"A bath I think." Looking down at the travel grime on his arms and hands he smiled wryly at Ephiny, "definitely a bath."
"I'll have someone escort you to the river, where you can have some privacy. You will have the freedom of the village, but," she stressed the but, "a member of the royal guard will be with you at all times. Men are not often allowed within these borders and we want to prevent any misunderstandings that might occur."
She and Solari had argued long into the night about how to house their guest until finally Eponin and Catran, unable to sleep had proposed a simple solution. Solari would be his daytime minder and the nighttime duties would rotate through the rest of the Queen's guard.
"After you have eaten, you will be brought before the council. You will tell the council why you search for the Queen, and we will then determine how to proceed."
"Is the Queen expected back soon?"
Keeping the pain out of her voice and the mask of royalty firmly on her features, she shrugged. "I don't know." And left the hut.
Cairbre watched her leave, reading the subtle shifting of her amerin, reading hurt and pain. Things couldn't stay simple could they? A missing Queen, a consort who couldn't decide if she were the Consort or Regent, and a definite shortage of time. Where are you Aine? You and Your foolproof plans. I told you I should have gone for the warrior. A knock on the door roused him from his musings.
"You ready?" Oh and this just gets better and better doesn't it?
"That depends on whether you plan to hit me again if I'm not." He allowed his eyes to twinkle and body to stand at complete relaxation, voice projecting acceptance of an untendered apology.
"No, I thought this morning I'd try drowning you, punching seems so overdone," Solari deadpanned.
Cairbre laughed, pleased to discover that his personal antagonist at least had a sense of humour. Grabbing a clean pair of breeches and a shirt, he bowed, "After you."
Ephiny wearily sat back in her chair, wishing Gabrielle were here to talk some sense into the council. Or at least to get them to stop bickering long enough to listen to the Gaelic bard. That's about all we've learned this afternoon, not that you've been a great help. She shot Cairbre a disgusted look and was surprised to find him watching her intently, a speculative look framing his normally open features. At least I think they're normally open, Gods, Solari's right. I know nothing of him, but yet he is, I think a man of honour, and he is here for a reason. Now if the Tartarus be damned council would just listen, maybe we could find out what that reason is.
When the meeting was called to a halt two candle marks past eventide, not much beyond a decision to house Cairbre with the centaurs had been accomplished. And this only after much spirited debate about the veracity of the Bard's claim of kinship to a revered Queen of the Amazons.
She snorted, recalling the looks of skepticism the council members wore as Cairbre, rising from his place, decided at last to speak. Exasperated she had listened as his words fell on seemingly deaf ears. Just when she had thought the debate hopeless, neither side able to prove its claim conclusively, Cairbre had silenced them all. Reaching into the recesses of his cloak he had pulled out an arrow. Ephiny had watched, in stunned awe like the rest as it had begun to glow silver, and then flame without burning. An arrow of Artemis.
He had handed it to Ephiny and left the council chamber.
Finishing her circuit of the village, the Queen Consort returned to her hut, to find Solari awaiting her.
"Hungry?" Solari offered her a meat roll which she accepted gratefully, sinking down into a chair. "You look exhausted Eph."
"No, I'm fine, really. It's just been a long couple of days."
"The nightmares are back aren't they?"
"Yes." Hades, do you have to notice everything? You're worse than Gabrielle. Always mother henning.
'You want to talk about it?" Solari had moved to an empty chair and pulled it around to face her friend.
"Ephiny, people are starting to ask questions, and you can bet that if Gabrielle isn't back soon the council will have some of its own. Now what's going on?"
"Gabrielle just had some things to take care of that's all."
"You can't keep this bottled up inside. Your hurt is written all over your face every time someone mentions her name. We've been friends along time, let me in, talk to me."
Looking over at Solari the weight of the last seven day suddenly crashed over her. I need to talk to someone, I can't do this alone and you're not here to talk to Gabrielle, although I guess part of this is not exactly something I could talk to you about anyway is it? Haltingly at first, then with increasing urgency she opened up to her childhood friend. Words and feelings spilling out in a rush.
"...and so I sent her to talk to Xena, hoping that maybe she could put some kind of closure on their relationship. It isn't enough anymore. I thought that having any part of her was better than being alone. It's not." Tears rolled down her cheeks and she allowed herself to be held until she fell asleep.
A low humming coursed through her - making the woods where she lie hidden shake. Dark shadows loomed over her and the voices of men dying rang out from the surrounding air. The familiar dream changed and woods melded into the open sea, the cries of gulls replacing the screams of the dying. The humming increased in volume until Ephiny's blood sang with its music. Its melody wrapped her in its cocoon, easing her back into a dreamless slumber, and for the first night in many she slept until the sun broke the horizon.
"Xena, maybe we should skip Poteidia this trip. Spend the extra travel time being together."
"Works for me."
Gabrielle shifted position until she was leaning on Xena's prone form, propped on one elbow against her lover's chest, and looked down at the strong face framed by firelight. It was time, she couldn't hide any more. Taking a deep breathe she decided to just dive in.
"It hurts inside. Knowing that for me to be happy, other people are going to be hurt. I'm still hand-fasted to Ephiny and that really complicates things, because the Queen, above anyone else must adhere to the law."
Gabrielle paused to think about how to explain her feelings without hurting her companion. Feeling a strong hand caress her shoulder she looked down and saw only encouragement and love in Xena's eyes.
"Tell me cariad, let it out, let me in."
"It won't just be me that Ephiny loses this season, Xenan has to leave the village for formal fostering. I helped arrange his fostering. Tyldus told us that he was too old to chase a growing centaur, so I arranged for Xenan to go to Kaleipus. With Solon."
"Solon." Xena's voice a barely heard whisper.
Now for the difficult bit. Hades why does everything I do have to get so complicated. It seemed simple enough back then. Be honest Gabrielle, if it had been simple you would have told Ephiny from the beginning who Solon was, you wanted a piece of Xena, and that was something you couldn't tell anyone. So I helped to raise your son. Our son. Words failed her and she looked helplessly at Xena.
Xena sat up facing Gabrielle. "Tell me about him." With that simple request the bard knew that somehow it would be okay, that Xena wasn't furious, didn't feel betrayed. She sat and thought about how to describe the young man the child of Xena's memory had become. Settling herself against his mother she began.
"When I watch him, I can't help but think he is a lot like you would have been, without Cortese, without having lost Lyceus. He has a ready humour, a quick smile and an even quicker wit. He tried to rig the village well handle to turn on its own and pour the drawn water into a trough connected to smaller troughs. It worked too, but only in one direction." A smile spread across Xena's face and she drew Gabrielle closer.
"Let me guess - once the rope had drawn the bucket up, he couldn't figure out how to send it down again."
"Unh hunh, and he spent days drawing these little pictures over everything, even the corner of one of my scrolls." She grinned at the sheepish look on Xena's face.
"Like mother, like son."
"Umm definitely, he has a beautiful singing voice, he sang a song he had written for my birthday and the whole Amazon village was transfixed, the younger children are always after him to make up stories where they are the heroes and travel to far away lands. This past year he has been helping his father with the negotiations for unifying the centaur tribes." There was so much she wanted to tell Xena, wanted to make her proud of Solon.
"It sounds love, that he's as much like you as he is me." Gabrielle studied Xena's face afraid that she had hurt her, worried that Xena thought she had stolen her son.
"Xena, I didn...", a finger was gently placed over her lips, cutting her off before she could continue.
"Thank you." Tears began running down her own cheeks as Xena kissed her forehead. "Thank you for being there for him, for loving him."
Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena and held her close, absorbing the sobs. Keeping her voice low she spoke of the trip they had taken to Athens, and of Solon's declining to enter the Academy, saying that he didn't know what his path was yet, but that this wasn't it. Described the joy he took in riding pell mell across open fields and through ocean waves. She spoke too of the far away look in his eyes when he watched Xenan and Ephiny, and of her own sadness as his visits came less frequently as he grew older. Told of the mutual hero worship that had begun the solid bond he shared with Xenan. Every morsel of insight and memory she gave to Xena, opening the bond to include the warrior, holding nothing back.
Laughing, she detailed his reaction to his first kiss. Mimicking with her face Solon's combined look of shock, horror and curiosity as she had come around the corner of a wagon at Solstice and found him sitting in the dirt, the retreating form of a young Amazon turning the opposite corner. And laughed some more as Xena's face took on its own look of horror at the thought of her son being set upon by young Amazons.
