An Awakening Part 4 by Hunter Ash

Amazon Queen on Trial

Part 4 of the Awakening Saga

Storyline: Gabrielle, Xena and family travel to the Black Forest Amazons to face the consequences from their trip to Egypt. The price could be high for an Amazon Queen who fails a blood oath with a Goddess pissed off as well.

 

 

 

Xena stepped out of the cabin and onto the porch. Hercules glanced back over his shoulder as he leaned against a post and smiled at his half-sister and housemate. Both of them looked out into the yard to watch Gabrielle tossing a ball back and forth to Asher in the green grass.

The warrior bard looked relaxed and peaceful as she played with their son, but Xena knew her wife was worried.

“Is she talking about it?” Hercules asked, as if reading Xena’s mind.

“No, ever since we got word four days ago about the Amazon All-Thing, she’s been quiet,” Xena commented.

“All-Thing. I see the Black Forest Amazons are adapting to the north,” Hercules muttered.

“Yup, an All-Thing,” Xena nodded. “It is a gathering of all the tribes and clans to decide major matters concerning the nation. I can’t believe they’re using this to put Gabrielle on trial.”

“I still can’t believe they’re willing to do this,” Hercules growled. “After all you’ve both done for them! She went to a cross for them!”

Xena closed her eyes as memories flashed across her mind of Gabrielle’s body being nailed to a t-bar cross in an exchange for her Amazons. Gabrielle died for her Amazons that day and in the end her tribe had still been attacked and almost wiped out by the Romans.

“I know, and the struggles to help them survive,” Xena muttered. “She has food and supplies sent to them every fall.”

“How can they even consider this?” he demanded, trying to keep his voice low.

“Artemis is pushing them into it, I think,” Xena said, leaning against him.

“Want me to talk to Dad?” he asked softly.

“No, he declared that the gods can’t mix in our affairs,” Xena reminded him. “I think Artemis is getting around that by dealing through the Amazons.”

Hercules frowned, obviously unhappy with the situation.

Gabrielle looked up and tried to smile at Xena and Hercules. The bard knew they were worried about her; so was she.

Xena walked down the steps to join her mate and son. Asher grinned and tossed the ball to his tall mom. The warrior mom laughed when she caught it and then hid it behind her back for a moment. He continued giggling when she tossed the ball back to him. Xena grinned at Asher and then sat down next to Gabrielle in the grass. The bard leaned her head on Xena’s shoulder.

“When do we leave?” Gabrielle asked softly as Asher amused himself with the ball, trying to balance it on a pinecone.

“I still say we don’t have to leave,” Xena growled.

“Xena, I’m the Queen of the Black Forest Amazons,” Gabrielle reminded the warrior unnecessarily. “If I don’t go, they’ll declare me guilty of treason and send out assassins.”

“We can handle assassins,” Xena grumbled.

“Our own family? My own sisters?” Gabrielle asked softly.

“No one touches you, damnit!” Xena grumbled. “I won’t let them hurt you.”

“I know, my love,” Gabrielle said wearily. “I didn’t know the risks when I accepted the caste that day but I knew them when I became Queen and fought Velasca to keep it.”

“It’s not right that they’re even doing this!” Xena protested.

“I know. We both know that Artemis is behind it,” Gabrielle said easily. “She’s still upset at me because I didn’t kill Antony.”

“What pisses me off is that she’s not mad because of the blood oath we both swore but because she couldn’t get to Cleo with Antony around,” Xena complained.

“Well, you and I know that’s the reason,” Gabrielle managed to smile slightly. “I’m not sure the Amazons will believe that their patron deity lost it for a human and became petty and jealous.”

“I don’t want you doing this, Gabrielle,” Xena growled.

“I know and I don’t particularly want to face a trial either but I’m going,” the bard said firmly. “You can stay here with Asher….”

“Don’t be ridiculous and don’t finish that sentence!” Xena warned. “I’m your Champion and your Chosen, they face both of us.”

“Then let’s get it over with,” Gabrielle said, ending the conversation.

Later that evening the housemates and child sat around the table after dinner. Iolaus was heating water to give Asher a bath, since the young child had decided that dinner was better suited as a clothing decoration rather than as food.

Gabrielle laughed as she wrestled the boy to the fur in front of the fireplace, both trying for tickle holds.

Iolaus grinned and grabbed Asher up as Hercules poured the water into a basin for Asher’s bath. Xena smiled and joined Gabrielle on the furs.

“Hey, Little One,” the warrior said softly, smiling gently as Gabrielle’s face softened. The bard welcomed Xena’s lips as the warrior wrapped her arms around Gabrielle.

After a few moments of gentle kisses, Gabrielle curled up in Xena’s arms by the fire.

“I remember you promising me something about my body and this fireplace,” Gabrielle teased.

“I remember, when everything went wrong with Antony and Cleo,” Xena whispered.

“Xena,” Gabrielle’s expression changed and Xena placed a finger on her bard’s lips.

“No, serious discussions. Tomorrow, not tonight,” Xena growled. “Asher is spending the night in Herc and Iolaus’ room; we’ve got the night to ourselves.”

Gabrielle smiled gently and pulled Xena down on top of her as she heard Hercules and Iolaus going down the hall with Asher.

Gabrielle grinned mischievously and surprised Xena by flipping the warrior over and ending up on top. The bard’s hands and lips became quickly insistent as they roamed over what skin she could find. Gabrielle began working at the laces of Xena’s tunic as Xena moaned and pulled Gabrielle’s vest off.

Xena brought a knee up between Gabrielle’s legs, adding some pressure to her mate’s sex, and easing the arousal tension she knew her bard was feeling. Gabrielle moaned and attacked Xena’s mouth with her lips, asking and receiving a welcome to match tongue for tongue with Xena.

The kiss was only broken by the need to breathe as Gabrielle laid her forehead on Xena’s shoulder.

“Gods, Xena,” she muttered, breathing heavily. “Even after all these years, just touching you drives me insane, in moments.”

“I’ll second that,” Xena whispered, pulling at Gabrielle’s belt impatiently. “I want to take all night with you, Gabrielle. To be gentle and explore all of your body with my tongue and fingers, to slowly taste all of you and feel you squirming under me.”

Gabrielle closed her eyes and moaned, her hands tightening unconsciously in Xena’s hair and the fur under them.

“But right now, I want you!” Xena growled, becoming forceful.

“Yes!” Gabrielle agreed, pulling Xena’s tunic off over the warrior’s head.

The rest of the clothes were shed without any particular order except what was close at hand.

Gabrielle found herself sitting in Xena’s lap, facing the warrior, as they continued kissing passionately. The bard gasped when she felt Xena’s finger trailing down from her breasts and past her stomach, ending between Gabrielle’s legs. Xena moaned at how wet her mate was for her and bent her head slightly to take one of Gabrielle’s nipples into her mouth.

“Oh gods,” Gabrielle moaned, placing her hands on Xena’s shoulders for support as her warrior entered her with two fingers, only to pull out and tease the bard’s clit lightly and then enter her again. “Xena!”

“Yes, lover?” Xena whispered, her voice husky with the warrior’s own arousal.

“Oh gods,” the bard muttered again as Xena’s lips moved to her other breast and a hand switched to the other breast. Yes, the warrior had many skills and that included using both hands almost equally well.

Gabrielle moaned and bit her lip as Xena’s attention to her breasts and sexual lips became a blur and the bard could no longer tell which hand was where until Xena lightly nipped a breast and then the nipple. Gabrielle felt her body jerk in response and cried out as Xena entered her again with three fingers at the same time.

“Xena!” Gabrielle cried as her body tried to match the rhythm her warrior was beginning to set with her fingers. The bard pulled Xena’s head up for an almost desperate kiss, joining them together. Then Gabrielle had to break the kiss to cry out again from the sensations. She gripped Xena’s shoulders as her head snapped back from the sheer force of her orgasm.

Xena increased her thrusts into her bard and added her thumb to caress Gabrielle’s clit. The bard bit her lip to keep from screaming. Xena, her eyelids heavy, adored the sight of her mate in the throes of passion. The warrior still couldn’t believe after all their years together that she was able to bring that look to Gabrielle’s face and body.

Xena felt Gabrielle’s muscles contracting as she almost bucked off Xena’s lap. The warrior gave up teasing Gabrielle’s breasts with one hand and wrapped the arm around her mate, holding Gabrielle in her lap. Xena bent her head slightly and bit Gabrielle’s nipple as she thrust, feeling Gabrielle’s body stiffen and shake with orgasm.

Xena smiled as Gabrielle collapsed against her shoulder, letting the bard regain her energy. The warrior planned for a long night with her mate.

Suddenly a long wail brought both mother’s heads up. Xena chuckled softly as Gabrielle sighed.

“Sounds like someone doesn’t want to go to bed,” Xena commented.

“That makes one of us in the house,” Gabrielle muttered, nuzzling Xena’s neck.

“Herc’s been a dad, he’ll handle Asher,” Xena added, biting down on Gabrielle’s neck in response.

Another long wail of frustration was as effective as throwing ice in the middle of the two women.

“Who goes this time?” Gabrielle muttered, reaching for her tunic.

“You’re on top, but I’ll go,” Xena teased as they tried to disengage themselves from each other. Gabrielle smiled and leaned over Xena for another long kiss.

“Were you ever this difficult?” Gabrielle grinned as Xena reached for her trousers.

“Oh yeah,” Xena nodded. “Mom says I never wanted to sleep, it was always a battle with me. Lycius was different, he wanted to get to sleep to get it over with.”

“Hurry back,” Gabrielle urged.

The bard was dozing when Xena finally returned and curled up on the furs next to her mate. The warrior smiled as she watched Gabrielle sleeping. Asher was much like both his mothers, Xena reflected. He was better coordinated than most children his age and had Gabrielle’s unrelenting curiosity. Added on top of that was blue green eyes and hair color that couldn’t decide between blonde and dark brown from season to season.

The shock of blonde hair he had been born with was slowly giving way to a deep dark brown but it was too early to tell which parent he was going to take after in height.

Xena thought Asher looked very much like Gabrielle when he was sleeping and would have been surprised to find that Gabrielle thought the same thing about Asher and Xena.

Gabrielle smiled at Xena’s expression as the warrior gently stroked the bard’s cheek.

“I love you too,” she mumbled. “How’s Asher?”

“Teething,” Xena announced. “Another tooth is trying to come through.”

“Add that to his attempting to walk and the bruises on the outside,” Gabrielle smiled.

“Well, he has been moving along holding onto things rather well,” Xena said proudly.

“Yeah, as long as the object wasn’t trying to move as well, like Saminus,” Gabrielle giggled.

The four parents had tried not to laugh at Asher over that one but finally failed. Asher had thought grabbing the large herding dog, Saminus, by the tail was the perfect solution for the awkward time between crawling and learning to stand up and walk. Unfortunately, Saminus hadn’t thought it was the perfect solution and had first tried to get away from Asher.

Uncommon in toddlers, Asher had a pretty good grip. The young boy ended up getting dragged around the table as both dog and child howled. It wasn’t a candle-mark later when Asher tried it again, trying to sneak up on the dog and grabbing two handfuls of fur at Saminus’ neck. The dog, having learned the first time, simply laid down and refused to move, no matter how hard Asher tried to push or urge the dog into moving.

Xena laughed and pulled Gabrielle into her arms.

“He’s going to be walking very soon, he’s already standing on his own when we’re not looking,” she predicted.

“I’m not leaving him behind, Xena,” Gabrielle said softly and firmly.

“I know, I couldn’t do that again,” Xena agreed. “That whole mess with Antony and Cleo was a major mistake. Why in Tartarus do we keep making them lately?”

“Maybe we’re on the wrong path?” Gabrielle suggested.

“What do you mean? We’ve been going along as usual, saving the world, the Amazons and anyone else along the way,” Xena asked.

“Maybe that’s the problem,” Gabrielle mumbled. “Maybe we’re supposed to be parents for awhile and leave the world-saving to the next generation and warriors like Hallvor.”

Xena frowned as Gabrielle drifted into sleep again.

Xena barely got her body curled protectively around Gabrielle and her own stomach protected the next morning when a shout from Asher warned her of his approach.

Gabrielle giggled along with their son as he clambered over them, encouraging them to wake up and pay attention to him. Xena glanced up and saw Hercules and Iolaus smiling at them as the two headed to bank up the fire and start breakfast.

“Good morning,” Herc greeted.

“Hey, Herc,” Gabrielle smiled. Even with the upcoming drama, being with Asher could always make her smile. “Hey, Ash, want some milk?”

Suddenly the boy’s mood changed as fast as lightning and he frowned at his moms. “No!” he said firmly and crossed his arms in defiance. “Ale.”

“Ale?” Xena questioned, “Where in Tartarus did he pick that up?”

“Iolaus is getting ready to keg his winter mead and has been talking about brewing a batch of ale as soon as the weather is warmer,” Gabrielle explained.

“Well, kiddo,” Xena grinned at her stubborn son, “Ale is for adults and idiots. Moms and little boys get milk for breakfast.”

“No!” Asher snapped.

“Terrific, his favorite word lately,” Xena muttered.

“And he can say it in Latin, Greek, German and Finnish,” Gabrielle grinned.

“I’m surprised you haven’t thrown the three Celtic dialects in there,” Xena complained.

Gabrielle laughed and pulled Asher into her arms as she got to her feet. The boy’s mood softened as magically as it had changed and he was laughing, playing with her necklace.

“What do you want to wear today?” she was asking as they disappeared down the hall.

Xena noticed Hercules and Iolaus smiling as they set about the morning chores.

“I’ll go for firewood,” she offered and grabbed her boots by the door. “Gotta feed the livestock too.”

“I’ll join you,” Hercules offered and reached for his coat, already having put his boots on.

The two half-siblings made quick work of the morning duties of feeding the livestock, drawing water from the well and gathering an armload of firewood into Hercules’ arms.

Another two trips and enough firewood was stacking up inside for a couple of days worth of cooking and keeping the small cabin warm.

Xena stood on the porch and looked around at their land as Hercules dropped the last armload of wood and began stacking the wood next to the door.

“You’re not leaving Asher behind this time, are you?” he asked easily.

“No,” Xena said. “I don’t know how we could have taken him with us to Egypt but leaving him behind was a mistake. I know Gabrielle never said anything and neither did I but it drove us both absolutely crazy to be away from him.”

“Well that whole trip was a mistake,” Hercules agreed.

“I know and we’re still paying for it,” Xena complained, rubbing her hands over her arms. It was barely spring in the north and snow still dotted the shadowed places around their land and there were ice chunks in the river at night.

“An All-Thing is usually held in high summer, why are the Amazons rushing this?” Hercules asked.

“I think they’re trying to keep the numbers from the north down,” Xena ventured. “The Black Forest Amazons know that Gabrielle and I are especially well thought of up there. I just wish this wasn’t happening.”

“I know,” Hercules said softly, walking up behind Xena and placing his hands on her shoulder, letting her relax against him, letting some of the tension fade. “Iolaus and I are going with you.”

“No men on Amazon land, remember?”

“We were accepted as your Kumbadas, best males and god-parents to your children,” Hercules reminded her. “We are family and I am the son of a Greek God, they will hear us on this.”

Xena grinned at his stubborn tone and merely nodded.

“You know the Amazons better than I do,” he continued. “Why are they doing this and what could happen?”

“Let’s continue this inside, okay?” Xena suggested.

Once in the cabin, Xena and Hercules found Iolaus setting the morning food on the table and Gabrielle convincing Asher to hand over his latest find, a mouse that he had lured out of a corner with breadcrumbs and was now holding by the tail.

Xena and Hercules bit their lips to keep from laughing as Gabrielle debated with a toddler that was 15 months old.

Gabrielle finally won the round by offering Asher one of his favorite toys in trade for the mouse and Xena and Hercules were finally able to laugh aloud.

“Careful, warrior,” Gabrielle growled as she headed to the door with the mouse. “I’ll slip this into your nightshift.”

Xena could only laugh harder.

After breakfast the adults gathered around the table once the dishes were cleared and Asher was amusing himself by the fireplace with a piece of charcoal and a flat piece of flagstone.

“Hercules was asking me several questions,” Xena began the serious conversation. “One, he asked whether we were leaving Asher behind this time and I told him we weren’t.”

“Nope, not this time,” Gabrielle agreed.

“Second, why are the Amazons doing this?” Xena said, throwing it out there for her mate.

“When Brutus and Marc Antony attacked the Black Forest Amazons and slaughtered them, Xena and I swore a blood oath of vengeance,” Gabrielle reminded the two men.

“I remember, we found them after the attack,” Hercules said softly.

“Eponi came after me a few years later, blaming me for the attack,” Gabrielle continued. “Brutus told her that I betrayed the Amazons to save Xena from the Romans. We settled that and I told her of the blood oath against Brutus and Antony.”

“The Amazons know that we settled with Brutus and that I was there when he died a violent death,” Xena continued for her mate. “They’ve been waiting for us to move against Antony. Pony was driven nearly insane after the attack and I’m not sure ever totally recovered. She watched Ephiny, Solari and the others tortured and crucified and hid under the bodies of her sisters to escape detection.”

“Oh Gods,” Iolaus muttered, glancing over to make sure Asher was still amused and not listening closely.

“You know the rest,” Gabrielle said calmly. “Artemis showed up and demanded we take care of Antony once and for all and zapped us to Egypt to do it.”

“What went wrong in Egypt?” Iolaus asked.

“What went right?” Xena countered bitterly. “We were in an impossible situation. We liked Cleopatra and didn’t want to hurt her and we were supposed to arrange for Antony’s death at the same time. Gabrielle and I observed things and determined that Octavian is the best choice for the Empire and Antony would be a disaster.”

“We still couldn’t kill him without killing Cleopatra,” Gabrielle added. “She loves him so much that she won’t live without him.”

“So you walked away,” Hercules guessed.

“Not quite,” Xena growled, her face darkening. “Gabrielle tried to get us out of there and told Artemis that we couldn’t do it. Artemis attacked Gabrielle and almost killed her.”

“Oh gods,” Iolaus muttered.

“We got Gabrielle out of there with the plans for the upcoming battle at Actium,” Xena continued. “She went to Octavian and I stayed with Antony and Cleo. I convinced Cleo that Antony wasn’t loyal to her and she turned against him during the battle, ensuring Octavian’s eventual victory.”

“Then she went and took Antony back!” Gabrielle complained. “I sent word to the Black Forest Amazons that I would return in spring and renounce my rank of Queen to the tribe. You know the rest.”

“They sent word back that it wouldn’t be enough to renounce your position,” Hercules grumbled.

“Exactly,” Gabrielle nodded. “We’re pretty sure that Artemis has told them her own version of what happened and turned them against me.”

Hercules and Iolaus frowned as they held hands across the table. Iolaus nodded to his mate.

