The first pale light of the day began to hint at the faint shapes in the deep shadows of the hut. She listened to the steady ticking of rain on the thatched roof, breathing in the earthy musk of the damp forest scenting the cool morning air. She knew she should just turn over and try to go back to sleep, but her thoughts kept drifting back to the feel of Argo thundering beneath her, the wind tugging at her hair.
Fighting back the urge to go find her horse and just ride, she forced her arms and legs to remain still as she stared into the rafters, their outlines now faintly distinguishable as a lighter shade of black, deep in shadows of the roof. As much as she wanted to get out of there and just go, she knew Gabrielle would kill her if the bard woke up and found she was out riding around in the rain. Sighing, the warrior was about to turn over when she paused to listen and smiled as she heard the heavy staccato taps begin to taper off.
After listening for a few more minutes to make sure the rain was really stopping, she threw back the blanket, pausing when she realized she was still wearing her leathers. Remembering, now, her late night visitors, she gingerly felt for the lump on the back of her head as she got up and moved silently over to the wash stand.
Wincing as her probing fingers found the spot, she used her other hand to pour water into the bowl from the pitcher beside it. She caught her breath at the shock of the cold water hitting her face. Gripping the table edges, she just stood there, dripping and giving the fuzziness in her head a chance to clear. Feeling a bit better, she reached for a piece of linen from the washstand and dried off before beginning to put on her armor.
Once dressed, she located their healers kit and rummaged around in it 'til she found the small packet she was looking for. Returning to the table, she carefully opened it and took out a big pinch of powdered willow bark, dropping it into a mug. Picking up the mug and tipping it on its side, she gave it a little shake before peering intently inside.
With a little frown, she looked up and across the hut at the splash of strawberry-blond just peaking from beneath the dark blanket and shook her head with a grin. Setting the mug back down, she added another big pinch.
Grabbing one of their waterskins, she half filled the mug before taking the concoction up and swirling it around vigorously in one hand as she walked silently over to stand beside Gabrielles cot. She deposited the mug on the table beside the bards bed and watched the steady rise and fall of the blankets for a moment before returning across the room.
Shed stopped by her bags to pick up a small rolled bundle and as she spread her repair kit out on the bed beside her, she held up the broken armor latch and examined it. When the bent pin refused to yield to strong fingers, she turned to search for what shed need in the pile of tools beside her.
Gabrielle gradually became aware of the sounds of Xena moving around the hut. Part of her wanted to get up and join her friend, but a bigger part just wanted to stay wrapped up snug in the warmth of the covers and go back to sleep.
Managing finally to get one eye open, she pulled her blanket down to her chin and had to blink several times as she let the eye adjust to the sudden brightness. Peering out and locating her companion, she noticed Xena was up and dressed. Or, at least bent over and dressed, as the warrior strapped the newly repaired greave around her shin.
"Hey!" the bard managed to croak out. "Where are you going?"
Looking a bit guilty, Xena looked up and past the door of the hut, in the direction of the stables. "Thought Id go find Argo. Maybe take her for a short run."
Taking a moment for her mind to focus, Gabrielle realized how the forced inactivity of the past few days must have affected her friend. While shed been looking forward to spending the day with Xena, she reluctantly admitted to herself how much the warrior probably needed this time to herself.
So, with a half grin, she smiled back at her companion as Xena bounced a couple of times on the toes of her boots to settle brass over well-worn leathers.
"Thats a great idea. I know she missed you. Why dont the two of you spend the day together?"
Xena was silently relieved that Gabrielle understood, but she nonetheless felt guilty about leaving the bard alone all day.
"What about you?"
Gabrielle pulled the blanket up closer as her sleepy voice responded. "Ephinys meeting with the Andorian delegation all day and asked if I wanted to sit in. You know, learn some more about what it means to be an Amazon Queen. So, dont worry about me. Ill see you when you get back."
Xena smiled at her friends sense of responsibility as she turned and reached for her weapons. "If youre sure you dont mind."
A small frown began to form on Gabrielles forehead as she watched Xena pick up her sheathed sword. She was just about to say something as the warrior moved to clip it to her back, but noticed her friend hesitate before returning it to its spot by the cot.
Xena had seen the look and decided shed hold off wearing her weapons, at least in the village. Gathering up one of their waterskins, the warrior headed out the door, one last sympathetic glance back at the bard.
"Ive left a mug by your bed and a full waterskin. You might want to get the contents of both in you, before you get moving."
Gabrielle closed her eyes again, letting herself drift back to sleep.
