Characters and backstory from Xena: Warrior Princess are property of MCA/Universal/Renaissance. No copyright infringement is intended.
This is an original 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 women. 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.
Thank you for taking the time to read this.
Author's Note: This story takes place a month after "The Way of The Mother."
Even though this series does not follow the show after a certain point in the third season, the recent episode "A Good Day" inspired the ending of this story and will probably inspire future stories of this series, as well. I was deeply affected by Gabrielle's difficult choice in that episode, as well as her reaction to the outcome. Renee did another outstanding job portraying the bard (as if she could do poorly).
Comments can be sent to email@example.com
The Way of the Family
Copyright October 30, 1998
The queen's hut was fairly quiet; a lone candle cast a soft light over the soft pallet upon which two bodies were intertwined. A muted growl was the only sound besides the whisper of bedding that moved across sated passions.
Xena inhaled deeply and reached down to pull her wife up along side her sweating length. She chuckled low and pushed red-gold hair off Gabrielle's face. Pulling the bard closer, her tongue reached out to taste the moist traces of her own orgasm.
Catching the warrior's tongue in her mouth, Gabrielle sucked on it playfully before releasing it and collapsing onto her lover's body. She smiled contentedly and rubbed her nose in the valley of Xena's breasts. "Mmm...I can do that again," she murmured even as she stifled a yawn.
"I would love nothing more, sweetheart," the warrior replied as she lightly caressed the smaller woman's spine, "but we have to leave early tomorrow."
"I know," the bard sighed as she kissed the swell of a damp breast. "We haven't seen Mom since before the babies were born."
"And you know that she'll disown me again if she doesn't see her granddaughters soon."
Gabrielle smothered a laugh for her wife's dry humor. "All right...I'll go to sleep," she promised.
"Wait," the warrior whispered as she rearranged their bodies more comfortably. She lowered her head and tenderly kissed Gabrielle's swollen lips. "Now we can go to sleep." The smaller bard snuggled into Xena's side and closed her eyes.
After one last look to the crib on the other side of the room, the warrior laid back and let the lethargy of spent passion relax her body. Before she surrendered to sleep, she clasped the bard's hand in her own and brought it up to cover her heart.
The next morning, the couple rose before the sun and enjoyed a few moments of quiet peace before waking their daughters for the trip to Amphipolis. A knock at their door was answered and Wolf entered; she carried a tray heavy with fruit and warm cereal.
"I thought you'd want to eat before we left," she said as she set the tray on the table near the bed.
Gabrielle handed Larin to the guard and pulled the tray onto her lap. After adding honey to one bowl of cereal, she scooted closer to Wolf and smiled at her daughter. "Open up, Princess," she cooed.
Princess Larin, at only ten and a half months, already resembled the queen in many ways. Her emerald eyes were bright with intelligence; her playful smile could light up a room. To everybody's amusement, however, was her burgeoning appetite. She weaned herself earlier than most children; her eagerness to try new foods and flavors was already the making of a legend.
The bard smiled encouragingly when her daughter accepted the spoon of cereal and then reached out for another. "All right...here it comes."
Wolf rolled her eyes affectionately and turned to Xena who settled on the bed to feed Eponin. "The wagon's ready outside," she said as she carefully pulled her braid from Larin's sticky grasp. "I've got four guards that will be accompanying us."
The warrior nodded briefly before bowing her head to watch her daughter feed. Mentally, she winced at the thought of travelling with a wagon. With the children and the extra baggage, however, it was necessary. Gabrielle had convinced her of such when she calmly reminded the warrior that Argo was a two-seater and there were four bodies as well as more gear than the mare could carry.
Shaking off her disgruntlement, the warrior returned her attention to the small guard. "Who's going?" she asked softly so as not to disturb the infant.
"Darlea, Ishta, M'Eru, and Tera," the demi-god responded as she reached down to wipe a fleck of cereal off her arm. Sucking on her finger, her brow furrowed in thought. "I thought it would be best to have four instead of two since there will be a festival going on."
Xena agreed with a sigh. "I'd forgotten all about it until Mother mentioned it in her scroll."
Gabrielle shook her head in disbelief. "Xena, how can you forget about the Harvest Festival?"
The warrior's brow rose with a slight smirk. "Gabrielle, I've never been one for festivals. You should know that by now."
"Yeah, yeah...Warrior Princess just does not know how to have a little fun," the bard muttered with a glint of amusement in her eyes. "Well, I am going to have fun," the bard continued cheerily with a smile for Larin. "Aren't we, Princess? We'll go shopping and try all the food."
The child eagerly agreed by waving her arms energetically.
Wolf grinned at the display in her lap. After a moment, she turned serious and began to discuss security precautions with Xena. By the time they had gone over each one, Gabrielle took Larin from Wolf and began to clean her for the trip.
The demi-god stood and accepted a rag from the queen. "Well," she said as she wiped the remnants of Larin's breakfast off her arms and legs, "I'm going to make sure that the twins are ready. I'll see you outside in a bit."
Xena laid Eponin over her shoulder and spoke softly to the infant as she patted her back. After a single burp, the warrior stood and cleaned the baby. After dressing her in a simple smock that tied closed at the feet, Xena put her in the crib. Crossing to the wash basin, she quickly cleaned her face and neck. By the time that she was finished with her arms and legs, Gabrielle was ready with her leathers and armor.
"Ready for your first family vacation?" the bard asked as she laced Xena's battledress.
The warrior grunted noncommittally as she raised her armor to cover her breasts. "I'll be happy once we're off the road and safe in Amphipolis," she replied.
When the four of them were ready to go, Xena gather Larin into her arms and settled her on a hip.
Reaching down, she caught her saddlebags and draped them over the other arm. "Ready?"
Gabrielle looked at the warrior and then down at the infant that was sleeping in her arms. "Yep," she answered. "Don't forget about our bag," she reminded her wife as she stepped out of the hut into the bright morning sun.
Xena looked at her own burdens and then to the bag that was bursting at the seams. With a frustrated sigh, she bent at the knees and caught the bag with her free hand. With a heave and an awkward gait, she pushed her way through the heavy leather that covered the door.
Wolf took the bag from her as soon as the demi-god saw her predicament. Ephiny took Larin so that the warrior could fasten the saddlebags to Argo.
The blonde Amazon grinned with amusement as she observed the minor confusion that heralded a family trip. She smiled warmly at Gabrielle when the bard stepped away from the wagon. "Don't worry about things here. You go have a good time with your family."
"Thanks, Eph," the queen said as she hugged her regent with one arm. "You are the best."
The regent nodded; her eyes were bright as Solari joined them. "Just remember...you owe me one." She handed Larin to Triva who was sitting next to a small pallet in the back of the wagon.
"I will," the bard promised as she took Eponin and passed her to join her big sister in the wagon.
Mounting to the seat on the wagon, the bard threaded the reins through her fingers. "We'll see you in a couple of weeks."
"Oh, we'll be here," Ephiny assured her. "I look forward to hearing all the details."
When Xena mounted Argo and signalled the guards to the ready, Gabrielle nodded. "I look forward to telling them."
The Amazons gathered in the square to wave farewell to their queen and consort.
In the lead, Xena's face was a mask that hid her feelings. This was the first time that she would take her family out of the boundaries of Amazonia. She knew the dangers that awaited them on the open road. With a last look behind at the four guards that were saying their good-byes, she prayed that she would be able to keep them all safe.
Xena glanced over her shoulder and furrowed her brow at the party she was leading up the wide road. Between the cart that made creaky noises when it hit every single rut in the road and the demi-god who would not stop giggling with her little ones, the small group was making enough noise to wake the dead. *And they call themselves Amazons,* she thought with a scowl.
Normally, travelling under such conditions would not have aggravated her as much, but considering their precious passengers, she was liable to go back and smack Wolf around just a bit so that the small warrior would be quiet.
At the sound of a fitful wail, she bowed her head and signaled for the party to stop. Dismounting, she glared at the demi-god that could not resist a returning smirk. Xena stopped and took a deep breath. She exhaled it on a tolerant sigh after a moment's hesitation when she looked up to the cart and into Gabrielle's face.
The bard was driving the cart that was hitting every single rut.
The warrior cocked a brow and shook her head slowly. "I guess we stop here to rest," she announced.
Gabrielle had to bite her lip to keep a straight face. The four-day trip to Amphipolis was turning into a week's journey. Between the children whose feeding schedules were unsynchronized and causing them to stop every couple of hours, to the Royal Guards who were simply trying to enjoy the time away from the village, things were moving slower than Xena liked.
This time, however, it was the Warrior Princess herself, who was the indirect cause of the recent ruckus. When it came to feeding time, Little Ep was more impatient than her golden-haired mother was.
"You know, Xena," Wolf commented as she dismounted and handed her twins to Triva, "I swear I can hear your battlecry in her call."
"Shut up, Wolf," the tall warrior grumbled.
"Isn't motherhood grand?" the demi-god continued, uncaring that Xena was grinding her teeth loud enough to scare away nearby animals.
Gathering Eponin gently into her arms, the warrior moved off to the side of the road and unbuckled her armor. Lowering her leathers to free a breast, she snorted. "I'll get you for this," she warned the smaller warrior darkly.
Wolf grinned even wider and ordered the rest of the guard off the road and into the shade. Once the cart was to the side and Gabrielle had dismounted with Larin, the small warrior joined her friend. "Just think of all the fun we'll have once we actually get to Amphipolis," she said with a wink to the Queen. "I bet we'll never want to leave once we get there."
