Candle in the distance
by Kerry Hurley
"I'm well enough to walk, you know," Rahlna uttered from atop Argo's back.
"Too bad. You're riding. Shut up about it!" I growled, turning and snatching my staff from Xena's hands, getting a disgusted look in return.
With a cluck of her tongue, Xena guided the pony forward and walked into the trees, waving at her mother over her shoulder.
"You're going to be fine, Gabrielle," Cyrene said, placing a caring hand on my shoulder.
"How do you know that? She hasn't said more than two words to me in the last four days. Solstice is a few days away and she won't even let us spend it here with you!"
Cyrene cast me a sympathetic smile. "I know because I went through the same thing with her father. I know because I know that no matter what you two have happen, you're both going to stand by each other. I know because she loves you, Gabrielle, more than life itself. And one little fight isn't going to stop that love, ok? Remember that," she said before offering herself out for a hug. I dove into her arms with acceptance, knowing that while I couldn't have this type of relationship with my birth mother, I'd just found my long-sought love from another mother.
"I love you, Cyrene," I said, squeezing her to me.
She sniffled. "Honey, when are you going to call me mom?"
I sobbed and hugged her tighter, not wanting to release the moment by releasing her.
"Listen, Gabrielle," she started, rubbing my back soothingly as I clung to her small frame, my soul walking away from me with her beloved pony in tow. "We both know that Xena doesn't do anything without a reason and I'm sure she's got a reason for this, too. What it is, we may never know, but I'm sure there's a reason somewhere, ok?"
"Is it wrong of me to want us to stay here with you all for her birthday? For Solstice? She's still sick, Cyrene mom," I amended, correcting myself and getting a warm squeeze from the woman in return, "I'm just trying to take care of her. I just love her and this is tearing me up."
"I know, sweetie. I can see this hurting you and I hate it."
I pulled back. "There's nothing I can do, is there? She's got to work through whatever it is that's making her so irritable and I can't help her. I hate that."
"I doubt its about you, Gabrielle. If it was something you did, then she'd tell you and solve it right then. But this way - this way it turns into something she works out on her own to keep the worry of your shoulders. She wants to handle it herself."
"She thinks its easier on me, I know. I just I wish she'd tell me, damnit!" I said, stomping my foot.
Cyrene chuckled and I smiled and blushed. She reached up and pulled the hood up on my cloak, patting my cheek in the process.
"He'll be ok?" I asked completely changing the subject.
"He'll be fine. And besides, Toris always wanted a little brother."
I sighed, readying myself for the long trek that Xena and I would endure during the next day. Typically, Amazonia was a three day hike, but we'd take the harder trail and make it to friendly territory before tomorrow morning. "I don't get it, mom. If that was my son, I wouldn't leave for all the community laws in the world."
"Amazons," she said with a shrug and a wink before she got an evil glint in her eye. "Did I just hear you say something about your own kids? Oh, Gabrielle, do I get to be a grandmother?" She rubbed her hands in greedy pleasure.
I cackled, unable to help myself. "Xena's talented, but I don't know if she's that talented," I said with a blush.
"You two will work something out, I'm sure."
I blushed deeply, not really sure just how we'd work that out. Of course, all of that was dependent upon her speaking to me again. My face must have fallen and Cyrene noticed it.
"Knock it off, Kiddo. You're both going to be fine! Now get out of here before you get separated by the weather, ok?" she said, turning me around and smacking my rump as I walked away.
With a smile and a wave over my shoulder, I headed towards the Amazon border, the length between the warrior princess of grumpiness and myself remaining the same; neither close nor far.
Darkness fell and the sky twinkled its bright white dots at is from the heavens. I looked up at her face, watching the sparse moonlight catch on the fine lines that speckled her face.
I walked along the path, the moon's scarce light hidden behind the dense trees. We were coming up to a bridge and beyond that was the border of Amazon territory and I sighed. We had made it to the bridge. The last crossing before my friendly sister land. Of course, this was also where I had almost plunged to my death. Where Xena had been taken to be cremated. Where Autolocus had saved her and where we had kissed.
At the thought, I sighed and continued to trudge wearily through the sparkling white snow. The moonlight's reflection shone against the frost in small little diamond like flecks.
She and I had done, and could do again, with less than a beautiful queenly room but taking care of Argo was certainly important so we pushed on, heading for the warm Amazon barn. No discussions about camping over night. No questions asked. It was understood that if she kept moving, so did I.
The trees cast eerie shadows along the snow and it was becoming more and more difficult to see, the denser the trees became. I knew that the bridge was just beyond me because I heard Argo's hooves crossing the planking and Xena's soft voice as she coaxed the height-fearing horse across the bridge. The snow blocked my footing in places and there were large drifts that I had to either plow through or step around. I sighed, stepping over one rather deep seeming drift, my foot not finding ground on the other side.
Damn, I thought as I realized I must have just found the bridge's edge in the
dark. I was only a bit to the side of the bridge's actual planking. I skidded and fell, my
staff falling into the snow drift that I had so studiously avoided just seconds before.
My hands flailed and I grasped the roping just in time to get a good hold,
struggling to pull myself back to solid ground. My arms were tired. My body was tired. My reserves were depleted to the point of nonexistence and I was fighting to stay awake.
A booted foot came to rest on the plank near my hand. "Need help down
there?" she asked a twinge smugly, offering me her hand.
"Nope. I've got it, thanks," I said, again showing my independent stubborn
She snickered. I felt a soft touch at my wrist and saw her fingers trying to wind their way around my skin. "Give me your hand, Gabrielle. I don't want to loose you." Her finger's twitched and she grasped my wrist. I clutched hers in return and she hauled me over the roping and onto the planking of the bridged I had just missed.
"Thanks," I muttered, glad she had found me.
"Yeah," she said softly, handing me my staff and continuing back along the bridge from where she came.
I grunted and followed, plodding along behind her and the cream colored
pony. Well, that's the most she's said to me in a three days, I thought, seeing the pony walk through the arched oak trees that stood as the entrance to Amazon territory.
I walked along, unconsciously shortening the distance between Xena and myself. Rahlna looked as if she was having trouble keeping her eyes open and she slumped in the saddle, most of her weight settling on the saddle horn. Argo stumbled, her head drooping in exhaustion.
"Xena," I said softly. "Xena let's stop. Everyone's tired."
"No. We're almost there."
"I said no!"
I sighed and stepped ahead of her out of pure frustration. I walked along the path, placing a considerable distance between her royal highness, the princess of mood swings and myself.
"Gabrielle! Hey look everyone, its the queen!" A rustle of activity came through the trees as one of the youngest scouts I'd ever encountered dropped down lightly from a tree top.
What's her name? Lori, Dori, Lena, Deena. No. Damn. Missa, Lissa. Yup! Lissa! "You've gotten taller since the last time I saw you," I said fondly to the young woman who came up to my nose. "You're scouting already?" she whistled on ahead to let the rest of the troop know that there was a visitor. A friendly visitor by the tone of the owl's cry.
"Its not like I'm alone out here," the young girl said with a giggle. I heard another thud just behind me and turned, my staff unconsciously coming to its defensive position.
"Solari!" I said, diving into the brunette's arms and getting a strong hug in return.
"What a nice surprise!" She laughed. "Where's Xena?" she amended, knowing the last time I was alone in Amazon territory was when Xena had died.
"Right here," a voice said from right behind me. I would have jumped but for the hand that had rested on the small of my back just moments before her voice penetrated the air.
"Good to see you, Xena," Solari said, taking the hand Xena offered to shake. They smiled warmly at each other, having long since overcame any animosity or uncertainties. "Let's get you all inside. Argo looks about ready to fall over. And that load she's carrying is half asleep."
"That load she's carrying is an exiled Amazon," I corrected as we started towards the village, voices of scurrying Amazons in the distance even though it was close to the middle of the night.
"And you brought her back?" Solari asked, our strides lengthening the gap between the over tired Argo and ourselves.
"I am the queen. I do get to do that, you know," I said with a chuckle. "Would you really expect anything else from me?"
"From you, I'd expect nothing less."
"Queen? You didn't tell me she's the queen!" Rahlna shouted from Argo's back. Apparently she hadn't been asleep, merely resting, and had heard our whole conversation.
Xena snickered and I heard Solari muffle a laugh with the back of her hand. "Oh yeah. I must have forgotten to mention that, huh?" Xena said, annoyance and humor equally mixed in her voice.
The snow crunched under our feet as we entered the village. Heads popped out of cabin doors and the sound of a baby crying echoed on the night air. I headed towards Ephiny's cabin, knowing that I still had some business to attend to before I could get any rest.
"Ephiny? Eph? Eppphineeee," I called softly, stepping lightly into her darkened cabin.
A soft crunch came from behind me and a hard wooden object came in fierce contact with my hip, sending my body into battle mode. Unconsciously I went with the force of the strike, tucking to a roll and turning myself and swinging my staff as the piece of wood sliced through the air at me again.
"Holy Mother of Zeus!" I muttered, feeling my hip start to throb as I blocked a blow towards my head and countered with a sharp strike to the shoulder, or at least what I thought might be in the general area of a shoulder, based on the angle the hits were coming in from.
"Ga-ow! Gabrielle?" I heard from my combatant.
I could easily tell by the tone of the voice that it was none but my curly haired regent.
"Ephiny!" I said, dropping my staff to my side and immediately taking the opportunity to rub my throbbing hip.
"Damn, Gabrielle!" She muttered, wandering over and striking her flint to light the room's fire place. "You've gotten pretty good with that thing."
"Not too shabby yourself," I commented, feeling my injured leg start to give out from under me. I leaned my weight against my staff and watched Ephiny rub her upper shoulder in obvious discomfort. "You ok?" I asked, wondering if my hit had broken anything.
"I'll survive, that's for sure. Won't be able to sword fight with that shoulder for a few weeks, but other than that..." she trailed off with a chuckle. "I should be the one asking you that. There's a law about regents hitting queens, you know. I can go to the holding cell for that one."
I smiled and she chuckled, knowing I would do nothing of the sort. "Yeah, well, serves me right for sneaking into your cabin at midnight without letting you know I was coming."
"You didn't sneak," A voice from the anti room said. "I heard you calling. Curly Locks over there was too sound asleep to hear," Eponin said, wandering out of the bedroom.
I blushed and glanced down, my nose wrinkling in unreleased laughter. "Too much ale, Eph?" I quipped, hoping that to be the reason she was so tired.
"Um. Yeah. Let's go with that, shall we?" She said, blushing to the roots of her adorably curled hair.
We all giggled a bit before I finally gave up the tough-girl act and sat down with an audible groan. "You ok?" Ephiny asked again, concerned with my obviously stiff movement.
"You know, I should have known better than to come in without knocking. But I think I might swing by the healers on my way to my cabin," I admitted, feeling the swelling already starting.
"Oh, shit, Gabrielle, I'm sorry. I didn't know who you were! I should have known that the guards wouldn't have let you get past if you were an invader but-" She paused as I held up a hand.
"Don't apologize. I'm proud, Ephiny, really. It just goes to show me that I can finally convince Xena to stop ribbing you all about your drills and training. If you can smack me this well, then I feel sorry for any unprepared invader," I paused, glancing around looking for a staff. "What did you use on me, anyway?"
She blushed and looked somewhat sheepish. "A curtain rod," she said softly, her hand covering her mouth to keep the laughter inside.
"A what? You whooped me with a curtain rod? Zeus," I said, blushing as I saw the loose fabric on the floor and the carved wooden rod set against the bench.
Eponin sat down on the floor, tugging the blanket off the small seating area and settling it over her sturdy shoulders. "Not to be rude, Gabrielle, but to what do we owe the honor of a midnight visit?"
"I've got a problem that I'm turning over to you two."
"Goody," Pony mumbled, yawning.
A quick nudge from Ephiny's foot silenced the tired brunette and I glanced at her sympathetically. "Its pretty simple, really. I've got an exiled woman who needs the support of the tribe. I want her reintegrated back into society. Not too much to ask, is it?" I said, the last sentence completely sarcastic.
"What's her crime?" Ephiny asked, settling back on the padded bench and curling her feet up under her comfortably.
"Having a son."
"That's not a crime," Pony commented, her head drooping lazily to Ephiny's leg which served as a pillow.
"You're right," I agreed. "But refusing to kill or abandon him is."
"Its a stupid law," Ephiny said and I knew it came from personal experience.
"Yes it is," I said softly. "I want it out of the law books. Tradition is one thing, Eph, but law is another. And I don't want murder as something I allow to remain on the record."
She nodded and I saw the recognition in her eyes as we both knew this was beyond discussion. "I want it out of the law books but I can't do that on my own. The people... they still don't trust me. I know it. I can feel it. Some of them do and the rest of them don't. And, honestly, its the don'ts that outweigh the do's. If they went head to head, I'd loose. I don't want a civil war started over this. I just want it taken care of. I know you guys are good at that so I'm turning it over to you," I said, standing up with a grimace, having to bite my lip to keep from yelping.
"We'll take care of it," Pony said softly, rising and helping me stand the rest of the way. "Where's Xena?"
"Damned if I know."
"Trouble?" Ephiny asked, her eyebrow quirking in question.
"Let's just say the honey moon's obviously over," I quipped, leaving their cabin and walking into the middle of night, hearing their voices float behind me on the night air.
I sighed and lowered myself slowly onto the bed, feeling my joint stiffen with each motion. "That's going to be a bitch in the morning," I said to myself, getting a cloth dipped in the warm water from the pot the runner had put on the fire for me.
The door to the cabin opened and I looked up to see Xena enter, her composure held in place only by stubbornness. I wanted to just reach out and hug her, but from her expression that would not have been the best idea in the world.
"Xena?" I said softly while getting up, with only the uncontrollable desire to communicate with her keeping me from screaming in pain from my hip.
She raised an eyebrow and grunted as she washed her face, stripping off her armor in methodical motions.
"Argo get to the barn all right?" I asked, not really caring where the pony was at that point.
"Mmmm," she murmured, pulling the tunic she wore for sleeping over her head.
"Xena? You're awfully quiet. I mean, you don't typically babble like I do, but I thought I had gotten us to the point where I was treated to more than grunts and odd looks," I said, pushing the limits farther and farther.
"Do I have to be a chatter box to appease you?" She asked, turning on a heel and glaring at me with ice chips for eyes.
"No. You don't." I said softly, turning around and trying to walk back towards the bed without limping. Apparently I succeeded because she didn't ask me if I was hurt. At the time, I didn't register her with being otherwise absorbed. I thought she just didn't care.
"Goodnight, Xena. Sleep well," I said softly to her, rolling over and facing the window, hoping the dark shadows hid my tears.
I don't know how much later it was when a soft nagging woke me. I sat up in bed, immediately regretting the motion, but knowing there's something that was seriously wrong in the cabin. The air didn't feel right. I cocked my head and listened to the sounds, hearing a horrible bang come from behind the barn.
"Oh damn," I said, forgoing the boots and skirt and wandering outside in only my tunic, distinctly aware of just who's banging I was hearing.
Sure enough, there she was, drilling her sword motions against a rather defenseless tree.
I leaned against my staff, my upper leg swollen and, no doubt, discolored. "Xena," I said softly.
She spun around, fury in her eyes. "WHAT? Can't I get away from you for one blasted minute?"
Ouch, "That hurt," I said, deciding not to lie.
"What's wrong with you?" I asked, deciding to not ask her to lower her voice. If she needed to yell, she could yell. If she need to beat on helpless trees with her sword, she could do that. I'd wait patiently.
"I hurt inside!" she shouted it, throwing her head back and growling in frustration. She turned, whipping her arm back and flinging her sword, point first, into the closest tree.
I walked over to her, trying not to show my injury. This was not my time to hurt. This was hers and if I needed to fake a bit of comfort, I could do that.
"Why?" I asked, barely a step away from her.
"She just gave him up, Gabrielle! She handed him over to someone else to raise just so she could come back to a stupid village."
Oh. Rahlna giving Danic to Toris. I get it. Damn, Gabrielle, that was pretty stupid to miss. Talk about self absorption, I thought, my hand snaking up to meet her cheek only to have her face pull away sharply.
"Doesn't she know?" She asked, spinning back around to see me. "Doesn't she know that one day she's going to turn around and he's going to be gone. Gone!" She snapped her fingers. "Just like that."
"She doesn't know, Xena. She doesn't understand that what she's giving up is the one thing that's not worth losing. Children are irreplaceable and ... I don't think she's learned that yet. She's hardly as old as I am. If it weren't for Hope and Solon, I wouldn't know just how precious children are."
She glared at me, starting to realize that being angry at Rahlna and at me, for something so irreparable wasn't really worth the effort.
"I just want my son," She said softly, leaning back against the barn and letting a tear slide down her soft cheek.
I walked to her, resting my hands on either side of her shoulders, my staff leaning against the wood pile. "Xena," I started, "Solon's different. If it weren't for Hope. If it weren't for me...he'd still be here. Its my fault. He's my fault." I wiped the tear away, not knowing what to do.
"If I had never left him. If I had never taken him to be raised by the centaurs...he'd have known me. Known I was his mother. Known I love him."
"Do you think he had good life there? Did he play with the other children?" I paused. "Did Kaleipus love him?"
"Yeah. He seemed to like it. He couldn't have had a better father."
"Then what do you want? You're the one who told me that if he had grown up with you, he probably wouldn't have made it to 9 years old. You told me he would have been a target and that he was better off."
"He became a target anyway."
"No. He didn't become one. He always was one," I commented. "When you became pregnant with him, he was a target. That was just a fact, Xena, and as much as you love him- as much as your heart aches for him right now, you can't change the fact that he was always at risk."
"I...I just want to hold my little boy, Gabrielle. Is it so wrong?" She asked me, pleading with me to understand.
"Its not wrong at all."
"You know what?" she said with a sniffle.
"What?" I asked, softly, reaching over and taking her hand.
"I think I know how you felt when you had Hope."
"Yeah. You didn't care what anyone else said, you just wanted to protect your baby. She was a part of you. I should have understood that. I should have loved her for that. But.."
"You were trying to protect me. To protect the world, Xena. I don't' begrudge you that. I respect you for it. I wanted her to live because she was my daughter. But I didn't want her kill your son. I never meant for that to happen." I said softly.
"I'm sorry I didn't let you do what you thought was right. I should have trusted you more."
"I'm sorry I didn't let you love your daughter. Maybe if you had....she wouldn't have turned to Dahok," she said softly, her words touching my heart in a motion I had longed for ever since we had stood side by side at the twin funeral pyres.
"Xena?" I asked quietly, breaking the silence that had occurred as we stared deeply into each other's eyes.
"So the whole reason you've been such a bitch for the last two weeks is because you don't' think Rahlna should have given up Danic so easily?"
She snickered. "Guess I have been pretty bad huh?"
"You know, if these last two weeks were any reflection of what you were like as the Destroyer of nations, I think I'm glad I missed out on that part of your life."
"That bad?" she asked, leaning down and pegging my forehead with a soft kiss.
"I'll get over it," I commented off handily.
"On one condition."
"What's that?" she asked, her hand having traveled down to its usual resting spot on my hip.
"Get your gods be damned hand off my hip and then get me back to bed," I said through clenched teeth. The pain was searing and standing was merely something I did out of necessity, not ability.
She tugged my tunic up and upon seeing the swollen area, scooped me into her arms and proceeded to carry me back to the cabin, the whole time lecturing me about how I needed to tell her if I was hurt.
Those soft arms and the unmasked love I saw in her eyes made the entire lecture completely worth it.
"I'll be damned. How did you manage to stand on that?" She asked, rolling me onto my side with gentle hands.
"Necessity," I said softly, trying to not fall victim to her soft touch.
"Gabri-" She started only to be cut off by a knock on the door. "Its only a candlemark past midnight," she grumbled, tucking blanket up to my chin and effectively covering my nakedness. "This had better be good," She said to whomever was at the door.
Ephiny stood outside, her hair somewhat sleep disheveled. She held out her arm, her hand holding Xena's sword and my staff tucked under her arm. "Thought you might need these," She said softly, taking a half step inside and setting them on the table before turning to leave.
"Thanks, Eph," I called after her.
"You doing ok, Gabrielle? I didn't mean to crack you so hard," she said with an apologetic grin.
"YOU DID THAT?" Xena asked, looking as if she was about ready to pounce.
"Xena," I growled from the bed, trying to call off my attack dog. I sighed and tried to refrain from giggling as Ephiny moved to pull her sleeve up.
"I did that, yeah, but her Queenliness there decided to dislocate my shoulder. Pony...I mean, Eponin thinks she might have gotten a small crack on the bone, too."
Xena sighed and released the tension in her neck with a quick rub from her hand. "Well, one for one I'd say. Her hip is out of alignment and the swelling's so bad I can't even tell if its broken-" Xena paused, a smile forming on her lips. "You know Gab, at least this way if you get challenged again, you won't need me."
"Oh, Xena, I'll always need you," I said with over intended enthusiastic mush.
"And that would be my cue to leave," Ephiny said with a chuckle. "We'll soak in the hot springs tomorrow, Your Highness. Work on these tired old joints of ours." With a wink and a chuckle, Ephiny left, heading back to "Pony" and a nice warm bed.
"How did she know we left out stuff out there?" Xena asked with a chuckle, putting her sword back near the bed and my staff as well.
"The whole village knew we were out there. You were yelling, Xena," I said with a sigh. "I think Eph took it upon her self to go outside once it quieted down and see if there were any dead bodies that needed cleaning up."
Xena laughed and climbed up next to me, stroking my side with light fingertips. "Anything going on around here that I should know about?" she asked
"Let's see. Eph and Pony are sharing quarters tonight. I suppose I'll have to wait till morning to find out if that's a one night thing," I said, getting a dirty look from Xena in return. "Stop. You know you like the gossip just as much as I do. And other than that little tidbit, there's nothing going on that can't wait till morning to find out about."
"Good. Does that mean that now that I'm not so bitchy and you're not so stressed by my moodiness, that we can share a bed again?" She asked, nuzzling my neck.
"What does it look like we're doing?"
"Looks like I'm caring for an injured Queen."
"Looks to me like you're trying to start something that I'm in too much pain to finish," I said softly, kissing her soundly before scratching her back in a quiet motion.
"You really hurt, huh?" she said, getting up and going to her healer's kit.
"Does the term Kicked-by-a-centaur mean anything to you?"
"Ouch. Here swallow this," she said, popping a honey cube of bitter herbs into my mouth. I swallowed it with a gulp of water from the cup she handed me.
"That medicine had better be worth the taste," I said to her, getting a horrible look in return.
"Sleep, Gabrielle. You know the drill. Your body heals faster when you're resting."
"Yeah, well...you know I don't sleep well at all unless you're near by. And since there's only one bed around here.. .looks like you're going to have warrior pillow duty tonight."
She smiled and gently maneuvered next to me, her body supporting my injured side most comfortably. "My pleasure," she said, her head nuzzling up beside my neck and making me enjoy the closeness that we had lost over the last two weeks.
"Don't touch!" I screamed as she probed the swollen skin.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I can't fix it if I can't figure out what's wrong with it!" She pushed again on the huge bruised area, trying to get a good feel at the bone to see if it was broken. This had been going on since day break and I couldn't take it anymore.
"Xena, I swear to you if you touch me like that again, I'm going to rip this bed post off and knock you upside the head with it!" I said, clutching the wood and hearing it crack under my firm grip.
She looked up and a grin tugged at her face. She wiggled her fingers at me in a menacing gesture.
"You think I'm joking?" I said, reaching for my staff that was right next to the headboard. My fingers settled around the familiar wood and I had no doubt I could land a nice blow before she caught it.
"Hold still will ya?" She said before reaching up and jabbing two fingers into my neck before I could even swat at her hands.
"Ow," I muttered, feeling my legs go numb. "Did you have to do that now? You couldn't have done that when we started this torture process three candle marks ago?"
