End Game to IdesA Bridge
Written by: BladeMast
Disclaimers: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Solari, Chilapa, Xenon, Tyldus, Amarice, Argo and others recognized from the show are owned and operated by RenPic, Universal Studios USA and anyone else who wishes to lay claim to them. This is a work of fan fiction and, as such, not intended to intrude upon any rights stated or otherwise. No money or other profit is being received by the writing or posting of this piece of fiction.
Subtext Warning: This story works off the premise that Xena and Gabrielle are both soulmates and lovers. There are displays of physical love between two persons of the same gender within the body of this work. Those who find offence, or are too young to view such material should stop reading now.
Violence Warning: Nope. None. Nada. Zip. Zero. Zilch.
Story explanation: This is but one fans attempt to bridge the gap between the episodes "End Game" and "Ides of March" and answer some unanswered questions along the way. There are spoilers for both episodes within this work, so if you have not seen the episodes in question and have no desire to be spoiled, please read no further.
Feedback: Is, as always, warmly accepted and received. If you are so moved, please contact me atBladeMast@aol.com and let me know how I did. To those of you who wrote to thank me for The Bitter Suite for the Fourth Season, thank you!
And now, on with the story.
End Game to IdesA Bridge
The sun took its last look at the earth as it prepared to slumber for the evening, casting the last of its light almost horizontally across the still crowded Amazon courtyard, painting everything it touched in hues of rose and gold. Gabrielle, still pressed close against the firm, leather and brass covered body of her lover, squinted against the dying rays, her eyes still glued to the fire which, like the sun, prepared to breathe its last. This is what it comes down to, she thought, still lost in her melancholy. Ashes. Always ashes. She breathed deeply of the smoke scented air, a sigh of the lost and profoundly sad. How many times have I done this in my life? Even in India, which was as much a vacation from death stalking my heels every day as it was a quest for my path, I found myself standing before a pyre. How many more times will I find myself here, watching as the flames consume the last evidence of someone I care for? Marcus. Terreis. Perdicus. Solon. Phlanagus. Ephiny. Xena.
Flinching at that last thought, the young Queen gripped the solid living strength of her partner more tightly to her, a twinge of guilt going through her as she thanked the gods that the flames had consumed someone else this time, even if that someone was her dearest friend.
"Are you alright?" came the low, burring voice from above and behind her.
Sighing once again, Gabrielle nodded, raising a hand and wiping the tears away. "I will be, I think." With one last squeeze to Xenas waist, the bard drew away, walking slowly to the remains of the pyre, squatting down before the gray ashes. A pair of boots entered her vision and she looked up, blinking.
Chilapa, still bearing the Queens Mask in her hands as if she wasnt quite sure what to do with it, smiled down at her, then squatted beside her. "My Queen."
Gabrielle gave an almost derisive snort. "Not much of one. Especially since I have no idea of some of the more important Amazon customs." She flung her hand out over the still smoldering ashes.
"It takes more than a knowledge of Amazon customs to be a Queen, Gabrielle. It takes a brave heart and a quick mind. And, most of all, it takes a sense of wisdom and a pure love for others." The young woman shifted slightly, placing the Mask down carefully on the ground and laying a gentle hand on Gabrielles elbow. "Ephiny had that. So do you. You make a wonderful Queen of our people."
The bard snorted again. "Some Queen. I cant even fight for my ideals. What good is an Amazon Queen if she wont fight?"
Increasing her grip on Gabrielles arm, Chilapa urged her friend to face her. "Not all fighting is done with weapons, Gabrielle. Some people fight with the strength of their bodies. And some people fight with the strength of their convictions, their visions. Xena won the battle so we could live another day. You won the war so we could live for a lifetime."
"I dont know what you mean," the bard replied, pulling away and turning to face the ashes once again.
Chilapa smiled. "Yes you do, Gabrielle. There isnt an Amazon here who doesnt know about the Treaty you sent to Caesar. If it works, and many of us believe that it will, we will be free to grow into a strong nation again without the fear of Rome hanging over us like a pall. You did that for us, Gabrielle." Grinning, she gave a gentle poke to the bards muscled shoulder. "Not bad for a Queen who wont fight, huh?"
Gabrielle demurred, unwilling to be pulled into a better mood just yet. "Xena helped."
"Of course she did. Just as you helped her when she rode into battle." She smiled again at the look of confusion in the bards green eyes. "Everyone knows she fights out of a love for you, Gabrielle. Xena isnt an Amazon. This wasnt her fight. But because of who you are, and because you needed her to be your sword, she went into battle and won the day for us."
Turning her head and viewing her partner talking to a couple of Amazon warriors who were staring, awe struck, at the great warrior, Gabrielle smiled. "Well, thats not the only reason."
"No. She fought because thats who she is. And because shes good at it. The best. And because . . . ." her smile broadened, "she likes it."
Laughing, Chilapa rose to her feet, brushing the dirt from her legs. "And thats a bad thing?"
Gabrielles smile faded as she turned back to the remains of the fire. "I didnt used to think so. But then something . . .twisted inside me. All the violence, all the death. It tore me up inside. And then Id look at her, smiling and joking and laughing while doing the very things that made me hate myself so much and . . ." she sighed again, "I dont know. Part of me hated myself for feeling like I did, and part of me hated her for not feeling that way." Ducking her head, Gabrielle looked down at her fisted hands. "I havent been a very good friend this past year. Half the time, I dont know why shes stuck with me as long as she has."
The chill evening air at her back warmed suddenly as a long, supple body slid up against her. Strong hands tenderly grasped her waist as a low, melodious voice tickled the short hairs at her ear. "Because youre the best thing in her life. Because you are her beacon of light in the world of her darkness. Because you gave her the greatest gift it is possible to give; a light of her own. And because she loves you, more than she ever thought it was possible to love another person."
"Oh Xena . . . ." Shuddering as the sobs shot through her body again, Gabrielle turned within the strong embrace, once again resting her hot, swollen face against the warm, soft skin of her beloveds chest. "Im so sorry," she mumbled against Xenas flesh. "So, so sorry."
Gathering Gabrielle up into the strength of her arms and body, Xena laid her cheek down atop the soft blonde hair, stroking her lovers back in soothing circles. "Shhh. Dont cry. Please dont cry. Its alright, now. Its alright. Please dont cry."
