrielle was dying right there beside me."
"Just the two of you?"
"Yes," Xena answered nonchalantly. "Gabrielle took a poisoned bolt to the shoulder while my back was turned, and I...Once we were in this abandoned weapons bunker she was determined to fight the Persians and hold them off. I lured them to the bunker and laid some traps. They fell for most of it and...." She shrugged. "The rest you'll have to hear from Gabrielle. She's the storyteller." She smirked.
Ephiny slowly shook her head. "How long ago was that?"
"Two moons," Xena answered. "Gabrielle eventually recovered from the residual effects of the poison-mostly. At least, I don't think she's had any lasting ill effects from it." She paused to consider thoughtfully. "Then again, maybe there's a lot she hasn't told me. She neglected to mention this latest illness until it was almost too late." She frowned. "I guess we still have a long way to go in our relationship."
"You two sure get around, that's for sure," Ephiny commented with a wry grin. "The Persians, huh? Next thing you'll be telling me is you've met Rome's latest and greatest tyrant, Julius Caesar." Xena gave Ephiny a raised-brow look. "You're joking."
"He's an ass who thinks his destiny is all that matters in the world," Xena shot back with a shake of her head. "He's also partly to blame for what happened in Britannia." It was Ephiny's turn to give Xena a raised-brow look. "It's a really long story and one I really don't want to get into right now. Suffice it to say, I have a history with the man that goes back to my warlord days."
"And Gabrielle got caught up in the middle of it," Ephiny nodded sagely. "I think I'm actually beginning to understand."
"I should've protected her," Xena said absently as they entered the mess hut. "I let her down and it came back to bite us both. We lost so much because of…" She shrugged as she held back more tears. "I won't let it happen again."
Ephiny patted the taller warrior's bare shoulder. "One thing I've learned about Gabrielle over the years, Xena, is that she is getting better at making tough decisions. She's also pretty good at taking care of herself. You can't always be there to protect her, you know." Ephiny stopped and pulled Xena to a quiet corner of the hut. The hut was mostly deserted anyway, but Ephiny didn't want to continue her discussion where certain ears could overhear what she had to say next.
The regent stood facing the tall warrior and gazed intently into Xena's cerulean eyes. "When Melosa acknowledged Gabrielle's right to accept Terreis' right of caste, I was adamantly opposed to her being our princess. I didn't see how a young, inexperienced shepherd's kid could fill the shoes of an Amazon princess, much less become a seasoned warrior. I was wrong." She put her hands on her hips and stood her ground as she watched Xena's expression remain completely unreadable. "Terreis was my best friend. Actually, she was more than my best friend. She was…well, anyway, you get the point. And then this young kid, this nobody from the outside is suddenly trying to fill Terreis' leathers. I…" She paused and shook herself and put a hand to her forehead before meeting Xena's intense gaze. "Gabrielle wasn't like anyone I'd ever met. She didn't give up, and she didn't quit when things got really tough, even when Velasca came along and tried her best to kill her. She's tough and stubborn and…"
Ephiny shrugged her shoulders. "What I'm trying to say is, Gabrielle is much stronger than you or I or any of these feather-heads give her credit for. She manages to find ways to keep up with you, doesn't she?" She waved a negligible hand at the stoic warrior. "That has to count for something, especially when the two of you are traipsing all over the countryside, righting wrongs and saving people from the gods only know what. Does she ever complain? Has she ever once told you that she isn't strong enough to continue doing what you two do?"
"Once," Xena uttered quietly, then added thoughtfully. "Twice, actually."
"Really?" Ephiny gave Xena a skeptical glare.
"Yes," Xena answered without elaborating. "What does this all have to do with how things are between us since Britannia?"
"Gabrielle isn't a wilting flower, Xena," Ephiny continued. "Like you, she has her strengths and her weaknesses. Unlike you, she knows how to communicate her thoughts and feelings. The two of you need to sit down together and talk through what happened. I don't think either of you has come to terms with everything that you went through before and after Britannia. You might be mildly surprised to learn that Gabrielle doesn't blame you for the things that happened to her. Or not." She shrugged. "I don't know. But you won't know until you sit down and talk to her."
Xena frowned. "I never know what to say."
"Then maybe you should let Gabrielle do the talking," Ephiny smirked. "She may just steer you in the right direction."
Xena considered Ephiny's words for a moment. "You might be right," she answered with a curt nod.
"It's just part of the job," Ephiny gave Xena's shoulder a playful slap as she moved past her.
Gabrielle's headache returned in the middle of the story she was telling to the group of five young Amazons who were watching her with rapt attention. The oldest of the group, a girl of about fourteen winters by the name of Elantia, had noticed the bruise on Gabrielle's jaw and decided to comment on it. That prompted the rest of them to approach the young queen's bed as they ooo'd and ahhh'd over the purple and yellow-green discoloration on her jaw.
"Does it hurt?" Twelve-year-old T'lilia asked as she gazed intently at the queen's visible injury.
"Haven't given it much thought," Gabrielle self-consciously reached up to touch the slightly-swollen area on her face. "I've been a little preoccupied with other… things."
"You've been really sick, haven't you?" A small toe-headed girl of no more than ten summers added.
Gabrielle nodded. "I've had a lung fever."
More oohs and ahhhs.
"The elders think you're too young to be queen," T'lilia stated. "Are you? How old do you have to be to be queen, anyway?"
"She's a warrior," countered one of the older girls. "Warriors make great leaders."
"Do you fight?" Asked another girl with open enthusiasm.
"I do," Gabrielle finally answered. "I'm not fond of fighting and do my best not to kill anyone…"
"Have you ever killed a man?" The toe-headed, Kahlia, blurted.
The question caught Gabrielle off-guard, even though she knew it might come up eventually. Still, it wasn't something she liked to talk about and certainly not with a group of girls.
"I killed a woman once," Gabrielle answered flatly.
"A woman?" The older girl, Esme, looked incredulous.
"Yes, a woman," Gabrielle continued. "She was…it's a long story. I really don't want to talk about it."
"How did she die?"
Gabrielle considered the question. "I stabbed her with a dagger by accident."
"You know how to use a dagger?"
"I…it wasn't like that," Gabrielle sighed heavily and felt the exhaustion pulling at her with renewed force. She really hadn't reconciled what happened in Britannia and didn't want to rehash it with a bunch of wannabe warriors-in-training.
"The queen needs her rest," a stern voice suddenly barked from the doorway.
All eyes turned in the direction of the voice, and Gabrielle was relieved to see Eponin standing there with her hands on her hips. The brunette was imposing in her Amazon leathers. Her hair was pulled back from a round face that was set in a stern scowl that brooked no arguments.
"Get back to your lessons," Eponin barked. "Go on, before I have Aristia assign you all to kitchen duty for an entire moon cycle. Peeling potatoes and manning the cooking fires should put the respect back in those youthful leathers of yours."
The group of girls suddenly scattered like a pile of leaves in an autumn breeze. They were gone before Gabrielle could even say goodbye. She smiled at her rescuer and sank back into the pillows with a heavy sigh.
"Thanks, Pon," Gabrielle smiled tiredly. "They were really starting to wear on my nerves."
"No problem," Eponin said, stepping into the room and sitting next to the bed. "You look wiped."
"I feel…um, wiped," Gabrielle added. "I guess I'm not quite ready to entertain a gaggle of pre-pubescent Amazons yet."
"Well, I'll keep the pests away if you wanna get some rest," Eponin smiled warmly and got comfortable in the relatively uncomfortable chair. "Eph and Xena are going over their plans and won't be done anytime soon. Xena's got something in the works to infiltrate that army, and she asked me to join her. I just happened to pass your hut when I heard the kids all goin' on about your skills as a warrior. Thought I'd drop in and make sure they weren't pesterin' ya too much."
"Mm." Gabrielle nodded and her quiet question was barely audible as she felt the fatigue catching up to her. "You're going with her, then?"
"Yep," Eponin answered. "Thought she might want some backup, just in case. You know, since you can't…well, you know."
"Sounds good." Gabrielle knew she was drifting and didn't have the urge to fight it anymore. She let Eponin's soft words wash over her, as her headache slowly subsided and she sank further into that place between sleep and wakefulness.
"Get some sleep, yer maj," Eponin gently patted her shoulder.
It was nearly dark when Gabrielle awoke again. A candle burned brightly next to her bed and she looked around until her eyes found a pair of familiar cerulean ones watching her intently.
"Hey," Gabrielle greeted her companion with a warm smile.
"Hey, yourself," Xena lithely moved from the chair and climbed into the bed.
Gabrielle crawled into her favorite position against Xena's side and reveled in the feel of the warm body against hers. She laid her head against Xena's shoulder and breathed in the woman's distinctive scent of leather and sandalwood.
"Mmm," the smaller woman exhaled gently. "How long was I out this time?"
"A while," Xena answered. "I think those girls wore you out, love."
"Yeah," Gabrielle agreed. "Didn't think I would tire so quickly. They just kept talking and asking questions, until I started getting a headache."
Xena stroked her partner's forehead. "Headache gone?"
Gabrielle nodded. "I guess I just needed to sleep it off." She let her right arm rest on Xena's torso as her hand traced gentle circles on the warm leathers. "Did you and Ephiny get everything worked out with your plans to infiltrate the army?"
Xena's brow lifted. "Who told you…Oh, Eponin must have come by to check on you earlier."
Gabrielle snorted. "Yeah, she saved me from the kids, as she calls them. I think she's working on boosting her intimidation factor a few notches. She nearly scared the leathers off the girls when she threatened them with kitchen detail."
"Probably just trying to impress you," Xena smirked. "You are her queen, after all."
Gabrielle lifted her chin and looked into laughing blue eyes. "Tell me you're not enjoying this."
"Not at all," Xena teased. She sighed heavily. "Being the queen is a terrible burden and one that I do not envy you in the least."
Gabrielle snickered. "You are so bad," she playfully slapped the leather midriff below her hand. "Being royalty is a pain in the…"
"Ah, ah, ah," Xena placed a finger against Gabrielle's lips. She was mildly surprised when the lips beneath her finger parted slightly and a set of perfect white teeth nipped her. "Ouch!"
"That so did not hurt," Gabrielle chided, her expression turning sultry. "Would you like me to kiss it and make it better?"
Xena brushed her thumb against Gabrielle's lips. "I'd rather just lay here with you and talk."
Gabrielle's head shot up and she stared incredulously into smoky blue eyes. "Okay, who are you and what have you done with Xena? That is the second time you've mentioned wanting to talk. What is up with you? Are you cycling already?"
"I'm serious, Gabrielle," Xena shot the smaller woman a wry smirk. "I want to talk."
"About what?" Gabrielle laid her head back down on Xena's shoulder. She was a little freaked out by the sincerity in the warrior's eyes.
"About Britannia," Xena said and then cleared her throat. "I…We…"
"There's really nothing to talk about, Xena," Gabrielle said. "It happened and there's nothing that's going to change that fact. We were there, we ended up in trouble up to our eyeballs, we kicked…um, well you know…"
"Pretty much," Xena agreed. "But we never really discussed what happened."
"Like what?" Gabrielle asked. "Like the fact that I went off on another of my stupid idealistic quests to save the world?"
Xena winced at the sarcasm in Gabrielle's tone. "No, not exactly," she said. "I figured we'd touch more along the lines of how I let you down and got us into the whole mess in the first place." She heard a snort. "No, hear me out on this. It's my fault we were there to begin with. I knew Caesar would show his ugly face, and all I could see was my own need for revenge. I should have protected you, but instead I left you on your own with that bastard, Krafstar."
Gabrielle lifted her head and rested her chin on a closed fist. "Xena, you didn't know what he would do-what he would turn into. You couldn't have known that he was…" she swallowed, "…that he was a minion of Dahak." She shook her head to keep Xena from speaking. "No, you aren't to blame for what happened, Xena. I most certainly have to share in some of that blame for blindly thinking every person we run into is either a helpless victim or a raging tyrant. Things-and especially people-aren't really black and white. We're all chock full of shades of gray." Tears sprang to her eyes, but she refused to let them fall. "You'd think I'd learn by now that not everyone we save is a good and decent person. There are some people out there who appear to be one thing and turn out to be something else entirely. The bottom line is most people are out to satisfy their own agendas, regardless of who they hurt or kill in the process."
Xena placed a kiss on the top of Gabrielle's blond head and ran her hand through the shorn locks. "Please don't change your outlook just because we've run into a few bad apples, Gabrielle," she said. "I really like you the way you are."
"Yeah, the naïve optimist strikes again," Gabrielle scoffed.
Xena shifted slightly until she could take Gabrielle's face in her hands and look her in the eye. "You are not a naïve optimist, Gabrielle. You are a very smart woman who has experienced her share of the dark side of humanity and weathered the storms that have blown her way. Just because you see light where there might be complete darkness doesn't mean you're a naïve optimist. There's nothing naïve about you, understand me?"
"Yeah, so what were we talking about again?" Gabrielle abruptly changed the subject. "Sharing blame? You know we were both responsible for what happened in Britannia, Xena. I went to that temple not knowing what those guys were really up to and stayed despite the fact that the whole thing was giving me the creeps. And…" She swallowed down the bile that rose in her throat at the thought of what she was about to say. "And even after I killed Meridia, I still…There were just so many signs that things weren't right. And after Hope was born, I still…" She knew the tears were falling unheeded down her cheeks, but chose to ignore them. "I shouldn't have lied to you. I should have told you the truth. I should have been up front about my feelings about what was happening. I just…"
Gabrielle met Xena's steady gaze and saw tears streaming down the woman's cheeks. In that instant she felt more love for Xena than she had ever known before. She reached up and gently rubbed her thumb against Xena's wet cheek.
"Solan helped us see what the lies were doing to us, Xena," Gabrielle said. "He knew we needed each other more than we needed the anger and pain of our separation." She moved closer until their lips were just a breath away. "And he knew we were meant to share this," she closed the distance and reveled in the feel of soft lips pressed against her own.
Xena wrapped her arms around the smaller woman as their kiss deepened. She was reluctant at first, but soon felt herself sink deeper into the sensations that were washing over her. It felt so right, so perfect. Holding Gabrielle, tasting the salty tears intermingled with her own, as she explored the soft lips pressed against her own. And then the explosion of raw passion that swept over her as Gabrielle's lips parted and their tongues met in a dance as old as time.
"Gods!" Xena exclaimed breathlessly as they parted for air.
"My sentiments exactly," Gabrielle added with a wry smirk. "Never thought it would be like that. No wonder Ares is always trying to get you back and Caesar's…"
Her words were cut off completely by another frontal assault from her taller companion. They shared another passionate kiss, each exploring the other in ways they had never allowed themselves to do before. When they came up for air again, Gabrielle was the first to speak.
"I could get used to this, you know," the bard said with a teasing half-smile. "What in Hades am I going to do while you're away infiltrating that army?"
Xena traced a finger along the bard's jaw line and up one ear. "Oh, I'm sure you'll think of something. Maybe you should rest up, save your strength for-" She waggled her dark brows and rolled her eyes, "Oh, I don't know. I'm sure that wild imagination of yours can come up with a whole slew of possibilities that will keep us in bed for days."
"My imagination will drive me completely insane while you're out gallivanting around the countryside with your Amazon fan club, Xena," Gabrielle scowled. "I can't believe you kissed me like that and aren't going to finish what you started. You can't leave me like this. It's so not fair."
It was Xena's turn to scoff. "Kissed you? I'm not the one who started this whole…well, you know." Xena waved a negligent hand. "Besides, you're not the one who has to gallivant, as you so artfully put it, around the countryside with a bunch of leather-clad, wide-eyed, cycling feather heads chasing down only-the-gods-know-what. I'll be lucky if I come out of this without a new scar or two to add to my extensive collection."
Gabrielle's blond brow rose as she zeroed in on the small scar just above Xena's breast plate and placed a delicate, sensuous kiss on the spot.
"Oh, you mean like this one?" Gabrielle's tone reflected her growing ardor.
"Gaaaabrrielllle," Xena growled as the woman in question placed yet another kiss on the scar.
"Xeeeeena," Gabrielle smirked as she lifted sultry eyes to meet her companion's icy glare. "That look doesn't work on me anymore, by the way."
"Really?" Xena's expression fell. "I thought it worked on everyone."
"Not me," Gabrielle shook her head.
"Since you kissed me just now," Gabrielle rose up and gave Xena another searing kiss that left them both breathless again.
"You kissed me," Xena panted as they parted.
"Did not," Gabrielle responded, equally as breathless as she gazed up into passion-filled blue eyes.
"All right, you two, break it up or I'll have to separate you for the duration," Ephiny's voice broke the mesmerizing silence that stretched between them. "Either that or we'll have to have a joining ceremony right here and now. Hm, don't know if we can swing that with an army parked on our southern border and a bunch of treaties waiting in the wings."
"Hey, Eph," Xena casually greeted the intruder, as if she already knew the regent had been standing there all along. She watched as Gabrielle ducked into her shoulder and didn't miss the blush that suffused the smaller woman's cheeks. "As always your timing is impeccable."
"I aim to please," Ephiny shot back with a wry smirk, as she entered the hut without ceremony and stood at the end of Gabrielle's bed. "I actually came here on business, though." She glanced down at the small woman lying against the taller warrior. "You okay, Gabrielle? You look a little flushed. You fever isn't coming back again, is it?"