"Ephiny didn't make me when I reset her shoulder," Xena taunted, using her body as a brace and examining the alignment of my hip.
"Do I look like Ephiny to you?" I asked, noting the rather large differences in the regent and myself.
Xena cast an appreciative glance up my body and grinned, "No, you don't. You look much better."
"I take personal offense to that," Ephiny said, carrying in a large tray of snack foods without knocking.
"Don't," I said, "it not like I haven't admired your figure."
"Gabrielle!" I heard in harmony, both from Xena and the blushing Ephiny.
"Well its true! That hair, those eyes, the legs I mean, who wouldn't take a gander every now and then?" I admitted, loving to needle Ephiny when I had the chance. Picking on Xena was fun, of course, but she was always around to torment. Embarrassing Ephiny, however, was something I had to do when the opportunity presented itself; and it just had.
"Gabrielle," Ephiny groaned, burring her face in her hand to hide the spreading blush.
I chuckled at her and so did Xena who pat my still numb thigh lovingly. "You know, Highness, one of these days that mouth of yours is going to get you into trouble."
"Nah. That's what you're here for. To keep me out of trouble. Its your job, don't you know."
"Don't you have anything I can beat her with while she's down?" Ephiny asked Xena teasingly.
"No, but if you want to sit on her chest while I reset her leg, you can," Xena replied with an evil grin.
"What?" I squawked, watching Ephiny return the look with an equally evil one before pouncing on my chest and straddling my ribs and using her knees to pin my arms to my side. "I can break that other arm, too, Ephiny, if you make me," I said to her.
"No you can't. You couldn't spit far with this hip out of alignment," Xena corrected, resetting it into the joint with an audible crack.
Fire shot up my leg even though I was supposed to be numb and I felt a large amount of pressure on the skin surrounding the area even though the pain was still nil.
I felt Ephiny turn to Xena while still sitting on my chest. "I think you'd be surprised. I hit her first. She cracked my shoulder after I had whooped her in the hip."
It must have been some sight to the outsider. Xena's chin rested on my thigh as she tripled checked to make sure the bone was aligned and she looked up at me, stunned by Ephiny's information. Ephiny sat on my ribs, her legs holding my arms down and her head tilted back slightly so she could speak to Xena.
The look on Xena's face was priceless and I wouldn't have traded that moment for anything- especially since Eponin chose that exact moment to come and retrieve her wandering regent.
"What in Ares' balls is going on here?" She asked, her jaw open.
I snickered and Ephiny climbed gently off of me as Xena reached up and released the pressure points, a hand snaking over my mouth as I howled in pain with the rush of feeling that returned to my lower limbs.
"Damn," I said, trying to ride the wave of pain that had immediately followed such a playful moment.
"ENOUGH!" Xena screamed into the chaos as Eponin started yelling at the regent. Xena's one hand resting on my forehead as she vaulted over my body and "accidentally" shouldered the already off balance Ephiny into Eponin.
The two Amazons collided with an audible thud but the two didn't topple to the floor, thanks to Eponin's strong arms which rebalance the flying Ephiny.
"I refuse to listen to bickering while her highness here is having her leg realigned. Sit down, both of you, and shut up!" Xena ordered, her no nonsense voice making me blush and chuckle.
The two women took respective seats on the floor, Ephiny grimaced as her shoulder moved. I assumed judging by the look of hurt on her face that her shoulder had been jostled as she had stumbled across the room and I winced for her, knowing she wouldn't make a sound of pain.
"Hurt?" Eponin mouthed. Ephiny nodded and bit her lip, not saying a word.
"You in pain?" Xena asked, handing me a mug with a foul smelling liquid in it.
"What do you think?" I asked, drinking it down in one long gulp and curling my nose involuntarily as I swallowed the green goup.
"Good," she commented, seeing the empty cup. "You'll be fine in a minute or two. Just let that start to kick in."
I nodded and smiled in thanks, getting a warm wink in return. She turned to look at Ephiny, practically sprawled on Eponin's lap, her face contorted in obvious discomfort.
"Do you need me to fix that for you?" Xena asked, kneeling down and looking at the angle of the shoulder.
"Please," Eponin said, using her more delicate voice as opposed to the one that had been so gruff and abrasive just moments earlier when Ephiny had been sitting on my chest.
With a flick of her fingers, Xena released the nerves in Ephiny's arm and grabbed the wrist and the shoulder, turning sharply and hearing a loud pop before releasing the bones and nerves.
"Here, you too," she said, fixing another mug of green goup and passing it to the regent.
With a hand from Eponin, Ephiny stood and was led to the unoccupied side of my rather large and queenly bed. She sat down, obviously too agonized to speak or argue.
"You ok?" Pony asked, pushing the curly hair out of Eph's face.
Ephiny nodded. "Home," she uttered through clenched teeth.
"Home it is, then," the doting Eponin said, helping Ephiny stand and taking her good arm around the shoulder to take some of the dizzied woman's weight.
"Bed rest for the nest 2 days. Nothing that requires too much movement. Got me?" Xena said, telling them in a polite way exactly what that arm and hand couldn't be used for in a while.
"I could say the same to you, Xena. After all, that is our queen you're carrying for," Pony teased before ducking out of the cabin with a chuckle from her partner.
"How's the leg?" Xena asked, pulling on the bed sheet and leaving me naked again.
"Cold," I said, reaching down and grabbing her chin with a finger. "Would you come to bed?" I said with a grin.
"I am not 'coming to bed' for a while, Gabrielle. Not till your leg's better, anyway," she commented with a coy smile.
"Listen to you. One would think your mind's always been in a brothel, Xena. I want to take a nap or two. Or Three. And you know that with it hurting like this I'm going to get any rest unless you hold me." I paused and smiled. "Come to bed."
She sighed and pulled off her armor, settling for a tunic instead. "Here," she said, tossing mine to me. "Yours too. If anyone walks in, I don't want them to feast their eyes on you."
"Someone might think you to be jealous, Xena," I teased, sliding the warmed linen over my head.
"I am. Someone looking at you like that is going to lose both their eyes," She said, sliding into bed next to me and letting me slide closer at my own, slower, pace. Her arms were open and I snuggled in backwards, letting our bodies rest against together like Cyrene's spoons rested in the kitchen drawer.
"Please," I said with a chuckle. "If that was the rule, I'd have a whole collection by now. You're easy to look at, Xena. Not really an acquired taste," I said, feeling her laugh against me.
"Yeah, well, you aren't so bad yourself, bard."
"Xena, go to sleep. You're loosing your touch with the mushy stuff."
"I don't do mush, Gabrielle."
"Yeah. Right. Whatever you say," I said with a yawn, not believing her one bit. After all, the comforting kisses I had received to my leg this morning hadn't been mushy at all, had they?
"So, how exactly am I supposed to run the Amazon nation from bed?" I asked, munching on a piece of rather bland bread.
"You're not," she replied, yanking the bread from my fingers. "Stop it. I know you can't stand this stuff. I can't stand this stuff!" she slathered some brown paste.
"What do you mean, "I'm not." I have to run the nation. I'm the queen! When I'm around, its my job to be bossy and tell people what to do!" I said with a chuckle as she handed the bread back to me. I took a hesitant bite, enjoying the nutty flavor of the spread.
"You and Ephiny are both out of commission for a couple of days. I think Eponin and I can handle things in your absence."
"Oh, right, like I'm going to leave you to run the Amazons. You, Miss crack heads first, ask questions later. Yeah. That'll happen!"
She frowned and tossed a rather large chunk of bread my way, only to have it caught neatly between my teeth. I saw the feral grin transform her face and I knew I was in trouble.
"Why did you have to do that?" she growled. "Now I'm hungry."
I meekly offered up a small piece of bread and she pushed my hand away, leaning in and nabbing the piece from between my teeth. I shivered involuntarily as her teeth grazed mine and her hand came, somehow, to be resting behind my head, pulling me in. I'll admit that she didn't have to pull very hard as my body leaned in, feeling its source nearby.
Gods know where that piece of bread went to, but I know that I didn't have it and it certainly wasn't in her mouth because my tongue took it upon itself to search every corner of that particular orifice.
Her head moved back just a few inches and she grabbed a breath.
"I thought we weren't supposed to do this for a while," I said with a chuckle, nabbing the opportunity to speak as she caught her breath.
"No. We can do this," she teased, kissing my chin lightly, "We just can't do this," tracing a very naughty finger down my abdomen and my thigh.
A small moan escaped my lips and I pulled her in for another kiss, relishing the jolt that coursed through my body when her fingers played with the curve of my neck.
"Uh," I groaned, feeling my insides leap with tension as she nipped at my neck's nape.
Her lips fluttered across my jaw, my chin, my nose, and finally, after a millennia, she landed on my lips. I drank in her scent as we kissed, knowing that this kind of closeness would never be replaced in life.
"I love you," I heard as she pulled back and looked me in the eye.
"Meanie," I said, knowing what was coming next.
"So why'd you start this?" I asked, pulling her back down for another kiss, one she didn't hesitate to return.
"Because you're irresistible. I didn't have a choice."
"You're a liar," I said to her, tugging on her tunic until she straddled my hips lightly resting her weight on my good side. "If there's one thing you've taught me, its that we all have a choice."
"Gabrielle, the way my body responds to you, I don't have a choice. I either kiss you or I explode from lust," she explained with a chuckled, her hands tugging on my locks slightly as she fingered them. "If I don't tell you I love you, my heart would explode."
In. Out. In. Out. Breathe, Gabrielle, Breathe. I thought, forcing my heart to continue beating. "Comm'ere," I said, pulling her down and not giving a flying centaur patty about my leg or her stupid mandatory recovery period.
"We've got trouble," Xena as she entered the cabin, her cloak slung across a shoulder and held there by a stray finger.
"Callisto in town?" I teased, knowing that's how we used to refer to the tormented blonde.
She frowned and I chuckled, getting her cloak tossed at me in reply.
"Worse," she said, sitting down on the bed and
"What's wrong now?" I asked with a sigh, having already suffered through a parade of young Amazons delivering winter flowers to my chambers as a get-well present.
"What do you mean 'now?' What happened while I was gone?" She asked with a sigh.
I filled her in on the procession of teenage girls who had trooped through here and read me 'healing' poetry and delivered the flowers with an air of ceremony. "On top of that, Xena, in the middle of nap and a very nice dream that involved you, me, and a hot spring," I said, seeing her duck her head and blush, chuckling, "Audrina, the head healer, barged in here past those guards Eponin put outside my door and insisted that it was her duty to make sure my injury had been properly cared for. She wouldn't back off and I ended up shouting at her and you know how much I hate doing that around here. I swear to you, Xena, if those guards hadn't heard me yelling, I would have knocked her butt across the room with my staff and not regretted a moment of it!" I sighed and ran a hand through my somewhat stringy hair.
I was over due for a bath and starting to feel the grime encompass my body. Not surprising, Xena hadn't mentioned the odor I was no doubt releasing after going 3 days without washing. She was too classy for that and I loved her all the more for it.
"Do I need to have a talk with your guards? Tell them no one gets in here without being on a list?" Xena said seriously.
I frowned, not sure if it was a good solution or a silly side to her overprotective streak. Change the subject. We can come back to this later. "What was it you were complaining about before I interrupted?"
"You've got 6 crazed Amazons outside in a nasty fight and since both you and Eph are out of commission, they're not taking orders from anyone," I passed her a look that she interpreted beautifully and she answered my unasked question with a chuckle, "Me included."
"Xena, why do they always do this to me? I can't get a moments' piece!" I whined, causing her to chuckle. I slid the quilt off my legs and started to slid out of bed, only to have a hand touch my shoulder in restraint.
"Where do you think you're going?"
"Xena, they're not going to listen to you. They're not going to listen to Pony. If I let Ephiny handle it, I'm going to be viewed as the Queen who stayed in bed due to a little itty bitty broken bone. They hardly respect me now. If I don't go out there now, I loose all hope of being a strong Queen."
"I didn't know you were interested in being a strong Queen," she said, phrasing her words just right.
"One of these days, Miss Invincible, I'm going to get too old to traipse around the country side with you. When that happens I'm going to have to use my feminine wiles to convince you to settle down. And if you settle down in Amphipolis, you're never going to get any rest. So I plan on bringing you back here and running this place like any good Queen."
She chuckled. "And what if I don't want to settle down here?"
"I'll be here. Which means that you'll be here. Know why?" I asked. She shook her head. "Because where I go, you go. I've got my hooks in you, Princess, and I don't plan on letting you go. Ever." I winked and kissed her nose before grabbing my staff and sliding off the bed.
"You ok?" She asked, seeing me wince as I tried to put my full weight on my leg.
"If I start to fall, you're going to have to help me out. At least till we get to the porch and I can lean on the railing." Her arm snaked around my waist and took a great deal of my weight effortlessly. "Thanks."
She winked and I edged toward the front door slowly testing out my damaged limb. "Xena?"
"When I get finished kicking some butt, you're fixing me a bath."
"Oh, I am?" She teased, letting me go as we stepped outside but staying close enough to help me if I needed it.
"Yes. You are. That's an order from your Queen." I winked at her and she gave me a half smile in return, looking pointedly at the battling swarm of women across the courtyard.
I sighed as my eyes followed her gaze. Did they have to do this every time there was a little dispute?
"Hey," I said in a normal tone, hoping it would overpower the sharp cracking sound of their practice staves. Nope. Didn't work. Next. "Hey!" Nothing. Ok. One more try before I use her chakram as a mediator. "KNOCK IT OFF!" I shouted, leaning most of my weight discretely on the sturdy porch railing.
They cracking sound of wood against wood stopped and all heads turned my way. I knew that two of the most intimidating eyes stood next to me and I elbowed her slightly, knowing she'd tone down her gaze at the gesture.
We both knew that I had to do this by myself or else any authority I had as Queen was lost. She stepped back, still close enough to help me if I started to loose my footing, but far enough back so that I took center stage.
"Reyna, come here," I ordered, pointing to the dark haired younger girl who's staff was almost taller than she.
"Yes my Queen?" she asked, kneeling before me. A great deal of my strength went into refraining from rolling my eyes at the gesture, but I knew that it was merely a custom and a sign of respect.
"Why are you fighting?" I asked, my tone reminiscent of that I would have used with a toddler.
"They spoke poorly of my mother's aunt," the girl claimed.
"So you grabbed your staff and started swinging?" I asked. She nodded. "What level staff are you up to, Reyna?"
"Second, my queen."
"And you think that as a second level staff student you could honestly handle yourself in a full scale battle against your Amazon sisters? Some of them who could easily compete in battle against the weapons master?"
"It was a decision made in haste, your majesty," she said softly, her eyes on the ground.
"And would you make that same decision again?" I asked.
She paused in thought, obviously torn between the easy way out and the more difficult, honest answer.
"Yes, majesty, I would."
I sighed. "Your honesty surprises me, Reyna. But your irresponsible violence saddens me even more. You'll meet me in my quarters in two candle marks and receive your penalty there with the elders present. Until that time, you are confined to quarters."
A nod of my head and one of my guards was walking the young girl to her small hut and would stand guard out side her gate.
"Gilla?" I said, bringing forth the next combatant.
She knelt before me and I frowned, trying to remain gruff when I wanted to laugh at all this bowing and kneeling.
"What was your part in this?" I asked.
"Its the new girl, majesty. Some of us feel she doesn't belong in this nation." She said, her eyes coming up to me in pleading.
"That is not for you to decide, Gilla. It is ultimately my decision. If I have questions, I consult Xena. If she doesn't help me sort things out, then I consult the elders," I explained patiently.
"She is NOT an Amazon!" Gilla said, rising to her feet and pointing her sight straight at Xena.
"She is my consort and that makes her an Amazon!" I said back, my words biting fiercely at the proud girl. "And if you question my authority on any matter regarding the Amazon nation, you bring it to me! Not to the courtyard with your staff and take it out on second year staff students."
"Majesty, it "
"Gilla!" I said, almost yelling. "Go to your quarters. I'll see you in two candle marks for your punishment."
"But-" she said, pulling free of the grasp of the guard that had tried to follow my order.
My body growled at the tension and I felt the vibration in my throat. "Two days in a holding cell and your weapons privileges have just been cut off for a moon," I ordered, my staff tapping the floor in finalization. Gilla, her mouth hanging open in shock, was lead away to the holding cell by my guards.
"I'm not in the mood for any games. That goes for all of you! I don't have the patience right now to interrogate each of you individually. The last of you are going to a cell and you're waiting there for two or three candle marks- or until I feel like letting you out- and then you'll each stand before the elders council and await your punishment," I said firmly, seeing the guards encircle the remaining eight women. "In my laws I've made it clear that uncalled for fighting is not allowed in this village. You can practice on the practice field. You can use practice weapons. And if you ever have a problem with the way something is being run, I'm more than happy to address your concerns in a civilized manner. But I will not, I repeat, not allow this meaningless violence to continue to turn this tribe into a circus! Do you hear me?" I said, seeing all the onlookers nod. "Good. Now get outta here and go back and do what you were doing before all this damned stupidity broke out!"
I turned and walked back into the cabin, my shadow never too far away. As soon as that door shut, I fell into her arms and she scooped me gently, carrying me to my bed. "Thanks," I muttered, trying to wipe away the tears of pain I finally allowed to flow down my cheeks.
"You were really good out there," she said with a smile.
"Yeah. If I was one of them, I would have peed my leathers. Good thing I'm on your side with this one," she teased.
"Xena, do you really think we're doing the right thing making her a member of the tribe again?" I asked, drinking down the mug of green goup that she had fixed for me.
"I think its the only thing to do," she said softly. "And while I may not like how easily Rahlna gave up Danic, it was the right choice for her at the time. I just hope .that she gets the chance to make the separation up to him in a way that maybe I couldn't have."
I sighed. "Doesn't your leg ever get tired?" I asked cryptically.
She raised her brow, not following me.
"From kicking yourself about that all the time," I replied, tugging down the bed covers and letting her slide next to me. "He was a good boy, Xena. I miss him, just like you. I feel really badly that he's gone. But I know that the dead can hear our thoughts. You heard mine," I admitted, bringing up that ever present time when she had left me. "And if you keep telling him that you love him, then he'll hear it. But if you keeping feeling sorry for yourself, he'll hear that, too, and I'm sure you don't want him to think of his mother as a self-pitying-wimp, now do you?" I asked, getting a smile in return.
"Then knock it off, will you?" I asked, kissing her cheek and feeling my leg start to numb up. "This stuff really helps, thanks," I said, holding up the mug I still had.
She nodded and I watched her blue eyes focus on the window. "You're getting pretty good at defending my reputation and honor, you know," she commented.
"With Gilla?" I asked.
I smiled and leaned my head down, wanting to relax for a while before I had to go sentence hours of tribal-service to some of my best fighters. "She's a poop-head, Xena. Saying your not a real Amazon. I'm not one, either, she knows. But she knows I'm queen and can toss her scrawny ass out any time I want to which makes me Amazon enough, in her mind."
Xena chuckled and I smiled at her, stifling a yawn.
"You're a real Amazon, Xena. My Amazon," I said, closing my eyes for a moment ..
"Hey, sleepy head," I muttered at my bed mate.
"Xeeeenaaa," I crooned, bringing a hand up to my face and kissing each knuckle softly.
"Stop that," she said, obviously trying to go back to sleep.
"Xena, I'm naked and alone and I want you desperately," I whispered in her ear, having rolled over in my sleep and found a nice cuddling spot in the crook of her neck.
"I'm awake!" Blue eyes opened sleepily, though her body was suddenly very tense and alert.
"You're not naked."
"But we're alone," she said, her eyes hopeful.
"Do you still want me desperately?"
"All the time!" I said, nibbling on an earlobe.
"Then how come you're not naked?" she growled in my ear.
"Because I'm dirty and smelly."
"I don't mind. I've been dirty and smelly more than half the time we've known each other but you don't seem to care."
"So get naked!" she said, tugging on my tunic.
"Xe, I have to meet with the elders in a candlemark."
"But after that I promise you one full body massage, ok?"
"I get a body massage?" she asked with an indulgent grin.
"No, princess, I get a body massage. You get to give it to me!"
"Even better," she said with a chuckle, still tugging on my tunic. "If I'm going to fix you a bath, you have to get out of this, you know."
"Yeah yeah yeah, you just want to cop a peek before that massage, and don't think I don't know as much."
"Is there anything wrong at admire the body of the woman I love?" she asked innocently.
"As long as its my body," I muttered, "There's no problem at all."
She helped me to my feet and let me stretch my sleep filled body as she supported my bruised side. She leaned down for a quick kiss, sliding the tunic over my head with one hand just as a knock on the outer door sounded.
I groaned in frustration and leaned against my personal dressing screen as the door opened a crack.
"Xena?" Eponin said, her head barely making it through the opening.
"We've got a problem," she said softly, doing a wonderful job of not commenting on my nakedness.
Xena sighed and kissed the top of my head as I chuckled at our luck. "Go," I muttered, patting her back lightly.
"I'll be right there. I have bath duty first," she said and Eponin chuckled in response and ducked out the door, waiting patiently on the porch. "Into the tub with you," Xena said, scooping me up and depositing me in the wooden tub.
"Why do you do that?" I asked with a sigh.
"Scoop me around like a rag doll?"
"You could do it to me," Xena said, grabbing the bucket of hot water that was nearest the tub and lifting it in, pouring it slowly over my feet.
I waggled my eyebrows. "You're right. I probably could. I'll have to try it some time. When I can stand on my own two feet that is," I said with a chuckle as she dumped the second bucket in there. "Maybe I'll take you down to the mud pits near the shores. Scoop you up and dump you straight in."
"You wouldn't," she said to me with a chuckle.
"In a heartbeat!"
"No, you wouldn't," she said again, lifting the last bucket of water, "You said yesterday that where you go, I go. Which means you'd be hopping into that mud hole right after me." And with that, the water was poured straight over my head and I let out a squeal as the soap plopped in right after.
I pushed the wet hair out of my face and gave her a glare as she stepped out of her tunic and into her leathers, minus the armor.
"If I'm back in time, I'll wash you're hair," she said, grabbing her breast dagger and slipping it into place with a wink my direction. Other than that and her deadly good looks, she was unarmed.
"Tease," I growled, loving it when she massaged my scalp almost as much as she loved a good foot rub with scented oils.
"And you love every minute of it," she said, turning and leaving, having made special note to leave my staff close enough to the tub.
I groaned and ducked under the water, trying to cool off in the suddenly over heated quarters.
Getting out of the tub was hard. Getting dressed was no picnic, either, but with the majority of my weight resting either on my staff or on the bed frame, I managed to slide into my warm winter leggings and my winter Amazon top that Ephiny had given me at my coronation.
With a sigh, I combed and pulled my hair back with a leather tie, making sure it was out of my face.
I grabbed my staff and hauled myself back up to my good foot, heading outside to find my missing partner.
"You don't belong here."
"Neither does a punk like you."
The second voice I knew by heart and the first one I would come to know very well in the next few minutes.
If, five minutes prior to those words, someone had asked me if I would be able to run, I would have fallen over laughing. How I ended up sprinting toward those voices, I still don't know.
Somehow I managed to be close enough for my instincts to kick in and I knew what was about to happen without any physical hint from raven-hair.
Xena was walking from the raven haired girl, hands empty, and I saw the upswing of the girl's sword before Xena could have felt it even with her enhanced and well trained senses. With two more strides, I caught the attention of Xena, making her gawk before recovering and realizing what exactly it was that I was heading for.
"Gabrielle!" she shouted at me, surprise in her voice that I was even out of bed without assistance.
I ignored her as my staff hit the ground and I leap off my good foot, flying through the air for what seemed to be an eternity. I landed on my uninjured side and used the momentum to swing my staff straight for the girl's jaw, hearing a sickening crunch at the impact. Her sword fell from her hands, straight for my shoulder, but I spun again, moving out of the way just in the nick of time. And I mean "nick" literally as the tip of her sword hit my sleeved arm and created a small cut down both the skin and the woven wool.
