The Second Branch of The Reparations Cycle

By: Llachlan
llachlan@ican.net

 

Disclaimer: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle et al belong to the folks at Universal/MCA, I just borrowed them for awhile and intend no copyright infringement or other damage. The Gods as you can plainly see, belong to themselves and answer to no one. (Mostly)

Violence: From this point on, it's safe to assume that this ain't just a love story anymore. I mean you've got Xena and Celts in the same epic - what do you expect?

Sextext: Yep, and if knowing some of what two women who love each other can share between them doesn't bother you read on - but - if its illegal where you live, or if it offends you find something else to read. If you're not of legal age where you live... it'll keep.

Angst Alert: Right, we have a whole lotta sensitive (and some not so sensitive chats - grin) in this section. In fact I should have created an Amazon Therapy Clinic.

Special Thanks and Silver Chakrams: Foremost - thanks to the following people whose aid has been invaluable; RavensTale, Garnet (Catran), CN Winters, Barbara Maclay and Agatha Tutko and without whose encouragement this tale would remain unfinished.

Story Disclaimer: While Atlantis was toasted then sunk, I'm told Celtic history did not suffer overmuch from the writing of this fan fic. Solon, while seriously harmed during the production of this fan fic , is never-the-less in considerably better shape than TPTB left him at the end of season three.

 

Email llachlan@ican.net

 Last but not least - this is dedicated to some wonderful bards who keep me up late at night - much to the consternation of someone who would prefer it if I joined her in bed - you'll know who you are.

 

 DICTIONARY AND AUTHOR'S NOTES (or what the hell was I thinking <grin>)

 

Chapter 1

 Xena watched as the horse and rider topped the ridge and slowly resolved into a recognizable figure. Her breath caught in her throat. Gabrielle. Gabrielle on a horse. She laughed in spite of herself as the memory of the bard's previous dislike of riding came to mind. The horse and rider were much closer now and Xena could make out the honey gold hair flying behind the woman.

Five years, she thought, it's been five years and here she is riding up to my front door. Xena gripped the porch railing in front of her as their eyes met and locked, her knees suddenly weak. She forced herself to remain standing, to speak.

"Hello, Gabrielle," rolling the name off her tongue with an unexpected huskiness.

"Xena." Oh Gods how she had missed hearing her name spoken by that voice, had missed hearing it recite poems and stories, even missed its good natured grumbling and incessant questions.

Realizing Gabrielle had dismounted and was looking up at her shyly, she took a deep breath and tried her damnedest to appear nonchalant.

"You can corral her around back, with Argo and the other stock if you'd like. You hungry?" The refuge behind social graces leaving a multitude of unanswered questions hanging in the air between them.

"Is Zeus a God?", Gabrielle smiled, "Are you cooking?" It was a relief that they could still talk on at least a casual level.

"Relax, I've added to my many skills." Came the answering drawl, Xena watched as her friend - were they still friends? She hoped so- disappeared around the corner of the cabin towards the barn. Gathering suddenly tumultuous thoughts she turned and went inside to prepare dinner.

Why now, after all this time, why now? Xena smoothly removed the haunch of lamb from the fire and methodically began slicing it, smooth strokes of the knife blade distracting her from the growing swirl of emotions warring within her. Anger and hurt giving way to confusion and joy, How can she just ride in here like not a day has gone by, like it was yesterday?

Except it wasn't yesterday. They'd changed. She's changed, even in their brief exchange Xena could feel the quiet strength emanating from Gabrielle, could see the comfort with which the younger woman wore the twin mantles of womanhood and Queenship. And felt things long buried stir from the place she had buried Gabrielle so long before, from the place she'd buried herself.

***

Gabrielle slowly approached the paddock, marshalling her thoughts and fighting for equilibrium. Sweet Artemis, what was I thinking? Jumbled impressions of her ride up to the house refused to stop playing themselves in her memory. She remembered feeling herself flush when their eyes had meet for that brief searing moment, remembered nearly losing herself in hauntingly familiar blue eyes, drowning as she searched for signs of the woman she had once known, and then breaking the contact under the guise of dismounting. She had been so afraid, I can't believe I came here, what if she hadn't wanted to see me? No, she realized, Xena had probably recognized her from a long way off and if the warrior hadn't wanted to see her then she would have found the place deserted. And that voice - "Hello, Gabrielle." Xena's voice had cut through her, sliding down her spine like shot silk.

The nickers of her roan horse and the answering snorts of the horses already in the enclosure broke her reverie. One horse detached itself from the herd and cantered over to the bard. She reached up and wrapped her arms around the familiar butter coloured neck, whispering into its' ear. "Hello girl, how are you? Are any of those young colts yours? Mmm, just a second, I brought you something." She reached into the pocket of her trews and brought out a crunchy red apple and gave it to Argo. "This is Quill, be nice to her okay." Gabrielle removed the horse's tack and her saddlebags, and turned her out into the pasture, promising to come back and brush both horses later.

She took the opportunity to look around as she walked to the barn. It was sturdy and well maintained, with what looked like a separate tack room. Behind the barn the fields were cordoned off by a long low wooden fence, dividing the stock from the crops. The corral to her right held about twelve sheep and thirty horses, with chickens and other barnyard fowl wandering in and out of the enclosure at will, there didn't seem to be a chicken coop or a pigsty - though the absence of the latter didn't surprise her. Xena hated pigs, liked pork but hated pigs.

The paddock stretched out behind the plowed fields and the corral, but it appeared as if all the animals had been brought in for the night. Xena must have just finished bringing them in when I arrived. I'll be damned, she turned herself into a farmer after all. I wouldn't have thought she could just walk away, It mus..., suddenly breaking the thought - not wanting to go there.

Gabrielle headed back toward the cabin. Her eyes taking in the clean lines of the building and its high sloped roof. The sun was just sinking over the chimney and the roof tiles reflected the glow of the setting sun. A wide covered porch ran the length of the building on three sides, a wood pile stacked high in double rows against the other.

She walked up the stairs to the door and hesitated, unsure of whether to knock or enter, a little afraid of what she would see when she entered the house that Xena had built for Elin. Her throat constricted, a lump forming, I don't think I can do this, as her hand dropped away from the door.

 

 

Chapter 2

 

Xena looked up from the trenchers she had been piling with an assortment of meat, cheese, fruits and bread when she heard Gabrielle's familiar footsteps reach the door. A long moment passed, and when she didn't hear the door start to open she crossed the room and opened it herself, in time to see the stricken look on the other woman's face. Her chest tightened and so she smiled and said the only words that came to mind, "dinner's ready, did you get your mount settled?" She saw relief flood the familiar green eyes and was glad she had sidestepped whatever put the panic in the bard's eyes.

She held the door for Gabrielle and directed her to a chair by the hearth at the large intricately carved table which dominated the corner of the front room. A wooden cabinet with matching designs stood along the far wall, filled with crockery and what looked like small curios. Stairs were visible just past the entrance to another room. There was a large fireplace with an iron shelf bolted to the masonry along the exterior wall, the only other piece of furniture in the room was a large chair, strategically placed to gather the light from either the fire place or the large front window.

Xena crossed to the fire and took a piece of white linen out of a pot that was hanging from a hook. "Here", she handed her guest the steaming cloth, took another out for herself, washed her hands and face with it before laying it to dry over a rack. She noticed that Gabrielle still had her saddle bags and scroll satchel, "Let me take those, I'll just put them in a back room for you."

She slung the bags over one shoulder and headed to the spare room she had added for guests. Something hard on the flap of the satchel pressed into her hand and she turned the bag to a more comfortable position, then froze as her eyes registered what the object was. Gabrielle's bag was laced and tied with a leather necklace, the boar's tooth pendant of which had cut into her palm. Ephiny's pendant.

Gabrielle's eyes followed Xena as she walked toward the back of the cabin, noticing the muscles that still rippled across the powerful form. Even in a simple blue tunic and pants, she took the bard's breath away. She realized that the other woman had stopped moving and was just standing there staring at something in her hand. And then it hit her, the pendant, Hades, she'd forgotten about the pendant. A day out of the village she had stopped to write in her journal and had found that the leather drawstring had been replaced with the necklace. How could I have forgotten something so obviously intended to remind me, but she knew how and it scared her.

She stood up and walked toward Xena.

"Xena?" she whispered softly, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean for you to find out this way." Gabrielle reached for her shoulder and felt Xena flinch under her touch, she let her hand drop, unsure of what to say, or do next. "Maybe, I shouldn't have come, I'll get my things and go."