"What in Hades is so important that you had to barge in here without knocking, Ephiny?" Gabrielle groused as Xena climbed out from beneath her and she found herself longing to have her personal pillow back. "This really better be good. I am sooooo not in the mood…"
"The army's on the move," Ephiny interrupted in all seriousness. "The scouts who just came in said they're mobilizing the entire force. Tent are all down and the infantry is formed up to march."
"For what?" Xena asked. "Are they planning on marching through here like a lumbering hoard?"
"Not a good idea," Gabrielle added. "Our archers can just hide in the trees and pick them off-decimate the entire lot of them one by one."
"They're not moving this way, actually," Ephiny answered. "Draia thinks they're heading farther south."
Gabrielle glanced up at Xena. "Isn't that…"
Xena scowled. "They'll hit Amphipolis in a day, maybe less, if that's their plan."
"Amphipolis?" Ephiny caught the worry in the warrior's tone.
"Xena's home village," Gabrielle supplied. "Her mother and brother still live there."
"And Potidea is only half a day's march from there," Xena added.
"You don't think…" Gabrielle shook her head. "They couldn't know, could they? There's no way they could know, Xena."
"Not unless someone told them," Xena looked intently at Gabrielle. "I guess it's possible. I'm sure they have spies."
"What?" Ephiny asked in confusion.
"Potidea is where Gabrielle's family lives," Xena supplied.
"They don't live in town, but they're close enough to be in harm's way," Gabrielle added softly. "If that army is as big as you say…"
"We have to stop them," Xena announced. "There has to be something they're after. We just need to find out what it is."
"No, Gabrielle," Xena interrupted. "I'm not losing more family because of something like this. Not if I can help it."
"But, Xena," Gabrielle insisted. "We don't have a clue what they want. And you don't have time to infiltrate their ranks to figure out what's going on. We have to get out there and stop them from reaching Amphipolis. Your mother…"
"Mother can take care of herself, Gabrielle," Xena's gaze met Gabrielle's. "Amphipolis has a militia and they send out scouts on a regular basis. They'll know about the army's approach in time to evacuate the villagers to the caves." She considered thoughtfully. "I guess I'll just have to come up with another plan."
Xena heard the pain in Gabrielle's tone. "This just got personal, Gabrielle. Please, just let me do this my way."
Gabrielle threw the covers off and sat up with some effort. A wave of dizziness hit her and she hesitated a moment. "Then I'm coming with you."
"NO!!" Two voices shouted in unison.
"You aren't in any condition to ride, much less get out of that bed, Gabrielle," Xena added, as she gently pushed Gabrielle back down. "Besides, I don't need you there as a distraction. I need to concentrate on figuring out how to stop the army from decimating the homes of those we love. You're in absolutely no condition to be out there traipsing around. You'll just get sick again."
Gabrielle managed to pick up on the one word that she could use as a weapon against the tall warrior. "So, that's what I am to you now? A distraction?" Gabrielle couldn't keep the anguish from her tone.
"Gabrielle, be serious," Ephiny piped in. "You're still bedridden. Pony told me how wiped you were after the girls left. You almost fell asleep in mid-sentence."
Xena glanced from the regent and pinned Gabrielle with a raised-brow glare. "You let them stay that long?"
"I…" Gabrielle demurely pulled the blanket back over herself. "Xena, it wasn't like that…exactly."
Gabrielle could feel the fatigue pulling at her again, but ignored it. She wasn't about to let either woman get the best of her in a battle with words. She stifled a cough, knowing how that would go over with the two women towering over her.
Xena turned an icy glare on Ephiny that brooked no argument. "Ephiny, please leave us."
The regent glanced skeptically from Xena to Gabrielle. "I'll be right outside if you need me, Gabrielle," she said pointedly to the bard as she slowly left the hut.
"Don't 'Xena please' me, Gabrielle," Xena rounded on the bard with anger flaring in her eyes. "We said we weren't going to do this anymore."
"Act like everything's fine when it isn't," Xena answered. "This was how things went so very wrong before. And here you're doing it again."
"Wait, doing what? Xena I don't understand…" Gabrielle wanted nothing more than to sink into oblivion at that moment, but knew that would only add fuel to an already-smoldering fire. "You're not making any sense."
Xena held up a staying hand. "You're trying to pretend that you're fine when I can plainly see that you're not."
"No, Gabrielle," Xena cut in again and received an icy green glare in return. "I know you think you can just bounce back from this illness, but the simple fact of the matter is that you can't. I have to go out there and somehow stop that army. And I have to do it without you there to guard my back." She raised her hand again when it looked like Gabrielle was about to say something. "No, just listen to me for once. Okay? I know you want to be there, to go with me when we head off the army…"
"Xena, stop!" Gabrielle shouted and succumbed to a chest-deep raspy coughing fit wracked her entire body and left her feeling worse than she had all day. "Ugh! I really hate this," she finally managed when the fit subsided and she could finally take a deep breath that didn't include a cough. She sank back into the pillows with an exhausted sigh. "I'm not going to argue with you, Xena. I just…" She rolled her eyes and glanced up at the ceiling before returning her attention to her patiently waiting companion. "I'm sorry for overreacting. I know you're just trying to protect me, and I also know how hard this is for you…for us." She reached out and took one of Xena's calloused hands in hers. "Just promise me that you'll be careful. Have Eponin watch your back, huh? And please don't take any unnecessary chances. I really don't want to have to travel to Hades' realm to find you and bring you back." She smirked to take the edge off her last words.
Xena's expression softened and she placed her other hand over Gabrielle's. "I promise I'll be careful, Gabrielle. As long as you promise me you won't leave this hut for any reason."
Gabrielle squirmed slightly under Xena's intense scrutiny and pouted. "That is so not fair, Xena."
"Promise," Xena insisted.
Gabrielle sighed again and felt her remaining strength ebbing exponentially. "Fine, I promise. But I expect you to come back to me whole and hearty. We have some…" she shrugged, "unfinished business to take care of, you and me."
Xena gave Gabrielle a full-fledged smile. "I think I can oblige you there," she answered and leaned in to place a chaste kiss on Gabrielle's soft lips. "I expect you to be stronger and healthier when I return, my bard."
Gabrielle nodded. "I'll do my best."
Xena ran a hand gently through Gabrielle's shorn locks and fluffed them. "I'm really gonna have to get used to the new look. Didn't realize I cut it so short."
"Speaking of…" Gabrielle gave Xena a half-scowl. "Was it really necessary to chop it all off like this? It's really, really, really short, Xena. I'm not sure I like it."
Xena had the grace to look slightly abashed. "I didn't really think about what I was doing at the time. I just did it."
Gabrielle reached up and touched the hair above her ear. "So it was purely impulsive?"
Xena nodded. "I love your hair, Gabrielle. I wouldn't cut it if it wasn't absolutely necessary."
Gabrielle considered Xena's answer. "Okay, I think I can accept that." An unexpected yawn escaped and surprised them both. "Oo, sorry."
"I think that's my cue," Xena smirked. "Get some sleep and I'll be by before I leave in the morning."
"Definitely," Xena leaned in and gave her a quick peck on the lips. "I think I'm gonna like this whole relationship thing." She said only inches from the smaller woman's lips. "I especially love kissing you." And she emphasized her point with another, more lingering, kiss that left them both breathless.
"Mmm," Gabrielle uttered softly as Xena pulled back slightly. "I couldn't agree more."
Xena absently brushed Gabrielle's bangs from her forehead. "Get some sleep, love. I won't leave before I come by and see you."
"Can't wait," Gabrielle muttered as she started drifting off to sleep.
"Sweet dreams, Gabrielle," Xena said softly as she rose from her seat and walked stealthily out of the hut.
Once outside in the flickering light of the cook fires in the central gathering area, Xena was immediately joined by a concerned Ephiny. "Well? You two kiss and make up?" The regent gave the taller woman a skeptical glare.
Xena returned the regent's expression with her signature icy glare. "You really need to mind your own business, Ephiny. Back off and leave our relationship alone."
"Gabrielle is my queen, Xena. She is my business," Ephiny shot back as they walked briskly toward the main gathering hut. "Everything that happens to her affects this entire nation, which is why I have to make it my business."
Xena dead-stopped in the middle of the common area, crossing her arms over her chest and waiting for Ephiny to realize she was no longer walking beside her. "What happens between Gabrielle and me is between us. It doesn't concern you or your damned Amazons."
Ephiny finally stopped and rounded on the taller warrior. "Oh, really?" She said as she took several steps back to confront the warrior. "Do you really believe that your relationship has nothing whatsoever to do with Gabrielle being Queen of the Amazons?"
"Yep," Xena answered with confidence. "Gabrielle doesn't need you or the Amazons. We get along just fine without any of you. Been doing it for the better part of three years now, as a matter of fact."
It was Ephiny's turn to cross her arms over her chest and glare up at the imposing warrior. "Then why did she run back to us when the two of you had your falling out? Hmm?"
Xena's hackles rose and she took a step toward the Amazon before catching herself. "Why you…"
"She's as much a part of this village as she is a part of your life, Xena. Face it, Gabrielle is an Amazon and that's not going to change anytime soon," Ephiny triumphantly proclaimed as she stood her ground. "We have as much claim on her as you do, Xena. That isn't going to change, either."
Xena knew the woman was right, but that didn't mean she had to openly admit it. "Stay out of our relationship, Ephiny." Xena held up a warning finger. "Do not presume to come between us. Or I promise you'll regret doing so."
"Is that a threat, Xena?" Ephiny shifted slightly and placed her hands on her hips. She knew she was treading dangerous ground with the lethal warrior, but her loyalty and friendship with Gabrielle helped her hold her ground. "Please tell me you didn't just threaten the queen's regent."
"Is there a problem here?" Eponin chose that moment to step up next to Ephiny. She eyed the two women and noticed the tension radiating from them both. "Eph?"
Ephiny continued to glare at Xena. "No, no problem. Just having a minor disagreement." She turned and stalked away without a backward glance.
Eponin turned her attention on Xena. "Something I should know about, Xena?"
"No," Xena answered as she relaxed her posture and shook her head. "Just clearing the air."
Eponin practically bounced on the balls of her feet. "Ready to go kick some soldier butt?"
"Not yet," Xena answered and placed a staying hand on the excited Amazon's shoulder. "We have plans to work out first and it's getting late. Can you round up your best warriors and meet me in the command hut in half a candle mark?"
"Sure," Eponin beamed. "You wanna clue me in on what you have cooking in that head of yours? Maybe just a little clue, so I have a heads up and don't get caught with my leathers down?"
"Don't worry, Eponin," Xena patted the woman's shoulder companionably. "I'll fill everyone in when we're in the command tent."
"You want Ephiny there, too?" Eponin gave Xena a curious glance. "She is the regent and…"
"Bring her along," Xena answered with a curt nod, as she continued on toward the stables where she knew Argo was waiting anxiously for her.
Xena wanted nothing more at that moment than to check on the mare and reassure herself that Argo was being well taken care of. She also needed some time to think, to plan. She needed to come up with a new angle to the latest development. It always calmed her to spend time with the golden Palomino. She was looking forward to a little one-sided conversation and a thorough brushing, anything to generate some ideas.
Despite the fatigue that was plaguing her, Gabrielle hadn't been able to sleep for long. After Xena left her, Gabrielle had drifted in that place between wakefulness and sleep for a quarter candlemark, before strange dreams crept in and jarred her fully awake.
The candle was burning low on the side table next to her bed, thanks to one of the Amazons assigned to watch over her. She glanced at the golden flame that was flickering slightly and sighed audibly.
"Can I get you something, my queen?" Charila looked up from her place near the fire.
"No," Gabrielle answered. "I don't need anything. I'm fine."
"Should I go fetch Nissia, my queen?" The young redhead asked anxiously, as she moved to the table and poured water into a wooden cup. She set the cup on the table near the candle and stood next to the bed. "Your wish is my command, my queen."
Gabrielle glanced up at the young woman and gave her a tired smile. "Please," she said, indicating the chair next to the bed. "Just sit quietly and keep me company. I don't really need anything right now. I'm fine." The lie was becoming easier as it slipped from her lips.
"Yes, my queen," Charila said as she took a seat in the chair next to the bed.
Gabrielle was impressed that the young woman actually managed to sit quietly for the better part of a quarter candlemark. She could see that it was taking a considerable effort on the Amazon's part. But then Charila started to squirm uncomfortably in the wooden chair and fidgeted with her hands in a way that was more than tedious.
"I know it's not the most interesting way for you to spend your evening, Charila," Gabrielle commented.
"Oh, no, my queen," Charila said quickly. "I…I just…" She blushed to her roots. "I'm just not used to sitting idly for very long. I'm used to keeping my hands busy."
"And what is it you're usually doing?" Gabrielle was grateful for the conversation that was distracting her from the persistent growing aches and discomfort that was plaguing her again.
Gabrielle couldn't tell if her fever had returned or not, but she was sure something wasn't right. She knew she needed to ask Nissia about what was happening, but hoped, instead, that Xena would return to the hut and clue her in. Then again, having Xena there worrying over her wasn't exactly what she wanted or needed, either. What she really needed was sleep. But, unfortunately, either her mind or her body wasn't exactly cooperating in that arena.
"I'm…well, I'm learning to weave, my queen," Charila answered in a singsong tone that helped to settle Gabrielle's frazzled nerves. "We have several large looms in a hut on the other side of the village. Pilar is the head mistress of the weavers and is teaching several of us girls how to make clothing, rugs…" She shrugged and looked down. "I know it's not the most exciting occupation in the village-not like being a warrior or being queen-but I love creating something beautiful out of raw wool. I love the way it feels in my hands and the colors that blend together…well, I guess it's not easy to put into words."
Gabrielle gave the young woman a genuine smile. "I would love to see some of the things you've made."
Charila brightened. "You would?" And then her expression faltered. "I mean…I'm sure you're very busy, my queen…that is, when you're…um, I mean…"
"Charila," Gabrielle stopped the obviously shy woman from rambling. "Just because I'm the queen doesn't mean that I don't care about what goes on here in the village. Quite the contrary, I enjoy seeing and experiencing everything that the women have to offer. Amazons are incredible artisans, as well as seasoned warriors and experienced healers. Our diversity is what defines us and makes us such an incredible community. We aren't just a bunch of battle-hungry warriors. You should be proud to have such a wonderful gift."
"But…" Charila stopped and played with the frayed edge of her leathers. "You're a warrior, my queen. Warriors aren't really interested in stuff like weaving and…and pottery…and…well…" She shrugged again.
"You'd be surprised at what I'm interested in," Gabrielle smirked. "I'm a bard, Charila. Do you think I'm any less of a person because I can come up with a decent story or two? I may be able to fight when the need arises, but I can also enjoy a good song and marvel at a beautiful sunrise or sunset-smell the flowers and listen to the birds singing in the trees." Gabrielle gave the younger woman a conspiratorial look. "Can I share a little secret with you?"
Charila warmed to the woman and relaxed noticeably. "I give you my word it will go no further than this room, my queen."
"Okay, first of all, drop the 'my queen' thing while we're alone," Gabrielle growled. "I may be your queen when I'm out there with the rest of the throng, but in here it's just Gabrielle." She looked for confirmation and received a tentative nod of acquiescence. "Good. Now, one of my most cherished secrets is that I love to shop for pretty things."
Charila gave Gabrielle a skeptical look. "You're serious, my…um…Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle nodded, trying hard to hide the teasing grin that was itching to get out. "Shh, don't tell Xena or even Ephiny. I don't want them to know they have a wimpy Amazon queen on their hands. They have enough to deal with right now."
Charila snickered slightly then caught herself. "I'm sorry, my qu…um…"
"Charila, relax," Gabrielle decided to let the poor woman off the hook. "I'm just teasing."
"Oh," Charila breathed a sigh of relief.
"Actually, Xena already knows about my shopping habits," Gabrielle continued matter-of-factly. "We travel around together so much that she's used to taking a detour through a market or two during the course of a day's journey."
"Does she mind?" Charila asked curiously. "I mean, does it bother her to have to…um, you know."
Gabrielle considered thoughtfully. "It used to, I think. She'd get all restless and fidgety when I stopped to look at a bolt of fabric or a small trinket. But lately she just patiently scans the crowd and glares at the merchants when she thinks I'm not looking." She smiled wistfully. "I think she's even starting to enjoy our little detours, actually. In fact, I caught her eyeing several daggers at a weapons stand just the other day. Hm. Never really gave that a thought until just now."
Charila watched Gabrielle silently ponder the realization for a few moments. "What's it like?"
Gabrielle snapped out of her musings. "What's what like?"
"Traveling with the infamous Destroyer of Nations," Charila added. "She seems intimidating, but no more so than most of our Amazon warriors. Is it true she has skills that far surpass those of other warriors?"
Gabrielle breathed deeply, winced at the ache in her chest and let the breath out slowly as she tried to clear her head. She was enjoying the conversation, but the persistently gnawing discomfort was becoming tiresome and her vision was blurring slightly. "Um…" She frowned as she tried to gather her thoughts. "I don't know if she's really any different than other people. She's just Xena to me."
"Yeah, she's always so serious," Charila prodded. "It must be hard to travel with someone who is so…um…intense. What's that like?"
"She isn't really like that when we're alone," Gabrielle answered as she let her eyes drift shut. The room was spinning and wavering so much that it was making her nauseous. "Um, Charila?"
"Yes, Gabrielle?" Charila leaned closer in an effort to hear the smaller woman's quiet words. She watched Gabrielle's eyes drift shut and noticed a fine sheen of perspiration on the queen's brow. "Are you okay, my queen?"