After a long moment, the bards sobs quieted and she finally pulled away from the warm safety of her lovers strong embrace. She gave the warrior a watery smile as Xena reached over and gently wiped the evidence of her crying from the bards face. The look on the warriors sculpted face was so loving, her clear blue eyes so incredibly tender that Gabrielles heart tightened, then threatened to explode out of her chest at the sheer beauty of the moment. Never, in all her dreams as a young girl in a tiny town, did she ever think that anyone would look at her with such tender, loving adoration. Tears began to fall again, but for an entirely different reason. "I love you, Xena."
A corner of Xenas mouth lifted in a crooked smile. "I know."
Pulling away again, Gabrielle uttered a short laugh. "A couple hours ago, I was wondering why I couldnt cry. Now Im wondering when Ill stop." Wiping her tears away, she turned to the hesitantly standing Chilapa, giving the young Regent-Queen a more sunny smile. "What happens now?"
"When the fire is completely out, we will gather Ephinys ashes and place them in an urn which will be presented to you. There will be a small ceremony during which youll take her ashes and place them in the Temple of Artemis to rest with the other Queens."
"Shouldnt that be your job?" Gabrielle asked, her gaze indicating the Mask that Chilapa still held in her hands.
Chilapa smiled. "No. You are the rightful Queen of our Nation, Gabrielle. Like Ephiny before me, I only hold the Mask in your stead. Besides, its what she would have wanted."
Gabrielle nodded. "What about Xenan?" Her heart grew heavy again, thinking about the young Centaur who had already lost his father.
"Ive sent three of our warriors to Tyldus with the news and a request that Xenan be allowed to return to the Nation for the ceremony. We should know the answer shortly."
"Alright. That makes me feel a little better, at least. When will the ceremony take place?"
"When the moon is at her highest point in the sky. If youd like to retire to your chambers, Ill have a guard notify you when were ready to begin."
Gabrielle turned to Xena, who nodded slightly. Turning back to Chilapa, the bard smiled. "Alright. Until later, then."
"Until later, my Queen. Xena." With a final smile, and a short bow to both women, Chilapa left the courtyard to be gathered up by the darkness beyond.
Turning back to Xena, Gabrielle reached down and grasped the warriors hand and, together, they walked into the gathering dusk to the village huts where royalty was housed.
Slipping through the beaded entrance curtain, Xena walked over to the wide bed and settled down into it, stretching her long frame with a satisfied grunt and working the battle kinks from her body. Clasping her hands behind her head, she peered into the candle-lit shadows to where her lover stood absently fingering the items on her large desk. One by one, Gabrielle picked up the various objects, looking at each one without really seeing it, before putting it back down in its place and going on to the next. Xena kept her silence, enjoying the movement of light and shadows as they traveled over her lovers compact body, highlighting the planes and curves of her form.
After a long moment, Gabrielle looked over at Xena, twirling a quill in her hands. "Its been a long day, huh?"
Xena smiled slightly, stretching again. "That it has."
Dropping her gaze to the quill in her hands, Gabrielle felt a slight flush steel up the flesh of her cheeks. She cleared her throat. "In case I didnt tell you this before, I thought you looked . . .magnificent out there today."
Xenas keen eyes caught the faint blush and she smiled, lifting one shoulder in a self-depreciating shrug. "I did alright."
Gabrielle looked up, meeting her lovers eyes with a gaze of intensity. "You did better than alright. You were perfect. So beautiful. Wild. Free." Her blush deepened, bringing out the color of her eyes with vivid clarity. "I love you in braids, just in case you were wondering."
Laughing softly, Xena grasped one of the braids in question, flicking it. "I kinda got that feeling."
Placing the quill down on the desk, the bard walked over to the bed, sitting beside the warriors outstretched form. "Well, you were right. You look great in them. I think you should wear them more often."
Xena smirked. "Your wish is my command."
Uttering a surprised bark of laughter, Gabrielle gently slapped Xena on one broad shoulder. "Youre bad."
A raised eyebrow was a statement all its own. Softening her features, the warrior held out an arm. "Cmere."
With a sigh of contentment, Gabrielle took the invitation, wasting no time in snuggling down against Xenas body, tucking her head beneath the warriors firm jaw as her hand splayed out against a leathered waist.
As Xena tilted her head to kiss Gabrielles hair, the bard lifted her face so that, when the kiss happened, it was lips upon lips in gentle affirmation. Tender flesh melded together as the kiss deepened igniting long dormant passions in the pair. The warrior moaned low in her throat as the very tip of Gabrielles tongue pressed against the guard of her lips, shyly seeking entrance. Heeding the request, Xena opened her mouth, drawing the bard in to taste, tease and explore.
After a long moment, the warrior pulled gently away, her breathing heavy. Gabrielle blinked, then collapsed against Xenas chest, her breathing also unsteady. "By the gods. You have no idea how good that feels."
An ebony eyebrow lifted. "Dont I."
Gabrielle giggled a little against the flesh of the warriors warm chest. "Well yeah. I guess you do." Sobering, she pulled away and propped herself up on one elbow. "Xena, I know I havent been very . . .receptive lately." Her eyes settled on raven hair as she played with one of the warriors braids. "I just want you to know that theres never, ever, been a time when I havent desired you. Desired this. Its just that . . . ." She sighed. "I dont know."
Reaching up, Xena laid a gentle hand on her lovers cheek. "I do. Gabrielle, weve both been very lost this past year. And our relationship . . . ." She hesitated for the briefest of seconds, then steeled her resolve. "It hasnt always been the best for either of us. Were both guilty of putting one another up on pedestals. And when those pedestals fell, we were both too wrapped up in our own miseries to catch each other." Drawing in a deep breath, the warrior let it out slowly. "I know Ive treated you horribly at times . . . ."
"Xena . . . ."
