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This is an original work of alternative fan fiction. No profit will be gained from its production. It was written for entertainment purposes only. This piece of fiction is copyright of the author.
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Romantic love between consenting adult women
Special thanks to my beta readers who helped point out some gaps and reminded me that not all sentences have to be twenty words or more ; ) Continued from The Way of Intrigue.
The Way of Treachery
Copyright December 2003
Gabrielle sat cross-legged with her hands resting on her knees. She straightened her spine and took a deep breath, losing herself in the concept of relaxation. Determined to keep Wolf close, she had invited the demi-god and her twins to spend the day with the Amazon Royal family. While Xena kept an eye on the children, the Queen shared recent events with Wolf.
As a friend and the one ultimately responsible for Gabrielle's safety, Wolf was concerned about the events with Phelisya. She made a mental note to ask Xena her version of the story. Shifting her gaze from the playing children to the field around them, the demi-god ended up staring at her fingers, which were slowly shredding a wide blade of grass.
Wolf pulled her gaze from her hands to face Gabrielle. "I'm having trouble with this relaxing thing," she admitted. "After being gone for so long and seeing the Greek force yesterday, I feel like we need to be doing something to prepare."
"We've done nothing but prepare the last month. Today is to remind us of why we've sacrificed so much of ourselves with getting ready and why we may end up fighting in a war that shouldn't involve us."
Thinking of how she had not been there for Gabrielle the last month, Wolf looked away. Her face became warm with shame. "You have no idea how sorry I am for running out on you. I thought that I had it all figured out in everyone's best interests."
Gabrielle wrapped a hand around Wolf's wrist to get her attention. "You acted from your heart, Wolf. That is something that I love about you. But the next time you even consider my best interests or the interests of this Nation without consulting me, I will pull rank on you."
The demi-god looked down at her lap again. "It felt like punishment being away."
"Well, you're back now. No more regrets."
When Gabrielle chuckled, Wolf looked up to see Xena chasing the oldest children with her "hydras." Eponin lay asleep on her blanket next to Gabrielle. Larin was doing her best to keep up with the twins. Occasionally she would fall, only to pull herself up again.
"Later on, if you want, we can help you move the twins' things back into your hut," Gabrielle offered.
When Wolf's eyes turned away yet again, Gabrielle brought them back to her with a gentle hand under the demi-god's chin. "Or you could stay in our hut until you're ready."
"No, you and Xena have been there for me more than I would have asked. It's time for you two to be alone again."
Gabrielle snorted as she opened her arms to Larin, who walked unsteadily to her. "For one thing, we are never alone. But that does not mean that we don't cherish the crowd. Besides, you are a part of our family, as are the twins."
"I am not going to intrude upon you."
"No, you aren't," Gabrielle insisted. "If I have to, I will make it a command." Raising her lips for a kiss when Xena joined them, Gabrielle made the decision final. "Once all the northern warriors get here, we'll need to double up, anyhow."
Xena gave Wolf a slight shove as she sat down with the twins in her lap. "I know if have to share our hut, I'd rather have someone that I trust sleeping with me."
"You two always do that to me," Wolf mumbled as she took Peran into her own lap.
The Queen and the Consort raised their brows in mock innocence. "What?" they asked in unison.
"Double team me with reason."
Gabrielle's smile was one of smug satisfaction. "We do make a great team, don't we, Xena?"
Xena responded with a warm, glowing smile.
Wolf began to laugh when Peran stood on her lap and began to give her sloppy kisses. Not to be left out, Zasha left Xena's lap and joined her twin sister. Before long, the demi-god was lying back in the grass with both daughters giggling from atop her chest. "My little Amazons grew so much while I was gone, didn't you?"
"Peran," Wolf responded with a smile; her eyes became moist with tears.
"My Mama," Zasha stated with a little pout to her sister.
Wolf caught Peran before she responded physically towards her sister. "No, Peran. Don't hit your sister." Stroking both her daughters' hair, Wolf smiled softly. "I am your mama," she said to Zasha, "and I am your mama," she repeated to Peran.
Wolf craned her head to find Larin staring down at her. The Amazon Princess sat next to her head and began to pat the demi-god's forehead. "Mama."
"My Mama," Zasha repeated even louder.
When Peran went to smack, Larin, Wolf caught her hand in a gentle grasp. "No, Peran. You do not hit Larin. You don't hit anyone." The entire time that Wolf was trying to control Peran, Larin continued to pat her head. "Someone help me, please," Wolf called out.
She tried to peer over her daughters' heads to look at the Queen and Consort, but was unable to do so. With a sigh, she relaxed back onto the grass and caught Larin's hand. "Larin, honey, I am not your mama. Your mamas are the over there, being mean to your Auntie Wolf."
Gabrielle's voice carried to Wolf. "Ahhh, sweet revenge, Xena. I think we should give all four girls to Wolf for the next month."
Wolf cleared her throat as she sat back up with the twins in her arms. Her playful mood became serious. "I wouldn't know how to thank you two enough for watching the girls for me while I was gone." She wiped what remained of the sloppy kisses from her cheeks. "Knowing that they were with someone who loves them as much as I do made it a little easier for me."
Gabrielle smiled softly, replying, "Wolf, there's no one in the Known World that loves those girls as much as you do. The fact that you trusted us with them means a lot to us, and we would not hesitate to do the same with ours."
Hearing the lunch bell ringing from the village square, Gabrielle, Xena, and Wolf gathered up their children. Together, they walked to the dining hut. When they walked through the door, the hall was already half full and there was a line forming at the serving counter. Making their way to the Queen's table, the group sat as one.
"Well, no one tried to gut me on the way here," Wolf commented as she settled the twins in her lap.
"Let them try," Xena said loud enough for only Wolf to hear, "and they'll find out that the Warrior Princess isn't completely tamed."
"Save it for the battlefield, my friend, and the Greeks won't know what hit them."
A few days later, the Amazons were gathered in the dining hut to listen to Gabrielle tell the story of Xena and Gareth after dinner. Just as the bard got to the part with the flying parchment, calls were relayed from the sentries on the north border. The sentries were reporting a large party of Amazon warriors. The story was left unfinished, as Gabrielle, Xena, and Wolf prepared to meet the Nation's northern warriors.
They went out into the square and quietly waited. When the party came into sight, Xena and Wolf came to stand behind the Queen and Regent.
Leading the party was Arna. She saluted and kneeled before Gabrielle. "My Queen," she began, "the Nation's warriors heed your call. We are here to defend our own."
"Arna, please stand and be welcomed among your sisters. May Artemis bless her chosen people." With the official greeting out of the way, the Queen smiled at the warrior leader of Garalis after she stood. "How are things going, Arna?"
"Things are good, my Queen," the warrior responded as she nodded respectfully to the Regent, Consort, and Captain of the Guard. "We've been blessed with a good herd of horses this year," she stated as she swept her arm to indicate the warhorses being ridden into the square.
Gabrielle's brows rose in surprise at the number of warriors present. "I must admit, I wasn't expecting this much company, and not so soon."
Arna looked back at the party that was rapidly filling the square. "We met with the runner halfway here. When I heard of the war approaching Amazonia, I took it upon myself to start down here on my own with my warriors. I stopped at every village on the way and asked who was coming. Not many declined."
"Well, then, let's get everyone settled. I don't think we have enough hut space, but the grass in the practice field is soft for anyone who prefers to camp under the stars. You can turn the horses loose in the pasture."
Wolf stayed at Gabrielle's side when Xena went to help put the horses in the pasture. She greeted those with whom she had fought beside against Gael. There were many faces she did not recognize. "If all these warriors are here," she wondered aloud, "who is back at their villages protecting them?"
Gabrielle spared a glance to Wolf before answering; she nodded to the steady stream of warriors that were filing past to honor her. "No one, from the looks of it. But when Amazonia is threatened, the capital and the Queen take priority. I'm not sure I agree with it, but right now, I'm not arguing." Gabrielle craned her neck to see where the line ended. "How many are there?" She turned to look at Wolf when the demi-god snorted.
"You're asking me?" Wolf asked as she stood on her toes to look Gabrielle in the eye.
Gabrielle smiled at the demi-god's antics. "Ephiny is not going to believe this. We didn't expect this many warriors. I'm surprised that she's not back from escorting Tyldus' party."
"Actually, Gabrielle, here they come now."
"Where?" The Queen finally saw the end of the line. When the last warrior saluted her, she stepped out to where she could see. Through the mass of the crowd, she could not see Ephiny or Solari, but she could see several dozen centaurs slowly making their way to the square.
