Characters and backstory from Xena: Warrior Princess are property of MCA/Universal/Renaissance. No copyright infringement is intended.
This is an original (I hope) work of alternative fan fiction. No profit will be gained from its production. This piece of fiction is copyright of the author.
There are depictions of love/sex between consenting adult persons of the same gender. If this is
illegal where you live, you are underage, or this isn't your preference, then stop reading here and
find something more appropriate to your tastes and/or laws.
There is violence depicted in this story. There is implied rape depicted in this story.
Some good ole cussin'.
Author's Note: This is a sequel and takes place approximately five years after "The Way of the Bard" in The Way of Life series. Oh...I've switched to modern English measurements...if TPTB have no problem doing it on the show...then neither do I.
Comments can be forwarded via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Way of the Child
Copyright May 10, 1998
"Gabrielle, we have discussed this theory of yours a thousand times."
"Yeah, I know, Xena, but I've figured it out."
"Yeah, you see, splinters make up trees, and are smaller than huts," the bard proclaimed in victory.
Xena looked down at her wife from her seat atop Argo. "All right. Whatever you say."
Gabrielle stop walking and planted her staff. "Aww, come on, Xena. You know I got you on that one," she called to the warrior who had continued ahead without her. "You know I'm right," she yelled, throwing her arms wide. With an exasperated sigh, the small woman gave up her tirade and trotted to catch up to her wife.
When the bard was once again at her left side, Xena smiled. "Okay, Gabrielle. I see your point, and I agree with you...about the rocks and the trees. But you'll have to show me how it works with everything else if you want me to believe it without question."
Squinting at the sun high in the sky, Gabrielle looked up to the warrior. "Fine. I can deal with that."
"Good. Now let's get moving. We'll never make it to Amazonia if we spend all our time discussing your theory about matter."
Gabrielle nodded and picked up her pace, eager to reach their destination by nightfall.
Ephiny watched as preparations were being made for the festival. A dozen young Amazons were draping the Queen's dais with garlands of fresh flowers, while others were readying the firepit.
"Pony tells me that this is a pretty serious festival."
The Regent Queen turned and glanced down at the royal guard who had come up behind her. "Yeah, it is. Every ten years, the Amazons celebrate life with a festival to Artemis."
"And then they let loose on all the local villages and get knocked up."
"You can be so vulgar sometimes, Wolf."
The small warrior grinned and rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet. "l gotta keep things interesting around here, you know."
"Aren't you off guard duty?"
"Are you saying that you don't enjoy my vivacious company?"
*Vivacious?* Ephiny's brow rose. "You've received another scroll from Gabrielle?"
"When you got yours," the guard replied, her eyes constantly scanning for anything out of place. "So, does Gabrielle know?"
The Regent stifled a growl. "I didn't say anything, but surely Xena knows. She would have told her."
"Wonder how they're going to take the news?"
Rubbing her eyes to relieve the tension that was building, the blond Amazon turned to her most trusted guard. "Why don't you go see if Eponin needs you for anything."
"Trying to get rid of me already, Eph," the demi-god asked with a mischievous grin.
"Yes," Ephiny replied emphatically. "Knowing your bondmate, she probably wants you to go hunting some strange animal or something for that appetite of hers. What was it that she wanted yesterday...sea urchin?"
The small woman laughed under her breath. "Yeah, you're right. Guess I better find her."
Ephiny nodded in relief. Wolf reminding her of the potential problems she might have regarding the Queen and her consort, was not what she needed today. As it was, the two of them would be arriving soon, and she wanted time alone to compose the persuasive speech she would use to convince them that Amazon traditions had to be upheld. The blond woman shuddered at the opposition she knew she was going to get from the possessive warrior.
Xena had dismounted once they passed the first set of territory markers to walk beside Gabrielle, who had been mostly silent since her revelation about splinters. The warrior chuckled to herself. The bard was as imaginative, as always. She hoped that the woman would never lose her creative spark. "Gabrielle."
The bard pulled herself out of her mental ramblings to hear the urgent tone in her wife's voice. "What is it," she whispered.
Raising an arm to block the small woman's progress, the warrior held a finger to her lips for silence. Cocking her head, she heard it again. "Something's in the brush ahead," she warned. Before she could take a cautious step forward, however, she was brought up short by a familiar body crawling into the open.
"Eponin," the bard asked, incredulous to find the Amazon Weaponsmaster crawling around on the forest floor.
The Amazon's head snapped up at the call of her name. "My Queen, Xena," she gasped, blushing at her discovery. "I didn't hear you," she admitted sheepishly.
"Obviously," the warrior drawled. "Just what are you doing?"
"No doubt foraging for roots," a voice called from above.
Xena hung her head to hide her amusement. "Haven't lost your touch, Wolf."
The demi-god smiled at her friends and dropped from her perch, lighting silently to the ground. Shaking her head in disapproval, she strode over to her bondmate and gave her a hand to her feet.
Xena and Gabrielle gasped in surprise. As Eponin's long frame straightened, her bulging midsection was revealed.
"You're pregnant," the bard exclaimed, blushing at her own lack of tact. Unconsciously, her free hand covered her own flat stomach.
Eponin looked at the wide-eyed expressions of the Queen and Consort and then narrowed her gaze to Wolf. "I thought you told them," she accused.
The demi-god shrugged her shoulders and grinned with dry humor. "I wanted to surprise them?"
"Oh, I'd say we're surprised," Xena admitted as she stepped forward to congratulate the couple.
Wolf raised a brow at the Queen's question. "Please, Xena, please tell me that you told her where babies come from."
"Very funny," the warrior replied. "But I'm curious, too. Don't tell me that you have skills beyond mine," she demanded with mock indignation.
"Actually, it's a very interesting story," the demi-god revealed as she wrapped an arm around Eponin's waist. She waited a long moment before continuing. When it seemed like her listeners were about to explode with impatience, she turned and led them through the forest. "Pony and I had gone to Corinth as part of an escort to a party of dignitaries we were supposed to meet there."
"We met this guy," Eponin said as she picked up the thread. "A general in the Athenian army," she explained.
"And you seduced him," Xena finished, shaking her head.
"Xena," Gabrielle warned. "Let THEM tell the story."
The warrior threw up her hands in apology. "Sorry."
Wolf cleared her throat as she signaled the Amazons hidden in the trees to hold their positions. "Actually, we both seduced him."
Eponin chuckled at the memory. "You should have seen the guy's face when we suggested a threesome."
"Yeah," Wolf remembered. "I thought he was going to ruin the evening before it even started."
"But I thought you didn't...."
Wolf pinned Xena with a suggestive look. "I'll try anything once," she purred. "It was an interesting night," she allowed.
"Yeah, interesting," Eponin sighed.
"So how far along are you, Ep?"
