Characters and backstory from Xena: Warrior Princess are the property of Renaissance/MCA/Studios USA. No copyright infringement is intended.
This is an original work of alternative fan fiction. No profit will be gained from its production. It was written for entertainment purposes only. This piece of fiction is copyright of the author.
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Continued from The Way of the War. A word of warning for this story. It is darker than the others in this series as it deals with breast cancer and assisted suicide. Please do not read if this subject matter offends or upsets you.
My sincerest gratitude to Bongo Bear and IseQueen for helping me get back into the swing of things and for giving me valuable feedback during the drafting process.
Romantic love between consenting adult women
Sex between consenting adult women
The Way of Honor
Copyright November 2003
Xena mused silently as she patrolled the southern boundary. Every so often, she would pull Argo to a halt as she listened to the sentries moving above in the trees. Knowing that the border was secure, the warrior took some time to reflect upon the events of the past few months.
General Kidian, true to his word, got his force through the valley before sundown. There were no real problems besides getting Wolf to actually come along and then turning other Amazons away from the ridge. The demi-god had been reluctant to leave the village while on duty, but after some irrefutable arguments, namely, twisting her arm, the small warrior complied.
Since Kidian and his men left the valley and continued north, things were relatively quiet in the Amazon capital. Scouts occasionally returned from their rounds, reporting various troop movements by both the Spartans and the Athenians. The various Amazon councils continued to meet despite the lack of any other close action by either foreign nation. Discussions regarding the escalating war far from the borders were commonplace now.
Additional provisions had been made for the children's safety as well as those Amazons that cared for them. In the event that someone would come marching upon their doorstep in a less than friendly manner, the young ones and the Caregivers were to be evacuated to a series of hidden caves to the north of the village.
And although the war continued and reports were regular like a bulletin of the various skirmishes, life within the Amazon borders was becoming almost as normal as before the hostilities broke out.
Wolf was pretty much back to her old self. The demi-god, when off-duty, was often found chasing her daughters through the village, playing some game or another. She also returned to her regular routine of running in the morning and sparring with Xena before lunch.
The guard's partner, however, still seemed to be suffering. Gabrielle, during one evening of leisure, detailed Triva's lack of health as well as a recent trip to the healer. No matter how the bard tried to talk to Triva about her problems, the Caregiver always managed to evade the issue. And then Wolf's mood took a turn for the worse and she became withdrawn again.
Gabrielle's worry was what prompted Xena's recent escape from the village. The bard had asked her to speak with Wolf, to see if the demi-god would offer any answers to the questions Triva was avoiding.
Sighing deeply, Xena led her warhorse along a meandering trail to the guard post on the western border. More often than not, when Wolf pulled border duty, she chose the position from which she could see for miles. Pulling up beneath the towering tree, Xena dismounted and patted Argo's neck. "I won't be gone long, girl, so don't wander too far," she said as she wrapped the reins loosely around her saddlehorn.
The warrior grinned slightly when the mare snorted in response and then moved off to nibble at a patch of clover. Looking up, the warrior shook her head. Climbing the tallest tree in the Amazon forest was not the way that she liked to start her day anymore. Grumbling under her breath, she reached for the first branch and pulled herself up. With each new foothold and each branch she ascended, she cursed her old friend for choosing the western sentry post.
When she reached Wolf's position, the small warrior acknowledged her presence with a soft greeting. When the demi-god turned dull brown eyes to her, Xena knew something was wrong. Settling herself on the platform that was fixed to the higher branches of the old tree, the taller warrior was silent for a long moment.
The silence dragged on for the space of a few minutes as Xena watched a hawk circle above the distant valley. She chewed the inside of her cheek before revealing her reason for being there. "Gabrielle asked me to talk to you… to find out what is going on with Triva. She's worried about her."
Inside Wolf, an internal debate raged between the honor of a confidence and the need to release the heavy burdens of her thoughts. She was torn between opening up to the one person that knew all of her innermost demons, all of them except for the one that was now plaguing her. She had made a promise, though, and was agonizing over breaking that faith and relieving the pain and stress that kept her perpetually moody lately, despite outward appearances. Sighing deeply, she turned to Xena, knowing that she could trust her with the delicate issue.
"You know," she said, her voice rough with constrained emotion, stalling for a moment to find the words that would find their way from her brain to her tongue, "in all of my time living with the Amazons, living as an Amazon, I have found no people that compare when it comes to courage and strength." The compact warrior rolled her head on her neck to alleviate the pressure that had been building for months now.
Xena watched, patient to let her friend speak at her own pace. She laced her fingers over her raised knee and waited.
"There is one thing, though, that Amazons fear, even if it isn't talked about much," the demi-god whispered, her eyes focusing on a mountain the far distance. "They fear that which they cannot battle against, that enemy that comes in no body and carries no weapons."
Wolf appeared vulnerable and on the edge of totally breaking down. Her eyes welled up with tears that had been shed only in private until now. With a deep breath that she held for a moment until her emotions were under control, she finally looked Xena straight in the eyes. "Triva and I found a lump in her breast a few months ago," she explained. "We were concerned, but it was right before her cycle and it was so small, barely noticeable. We didn't think anything much of it at the time."
Wolf's face flickered briefly with a look of self-directed anger. "I should have checked after her cycle, to see if the lump was still there, but she put me off every time I tried. She wouldn't even let me make love to her after that. She said that she was tired all the time, that the twins were more energetic than usual."
For a moment, the warrior said no more until a dark laugh preceded her next words. "I guess I finally wore her down, though. Last week, after the girls went to bed, she pulled me towards the bed…. At the time, I thought maybe she'd gotten some rest that day and that we were going to make love. I was so eager and started taking off my leathers. But instead, she just wanted me closer to the light. When she removed her top and held me off, I realized what she was showing me."
Squeezing her hands into fists, the demi-god could no longer stop the silent tears from falling. "The lump had grown so much so fast," she hissed through clenched teeth. "And she showed me others that had started growing. It was then that I realized just how sick she was. I've been so damned worried about this war… making sure that our borders are patrolled and our Queen guarded, that I forgot about keeping watch over my own household."
Xena weighed the situation carefully. Her heart began to truly ache for the younger warrior. They had been through a lot together since they were reunited years ago. To the Consort, it seemed as if their lives were one episode of misery or disaster after another, with a few miracles thrown in along the way, such as the births of their daughters. The pain that the demi-god was suffering now, Xena was feeling as well.
The disease that Triva had, though, was not all that uncommon among the Amazons. Generally, the growths were removed along with the breast and if found soon enough and with enough luck, the woman survived. Unfortunately, not all of them did. It was an unpredictable sickness and could strike any one of them, from the oldest of Elders to the strongest of warriors. Their only options of beating it were prayers, herbs to maintain strength, and the removal of the malignant breasts.
"She's been to see Nagla?" Xena asked softly, knowing in fact that she had since Gabrielle had seen the Caregiver visiting the healer's hut on more than one occasion.
"Yes, and Nagla told her what had to be done. Triva knows what the options are. She was born into the Nation, so she's not ignorant of what is happening to her."
"Why hasn't she had the surgery yet?" Xena asked as she wrapped a supportive arm around her friend's shoulders.
Wolf leaned into the taller warrior, accepting the strength and compassion that was being offered. "At first I thought it was just vanity that kept her from the surgery. I've heard of that before, women wasting away, afraid to lose something they think defines them as a woman. But it's different for Triva," she continued. "Her mother had the disease, and her grandmother. Both of them died after having their breasts removed. She's just scared."
"She's afraid that even if she does go under Nagla's knife, she's still going to die?"
The demi-god wiped the back of her hand across her eyes still damp with tears. "She said that she'd rather die the way that Artemis brought her into the world because she knows that she's going to die either way." She took a shuddering breath and pulled her knees up to her chest. "That's not all, though, Xena," she confided in a whisper.
The taller warrior bent her head to hear the soft words coming from the Guard.
"She doesn't want to suffer the same way that her mother did. She can't deal with pain… she never could. She's so fragile," she said as her voice trailed off to silence.
Xena wished she could read Wolf's face at that moment, to find the truth that her words implied. The other warrior, however, pulled away and put a wall up around her emotions once more. "Do you want me to tell Gabrielle?" Xena asked after a moment's silence. "You know that if anyone could talk Triva into doing what has to be done, she could."