“We’re going with you,” Hercules announced. “We were recognized by your tribe as your Kumbada and your family. They have to at least give us a say in this.”

Gabrielle frowned as she thought about it.

“What about the farm?” she asked.

“Ketli is due back any day now from gathering the wild sheep and cattle with the clan and the ships don’t plan on sailing for another two moons,” Iolaus explained. “He’ll watch the place with a couple of his cousins from Eddval’s clan.”

“I don’t know if they’ll let you in but I’d like you there,” the bard admitted and tried to smile.

“Okay, another question Hercules asked was what can we expect?” Xena continued. “It’ll probably be a combination of a traditional northern All-Thing and Amazon law, I’m guessing.”

Gabrielle nodded, “They have been trying to adapt the northern with their own Greek Amazon heritage. I did a lot of reading when I took over the Queen title and have an idea of what to expect. I’m not sure what mix of Viking they might throw in though.”

The bard hesitated as she gathered her thoughts.

“When we hit Amazon land, I’ll probably be arrested,” Gabrielle reached across the table and grabbed Xena’s hands when the warrior growled her displeasure at that thought. “I’m facing charges of treason, Xena. They’ll likely take my weapons and may even shackle me.”

Hercules and Iolaus were looking unhappy and weren’t surprised that Xena’s blue eyes were flashing with intense anger at the thought of Gabrielle’s own Amazons doing that to her.

“They may or may not let Hercules and Iolaus follow us onto Amazon land and they might demand Xena’s weapons as well,” Gabrielle continued, glancing over to find Asher putting his charcoal down and looking around, his blue-green eyes eagerly seeking new entertainment.

Iolaus jumped up and quickly gathered the boy into his arm, swinging Asher around playfully as the toddler laughed hysterically in delight. Both Moms watched for a moment as Iolaus sat Asher down and they began to rummage through the boy’s toy box for the next item of the day.

“They’ll call a gathering of the Queens or Representatives from all the tribes of the Nation,” Gabrielle continued. “Then they’ll hear evidence and pleas and announce their decision – usually after a day or more of debating. Then we’ll know.”

“What could their decision be?” Hercules asked.

“Well, I’m hoping for acquittal,” Gabrielle quipped and caught Xena’s smirk at Gabrielle’s attempt at lightening the mood. “Actually, I expect to be found guilty since I did fail to kill Antony and failed my blood oath to the memory of my Amazon sisters.”

“Oh gods,” Hercules said, rubbing his hand over his face and beard. “Vengeance never gets us anywhere.”

“That’s something I’m not sure mankind will ever figure out,” Xena commented.

“What could be the punishments?” Hercules asked, knowing that Iolaus was listening closely as he played with the boy.

“Uh, well,” Gabrielle hesitated and heard Xena growling in growing concern. “Death is most likely for breaking such an oath, especially for a Queen,” she said softly.

“Only through me!” Xena promised angrily.

Gabrielle squeezed Xena’s hands. “I know, my love, I know. They’ll be expecting that as my Champion and Consort.”

“How?” Hercules pressed the question.

“Some punishments include: maiming, banishment from the parent tribe, blinding, banishment with no contact with any other Amazon,” Gabrielle explained, almost reciting from memory from the ancient scrolls. “I would be a non-person to all Amazons.”

Xena flinched as Gabrielle’s eyes filled with tears. The warrior knew that Gabrielle had no idea what she was doing the day the bard accepted the “right of caste” from a dying Amazon Princess and Xena had figured it had just been an adventure to Gabrielle. The bard had surprised her though, by accepting the Amazon way of life and all it encompassed and it had gone beyond “playing” at being an Amazon. Somewhere along the line, Gabrielle had become a true Amazon and Queen.

Xena knew that she could live with having Amazons ignore her and refusing to talk or deal with her but the warrior also knew that it would be very painful for Gabrielle. Then Xena thought about it further; could she live knowing that Yakut, Otere and the others of the Northern Amazons couldn’t talk to them either? Xena wasn’t amused with that thought.

“A death sentence could be several ways: poison, shot by arrows, stoned to death, running a gauntlet, being sacrificed on an altar to Artemis or even a blood hunt,” Gabrielle finished.

“Blood hunt?” Hercules questioned.

“A pack of hunters is chosen and the hunted is given a dagger and one candle-mark head start,” Gabrielle explained. “Sometimes the rules are if the hunted gets off Amazon land then they’re declared safe and banished. No one’s ever made it off Amazon land during a hunt.”

“Gabrielle, as your Champion, how much of a role do I get in this?” Xena demanded. “You know there’s no one on earth who could best me in a hunt.”

“I know, my love,” Gabrielle tried to smile. “I doubt even 50 Amazon hunters could take you down. I truly don’t know. Unlike a Challenge, you can’t stand for me in punishment. Whatever they decide, that’s what I have to face.”

“What about challenging Eponi to Queenship?” Xena asked.

“I’m already the Queen and under trial,” Gabrielle muttered. “You can’t challenge her because you’re not an Amazon, not even as my Champion.”

“They are not going to kill you!” Xena repeated.

“We’ll figure a way out of it,” Gabrielle said, trying to reassure her mate and best friends.

Xena continued to look very unhappy.

Traveling with Asher proved to more of a challenge than Gabrielle had faced before. Xena had a little more hands on experience with Sasha but even the warrior admitted that Asher was a handful.

Between his mood swings, curious pointing at everything, and demanding to stay with his normal schedule of feeding and naps, just a few days on the road with the small boy had worn out the family.

The other side of the coin was watching his face light up with delight at new animals coming into sight, new noises sounding in the forests, and as he watched the river rolling by them with fascination. Both Gabrielle and Xena were grateful that he didn’t seem to be afraid of anything: loud noises, the dark, animals; nothing seemed to faze the boy. On the other hand, they were always on guard with him. Having no real sense of fear, they knew he could get in over his head faster than one of Zeus’ lightning bolts.

Xena woke up on the fourth night to find Asher asleep next to her but the spot beyond that empty. She looked around and found Gabrielle sitting by the fire, staring at the flames. The warrior wrapped the furs around Asher and wrapped one around her shoulders as she got up and sat down next to her mate.

“Can’t sleep?”

“No, tomorrow we hit Amazon land,” Gabrielle answered.

“I know,” Xena acknowledged her mate’s nervousness.

“Gabrielle, no matter what happens, we are leaving here to raise our son and spend as much time with Sasha as we can,” Xena promised. “Even if we have to travel all the way to Chin, I am not going to let them harm you.”

“Xena, you know that we may not have a choice,” Gabrielle said wearily. “I accepted all aspects of being an Amazon, even the bad stuff and the responsibilities.”

“I didn’t agree to you being killed, especially not for being unable to kill,” Xena growled.

“I know,” Gabrielle smiled, leaning into Xena’s shoulder.

Xena let Gabrielle take the lead as they got closer to Amazon land and the small group slowed to walking their horses.

Gabrielle stopped her horse and dismounted. She glanced back at Xena for a moment and then moved forward slowly, crossing the invisible marker and raising her hands in the sign of peace among the Amazons. Xena kept one arm wrapped around Asher as she moved her horse forward; raising her hand as well. Hercules and Iolaus, followed their examples.

Almost instantly the area was filled with Amazon guards and scouts, all with weapons drawn.

An Amazon dropped out of the trees, using a rope and slowly walked up to Gabrielle and stood looking at the Queen through a leather and fur mask.

“Eponi,” Gabrielle said calmly, recognizing the Amazon, despite the mask.

Eponi removed the mask and stared at the smaller Amazon. Without warning she backhanded Gabrielle with a short Amazon club, sending the bard flying back into Iolaus’ arm.

Hercules grabbed Xena by the upper arms as the warrior growled.

Gabrielle shook her head as Iolaus helped the bard stand up.

“Gabrielle of the Black Forest Amazons, you are charged with treason,” Eponi said formally.

“She is the Queen of the Black Forest Amazons,” Xena growled, “You’ll treat her with respect until she’s convicted of anything!”

Eponi snarled and raised her club but one of the other Amazons stepped forward and whispered in Pony’s ear. The Regent finally nodded and stepped back.

Gabrielle shook her head again and pulled her sword out slowly and laid it at her feet. She then pulled her sais out and handed them to Hercules and stepped forward to face Pony again.

“What next?” she asked calmly, ignoring her bloody nose.

“Your Consort and Hallvor are right, you are still a Queen,” Eponi snarled. “I over-stepped my bounds. You, your Consort and child will be placed in the Queen’s hut. The males will be cleansed and allowed to enter later today. We expect all the Representatives or Queens from the other tribes to arrive by tomorrow.”

“Alright,” Gabrielle said calmly. “Do you require shackles or a guard?”

Pony’s eyes flashed with anger and she stepped forward a step. Gabrielle’s green eyes were just as hardened and challenging.

Hallvor placed a hand on the Regent’s shoulder, restraining her lover. After a moment Pony calmed down.

“You have come willingly and have surrendered your weapons without demand,” Pony said, again sounding formal. “I don’t think a guard will be necessary.”

“Thank you, Regent,” Gabrielle responded, intentionally using Eponi’s title and then shook her head, mentally scolding herself. “I’m sorry, Eponi. We’re all a little tense. There’s no need to physically or verbally be at each other’s throats.”

Pony frowned at Gabrielle’s attempt to defuse the situation.

“I’ll agree to be civil, Queen Gabrielle,” Eponi responded. “Understand that I am the one who brought the charges against you and demanded a trial.”

“I knew it was you,” Gabrielle nodded. “Doesn’t change anything with me, Pony.”

Eponi looked confused as she turned away from the small group.

Hallvor stepped forward. “Queen Gabrielle,” the Viking tried to smile. “I wish you had stayed home.”

Gabrielle smiled at her friend. “I couldn’t do that any more than you could.”

“I know,” Hallvor smiled and motioned the guards and scouts to keep an eye on Hercules and Iolaus. “Sorry, guys, but you know the rules concerning men.”

“We understand,” Iolaus nodded.

“Xena keeps my weapons,” Gabrielle said firmly.

“Of course, my Queen,” Hallvor nodded as Hercules handed Gabrielle’s sais over to Xena. “Asher? By the gods, he’s grown in the last four moons!”

Xena grinned as she and Gabrielle walked along with Hallvor. They both noticed the Viking limping more than usual.

“He has, he’s almost walking by himself and getting into everything,” Xena smiled.

“How is it going with Eponi and you?” Gabrielle asked the Viking Amazon.

“Not so good,” Hallvor admitted. “We’ve been fighting over this decision, so has all the tribe. Those who know you aren’t in favor of this, Gabrielle.”

“How many are?” Xena asked slowly.

“Enough to make it work,” Hallvor complained. “Pony and I haven’t seen eye to eye on this for weeks. I moved out and I’m staying in a single cabin with several sisters.”

“Hall, don’t let this tear you two apart,” Gabrielle pleaded with her Amazon sister.

“It’s not just that, we’re also having problems – in general,” Hallvor shrugged, attempting to dismiss it but Xena could tell by the Viking’s body language that her old friend was hurting; physically and emotionally.

They continued filling Hallvor in on what had happened over the winter at the farm, especially the exploits of the mighty Asher.

Xena was impressed with her bard as they walked into the Amazon village. Word had preceded them and everyone stopped what they were doing to watch the entrance of their accused Queen.

Gabrielle held her head up and didn’t let any emotion show as Hallvor escorted them to the Queen’s Hut.

It wasn’t until they were inside the wooden cabin that Gabrielle’s shoulders sagged and Xena sat Asher down and took Gabrielle into her arms.

“Oh gods, that was harder than I thought it would be,” Gabrielle whispered as Xena gently held and rocked her, comforting her mate.

Gabrielle noticed that out of respect, the Queen’s chair was left empty as she took her place at one table and Eponi stood at another as they both faced a row of tables of Queens and Representatives.

The Queen’s seat sat on a platform behind the row of the Queen’s Council.

Xena stood behind Gabrielle as her Champion and Consort. Hallvor stood just behind Eponi.

Gabrielle and Eponi sat down and listened as each Queen and Representatives were introduced, one by one. They numbered twenty in all, including Otere from the Northern Siberian Amazons. Xena spotted Yakut among the crowd and a couple of other Northern Amazons as well and nodded. Yakut wiggled her eyebrows and Xena resisted smiling, maintaining her serious poise as Champion.

Xena knew they wouldn’t get a chance to talk with Otere now that the trial had started but she hoped they would be able to see Yakut and the other friendly faces.

Hallvor stepped forward.

“Before you is Gabrielle, Queen of the Black Forest Amazons,” Hallvor said, addressing the Council. “She was the Queen of the mid-land Greek Amazons until they were attacked and taken prisoner by the Roman, Caesar. Gabrielle moved what remained of the tribe to the Black Forest. Again we were attacked by the Romans and what remains is what we have rebuilt. Queen Gabrielle swore a blood oath of personal vengeance against the two Romans responsible for the second attack, Brutus and Marc Antony. Queen Gabrielle is accused of failing to fulfill that oath when she had the chance and went against the expressed wishes of Artemis, our patron goddess.”

Xena rested a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder in support.

“Behind Queen Gabrielle is her Champion among the Amazons and in life, Xena,” Hallvor continued. “She is also the Queen’s Consort and accepted as an Amazon in that regard.”

Hallvor pointed towards Eponi. “This is Regent Eponi of the Black Forest Amazons, chosen by Gabrielle as Regent and acting Queen while Gabrielle is away. I am Hallvor, mate to Eponi and Law Speaker for the tribe.”

“Law Speaker?” Xena whispered and Gabrielle shrugged. The Viking continued to surprise them every time they saw her.

“Who brings these charges against your Queen?” one of the Council asked, a woman with fiery red hair and Celtic knotwork of silver adorning her leathers.

“I do,” Eponi said firmly, standing up. “Of my own desires and of the wishes of our patron Goddess, Artemis.”

Gabrielle resisted the urge to jump out of her chair or squeak as a flash of light blinded everyone. A moment later Artemis was standing next to Eponi and the Regent didn’t appear surprised to see the goddess, even if Hallvor fell backwards, landing hard on her rump.

The spectators erupted in shouts, confusion and mumblings. The Council muttered among themselves, as well.

Otere, having met Artemis before, stood up and bowed her head respectfully but Xena noted that the Northern Amazon wasn’t smiling at the sight of the goddess.

“Quiet!” Otere shouted in the agreed upon Germanic. “This is Artemis, known among the Romans as Diana, Goddess of the Hunt and of the Amazons of the south.”

“Not among the Northern or others?” Artemis demanded, her eyes flashing with anger and amusement.

“I speak only for my tribe, you have visited us to help Gabrielle and Xena,” Otere responded slowly. “Gabrielle being your Chosen. Your Greek gods are weak outside of their worship. You are stronger than most but still weak. We have our gods and goddesses and they are strong in our lands.”

Artemis nodded, apparently satisfied with Otere’s answer.

“What do you wish with this Council?” another Queen asked, this one from the high Carpathian mountains.

“I wish to observe and to speak on this matter,” Artemis growled. “Gabrielle was my Chosen for many years and she has betrayed me and the Amazon Nation.”

“I wasn’t aware we had heard the charges or heard Queen Gabrielle’s response,” Otere commented.

Artemis looked as if she was about to lash out at the Northern Queen but nodded after a moment.

“I wish to observe and be heard on this matter,” Artemis amended her statement.

Otere glanced at the other Council members and they nodded.

“You may,” Otere said for the Council and motioned for Artemis to take a seat. The goddess was angered but sat down without a word.

Gabrielle was suddenly very tired and felt Xena squeeze her shoulder again. The bard tried to use the shields she had learned during her spirit travels to block the energy raging around her. The tension was so thick it was almost choking her. Her empathetic abilities were driving her crazy and Gabrielle knew it was just beginning.

“The charges?” the Celtic Queen, Meryl asked.

“Failure to fulfill a blood oath of vengeance for her tribe,” Eponi began. “Disobeying the direct wishes of the Patron Goddess of the Amazons.”

“That’s rather vague,” one of the Council complained. “What were your wishes, Goddess Artemis?”

The goddess stood and looked a little uncomfortable. “I demanded the death of the Roman Marc Antony and arranged to transport Gabrielle and Xena to Egypt to accomplish this.”

“How does that differ from Queen Gabrielle’s blood oath to kill Brutus and Marc Antony?” a Council member questioned.

Artemis glared at the Council for a moment. “I also specified that I wanted Cleopatra alive and that I didn’t care who won the civil war between Antony and Octavian.”

“Was Cleopatra left alive?” Meryl asked.

“Yes,” Artemis said softly.

“I request that the Council consider these charges before Queen Gabrielle replies,” Otere said and the Council nodded. “We will retire and discuss this, everyone stay seated.”

Gabrielle sighed heavily and leaned back into Xena’s arms, not daring to glance at Artemis.

“Oh gods, this is going to be harder than I thought,” she muttered as Xena knelt down beside her.

“We’ll be fine,” Xena said softly. “This is one of the reasons I never set out to conquer a kingdom when I was a warlord, I didn’t want to be a royal and sit through hours of stuff like this.”

“My Xena, has to have the word ‘warrior’ attached to a royal title,” Gabrielle managed a smile and gave a small wave to Yakut and the other Amazons she recognized. “Where’s Asher?”

“With Hercules and Iolaus,” Xena answered. “They won’t be allowed near the place unless called on to testify so they’re watching the tiny terror.”

“I’m worried, Xena,” Gabrielle admitted. “How do I answer the charges?”

“Truthfully, as always from you,” Xena smiled and stood up when they noticed the Council returning.

A Queen from the high mountains of Espanola remained standing as the rest of the Council sat.

“Our decision is thus,” she said in heavily accented Germanic. “Goddess Artemis’ wishes, as stated, were fulfilled and will not be addressed by the Council. In that her wishes were Marc Antony’s death and Cleopatra’s life, the only question is Queen Gabrielle’s failure to kill the Roman. In that Queen Gabrielle’s blood oath was against Antony, we declare Artemis’ wishes the same as the oath. We dismiss the charge of failure to obey the Amazon patron Goddess.”

Artemis was on her feet in an instant and her eyes literally blazed with anger.

Eponi was also on her feet, talking quickly to the Goddess as Xena stepped in front of Gabrielle protectively and instinctively.

“Goddess Artemis,” Meryl called loudly. “If you cannot accept our decision then you are invited to leave.”

“How dare you?” Artemis hissed. “I am a Goddess, mortal!”

“And we are Amazons of all tribes and countries,” Meryl responded. “You demanded your Regent call an All-Thing against her Queen and we are here. You will honor our way of doing things or leave. We do not recognize your authority over the Council.”

“Oh gods,” Gabrielle muttered, she knew Artemis was a heartbeat away from striking all of them.

