Journey's Gift

by Morgaine
Kenkeltic@aol.com

Disclaimer: MCA owns XWP characters; and no copyright infringements were intended. The other characters in the story, while figments of my wild imagination, have become real to me, and I hope they will come alive in your world too.

Sex disclaimer: The story is about two women who are in love. Yes, there are scenes of consensual love between two women, however, the scenes are not graphic.

Violence disclaimer: Be forewarned, there is a rape scene. It is not graphic, but the after effects are powerful. Last but not least, there are a few corpses lying around thanks to that sword and chakram thingy.

"Journey’s Gift" 1997 by Kenkeltic@aol.com (Morgaine) The characters not belonging to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures are the sole property of the author and may not be used without the expressed written permission of the author. Copies maybe used for private use only and must include all copyright notices and this disclaimer.

This is the first of the "Gift" stories. The second story is "Fate’s Gift".

~~A special thanks to the sister of my heart who labored over the editing of this story.~~

 

Chapter 1:

"Artemis! Why, I can't remember the last time I had the pleasure of your company in my realm. What brings you here?" Hades, the dark lord of the underworld, lolled back in his massive throne and waved his hands regally in a delicate arc.

"You don't remember the last time I was here, Uncle, because I have never graced your realm before now. I much prefer my colorful world of forests, blue skies, cool breezes, and warm sun to your cold, dark world."

Rising from his throne Hades looked off thoughtfully and said, "Now, Artemis, not all of my realm is dark and cold. As a matter of fact, some areas are down right h..."

"A warrior," interrupted the goddess of the hunt.

Turning his body to face her Hades said, "What?"

"A Warrior! You asked what brought me here; the answer to your question is a warrior."

"Ah, a warrior." A sly grin creased his mouth. "I do love warriors. Do you know how boring my existence would be without such creatures?" Hades asked.

Artemis absently drew an arrow from the quiver and ran her thumb against the fletched feather as she replied quietly, "I can imagine."

With mocked agitation Hades said, "I do hope you are not going to ask me to let one go. I really hate that! It seems anytime I receive visitors from the other world or Olympus, it's because someone needs a favor, or someone's life thread was accidentally cut, and it's always, ‘Come on, Hades, don't be so unfeeling, don't you have a heart?’ Do you know how tired I am of being perceived as the bad guy?"

Dragging her attention from the arrow, Artemis rolled her eyes and then fastened them on the dark image before her. Her breath caught in her chest for the briefest moment as a distant memory, a mere glimmer of familiarity, floated just beyond her grasp. Unable to pinpoint the connection, she mentally shook her head clear and said, "Look, Uncle, I did not come here to ask you to release some mortal warrior from your eternal care. I came here because it seems that you and I have a common interest. I know why I am interested in the Warrior Princess. I would like to know what are your vested interests." Artemis did not fail to observe the ever so slight shadow that flitted across his features.

Feigning ignorance while stalling for time to think about his answer, Hades turned indifferently and sauntered back to his throne. He flopped himself down, slouched back casually as he asked, "Whatever are you talking about? I have no particular interest in Xena other than the fact that she certainly has kept me quite busy over the last ten years. Her indiscriminate killing has made my life very interesting. Why, because of her activities, I am constantly sitting in judgment over the virtuous and the corrupted. I don't remember the last time I had a day off, but I must admit, it is much more entertaining than waiting for nature to take its course on the aged and the infirmed."

Shifting her attention to the golden tipped arrow point, Artemis coyly posed her question, "Then you had nothing to do with that little thing between her and Zeus' golden boy?"

Looking somewhat confused, Hades tensed and sat back feeling very much like a mouse cornered by a hungry cat. "I don't think I understand your meaning, Artemis," he said tentatively.

Artemis sighed, slipped the arrow back into its quiver, marched over to Hades, and bent over him, resting her hands on the arms of his chair menacingly, "Uncle, we are wasting time. I know you convinced Hercules to intervene in the Warrior Princess' destiny. I want to know how you convinced the virtuous Hercules to become a party to this deception." She stood up abruptly and crossed her arms striking a formidable pose. "I also want to know why you, of all gods, would interfere with the lives of mortals."

Grinning with understanding, Hades leaned forward on the edge of his throne and slapped his knee, "By Zeus, forgive me brother, but I must have really thwarted your plans! Tell me, Artemis, what were you planning for our Warrior?"

"Then it is true, you did intervene!" Artemis exclaimed as she dropped her fisted arms to her sides. More to herself than to Hades she quietly asked, "Why? For what purpose? What did you hope to gain?"

Standing , Hades towered over her slight, though muscular frame. Artemis stepped back, keenly aware that something teased her from the edges of her subconscious, yet it would not be coaxed into revealing itself. The picture of the two gods standing so near each other painted an interesting contrast. Artemis wore a gold-trimmed, white tunic that fell just above her knees and soft white, brushed kid boots trimmed also in gold which stopped below her knees, a golden bow and a gold-trimmed, white quiver made of the same materials as her boots lay slung across her back. A dark braided leather band encircled her head and kept wavy, bronze locks out of her beautiful, boyish face. Hades stood, broad and chiseled, three hands above Artemis. His muscular outline accentuated by the black leather, form-fitting clothing he wore. A dark flowing cape was draped around his neck and fastened at his left shoulder with a heavy, pewter clasp. The only element of color was his piercing, blue eyes that changed with his moods.

"Oh no, Artemis, you tell your old Uncle your interest in Xena first, and then I'll let you in on my little secret," Hades said his voice dropping to a whisper.

"Oh, all right." she growled putting some distance between them, "As you know, I am the patron goddess of the Amazons. There will soon be major political upheavals among my Amazons, and I need Xena's sword to help defend the throne."

Hades arched and eyebrow and said, "And just how were you going to get Xena to help the Amazons? You know she never works as a hired sword...by the gods she is a ruthless warlord, a disciple of Ares. You know...she's in it only for what she can get for herself."

"Those are all moot points now thanks to your meddling," Artemis hissed. "I hope you're satisfied. Now tell me why you intervened in her destiny." Artemis paced angrily.

Alarmed by his niece's agitation, Hades tried to reason with her, "Calm down, Artemis, you said your Amazons' problem was in the future. Surely you can work something out in time to help them."

"Without Xena, there will be no future for the Amazons!" she nearly screamed at him.

"What do you mean without Xena," Hades asked, concern rising in his voice.

"As we speak, your Warrior Princess is marching determinedly to her own self-destruction. Tonight she plans her death at her own hands." Artemis explained.

"What! This cannot be! What do you mean, Artemis?" Hades exclaimed beside himself with emotion. Had he been a mortal, sweat would have sprung from his body as he joined Artemis in her agitated march back and forth across the cold, stone floors.

Artemis said sternly, "I need some explanations, and I need them now before it is too late, Hades." Turning to face Hades, she was struck by the sorrow, the compassion and something else she could not identify in his clear, blue eyes.

As he tore his face away from her probing stare, his shoulders drooped, and he began a slow journey back to the throne. Artemis followed.

Hades spoke sadly, "I suppose you are right; I owe someone an explanation. To begin with, you know how I delight in torturing my arrogant and obnoxious nephew, Ares." Artemis snorted at the mere mention of his name. "Most believe that I am grateful to Ares for helping populate Tartarus and the Fields, but I detest him! He has no respect for anything. In his eyes, life is less than weeds to be trampled and cut down. Years ago he seduced Xena and initiated her in his bloodlust by destroying what she loved more than life itself, her brother, Lyceus. Zeus should have been informed of Ares' intervention, but he was off somewhere with another of his mortal conquests. Seduction was not enough, Ares had to own her soul. He then used her to spread his evil and glorify his name. That tells you something about him; he needed a mortal to build his reputation. I won't let him kill another of..." Hades stopped suddenly and looked away. Then with quiet disdain in his voice he said, "How I have grown to loathe him!"

Artemis paused at his intensity and wondered about the motives behind her Uncle's passion on this subject. Frowning she asked, "Why now, Uncle, after all those years? Why did you not intervene sooner?"

"I hoped Xena would recover from her loss and find her reason without my intervention. You know how she has grown to hate us gods." Artemis nodded knowingly as thoughts of a young, dark haired girl kneeling in her temple drifted through her memory. How long ago it had been! She was jerked back to the present by Hades' voice. "Before I knew it, ten years had passed; you know how quickly mortal time slips away." Artemis sighed and nodded. "If I did nothing, it would be only a matter of time before Xena became a passenger on Charon's boat, and it would be too late. She had become careless, almost suicidal. I looked into her heart, and I could see nothing but pain, so in a soft moment, I gave her a second chance."

Artemis stared down at her seated Uncle, his head bowed. She knew there was more to it but shook off the premonition. "So, Hades, how did you get Hercules to help in this deception?" she asked.

Hades raised himself up into an indignant, regal pose worthy of the God of the Underworld. "It was NOT a deception!" He declared. Then more composed he continued, "We all have come to know Hercules; he would never stoop to such things." Hades grinned slyly, "After all he's only a demigod. True deception is an art form practiced only by the gods." Artemis snorted for the second time that night. "You know Hercules...he is, after all, his father's son. Always a soft spot for the ladies. How many times has he been in love? Who can keep track? Well, there was this certain Golden Hind who had stolen Hercules' heart. Forever doomed in love, the Hind was killed by a hunter's snare. I cut a deal with Hercules. He would sway Xena from her path of destruction, and I would restore his love as a mortal woman."

"So let me get this straight," Artemis said, "you convinced Hercules to change Xena because you saw that she was becoming reckless, suicidal and could probably not change on her own. You did all this out of revenge for Ares because you had a weak moment." Artemis probed Hades' face for the truth. She saw her answer. This was only part of the truth, but was all he was willing to reveal at this time. "So you thought that once she saw the error of her ways, she would do a complete transformation and start fighting on the side of good. Eventually, she would work her way into the Elysian Fields." Hades nodded innocently. Incredulous, Artemis exclaimed, "By the gods, are you naive! You really don't get a chance to deal with humans very much do you?"

Hades frowned and said, "Other than dead ones, no. What's the problem? I thought I was doing the right thing. I didn't think she was that weak, for Zeus' sake she has destroyed nations!"

Artemis explained patiently, "Oh, Hades, she did those things as a ruthless warlord. You stripped away her identity, softened her heart, and left her with no support. She simply could not face all the terrible things that OTHER Xena did without help. She has no family, her mother disowned her, her brother won't talk to her, and all of her friends are either ex-friends or dead." The goddess paused, furrowed her brow, and said quietly, "No wonder she plans to fall upon her sword."

At those words, Hades paled, "What have I done? Oh, no! What are we going to do?" Bounding to his feet he knocked the Helm of Invisibility off the arm of his throne. It clattered across the floor.

Artemis absently retrieved the Helm, returned it to its original position, and spun on the ball of her foot to face Hades, "I've an idea," she said, "but we must act quickly. If this works out, we will both have accomplished our original goals."