Ephiny? She chose Ephiny, After turning me down she had ended up with Ephiny? How? She felt suspended in time, as though shock had rendered her incapable of moving. The dull ache left from the amputation of the other half of her soul, on that night so long ago, exploded into fresh rivers of agony, making the walls around her seem too close, the air too still. She wanted to bolt, to lose herself in the coming darkness.

The fear in Gabrielle's voice cut through and she turned to face the smaller woman, swiftly hiding her pain, willing her face into repose, pendant still clutched in her hand. Noted the tension in the Amazon's body, read the panic in pools of green, saw a tear roll silently down a soft white cheek coming to rest at the edge of a trembling chin.

"No, don't go." She swallowed and took a deep breath, "I knew you had stayed with the Amazons after I...after we...after, but I didn't know you had..." she searched for the right words, and tone of voice "taken a consort." Her voice broke anyway.

 

 

Chapter 3

The Amazon Queen watched Xena struggle to compose herself, the pain in those blue eyes threatening to over whelm her own tenuous control. Heartened by Xena's response she reached out and more firmly this time took her friend's hand in her own and led her back to the table. Gabrielle watched as Xena mechanically seated herself, and gathered her own thoughts. She's changed, not as...stoic...the raw emotions which had flickered across Xena's face caught her off guard. I didn't expected to have this conversation so soon, she'd thought they would have a little time to get to know each other again first. Yeah like, that was going to make anything easier, there's no easy way to explain this, hmmm, is there ever for me? Right here goes, steady Gabrielle, steady. Finally she began to speak, softly and a little hesitantly.

"I stayed in the village after you left, slowly recovering my strength as my wounds healed." The slowly measured cadence of her words at odds with the pace of her pulse.

A wince flashed across Xena's face, whether from remembering the condition the bard had been in when they had arrived at the village or from the memory of their last conversation, Gabrielle was unsure.

"Ephiny and the others had been consulting me for moons on treaties, stores and some ideas that I had had for training the younger girls, before I knew it, I was making most of the day to day decisions. I threw myself into the work because it kept the pain away." If they hadn't Goddess only knows what I would have done. She squashed that thought and resumed speaking.

"I still didn't know why you'd left, and by the time I figured it out, you had Elin." The bard's voice broke over the name, she hadn't spoken it aloud before, and she looked around the cabin expecting the woman to walk in at any moment.

Xena tried to break in. "Gabr...", but the bard shushed her, "sshhh, let me finish", she said gently.

"Throughout that fall and into that long winter I labored at becoming the Queen they expected me to be, I even got them to stop serving so much mushy grain and cereals in the food hut." A slight smile curved at the corner of her mouth, and she saw an answering one on Xena's lips at the image of the glutinous masses of porridge that had passed for breakfast in Arborea.

"Some of the Amazons started to pay a different kind of attention to me than I was used to from them. It started at Solstice, and I was confused, I wasn't sure what was happening. Small gifts were turning up at the hut, I'd walk by a group of the younger women and they'd burst out giggling after I passed, my practice sessions were beginning to resemble small parties. So finally a couple of moons later, I went to talk to Ephiny." Gabrielle paused, took a long drink of her ale and thought about how to explain what had happened. She looked into Xena's eyes to see how her friend was taking her tale, so far so good it seemed.

"She told me that since it appeared that you weren't coming back, and I was staying and had taken the Queen's Mask, the other women in the village were expecting me to name a consort at the Spring Festival. They were, she said, beginning to woo me, competing for me. I must have gone eight shades of red and looked ready to pass out, because Ephiny handed me a mug of port and wrapped her arms around me, holding me as we sat there. I finally managed to stammer out a question - some thing along the lines of - a consort, like a mate? She laughed and told me to relax, that it didn't have to be a joining it could be a hand fast union, renewable every year until I found a woman to join with. My jaw dropped and I think that's when she realized that I didn't know anything about woman to woman unions, I'd never thought about it before. Suddenly a lot of things I'd seen and heard made a lot more sense." Gabrielle paused and caught Xena's eye.

"That's when what you said suddenly made sense, when I realized what I had thrown away and how badly I must have hurt you." She moved closer to Xena and wrapped her hands around the warrior's larger ones. Not letting her pull away.

"I started to cry and Ephiny held me until I could talk again, I told her what had happened before you left and that I had to find you and talk to you. She got this stricken look on her face and whispered that Solari had ridden in that morning from a hunting trip with news out of Amphipolous. She told me she had been trying to figure out how and when to tell me, and that now was probably it. You had gone to Amphipolous after leaving the village, taken up some land in a valley outside of town and begun to raise horses. I jumped up ready to ride off, when she grabbed my hand pulling me back down, 'wait she said, there's more', Solari had told her that you had been joined at the new year to the village healer. For an instant, I thought I had been wrong again - that you hadn't meant to ask me to join with you - Amphipolous' healer was an old man, assisted by his daughter. The rest of Ephiny's sentence barely registered, as the implication of that thought hit home - Elin - my mind and Ephiny's voice gave name to her at the same time. I collapsed into Ephiny. I thought I was going to drown in the emotions that were crashing over me. In less than half a candle mark, I had won and lost everything, only now I was no longer ignorant of what I had lost. I stayed with Ephiny that night, holding on to her so I wouldn't get swept away..." the Bard's voice trailed off tears running down her face.

Xena got up, tears coursing down her own cheeks as Gabrielle's words sunk in. She moved and sat down behind the bard, legs straddling the bench, so she could wrap her arms around Gabrielle, comforting her. Xena felt Gabrielle lean into her, draw a deep breath as if to continue. This time it was Xena that shushed her companion. "Let it go a bit," she wiped the tears from the blonde's sea green eyes with the edge of her tunic.

They sat in silence for a while, not moving, each lost in her own thoughts.

She didn't understand what I was asking her, and I let my pride keep me from going back to talk to her about it. I was expecting rejection so that's what I heard, oh what a mess this is. Your were right Elin, I should have told her, I was wrong to stay wasn't I, and you never complained. Xena realized that Gabrielle had started to speak again, her soft tones breaking the silence.

"...time passed and Ephiny and I grew closer, I had taken to staying with her when I couldn't sleep or when the nightmares got too bad. The other Amazons must have noticed because by the beginning of spring romantic interest in me seemed to have tailed off considerably, everyone assuming that I would name Ephiny consort. It was half a moon before the spring festival and we had just finished turning the soil in the fields we planned to cultivate, so I declared a holiday. Rank having its privilege." She smiled up at Xena, and settled herself more comfortably.

"The hunters out did themselves, three groups came back with young stags and a fourth with a large boar. We dug large pits at the edge of the training grounds, filling the bottoms with coals, adding the dressed meat and covering the pits to slow cook during the day. Casks of ale and port were acquired from the centaur village in exchange for one of the stags, and some of the wine not needed for the following fortnight was opened. We danced and laughed into the night and I drank more than I generally do, but I was with friends and life seemed fun again. I had just finished a reel with Solari and some of the other Amazons when I headed for the ablutions area, needing to divest myself of some of what I had consumed. On the way I walked past a wagon and heard several voices talking in low excited tones. They were wagering on whether or not I would take Ephiny to wife. I froze, not wanting to be caught, yet wanting to hear more."

Xena snorted and Gabrielle blushed, her penchant for finding awkward situations well known to both of them.

"As usual I was the last to figure out what half the village already took as a given. Ephiny was the envy of at least two of those gathered at the circle. One of the women speculated on what had happened between you and I and why you had left. I felt my face grow crimson when another described some of your charms in graphic detail and said she wouldn't have parted with either of us so easily. It was even weirder to hear them start to discuss my charms, so I bolted, afraid to be caught."

"I realized that I had to talk to Ephiny, and went back to the dance to find her. The drummer's were pounding out an enticing rhythm and I found myself back in the press of bodies with more ale in my mug. I surrendered to the beat and alcohol, deciding to talk to her later. I don't remember at what point I left the party or who carried me home but I woke up with Ephiny wrapped around me..." Gabrielle paused as she felt Xena stiffen, like she had been struck, behind her. She faced the warrior, a question in her eyes. She felt the other woman consciously relax and bid her to continue.

"I lay there watching her sleep, struggling for some memory of the night before, and finally little snatches of sentences filtered through the haze in my brain. I knew that I had asked Ephiny to be my consort, told her that I felt closer to her than to anyone since you left. She told me that that was enough for her for now and that she accepted. We talked more that day and decided on a hand fast union, three times we've renewed it." Gabrielle stopped.

Xena waited for her to continue and when nothing more was forthcoming asked the question that had been on the tip of her tongue for the last candle mark. "Do you love her?"

