Secrets Past

Part 1

By M. Pappas and J. Covington

This is the third story in a trilogy. "Ares’ Game" and "Escapade" precede it.

WARNING: This story does contain adult themes including a sexually explicit romantic involvement between two adult women. If this offends you or you are not an adult, please do not read any further. If this doesn’t and you are, and you’ve always wanted to see the God of War get his but kicked, then you’re reading the right story.

The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and Argo are owned by MCA/Universal and no copyright infringement is intended.

The road to Legosa was proving to be longer than they expected. Of course, it didn’t help that every hour or so, Gabrielle stopped to look at something, or to get a rock out of her boot and so forth. Xena was actually patient for once. She was pondering her predicament. Sometimes her companion only saw things in black and white. Gabrielle had suggested they needed to return to the Amazons for a joining ceremony. After all, they were in love and finally had admitted it. When Xena questioned the decision and it’s quickness, Gabrielle had expressed her inability to see a problem. Not to mention a promise that she would deny them an eventual physical relationship without the ceremony. To quote the stubborn bard, "I was a virgin before I married and I don’t see why this would be any different."

Watching Gabrielle stop for what seemed like the hundreth time, Xena could no longer bite her tongue. "Are you deliberately trying to slow us down?"

"Who, me? Why would I do that? Is there really that big a rush to get to Legosa, I mean, hey, the festival doesn’t end until day after tomorrow." Gabrielle sat on a large rock and pulled her boot back on her foot. "I’m sure you’ll be there in time to see Mytameus."

"At this rate, I’ll be lucky to see my next sunrise!" Xena was just about to lose the rest of her patience. There was no doubt in her mind that she loved this woman very much, but sometimes the bard could be so irritating. Pulling herself up on Argo’s back she held out a hand to her friend who obviously had her own agenda. "Come on, ride with me. Maybe we’ll actually get somewhere."

"Um, I’d really rather not," Gabrielle stalled. "I promise I won’t slow us down anymore."

Xena glared at her. "Up. Now."

The much smaller woman took Xena’s outstretched arm and allowed her to easily pull her up in front of her on the horse’s back. "Whatever happened to ‘please’? Hey, this is new. I usually get to sit in back. Am I driving?"

"Not exactly. Unless driving me crazy counts," Xena added, urging Argo into a trot.

Gabrielle held on to whatever she could grab. "As I understand it, when you get to this point in a relationship, isn’t that supposed to be a good thing?"

"I didn’t mean in a good way, Gabrielle. When it’s a good thing, you’ll know it." The warrior couldn’t help but smile at her friend’s deliberate attempt at being obtuse. Holding Argo’s reins in one hand, she suddenly realized that this might not have been such a good idea. Caught by the wind, her traveling companion’s sweet smelling hair flowed into Xena. The scent was an unusual combination of soap and herbs the bard had used when she had washed the silken tresses the night before. If she wasn’t careful, this could turn into an erotic experience. Contrary to how it might look by appearance alone, the warrior was not into torture. Especially her own.

Thinking back to a few months ago, when their ambiguous relationship was by no means any less complex, it was a little easier to bear the emotional need she felt towards the young woman sitting in front of her. The independent warrior woman had become more dependent than she had ever planned. Gabrielle had slowly reached through her defenses, charming her with her natural enthusiasm, devotion, kind spirit and especially her humor. Time had passed too quickly in the last two years.

"Sometimes its so hard to tell with you." The slender girl had been hoping to have more time alone with Xena. Now it looked like they might make it to Legosa before dark. Guess that means no cozy fireside camping. No one else knew but inns always made Xena feel a little uncomfortable. She much preferred the outdoors. Feeling the warrior’s breath behind her ear she mused about how funny it was that sleeping on the ground was never this appealing before. Xena was much more likely to say or do something out of character if they were alone under the stars.

Gabrielle replayed all the moments in the last few months that had shown her that she felt differently about Xena than she had ever thought. At first, she denied feeling anything stronger than she always had in their incomparable friendship. The bond they shared was more than that of traveling companions. The depth of their commitment to each others well being and happiness was remarkable. Soul mates. That was the best description. While certainly not alike in any fashion, especially personality, they both shared the most important thing of all. Love for each other. Xena was mostly intractable while Gabrielle was the emotional caretaker of the pair. Watching the scenery fly by she painfully recalled the crystal clear moment when she realized the depth of her love for her friend. The moment Xena died. She had never realized anyone could hurt so much. Not even when her husband was killed at the hands of Callisto had the young bard felt such a loss. No, there was no going back for Gabrielle.

Xena leaned forward to speak to her friend, worried since she had become so quiet. That was a danger sign, since Gabrielle was happiest when she was talking. "Are you all right," she inquired.

Suddenly aware of the warrior at her back, Gabrielle replied, "Um…yes. I’m fine." She tried to force a laugh. "Just trying to keep my mind off the ground." Xena said nothing and the bard returned to her own thoughts.

Leaning back against the warrior’s breastplate she made sure to keep their contact as close as possible. Not just because she enjoyed being close to the affection resisting warrior, but also because she didn’t enjoy the height at which she watched the ground pass by. Hmm. I need a distraction…

Xena placed her free hand on the girl’s stomach and whispered in her ear, "Relax, I won’t let you fall off."

Prophetic words as she had ever heard. I said I need a distraction, not be trapped in an inescapable fantasy on horseback for the next two hours! Maybe that’s why she likes riding so much… "I know that. I trust you," she promised. Then recalling something from that morning she added just under her breath, "Which is more than I can say for you."

"Are you still thinking about what Ademenia said?" Xena quizzed.

Gabrielle turned her head to look at Xena. "You know, that hearing thing is really unnatural." Twisting back around she occupied herself with playing with her new bracelet Xena had given her. She had misunderstood the meaning of the gift. Apparently I really am as na´ve as I had feared.

As time and adventures had passed, the young woman had begun to find a new confidence in herself. She had become much more proficient with her quarter staff, with some occasional tutelage from Xena. Practicing with the staff constantly, she also earned a trimmer physique which pleased her no small amount. Xena had been a little more careful to include her in the planning of their whereabouts and escapades. The warrior had felt a growing respect and admiration from the younger woman even before their relationship had begun to take on a new meaning and depth. A few more minutes passed. Maybe she forgot about it.

"Well, are you?"

Gods! "Look, Xena… I know you have reasons that you don’t trust anyone. It’s just part of you. I accept that. I don’t have to like it though."

"You know I trust you more than anyone I’ve ever known. It’s the best I can do." Xena wished they would get off this subject. "Can we just let it drop?"

"Sure." An idea came to the bard’s mind. Taking her hand and reaching back to Xena’s thigh, she said, "How ‘bout you answer my question from this morning." That ought to make her squirm. She’s trapped now.

Xena tensed. Not now. I haven’t had time to prepare for this. "What question is that?" was all she could come up with.

"Oh, I think you know. Now is as good a time as any to talk about it." Rephrasing the question in her head, she wondered how Xena would respond. "Experienced as you undoubtedly are in that department, I would really like to know, have you ever made love to a woman?"

Sometimes, Xena was taken aback by the inquisitive young woman’s directness. That was her Gabrielle all right. Thinking over her answer, Xena tried to find a way to simply avoid answering all together. Gabrielle seemed awfully interested in questioning her about this particular situation, which could only mean that what ever her answer was, it was going to mean trouble.

"Did I mention the tavern in Legosa?" Xena asked.

"What? Oh… no I don’t think so," Gabrielle answered.

They have great food and the best ale around. It’s an unusual place. They have a bard perform every night. Salmoneus told me he bought an interest in the place. We’ll need to stop there so you can check out the competition."

Gabrielle listened to Xena, wondering what she was thinking. For some reason the warrior had avoided her question…again. Maybe I don’t want to know the answer. "Hmm. That sounds good. I could use some entertainment myself."

They were both quiet the rest of the way, each lost in their own thoughts.

What am I supposed to tell her? Why does she want to know…

What is she avoiding telling me? I wish I knew…

I hate sensitive chats…

I’ll have to plan a sensitive chat later…

I’m thirsty, did someone move that damn town?!

I’m hungry, are we there yet?!

Finally they arrived in Legosa. The sun was just setting when Xena found a stable for Argo. "Let’s see if we can find that tavern."

"Thank the Gods! How can you have such beautiful legs riding a horse all day?" Gabrielle groused. Xena curtsied playfully and the bard laughed. "What’s the name of this tavern anyway?"

Xena scanned the street for the tavern. "That’s kind of a strange thing. You see, years ago, before it was built, the owner found the property he wanted to use. A perfect location, sure. Except for one problem. There was this huge boulder right in the middle of where he needed to build. He tried moving it, breaking it apart, everything, but it wouldn’t budge. So he built around it and uses the thing as a stage for the bards. He named the place the Hard Rock Tavern. Strange, huh?"