"No, just listen. I know Ive treated you horribly at times and Ive hated myself every second of every day for doing that to you. To us. And I know thereve been times when you havent treated me as well as youd have liked. I could see it in your eyes and knew you were hurting just as much as I was." Sliding backwards, Xena propped her upper back against the headboard and ran her fingers through her hair. "Weve both forgiven each other for the things weve done. But the hardest thing weve ever had to do is to forgive ourselves." Xena smiled slightly as she took the bards warm hand in her own, twining their fingers. "Guilt is an emotion that can heal or harm with equal strength. It helps us to know the difference between right and wrong and helps govern our actions. But if we let it define who we are, it wounds more than words or weapons ever could." Relaxing her grip on her lovers hand, but not releasing it entirely, the warrior rested her head back against the wooden wall, staring at the shadowed ceiling. "Guilt defined me for almost four years, Gabrielle. It defined who I was. It defined what I was. And because of that, I placed unfair burdens on you. I held you up before me as an unattainable goal. I looked into your goodness and my guilt let me believe I would never make it to the place where you were. So . . . .when you faltered, I fell right along with you. And added your faltering to the list of my mistakes." Straightening slightly, the warrior strengthened her grasp on the bards hand as her fierce blue eyes drilled into Gabrielles own. "Im through falling, Gabrielle. Though Ill always be sorry for the things Ive done, guilt doesnt rule my actions anymore. It cant. I wont let it. I know now that no matter what I do, Ill never be able to erase the darkness in my soul. Ive come to accept that. For the first time in a long while, I can see a future before me. And I want that future so badly I can almost taste it. Theres only one thing in my life right now that I need to be complete."
"Whats that?" Gabrielle asked, unheeding of the tears which streamed quietly down her cheeks.
Xena smiled the crooked grin that the bard loved so well. "I think you know the answer to that one already," she replied, laying a finger on Gabrielles chest.
Gabrielle raised their clasped hands and, in a gesture reminiscent of their reunion in a glade outside Poteidia so many months ago, kissed Xenas hand. It felt, finally, as if a circle had closed and she let that thought fill her with happiness and a sense of peace that had eluded her despite her best efforts. She clasped that feeling to her, letting it infuse her soul and work its magic in the wounds there. "Wherever you go, Xena, Ill be there. In this life, and in whatever comes after. I promise."
The bard found herself wrapped up in a sudden hug that did as much for her body as the feelings within did for her soul. She returned the hug with equal strength, reveling in the ability to do this one simple thing free from the burdens that they had carried between them. Yes, life would still be a hard journey, with many obstacles thrown up before them both. The vision of their deaths still hung there, an invisible specter. But she knew now, more than she ever did, that she could face whatever came her way, so long as Xena was there to share the journey, and its inevitable burdens, with her.
They separated at the same instant, looking almost shyly into one anothers eyes. They closed again, together, lips meeting lips in a symphony of feeling. Hands clasped at smooth silk and supple leather, seeking to move past man-made impediments and onto the warm smoothness of living flesh as tongues battled in a loving duel.
Xena was the first to break away, strong, sure hands working at the buckles and clasps of her armor. Pulling it up and over her head, she let the chest and shoulder pieces fall, with a rattling thump, to the wooden floor beside the large bed. Rolling up to her knees, the warrior reached behind her own back, tugging at the tough rawhide that laced her battledress, loosening the snug confines and slipping quickly out of the soft leather protection. Gauntlets and armbands came next, dropped to join the rest of her gear on the floor.
Gabrielle watched Xenas unveiling with a sense of awe and proud possession, her eyes travelling hungrily over each inch of skin as it became revealed to her sight. Unable to stop her reaction, she too rolled up to her knees, taking one firm and proudly standing breast into her mouth and latching on much as would a newborn.
"Oh, Gabrielle," Xena breathed, tangling her fingers in her partners short hair and letting the pulling sensations wash over her.
The bard hummed her pleasure into the flesh in her mouth; teeth, lips and tongue coaxing and teasing the rapidly swelling flesh into full arousal. She switched sides rapidly, suckling her lovers other breast while her palm and fingers continued their teasing of the first.
The warriors body swayed to the rhythm of the music her lover was creating and she added her own voice to the symphony, softly moaning out her pleasure.
Leaving the feast of Xenas breasts, Gabrielle kissed her way up her lovers chest, nipping at each prominent collarbone before suckling briefly at the pulsepoint of her elegant neck. Then she reached up to claim the warriors waiting lips tenderly, pouring the love of her soul into that one perfect kiss.
Xena responded eagerly, claiming Gabrielles lips with her own while her large hands ran over the bards supple body, blazing a fiery trail as they explored. A subtle tug and the wrappings covering her lovers chest fell away, exposing still more heated flesh for the warrior to map out. The callused skin of her palms and fingertips traced intricate patterns on Gabrielles back while the bards firm breasts slid against her own, sparking sweet sensation that tingled along her nerve endings.
Deep within the recesses of her still functioning mind, the warrior questioned, briefly, this particular course of action, recognizing some of their combined desperation for exactly what it was, a response to grief that encompassed and went beyond Ephinys death and her missing place in their lives. But the guilt that would normally have welled up inside her was silent, accepting this interlude for what it was and being well satisfied.
Reaching down, the warrior drew the tight skirt away from Gabrielles sweet flesh, taking in the musky scent that accompanied the action with a sense of deep satisfaction and primal need. Slipping one arm beneath the curve of her lovers buttocks, Xena cradled her briefly before lowering her to the bed, closing in quickly to lay her long body atop the bards with sensual friction.
Gabrielle moaned and writhed against her sudden entrapment, her lips never leaving their impassioned exploration of her lovers as her body cried out its burgeoning need. Xena swallowed her lovers moans, rocking her body against sweat-slick, heated flesh. Her knee came down to part strong, muscled thighs and she gave forth a moan of her own as her own thigh brushed up against tender flesh begging to be touched.
At the first hint of pressure on the hot center of her need, Gabrielles body jerked, then arched up and back, riding the muscled length of her partners long thigh. Xena slipped a hand behind Gabrielles ass once again, helping her lover dance against her flesh. "By the gods . . . ." the bard gasped, allowing the strong arm to rock her against the warriors hard body. "Xena . . . . Xena . . . . I . . . ."
"Thats it, Gabrielle. Let it out. Let it come."
"I . . . . oh gods!" It started out as a tiny, brilliantly white spark that quickly gathered speed and force, exploding into an inferno which ripped through her body with star-bright power. Her body spasmed, then locked, the tendons in her jaw squealing in silent protest as her mouth opened wide to expel the pressure with a primal scream.
