EVEN IF YOU DON'T NORMALLY READ DISCLAIMERS,
PLEASE AT LEAST READ THE *EXTRA SPECIAL DISCLAIMER* BELOW.
Xena: Warrior Princess is owned by the lucky folks at MCA / Universal and Renaissance Pictures. In writing this story, I have not intended to infringe on their rights, even though I know most courts of law would say that I have done so. So think of it this way: I've borrowed their characters for a story that will reap me no monetary benefits but might, just might, add a fan or two to the Xenaphile ranks which will perhaps, in turn, reap a few more dinars for those who rightfully stand to profit from the show. Everybody wins and the only thing that's absolutely certain is that by writing fan fiction, I erase any iota of any chance I ever had of landing a job on the Xena staff, but since that probability is akin to finding microscopic mutant-fly DNA fossilized at the bottom of Lake Tahoe from a Sears telescope situated on the moon, I'm not going to sweat the details.
This story depicts the main characters in a loving relationship though there is nothing in here illegal for the younger folks. If you would prefer not to read this fiction for these reasons, please do not continue. It's your decision.EXTRA SPECIAL DISCLAIMER: This story contains a scene of ritual sacrifice which might be disturbing. It is, at least, historically accurate and not meant to be gratuitous. (Source: Religion in the Ancient Greek City by Louise Bruit Zaidman and Pauline Schmitt Pantel, translated from the French by Paul Cartledge, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) I'm glad that many of us now find such treatment of animals cruel and abhorrent. It just goes to show you that we have learned something since the ancient Greeks practiced such sacrifices regularly, many of a type even more gruesome than the one depicted in this story. For those wishing to skip that scene: I have inserted a notation just before it and told you how far to jump ahead.
Criticism is welcomed with open arms. Though I write this stuff for pleasure, my guilty conscience, frustrated that I leave other worthy projects fallow while I pursue this particular muse, demands I get something out of it. That something is slow progress toward becoming a better writer. I try to pick one aspect of the craft to concentrate on with each new story. In this one, I'm trying to avoid using the first sentence that comes to mind in favor of a more considered and eloquent one. And yet within that fluent expression, I want to shelter a mad woman, one who toys with the reader, dolling out resolutions with aggravating leisure, dragging the reader along a with thick-linked chain around their neck, preventing them from deciphering the lock's combination until the final page is turned.
Kapru Kale (COP-roo CALL-ay) -- (or CAP-roo CAL-ay if you're in a hurry)
Wisps of clouds alternately obscured then framed the stars contemplated by the lone watcher. Even in peaceful repose, her body remained vigilant, as if expecting to intercept unwelcome sounds or smells. The intimate connection to her surroundings, five razor-sharp and penetrating senses, were ever on the alert.
It had been a relaxing past few days which she and Gabrielle had enjoyed after an arduous week. They'd helped to rebuild a village razed in a fire from a single misguided bolt of lightning. The pair found this secluded spot near a clear, clean pool, fed by the early rains up north. They'd swum and fished and teased each other, taken their dinners early, and let long and affectionate nights spill over into the mornings without the nagging need to begin the day upright and ready for whatever may come their way.
The cool afternoon had been welcome after a warm spell under the harvest moon, but now the crisp night air of late fall brought along the promise of winter chill. It was a distant storm that blew the low clouds across the sky, a diaphanous precursor to its arrival.
Xena tugged the blanket up over her shoulder and tucked it under the soundly-sleeping body she had cradled with her own powerful form. She listened to the sounds of the forest, of crackling night beetles and whisper-soft owls. She heard the peaceful drone of the nearby river and the placid tones of the breeze passing over the pool's rippled surface. A contented sigh escaped her lips as she drifted off to sleep.
She hadn't expected to be awakened abruptly a short time later. Gabrielle wrestled with the blanket and plowed a blunt elbow into Xena's ribs. "Gabrielle?"
The bard grew more restless, trying to get away from something, fighting with the blanket.
"Gabrielle? Are you okay?"
There was no response. A twinge began assert to itself at the very core of Xena's stomach. She wrapped herself around the frantic bard to keep her from doing damage to either of their bodies. As she held her friend, wondering how such a small body could harbor such brawny and busy muscles, Xena tried to remember where she'd stashed the packet of herbs she kept just for these occasions. Rare as they were, she was always ready. And the faster Xena got the herbs into Gabrielle, the easier it would be on her when she came out of it.
The body under her seized hard. Gabrielle went taut, completely rigid in a deep spasm. When it passed, they both sucked in huge breaths, Xena's out of relief, and Gabrielle's upon waking scared out of her mind.
"It's okay, Gabrielle. It's over." Xena smoothed sticky, matted hair from the bard's cheek. All Gabrielle could do was to stare at Xena, wide-eyed and stunned. Xena smiled at her. "I'm going to get the herbs. I'll be right back."
The little blonde locked her fingers around Xena's arm and shook her head in one tiny yet frenzied motion.
"You'll be fine. I won't be gone but a moment." Xena forced herself to get up. Leaving Gabrielle like that, even for the length of time it took to dig into her saddlebag for the herbs, nab a mug from a rock by the fire, and grab a water skin, felt like she'd impaled her chest on a log. She got back in time to pull the blanket out of the way while the bard's stomach convulsed. It was the same reaction every time. Xena wished she could figure some way out of it for her.
"Here," she said softly, swirling the water into the mug over a healthy pinch of the herbs. With one arm, Xena helped Gabrielle to sit up. She held the mug for her while two smaller, shaking hands clutched at it. "Slowly."
Gabrielle nodded and took a deep breath. The color started to return to her skin and her hands were more steady.
"Finish it up, now."
Gabrielle did as she was told. Weakly smiling at Xena, she sighed. "Thanks." A tremor, visible to Xena, coursed through her as she shivered.
The warrior collected Gabrielle into warm arms, wrapped a blanket around them both, and lithely propelled herself up. With the bard safely cradled against her chest she crossed the few steps to the fire. "Let's get comfortable and then I want you to tell me everything you remember."
* * *
Gabrielle was still light-headed and it was hard to remember under the best of circumstances. Flashes of images and sounds sped by at such velocity, sometimes she was unable to distinguish which they were: face or voice. Catching and making sense of them tended to be a long and arduous process, a process made possible only by the patient and gentle woman holding her, making certain she was warm and soothed and protected.
"I saw Ephiny." But where was it? Gabrielle held her hands out to the flames, the new wood popping over rekindled embers. She craved the heat against her palms. "She was someplace cold."
"Do you know where that was?" That voice, close and low, was her safety net, her shelter in the midst of a choking mental whirlwind.
So much uncertainty tainted the images. "No. I don't think I've been there." It felt foreign, different, not of her life. "Something was terribly wrong."
"Was anyone else with Ephiny?" No amount of gale force wind could have shifted the rock that was Xena; she stayed by Gabrielle's side for as long as it took every time. Though the prophetic dreams had steered them well in their travels, they required a tremendous amount of sifting. Metaphor piled upon metaphor. Analogies and allegories threatened to bury the truth. Her oracular powers never gave up the future easily. The battle raged.
The bard ground the base of her palms against her temples. If she could ease the pounding maybe she could hear the voices in her head, maybe she could dredge up the key to this particular vision.
Xena slid her own fingers under Gabrielle's hands and worked her simple magic. She dug in hard and then lightened her touch, the change in pressure emulating the release of tension. She continued to feather light touches down Gabrielle's jaw, across the slim bridge of her nose, along her eyebrows, following the horizontal creases in her forehead. "Just relax, Gabrielle. It'll come back to you."
The bard folded herself into the steadfast security behind her, let the blankets and the fire be a reminder of the path she'd chosen: the open freedom of life with Xena, tempered with a sense of purpose she couldn't imagine finding in any other realm.
"I can't remember, Xena. So much is a blur." She knew she had to try.
"Maybe that's part of the vision. It could mean a lot movement, or maybe it represents speed."
"Maybe." Gabrielle took another deep breath. The herbs were starting to work on dissipating the lingering contractions in her muscles, and settling her stomach, though she knew that was ultimately a hopeless cause for a couple of days.
"Where was Ephiny?"
"I don't know." This had become the routine. Xena would ask questions and Gabrielle would answer, trying not to think too hard, just letting the words surface without critiquing them.
"Were other Amazons there?"
"Yes, but..." Strange, she thought. "I don't recognize any of them."
"You said something felt wrong."
Gabrielle doubled over and squeezed her arms around her stomach. Xena held her tightly as her body betrayed the answer. The little bard retched, losing the herbs. Again, it was nothing unexpected.
Xena held the water skin to Gabrielle's lips and let her drink a little. Not enough, and she'd be dehydrated, making the process of regaining her strength even longer and more difficult. But too much water, and she wouldn't have a chance of keeping it down.
"I don't see how you can hold me on your lap when I'm throwing up, Xena."
Gabrielle could feel the chuckle. "You say that every time."
"I know." Her body collapsed back onto Xena and she let the warrior wrap the blanket around her again. "And you say you wouldn't have it any other way."
"Still true." Xena reached over to their saddlebags and dug out a cloth. Using only one hand, she popped the cork on the water skin, drizzled some water onto the cloth, stoppered the skin again, and then gently wiped Gabrielle's face. "It's the same in sickness or health." When she'd finished with the cloth, Xena gently stroked the flushed cheek.
Another flash. Gabrielle caught her breath. She knew Xena had felt it and would ask about it. What to say? "I saw you, Xena."
A long silence stretched out.
"I think I was dead."
Gabrielle pried one eye open. There were only short shadows lying across the dirt of their camp site. It was at least mid-morning. Why did she still feel so utterly exhausted?
She remembered. The vision seemed more clear this morning, the pieces were separated by gaping holes and she couldn't draw a narrative between them, but they stood on their own. Ephiny was in trouble and so were the Amazons. They'd have to go to them right away.
The bard rolled from her back onto her side and gingerly pushed herself up.
Xena was there, down on one knee, before the bard had time to sit up straight. "Easy."
Two steady arms held her. She needed them.
"How do you feel?"
"You want the truth or the answer I feel like giving you?"
Xena laughed. "Tell me both while I'll get your some more herbs."
Gabrielle slouched over, resting her head in her hands. "I feel like I've been dancing with the Widow Twanky... at sea."
"That bad, eh?" Xena wore her dark leathers but hadn't donned her armor. That meant they weren't traveling today.
"We need to go now, Xena." Though Gabrielle spoke in nothing more than a whisper, she imbued the words with urgent need.
Long, limber legs bent, gracefully bringing the warrior's body to sit by the bard. "Here," she said, handing the mug to Gabrielle. "Let's see if we can't get that to stay down."
Gabrielle grumbled at her friend but knew it was pointless to argue. At least not until she felt better and could take a chance at standing up on her own. If she had tried it then, she'd have keeled right over. And that wouldn't have gone far in convincing Xena she was ready to make the journey to Amazon lands.
After drinking half of the brew, the bard asked, "How many days away are we?"