Wolf shook her head slowly. "No," she replied with conviction. "Triva made me promise not to take this to Gabrielle. She doesn't want anyone else involved. She's afraid that they'll make her do it when she really doesn't want to." The demi-god then turned to look up at the other warrior. "Swear to me that you won't tell anyone, Xena. The only reason I told you was because I just couldn't keep it inside to myself any more."
"I won't," she vowed, her blue eyes deep with sadness. "I know that you'll do what you can… what's best for Triva."
Wolf nodded and then turned to quietly watch the valley once more. The two warriors, occupied with their own thoughts, were unaware of the time that passed until they were squinting against the setting sun. Without a word, Xena squeezed Wolf's shoulder before rising. Making her way back down the tree, she found Argo waiting patiently for her. She sent up a prayer to Artemis for the warrior that had followed and was silently accompanying her back to the village.
When they arrived at the village, Wolf went straight to her hut to check in on the twins and Triva. The Caregiver's face was unnaturally pale and her gray eyes were shadowed and sunken. Her body, once willowy and graceful, was now gaunt and moved with pained weariness. Her skin once so taut with vigor and youth had begun to sag from her rapid loss of weight.
Immediately, the demi-god strode to her and took Zasha from her, ordering her in a soft, but firm voice to sit and rest.
"I'm fine," Triva protested as she tried to push aside the light hand that was gently guiding her to the bed.
"No, you aren't Triva," Wolf argued as she set the baby into its corral to play with her sister Peran. "When are you going to realize that you have got to see Nagla about this?" she asked, her voice becoming choked with emotion.
"I do see her."
"You get pain-killing herbs from her, Triva. That's not the same. The only way that you are going to live is if you have those lumps removed."
"It's too late for that, Wolf," the Caregiver replied in a tone void of life and hope. "It was too late the moment we realized that I had this disease."
"How do you know that?" the warrior demanded. "Just because your mother died of it, doesn't mean that you have to."
Triva closed her eyes as her head sunk back to the feathered pillow. "It's more than that, Wolf," she explained, her low voice carrying well to the warrior that began to pace.
"No, it's not!" The demi-god took a deep breath and fought to control a temper that she rarely lost.
Opening her eyes to watch as her lover began to unbraid her long hair, the Caregiver let tears of loss well in her eyes. She knew that soon, she would be leaving not only the woman that she loved, but also the family of which she had become a part. "Come here," she ordered softly, sitting up in the bed.
Wolf took the few steps to the side of the bed and sat. She handed her lover a comb from the table next to the bed. The patient grooming lulled her mood, as Triva removed tangles from her hair.
She lowered her head and quietly said, "You know I love you, Triva, as much as I'm capable of loving another woman. And I would do anything for you. But I can't do what you're asking of me. I just can't. I can't accept your death as easily as you are."
"Why?" Triva asked, her voice strained with loss.
"Because you are giving up the battle before it's even begun," the demi-god answered.
"I am no warrior, Wolf."
"Yes, you are. Just because you don't carry weapons to war or defense does not mean that you can't be a warrior. There are battles fought inside of us every day. And I've never known you to quit with anything, Triva. Yet, this one time, when it's most important to fight back, you've laid down your arms and died before Death even claims you."
"And you can't respect me for that?"
Wolf's head turned sharply to pierce her lover with an intense look. Neither paid heed to the comb that went skittering across the floor. "I never said that," she replied, trying to keep the growl from her voice. "I just feel so helpless here, Triva. I can't reason with you, and I won't force you. And I don't like feeling this way."
"Then do as I ask, Wolf," the Caregiver softly demanded, cupping the warrior's cheek in her palm. She closed her eyes at the vibrant warmth that her cold fingers absorbed. "End it all for me tonight. I can't do it myself… I don't have the courage to take a life on my own."
The demi-gods answer was barely a whisper heard above the Caregiver's rasping breath. "I can't."
Zasha, who began to whimper, waylaid any further discussion on the matter. "I need to take the girls to get their dinner," Wolf said as she pulled her hair back and tied it with a piece of leather to secure it. "Do you want me to bring something back for you?"
"No," Triva replied as she lay back on the bed again. "I'm not hungry."
Wolf nodded as she went over to the corral and gathered the twins into her arms. The girls, happy to be in the familiar embrace, began to babble to each other in their baby language. With one last look to Triva, who had turned her back to them, the demi-god left.
Several hours later, the Queen and her Consort were resting in bed, discussing each other's day and the strange behavior of their closest friend.
"I know she's sick, Xena, but why won't she talk to me about it? She either brushes me off with excuses or she avoids me like a harpy when I do see her, which by the way, she isn't going out much any more."
"I don't know what to say, Gabrielle," Xena replied as she made herself comfortable against the pillows and closed her eyes.
"Xena, I thought that we weren't going to hide anything from each other anymore." The Queen rolled to her side and raised herself to an elbow; her head rested in her upturned palm as the fingers on her other one began to trace small circles on her wife's torso. "You know what happens when we hide things from each other."
The Consort opened her eyes and caught Gabrielle's roaming fingers. She raised them to her lips where she lingered with a soft kiss. Guiding the hand gently with her own, she laid it upon her chest against her beating heart. "This isn't the same, Gabrielle. It's a private matter between Wolf and Triva. I'm asking you to leave this one alone."
Mumbling about warriors and secrets, the bard laid her head upon the warrior's shoulder and exhaled with a sigh. "I won't bother you about it, Xena," she said as she snuggled into her favorite position wrapped around her tall lover. "At least not much," she added softly as she sighed again and began to relax. Until she fell asleep, her thoughts drifted around the subject of Wolf, Triva, and the whispered gossip she had heard in the dining hall earlier. She would find out what she wanted to know without asking Xena, Wolf, or Triva.
In the dark, Xena's brow drew down in worry as she thought about the demi-god who had been somewhat reticent at dinner earlier. She thought about the possible outcomes and how they would affect others besides Wolf and Triva. She lay awake for a couple of hours thinking whether she should or could keep it all from Gabrielle. Finally, exhausted by the brewing drama, she fell into a sound sleep, lulled by the soft rhythmic snoring of her wife. Her last thought was of Gabrielle, and keeping the bard from reliving one of the most heart-wrenching times in her life.
The next morning, Xena awoke to the sound of baby Eponin whimpering in her crib. Sliding out from under the cover as well as Gabrielle, who was sleeping half on top of her, the warrior crossed the room silently to gather the baby into her arms. Cooing softly into her daughter's ear, she returned to the bed. Untying her shift, she opened it to draw her out a breast. A soft smile warmed the lines of her face as Eponin rooted around before firmly latching onto the nipple to feast voraciously.
She closed her eyes and lost herself to the feeling of her daughter feeding until another's touch roused her. Opening her eyes, she looked down at Gabrielle who was watching the baby, tracing the child's toes with a loving finger. Sleepy green eyes met hers a moment before soft lips pressed against her shoulder. "Good morning, Xena," Gabrielle whispered before trying to fight back a yawn.
Xena lifted her free arm, inviting the bard to lie next to her. Taking the warrior up on the invitation, Gabrielle snuggled up to her side, resting her head on a strong shoulder. "So what's on the agenda for the day, my Queen?" Xena asked while lifting Eponin to her shoulder to pat the baby for a burp.
"Well," Gabrielle said as she pushed a lock of hair off her forehead and tucked it behind her ear, "if this were a perfect day, we'd stay in bed until noon and then pack enough food for an army and go find the prettiest meadow to have a picnic." Another yawn interrupted her train of thought and she rubbed her eyes. Looking up at Xena, she offered a wry grin. "However, we're expecting some of the scouts any day now, so I'd rather not have something wonderful interrupted if they show up."
A noise interrupted the couple and Gabrielle pulled herself away from Xena to look over at the children's crib. A bright smile lit up her face as she watched Larin pull herself up to stand and look at them. Pulling herself away from the warm nest of the bed, she rose to gather Larin and then rejoined the rest of her family. Adjusting the pillows behind her, she reclined back next to Xena, Larin happy to sit on her stomach. Bending her knees to support the child, Gabrielle sighed in contentment.
"Epa Epa," Larin gurgled, watching as Xena switched Eponin over to her other breast.