"There's going to be food and dancing," Gabrielle chimed in with a suggestive smile for her wife.
Lulled by the soft suckling noises her daughter was making, as well as the light banter that was being passed at her expense, Xena bowed her head. "All right, I get the picture."
Gabrielle and Wolf shared a silent victory and then sat in a loose circle with Xena, Triva, and the four other Amazons that had accompanied them on their trip. When Larin started to doze on her lap, Gabrielle moved closer to her wife and laid her head upon a shoulder naked of armor. She snuggled even closer when Xena bowed her head to bestow a grateful kiss on her brow.
"You're right," the consort whispered. "It'll be better once we get there. I'm just a little grumpy, that's all," she admitted with a dry chuckle.
Tilting her head so that she could see into the hypnotic blue depths of Xena's eyes, Gabrielle smiled softly. "We'll be there soon enough," she promised.
Kissing Gabrielle once more, Xena laid her head back against the trunk of the tree behind her.
The bard understood why her wife's temper was so short. It really had nothing to do with the fact that they were obligated to introduce their new family to her mother. It had nothing to do with the Harvest Festival. Rather, it had everything to do with the fact that Xena, Warrior Princess, former Destroyer of Nations was nervous about seeing her mother.
Cyrene never knew about Solon, and for that, Xena still carried a bit of guilt. Now that she had two more children, she wanted to make sure that her mother had the opportunity to know them. She was afraid, however, of the advice and criticism she imagined that she would meet. She was never one to take suggestions very well and she did not want to offend her mother by saying something sharp or callous.
All she wanted now was to be a good wife and mother. She thought she was doing fairly well on both accounts. Gabrielle assured her on a daily basis that her life was better than she ever dreamed of. The warrior could not bear the thought of someone like her mother, who she cared about deeply, having a different opinion.
Realizing that she was only avoiding the reunion by sitting on the side of the road, the warrior laid her daughter on her lap and adjusted her leathers and armor. "Everybody on their feet," she called softly. "The sooner we get there, the better."
The rest of the trip passed quickly. Xena was not sure if she should feel grateful or annoyed; she was glad to be off the open road and was annoyed with her own nervousness. She settled for both, which left her fidgeting even as she relaxed her guard.
They arrived in Amphipolis two days later around mid-day. The square was busy with activity. With the excitement of the festival claiming their attention, few townspeople noted the arrival of the Amazon party.
Dismounting from the wagon, Xena moved to the back of the wagon to untie Argo. The mare had thrown a shoe the day before while Xena was exercising her. "I'm going to run Argo over to the smithy and then I'll be right back," she said as she walked away from the group.
The bard jumped lightly to the ground and helped Triva off the back. Taking both of her daughters in her arms, she watched as the tall Amazon walked over to Beast and gathered Peran into her arms.
Wolf winked as she wrapped an arm around Zasha and slid from the large warhorse. "I'd better put her in the corral myself. She won't go with a stable hand," she said as she called over her shoulder for her mare to follow.
Triva looked down at the queen and shook her head. "Warriors and their horses," she chuckled.
"Didn't I tell you," the bard asked, "we have three children. I adopted Argo when Xena and I met."
"Sometimes I think I'm still jealous of Beast."
"Trust me, it takes a couple of years. Before you know it, you'll be talking to the horse like it was a real person."
The two women smiled warmly for their mates that were returning together. The tall, lithe woman and the short, stocky one would have made a comical sight if it were not for the fact that both wore lethal weapons with deadly confidence.
When the warriors reached the small group, Gabrielle could see the anxiety that clouded Xena's beautiful eyes. "Hey," the bard whispered as she laid a calming hand on her wife's arm, "it's just Mom, all right? She'll be so busy spoiling the girls that she won't have time to even consider talking to you."
Xena grinned despite her tumultuous emotions and quirked a brow. "Gee, thanks, honey."
"No problem, warrior," the bard replied. "Now let's get our butts inside and introduce the kids."
Entering the tavern first, the consort glanced around and saw no patrons that were unfamiliar. She heard her name whispered at a few tables and she wondered why her kinsmen still treated her as they did. She had been out of the hero business for over a year and her warlord days were even further behind. Surely, Amphipolis had something or someone else to talk about by now.
The warrior turned towards the door that led to the kitchen and found her mother pushing her way through the throng that congregated at the bar. Smiling, Xena held out her arms for an embrace. She was shocked when her mother merely kissed and patted her cheek.
"Where are they? Where are my granddaughters," the innkeeper asked as she looked behind the warrior with a wide-eyed expression of expectation.
As if on cue, the tavern door opened and four Amazon guards dressed in all their station's finery entered and stood to the ready. Between the two queues, Gabrielle, Triva, and Wolf followed.
The tavern fell quiet as they watched the Amazon guards pay respect to their passing queen. All but Wolf and Triva fell to one knee and saluted after Gabrielle had passed.
Cyrene watched with excitement as her eyes studied the children that the three standing women were holding. "Okay, which ones are mine," she asked, darting a glance to her daughter.
Gabrielle stepped forward and turned Eponin in her arms so that the innkeeper could see her. "Mom, this is Eponin."
The proud grandmother clapped her hands once in silent adoration. "By the gods, she's beautiful. And look at all that hair," she gasped.
"This is Larin," Xena said after she had taken the young princess from Triva, who was also holding Zasha.
The older woman's eyes grew wide in disbelief as she beheld her first grandchild. "Sweet Hestia, look at this child," she exclaimed. "My granddaughter," she sobbed.
The innkeeper turned to the crowd that had forgotten their food and drink. "Everyone," she shouted unnecessarily, "I want you meet my granddaughters," she announced with a proud grin.
For a moment, there was utter silence. It made Xena's skin crawl, for it reminded her of the time right before battle when all of nature's creatures sought refuge. The thunderous applause that finally assaulted her was surprising.
"This is one Tartarus of a homecoming," Wolf mumbled as she moved to Xena's side.
"Had no idea," Xena returned.
Cyrene turned back to the new arrivals and studied them with curiosity. "So, Xena, who are all of your friends?"
The warrior focused her attention once more on her mother. "Uh...well, this is Wolf," she started in an almost formal tone. "She is the Captain of the Royal Guard and a good friend," she said with a tight smile for the demi-god. "This is Triva, she is Wolf's partner and an Amazon Caregiver...she cares for the children. The little ones are Wolf's...Zasha and Peran."
Xena took a deep breath and concentrated on not losing her patience at the long introductions. "The other four are members of the Amazon Royal Guard. That is Darlea, Ishta, Tera, and M'Eru."
"My," Cyrene breathed with a hand to her chest, "so exotic. I had no idea. And Gabrielle leads all of you?"
Wolf snorted in amusement. She was rewarded with a curt cuff upside the head. "Hey!" Turning to face the tall warrior who had smacked her, the demi-god shifted the child on her hip. "I thought it was funny," she grumbled.
Gabrielle shook her head in amusement until she saw Cyrene's reaction to the two warriors quietly snapping at each other. "Don't worry, Mom. They're like that all the time."
"Why?" the older woman whispered with confusion. "I thought they were friends."
"Oh, they are. They like to bicker...it gets their juices flowing," the bard replied enigmatically.
"I'm sorry, Mother," Xena apologized softly. "Gabrielle does lead these women, but she is also the ruling queen of about three thousand more that are scattered all over Greece, Macedonia, and as far north as Gaul. I'm very proud at how well she does it," the warrior finished quietly so that only Cyrene and Gabrielle could hear.
Gabrielle's eyes misted with sparkling tears that threatened to fall. Her lips trembled slightly until she parted them to take a deep breath. "You're not so bad yourself, Xena," she responded; her voice was slightly hoarse with emotion.
The spell was broken when Eponin's face scrunched up into a look of displeasure. The silence was sliced by her high-pitched wail.
Forgetting where she was and who was watching, Xena took the baby from her wife's arms and began to croon while she bounced her daughter gently. "Shh, there, Princess, Mommy's here."
Cyrene's face softened and she wiped a tear from her cheek with a hasty hand. "Well," she announced cheerily, "I guess I better find a room for everyone."
"Ma'am," Wolf called as stepped forward, "if it's possible, I would like to board the guards on either side of Gabrielle's room, and I would like the room across the hall from them."
"Of course," the innkeeper began. "I saved four rooms just like Xena asked."
Wolf glanced at the tall warrior and shook her head. She turned to give the guards instructions to begin bringing in the bags.
"Well, come along, then," Cyrene said as she nuzzled Larin's hair. "Better get you folks settled."
Soon after the rooms had been divided, the four guards carried Xena and Gabrielle's bags to their room as Cyrene flitted about, fixing the sheets and straightening candles in their holders. When the innkeeper saw her daughters' meager belongings, her brows knit in a frown. "Is this all you have," she asked as she studied the large bag.
"Yeah, why?" Xena asked, surprised that her mother would be concerned about their gear.
"Well, I just assumed that with the two of you and the babies that there would be so much more."
Gabrielle chuckled and patted Cyrene's hand. "That's more than we usually travel with, and the girls' stuff takes up most of the room."
The conversation was interrupted when Darlea struggled through the room's doorway with part of a crib in her hands. "Where do you want this," she asked with a grunt as she flashed a look to Ishta who had bumped into her.