The Weaponsmaster smiled at her Queen and laid a hand over her swollen belly. "Five months."
"We're having twins," Wolf revealed, fairly gushing with maternal pride.
"Artemis preserve us," Gabrielle prayed aloud, drawing muffled laughter from the other women.
The four friends spoke of trivial matters before they reached the main compound of the village. They updated each other on news and events. Caught up in the happiness of their impending family, Wolf and Eponin missed the significant looks that were passed between the warrior and the bard.
Gabrielle collapsed back onto the bed and sighed. A formal Amazon greeting was not something she enjoyed after being on a hard road all day.
The Queen opened her eyes a fraction to watch as Xena removed her armor and leathers. "Beat, bushed, exhausted," she mumbled, curling up on her side.
"I'll go get you something to eat," the warrior replied as she reached for the leathers she had dropped on a chest.
"No, Xena, don't. I'm not really that hungry."
The warrior frowned. "Gabrielle, you have to eat."
The bard flopped onto her back and covered her abdomen with her hands. "Yeah, I know, but I'm tired of the sickness. Doesn't matter what I eat. It all comes back up anyway," she moaned.
Xena sat on the edge of the bed and covered her wife's hands with her own. "I know, honey, but you've still got to try, and the sickness will pass with time."
Sitting up into the embrace of the warrior she trusted above all others, the Queen sighed. "I know, Xena. But do you have any idea how long it's been since I actually enjoyed a meal?"
Chuckling at the small woman's complaint, Xena held her tighter. "It's only been a fortnight, Gabrielle. In another month, your appetite should be back to normal."
"You mean like Ep's? No thank you...I will not go foraging like some little animal."
"Nah, wouldn't think of it," the warrior assured her. "I'll do all the hunting for anything you'd want."
Gabrielle's mind began to contemplate some of the foods she had craved when she had been pregnant so briefly with Hope. A shudder ran through her body as her stomach caught the thoughts. "Ooh, Xena, I don't feel so good," she moaned.
Upon hearing the warning noises the bard's insides were giving off, the warrior laid her wife across the bed and went to the washbasin to wet a cloth. "Here, this will help," she advised, folding a compress over her forehead. "Take deep breaths and think nice thoughts," she added out loud, and then to herself, *just nothing about food.* When Gabrielle's pallor shifted to a more normal shade, Xena laid down beside her. "Feeling better?"
"Good. Why don't you go to sleep now," she advised as she stripped the bard of her traveling clothes. "The Amazons can wait for their Queen until tomorrow."
Feeling the nod against her shoulder, Xena pulled the bard into an embrace.
"I suppose we'll have to tell everyone," Gabrielle mumbled.
"Okay," the Queen mumbled as her breathing evened and changed to soft snores.
Xena sighed and let her mind consider the implications of Gabrielle's pregnancy. According to Amazon custom, she was already fulfilling her obligation in regards to the Festival of Life, she had conceived, no matter how it was done, and she would provide a new child for the Nation, setting the symbolic example for others so inclined to follow. The warrior knew that explaining the situation would be difficult at best, but she knew that this particular village of Amazons had seen far more stranger things.
The next morning dawned bright and clear. Wolf was trotting along the forest paths in search of the pheasant that Eponin had requested when she ran into Xena, who was searching for roots that would ease Gabrielle's morning sickness. "Hey," she called, making sure that she was a few arm lengths from the warrior.
"Hey, yourself," the warrior returned, hiding her surprise successfully.
"Who's sick," the former healer asked as she noted the leaves and bark in the warrior's grasp.
"Is she all right," Wolf asked with subdued alarm.
"Nothing a month's time won't cure," the tall warrior revealed.
The demi-god's face, which had drawn into one of question, fell in shock. "Her too?"
"How? I mean...I never thought that you would allow anyone...any man...to...you know...." Wolf could not stop the blush that contrasted nicely with her blue top.
Xena looked up, finished with her chore, and laughed at the incredulous look on her friend's face. "Really, Wolf...I never thought you were the shy type."
"What's the story, Xena," the small warrior demanded as her gaze narrowed.
"Are you out here for a reason," the tall woman asked, hoping to avoid the conversation.
Wolf's eyes widened in memory. "Oh, yeah." She cocked her head and listened intently to the morning sounds of the forest. With a blurred movement, she whipped a dagger from her boot and flung it into the light brush several paces up the path. Without a word, she followed the weapon and retrieved the pheasant carcass. "So, what gives," she asked again as she sat on a fallen log and began to pluck the bird clean.
Xena finished tucking her herbs into the pouch at her waist and took a deep breath. "Well, you know how long Gabrielle and I have been joined...."
"Of course...almost five years now."
"Yeah, well...we thought maybe it was time that we tried to start a family. Ever since Solon died, it always seemed like something was missing."
Xena nodded her head. "Well, we figured that we would try to find someone to father the baby...."
"And one night...while we were camping out, we were making love...."
"Anyone would be," Wolf agreed, a mischievous grin growing on her face.
"Well, after...you know...well, we were visited."
"What did he look like," the demi-god asked, eager for the details.
Wolf's fingers stilled at her task as she lifted curious eyes to her long-time friend. "They? What did THEY look like."
Knowing what the small woman was thinking, Xena carefully continued. "They weren't men."
"But how can...ooohhh...who?"
Nodding at Wolf's comprehension, the tall warrior finished. "Aphrodite and Artemis. They gifted us."
"Makes sense," Wolf allowed as she ran a long feather across her cheek casually. "So, does Eph know?"
"Not yet," Xena replied a she stood. "We figure we'd tell her this morning."
"Heh, heh, can't wait...I'm not about to miss out on this one," Wolf grinned, joining Xena as they walked back to the village.
The tall warrior glared down at her friend and then reached out a hand to finger the small woman's top. "Finally made you a Royal Guard, huh?"
"Captain, actually. Eph offered me the position a couple of years ago, but I was happy enough as a scout."
"So what made you accept now?"
"Had to find a respectable occupation," Wolf explained. "I'm gonna be a mommy, you know."
Pictures of the demi-god raising children to be like herself caused a shudder to pass through the tall warrior's body. "Please, Wolf. The village won't survive if they turn out like you."
"Hey," the demi-god cried as she punched Xena in the arm. "You aren't exactly parent material either."
Xena's gaze was sober until she saw the humor flashing in her friend's eyes. "I can see it now," she chuckled. "Your kids would be terrorizing everyone with practical jokes and bad humor...."
"And yours would be chasing mine trying to whip their asses. I can just picture a couple of little warrior princesses running around in little black leather dresses, their faces all sour...."
"I am not sour, Wolf. I'm stoic."
"There's a difference," the small warrior asked before she ducked to avoid a smack to her head.