Xena was by my side in an instant and Ephiny stood on the other, glaring at raven-hair.
The girl struck out at Xena, a closed fist headed straight for my lover's jaw. Xena didn't even flinch as Ephiny's good elbow snapped up out of pure reflex and caught the young girl squarely in the nose, a stream of blood shooting forth. The fisted hand rushed to cup the nose.
If she had known better she wouldn't have even tried. Not to mention the fact that Ephiny and I were standing strict protectors over my well abled warrior princess.
"What is your problem?" I asked her, my voice tense and more of a growl than my normal speech.
"She does not have authority here," the girl mutter through clenched teeth, pointing at Xena with one hand, her other hand holding her jaw.
I threw my hands up in utter frustration, feeling a bit of a burn in my cut arm. "What exactly is wrong with you people? I have to throw eight of you in the dungeon before breakfast and now I have to sprint out here on a throbbing hip and vault across two of your sisters just to whack you upside the head?"
"And your sword injured our queen, Ella," Ephiny commented to the girl. "There are several punishments for that, the least being a public thrashing."
"No. I won't have that. Not yet anyway," I said softly, my hand landing on Ephiny's arm. "Ella, you have two days," I said formally, getting a curious glance from the elders who had gathered. "In two days you're going to come before myself and Ephiny and present a collection of scrolls. In two days you will have copied every scroll in our library relating to Amazon law and tradition. And you will have copied every scroll that tells us why those laws and traditions are in effect. And if I ask you a question, you'd better be able to answer it correctly. Or else."
Several of the elders stood, nodding their heads in unison, apparently pleased with my choice of discipline.
I stood there, waiting for a response from the girl. She stared at me, bitter eyes flashing.
"You don't have anything to say for yourself?" I asked her, stunned at the amount of rebellious Amazons I was encountering today.
"I am not sorry for challenging her authority, your majesty. She is not the queen. But you are. And if that is what you feel fit for me to do for two days, that is what I will do for two days. Though I must say, majesty, I feel your discretion is clouded and you are under her influence."
I snickered and noticed Ephiny biting her lip fiercely against a round of giggles. "You're right, Ella. I am under her influence. Every time she looks at me, I loose all sense of time. And when she touches me, the world spins so fast I don't know up from down. And if you ever experience it, Ella, you'll be one of the lucky ones. There are not many people who find a love so powerful they fight death for their soul mate. You'll be lucky to find that, Ella, because if you keep challenging things that you don't understand, you'll never find the person who, with one touch, one look, one breathe, one word, or one kiss, can make you feel as if everything you're missing is suddenly found."
I sighed and felt a hand at the small of my back as Eponin walked up and stood next to Ephiny. What a sight we must have made; two Amazon authority figures and their respective protectors. Xena guarding me like a hawk and Eponin was equally protective of Ephiny.
"Take her to the cell. A runner will bring the scrolls and parchment later on," I said sadly, hoping my words had helped some.
A sturdy guard took Ella's elbow and sword, leading her off in the same direction the other trouble makers had been taken earlier this morning.
The crowd dispersed as the elders muttered a few words that I couldn't discern. They headed towards the great hall, more commonly known as the dining hall, and I assumed I was to follow for the discipline of the previously sentenced amazons as soon as I was ready.
Ephiny and I glanced at each other and the word "Ow!" rolled off our lips at the exact same time. I felt my hip throb and tried to rub the pain away with a free hand just as Ephiny cradled her now bruised elbow with the hand of her dislocated arm.
I leaned against Xena just as my good leg decided it had done enough work for the day and quivered and gave out. I felt her arms wrap around me, hugging my body to hers.
"That was some leap there," Eponin said.
"Turning into a bunny?" Xena teased, her hands under my arms comfortably as I let my leg recover from its workout.
"I want to know how you learned to fly?" Eph asked, her elbow being gently rubbed by Pony.
I smiled and played along although my face must have been beat red from the blushing. "You guys forget who I hang out with every day. If she can jump out of castle windows, breathe fire, fight a goddess after recently being resurrected, the least I can do is vault a court yard on a dislocated hip. Really, people, you forget what kind of reputation I have to live up to!" I said, elbowing Xena.
I smiled, as did Eph and Pony. "You two are adorable, you know that?" I finally said, seeing Eponin tenderly massage the bruised elbow. They blushed, but neither made any effort to move from their position. "Do I get to perform a joining?" I asked, pushing just a little farther.
They groaned and turned, heading to the hall for the gathering.
"You ok?" Xena asked, leaning down and gazing at me from above. I was rather slouched in the way I was leaning against her and the height difference was made more obvious.
"I don't think I can walk," I answered with a chuckle.
"After that little flying stunt you pulled, its no wonder!"
"You would have done the same for me," I replied, longing to spend the rest of the day in a warm bed, kissing her lush lips or receiving that body massage I had coerced her into.
"You're right. But that doesn't mean I like seeing you hurt on my account," she said.
I winked at her and got in a quick subject change. "Told you I could swing a staff even with an injury."
She blushed. "You sure did, didn't you. What did you win?" she asked, turning us around so we were face to face and ducking her head so our eyes were almost level.
"Respect," I teased, leaning in for a kiss.
"You already had that," she said, lips grazing briefly.
"You'll have to prove it later," I said, greedily devouring her lips, hungry for their texture, their taste.
After a few minutes of passionate exploration I realized I could stand on my own again, my staff as a support.
"Healing kisses," I said softly, leaning against her as we caught our breathe.
The sun was high in the sky as we giggled and headed slowly towards the dining hall, my love's hand snugly fit in my own.
The doors opened from the inside as we approached and I saw the two spaces left at the head of the table. One for Ephiny and one for me. A seat to the right and left of each of those was also left open for our partners, each holding their own position in the society.
Ephiny sat down just as I did, Eponin and Xena remaining standing with the Elders.
"Sit down. Let's make this as painless as possible for us all," I said, gesturing at them to sit.
I heard a throat clear and I saw one of the elders rise.
"Gabrielle," she said, forgoing the formalities. "I'm going to apologize for the behavior of the younger girls. I don't know why they're acting like this."
"I do," I said softly. "They're bored. They're bored and they're filled with all sorts of energy that they don't know how to get rid of any other way."
Xena snickered to my left and I blushed. The room was filled with a chuckle and the tension was released all at once.
"And, to be honest," I continued, glad people were more relaxed now, "I prefer that they're doing something constructive than just sitting around making out."
"What do you suggest," came a voice from across from me. It was Kelana, a friend of Melosa's who had been one of the ones to welcome me to the tribe when I had become not only princess but queen.
I thought for a minute, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. I turned my head to Eponin. "I suggest you get off your butt and start teaching some weapons classes."
Pony nodded, knowing it wasn't a personal dressing down, but rather the result of the simple fact that she had become too involved in her personal life and forgotten some of her duties as weapons master.
"While we're here, Xena and I will be happy to run drills and activities for any one who wants to compete," I offered, getting a glare from my side. "Isn't that right, Xena?"
"Mmm," she groaned, trying to remain stoic.
"And," I said, pausing again, "I suggest some sort of thinking activities, too. We can't have them turning into all muscle and no mind."
"Any specific ideas?" Kelana asked.
I paused, turning to Eph. "You know their strengths. What are their weaknesses?"
"Logic," she said after a very brief pause. "Most of them want to go for the sword first and figure out the game plan half way through. Sort of like what happened earlier."
"So we need some classes in strategy," I surmised.
Kelana's partner spoke up, her eyes almost black they were such a dark brown. "They aren't going to just sit in the classroom with the school children, Gabrielle. These girls are turning into women, but they're not there just yet."
"I can see that," I said with a sigh, plopping my chin onto my fist and resting it on the table, obviously thinking.
Minutes passed and Pony got up to pace, obviously working on her own plans.
"Got it!" Xena and I said at exactly the same time. I glanced at her and opened my mouth, hearing the same thing come from her own. "Capture the flag!"
We started laughing and the elders chuckled, knowing that a village game designed to teach little boys how to "play army" was probably just the ticket for a bunch of rambunctious hormone driven amazonettes.
"Ok, so if we put the target here, and start each troop from a different angle," Ephiny mused, tracing a map with her finger, a quill leaving a small dot where the target would be.
"What about the target? These guys aren't going to go for a flag or picnic lunch like when we were kids," Xena said.
I sat, my hands in my lap, my leg quite numb from the latest dose of green goup that Xena had gone back to the cabin to fix for me.
"We're out of ambrosia, so I guess that's out," Ephiny joked, getting a chuckle from the entire room.
Xena drummed her fingers on the table, her brow creased.
I slid my hand over hers and stopped the annoying but lovable noise. "Me," I said softly.
"What?" she asked.
"I'll be the goal. The target." I paused. "I mean, I know that they're not happy with me right now, but "
"They'll never fall for it," Ephiny said with a sigh.
"Not with us here. Not with Xena here," Pony amended.
"You have a point," I said, biting my fingers.
"Don't do that. I happen to like those," Xena said, causing me to blush as she pulled the fingers gently from my mouth.
I grinned at her. "I'll take you with me, if I can't leave you here."
She frowned and met eyes with Eponin over my head. "What about them? Not that I'm opposing some time alone with you, mind you."
"They'll come, too," I said, turning and watching a flicker of happiness cross Ephiny's normally stoic face at the idea.
"And of us?" Said Riffat, the elder who bravely sat closest to Xena.
"You all can stay behind," I said softly, the plan forming in my head. I longed to stand up and pace the front of the room as I normally did while thinking, but my little tousle with Ephiny the other day was making that idea seem impossible. Instead I found my hands reaching for the map. "It'll be your duty to ensure that they know that a weapon is only as good as the mind using it. We won't leave for a few days, so they'll get in some good hard workouts at the practice field before then," I mused, casting a glance at Eponin who received my look and nodded that she'd set up the instruction classes.
"Gear?" Kelana asked, a scroll in front of her and she was taking notes.
I frowned, not really sure. "Basics," I managed to decide. "Every one is entitled one weapon and one reserve dagger. But they've got to pass the weapons test first. I don't want anyone out there who's going to hurt themselves," I said, knowing that daggers were more of a security factor much of the time than an actual weapon. Though with Xena, stale bread became a weapon.
"The could bring a bedroll, but it'll get in the way over some of the terrain," Xena chimed in.
"Waterskins are fine, but they'll slow them down. They need to know that, too," Ephiny mused to no one in particular.
I sighed, having traveled the road for a while now. I had run from enemies, lugging everything I owned and wishing I hadn't brought it all. "The clothes on their back. One blanket for two people will be fine if its still this cold out," I said to Kelana. "If its warmer, they shouldn't even need that and winter leathers will cover it. I want a mix of weaponry out there. Two many swords is just as bad as not enough."
I caught an amused look from Xena and nudged her toe with my own, wiping the look off her face immediately.
"This is going to take planning on our part," I said. "We let even one of them know and the whole charade is over with."
Ephiny nodded. "And they're a pretty perceptive lot."
I hated doing this, but I was about to make a proclamation. "Ok, ladies. Anyone not in this room at this moment doesn't hear one word of this, got that? I'm going to look into getting a few of my male friends to help up out with this-"
"Majesty, we've never needed men to help us before!" Cheras said irate at the prospect of men entering her camp.
"No, Cheras, we haven't," I said knowing she was objecting to more than my suggestion about asking men for help.
"Exposing our daughters to the influence of men isn't going to make them any better off!"
"What exactly is it that you fear?" I asked the entire section of women across from me. It seemed as if 2 or 3 of them had all perceptively flinched at the mention of aid from men.
"Men are violent. Unhygienic with all that spiting and scratching. Its just plain disgusting. They are stubborn and rude. Not to mention how they repress and abuse their women!" Dee piped up. It was common knowledge that she was not born an Amazon. As a small child who's father and brother had kicked her out of the house, she had wandered to the Amazon lands and had been raised as one of the tribe. Needless to say, Dee was not very fond of men in general.
As a young adult, her best friend had become her lover and soon they were joined as one. Cari, her partner, had been sent to another Amazon village where she would learn different hunting techniques and share our knowledge as well.
"You're right about the scratching and spiting. I'll agree with that." Agreeing with that, after all, wasn't hard. I had been in brothels and seen exactly what she was referring to. "But while there are men who are stubborn and rude, there are those who are kind and caring, too. And yes, many men to repress and abuse their wives. But there are women who repress and abuse their men, too," I said, looking pointedly around the room. "Isn't that how we repopulate?"
"But we do that out of need!" Talia said.
"Do we?" I asked. "Wouldn't it be easier to just go into a brothel and work a night?"
"But our daughters wouldn't come from brave stock," Talia disagreed.
"Having children is not like breeding horses, Talia. You don't pick your partner based on his health. You pick your partner our of love and trust and if you end up with a healthy child, then it is a gift from Artemis herself!" I argued. After all, this was a touchy subject for both myself and my partner. I took a breath, calming my self before I continued on. "And while it is rather common for Amazons to prefer to company of women to men, and that does lead to some troubles when it comes to reproducing, that doesn't give us the right to use men as objects. Nor do men automatically have the birth-right to oppress women."
Kelana cleared her throat. "Cheras. Talia. What I think the queen is saying is that men are not by nature disgusting swine." She swung her eyes to me in question.
"That's right. And what I'm saying is that exposing our daughters to kind and sensitive men, such as those I keep company with, would do nothing more than help them to understand equality. And it is Equality that the Amazon nation was founded under, was it not?" I asked, standing up and placing both hands firmly on the table. My back ached and if I concentrated hard enough I could have imagined Xena's hands on my underarms, lifting me up and letting my spine pop into place.
Xena frowned, upset, no doubt, that I was on my leg without any assistance. I had seen Ephiny move to rise with me, but I nudged her with the toe of my injured hip and she remained seated.
"And, ladies, while the Amazons have remained independent of men for quite some time now, there is always room in my camp for a friend- be it male or female. And if I choose to invite Xena's brother or our friend or even a fellow Amazon's son, it is my decision to make, ultimately. Do not think that I would endanger this camp or the people in it to make a point regarding gender balance. Understood?" I asked with a look that would have made Xena flinch.
"Yes, Majesty," the two women said, sighing and realizing they were out numbered by every other woman in the room.
"Good," I said, sitting down with nary a flinch and folding my hands on the table in front of me. I sighed, completely drained from the event. "Kelana, you'll head up the comity regarding this event. I want to get updated plans every other day. By the new moon," I said, mentally calculating enough days for all the particulars to be straightened, "I'll need a finalized plan out on my desk for editing and approval."
I paused, my eyes flicking over the room of the twelve elders and realizing that with myself, it became the number thirteen which was powerful to some cultures. Experience and wisdom came from each of us; our different lives making a different set of knowledge fill each one of us individually. Not one person had the same perspective or the same understanding of a situation and that was vital. It was vital to both the Amazon nation as a whole and to this project individually.
Shilay was the retired weapons master who had trained Eponin. She left the position when a battle injury left serious damage to her knees, making it extremely difficult for her to balance in battle.
Margo was the head horse wrangler. She had grown up, it seemed, in the saddle and nary a day went by when she wasn't out training a horse or teaching younger Amazons her craft.
Philipa was the only elder woman who's hair was free of gray. Her ebony hair was darker than Xena's and ran purple in some lights. Her history wasn't well known as she had joined our tribe late in life as a partner to one of the recently departed elders.
Carmen sat across from Ephiny, an obviously bored look on her face. Word had it that she could calculate numbers in her head that normal people required two or three abacuses for. Her mind for strategy was just as sharp as Xena's and her eye for detail was almost legendary around the village.
Kris was the Amazon prophet. Her mother and mother's mother had all been Amazon seers and well respected amongst the village. The didn't claim to know the entire future or be able to change it in anyway, but they did have the remarkable gift to receive visions in the night. Of course, I kept my own similar prophecies quiet so as to not step on any toes while I was in the village.
Amazons tended to be rather protected of their positions and with good reason. Such a large village and so many gifts made some jobs tend to blur together. On the whole, things ran smoothly, but every now and then, as today had demonstrated, there was a scuffle and a bit of an uprising as the delicate power balance was threatened.
I took a breath and reached for the mug of water Xena had fixed for me. It held a powerful pain herb that wouldn't put me to sleep, but would keep the ache in my side from overpowering my thoughts. "Kelana, you'll take Audrina, Carmen, and Philipa on your council. Everyone else is responsible for maintaining normalcy around here. Two nights before the game will begin, I'll call a meeting and review the information. Understood?" I asked, getting nodding heads all around and murmurs of agreement. "For now, lets keep this low profile. I don't want this to arouse suspicion from the younger girls. Weapons classes have been neglected as of late, as have other things around here."
I put out my hand and Xena placed one of my scrolls in my palm. I unrolled it, seeing the checklist I had created a day prior.
I cleared my throat before taking a sip of water, preparing myself for one of the final notes of business. "I won't mention the attack on Xena today in any relaxed atmosphere," I started with, the scroll resting on the table. "Her life is not something I fool around with and attempts upon it aren't taken lightly." I noticed a frown. "Something you'd like to add Alana?"
"She can take care of herself, majesty," The eldest elder said, motioning to Xena with a gnarled finger.
"Yes, she can. And its not her safety I'm worried about."
"Its respect," Eponin said for me, her scroll of battle maps rolled tightly and laid neatly in front of her.
Ephiny piped in, "If the nation doesn't realize that any attack on the Queen's consort is the equivalent of an attack on the Queen, then there is a serious problem with the mindset of our daughters, Alana."
Xena, thank gods, was remaining silent for this whole ordeal, and giving me the opportunity to handle this myself.
"You all are telling me that the fiercest warrior in Greece needs some piddly Amazon children to back off?" Alana said, scowling at the idea.
"No," Xena said, speaking for the first time since planning the mock-attack. "They're telling you that when they challenge me, they're challenging Gabrielle. And by challenging Gabrielle the are undermining the authority of every person in this room."
I nodded in agreement, as did Kelana and Eph and Pony. "There is just so much I can take in disrespect, Alana. Not disrespect towards me, personally, but disrespect towards my position. I am in charge here, weather I act like it or not. I don't like giving orders and I don't like to belittle people because its not my nature. But don't think for a moment that I would hesitate to give orders when it is necessary. If someone wants to challenge me or my consort, formally, we are willing to accept at anytime. But if someone challenges me or my consort informally and against the rules, they're asking for trouble."
"And she," Ephiny said, pointing to Xena, "happens to have the middle name 'trouble'."
Xena chuckled as did I. Alana tried to muffle her grin, but I saw it and enjoyed the softer side of our eldest.
"Listen you guys," I said to the entire table, my voice purposefully softer than before. "You know I'm not fond of people making proclamations without consultation and serious thought, so I don't do that here. I don't think its a good way to lead. But sometimes, and this is one of those times, there isn't any other choice than to lay down the laws and carry out the consequences. And today I am proclaiming a law stating that anyone who informally challenges any Queen's consort is subject to whatever punishment that queen deems fit."
This was my very first proclamation as Queen and I waited to see how it went with the elders.
"Understood, majesty," Kelana said with a warm smile in my direction, getting echoed by every other member of the room.
I sighed and chuckled. "Good. Now that that's over and done with, I've got to say this place looks like a tornado hit it! What's wrong with you all?" I added a smile to soften the words and I got a few sheepish looks in return.
I glanced at my regent, expecting some sort of reasoning.
Lucky for me, I received one.
Ephiny ducked her head. "That's my fault. I've been a bit distracted."
"Not entirely," Philipa said. "The village should be working together and do what has to be done, not wait for orders. If there's garbage around, it should just be picked up without thought as to whose job it is. That kind of attitude is lacking around here," she added. "That is the fault of us all, not just one person."
Ephiny sighed. "That may be well and true but I am in charge when Gabrielle is away and I have " she paused and blushed. "I've been more concerned about the state of my bed than the state of our village."
Pony ducked her head and snorted in muffled laughter, getting a swat from Ephiny's good hand.
Kelana muttered, "Haven't we all?"
I giggled and watched Xena turn red as she tried to remain stoic-faced.
"Well, it has been a cold winter," I said, causing the whole room to erupt in laughter and Ephiny's face to turn as red as a raspberry.
She groaned and leaned forward, her forehead against the cool wood. Pony's hand slid up her back as she about fell out of her chair laughing at her partner's embarrassment.
They had entered in groups of 4, the first 4 being the youngest. It was a quick sentencing. Trash detail for two moons and they were now in charge of cultivating two new gardens for the cooks and two more for the healers. In the middle of spring, it wouldn't be a hard task at all. But this was winter, an unusually fierce one at that, and the ground was frozen. None the less they would be out there every day after regular chores were complete and any free time was to be spent working on the gardens.
The next set, older amazons who should have known better than to break out in fighting with an unschooled lot, was much more difficult to punish. It took the combined thoughts of Xena, Ephiny, Kelana, and myself to find a sentence that made us all happy. It ended up that each young woman, since they obviously loved weapons so much, was to attend to assisting the weapons master every day in the cleaning and care of the weapons. And if that meant that a sword was polished or sharpened three times a day by three different girls, so be it. There would be no fighting for these girls except on the practice field under the supervision of a trained Amazon, that was made perfectly clear. And if they wanted to get in a sparring round or two, it had to be approved by the weapons master.
Then, of course, came Ella, the young girl who had tried to attack Xena merely a candlemark prior. She was more difficult to discipline, yet discipline her I did. On top of her copying of the scrolls, she was now the apprentice to the amazon librarian. And, having seen the look on Ella's face when that was so declared, I knew it was a punishment worse than a public flogging for this girl. She was also under surveillance. She was chaperoned to and from wherever she went by Kayla, the most responsible and well adjusted Amazon I had ever met.
By the end of the meeting, a meeting which had run all of 2 and a half candle marks, I was drained both emotionally and physically.
It took the support of both Pony and Xena to get me to my feet after the elders had left and Xena ended up practically carrying me back to the cabin.
She pulled the stopper on the bath tub, sending the water down into a empty tree trunk that had been drilled into the ground under the cabin. And from there, the water was absorbed into the constantly warm ground, regardless of the time of year.
I sighed and stretched back on the bed, deciding that I was definitely becoming a lazy-butt and enjoying every moment of it.
"Do you think I'm a horrible Queen?" I asked softly as my eyes drifted shut.
I heard her armor clank as it was being pulled off the floor. "No! I don't! Who gave you that idea?" She asked, stunned by the question.
"I just kinda gathered," I replied. "I mean, I know Ephiny's my best choice as a Regent. I trust her completely. But sometimes I wonder if things would be smoother if we lived here and we ruled from here instead of from half way around the world."
I felt a soft hand on my forehead and looked up into my favorite pair of blue eyes that were gazing down at me. "Do you I mean, if you I Gabrielle? Do you want to be the full time queen? Live here?" she asked softly.
I smiled and reached up, yanking her down on top of me. I heard her armor fall to the floor and I felt her adjust so that she wouldn't put undue weight on my hip. I shook my head and looked her in the eye as I spoke, "I don't want to, no. If I have to, I will, but not if it means giving you up. Giving up this," I said, motioning to the closeness we shared. "I'd happily turn over the position if it meant staying with you."
"I would never put you in that position," she said, smiling at me.
"I know you wouldn't and I love you more for that. I guess I just wonder if living here would make me a better ruler."
"You have this wonderful gift, Gabrielle. You can visualize anything almost exactly as it happened. No matter how Ephiny describes something to you, you seem to just know without being there. I don't think living here will make it any different for you," Xena said and I could see in her eyes that this was honestly how she felt.
I smiled and pulled her down for a quick kiss to her cheek, getting a chuckle in return. She snuggled down close to me, resting her head on my shoulder and letting me play pillow for a change.
Moments of silence passed and I knew that this time needn't be filled with thoughts or profound revelations to make it worthwhile. Simply being here, alive and in love with Xena made the time special in itself.