Gabrielle turned to look at Xena, trying to fathom the question behind the question. "It's comfortable, and I'm happy with our life, and yes, I do love her."

"But not the way she loves you?"

"No."

"Is that why you're here?" Xena held the other woman's eyes.

"Yes," a whisper, then louder, "Ephiny wants more, wants a family, I've helped with Xenan and ...," she bit the sentence off and hurriedly continued, "but Ephiny wants another child, wants something more permanent between us. She said she was tired of competing with you and that until I talked to you and let you go, she wouldn't renew our vows this year."

"Competing with me?" Xena was tense, hoping against hope that the bard felt the same way about her that she felt about the bard.

"Yes, and I can't lose Ephiny the same way I lost you. So I came to see you and Elin, to close the circle. I never expected it to be this hard." Tears were flowing down her cheeks unchecked, great heaping sobs were beginning to wrack her body. "To tell you that I love you and to let you go."

Her arms tightened around the small figure in her arms. Xena stroked the other woman's hair, rocking her gently until she felt Gabrielle's sobs subside.

"Elin passed away the winter before last," and closed her eyes against the memory of her passing. She felt Gabrielle's hand touch her face, turning it down to look at her.

"What?" a soft inquiry, then as the words registered, "I'm sorry Xena, I didn't know."

"It had been a hard winter, and she was needed a lot in the village and other outlying areas, we both were. We weren't together much, so I didn't notice when she first became ill, and then the fever took her." I don't know how much more of this I can take, swinging a sword is so much easier, cleaner, this hurts too damn bad.

Gabrielle was sure that there was more Xena wasn't saying. So she wrapped her arms around her friend and held her, feeling the heartbeat under her ear steady and the breathing even out.

"We lost sixty people that winter, Elin and three of my cousins among them. That spring I moved out of the Inn, came out here and added the cabin to the barns. I like being a farmer, like raising horses, more than I ever thought I would. Get to go fishing whenever I like too."

The bard sensed that Xena was trying to move out of the emotional ground they had covered. I can't let it go now, I have to know.

"Do you miss her?" It seemed safer than the question she really wanted to ask.

 

Xena thought about the bard's query for a minute, trying to phrase her answer, not sure herself what to say, I try not to think about it, about her or you, I raise horses, build things, keep myself too busy to think about what ifs and might of beens. But she couldn't say any of that, it still cut to deep. Was this a second chance? I need to say something...

"I'm sorry Xena, I shouldn't have pushed, you don't owe me any explanations or answers." She didn't need to hear the words, the look in her eyes was enough, and she felt the tears well up again.

"No, it's okay, I was thinking that's all." She started stroking the bard's hair again, taking comfort from its silky length.

"Yes, I miss her, sometimes I turn to tell her something and then I remember she's gone. I did the same thing when I first came back to Amphipolous, I even bought you nut-bread once, realizing the next morning that you weren't here." She smiled at Gabrielle, and kissed the top of her head.

"We were friends, I knew her before Cortese, and there was something left between us from then. I told her about you and she said that she loved me anyway. That if it hadn't been for you all of me would have been lost to her not just the part you had." Xena paused, it was she thought, now or never.

"But I never loved her the way that I loved you. They way that I love you."

Gabrielle turned in her arms, her eyes searching Xena's face. Green eyes locking on blue.

Xena waited, not even aware she was holding her breath, not daring to break away from the eye contact, not wanting the eye contact to end.

Some how the distance between them lessened, shrank and their lips met, tentatively, then with growing hunger as each read consent in the returned kiss.

Gabrielle opened her mouth sucking in Xena's tongue, sliding her own under the other's upper lip, swirling around tasting her, remembering a kiss that tasted different yet felt exactly the same. She broke the kiss, "It was you...?"

"Yes."

The bard reclaimed Xena's mouth, wrapping her arms around the warrior's neck, pressing into her body. The answering groan she felt against her mouth sent ripples through her.

She felt Xena's hands tighten around her body, felt the slow hot trail as her lover's attention focused on her throat, soft tongue drawing circles on her flesh, alternating with sharp nips to her skin, she groaned. The tongue continued to move under her jaw line up to her ear, she threw her head back, not wanting to lose the contact. Strong hands moved down her back, circled her waist and lifted her onto the warrior's lap. She locked her legs around Xena's waist, nuzzling at her ear, the warrior's tongue trailed down to the hollow at the base of her neck, shuddered as it descended toward her breasts.

As she trailed her tongue across the bard's skin, tasting her lover, she felt her nipples harden as Gabrielle leaned into her, as she felt the hot breath caress her ear. She brought one hand around and reached for the fasteners of the shirt that barred the way to her goal. Taking the shirt in her teeth and the buttons in her fingers she slowly opened the bard to her view. Large pink nipples, atop soft mounds of flesh met her gaze, she cupped her lover's left breast with her right hand and slowly drew her thumb over the already hardened nipple. Her mouth and tongue captured the other nub, swirling it around in her mouth, sucking it deep and rolling her tongue over its' hardness.

"Oh.. Xeenna, please..." the bard had wrapped her hands in Xena's hair and was holding her tight against the skin she was kissing. She pulled back and trailed her tongue through the valley between Gabrielle's breasts and recaptured the sensitive flesh to her right, the bard shivered again, her breath coming in short ragged gasps against the warriors ear. Xena felt the bard's tongue slide along the edge of her lobe and teeth sink themselves into the back of her neck. Reaching up with both hands she took hold of the bard's head, pulled it towards her, and stopped breathless.

"Gods, you are so beautiful." Looking into Gabrielle's eyes she saw the reflection of her own desire, and - love. Breathe, Xena, breathe, finding it hard to think or breathe as the fire burning deep inside threatened to overwhelm her, "I love you Gabrielle, I have always loved you."

"And I love you," came the answer as she was pulled into a lust filled kiss, Gabrielle covered Xena's mouth with hers, nipping at her bottom lip, forcing her tongue back inside.

Xena's hands continued their assault on Gabrielle's body, fascinated by the variety of sounds she was drawing from the other woman through touch alone.

"Now, Xena, please, I need you, need to feel you inside me." Xena flooded at the throaty words of her lover. Wrapping her arms around the bard again, clasping her tight against her chest, she stood, lifting her lover's weight easily. The heat of Gabrielle as she tightened her grip on the warrior's waist, nearly caused her knees to buckle. She headed for the stairs, ascending them slowly, blue eyes locked on green, I can't believe that this is real.

"Its real", came the answer to her unasked question.

Reaching the top, Xena strode across the room in four quick steps. Gently placing her companion on the bed, she turned to light the row of candles that ran up the wall next to the bed and watched as the candle light flickered over the face of the woman she loved. Wonder and fear gripped her almost simultaneously, freezing her into place, momentarily unsure of how to proceed. A hand reached out and gently stroked her cheek.

"Let me."

Soft hands reach around her waist and undid the buttons on her shirt, sliding up to her shoulders and pulling the shirt down her arms before letting it come to rest on the floor between them. She leaned back into the woman behind her, making noises of her own as fingers trailed under her breasts and tugged at the swollen tips. Suddenly the supporting weight was gone, and she nearly fell. And then was caught - the bard's hands dropping to her waist, circling around to undo her belt.

Hot breath burned across Xena's back a Gabrielle knelt behind her, lowering her clothes. Stepping back out of her pants, she moved closer to the searing air that was sending fresh tremours rippling up her powerful frame. Hands, reached for her thighs, strong fingers gripped her tortured flesh and spun her around to face her captor.

"Mine." With a powerful and fluid motion the bard launched upward and deftly pinned Xena to the bed, climbing astride her.

Soft groans were muffled as two tongues battled for supremacy, Xena arched her back as velvety lips broke contact and teeth were buried in her neck. Her neck released, she watched as Gabrielle sat up, and slowly removed her unbuttoned shirt.

 

Xena felt the wetness and heat on her abdomen, I don't remember her taking those off, her eyes locked on the damp curls resting on her stomach. Watching Gabrielle's eyes rake down her body as she lowered her own down the warrior's form, the naked heat and lust in the sea green eyes nearly caused her to spend. "Gabrielle..."

A growl tore free from her throat as soft lips met her lower ones, a hard wet tongue prowling through her dark curls and folds of flesh to run across her - darting into slick depths. Xena arched up and grabbed her lover's legs - spinning Gabrielle around and burying her own face in the depths she had dreamed of tasting for so long.

