This story is the third part of a larger story that began with Vengeance, and continued with Justice. It contains elements of both of those stories and some scenes of sex between consenting adults, both male(Ares)/female and female/female.

As always, comments and/or complaints, are welcome.

E-mail me at:

The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Eponin, Ares, Solari, all belong to MCA/Universal. No infringement on their rights is intended. The story is mine.



by Tymedancer

Copyright 29 July 97


"What are you working on?"

Gabrielle laid the scroll aside and smiled up at Xena as she moved to sit beside her at the fire.

"Just writing up a story. How you and Kitraea held off an entire army. The usual stuff, you know."

Xena chuckled. "We weren't alone, Gabrielle. Don't forget about Darelus and his army. I'm not so sure we could have handled it by ourselves."

"That's not how it looked to me. You two seemed to be doing pretty well."

Xena arched her back and stretched her shoulders. "Yeah, but it was a good workout. Kitraea is in good shape for her age. I don't think I'd want to take her on in a fight."

Gabrielle put her hand on Xena's shoulder and turned the warrior so that she could put her hands on both shoulders. "Turn around, and I'll rub out some of those kinks."

Xena smiled and scooted around so that her back was toward

Gabrielle. She reached up and pulled her hair to one side, pulling

it around to the front of her shoulder, letting her head roll

forward as the bard began a slow, gentle kneading at the back of

her neck

Feeling the tension easing under her fingers, Gabrielle moved over on the blanket. She unfastened the clips on Xena's armor and pulled it off the unprotesting warrior, then loosened the laces at the back of the leather. She gently pulled at her arm as she spoke.

"Here... Stretch out."

Xena looked into her eyes and smiled, then stretched out on the

blanket and rolled to her stomach. She laid her head on her arms and closed her eyes as Gabrielle unlaced the bindings and folded back the leather, then the laces of the linen shift she wore underneath. Gabrielle pulled the material aside to reveal the lean, muscular back and shoulders, and shook her head when she saw the bruises.

"Xena, why didn't you tell me you were hurt?"

Xena opened her eyes and raised her head to look back at the bruise the bard was touching.

"That?" She laid her head back on her folded arms "Just a hard kick. Kitraea took him out."

Gabrielle went to their pack and returned with Xena's medical pouch.

"And these others? You should have told me. You don't have to hurt all the time, you know."

Xena just grunted, and Gabrielle pulled at the cloth and leather to expose more skin. She untied the cord on the pouch of salve and wrinkled her nose at the smell. She dipped her fingers into the smelly pouch and spread the mixture over the smooth skin. She spread her fingers and opened her palms as she rubbed the salve into the hard-muscled back.

"This is going to cost you, you know."

Xena chuckled softly as the bard straddled her and began a

rythmic, rolling motion with the heels of her palms.

"I knew that was coming. Mmmm... okay... name your price."

"Tell me about Lara."

Xena opened her eyes and lifted her head, but Gabrielle moved her hands to her shoulders and gently pushed her back down, resuming the rythmic motions. The warrior sighed, and her body relaxed once more under the bard's gentle touch. Her voice was sad.

"You know what happened."

Gabrielle closed her eyes for a moment, remembering two nights

before, when Kitraea had broken through Xena's defenses, and she'd told them how Lara died. They'd spent the next night at Reyna's village, and hadn't talked further about this new part of Xena's past.

"I know how she died. I'd like to know how she lived. She was... part of your life..." She moved both her hands back to the warrior's shoulders and spread her fingers as she squeezed gently, moving her hands slowly down to the edge of the exposed skin, then, leaning her weight on her hands, she slid them up along Xena's spine. She felt the vibration under her fingers as Xena began to speak softly, her eyes closed as she remembered.

"Lara was an Amazon healer. I met her about a year after the battle at Corinth. She was in a neighboring village, tending an injured man, when it was raided, and she was captured. They left her for dead, and I found her the next morning. I sent my army ahead and took her back to the Amazon village. I stayed to care for her...and fell in love..."




Xena slid from the saddle and turned just in time to catch the small form flying toward her. She laughed and spun around as she hugged the woman to her, then kissed her passionately before setting her on her feet. She pulled her close and smiled down into the laughing grey eyes of her bride-to-be.






"Lara! Did you think I wouldn't come?" Xena leaned down and nuzzled beneath the dark hair to tease the other woman's ear as Lara squirmed and pushed her away.

"I don't know why I'd worry. You're only two days late!" She was suddenly serious as she brushed the long black hair from Xena's forehead to reveal an angry bruise just above her temple.

"Now I know why."

She took Xena's hand and began pulling her through the village.

She called to one of the watching Amazons and asked her to look after Xena's horse, ignoring the warrior's protests as she pulled her into one of the larger buildings.

"Lara, I'm okay." Xena let herself be pushed backward as she held Lara's hand to her lips. Lara the lover was thrilled at the soft warmth of the warrior's kiss, but Lara the healer wanted a closer look at her patient.

"Let me be the judge of that."

Xena sat abruptly when her heels hit the edge of the pallet in

the corner of the room. She pulled the smaller woman down into her arms and drew her into a long, sensual kiss. Lara resisted for a moment, but her body soon responded, and she opened her eyes to see the smoldering passion in the blue eyes that met hers.

Xena's strong fingers slid around her ribs and her thumbs came up to tease the erect nipples beneath the thin fabric of her dress. She kissed a warm trail down Lara's neck and buried her face in the dark hair to find a favored sensitive spot.

Lara took a deep breath and felt the warmth spread through her body as she inhaled Xena's scent. She gave herself over totally to the exquisite torture as Xena's tongue began to move slowly over her skin and she pulled her dress up over her shoulders and off her arms, finally pulling her head free.

"Xena... by the Gods, I've missed you..."

Xena gently laid her back onto the pallet and quickly stripped

off her armor. Lara ran her hands over Xena's thighs as the warrior kneeled beside her and removed her leather, then stretched her long body to lay over the healer. Their lips met once more as their bodies touched and Lara gasped when Xena's hand moved down over her hip and around to the back of her thigh, the long fingers just brushing her skin and leaving chills in their wake.

Xena groaned and pulled her lips from Lara's. Only then was Lara aware of the incessant, soft knocking at the door. She smiled at Xena's annoyance, and kissed her quickly as she stood and slid her dress over her head. "Don't move. I'll send them away."

She opened the door and exchanged a few soft words with the woman who stood outside, then turned to look at the warrior.

"I have to go." She watched, smiling, as Xena walked naked to stand before her. She leaned against her and ran her fingers teasingly down the taut stomach to pull gently at the dark curls below. Smiling at Xena's moan of frustration, she stretched up and gave her a quick and passionate kiss.

"You could start getting cleaned up if you want. We do have a Joining ceremony to perform tonight, remember? I want to take a look at that bruise when I get back. I don't want you falling over at our ceremony."

Xena held her hand as she went out the door, carrying her healer's pouch, then followed her with her eyes as she walked away beside the tall Amazon who'd knocked at the door.



Gabrielle heard the love in Xena's voice as she described the healer who'd captured her heart. She tried to picture her in her mind as Xena spoke, and decided she liked the image she'd formed. Lara had obviously made Xena happy, and Gabrielle began to understand the depth of her loss.

She looked down as Xena's voice trailed off, and smiled when

she realized that the warrior had fallen asleep. She pulled the

blanket over the sleeping form and lay beside her, looking into her

face. *She looks so peaceful. I wish she could be this way all the

time. I can't imagine how she must have felt. Xena... I can't bring

her back, but maybe, if you'll let me, I can help you find peace.*





Xena crouched in the brush, watching the stealthy movement of the dark figure at the edge of the dying fire. Gabrielle muttered and rolled to her side, pulling at the blanket and smiling in her sleep. The figure stopped, then started toward her when she grew still once more. It crouched over the sleeping bard, then froze as the cold steel of Xena's sword slid up against the front of it's neck. Xena's voice was low and promised death.

"She's really not a morning person, so I'd rather we don't wake her just yet."