Xena rode out the wave of her partners release, too caught up in giving pleasure to Gabrielle to allow the intense climax to take her over the edge as well, though it very easily could have, as certain indignant parts of her body were vociferously attesting. Cradling the bards spent body in the crook of her arm, Xena gently lowered Gabrielle back to the damp sheets, managing to extricate herself from her lovers sweaty grip and roll out of bed seconds before the beaded curtains parted and a body blew into the hut.
"My Queen!" Amarice yelled as she flew into the darkened hut. "I heard a scream! Are you al . . .yeow!!!" Her forward motion was abruptly, and painfully, halted as she came into firm contact with a rock hard body. The body didnt move. Amarice bounced, managing only by the grace of Artemis to avoid flying back out of the hut to land on her backside. Blinking in startlement, she looked up to see the source of her impediment. Her eyes widened, her jaw dropped, and most of the blood in her body rushed out of her head as she beheld a very naked and very angry Warrior Princess blocking her path to the Queen. "Oh gods," she moaned, willing herself not to faint.
"Not quite," came a rich voice which was very much not amused.
"Oh gods," she mumbled again, forcing herself with the greatest of efforts to look up from the lush magnificence of the warriors body and into fiercely blazing blue eyes gone silver in the candles low light. "I thought she . . .I mean, I thought you . . . I mean . . .oh gods."
"Amarice, if you came in here to tell me about the way they do things in your tribe, Im gonna personally rip your head off and hand it to you before I launch you out of here at the end of my boot. Ya got me?"
Amarice nodded and swallowed. Hard. "P-perfectly."
White teeth shone in a feral grin. "Good. Now get out."
"R-right away. Out. Yup. No problem there. Thats where Im going. Out."
Finally having the strength to tear her eyes away from the striking beauty of the vision before her, Amarice executed an almost flawless about face and ran from the hut, managing to make it all the way to her own hut before she collapsed onto her bed, out cold.
Gusting out an annoyed sigh, Xena turned back toward the bed only to find Gabrielles body convulsed in silent laughter. Narrowing her eyes, the warrior stalked back to the bed. "Glad you found that amusing," she growled.
Losing her battle for silence, Gabrielle howled into the cool night air. "By the gods, Xena! Did you see the look on her face? I never saw anyone go quite that shade of white before!" Gabrielle rolled back and forth, her arms clamped over her up-drawn knees as tears of mirth fell down her cheeks.
Muttering a selected curses gathered from her time spent in a multitude of different lands, Xena waited for the bards hysteria to play itself out. Her body was still humming with an ardent need so strong that even the untimely intrusion and her partners mirth couldnt dampen the heat flaring within.
Gabrielles laughter eventually trailed off to isolated chuckles, then stopped altogether as she noted the look of fierce desire in her lovers pale eyes. Carnal tension was radiating off the warriors body in waves and the bard couldnt help but respond in kind. Just as she was reaching out to touch her partner, a sharp rap sounded to the side of the hut. Xena growled again, then threw up her hands. "What now?"
Rolling once again to her feet, the warrior stalked over to the doorway, thrusting her head through the beaded curtain. "What is it," she snapped.
The guard stiffened to immediate attention, blinking as the great warriors anger rolled over her in waves. "Chilapa ordered me to tell the Queen that Xenan and the Centaurs have arrived. The ceremony is almost ready to begin."
"Fine. Tell Chilapa well be over to join them in a moment."
The guard nodded, saluted with a clenched hand to her chest, then spun and ran back in the direction of the courtyard.
Gabrielle, who had heard the guards words from her place on the bed, was already at the water bowl, quickly washing the scent of their shared passion from her body regretfully. Xena spared the nude lover a quick glance before striding back to the bed and pulling her leathers and armor back on with short gestures. "Im sorry, Xena," Gabrielle said quietly, watching her partner dress.
"Not your fault." Settling the armor more comfortably over her shoulders, Xena made an effort to dispel the tension in her body. She forced a smile to her face as she looked up at her concerned companion. "Besides, therell be plenty of time after the ceremony."
Gabrielle returned the smile with a cheeky grin of her own, her nose wrinkling in a way that Xena found particularly appealing. "There sure will be. And I intend to use every moment making up for lost time, my love."
"Best offer Ive had all day," Xena agreed.
The bards smile faded slightly as she stepped away from the bathing area. "Xena?"
"Im not sure what to wear. This is an official ceremony, and I should wear my Queens leathers, but . . . ." The bard sighed, scratching the back of her neck. "The problem is theyre warrior leathers. And Im not a warrior anymore."
"Sure ya are. Just not one who uses weapons."
"Youre not helping matters any, Xena."
Walking up behind her partner, Xena wrapped the bards small body in her arms. "Gabrielle, youre the Amazon Queen. That means that you can wear pretty much anything you want and get away with it. Whatever decision you make will be the right one for you. Which clothes will make you feel the most comfortable?"
"Well, I like my sari, but . . . . Thats the uniform of a different Gabrielle. Here, Im the Queen. I guess its best if I look like one. If only for this ceremony. I think its what Ephiny would have wanted."
"Ephiny would have wanted whatever you want, Gabrielle. She was a good friend and a wise woman."
"Right. Amazon leathers it is."
Giving her partner a fond kiss to her soft hair, Xena stepped away, allowing the bard space in which to dress herself. After a few moments, during which the warrior was asked for her assistance in fastening the myriad of fasteners and buckles attendant on the Queens costume, Gabrielle pronounced herself ready.
Turning the bard to face her, Xena gave her partner a thorough once over. "Ya look great," she pronounced finally, with a hint of a smile and a knowing twinkle in her blue eyes.
Blushing faintly, Gabrielle turned toward the large mirror, fussing at her hair and eyeing her reflection doubtfully. "You think so? I dont know. I guess Im so used to seeing myself in the clothes of a peacemaker that its hard to look at myself as a warrior anymore."
"You can always change." Somehow, that statement covered a wide variety of topics, none of which either woman felt comfortable delving into at this point in time.
Gabrielle chose the direct answer, after one final look in the mirror. "No. No, these will do fine." She turned toward the warrior. "You ready?"
"Lets go, then."
Bumping against her partners side with her hip on the way out, Gabrielle exited the hut with Xena following close behind. The pair headed toward the bonfires blazing once again in the central courtyard.