Wolf followed closely when Gabrielle began to thread her way through the milling crowd. When they finally caught up to the Regent, Gabrielle greeted the party. "Good to see you back in one piece, Eph… Solari."
Ephiny returned the Queen's brief embrace. "When we got to the Centaur village and Tyldus announced the war alliance, some of the guys wanted to come back with us. They're going to set up a camp on the western field. This is Paldores," Ephiny said as she introduced the one that was leader among the gathered Centaurs.
Gabrielle studied the Centaur. He stood at attention under her scrutiny; his coat shone and his tanned body glowed in the fading sunlight. She nodded at his impressive form and put her arm out in a warrior's greeting to the Centaur. "Paldores, I am honored that you will be at our side."
The dark-haired Centaur flashed the Amazon Queen a bright smile. "We owe you and Xena for saving our village from the goddess Callisto. When Tyldus asked if we were willing to fight along side you, there was no question about it."
"Will you introduce me to your warriors?"
Paldores bowed gallantly before the Queen. "It would be an honor."
Ephiny, noticing Wolf shaking her head in amusement, asked quietly, "What's so funny?"
The Guard watched as the Centaur leader introduced the others in his party. "He's quite the charmer, isn't he?" she asked with a smirk.
"More brawn and charm than brains," Solari muttered. The Advisor cocked a brow at Ephiny. "How long did it take for you to convince him that you were not interested in him?"
Ephiny was about to reply when a young voice called out, "Mother!"
The Regent's arms opened instantly for the young Centaur trotting towards her. "Xenan," she said as she pushed thick curls off his forehead. "I thought I told you to help set up the Centaur camp."
"I did, Mother. We're all finished and I wanted to come see Gabrielle."
"I'm right here, Xenan," Gabrielle said as she finished the introductions with Paldores. "Gods, how you've grown," she exclaimed as she pulled him into an embrace.
The young Centaur stood proud as he adjusted the bow that lay across his chest. "Mother says that I get to help guard the children in the caves."
"It will be good practice for his Rites of Passage," Paldores said as he ruffled Xenan's blond hair.
Gabrielle turned once more to the Centaur leader. "Have you eaten, Paldores? I'm sure we have some leftovers from dinner."
The Centaur held up his hands as he smiled in gratitude. "No, thank you, Gabrielle. We've brought food to last us. We did not want to impose upon your stores. And we really should be getting back to our camp so you can get your Amazons settled."
Gabrielle nodded in understanding. "Until tomorrow, Paldores."
The Centaur bowed deeply. "Your Highness." Holding out his hand, he motioned to Xenan. "Say good night to your Mother, Xenan."
Xenan paused for a moment before turning to Ephiny. "Do I really need to go to the Centaur camp? Can't I stay here tonight with you and Solari?"
Ephiny looked around at the Amazons standing around the square. With a remorseful sigh, she lowered herself to look her son in the eyes. "I'm afraid not, Xenan. Our hut is going to be full of Amazons, and you don't want to bunk down with a bunch of girls now, do you?"
The young Centaur made a sour face. "When all the girls go away, can I stay a night with you?"
"We'll see. Now mind your uncle and go with him."
Xenan sighed as he kissed his mother's cheek. "Good night, Mother. Good night, Solari."
"Good night, Xe," Solari said as she pulled her lover's son into a bear hug. "Sweet dreams."
Obediently, Xenan took Paldores' hand. Together, they led the Centaur party to the western field.
Ephiny and Gabrielle stood side by side and watched as the Centaurs moved carefully through the crowd of Amazons to return to their camp. When only Amazons surrounded them, the Regent and Queen turned to each other.
"Time for room assignments," Gabrielle said as she climbed onto the nearest table. She looked aside at Wolf who joined her.
"I'm not leaving your side, Gabrielle," the demi-god muttered as she crossed her arms. Her eyes began a constant sweep of the crowd below them.
Realizing that the crowd had quieted, Gabrielle gave it her full attention. "I want to thank all of you for coming tonight," she began as she realized that darkness had fallen and the torches had been lit. "Arna," she called out, searching for the tall redhead.
Gabrielle waited until Arna made her way through the crowd. "I have four empty huts that can hold six each. Ephiny and Solari will show you where they are. I also have twenty-three huts that will hold four guests. The rest, I'm afraid will have to either bunk in the barn or in the field."
"I'll sort it all out and get these ladies situated."
Signaling to Ephiny and Solari, Gabrielle kneeled down on the table. When the couple came near, she explained the arrangements. Nodding in understanding, they joined Arna and began to move through the crowd, separating it into small groups.
Wolf watched the proceedings until she felt the change in Gabrielle's posture. Following the Queen's line of sight, she saw Xena approaching them from the direction of the stables. "Even among a group of women like this, she still stands out."
Gabrielle nodded with a sigh. "There's no one else like her," she agreed. The bard watched her Consort with possessive eyes. Her personal warrior moved with a deadly grace, which she made no effort to hide. If anything, Gabrielle swore that Xena seemed to be announcing to all the warriors watching, that she was the best among them. When Xena finally reached them and looked up at Gabrielle, the bard snorted. Leaning down, she whispered into Xena's ear. "You look like the prized bull strutting over to me."
Xena rolled her eyes at Gabrielle. "You are not going to start with the cow jokes, are you?" she asked, referring to a private joke that they shared.
Wolf laughed aloud and jumped down from the table as Xena handed Gabrielle to solid ground. "I wondered why the girls were mooing at you until Gabrielle told me about the story she made for them." The demi-god broke into a hearty laughter; Xena just watched her with an arched brow.
As Wolf's amusement wound down, Xena wrapped an arm around the demi-god's shoulder. "You know what's a bitch, Pup?"
"What, Xena?" the demi-god asked as she wiped a tear from her eye.
The Consort pulled Wolf into a headlock. "Paybacks," she warned.
Wolf was about to counter the move when Gabrielle stepped in front of the wrestling couple. "It's bad enough that I have to get four children to settle down before bedtime, do I have to worry about you two, as well?"
Looking up from her angled position, Wolf smiled innocently.
"Right," Gabrielle sniggered.
"Gabrielle, it looks like we've got everyone taken care of."
The Queen turned her attention to Ephiny as the Regent approached them. "Everyone have somewhere to sleep tonight?"
"Good. Have the sentries been doubled up?"
"They changed over at sunset."
"Well, I guess for a day of relaxing, this wasn't so bad. Time to get the girls and settle in while we can enjoy it."
"I'll see you tomorrow," the Regent said as she nodded her farewell to the trio.
Gabrielle searched for Caregivers that had taken over the children when the Amazon War Party had arrived. Seeing them near the well, she walked over to them; she ignored the fact that Xena was following her with Wolf still trapped in a headlock.
The Caregivers were gathered in a loose circle with the children. One of the older Caregivers was finishing the tale of Gareth that had been interrupted earlier. Gabrielle listened quietly, rarely having the chance to hear her own tales. When the Caregiver finished, the bard clapped. "You tell that story well, Theli," the bard complimented.
Theli blushed as she rose to bow to Gabrielle. "Thank you, my Queen. The children wanted to know what Xena did with the flying parchment."
Gabrielle looked at her Consort who was doing a good impression of a mature adult even as she was mussing Wolf's hair. The Queen kneeled down to speak to the children. "Xena's a really smart warrior. She uses her brains as much as her muscles when she faces an opponent."
When the young Amazons began giggling at Xena and Wolf's antics, the Queen shook her head. "This is just how they relax before a battle," Gabrielle explained to the children as she swooped down to gather Larin from where she was sitting. "They really are grown-ups."
When Gabrielle had Larin on her hip, Xena released Wolf from the headlock and mussed her hair again. Finished with their impromptu goofing, the Consort took Eponin's sling and cradled the child; Wolf kneeled and called to her twins, who came running to her. Together, the Queen's family retired to the Royal Hut.
Once they were out of sight, Aresha turned to Theli, who was handing another of the babies to her mother. "Do you think that all three of them? …You know?"
Theli, sparing a stern look for the gossipy young Amazon, said good night to another warrior. "What the Queen does in her own hut is not our business, Aresha. You'd do well to remember that."
"I was only wondering." The young Caregiver's gaze became distant. "I bet it would be incredible."
"Aresha!" Theli chastised the younger Amazon. "Why don't you help us with the children like you are supposed to? You can go wonder later on your own time."
With a petulant pout, Aresha replied, "How can I do anything? I'll be sharing a hut with Rhena and four warriors."