Gabrielle cocked her head to one side. "Sounds like something Salmoneus would be involved with all right."

It didn’t take long to find the unusual tavern. A lot of people were milling about in front of it. It looked like the busiest place in town. Salmoneus greeted them when they reached the door.

"Ladies! Welcome to the Hard Rock Tavern," the slick businessman exclaimed. "I didn’t know you were going to be in town or I would have saved you a table," he said turning to grab someone trying to enter the tavern behind his back. "We’re full buddy," he said turning the man away.

Xena gave him that look that meant, Oh, and who is your next of kin?

Salmoneus quickly backtracked. "But hey, anything for the warrior princess and her friend."

The last town thought I was the greatest thing since sliced eel, but here I barely get mentioned, Gabrielle rolled her eyes.

Squeezing inside, they were escorted to a table by a young woman who looked like she would rather be trimming her nails. They sat beside each other, against the wall allowing them a great view of the boulder sitting at the center of the room.

They ordered food and ale. The crowd was noisy but not too rambunctious for which Xena was grateful. Fighting one’s way out of a room got a little tiring over a period of time. Just as the food arrived, a bard climbed to his spot on the big rock.

He began his story and people actually quieted down to listen. Gabrielle reached over to Xena’s hand on the table and gave it a squeeze, then returned to her food. "What was that for," Xena asked.

Gabrielle just gave her a little smile that wrinkled her nose. The bard’s story was good but Xena knew he couldn’t compare to the bard sitting beside her. Especially at this particular moment as her storyteller was pressing a thigh against hers as she reached under the table to lay her hand on the inquisitive warrior’s leg.

"Behave," Xena commanded.

The woman gave her a sassy toss of her head as she replied, "Make me." Xena ignored that remark.

Always enjoying a good bit of verbal sparring, after all, a great bard is only as good as his or her ability with words, Gabrielle had just discovered a new game. Looking sideways at her attractive companion, she decided to be careful how far she pushed the warrior with her suggestive remarks but vowing to get a rise out of the woman whenever possible. After all, if she were lucky, eventually she might just get a glimpse of that passionate soul Xena hid so well.

The bard completed his tale and the crowd began talking again. From a few tables away, Gabrielle spotted a drunken man weaving his way towards them. Oh, wonderful. I’ll bet I can guess which of us is the lucky girl tonight.

Stumbling the last step, the man leaned heavily on their table as he lowered his face to make eye contact with Gabrielle. It was like watching a cobra bob his head from side to side. Beginning to feel a little sea sick she said out of the side of her mouth, "When is it your turn again?"

Xena sat calmly, eating her food and ignoring the man. Let her handle it for now. She gets upset if I jump in too soon. The man opened his mouth and the bard was forced back by the ale soaked words that fell out. "Hey, little girl, how ‘bout we go somewhere and … uh… and, oh yeah… talk," he gurgled.

"Um, gee, that’s awfully sweet of you to pick me out of everyone in this room but my ‘sister’ here would probably tell mother and then I’d never get out of the house again." Gabrielle poked Xena in the ribs for backup.

"Huh? Oh, yeah…right. Mother wouldn’t be too happy with you." Xena gave her a look that said, that’s really weak.

"Aw, we won’t let her know, darlin’. Sister’s, huh. You don’t look like sisters," he belched.

Waving a hand in front of herself to clear the pungent odor, Gabrielle replied seriously, "We had different parents."

The repulsive man nodded as if this now made perfect sense. "So, c’mon sweetheart. Take a walk with .. >hickup< .. Cephanteus. I can’t wait to get my hands on those-"

In the blink of an eye, Xena’s long leg shot out underneath the table in the exact spot the man was standing. By the loud, "Oomph!" and the expression on his face as his eyes rolled back, Gabrielle knew exactly where that booted foot had landed.

Staggering backwards he looked at Xena helplessly. With a feigned look of surprise she said, "Oops. Sorry about that. Leg cramp, you know."

As the man dragged himself away, Gabrielle put her head in her hands. "You know, I’m now leading by a three to one margin over you. Why me? I don’t want to be popular!"

Xena shrugged. "If I were them, I’d choose you too."

Snapping her head around, the bard commented, "Oh, really. How come from you that’s a lot more exciting?"

Leaning her head towards the young woman she added, "You tell me. And I wouldn’t take no for an answer."

Raising her eyebrows, Gabrielle leaned closer, "Aren’t we confident."

"No. I just get what I want."

"Hmm. So what you’re saying is that if it was me that you wanted, I’d have no say in the matter? That sounds more like a promise than a threat."

Xena leaned back. "Oh, you’d have a plenty to say, I’m sure. But before long what you would be saying and doing might not be what you expect."

"Really! I’d like to hear more about this hypothetical situation… " Gabrielle began but Xena smiled and shook her head. "Finish your food, Gabrielle."

Xena thought about the new direction of Gabrielle’s comments. Her actions since last night and this morning seem to have been dominated by her curiosity about where their relationship was heading. Her friend seemed to be in a hurry to arrive there as well. It came as a surprise to the warrior when after giving her the bracelet that morning, Gabrielle assumed that Xena intended for them to return to the Amazons for the joining ritual. Of course, when her Gabrielle made up her mind about something… It was proving to be irresistible for the usually reluctant Xena to rise to the bait the bard threw her direction.

As was reported the food was excellent and the ale even better. Spotting Salmoneus approaching, Xena said, "Oh great. Here comes the sales pitch."

Hands clasped together in front of him, Salmoneus rushed over. "Xena! How was everything? You know, we have the best cook in three provinces. Cost us a bundle too. So, have you given any more thought into contributing anything to the establishment for prosperity?"

"I can’t think of a thing that would be worthy, Salmoneus."

"No? There must be lots of things that would represent the image of Xena, Warrior Princess. Hmm, I don’t know maybe an old sword….a leather outfit….or…um… say, a Chakram?

"No, Salmoneus. You’re not getting my Chakram."

"But it’s so unique to you. It’d be perfect for the display, with full credit given to you for the donation, of course."

"How about my breast dagger?" Salmoneus glanced at her generous bosom and nodded excitedly. "With your eyes skewered on it," she added quickly.

Gabrielle choked on a spoon full of stew. "Thank you! Thank you very much for that image right now," she groused.

"Hey, I understand the word no," Salmoneus admitted. "So think about it, okay?" Turning, he rushed off to find someone else to put the squeeze on.

"Sorry," Xena offered her friend.

Gabrielle dropped her spoon in her bowl. "That’s okay, after that I think I’m through now anyway." She pushed the bowl away and leaned back. "He’s right about the cook. Is this skirt getting a little tight?"

"You want me to check for you?" Xena teased.

Remembering her own words at the tavern in Thymic and how they embarrassed Xena, she was quick to answer. "No! I mean, not now, okay." She wanted to push her but not at that moment. "Maybe later, though," she promised. "What’s gotten into you, anyway? It’s kinda unlike you to be this playful with people around."

Xena looked down at her plate and considered this question. "Just in a good mood I suppose." Finishing their meal, Xena asked, "How about we make camp outside town tonight? I doubt we’ll find a room with all the people here for the festival. We can probably leave Argo at the stable. There’s a place not far from here, I think."

"Sure. Whatever," Gabrielle agreed, glad to have a full stomach once again.

"Food makes you very agreeable," Xena noted. "Or is it fear of Salmoneus approaching you to ask you to donate your staff?"

Arching her own eyebrow for once, the bard offered, "Xena, I don’t think he wants the weapon of a sidekick. We just don’t measure up."

"Oh, I wouldn’t say that," Xena said. Leaning over to whisper into Gabrielle’s ear she added, "I like your measurements just fine."

Oh, yes! Swatting her playfully, "Save it princess. I’ve heard it all before. Of course, I haven’t heard it from anyone quite as seductive as you, but…."

Xena suddenly had a pained look upon her face. Could that be what she thinks is happening?

"Oh, no you don’t. I know what you’re thinking and it just isn’t true," Gabrielle linked her arm with the warrior’s. "I can make my own decisions. You haven’t seduced me into anything… of course, a girl has hopes…." She hugged her friend.

"Let’s go," was Xena’s answer.

They retrieved what supplies they would need and walked to the area Xena had mentioned. Hidden by trees, but not too far from town, a stream wove it’s way downhill and they found a grassy area just beyond the water to camp. Jumping onto a large rock, Gabrielle began act like the bard from the tavern earlier, keeping her hands firmly to her sides. "You know, he wasn’t bad. He needed more emotion, though. Maybe he was nervous. I’ll bet his girlfriend was in the audience."