"Can you please have someone fetch Nissia or Xena?" Gabrielle's words came out slightly slurred. "Something's…not…um…"
Charila was on her feet in an instant. "Right away, my queen," she said as she raced to the door and quickly issued orders to one of the two guards standing just outside. When she returned to the side of the bed she noticed that Gabrielle's breathing was slightly more labored than it had been all evening. "Oh, sweet Artemis," she quietly exclaimed as she resumed her seat next to the bed. "Come on, Gabrielle. Please don't have another relapse."
It was close to the midnight hour when Xena entered the hut and was confronted by a beehive of activity. Nissia was leaning over Gabrielle, while several Amazon women moved around the room in a seemingly organized fashion. As soon as the healer saw the tall warrior, she shooed all of the women out, except one.
"What's going on?" Xena asked as she stopped at the foot of the bed and just managed not to bowl over one of the retreating Amazons.
"Her fever's returned," Nissia said without glancing up from her place next to the bed. "She's burning up again. I gave her some herbs, but they don't seem to be working."
Xena moved to the other side of the bed and placed a hand to her unconscious partner's brow. "Damn!" She hissed in frustration. "It's just as high as it was two nights ago." She glanced up and met the healer's concerned glare. "What in the world is causing this?"
"I wish I knew, warrior," Nissia answered with a shake of her head. "Maybe the constant flow of visitors has something to do with it." She raised accusing eyes to Xena. "I hear you allowed a group of the youngsters to come here and bother her this afternoon."
"She was fine earlier," Xena defended. "She even tried to get out of bed twice."
"And you let her?"
"No, of course not," Xena ran an impatient hand through her hair as she grabbed a chair and slumped down into it. She rested her elbows on her knees and her chin on her hands. "She coughed earlier, but there was a lot less fluid in her lungs than there was before."
Nissia placed the back of her hand on the unconscious queen's cheek. "This fever worries me, Xena," she said, meeting the warrior's blue eyes. "It's not natural, nor is it helping to heal the lung fever."
Xena caught the uncharacteristic use of her name and cringed. "No, it's not," she agreed. "I just don't know what else to do. We've tried everything and the fever just keeps coming back."
"Usually at night," Nissia nodded her agreement. "Do you think that has something to do with it?"
Xena considered the possibility for a moment, but couldn't come up with anything in her extensive travels to back up the theory. She just shook her head. "I think there's something else going on besides the lung fever."
"Like what?" Nissia absently accepted a bowl and cloth from the remaining Amazon. She dipped the cloth in the water, wrung it out and pressed it to Gabrielle's forehead.
"Like…I'm not really sure, but I may have an idea," Xena answered as she got to her feet and stormed from the hut.
Xena continued across the village until she reached one of the gates. Nodding curtly at the two sparsely-clad guards standing alertly on either side of the wooden barrier, Xena passed through without a word. She headed straight for the trees that stood sentinel over the village.
"Ares!" She called loudly once she was safely away from listening ears. "Ares, we need to talk!" She spun in a slow circle as she gazed up into the dark canopy above her. "Come on, Ares! I know you're here. I can smell ya!"
In a blinding flash of sulfurous sparks, the dark and intimidating God of War made his appearance. Muscles bulging and eyes brooding, he walked right up to Xena and crossed his arms over his chest and continued to glow in order to give them some light.
"Yeah, whatdya want?" He glared at her with his most intimidating expression. "I'm kinda busy, Xena."
Xena surveyed him from head to toe, as if she were watching a worthless bug on a leaf. "What's going on with Gabrielle? Tell me what's going on."
"Gabrielle?" He feigned confusion. Then his expression turned thoughtful as he glanced above her head. "Do I know this person? Hm, let me think…"
Xena just managed to keep her temper under control. "What's the game this time, Ares? Spill it!"
"No game, Xena," Ares lifted his hands palm up. "I just have a few…um, things in the works. Nothing that concerns you or your annoying little sidekick."
Xena considered her options and knew she wasn't getting anywhere with him. "Okay, then tell me why that army is marching toward Amphipolis."
"What army?" He shot back with a raised-brow smirk. "There are countless armies marching across Greece and gathering throughout the world, Xena. You need to be a little more specific, here. Give me a bit more to go on."
Xena swiped an impatient hand down her face. "Ares, don't play games with me. You know who Gabrielle is and you certainly know which army I'm referring to."
Ares put a finger to his chin and tapped it several times. "Gabrielle, Gabrielle, Gabrielle…Hm, let me see…Oh, you mean your shadow? That Gabrielle?"
Xena breathed out a frustrated breath. "Yes, that Gabrielle, Ares. What other Gabrielle do I know?"
"Well, I'm guessing you don't know very many," he said and waved a negligible hand. "I could certainly introduce you to a few. There's this one in…"
"Ares!" Xena drew her sword and held it menacingly in front of her. "I am not in the mood for your games. Just tell me what you've done to her and how I can fix it."
"Done?" Ares snickered. "I didn't do anything to her, Xena. And for your information, I'm not playing games with you. I really meant it when I said I could introduce you to…"
"Ares…" Xena growled. "Just tell me what's going on."
"What's in it for me?" Ares moved his hands to his hips. "You and the little tart are obviously an item now." He stopped to consider. "Tell me, is she good in the sack? Does she light your fire, make you moan like I did? What can she possibly give you that I couldn't?"
Xena took a step forward and watched with satisfaction as her sword penetrated his midsection. She held firmly to the hilt as she moved to within inches of him and glared up into his dark eyes.
"I love her, Ares," Xena hissed. "Watch what you say about Gabrielle or I'll…"
"Or you'll what, Xena?" He took two steps back and grimaced as the blade slid from his body without leaving any noticeable wound. "I'm a god, Xena. You know there's nothing you can do to hurt me. Immortality is just one of the many perks of this gig."
Xena let her sword drop until it was even with his crotch. "Oh, yeah? Try me, Ares."
Ares just smirked. "Whoa, whoa there!" He held up his hands in surrender. "Okay, Xena, you win," Ares conceded with a sly smirk. "Just say the word and I'll have my sis pay a visit and heal her." He took a step closer, but kept just out of reach of her blade. "Or, better yet, just say the word and I'll get you some ambrosia, so the two of you can…you know…"
Xena lifted her sword to her shoulder and rested the blade there. "Gabrielle doesn't want immortality, Ares. Just tell me what you did to her, so I can give her the cure and we can move on."
"Are you sure, Xena?" Ares said and moved even closer until they were sharing the same air. "You know you would make an unstoppable team." He caressed her cheek with a finger and watched with satisfaction as she flinched away from his touch. "Come on, Xena. Can she really give you all the passion and desire that you feel when you're with me?" He turned away from her and then glanced back with a mischievous grin. "Or maybe we can arrange for the three of us to…um, let's just say I wouldn't be against the idea of having both of you…um, you know…"
"Cut it out, Ares," Xena hissed.
She glared at him with open hostility that slowly turned into unbridled passion as he worked his magic on her. Xena fought against his seductive pull until she was finally able to break the spell.
"Not gonna work this time, Ares," she hissed breathlessly. "I love Gabrielle and there's nothing you can do to change that. Not even your sick and twisted sexual games will work on me anymore."
He stepped back. "Will you love her when she's dead?" The words were stated bluntly and sent a shiver down Xena's spine.
"Do not threaten her life, Ares," Xena lifted her sword again. "Just tell me what you did to her."
"I miss you, Xena," Ares shrugged. "Come on, just give it another chance."
"Not in this lifetime," she shot back. "Tell me what to do to help her, Ares. Please."
He lifted one dark brow and glared at her skeptically. "Please?" He mocked. "Are you kidding me, Xena? All this over a little shepherd's kid who isn't worth the stench of sheep that still clings to her? You are so much more than that."
"What's it gonna take, Ares?" Xena pressed. "What do you want?"
"Who says I want anything?" He turned away from her and smirked. "Maybe I'm just playing with you."
"Because I can," he spun around and glared at her. "After all, what else is a god to do when his best prodigy falls in love with a…" his expression turned distasteful and he rolled his eyes, "…a mortal."
"Gabrielle is special, Ares," Xena re-sheathed her sword with a resounding snick. "There's no one else on earth who compares to her. I love her and I'll still love her, even if Hades himself comes to take her from my arms."
"It won't be him," Ares commented absently.
"Hades won't be coming to collect her soul when she dies," Ares shrugged.
"Why not?" Xena asked in confusion.
"She's an Amazon now," he answered. "You remember that whole thing about when you die you'll go to one of Hades' realms-not sure yet which one, by the way-and when the brat dies…well, let's just say there will be someone else there to collect her soul." He shrugged.
"Ah, ah," he waved a finger at her. "You aren't allowed to know that little tidbit of information, 'cause you're not an Amazon."
"You're telling me I have to be an Amazon to join Gabrielle in the afterlife?" Xena gave him an incredulous glare.
"It just gets better and better," Ares smirked. "By the way, you might want to tell the Amazons about your little history with the northern feather-heads before you accept any offers." He winked at her and raised his hand, then paused. "And the army's not mine." And with that he disappeared in a flash of blinding light.
Xena waited for her vision to clear before heading back the way she had come. She relied mostly on her excellent hearing to guide her and only just managed to miss one tree on the way. Ares' words still rang in her mind as she cleared the trees and reached the gate.
"Halt! Who goes there?" A female voice rang clearly in the night air.
"It's just me," Xena answered with a wave that she hoped the two guards would recognize. She really didn't want to be pulling arrows out of her hide while she tried to explain to Gabrielle why she'd been shot.
"Xena?" Came a familiar voice.
"Eponin?" Xena squinted at the taller of the two women. "What are you doing guarding a gate at this time of night? You know we leave at first light to confront the army."
"Couldn't sleep," Eponin answered as she opened the gate to allow the taller warrior to enter. "One of the guards ran into the gathering hut with a story that I just couldn't believe." She glared at the taller woman. "Why are you traipsing around in the woods when Gabrielle's on Death's door?"
"I had business to take care of," Xena answered with a heavy sigh. "I really need to get back to Gabrielle."
"Be my guest, Xena," Eponin motioned for her to precede her towards the queen's hut. "I guess I owe Estraia a quiver of arrows." She commented absently as she caught up to Xena and matched the warrior's longer strides.
"Is that what you wagered against her story?" Xena glanced at the shorter Amazon as Eponin walked beside her.
"Yep," the dark-haired Amazon answered easily. "Said you'd hightailed it for the woods about a candlemark or so ago." Eponin glanced up at her taller companion. "Wanna tell me what you were doing out there in the dark? I can't believe you could actually see anything in there. It's hard enough to see anything in those woods during full daylight."
"I don't really want to talk about it," Xena answered. "And I can see just fine in the dark. One of my many skills."
Eponin gave Xena a skeptical look. "Did I mention it's really dark in there?"
Xena smirked. "You did, Eponin."
The weapons master merely shook her head. "If you say so."
She was sitting near a lake. The sun was shining high overhead. It was a clear day without a cloud in the sky. At least, that's what she thought was happening. It was quiet and peaceful and…
"Hey, sweet pea," a blond appeared next to her in a spray of heart-shaped sparkles that nearly blinded her for a moment. "Thought I'd drop in and see how you're doing."
Gabrielle glanced over at the gorgeous woman next to her. Aphrodite wore a shear pink nightie and her blond ringlets were glistening in the sunlight. She was smiling as if she didn't have a care in the world.
"Am I dead, Aphrodite?"
Aphrodite's expression turned thoughtful. "No, not that I know of. Do you feel dead?"
"No," Gabrielle answered. "Then where are we?"
"Your dreams, sweet pea," the goddess answered with a shrug. "It was safer to contact you here. No one's watching your dreams-at least I don't think they are."
Gabrielle nodded, as she returned her gaze to the pristine lake. "Am I delirious? I think I passed out again."
"You're body is trying very hard to fight off the illness, sweet pea," Aphrodite sighed. "Don't know if you'll come through this or not. It's not in my hands."
"What's going on, Aphrodite?" Gabrielle finally turned her attention to the blond goddess. "Why is this happening?"
Aphrodite blew out a breath as she wrapped her arms around her bare knees. "It's a really long story, kiddo. Not one that I want to go into right now. Suffice it to say…"
"Suffice it to say?" Gabrielle gave the usually-dingy goddess an incredulous look. "Please don't tell me you're here on serious business, Aphrodite."
"I'm here because you are dying, Gabrielle," the love goddess answered frankly. "Athena and Artemis have banded together to make it so. Artemis wants your soul in the Underworld and Athena is using you to distract Xena."
"What?" Gabrielle couldn't believe her ears. "Why would either of them care whether I live or die? I'm nothing to them."
"You've become more than you could ever possibly imagine, sweet pea," Aphrodite continued with a sad half-smile. "Artemis is pissed that you're with tall-dark-and-deadly. She's vowed that no queen of hers will get away with that kind of betrayal. And Athena's just along for the ride."
"Betrayal?" Gabrielle lifted a hand to her forehead in confusion. "What have I done to betray her? I haven't even been around the Amazons all that much lately. And what does Xena have to do with any of this? She's not an Amazon. She doesn't even like most of the Amazons. She only tolerates them because I'm one of them now."
Aphrodite met her gaze. "Years ago, Xena was responsible for the deaths of several Amazon leaders."
"What? You can't be serious," Gabrielle jumped to her feet and looked down at the goddess with utter disbelief. "She would never do anything like that to my s…"
Aphrodite was on her feet in a flash and grabbed Gabrielle's arms. "She did, Gabrielle. That's what's got Artemis in such a tizzy. And now she has Athena on her side, too. It's like, you know, they have some kinda pact between 'em. It's a 'You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours' kinda thing, ya know?"
Gabrielle considered the goddess' words. "And that's why you're here? Wait, why are you here?"
"I'm here to help you, sweet pea," the goddess answered and then a broad grin lit her face. "You two are soooooo, like, you know… I'm just getting all kinds of great vibes off the love you two have for each other. It is so, like, totally awesome!"
"And?" Gabrielle prodded.
"And…um, like you need to keep fighting this bug, little one," Aphrodite's expression sobered. "Fight it with all you have, even when you don't think you have anything left to fight with. Artemis gave it to you and only she can take it from you. But if you die…"
"Wait, who gave it to me?" Gabrielle asked point blank.
"Arty," the goddess answered. "I overheard her talking to Athena about this infection that ravaged that village you and Xena last visited. Artemis infected a few of the raiders, which pissed off Athena, 'cause, like, you know, the army belongs to Athena. And, well, the raiders hit several villages and spread the infection and…" she waved a negligible hand, "it spread like wildfire. Athena confronted Arty about it and they came up with this cockamamie plan to separate you and Xena."
Gabrielle stared at the goddess in utter bewilderment. "You're saying the illness or infection or whatever this is that I have was created by Artemis, just so she could break up Xena and me? That sounds too farfetched, even for those two."
"Oh, Athena already had the army on the move long before any of this happened," Aphrodite added. "She wants to use it against one of Ares' warlords. Something about paybacks for his interference in one of her other campaigns. I try not to pay too much attention to those two, ya know? They are sooooo overly serious and combative when it comes to the whole sibling rivalry gig. Although," she considered thoughtfully, "they did bring the two of you together over the whole Persian invasion thing." Her expression brightened again. "That was one really cool and really terrifying moment for me, ya know?"
"For me, too," Gabrielle agreed. "That poison stayed with me for weeks-kept me flat on my back for three days. It also kept me from guarding Xena's back on more than one occasion. I wasn't there when the Persians attacked and they almost got the drop on her."
"Yeah, not very pleasant from what I hear," Aphrodite nodded sagely. "Those Persians really fight dirty, if you ask me," then she winked. "But the warrior babe really stepped up to the plate and took good care of you, don't you agree?" Her eyebrows lifted several times as a conspiratorial grin lit her features. "Kinda fun to have her doting on you for those three weeks, huh?"
Gabrielle blushed. "Xena was really great, if just a little overly protective after that."
"Tell me you didn't enjoy the attention, Gabs," Aphrodite nudged Gabrielle's shoulder.
"I did, actually," Gabrielle gave the goddess a grudging smirk. "But can we get back to this latest problem? I don't think I have much time, here." She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered involuntarily. "I feel…"
"Like you're about to jump out of your skin," the goddess finished for her. "I know. It means you're waking up back there."
"So, you need to fight the illness," Aphrodite shrugged. "That's your sole job. Do not die. Do not let the A's get the upper hand."
"That's it?" Gabrielle gave her an incredulous glare. "I just have to fight off the illness."
"If you die, they win, simple as that," the goddess added. "Oh," she grimaced, "and don't let Xena go off to fight against the army." Aphrodite looked as if she were listening to something for a moment. "Um, gotta go, sweetie. Time's up."
And in a spray of hearts and shimmering sparkles the Goddess of Love suddenly disappeared. Gabrielle felt a strong pull, as the lake began to shimmer and swirl before her eyes and then everything went black.
"What?" Gabrielle called into the darkness. "Aphrodite? Hello?"
"How is she?" Xena ran a tired hand through her disheveled hair as she stepped into the hut to find Ephiny sitting next to Gabrielle's bed.
"You look like centaur poop warmed over, Xena," Ephiny ignored the question as the warrior took a seat across the bed from her. "Have you slept at all?"
"No," Xena answered tiredly. "I met with your warriors and laid out the plan to stop the army, then ended up in a three-candlemark discussion with Eponin about tactics and strategies-and that was after I tried to convince Ares that he needed to tell me what's going on with Gabrielle."
"Ares?" The blond's brow rose into her hairline. "What's he got to do with this?"