"Six or seven, I think, and that's if the weather holds." Xena waited patiently for Gabrielle to finish her drink.
"And if I ride the whole way?"
"I was already figuring that in." Xena grinned and took the empty mug. "Here are your choices for today. You can sit up as much as you want. You can sleep all you want. If you really insist on anything more than that, you can't do it on your own. You have to ask me to help you."
"I promise." It felt good to be taken care of, the bard had to admit. Xena shared her overpowering need to get to the Amazons as soon as they could; of that, Gabrielle had no doubt. And she knew that right now her own judgment was a little shaky because the visions always slammed into her so hard, they left her unsteady for days. Xena was the one who could balance their needs. Gabrielle trusted her.
"Thank you." The warrior placed a kiss on Gabrielle's forehead.
And that was enough of sitting up for awhile.
The next time she awoke, she couldn't judge the time by the shadows. A thick layer of clouds had obscured the sun. The gray tinge to their camp reminded her of the end of her vision: Xena's hollow eyes staring at her own, cold body. They were inside somewhere, in a rather large room, one lined in great gray stones. She was on a low pallet, unmoving, covered completely with a blanket. The pattern on the blanket was unusual, like a field of crescent moons. Xena sat on the edge of the pallet, her cheeks moist with tears. There was no movement in that image. It was just a single slice of the future thrown at her by some inexplicable gift.
For Xena's sake, she fervently hoped her first impression of that scene had been wrong.
* * *
The afternoon turned cold again when the clouds rolled in. The breeze had picked up some from the day before, though the storm was still many hours away. If they weren't able to start their journey to the Amazons by the time the rain hit, Xena would have to move the bard to a more sheltered place. For now, this cove kept the worst of the winds at bay. She built a new fire closer to a knoll of rocks in an attempt to lose as little warmth to the wind as possible.
Gabrielle had slept most of the day. Even though it was normal after one of her bouts, it still worried Xena. Anything that happened to the bard worried Xena. She shrugged. Yeah, she teased herself cynically, ten years ago when you guessed where you'd be today, you were dead on target with that one. Not.
The rabbit carcass had been simmering for hours. The few tubers she'd tossed in, bland enough for a squeamish stomach, would get solid foods started. By the next day, Gabrielle could probably eat a couple of small meals. If she could stand Xena's cooking.
She squinted at the sky. If there was a way to slow down or re-route that storm, she would have found it. Rotten timing, she mused, guessing the worst of it would arrive just about the time Gabrielle would be ready to go.
Gabrielle slept soundly, not moving at all but for the slow and steady movement of her chest. The blankets Xena had piled on still covered all but the bard's head. She watched her sleep. It looked so simple, so mundane.
Xena, walking back from a hidden spring filled water skins in hand, heard Gabrielle begin stir. She trotted to camp and stashed the skins, checked the simmering broth, and then sat down by Gabrielle.
Two sleepy green eyes edged open. "Have I been asleep for days?"
She tousled the strawberry blonde hair. "Nah, just one. Feel like getting up for dinner?"
"Sure." Gabrielle spoke with a forced conviction.
Xena propped her up against the rocks before bringing over a pair of mugs steaming with the rich broth, and sitting beside her. "Careful, it's still pretty hot."
Gabrielle held the mug under her nose, inhaling and smiling. "It smells wonderful."
"Then you're feeling better. You're remembering to humor me about my cooking."
The bard looked up at Xena's quirky smile and responded by leaning toward the warrior, resting her cheek on the broad shoulder. They both sat peacefully, waiting for their broth to cool, waiting for the inevitable discussion about the previous night's prophecy.
Sometime later, when their eyes reflected the shifting flame from the fire, Xena began. "Do you want to tell me more?"
Gabrielle thought for a moment. "You mean about us?" She lowered her voice. "About me?" The tang of smoke from the chattering fire was her only answer. "We were in a room, maybe a castle. I was lying in a bed, you were sitting by me." She paused again so Xena slid an arm around her and pulled her closer. "I can't tell much from what I saw."
"But you felt something."
"I felt your sadness. It was... suffocating." Gabrielle trembled slightly. "It was directed toward me."
Xena mulled it over. "Did you sense death?"
"I'm not sure. Not specifically. Death wasn't central in the image but it was there." Gabrielle turned toward Xena. "I'm sure it was there."
"But not necessarily yours." It wasn't a question put to the bard. Xena meant it as an irrefutable statement.
"Maybe it was a part of me that died."
* * *
Xena peered out from their dry nest; a depression in the south side of a scraggy hill kept out the worst of the cold rain from the north, and an awning quickly erected of woven branches and a thick layer of sweet-smelling duff gave them enough dry ground for a fire and their bedroll.
Gabrielle napped again. She still hadn't completely shaken the effects of the prophetic trance, now four days past. Xena was actually glad for the storm because it had forced the bard to remain quiet for an extra two days. She'd never have agreed to it otherwise. Still, it was time to move on.
"Hey," Gabrielle's soft voice called to her.
"I think it's finally stopped raining. If you don't mind the mud..."
"I don't mind the mud and you know that." Gabrielle got up and stretched, then walked over to squeeze her body against Xena's. "Thank you for taking care of me."
"You're welcome." Xena latched an arm around Gabrielle and stared off into the wet valley they overlooked.
"You're worried, too."
Gabrielle might have identifiable prophecies, but Xena had a stream of intuitions that manifested themselves as knots in her belly. They were reactions to what was and what could be, and were often as accurate in their vague predictions as Gabrielle's visions. She recognized that the knot in its larval stage a few days ago was linked with Gabrielle's dream. But unlike the bard's vision, she didn't have faces or voices to go with it, just an innate sense of direction. It told her to move forward but it lacked the clarity to show her the goal. Now, with what Gabrielle had told her, she knew better what lay ahead and was as anxious to face it as Gabrielle was. "Let's just say I'm ready to find a way to make things right." She pulled Gabrielle closer and kissed her on the top of the head. "And that means finding out what's wrong, first. So let's head out in the morning, okay?"
"I've been waiting for you to say that." Gabrielle smiled at Xena.
* * *
Gabrielle never got the chance to admit she was tired because Xena stopped frequently. At first, Xena made excuses about checking Argo's pads or stretching out a cramp, but Gabrielle laughed at her every time and she eventually gave up the charade.
And Gabrielle didn't mind the breaks. She needed those moments to rest her eyes and try to bleed the tension from her body. A combination of factors kept feeding the knots in her legs and stomach muscles: general worry about the unknown, specific anxiety about Ephiny, that fledgling fear she always felt when they were on their way to the Amazons. Knowing she was connected to them was fine, but she still wasn't comfortable being a ruler in all its pomp and burdensome responsibility. And then there was the vicious cycle of knowing that when she was tense, it made Xena tense, which in turn escalated her unease. If she could do anything to make it easier on her partner, she'd choose that path.
After lunch, when they'd been riding again for a short time, Gabrielle in front so Xena could keep a secure hold on her, the bard thought about asking for a break. The sun was in her eyes and lunch wasn't setting well.
"Whoa," Xena abruptly announced. She flung herself off Argo and pulled the bard down with her into the muck of the soggy trail. "Tell me when you don't feel well."
"Huh? I'm okay." She halfheartedly waved off Xena.
"No, you're not. I could feel your muscles contracting. I had my hand on your stomach, remember?" Xena pinned her with an icy glare.
She didn't know what to say. Gabrielle just stood there, mud creeping over the toes of her boots, staring at Xena, until one lone tear escaped down the side of her cheek. "Sorry." Her angry fingers wiped at it. And then suddenly she threw herself to her knees and rid herself of lunch.
Her fist pounded in disappointment at her weakness, splattering mud in every direction. Through clenched teeth she finally verbalized her frustrations, "I have to be able to do this."
Xena knelt beside her, put a hand on her back. "You can do this, Gabrielle. You are doing it. We're doing it together."
"No, all I do is sleep or throw up. I can't fight my own body, Xena." Shaken from her thoughts, she felt herself falling backwards and so she flung her arms out trying to stop. But when she landed in Xena's muddy lap, she turned and collapsed against her friend, breastplate and all, and let go. The means to release tension she'd so desperately been seeking all day had been right behind her the whole time.
Xena tucked Gabrielle's hair behind her ears. "Everything's going to be fine. You're doing the best you can and that's pretty extraordinary, Gabrielle." Xena kept up a quiet banter, drawing the bard into an all-encompassing hug, dirt, slimy mud and all.
What's gotten into this woman, Gabrielle wondered. How could the queen of stoicism spend days waiting on me hand and foot, being huggy and soft, actually extracting my frustration, drawing it out from me as if she were some mystical wick for my problems.
"Xena?" Gabrielle had stopped crying and was now dozing under the spell of Xena's gently kneading fingers.
"We're a mess." Gabrielle pulled back from Xena's arms and looked at her face. Streaks and blotches of mud covered her cheeks with little swirly rounds on both sides where the warrior had pressed her face to bard's head. A small dab of mud clung just to the side of dead center on Xena's nose, but when Gabrielle gently flicked it away, she left behind a whole new glob of wet, brown dirt from her own filthy fingers. Fortunately, Xena blocked the bard's instinctive attempt to wipe it away with the palm of her hand. Xena caught the bard's wrist and turned it over for Gabrielle to see. "I'm muddy." Gabrielle giggled.
Xena smiled. "We're both pretty foul." Spreading her arms revealed a murky breastplate with crevices and creases caked in mud. It had seeped into her leathers and, no doubt, well beyond.
"Oops." Gabrielle giggled again. "We need a bath."
"Yup, but not here." She rose, bringing Gabrielle up with her. "I'm cold so you must be freezing. There's a village up ahead. Not much to it, but they have a small inn and I happen to know where the bath house is."
"A real bath? Oh, Xena, a real hot bath?" Gabrielle hugged her, figuring neither of them could get any muddier than they already were. As she rested her face against Xena's collar bone, she asked softly, "With you?"
"Well it's not going to be with the innkeeper, that's for sure."
* * *
Gabrielle extended her arms above her head and pointed her toes in a full-length stretch after waking from a nap. She'd been delightfully relaxed after a good scrubbing from Xena which lead to more playful bath time activities and escalated to rather enjoyable exercise in the bed.
Looking across the room, lit with a ruddy glow from the evening's twilight, she spotted a plate with bread and cheese, a mug, clean clothes, and a bit of folded parchment. The parchment was the most interesting, and so she reached for it first. It was a tiny note from Xena.Please eat a little now. It'll help keep your stomach settled for dinner.
Gabrielle grumbled at the thought of eating and picked up the mug, catching the scent of chamomile and mint. The tea was still warm. She sipped it as she sat down on a old, lopsided chair at the table.
How does Xena keep things from bothering her, Gabrielle wondered. Nothing ever stops her from getting what she wants or from doing what she believes she must. If I could have just half of that...
She nibbled at the cheese unhappily and idly played with a rolled-up bit of corn bread.Look at me. I make us stop all the time, get us stuck in the mud. I dont even want to imagine how far we'd have gotten today if we'd ridden straight through. Knocking off in mid-afternoon so we could have a bath? The Amazons need me there, not lazing around an inn.