Xena swirled her tongue against the bard, fighting for control as the musky scent sent a spasm through her. Xena lost track of which tremours were caused by the bard's tongue, and which ones were reactions to her own explorations of Gabrielle's depths. Sensing her impending climax, Xena added two fingers to the channel her tongue was sucking and licking, taking the bard's nub into her mouth, she nibbled it with her teeth. She felt Gabrielle convulse and press deeper against her mouth and increased the tempo of her strokes, wanting to feel and taste her lover's release. Her own body suddenly tensed and rocked as she felt a hand thrust into her, filling her, teeth took possession of her button and Xena surrendered to the tide washing over her.

"GAB - RI - ELLE...", the sound of her name torn from her lover's throat and the wetness flooding her face sent the bard crashing over her own precipice.

"XEENNAAA"

Long minutes later when their breathing had begun to return to normal, and muscles stopped twitching with the throes of their passion, Gabrielle lifted her head and spun lazily around on Xena. Crawling up her lover's body she came to rest in the crook of a muscular arm. She ran a hand over the other woman's chest, thrilling to the feel of the soft skin, the strong heartbeat under her hands keeping pace to the breathing she heard in her ear.

"Xena?"

"Mmm?"

"What are you doing?"

Soft laughter floated to her ears, "Me...?, what about you?"

Gabrielle blushed as she realized her wandering hand had found its way back to the wetness between her lover's legs. "Negotiating." Gabrielle propped herself up on one elbow and raked a mischievous glance over her lover.

"Negotiating what?" Xena slid another finger into her lover, watching as desire flamed anew in green eyes. Emitting a gasp of her own as she felt the bard ease into her.

"Your unconditional surrender of course. Now about terms." Gabrielle suddenly found herself looking up into heated azure eyes as she was pinned to the bed.

"We'll see who surrenders to whom my love." The bard let her passion carry her off again as her mouth was covered by Xena's.

 

 

 

Chapter 4

 Gabrielle awoke to see sun streaming in the window of the loft, her lover's last words from the night before still echoing in her ears, "I surrender."

Turning over she reached for Xena, and found herself alone in the big bed. "Xena." She called, but there was no answer or movement from downstairs.

She sat up and took in the sparsely furnished room. Other than the bed and a linen press in the corner the only other decorations in the room were the candle sconces running up the walls on either side of the bed and to either side of the door on the opposite wall. Her clothes were neatly folded on the end of the bed and she noticed that her saddlebags had been brought up and placed neatly on the ledge next to the window.

Walking to the window she drew back the curtain and breathed in the morning air. The sun was barely a finger above the horizon, and already the farm was alive with sound. Off in the distance she watched as horses coursed over green grass heading out to pasture for the day. Sweeping her eyes across the terrain in front of her she spotted Xena heading up a trail toward a stand a trees, a large dog running circles around her.

Gabrielle smiled as she got dressed, of course Xena would have a dog, and wondered where the animal had been when she arrived. Forgoing her travelling clothes, she reached into bag and pulled out a clean skirt and light brown tunic which she cinched at the waist with her Amazon belt.

 

Coming down into the kitchen she found a kettle of hot water steaming on the iron shelf, a cup with tea leaves pre-measured into it, and a heaping plate of fresh rolls, butter and fruit. Mmmm, Xena has added some new skills to her repertoire, blushing at the memory of what some of those skills were. She grinned, realizing that some of them were only new to her.

Last night had turned out so differently from how she had envisioned it. Five years swept away in a single night. She continued to eat and think about what had happened, and what had changed. Ephiny. It wasn't going to be that easy, and last night certainly complicates things. Ironic really, she thought wryly, complication and clarification from the same event... Tears began to run down her cheeks as she remembered looking back and seeing the quiet, still form, sagged against a tree, watching Gabrielle leave.

Wiping her face with a hot towel from the fireplace, she crossed to the counter and put her plate and cup into the basin. On the shelf next to her she noticed a small wrapped parcel and a daisy, taking it down she read the note attached to the ribbon.

In case you're still hungry

X

Unwrapping the paper a familiar aroma wafted into her nose. Nut-bread, fresh too, judging by its' warmth and texture. God's how I love that woman, even in their early days of travelling Xena had had a knack for presenting the bard with just the right morsel of food or trinket - usually when the bard thought Xena was unaware she even existed. Gabrielle broke off a piece and headed out the door to find Xena. They had a lot to talk about.

***

Xena had woken early, had lain there marveling that Gabrielle was here - in her arms. I've missed watching you sleep, seeing that half smile form on your lips when you snuggle into the blankets. Tenderly she reached out and stroked the golden mane next to her. Sighing reluctantly she slid out from under Gabrielle and began her day. If she waited for her lover to wake they'd probably lose half the day and the stock needed tending. If I know Gabrielle I can be back here before she even wakes up. She smiled at the figure burrowed in the middle of the bed, observing that indeed the more things change... the more they stay the same.

She finished the last of her morning chores, glad to have had something to do to keep her mind occupied. Entering the tack shed and swinging herself nimbly into the rafters she grabbed her sword, beginning her daily drills. Xena executed a lazy back flip out of the window in the loft and landed softly on the packed earth of the paddock. Smoothly she carried her momentum forward and the sword began a circuitous dance, flickering and parrying the thrusts and lunges of an unseen foe. Forgoing her customary war cry, so as to not wake the slumbering bard, she leapt back through the window and returned the weapon to its niche.

Refreshed and awake - if somewhat sweaty - Xena rinsed her head in the rain barrel, enjoying the shivers the ice cold water sent down her spine, and couldn't help but to think of other things that had made her shiver only last night.

Xena walked up toward the stand of trees at the edge of the north fence line, intending to check the hot spring. She'd clean the leaves out of it and see if Gabrielle wanted a bath, owning your own valley has its perks she observed. Spying the large gray beast that masqueraded as a dog preparing to leap on her, she flung a large stick into the woods, Let's see how long it takes you to find that needle in the haystack.

Without knowing exactly when she split from the main trail, Xena found herself standing in a small fenced clearing. The warrior stepped over the low rail and sat down at the base of a large apple tree on the far side of the clearing. Picking up a stick, she began removing the bark, unsure as to why she had come there.

"Hello Elin"

"She's here. Rode in late yesterday on a horse, can you believe that?"

"You were right, I should have gone back and fought harder, but I didn't. And now she's here, and I want her to stay."

"You'd like her Elin, but I guess you probably wouldn't have had the chance to really get to know her". She leaned back against the tree pondering how alike the bard and the healer were…had been. And how different, she had never seen Elin angry and it still puzzled Xena that she had been drawn to a very angry ex-warlord. Gabrielle on the other hand could get very angry, in, she smirked, a cute non-lethal way.

"That's if, big if - she will stay, she's got other calls on her time now." Xena paused as she thought about Ephiny, and her claim to Gabrielle.

"If she goes, I'm going to go with her, Ares be damned. I shouldn't have left her the first time. So this is goodbye for now." Left unspoken was the certain knowledge that they wouldn't meet again in...later.

"I would have stayed if things had worked out differently, if you hadn't gone. But I've got a second chance with her that I probably don't deserve, and this time I'm not letting go. I just hope she'll have me."

"And Elin..., I miss you, ...both of you."

Gabrielle watched from the edge of the clearing as Xena stood and reached high into the apple tree, coming down with two blossoms, placing them on the markers in front of her. Without thinking she crossed the fence and came to stand next to her friend. She hadn't heard any of the words but it was clear to Gabrielle that Xena had been talking to whoever was buried beneath those stones.

She looked down, not surprised to see Elin's name and time of passing carved intricately into the stone face. At the second stone she held her breath and looked up to find Xena watching her intently, "Oh Xena, I didn't know.", not knowing what to say, she wrapped her arms around her lover, her eyes not leaving the smaller grave marker.

"She wanted children, a family and I couldn't have stopped her even if I had wanted too, I liked the idea of belonging. My fears about Ares pursuing me proved ...unfounded,"

Like she had last night Gabrielle thought there was more Xena wasn't saying, she couldn't imagine Ares simply retiring from the battlefield where Xena was concerned. That was almost certainly one of your characteristic understatements.

"Anyway, she got pregnant, and I never asked how or who, she was happy and that was what mattered. She was in her eighth month when the fever struck, when I got back to the Inn, she was near death."

Gabrielle watched the emotions flicker briefly across Xena's face, so quickly that she doubted any one else would even have noticed. She tightened her grip on the warrior and waited for her to continue.

They stood in silence awhile before Xena continued.