"What doesn't he usually have to do with things that involve war…or me?" Xena shot back irritably, then caught herself. "Sorry, Eph. Didn't mean to snap at you like that."
"It's okay, Xena," Ephiny smirked. "I understand." She glanced at the unconscious woman in the bed. "Gabrielle still has a fever, and she hasn't moved once since you left earlier. I came to relieve Nissia just a few candlemarks ago and I haven't noticed any change in her condition since."
Xena caressed Gabrielle's pale cheek. "I don't know what to do for her," her voice shook and tears suddenly sprang to her eyes, spilling down her cheeks. "I can't lose her, Eph."
Ephiny's heart ached at the uncustomary display of emotion from the otherwise stoic warrior. "She's still hanging in there, Xena. She's fighting this with everything she's got."
Xena leaned forward and took Gabrielle's hand in hers. "Yeah, but for how long?" She kissed Gabrielle's hand and absently caressed the back of it with her thumb. "It took her weeks to recover from that poisoned bolt, and she was still pretty useless in a fight for a good moon after that." She shrugged. "Maybe she was never fully recovered. Maybe all the traveling we did…all those fights we got into…" she paused to collect herself. "I don't think her body was ready for another setback." She shook her head as the tears continued to fall unheeded. "This is all my fault."
Ephiny glared at the emotional warrior. "Your self-pity won't help her fight this, Xena." She girded herself for an outburst that never came. "What has gotten into you lately? This isn't at all like you. The Xena I know doesn't cower in the face of adversity. And Gabrielle would certainly agree with me."
"I'm…" Xena broke eye contact and looked down at the smaller hand in hers. "I can't…" She couldn't finish without blubbering and just shook her head.
"Come on, Xe," Ephiny said in a stern tone. "You need to pull yourself together for her sake," she nodded toward the still woman in the bed. "Gabrielle needs to know that you're not going to fall apart on her at the drop of a hat."
Xena sniffed back the remainder of her tears and swiped impatiently at her wet cheeks. "You're right," she gave Ephiny a confident smile. "She needs me."
"Need… you…" came a quietly mumbled response from the bed.
Xena's and Ephiny's eyes snapped to the bed's occupant, as Gabrielle's eyes slowly fluttered open.
"Hey," Xena leaned close with a warm smile and caressed the bard's pale cheek with the backs of her fingers. "Welcome back."
"Again," Ephiny added with a wry smirk. "You have really got to stop scaring the leathers off us like this, my queen."
Gabrielle breathed in a tired sigh and let it out slowly. "Can't…help…it," her words came out stilted and slurred.
"How are you feeling, love?" Xena asked, as she continued to caress Gabrielle's cheek. "You still have a fever."
"Centaur…crap…" Gabrielle muttered, obviously still struggling to remain conscious. "Aphrodite…"
Ephiny and Xena exchanged confused looks.
"Did you say Aphrodite?" Ephiny prodded and received a slow nod from the damp blond head. "What's she got to do with you?"
"Gabrielle?" Xena prodded when the bard didn't immediately answer.
"So…tired…" was the mumbled response as Gabrielle's eyes fluttered closed.
"Gabrielle, what's Aphrodite got to do with you?" Xena put both hands on either side of the feverish woman's face. "Come on, Gabrielle. Don't leave us wondering, here."
Gabrielle just managed to open her eyes to mere slits. "Fight…" she muttered and then slid back into the dark oblivion of unconsciousness, leaving her companions to wonder at the single word.
"Gabrielle?" Xena tried to roust the unconscious woman without success. Her gaze met Ephiny's confused one. "Fight?"
"Maybe she's talking about the army?" Ephiny shrugged. "But why would Aphrodite want a fight? This makes absolutely no sense, Xena. She's the Goddess of Love, for Artemis' sake. She doesn't condone fighting."
Xena sat back in her chair and ran an impatient hand through her dark hair. "None of it makes any sense, Eph-Gabrielle's illness, that army out there. There's a piece missing here and I intend to find out what it is-or who."
Ephiny watched Xena jump up and head for the door. "Xena, where are you going?"
Xena paused long enough to turn back for a quick glance at the unconscious bard and the confused regent. "I'm going to get some answers."
"Artemis!!!" Xena shouted in the seemingly empty stone room. "Get your ass down here and talk to me!!!" When she didn't immediately get a response, Xena grabbed the nearest weapon off the wall-a gold-tipped wooden spear-and broke it over her knee. She then threw the gold-tipped half at a nearby likeness of Artemis herself, where it embedded in the statute's head. The other piece she used to unceremoniously swipe the offerings from the stone altar, where they fell to the floor with a loud, reverberating crash that rang throughout the deserted chamber. "I mean business, Artemis!!! Show yourself!!!"
"Apparently, so," a sultry female voice purred from a darkened corner of the room. "Did you have to make such a mess of my temple?" The goddess approached the empty altar and glanced at the decimated statue. "Nice. Pretty much what I'd expect from the murderer of the Amazon leaders."
"It got your attention, didn't it?" Xena turned to face the goddess with the wooden handle still in her hands.
"My priestess isn't going to like the fact that you desecrated this sanctuary," Artemis chided. "What do you want, warrior?"
"I want answers," Xena took a menacing step toward the unintimidating goddess. "I want to know why Gabrielle is ill."
Artemis absently knelt down and retrieved a bunch of grapes, popping one in her mouth as she considered the question. "Sounds like you want a lot of things, Xena."
"Gabrielle is an Amazon, one of your chosen," Xena added. "Why are you doing this to her?"
"She is my chosen," Artemis agreed as she tossed the grapes away with a distasteful frown. "I'm not happy about your relationship with her, warrior. You don't deserve her."
"I love her," Xena stated flatly, as she tossed the handle into the pile of spoiled offerings. "She's my life, now."
Artemis raised a skeptical red brow. "How can you love an Amazon queen after what you did to her sisters?"
Xena winced. "It happened a long time ago."
"Not for me, it didn't!" Artemis hissed angrily. "You killed a dozen Amazon leaders to satisfy your lust for blood. Why should I trust that you won't do it again?"
"I've changed," Xena answered defiantly. "Gabrielle helped me…"
"Don't even presume to think that Gabrielle's misplaced loyalties will change how I see your actions, Xena," Artemis sneered. "You killed my Amazons! You lured them to that forest and slaughtered them like so many sheep."
"So that's why Gabrielle has to suffer now?" Xena shot back. "She's to pay for my mistake?"
"Gabrielle needs to see the error of her ways," the goddess' ardor subsided slightly. "You need to tell her what you did."
Xena cringed at the triumphant look in the goddess' eyes. "Why does she need to know about that? I wasn't acting alone. If I tell her about killing the Amazon leaders, I'll also have to explain to her about Alti." She crossed her arms over her chest. "She doesn't need to know about a dead shamaness whose machinations are just another dark blot on my past."
"She needs to know why you will never join her in the Amazon afterlife," Artemis answered smugly. "You do know that the two of you will never be together after you leave this life, don't you?"
"Ares mentioned something about that," Xena answered. "Then it's true?"
"She's a queen of the Amazons, Xena," Artemis continued. "Even if she doesn't lead the nation to its former glory, she still deserves a place of honor with her sister Amazons. Don't you agree?"
Xena swallowed down the sudden lump in her throat. "I…It would mean we couldn't be together," Xena faltered as the full realization hit her. "I made her a promise."
"A promise based on a lie, warrior," Artemis added. "I know you love her. Your mutual love and affection has garnered the attention of a certain Love Goddess, who shall remain nameless." She moved to the statue, waved a hand and watched in satisfaction as the spear head slowly eased from the statue's head. "You have a choice to make, Xena."
Xena watched the goddess turn to face her. "What choice?"
Without looking, Artemis easily caught the spear as it fell from the statue. She tapped the head against her hand and stepped closer to the tall warrior.
"You have to choose between saving your family or saving Gabrielle," Artemis whispered into Xena's ear.
Xena stiffened at the words. "What?" She turned her head enough to see the satisfied grin on the goddess' face. "You can't be serious."
"Sacrifice, Xena," Artemis continued. "An eye-for-an-eye." She grinned in satisfaction at the warrior's obvious discomfort. "It is time for you to pay me back for the lives you stole, when you and Alti had your little ritualistic blood bath."
Xena couldn't move, couldn't think. She was so stunned by the goddess' words that she could barely breathe as a thousand possibilities ran through her mind. She couldn't imagine sacrificing her mother for Gabrielle or vice versa.
"You're telling me that if I lead the Amazons against Athena's army, Gabrielle will die?" Xena finally found her voice enough to speak. "And if I stay with Gabrielle…"
"If you don't lead the Amazons, the army will lay waste to Amphipolis and the surrounding villages," she paused to let that sink in and then added, "including Potidea, Gabrielle's home village."
It was too much. Xena knew she couldn't choose between her love for Gabrielle and her loyalty to her family or Gabrielle's. Cyrene and Toris were the only family she had left. She'd worked hard to mend the fences-walls, rather-she'd built up during her years as a warlord and didn't want to lose her mother over something as pitiful as a squabble with the gods. But she also couldn't imagine life without Gabrielle there beside her. If she had to choose…
"I won't choose," Xena stated flatly. "Gabrielle is my life, now. She's the most important person to me and I won't sacrifice her life for anything."
"Okay, then," Artemis nodded. "Just remember that you made this choice of your own free will."
Artemis moved her hand up and Xena caught it in her strong grip before the goddess could do her disappearing act.
"I said I won't choose," Xena hissed into the surprised goddess' face. "You lose, Artemis." She quirked a brow at the goddess' angry glare. "I was Ares' chosen for a reason. He sends his regards, by the way." She released the goddess' wrist, turned her back on the dumbfounded deity and stormed from the chamber without a backward glance. "Gods be damned," she hissed as she emerged into the darkness of a starless night and continued on her way toward the center of the village.
Eponin had her orders. She didn't quite understand them, but Xena had been adamant that everything go exactly as planned-to the letter. She crouched next to her fellow warriors at the edge of a clearing and waited. A fly buzzed near her nose and she absently swatted it away. Her hand itched to grab her hidden dagger and kill the little pest, but no. Knives and daggers were to stay hidden until the last possible moment. It wouldn't do to have soldiers see them as anything but women.
"You really think they'll come this way?" Chilapa asked as she scanned the road ahead and adjusted the low bodice of her peasant dress.
They were dressed as village women. Go figure. Eponin could just imagine the stoic warrior laughing her head off at the 'disguises' she'd ordered they all wear for this mission. Eponin was sweating like a pig in her cotton blouse and long skirt. The colors didn't do a thing for her, either. She glanced down at the gray bodice and frowned. The rust skirt she wore was more than a little too tight for her stout figure. Laugh it up, warrior, she thought for the nth time that morning.
"Xena was adamant they would take this road," Eponin answered as she batted the fly again. "Said it's the road she would use to bring an army in for an invasion against her hometown."
"I'm not so sure," Chilapa argued for the nth time in a candlemark. "We haven't seen a single person on this road since well before dawn. I don't think anyone has used this road in an entire season." She glanced around at the tall grass and prickly weeds surrounding them. "Maybe longer."
"Patience, Chilapa," Eponin said, as she silently hoped the Warrior Princess wasn't yanking her chain and hadn't sent them on a wild goose chase. "Xena knows what she's doing."
"What if we're just a diversion?" Chilapa voiced Eponin's worst fear. "We aren't exactly dressed to kill here, Eponin."
"Put a cork in it, will ya?" Eponin hissed. Then her ears perked up. "You hear that?"
"I hear the flies buzzing around our heads, if that's what you mean," Chilapa groused. "These clothes are attracting them in droves. That flowery perfume Xena made us douse ourselves in is enough to bring an entire army of bees down on our heads."
"Shh," Eponin held a finger to her lips. "That rumble. Hear it?"
Chilapa stopped fidgeting long enough to listen. "Yeah, I think I do."
"Get ready, ladies," Eponin smirked at the women surrounding her. "We're on. Make it good and we'll add some numbers to our ranks come next spring."
A low chuckle went up from the warriors as they emerged from the brush and started down the overgrown road. The army made its appearance and the women made as much noise as possible as they prattled on like a group of village women out on a morning stroll. Eponin and Chilapa made sure to remain safely ensconced in the midst of the throng of disguised warriors. Their job was the most crucial to the success of the whole group and it wouldn't do for them to be too conspicuous.
Xena and Eponin were the ones who had come up with the plan to provide the army with something that every army needed to boost morale-women. The most crucial part of the plan, however, was for Eponin and Chilapa to offer their services to the army's commander. It wasn't their job to stop the army, but to waylay a portion of it long enough for Xena to put the rest of the plan in motion.
"You think they'll buy this?" Chilapa whispered quietly for Eponin's ears only. She watched as the front lines of the marching army rounded the bend in a cloud of dust just ahead.
Chilapa knew the stakes involved in this mission. She also knew a lot was riding on their success. This was a chance to be a part of history-to have her name immortalized in one of her queen's stories. But there was much more involved than mere glory. The fate of the Amazons rode on the success of the women surrounding her.
They had been chosen, not for their skills as warriors-although many of them possessed great skills in that arena-but for their pleasing features and the likelihood that they would provide much-needed offspring. Every one of the women present was a volunteer and was sworn to do a job that many Amazons would not voluntarily do.
"If they don't, then this entire plan'll go up in smoke faster than you can hobble a centaur," Eponin replied, as she watched her sisters gird themselves for a very convincing show of feminine wiles.
"Xena?" Gabrielle's voice was barely above a whisper as her eyes fluttered open and she tried to focus on her surroundings.
It took her a moment to remember where she was and another to realize she was completely alone. She glanced at the two empty chairs next to the bed, the fire that was burned down until only a few small embers remained, and the sun peeking through the partially-covered window. It was so quiet that Gabrielle feared she'd been completely deserted.
"Hello?" She called out in a slightly stronger voice after clearing her throat. "Is anyone there?"
A blond head popped into view at the door, followed by a scantily clad young Amazon. The young woman smiled and bowed.
"Selene went to fetch Xena, your majesty," the young woman said from the door.
"Where is she?" Gabrielle cleared her throat again, but didn't manage to completely rid herself of the gravelly rasp that continued to plague her. "Is she still here in the village?"
"Yes, your majesty," the young woman nodded. "She was called to the gathering hut a short time ago. I believe Queen Ephiny asked to see her."
"Oh," Gabrielle tried hard to hide her disappointment. She glanced at the window again. "What day is it?"
The young Amazon looked at her with a puzzled expression. "You've been here close to a seven-day, your majesty."
"Seven…" Gabrielle tried to remember how long they'd been there when this latest relapse had pulled her under. Was it four days? Or five?
And what was going on now? Was the army still out there somewhere? She thought back to something that was niggling in the back of her mind. She vaguely remembered a conversation with…Aphrodite?
"Hey," Xena entered the hut and her long strides brought her to the bedside in less than a heartbeat. Concern knit her dark brow, as she caught sight of Gabrielle's worried frown. "You're awake. You okay?"
"Thought you left me," Gabrielle sighed and gave the concerned warrior a relieved smile.
"Not a chance," Xena said, as she took a seat next to the bed and lifted one of Gabrielle's hands into hers. She placed a kiss on the palm and just held the hand in hers. "How do you feel?"
"I've been better," Gabrielle rasped and tried to clear her throat again. "Ugh! How long was I out this time? Can I have some water?"
Xena silently poured water into a cup and held it to the smaller woman's lips. Gabrielle drank deeply before collapsing back against the pillow in exhaustion.
"Gods, you didn't happen to get the name of the chariot driver who hit me, did you?" She groused as she met a pair of worried blue eyes. "What, Xena? What is it?"
Xena couldn't keep the tears at bay and simply let them fall. "The army hit Amphipolis and Potidea."
Gabrielle mustered enough strength to scoot into a half-sitting position. "What? When did that happen? How long was I out? Xena, what's going on?"
"Slow down, Gabrielle," the warrior took the woman's smaller hand in hers again. She couldn't help but satisfy her desire to touch the ailing bard. "You've been unconscious for two days, long enough for me to send Eponin and a few others out to intercept the main force. We were able to send warning out to the villages in the army's path, including Amphipolis and Potidea. Everyone managed to escape to the caves or the surrounding countryside. But there's very little left of either Amphipolis or Potidea. They were the hardest hit. Mother's inn is the only building that wasn't completely destroyed in Amphipolis. And your parents' farm wasn't even touched."
Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief. "That's good news, at least." She squeezed the hand in hers and was glad for the tactile contact with her partner. "Two days, huh?"
"Yes," Xena kissed Gabrielle's hand again. "We didn't think…I thought…" A tear slid down her cheek and Gabrielle just managed to catch it before it fell.
"Xena, it's okay, I'm not dead," Gabrielle reassured her. "I just had a minor setback. That's all."
"You died, Gabrielle," Xena stated flatly. "You died and I had to…" She sniffed back another wave of tears. "You were dead for longer than it takes for the pinch to kill a grown warrior."
"I died?" Gabrielle looked away from the intense blue eyes watching her. "I don't…" She shook her head. "I don't remember…"
Xena swiped impatiently at her cheeks. "You don't?"
"No," Gabrielle answered with a shake of her head. "Didn't you remember dying that time when…"
"Yeah," Xena knew which time Gabrielle was referring to. "Yeah, I remember dying. I also remember running around from one reflection to the next trying to get to you."
"Yeah," Gabrielle nodded. "I remember waking up in the Elysian Fields when I died during the war Between the Thessileans and the Mitoans."
