Xena was sitting on the edge of her cot watching Gabrielle straighten her ceremonial leathers.
After the council session had broken up, the bard had insisted Xena be moved into her hut. Touched at Gabrielles protectiveness, Xena had smiled as her friend ordered that a cot be set up and the warriors things moved over from the jail, which had been quickly transformed back into a storeroom.
Once her things had been transferred, Gabrielle had insisted that Xena eat and get some rest, since the warrior was still recovering from her original wounds. The long sleepless night they had both just spent caught up with them and they had both fallen asleep for a couple of candlemarks. It was the golden light of the afternoon sun shining directly into the Queens hut that eventually roused the two women.
Now they were supposed to be getting ready for this evenings celebration.
After watching from the cot for a few minutes as the bard worked on adjusting one of the intricate leather bands circling her arm, Xena stood and moved next to her friend. Unhooking the part of the armband that connected it to the shoulder piece, she gave the leather a twist before re-connecting it and pulling it straight. Returning the bards grateful smile she brought up something that had been on her mind since Ephiny suggested the feast that afternoon. "Gabrielle, I think its better for all concerned if I just sit this one out."
Surprised, Gabrielle stopped adjusting her leathers and lifted her gaze to stare for a moment before an earnest expression took over. "Xena, I want you there with me. I want to show them all that nothings changed between us. That youre still my Champion."
Xena appreciated her friends loyalty but, given the circumstances, figured it might be better if she kept a low profile for a while. "Gabrielle, its going to take a while before everybody accepts the decision of the council. If Im there tonight, theyre going to be focusing on that and not the real reason for the celebration: the return of their beloved Queen."
She smiled at the small woman before her, then turned to move back to the cot, but paused as Gabrielle put a restraining hand on her arm. Looking down into intense green eyes, the warrior was a bit surprised when Gabrielle pulled her close and peered intently into her face. "Xena, please. For me? I dont want to go if youre not there beside me."
Gabrielle knew where Xena was coming from, but she also thought it was important to show the others that nothing had changed between the two of them. She knew how much Xena hated this kind of public display at the best of times and felt a bit guilty in pressing the point; things were never going to return to normal, however, until the Amazons accepted Xena again. And tonights celebration was as good a place as any to start.
So she turned her face up to her friends and let her expression do her pleading for her.
Xena couldnt resist those sad, beseeching eyes. Laughing, she threw up her hands in surrender. "Okay, my bard. Just for you."
Grinning back, Gabrielle exclaimed, rubbing her hands now in anticipation. "Great! So, what are you going to wear?"
"Gabrielle." A low growl.
"Okay, okay. It was worth a try." She grinned at Xena, as she and the warrior headed out the door.
Amazons were gathered around the small fires dotting the compound, exchanging wineskins and occasionally bending down to slice off mouthfuls of the savory meat spitting and sizzling on the spits suspended over them. The deep rhythmic sounds of the Amazon drums were joined by the enthusiastic shouts and whoops of the dancing women as they moved around the central fire, casting eerie shadows on the walls of the surrounding huts.
Gabrielle and Ephiny had taken their places at the large central table, with Xena taking her place by the bards side. All evening long the Queen and the Regent seemed oblivious to the hostile stares being directed at the silent warrior beside them.
Off to one side, a group of younger Amazons had been passing the wineskin and glaring at the warrior seated beside their Queen. Now, one of them stood and just stared, fists clenched as she closely watched Xena. Plain looking, with no exceptional features except the shortness of her closely cropped black hair, this young Amazon warrior weaved a bit as she focused angry eyes on the Queens companion.
Her three friends exchanged worried glances as one of them stood. They had been aware that Faline had been glaring at the warrior all evening, becoming increasingly sullen as she drank. Walking up beside her now, Jess placed her hand on the stiff shoulder.
Not taking her eyes off Xena, the young woman barley acknowledged her friends presence. "Do you believe the nerve of her showing up here tonight?"
Looking up to where Faline had her eyes fixed, the young woman replied in an even tone. "The Queen doesnt seem to mind."
Swinging to face her friend, the young Amazons voice was intense. "Yeah, well, have you noticed that bitch hasnt let Queen Gabrielle out of her sight for a minute."