Finally, Xena spoke again, in slow quiet tones. "She knew she was dying, and asked to speak to me alone. When everyone had left she took my hand and told me that she regretted only that she wouldn't live to see the child born, then she asked me to do what we did for Ephiny...." Gabrielle tensed as she heard the catch in Xena's voice, whether from the memory of Elin's passing or the mention of Gabrielle's lover she didn't know.

Gabrielle relaxed when she heard Xena clear her throat and continue. There were so many painful memories tied in that last sentence she wasn't sure which one or if all of them were weighing on Xena.

"I did it."

She remembered pulling the babe out of his mother's womb, his impossibly tiny arms and legs, his weak cries. Elin had lived long enough to see her son, had named him, then smiled up at Xena through the pain and had whispered her last, 'No regrets, Xena, I was happy, and you will be again too.

"He surprised us all, none of us were sure he'd see his naming day, but he did. When the second wave of the fever hit a moon later, his lungs were still too weak, I tried but there was nothing I could do."

"It must have been a painful winter for you all, for you".

"Mother took it the hardest I think."

They stood there awhile longer, arms wrapped around each other, Xena took solace from the bard's embrace and let go of the guilt she had been carrying all morning, that she had lived, and they had not, that she had found her happiness again without them.

 

 

Chapter 5

They were still standing together when a large gray dog bounded from the trees and leaped on them, knocking Gabrielle to the ground, covering her face with eager licks.

Laughing Xena reached down and pulled him off her lover. "He likes you. Go lay down you," pointing at a spot on the ground next to her.

Gabrielle rose to her feet, "May the gods save me from animals that like me then." She laughed and looked impishly over, "especially ones that you own."

Xena tried to wipe some of the dog's slobber from the bard's face and only succeeded in making mud. "I originally headed up this way to check on the hot spring, could I interest you in a nice hot bath?"

"Have you ever known me to turn down food or a bath?"

"True, C'mon then." Taking Gabrielle's hand she led her out of the clearing, towards the path the led to the springs.

"How'd you find me?"

"I watched you walk up this way from the window this morning, so after I ate the wonderful breakfast some one kindly left for me, I followed. I've gotten good at tracking - Eponin's been teaching me, besides - I didn't think you were trying to hide - you kicked rocks and dirt up all over the path." A sudden worry struck the younger woman. "Did I intrude, I just thought we needed to talk, I didn't mean to..."

"Sshhh," she stopped walking and turned to face Gabrielle, one hand on her shoulder, "no you weren't intruding." She leaned down and kissed the bard.

Gabrielle lost herself in a long sensual exploration of Xena's mouth and lips. Enjoying the feel of their tongues sliding over each other, drinking in the flavour of her lover's mouth, she could feel an answering passion rising in Xena. She went to move in closer, felt a wet tongue nuzzling at her stomach, and stepped back in surprise as she spotted the dog insinuating himself between them, wagging his tail like he wanted to play too.

"Where did you find him?" Gabrielle's tone conveyed equal measures of disappointment and annoyance.

"I didn't, he sort of found me." Xena grabbed a handful of fur and began vigorously scratching the dog's tummy. The dog squirmed against her legs in obvious ecstasy, "all right, there's your fun - off you go"

"What's his name?"

"He…ah…he doesn't have one." Xena looked sheepishly at Gabrielle, "he…ah wouldn't listen to it anyway - he pretty much does as he pleases".

Gabrielle laughed, "So let me get this straight, the big tough ex-warlord, who whistle trained her horse, has dog half the size of Argo, who doesn't have a name, who doesn't listen and who does whatever he pleases?"

"Pretty much, except I'd say that a large dog has an ex-warlord that feeds him, keeps a dry place for him to sleep and who makes absolutely no demands on his valuable time."

Gabrielle giggled as a vision of Xena setting the table for the dog hit her. She gasped, "he's going to be a big hit with the Amazons." And then froze as she realized what she had said. Damn. Looks like they were going to have that talk sooner rather than later.

She didn't know where to start, and Xena just stood there looking at her, her face suddenly unreadable, only her eyes giving away her intense interest in what Gabrielle was going to say.

"It wasn't just last night was it? I love you Xena, and we have a second chance at this, and I want to try, but I need to go back. At least for a little while, after that I don't know, but there are some things I need to settle, and I want you to come with me. Please, I don't think I can do it alone."

"Ephiny?"

"She needs to know Xena, I owe her that much." Gabrielle was crying.

"I love you Gabrielle, and where you go I go, we'll work the details out as we go ok?" She used the edge of her tunic to dry her love's eyes, pulling her into a fierce hug as she finished. "No more separations."

Finally, Gabrielle's tears dried up and she looked into Xena's eyes, sky blue meeting sea green, "Promise?"

"Forever."

It was early afternoon before they made it to hot spring, having stopped to eat and make love along the way.

Xena smiled as Gabrielle screamed in delight when she spotted the spring, with its wooden bench and partial roof along one side. She watched admiringly as the bard threw her clothes in a heap on the ground and jumped into the water. Dumping her clothes on Gabrielle's she joined her lover in the water, stretching her body out along the bench she had built in the spring.

Gabrielle swam over and kissed Xena deeply, laying her body on top of her lover.

"Xena?"

"Mmmm"

"What are you doing?"

A wicked grin spread across Xena's face, "Renegotiating, care to hear terms?"

Chapter 6 

Ephiny walked back from the centaur village having spent the last three days visiting with her son. Xenan would be seven this summer and would no longer be allowed to stay in the Amazon village - even with a Queen's Consort and the Queen herself as his parents. He would leave with his other male age-mates after the summer solstice; the two moons from now 'til then would be used to help him adjust and make friends.

She was glad Xenan already had some friends in the Centaur village, chief among them a young lad named Solon. The two had met when Solon and his father had come to arrange Xenan's fosterage three summers ago. She had been surprised to learn that Gabrielle already knew Solon, and when over dinner he had asked the Amazon Queen how Xena was, she was even more shocked at the guilty look that crossed her partner's features. At the mention of Xena's name her son had proudly revealed that he had been named for the warrior princess because she had saved his life before he was even born. Solon told the young centaur his own tale of rescue and the two soon became inseparable.

During Solon's frequent visits Gabrielle would often arrange to take both of the boys camping and occasionally on longer trips. Last year she had taken them to Athens, for as she put it "a little culture mixed in with your adventures never hurt anyone." Solon was proving to have his own gift for words and Xenan had developed a bent for carving that Ephiny found astonishing. So the Amazon Queen had taken them to the Panathenian Festival, introducing Solon to her friend Orion and gifting her step-son with a new set of carving tools.

Xenan cantered ahead, kicking rocks from rear hoof to front, flicking them up into the air and catching most of them in his hand. The other children in the village had made a rule about Xenan only being allowed to play kickball with his two front or two rear legs, but not both sets at the same time.

Watching her son play she marveled at the irony that the woman who had given her something so precious as her son's life, was potentially poised to take away something equally precious - Gabrielle.

For the thousandth time since the bard had left a mere seven-day ago, she wondered at the wisdom of sending Gabrielle away. The spring festival was a little over a moon away, and Ephiny wasn't sure how she would make it that far. What if Gabrielle doesn't come back?

She had watched Gabrielle grow and change, from the young scribe teetering on the brink of adulthood to a confident woman. Yet Gabrielle somehow managed to hold on to her ability to look at the world through a child's eyes - eyes filled with wonder and awe. She had with simple honesty and trust won the hearts of the Amazon Nation, and the heart of its Regent.

***

Ephiny sat bolt upright in bed, her heart thundering in her chest, trying to throw back the cloying air and darkness.

Tall dark trees were threatening to engulf her, branches reached for her limbs, as her arms crossed her belly, struggling to protect its precious burden. All around her she could hear the screams of men hating, of men dying. But it was the silence of a voice she could no longer hear that drove the terror that washed over her.

Slowly coming to herself, her heartbeat beginning again to beat in a strong steady rhythm Ephiny reached across the bed and found only emptiness. Gone. They were both gone.

Dressing hurriedly she stepped out into the night, heading for the path that led toward the springs. Breaking into a light run she felt the cool night air against her skin and turned her senses outward - losing herself in identifying all the sounds around her - trying to chase the nightmare away. Grimly she thought to herself that it wasn't only the Queen's nightmares that were held at bay by a comforting presence in the dark - but her own as well.

But that was the problem wasn't it, Gabrielle had become a comforting presence, easy to love and hold. Ephiny wanted more, wanted to touch the recesses that the bard kept locked, wanted to feel someone fighting to access her depths, her passions. A year and a day had become to short a time.