"Will you ever grow up," Xena asked, laughing as the demi-god stuck her tongue out and danced away from her.
"Perhaps someday," the small warrior replied solemnly, "but not while you're here. It's too much fun teasing you."
Xena's lips curled up in challenge. "Keeping up with your weapon skills?"
"Ooh, Xena...looking for a little action...I'm getting all warm and fuzzy inside," Wolf drawled suggestively.
"Yeah...we'll see how warm you are when I leave you laying on your backside on the practice field."
"Promises, promises," the guard mumbled as the trail opened to the village square.
The tall warrior sighed. "See you after breakfast?"
"Wouldn't miss it."
"Good. I think I'll need all the backup I can get."
Xena snorted. "Who, me? Nah. Just trying to figure out how I'm going to explain that I'm going to be a birth mother to Gabrielle's child."
"You are blessed by the gods, friend."
A small shudder ran through the dark warrior's frame. "It's what I've always wanted, Wolf," she replied with barely suppressed sarcasm.
"What did she say?"
Xena looked up from her cup of tea. "Who, Wolf?"
"Of course...when you told her...what did she say?"
The warrior shrugged and replied, "She said we were blessed."
"That's it?" Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "I bet the two of you could have a whole conversation with a handful of words."
Sitting back in her chair to stretch out her long legs, Xena grinned. "Are you ready to tell Eph?"
"You'll be there?"
Xena reached across the table to still her wife's hands which had begun to tremble with nervous energy. "Every step of the way."
The bard nodded her head curtly and stood. Taking a deep breath to ease her stomach's discomfort, she straightened her back and left the hut. It was no coincidence that she nearly ran into Wolf outside of the door. The demi-god had arranged it so that she would have the morning shift. Together the three of them made their way to the meeting hut where Ephiny was waiting for them. As they entered the spacious hut, it was obvious to them that the Regent was just as nervous as Gabrielle was.
Dark blond curls swayed as the Amazon turned her head to see her Queen and the Consort followed by the Captain of the Royal Guard. She strengthened her resolve and raised a hand so that she could speak first. "I wanted to thank you for coming back. This festival is one of the most important within the Nation," she began. "Wait," she asked when Gabrielle took a breath to speak. "This festival is important because, as you know, the few women who join us on their own are not enough to keep up with our losses. Therefore, many Amazons do a service for the Nation by conceiving and giving birth." The Regent took a deep breath and continued. "The male children from these necessary unions are returned to their fathers, who generally need heirs or another set of hands to work their land. The girls are adopted into the Nation."
Ephiny looked at Gabrielle and Xena and willed herself not to reveal her momentary lapse of courage. "It is the job of the Amazon Queen to set the example by being the first to mate."
"That won't be necessary," Xena announced.
"I'm sorry, Xena, but tradition must be upheld. Without it, the Nation would surely crumble."
"Relax, Eph. You can save your doom and gloom for someone else," the tall warrior advised. "It isn't necessary because Gabrielle is already pregnant."
Wolf coughed to hide the choked laugh that had nearly escaped. The stunned look on the Regent's face was priceless, and the demi-god knew that it was only going to get better.
"What did you say," the Regent asked as she collapsed into a chair.
Gabrielle went immediately to her side and took hold of her hand. "Easy, Ephiny...breath."
"Why didn't you tell me sooner," the blond Amazon asked, her voice found once more. "It would have saved me one big headache."
"We wanted to surprise you," the Queen offered lamely, remembering Wolf's words from yesterday.
"Eph," Xena began as she, too, stepped forward. "She was too tired last night to go into this."
The Regent looked up at the Consort and nodded. "When...who?"
"About a month and a half ago, and Artemis and Aphrodite."
"The gods," Ephiny whispered, her eyes rounded in astonishment.
Gabrielle accepted the chair that her wife had pulled out for her and settled in to tell the story about how the two goddesses had visited them. Artemis, who had wanted to grant her Chosen's greatest wish, had called upon Aphrodite to help her find a way. The Goddess of Love, always eager to help out the two women who shared such a deep love, had agreed. Setting petty differences aside, the two Olympians had gotten together and combined their powers to join a little of the warrior with a little of the bard, and had implanted it into the womb of the Queen. "And that's the how," Gabrielle stated as she finished.
The Regent glared at the guard who had begun to chuckle under her breath and then turned her attention to the two women who were so favored by the gods. "Are you going to be staying here," she asked, allowing her hope to influence her tone.
Gabrielle glanced to her wife and then shrugged. "We've decided that we would travel a little longer after the festival. A few more months, at least."
"Is that safe," the Regent asked, fearful for the Queen and her unborn child.
Ignoring the warning look her wife was giving Ephiny, the bard reassured her friend. "Don't worry, Eph. Xena won't let anything happen to me, and when it gets to the point that the baby's life might be endangered, then I'll come back." Gabrielle hoped that the promise was enough to forestall any more arguments. It was a decision that she and Xena had made even before the goddesses had visited them.
"Are you sure?"
Gabrielle squeezed the blond Amazon's arm with confidence. "I'm positive."
Ephiny nodded her head then smiled. "Well, that went a lot easier than I thought it would," she admitted. "Here, I thought that I would have to battle the demons of Tartarus to get you to agree," she said as she grinned sheepishly.
Xena stilled her hands so that they would not fidget. "Even if Gabrielle wasn't already with child, we would have agreed."
Grasping her wife's hand, Gabrielle smiled softly. "Xena explained the meaning and importance of the Festival of Life, Eph. There was no debate whether or not I would do my duty," she said. "Now, the matter of the father would have been something of a sticking point, but I'm sure we would have come up with an acceptable man."
Recalling the night that they had that conversation, the tall warrior's face changed with a crooked smile. After discussing the desire for children, the bard had listed on one of her precious scrolls, the names of all the paternal candidates. The warrior's high standards and possessive nature had whittled the list down to one man - Iolaus. He and her wife would have produced beautiful, if somewhat short, children. But that was all irrelevant now with the gift from the gods. The only drawback was the fact that the warrior was now indebted to them. It was a thought that she tended to ignore if she wanted to remain in a passably good mood.
Ephiny jumped from her seat and smiled broadly. "Well, now that that's settled, I believe we have a festival to finish planning. My Queen...," the Amazon said as she extended a hand to allow Gabrielle to precede her from the hut.
With a nod, Gabrielle exited into the early afternoon sun to find Eponin reclining against a torch post, waiting for her bondmate. "Ep, how are you?"
"I'm doing good," the Weaponsmaster replied, her hands busily making circle motions on her belly.
"Hungry," Wolf asked. When Eponin nodded, the demi-god chuckled. "Let me assign someone to duty, and then I'll get you whatever your heart desires."
The gathered women rolled their eyes at the guard's gallant words.
