"Ooops, you mean you didn't know?" Iona asked glibly, feigning shock. The warrior tightened her grip at her sword, ready to plunge it into the offending mouth.
"While you were moiling over there at the temple, I've been receiving queenly favours from Gabrielle, if you know what I mean," the Amazon offered, waggling her eyebrows suggestively. Xena only stared in silence, challenging the warrior to go on, while she tried in vain to think clearly enough to sort out her tumultuous thoughts and emotions.
"Actually, I had my first taste of her when she was in our village. Remember the little tradition our tribe has?" Iona pressed on, apprising the increasingly angry, distressed and confused warrior.
*How could I forget, that stupid, stupid ritual requiring the queens to entertain secret lovers.* But the Warrior Princess worked out a plan so that Gabrielle would be with no one but her. Eponin was supposed to lure the tipsy warriors away with promises of a good time in a certain beautiful and dangerous visiting warrior's hut. And Solari had "entertained" them in her hut while she donned their clothing. The planned had worked perfectly.
*Or did it? That was not possible, was it? Gabrielle would have mentioned something, and she never did...* The warrior searched through her memory and found nothing that would support Iona's allegations. And all her confusion swiftly focused into rage.
"Guess you better keep an eye on your little queen, eh?" The Amazon continued, unmindful of the Warrior Princess' increasingly sharp, cold glare, or her tensing sword arm muscles flexing.
"I wonder how many warriors she's been with. Solari looks like the strong dark silent type, maybe your bard has the hots for her, too..." The woman speculated meaningfully, allowing her rival time to ponder her remark.
*Breathe, Xena, breathe,* the Warrior Princess wondered if she should just skin the Amazon right there, and then explain to everyone later.
*Gabrielle would understand, wouldn't she? I was only defending her honour,* the warrior struggled.
"Hah! An emerald for constancy! I thought she might appreciate the joke," she laughed. That was the last straw and the Amazon found herself slammed hard against a tree. The warrior's death grip pushed her chin upwards, the sharp tip of her long sword pointed against her throat. If Iona had felt fear then, she didn't show it.
"Look, she's just entering my tent, why don't you follow me? I guarantee you'll learn something new about your feisty little queen," with a strangled voice, the Amazon proposed. And motioned with her eyes. The Warrior Princess' blue gaze involuntarily followed the direction of the gesture. Indeed, she was just in time to catch the rear of the bard disappearing into the darkness.
Xena debated. She was almost certain Gabrielle was simply going to talk to Iona again about Alethea. As that would be entirely typical of the bard's caring nature. And she did seem to have taken a special liking towards the young Amazon.
And the warrior had expected Gabrielle to come out upon learning Iona's absence; but she waited uselessly for the tent flap to open again. Dark brows knitted at the implication, as her hold against the Amazon's throat subconsciously loosened.
"She's such a fiery little one, isn't she?" The Amazon pressed her advantage. "Don't you just love it when she plays the aggressor and takes charge? Or are you too proud to let her do that?" She sniggered.
*No, it's not possible...* The Warrior Princess was torn between confusion and disbelief. And for the very first time in her life, she didn't know what her next course of action should be. Xena lowered her sword and let go of the Amazon, who simply dusted herself and walked towards her hut. But not without throwing the Warrior Princess a silent challenge and a leering smile.
Apprehension, dread, distrust, in the end Xena settled on her gut response: her concern for the bard's safety. She swore she would prove Iona wrong. And should the Amazon hurt even a single hair on her bard, it would be excuse enough for the Mighty Ex-Warlord to wipe her off the face of the earth.
*Prepare to die, Amazon!* She vowed.
Xena trailed the Amazon and approached her tent. And stopped dead in her tracks when her sensitive ears picked up Iona's moan.
"Yes, my queen, yes," the Amazon gasped again. The nature of the outburst was unmistakable. The warrior couldn't believe her ears.
*No, no, no!* She shook her head furiously, as if the violent action would drive out memories of the wounding noises. And to her distraught, even the clatter of her own heart shattering couldn't drown the increasing sounds of passion drifted from the tent.
The Warrior Princess turned and raced out of the village and towards the forest. Heedless of curious gazes. Before her blurring vision could slow her escape.
At the edge of the cliff, the Warrior Princess stood looking down. Her breathing still ragged from her flight, her body trembled in its vain effort to find peace. She watched as, responding to the barest movements, red soil cascaded under her feet. As tumbling rocks disappeared into the depths below.
Then, her haunted gaze shifted to the empty space ahead. This was not like the last time. This time the warrior did not anticipate the God of War, or anyone else, to show up to enlighten her. It was not the Furies' wrath she had to save herself from. Indeed, madness was a thousand times more bearable than her current state. And this time, she didn't even dare hope for salvation.
The warrior was unaware that she was being followed or watched. She was beyond caring. Moreover, she still stood on Amazon land; safe, secure. Unfortunate for Xena, none of her enemies would have made it through the border patrol without their presence being known. All the Warrior Princess could do, was tried to maintain a semblance of control over her emotions. She was failing miserably.