Slowly, carefully, the person straightened and turned to face Xena. A log popped and split, sending a flicker of light toward them, and Xena lowered the sword as recognition dawned.

"Eponin? What are you doing here?"

Eponin looked down at Gabrielle. "Ephiny sent me. We'd heard

that Gabrielle was killed. Ephiny wanted to come with an escort, but there's trouble. She couldn't leave right now."

Xena moved to put more wood on the fire. She motioned to Eponin, and with a last look down at her sleeping Queen, the Amazon joined her at the far side of the fire.

Keeping her voice low, Xena looked into Eponin's eyes.

"It must be serious, if the Amazons couldn't send an escort for

the body of their Queen."

Eponin pulled free of the blue eyes and nodded toward the still form. "Thank the Gods she still lives. Have you told her yet of our sister village?"

Xena drew a deep breath. "She knows, now. Why?"

"Xena, we've honored your wish to let you tell her, in your own

time. She must know now. All of it. They're in trouble. Eight days ago, a runner came to our village asking for help. We sent a group of warriors, but they haven't come back, and we've had no word. We sent a patrol after them, and they've vanished as well.

"Do you know who's behind it?"

"No one who's tried to find out has returned. Ephiny sent a

runner to find you and Gabrielle, and she came back with the news that Gabrielle was dead, and you were... Ephiny sent me to find you."

She looked once again into Xena's eyes. "She was... she thinks of Gabrielle as a sister. I don't think she ever really got over..."

Xena nodded and looked into the fire.

"She was so young."

"No one blames you for Lara's death except you, Xena. I was

young as well, but I remember when they brought you both back to the village. We all thought you'd die, too. We were there for you, Xena, and you crawled to your horse and left. You never went back. Ephiny loved her sister, but she loved you, too, and she lost you both. We all did."

Xena laid her hand on Eponin's shoulder and looked once more into her dark eyes.

"I was young then, too. I couldn't see past my own pain."

"Xena?" Gabrielle's sleepy voice came from the far side of the fire. "Who are you talking to?

Eponin stood and looked across the fire at Gabrielle. The bard's eyes widened and she grinned and stood. "Eponin? Why are you here? When did you get here? Are you hungry?"

They hugged briefly, then Garielle set about finding food for them. Xena stared into the flames as Eponin started to explain once more why she had come.




Xena raised her head from the side of the tub and looked back to see Ephiny standing in the door. The girl was growing, all legs and elbows, and she stood uncertainly in the door. Though only a few years younger than Xena, she knew Xena thought of her as a child.

"Come on in, Ephiny. Look at you, you must be as tall as I am, now!" She smiled as the girl walked into the room, ducking her head and smiling shyly. She was always this way around the beautiful young warrior who had saved her sister's life, and only important news could make her approach her like this, while she bathed.

"Xena, don't be silly, I'm hardly up to your shoulder." She straightened proudly. "I'm taller than Lara now."

Xena laughed. "That doesn't take much!"

Ephiny giggled. Lara didn't like to be teased about her height.

"Xena, you're so mean!"

Xena grinned at the young girl. "I love her just the way she is,

you know that. So, tell me what's on your mind."

Ephiny sat beside the tub and reached to lay her hand over Xena's. "I had my First Moon ceremony last week. I'm a woman, now. Lara says, if it's all right with you, I can be the Witness for your Joining."





"Xena? Xena, you all right?"

Xena shook herself and looked up into Gabrielle's worried eyes.

"Fine. I'm fine. I was... thinking." She looked around for Eponin,

but saw no sign of the Amazon. "Where's Eponin?

"She's gone. She wanted to get back. They think I'm dead. I told her we'd be right behind her. Are you sure you're all right?" She sat beside Xena and brushed the hair from her face so that she could look into her eyes. Xena put her hand on Gabrielle's arm and smiled at her.

"I'm fine, Gabrielle. Is there anything left to eat?"

"Hmm. Yes, there's bread, some dried meat, and apples. You eat

while I pack our things. Guess we're not going to get that rest after all."

She set the food in front of the warrior and began to roll the blankets. Xena picked up one of the apples and bit into it, watching the bard thoughtfully as she chewed. Gabrielle went about her work silently, and when she looked back at Xena, she saw the blue eyes staring unfocused into the fire.



"Witness? Oh, I don't know, that's a pretty important part of the ceremony." Xena grinned at the sudden dejection on Ephiny's face and grabbed the girl in a wet, soapy hug that left her red-faced with embarassment.

"Of course I don't mind! You want to witness anything else?"

The hug and the image in Ephiny's mind at Xena's question sent

the dripping girl stammering from the room. Xena's soft laughter followed, as the warrior stood up from the water and looked after her. She was well aware of the girl's crush, and wasn't above teasing her about it when she could. She knew most of it was because she'd brought Lara back, and they'd spent many hours talking while Lara lay between life and death. Ephiny wanted to be a warrior, and she idolized Xena.

Warrior. Xena sat on the stone bench as she thought about the price she'd paid for that title. Her eyes closed as she thought back over the past three years. Caeser, M'lila, Corinth, Borias, Solan. Ares.

A soft glow began to form around her body at the thought of Ares. She looked down and took a deep breath, then went to her knees on the dirt floor. The glow intensified as she let herself feel the touch of the God of War. Her head went back and her back arched as the pleasure swept over her and she gave herself to it.

Her breath came in ragged gasps as the sensations intensified along with her excitement and when it stopped, she whimpered. The voice came into her mind, soft and seductive.

:"You want more, Xena? Then take it, my warrior princess."

Xena cried out as the glow returned, and with it came a thousand tiny points of pleasure. She lay helpless on the floor, her body demanding and receiving until the pleasure became almost unbearable and she collapsed in a satisfied heap.

Long minutes later, when her breathing had returned to normal, and her arms and legs were working again, she dragged herself back into the tub as the voice once again entered her mind.

"You would give that up, Xena?"

She spoke aloud, her voice lacking conviction. "Ares, I've told

you, I fight for my own cause."

"With my help. You belong to me, Xena. You always have, and you always will. This...woman...can give you nothing."

Xena closed her eyes as she remembered the first time Ares had come to her. It was almost two years since that night when she had stumbled into the forest after giving her son to Kaleipas to end the war with the Centaurs. She'd been unable to walk far before the loss of blood and the loss of her son had driven her to her knees.

Borias' betrayal had made her look at herself as she had not done since she'd left Amphipolis. She'd been angry at Caesar, but Borias' betrayal had hurt. Convinced she was lost, she'd put her face to the dirt and called the only name left to her.

He'd come in a ball of light, and had enveloped her in warmth and taken away her pain. He'd offered her pleasure, and she'd accepted. Though she had never seen him, she'd called on him many nights in the time since, and only Lara had taken her mind from him.

"I love her, Ares."

"I won't let you go, Xena. Love is nothing. I can make you a Goddess.."

Xena stood on shaky legs and reached down for the towel she had dropped on the floor.

"I don't want to be a Goddess, I've told you that. That was the last time, Ares."

She gasped and doubled over as a wave of pain shot through her body and Ares' voice came again into her mind, this time cold and threatening.

"I won't let you go, Xena. Don't forget, I am a God."

She fell to the floor as the pain overwhelmed her, then suddenly changed, and became the familiar gentle warmth, running up her body and leaving her once more limp and trembling, staring up at the ceiling.


Lara entered the darkened room quietly. She'd been kept longer than she'd expected, and she hoped for some time alone with Xena before they had to separate to prepare for the ceremony.

Xena lay asleep, naked, across the bed, her long black hair spread across the pillow, her feet hanging over the side. Lara smiled, then pulled her dress over her head and dropped it on the floor as she walked to stand between the dangling feet.

She put her hands on the mattress, pulling her body up between Xena's knees as she leaned over and began a string of delicate kisses that began at the inside of Xena's left knee and wound its way up the inside of her thigh. She felt Xena's hand on her head as she moved up and around the dark curls and her tongue left a wet trail that turned to fire when her warm breath crossed it.