"You told me you saw some of your dead relatives," Xena added.
"I don't remember anything from this time, Xena," Gabrielle sighed. "Are you sure I was dead?"
"Positive," Xena answered with a firm nod. "No pulse, no breathing-nothing. You were as dead as if Celeste had touched you herself."
Gabrielle felt something pulling at her again and the room started to take on a strange hazy glow. "Xena?"
"Gabrielle, what is it?" Xena leaned forward with concern.
Gabrielle felt the hand in hers slipping away as the room slowly went dark around her. She frantically reached out for Xena, but there was nothing there. She then lifted both hands and waved them in front of her, but she could see nothing. It was pitch black where she was. Her breathing increased until she was panting breathlessly.
"Xena?" Gabrielle felt a sense of utter panic wash over her as her world plunged into complete darkness. "Xena? What's happening? Where are you?"
"I'm here, Gabrielle," Xena's voice sounded like it was coming from a great distance.
"Xena, I'm scared," Gabrielle felt that disjointed out-of-body feeling she usually got when she was unconscious. "I don't know what's happening."
"I haven't gone anywhere, love," Xena's voice travelled to her on a distant breeze. "Focus on my voice, Gabrielle. Just stay with me, here. Don't let them win."
And then she was falling.
"What the…" Gabrielle hit the hard ground with such force that it knocked the wind from her lungs.
Bright sunlight suddenly blinded her and she tried to raise a hand to shield her eyes. But she couldn't move, couldn't speak. She could barely breathe. Another wave of panic seized her as she lay there in the tall grass. She didn't know what was happening and couldn't even lift her head to see where she was.
"Lay still, sweet pea," a familiar voice spoke in low tones somewhere close by.
"Aphrodite?" Gabrielle mouthed, but no sound came out.
"Who stands for this mortal?" An authoritative female voice boomed above her.
"I do," Aphrodite answered. "I ask to be her advocate."
Silence reigned for the space of ten heartbeats.
"As you wish," the other voice finally answered.
"I ask that you release her from this paralysis, so she may face her accusers," Aphrodite requested. "There is no reason to have her lying prone at our feet."
"She is accused of a capital crime," the female voice continued. "And she is mortal. She deserves no special privileges."
"Come on, Athena," Aphrodite slipped into her normal vernacular. "Just give the poor kid a chance to defend herself. That's all I'm askin'."
"Oh, very well," the voice boomed and the scenery changed.
Gabrielle found herself in a vast arena-like room. The floor was hard stone and felt rough against her skin. She tested her mobility and was glad to find that she could at least sit up.
"Who stands as this woman's accuser and what charges are to be brought against her?" Athena's booming voice echoed off the stone walls.
Gabrielle got to her feet and realized she was standing there in nothing more than two strips of dirty cloth wrapped around her chest and hips. She also realized her wrists and ankles were shackled in chains so heavy that it took every ounce of strength just to remain standing.
"What did I do?" Gabrielle spoke for the first time and was slightly surprised that her voice didn't crack.
"Quiet!" Athena boomed and Gabrielle glanced up to find the elegantly dressed goddess glaring down at her from an elaborate podium. "The accused will remain silent until the charges have been read."
"I am her accuser!" Another female voice called from the other side of the vast arena. "I charge her with conspiracy."
Gabrielle spun around as quickly as her restraints would allow and found herself looking up at a masked figure. This one had long red hair and was wearing the dark leathers of an Amazon queen. But there was something almost otherworldly about the woman. Gabrielle could guess who she was.
"Be more specific, Artemis," Athena boomed. "Conspiracy to what?"
"Objection!!!" Aphrodite stepped up beside Gabrielle with a pair of strange spectacles on her nose.
"You can't object to a simple clarification, Dite," Athena huffed impatiently, as she slammed a gavel down on the podium in front of her. "Let Artemis have her say."
"Well, then I object!!!" A male voice joined the confusing drama unfolding around Gabrielle.
"Ares!!!" Three goddesses chimed in at the same instant.
"What?" Ares stepped forward and stood on the same level as Gabrielle. He walked up to the wooden railing that separated her from the rest of the room and winked right at her. "Hang in there, blondie," he conspiratorially confided. "I'm on your side in this."
Gabrielle gave him a skeptical glare and then looked up at the other two goddesses. "What conspiracy did I commit?"
"Silence!!!" Athena banged her gavel again. "Aphrodite, tell your client to remain silent or I'll have her gagged," the austere goddess warned her blond counterpart.
Aphrodite leaned close to Gabrielle and glared at her over the rims of her eyewear. "Put a lid on it, sweet pea. Don't want to piss off the judge here."
"I submit for the court's perusal," Artemis suddenly flashed out of site and reappeared at the railing where Gabrielle stood, "evidence that the accused is conspiring with a known murderer against her own nation, the very mortals I claim as my children."
Gabrielle's jaw dropped, but she remained stoically silent. She certainly didn't want to end up on the ground in an immobile heap again. But she couldn't believe what the goddess was saying. Who was the murderer? And how could she possibly be conspiring with such a person against…the Amazons?
"You have something to add, Ares?" Athena looked at her brooding brother, who was standing with his arms crossed over his muscular chest.
"Not a thing, sis," he answered with a quick shake of his dark head. "Although," he continued as an afterthought and lifted a finger to make his point, "I think Artemis is mistaken if she thinks Gabrielle really knows what Xena did."
That threw Gabrielle for a loop. She couldn't for the life of her figure out what they were talking about. It was all just so farfetched.
"Objection!!!" Aphrodite piped in again.
"Oh, knock it off, Dite," Athena banged her gavel. "Maybe we need to bring Xena here to clue her in."
"Oh, oh, pick me," Ares deadpanned and rolled his eyes tiredly.
"I object!!" Artemis barked. "Ares has a history with the murderer. He even went so far as to have intimate relations with her."
"I have intimate relations with a lot of mortal women," Ares shrugged. "So what? You want your murderer, I'm your guy."
The reference to Xena as the murderer finally sank in with Gabrielle and she silently filed the information away for later. She had no idea what any of them were talking about and was almost reluctant to discover the truth. Her head was spinning and she could feel the ground shifting under her feet in that otherworldly way it did just before...
"Oh, not again," she sighed as the darkness once again enveloped her.
"I'm still here, Gabrielle," Xena's faraway voice soothed her and helped calm her frayed nerves. "Hang in there, love."
Gabrielle didn't know if she could hang in there when she didn't know where 'there' was. She also didn't have a clue why she was being toyed with by the gods. It was like some really disturbing nightmare without an end in sight. One moment she was in the real world and the next she was in this confusing otherworld. The exhaustion once again washed over her and she gratefully sank into it without another thought. Time enough later to sort through the confusion.
"Time to pay the piper, Xena," Ares appeared next to her as she continued her vigil over Gabrielle.
She wasn't surprised he was there and didn't flinch at all at his sudden appearance. She merely sat there with her hand in Gabrielle's, watching over the woman who was barely clinging to life.
"Not interested, Ares," Xena didn't bother to look up at him as he towered over her. "Go away."
"It won't end until you come with me. She needs you, Xena," he moved to the other side of the bed and in her line of sight. "Her life depends on it." He glanced down at the pale woman. "She's been put on trial."
Xena finally looked up and met his dark gaze. "Trial? For what? She hasn't done anything wrong. Besides, why would you want to help me-or even Gabrielle, for that matter?"
Ares shrugged. "Help, hinder-either way it can't be any worse than spending the rest of her life in this useless vegetative state," he answered evasively. He watched her chin lift defiantly as her ice-blue eyes glared daggers at him. He held up his hands in surrender as he said, "Hey, I'm just the messenger here. Trust me when I say I have nothing at all to do with what's going on. I just came to bring you to where Gabrielle is being held."
"Why don't I believe you?" Xena scoffed. She then considered her options, glancing at the still woman laboring for each shallow breath. "Okay," her tone was laced with abject defeat. "Okay, you win, Ares. I'll come with you…for Gabrielle."
"No tricks? No, you're really my father, Ares?" Ares appraised her expression as she lifted her eyes to meet his. He saw the sincerity in their depths. "Okay."
He moved around the bed and placed a hand on her shoulder. Xena tensed at the physical contact and then felt everything around her suddenly drop away in a blinding white flash. The sensation was more like free-falling than anything else she could describe. Somehow she knew she wasn't falling, but she couldn't quite get a bead on what was happening as the lights went out around them. And then they suddenly 'reappeared' in another blinding flash.
Xena waited for her eyes to adjust to the sudden brightness above her. Twin spots of light still dazzled her until they finally faded, revealing a rather strange sight.
She was in the center of large room. It wasn't so much a room as it was a…what?
"Where are we, Ares?" Xena glanced at the god standing just slightly behind her.
"A little place my sister cooked up just for this particular occasion," Ares shrugged. "Oh…" he waved a hand and heavy iron manacles suddenly appeared on her wrists and ankles. "Just in case you get the urge to…you know," he shrugged.
Xena noticed she was surrounded by a low railing and was standing on a wooden platform. The manacles were attached to thick iron rings jutting from the floor at her feet. She glanced up at the gallery area that towered over her. There was an elaborate carved wooden podium that jutted out in front of her and wooden benches circled the entire room. She glanced to her right and saw another wooden platform exactly like the one she was standing on. A dimmer light shone down on the empty space, where iron rings, exactly like the ones at her feet, jutted from the floor.
"In a few hundred years this will be a place of inquisition in your world," Ares commented with a slight frown. "Only war will stop these particular tyrants from gaining complete control over everything." He lifted a dark brow as he gazed at her. "Good thing I'm not going anywhere anytime soon."
Xena met his gaze. "So I'm to go on trial with Gabrielle?"
Ares folded his arms across his chest and shook his head. "You're the reason she's on trial, Xena."
The gallery suddenly came to life with several bright flashes and an explosion of uproarious noise. People from all walks of life suddenly appeared in the rows upon rows of benches. They were shouting, cheering and waving their arms as if to signal a show of some kind. Xena watched a woman in a gossamer gown with flowing red hair and a simple gold band around her head appear in one of the outcroppings behind her.
Another woman with shorter, brown hair and the same gold band around her head appeared on the elaborate podium. This woman wore armor of pure gold and carried a shiny gold gavel that she used to pound against the podium.
"Order! Order, I say!!!" The woman shouted to the gathered throng. Her voice boomed and echoed around the huge room until a hush fell over the crowd. "There will be order in this gallery or I will send you all back to where you belong!!!" The hush turned into an eerie silence that seemed to hang over the crowd like a dense fog. The woman nodded to the other woman across from her. "Bring in the accused!!!"
Xena turned her attention to the platform next to hers in time to see Gabrielle appear in a bright flash. Her bare wrists and ankles bore the same thick iron manacles and chains that Xena now wore. The warrior also noticed that Gabrielle wore only two tattered strips of dirty cloth to provide a modicum of modesty. Her feet were bare and she looked much the worse for wear.
"Gabrielle!" Xena shouted unconsciously at the bard's sudden appearance. She rounded on Ares, the chains and manacles clanking loudly in the still silence. "What have you done to her?"
"Silence!!!" The woman on the podium shouted, as she banged her gavel on the wooden surface in front of her. "Neither the accused nor the murderer will speak unless addressed directly. Is that clear?"
Xena ignored the outburst and kept her eyes on Gabrielle, who had yet to lift her head and look at her. Xena could see that it was taking a great effort for Gabrielle to remain standing in the heavy restraints and she wondered if the bard was feeling the effects of her illness, even in this strange, otherworldly place.
"I demand to know why you've brought us here!!" Xena shouted to the woman on the podium.
"You are in no position to make demands, Xena!!!" The woman's voice boomed back. "Now keep your mouth shut or we will shut it for you!!!"
Ares leaned in conspiratorially. "Don't think she won't do it, Xena. Athena's pretty used at getting her way these days." Her ground out his next words, "Dad's given her special privileges since she managed to bring Athens and the surrounding countryside to heel."
Xena snapped her mouth shut and suddenly realized who the two women in the gallery were-Athena and Artemis. She wondered what the two goddesses were up to and didn't have to wait long to find out.
"The accused is before us with a charge of conspiracy," Athena's voice boomed. "Artemis, as her accuser I ask you to step forward and present the evidence."
Artemis flashed out of sight and reappeared just outside of Xena's wooden railing. Her gossamer gown flowed around her like a cloud as she glanced first at Xena, then at Gabrielle and then turned to the gathering in the gallery above.
"I ask your indulgence," the goddess of the Amazons said in a clear voice that carried around the assemblage. "Bring forth the witnesses!!!!"
Several bright flashes to Xena's left caught her attention. She held a hand up in front of her eyes until the flashes stopped. Several leather-clad women in various states of dress and decoration stood on the sandy floor next to Xena's platform. Xena's heart sank when she realized who they were.
"Tell us what the murderer did to you!" Artemis ordered the gathered women who looked around them in confusion.
All eyes shifted from Artemis and rested on Xena. Although she couldn't see their faces from so far away, Xena could feel the open hostility in their stances. She knew these women had a beef with her.
One Amazon in full leathers stepped forward. Her long blond hair hung around her shoulders and she met Xena's gaze with clear blue eyes full of contempt and accusation.
"This…this woman came to us and pretended to offer us friendship," the woman's deep voice fairly dripped animosity. "She came with another woman, a shamaness by the name of Alti. Together they lured my sisters and me to our deaths."
The crowd erupted in chaotic outbursts that called for justice and retribution. Xena suddenly realized that the gathering was made up of mostly women, many of whom she didn't recognize. The bright light above her head kept her from seeing faces clearly in the gallery above. She could, however, plainly see those lit from above, including Athena, Artemis, Gabrielle and the Amazon leaders.
She glanced over to find Gabrielle watching her intently and silently. The bard's shoulders were slightly slumped forward in defeat and her expression was unreadable. Aphrodite stood next to her with a pair of ridiculous spectacles perched on her pert nose. The goddess was dressed in her typical gossamer pink nightgown with a pair of fuzzy pink heels on her feet.
"Objection!!!" The blond Goddess of Love suddenly shouted. "What does this have to do with my client, your honor?"
"Your…client…as you put it," Artemis frowned at the interruption, "now travels with and even thinks she's fallen in love with this…this murderer," the goddess finished distastefully waving a hand in Xena's direction.
"Xena?" Gabrielle's hushed voice penetrated the cacophony of noise and reached the warrior's ears.
Xena knew that Gabrielle was asking her if the accusation was true. She knew that if she looked the bard in the eye the question would be there. Girding herself against what this would mean for them, Xena met Gabrielle's gaze with open expression of apology. She nodded once and watched Gabrielle's expression fall. The bard's head dropped forward, but not before Xena's caught the unmistakable glimmer of tears in pained green eyes.
"Silence!!!!" Athena's voice boomed above the cacophony. "What have you to say for yourself, murderer?"
Xena pulled her gaze away from Gabrielle and met the hazel eyes of the Warrior Goddess. "It's true," she stated in an unemotional tone. "Alti and I went to the gathering of the Amazon leaders and killed them all. I lured them to the forest where we had set traps and attacked them without provocation. It was my fault. I killed them all."
Xena missed the look directed her way as Gabrielle's head shot up and her gaze locked on the stoic warrior's profile. She also missed the sneers of satisfaction on the faces of the Amazon leaders.
"I deeply regret what happened," Xena continued without faltering and then she turned to look at the blond Amazon leader. "I was a different person back then, Cyan. But I've changed my ways. It's not about power anymore. I know that now."
"Liar!!!" The blond Amazon shouted and raised an accusing finger at Xena. "I watched my sisters die brutal deaths at your hands, Xena. And now you're weasling your way into the heart of yet another queen in order to carry out another of your twisted agendas. What's the game this time? Huh?"
"No," Xena simply shook her head. "I love Gabrielle with all my heart. I would never knowingly hurt her or anyone close to her."
"Oh, really?" The Amazon crossed her arms over her chest and a blond brow rose skeptically. "She named you her champion. You're supposed to protect her with your life and fight for her when the need arises. How many times have you failed to carry out your calling, Xena? How many times has she been hurt because of you? How many times did you lie to her? And how many more times will she die in your arms?"
Xena swallowed down the bile in her throat. "I've done my best to protect her," she said without glancing in Gabrielle's direction. She couldn't stand to see the look of accusation in the bard's eyes at that moment.
"Your best?" Artemis mocked with open disdain. "Did you do your best to protect her from the minions of Dahak? Were you there when they stripped her of her innocence and forced her to kill one of their own? Tell me, what were you doing when Dahak himself was raping her and implanting his evil seed inside her? And when you showed up at the Amazon village, forced her from the arms of her sisters, tied her to the back of your horse, dragged her until she was nearly dead and then threw her off a cliff? Where was your protection then, Xena? Were you protecting her when she proclaimed her love for you, while you still harbored this lie of omission between you?"
"Xena?" Gabrielle's quiet whisper penetrated the silence that followed the goddess' accusations. "What is she talking about?"
Artemis stepped down from the platform and walked purposefully over to Gabrielle's platform. Xena's eyes followed Artemis until they rested on Gabrielle's face. She saw nothing but confusion in the bard's eyes.
"Are you in love with Xena, Gabrielle?" Artemis asked.
Gabrielle tore her gaze from Xena's and met the goddess' look. She seemed to gird herself for the coming interrogation. Her shoulders straightened and her expression became unreadable.
"I am," the bard answered without hesitation and a loud collective gasp echoed through the crowd.