"Has it been like this the whole time," Gabrielle asked Ephiny.
Nodding, the Amazon hid her smirk from her pregnant friend. "Pretty much. Wolf even flew to Chin for some kind of noodle stuff she thought that Eponin would like."
"Did she...like it, I mean?"
"Nah, not really," the Regent answered. "Good thing, too, else Wolf would have ended up putting more miles on her wings than her feet have traveled in her lifetime."
Gabrielle chuckled in agreement and Xena nodded absently as she watched the respect that the demi-god received as she spoke with a could of Royal Guards. The women obviously followed her loyally, assured that their captain's main priority was the safety of the Queen and Regent.
When arrangements had been made for a guard, and Wolf took her bondmate's lunch order, Xena excused herself, with her wife's understanding, from the group to join her friend. "So, what's on the menu for this afternoon," she asked as her long legs caught her up to the diminutive woman.
"Eel," the demi-god replied with a face of displeasure.
"You mind if I ride with you?"
As they rode their respective warhorses in the direction of the sea, Xena was assaulted by the memory of the most unforgivable moment of her life. With every beat of Argo's hooves, she was reminded of another time that she had taken the same direction, intent on ending Gabrielle's life. Reminding herself that it was all in the past, and that she had made her apologies to the bard, Ephiny, and the Amazon Nation, she closed her eyes, inhaling deeply of the salt-kissed air.
She and Gabrielle had used words and love to heal those old wounds, but like any other evil deed from her past, the warrior could not let it go totally from her conscious. She refused to allow its absence just so that she could truly appreciate the woman who had forgiven her, who have given her every reason to thank Solon for giving them an opportunity to begin healing their aching souls.
By the time that the demi-god led her to the switch-backs that accessed the beach, she only felt a shadow of that old pain dull her heart. The gleeful whoops of her companion drew her almost fully out of her gloomy mood, as the demi-god spurred her horse into the oncoming waves. Nudging Argo with a firm heal, the warrior gave chase, and soon, the two women were lost to playful exuberance.
"That felt good," Xena admitted as she watched Wolf from an outcropping of rocks. The small woman was battling waves that were slapping her in the chest. She had stripped of all her clothes and was waiting patiently in a bed of sea grass for the fish that her bondmate had requested.
"Glad to hear that," the demi-god replied earnestly.
Xena leaned back on her hands and contemplated the clouds that were chasing each other across the bright blue sky. "I never got the chance to thank you for that stunt you pulled after the joining," she said.
Without raising her eyes from the rhythmic dancing of the grass, Wolf chuckled. "No problem, Xena. I just did it to save some Amazon butt," she replied with a knowing smirk. "If you had gotten any more impatient with that endless celebration, I know for a fact that blood would have been spilled."
"That's for sure," the tall warrior deadpanned.
The demi-god suddenly went under the water and bounced back up with a resounding, "yes!"
Xena got to her feet to accept the wriggling eel so that her friend could pull herself up onto the rocks. "Not bad," she allowed, critiquing the small woman's technique. "Keep at it, and you might be as good as I am some day."
"So sure of our skills, are we," Wolf drawled, eliciting an arrogant stance from Xena, who stood to her full height, a head taller than the smaller woman.
"You bet your Amazon leathers," she replied.
"Pony would love that, too," the guard replied as she tugged her blue top down over her wet breasts.
Xena studied the woman as she finished dressing. "Wolf, do you mind if I ask you a personal question?"
Looking up in surprise that the warrior had actually asked permission, the small woman nodded as she removed a dagger from her boot and took the fish from Xena's hand. "Go ahead."
"I know that you said that you would try anything once," the warrior began as she watched the guard kneel and with efficient movements, clean and gut Eponin's fish. "But why would you and Ep...I mean...I thought that the two of you were...."
Wolf squinted up to her friend and then rose to jump to the sand below. She carefully considered her words as she stuffed the eel into a pouch tied to Beast's wither-strap. "Like you and Gabrielle, Pony and I discussed children," she began as she mounted her horse in a fluid, graceful motion. "Naturally, we decided that Eponin would carry the child," she sighed, alluding to the god's blood that ran in her own veins. "When we ran across that general in Corinth, it was a matter of rightness. He has a reputation for being smart, strong, and trustworthy. We wouldn't want anything less from the man who would father our child."
When Xena mounted Argo, they began their journey back, and Wolf continued. "Originally, Pony was going to do it alone, but I couldn't let her. I don't know if at the moment I was just jealous that a man could give her something I couldn't. But I know now, that I just wanted to be there from beginning to end. It was as close as I could come to fathering the child for her," the demi-god admitted. "Can you understand that?"
Xena nodded in understanding, even though she knew that she would not have been able to watch someone else make love to the woman who held her heart. "Why did you join them...why not just watch?"
A blush spread across the worldly woman's features. "Uh...well...I guess I wanted in on the action, too," she replied. "There were times during that night that it was like the Athenian wasn't even there, that it was just Pony and me."
"Did you enjoy it?"
Wolf shrugged. "I guess so. I like penetration as much as the next woman...live flesh or otherwise," she answered without candor. "But with him it was sex. With Pony...it's...."
"Sharing your soul," Xena sighed.
"So, do you plan on doing it again," Xena asked, a devilish grin on her expressive lips.
"How many kids Pony wants," Wolf replied, chuckling.
By the time that the two warriors returned, Eponin was waiting with Gabrielle, watching as the final touches were applied for the ceremony that would begin at moonrise. They discussed things that pregnant women naturally discussed among themselves...hopes, dreams, plans for those who would carry on their blood legacy. Both women were grateful to see their mates return with no sign of injury. They knew that with both of the powerful warriors, trouble tended to follow in the form of heavy metal and ruthless villains.
Wolf led Eponin to the dining hall where the demi-god jumped over the long bar that served as the serving line, and commandeered one of the cooking fires to prepare her bondmate's meal. Xena and Gabrielle joined them, and the tall warrior accepted a plate of the venison stew with bread and cheese that had been served earlier.
All listened as Eponin explained between mouthfuls, what they could expect at the ceremony that evening. The priestesses of Artemis would address the village on the highest purpose of the Nation, of its allegiance to the goddess and the glorification of her through the continued prosperity of the Amazons as a people. Then they would remind the women that a nation needed members to survive, that they needed the next generation to be born so that there would be warriors, artisans, and leaders for the years to come. The festival would last a fortnight, during which the Amazon women who wished to mother children, would venture out into the neighboring villages and find a man worthy of the job.
"Of course, there are a few women who already have men that they prefer...some even go back to the same one that fathered their child last festival," Eponin revealed as she finished her meal.
"So this only happens every ten years," Gabrielle asked for confirmation.