No matter how hard Xena willed the offending sounds to go away, the Amazon's throaty moans still echoed in her ears. She didn't want to believe Gabrielle would betray her; but she had to. They had left her no other choice. She just found it too difficult to accept. She and the bard were happy, happy with each other; the warrior was sure.
*Why would she want to be with Iona, who reminded me so much of me?* Xena simply couldn't understand.
*Ephiny, because of her kindness and friendship, yes. Solari or Eponin for their bravery and loyalty, fine.* If the bard were to choose any other Amazon over her, the Warrior Princess would have less trouble comprehending.
*But Iona? That arrogant, ruthless young pup?* The warrior pondered, disbelieving. She was torn between sorrow and rage, and the pain that settled darkly inside, slowly cutting away with its shards.
Staring down the precipice, Xena reminisced the love she and the bard had shared. And felt the sparks, the raging blaze in her veins turned into stark, stark cold. Frozen, deep in a well of aloneness. Yet, hot tears slid down her cheeks, unbidden, unchecked. She just let them fall.
*When was the last time I allowed myself to be like this?* The warrior remembered that all too well. And didn't think then she could ever feel any worse. She was obviously very wrong. Afterall, to be separated by death was inevitable; but in life, in life it would be unbearable...
She closed her eyes and let the imagined final thud of her battered body upon the rocks placate her senses. Forever in Tartarus could not be worse than this sorrow.
*"Make it last," I've asked,* her mind drifted back to a night several moons ago. She had spent that morning fretting over a too close fight the day before. And the bard laboured to assuage the warrior's fear of losing her. No longer able to resist, and against reason, she finally permitted herself to embrace what Gabrielle did long before her. And to follow her into the light.
*"It will", you said. You promised it would. And I believed you, trusted you,* dark head lifted to regard the sun. *What happened?*
Against the bright golden rays, Xena had a vision of the bard's brilliant smiles, which warmed her heart through numerous cold nights. She remembered the look of wonder in her green orbs whenever they met her blues. And recalled the innocence of her naked body, one which the warrior princess admired during so many dawns, watching it glow in the muted light. She could still feel the small soft body tucked against her larger one; curve fitting curve, the feeling so right, so perfect.
And she became painfully aware of the braid hidden underneath her bracer burning a welt about her wrist. But that was a connection to Gabrielle, and she couldn't bear to cut it off. She couldn't make herself, even if she tried. Not yet. Not ever. It became a part of her less than two moons ago, replacing the honey-golden one the bard gave her for Solstice.
*A piece of each of us. The honey-gold and black plaits forever entwined, just like our lives were going to be. As they should be,* the warrior thought dejectedly. In less than a day, everything she believed in had fallen apart, and her world had come to a crumbling halt. Her world... Gabrielle was her world...
*Cruel Fates,* the Warrior Princess lamented. She knew it was too good to be true, that the gods would take it all away from her. She just never imagined it to be so soon, to be like this.
*How ironic that they should rip her away from me right before our joining,* she shook her head in grief.
Even after the warrior and the bard became good friends, many times Xena had wished she could simply walk away. She intended to leave the bard unscathed by the violence that was integral to her existence, to her attempt at redemption. She wanted Gabrielle's innocence unblemished by her dark past.
So many times she had thought about taking the bard back to Poteidaia, and ordering her to stay. Or leaving her with the Amazons after she received Terreis' right of cast. But she couldn't. The persistent girl had insinuated herself into the rampart the warrior built through the years, and became a part of her life. Then the young woman overcame all the defenses and touched her heart. Xena was captivated. Powerless, like a moth driven from the safety of the night.
And she had only completely stopped fighting this connection not too long ago. Had only begun to accept it without fear later still. Yet, just when she had become totally secure with their love, their life, this hit her. Unexpectedly. Abruptly. Hard.
*What does Iona have that I haven't got? Perhaps the difference is in what she doesn't have,* the Warrior Princess mused ruefully.
*Iona is not a used-up old warlord; she's younger. She doesn't have a prize on her head; and has less blood on her hands. And she didn't have gods messing with her life,* the warrior considered. Those and any other insecurities she had ever felt surfaced together at once.
Worst of all, she felt like a loser. Xena was who she was mainly because she hated losing. Even as a child, playing games with her brothers, she strived to win. Defeat was not something she could readily accept. But still worse than that, she felt lost.
When blue eyes closed, she saw the Amazon's lithe body covering her bard's, touching her where Xena thought only she could. She envisioned Gabrielle writhing against her new lover, and responding to their passion... And the Warrior Princess looked to the fierce sun above, hoping it would scorch the images away. She wished she would wake from this dream, this daytime nightmare.
The warrior thought about her injured honour. *What of honour? Isn't it just a fancy name for pride?* She searched inwards. *I don't think I have any left,* the corner of her mouth curled up in a self-mocking smile. Xena realised then she should have given Gabrielle a chance to explain.
*There must be a good explanation for this,* she reasoned. *Maybe Iona had her under a spell. Maybe she was coerced. Or maybe she was curious, maybe she simply succumbed to a moment of passion. Or maybe she wanted one last fling before they joined, even last flings...* The warrior discovered she didn't really care; she just wanted her bard back.