"Still?" Artemis glanced back at Xena and then returned her attention to the woman before her. "Even after what you've heard here today? Even after what that…" she pointed an accusing finger at Xena, "…that monster did to your sisters?"
Xena watched Gabrielle's eyes flit to hers and back again. Her stomach clenched at the confusion and pain in the green depths. Xena knew Gabrielle was trying to process what was being said and wanted nothing more than to whisk her away to a private corner where they could talk. But it wasn't meant to be.
"I admit that Xena did some terrible things in her past, but…" Gabrielle didn't have the chance to finish.
"Terrible things?" Artemis scoffed and waved an arm toward the silent Amazon leaders. "Do you think what happened to Cyan and the others was simply a terrible thing?"
The goddess glared at Gabrielle with such intensity that the bard flinched noticeably. Gabrielle was still trying to put all the pieces together and wasn't quite sure exactly what was going on. Her head was spinning with the accusations against Xena and her entire being felt like it would explode at any moment. It was just too much-too much for any mortal to handle.
Artemis was livid. She was almost glowing with a red aura as she waved a hand again and an image shimmered into being at one end of the arena. "Queen Gabrielle of the Thracian Amazons, can you honestly say that these murders were merely 'terrible'?"
The moving image wavered larger than life above them and showed Xena walking with Cyan and several other women through a dense forest-the same women who were now gathered on the floor in the arena. They were all talking companionably with Xena about how she would become an Amazon and lead the northern tribes against their enemies.
Xena watched Gabrielle's back stiffen as the bard stared at the moving image dancing above her head. The warrior heard her own voice telling Cyan that she would be grateful to the Amazons for the chance to destroy their enemies. When Xena glanced up at the moving image, she saw the evil gleam in her own eyes and cringed inwardly with shame. She remembered clearly what happened next and couldn't bring herself to watch the scene play itself out.
Instead, she kept her eyes on the semi-clad form of the woman she loved. Her guilt at deceiving the Amazons and not telling Gabrielle what she'd done threatened to overwhelm her at that moment. And then she glanced up to see the face of Cyan looking down at her with unseeing eyes. A trickle of dark blood oozed from the dead Amazon queen's lips, as Alti triumphantly held a wooden bowl up to catch the blood from the gaping wound in the blond's chest.
More gasps and whispers echoed throughout the gallery, as the moving image suddenly went dark and the lights returned to normal. Silence reigned from the Amazon leaders to Xena's left. Gabrielle merely looked straight ahead with an unreadable expression.
"Terrible things?" Artemis reiterated with a raised brow as she returned her attention to Gabrielle. "Are you still so young and naïve to believe that the deaths of those women at the hands of the Destroyer of Nations were anything short of horrific? Monstrous? Brutal? That woman you claim to love is a monster, Gabrielle! She is incapable of love."
"I…" Gabrielle glanced over at Xena with tears streaming down her cheeks. "She isn't like that anymore. She fights for good now." Gabrielle lifted her chin and gazed defiantly at the goddess. "Xena is a good and noble person. She changed. And she loves me as much as I love her."
Artemis turned with a wry smirk. "You see?" She waved a negligent hand at the gathered throng. "Conspiracy!" She waited for the uproar to die back down. "These two are conspiring to wipe the Amazon Nation off the face of the earth! They are beating my children into submission and rendering them completely powerless. Nothing emphasizes my point more than the steady decline of the Nation since Gabrielle became queen." Her eyes scanned the gallery. "The Amazons are a proud people. They live by the sword…" she turned swiftly with an upraised hand, "…and die by the sword." The crowd roared. "This is what Xena knows and why she's using Gabrielle to turn my children against me!"
"That's a complete lie and you know it!" Gabrielle angrily shot back.
"Do you deny that, given half a chance, you would make Xena your consort?" Artemis rounded on the bard again. "Tell everyone gathered here that you haven't given it a thought, Gabrielle."
"I…uh…" Gabrielle stammered.
She glanced over at Xena and the warrior's brows arched up into her hairline at the unexpected question. Xena could see that Gabrielle was struggling to find words in answer to the blatant accusation. It wasn't like the bard to be caught flatfooted like that.
"You want to make her an Amazon?!?" Cyan was outraged. "After what she did to us? After all the pain, agony, death and shame she brought on us with her betrayal? What kind of Amazon queen are you?"
"Objection!!!" Aphrodite shouted.
"Order!!!" Athena banged her gavel, as the crowd rose to their feet and the noise level reached a fevered pitch. "Order in this court or I will clear this gallery permanently!!!"
The noise died down, but didn't completely subside. Ares stepped up behind Xena and leaned in close to her ear.
"Look at her, Xena," he breathed. "She won't survive this. She's already too weak and Artemis won't rest until she has a confession."
Xena turned and saw the anguish on Gabrielle's pale features. It wasn't just the words that were affecting her, the warrior noticed. Gabrielle actually seemed to be in physical distress, as well. Sweat poured from the scantily clad woman's brow and she was almost cringing in pain. The weight of the chains suddenly seemed to be more than the bard could handle, and she sank to her knees on the wooden platform.
"Gabrielle!!!" Xena shouted and struggled against her restraints in an effort to reach out for the woman she loved.
"She's suffering because of you, Xena," Ares continued in the same low tone that only she could hear. "She bears the guilt of your past as much as you do, and that guilt is killing her. Are you willing to let her suffer for the sins of your past, Xena? Or will you free her once and for all from the torment that comes with her misguided infatuation?"
Xena's head spun around until she was glaring eye-to-eye with the God of War. "What are you saying, Ares?"
Ares shrugged. "Join me again, Xena, and all this goes away." He waved a hand and she was suddenly sitting in the Amazon hut with Gabrielle lying on the bed beside her.
Xena frantically searched for any trace of the scene she had just left, but found only the peaceful surroundings of the hut. A fire blazed in the fireplace and Gabrielle appeared to be sleeping peacefully. Gabrielle's normal color had returned and she was breathing normally. Xena reached up and felt the bard's forehead and was amazed to find it cool to the touch.
And in a flash she was right back in the arena again. The sudden shifts made her head spin, and she teetered slightly as the noise level bombarded her sensitive hearing. The crowd was in an uproar, as Artemis continued to rile them up into an even more chaotic frenzy.
"Not a chance, Ares," Xena hissed as she managed to get her bearings.
"What answer do you give this gathering, Gabrielle?" Athena's voice rang out above the noise and chaos. "Do you deny your feelings for the former Destroyer of Nations and murderer of the Amazons?"
Xena watched Gabrielle gather what little strength remained in her ailing body. The warrior ached for her loving partner and wanted nothing more than to take the smaller woman in her arms and provide some measure of comfort. The urge to do so was so strong, in fact, that she could almost imagine the feel of Gabrielle in her arms.
And then Gabrielle's head shot up and her eyes locked with Xena's.
"No," she answered in a voice full of renewed strength. "I love her," she continued, as she rose to her feet and stood with her back straight and her shoulders squared. "I know there are things-terrible, horrible things-in Xena's past-things she did that she is now atoning for." She turned her gaze on the Amazon queens. "What she did to you was monstrous," her eyes begged for understanding as she glanced at Xena. They hardened again as they returned to the Amazons. "But the truth is she paid for that betrayal with the blood of her own son, a child born of unexpected love. I was there when Solon died. I know the misery Xena went through during that terrible time." Her voice cracked slightly with emotion and she cleared it. "I'm not naïve enough to think that Xena's past won't keep cropping up every time we meet someone in our travels throughout Greece. Nor am I naïve to think that the Amazons will ever fully accept our love and welcome her with open arms. I love her. That isn't going to change." She turned her gaze on Artemis. "If you're asking if I would make Xena my consort and make her an Amazon, the answer is no." She paused to let the sudden uproar die down again and turned her gaze on Xena. "I am already her partner in life and want nothing more than to spend every waking candlemark showing her how much I love her. I will not hesitate to do that in a heartbeat." She returned her attention to the Amazon Goddess. "But will I ask her to be something she's not? The answer is a resounding no. Xena is no more an Amazon than I am a seasoned, battle-hardened warrior."
Artemis' brow arched. "So, you're saying you've never once considered asking her to be your consort?"
"I'm not really Queen of the Amazons, now am I?" Gabrielle shot back with a defiant gleam. "It's not up to me to keep the queen's line going. I gave that job to Ephiny when I made her my regent and gave her my right of caste. She's the one responsible for choosing a mate and naming a successor to the throne."
The crowd erupted again and this time Athena simply waved her gavel above her head. The crowd vanished in an echoing roar, leaving only the three goddesses, Ares, Xena, Gabrielle and the Amazon queens in the suddenly-silent room.
"Artemis!" Athena vanished and reappeared next to the flustered goddess. "What is the meaning of this?" Athena stood with her hands on her hips as she awaited a response from the other goddess. "Well? You said Gabrielle was Queen of the Amazons."
"I…" Artemis began, glancing from Athena to Gabrielle and back again. "Ugh! Just wait till I get my hands on that priestess!" She ground out between clenched teeth.
"Are you saying this whole thing is a farce?" Athena prodded with an annoyed frown. "Are you seriously telling me she really isn't Queen of the Amazons?"
"It…um…well…" Artemis shrugged. "She did pass her right of caste to her regent. Technically that means she is queen in name only."
It was Gabrielle's turn to look surprised. "You mean I'm not really Queen of the Amazons?"
Artemis winced noticeably. "Well…"
"That's it then," Aphrodite chimed in with her usual bubbly enthusiasm. "Gabby's off the hook." She waved a hand and Gabrielle's manacles fell to the floor with a loud thud.
"Aphrodite!" Athena turned a scowl on the Love Goddess.
"They weren't really necessary anyway, Athena," Aphrodite countered with a playful grin. "Chill, sista."
"And what about justice for my Amazons?" Artemis folded her arms over her ample bosom and glared at the Warrior Goddess. "They deserve to see justice for what Xena did to them in that forest."
"Sounds like Xena already received a just punishment for her crimes," Athena shot back. "She lost her son at the hands of Gabrielle's demon child, Hope." She spared a quick glance at both women. "Frankly, I'm surprised their relationship survived such a betrayal."
"It's Gabrielle's word against ours," Artemis countered. "Why should I believe what she says? She'd say anything to get Xena off the hook, and I wouldn't put it past her to lie for the warrior's sake. After all," she glared at a smug Aphrodite, "they claim to love each other."
"Got that right, Arty," Aphrodite nodded sagely and adjusted the spectacles on her nose.
"It's not a lie," Gabrielle answered calmly. "You know what happened, because Athena just said that Solon died at Hope's hand. I never said how he died. I just said it happened."
"Oh, really?" Athena gave the bard an arched-brow look. "Please don't go there, Gabrielle. I really don't want to have to rehash those whole Chin and Hope things again. We all know you're not completely innocent in all this."
Gabrielle was cowed by the reference to her open betrayals and the lies she'd told in order to hide Hope's continued existence. She wasn't exactly proud of those moments, but knew Xena had forgiven her for the part she'd played in Solon's death.
"Can I say something?" Xena said and rattled her own chains to let them know she was still shackled.
Athena turned her attention to the other platform. "What do you have to say for yourself, Xena?"
Xena kept her gaze on Gabrielle as she addressed the rest. "I love Gabrielle with all my heart and would be honored to be consort to the Queen of the Amazons."
"She isn't really Queen, now, is she?" Artemis shot back with a smug I-told-you-so smirk.
"Xena…" Gabrielle added and stopped when the warrior held up a staying hand.
"Gabrielle, let me finish," Xena continued, nonplussed by the interruptions. "I would be honored to be consort to the Queen of the Amazons, but I am more honored and just plain happy to be Gabrielle's partner in life. I never imagined anything like that would be possible-not for someone like me. We belong together and, despite my past-or maybe because of it-we deserve each other." The last was said with a wry smirk that was answered by a wink from Gabrielle. "I know I can never fully atone for my past." She turned to the gathered Amazon queens. "And I can never apologize enough for what I took from you. What Alti and I did to you and to your people was unforgiveable. But I can promise that, together, Gabrielle and I will endeavor to unite the tribes and forge an even stronger Amazon Nation with the help of Ephiny, Eponin, Chilapa and the others. The Amazons will one day take pride in the sacrifice that you made for them."
A snort behind her made Xena turn to glare at Artemis. The goddess stepped forward clapping her hands mockingly as she shook her head.
"Xena, the Amazon Protector?" The redhead sarcastically mocked. "You have got to be kidding me. You expect us to believe you would muster the Amazons to join your cause?"
"Xena doesn't muster anyone anymore," Gabrielle said and then a gleam of mischief came into her eyes. "I do."
Artemis shot both women a skeptical glare. "Oh, and I suppose you think that's funny, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle crossed her arms over her chest. For some strange reason she felt better than she had in weeks. She had no idea if the gods were responsible for her illness, but suspected they had a hand in the turn her health had just taken. Now that this little mock trial was finally winding down, she reasoned the hold they had over her was receding, as well.
"You don't know either of us," the bard shot back and watched a red brow hike into the goddess' hairline. "We make a great team. Why else would Ares," she glanced over at the pouting God of War, "constantly try to manipulate us into doing his bidding?"
Athena's interest perked up. "What's she talking about, Ares?"
Ares shrugged. "No idea," he said, trying desperately to hide an accusing glare at his blond nemesis.
"Really?" Xena piped up. "So you weren't just trying to get me back by saying you would fix this whole," she waved a hand at their surroundings, "mess and put things back to the way they were?"
Athena glared at her brother. "Ares, didn't Father tell you-no, order you-to leave Xena alone and stop interfering in her life?"
Ares had the grace to blush. "He might have mentioned it a time or two. Uh, I think I hear him calling me as we speak as a matter of fact. See ya." And with that, he disappeared in a bright flash.
"Artemis?" Athena shot a glare at the other goddess. "I mobilized an army for you. And now I find out you were mistaken about Gabrielle's actual role with the Amazons? What do you have to say for yourself?"
Artemis shrugged. "Not much I can say at this point, Athena." She glanced at the mortals in their midst. "Can we take this back up to Olympus and discuss it there? I'm a little," she glanced around at their depressing surroundings, "over this whole inquisition thing at the moment. It was interesting at first, but now it's just…uck! Not looking forward to when these mortals actually start using places like this in the not-so-distant future."
The two goddesses disappeared in a blinding flash of golden sparkles, leaving Gabrielle and Xena alone with the Goddess of Love.
"Well?" Xena arched a brow at Aphrodite.
"Well, what?" Aphrodite glanced innocently at the two women. "Oh, you want…" she motioned at the two of them and nodded. "Have you back in a jiff."
She snapped her fingers and they suddenly reappeared in the Amazon hut. Gabrielle glanced over at the bed and noticed her body still lying there, as pale as death. She glanced down at herself and saw that she was only there as a faint spirit.
"Um, Aphrodite?" She pointed to the bed and its occupant and then at her iridescent self.
"Oh, you look so peaceful, Gabs," Aphrodite gushed. "But…um…" she looked back at the bard's spirit standing in rags before her. "Have I mentioned lately how unattractive that look is on you? And the hair…"
"Aphrodite," Xena growled. "Just put her back in her body, will you please?"
"No problem, tall-dark-and-deadly," the Love Goddess shrugged with a quick flick of a well-manicured finger. Gabrielle's spirit vanished. "Oh, by the way, she still has to…" she shrugged again, "…you know, kick this bug, so to speak. Athena's the healer in the bunch, and she wasn't really inclined to stick around to heal the Gabster, there."
"You're saying, after all she's been through, she's still sick?" Xena gave the goddess an incredulous glare.
"I'm sayin' she's gonna be flat out for a few more days," Aphrodite answered. "Look, don't give me the famous glare, warrior babe. I didn't spring this nasty super bug on her. She caught it all on her lonesome. Athena and Artemis just tweaked it a bit to suit their needs."
Xena ran an impatient hand over her face. "And the army?"
"Oh, all's well that ends well," the goddess shrugged. "They got what they were after." She smirked. "All those horny warrior vibes coming at me at once were enough to give me a major head rush. Had to take a quick time out to my fav little hidey hole. Thanks for the heads-up, by the way."
Xena gave her a confused look. "What are you talking about, Aphrodite?"
Aphrodite just winked and disappeared in shower of pink and red heart-shaped sparkles. Xena soon found herself alone at last with the woman she loved. She moved to the side of the bed and sat down, lifting Gabrielle's hand in hers and placing a chaste kiss on the cool skin.
"Hey," Gabrielle's gravelly voice sounded in the stillness.
"Hey, yourself," Xena answered as she met the bard's steady gaze.
Gabrielle glanced at the partially-covered window and noticed that it was dark outside. "What time is it, anyway?"
"Not sure," Xena answered. "Not even sure which day it is at the moment." She ran the back of a finger along Gabrielle's cheek and was glad to feel cool skin under hers. "How're you feeling?"
Gabrielle considered the question for a moment. "Better, I think." She frowned. "You been here the whole time?"
Xena considered the question and frowned. "Don't you remember?"
Gabrielle stared up at the ceiling as she tried to clear her mind of the strange images that were still running through it. "I think we were…" She looked at Xena for confirmation. "Were we really…?"
Xena nodded. "It was as real as it gets, love." She kissed Gabrielle's knuckles.
"Gone back to Olympus, I hope."
Gabrielle tried to stifle a cough and failed. Her body shook with the effort to rid itself of the fluid still in her lungs. When the fit finally subsided, she lay back against the pillow and looked tiredly at her partner.
"Partners in life?" She squeezed the hand firmly clasped in hers.