"Hmm. Do I make you nervous?" Xena walked over and lifted her arms for Gabrielle. She knew her friend really didn’t need her help to get back down, but she enjoyed the feeling of being needed. Gabrielle slid down into Xena’s arms until she touched the ground.

"Uh… sometimes," the bard replied. Looking up into dangerously blue eyes, she considered what her response would have been to Xena’s answer to her question as they traveled earlier. Had she ever made love to a woman? On one hand, if Xena had said yes, she might have felt a little relieved. The bard was certain Xena tried very hard to protect her from the realities of things she considered to be unsuitable for the Potedeian girl. What she didn’t realize was that Gabrielle was no longer just the young girl from a small farming village. She had grown into a beautiful, strong willed woman who was not afraid of life’s realities. Gabrielle faced those realities on a daily basis with Xena. Certain that the warrior operated on her own double standard, the bard tried carefully to get her to see her in a different light occasionally.

Thinking about what her own reaction would be if Xena admitted to having had a physical relationship with a woman, the perceptive young woman knew that she would be helpless in thinking about when and with whom this had taken place. Her own intense curiosity would get the better of her and she would badger the reticent woman warrior for details which most likely, she was unwilling to share. Perhaps she should forget about really wanting to know the answer.

"What are you thinking?" Xena asked, raising that eyebrow again.

Rarely did the expressive bard have a problem showing affection for those she cared about. Gabrielle reached up and traced the line of Xena’s brow. "Is this just a habit or do you intentionally do it to get my attention?"

"If that’s all it takes to get your ‘attention’ I should be careful not to fall out of the habit," Xena purred. For some reason, after obvious attempts by her friend to capture her undivided ‘attention’, Xena wondered what Gabrielle’s reaction would be if that attention suddenly took control. A dangerous prospect, but one that seemed irresistible none the less. Recalling Gabrielle’s excited attitude that morning about their feelings for each other, Xena couldn’t help but smile. Such enthusiasm from one so young. Each woman enjoyed the playfulness they had become somewhat comfortable with the past few months. Last night, however, they had let that deliberate teasing of their emotions play into a kiss that defined much larger boundaries to those emotions. Those emotions which were usually held just below the surface had poured into that kiss.

Gabrielle was beginning to feel a little breathless. This was how she envisioned their relationship. Teasing at times, but always with an undercurrent of passion. She saw that passion mirrored in those gorgeous eyes staring down at her. This woman was magnificent. Dark flowing hair framing a face as moving as that of Helen of Troy. Tall and graceful, she wielded a power that could fell any man with a look or touch. And what she could do to a woman… Gabrielle could only imagine. How long they stood there, she wasn’t sure. Just when the bard thought Xena’s head was going to lower to hers, the warrior broke eye contact and moved away.

What is it with her? Do I have to scream, here I am!

Sitting down on a nearby rock, Xena pulled her sword out of it’s sheath and leaned it against her perch. Taking her pack, she retrieved her sharpening stone. Picking up her sword again, she began to work on the blade, taking out the nicks from the last confrontation that she had almost forgotten about.

Okay, fine. I can pretend I don’t care, too. "Tell me again why it’s so important that you see Mytameus before the festival is over," Gabrielle requested.

"Because after the festival, he’ll go back home to Ralia. This is the only time he will be so close to our path. I promised we would meet him in Legosa before the festival is over," Xena reminded Gabrielle. "I have to deliver his father’s sword to him. It’s the only thing he has left of his father’s."

Must be a guy thing. Gabrielle rolled their blankets out and noted, "Sometimes you do the sweetest things."

Xena stopped her blade sharpening. "Come here," she said quietly. Gabrielle stood up and walked over to the sitting woman keeping her curious eyes on those blue orbs following her progress. "What is it?" she asked. Reaching out to catch the surprised woman by the arm the warrior woman tugged her into straddling her upper thigh. "I can think of something much sweeter to do right now." Before the bard could respond she pulled her into a deep kiss. Fire suddenly exploded behind Gabrielle’s eyes. Surprise mingled with intense satisfaction. Bringing long arms around the suddenly pliant body of her companion, Xena held the lithe body of her sweet bard against her breastplate. There was no tentative feeling like the last time. Xena lightly traced the lips of her love with her tongue, then as those lips opened she took her exploration further. Bringing her hands to Xena’s broad shoulders, Gabrielle held on for life. Now this was the passion she knew they would share equally. Gabrielle wasn’t sure she would survive those lips torturing her, but she wasn’t going to go down without a fight. As Xena sought to break the contact, in order to catch her breath, Gabrielle made a disappointed sound and allowed only a few seconds before seeking that white hot passion again. Why in Zeus’ name haven’t we been doing this before, they both thought. For several minutes they kissed and caressed each other, not wanting to stop. The world had faded away to nothing as they concentrated on each other. There won’t be any interruptions this time, Gabrielle thought.

The feel of the woman’s firm thigh beneath her was intoxicating. Winding her fingers through warrior’s dark mass of hair, Gabrielle thought she couldn’t live without this woman’s touch. Suddenly another sensation thrust itself into her mind as Xena’s hand firmly covered her breast. Hearing a throaty sound, Gabrielle suddenly realized it was her own voice begging for more. No interruptions… Breaking away suddenly, breathing hard and fast, she put her hands against Xena’s chest. "Wait a minute!"

Xena froze. "What is it?" she barely managed.

"Stop. I have to stop," Gabrielle was having a difficult time forming words.

Xena growled, "Why?" She started to pull her back but Gabrielle resisted. She knew she could overcome that resistance but something told her Gabrielle meant it and she would rather die than hurt her friend. "Gabrielle?" she panted. "Did I do something you didn’t want…" her voice trailed off as the bard shook her head.

"You did everything I could want," Gabrielle squeezed her eyes shut.

Xena was confused. "Then what happened?"

Feeling as if a storm had just taken place in her heart, Gabrielle did the one thing that surprised them both. She began to cry. "Are you hurt?" Xena was shocked. "Tell me what’s wrong."

Striving to get her emotions under control, the bard took a deep breath. Then wobbling a bit as she tried to stand, she said, "I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that. I guess I didn’t realize how hard it would be to stop myself."

"I don’t understand," Xena breathed the words.

Gabrielle wiped the tears off her face with the back of her hand. "I guess not."

"Why don’t you explain it to me. I would never intentionally hurt you, Gabrielle."

New tears formed and Gabrielle turned away to hide her face. I must look like a hydra by now, she thought. I can’t believe I’m crying.

"Now what?" Xena almost yelled.

"Hey, you don’t have to take that tone. I’m trying here, okay."

Xena was instantly contrite, "I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. I’ve upset you. I’ll leave for a while and let you-"

Gabrielle spun around and caught her arm. "Don’t you dare leave me now!"

Choosing not to say anything, Xena decided that she should allow Gabrielle a chance to gather her thoughts and control.

A few minutes later a composed Gabrielle began to explain. "I am so sorry for doing that, Xena. I just never expected it to be so hard to control. I mean I was ready to… well, I was ready to make love to you. Completely."

A confused looked passed over Xena’s face. And your point is…? Not daring to voice her thoughts at this point she kept quiet. She wouldn’t make that mistake again.

"I know you’re going to think this is silly but I think we need to talk again about what kind of commitment we want to make to each other. It’s more than apparent that I’m ready to…um, give physical expression to my desire to be with you. Do you feel the same way?"

"If you mean do I want to make love to you, I think that’s pretty clear. I was ready to just a few minutes ago. I still am. If you must know, I’m about to die from the wanting of it." Xena was not about to let this fact go unnoticed. "I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I didn’t mean to push you. I thought you were feeling the same as I was."

Gabrielle held her hands out in a helpless gesture. "But I was! You didn’t force this, Xena. I wanted it too."

"Then I guess I still don’t understand. Why did you stop?"

Taking a deep breath, the young woman struggled to make her understand. "It’s not that I don’t want you, Xena. Believe me, I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything more in my entire life. It’s just that… I think what I need… oh, how do I say this?"


"I can’t seem to get past the commitment thing."

"What commitment are you talking about? What do you call the two years we’ve spent together?" Unable to stand on shaky legs any longer, she dropped back down to the rock seat. "I think the question here is not what commitment I’m willing to make, but what it is you’re ready for." Trying to explain their relationship was at best difficult. Okay, slow down. "Gabrielle, think about it. This is very new for us. Maybe you need to give yourself more time to see how you feel about …this. Don’t rush into something you’re not prepared for. Especially if you’re talking about what I think you are."