"Over there is good," the queen answered, pointing to an empty spot along the wall.
Darlea nodded and set her piece of the crib against the wall. When the other three guards delivered the rest of the little bed, she began to assemble it with a frown of consternation.
When Xena made a move to help the guard, Gabrielle stopped her. "I'll get it," she said as Eponin began to fuss once more. "You have a princess to feed."
Xena nodded and laid Eponin on the bed. She ignored her mother's look of curious astonishment as she removed her armor and lowered her battledress off her shoulders. Gathering the fussy baby in her arms, she settled on the bed and gasped softly. The first moment that the baby found her nourishment and clamped down to suck it from the teat always startled the warrior, no matter how many times she experienced it.
Cyrene crossed the room to settle on the edge of the bed; the four Amazons hindering Gabrielle's progress with the crib were forgotten. The innkeeper only had eyes for her daughter and granddaughter. "That's a good look for you," the older woman complimented. "I never thought that I would ever see you settle down, Little One. Now look at you...you are married and have two beautiful daughters. It is more than I ever dreamed for you."
The warrior blushed with embarrassment and pleasure. "Gabrielle deserves all the credit. If I had never met her, I probably would be dead now," she replied softly as she lowered her head to study the feeding infant; she thanked the gods that she had met the bard so long ago. Seeing a small child so content in her arms wiped away the nightmares she had accumulated during her ten years as a warlord.
The innkeeper ran a gentle finger across Eponin's cheek. "She so big. She's only three and a half months, right?"
"She sure is," Xena confirmed. "Her...uh...father was a big man," the warrior said with a slight frown as she thought of Atronos.
Cyrene read the discomfort in her daughter's face; she made a mental note to never ask Xena about the baby's father. "Well," she said, trying to lighten things up, "her mother is no slouch in the size department either." The older woman shook her head. "Look at you. I swear that you're even bigger than the last time we saw each other."
Wolf grinned as she entered the room and lay out on the bed next to Xena. "Nah...only a couple of parts are bigger."
The tall warrior glared at the demi-god's impish face. "I'm sure that there is a horse trough somewhere with your name on it," she warned.
The demi-god scratched her neck and craned innocent eyes towards her friend. "What did I say?"
Cyrene cocked her head, studying the two women. They had removed their swords when they settled in their respective rooms, but both were still formidable, even though Xena was naked from the waist-up and nursing her child. When the taller warrior broke her tense stare with a grin, the innkeeper sighed. "You two really do enjoy it."
Wolf laughed aloud and grabbed Xena's face so that she could kiss her cheek wetly. "I'm going to take a look around outside. Come find me when you're finished so that we can scout the village."
Xena nodded, serious once more. "I shouldn't be much longer."
The innkeeper watched the small demi-god leave the room. She turned to her daughter and arched a questioning brow. "What does she mean? We haven't had any raiders since...a long time ago," she said, remembering Xena's rampage of terror that preserved Amphipolis from of any warlord's attention.
"Since Gabrielle is the Amazon Queen, we must always be careful with her safety. Someone who holds a grudge against the Nation can endanger even the children. Wolf is very thorough when it comes to protecting my family."
"As are you," Cyrene added with pride. "I'm going to go back downstairs and make sure that everything is all right in the tavern. Afterwards, why don't we sit down at catch up on things?"
"Uh...sure," the warrior replied with a tentative grin. When the innkeeper left the room, Xena sighed quietly.
"Hey," a soothing voice whispered.
"Hey, yourself. Get the crib assembled?"
"Yeah. It's all ready to go if you want to put her down for her nap. I'll stay here with Triva and the kids. You go find Wolf and prowl around town for a while."
Xena handed Eponin to Gabrielle and fixed her clothing. After kissing the bard farewell, she gathered her armor and weapons, buckling and fastening them as she walked down the hall. She glanced around the tavern and noted that there were fewer people, as many had finished their noon meal. Seeing no threat among those that remained, the warrior left the inn to find Wolf.
She found the demi-god talking with the stable master and pointing to various horses that had been set loose to prance in the corral.
"See any you recognize?" Xena asked as she approached.
Wolf shook her head and dismissed the villager with a curt nod of gratitude for his time. "No, but that white gelding over there has a familiar brand on its flank. I can't place it. Have you seen it before?"
Xena narrowed her eyes as she studied the animal in question. "I don't think so," she replied. "Why don't we start scouting the south end of town and make our way east? That way, when we finish, we can check near the river for any landing activity."
The guard nodded and bowed with a sweeping gesture of her arm. "Lead on, mighty Consort. This is your town, after all."
Xena headed out of town and led the smaller woman over rocky land that was suited to the region's principal occupation of shepherding. After making a circuit of the town, they stopped at the Strymon River and quenched their thirsts. The sun was well into its descent towards the horizon.
"I didn't see anything unusual," Wolf commented as she sank into the sandy soil that banked the river.
"Me neither. I still want to keep an eye on things, though."
Xena glanced up at the sky that was beginning to change colors with the approaching dusk. "We'd better get back before the queen calls the troops out to come looking for us," she said as she stretched her arms and inhaled deeply. "Besides, it's past Eppy's feeding time. Gabrielle is probably cursing me blue."
"I'll race ya, then," the demi-god challenged as she rose to her full height, which was nine inches shorter than the other warrior was.
Never able to resist a challenge, Xena heartily agreed.
By the time that the two women reached the tavern, they were breathing heavily.
"You know," Xena said as she entered the crowded common room, "that would have been a lot easier if you hadn't tackled me every twenty yards."
"It seemed like the thing to do at the time," the demi-god answered as she studied a bleeding gash on her elbow. "What do you think?" she asked.
Xena shrugged as she took the proffered elbow in her hands. "Doesn't look like it needs stitches." The tall warrior smirked lazily. "That's what you get for trying to elbow me in the gut."
"Damn armor," Wolf muttered playfully.
"Come on, everyone is waiting for us and your guards do not look too happy to be pressed into babysitting duty."
"I'm going to run upstairs and wrap this. I'll be down to join you in a moment."
Xena nodded as she crossed the tavern to the table that her mother had reserved for them while they were visiting.
When Wolf returned, Gabrielle was the center of a lively conversation that was part story and part debate.
"So, there I am...rubbing her back and she stands up and says that she has to go to our hut. Of course, I think she just wants to lie down or something," the bard said. "Next thing I know, she tells me that she is going to need the healer."
"No!" Cyrene cried with mirth, "don't tell me."
"Nagla comes to our hut and examines Xena. She tells me that my wife is about ready to deliver. Five minutes later, we welcomed Eponin into the world."
"It was not five minutes," Xena argued as she gathered a restless Eponin from Darlea. "It was more like half an hour."
"Actually, it was twenty minutes if you want to get the details right," Wolf said as she joined the group.
Gabrielle dismissed the arguments with a wave of her hand. "Call it poetic license...all right? The point is that Xena was in labor the entire day and never told anyone until the last possible moment."
"That sounds like my daughter," Cyrene chuckled. "Never did like to admit that she was hurting." The innkeeper's gaze grew distant as she recalled incidents from the warrior's childhood. "There was this one time when she was out in the corral trying to sweet talk a horse that a neighbor had just bought. It was a stallion the size of a hut and it had not been broken yet. None of this mattered to Xena, though. She just wanted to pet the horse. She had taken a carrot from my kitchen so that she could bribe the beast to come to her. That horse came to her, of course...she could charm anyone or anything since the day she was born. But just as she tried to reach out and pet the stallion, it reared."
Cyrene paused to take a sip of water. "Xena was so surprised, she ended up falling off the fence and bruising her backside. When she came home, she couldn't even stand straight. I asked her what happened, but all she did was mutter something about dumb horses and stupid carrots." The innkeeper finished her tale with a hearty laugh. "I'm surprised she ever went near the horse again, but two months later, she talked the owner into letting her ride it."
"How old was she," Gabrielle asked.
"What were you, about eight?" the older woman asked her daughter.
"Yeah, about that, I guess." Xena smiled fondly, remembering the first horse she ever rode. "It took a week until I could sit right after falling off that fence."
"I never did find out what happened until the stable boy came by with his family for dinner one night. He asked me how Xena was feeling. I managed to get the story out of him after promising him an extra dessert." Cyrene's eyes were full of love. "I was so proud of her when I saw her in the saddle, learning how to control the stallion. After that, I couldn't keep her away from the stables."
"Sounds like my Xena," the bard commented.
Cyrene looked up when another group of patrons entered the tavern. "Well, I better get back to work," she sighed. "Let me know if you need anything."
The Amazons nodded in unison as they continued to eat. When Xena removed her armor and lowered the shoulder of her battledress, each guard as well as their captain, became even more vigilant of the people in the common room.
The bard turned to her wife and reached out to take Eponin's tiny hand into her own. "So, did you and Wolf find anything?"
The warrior shook her head and smiled warmly for the bard. "No."
"How come you look like you took on a few dozen raiders, then?" Gabrielle took a napkin from the table and wiped traces of sweat from Xena's face and neck. "And why does Wolf have her arm bandaged?"
Xena chuckled a bit and shrugged. "You know how she is...."
The bard's eyes sparkled with humor. "Please...tell me."
"Well," Xena began with another slight motion of her shoulders, "competitive."
"Hmm...and you aren't?"
The warrior's eyes widened innocently. "She's the one who suggested a race."