“You are not the only goddess of Amazons, Greek,” the Spanish Amazon said calmly.

“Artemis, please!” Eponi begged and the goddess reluctantly sat down.

“Queen Gabrielle, the charge is that you failed as an Amazon to fulfill a blood oath of vengeance for the death of your Amazons tribe,” Meryl continued. “Did you take such an oath?”

Gabrielle took a deep breath and stood to face the Council.

“I took that oath,” she acknowledged.

“What was the oath?” Otere questioned.

“‘My tribe is dead but the Amazon spirit will never be killed,'” Gabrielle quoted, her eyes unfocusing with memory. “‘For Ephiny, Solari, all of them, Brutus and Marc Antony will pay.'”

The Council shifted uneasily.

“This was a blood oath of vengeance?” Revita, the Spanish Queen asked.

“If I may speak, I was there and I know my Consort’s mind when she made that oath,” Xena asked.

“Xena is not exactly known for her truthfulness when it comes to something she wants,” Artemis protested.

“My past is behind me,” Xena growled.

“Would you swear to Artemis that you speak the truth?” a Council member questioned.

“No,” Xena growled. “She has a personal grudge against my mate.”

“To Athena then, the Greek goddess of Truth and Wisdom,” Otere suggested and Xena nodded.

“Yes, I will swear to Athena of the Greeks and to Frigga of the North that I’ll speak the truth,” Xena agreed.

“What was Queen Gabrielle’s intent when she made that oath?” Meryl asked.

“Justice,” Xena answered easily. “She wanted revenge for the slaughter of her tribe, especially the way Ephiny, Solari and some of the others were tortured and crucified but most of all she wanted justice. I questioned her the next day on her intentions and Gabrielle admitted she wasn’t an assassin and couldn’t just hunt Brutus and Antony down and kill them. Hercules and Iolaus, our Kumbadas were there as well and heard both the oath and Gabrielle’s intentions.”

“Queen Gabrielle, did you wish the death of Brutus and Marc Antony?” Meryl pressed the question.

“Yes,” Gabrielle admitted. “I was crucified to save my Amazons and Brutus knew that type of death would drive me insane with grief. I wanted them dead because justice demanded it.”

“Did you have an opportunity to kill the Roman Brutus?” Otere asked.

“Yes, in a way,” Gabrielle answered. “We learned that he and Cassius were facing Octavian and Marc Antony in a civil war. Xena and I were watching the way things were developing, wanting both Antony and Brutus dead made it difficult to choose sides. Brutus, to gain favor with Ares, kidnapped our daughter and forced us to act against him.”

“Ares? What does your daughter have to do with Ares?” Revita demanded.

“She is the child of Xena and Ares, Greek God of War,” Hallvor explained. “She was adopted into the Northern Siberian Amazon tribe as Gabrielle’s daughter.”

“So Brutus died and Marc Antony lived,” Meryl encouraged Gabrielle to continue.

“Yes,” Xena continued the story. “We choose sides with Antony and Octavian. Gabrielle and I agreed that our daughter’s safe return was the first and only concern. If Antony or Brutus could be killed, that would be a bonus. I helped Antony and Octavian during the battle while Gabrielle saved Sasha from behind the lines.”

“And Brutus?” a Council member asked.

“He saw me coming at him and fell on his sword,” Xena said grimly. “I was holding and cursing him as he died.”

Gabrielle could feel the satisfied murmuring from the crowd behind her and several Council members were nodding with satisfaction as well.

“You left Antony alive,” one pointed out.

“Yes, I tricked him and his Generals into taking most of the brunt of the battle but Antony lived. We got away with Sasha before his assassins could kill us,” Xena explained. “The men he sent to kill us turned on him and let us slip away. We chose to protect our daughter before taking our revenge on Antony.”

“Antony tried to assassinate you?” Eponi demanded with a frown.

“Yes, just as I figured he would,” Xena smirked. “It was what the warlord Xena would have done. He knew Gabrielle was an Amazon and we wanted revenge for it but we pledged not to kill him in exchange for his help in getting Sasha back. We got Sasha back and Brutus was killed, Antony was happy and we were satisfied. He still tried to kill us.”

“So you passed up an opportunity to kill him but that is understandable,” Revita nodded. “I assume this isn’t the charge? Brutus died at Philippi ages ago.”

“No, this charge is more recent,” Eponi grumbled. “When I met up with Gabrielle again and demanded to know why she hadn’t avenged her Amazon tribe and hadn’t seen to its resurrection. Gabrielle said she had heard there were no survivors and had helped in bringing about Brutus’ death.”

“What was her explanation about not going after Antony?” a Council member asked.

“Gabrielle was sickened from poisoned grain,” Eponi informed them. “She became ill when trying to save a village from the poison. Xena told me that Antony was in Egypt most of the time and had married Cleopatra and it made moving against him difficult.”

“Xena?” Otere questioned.

“Cleopatra became a friend of ours and she married Antony,” Xena explained. “To destroy Antony, we’d have to destroy Cleopatra.”

“I know something of the politics,” one of the Council members said. “Antony has married Cleopatra, despite his marriage to Octavian’s sister. They have four children together and he adopted Caesarian, the son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. Antony has been at war with Octavian for years.”

“Eponi, explain your charge,” Otere demanded.

“Xena and Gabrielle were recently given the opportunity by Artemis to complete their blood oath and failed,” Eponi said firmly. “They not only failed to kill Antony but they refused.”

The crowd behind Xena and Gabrielle shifted uneasily.

“Goddess Artemis?” Revita motioned for the Goddess to stand.

“I offered to transport them immediately from their home in the north to Egypt where they could settle things once and for all with Antony,” Artemis said. “Once he was dead, I would transport them back to their home. They agreed and I took them to Egypt.”

“Artemis is forgetting that she was answering a plea from Cleopatra to aid in the battles against Octavian,” Xena growled. “That’s why Antony accepted our presence there; he knew Cleopatra had called on Artemis for help.”

“This is true? Cleopatra asked you to get Xena and Gabrielle to help against Octavian?” Otere demanded.

“Yes,” Artemis snarled.

“Within minutes of meeting with us, Antony demanded an oath that we wouldn’t try to kill him as long as we were guests of his and Cleopatra’s, tying our hands against fulfilling the blood oath,” Xena continued. “Gabrielle even admitted to him that she still wanted him dead. If we hadn’t sworn a truce he would have either thrown us overboard or killed us.”

“Artemis demanded that we kill Antony and leave Cleopatra alive and she didn’t care how we did it,” Gabrielle said bitterly. “She also didn’t care that Cleopatra is very much in love with Antony and won’t live without him.”

“May I suggest a break at this point?” Otere asked and the Council nodded. “Good, a candle-mark for the midday meal.”

Gabrielle slumped into Xena’s arms as Artemis zapped out of sight.

Hallvor and Eponi quickly began talking in heated whispers and angry gestures.

“Let’s get something to eat, all of this nonsense is draining,” Xena suggested as they turned to greet Yakut and many other Amazons.

“Queen Gabrielle, you and Xena were in Egypt to kill Antony,” Meryl recapped. “Please continue.”

“The more I talked with Cleopatra the more convinced I was that there was no way to kill or destroy Antony without taking Cleo down with him. I couldn’t kill him because of our truce and I discovered I couldn’t destroy him without killing Cleo,” Gabrielle continued. “She was our friend, a fellow Queen, a mother and a woman who loves her mate. To kill Antony under those conditions was impossible for me.”

The Council frowned.

“There are times when a Queen is called to kill for the good of the tribe, do you reject that?” one of the Council asked.

“No, but I never relished it and always tried to find another way,” Gabrielle responded softly.

“If I may speak on this?” a voice asked and everyone turned to see an aged Amazon walk forward between the benches of spectators.

“You are?” Otere asked.

“Byblos, former Law Speaker for the Southern Amazons under Queen Melosa, Queen Gabrielle and Regent Ephiny,” Byblos said.

“Speak, please,” a Council member urged.

“Queen Gabrielle was poisoned by the Roman delegates at her wedding to the Consort Xena and nearly died,” Byblos began. “It was more than a miracle that she lived. It was most painful, some of the worst torture that has ever been thrust upon an Amazon. One of the assassins was captured alive. For days before the trial Gabrielle argued with Ephiny and the Council about other alternatives to a possible death sentence for the Roman.”

“After nearly dying, she was willing to let him live?” a Council member asked.

“Yes,” Byblos nodded. “Gabrielle was dedicated to finding ways of peace rather than war and blood. When it came time for his judgment, the Queen agreed with the death penalty as was her duty and she witnessed the punishment – with her eyes closed and a heavy heart.”

“Queen Gabrielle, could you ever betray a friend, even for the good of the tribe?” Meryl questioned.

“No,” Gabrielle responded easily. “I asked Artemis to release us from the mission and she refused. I tried to explain that I couldn’t do this and live with myself. I couldn’t destroy a friend, even out of vengeance for Ephiny and the others. I wanted to go home to my newborn son.”

“What was Artemis’ response?” Otere asked.

“Is that relevant?” Eponi demanded, jumping to her feet. “The Council has already stated that Gabrielle’s disobedience isn’t at question here.”

“I’m curious,” Otere admitted. “Goddess Artemis agreed to help Queen Cleopatra by taking Xena and Gabrielle to Egypt and order Xena and Gabrielle to kill Antony, no matter what the costs. Is that correct?”

“Yes, your Highness,” Xena agreed, beginning to be hopeful that they might actually get out of this in one piece.

“So Artemis was willing to betray Cleopatra’s petition for help and to demand that Queen Gabrielle betray a friend just to kill Antony?” Otere pressed, ignoring Artemis’ dagger-throwing eyes.

“Yes, Queen Otere,” Xena nodded.

“To judge a Queen guilty of betraying a tribe,” Revita was frowning. “I want to know more about the Queen. Are there those here who would speak of Queen Gabrielle?”

Artemis suddenly shouted in anger as bright lights filled the area, sending everyone scrambling backwards.

“How dare you show up here?” Artemis shouted as Apollo, Aphrodite and Freya appeared in the center of the meeting space.

Apollo quickly held up his hands above his head in the sign of peace.

“High Council,” Xena quickly stepped forward. “This is the Greek god Apollo, God of the Sun, of Healing, and of the Arts. This is the Greek Goddess Aphrodite, Goddess of Love and Beauty. This is Freya, Northern Goddess of Love, Seidhr Magick and the Forest.”

“I apologize for my abrupt entrance and not properly petitioning for entrance on Amazon land,” Apollo said formerly. “I ask forgiveness from the High Council so that I may speak on behalf of my daughter.”

“Daughter?” Revita squeaked.

“She is my daughter,” Apollo nodded.

Glances passed back and forth as Aphrodite glared at Artemis.

“You are accepted, God Apollo,” one said finally. “Do you agree to abide by our decisions here?”

Apollo frowned and glanced at Gabrielle and Xena.

“We know how protective parents can be over their children,” one Council member said calmly. “Being a god, we ask for your word that you’ll abide and not interfere.”

Apollo continued to frown, “She’s my daughter and a favorite.”

“Oh agree already, cousin!” Aphrodite urged. “Let’s get this over with so they can go home.”

“Gabrielle?” Apollo questioned.

“It’s alright, Father,” she said softly. “I knew the possibilities when I came here.”

“That speaks for itself,” he said gently and turned to the Council. “I agree.”

“Then the gods shall be heard from concerning this,” Otere declared. “Have the other witnesses sent for as well.”

For the next three candle-marks, Apollo, Aphrodite, Freya, Yakut, Hercules, and Xena talked about Gabrielle’s character and her reign as Queen. They talked about the bard’s gentle nature, her reluctance to kill, even after becoming a gladiator. The gods spoke of her destiny to pull Xena out of the darkness and away from Ares and, therefore, saving the world. Hercules talked of Gabrielle’s struggles to come to grips with herself after her forced gladiatorial training and killing. Freya told those gathered of Gabrielle’s willing sacrifice of her life force to save Xena, knowing it meant her death. Yakut told of the nightmare struggle against Alti and how Gabrielle fought for the Northern Siberian Amazons, risking life and soul even though the Northerners weren’t her original tribe.

Xena spoke of Gabrielle’s undying love for the Amazons and how shattered she had been when they had received word the tribe had been killed. Xena especially spoke of Gabrielle’s inability to kill in cold blood and described the recent battle with Draco. Everyone was enraptured by the warrior’s description of the battle and Gabrielle’s inability to kill Draco, even after he had nearly killed her.

Finally, Xena described Antony’s attempted rape and how Sasha and Gabrielle had stopped him in time. Gabrielle poised over him with her sai and still being unable to kill him.

“You’re saying that she didn’t kill him after he beat you and tried to rape you? Even after he killed her Amazons?” Revita demanded.

“I asked her not to,” Xena explained. “I never wanted Gabrielle to follow the same path of blood that I was on until Hercules helped me and I met Gabrielle. She was a moment away from killing him until I asked her not to kill him because of Cleo.”

“Why did you stop her?” Otere asked.

Xena knew she was on unsteady ground. One of the worst crimes against an Amazon was rape, it always called for a death sentence and Xena had stopped an Amazon from killing a rapist. A rapist who had attempted to rape a Queen’s mate.

“I knew we could fulfill our goal of destroying Antony without killing him and destroying Cleopatra in the process,” Xena said.

“Explain,” Otere demanded.

“I knew with the brutal attack on me, I could convince Cleopatra that Antony was unfaithful and timed it to approach her during a critical point in the sea battle the next day,” Xena explained. “She realized the truth about Antony and turned away from him during the battle. She left the battlefield and pulled her ships along with her. Antony saw her flagship leaving and he followed her.”

“I had heard that Antony deserted the field of battle and was disgraced,” the same Council member who had spoken on the politics and goings on around Rome spoke. “He followed Cleopatra and caught up with her on land, didn’t he?”

“We found out later that he had,” Xena nodded. “We left as soon as it was clear that Antony had lost the battle. I knew that Octavian would win the day and would press the victory.”

“How does that fulfill your oath?” Meryl demanded.

“Gabrielle and I helped destroy Antony just as if we put a sword through his chest,” Xena said firmly. “He’s now a drunk, his men think he’s a coward and are deserting nightly to Octavian’s troops. Cleo doesn’t trust him and they are on the run. Within the year Egypt will fall to Octavian and both Cleo and Antony will be dead.”

“I thought you wanted Cleopatra to live,” Otere asked.

“We do but her choice is Antony and she’ll follow him in death,” Gabrielle said. “I failed myself; by destroying Antony we destroyed a friend and a fellow Queen. That’s what I’m guilty of.”

“So, you claim that you have fulfilled your oath in that Marc Antony is as good as dead by your hands?” Revita questioned.

“I would say that,” Xena agreed.

“Are there any others who would speak?” Otere asked.

“I would speak,” Artemis said. “Gabrielle was my Chosen on Earth and she made me proud for years, even with the taint of Bacchus clouding her.”

“Oh you bitch,” Xena muttered.

“I have never held that against her, even when it interfered with her in the North, almost costing Gabrielle her soul and Xena her soul and life,” Artemis continued.

“Bacchus?” Meryl asked.

“Bacchus is the God of Wine, Vine and Bacchae,” the Carpathian Queen explained. “He is well known for his drunken orgies, seasonal celebrations that can be deadly and the Bacchae are vampyre.”

“Vampyre?” the Celt asked.

“Blood sucking females that are totally under his control and power,” the Carpathian Queen continued. “They are doomed to forever seek out the blood of humans and will turn other females into Bacchae.”

“How is Gabrielle connected with Bacchus?” Revita demanded.

“What does this have to do with Antony?” Xena demanded.

“Everyone has talked of her leadership qualities, her personality and her character,” Meryl pointed out. “Does this affect her life and has it interfered with her duties?”

“Gabrielle was bitten and became a half-bacchae one Harvest,” Artemis explained and Xena growled. “She turned Xena into a half-bacchae as well, almost costing Xena her soul. They managed to kill Bacchus, for a time. It was brought to life later that Gabrielle had tasted two drops of Bacchus’ blood, the requirement to becoming a full Bacchae. It affects her to this day.”

“How so?” a Council member demanded as Gabrielle’s head dropped.

“Once a month she feeds on rare meat, almost raw,” Artemis continued as Gabrielle blushed. “During the time of the full moon she drinks blood. Sometimes animal blood is enough but sometimes it has to be human.”

The crowd behind them erupted and the Council began talking among itself.

Xena stood behind Gabrielle’s chair and wrapped her arms around her bard. She could feel Gabrielle holding back sobs.

Finally Otere stood up and banged a goblet on the table in front of her.

“Enough! This isn’t a fish market where we haggle over local gossip!” she shouted. “Yakut, Shaman of the Northern Siberian Amazons, step forth and speak on this!”

“Yes, my Queen,” Yakut agreed readily. “We of the Siberian Amazons have known of Gabrielle’s Bacchae nature for awhile now. At first it was just a few of us, myself and the Queen included. We had no problem with it. Her need for blood is handled in private between Queen Gabrielle and her mate.”

“Has it interfered?” a Council member demanded.

“I’m not sure if I would use that term,” Yakut frowned. “It has been used against her as a weakness, just like it is being used today.”

Artemis glared but kept silent.

“It also helped when our tribe was attacked by umpir, what you call vampires,” Yakut continued. “Queen Gabrielle was able to use her Bacchae side to defeat the head vampire and bring peace between the vampires and the tribe. Without her help we would have all fallen to the vampires and would have become monsters.”

“Are you saying that Gabrielle is a monster?” Meryl questioned.

“No, she has a condition that demands she takes something from her mate that Xena gives willingly,” Yakut countered. “She has suffered with this but has adapted fairly well, again showing a strength of character that surpasses many of us.”

“Regent Eponi, did you know about this?” Otere asked, watching Eponi shift uncomfortably in her chair and Hallvor looking at her feet.

Pony hesitated. “Yes,” she finally admitted. “I learned about it when we were traveling together. Gabrielle and Xena were keeping it quiet but something… there was an emergency in the camp and I saw the marks on Xena’s neck and the blood on Gabrielle’s lips.”

Several Council members looked revolted and Xena growled at the murmurs of disgust from the spectators, she hugged Gabrielle tighter.

“Did you demand that she give up her rank as Queen because of it?” Otere asked.

“No,” Pony had to admit. “I told her that if Artemis accepted her then I didn’t have a problem with it.”

“Queen Gabrielle, did Artemis tell you that she accepted this part of you and still accepted you as her Chosen?” Meryl asked softly.

Gabrielle’s green eyes were filled with tears as she tried to raise her head. She couldn’t even look at Artemis.

“Yes, many times,” Gabrielle said softly. “She said she was proud of how I handled it.”

Otere nodded for a moment and glared at Artemis.