"He obviously inherited your charm too." Gabrielle tweaked Xena's nose.
"Watch it Bard," the warrior purred, tweaking her back.
"Hey! You're not playing fair."
"I thought you liked it when I did this," and tweaked the other nipple.
Since the only possible course left open to her involved an escalation of target areas, it was not long before tweaks became caresses, and the sounds of lovemaking spread through the clearing.
Xena fondly watched the rise and fall of Gabrielle's chest, mentally allowing herself to settle into the growing intimacy developing between them. So much has changed, so much time lost. It was exhilarating. And terrifying. Solon. Would he welcome her? Did Gabrielle understand how precious a gift she had given Xena? No, you always underestimate your worth and strength. He's not just my son anymore, he's yours too. Ours. Our son. A family? I want that with you. And the depth of that wanting stunned her.
Stroking the sleeping bard's honey gold hair, she drifted farther into thought, touching on hidden anxieties. Life is never simple where you're concerned, is it love? Solon's best friend and fostern is your wife's son. It should be an interesting welcoming committee that greets us at the border. Why haven't you told me the details about why Ephiny sent you to me?. She doesn't know about Elin's death, so she must be expecting you back. I won't let you go again Gabrielle.
Sharp barks pierced the night air, snapping the thread of her thoughts. Xena jumped to her feet, listening. Dry twigs were breaking to her left, and she could dimly make out the shape of a dog. Relaxing, she exhaled and called out softly, "Come here you, we were wondering where you'd got off to."
She was reaching for something to feed him, when she detected movement to her right. Before she could zero in on what was disturbing the underbrush the dog shot across the campsite and into the darkened woods. Grabbing Gabrielle's staff she followed.
An angry howl was followed by a yelp of pain, and then silence. Cautiously, she moved forward, eyes and ears straining for clues as to what lie ahead of her. She found the dog's body first, wet, warm blood was pooling on the ground under him. Reaching a hand down to the wiry gray fur, she realized that he had been eviscerated. Sickened she pulled back and spotted another body just beyond the dog's. It looks my friend, like you gave as good as you got.
Xena continued to scan the area around her even as she bent to examine the new body. Before she could take a closer look, a shadow on the ground to her right resolved itself into a body and moved feebly. Moving next to the prone form of a woman, she knelt down, taking stock of injuries.
A strong hand grabbed her shoulder pulling Xena closer. Gesturing with her other hand she pointed toward the dog, "Finnegan?"
Biting back questions and a growing unease, she shook her head. "I'm sorry, he's dead." So you had a name you'd answer to after all.
The woman slumped back into the ground, and opened her eyes. Xena's alarm bells sounded full alert as recognition flashed across the injured woman's bloodied features. Her next words solidified the feeling of dread creeping over the warrior. "The Queen?..."
Xena was torn between the woman slowly bleeding to death in front of her and Gabrielle. "Go...The Queen...," the weak words ending her dilemma.
Removing her shift she pressed it against the bleeding figure, "Hold on, I'll be back." She rose up and threaded her way back through the darkness toward the camp. Toward Gabrielle.
A raven watched from a tree as a ghostly form dodged branches and fallen stumps. Pale skin gleamed in the moonlight, a dark mane of wild hair trailing behind. The bird cawed into the night, speeding the warrior on her way, before taking flight and disappearing into the sky.
Nearing the campsite Xena realized that she was weaponless, and her belly tightened as a wave of fear hit her. Be okay Gabrielle, please be ok.
Arriving at the campsite, she halted, all was as she left it. Relief flooded through her and she felt her knees begin to buckle. It was only sheer willpower that kept her standing.
"Xena, is that blood?" a sleepy voice inquired.
"Yes, but not mine. Grab some water, I'm going to need your help." Electing not to mention that she didn't want to leave Gabrielle alone until she had some answers. No sense in worrying her anymore than necessary.
Swiftly they made the return journey to where Xena had left the wounded woman. She heard the bard's sharp intake of breath as she found the dog's body. Turning to Gabrielle she spotted the still form of the mysterious woman. "Here, help me roll her over." Xena rolled the woman toward her and was dismayed to find the shift soaked in blood, it seemed the bleeding hadn't slowed at all.
"Xena what happened here?"
"I don't know, I followed The Dog, but when I arrived he was dead, two other bodies were here and here." Pointing each spot out. As she did so visual images assaulted her senses, and a memory of the acrid smell of blood and decay she had encountered upon initially entering the clearing hit her. Gods, it's been too long, I can't go back to this. Indicating the form in front of them, "she knew you were the Queen...she called the dog Finnegan."
If Xena hadn't looked so grave Gabrielle would have laughed. Funny, she uses more words now but her stories don't make any more sense.
The wounds on the woman's chest wouldn't stop bleeding. They had finished stitching her up almost two candle marks ago, and still the blood continued to ooze between the threads. Gabrielle had made the stitches as tiny and as close together as possible, and the bleeding should have stopped. She glanced at her partner's worried face.
Xena's eyebrows furrowed and she looked puzzled, "I think that all this shift is doing is drawing out more blood, the wound won't clot for some reason. I don't know what else to do." She threw the shift into the fire. "We need help."
Gabrielle stood and dusted the needles from her clothes. "Right. I'll go and pack up the camp and get the horses."
"No. It's too dangerous. Whatever did this to her is still out there."
"Xena, you need to stay here, I'll be fine and besides it's nearly dawn." Grabbing her staff from the ground near Xena, she leaned down and kissed her soul mate. "I won't be long."
Running swiftly through the lightening forest, the bard made her way back to their abandoned camp. As she left the warrior farther behind, she grew increasingly aware of being watched. Please don't let that be what I think it is. Whatever it is doesn't seem to be moving closer, just shadowing me. Great, I'm being stalked. Hurry up, O'Mighty Amazon Queen. She laughed to herself as she broke into the clearing they had set camp up in the night before.
Quickly, she doused the fire and packed their belongings onto the horses. Returning by a slightly different route to accommodate the horses, she failed to see the imprints of large paws in the soft forest floor.
A large black bear ambled along parallel to the Amazon Queen, pausing every so often to stand on her hind legs and swing her muzzle to and fro in the dawn air. Satisfied that nothing moved in the early morning light but the Queen and the horses she disappeared into the trees.
A large black raven came to rest on the sill of a hut in the Centaur village, cocking her head slightly to one side, she hopped through the window and came to rest on the floor in front of the bard's bed. Opening her wing's to their full span she arched her neck upwards, feathers fluidly melting into skin. Moving to stand over the sleeping Gael, the dark woman placed her palm on his forehead. Satisfied that his dreams had been interrupted, she resumed the raven form.
Cairbre shifted in his sleep as his dreams changed. The pounding rhythm gave way to the night sounds of a forest. Watching, he saw two women leaning over a third. The dreamscape shifted and suddenly he was standing next to them. He watched helplessly as they tried to staunch the flow of blood from the wounds on her chest. NO!
Aine, something was wrong with Aine, sweet Danu, he had to get to her. How? A horse, I need a horse. A wry thought intruded, a village full of centaurs and nary a horse. Ephiny, she'll help. He sprang out of the bed to find himself under observation from small black eyes. The raven cawed once and flew up to the sill, and cawed again, hopping about.
Dressing hurriedly he stepped into the night to find the raven perched in a tree, looking at him almost expectantly, pausing to get his bearings he began running toward the Amazon village and help. The raven had other ideas. He had to duck and roll as the raven swooped down at him, attempting to turn him in the opposite direction. Lying on his stomach, his eyes locked with the raven's fathomless black orbs.
The truth dawned on him. In her eyes he saw death and blood, rivers of red that wound their way through fields of green, he saw madness and purpose. And he knew he looked upon the face of death herself. Cairbre knew that the Goddess would brook no misstep, for she had obviously come for a reason, but he also knew that he could not save his sister by himself, even with one of the Tuatha d' Danaan helping him.
"Who is it? Who's out there?" Clear tones piped from beyond a hut. A young man came round the corner and stared down at him. "You're the Bard, aren't you? What are you doing lying in the dirt?"
At the intrusion the raven had flown up to sit in the branches of a nearby tree. Weighing his options, he decided he needed the youth.