Gabrielle walked over and knelt before her passionate warrior. Reaching out to touch her knee, Xena stopped her. "Don’t. Please… just don’t right now."

Gabrielle always felt the need to touch Xena, but she understood. The young woman sat back on her ankles. "Xena, I don’t want more time to think about it. There’s never going to be enough time. You’ve said so yourself. I don’t want to waste any of it. I plan to share my life with you for as long as we have each other."

"Have you really considered the consequences? There will be many who won’t be able to accept our relationship. Possibly even your own family. Hate and fear are so strong, you’ve seen that. Ares is still watching, biding his time. You’d be giving up a lot more than you realize… a permanent home, children…"

Gabrielle thought about this. "I do love children. But Xena, a child could never replace you in my heart. Let’s face it, I already belong to you. My heart, my body, it’s yours anyway."

"You want the ritual, don’t you," Xena stated simply. Gabrielle nodded her head, feeling it safe now to lean forward to rest her crossed arms on the long leg in front of her.

Looking up at the woman she knew was her destiny, she acknowledged her desire. "Yes. It’s very important to me. I guess I didn’t really realize how much, until now. Somewhere inside me is that little girl from Poteidaia. The one I try to hide from you so that you don’t forget that I’ve become the woman now that I wasn’t when I followed you two years ago."

Gabrielle placed her cheek on the knee under her and admitted Xena had a point about people not understanding their feelings. "I don’t know how Lila would feel. I guess I’m not really interested in finding out right now. I do believe she would want me to be happy, regardless of who I chose to be happy with. Even so, I want my other family, my Amazon sisters, to give me to you. And to show everyone who’s important to us how we feel." Sighing, Gabrielle added, "but if that isn’t what you want, Xena… I’ll still give myself to you. I love you and I won’t deny you that again. If it’s within my power, I’ll never leave you."

Xena stood and helped Gabrielle to her feet. "I suggest we get some rest." Gabrielle’s heart fell. "It looks like we’ll have an early day tomorrow. The journey to the Amazons is long. That is, if you still want to be joined in the eyes of the Amazon Nation."

Looking like she was going to cry again Gabrielle reached out to her love. "Oh Xena. I know you think I’m old fashioned…"

"Maybe, but you are who you are and I lo… well, I wouldn’t want you any other way." Xena picked up her blanket and spread it out on the other side of the fire. Laying down, she closed her eyes. "Go to sleep, Gabrielle," she whispered.

The journey to the Amazon territory took four days. It should have taken five. Now that they had made a decision as to their immediate future, the two women did not want to waste a minute in making that journey.

Still a bit worried about Xena having to break her promise she asked, "Do you think Mytameus will understand us not showing up?" Gabrielle began pulling part of her blonde hair behind her face, the red highlights picked up by the sun. Then she tied it back with a thin leather strap. In the mid-day’s heat, the air was full of sounds. Insects buzzing, birds flying overhead. Gabrielle recalled her last journey ‘home’ to the Amazons. She had been passing through, taking Xena’s body home to Amphipolis. Ephiny had appeared with a guard of Amazons and convinced her to let them give Xena a proper Amazon funeral. And to remain to rule as Queen. Thank the Gods for Autolycus, or Xena would have never gotten her body back!

"I hope so," was all Xena would say.

At the same time they both realized that the surrounding forest was quiet. Stopping suddenly, Gabrielle leaned her staff against herself and raised her arms above her head, clasping her hands together in the Amazon greeting. Xena had already done the same. A few seconds later, seven women lowered themselves gracefully on ropes from the limbs of the trees overhead, surrounding the two travelers.

They each wore elaborate masks but Gabrielle did not recognize the one mask that would stand out amongst the others. The one she herself had worn briefly. Of course, the Queen of the Amazons would not have greeted them on this unexpected visit.

One woman approached them, pulling her mask back on her head. "Queen Gabrielle," she greeted, then turning to the warrior at the bard’s side, "and Xena. Welcome home."

How nice that sounds. Gabrielle smiled and replied, "Thank you. We wish to speak to Ephiny."

"Of course. Word has already been sent ahead that the Queen and the Warrior Princess have arrived. We are honored at your return."

Two Amazons from the group, including Aleia, the woman who had greeted them, escorted them to the village. Before they arrived, the drums began to beat a rhythm. The true Queen had arrived! There was much activity as the women walked into the center of the village. The drums stopped. Ephiny came out of her hut, and Gabrielle ran to hug her. "Ephiny! It’s so good to see you." The women embraced a moment. Then pulling back, Ephiny looked concerned. "Is everything all right, Gabrielle? I was surprised to hear of your return so soon. Not that it isn’t welcome. Believe me, it is more than a pleasure to see you. And Xena, of course," she smiled at the ever present warrior companion.

"Ephiny," Xena nodded. The temporary Amazon Queen often wondered how Gabrielle and the warrior had ended up together. The battle hardened warrior and the gentle bard were so different from each other. Their close friendship was envied by many, however. Xena was well respected by the Amazon nation and was the only woman she knew of who without actual rite by Amazon law was treated as a true Amazon. Many an amazon warrior had sought to catch her eye, but Xena had shown no interest, possibly preferring the company of men.

"You must be tired after your journey." Ephiny motioned to a woman nearby. "The Queen’s quarters will be readied for Gabrielle." Turning back to her sister Amazon, Ephiny said, "Tell me, Gabrielle. What brings you to us?"

Gabrielle looked at a blank faced Xena and said, "Uh, we need to talk about that, Ephiny. But first, tell me what has been happening here." Taking Ephiny’s arm she started walking through the village. Xena, not in the mood to trail after the two like a puppy, decided it was time to take a break from the attention. "I’m going to check on Argo," she called after them, then turned to make her escape.

Gabrielle and Ephiny laughed together. "She’s not much for chit chat, is she?" Ephiny noted.

"Uh, no. She is a woman of few words all right." But she sure has the action thing down. Gabrielle was a little nervous. This had seemed so simple in her mind before. We will just go tell Ephiny we want to take the rite of joining and that would be it. Taking note of her surroundings she tried to forget the reason they were there for the moment. "I love what you’ve done with the village."

Ephiny smiled. How like her friend to say something like that. "After Valasca destroyed much of it, we had to rebuild. Things have finally settled down again. Rifts were repaired both in the village and in our people’s nation."

"I’m so glad it worked out, Ephiny. You make a perfect Queen," Gabrielle told her proudly.

"Ah, but remember, that is only while you are not here. By Amazon law, you are the rightful Queen." Ephiny stopped when they had returned to where they had started. Gabrielle shuffled a bit. "You seem nervous. Is there anything wrong?" Ephiny asked.

"Oh, no. Nothing like that. I’m very glad to be here." Gabrielle promised.

"Perhaps after a little rest, we can talk more," Ephiny allowed her evasion. "Your quarters are ready. Anything you need will brought to you of course."

Gabrielle stood at the opening to the Queen’s hut and considered this. "Actually, what I think I need right now is Xena."

Ephiny’s eyebrows rose. "Excuse me?"

"I mean, I need to see her," Gabrielle quickly corrected. "Do you think you could get her back here?"

Grimacing slightly, Ephiny promised, "We will try. If she resists the invitation do you want us to try and force her to return?"

Gabrielle finally understood. "Oh no! I didn’t mean that. I don’t want anyone to get hurt." Then considering the situation, she smiled wickedly. "Although, it would be interesting to see her face when she is commanded to return to me."

"I will send someone immediately, of course," Ephiny motioned to a guard.

Gabrielle stopped her. "Umm, maybe we shouldn’t make that a command, okay? Just tell her I really need to talk to her."

"As you wish, Gabrielle."

Entering her hut, Gabrielle suddenly felt the exhaustion of their journey. Maybe a little nap is what I need.

Ephiny found the warrior princess at the stables. "Xena," she called out as she approached the solitary figure. Even though Xena was not known to be of Amazon blood, she was the epitome of an Amazon warrior. She also personified the perfect woman as far as Amazons were concerned. She was physically strong and imposing, with an unbelievable strength of spirit. With a beautiful face and body, she was envied by many. The final common factor she shared with the Amazons was a very dry sense of humor.

"Yes?" Xena finished Argo’s grooming and turned to face the part-time Amazon Queen.

The amazon woman was shorter and a little more stout than Xena, with light color hair that fell in wild ringlets down her back. "Gabrielle is asking for you."

"Oh? Are you sure she didn’t send you to command my presence?" Xena’s smile was lopsided.

Ephiny looked down to hide the truth in her eyes. "Of course not. She told me to tell you she wanted to talk to you."

Xena put the brush away and turned to face the woman who meant so much to Gabrielle. "I’m sorry, Ephiny. It’s just that sometimes when Gabrielle gets a sense of power, she can’t resist exploiting it."