“Then I suggest to the Council that this part of Gabrielle’s character not be called into question since her own patron Goddess accepted it, her Regent accepted it, her mate accepts it and aids the Queen in her struggles, and the Siberian Amazons as a tribe accept it,” Otere said and Xena was relieved when several Council members nodded in agreement.

“Does anyone else wish to speak?” one of them asked and no one stepped forward.

“Regent Eponi,” Meryl began. “You have brought this charge and you have heard all there is to be said on the matter. Do you revoke your charge?”

Eponi frowned and Hallvor leaned forward to whisper fiercely in the Regent’s ear. Pony turned and looked at Artemis and flinched at the anger she saw in the goddess’ eyes.

Eponi hesitated. “We have heard that Gabrielle had Marc Antony defenseless after he assaulted her mate, a Consort to the Queen, and she let him go. Queen Gabrielle had sworn a blood oath to kill him and she let him live, dishonoring the memories of Ephiny, Solari, and the countless other Amazons that died at his hands. I hold to the charge.”

“Damn you,” Xena muttered under her breath.

Hallvor pulled back away from her mate and glared at Artemis.

“The Council will retire to discuss the charge and the evidence,” Meryl declared. “We will meet everyone when a decision has been met.”

The rest of those assembled stood still while the Council left to go to the meeting hall and the god and goddesses disappeared. Eponi turned to Hallvor, a pleading expression on her face but the Viking shook her hand off and leaned heavily on a crutch.

The Viking Amazon’s face was pained as Eponi begged quietly with her but Hallvor shook her head and turned away from her mate and Regent.

“That doesn’t look good,” Xena commented as she held Gabrielle from behind.

“No, it doesn’t,” Gabrielle agreed.

“Why didn’t you bring up Artemis trying to get Cleo into bed?” Xena asked as Yakut and the others walked towards them and Gabrielle wiped away tears from Artemis’ betrayal.

“Once the Council declared that part of the charge invalid, there was no point,” Gabrielle shrugged. “They could see she’s got an agenda of some kind. I think they’ll deal fairly with the facts.”

“Gods, I am tired after that and I want to see Asher,” Xena declared as Yakut hugged Gabrielle and then Xena.

“Good to see you, Yakut,” Xena smiled and Gabrielle tried.

“Thank you, Yakut,” Gabrielle said softly.

“Nothing to thank me for, I spoke the truth,” Yakut smiled broadly. “You are accepted among us, we don’t care how much you nibble on Xena’s neck.”

Gabrielle blushed as Xena laughed, the tension easing somewhat.

The friends had a lot to catch up on since their last visit to the Northern tribe, and Xena wanted to get Gabrielle’s mind off the Bacchae thing. Their friends weren’t treating the bard any differently but Xena had caught several curious glances and some looks of disgust from unknown Amazons and didn’t want Gabrielle noticing.

The warrior wasn’t surprised when Gabrielle tossed and turned with nightmares during the night after a late evening with Yakut and other Northern Amazons.

The arguing inside the meeting hall continued for two long and stressful days as Gabrielle paced and Xena sulleningly sharpened her sword.

Finally, the Council sent word to everyone that a decision of sorts had been reached and to assemble on the third day at mid-day.

Yakut and her mate, Karita, tried to keep Gabrielle and Xena busy until that time but it was an uphill battle.

Hercules and Iolaus were confined to the guest hut and reluctantly took Asher from his mothers.

Gabrielle was too nervous to even accept a hug from her two housemates.

“Xena?” Hercules asked softly as he hugged his half-sister.

“I’m not going to let them hurt her,” Xena confirmed Hercules’ suspicions. “I’ll challenge every member of the Council if I have to.”

“Let out one of your yells,” Hercules advised. “I think Apollo is hovering around with Aphrodite, unseen.”

“Aphrodite?” Xena asked.

“She likes the both of you and is totally pissed off at Artemis,” Hercules grinned as Iolaus smirked. “Seems Aphrodite and Artemis are occasionally an item until Arte went and fell for Cleopatra.”

“The gods and goddesses are worse than most humans I know,” Xena complained softly.

“Usually caught acting like spoiled brats,” Hercules agreed. “You know Gabrielle won’t agree to a rescue, no matter what they decide.”

“I know and it might cost me a relationship but I won’t let them kill her,” Xena vowed.

“Xena,” Hercules said softly.

“Just get her and Asher out if I can’t,” Xena urged and the demi-god nodded.

Xena trotted to catch up with Gabrielle and Yakut as they walked towards the meeting area.

“Xena, promise me that you won’t interfere,” Gabrielle insisted.

“No, I can’t promise that and you know it,” Xena growled and Gabrielle nodded wearily.

Xena noticed that Otere wasn’t among the Council when they returned to their seats and looked around for her northern friend. She spotted the Queen coming in behind the rest of the Queens and standing behind the Council.

Xena growled and she felt Gabrielle’s hand reach behind her to touch Xena.

“I see,” Gabrielle said softly. “What does it mean?”

“I don’t know but I don’t like it,” Xena whispered back.

Meryl stood and the crowd quieted down.

“May the record note that Goddess Artemis is absent, as are the other deities that have attended this trial,” she said formally. “Also absent from this part are the visitors Hercules and Iolaus, invited male kin and friends of Queen Gabrielle.”

“Queen Gabrielle,” Revita said firmly and Gabrielle rose slowly. “We have debated for days and have come the conclusion that there is no ‘just’ decision in this matter. It has been determined that, technically, you are guilty of failing to complete your blood oath of vengeance for the death of your tribe members.”

Xena placed a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulders, her other hand resting on her chakram.

“Coming to this decision has been most difficult and I must state for the record that the decision was not unanimous,” the Spaniard said, glancing back at Otere. “We acknowledge that several of the northern Amazon tribes refuse to agree to this vote.”

“Having been found guilty, we will now retire and debate the sentence,” Meryl declared and Xena growled as Amazon guards approached her mate. “Queen Gabrielle will be kept under guard in the Isolation Hut.”

“She’s still a Queen!” Xena protested.

“Yes, that’s why she isn’t being chained,” Revita said softly.

“Xena, don’t fight this!” Gabrielle urged but her eyes showed her anxiety.

The warrior pulled Gabrielle into her arms and held her tightly. Xena glared at the guards as Gabrielle began to pull out of her arms.

“She gets one bruise and I’ll have your heads,” Xena promised and she saw the Amazons hesitate a moment before motioning Gabrielle to walk ahead of them.

Yakut and Karita, her mate, came up on either side of the warrior, a gentle hand on each arm as Gabrielle walked away, a little unsteady on her feet.

The Council stood and moved once again towards the Meeting Hall. Otere was frowning, along with several other Queens and representatives from the Northern tribes.

She shrugged as they followed the rest of the Council.

Xena paced restlessly as everyone hovered around the meeting area. The warrior refused to talk to anyone as the Council debated her mate’s fate. Yakut and Karita let her pace.

“Gods, I can’t stand waiting!” Xena shouted.

“I know,” Yakut said calmly. “I wonder what is going on with Otere and our northern sisters?”

“Got me,” Karita mumbled.

“Xena,” Yakut began, “I don’t think they’ll call for a death penalty.”

“They won’t like it if they do,” Xena growled. “They should have let me stay with her. Do you know what tonight is?”

Yakut and Karita looked puzzled when Yakut’s eyes suddenly widened and she turned pale. “Oh sweet Goddess Akko, it’s a full moon. Has she been holding it off with rare meat? Animal blood?”

“No, she’s been so worried about this trial she’s barely been eating,” Xena growled. “She went last night without it and by tonight she’ll be hurting.”

“We can request that you visit her,” Karita suggested.

“No,” Yakut said thoughtfully. “I’m betting that Eponi and Artemis arranged this to use the Bacchae thing against Gabrielle. What happens if she doesn’t get the blood she needs by the third night?”

“Gods, it’s like someone who has become dependent on a hallucination herb or alcohol,” Xena said slowly.

“What will she look and act like two mornings from now?” Yakut questioned.

“She’ll be shaking uncontrollably, her eyes will probably be yellow, her fangs may even be showing. Gabrielle will hardly be able to speak or concentrate,” Xena explained, closing her eyes against the torment of describing the potential pain of her mate.

“Not the picture of an efficient Queen willing to die for their tribe,” Yakut commented bitterly.

“You think Artemis would go this far?” Xena asked. “Gabrielle was her Chosen for years; they almost died for each other.”

“I don’t understand your gods and goddesses,” Yakut admitted. “Could she be capable of doing this to her Chosen and one of her Queens?”

“Well, I’d vote a huge ‘no’ normally,” a voice joined them and Xena spun with her chakram at ready and glared at the figures standing just in the shadows of the hut.

Aphrodite, Cupid and Apollo stepped into the light of the lanterns and fire.

“‘Dite,” Xena acknowledged them with a nod. “Spill what you know.”

“Look tall, dark and gorgeous,” Aphrodite grinned, brushing a hand over her perfect hair. “It wasn’t my place to talk about this; it’s not something Arte like wants to get around to the other gods.”

“Xena,” Apollo said calmly, “Please sit, there are reasons for Artemis’ reactions but it can’t come to light and Gabrielle would agree.”

“Why would she agree with Artemis getting away with all of this?” Xena demanded.

“Because it’s for the good of the Amazon Nation,” Cupid said calmly.

“Someone had better start explaining,” Xena threatened as Yakut and Karita sat quietly, wondering if they should leave the Greeks to themselves but the gods did say it involved the Nation.

“You know Artemis fell for Cleopatra, right?” Aphrodite began as they all sat down around the central fire. Karita got up and opened the door slightly, keeping an eye on the guards outside. She nodded for the Greek Goddess of Love to continue. “Well, it turned into something, actually.”

“You mean Artemis hooked up with Cleopatra?” Xena asked. “I thought she was loyal to Antony even though he played around.”

“Totally loyal to Antony,” Aphrodite agreed. “She would, like, do anything he wanted.”

Xena’s eyes widened and she shook her head. “No way, Cleo wouldn’t dare!”

Cupid nodded, his face grim. “Cleopatra took Artemis to bed several times, driving poor Aunt Artemis insane with lust. The rumors and legends of Cleopatra’s prowess in bed are very true. I’m surprised she didn’t make a play for Gabrielle.”

“Go on,” Xena demanded.

“Cleopatra had Artemis in bed and out of her mind and Antony joined in,” Cupid said calmly.

Xena closed her eyes and fought against the revulsion her own memories were crowding her with. She knew what Antony was capable of and how far he would go, she just hadn’t expected Cleopatra to cooperate in any of it.

“He… Artemis?” she stammered.

Aphrodite was no longer smiling and Cupid was staring at the fire.

“Gods and Goddess can’t be hurt by mortals, right?” Cupid asked bitterly. “When we mate with humans, we let part of our godhood down. In a way we become part mortal for a short time so our god-energy doesn’t destroy our human mate.”

“Antony hurt Artemis,” Aphrodite finished. “Not by physically raping her but by humiliating her. Cleo chose Antony over her in bed and then demonstrated how much she preferred the male over a Goddess. He took her repeatedly in front of Arte. Cupid and I heard her weeping and found her.”

Xena watched as mother and son looked miserable at revealing what had happened. “Why didn’t she zap him? Or leave?”

“Cleo had..uh..,” Cupid hesitated. “You know that Hebrew story of Samson’s weakness with his hair?”

Xena nodded, confused.

“Each of the Gods has a token or a symbol that we have to have with us to maintain our power, it’s a physical connection to our godhood,” he explained.

“Ares and his sword,” Xena nodded, remembering the hassles she had gone through in Callisto’s body when Ares lost his sword and godhood.

“Exactly, Cleo tricked Arte’s token away from her and taunted her with it while Antony was having sex with her,” Aphrodite growled. “She couldn’t leave and he would hit her whenever she tried to get out of the bed.”

“She begged pleaded with us until we swore that we’d never tell any of the other Olympians,” Cupid explained. “We had to agree, she was out of her mind with grief, guilt and pain.”

“So, she was using Gabrielle to get revenge on Antony for her own attack and Cleopatra’s betrayal?” Yakut asked, wanting to clarify things.

“Yes, she’s still out of her mind with what happened,” Aphrodite continued. “The stupid love-sick wench thinks that Cleo might take her back if Antony is dead.”

“Hasn’t she figured out that Cleo only wants Antony?” Xena complained.

“She’s beginning to,” Apollo nodded. “I became involved because they needed me to heal Artemis after the beating. She was too ashamed to let Athena know what happened.”

“Why didn’t she just zap Antony afterwards? Or send her dogs after him and run him into the ground?” Xena asked.

“She was afraid the truth would get out,” Cupid said. “There’s already that legend of that huntsman seeing her naked and Artemis ripping him apart with her dogs.”

“Think about it, gorgeous,” Aphrodite urged. “The Virgin Goddess of the Amazons being sexually bested by a man and beaten, not good for the rep, especially her being naked and all.”

“She’s the victim of a rape, whether Antony touched her not; it was an emotional rape!” Xena protested with a growl. “She wasn’t at fault!”

“No, but she didn’t fight back with Cleopatra being there and she didn’t take revenge later,” Apollo pointed out. “Artemis is afraid that her Amazons will lose faith in her and it would damage the Nation.”

“And you agree?” Xena growled.

“Actually,” Apollo hesitated. “I like the Amazons, no matter how they typically feel about males and male gods. I especially like them since one of my favorite daughters is an Amazon and, yes, I do understand Artemis’ thinking.”

“Times are changing, Xena,” Cupid added. “You’ve seen part of it. I’m now Eros and Mom is Venus and Artemis is Diana. It’s just a name change and some new minor gods and goddesses added with the Romans but it’s not the ending of the change.”

“Poor Apollo over there is almost helpless in the north,” Aphrodite continued explaining. “He’s a sun god and they have a sun goddess. You already know how we lose strength outside our realm of worshippers.”

“Some of you are hoping to survive the transitions that time will bring about,” Yakut reasoned.

“You are cute under all that leather and fur,” Aphrodite grinned. “What is it with you Amazons and leather? Not that I’m complaining much, I do like my women butch at times but…”

“Dite!” Xena snapped.

“What was the question?” Aphrodite asked sweetly. “Oh right, yes, we want to survive, of course, and not fall the way of the Titans. Cupid and I figure we’ll get by, the world always needs love and there’ll always be a god of War.”

“Artemis is hoping to spread her influence to the other regions, mostly through the women and the Amazons, specifically,” Cupid added.

“She’s worried that a beaten, non-virgin Goddess of the Amazons won’t be as appealing,” Xena reasoned, her voice bitter. “Doesn’t she realize how many women suffer through that? Artemis could be someone they turn to in their grief, Gabrielle included.”

“We know that but she won’t listen to reason right now and transferred her anger onto Gabrielle,” Apollo said.

“Okay, that explains her motivation and lack of sanity,” Xena growled. “What do we do about it?”

“Well, we can’t come out publicly with it,” Cupid frowned. “But maybe we can lessen the damage she’s doing.”

“What do you suggest?” Yakut asked.

“Aphrodite is going to talk with the Council behind closed doors and remind them that Gabrielle was willing to die for them, even putting herself in a position to be crucified for her Amazons,” Cupid began.

“I’ll tell them just enough so they understand Artemis’ motivations a little better,” Aphrodite said. “We’ll also let them know that your fates aren’t decided here and there’s more than just the Greek gods involved in your futures.”

“Terrific,” Xena mumbled. “Do we ever get a break? I mean it, that mess with Antony and Cleopatra just topped off a very bad run and we just want some peace and quiet and raise Asher.”

“We’ll see what we can work out in the future,” Apollo promised. “Right now, let’s just get the two of you through this. First step is for Aphrodite to crash their debate, second step is to get you to Gabrielle so she’ll be in top shape when the Council reconvenes.”

“You’ll take me to her?” Xena asked hopefully.

“You two are like some of our best work,” Aphrodite said with a smile. “Can’t have that messed up because of tall, dark, and gruesome Bacchus.”

“Your friends can keep an eye out for the guards here, I’ll cast a spell over the guards at the Isolation Hut so that they don’t see or hear anything,” Cupid grinned. “And Mom will go and talk with the Council.”

“How bad is she?” Xena asked with a frown.

“Lack of sleep, lack of blood from the meat, the high stress, being found guilty,” Apollo rattled off. “It’s added up quickly for my daughter. She’s hurting badly and doesn’t feel she can ask for animal blood from the guards.”

“Let’s do it,” Xena growled.

The warrior found her bard curled up on the small cot provided in the plain and empty one-room cabin. Gabrielle was shaking and sweating at the same time. Xena whimpered at the sight of the bard’s half open and unseeing yellow eyes as the warrior knelt next to her mate.

Apollo had been right, the combined factors of the last few days had hit the bard hard and intensified the Bacchae craving.

“Gabrielle?” Xena said softly, placing a hand slowly and carefully on the bard’s arm but didn’t get a response. “Gabrielle!” the warrior said more firmly. “Come on, baby. Come on, snap out of this.”

Xena pulled her breast dagger out and barely winced as she cut her forearm. She held it against Gabrielle’s mouth. At first the bard didn’t respond and Xena was very worried. Then Gabrielle growled and latched her mouth around the wound and began to drink deeply.

Xena moved up onto the cot until she was half holding Gabrielle in her arms as her mate drank from her. The warrior felt her body jerking with the blood loss and the eroticism that always hit her whenever Gabrielle fed from her.

The warrior began to feel a little lightheaded when she noticed Gabrielle pulling back from her arm.

“Xena?” Gabrielle’s voice was confused and Xena shifted so Gabrielle could look at her, half lying in the warrior’s lap.

“I’m here, Little One,” Xena said softly as she bent down to kiss her mate.

Gabrielle moaned as Xena’s tongue danced over her fangs, accepting the taste of her own blood in Gabrielle’s mouth. Gabrielle reached behind Xena’s head and the warrior could feel that Gabrielle was still trembling.

Gabrielle pulled back with a smile. “Must remember to breathe,” she mumbled, laying her head against Xena’s chest as her Champion held her close. “How did you do this and is anybody hurt?”

Xena laughed softly, stroking Gabrielle’s hair.

“No one got hurt trying to stop me,” Xena reassured her mate. “Your father, Aphrodite and Cupid are helping us tonight.”

“Why and how?”

“They know that Artemis isn’t her normal self, they like us, and Cupid cast a spell on your guards so they won’t hear a thing tonight,” Xena explained quickly.

Xena felt her heart skip a beat when Gabrielle opened her eyes and they were still Bacchae yellow.

“They knew,” she whispered.

“Apollo knew the cravings were bad because of this mess,” Xena nodded.

The warrior could see Gabrielle’s muscles twitching and could feel her shaking hands.

“You’re not gonna hurt me, Gabrielle,” Xena reassured her mate and helped the bard sit upright. Xena stood up and quickly began removing her armor as Gabrielle’s breath quickened at the sight of her half naked mate.