Uncomfortable in her friends glare, Jess tried to smile as she shrugged her shoulders. "Actually, I was just thinking it was the other way around. Havent you noticed how protective Queen Gabrielle seems towards Xena?"
Letting out a derisive snort, the Amazon shot her a look of contempt before fixing her gaze back on Xena again. "Just shows what you know. Oh, shes got our Queen under her thumb, all right."
Worried by the look she saw in her friends face, Jess tried to reason with the young woman beside her. "Faline, I think youre wrong about Xena. I think youre reading too much into this. Why not let it go and enjoy yourself? Its a celebration, for Artemis sake! Besides, you know what Ephiny said."
Turning on the girl beside her, a look of pleading replacing the one of contempt, she grabbed Jess arms and locked eyes with her. "Jess, I know our Queens in trouble. Even if she and the rest of you cant see it, I can. I know Xenas type and shell never give up her control of Queen Gabrielle...and shes too blinded out of loyalty to see the danger shes in. Its up to us to save her."
Surprised by the turn of the conversation and just a little wary, Jess eyes narrowed as she returned her friends bleary stare. "What do you mean?"
Falines voice took on a note of determination. "I mean we owe it to the Queen to protect her from that animal."
The other two had now moved to stand beside Jess as the young woman shook off her friends painful grip. "Faline, what are you planning?"
With a serious expression, she looked back at her three friends and demanded. "Never mind that. Are you going to help me protect our Queen, or not?"
Jess wasnt at all happy with where her friend was obviously going with this. "I dont know, Faline. What youre talking about sounds awfully dangerous. We could get hurt."
As the others nodded, Falines voice took on a note of urgency. She scanned the faces of her three friends, willing them to see what was obvious to her. "Queen Gabrielle will get hurt if we dont do something. Xenas type never stops."
Looking doubtful, but reluctantly agreeing that her friend just might be right, Jess came to a decision. "Okay, Im in."
Turning her stare to the dark-haired girl standing beside Jess, Faline raised an eyebrow in inquiry.
The young Amazon noted the look on the faces of her two friends before giving her head a quick nod. "Me too."
All three now turned to the youngest member of the group, and stared at the pretty young girl before them, who stared back as if dreading the question.
"What about you, Amara?"
Looking down at the ground, the young Amazon shuffled her feet. "I dont know, you guys. What if were wrong?"
An urgent note combined with the strength of conviction in Falines voice. "Were not wrong. But, if youre too afraid to stand up for your Queen, then go sit with the others. We dont want to hang around with cowards."
Looking up quickly at the faces now staring at her, she took a deep breath and swallowed. "Okay, I guess Im in."
Lowering her voice, Faline pulled the others in closer to her. "Right...heres the plan..."
Xena was bored.
They'd been sitting at the head table all evening, Amazons dancing and drinking around them. She'd been nursing the same mug of wine since shed first sat down, wanting to keep herself alert and prepared for any unexpected fallout from this afternoons council meeting. Everyone, except Gabrielle, had pretty much ignored her all evening, which was just fine by Xena.
Shed spent her time running through the mental games shed developed over the years to get her through occasions like this.
First shed leaned her tall frame back and observed all the women present, deciding who her picks were for "the most obnoxious drunk", "the most outrageous flirt", "the most likely to pass out first" and a long list of other endearing party-goers qualities. Having assessed everyones potential, throughout the evening shed take a few minutes every once in a while to scan the campfires and check up on the accuracy of her predictions.
Shed only been wrong twice so far.
The rest of the time she spent staring down drunken Amazons she knew were dying to challenge her. Not wanting any trouble, Ephiny had made it clear to every Amazon there that Xena was to be left strictly alone. It didnt stop them from challenging her with their eyes though. This too had gotten boring after a while since every challenger eventually broke off eye contact when the coldness of the warriors piercing stare became too uncomfortable to bear.
Gabrielle, on the other hand, seemed to be relaxing and enjoying the company of the admiring women around her. If she wasnt sipping at a mug of wine and talking to Ephiny on her other side, she was exchanging small talk with the many Amazons who came up to express their pleasure at her return.