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Chapter 2:

Memories haunted the tall warrior as she moved silently through the ancient forest. Faces of those she had left behind, those she had loved, those she had hated mingled in her thoughts and drove her deeper into the virginal forest far away from the vestiges of civilization. The cold face of the moon lit her way as a distant and forgotten memory of Artemis graced her thoughts, briefly giving her solace from those who haunted her soul. With each step her resolve hardened. Tonight it would end. She would finally welcome the justice she deserved. How long had it been since she allowed herself to think about what she had done with her life and who or what she had become? Tonight she would purge her soul, embrace her demons, and face the one demon she feared the most, herself.

Looking back at her life, she realized she had failed everyone she had ever loved. Lyceus took with him the better part of her soul. He may as well have been killed by her hand. Her brash insistence convinced him they could take Cortese and save Amphipolis from destruction. In the end, Lyceus was cut down in front of her by a cloaked warrior, who disappeared before she could even react. Each time she played the scene in her mind, the ending was the same. She was never able to save him. All her illusions shattered that day. Her self-assured cockiness had lead to the destruction of her world. She wasn't even able to save their precious Chloe from the slavers who fought in Cortese's army and who were paid in human flesh. When she and the pitiful remainder of her tattered troops returned home, they found only a shadow, a ghost, of their past. Amphipolis lay in charred ruins. Toris returned alive but dead inside, a broken man who couldn't even look her in the eye. Her mother cried herself to sleep every evening. When she could stand her mother's sorrow no more, Xena wordlessly stood up one evening and walked away from her home, family, friends, and Amphipolis forever. The rest was a bloody, blurry history of a rabid warlord who had lost the ability to feel.

The moon plunged toward the western horizon as the warrior stopped her war-horse and loosened the cinch on the saddle. She effortlessly slid the saddle from the back of the golden steed and slipped the bridle from the mare's head, looping it over the saddle horn. With her right arm around Argo's strong neck she rested her shoulder against the sturdy mare. Sensing her mistress' melancholy mood, the mare rested her head on Xena's shoulder. Xena wept softly for the first time in years. She said, "This is the end, girl. You have been my friend for a long time, and I hope that I have at least never let you down. I love you, Argo." The horse nickered softly and nibbled at Xena's dark tresses. Xena wondered how she could have more feelings for a horse than any other living creature. The sudden memory of a blonde, boy infant made her wince. Turning her attention to Argo, Xena stepped back and rubbed the horse's cheek, "You are free to roam now, girl," patting the horse on the neck she gave her the familiar go command, and the horse obediently trotted off into the thicket. With heavy a heart, Xena turned and walked deeper into the woods.

Two candlemarks later she came to a small clearing. As if awakening from a trance, the warrior began her methodical preparations. She placed the saddle with great care upon the forest floor. Reaching over her shoulder, she withdrew her sword in a well practiced fluid movement and deftly flipped it into the air with a flick of her wrist, catching it by the flat of the blade on its descent. She placed the hilt on the soft earth and with her toe pushed it into the ground. Moonlight danced on the polished blade pointing skyward. She removed her chakram from its clip at her waist, took her breast and boot dagger and leaned them against the saddle. She dropped her bracers and arm bands. Unbuckling the straps of her armor, she lifted it over her head and positioned it over her saddle. She untied her boot laces, and tugging them off and dropped them one at a time on the ground. She reached around and loosened the leather laces of her shift and let it slide down her body to lie about her feet. She stepped out of the circle of soft leather, picking it up with her finger tips, she draped it over her armor. From the saddle bag she withdrew a white linen shift and slipped it over her lithe body. She looked down at her belongings and smirked at the total of her worldly possessions. Then she stepped over to her sword, kneeling in front of it on one knee she emptied her mind. With her right hand, she placed the sword beneath her breast bone and exhaled deeply.

The silence of the night and the warrior's ritual was shattered by a booming voice that pierced the dark, "Warrior!"

Xena sprang to her feet and spun around dropping into a defensive crouch her hands positioned in front of her chest. Instinctually she visualized the exact position of every weapon she had methodically positioned earlier. To her surprise, there was no one there. Xena cocked her head to catch any sounds that might reveal the source of the voice. To her dismay, even her incredible hearing could detect nothing. A shimmer appeared in the darkness before her, and an apparition took form.

"Artemis," Xena muttered exasperated. "What? Is Mount Olympus so boring that you have nothing better to do than disrupt the lives of us poor mortals? Do you mind, I am really busy and don't have time to play." Xena turned back to her sword.

"Xena, I'm surprised you actually recognize me." Artemis replied sarcastically. She glanced around her and said, "Yes, I can see you are quite busy. What's wrong, Xena, run out of people to kill?" Xena grimaced at the comment and dropped her head. Artemis did not expect that reaction. She wanted indignation, anger, remorse, anything but despair. The goddess softened wondering to herself why she had such a weakness for beautiful, mortal women. She spoke softly, "Xena, this is not your destiny." Artemis found her gesture reminiscent of Hades' earlier that evening.

Xena's lifted her gaze and took in the goddess with a look of pure disdain and said, "I am in control of my own destiny for once in my life, Artemis, and no one is going to stop me. Just leave me alone."

"Like you left me alone, Xena?" Artemis stated. The warrior raised an eyebrow in question. "How long has it been since you knelt in one of my temples, warrior?"

Xena replied dryly, "I kneel before no one."

"Except Ares," Artemis shot back. Xena's temper flared and Artemis smirked to herself.

"I no longer follow the God of War, Artemis, or haven't you heard?"

"Oh, I've heard," Artemis said. "It appears you no longer follow anything. You know, Xena, I didn't realize how weak you had become." Xena bristled at this comment but maintained her cool exterior. "Ares is going to be quite pleased with his protege. I can just hear his arrogant, big mouth now, ‘Xena couldn't live without my tutelage...see where she is without me...in Tartarus.'"

Stoically Xena said, "I know what you're trying to do, Artemis, and it's not going to work. Why are you here anyway?" Then with emotion Xena believed long dead Xena pleaded, "Why now? Where were you when I needed you? I believed in you! Where were you when Lyceus lay dying on that battlefield?" Xena's sadness transformed into a raging anger.

Artemis looked Xena straight in the eyes and calmly stated, "Standing next to you on the field that day watching Ares run a sword through your brother." Pausing briefly Artemis added, "Had you only called on me, I would have comforted you, but too quickly you turned your back and walked right into the outstretched arms of Ares." Xena wrapped her arms around her stomach as the realization of Artemis' words hit home. Her rage dissolved into quiet tears and she slipped to the ground. "Now you know why I am here. I will no longer let Ares have his way with one who at one time belonged to me." Artemis raised her voice and commanded, "Warrior, look at me." Xena raised her tear streaked face. "Your destiny does not lie on the blade of your own sword in the middle of this forest. You are still a warrior, and your services are needed."

Xena shook her head and sobbed, "No, I can't; it's too hard."

Artemis offered her hand to the prostrate warrior and softly demanded, "Give me your hand." Like a child, Xena obeyed. Artemis said, "I want to show you something; will you come with me?" Xena nodded, and in the bat of an eye, the forest transformed. Xena and Artemis stood side-by-side in a hall of such expanse it seemed without end. Gray mists hung above their heads and below their feet. Threads and strings appeared out of nowhere and disappeared into nothingness. Xena was reminded of Arachne when she viewed the great mass of webs laid out before her in apparent disorganized confusion. The entire room seemed alive with undetectable movement reminiscent of crawling spiders. The feeling set the warrior’s nerves on edge. Her heightened senses honed from years of battles, ambushes, and tavern brawls crawled with apprehension in the strange and unfamiliar surroundings.

"We are in the Hall of Destiny." Artemis whispered, "This way." She added over her shoulder, "Don't touch anything, you've played with the Fates enough for one mortal." Xena's snarl in reply went unnoticed. Xena followed the goddess closely, carefully avoiding any contact with the delicate threads. She understood the goddess truly wished to say, ‘You have slashed enough threads of fate.’

Artemis looked into the eyes of the taller woman standing next to her. A flash of understanding struck her, and her lips parted. Xena raised an eyebrow in question. Ignoring the question on Xena's face, Artemis continued, "Xena, I brought you here to show you your own thread, or at least a part of your fate." Xena's interest piqued, and though she remained stoic, she was uncertain she had convinced the goddess of her indifference. "There," Artemis pointed to a section of intertwisted thread too thick to be described as a thread, "that is your life's path."

Xena could not help but ask, "Why is it thicker than most others?"

"There are some questions that remain unanswered for now. That happens to be one. I am sorry I haven't the power to reveal that. You and I are, after all, just guests here."

Xena couldn't hide her annoyance, "That figures. Is there anything you can answer, or is this just another one of your ploys to have your way with me?"

Artemis raised her eyebrow at the word choice but shifted her attention to the content of the question Xena posed, "I don't know. Why don't you try another question."

"All right," Xena said slowly shifting her attention to the web she asked, "Where am I now on this cord?"

Artemis raised an index finger, pointed at a black spot on the string and said, "Right about there."

Xena pondered the spot on the string, and then noted the different colors present in the life line that stretched out before her. She said, "Which is the beginning, the top or the bottom?"

"The top is the past and the bottom is the future," Artemis replied. "Notice we are being allowed to see only a small amount of the future, but I might also point out that your life extends well beyond that spot I just showed you."

Xena frowned but continued to examine her life line closely. In her youth the twine was bright, then as the twine progressed, it became dull and gray which eventually blended into black. The black section was half as long as the section she believed was her youth. Her brilliant blue eyes darkened when she thought of her warlord days and the black string before her. She was pulled from her brooding by some movement that was barely perceptible; a flicker in her life line she felt rather than saw. It was at that point she noticed another thread which connected and intertwined with hers in the future. The twine was much thinner but white as newly fallen snow, and its essence seemed to lighten the color of her own life line from black to gray to a creamy white. Tracing the line back from its connecting point the warrior discovered that the brilliant white line zigzagged radically across thirty or forty other lines; some, it slightly touched; others, it avoided completely.

Pointing at the delicate white string, the warrior turned to Artemis and asked, "What is this?"

Looking at what Xena pointed to Artemis replied, "That is one very important reason you are not finished." Artemis' cryptic reply did not phase the warrior. Artemis then focused Xena's attention on her youth, "There's Lyceus, and that is your mother." Xena followed Artemis' finger and listen until she mentioned Cyrene. Her mind drifted to her mother's face and she quickly traced her mother's line to a point where it intersected with her life in the future. A slight sigh of relief escaped her lips. She allowed herself the pleasure of drifting in pleasant memories until the name "...Chloe." hit her like a punch to the gut. The reaction did not go unnoticed by the goddess.

"Who did you just mention?" Xena's attention was fully focused now as she searched the line for a glimpse of the one who had been lost to her so long ago. "Where is it?" It bothered Xena that she had allowed her emotions to rise to the surface and be visible to Artemis. Even now her voice belied her feelings, but it seemed the river had been undammed, and she was powerless to stop its course. At least Artemis had been an important part of her life at one time.