The mud sucked at her boots as she made her way across the puddle-spotted compound to the stable. Swinging open the broad door and entering, Xena quickly spotted the tall golden mare. Argo let out a loud whinny in a greeting that brought a smile to the warriors face. Moving into the stall and giving her friend the once-over, Xena was relieved to see the war-horse looking no worse for wear. Laughing as the mare butted her stomach with her head, Xena reached and gave Argo a scratch behind the ear.
"Yeah, I missed you too. Whadaya say, girl. Feel like a little run?"
Argo bobbed her large head up and down in agreement and chuffed in the warriors chest.
It didnt take long before the mare was saddled and Xena was leading her out of the stables and into the morning sun, which had broken through the cloud cover with the promise of another fine day. Swinging herself up on the tall mares back, she noticed just a slight discomfort from the almost healed wounds.
Gathering the reins in her hands, she pressed her heels against Argos sides and headed out of the Amazon village and into the surrounding forest at a gallop. It took her a quarter candlemark to reach the boundary of the Amazon lands and another to reach the edge of the dense forest.
Breaking through the trees and into the broad expanse of low-lying scrub covering the rolling hills before her, she let Argo have her head. Ignoring the wind-whipped hair in her face, she crouched down and just hung on, exhilarating in the thrill of the powerful beast barely touching the earth beneath her.
Gabrielle went back to sleep for another couple of candlemarks before an insistent tapping awakened her.
The bard rolled over onto her side and cracked her eyes open, now aware of the sun streaming in. She managed to get out a horse "Come in," trying to focus on the doorway of the hut.
A mess of blond curls appeared as Ephiny stuck her head in and smiled. "Nara and Andrus are expected in my hut in less than half a candlemark. If youre planning on joining us, youd better get moving."
"Oh, Hades!" Throwing back the covers and swinging her feet to the floor, Gabrielle instantly regretting her hasty actions, as last night caught up with her. With a wince at the dull ache behind her eyes, she put a hand to her temple. "Thanks, Eph. Ill grab something to eat and join you."
As Ephiny withdrew her head and let the curtains drop back, Gabrielle lifted her right arm and felt around until she located the cup Xena had left on the table. Steeling herself for what was to come, she took a deep breath as she swirled the contents of the mug around vigorously before lifting it to her lips. She shuddered as she gulped down the bitter mixture. Sitting still for a moment, she kept her eyes closed and gave the infusion a chance to work on her headache.
As she felt the throbbing gradually diminish, Gabrielle gingerly got to her feet and staggered over to the waterskin. Pulling the stopper, she tipped it up and drained nearly half before pausing to take a breath. Felling a bit better, she got dressed before heading out the door in the direction of the cook hut.
As Gabrielle entered the Regents hut, she noticed that Princess Cynara and the General were already there. They were sitting with Ephiny around the central table, sipping on mugs of something and engaging in some light conversation.
Ephiny arose to her feet as her friend entered and, smiling, moved over to a side table to pour the contents of a pitcher into one of the mugs sitting there. "Gabrielle, glad you could join us."
Moving to take one of the empty chairs, the bard returned the Regents smile and took the mug of cool cider Ephiny offered her. The Amazon grabbed her own mug before settling back and relaxing again. "I was just apologizing about the delay yesterday."
Princess Cynara held up her hand. "Thats not a problem, Ephiny. I know how these things come up." Her face took on an almost wistful look as her voice softened. "And how difficult it is for one person to juggle the needs of so many. Ive watched my father for years and I dont think Ill every be able to figure out how he does that." She paused before raising her mug. "Well, if all goes well today, we should be finished by tomorrow." The young girl smiled at both women.
"Well, that depends on how reasonable you are willing to be today, Nara." Ephiny shot back, her gray eyes sparkling.
"Ephiny, Im always reasonable. You, on the other hand..."
Gabrielle listened as the two women exchanged the good-natured banter. It wasnt long before all four were engaged in discussions and poring over the maps.
Xena wasnt sure how long shed been riding. Shed let Argo go until the mare had slowed to a walk, and then had stopped to rest the now cooled down war-horse by the bank of a slow moving stream.
After pulling a rag from a pouch on her saddle, and giving the mare a good rub down, shed left Argo to graze, as she dropped to the ground and stretched out under one of the overhanging willows. Lying back on the cool earth, she closed her eyes and consciously began to relax tense muscles. She tried to let her mind empty as she concentrated on the tittering of the small birds in thick branches overhead and the soft gurgles of the stream flowing around the rocks in its path.
She was glad to be out of the village and away from the hostile looks. The Amazons attitude didnt really bother her. After all, she was used to that. A wry grin flashed crossed her face. Not too many people welcomed her with open arms, given her past.