She finally came to understand something, something most important. Although she might not be the best, and maybe not the worthiest, she realised no one could possibly love or cherish Gabrielle more than she did. Nobody would be more ready to lay their life down, more willing to risk or give up anything and everything for her.
And the Warrior Princess wasn't going to let the bard go without a fight. Not this time. Not ever again. They were meant to be together, she just had to convince Gabrielle that. She simply must. And if she couldn't, then Hades would have her.
At that juncture, Xena decided to turn about and head back to the village. Determined. Without fear. As she no longer had anything to lose.
But she never got the chance...
Gabrielle had just finished changing into a fresh set of clothing when the guards announced the arrival of dinner. She had spent the morning and early afternoon with Ephiny going through the final guests list, greeting the newly arrived invitees, and checking on the food menu. Then, she occupied the remainder of her day teaching the cooks how to make those dumplings with the red thing inside that the Warrior Princess so loved. They simply must have those.
*I can't wait to see the smile on her face when she sees them,* the bard thought fondly. The dumplings were only one of the many little surprises she had planned for her warrior. They both took pleasure in doing unexpected things for the other. Mostly trivial things to outsiders, but very deeply appreciated by both.
The priestess had personally stopped by the assembly hut earlier that morning to tell the Queen that her betrothed would be detained for a few more hours. Expecting the warrior to return at sundown, the bard decided to have their evening meal delivered to their hut. Gabrielle promised herself she wouldn't let anything thwart her desire to spend the remainder of the night and much of tomorrow with the warrior. Alone.
*Nothing short of an all out assault by a flock of harpies anyway,* she grinned impishly, remembering the look on Ephiny's face when she told her just that. The bard hadn't meant anything by the statement really, she certainly didn't imply what the Regent thought. She just wanted some uninterrupted quiet time with her partner.
*Afterall, what's good about being Queen if I couldn't ask to be left alone with my consort-to-be,* the bard thought happily, letting the title for the warrior glide over and warm her. As she nibbled on bits of their food. She was going to enjoy introducing Xena as her consort. And she couldn't wait to see Lila's expression. The bard was going to write and tell her little sister, but decided to surprise her with the news in person.
*It would be better that way,* Gabrielle nodded at the thought. She wasn't sure how Lila would take the announcement, as she had only told her family about their relationship several moons ago. But her sister had been very supportive. In any case, the bard knew for sure Cyrene was ecstatic and was happy for them. The warrior's mother had sent them a reply, and promised a big celebration when they stopped back in Amphipolis after their visit to Poteidaia.
*Or "threatened" a celebration,* the bard smiled, when she thought of her partner's exact words. Then blonde brows wrinkled when she realized it was past sundown and there was no sign of her warrior yet.
*I hope they haven't been giving you too hard a time there, My Love,* she thought caringly. Gabrielle hadn't been able to get much information about the pre-joining rituals from her partner. They simply hadn't time. She assured herself she would find out all about it the next day.
*Tonight,* she thought, hugging herself tighter, *Tonight I want only to lose myself in your arms, and remember nothing but us.*
The bard had been feeling a slight unease since the midday meal. She told herself it was simply a case of nervousness and fatigue over the preparations and the other taxing activities. The discomfort had settled at the bottom of her stomach, and she was barely able to ignore it through the day. And now that all the hustle and bustle ceased, the unpleasant feeling hit her again. This only added to her anxiousness for the warrior's return.
*What's keeping you, Xena?* Gabrielle silently asked, looking out the window into the darkened sky. Then, checking the candles, she realised the warrior was almost a whole mark late. Impatient and concerned, she decided to go over to the temple to check and see what was detaining her partner.
"Please calm down, Gabrielle," Ephiny pleaded to her agitated queen. "I'm sure Xena's okay. She's the best warrior there is, and she'll be safe here on Amazon land."
"Something's wrong, I just knew it," the bard replied, fighting back tears. When she went to the temple, Calandra wasn't there. Gabrielle then went to the attendants' chamber only to be told that the rituals were finished as originally scheduled and that the Warrior Princess left at midday.
"Has anyone found Calandra yet?" The Regent asked when the reporting scout entered the hut, and received a negative reply. Responding to the shake of curly blonde locks, the scout left again immediately to resume her search.
"Where could the priestess be?" Gabrielle asked worriedly. "This doesn't make sense, she told me earlier today that Xena would be detained. You were there, Ephiny, you saw her."
"I know, Gabrielle, and I heard her as well. I don't know what's going on either," she replied earnestly. "Maybe this is part of the rituals. Yeah, that's probably it, you know how priestesses are, especially the ancient ones like Calandra. They are always so cryptic," the Regent tried to rationalise the mystery. A spark of hope flashed in the bard's sad green eyes. Briefly.
"You know? They are probably on their way back now. Anyway, I swear to you we'll get to the bottom of this. And I promise Xena will be alright," the Regent added.