"Xena?" I asked, kissing the top of her head as I played with her hair.
"Did you hear what your mother said to me before we left?" I said, a smile coming to my face.
"She told me to behave myself, but I don't think that's what you're referring to."
I snickered and got a playful scratch at my belly in reply. "No. It wasn't, but its good advise for her to give."
"She told me that I had better stop being a how did she put it? .Oh yeah. The phrase pouty pants came up."
I laughed and she chuckled with me, amused by mom's phrasing.
"No. But I'm glad someone else noticed it," I said.
"You going to tell me what she said?" She asked after a moment.
"She wants grandkids. She wants us to have kids."
"She wants grandkids," I repeated, slower and enunciating every word properly.
The silence was as stinging as a slap in the face and I felt her whole body tense in my arms.
"Xena?" I asked, trying to coax some words out of my quiet companion.
"I can't deal with this, Gabrielle," she said, crawling off of me and heading out of the room and for the door.
I struggled to sit and then the stand, my leg muscles only giving me a slight twinge of discomfort as I proceeded to walk after her.
"Hey," I called, seeing her head straight for the barn. "Hey!" I said, frowning as she ignored me. "HEY! Get back here!" I shouted, stalking off after her, grabbing my boots from the porch and deciding that going back for my staff would only waste time.
I limped across the filed. And deciding that favoring my leg only slowed me down, I was soon walking normally despite the rough pain in my joint.
She was leading a fully saddled Argo out of the stables and even from my vantage point I could tell she wasn't paying attention to anything around her.
"Xena!" I called again, heading straight for the barn. "Tarsis, I want your fastest horse. Now!" I said to the blonde girl standing just inside the door. She scurried away and soon came back with a rather tall black stallion who snorted in my direction.
"Diablo's a handful, majesty," she warned to me.
I looked at him. I looked at the ground. That's going to hurt, I thought to myself, knowing that a fall like that would do more than bruise my ego.
The large black mount snuffled his nose at me and caste an evil eye my way.
"I don't have time for this!" I groaned, putting my good foot into the stirrup and swinging myself high into the saddle, cursing under my breath as my hip rotated in a manner it wasn't quite ready for just yet.
With a kick to the flanks, that horse was so far out of the barn, I didn't even feel him soar as he leapt the winter hedges.
"Xena!" I called, pushing the fact that I was riding a huge horse to the back of my mind and focusing on catching up with my partner.
And catch up I did. Argo, fast as she was, was no match for this massive horse who's hoof beats thundered across the snow just as Zeus's bolts thundered across the heavens.
"Xena, I swear," I muttered at her as we finally caught up, Argo still racing at break neck speed. She glanced at me, tears in her eyes. "Xena .slow down."
I reached over, our horses so close my stirrupped foot touched her own. I pulled back steadily on the reins, knowing Argo would sense Xena's discomfort and obey me.
"Stop. You're going to hurt someone you're going to hurt Argo. Or me," I said as Argo slowed to a standstill.
I slid off of Diablo's back, wincing as I hit the ground. Argo stayed where she was and, by some psychic horse magic, so did Diablo.
"I'm sorry I mentioned it," I said to Xena as I walked around to the other side of Argo and leaned up, looking at her pain filled face.
"Why won't it ever leave me alone, Gabrielle?" She asked. It was evident that she was still tearing herself up over Solon, no matter how much I tried to help her move on.
"Because you won't let it," I said softly, reaching up and offering a place for her to jump down into if she so chose. She did, sliding off of Argo and leaning forehead to forehead with me.
"I Mom never even got to meet him," she muttered.
"She would have liked him."
"He was a hard boy not to like."
"He was her Grandson, Gabrielle! I've denied my mother of knowing her grandson!" She said, her hand balling to a fist at her side.
"No. I've denied your mother of that. Solon's death is my fault and you are not going to blame yourself anymore, do you hear me? I'm sick and tired of going around and around with you about this, Xena. We just had this conversation last night!" I said, jerking away from her and walking away slightly before turning back around and scowling at her.
"I can hate myself, Gabrielle, but I can't hate you." Her voice was so soft it was hard to hear.
"Don't you understand by now, Xena? When you hate yourself, you do hate me! I'm a part of you just like you're a part of me and the more you beat yourself up over this, the more you beat me up over this!" I said, practically shouting.
She hung her head like a schoolgirl being reprimanded and her dark hair fell into her face.
"Xena, I thought we had agreed to let it go?"
"HE WAS MY SON! How do I let it go?" She growled in pain. "How do I let him go?"
"She was my daughter, Xena. My child. I can never let her go. I love her but I hate her at the same time. She took a piece of you that can never be returned and I can't help you replace it. I'm too close. I know that and you know that. And every day I see your smile just disappear when you think of him. It hurts to know that I helped cause you that much pain. But as much as I hate Hope for what she did and hate myself for letting her do it, there's a part of me that still loves her," I said, completely frustrated by the conversation. It wasn't the first time we had gone over this and certainly, with recent events, it was a sore topic.
"Gabrielle, I don't blame you."
"I can't," she said, reaching out for me.
"But you can blame yourself for something that was my fault? That's not very logical, Xena."
"It may not be logical, Gabrielle, but its the way I feel."
I tried to muffle a laugh, but it didn't work.
"What's so funny?" she asked, trying not to smile at me and failing miserably.
"You're so concerned about Solon, I don't think you realized what I was saying," I said with a smile.
"Yes I did. My mom wants us to find some miraculous way to have kids."
I paused. Here was my chance. Dive head long into the deep end, Gabrielle, she'll catch you. I hope. "What if what if its something I want, too?"
I saw the emotions flicker across her face as we stood there, ankle deep in melting snow.
"You want kids?"
"I think we should at least think about it," I said.
"But I'm not that talented, Gabrielle," she said, cracking a genuine smile.
"Who said that I have to be the one to get pregnant?" I asked indignantly.
"What? Warrior, Princess, Baby Maker?" she said with a chuckle. "Its not in the job description. Besides, I'd have to buy a new set of leathers."
"I think you'd be cute," I said, stepping forward and tracing a finger across her stomach.
"Yeah. And you'd get all the foot rubs you want. You could eat whatever you wanted without me picking on you .I think you'd enjoy it, Xena," I said. "And this time I'd be able to protect you. No fighting while pregnant. Not with my kid!
Xena chuckled. "Well, someone might think that you're encouraging me to sleep around, Gabrielle."
"Ha! That's a last resort. How about a sacrificial offering to Artemis?" I said with a grin, knowing that everything would be ok. She was smiling and I was smiling. That's all that really mattered. I had issues that she worked through with me and this was obviously one of the ones that I would have to work through with her. Of course we'd have to work on that whole running off bit.
"Artemis? Don't you think she's been mad at me too often? How about one of the gods I don't curse on a daily basis?" she teased.
"That narrows it down to Prometheus and Apollo."
"I don't think they do too much on the baby making front," she said, hugging me close.
"Xena?" I said, my face muffled against her leathers.
I pounded her chest with a fist. "If you EVER make me come after you like that again, I am going to seriously kick your ass. You got that?"
"I got that," she said chuckling.
"You think I'm joking?"
"No. I believe you. One Hundred percent."
"Good. Because I would, you know. Beat you up I mean."
"I will! Don't think I'm joking," I said again, turning and taking the reins to the huge animal they claimed was a horse.
And so it began.
We walked back towards the village, each of us with the reigns to a horse in hand. I found out that if I concentrated on Xena's voice or her smile or her eyes or that irresistible profile. Or, honestly, anything except my side, I could move past the pain in my leg and it wasn't intolerable at all.
We groomed our horses and put them back in their respective stalls. A bit of grain making up for the hard run in the cold weather.
With my hand placed firmly in hers, we walked back to our cabin, yet another bridge crossed and another rift cleared.
The blast was cold and wet and sharp and I felt it straight through the warm leather of my leggings.
Someone had just pegged me with a snowball to my butt and it was cold. Damned cold.
I spun around on one foot, and saw a group of younger Amazons behind me, their mouths open and their eyes filled with embarrassment and even a bit of fear. I saw the "snow fort" They had built with pine limbs and snow and I knew from the looks on their faces I was just an innocent bystander in a snowball war.
I turned around to find a similar looking "fort" with similarly stunned Amazonettes behind it.
Then another snowball it. It was equally as cold as the first, but this one surprised me more because the snow culprits wouldn't hit me on purpose would they?
I spun around, and saw a pair of blue eyes in the treetops. And I knew from their sparkle that I was in trouble. And I heard the next blow before I felt it. It came from behind me. One of the younger girls had tried to get one by at her sisters and miss me.
Instead of turning and yelling, I went with the force of the impact and fell to the ground. And waited.
Then it was there. The soft touch at the base of my back, checking to see if I was hurt.
In a heartbeat I rolled over, getting a very large pile of warrior underneath me. A handful of snow found its way straight into her face and she spluttered and wiggled, trying to get out of my grasp.
"You pegged me, you trouble maker and you're going to get it!"
Another handful of snow made contact with her bare skin; only this time it found its way underneath her leather top and caused her eyes to bug out with the cold.
"Why I " she started, silenced by yet another pile of snow to her face.
I was laughing so hard now that I couldn't even function properly and soon I found myself on my back, her hands pinning me to the snowy ground.
"You're in trouble now, Queenie," she said, plucking at the front of my pants and stuffing three or four good sized piles of snow down them.
I squealed and saw the playful gleam in her eye that turned my squeal into a laughter so heartfelt that it was contagious and soon not only were all the other girls laughing, but snow balls were flying every which way and Xena and I were getting tagged both left and right.
I grasped her proffered hand and was hauled gently to my feet as we made it to the cottage steps, having ducked through just about all of snowball fight, laughing the entire way.
Two warm hands brushed the snow off my shoulders as I dusted off hers.
"How's the hip?"
"Not too bad."
"Its got to hurt, Gabrielle," she said, a frown on her brow.
"It does. But if I don't think about it, it doesn't hurt as much. You should know that. You're the one who showed me that."
She snorted slightly and opened the door for me.
I walked in, taking off my boots and setting them to dry near the hearth as she knelt down and built a nice fire.
"Do I still get that body massage?" I asked, laying out on the bed and tugging my leggings off. My sweater was long enough to cover all my vitals but non the less, when she turned around, her eyes held a surprised expression. "What are you looking at?" I asked, grinning from ear to ear as she gazed at me that way.
"Every time I look at you " she took a breath and started towards the bed, the fire completely aroar. "I just can't believe how lucky I am."
I snickered and waited for her to get closer. "You know, I have the same problem."
She smiled and it warmed my heart.
"Do you realize we've only been here three days and it seems like a week?" I asked her.
"Isn't it always that way with us?"
I grinned. "Want a foot rub?" Change the subject, I thought.
"Yeah," she said, plopping down and pulling off her boots. Her feet made their way into my lap and she lay perpendicular to my body, her head resting on the very edge of the bed.
Starting with her toes I worked my way across her foot, getting a groan of contentment in reply.
It couldn't have been more than a half candlemark before I realized that she was sound asleep. I pulled her onto the bed in a more comfortable position and covered her up, leaving her chakram right next to her hand underneath the bed linens.
A dry pair of leggings went on my legs and I put on a clean green top, covering it with a cream colored sweater that Cyrene had given me.
I grabbed my staff and headed over to Ephiny's hut, a long talk in order.
"I'm not saying you're doing a horrible job, Eph, I just don't really appreciate it when I come back here and have to send a slew of women to the jail. Frankly, the jail's not big enough for them all."
She hung her head a bit. There was no need for her to be brave with me. I had kicked Pony out, asking her to make sure the cooks were preparing something edible for dinner, so it was just us remaining.
The walls were mostly bare and the roof had one patch over the bathing area. I wasn't sure if it was an impromptu skylight caused by a falling branch or a moon roof that was sealed in winter.
"I'm not going to tell you 'I'm sorry,' Gabrielle. Its overused and weak."
"Good. I don't want to hear an 'I'm sorry.' I just want you to help me to fix things now that I'm here. I know you should be Queen. You were born for it. I wasn't. You're a born fighter, Ephiny, I'm not. These people don't need a bard as a leader. They need someone like you."
"You don't get it, do you? They do need a bard. That's exactly what they need. They need someone to tell them stories of the good times. Sing songs that remind them of the best times. You can do all that and so much more because you're a born leader. I'm not. I may be able to swing a sword along side of Pony or, on a good day, Xena, but I'm not one for public speaking, story telling, or pep talks. I'd prefer to knock heads before I get up in front of a group. You've got a gift, Gabrielle."
I blushed. I could feel it. "I'll make you a compromise."
"You start running drills with Pony and Xena and me tomorrow and I'll deal with half of my checklist myself. You can deal with the other half. Sound fair? Split it fifty-fifty?"
Her hand went to her shoulder and she rubbed it wearily. "What kind of drills?"
"I haven't decided yet. If you can swing a sword with your other hand, I'll let you fight Xena in a demonstration. And if Pon would care to join us, then she and I can go a round in a staff competition."
"You're still hurt," Ephiny said, noting my leg.
"Yeah. I've been hurt before. I've fought while I've been hurt. You have to sometimes."
"But what, Eph?" I stood up and spun my staff with one hand. "If it was the difference between Pony getting a sword stuck in her leg or you foregoing that pained arm, I'd bet you every dinar I've ever held that you'd protect her."
"You're right," she sighed.
"And sometimes it isn't just her. There are other people out there too and if it comes down to it, I help them every time. Xena says I don't even think about it anymore. In fact, she says I never did. That I always jumped in the way to protect someone else."
"She's right. That's how you got to be a princess, remember?" Ephiny reminded me with a chuckle.
"Yeah. One of the most horrific moves I ever made I still can't believe it was still to late to save her," I said, still regretting the loss of Terais.
Ephiny sighed and I saw her try to blink away the visual memory of the event that had come into both our minds.
"Drills?" she asked, flexing her abused shoulder and scowling at the stiffness in it.
"It'll loosen your shoulder up a bit," I offered.
"Yeah. I'll take half the list and run drills with you tomorrow."
"Good!" A smile creased my face as one of my problems had been solved. "And I will even leave you a list of all the things I want taken care of before I get back after Solstice, ok?"
She chuckled. "Becoming the real whip cracker, huh?"
"After being around you and Xena so long, I can't help but come out of my shell a bit." I winked and she laughed, getting up and grabbing her cloak.
"Come on. I think Pony stopped off at the weapons hut to check in on things. Wanna pay her a visit? Maybe she'll spar with you while Xena rests some more."
"She's still recovering from the sickness she had a week ago. It hit her hard, Eph. She was so out of it that I didn't think " I swallowed the lump in my throat and tried to continue. "I didn't think she was I couldn't have done that again. Not and survived afterwards."
"What was she sick from?" Ephiny asked softly.
"The cold and wet. We had been walking for days. Argo was at the farrier's and it started to snow. We both thought we could beat the weather to the inn. We did, mostly. But she was so tired and we had a really nasty fight and it just all caught up with her and she got sick. It was that nasty coughing sickness, Eph, the one that the healers worry so much about this time of year."
"But, she's ok, right?" Ephiny asked as we walked toward the weapons hut.
I nodded. "I think so. She hasn't said anything about it but that's nothing new. She's just really tired. Its only been a week or so since she got rid of the cough. She was up and around as soon as her fever broke, but you know Xena, nothing's going to stop her. I I think I'm just being overprotective and worrying too much."
Ephiny chuckled. "I think its one of the side effects of Aphrodite. I have to convince Pony that I can get out of bed every morning." Ephiny motioned to her shoulder and we laughed as we walked into the weaponry hut.
I saw the rows of staves and the walls of swords, realizing that it was the first time I had entered the hut after choosing my own staff only a few years ago.
"Something I can help you with, your majesty?" Eponin said, sneaking up behind me and feigning servitude.
A smile creased my face and I turned around grabbing a staff off the wall. "Here. I need a sparring partner and the lovely regent is out of commission."
"Are you out of your mind?" Pony asked as Ephiny chuckled from the doorway.
"Not today, no." I said scratching my head in mock stupidity.
"I'm not going to spar with you, Gabrielle. Your hip has got to be killing you!"
"Eponin, were you not there yesterday when I leapt across the courtyard?" I said sarcastically.
"Then what's the problem? If its not bothering me, then it shouldn't bother you!" I sighed. "Xena gave me some herbs at the meeting today and they keep the pain to a minimum. Besides, the muscles are going to atrophy if I don't use them."
Pony scowled at me but I saw her resistance start to crumble and I grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
"Don't make me give you an order from your Queen."
Her look would have felled a centaur and she rolled her eyes, playfully pushing Ephiny out of the doorway. "Fine, your highness. Let's go put on a show for the youngsters."
I could feel the power of her blows in my shoulders but it was nothing compared to what I was used to.
"Come on, Pony, you can do better than that!" I said, egging her on as I moved my staff sharply around for a quick take-out of her knees.
Her butt was unceremoniously dumped into the slushy practice field. I smiled down at her, getting an amused but perturbed glare in return.
"Did you have to do that? I have staff lessons to teach tomorrow!" she muttered as she reached up for the hand I offered and allowing herself to be hauled to her feet.
"Is it my fault you can't stay on your feet? Maybe your slipping, Pony."
"Only in mud, Gabrielle, only in mud," she teased, letting her boots skid in the mud slightly to make her point before she planted her feet and got in a good blow to my shoulder.
"Good one," I muttered under my breath, feeling a pair of blue eyes pin themselves onto my back.
Uh oh. "Uh, Pony?"
"Yeah?" she said, both of us becoming slightly out of breath as we moved in a tight circle in our mock battle.
"Wave and smile nicely at Xena before she jumps in here and rips your head off."
Pony dropped her staff and turned around to see Xena standing, fully armored, with her hands on her hips and a scowl on her face. Pony grinned and waved, getting a sneer in return.
"I give up, Gabrielle," Pony said with a chuckle as she bowed out gracefully, not daring to go up against Xena in any battle. On her way out of the field she tossed her staff to Xena who caught it expertly.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Ephiny settle a cloak around Eponin's shoulders as she stepped up next to the brunette weapons-master. They stood with their arms around each other's shoulders, trying in vain to make it seem as if they were simply chasing away the cold.
It was an adorable picture that snapped out of my mind as I felt my feet swept out from under me and my butt connect solidly with the muddy ground.
Above me was the blue eyed warrior held in the body of my love. She tipped her staff to her forehead in salute and held out a hand so I could get to my feet.
Behind her fierce warrior look I saw a smile in her eyes and I knew this was all play to her, just as most of our sparring matches turned into.
"Care to spar, your highness?"
"With you? It'd be an honor," I said to her, getting a genuine smile in return.
From my side I heard a few snickers from some of the teenage amazons and gasps of wonder from some of the younger ones.
I held my staff at ready, knowing she typically initiated the offensive.
I wasn't to be disappointed as she smacked her staff into mine, trying to catch me off guard again.
We moved round and round, neither one getting a better advantage. I had long since learned to use my height to my aid and she had stopped trying to use hers to my disadvantage, knowing it wouldn't work.
By the time the sun was beginning to set and the streaks of rose colored sky shadowed us in our feet were wet from the mud and we were both completely exhausted.
With a final sweep of my staff, I took out the back of her knee in my most loved move and sent her butt straight for a large puddle of mud.
It sprayed up and messed me from head to foot, but the stunned look on her face was well worth the dirty laundry I'd be doing that night.
"You're good." A stray hand wiped the mud from over her eye.
"You're just now noticing that?" I teased, hauling her to her feet.
A runner scurried off with our clothes and I lounged lazily in front of the fire of the suddenly all too small cabin.
"I keep forgetting that I don't have to do our laundry around here," I said to Xena who was towel drying her hair after a quick bath.
"You keep forgetting you're the queen."
"Its hard to adjust to," I admitted.
Daily life on the road was far from daily life as Amazon Queen and we both knew that. I had to cook our own food and clean up our camp site after us as well as wash our clothes and dishes and blankets. Visiting the amazons was very similar to visiting a full service inn, I imagined.
Xena sat down near me at the fireside and leaned over, her head resting against mine.
"Want me to brush your hair?" I asked her, seeing all the knots in it that would no doubt be nasty tangles by morning.
"If you want," she shrugged, trying to be off hand about it even though I knew that she enjoyed a quite moment by the fire just as much as I did.
I took the brush off the mantle where I had left it this morning and scooted up behind her, pleased with how fast my hip was recovering once I had started using it again. Not a twinge of pain during the fights except for the moment Xena had dumped me on my butt. I think the impact was a bit much so soon. Once I was on my feet again I didn't feel anything other than a bruise and I was rather pleased with myself and the look of respect I was getting from Xena, Ephiny, and the elders, and the younger girls as well.
The brush slid effortlessly through her hair and I picked the knots out tenderly.
"What's that?" she asked, pointing to my scroll that rested near her ankle.
"I thought you wrote in your journal at this time of night," she commented to me.
"I do, usually. Tonight I just felt like a poem instead."
I slipped my fingers through the largest knot and detangled it with practiced ease.
"Can I read it?" she asked, causing me to stop in mid motion.
"If you don't want me too "
Well, this is a nice surprise, I mused, both pleased to share with her but nervous that she might not like it. "No. No. I want you to. I just you've never asked to read my poems before. I've always had to make you listen at night around a campfire."
"So, its ok?" she said, picking up the scroll and tilting her head back at me.
"Yeah. Its ok. I'd like it if you read it."
She cleared her throat a minute before she opened the scroll and started reading in a serene voice.
"The pristine features outlined by moonlight
Gave glimpse of someone I used to emulate.
Someone I longed to be as strong as.
As beautiful as. As noble as.
Time's loving hand changed me. Changed my sight.
And I grew stronger and saw that she was more than a model.
She was a savior.
And on the day I looked at my reflection and realized that I was beautiful,
I saw that she was more than an illusion.
She was my friend.
And on the day I became a princess out of what some call a noble act,
I saw that she was more than a benevolent do-gooder.
She was, truly, my champion.
In passing, she saw in me the ability to be more than what I longed to be.
And I became a queen and she my consort without any proclamation.
Dirt roads, musty inns, damp caves and tired feet were our daily schedule.
Sprinkling in some hard-core fighting that graced us both with battle scars.
And while stitching a wound I realized the direct link she had to my heart.
After a long snowy walk and before a nasty illness.
In a small inn.
In a small room.
I confessed the truth.
The truth that she is still my best friend.
Still my hero and my savior.
Still my champion and my consort.
Still my breath. My pulse.
My life and my death.
My beginning and my end.
My happiness and my sorrow.
My yesterday, today, and my tomorrow."
"I'm not sure if I like it or not," I mused softly into her ear when she was done.
"Gabrielle," she managed to say, her voice barely a whisper. "Its its "
"Its a rough draft," I said, taking the scroll from her and rolling it, ready to toss it in the fire on a moment's notice.
"Can I have it?"
I about fell off my stool. The look I gave her had to be one of complete confusion.
If she was saying 'please' then it was something she really wanted.
I held it out and her fingers wrapped around it tightly, sliding it out of my hands.
She unrolled it again, reading the words silently. Her eyes flicked all the way down to the bottom and then back up again.
"Xena," I said softly, braiding her hair quickly and tying it off. "I can write you a new one, you know. Something better."
"You can't do better than this, Gabrielle," she said, her hand wiping at her eyes.
"Xena, are you crying?"
I took her chin and looked over her shoulder at her turned face. "You big liar, you are too!"
"Aww," I crooned, kissing her eye closest to me. "Its not that bad, I hope."
She snickered, knowing I was joking with her. "Its perfect."
"Its about you."
I smiled, remembering the last time we had said those two lines to each other. Right after our fight. I saw her grin and she remembered the same moment.
"Know what?" I said, breaking the happy silence that had filled the room.
"We have to deal with indoctrinating Rahlna into the tribe tomorrow. And getting those rambunctious girls started on drills, too."