Xena let her leather shift drop and saw Gabrielle’s muscles tensing, as if ready to spring. The warrior stepped in front of Gabrielle and grabbed the bard’s hands as her wife reached for her.

“Let me,” Xena said softly, moving Gabrielle’s hands to rest on the bed. Gabrielle moaned in frustration as Xena’s hands reached for the ties holding her top. Both relished the times they could visit the Amazons and Gabrielle could go back to her preferred manner of dressing, which was very little on top, a simple skirt and shorts below. The bard didn’t have to worry about the scars across her back causing her to be mistaken for a runaway slave as they had before among the Amazons.

Xena let the top fall away from Gabrielle’s full breasts with a sigh of arousal. She saw Gabrielle’s hands clench at the blanket she was sitting on. The warrior knew Gabrielle was hanging onto control by just a thread and felt an impish impulse to push it. Xena was well aware that when Gabrielle was this aroused by the Bacchae craving and need for sex with it, that it was going to be a very hard ride and welcomed it. They had both been pent up after the last two years of mishaps and bad adventures and Xena had to admit it had affected them.

“Time to come back to me, Little One,” she whispered, pushing Gabrielle down onto the cot and quickly removed the rest of Gabrielle’s clothing. The bard was almost panting as she gripped the blanket, trying to let Xena control the seduction.

Xena leaned her naked body over Gabrielle’s, letting her nipples lightly touch Gabrielle’s, rubbing over them.

“Oh gods!” Gabrielle cried out, her back arching. “Xena!”

“Now, Gabrielle!” Xena hissed and lowered her body down to touch her frenzied Bacchae.

Gabrielle growled and flipped Xena over onto her back, the bard’s lips attacking Xena’s, almost hard enough to bruise. The bard surprised her mate by pulling back after a moment and resting on an elbow as she looked down in Xena’s eyes. The yellow eyes of a Bacchae Gabrielle were always disturbing but Xena saw not only the Bacchae insanity but love flowing from them.

“I love you, Xena,” Gabrielle whispered. “Never anyone but you.”

“I know,” Xena said softly, reaching up to caress the bard’s check. “Let go and come to me.”

Gabrielle closed her eyes with a whimper and when she opened them again, Xena’s eyes widened at the sight of Gabrielle’s fangs extending.

“Yes,” Xena said calmly and thrust a leg between Gabrielle’s, discovering how aroused the Amazon Queen was, pulling a moan from Gabrielle.

The bard growled as Xena’s hands went to the bare skin of Gabrielle’s neck and trailed down, pulling her wife closer to her. Gabrielle whimpered as her hands began dancing all over Xena’s body, tweaking the warrior’s nipples, squeezing her breasts, playing in the dark curls between Xena’s legs. Her hands were always moving and sending lightning bolts of arousal through the warrior until Xena was breathing heavily and clinging to the bard.

“Gabrielle, please!” Xena pleaded and screamed as Gabrielle entered her roughly with several fingers and sank her fangs into Xena’s neck. Xena felt her back arch up into Gabrielle as her fingernails clawed at her mate’s back. The warrior’s body connected with the Bacchae eroticism and thrust against Gabrielle’s fingers.

Gabrielle whimpered around her fangs, her own body so connected to Xena’s arousal that she couldn’t tell which energy was coming from where and didn’t care. She pulled back from Xena’s neck as the warrior bucked against her, grabbing at the bedframe for some sense of support.

Gabrielle slowly worked her way down Xena’s body, stopping for what seemed an eternity at the warrior’s breasts, teasing them with her tongue and lightly scrapping her fangs over the nipples, getting more noises from her warrior.

When she reached between Xena’s legs, Gabrielle felt her control slipping again. The taste of Xena’s blood had calmed her for a moment but the scent of arousal threatened to overwhelm her. Gabrielle let her tongue play along her fingers as they kept up their rhythm of entering, stretching, teasing and almost pulling out of her lover. Her tongue moved up and Xena almost thrashed off the small cot as Gabrielle’s tongue found her clit and Xena screamed with a minor release.

Gabrielle felt Xena quickly hit the high waves or approaching orgasm again as she kept up the pressure of tongue and fingers.

“Gabrielle!” Xena begged.

The Amazon Queen rocked her fingers and felt them curling inside her lover. Xena’s eyes almost rolled back into her head as Gabrielle’s hand settled inside her body, filling her. Both mates waited a moment as Xena’s body adjusted to the sensation and the orgasm began building beyond control as the warrior’s body shook and began to buck again.

Xena screamed once more as Gabrielle’s fangs sank into her body and Gabrielle’s tongue danced over her clit and lapped at her blood at the same time.

Karita jumped and Yakut dropped her cup of tea as another scream sounded in the darkness of the Amazon village.

“Good gods,” Karita grinned. “Are they always like that?”

“You were away most of the times they visited us,” Yakut grinned.

“And the other times we were all a little busy fighting vampires and Alti,” Karita grinned. “I am very glad those guards are deaf tonight.”

“Me too,” Yakut smiled back at her mate, contemplating how long it had been since she had made her own mate scream like that. Maybe after the Council’s decision, Yakut thought, we should take a few days going home.

“Xena!” Gabrielle cried out as her mate moved the bard onto her knees and thrust into her. The warrior saw her mate’s eyes turning yellow again and nodded. Xena felt her own body jerking as Gabrielle’s fangs sank into her wrist and she thrust her fingers and body against her mate.

Within moments the bard was curled around Xena’s wrist and whimpering as Xena brought her to orgasm again and again until both collapsed onto the cot. Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle’s body, a hand gently wiping away tears from her mate’s face.

“Xena,” Gabrielle whispered.

“Shhh,” Xena whispered back. “No more saying ‘I’m sorry’ for anything in the past. It’s over, it’s done! I love you and I will always love you.”

“What are Aphrodite, Cupid and Apollo planning?” Gabrielle asked in a sleepy voice.

“Aphrodite is pointing out that Artemis hasn’t been herself lately and to take that into consideration,” Xena mumbled. “She didn’t want to bring it up in front of everyone so she’s approaching them now. Cupid is keeping the guards out of here tonight and Apollo is making sure Artemis doesn’t show up.”

“For once I kinda like them helping,” Gabrielle smiled and drifted off to sleep in her warrior’s arms.

“Yeah, well,” Xena growled. “Alright, I don’t mind them helping out this time.”

Gabrielle was saddened when she woke up to find Xena gone but felt like she could face anything, including the Council. The bard quickly dressed and stood in the center of the small cabin.

“Apollo, Cupid and Aphrodite,” she said quietly. “Thank you, my Father and my friends, for last night.”

The bard smiled as she heard a giggle in the air around her.

Xena sat upright with a jerk, reaching for Gabrielle and finding the other side of the bed empty. It took the warrior a moment to realize she was in the Queen’s cabin and alone in the bed. She glanced over and saw Yakut by the main fire adding tea leaves to a pot over the fire.

Yakut looked up and grinned.

Xena looked down and blushed as she grabbed for her leather shift, seeing her clothes and armor at the foot of the bed.

“You suddenly appeared in the bed about a candle-mark ago,” Yakut explained. “Your clothes and weapons with you. I guess your deities didn’t want you caught with your….uh…trousers down in the Isolation Cabin.”

“Keep it up, Yakut,” Xena threatened. The warrior looked down at the bandages wrapped around midway up her forearm and around her wrist.

“The cut was deep but is healing nicely,” Yakut shrugged. “The fang wounds were also deep but with your healing, should be almost gone by tonight. Those fang marks on your neck will show clearly though.”

Xena shrugged as she reached for her boots. “Gods, I need a bath,” she muttered. “I smell like sex and blood.”

Yakut tried to look nonchalant but lost it as she grinned at her friend.

“Well, I’m not sure how Gabrielle is going to hide the scratches on her back with that little top of hers either,” Xena grinned.

“The Council and everyone there will know you two were together last night,” Yakut complained.

“Or else we each had company,” Xena smirked.

“Not likely, the love between the two of you is legendary among the Amazons,” Karita smiled as she walked into the cabin. “I doubt anyone will say anything. The Council was busy with Aphrodite and the major decision and everyone else won’t know what to say.”

“Except that Xena has many skills,” Yakut laughed and Xena shook her head.

“I just hope the guards don’t get into trouble,” Xena growled. “Wasn’t their fault, I didn’t even have to sneak in.”

“Well, you two certainly weren’t quiet about it either!” Yakut grinned and ducked the boot Xena threw at her.

A guard knocked at the door and opened it.

“A decision has been reached, your presence is requested, Consort,” the guard said.

“Thank you, I’ll be right there,” Xena responded and the guard disappeared.

Yakut and Karita were no longer grinning and neither was Xena as Yakut handed the Consort her boot.

“Oh Gods,” Xena muttered, reaching for a wash basin.

Xena smiled softly when she walked up to her mate and took Gabrielle into her arms at the familiar table. Gabrielle held on tightly as the guard ignored them.

“Thank you for last night,” Gabrielle whispered.

“Thank you, even if I am walking a little funny,” Xena smirked and was pleased that Gabrielle managed to smile and blush a little.

“How’s the energy level, I practically drained you last night,” Gabrielle asked as Xena motioned for them both to sit down at the table.

“I’m okay,” Xena shrugged. “A little tired. Take a day to get that back, I think. Anyone say anything?”

“No, but the guards had a very heated discussion this morning when they saw my back, thanks,” Gabrielle smiled.

“Well, I’m also wearing fang marks everywhere,” Xena countered.

“Anyone sees one set of those marks and I’ll have their head,” Gabrielle threatened and laughed softly as Xena began to blush and shift in her chair slightly.

They both lost their smiles as the Council began walking out of the Meeting Hall towards the high tables.

Gabrielle glanced over and saw Eponi sitting at the other table with Hallvor standing behind the Regent. Neither would meet her eyes.

“Queen Gabrielle,” Revita said formally and Gabrielle stood and faced the Council. Xena stood a moment later, a hand on her mate’s shoulder.

Gabrielle was in her traditional Amazon Queen garb, the mask on the table in front of her, but minus weapons. Xena had chosen to dress in her customary warrior garb of leather, brass armor adornments, gauntlets and knee protectors. Sword and chakram in their traditional place.

Gabrielle and Xena caught a few surprised looks as the Council took in the love bruise on Gabrielle’s neck and the fang marks and bruising on Xena’s neck as well as the bandages on her forearm and wrist.

Xena kept her grin to herself as she heard the expected “many skills” comment from some of the spectators.

“Queen Gabrielle,” Meryl rose. “You have been found guilty of failing to fulfill a blood oath of vengeance to the Amazon Nation. As a Queen, this is a serious matter that calls for a death sentence. Because of the circumstances behind the oath and the incidents in Egypt, the Council agreed that a death sentence wasn’t appropriate in this case.”

Xena wasn’t surprised when Artemis appeared at the table next to Eponi and the warrior expected the goddesses enraged expression.

So did, apparently, the Council, because Meryl held up her hand, holding off any protests.

“Goddess Artemis,” the Celt said firmly. “You are a guest here, not the decision maker. You agreed to abide by our decisions in this matter.”

Artemis glared but nodded her acceptance.

“Queen Gabrielle’s has shown outstanding devotion and love to the Nation, not just to her tribe but to all the tribes she encountered, the Council agreed to consider this in our deliberations. Queen Gabrielle, for having been adopted into the Nation at a late age, has been a surprising Queen and is well respected among all the tribes and beloved by several,” the Celt continued.

“Queen Gabrielle has sacrificed herself on a Roman cross for her tribe,” Revita continued. “She has given all of her monies to secure land for her tribe to get them out of the Empire and out of Roman hands. She has nearly sacrificed her life and soul several times for tribes other than her own.”

“The decision we reached was not an easy one and is not agreed upon by all among this Council,” the Celt added. “Some tribes are threatening not to abide by the wishes of the Council. We urge them to do so and not risk civil war among the tribes. We hope we have reached a fair solution, even if it is harsh.”

Xena felt Gabrielle’s breathing quicken and squeezed her mate’s shoulder.

“It is the decision of the Council that Queen Gabrielle be stripped of her royal rank and privileges and that she be exiled from the Amazon Nation for a turn of 10 winters. Gabrielle of Germania is to have no contact with any Amazon from this day forth until her exile is complete and no Amazon is to have willing contact with her,” one of the Council members declared.

Xena wrapped her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders, helping her mate stay on her feet.

“If she’s found on Amazon land?” Eponi demanded after Artemis whispered fiercely in the Regent’s ear.

“A fair warning will be given by the scouts or guards,” a Council member said. “If the warning is ignored, then the sentence is death for violating the exile.”

Gabrielle’s legs gave out and she collapsed into her seat as the spectators erupted into confusion, anger, disbelief, and some agreement behind her. Xena moved behind her mate protectively, a hand resting on her chakram.

“Gabrielle will relinquish the Queen’s Mask to Regent Eponi and the Black Forest Amazons will determine their rites of succession after this proceeding is done,” Meryl continued.

“Gabrielle,” Revita called and Gabrielle looked up at the Council as tears filled her eyes. “The decision was the only one we could reach once we rejected the death sentence and we fought the law speakers about a limitation on the exile. I, personally, am very sorry and will be there 10 winters from now to welcome you back into the Nation.”

Gabrielle got to her feet slowly.

“I-I thank the Council for their struggle and your attempt to be fair in this difficult matter,” she stammered. “I urge the Black Forest Amazons to work with Eponi to continue to build the tribe and know that I will always love all of you.”

Xena wrapped her arms around her mate as Gabrielle turned to her warrior, unable to hold the tears back.

The warrior looked over and glared at the Goddess of the Amazons.

“We declare this trial over,” Meryl said loudly. “Gabrielle of Germania has two candle-marks to leave Amazon territory.”

“The Northern tribes would be heard on this!” Otere shouted from the spectators and Xena was surprised, she hadn’t noticed the Queen’s absence among the Council earlier. Otere stepped between the two tables and faced the spectators.

“I am Otere of the Northern Siberian Amazons and I speak with permission of the representatives here and with the confidence of my tribe at home,” she yelled. “We cannot accept this decision! Take away her rank if you will but you’ll never tell us that Gabrielle is no longer an Amazon!”

“Queen Otere!” Meryl shouted. “Don’t push this! Everyone agreed to the trial, its possible consequences and the right of the Council to sit in judgment over the individual tribes.”

Otere’s face was red with anger and Gabrielle attempted to pull out of Xena’s arms but the warrior held firm.

“No, this is their decision, Little One,” Xena whispered.

“No, not for me! They can’t risk a war because of me,” Gabrielle protested.

“Yes, they can!” Xena growled. “Two pantheons of gods were willing to go to war over our child; your tribe is fighting for you. You may have been the Queen of the Black Forest but you’ve always been accepted with the Siberians more.”

“Gabrielle will continue to be considered our sister, welcome at our fires and will always have the right to call for help from any Siberian Amazon!” Otere shouted.

“And among my tribe!” another voice declared and a northern Germanic Amazon Queen stepped forward.

“Among us, as well,” a representative of a Baltic tribe stood up.

“Artemis! Stop this before the Nation is split apart!” Gabrielle pleaded but the goddess merely glared at her former Chosen. Gabrielle turned to the Council.

“Council members!” she shouted. “Please stop this! Don’t let the Nation be split among regional lines because of this!”

“What would you have us do, Gabrielle?” Revita asked. “Rescind our decision because a couple of tribes refuse to abide by the agreements they made when they came here?”

Gabrielle looked desperate.

“Damnit! Otere, don’t do this for me!” she shouted.

“It’s done and it’s our choice, Gabrielle,” Otere said firmly. “You gave everything for our tribe and we won’t turn away from you for this.”

Gabrielle looked around and saw the Amazons milling among the benches and could see the representatives and tribal members beginning to separate among regional lines.

“Xena, how do we stop this?” Gabrielle asked as the guards began to get nervous as the voices among the spectators became heated.

“I don’t know, honestly,” Xena admitted.

Xena could see Gabrielle’s mind working quickly around the problem and then her bard’s eyes widened and she turned to the Council.

“Queen’s Council!” Gabrielle shouted. “I request reconsideration on a point of the trial!”

Everyone was suddenly curious and the crowd quieted down.

“You asked at one point if Eponi wished to continue with the charges,” Gabrielle said quickly. “I put to you that you were asking the wrong person if they wished the charges to go forward.”

“I’m the one that brought the charge!” Eponi shouted, jumping to her feet.

“And I charge that you weren’t acting on your own!” Gabrielle snapped. “And I charge that you were not acting in the best interests of the Black Forest Amazons in bringing this charge. The evidence of that is what’s happening to this very group of our sisters!”

“Gabrielle, this should have been brought up before this,” Revita complained.

“Yes, and I apologize,” Gabrielle said calmly. “I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this.”

“Everyone shut up!” Meryl shouted. “Everyone sit down! This has not been a pleasant few days and we all want this over with! Gabrielle, explain yourself!”

“Artemis!” Gabrielle snapped. “Eponi wouldn’t have brought these charges without you pushing it. She knew I was coming to the tribe to give up my rank, you’re the one pushing the treason thing.”

“Everyone settle down,” Revita demanded. “Discussion!”

The Council moved out of the seats and gathered around.

“Gabrielle, do you know what you’re doing?” Xena asked as her mate sat back down.

“No, I’m playing it by ear here,” Gabrielle admitted. Xena’s eyes narrowed as she heard a giggle in her ear.

“Aphrodite?” she whispered.

“They’re here,” Gabrielle admitted. “They’ve been bending my damn ear off, all three of them arguing on what to do.”

“What are they suggesting?” Xena whispered.

“Apollo wants to zap the five of us out of here, Cupid wants to smack Artemis along side the head and Aphrodite is suggesting something about pissing Artemis off to pull everything together.”

“Is any of that helpful?” Xena asked.

“I’m not sure, we’ll see where this goes,” Gabrielle agreed.

The Council returned to their seats and one of the members remained standing.

“Queen Gabrielle, please explain what you are talking about, slowly,” the Council member requested.

“I believe that Artemis pressured Regent Eponi into bringing these charges and then pressured her into continuing the trial,” Gabrielle explained. “Pony, why did you call for an All-Thing trial when you knew I was going to resign my rank as Queen? Is this for the good of the tribe?”

Eponi stood up and frowned.

“Regent Eponi,” the Celt said firmly. “Did you have word that Queen Gabrielle was coming to resign her rank as Queen because of the incident in Egypt?”

Pony shifted on her feet.

“Yes, Gabrielle sent a messenger to the tribe when she returned from Egypt that she would return in Spring, that Antony was alive and she would resign as Queen,” Pony admitted.

“I submit that by leaving Antony alive I was doing what was best for the tribe,” Gabrielle said firmly.

“How so?” Revita questioned.