She brought her hand slowly around Xena's thigh and up her side to her breast, her fingernails scraping gently and sending chills that brought a moan from the warrior.

Xena's legs wrapped around her as her searching mouth found her breast and her tongue flicked teasingly over the smooth skin, making a circle around the hard nipple. She closed her teeth carefully on the sensitive point of flesh, holding it captive and sucking gently while her tongue began a slow rhythm. Xena groaned and arched her back as her hips began to move and Lara moved with her. Xena's hand tightened in her hair and her other hand moved to slide between their bodies, but Lara gently held her from moving it further. Giving the bud a last gentle nip, she kissed her chin and looked into her eyes.

"Don't. Not this time." She lowered her head and brushed Xena's lips with her own, whispering. "Let me..."

Xena smoothed Lara's hair from her face and laced her long fingers around her head. She pulled her down for a sensuous, deep kiss, then with a last long look into the haunting grey eyes, she laid her head back and gave herself into the hands of the woman she loved.



"Ephiny? Lara was Ephiny's sister?" Gabrielle paced in a circle, her hands in her hair, shaking her head. "Gods, Xena! Does everyone know about this except me?"

Xena sat silently by the fire, waiting for Gabrielle to settle and finish her raving. She knew this was the bard's way of getting past her feelings so she could deal with the problem.

"I hate this! We'll be there tomorrow, Xena. Is there anything else I should know before we get there? Oooh, just wait til I... I can't believe Ephiny didn't tell me!"

She stopped and looked at Xena. "I can't believe you didn't tell me."

Xena put her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands. She sighed and straightened, turning to meet the bard's intense gaze.

"Gabrielle, I wanted to tell you a long time ago. We didn't know each other very well when you first met the Amazons, and you were so... so... innocent. The only thing no one spoke of was my ties to them. Nothing else was hidden, but you didn't see any of it. Potadiea is a long way from the Amazons, you know. I wanted to wait.. Then it just was never the right time to bring it up. If Kitraea hadn't..." Her voice trailed off, and she looked past Gabrielle, then closed her eyes. "It was easier to pretend it never happened."

Gabrielle kneeled beside Xena. She took the warrior's hands in hers, and looked up into her eyes. "I know this is hard for you, Xena. I wanted to give you time to finish telling me about this in your own way. Now we don't have the time. I'm the Queen of the Amazons. They'll expect me to make decisions, and I can't do that if I don't know what's going on. I'm listening now. You were telling me about Ephiny. About your ceremony..."




Lara moved slowly between the torches, smiling up at the tall woman who walked toward her. Each wore a flowing white wrap, gathered at the right shoulder and open down that side, leaving the other shoulder bare. Xena's long leg peeked out as she walked, and Lara's eyes twinkled at the memory of Xena trying to stand when they'd come for her. She'd walked unsteadily out of Lara's room while the healer had laughed and rolled back in the bed, breathing in Xena's lingering musky scent, and recalling the cries of her passion.

She closed her eyes and offered thanks to Aphrodite for bringing them together, then stopped in front of Xena in a circle of torches. A small fire burned at one side of the circle, and the rest of the village residents had gathered to watch their healer and her young warrior Joined as one.

Lara's eyes met Xena's and the blue eyes that held hers flashed with an intensity she'd never seen. Her knees went weak as Xena ran a long finger up the side of her neck and lowered her head to place a gentle, fervent kiss on her lips. A collective sigh ran through the watching Amazons.




Ephiny walked toward the two women. In her left hand, she held a small bronze bowl, in her right hand she carried a curved, ornate dagger. She stopped and held the dagger out on the palm of her hand. Her voice cracked when she started to speak, but the smile on her sister's face gave her courage and her voice rang out, high and clear.

"In the name of Artemis, Goddess of the Amazons, we are here to celebrate the Joining of these two souls into one. Xena of Amphipolis, will you give yourself into the bond of Joining with this woman?"

Xena took the dagger and smiled once more into Lara's eyes. She placed the dagger in Lara's hand, then raised her head and spoke to the faces around them as Lara reached up and cut the thong at Xena's shoulder and the cloth fell.

"As the Three Fates have brought us together, let only the Fates separate us. With my blood, I give myself into the bond of Joining with Lara of the Amazons."

She looked into Lara's eyes once more as the healer placed the dagger on her chest and made a small cut, leaving the point in contact with the flesh until a small amount of blood had collected on the blade. Ephiny held up the bronze bowl, and Lara let two drops of Xena's blood fall into it. She placed the dagger in Xena's hand, then stood smiling up at the warrior. Ephiny spoke again as Xena cut the thong on Lara's wrap, and she, too, stood naked before the fire.

"Lara of the Amazons, will you give yourself into the bond of Joining with this woman?"

Lara looked into Xena's eyes as she spoke. Her voice was clear, but the low tone promised much.

"As the Three Fates have brought us together, let only the Fates separate us. With my blood, I give myself into the bond of Joining with Xena of Amphipolis.

The warrior's hand shook at the sultry tone of Lara's voice. She made a matching cut on Lara's right breast, then let two drops of Lara's blood fall into the bowl.

Ephiny poured the contents of a small vial into the bowl, and swirled the mixture. Xena and Lara joined hands and stared deep into each other's eyes as the girl walked to stand before the fire. She held up the bowl and spoke once more.

"Let the flames send this word to the Gods, these two have become one!"

With this, she threw the contents of the bowl into the flames. A large flame erupted, followed by a fragrant cloud of smoke that rose into the night sky as Xena and Lara embraced and the Amazons cheered.

The couple found themselves surrounded by well-wishers as drums began to play, and the celebration began.



Ephiny was waiting when they rode into the amazon village. A buzz of activity hung in the air as the women made preparations for war. Xena pulled Argo to a stop in front of the acting Queen, and leaned down to help Gabrielle dismount before sliding out of the saddle.

Before Gabrielle could get her feet under her, Ephiny rushed at her and grabbed her in a hug that surprised the bard. She forgot her anger in her attempt to keep her footing, and she laughed until she saw the tears in Ephiny's eyes as the amazon released her and gently stroked her face.

"Gabrielle.... We thought you were dead."

Ephiny's emotion embarrassed Gabrielle and left her, for once,

without words. She had heard too much in the last few days, and now that she and Xena were here, she had no idea what to say or do. She finally pulled the amazon to her in another brief hug, her eyes meeting Xena's.

"I'm okay, now, Ephiny. It's all over. I'm not dead."

Ephiny pulled away from Gabrielle and smiled, reaching with the back of a finger to catch an errant tear that threatened her control.

"No, thank the Gods, you're not dead.." She ran her hands down Gabrielle's arms and looked her up and down. "You do look tired, though."

She looked up and met Xena's troubled eyes. "You both look tired. Come, let's go get you two something good to eat and a nice quiet place to rest."




Xena woke with a start at the loud knock on the door. Lara lay tangled in the blankets, sleeping soundly. Xena eased out of the bed and crossed the room before the knock could sound again. She opened the door to find one of the Amazon Guards. She stepped through the door and pulled it closed behind her.

"What's wrong?"

"Xena, there's a runner here from your army. He's at the north

outpost. I felt it best to leave him there, and have you go to him."

Xena looked around the still-celebrating village. Amazons took few occasions for true celebration, and the Joining Feast could go on for days.

"Let me get dressed."

She went back into the darkened room and slipped quickly into her battle clothes. Buckling her armor, she crossed to stand over the sleeping healer. A smile played at the corner of her mouth as it always did when she looked at the woman, and she leaned down and gently kissed the upturned lips. Lara smiled, but didn't wake, and Xena turned and left the room.



Xena sat back and pushed the rest of her food away. The silence that hung in the room was deafening, and she needed air. She looked from Gabrielle to Ephiny, then stood and walked toward the door.

"I'm going to talk to Eponin, see what preparations they're making." She stopped as she started through the door, looking back at the two women still sitting silent at the table.

"You two have some talking to do. You don't need me here."

Gabrielle met the brown eyes of her sister Amazon. Ephiny's eyes dropped, and the bard spoke quietly.