"Busy day," she said, leaning back against me. "How's your hip? After all that activity today, I'm surprised you can walk."
I paused and reflected on the question. "I'm ok. It doesn't hurt as much anymore. Just like a big bruise. A little stiff but nothing that won't go away in time."
"How's your cough?" I asked, knowing she wouldn't be the one to bring it up.
"I feel better everyday."
"It hit me hard, Gabrielle. I don't get sick like that very often, but that put me flat on my back."
"I know. I was there, remember?"
"Yeah. I'm glad you were. Otherwise I'm not sure I think I would have gladly cut out my lung to get rid of the cough."
I smiled against her hair, happy to have this time with her. "I know you would. That scares me, Xena. That ability you have to just push everything else aside, including your health. Sometimes I wish you'd just take a few minutes every day and relax and let your body catch up with you."
"What does it look like I'm doing?" she said, gesturing to the two of us.
"Indulging me in a cuddle."
"So you think this is all for you? A little egotistical, don't you think?"
I laughed and she did too.
"Can I get a rain check on the massage?"
"Anytime you want to."
"Good because I think I'm going to fall asleep right here," I said, yawning and stretching my self against her.
"To bed with you, little bard."
"Hey! No short jokes!"
"Why not? They're so easy!" she said, standing up and pulling me to my feet.
"I could ask you to clean the rafters, long legs, but do I? No! Common courtesy," I teased back, slapping her midsection as we both crawled into the large bed and settled down into what had become our common cuddling position.
She smiled and I leaned up and kissed her softly before tucking my head back down onto her collarbone. It was a comforting pose and she had admitted upon persistent questioning that it wasn't uncomfortable at all.
"Night, Xena. Love you."
"I Love you, too, Gabrielle. Night."
That feels nice. Oh yeah, that feels good. Breathe, Gabrielle.
"Time to get up, Gab."
The most hated words in my vocabulary followed by the sweetest pair of lips pressing against my own.
I groaned and pulled the covers up high over my head. "No. Come back when the sun's up."
"The sun is up."
I opened an eye and found a tinge of yellow gracing the early morning sky. My head turned and there was my princess, standing over me with her hands behind her back in a rather unusual pose.
"What do you have?" I asked, pointing to her arms.
"Yeah? So?" she said with a grin. "Get up! I let you sleep past sunrise but you can't stay in bed much longer."
I waggled an eyebrow, "What if I let you join me in bed."
"That's not fair."
"No, but it might earn me a few extra hours in my nice warm bed."
She reached out with one snake like hand and yanked the covers down, letting in a blast of air that was so cold, I screeched as it hit my bare skin.
"Today is a busy day, your majesty. Much to do!"
I groaned and rolled out of bed, casting an evil eye her way as she chuckled and walked out the door.
I flexed my hip, swinging my leg this way and that. Not bad. Not bad at all, I mused. It wasn't stiff and there were no shooting pains as I moved it. Just a rather decorative blue and purple and green bruise that ran over the entire roundness of my hip.
I donned my last pair of clean leggings and made a mental note to stop by the wash hut to see if our laundry had been finished yet. Otherwise I'd be prancing around in my fairly cold leather skirt. I threw on Xena's sweater, one she had 'loaned' to me a few winters ago but I had yet to return. It was long and warm and still, each time I put it on, reminded me of the winter night I received it.
My staff was familiar in my hands and, even though I didn't really need it in the village, the heavy wood had become a part of my body; an extension of my arm that I felt quite naked without.
The dinning hall was quiet. It was, of course, a bit too early for most Amazons and a bit too late for Xena and myself. None the less, I stopped by and helped myself to a bowl of warm grain and milk that always made me feel much warmer on days like these where the wind bit into skin like the spikes on a mace.
"You both are insane," Ephiny said, coming up behind me and grabbing a bowl of winter fruit.
"Generally speaking, I'd say you're right. But could you be a little more specific?" I said, munching on the crunchy nut clusters.
"It is way too early for anything other than sleeping."
"Sun's up, Eph, so starts the day," I said with a grin.
"Since when have you been a morning person? Last time I saw you, we had to dump water over you to get you out of bed before noon," she said with a grin.
I blushed and chuckled. "You'd be a morning person, too, if you were woken up the way I was this morning."
The way her eyes popped from her sockets would have started me laughing on its own had she not spluttered on a dried grape and coughed on it.
"Oh stop. I happen to be the proud partner to the best bed warmer in the known world. Is it my fault she knows had to properly wake up a Queen?" I teased, patting her on the back as we turned our bowls into the sink and walked out to the practice field.
"Think she'd give Pony lessons?" Ephiny asked, getting a glare from me.
"Over my dead and buried body."
"Where'd you get that?" I asked, seeing a mark on her inner thumb. It was a curly cue that was so small it could have been mistaken for a small burn or battle scar had she been moving but due to her stillness, I had seen its shape perfectly and recognized it for what it was; a brand.
"Family brand. In case we ever got separated," Eph said, only half aware of her answer.
"Goes with the curly hair?" I teased, pulling on a lock.
Eph smiled and tugged her leather neck higher up trying to keep out the chill. "Is she running drills right now?"
"Don't know. She didn't say."
"Wait. You're telling me that you don't know where Xena is or what she's doing?"
"That is exactly what I'm telling you, Ephiny. Its not like we're joined at the hip," I said with an indulgent frown her way.
"Its not like you wouldn't want to be if you could!" Eph said giving me a knowing smile.
"Trouble maker," I muttered, bumping shoulders with her as we walked to the practice field.
There she stood in all her armored glory. Her sword was resting lightly on her shoulders as she paced up and down in front of three long rows of Amazons. Some older, some younger and some our own age. If I had to guess, I'd say that half the tribe was standing there listening as she went over maneuvers and strategies.
"Today's the big day, huh?" Eph asked, breaking my moments of ogling Xena.
"Mmm. I've got to get her to meet with the elders. Its a formality, really, but once they've accepted her back, she just has to find a job."
"Can I come?" Ephiny asked.
"Sure," I said, completely puzzled. "But why?"
"I just just have a feeling."
I nodded, completely understanding that. "Wanna go now?"
She nodded, her fingers nervously toying with the empty clasp on her belt. She made no move toward the guest quarters and I didn't push her. She was obviously apprehensive about meeting our newest member and I had no need to rush the encounter.
"Come on. Let's go before this nervous feeling I've got in my stomach turns me into a scaredy-cat. "
I smiled and linked my arm through her elbow, turning and heading off in the direction of the seldom used guest quarters.
Behind us the crack of staves matched our footsteps and I heard Xena counting off motions.
The corner of my eye caught Ephiny's face as she must have steeled herself against whatever unforeseen demons waited for her.
My knuckles rasped the door as I knocked and the door swung in, revealing a wet haired Rahlna, wrapped only in a linen towel.
"Gabrielle," she said with a smile. "I was just going to come looking for you. Thought I'd wash up fir-" she said, her voice trailing off as her gaze shifted beyond me.
I followed her eyes and saw a dumb struck Ephiny standing not two paces behind. Her jaw could have easily scraped the ground and she was leaning heavily against the porch railing in support of her obviously weak legs.
"You two know each other?" I asked as Rahlna dove into Eph's arms, both of them smiling broadly.
The following words were a jumble of sobs of happiness, squeals of delight that were, in my opinion, very unamazon, and rapid fire questions that were too overlapped to distinguish one from the other.
When they finally separated, Pony had walked by and was standing at my side watching the goings on with interest.
"Wanna take it inside, ladies?" I asked with a chuckle as they stood there with Rahlna clad only in a towel.
They stepped into the guest hut and closed the door.
"Gabrielle, do you know who this is?"
I nodded slowly. "Yes. This is Rahlna. Rahlna this is Ephiny. But it seems you two already know each other?"
"This is my sister!" Ephiny said with a grin, holding up Rahlna's hand and showing me the same mark on the red-head's inner thumb.
"No way," Pony muttered, glancing at the brand that was inside Rahlna's thumb.
I sat down, stunned by the information and completely overrun with emotion on their behalf.
Ephiny sighed and tried to regain some of her stoic composer but the huge smile on her face was a rather large giveaway.
"Know what? This meeting can wait." I said, knowing that any sort of rational thought out of either Rahlna or Ephiny would be merely a dream. "You two talk and Pony and I will go check on the cooking and make sure everything's going ok for the party tonight. Its two days before Solstice and the celebration starts tonight!" I reminded them with a wink.
I got up and dragged Pony out of the room by her leathers.
"She's hugging my Ephiny," she growled.
"Its her sister." I laughed.
"Pony," I said with a chuckle. "Its her sister."
She frowned and we headed over to the kitchen to taste test the food and bother the cooks as was a favorite past time of those of us who were able to get away with it.
"Is it horrible of me to be so protective?" she asked, munching on a piece of carrot cake.
"But " Pony said, pouting.
I turned and put my hands on my hips. "Pony. Its her sister," I repeated. "From the looks of it, they haven't seen each other in a while. Just suck it up!"
She smirked and we entertained the cook with our interpretations of the carrot cake before heading out to the practice field with a nice hot mug of tea for my, no doubt, frozen drill sergeant.
"How do you want to celebrate this year?"
"What do you mean?"
"You're birthday?" I prodded, getting her mind back on track. The coconut pie at dinner were certainly a distraction for us both and her mind was still wandering, no doubt, to the tasteful pastry and all the other uses for flaked coconut.
"Oh. Yeah. That," she said. "Don't do anything."
"Xena, you are not just going to sit around on your birthday. We're doing something special. You haven't had a party or anything since I've met you and I refuse to let another year go past where you just brush off you're birthday like another day of the week!" I said, stomping my foot as I spoke.
"It is just another day of the week."
"No, it most certainly is not," I commented. "And if I want to celebrate the anniversary of the day that the gods were kind enough to grace the earth with your presence, then I will, damnit."
"Gabrielle, I'm not special. People are born every day."
I walked up to my sleepy warrior and cupped her cheek. "You are very special to me. Come on, Xena, you've got to admit that something good has come from your birth."
Her brow creased and she sat on the edge of the bed. Her hands were firmly placed on my hips and in the motion, she drew me down with her. "I think the only good thing that came from my birth was my being in Potedia to save your cute butt from those slavers. "
"My butt is not cute," I scolded her half-heartily.
"What do you know? You can't see it?" she teased, pinching the object in question.
I snickered and ran a few fingers through the hair that was nearest the nape of her neck. "You're straying from the topic."
"I know. Is it working?"
"Not at all," I said with a smile. "Do you want a stripper? I could get you one, you know. Maybe a date with Ares?" I teased her. "Or, a new pair of leathers? Maybe ones that have a higher waist in case you put on some weight?" I said with a ruthless smirk as I wiggled out of her grasp and started to pace around the small room of the cabin.
"Gabrielle," she groaned.
"Maybe a new sword? One without so many nicks in it. Oh! A New Chakram! Maybe a really neat one that separates into two pieces. Twice the slice and dice, half the time!" I commented in my best sales-person voice.
"Gabrielle," she groaned again, her voice with a hint of warning.
"Yeah?" I said, finally acknowledging her voice.
"I don't want anything for my birthday."
"Nothing?" I pleaded.
She smiled. "Only you."
"In your birthday suit."
"Willing to do my bidding," she said, her eyes roaming my body.
"Uh, Xena, now.." I said, seeing her start to stand and stalk me in a circle as she often did to an opponent before pouncing on him.
"Covered in cake frosting."
"Xena, now, isn't that a little carried away?"
"Not at all. Especially with my hands tied behind my back."
I saw the plot forming in her eyes and I chuckled as we both knew where this was going.
"Tied?" I said, a smile on my lips.
"Yeah. That means that I'll only be able to clean all that frosting off of you is with my tongue," she said, pouncing on me in a swift motion and taking me down to wood floor in a roll as we both cackled with laughter at our recent antics and the mental images her words had provoked.
The snow was still on the ground in most areas, even though some rather large paths had been cleared through the most traveled areas of the village, leaving large muddy ruts in the ground.
Despite said ground ruts and the muddy marks on all the floors, Solstice was going to be celebrated.
Ephiny and I had the candle-maker dipping extra candles and melting down previously used wax remains to do so.
No special "Solstice" ceremony was planned. Nothing for fertility or good crops or heavy rains. Nothing ritualistic. I had hoped that the Amazons as a whole had progressed beyond that for many things, Solstice being one of them.
None the less, the dinning hall was sure to be a buzz with activity that night and I was trying to turn a feast into a party with only the barest of extra touches. This being so, I was having it decorated by some of the very young Amazons, only seven or eight years old, to make the atmosphere more festive.
Scraps of thread and cloth, obviously begged from the weaver, hung on the walls from support post to support post. Pine cones and fern leaves were the center pieces at each dinning table and the younger girls stood very proudly in lines of two at the door as Xena and I entered to 'inspect' things before dinner.
She nodded her head approvingly as she walked around the room, finding one of the winter's last pumpkins -a small one- had had a face carved in it and a candle set inside, casting an eerie glow. A glow that reflected off the dangling kissing ball.
Poinsettias and Holly and even some smaller pine cones were bundled together in a cluster known as a kissing ball and had been hung from the ceiling's peak.
Xena obviously hadn't seen the ball because she was standing right under it, taking in the room as a whole, spinning slowly in a circle.
Oh, this is too good an opportunity to pass up, I thought, walking over to her.
My hand slipped behind her head and pulled her mouth down to mine gently before she even had time to react to my hand on the nape of her neck.
"You were standing under the kissing ball," I managed to mutter once our passions unglued our lips.
"I know," she said, her smile discrete but distinct.
Tittering sounds came from behind us and I could tell that the young girls were getting a great joy out of seeing their Queen in a lip lock in the middle of the dinning hall.
I turned to them, steeling myself to keep from blushing.
"Ladies," I said, feeling Xena's hands on my shoulders. "You all know that most of the parties, you don't get to go to. That most of them are celebrations for warriors or healers or something like that. But this is Solstice. This is a party everyone can attend. No staying at home with baby sitters. No waiting up till your mothers get home to tell you all about it. I think you've worked hard enough on this dinning hall that you can spend a little while at the party tonight. Ok?" I offered, seeing their faces beam with smiles. "BUT!" I said, breaking my voice over their excited din. "But- by 3 candle marks to midnight, I expect each one of you to be in your own beds at home. Asleep. Understood?"
Heads nodding in unison made Xena snicker. I stepped on the toe of her boot with my heel, ceasing the muffled laughter at once.
"What are you still doing here? Go on, the whole lot of ya, go get ready for the party tonight, ok?" And with that, they scurried off into the red sunset streaked sky, heading to get ready for their first Solstice gathering.
"That was nice of you," Xena muttered.
"Do you think it was wise?"
"What do you mean?" I asked, not following her.
"Not like there's going to be much to do here for them. Most of the stuff is geared towards adults. The wine flows more freely here than at mother's inn, Gabrielle. The kids shouldn't have too much of it, you know."
"That's a good point," I muttered, chewing on a short finger nail. "I can't tell them they can't come now. But maybe I can provide some entertainment for them."
I saw the Uh oh look pass across her features before she managed to say "What are you thinking?"
"Maybe I'll tell a few stories till its time for them to leave?"
"You're the queen, Queen," Xena said with a shrug, kissing me quickly before we headed out to finish our final Solstice eve preparations.
By the time my throat was too parched to continue with the story telling, the bodies of the children were either sprawled across the floor or in the arms of various adults.
With a nod and a sip of my tea, I excused myself from the platform and returned to the side of my partner.
She had a small bundle or cloth cradled in her arms.
"What do you have there?" I asked, sliding up next to her and taking a tiny sip of her ale.
"Baby," she muttered, glancing down at it.
I raised my eyebrows as she reached over with a hand and untucked the fabric from the baby's small face.
"Aww where did you get that?" I asked longing to reach out and hold the child but knowing that, with my soul still tattered from Solon and Hope, I couldn't.
"From Celyan. She forgot to bank the fire in her hut before she left," Xena commented with a shrug.
"You're failing miserably," I muttered at her, reading her body language perfectly.
"What are you talking about?"
"Trying to look tough with a baby in your arms. You're failing miserably," I repeated, sipping my tea.
My hands were freezing from the cold air in here and I suddenly remembered how much I prayed for winter during summer time. Nut case.
She glanced up and must have seen the eyes that watched her with an amused grin from across the room. "You hold her."
"No. That's ok," I said with a raised hand as Xena tried to off load the baby on me.
"Come on, Gabrielle, you're the nurturer, not me."
"Xena, that's centaur shit and you know it. You're just as nurturing as I am. In fact, you're the one who taught me to be as overprotective as I am!"
"Gabrielle, hold the baby. Solari's giving me funny looks!" She was trying not to laugh as she spoke and I heard it in her voice.
"Hold the baby your own damned self," I muttered to her.
I felt her frowny gaze and didn't need to look up to see it.
She must have sat there frowning at me and not noticed when the baby's mother approached.
"Um, Xena?" Ceylan said, her voice hesitant.
"You want this back?" Xena asked, her voice lacking any emotion.
"If you wouldn't mind," Ceylan replied as Xena carefully handed over the baby. "Thank you so much for watching her, Xena. I really appreciate it."
"You're welcome," Xena replied with a grin at the obviously nervous mother.
"I figured you were the best one to ask," Ceylan muttered.
I smirked at the comment. "How did you figure that?"
"Well, your Majesty, wouldn't you leave your most priceless possession in trust of the most awesome fighter in Greece?" Ceylan said with a smile.
I returned her smile. "You're right, Ceylan. After all, I gave her my heart, didn't I?"
Ceylan smiled and did a half-bow, the baby in her arms, before backing away towards the door, obviously returning to her hut for the night with her daughter.
"Did you have to get all romantic in front of her?" Xena asked with a sigh, taking a swig of ale.
"Romantic would be giving you your birthday present in front of all these Amazons," I corrected.
"You didn't have to get me anything."
I smothered a knowing grin with my hand. "Yeah?"
"Wha'did ya get me?" she asked in a whisper.
"Can't you wait till we get back to the hut?" I asked with a chuckle and another sip of my tea.
She sighed. "If I have to," she said.
"You have to," I muttered, crossing my toes and fingers and hoping that Eponin and Ephiny had been able to sneak out and finish the preparations to the hut without being noticed.
I walked into the hut, my fingers finding the flint and striker I had left on the entry way table.
"You're eyes still closed?"
"Yes," she groaned, trying to pretend as if she was annoyed by the whole idea of a few surprises.
I struck the flint, sending a pretty spray of sparks towards the kindling in the fireplace. After a few tentative pokes at the kindling, a nice fire was burning and a warm glow was encompassing the room.
"Can I open them now?"
The room was perfect. Oh, Eph, you are getting a serious thank-you for this one. I thought as I gazed around. A steaming bath had been drawn in one of the extra large tubs that was inter-changeable with the smaller one earlier in the hut. Sprigs of holly and winter mint were laying on the bed-side table just for decoration and a small replica of the kissing ball that had entertained me earlier in the day was hanging daintily from the hall door frame.
A healthy sized bowl sat on the large pillow in the middle of the bed and I knew it contained the one thing I had requested from the cooks.
I smiled. "I suppose."
She took the hand from her eyes and gazed around the room, a small sparkle of enjoyment flicking through her cerulean blue eyes.
"You did this?"
"No," I admitted softly. "Eph and Pony did this when I told them it was your birthday. I was keeping you distracted."
Xena just shook her head.
"You don't like it?"
"No one's done this for my birthday before," she said softly. "I like it I love it. I love you."
I smiled. "Good. Its a requirement to love me, you know," I teased.
"Yeah. If you didn't love me I don't think I'd let you use your present. Because, if I recall our conversation correctly, I play a key roll tonight."
"What present?" she asked, walking over to the bed and spying the bowl.
As she wandered over there, I shed my leathers as quickly as I could, grabbing the spare strapping of rawhide off the desk.
"Cake frosting?" She asked, her eyes wide and her voice deep.
"That is what you asked me for you birthday, isn't it?" I said, dangling the leather strap in front of her face. "Cake frosting, me naked, and you with your hands tied?"
"This is exactly what I asked for," she chuckled and her finger scooped the white frosting out, dabbing it on my nose and then kissing it off.
Her finger trailed down to my lips and she painted them white slowly with a callused finger.
My eyes, involuntarily closed and I felt the cruelly pleasurable onslaught of her tongue on my lips, licking away the frosting.
The rawhide strap fell from my fingers as I reached over and pulled her close by the belt loop of her leathers.
"Guess I'll save the rest of your present for tomorrow, huh?" I teased right before she plunged her tongue into my mouth and absorbed us both in an incredibly inspiring kiss.
She set the frosting bowl down on the bench and I knew we would surely return to it soon.
I snuggled deeper into the warm cocoon that surrounded me, my mind and body only half aware of outside details.
"Mmm," I muttered as I felt a nicely sculpted chin rest atop my head. "Is it morning?" I asked her.
"Don't know, don't care."
I smiled and tucked my head deeper into its resting place, finding a warm spot I must have missed some how. "Did you have a good birthday?"
"Yep. You, me, and a nice quiet evening without any Bacchae or Persians or stingy kings. No flying dog-men. No raiders from a nearby war party. No interruptions from Caesar. All a girl could ask for," she said, her hands stroking my back in a pattern that warmed me to my toes.
I chuckled just as the door to our hut flew open with a slam. We looked up and saw Ephiny with a pissed off look on her face. "Raiders inbound. Lots of 'em."
Xena's body was out of bed in a flash and she was sliding her leathers on.
I scrambled out of the warm covers with a meager flash of regret at leaving my toasty nest. "You had to open your mouth, didn't you?"
"Well, it was getting a bit dull around here, wasn't it?" she muttered, tugging her armor breast plate up into place. I saw her sit on the edge of the bed and finish tying her grieves in place with a practiced skill that I had seen in no other fighter.
My leggings were tugged on with more force that I intended and I ripped the seam of one leg. "Damnit." I pulled my sweater on and grabbed her breast dagger from its hiding place as she leaned over to lace a boot. I slashed the leggings at the knees and vented the sides a few stitches just for comfort.
"You're going to freeze," she muttered, taking the dagger from my hand and putting it back in its spot.
"You wear less than I do."
"Yes, and I'm also perpetually warm."
I slid my winter leather top on and tightened the lacings so that my chest would be secured during a fight. Over that went my warmest woolen sweater and my belt tightened that securely to my waist so that it wouldn't leave any fabric folds to get caught during the fight.
"Ready?" She asked, standing up and stretching high above her to settle her armor properly to her curves. She stepped towards the door and as it opened we noticed the massive amount of Amazons running towards the outpost.
"Oh, this is going to be fun," I said, noticing the spark of anticipation in her eyes as we joined the running massive of half-asleep women.
I felt the rush of air behind me as someone took a well aimed swing at my head. My body reacted sooner than my brain and I turned on the balls of one foot, my staff spinning with me. I heard the wood connect against flesh and I saw the man fall with a very audible 'thud.' His head had hit a hidden rock and I saw the impact but made no move to tend his wound after he lay fallen.
In a way it surprised me. In another way it didn't surprise me at all. After all the death and destruction I had seen in the past few years, seeing a man hit his head on a rock was surely one of the less traumatic events. But a part of me longed to reach out, wrap the slight skin-split and send him on his way; away from the fighting.
In my brief hesitation, some fool landed a blow to my ribs, knocking the wind out of me. A blur of anger got to me and I spun again, taking out his knees with a back sweep and knocking him out with a tap to the head.
As I glanced down at the two prone men, one who had almost hit me upside the head with a broad sword, the other who had smacked me in the ribs with a tree limbs, a feeling encompassed my body from head to toe. It was almost a wave of doom filled tingles that kept ebbing over my body every time I breathed.
"Gabrielle!" Ephiny shouted from across the field.
My head snapped up and Ephiny, Solari, and Eponin were standing guard around the prone leather clad body of the only person I would be able to identify at such a great distance.