"Yep," the Weaponsmaster answered after she belched behind her hand. Smiling her thanks to her mate for the delicious meal, the Amazon added, "Which explains why, when our girls are ready to begin their warrior training, a new group of babies are born."
"Surely not many women participate," the Queen asked. "That would leave too many incapacitated for defense," she commented.
Xena smiled with pride at her wife's practical thinking.
"Exactly," the Amazon agreed as she nibbled on a piece of sharp cheese. "Which is why it is limited to two dozen craftswomen and a dozen warriors."
Gabrielle nodded at the wisdom that her adopted people so frequently showed. Glancing to Xena, she asked, "Do warriors often chose this?"
Eponin arched a brow as she shifted on the bench. "Gee, Gabrielle, I don't know...what do you think, Xena?"
The tall warrior chuckled for a moment at the Amazon's smart reply, but then quieted when her wife's eyes fell upon her. "Well, sure, Ep. An Amazon warrior is, after all, a woman...and some women do enjoy being mothers...and mothers do...uh...give birth to children," she offered in the most serious tone she could muster, as she teased with their ongoing argument.
"Even as Queen I get no respect...," Gabrielle mumbled, until Xena's playful expression caused her to break into deep giggles. "Okay...I get the idea." Taking a steadying breath, the bard assumed her most regal posture and raised a brow as she glanced at each woman in turn. When their laughter erupted even louder, her face lost its rigidity and she cried, "Come on, guys...can't you at least humor me?"
Xena struggled with herself but then gave in to the rare moment free of any dark thoughts. "I promise to do more than humor you, my bard," she whispered into the suddenly receptive woman's ear.
"Oh, really," the bard drawled, her brow rising in challenge. "Is that a promise...or an idle threat, Warrior Princess?"
"I'll let you be the Gladiator this time," the tall warrior promised on a husky breath.
Gabrielle's heart stilled for a moment as she lost herself in the piercing blue gaze of her lover.
She was pulled out of the spell by Wolf clearing her throat. "Uh...if you don't mind...Pony and I are going to take a nap." The guard stood and assisted her bondmate to her feet. "With your leave," she asked the Queen as she bowed her head.
"Of course, go right ahead," Gabrielle mumbled, her attention stolen by the thoughts that Xena had inspired with her suggestion.
Neither the bard nor warrior heard the low chuckles as the other two women left the dining hall, as they were focused on each other. "That's a good idea, you know," the warrior stated as she moved closer to Gabrielle.
"I totally agree...absolutely," the Queen replied as she accepted her consort's hand.
In their haste to reach the Queen's hut, they passed Wolf and Eponin who were making their way more leisurely across the compound. As the speedy couple entered their quarters, the demi-god looked up into her mate's face and lifted a brow. "They must be even more worn out than we are," she commented wryly.
"Must be," the Amazon agreed, kissing Wolf's head. "But I bet that I can still make you scream louder."
"Not now, Pony...you really do need to rest."
"No I don't," the Amazon replied as she let her hand drift down to grab a handful of the demi-god's muscular behind.
Wolf reached behind and moved her mate's hand higher. "Yes, you do," she repeated with emphasis.
"You'll love me for it."
"I already do," Eponin sighed as they entered their hut.
The first night of the festival began with solemn words from the head priestess who was attended by two acolytes. She consecrated a cask of wine from which every Amazon would have a cup. Once she had asked for Artemis' blessings upon the village women, she called out names from a list of prospective mothers. When she finished, great cheers of encouragement rose to those who were lucky enough to be selected for the sacred duty to the Nation.
The evening progressed with dancing, music, and stories which got more ribald as time passed. Xena, instead of standing off to the side watching, joined her wife who was sharing a table with Ephiny, Solari, Eponin, and Wolf. The Regent, relieved that there were no protests raised over the choosing of candidates, proceeded to get drunk off her ass.
When she actually fell backwards off the bench, Solari stumbled over to her and fell to her knees. "I always knew you'd fall for me eventually," she chortled with just a slight slur.
Ephiny's eyes widened when her sluggish mind caught up to her body's reaction to the proximity of the other Amazon. With a flirtatious grin, she raised her arms so that Solari could pull her to her feet. "Guess I've been too busy...standing and all," she mumbled.
"Just take her to bed, Sol," Wolf shouted over the rising noise of the drums.
Both Amazons looked sharply to the demi-god and then regarded each other. With a questioning tilt of her head, Solari's gaze burned into the Regent.
Feeling suddenly sober, Ephiny offered her hand once again. Without further encouragement, the Regent's most trusted advisor escorted her to her hut. If Solari heard the suggestive whistles and hoots behind their backs, she made no indication. When they finally reached the hut, Ephiny pulled aside the hide covering and waited for her friend to enter. With one last look over her shoulder, she followed.
She wanted to ask the Ephiny if she was sure, if she was aware of what was going to happen between them. But her questions were silenced by the blond Amazon's smoldering gaze. Solari was left breathless.
"Do you know what I want?"
The dark-haired Amazon shook her head, praying that it was the same as she did.
"I want everything, Solari. Can you give me that? Can you give me your heart?"
"I already have, Ephiny. You just didn't see it," she answered.
The Regent's brow furrowed in disbelief. "You love me?"
Solari took a hesitant step forward. "I always have," she confirmed. "You were the first woman I ever dreamt of," she revealed with another step. "You have held my heart from the day that I realized that it was mine to give."
Ephiny closed the gap between them until their bodies were just a hand's span apart. She studied Solari's face for any deception, but found only love and the promise of loyalty. She saw the woman who had stood with her in support of Gabrielle against Velaska, even with the threat of death. She saw a proud, strong Amazon that was a great friend and warrior. She saw her own heart. She leaned forward until she thought that she would burn from the slight contact. "I believe you were told to take me to bed," she whispered.
Solari raised a trembling hand to trace the Regent's jawline. "Can you give me everything, Ephiny?"
"Without a thought," she vowed before she claimed her friend's lips in a searing kiss.
They took their time undressing each other. When their bodies were revealed to each other, their hands and lips explored with a leisurely pleasure. When they began to lose their ability to remain standing, Solari finally led the Regent to her pallet.
"My heart, my body, and my soul," she vowed.
"Yesss," Ephiny exclaimed on a ragged sigh as Solari's lips fastened over a tight nipple.
The fortnight of the Festival of Life passed quickly, and as the three dozen women returned to the village, the waiting began to see who among them had conceived. Each night of the festival was consumed by drinking and general merriment that made up the most important festival of the Amazon Nation.
Xena crossed the square, skillfully avoiding the Amazons who were already showing the effects of their strong wine, to Wolf, who was keeping her post atop the Queen's dais where she could see all that transpired. "Ep go to bed?"
Sparing a glance to her friend, the guard nodded. "The healer said that she might have to take full bedrest soon, with the twins and all," she replied.