The bard didn't hear Xena come in, mostly because Xena didn't know whether or not Gabrielle was still asleep and so she opened the door and edged in silently, but also because the bard was too preoccupied with her thoughts about the Amazons. Eventually, Gabrielle realized Xena was there and turned to her slowly. "Hi."
Xena eyed the bread and cheese still on the plate. "Been up long?"
"No." Gabrielle bit off another tiny taste of the cheese to appease her friend. She chewed and swallowed as quickly as she could and chased it with a sip of the tea. The thought of Amazons kept her from enjoying her food.
Xena pulled out the chair next to her, put her weight against the back of it, testing to see if it would hold her, and gingerly sat down. "Gabrielle, I know you're worried, but stewing about it isn't going to make it any better."
There's no hiding anything from Xena. "I know, but I can't help it. When you're thrust into a position of responsibility, you have to ignore whatever's bugging you. And obviously I haven't been able to do that. I don't know what the Amazons think I'm good for. Maybe we shouldn't go. Ephiny can take care of everything. She doesn't need me."
Xena leaned over and brushed a delicate kiss across the bard's lips. "Let's get out of this room, go down to the main room, and maybe that will distract you for awhile. You're thinking yourself into a rut."
Gabrielle allowed herself to be pulled to her feet and then into a very soft hug before tagging along after Xena down the stairs.
* * *
The innkeeper, Epopeus, was an adequate cook, and fortunately refrained from spicing anything heavily. Gabrielle ate some boiled beans and peas, and two pieces of corn bread with a dash of honey on top. Xena had no intention of pushing her too far, but did insist she eat enough to keep up her strength.
The warrior, for her part, picked at her food as well. Defeating the Persian army was less taxing than trying to pull the bard from a funk. This trip wasn't making it any easier. They wouldn't be near Amazon territory for at least three, and more likely four more days. Unfortunately, Xena saw their arrival as the only cure for Gabrielle's insecurities. Ephiny would make her feel better, and it might not even take a hint or two from Xena to spur the regent into action.
For such a small inn, it attracted a great deal of foot traffic. Most of the customers would push on after supper and camp along the trail as Xena and Gabrielle did most nights. A few had rooms. Xena made a point to learn all of their faces. Each time the door opened and more travelers arrived, Xena spent a few moments ascertaining whether or not they were there for a cold drink and a meal, or for something more. No one that evening appeared to be looking for a fight.
When the door admitted a lone man, she watched him carefully. He was of medium build, not particularly imposing, but his eyes darted about the room and settled on Gabrielle several times before he drew the attention of Epopeus. That alone made Xena take notice. The innkeeper nodded several times and indicated Xena and Gabrielle's table with a jerk of his head. Again, the lone traveler skimmed his eyes over then.
Xena decided she didn't much like that at all.
When he dipped his hand into his vest, Xena narrowed her eyes, daring him to do something stupid. Instead, he pulled out a scroll, handed it to Epopeus, turned, and left.
The innkeeper strolled over to them. "That man said he got this from an Amazon messenger." He thrust the scroll toward Gabrielle.
"How did he come to have it?" Xena queried, still not comfortable with the situation.
"He said that some lady... some Amazon was flying down the road when she came around the bend and plowed right into his up-turned cart. She got a little banged up and was right mad about it, too, saying she had important business delivering scrolls in the hopes of getting a message to you. He offered to go to the two or three places he knew 'round here and leave them at the inns. He said the young Amazon will be fit to ride in a day or two, in case you were worried about her."
"Thank you," Gabrielle replied. She nervously twirled the scroll in her hands.
The innkeeper eyed Gabrielle carefully as if trying to figure out why such a slight woman would be getting a message from the Amazons. Xena turned her best repellant glare on him and shooed Epopeus away. "Go on, open it," Xena encouraged the bard.
Slowly, Gabrielle worked her finger under the seal, taking care not to rip the parchment. It took all of Xena's determination not to yank it from her hands and tear it open. Gabrielle's eyes read the neat hand, not betraying anything of the message to Xena. It was as if it held nothing of interest for her.
Finally, after reading it three times, the bard rolled it up and place it on the table. Xena's patience had worn thin but she kept her curiosity on a tight rein. "What did Ephiny have to say?"
Gabrielle shrugged and rolled the scroll toward Xena. Xena took her time reading it.
"I hope this finds you and Xena well. Some exciting news has come to us. We've met two sister Amazons from a lost tribe! They are with us now and we'll celebrate the festival of Mounikhion together at the new moon.
"Everyone believes it's a sign from Artemis that our tribes are to reunite, and while I share a great deal of their optimism, I know I must remain impartial and make the best decisions for all of us.
"When met with circumstances such as this, my thoughts immediately turn toward you. I'd value your level head and wise council now, my friend. If you could see your way by our lands in the near future, then we would be led by our rightful queen on the cusp of a historic occasion."Besides, I can't imagine facing this without you, Gabrielle. I hope you can come. -Ephiny"
Xena rolled up the scroll and put it down. Thank you, Ephiny, she said to herself. This note will make all the difference.
Mid-morning found them well down the trail, having left the inn at sunrise. Ephiny's note seemed to have silenced the bard's questions regarding her ability to lead the Amazons. But unfortunately it had also quieted everything else about Gabrielle. Reflection and resolution take time, Xena reminded herself. You owe Gabrielle some patience.
They'd both slept well but not long enough for Xena's fair-haired friend. Somehow, Gabrielle always needed one or two more hours sleep than Xena did, and with the lingering effects of the vision still affecting her body, the need for sleep was exaggerated.
"Ride again?" The warrior extended a long arm down to Gabrielle.
"Not letting me walk much, are you?" Fortunately, Gabrielle smiled as she spoke, turning what could have been a snipe into a tease.
"I just want you up here with me for awhile." That would convince her, Xena thought. And besides, it's true. She pulled Gabrielle up behind her, letting her eyes close briefly as a pair of arms folded around her waist.
Xena's plans to run Argo for a spell evaporated with that soft touch. She indulged herself in watching the dappled light shift along the trail, listening to a tumbling creek as it made its way down a canyon not far off. When Gabrielle snuggled closer to her back, she knew the bard enjoyed the same peaceful spell.
One lone twig cracked. The warrior snapped to alert. The difference between the sound of a cloven foot and a boot breaking bits of wood was subtle. It was, however, rarely lost on the warrior princess. The animal's sound was sharper and yet softer. The man's noise was louder and more clumsy. Especially when the man was trying to hide.
She felt Gabrielle sit up straight, making some room for her to maneuver. Years of traveling together meant she no longer had to ask Gabrielle to be prepared or to get out of the way. This time, she didn't even need to hold up a finger to silence her.
They rode on slowly, nearing a narrowing of the road. Their path was framed by two large tangled trees whose branches had grown linked together overhead. It was a spot she'd have picked for an ambush in her past. Xena reined Argo to a halt. Gabrielle took her hand and dismounted without comment. Xena heard the staff clicking together in three easy motions behind her.
With a subtle command from Xena's knees, Argo edged forward. Xena still hadn't drawn her sword. She didn't want to do anything to shake up the men until she knew how many there were and precisely where they were. Of course, putting Gabrielle down counted as something that might set off the ruffians, but that couldn't be avoided.
Pressing forward, she smelled two unwashed men downwind, heard a third shifting his weight on a branch, and saw the light reflected back to her through the leaves from a fourth man's eyes. This should be easy, she thought.
Two bandits attacked from either side. They were met by the fast-moving soles of the warrior princess' boots. Each man grunted heavily when the air was instantly forced from their lungs.
Xena heard tell-tale cracks behind her. Before she could check on Gabrielle, the man in the tree jumped down, intending to unseat her. He soon found himself sitting on the forest floor. He looked about, dazed, glanced at the blade in his hand which had a thin streak of blood on it, and then to his crotch where his pants had been sliced through. He wobbled his gaze toward Xena and passed out.
She kneed Argo around and saw Gabrielle, one hand on her side, leaning against her staff, smiling. The fourth marauder lay in a heap just down the road. "You okay?" Xena asked, riding back to the bard.
"I won." Gabrielle shrugged and took the hand offered to her. She winced slightly as she was hauled up onto Argo.
"You're not all right." Xena turned in the saddle and scowled at her for a moment before looking for any signs of injury.
Gabrielle dropped her eyes. "Nothing's broken, Xena. He just got a kick in, that's all. Come on, let's get going before any of them wake up."
"You know, there's a lot that can hurt without anything really being injured, Xena. I'm fine, honestly. I'm just too tired to ignore it like you always do, okay?"
Xena nodded silently. As they rode on, she knew that Gabrielle was right. They always had nagging bumps and bruises. It was probably nothing serious or Gabrielle would have admitted it.
* * *
Gabrielle chastised herself. There had been an agonizingly long moment when she saw the man's leg flex and then extend toward her. Even though she knew what she had to do to avoid his attack, she couldn't make her body do it. When his heel dug into her side, it jarred her into action and she ended the fight seconds later.Why didn't I counter his move? I knew what to do and how to do it. Why didn't I do it?
Gingerly, she rubbed her hand over the spot where he'd nailed her. It was slightly swollen and beginning to bruise. As she'd done right after it had happened, she inhaled very carefully and as deeply as she could. It ached but there were no shooting pains. She pressed around the spot at various angles and tested it again. Just sore. That was good. It was enough that Xena knew she was hurting. She'd be devastated if Xena discovered that man had really done damage. Nah, she told herself again. Just sore.
They rode on until they had just enough light to make camp before darkness fell. The weariness in Gabrielle's bones went deep. It felt good to stretch her legs but mostly she wanted to curl up on their bedroll and fade slowly into oblivion.
Xena skittered away quickly and gathered some wood while Gabrielle cleared a pit for their fire and lined it with rocks. By the time she had finished, Xena had unloaded two armfuls of wood, and taken the water skins to fill at a spring she'd spied while out gathering fuel for the fire.
"Hope you don't mind a boring supper." Gabrielle held some dried meat in one hand and a pot in the other.
"I doubt that it'll be boring. I found some wild onions." Xena pulled them out of the pouch at her belt and handed them over. "And I know you'll find something in that bag of yours."
Gabrielle curled her lip into a crooked smile and snorted. "I thought it felt heavy today." Digging into her bag, she laughed. "A whole loaf of bread? Xena, what if I'd whacked that guy over the head with my bag? We'd have had crumbs for dinner. You could have told it me it was there."
"It would have been fine with me if you had hit him with your bag."
The distant look in Xena's eyes signaled trouble to Gabrielle. "Hey, look. I really am fine. See?" She lifted her arm and let Xena inspect her side. "There's a bruise. Nothing I can't live with as long as you don't tickle me."
Xena straightened up, regarding the bard seriously.
Gabrielle tried to read the look. "You don't trust me to tell you the truth?"
