See Part 1 for disclaimers and a full description of this installment in the My Lord Conqueror series.
Special Note of thanks and acknowledgement: This part goes out to my Chief Muse Wrangler, the ever-inspiring and amusing Wacky Raven. You rock, girl! Keep up the great work wrangling those pesky muses and make sure you read all the way to the end of this part. Surprise!
To all my dedicated readers: Has it really been since the end of October since I actually posted the first part of this story? My apologies to you guys for the long delay. It couldn't be helped. But now I'm back and ready to continue the tale of our adventurous heroines. Thanks for sticking with me, guys! I really appreciate it. Now, on with the show!!!
She awoke to the soft sounds of snoring and the gentle whispers of someone's warm breath on her bare skin. Each exhale from the woman snuggled against her side and half-buried beneath the furs sent tiny shivers of anticipation throughout her body and reminded her of their exquisite lovemaking the previous night.
A songbird twittered in a tree close by. A gentle breeze brushed her cheek. And a crow squawked loudly overhead. Xena listened to the early-morning noises and inhaled the crisp morning air without opening her eyes. She was content to just lay there beneath their sleeping furs and enjoy the quiet moment for the first time since the trip began.
Another loud squawk, this one right above her, had Xena opening one blue eye and peering up into the branches of the tree overhead. A black shadow hopped from one branch to another. Xena heard the slight clack of the bird's claws on the branches above.
Moving a hand out from beneath the furs, Xena felt around the ground for something to use against the unwelcome intruder. Her fingers finally found what she was searching for and closed around the small rock. It was larger than a pebble, yet smaller than her fist. Its rough surface fit perfectly against the callouses of her palm, as she silently worked out the details of the impending assault.
Xena focused all her senses on the bird still hopping from one branch to the next. She knew it was closing in, even though all she could see was its shadow in the pre-dawn gloom. A smiled tugged at her lips, as she waited patiently for just the right moment.
The crow squawked.
Xena moved with lightning-quick reflexes.
A loud squawk rent the peaceful silence and a thump followed.
“Really, Xena?” Gabrielle grumbled sleepily.
Xena glanced down at the blond head that hadn't moved an inch. “Did I wake you?”
“No,” Gabrielle snuggled down further and pressed her lips against the side of Xena's breast. “Woke up when that stupid bird cawed the final time. Sounded like it was gonna land right on top of my head. Did you get it?”
“I did,” Xena smiled proudly. “Nailed it right between its beady little eyes.”
Gabrielle's head shifted until one green eye was peeking up at Xena. “How do you know? It's still darker than pitch out here. I can barely make out the outline of your face, much less the tree overhead.”
“I can see you just fine,” Xena marveled at the look of confusion on Gabrielle's features. “And I knew exactly where that crow's head was when he squawked that last time. It didn't take much to hit it.”
Gabrielle snuggled back down into the crook of Xena's arm and shook her head. “You amaze me every day, Xena.” Then she sighed. “Did you kill it?”
“I sure hope so,” Xena answered quickly without thinking. “Erm, that is…”
“It's okay, love,” Gabrielle chuckled and gently patted a bare hip beneath her hand. “I understand.”
That brought a look of confusion to Xena's face. “You do?”
“Yep,” Gabrielle nodded. “It's in your nature to act first and ask questions later.”
Xena frowned. “I thought a lot about killing that crow long before I hit it with the rock. A lot of careful planning went into it, as a matter of fact. You don't just hit a moving target like that without listening and watching and anticipating your target's every move.”
Gabrielle snickered. “Okay, Lord Conqueror. I get it.”
“Your tone sounds slightly patronizing, there, your majesty,” Xena scoffed.
“No,” Gabrielle noticed that the shadows were getting progressively more defined, as dawn broke and the sky became less black and shifted to dark gray. “I just don't want to argue with you right now.” She placed another kiss on the warm skin beneath her lips. “I'd much rather enjoy this moment of peace and solitude. After all, you never know when we'll be interrupted.”
“Let ‘em try,” Xena growled low, as she wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and pulled her closer. “It would serve ‘em right to get an eyeful. That's for sure.”
Gabrielle felt an instant blush suffuse her cheeks. “Xeeeena…”
“Gaaaaabrielle,” Xena let her hands wander along Gabrielle's bare back until they rested on a firm backside.
Gabrielle giggled. “I don't think I could take a surprise appearance by the Amazons first thing this morning. I'd probably die from embarrassment.”
“Nah,” Xena leaned down and took Gabrielle's lips in a smoldering kiss. “You'd be too distracted by my charms to care.”
Xena pulled the furs over both their heads and let the morning noises drift away on the breeze, as they concentrated on other, more interesting, pursuits.
“I'm going to kill you,” Ephiny groused.
“I told you,” Eponin said with a triumphant grin.
“She's got a point,” Solari pulled her mare alongside the two and grinned. “I wouldn't hesitate to kill you if it was me.”
“It wasn't you, Sol, so shut it,” Eponin glared.
“No, it was me, you pinhead,” Ephiny shot Eponin a scowl. “I made the choice. It's on me.”
Eponin ducked her chin and shrugged. “So I'll do it next time.”
“It won't be the same, next time,” Ephiny grumbled.
A heavy silence hung over the slow-moving riders. It was one of those silences that spoke volumes, even though no one uttered a word.
Gabrielle leaned as close to Xena as she could without falling out of the saddle. “You think they'll kiss and make up?” She asked in a loud whisper. “I hate to see things go this way.”
“They'll eventually get over it,” Xena nodded. “It may take Ephiny some time to forget what happened, but I don't see her holding a grudge.”
Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder and caught the glare Ephiny was giving Eponin. “I'm not so sure about that. She looks really pissed off, like she could strangle Eponin with her bare hands.”
“Eponin had no idea the river bank was covered in poison sumac,” Xena glanced back and returned her attention to the road ahead while trying to hide a grin. “Doesn't look like the salve is working, yet, either.”
Gabrielle stifled a chuckle. “I really don't envy Ephiny, right now.”
Xena glanced at Gabrielle. “Do you ever envy her?”
“Not really,” Gabrielle shrugged. “But I'm glad I'm not the one Eponin decided to pick on about never doing manual labor around camp. It really pays to be their queen, sometimes.”
“It pays not to set up camp with the damned Amazons,” Xena added with a wry grin.
Gabrielle blushed and rolled her eyes. “Please don't talk about that right now, Xe. I'm begging you. I don't need them overhearing you bragging about how you made me scream like a crazed banshee…”
“Oh, I'm sure they heard all about it last night,” Xena's grin widened. “And this morning…”
“Xena!” Gabrielle slapped a leather-clad shoulder. “Not in front of the Amazons.”
“If not the Amazons, then who?” Xena teased.
“Urgh!” Gabrielle groaned. “You are such a brat sometimes. You know that?”
In answer, Xena stuck her tongue out at Gabrielle. She received the same in return, but Gabrielle added her own special touch by licking her lips in a slow, deliberate way that had Xena instantly sitting up straight. Then she grinned and batted her eyelashes seductively.
“Are you two done makin' googly eyes at each other?” Eponin groused, as she came up on Xena's other side. “You're like a couple of love-struck kids. Ya know that? It's kinda gross.”
“Jealous much, Eponin?” Gabrielle smirked.
“ Pfft! As if,” Eponin answered, then looked away.
They rode in silence for some time. The sun peaked in the cloudless sky and there were no crows following them on this leg of the journey. Gabrielle was glad for that, at least.
Xena briefly wondered if it had something to do with her actions that morning or if the birds had just given up. Either way, she didn't really care. They weren't squawking and cawing, which was just fine with her.
Senses alert to any possible dangers, Xena continued to appear completely relaxed and in control. So far, everything was normal. The songbirds were singing merrily in the few trees scattered along the road. She could even hear a few ground critters scampering away as the horses approached.
“Be right back,” Xena said suddenly, and kicked her mount into a quick trot.
She didn't look back and merely yanked the reins, then nudged the stallion into a fast canter. Xena left the road and the others behind as she guided her horse down an embankment and moved farther into the woods. She knew there would be questions for her when she returned to the group. But she knew she had to answer the summons that was pulling her to separate herself from the others, including—no, especially—Gabrielle.
“What do you want, Ares?” Xena pulled back on the reins and waited for the restless stallion to acknowledge her queue. “Ares!”
“Yeah, yeah,” his deep voice broke the silence, before he appeared in a flash of white-blue light and leaned casually against a tree. He crossed his arms over his chest and glared up at her. “Get down here if you want to talk to me, Xena. I'm not in the mood for games.”
Xena dismounted and walked confidently to her horse's head. She then stood in front of the God of War and crossed her own arms over her own chest. The droll expression she gave him told him she wasn't intimidated in the least.
“What do you want?” Xena repeated. A dark brow lifted in question, as she glared at him impatiently. “I don't have all day, Ares.”
“What do I always want from you, Xena?” He cocked his chin in challenge. “You know exactly what I want.”
“Not interested,” Xena was just about to turn and remount her stallion, when a hand on her shoulder stopped her. She glanced at the hand and then up into the dark, brooding eyes of the God of War. “I don't answer to you anymore, Ares.”
“No, I suppose that's true,” Ares removed his hand as a precaution, after seeing the deadly glint in her eyes. “Word has it you're answering to the runt now. So, how's that working out for you, Xena? She giving you everything you've always wanted? Power? Riches? A good roll in the sack?”
She rounded on him, drew her sword in one swift motion and held the tip under his chin in the next. “What is your game this time, Ares? I'm really not in the mood for whatever it is you're playing at, so you'd better just spill it before I leave you to whatever you're cooking up now.”
He put a finger on the blade tip and moved it away. “I helped you defeat Draco, Xena. I think you owe me a little something for that.”
“You're the one who put Draco into the mix in the first place,” Xena moved the blade tip back and held firm. “I don't owe you anything.”
Ares backed up a step and held his hands out to his sides. “Take it easy, there, Xena. I know we haven't always been on the best of terms, but…”
Xena closed in again with anger flaring in her eyes. “You tried to kill me, Ares.”
He put a finger to his chin and braced his arm with the other. “Wasn't really my idea, unfortunately,” he shrugged. “There are forces at work in all this that…Well, let's just say the tide is shifting and…” He shrugged.
“I know about Caesar, Ares,” Xena watched his expression shift from surprise to the hooded scowl he usually used on those who didn't know him like she did. “I also know he's courting Egypt and Persia and only the gods know who else.”
“All the more reason to come back into the fold, Xena,” he pushed her blade down and moved in close to her shoulder. “I can give you everything you need to reclaim what you lost when Draco sided with the Romans and took it all away from you. I have an army waiting for a new general. You're just the person to lead them.”
“Draco was only a small part of the greater whole, Ares,” Xena argued. “You just said so yourself. There is more here than meets the eye. I know what I have to do. And I know who I want to do it with.”
“The runt,” Ares scoffed and rolled his eyes. “What do you see in that little pipsqueak, anyway? A child could knock that stupid little stick out of her hands.”
Xena grinned in satisfaction. “She's not a pipsqueak or a runt, Ares. She's one of the strongest, bravest and most caring souls I've ever known. Gabrielle's love is more powerful than even your measly attempts to win me back. And I cherish every moment that I'm with her. She is the other half of my soul. The one I've been searching for all my life.”
“Your little blond partner is no match for what lies ahead, Xena,” Ares shook his head. “Her skills with that little stick of hers are no match for the danger that awaits you across the Aegean. You and I both know that.”
“Gabrielle is more than capable of holding her own in a fight,” Xena countered. “Despite what you might think of her, she's more capable than most people who are twice her age. She's a survivor, Ares. That's all that matters. She's been through some tough situations that would bring the strongest man to his knees and drive the sanest person crazy with grief. But Gabrielle weathered it all and has kept her spirit intact. She has risen above adversity and come out of those situations a stronger person for them.”
“You talk about her like she's some kind of goddess,” Ares scoffed. “She's as mortal as you are, Xena.”
“And we're together, Ares,” Xena replied with a simple smile. “I love her. We're joined in this life. Where Gabrielle goes, I go. You can't change that.”
“And where you go, the runt is sure to follow,” he shot back sarcastically. “Yeah, yeah. Tell me something I don't know.”
“Are you the one sending the crows to follow us?” Xena decided a change of topic was in order.