"There you go, then. Wonder about the warriors sleeping in your hut, but do not start spreading rumors about the Queen." Raising her eyes to the clear, dark sky, Theli asked softly, "Artemis, what have I done to deserve a daughter such as Aresha?"
"Mom!" Aresha cried. She smiled at a sentry that had just come from the dining hall after finishing her duty shift. Handing the sentry her daughter, Aresha waved goodbye to the baby. "I am not that bad."
"We'll see when you have your own children, how you deal with raging hormones."
Inside the Queen's hut, things were quiet. It was almost too quiet for Gabrielle. The bard lay in bed, reading a favorite scroll, trying to take her mind off what lay beyond Amazon lands. Instead of the rhythmic scraping of stone against metal, however, all she heard was the click clack of game pieces.
It was beginning to distract her; she had already read the same scene three times. "Why are you two playing that game now? Shouldn't you be sharpening lots of sharp things?" She raised her eyebrows at Wolf and Xena who were ready for bed, but still sitting at a table upon which they were playing a game.
"Gabrielle, dotted cards is about skill and strategy," Wolf said as she played two men against Xena's.
"Like war," Xena added as she studied her pieces. "I haven't played this in a long time."
"I'd forgotten I had it until Gabrielle and I brought my things over here. It was in the bottom of my trunk," Wolf said before scowling at Xena's move. "I swear, you have all the luck, Xena."
The Consort smirked as she continued to study the tiles played. "You putting Darlea and M'Eru on tomorrow morning after breakfast?"
"Yeah, why? Want to spar in the morning?"
"Nah, was thinking of scouting a bit. I saw a large flock of birds flying over at sunset."
"You mean the ones that are nesting on the Vadari now?"
Xena nodded as she motioned for Wolf to place her men. "Shouldn't take more than a couple of hours to get there."
"I'm up for it. Was Beast exercised while I was gone? I wouldn't want to wear him out after being lazy for a month." Wolf looked up in curiosity when Gabrielle snickered.
"What?" she asked, looking at Xena.
"I tried to exercise that demon of yours."
"You didn't try to saddle him, did you?"
Xena gave Wolf a sarcastic look. "You don't think after seven years that I don't know your demon isn't normal?" The Consort ignored the sounds of amusement coming from the bed. "He wouldn't even let me mount him. I ended up having to rope him and run him next to Argo, which, by the way, is not easy when he's trying to mount her."
Wolf shrugged as she finally placed her men. "He was bored."
"More like Argo was probably nipping at the henbane. I think she let him mount her in the field a couple of weeks ago. At least, that's if your demon prances like a sissy when he gets some."
"Yep, he got some." The demi-god raised a questioning brow. "Do you think he took?"
"I haven't noticed anything different," Xena responded as she flashed a smile of victory. "You lose again."
"No, you two are not going to play another game," Gabrielle said as she attempted to keep her voice low. "You two have been at it for hours, now come to bed."
Wolf shared a look with Xena before smirking. "Yes, Ma."
Together, the two warriors put the ivory game pieces back into their teakwood box. When they were finished, they blew out the candles by which they were playing. When the only candle left burning was Gabrielle's, they got into the bed on opposite sides.
Between them, Gabrielle smiled. "That's better," the Queen sighed. "Maybe now I can finish this scroll so I can go to bed."
Knowing better than to carry on their conversation, Xena and Wolf lay there silently, both staring at the ceiling. Nervously, Wolf clasped her hands over her stomach and began to drum her fingers. Xena's feet were dancing back and forth in time to the drumming.
Gabrielle pursed her lips, trying not to show her amusement. "I think after you two go for your ride tomorrow, you're going to have to find a way to work off that excess energy."
Raising herself up on her elbows, Wolf looked across Gabrielle's chest at Xena. "If you want, I can occupy myself so that you two can be alone."
"That is not what I'm talking about, Wolf," Gabrielle groaned as she rolled her eyes and raised a hand to her forehead. "I meant sparring. Get your juices going… all that warrior stuff that warriors do before battle."
"I always thought that's what warriors did do before battle."
"No, that is after the battle," Xena corrected with a wicked grin, unable to resist playing along with Wolf.
"Incorrigible," Gabrielle mumbled as she gave up on her scroll and handed it to Xena.
The Consort laid the scroll on the bedside table and blew out the candle. "I suppose we shouldn't be taking this so lightly," she commented as she pulled Gabrielle to her side.
"Oh, Xena," Gabrielle sighed. "Whatever gets you through from here to the aftermath in one piece and back to me."
"Every warrior is different," Wolf stated as she rolled to her side to look at Gabrielle and Xena's profiles. "Kepra goes to the temple and prostrates herself before the altar. Solari and Ephiny make like bunnies before battle," Wolf commented matter-of-factly.
"Oh, gods," Gabrielle mumbled. "I did not want to know that, Wolf." She reached over to lightly slap the demi-god, who chuckled in response.
"Who started this cursed conversation anyway?" Gabrielle asked as she tried to burrow into Xena's side.
"You did," the Consort and demi-god answered in unison.
The Queen sighed, as she finally got comfortable. "One of these days, I'll learn to be quiet around you two."
Wolf smiled fondly into the darkness. She pulled the covers up to her chin and whispered, "Good night, Gabrielle. Good night, Xena."
"Good night, Wolf. Good night, Gabrielle."
"I am not doing it, so just cut it out you two and get some sleep."
Once Gabrielle fell asleep, Wolf whispered into the darkness. "You got first watch?"
"No, you take it. Eppy will wake in a couple of hours for a feeding, so I'll take it then."
"Sweet dreams, Xena."
When Xena's breathing evened out, Wolf cautiously crawled out of bed and went to stand outside the Queen's hut. With Phelisya as a wildcard and faces that were not so familiar in their village, Xena and Wolf had decided to take an extra precaution for Gabrielle's safety.
The demi-god crossed her arms over her thin cotton shirt to ward off the night chill. Closing her eyes, she absorbed the sounds of the night. She listened to the crowded Amazon village sleeping their last sleep of peace for what would turn out to be two weeks.
"Looks like they found most of their horses," Wolf whispered. She and Xena were hidden in the trees, watching as the Greek army made its way across the lower plain. Trailing behind the Greek soldiers were Spartan prisoners. Their bedraggled and bloody appearances were meant to dishearten the Spartan troops.
"Looks like," Xena finally agreed. "We better head back and call a heads up. With the Greeks that close and no Spartan troops coming from the south, the Greeks may just decide to have a little fun."
Mounting their warhorses, Xena and Wolf turned deeper into the forest. For half an hour, they rode at a moderate, steady pace before open ground lent them the room to give their steeds full rein. When they arrived at the village two hours later, they handed the warhorses over to a young Amazon. With a solemn purpose, they sought Gabrielle.
Gabrielle looked up from her conversation with Paldores when Xena called out to her. The tone of the Consort's voice was a warning that set her heart beating faster. "Heads up, Gabrielle," she suggested, trying to not make it sound like an order. "They're not as far away as we'd thought."
"They're across the Vadari and almost to the Ancients' Stele."
"At the pace they're going, they'll reach the northeastern boundary by dinner."
Gabrielle reached out and squeezed Xena's arm. With the other, she reached out to a young Amazon warrior, who was walking past. Pulling her to a halt, she ordered, "Groda, ring the bell for me."
Bowing her head for a quick prayer to Artemis, Gabrielle took a deep breath. With a clear head, she looked up into Xena's eyes and found the source of her strength. "Let's go."
Wolf followed the Queen and Consort. When Groda began ringing the bell, the fine hairs on the back of the demi-god's neck stood on end. Suppressing a shiver, she rubbed the back of her neck. For a fleeting moment, the thought crossed her mind that the ringing sounded like a death knell.
She climbed up onto the table behind Gabrielle, just as she had done the night before. She watched the faces of those that had gathered in the square. As Gabrielle relayed the news of the Greek army's approach, murmurs vibrated through the crowd. Assigning duties, Gabrielle ordered all Amazons to arm themselves. The Caretakers were given leave to begin taking the children to the caves. Those that had major roles played them as if they had been rehearsed many times. When Gabrielle finished, Xena took over.
Her command mask in place, Xena began directing squad leaders to gather their warriors and to take their positions in the forest. As they moved out, bags of jerky and dried fruit were passed among them; waterskins were filled at the well. Within half an hour, the square was nearly empty.
Paldores led the Centaurs to stand in front of Xena. He waited for the Warrior Princess' orders.