The warrior looked over now at her companion, who was, at that moment, leaning over and whispering to Ephiny, smiles on both their faces. Xena smiled herself as she though of the bards performance today. She envied Gabrielles skill with words. As a born military leader, Xena had always had the talent to motivate men to fight; but, it took much more skill to convince them not to.
She realized, as she glanced up and let her eyes scan the crowd, that more than one Amazon was still shooting daggers at her with their eyes. As the night wore on, she'd also started to pick up the belligerent tones of more than one drunken warrior being reasoned with by her more sober companions. Xena knew it was only a matter of time before one of them was willing to forget Ephinys order not to challenge her.
Tired from the long day and wanting to avoid any unpleasantness for Gabrielles sake, she finally decided shed had enough. The next time the bard was alone, she leaned over and got her attention.
"Gabrielle, I think Im going to call it a night. Why dont you stay here? Ill see you back at the hut a little later, okay?"
Gabrielle had been observing her friends discomfort all evening and was secretly pleased she'd made such an effort for her. Placing a warm hand on Xenas arm, she squeezed gently.
"Thank you for putting up with this as long as you did. I know you hate this stuff. I wont be much longer."
Xena smiled back. "Dont hurry on my account. Enjoy yourself. You deserve it, my bard."
Gabrielle watched as Xena stood and made her way past the dancing woman filling the circle of light from the central fire. The warrior seemed oblivious to the Amazons staring after her, as she vanished into the deep shadows of the huts.
Gabrielle, having watched her partner disappear, let her eyes continue the stare after her for a few minutes before becoming aware of Ephinys voice at her side.
"Wha...what...Im sorry. Were you saying something?"
As she turned her head back, she met the Regents amused gray eyes. "I was just asking if you were having a good time."
Pausing in the act of lifting her mug, the bard instead cradled it in her hands, returning Ephinys smile. "Great time! I cant believe how good it feels to be back here. You guys make me feel so welcome."
"Gabrielle, were really glad youre back with us." Pausing to brush a few crumbs from beneath her arm, Ephiny hesitated a moment before continuing, "Have you given any thought to staying this time?"
"You mean permanently?" Gabrielle looked a bit surprised. Studying her hands for a moment, she raised her face to meet Ephinys gaze. "I have to admit, the thoughts crossed my mind more than once lately, especially during the really rough parts out there." The young woman shrugged her shoulders. "But, I dont know Ephiny. Id miss travelling around all the time, going to new places, and experiencing new things. And I wouldnt want to leave Xena."
Putting her hand on the bards arm, Ephiny smiled at her friend. "I think, if you give us a chance, youll find all kinds of new things right here, Gabrielle."
Gabrielles eyes widened, afraid shed offended her friend. She was relieved when she met the Regents now curious gray ones.
"Why not ask Xena to stay here with you?"
The bard gave a little laugh. "It would never work, Eph. Even if she agreed to try it." She seemed to consider the possibility for a moment, before shaking her head. "Shes a driven woman. Sooner or later, shed be back out there. Shes not going to find what shes looking for here."
The bard smiled back at her friend. "And, I could never ask her to try. No, now that all this mess is cleared up, well stay a couple of days 'til her wounds completely heal, but after that, its back to the road for us."
The Regent paused for a moment and let her eyes scan the women at the campfires before returning her eyes to the bard. "Gabrielle, you realize dont you, that its going to be a while before some Amazons accept Xena again. For whatever reason, they are unwilling or unable to forgive her for what she did to you."
"Well theyll just have to get over it then, wont they." Gabrielles eyes flashed as she clutched her cup tighter.
Ephiny leaned closer as she put a hand on the bard's forearm. "Gabrielle, please, these arent bad people. They care about you and they feared for your safety."
Frustrated, Gabrielle paused before letting out a long sigh as she put the cup back down. "Oh, Ephiny, I know that. So, how do I get through to them?"
Ephiny gave the bard's arm a sympathetic squeeze. "I think its going to take time. When they see the two of you together, theyll soon come to realize that their fears were groundless."
"What about in the meantime?"
Shrugging, Ephiny turned back to watching the women silhouetted in the orange glow of the central campfire. "In the meantime? In the meantime, Xenas a big girl. She can take care of herself."