"No, that's not it." Xena's shoulders fell before she reluctantly continued. "It's just that sometimes, you don't tell me things when you think that's best for me." She tilted her head and captured Gabrielle's eyes. "I always want to know."
Gabrielle didn't know how to respond to that. She had done that before, not telling Xena everything to keep from hurting her, to keep her from worrying about the bard so much she might make crucial mistakes in a fight, or make a selfish decision in a situation where many people were involved. "This time, I'm telling you the truth. I'm tired. I'm sore. I let that man inside my defenses and I'm not really sure how it happened. But that's all, Xena."
Xena folded her arms around the bard, keeping them high enough not to press against her bruise. "You're still not up to speed after the vision, Gabrielle. That would be why he got in on you. Don't worry, you didn't make any mistakes."
Gabrielle squeezed Xena. "Thank you. I guess I really needed to hear that."
* * *
Xena insisted on doing all of the washing up after dinner and Gabrielle didn't protest. Gratefully, the bard flopped onto the bedroll and closed her eyes. Xena worked quickly, cleaning and stowing their gear. She knew all too well that Gabrielle would fight sleep until the work was done and they both lay in bed. Not that Xena really minded falling asleep with Gabrielle, but it pushed her efficiency level into high gear in an effort to let get Gabrielle enough rest.
With the last of the hot water, she decided to take a quick sponge bath. The leather squeaked slightly as she tugged it overhead and tossed her trademark outfit over to a rock.
As she was about to take off her shift, she saw two wide green eyes staring at her from across the fire. Chuckling to herself, Xena very slowly inched the material up, locking eyes with the bard. To push the wonderful tension slightly higher, she paused before revealing her breasts, then drew her shift up and over her head. When she pulled it off completely, she found herself looking directly into the angry face of Gabrielle.
"You're little Miss Hypocrite, aren't you."
Gabrielle pointed at her.
Xena looked down at her chest. Blood had caked along a slightly puffy gash between her breasts. "Hey, where'd that come from?"
"You don't know? You get a sharp blade down your chest and you don't know? How's that supposed to make me feel about telling you every time I get a hangnail?"
Xena peered at herself, perplexed. "I guess I remember feeling something when the one in the tree jumped me."
"You can ignore that? Xena, you're still bleeding."
"No I'm not." She ran her finger down the cut. "Well maybe just a little."
Gabrielle threw up her hands and muffled a scream. "You're impossible." Stomping to their saddle bags, the bard pulled out some cloths and grabbed the small wine skin Xena kept for emergencies in their healer's kit. She twisted back toward Xena. "Sit."
"But..." Xena protested. Gabrielle just didn't realize how inconsequential it all was. It had barely hurt. She hadn't noticed it much. It could have been left alone and it would have been fine.
"Sit down by the fire."
Xena dropped right where she stood and let Gabrielle clean the cut, the tender care stifling any complaints Xena might have had.
"You don't even flinch when I know it stings, Xena." Gabrielle spoke softly.
Gabrielle salved the gash with a light touch. Even though she worked diligently between Xena's breasts, the contact never turned sensual. When she finished, Gabrielle handed Xena her shift.
Xena quietly donned the gown while Gabrielle put the supplies away. They met at the bedroll, sitting facing each other. Xena studied her with a solemn effort. "What happened today still bothers you, doesn't it?"
Xena saw the hitch in Gabrielle's movements. She'd intended to brush off the reproach but stopped herself.
"You can't be expected to be at top form every day, Gabrielle. You have a huge responsibility on your shoulders and you're still..."
"I know," the bard interrupted. "But you always manage to find a way. Even if something unexpected happens, no matter how you feel, you handle it. You always do."
Xena rested her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders, kneading the tense muscles underneath. "Doesn't that depend on whatever the unexpected thing is? Ephiny needs someone with your abilities now, not a warrior like me who relies on brute force first. You have skills that are different from mine. That's why we make such a good team."
"Fine, Xena, but wise counsel doesn't do any good when a bunch of thugs are after your butt."
Xena laughed. "Perhaps not. But, Gabrielle, there are many more people who fight with their fists than who clash with their minds. You are the rare one. The world needs a lot more people like you and a lot fewer like me."
"Don't you even begin to think that, Xena." The bard shook an angry finger at her.
This is my chance, she thought. How can I make her understand this? To see her place in destiny as I do? "Gabrielle," her voice began tentatively, "as long as we rely on the physical fight and the military battle, people will get hurt. And when someone you love gets hurt, the deepest, most natural reaction we have is to fight back and hurt them more. That's how the world has worked for a long time, but it isn't always a very nice place to live."
Xena took a breath, thankful that Gabrielle wasn't trying to redirect her thoughts, and continued. "You, on the other hand, are exactly what this world needs. You're wise enough to make the right decision, unselfish enough to think only of the greater good, and you have the gift of gentle persuasion. You can make people understand your point of view in a way that doesn't hurt them. You show them how to believe. They won't fight you, Gabrielle. And that's the only way this world is going to get better, when people like you mediate the unsolvable conflict."
Gabrielle dabbed at her nose and sniffed. "And so the fates have put me in charge of the Amazons? That's ridiculous, Xena. I can't change them. They're the fiercest warriors in Greece."
"They've already changed."
"But they're warriors, Xena. They still are."
The firelight glinted in Gabrielle's eyes, a sharp contrast to the dark and shadowed world around her. The perfect portrait of the bard, standing out without intimidation. "What did Ephiny do when the Amazons discovered a lost tribe, huh? She didn't invite them over for a ceremonial battle. She didn't march the troops out to conquer them. She asked for you. She wants your advice, Gabrielle."
"Sure, but I'd ask for advice, too. Nothing wrong with that. And there's no telling what will eventually happen. And besides..." Gabrielle's words faded, there was no need to rehash what had been on both of their minds for days.
"Yeah, I know. You're worried about Eph. So am I. However, something inside me thinks that when we get there, you'll steer everyone from battle which is usually when people get hurt." Xena knew the complete implications of that. She'd have to keep Gabrielle from battle as well. And though the bard found a peaceful way whenever possible, she was willing to risk her life to make peace her legacy. That would be Xena's duty in all of this, protecting Gabrielle.
"The Amazons are really important to me, Xena. I'm so different from them and yet they've accepted me without trying to change me. How can I turn around and try to change them?" She flopped back onto the bedroll. "Now I'm the hypocrite."
Xena started a soft rubbing on the bard's stomach. "First of all, neither of us is a hypocrite. This cut you so thoroughly cared for really didn't bother me. I wasn't hiding it from you, Gabrielle. On the other hand, I know your side aches and that you're intentionally not mentioning it to me." She quickly help up her hand to ask the bard not to disagree. "It's okay, Gabrielle. You have the right to keep that to yourself. So long as you promise to tell me when you've been hurt so much that it needs my attention."
The bard nodded.
"Good. Now as for the Amazons, there's something really important you need to realize. You're not asking them to change. You've made no demands of them. You've just shown them another option and let them come to the conclusion that it's a better way."
"That's not really true. I'm their queen. Queens issue orders, Xena."
"And have you ever told them not to fight?"
"You know the answer to that. I've never been there when a decision like that had to be made." Gabrielle crossed her arms over her eyes. "But I'm not so sure it won't happen this time. Otherwise why would I have had that vision?"
"You think that's what it was about? Telling the Amazons not to fight?" Xena trusted Gabrielle's instinct in this.
Gabrielle sat up again and looked off into the dark woods. "I'm not sure."
"I know this is hard on you, Gabrielle. But until we know what's going on, you shouldn't start second-guessing a decision you haven't even made yet."
Gabrielle reached for Xena's hand, gave it a tug, and settled back down on the bedroll. "I can't stop worrying about it."
Xena stretched out along the length of the bard's body and pulled their blankets up over both of them. "Yeah, I know. It's one of the things I love about you."
Gabrielle rolled on her side and snuggled up as close as she could to Xena's warm body, letting herself relax. "Thanks."
"Anytime." Xena folded one arm around Gabrielle. I will protect you, Gabrielle. I swear to that with my very life.
After a few uneventful days, Gabrielle perked up considerably. They'd camped along the ridge of a wide, rolling set of hills, one they knew well as marking the furthermost border to Amazon territory.
The village proper was still a half-day's journey to the north. Gabrielle anxiously looked forward to their arrival. She'd see dear friends and finally get some questions answered. For the moment, that outweighed the more subtle tendrils of fear that choked her when her defenses were down. She cheerfully rose with the first hints of dawn, even before Xena asked her to get up.
For her efforts, she was greeted with one dark brow raised in respect and a soft kiss. "Ready to be a queen?"
"Are you ready to be my subject?" Gabrielle batted away Xena's roaming fingers. "Hey! Okay, you don't have to be my subject. Cut it out."
"Just don't let anybody else do this to you."
Gabrielle slapped her hand down on Xena's forehead. "Are you feeling all right? You must be running a high fever. You don't usually say such crazy things."
"I don't, do I?" Xena stopped her physical teasing of the wholly outmatched bard. "You bring it out in me."
"Too bad the Amazons won't get to see that. They'd really like that side of you, Xena."
"Nope." She sparkled a wide smile. "It's reserved just for you."
They ate a sparse breakfast and left camp before the sun broke over the horizon. Soon, they began to hear faint bird calls, Amazon scouts out along the perimeter, sending messages to each other. Xena identified those alerting the others that the queen was arriving.
"Why don't they stop us?" Gabrielle asked.
"It's an honor to greet the queen. My guess is that someone else has kept that right for herself."
And she was correct, for about mid-morning, Xena pointed out a plume of dust where a party was heading their way.
Ephiny rode at the head of the entourage. Her wild blonde curls swept from side to side with the horse's gait. Xena halted Argo in an oval-shaped meadow and waited for the Amazons to come to them. A small point of protocol, Gabrielle noted, but one that wasn't going to be lost on many.
Gabrielle dismounted, followed by Xena, and they raised their arms, clasping their hands in respect.
"Well met, Queen Gabrielle!" Ephiny pronounced the greeting loudly and formally but wore a dashing smile that only Xena and Gabrielle could see.
"Hi, Ephiny." Gabrielle hugged her the moment the regent dismounted.
"I'm glad you're here." Ephiny glanced at Xena, just off Gabrielle's shoulder. "Both of you." Extending one arm, she gestured back to those who accompanied her. "And now, Queen Gabrielle, I wish to introduce two sister Amazons from the lost tribe of the Kapru Kale. Agave, a member of the royal court of the Kapru Kale, and her traveling companion, Phrygia."
Two women descended from their mounts. The first strode toward Gabrielle in well-practiced steps. She had not come by her imposing presence naturally. Rather, she mastered the look as a result of long and careful training. A simple leather thong held dark hair back. She wore no bangs to cut across her brow. Still much about her face produced sharp angles: the line of her mouth and well-defined cheek bones. She wore a leather tunic over leather leggings, practical clothing in this cool weather.
Gabrielle extended her hand. "Your presence marks a great event for all of us, Agave."