"I needed to get to the Amazons, and I tripped in the dark. Look, I don't have time to explain but I need a healer and my horse."
Solon looked at the face in front of him, he could see the anxiety in the set of his features, and made his decision. "It's not a good idea to just run into their village in the dead of night, as I think you are already well aware. I'll go, I'm well known there and I'll bring back some help, your horse and a healer." He turned in the direction of the village, and paused looking back at the Bard. "I don't suppose you'd care to tell me why you need a healer?"
"Aine...my sister...she's hurt and if I can't get to her in time..." Cairbre's voice trailed off. Solon heard the fear in the man's words, but looking at his eyes he realized that more than the possible death of his sister was sparking that fear.
A short time later Solon was at the boundary to the village. Raising his arms over his head he whistled the calls which would give the scouts both his identity and the information that this was an emergency. He didn't have long to wait as the two woman patrol dropped from the trees.
"Are you all right? What's wrong?" Catran raked her eyes over every visible inch of the Queen's foster son, searching for a wound. Finding none, she exhaled with relief.
Aware that he had caused them some worry, he hastened to explain. "I'm fine, it's the Bard, he was on his way here to get his horse and a healer, I thought it would be better if I came. Catran, I think it's serious."
"Raye, run ahead and wake Solari, and Agatha. Go."
Solon and Catran walked into the village, the Amazon having decided that he had run far enough for one night. When they reached the cluster of huts, Catran broke off and headed for where Solari and the others were waiting. He stood for a minute before deciding to go and wake Ephiny.
Entering the hut that Xenan and Ephiny shared with his methryn, he paused, unsure if he should wake the Consort. How could he explain the strange dreams he'd been having, and seeing the Gael... that had jolted him. That man had walked in his dreams. And this Aine, he had heard her name in his dreams too, and Gabrielle's, only when he heard her name it had been an anguished scream torn from the throat of someone he couldn't quite recognize. It scared him.
Tightening his hand into a fist, he gathered his resolve and crossed to the bedchamber. "Ephiny.." he whispered, "it's me, Solon. Wake-up." He laughed, when it occurred to him that whispering was probably a little counter productive. Clearing his throat, he took a deep breath, "Ephiny, wake up, please."
"Solon...what are you doing here? Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, although with the number of people that keep asking me that, you'd think I was made of glass."
Ephiny got out of bed and ruffled his hair, "Its just that if anything happened to you, Gabrielle would kill us. Now what brings you here in the middle of the night?"
A knock at the door prevented him from answering her question, and she waved him into a chair. "Come."
She turned to face the door, mildly amused at her late night popularity. The tight look on Solari's face quickly dispelling her light mood.
"Apparently the Bard needs a healer and his horse." Her tone leaving no doubt in the consort's mind as to who was being referred to. "If you want more details ask him." Jerking her thumb at Solon.
Ephiny motioned him over, and regarded him solemnly, "Its important isn't it?"
"Yes. I've been having these dreams. And he's part of it, but I think Gabrielle's in trouble too, not just his sister."
Dreams - a memory of a pounding rhythm and boundless ocean overtaking her, what do you see in your dreams Solon?
"Gabrielle?" Putting her arm around Solon, she turned and faced the Captain of the Guard, "Get six warriors, his horse and the healer. Meet me by the corral in a quarter candle mark." She held up a hand, forestalling Solari's inevitable argument. Then turned back to Solon, "And you, off to bed, you can go home in the morning."
"No." Quiet determination. "I'm not a child anymore Ephiny."
Ephiny studied him, wondering when he'd become the young man standing in front of her. He was taller than she was, and something in his voice told her that he was right - that this was important to him. "Alright, let's go." Gabrielle is going to kill me if anything happens to him. And if she doesn't his father will.
They met up with the Bard about half a league from the village, and if Ephiny hadn't known better she'd have sworn he was arguing with a bird, and losing.
"You shouldn't have done that."
"You know very well what I mean. The bear thing."
"Oh that, well I needed the exercise."
"You were cheating, love, admit it."
"If your mother can so can I."
"My mother is not exactly playing with a complete quiver of arrows either. And if you get caught..."
"I didn't." She moved in to claim a kiss that left both of them reeling. Breaking apart reluctantly they stepped away from each other. Breathing some what raggedly she laid a reassuring kiss on her partner's forehead. "Soon, mo'charra. It's almost time."
"Is this really what you want?"
Wrapping her arms securely around the slim red-head, she teased. "What? Three hundred years hasn't convinced you?"
They stood quietly entwined for some time before the silence was again broken. "I need to go."
"I know." The brunette watched the other fade into the morning light. Moments later a reassuring hand was laid across her shoulder, and she turned to look at her twin.
"Are you sure about this Artemis? Is she worth losing your Godhood for?" Apollo inquired gently, not to provoke anger, but to reassure himself that this was what his sister truly wanted. If it was he would do everything in his power to see that she got it.
"Yes." A single simple word, barely breathed and yet it spoke volumes. No hesitation or reservation. This was what she wanted.
Trying to lighten mood, he punched his sister on the shoulder, "I thought brothers were supposed to keep their sister's from losing their virginity, not conspiring to help them." He threw back his head and laughed as a blush spread up Artemis' neck and her face glowed crimson. "I didn't think we could do that." He managed to sputter between guffaws.
Deciding that turn about was fair play, she grabbed his air board, and sprang into the sky above him. "And I suppose Phoebe is a mere dalliance?"
Laughing the Sun chased the Moon across the sky to the heights of Mount Olympus.
"How is she?"
"The wounds still haven't stopped oozing blood, and I don't know how much longer she can hold out. Gabrielle, I think you need to ride for help."
They had stopped next to a stream to rest and water the horses. Xena wouldn't admit it but her shoulders needed the rest too. They had been walking since just after first light and it was nearly noon. Rigging a stretcher, she had placed the left front in Argo's stirrup and the right front in Quill's, leaving her to walk between the two horses carrying both rear handles. The result was a smooth ride for the patient and sore back muscles for Xena. Gabrielle had walked point, but so far they had traveled unmolested.
"Okay, but first things first."
Grinning as Gabrielle moved behind her, "And what might that be?"
"Take off your tunic, O Stoic one." Xena winced as the bard dug strong fingers into her shoulders and began working out the stiffness. "Didn't think I'd notice did you?"
Xena allowed herself to relax into the massage, the Amazon's fingers taking away more than just the knots from over stressed muscles. "Umm, I could get used to this. Yep, very used to this."
Whatever reply the bard had been about to make was lost in the sound of hoof beats coming along the trail in front of them. Xena listened tensely for a moment, before relaxing and getting to her feet. "Help may have found us."
As the mounted group came into view and became recognizable, Xena realized too late that her tunic lay discarded on the ground in front of them. A strangled sound from Gabrielle's throat told her that the same thought had just occurred to her. Stepping to stand closer to Gabrielle, she lifted her eyes to meet the icy stare of the Amazon Consort.
If not for her stirrups, Ephiny was sure she would have fallen off her horse. As it was she wanted to leap down and pummel Xena. Unaware of her body moving, she dismounted in front of her wife. Deadly calm had replaced the searing anger that had held her in its grip. Reaching down she gathered up the fallen tunic, and stepped forward, once again locking her hazel eyes on ones of ice blue. Letting her eyes speak for her, she handed Xena her tunic, not daring to look at Gabrielle. Not wanting to see the confirmation of her worst fear in those eyes of green. Holding betrayal at arms length.
The three women hung locked by their eyes for what seemed like an eternity, unable to look away. Then the bustle of the rescue party swept over them and the spell was broken.
Cairbre was aware of the sudden dangerous shift in the amerin of the group, noting its source he filed it away to examine later and moved to the prone form on the stretcher. "Aine, it's me. You and your fool proof plans. No matter now, we'll soon get you put to rights." Who am I trying to convince, you or me, lor but this does nae look good at all. Searching around his eyes fell on the tall raven haired woman from his dream, "What happened?"
"There was some sort of battle, and she was wounded. Her dog died trying to save her." The words were delivered in a matter of fact way that belied the curiosity he could feel rolling from her in waves.
"Dog?" It couldn't be, no, even he wouldn't dare, would he?
"She called him Finnegan."
He startled himself and them by laughing out loud. I guess he would dare then. And as long as you haven't cremated him, he'll be following Aine around again in no time.