"And I suppose you didn't love every second of it."
A guilty half-grin belied Xena's answer. She answered with a short grunt before lowering her gaze to her nursing daughter. Clearing her throat, she apologized for being late. "Sorry about taking so long. I hope Eponin didn't fuss much."
"Actually," the bard replied as she finished chewing a morsel of chicken, "she woke up just before you got here. I think the trip wore her out."
Xena nodded; she released a breath of relief. "I'm still getting used to someone depending upon me so much," she admitted in a soft voice. The warrior's voice caught in her throat and her words became choked. "I don't want to mess this up."
Gabrielle's hand slipped under the cover of the table to settle gently on her wife's thigh. "Trust me, Xena, you are doing fine. Look at her...she's healthy and happy."
The warrior blinked back a tear as she trailed a callused fingertip down her daughter's arm. She wanted to argue and deny Gabrielle's claim, but instead, she quietly said, "Thank you."
Patting the warrior's leg, the bard smiled warmly and cocked her head. "For what, Xena? For supporting you? For loving you with every fiber of my being? For choosing you to raise and nurture our family?" The petite blonde snorted gently. "Please don't insult me. You know damn well that you are an incredible person, despite a few past errors in judgement."
Shaking her head at the bard's stalwart defense, the warrior sighed. "First of all, there were more than a few errors, and second, I was not insulting you. I know better than to piss you off," she joked. Her face grew serious once more as she turned to capture her wife's eyes. "I guess I just need someone to remind me every once in a while that I'm not alone in this."
"Well, just ask me," Gabrielle said as she leaned closer, "I am more than willing to tell you every second of my life."
Looking deep into the bard's eyes full of love and trust, Xena felt another doubt melt away. "I love you, Gabrielle," she whispered with simple truth.
The next morning, the Amazons awoke to the sounds of the village preparing for the first day of celebration. In the early morning, vendors were already opening their stalls and casks of fresh ale were cracked. The songs of the village women rose in concert to greet the rising sun.
Wolf stepped out into the hallway and rubbed her eyes. Her hair was damp and traces of water were still moist upon her face and neck. She met an amused consort as she attempted to silence the buzzing in her ears.
Xena grinned knowingly as she crossed her arms. "All of a sudden," she remarked dryly, "I remember why I don't drink so much anymore."
The guard's snort of amusement was cut short when the vibration sent needles of pain into her skull. "I should have known better than to take a drinking bet," she muttered with a wince. "What's your cure for a hangover?"
An evil glint sparked in the tall warrior's eyes. "It's vile and stinks to Tartarus and back," she revealed, "but it works like magic. Come on, I'll make you feel better."
"Isn't that what I said after the twelfth mug last night?" Wolf asked with a befuddled expression.
Xena's chuckle was low and soft. "And right before Gabrielle pulled you off my lap."
"Huh...I guess she won't be talking to me this morning."
"Don't worry about it. She wasn't mad."
Wolf cradled her face in her hands as she followed the taller warrior downstairs, through the tavern, and into the kitchen. She blushed slightly when Cyrene gave them a disapproving look.
"I'm glad to see that a keg of ale won't even keep you down," she remarked casually as she worked over a long stove that was covered by various pots and pans.
Xena kissed her mother good morning and stretched to retrieve a couple of eggs from a basket on the counter. "You should have seen the both of us the last time we finished a cask of Amazon wine," the warrior said as she winked at Wolf. "The queen was not very happy with us."
"At least I got to sleep in my own bed," the demi-god joked with a grimace as she watched Xena prepare her concoction.
"I haven't slept in the stables since," Xena returned as she handed Wolf a mug of foul medicine. "Go ahead," she said with a nod, "drink it all up at once."
Wolf took the warrior's advice and swallowed the thick mixture as quickly as possible. Instantly, her face turned an odd shade of green and she ducked her head between her knees. "You are evil," she grunted as she fought to quell the queasiness in her stomach.
Xena chuckled mischievously as she watched Wolf's color change back to normal. "Feel better?"
Glancing up at the warrior through her dark eyelashes, the demi-god shook her head ruefully. "This is not worth a night of fun that I can't remember."
"You'll learn," Cyrene said as she passed the younger woman, patting her gently on the head. "I need to check the stock under the bar, Xena. Can you watch the stove for me?"
"Sure, Mother," the warrior said with a nod as the innkeeper left.
Wolf's brow arched in surprise. "I thought you couldn't cook," she remarked as she stood and joined the taller warrior at the stove.
"Not really," Xena murmured as she picked up a spatula and stared at the frying bacon with a quizzical expression. "Do you?"
"Me? Heh, you must have me confused with the other short, cute woman in your life. I've nearly poisoned myself on more occasions than I care to remember."
"Do you think I should turn these over?" she asked as she poked the meat.
Wolf shrugged; she caught a strange movement out of the corner of her eye and backed away from the stove. "Uh, Xena...that pot of cereal doesn't look good."
The tall warrior dropped the spatula in the skillet and grabbed a spoon to stir the porridge. "What do I do? It won't stop rising!" she hissed as she attempted to push the cereal back down into the pot.
"I don't know!" Wolf sniffed the air and her eyes widened. "The bacon...." She moved around Xena and grasped the spatula. The pain that seared her hand took a moment to register. "Yow! Dammit all," she swore as she stuck her burnt fingers into her mother. Finding a towel, she wrapped it around the copper utensil and flipped the bacon.
"Wolf...grab some bowls," Xena ordered as her voice began to rise in pitch and volume.
The small guard complied and began to hand Xena bowl after bowl. Her eyes grew even wider as
Xena fought valiantly to keep the porridge from spilling onto the stove.
Both women stopped when they heard the soft laughter at the door. They looked up to find Cyrene and Gabrielle trying to smother their guffaws behind their hands.
"This is not funny," Xena growled as she stabbed the spoon into the pot.
Wolf looked between the other warrior and the two women at the door. Her laughter bubbled up from the pit of her stomach. "We of many skills," she commented as she slapped Xena on the back. "Let's go find something warrior-like to do and leave the cooking to them," she said.
Wiping her hands on the towel Wolf had used, Xena offered her mother a lop-sided grin. "Sorry about that," she mumbled.
Cyrene hugged her daughter tight and pulled her down for a kiss. "It's a good thing you have Gabrielle," the older woman whispered before the warrior straightened to her full height.
The warrior nodded and turned to her wife. "Good morning," she said as she kissed the bard's lips chastely. "We'll be upstairs with the girls."
Gabrielle nodded as she pulled Xena into a hug. "I'll bring breakfast up."
"That's if we didn't kill it," Wolf added as she bowed her head respectfully.
The bard shook her head and smiled warmly at the two warriors. "Go on now. I won't be long."
Xena stepped out of the embrace and draped a long, graceful arm around the small guard. "Come on, Pup. Time to bond or something."
When the two warriors left, Gabrielle crossed the kitchen to the stove so that she could assess the damage. "Doesn't look too bad," she remarked. "I remember the last time Xena cooked us dinner...I ended up eating raw fish."
"You'd think that I would remember to never let Xena in the kitchen," Cyrene chastised herself as she wiped up the porridge that was splattered on the counter. "It was always an invitation for a disaster."
Gabrielle held up a finger and grinned. "But...if you were to present her with the problem of say...how to cook without a fire...she'd figure something out."
"True," Cyrene agreed with a chuckle. "She was always tinkering."
"I'd love to hear about it," Gabrielle said, eager to hear more childhood stories about her wife.
When Gabrielle returned to her room, Wolf and Xena were stretched out on the floor. On a blanket between them, the three older children cavorted. Wolf way laying on her stomach, playing with a stuffed centaur while Xena was on her back, cradling Eponin on her chest. Triva sat beside Wolf, playing with the demi-god's long braid.
The bard set their breakfast tray on the bed; her eyes were still lit with amusement from hearing Cyrene's stories.
Seeing the mirth that curled her wife's soft lips, Xena arched a brow in question. "What embarrassing incidents was she reliving this time?" the warrior asked.
Gabrielle shook her head and knelt to gather the baby into her arms. "Nothing embarrassing...trust me," she said as she smiled. "She was just telling me about the many skills you possessed as a child."
Wolf handed the centaur to Zasha and stood. She walked over to the bed and scooped up a bowl of cereal and a napkin. "I'm curious," she said with a wink as she returned to her spot on the floor.
Xena narrowed her eyes as she sat up and dragged the tray closer so that she could get a bowl for Larin. "You would be," she muttered with a smirk.
Sitting next to Xena, Gabrielle leaned against the bed and bowed her head to kiss Eponin's full head of hair. "Well," she began as she fell into her role of bard, "Cyrene told me about this little project Xena did for her when she was twelve."
Wolf began to feed her daughters, alternating spoonfuls of porridge between the two of them. Xena settled Larin on her lap and rolled her eyes when the little girl opened her mouth wide before she even had the opportunity to put the spoon into the bowl.
Gabrielle began her re-telling when everyone got comfortable. "Well, when Xena was twelve, she inherited the job of filling and emptying the baths for the guests. After a week of performing the tedious chore, she decided to make a few renovations to the bathing room."