"Ephiny, I know about Lara. Well, most of it. I know she was your sister, and I know how she died. I'm sorry you lost her like that, but I'm angry at you for not telling me sooner."

Ephiny closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She looked into the green eyes that met hers and tried to explain.

"I don't blame you for being angry, Gabrielle. You should have been told a long time ago. When you and Xena first came to our village, it was the first time I'd seen her since Lara's death." . "She'd changed so much, it was like meeting a stranger, and I wasn't the little girl with a crush any more. It was almost a relief when Xena made it clear she didn't want to talk about it, or for you to know at all..."

Gabrielle nodded slowly. "I can understand, I think. But I know now. As the Queen, I think you should tell me if there's anything else I should know."

Ephiny sat back and stared at her hands. She traced the grain of the wooden table with a fingertip, her face growing hard as she thought back to the summer of her First Moon, her fifteenth year.

She remembered standing in the village when Xena rode in, tall and beautiful in the saddle. Her bearing was that of one accustomed to being obeyed as she stared down at the Guard and demanded to see the Queen, then reached to pull back the blanket over the bundle she held carefully against her in the saddle.

Ephiny remembered the fight Xena had waged to save Lara's life. She'd stayed by her side for days, treating her wounds, holding her when she fought in her delirium, holding her later when she cried.


Ephiny came back to the present. Gabrielle was holding her hand, looking into her eyes. "Tell me what happened."

"What has she told you?"

Gabrielle thought back over Xena's words. "I know they had a

Joining ceremony. I know Xena... killed her."

Ephiny shook her head slowly. Tears welled up in her eyes.

"I don't really know what happened. A messenger from Xena's

army came the morning after the ceremony, and she left with him."



Lara woke to an empty bed. She sat up and looked around the room. Xena's armor and weapons were gone. She fell back onto the pillow in frustration. The absent weapons could mean only one thing; Xena had rejoined her army, and could be gone for weeks. She rolled over and put her face against the covers, breathing Xena's scent and thinking of the long nights ahead.

She could hear the sounds of the Joining feast, and she smiled to herself and snuggled farther onto Xena's side of the bed, closing her eyes and drifting back into sleep as her mind formed a picture of her warrior.





Xena shifted in the saddle, every sense on full alert. After talking to Eponin, she'd begun to grow suspicious. She'd decided to scout a bit, look for clues in the forests between the two villages.

The Amazons who'd disappeared were all skilled warriors. Surely, one of them would have made it back. Unless they were being used as a lure. She thought back over the warlords she had fought in the area of the southern village. Ticking them off one by one in her mind, she soon realized that all were now dead.

Still, there was something...



Ephiny woke to the sounds of Lara's screams from the next room. She ran to her sister and held her, talking and soothing the woman until she had calmed enough to slump into her arms. She'd done this often since Xena had brought her home, but this time Lara had called Xena's name. She took a deep breath and looked up into Ephiny's eyes.

"Xena's in trouble. She's hurt."

"Lara, it was a dream. A nightmare. Xena's fine, you'll see."

"No. No, I saw her, in a battle. Gods, she was like a wild thing,

they couldn't get close to her. I don't know what happened... she fell. She... pain, she's in pain." Lara's grey eyes darted around the room. "My bag, where's my healer's pouch? I must go..."

Ephiny watched in disbelief as her sister moved quickly around the room.

"Lara, what are you doing? You can't..."

Lara turned and gave Ephiny her best big sister glare.

"Xena's injured. I have to go to her. Go saddle my horse. I'll

leave as soon as I get dressed."

Ephiny sat just long enough to get a well-aimed nightshirt thrown at her, then stood and started for the door. She knew her sister well enough to know that argument would be futile.

"Lara, you don't even know where she is. She's been gone for three days. She could be anywhere."

Lara stopped dressing and met Ephiny's eyes with her own. The young girl felt a chill at the touch of that gaze, seeing in the deep grey the hint of something... something not Lara.

"I know where she is. Get my horse!"

Ephiny ran for the stable, and Lara met her before she could walk the mare to the small house they shared. Lara jumped lightly into the saddle and reined the mare in a tight circle. She gave Ephiny a quick smile and a wink, then rode out at a gallop.

Ephiny stood looking after her in the dawn light Long minutes later, she turned and wiped the tears from her face. She stumbled as she made her way to the Queen's house. Something was wrong, very wrong, and she knew Lara would need help.



Argo trotted easily down the moonlit path. Xena glanced up at the full moon and wondered what Gabrielle was doing. Probably still talking to Ephiny. About Lara. Xena closed her eyes and saw Lara as she had looked that night, standing naked in the torchlight. She'd placed the dagger in Xena's hand and looked into her eyes with absolute trust. The image changed and Xena found herself looking into very different, but no less trusting, eyes.

She groaned and wiped tears from her cheeks. Gods, she'd cried more in the last two weeks than she'd cried since Lara's death. She shook herself, angered by her lack of control, reminding herself that she was in hostile territory. She'd have plenty to think about when she got to the village.



Gabrielle leaned against a tree and looked up at the full moon, wondering where Xena had gone. Eponin had told them Xena had questioned her at length before mounting Argo for what she called a "scouting trip". They had planned to pull out in force the next morning, so most likely she had simply decided to go on ahead. The bard was worried, though. Xena had been preoccupied most of the time since she'd faced the memory of Lara's death.

She looked around at the sound of her name to see Ephiny walking toward her.

"I apologize, Gabrielle. I didn't think that would take me so long. No word from Xena?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "No, and I've got a feeling something's wrong."

"You think she's in trouble?"

"No... not now. It's more a feeling that something's going to

happen. Ephiny, I know it's late, but could you tell me the rest of what happened with Lara?"

"All right, if you think it'll help." She sat against the tree and patted the ground next to her. The bard sat and looked at her expectantly.

"Queen Valora listened to me, and sent an escort after Lara. She allowed me to go with them, and we set out within an hour after Lara had gone."

She paused to wipe a tear from her face, then took a deep breath and continued, her voice becoming taut with emotion.

"We couldn't catch her. Late in the afternoon of the second day out, we came to the battlefield and found them. Xena was badly wounded, and Lara lay where she had fallen, dead."

Ephiny's eyes closed for a long moment, then opened . Gabrielle put her hand over her mouth when she saw the haunted look in the Amazon's eyes, and her own tears flowed freely as she thought of her own sister, Lila.

"Xena fought us when we tried to help her. She was delirious, mad, really... She refused to let go of Lara, refused to let us cover her. We had to wait until she passed out to try to care for her wounds, to get them both onto a litter and take them back to the village. Xena fought us all the way, ripping at her bandages, calling Lara's name, calling on the Gods to let her die as well. She crawled out to her horse three nights later, and I didn't see her again until you came with her."

"Only the Gods know what she went through, how long they were there like that. Xena was the only person we found alive on that field that day, everyone else was dead; dead for nearly two days."




Xena growled like an animal as she circled her opponent. Her left arm hung useless, swinging limp at her side, sending waves of pain each time she moved. She tried to block out the pain, to concentrate on the man in front of her. There had been so many, and they kept coming at her, falling under her sword to form a bloody mound around the small circle of ground she protected.

She spun and swung her sword, catching the man in mid-swing, stopping his movement with the edge of her blade as he clutched at his chest and rolled forward. She stepped back, then turned to face yet another of the warriors who were fast destroying her army. As the man rushed at her, she felt something hit her hard in her lower back.

She tried to swing her sword, but her eyes were drawn down to the arrowhead that had appeared through a hole in her armor. The world began to fade, and she felt another blow as the ground below her tipped strangely. She heard a victorious cheer rising around her as the ground reached up for her and some part of her mind noted even more blows.

Xena knew, even as she surrendered to the pain and the darkness, that she would not survive this fight. She thought of Lara, saw the laughing grey eyes, the lithe, supple body that held such pleasure.




Lara jerked back on the reins and her horse reared as it stopped scant inches from the man standing in the path. He was tall and dark, wearing dark leather and an air of arrogance as he stood, arms crossed, watching her frantic efforts to avoid running him down.