The woman took her arm in warrior fashion and slowly closed her fingers around Gabrielle's elbow, pressing each one in turn into the bard's skin. "It is a pleasure to meet one about whom I have heard so much."
The second visiting Amazon, Phrygia, showed great patience. When Agave released Gabrielle's arm, Phrygia did not step up to Gabrielle. She waited for the queen to acknowledge her.
"You must be Phrygia." Gabrielle grinned.
Phrygia smiled back and bowed her head once. But Gabrielle didn't get the chance to extend a more formal greeting before Agave stole the stage.
"Xena: Warrior Princess, is it? I must say that the stories of your alluring looks don't do you justice. But I hope you're as bloodthirsty as they say. It would be quite a disappointment otherwise."
"Sorry to disappoint." Xena smiled thinly.
Gabrielle glanced sideways toward Ephiny. The regent, in an abbreviated gesture meant only for the bard to see, shrugged once. Great, thought Gabrielle. My prescience suggests something about Ephiny and me being in trouble and the first thing that happens is Xena is a magnet for... jealously, the bard realized. That, I'm used to. That, I can handle.
"Well, we'd best be getting back to the village. We have a lot going on." Ephiny nodded politely to Agave and Phrygia, indicated they should mount their horses for the journey back. "You got here just in time to oversee the preparations for tomorrow's Mounikhion festival, Gabrielle."
The bard felt Xena move to stand just behind her. "I'm glad," Gabrielle responded kindly while inwardly groaning at what that meant: boring protocol. Or worse.
Xena put her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Argo's been running hard, bearing both of us for several days. We might not keep up with you."
Ephiny seemed to understand perfectly. "No problem. Perhaps you'll allow Solari to escort you in."
Gabrielle read the regent's pleading brown eyes. It didn't take much convincing. "That would be an honor." She felt Xena's gentle squeeze in agreement. In only a few moments, the entourage had turned their backs on the young queen and pushed their mounts into a gallop.
Solari watched them go before sliding down to greet them, the bard with a hug and Xena with a handshake. "We're all grateful you're here."
"So we've heard," drawled Xena.
"Do we have time to talk out here or should we do it on the way?" Gabrielle made the attempt at least to balance her curiosity and her civic duties.
Solari gauged the sun's progress. "You'll need to be there in time for the ceremonies before the feast. But there isn't much to tell." She shaded her dark eyes and looked off to the east. "There's a creek through that stand of trees. We can let the horses rest."
They walked quietly, their silence giving credence to Solari's upcoming words. There is a story here already, Gabrielle mused. And I think I'm not going to like all of it.
While they relaxed perched on some large boulders, the horses nibbled grass shoots and lapped at the cool water. Solari began her tale. "Despoina and Nephele were several leagues north of here tracking a large herd of deer. They stopped at a temple to Artemis to pay their respects during the festival of the Agrotera. Agave and Phrygia were there."
"A simple as that?" Xena asked. Gabrielle heard the skepticism behind it.
"Yes," Solari answered, either not hearing or ignoring Xena's concern. "They surprised each other, nearly took each other's heads off before their stories got straightened out. When Nephele realized who they were, she insisted they come here and meet everyone. They've been here for a quarter moon."
Almost exactly when I had the vision, thought Gabrielle. And Xena knows that, too. Interesting to have it coincide with the new Amazons' arrival at the village and not when they met each other up north. Maybe it's not as simple as it seems. Maybe the danger is here, from us.
Xena spoke directly. "You don't like Agave, do you?"
"She's pompous. She's arrogant. She thinks she's Artemis' gift to the Amazons."
"All hot air?" Gabrielle asked.
"That's hard to tell. I haven't talked to her as much as Ephiny has."
"She didn't like me much." Xena picked up a small rock and began tossing it between her hands. "Of course, I'm used to that."
"Ephiny told me that when she found out about Gabrielle she got sort of an unreadable look on her face."
Xena interrupted Solari, "She's a politician."
"Yeah, that she is. But then she found out that you travel with Gabrielle, and she got more interested. A lot more interested."
"There's no telling what stories they've heard, Solari. Maybe Xena has an... exaggerated reputation with them." Gabrielle couldn't keep from giggling.
"Exaggerated?" Xena suddenly transformed her body into that of a warlord: looming, imposing, snarling, dangerous.
"Ah," stammered a very surprised Solari, "maybe we should start back."
Gabrielle laughed pleasantly, the sweet sound immediately banishing the feral animal in Xena. "I'd like to talk to Agave, myself."
"Not without me there," Xena whispered as she helped Gabrielle up.
* * *
Gabrielle lay back on the bed, her arms spread wide across the soft feather-filled quilt. "It's been too long, Xena. We should visit more often, you know."
Xena stored their gear, putting their sparse extra clothing into a small set of drawers and stashing the packs off in a corner. "We can come more if you like, but I didn't know you wanted to."
"Maybe it's just this bed. I could really get used to it. Do you think we can get Argo to carry it around for us?"
Xena laughed. "That bed is bigger than all the beds in my mother's inn stacked side-by-side."
"No it's not. It's not even close, and you know it." Gabrielle rolled over onto her stomach. "It's just the right size."
"It's a queen-sized bed, made for a queen, that's for sure." Xena sat on the edge of the mattress and patted the back of Gabrielle's knees, making the bard squirm. "The right size for an orgy."
"Funny." Gabrielle stuck out a little pink tongue which slipped back in when she heard a light knock on the door. "Come."
Ephiny edged the door open and peered in. "I see you're settled."
"Hi again." Gabrielle didn't bother to get up and neither did Xena.
"Sorry to bother you, but we could use you." Ephiny walked up to the end of the bed and leaned against it. "I could use some help."
"Whatever you want. We'll be there." Gabrielle poked her toe into Xena's back until she saw the warrior nod her assent.
"This one you're not going to like." Ephiny looked first to Gabrielle and then to Xena. "There's a special festival we're adapting for this, an old ritual i nvolving meeting a family member for the first time. We were going to skip part of it, but Agave insisted..."
Xena narrowed her eyes at the regent. "Spill it."
"Well there's a little matter of a ritual sacrifice and feast."
Gabrielle rolled over and sat up. "You're not going to make me kill anything."
"No, that's the priestess' job." This came from Xena.
Gabrielle took a breath. "Whew. Good, so I don't have to watch."
"Well..." Ephiny and Xena said in tandem, pitching their voices high.
* * *
<<READERS SENSITIVE TO RITUAL SACRIFICES MAY PREFER TO SKIP AHEAD TO PART FIVE NOW.>>
Xena shifted uncomfortably, holding the tricorn basket out in front of her on flat palms. Carrying the sacrificial knife was the only way the priestess would let her stand at the altar with Gabrielle. The queen didn't have to perform any special duties to be there, only Xena did. But Xena would be there.
At least Agave didn't have the basket. She'd rather nastily asked for the privilege of carrying it in the procession. Xena didn't want Agave to be near the ceremonial knife. She didn't want it accidentally slipping. She had no reason to worry about such an unlikely scenario except she didn't much like the dark-eyed visitor. Ephiny explained to Agave that it would be more appropriate for Xena, the queen's champion, to carry the weapon.
Xena stood near the head of the line, behind the priestess, her three assistants, Gabrielle, and then Ephiny. Though she would have preferred to be by her side, she could keep her eye on the bard during the processional from her position in line. When Gabrielle had found out exactly what was going to happen, she hadn't been too keen on having to watch. Right now, she was adjusting various bracers and metal bits. Even on the best of occasions, her royal garb bothered her. Xena could gauge just how uncomfortable Gabrielle was in this by how much rearranging of her costume she did. The bard was not enjoying herself.
Behind Xena stood Agave, eventually given the task of catching the victim's blood in a sphageion basin. She seemed well-suited to that task. Agave stood straight, held her eyes forward, and kept an authoritative air about her. This woman was made for pomp and ceremony. Most who were excited by ritual excess grew into impossible people. Perhaps that was all she was made of.
Phrygia waited at Agave's side. She carried the lustral pitcher. Behind them, Eponin and Solari prepared to lug the great cauldron between them
The sound of angry, frustrated Amazons reached them. A nervous Gabrielle caught Xena's eye. They could hear snorting, shouting, grunting, and swearing from women straining to tug hard on thick ropes. Xena wished Gabrielle could be spared this. She didn't enjoy watching such spectacles herself. But to the Amazons, it was of the utmost importance; therefore it was to Gabrielle, and therefore it was to Xena.
Six tall Amazons rounded a set of huts pulling with them an enormous steer. The beast stood three or four hands taller than average. Two liver-shaped tawny spots decorated each flank over a lustrous hide colored a rich sepia. The bovine presented a consummate front, down to his testy demeanor and his pair of sharp, curled horns. He was perfect.
Now that everyone and everything was assembled, the procession began. But the steer dug in its heels, refusing to move, forcing the Amazons directing him to put all of their strength into the task. Xena didn't think they'd be able to get the huge animal to move, but somehow they did. All followed in its path.
A special tent had been erected for the sacrifice. Inside was a great gray stone altar, the ceremonial carving table known as a trapeza, and a fire for cooking the beast. The royal party gathered around the altar while the rest of the women crowded in as best they could.
The Amazons positioned the bovine between the altar and the carving table, keeping him remarkably still with their bulging, straining muscles. The priestess held her hands out to Phrygia who carefully poured a portion of the water into them. As the Priestess chanted a prayer to Artemis, she sprinkled the head of the beast with water, making him shake his head to and fro. She repeated the process, adjusting her aim to sprinkle water on the back of his head and down his neck. When the steer nodded, he had symbolically agreed to the slaughter.
The Priestess turned to Xena and dipped her hand into the basket where the ceremonial knife had been kept hidden under grains of barley during the procession. She drew some of the grains from the basket and threw them on the altar. The Priestess returned to Xena, making eye contact briefly, before plunging her hand in to retrieve the knife. She held its carved hilt in her fingers, showing the intricate carvings to those about the altar.
Xena stepped back and lowered the basket. She inched over and behind Gabrielle, trying to balance her need to comfort the bard with the strict rituals of the sacrifice. She couldn't stand by the queen. She couldn't touch the queen. That had been made clear. Fortunately, Xena knew every rule could be broken when necessary.
The priestess shaved hair from the steer's hide and strewed it about the altar with the barley grains. Agave, basin in hand, moved over toward the head of the beast.
All eyes were on one of the priestess' assistants. She held a long poleax high overhead, the handle painted with geometric designs. The Amazon turned the blunt end toward the steer, then propelled it down with all her might, smiting the animal on the head. Reaching under the animal's head, the priestess quickly slit its throat, directing Agave's basin under the stream of blood.
Gabrielle swayed. Xena thrust the basket into the hands of a stunned Amazon and stepped up directly behind Gabrielle. For the moment, she didn't wrap her arms around the bard, though it took all of her concentration to keep from doing so. She felt Gabrielle relax against her. She hoped it would be enough.