Caught flat-footed by the question, Ares took a moment to absorb her words. “Crows?”
“Yes,” Xena nodded. She had her answer. “A whole flock of them have been following us for the better part of two days, now. It's annoying.”
“I don't do fowl, Xena,” Ares shook his head and then his entire body, as if to shake off the mere thought of having birds touching him. “Feathers really aren't my style.”
Ares shrugged. “Don't know. Could be Arty. She likes all the leather and feathers. But I don't really see crows as her thing. They're a little too dark and creepy for even her.”
“So you really don't know? Or is it that you're just not willing to say?” Xena prodded.
“Look, Xena,” Ares stepped closer again. “If I wanted to spy on you, I'd just—” He shrugged again and held his hands out to his sides. “I don't need a bunch of birds to do my dirty work for me. I have people for that.”
“Yes, I know,” Xena rolled her eyes at him. “Draco was such a fine choice for a leader of your army, Ares.”
“He had his uses,” Ares replied with a smirk. “But he wasn't you.” He moved in even closer until they were nose to nose. Then he ran a finger down her cheek. “There hasn't been anyone else like you, Xena. I miss that fire I see in your eyes, even now.”
She felt that sexual tension his touch always elicited. It was intoxicating and nearly sent her to her knees. But Xena also knew she couldn't give into it. She thought of Gabrielle, as she fought against the energy that coursed through her body and made every nerve ending tingle with desire.
“We're done,” Xena turned away from him, broke contact and mounted her stallion. “Not this time, Ares. We're through. It's over.”
With that, she picked up the reins and turned the stallion in a tight half-circle, until he was facing away from the God of War. She then kicked him into a fast trot and didn't look back.
“No one turns their back on me, Xena!” Ares called angrily. “You will regret this! You'll see! When you come crawling back to me with your tail tucked between your legs…”
Xena ignored him and continued on her way without looking back. She wanted nothing more in that moment than to be with Gabrielle. Everything else could go by the wayside, as long as she had Gabrielle with her. Of that she was certain. And she wanted absolutely nothing to do with Ares and whatever it was he was up to.
Gabrielle sat patiently atop her quietly munching mount, while inside she was seething. She wanted nothing more than to take off in pursuit of Xena, who had been gone without a word for more than a quarter candlemark. She was grinding her teeth in frustration, despite her outwardly calm demeanor.
“Are we just supposed to wait here?” Eponin's own impatience was evident in her tone.
“We could keep going and let her catch up when she's done,” Sol suggested. “It's not like she told us to wait here for her.”
Gabrielle glanced at Ephiny. She caught the questioning look from the regent, as Ephiny halted her mare and set her shoulders.
“The others are getting antsy, Gabrielle,” Ephiny finally said after a long pause. “We need to keep moving and find a place to set up camp for the night. We're probably about two days out from our lands and another half-day's ride to the village center, if we keep at this stilted pace.”
Gabrielle quietly sat there. She was pondering what to do. No, Xena didn't exactly order them to stay there. She didn't say anything, actually. And Gabrielle was still waging an internal battle whether to continue the journey and let Xena catch up to them or go charging into the woods in hot pursuit of her mate.
“I'm thinking,” Gabrielle responded quietly.
Ephiny glanced up at the sky. “We could take a break and get a quick bite of trail rations before continuing on,” she suggested.
Gabrielle sighed. “Yeah, let's do that.”
Gabrielle dismounted and led her horse over to a clearing just off the road. She tied the reins to a small sapling and then sat down on a fallen log. Resting her arms on her thighs, Gabrielle just sat there brooding.
“You okay?” Ephiny sat down next to her.
“Fine,” Gabrielle straightened and looked around at the activity, as the Amazons made a small fire. “We're not really staying that long, Eph. I don't think a fire is necessary.”
Ephiny shrugged. “Habit.”
They sat in companionable silence while the others puttered around the small clearing. Voices remained low in conversation, adding a measure of familiarity to the scene. But Gabrielle's thoughts really weren't on what was happening around her. She was thinking of a certain blue-eyed woman who had charged off without a word.
“Are you sure you're okay? It's not like you to be so quiet, Gabrielle,” Ephiny commented. “You're usually chattier than this.”
Gabrielle looked at her folded hands. “I'm okay,” she responded with little enthusiasm.
“She'll be right back,” Ephiny said confidently. “I'm sure she just went to scout the land or check something out.”
“She left without saying a word to me,” Gabrielle let the hint of disappointment seep into her words.
Ephiny shrugged. “She's Xena. Who really knows what she's thinking half the time?”
“I do,” Gabrielle shot the curly-haired blond a raised-browed look. “Is that supposed to make me feel better? We've been joined for nearly a moon now. I'm her partner. She should at least tell me what's going on and why she's taking off to the-gods-only-know-where.”
“Warriors,” Ephiny shrugged. “What can I say, except that they're a different breed?”
“We're partners,” Gabrielle said, as if that explained it all.
“I get it, Gabrielle,” Ephiny said. “Don't think I don't. You're upset because Xena took off and left you behind. And now she's off doing the warrior/scout thing and you're…well, you're here. I get it. That joining thing is supposed to mean something more than just words. It's supposed to include the whole ‘until death' thing, too. Believe it or not, I do get it. And as soon as we get to the village, Eponin and I will be joined just the same as you and Xena. That means I'll be just as peeved when Eponin goes traipsing off and leaves me behind to stew over where she's gone.”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle ground out between clenched teeth.
“Hey,” Ephiny rubbed Gabrielle's back. “What is up with you? This is Xena we're talking about. She can take care of the whole lot of us, much less herself. She conquered all of Greece, Gabrielle. That's gotta count for something. You really don't need to worry about her.”
“And since I've known her, she was soundly defeated, spent three moons in a dank dungeon, and had her own brother betray her trust. Not to mention what Draco and the Romans did,” Gabrielle added. “Everyone keeps saying that Xena is invincible—that she can take care of herself. Why don't I believe that like I did when I first met her?” She grabbed a stick and absently poked the ground in front of her. “She still has enemies—people who want her dead. That has to count for something, too.”
Ephiny considered Gabrielle's words for a bit. “I guess I see your point,” she finally said. “But I'm pretty sure she can handle a little side trip into the woods, Gabrielle. She probably just needed to…um…have a private moment alone.”
Gabrielle rested her head in her hands and didn't see the tall figure step up behind her. Ephiny did and simply nodded to Xena. The regent quietly stood up and walked over to where the other Amazons were busy preparing a light meal.
Xena silently sat down and looked at Gabrielle with concern. She had heard most of the conversation and was a little unsettled to find out Gabrielle didn't have as much faith in her as she believed she should.
“Do you really think so little of my warrior skills, Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle's head popped up and she stared wide-eyed at Xena. “What? When—”
“Been here long enough to hear most of what you said to Ephiny,” Xena shrugged. “I have to say, I'm a little disappointed. I thought you knew me better than that.”
Gabrielle's cheeks colored. “Xena, I—” But she couldn't finish the sentence with the look Xena was giving her. “I'm sorry.”
“Me, too,” Xena ducked her chin and then peeked at Gabrielle through hooded lids. “Never thought I'd care enough about anyone to let their opinion matter so much.”
“Xena,” Gabrielle felt tears prick her eyes, as her throat closed.
“It's okay, Gabrielle,” Xena let the hint of a sad smile touch her lips. “I understand.”
“No,” Gabrielle shook her head. “You don't understand, Xena. What I said to Ephiny… What I meant to say and what actually came out are two different things.”
Xena's expression hardened, as she let her gaze drift to the Amazons. “So you weren't telling Ephiny that you're afraid I'm not the warrior I used to be? Is that it?”
“No,” Gabrielle answered. “It's not like that, Xena.” A tear trailed down Gabrielle's cheek, as she took Xena's hands in hers. “You are every bit the warrior you've always been and so much more. It's just that I sometimes…” She looked away, but kept a firm hold on Xena's hands. “I want to be there for you, Xena. I want to always be there to guard your back and…” She paused to take a deep breath. “Xena, you can't just go off and leave me behind like that. It hurts me so much when you do that. I feel…” She stood up and paced away a few steps and then turned back. “It's like you don't trust me —don't trust us . I feel left out, like I don't matter enough for you to let me know what's going on.”
Xena's confusion deepened. “Gabrielle, you're everything to me. You're my entire world.”
“Then why did you go running off without telling me what was going on?” Tears glistened in Gabrielle's eyes.
Xena looked away. “Gabrielle, you don't understand…”
Returning to kneel before the black-clad warrior, Gabrielle placed her hands on Xena's knees. “Then explain it to me. Explain everything, so I can understand and maybe even help you. There's something going on, Xena. I know that wasn't just a trip into the bushes to relieve yourself.”
Xena placed her hands on top of Gabrielle's and gazed intently into sea-green eyes filled with unshed tears. “Ares is trying to win me back.”
The silence stretched between them.
“Ares? As in the God of War? That Ares?”
“Why?” Gabrielle tried to make sense of the sudden shift in conversation. “What does he have to do with you running off…”
“I went to meet him,” Xena continued. “I needed to find out what he's up to and if he's responsible for those birds following us.”
“Wait,” Gabrielle shook her head. “He actually appeared to you—in the flesh?”
Xena smiled at the bewildered look on her lover's face. “It generally happens that way, Gabrielle. You can't really carry on a conversation with a god when you can't see them.”
“I—I guess I never gave it much thought,” Gabrielle replied in wonder. “I haven't exactly had all that many conversations with the gods. Actually, I don't know that many people who have.” She shrugged. “So what did he say?”
“Nothing good,” Xena responded, her expression falling. “Same ol' same ol'. He wants me back.”
“Back?” Gabrielle's confusion was evident.
“Ares was kinda the reason I went on my initial rampage across Greece,” Xena explained. “I swore an oath to him as my patron god and conquered Greece for him.” Xena shrugged. “I was young and stupid and didn't know any better.”
Gabrielle stared at their joined hands. “Did he…Were you two…”
“Lovers?” Xena finished for her. “In a manner of speaking, yes. It was part of the package, at least in my case.”
Gabrielle's gaze returned to Xena's. “And he wants…”
Xena placed her palm to Gabrielle's cheek. “I told him no, Gabrielle.” She gently wiped away an errant tear that slid from one sea-green eye. “He can't have me because my heart belongs to you. I'm yours until you tell me otherwise.”
Gabrielle leaned into the caress and sighed, as her eyelids slid shut and soft lips touched hers. All the confusion suddenly evaporated in that moment, as her world righted itself again. Xena's touch—her mere presence—was enough to dispel the sudden insecurity that had come over Gabrielle. And Xena's heartfelt words and that chaste kiss added a measure of confidence that Gabrielle didn't even realize she was missing.
“I'm sorry I doubted you, Xena,” Gabrielle said softly, as her eyes fluttered open and she gazed into sky-blue eyes shining with love.
Xena closed the distance again until their foreheads rested agains each other. “It's okay, Gabrielle. You're allowed to have moments of doubt.” She brushed her lips against Gabrielle's again. “I'm sorry that I didn't tell you where I was going and that you worried because of it. I'll try to do better next time.”
“Promise?” Gabrielle smiled.
“Absolutely,” Xena nodded and realized they were still nose-to-nose. “Now, can we get back on the road, before your Amazons get any bright ideas about watching our little public display here?”
Gabrielle couldn't help the blush that suffused her cheeks. “Oh, gods…”
Xena gave her another peck on the lips and then straightened up with her usual stoic glare. She caught Ephiny and Eponin staring at her and Gabrielle, but the two quickly looked away. The others seemed to be keeping themselves busy with menial tasks, but Xena knew they'd been watching, as well. Her sixth sense had sent her nape hairs to tingling.
“Come on, my queen,” Xena stood up and extended a hand to the still-blushing woman. “Up we go. Time to move out and put some distance behind us. I'd like to reach Amazon territory by this time tomorrow. Maybe we can make up some lost time.”
Gabrielle let Xena help her to her feet, as she tried to regain her composure. She knew the Amazons had seen the two of them nose-to-nose and only hoped she wasn't in for a ribbing over it. She also hoped the Amazons quickly got over it and moved on to other things. Or maybe they would remember that she was their queen and leave her alone.