"Paldores," Xena began as she laid a hand on his shoulder. "I want you and your men to guard the trails north of the springs. The last row of pines before the plain is littered with snares, so don't go out to engage the Greeks. Let them come to you and you'll have half as many to fight."
The Centaur nodded his understanding and turned to address his men. "Remember you are Centaur and your blood is noble. We will not fail our allies this day."
As the Centaur began moving out, Gabrielle rested her hands upon Xena's shoulders. "Xena," she whispered softly, "do you really think that the Greeks will attack us?"
Xena looked over her shoulder to watch as Gabrielle stepped down from the table. "I don't know, sweetheart, but you've made sure that we're ready if they do. If we have to fight, we will give them a fight they won't forget."
Slowly, Wolf stepped onto the bench from the table. She watched as Ephiny jogged across the square to join them.
"All of the children have been moved to the caves," the Regent supplied as she adjusted the sword at her back.
Gabrielle stared at Ephiny for a moment as she thought of her own children. "We have a wet nurse for Eponin, right?" The Queen's voice was thick with apprehension.
"It's taken care of, Gabrielle," Xena said as she turned the Queen to face her. "Everything that we needed to do is done. We are prepared. Now we wait for the Greeks and see if they make a move."
"You're right, Xena," she conceded. "As many times as you and I have been in tough situations, I've never felt like I had so much to lose."
"We aren't going to lose anything, Gabrielle."
The small group looked up as Solari arrived; her arms were loaded down with supplies. Taking some of the load from her lover, Ephiny handed out the waterskins and trail food. "We're all ready to go," the Regent said as she squared her shoulders. She handed Gabrielle her staff.
"Come on, Gabrielle. Wolf will be with you the whole time, no matter what happens." Xena looked over Gabrielle's shoulder to see the demi-god's resolve.
The Queen laughed brokenly. "So besides worrying about the Greeks, I have to make sure she doesn't get into trouble? Why do I always get the tough ones?"
Wolf let the Queen's comment go unanswered. Instead, she laid her arm across Gabrielle's shoulders and squeezed. She waited as Gabrielle took a moment to absorb the soft, gentle kiss that Xena gave her. When Xena nodded to her, the demi-god escorted the Queen to the spot in the forest that was chosen for her to wait for the Greeks.
The sun was halfway through its afternoon descent when Gabrielle saw Wolf stiffen.
"Do you hear them?" she asked.
Wolf dropped her chin and cocked her head. She closed her eyes to focus on the sound. "They're about a league off now, I think."
The Queen turned to the runners that had stood upon hearing the news. They were there to carry Gabrielle's messages along the line. Patiently, they waited for their instructions.
"Tell everyone that the Greeks are about two hours away. Nobody is to make a move against them until I say. Remind them that we are not going to fight unless we are provoked."
The runners repeated her words back to her before leaving to complete their tasks.
Wolf, who had been taking the time to rest against a fallen tree while she could, watched as Gabrielle began to pace. She shifted to cross her arms over her chest. She listened with empathy when Gabrielle began to mumble to herself. Wanting to do something to calm the Queen, she spoke. "Did I ever tell you about the contest in Xena's camp?"
Gabrielle stopped her pacing and mumbling. She looked at Wolf with confusion. "I'm sorry, what was the question?"
Chuckling as she patted a spot on the ground beside her, she said, "Come here. I want to tell you a story."
The Queen looked at Wolf in disbelief for a moment before sitting down next to her. "Okay, take my mind of things before I worry myself to the Other Side."
Smiling in understanding, Wolf took Gabrielle's hand and squeezed it reassuringly. "You've heard about how Xena and I met, right?"
"Well, as you know, she apprenticed me to her healer when I first joined her army. Usually, there weren't many major injuries to tend because she hadn't gone through her conquering warlord phase yet. She was, however, making a name for herself. She was making it quite clear that she would and could protect Amphipolis. Even then, she had a presence about her. She made her soldiers believe that she could accomplish anything. She had strength, intelligence, cunning… many skills."
Wolf paused when Gabrielle elbowed her in the side. With a crooked grin, she continued. "But on top of all that, she had an incredible beauty rarely seen packaged with the rest. It wasn't long before every man in camp desired her. Well, one day, soldiers began coming to see the healer with injuries. Every day, there was a new one with a different injury, even when there wasn't a battle or a skirmish. It wasn't long after that, rumors of a secret pool began circulating."
"What kind of pool?" Gabrielle asked.
"Who would be the first to bed Xena. Now, I'm not positive, because I would never have been brave enough to ask, but I think she was still a virgin then. That fact alone made the men want her even more." Wolf nodded at Gabrielle's astonished look.
Gabrielle's eyes crinkled with a grin. "I can't picture Xena as a virgin."
Wolf snorted in amusement. "Well, she was so young when she started on the warrior path, and back then, once she set her mind on accomplishing something, nothing else was important." Wolf recalled where she was in the story and continued. "So, every morning, straws were picked from those not rejected, to see who would have the challenge of trying to seduce Xena out of her battledress. They tried everything from romance to besting her in skills, to win her bed."
"And what about you? What did you do to seduce Xena?"
Attempting an innocent look that fell short of the mark, Wolf picked at a seam in her leather breeches. "I, um, pulled a calf muscle while trying to beat her in a footrace."
"So did anyone win the pool?"
"Yeah, someone did."
"I did," a voice called from behind a tree.
Gabrielle and Wolf looked up as Xena revealed herself.
"You did?" Gabrielle asked.
"Yeah, I bet that no one would get into my bed."
"It was so underhanded," Wolf explained as she winked at Xena. "I think the men loved her even more after that. She became the unattainable."
"So when did you learn how to use that power to your advantage?"
Xena crouched to look Gabrielle in the eye. "I learned from Caesar," she replied.
Gabrielle reached out to thread her fingers through Xena's. "I'm sorry, I didn't want to bring that up for you."
The Consort waved away the apology. "It's a distant pain now, Gabrielle. You've shown me that that love is something you fight for, not with."
Wolf looked up into the trees, allowing Gabrielle and Xena to share a quiet moment.
"You know, Wolf," Xena said after she raised Gabrielle's hand for a kiss, "You could have won that pool if you hadn't joined it. I didn't like being the prize in an adolescent contest. If just one person had the courage to not join the crowd, I might have considered them worth my time."
The demi-god feigned misery as she slapped her free hand over her heart. When she remembered where her other hand was, she tried to discretely pull it back. Gabrielle, however, refused to release it.
Xena raised a brow at the demi-god. "Chasing my wife again? Every time I see you, you're following her around." Xena studied the two women and her heart tightened. She laid her hand over theirs and looked at them both when her mood turned to one of concern. "If anything happens, I'm counting on you two to watch out for each other."
"Are you leaving for the ridge now?" Gabrielle asked.
"Now that they're this close, I want to be able to see them as soon as they come up onto the plain. If they try anything funny, you'll hear my call." Xena bowed her head to rest it against Gabrielle's. She closed her eyes and whispered, "And if something does happen, you lead your Nation into battle. I know you can do this." When she leaned back and looked into Gabrielle's eyes, she saw that they were moist with tears.
"Come back to me, Xena."
"Always, my bard," the Warrior Princess replied before standing and calling softly for Argo. "Artemis be with you two."
Gabrielle and Wolf watched as Xena mounted Argo and faded silently into the forest. When the Consort was no longer in sight, Wolf squeezed Gabrielle's hand. The comfort was as much for herself as it was for the Queen.
"Thank for trying to calm me down with the story, Wolf," Gabrielle finally said after a moment stretched quietly behind them.
Wolf looked up at the trees when she heard one of the archers sneeze. "You're welcome," she replied. "Don't worry, Gabrielle. We have the Nation's best at our backs. We'll get through this."
"Would you sleep with Xena now?"
The queen's question caught Wolf off guard. Her voice carried a hint of exasperation. "I don't know, Gabrielle. I really haven't thought about that in a long time. Besides, I'm the last person in the world that would come between you and Xena."
Gabrielle looked down at her hand that was still holding Wolf's. "Wolf, you are an important part of our family. You're one of the few women from Xena's past that hasn't tried to kill or seduce her or me. You don't know what a refreshing change that is."
Wolf laughed softly as she looked sideways at the Queen. "I don't even know how to seduce a woman."
With an enigmatic smile, Gabrielle patted Wolf's hand. "I had that problem once."
Their chuckles echoed softly through the forest.
"Why are we discussing this, Gabrielle?" Wolf finally asked. "If you are trying to take my mind off of things, you're doing a great job of it."