"Chloe's line is right there wrapped around you both, see it?" Artemis said as she pointed to a thick and silky, white thread.

"Yeah, I see it." Xena's mood darkened, and Artemis feared the progress they had made would slip away.

She decided it was time to grab the bull by the horns. "You know, Xena, she is still alive and doing well. She still visits my temples and prays for you and Lyceus." From the corner of her eye, Artemis glanced at the tall warrior beside her searching for any positive reaction. There was none.

"I am glad to hear that." Xena replied impassively, her warrior walls solidly back in place. "I believe I have seen enough, Artemis."

"Yes, it is time." Instantly the warrior and the goddess stood in the midst of the forest clearing among the warrior's belongings. "What will you do now, Warrior Princess?"

Xena frowned at the title but only said, "I don't know, why don't you tell me; I'm sure you already know anyway." Artemis wrinkled her brow and looked at the sword still stuck in the ground. Reading Artemis' mind, Xena dully commented, "Oh, don't worry about that." Xena tramped over to the sword, pulled it from the ground and flipped it catching it by the dirty hilt. "You've convinced me." Xena looked into the mocking eyes of the goddess and said, I'm curious....all right? You can leave now; I would like to get some sleep."

Artemis smiled at the arrogant dismissal and whispered in her mind, "Poteidaia."

"What did you say?" Xena queried.

"Oh, nothing." With that Artemis vanished.

Xena stood for several moments staring blankly in the direction of Artemis’ disappearance and mindlessly cleaned the hilt of her sword. Feeling uncharacteristically tired, she pulled out her bed roll, spread it out and dropped onto it laying the sword under the edge of her blanket. She immediately drifted off to sleep.

That night she did not dream of burning villages and screaming children. She was not visited by the images of the ghosts of those she had killed who now often feasted on her soul. Ares' taunting laughter did not interrupt her peaceful sleep. She walked in fields of flowers with Lyceus and Chloe, arm-in-arm. She lay in her mother's loving embrace and listened to her sing lullabies from her childhood. She felt Chloe's tender lips pressed against hers and Lyceus flinging her in circles as his laughter cascaded through the air. She dreamed of a bright, white string wrapped securely around her wrist pulling her gently toward a golden light. When she awoke in the mid-morning hours, Poteidaia beckoned in her mind.

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Chapter 3:

Xena sat staring across the circle of Amazons at her bard unaware that she too was being observed. The Amazon queen was animatedly relating a recent adventure they had shared. Gabrielle had a way of making every minute detail come alive for her audience, and Xena never tired of watching her face as she unraveled her tale, delighting her onlookers. The warrior silently noted with pride the effect her young companion had on her gasping assemblage as their eyes would widen and narrow hypnotically and follow her every gesture as she weaved intricacies and surprises throughout her tale. She was jarred from her silent vigil by Eponin as the tall Amazon bumped her as she sat down next to her. Xena glanced at Eponin; they exchanged friendly smiles.

Eponin offered Xena a wine skin which Xena took with a nod, "She's quite magical, isn't she?" Eponin said smiling.

Xena nodded and said, "Yes, she can certainly capture everyone's attention with her stories."

"That is true, but that's not what I really meant," Eponin replied. "Look at you, Xena, why even you are smiling. She's captured more than just her audience, my warrior friend." Xena arched her eyebrow and pulled her attention away from Gabrielle to search Eponin's face for sarcasm. Reading Xena's look, Eponin quickly stammered, "She has that same effect on everyone, don't you think? Since she's become our Amazon Queen, there’s been much less talk of battle and the past and more talk of compromise and the future. I swear, she is a gift from the goddess; we are indeed fortunate to have her." Xena took a long draught from the wine skin, handed it back to Eponin, and slapped her on the back in friendly camaraderie as she stood to leave. "Hey, where are you going? I didn't mean to run you off." Eponin said.

"You didn't. I need to talk to someone," Xena assured her. "Save some of that wine for later, and I'll join you in a little while." Eponin gave Xena a questioning look, but Xena only grinned and walked away.

Xena had been tossing the idea around in her head ever since she and Gabrielle had arrived in the village two days ago. Eponin's words gave her the final courage she needed to go to the temple of Artemis. The Amazons meticulously attended to every need of their patron goddess and maintained a temple in every Amazon settlement throughout their entire domain. Xena felt uncomfortable approaching the goddess she had so long ago abandoned out of misplaced anger. She had fallen easily into the routine of a non-practicing ex-believer and had become comfortable in believing the gods were unimportant in her life. Artemis' visitation two years ago when Xena was at the depths of despair had saved her life, but the greatest gift from the goddess was Gabrielle. The thoughts of Gabrielle made Xena feel warm inside, a feeling with which Xena had a difficult time accepting. She knew she was in love with her beautiful, little bard. She also knew that she would never act upon it because she could never face the possibility of losing her if Gabrielle could not return her love. She had already sampled life without reason for living. She did not wish to return to that void. She had lost Gabrielle twice, once in Thessaly and once to Perdicus, and knew life without her was not worth living. How that little, annoying chatterbox had wormed her way into Xena's heart, she would never understand. How could the naive farm girl from Poteidaia capture the heart of the all too worldly warlord, the Destroyer of Nations, the Warrior Princess? Xena could not understand; she only knew she needed to give thanks to Artemis for allowing her to see a glimpse of her destiny and find Gabrielle. At this thought, Xena chuckled thinking back on how she had tried to shoo Gab away as though she were a little puppy.

As she approached the temple, guards advanced from the shadows to intervene. Alethea, a member of the royal guard who was in charge of temple duty that evening, stepped forward and asked, "Xena, is there something you need?" She was unable to cover her shock at seeing the tall warrior standing there on sacred ground.

"Yes, I've come to request an audience with the goddess," Xena replied. These words caused a silent uproar among the Amazon guards. It was common knowledge that Xena had no use for any of the gods and refused to be subservient to the will of Olympus. Impatient for action, Xena continued, "I understand your confusion. Simply consult with the temple priestess if you believe me unworthy."

The words caught Alethea off guard; she certainly did not wish to insult the queen's consort, or guard, or what ever Xena was to the queen. It was quite evident that she was indeed an important person in the eyes of the queen, and over the last year she had become accepted as a strong and important friend and ally to the Amazon nation as well.

"I would never deem you unacceptable, my warrior friend. I apologize for my inconsiderate behavior, please forgive me." At that the Amazon dropped to one knee and offered Xena her sword, an Amazon ritual of subservience Xena found most exasperating.

"Stand up, Alethea, you need not ask forgiveness, you've done nothing wrong." Alethea stood and returned her sword to its scabbard and quickly ordered a subordinate to fetch the priestess.

When the priestess arrived, she waved Xena into the temple. As Xena approached her and out of the hearing of her royal guard, the priestess spoke, "The goddess told me you would be coming; I am truly sorry you were detained like that." Xena shrugged. "I will leave you now so that you and Artemis may have your privacy."

Xena muttered her thanks as the priestess scurried away. Xena looked around the temple carefully cataloguing every detail. As she approached the altar, she pulled from her waist pouch a large, perfect raw amethyst crystal and placed it in the middle of the altar.

From the shadows a shimmer took the form of the goddess. Referring to the required gift, she spoke, "I didn't think you would remember; it's been so long."

Xena came to thank Artemis, thus, she had no intentions of sparring with the goddess. "It has been too long, but I am hurt you would think that I could forget the rituals that meant so much to me then," Xena said.

Artemis, surprised at the words and the sincerity in Xena's voice said. "Why have you requested an audience with your goddess, my favored one?" Xena's startled reaction to those same words spoken to her when she was just seventeen did not go unnoticed. "Xena, do you believe me to be so fickle that I would forget my pledge to you not so long ago."

"Had you, Artemis, I would not have blamed you," Xena said. "I do not deserve your favor. I turned my back on you, embraced Ares, and all the evil for which he stood." Xena's gaze never wavered.

Finding honesty and supplication in Xena’s voice, Artemis replied, "Oh, my daughter, I am just glad to have you back. I did not approve of what you did, but I never stopped loving you. I understood your pain."

Xena's eyes shifted to her hands, and she was silent for several long moments, finally, finding her voice she said, "I came to thank you for what you did for me in the forest that night. I also..." Xena's voiced quivered slightly and trailed off; tears formed in her ocean-blue eyes. The thought of Gabrielle suddenly made her want to rush out and find her lovely Amazon queen and hold her, never letting her go. She was surprised at her lack of control in front of the goddess. "Why does this seem to always happen in front of you?" Xena thought aloud.

"Perhaps because you know, I know what is in your heart. You don't have to hide that from me, and therefore, you see no need to expend the energy to build those walls," Artemis paused smiling and said. "You have a good heart, Xena, you should trust it more." The goddess picked up the beautiful amethyst crystal. Its coolness pleased her senses. She let her mind drift to the fields around Amphipolis then addressed her visitor absently, "Xena, are you happy?"

Xena was puzzled by the question but quickly found her voice, "Happier than I deserve to be."

Directing her full attention back to Xena Artemis said, "I am pleased to hear that, but I want to leave you with some advice." Xena braced herself for the inevitable; she knew her happiness was probably doomed. "Accept your gifts with an open heart. Do not forget the lesson you have learned from your loss of faith. I leave you now, my daughter; remember me." and with that, Artemis vanished into the void. Xena looked around noting the crystal was gone; she turned slowly on her heels and quietly left the temple.

Xena did not know how long she had been gone, but by the time she returned to the village, the story telling had ended, and the serious drinking had begun. She would have thought the Amazons were hedonists who would use any excuse to partake in the pleasures of the vine. She knew, though, that Amazon discipline was the most stringent of any military force in Greece. Had she not been fully aware of the strong Amazon defenses surrounding their villages and their territories, she would have worried about attack during the wild festivities that often took place when the young queen returned for visits.

"Hey, Thena, there you are!" A very inebriated Eponin careened toward her. Xena caught her in her strong arms before the Amazon hit the ground. "I thaved you thome wine," she slurred and slapped the nearly empty skin into Xena's armored chest.

"Thanks, Eponin, why don't we have a seat?" Xena said as she grabbed the skin in her fist and positioned Eponin's arm over her shoulders. She maneuvered her heavy burden to a large log bench in front of the dying fire left from earlier that evening. As she situated the Amazon on the log, Xena looked around for Gabrielle.

A little slow to react, Eponin shouted, "Thounds great!" frowning at the skin in Xena's hand, she became serious and furrow her brow and said, "Hey, you haven't had a drink yet."

"Oh, yeah." Xena plopped down on the log, tipped the skin to her lips, and drained it as Eponin watched her intently through bleary eyes.

"You know Thena, I really think you are thexthy." With those words, Eponin's eyes rolled up in her head, she tipped over backwards, and landed with a thud on the ground her long legs resting peacefully on the log. Xena checked to make sure Eponin had not injured herself. With a shake of her head and a chuckle, she headed off to locate Gabrielle, seriously hoping she would not find her bard in a similar condition.