The tall warrior hopped onto the raised platform and found Gabrielle sitting at a table deep in conversation with Ephiny and Solari whose firm arms clasped the Regent in a loving embrace. "Guess they're talking babies," she assumed.
Wolf narrowed her eyes and concentrated on the Queens. "Looks like it," she confirmed. "I know how she feels about the baby, but what about you?"
Xena smiled wistfully and hung her head. "I missed so much with Solon, and then...it was too late. I want to be there for this one."
"To make up for past mistakes?"
"You know, Xena, you've been doing that for the past eight years. When will it end," the small woman asked gently. "With this baby on the way, you will have to settle down."
The Consort snorted and stared down at her friend. "Since when were you domesticated?"
Unable to read the dark warrior, Wolf merely shrugged, however her eyes betrayed her hurt. "It's not a matter of wanting to stay in one place. Home is wherever Pony is. But children, they need a stable place to grow up, to play, to learn. The road just isn't safe."
"And this village is? Do you have any idea how many times Amazonia has been invaded? Do you know how many people have died in this very square," Xena asked, her voice rising.
"Well, it's a lot safer than the open road," the demi-god argued, her color deepening. When she realized that their discussion was receiving unneeded notice, she calmed herself and lowered her voice. "Xena, how many times have you almost died...and Gabrielle? The two of you have dedicated your lives to the greater good, but now you have committed to becoming a parent. And with that decision, your child must become the greater good, not those warlords that ravage lands halfway across the known world."
"What do you know about it," Xena muttered, knowing that Wolf was right, but unwilling to face the prospect of being in one place for any extended period of time.
"I know how important family is. I know that others will take your place on the battlefield...righting wrongs. Will the Warrior Princess ride to make things right? Will she abandon her family?"
"Damnit, Wolf. It's not as black and white as you think. Since I was eighteen, I've had no home...no place...I don't know how to settle down. It's been so long. I've roamed nearly half my life."
The guard closed her eyes for a brief moment. "Xena, think about it. Why did you wander? At first, it was to protect your family and village. And then it was with your dark army. And now, with Gabrielle, it's to make up for all your past cruelties. When will it end, Xena?"
"I don't know," she whispered in reply.
Wolf finally turned the both of them around so that they faced away from the celebration. Laying a gentle hand upon the tall warrior's arm, Wolf leaned close. "Look, I do understand...really. But I want you to know that there is nothing more pure, more precious than life. You want to battle darkness and death. Do so by embracing life. You were gifted, Xena. That child Gabrielle, your wife, for Gaia's sake, is carrying, is yours in truth, not some outsider's. Yours. I know that you feel that you betrayed Solon, that you made a mistake. But you didn't. At the time, you made the right decision. And now...now...it's the right decision to stop and take the time to enjoy what you were blessed with."
Sure that the demi-god had run out of words, Xena turned to face her. "Are you finished," she asked without inflection, bowing her head down so that her forehead nearly touched the smaller woman's.
Wolf fought the urge to step back, to distance herself from the force she had aroused. She steeled her nerve and tilted her head back. "Yeah."
"Good...I swear...you've been spending too much time with Gabrielle. Never know when to quit, even when you've won."
Turning to watch the revelry once again, Wolf's shoulders sagged with a relieved breath. "I really didn't mean to go off on you. I just...."
"I understand, all right? Don't assume that Gabrielle haven't gone over this exact same argument a hundred times."
"But she said that...."
Xena waved away the guards words with a wave of her hand. "Gabrielle did that for my benefit. She's always compromised and settled for me. I guess...it's time for me to compromise for her."
"For her, I'd do anything," the Consort swore as watched her wife relate a story to a small group of women. Her heart lifted at the thought of a permanent place they could call home...a place where little ones could run around and learn to live, not worrying about what was up the road or around the bend. She had planned on settling down for the sake of her family. She just hadn't welcomed the idea with overwhelming enthusiasm. But if she was going to have a persistent demi-god on her back, then she would just have to get used to the fact if she wanted any peace at all.
Gabrielle traced absent patterns through the film of sweat that covered Xena's body, her head propped on her open palm. "Xena, is something wrong? Are you getting restless? We can leave in the morning, you know."
The warrior opened her eyes and studied the serious green gaze of her lover. "Gabrielle, would you mind if we stayed here...instead of going out on the road?"
"Why? I thought we discussed this...."
"Do YOU want to go back out, or were you just letting me have my way for a little while?"
Grinning impishly, Gabrielle joked, "I always let you have your way."
Capturing the bard's hand, which had begun to wander lower, Xena sighed. "I'm serious, Gabrielle."
The bard wrinkled her brow in thought, searching frantically for the words that would cause the least amount of argument. "It was what you wanted, and it was such a small thing...to give you time to adjust to settling down."
Xena closed her eyes and willed the ache in her chest to go away. "Sometimes, Gabrielle, you are too precious." She drew her wife down for a loving kiss. "Wolf and I talked last night...."
"Is that what the shouting was about?"
Chuckling at the strange looks the two of them had gotten the rest of the evening, Xena nodded. "She pointed out a few hard truths that I was reluctant to face," the warrior admitted. "I knew all along what having a family would mean...and I avoided it...in my mind."
"And now," Gabrielle asked solemnly.
"She cleared a few things up for me."
Gabrielle laid her head on Xena's breast and smiled. "I'm glad, then. Unless...."
"It's settled, love. So just don't say another word."
"Hmm...good. I can get back to what I was planning earlier," she hinted.
"And that was," the warrior asked, intrigued.
Crawling atop the warrior's firm body, Gabrielle lowered her head and nibbled on an erect nipple. "To make love to you until the sun rises," she revealed in a seductive purr.
"I am humbled to do my Queen's bidding," Xena gasped as the bard slipped a hand between her thighs.
"Good warrior...smart warrior," the bard mumbled as her tongue found the rigid nub hidden between her lover's folds.
Ephiny was not surprised to see Wolf standing guard outside of the Queen's hut. The demi-god had made it a point to personally see to Gabrielle's safety, even though the Consort was more than enough warrior for the job. But the Regent figured with a mental shrug, that even the Warrior Princess needed a day off every once in a while.
Lately, however, the Captain was anxious, her gaze often drifted to her own hut where her bondmate had been confined to their bed for the past three months. Eponin, if the healer's words were to be believed, was due to deliver any day, and Wolf was near out of her mind with worry.
Signally one of the younger guards, the Regent crossed to the demi-god. "Wolf, go home," she ordered in a soft, but stern, voice.
The small woman, who would have argued under normal circumstances, simply nodded and trotted across the compound, the hilts of her twin swords rising and falling with her steps.
"Thanks, she wouldn't listen to me."