Grinning at the toddler, Xena spread her fingers wide and wiggled them around as she inched them towards Larin's belly. The child broke into infectious laughter as she squirmed to get away; she got only as far as Gabrielle bent knees would allow.
"Oh, no!" Gabrielle squealed, her eyes crinkling with joy. "Mama found a hydra in the bed." Pretending to protect her oldest daughter, the bard sat up and wrapped her up in her arms, holding her just out of the reach of Xena's fingers.
Larin's peals of laughter escalated until Xena withdrew the hand. "More," she demanded, reaching for the warrior's hand.
Xena snorted in amusement. When Gabrielle turned to raise a questioning brow at her, the warrior chuckled. "She sounds more like you every day," she explained as she lightly tickled her wife's ribs.
Gabrielle's lips curled in amusement until she felt dampness spread on her belly. "Uh, oh, someone needs to be changed."
"Make that two," Xena added as she checked Eponin's swaddling.
"In one end and out the other," Gabrielle commented as she carried Larin over to a changing table that Xena had made for their firstborn. It now did double duty with the unexpected blessing of their second child.
As Gabrielle was cleaning Larin, a knock sounded outside of their hut. The Queen checked with her Consort, who nodded before allowing the caller to enter. "Come in."
Wolf stepped through the leather that separated the Queen's hut from the rest of the village. With a pale effort, she smiled before bowing her head respectfully to Gabrielle. "My Queen," she said before turning to nod at Xena.
Over her shoulder, Gabrielle's eyes met Xena's. Only she would have recognized the silent warning to remain quiet about the previous evening's discussion. Feeling a guilty blush coming on, Gabrielle once again concentrated on changing Larin. While Wolf and Xena chatted quietly about their morning weapons practice, Gabrielle put Larin in the children's corral and then readied the changing table for Eponin.
As she laid out clean cloths and a soft cotton blanket for the baby, Gabrielle stole furtive glances over her shoulder at the two warriors. She told Xena that she would not interfere, but that did not mean that she could not find out about what it was with which she was not interfering. Noting that Xena was almost done nursing Eponin, Gabrielle completed her task and then began to get herself ready for the day.
Finished feeding and burping their younger child, Xena rose and carried Eponin to the changing table. Wolf stayed by her side, cooing over the child that had been named after her departed wife. Believing the baby to be the only good to come from the loss of her Eponin, Wolf made sure to pass a part of her love to the little one. Softly ruffling the baby's dark hair, the demi-god became thoughtful and silent.
"So," Xena said after a few minutes as she handed the dry baby into Wolf's arms, "where is your army of terror?" she asked, referring to the guard's twins, who were almost a year older than Larin. It had become their practice for their two families to take breakfast together before Xena and Wolf went down to the practice field to get in some weapons work.
Wolf's emotions became closed off to Xena as she thought of Peran and Zasha. "Aresha has them now. I let go of the strings early this morning. Had some things to do."
Quickly glancing to Gabrielle, Xena saw that the bard was changing out of her sleep shift and into her leathers. Noting that she was still dressed for bed herself, Xena began to disrobe. She would have been amused in any other situation by the way that Wolf was studying the mask and weapons displayed over the Queen's bed; she believed that Wolf was still uncomfortable with her physical appreciation of both the warrior and the bard.
Wolf jumped when Xena's breath warmed her ear before the warrior spoke in low tones that only she could hear. "If you want, we can skip weapons this morning and scout the perimeter of the village."
Looking over her shoulder at Xena, Wolf considered the offer. Scouting the perimeter was often the time that the two of them spent together without the distractions that were a normal part of Amazon life. It was a private time between two friends that seemed to see the other side of the dinar for the other. Considering the turmoil that was churning in her life at the moment, Wolf accepted the offer. "Beast wouldn't mind stretching his legs," she said.
"Breakfast first," Xena said loud enough for Gabrielle to hear.
"That's the only thing on my mind right now," Gabrielle rejoined as she handed Eponin to Xena and then returned to scoop Larin up into her arms.
"Not even a kiss?" Xena asked before stealing one from the bard.
"Well," Gabrielle said with a quick chuckle, "there are some things that I might consider. But food first, then debauchery," she finished with the air of a royal command, leaving the two warriors to follow after her.
The dining hall was half-full when the group arrived for the morning meal. Gabrielle and Xena climbed the short dais to the Queen's table, greeting and joining Ephiny and Solari who were already eating. Wolf, on the other hand, found her daughters by the sound of their laughter, as they were more than a handful for Aresha who was trying to feed them both at the same time.
Shaking her head at the vain efforts of the young Caregiver, Wolf approached them and then sat backwards on the dining bench. With a stern look to each twin, she said, "Little Amazons that don't eat don't get to play." Accepting a bowl from Aresha, she began to feed Peran while the young Caregiver fed Zasha.
Gabrielle watched the scene from her seat, cradling her two children while Xena went to get a tray of food for them. Curiosity was always a flawed blessing for the bard. While it led her on many wonderful paths, it also ended just as often with trouble at the end of the path. With Wolf, however, who was not only a close friend but also head of her Royal Guard, Gabrielle justified that curiosity in this instance. She was formulating a plan on getting to the bottom of things when Xena returned and set the tray heaping with food in front of her.
"Don't even think it, Gabrielle," the tall warrior warned before sitting and relieving the bard of Eponin.
Turning innocent eyes that were a bit brighter than usual for the scarlet that stole across her cheeks, Gabrielle tried to stop the wheels from turning.
"You're blushing, my love," Xena said in an aside as she set Gabrielle's plate in front of her. "You always blush when I catch you doing something you shouldn't be."
"What?" Gabrielle asked as she poured goat's milk into a small bowl of oatmeal for Larin. Her blush began to burn even brighter when pale blue eyes caught her own. She could swear that Xena was able to see right into her mind and decipher her every thought.
"You promised, Gabrielle," Xena replied as she speared an olive and a small piece of cheese and fed them to the bard.
"I promised that I wouldn't bug you about it, Xena." Gabrielle chewed thoughtfully before lowering her voice to reason with her wife. "I would think, Xena, that since Wolf is in charge of my security that you would be more worried about what is distracting her."
The warrior looked over at Wolf and shook her head enough for Gabrielle to notice. "I haven't noticed any distraction, Gabrielle." Taking a sip of juice, Xena sliced off another piece of cheese and fed it to Gabrielle, who had her hands full with Larin. "Good warriors don't let distractions get the better of them."
The bard looked bemusedly at her wife before scooping cereal that was making a trail down Larin's chin. "I seem to recall a certain warrior that was distracted by a village girl long enough to get a smart shot upside the head in the middle of battle."
Xena was glad she had swallowed before she snorted in response. "Now you know why I left you behind so much."
Flashing the warrior an impish grin, Gabrielle tapped Xena's nose with the sticky spoon she held in her hand. "That didn't last too long, now did it?"
Wiping away the oatmeal that began to dribble down her nose, Xena raised an eyebrow. Her eyes began to burn bright as they traveled slowly along the bard's body. "After you started wearing Amazon outfits, it was much too nice to have you around instead of worrying about the trouble you'd cause in whatever tavern I left you in."
Gabrielle paused in her feeding of Larin when she realized the tactics that Xena was using. She narrowed her eyes at Xena. "Flattery aside, you are trying to deter me from the original topic."
Xena was rescued by Ephiny who chose that moment to rise from her seat to take one on the other side of Gabrielle. Sending a silent thank you to the Regent, Xena suddenly became determined to get the matter of Wolf and Triva settled just so Gabrielle would let it drop. Half listening to the Regent and Queen discuss the scouts that were expected back to Amazonia, Xena returned her attention to Wolf and wondered how the demi-god was going to deal with her problem.
After finishing with the morning meal, Xena handed Eponin over to Ephiny and kissed Gabrielle goodbye. Stopping to let Wolf know that she was on her way to the stables, the warrior left the dining hall to ready Argo for the day ahead.
Entering the stable, Xena smiled in greeting to her warhorse. "How you doing, Argo?" When the horse snorted softly in response, Xena chuckled. "Yeah, I know. Not much action these days, is there, girl?" Leading the mare from her stall, Xena left her untied as she retrieved her saddle and tack. After gearing up the warhorse, Xena stood in front of Argo and rubbed the horse's muzzle with gentle affection. "Maybe some day, Argo, you'll have your own little ones and you'll know what it's like wanting less action just to keep them safe."