As she searched for Gabrielle, the events of the evening played through her mind, `...she's captured more than just her audience, warrior... trust your heart, Xena... accept your gifts with an open heart... I love her... I love her... I love her.' Xena reflected on the first time she realized she was in love with Gabrielle. The temple of Thessaly...the mere thought caused her to almost double over with a sick feeling in her gut. Never had she experienced such a physical reaction before, not even with the death of Marcus. And then again when Gabrielle told her she was going to marry Perdicus... another cramp in her gut and a heavy weakness in her arms threatened to pull her to her knees...abject sorrow deeper and darker than the deepest abyss in Tartarus. `Perhaps it was time to trust love,' she thought. `Perhaps it was time to open her heart to the one gift she could no longer live without.'

Having given up on finding Gabrielle among her Amazons, Xena headed toward the queen's quarters. Xena entered quietly. A small oil lamp burned by the bed illuminating the bard's golden hair. Xena silently removed her weapons, armor, and boots and then began to unlace her leather shift when a sleepy Gabrielle rolled over rubbing her eyes and yawned. Xena smiled at her and said, "I am sorry, I didn't mean to wake you."

Gab propped herself up on her elbow and smiled sleepily back at the warrior. "You didn't wake me; I was waiting for you, and I guess I dozed off."

"I'm glad you were waiting for me; I need to talk to you." Xena spoke softly as she continued to prepare for bed.

"Where did you go tonight?" Gabrielle asked. "I saw you leave in the middle of my story."

"Sorry, Gab, Your story was wonderful; I hope I didn't break your concentration, but I needed to do something," Xena replied sincerely.

Gabrielle wondered at the undertones she heard in Xena's voice. There was a tenderness there that was usually not present. To herself she thought, `I hope this is not leading up to her leaving me again. No, that usually is accompanied by icy, reserved behavior for at least two days before the pronouncement. I guess she thinks if she makes me miserable enough, I'll be glad to be rid of her. If she only knew how miserable I am when she is gone. If she only knew the truth.'

Concerned with Gabrielle's sudden silence, Xena touched Gabby's forehead, "Are you all right, Gab?"

Unaware that Xena had moved to the side of the bed, Gabrielle started, "What, oh, I'm sorry, I was drifting." Gabrielle smiled sheepishly up at the tall warrior, caught Xena's hand in hers, and pressed Xena's palm against her cheek.

The warrior shivered at the bard's unexpected action and gently withdrew her hand. She was afraid her unspoken passion would ruin this evening if she could not quickly gain control of herself.

Sensing unfamiliar confusion and indecision in Xena, Gabrielle became alarmed, pushed herself back against the headboard and asked, " Xena, is there something wrong? What did you need to talk to me about? Please tell me."

Anxious to quiet Gabrielle's fears, Xena spoke quickly, "There is nothing wrong; believe me. I just need to confide in you some very important things, and you know how I am, Gab." Stumbling for the right things to say to assuage her bard's fears, she fell back on one of her well used excuses, "I'm not very good with words and feelings." Then she added something foreign to the Warrior Princess, "Frankly, they are about the only things in life that frighten me." At that Gabrielle patted the bed beside her and gave Xena a warm smile that melted her warrior heart.

As Xena sat next to her on the bed, Gabrielle continued, "Why don't you start from the beginning?" Looking up at Xena with a mischievous grin she said, "Besides, the way you tell a story it shouldn't take all that long."

Xena chuckled and patted Gabrielle's knee as she sat next to her. She released a huge breath and began her explanation, "Tonight I left in the middle of your story because I needed to visit Artemis' temple and speak with the goddess." Gabrielle's mouth dropped open, but Xena ignored it and plowed on through her story. "I had to thank her for what she did for me."

Xena's words seemed to dry up, so Gabby primed her. "What did she do for you?"

After a brief pause Xena mumbled, "She gave me back my life, and she gave me you." That said, Xena dropped her eyes and stared into her lap. She felt hot tears cascade down her face and she silently berated herself, `Why can't I speak what's in my heart? Why can't I be open and honest?' Her musings were interrupted by Gabrielle's voice, and she turned her eyes to the woman next to her.

"You know, Xena," Gabrielle said, "sometimes the hardest things we have to say are from the heart. I think you have a hard time talking because you always speak from the heart." To herself she thought, `And that is why I love you so much.'

Xena smiled at the woman she cherished more than life and said, "Why is it, Gabrielle, that you always know the right things to say?" The bard reddened at the compliment, smiled, and shrugged. Xena then took another deep breath and plunged forward, "The night before I arrived in Poteidaia and faced Draco, I had planned to kill myself." Gabrielle gasped and grabbed Xena's hand. "I could live no longer with my dark past. I had nothing and nobody, and I thought the world would be a better place without me. Artemis appeared to me and gave me a reason to go on with my life." Xena went on and briefly recounted in her warrior fashion the remainder of the story as Gabrielle cried quietly and clung to her shoulder. "Gabrielle, I have one more thing to tell you, and I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me if this is not what you want to hear." Gabrielle shook her head and started to speak wiping at her tears, but Xena placed her fingers over the bard's warm lips. "Artemis told me tonight to accept my gifts and trust my heart. My heart tells me that I am in love with you, and I hope it is right because it also tells me that you are in love with me."

Gabrielle burst into tears, threw herself into Xena's arms, and spoke through her tears, "Yes, yes, I love you, Xena. Your heart is good and true, and I love your heart. I have loved you since the moment I saw you in Poteidaia." Xena held her in her arms and rocked her gently kissing her golden tresses as tears of joy tumbled down her cheeks. Quietly she gave thanks to Artemis and promised she would never forget her.

That night the new lovers lay in each other's arms kissing away each other’s tears. As they mourned for what might have been, they thanked the goddess for her intervention. It was not an evening of passion but an evening of exploring with words their newly discovered love for each other. It was a night of caressing and holding and comforting and cherishing each other, secure in the knowledge that they had many tomorrows to unleash the passion they both had suppressed for so very long. When they drifted off to sleep, they remained entwined the entire night drawing warmth and solace from each other's soul.

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Chapter 4:

Helios had just begun his morning journey when Xena awoke from her peaceful slumber. Strands of blonde hair lay across her face, and the corners of her mouth could not resist the persistent tug that produced the smile that illuminated her face. She would have believed it all to have been a dream, but the reality of the bard's petite, supple body pressed against her told the truth. It was not a dream. Gabrielle loved her, and professed that love last night. Careful not to awaken her slumbering partner, Xena repositioned herself so that she could look upon the beautiful, young woman who clung to her in sleep. The warrior revisited the events of the previous evening, and joy sang in her heart as her mind touched and lovingly examined each event as it unfolded before her. Smiling, she tightened her muscular arms around her precious bard. Gabrielle stirred, snuggling deeper into her lover's embrace. Eventually, the bard's eyes opened and took in the human landscape that she lay upon. A small grin played on her lips as sleep's fog lifted, and her memories came flooding back to her igniting a smoldering fire within her.

Not moving from the security of her warrior's arms and body, Gabrielle spoke as Xena smiled down at her. "I had the most incredible dream."

"You did?" Xena said and grinned.

"Yep."

Xena inquired, "Would you like to share?"

Moving only her eyes to take in her lover's face, she began to relate her dream, "I was standing in front of my quarters when this magnificent woman warrior, tall and beautiful with raven hair and sapphire eyes galloped up on a golden horse." Xena smirked and Gabrielle reached up and laid her finger across her lips which Xena began to slowly kiss and nibble. The bard continued, "I thought, she must be a goddess for no mortal could be that beautiful, and the steed must be one of Apollo's because no mortal horse could be the color of Helios. And the horse danced and pranced in front of me, pawed the earth and snorted fire. Then the mounted goddess spoke, and her voice like silk caressed my naked skin. Her words like honey dropped languidly on my tongue." Gabrielle shivered and closed her eyes as Xena sucked her finger into her mouth, and then with her free hand took her bard's small hand in hers and gently kissed her palm. "And she said," her voice becoming husky from Xena's attention, "‘Gabrielle.’ And I thought my legs would buckle beneath me, the way she spoke my name. I knew I would be defenseless against her, and I knew I wanted to be defenseless." Xena moved her attention from the palm to the wrist. With a sigh, Gabrielle continue her story, "And then the warrior, in one graceful motion, swung down from the horse and stood before me, swept me up in her powerful arms, captured my lips with her hungry mouth, and kissed me passionately." Xena began a slow journey planting tiny kisses on the inside of Gabrielle's forearm. The bard continued in an jerky cadence, "And...and then... she.......she turned and carried me....carried me....to my soft feather bed....and laid me down gently ....." Gabrielle's story trailed off and her breath caught in her chest.

Xena still ministered to Gab's arm; grinning she looked down into her lover's dark blue eyes, and asked in a voice dripping with desire "What happened next, Gab?"

"I don't know; I woke up." Gabrielle replied sheepishly.

Xena said stoically, "Very considerate of that warrior to get you in bed. I think I can take it from there." Before Xena could move to her, Gabrielle crawled up her lover's body and looked deeply into Xena's ocean-blue eyes losing herself for a moment in their depths before lowering her lips to those of her warrior. The kiss began gentle and needing and ended in unfurled, groping passion. The bard and her warrior touched the very depths of each other's burning souls. They rode with abandon the fiery waves that crashed and exploded in unleashed power pounding them and leaving them blissfully exhausted and weak. Their desire was temporarily banked into a low, smoldering ember awaiting a soft caressing breeze.

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Gabrielle cried, "Where are you going?" and grabbed her lover's hand pulling her back down so that she could taste those lips one more time.

Returning the kiss but then pulling away Xena replied, "Gabrielle, we have to get up sometime." Xena grinned at the passion she saw dancing behind the gray-blue eyes looking back at her, and then tempted her with her other known passion. "Aren't you hungry? I'm famished. I know you must be lingering near unconsciousness," she teased. "They are going to close down the dining hall, and you won't get anything to eat until tonight." This thought did raise noticeable concern on the bard's face.

Frowning but swinging her legs over the side of the bed anyway, Gabrielle grumbled, "I suppose you are right. I know you want to check on Argo too."

"Don't you mean Helios?" Xena asked with an impish grin touching her lips as the bard smiled wistfully at the memory. "Come on," Xena said, "let's wash up and get something to eat. You'll need your strength for later, I promise." At that Gabrielle slapped her hands together, hopped out of bed, and grabbed Xena's arm hurrying her off to the baths.

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Chapter 5:

The Amazon community, although somewhat hung over from the effects of too much wine and festivities, was soon abuzz with speculation and rumors concerning the stoic Warrior Princess and the youthful Amazon queen. Everyone talked about Xena's visit to the temple and the strangely coincidental behavior exhibited by the couple ever since. The stable attendants whispered among themselves and to anyone who would listen that Xena had not checked on Argo since sunset the day before, assuring everyone that this was indeed unusual behavior since she normally checked on her steed at least a half dozen times a day and exercised her early every morning. Naida, who had been in charge of the baths, swore she saw Xena kissing Queen Gabrielle in the baths, much to the shock of those who listened. Numerous others added their observations to the multitude of conjectures...maybe Xena asked the goddess for her blessing on a union... perhaps they have been lovers all along...and you know Xena is an early riser...haven't laid eyes on Xena all morning...do you see the way the queen looks at her...do you see how protective the warrior is....I told you from the first time I saw them...I saw them touch hands...did you see the queen's eyes follow Xena as she left last night...no one has seen the queen yet either...Ephiny listened with quiet amusement; she would definitely have to find out for herself.