She fought to control the mare, and the beating of her heart, as she assessed her chances for escape. As was her custom, she'd brought no weapons, but she knew that Xena's life depended on speed. The mare backed suddenly, startled by the sudden additional weight on her back as the man waved his hand and was instantly in the saddle behind her. She felt herself trapped in the strong arms and a velvet voice crooned in her ear.

"So... You're the one. Xena has good taste."

Lara stopped her struggle for freedom at the sound of Xena's


"Who are you? How do you know Xena?"

Deep laughter in her ear now, a different tone in the voice,

sending chills through her that left a growing fear.

"How do I know Xena? Like you, my dear, I know Xena very, very well. In every way. Unfortunately, she made a choice. She's about to pay for that choice. She's dying, you know. Right now she's on a battlefield, bleeding her life into the soil."

Lara cried out, renewing her struggle against the arms that held her.

"Let me go! Please, I have to get to her."

Lara found herself standing, facing the man as his dark eyes bored into hers. He held her in his gaze until her knees began to tremble and she dropped her eyes.

"Who are you?"

"I'm Ares, God of War. Xena took my favors, then turned her

back on me. Gods don't like that sort of thing. Makes us angry."

Lara closed her eyes. An image of Xena appeared. She could almost feel her touch, smell her scent. Something in her chest twisted and she felt tears on her face as she began to understand.

"She's going to die? Because of me?"

Ares turned her head so he could look again into her eyes.

"Someone is going to die. If you save her, it will be at the cost

of your own life. Are you prepared for that?"

Her answer was a whisper.


She found herself on her knees amid hundreds of moaning, dying men. Struggling to her feet, she stood and looked around her, then looked blankly down at the sword in her right hand.






Xena slid out of the saddle and looked down at the empty village.

She closed her eyes against the memories and fought to bring herself into the present. She drew her sword and walked slowly down the hill and into the familiar maze of houses and storage huts. Nothing moved, and she saw no sign that the village had been raided. She stopped, and found herself at the door to the house she had shared with Lara.

She trembled as she turned and looked across to the ceremonial firepit, now dark in the moonlight. Every nerve in her body screamed for her to run, but she didn't know if it was her past she'd be fleeing, or an unknown enemy. And so she stood, sword drawn, ready to defend herself against mortal foe; defenseless against the ghosts of the past that moved around her, each inflicting its own little wound as it passed.



Gabrielle rode easily behind Ephiny as the Amazons began their journey to the south village. She'd slept little, and was glad when they'd set out before dawn Her mind kept going over and over what Ephiny had told her. Something wasn't right... Something didn't fit, but she couldn't put her finger on it.

"We found her horse and her healer's pouch just outside the village."

The bard shook herself and leaned forward. "I'm sorry, Ephiny, I wasn't listening. What did you say?"

Ephiny turned her head and spoke over her shoulder. "Lara's horse. We found it about a half-hour's ride from the village. Her healer's pouch was on the ground... I always wondered about that."

"You found her horse? When you went after her?"

"Yes. I guess it sounds crazy, but I always wondered how she

got to Xena so fast on foot... and why leave her pouch behind?"

Her voice lowered as she remembered her questions at the time.

"It just wasn't like her. And the sword. Xena kept saying she'd had a sword in her hand. There wasn't one when we found them."

"You said she'd been there...dead...for a while."

"Yes. From what I saw, she...looked like she'd died about the

same time as all the men who died there. Why?"

Gabrielle's mind was spinning. That's it... Lara got to the battlefield just as the battle was ending, but it took the Amazons two days to get there. She never carried weapons, but she walked up to Xena carrying a sword. Her horse was...

"Ephiny, did Xena ever mention any of the Gods? Anytime?"

Ephiny furrowed her brow, thinking back. "The Gods? I'm not

sure... Yes! Yes, the day of their ceremony. Xena was bathing. I'd gone in to talk to her about being their Witness. Xena teased me, as usual, and I left. I went back later to ask about something, and when I got to the door, I heard her talking to someone. She was talking to Ares. I couldn't hear him, but she said his name... something about not wanting to be a Goddess."

"Did you hear anything else?"

"No, there was this... noise, then nothing for a long time. I

looked in, and Xena was laying in the floor. I ran in and helped her up. She said she'd slipped getting out of the tub."

Gabrielle laid her head over against Ephiny's back. The icy fingers of fear began to work through her, and she prayed that she was wrong.

Ephiny sensed the sudden despair. "Gabrielle? What's wrong?"

"I can't explain yet, Ephiny. Hurry... just hurry."


Lara moved slowly across the battlefield. She was surrounded by wounded and dying men, and had to fight the desire to stop and care for them. Most were beyond her help, and she knew she had to find Xena. She stopped and scanned the faces around her, then began to move once more. There were so many...

She topped a small rise and came upon a mound of corpses. Dead men lay piled atop each other in a large circle. At the center of that circle lay the battered and almost unrecognizable body she'd seen in her dream.





Xena moved cautiously through the village. The light from the setting moon had faded, and the glow on the eastern horizon had not yet filled the shadows. She emerged between two buildings to stand again before the central firepit, and she felt eyes watching her, though she could see nothing. She moved toward the firepit, drawn by the memories, and entered the circle.

The torches flamed to life as she stepped between them, and she turned as the flames jumped from torch to torch around the circle. She bent into a fighting stance, holding her sword with both hands. Her eyes searched the darkness beyond the flames and she moved in a slow circle as she spoke into the night.

"Who are you? Show yourself!"

A small figure stepped into the circle between two torches. Laughing grey eyes reflected the torchlight as Lara extended her hand, offering Xena the curved dagger which lay across her palm.

"With my blood-"


Xena's scream cut across her words. The warrior backed into one of the torches, then turned and jumped sideways. Her face twisted with grief and guilt, and fear, as she suddenly began to understand what was happening; what had happened. What could happen...

She turned away from the woman, who still held the dagger extended. She closed her eyes, reminded herself that this was not Lara. Feeling her body tremble, she spoke softly, hoping her voice would work.


She fell to her knees and gasped for breath as a sudden wave of pleasure swept up her body. She'd never forgotten the intensity of it, but she'd closed that part of her life away that afternoon so long ago, and had sealed it with her Joining with Lara. She pushed it away with her mind and spoke again, anger giving her strength.

"ARES! I told you that was OVER!! It's BEEN over!"

The woman before her began to glow, then, with a blinding flash

of light, took on the familiar shape of the God of War.



Gabrielle felt a rising sense of panic. Ephiny could feel her trembling against her back, and she kicked her horse to a gallop. Eponin rode up beside them, and she called over to explain.

"We're going ahead. You stay with the others, get them there as quickly as possible."

Eponin nodded, and sat back in the saddle to slow the horse. She looked after the pair, then back toward the main body of Amazons. She motioned, and Solari trotted to join her. "They wanted to go ahead. I'm going after them."

Solari nodded. The Queen should not be without escort. She slowed to wait for the others as Eponin set off once more at a gallop.



"Xena. You look a little jumpy. Hardly an appropriate image for a Warrior Princess." Ares walked toward her as she jumped to her feet, turning aside her sword with the back of his hand. He stopped and stood looking down into her eyes. His voice was cold and sarcastic.

"But then, you're hardly the old Xena, Warrior Princess, anymore, are you?"

Xena met Ares' glare. She wasn't sure what he was angry about, but at least this was an enemy she was familiar with. She fought to control her racing heart.

"What do you want, Ares?" She looked around them, then back into his eyes. "This is pretty elaborate, even for you."

Ares' eyes went to the torches, and the flames died.


"Why all this, Ares? What did you do with the Amazons?"

Ares tilted his head and looked down at her through narrowed


"Maybe they've been sent to replace the army you disbanded."

Xena's face hardened and her jaw clenched. Damn him!

"Get to the point, Ares."

Ares' smile sent chills through the warrior. She'd never seen this side of the God of War, and she knew something between them had changed. She backed away from him and he advanced as she moved, keeping his body inches from hers, speaking into her face so that she felt the heat of his breath.