"That can be arranged, you know."
Xena turned around and watched as Wolf walked into the shadowed stable. Going directly to a back stall, the demi-god unlatched the door and stepped back as a very large warhorse gingerly stepped out. Wolf sighed and leaned her forehead against Beast's when the black horse bowed his head in greeting. After whispering a few words to him, she turned, confident that the animal would follow. When Wolf stopped next to Xena, Beast followed suit behind her and waited patiently.
Giving Beast the once-over with a thorough eye, Xena shrugged and jerked a thumb at Argo. "It's up to her. You would not believe how finicky she is about mating."
"Yeah, well, let me know," Wolf said as she drew up next to Xena, who began to lead Argo from the stable. "Beast thinks Argo is cute."
With a smirk, Xena paused Argo long enough to pull herself up into the saddle. After Wolf grasped Beast's mane and mounted him bareback, Xena replied, "Don't tell her that, she's full of herself as it is."
Tapping their heels against the warhorses' flanks, the two warriors began their morning.
"By the way," Xena said before they quickened their pace to a trot, "I have to be back in a couple of hours." When Wolf shot her a quizzical glance, Xena raised an eyebrow. "Remember, Eponin? We finally got her on a feeding schedule."
Wolf's utterance of, "Oh," was the last spoken between the two warriors until they arrived on the main road that ran the perimeter of Amazon territory. Once on the road, Xena and Wolf drew their horses alongside each other. Wolf conceded to Xena's slow pace.
"How's Triva?" Xena asked.
Wolf spared a glance for her friend before focusing on the road ahead. "Not any better," the demi-god replied with bitterness. "I hate seeing her wasting away like that."
Xena was silent, concentrating as Wolf was, but listening to the other warrior, who paused in thought before continuing.
"You know, she accused me of not respecting her because she won't fight against this."
The air became heavy with expectation as Xena waited for more. Finally, she prompted Wolf from her musings. "Do you?"
Wolf was about to negate the comment but then turned to face Xena. "I told her last night that it didn't change the way I think of her." Sighing in frustration, Wolf then admitted, "But it does. I can't be supportive of someone who just quits without even trying to fight."
Thinking of what Gabrielle might say at this point, Xena came up empty handed. The bard would agree with Wolf about never quitting. Splitting her attention between the road and her thoughts, it was a moment before Xena realized that Wolf had stopped Beast a few paces back. Pulling Argo to a halt, Xena reined the warhorse around and drew abreast of Beast. "What is it?" she asked, thinking that Wolf's acute senses were picking up something hers had not; she favored the smaller warrior with a look of concern.
Raising eyes full of guilt towards Xena, Wolf swallowed the lump in her throat and whispered her pain. "I should never have gotten involved with Triva, Xena. My heart and soul belong to Pony. I should have known that I could never love Triva enough." Wolf rushed on as a tear slipped from the corner of an eye; she lowered her head as if to hide from the truth. "I once told Triva that I would give her anything I could. I was trying to make up for not being what she needed me to be for her."
Xena moved closer and cupped Wolf's chin in her hand. Lifting it until she could see into the demi-god's eyes, Xena saw the ache of unspoken confirmations. Silently, she offered understanding.
"I can't do it, Xena," Wolf choked out as she struggled to keep her voice even.
"Would you do it for me or Gabrielle?"
Looking at Xena as if she had lost her mind, Wolf opened her mouth to speak and then closed it quietly.
"Would you have killed Eponin in the same circumstances if she had asked?" Xena pressed, forcing Wolf to consider her reasoning.
"It's not the same," Wolf nearly growled with a hint of frustrated anger. "Pony, you, or Gabrielle wouldn't just quit. It's not dishonorable to end pain when the battle has been fully fought and clearly lost."
Xena's eyes softened with compassion as she released Wolf's chin. "I know you can't respect Triva for what is happening now, but can you honor her for who she was before she got sick?"
"You know there's more, Xena. I've been your friend for a long time, and I know that you know more about Amazons than you let on."
"This isn't the first time I've lived among Amazons," Xena revealed with a faraway look in her eye.
"You know about the Queen's Justice, then?"
Xena nodded as she raised her eyes to the sky. "I've seen it performed before, right after the first time I tried to live within the Nation. There's nothing worse than watching a warrior having to stand there and take their own death without fighting."
"When I first pledged my allegiance to the Nation and the Queen, Eponin helped me to learn as much as I could about Amazon ways. She told me about Melosa and her Justice."
"Melosa was a hardened warrior as much as she was a strong Queen," Xena reflected as she thought of the queen from whom Gabrielle had inherited the Mask.
"Do you think that Gabrielle is either hardened or strong?" Wolf asked as she suddenly got all of Xena's attention. "Right after we met up again, before we defeated Dahok, Gabrielle told those stories about Britannia. I've never heard pain like that from anyone who wasn't dying. I can't be the reason for that pain again."
"Gabrielle is a whole lot stronger than you think, Wolf. She's stronger than you or me in ways that always surprise me. And besides, there are ways to get around almost anything, Wolf."
"Are you saying that I should do this, Xena?"
Shrugging as she turned Argo around to continue in the direction they had been heading, Xena replied, "I'm saying that you should consider all the reasons why you should and shouldn't… and then make up your mind." Adjusting her body in the saddle, Xena grasped Argo's reins firmly. "Of course, I could always tell Gabrielle and take the decision out of your hands."
"No!" Wolf exclaimed quickly. "I promised Triva…." The demi-god became lost in pale blue eyes that burned into hers with a flash of intensity.
Wolf was left suddenly alone when Xena dug her heels into Argo's sides and urged the warhorse into a full gallop. The demi-god sat upon Beast, dumbly watching Xena race ahead up the road. When she realized that Xena had just made her decision simpler, Wolf grasped Beast's mane and gave him a signal for pursuit. More than eager to stretch his legs, the warhorse complied.
And hour and a half later, after riding the road along the eastern boundary, Xena and Wolf returned to Amazonia. They gave their warhorses brisk rubdowns before setting them loose out into the pasture.
Parting at the stables, Xena sought out Eponin at the Caregivers' Hut and Wolf checked the guard on Gabrielle, who was busy in the meeting hut with Ephiny. After checking the guard, Wolf silently disappeared into the forest.
Later that day after Gabrielle finished going over the emergency provisions with Ephiny, she strolled over to the practice field to watch the younger class' progress. She looked on with pride, as their teacher for the day was Xena. As she watched the Warrior Princess drill the older girls in hand-to-hand combat, bits of hushed conversation carried to Gabrielle's ears. Hearing Triva's name more than once, she turned to find Aresha sitting off to the side with another young Amazon who had been apprenticed to Nagla. Between the two of them, they were managing to entertain Zasha and Peran while they traded gossip.
Moving closer to them, Gabrielle saw her opportunity when Zasha tossed a ball out of Aresha's reach. Kneeling down to retrieve it, she smiled at the twins and the Amazons that were watching over them. "Always a handful, aren't they?" she asked as she returned the ball to Zasha. "I guess Triva still isn't feeling good if you've drawn the short straw," she said with a façade of humor, trying to put the young Caregiver at ease.
"Oh, they aren't bad at all, my Queen. I love the twins."
"Still, it must be difficult with Triva not working."
Aresha glanced at her companion and then to the field. When she looked back to Gabrielle, the bard was keeping a tight tether on her impatience.
"I don't think Triva's coming back, my Queen."
Gabrielle smiled charmingly and replied, "Please call me Gabrielle. There's no ceremony or council going on, so it's just us girls playing with the children."
Aresha, used to hearing the Queen request the omission of her title on more than one occasion, complied. The young Caregiver's voice lowered as she began to share the tidbit of news that had recently been told to her. "Rhena just told me that she heard Nagla mumbling to herself how it's a shame that Triva is sick like her mother was."
Furrowing her brows in thought, the bard tried to remember ever hearing about Triva's mother. "I've never heard about her. What happened?"
Rhena almost paled when the Queen turned her attention to her. "Well, she got the cancer death. Nagla tried to save her, but she died anyway."
Aresha listened with interest until she held out a hand to steal a turn in the conversation. "Did you know that Nagla and Triva's grandmother were a couple until she died? I heard Kepra talking to Crazy Kerlon about it."