*Artemis, my goddess, please help me keep this promise,* Ephiny implored, then sent a silence prayer to all the other gods who were listening. And she returned her focus to consoling her distraught and near frantic friend.
*Stupid, stupid, stupid,* the bard chastised herself. She wasn't at all reassured or convinced by Ephiny's rationalization. *I should have paid attention to that terrible ache; it felt so much like the last time,* she recollected, burying her face in her hands. Recalling that time many moons ago, when her partner was gravely injured while trying to rid a village of its bear problems. It was a very similar sinking feeling she had then.
Tried as she might to forget, Gabrielle still remembered too well the sight of the warrior's pale and battered form at the healer's hut. She could still see the gashes on her partner's body, and could feel her own veins bleeding along with them.
*Please, please, please, be okay, Love,* she beseeched. *Please, I need you, I know I can't...* She couldn't even continue the thought. Her heart throbbed painfully as she tried hard to keep her most dreaded fears at bay. And her breathing her pulse stopped when the door flew opened and a wild-eyed frazzled Eponin appeared.
*No, no, NO!* The bard silently screamed. She had been there before. Her worst nightmare was about to repeat itself again, she feared.
"Eponin," the Regent spoke, "Where have you been?"
"I was in the forest, Ephiny," the warrior gasped, in between laboured breathing. She had obviously run a great distance to hurry back to the village. "Can I talk to you? Outside? Now?"
"Eponin..." The Regent hesitated, concerned about leaving her friend's side. Gabrielle nodded her consent, green eyes betraying their fright.
"Please Ephiny, outside," the warrior reiterated her request.
"I'll be right back, Gabrielle," she reassured her queen, and gave the trembling shoulders a gentle rub. "Don't worry, my friend; everything will be fine, I'm sure."
*IT HAS TO BE!* The bard plead. Tears streamed unbidden down her fair features, no longer willing to heed their owner's command...
The Amazon warrior wasn't sure how to handle the situation in front of Gabrielle because of the queen's perceived role in the crisis. Further, she thought Ephiny would know how best to deal with the whole predicament. So, once outside the hut, Eponin drew the Regent aside and told her everything she saw that afternoon...
The warrior had chance upon the altercation between the Warrior Princess and the visiting Amazon. At the time, she was too far away to hear what Xena and Iona were talking about. But seeing the Warrior Princess' drawn sword and her physically hostile behaviour towards the Amazon, Eponin was concerned. She was about to make her presence known when, following her friend's gaze, the warrior too was just in time to witness Gabrielle disappearing into the Amazon's tent.
Xena released Iona who challenged the Warrior Princess before walking away. And Eponin could recognise an Amazon's dare anywhere; fearing what might happen next, she trailed her friend to the Amazon's tent. To Eponin's immense surprise, Xena didn't seem to notice her pursuit at all. But she was even more shocked to see the Warrior Princess frozen near the structure, turned about and raced out of the village. She swore she had never seen the former destroyer of nations shaken like that. It was extremely unnerving for the Amazon. And it didn't take an oracle to figure out what was going on inside the tent.
Without a second thought, Eponin ran after her. She was concerned for the devastated warrior who she considered a friend. She could sympathise with and understand too well the feeling of a lover scorned.
Soon the Warrior Princess, who was a more superior runner, disappeared from the Amazon's vision. But Eponin was able to follow the unhidden tracks, which led to the cliff. The Amazon saw Xena standing at the edge of the precipice, and was about to call out to the warrior. But before dark eyes could blink, the Warrior Princess was gone. Eponin tore to the edge, took a deep breath and gathered her courage to look down. To her astonishment, there was no trace of her friend.
"You don't think she jumped, do you?" Solari chimed in after Eponin finished her narrative. The dark Amazon warrior had joined them earlier and caught most of the account.
"There was no trace of anyone having fallen down the cliff," Eponin replied, while casting worried glances at her Regent who appeared to be racking her brain, struggling to sort out the information.
"She wouldn't jump, would she?" It was Eponin's turn to ask.
"Well, Sappho did," Solari replied.
"Xena is a warrior, not a poet," Eponin countered; and just then remembering to properly "thank" her dark friend for the inane courtship advises.
"But she's a warrior in love and Gabrielle is definitely more worthy," the dark warrior ruminated.
"Shut up Solari!" The Regent barked, shaking her head, still trying to figure out how to tell Gabrielle this latest turn of events.
"Although I'm not sure if that's true now..." The Amazon continued, thinking aloud.
"Solari! I will not have you faulting the Queen without good cause! She was with me most of the day!" Ephiny huffed, spun around and marched back into the hut. Both Amazons stood, dumbfounded at the latest revelation.
As gently as possible, the Regent related to the bard the gist of what she just heard from Eponin. (She didn't think she should burden the younger woman with yet another mystery regarding the scene in the tent.) The increasing desolation in the green eyes haunted her, and Ephiny found herself only able to stare at Gabrielle's quivering lips, by the time she finished retelling the events. She couldn't meet the bard's gaze.
Then, without warning, Gabrielle picked up her staff and started beating at the walls with it.