 

Bird calls passed quickly through the trees, the scouts relaying the whereabouts of the Queen Consort to the Royal Guard. Solari had been awakened and informed of the Consort's nocturnal jaunt. Solari was concerned about the woman she still privately called the Regent, it had been a long time since Ephiny had taken a mid-night run. That combined with the disappearance of the Queen was fueling much speculation in the village. Speculation that would only grow as groups of Amazons began to arrive from the outlying farms in preparation for the Spring Festival.

In the early days of the Queen's return the other Amazons had gotten used to her frequent forays away from the village. Eluding the guard she would disappear for days at a time, then suddenly return, seemingly refreshed. Those trips, while still frequent had tapered off the last couple of years, and generally when the bard went camping she took her stepson and his foster brother with her.

Startled and alarmed as the bird calls changed, Solari took off for the nearest perimeter bower. Someone was approaching the boundary. She paused and listened for more details. Lone rider, armed, male. Her eyes narrowed, Oh this was going to be fun, and she grinned, but there was no humour in it.

 

 

Chapter 7

Gabrielle stood watching the sun sink over the hills rimming the Valley. Delicate swatches of rose and gold washed over the fading blue, turning the last vestiges of day into twilight. Tomorrow they would be leaving, returning to the Amazons.

She had tried not to think about the impending trip home, tried to focus instead on Xena, on their having found each other. The problem was, she mused, that she couldn't separate what she was feeling for Xena, from what the consequences would be for ...others. For Ephiny. And how am I going to explain about Solon? By the way Xena, I dumped you but decided to play Methryn to your son, that'll go over real well. Come to think of it, how was she going to explain it to Ephiny? To Solon? Gabrielle could feel the beginnings of a headache worthy of Tartarus lurking at the base of her skull.

The first couple of days it had been easy to focus on the here and now, she smiled, remembering their trip to the hot tub, but as the days wore on she found it harder to pretend that things were perfect.

I'm foresworn - a year and a day - I promised, Gabrielle could feel tears beginning to well up at the corners of her eyes, Oh Artemis, what am I going to do?

Xena watched Gabrielle, the growing knot of fear in the pit of her stomach felt like it was getting bigger by the second, and it sounded like Gabrielle was crying. Increasingly that was how she found the bard, and not wanting to push, she hadn't let on to her lover that she had seen. Gabrielle had made her choice - hadn't she? But Xena remembered another choice, remembered its devastating consequences. I love you my bard, Xena prayed to any God who was listening that it would be enough this time. Twice I've let fear and indecision come between us. Never again my love, I promise.

Seeing that Gabrielle had regained her composure, she bounded up the steps and turned a lazy airborne summersault before coming to rest behind the bard.

"Show off"

"Summersault," Xena deadpanned, noticing with relief the grin that broke across the other's face.

"Care to join me for dinner?" Gabrielle bowed a little and swept her arm toward the open cabin door. Still smiling she followed the other woman inside, and was surprised to find that an urn full of flowers had mysteriously appeared on the kitchen table.

"How...?"

"I have many skills." And was rewarded with a playful jab at her tummy.

"So you want to play rough?" Xena held up her hand wiggling her fingers as she advanced toward Gabrielle, who sensibly moved quickly to keep the table between them.

"Xena, be nice, Xena!"

"Oh I can be very nice," suddenly she was standing behind Gabrielle, leaning forward to whisper in her ear, "or I can be very, verryy nice." Laughing she buried her wiggling fingers into the bard's sides, supporting her weight as spasms of giggles over took her friend.

Just when Gabrielle didn't think she could take anymore of those long fingers tickling her, she felt a subtle change in pressure as Xena's hands shifted their focus. Felt those long fingers begin to stroke her breasts through the linen of her shirt. She released a low moan, twisted her head around and captured Xena's lips in a deep lustful kiss. "Let's see just how nice you can be, hmm".

***

Gabrielle propped herself up on one arm and watched the sleeping form of her lover, taking a rare opportunity to examine the still features. Gods but she's beautiful. Sweeping her gaze across her lover she was amused to see the first strands of gray in the raven locks. I wonder if Xena knows she's going gray? Stifling a giggle, her eyes found the spot at the juncture of throat and chin where a pulse beat in regular time to the heart of its owner. So strong my love. And yet there was a vulnerability there too.

Drinking in the sight and sounds of Xena's peaceful body, Gabrielle was struck by the realization that she had never seen the ex-warlord so relaxed and still before. Looking back at the last couple of days, Xena had seemed different, less closed, and her sense of humour had lost that sharp edge that could draw wounds as easily as laughter. I always thought I'd be the one to bring those things out in her.

She must have been an extraordinary woman, your Elin.

"Dinar for your thoughts, Cariad." Xena's sleep clouded voice interrupted the bard's thoughts and she looked down to find intense blue eyes anxiously scanning her.

Not wanting to cause unnecessary hurt, Gabrielle pondered how to answer her lover. "Lovely shade of gray, Xena, it suits you." As she said this she reached down and playfully ran her fingers through Xena's hair. Inwardly she sighed to herself, knowing that there were still issues to resolve, her warrior's increased interest in talking not withstanding.

Xena digested the bard's response, not wanting to push, trusting that Gabrielle would talk about what was bothering her when she was ready. Cerebus' teeth but it was hard.

"I see, and are you aware bard o'mine that your hair is not the colour it once was?"

"Xena, I am not going gray, they're ash coloured. You know my hair is always changing colours"

"Umm umm, if that's what you need to believe." Rolling over she swiftly pinned Gabrielle to the bed, holding both her arms above her head with one large hand. Running the other through strawberry-blonde locks, she planted soft kisses along the part in the honey gold hair, slowly moving down to continue the trail at her ears, dropping gradually to trace the line that ran along Gabrielle's jaw and intersected her throat.

Gabrielle was having trouble breathing regularly, the tiny kisses Xena was planting along her face, neck and throat were cutting deeply into her core. Those gentle kisses were sending searing pulses through her skin, igniting a fire deep within her, a fire like no other.

 

 

Chapter 8

Ephiny crouched on a tree limb, balancing her weight easily, and watched the stranger approach. She spared a quick glance over at Solari, taking in the tension of the other woman's stance.

Returning her gaze to the mounted man she studied him, seeking to gain clues about his intent before he became aware that he was being watched. In her experience people were less open, and more apt to hide behind facades when being observed. His mount appeared well cared for and Ephiny could see no signs that she was being ridden hard. The stranger slowed the horse gradually through a canter down to a walk, finally stopping just on the other side of the border. 

To the Amazon monarch he appeared to being weighing his options, watching him dismount she was able to discern that his dress was foreign, or at least from a region she hadn't seen before. A long dark cloak was draped over his left shoulder and cinched at his waist by a broad belt, leaving - she guessed - his sword arm free. A flowing, light coloured shirt and baggy, slightly darker trews tucked into calf high brown boots completed the ensemble.

It looked as though he had come to a decision as too the best possible course of action, because he removed the sword belt from the pommel of the bay horse's saddle and threw it to the ground - on the other side of the boundary.

It was a toss up after that to decide who was the most surprised at what happened next.

"Beannacht, I seek the Ard-rian Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons." Clear tones rang out across the clearing as the dark haired man put both arms in the air, clasped his left wrist with his right hand and waited.

 Ephiny heard the drawn intake of breath from the scouts around her and signaled for an escort. Six Amazons dropped from the trees and surrounded the stranger.

"What do you want with the Queen?" Solari punctuated her words with a jab to the man's ribs.

"I claim coire ainsec, the guest right. My sword as your sword, my blood to your hearth."

"You are a man, you have no guest right here. I'm not going to ask you again, what business do you have with the Queen of the Amazons."

From her vantage point in the tree, Ephiny watched as the stranger absorbed the blow without flinching, his hands remaining clasped above his head. His next words forced her decision and she descended from her perch.

"So I am to be judged not by my conduct but by my gender?"

Landing in front of Solari, she intercepted the next blow. "Hold Solari. He has invoked the guest right." Ephiny turned to completely face their new guest, "My fire to your warmth, my shield to your safety. The Queen is away, I am Regent in her place." She was peripherally aware of the quizzical look shot her way by Solari at her use of the term regent.

"I am Cairbre son of Ethlinn, Queen of the House of Scathach."

"Ephiny," she motioned for Cairbre to retrieve his sword and to follow her and Solari into the village.

***

"Alright Solari, out with it."

"You don't know anything about him, or about his intentions, he never told us why he wants to speak with Gabrielle or why he showed up on our borders in the dead of night, and you just welcome him into the village, giving him guest right." It was clear that the Captain of the Guard was angry, it was the why of it that eluded Ephiny.