Sobering, he bent once again over his sister and pulled back her slit tunic. He could smell the poison clinging to the flesh around her wounds, and sank back against the ground, head bowed in defeat. "Sweet Danu, no, not like this. It can't end like this." A woman he didn't recognize wrapped her arms around him and held him while he cried. Regaining control, he reached over and stroked his sister's brow, feeling the faint pulse under the skin at her temples. A strong voice cut in.
"What is it? Why won't the wounds close?" The raven haired woman demanded.
"Iron." He spit the word out like a curse. "The metal is poisoning the wound, and weakening her." He didn't bother to look up.
"Iron." It was a statement. A long pause ensued, then he heard the same voice conversing with the woman next to her. Nodding at Cairbre she then headed deep into the undergrowth, while the woman she had been talking to began issuing instructions to those remaining in the camp.
Taking note of the alacrity at which her instructions were carried out he realized that this then was the missing Amazon Queen. The lad who had gone for help came to stand next to the Queen, and smiled at Cairbre reassuringly.
"That was Xena, she'll figure something out, you'll see."
Finished delegating the details of setting up the new camp and moving Aine, Gabrielle turned her attention to Solon. "And what are you doing here?" It probably would have come out sterner if she hadn't been genuinely glad to see him.
Solon shrugged and grinned at her, "He needed help, I was there. And...I decided this was one tale I didn't want to hear about second hand."
"Hummph. Hungry?" Her own stomach obviously remembered that her lunch had been forgotten with the arrival of the rescue party.
Laughing Solon reached into his belt pouch and pulled out a sweet roll, bowed then handed it over. "For you my Queen."
"Don't get cheeky young man." Words slightly muffled by the roll. "C'mon, let's find some proper lunch."
Solon had drifted off to sleep not long after lunch, leaving Gabrielle time to think. Timing really isn't my forte is it? She felt drained. Life had been a whirlwind of emotional highs and lows over the last few seven days. And the look on Ephiny's face as she had ridden round the corner. There hadn't been opportunity to discuss it at the time and she could feel the incident hanging over the camp. Would their friendship survive this? It was friendship that had started it. She wanted to walk up to Ephiny and say she was sorry, that ...that what? There were no words adequate enough, no phrases pretty enough to sooth that kind of hurt. Only time could do that. And so she had stayed away from Ephiny. Each of them had found things to do, taking refuge in protocol and duty. Shifting her weight to ease the strain on her back, she watched her son sleep, his face losing the edge of exhaustion. Brushing a stray lock back from his face, she could see how very like his mother's, his profile was. Blood would, she thought, soon begin to tell.
Shifting her focus to the leaping flames, she allowed herself to become mesmerized by the flickering dance. Solari had quickly filled her in on what had happened since her departure. The idea of a Bard from a foreign land seeking her out was both exciting and scary at the same time. It was obvious from the way Solari spoke about Cairbre that she couldn't decide whether she liked him or wanted to hit him some more. Solon had opted to trust him, and that had ultimately lead to the rescue team finding them before Aine had bleed to death. Gabrielle wondered if some magical force dictated that putting her and Xena within a league of one another automatically led to trouble. She snorted, if not magic then probably the Gods.
Peripherally, she became aware of a low quiet song. It was melodic and soothing, wrapping the camp in its tones. Allowing the gentle tones to envelop her she drifted off to sleep.
Solari was leaning against a tree, having removed herself from the immediate circle of the campfire. Things over there were just a little too hot for her liking. Gabrielle and Ephiny hadn't looked directly at each other since the rescue party had first arrived, and the growing tension between them was palpable. That was one conversation she was going to be happy not to be anywhere around. She swept her eyes around to the other groups clustered about the fire. Gabrielle dozed slumped against a log, Solon's head cradled in her lap, as the exhausted boy got some much needed sleep. She chuckled, of course, before he'd been allowed to sleep, he'd been thoroughly checked for any signs of injury and stuffed with food.
She noted the weary lines of the Bard's body propped against his mount's saddle. His face was still streaked with the anguished tears he had shed earlier. He puzzled her. Solari had never seen a man cry just because he was hurting. Sure, she'd made a few snivel and plead for their pathetic lives, even made a few of them cry, but never had she seen honest sorrow from one. His songs too, were coloured by emotions, feelings painting pictures where words simply weren't enough. She ceased her study of him, becoming aware that he broken off his song and was studying her in return.
Continuing her sweep her gaze fell on Ephiny, she was sitting next to Cairbre and his sister, occasionally passing a cool cloth over Aine's forehead. She was worried about her friend. Worried about both her friends. Damn that warlord to Tartarus any way. No, what ever happened it wasn't all Xena's fault, Gabrielle had gone looking for the warrior and Ephiny had sent her. She just hoped the fallout didn't tear the whole damn Nation apart while they sorted it out. In fact, she kind of felt sorry for Xena, knowing that the warrior was about to be caught between an immovable object and an unstoppable force. Thank the gods, my love life isn't nearly so complicated. She snorted, love life, ya, what love life?
Hearing rustling in the trees up ahead she got to her feet, motioning for the other Amazons to be ready. Drawing her blade, she moved toward the sound, only to have her sword deftly removed from her grip and Xena's low voice drawl in her ear, "I hope that means you're just glad to see me?" Turning to the warrior, she found herself staring into the bluest eyes she'd ever seen, surprised to find humour mirrored in their depths. You never stood a chance did you, My Queen?
Xena crossed the campsite, Solari trailing behind her. Pausing at the campfire, she touched Gabrielle's shoulder on the way by, her heart tugging at the sight of Solon curled up asleep on her lap. Indicating that the she should stay put and let Solon sleep some more, she continued on her way to where Aine lay. Ignoring the look Ephiny shot at her, she kneeled between Cairbre and the healer Agatha. Unhooking the sack from her belt she opened it, laying it on the ground to the front.
"Agatha, I need you to cut open the stitches, see if any one has a blade of silver or something sharp that hasn't been forged."
"She'll bleed to death, if we open those up." The healer did not sound pleased to be getting orders from the warrior.
"She's bleeding to death now." Looking at Cairbre, Xena indicated the decision was his.
They were all surprised when Ephiny cut in. "Trust her Cairbre, she's a good healer." Xena glanced sideways, trying to read the Consort's expression, but the other woman held her face impassive, a mask of stone.
He nodded, motioning for her to continue. Reaching to his waist, he removed a silver dagger and passed it to her. "Here, use this."
"I can't, you or Agatha will have to." She was aware of the scrutiny that last remark had suddenly brought her under. Cairbre, however, merely nodded as if he should have thought of it himself, and passed the knife to Agatha.
When the last of the thread had been removed, she and Agatha gently cleaned the gashes. Instructing the healer to excise the already dead flesh around the wounds she took a larger rock and pounded the stones in the bag at her feet. Satisfied that the fragments were as small as she could make them, Xena began packing them into the wounds. Covering Aine's chest with a piece of clean linen, she sat back on her heels. "Now, we wait."
Cairbre wondered if Ephiny, Gabrielle and Xena were aware that they sat in a perfect triangle. He didn't think so, although judging from the amerin of each of them, they were deliberately staying away from each other. There is enough energy flowing between those three to scorch the earth for leagues around. Fortunately, they didn't believe in such things, or he mused, this would be a very dangerous place to be right now. He could feel Xena staring at him intently, unasked question after question coming at him in waves. Maybe he was wrong, this one seemed to know something of the draoichtas after all. Meeting her gaze, he locked his eyes with hers, <<Later, warrior. I'll answer everything I can. My word on It.>> The startled flicker of her eyes and the sudden shift in her amerin revealed that she had felt his thought, or something. Shooting a level gaze directly at him, she seemed to say that he had better, or else. Then stood and moved off in the direction of the horses.
Amused he watched a smile quirk at the corner of the Amazon Queen's mouth as her gaze followed the warrior. She was compact and muscular, slight even by his people's standards. Yet, deciphering her amerin revealed an inner strength and mettle that left little doubt as to her fitness to be Queen. Untangling the colours a little further, he was able to read the creativity and passion that burned within. An image of a moth being drawn to a candle flame danced across his mind. He wondered how many people mistook her for the moth.