The two friends stopped talking as Eponin came up and asked Ephiny to dance. Left alone with her thoughts, Gabrielle wondered if it could ever really return to the way it was.
This was getting tired.
As she brushed the entrance curtain to the Queens hut aside and paused to allow her eyes to adjust to the darkened interior, Xenas acute hearing picked up the rapid breathing of three otherwise silent forms waiting for her in the dark.
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, letting her mind concentrate on the faint sounds and allowing herself to pinpoint their locations. Too tired right now for this nonsense, she briefly debated just turning around and finding somewhere else to sleep for the night, but that would just put off the inevitable. Might as well get it over with.
Stepping all of the way into the hut and letting the curtain fall back behind her, she let her eyes adjust to the faint glow of moonlight coming through the windows and the cracks in the thatch walls giving the dark interior an almost ghostly aura.
Her eyes picked out their irregular silhouettes as she used her most menacing growl to brake the silence. "Okay, now we can do this the easy way or we can do it the hard way. Your choice. Either the three of you leave now, quietly, and Ill just forget you were here. Or..."
Xena didnt get a chance to finish as a voice yelling, "Get her!" suddenly shrieked from her right and a body was launched towards her. The warrior wrapped her hands in leathers, as she grabbed at the leaping girl, using Falines momentum to keep her going into Jess, who had chosen that moment to attack from the opposite side of the hut. Both girls grunted as they crashed into each other and fell dazed to the ground.
A pair of arms wrapped around Xenas neck and pulled tight as the third assailant jumped on her back, locking strong legs around the warriors waist. Reaching up over her head, Xena grabbed a handful of leather, and pulled.
Philana held on for dear life as Xena tried to tug her over her head. By this time, Faline and Jess had regained their feet and both charged Xena and the struggling Philana; bringing them all down in a pile in the middle of the hut. Fists began to pommel the struggling warrior.
Xena realized belatedly that it was a lot harder to not seriously injure someone attacking you than it was to just beat them to a pulp. Up until now, she'd been trying to pull her punches and not hurt any of her misguided assailants but shed had enough. With a blood-curdling "Aiyiyiyiyiyiyi" she got her arms and legs under her and gave a mighty heave outward. Amazons went flying and then lay winded where they landed. Pausing a moment to catch her own breath in the sudden stillness of the moonlit hut, Xena slowly got to one knee and only just had time to detect the movement behind her before something connected with the back of her head and all went black.
When Faline, Jess and Philana had gone into the Queens hut to wait for Xena, theyd left Amara outside as a lookout. Theyd figured the young girl would be too scared to be of much help inside the hut with the warrior.
Thats why they were so surprised when they heard Xenas body hit the ground and they looked up to see Amara standing there, with a board clutched in her hands, terrified and looking like she was about to burst into tears.
"Hades!" Faline swore as she got to her feet and helped the other girls up. Going over to Amara, she gently took the board out of her hands and passed it off to Jess as she put her arm around the young womans shoulders.
"You did great, Amara! Just great!"
Philana, whod been staring down at Xena, noticed the warrior starting to stir. "Hey, Faline, shes coming to."
As Faline began to guide the shaking Amara out the door, she called back over her shoulder, "Lets get out of here before she wakes up. I think she got our message."
Xena woke up to find herself lying face down in the middle of the hut. She suspected shed been only out for a minute or two but long enough for her late night visitors to clear out. Ignoring a wave of dizziness, she staggered to her feet, found a flint and steel and got a lamp going.
Except for a couple of stools knocked over and Gabrielles bed that had been pushed out of place by struggling bodies, the room was in remarkably good shape. It took Xena only a couple of minutes to straighten things up.
She then collapsed on her cot.
When a very relaxed Gabrielle returned to the hut sometime later, she was surprised to see Xena sprawled across her cot, still wearing her leathers. Smiling to herself, Gabrielle picked up a blanket from the foot of her bed and laid it over the sleeping woman.
She then managed to extract herself from the complicated Amazon leathers she was wearing with just a little fumbling before changing into her sleep-shirt, blowing out the lamp and climbing into her own bed.
She laid there for a few minutes staring at the ceiling and listing to Xenas even breathing. She let her mind wander over the events of the day before drifting off into an exhausted sleep.
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