The bard's story was interrupted when Xena began to chuckle quietly. Allowing the warrior a moment to recall the events of the past, the bard continued. "Late one night, after all the guests had gone to sleep, Xena sneaked down to the bathing room. With tools that she borrowed from wood smith, she began to dismantle her mother's tubs." After a dramatic pause, Gabrielle's eyes connected with each listener. "All through the night, the young Xena worked madly to complete her project. The next morning, Cyrene awoke. Hearing a strange noise coming from the bathing room, the innkeeper grabbed a piece of firewood and crept towards the room. As she had been expecting someone breaking into the tavern, she was surprised to find her only daughter covered from head to foot in dirt.
"Cyrene, being the mother that she is, asked, 'What in Tartarus are you into now?' Xena's smile was bright through the grime that concealed her other features. With a proud wave of her hand, she exclaimed, 'I solved a problem.'
"Well, Cyrene was confused and her anger grew as she saw the mess that was left in the wake of Xena's hard work. Before her mother had the chance to really launch her catapults, however, the young Xena opened the spout on a large tank that she had constructed from the various tubs. Instantly, hot water began to flow into a channel that emptied under a tarp. In turn, she opened another spout on a second tank and cold water rushed forth to join the hot.
"Confused, the innkeeper asked her what it did. With a flourish, Xena tore the tarp off her masterpiece. In the place of several small, cramped tubs, she had created one large tub with benches to sit upon and racks to hold bathing supplies.
"Cyrene smiled with surprise as she had not heard a single sound during the night. Seeing her daughter once more, she ordered the young girl to take the first bath. As Xena washed the night's work from her body, she explained to her mother how the tanks could be filled right in the kitchen where the water was heated. After she finished and was again clean, she reached down into the filthy water and pulled a wooden stopper up from a hole in the bottom of the tub.
"The innkeeper shook her head in disbelief when the water began to empty down a duct that ran through the wall and outside. After she finished dressing, Xena took her mother outside and showed her the system of channels that would carry the water away from the tavern to a small ravine.
"Delighted that her daughter had thought of such a wonderful convenience, Cyrene gave Xena the day off from her chores. The girl ran the entire way to the stables where she hoped that she would be allowed to exercise the horses; she was thrilled to have been given such a reward. The long night of exhausting labor, however, proved to be too much. Before a horse could even be saddled, Xena fell asleep on a soft pile of hay."
Gabrielle finished her story by kissing her consort playfully on the ear. "As many times that we...uh...used that tub, how come you never told me that you built it?"
Xena shrugged with a slight flush. "At the time, my bard, you were more interested in other things."
"Oh yeah." Gabrielle's eyes glazed; her thoughts shifted to making love to her warrior in the large tub full of steamy water. Her attention was returned to the present when Xena snapped her fingers in front of Gabrielle's face. She blinked a few times and turned to look at her wife. "What?"
"We have company," Xena said with a knowing grin. "You can do that later."
The bard blushed profusely as she shook her head. She looked up to see Wolf staring at her intently.
When the guard realized what she was doing, she cleared her throat and scraped the last bit of cereal from the bowl she was holding. Feeding it to Peran, the demi-god stood and returned the empty bowl to the tray. She was silent for a moment before taking a deep breath. "If it's all right, I want to take Beast out for a run. I shouldn't be gone long." The demi-god managed to avoid looking into the other women's eyes; she turned on her heel and left the room.
Gabrielle stared at the door that had been closed quietly; she jumped when Xena's hand came to rest on her shoulder.
"I'm going to go with her," the warrior said with a smile. "We shouldn't be gone for more than an hour. Don't leave the tavern until we get back and don't go anywhere without your guard, all right?"
The queen agreed with a slight nod of her head. "Is there something wrong?"
Xena opened her mouth to respond before she remembered that Triva was in the room. Changing her immediate answer, she chose an alternate reply. "She's still dealing with a hangover, that's all."
Appeased by Xena's explanation, Gabrielle smiled warmly. "Don't be long," she ordered softly as she offered her lips for a kiss. "You know how much I want to see the celebrations."
"I promise I'll be back soon." After kissing both of her children, the warrior hurriedly left the room to follow Wolf to the stables.
When Xena caught up to Wolf, the smaller woman was leaning against her large warhorse. "I'm glad I didn't miss you," she said as she stepped into the barn. "I thought I would join you."
Wolf shifted her feet with indecision before she nodded silently and led her mare out into the morning light. She mounted fluidly and waited for Xena. When the taller warrior mounted Argo, the demi-god let her lead the way out of the village.
They rode for half an hour before Xena led them into the valley outside of the village. Dismounting, the tall warrior slapped Argo gently on the flanks and told the mare to find some grass. Sitting on a large boulder, she encouraged Wolf to join her. "Come here," she said softly as she studied the smaller woman's troubled face.
Wolf sighed and slid off Beast's bare back. She whispered a few words into the warhorse's ear and joined Xena.
They sat in silence before the dark-haired warrior turned to her friend. "You know, over the past few years, you have become the closest person to me besides Gabrielle and my girls," she began hesitantly. "I cannot think of anyone else I would rather have at my side in battle or at my table to share a meal."
Wolf looked up at Xena and then hastily away. She stared blankly at the two warhorses that were munching on a patch of sweet grass.
Xena wrapped an arm around the unusually quiet guard. "Wolf, I trust you and I trust Gabrielle. You aren't the first woman to desire her and you won't be the last. While I might get jealous of the others, I know you. You won't do anything that would destroy that trust."
Surprised that Xena had understood her awkward retreat from the room earlier, Wolf colored slightly and forced herself to look at her friend. "I've always known that I was attracted to her...but this morning...it was stronger than usual. I don't know why. I...." The smaller woman took a deep breath. "Look, I can't help it. Even though I have Triva, I can't help thinking about Gabrielle."
Chuckling at Wolf's exasperation, Xena hugged the small warrior close. "Relax, Pup. Every time she gets that look on her face, I have to control myself, too."
"That look?" Wolf asked; her brows were furrowed in thought.
"Yeah, this morning she got that look when she was thinking about the tub. Her eyes got all soft and her lips pouted just the tiniest bit. Her body heat rose and her breathing got faster. It was all I could do not to jump her right there."
"I could smell her," Wolf admitted with shame. "I knew what she was thinking and I pictured.... I focused just so I could...." The younger woman slouched against her friend. "I shouldn't have done that."
Xena arched a brow at the demi-god's admission; she sighed when Wolf continued to berate herself. "I'm not worried about it, Wolf. You shouldn't be either. You're just a very passionate woman...you can't fight your desires. The fact that you don't act upon your desire of Gabrielle, however, makes me glad that you are who you are. I can name a hundred people that would not think twice about seducing her if I wasn't around. I'm the only thing that holds them back. You, on the other hand, don't fear me. You hold yourself in check because you are an honorable person."
Wolf was quiet a moment, busy going over Xena's words in her head. After a few moments, she laughed so hard that she fell into Xena's lap.
"Did I say something funny," the tall warrior asked; she grinned when Wolf slid to the ground.
The demi-god shook her head in bemusement and caught her breath. "This is a first, you know," she said as she stretched out on the grass. "Someone finds out that I have feelings about their wife and my life isn't in endangered." The guard opened her eyes wide and studied the warrior that was still sitting on the rock. "I thought you would hate me at the very least and kill me at the worst."
Xena shook her head and nudged Wolf's leg with her boot. "Why? I feel the same way about her."
"She's your wife."
"Doesn't matter. I've felt this way about her pretty much since we met. Every time she got involved with some pretty boy, I used to beat myself up, feeling guilty for wanting her. If I learned anything during that time, it was that there's no sense in beating yourself because it doesn't change how you feel. Just go with it and enjoy the feeling."
"Are you going to tell her?"
"About you? No...it would probably make her uncomfortable. She'd spend too much time worrying about what I would do to you."
Wolf stretched her muscles and sighed. "Thanks, Xena."
"For accepting this...and for not ripping me limb from limb."
The tall warrior chuckled as she rested her forearms on her thighs. "And Gabrielle says that I'm not good at these sensitive chats."
"Maybe I just tend to bring that skill out of you," the demi-god said with a soft smile. "You've been there for me every time I needed it."
"Like I said," Xena replied, "You mean a lot to me. You've come through for me, too."
Wolf closed her eyes and relished the good feeling that coursed through her body. For the first time since Eponin had died, she felt as though she were a part of something profoundly important. The demi-god grinned as she thought of the beautiful bard and the love that was growing in her heart. "Xena?"
"I think we'd better start back or else Gabrielle won't be talking to either of us."
"Oh, yeah...the festival. Thanks for reminding me," the tall warrior deadpanned as she stood and reached down to offer her friend a hand. "So we're all right now?"
"Better than ever," the smaller woman returned truthfully. Whistling for her horse, the guard cocked her head. "I'd do anything for the both of you...you mean a lot to me, too." With a wink, the guard mounted her warhorse and rode away.
Xena nodded to herself, smiled, and mounted Argo. As she followed Wolf's lead back to the village, the demi-god's words echoed in her mind. She was confident like never before that if something ever happened to her, someone she trusted implicitly would be there to care for her family.
After caring for their warhorses, Xena and Wolf entered the tavern. The sight of one pacing queen and five anxious Amazons greeted them.
"Are we late?" Wolf asked as she and Xena crossed the common room to stand in front of the group.
The queen blushed as she grinned. "No...not late...not really. I guess I just got excited, thinking about the festival." Gabrielle shifted Larin on her hip and smiled sweetly. "Can we go now?" she asked as she looked up expectantly at her wife; Larin gurgled happily as the bard bounced gently on the balls of her feet.