By the gods, hes grown so much, Gabrielle thought, upon spying a nervously prancing Xenan standing off to one side of the central square, flanked by the large forms of Tyldus and three other Centaur warriors. Though she had last seen him less than a year ago, the young Centaur had almost doubled his body size, standing slightly taller than Gabrielle herself. His long, wildly curling blonde hair, a legacy of both his mother and father, hung past the middle of his back and his face had lost most of its youthful chubbiness. His eyes were still the same wide gray-blue and were, for the moment, dry, though his face showed evidence of tears in the recent past. In his hands he held the small wooden horse made for him by Senticles some winters ago. Putting on her best brave face, the bard crossed the final distance between them, smiling for the young boy and enveloping him in a gentle hug. "Xenan, its so good to see you."
"Hello, Aunt Gabrielle," the young Centaur whispered as he returned the hug, burying his face in her shorn locks. "Its good to see you too."
After a moment, Gabrielle pulled away, quickly blinking the fresh tears from her eyes. "How are you doing?"
"Ok, I guess." Nervously stamping his hind leg, Xenan looked up at Tyldus, who looked back at him, tenderness and compassion clearly evident on his grizzled features. Remembering his manners, he turned back to his friend. "How are you?"
The bard smiled sadly. "Not so good. I love your mother very much and Im kinda sad that shes gone."
The young Centaur nodded, willing himself not to cry. "Me too."
After a final smile, Gabrielle turned to greet Tyldus, leaving Xenan alone to be greeted by his hero and the mother of his best friend. "Hello, Xenan," Xena said, reaching out and clasping his right hand in a warriors handshake.
Xenans spine stiffened in pride as he realized the meaning behind the gesture. He returned her grasp with firm pressure trying to show her, by the strength of his clasp, how much of a man he was becoming. He almost fainted in shock when the mighty warrior used the handclasp to pull him into a strong hug. The combination of the incongruity of the gesture and the safety he felt in the warriors strong arms caused the last of Xenans resistance to break down. Spasms of grief wracked through his body as he clung tightly to his hero, sobbing his sorrow into her leathers and armor. "I miss her so much," he softly cried into her warm chest.
"Oh, Xenan, I miss her too," Xena replied, gently stroking the young boys hair. "But remember that shell always be a part of us and as long as we remember her and the things that shes taught us, that part of her will always live on."
"I miss Solon too. He was my best friend. Why did he have to die? Why did Mama have to die?"
And because she couldnt give an answer to that question without spouting what, to her mind, seemed like useless platitudes, Xena merely comforted the young boy, holding him gently and rubbing his bare back in mindless circles of tenderness and caring.
After several quiet moments, Xenan pulled slightly away, swiping at his swollen eyes with the back of his hand. "Im sorry. Crying isnt a very grown-up thing to do."
Smiling tenderly, Xena cupped the young Centaurs cheek, her thumb rubbing the last vestiges of tears from his cheeks. "Never be afraid to cry, Xenan. Its a healthy way of dealing with your sadness. Even grown-ups cry sometimes."
"Even you?" he asked, wide eyed.
The dark head nodded. "Even me."
Xenan blushed faintly, then dimpled, shyly beckoning her to come closer, as if he had a secret he wished to share. Leaning in, Xena turned her face to hear his words when she was surprised by a soft kiss to her cheek. "Thank you, Aunt Xena," the young Centaur whispered into her ear. "I love you."
Smiling, the warrior returned the kiss. "I love you too, Xenan." Straightening, the warrior looked over to Tyldus, who was staring down at her with a new respect in his eyes and the faintest beginnings of a smile crossing his normally stern lips. "Welcome, Tyldus," she said, reaching up to grasp his arm. "Thank you for coming and bringing Xenan with you."
Tyldus returned the grip firmly. "Thank you for inviting us. Our Nation shares your grief. Ephiny was a wise ruler and a good friend."
"She was indeed."
The Centaur leader allowed the smile to fully bloom on his lips. "Youve changed, Xena. I dont think Ive ever seen it more evident than right now."
Xena smiled crookedly. "Ive had a lot of help." Turning her head slightly, her eyes sought out and found Gabrielle who was deep in conversation with a group of Amazons.
"Im sure thats true," Tyldus allowed, following Xenas gaze and smiling. "But the fact remains, you have changed." His back straightened as his tones took on new formality. "The Centaur Nation welcomes you as an ally, Xena. You are worthy of the love of Borias and Solon."
Xena stood there for a moment, stunned. She had just been paid the highest compliment possible by Tyldus and the Centaurs and had trouble wrapping her mind around the enormity of it. She was saved from having to answer the accolade by the somber appearance of a large group of guirded Amazons. Inclining her head for a brief second toward Tyldus in both acknowledgement and respect, Xena went to join her partner.
Gabrielle stood at somber attention as Chilapa approached, bearing a simple clay urn emblazoned with Ephinys crest painted in bold tones around the barrel. With a dignified nod, Chilapa handed the urn to Gabrielle, who accepted it with a return nod. A second Amazon warrior stepped forward and, in a true break with Amazon tradition, handed Xena Ephinys sword, still coated with the blood of the Regent-Queens last slain enemy. The warrior accepted the sword, and the honor, gravely, gently cradling the weapon in her large hands. A third warrior handed Chilapa a replica of Ephinys Queens Mask.
Three more warriors appeared, bearing the same items Gabrielle, Chilapa and Xena held. The bard looked over at the first warrior, a question in her eyes.
"Solari, my Queen. She died with honor and will be put to rest in the Hall of the Fallen with the rest of her Sisters who have died in battle."
Stifling a sob, Gabrielle reached out a slightly shaking hand to gently touch the urn bearing the brave warriors remains. "Goodbye, Solari," she whispered. "You were a wonderful warrior and a good friend. Ill always remember you."
Sniffing back her tears, the bard turned and straightened, nodding her readiness to Chilapa and the rest. The three warriors bearing the remains of Solari fell into step behind Gabrielle and her group. Six torch bearers formed a living wall around the woman as slow drumbeats set time to the final walk. The Centaurs fell in line behind the rest.
The path from the main courtyard to the Temple was lined with Amazons, who knelt and saluted in respect as the somber group passed. The entire village was silent save for the beat of the drums, the crackling of the torches and the quiet tread of booted feet. Even the animals and insects seemed to be paying their respects to the slain Amazons.