"Wait," Gabrielle said as she held up a hand. "How did Triva's grandmother die?"
"The cancer death," both Aresha and Rhena replied.
Gabrielle winced when the girls' voices rose, but exhaled in relief when she realized that the other observers had moved closer to Xena's class to encourage the sparring going on there. They were far enough away from everyone that their conversation was still unheard by others.
"So now Triva's got it, too. She must be so scared." Gabrielle became lost in thought as she considered this new information.
"Kepra said that Triva was just a little girl when her mother died and that no one could make her come out of her hut for anything."
"I've heard that it was a miracle from Artemis when she did and that's when Triva found her true path," Rhena added.
Gabrielle was beginning to think that that Triva's path had veered a little off into the darkest part of the forest. Cocking a brow at Rhena, she inquired, "How do you know of all this?"
Rhena blushed in shame but would not lie to the Queen. "Ever since Triva told Nagla that she was ill, Nagla's started to have nightmares. I can't help but listen, because she always wakes me up with her talking. I think she's dreaming about Triva's grandmother. I usually don't understand most of it, but I don't think that she'll make Triva have the surgery, even if there is a chance that it'll save her life."
Things began to fall into place as Gabrielle put some of the pieces together. "Triva's mother and grandmother had the surgeries, didn't they?"
Rhena nodded in confirmation. Aresha drew her attention away from Gabrielle, whose focus drifted from them.
Across the field, the bard saw Xena making her way towards them and she made an effort to rise casually to her feet. Saying a hasty farewell to the young Amazons, the Queen attempted to meet her Consort far away from Aresha and Rhena whose conversation had drifted towards their impressions of the warriors that were coming off the field.
"Where's your guard?" Xena asked as her eyes scanned the vicinity for blue guard leathers.
"Oh, I told them I could handle a walk across the village on my own," the bard answered nonchalantly. "Finished already?" she asked as she reached up to tuck a lock of hair behind Xena's ear.
"Just taking a break," Xena replied with a frown. She knew that Gabrielle hated the constant guard, but tolerated it for the most part. It was unusual to see her without at least one guard tailing her in case trouble arose. "What have you been up to?"
Gabrielle stifled her defensive response when she realized that Xena was simply asking her about her day. "Oh, you know, Queen-like things."
Distracted by a colorful movement from the corner of her eye, Xena narrowed her eyes and focused until she spied M'Eru watching the Queen from behind a tall warrior. The guard was on duty, but was trying to do her job without being seen. Xena smiled crookedly at her wife. "Inventory bore you, love?"
The bard merely shrugged before taking Xena's arm and leading her on a leisurely stroll around the field. "Doesn't it always? But watching M'Eru try to hide from me always cheers me up."
"You knew she was there?"
"Wolf would take her leathers if she didn't keep to her post," the bard answered with disgruntlement.
Trying to steer the conversation to a topic with which the bard was more receptive, Xena asked, "What do you want to do for lunch today?"
"Steal you away for a week or two and find a nice cave with all the amenities."
Rolling her eyes at Gabrielle, Xena muttered under her breath, "Now there's a wish." Cupping the bard's face in her hands, Xena let herself become lost in the vision of her wife. "I have to get the girls back to the field. Why don't you surprise me with lunch, Gabrielle?"
"I'll do my best." Standing on her toes for a chaste kiss, the bard was already mentally planning lunch so she could spend some time with Ephiny. She watched as Xena walked away, calling for the class to reassemble. Once the warrior became immersed in the class, the bard left to find her Regent.
Ephiny was coming out of the scroll archive when Gabrielle caught up with her. "Come drink with me, Eph."
Suddenly changing direction with the help of Gabrielle's grip on her elbow, the Regent allowed herself to be steered into the Council Hut.
Foregoing the larger main area, Gabrielle pointed towards her private room in the rear corner. "We need to go over some things," she said as she shuttered the door behind them and indicated that Ephiny should take a seat. Taking a bottle of mild ale and two mugs from a shelf over her desk, the bard poured herself and her Regent a drink.
"Is something wrong, Gabrielle?"
"Wrong, what could be wrong, Ephiny?" The Queen turned her chair to face Ephiny and sat down, leaning forward until her elbows rested on her knees.
Knowing that Gabrielle was about to launch into something that would keep them for a while, Ephiny sat back and cradled her mug in her hands.
Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle clasped her hands together. "You realize how sick Triva is, don't you?"
"I've heard the rumors going around, but she won't talk to anyone and Nagla won't share, either," Ephiny answered.
"What can I do about this, Ephiny? Can I make her have the surgery to make her better?"
"I think it's past that, Gabrielle. I've never seen any woman get that sick and fight back from Death's embrace with or without going under the knife."
Gabrielle's hands escaped her control as she threw them up in the air. "How is it that it managed to get this far? Didn't anyone care enough to talk some sense into her?"
Setting her mug on the desk, Ephiny leaned forward to address the Queen. "Gabrielle, who are we to say what a woman can and cannot do to her body? Triva is an adult, knew what was happening. If she decided to keep it private and do nothing, none of us has the right to force her to do anything. It's actually been expected."
When Gabrielle's eyes flared incredulously, Ephiny raised her hand for patience and continued. "Going as far back as our scrolls tell, the line of women in her family all fell ill to this. Her mother died when she was twenty-five. Triva was just six years old then. I remember hearing her weep day and night inside her hut. Any time someone would try to go in there to make her come out or eat, she would scream like a wounded animal. I'm not sure she's ever recovered from that."
"What made her finally come out?"
Ephiny's countenance became thoughtful as she thought back to an evening long ago. "One night, there was a call from the sentries that a Centaur was sighted in the forest and every warrior took to arms, thinking the Centaurs were invading. The couple that had the hut next to Triva's had a child that was about Larin's age. With all the noise of shouting warriors, the child became scared and started to cry. No one knows how long she had been crying, but when the Caregivers were gathering up the children, they found Triva cradling the child and singing quietly to it to keep it calm, just like she had been taught to be quiet when a call to arms was sounded."
"And from that day, Triva was raised as a Caregiver." Gabrielle stood and began to pace the small confines of her room. "Just out of curiosity, what paths had her mother and grandmother chosen?"
"They were both warriors."
Gabrielle stopped to reflect on what she had gathered in such a short time that day. Even if Wolf, Xena, and Triva would not talk to her about it, the rest of the village had no qualms about it. Most discussions around the village lately were quiet as though everyone was listening for Celesta's tread upon the threshold. Gabrielle simply had not to taken time out of her duties to hear what they were saying. "I have to do something, Ephiny. This is ridiculous, watching someone die right before your eyes."
"Nothing can be done now, Gabrielle, except to wait for the inevitable. It is what Triva has chosen and we have to respect her wishes to let her meet Death on her own terms."
"Gods," the Queen whispered as she ran a trembling hand through her hair. "How am I going to keep this from Xena?"
Taking a sip from her mug, Ephiny looked at Gabrielle oddly. "What do you mean? I'm sure she already knows, so why would you keep it from her?"
Gabrielle blushed as she picked up her own mug and drained it in one long swallow. She carefully set the empty container down on the desk and contemplated another round. "I told her that I wouldn't interfere."
"You plan on forcing Triva?"
"I want to, but no. Every instinct is telling me that this is not right, but I'm not a tyrant. If I start forcing people to do things against their will, I would end up despising myself."
"Some things, Gabrielle, are just beyond our control. If we could control everything, we'd all be gods."
"Some days, Ephiny, I'm not sure I can tolerate being Queen, yet alone a god."
"If you want, we can always go looking for Velasca and ask her."
The bard swatted at her Regent for her sarcasm and then turned to leave the room. Beckoning to Ephiny, they left the private room together. "Now I get to surprise Xena with lunch and pretend like I'm not pissed about what is going on around here," she muttered.
The Regent shook her head in sympathy and watched as Gabrielle made her way to the dining hall.
Ephiny turned around to find Solari leaning against the post outside of the council hut. "I think that Gabrielle is finding out that even a Queen can be powerless sometimes."
Gabrielle caught up with Xena as the warrior was coming off the practice field. She forced on a mask of happiness that was bitter upon her lips. She had been practicing for the last hour in front of her looking glass, rehearsing in a tone of voice that was deceptively pleasant. She was getting better at masking her feelings when she felt the need. Endless war councils were at least honing that skill.