“If we had killed Antony, Cleopatra would have blamed Octavian,” Gabrielle tried to explain. “Cleopatra would have believed us assassins from Rome and would have continued the war with everything she had.”

“We left Antony alive, bruised, battered and afraid,” Xena added. “If we had killed him, Cleopatra never would have known he tried to rape me. By letting him live we were able to show Cleopatra what he is.”

“This is for the good of the Amazon Nation?” Revita asked.

“Octavian will be a hard but fair Emperor of the Roman Empire,” Xena said. “For a man and a Roman, he’s the best choice. If we had killed Antony, Cleopatra and Octavian would be fighting each other for years and the Empire would crumble, the Amazon tribes would be at the whim of any petty Roman official wanting power the way Antony got it, by wiping out the feared Amazons.”

The Council members were frowning as one.

“So, you admit that you knew you had failed in your oath and were going to resign your office as Queen?” the Celt asked.

“I also had additional reasons,” Gabrielle said calmly. “My Consort and I have been through a lot in the last few seasons, most of it bad. We have a new son and I want a more normal life. We want to settle down and I can’t devote the proper time to my tribe.”

“You wish to continue living outside the tribe?” one of the Council members asked.

“We have a son and my Consort’s heart is not Amazon,” Gabrielle admitted. “We would have to leave when he turns 10 full winters old anyway.”

Xena placed a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder and squeezed it.

“You are basically accusing the patron goddess of most Amazon tribes as acting against the good of the Nation?” Revita demanded.

“Yes, I am,” Gabrielle said firmly and faced Artemis. “Artemis, I’m begging you for the Nation, rescind the charges and let me resign as I planned.”

The Goddess of the Hunt faced the Council, as if she didn’t hear Gabrielle.

“I’ll put it to you, then,” Meryl said calmly. “Goddess Artemis, do you think this trial is for the good of the Nation?”

Xena sighed when Artemis shoulders sagged.

“No,” Artemis finally said. “I withdraw the charges against Queen Gabrielle and will accept her honorable resignation.”

“Oh thank the gods,” Gabrielle muttered as the crowd broke out into cheers.

“The Council will confer for a moment,” Meryl declared and the Council gathered behind the tables.

Gabrielle sat down wearily and Xena put her arms around her mate.

“You are amazing,” Xena whispered in her ear.

“Thanks, I’ll admit I’m tired,” Gabrielle smiled and stood back up when the Council returned to their chairs.

Meryl stood. “Because the charge was brought in proxy by a Regent and it has been rescinded by the Goddess making the charge, the Council declares this mattered settled. The transference of the rank of Queen will be left to the Black Forest tribe. Queen Gabrielle, this was an impossible situation to judge and we hope that you will continue to work for the better of the Nation without any malice towards any Amazon.”

“I want to thank the Council for their willingness to look at everything,” Gabrielle said formally. “I hold no malice against any Amazon but reserve some anger for my patron Goddess.”

Revita and several other Council members nodded in agreement.

“This Council is closed,” Meryl said firmly.

Gabrielle reached behind her and pulled out Xena’s side dagger and placed it in her own belt. Placing her sais in their familiar position on the outside of her boots.

“Gabrielle?” Xena asked softly.

“Artemis owes me some kind of explanation,” Gabrielle growled.

Xena turned her mate to look at her as Gabrielle’s green eyes flashed with anger.

“Artemis wanted you to be the instrument of her own revenge,” Xena said softly, watching Artemis out of the corner of her eye as the goddess argued with Eponi. “Cleopatra played as many sexual games as Antony, we just didn’t know it. Cleo got Artemis into bed and Artemis let her guard down. Cleo then let Antony in bed with them without telling Artemis.”

“Oh gods, no,” Gabrielle whimpered.

“Yes, Artemis gave up part of her godhood during sex, apparently most of the gods have to when they’re with a human,” Xena explained, keeping her voice low as Yakut and Karita kept friends and well wishers back from the couple. “Antony took advantage and tormented her, emotionally raping her and beating her with Cleo’s blessing and taunting.”

Gabrielle closed her eyes and let Xena pull her into an embrace.

“She doesn’t want any of the Olympians to know,” Xena continued. “Artemis is feeling guilty and is afraid she’ll lose the respect of the women warriors if they know she was beaten physically and sexually humiliated by a mortal man.”

“That’s why she took it personally and hard when I couldn’t kill him,” Gabrielle muttered.

“Yes, exactly,” Xena nodded.

Gabrielle pulled out of Xena’s arms and turned towards Artemis.

“Your gift is healing,” the bard heard a male voice whisper in her ear and nodded, stepping forward slowly.

“Artemis!” she snapped. “I was your Chosen for years, face and answer me! In private, if you please!”

Artemis looked as if she was about to start throwing energy bolts at Gabrielle but the smaller demi-god stood her ground as everyone went quiet around them, including the Council members.

Artemis glared for a moment and then both disappeared.

Xena growled and kicked the chair over.

Gabrielle glanced around and found she was in a small clearing next to a river facing Artemis. On her hands were cestus; wide leather thongs that were weighted with lead in the palm and across the knuckles. Typically worn by boxers and gladiators fighting hand to hand, Gabrielle was familiar with them.

Artemis was wearing the same and no other weapons.

Gabrielle shook her head sadly.

“Artemis, don’t do this,” Gabrielle urged as Artemis began to circle her.

“You failed me!” Artemis hissed and Gabrielle felt her own anger rising.

“And you failed me, damnit!” Gabrielle snapped back and dodged a right fist heading for her eyes. “How in Tartarus am I supposed to fight you? You’re a Goddess!”

“Here we’re on equal terms, just like when I was with Cleopatra and she betrayed me,” Artemis shouted, lashing out at Gabrielle again.

The bard didn’t move quickly enough and found herself on the ground rubbing her jaw. Gabrielle threw her legs up, catching Artemis in the stomach and carrying the Goddess over her head as Artemis tried to jump on her.

Both goddess and woman regained the feet, holding their fists up defensively.

“I know what happened with Antony!” Gabrielle growled, sending her own fists out in a pattern that rocked Artemis on her feet, nursing a bruised nose.

Artemis surprised Gabrielle with a spinning kick that caught the bard along side her head and knocked her to the grass. The enraged Goddess followed through with a kick to Gabrielle’s ribs that sent the bard onto her back. Gabrielle grabbed Artemis’ foot and twisted it, sending Artemis to the grass with her.

“You got hurt by a man!” Gabrielle shouted as she leaped to her feet. “Get over it!”

“I had never been touched by a man!” Artemis shouted as she got to her feet.

“So what?” Gabrielle growled. “How many women have had it worse? I was raped and you weren’t there!”

Gabrielle saw Artemis hesitate, her eyes confused.

“I was your Chosen and you weren’t there, Artemis,” Gabrielle snapped, letting the old wounds open up. She had never really faced Artemis with it. Gabrielle had asked the questions but hadn’t owned up to her anger about the past. Now it was hitting her and she was going to bring it out now. “I don’t care if it was part of my Fate! How do you think I felt, I called for Xena, I called for Hercules, I called for you and none of you were there!”

“None of us were allowed to interfere,” Artemis protested.

“Then how in Tartarus am I supposed to know what happened to you? You didn’t tell me, you didn’t talk to me,” Gabrielle countered. “I could have helped you.”

“How?” Artemis snapped.

“I’ve been there! I lost count how many men were all over me in just one day,” Gabrielle shouted, wiping away angry tears. “That went on for days! Then that damned Bacchanalia in the Spirit Land.”

“You know I couldn’t help with that,” Artemis frowned, her anger fading.

“Knowing it in my head and feeling it in my heart are two different things,” Gabrielle explained. “I was with Bacchus!” she shouted, ramming her fist in a tree.

“I was there when I could after it,” Artemis protested.

“I know,” Gabrielle said wearily. “Have you thought about why Antony didn’t rape you?”

“He said that Cleopatra didn’t need a poor substitute for a man and…and took her, tormenting me with her pleasure. He said he couldn’t even work up the physical desire for me,” Artemis whispered.

“Why didn’t you zap Antony into pieces after he touched you?” Gabrielle asked.

Artemis looked troubled and glanced away, refusing to meet Gabrielle’s eyes.

“I…I…I don’t know,” Artemis admitted.

“You were ashamed and feeling guilty and just wanted to get away from there,” Gabrielle suggested.

Artemis continued to frown.

“So you wanted me to carry out your revenge without telling me and then took it out on me when I couldn’t do it,” Gabrielle said bitterly. “Why didn’t you get mad at me about Lycrissus?”

“What?” Artemis asked, suddenly confused.

“The owner of the gladiator school, one of my rapists and owner,” Gabrielle explained. “Why didn’t you demand that I take revenge on at least one of my rapists and slave owner? I am an Amazon Queen and the men who raped me and the man who owned me are still alive. You didn’t demand I take their lives.”

“I don’t know, I guess I thought you would handle that eventually,” Artemis said slowly, no longer looking for openings to hit the bard.

Gabrielle shook her head. “Look inside yourself, Artemis. You didn’t think of demanding it from me because you didn’t even think about it.”

“That’s not fair and it is not true!” Artemis shouted in protest.

“Yes it is,” Gabrielle argued, tears of anger and rage escaping from her eyes. “You’ve cared and ached for me when I was hurt but you dismissed it once I was out of danger. Now that you know what it feels like, it means more to you.”

“You’re saying I didn’t care until I went through it?” Artemis demanded, her eyes angry and hurt.

“Yes, to a point,” Gabrielle nodded, careful to keep Artemis’ hands in sight. “No one knows what it’s like except someone who’s been there. Artemis, you can’t blame me for what Antony did to you and you can’t blame me for Cleopatra’s betrayal. You just used Eponi almost as badly as Cleo used you.”

Artemis drew back to hit Gabrielle and the bard waited, not raising her hands to defend herself. The goddess hesitated and dropped her fist.

“Amazon shouldn’t be fighting Amazon,” Gabrielle said softly. “You have to find another way to get past this.”

“Why couldn’t you just kill him?” Artemis suddenly shouted, her hands clenched into fists again.

“Why couldn’t you?” Gabrielle countered. “The same reason I haven’t faced Lycrassius, fear and guilt.”

“Fear?” Artemis frowned.

“You may be a goddess, Artemis, but you were a woman then and you were hurt in the worst possible way,” Gabrielle said gently. “You were afraid of feeling that helpless again if you faced him.”

Artemis closed her eyes in anger as her body shook. Gabrielle waited patiently, her own anger just below the surface. Just the thought of Lycrassius and all the others who had raped her was enough to bring on an almost berserk fury that she was fighting against.

The question would be if one of them would snap or work past it.

Artemis snapped with a scream, launching herself at Gabrielle as the bard slipped mentally into Dancer, the gladiator and Champion of Rome.

Xena paced restlessly by the main fire of the village while Yakut and Karita talked with Otere and some of the other Northern Amazons from neighboring tribes. The warrior noticed Hallvor and Eponi arguing on the edge of the village and neither looked happy.

Several Amazons yelped in surprise when Gabrielle appeared out of nowhere in front of Xena. They tried to look nonchalant but everyone was looking at the Amazon Queen with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension. Most of them hadn’t even seen a goddess or god and it seemed that Xena and Gabrielle dealt with deities all the time.

Xena quickly checked her mate over visually, taking in the bard’s tear streaked face, bruised, battered and bloody body and that her mate looked very tired.

Gabrielle was able to stand but Xena could tell her mate was hurting.

The warrior sighed and opened her arms.

“We seem to be hugging a lot the last few days,” Gabrielle muttered.

“I’m not complaining,” Xena grinned as Gabrielle pulled back and they walked over toward Yakut and the others. “What happened?”

“Artemis and I are fine,” Gabrielle said softly. “We yelled, we argued, we threw a few punches, I threw some verbal ones and then she broke down. She let the rage hit and I guess some of my old wounds came to the surface and we went off on each other. I became Dancer and she went berserk. We finally couldn’t hit each other any more. Artemis finally talked about what happened. Artemis knew I understood and she finally understood some of my pain.”

“What do you mean?”

“I yelled at her for leaving me in the hands of the Romans, fate or not, and she’s finally understanding the pain I went through,” Gabrielle attempted to shrug.

“And then?” Xena asked.

“We held each other and cried until we were sick from crying so much. I think women who have been abused will find Artemis a little more understanding now. She was like a child going through their first real heartache.”

“The Olympians are a lot like children, with that much power and people worshipping them, they can be mostly spoiled brats,” Xena agreed.

“Now this young teenage girl has gone through her first major trauma,” Gabrielle nodded. “I think she’ll be okay. Aphrodite and Cupid showed up, wrapped their arms around her and disappeared after I healed her some.”

“You did what?” Xena asked with a frown.

“I healed her somewhat,” Gabrielle said softly. “Her emotions are so much more out of control because of the god thing. Cupid and Dite were letting her know that she’s not alone and is loved, what every survivor needs.”

“You didn’t have any energy to spare, though.”

“Thanks for noticing,” Gabrielle smiled as her head dropped back and Xena grabbed her mate.

Gabrielle was surprised to open her eyes and see Eponi sitting next to her bed and not Xena, Yakut, Karita, Hercules, or anyone else.

“Pony?” she asked as she sat up slowly.

“You’ve been asleep most of the afternoon,” Pony said calmly. “Kinda reminds me of when I found you in that village suffering from the poisoned grain.”

Gabrielle smiled. “Yeah, you were intent on challenging me and killing me. Want a second shot?”

“No,” Pony smiled a sad smile. “I was wrong, Gabrielle. I shouldn’t have let Artemis push me into this. The Black Forest Amazons won’t accept your resignation for this either. They agree that I can be Queen in your absence but you will always remain a Queen to the Nation. That’s the decision of the Black Forest Amazons, Gabrielle.”

“Thank you, Pony,” Gabrielle said gratefully.

“Artemis made a public apology to the Nation and to you,” Pony continued. “She told me privately why she went a little insane. I’m still angry that you didn’t kill Antony even if I understand a little of it. I saw Ephiny, Solari and the others crucified.”

“I was crucified for all of you, Pony,” Gabrielle pointed out, her voice a little harder. “What happened to Artemis will drive most any woman, human or goddess, a little insane. I’ve been there too,” Gabrielle said. “Where’s Xena?”

“With Hercules, Iolaus and Asher,” Pony answered softly, handing Gabrielle a cup of fresh spring water. “Xena’s bringing Asher over now.”

“I’m tired of it all, Pony,” Gabrielle admitted, lying back on the bed.

“What happened between you and Artemis, she wouldn’t give details?” Pony asked.

“She was hurting from what Antony did to her and didn’t know how to let it out and deal with it,” Gabrielle tried to explain. “I used some of my god inherited gift of healing to help ease her pain and let her know that she’s not alone and doesn’t have to go through this by herself. Unfortunately, it takes a bit out of me.”

“Well, Xena said to make sure you were to stay in bed if you woke up before she got back,” Pony said.

“No risk there, I’m feeling weak as a newborn pup,” Gabrielle admitted.

“Gabrielle….”

“No, Pony,” Gabrielle said wearily. “No more apologies.”

“I failed the tribe as Regent and I failed my mate’s trust in me,” Pony admitted softly.

Gabrielle opened her eyes and frowned at Pony’s pained expression.

“Hallvor is leaving me and the tribe and some of the other Amazons are questioning my leadership abilities,” Pony admitted.

“We’ll deal with the tribe,” Gabrielle muttered. “I still have faith in you, Pony. You’re stubborn but you’ll be a good leader. As for Hallvor, she feels she owes us a blood debt.”

“Vikings can be rather thick-headed,” Pony agreed. “She’s leaving me though.”

“I’m sorry, Eponi,” Gabrielle said softly and the Regent wiped away her tears.

“We’ve all got a lot of healing to do,” Pony admitted. “She’s heading north with the Siberian Amazons.”

“Your job will be to mend the tribe, mine is to go home with my family and raise my son,” Gabrielle said firmly.

“Think you can stay out of it for awhile?” Pony questioned.

“I hope so, Pony,” Gabrielle said sincerely. “I really hope so. Xena and I hit a couple of bad spots and it’s taken some time to get close again. Asher is a handful and a delight. There are times I want to strangle him and then hug him in the next moment.”

Eponi laughed. “You sound like a normal mom,” she smiled for the first time since Gabrielle’s return.

“That’s what I want for awhile,” Gabrielle nodded.

Pony got up to order food brought from the nearest Amazon and Gabrielle felt a warm breeze pass over her forehead.

“Thank you, Father, Cupid and ‘Dite,” she whispered and felt a gentle kiss on her cheek from someone unseen.

The End
Way of the Valkryie

Storyline: Catching up over some years with Xena and Gabrielle. Major character death alert. Sasha comes home for additional training. She’s facing her final test as a Valkyrie which includes some fighting and an unexpected and painful twist.
Xena stopped her horse, chakram instantly in hand.

“What is it?” Hercules asked softly from the seat of the wagon. He glanced in the back and found Iolaus and Gabrielle still asleep with an awake, but quiet, toddler Asher between them. It was getting late on the road and the shadows were long and somewhat eerie in the deep forest.

“My hackles are tingling, it feels like Ares,” Xena complained, her eyes darting around.

“We would have heard if he got out of that sarcophagus,” Hercules protested.

“I said it felt like Ares, not that it was,” Xena snapped, hating the familiar feeling tingling all over her body.

Hercules drew his sword when a cloaked figure stepped out of the shadows in front of the wagon.

The figure pulled back the hood to reveal an older woman, one who looked a lot like Xena’s mother, Hercules thought.

“Hecate?” Xena asked softly. The presence of her deity mother was enough of a puzzle in northern Germania; the fact that Hecate was holding something in her arm was even more of a puzzle.

“Yes, daughter,” Hecate said simply. “May I approach?”

Xena’s eyes narrowed as Hecate smirked at her warrior daughter. Both of them knew that Hecate could probably level the forest if she wanted to and there wouldn’t be much Xena could do to stop her.

“Of course, Mother,” Xena smiled back, sheathing her chakram and glancing back at the sleeping Gabrielle. After the bard’s emotional battle at the Amazon All Thing and her physical battle with Artemis, Xena wasn’t surprised that Gabrielle was sleeping soundly. To help heal the wounds between the goddess and her Chosen, Gabrielle had pushed Artemis into a berserker rage, matched only by her own rage of years of abuse at the hands of others. The rift between them had been healed but Gabrielle had expended a lot of energy and now her body was screaming for some time to heal itself.

Iolaus was also feeling the effects of traveling; his crippled bones no longer welcoming long travel. He gladly curled up next to Gabrielle in the back of the wagon to help keep an eye on a precocious toddler named Asher.

Xena dismounted and smiled as Hecate pulled back her robe and bright eyes looked at the warrior with a mixture of curiosity and slight fear. The warrior knelt down as Hecate placed the boy in front of her.