Raising a hand to her heart which had jumped at the sudden appearance of Xena, Ephiny cursed softly. "Hades, Xena. Don't do that so early in the morning," she chided. She raised a brow in answer to the tall warrior's. "How's Gabrielle?"
"Ahh...what exotic fare is tempting her palate this morning?"
A wry grin heralded the warrior's response. "Porridge."
Ephiny grimaced in distaste. "I thought she hated it."
Xena shrugged and began to reply, but a cry from across the compound stole everyone's attention. "It's Eponin," she stated as she took off.
Ephiny glanced at the guard and ordered her to stay put, as she too followed the origins of the anguished cry.
A moment later, Gabrielle emerged from the Queen's hut, her hair disheveled. "Darlea, what is it?"
The lanky guard bowed to her Queen and pointed to the small crowd that had begun to gather outside of her superior's hut. "Eponin...."
Before the blond guard could finish her sentence, the Queen crossed the square quickly, one hand supporting her back and one resting gently on the slight swell of her womb. Remembering her orders, the young Amazon quickly chased and then caught up to Gabrielle. With curt words and well-placed elbows, Darlea cleared a path through the throng for the Queen to pass.
Smiling in gratitude, Gabrielle pulled aside the door covering and entered the hut that had become an organized pandemonium. Standing off to the side, she watched as the healer Nagla and Xena traded crisp words regarding the preparations for the birth. Wolf, she noted, had lost her usual humor and calm. The demi-god was caught in the clutches of her bondmate. In the throes of another contraction, the pregnant Amazon had caught hold of Wolf's top and was in the process of wrenching it around her fist.
Wolf was left to two choices...pull her body out of the leather, or let herself be strangled. She opted for the first and wiggled her way out. When Eponin went to grab another convenient...object, Wolf jumped back with a low screech. Glaring furiously at the tall warrior who began to chuckle as she was filling a deep basin with hot water, the demi-god wedged herself between her bondmate and the headboard, effectively trapping the Amazon in her embrace.
When the contraction passed, Wolf ducked her head to whisper soothing words into Eponin's ear, oblivious to anyone else in the room. She gently pushed hair soaked with sweat off the Amazon's forehead and accepted a wet cloth wipe down her bondmate's face. When the next contraction came, Eponin was not as frantic. Instead of strangling the demi-god, she merely ground the bones of Wolf's hands together as she grasped them in a vice-like grip.
The bard was drawn from her observation by the low tones of her wife. "Huh?"
"This is probably going to take a while. Why don't you go on ahead and get something to eat." As if sensing the pause and argument about to come forth, the warrior broke rank and ordered, "Now."
With a slight pout, the Queen complied and left the hut to trail her guard to the dining hall where, since the cooks had left to wait outside of Eponin's hut, Darlea procured for her a bowl of porridge and a large tankard of fresh goat's milk.
After five bowls of cereal and three tankards of milk, the Queen's appetite was satisfied. With a nod to the guard who had watched with disbelieving eyes, Gabrielle left the dining hall to force her way back into Eponin's hut. Pulling a chair from the table to sit in a corner out of the way, she watched as Xena and the healer took turns both comforting the laboring woman and checking for signs of the twins' impending arrival.
Having been lulled to sleep by Wolf crooning a soothing lullaby to her bondmate, Gabrielle awoke with a start. Blinking her eyes in confusion, she realized what had pulled her from her dreams. Another wrenching cry broke the air.
"It's crowning," the healer cried with enthusiasm as she looked to the couple on the bed and the warrior who was holding a receiving blanket.
Gabrielle's widened as she watched transfixed, the tiny head that appeared. It's crown was covered with dark hair and amniotic fluid. She squeezed her thighs unconsciously as she watched the rest of the newborn enter into the world.
"It's a girl," Xena announced for the couple who were catching their breath, knowing that the painful process was about to be repeated. She watched as the healer cut the umbilical cord with efficient movements. Before the tall warrior could begin to clean the baby, another exhausted moan passed Eponin's lips.
"Come on, honey," Wolf urged as she supported her bondmate's weight. "Just a little more."
Strengthened by the demi-gods murmured words, Eponin bore down and grunted with her push.
"That's it, Ep," the healer praised. "Give me another."
Wolf panted with the Amazon, trying to take her focus off the pain between her legs. "That's it Pony, love. That's it."
Nodding her head, the Amazon's breath hissed, nonetheless. When the healer demanded that she push once more, Eponin gathered all her waning strength and pushed as hard as she could. Her efforts were rewarded by a toothy grin from the aging healer.
"Artemis be praised, it's another girl," she announced.
Eponin collapsed back onto Wolf who wiped her brow clean of sweat for the thousandth time. "We did it, Wolf."
"Yes, we did," the demi-god agreed, awed by the sight of the twin babies who were being cleaned by the gentle hands of the Warrior Princess. They were brought out of their study by the healer's command.
"Just one more push...come on, Eponin."
Supported by Wolf, the Amazon complied and the afterbirth was expelled. "Is it over now," she asked.
Xena smiled as she handed the women their little girls. "Just have to clean you up," she explained as she punched the demi-god gently on the shoulder.
Wolf's eyes conveyed her gratitude before they drifted down to the sight of her family. Silent tears began to fall when she realized the tiny miracles her bondmate held. Her questing finger was grasped instinctively and she counted five miniature fingers on each of four hands, while Eponin counted toes.
After the healer cleaned between the new mother's legs and disposed of the bloody sheets that had been layered under her hips, she ushered the Queen and her Consort out of the hut. "They need time to themselves, now," she explained.
The sight that greeted the three of them was one of typical Amazon revelry. Even at the early evening's hour, wineskins had been broken open at the sound of the second child's cry. Xena raised her hands and gave a shrill whistle to gain the celebrants' attention. When she was sure that all ears were trained for her words, she waited for a heartbeat and announced, "Both girls, healthy and all together."
The cries of joy that erupted drowned out the last of her words, but Xena was not offended. She almost allowed herself to be swept up into the waves of Amazons who were rejoicing the newest members of the tribe. The presence at her side, however, brought her to her senses. Wrapping an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders, she ducked her head to reach a delicate ear. "I bet you're hungry, huh?"
Gabrielle looked up into her wife's eyes and allowed herself to float in that place she always found herself when she saw their deep color. Nodding mutely, she consented to the warrior's escort to the food hut, where the cooks were busy preparing a late dinner.
Xena knocked tentatively on the door frame, not expecting an answer at the early hour. She was surprised when Wolf poked her head around the covering. "I just wanted to see how everyone was," she explained.
Wolf nodded and ushered the other woman into the hut. "Just getting breakfast ready," she explained as she crawled onto the pallet and helped Eponin open her tunic. When the Amazon's heavy breasts were bared, Wolf gathered a fitful baby and guided her to the nourishment.