Xena rolled her eyes and looked sideways at Wolf.
The demi-god was studying the crossbeam structure of the tavern's ceiling; her lips were tight with the effort to not laugh at her queen's enthusiasm.
"Yeah, we'll go," Xena sighed with a lop-sided grin. "But stay close...don't go running off without us."
"I promise," the bard swore as she stretched up on her toes to kiss the warrior's cheek. Like a bolt, she headed for the door. She was barely aware of the Amazons rushing to catch up to her.
Darlea nudged the consort and cocked her head towards the infant in her arms. "Do you want me to carry Eppy or do you want her?"
Taking a moment to consider the best strategy in the event of trouble, Xena chewed her lip. "I'll take her," she replied. She knew that if there were a problem, she would feel better if she was responsible for her daughter's safety.
The two women stopped just outside of the tavern so that Xena could gather her sleeping child. She carefully wrapped Eponin's blanket so that the baby would not catch a chill from the fall air or her armor. After Darlea adjusted her bow across her back, they continued on to catch up with the others.
The townspeople now knew of the Amazon presence in Amphipolis after the patrons of Cyrene's tavern spread stories of the sighting the night before. Curious eyes followed the group as they walked to the square. They knew Xena, for she had been born in the village and they knew Gabrielle, for the bard was a favorite at the tavern. The others, however, were unknown and the villagers watched them unabashedly.
To those that were familiar with Amazons, the sight would have been comical - Five Royal Guards, a warrior, and a Caregiver all rushing to keep up with the manic pace that one petite blonde was keeping. To the villagers, however, they saw seven fierce women chasing the small, innocent-looking one.
Gabrielle, eager to see everything before slowing down to pick and choose her purchases, led her guard on a merry chase. She 'ooh-ed' and 'aah-ed' over silks from the east. She licked her lips in anticipation when she spied the vendor that was hawking sweet morsels. After one quick circuit of the market, the bard stopped and planned her attack.
Having experienced this before, Xena waited patiently until Gabrielle decided what stall she would hit first. The warrior smirked when her wife made a beeline for the food. She stood patiently, studying the growing throng of people filling the square, as the bard haggled with the sweet-cake vendor. After a few minutes of going back and forth, the bard handed over her dinars and collected her purchase. Impatient to try the morsels, she led the Amazons to an empty table and sat down.
When Gabrielle opened her bundle, Xena's hand snaked out to catch one of the treats. She knew that if she were not quick, there would be none left to sample.
"Relax, Xena," the bard chided, "I got enough for everyone."
With those words, the sweets disappeared quickly. When each woman took hers, Gabrielle was left with two of her own. She took her time savoring the honey-glazed cakes; she closed her eyes in appreciation. "Mmm...this is so good," she murmured.
Xena watched her wife enjoying herself. When Wolf caught her eye, she focused once more on her surroundings. "What?" she asked the demi-god.
"I think I see someone I recognize," she said as she nodded towards a stall in the corner of the square. "Will you be all right here for a moment?"
"Yeah, sure," the warrior replied as she studied the corner stall with a furrowed brow.
Wolf nodded and rose off the bench. She handed Peran to Triva and crossed to the square. "Kelares?" she asked as she approached the small man. "What are you doing in Amphipolis?"
"Ah...one of my favorite customers. Care to look at my selection of daggers, Wolf?"
The demi-god arched a brow and leaned her elbows on the display. "Kelares, why aren't you in Athens? I wouldn't think that a Harvest Festival in Thrace would be much of an occasion to sell weapons."
The old man shrugged his shoulders and grunted. "I was in the area. Besides, any festival is good for business...a whole lotta people. Surely some of them would need new blades. I've even started carrying carving knives. Are you interested?"
Wolf declined the offer but waved to a collection of war knives. "Let's see what you have there," she said with a bland expression. Thoughts were tumbling through her mind as she studied each weapon closely. Her ears were tuned to Kelares as he spoke with an assistant and several other browsing villagers. "Kelares, how much for this one?" she asked as she selected a dagger with an unusual hilt.
"Ah...for my favorite woman warrior...twenty-five dinars."
Frowning at the cost of the weapon, Wolf turned the dagger so that the afternoon sun glinted off the blade. "This is the work of Xarkanos, isn't it?"
Kelares was still for the briefest second before he began to bob his head. "Yes it is!" he exclaimed. "You know your weapon smiths, don't you?"
"Flattery will not get the price you asked," the small woman warned good-naturedly. "Include a thigh sheath and I'll pay you fifteen."
"You drive a hard bargain, Wolf," Kelares lamented. "But it's yours. Just let me find a sheath that will compliment your uniform."
Wolf's eyes darkened with suspicion. In all the instances she had purchased weapons from the old merchant, he had never capitulated so quickly. She knew that he was accepting far less than the value of the dagger. Forcing a smile to cover her doubts, the demi-god handed over the fifteen dinars and took the sheathed dagger with a brief nod. "Good doing business with you, Kelares."
"Any time, Wolf," the old man replied; he absently wiped a beat of sweat from his temple.
Strapping the dagger to her thigh, Wolf returned to the table. She chose a seat next to Xena and bowed her head as if she were examining her new weapon. "Something's going on," she said quietly as she fingered the hilt of her weapon.
"You know that guy?" Xena asked as she studied Kelares covertly from under her lashes.
"I've bought from him in the past...he's what you might call a scavenger." Wolf chewed her bottom lip for a moment before she continued. "There are a few things not adding up here." She raised her head and studied the villagers who were already showing the effects of free-flowing wine. "Can we go back to the inn?" she asked.
Xena could feel the tense muscles that flexed against her own. "Yeah," she agreed softly. Aloud, she said, "I think Eponin needs changed." She fixed her eyes on the four guards; with her free hand, she flashed a few brief Amazon signals. To the common person, it seemed as if she were merely gesticulating with her words.
"I'll walk back with you," Gabrielle said as she interpreted the signs that trouble was possible and that the guards were to stay behind to see if they could find anything suspicious.
Wolf nodded as she looked over at Triva and the twins. "It's time to put the twins down for their nap any way."
"We'll see you ladies later," Xena said to the guards as she adjusted the hilt of her sword over her shoulder.
Wolf and Xena led the way back to the tavern; their senses were fully alert for any danger to the women that were following them closely. By the time that they entered the queen's room at the inn, Wolf was clasping the hilt of her dagger.
Closing the door after checking the empty hallway, Xena turned to the smaller warrior. "What's going on?"
"A couple of things," Wolf replied as she began to pace. "First, Kelares is Athenian. I find it...odd that he would be in Thrace during an unimportant festival," she explained and then hastily added, "No offense."
Xena raised a hand to show that none was taken and urged her to continue.
"Second, like I said before, Kelares is a scavenger...."
"What does that mean?" Gabrielle asked as she took Eponin from Xena's arms.
"He follows the Athenian army and scavenges the battlefields for weapons," the tall warrior clarified with a frown of distaste. "Go on," she said to Wolf.
"Well, he's a scavenger, and there aren't any active campaigns in Thrace right now. And this dagger I bought...." she said as she unsheathed the weapon and handed to Xena. "I asked him if it was crafted by Xarkanos. Kelares said it was. But Xarkanos is an Athenian and this dagger is from Naxos."
Xena studied the blade of the weapon and nodded in agreement. "Phidipes," she muttered.
Gabrielle arched a brow in surprise. "What?"
"Phidipes crafted this dagger," Xena explained as she showed a small marking on the blade near the hilt. "See this stamp here?" she asked. "That's so that buyers can identify his work."
"Can it be forged?" the bard asked as she ran a fingertip over the impression.
Xena shook her head in response. "The stamp might be reproducible, but not the skill that went into the weapon. Phidipes is one of the best," she said as she took a moment to admire the master craftsman's skill and artistry.
"So what does it all mean?" Gabrielle asked as she sat on the bed.
Xena's eyes narrowed ominously. "It means that Athens is about to start a major war."
"I don't understand."
Xena sat down next to her wife; she turned so that they were face to face. "Gabrielle, by attacking its own ally, Athens is flexing some military muscle. The Peloponnesian League is not going to just sit by and watch. Sparta is sure to take some action to protect its own."
Wolf nodded in agreement as she crossed to the window to watch the crowds below. "Why do you think Kelares is in Amphipolis?" she asked.
"Amphipolis is part of the Delian League. He could be an agent of Athens to recruit soldiers or he could be here to test the waters of the village's allegiance." The tall warrior shook her head. "I don't know."
The demi-god leaned against the window frame and crossed her arms. "So do we wait for him to make the first move or do we go after him?"
Xena stood and joined the smaller warrior; she returned Wolf's dagger to the sheath on the other woman's thigh. She stared intently out the window and then grinned. "I have a feeling we're going to find out."
Recognizing her wife's predatory expectation, Gabrielle leapt from the bed to see what was going on.
Speaking to the bard, Xena asked, "Do you see those two guys over by the hay bales?"
"They don't belong here," Gabrielle replied quietly. "They're different. It's like they're trying to look like they are villagers, but they are carrying themselves differently...like soldiers," she concluded.
Xena proudly wrapped an arm around her wife. "Exactly," she whispered before kissing the blonde's brow. "They're Athenians." Looking out the window once more, she nodded and stepped back, pulling Gabrielle with her. "They've seen us."