"The point? The point. Ahh, my dear Xena, the point is that you have now turned me away twice. I should have let you die ten years ago on that battlefield. I should have known you'd lose your nerve when you killed your bride."

Xena felt her breath catch. Tears stung her eyes, and anger and guilt filled her soul.


Ares reached to touch her tears as they spilled down her cheeks.

His voice was low, thoughtful.

"Ah, but you acted as you should have, Xena. A warrior lives to kill. That's how it should be. I gave you an army to track down a murderer, and what did you do? You let him live. The Xena I knew; the Xena who called me when she was...lonely, would have killed that scum without a second thought."

He put his hand on Xena's shoulder. His expression hardened and his mouth twisted into a malicious grin as Xena's body jerked and she fell once more to her knees. Her breath came now in painful gasps and her body twitched as she fought unsuccessfully to rise. Ares stood over her, then reached down and laid his hand on the top of her head.

Stroking the dark hair, his voice held the same thoughtful tone.

"Yes. You had fire in your heart then, Xena. I welcomed your

call. Most mortals are fearful of gods, but you never were, were you? You took Pleasure with the same joy and abandon you showed on the battlefield, and it was a glorious experience! Look at you now, Xena."

He shook his head. His fingers tightened in the long hair and he jerked her head back. Leaning down to put his face close to hers once more, he spoke through clenched teeth.

"Look at you!!" with an angry growl, he shoved her face toward the ground.

"You're pathetic! Ten years ago, I'd have had to kill you to do this! Grovel, woman, as you should! Give me one reason not to end your life now for defying me!"





Ephiny slowed her mount as they entered the forest that ringed the south village. Gabrielle raised her head and looked around them. She spoke in a hoarse voice that did nothing to hide her fear. "Where's the village? Why are we slowing down?"

Ephiny turned in the saddle to look into Gabrielle's eyes. "We don't know what we'll find, Gabrielle. We can't just rush in there."

Gabrielle returned the look. "If I'm right, we'll find Xena. And Ares. Go."

Ephiny sighed and turned away from the bard. She leaned forward once more in the saddle, and the trees rushed by until she pulled the mare to a halt on the ridge overlooking the village.



Xena's body shook and her head slowly pushed up against the hand on the back of her head. Her muscles strained with the effort, and a thin trickle of blood began from her nose. She raised her head and rolled her eyes to look at him.

"You're..still....going to have to...kill me, Ares." She could feel the strain her body was under, fighting his power. Her heart pounded in her chest and every fiber of her being screamed. She felt a part of her begin to pull away, and she saw in her mind a smiling face, green eyes meeting hers.

Ares laughed and released her so suddenly her body slammed up and back into the ground before she could catch herself. She rolled and pushed herself up with her hands, swinging her head around to look up at him, trying to will strength into her trembling legs as she stumbled to her feet.

"No, Xena, you won't get off that easily "




Ephiny felt the hair rise on the back of her neck as she looked down at the deserted village in the morning light.

"I don't understand. It looks...normal. Where is everyone?"

Gabrielle spoke in a whisper. "Gone. Xena's down there, let's go."

Ephiny reined the mare down the hill. They had covered almost

half the distance to the buildings when a brilliant light flashed from the center of the village.

Time slowed for Ephiny as several things happened at once. She heard Gabrielle's heartbroken scream "NO!" at the same time the mare reared and the bard tumbled back and hit the ground, rolling a short distance down the hill. She lay still as Ephiny fought to control the frightened mare, then jumped from the saddle and ran to the unmoving woman.

Xena fell once more to her knees when a dying man appeared under her feet. He grabbed at her arm, pulling at her even as he took a last, choking breath. She jerked away from him and stood, panic giving her strength. She reached for her sword as she looked around her, and her heart fell when she realized she had dropped it while struggling against Ares.

A hand on her shoulder made her strike out, and Ares caught her hand easily in his.

"Ah-ah, Xena. Save that, you'll need it later. Right now, you've got a decision to make."

He swept his hand around as he smiled at Xena. He took a deep breath and crossed his arms over his chest with a satisfied smile.

"Ahhh. Nothing smells quite like a battlefield. Right, Xena?"

Xena looked around them. Hundreds of men lay dead and dying in

the morning light.

"Why are we here, Ares?"

Ares raised his arm and pointed behind Xena. She turned and

caught her breath when her searching eyes found the small shape trying to work its way over a large mound of bodies. She knew instantly who it was as she recognized the flowing dress preferred by the Amazon healer. Her heart skipped a beat and the color drained from her face when she saw her stop and look down at the sword in her hand.



Ephiny fell to her knees beside Gabrielle. She lay on her side, her eyes closed and her left leg twisted beneath her. She was covered with dust, and a patch of raw skin on her cheek sent a trail of blood into her hair. Ephiny carefully straightened the leg, then gently rolled the bard onto her back. She began a systematic check for injuries, and found a small depression just behind her left ear. She explored the area carefully, knowing that the wound could well be fatal, but hopeful because of its small size.

Satisfied that save various bruises and scrapes, the broken leg and the head wound were the extent of Gabrielle's injuries, the Amazon stood and looked around her, weighing her options. She mentally kicked herself for letting the bard convince her to leave the others behind. Gabrielle was the true Queen, and she had a responsibility to protect her.





Ares grabbed Xena's arm as she jumped toward the figure in the distance. She turned to him, striking out as she tried to free herself from his grasp.

"She doesn't have to die, Xena."

"What do you want from me, Ares?"

He smiled down at her, his voice now seductive and low.

"I want what I had, what you had. You were coming along quite nicely until you met that Amazon. Oh, you were fierce in your grief after she died, but you were running on guilt and rage, not the joy of battle. I've tried every way I could think of to relight that fire, but you still resist me. Even after I gave you back your irritating bard, you would have spared Micasus if he'd given you a choice. Now, I'm giving you a choice. A chance to re-think your decision to turn me away."

"And what happens to Lara? To Gabrielle?"

Ares' gaze followed Xena's as they watched the figure top the

mound and slowly pick its way down the other side, moving inexorably toward the single figure at the center of the circle.

"That's up to you."



Eponin rode over the crest of the hill that overlooked the south village and drew a sharp breath at the sight of Ephiny, bending over Gabrielle. The bard's skin was pale, and her breath came rapid and shallow. Eponin slid from the saddle and ran to them, calling out as she ran.

"Ephiny? Are you all right? What happened?"

Ephiny looked up at her as she bent to kneel beside her in the

dirt. Tears rose in her eyes as she tried to explain.

"Eponin, I, I don't know. Gabrielle screamed, there was a flash of light, the horse reared... It happened so fast... but it seemed to take forever. She fell..."

Eponin put her arm around the shoulders of her Queen. "I'm sure she'll be all right. The Gods wouldn't have given her back to take her again so quickly."

Ephiny ran her fingers through the soft hair, smoothing it back from the pale face. She reached for the bard's hand as she moaned softly and spoke.

"Xena? Xena.....Gods....she's gone.....don't leave me again....."



Lara stepped down onto the bloody ground and turned. She took three slow steps and stopped, looking down. The sword she carried in her right hand hung just in front of Xena's face.

"NO!" Xena twisted unsuccessfully in Ares' grip. She couldn't take her eyes away as she saw the woman bend over... "All right! Stop this, Ares. Tell me what you want."

Ares chuckled smugly and the scene around them changed. Xena found herself on the floor of the bathing room in Lara's house. She heard Ares' voice in her mind as she stared up at the rafters in the ceiling.

"Don't go through with the ceremony, Xena. It's as simple as

that. Lara lives. You never pledge your soul to her; you never end

up half dead on that battlefield. You never run your sword-"

She spoke softly into the empty room.

"I get the idea. What about Gabrielle? What happens to her?"

"Oh, she'll stay in Potadiea. Marry her childhood sweetheart.