“You two finished making out?” Eponin walked up and stated bluntly. “We'd kinda like to get moving and reach Amazon territory before the snow starts falling. We still got a lot of leagues to cover, yer maj.”
Gabrielle sighed and rolled her eyes. “Nice, Pon. Thanks.”
Gabrielle, her confidence bolstered once again, brushed past the woman without another word and headed toward the horses, leaving a confused Eponin standing in front of a stoic Xena.
“What'd I say?”
Xena shook her head and chuckled. She then walked up to the confused weapons master, placed a hand on her shoulder. “You might consider a different tact with Gabrielle, Pon.” Then she, too, walked toward the horses.
“Sheesh,” Eponin just stood there with her hands on her hips and shook her head. “I can't win for tryin' with those two.”
They reached the woods that bordered Amazon territory just before dusk the following night, much to everyone's surprise and relief. Camp was quickly set up in a small clearing and a fire blazed warmly, as the sun disappeared below the horizon. The day came to a close with little fanfare, as the Amazons all breathed a collective sigh of relief to finally be close to home. The chatter around the campfire was mildly subdued, but also carried a hint of expectation.
Gabrielle watched her sisters, as she sat on her sleeping furs and leaned against a fallen log. She thought back to when she had first met Xena and all that had happened since. Her gaze tracked to where Xena and Eponin were. The two were standing at the edge of the fire light and Xena was showing Eponin a few sword maneuvers that the weapons master obviously had never used before. It brought a smile to her lips to see Xena getting along so well with the Amazon.
And then she realized how content the Amazons appeared, as they went about their tasks or simply conversed with each other. There was an air of excitement about the camp that hadn't been there before. They seemed truly relaxed and glad to be home again.
“Dinar for your thoughts,” Ephiny's voice intruded on Gabrielle's contemplative silence.
Ephiny sat down next to her and smiled, before her gaze settled on the roaring campfire in front of them. Gabrielle gazed fondly at the woman next to her. A small smile touched her features, as she noted the look of contentment on Ephiny's features, as well.
“What?” Hazel eyes caught Gabrielle staring.
“Nothing,” Gabrielle answered, as she concentrated, instead, on the campfire.
Silence stretched between them for several moments.
“That knowing little grin was so not nothing, Gabrielle,” Ephiny finally broke the silence. “You were thinking about something.”
“I was,” Gabrielle nodded and caught the questioning look Ephiny gave her. “I was thinking how happy you all are now that we're finally close to Amazon territory.”
Ephiny sighed. “Yeah.” She glanced around at the smiling faces of the other women. “I guess I can't really explain it. I just…” She shrugged. “It feels good to be home.”
Gabrielle nodded again. “I know the feeling.”
That got a confused look from the regent. “You do?”
“Xena is my home, now,” Gabrielle said easily, as she caught sight of the woman in question and smiled. “Where she goes, I go. Simple as that.”
“Yeah,” Ephiny's gaze followed Gabrielle's until it landed on the woman with Xena. “I get it, now.” She clasped her hands in front of her and looked at them. “Didn't know what it really felt like to be in love, until Eponin came along.”
“Then you and Terreis…” Gabrielle let the words hang.
“No. Terreis was my best friend. With Eponin it's different,” Ephiny continued. “When we're together I feel like my world is complete—like I don't need air to breathe or food to eat. She's all I really need.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Home.”
“Definitely,” Ephiny agreed, then she glanced around at the campsite. “But it's also good to be back here in familiar territory, too. I feel like I'm home in more ways than one.” She took one of Gabrielle's hands in hers and squeezed it. “Thanks for coming back with us to perform our joining ceremony, Gabrielle. It means the world to me that you and Xena would postpone your plans for us.”
Gabrielle grinned. “I wouldn't miss it for the world, Eph. I'm glad we came.”
“Me, too,” Ephiny added. “I know she wants to go kick her brother's butt and find out what the Romans are up to.”
“About that,” Gabrielle's expression sobered. “I've been meaning to talk to you about something.”
Ephiny caught the seriousness in Gabrielle's tone and felt her stomach plummet. “What is it?”
“I don't want you to take this the wrong way, Ephiny, because I really love you guys and want only the best for all our sisters…”
“Now you're scaring me,” Ephiny pulled away and looked at Gabrielle with a guarded expression. “What?”
Gabrielle sighed to know she'd just blundered into that one. So, she decided it was just best to get it out there and let Ephiny think what she would about it. After all, it wasn't like…
“I don't want you coming with us when we head to Rome,” Gabrielle blurted and watched a mix of emotions cross the regent's features. “It's not what you're thinking. I just don't think it's a good idea to show up on Caesar's doorstep with an entire Amazon entourage in tow. Besides, Xena and I will blend in a whole lot better and get the information we need if we're not worrying about all of you.”
Ephiny crossed her arms over her chest and glared. “You're our queen, Gabrielle. It's our jobs to worry about you , not the other way around.”
Gabrielle sighed and tried to come up with a more reasonable argument. “I can take care of myself, Eph. And when that doesn't work, Xena is there to watch my back. We'll be fine.”
“And what about us? What about me?” Ephiny countered. “Do you expect me to just sit back here, comfy as you please, and worry about what's happening to you when you go traipsing off into the snake pit with a bunch of conniving asps?”
“Actually, I was hoping you would do some damage control while I'm gone,” Gabrielle said. “Maybe work with the other tribes and get some of the problems ironed out that didn't get resolved after Draco's defeat. I mean, it's not like we left things on the best of terms with the other tribes. There could still be some residual animosity out there over the Velasca and Gwyn-Taleen incidences. Maybe you can find a way to bring the tribes closer. Or, at least, get them all back on speaking terms again.”
Ephiny considered the idea. “You want me to play diplomat for you while you go off on your merry way? Is that it?”
“You don't have to do it if you don't want to, Eph,” Gabrielle added. “I wouldn't ask you to do anything you're uncomfortable with.” She looked at the Amazon thoughtfully and added, “Even if that something were to set the Nation on a path toward unity and peace?”
“Nice,” Ephiny scowled at her companion. “Throw the Nation card in there for good measure.”
Silence reined between them and seemed to drag on, until Gabrielle felt the weight of it settle on her shoulders like a physical load. She didn't like using guilt to manipulate a situation, but that's exactly what she'd just done.
“I'm sorry, Eph,” Gabrielle said. “We can think of some other way to unite the tribes. Maybe Grenella or one of the other queens has a suggestion.”
“Don't be sorry, Gabrielle,” Ephiny let the hint of a smile touch her lips. “You're thinking of the Nation and what's best for all of us. That's something. I just don't think I'm the person for the job. That's all. I've lived with these women far longer than you. I know them. Once they get a bug up their butt, it isn't easy to wriggle it free.”
Gabrielle shot her companion an incredulous look. “Seriously, Eph?”
Ephiny chuckled and the tension between them melted away, as Gabrielle joined in the laughter.
“We're Amazons, Gab,” Eph finally sobered. “We kick butt and ask questions later. It's how we work. Diplomacy isn't one of our strong suits.”
“There's always a first time for everything,” Gabrielle added.
“If you say so,” Ephiny shrugged and looked skeptical. “I'm not saying we can't eventually come to an understanding and put our best foot forward as a nation. I'm just not sure the others will let bygones be bygones, just yet. We don't work that way. Grudges can be tricky things, especially with Amazons. Some of those women have been holding grudges over stupid stuff for their entire lives.”
Gabrielle thought about that. She'd only been an Amazon for a short time, compared to Ephiny and the others. She was just a baby to most of them. But she'd also read a great deal about their history, traditions and the few stories that had been collected in the archives that were kept in the Thracian village. She knew more than most of them. Her natural curiosity had spurred her on, even when she didn't want to know anymore about the bloody history they all shared.
But none of those annals had really tapped into the deeper emotional or psychological workings of the Amazons, themselves. One had to live among them to really understand all the different personalities that made up the women who lived like warriors and rejected many of the traditional roles of women.
Gabrielle had been only a few weeks with the Amazons, and had barely recovered from the severe wounds she'd received in the vicious attack at the keep in Surra, when she was exposed to a whole new alien world she had only dreamed existed. Stepping out of that hut and into the village, with all its wonders and strangeness, had been a real eye-opening experience for her and one she wouldn't soon forget.
Terreis had been right there by Gabrielle's side when she finally was able to join her new sisters. Terreis had given Gabrielle her first tour of the village and patiently explained things and answered all her questions. Gabrielle still couldn't fathom what the experience would have been like without Terreis there to share it with. The young woman was a plethora of useful information. She also had the patience of a goddess when Gabrielle's questions were fired off, one after the other in rapid-fire succession.
Gabrielle smiled to herself when she thought of that first day and everything she'd learned. Her smile was also wistful when she thought of her deceased friend. Terreis had been more to her than merely a good friend. She had been like a true sister—like her own sister, Lila—except that Terreis had been infinitely more patient with her than Lila had ever been. Lila always rolled her eyes and groaned whenever Gabrielle went on what she termed “one of Gabrielle's interminably boring rants.”
Lila didn't understand why Gabrielle was so curious about—well, everything. Terreis, however, understood. She understood because she was just as curious to know what Gabrielle's life had been like before she'd come to the Amazons. Unfortunately—or maybe fortunately, depending on one's perspective—Gabrielle's injuries had also affected her memories at the time. She hadn't remembered much, until after she was reunited with Xena.
Ephiny's voice brought Gabrielle out of her reverie.
“You were a thousand leagues away there,” Ephiny was looking at her curiously. “You want to share what you were thinking about, just now?”
“It was nothing,” Gabrielle answered with a slight shake of her head.
“Didn't look like nothing,” Ephiny prodded. “Looked pretty serious, until that smile split your features.”
“Just remembering Terreis,” Gabrielle shrugged. “How she took me around the village during those first weeks after I healed enough to walk by myself. She was really great at listening and answering all my inane questions.”
Ephiny nodded and a faraway look came into her hazel eyes. “I really miss her.”
“Me, too,” Gabrielle said. “She was very special.”
“Yes, she was,” Ephiny agreed. “Did I ever tell you she's the one who pretty much schooled me in the ways of the Amazons, against my will? Terreis wanted someone, besides herself, to know our history and traditions. She would read the scrolls and then tell me what she'd read. She even tried to get me to read them with her, but I refused to be cooped up in that musty hut all day long with all those smelly, dusty scrolls.”
Gabrielle giggled. “That sure explains a lot.”
“She found a kindred soul in you, Gabrielle,” Ephiny added with a warm smile. “You two could have been sisters in another life.”
Gabrielle studied the curly-haired regent. “You really loved her, didn't you?”
Ephiny stared out at the darkness long enough that Gabrielle was beginning to wonder if their conversation was at an end. She actually thought she had overstepped her bounds by asking Ephiny that question, since they hadn't really talked all that much about Terreis after her death. Gabrielle was under the impression that the subject was off limits.
“I did,” Ephiny finally answered in a wistful tone. “I really did. She was my best friend and so much more. I could talk to her about anything and she listened and asked questions, like she really cared about what we were talking about. She had a presence about her that made you smile when you were around her.” She finished with a shrug.
“Yeah,” Gabrielle agreed.
“And I thought I was head over heels in love with her, at one time,” Ephiny added in a quiet voice. “Until you came along.” She ducked her chin and looked down at the hands clasped in her lap. “Then I realized I wasn't in love with her at all. I was simply infatuated with who she was.” She looked up and met Gabrielle's expectant gaze. “I was actually jealous of the time you two spent together, because...”
It took Gabrielle a moment to realize why Ephiny didn't immediately continue and another moment to see the unshed tears shimmering in the woman's hazel eyes. “You were in love with me, weren't you?”
“A little,” Ephiny smiled sadly. “But I soon realized your heart belonged to someone else. Even before you got your memory back, I could see it in the way you would suddenly just stop and look off into the distance, like you were expecting someone to come charging out of the trees or something. Your expression was so full of hope and longing that I knew you were pining for someone else. I just didn't know who that someone was.”
“Xena,” Gabrielle confirmed with a knowing smile and then she looked at the woman in question.
As if sensing the eyes on her, Xena's gaze tracked to Gabrielle's and locked on it. An unspoken message seemed to pass between them in that instant and then Xena was standing right there in front of them.