Although it was mid-morning , it was still quite crowded with Amazons breaking fast when Xena and Gabrielle entered the dining hall. Xena realized they were not the only late risers this morning and maneuvered Gabrielle towards Ephiny who stood as they entered and waved them to come and join her. Earlier she had shooed away several women who wished to sit with her in order to secure a place for the couple so that she might subtly investigate the numerous rumors.

As the two approached Ephiny commented, "My you two look radiant today. I take it you didn't overindulge last night; at least not in wine that is."

Xena laughed at the comment and reaching out and squeezed Gabrielle's hand as the two looked lovingly into each others' eyes. That reaction completely took Ephiny by surprise. At the shocked look on Ephiny’s face Xena laugh louder, leaned across the table and said, "You can close your mouth now, Ephiny. Your assumptions are correct." Gabrielle giggled hysterically at her friend's dumbfounded look and her lover's handling of the situation. The young queen knew Xena was a very private person and wondered how she would deal with everyone's reaction to their new relationship. She now knew she could relax at least while they were among the Amazons.

Regaining her composure and not to be outdone, Ephiny, the acting queen of the Amazons, jumped to her feet, grabbed the clay goblet before her, hefted it into the air and yelled, "Attention everyone!" The din of the hall died off as everyone's eyes fixed on Ephiny. "A toast to a new joining, Xena, Warrior Princess and Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons!" The hall burst into wild cheers, and although some rolled their eyes in agony and pressed their aching skulls between their palms, they shouted anyway with enthusiasm at the union most felt long overdue.

The meal was postponed another candlemark as the new couple were congratulated by practically every Amazon in the village. Ephiny sat back, quite pleased with herself as she watched with amusement as the warrior was pushed to the edge of her endurance as she responded to each hand shake and hug. Ephiny thought that at any moment Xena might draw her sword and cut a swath to freedom. On several occasions, Xena caught her eye and gave her "the look" which made Ephiny laugh all the harder. Gabrielle, in her element, hugged and received kiss after kiss as she greeted each new person with renewed enthusiasm and a heart-felt thanks for their congratulations.

After the excitement settled down and Xena and Gabrielle put away a hearty meal, the three sat in thoughtful conversation. Well, Gabrielle and Ephiny conversed, Xena inserted monosyllabic answers at the appropriate moments.

"I didn't think you two would ever figure it out," Ephiny observed. Xena wondered if she was the only living person in Greece who did not know how Gab had felt about her. About a hundred Amazons had expressed that exact same sentiment earlier to her.

"Well, you know what they say; good things come to those who wait," Gabrielle, always the optimist, interjected. Xena concerned with her inability to read the bard's feelings, sat doubting her famous warrior instincts.

Ephiny said, "Yes, Gabrielle, but no one said you had to wait and wait and wait." The two burst into giggles as Xena sat quietly thinking.

`I wonder why I couldn't read her?' Xena thought and then wondered aloud, "Gods, I must be loosing my touch."

"I wouldn't say that!" Gabrielle said as she leaned her head on Xena's shoulder and smiled across the table knowingly at Ephiny.

Both women burst into laughter bringing Xena out of her haze. "What's so funny?" she asked, unaware that she had spoken her last thought aloud. Xena looked in bewilderment at Gabrielle and then at Ephiny.

Both women held their sides and tried to maintain a straight face as they replied in unison, "Nothing, nothing at all." Unable to hold in their laughter any longer, they laughed so hysterically tears poured down Ephiny's face and Gabrielle snorted like a pig causing all three to burst into hysterics all over again. Xena, unable to stop herself, grabbed Gabrielle in a bear hug and began tickling her until they both slipped and tumbled to the floor. Eventually the three sobered up and Ephiny expressed solemnly her great joy at their union. The three were deep in conversation when Eponin entered the dining hall and headed straight for some hot willow tea.

Xena noticed her warrior friend and immediately recognized she suffered from the after effects of a Dionysian encounter. Grinning wickedly, Xena winked at Ephiny and said, "Watch this." Gabrielle observed curiously as Xena rose and walked over to Eponin. Xena plopped her hand jarringly on Eponin's shoulder and bellowed louder than necessary "Eponin, my friend, come and join us." She waved her hand in the direction of their table. Eponin closed her eyes against the vibration caused by Xena's hand. She wished only to lie in a dark room and stop the pounding drums in her head, but refusing an invitation to sit with the queen would be offensive, so she smiled and nodded painfully.

Gabrielle whispered across to Ephiny, "What's she doing?" Ephiny merely shrugged and grinned in reply as the two tall warriors returned to their table. Xena sat down next to Gabrielle, but Eponin remained standing.

Remembering her manners, Eponin greeted Ephiny. Then she turned to Gabrielle, placed her fist over her heart and bowed slightly. Ignoring the shooting pains behind her eyes, she spoke formally, "My Queen, I have not yet had the opportunity to welcome you home. I also enjoyed your tales last eve; you are the finest bard I have ever heard."

Xena leaned into Gabrielle keeping her eyes on Eponin but in a low voice commented, "If she only knew!" Gabrielle, smiling at Eponin with her sweetest demeanor, rammed an elbow hard into Xena's ribs. Xena coughed and snickered.

Gabrielle said, "Eponin, you're too kind, won't you please join us?"

Xena reached up and slapped Eponin on the back and loudly stated, "Yes, join us. Have you eaten? How about some wild boar? It was delicious! No? Maybe some venison?"

Xena's friendly slap jarred her head so, she was sure everyone in the room had heard the ringing in her ears. The mention food almost cost her the sad contents of her stomach, yet she managed to maintain her composure as she replied, "I would love to join you, but I must speak to Xena first, with your permission, my Queen. We were discussing a strategic maneuver last eve, and I need to clear up something."

Gabrielle smiled and replied, "Of course, Eponin." Turning to Xena with a sly grin she said, "You are dismissed, Xena."

Xena rose turning her back to Eponin, stuck out her tongue at Gabrielle, and in mock imitation of Eponin's formality, slammed her fist over her chest and bowed. "Thank you, my Queen," she said solemnly. The two warriors exited the hall in long strides.

Looking at Ephiny, Gabrielle asked, "What was that all about?"

Ephiny picked up her goblet, took a sip, grinned and stated, "I think that warrior of yours has a mean streak." Gabby looked at her and raised her eyebrows in question. "It's quite evident that poor Eponin drank way too much wine last night and hasn't recovered yet. I did see Eponin and Xena drinking together only it looked as thought Eponin had a large head start on Xena. It's a known fact that when Eponin gets drunk it doesn't matter who she is with right before she passes out, she tells the person some secret like `I think your beautiful'. The next day she has no recollection of what she said. She only knows she does it because she's been told by so many."

Gabrielle laughed at the thought of Xena's reaction to the six foot tall Amazon's revelation. "I've never seen Xena so relaxed," she commented.

"I guess you have that effect on her," Ephiny said, "I want you to know; I am very happy for you, Gabrielle. The two women reached across the table and squeezed each other's hand.

"Thanks, Ephiny. You are a sister of my heart."

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"What did you want to talk about, Eponin. I don't recall any strategic discussions last night. Are you looking for a sparring partner, is that it? Come on let's do right now, I could use a good workout." Xena grabbed Eponin's arm and started to drag her toward the practice field relishing the joke she was perpetrating.

Eponin felt her head would split wide open; the thoughts of sparring with Xena was too much to endure. She silently cursed herself for drinking so much the previous night. She had only a distantly blurred image of being with Xena. She knew she needed to set things straight if anything happened that should not have. Everyone knew the Warrior Princess and Queen Gabrielle were destined to be joined. "Xena wait; would you just listen to me?" Eponin pleaded.

Xena stopped tugging on the Amazon and smirked, thinking her joke had gone on long enough. She said, "I'm sorry Eponin, what did you want to say to me?"

"Xena, we're warriors, you and I. Words don't come easy like they do to your bard."

Xena understood exactly what Eponin was trying to say. `And there it was again, my bard.' "Go on, Eponin, I'm listening."

"Last night I got drunk. When I'm drunk, I say things I don't mean, and then I don't even remember what I said," Eponin said and looked deeply into Xena’s eyes.

Xena smiled at the woman standing before her. "What are you trying to say, Eponin?"

"If I said anything inappropriate, I apologize. Xena, you belong with Gabrielle. I guess that's all I have to say."

Xena put her arm across the big Amazon's shoulders and said, "Eponin, my friend, you didn't say anything inappropriate to me last night."

Eponin turned and searched Xena's face for deception and questioned, "Are you sure?"

"Are you calling me a liar?" Xena said in mock annoyance.

Eponin stammered, "Of course not, you're my friend, and I don't want to do anything to damage that friendship."

Xena squeezed Epinon’s shoulder and said, "Eponin, believe me, you did nothing wrong. As a matter of fact I have something for you." Xena reached into the pouch at her waist and produced a smaller version of the amethyst crystal she had given Artemis. She handed it to Eponin who looked at it curiously. Xena explained, "It's a small token of my appreciation; wear it. It will protect you against the effects of wine." Eponin grinned broadly and tucked the stone into her amulet bag. "I also want to thank you," Xena continued, "Last night during Gabrielle's story you said something that made me really think. Because of you, I had the nerve to act. You helped bring Gabrielle and me together. I will always remember that. Thank you, my friend."

Eponin was incredulous, "You mean you and Gabrielle?" Xena nodded. "Last night?" Xena grinned. Eponin whooped loudly, forgetting her hang over, grabbed Xena around the waist and spun her around. Xena threw her head back, and the two warriors laughed loudly. When she released Xena, Eponin fell flat on her butt holding her head but still looking up and grinning at Xena she said, "I have just one thing to say...it took you long enough!"

Reaching a hand out to Eponin, Xena grinned and growled, "So I've been told."

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That evening the festivities continued this time in joyous honor of the Queen choosing a mate. A huge banquet was laid out, the contents of which completely astonished Gabrielle who was well on the way to establishing a world record for the most food consumed in her weight and height division. Xena's subtle, whispered reminder in her ear helped suppress her appetite. After the banquet, stories were shared, acrobats and jugglers performed, and gifts were presented to the couple. The evening concluded when several important leaders made toasts and gave speeches in honor of the royal couple. The two were finally permitted to retire to the queen's quarters.

Happy to finally be alone, Xena and Gabrielle immediately fell into each others arms and embraced for several moments.

Gabrielle finally broke the silent, intimate revelry, "Xena?"

"Hum?"

"Could you remove your armor? It pinches."