The large, marble-columned Temple of Artemis slowly came into view as the group breasted a gentle hill. A single white-robed priestess stood before the opened doors, her glowing form backlit from the light of a hundred candles burning within the temple proper. As the group moved closer, the silver haired woman opened her arms wide in a gesture of welcome. The small group came to a halt before the priestess, waiting patiently to be admitted into the sanctuary. The woman smiled. "Friends, as the Voice of Artemis, Patron Goddess of the Amazons, I bid you welcome." Inclining her head, the priestess stepped aside, bidding the group entrance with a wide sweep of her arm.
The torchbearers formed ranks, staying outside the temple as the women passed through their lines. Before she stepped into the temple, Gabrielle turned and beckoned Xenan. The young Centaur smiled and trotted up to the bard, only to be stopped by a hand to his shoulder. "Outsiders are not permitted within the temple," the priestess said kindly.
"He is her son," Gabrielle explained, her voice soft but carrying the force of her convictions behind it. "Its very important for him to see his mother put to rest. Please."
After a long moment, the priestess nodded, releasing her grip from Xenans shoulder. The boy smiled his gratitude and entered the temple, stopping before the massive altar where the rest of the group stood, his tail swishing nervously. Xena gave him a small smile, instantly calming his nervousness before she returned her attention to the altar and the priestess who had moved to stand behind it. A massive buck, recently slain and blooded, lay across the altar, his rack extending beyond its edge.
Lifting a simple silver bowl high above her head, the priestess chanted ancient words to her patron goddess, her robes swirling in the cadence of her voice. After a long moment, she set the bowl back down on the altar and smiled at the group. "The souls of our Sisters have been released to soar with Artemis. Let us now place their remains in the places of honor they so richly deserve."
Lifting the bowl again, the priestess came from behind the altar, stepping before the assembled women. With the tip of one finger, she drew out the consecrated blood from the bowl and marked the Symbol of Womanhood on the foreheads of the group, finishing with Xenan, who submitted to the ritual without complaint.
Placing the bowl back on the altar, the priestess gestured to the group. "Come. Let us carry Ephiny and Solari to their final rest." She led the way down richly tapestried hallways, going ever deeper into the massive temple, continuing on until she reached a large wooden door bearing the ornate carving of a Queens Mask. Opening the door, the priestess bowed Gabrielle, Chilapa, Xena and Xenan inside, indicating that the others were to wait outside the door.
Stepping fully into the candle-lit room, Gabrielle looked around, wide eyed with amazement. Large niches covered all four stone walls. Each niche bore the name of an Amazon Queen, her ashes, her weapons and her mask. The history of the place was enough to leave the young bard in awe as her eyes traveled from one resting place to another. Her heart tightened as she saw the name Melosa carved below one of the niches. The space next to Melosas bore Ephinys name and stood empty, waiting.
With a nod from the priestess, Gabrielle slowly walked to the stone resting place. Gently, reverently, she placed the urn inside, her fingers trailing one last time over the clay. When she stepped back, Xena took her place, placing the sword onto the pegs which sprouted diagonally over the stone enclosure. Chilapa came next, somberly hanging the mask on the peg which protruded from the very top of the niche. After a long moment, Xenan stepped forward and slipped his small wooden horse inside, gentle tears rolling down his cheeks. "Goodbye, Mama," he whispered. "I love you."
For a long moment, there was silence as the group bowed their heads and spoke their last words to the fallen Queen, mother and friend.
After several moments had passed, the priestess nodded and escorted the group from the room, leaving all the candles burning brightly to comfort both the living and the dead. Saying a private goodbye to Solari, Xena looked over at Gabrielle, gesturing at a yawning Xenan. "Im gonna take him outside. Meet you in front of the temple, alright?"
Gabrielle smiled and nodded, wiping her own tears from her cheeks before turning to continue the procession, with the others, to the Hall of the Fallen.
The priestess opened a large door that bore a carving of two crossed swords, then ushered the others inside. The Hall of the Fallen was a room easily four times the size of the Room of the Queens. Three walls were covered with tiny niches cut into the stone, each small square bearing the ashes of an Amazon who had fallen in battle. The fourth wall was covered with the warriors masks and weapons. This room was not as personalized as the Queens room, giving more the feeling of the Nation as a whole and the women who willingly chose to lay down their lives defending it. It was a warriors space; stark, unadorned, but with a sense of simple majesty that permeated the still air, giving some small comfort to those left behind to both mourn and enjoy the fruits of these warriors ultimate labors.
The Amazon bearing Solaris remains stepped forward and placed the urn into the small, unadorned niche, stepping back and bowing after she had done so. The two remaining warriors hung Solaris mask and weapons on the wall, likewise bowing. After saying their final good-byes, the group left the room to be guarded by the light of a single, ever glowing torch.
The women made their way back through the massive temple and stepped into the crisp late winter air. Holding up her hands, the priestess addressed the entire nation who stood, waiting for her words. "Friends! Sisters of the Amazon Nation! It is done. As we have mourned their deaths, let us celebrate the lives of our fallen heroes!"
There was a moment of pregnant silence as the eyes of the Nation turned skyward. A flaming arrow flew through the air in a graceful arc, landing among dry tinder to light, once again, the central bonfire. A mighty shout rose through the assembled Amazons as the time for mourning ended and the time for the celebration of life began. Drums which just moments ago pounded out a funeral dirge sped up their tempo as the half naked bodies of painted dancers streamed into the courtyard from all points of the village. Platters of food and barrels of mead and wine were brought out to cover long tables. Shouts of laughter wove among voices raised in song.
Smiling, Gabrielle stepped over to Tyldus and the waiting Centaurs. "Would you like to join us? We can put Xenan into one of the huts if youd like."
Returning her smile, Tyldus laid a gentle hand on the bards shoulder. "Thank you for the invitation, but I think itd be best if we returned home."
"Are you sure? Youll always be welcome here."
"Very sure. Let this be your time. We will have our own ceremony in our village." Reaching down, the Centaur Leader tenderly grasped Gabrielles hand in both of his. "Thank you very much for allowing us to share in this with you. I loved Ephiny like a daughter and the respect youve given both her life and her passing is more than I could ever have hoped for. You will all be remembered with honor in my Nation. If there is ever a time when you need our help, you have only to ask and it shall be given you without question."