Shifting her weight, Ephiny replied, "Well, she did think about it briefly."

Xena laughed. "I’m sure."

"Xena, I need to ask you something. Now, I don’t mean to pry, but is there some problem you two are having? Gabrielle is acting so strange and she won’t tell me what is wrong."

For some reason, Xena found this extremely funny. "Is that right? Mmm, I’m not surprised," she turned to hide a smile. "Ever since her decision, she’s been acting different."

Ephiny was becoming more concerned. She hated to see her friend unhappy. "What decision?"

"Gabrielle has decided that we can no longer go on like we have. She asked to return to her Amazon sisters." Well, sort of.

"Oh no!" Ephiny actually hugged the warrior, upset at the circumstances. "I’m so sorry, Xena. There has to be something we can do to help. Surely there was just an argument or something that caused this. You are both always welcome here but I hate to see your friendship end. Xena, Gabrielle loves you very much, I am sure of it."

Finding it very difficult to keep a straight face, the warrior consoled the Amazon. "Thank you, Ephiny. But you know how stubborn she can be. I will stand by her decision. All I ask is that you take good care of her." I know I will.

"She is my friend and our Queen. She will be defended and cherished always." Ephiny finally couldn’t bear to go on and left the warrior standing with the strangest look on her face.

Heading back to the Queen’s hut, Xena considered Ephiny’s words. She knew that the Amazons would always take care of Gabrielle if anything happened to herself. They had welcomed her when she had died before. Of course, Valaska was the acting Queen then and had tried to get Gabrielle to relinquish her crown….

Gabrielle was sound asleep when she entered the hut which was guarded by two Amazons. "Huh, that figures." Walking around the table to where the pillow covered bedding lay, she looked down at the incredibly beautiful woman she was about to give her life to. "Do you have any idea how much power you really have?" she whispered. Kneeling next to the pallet she leaned over the sleeping woman, pausing to breathe in the sweet scent of her. Quietly she whispered in Gabrielle’s ear, "Can I keep you?"

Gabrielle stirred. "Hmmm? Wha’s ‘sat? Oh….Xena." Stretching she reached out to her warrior woman. Glad to accommodate her, Xena pulled herself down to cover the inviting body, careful to keep her full weight from pushing her deeper into the pillows. "Hi, you," Gabrielle greeted her. Reality felt much better than the dream.

"Hi, you too," Xena replied.

"I was just dreaming about you," Gabrielle said on a sigh. "Hey, do you think you could take that armor off? Kinda spoils the mood, if you get my drift. Not to mention the marks it leaves."

Xena kissed her briefly. "I can’t say I’m opposed to leaving a mark on you, at least figuratively. But you’re right. It does get in the way of important things," she eyed Gabrielle’s breasts.

"Here, let me help," the sleepy woman offered. Carefully she unfastened the armor and Xena lifted the breastplate and epaulets off, setting them aside. Removing her bracers as well, she then returned to cover the smiling girl beneath her. Xena inquired, "Is that better?"

Gabrielle stroked her love’s face tenderly. "I could tell you but I think I would rather show you." With a gentle push from the smaller woman, Xena allowed herself to be rolled onto her back as Gabrielle switched their positions. Now the younger woman lay across the length of the leather clad warrior. Gabrielle’s sienna and gold hair hung down, framing both their faces as she leaned over Xena. "Do you know how much I love you?" she asked. Without waiting for a response she bent to place her lips at the point where shoulder met neck caressing Xena’s skin with her mouth. Xena suddenly felt weak as the sensation of what that exploring mouth was doing to her nerve endings gave her what she longed for. A liquid heat was building somewhere else as she stroked her lover’s back. How could such a simple thing affect her so much? Gabrielle’s husky voice interrupted her thoughts. "Don’t think I don’t know what you try to get away with, Xena. You’re always trying so hard to protect me from every danger, including yourself, that you can’t see that I don’t always want protecting. Especially from you." Lifting herself higher over the relaxed warrior she added, "I hope I’m not as innocent as you seem to think I am. "

Finally, the roaming lips reached her face and slowly covered every inch of it.

Her expressive eyebrow received special attention before the lovely mouth claimed hers in a slow dance of passion. The taste of her drove Xena over the edge. "Gabrielle," she breathed as those lips lifted ever so briefly. "Yes, my love?" was her answer. "I think I’ll die without you," Xena stated honestly.

Gabrielle’s smile was as bright as the sun, "Well, we wouldn’t want that." Taking Xena’s hand in hers, she brought it to her breast, covering it with her own. "Trust me, warrior mine. You’ll never be without me," she promised. Xena’s heart burst. This was what her heart longed for. Pulling the young woman back down to her she put both arms around her and just held her tightly. She only hoped that promise could be kept. A voice outside the heavily draped door captured their attention.

"You’ve got to be kidding!" Gabrielle rasped. Xena shuddered and her head fell back as she waited for Gabrielle to lift herself into a sitting position. "What is it?" the Amazon Queen practically yelled at the intruder.

"Gabrielle?" came Ephiny’s voice. "I must speak with you." It’s worse than I thought. I hope I’m not too late. They must be fighting even now.

"Now? Can’t it wait, Ephiny," Gabrielle looked back at Xena’s flushed face.

"No, Gabrielle. Please, may I enter?" Ephiny begged.

Xena rolled her eyes but stood up and walked away from the bed. Gabrielle’s eyes locked with hers and she mouthed, I’m sorry. "Come in."

Ephiny pulled back the covering and entered. "I’m sorry to disturb you, Gabrielle but I must speak to you both." She looked at Gabrielle then at Xena, noting the high color in her cheeks. Something was wrong. "Please listen to me, as your friend. Both of you."

Xena caught Gabrielle’s confused look and with a guilty grin she shrugged her shoulders.

"Whatever problem you’re having, it’s not worth splitting up over it. You mean too much to each other. How can we help to mend this rift?"

Gabrielle pinned Xena with her gaze. "What are you talking about, Ephiny?"

"Xena told me about your decision not to continue on together the way you were. And that you wanted to return here." Looking at Xena she finally noticed the warrior was not wearing her armor. In fact, she looked like she had just been…

"Um, did I interrupt something?" she faltered.

"You bet you did. But that’s not the important thing right now. Xena, how could you?" she asked trying to sound stern, watching the woman who took her breath away. Even now as she looked at her, she could only think how magnificent she was.

Xena walked over to Gabrielle and bent down, kissing the lips of the upturned face. She lingered a moment knowing the Amazon woman was spellbound at the display. "Hey, I didn’t lie." Gabrielle lifted her hand to Xena’s face stroking her cheek. Those eyes took her back to a few moments ago.

"Huh ummm."

"Oh, Ephiny. Sorry," Gabrielle tried to sound contrite.

"Would you like me to leave so you can, uh… continue," Ephiny smiled.

Gabrielle walked over and took her Amazon sister’s arm. Pulling her over to sit down on the edge of the bed, she said, "Actually, we need to talk."

Xena took a seat in the corner of the hut. The talking thing was not her department. "Ephiny, I guess it’s pretty obvious now that Xena and I have come to realize how much we love each other." Ephiny nodded. "So, we would like to officially petition the Amazon Council to receive the rite of joining in the eyes of the Amazon Nation."

The face of her friend exploded in a smile. "Gabrielle, that’s wonderful. Of course, we will send word right away to gather the Council." Ephiny hugged her friend. "This is so incredible. The entire Nation will celebrate this joining. I am so happy for you, Gabrielle."

"Thank you, Ephiny," the young Queen was pleased to have finally gotten the secret out.

Moving over to where Xena sat Ephiny took Xena’s hands and pulled her up for a hug as well. What is it with all this mushy stuff, Xena thought. "You are one brave woman," Ephiny whispered to her. Xena whispered back so Gabrielle wouldn’t hear, "Don’t tell her about my part yet. She doesn’t know the ritual."

Ephiny pulled back and saw the warning in Xena’s eyes. "I would have doubts if it were anyone else," she finished quietly. Then nodding her agreement, she turned back to her Queen. "I must send word at once to the other tribes. It will take a little time to gather the Council as well."

"We appreciate everything you’ve done for us," Gabrielle spoke. "I’m sorry for the short notice, but you know how it is when you’re in love."

"Well then, I’ll leave you to finish what I interrupted," Ephiny smiled as she turned and left the hut.

What a good idea, the Amazon Queen thought. Gabrielle lay back down on the bed, trying to look enticing. Of course she looked a bit comical with the overacting. "What do you think, shall we continue?"

Xena shook her head. "What happened to your Poteidaian principles? I thought you had to have the ceremony first," Xena reminded the amorous young woman.