The beast teetered and fell heavily by the altar encouraging the Amazons to let out a blood curdling scream, the ololuge, which announced the sacrificial steer's death. Its blood still ran steadily from the rent in its neck. The priestess and her assistants turned the animal's head so the blood spurted up in a fountain. For a time, it had enough force to reach the altar, splattering everywhere, spreading its metallic stench throughout the tent. Fortunately, the area was open to the breeze, or the smell of the beast's fluids, no longer held in check by clenched muscles, would have overpowered them.
Xena inched her fingers around Gabrielle's sides, holding her steady. She caught Agave staring at them and could feel the woman's disdain. Xena wanted to traipse right over to her and explain that perhaps it was actually a good thing to be affected by watching a beast be slaughtered. Rather than being a sign of weakness, it was indicative of someone who hadn't become hardened to violence and was therefore always able to treat it with the emotion and thoughtfulness it required.
Immediately, the priestess set about carving the animal. First, she removed the thigh bones and placed them on the altar. An assistant liberally coated them with chicken fat, sprinkled them with a libation and incense, and set the pile afire, burning a gift for the gods.
Next to be taken from the animal were its most precious parts, to be spit-roasted and shared among the royal entourage. The priestess removed the lungs, heart, liver, spleen, kidneys, and stomach. This mixture, known as the splankhna, was threaded on long metal rods and held over the great fire by the assistants.
Gabrielle couldn't watch the parts being spitted. Xena rubbed her back and shoulders.
When the splankhna was cooked, the assistants placed the pieces on magnificent silver trays and carried them to the altar. Each of the royal circle was to step to the altar and be given a piece of this most vital portion of the steer. Gabrielle went first, stuck with hoping for the least disgusting selection, since she would have to eat it in front of everyone. She'd never liked black pudding, made from the stomach and blood of cows and sheep. The heart was utterly out of the question for her. The assistant reached for a kidney but seemed to read Gabrielle's disappointment. Instead, she placed the liver on a plate and handed it to her queen.
When the portions had been doled out to those around the altar, they ate their ritual meal listening to the priestess chant and sing. Xena, who'd received a section of the lung, did her part. She ate without much chewing, chasing the taste from her mouth with a large goblet of wine.
Gabrielle tried to look busy without actually touching the liver. Xena knew how she felt about liver, about how her mother forced her to eat it once a week as a child. An old healer in Poteidaia had convinced the town that young girls who ate liver could birth babies more easily. Hecuba had wanted lots of grandchildren, so she'd fed liver to Gabrielle and Lila for years.
Gabrielle was not going to eat that liver. Xena refilled her goblet. She offered it to Gabrielle, who smiled at her. And with her other hand, she held her empty plate just above the bard's, pinched the liver between her fingers under the plate, and removed the offending organ. When Gabrielle looked down to see what Xena had done, she mouthed an 'I love you' to her.
The rest of the evening went better. The assistants cut up the steer into equal portions and tossed the pieces into a cauldron of boiling water to cook. Every woman in the village could join in the celebration by eating some of the sacrificial meat. During the feast, Xena snuck a nice, tender piece of normal meat to Gabrielle, who by then had regained her appetite.
"Thank you," the bard whispered in her ear.
"You looked hungry. Finally." Xena maneuvered them toward a dark corner of the tent so she could put her arm around the bard, something she'd been wanting to do for hours.
"Gods, Xena. I really thought I was going to lose it up there. Did you see the way Agave was looking at me. I kept thinking about how I didn't meet with her approval."
"I'm glad you don't meet with her approval. I don't think I'd like anyone who did. She's a little too interested in ceremony and elevating herself above everyone else."
"What?" Xena turned and saw Agave heading straight toward them and growled. "Great. That's what we both really need right now."
"Gabrielle, I couldn't help but notice how much you enjoyed the sacrifice." Agave dipped her head toward the bard while flashing a smile at Xena.
"I don't like killing in any form." Gabrielle kept her voice even, trying not to give Agave too much information before she could learn more about the Kapru Kale.
"None of us enjoy death, Gabrielle, but it is necessary. Otherwise, how can one possibly maintain control?"
"I think it's always best to find solutions that don't include violence."
"A rather weak way to govern, wouldn't you agree?"
Xena stepped to Gabrielle's defense. "I think rulers who enjoy death are the weak ones. Death isn't to be relished, Agave."
"You have changed, Xena. I'm sorry to hear that." Agave shifted her body away from the warrior. "I had high hopes for learning a great deal from you."
"There's plenty to learn from Xena." Gabrielle put her hands on her hips. "She could teach you a lot."
"Perhaps... but only what I'd want to learn. Tell me, Warrior Princess, do you dance?"
Gabrielle blinked. Agave didn't just make a pass at Xena, did she?
"Oh, I dance," Xena answered with a seductive lilt, "but only when I want to and with the partner I choose."
For a second, Gabrielle could see the flames behind Agave's eyes. She was momentarily frightened for Xena, before regaining her senses and realizing the absurdity of that. "We've had a long day, Agave. Perhaps Xena and I should return to our hut."
"Of course, Queen Gabrielle. I'll accompany you there."
"No, that won't be necessary." Gabrielle spoke quite firmly. "But thank you anyway."
* * *
Ephiny caught up with them just before they reached their hut. "I thought I saw you two sneaking away."
"Mostly escaping Agave." Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Wanna do the same?" she said that more seriously.
Xena had wondered when Gabrielle would get around to talking to Ephiny. The regent didn't even know that they'd already been on their way to the Amazons when they'd received her message. Ephiny needed to know about the vision, but Xena would let Gabrielle decide how and when that would come about.
Ephiny quietly fell in step with them as if she knew there were issues to discuss. In the hut, Xena took the bed and let Gabrielle and Ephiny sit across from each other in the chairs. It was a conversation the warrior princess wanted to hear but wasn't planning on participating in much.
"So what do you think?" Ephiny asked the first question.
Gabrielle, to her credit, considered her answer before offering it. "It's good to know that the Amazon nation of old isn't as depleted as we once feared. But I don't like learning about these other Amazons through Agave. She's arrogant and I don't believe she's always truthful."
"And do you think they're all like that?"
"Ephiny," Gabrielle leaned forward and put her hand over the regent's. "That's completely unfair. We can't let ourselves ask that question."
Ephiny turned her palm up and pressed her fingers around the bard's hand. "You're right. Sorry."
Gabrielle smiled and sat back in her chair. She lifted her knees, encircling them with her arms. "So why don't you tell me what she's been saying."
Ephiny reached for a trinket, something to twirl in her fingers. She picked up a small gnarled bone, one used in a simple game, left on the table the last time someone had played. "Agave talks a lot and but doesn't say much."
Xena snorted softly. That was no surprise.
Ephiny chuckled, then continued. "She's a member of their royal court, something she seems to think is quite extraordinary. Queen Thalestris has ruled for many years. They had no idea we still survived."
"Then they don't listen well." Xena crossed her arms and sat back against the headboard. "Stories get around, Ephiny. They'd have heard."
"I don't know, Xena." Gabrielle turned to her. "That depends on a lot of stuff like if they're on trade routes or..." She looked at Ephiny, "Where did you say they're from?"
"It's off the beaten trails but not completely isolated." Xena saw two startled looks. She sighed. You'd think by now they'd expect I'd been most places, or at least met someone who once lived there. "It's far from here, past Hellespont."
"Well, she's invited me to go."
Gabrielle whipped around. "Ephiny, you can't go."
She smiled. "You want to go in my place? That'd be fine."
"No, no that's not it."
Xena watched the bard's little nervous twitches. Gabrielle let her eyes dart around, and rearranged her bangs with two flicking fingers.
"Why don't you want me to go?"
"Long story." Gabrielle glanced over at Xena who winked at her. "I... Ephiny, I had a vision."
Ephiny shifted in her chair uncomfortably. "A vision?" Her inflection seemed half incredulous, half wary.
"Yes. I've... um... I get them sometimes."
Ephiny reacted with more emotion. "The queen of the Amazons is a mantic and I don't know about it? How can you just sort of forget to mention that?"
"Ephiny," Xena said quietly. "It doesn't happen often. It's hard on her."
The Amazon's voice modulated to a note of concern. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"I get sick. Kinda. Well, really sick for a day or so. Look, Ephiny, I didn't keep this from you intentionally. It's just not something I tell many people about, so I don't even think about it."
The regent pursed her lips. "I guess I understand. If that sort of thing were known... A lot of people would be interested in procuring your services on a permanent basis."
"Yeah, something like that." The bard fiddled with her bangs again. "So anyway, we were already on our way here when the messenger found us." Gabrielle sat up, put her feet on the floor, and leaned over the table toward Ephiny. "I saw you. You were in a cold place, unfamiliar to me. There were Amazons but I didn't recognize any of them. And something was wrong."
"You saw this in a vision?" The regent was impressed. "And you're saying that if I go to Kapru Kale something bad will happen?"
"I'm not sure. Things don't usually turn out exactly as I see them. There are twists. Sometimes an object or place will represent a different object or place. But I wouldn't feel good about you going, that's for certain."
"This is interesting." Ephiny studied the bone in her hand. "And unexpected. But Gabrielle, think about it. How can we not go to see them? They're Amazons."
"We just decide not to go. It's as simple as that."
Xena didn't want to offer the alternative. She knew what it meant. Still, Gabrielle would figure it out eventually. Might as well get this over with now. "If we don't go there, they're bound to come here."
The Amazon leaders looked to each other.
"Yup," Xena continued. "And I wouldn't much like an entire tribe of mystery Amazons marching on me, either."
* * *
The next day, the Mounikhion Festival took the full attention of the village. Everyone was awake and smiling by dawn. Many were cheerful even before they'd had their dose of strong tea, the dark, long-steeped blend the cooks were so proud of. Gabrielle loved the Amazon's tea, rich and slightly sweet, and a subtle toasty or nutty hint. And it packed a powerful punch in the morning. She needed that since it had been a late night.
Walking to the food tent with Xena brought a few stares, some waves, and a bashful smile or two. Xena had forgone her leathers in favor of more Amazon-like attire. That sort of spectacle would have caused a commotion anywhere, but here where they saw women in such clothes everyday, it was even more eye-popping. No one looked like that. No one ever could look like that but Xena. It warmed Gabrielle's heart, for she was the lucky one strolling side-by-side with that chiseled masterpiece.
After breakfast, they wandered about the village. Gabrielle felt it her duty to see at least some of every competition, and she'd been asked to preside over the rhapsodes. The first event of the day was the diaolos, a run of two stadia. The stadion, an absolute full-out sprint, would finish the day's events. In Athens and Olympia it had become the most prestigious event and that reputation had spread even to the Amazons.
After the diaolos, the Amazons split into various groups to watch the pentathlon or the horse races. Gabrielle could have skipped the horses, but she knew that would be one event Xena would really enjoy, so they walked down the hillside to the flatland by the river where those races took place. All Gabrielle needed was to see the admiration and pleasure on Xena's face as she watched a magnificent horse at full speed, and the bard would be happy.