Gabrielle turned Wolf's face to her; when she was sure that she had the demi-god's complete attention, she soberly explained. "Yesterday, Xena said that she trusts you. She doesn't give her trust freely and it's a difficult thing to earn. But you… she trusts you with me… with my life. That means a lot."
"I would do anything to keep you safe."
"I know," Gabrielle whispered. "You are just like her in that way."
Wolf cleared her throat and looked away before she drowned in the Queen's eyes. It was far from being an appropriate time to be dealing with her feelings about Gabrielle. Delicately, she extricated her hand from Gabrielle's. Unconsciously, she wiped it on her breeches as if to erase the memory. She blew out a relieved breath when she heard a call come from the ridge.
Standing, she peered out of the trees towards Xena's position. "They're finally coming into sight," she said; she was glad to have jumped out of one fire and into another.
Gabrielle got to her feet and dusted off her skirt. She walked over to stand next to Wolf. "Let's see what happens now."
An hour later, Wolf was doing her best to present a calm exterior. Idly, she picked at her nails with a small dagger as Gabrielle was once again mumbling to herself.
"I can't believe this," the Queen muttered. "Why do they have to set up camp right on our doorstep?"
"It's getting dark, Gabrielle. Only a foolish general would march his troops at night."
"Can you hear anything?"
"Only Xena coming up behind us."
Gabrielle looked up just as Xena turned the bend on the trail. She was leading Argo as dusk began to deepen the forest shadows. Tethering the warhorse away from the tree line, she joined Gabrielle and Wolf. Crouching next to them, she asked, "What do you want to do now, Gabrielle?"
The Queen considered her options carefully. "Let's move half the warriors deeper into the forest. We'll set up rotating shifts of four hours so they can get some sleep. We're not leaving until they do."
Xena nodded in approval before signaling to the runners. "Go to the squad leaders. Tell them to drop half their squad to the second markers for four-hour rest periods. Remind everyone to stay invisible until the Queen calls for any attack."
Once the runners left, Xena returned to Gabrielle. "How are you holding up?"
The Queen tore her eyes away from the Greek army. "Waiting has never been a skill of mine."
Xena flashed her wife a lop-sided grin. "Consider this practice."
"What if they decide they want fresh meat for dinner tonight?" Wolf asked as she turned to look at Xena.
"They won't," Xena replied with confidence. "That's General Melaethenes leading those men. He's very old school. He'll have them eating field rations until the reach the next town."
"How is he as a leader?" Gabrielle asked.
"He's one of the best," Xena grudgingly admitted, "but most of his men aren't professional soldiers. So between numbers and skill, I'd say that we're almost an even match with Arna's warriors and Paldores' Centaurs." The Consort squeezed the Queen's shoulder for reassurance. "You might as well rest, Gabrielle. It's going to be a long night."
Half an hour later, Gabrielle was curled up on Xena's bedroll. Half the Elite Archers, who were dozing as well, surrounded her.
Xena and Wolf kept each other company as they listened to the sounds of the Greek camp.
"So how was she?"
Wolf turned to look at Xena and shrugged. "As you would expect. She was nervous. She was worried about you by yourself on the ridge."
"She's never had to lead Amazons into battle."
"You led them last time we went into battle," Wolf recalled.
"She's grown up a lot since then," Xena sighed.
"You regret that?"
Xena's lips thinned with her thoughts. "No. She needs to be able to do this. Amazons won't follow a queen that just sits back and orders them to fight."
"She's learned from the best, you know."
Xena looked up into the dark sky to watch a wisp of a cloud cover a sliver of moon. "Every time I see her fight, I'm torn between wishing I had taught her more, and wishing she didn't have to fight at all."
"But Fate has led you here, Xena. Would you really go back if you could?"
Thinking of her wife, her daughters, and the life they had, Xena shook her head. "I guess not." With a wicked gleam in her eyes, she amended, "But I might have left you in that dungeon if given a second chance."
Wolf chuckled at the teasing. "Please, I was the one who managed to get you two out before the guards came." The demi-god took a deep breath, noted the position of the archers above, and cracked her neck. "I think I'm as nervous as Gabrielle," she confessed with a wry grin.
"Well, I hope that neither of you gets so used to battle that you aren't nervous."
"Are you still leading Arna's warriors off the flank?"
"Yeah, it would be a shame to waste the advantage of all those horses," Xena replied as she looked into the shadows for a glimpse of Gabrielle.
"I'll take care of her, I promise."
Xena captured Wolf's head and pulled it gently to her chest. "I know you will."
Wolf listened to her friend's heart beating in a calming rhythm. After counting fifty beats, she turned to stand under Xena's arm. Together, they remained silently watchful for hours until Gabrielle laid a hand on both their shoulders.
"Anything?" the Queen asked.
"They've just rotated their sentries," Xena responded.
Gabrielle raised her face to the canopy and gave the night bird's wailing screech, signaling the Amazons to change as well. Looking down at Wolf, she jerked her head towards the bedroll. "Go," she ordered softly.
Wolf nodded once and bowed, obeying her Queen.
Only the soft rustle of leaves belied the passing of many Amazons in the forest. And then it grew quiet again. Gabrielle wrapped an arm around Xena's waist and yawned. "How many campfires are there?"
"Sixty-seven," Xena answered automatically, for she had already counted twice.
"That's a hundred more people than us."
"They're mostly farmers and shepherds, Gabrielle. Far away from home with no real reason to fight."
"There's always the glory of Athens and the favor of Athena," the Queen countered.
"No, I don't think so. Most of them are Thracians. They've probably never even seen Athens, yet alone carry a love for it. And they worship Demeter and Hestia more than Athena."
"I thought the Thracians worshipped Ares, too."
Xena shrugged nonchalantly. "Yeah, but then I moved away."
Gabrielle shook her head at Xena's joke. She leaned against the warrior and sighed. She really hated waiting. After all the tension of the last months of vigil, things had finally come to a head. She felt like she was standing on a crumbling precipice, waiting to fall. Then she felt Xena's arm settle across her shoulders and she knew that if she was going to fall, she would not be alone.
"How was your talk with Wolf?" Xena asked as she rubbed the goose bumps on Gabrielle's shoulder.
"Why do you ask?"
"You two looked very cozy at first, and when I came back, she looked like she'd swallowed a spiced trout."
"I think I made her uncomfortable," Gabrielle explained after a moment.
"What did you say?"
"I just told her that she was important to us and that we trusted her, that she was our family." Gabrielle crossed her arms across her chest. "It wasn't anything I haven't told her before."
Xena's smirk went unseen in the darkness. "Tell me, Gabrielle, did you look deep into her eyes when you told her?"
"Of course I did, Xena. I wanted her to know that I meant it."
The Consort shook her head in wonder. "Why do you do that when you know she has a thing for you? Do you have any idea what you do to a woman when you look at her like that? Were you trying to seduce her?"
Gabrielle answered quickly. "No, of course not. We settled that long ago."
"Yes, we did. And you know she won't give in, Gabrielle."
"For one, this whole thing with Triva is still too fresh for her. And second, she would consider it dishonorable." Xena kissed Gabrielle's temple and chuckled. "We've been through this before. Why are you bringing it up again?"
"I don't know. My mind was wandering. I think it's because when she's alone, she looks so lonely. It's those puppy eyes of hers."
"She's not alone, Gabrielle."
"Right," the Queen nodded, "she has us."
"In just the way that she wants us," Xena murmured against Gabrielle's lips. "So leave it be."
"You warriors can be impossible sometimes."
"But you love us."
"I must have finally lost my mind, more like it." Gabrielle sighed as she stared out at the Greek camp. "Xena," she finally asked softly, "if you were still a warlord, what would you do now? I mean, if you were head of that army out there, would you move on or would you attack?"
Xena considered the question for a moment. "I would attack at first light if I knew that the Amazons were here. I would challenge you for your people. I would have your warriors one way or another in the end."
"Good thing Melaethenes isn't you."
"And maybe if I was still the warlord and I took one look at the Amazon Queen, I'd fall down upon my knees and swear allegiance."
Gabrielle backhanded Xena in the stomach. "Yeah, right. I'd probably end up in a leather collar as your slave."
Pulling Gabrielle around so that the Queen's back was pressed against her breastplate, Xena grinned. "Yeah, you're right. But you'd be the one to enslave me before long."
"You're such a mushball, Xena." Gabrielle leaned her head back against Xena's chest. The chill that had begun to cover her like a blanket dissolved away with the Consort's arms around her. "I wish I could close my eyes and make all this go away."
"But you can't," Xena murmured, "so we're going to stick together and we're going to send those Greeks back to Athens with stories about fierce Amazons that give no quarter."