"What, now you have a perfect memory as well as hearing?" Gabrielle complained.

"I have many-" Xena tried to remind her but Gabrielle took up her line.

"Skills. Yes, I know. Why don’t you bring those skills right back over here. Can’t I have a change of mind?" Gabrielle patted the spot beside her.

"Change of mind or heart? Gabrielle, your the one who said waiting was important to you. You’ve set the rules and expect me to play by them. We’ve let it go almost too far already," Xena walked over to Gabrielle, reached for her hand and not too gently hauled her up against her. Whoa, girl. This is getting a little too exciting, Gabrielle thought. "I’m not going to let you blame me for letting our desires over rule your resolve. I’m not the only one enjoying these moments. I also can’t help wanting to show you what your stubborn rules are forcing us to miss." Maneuvering the smaller woman so that her back faced the wall, Xena took her hands and placed them under Gabrielle’s firm bottom lifting her higher against her as she pressed her back into the wall. I was wrong, this is way better than I could believe, the bard told herself. "Xena, what….um… what… are…oh!…you… doing?" she panted. With Gabrielle’s thighs spread to accommodate the warrior’s body, Xena took possession of the breathless woman’s mouth.

Using the wall to pin the bard, she used both hands to stroke the body of her passionate companion. Xena teased the sensitive flesh of one breast and was rewarded with a shudder that she felt beneath her lips. Gabrielle tightened her legs around the muscled warrior, trying desperately to blend into her. A hand at the juncture of those legs rubbed deliciously against a particularly sensitive spot. Firmly pressing the young woman’s hips against the wall Xena dropped her own weight slightly then rubbed her taut abdomen against the heat building at the bard’s sensitive center. Feeling light headed, the smaller woman broke their lips apart and buried her head in the shoulder of her exquisite torturer. The bard had imagined that Xena would be a most passionate lover, but never realized she would be able to drive her to absolute madness. Seeking and demanding one last long, slow kiss, the warrior stepped back, letting Gabrielle slide down the wall until she could stand. At least she tried to stand but her legs were unsure and she sought the support of the wall at her back. I think that just answered my earlier question. And how! I’d say her experience with women can’t be lacking.

"There won’t be any interruptions next time. When I touch you again, we’ll be more than lovers." With those words, Xena turned, picking up her armor and with a firm resolve, strode out the door.

That night around the meeting fire in the center of the village, Ephiny announced to the tribe that their Queen and the warrior princess were to seek the ritual of joining. The village erupted in joyous cheers for the favored couple and many congratulated them privately after the evening meal was finished. Messengers had already been sent to gather the council to begin the approval proceedings just after they had told Ephiny of their request. An official celebration could not be planned until the approval of the council was given and so Ephiny planned a private celebration for her friends the following evening.

As the moon rose high in the sky, the Amazons prayed to Artemis to bless their Queen and her love. Gabrielle was tired but enjoyed all the attention she was getting. Xena, however merely endured it. Another tall woman stopped to speak with them, giving them her good wishes. Turning to Xena, the woman added, "I am confident you will succeed. But I do not envy you your task." Xena managed to steer her aside to speak privately before she said any thing more in front of Gabrielle. It was not the first such comment that night. When she returned to sit by the bard, the young woman looked at her curiously. "What was that about?"

"Hmm? Oh, she must know you well enough to know what a hard life I’m gonna have. She was just being sympathetic." Taking a deep drink of wine Xena hoped her answer would suffice.

"Really? Well if one more beautiful Amazon takes you by the arm to talk privately with you I may have to get involved," Gabrielle promised.

"Oh? A little jealous, are we?" Xena laughed. "As if you have anything to worry about."

Gabrielle was a little jealous. And miffed that Xena was keeping her promise by avoiding touching her as much as possible. "I did happen to overhear at least one offer of entertainment before the ritual. I won’t forget her face either."

"I don’t think I noticed her face," Xena said with a straight face.

Gabrielle swatted her. "Arrgg. You’d better watch it, girl. I could probably have you staked out over an ant hill or something. I am the Queen, you know," she said in her haughtiest voice.

"Yeah. No one will let me forget it."

For a moment, Gabrielle wondered if it did bother Xena. Somehow that just didn’t fit. Xena usually didn’t care what anyone else thought anyway. No, that must not be the problem. Something was going on with her though, she just couldn’t put her finger on it. Maybe it really was just frustration. She could sympathize with that. Gabrielle didn’t think she was going to be able to sleep after what happened that afternoon in her hut. The image of Xena lifting her against the wall floated through her mind and she almost choked on a piece of chicken.

"You okay?" Xena asked.

Gabrielle wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of knowing what she had been thinking. "Fine. So, where will you be staying tonight?"

"I’m not sure. Maybe an anthill," Xena shot back.

Laughing, the bard commented, "Maybe. If Miss ‘I didn’t notice her face’ comes back around."

Xena sat backed and laughed heartily. Gabrielle was a little surprised. It was a sound she hadn’t heard often enough in their time together. Maybe she could do something about that from now on. She really enjoyed the light hearted repartee. Xena had a sharp wit that she admired. For a warrior, she was very well educated. She claimed it was from her travels and a desire to learn all she could.

"Seriously, where can I find you if I need you?" the happy young woman asked.

Taking her hand and placing it over Gabrielle’s heart Xena said in a low tone, "Right here."

Ephiny returned to sit with them just then, overhearing their last words. "You know, you two put the rest of us to shame." She sat down with a twinkle in her eye. "I should have know right away why you were here when you arrived."

Xena turned to greet another well wisher as Gabrielle answered Ephiny. "Does it show that much?"

"Not always. Xena is most careful with her emotions but even she gives away her heart when she looks at you."

The young bard smiled and looked sideways at Xena, who was talking to someone else. "I’ve been working very hard on that, Ephiny. Let me tell you, the conquering of that warrior’s heart has not been easy!"

Gabrielle’s friend smiled warmly. "I imagine not." Remembering her interruption from earlier she added, "I do imagine she’s a magnificent lover though."

"Actually, Ephiny, we’ve never… uh, completely …" she shrugged.

Ephiny was surprised. "You mean you’ve never made love?"

"Hey! Not so loud, please. That’s private information, if you know what I mean." Gabrielle looked back at Xena, hoping she hadn’t heard that but knowing how very good that skill was. Xena did not act like she was paying attention and so she turned back to Ephiny.

"I’m sorry, Gabrielle. I just assumed…"

Gabrielle nodded her understanding. "I can see where you would get that idea what with our request and what happened this afternoon. I guess you could say that it’s my fault we haven’t… uh… you know. I wanted the ceremony first."

Ephiny smiled. "I see. And she, " Ephiny nodded towards Xena, "respected those wishes. That says a lot for the warrior. Well, that should be taken care of soon."

"Hey, why is everyone being so sympathetic to old blue eyes anyway? Am I that bad?" Gabrielle tilted her head as she looked at Ephiny, waiting for her answer.

When Ephiny didn’t laugh, Gabrielle wondered if there was something going on she didn’t know about. "Uh, that was a joke."

"I know," Ephiny said, unsmiling. "I think they are just concerned. The approval process is not always easy."

Xena turned her head, staring pointedly at the other Amazon Queen. Don’t say anymore her eyes warned.

"What do you mean?" Gabrielle asked. "Doesn’t it just consist of some fasting and isolation for a day or so?"

"That is the normal process, yes. Don’t worry, Gabrielle, I’m sure everything will be just fine. There is no reason why the council would turn down the request. In fact considering the amount of Amazons arriving already, I’d say this is going to be quite a ceremony."

Ephiny looked at Xena. Good enough? The warrior nodded slightly.

"I hate to break this up, but I think I’m ready to call it a night," the warrior admitted.

"Ephiny, do you think you could find a place for Xena to stay tonight?" the bard asked innocently.

Looking more than a bit surprised, Ephiny found herself voicing the question in her mind. "Xena’s not staying with you?" Realizing her faux pas, she quickly amended, "I mean, of course. That will not be a problem."

"That’s what I’m afraid of," Gabrielle rolled her eyes.

Xena smiled wickedly.

When Gabrielle came out of her hut the next morning, she could not believe the amount of women that filled the village. It looked like the population had doubled overnight. As she passed by, looking for the person in her dreams, she received salutes and greetings. After a tour of the entire village and still no Xena, she stopped to get her staff, deciding to try the stables. As she came around the hill she saw that striking figure on Argo’s back riding into view. Waving to get her attention, she ran to meet her.

Xena saw Gabrielle run towards her and slowed Argo to a walk. Their ride had been intense and Xena was glistening from the exertion as well.