Xena chuckled and gave Gabrielle a little squeeze and then released her from her hug. "Sorry, Gab, I forget, it's so much a part of me."

Gabrielle smiled up into her warrior’s eyes and said, "I know, but I don't want anything to come between us again." Then she stood on her tiptoes, stretched up to plant a quick kiss on her lover's lips and then spun away grabbing her bathing robe and calling back over her shoulder, "See you at the baths."

"Hey, wait, aren't you going to help me with my armor?" Xena called after her. The warrior could not quite remember when this particular ritual became so important to her, but it did. Whenever Gabrielle was not around to help her, Xena felt somehow empty and sad when removing her armor by herself.

Gabrielle turned in the doorway and studied the warrior. The look on Xena’s face convinced her that her warrior was serious. A sudden lightness crept through her spirit as it dawned on Gabrielle the importance of the armor and their routine. Her warrior needed her and was dependent on her for more than just removing her armor. She would have to think on this more, but for now, she simply smiled and walked back to Xena, "How silly of me, here let me." And her fingers nimbly unbuckled the straps, and she lifted the armor from the tall woman's shoulders and laid it on a chair. She then loosened the laces of the leather shift and slid the straps from Xena's broad shoulders, her eyes intent on her ministering.

Xena turned, faced her bard, and whispered, "Thank you." She gently laid a soft kiss on Gabrielle’s sensuous lips. "Let's go get that bath."

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"Gabrielle."

"Yes, Xena?" The way Xena's voice caressed her name when she spoke it had an uncanny effect on the bard; like the soft fluttering wings of a butterfly in her chest. The two lovers were soaking in a deliciously hot tub of water. Gabrielle sat propped against Xena's chest with her arms resting lazily on Xena's raised knees.

"Do you have any more stories?" Xena asked.

Gabrielle grinned and said, "You mean like the one this morning?"

"Yeah, you know the one with Helios," Xena stated stoically.

"Did you like it?" Gabrielle probed.

"Yeah, there's just one thing," Gabrielle shifted in the water and looked at Xena expectantly, "do me a favor." Gabby raised her eyebrows in a question. "Don't share that tale with anyone but me."

Gabrielle leaned back into Xena and pulled the warrior's arms around her tightly. "I won't; that one's just for you." Gabby smiled to herself and wished this feeling could last forever. She felt so happy here among her friends, wrapped in the protective arms of her lover.

Xena kissed the top of Gab's blonde head and squeezed her tightly, "You know you're incredible. Even your dreams are the dreams of the story teller." Xena thought to herself, `No wonder you are sleepy in the mornings, you must wear yourself out creating stories in your dreams, my little one.' "Are you ready for bed?"

"Uh huh."

The two rose slowly from the water, wrapped their robes around their wet bodies, and returned to their sleeping quarters. That night there was no need for a bard's tale. Their passion wrote its own story, and the exhausted lovers slept through the night cradling each other in love's gentle embrace.

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The next morning the two were awakened abruptly by a messenger from Ephiny. At the urgent knocking on their door, Xena rose quickly. "Just a moment," she called, annoyed that Gabrielle would be awakened so early. The bard rolled over and desperately tried to sit up. Xena turned to her and said, "Go back to sleep, Gab, I'll take care of it." Xena moved swiftly to the door and stepped out into the hall turning quickly to look back just in time to see her bard flop back into the pillows. She grinned and shut the door. Standing before her was a girl she recognized as one of Ephiny's personal attendants.

"What is it?" Xena asked curtly.

The girl, looking as though she did not quite know how to address the towering warrior woman who stood before her, stuttered, "I...I'm sorry to disturb you and the...the queen so early, but Ephiny sent me to get you. She said to tell you an important message had arrived for you."

"Tell her I'll be there shortly; I need to dress." Not waiting for a reply, Xena turned and entered the room quickly shutting the door behind her.

"What was that all about?" Gabby mumbled punctuating the question with a big yawn.

"That, my dear, little sleepyhead, was a messenger from Ephiny. She needs to see me about a message she received." Xena spoke as she hurriedly dressed.

Realizing Xena would soon be bolting out the door without her, Gabrielle rose quickly and grabbed her clothes. "I'm going with you." Xena just grinned and sat down to pull on her boots, knowing better than to argue with her little Amazon Queen when they were in her realm.

They soon stood in front of Ephiny. "Xena, last night an Amazon patrol intercepted your brother Toris at our southern border." Xena raised her eyes in surprise; Toris never left his fields. "He was bringing you a message. Your mother sent word that you should come to Amphipolis as soon as possible."

Unable to remain silent any longer Xena interrupted with concern in her voice, "Is Mother all right? Did Toris say why I need to go to Amphipolis?" Gabrielle grabbed Xena's upper arm to comfort her and rested her head against it.

Ephiny raised her hand and said, "Toris said that everyone was fine; your mother is in good health, but she needed to see you as soon as possible."

"Where is Toris now?" Xena asked.

"The patrol requested that he remain at the border and wait for you, but he refused. Said he needed to get back to his farm. Since the Amazons assured him you were here, you would find your way to Amphipolis without him."

Xena nodded and said, "Thank you for giving me the message." Turning to Gabrielle, Xena spoke, "I'm sorry, Gab, it looks like our visit will have to be cut short, unless of course, you would like to stay here while I travel to Amphipolis."

Spreading her feet apart and planting her fists on her hips Gabrielle said, "Not on your life, warrior; I'm not letting you out of my sight!"

Xena laughed encircling the bard's shoulder with her arm and said, "I thought not; come on we've got things to do." The two spoke quickly to Ephiny and left to gather their things for the three day's journey southwest to Amphipolis.

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Chapter six:

Xena was quiet but Gabrielle jabbered away as they collected their belongings and packed for the road. Her mind was preoccupied with thoughts of her mother and this sudden summons home. She couldn't wipe away the feeling of dread and apprehension that enveloped her. It had to be something serious to actually send Toris with the message. Perhaps she trusted no one else. Xena believed Toris to be the last person expected to hunt her down and deliver a message. She and her older brother had never been close even as children. Though she and her mother had made amends following her long years as a warlord, she was still uncomfortable around her brother. She knew he felt the same way about her. She often got the feeling he would be much more comfortable if she had never returned to Amphipolis. Until now she saw no reason to explore the rift that had grown between them, and yet, it puzzled her.

"Hey are you listening to me?" Xena snapped her attention back to Gabrielle.

"I'm sorry, you were saying something?" Xena asked.

"Yeah, I was, but I guess you were preoccupied." Seeing Xena's discomfort Gabrielle moved to her and lightly touched her arm. "You want to talk about it?"

"I was just thinking about some things that I hadn't thought about in a long time, I am also worried about mother," Xena answered.

"Well that's understandable. Cryptic messages make me crazy; I'm sure it must be really bothering you," Gabrielle commented.

"You know, Gab, maybe I would like to talk to you about what's bothering me. Maybe you can help me figure some things out." Gabrielle, pleasantly pleased with this new side of Xena, thought `Perhaps those walls were weakening.' Her musings were interrupted by Xena. "Let's finish packing, and we can talk once we get on the road. Great Zeus knows we will have plenty of time." The two completed their task and carried their belongings outside. There Eponin waited with Argo already saddled. Ephiny handed them some food she ordered packed for their journey.

Gabrielle and Ephiny exchanged hugs, and Eponin and Xena grasped each other's forearms in their familiar warrior gesture. Xena noticed Eponin had stitched her crystal to the outside of her warrior amulet she wore at her waist. After their good-byes, Xena fastened Gab's staff to the saddle, mounted and effortlessly swung Gabrielle up behind her. As they trotted off down the road, their Amazon friends waved until they were out of sight. Then Xena spurred Argo into a loping gallop.

After a candlemark of silence, Xena pulled Argo up to a walk and turned her head to catch a glimpse of Gabrielle. "Are you still with me back there?" She inquired. Gabrielle seemed unusually quiet and Xena's concern rose so she asked, "Is something wrong, Gab?"

"No, I was just thinking, and besides it's not easy to talk when Argo is galloping," Gabrielle replied.

"I know. I'm sorry I didn't even give you an option, but I am anxious to reach Amphipolis as soon as possible," Xena said.

"No, don't apologize, Xena, I understand, it's all right." Gabby squeezed Xena and rested her head on her back.

Xena smiled feeling her bard tighten her hold and wished for a few fleeting moments she could stop and prove her love for her right then and there. Shaking her mind free of such distracting thoughts she asked, "You said you were thinking; want to share with an old ex-warlord what you were thinking about?"

Gabrielle smiled briefly at the comment and said, "Well, first I was thinking how wonderful I feel right now with you. And then I was thinking about how beautiful these last two days have been. I was thinking about how much I love you and how I'm afraid this is all too good to be true." Gabrielle stopped suddenly and Xena, feeling Gabrielle body against her tense up, was sure her bard fought back tears.

"You know, Gab, I was thinking the exact same thing as we galloped down the road." Xena reassured, "But I promise, I'm not going to let anything come between us." Secretly she knew that was a promise she might not be able to keep forever because she understood better than most how evil and hard the world really was. She just hoped she could protect Gabrielle from most of it. She knew her bard was tougher than she looked; after all Gab had dragged her broken body all the way up a mountain even with a severe wound to her own thigh. Yes, Gabrielle was gentle and kind and sweet, but she was also tough and determined and was becoming quite good with her staff. She could take care of herself, most of the time. "Gab, Argo is well rested from our stay with the Amazons, so if it's all right with you, I'm going to pick up the pace." Gabrielle nodded in Xena's back, and Xena spurred Argo on.

When the sun was high overhead, Xena reined Argo off the trail and found a grassy glade with a clear stream passing through it. Xena eased Gabrielle to the ground and then swung down from the saddle. She grabbed the cloth food bag and pulled the staff from the saddle and handed the items to Gab. "If you'll fix lunch, I'll take a look around and make sure we are safe here," Xena said and as she turned reminded Gabrielle, "Keep your staff with you until I get back. I'll only be gone a bit." The bard nodded and stretched, glad to finally be on solid ground. Xena disappeared into the trees.

Gabrielle selected some flat bread, goat cheese and a couple of pears from their food supply and spread their meal out on a large, flattened boulder by the stream. At a noise behind her, Gabrielle swung around and dropped into her practiced defensive stance, her staff in her hands. Xena's voice met her, "Good reflexes, Gabrielle." Xena was pleased at Gabrielle's response; it made her feel more at ease knowing Gabrielle had remembered her sparring lessons.

Gabrielle grinned at the compliment and said, "Thanks, let's eat; I'm starved." During the course of the meal, Gabrielle finally worked up the nerve to ask Xena about their discussion early that morning. "Remember when you said there were things you were thinking about that you had not thought about in a long time? You want to talk about them now?"

Xena smiled that crooked smile Gab knew so well, "Maybe," and she popped a chunk of cheese in her mouth and chewed thoughtfully.

"Hey, that's all right, if you don't want to talk, I understand," Gabrielle said as she reached for one of the pears and wiped it absently on her skirt.