"So now we just wait?" Wolf asked as she moved away from the window.
"I get the feeling that Kelares has given them their orders. We should expect them tonight." Xena ran her tongue over her teeth as she thought for a moment. "Call the guards, Wolf. I want to set a trap just in case we're right."
The demi-god nodded and stuck her head out the window. Cupping her hands over her mouth, she called out the signal for the Amazons to return.
Gabrielle sighed as she lay back on the bed. "I knew it was too good to be true when the Greeks and Spartans fought together at Marathon."
That evening after taking dinner in the queen's room, the Amazons gathered their children in Wolf's room. The four guards and Triva took positions near the cribs; they were ready to give their lives for the babies if it came to that.
Across the hall, Xena, Gabrielle, and Wolf were sitting in silence, waiting restlessly for the Athenian soldiers to arrive. Two hours after midnight, Wolf tensed and stood next to the door.
Xena crossed the room silently and put her hand on the door's handle. The two warriors cocked their heads, listening to the cautious tread coming towards their room. When the slightest pressure was exerted against the door, Xena nodded and pulled hard on the handle.
One cloaked man fell into the room and Wolf leapt over him to grab the other and to pull him into the room. Before the fallen man could blink, Xena's fingers stabbed against his neck. The soldier's eyes were wild as they scanned the room. He gasped with pain as four figures swam through his line of sight.
Xena was leaning over her victim; her knee was planted firmly on his chest. Gabrielle stood back a few paces; her staff was level with her chest. Wolf stood behind the other soldier; she had pushed him to his knees and was holding her new dagger to his throat.
Smiling humorlessly, Xena snapped her fingers to get the prone soldier's attention. "I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain," she said automatically. "You've got about thirty seconds to tell me why you two and Kelares are in Amphipolis...and why you're sneaking around so late at night."
The soldier gasped and wheezed. "We're here to convince you to join Athens against Sparta," he replied with a grimace. "We know about what you did in Tripolis against the Persians and how you defeated the Horde at our outpost."
"And how were you supposed to convince me? I hold no allegiance to Athens," the warrior said. The only reason she had fought against the Persians was because Gabrielle had wanted her to and she fought the Horde because their lives were in danger. When the soldier's eyes flickered in the direction of the bard, Xena growled and released the pinch. A second later, she knocked the man flat with a powerful punch.
The second man flinched when the tall, dark warrior turned to him.
Xena knelt down so that she was at eye level with the cowering soldier. "How did you know I was here?"
When the knife tightened against his throat and Wolf's growl reverberated in his ear, the other man could not talk fast enough. "We've had spies watching Amazon territory. When we saw that you were on your way here, we sent a messenger ahead to warn Kelares. He gave us our orders to take your friend," he answered as his eyes shifted to the Amazon Queen.
"I want you to take a message back to your friends," Xena said with false congeniality. "I want you to tell them that they've got the balls to think that they'll ever get their hands on her. I want you to tell them that they'd better pull back from Amazon territory, or else there are going to be few less Athenians. Ya got me?" When the frightened man nodded tightly, Xena stood and towered over him with menace. "You can tell them I won't fight their dirty war. They started it so they can finish it. I not getting involved."
Wolf released her hold on the man and stepped away. She smirked when he fell backwards. "If I were you," she advised as she crouched next to him, "I'd take your friend there and go do as she says. Otherwise..." she said with a shrug, letting fear take control of the soldier's imagination.
The soldier struggled to his feet and grabbed his compatriot by the tunic.
The three women watched until they were out of sight; Wolf ran down the hall to make sure that they left the tavern. When the demi-god gave the all clear, Gabrielle ran across the hall to check on the children.
Wolf returned and stood next to Xena who was leaning against the door of the queen's room; the tall warrior's head was hung in thought. "What now?" she asked as she glanced to her room where all the children were still sleeping peacefully.
"We're going home," Xena responded as she turned and entered her own room. Wolf nodded and went to hers when the tall warrior began to pack her family's bags.
The Amazon party was ready to move within the hour. Xena woke her mother and explained the situation. She promised the innkeeper that everything was safe for now, but that Gabrielle would be better protected in Amazonia. Although disappointed at not getting to spend much time with her granddaughters, Cyrene understood the danger to her daughter's family.
After hushed farewells, Xena spirited her family out of Amphipolis in the dead of night. She and Wolf rode lead while Darlea and M'Eru took guard. Gabrielle was hidden in the back of the wagon with the children; Ishta drove and Tera sat in the back with her crossbow primed. Their travel was slow, for the moon was hidden by cloud cover and the road back to Amazon territory wound through heavy forest.
The two leading warriors were tense and alert; they fought to keep their prancing warhorses as quiet as possible. When the sun began to rise behind them over the eastern horizon, they broke only to relieve themselves. Knowing that it was feeding time, Xena tied Argo to the back of the wagon and gathered a sleepy Eponin to her breast. Instinctively, the baby began to nurse without even waking or crying.
By mid-day, the children were restless; their bottoms were wet and hunger was gnawing their bellies. The wagon continued to move, however, as Gabrielle and Triva took care of matters. Every so often, Wolf would ride ahead or into the woods to investigate a smell or sound. Each time, she returned and signaled that it was all clear.
When sleep began to call to the women, they took turns in groups of two, squeezing into the wagon to catch a few hours of rest.
The group continued in this manner for three days; they rode constantly day and night. Each woman understood the necessity to return the queen and her family to the protection of her sisters. No one complained and all were grateful when the first markers denoting their territory were sighted just before dusk.
A contingent of six border guards dropped from the trees and formed rank around the party. Wolf exchanged a few words with the unit leader and ordered them back to their posts. The group continued vigilantly to the village.
A small group of Amazons were gathered in the village square when Xena and Wolf finally pulled up to a halt in front of the queen's hut.
Ephiny and Solari helped Gabrielle and Triva with the children as they got out of the wagon. The regent squeezed the queen's arm in relief. "I get the feeling that you know why we've spotted several groups of Athenian soldiers outside of our borders."
Gabrielle nodded her head wearily. "Yeah," she sighed. "It's not good news."
"We can deal with that later," Ephiny said as she ordered a few warriors to unload the wagon. "I'm gonna pull rank here and tell you all to get some sleep. You look like Tartarus."
"Thanks, Eph," the bard mumbled as she trudged into her hut. "Triva looks as bad as you two," the regent continued as she followed Xena after Gabrielle. "I'll get one of the other Caregivers to take care of the kids. Has Eponin been fed lately?"
Xena nodded in reply. "She'll need another feeding in a few hours. Just bring her to me then."
"All right. You get some sleep. We'll talk in the morning." Ephiny bade the couple a good night and left the hut with Larin in her arms. She listened as Wolf spoke with a few guards.
"I want the guard on the queen's hut doubled and I want a rear watch. No one is to leave her post for any reason at all, so you better hit the pot now. Understand?" When the assembled guards nodded in unison, the demi-god sighed. "Good...now take your positions."
Ephiny fell into step beside the Captain of the Guard. "Who's after her now?"
Wolf grunted in displeasure. "The Athenians."
"Because they thought if they had Gabrielle, Xena would be convince to fight on their side."
"The Spartans," Wolf replied as she pulled up in front of her hut. She turned to the regent; her fingers began to massage her aching temples. "Thanks for taking care of the kids," she said.
"No problem. Get some sleep, Wolf."
The blonde Amazon turned away from the hut and crossed the square to join Solari who was talking to two young Caregivers.
Ephiny told them of Xena's orders to deliver the infant to her hut in a few hours. When the Caregivers gathered the four children into their arms and left, Ephiny turned to her lover.
Solari frowned when she saw the worry that clouded Ephiny's eyes. "Hey, what can be that bad?"
The regent turned her eyes skyward and took a steadying breath. "On a scale of one to ten, where does a war between Athens and Sparta rate?"
"Sweet Artemis," Solari whispered. "They'll stop at nothing to destroy each other."
Ephiny nodded and stepped close to her trusted advisor; she leaned her forehead against the other woman's shoulder. "And that includes kidnapping our queen to get Xena to fight for them."
Wrapping her arms around the blonde Amazon, Solari shook her head. "I'll make sure that the council chamber is ready for tomorrow," she said. "For now, though, why don't we go get something to eat?"
"I'm not that hungry all of a sudden."
"Sure you are. There's nothing we can do right now, so we might as well enjoy the calm before the storm."
The regent reluctantly allowed her lover to guide her to the dining hall; her eyes were fixed on the queen's hut and she frowned in consternation. "They'll never find peace, will they, Sol?"
Following the regent's line of sight, Solari sighed. "Perhaps some day."
The next morning, Gabrielle woke to the sound of her own stomach rumbling for food and Eponin's feet in her face. Raising her head slightly, she saw that the infant was taking her breakfast. "Good morning," the bard mumbled as she snuggled against her wife's stomach.
"For now it is," Xena replied as she laid the baby along her torso. "Did you sleep well?"
"Better than I should have," the queen admitted guiltily.
Reaching down to push blonde locks off Gabrielle's face, the warrior chided, "It's not your fault."
The bard chewed her lip for a moment before she craned her head to look at Xena. "What are we going to do?"
"First, there's a council meeting as soon as you're ready. We'll decide then what actions to take if any." When Gabrielle moved to rise from the bed, Xena stilled her with a firm hand. "After you eat something," she ordered gently. "Ephiny sent a tray over earlier."