"And have the Amazons go down in history as a blood-thirsty tribe of savages?" Gabrielle chuckled as she shook her head at the thought. "Remind me when this is over to write a history of gossip, diapers, and endless debates about who gets to go to Corinth for the latest scrolls of Sappho."
"That I'll do, bard," Xena promised as she pulled Gabrielle tighter.
Wolf's eyes opened wide when she heard the call of the night bird again. Sitting up, she ran her fingers through her tousled hair. She stood and bent over to touch her toes. After a few more limbering exercises, she bounded back to where she had left Gabrielle and Xena. When she reached them, Gabrielle was blinking her eyes as if she had just awakened.
"Anything new?" the demi-god asked softly as she adjusted her swords on her back. She squinted towards the plain, but Eos had not arrived yet and a light fog swirled along the light breeze.
"Sounds like they're just now waking up," Xena replied as she stretched her arms over her head.
"Did you get any sleep at all?"
Xena waggled her hand. "Dozed here and there. I'm good to go, though."
"Did you sleep well, Wolf?"
Wolf smiled in greeting to Gabrielle. "Yes, my Queen," she answered with a bow. "I am at your service."
"Any chance that you brought some fresh ham with goose eggs and biscuits?"
Shaking her head, Wolf untied a small bag at her waist. "No, but I have some dried berries, if you want."
Waving a hand at the offering, Gabrielle made a moue of distaste. "I had those yesterday. They're chewier than Xena's boots."
"Don't ask," Xena warned, raising her hand to Wolf.
"Not even going there," the demi-god mumbled good-naturedly. "I think I'm ready to face this day."
"Still nervous?" Xena asked as she watched the archers slip back up into the trees.
"A little, but not so bad as yesterday," she replied honestly.
"Good," the Consort replied with a nod of her head. "Anyone who goes into battle without a little fear is a fool."
"Or the Warrior Princess," Gabrielle added as she stretched up on her toes to give Xena a quick kiss on the cheek. "I need to commune with Artemis for a moment."
Wolf automatically followed the Queen to a bush and waited discretely. When Gabrielle stood back up, the demi-god courteously let her pass before ducking behind the bush as well. When she finished, she stood to find Gabrielle waiting for her patiently. After fastening her breeches, she guided the Queen with a gentle hand to the back. "Let's go see what the Greeks do today, shall we?"
Forgotten were all the discussions from the night before when they returned. Gabrielle pulled Xena to the side and looked up into her face for a breathless moment. "If peace is not the way of today, lead my warriors for the Nation, Xena, and don't forget to come back to me."
"You will make the right decision no matter what happens, Gabrielle. Trust in yourself. I will be here," she said, tapping the Queen's chest, "with you through the whole thing."
They shared a lingering kiss before Xena took Argo's reins from a runner. "Artemis be with you, Gabrielle."
The Queen watched as Xena slipped quietly into the fog to go lead Arna's squad.
"Gabrielle," Wolf called urgently, "come here."
Spinning on her heel, the Queen quickly approached Wolf. "What is it?"
"You're not going to like this," Wolf replied with regret. She cocked her head towards the wind, which was blowing from the Greek camp. "I think I recognize a voice talking to General Melaethenes."
Gabrielle saw the look of anger on Wolf's face and was taken aback for a moment. Rarely did the demi-god ever reveal any darkness. "Who is it?"
"Damnit," she cursed, "I didn't think she'd stoop to joining the Greeks. She hates them."
"Maybe she hates someone more now."
"What is she saying?"
Wolf shook her head slowly. "I don't know. I can't make out the words, but the tone is impatient."
Gabrielle paced a few feet before making her way to the runners, who were standing at attention. "I want this out as fast as you can run, and be sure you get it right. I want everyone alert. Listen for my call. The archers are to stay in the trees and not engage anyone on foot. I want each squad to drop one of their warriors to the ground cover. They are going to lure the Greeks to the traps."
The runners nodded when the Queen waved them off to their task. Quickly, they took off into the forest to relay the message. Gabrielle watched them as she battled within herself for the trial that lay ahead. "They aren't going to go away without a fight are they, Wolf?"
Wolf approached Gabrielle from behind and laid a hand upon the Queen's shoulder. "No, they aren't, my Queen." Without another word, she handed Gabrielle her staff. "I'll be with you the whole way."
Gabrielle turned and looked into Wolf's eyes. Behind the hard determination, there was a loyalty that would not be swayed. Raising a hand to lay it upon the demi-god's cheek, Gabrielle took a deep breath. "Today, the Amazons will prevail."
Her courage bolstered by the Queen's words, Wolf returned to her watch. Softly, she relayed the bits and pieces of conversation that carried to her. When the sun began to peek over the ridge, she raised a hand. "It's your call, Gabrielle," she warned. "They're moving this way."
Crouching down next to Wolf, Gabrielle commanded, "Let me know when they're within our bows' range."
The forest was silent as Wolf listened intently to the soldiers trying to march across the plain quietly. As their heartbeats became louder with each step, the demi-god felt her adrenaline surge. All that existed to her was the Queen at her side and the army about to wage war upon them. When they were fifty paces away, she gave Gabrielle a silent hand signal.
Raising her face to the archers above, she ordered the Amazons into war. Before the second call was echoed down the line, she heard a voice rise above the surprised shouts of Greeks hit by Amazon archers. She finally heard Phelisya telling the Greeks to attack.
Together, Gabrielle and Wolf rose up from the forest. They only had to wait but a few seconds before the first soldiers broke through the Archer's arrows. Together, they fought side by side. Over the din of weapons clashing, they heard fighting throughout the forest. One by one, the Greeks fell before them, unconscious by the staff or dead by the sword.
Wolf fought with all the skills she possessed. Part of her was aware of Gabrielle defending herself against her attackers; she listened for any distress from the Queen. Between opponents, she would quickly glance to Gabrielle to make sure that the Queen was holding her own.
Before long, their footing was treacherous, as there were bodies taking up what little space there was to fight. Reluctant to lead them any closer to the village, Gabrielle ordered the battle line to be forced out onto the field.
Once out in the open, under the covering fire of the Elite Archers, the Amazon Queen took her stand. Wolf had little time for anything, except to react to the soldiers that were attacking one after another. There seemed to be no end to the threats focused on them. Kicking a Greek off the end of her bloody sword, Wolf called out to Gabrielle. "We're going to need more warriors down here!"
Gabrielle finished off her opponent before calling up to the trees. "Get Ephiny's squad down here!" Barely had the words passed her lips before she was again fighting for her life. Spinning into a crouch, she swept the soldier's legs from under him before rendering him prone with a solid crack to his head. She stepped away to find more room to maneuver, not noticing that she and Wolf were beginning to separate.
It was then that she heard a battle cry that made her blood go cold and then hot. She spared a glance past her foe to see Xena leading Arna's cavalry across the plain. It was only when she felt the slicing pain in her arm that she realized her mistake. She focused once more on the soldier with the short sword stained with her blood. The pain faded to a deep part of her conscious as her pulse began to pound in her ears. Years of training took over and she fought without thinking about the next move.
Incapacitating another soldier, Gabrielle looked behind her to see Wolf battling two Greeks. The distance that separated them seemed to stretch across the entire plain. Slowly, the Queen fought her way back to Wolf's side only to hear the demi-god curse loudly in pain. Gabrielle paled when she saw the arrow tip shining crimson from Wolf's shoulder. Looking past Wolf, she saw Phelisya with her lover Estra. The former Amazon, who had defected from her Elite Archers, raised her bow again. Time slowed as Gabrielle watched her draw the bowstring back.
Wolf finished off her two opponents in time to see Estra release the arrow to send it arcing toward Gabrielle. Without thought, the demi-god stepped between the Queen and the arrow. Her attempt to catch the arrow failed, for the one already in her shoulder had slowed her reflexes. She stared dumbly at the second arrow that managed to find an opening in her armor.
Raising her swords, however, she was determined to keep fighting. She heard a vengeful battle cry from far off and the distinctive sound of a chakram slicing through the air. She blinked as Estra fell to the ground. Swaying on her feet, she faced another Greek, only to have Ephiny push her away. She stumbled and fell to her knees. Unaware that she was falling, she barely felt the jarring impact of the ground when it rose to meet her.
All around her, she saw the faces of Greek death peering into her own. It was a surreal nightmare that refused to end. Blissfully, she closed her eyes when she realized that she could not see them in the dark.