Gabrielle returned the handclasp warmly, covering the older Centaurs hands with her own. "The same goes for us, Tyldus. Anytime you need anything, just ask, alright?"
The Centaur Leader smiled and nodded. Releasing Gabrielle, he turned and grasped Xenas arm in a warriors handshake. "Farewell, Xena. Until we again meet."
"Goodbye, Tyldus. Until then."
After the women had said their final good-byes to Xenan, who extracted from each a promise to visit him the next time they were in the area, Tyldus and the Centaurs left on the long trek for home. Xena, Gabrielle and Chilapa waited until the group was lost to the night before turning to face the celebration going on in the square. Wrapping an arm around Xenas leathered waist, Gabrielle bumped the taller woman with her hip. "Ready to face the music?"
Xena rolled her eyes. "I suppose," she commented, with a droll sigh.
"Lets go then."
The trio wended their way through the crowded courtyard, sampling various delicacies borne up on trays and cheerfully resisting many offers to join in the dancing. Xena grabbed a mug of cool mead from a passing Amazon, gulped half of it down in one gigantic swallow, and wiped the foam from her lips with the back of her hand. "Ahhhh, that hits the spot."
Gabrielle shot her a look. "Barbarian."
"Oooohh. Now thats hitting below the belt."
Laughing, the bard shook her head and climbed onto the raised platform where the chairs for Amazon royalty were placed. After a brief, fruitless argument with Chilapa over the seating arrangements, Gabrielle threw up her hands in defeat and slumped into the center chair that was reserved for the Queen. Xena slid easily into the chair at her left, her long arm snagging an olive from a platter that an Amazon was dutifully offering Gabrielle.
"Hey! Get your own servant!"
The warrior turned to her partner, her blue eyes wide with false innocence. "But why? Isnt that what I keep you around for?"
Green eyes lasered into Xenas own, promising retribution. But unlike a similar situation months ago involving a young princess and a faerie tale, the bard couldnt hold the expression. Sometime during the past few weeks she seemed to have found her sense of humor once again. She held the look just a bit longer, smirking internally as her partners shoulders stiffened, then slumped slightly. Then she let a grin bloom over her face, verdant eyes twinkling in the torchlight. "Gotcha."
Shaking her head, the warrior leaned back in her chair, crossing her legs and snagging another mug of mead from a passing Amazon and gulping it down thirstily.
"Cmon, Xena! Admit it! I got you that time!"
Xena became intensely interested in the dancing Amazons, her eyes roaming over the half clad bodies and the patterns of light and shadow dancing over glistening skin.
"Is someone speaking to me?" Xena asked an Amazon who stood just below the dais. "Because if they are, they must have forgotten about my little hearing problem."
With a shout of frustration, Gabrielle picked up an apple from her tray and pelted it at the recalcitrant warrior. Xena reached up and nonchalantly plucked the apple from the air, taking a huge bite of the succulent fruit and chewing noisily, allowing the juices to run from the corners of her mouth in shiny streams. "Thanks," she mumbled around a mouthful of apple.
"One of these days, Xena . . . ."
Flapping her hand impudently, the warrior smirked and continued to demolish her apple while watching the dancers.
The celebration continued on until the first light of dawn painted stripes of plum and rose across the eastern sky. Most of the Amazons, worn out by feasting, drinking and dancing, simply fell asleep where they had stood, the firm packed dirt providing a bed soft enough for weary bodies. Gabrielle rose and stretched, looking over at her lover who was placidly gazing at the slowly appearing sun. "You up for a nap? I know you want to be on our way sometime today."
Rising gracefully to her feet, the warrior also stretched, then nodded. "Sounds good."
Smiling down at the softly snoring Chilapa, the duo turned and headed back toward their hut, nodding quiet morning greetings to the Amazon warriors on watch. Just steps away from their temporary home, the two women came upon Amarice, who appeared to have thrown off the effects of coming eye to chest with a naked Warrior Princess and was now pacing in front of their hut. "Finally! I thought you guys were never gonna get through partying. Im ready to travel the world. See new sights. Ya know. Stuff like that." The young Amazon was jumpy as she shifted from foot to foot, casting imploring glances toward both women.
"Relax," Xena said. "Its been a long day and the Queen needs her sleep." The warrior winked at the look of outrage coming from said Queen.
"Already had mine," Amarice said, swinging her arms back and forth. "In my tribe, all the warriors were up with the . . . ."
"Amarice . . . ."
"Oh yeah. Sorry. Forget I said that." She huffed out a sigh. "So when do we get out of here?"
"Well be ready when were ready."
"What?!?!" Her protest was cut short by a look from the Warrior Princess. "Yeah. Alright. Ill just go . . .beat up a few trees or . . .something."
Xena smirked. "You do that. And Amarice?"
"Lose the hat."
Ignoring the look of outrage from the young warrior, Xena and Gabrielle blithely continued on their way to a soft bed and warm blankets.
Upon entering the hut, Gabrielle made her way to the wash basin to rinse the sticky remains of the nights feast from her hands and face. Xena wearily drew off her armor, then stretched again, grasping a wooden ceiling beam and hanging suspended for a moment, cracking her spine and shoulders with a satisfied grunt. A night without sleep after a day of battle and she was feeling it deep in her bones. Slipping out of the last of her armor and leathers, the warrior slid in between the cool sheets of the large bed with a groan of profound relief. Rolling to her back, she closed her eyes, content to listen as her partner puttered around the room, first disrobing, then carefully blowing out the last of the candles. Chill air brushed gently across her body as the sheets were lifted, to be replaced by the heat of another body as Gabrielle got into the bed and slid close, wrapping herself around Xenas long form like a limpet. "Some party, huh?"
"Mmmmm." Gabrielles voice was a pleasant drone to her slumbering senses and she turned her head to gently kiss tousled blonde hair, feeling the pull of sleep weaving its seductive web around her.
Until the moment she felt a warm, wet mouth envelope her left nipple.
Her body came awake instantly, arching into the sensation. "What are you doing?" she gasped out.
There was a faint wet sound as the bard released her mouths hold on Xenas breast. "Mmm. If you have to ask, Im not as good at this as I thought I was."
"But . . .but I thought you were tired."
"I was. Im not anymore. Got a problem with that?" Gabrielle lowered her mouth back to its fond task.