“Hey,” Xena greeted Gabrielle with a bemused smile.
“Hey,” Gabrielle replied.
Ephiny glanced from one to the other. “Well, I guess this is where I say, ‘It's been great talking to you, my queen, but I think I'll go see what Eponin is up to.'” And with that, she got up and walked away without another word.
“What's with her?” Xena sat down on the fur next to Gabrielle and leaned back against the log. “Did I interrupt something? ‘Cause you two looked like you were having a deep discussion about something.”
Gabrielle scooted over and nudged her way into her favorite position against Xena's side. “Not a bit,” she said, as she stared at the fire and rested her head against Xena's shoulder. “We were just talking about…stuff.”
“Plans for the joining stuff? Or…” Xena wrapped her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and settled in.
“Not really,” Gabrielle shrugged. “I asked her to stay in the village when we return to Corinth.”
“Oh?” Xena pulled away enough to look Gabrielle in the eye. “Seriously? How'd that go over?”
“Not as well as I'd expected,” Gabrielle replied. “I think I offended her by asking.”
Xena chuckled. “I'm sure she'll get over it, eventually.” She paused for a moment. “So what made you ask her to stay behind?”
Gabrielle shrugged and settled back into her previous position. She then lowered her voice so only Xena could hear her. “Do you really want to go traipsing all over Greece and beyond with a bunch of Amazons?”
“Hm,” Xena responded thoughtfully. “I guess I hadn't given it much thought, until just now. But, come to think of it, not really. You?”
Gabrielle snickered. “Truthfully? No. I'm rather fond of our stolen moments together, when it's just the two of us.”
They both chuckled and caught the looks a few of the Amazons gave them. Their chuckles stopped instantly.
“So?” Gabrielle replied.
“What's the verdict?” Xena explained. “We gonna go traipsing across Greece and beyond with your escort for company? Or will we be flying solo on our next adventure?”
“Flying solo?” Gabrielle chuckled. “I wish we could fly to Rome. I'm sure it would make the trip a lot more enjoyable.”
“Why do you say that?” Xena cocked her head enough to look at her companion. “You don't sound very excited to be traveling to Rome with me.”
“It's not you,” Gabrielle corrected quickly. “I'm just not fond of…um…boats. Or, rather, my stomach isn't real fond of them.”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle nodded. “I was about ten summers old when my father let me take a trip with him. We sailed from one of the seaside villages to a nearby island. I think he went there to sell some wool from our flock. Anyway, I was sick the entire voyage and thought I was going to die on that stupid boat. By the time we arrived in port, I was too weak to walk and Father had to carry me to shore. I was also sick during the entire return voyage. He wouldn't let me take another trip with him after that—not even to other villages that he didn't have to sail to.”
“Sounds like we have our work cut out for us, then,” Xena squeezed Gabrielle's shoulder reassuringly. “Don't worry. I won't let you get sick on the voyage.”
Gabrielle glanced up at Xena skeptically. “And how are you planning to keep that from happening? It's not like I have a choice, Xena.”
“No worries, love,” Xena shrugged and wiggled her fingers in front of them. “It's all in the fingers.”
They arrived in the village late the following afternoon. The place was bustling with activity, until, one-by-one, the women noticed the travelers emerging from the trees. Word quickly spread throughout the village that the queen and regent had returned. And soon the entire village was gathered around the weary travelers.
As Gabrielle pulled her mount to a halt in the village square and dismounted, she was quickly surrounded by enthusiastic Amazons bidding her a warm welcome home. She returned their greetings with a tired smile and shared a few hugs with her Amazon sisters. Then she caught sight of Xena hovering on the fringes and made her way over to her with the crowd in tow.
“Oh, no, you don't,” Gabrielle said, catching Xena by the leathers before the woman could escape into the queen's hut unnoticed. “I'm not going through this alone.”
Xena sighed in resignation, as she was surrounded by the crowd and welcomed with what could only be termed as reluctant acceptance. She kept an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders, as she returned the greetings of the Amazons who wanted to know everything, from how the journey went to what happened with Draco and his army. It was a little overwhelming, but one quick glance at Gabrielle set Xena at ease. Her blond lover was so easygoing and cordial that Xena couldn't help but follow suit.
“Your majesty,” a young warrior went to a knee before Gabrielle and bowed her head.
Those behind the young warrior did the same, until the entire assemblage were on their knees before Gabrielle. She glanced uncomfortably at Xena and saw the hint of a smile in mirthful blue eyes, then caught the grin on Ephiny's face.
“I really think you two are enjoying this a little too much,” Gabrielle said under her breath but loud enough for the two to hear.
“We welcome your return to the village and are honored by your presence in our midst, my queen,” the young woman continued, after lifting her head enough to meet Gabrielle's gaze. “Your wish is our command, Queen Gabrielle.”
“I wish you wouldn't bow to me, Zea,” Gabrielle said and motioned for the woman to rise. “All of you,” she added in a louder voice.
The assembled village women all rose to their feet in one swift motion and stood there awaiting further instructions.
“A feast to welcome the queen and her escort back from war!” Someone shouted from the back of the crowd.
The shout was quickly followed by cheers, hoots and hollers. Several villagers jumped up and down at the prospect, while others moved away and returned to the numerous cook fires nearby. There were several skinned carcasses slowly turning on large spits over open flames, while large pots simmered and steamed, sending a myriad of enticing aromas into the air.
Gabrielle glanced at Ephiny and saw a gleam of satisfaction in the regent's hazel eyes. “You knew they would do this.”
“I sent a runner ahead to let them know we were on our way in,” Ephiny shrugged. “Didn't want to spring your arrival on them, out of the blue. They just didn't know exactly when we would arrive.”
Gabrielle glanced at Xena. “And you?”
“No idea,” Xena answered. “But a mug of wine might be just the thing to clear the travel dust from my mouth.”
A moment later, a young girl was standing next to Xena with a tray of mugs in her small hands. Xena took one and handed it to Gabrielle. She took another and handed it to Ephiny, then took one for herself. She smiled at the girl, who merely ducked away.
“Ask and ye shall receive,” Ephiny raised her mug in salute, then downed its contents. “Ahhhh, that definitely hits the spot.”
Xena only drank half her wine, savoring the rich, sweet flavor of the vine-ripened red grapes and also keeping tabs on the activity around her. She wasn't one to let her guard down, even if she hadn't sensed any danger since their arrival. And Xena had learned, early on, to stay alert and not let her guard down, even in a relatively safe atmosphere.
“Where's Eponin, anyway?” Gabrielle took a tentative sip of her wine and winced at the pungent flavor.
“What's wrong, your majesty?” Ephiny noticed the slight wince. “Wine not up to your austere standards?”
“It's not really her drink of choice,” Xena piped in before Gabrielle could answer. “Gabrielle likes cider more than wine or ale.”
“Or port,” Gabrielle added with a quick wink at Xena.
Ephiny glanced from one woman to the other. “Let me guess,” she said with a knowing smirk, “Xena's drink of choice?”
“Or a decent ale,” Xena added. “But the wine's not too bad.” She downed the rest to make her point. “It's a little sweet for my tastes, though.”
“I'll be sure to have someone dig up something a bit stronger before the party starts,” Ephiny said. “Wouldn't want our queen and her consort to die of thirst.”
“No, we wouldn't want that,” Gabrielle agreed.
Very early the next morning, after the revelry of the welcome-home feast was a distant memory and Gabrielle and Xena were tucked safely into bed in the queen's hut, Gabrielle lay quietly in strong arms and let the last vestiges of their earlier lovemaking slide away with the last remnants of the waning night. Despite the drink that flowed freely during the party, Gabrielle managed not to imbibe too feely and remained relatively sober throughout the long night of celebration.
She had, however, eaten enough food to garner a few comments and nods. She just couldn't help herself. It all tasted so delicious that she finally asked who was doing the cooking. Her last experience with the food in the village hadn't been nearly as tasty and savory. Having threatened the head cook with banishment if the woman didn't improve, she figured the woman had a change of heart.
But that wasn't the case. Actually, the former cook had died suddenly, and quite mysteriously, one long-ago night. Someone found her later the next day, sprawled on the floor of her hut and cold as a mountain stream in winter. No one knew how she died or if there was foul play involved. She received a proper Amazon funeral pyre and that was that.
The new cook was a much younger woman from one of the outlying villages. Her parents owned an inn before their village was overrun by raiders, who torched the place and killed her parents. Barely escaping with her life, Jayla stumbled upon an Amazon patrol and collapsed at their feet from exhaustion.
The patrol took her back to the village and their healer nursed the young woman back to health. One taste of the food that was prepared for her, though, had Jayla up in arms. When she was able to leave the healer's hut, she immediately set to work reorganizing the food preparation and retraining the cooks. After only a week, Jayla was put in charge of feeding the entire village. She was appointed as head cook and no one dared question the appointment. No one wanted to starve.
Gabrielle smiled when she thought back to the previous night. Ephiny introduced the head cook to her with a wary smile and watched as Gabrielle surveyed the young woman up and down. After asking Jayla her story and nodding her approval, Gabrielle praised the cook for her skills and for the hard work she'd put into the feast that had been prepared. Jayla beamed with pride and bowed low to the queen, thanking Gabrielle for the praise and promising to continue her efforts on behalf of the queen's distinguishing palette.
After Jayla left, Xena commented that Gabrielle really had a way of making people fall in love with her. To which Gabrielle countered that all it took was a little truth and honesty, nothing more. Then she added that she really didn't think the young cook was in love with her.
Xena merely chuckled.
“You really should get some sleep, love,” Xena's low voice rumbled against Gabrielle's ear. “It's gonna be a long day.”
“Look who's talking,” Gabrielle replied. “I'm not really all that sleepy, actually.”
Xena shifted until she had Gabrielle sprawled on top of her. “Oh?”
Gabrielle looked down into a face softly glowing in the waning moonlight streaming through the open window above their heads. She glanced up and saw a few wispy clouds drifting lazily across the face of the silent sentinel watching over them. A soft sigh left her lips as she returned her attention to the woman beneath her.
She then lowered her head and let her lips brush teasingly against Xena's. A few feather-light kisses and then Gabrielle moved on to an earlobe and down even further.
“Maybe we should…mmm…”
Gabrielle returned her attentions to Xena's lips and this time she gave them her full attention. The kiss they shared deepened and Xena wrapped her arms around her lover's bare torso. Passions ignited, until they were both quivering with need. Xena's hands splayed against Gabrielle's back and her fingers rubbed circles along the sensitive skin of her spine.
“Gods, I love you,” Gabrielle exclaimed breathlessly, when they finally came up for air.
“Me, too,” Xena slid a hand behind Gabrielle's neck and pulled her back down for another smoldering kiss. “Can't think of a better place I'd rather be than right here in this bed with you.”
“Me, either,” Gabrielle gave Xena another peck on the lips. “You taste like…” She dipped her head again and drew out another long kiss. “Berries?”
“Berry wine, to be exact,” Xena said. “Eponin said they bought a shipment of it from some traders in Tarsus, just last week. It's actually quite good and not as sweet or cloying as that other wine they ferment themselves.”
Gabrielle wasn't really listening to Xena's explanation, as she wrapped her arms around Xena's neck and delved back in for another taste. The kiss lingered for several long, leisurely moments, until they both came up breathless for air.
“You're beautiful, you know that?” Xena pushed the hair behind Gabrielle's ear. “Like sunshine.”
A blond brow quirked. “Did I just hear you say what I think you said?”
Xena chuckled. “Too much?”
Gabrielle snorted. “You're usually not the flowery-words kinda woman, love.”
“Well, it's all your fault,” she accused, as she brushed her fingertips against Gabrielle's lips.
Gabrielle rested her head in her hand, her elbow propped against the pillow behind Xena's head. “Oh? How is your improved vocabulary my fault? I don't recall regaling you with flowery words…well, ever.”
Xena suddenly wrapped an arm around her lover's waist and reversed their positions, until Gabrielle was looking up at her. She then dove in to savor her blond lover's neck and trail kisses down her collarbone.
“Mm,” Gabrielle uttered, as she reveled in the sensations coursing through her body at Xena's touch. “What were we just discussing?”
Xena lifted her head with a saucy grin. “The weather?”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle agreed. “I think it's going to be another scorcher today.”