Xena smiled fondly at her wife and then chuckled. The bard was managing nicely with a basket and both children. "Oh, I like this," Xena said as she kissed Gabrielle for a lingering moment. Over the bard's shoulder, she bestowed another kiss upon Larin's crown of golden hair. When she went to remove Eponin from the sling that hung over Gabrielle's shoulder to her midsection, the bard intercepted her hands.
"I have her," the bard said as she instead, handed the basket to Xena.
Noting how easily Gabrielle carried herself with both children secured to her, Xena relented with good humor. "If Argo sees you like that, she's going to make you carry more of the load."
Flashing Xena the smirk that always seemed to amuse the warrior, Gabrielle shook her head; the sunlight danced off her long hair. "I don't think so."
Xena took Gabrielle's hand in her own and let the bard lead her away from the village. With a quick glance over her shoulder, she noted that only Wolf accompanied them as guard, remaining behind them a discrete distance. "So," Xena spoke as she returned her attention to her wife, "where are we going?"
"It's so beautiful out today, I thought we'd picnic after all," the bard answered as she stepped surely into the forest north of the village. After walking only ten minutes, she stopped in a quiet glade.
Setting the basket down, Xena removed her armor and sword, placing the later within arm's reach. She then helped Gabrielle lift Eponin's sling over the bard's head. As she put the sling over her own head and settled it across her shoulder, Gabrielle shrugged off Larin's backboard and carefully leaned it against a fallen tree.
"How's this working for you?" Xena asked as she kneeled down to check the padded shoulder straps on the sturdy board.
"It's really handy, Xena. Thank you for fixing it up for me."
Xena fought the grin of smug satisfaction that curled the corners of her mouth. "You're welcome."
Together, they cleared a small spot on the forest floor; they paused when they heard a low whistle up in the trees. A moment later, something fell from the canopy into Gabrielle's waiting arms.
"Thanks, Wolf," the bard called out as she untied the leather ties and unrolled the sturdy blanket the guard had carried for her. Once again, a birdcall sounded the all clear and Gabrielle began to busy herself with setting up their lunch. When things were laid out, she unbuckled the stays that held Larin securely to her backboard. "Come on, Princess, time to eat."
"Yes, dear," Xena answered with a playful smile.
"I was not talking to you, Xena," Gabrielle chuckled as she swatted at her wife's arm.
Catching the bard's hand, Xena raised it to her lips and kissed it lovingly. "It's not nice to abuse your Consort, Gabrielle."
"As if," Gabrielle muttered as she automatically reached out and helped Xena lower her leathers to feed Eponin, who had begun to fuss.
At that moment, Xena's thoughts turned serious. She recalled Wolf's dilemma and knew the demi-god had come to a conclusion. She also knew that there were Amazon laws that might come into play against Wolf. She wanted to ask Gabrielle where she would stand in such a case, but she did not want to be obvious about the current situation; she did not want to break a confidence with Wolf within hearing distance. Xena pondered the matter until Gabrielle's warm laughter drew her thoughts back to the present.
"Won't be long before she's walking," Xena observed, watching as Larin was more interested in trying to stand than the mashed fruit that Gabrielle was trying to feed her.
"Part of me can't wait, and yet part of me doesn't want to see it," Gabrielle admitted as she pulled Larin into her lap to better feed her. "I just know that the day she starts walking, she'll grow up too fast for me." Finally, Gabrielle was able to get a spoonful of food into her daughter's mouth. She looked to Xena with sad eyes. "I'm afraid I'll forget this time in her life… in our lives."
Leaning across the space that separated them, Xena brushed her lips over the bard's forehead. "Trust me, love, that will never happen."
Silence fell between them as the warrior and bard gazed at each other. The spell was broken when a squirrel began chattering angrily above them.
"Sorry," a soft voice called down from above. "The little monster is trying to eat all my olives."
Looking above them, Xena and Gabrielle saw only the shadowed branches of trees, but they could still hear the chattering and Wolf quietly arguing with the squirrel.
"Can't take her anywhere," Xena whispered into Gabrielle's ear, smiling when the bard giggled.
Walking through the village, lazily twirling a practice staff, Wolf followed Gabrielle towards the practice field where they were going to meet Xena. Amazon warriors were gathered in small clusters as they practiced or instructed the younger girls. Off to the side, Wolf spotted Triva leaning against a tree. Taking a quick detour, the demi-god approached her lover.
"What are you doing out of bed?" Wolf asked as she stood on her toes to kiss the Caregiver's cheek.
Triva's smile was tight as she studied Wolf. "I needed some air," she replied as she turned back towards the field.
Wrapping an arm around Triva's waist, Wolf followed her line of sight and realized that she had been watching the elite archers. "Have you changed your mind?" she asked softly, trying to temper the hope that swelled faintly. She regretted the question when Triva stiffened in her embrace.
"No," the Caregiver answered. "I just needed to be sure that I'm making the right decision." Triva turned and raised her hands to rest them on Wolf's strong shoulders. "Despite what you say, Wolf, I'm not a warrior… not like them," she said, canting her head towards the archers. When Wolf returned a thoughtful gaze instead of an argument, Triva asked, "Have you changed your mind?"
Wolf released Triva's waist to run her knuckles softly across her lover's wan cheek. "I'll honor my promise to you, Triva. I won't deny you this." The demi-god was rewarded with a serene smile of peace.
"Thank you, Wolf," Triva whispered as she bent her head to kiss the demi-god. "Thank you." Releasing Wolf, Triva stepped back and slowly walked away from the field.
When she realized that Triva was crying and trying to discretely wipe away the tears, Wolf turned back to field. Forcing down her own pain, she stared at the archers. Every one of them was bare from the waist up. It was obvious in the bright afternoon that all of them proudly bore the scars that remained after the removal of one or both of their breasts. They were all survivors of the same disease that was killing Triva. It was their lack of breasts that made them candidates for the elite archer squad. Not all passed the challenges posed to them for the rank, but those who did were sung of not only in Amazon legends, but also in the Greek. Homer himself had even sung of the fierce warrior archers at Troy. They were a testament to the strength and enduring will of the Amazon Nation.
Wolf's eyes clouded over with shame when she thought of her earlier opposition to Triva's plan. Triva was not a warrior; rather, she took care of them. Warriors alone did not make the Nation, but all the women who joined together complimenting skills and knowledge created the tribe. With that in mind, Wolf found her own peace. She would carry out Triva's request with the respect befitting the highest of any Amazon.
Realizing that she had kept the Queen waiting too long, Wolf turned and hurried to catch up with Gabrielle, who was whispering intently with Xena. Her mood somewhat lighter after finding acceptance with her own decision, Wolf began to twirl the staff again. When she reached Xena and Gabrielle, she returned the Queen's smile and bowed in respect.
"Ready, Wolf?" Gabrielle asked with a playful glint in her emerald eyes.
"On your go, my Queen," Wolf responded, taking a moment to nod at Xena.
Seeing that Wolf had found a balance within herself again, Xena returned the acknowledgement before rubbing her hands together. "All right, Gabrielle," she said as she laid her hands upon the Queen's shoulders, "let's work on those moves I showed you earlier."
Gabrielle grew serious, mirroring Xena's determined look.
Quickly, Wolf removed her scabbards and went through a few stretches before squaring up to spar with Gabrielle. Silence stretched over the field as the Queen watched her Guard's eyes for the first move. While the participants kept their breathing steady, a few gathering warriors waited breathlessly until the sharp crack of staff upon staff echoed over the field.
Never one to underestimate her opponent, Wolf was impressed with Gabrielle's abilities. They were evenly matched, for Wolf's weapons of choice were her twin short swords; Gabrielle had favored the staff from the time that Xena had begun to teach her. They parried blows back and forth until sweat glistened on their bodies. Wolf's strength was met by Gabrielle's agility and the match wore on with encouragement from Xena.
Wolf finally landed a blow that sent Gabrielle to her knees. Before the demi-god could set her feet for the next one, however, she was stunned to see a flash of black leather before landing on her back. Blinking up at the sky, she worked the numbness from her jaw. Gabrielle then moved into her line of sight, holding one of Wolf's scabbards.
"Did that hurt as much as it looked like it did?" Gabrielle asked as she kneeled at Wolf's side and returned the scabbard to her.