“Hello,” Xena said in Greek. “I’m Xena.”

“Virgil!” the boy said loudly. “Pappa says it’s like the poet cause he likes bards.”

“Pappa?” Xena felt her heart skip a beat as she looked up into her mother’s eyes.

“He still lives but Meg is having a hard time caring for him, the inn and a small boy,” Hecate explained.

“Momma says that you’re my aunt,” Virgil grinned as the moon peaked out from behind a cloud and he got a look at Xena’s face. “You look like Momma.”

“She wants you to foster him for the season,” Hecate continued.

“I thought Father said no interference or help in our lives,” Xena said thoughtfully as she picked Virgil up in her arms as she smiled at him.

“He did,” Hecate smiled. “You also know I don’t listen to the Olympians. Take care of the boy. I’ll take him and Asher to Meg’s in the Fall, if you wish.”

“Might be good for both of them,” Xena nodded, at the same time hating the thought of Asher being away from them for any length of time, especially four months at a time. It was also common among families and especially among the nobles to “foster” their children out to relatives or liege lords for training and upbringing.

“Did you know we have a son?” Xena smiled at the boy in her arms.

“Momma said you did,” he nodded.

“He’s in the back of that wagon with his other mom, want to meet them?”

“Sure!” he said enthusiastically and Xena couldn’t help but smile as she handed him to Hercules. She turned back to Hecate.

“How long does Joxer have?” she asked softly.

“He’ll go before next spring,” Hecate answered.

“Xena?” a confused voice called from the back of the wagon and Xena grinned impishly at her mother.

“Now we’ve got two boys, you’re cruel, mother,” the warrior laughed.

Hecate smiled and nodded. “Makes up for all you put your mother through.”

“How are our families?” Xena asked, hoping to get all the information she could before Hecate disappeared.

“Doing well, although Cyrene is slowing down a bit. Toris is taking over more of the Inn each season but doesn’t mind,” Hecate answered. “Gabrielle’s mother is happy with her husband and Lila has five children.”

“Thank you,” Xena said gratefully. She hated living so far away from her home and knew that it bothered Gabrielle not to be able to visit their families more often but it just wasn’t practical for them to live in Greece or in the Roman Empire.

Antony was still alive and had followers and sympathizers in the Empire. After suffering defeat at Octavian’s hands because of Xena and Gabrielle’s interference, the Greeks knew that he would skin them alive if he ever got close. She and Gabrielle had also earned the wrath of the newest War God, Mars, son of Ares.

“Go see to your new family member and explain to your mate,” Hecate laughed, stepped back into the shadows and was gone.

# # #

Journal Entry

That’s how Virgil came to stay with us several months out of the year and Asher to stay with Meg the other months.

Gabrielle chewed thoughtfully on the end of her quill as she looked around the small clearing in front of the cabin. The bard was keeping an eye out for both her mate and her cabin mate. Xena was due back from checking the trap lines they had in the woods and mountains. Hercules had gone to visit a familiar clearing just out of sight of the cabin.

The demi-god often visited it when the work was finally done or the ground too hard with cold to work. Gabrielle knew he spent many hours by the grave that now was the resting place of his beloved traveling companion and mate, Iolaus.

The boys were more than a handful at times. They are under two years apart in age and have similar temperaments. Asher quickly established himself as the more aggressive leader of the two and Virgil as the joker. We had Virgil for three months when Apollo appeared in the middle of the night. We quickly bundled the boys up and found ourselves in Joxer and Meg’s bedroom. They were waiting for us, Joxer barely hanging on long enough to make his goodbyes to his son, wife, and us, his daughter yet unborn.

Gods, I still break into tear and that was four years ago. The poet Virgil died that same year, I wonder if that was an omen? Joxer looked like a skeleton with a little bit of flesh still left on the bones and I had to keep from breaking into tears just at the sight of him as Meg held him in her arms.

I sometimes tell stories of Joxer’s kindness and big heart when I travel to the other steadings. I know it pleases Xena that I go out occasionally and revert back to my bardic self, telling stories of our lives together or heroic tales that the Vikings love. They can’t get enough stories about Greece, Egypt and other foreign lands. There’s a natural curiosity that I find refreshing. They want to learn about other cultures, lands and people and not with the thought of conquering them like the Romans do. Of course the Vikings want to raid, grab all the riches and slaves they can but they don’t want to wipe out a culture just because they think the Vikings are better than everyone else. I find that attitude very disturbing about the Romans.

“Joxer, I brought them,” Apollo said softly as Virgil ran forward to hug his father, trying not to cry. Xena and Gabrielle had tried to prepare the boy, knowing about when Joxer was going to die made it imperative to explain to the boy but it also made it more difficult to face. It had been like a shadow looming over them; getting longer and darker by the day.

Joxer managed to open his eyes and lift his arm to touch his son. He smiled and looked up at Meg, his eyes bright with pain and the pain herbs the healers were giving him to make him more comfortable.

Xena closed her eyes for a moment. She had worked with the village healer when she was younger and had a talent for the herbs and workings. The warrior knew death when it was near and Xena had no idea how Joxer had held on as long as he had.

“I…love you…Meg,” he whispered.

Meg, tears running down her face, leaned over and kissed his forehead gently.

“I know, lover,” she said softly.

Joxer let Virgil crawl up next to him even though they could see it caused him pain. Asher held tightly to Xena’s hand as Gabrielle walked over and knelt by Joxer’s side.

“Joxer,” Gabrielle said softly, trying not to cry in front of him.

“I always…loved…you,” he whispered. “Meg knew.”

“I know, Joxer,” Gabrielle choked out. “You’ve always been the best friend I could want from anyone.”

“Xena…good…friend…thanks…”

“You always were a good man, Joxer,” Xena said firmly. “You won’t be forgotten.”

Joxer smiled a small smile and closed his eyes. After a few moments, Meg broke into tears and drew Virgil into her arms, over her protruding, pregnant belly.

Xena and Asher wrapped their arms around Gabrielle as she wept.

Then we received word the next year that my mother had fallen and broken her hip. She wasn’t able to get out of bed and took fluid in her lungs. Gods, her husband wrote me that she died peacefully but I know how that death hurts, being stuck on a Roman cross produces the same liquid on the lungs. I guess it’s normal that you want all of your friends and family to go peacefully or quickly and I’m no different. I remember begging Artemis for a reprieve when we learned of Joxer’s illness. She asked me if I would beg for all of my family and friends when it was their time. I guess I will, I know I won’t get answers from the gods but I still think of myself more as human than immortal.

I would wish a warrior’s death for most of our Viking friends and a peaceful passing in sleep for our families. Someone asked Julius Caesar at dinner one night how he wanted to die, he replied “surprised and quickly,” or something like that. I understand that. I don’t want to go slowly like Joxer or my mother did.

Also earlier in that year, Meg had a daughter. A beautiful dark haired girl she named Rachel. It doesn’t make up for the loss of a husband but the boys and Rachel keep Meg busy. The boys are older and starting to take small responsibilities around the place, helping pick up things around the cabin, pulling weeds in the garden, things like that. Both of them are clever and can be terrors if you leave them alone too long to plan or explore. I still remember Xena balancing precariously along the top of the barn roof to reach Virgil as he clung to the metal guardian. Virgil had bragged that he could take on a griffin by himself and Asher dared him to find one and prove it. The little rug rat somehow got up to the top of the barn to grab the wrought iron griffin that watches over the farm. One look down and he became terrified and couldn’t move.

Neither of them could sit for two days once Xena got Virgil down safely. I thought I lost years off my life as we watched her reaching for the frightened little boy.

Gabrielle looked up, keeping an eye on the two boys playing tag in the grass. Asher was older but Virgil was already lean like his father and had apparently skipped inheriting his father’s awkwardness. The bard thought he moved more like his Uncle Jett, the deadly assassin. Gabrielle shook her head with a smile.

“I wonder what happened to Jett and Jace?” she whispered to herself.

Octavian ‘reluctantly’ accepted the title of August Caesar and Emperor from the Senate. We’ve watched the politics from Rome closely and know that he carefully orchestrated it during these long years of his reign over Rome. He always was clever and a perfect successor to Caesar.

I remember being surprised at my reaction when we learned that Antony and Cleopatra had been defeated once more by Octavian a year after we left them at Actium. The defeat led to their downfall and joint suicide. I was surprised, after everything Xena and I had been through, that I felt nothing over the death of Antony, my sworn enemy. And I felt nothing for the death of Cleopatra, a one-time friend. I knew then that Xena was right in keeping us in Germania and somewhat isolated here on our farm. We needed a break from saving the world and being heroes.

Of course, having two small boys to raise and running a small farm takes all of our energy. The hard work, cold winters, and long suffering from old wounds also took Iolaus from us two spring seasons ago.

Gabrielle watched as Asher tried to tackle Virgil and missed, sending her young son face first into the dirt. The bard quickly capped her bottle of ink and jumped over the railing as he began to howl from skinned knees and bumped nose.

After settling the boys down, she returned to the scrolls.

Then the winter came and Iolaus was in such pain from the old wounds.

Gabrielle set the scrolls aside, unable to write any more right then as she remembered her friend.

Gabrielle smiled as she read her personal scrolls from years before. It had been a long time since she had read them and she had to laugh at some of the antics listed; she often wondered how two small boys could get into so much trouble that seemed years beyond their means.

The worst was when Asher decided at age 10 that he was big enough to ride Hercules’ horse; Uncle Herk’s war horse. With the encroaching Romans getting closer every summer, most of the tribe had been preparing for conflicts and skirmishes, the small family included. Even though Gabrielle could prove she was a free woman and a citizen of Rome, they all knew that most of the time soldiers attacked first and asked questions later. Hercules and Xena bought war horses from southern traders and had been working with Eddval’s warriors, teaching them some of the typical Roman moves.

Asher was fascinated by the horses and was a natural. Virgil was adequate for a 9 year old and liked riding but not as much as his foster brother. During their last trip to their Greek home with Meg, Asher had broken his leg trying to ride a horse too large and wild for him.

Gabrielle looked at the scroll, remembering the day Asher proved that he hadn’t learned his lesson at Meg’s.

Xena growled and grabbed Gabrielle around the waist when gentle persuasion failed and the bard wouldn’t move from Asher’s bedside. The warrior yanked the weakly protesting mother away from the bed and lifted the semi-conscious Gabrielle into her arms. She turned to Hercules and found he was already moving towards the bed to watch the boy.

Xena tried not to cry as she carried her mate into their room to their bed.

Asher’s injuries were deadly and they all knew it. Xena thought the broken ribs would heal but the trickle of blood coming from his ears and swollen head frightened them all into fervent prayers and Gabrielle into action.

For three days she had been at Asher’s bedside, feeding him her own life energy as she continually healed him. Xena knew after the first two candle-marks that Gabrielle was the only thing keeping the boy alive.

Xena fell to her knees next to Gabrielle, finally weeping.

They had let Gabrielle stay with him for three days until the bard was delirious from exhaustion and didn’t even have enough energy to lift a cup to her lips. She had refused to leave his side and both Xena and Hercules began to fear that Gabrielle would trade the last of her energy in a futile attempt to keep Asher alive.

Xena had gone outside and raged for a quarter of a candle-mark. It seemed she had to choose between Gabrielle’s life and one more day of Asher’s unconscious one. Even with Gabrielle’s god-given gift of healing, the boy was only holding onto life and not improving and Gabrielle was getting worse.

Xena, hating herself, life, and everything in the universe, had chosen Gabrielle over losing both of them. The warrior fell into an exhausted asleep, laying her head on the bed, next to Gabrielle’s hand.

It was morning when Xena opened her eyes, blinking against the sunlight coming in through their window. She realized sometime during the night Hercules had picked her up and put her to bed next to Gabrielle because she didn’t remember getting into bed on her own.

Gabrielle was sleeping soundly and her breathing was steady. The warrior dashed out the door and into Asher’s room and skidded to a stop, blinking in disbelief.

The boy was sitting up and chatting with Virgil and Hercules. He smiled at his mom and Hercules grinned.

“He woke up about half a mark ago,” Hercules shrugged. “The ribs are still broken but the head is fine. That last bolt Gabrielle sent must have worked.”

Xena said a rare prayer of thanks to the Gods and quickly hugged her son gently before returning to her mate.

That was a full turn of seasons ago. I haven’t written in these scrolls for quite awhile. I haven’t had the heart to write the news. Reading over the scrolls, I realized that I wrote that Iolaus had died but not the details. I know now that I just couldn’t face it.

Gabrielle looked up from the hearth as she poured hot water over the muslin bag containing the pain herbs as Xena walked in from the hall. “How is he?” she asked softly.

Xena’s jaw tightened and tears filled her eyes. “The pain and breathing are both worse. I don’t think he’s coming out of this one.”

Gabrielle’s head dropped, tears filling her eyes. “I could do some more healing,” she suggested.

“No, Little One,” Xena said softly, bending over and wrapping her arms around Gabrielle and lightly nuzzling the blonde’s neck. “It’s time; Herk is saying goodbye to him.”

“It’s too soon,” Gabrielle complained, letting the tears flow.

“It’s always too soon,” Xena added. “Come on, Gabrielle.”

Xena held Gabrielle for a few moments as her mate cried. Gabrielle pulled out of Xena’s arms and moved down the hallway to Hercules’ and Iolaus’ room.

Hercules was leaning against the headboard with his arms wrapped around his smaller mate, as Iolaus tried to sleep sitting up. They knew if he lay down, he’d drown in his own fluids.

Gabrielle and the others had tried to ignore the hunter’s hair going more gray than blonde and his body slowing down with each season. The wounds that he had suffered throughout his life, especially the crippling of his arm when Gabrielle had been taken as a slave, had settled into his bones and brought about an almost blinding pain in the cold season.

The last three winters had seen him struggling against pneumonia but he remained stubborn and wouldn’t agree to move further south when Hercules suggested it. Iolaus had demanded to stay and help raise the boys.

Asher and Virgil sat against the wall, watching their Uncle Iolaus struggle to breath.

Xena moved to squat down in front of them and took them into her arms as they tried to stay strong and not cry in front of their Foster fathers.

Gabrielle moved to sit down lightly on the edge of the bed, handing Hercules the cup of tea that would help Iolaus with the pain and his breathing.

“Thanks,” he said softly.

“I’m sorry, Herk,” she whispered.

“I told him it was alright to cross over,” he responded.

Gabrielle nodded and reached out to stroke Iolaus’ cheek and then moved to the end of the bed.

Iolaus coughed and clung to Hercules’ arms. He opened his eyes when the coughing finally eased up and attempted to smile at the group.

“Love you,” he whispered.

“We love you, Iolaus,” Xena responded. “You will be remembered, my friend, my brother.”

“I love you, Iolaus,” Hercules said softly. “Let go.”

Iolaus grinned a familiar smile and winced as he tried to breathe. Then he closed his eyes and his head dropped forward.

Xena began singing softly and Asher started a low beat with his hands on his legs.

After a few moments, Iolaus stopped struggling and then stopped breathing.

Asher got up and helped Virgil to his feet. Gabrielle followed the two of them out as Xena stood up and moved to help her half brother with his mate.

I admit it was so hard. Even harder than losing Joxer. We had time to prepare for Joxer. Hellfire, we had time to prepare for Iolaus, we just ignored him getting worse every year. We were in such denial, even when Hercules would curl up in a chair with Iolaus in his arms.

I guess I’m able to write about this now because of recent events. May the gods smile kindly on Xena and everyone: we had to say goodbye to Cyrene and Argo. We received word from Torris last moon that Cyrene had gone to sleep one night and never woke up.

Gods, this is worst part of being immortal so far, watching our families grow older while we don’t. Now we’re losing them to the inevitable. Xena was devastated and I pretty much handled things on the road as we rushed back to Greece for the funeral. I think she would have run horse after horse into the ground to make it back in time to say goodbye to her mother if I hadn’t insisted we rest along the way.

We did make it back for the funeral. Cyrene was laid to rest next to her son. She was such an important part of our lives. She held me so many times, especially after Xena and I would fuss about something.

She was so remarkable. I never thought I would see Xena, the mighty warrior and conqueror fear anything until I followed her to home all those years ago. Losing her mother’s love and approval destroyed my warrior. I knew then what I was called to do and stood by her. When Cyrene forgave Xena for her past, I could see Xena’s spirit and heart soaring and knew we could face anything from that moment on. Even if Xena didn’t know it at the time, I still had to convince her that night that she needed a friend. Took her even longer to recognize me as a lover.

Gods, I’m going to miss Cyrene!

Argo, the loyal and way too intelligent friend of Xena, in the body of a horse. We found Argo alive when we got to Amphipolis for the funeral but she went down and wouldn’t get back up that night. Xena spent the night with Argo’s head in her lap, talking and singing to her beloved horse. Argo’s spirit passed on at dawn.

Gabrielle looked over the scrolls and wiped away several tears. She had more to add now. Her own mother had passed on from some illness that swept through the growing town of Poteidia after breaking a hip.

The bard sighed and leaned back into Xena’s arms as her mate walked up behind her and wrapped her arms around the smaller woman.

“Your Mom or my mom?” the warrior asked softly.

“Both, I haven’t written in my scrolls in forever,” Gabrielle explained. “I’ve barely even met my own nieces and nephews and we have no idea where your grandson is. It feels like it’s slipping away, Xena.”

“It is, time is going to take our families and friends, my love,” Xena said softly.

“I know, but it doesn’t mean I have to like this part of living forever with you,” Gabrielle muttered. “We haven’t seen Sasha in ages!”

“And Asher and Virgil haven’t made it home for the summer, I know,” Xena laughed softly. Gabrielle always got irritable at the first sign of Spring, none of them could wait to see Asher and Virgil for the summer months and they both tended to get a little impatient waiting for Hercules to return to the North with the boys.

“I’m sorry, lover,” Gabrielle smiled and leaned against Xena’s arm, loving the feel of arms around her.

“Maybe I can help?” a voice asked in Germanic from the doorway.

Xena spun with her chakram in hand and Gabrielle was on her feet with sai in hand, years of instinct and reflexes still strong in both women. Both got along with the Viking custom of never being too far from weapons, even in your own hall or home.

The dark-haired figure grinned at them, her blue eyes shining with amusement.

“Sasha!” Xena squeaked and Gabrielle laughed, sheathing her sai to dash into the taller girl’s arms as Xena followed, hugging both mate and daughter tightly.

Gabrielle smiled and stepped back to appraise her adopted daughter as Xena stepped to the other side, doing the same thing.

Sasha, at 24 summer seasons, was a full grown woman but both mothers still could see the small and impish child they had raised. The Viking had her mother and father’s black hair and Xena’s blue eyes. She had Ares’ smirk but had somehow grabbed Gabrielle’s strange sense of humor.