In my haste to get to her side, I flew across the battle field and tripped over one corpse of a brutally slain soldier; his gullet torn open by a rather sharp sword, it seemed. A well placing of my staff, kept me from a nasty fall and soon I was within distance to start smacking the Hades out of anyone who went near the three brave women guarding Xena.
"What happened?" I shouted over my shoulder as I hit one of the well-trained marauders.
"Ceylan took a hit to the head," Eph shouted and motioned to Xena before continuing. "This one took out the man who laid the hit, but Xena got a staff end in her lungs." Eph paused in her recitation to gut an armored thug out of her way.
Pony continued for her as she knelt and tended to the wound in Xena's side. "Knocked the wind out of her and she got a sword through her side when she paused to breathe."
"She kept going after that but some bastard knocked her into a tree and she must have hit her head because as soon as she killed him, she passed out. I got here as fast as I could to keep them from gutting her. We'll get her back to the hut as soon as we can, Gabrielle." Solari finished as both the other Amazons were occupied either fighting or doctoring.
I felt my chest tighten and my breath just about stopped.
"Gabrielle!" Ephiny screamed, startling me out of me daze, "Behind you!" she said as she took out an advancing raider.
I spun and slammed my staff into his gut, getting a wide eyed look from the man in response. The impact must have made his innards coil in upon themselves because he turned his head as his stomach convulsed, his latest meal back up. I grimaced at the mere idea of watching him wretch; I wasn't particularly in the mood for it right then. With a careless hit, I smacked the back of his neck and heard the 'pop' as one of his vertebrae shifted and he passed out.
"Get her out of here. Now!" I shouted over the fighting as I fended off another attacker with a round house kick that was typically a Xena-trademark. A definite thud came as the man fell to the ground, impaling himself on his own sword. Blood spurted up at me, ruining my sweater.
"I go through more outfits," I muttered as I hit the next attacker, "than any other woman I've ever met!" Smack. My staff broke his jaw and down went another one into the pile that was neatly forming at just about every Amazons' feet. "And its really," Crunch. Ow. Broken Pelvis. That'll hurt in the morning. "Starting to," Pow. A double step and a kick, my staff as my pivot point, knocked over the doofus who was trying to hit the back of Rahlna. "Piss me off!" The impact of my staff against the head of the final standing raider burned my hands red but I could hardly feel the sting through my battle energy.
I looked around and noticed that several of the fallen bodies were Amazon. It was a disappointment for some unknown reason and I frowned as the fallen man closest to me began to stir. I whapped him in the head, knocking him out again.
"Solari, I want a head count," I said to the taller woman. "All the fallen are to be counted. Dead included. Make sure any wounded Amazons are taken back to camp to be tended to." This Queen thing is annoying when you have somewhere else to be. I thought, longing to be next to Xena right now instead of ordering people to do things they shouldn't have to be told to do. "All of the dead raiders," I paused, not sure how to handle this. "Form a line outside of camp, on the edge of the woods, and line them side by side. If they're recognized, they can easily be retrieved."
"And the living?" Solari said cautiously.
"Take their weapons and add them to our supplies. Bind their feet and hands and remove any armor. Leave them on the forest line, too."
"In the cold?"
"In the cold."
"Gabrielle, they'll freeze."
"Do you have a problem with that?"
"No," Solari said with an odd grin on her face. "But I always thought you did."
"I do have a problem with it. But when they invade my village and attack my Amazons, my scruples don't apply."
She nodded and turned to begin ordering people around.
I touched her arm before she could begin and she paused to face me. "Get as much information from the living as you can without torturing them. I want to know who and why and anything else they'll tell you."
"Make sure we tend to the Amazon's first. Get the wounded to the healer if they'll make it. If not, battle dress them and get them as close to camp as you can."
"I will," Solari said. She didn't really have to be told that, but she knew and I knew that having instructions said aloud laid our minds at ease just a bit.
"I'll be -"
"At camp with Xena. Go on, Gabrielle!" Solari interrupted, making a shooing motion with her hands. She turned again and ordered people to start helping the injured.
I sighed and turned with my staff, sprinting back to camp to find Xena.
I felt the snow and mud slid under my feet as I ran back to my hut. Ephiny's voice carried on the early morning breeze.
"The fire's big enough. NO! Don't get the healer, the Queen will take care of it. And she'll do a better job that than old wrinkle bag who can barley lace her leggings, never mind sew a fatal wound. Now everyone get out of here!" Ephiny shouted.
I stepped aside on the porch as the line of Amazons filed out looking rather shaken by the regent's sudden outburst.
As they walked away, tramping through the mud and slushy snow, I heard mutters of how it was the first time anyone had seen Xena take a hit and go down from it. The realization that this was true hit me like a kick from Argo.
I opened the door quietly and walked in to see Ephiny sitting on the edge of the bed, Xena tucked nicely in fresh linen.
"Listen here, Xena," Ephiny said, not having heard me come in and stand in the front entrance. Her voice was soft but strong as she spoke to the still unconscious warrior. "I have a bad feeling that we lost some people in that battle today and I will not allow you to be one of them. And I know you don't care too much what I think, so if you're not going to listen to me, you've got to think of Gabrielle. I know for a fact that she won't survive another funeral for you. She did it once and I don't think she could do it again. Ever," Ephiny paused and ran her fingers through her curly hair, pulling it back out of her face. "You've got some nasty wounds, but I'm sure this is nothing compared to what you normally get defending the Queen from herself," Ephiny muttered, obviously alluding to my innate ability to attract trouble.
On that particular note, I cleared my throat and announced my presence.
Ephiny turned and looked at me, a blush evident on her face. "I meant that in a good way?" She said cautiously.
I smiled at her softly. "I know you did. Its true, too," I admitted. "I get into more trouble than I know how to get out of."
"She'll be fine, Gabrielle," Ephiny said suddenly. "Right?"
She has to be. I don't know how to function without her. "Right."
Ephiny leaned down and respectfully kissed Xena's forehead. "I'll leave you to tend her wounds. If you need anything, I won't be far so just holler, ok?"
I nodded and she hugged me briefly before stepping outside the warm hut.
The sword cut on her side was certainly more shallow than it looked, and by some stroke of the Fates, the blade had missed the prominent muscles by a hair. It looked like one of the corded muscles had been nicked, but not enough to cause anything more damaging than the gash itself.
A quick inspection of the wound gave me all the information I needed regarding supplies and with a sigh, I grabbed the clean rags and bandages that I would use to patch her up.
I threaded the gut through the tiny needle-eye and, after a deep breath that was intended to steady my nerves, I began to sew up the cut in her side. It was bloody and reminded me very much of the time I had found a Rabbit caught in a trap.
The soft fur was matted with blood and dirt and I tried in vain to flush the wound out with clean water, but the blood just kept coming and coming without any sign of rest.
"Xena?" I asked more to myself that the body I knew wouldn't respond.
Her sarcophagus lay near the shrubs and inside of it lay the body of my best friend.
"Xena? What do I do? Its still alive!" My voice was a whisper and I watched the intense pain flit across the tiny and fur covered features of the rabbit.
I took our healing kit with shaking hands and just stared inside until, as if propelled by two unseen hands and a will of iron, I grabbed a needle and thread and started to suture the wound on the side of the small animal. Medical knowledge that was well beyond my experience somehow came to me and I finished the job while humming a soft tune under my breath.
He, or at least I thought it was a he, rested throughout the night and in the morning, after I shared my meager breakfast of forest greens and dried veggies, seemed much better.
By midmorning, I had returned from a quick trip to the river to wash and my rabbit friend had vanish, not a trail of blood as any indicator to where he had gone.
"I've got to tell you, Xena, I'm not as fond of stitching up these big holes in you as you seem to think I am. Its just not fun!" I mused to the sleeping woman I was sewing. "Not to mention how my seams never come out straight and you're going to end up with some nasty looking crooked scars. You'll be mistaking them for slugs for weeks!"
I sighed at the mental picture that produced, her frowning at her skin and trying to flick off a scar-like wound.
"I'm going to close this as best I can and still leave that little spot on the side where I can open it again if I need to, like you showed me."
I think the talking soothed my rattled nerves more than anything else. I didn't doubt her hearing me, nor did I doubt her presence in her body, but I did doubt my ability as a healer especially on a body as valuable as Xena's.
"Ephiny said you took a hit to the head and kept on fighting. You do realize that when you wake up, you're going to have one Hades of a headache. Not to mention the story you're going to have to tell me, Xena." The wound was finally done and I rubbed a light creme on it to keep the skin moist and prevent cracking in the cool winter air.
She shifted slightly in her sleep and the hand that had been resting on her stomach now slid over to my own and covered it lightly.
I smiled. "Want some company?" I said to her, knowing she wouldn't answer. She was out for the long haul on this one; the wounds combined effort leaving her body fighting its own battle against infection. It would be a few days before she would be well enough to walk and only a few less before she'd be able to eat solid foods. Until then the kitchen would be fixing bowls of rich broth and some butter rolls for me to try to get her to swallow.
I pulled off my mud caked sweater and my equally icky leathers, not even noticing the long cut on the back of my leg nor the pulled muscles and bruises.
The sheets were fresh, compared to the dirty feel of my leggings and leather top and sweater, and the combination of the cool air against my skin and Xena's warm body made me relax into her breathing pattern.
"I don't plan on doing this whole 'life' thing alone, Xena. And you're the only one I really want to live life with. So, you'd better heal, or I'm coming after you and you're not going to like what I have to say," I whispered, laying out next to her and massaging her sword-hand's tense fingers. "Got it?"
In reply, her fingers curled around my own and I closed my eyes, an accepting smile settling over my features.
"She'll be fine, Eph," I said softly, wrapping her shoulder tightly, providing stability to the healing joint.
"If you say so."
"She'll be fine!" I said, a bit more forcefully than I had intended.
"I believe you, Gabrielle. If there's anyone who can get her well on faith and willpower alone, you're the one to do it," Ephiny said, hanging her head slightly as I pulled the bandage tight for support. "I just have trouble thinking that cut isn't going to give her trouble."
"It'll give her trouble. She'll ignore it. I'll have to force her to rest like I always do. Then she'll wake up one morning without any pain and be back to her old self with more energy than I'll ever have after an injury. That's just the way she works, Ephiny. She scares the shit out of me one day by being so sick and making me laugh so hard, playing games the next day."
"She doesn't play games," Ephiny grumbled at me.
I smirked. "Yes she does. She plays games. She sings. She even knows how to dance, but you have to ask her really nicely for that one."
"You're joking," Eponin said, sidling up behind Eph and pulling her curly locks back in one hand, combing through the mess in an attempt at taming it somewhat into a braid.
"I'm not joking!" I said. "How come no one believes me when I tell them that she's actually fun to be with?" It was a rhetorical question but they both answered me with arched eyebrow looks. "What? She is! We laugh. She even knows how to tell a few jokes! Its not like all she knows how to do is beat on people. She has a mother. She has a brother. She even had a dog when she was little!"
"She has a mother?" They both said, leaning in with interest.
"What did you think, I found her under a cabbage leaf?"
"No. Not cabbage. Xena is many things, but cabbage leaves are not among them," Ephiny said thoughtfully.
"Fig tree, maybe," Pony said.
"A red fern bush, quiet possibly," Ephiny added.
"But," they both intoned, "definitely not a cabbage leaf."
"Your mission, which you ladies don't have a choice about accepting or not," I said, pacing back and forth in front of my large audience of Amazon teens. "Is for you to successfully work as a team."
The groans just about drowned out Ephiny's piercing whistle as she tried to calm the already pessimistic kids.
"Knock it off!" I shouted, having had enough of their ever present attitude. "I'm not asking you if you want to do this. I'm telling you. You've all been divided into groups and each group is going to have an individual task that has to be completed before sundown tomorrow. If its not done right, you have to do it over again as well as completing your next task. Is that understood?"
"That's not fair, your majesty," Ayrin, said with a very prominent whine.
"As much as I hate quoting my mother, Ayrin, life isn't fair and that's something you're going to have to learn to deal with," I said, turning and facing the young blonde. "Sit up straight," I told her, giving her my best glare until she did as she was told.
"Tomorrow morning before sunrise, you're to report to the courtyard with your winter work-clothes on. There will be five elders there. Either myself, Ephiny or the Regent will be there for you to report to. We'll tell you which elder to go to and check you off as showing up. If you do not report to the courtyard before the sun's risen, your fate is in my hands," I said, rubbing my hands together evilly.
I saw a small hand rise above the level of seated heads. I sighed internally.
"Majesty? I heard that Xena took a nasty hit yesterday. I was wondering is she going to be ok?" The girl's voice was soft and genuine and I smiled her way, knowing that she really did care.
"She'll be fine. I'll tell her that you were concerned. I'm sure she'll appreciate that."
"My mother and I baked some oatmeal raisin cookies last night. Do you think she'd like some? To make her get better quicker?"
My eyes suddenly stung with tears that came from her kinda offer.
The most feared warrior in Greece was being offered Oatmeal cookies by a young girl who only wished her a speedy recovery. It was absurd, really. It was unthinkable. And yet, it had just happened.
"I " I said, pausing slightly to try and recover some of my stern look. "I think she'd like that very much, Karny. You can bring them by later on tonight, after evening meal."
I glanced at the rest of the room, my composed look having returned full force. "If there isn't anything else, you all are dismissed. I expect every single one of you in the courtyard tomorrow. And I expect you all ready to work."
The bodies rose like a cresting wave of sea water and the girls all scrambled for the door as Ephiny and I exchanged amused glances.
"Cookies?" We both said as soon as the hall was emptied.
Her face was cold and clammy and I tried to just brush the growing nagging in my gut aside, blaming it on bad food. In all honesty, I knew that something was seriously wrong with her.
The fire was roaring and I was sweating so much that I had stripped down the top that Pony had lent me. It wasn't more than two cups of leather held up by a leather strip that tied behind my neck after crisscrossing around my back and through the two small loops on the sides of the cups.
Pretty comfy, I thought, feeling very supported in the cooler and more form fitting design.
"Bet youd like it, wouldn't you?" I thought with a mischievous grin as I added two more logs to the fire.
I placed her armor knife in the fire, knowing I'd probably have to slice open her wound and drain it, using the knife to cauterize the skin back together again.
The herbs I would need sat in a pouch near the bed and I didn't even have to look to know that it would be filled with the proper dried and ground leaves.
"Yeah?" I said, knowing Ephiny's voice when I heard it.
"Need anything before I turn in?"
"No. I'm all right. Go on," I said with a smile at her.
"Sure? I mean, I could stay up with her while you get your sleep."
I chuckled. "Why, Ephiny, someone might mistake that for friendly concern."
She frowned at me; or tried to anyway. It didn't quite work because she ended up chuckling at her self. "Its that obvious?"
"Its ok. I think its sweet."
"I don't do sweet, Gabrielle, I'm an Amazon."
"And what am I?"
"You're the Queen."
"And do I do sweet?"
"Well, do I?"
"You're the Queen. You're allowed to do whatever you want," she answered.
I grinned at her and squeezed her arm slightly. "Good answer. And on second thought, I've got to reopen her stitches and drain her wound. I'm pretty sure there's a lot of fluid in there that shouldn't be. I won't know if its infected or not till I get it open, but either way, I could use a hand."
"Your wish is my command, majesty," she teased with an air of bravado to her words.
"Your damn right it is! It is good to be Queen."
"That's gross, Gabrielle," Ephiny said, her nose crinkling up as the yellow fluid oozed out of Xena's wound and into the small bowl I had set underneath it. "I know I'm supposed to be tough and all, but I cannot resist stating "EW!" right now!"
I smirked at her. "Well, just thing how much more gross it would be if we let it sit in her body and eat away at her organs, hm?"
"That's disgusting, Gabrielle."
"Ephiny," I said, pushing the healing herbs inside the opening and hoping I wouldn't have to do this again. "You're a warrior. Do you know how many people you've done this to?" I asked, pointing at the wound.
"Then realize how many people have sat at your victim's bedsides, cleaning their wounds, draining the infection from their body, and praying to whatever gods they believe in for the fast healing of their loved one."
She just stared at me and I felt her eyes on my face as I returned my attention to Xena's wound.
I sighed, walking over to get the red-hot knife from the fire. "Look, I don't begrudge you any of your victories. I think you're one of the best warrior's I've ever met, Xena excluded. I just I've seen her cut up too many times by a slip of the sword. I've put cold water or ice on her bruises when some thug decides to take a swing at her. I've patched her up and helped her heal more times than you can imagine. Everyone thinks she's invincible, Eph, but she's not. She can get cut, she bleeds, and she hurts from a sliver just as much as your or I," I paused to wrap a rag around the armor knife's hot handle before I touched it. "I don't think she's ever told anyone that she has feelings and they get hurt. Or her pride can get stepped on. But I've seen it happen. Yes, she's got a reputation to uphold for her own safety, and mine, but that doesn't mean that she enjoys doing it."
"What are you saying?" Ephiny asked as she held Xena's arms down so I could sear the flesh back together.
The smell was hideous, but the cry of agony that tore from Xena's mouth was even more disturbing to me. Her eyes didn't open and her body jerked only slightly as I tried to keep her wound shut by melting the flesh back together. It was tormenting for me to hear that sound of pain and know that I was the one causing it. For her own good or not, it still hurt to know that I was inflicting her with even the smallest amount of discomfort.
I dropped the knife and crooned softly to her, pushing the sweat dampened hair away from her forehead. Ephiny moved in a rush and slathered some cooling salve to a bandage and held it in place to try to cool the knife's remaining sting.
"I'm saying that I hate seeing her in pain, Eph," I said, kissing her cheek softly before moving to cover her back up. "And I hate to see you in pain. And I hate to see anyone in pain, no matter what they've done."
"That's why you only fight with a staff." She said, more a statement than a question.
"No. I only fight with a staff because that's all I'm comfortable with at this point. But I just," I sighed, not really knowing where I was going with this, "I just wish that everyone was required to sit by an injured person's bedside and tend their wounds- before they picked up a sword of their own and went out swinging. I don't want world peace and an end to all bloodshed everywhere. I think it would be dull and we'd have a whole bunch of bored Amazons on our hands. Just maybe if people had to see what the results of certain actions were, they might pick their battles better."
Ephiny nodded. "That's a good philosophy. Is that what you're trying to do with the younger Amazons?"
"Yeah. In a way."
"That why you're having them rotate shifts through the healing hut?"
"That's half why."
"And the other half?"
"Because that wrinkle bag who calls herself a healer can barely lace her leggings, never mind stitch a fatal wound," I said, paraphrasing her from the day before.
She rolled her eyes and stood up with a tisk, having finished winding fresh bandage for later use.
"Pony loan you that?" She asked, pointing to my new top.
"Xena's going to like that when she wakes up," Eph said with a small wiggle of her eyebrows.
I rolled my eyes and smacked her playfully on the arm. "Go back to your hut, Ephiny. Pony's waiting for you. The kitchen was missing some of its best mulled wine this evening and I'm not even going to guess who's got it," I said with a wink, knowing my regent and her partner both had quite a taste for mulled wine. Especially when they can come up with creative ways to share it, no doubt.
Ephiny chuckled at me and headed for the door. "Gabrielle?"
"Yeah?" I said, pulling a quilt over Xena's body.
"You can return the top to Pony when you're done with it. I can guarantee you'll be getting one for yourself for Solstice this year," she said with a wink.
"And just how do you know that?"
"I helped her pick it out, that's how! I chose the leather, she knew your, um," Ephy cupped her hands in front of her chest as she paused to find the precise way to phase it. "Measurements perfectly."
I hurled the closest pillow at the door as my face turned beet red. Ephiny's normally curly head, her hair tamed by the patient hands of Pony into a very nice braid, slipped out the door way before the pillow met its mark.
"You, my dear, are going to get me in trouble with that stuff one day." I said to Xena, chuckling to myself.
"So I was sitting there, and all of a sudden the door bursts open and there she stood with this disgusting "I'm going to kick your ass" look on her face. But you know, with her covered from head to toe in horse manure it didn't intimidate me very much and I started laughing so hard I fell off the bench I was sitting on."
"You did not!"
"I did!" I said, turning slightly adjusting my skirt so that Pony could see the small scar I had above my hip, "I fell on her armor dagger and cut myself pretty good, too. She was so mad she made me do my own stitches," I said with a grin.
"She wouldn't make you do that," Ephiny said.
"Would she?" Pony asked.
"Do you think the scar would be so big and crooked if she had done it?" I countered logically before reaching for Xena's hand and pulling on her arm slightly.
"Good point," Ephiny said, massaging the muscles in one of Xena's calves where we had found a knot the size of a snowball.
"Explain this to me again, Gabrielle."
"One more time, Pony," I said with a sigh, sick of the repetition. "If she just sits here and doesn't move, her muscles are going to atrophy. She won't be able to run as fast, jump or flip, and even swinging a sword will be hard work for her. So, if her muscles atrophy and she wakes up, she's going to seriously be pissed at us all for letting her get that way. And, honestly, I'm not that fond of it when Xena's pissed off at me."
"So we're doing this to keep your ass from getting kicked?" Pony teased.
"No. You are doing this because I'm the queen and I told you to. I'm doing this so she doesn't wake up as cranky as an alpha wolf protecting her pack. Got me?"
"Yes ma'am," Pony muttered, putting Xena's leg through the motions that would keep her muscles from stiffening and loosing their strength too much.
"That's better," I said, enjoying the quiet as we all continued the patterns of motion.
"Time's up," Ephiny said as the sand in the hourglass ran out. "I think we do much more we're all going to need a rub down from the massage hut. Damn, Gabrielle, she's all muscle! My fingers hurt!"
I chuckled and pulled on Xena's fingers a bit before letting her hand rest back on her stomach where I had found it. "Some warrior you are, Ephiny," I teased.
She gave me a dirty look which I returned two fold, getting chuckles from Pony the whole time.
"Get out of here, you two. Its a beautiful day! Go check on the Amazon's. Make sure the little ones aren't killing the elders. Give me a report in about two hours?"
Pony nodded. "Sounds good."
"See you then, Gabrielle. Take a nap, will you? You look like centaur shit!" Eph said, the door smacking her lightly in the butt on the way out.
"I know you're tired, Xena" I said softly, pacing back and forth in front of the bed. "And I know that you're still healing from that cut and the fact that you took a hit to the head. And I'm sure there's a very good medical explanation for all this completely insensitive sleeping you're doing. But despite all of that, I've got to say that this is ridiculous."
I sighed and flopped down on the bed next to her, curling up at her side and resting my head lightly on her shoulder.
"I'll give you another day. Then I'm really going to get angry. And you don't like it when I get angry. Do you?"
"No." It was barely a whisper and the hoarseness that was part of the voice grazed against my bare ears in an odd way.
"I didn't think .Xena?" I said softly, not recognizing the surprise at first.
"You're awake! Oh, thank the gods! How do you feel? What hurts? Do you need anything? Water. I'll get you some water. Are you cold? Do you want an extra blanket? Water! Can't forget that water," I babbled in my happiness. I got up twice to get the mug of clean water, but each time I would return to her side just to make sure she was in fact awake.
"Yeah?" I asked, running around for a clean blanket and a clean mug. It had been a while since I had let the cleaning crew into our hut. I didn't want them to disturb the slumbering warrior.
I hurried to her side, a mug and my creme colored blanket in hand. "Yeah?"
"I like the new top," she said softly, her eyes wandering down to my mostly bare chest.
I blushed and chuckled, covering her up and setting the mug on the nightstand. "You feel fine! I shouldn't have worried at all. Not if that's the first thing you say to me."
I lifted her head slightly and helped her sip at the cool water.
"Have you slept at all?" she asked, pushing the cup away.
"I've slept enough," I replied.
"Really. I'm fine," I said, suddenly exhausted. Her waking up had taken a huge load off my shoulders and it was as if the past events of the previous days suddenly smacked me in the face.