The tranquil vision of mother and child softened Xena's heart. She imagined another woman, one with honey-gold hair and a brilliant smile. She was already feeling the first twinges of nervousness, and her wife still had two months to go before her birthing time. Things had not been as bad as she had thought they would be...settling down. She had left only twice so far to help neighbors.
She had gone to the Centaurs to help them rebuild a dozen huts that had been ravaged by fire. It had been an exercise in purging her soul. Everywhere she turned, she was reminded of Solon. She could still hear his laughter, his plea to accompany them on their journeys. By the time that she had returned to the Amazon village, the memories were no longer so painful as to cut her to her soul.
The second time she left was to travel to Garalis. She had noted with awe the progress that the women had made in rebuilding their village. In the five years that had passed since Gael's army had ravaged it to ruins, the village had expanded past its former boundaries. Amazons from otherwise crowded villages had migrated to Garalis, breathing new life into the northern territory. Arna had been a solicitous host, but Xena had kept her business short so that she could return to the Queen.
With each day, the wanderlust had grown more faint. She found herself falling into the routines of the Amazon village. At first light, she would rise and leave for the practice field for some private exercise. By the time she was warmed up, other warriors would arrive, followed by Eponin and a nurse who cared for the Weaponsmaster's twins while she instructed the younger women.
When practice was over, Xena would return to her hut, where, without exception, Gabrielle would just be rising from their pallet. With rapt attention, she would help her wife dress (and she knew that the bard found it irritating occasionally), and would escort her to the dining hall where they would break their fast on the porridge that Gabrielle still craved.
After breakfast, she would accompany the Queen to council chambers and listen as Gabrielle fulfilled her duties. At times, it was a simple matter of hearing a dispute. At others, the Queen was occupied for hours, working through the details of some treaty with Ephiny and few members of the elder council.
A break would be called at noon, and the two of them would usually slip out of the village to enjoy their lunch in private. They would talk quietly and share the baby's active play within Gabrielle's womb. Unless important matters urged otherwise, they would then return to spend time with Wolf and Ep and the twins.
A gentle nudge brought the warrior to her present. Focusing her gaze, she looked down at the demi-god who offered her a precious bundle. "Which one is this?"
"Zasha," Wolf replied with a gentle smile that took years off her face, reminding Xena of the first time she had seen the small woman.
The tall warrior seated herself on a chair to study the child entrusted to her arms. The cherubic face seemed wizened beyond its time as the baby studied the play of light that danced off the warrior's breastplate. She had only a moment to enjoy the tranquil exchange before the other twin was given to her care. "Hey there, Peran," she cooed to the more active of the identical pair. The infant replied with a series of arm waves that almost resembled Wolf's training routine. Xena chuckled deep in her throat at the antics.
"Bet you can't wait for your own," Wolf observed astutely.
"Two more months," Xena returned as she traced the delicate skin of Peran's arm. Blushing slightly at the gentleness she rarely displayed, Xena handed Wolf her daughter and stood, clearing her throat. "Well, I better get down to the training field," she announced gruffly. "I'll see you there shortly, Ep."
The Amazon nodded as she finished preparing Zasha for the morning, binding the infant snuggly in her carrier. When she was finished, she accepted Peran from her mate and repeated the process. With a mind for promptness, their nanny arrived on time and walked with the two warriors to the field where Xena was just warming up to her more difficult routines.
With one eye on her children in the shade of a nearby tree, and one on her bondmate who was instructing a first-year class on the finer points of staff work, Wolf appeared to relax her vigilance, although those who knew her well, knew that the demi-god's senses were always alert. The only outward sign she showed of danger was the sudden tensing of her arms which were crossed over her chest. Lifting her head to taste the wind that carried scents from the south, her eyes widened. Checking the field and the village beyond for any sign of trouble, she sprinted over to the tall warrior who had just begun to spar.
"Xena," she called before she reached the woman.
"Wha...," Xena recognized the look in her friend's eyes and surveyed the area with dead calm. When she saw the demi-god's nostrils flare, she inhaled deeply and tasted the acrid odor of smoke on the back of her tongue. "How far?"
"Thirty, maybe thirty-five miles."
Xena nodded and sheathed her sword. "You go tell Eph. I'll get the horses ready."
Wolf had won the argument with the Regent, and she and Xena arrived at the burned-out village without an Amazon escort. Small fires were still burning among the charred husks of homes that had obviously been looted. The demi-god squinted her eyes in an effort to clear the stinging smoke from them. She rubbed them as they began to tear. "How long do you figure," she asked Xena, as she wiped her wet palms across her leather skirt, sure that the warrior's history gave her the experience to judge.
"Four hours, maybe less." The ex-warlord studied the ruined dwellings. "The wood was aged, pretty dry. It must have gone up quick."
The demi-god settled Beast with a firm squeeze of her thighs. "Doesn't look like anyone's left," she observed, watching the bodies that were strewn about for any signs of life.
Xena circled around the signs of a struggle. "They took the survivors for slaves," she growled.
Wolf urged her mare closer and let her eyes follow the cart trail into the light forest. "Should we follow?"
"I will," Xena replied. "I want you to get back to the village once Beast is cooled down. Tell Ephiny that Terlava was taken. I'll be back as soon as I find out where they are taking them."
Wanting to argue, but knowing that the Warrior Princess had a stronger will when she set her mind to it, Wolf nodded with compliance. "Be careful," she warned.
Xena watched as her friend dismounted and led Beast to a water trough and began to brush her down with a clump of sweet grass. "You too," she ordered as she urged Argo onto the trail that was marked with heavy wheel prints.
When Wolf returned to the Amazon village, she found Gabrielle pacing slowly as Ephiny tried to convince her to sit and rest.
Ephiny saw the demi-god first as the small woman dismounted. "Wolf, thank the gods."
"Wolf," Gabrielle cried, "where's Xena?"
The Amazon guard took the Queen gently by the shoulders and guided her to a bench. "Xena's fine, Gabrielle. We found Terlava raided. She believes that the survivors were captured as slaves. Last I saw her, she was following their trail."
"Is she going to engage them," Ephiny asked, keeping a sharp eye on the Queen who had begun to show signs of an explosion.
Wolf shook her head as she accepted a waterskin with a grateful smile, from her bondmate, who had seen her arrival from their hut. "No. She's just going to find out what's going on. She'll be back after she learns where they are going."
"Are you sure," Gabrielle asked, her words forced through clenched teeth. The bard was quickly losing the battle to fear.
"Oh, yeah," the demi-god assured her. "Xena won't take any stupid chances."
Three pairs of eyebrows quirked at the small guard's words. She answered with a similar look. "Not anymore, she won't. Trust me on this one."
Continued...Part 2 (conclusion)