Xena quickly replied, " No, I want to talk, but I don't know where to begin...and don't tell me to start in the beginning," they both grinned, "you've already used that advice. It's Toris; our relationship puzzles me, and I can't put my finger on it. It's like he really doesn't care for me, not that I can blame him, but it's as if he never liked me even when we were young."

Gabrielle nodded, but she really didn't understand. She and her sister, Lila, loved each other, sure they had their fights, and sometimes they didn't like each other, but they always loved each other. "Why do you think Toris didn't like you when you were younger?" she asked.

"I don't know. He is three summers older than me, and Lyceus was but a summer younger than me. Lyceus and I were so close; we shared everything. Toris was always so distant. He and I were different in every way. As I got older, I often thought he missed our father a great deal. Lyceus wasn't even born when Atrius left, and I was so young I hardly remember him. I guess Lyceus and I were the lucky ones." Xena thought to herself about Solon and hoped he considered himself lucky too. "It's almost like we are not even related."

Gabrielle listened thoughtfully to Xena's dilemma and laid her head on Xena's shoulder, "You know Xena, I've heard it said that people seldom grow up with the members of their true family in the same house. Maybe that's just the way it is. Look at you and me. I consider myself closer to you than anyone else in the world. You are my family now."

Xena looked down at Gabrielle and grinned slyly, with a raised eyebrow she commented, "After the last couple of days, I hope you consider yourself closer to me than anyone else."

Gabby punched Xena in the shoulder and feigned a frown, "You know what I mean, warrior!"

Xena laughed and nodded her head, "I guess you're right, but I don't know. It's like there's a piece of the puzzle missing."

"Maybe you should talk to Toris. He can probably answer some of your questions."

"Yeah, right. I'd get better conversation out of Argo," Xena growled.

Gabrielle grinned mischievously, "I thought you said Toris and you were nothing alike?" Thinking to herself she had probably heard more words from Xena in the last three days than in the last two years they’d been together.

Xena laughed, pulled Gabrielle to her feet and kissed her lips lightly and said, "Come on let's have a swim."

"I thought we were in a hurry," Gabrielle protested.

"We've got time for a quick swim. I don't know how you feel, but I intend to take advantage of every moment I have with you alone between here and Amphipolis." At that, Gabby's eyes lit up. "Besides Argo's so well rested, she can easily make up any lost time."

With that last comment in mind, Gabby's enthusiasm dampened. The thought of hanging on for dear life while Argo galloped all the way to Amphipolis was not such a tantalizing idea. She'd be too tired and stiff to enjoy Xena's company. Her thoughts were rudely interrupted by a spray of cool water hitting her in the face and Xena's whoops and laughter. She was already floating on her back and watching Gabrielle's reaction at the water in her face.

The bard yelled at her in mock anger, "Oh you, wait till I get my hands on you!"

"I can't wait!" Xena bantered back.

The remainder of the journey was uneventful as the two lovers fell into an easy routine, relishing and relaxing in each other's company. Gabrielle rode in front at Xena’s insistence so that she could hold her more securely. She pushed Argo hard but rested them for two candlemarks during mid-day. Both evenings they made camp before dusk. The rest periods were filled with easy conversation, tender looks, gentle kisses, and warm touches. The evenings were spent in passionate embraces as the two explored the boundlessness of their love. When they were greeted by Cyrene as they rode up to the inn in Amphipolis, she recognized immediately the character of their new relationship.

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Chapter Seven:

Cyrene's warm embrace and a smile greeted the two women as they dismounted Argo. "Welcome home daughters," Cyrene said as she grabbed Gabrielle and hugged her tightly lingering for a moment as if wishing to silently communicate with her through touch. Gab stepped out of the embrace and subtly questioned Cyrene with her eyes. Cyrene brushed her lips against Gab's cheek and looked into her eyes and smiled. Turning to Xena she was caught in the warrior's strong embrace, and she hugged her daughter intensely.

Xena, unable to contain her burning curiosity asked, "Mother, tell me why you sent for us."

Cyrene smiled indulgently and said, "Xena, my dear, you have just arrived. I am sure you are both hungry, and look at how tired and sweaty poor Argo is. It is not so urgent that it cannot wait another candlemark or two. Take Argo to the stables, and Gabrielle and I will take your things inside."

Acquiescing, Xena retrieved their gear, handed it to Gabrielle along with her staff, and watched as the two women entered the inn. As she was about to turn to the stables, a man stepped out of the shadows and spoke in a familiar voice. Knowing he had stood there all along, Xena turned to look upon her brother Toris.

"Hello, Xena."

Xena nodded and replied, "Toris."

Toris strode forward and stood before his sister. His slightly shorter and stocky build contrasted sharply to her tall, powerful physique in the shadows of twilight. "You have had a long, arduous journey," Toris said. "You must be tired; let me take care of Argo for you." He rubbed a farm-strong hand down the muscular neck of the war-horse. "You should go on inside with Mother and Gabrielle. Let me do this for you."

Recognizing Toris' attempt at an uncharacteristic overture, Xena gave him one of her dazzling smiles reserved for only the times she was truly touched. "Thanks, Toris, you are right; it has been a long ride as you well know." Toris nodded his head. "Toris, can you tell me why Mother sent for me?" Xena questioned.

Toris took the reins from Xena's hands, shook his head and said, "I had better let her tell you." Turning to Argo, "Come on girl." he lead the horse towards the barn. Xena watched him go, turned, and walked into the inn. Thinking of the smile Xena had flashed him, Toris shook his head and whisper to himself, "No wonder they all loved you."

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Cyrene stopped Gabrielle with a hand on her arm. The young woman looked at her as Cyrene said, "Gabrielle, before Xena comes in, I would like a few moments to talk with you."

Although Cyrene's voice did not belie any animosity, apprehension sat in the pit of Gabrielle’s stomach. Drawing upon her reserves she disguised it when she spoke. "Of course, Cyrene, what is it you need to speak with me about?" But before Cyrene could answer, Xena strolled into the inn.

"Xena, I thought you would be with Argo for a while." Cyrene, surprised at Xena's sudden appearance, wasn't sure if her voice revealed her guilt of wanting to speak to Gabrielle alone.

Picking up on the feelings in the room Xena quickly informed her mother and Gabrielle that Toris was taking care of Argo. She was going to take the gear up stairs and get out of her armor. Glancing at Gabrielle with a slightly raised eyebrow, Xena grabbed the gear and ascended the steps to the second floor as the two women watched her exit.

Gabrielle picked up Cyrene's hand and asked her, "Cyrene, what did you want to talk to me about?"

Cyrene squeezed the small hand and said, "Gabrielle, there is so much I want to tell you, but most of all I want to thank you for what you have done for Xena and for me. I am glad that you two love each other. You have my blessing." Gabrielle's eyes widened and she started to speak, but Cyrene silenced her. "Xena lost more than Lyceus twelve years ago when Cortese overran Amphipolis. She lost a large piece of her soul and most of her heart." Looking off to a sad and distant place, Cyrene continued. "I know now they were bound to each other, not just as brother and sister, but as something only the gods can understand." Redirecting her gaze on Gabrielle she said, "I was so grieved by the loss of my child, I was unaware of Xena's grief, and I let her slip away. I lost more that just three children that day; I lost my way." Casting her eyes down in shame Cyrene painfully continued, "Over time, I laid all the guilt at Xena's feet simply because it was easier to blame someone who was not here than face the truth." Searching Gabrielle's eyes for understanding and forgiveness Cyrene continued, "In some ways when Xena left, it made sense to blame her...she ran away, therefore, she must be guilty. When word eventually filtered back after three years that she had become a murdering warlord, it reaffirmed my beliefs, and I cut her from my heart." Cyrene's eyes filled with tears, "My heart had been so hardened to her over the years that when she did return two years ago, I felt nothing. I would have let them kill her right here in this inn had it not been for you. I gave her to the mob, but I was in the storage room crying, listening to my brave daughter as she looked death in the face and refused to even raise her fists to defend herself." Then Cyrene smiled through her tears, "And then you leaped out of the crowd and stood between her and the mob putting yourself in grave danger to protect her. When I heard your words, `she has changed,' I so wanted to believe you; my heart ached." Cyrene's hand squeezed Gabrielle's firmly. "For the first time in years I felt something for my daughter; I only wanted to rush into the room and grab her and hold her and rock her in my arms." Tears streaked the faces of the two women standing in the hall and of the one listening silently at the top of the stairs. "Before I could bring myself to leave the store room, you had rescued Xena from the hands of death, and you were both gone." Cyrene smiled at Gabrielle with sincere love and said, "You have filled the void in Xena's heart. You have given her a reason to live again. You have taught her to love again. I am proud to call you a daughter of my heart." She pulled Gabrielle into a heartfelt embrace, and the two women cried openly in each other's arms.

Xena silently crept back to the bedroom, shut the door, lay on the bed, and wept softly into the pillows. Sometime later she rose, splashed water in her face from the basin by the side of the bed, and left the room slamming the door to alert her mother and Gabrielle of her approach.

When Xena walked into the kitchen, Gabrielle and Cyrene were seated side-by-side deep in a discussion on the best recipes for nut bread. Gabrielle and Cyrene both looked up at Xena, and Gabrielle rose with concern as she looked into Xena's eyes. She knew immediately that Xena had been crying, but Xena's look and little smile told her they would talk about it later. Instead of saying anything, Gabrielle moved into her lover's arms and placed a little kiss on Xena's cheek much to Xena's surprise. She had arrived in the middle of that private conversation and had not heard Cyrene's blessing.

Cyrene noted Xena stiffen at Gabrielle's touch and spoke standing, "I think you and Gabrielle need to have a little talk while I attend to some things. When I return, we will eat."

"What was that all about?" Xena asked Gabrielle incredulously. "Don't tell me you have enchanted my mother too."

"Well, not exactly. When you were upstairs, Cyrene talked to me, and she told me she knew about us, and she was happy for us." Xena's look made Gabrielle burst out in laughter. "What's the matter, Xena, afraid you have lost that warrior ability to hide your emotions?"

"I'm starting to wonder," Xena answered.

"Well don't worry, believe me you haven't lost a thing," Gabrielle chimed. "You just haven't had to use it recently, so relax."

Xena smiled down at the beautiful young woman gazing up into her eyes and hugged her in a warm embrace commenting, "Well, this certainly makes things a little easier at least."

"It certainly does," Gabrielle agreed, and the two reluctantly pulled away from each other.

Xena furrowed her brow and asked, "Did Cyrene happen to mention why she sent for us?"

"No, but everything seems to be fine here. You don't suppose she called us here just to talk to us about, well you know," Gabrielle speculated.

"I don't think so," Xena said thoughtfully. "Mother knew nothing of our relationship until the moment she saw us ride up together. I don't know how she does it, but I could see in her eyes she knew."

Gabby chuckled, "It must be a family trait."

"Yeah, I guess so," Xena frowned and said. "There must be another reason why she sent Toris for us. Toris knows, but he said he would let Mother explain."