Gabrielle saw Wolf's eye close and she felt a renewed sense of purpose. Relentlessly, she faced the few Greeks that were left. She noted that the archers, who were out of arrows, had dropped from out of the trees to battle the army hand to hand. She looked up when she felt the ground shudder with the thundering of horses.
Like a whirling dervish, Xena somersaulted from Argo and joined the fray on foot. She had one target in mind, and she fought like a demon to reach her. When she finally came face to face with Phelisya, she snarled. "You picked the wrong side," she growled before attacking the renegade Amazon.
No match for the furious Warrior Princess, Phelisya soon found herself on her knees before the former warlord. Her eyes were defiant as she waited for the killing blow.
"I don't think so," Xena muttered before knocking her out with the hilt of her sword. "You aren't my bitch to judge." Sheathing her sword, she uncoiled the whip at her side; she bound Phelisya's hands securely. She whistled for Argo and mounted the obedient warhorse when she came. With a grim face, she dragged the fallen renegade back to the Queen.
When Xena reached the other side of the field, Gabrielle was on her knees, surrounded by warriors. Handing the whip to Ephiny, she moved through the guard to find Gabrielle kneeling on the ground, covered in blood. Cradled across her lap was Wolf, who was a deathly shade of pale.
Checking the demi-god's pulse, Xena cursed softly. She stood and swept the field with a hard gaze. Dead Greeks littered the plain; the Centaurs were still battling a handful of soldiers at the south end. Other Amazons were gathering up those that still lived. Seeing that things were now under control, she turned back to Gabrielle.
Kneeling beside the Queen, she wrapped an arm tight around her. "We need to get her off the field, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle, eyes swollen with unshed tears, shook her head in denial. "What about Melaethenes?"
Xena frowned as she thought of the Greek General. "He won't be leading any more troops in this lifetime." Reaching down, she brushed a lock of hair from Wolf's forehead. "Ephiny can manage the cleanup. Come on."
The exhaustion of the fight finally caught up to Gabrielle. Leaning back, she let Xena gather Wolf into her arms. The arrow shafts protruding from the demi-god's body was a stark reminder of treachery against the Nation. The fletching still bore the distinctive colors of the Elite Archers. Silently, she walked along side her Consort, who mounted Argo slowly. Together, they returned to the village with their fallen friend.
Ephiny watched the Queen and Consort melt back into the forest. For the first time since the battle ended, she felt the stinging on her abdomen. Looking down, she saw a thin scratch bleeding lightly down into her skirt. When she saw a pair of bloody legs come into her view, she looked up. "Are you hurt, Soli?"
"No," she replied shaking her head as she examined Ephiny's stomach. "Looks like Artemis was with you, love, it's only a scratch."
"Yeah, lucky me," the Regent replied as she watched the runners help the wounded Amazons form into a group. "Where'd all that come from?" she asked, pointing to Solari's legs.
The Advisor scowled, as she looked skyward. "Hera's curse."
It never failed. Ever since they had joined their first battle, Solari always began her cycle. Ephiny thought that by now, Solari would realize that and be prepared for the monthly flow. Any other time, Ephiny would have laughed at her lover's misfortune. Today, however, there was still too much work to be done.
"Well, if you aren't hurt, then, round up the first squad and have them guard the prisoners." Looking down at the whip still in her hand and the unconscious renegade attached to the other end, Ephiny resisted the urge to spit. "I'm going to need four warriors to escort Phelisya to the detention cell."
"What about the dead Greeks?"
Ephiny was about to order a funeral pyre to be built, but then changed her mind. "Ask the survivors if any of the dead are their kin. They can take them back home for their own rituals. Those that aren't claimed can be put to the pyre."
"What makes you think that they'll go home?" Solari asked as she studied the soldiers waiting on their knees, while a dozen armed Amazons stood vigilantly over them.
"Look at them, Soli," Ephiny said, "They aren't soldiers. They're conscripts and some of them are just boys. They shouldn't be fighting this war for the Greeks. If given the option to go back home or to die, which would you choose?"
Solari raised her brows as she scratched her chin.
"This is what Gabrielle would offer. She wouldn't kill a man that has been defeated."
"You're right," the Advisor agreed. "Why don't I gather the warriors for our little traitor here, so you're not left holding her leash when she wakes up?"
"Thanks, Soli," Ephiny whispered before stealing a kiss. "When you've done that, why don't you help the wounded back to Nagla and take care of yourself."
"It's not fatal, Eph."
"No, but I know that you hate when that happens. Now go." The Regent gave her lover no room for argument. She looked up when Arna approached on horseback. "Soli, wait."
"The field is clear except for the slags and the Spartans back at the Greek camp," Arna reported. "I've sent a few warriors into the forest to double back and check for any stragglers. The rest of us can carry the wounded back to the village."
Ephiny looked down at Phelisya. "Arna, would you mind taking this one first, straight to the detention cell?"
"She's the one that tried to have the Queen killed?"
The Regent nodded with a look of disgust. "If she wakes, feel free to put her back to sleep, but not permanently. Gabrielle will have to deal with this one after all."
"My pleasure," Arna replied darkly. With the help of a few warriors, the traitor was lifted to hang across Arna's lap like a sack of grain. With a salute to Ephiny, Arna led her warriors to the wounded.
"I think I have things here under control," Ephiny said as she turned back to Soli. "Why don't you go on back with them? I'll be back after we're all done here."
Solari nodded and leaned in for a kiss. "Try not to be too long. I'll be waiting for you."
Ephiny waiting until Solari was following the wounded before she made her way over to the captured Greeks. The guard in front of them stood aside as she approached. She stopped and frankly appraised them. "You are fortunate that the Amazon Nation has such a compassionate Queen," she began. "Another queen might have you all executed for your attack upon us. However, Queen Gabrielle understands that you probably weren't here of your own choice." At several nods, the Regent continued. "She has decided to show you mercy and has given leave for you to return to your homes. If there are any fallen kin that you wish to return for your burial rituals, you may do so. You will be allowed to use the carts in your camp to carry their bodies." The Regent narrowed her eyes as she looked grimly at the kneeling men. "If you are again found near these borders again with the intent to wage war upon the Amazon Nation, you will be executed upon sight. Are there any among you who do not agree to the Queen's terms?"
When no voices were raised, the Regent waved the guard aside. "You are free to return home," the Regent declared. "Kepra," she said, addressing the eldest of the guards, "Let them gather their dead. I'll send the runners to the camp for the carts. When they're ready to go, escort them off the plain."
Kepra saluted Ephiny. "Understood."
With that handled, Ephiny found the runners waiting on her. She gave them their orders; she took a deep breath, wishing things were already finished. She turned to find the Centaurs talking among themselves; they waited to see if they could help with anything.
"Paldores," she greeted when she made her way to him. She took his arm in a warrior's handshake. "The Nation thanks you for your assistance today."
Paldores bowed deeply. "It was an honor to fight alongside such beautiful warriors," he replied with a blinding smile.
Ephiny shook her head in disbelief. "When Phantes told me that his brother was a shameless flirt, I never realized how much he underestimated you." She grinned at the Centaur's booming laughter, and then turned serious. "You may send your injured to our healer, if you'd like."
The Centaur accepted the offer with a nod of gratitude. He turned to those with the more serious injuries and waved them off towards the Amazon village. "What about them?" he asked with a nod towards the small group being guarded back at the Greek camp.
Ephiny looked across the plain; the distance seemed exhausting as she felt her limbs dragging from the battle. She turned back to Paldores when the Centaur chuckled.
"Hop on," he offered, "I'll give you a ride over there."
When Ephiny eyed him warily, he held up his hands in his defense. "I promise I'll keep my hands to myself."
The Regent snorted in disbelief as she climbed onto the Centaur's back. "My mother warned me about accepting rides from Centaurs."
"Why's that?" Paldores asked as he began an easy canter to the Greek camp.
"Do I need to explain how Xenan came about?"
"Come to think of it, Phantes never did share the juicy details with me."
"You'll just have to keep wondering then," Ephiny replied.
The Centaur's laughter was carried upon the wind as he carried Ephiny to finish the Amazons' business. When they reached the camp, she dismounted and cautiously approached the remainder of the Greek army; she was aware of Paldores and the other Centaurs backing her.
Before she could address the camp followers and prisoners, though, Paldores' voice carried to her.
"Ephiny, we have company," he warned.
The Regent turned to see a half dozen riders advancing towards them under a banner of peace. "About damned time they showed."
Paldores smirked at the irony. "I've never known Spartans to be late for battle."