“Oh, definitely,” Xena answers with a wide grin.
And then all words were lost as they came together and shared their love in ways that only the two of them knew.
Gabrielle was sure she was in Elysia or beyond. Her entire body was still tingling from the thorough lovemaking of the woman next to her.
“You okay?” Xena's voice rumbled against her cheek.
“Absolutely,” Gabrielle stretched like an Egyptian cat and then settled back into the crook of Xena's shoulder. “Never better. You?”
“Do you hear that?” Xena asked, changing the subject.
“I hear the usual,” Gabrielle sighed. “Amazons going about their normal morning routines after a night of celebration. A few birds singing close by…”
Xena rose slightly and listened. “Something's up.”
“What?” Gabrielle sat up and held the blanket to her. “Are we under attack?”
Xena threw off the covers and quickly donned her black leather pants, overtunic and boots. She didn't bother with anything else as she bolted out the door, leaving a stunned Gabrielle staring after her.
“You coming?” Xena peeked her head back in the door and winked. “I think your presence might be required for this.”
“For…” Gabrielle barely got that word out before Xena was gone again. “Xena!”
Throwing off the covers, Gabrielle decided the only way she was getting any answers was to go out there and find them out for herself. She quickly donned her randomly discarded Amazon leathers. She grabbed her boots and proceeded to put them on as she left the hut.
And then she heard it.
“It ain't over unless I say it's over!!!”
“What in the name of the gods…” Gabrielle couldn't believe her ears.
She hopped on one foot and pulled her other boot on as she took off in the direction of the yelling. She knew the two voices and could only imagine what was going on. And then she was standing next to Xena, who had stopped at the edge of the village center and was standing with her hands on her hips.
“Xena?” Gabrielle glanced from her taller lover to the two women standing not ten paces away. “What's going on?”
“Ask her!” Ephiny shot an accusing finger toward the woman facing off across from her.
“Eponin?” Gabrielle asked tentatively.
“I said I was sorry,” the weapons master flung her hands out to her sides. “I swear to the gods!”
“It. Is. Over!” Ephiny shouted. “We're through! I don't ever want to see your face again! Ever! You have until sunset to get your crap out of my hut! Understand? We're done!”
Gabrielle moved a few paces toward the two women. “Will one of you please tell me what's going on?”
Ephiny stormed back to the porch of her hut and turned to stand her ground. “That…” She pointed at Eponin again. But then the wind left her sails and she let her hand drop to her side. “I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I'm sorry you came all this way for nothing.” She shot Eponin an angry glare. “The joining is off! We're done! I want your things out of my hut before sunset or I'll remove them myself and toss it all into tonight's bonfire!”
Ephiny then turned and stormed back inside the hut, leaving a crowd of onlookers standing there gawking, until Xena shot them a warning glare. Eponin glanced at Gabrielle and rolled her eyes.
“What happened, Eponin?” Gabrielle spoke up when the weapons master just stood there and glared.
“Beats me,” Eponin shrugged. “Why don't you go ask Miss High-and-Mighty-I'm-So-Perfect? I got stuff to do.” And then she turned away and stormed off toward the practice field without a backward glance.
Gabrielle felt a presence at her shoulder and glanced up to see Xena watching Eponin's retreating figure. Sighing heavily, Gabrielle knew what she had to do. She just didn't know if she actually wanted to do it and ruin the wonderful memory of their first night together in the village.
“I know you're not one for sensitive chats…”
“Don't ‘but Xena' me, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle turned to fully face the woman towering next to her. “I'm not asking as queen...”
“Answer's still no,” Xena refused to meet Gabrielle's pleading gaze.
“Xena,” Gabrielle pleaded in what she hoped was her most convincing tone. “Please? I'll talk to Ephiny and find out why she's so upset—maybe calm her down enough for the two of them to at least talk through this—but I need you to…”
“I'd rather wrestle with a porcupine in a hedge row in only my skimpy Amazon leathers,” Xena interrupted. “You and I both know you're better at this sort of thing than I am, Gabrielle.”
“I can't be in two places at the same time, Xena,” Gabrielle pointed out flatly. “Please. Just talk to her. Challenge her to a sparring match and knock some sense into her. I don't care what you have to do, just do it. All I'm asking is that you give me time to talk to Ephiny and get to the bottom of this.”
Xena sighed dramatically and rolled her eyes. “You realize this is going to cost you,” she finally glanced at Gabrielle, who was wearing a hopeful expression. “Big time.”
The hint of a triumphant smile touched Gabrielle's features. “Whipped cream and strawberries?”
“Apple turnovers drizzled with that sweet plum sauce you cooked up in Amphipolis,” Xena countered.
“And where, pray tell, am I going to find plums in this place?” Gabrielle shot back. “If you haven't noticed, Xena, these women don't exactly have the most discerning pallets and they don't keep a lot of fruit handy.”
“You'll figure it out,” Xena replied. Then she chucked Gabrielle under the chin. “You're nothing, if not creative, my love.”
Gabrielle let a full-fledged smile grace her features, until she realized the rather daunting task that lay ahead. She glanced at the regent's hut and saw several items of clothing fly through the front door. The leathers landed on the hard-packed ground and the door slammed shut once again with a resounding thud. Gabrielle tried not to jump at the noise, but couldn't help it.
“I think you have your work cut out for you, there, love,” Xena said with a note of sympathy in her tone.
Gabrielle set her shoulders and crossed her arms over her chest. “Just get Eponin back here before sunset,” she said and then added, “in case I don't succeed and Ephiny decides to follow through on her threat.”
Xena couldn't help the snicker that followed. “No worries there. I don't think Eponin wants her few possessions burned.”
Gabrielle turned to fully face the daunting task ahead, as she stood there with her hands on her hips and stared at the regent's hut. She hesitated for another moment and then decided it was time to get to the bottom of what was going on between her two best friends.
“Wish me luck,” she said in a voice devoid of emotion.
Xena set her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders and leaned toward her ear. “You don't need luck. You're a very capable negotiator, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle put a hand on Xena's. “I sure hope you're right, Xena. ‘Cause I think we're about to find out just how capable I really am.”
“I know you are,” Xena squeezed the shoulders beneath her hands. “Go get ‘em, Tiger.”
“Isn't that the nickname your mother gave you?” Gabrielle glanced back at Xena.
Xena shrugged. “I figure it works for both of us.”
Gabrielle chuckled. “I don't think I could ever live up to being as majestic as a tiger.”
“Oh, I beg to differ,” Xena challenged. “Tigers are sleek and fast. They have amazing strength and can take a man down with one swipe of their razor-sharp claws. Just think of your tongue as equal to your claws.”
Gabrielle turned into Xena and made an uncharacteristic grab for her leathers, then stood on her tiptoes and planted a searing kiss on Xena's lips. As she lowered herself back to the ground, she smiled into eyes shining with surprise and something else.
“I'll settle for being the woman who has made it her life's ambition to tame this particular tiger,” Gabrielle said with a saucy grin. She then turned away and strode purposefully toward Ephiny's hut.
“Cheeky!” Xena called after her playfully, then glanced around and shot a pointed glare at the few onlookers still lingering close by. “ Grrrrrr!!! ” She added and strode off toward the practice field. “Amazons.”
Gabrielle knocked tentatively on the door in front of her, before pushing it open and peeking her head into the dim interior.
“Not in the mood, Gabrielle,” came the quick reply. “Go away!”
Gabrielle stepped inside and closed the door. She glanced around the gloomy interior and saw movement across the room. She could make out the faint outline of someone sitting in a chair and knew it was Ephiny.
“I'm not leaving until you tell me what happened between you and Eponin.”
“Brave words,” Ephiny continued, “but we both know I'm more than capable of tossing you out of here on your ear—begging your pardon, my queen.”
Gabrielle crossed her arms over her chest and stood her ground. “Try it.”
A long silence hung over the cluttered room. The fireplace was cold. The bed was tossed and the down-filled mattress was leaning against the far wall at an odd angle. The only illumination in the place came from the single window to Gabrielle's right.
Ephiny sighed heavily but didn't leave the chair she was slumped in. “Suit yourself,” she said with little emotion.
Gabrielle grabbed an overturned chair, righted it and sat down. “Talk to me, Eph. What happened?”
Silence met her words. The silence was only broken by the activity outside the hut. Neither woman paid any attention to it, as they sat facing each other.
“I didn't come here for my health, Eph,” Gabrielle prodded when she didn't receive an answer. “Xena went to talk to Eponin, so you might as well tell your side of the story. You and I both know Xena is more than capable of holding her own when it comes to persuading someone to talk.”
“Oh, come on, Eph!” Gabrielle sighed in exasperation. “Please tell me what happened. Why are you and Eponin fighting, all of a sudden? You're to be joined in two days. You should be excited about that, not sitting here in this gloomy place, moping.”
“I…” Ephiny shifted enough that her face moved into the light.
Gabrielle saw the anguish in Ephiny's eyes and immediately moved to her friend's side. “What is it, Eph? What's going on between you two? What can I do to help?”
“Gods on Olympus, Gabrielle!” Ephiny suddenly exclaimed, as a single tear slipped down her cheek and she wiped it away impatiently. “Can't you just leave well enough alone, Gabrielle? I don't want to talk about it! Don't you get that?”
“Apparently not,” Gabrielle placed a hand on her friend's and squeezed. “Besides, it's not really in my nature to just let a problem fester, Eph,” she said with a tentative smile. “I'm more of a meet-the-problem-head-on kinda girl. That way, things come right out into the open and I can figure out a way to deal with them before they get too far out of hand.”
“Things are already too far out of hand, in this case, I'm afraid,” Ephiny sniffed. “And talking about it isn't going to make it go away.”
“Because,” Ephiny answered. “Just because.”
Gabrielle took both of Ephiny's hands into hers, as she knelt at the regent's feet. “Nothing is so bad that it can't be fixed—especially a relationship between two people who love each other as much as you two do.” She squeezed the hands in hers. “You do love her, Eph. Don't you?”
Ephiny sniffed again. “I thought I did,” she said in a voice devoid of emotion. “But, now…”
Gabrielle made a concerted effort not to roll her eyes at Ephiny's elusive response. “Talk to me, Eph. Maybe I can help.”
“Why? Because you and Xena have the perfect relationship and can't get enough of each other?” Ephiny practically spat the words. “I know what you two were doing the night we set up camp on the other side of that patch of woods. I know why you left the celebration early last night. A blind woman can see how much you mean to each other. We all know that our queen is head-over-heels in love with her champion. And don't think we couldn't hear you two on the other side of those woods, Gabrielle. You aren't as quiet as you might think you are when you and Xena…”
“Oh, gods,” Gabrielle groaned, as she sat back on her heels and swiped a hand down her face in embarrassment. “I told Xena we were making too much noise.”
“Yeah,” Ephiny chuckled then sobered. “I just wish…” She shook her head.
“I wish some of what you two have would rub off on the rest of us,” Ephiny finally said. She watched as Gabrielle stood up and paced a few steps, then turned back to face her. “I envy you, you know. You found that true love that the bards are always carrying on about and you're not afraid to let the world see how much you love her. It's very endearing, but also kinda frustrating for the rest of us who don't get to experience the kind of love you two have. Ordinary people just don't have what you do. I envy you.”
“Envy me? Why?” Gabrielle couldn't believe her ears.
“You really don't get it, do you?” Ephiny stood and walked to the open window. She stared sightlessly outside, then just looked at Gabrielle.
“Tell me, Eph,” Gabrielle said when Ephiny just looked at her. “Explain it so I know what I did to deserve envy from my best friend. I just don't see why you and Eponin can't have what I have with Xena.”
“You're queen of the Amazons. You're joined to the most powerful woman in Greece,” Ephiny said, as if that explained it all. “You have it all and then some. I just don't get how you could be so lucky, so blessed by the gods. You're a walking testament to all the happily-ever-after tales the bards are always singing about. And it's a little sickening at times, ya know?”
Gabrielle was stunned as she tried to reason through everything Ephiny was saying. “I'm not that different from you, Eph. I'm just an ordinary person, like everyone else. You and Eponin have a solid relationship. You love each other. That's gotta count for something. Right?”