"Gabrielle?" The Regent started, concerned about her friend, and quietly thanking the Goddess that the hut had stone columns as support.
*Damn you!* The bard silently swore, every time the wood smacked against the stone. The impact smarted her palms and stung her upper body muscles, but she didn't care. Gabrielle was furious.
She wasn't upset with Iona. She had already got passed that. The Amazon had forcibly kissed her the afternoon before, when the bard asked for her to talk about Alethea. It had felt wrong, and Gabrielle was sickened. She had gathered all her strength to disengage the embrace and gave Iona a good sock in the stomach. That halted the Amazon's groping efforts, and the queen ordered her out.
Gabrielle was distressed then; she debated telling her partner. But she also couldn't bear for the warrior to know another person had kissed her, so viciously ripped from her unwilling lips. Instead, she kept it to herself, allowing her warrior's loving kiss and touch to erase that unpleasant residual feeling.
*Damn you!* Another nonstop series of hard smacks. The bard was angry with herself then. She was angry that she had been so oblivious towards the Amazon's advances. She shouldn't have been as friendly with her. She shouldn't have invited her to chat. She should have been more mindful of her partner's feelings.
*Damn you, Xena, damn you!* The assault continued, its pace and force increased. *How could you? How could you even for a moment thought I would betray you? Thought I could betray our love?* Her anger shifted towards her warrior. *Have you so little faith in me, in us, in yourself? How could you?!*
*She couldn't possibly think... There weren't worst things she could think... Oh, gods!* As suddenly as they began, the beating stilled; the staff fell out of limp exhausted hands. Ephiny, alert and aware, flew to the bard's side to prevent the slight body from hitting the ground.
"She couldn't possibly think...?" Gabrielle reiterated, tear-filled eyes searching her friend's for support. Ephiny looked at her sadly, and willed her own heart to stay intact. She wrapped her arm compassionately about the quavering shoulders.
"How could she...?" The bard choked. Unable to hide her despair and long beyond caring what her Regent might think.
*I didn't just want to be with you for the rest of my life, Xena,* thinking back to what the warrior had said to her when they decided to be joined. *I want to be yours. For keeps,* her heart cried out to her partner. *I thought you understood that! What could I have done to make you understand that?* Blonde head shook desolately as tears of sorrow flowed.
*Please, Gods, please give me another chance to convince her that!* Green eyes squeeze tight in a desperate prayer.
"She couldn't have jumped, could she?" The bard asked aloud, imploring. "If she..." She swallowed the rest of the sentence, "I would know, I would feel it, wouldn't I?" Like she did the last time.
*I don't think I could go on...* She wasn't even going to try this time.
*Will I ever hear your lilting voice so lovingly call my name again?* Gabrielle winced at the bare feel of a hand reaching into her chest and cruelly twisted her heart loose from her veins, tearing at her lifelines.
*Will I again feel the loving warmth, the comforting strength of your embrace?* She remembered the warrior's arms, her protective strong arms. Her head cradled against her partner's shoulders, so safe. Nestled against her soft chest, so sheltered.
She craved to wrap her own arms about the warrior's broad back. Longed to press her ear to her partner's breast, letting the strong pulsing of her heart calm and reassure her. An "I love you" for each beat.
*Don't you know how much I need you?* Gabrielle gripped her shirt, the warrior's shirt, close to her body tightly with both hands. Trying to gather strength from the woven threads.
*Wretched, wretched!* The Regent swore. *You'd better still be alive Warrior Princess, or I'd personally come and kill you over again,* she pledged.
Ephiny watched, helplessly, brokenhearted as she listened to the bard's shattered breathing. As the young queen wept through most of the night.
When the bard finally drifted off in exhausted, fitful sleep, Ephiny went and ordered Solari and Eponin to keep an eye on Iona and to quietly detain her if necessary. She reluctantly suspended the search for both the warrior and the priestess, as it would be dangerous and futile in the deep of the night. After receiving totally unconstructive reports from the scouts, the Regent returned to the Queen's hut.
"Tomorrow, Gabrielle, we will find your Warrior Princess tomorrow," she promised, as her fingers gently eased the crease between the young brows. Ephiny then pulled up a chair and prepared to hold vigil over her friend.
Gabrielle rolled over, hugging the pillow beside her, inhaling her partner's scent, feeling warm, safe. She just had the most wonderful dream. In it, she and her warrior were spending a quiet evening alone out in the forest, looking at the stars.
They both savoured nights like that, even though the relative danger of being out in the open prevented them from expressing their love in a more physical way. A cocoon of warmth and quiet joy surrounded the pair as they explain to the other the shapes and magical beings each saw in the heavens above. As each woman share with the other stories of her past and her hopes for their future.
Sometimes they would lie silently holding each other, simply relishing their togetherness. The bard especially loved resting her head on the warrior's shoulder, her face pillowed against the soft swell. And allowing her partner's steady heartbeat and gentle stroking to soothe her senses.
And in the dream, it was precisely such a night. They had decided to spend some time away from the village, as an escape for Gabrielle from a day of arduous negotiations and meetings with council elders.