Inwardly smiling, he rested a gentle gaze on his sibling's still unconscious form, a lot like you, I bet. And how did you get Gwynn to leave his realm and follow you here? For that matter what was The Morrigan doing here? I think Xena, that I probably have as many questions as you do, and I'm supposed to be running this little escapade. And somehow, I think that neither of us are going to like some of the answers. He knew also that whether Aine lived or died, he was running out of time. Stroking her brow, as he had when they were children, he began first to hum, then sing meaningless words whose low intonations were full of a half soundless mystery.
He felt rather than saw her stir beneath his touch. With bated breath, he slid his eyes down, until his twin's face came into focus. With a wild cry that startled the camp, he wrapped her in a fierce hug.
"Cairbre, I didn't survive a Formori ambush to have you crush the life out of me." She reached down and ran her fingers over her chest, coming away with bloody bits of sand and rock. "Could you not have found a healer, who knows enough not to pack a wound with dirt?" Silver eyes identical to his own flashed their mirth at him.
"Well since you've got rocks in your head, I thought it might work for the rest of you as well." He put a firm grip on her shoulder to keep her from getting up. "Oh no you don't, you stay put until the healer has looked at that." Noticing that Xena had returned, he made room for her to join him. Whispering in Aine's ear. "Blame the rocks on her." Then sat back to allow them room to work.
Worriedly, he observed Xena and Agatha remove all the grit from the gashes in Aine's chest. The stench of the poison no longer assaulted his senses. He looked at Xena with awe, "What are those rocks?"
He swallowed as she grinned ferally at him, "I'll tell you what, you answer one of mine and I'll answer one of yours. Deal?" This was not a kid's game. She was in deadly earnest. "Let's start with a simple one, shall we? You're not human are you?" It was not in fact a question. It was a statement, daring him to lie to her.
The Formori King was furious. From far above, an eye was trained upon Bres. The crimson blaze of the single fiery pupil barely shuttered by its metal lid, visible as a mere thread of ruby light. "You failed me, Bres."
Judging it wiser not to speak, he warily watched the Formori for signs that his failure would prove to be fatal. He didn't think so, Bres knew he was crucial to retrieving the Four Treasures of Atland, and he was pretty sure that Balor was ignorant of both his true goals and his duplicity. If he wasn't then this was a doubly dangerous game he was playing and a quick death would be the best he could hope for. Time to play his holdback piece.
"Not entirely, My Lord, even as we speak the Lia Fail is accounted for, and we have tracked the Bard and the Princess to their allies. The Amazon Queen is within our grasp."
"Fool." The narrow beam of light from the single eye played over him, un-shuttered even one more inch and Bres knew he would be nothing more than a cone of cinders. He seen it happen and wasn't particularly anxious for first hand experience. "You underestimate the power that stands with them, even as you under estimate me."
Visibly paling, he swallowed nervously. Recovering his composure, he went on the offensive. "The Danaan's are pledged not to interfere in this. Their powers may not be invoked and the other three Treasures will soon be ours. It will take more than the tribe of Scathach to stand against the combined might of the Formori and Fir Bolg."
Growing tired of Bres' posturing he waved him away. "Leave Me. Do not return without The Treasures and the Queen. Or you will find, would be King of Celts, that a crown is difficult to wear without a head."
Bres left the Tower, not noticing the slim figure which entered the chamber as he left it.
M'Grath stood by his lord, contemplating the fallen Danaan King, "Do you think, My Lord, that Bres can be trusted to carry his end of the bargain?"
A low deep rumble answered him. "He must be, his throne is for him to win or lose, and only then will the Children of Danu fall sway to the Formori. I can do nothing directly, the same covenant that binds the Danaans binds me. But, perhaps a little incentive will assist him to concentrate better on the task at hand."
The retainer's face narrowed wolfishly, "As you wish Sire."
"No." Not human, something more, and something less. Separate. Struck by how much that thought saddened him.
Gabrielle caught the fleeting wistful look that passed over his features. Laying a hand on Xena's arm she silently entreated her partner to be gentle, sensing that whatever Cairbre and Aine were, they were not a threat. Xena nodded imperceptibly at her, indicating that Gabrielle should take the lead. "What then?"
It was Aine who answered her, "Faeiry, though not fully so."
Picking up his sister's thread, Cairbre continued, "Our mother is Queen Ethlinn, a human and our father Alain Midna, Prince of the Sidhe. Our birth sealed a compact between our two peoples." Arching an elegant eyebrow in his sister's direction, "Faeiry is a somewhat...imprecise term."
Aine stuck out her tongue, "For you perhaps."
The undercurrent to their wordplay did not escape either Xena's or Gabrielle's attention, and the Queen would have been surprised to discover that Solari was aware of it as well. "Are you mortal then?"
Gabrielle's question was rewarded with a shaky smile, "it would appear so." Aine stood and shook the remaining bits of debris from her body. Where there had been wounds there were now only pinkish traces. "Though I suppose, harder to kill than most." Paying no further heed to the assembled company, she stripped. Not hurriedly or languidly, but with an economy of motion that was in and of itself the definition of grace.
If she was aware of the embarrassed silence that suddenly fell over the party she didn't show it. Unbraiding her thigh length hair as she walked, she casually entered the nearby stream and began to remove the remaining traces of blood from her body.
For the second time that day Solon found Solari's hand planted firmly over his eyes.
Cairbre put his head in his hands, and took a deep breath. Realizing that everybody was now looking at him, he shrugged his shoulders and grinned before moving to the stream bank. "Honestly Aine, I cannae take you anywhere."
"Hand me your cloak will you? These'll take hours to dry." She held the tunic up between them, and he could see her through the holes in it. "Although perhaps a new tunic seems to be in order."
A low mutter caught his ear, "Ask Xena for one, she doesn't appear to have much use for hers." The flush appearing on the Queen's face and neck made it plain that he wasn't the only one to have heard the comment.
As casually as she had entered the stream, Aine left it, wrapping Cairbre's cloak around her as she headed for the fire. Settling herself against a log she looked at the rest of the company. "Well don't just stand there, do you nae want to know why we've come?"
She was enjoying this. Aine couldn't read amerin the way her brother could but she could sense enough to know that they didn't know what to make of her. Looking from the Queen to the dark warrior who had removed the rocks from her wounds she was able to feel the tension that ran between them and the one with the curly blonde hair. This could be trouble, mind it could be fun too! <<Behave Aine.>> Cairbre's mind voice admonished. Aine regretted that she hadn't yet come up with a way to mentally stick her tongue out at him.
"You could start by telling us why you were looking for Gabrielle." Ephiny settled herself next to Aine and added a log to the fire.
"Aye, 'tis time that you be knowing. Mayhap though dinner should be prepared first." A chuckle ran round the group as the Queen's stomach seconded his suggestion.
Twilight had settled around the camp before dinner and the evening chores were complete. They had eaten in relative silence and now sat ring-like by the fire, some of them sipping heated beverages and some drinking from wine skins.
Looking over to where Xena lounged talking to Solon, who seemed to be acting as a buffer between the warrior and the Queen, Cairbre addressed her playfully. "I believe you owe me an answer, Xena."
"Pardon?" judging by the quizzical expressions on the other faces he wasn't the only one to miss the reference.
"It's a mineral. One of my sailors used to swear by it for telling direction, but the bowl it floated in kept slopping all over the place and I was forever trying to keep the stuff off my sword." She shrugged offhandedly, "thought enough of it would attract the bits of iron floating around in the wound."
"You're not a Healer though are you?" This from Aine, who was regarding Xena with an intensity that had it been flame would have incinerated her.
Looking over at Gabrielle, she smiled, "I am many things." Then grinning wolfishly at Cairbre, "that would make it your turn again."
Sizing up his audience, Cairbre took note of the relative positions of their party. Sides, it seemed, were already being chosen, though it looked like at least a couple of the Amazons were attempting to appear neutral. Anger was no longer the dominate emotion in the camp. For that he was grateful. The anger and hurt had become tangible enough that his head had begun to hurt and he needed all of the energy he could muster for the upcoming tale. He had expected to feel fear, but was both relieved and puzzled as he read curiosity instead. Feeling naked without his harp, he looked to his sister for reassurance. <<All will be well braud, relax.>> Aine extended tendrils of her amerin in his direction, and he wove them into his own and began speaking, his voice changing, gathering power and carrying to the corners of the clearing.
"It is not just one tale that I must tell, nor is it our own that I must tell first. To understand what is, and what is to be, you must first know what has been."
Beauty, death and dreams,
are the substance of myth.