"No," Wolf lied as she poked at the inside of her cheek with her tongue and tasted blood. Conceding that she had been bested by the resourceful maneuver, she grimaced. "You've been hanging around her too long," she said as she spotted Xena hiding a smile behind her hand. "But you should have finished me off, or at least knocked me out, Gabrielle. You don't stop just because your opponent is down."
"Wolf, you aren't an opponent, you are a trusted friend. If you were an opponent, you would be unconscious now."
"She's right," Xena said, agreeing with Gabrielle as she assisted Wolf to her feet. "You know that Gabrielle fights different when it matters."
Believing that Xena would never let Gabrielle go into a situation that would endanger her, Wolf let her guard drop as only Xena could see her face. "You take good care of her, Xena." Bowing to Gabrielle to signal that the match was over, Wolf pulled Xena and Gabrielle closer to her for a bit of confidence. "Would you two be able to watch the girls for me? There are some things I need to do tonight and Triva still isn't feeling well."
Sensing as though she was finally being drawn into Wolf's secret, Gabrielle looked at Wolf and then up to Xena with a myriad of questions on her lips. She bit down on her tongue instead and let Xena answer.
"Don't worry about the twins, Wolf. You do what you need to do. You know where they'll be when you're ready for them."
"I appreciate it," Wolf said with sincerity as she turned to business. "I've put M'Eru and Tera on guard tonight. Darlea and Ishta will relieve them at daybreak."
Feeling a question coming on from Gabrielle, Xena wrapped an arm around the bard's shoulders and steered her away from Wolf. "We'll see you later, Wolf," she said, forestalling Gabrielle's attempts to get in a word.
Nodding in farewell, Wolf watched as Xena gathered up Gabrielle's staff and then led the bard from the field. Taking her cue from them, she donned her swords and set off towards the temple. Her thoughts lingered on the departing couple. Along with Triva and her daughters, they were the closest to family that Wolf had since leaving Gaul as a young woman. While she regretted leaving Gabrielle in the dark, she hoped that the bard would understand in the end.
When she arrived at the temple, she waved away assistance from the acolytes, but kneeled before Aratha, the Priestess who kept Artemis' temple. "May I use a reflection room, Priestess?"
Aratha was stately in a pure white gown that hung elegantly from gilded straps across her bare shoulders. She indicated with a sweep of her hand a private room available for Wolf. "May the Goddess grant your desires, Amazon."
Stopping in front of the altar on her way to the reflection room, Wolf reached to the dagger she kept strapped to her thigh. She caressed its worn grip; its sharp blade was favored for hunting and skinning. Untying it with shaking fingers, she removed the weapon and laid it upon the sacrificial plate as an offering. With her head bowed in supplication, she continued on to the private room. Opening the door, her nostrils flared at the sharp scent of incense. A dozen candles lent the room a soft glow. Closing the door behind her to seal out the rest of the world, she laid her soul bare for the goddess who had shown her the right path long ago.
She asked for forgiveness for what she was about to do. She asked for strength to see it through to its end.
Gabrielle watched in silence as Xena put the children down for bed. The warrior had been reticent about answering any questions put forth to her and the bard was becoming annoyed. After watching Xena and Wolf say more with silence than they had with words, Gabrielle knew that something more was going on and the longer she was kept in the dark about it, the more irritated she became.
Long ago they had deemed the Queen's hut the one place where Gabrielle could not use her caste to force Xena to do something against her will. Gabrielle, knowing Xena better than anyone, understood that no matter the case, even the gods could not make Xena do anything. Being that the warrior did not want to discuss Wolf, Gabrielle instead opted for silence as she cleaned up after Larin, Peran, and Zasha. With movements stilted by growing aggravation, she picked up stuffed toys and shoved them into the basket she was holding. Standing, she carried the basket to a corner where they kept the children's playthings.
She was startled when warm arms embraced her from behind. "I'm not talking to you if you won't talk to me, Xena."
Xena did not answer, but merely tightened her hold, trying to convey through touch her feelings that were warring with each other. She wanted to tell Gabrielle, but knowing how messy things would get later, she simply wanted to enjoy a time of peace at that moment. "Gabrielle, please," she whispered into the bard's hair.
Hearing the plaintive wish in her wife's entreaty, Gabrielle relented enough to relax in Xena's arms. "If this is a warrior thing, I swear that I am going to give away every weapon you own."
"Trust me, Gabrielle. Just please trust me for now."
Thinking back to all the times that she had trusted Xena with her very life, notwithstanding that time when nothing made sense and love did not matter, Gabrielle sighed. "If I don't trust you, I guess the only other option I have is to sleep in the stables, because I really am hurt that you can't share with me."
"I'd only make my bed with you in the hay." Xena turned Gabrielle in her arms until the bard was looking up at her. The bard's features softened when she saw that Xena really was remorseful. "Believe me when I tell you that it won't be long… and then you'll understand."
The bard felt a physical pain as she finally let her wife see the torment she had been keeping hidden. "Xena, I do know what is going on. Triva is dying. The whole village is talking about it. They've practically already built her a funeral pyre. I am watching an Amazon, a sister, a member of my family die right before my eyes and I can't do a damn thing to stop it. And yet, there is still something you aren't telling me. I can feel it. Just how much worse can this get?"
The bard took a deep breath and exhaled slowly; Xena's sorrow was naked in her eyes as the warrior finally opened the gates on her emotions, if not her words. The bard's anger dissipated as she drowned in stormy blue seas. Her concern for Xena surged and she leaned her forehead upon the warrior's chest.
"Do you still love me?" Xena asked as she pulled the bard in close to her, enveloping her with tenderness.
"I'll always love you, Xena," Gabrielle replied solemnly.
Without another word, Xena led Gabrielle to the Queen's bed. She held the embrace as she lay down with her. Not another word passed between them as they both listened to the night sounds coming in their opened window.
Outside the Queen's hut, Wolf stopped to listen to Xena and Gabrielle's breathing. She silently apologized to Xena for putting her through a rough time with Gabrielle, but she was grateful that she had kept her vow of silence. Looking over at her own hut, Wolf's thumb caressed the wineskin that she carried. Tomorrow would see the resolution of evening and the demi-god said a silent prayer of guidance.
Wolf slowly pushed aside the leather that covered the door to her hut. She immediately spotted Triva sitting up in bed, propped up against a pile of pillows for comfort. The Caretaker welcomed her with silent tears. Crossing to the bed, Wolf sat down, facing her lover. Two thick candles were lit at either side of the bed; shadows moved like liquid across Triva's gaunt face. The flames seemed to dance a welcoming invitation for Death.
The demi-god scooted closer to Triva and took her hand. Raising it to her mouth, she kissed each fingertip and then the frail wrist. "I admire your life of love and caring," she said, gazing sadly into Triva's eyes.
Triva swallowed as her grip on Wolf's hand tightened. "I'm sorry that I won't see the girls grow up to be so strong like you and Eponin," she said.
"Please, Triva, don't be sorry. You can't change what has happened and you can't control your need to end the pain. Just don't make this hurt more than it already is." When Triva's eyes drifted to the wineskin that lay in Wolf's lap, the demi-god had to stop herself from pulling it away. "This is for you," she said as she forced herself to hand it to Triva.
"Will you stay with me?"
Wolf reached out to wipe the trail of a tear from Triva's cheek. "For tonight, I am all yours."
"Then hold me until Celeste comes."
Shrugging off her scabbards, Wolf crawled up the bed and pulled Triva into her arms. The Caregiver laid her head upon the demi-god's chest and sighed in contentment. "Will I ever see you on the Other Side?"
"Plan to throw a festival for my arrival," Wolf replied as she bit down on the emotions that threatened to steal her composure. She felt the first shudders of a breakdown course through her body when she heard Triva uncap the wineskin.
"It tastes good," Triva murmured in wonderment after a long drink. She had expected the poison to be bitter.
"I did my best for you," Wolf whispered as she lost the battle to her tears.
Taking another long drink, Triva raised her head with great effort. "I didn't mean to make you cry," she mumbled as the poison began to work through her system.
Wolf hushed her lover and guided Triva's head back to her chest. "Just close your eyes and go to sleep, sweetheart. I promise when you wake up, it'll be all better."