Gabrielle closed the distance quickly. She was in better shape now than she had ever been. Constant travel, training with her staff and slimmer food portions had made her trim and firm. She was proud of her body now, and knew Xena had been pleased at her transformation. Now the food thing could be a little better….

"Hi! Have a good ride?" she asked Xena as she dismounted.

"Umm Hmm. Argo needed to stretch her legs. It may be awhile before she gets back on the road." Xena patted the beloved horse’s neck. Argo was as important to her as food or her weapons.

"So, how was your night?" Gabrielle had to ask. She hoped it was as miserable as hers.

Xena couldn’t help but smile at the tone in her friend’s voice. "It was very….entertaining."

That did it. Gabrielle pulled herself up to her full height, which of course did little too impress the woman towering over her. "Don’t mess with me, warrior princess. I can have those ants ready anytime."

Just then a group of women walked by. One of the Amazon’s detached herself from the group and walked up to Xena, laying her hand on Xena’s arm. "Thanks for the training last night," she cooed. Standing behind the statuesque woman, Gabrielle saw red. She swung her staff, but it never connected with her target as Xena stopped it’s travel with one hand behind the Amazon woman’s back. "No problem," she told the woman who continued on her way, never noticing what had taken place.

"I don’t think you really wanted to do that," Xena offered. "It might look bad if the Queen attacked one of her people for speaking to me."

Gabrielle jerked her staff out of Xena’s hand. "If you don’t stop deliberately trying to make me mad, I’m going to attack someone all right. Who’s the bimbo?"

"She asked for some embroidery lessons. I taught her what I knew but she was all thumbs."

"Oh, funny," Gabrielle mimicked, "I’m surprised you noticed her thumbs."

Surprising the young woman completely, Xena put her arm around Gabrielle’s waist and pulled her close. Looking up into those incredible eyes Gabrielle stuttered, "Xe..Xena! What are you doing? There’s people everywhere."

"Get used to it," the warrior replied and sought her lips. Rising on her toes, Gabrielle kissed her back, dropping her staff and putting her arms around the tall woman’s neck. Several woman walked by and a few giggled but none were inclined to comment or interrupt.

Releasing the bard several minutes later, Xena started walking Argo the rest of the way to the stables. "Are we going to stand out here all day and argue? Argo needs to be brushed."

"Wow. If that’s how you plan on arguing I could definitely get used to that. I guess I’m just nervous. I’ve never had to speak to the whole council before. What if they think I’m an idiot?"

"Say hi to the ants for me," Xena deadpanned.


By late afternoon, so many had arrived from the other Amazon villages, Gabrielle thought the entire Amazon Nation was going to war. Ephiny said they weren’t going to war, just the most important joining since before the first war with the Centaurs.

Pacing inside her hut, Gabrielle wouldn’t stand still as two women tried to prepare her for the council. "How could they make it here in one day? That’s impossible, isn’t it?" she asked weakly.

One of the women answered the Queen. "From what I heard, most of the leaders were at the closest village anyway. There had been another ceremony last week and they had remained for the celebration."

"How fortunate. Now I don’t even have time to be unprepared!" Gabrielle whined.

Ephiny announced herself outside the door. "Gabrielle, aren’t you ready yet? Xena and the council are waiting."

Gabrielle pointed out, "Oh, sure. Xena’s always ready. She doesn’t have to go through this." Picking up her royal mask, she announced, "Okay, this is as ready as I’ll never , uh, I mean ever be." Exiting the hut, Ephiny and her two personal guards walked her to the village circle where the council and her warrior awaited her arrival.

Walking as regally as she could, Gabrielle reached Xena’s side and stopped. Facing the twelve women who made up the Council of the Amazon Nation, she silently thanked the Gods that Xena was at her side.

Stepping forward, the woman in the center announced, "I am Arysia, leader of the High Council of the Amazon Nation. Queen Gabrielle, what is your petition?"

Taking a deep breath, the proud Amazon stated, "As Queen, I respectfully request approval to seek the ritual of Amazon joining by the High Council and the Amazon Nation."

Arysia spoke again. "Who is your choice, Queen Gabrielle?"

Looking up at the woman beside her, she announced, "My choice is Xena, Honorary Amazon and the Warrior Princess." Eat your heart out ‘Miss I didn’t notice her face’.

Stepping back, Arysia and the other eleven women conferred briefly. Gabrielle noticed immediately that one woman in particular had a lot to say, waving her hands emphatically. Xena looked over at her calmly. Gabrielle sought Ephiny’s eyes for explanation. Ephiny’s shrug indicated she did not understand either.

When they were finished, Arysia began speaking again. "Gabrielle, rightful Queen, there is some question as to the right of Xena to undergo the ritual. While she is honored to be considered as Amazon, she has no specific rights bestowed upon her by Amazon law. Not even you as Queen are able to do that alone."

Gabrielle was crestfallen. What now? I will give up my rights as queen and Amazon and leave if it means that Xena can’t be accepted as my chosen one.

The leader continued. "A challenge has been issued by Berea. By Amazon law, combat must take place immediately between Xena and her challenger. Xena, do you accept Berea’s right of challenge?"

"I accept the challenge," Xena stated as if repeating the weather report. Gabrielle took hold of her arm. "I didn’t know," the bard told her.

"I know you didn’t, Gabrielle. Don’t worry."

The woman named Berea stepped forward to face Xena. Arysia spoke to them both. "If Berea defeats you, Xena, you will have no rights as Amazon and will be unsuitable to join with our Queen. If Xena defeats you, Berea, your place on the council is forfeit and Xena will receive her lawful rights to be recognized as an Amazon. Berea has the right to choose weapons."

Berea spoke, "I choose no weapons." She eyed the warrior princess without fear. To challenge Xena she must be very competent and confident.

A ring of Amazons was formed around the two competitors. Drums began a beat as the two women began their battle. Carefully circling each other, the first attack was made by Berea. Easily, Xena shifted her weight and the Amazon flew past her. Turning, the woman approached the warrior more slowly. Berea was slightly taller than Xena but not as stout. Adjusting to Xena’s anticipated move, she shot out a kick to Xena’s midsection, connecting and sending her a step back. Xena countered quickly with a spin and kick to Berea’s head causing her to stagger backwards. The two met again, this time with fists moving at such a fast speed, Gabrielle had difficulty following their movement. The woman’s reflexes were better than even Xena had expected.

Xena was a blur of motion as she suddenly gave her war cry and jumped into a rolling tuck over Berea’s head, landing behind her with a kick to the back of her knees. The woman fell to one knee but was up immediately. Her fist shot out and connected with the approaching warrior’s chin. Blood oozed from the cut as Xena captured the woman’s arm and twisted it painfully. The woman cried out briefly as she was then flipped through the air like a rag doll. Landing solidly, she took longer to rise. Xena wiped the blood from her chin with her hand. Then with a feral smile, the one so many saw for the last time in battle, she motioned for Berea to attack her again. Watching from several feet away, Gabrielle knew Xena was having fun. She toyed with the other warrior, striking her with the flat of her hand on several passes.

Berea was incensed by the warrior’s audacity and charged her. Xena spun around as the woman reached her and with both hands swung as hard as she could across Berea’s back, knocking her face down on the ground. Then quickly she kneeled on one knee and grabbed Berea’s hair pulling her head up painfully. Striking the woman in the neck with two fingers she cut off the blood flow to Berea’s brain. "You have thirty seconds to yield or you will die," Xena informed her. Rising, she waited for the words necessary to end the challenge. They weren’t long in coming. Berea, semi-paralyzed, struggled with the words but finally yielded to Xena. Xena then released the pressure point with a similar blow to the neck. The drums stopped beating.

The Amazons’ vocal approval of Xena’s victory was deafening. Gabrielle rushed over to Xena, putting one arm around her waist in a hug, using the other to wipe at the cut on her chin with a cloth Ephiny had handed to her. "Let her get a little close there, didn’t you?" Gabrielle scolded her. Xena raised that favorite eyebrow and replied, "Hey, you fight her next time!" With eyes wide, the bard declined, "Uh… that’s okay. You did fine."

The Council and the two petitioners took their places again. The Amazons quieted. Arysia spoke loudly. "Let it be known that Xena, the Warrior Princess is granted all rights and privileges as an Amazon by the High Council and Queen Gabrielle. Handing Gabrielle an Amazon warrior’s mask, Arysia bowed to the Queen. Turning, Gabrielle raised the mask above her head for all to see, then presented the mask to Xena. Placing the mask on her head and face, Xena faced the Amazon Nation. Cheers were given and the drums beat a wild rhythm. When they quieted, the mask was removed and the proceedings continued.

"Now, Queen Gabrielle, the approval of the High Council is given and the rules for the ancient ritual shall be set forth."