Make lots of little irritating blonds to carry on the family name. After all, with my help, you'll rule all of Greece by the time you would have met her. A strong army ensures peace for the citizens. And you could still bring her into your life, later. You'll have anyone you want, once you've conquered them. Of course, right now, she's not doing very well. Took a nasty hit on the head. She's not very good on a horse, is she?"

Xena closed her eyes. She heard a strangled cry, and a very young Ephiny ran into the room and grabbed her hand.

"Xena? What happened?"

Xena sat up and let Ephiny help her to her feet. She looked down at the worried girl and smiled what she hoped was a convincing smile. "I'm fine. I slipped... should've taken the soap out of the water."

Ephiny suddenly realized that she had her arm around a very naked warrior and she jumped back.

"Are you sure? I, I mean, I..."

Xena chuckled and pushed the girl gently ahead of her as she

walked through the door and turned toward Lara's room.

I'm fine, Ephiny. Go get ready for tonight. You'd better not mess up my Joining!"

Ephiny gratefully escaped through the outer door as Xena closed Lara's door behind her. She walked slowly across the room and lay back across the bed, raising one arm to cover her eyes. Her mind raced as she tried to come up with something, anything, she could do to end this nightmare.





Gabrielle felt a sudden, terrible emptiness through her soul that caused her to cry out. She was blinded by a flash of light and she felt the horse spin sideways and she was falling through the darkness. Then a different kind of light, and the darkness covered everything. She was trapped in a void, and the only thing she knew for sure was that Xena was gone. She had just...disappeared, just before that flash of light. What had Ares done? tired...can't sleep, not now...

Eponin walked up the rise to the woman still sitting on the ground. Ephiny had refused to leave Gabrielle's side, so Eponin had led the Amazons into the village and had each building carefully searched. She returned now with litter-bearers to carry Gabrielle to the healer's house, so they could care for her properly.

She sat on her heels beside them and put her hand on Ephiny's shoulder. The pain in the eyes that met hers made her voice gruff, though she spoke kindly.

"Ephiny, we need to take her into the village. We have to care for her, and here, on the ground, in the open, is not the place to do that." She reached for the hand of her Queen, then stood, pulling her to her feet. She looked back at the two Amazons behind her and nodded her head, then pulled Ephiny aside to let them move the bard carefully onto the litter and start down the hill.

It was a solemn procession, and all of the Amazons stopped what they were doing and stood watching as it passed, winding its way through the village to the healer's house. Ephiny looked up at the small, carved statue of Artemis that sat above the door, remembering when Xena had brought it for Lara, and how excited Lara had been. She turned and looked across the clearing to the ceremonial firepit.

Eponin saw the color drain from her face and she slid her arm around her waist. She knew what this was costing her, and she spoke in a low, comforting tone as she steered her toward the door and inside before she could protest.

"I know this is hard, my Queen. Let's go inside. There are too many eyes here, and we'll do Gabrielle no good if we give in to memories now."

A shout from outside stopped Eponin in the act of closing the door. One of the Amazon Guard waved at her from across the clearing. Eponin squeezed Ephiny's arm.

"I'll see what she wants."

Joining the guard at the ceremonial firepit, she followed her

pointing finger and saw a sword glinting under the scuffed dirt. She bent and picked it up, catching her breath as the design became visible, and she recognized it as Xena's. With a heavy heart, she turned back to meet the brown eyes of her Queen across the clearing, then slowly walked back and into the building, pushing the door closed behind them as she handed the sword to Ephiny.



Xena had finally allowed herself to fall into a light sleep. She still wasn't quite sure of Ares' intentions if she didn't go ahead with the ceremony, but she knew without any doubts what would happen if she did. She'd lived that reality for ten years now, and from what Ares had said, there was the very real possibility that she would lose Gabrielle, too. She tried to imagine Gabrielle, married, probably to Perdicas, with a house full of children.

*She'd be a good mother... She's never lost that childhood

innocence, even after the time with me, after all she's been

through.... because of me...*

She remembered the beaten, bitter Gabrielle she'd met when the Fates had given her a chance to change her past. That time, Gabrielle had been taken as a slave by Masentius. This time, though, she could change that. She could protect Potadiea, protect Gabrielle...



Gabrielle gradually became aware of her surroundings. Her head pounded and her whole body ached as she felt herself being eased onto a soft bed, and she felt a sharp pain in her leg that made her cry out. Ephiny was instantly at her side, holding her hand and calling her name.

"Gabrielle? Gabrielle, you're going to be just fine... Your leg's broken, and you hit your head..."

The bard tried, but couldn't open her eyes. She squeezed Ephiny's hand lightly and whispered. "Xena?"

Ephiny met Eponin's eyes across the bed. She pulled Gabrielle's hand to her chest, covering it with both of her own as she fought to keep her voice even.

"Gabrielle, it's Ephiny. Xena... Xena's not here. We're in the village. In the healer's house."

Gabrielle felt herself being drawn back into the darkness. The healer's house... "Lara's... house..."

Ephiny's voice, far away and barely audible through the roar in her ears.

"Yes, Gabrielle. Lara's house."




Lara entered the darkened room quietly. She'd been kept longer than she'd expected, and she hoped for some time alone with Xena before they had to separate to prepare for the ceremony.

Xena lay asleep, naked, across the bed, her long black hair spread across the pillow, one arm across her face, her feet hanging over the side. Lara smiled, then pulled her dress over her head and dropped it on the floor as she walked to stand between the dangling feet.

She put her hands on the mattress, pulling her body up between Xena's knees as she leaned over and began a string of delicate kisses that began at the inside of Xena's left knee and wound its way up the inside of her thigh. She smiled as the warrior breathed her name, and she felt Xena's hand on her head as she moved up and around the dark curls. Her tongue left a wet trail that turned to fire when her warm breath crossed it.

She brought her hand slowly around Xena's thigh and up her side to her breast, her fingernails scraping gently and sending chills that brought a moan from the warrior.

Xena's legs wrapped around her as her searching mouth found her breast and her tongue flicked teasingly over the smooth skin, making a circle around the hard nipple. She closed her teeth carefully on the sensitive point of flesh, holding it captive and sucking gently while her tongue began a slow rhythm. Xena groaned and arched her back as her hips began to move and Lara moved with her. Xena's hand tightened in her hair and her other hand moved to slide between their bodies, but Lara gently held her from moving it further. Giving the bud a last gentle nip, she kissed her chin and looked into her eyes, surprised to see tears.

"Don't. Not this time." She lowered her head and brushed Xena's lips with her own, whispering. "Let me..."

Xena smoothed Lara's hair from her face and laced her long fingers around her head. She pulled her down for a sensuous, deep kiss, then looked deep into the haunting grey eyes. The tears that had gathered ran down the side of her face. "Lara...did I ever tell you how much I love you? Have I ever said the words?"

Lara smiled and lowered her head to gently kiss her tears away.

"I've never doubted that for a second, Xena, my love. Now, let me tell you..."

With a last, long look into the haunting grey eyes, Xena laid her head back and gave herself into the hands of the woman she loved. Her tears continued, while in her mind, the image of the woman whose warm body lay over hers blurred, becoming sturdier, more muscular, the eyes no longer grey, and as she cried out in her passion and pain, she felt, for a moment, the touch of love to come.



Ten years into the future, in the same room and the same bed, Gabrielle called Xena's name into a vast emptiness, sensing her presence, feeling her body responding to an unknown hand, feeling the pain that made the pleasure unbearable as Xena entered the void between then and now.

Ephiny bathed the fevered brow with a cool cloth, and tried to calm the unconscious bard. She feared she would injure herself further, and in desperation, she laid Xena's sword across the bard's chest. Gabrielle's arms closed on it as a drowning man holds a log, and her breathing calmed, her cries becoming soft mutters. Ephiny sighed in relief, and settled in to wait for her to wake.



Xena walked slowly through the forest that surrounded the village. She could hear the sounds of laughter as the amazons prepared for the Joining Feast. She knew Lara was getting dressed for the Joining, and she closed her eyes and leaned against a tree as she thought about the choice Ares had given her.