Nevertheless, with a tug of regret, she remembered that there had been a time when she thought the Amazons might be different. With an unconscious shrug of her shoulders, she opened her eyes to stare into the gently swaying branches hanging over her spot on the riverbank. Oh well, shed obviously blown that now.
Letting her mind wander, she realized she was a little surprised by the outcome of yesterdays council meeting. While she had every faith in Gabrielles skills, she was still surprised that her friend had pulled it off. The young girl that had joined her four years ago had developed into a confident woman able to hold her own with the best.
In fact, looking back over the past few days, she realized just how easily Gabrielle had seemed to slip into her role as Amazon Queen. She felt a twinge of pride at the image of her friend standing before the council meeting yesterday; every eye focused on her. It was almost as if she was born to it. Moreover, the Amazons obviously respected her.
She was glad Ephiny was getting Gabrielle involved in the treaty negotiations. She knew Gabrielle was concerned about how little she knew about the role and responsibilities of being an Amazon Queen. She suspected that her friend had wanted to participate more than she'd let on.
Xena took a deep breath and closed her eyes again, wondering if maybe she was being unfair to Gabrielle, keeping her out on the road when she obviously fitted in so well there. She smiled to herself at that thought, knowing she'd very little to say in Gabrielles decision to accompany her or not. She'd always left that up to her friend; supporting her choices, whether it was to return home, get married or stay on the road with her.
She took a couple more deep breaths as she felt her body relaxing and just let the peace of that quiet spot on the stream bank carry her into a light sleep.
At first she thought it had started to rain again; until she opened her sleep-bleared eyes and looked up to see Argos soft muzzle a foot from her face, water beaded and dripping off the war-horses whiskers. Waving the golden head away, and ignoring the mares mocking whinny, she laughed as she sat up. "Okay, okay, Im up, already."
Noticing how far the sun had advanced in the afternoon sky and knowing she was at least a couple of candlemarks from the village, she reluctantly stood and brushed herself off before mounting Argo and heading back. The war-horse, well rested after her morning run still had some life in her, so Xena decided to give the mare her head again and the two took off at a fast gallop towards the distant woods.
Knowing how dangerous it was to approach the Amazon border at that speed, Xena slowed their pace as they passed beneath the guard post hidden in the trees, startling the border guards anyway. Digging in her heels again, she and the mare picked up the pace as she spotted the smoke from the village rising in the distance through the trees.
This time it was a combination of Xenas eyesight and Argos keen reflexes. One moment Xena was thundering down the path in the woods and the next, Argos neck was in her face as she yanked up sharply on the reins.
She dug in her knees, fighting to keep her balance as the powerful war-horse reared beneath her, front hooves thrashing the air before both horse and rider connected solidly with the ground again.
Xena had caught the flash of reflected sunlight in the path ahead about the same time as Argo had sensed its presence. Leaning over, she gave her companion a few words of praise before she gently nudged the mare ahead several paces to where the wire had been stretched taught across the path between the two trees. Set at a height just above her shoulders, it was a nasty piece of work, meant to decapitate an unsuspecting rider.
Her mouth set in a grim line, she pulled her breast dagger and severed the wire in half. As she absently returned the dagger to its resting spot, she watched the ends snap back to curl around the trees they were anchored to.
Under no illusion as to who the wire was meant for, she looked around as she mulled over the implications. There was no way whoever set this could have been absolutely sure that she'd be the next one to use that path. Whoever had put that little greeting there, had been willing to risk hurting and even killing others for a chance at her.
She dismounted and gave the area around the trees a thorough examination. She wasnt surprised when she turned up nothing more than a fresh set of hoof prints. Whoever had done it had stayed mounted to string the wire, leaving no trace except the prints in the mud.
As Xena gathered up Argos reins and began to walk the rest of the way to the village, she kept a wary eye out around her. This was escalating to the point where others could get hurt, and that had to be stopped now, before someone was.
Returning Argo to the stable, she gave the mare a good brushing before leading her to her stall. Taking a moment to check the other occupied stalls, Xena was pretty sure that none of those horses had been recently ridden. She returned to the Queens hut, to find Gabrielle pacing back and forth.
Surprised when the curtain at the door to their hut was brushed aside, the bard broke into a grin when she saw the mud splattered warrior enter. "There you are! I was starting to get a little worried." Her grin began to fade as Xena silently crossed to her cot and began to remove her armor. Gabrielle just stood for a moment and quietly watched before moving to help.
She'd expected that spending the day alone with Argo would have had the opposite effect on her friend. But Xena seemed almost angry. The bard tried to hide her confusion as she keep her voice light and forced a smile to her face. "Did you and Argo have a good ride?"