“But you're not like the rest of us, Gabrielle, and neither is Xena,” Ephiny corrected. “You two are extraordinary people with extraordinary lives. And, so far, you've gotten everything you ever wanted in life. You have it all and for that I envy you.”
“I don't have everything,” Gabrielle countered. “What you and Eponin have together is just as special as what Xena and I…”
“No!” Ephiny shouted. “No,” she said more quietly and shook her head. “We don't have what you have with Xena. It's not the same.” She turned toward the window again. “Besides, it's over. We're through. I never want to see her again.”
Gabrielle moved to stand next to Ephiny and put a hand on her arm. “Tell me why you keep saying that, Ephiny. Tell me what I can do to make this right. What happened? Why do you keep talking as if there's no hope for the two of you anymore?”
Another tear slipped down Ephiny's cheek and this time she didn't move to swipe it away. “When I woke up alone in bed this morning, I got up, got dressed and went to find her—to see if she'd passed out somewhere during the celebration and was sleeping off one of her drunken bouts. I looked around, but I couldn't find her with the others who had passed out near the dais. And then I heard laughter…”
Gabrielle silently rubbed her friend's arm in hopes that Ephiny would continue her tale. She didn't have to wait long for the rest of the story. And what she heard made her stomach turn.
“I walked over to the communal hut, where the seasoned warriors bunk together. That's when I found her,” Ephiny said in a voice devoid of emotion.
“You found Eponin sleeping in the communal hut?” Gabrielle clarified. “Why is that a problem?”
“I found her behind the hut, lying there naked and having drunken sex with Belise and Shayla,” Ephiny said bitterly. “When she saw me standing there, she asked me if I wanted to join the party and have fun with the rest of them. She even held up a tankard of ale and slopped some onto herself. Shayla immediately proceeded to lap it off her bare tits, while Belise…” She made a mewling sound and turned away, slapping a hand over her eyes as if to ward off the image in her mind's eye.
“Oh, Eph, I'm so sorry,” Gabrielle said and tried to take her friend into her arms to comfort her.
“No!” Ephiny pushed Gabrielle away. “It's my own damned fault. I should have known better. I shouldn't have trusted her to stay faithful.”
“Are you sure it wasn't just the drink, Eph?” Gabrielle asked. “Eponin wouldn't do that…”
“She did it!” Ephiny shot back before Gabrielle could finish. “They were all over her like flies on centaur shit and all she did was look at me expectantly, like she wanted me to join her—to join them in servicing her. She wasn't even sorry that I caught her there with another woman between her legs. She just…she…” Several tears spilled from her eyes. “I turned away—turned my back on her, on them. I didn't want to see anymore. I didn't want to believe what I was seeing.”
“You said she was drunk, Eph…”
“And that excuses what she did?” Ephiny rounded on Gabrielle. “Whose side are you on, anyway?”
“I'm not taking sides, Ephiny,” Gabrielle said. “I'm just saying that when a person drinks as much as I know Eponin is capable of drinking, their judgment is impaired and…”
“She was being fucked by two of your warriors!” Ephiny pointed an accusing finger at Gabrielle.
“So? What? Now this is my fault?” Gabrielle took a step back and stared at her friend in disbelief. “So, what? Now you blame me for what happened?”
“You're their queen, Gabrielle,” Ephiny's voice lowered. “If the leathers fit…”
“Seriously?” Gabrielle was aghast. “You're blaming me because you caught your girlfriend having sex with two women I don't even know? I may be queen, Ephiny, but that doesn't mean I control the actions of the women of this tribe. Eponin made a mistake—a terrible error in judgment. You can forgive her or not. It's up to you what you do. I don't have any more control over that decision than I have over what you all eat for breakfast. You're grown adults, Eph. Maybe you all should start acting like it and make a few decisions on your own.” She blew out a frustrated breath and shoved a hand through her hair. “I'm really tired of everyone thinking that just because I'm queen I can make everything right—that everything will be perfect if only I make it so. It doesn't work that way! I don't work that way! I'm not a damned goddess, for gods' sake.”
“You're right,” Ephiny conceded with far less bravado than before. “You're absolutely right, Gabrielle. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said what I said. It wasn't fair to blame you for what Eponin did. I should keep the blame where it belongs—on Eponin. She's the one who screwed up—literally. She's the one who…” She lifted a hand as if to hit something and then let it drop back to her side. “Anyway, now you know why I can't go through with our joining ceremony—why Eponin and I are finished. It's over. I can't be with someone I can't trust to be faithful to me. I won't.”
“Did you speak to her about this?” Gabrielle asked. “She looked sober enough when she stormed away toward the practice field.”
“I tried,” Ephiny shook her head. “She showed up here after I left her with …” She swallowed. “I came back and she followed me. She tried to apologize—tried to whine her way back into my good graces—but I told her I couldn't listen to her excuses or her apologies until she was sober. I told her to go somewhere and sober up, before she comes crying back and asking my forgiveness. She got mad and started yelling. I yelled back. I threw something at her. That's about the time you and Xena showed up, I think. I'm not really sure.”
Gabrielle approached her and put a hand on Ephiny's arm. “So she's really not sober, after all.”
“No,” Ephiny shook her head. “But I don't care if she's drunk or if she's gone completely insane. What she did was inexcusable and I can't forgive her for it. I won't, Gabrielle. She humiliated me by doing what she did. There's no way I can ever forgive her for that.”
Gabrielle closed the distance, took Ephiny into her arms and held on tight. She hugged her as Ephiny finally gave in to the tears she had been holding at bay. And Gabrielle kept right on holding her friend as Ephiny cried her heart out for the love she knew she'd lost.
Xena held Eponin's head under the freezing mountain stream for as long as she knew the weapons master could stand it. Then she let go and let Eponin come up for air. Eponin gasped and sputtered, spitting water from her mouth, blowing it out her nose and choking on what she'd inhaled when Xena had dunked her under for the umpteenth time.
“Gods!” Eponin exclaimed when she was finally able to speak. “What'dya do that for, Xena?”
“You sober, yet?” Xena glared at her dripping companion. “Or do I need to put your head back under and let you think about what kind of idiot you are for what you did to Ephiny?”
“So I got a little drunk,” Eponin shrugged. “What's the big deal? Ain't like it's the first time. And won't be the last.”
Xena glared daggers at the weapons master, then knocked Eponin upside the head. “You got rocks for brains, Pon? Don't tell me you don't remember what Ephiny found you doing behind that hut with those two women. I got it on good authority you weren't just drinking and having polite conversation.”
“What? Can't a girl have a little fun?” Eponin countered and got another, harder, knock upside the head. “Hey!”
“You are such a bonehead, ya know that?” Xena glared at the pouting woman. “Ephiny loves you—or at least she did before she caught you doing the dirty with two of your own warriors. It's really hard to find a good woman who is willing to put up with all the crap that warriors bring to the table. We aren't the easiest people to deal with on a good day, much less any other day. Now you've gone and completely screwed things up with Ephiny. She may never forgive you for it, either. Hades, I wouldn't forgive you if it'd been me who found you with another woman tucked between your legs. Actually, you'd probably be dead if it'd been me. I may still kill you for Ephiny's sake. She doesn't deserve to be treated the way you're treating her. And you don't deserve her forgiveness, Eponin.”
Eponin grabbed her head in both hands and held it, as she sat there at the edge of the stream and listened to a woman she had come to think of as a friend. Now that friend was threatening to kill her—and for what? Because she got stinking drunk and flirted with a couple of women?
“I don't know what the big deal is,” Eponin grumbled. “It wasn't like anything happened.”
Xena reacted faster than Eponin could fathom. One moment she was holding her aching head and the next she was staring up into the face of Death itself—except this Death sure looked a lot more beautiful with the sun haloing her dark hair from behind and a pair of icy blue eyes glaring daggers at her.
“You don't get it, you big oaf!” Xena hissed into Eponin's confused features. “You had sex with those two women, Eponin. Ephiny showed up and saw them doing more than just laying there with your naked ass. She saw them put their hands on you and so much more. She was right there to witness the whole thing, you worthless piece of…” Xena shook her head and moved away from Eponin in disgust. “Forget it. You have no idea what in hades you did. You were too drunk to remember any of it.”
Eponin wracked her brain to call up any recollection of what Xena was describing. Had she really done that? Had she cheated on Ephiny? Worse. Had Ephiny actually seen her in a drunken stupor having sex with two of her warriors? She glanced at Xena and saw the disappointment in the dark warrior's eyes. Yeah.
“No,” Eponin shook her head and instantly regretted the move when her head felt fit for cracking. “Oh…gods!” Tears sprang to her eyes as the realization finally hit her. “Nononononono…”
Xena watched as the last vestiges of the drunken fog finally cleared from Eponin's mind and she fully realized what she'd done. For some reason, however, Xena couldn't find an ounce of sympathy for the weapons master. Eponin was in tears and all Xena could do was think of how difficult this had to be for Gabrielle, who had the daunting task of comforting a distraught Ephiny.
Xena knew what Eponin had done, because she had been directed to the two women in question at the edge of the practice field. Moments later, she confronted them. They couldn't help but look guilty the instant Xena stood before them. That's when they spilled the entire story with very little prodding on Xena's part. Their description of the events of the previous evening were so detailed, in fact, that Xena was hard-pressed not to drown them both in the small stream that ran beside the practice field.
Instead, she marched over to Eponin, lifted the weapons master's head by the hair and looked into bloodshot eyes that barely registered her presence. That's when she started the task of sobering Eponin up by dunking her head in the stream. It worked, for the most part. But now she was left with a sobbing Amazon and very little hope that things would improve anytime soon.
“I gotta apologize to her,” Eponin suddenly jumped to her feet and stood unsteadily on shaky legs. “I gotta apologize and beg her forgiveness, before it's too late.”
“Hold on, there,” Xena grabbed Eponin before she could go charging away. “You're in no condition to do anything more than finish sobering up. Besides,” she added with a frown, “Ephiny probably wants nothing to do with you right now. So, just be patient and let her cool her heels for a little while. Gabrielle is talking to her and will help open the door for you to make your eventual apologies.”
“Gabrielle's with Eph?” Eponin sat back down on the boulder and held her head in her hands.
“Yes,” Xena squatted next to Eponin and put a hand on the woman's back. “She'll talk some sense into Ephiny and help smooth things over. Just give her some time to do what she does best. You'll see.”
“What if Eph won't forgive me?” Eponin lifted her head and looked at Xena with her bloodshot brown eyes. “What if she never forgives me for what I did, Xe? I really screwed up this time. I wouldn't blame her if she never talked to me again.”
Xena sighed. “Try not to think about that right now, Pon. You gotta stay positive and sober up. Let Gabrielle deal with Ephiny. She knows how to handle situations like this.”
“Yeah,” Eponin conceded. “Her maj is really good with people. If anyone can get Eph to calm down and listen to reason, the queen can. I trust her. And I trust you, too, Xe. You're a good friend. Thanks.”
“Don't mention it,” Xena smiled confidently. All the while, however, she doubted even Gabrielle could get Ephiny to listen to reason where Eponin was concerned.
Xena tried not to imagine what she would do if she were the one in Ephiny's shoes. She did know, however, that her temper would probably get the best of her and she would do something she would regret later. Or worse.
A shudder raced down Xena's spine at the mere thought of such a betrayal. It was unthinkable. Then again, she and Gabrielle were already joined and had a solid relationship built on trust. They were pledged to remain together in body and soul, for better or worse. But did that really make a difference? Did a joining ceremony mean that they were immune to betrayal? Xena considered the actions of her older brother. He was her own flesh and blood and he hadn't hesitated to betray her. Could she trust that Gabrielle would stay true, even if things changed?
“We might as well go back to Corinth,” Gabrielle said, as she tossed her favorite sleeping tunic—one of Xena's that she had filched from a trunk in their tent—into the leather satchel she carried her belongs in for the trip. “I can't talk any sense into her, Xena.” She stopped and turned to face the warrior leaning casually in the doorway. “Besides, I don't know if I want to talk any sense into her. What Eponin did was inexcusable. I don't blame Ephiny if she never forgives Eponin for what she did. I don't think I will ever forgive her for hurting my best friend like that.”
Xena pushed off from the doorway and strode into the brightly-lit interior of the hut she shared with the woman across from her. She took the tunic Gabrielle was fussing over out of her hands and dropped it onto their bed. Then she put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders and waited for the blond to look up at her.