The emptiness in her soul had eased while Lara had made love to her, and she knew that somehow, she and Gabrielle had managed a tenuous connection through time. She felt the irony that being with Lara had helped her reunite spritually with Gabrielle, but she also felt that Gabrielle's hold on life was slipping, and she felt a new urgency to make a decision. If she went through with this...

*Gabrielle, if I ruled Greece, would you care? Would your eyes light up when you looked at me? And if I do this, what? I'll kill one woman I love and end up burying you...again. And Lara, could you understand if I don't Join with you? I feel we're already Joined, this Ceremony is for you, for your tradition. Would you still be there if I stay with Ares? Gods, I'll lose you both either way. Damn you, Ares!*

Xena gave in to the tears, sliding down the side of the tree, not noticing when her long white gown folded itself under her into the grass at her feet.

Lara hummed happily and smiled at Ephiny as she tied the thong on her shoulder. Ephiny hugged her and stepped back, grinning at her sister.

"Lara, you're so beautiful! Xena had better appreciate you!"

Lara took a deep breath and exhaled in a long, dreamy sigh.

"Don't worry about that, Ephiny. Xena appreciates me just fine."

She looked slyly over at Ephiny, knowing of the girl's crush on her lover. "Would you believe she cried when we made love today? She loves me, Ephiny, I have no doubt of that. She's not good at saying it with words, but she says it every time she looks at me, every time she says my name."

Ephiny nodded, agreeing. "I know. I've seen it. A person would have to be blind not to see it. She positively glows around you, and you...well..." She grinned and made a face that brought a shriek of laughter from her sister and made both of them collapse into helpless giggles.





"How is she?"

Ephiny shrugged and laid her head over against Eponin's shoulder.

"She's barely here. I don't know what to do. Maybe, if Xena..."

Gabrielle listened to the words calmly. She felt detached from her body, a freedom like none she'd ever felt. She knew she hadn't died, or she'd be waiting for Charon's boat, again. Without the pain her body was experiencing, she could think again, and she concentrated now on that tiny whisper she'd heard, the bit of light in her soul that told her Xena was near.



The steady beating of the drums told Xena that her time was almost gone. Lara would be waiting, wondering where she was. Whatever her decision, it had to be made now. She stood and brushed the grass and leaves from her gown, and wiped her face with the inside of the hem.

She turned toward the sound of the drums, then looked back through the trees toward the hill that overlooked the village. She went to one knee and looked up at the full moon, tears again on her face.

"Athena, I've no reason to expect your favor, but I can't make this choice alone. Help me... Please..."

Gabrielle heard Xena's words echo around her. She reached out with her mind, trying to make her words heard.

"Xena! XENA! It was Ares! It wasn't your fault!'

Xena bowed her head. She could hear the changing rythym of the drums, now calling everyone who heard them to gather for the ceremony. Her tears took control as she turned her head toward the ridge and began to rise.

Gabrielle felt Xena's surrender. Her body jerked and bucked as she fought to make Xena hear her.

"Xena! Gods! Xen.... Wait! Hades!"

She sent her mind out, calling on the God of the Underworld, but

found only silence. She pleaded for him to hear her.

"Hades, you told me I could talk to her. She didn't need me then, but she needs me now. Let me talk to her, please!"

She felt overwhelming grief from Xena. In desperation, she tried once more.




Xena stumbled as she took the first step toward another life. She was blinded by her tears, and the quiet voice behind her made her stop in her tracks. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and turned, but she was alone.

"Xena, it's Gabrielle. I don't know if you can hear me. I don't know what's happening to you, but I know you're in trouble. I want you to know something."

Xena looked around her. Nothing moved, just the sound of the drums, reminding her... She put her hands over her face and closed her eyes, praying for the voice to return. It was back within a heartbeat.

"First, it wasn't your fault, Xena. Ares put Lara on that battlefield that day. She got there almost at the same time she left the village. He set you up, Xena, probably because of your Joining. Second. Well, we'll have to do the rest later, Xena, but here's my part... As the Three Fates have brought us together, let only the Fates separate us. With every part of my body and soul, I give myself into the bond of Joining with Xena of Amphipolis. I love you, Xena. Please come back to me. Please."





Xena walked slowly between the torches toward the small woman standing in the circle, waiting. She smiled down into her eyes as she stopped, then reached up and ran a long finger along her cheek and down her neck. Tears glittered in her eyes as she pulled the woman close and whispered softly. "I'll always love you, Lara."

Lara replied with a kiss, and after a long moment, they pulled their bodies apart and turned toward the fire.

Ephiny walked toward the two women. In her left hand, she held a small bronze bowl, in her right hand she carried a curved, ornate dagger. She stopped and held the dagger out on the palm of her hand. Her voice cracked when she started to speak, but the smile on her sister's face gave her courage and her voice rang out, high and clear.

"In the name of Artemis, Goddess of the Amazons, we are here to celebrate the Joining of these two souls into one. Xena of Amphipolis, will you give yourself into the bond of Joining with this woman?"

Xena took the dagger and smiled once more into Lara's eyes. She placed the dagger in Lara's hand and raised her head and looked up at the faces around them.

The torchlight sparkled on the tears on her face, and her voice rang out over the night as Lara cut the thong at her shoulder and her wrap fell away.

"As the Three Fates have brought us together, let only the Fates separate us. With my blood, I give myself into the bond of Joining with Lara of the Amazons."

She felt the sting of the dagger on her breast, and closed her eyes. She heard Lara whisper to Ephiny, then silence. She opened her eyes to find herself surrounded by Amazons. She was naked, but there was no fire in the firepit, and only half of the torches were lit. Ignoring the amazons who watched her, she turned to look across the clearing. She pushed her way through the crowd and stopped at the door.

Xena looked up at the carved figure. Her hand shook as she reached to push on the door, then walked slowly into the room. She looked around with haunted eyes and looked through the open door that led into Lara's room. She drew a sharp breath at the sight of the small figure in the bed, but she knew Gabrielle was safe. She knew she carried her in her heart, and soon she'd have to give her back to the Gods, to do with as they would.

She walked through the door. Ephiny jumped to her feet and called her name, but she walked past her, unseeing. Her eyes were on the pale face in the bed, and she pulled back the cover and slid her body against Gabrielle's. She wrapped herself carefully around the bard and laid her cheek against the soft hair. She closed her eyes and began to speak, her voice trembling.

"As the Three Fates have brought us together, let only the Fates separate us. With every part of my body and soul, I give myself into the bond of Joining with Gabrielle of Potadiea."

Her tears dripped into the golden red hair as she moved to kiss the pale lips. "I love you, Gabrielle. Please don't leave me..."

She laid her head against Gabrielle's and closed her eyes. Her breathing slowed, and Ephiny gently pulled the blankets over both of them and walked from the room.



The morning sun through the open window woke the warrior. Her body screamed when she raised herself on her elbow and looked down at the sleeping face beside her. Gabrielle's color had improved, and her breathing was slow and steady. Xena eased herself back down, cursing the unpredictability of gods, and carefully pulled away from the bard. She rolled to a sitting position and used her arms to force herself upright. Her struggle against Ares had left every muscle in her body strained, and even breathing hurt. She raised her head as the door opened, and Ephiny peeked in.

Xena managed to move her head in a nod, and Ephiny entered the room. She went first to Gabrielle, then turned to Xena.

"Xena, are you hurt?"

Xena started to shake her head, but a muscle spasm in her neck

stopped her. She caught her breath, finally managed to speak.

"No. Just sore."

Ephiny squatted in front of her and looked up into her eyes and saw the beginnings of peace. She put one hand behind Xena's elbow and gently helped her to her feet.

"How does a long, hot soak sound to you? Come on, then I'll give you a nice massage."

Xena chuckled and looked over into the brown eyes. "You know, Ephiny, you were a cute kid."

Ephiny's eyes began to shine, and she smiled. "You weren't so bad yourself, back then."

Xena's eyebrow lifted. "And now?"

Ephiny's smile broadened, and she glanced down at the sleeping bard.

"You're still taken. Now come on, the water's getting cold."


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