*The Amazons!* The young queen was suddenly jolted out of her half-sleep state, as she remembered where she was at the moment.
*Oh, gods, Xena!* And immediately became conscious of the lifeless bundle in her arms, recalling why it wasn't her warrior in her embrace. Her awareness of the too large too empty bed intensely painful. Morning had come too soon then.
As Gabrielle replayed the events that transpired the night before, hot tears threatened to spill again. With great efforts, she willed them back.
*Hope,* she reminded herself. She must have hope that they would find her warrior, and that she would be all right.
Slowly, the bard opened her eyes and tried to sit up. Assailed by a wave of dizziness, she lay back down, breathing deeply, slowly, letting the twin blue oceans in her mind's eye wash over her. When she had calmed sufficiently, green eyes scanned the room, and rested on the empty chair beside her bed.
*Oh, Ephiny...* Unwelcomed memories flooded her consciousness again, assaulting her mercilessly.
*Breathe, Gabrielle, breathe,* she concentrated on nothing else for a long while. Until her thought had drifted to her Regent, her friend. Who had been extraordinarily kind to her, and who must have stayed with her through the night. She wondered what the Amazon was doing at the moment, and if she had received any news of the search.
Lying there staring up at the ceiling, her mind finally clearer than the evening before, Gabrielle somehow managed to keep a handle on all the anger and grief. The bard realised she couldn't really blame her partner for believing in whatever it was that Iona had said to her. She was indeed acting strangely and out of sort, as her partner observed the afternoon before that.
*I should have just told Xena about the kiss,* she thought, in retrospect.
*How many times had things like this happened, when I would keep things to myself and hoped that they would go away and that everything would be all right? And how many times had those same things blown up in my face? Our faces?* She sighed deeply. But it has always been like that for the bard. Even when she was growing up, she preferred hiding from her family things that really, really troubled her, choosing to keep the hurt to herself.
*But things are more complicated than the loss of a pony now...* Fair head shook ruefully. Realising not for the first time just how much she and her warrior were alike when dealing with certain emotional issues. Contrary to what her partner thought, she wasn't fearless. Far from that, in fact. She just refused to let her fears stop her.
Like now, Gabrielle resisted the urge to lose herself once again in grief. She was certain then that the warrior was all right. She could feel it, the nagging ache in her stomach had gone, and was replaced by a sure sense of their connection. At least so the bard told herself, lest she fell to pieces. She wasn't convinced all the paste in the known world could hold the bits together.
To the young woman's relief, the door chose that instant to open, providing a welcomed interruption to her musing. Very quiety and carefully, Ephiny backed into the hut with the breakfast tray. She didn't know if the bard was up yet, but she thought the younger woman would appreciate not having to face the inquiring world.
The Regent had left the queen's hut shortly after dawn; Gabrielle seemed to be sleeping peacefully then. Indeed, Ephiny thought she saw a small smile hovering over the pink lips; and she thanked the Goddess for that. Before going about her errands, she summoned Solari to replace one of the guards at the door, just in case. And she knew Gabrielle trusted the dark warrior.
In the assembly hut, Ephiny was pleased to find the scouts already prepared and ready to resume their task. The bard had a way of capturing people's hearts, and her Amazons had grown to admire and adore their young queen very much. Knowing how worried she must have been feeling, they were eager and anxious to locate the Warrior Princess and the priestess.
After briefing and dispersing the warriors, the Regent went over to the mess hut. She knew Gabrielle had a tendency to forget food when she was distraught, and she wanted to make sure the bard ate something. The still full tray on the table from the night before told Ephiny her queen already skipped dinner. While at the hut, she listened to the murmured questions and speculations about the latest activities, and she wondered how long it would be before the rumours and gossips got out of control.
She also considered how she would explain to her friend the mysterious presence in Iona's tent, and what must have happened there at the time. She knew she eventually would have to. But for now, she worried more about convincing the bard to stay in the village and not join the search.
"'Morning, Ephiny," the bard managed quietly, swinging her legs over the side of the bed and attempted to stand again.
"'Morning, Gabrielle," concerned gaze met green ones, followed by a cautious hesitant quirk of otherwise severe lips. She moved to help her friend but was motioned to stay back. Moments later, the young queen met her Regent at the table.
"Any news from last night?" The bard didn't think so, but she just had to ask. And the look on her friend's face confirmed her suspicion. She sighed.
*Oh, Hades, I might as well get this over with,* the Amazon decided there was no sense in delaying the inevitable.
"Listen, Gabrielle," the Regent began, as she placed a bowl of warm cereal before the bard, and a spoon in her unwilling hand. "I've already sent out the scouts," the bard knew where she was heading with the conversation, and was about to protest, but Ephiny silenced her and continued. "I think you should stay here and wait for the reports. It'll be better; and if there's any news, you'll get it as soon as the messenger returns. The Amazons won't have to trek all over the forest trying to find you, too."
She watched as Gabrielle struggled between the logic of her argument and the bard's own desire to be out there, looking. Ephiny understood that need well, as she herself wanted to lead the search. But the Amazon resisted that calling by reasoning that her queen needed a friend by her side, which was very true. The pale face appeared so haggard that she feared the bard would faint without warning. And the warrior released a held breath when Gabrielle finally nodded in acquiescent.