"You're lying to me."
I raised an eyebrow at her in a move well copied from a dark haired warrior we both new.
She tugged softly on my arm, using what felt like all of her barely-there strength to pull me down to the bed next to her. "I don't like it when you lie to me," she said, tugging on the blankets and basically forcing me to settle next to her.
"I'm not lying. I'm fine."
"You look like Centaur shit, Gabrielle! Take a nap!" She said, tucking her arm around my shoulders and resting her chin on the crown of my head in a way that was comforting to us both.
"What? Is that the catch phrase of the day?" I muttered to her, getting a chuckle in response as we both drifted off to a peaceful sleep.
I watched as she tried to shift her weight, putting more and more pressure on her wounded side with as much restraint as she had in her. From experience, I knew that her patience was only due to my being in the room. Otherwise, she would have gotten up in one motion and just ignored the shooting pain that had to be traveling up her side.
"I don't want to."
"I don't care. Knock it off," I said, pushing her back down onto the pillow.
"Gab?" she said, her eyes getting that 'please can't I have a cookie?' look to them. The same look that typically got her what she wanted.
Not today. "What?"
"I just want to get up!"
"NO! And if you ask me one more time, I'm going to take your sword and knock you upside the head with it so you pass out again!" I said. "You know, Xena, you were much easier to handle when you weren't awake."
"Didn't your mother teach you that you'd get wrinkles if you did that?"
"Don't pout. You're not a little girl."
"You're treating me like one!"
"No. I'm treating you like a woman who just about got gutted by raiders two days ago! I'm treating you like you have treated me when I was sick along with any other person who was under the same conditions you were. I'm treating you," I said with a pause as I knelt next to her on the bed about to change her bandages. Instead of leaning over to remove the old linen, I leaned in to kiss her softly, "like the woman I love and I'm doing everything I can to get you better quicker."
"I just want to get up!"
"Knock it off or I'll take you to the healers hut and have them restrain you." She arched an eyebrow as someone knocked on the door.
"Come in" I called over my shoulder as I removed her padded linen.
Ephiny's head poked around the doorframe. "She's awake?"
"Yes I am," Xena replied.
"I thought I heard you talking to someone, Gabrielle, but I figured it was just a rousing pep talk to get our reclusive patient out of her nap," Eph said with a grin at me. "Good to see you're up, Xena."
"It be better if she'd let me get up and go for a walk," Xena gripped, jerking her chin toward me as she spoke.
"What? You've been up how long and you're ready to go out and play so soon?" Eph said, her voice full of sarcasm. "Like that'll happen."
I smiled as I peeled the clean and fresh smelling bandage off the wound, sliding salve on it.
I could feel Xena's scowl sail over my head and pierce Ephiny with bright blue eyes. Oh, this is going to get unpleasant in a few minutes, I thought, deciding quickly to change the subject.
"So, Ephiny, what caused you to stop by so early this morning?" I asked.
She cleared her throat, a certain sign that she was uncomfortable with the coming words. "Um. The teams finally finished moving all the dead out of the way and lined up as you ordered. Solari recovered these for you. The rack is at still being made. It should be ready by nightfall," Ephiny said, her voice suddenly solemn.
I didn't even turn around. I knew what she held in her hands. I knew their symbolism. And I knew that I didn't really want to look at that right now, I only wanted to finish cleaning up Xena's wounds.
"But what? I " Xena stuttered as the metal of the weapons in Ephiny's hands clanked, smacking together as she sat them down on the table.
"Thanks, Eph. I'll take care of it," I said, casting a genuine smile at her over my shoulder.
She smiled back and walked out with a wave in Xena's direction.
"What was that all about?" Xena asked warily.
Her hand caught my chin and she brought my face up to meet her own. "Gabrielle, I know Amazon custom. I know why someone receives weapons off a battlefield. But why are you getting weapons off a battle field?" She asked.
"Because I killed someone."
I shrugged and replaced the clean bandage to her wound, again amazed at just how fast she healed. "I killed someone."
"How can you say that so calmly?"
"Because its not a big deal, Xena," I said with a shrug, being honest with myself.
Her eyes took on a steely glint to them and her jaw was set in a manner that didn't make me very comfortable.
"What is wrong with you?" She asked me, her fingers squeezing my chin slightly; enough to get my attention but not enough to make me feel pain.
"Nothing," I said to her, removing her fingers from my face. "Nothing is wrong with me."
"You killed someone? How can you be so casual about that?"
I sighed and got up off the bed, packing the healing supplies back into her pouch. "Do you really want to go into this right now? Because I'm not sure that I do, Xena."
"No. I want to go into this right now," she said, obviously more than a little miffed. "You tell me why you're undergoing the Amazon custom of observed battle slaying. You tell me why Ephiny hand delivered those weapons to you. And you tell me why this is such a casual affair. You tell me now, Gabrielle!"
I walked up to her, fire obviously in my eyes because it raced through my soul. "You listen to me and you listen good, Xena. You don't tell me what to do. I've sat next to your bed for the last two days, praying to whomever was listening that you would get better. I didn't know if you were dead or dying or just resting and being a brat like you can be. I didn't know if I needed to make plans for your burial or for your next birthday. Then you have the nerve to demand something from me?" I asked, stalking her slowly, like a panther and its prey. "You may have my unconditional love, Xena, but you do not have permission to bully me around and you should know better by now!"
"SHUTUP!" I said, pushing on her shoulders until she was flat on her back again. "You want to know why I'm getting a dead man's weapons? You want to know why I'm taking a death by my hand with such casual ease?" I said, practically shouting. "You were unconscious and he was headed right for you. The only thing that stood in the way was me. And if stopping him from hurting you meant that I had to kill him, then there was no doubt in my mind what I'd do. And I did it. How can you think otherwise? How can you think that I would prefer to keep blood from my hands in trade for your life? Do you think so little of me? If keeping you safe means that I have to kill every person that threatens you, Xena, I'll do it. Just like you would do that for me."
I paused, staring right at her. Deep breath. "Solari and Eph and Pony were tending to you, keeping the raiders from pulling you apart. They were fighting with more energy and fury and purpose than I've seen in a long time. And I was there, completing the circle that protected you. And this guy I was turned around, trying to see if you were ok and he came up from behind me. I kicked him in the jaw. I heard it crack," I said, swallowing the lump in my throat before it was even audibly noticeable. "And he fell onto his own sword. It gutted him right through. It was my fault. I killed him. And I don't regret a minute of it, Xena. I'd kill him again if it meant keeping you safe," I said, looking her so dead-on that there was no way she'd be able to miss-read my eyes. When I saw the small spark of understanding that passed behind her azure gaze, I sighed and stood. "I'm going to go check on the little-ones. Call if you need anything. I'll have a guard close-by."
I turned on my heel and left the hut, heading straight down to riverbank, sitting under a small tree.
It was the same spot I had launched her sarcophagus not so long ago.
I pulled my knees up to my chest and just sat, my chin resting on my legs solemnly as I gazed upon the water before me.
In a blaze of yellow, the noon sun reflected off the river water. Shadows danced appropriately with the slight breeze and a slight mist seemed to roll off the water and grazed my skin like a feather's touch.
"Gabrielle?" Pony said, walking up behind me.
"Yeah?" I asked, my voice not much louder than a whisper.
Pony sat down next to me, her shoulder barely touching my own. "Xena's been pretty quiet."
I smirked slightly. "Good. Maybe she's thinking about what I said."
"Did you tell her about Drameis?"
"Eph came in with the weapons. I didn't have to tell her much."
Pony nodded. "She knows our customs pretty well, Gab."
"I know," I said with a shrug. "I understand that. What I don't understand is why she cant accept me having grown up."
A small brambleberry bush's limbs waved in the sunlight, casting silhouetted images of leaves across my face as well as Eponin's.
"I don't know why either. Ephiny and I try to remember that you're not the girl who first came to us. You're not preoccupied with dreams of heroism and adventure. You are grown up, Gabrielle, and we know it. Personally, I have a hard time remembering some times. There's a certain way," she said with a pause, "that the light will hit your face at just the right angle and its like you really are the same innocent young girl who showed up without even knowing what a 'right of caste' was!"
We both chuckled at the memory of my first appearance to the Amazon village.
"I know she protected me and defended my right to the title. I still don't know why. She won't talk about it," I said softly. "I always get the impression that at the time she wanted me to stay here just so she wouldn't have to put up with me anymore."
Pony ducked her head to hide the smile. "I don't think that was ever the case, Gabrielle."
"You didn't have to live with her, did you?" I countered.
"No. I didn't. But, Gabrielle, I do get to see the way she looks at you when you can't see her. I don't think she would have become the woman she is today without you by her side."
I frowned and gazed at her for a few minutes. "You're serious?"
"Very. Eph thinks so too, if that means anything to you. We had this discussion a few days after you guys came back."
I nodded. Time to change the subject. "How are the kids doing?"
Pony chuckle to herself. "Well, only two injuries so far. One cut from a dropped knife in the kitchen. The other one Ayran mouthed off to Kelana today."
"Uh Oh," I said.
"Uh Oh is right. It wasn't a pretty site. When I finally got there, Kelana had Ayran covered from toe to tunic collar in horse dung. That girl is going to get a lesson in respect if its the last thing she does, Kelana said so herself," Pony said, rubbing her temples while chuckling.
"Well, if she's going to get a lesson Kelana's a good one to teach her. She's like Melosa in many ways."
Pony looked at me. "You don't know?"
"Kelana was Melosa's lover."
My jaw dropped. "No way!"
"Way!" Pony said with a nod. "For almost their entire adult lives at least. They were best friends as young girls and then it developed into something more as adults. Kelana went on an expedition to a nearby tribe and that was the only time they were ever separated. Unfortunately for them both, the trip was at the same time Melosa was killed in challenge."
"Wow. I didn't know."
"Its not talked about very much. For some reason, most of our tribe have this unwritten rule that you just don't talk about the Queen and her consort when they aren't around in a pair to defend themselves."
"So when one of them dies, you don't speak of them like a couple anymore?" I asked, not completely agreeing with that.
"Pony, promise me something."
She gazed at me with a bit of trepidation in her eyes. "Ok."
"When I die, don't stop talking about me to Xena. And if she dies, don't stop talking about her to me. We're a team now; partners. It can't be one without the other and I don't want people to pretend that it ever was. Please?"
She nodded and rest a friendly hand on my shoulder. "You've got yourself a deal. Same for me and Eph, ok?"
I nodded and chuckled, gazing back out at the river, watching the sun slowly move across the sky.
I rocked in the mesh swing that hung from the cabin's rafter's, trying to quiet the small infant that rest in my arms.
"Gabrielle?" a small voice came from beside me.
"We call her 'your majesty,' sweetie," Turlin said to her young daughter.
I smiled softly at the youngster. "Its ok, Turlin. She can call me 'Gabrielle' if she wants to. But only if she's good," I added with a wink in Turlin's direction and getting a grateful look in return.
Turlin prompted her daughter to continue with a soft hand easing the child forward.
"Is Xena going to be ok?" the young girl spoke softly, her thumb in her mouth.
I sighed. It seemed to be the question of the week.
"I think she'll be just fine, honey," I said, not knowing the young girl's name.
Turlin sighed and stood up. "I don't know how to thank you for this, majesty. Her sitter's in the infirmary after the battle and I didn't have anywhere else to turn!"
I smiled softly. "No. I'm glad you asked."
"I know Queens don't normally baby sit, but you're not a normal Queen, either."
I chuckled to myself, "Why do you say that?"
She smiled as she started packing a leather bag with baby supplies. "About all the Queens that I've known would have completely balked at the idea of mucking stalls if there was someone else to do it. Besides that, most Queens don't offer themselves up for kitchen rotation, either," she said with a smile; one I returned warmly.
"Guess I'm not a typical Queen, you're right."
The baby shifted slightly, instinctively grabbing my halter-top and tugging. I smiled and removed the fingers delicately, letting the tiny fist wrap around my larger finger in a very strong grip.
"Turlin?" I said, looking at the young mother who was rushing around furtively.
"Yes, my queen?" she said, stopping everything.
"What are you going to do with her?" I asked softly, gesturing to the toddler.
"Lucia? Oh, I was going to drop her off with the playgroup. I know she's a little young, but I don't think they'll turn her away," Turlin said, running her fingers through her sand colored hair.
I paused and glanced at my arms. In for a Dinar, in for a Drachma, Gabrielle, I thought. "I'll take her with me," I offered. "If you'd like. I mean, why separate sisters, right?"
"I couldn't ask you to do that."
"You didn't. I offered," I said, standing up and cradling the baby to my chest with one hand. With the other, I grabbed the brightly colored woven fabric that was a very large rectangle. I tied the fabric around my back and neck in the typical workingwoman fashion, strapping the young infant securely to my chest.
"And I won't take no for an answer. She'll be just fine with me. I think I can even conjure up a few stories to tell her," I said with a smile. "Go get your things, Lucia. You'll spend the evening with me."
The smile on the girl's face could have lit the entire room it was so bright. "Really? Wow." She said before scurrying off to do as I had asked.
Turlin looked at me, her face full of disbelief.
"What?" I asked as I shouldered the infant's bag.
"I don't know if you can handle them both, majesty. They're a handful."
I frowned. "You know, Turlin, its not common knowledge around here, but I have dealt with children before. In fact, I've even had one," I said with a bit of bitterness at the memory.
She just gazed at me for a few minutes until Lucia came scampering back in. "Ready, Gabrielle," she said. Her smaller hand wiggled its way inside my larger one and with a wave at her mother; the three of us were off to deliver chaos and child's-laughter to the still recuperating Xena.
The room was quiet and dark as I entered and I was sure to tell Lucia to be silent as she entered so as not to disturb the sleeping warrior.
"You have to remember," I had said, "Xena can be a little cranky when she first wakes up." Boy, was that an understatement.
I ushered the young child into the room, settling her down on the small fur carpet in the one corner that we typically used for dressing. It was a large area, separated by a cloth screen that was hanging on a large pole that was suspended from the rafters.
"Play here, Lucia. I'm going to set up the baby's bed, ok?" I said, handing her a blank scroll and some colored bits of chalk. She looked at the vivid bits and picked them up, beginning to color with what seemed like never ending enthusiasm.
There were two large supports that ran the length of the top of the hut. With one hand, I looped on section of braided rope over one and with the other hand I cradled the infant. Holding a baby and tying a knot one-handed wasn't as hard as it would have been, had Xena not taught me how to do most things one handed; a survival trick, she had said.
I sighed at the memory and looped the other rope over the support, the appropriate distance away from the first. I tied the knot and stepped back, looking as the lightweight cradle swung softly. A piece of thin lumber supported the bottom and two pieces of padded quilting wrapped around the wood. It was simplistic, yet intriguingly complex in design. It folded nicely, becoming virtually flat. It hung from almost any surface. And, because it was oval in shape, and didn't have the cumbersome qualities of corners it was very easy on both child and parent; less corners meaning less things to walk into in the middle of the night.
The infant tugged on a piece of my hair as she stirred in her sleep and I bit my lip to keep from crying out in pain. With ease, I detangled her small fingers from my hair and set her into the small cradle, buckling the small straps that looped over the hips and shoulders of the child's frame in case it did tip.
I turned to the smaller girl who was sprawled on the floor coloring. "Lucia? What's your sister's name?" I asked, realizing that I had forgotten to ask Turlin the name of the baby.
"Dell," she answered succinctly before returning back to her drawing.
I nodded and turned, pulling the curtain closed just slightly to give the two children, and myself, a bit of privacy.
Two very sleepy blue eyes looked back at me from beneath a pile of tussled black hair. "Hi," I said softly.
"How's your wound feel?" I asked, not really sure how I should talk to her after storming out in the middle of a fight. It seemed like she was the one who usually ran off and I was the one who typically was left behind.
"Good. I changed the bandage a while ago. It looks good. I should be up and about tomorrow at the latest," she said, not meeting my eyes.
I nodded. "That's good to hear."
"Where did the kids come from?" she asked.
"Well, typically kids come from their mother," I said, picking up things around the hut. "Except in your case where Ephiny and Eponin think you came from under a fig leaf." I hated a messy house even though we hardly ever stayed in one place long enough to make a significant mess. But when we did settle down for extended periods of time, I tried to keep things tidy. It was a thankless task and only on rare occasions did I have both patience and time enough to clean.
"Excuse me?" she said, pushing her hair out of her face. I turned and tossed her our shared comb. She caught it in mid air and began to try to brush the knots out of her locks.
"For some reason they don't believe you have a mother or brother and they think you came from under a fig leaf. Actually," I said with a pause, remembering the conversation, "Pony voted for the fig leaf. Eph voted for a red fern. I was rather partial to a cabbage leaf, myself."
"Cabbage leaf? Please, Gabrielle," she said, a spark in her eye.
I chuckled at bit and tossed some used rags into the fire to perish. They weren't reusable and boiling them and then adding them to a fire was the only way to ensure that disease wouldn't spread.
"I checked up on the kids after I had a talk with Pony this afternoon. It seems like Turlin couldn't handle her group of kids because she didn't have a baby-sitter for her own children. Celyan usually takes care of the younger kids in the village while their mothers are on shift and since she's in the healer's hut, the rest of the tribe is pitching in and helping to take care of the kids until Celyan's up to it again."
She sighed. "Just how many kids are we stuck with tonight?"
"Just two," I said. "And I have a feeling that they'll both sleep through the night. They've had dinner and should fall asleep soon. I just have to entertain them for a little while," I said, sitting down on the end of the bed that was farthest from her.
I frowned and looked at her, not sure where that stray word had come from.
"We have to entertain them for a little while," she said.
I smiled and nodded, realizing the change in her attitude. I coughed slightly before continuing. "About this afternoon..." I started to say, pausing to collect my thoughts.
"No. It was my fault. I guess that sometimes I have trouble remembering that you are an adult. When I look at you I know that you've grown up so much from the first time I met you, but when you kill, Gabrielle, I can't help but feel as if you're just too young," she said, sitting up all the way and tugging the comb through her hair.
I edged up behind her, taking the comb and finishing off the combing job, getting her dark hair to gleam in the candlelight. "Xena, you were younger than I was when you made your first kill."
"That was different," she said, relaxing into my touch, slightly.
"It just was."
"Exactly how was it different?" I prodded, still combing the now silken hair.
"I was fighting for my familys freedom."
"You would consider that a fight out of love, right?"
"Of course. What kind of question is that," she said, turning her face towards me slightly.
"Xena, theres only one thing I will kill for without regret," I said. "And that one thing is you. Theres nothing else in this world that I would sacrifice myself for over and over again. Anytime I fight, I fight because I love you and I will do whatever it takes to protect you."
I longed to just reach down and hug her; burring my face in her hair. But I couldnt. Not right now. Not without knowing just how she felt about all of this.
She paused. "What about Meridian?"
"Meridian is the only exception to that rule. I didnt even realize I was striking a killing blow until it was all over. I cant go back and change it," I said, repeating what I had said to her only a few months earlier. "Ive told you that. And I dont know if I would do it all over again. But if you ask me if I would kill that soldier again, under the same circumstances, then the answer is yes. It will always be yes when it comes to protecting you."
She turned, her body, not wincing aloud as the skin near her wound stretched. "Thank you," she said, her hand sliding up to my cheek. "I dont think anyone has ever said anything like that to me before."
"I think if you were to ask your mother, shed say the same thing," I said, looking away. I couldnt bear to see any sign of regret still in her eyes.
"Gab?" Her hand turned my face back towards her. "Im not angry with you for killing him. I just wish you hadnt have been put in that position."
I nodded, watching her watch me.
"Thank you," she said again.
"For what?" I asked, confused.
"Saving my life," she said, her hand sliding to the back of my neck.
I chuckled slightly. "I figure I owe you that once or twice with all the times you pulled my butt out of the fire."
She leaned in. "But its a cute butt. Itd be a shame for it to burn."
I laughed as her lips came in to meet mine.
It was the same feeling of completion that I had been without since this morning. And as her lips brushed over mine a second time, I knew that it wasnt a matter of me wanting her love. It was a matter of me needing her love.
She was in the middle of the bed, her back using two pillows to support her in an upright position even though she insisted that one was more than sufficient. But I knew better. I had seen the briefest flicker of an unspoken Ow in her eye as she moved to sit up. The pain would be gone in the morning, no doubt, and she would be up and around just as before. But for tonight, she was mine to mother, and she knew it.
"Gabrielle?" I heard the small voice say. A young face peaked from around the curtain.
"I thought you were too quiet. What kind of mischief have you been up to?" I teased her, getting a chuckle from the girl.
"I finished my picture," she said.
"Oh really? Can I see it?" I asked, squatting down to more of the childs height.
"Its for Xena," she said, unraveling the parchment and showing me a swirling rainbow of chalk-marks; some of them resembling people and others indistinguishable amidst the large qualities twists and surges of color.
"Its very nice," I said, honestly enjoying the picture even though I couldnt tell what many of the objects were.
"Do you think shell like it?" Lucia asked me, a bit of uneasiness in her voice.
I smile. "Why dont you ask her yourself," I said, adjusting my position slightly so that Lucia could see Xena sitting in bed, fiddling with yet another Athenian puzzle box.
Lucia smiled and ran towards the bed, any fear of Xena having been lost with childish ease. She hopped onto the bed and kneeled by Xenas mid calf.
"Well, hello," Xena drawled, setting her puzzle down in her lap.
"And who are you?" Xena asked despite my having told her everything I knew about both young children early on.
"Im Lucia. Gabrielle is taking care of me tonight." Her voice was strong and she didnt hesitate in the least even under Xenas scrutinizing glance.
"Dont you mean Queen Gabrielle?" Xena asked, trying to hide a chuckle.
"No. I mean Gabrielle. She said I could call her by her first name as long as I was good. Isnt that right?" she said, turning to me to affirm her claim.
I nodded. "I did say that. And you have been very good tonight."
"See?" Lucia asked, turning back to Xena. It was almost as if the child needed Xenas approval.
Xena nodded and bit off a smile. "I guess I was wrong. Im sorry," she said.
I frowned and arched an eyebrow at the warrior. Oh, so shell apologize to a four year old in less time than she can slice a head, but it takes me three years to get her to apologize to me? I see how it is.
"Thats ok. Gabrielle says that we all make mistakes. Mommy says that, too."
Xena nodded. "Well, thank you for understanding. And Gabrielle is a very smart lady."
Through this entire dialog, Lucia had been inching up closer and closer to Xenas arm, trying to settler herself at Xenas side. I tried not to laugh at the image of the young child breaking down Xenas barriers, but it was too much for me not to even smile at the two of them.
"Whats that you have in your hand?" Xena asked, nodding her head toward the scroll.
"Its a picture."
"Oh," Xena said.
"Can I see it?"
"Uh huh," Lucia replied, unrolling the picture with tiny fingers and displaying it proudly for Xenas eyes.
"Its very nice," she said, trying to make heads or tails of the colored markings. She glanced up at me, casting a raised eyebrow my way.
I shrugged in reply. Right, Xena. Like I know what it is. My experience with children is limited to Hope. You know, the one who was a by-product of a rape by Dahok? Remember all that? Yeah. Like I should know what those big overlaying swirls of color mean. At least your son wasnt Hades-bent one destroying the world. If anything you should know whats supposed to be in that picture! I chuckled slightly to myself as I thought these things, watching Xena try and decipher the mystery of Lucias drawing.
I wandered over to the hanging crib to check on Dell. The infant was awake and happily playing with her toes. I unbuckled the straps from around her and picked her up, cradling her to my body and offering her one of the wine-skins that Turlin had filled with milk. Dell drank happily, making soft cooing noises as she suckled.
Xena pointed to a whirlwind of brown coloring on the parchment. "So thats a horse?" she asked the child.
"No. Thats a centaur. Regent Ephiny says that we should be friends with centaurs," Lucia replied. "Is that what you think, Xena?"