And even Gods fall in love.
"Hummph." Turning his gaze on Xena, he smiled at her reaction.
Ours do. And at least one of yours too.
And like us they sometimes love not wisely, but too well. And as sometimes happens with love, there is jealousy and pain. And like us, they mistake possession for love.
So it was with Brighid, Child of the Danaans; and Bres the Beautiful - renowned for his beauty but unforgiving of spirit and arrogant of manner - Son of Immortal Elathan, King of the Formori and the Goddess Eriu. Hiding his Formori blood, his mother had raised him among the nobility of her people. Bres wanted to marry Brighid, for he felt that only her beauty, her gifts were good enough for him. He also coveted the Copper Crown.
But Brighid loved another, one more worthy of her. Through basest treachery and deceit Bres captured Brighid and tried to force her to wife. with the aid of her lover's kin Brighid escaped him and an eraic was demanded, its payment refused. Bres would not be balked, if he could not have her no one would. He called upon his father and there was war. A war between the Gods of three Peoples, all for the love of a woman.
His jealousy provoked a war and destroyed a nation. Sank it beneath the waves of an Ocean. And so The Children of Danu fled the disaster of Atland. So great was the wounding of the Earth that the Over Gods pledged not to interfere in the outcome, and left the survivors to make their way as best they could. The pact sundered Brighid from her love, for where Brighid went, the other could not yet follow.
Thus the Queen led the People of the Tuatha De Danaan back to land of their ancestors, the land of Nemed the Great, bearing with them their sacred treasures blazoned with the magical emblems of their stored magic and skill:
The Sun, The Plough and The Hazel Tree.
Out of Atland they also brought to Eire four Holy and most ancient things:
Lia Fail - The Stone of Destiny
Cliamh Solais - Called also Fragarach - The Sword of Light
Slea Bua - The Spear of Victory
And the Cauldron of the Dagda.
Those who stood closest to the Queen were:
Nuada One Hand who had been King, before o'er thrown by treachery. Dagda, the all father, large of girth, generous, bountiful and wise. His daughter Brighid, The Fiery Arrow, Lady of Awen, Mistress of the Forge. Powerful also in this Company was the three-fold sister-hood, The Babd. Chief among these the Morrigan, Battle Crow and Crone, wife of the Dagda and mother of Brighid.
Grian, Lady of the Fields and Diancecht of the Healing Hand also traveled from the drowned lands to the fields of green. They traveled into the setting sun guided by Manannan McLir himself.
But they were not the only ones to flee the fall of Atland.
Bres the Beautiful, who had been King for a Day, had with him the twelve sons of Gabhran, black of mane and soul, they fled the destruction his pettiness had wrought. With them went those of the Formori who survived the fall, though Elathan's anger with Bres' disastrous campaign caused the groups to part ways. Bres found a foot hold on the shores of the Island, and like the champion he had once been he challenged the Fir Bolg.
At their head was Eochai,
With him, Streng his champion, and Slaine his son.
Behind came Fathach, the poet. Cesar and his druids,
Rua the Bloody and the Sons of Mil
And after them the Fir Bolg host.
And that tale is the First Battle of Mag Tuireadh.
Thus when the Danaans arrived, Bres had a kingdom. But the Danaans had not come alone, for prior to parting Brighid's lover had pledged the Daughters of her Heart to Brighid's aid. They landed near a ford they called Muirthemne and found living there already a people quite unlike themselves. Co-existing peacefully, the land was divided between the Tuatha De Danaan, and the People of the Hollow Hills. The Danaans saddened by their loses increasingly spent more and more time beneath the hills with the Sidhe, and soon walked their new land only rarely. The Danaans brokered a peace between my father's people and the humans who had accompanied them into exile, leaving behind only myth and prophecy, but it was enough to hold the fragile peace.
Memory of Atland ran deep in the Formori too, and they kept a peace of sorts with their neighbors. So was Eire divided between the Dannans, Formori, and the peoples of Eire.
But the wheel of time has turned three hundred cycles and memories begin to fade. The Tuatha De Danaan are deemed aloof, no longer believed to have walked, laughed and loved upon the earth. The Fir Bolg grow discontented with their portion of land and the Formori have a new King, less mindful of peace than conquest.
And that is the fore tale.
Gabrielle stared intently at Cairbre, who seemed to still be lost in his tale. Something had run cold in her as the Bard recounted the fall of Atlantis and the war between Gods. Looking over to Xena, she could tell from her partner's hooded gaze that similar thoughts were passing through her mind. Solon sat eyes wide, excitement oozing from him. Glancing next at Ephiny, she was surprised to see tears on her cheeks. Turning back to look at Cairbre, she whispered, "Who was Brighid's lover?"
Gentle eyes met hers, as she waited for the answer, "That name is not mine to reveal, nor is the tale mine to tell, it has not yet been written."
"Tell us then, Son of Ethlinn, why this should matter to the Amazons?" Ephiny pressed.
Xena didn't need to hear the answer from the Bard. Daughters of the Heart, twin children of an Amazon Queen, A war between Gods. So she saved him the trouble of answering and raising her eyes to lock on his she answered for him. "Because their mother is an Amazon Queen, a Daughter of the Heart pledged to Brighid by her Lover. By Artemis."
A round of in drawn breaths quickly circled the fire, but before any one could formulate more questions, a soft glowing light descended into the clearing and slowly coalesced into the form of a woman.
"Artemis." Xena's words were flat, challenging.
"It's nice to see you too, Warrior Princess." Moving to stand next to the Bard and his sister, she looked down at them fondly. "You have done well, both of you, but the rest of the Tale is not yours to tell, it is ours." With those words, another figure quietly appeared next to the Huntress. "And this is not yet the time to tell it."
WOW. Solon was sure his face radiated the awe he felt, but he was too excited to worry about his image. Hades. Artemis herself. Wow. Methryn told stories about her adventures with the Gods sometimes, but to actually have one...no two, he realized standing there. Wow. Look Solon. Remember what Methryn taught you. Pushing his awe to the background he opened his senses and surveyed the tableau around him, eyes drinking in as many details as his mind could hold.
Xena had risen to her feet and was ...hovering..., - his memory supplied drawing on an image from their first meeting long ago, - protectively near Gabrielle who had also regained her feet. There were though subtle differences in their body language, the silent looks they exchanged, the air around them seemed different, which he figured was the result of the revelation Methryn had made over lunch. In fact Gabrielle seemed to be leaning unconsciously toward the larger woman, acting, as a buffer between Xena and the God. Protective. She's protecting Xena as much as Xena is protecting her.
The other Amazons simply sat and stared, blinking in awe at their patron goddess and her guest.
In distinct contrast to Xena's alert stance the two Celts appeared to be relaxed, standing easily next to the flame haired goddess who must, he reasoned, be Brighid.
She was, he thought, beautiful, and the smile she bestowed on Aine warmed him even from where he sat quietly. Where Artemis was tall and lean and favored the leather dress of the Amazons, the Irish Goddess was taller still, muscular and heavier of frame, clad in garments of similar cut and design to Cairbre's. Artemis' hair was the colour of sun touched wheat, a fiery golden brown, while Brighid's held the nuances of true flame.
Belatedly he became aware that the expectant silence binding the group had been broken and he shifted his attention from the visual to the aural. He hadn't caught the opening remarks, but Artemis was speaking in answer, fond laughter colouring her tones.
"Patience, my daughters." Casting amused eyes on the two male members of the group. "We will speak more of this later." She gestured for Aine and Cairbre to follow her and taking Brighid's hand led the group away from the light of the fire, melting into the darkness of the tree line.
Tearing his attention away from the no longer visible group, he watched the four Amazons assigned to patrol leave camp and likewise melt into the darkness. A hand touched his shoulder and he looked up.
"C'mon you. Bedtime for boys." Laying out his bedroll as she spoke Gabrielle mustered her counter argument for the protest that was sure to follow.
Finally getting Solon settled, with a promise to wake him when and if the others returned, she turned her attention to her own sleep arrangements. And froze. 'Oh boy, this could get sticky.' Common sense warred with her desire not to slight her lover. And she admitted to herself the simple desire to feel Xena's reassuring presence next to her. Compromising she laid her own roll next to the now sleeping Solon, and placed Xena's lengthwise across the top, her head closest to her son's.