Fidgeting with the spoon and stirring the slightly sweetened grains, the bard wished there were something she could do. She didn't want to stay behind, and was not going to. But she had to admit Ephiny had a point. If they found Xena, she would want to know that instant. She wished it weren't her Regent sitting across from her. She wished she were wrapped comfortably in her partner's embrace, that her warrior were there to warm away the chill she felt.
Inhaling deeply, and letting out a soft sigh, Gabrielle began to work at her breakfast. She really didn't feel like eating, but the chore would occupy her mind. At least for a little while.
Casual chitchats weren't appropriate under the circumstances, and finding nothing else to talk about, the two women finished their meal in strained silence. Afterwards, the bard decided that she would try to go back to sleep. At least in slumber she didn't have to remember what she was trying so desperately avoid. And maybe she could find temporary peace in dreams like the one she had earlier.
Knowing her friend had not slept at all, Gabrielle demanded Ephiny to do likewise. The Amazon didn't feel comfortable leaving the young woman alone, but she also had to admit, albeit reluctantly, that she needed the rest. After ordering Solari to ensure the bard wasn't to be disturbed, and instructing her warriors to apprise her immediately of any new information, the Regent retired to her own hut.
"Clang... clang... clang..."
"Clang... clang... CLANG..."
"Whatcha doing, Love?" She asked her warrior, while chewing at the end of her quill.
"CLANG... CLANG... CLANG..."
"Will you please stop that racket, Xena?" She requested, still not looking up.
"Please, it's driving me crazy and I can't write!" She complained frustratedly.
*What the...?* The bard sat up, blinking fuzzily. The repetitive pounding had since increased in pace and sounded agitated.
"COME IN!" She called out immediately. And was surprised when Solari bursted in. She jumped off the bed without delay and rushed towards the door.
"Got news?" She hurried, not bothering using a complete sentence.
"Yes... and no..., Gabrielle," the dark Amazon hesitated, a stark contrast to her earlier conduct. Solari wasn't anxious to be the bearer of the latest information to begin with, and now that she got her queen up, she wasn't sure how to tell her.
At that, blonde brows furrowed. She waited, holding her breath and her emotions at bay, not at all prepared for the worst.
Seeing the younger woman's reaction, the warrior added hastily, "No, no, my Queen, Xena is alive. One of the Amazons saw her this morning, and the Warrior Princess even helped her."
*YES! She's okay! I knew it!* Gabrielle felt the weight of Mt. Olympus lifted from her heart and she could breathe again.
"Well? Where is she?" She wanted, needed to know.
"Still... in... the forest..." The warrior faltered, "We think."
*How am I going to tell her? AgGGH! I'm gonna get you for this Eponin!* Solari agonised over her task.
"You think?!? What do you mean by that?" Gabrielle was beyond impatient. She wanted to know what was going on, and here was Solari, so uncharacteristically unsure she was almost stuttering. It was wreaking havoc on her nerves.
"Umm... Why don't you wait here? I'll go get Ephiny." The Amazon decided a retreat was in order.
"Solari!?!!" She screeched.
"Gabrielle, I'm not sure how to explain this. It's really best that you talk to the Regent," the warrior managed, wincing internally.
"All right, fine! Let's go!" The bard threw a cloak over her shirt and headed towards the door.
"Ah... The healer's hut, Gabri..." the warrior provided as the determined queen breezed past her.
Without looking back, Gabrielle raced ahead, leaving a cloud of dust for the warrior to follow.
"Ephiny?" Four pairs of eyes looked up when the door to the healer's hut swung open. The Regent stilled her pacing, her gentle gaze at her queen transformed into a glare at the dark warrior after reading the Amazon's silent signals. Eponin followed suit. While the healer nodded at her sovereign, then left the room silently; she had just finished checking up on her patient and had given her a clean bill of physical health. Her already red-eyed patient, however, broke into a racking sob.
"What's going on, Ephiny?" Gabrielle began again, already anxious, and now confused by the young Amazon's presence and reaction.
"I'm so sorry, my Queen!" The young woman wailed, "I'm so, SO SORRY!"
"Alethea?" Gabrielle approached the Amazon and stroked her hair compassionately. She only cried harder.
"Gabrielle," the Regent stepped next to her queen and articulated, "The scouts found Alethea wandering about the forest earlier this afternoon and brought her back. She said she didn't remember why she left the village and how she ended up in the forest. But she maintained she saw Xena." The bard looked at Ephiny expectantly, impatient for her to proceed.
"She explained that she was fleeing from a wild boar when the Warrior Princess appeared, and that Xena had pursued and killed the beast," the blonde warrior continued. "The Amazons found the carcass, and the animal did appear to have died of a chakram wound to the neck." She stalled.
"And? Where is Xena now?" The queen asked, her consternation growing by each passing instant.
"We don't know, the scouts haven't found her yet." After a moment of hesitation, she carried on, "Alethea said Xena left and disappeared into the forest almost immediately after helping her get away."