"He clearly understood our border protocols and asked for guest right in the old tongue. Male or not we have to honour that. And," she paused wanting to be sure she had Solari's undivided attention, "he is the son of an Amazon Queen."

"What?"

"The old stories and scrolls speak of a warrior and Queen called Scathach, who was given a quest by Artemis herself. She took three score women, gathered from all the tribes of the Amazon nation and sailed into the setting sun. The remaining scrolls are too badly damaged and Gabrielle was unable to discover exactly where they went or why."

"You believe he is descended from this same Queen Scathach? Since when did the Amazon nation include male children?" Ephiny was startled, did her friend not consider her son part of the Amazon legacy?

The subject of the intense debate in the Queen's hut was aware of the discord his presence was causing among his sisters. Being Cairbre he did the only thing he could think of. He sang.

He let the powerful tide of awen wash over him, carrying him along on its twin currents of rhythm and poetry. Reaching outward with his bardaugh sight even as his other senses turned inward tapping the source, praying for she of the flaming arrow to guide his words that he might win peace.

Pouring his love for his nation and his land into the poetry, he sang the history of his people; sang the courage of his many times grandmother; sang of the Tuatha de Danaan and the People of the Sidhe; sang of shattered peace and a land in turmoil; sang of hope and prophesy; sang of who he was and what had shaped him. All this and more ran through words he knew they couldn't understand, but hoped they could hear, could feel.

Only the last refrain did he translate - letting its echo fill the night.

"The end of each strife is peace."

"'Sť deireadh gach cogadh s'ith."

 

Chapter 9 

"Prestia"

"Agnemnos"

"Sparta"

"Athens"

"Siliria"

"Amphipolis"

"Stygera"

"Xena, we're never going to get to Rome if you keep this up you know."

"I thought we were going to Poteidia?"

"Funny, very funny. Not."

Xena held up a hand, motioning Gabrielle to be alert, listening the bard could hear the out of tune rustle of leaves telling her some thing or someone was lurking on their right. Three someones, she hazarded, one much bigger than the other two. Bringing other senses into play, she discerned the smell of sour sweat and the mix of fear and adrenaline that indicated their observers did not harbor benign intentions.

Dropping Quill's reins she removed her staff from its sheath and made ready to defend herself. She watched from the corner of one eye as Xena likewise freed Argo and reached for her own staff.

"All right boys, are you gonna come out and play?" Xena's voice carried all the characteristic menace Gabrielle remembered, but seeing her without her signature brown leathers, spiral breastplate and sword unnerved her. Only grieves and the chakrum remained, and the bard had watched the warrior pack that in a saddle bag.

"We'll play with you sure enough." The apparent leader leered at them.

"Ready or not here I come." Xena swung her staff in a vicious arc, sweeping two of the men into the third.

Gabrielle watched entranced as Xena fluidly brought the end of the staff around again, striking one of the fallen men solidly on the head, rendering him unconscious. So much for a kinder, gentler Xena. Then the bard's attention was absorbed by an opponent of her own.

Reversing her weapon, she rolled it across her back and caught the raider a sharp blow on his ribs with her off hand. Shifting her balance, she dropped low to the ground and returned the staff to her right hand, taking her adversary's feet out from under him as she did so. Glancing over to her left, she spotted Xena busily parrying the sword strokes of the remaining outlaw with her staff.

Pressing her own advantage, she delivered a stinging crack to the side of the prone man's head, dazing him. Using a trick Eponin had taught her, she wrapped a muscular forearm arm around his neck from behind and squeezed until she felt him sag against her, unconscious.

Inhaling deeply to steady her racing pulse she turned back around to watch her partner. Xena's staff lay shattered on the ground and she was circling the brigand leader. The bard watched as she sprang into the air, twisting around to land where she had begun. He didn't fall for the trick and grasping his opening before Xena could recover her balance, he flickered his sword toward the warrior's unprotected stomach.

In his glee, he failed to watch his footing and tripped over one of the staff pieces lying on the ground. Leaping forward as she realized the danger, Gabrielle hurled her own weapon, butt end forward, at the man's head. It connected with a dull thud, but not before his blade had cut a gash into Xena's upper thigh.

Shaking, she looked at her lover, surprised by the shocked and haunted look in her eyes.

***

"Hold still and it won't hurt so much. What were you thinking? You goaded them into attacking us. You're just lucky that oaf tripped or you'd have been skewered."

"Yeah, real lucky."

Gabrielle continued to stitch the gash on Xena's thigh, worrying more about her lover's frame of mind than the wound itself. Watching her pack this morning, the air had been thick with tension and things left unsaid. The bard hadn't asked about the wardrobe change, and Xena, not surprisingly hadn't volunteered anything. Having watched surreptitiously as Xena had done drills her second morning in the valley she knew that the rhythm of the sword still called her warrior, so exactly why the sword had been left behind, she didn't know. But she had a guess - Ares.

"Xena, we need to talk."

"No good conversation ever started with those words. No short one either."

"We can't keep pretending that everything is ok, because it's not. And we need to talk about it before it gets worse."

"Alright, but let's finish setting up camp and eat first." She made to get up but Gabrielle placed a hand on her shoulder, "I'll do it, you can owe me."

 She was acutely conscious of the warrior's eyes following her as she finished setting up the camp and walked down to the water's edge. She waded out into the stream and listened carefully to the sounds of the river, head cocked, ready. With practiced speed she quickly grabbed a large trout and flung it to the shore. Returning her attention to her quarry, it was not long before she added two more to the one on the shore. Satisfied that they had enough for dinner, Gabrielle walked back to the river bank and began to clean her catch, already imagining how they would taste and which seasonings to use. Returning to the camp she was surprised to find that Xena had laid out their bedrolls and had gathered a small pile of firewood to tide them through the night.

"I thought I told you that I would take care of things tonight."

 

Xena just grunted and reached for the trout. Gabrielle pulled them back out of reach and moved closer to the fire.

"Look, I really can take care of everything..."

"Yes, I guess you can." Xena turned and walked away from camp.

"Where are you going?"

"Got a call of nature, or are you going to take care of that too?"

***

Was this a huge mistake? Am I in love with the woman in front of me or the one who left me behind a long time ago? Anger simmered just beneath the bard's surface calm. Unable to eat, she had instead grabbed her journal and tried to make sense of what she was feeling. A passage caught her eye and she reread the words that had led to her argument with Ephiny. Closing the book and laying down, she stared into the fire, losing herself in memory and thought.

' "...signal's cross and love gets lost and time passed makes it plain, of all my demon spirits - I need you the most.

I'm in love with your ghost...I'm in love with your ghost

Dark and dangerous like a secret that gets whispered in a hush when I wake the things I dreamt about you last night make me blush.

When you kiss me like a lover then you sting me like a viper I go follow to the river..."

But was she? Ephiny had thought so. She had walked into the hut to find tears of hurt and anger running down Eph's face, the scroll lying on the table in front of her. You're still in love with her aren't you? Yes. You can't have both of us. No more hand-fasting - its all or nothing. Watching her leave, slumped against a tree.

The wooden bleating lamb, holding Xena as she cried over Cirra, her fierce protectiveness of Solon and Gabriel, fishing lessons. The pain of Mount Nestos, the joy of their short lived reunion. Destiny.'

 

It was well past moonrise when Gabrielle woke and realized she was being observed. Opening her eyes slightly, she saw Xena leaning back against a log watching her sleep. An expression on her face that could only be described as sad. Something was going to have to give and soon, but not tonight, tomorrow was soon enough. Maybe a nights sleep would ease the tension which had, after the fight, replaced their earlier camaraderie. She hoped. It took her a long time to fall back asleep.

She had vague impressions of a battle being fought and a large stone ringed with flashing light. Solon's voice mingled with ones she didn't recognize, calling her name. The sound of a stone splitting startled her from sleep. I need to tell Xena about Solon before we get to the Amazons. Chalking the dream up to combination of guilt and anxiety she drifted back into Morpheus' arms.

***

Her hopes for a return to peace were not to be. Gabrielle had expected things to carry on pretty much as they had in the valley, and inwardly berated herself for not realizing sooner that this was not the Valley and this was most definitely not her travelling companion of five years ago.

Truth be told, she thought to herself, I'm not the travelling companion of then either. Watching Xena's retreating form after still another argument about - God's what was the argument about anyway, it had started shortly after breakfast and had left the pair shrouded in an uneasy silence for the remainder of the day.