"So you have some decency left after all." Whirling to find Ephiny angrily addressing her. "After that little display this afternoon I'm surprised you'd even bother to ..."
Her own anger rose in response to her consort's bitter accusation and she cut the other woman off in mid-sentence. "That was an accident, we didn't intend for..."
"For what? What did you think bringing her back with you was going to mean? Did you even think about the implications or were you thinking with your crotch?"
Green eyes flashed hard as emeralds, her voice a low warning growl. "Don't do this Ephiny. You sent me to see her remember?"
"I sent you to say goodbye, not to crawl into bed with her." Anguish and anger present in equal measure.
"This...is not...the time or place for this." Trying hard to keep her words calm and measured, fighting back tears.
"I didn't realize there was an appropriate time to discuss betrayal." Spinning away the sarcastic retort hung in the air behind her, stinging Gabrielle.
In spite of the pain it was almost a relief to have Ephiny's anger out in the open. The cloying sense of anticipation and fear generated by not knowing was gone. Now I know, this is not going to be easy. We should have stayed away. Don't go there Gabrielle, you are Queen you can't just walk away. And, as much as she hated to admit it she owed Ephiny the knowing and the right to have her anger acknowledged. Three weeks and this would have been different. I wouldn't be foresworn. Her breathing had returned to normal and the tears that had threatened to spill over so easily minutes before had vanished.
Feeling exhausted Gabrielle made her way slowly to where the horses were tethered, hoping to find Xena. So much had happened today and they hadn't yet had a chance to talk. It was all a little overwhelming. Coming up behind her lover she could clearly see fatigue in the set of those proud shoulders. Gabrielle reached out and draped her arm around Xena's waist. It was a gesture all at once consoling and protective. "I love you."
"How do you do that?" Xena had felt Gabrielle's approach but was unsure of what to say, the day had been awkward and tense, the presence of Ephiny in the camp making it even more so. She hadn't known what to say, how to behave. With the immediate threat to Aine's life over there didn't appear to be anyway to stave off the inevitable confrontation and up until Gabrielle had spoken a part of her had been afraid that the bard would back away from her, and toward Ephiny.
"I do the sensitive chats, remember?" Xena caught the quaver in her voice and turned to examine her lover carefully. Even in the dim light cast by the distant campfire she could see the toll the day and previous night had taken on the younger woman.
Enfolding Gabrielle in her arms, she brought her chin to rest on the top of her head. Softly she murmured into her partner's ear, "I love you too, my Queen." She gently captured soft lips with her own, sliding into a kiss that spoke of love and acceptance, and a future. The kiss muted into an embrace, each holding the other, soothing away the tensions of the day.
"Speaking of sensitive chats, I guess I need to have one with Ephiny a little sooner than we planned." The trepidation in her tone wasn't lost on Xena.
"I'll be there with you if you want." It was the last place Xena wanted to be, but if Gabrielle needed her, she'd defy Hades himself, never mind Ephiny.
A wry grin greeted her offer, "Something tells me warrior mine that this is a one person sensitive chat. Besides you have a sensitive chat of your own to attend to."
"What sensitive chat?" I'll apologize to the Bard for threatening him, but that hardly counts as a sensitive chat. Her expression conveying confusion which Gabrielle quickly dispelled with her next words.
"Solon, Xena. You need to tell him you're his mother." Xena felt the bard's fingers softly against her lips, asking her to listen. "It's written on his face Xena, I don't know why I hadn't seen it before, but this afternoon, watching him sleep, he has your profile, your eyes. He deserves to find out from one of us, and it should be you."
"You are all the mother he needs Gabrielle, the woman who bore him is dead." The bitterness and longing in her tone surprising even her.
Neither of them noticed the slim figure who darted back toward the campfire.
Gabrielle cupped her face and peered intently into her eyes, Xena swallowed trying to hold back tears. "Your past is dead Xena, it's time to reach out for the future, for our son. We'll work out the details as we go, remember? And I'm not going anywhere."
Our son, hearing those words out loud both warmed her heart and froze her soul. What if our son doesn't want to be my son? And Kaleipus? Gabrielle's soft voice cut in, "One day at a time love, what ever happens, we'll deal with it together."
Allowing a wan smile to curve her lips she kissed Gabrielle's forehead, "There you go reading my mind again."
"I too have many skills, love." Xena graciously bent her head and allowed the bard to demonstrate further.
"My Queen." Gabrielle's heart sank at the ice in Solari's voice. Turning to the Guard Captain, but not stepping away from Xena, she decided that now was as good a time as any to begin dealing with the fallout.
"Captain, what is it you need?" She was pleased that she had kept her tone neutral. As if being caught stealing kisses by your honour guard is a neutral sort of event.
"Artemis and the others have returned. The Queen Consort sent us to find you and Xena." Seeing the flinch on both their faces at the mention of Ephiny she nodded in satisfaction. Heading back toward the fire, she paused and addressed the Queen. "You know Gabrielle, this I would have expected from her, but I never expected it from you. What if Ephiny had been the one to find you?" Not giving either of them a chance to explain, she turned on her heel and left.
Gabrielle looked up at the stricken expression on Xena's face, and squeezed her hand, "Hey, are you alright?"
"I think you probably have a few sensitive chats to do before this is sorted out."
Ruefully she allowed that that might be the case. "Yeah, but if all else fails I can always abdicate." Trying with humour to cover the sadness that thought caused.
"C'mon you, better not keep your Goddess waiting, or you could end up Queen of Mice." It was however, a relief that some of the teasing tones from early in their journey were back.
Together they moved back to where the rest of the group was waiting.
By the time they arrived the others had reseated themselves and were regarding the two Goddesses with expressions ranging from reverent awe to stunned surprise. Except for, Gabrielle noted wryly, Xena and the two Gaels.
Dropping casually to an empty spot between Agatha and the now alert Solon, she read the hesitation in Xena's body language and indicated that Xena should join her.
No sooner had they seated themselves than Aine began to speak.
Looking directly at Gabrielle, the Gael spoke in quiet somber tones, quite at odds with the initial impression the Queen had formed of the young woman.
"We need your help. The halves of the Amazon Nation must again be made whole." Aine glanced over to where Artemis and Brighid were sitting as though seeking and receiving permission to elaborate. "In order to defeat the combined power of the Fir Bolg and the Formori we need to use the Great Treasures, and this we cannot do alone. The weapons chose their own masters and must have the whole nation to chose from. The Gods to whom these weapons belong cannot aid us in the fight either, they are, as my brother has mentioned precluded from direct interference in the final outcome of this matter." Briefly the impish smile Gabrielle had begun to associate with her flitted across Aine's face as she caught Brighid's eye. "Although it seems a little nudging here and there is permitted."
"I must be missing something, because I don't understand why you need to fight them. Returning to Greece would reunite the halves just as effectively wouldn't it?" Gabrielle asked.
Again looks were exchanged between the Goddesses and the Celts, and this time it was Artemis who answered. "No, my chosen one, this battle must be fought, though I applaud your effort to avoid war. And war it shall be. Your skills and diplomatic talents have brought the nation growth and prosperity. But the clime here in Greece is changing, for all of us." A sad far away look settled over her features before she continued. "If the nation is to survive you must leave Greece."
"That's why you sent Queen Scathach away isn't it? To prepare the way?" Gabrielle's question went unanswered as Xena interjected a question of her own.
"There's more to this than you're telling us. Or you would simply have sent the Nation with Queen Scathach three hundred years ago. What's in this for you Artemis? More fun and games with mortal lives?" Xena's eyes were hard as flints.
"This is none of your affair Xena, this is a matter for Amazons. Stay out of it." The tension around the fire magnifying with Ephiny's rebuke.
Gabrielle rounded on her Consort but was cut off by Artemis' angry shout. "Enough."
Without giving anyone a chance to ask any more questions Artemis pointed imperiously at Gabrielle, "come with me. We need to talk." Shooting a look at Xena that could have been equal parts understanding and frustration she sighed, "As for you. You will take this little group back to Arborea - all of them." She was gone as quickly as she came taking The Queen and Consort with her.
Brighid looked at the stunned awe on the faces of the Amazons and shook her head in barely concealed mirth, slowing dematerializing and following Artemis. Bare seconds went by before she reappeared, no one had shifted position or yet began to talk, so her lilting words broke the silence left by her lover. "Forgot someone." Then she and Aine were gone.