Xena smiled, then groaned. "Oh no. No problem at all."
"Good." Gabrielle released her prize once more to crawl fully atop the body of the Warrior Princess. "Cause I promised you Id make up for lost time. And I always," punctuated by a kiss to warm lips, "keep," an earlobe was ravished, "my promises."
The warrior moaned, then crushed the bard to her chest, arching against the pleasant weight of her lover as it sank into her own. "Thank the gods for that, Gabrielle."
Those were the last coherent words Xena would utter until she awoke, still tired and a bit sore, but blissfully happy, near midday.
Blue eyes opened, then squinted as the noon sun cast its rays through the small window and into the hut, laying stripes of golden color across the bed where Xena lay tangled with her still sleeping lover. Through the door and window, she could hear the muttered groans and curses of Amazons suffering for their overindulgence of the night before. Her sensitive hearing also picked up the impatient tread of a pacing Amarice. Rolling her eyes and smirking slightly, the warrior turned her head to observe her lovers profile, painted in golden hues by the suns gentle rays. Reaching over, she brushed an errant lock of tousled hair from the bards forehead, leaving in its place a kiss.
Though part of her restless spirit urged her to get up and moving, another part was content to share this peaceful interlude with her partner. A tendril of dark foreboding wove its way stealthily into her slowly wakening senses, but she pushed it back, refusing to grant it dominion over her soul just yet. Time later for thoughts of death. For now, for this one perfect moment, her soul was at peace. A peace hard fought and hard won, and all the more blessed for the battle.
As if in a fit of jealousy, the sun chose just that moment to shift slightly, laying a perfect golden stripe over Gabrielles eyes. The bard stirred, blinked and reburied herself in her partners warm embrace. "Stupid sun," she mumbled against Xenas chest. "Why does it have to shine, anyway."
Deciding silence was the best course of action, Xena wisely said nothing and tightened her embrace.
After another moment, the blonde head popped back up as Gabrielle rubbed her eyes. "That nap was entirely too short."
"True, but I wont complain."
The grumpy bard grinned slightly as the visions of the previous dawn played through her head. "I guess I wont either." Her eyes twinkled mischievously. "I could have used a little more sleep though."
Xena shrugged. "We can always wait to leave till tomorrow. We dont really have anything pressing."
Pulling gently away from her lovers embrace, Gabrielle sat up, stretching and scratching the back of her neck. "Actually, I thought about something Id like to do at the party last night."
"And that would be . . . ."
Gabrielle turned to face her partner, her eyes serious. "Would you be upset if I asked you to come with me to visit Eli? I learned some things about myself in the last day or so that Im not sure how to deal with. I think maybe he can help me."
There was a time when Xena would have been hurt at the thought of Gabrielle turning to another for advice. Thankfully, that time was in the past. She could finally admit, to herself if to no one else, that she didnt always have all the answers. Somehow, she found that idea to be very freeing, as if a large weight was suddenly lifted from her shoulders. She smiled. "Of course Im not upset, Gabrielle. If you want to see Eli, then well see Eli."
The brilliant smile she received was worth all the anguished hours of thought she put into the decision to let go of the total control she sought to have over everything in her life. "Really? Just like that? No argument?"
Xena returned the smile. "No argument, Gabrielle." Laying a gentle kiss to her partners soft cheek, the warrior rolled out of bed. "If we wanna make decent time back to Greece, we need to get moving."
With a bounce to her step and a gleam in her eye that had been sorely missed in the past months of hardship, Gabrielle jumped from the bed, wrapping her arms around her taller partner and hugging for all she was worth. "Thank you, Xena."
Returning the hug in equal measure, the warrior smiled into her partners soft hair. "Anytime, Gabrielle. Anytime"
A short time later, the warrior and bard stepped from their hut, dressed and ready for their journey. An over-eager Amarice, trying desperately not to seem that way and failing, ran up to them, her face flushed with color. "Well? Is everything ready? Are we leaving? Finally?"
Xena rolled her eyes. "Yes, Amarice. Were leaving. Finally."
"Great! Be right back!" The young warrior rushed off to get her already packed and waiting horse.
A laughing Chilapa approached the pair next. "I hear youre leaving us?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Yes. For a little while, at least. Theres something I have to do."
"Thats sad news. I was looking forward to your wisdom at the Council table. I think itll take me awhile to grow into the Queens mask."
The bard laid a hand on Chilapas shoulder. "Youll do just fine. Just remember what I said. When youre in doubt, just think about what Ephiny would have done and you wont go wrong."
"Ill take that advice, with one small addition. Ill also stop to think what Gabrielle would do. With the two of you as my inspiration, I cant help but become a good Queen."
The bright sunlight hid most of Gabrielles blush.
Chilapa caught it anyway and winked. Then she reached out and clasped the young womans hand warmly. "Artemis bless your journey, my Queen. Make it back to us safely and soon."
"I will, Chilapa. We will."
The two women hugged and then Chilapa grasped Xenas offered hand. "Protect our Queen, Xena. And yourself. Again, we owe you a great debt. The Nation thanks you and I thank you."
Returning the handclasp, Xena nodded solemnly, then released the Regent Queen to throw an arm over her lovers shoulders. "Ready?"
"Of course! Goodbye, Chilapa."
"Goodbye, Gabrielle. Xena."
After a final wave, the two women walked over to the patiently waiting Argo. Xena vaulted aboard her horse, then looked down at her partner. "Wanna ride?"
"With you? Just try and stop me."
Grinning, Xena reached down and pulled the bard up behind her, feeling a sense of utter contentment as strong arms wrapped themselves around her midsection as a warm body melded itself to her back.
Already atop her own horse, an eager Amarice galloped up to meet them. "Can we go already?"
Xena sighed. "Yes, Amarice. Now we can go."
With a loud yell, the young warrior galloped her horse out of the central square and into the woods beyond. Warrior and bard looked at one another and spoke at the same instant. "Trouble."
The sound of gentle laughter accompanied them as they rode from Amazon land.
In a Roman palace, Julius Caesar, flush with the plans that would eventually lead him to become Emperor of all Rome, stripped for the evening and laid his still humming body down on the cool silk sheets of his enormous bed. Sleep came quickly for the Roman general. Dreams were soon to follow.