 With a clarity of thought it struck her, that's it isn't it. The raiders, catching dinner, those things used to be Xena's responsibility, and then I compounded it when I wouldn't let her help with the things that used to be my job. She's a warrior without a sword, without a role. In the Valley she was just Xena, but yesterday she had to become the Warrior Princess again, only now the role doesn't fit.

Following her companion into the woods, she tracked Xena to the edge of a stream. Coming to a stop at the edge of the bank she watched rock after rock being hurled into the water. Taking a deep breath she walked up to Xena and sat down on the mossy ground next to her.

"Xena, I'm sorry."

"Sorry for what Gabrielle?" Sorry that you don't need me, that I can't protect you anymore, that as a warrior I'm useless, sorry that you've shut me out, or sorry that we became lovers?

"Sorry that you're hurting, and that I was so wrapped up in my own fears that I didn't see yours. That I didn't share mine."

"I watched you when you cried and figured you'd talk to me about it, that I just had to be patient. And I think I was afraid of what your tears might mean." Seeing new tears rolling down the bard's cheeks she moved until she was holding Gabrielle. "Talk to me cariad, let me in."

"I will. I promise, but can I ask you something first?" Her voice was earnest, almost pleading, Xena steeled herself for the question.

"What?"

"Did you make a deal with Ares?" Not the question she'd been expecting, but then Gabrielle had always been perceptive. Do I explain that without you there to meet me in the Elysian Fields, atonement seemed pointless, that I was tired and only your faith in me ever really convinced me that I could atone. That he promised you wouldn't die in a war, that the world would forget me, that at least for this life time I could have peace.

"Yes."

"Is that why you left your sword back in the valley?"

"That's two questions Gabrielle, but yes, that's why." Xena wanted to move the direction of the conversation before the bard could read the fear and despair in her eyes, but Gabrielle pushed on.

"What was the deal?"

"I can't draw steel outside of the valley again. Ever." Or I return to him, and your safety, and Amphipolous' is forfeit, I'm forfeit.

"Or?"

"Ares gets his Chosen back." So you see my love I'm useless to you now, you'd be a Queen without a champion. I have nothing to offer you except my love. And judging from last night you don't need anything from me anyway.

"What about your chakrum? A dagger? Meat knife?" A smile tugged at the corner of Xena's mouth, ever practical Gabrielle.

"Don't know about the chakrum, I need to find out what it's made from, as for daggers and meat knives, if I use them for everyday tasks like cutting twine or meat then nothing, but should I so much as throw one at somebody then presto. Welcome back Warlord." She snapped her fingers and felt Gabrielle flinch.

They sat in silence awhile before Gabrielle began speaking again. "It scares you, doesn't it?"

"Yes." Such a simple answer. "Gabrielle, I can't protect you now, not like I used too." It was in the open now - does she love me for who I am, or who she remembers me to be? Is what I am now enough?

"You are more than your sword Xena, you always have been. I've seen you be diplomat, trickster, ambassador, healer, mother, farmer, friend and lover. You have...many skills, and I think sometimes swinging that sword got in the way of your using them. I'll admit that a couple of times during the last few days I wondered if my feelings for you are based on who you were or who you are."

Xena was torn between watching sea green eyes or focusing on the rippling water, a decision rendered moot when Gabrielle reached up and turned her face so that she had no choice but to look directly into the bard's eyes.

"I realized that they are inseparable, only the balances have changed. I love you - all of you, past, present and future. Your honour, and warmth, that quirky sense of humour, the way I feel safe in your arms. Not the safety of force of arms, but the safety of having all that you are and that you want to be accepted and cherished. You encouraged my hopes and dreams when my own family wouldn't, you taught me that I could stand on my own two feet, that my dreams were mine for the taking. I have an entire Amazon guard with swords to protect me but only you give me that feeling of safety." She grinned slyly at her lover, "And since when did you need a sword to be lethal?"

Relief flowed through Xena, her own tears ran down her cheeks, dropping into Gabrielle's hair as she pulled her close. Soft reassuring kisses gave way too increasingly passionate ones. Xena needed the physical contact with which to ground the emotional and verbal intimacy. She was surprised when Gabrielle pulled back and looked up at her with a mischievous cant to her features.

"You'd do anything to keep from finishing this conversation wouldn't you?" The laughter in her tone belaying any angry connotations the words might otherwise have had.

Xena nuzzled Gabrielle's neck, eliciting a low moan, trailing her lips lower she murmured into the soft skin above the bard's breasts, "Are you complaining about my diplomatic skills?"

Gabrielle's answer was lost in a gasp of pleasure as Xena's mouth found a nipple and began rolling it against her tongue. Feeling an answering current of passion rise in the bard, Xena let herself melt into their lovemaking.

 

 

Chapter 10

A low throbbing pulse could be felt emanating from the room at the end of the hall, the vibrations transmitting themselves via the stone floor and travelling throughout the castle. The throbbing made his teeth ache, but soon, soon the contents of the room would be his to control and all he had to do was find one tiny chit of a Queen.

The song of the stone continued to reverberate throughout the castle - walls and floors carried its lament to the waves pounding at the fortress walls - out into the ocean beyond. Swept along on the tide, the song gathered momentum, calling for an answering refrain.

Crashing into a cliff side cave, the stone's song poured over forged steel, and the blade's voice was added to the song. The land herself joined the chorus, flinging her voice to the winds, searching for the silent voices. The complex melody played across the land, and the air crackled with the music, which mankind in his ignorance called magic.

High on the fortress rampart, a king tilted back his head and laughed into night sky. And the song paid him no mind.

 

 

Chapter 11

Cairbre awoke to the sounds of a busy village preparing itself for the day. Soft women's voices rang out over the excited play of children. Bird calls echoed around the village passing the news of the night before. He was suddenly homesick.

Reaching for his harp, he ran his fingers gently over her strings, drawing forth the sweet notes of his homeland. Losing himself in the images the music evoked in him, he was unaware that someone was pounding on the door to the guest hut he had been given. When he finally looked up, it was into the face of a young boy with curly blonde hair. And four hooves.

Hiding his surprise, he smiled and said, "Hello, come to hear me play, ha' ye then?" Keeping his tones low so as not to scare the lad he continued, "my name is Cairbre, and in my village I am a bard."

"My methryn is a bard but she can't sing as well as you can. She tells really neat stories though. Do you know any stories?" Xenan's questions tumbled out like a landslide. "My mother says you're a Queen's son just like me, well sort of, my mother is the Queen Consort, but my methryn is Queen."

Laughing Cairbre held up a hand, "Whoa lad, one question at a time. I'll answer one of yours and then you answer one of mine, ok?" Seeing the guarded look which passed across the child's face he amended, "I promise that if it's something you're not supposed to tell then you don't have to ok?" Although he's told me quite a bit already, I wouldn't want him to get into trouble over it.

"Ok"

"Right, yes I know lots of stories, in fact I know some about a magical race we call the Pukka, they are neither horse nor man, but both and more. It is said that as long as the Pukka roam free so shall my homeland be free."

"You have Centaurs like me where you're from?" Ah, so that's what he is called, a centaur, I would have thought the magical people had all left Greece ere now.

"My turn." The disappointed look on the centaur's face made him relent. "Not centaurs exactly but something similar, now I gave you my name, what's yours?"

"I'm sorry, that was rude of me, my name is Xenan."

"Pleased I am to make your acquaintance Xenan, I believe I owe you another answer. Yes, My mother is a Queen, though my methryn is a blacksmith. My turn again, you don't happen to know where I can get breakfast and a bath do you?"

This time Xenan laughed, "That's two questions, so I get two new ones." Before he could answer, however, his mother entered the hut.

Standing protectively next to her son Ephiny tousled his hair and apologized to Cairbre. "I hope he wasn't disturbing you." She shooed her son to the door, "Go on, your chores are waiting for you, then go find Ara, she was looking for you earlier."

At this news he scampered excitedly for the door, pausing only to remind the bard, "Remember, you promised me a story."

"Not at all, I love children. I think that of all my duties as clan bard, I enjoy teaching most." Answering her earlier question.

"So you are a bard then, not a warrior?" Curiosity tinged her voice.

"My sword, I fear, is largely for show and though I can use it, I prefer not to. And in my land I do not carry one at all."

"And where exactly is your home?" Cairbre knew her interest in the answer to that question was more than a matter of simple curiosity.

"I come from an island past the shores of Britannia, called Eire." He wanted to describe for her the hundred shades of green that painted the landscape, wanted to help her see his birthplace, see a destiny.

"You asked after breaking your fast and a bath? Which would you prefer first?."

Continued...Part 2