“I won't argue that Eponin's actions were anything short of inexcusable,” Xena said tenderly. “But they're our friends, Gabrielle. Eponin was drunk and barely remembers what happened, much less what she did. I blame those other two women more than I can actually blame her.”
“You're not seriously defending her, are you?” Gabrielle moved back a step and stared up at Xena incredulously. “Eponin was having sex with someone other than Ephiny. And now you're saying that Ephiny should just forgive her and move on?”
“I'm not defending her, Gabrielle,” Xena kept her tone calm, even as she watched Gabrielle become agitated. “I'm just saying…”
“No!” Gabrielle interrupted. “What that woman did was inexcusable, Xena! Ephiny is devastated and feels utterly betrayed by what she herself witnessed with her own eyes. You can't stand there and tell me anything differently, when Eponin's actions speak for themselves. She had drunken sex with two women. Two! Not only that, but she lay there with one of them sprawled on top of her and practically invited Ephiny to join her. It's sick and disgusting, Xena. What that woman did—what those women did together—goes beyond anything good and decent, right and just. It's perverted. It's wrong. And Ephiny doesn't deserve to have any part of it.”
“Would you say the same about me, then?” Xena challenged with a firm lift of her chin. “Are you saying that I'm sick and disgusting, too? That I'm perverted?”
“What?” Gabrielle stopped dead. “What does this have to do with you, Xena? You weren't even there.”
Xena turned away to gather her thoughts. When she turned back to face Gabrielle, there was a hard edge in her steady gaze.
“I've had drunken orgies involving multiple partners, Gabrielle,” Xena said in an even tone. “Ares knows, I bedded more than my share of women and men during my rise to power, sometimes with three or four sharing my bed and servicing me and each other at the same time—both men and women.” Xena watched Gabrielle swallow with effort, but knew she had to continue on and get it all out in the open. “I'm not one to be held up as a great example of a pious ruler, Gabrielle. My past holds some pretty inexplicable deeds that I am not at all proud of. Does that make me a bad person who doesn't deserve forgiveness? Does that make me a pervert in your eyes?”
“Those things happened before we met,” Gabrielle's words came out barely above a whisper. “You're not that person anymore. You wouldn't betray me like that. Your past is in the past. It's only a small part of who you are today. It doesn't define you as the person you've become. It doesn't define our relationship in any way.”
Xena turned away, as she felt a rush of emotion at the slight insincerity she sensed in Gabrielle's tone. But she also knew she had to finish what she'd started, no matter how painful the experience was going to be for both of them. Gabrielle had to know the truth. But the thought sent a cold chill of foreboding down Xena's spine. She just hoped she wasn't opening herself up to a future heartache that might just turn both their lives upside down.
“I was in a serious relationship with someone long before we met in your village on that fateful day,” Xena said. “We were lovers—more than lovers. I bore his child.” Xena watched Gabrielle's eyes widen at the revelation, as they stood there facing each other within the walls of the hut they shared while staying with the Amazons. “I sent the child away in order to keep him from my enemies. I wanted to keep him safe. I loved him enough to do that much, but not enough to protect and raise him myself. With his father dead, I thought my world was at an end and my life was over. But I was wrong.”
“You have a…a son?”
“His name is Solon,” Xena let the hint of a proud smile touch her lips. “He's twelve summers old and resembles his father more and more each and every day.”
Gabrielle closed her eyes against this latest revelation about a woman she realized she barely knew. They were joined as partners for life, yet she really didn't know anything about the Xena who had conquered Greece and ruled it with an iron fist. And, now, to learn that Xena had a son…
“Where is he?” Gabrielle tried to keep the quaver from her voice. “Your son? And who is his father? Is he still alive? Why aren't the two of you still together? Does he know he has a son?”
“His father's name was Borias and he died the day my son was born,” Xena said tonelessly. “He never laid eyes on the child we conceived together in love.”
“You loved him, then.” It was a statement of fact, not a question.
“I thought I did, yes,” Xena answered. “It was a long time ago, Gabrielle. It's a dark page in a past better left in the past.” She stepped closer and took Gabrielle's hands in hers. “I'm with you now and nothing is ever going to change that. I love you. I need you.” She touched a closed fist to her chest. “My heart belongs only to you. That's why I want you to hear about these things from my lips and my lips alone. I don't ever want to keep something from you that could hurt us both.”
“And your son, Xena?” Gabrielle met the blue eyes shining with unshed tears. “What about him? Where is he? Why isn't he with you now?”
Xena took Gabrielle in a hug and held on tight. “Because I still don't trust that my enemies won't use him against me if they ever find out he exists. No one knows about him, not even my own mother. He's a good boy and lives a simple life in a village not too far from Amphipolis. He doesn't know who his parents are. He has no idea he is the son of the great warrior, Borias. There's no sense in upsetting his life and turning it upside down. I kept tabs on him through the person who adopted him, so I know as much as I need to know. He's safe and well-protected. That's all that matters.”
“He should know who his mother is, though, Xena,” Gabrielle put in. “Every child should know who their parents are. He has a right to know that you exist.”
“I was never fit to be a mother, Gabrielle,” Xena pulled back enough to look Gabrielle in the eye. “And it's better if he never knows I gave birth to him. Solon is a good and decent boy who will grow up to be a good and decent man. The person who adopted him, who took him in when he was only a few days old, is leader of his village and has brought Solon up to eventually follow in his footsteps. There's no point in telling him I'm his mother, when all it will do is confuse him and make him question his identity.”
“But…” Gabrielle found her lips covered by Xena's fingers.
“No, Gabrielle, and that's my final word on the subject,” Xena adamantly stated. “I want you to promise me that you'll never make mention of my son again.”
“Xena…” Gabrielle started to protest and found her lips sealed shut again.
“Absolutely not, Gabrielle,” Xena said with finality. “The topic is not open for debate or further discussion. I gave birth to Solon, but he's not mine. He never was. He doesn't know I exist and I want to keep it that way. Understood?” She waited for Gabrielle to silently nod her ascent. “Good. Now can we get back to our discussion of Eponin and Ephiny?”
Gabrielle sighed. “I suppose so, if that's what you want.”
“What I really want,” Xena gently stroked Gabrielle's cheek with the backs of her fingers, “is to climb back into that bed of ours and start over—forget this day ever happened.”
“Me, too,” Gabrielle let her eyes drift shut, as she savored the feel of Xena's touch against her skin. She let her head drift forward until it was resting against Xena's leather-clad chest and then she inhaled her lover's distinctive scent. “Can we just go back to Corinth and forget about Amazons and joining ceremonies and all this other stuff for a while? I'll bet Agatha has the kitchens all cleaned up and a few of the bedrooms, too. We could have one of the artisans build us a brand new bed and forget the outside world even exists. Just spend endless candlemarks in each other's arms, making love and snuggling together until the world no longer remembers who we are. Whadya say?”
Xena chuckled and actually gave Gabrielle's words some consideration. “Your ideas definitely have merit, that's for sure.”
Gabrielle lifted her head and looked into eyes shining with love. “We don't have to go all the way to Rome. We could just hire a handful of spies and send them to Rome, instead. We could send the army marching into Athens, and have a few mercenaries kidnap Toris and bring him to us. Then he can swear fealty to you and you can force him to bring the Athenian Council to our side. We could also send envoys and emissaries to Egypt and Persia—see if we can't negotiate peace with them before Caesar has a chance to turn them against us…”
“Whoa, there, Gabrielle,” Xena put up her hands in mock surrender. “Tell me you haven't been conjuring all this up in your spare time? Have you been daydreaming when no one was watching?”
“Not really,” Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's waist and hugged her tight. “But I'd be lying if I didn't say the thoughts have been brewing ever since you mentioned that you wanted to go to Rome and find out what Caesar is really up to.”
“Oh ho! The tigress really is hiding her claws beneath that peacemaker's façade,” Xena took Gabrielle's hands in hers and kissed each one, in turn. “Methinks my lady is much too smart and conniving for her own good.”
“And methinks my Lord Conqueror can come up with more productive uses for her time, now that she is joined to a lady who is smart enough to see that taking a personal trip to Rome can only lead to great peril.”
Xena took a step back and sobered instantly. “Is that really what you think, Gabrielle? Where in the world did you get such an idea?”
Gabrielle tried to close the distance between them, but Xena evaded her attempt. “Xena, please…”
“No, Gabrielle,” Xena turned her back, so Gabrielle wouldn't see the hurt in her eyes. “You've expressed your opinion on the subject rather clearly, so there's no mistaking that you still think I'm incapable of handling Rome or my brother…”
“That isn't what I think at all and you know it!” Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's waist and put her cheek against the leather-clad back. “I just worry that something will happen on that trip to change everything. You're the best thing that's ever happened to Greece and you're more important to me than anything else in this world, including Greece. I just don't want anything terrible to happen. I want us to be happy. I want to make a home with you in Corinth. I want a long life with you. I want…” She took a deep breath and inhaled the scents that were distinctly Xena—leather, sandalwood and the earthy smell of horses. It was intoxicating and made her hold on all the tighter, as if she might never let go.
Xena carefully pried the hands loose that were holding her and then she turned around to face Gabrielle. “What is it you want, Gabrielle? Just ask and, if it's within my power to give it to you, then I will do my utmost to see that you have it. There's nothing in this world that I would deny you, sweetheart.”
“I want to have children, Xena,” Gabrielle said with all sincerity. “I want to have your children. I want us to be a family and watch our children grow up into fine adults that we both can be proud of.”
Xena was stunned. “Um, I'm not really sure that one's in the realm of practicality, Gabrielle. You do know it's physically impossible for us to conceive a child, right?” She glanced down at herself and then met Gabrielle's expectant gaze again. “I'm not exactly equipped for producing children—at least not with you, love.”
Gabrielle let the hint of a smile touch her lips. “I'm not an idiot, Xena. I know that two women can't make babies together. It's impossible.” She moved back into Xena's arms and pressed herself against her confused partner. “But there are ways around that and I'm sure, if you put that beautiful mind of yours to it, you'll figure out that your brother is good for more than just being a pawn in your bid to bring Athens to heel.”
The confusion immediately left Xena's eyes and was replaced with cold uncertainty. “You want to have sex with my brother so he can get you with child? Is that what you're saying, Gabrielle, because I really don't think I'm comfortable with the thought of you and Toris…”
“No,” Gabrielle shook her head emphatically. “Xena, there are other ways to use your brother's seed to get the job done.”
“Like what? How do you know there are other ways to get pregnant other than the good old fashioned way, which obviously isn't going to work for us? Don't get me wrong. I would certainly love to keep trying and will enjoy every sweet moment with you until the gods themselves intervene. But I don't think even they have the power to create such a miracle of infinite proportions. And if they did, I really don't think they would bless us with such a gift.”
“Do you really want to have this conversation right now?” Gabrielle gave Xena a skeptical look. “I mean, the relationship of our best friends is on the line, your brother is in Athens cooking up the-gods-know-what scheme to get himself noticed by Rome, Caesar is plotting against you with Egypt and possibly Persia. Do you really want to know how I know that there are other ways for us to have a family, besides the obvious?”
“Have you been talking to the village midwives behind my back?” Xena shot Gabrielle a mock glare.
“No,” Gabrielle answered. “But I did know a healer in Potidea who was able to help impregnate a widow who had recently lost her husband in a sudden and unexpected accident from which he never recovered.”
“Uck!” Xena cringed. “I really don't think I want to know.”
“See?” Gabrielle gently tapped Xena's cheek in triumph. “You said yourself that I'm pretty smart.”
“And you call Eponin and me perverted?” Xena continued. “That's just not right, Gabrielle.”
“Why not?” Gabrielle asked in all innocence. “Who says everything has to happen naturally or that we can't help things along in our own creative way? We're human. It's in our nature to come up with ways around life's little difficulties. That's why the gods gave us brains to think with.”
“But you're essentially talking about raping a man and using his seed for your own purposes,” Xena pointed out. “How would you feel if it was you?”
“It was me, Xena, remember?” Gabrielle countered in all seriousness. “I'm just thankful that I didn't wake up from the experience with a round belly and that monster's spawn growing inside my womb.”