"Partners for life," Xena amended and leaned forward to kiss Gabrielle on the lips. "I love you."
A smile lit Gabrielle's green eyes. "Love you, too, Xena."
A week later the Amazons and several guests were gathered around a huge bonfire in the middle of the village. It was nearing the midnight hour and many women and men alike were deep in their mugs of wine, hard cider and ale. A group of young Amazon girls were dancing in time to the beat of a mallet on a ceremonial drum, while another group of young men looked on with eager anticipation of things to come.
"This was a great idea, Ephiny," Gabrielle said, from her place in Xena's arms. She sipped some hot, sweet apple cider and reveled in the warmth of the woman holding her. "I'm glad you opened up the village to allow the surrounding villages to participate in this celebration."
"I'm not the one who suggested it, Gabrielle," Ephiny smirked at the dark-haired woman sitting next to her.
Eponin ducked her head and downed the remainder of hard cider. "Come on, Eph. It was just a suggestion."
"And a damned fine suggestion, too," Ephiny beamed. She stood up and held her mug high in the air. "To a lasting peace and a bright new future for the entire Amazon Nation!" She shouted for everyone to hear.
"Here, here!!!" A chorus of male and female voices responded loudly.
Ephiny resumed her seat and gazed fondly at the two women across from her. She smiled at the contentedness on both their faces.
"You two look so good together," Ephiny said. "I'm glad everything worked out for the best, even if you're abandoning me to a bunch of pregnant Amazons."
"Just do us a favor, Eph," Gabrielle continued when the laughter died down.
"Anything," the blond regent nodded at her two friends. "There's nothing I wouldn't do for you, Gabrielle. Or you, either, Xena." She received a blush from the former and a nod from the latter.
"Make sure the priestesses and their acolytes are clear on that little detail we discussed yesterday," the bard finally continued. "I do not want another confrontation with Artemis and Athena, just because someone let slip that you gave me back my right of caste shortly after we left that temple in Thessaly, all those years ago."
"I have their vow of silence on the subject," Ephiny raised her mug at the two. "To the continued health and well-being of my two best friends."
Xena suddenly sneezed loudly, eliciting a worried look from the woman in her arms.
"Please don't tell me you're coming down with something, Xena," Gabrielle gave her taller companion a quick once-over.
"It was just a sneeze, Gabrielle," Xena replied. "Relax."
"Just a sneeze?" Gabrielle gave the taller woman a skeptical glare. "Relax? You do remember what we-and I especially emphasize the 'me' part of that we-went through these last few weeks, don't you?"
"It was probably just some dust kicked up by the dancers," Xena chuckled lightly. "Nothing to worry about. I'm fine. See? No more sneezes."
Gabrielle eyed the warrior a moment longer before turning back around to snuggle against Xena's welcome warmth. Her lungs were clear and the fever was nothing more than a fading memory. They also hadn't heard anything about Athena's army since the men spent an entire exhaustive evening with a group of disguised Amazon women, who would certainly remember the experience and carry the fruits of their labor for the next nine moons.
Gabrielle smirked. When Xena told her the essence of her plan, the recovering bard had almost busted a gut laughing. Unfortunately, the coughing fit that erupted, instead, had left her more exhausted than she cared to admit, especially to her over-protective companion.
Xena had been by her side throughout her entire recovery, including those moments when Gabrielle wanted nothing more than to go screaming out the door from sheer boredom. She'd read every scroll in the village, including the one that contained the convoluted laws of the Amazon Nation. She'd even found the exact paragraph that talked about the queen's responsibilities to said Nation.
"Hey, Xena?" Gabrielle glanced up at her partner and met the warrior's smoke-gray eyes dancing in the flickering firelight.
"There's something we need to talk about," Gabrielle continued. "You know, when we're alone."
Xena's eyebrow quirked in that 'Oh, really?' way she had of silently asking a question. "You ready to head back to the queen's hut, then?"
Gabrielle snuggled deeper into the cocoon Xena had created with the heavy fur wrapped around both of them. She was actually enjoying the festivities and didn't really want to go back to the place she had come to think of as her own personal prison. Xena hadn't exactly been anxious to allow Gabrielle out of the hut for the celebration in the first place.
"Not yet," Gabrielle answered with a shake of her head. "I'm having too much fun out here. Don't want to go back inside just yet."
"We could continue our snuggling in a nice, comfortable bed," the warrior shifted slightly against the wooden pole she was leaning against. "I can get the fire going to rival this one and we would still be able to hear the drum beats from in there."
Gabrielle shifted slightly so she could see the warrior better. "You're sure angling to get back there, Xena. Aren't you enjoying the celebration?"
Xena lifted a mug of port one of the outer villagers had brought for the occasion. The heady brew was just the thing to take the edge off the warrior's itchy nerves.
"I'm enjoying the celebration just fine, Gabrielle," Xena answered. "I just…this is the first time you've been outside in weeks, and I don't want you overdoing it."
"This has nothing to do with those dancers you've been ogling for the better part of the evening?" Gabrielle smirked slyly. "I have to admit, their movements are pretty…um…seductive."
Xena glanced at the youngsters gyrating around the huge bonfire. She could certainly admit that their choreography was more than seductive, even for her varied tastes. But it was the woman in front of her that was actually stirring her ardor, more than the dancers or the port or…
"What was that?" Xena asked when she realized Gabrielle had asked her another question.
"You weren't listening to me," the bard huffed. "I asked if you wanted to join in the dancing. You seemed pretty focused on it there for a moment."
"No," Xena answered with a curt shake of her head. "I'm just fine where I am."
"And with whom?" Gabrielle arched a seductive brow at her taller pillow.
"Definitely," Xena answered with an easy smile. "Just say the word and we'll head back to our hut, Gabrielle. I'm ready when you are."
Gabrielle returned her attention to the dancers and smirked. She knew how much the slow, erotic beat of the drum and the vision of those dancers was affecting every young man in the vicinity. She'd even seen a few of the Amazons and villagers discreetly head for the privacy of the buildings near where the celebration was taking place. It didn't take the Goddess of Love in their midst to figure out what the couples were doing behind closed doors.
Gabrielle suddenly felt a calloused hand caress her bare mid-drift. And that was all it took.
"Okay, I give," the bard jumped to her feet and extended a hand to a smirking warrior. "Let's go." As Xena swiftly jumped to her feet, Gabrielle turned to Ephiny. "Do not even think about disturbing us."
"Wouldn't dream of it," the regent smirked at the couple and gave them a conspiratorial wink. "Have fun, you two!" She called after their retreating figures.
They reached the peace and relative quiet of the hut in due time. Once inside, Xena made quick work of stoking the fire until it was pleasantly toasty in the spacious room. She quickly divested herself of her armor, boots and weapons, neatly stowing everything in a cedar chest at the foot of the bed. As soon as she reached around for the ties to her leathers, she found herself with an armful of arduous bard.
Gabrielle didn't hesitate to pull the taller woman down for a long, lingering and passionate kiss that left them both breathless. The smaller woman worked the ties of the warrior's leather outfit until they were loose.
"Mm," the bard uttered when they both came up for air. "Not bad for being so out of practice."
"Speak for yourself," Xena countered with a wry smirk.
"I was speaking for myself," Gabrielle said as she dragged the taller woman over to the bed. They shared another lingering kiss as they quickly divested each other of their clothing and climbed beneath the generous pile of furs.
Their ardor increased as they explored each other fully. Bodies melded perfectly together and lips trailed along every inch of exposed flesh as they reveled in their mutual desire. The distant drum beats continued their steady rhythm as the two lovers increased their own pace.
"Gods, Xena!" Gabrielle was on fire as Xena's lips traced a blazing path down her body. Her body arched into the touch of its own accord, and she was lost in the heady sensations of her lover's attentions.
The smaller woman was the first to climax, as Xena's expert ministrations took Gabrielle to the edge of Elysian bliss and pushed her into sweet oblivion. Sensations she didn't know existed suddenly exploded into a thousand brilliant points of light. As her body slowly recovered from the onslaught, the pinpoints of light coalesced into an overwhelming sensation of love that spread throughout her entire being and settled as a warm glow in her heart. At that moment she wanted nothing more than to share that love with her partner.
Xena knew she was hanging by the proverbial thread when Gabrielle's lips found her center and played her like Harpsichord's lyre. Words could not describe the overwhelming feelings that threatened to send the warrior to the stars and back. She suddenly found their positions reversed and a tangle of bardly arms and legs intermingled with her own. Every touch, every taste brought her closer to something she couldn't quite put her finger on. It was like nothing she had ever experienced, even during her extensive sexual exploits. And then her entire world shattered into a million shards of exquisite euphoria so complete that there was no stopping the cry of rapture that escaped unbidden.
As the world finally righted itself and Xena returned from the bosom of Gabrielle's love, she felt her lover slide up her body and settle into the crook of her shoulder. They were both panting from their efforts, but neither complained about the outcome.
"Mmmm," Xena managed as she tried to catch her breath. "That was…amazing."
"Bliss," the smaller woman blew out a heavy sigh against the bare skin beneath her.
"Not bad…for our…" the warrior wrapped her arms around the smaller women. "How many times was this?"
"Not really…keeping track…honey," Gabrielle answered breathlessly.
"Me either," Xena quickly added. She placed a kiss on the top of Gabrielle's head. "Still…"
"Six," Gabrielle breathed out with a heavy sigh. "We've made love six times in the last week, Xe."
"Six? Really?" Xena ran a hand through her own hair. "Is that all?"
"Isn't that enough?" Gabrielle was content to just lay there in the warrior's arms. "If every time is going to be like the last six, then we're going to need to work on my stamina, love. I'm wiped."
Xena chuckled. "You've been ill, Gabrielle. It's understandable that you're not quite back to your normal self yet. Give it time. You'll be right back to kicking my butt again before long."
Xena rested her cheek against the bard's short-cropped hair and reveled in the feel of Gabrielle sprawled on top of her. Truth be told, she didn't care if they made love twenty times a day or just once a week, she was happy and that's all that mattered. Having finally proclaimed their love for each other and nearly losing Gabrielle in the bargain had been more than Xena had anticipated. She was perfectly happy to just spend time showing Gabrielle how much she loved her.
"Should I tell Ephiny that we'll be leaving soon?" Gabrielle finally broke the silence that had stretched between them.
"Why, you itchin' to move on already?" Xena teased playfully.
"Aren't you?" Gabrielle lifted her head enough to look Xena in the eye. "I know how much you enjoy staying in one place, Xe. I'm sure staying here with a bunch of cycling Amazons isn't quite your idea of Elysia."
Xena squeezed the woman in her arms. "It is as long as you're here with me."
Gabrielle's brow rose skeptically. "Seriously?"
"Okay, not quite, but…"
"That's what I thought," Gabrielle nodded her satisfaction and lowered her head to the soft shoulder beneath her cheek. "I figure we can make it to Amphipolis in a day or two, help them pick up the pieces. Your mother will be glad to see you, I'm sure. It's been a long time since we passed through there."
A dark brow rose into dark bangs. "You want to go see my mother?"
"We can tell her…"
"Stop right there, bard," Xena growled and placed a finger on the bard's lips.
"What?" Gabrielle lifted her head again and gazed into stern blue eyes. "Don't you want to tell your mother our happy news?"
"What, that we're lovers?" Xena blurted and watched a hurt look cross the bard's expression. "I…I'm sorry, sweetheart. I didn't mean for that to come out like it sounded." She placed an apologetic kiss on warm lips. "I just don't think walking back into what's left of Amphipolis and saying, 'Hi, mom, guess what? Gabrielle and I are lovers now!' is really going to go over all that well. Do you?"
Gabrielle considered the question a moment before lowering her head again to hide the defeat she knew she couldn't hide. Her heart was soaring with love for the woman in her arms and she wanted nothing more than to proclaim it to everyone she knew…um, at least most everyone.
"Gabrielle," Xena sighed. "Think about it, sweetheart. What do you think your parents-especially your father-would say if we dropped in and announced the good news? How do you think they would react?"
"Okay," Gabrielle murmured softly. "I guess I didn't think about it quite like that. I just…" She lifted her head again and gazed into intense blue eyes full of love and understanding. "I love you so much that I want all our friends and family to know how we feel about each other."
Xena's heart swelled at the look of utter beguilement in her lover's eyes. "You really mean that?"
"I do," Gabrielle nodded. "Gods, Xena…with all we've been through in the last few moons…"
Xena gazed intently at her lover, as Gabrielle's words just flowed right over her. Her thoughts drifted to how young Gabrielle looked with her short blond hair in wild dishevelment and the flush of lovemaking still lingering on her cheeks. She looked much healthier than she had just a week ago, when the selfish gods had nearly hurled her into the Amazon Land of the Dead without regard for anyone but themselves.
Xena was still pissed at Ares for his interference, but not as much as she was at Athena and Artemis for their part in the whole thing. She wanted nothing more than to get her hands around the throats of both goddesses and strangle the immortality right out of them. That put a smirk of wonder on her lips.
"You listening, Xe?" Gabrielle's soft words broke her reverie.
"Uh, yeah," Xena answered, trying hard to hide the fact she'd been caught daydreaming. "Hey," she deflected with a quick peck on Gabrielle's swollen lips. "Let's forget about Amphipolis and Potidea for now and just concentrate on us. Huh? Whatdya say? We could head toward Athens and maybe catch up on all the political stuff going on there. The journey would give us a chance to just…um, I don't know…be ourselves."
A blond brow rose into tussled bangs. "You were so not listening to me just now, you sneak." The bard accused.
"What?" Xena pretended exasperation and got a hard look of utter disbelief, instead. "Okay, I kinda tuned you out there for a minute." She tweaked Gabrielle's nose playfully. "Can't blame me for admiring the woman who holds my heart in the palm of her capable hands, can you?"
"You are so…" Gabrielle slapped at the hand that was no longer there and hit empty air. "Not fair, warrior," Gabrielle dipped her head and nipped at the skin below her.
"Baaaard," Xena growled low in her throat.
"Don't baaaard me, Xena," Gabrielle chided playfully. "You know you enjoy my attentions." She gave Xena a look that held a promise of things to come. "I just don't want you tiring of my affections and losing interest."
"Never gonna happen," Xena assured her partner and squeezed her affectionately. "There isn't a woman alive who can compete with you for my attentions. You have something that my former lovers never had."
"Oh?" Gabrielle was intrigued. "What's that?"
Xena pulled Gabrielle up until the smaller woman's ear was close to her lips. "My heart," she breathed and caressed the ear with her lips.
"Mmm," Gabrielle sank into the erotic sensations that washed over her, as Xena's lips trailed from her ear to her neck and down her collarbone. "I could get used to this, you know."
"I hope so," Xena purred as she delved between a pair of perfect breasts, while her hands explored the curves of the bard's backside. "Have I told you lately how much I love you?"
"I don't tire of hearing it, that's for sure," Gabrielle reveled in the sensations Xena's attentions were stirring throughout her body. "Oh…gods…!!!" The bard cried out her pleasure and missed the triumphant grin on her lover's face as Xena continued her artful ministrations.
Candlemarks later the fire had burned down to mere embers and two contented women lay in each other's arms. Xena's eyes were closed as she listened to the silence outside. The celebration had finally wound down, as villagers and Amazons alike finally either passed out from too much drink or retired to their quarters for much-needed sleep. The warrior was blissfully tired, but not sleepy enough to let her guard down completely. The woman in her arms, who was snoring lightly in exhausted sleep, was much too important to her to leave unprotected.
"Go to sleep, Xena," Gabrielle mumbled against Xena's bare shoulder.
"Not sleepy," Xena murmured back.
Gabrielle lifted her head and gave her lover a bleary look. She glanced at the mostly-covered window. "What time's it?"
"Nearly dawn," Xena answered as she pulled the disheveled head back to her shoulder. "Go back to sleep, Gabrielle."
"Not sleepy anymore," Gabrielle mumbled against the bare skin and then placed a kiss there. "Tired, but not sleepy."
"Mm," Xena uttered her agreement.
"'S quiet," Gabrielle muttered. "Everyone 'sleep?"
"Yeah," Xena answered. "Celebration died down a little while ago."
"Mm." And then Gabrielle's stomach chose that moment to make itself known.
"Hungry?" Xena absently caressed the bard's bare back with one hand.
"Starving," Gabrielle answered. "Think there's any of that venison stew left over from the celebration?"
"Maybe," Xena shifted until she was out from under the still-sleepy smaller woman. "You want me to go find out?"
"Mm," Gabrielle uttered as she didn't bother moving from her position in the warmth left by her lover's body. "Maybe some bread, cheese…some tea to wash it down with?"
Xena pulled the furs up around her lover's shoulders and tucked her in. She quickly donned her leathers and boots, then ran a wooden comb through her hair to order the dark locks.
"I'll go see what I can come up with," Xena said as she heard the gentle snores from the bed.
"Mm," came the garbled response, as Gabrielle burrowed deeper beneath the furs.
Xena emerged from the hut and breathed deeply of the chilly early-morning air. The sun hadn't yet made its appearance, but the sky was lightening to shades of gray. She stepped off the porch and caught up to a familiar figure marching purposefully across the village.
"Hello, Xena," Ephiny gave the tall warrior a brief, blurry glance as she continued on toward the meal hut. "What're you doing up so early?"
"I could ask you the same question, Ephiny," Xena smirked at the obviously-hung-over regent. "You were pretty far into your cups last night. Wouldn't think you'd be up before the noon hour, much less before dawn."