"Makes you wonder," Ephiny muttered. She waited until the horsemen stopped a prudent distance from them before boldly approaching them. "You're late, Kidian. The Amazons have already done all the dirty work."
General Kidian blushed in embarrassment. "It was not intentional, I assure you. We were delayed by a skirmish against Pelethenes."
Ephiny looked over her shoulder; her thoughts gathered rapidly, as she longed to return to the village. "You are, of course, welcomed to reclaim your comrades. The Queen has already offered the conscripts amnesty to return home. The camp followers were going to be granted the same unless you want them."
From atop his horse, Kidian studied the followers. "Let them go. The last cook I had tried to poison me and half my men have rotting parts thanks to the looseskirts. I don't need the added grief."
Ephiny bowed her head in understanding.
"I don't think the Greeks will be bothering you again," he remarked as he studied the rows of dead soldiers.
"One could only hope they were that smart," Ephiny replied with derision.
Kidian turned back to the Regent and smiled. "I'll gather my men and be out by sundown."
"That would be wise." Ephiny turned back to the camp followers and repeated the Queen's offer for freedom. She watched as they quickly gathered all that they could carry and as a small group, started north. It was not long before the conscripts followed with their carts loaded down with their dead.
"Will there be a victory celebration tonight?"
Ephiny, who had been watching the Greeks' progress, glanced at Paldores. "I don't know," she murmured. "Gabrielle may not feel like celebrating tonight." Turning to back in the direction of the village, the Regent wondered how Wolf was doing.
Xena ducked under the covering that was tied up over Nagla's door. She quickly found Gabrielle kneeling next to Wolf; the Queen was cradling the demi-god's hand in her own. Nagla had removed the arrows and Wolf's chest was covered in thick bandages. Xena could see that Wolf was barely breathing. In her heart, Xena knew that it would not be long before their friend passed over.
Carefully, Xena stepped around those who were quietly waiting for the healer to see to their injuries. Dropping to a knee next to Gabrielle, she reached out with her fingers to find Wolf's weak pulse. A lump rose into her throat when Gabrielle turned tear-swollen eyes to her. Immediately, the Consort's arms went around the Queen.
"She has to live, Xena. We just got her back. She can't leave us again."
Xena closed her eyes as she listened to Gabrielle's words hurry on in a hushed strain. She rocked her wife gently and attempted to soothe her. "Gabrielle," she said softly as she pulled away from the sobbing woman. "I know this is going to sound harsh, but we don't have time to grieve right now. There are still things that need to be taken care of."
"Ephiny will know what needs to be done," Gabrielle replied, reluctant to leave Wolf's side.
"She can't do it alone, Gabrielle. We're all tired and hurt from the battle, but we need to finish things before we move on."
Gabrielle shook her head before dropping it to rest her forehead against Wolf's limp hand. "I don't want to leave her alone."
"She won't be alone, sweetheart. Everyone here will look out for her." Xena turned Gabrielle's face to hers; she looked solemnly into her wife's eyes. "You are the Queen, Gabrielle, now is not the time to forget that. You have led the Nation into battle and we have won. But the battle doesn't end with the last enemy subdued." Xena nodded when Gabrielle stiffened in her arms. "You need to prepare for your judgment against Phelisya. The sooner that's over, the sooner we can move on."
Gabrielle looked down at her blood-encrusted leathers. She looked back at Wolf, who was lying pale and lifeless on the cot. "I think I'm going to be sick, Xena," she whispered urgently.
Gathering the Queen into her arms, Xena quickly escorted her out of the healer's hut. Ignoring the looks of the warriors that had gathered in the square, she led Gabrielle to their hut for the privacy her dignity required. Once inside, Gabrielle rushed to the corner to empty her stomach into the chamber pot. She sagged wearily when Xena came up behind her and gathered her blonde hair away from her face. Taking the waterskin that was offered to her, she took a long drink and rinsed out her mouth.
Finished, she remained sitting on the floor. She leaned against Xena for support. "I almost managed to be the warrior," she whispered.
Xena brushed her lips across Gabrielle's forehead. "You are a warrior, Gabrielle. You fought incredibly well today."
"Do warriors always get sick?"
The Warrior Princess nodded as she rubbed Gabrielle's back. "At first, they do. For some, it never goes away. For others, it only takes a few battles. Only the heartless can witness that much death and not be sickened the least by it." The darkness of a shadow danced across Xena's face. Forcing the old remorse back down into its cage, she rose to pull Gabrielle to her feet. "Do you want to get cleaned up?"
Numbly, Gabrielle nodded as she wiped the back of her hand across her mouth.
"Do you want me to help?"
Looking around the hut with blind eyes, the Queen shook her head. "No, I need to do this on my own." She reached out to stop Xena before the warrior could turn away. "Will you wait outside for me?"
"I'll be ready when you are," the Consort replied. Xena leaned in for a lingering kiss that she hoped conveyed her love and support to Gabrielle. Walking backwards, she kept her eyes locked with the Queen's until she stepped back out into the late afternoon sun. With a heavy sigh, she stood stoically outside the Queen's hut and waited; she masked her pain from the curious Amazons watching the Queen's hut.
When Xena stepped out of the hut, Gabrielle sat heavily upon the bed. She took a deep breath and held it; she tried to calm her rioting stomach. She was about to lower her head into her hands when she saw the blood. It was a crimson reminder of all that had happened that morning. She closed her eyes with the memory of seeing Estas' arrow racing towards her in slow motion.
Never before since returning to lead the Nation, had she ever tasted the acid of betrayal. Standing, she removed her leathers and moved over to the washbasin. She picked up the sponge and dipped it into the cool water. She attempted to wash the blood from her body. She remembered her own injury when the slight roughness of the sponge scraped across it.
Gentling her scrubbing, she carefully cleaned the small gash on her arm. Once all the dried blood was washed away, she took a better look at it. The wound had started to bleed again and she knew that she would have to treat it.
Her thoughts returned to Phelisya as she finished cleaning herself. Dropping the sponge into the basin, her eyes became unfocused as she stared at the tainted water. She began to tremble when she realized that most of it had been Wolf's. When her stomach began to churn again, she squeezed her eyes closed. She began whispering a mantra of meditation to calm her nerves.
With her resolve intact, she took her ceremonial leathers from the trunk at the bottom of the bed and began to dress. She wandered over to a polished looking glass while she brushed her hair into order; she noticed the strain around her eyes and mouth. She set her jaw determinedly. The more time she took to get ready, the more confident she felt about her immediate duty.
Squaring her shoulders, she approached her small, personal altar to Artemis. She reached above the altar and removed her mask from the wall. She placed it upon the top of her head before reaching for her ceremonial dagger. She turned the ornate weapon in her hands, watching how the light danced across the sharp blade. Finding the sheath for the dagger, she tied it to her belt and strapped it around her thigh. When she finally slid the blade slowly into its sheath, she was once more in command of her emotions. With a prayer to Artemis, she pulled the mask down over her face.
Sensing that Gabrielle was about to step out from behind the door covering of their hut, Xena stood aside. She hid her bittersweet pride for Gabrielle as she followed the masked Queen.
When they reached the center of the square, Gabrielle stood regally and addressed the gathered warriors. "The Nation has proven itself today," the Queen said, her practiced stage voice reaching to the back of the crowd. "We faced a challenge bravely and we fought honorably. There was one once among us, however, who forgot the Amazon code of honor. She became a traitor to her people, her Nation, and her Queen. For that offense, she will be punished." The Queen's eyes swept the crowd as her made her decision clear. "Bring Phelisya to me."
Whispers broke out among the Amazons as the cell guards delivered the renegade Amazon to the Queen. When Phelisya refused to kneel, one of the guards swept the back of her knees and she fell jarringly to the dirt.
Gabrielle studied Phelisya for a moment before speaking. "There is no doubt that you have proven yourself a traitor to the Amazon Nation. Phelisya of Amazonia, daughter of Aesphaedra, as Queen of the Amazon Nation, I hereby decree that for your actions, you will be punished according to law.
As Gabrielle reached for her dagger, she was unaffected by the spit that landed on her bare abdomen. She ignored it and instead, wrapped her hand around the hilt of her dagger. Removing it from its sheath, she kept her eye on Phelisya, who began to struggle against the guards. The Queen raised the knife in front of her eyes then raised it over her head. "Let it be known that a path of treachery leads to death."
Just as Gabrielle was about to drive the
dagger into a death plunge, her attention was abruptly distracted. Every Amazon
turned in confusion when a scream rang out from the Healer's hut
To be continued in The Way of Destiny
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