Gabrielle didn't know what she had been expecting to happen when the Amazon Goddess had taken her and Ephiny away from the others, but this was definitely not it. She was sitting on a hill in a meadow, in broad daylight. Alone. Fields of green stretched before her as far as the eye could see, the only break on the horizon a far off mountain peak, its snow capped heights barely discernable. The air around her was as devoid of sound as the panorama was of variation in topography.
Lying back onto the carpet of green she let some of the tension leach from her body into the ground below. This place felt safe, and it was a relief not to have any one else around. Lost in thought she didn't hear the other woman approach.
"Difficult position to be in."
The kind words conveyed a sense of understanding and empathy that she hadn't expected to hear from a Goddess, "You're not much like our Gods are you?"
Delighted laughter was the first response. "Mayhap because I'm not a God by your standards."
Reflecting on this for a bit they sat in silence. "Are you faeiry then like Aine?"
"No, we are more than mortal and powerful in our own ways, but that power comes from knowledge and from our Mother Goddess."
"Where are we? It's so peaceful here." Not like back at the camp.
"You are a curious one. We are in Tir na n'Og, which is for my kin what Olympus is to your Gods."
"But Cairbre said your people had gone to live with the Sidhe."
"I suppose that is what it looks like to the mortals, we merely removed ourselves from mortal sight, we have not abandoned them. But these are things best left for another time and place."
"Do you and Artemis spend much time here?" Feeling safe, the bard's natural curiosity took over.
"For a long time we didn't dare, and then the couple of times we tried, her absence was taken advantage of." She squeezed the Amazon Queen's hand, "she was really upset that you had to face Velaska unaided."
"Oh." Nothing else to say really, though she'd always wondered how Artemis could have allowed the destruction of her temple and Arborea. Something Iolaus had mentioned came to mind. That explains how Autolycus was able to steal her bow.
She seems so human, I can hear the concern and pain in her voice. So unlike Ares and Aphrodite, hmm I bet she and Cupid get along. A giggle escaped. Poor Brighid, what a nasty lot of in-laws she's getting. Sobering she regarded the slim figure next to her, feeling bad that for what ever reason she and Artemis were separated. "Want to talk about it?"
"I was supposed to ask you that." Gabrielle's earlier giggles returned in full force, she couldn't help it. The Goddess regarded her quizzically.
It was all she could manage to get her sentence out, "Artemis doesn't do sensitive chats either hunh?" Wonder what you'd think if you knew you had something in common with a Goddess. Not very pleased probably.
"No, her talks are more along the 'knock some sense into you' variety, but don't tell her that. She seems to think she does them quite well." The indulgent smile on her face made plain to Gabrielle how Brighid felt about Artemis.
Imagine Xena, me the little girl from Poteidia, grew up to be an Amazon Queen with a Goddess sitting here willing to listen to my problems, who'd have thought? Deciding she liked Brighid she began to talk. "I don't want to hurt Ephiny, but my future is with Xena. I can't explain it but it feels right. It's like she fills a place in my soul I didn't even know was empty." Looking over at Brighid she paused judging the other's reaction.
A warm hand gently held hers, warm eyes glistening with the pain of her own memories. Gabrielle realized that this Goddess - this woman - understood her pain and dilemma in ways only hinted at by Cairbre's tale. "You loved him once."
"Yes. And then the other half of my soul walked into my life and everything changed."
"Are you sorry?"
"No. I regret the things that happened to innocent souls because Bres couldn't let go. But those were his choices not ours. We did the best we could." Tears were flowing down her cheeks, dropping softly to the ground below.
Impulsively Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the Irish Goddess, each finding peace in the presence of the other. Bard and Goddess, Queen and Immortal, joined and made equal.
Both would have laughed to see Artemis land on the hard packed floor of a forest clearing with what could only be described as a whomph.
Dusting herself off, she warily circled the Consort, shifting her grip on the wooden staff in her hand she aimed a swipe low at Ephiny's feet. "You need to let her go."
Ephiny leaped over the sweeping staff, missing until too late the blow that followed it, and landed hard on the ground. Grunting she brought herself to knees and shot a withering glance at her patron Goddess, "shoulda known you'd take her side."
Ducking the return parry Artemis leveled a blow at her companion's head. "It's not about taking sides."
Whipping an anger filled blow back at the Goddess she snarled, "She used me, I was just a convenient substitute."
Using the resulting lack of balance against Ephiny, she hooked her staff under the smaller woman's knee and sent her crashing to the ground again. Placing the butt end of the staff against the mortal's neck she whispered, "and you weren't using her? Weren't hiding your own fears behind Gabrielle's safety. You knew all along where her heart lay. Let her go, you were never hers, nor she yours."
The truth in the God's words stung and forgoing the staff Ephiny leaped on the Goddess and wrapping her in a three-quarter hold pinned her to the ground. "Easy for you say. Could you let Brighid go, just like that?"
Twisting around and breaking the hold, she quickly reversed their positions, sitting on Ephiny and pinning her arms to the ground. "No, I couldn't, because she completes me, is a part of me in ways that I never dreamed were possible. Even apart we are together. Can you say the same about Gabrielle? Don't settle for less Ephiny. It's out there for you, but not with Gabrielle." Misreading the look of fear and pain in the blonde's eyes, she relaxed her hold and ran her hand across Ephiny's cheek. "Don't let the fear of what happened to Phantes hold you back."
Relaxing into the gentle caress she let the anger drain from her aching muscles, Way to go warrior, you could've talked about this with Solari, but no, you had to go ten rounds with a Goddess. How do I explain - I'm not afraid of losing love, I'm afraid of not finding it, afraid of being achingly alone. Why couldn't it have been you Gabrielle? Because your heart was no longer yours to give, she had it, her and Solon. Fresh tendrils of anger flared when she remembered what it had felt like to hear that Solon was Xena's son, and that Gabrielle had known all along. There had been no passion in their relationship, true, but had it all been lies? Being honest even she had to admit that it was more like a friendship with fringe benefits than a marriage, but even so it rankled to think that Gabrielle was recreating something with her she couldn't have with Xena. She had wanted to deepen things, but Gabrielle had kept her just outside, intimate, close yet apart. The gamble had been all or nothing, she had lost. Artemis is right, it's time to let go.
Artemis watched the warring emotions dance across the warriors face, and tensed as the wistful look had turned stormy, when the storm broke and the tears came she held Ephiny close. Murmuring gentle reassurances into her ear, she cradled the smaller woman until Morpheus claimed her. Materializing a pillow and bedroll she tucked Ephiny in, allowing her to rest undisturbed in her private bower.
Coming to her feet she winced, that's it - that's the last time I spar with a mortal on even terms. Glancing at the peacefully slumbering woman, a self satisfied grin lit up her features, Who said I can't do sensitive chats?
The even breathing of a camp asleep surrounded her, off to the side she could just make out the scrape of leather against rock as Solari shifted position. Deciding that sleep was not her lot for the evening she rose from the bedroll, acutely conscious of Gabrielle's absence, and made her way to where Solari sat keeping watch.
"I'll take over." Her tone carefully neutral.
Solari stood and faced Xena, swallowing nervously. "Look about earlier, I was out of line. They're both my friends - you know? I worry about them. About both of them." Not flinching she continued to hold Xena's eyes, waiting.
"Apologize to Gabrielle not me. Now go on, get some sleep, long ride tomorrow." Shutting the door firmly but politely on the other's peace overture. Watching the guard captain return to the campfire, her gaze lingered on the spot where she knew Solon lay.
How exactly am I going tell you? You think I'm dead, that I was some kind of hero, like your father. I'm not. I'll tell him Gabrielle but you're going to have to help me figure out how. A nagging fear gripped her, as she thought about Gabrielle. She should have been back by now. Where are you my love? Artemis needs something from you and she probably isn't taking this upheaval in Amazon politics well. Wherever you are remember that I love you. Icy tendrils snaked into her guts, an old fear gripping her anew. Please don't change your mind Gabrielle, I couldn't take it, not now ...not after this. I don't know how I stood it the first time, when you told me you'd changed your mind, that you were going to marry him, and then you did. You left and Callisto gave you back to me. We've lost so much time, I won't just give up like the last time and like I did with Perdicus.
Her skin began to crawl, a tingling sensation running up her spine to the base of her skull. "I was wondering when you were gonna show."
Continued - Part 3 (Conclusion)