They left the horse races when Gabrielle had to return to the village for the start of the dolikhos. It was a long and grueling race, one Gabrielle would never consider entering herself. Sometimes, they made the competitors run the little track they'd designed for the stadion. But that meant running around that track twenty-four times. This year, they had paced off the distance through the woods. The runners would return for one last dash on the track down to the line marking the end of the race. Of course, that wouldn't happen for a good long while.
While waiting at the track for the start of the race, Gabrielle spied Agave. She was about to say something, but Xena beat her to it.
"She's been following us."
"I think I like that better than having her talk to us."
"But this way, we can just make up a scenario where she says 'hi, how are you' and leaves."
Xena laughed. "That sounds fine with me."
The bard looked over at their adversary and considered her options. "Xena, we're going to have to go back with her to Kapru Kale." Gabrielle felt Xena's arm wrap around her shoulders and settle there. "I can't send Ephiny, not after what I saw."
"It's hard to decide if your vision meant it was more dangerous for you or Ephiny to go."
"True." Gabrielle stole a quick kiss to Xena's cheek. "I wish I could make heads or tails out of the whole thing. But I do know that when I think about Ephiny going, it just feels wrong."
"Then stop thinking about it, Gabrielle. You're not going to get find the perfect solution."
The runners assembled together in a tiny mass, waiting for Eponin to signal the start of the race. Xena watched them. "None of them knows what to be thinking right now. They're about to push their bodies to their limits. They have to pace themselves but they don't know how much adrenaline will be able to help them, or even if it will hurt them, making them go too hard, too fast, at the beginning."
Gabrielle tilted her head up and looked at Xena, squinting in the sunlight shining from behind her. "You don't know what to think, either. You know something is going to happen but you don't know what, right?"
"Hmm?" Xena tensed as Solari held up a flag. When she brought it down, the runners took off. Those in the front ran swiftly, perhaps too fast. Those in the back pleaded with the rest to get out of their way so they could move forward and make an attempt to catch up.
"Never mind, let's go see the pentathlon, okay?"
Gabrielle kept a close watch on Xena. Those blue eyes followed the runners. She must be wondering where she is in that pack, thought Gabrielle. Out in front, having to lead and set the pace, or in the back, trying to get through the obstacles to do what she needs to do.
* * *
Xena liked the pentathlon. "It takes many skills."
Gabrielle tapped her on the belly. "Funny. And to think I had thought that humor was one of the few skills you hadn't mastered."
"Hey, we're just in time. Solari's up next in the discus."
"Do you think they'd let you use your chakram for that?"
Xena laughed. "Do you think anyone would stay in the event if I entered?"
"Let's see. Chakram toss? Xena wins. Standing jump? Xena disqualified for somersaulting in mid-air, but convinces the judges to let her jump again. Xena wins because she jumps not only over the sand pit and but right over the judges' table, too. Javelin? Xena. No questions asked. Stadion? Someone out-running the Warrior Princess? Right. And then wrestling. No one would be left by then. Xena wins by default." Gabrielle giggled and snuggled a little closer.
Solari hugged the discus close to her body and leaned in and out of her toss before planting her feet and letting her powerful legs, indeed her whole body propel her arm, making it an extension of every muscle, and flinging the discus. She came in second by the width of a finger.
"Good job, Solari!" yelled Gabrielle.
Solari turned around and beamed at her, but then flinched, suddenly embarrassed by the attention. A few of the other competitors taunted her with "Queen's favorite." She didn't do well in the next event, standing jump, but pulled out ahead of the field with a magnificent toss of the javelin.
As the runners lined up for the stadion, Gabrielle again caught a glimpse of Agave. This time, she was across the track. She'd picked a spot where she could watch the race and the two of them at the same time. "Xena, is she doing that just to rattle us?"
"Who? Agave? Of course she is. But it's not working, is it?"
Gabrielle noticed that Xena didn't look over at Agave. It took all the determination the bard could muster to keep from checking if Agave was still looking at her. A stupid, childish game, she thought. And it's really hard not to play along with her.
But then the race was on and everyone cheered wildly. Solari hung on the leader's shoulder through the first two turns. Scylla started to pull away and got two body lengths in front. Solari reached back and found some reserve of energy, burst forward, and overtook Scylla just before the finish.
"Wow, Xena, did you see that? She just flew all the way to the end."
Xena didn't answer. Gabrielle spied a look of pride on her lips, though, and remembered how easily the warrior princess had whipped Solari the last time they'd run. And Xena hadn't even been trying hard.
Gabrielle decided to let Xena pick what was next. "Want to watch the wrestling or the armor race?"
"If we leave now, you'll miss your champion's last event in the pentathlon."
"My champion?" Gabrielle stood arms akimbo. "Did you just give up that job or something?"
Xena laughed. "I have to lose that job in a challenge, not relinquish it willingly."
"Oh good, then I've got you for life."
Xena led her to the wrestling ring. "Count on it."
Gabrielle had wanted to see the armor race. It was the silliest event imaginable, where the contestants raced in heavy suits of armor, usually laughing as they tumbled to the ground and into great heaps of twisted metal. The winner was often the only one standing at the end.
But Xena was right. Watching Solari take the pentathlon would be a better thing to do. Fortunately, Opis had opted for the pankration, a trio of fighting sports, rather than the pentathlon. The Amazons knew she was the best wrestler among them. Without her in the competition, Solari stood a good chance of taking first place.
The third match brought Solari against one of the younger Amazons. She had the young one pinned quicker than Gabrielle could blink. In the second round, Solari took a little longer, but it was over before the bard had a chance to cheer.
Between rounds, Agave shuffled by. She smiled thinly at Gabrielle and then flashed a brilliant, alluring grin Xena's way. Xena only had time to level a vicious glare her way before Agave continued on, becoming lost in the crowd.
"Is she doing that just to annoy me?" Gabrielle asked.
"I think she'd pretty intent on annoying both of us."
The bard snuggled her arm around Xena. "Then why come on to you?"
"Because she knows that will bother me even more than it bothers you."
"Don't be so sure about that."
In the final round, matters were different for Solari. She went up against Despoina, one of the women who had run into Agave and brought her back to the village. Solari and Despoina were rather evenly matched, both coming very close to winning on three or four occasions.
When it looked bad, as Despoina held her weight against Solari, it was Xena who yelled, "Come on, Solari, move your bloomin' ass!"
In a flurry of movement, Solari had Despoina on the mat, pinned, wearing a feral grin from ear to ear.
"That worked well," Gabrielle muttered.
They passed by the heavy armor race just after it had finished. Most, though not all of the contestants were back on their feet, holding their stomachs from laughing so hard. Xena kept one eyebrow curled as they walked by.
"So, you think you could win that one, too?" Gabrielle teased.
"Considering what I wear everyday, I'd say those get-ups would be a piece of cake."
"Look, if you're interested in competing, I've got to judge the rhapsodes now and..."
"Gabrielle." Xena slid up to her and pressed their bodies together as they walked. "If you think I'm going to leave you alone with Agave running around, you're crazy. Besides, I'll enjoy comparing every last one of those rhapsoders with you. None of them can come close to how well you recite poems. They worry about forgetting or stumbling over the words. You're so gifted, you mull over the precise inflection of every utterance, reading the audience's reaction, gathering them into your story so effortlessly you don't even realize sometimes that you hold a room full of strangers in the palm of your hand."
Gabrielle dipped her head. "Gods... what you do to me."
"That's funny, I thought I was talking about what you do to me."
Xena leaned back in her chair and tried desperately to find something interesting to think about. Gabrielle had been at the podium for a tediously long time handing out prizes to the winners of the athletic events. The only ones Xena had been amused by were Solari's rather bashful moment in the limelight having taken first in the pentathlon, and when Opis, who to no one's surprise had won the pankration, shouted "I'm the strongest Amazon in the world!" She'd earned the right to boast in all of the excitement at least, having bested her competition in each of the pankration's three events: boxing, judo, and wrestling. Those bouts were a no-holds barred triumph of pure strength.
And Xena enjoyed the grins from several Amazons that came her way at Opis' pronouncement. She imagined briefly, what she could do to her one-on-one before Xena exorcised herself of the daydream's guilty pleasure. Besides, she didn't have anything against Opis.
The stadion race's award might have provided a reprieve from the tedium because Eponin had been the overwhelming favorite. But Eponin had entered the heavy armor race on a dare from Solari, and in the midst of the race had tripped over someone who'd fallen. She'd stubbed her toe, severely enough for the bruising to show. Ephiny insisted she and her purple toe not compete in the stadion.
Xena sighed. All Eponin had lost was a chance at a painted vase containing the first pressing of this year's olive oil. She rolled her eyes at the prizes awarded. None of them had any real value. They were trinkets to be put on display, or in her case, stuffed into a saddle bag on Argo and toted around Greece. And she didn't need anymore of those: Gabrielle had acquired enough for the two of them together, not that Xena would ever ask Gabrielle to get rid of any. The bard's treasures always fit in her bag, and each of them, as Xena knew well, held a special place in her heart. And so they did in Xena's heart as well.
But Agave's speech riveted the warrior's attention. The foreign Amazon stood a little straighter at the podium, held her neck more stiffly, and tucked her chin in more than Ephiny or Gabrielle did. Agave kept her shoulders squared to the audience. Everything about her body language screamed formality and superiority.
"The gods granted us a great gift by bringing our people together. Artemis smiles upon us today. History has let our tribes drift apart. We grew fallow in ignorance. Now let us hope that the legacy of Mnemosyne will unlock our distant memories, creating a new nation of proud Amazon Warriors in the mold of our long-dead sisters. Together we will forge a stronger, more brilliant nation which no army can threaten, no king can own."
Xena had heard such speeches and diatribes before. Politicians spouted them with careless repetition. But this was an Amazon warrior who had a real sense of what a war meant, who wore power like a gilded cloak, basking in its opulence and protection. She was not one to be trifled with.
Agave continued, "These days spent with you have meant a great deal to me. What I have learned from you fills a void in my tribe's knowledge. We had sensed that the empty pool had once brimmed with life, but we knew not its source." Agave's eyes swept the room. "You are its source. Your wellspring brings new life to us. You will flow into our hearts until we brim with new hope and purpose. The Amazon Nation will once again be whole."
She waited for the cheering to die down, making no effort to quell it. "I look forward to escorting your leadership to Kapru Kale."
That was what Xena had expected. While the Amazons might have anticipated that a royal party would to go to Kapru Kale, it would have been appropriate for Gabrielle or Ephiny to make the official announcement, and only after the plans had been settled. Agave was a little too anxious about that. She was a little too interested in being the bearer of knowledge, and with that, the holder of power.
"Our queen, Thalestris, will be impressed by your royalty."
Impressed is a double-edged sword, thought Xena. Will Thalestris be impressed by the strength of Ephiny and Gabrielle's leadership? Their unusual sharing of power? The fact that the queen was not an Amazon by birth but a little bard that roamed the country at the side of the former Destroyer of Nations?