"Oh, all right." Gabrielle grumbled under her breath as she slid out from under the covers. After retrieving the tray, she propped herself up in the bed and ate. Aside from the porridge that she barely tolerated, there was fruit, milk, and toasted bread. Every few bites, she would offer Xena some. "I could really use some tea."
"I'll make sure that you have some for the meeting."
A knock sounded at the door and Triva called out.
"Come in," the queen ordered.
"If you are ready to prepare for the meeting, I can take Eponin," the Caregiver said as she smiled at the infant dozing on Xena's chest.
"Thanks, Triva," Xena replied as she sat up and threw her legs off the bed. "She should sleep for a while yet."
The Amazon gently took the infant into her arms and smiled. "Wolf already left this morning. She said something about going over the territory maps."
"She should have them memorized by now, as much as she studies them," the queen said as she removed her shift and donned a brown top and skirt.
Xena chuckled at her wife's words. "She doesn't need the maps at all. She knows every inch by sight alone." The warrior buckled her armor and attached her weapons. "It gives her something to do while she's waiting for the meeting to begin," Xena concluded with a wry grin.
"Well, then, let's not keep her waiting," the queen replied.
Xena kissed Eponin before the three women separated; Triva took the infant to the hut she shared with Wolf and Xena and Gabrielle went to the Council Hut.
When the couple entered the room, all eyes turned to the queen. Gabrielle fought the urge to fidget under their regard; she cleared her throat and took her seat at the head of the table. She smiled warmly at her wife when she saw the steaming cup of tea set at her place. She took a sip and watched as Ephiny and Solari took their seats.
When everyone was quiet, she began telling only the necessary details. "Several days ago while visiting Amphipolis, an attempt was made to kidnap me. Xena and Wolf learned that an agent of the Athenians was responsible. They thought that if they had me, they could persuade Xena to fight on their side. After the attempt, we came back here immediately."
Laera, an Elder Council member that had once served in the Royal Guard leaned forward over the table. "Why would the Athenians need Xena to fight for them?"
Gabrielle indicated to Xena that she should handle the question.
The warrior stepped from her position at the queen's right side and moved to the end of the table so that she could see everyone's face. "We have reason to believe that the Athenians attacked the island of Naxos and that Sparta will act against its rival's show of power."
Several members of the council broke into hushed exchanges. Laera stood and spoke for the Elder Council. "We want to know what your intentions are, Xena. Even though the Athenians failed to abduct our queen, will you fight for them against Sparta?"
Xena rested her fists on the table and leaned forward. "The only allegiances I hold are to my family and the Amazon Nation. Unless the queen tells me otherwise, I will fight for no one."
Another Elder stood and addressed the consort. "Your home village is part of the Delian League. You can be conscripted into service."
Gabrielle snorted silently behind a raised hand; her eyes flickered with amusement. Turning to her wife, she waiting for Xena's response.
"Roesta, Gabrielle," she emphasized with a gentle smile, "is my home...and the Athenians know that I will not fight for them."
When no further questions came from the Elders, Gabrielle laid her hands flat on the table. "The problems we should be concerned about are first, how does the Nation declare its neutrality, for I believe that this is a war with which we should not become involved. Second, what do we do with those villages under our protection, especially if they choose to fight for either side or on the chance that any war reaches them? And third, what provisions do we make to insure that the Nation is safe if either side invades or makes war upon us?"
Xena lifted a hand to still the responding voices. "I think we should first send out some scouts to gather information on the situation. I don't want to jump the crossbow on a war that might just come to a bunch of bluster and posturing."
Many council members nodded and Ephiny added, "We should also double the border guard and send scrolls to the northern villages informing them of the possible confrontation. If there is any merit at all to our suspicions, then I think we should be ready to mobilize at a moment's notice."
Gabrielle agreed silently as she stood to address the council. "I agree with both recommendations. Are there any opposing arguments or additional suggestions?" When no hand was raised, the queen slapped her hand on the table. "Then it is decided." Turning to the meeting scribe, Gabrielle ordered, "I want copies of the recordings of this meeting to be sent to the leaders of every northern village right away." Turning to her left, the queen address Wolf who as Captain of the Royal Guard, was positioned protectively at her back. "Wolf, what suggestions do you have for the border guard?"
Wolf stepped away from the queen's chair and walked over to a map she had hung from the wall.
"There are two passes," she began as she pointed to two points along the southern border, "that can be blocked, therefore, reducing the need for heavy guard. This stretch of forest through here," she indicated with a callused finger, "is our most vulnerable. I suggest six hour shifts of eight guards. Two guards for every quarter mile should be sufficient for now." Wolf took a deep breath and exhaled. "There is a tree here," she said, pointing to the western forest, "that is tall enough that if a sentry were to be positioned above the canopy, she will detect any movements across the entire western plain and valley. The rest of the borders I would suggest standard patrol procedure with double the guards." The demi-god stepped back from the map and bowed her head respectfully.
"Are there any alternatives to be suggested?" Gabrielle asked the council.
Roesta stood and nodded. "I would suggest that the guard on the queen and her children should be doubled."
The queen grimaced at the additional guard; it tended to restrict her freedom to wander through the village. "That has already been dealt with, Roesta. Thank you for your concern for me and my family," she replied with honesty.
Standing, the queen formally dismissed the emergency meeting. "If there is no more to be discussed at this time, then I move that we adjourn this meeting. We will reconvene at our regular time in two weeks. By then, we should have some concrete information to discuss regarding this matter."
In agreement, all the council members stood and bowed their heads to the queen and then filed out of the hut.
When all of the Elders were gone, Gabrielle addressed Solari. "Sol, I'm going to leave it up to you to choose the scouts. You can talk with Xena and Wolf about what where they should go and what we need to know."
The Amazon nodded and joined the two warriors that were discussing the passes that needed to be blocked. The three of them left the hut to speak with the scouts.
When they were alone, Ephiny reached over and took Gabrielle's hand in her own. "You're getting really good at this queen thing, you know."
"Thanks, Eph, but I'd rather it not be a war that brings it out in me," the bard responded with wry humor.
"You're worried," the regent observed.
Gabrielle covered her face with her hands and groaned. "I was hoping that it wasn't showing."
Ephiny chuckled and patted her friend's shoulder. "I don't think that there is a rule against the queen being worried for her family."
"But it's not just Xena and the girls," Gabrielle said as she leaned her head against the back of her chair. "It's everyone...all the Amazons. I worry about them, too. Xena thinks that if this war is real, then it's going to be bad." The bard sighed; her brow puckered with concern. "Eph, if it comes down to it, I'm going to have to send our warriors into that battle...I don't know if I can give that order."
"Gabrielle, when the time comes, you will do what is necessary," the regent assured her. "You will think of what is best for your family and your Amazon sisters, and you will command the Nation...even if it hurts inside to do so." Ephiny squeezed the bard's arm in support and rose to her feet. "If it comes down to the choice between your family and the destruction of the Nation, gods forbid, or the desire for non-aggression, then your choice will be easy."
When the regent left the hut, Gabrielle was left alone. "May Artemis guide me," she whispered as she stood and crossed to where the map was hung. Lying her palm against the heavy parchment, she whispered, "I would choose my family and the Nation." Tears stung her eyes and she bowed her head; the simple peace-loving bard she used to be was far in the past. Her time traveling with Xena had showed her that difficult choices had to be made in life, even at the expense of personal ideals. The bard began to cry in earnest when a warm hand landed softly on her shoulder.
"I will help you through this, Gabrielle," Xena said as she turned her wife and pulled the smaller woman into her arms. "We'll be there for each other," she vowed, kissing the bard's golden hair.
To be continued in "The Way of War."
Historical truth (that I massacred in the noble tradition of TPTB):
Athens attacked the island of Naxos circa 467 BC because the Naxians (who were part of the Delian League that included Athens) refused to send any ships in an offensive against the Persians (the Persians by this time were beaten back to Asia Minor). Instead of ships, the Athenians forced the Naxians to pay a tribute tax to fund such military strikes. In turn, other members of the Delian League (which was formed as a military alliance to combat the Persians) chose this option or were threatened into it. Eventually, this tribute was used to build the Parthenon (temple to Athena).
This action and the subsequent political control that Athens began to exert over the Delian League are considered to be the first moves by Athens towards imperialism.
Sparta, which was the major power of the Peloponnesian League, did nothing at first in reaction to Athens' consolidation of power. In 460 BC, some of Sparta's allies went to war against Athens, but sued for peace soon after, for Athens had become by then, a considerable military force (especially its navy).
After a while, Athens began to assert its presence all along the Aegean as far west as Sicily. The
Peloponnesian cities that were dependent upon trade and commerce became alarmed at the intimidating presence of the Athenian navy. In response, the Spartans became involved. In 431 BC, a war broke out that did not end until 404 BC. This is usually referred to the Peloponnesian War. Sparta's victory is considered the beginning of the end of Greece's "Golden Age."
How did I kill Greek history this time? I sped up the timetable a bit. For the purposes of my story, the attack on Naxos occurred right before and was a precursor to the Peloponnesian War.
The background theme of the war will likely be used in most of the futures stories of this series, since it did rage for almost thirty years and influenced the state of Greece so dramatically.
For an excellent fanfic effort dealing exclusively with the Peloponnesian War, I suggest Baermers "The Peloponnesian War."
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