Biting back the sharp comment she was about to make, Xena took a deep breath instead and let it out slowly as she looked down into the concerned eyes of her companion. She knew she shouldnt take her frustrations out on Gabrielle. So she let tense muscles relax as she returned her friends smile.
"Yeah. We went for a long one, got a lot of the kinks out." Twisting loose her left upper arm guard and slipping it down to her wrist, she felt the gentle tug as the bard shifted to her side to work on the buckles that fastened her chest armor to the intricate brass swirls that protected her back.
Xena turned her head to watch as the bard pulled apart the last catch and moved to work on the catch at her shoulder. "What about you? Howd the negotiations go?"
Gabrielles smile was replaced by a little frown of concentration as she unhooked the wire supporting the body armor. Lifting the pieces of brass away from the warriors chest and shoulders with practiced ease, she placed them on the pile with the other pieces Xena had already removed.
"Great! Ephiny is amazing. We should wrap things up tomorrow."
Trying to keep her voice neutral, the warrior looked up from unbuckling a greave, watching the bards back as her friend return to her own cot.
"Does that mean youll be ready to leave soon?"
Gabrielle hesitated before she sat down, something that wasnt lost on her friend. "Yeah, pretty soon. In a day or two."
Watching as Xena began to strip off her leathers, Gabrielle leaned back on her elbows and regarded her. "Ephinys invited us to have dinner in her hut with Princess Cynara and General Andrus tonight."
Xena paused and lifted an eyebrow at that. "You sure the invitation included me?"
Gabrielle smiled. "Ephiny invited you specifically. I think she feels badly about the way everyones been treating you, which she should by the way, and this is her way of trying to make it up."
Xena chuckled at that. "Well, if Im going to be dining with royalty tonight, Id better go get a real bath. Care to join me?"
Grabbing their towels and a scrap of soap from the pack beside her, the bard held them up with a smile. "I thought youd never ask."
Xena picked up a clean shift and the two women left the hut and headed for the bath hut.
Princess Cynara and General Andrus were already there when Gabrielle and Xena arrived at the Regents, their hair still a little damp. Ephiny met them at the door and ushered them in, unaware that the General, who had been holding a chair for Princess Cynara to sit, had suddenly frozen at the sight of the dark, imposing figure entering behind the Amazon Queen.
As Ephiny put her arm around Gabrielles shoulders to lead her over to a chair, neither woman noticed Xena stop as her eyes met the Generals. Princess Cynara had noticed the tall dark warrior enter behind Gabrielle and had felt rather than saw the General tense behind her.
The two chatting women gradually became aware of the sudden stillness enveloping the inside of the hut as they reached their chairs and began to sit. They too became silent as they searched for the source of the rising tension. The women stiffened as the Generals voice boomed out.
"Whats that she-bitch from Tartarus doing here?"
Everybodys eyes shifted to the leather-clad figure in the doorway as Xena just stood there and let a slow, relaxed grin spread over her face. She remained silent for a moment before speaking in a low, lazy drawl. "Well, well, look what the hounds of Hades dragged in."
Both broke into broad smiles now as they started across the room, meeting in the middle. Gabrielle visibly relaxed as Xena returned the Generals strong grip, clasping arms in a warm greeting.
As the two warriors pulled apart, the General gave the tall woman before him the once over before locking eyes with a pair of very amused blue ones. "Xena? I expected you to either be running all of Greece by now, or trying to take over Tartarus from Hades. What are you doing here?"
Gabrielle was the only one who noticed Xena hesitate before the warrior broke into a broad smile. "Ive quit that life now, my friend. What about you? Dont tell me youve finally found some honest work?"
The cool voice of Princess Cynara interrupted. "Perhaps youd like to introduce us, General?"
A bit chagrinned by his bad manners, the Generals face lost its smile as he bowed slightly before straightening and gesturing to the tall warrior beside him. "My apologies, Princess. May I present Xena. I served in her army many years ago. Xena, may I present Princess Cynara of Andoria.
Xena returned the young womans rather reserved smile with a brief nod.
Ephiny, recovered now from the initial shock of the Generals greeting, spoke up, "Why dont we all take a seat and get comfortable?"
As dinner was brought in and served, the conversation revolved around the activities of the day until Ephiny happened to mention that Gabrielle was a bard by profession. Princess Cynara seemed delighted and asked to hear one of her stories.
Gabrielle ignored Xenas pleading look and soon had her audience caught up in the tale of how Xena and Hercules freed Prometheus. Princess Cynara became so entranced that General Andrus had to remind her to breath when the bard got to the part where the giant bird swooped down and carried away Xena and the sword
As the bard finished her tale, Princess Cynara joined the others in trying to get Gabrielle to tell another story. Her look of disappointment changed to one of puzzlement when the bard begged off and returned to her seat beside Xena, exchanging smiles with the woman sprawled out in the chair next to her.