"Did she talk to her? Did Xena say anything?" Gabrielle wanted to shake the answers out of her regent. Somebody. Anybody.
"Out with it, Ephiny! What are you not telling me?" She demanded when the Amazon faltered and the young woman wept harder.
"Gabrielle...," the Regent hesitated, then rushed to finish her sentence, "She doesn't remember you."
"What...?" The bard reeled. Once again, her friend held her up, and Solari rushed to pull up a chair for her.
*Upset? Furious? Fine, I could understand and accept that. But how could she forget me?* She asked in silent anguish and buried her face in her hands. *How could she?*
"And she claimed to hate all Amazons," Ephiny added hoarsely. Gabrielle looked up at her in utter disbelief.
"Hate all Amazons? Nothing is making sense. What's happened to her?" Her brain turned furiously, desperate to find an answer. The bard tried to stay rational, while struggling to maintain emotional control. It was one thing for her to break down in front of her friend, but before the other warriors... She inhaled deeply and held her breath until the mist in her eyes dissipated.
"Gabrielle," her friend squeezed her shoulder lightly, "There's something else you should know."
Her heart constricted just as invisible hands rushed to build a barrier around it. But the bard stopped them. And braced herself for whatever it was to come. Her warrior was alive, that knowledge alone was enough to carry her. At least through this. For now.
"I was in Iona's tent and Xena thought it was you," Alethea blurted before the Regent could continue. Gabrielle looked at the young Amazon and then at her friend, confusion apparent in her paling green eyes.
Ephiny proceeded to tell her queen what Eponin related to her the day before, filling in with details the young Amazon had earlier provided.
Apparently, taking advantage of the young woman professed love, Iona had convinced Alethea to meet her in her tent dressed in Gabrielle's clothes. The warrior was honest with her about her desire for the queen. And Iona pleaded with the young Amazon to pretend to be her sovereign, so she could make believed for an afternoon that she was with Gabrielle. She promised the young blonde she could and would love her in return afterwards. Wanting only to please the woman she adored, Alethea obliged without question nor reluctance.
And it was Alethea that Xena and Eponin saw disappearing into Iona's tent. It was their sounds of passion that the Warrior Princess heard, that had the Warrior Princess believed that Gabrielle had taken the Amazon as a lover.
"Can you ever forgive me?" The young woman collapsed before her queen when the Regent finished retelling the account.
Looking at the slight Amazon kneeling at her feet, and thinking back to their conversation the other day, her heart went out to the young woman. Gabrielle decided she couldn't lay blame on the misguided young Amazon. She reached out to stroke the pale face tenderly, wiping some of the tears away, and smiled.
Then she transferred her stormy gaze to Ephiny, "I'm going back to my hut, let me know if you hear anything. Otherwise, I'll see you in the morning." The Amazons were surprised by the calm in her voice; they didn't know how their queen would react, but this certainly wasn't what they expected.
"Let me escort you," Solari instantly offered; and Gabrielle nodded her acceptance. After hugging Alethea reassuringly, and telling her to take care, the bard tipped her head at the two warriors. She hurried out of the healer's hut, once again with the dark Amazon trailing behind her.
Eponin and the Regent looked at each other, then the chestnut-haired warrior shrugged. She decided she would leave Ephiny to her brooding, and accompany Alethea back to her hut.
"Ephiny, if I may," she was going to work on slowly gaining the young woman's trust and friendship first. At her own paces, in her own thoughtful ways. Something told her they had all the time in the world.
The blonde warrior gave her silent consent, and followed the pair out of the structure. Needing quiet and privacy to sort out the latest turn of events and to determine her next course of action, Ephiny headed towards the temple.
The door to the hut closed not soon enough for the bard. And it was only by divine providence that she resisted the urge to simply slide down the wooden structure and curl up into a ball. Instead, she made it to the desk, and sat before it. Dropping her head in her palms. She watched as droplets of moisture fell unbidden onto the sheet of parchment below. Blurring the words of a letter to her warrior, which she started before all of this.
*How could she forget me?* Her mind returning again and again to this query, unbelieving. *Could she have so easily forgotten the love we shared? All the things we've been through? How could she?* Her trembling hand frustratedly wiped away the now completely smeared ink.
Gabrielle was convinced by then that a god, or even several gods, must be at work here. She could think of at least one who would stop at nothing to get the Warrior Princess back into his fold. And perhaps there were others who wanted to destroy their happiness, for whatever reasons. Unless Xena was somehow hurt and had lost her memory because of the trauma, she couldn't conjure another satisfactory explanation for her warrior's behaviour.
*But she had swiftly killed a wild boar, and Alethea said she seemed perfectly all right,* the bard reasoned. She was very happy to know that Xena was alive and well. That was utmost important in the bard's mind.
The belief that the Warrior Princess was under the influence of the Gods didn't allay any of her concerns, however. They had successfully dealt with the immortals before, even though sometimes Gabrielle wondered if they would always be so lucky... But together they had always managed to come up with something...
Continued - Part 3