"I'm on a mission," Ephiny replied. "Had an unexpected bedmate last night…"
A dark brow rose. "Oh?"
Ephiny shot her taller companion a 'don't ask' look. "You and Gabrielle have a good…um…night?"
"Perfect," Xena answered easily, not put off by the sudden change in conversation. "We're enjoying the time together."
"Apparently," the regent lifted a brow and smirked. Her eyes went to Xena's neck and back to the taller woman's eyes. "She give you that?"
Xena unconsciously reached for her neck. "What?"
Ephiny snorted, then winced and grabbed her head. "Ugh! I really hate mornings after a celebration. Wish I could just stay in bed and sleep off the hangover."
"As I recall, no one pushed that wine in your hand, Ephiny," Xena ran her tongue through her cheek as they entered the unusually quiet meal hut.
"No," Ephiny agreed as she dropped into her customary chair and propped her booted feet on the table in front of her. "So, is Gabrielle sporting a love mark on her neck, too?" The intimidating scowl should have been enough, but the regent just chuckled. "Not a chance, Xena. I've gotten to know you over the last few weeks, and that intimidating snarl won't work on me anymore. Not after all we've been through." She glanced at the door and back up at the warrior. "By the way, where is Gabrielle, anyway? She hasn't left your side since you gave her the go ahead to get out of bed the other day."
Xena crossed her arms over her chest and kept the snarl in place. She knew it wouldn't work, but didn't care. "I left her sleeping."
"Oh…ahhh…" the regent smirked playfully as sudden dawning lit her bloodshot eyes. "You two must have been busy celebrating after you left the common area last night."
"Back off, Eph," Xena growled.
"So, when can we plan on celebrating the queen's joining?" Ephiny prodded, as one of the cooks emerged from the kitchen carrying a serving tray piled high with food. Ephiny eyed the delicious offering with trepidation and grimaced. "Ugh! How can Eponin be hungry…uh…" She glanced up to find Xena looking at her with an arched brow. "Okay, I admit it. I spent an enjoyable evening with the big lug." She shrugged. "What can I say? I'm a sucker for those brown eyes of hers. They turn me to mush."
Xena tried hard not to smirk at the revelation, but wasn't quite successful as one corner of her mouth lifted slightly. "We'll be leaving after the noonday meal." She grabbed a loaf of bread and a round of cheese from the tray and held them up to the cook who was eyeing her questioningly. "You got any more of that stew and some tea for the queen?"
The stout woman's expression softened and she even spared a brief smile. "I will send someone over to the queen's hut with the items you've requested."
Xena nodded her approval. "That'll do." She returned her attention to the still-lounging regent. "Tell Eponin I enjoyed our sparring sessions."
"Right," Ephiny said with a knowing smirk. "She'll be sorry she missed seeing the two of you before you leave."
"She'll live," Xena said, carrying her bounty out of the hut. She stopped at the door and turned back. "Thanks for everything, Ephiny. We'll come by again soon to make sure the treaties are still going well."
"I look forward to the queen's return," Ephiny winked at the dark warrior. "Oh, and Xena?"
The warrior had almost escaped, but turned back again. "Yes?"
"You ever gonna tell us what happened with you and Gabrielle?" The regent asked with a raised brow. "I came by the hut that day. Gabrielle was as still as Death and you were gone without a trace."
Xena considered the question a moment. "You'll have to ask Gabrielle about it when we come through here the next time." And this time she managed to escape without further incident.
Her long strides took her back to the queen's hut in no time. As she entered, she heard quiet snoring and wasn't surprised to find a familiar lump beneath the furs. The lump stirred slightly and settled again as Xena placed the bread and cheese on the small sideboard against the wall. She glanced up when a young, disheveled Amazon knocked once and entered carrying a food tray. There were two bowls of steaming stew and a tea pot with two cups on the tray.
Xena motioned for the woman to put the items on the sideboard with the bread and cheese. Then she silently nodded her thanks and ushered the Amazon out of the hut. When they were both outside, Xena stopped the woman.
"Can you have someone pack us something for the road?" Xena asked the young Amazon. "We'll be leaving shortly after the midday meal."
"Yes, Xena," the young woman answered with a nod. "I'll ask Azlena to have something prepared. May I ask why…" she glanced at the closed door and returned her attention to the taller warrior with a slight frown. "Is the queen dissatisfied with us? Is that why you're leaving so soon?"
"No," Xena shook her head. "We're just not used to staying in one place for very long."
"Oh," the young woman nodded hesitantly. "I see."
"Thanks for bringing the food," Xena said, as she stepped back inside the hut.
She quietly closed the door and turned to find Gabrielle yawning and stretching in the bed. Xena just stood there for a moment, reveling in the sight of her lover and partner as the blond head finally emerged from beneath the furs.
"Hey, sleepyhead," Xena greeted the smaller woman.
"Hey," Gabrielle yawned and blearily opened her eyes. "Wha' time's it?"
"Sun's up," Xena answered as she piled bread and cheese on a plate and carried it over to the bed. "Here, take this."
Gabrielle had no choice but to catch the plate before it landed in her lap. "Xena!" She complained. "Can't you…"
"Got the stew you requested," the warrior carried the two steaming bowls over to the bed and sat down next to her still-naked lover. "Here."
Gabrielle managed to set the bread and cheese plate on a flat spot before Xena handed her a bowl of steaming stew.
"Mm, smells wonderful," the bard inhaled deeply. "Doesn't have the same smell as last night's stew."
"They probably knew you'd be hungry and made a fresh batch that you'd like better," Xena commented as she dug into her own bowl. "Mm, not bad." She licked her spoon clean and glanced at Gabrielle. "Saw Ephiny on my way over to the meal hut," she commented absently.
"Really?" Gabrielle couldn't keep the furs up and eat her meal, too. So she simply let the furs puddle enticingly around her bare hips. "What was she doing up at this hour? I thought we were the only ones crazy enough to be awake this early."
Xena glanced at her lover and did a double take. "You gonna…um…" She pointed to Gabrielle's bare chest.
The bard glanced down at her ample bosom and up into eyes filled with hungry passion. "I have to eat, Xena," Gabrielle gave the warrior a seductive smirk. "You could…" She eyed the warrior's leathers and wiggled a blond brow, "…shed the garb and join me."
A low growl escaped the warrior as she jumped up and quickly shed her clothing. In seconds she was beneath the covers with renewed gusto. Thoughts of food were quickly replaced with other pursuits, as the two women made good use of the sturdy Amazon bed.
"Argo's ready," Xena said as she led the Palomino from the stables to where Gabrielle was patiently leaning against the wooden railing. The tall warrior gave her mare a quick scratch on the nose and smirked. "Aren't you, girl?"
The Palomino nodded, as if she understood perfectly.
"Hey, Argo," Gabrielle greeted the mare, as she lifted her carry bag from her shoulder and stood on tiptoes to loop it over the Palomino's saddle horn.
"Here, let me do that," Xena deftly grabbed the bag and had it in place, much to the bard's consternation.
"I could have done it myself, Xena," Gabrielle frowned.
"You two ready to take off?" Ephiny approached the trio with a noticeable bounce in her step. "You got everything?"
Xena adjusted some items dangling from Argo's saddle. "We have what's important."
"The essentials," Gabrielle agreed. "You look…um…perky, Eph, for one who was well into her cups last night. Did you get some sleep?"
"I bounce back pretty quickly," Ephiny answered with a wry smirk. She glanced at the tall warrior whose back was to her. "So, you gonna set a date, Xena?"
"A date?" Gabrielle gave the woman a confused look. She glanced Xena's way and noticed the warrior was avoiding her gaze. "What's Ephiny talking about, Xena?"
"Not now, Ephiny," the warrior growled.
"Not now for what?" Gabrielle prodded. "What's going on?"
Ephiny faced Gabrielle in all seriousness. "The queen's joining."
"Ephiny," Xena groaned. "I said not now."
"Oh, please," Gabrielle rolled her eyes at the two women. "You can't be serious."
"It's your duty to choose a consort, Gabrielle," Ephiny continued. "Who better than tall-dark-and…"
"Ephiny," Xena growled another warning.
"We'll have to get back to you on that," Gabrielle joined Xena and stood her ground. "We have things we need to take care of first."
"Like?" Ephiny added.
"Like telling our families that we're together as more than just friends and travelling companions," Gabrielle said. "Outside the realm of Amazon influence, if you haven't noticed, a relationship like ours isn't exactly the accepted norm."
"Okay, I think I can deal with that for now," Ephiny finally conceded. "But I want to be notified just as soon as you two decide to make this official. Celebrations of this magnitude take considerably more planning than the one we put on last night. That was just a minor affair. The queen's joining is a celebration that could last a full week."
"A week? I don't think so," Gabrielle walked over to the regent and gave her a hug. "You'll be one of the first to know what we decide to do. Big celebrations aren't really Xena's thing," she whispered conspiratorially.
"I heard that," Xena waited until Gabrielle stepped back to give the regent a quick hug.
"You would," Ephiny said. "You take good care of our queen while you're on the road. I don't really want to explain to the council members that she still retains her right of caste."
"Always," Xena said as she returned to Argo's head and wrapped a protective arm around her lover's shoulders.
"We'll take care of each other," Gabrielle smirked and patted the warrior's leather-clad hip. "If there's one thing we've learned from this experience…"
"Discretion is the better part of valor?" Ephiny lifted a teasing brow.
"Don't piss off the gods?" Xena said at almost the same time.
Gabrielle shook her head. "No," she glanced from one woman to the other.
"There's safety in numbers?" Xena added with a wry smirk.
"Beware Amazons bearing gifts?" Ephiny added with a chuckle.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and sighed. "We've learned how much we mean to each other." She gave the warrior's hip another squeeze. "Right, Xena?"
"Right," Xena agreed. "We've also learned how much fun it is to send a pack of hormonally driven Amazons into the midst of a sex-deprived army." She shot the regent a knowing smirk.
"Don't remind me," Ephiny shook her head in consternation. "Nine moons from now this place is gonna erupt into total chaos. I don't think we have enough nappies to go around."
"Just have Charila and the other weavers get to work right away. They should have a good supply for you in no time," Gabrielle smirked. "Better have Eponin add babysitting to the list of lessons she's giving the younger warriors. They'll need to know what to do when that windfall of newborns falls into their laps."
"Riiiiight," Ephiny answered.
"Don't count on seein' us until well after the new arrivals have started sprouting teeth," Xena added with a smirk.
"Oh, so you're reneging on the joining then?" Ephiny countered.
"Never said it would happen," Xena answered and caught the look of disappointment in her lover's eyes. "Then again, never said it wouldn't either," she mumbled.
"Time to go," Gabrielle nudged her partner and winked at the Amazon. "Take care, Ephiny. And don't hesitate to send word if you need us to bust some heads or anything."
Xena snorted. "I think those changes you included in the treaties will keep the peace far longer than busting heads would, love."
"You never know, Xena," Gabrielle said as they started down the path to the main gate. "These women might need a few busted heads to keep them from overusing their male counterparts."
The three laughed, as Xena and Gabrielle continued on past the gate with a quick wave to the regent and the two Amazons on either side of the small wooden barrier. They continued on in companionable silence through the dense forest and Xena smirked as they passed a certain spot where she'd called upon a certain war god.
"What's that smirk for?" Gabrielle's quiet voice broke the silence. "You look like you're secretly reliving a fond memory."
Caught flatfooted, Xena nearly choked on the bard's assessment. "Um…uh…not exactly."
"Something I should know about?" Gabrielle prodded. "You didn't kick Eponin's butt in a tree-fighting contest out here, did you?"
"Uh, no," Xena avoided eye contact with her erstwhile companion. "Just thinking how lucky we were this time around."
"Oh really?" Gabrielle gave the taller woman a skeptical look. "Lucky?" She shook her head and just managed to avoid tripping over a rock in the path. "You call getting caught up in another intrigue involving the gods lucky? You sure have a warped sense of good fortune, warrior."
"We stopped a rampaging army, the Amazons signed treaties with the surrounding villages, you recovered from a mystery illness…"
"That nearly killed me more times than not," Gabrielle added wryly. "Yeah, that's really lucky."
Xena moved close to the bard and wrapped a protective arm around the smaller woman's shoulders. "We found time after all the hoopla for a little…" Her eyebrows wiggled up and down a few times to finish the thought. "I believe I managed to make you scream at least six, if not seven, times." An expression of self-accomplishment crossed her features.
Gabrielle glared up at her companion. "I've got you beat by one," she deadpanned. The silence that descended was almost palpable, broken only by the gentle clip-clop of the Palomino's strides. "Xena?"
"Would you ever consider…" she stopped before she could voice the entire thought.
Xena could see the wheels turning in her lover's mind. She also knew it was only a matter of time-maybe heartbeats, maybe candlemarks-before the chatty woman expounded on her stilted conversational opening.
"Never mind," Gabrielle answered as they increased their pace upon noticing a break in the trees ahead.
"Gaaaabrielle," the warrior growled as she increased her strides to catch up to the smaller woman.
"Would you marry me?" The bard blurted and didn't realize that her taller companion had stopped dead at the edge of the woods until she was several paces out in the bright sunshine. Gabrielle turned to find Xena standing with a bemused look of wonderment on her face. "What?"
The warrior managed to convince her legs to move again. It only took her a few strides to reach the smaller woman's side. "You're serious?"
"It was just a thought," Gabrielle shrugged nonchalantly. "Ephiny kept hinting…and we talked about it some…and, well, the gods…"
"I don't know, Gabrielle," Xena blew out a heavy sigh.
"It's okay, Xena. You don't have to give it another thought," the bard felt her leg muscles protesting her increased pace, so she slowed and dropped back a bit. "It's not like there's anyone around here who would perform the ceremony for a couple like us, anyway."
Xena automatically adjusted her stride to match her companion's. She didn't want to push Gabrielle beyond her endurance and knew how much her recent illness would probably limit their travel time. She also knew of a great spot to make camp for the night. It had a waterfall for a refreshing soak and some lush vegetation they could use as bedding beneath their furs. She planned on pampering her still-recovering lover in more ways than one on this trip.
"Amazons are the only ones I know of," Xena answered absently, as her thoughts drifted to the campsite she had in mind. "Becoming an Amazon isn't really in my future."
Xena was so preoccupied with her own musings that she missed the look of disappointment on Gabrielle's face. The bard quickly hid her expression behind a stoic mask of indifference that she had learned to mimic from a certain warrior companion of hers. The two were silent as they continued to follow the path that would eventually lead to the main road and away from Amazon lands.
Apollo's chariot was nearing the western horizon when Xena finally steered them away from the main road and onto a little-used deer path that took them further into the dense brush. The tall warrior was impressed that her smaller companion hadn't complained once about the candlemarks of travel by foot. As a matter of fact, Gabrielle had remained rather quiet during the entire journey. That was pretty unusual and didn't go completely unnoticed by the taller woman.
"Xena, where are we going?" Gabrielle asked, as she leaned more heavily on her staff while they crossed through the uneven terrain. "We don't usually take side trips like this."
The warrior smirked in answer to the question. "You'll see."
Gabrielle stumbled over a rock hidden in the tall brush. "Ugh! Xena, this isn't exactly a great way to end…" She nearly collided with the warrior's back when Xena abruptly stopped in front of her. "Xena…"
"Here we are," the tall warrior turned sideways and stretched her arm out.
Gabrielle's eyes widened in child-like wonder at the gorgeous scene laid out before her. A small pool lay in the midst of a bed of lush greenery. Pine trees surrounded the pool and provided a measure of privacy. There was a small sandy beach near the water's edge and a waterfall provided a beautiful backdrop to the entire scene.
"Xena, it's fantastic!" Gabrielle exhaled in utter awe. "Breathtaking!"
"I thought you'd enjoy a little private time away from the constant Amazon interruptions," Xena said as she made her way down to the water's edge to give Argo a drink.
They quickly set up camp and were soon lounging on a pile of thick furs resting on a bed of fresh pine needles. A small fire crackled in front of them and Argo grazed close by. Xena figured she'd brush the mare down after the evening meal, which Xena still had to fish for.
"This is really nice, Xena," Gabrielle sighed. "Thanks for bringing me here."
"Least I could do for my best girl," Xena grinned at the smaller woman. "You deserve a break after all I put you through."
"Put me through?" Gabrielle's brow hiked into her bangs. "None of that was your fault, Xena. You weren't responsible for my illness or for creating the army or for the gods and their selfish manipulations."
"No, but it was because of me-because of my past-that they targeted you," Xena added. "If not for…"
"If not for your past, we wouldn't be here, Xena," Gabrielle placed a hand over the warrior's. "Your past brought us together in the first place. It's not your fault that everyone is so caught up in your past deeds that they can't see the good you do now. They can't see the forest for the trees, so to speak."
"You won't stop trying to convince them, though, will you?" The warrior smirked.
"Not as long as I still have breath in this body, I won't," Gabrielle grinned. "It's what I do-one of my many skills."
They both chuckled.
"You ready for a swim?" Xena eyed the inviting pool. "I can hear some nice, fresh trout in there with our names on them." She gave the bard her best fish-lip imitation. "Gabrielle, we're waiting for you," she mocked.
"Will you teach me?"
"To catch fish?"
Gabrielle nodded her short-cropped head. "Add another skill to my repertoire." She smirked. "You can never have too many useful skills when you're traveling with the famous Warrior Princess." The bard jumped to her feet and started undressing on her way to the water's edge.
The both laughed as a naked Xena caught up to her naked companion and wrapped her in a protective embrace, as they both plunged under water in a huge splash.
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