Xena paused. I dont think she realized just what an influence she had on young children up until this point. "I think .I think that Ephiny has some very good reasons for wanting to be friends with the centaurs and I think that you should do what you think is right," she said, using her long index finger to point to the girls chest. "If you get a bad feeling in your heart about something, then you probably shouldnt do it."
"Oh," Lucia said, her face looking confused.
Xena sighed and set the drawing to the side. She reached over and lifted Lucia onto her lap. If it werent for Dell in my arms, I would have rushed over and lifted Lucia myself so that Xenas wound wouldnt reopen. Instead, I was rooted to the spot, watching her cradle the youth in her strong arms.
She frowned, trying to think of how to explain herself in a way that a four year old could understand. "Lucia, have you ever done something you know you shouldnt have?"
"I took one of Mommys daggers once. I dropped it and cut my toe," the girl offered, trying to be helpful.
Xena nodded. "And when you took the dagger to play with it, did you know that it was something you shouldnt do?"
"How did you know?"
"I got a wiggly feeling in my tummy," Lucia said.
I smiled and Xena did, too. "Where did that wiggly feeling come from, you think?" Xena asked.
"I dont know!"
"Well, you know what I think?" Xena said, leading the child on.
Lucia shook her head no.
"I think that it was your little voices way of telling you that taking the dagger wasnt a very good thing to do."
"My little voice?"
Xena nodded and I walked
over to the cushioned stool by the fireplace and sat down. I really was enjoying
this little display of mothering that Xena was putting on and it relaxed me
about any apprehensions I had regarding Xena becoming a parent again.
She continued, "We all have this little voice that tries to tell us whats right and wrong. Every bodys little voice is different. My mother used to call it a conscience."
"Do you have a little voice, too?" Lucia asked, gazing up with wonder at Xenas face.
"Whats it sound like?" the child asked.
Xena paused for only the briefest of moments and in that time, I felt her gaze travel from the child to rest on me. "It sounds like Gabrielle."
I looked at her and smiled as I blushed. She knows just how to push my buttons and get me all soft, doesnt she?
Xena smiled. "So what does your little voice say? Should the Amazons be friends with the Centaurs?"
"I dont know. Mommy says theyre living too close to our land. And Regent Ephiny says that even though some of them are really close to our borders, that they help us when we need it and that they arent bad people." Xena nodded and urged her to continue forward with her thinking. "But I dont think that just because they live close makes them bad. I think it just makes them neighbors. And if they help us, then they cant be all that bad. What do you think, Xena?"
"I think you are a very smart little girl," Xena said, tugging the twine off of both braids and combing the girls hair with our comb. She turned Lucia in her lap and braided the hair from her scalp to the base of her neck. It was as close to the head as it could possibly be and Xena fiddled with the ends, trying to get them all into the twine as she tied it back up at the bottom. "There," she muttered, finishing the braid.
Lucias hand ran up to her head and felt the braid. "Did your Mommy teach you to braid that?" she asked Xena.
Xenas smile vanished for just a split second and I doubt it would have been noticed by anyone unfamiliar with the somewhat strained childhood between Xena and her mother. "No. My mother didnt teach me that. I learned it while traveling."
"Oh," Lucia said, turning back around and cuddling up to Xena again.
The Dark haired warrior smiled slightly at the confidence of childhood. She pulled one of the spare quilts up around the girls form.
"Would you tell me about traveling? Ive never been anywhere but in the villiage."
"Gabrielle is the story teller, not me," Xena replied, looking up at me in an unspoke plea. "You tell her," she said, almost an order.
"Oh no," I said, my voice crackling falsely. "My throats a little soar tonight," I said to them both.
Xena wasnt fooled, and I hadnt expected her to be. "Come on, Gabrielle, Ill give you a backrub," she offered.
"Sorry, Xena. Youll have to tell this one yourself," I said. "Besides, I can only tell the ones that Ive been involved in. You knew that braid long before I was around," I said, changing the baby and settling Dell back into her crib for the night.
Xena sighed. "Fine," she said, scooting down a bit on the bed and pulling one leg up at the knee. She cleared her throat and began to tell a story; an evil warlord, a god of war, and a travel westward away from Greece. I had never heard it before and my inner bards ears perked up, absorbing every detail of the story for later use.
"Get in bed!"
"DO NOT tell me to shut
"GET YOUR WARRIOR PRINCESS HORSES ASS BACK IN THAT BED BEFORE I HAVE TO CALL IN THE ROYAL GUARD TO ENFORCE AN ORDER!" I shouted, my hands firmly on my hips.
"Stop shouting! You want to cause a rock slide?"
"Maybe one of the boulders would knock your butt back into bed!" I said, our respective stubborn streaks clashing just as they were bound to do every once in a while.
"Gabrielle, I dont care if youre the Queen of the gods or the Queen of Athens, Im fine. The stitches came out this morning. The wound is completely healed without any sign of infection. My cough is gone from the last time I was sick and I have more nervous energy than youve ever seen me have before. Get out of my way before I pick you up and take you running with me," she threatened, her voice dropping to a low growl. She meant business and as much as I loved her, I could only protect her from herself so much.
"You dont really want to go for a run, do you?" I whined.
"Yes. I do. You dont want me getting fat, do you?" she countered.
"Id still love you if you were fat."
"Yeah, well, I wouldnt love me if I was fat. And besides, its kinda hard to do those flips when youre center of gravity is three times as large."
I bit off a smile. "Ill make you a deal. You can go for a run if I can go with you. And if we can go scouting at the same time," I said.
"You dont think the scouting will be too much for me?" She spit back, sarcastically.
"Play nice," I said. "Ive got a false-kidnapping to arrange and that takes time." I said, pulling my new, form fitting boots on and tightening the laces that came all the way up the calf. The sole was still sturdy and the ankle still gave me support, but the boot hugged my foot in a way that was so much more comfortable than my last pair had been.
Earlier that morning, Turlin had come over and picked up Dell and Lucia and dropped off my new pair of boots as a thank-you gift.
"Im still not too please with this idea of yours," Xena commented, sliding into her spare set of leathers. Her last pair had been sliced by the soldier who had sliced her as well.
"You just dont like it since it wasnt your idea," I replied, already having figured out the reason she wasnt fond of my plan.
"So? I think thats a pretty good reason for me to be displeased with it!"
"For a five year old, yes, its a fine reason. For a grown up like you, no its not a good reason," I said, slipping my green top off and pulling the new leather wrap-around top that Xena and Ephiny had gotten me for Solstice.
"You know, Gab, I really like that new top," she commented to me, turning and gazing appreciatively at my new clothes. Ponys gift had completed the outfit; a pair of short leggings in a soft orange-red color, covered by strips of hanging leather in a soft deep brown that matched my new top.
"I know you do," I said, meeting her eyes. "I think it was more of a present for you than it was for me," I teased.
"Well " she said back in a sing-song voice.
I pitched a pillow at her, nailing her square in the face. "Selfish," I said.
She smiled and put the pillow back in its rightful place. "Your hairs getting kinda shaggy," she said as I pushed my long bangs back out of my eyes.
"I know. What do you think if I cut it?"
"Cut your bangs? I think its about time."
"No. I mean cut it cut it. You know, cut a lot off," I said, holding the door open for her. My staff was left behind as were hers. Her armor lay in the trunk at the end of the bed and her chakram was tucked nicely underneath the mattress for safekeeping. We would be fine, both of us aptly capable of caring for ourselves in the Amazon forest without any weapons. My hand-to-hand combat skills had gotten better and I had been practicing with these medium sized daggers that Pony said came from near Rome.
"Cut your hair?" she whined. "I dont know."
"I think youd like it."
"Would you like it if I did?"
"Not really. I dont think it would suit your face shape," I said as we walked towards the end of the village.
"Glad to see youre up, Xena!" Rahlna shouted as we walked by, her few injuries from the fight long gone.
Xena waved back and I smiled at her. "But you think short hair would look all right on you?"
"You dont?" I asked.
"I dont know. I if you want." No matter what her words were, her voice clearly said I dont think so.
"You are such a baby," I said to her as we broke loosely into a jog, waving at Eph and Pony as they headed in from the practice field, staves in hand.
"Yes, but Im your baby, so its ok," she said, kicking a rock a head of us, catching up with it, and kicking it again.
I smirked and let my eyes roam the forest. "What about up there?" I asked, pointing up a large hill to where a rather well-spread oak tree dominated the ground.
"For our hide out during this little kidnapping of yours?" she steered herself over that way and I kept, even paced, at her side. "I dunno, Gabrielle. It looks too easy. They just climb the hill and look up."
I nodded. "What if its one of the tricks well have set up? Not the hide out where well actually be, but what if its there to throw them off the track. We can rig little rope traps and quick pits around the perimeter," I said as we walked in circle of the tree, examining the area with a critical eye.
"I think thatll work," she said with a nod. There was an odd mischievous sparkle in her eyes as we turned from the area and began to jog even farther away from the village. We both knew that this was going to be fun.
Lots of fun.
"We leave two nights from now," I said, the lamplight flickering across peoples faces in odd shadows.
"Are you sure thats safe, my Queen?" Riffat asked.
"So soon after the attack, Im not sure its wise," Alana said.
"Safety isnt an issue. Injuries are part of battle and if they learn to deal with that now, having less panic during a real battle will benefit us." My hand was clenching and unclenching on the hilt of the metal dagger that Solari had crafted for me after seeing me work with the ones that belonged to the armory. My foot was tucked up to the side of me and the dagger rested in its holder on the side of my boot. Interesting how the boots happened to just come with the dagger-holders. "What happened the other day was horrible. I should know. Im one of the people who almost lost a partner to the hand of the attacker. But I also know that next time it happens well be able to handle ourselves better because of the training thats going to come along with and after this exercise. Understood?"
"Yes, majesty," the room said.
I glanced at Xena as she walked in and she nodded, giving me the signal I had been waiting for all night. "Good. Now thats settled, we have some help on this mission. Xena and I have called in a few favors and some friends of ours are here to act as the kidnappers."
I waved my hand to Xena and she opened the door. A tall man with dark hair and a mustache walked in. Behind him came a man with clanking armor and a hat that constantly reminded me of an egg basket. A rather rotund man with a bit of graying white hair and a stunned expression on his face came through the door with a bit of hesitance.
I smiled warmly at each of them and they gazed around the room, taking in the harsh looks of some of the women.
"Ladies, this is our kidnapping crew. Theyre here to play the bad guys. And were to give them the utmost kindness because theyll be at the mercy of two packs of queen-rescuing-crazed Amazons once were found."
I received reluctant nods from some of the women.
"Autolycus is the self-proclaimed king of thieves and is the brains behind this whole operation. At least, thats what were going to lead the girls to believe," I said, walking over to Autolycus and greeting him with a warm hug. "Good to see you, my friend," I said.
"Theres more of you to see," he said, his finger poking me above my navel in a friendly gesture. A low growl from behind him made his finger jump off my skin and his hands fly into eye view. "I know, I know. Not mine. Yours," he said, glancing over his shoulder at Xenas amused face.
"Some of you have met Joxer before," I said, moving over and standing in front of him. "Hes an old friend of ours and hes going to be the trail man. Any clues these girls are going to find on us, will be purposefully left by Joxer to make it a little easier on them." I leaned forward and hugged Joxer, kissing his cheek lightly. "Glad you could make it, Joxer," I said.
"Anything for you, Gabrielle," he replied, his skin turning red from my slight peck.
"Salmoneus," I said, taking the two warm hands into my own and leaning forward, accepting his embrace. "We werent sure you were going to make it."
"I was in Thrace and received word the day I was pulling out. Its a good thing that runner you sent caught up to me or I would have been in Hellesport before I would have gotten your message," Salmoneus said, his arms pushing Gabrielle back slightly and holding her away from him. "Wow. Youre looking great, Gabrielle!" He said.
I must have blushed slightly under his scrutiny because I felt my skin heat and I saw Xena pass me a wink as she smile in agreement.
I turned back to the board of elders. "Salmoneus is going to be the go-to-guy when this little theatrical event is taking place. Hell be the one who actually does the kidnapping."
I walked around the table, circling the elders with a watchful eye. "Any questions?"
"I still dont know why we need men to pull this off," Dee grumbled from her seat.
"Because every Amazon from here Ionia is going to know any women we would have to do the kidnapping. And the better of our trackers are going to recognize if boot-treads are of Amazon craft or otherwise," I said with a sigh, having gone over this more than once and already sick of telling people to just suck it up.
"My Queen," Talia started, "if you're sure this is a good idea I don't think the elders will disapprove, but I know that once the younger Amazons find this was all a rouse, they're going to be beyond upset."
"Controlling your tempter, Talia," I said, "is one of the finer arts to becoming a warrior."
"It's something they'd better master now before they slice off a Sister's head on the battlefield when they're over run with Blood Lust, don't you agree?" Xena asked. The room was silent and I saw Xena's eyes each take on a similar narrow width and her chin stuck out slightly as I watched her bristle at the rough silence. Everyone's minds conjured around the idea of Xena having more experience with a bad temper and Blood Lust and I knew the horse shit was about to hit the water wheel.
I felt my own temper grow as my patience shortened. "ALRIGHT!" I said with a growl. "I can tell that this is just going to get completely out of hand so I'm stopping it before it gets started. The elders' position in society is to advise the Queen if she is requests it. In the event of a Queen's untimely death without champion or heir, the elder council rules until the new Queen is named by unanimous vote of the council. And to my knowledge," I said, "none of those things has happened. You do NOT have the right to question me just because you're all cranky and have issues regarding the opposite sex. I'm more than happy to entertain ideas on how to avoid confrontation and keep the women from feeling threatened. But the simple fact is I don't need your permission to run this show. And if I want to invite my friends over to our camp to participate in a mock battle with us, then, damit, I'm going to do so. Why? I'm the Queen. And I can. And you don't really have any say in the matter. Is that understood?"
My hands were balled into fists and when they hit the table with a bang, the force was such that Margo's mug of aged cider spilled off the table and into her lap. She gazed from the warm puddle of beverage in her lap up to me with a look that was akin to slight fear.
I took a deep breath as my eyes made contact with those of every woman at the large, round table. I took another deep breath as I let my eyes meet Xena's and I saw a proud wink being cast my way. "Salmoneus, Joxer, and Autolycus are going to help us. They're not going to stay in the village for obvious reasons. We snuck them in, and I'm disappointed to report that no one caught them. My eyes headed to Eponin's and I saw her jot something down on her scroll for later reference as weapon's and security master. "If it means you take out an assistant, Eponin," I said, using her full name in such an important meaning, "Do it. I don't want this place as unsecured as it has been recently. We're not prisoners to our own camp, but anymore sneak attacks like last week are just not going to make me happy. And when I'm not happy, we all knows what happens, right?" I asked.
"Yes, majesty," they all said from the various chairs at the table. Memories of new huts, gardens, and the repairs at the stables surely flashed through their minds. The last time Ephiny had sent me a report on the camp and found it to be lacking, I had returned a reply including details of how everything was to be when I was at the village next time. And, surprisingly, everything I had requested was completed. One of the higher points in my visit.
"Good. As long as that's settled, we have to figure out a way to get you three out of here," I said looking at the three most dedicated and brave men I had met in a long time. I paused and bit my lip slightly as I thought. "Eph, you and Pony and Carmen take some old weapons that are bound to break and chase these guys off the land in the direction opposite the hiding area." They nodded in understanding. "When you come back, someone's going to ask what's going on and just tell them that you caught these guys sneaking into the Queen's cabin and, before you could catch them, they had run off into the woods toward Centaur territory. And if they want to form a search party, remind them that with the recent events, anyone groups leaving the village need to have approval by me. And," I said, my voice taking on a playful tone. "I'm not sure it's safe right now, so no search parties."
I grinned and Ephiny smiled outright, her hand coming up and squeezing my shoulder lightly. This was going to work.
The cabin was not exceptionally tidy nor excessively sloppy and I left the bedclothes purposefully mussed.
"Do you have everything?" I asked her as we sat near the fireplace, waiting to be 'kidnapped.'
"Everything I need when planning my own false kidnapping," she quipped, tossing a small curl of whittled wood at me. She was using one of her boot knives to pick away at a twig, forming a rather interesting twisted shape into which she carved both the likenesses of a sword and a quill.
"So I take it you've done this before?" I asked, tossing one of my packs her way with a playful hand.
"On rare occasion," she replied, tossing it back with her empty fist, knocking me over with the force.
"Oh yeah? I wanna hear all about it," I said, sprawling my body out on the floor.
"You're the bard, Gabrielle," she replied, "Not me."
"That may be true, Xena, but if you don't tell me the story, I can't tell other people about it, can I?" I asked, stretching my feet out into her lap.
Her fingertips ticked the
bottoms of my feet and I squealed in reflex.
"I always forget you're ticklish," she said, feigning stupidity.
"Stop it," I said. "Don't make me scream. Some guard will come in here before its time!" I pulled my foot away from her with a frown. "Besides, you're just trying to get out of telling me that story."
"No. I'm trying to distract you until you realize that I'm not going to tell you that story," she admitted.
"Come on, Xe, you've got to tell me. It's going to eat away at me until I become an incoherent blob. I need to know!" I urged, scrambling up so that I was on my knees right next to her. "Please?" I asked, batting my eyelashes.
"What's in it for me?"
"My undying love?"
"I already have that. What else?"
"You are such a poop, you know that? Cranky old dried up warrior who has nothing better to do with her days than harass me with stories she's not going to tell and flirt shamelessly. Do you know how much of a tease you are? Do you realize just what level of frustration you take me to?" As I spoke, I leaned in, allowing my lips to come closer and closer to hers. There was barely a breath between us as I finished speaking and I saw that I was killing her as much as I was paining myself.
"Trust me, the frustration is mutual," she said before grabbing my lips with her own and rolling us over on the floor, her hands tickling me between gentle caresses.
I squealed a little before her lips silenced my half-hearted cries. A soft tap came on the windowsill and the very blushing and seemingly embarrassed Salmoneus cleared his throat.
"Ready?" he asked us in a hushed whisper, holding his hand out for the gear that Xena tossed out him as she rolled off of me and pulled us both to our feet.
Joxer stood next to him, ready to leave as many or few tracks in the moist earth as he felt necessary. "You guys sure do enjoy yourselves when we leave you alone," he remarked with a friendly smile gracing his face.
I could tell that Xena was stealing herself to keep from slapping him, but instead she just smirked and muttered; "Yep." Her eyes said more than her words ever did and she had a very readable dont you wish you could have what I have look on her face.
My hands pressed against windowsill, pushing me up and over the edge, Xenas strong hands catching me on my waist and easing me down to the mossy forest floor.
"Lets go," she muttered, her fingers lightly tickling my rib cage.
I smirked and scuffed my heels in the dirt as we had discussed, making it look like a severe struggle had occurred. Joxer had rigged four large sticks with boots on the ends and he drug them in patters reflective of a brawl.
"Lets get out of here," Xena said, heading into the woods and straight for our chosen get-away path. Several detours and back-tracking made the path much more difficult for any trackers to follow us and we made a game of it, hopping bushes and breaking false branches with Xenas chakram and my staff small dents in the ground at odd intervals.
We crossed the rope bridge we had set up over one of the several sinkholes that had been dug. Mud, brambles, thorns, and pollywogs filed the sinkholes enough to cover the young Amazons with liberal coatings of each. Autolycus was waiting on the other side and pulled in the rope bridge behind us, wrapping it into a user-friendly bundle he strapped to his back with the other gear he was carrying.
"Good evening, ladies," he crooned, kissing the back of my hand and the back of Xenas in his typical manner. We had long since taken offense at the somewhat condescending gesture and now we merely rolled our eyes at him.
"Evening, Autholcus," Xena and I replied in tandem.
He turned on his heel and heading on down the path. "Everythings been taken care of, youll be relieved to know," he said, offering his hand over one of the particularly large rocks in the way a gesture I graciously accepted.
"Thats comforting, Im sure. If they find us in less than twenty minutes, Autolycus, Im going to have to relieve you of your uh family jewels," she drawled, letting her eyes drift towards his groin and then pointedly fingering her chakram.
I tried to stifle a chuckle as his face paled before a dashing grin overtook his features and he winked her way before turning and heading further along the rocky path, stepping over the snap-lines we had strung between rocks.
We approached a ravine with a small creek running along the bottom. The walls were slick with moisture that eased through the small cracks in the sides of the ravine and anyone climbing down would definitely have to be very deft. Of course, that wasnt the only option. The boys had made sure that the form of a fallen log was within view and anyone who was brave enough could cross, straddling the log and inching their way across with hands and thighs used as bracing.
"Good work," she muttered gutturally. She took Autolycus rope bridge and tied it to a large tree behind us before launching herself across the divide in a full-scale flip.
"You know," I said softly as a hand came up to cover my eyes. Salmoneous stood next to me, his arms folded in front of him in typical fashion. "There are some days when I still cringe when she does that."
I heard him chuckle and he placed a gentle hand on my shoulder. "The way I see it, Gabrielle, not only does her flipping across this ravine prevent the rest of us from climbing across it, but it provides us audience with a nice shot up her skirt."
I tried to muffle a chuckle and look shocked by his comment, but it had come at such an opportune moment, I covered my laughing mouth with one hand as I smacked his mid section with the back of my other hand. "Youd better hope she didnt hear that," I hissed at him as he smirked at himself.
"Come on," Xena called from across the ravine, waving us across with her hand before she started scouting out the remaining trail with her piercing blue eyes.
I brought up the rear of the group passing the ravine and the minute my feet were firmly on the solid ground, I heard the sound of her chakram slicing through the air and the sudden shwoosh as the rope bridge fell through the air. I leaned over and pulled the rope bridge up with Joxers help, rolling it into a compact bundle that we replaced into the pack on Salmoneuss back.
"Good work," I muttered to the three men as we continued along the trail of rocks and tree roots, leaving as few clues as possible. "You know, Ive got to tell you, Xena. Im not sure this was more of an excersize for the Amazons, or a vacation for me!" I teased as I poked her in the butt with my staff. She smirked and swatted the wood away from her before tossing a lazy arm around my shoulder.
"Home sweet home," she muttered, reaching her hand down and pulling me up into the canopy formed from the three trees growing so closely together. At one point, the bark from two of the trees was blended and formed one, solid limb.
"With the possibility for several thousand slivers," I muttered as the boys stood on the ground looking up at us questioningly.
"You fellas have options," Xena said to them as they passed our packs up to us. "You can stay and face some very tired, very hungry, very sleepy, and seriously pissed off Amazons who are going to swing swords first and ask questions later. Or, Salmoneus and Joxer, you guys can head back to Amphipolis until we send for you. And Autolocus, youre welcome to stick aroundI know how much you love a good fight."
I watched Joxers face fall as Xena unintentionally offended him by leaving him out of the fighting.
"I dont know, Xena," Autolocus said with a somewhat nervous chuckle. As much as I love to watch those leather clad battling beauties knock the bad boys out, I just dont know if being an unconscious bad boy is in my schedule any time soon," he said.
"Your choice," she said, settling back into the tree branches and making sure we were sufficiently camouflaged by the interwoven trees branches.
"Ill just make sure these guys get proper treatment at your mothers inn," he said, trying to seem generous.
"Yeah, you do that," I teased, waving a hand at him as I laughed. "But be nice to Mom and no teaching those kids bad habits!" I said as all three waved over their shoulders and headed off with the North Star leading their way.
"Be sure to cover your tracks!" Xena called after them. "If they find you before they find us, I wont be held responsible."
We both found comfortable seats in the arms of the tree, my mud covered legs up against hers. I leaned over and placed a cool hand on her knee. "How about a story?" I offered, reaching into my pack and pulling out a carrot for her to chew on.
"Have you ever known me to turn down an offer like that?" she teased, settling back to listen to my words.
to be continued...