Watching the dark warrior warmly regarding the Amazon Queen beside her, Cynara decided to ask a question that had occurred to her earlier. "Gabrielle, how did you ever get someone like Xena here to agree to be your bodyguard. Id have thought shed..." the Princess trailed off as she noticed the look of discomfort now on the bards face
Gabrielle exchanged a quick glance with a rather amused Xena before turning back to face the Princess. A little embarrassed, she spoke up quickly. "Oh no, you misunderstand, Nara. Xena doesnt work for me. She and I are friends. We travel together as equals."
The Princess seemed confused. "But, youre an Amazon Queen. How can any warrior, even someone with Xenas obvious skills, be your equal?"
There was an awkward silence as Gabrielle tried to figure out how to explain her relationship with Xena. General Andrus sat forward and cleared his throat. "Excuse me Princess, but perhaps I can explain."
Now the focus of attention, the General took a moment to put his words together. "The Warlord I served under was the equal of any crowned head Ive every met. The fact that the Xena you see before you has chosen a different path does in no way diminish the respect she has earned from those who knew her when she held the title, Warrior-Princess."
Xena was surprised and touched by the Generals words. She remembered the regret that day that Andrus had come to her and said he was leaving her army. Despite her threats, he had turned his back on her ruthless ambition and she'd just stood and watched a close friend and comrade-in-arms ride off into the night. She hadnt seen him since.
Now, here he was, staring into her face, with his head tilted at a slight angle and his mug raised in the air. "To the Warrior-Princess; who always put her men first and who never fooled her friends with that tough-warrior attitude." Winking, he tipped his cup and downed the contents.
Gabrielle was surprised to see a blush color the warriors cheeks before her friend hid her grin in her mug. She laughed with the others and joined the General in his toast.
As the evening wore on, Gabrielle found herself listening intently as Ephiny and Princess Cynara exchanged stories about the trials and tribulations of running a kingdom.
Xena and General Andrus had pulled their chairs closer and spent the time talking quietly about old times.
During one of the frequent lulls in their conversation, Andrus took a moment to watch Xena watching Gabrielle. Leaning over, he spoke in a low voice. "So, whats your connection with the Amazons?"
Xena had been expecting the question and turned to face the soldier. "Since I lost my army and changed my ways, Gabrielle and I travel around, helping out where we can."
Curious to know how this former Warlord came to be so close to someone who was so totally different from the woman he remembered, he peered at her intently before taking a breath and asking the question. "But howd you get hooked up with an Amazon Queen." Smiling at his old comrade, he gave her a wink. "She doesnt seem to be your type."
Deliberately misunderstanding the question, but giving her old friend a knowing smirk, Xena took a moment before she answered and when she did, the General was surprised.
"No, youre right. Shes not my type. Gabrielle is one of the kindest, gentlest people I know. She wasnt an Amazon Queen when we first met...that came later. I was in the right place when her village was raided by slavers and she and I have traveled together ever since."
Noticing the look of affection that had crept back into the warriors face as shed turned to look at Gabrielle, he took a moment to study the warrior before him. The cynical, bitter Warlord so obsessed with her demons seemed to have made a sort of peace with herself. Moreover, he suspected, her companion played a big part in that.
Smiling, he leaned over and put a callused hand on his friends tanned forearm. "Im glad you found such a good friend."
Xena just looked back at him, her smile broadening. "Yeah, me too."
The two warriors went silent; each lost in their own thoughts.
Xenas keen hearing now became aware of Ephiny and Gabrielles voices drifting across the room as the Princess stood to stretch her legs and grab a pitcher of water to bring back to the table.
Ephiny leaned closer to her friend and lowered her voice. "We should be wrapping up the negotiations tomorrow. You want to join us again? Who knows, Gabrielle, maybe youll soon be presiding over a treaty ceremony."
The warrior watched as Gabrielles eyes lit up. "Really, Eph.? Great! This whole thing has shown me how little I know about what it means to be a Queen. Im learning so much watching you." She watched as the bards eyes dropped to her lap. "It scares me sometimes when I think about how much I have to learn about what you do."
Ephiny patted the bards arm and smiled as Gabrielle raised her green eyes to meet gray. "Dont worry, Gabrielle, youve got plenty of time to learn. You cant pick up everything overnight."
It wasnt long before the first yawns started and soon everyone was saying their goodnights before heading off to their respective huts.
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