“Gabrielle,” Xena grasped Gabrielle by the shoulders and held her. “There's something you should know about that.”
Gabrielle saw the seriousness in Xena's eyes and felt her stomach plummet. “What, Xena? Tell me.”
“I talked to my mother about what happened to you,” Xena continued. “She said some things that I didn't really put much thought to at the time, but that I think you should know about now.”
Gabrielle moved her hands so they were holding onto Xena's forearms. “What things?”
Xena guided Gabrielle to the edge of the bed and they both sat down. She put an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and just held her for a moment, as she thought of the best way to explain what Cyrene had said all those moons ago.
“Xena, you're scaring me, here,” Gabrielle said quietly. “Please just say what you have to say. I promise I won't fall apart or run away screaming in hysterics.”
“Okay,” Xena grinned at Gabrielle's attempt to bring levity to the situation. “I just want you to know how much I love you and will always love you, even if we never have a single child to call our own.”
“Yeah, now you're really scaring me, Xena,” Gabrielle chuckled mirthlessly.
“Mother said you'll never be able to conceive a child in your womb, Gabrielle,” Xena blurted. She met the sea-green eyes staring intently back at her and saw tears spring into them. But she also knew Gabrielle had to hear it all. She didn't want her clinging to the false hope that someday she could bear a child for the two of them. “She said the damage from your injuries was just too great and would leave too much scar tissue for you to be able to carry a baby to full-term. I'm so sorry.”
Tears slipped unheeded from Gabrielle's eyes as she absorbed the news. “She was that sure?”
“I'm so sorry, Gabrielle,” Xena repeated, as she took Gabrielle in her arms and held the crying woman close. “If there was any way to reverse the damage, Mother said Agatha would have done it. But there just wasn't anything either of them could do.”
“So, it's permanent, then?” Gabrielle sniffed. “I can never have children of my own?”
“I'm afraid not,” Xena answered. “What that monster did to you…”
Gabrielle actually felt as if her heart were breaking, as she cried all the harder for the children she would never have. She was most grateful for the arms that held her so tightly, but she also felt as if they were smothering her just a little bit. She wanted nothing more than to run out of there and scream her rage to the gods for the cruel joke they had played at her expense. Then Ephiny's words came back to her like a physical slap to the face and she couldn't help but laugh at the irony.
“What's so funny?” Xena pulled back enough to look at Gabrielle in concern.
Gabrielle was laughing on the outside, but inside she was falling apart. She suddenly longed for her lost offspring with every fiber of her being, until the loss was a physical ache deep within. But she also knew she had to hold herself together and be strong for Xena, who was looking at her as if she had just completely lost her mind.
“I'm fine,” Gabrielle swiped at the tears streaking her cheeks. “Really.”
“No offense, but you don't seem all that fine to me, Gabrielle,” Xena said with deep concern. “Matter of fact, it's a little unnerving that you're laughing and crying at the same time over this.”
Gabrielle sniffed back her remaining tears and cleared the wetness from her cheeks as best she could. “No, really, Xena. I'm fine. I was just thinking of something that Ephiny said earlier in her hut.”
“What was that?”
“She said I was one of the luckiest women in the world,” Gabrielle met Xena's intense gaze. “She said she envied me, because I had it all.”
Xena reached out and took Gabrielle's hand in hers. “I'm the lucky one to have such a beautiful and strong woman as my wife and lover. We will find a way to have a family someday, Gabrielle. I promise that I won't give up until I figure out how to make it happen.”
Gabrielle placed her other hand over Xena's and smiled warmly. “I love you and feel blessed that you're in my life, Xena. You're the best thing that's ever happened to me, and I cherish every moment we're together, even if we never have anyone else to share it with. We don't need children to make our lives complete. Another thing Eph said is that we're not like other people. Maybe she's right. Maybe we're different because our family—the people we love most—aren't blood relatives. They're our friends and sisters.”
“You're far too special to be like other people, Gabrielle. You know that?” Xena brushed a few stray tears from Gabrielle's cheek. “You are the greatest gift I could ever wish for. And I thank the gods themselves every day for bringing you into my life.”
They didn't need any further words between them, as they shared a long, lingering kiss and let their senses express what words could not. And it wasn't long before their clothes were shed and they were once again in each other's arms. The world outside the hut could wait or it could move on without them, as far as they were concerned. All that mattered was the love they shared and the expression of that love through the silent kisses, touches and caresses that sealed their bond and merged two souls into one.
Eponin leaned against the fence next to one of the four corrals in the village. As a tribe of women who weren't really all that fond of horses, the Thracians hadn't found it necessary to dedicate much space to the beasts. But Xena's appearance and subsequent joining with their queen, not to mention the Conqueror's appreciation for good horseflesh, necessitated a change.
A young Amazon stood in the center of the round, arena-like enclosure and quietly worked with one of the horses the Thracian Amazons proudly called their own. Their small herd was now twenty beasts strong and would nearly double that number in the coming spring.
The herd was growing so quickly, in fact, that Eponin had been tasked to figure out what to do with the new foals that would greet the world when summer gave way to autumn, autumn to winter and winter to spring. There just wasn't enough feed in the village to support more than twenty of the voracious beasts at a time.
“Keep that line taut, Zea, or she'll just continue to pull at the lead until she has the upper hand,” Eponin called to the young, dark-haired woman in the arena.
Zea smiled and did what she was told with focused determination. She was their best wrangler and was quickly becoming an expert horsewoman under Xena's watchful tutelage. Eponin was proud of the young woman who had come to them from one of the outlying villages with only the clothes on her back and raw courage in her heart.
Zea rarely spoke a word, but she had a way with horses that went far beyond anything even Xena had ever seen. There were even rumors floating around the village that Zea was actually a reincarnation of one of their ancestors who was a great horse whisperer. Word had it she could talk to the beasts without uttering a word.
Eponin didn't believe the rumors, but she was convinced that Zea did possess a gift with the intimidating beasts.
“You doing better?” Xena's voice intruded on her reverie and nearly made her jump.
“Hey,” Eponin recovered quickly and continued to watch the wrangler at work. “As well as can be expected, under the circumstances, I guess.” She shrugged. “Considering I had to move my stuff back into the communal sleeping quarters with the elders and Eph still won't speak to me, much less look my way. I guess her maj wasn't as successful as you hoped she'd be.”
“Gabrielle did what she could,” Xena said. “But Ephiny is the one who has to make the next move.”
Xena turned her back on the workout inside the pen and stared, instead, toward the open field and the woods beyond. There were a few girls playing stick ball in the open field and several elders sitting in the shade of the elm trees beyond the village gates. All in all, it was a peaceful summer scene that reminded her a little of her childhood in Amphipolis.
“Ephiny hates the mere sight of me right now and I don't blame her,” Eponin grumbled. “I am such a complete ass for doing what I did. How could I do such a stupid, idiotic…” She finished by slamming a fist against the wooden slat she was leaning on. The young mare passed by at that moment, tossed her head and snorted loudly. “Yeah, my sentiments exactly.”
“You think you're the first person to cheat on a woman?” Xena turned around and mimicked Eponin's position on the fence. “You really think so much of yourself that you would put yourself above the vast majority of people out there? Zeus himself has cheated on Hera more times that anyone can count. Hercules is proof of that.”
“I know,” Eponin answered with a resigned sigh. “But that doesn't excuse my behavior and it doesn't make her forgive me for what I did to her.”
“No, you're absolutely right, there, my friend,” Xena agreed. “The only way that can happen is if you go to her, on your bare knees if you have to, and beg her forgiveness. And you just might have to keep begging and begging until she finally gets tired of hearing you apologize over and over, then finds it in her heart to forgive you.”
“Oh, is that all?” Eponin shot Xena a skeptical glare. “That doesn't sound terribly difficult or humiliating.”
“Oh, it'll be much worse for you, my friend,” Xena slapped a hand on Eponin's shoulder. “So, my questions to you are: Do you love Ephiny enough to risk abject humiliation and utter defeat in order to win her back? Or are you just going to give up and let her go without a fight?”
Eponin suddenly found that she was being left alone to ponder Xena's words, as the tall, leather-clad Conqueror moved to the other side of the makeshift arena and joined Zea. The weapons master watched a towering Xena and the shorter horse wrangler, marveling at the easy manner in which Xena went about tutoring Zea in the finer points of equine training. A huge smile split Zea's features and brightened her hooded eyes, as Xena patiently explained how she wanted the young woman to adjust the lead and showed the young Amazon exactly what she needed to do.
Eponin could see the hero worship written all over Zea's face, as Xena finished her explanation and stepped back out of the arena to allow the wrangler to carry out what she'd just learned. It never ceased to amaze Eponin that Xena was capable of such brutality on the battlefield, yet had an inordinate amount of patience when it came to teaching someone something she felt was important.
And then her thoughts turned to the questions Xena had posed. Did she love Ephiny enough to put her own needs and feelings aside, so she could win the regent's affections, once again? She knew it would be much easier and much less humiliating to just give up and let the matter go. But her heart was screaming for her to at least try. She did love Ephiny. She loved her enough to give up drinking, altogether. And that was saying something.
“You better not let the next opportunity to show it pass you by, then,” Eponin said to herself. “And don't think she's going to let you off the hook without a fight. You know Eph. She'll make you grovel at her damned feet till she finally thinks you've had enough.”
“Did you say something, Eponin?” Gabrielle suddenly appeared at her side and almost made her jump for the second time in less than a candlemark.
“I was just talking to myself, yer majesty,” Eponin recovered enough to notice the scowl Gabrielle was giving her.
Gabrielle stepped up onto the lower board and stood there watching the activity in the arena. “She's beautiful, isn't she?”
“Who?” Eponin was caught flat-footed.
“The mare, Eponin,” Gabrielle answered flatly. “But Xena certainly outshines even Amber's sleek beauty.” She let a smile tug at the corners of her lips, as she glanced down at the woman next to her. “Zea is doing a really good job of training her. She should be ready to ride within less than a fortnight.”
“Yeah,” Eponin answered absently, her mind on other things besides the training of another horse.
Gabrielle hopped down from the fence and turned to face the weapons master. “So, when are you going to talk to Ephiny and beg her forgiveness? Xena and I don't have a lot of time to waste, while the two of you dance around each other.”
“Come on, Eponin,” Gabrielle glared at the woman. “Eph deserves a heartfelt apology for what you did and she deserves to have you do it while you're sober.”
Eponin actually blushed and turned her face away. “It ain't that simple, ya know?”
“Actually, it is,” Gabrielle continued. “You walk up to her—or, better yet, you get on your knees and crawl up to her—and apologize. Simple as that.”
Eponin snorted. “So, which one of you had to get on her knees and beg the other for forgiveness, huh?”
“What do you mean?”
“Both you and Xena seem to think that's what it's gonna take for Eph to forgive me for what I did,” Eponin explained. “Seems to me the two of you are speaking from experience.”
“Well, not exactly,” Gabrielle replied. “But, considering the severity of your actions and how much pain it caused Ephiny to actually catch you in the act of cheating on her, I think you're gonna need to do whatever it takes to win her back. And if that means getting down on your knees and begging her forgiveness a thousand times, then I suggest you do it.” Her expression turned icy, as she leaned in close and lowered her tone for Eponin's ears only. “If I were you, I'd think twice about going on another bender like that. Ephiny is more special than you will ever know and didn't deserve to be treated the way you treated her. She's my best friend and one of my most trusted advisors. She deserves someone who will respect her for who she is and won't let their own selfish pursuits stand in the way of her happiness. Are you hearing what I'm saying, Eponin?”
“Yes, my queen,” Eponin nodded dowerly.
“Make this right with her and see that you never betray her trust again, Eponin,” Gabrielle added with a touch less hostility. “For a reason that quite eludes me, she and I have a rather unique fondness for scruffy warriors with more brawn than brains.” She let the hint of a grin play at one corner of her lips. “I'm just glad I married the more intelligent and strikingly beautiful of the two.”
“Yes, your majesty,” Eponin breathed a sigh of relief.
Gabrielle turned back to the arena and let her eyes wander over a certain dark-haired, blue-eyed warrior who was grinning at her and showing off her perfect white teeth. That smile made the love in Gabrielle's heart swell to near bursting, as she exchanged a silent nod with Xena that signaled things were well in hand.
Continued in Part 3
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