"Queen Thalestris will greet each of you with open arms as sisters-of-the-tribe. She will reunite our nations, unify them under the single, unconquerable banner of The Amazon Nation."
* * *
Later, when a feast had been served and consumed and the floor cleared for dancing, Gabrielle leaned against Xena's shoulder, tired and happy. Mostly, she was glad she was off display. Sitting up on the podium was uncomfortable under the best of circumstances, and since Xena wasn't up there with her, she felt a little too open, too naked, too unprotected. But everything was okay now, with one long muscled arm draped around her, tucking her in close.
They'd spent most of the evening watching others dance. And watching Agave who watched them. This spying game ground on Gabrielle's nerves until finally, she'd had enough of the whole night out. "Is it time to go yet?"
"Just waiting for you so say something." Xena nodded toward a curly blond head making its way toward them. "But you might see what Ephiny has to say."
The regent's shoulders slumped and she plopped into a chair next to them. "I'm pooped."
Xena pointed to the bard. "The queen here was just thinking about making an overdue escape. You're welcome to come along."
"That sounds wonderful. Lead the way."
After saying goodnight to two dozen or so drunk women, the trio forged their way outside. Gabrielle shivered from the bold contrast in temperatures. All those warm bodies inside had heated the tent quite naturally, yet the evening had the crisp quality of fall. "It's getting cold."
"No, it's already cold." Ephiny hugged herself.
Xena looked at both of them, letting her eyes travel up and down their bodies. "If you wore a little more, it would help, you know."
"I wouldn't exactly call you overdressed, Xena." Gabrielle tickled the top of her thighs until Xena playfully slapped her hand away. They stopped in front of their hut. "Want to come in for a bit, Ephiny?"
"I'd love to." Ephiny took a chair and stretched her legs out in front of her.
Xena sat on the edge of the bed; Gabrielle elected to sit by her. It might have been more polite to take a seat by Ephiny, but she was too tired to worry about it. Almost without thinking, she reached over and started to unhook Xena's breastplate and bracers, catching Ephiny's little smile out of the corner of her eye.
Ephiny cleared her throat. "So, what did you think of Agave's speech?"
Gabrielle stopped her movements. "I guess it didn't surprise me. She's got guts, but I already knew that."
"She was out of line."
That came from Xena and that surprised Gabrielle. "You're worried about etiquette?"
"That's all she's concerned with and she breached the line. That means she's pushing. That means she wants something."
"Xena's right, Gabrielle. There are certain things she expected when she got here." Ephiny pulled her legs up and rested her elbows on her knees. "I wish you could have seen the look in her eye when she realized the nation was under a regent and the queen was out traveling."
"She didn't like it?"
"I've experienced lots of diplomatic moments. I can usually tell how an idea sits with someone. She was appalled."
"What should that matter to her?" Gabrielle felt both confused and defensive, an uncomfortable combination that made her anxious.
Xena reached for her hand. "Because it's different from what she expected. Different from what she's used to." The warrior glanced at Ephiny. "And you told her about Gabrielle?"
"And she didn't like that either."
The bard's heart beat a little faster. "Not like what?"
Xena gave her hand a squeeze. "I'd imagine that Agave was born into her position, her rite of caste settled right from the start. Someone like that could be threatened by an outsider coming in and becoming queen."
"Oh." That makes a little more sense, she thought. "But why does she have so much trouble with you?"
Xena laughed, her chest rumbling and blue eyes twinkling.
"Oh," said Gabrielle again. "I guess that would be because you're Xena, huh?" She laughed.
"Actually," Ephiny said shyly, "most people don't react to Xena quite like Agave did. And most people have the good sense to modify their first impressions. Agave is suspicious of you, Gabrielle. You're the unknown factor in all of this. I think she sees Xena as a way to get to you. She needs to know you, control you. And for that reason..." Ephiny took a breath. "I should be the one to go to Kapru Kale."
Gabrielle shot up and stormed over to stand right in front of the regent. "Hey, now wait a minute, Ephiny. You remember that vision I told you about?"
"Yes," she roared back, "and I remember you mentioning that you couldn't really get any specifics from it. You don't know that anything bad will happen."
"Yes I do. I just don't know what it will be."
"And do you know if staying here or going to Kapru Kale will make any difference at all?"
"Excuse me." Xena didn't have to speak loud to be heard over the arguing women, her voice naturally carried authority. "Why don't you tell her your whole vision, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle whirled on Xena. There were only a handful of moments that Gabrielle could remember feeling that shocking desire to wring Xena's neck. This was one of them.
"Yeah, why don't you tell me?" Ephiny demanded.
Stuck between the two of them, she had no choice. "Fine." She didn't want to sit by Xena, so she paced over to the wall, leaned against it, and crossed her arms. "You were in danger, Ephiny. You were some place I didn't recognize with Amazons I didn't recognize. I think we can safely assume that would be Kapru Kale and Agave's Amazons. Then I saw me and Xena." Suddenly the floor became a very interesting place to glue her eyes. "I was in a bed and Xena was sad. That's about it."
Xena urged her on. "When you first told me about the vision, you said you thought you were dead."
"I'm not sure about that."
"You said you were in a strange place that might have been a castle."
"All I remember is walls of stone."
"So, we both get into trouble if we go?" Ephiny offered her interpretation.
Gabrielle looked up at her. "I don't know, Ephiny. I feel more certain that you shouldn't go."
"But you might die? I don't think that's worth risking, Gabrielle. I'm going."
"Before the two of you spend the night arguing about it, I thought I'd mention that I'm pretty tired and I'd like a good night's sleep. At least with what's left of it." Xena stood and pulled back the covers.
"Okay, I get the hint." Ephiny rose as well. "There's a lot to consider in this, Gabrielle. Nothing is settled yet. Good night, you two."
Gabrielle watched her leave, watched the door close. "I hate this. I hate sort of knowing. It's worse than not knowing at all."
* * *
"Are you awake?"
Xena rolled over and nuzzled her cheek against Gabrielle's warm shoulder.
"What should we do?"
"We should go to sleep."
"I've been trying to do that since we went to bed."
"Did I keep you up? I'm sorry, Xena. I tried not to fidget."
"Doesn't take much."
A moment passed.
"I meant about going to Kapru Kale."
"I know." Xena smacked her lips and snuggled in further.
"So what should we do?"
A long moment passed.
"I think it's too hard to make a good decision in the middle of the night. Try to go to sleep, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle eased out of the bed and padded across the floor.
One sleepy blue eye followed her. "Where are you going?"
"I'm going to let you get some sleep."
"No, no. I'm awake." Xena propped herself up on an elbow. "What's been going through your mind?"
"I should go, Xena. I'm the queen. It's my responsibility."
Xena threw her legs over the edge of the bed and sat up. "You and Ephiny share responsibility, Gabrielle. It's one of the things Agave doesn't like about you."
"But I'm here and I'm queen."
"There's no reason for you to go." Xena rubbed her eyes, stood, and walked over to the table. She poured some water into a glass and sipped it. "Ephiny can go. Let her spend time on the road with Agave. It's not my idea of fun."
Gabrielle crossed her arms and leaned against the hut's wall. "But there are reasons not to send Ephiny."
Xena jerked toward her. "And there are reasons you shouldn't go!"
It was the first clear manifestation of what Xena thought about Kapru Kale. It didn't surprise Gabrielle, but the vehemence behind Xena's words was a little unexpected for a middle-of-the-night chat. It only fueled Gabrielle's frustration. "Don't you think I know that, Xena? Don't you realize I've been fretting about what my decision would do to you and Ephiny. I can't win on this one."
The warrior put the water glass down and watched its contents settle. "It will be safer for you here."
"Do we know that for sure?" Gabrielle sighed. "I know, I know, I don't know anything for sure about Ephiny either."
Xena turned and Gabrielle automatically walked into her embrace. "Maybe your vision was telling us that if either you or Ephiny go, it will be dangerous. But I think it was also letting you know that sending Ephiny is the safer bet. You said you felt something wrong when you thought about her. That's a whole lot less troublesome than what you said about yourself."
Xena was right. Gabrielle knew that. But it still didn't feel like a good decision to send Ephiny. "Okay, I won't think about this anymore tonight."
* * *
"Sorry it isn't a lunch meeting, Gabrielle."
"Funny." She sneered at Ephiny. "Everybody suffers today. I guess it's not so bad to fast after all we ate yesterday. It'll do me some good."
Ephiny reached around the table and poked a finger in the bard's abs. "Right, Gabrielle. I'd hate to think of you getting flabby here."
"I guess that's not likely to happen with my lifestyle." Gabrielle sipped her tea. Much more of it and she would be flying all over the compound. But that first cup was so wonderful: most of her grogginess wiped away. And the second cup made her feel more like she did after the first one on a normal day, a bit of a buzz, ready to get on the road and start the day. This third one was counteracting the sleepy spell she got in mid-morning after the first two cups of tea had worn off. That happened because she hadn't been able to eat anything. An Amazon day of fasting always followed a big festival.
"How'd you sleep last night?" Ephiny let her eyes roam to the steaming tea and then back to meet Gabrielle's gaze.
"Rotten. How about you?"
"About the same." The regent drummed her fingers on the table. "I'm not going to feel very good about it if you insist on going with Agave."
"Neither is Xena." She felt the vice of responsibility bite into her. "I don't know what to say, Ephiny. I don't want you to have to go with her, either."
"One of us has to go."
"Yeah," she whispered, "I know."
Ephiny leaned forward over the table. She looked sure of herself. "Are you going to be able to fight both Xena and me on this?"
"If it's the right thing to do." But in her heart, she already knew the battle was lost.
"Fine. Tell me why it's better for you to go. Tell me that your vision predicted more dangerous consequences for me than for you."
Her chest ached. She blinked and lifted her eyes to the ceiling, tracing the lattice work of thatch. "I don't know about that. I..." The desire to bolt from the entire situation plowed into her. She wished she'd never had the vision, wished she'd never run into Amazon territory and fallen over Terreis' body, never received the rite of caste.
"Can't do it, can you? Can't figure out a way to make me believe you should go. Gabrielle, I should go. Let me make this trip for you. After all, you and Xena have stuck your necks out for me on more than one occasion. I'll be very careful. And if you go, so help me I'll follow you the whole damn way to Kapru Kale."
"Ephiny..." Gabrielle shook her head, all fight drained from her. "You're a dear friend."
"As are you. And I prefer my friends alive." She smiled and patted the bard's hand. "But why don't we build in some insurance, just in case. I'll go, but we'll tell Agave that Phrygia has to stay here."
"Oh, like that's a fair trade. An Amazon ruler for someone not treated much better than a luggage-toter."
"Maybe Phrygia's just the quiet type. It could happen to anyone if they were around Agave enough." Ephiny laughed. "Well, maybe not to you."
"Has Xena been giving you pointers? Your pitiful humor is as bad as hers." That was Gabrielle's admission of defeat. Ephiny would go. She would stay. At least Xena would be happier about it. She squeezed her eyes shut and hoped that she hadn't just agreed to something she'd regret.
continued in part two
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