Later that evening after they had eaten a very satisfying meal and all the dishes and pots had been cleaned away, Cyrene told Xena and Gabrielle to get some rest. Tomorrow she would show them the reason she had sent for them much to Xena's silent consternation.

Cyrene knew that Xena was upset with her for not revealing the information this evening, but she also knew there was nothing Xena could do this late. There was absolutely no reason to unduly upset the new lovers. At that thought Cyrene smiled and mused, "New lovers, how had she known that bit of information?" Gabrielle and Xena had visited just three moons ago; they were certainly not lovers then. But more than that; it was the glow on Gabrielle cheeks and the energy exuding from Xena. The same energy she had seen and felt in her untamed daughter before, so long ago. The memory of which brought forth a tear shed for that other child of her heart whose ghost she had purged from her soul and her mind. For remembering was too painful, but now the ghost was back. What should she do? What would Xena do? My poor Gabrielle.’

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"You're angry," Gabrielle said as she sat cross-legged on the bed and watched Xena sitting in a chair across the room examining the blade of her sword.

"No, Gabrielle, I'm not mad," Xena replied dryly.

"Then come to bed," Gabrielle pleaded, "you've looked at that blade for nearly a candlemark now."

"In a moment," she mumbled completely engrossed in the sword as if the silver blade glinting in the candle light would reveal the mystery Cyrene was withholding.

The bard looked disappointedly in the direction of her lover then a gleam danced in her eyes. "Oh, Xena, wouldn't you like to feel what it's like to make love in your mother's house." Xena grunted. Gabrielle completely frustrated cried, "Gods be damned! I'll wager if we were in Poteidaia, wild horses couldn't keep you out of my bed."

Xena looked up amused and propped her sword against her chair. "Now that's what I'd call a challenge since Lila sleeps in a bed right next to yours!"

Gabrielle's annoyance changed to mirth at the thought and she suggested, "We can pretend we are in Poteidaia." With that Xena leaped into the bed next to Gabrielle and with one arm brought the bard down over backwards next to her.

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Wild giggles erupted from the room next to hers. Cyrene smiled knowing she had made the right decision in withholding the information from Xena. Tomorrow would be here soon enough.

Chapter 8:

Xena rose early the next morning and dressed quietly so as not to disturb her dreaming bard. Before she left their room, she stood over the bed gazing down at the young woman who had so thoroughly captured and tamed her raging heart. She moved a wayward lock of golden hair from Gabrielle's face and gently brushed her lips across her temple. She then turned and quietly left the room. Gabrielle smiled and stretched as the door closed.

Xena only intended to go check on Argo, but hearing voices in the kitchen decided to say good morning to Cyrene first. As she walked into the kitchen, she was greeted by the sight of both Cyrene and Toris. Before Cyrene could speak, Toris touched her arm, pleadingly, "Mother, please I wish you would reconsider."

"Toris, I'm sorry. I know how you feel, but Xena must be told."

"Told what?" Xena interjected. "Mother, what is this all about?"

Startled by her appearance the two looked in her direction. "Where is Gabrielle?" Cyrene asked ignoring Xena's question.

"She's upstairs asleep. Why?" Xena replied.

Toris stepped forward, "Mother, if you are going through with this, Gabrielle should be here. She has a right to know; it will involve her too."

Xena was almost at her wit's end, "Toris, what in Hades' name is going on here?"

"Tell her, Mother." Anguish played across Cyrene's face, and Toris turned adamantly to

Xena. "Xena, promise me you will not tear out of here without first thinking this through."

Becoming increasingly frustrated at this entire domestic scene Xena demanded, "How can I make a promise to you, Toris, when I have no idea what we are talking about?"

Toris replied, "Xena, have I ever asked you to promise me anything before?"

Xena studied this stranger's face, who was her brother, looking for a clue to his motives. She could find none. Looking away she considered his plea; it was true he had never asked anything of her, ever. She grudgingly agreed, "All right, Toris, you have my word." The three were so involved in their little drama they did not hear Gabrielle come down the steps, nor did they see her standing in the doorway.

Cyrene handed Xena a crumpled parchment she had concealed among the folds of her skirt and stepped back. Xena took the parchment and looked from her mother to Toris and then down at her trembling hand holding the parchment. A feeling of dread gripped her as she unfolded the sheepskin and sank slowly to a chair. Her eyes moved across the page. She was quiet for a moment, and then she asked in a strangely calm voice, "When did you receive this, Mother?"

Imitating Xena's calmness Cyrene replied, "Seven days ago."

Xena looked at the parchment, read it through again then stood on shaky knees gripping the table.

"Xena, we need to talk about this," Toris began, but Xena cut him off curtly.

"Not now, Toris. I'll keep my promise. You don't have to worry." She turned to stalk out of the room only to be drawn up short at Gabrielle standing in the doorway. Xena announced, "I'm going for a ride." and she strode past Gabrielle.

"Xena?" Hearing the plea in Gabrielle's voice, Xena's heart skipped, but the tears burned hot in her eyes. She was torn between assuring Gabrielle and escaping the pain that was slashing her soul. She turned and brushed Gabrielle's face with the back of her fingers and rasped the words with a throaty voice, "Don't worry." Then she turned and rushed out of the inn.

Gabrielle started to follow her, but Toris grabbed her by the arm and said, "Let her go, she always keeps her promise. She'll be back."

Gabrielle swung around looked at him and said, "What's going on, Toris?" Toris dropped her arm and looked at his mother.

Cyrene intervened, opening her arms to Gabrielle she said, "Come, sit. I'll get you something to eat, and Toris and I will try to explain." Toris looked incredibly pained that he would have to help explain things.

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Xena bridled Argo through blurry tears and swung upon the war-horse's bare back. She spurred the large horse into a full gallop clinging to the pounding animal beneath her with only her legs and her left hand which was twisted in the golden mane holding her to the racing equine. Hot tears blinded her and poured down her cheeks as she urged the horse on, stretching Argo to her limits. After at least a candlemark of hard riding, Xena allowed Argo to slow to a trot and then to a plodding walk as she lay forward along the powerful neck of her beast. She slowly relinquished all power to struggle within her body. Eventually the horse came to a stop and munched on clover, as Xena listlessly slipped slowly to the ground. She came to rest on her back in soft clover, eyes looking skyward. The white feathery clouds in the sky and the smell of fresh clover sparked a powerful memory, and she relived it in her mind...

It had been a magical year, spring time, Lyceus had just turned fourteen; she was fifteen, and Chloe would be fifteen in the winter. They were close. Closer than any three people had ever been. They did everything together. It was late afternoon, and the sun was warm upon them. They had been playing hide and seek, she and Chloe had lost Lyceus, and they were hiding in a field of very tall clover, sweet and cool and soft. They were giggling and raising their heads, peeking over the clover looking for Lyceus. Lying on their backs, they imagined animals and fierce gods forming in the movements of the clouds. Then Chloe spoke, "I love you, Xena. And I love Lyceus too. I am going to marry him, you know, so that I can have you both." With that she raised herself on her elbow and looked down into Xena's sky-blue eyes and kissed her deeply. Xena returned the kiss, and hidden there in tall clover in the middle of a field the two young friends became lovers.

Xena closed her eyes to the memory and squeezed forth tears she believed had long since gone to desert at the memory of her Chloe. Her beautiful Chloe. Her and Lyceus' beautiful Chloe; the three shared everything, and life was so perfect. When thinking of Lyceus sometimes, it was terrifying when she could not bring to mind what Lyceus looked like, she would think she would go mad trying to force her memory to recall his every feature. It was like that now. Xena strained at the memory, pushing and probing, suddenly it was so very important to remember exactly what Chloe had looked like. Tall, not so tall as herself but right above her chin; willowy, slender yet muscular and shapely. Her hair, a rich brown with soft waves, fell to her shoulders. Her face, her beautiful angular face, boyish, with perfect white teeth and full, yet, not too full lips. Freckles, dark brown freckles which everyone loved, sprinkled across her nose dappling her cheeks like so many stars in the heavens. And her eyes, dark and luminous, tiny flecks of black obsidian dancing upon gray slate. For three years they loved and cherished each other and then Cortese. Lyceus dead and Chloe gone, given up for dead, and then news, sold into slavery. Her beautiful Chloe, a slave. Lyceus, forever dead. And she, a deadly warlord. Rampaging eastward to rescue her Chloe, only to find she did not want to be rescued. Great abysmal emptiness.

___________________________________________________

Cyrene sat Gabrielle down at the table, and Toris sat across from her. Cyrene handed Gabrielle the letter and told her to read it; then they would explain everything.

My Dearest Cyrene, true mother of my heart, I hope this finds you well. My children and I are well for now, but my husband died last spring and all is not good here. I fear for my son. He is the only heir to the throne, and attempts have been made on his life and mine as well. I care not for the throne, only for the lives of my children. If I could, I would return this moment to Amphipolis; a place I vowed twelve years ago I would never step foot in again. Had I known then what I know now, I would still be living there perhaps even in your home. I saw Lyceus die, and I saw Toris drag Xena's body from the field, lifeless and covered in blood. I believed her dead, thus, died our beautiful dreams and my reason for living. I turned and ran blindly into the arms of the slavers, but I cared not. Three years later I learned the truth when Xena and her army came raging out of the west. I met her and turned her away with my deception. I told her I was happy. I could not bear the thought seeing her slain by the forces my father-in-law commanded. I was with child and my husband was a good man. My life was not so horrible, but it has never been as sweet as it was with Xena and Lyceus. Word of her strength and power reaches us sometimes, and they are fearful of her here. I do not want to endanger her life, but please tell her I need her.

Your Loving Daughter, Chloe

Gabrielle finished reading the letter and looked at Toris and Cyrene, "Where does this Chloe live?" she asked.

Toris answered, "She lives in Sinope."

Gabrielle was incredulous, "Sinope! I've heard of that ancient city. The Amazons tell stories of its founding. It was named for one of their greatest queens, Sinova. That's a long way from here isn't it?"

"It's two hundred leagues." Toris continued, "It would take well over a moon to get there by horse."

"By horse?" Gabrielle did not like the sounds of that. "What other way is there to get there?"

Toris explained, "The best way to reach the city of Sinope is by sea. Across the Aegean through the Hellespont and across the Propontis to Byzantium, from there through the Bosporus into the Pontis Euxinus, another one hundred leagues and you are there."

Gabrielle listened intently, but with each new sea or strait she imagined herself becoming sicker and sicker until she was sure she was going to lose the meal she had just eaten.

"Gabrielle, are you all right?" Toris asked.

"Uh," pulled from her much too vivid imaginings, Gabrielle recovered, "Oh, yeah, sure, I was just thinking."

Toris directed his attention to his mother, "I've got things I need to attend to, Mother. When Xena returns, would you tell her I would like to talk to her?" Cyrene nodded, and Toris rose to leave.

Gabrielle followed Toris outside and asked, "Toris, do you have any idea where Xena rode off to?"

Toris studied her face carefully and smiled, "You are just as stubborn as she is, aren't you?"

Continued - Part 2 of 5

 


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