An hour later, Wolf took the wineskin from Triva's slack hand. Setting it aside on the table next to the bed, she rolled over to face her lover. Curling up around the Caregiver's body, the demi-god gave her a final kiss and quietly cried as she buried her face into Triva's fine blonde hair. After some time, she felt the warmth of life leave the dead Amazon's body and she realized that it was time to go.
Disentangling herself from Triva, she rose from the bed. She arranged the Caregiver's body for the Afterlife, placing Charon's fare over her pale eyelids. Folding Triva's hands into each other, she placed a scroll under them. With a final look around her hut, the tears began anew and she struggled to be quiet with her remorse. Silently, she slipped out of the hut and disappeared into the shadows that lurked at the edges of the village. Slipping through the forest unseen and unheard by the sentries that kept night watch, Wolf made her way across the main road before shifting into her dragon form. The stars were her only witness as she flew down through the valley and out across the sea. The dark waters concealed her massive body; the waves disguised the soft flap of her wings as they stroked the air. Her last thought before saying goodbye was that dragons could cry.
The next morning, Nagla roused Gabrielle from a late sleep by briskly shaking her shoulder. Blinking away the weariness that lingered after a fitful night of sleep, Gabrielle looked around for Xena, who was already donning her weapons. Prompted into action when two Caregivers rushed into the hut to look after the girls, Gabrielle hastily donned her leathers and brushed her fingers through her hair.
She looked at Xena with alarm when she noticed that the stoic warrior's thoughts were hidden behind a wall that even she could not breach. There was no time to ask as Xena guided her along behind Nagla to Wolf's hut. There was a crowd gathered around and accusations were whispered at the speed of Hermes. The crowd hushed as Gabrielle pushed around Nagla and entered Wolf's hut. She stopped short and reached behind her for the support that Xena immediately offered.
Gabrielle studied the body that was laid out on the bed. She looked around for any sign of Wolf, but it seemed as if the demi-god had simply vanished. All of her belongings were in their usual place. The only things missing in the room were her weapons, which she usually kept on the floor beside the bed. Approaching Triva's still body, Gabrielle reached for the scroll that was protected by the Caregiver's hands. Noting the Royal Amazon on the sealing wax, Gabrielle fought down the bile that began to burn up into her chest.
"There's no sign of Wolf, but Beast is still in his stall," Solari informed them as she rushed into the hut.
Ephiny sniffed at the wineskin as she looked into Nagla's eyes for confirmation. Her husky voice, stunned with revelation, declared, "Gabrielle, she's been poisoned."
Feeling the bard wavering on her feet, Xena led Gabrielle to a chair so she could sit.
Gabrielle glanced from Nagla, who was crying silently as she held Triva's lifeless hand, to the wineskin that Ephiny was clutching. The Regent's words finally registered past the bard's shock. "No, Wolf wouldn't do that. She only took life in battle," she uttered in denial. She raised accusing eyes to her Consort. "You knew, didn't you? What happened here last night, Xena?"
Kneeling at the Gabrielle's feet, Xena took the bard's hands in her own; the scroll was forgotten as it clattered to the floor. "Gabrielle, what happened last night was a private matter between Triva and Wolf. This is the way that Triva wanted things to end for her. They didn't want anyone else involved."
"So where is Wolf, then? And why…?" Gabrielle asked as confusion won out over her remembered anger with Xena and the demi-god. "Oh, gods," she moaned as she remembered something she had read in a history scroll not long after accepting her Mask. "She knew about the Justice Rite and she just left. She left her children… she left us."
Reaching down to retrieve the scroll, Xena replied, "I'm sure this will tell us everything, Gabrielle." When the bard refused to take the scroll, Xena broke the seal and read it out loud. Although she could sense that Nagla and Ephiny were still dealing with their shock, she knew that they were listening, but the warrior read aloud as if Gabrielle were her only audience.
I have asked for Artemis' blessing and forgiveness. Unless she was to come
down and write the scroll herself, however, she cannot change Amazon law. I know
the punishment for killing another Amazon outside of the Rite of Challenge. I
could not and will not ever put the Queen through that. Triva asked me to help
her leave this life, and I honored her wish. My love and respect for the Queen
demands that I honor my own. I only ask that my daughters be raised by the
Amazon Nation and to be encouraged to follow their true paths whether they be
that of a warrior or not. Thank you for allowing me in to share with you if for
just a little while. I am heavy with sorrow for leaving you.
With Artemis' blessing,
Xena carefully rolled the scroll and handed it to Gabrielle. "Gabrielle, do you remember what the penalty is for killing another Amazon?"
"Yes," she replied, thinking back to another dark time in this same village. "When you… died… I couldn't sleep without you and spent every night reading through the Amazon scrolls. I never thought that I'd have to do that. And when you came back to me… I guess I just didn't think about it since we left and Ephiny was ruling in my place. I haven't had to think about it until now."
When she heard her name, Ephiny replaced the wineskin on the table and moved to stand next to Gabrielle. Brushing the hair from the Queen's eyes, the Regent also kneeled at her feet. "Gabrielle," she began as she glanced over at Triva and then at Xena, "the law is clear on matters like this. The penalty is death by the Queen's hand."
"I can't do that," Gabrielle replied, shaking her head in defiance. Memories of losing her blood innocence and the ensuing hell began to unravel her failing composure.
Ephiny, not realizing the struggle through which Gabrielle was suffering, continued, "I was just a child when I saw Melosa perform the rite. It is Amazon law that has stood for centuries."
"But this is Wolf we're talking about," Gabrielle said as she stood to begin pacing, trying to make sense of everything. "She's the head of my guard for Gaia's sake."
"This law does not play favorites, Gabrielle," Xena said. "Wolf's priority has always been your safety. She wasn't selfish to think that you would put her above any other Amazon. She knew how much it would destroy you to perform that rite."
"And this doesn't hurt?" Gabrielle asked as she looked up at Xena, her plaintive whisper was made even more forlorn by tears that began to well in her eyes. "What about the twins?"
Ephiny laid a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder and spoke with conviction. "They are the Nation's children, Gabrielle. We will take care of them."
With a sudden burst of determination, Gabrielle's eyes hardened as she addressed her Regent. "I want to change that law," she said as she tried to break free of Xena's hold.
"Gabrielle," Xena attempted but had to repeat, "Gabrielle, listen to me. Changing a law that has stood for as long as this one has is only going to throw the Nation into an uproar. Now is not the time for that. We have to be organized and strong right now."
Remembering that the Greeks and Spartans were at war and devastating the Peloponnese, Gabrielle relented to Xena's common sense. "None of this was right. Triva just letting herself die without even doing what she could to get better… Wolf helping her die, knowing that she would have to leave everyone she loved. It was not right." The bard's body became less rigid as she took a deep breath. "I'm changing that damn law, Xena," she repeated with no less conviction.
Sure that the bard was listening to reason, Xena loosened her hold. "She did do the right thing, Gabrielle."
Rubbing at he headache that was beginning to pound at her temples, Gabrielle turned in a slow circle, still in disbelief that Wolf had simply left. "What is she going to do now? This was her home."
Ephiny shook her head sadly. "Not anymore. She's an enemy to the Amazon Nation." The Regent spared a glance at Triva before addressing Xena and Gabrielle. "Just as Xena would have been if you had died at her hand when she came…." The Regent stopped talking when she realized that compounding the situation with bad memories was not going to help current circumstances.
Sharing a look between them, Xena and Gabrielle relived the nightmare that had been all but forgotten with time and love. "When this war is over, Xena, I'm definitely changing that law."
Determined to finally put the matter to an end, Xena acquiesced, knowing that the argument would be raised at a later date. "Can we call this matter settled for now, Gabrielle? There's nothing more we can do here at the moment."
Standing straight and regal, Gabrielle took a deep breath. "You're wrong, Xena. We need to prepare for a funeral." Hiding her pain behind her mask of command, Gabrielle called to Ephiny, who had drifted over to talk to Nagla. "Ephiny, please put those women out there to some use other than gossip."
"Yes, my Queen."
With a nod to the Queen and her Consort, Nagla left the hut as well, taking the wineskin from the table next to the bed.
"What happens now, Xena?"
The warrior shook her head as she pulled Gabrielle into her arms. "I
don't know, Gabrielle. Let's just take this one day at a time."
To be continued in The Way of the Regent
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