Finally, Gabrielle thought.

"As Queen of the Amazons, you must first pass a test of strength and skill. A warrior has been chosen to face you in combat. As Queen, if it is your choice, you may delay the combat for one hour. You may choose a weapon and seek council with a sister Amazon of your choice, except for your Chosen One."

Gabrielle looked at Xena with worry in her eyes. She hadn’t expected this! Xena gave her a look that she interpreted as ‘you can do it. Take no prisoners’.

"Queen Gabrielle, do wish to delay or begin now?" Arysia asked.

"Um, I…. I wish to delay," Gabrielle managed to get out. Yikes! What am I gonna do now? Stay calm. She took a deep breath. Calm is good…

"The ritual will continue in one hour," the Council leader relayed and then turned to rejoin the others.

Ephiny reached Gabrielle’s side. "Gabrielle," she whispered. "I know the woman they have chosen. Let me be your council. I know I can help you defeat her!"

Gabrielle wondered if it would be too obvious if she fell on her knees and begged Ephiny for help. She looked at Xena briefly who could only look back with intensely blue eyes that gave her the courage to face this unexpected turn of circumstances. The Queen turned to Ephiny saying desperately, "Yes, please!"

"Come on, we have planning to do," the champion Amazon warrior dragged Gabrielle back to the Queen’s hut. Xena remained behind to wait impatiently.

As she waited for them to return, Xena thought about all the things Gabrielle did not know about the special ritual of joining for the Queen. She had deliberately made sure she was not told by anyone so that the young woman would not have the opportunity to change her mind. To change her mind after the request had been made would be considered a weakness and an ensuing challenge would cause a possible rift in the tribe. Not to mention the failure of the Queen to take a Chosen One for herself. Xena was not worried about Gabrielle’s part in the ritual. She had every confidence in her abilities especially when tested under strenuous circumstances. This was the only difficult test for the Queen. Now, her Chosen One would be another matter….

The hour passed quickly and Queen Gabrielle returned, staff in hand, with her council. Looking a little more confident, the bard gave a smile to Xena as she faced the High Council. The woman chosen to fight her came forth and the ring was formed once again for battle. Gabrielle looked at her foe. What did they do, draw lots for the largest among them?

Xena stood next to Ephiny. "What do you think?" Xena asked her. "Did you show her some moves to help her defeat Philantia?"

Ephiny looked up at the warrior and smiled. "No. We didn’t discuss the test at all."

Xena was shocked. "What?" She almost yelled. "You didn’t help her?" Xena grabbed Ephiny’s arm and hauled her close to her face. "If she gets hurt, Ephiny, you’ll need more than all these Amazons to hide from me," Xena quietly promised.

Looking at the tall woman confidently, the woman with curly golden hair imparted their battle plan. "She needs no training, Xena. The only thing Gabrielle needed was strength of will. She spoke only of you and how much you mean to her. Nothing will stand between you and her desire to be joined with you. She told me of the story ‘Ares’ Game’, she called it. It will take more than Philantia to defeat her this day, I promise you."

Releasing the smaller, younger woman, Xena looked surprised. "She said that?"

Ephiny tossed her head back proudly, "I am honored to be Gabrielle’s friend and sister Amazon. Sometimes I wonder if you really know how deeply she cares for you. I know what her personal code prevents her from doing. Killing. It doesn’t prevent her from loving you as you must have thought for so long. You find it hard to trust love, don’t you?"

At a loss, Xena didn’t answer. The test began.

Gabrielle concentrated on her opponent as she held her staff in a defensive position. As the woman attacked, the bard swung her staff to block the blow of the Amazon’s own staff. Quickly, the woman struck at Gabrielle’s legs, but the wood was blocked by the smaller woman. Efficiently she swung the staff back around with a strength belying her size. The Amazon was unused to fighting an opponent the bard’s size and was overconfident. Gabrielle’s staff struck her below the ear and she faltered. Trying to prepare to swing again, the Queen was too slow in reacting. Her feet were knocked out from under her by a kick from her opponent.

Xena tensed and Ephiny grabbed her arm to keep her from moving. It would mean disgrace to interfere.

Rolling quickly as a staff struck the spot she had just moved from, Gabrielle regained her feet and put distance between the weapons. She caught a brief view of Ephiny holding back Xena and she used the image to bolster her resolve. *She doesn’t think I can do it!* Spacing her hands on the staff, she prepared for another volley of thrusts and parries from the much taller woman. After a few close calls and a moment of imbalance, she tucked one end of her quarter staff under her arm and balanced with the other. Remember your training, she thought.

The Amazon twirled her staff as she approached again. Show off! When the weapon suddenly slashed in an arc at her head she quickly ducked below it and with all the strength she had she swung the long staff and struck the woman’s knee so hard you could hear the kneecap break. With a scream of pain the woman fell on her back and Gabrielle seized the moment to thrust her staff to the Amazon warrior’s face. "Yield!" she commanded. The woman had a moment of indecision but her pain made the choice for her. She yielded.

Gabrielle was suddenly surrounded by women. Congratulating their Queen on her victory. Telling her opponent she hoped she would be all right, she broke away walking up to Xena with her head held high. Stopping just in front of her she said, "The bigger they are, the harder they fall."

Xena smiled. "Don’t I know it." Then she whispered, "I fell."

The sun was now setting on the village. Torches were lit and the crowd of women assembled again to hear the final conditions to end the ritual. Arysia smiled at Gabrielle, clearly pleased with her victory. She, too, had been doubtful of her success.

"Queen Gabrielle, you have passed the test of combat. There are only two things that remain for you to accomplish. First you must fast from this moment until sunset tomorrow. The following sunset to sunrise, you must seek guidance from Artemis and solitude from you sister Amazons to consider your decision to join with your Chosen One."

"I understand," Gabrielle replied, pleased that it would be over soon.

"Xena." The crowd grew solemn as the instructions were given to the warrior. "You are the Chosen One of our Queen. The rules for you are very clear. Your part in the ritual will not be easy. Few Queens have chosen the ritual after they become Queen and for good reason."

Gabrielle knew something was wrong. The joy of the moment from earlier was gone, replaced by worry.

"For two days, in a defined area of Amazon territory, you must survive being hunted by twenty of our best warriors." Gabrielle gasped and reached for Xena’s arm. "You are to have no food and no weapons. You are not to leave the defined area at any time. The boundry will be guarded. If you leave it you will either be killed or exiled from the Amazon Nation."

Gabrielle clasped her love’s hand wishing this were not true.

"The warriors must wear a sash at all times that has a symbol placed upon it. You may defend yourself in any way you wish as long as you use no conventional weapons, including those of the Amazons who hunt you. If you are able to defeat a warrior in hand combat or by stealth, and take the symbol from their sash, they must return here to the village. If by the end of the two days you have survived without being captured or killed, you have passed the test. If you manage to disqualify all of the warriors within the two days you pass the test. If you are not killed, but captured, your life will be forfeit when you are returned. Do you understand?"

Xena held Gabrielle’s trembling hand tightly. "I understand."

A council woman took Xena aside and explained the boundaries to her. As the woman spoke to her, Xena removed her weapons and handed them to Ephiny.

Gabrielle took the opportunity to ask Arysia what she was afraid of knowing. "Has this been done before?"

Arysia answered honestly. "It has been attempted. No one has ever succeeded." Her instructions complete, Xena turned back to Arysia.

"You will be given a lead of one hour. It begins now." Arysia bowed to the Amazon Warrior Princess. The drums began a slow rhythm.

Gabrielle turned to Xena, emotion welling up in her eyes. "Go. There isn’t much time."

With her hand under her love’s chin she quietly said, "There’s always time for you." Smiling she turned and began to run, calling over her shoulder "I will come back." Xena disappeared from sight.

Gabrielle could no longer stand. Ephiny took her arm, but Gabrielle shook it off. Struggling to her hut she collapsed when she got inside.

Following, Ephiny entered without permission. "Gabrielle-," she began. "No!" the distraught young woman stopped her. "How could you not tell me?" she demanded.

"Xena would not allow it. She knew you would not ask her to risk her life."

"She wouldn’t allow it?" Gabrielle gasped. "I thought you were my friend? A friend doesn’t keep a secret like that. It was my choice to make. You’re just like her, you don’t give me the credit to know my own mind or heart."

Ephiny bowed her head. "I’m sorry, Gabrielle. I never meant to hurt you."

"She’d better be all right or I may just kill her myself. What is it with you warrior types? Oh, forget it. Please, just leave. I can’t think right now."

"As you wish." Ephiny left the Queen, wondering if their friendship would ever be the same.

Continued in Part 2