Xena’s eyes narrowed. “When did you stop aging?” she asked softly.

Gabrielle had been wondering the same thing.

“When I was sixteen summers,” Sasha answered easily. “When I was accepted as a Valkyrie in training and went through a ritual for it.”

“Let me guess,” Xena said ruefully, “a shamanic experience to the Underworld, facing several challenges and actual death.”

“Yes, Freya wasn’t worried,” Sasha explained, pulling off her travel cloak and hanging it on a peg by the door as she stepped through the main door. “I am the daughter of gods and demi-gods.”

“Don’t remind me of your father,” Xena growled and Gabrielle smirked.

It was about 20 years since Xena had last faced Ares, sealing him in a tomb, hopefully for eternity. It was also just recently that Gabrielle could even think of Sasha’s father without going into a rage.

“Yes, Mom,” Sasha grinned, pulling her sword belt off and hanging it on the back of a chair.

Without the cloak, both mothers could see that she was as tall as Xena, as lean and wiry as a hunting hound and with a tan that spoke of plenty of time outside, even in the winter.

“So, how many hearts have you broken this year?” Gabrielle asked, pulling down a small keg of mead for all of them.

“A few,” Sasha admitted with a grin.

“Marriage yet?” Xena asked. Sasha was well beyond the normal marrying age in the Viking North but the fact she was also a Valkyrie and a demi-goddess meant time had slowed down for her.

“No, not yet,” the Valkyrie responded. “The guys here?”

“No, we expect them any day now,” Gabrielle grinned as Xena brought goblets to the table.

“How goes the training?” Xena asked as Gabrielle began pouring.

“It goes well, I face the final testing soon.”

Gabrielle and Xena glanced at each other, both catching the hesitation in Sasha’s voice.

“What is it, Sash?” Xena asked.

“I was hoping I could stay around here for awhile,” Sasha said slowly. “If you’re still the kick ass warrior you’ve always been, I could use some additional training.”

“What is the test for a Valkyrie?” Gabrielle asked, her bardic curiosity showing.

“Can’t say too much, Mum,” Sasha shrugged, her eyes glinting in amusement at Gabrielle’s frustrated expression. “I can say that part of the test is to face the other Valkyries in a test of combat skills. I’ve been training with them for years, we all know each other’s moves, forwards and backwards.”

“You’re hoping I can show you some new tricks,” Xena smirked and nodded. “Good idea.”

“Maybe I can show you a few as well,” Sasha bragged and grinned at her mother’s raised eyebrows.

“Sounds like fun,” Xena grinned in return and Gabrielle shook her head.

“Who are you going to as a Valkyrie?” Gabrielle questioned. “Odin or Freya’s Hall?”

“Freya,” Sasha smiled and laughed softly as Xena’s smile turned to a frown.

“I know she gets half of the honored dead,” Xena muttered. “She’s also the goddess of sexuality, fertility and such.”

“Yes,” Sasha agreed, catching Gabrielle frowning as well. “Moms, I’m 23 summers old, almost 24. I’ve had sex with a number of men and women. Some in service of the goddess, some for my own pleasure.”

“Now I know how my mom felt when I grew up,” Xena complained with a rueful smile.

“I’m sorry about Grandma Hecuba, Mum,” Sasha said softly to Gabrielle.

“Thank you, Sash,” the bard nodded. Watching her grown daughter and reflecting on the news Sasha was chosen by Freya. Which was worse, sending your child off to war or knowing your daughter was sexually active?

“What is the rest of the testing?” Xena asked.

“Can’t say, Valkyrie stuff,” Sasha responded. “Some of it I won’t learn about until the test.”

“Sasha,” Gabrielle hesitated and saw Xena looking at her, wondering what the serious question could be. “You see the dead as a Valkyrie, right?”

“Yes, Mum,” their daughter grew serious.

“Did you….?” The bard hesitated.

“Iolaus crossed over to the Elysian Fields and will be waiting for Hercules if he ever dies. If he doesn’t then Iolaus will be given the choice to rest forever or come back somehow to Uncle Herk,” Sasha said softly.

“Thank you,” Gabrielle felt Xena’s hand reaching out for hers and squeezed.

“Now, young lady,” Xena smiled, raising her goblet. “To the gods! May they continue to keep busy among themselves!”

Both Sasha and Gabrielle laughed and raised their goblets as well.

Gods, those two are incredible! I thought Xena was good with a sword but Sasha is damned close to being able to beat Xena. She’s better at using the sharp end of a spear but I can still beat her with the staff part. Which tells us a lot: Valkyries aren’t accustomed to fighting Southern Amazon style with chobas and staves.

Instead of just Xena training Sasha, I’ve gotten into the action with staves, chobas and sais and they’re both working on more sword work. Sasha was right, she has managed to show Xena a couple of new things as well, especially fighting with sword and shield. My mate has relied on that chakram for so many years that she never really learned the details of fighting with sword and shield combinations. I practice daily with Sasha, it was one thing I learned in gladiator training – fighting with almost every weapon you could get your hands on. I’m not used to the larger Viking shields though. Gladiator shields for a fighter my size are barely big enough to guard the hand and arm.

Xena hasn’t said anything but I know she’s aware my nightmares are back. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised with the training and practicing, it’s so much like what I went through in that damned school. I wake up thinking Lycrassius is reaching for or whipping me and Xena holds me, as always.

Will these damned memories haunt me forever? That was 25 winters ago. Would Lycrassis even be alive? He’d be somewhere around 55 winters. Old but not that old for a rich Roman; if he hung onto his riches, that is, and stayed out of politics.

It worries me sometimes to have Asher so far away from home and in Roman territory. He looks Northern and speaks Germanic, Latin, Greek and Finnish fluently and can pass for any tribe but I still worry. With Kryck lost to us, I worry like a normal mother, I guess.

I hate having him gone! I love it when both boys are here. I never really thought of myself as mother material when I hit the road with Xena but I do love it so. It somehow makes the losses of our family easier. I do admit that I haven’t a clue how I would ever handle losing Asher or Virgil. I don’t know how we survived losing Solan.

I remember being numb and reacting instinctively to the threat of Mars and Callisto. We really didn’t have time to grieve. Maybe that’s why it hurts so much to lose Iolaus. I know in a way both Xena and I said goodbye to our families when we moved North to get away from Casear and Rome. We knew the day would come when we’d get word that someone had died. I guess we’re human: ignore it and maybe it won’t happen.

I know I’ll always picture my mom in the kitchen and Cyrene moving between tables as she ran the tavern. Argo will always be dancing in a field, waiting for Xena’s whistle.

How in Tartarus are we supposed to survive watching everyone around us grow old and die?

Xena and Sasha broke out of the tree line, dashing towards the house in a dead out run. At first Gabrielle was startled and reached for her sais but relaxed when she realized mother and daughter were racing and neither was about to let the other one win.

The bard laughed as both dove for the steps, slapping their hands on the porch at the same moment. Mother and daughter collapsed onto the stairs, breathing heavily.

Gabrielle grinned. “Tie!” she announced and two sets of blue eyes glared at her, only causing the bard to grin even wider.

“I’m the one you sleep with, Gabrielle,” Xena growled. “Still think it was a tie?”

“No fair!” Sasha protested.

Gabrielle giggled, a familiar warm feeling spreading over her as Xena looked up, her eyes darkening with love and desire.

“How cold is that water?” Sasha asked, pointing to the pump Hercules and Xena had dug the year before.

“Cold enough to chill both of you off!” Gabrielle smirked.

Gabrielle turned back to her scrolls as the duo headed off to get cleaned up for dinner.

“When is this damned test, anyway?” she yelled to Sasha.

“Full moon!” the young Valkyrie yelled back.

“Terrific,” Gabrielle complained. “Just when the blood lust hits around here.”

Gabrielle ignored Xena’s worried expression. No matter how many years they were together, Gabrielle still resented her blood cravings.

“Full moon,” Gabrielle said thoughtfully. “Two weeks.”

The physical training also consisted of helping out around the farm now that Spring was approaching. The tilling of the small fields and everything that went along with getting the farm out of its winter hibernation ensured that all three women were exhausted by nightfall and barely able to eat dinner before dropping off to sleep.

Gabrielle made sure to call a halt to everything occasionally and force her mate and daughter to take breaks. Once even an entire day off lounging by the river behind their home. The bard loved it when Xena was actually relaxing, the warrior turned farmer was always on the move, ever since the first day Gabrielle had seen her. Getting Xena to take time to relax was a major event.

It gave Gabrielle a chance to see sides to her mate that very few others ever got to see. The playful and romantic mate that the bard treasured.

Xena grinned, watching Gabrielle lean back against a tree next to the river. Even if they didn’t physically age, it was still hard work keeping a farm going after all the years they had been here. The warrior was glad when she could get Gabrielle to take a break from the endless work. It softened the bard’s face like nothing else could.

The mother turned in time to duck being hit with Sasha’s latest catch from the river. Her daughter tried to look innocent, as if the flying fish had been an accident but Xena could see the same mischievousness in Sasha’s eyes that she had known in her brother and in Solan.

Xena had to admit, watching Sasha turn back to her fishing, she and Ares had a beautiful daughter together. The warrior was also very grateful that Ares had been an absent father in Sasha’s life.

Xena looked up at the sky and extended her senses, gauging the passing of the season. She hoped the warming temperature meant Hercules would make it back with the boys before the rainy season. It was known to turn the roads into impassable lanes of mud and made rivers raging obstacles of swift moving water.

Sasha turned her head to watch her Mom as Xena sat down on the bank beside her, picking up her own fishing pole.

“Mom, can I ask you something?”

“Sure, anything, kid,” Xena said easily. She was still adjusting to the thought of Sasha having sex with anyone, let alone many anyones but Xena was determined to be an open and communicative parent. She had been so thankful that Cyrene was understanding and supportive after they had talked and Cyrene had forgiven Xena for the past. One thing Cyrene had advised was open communication and a willingness to listen before lecturing.

“I’ve read Mum’s scrolls about how you helped get Hades’ helmet back to him with the help from one of your former lovers,” Sasha began.

“Yes, Marcus,” Xena nodded. “I was there when he died trying to protect an innocent and I was the one he turned to when Hades lost control of Tartarus and the Elysian Fields.”

“And you were with him for that time, knowing he was going to go back, knowing he was going to die again, right?” Sasha continued.

“Yes,” Xena’s eyes became thoughtful and pained. The first time Marcus died, it was early in her travels with Gabrielle and her attempt at redemption. Before she had discovered she had fallen in love with the bard. The second time, Xena knew she was in love with Gabrielle but thought Gabrielle had no clue and no interest in women or her, romantically.

“What was it like? Knowing he was going to die?” Sasha asked softly. “I mean, it wasn’t like someone who’s sick or watching someone die on the battlefield.”

Xena frowned. “It was hard,” she admitted, setting the pole aside as she sat her arms on her knees. “What I didn’t tell Gabrielle, what I never told anyone, was that I was the one who killed him when his time was up.”

Sasha blinked, absorbing the information.

Xena nodded at her daughter’s surprised expression. “Marcus could have kept the helmet and lived out the rest of his life, maybe even had been made immortal by the helmet but he chose the right thing.”

“And you killed him,” Sasha said softly, her expression thoughtful.

“Yes, I drove a dagger into his heart after Hades promised to reconsider Marcus’ case,” Xena explained.

“Did it help knowing that Marcus might end up in the Elysian Fields and be happy?” Sasha questioned.

“It helped me live with it,” Xena muttered. “Are you doubting your calling as a Valkyrie, calling heroes to the halls after their death?”

“It’s not just calling the heroes after a battle or violent death, Mom,” Sasha said softly. “It’s picking which heroes will fall in that battle. I have to choose who dies.”

“You’ve already been doing this, haven’t you?”

“Yeah,” Sasha’s frown deepened. “I look at a warrior and know his past deeds and his skills and make my decisions, based on what Freya and Odhinn want from a hero. I haven’t gotten close to any of them.”

“And now you’ll have to?” Xena asked gently. “I really don’t understand the Vikings on this one. I’m not sure that should be left to Valkyries and gods.”

“I know, it all fits in with the Norns, somehow,” Sasha muttered. “I don’t know how and why it works except that it does. The heroes are happy; I’ve escorted many to Odhinn or Freya’s Halls. They are more than happy to be there.”

“It’s your own feelings that you’re having problems with?” Xena asked.

“Yeah, part of it is bringing pleasure to the warrior before the battle that will claim his life,” Sasha explained.

“Getting close to someone who is going to die because you say so,” Xena commented and Sasha nodded. “Not easy to live with, but the other side of that is you escort them to happiness.”

Xena shook her head. “Happiness and pain for you, not easy to live with.”

“No, but what is?” Sasha shrugged, reminding Xena of herself.

Xena and Gabrielle grinned when Hercules and the boys rode into sight two days later. Sasha laughed delightedly and ran to greet her foster father and brothers.

Asher grinned and dropped off his horse easily as Virgil caught his reins. Sasha lifted the boy high in the air and hugged him tightly. She looked up with a grin for Hercules and Virgil.

“I’m so glad you got here,” Sasha laughed. “I’ve missed you guys.”

“We’ve missed you,” Hercules agreed. “Your visit over Yule was nice but too short.”

Sasha sat Asher on his feet and looked him over closely. “Staying away from wild horses?”

“Yup, Mom Meg won’t let me anywhere near the war horses she keeps stabled for the Captain of the Militia,” Asher answered easily.

Sasha looked up into the shy brown eyes of her foster brother.

“And you, Virgil? Keeping him out of trouble?” she teased.

“Nope,” Virgil smiled back. “He keeps me out of trouble.”

Laughing, Hercules dismounted and hugged Xena and Gabrielle as they trotted over to greet everyone. Xena grinned and grabbed Asher by the head and rubbed it quickly with a fist as he howled in mock pain. Gabrielle took the reins of the horses so Virgil could get down.

She hugged Virgil tightly and then Asher, glad to see her son and foster son.

“How’s Meg?” Xena asked Hercules as she turned to hug Virgil.

“Doing well, really,” her half brother answered. “Having baby Rachel to care for helps. She says she doesn’t have time to worry about anything.”

“Good,” Xena nodded as the small group began moving towards the cabin.

“I’m glad you’re here, Sash,” Hercules grinned, wrapping an arm around the adult woman. “How long are you here?”

“Until the moon,” Sasha replied.

“She’s about to take the final steps to be a full Valkyrie,” Xena explained further. “Wanna help train our warrior?”

“Sure,” the demi-god agreed readily.

“Can we watch?” Virgil asked and Asher nodded, hoping for approval.

“Sure,” Gabrielle answered after a moment. The last thing Xena, Gabrielle or Hercules wanted was the boys growing up to be soldiers but knew it was very likely. Already the boys were training with the older boys in Greece in staves and tracking. They were naturals on horses, except for wild war horses, Gabrielle corrected mentally.

Xena caught Gabrielle’s frown and shrugged, figuring both of them were thinking along the same lines. It was time for the boys to start training with weapons and getting serious about it. Xena had been so pleased when Solan had turned away from being a fighter. Bitter thoughts of his death crossed the warrior’s mind. Her peaceful son had been killed by a fighter, a warlord and insane goddess named Callisto.

Asher apparently had inherited both his mother’s skills in fighting. He was fast as a cat, acrobatic like Gabrielle and as talented with a sword as Xena was at his age.

Virgil had inherited his father’s shyness and his mother’s blue eyes, other talents yet unrevealed apparently.

Gabrielle shuffled her feet as Xena growled. Sasha was making her goodbyes to Hercules and the boys while the Goddess Freya waited nearby under a tree.

Xena, finally unable to keep quiet, walked slowly over to the Goddess.

“Ysla,” Freya greeted, using Xena’s northern name.

“Freya,” Xena responded. “Listen, I know part of the test is to face the other Valkyries. I don’t have a problem with that but can you let us know the outcome? She is our daughter.”

Freya smiled gently. “Of course, Ysla. She will do fine, the test is meant to help bond them together, not kill the Valkyrie.”

Xena was obviously relieved.

“We don’t tell the trainees that, we want them fighting at their best,” Freya explained.

“You make the stakes high enough for the best performance,” Xena nodded, appreciating the strategy.

“It’s not easy,” Freya said firmly. “She will get hurt and will probably hurt a few of the others.”

“I understand. Thank you,” Xena said softly and turned to see her daughter hugging Gabrielle and the bard trying to hold back her tears. Xena understood the emotion; she was biting back her own tears.

Now she knew how her mother felt, watching her kids grow up into adults and go off facing dangerous situations.

Xena held her arms open and hugged Sasha tightly as Gabrielle wiped at her tears.

“Freya says that we’ll find out how you do but I know you’ll be great,” Xena said, trying to smile.

“I’m the daughter of Xena, Gabrielle and Ares,” Sasha grinned. “Can’t lose.”

“Gods, she inherited your ego,” Gabrielle teased and got punched playfully on the arm by Xena.

“I love you both,” Sasha said softly and moved out of Xena’s arms to stand next to Freya. The Goddess wrapped an arm around the young woman’s shoulders, the cloak of falcon wings covered both of them and they disappeared.

“Damn!” Xena muttered.

Sasha looked over her weapons with a critical eye. The sword was sharp, the spear shaft was made of seasoned wood with the head finely honed and firmly attached. The shield was well made and the bracers fit very well. A typical Viking Sax knife completed the assortment of weapons.

Sasha redid the laces over her boots and tightened her belt. Unlike the usual bright chain mail armor the Valkyries usual wore, this test was about skill, not show and terror. She and the other Valkyries were dressed in simple tunics, woolen trousers, boots and had their hair in warrior braids.

Unlike her mothers, Sasha had never faced multiple opponents before except when training with the Valkyries and she was nervous. She wasn’t going to show it though.

Sasha turned to face her opponents.

The Valkyries were grouped together, facing Sasha.

They all looked to Odin and Freya standing on a slight hill.

“Let the test begin, may the Norns bless your efforts,” Odin announced.

Sasha wasn’t surprised when the Valkyries spread out, forming a semi circle as they advanced on Sasha.

The would-be Valkyrie dropped her shield and dashed forward. She jammed her spear firmly into the ground and spun herself up and around it. Using her momentum she “ran” along the chests of her opponents in the semi circle, knocking them back into their companions. Two went down with broken jaws when Sasha spun around again and caught two of them with her boots.

That left eight more battle-trained female warriors.

Sasha knew they wouldn’t fall for that trick again and barely got the spear up with both hands, taking two sword strikes on the iron wood. She quickly brought one end around across the jaw of one of the quicker fighters but winced when one struck under the spear, glancing across her ribs.

Sasha brought the spear up under the chin of another warrior and then back flipped out of the way. Landing on her hands, she kicked upward, just as Gabrielle had taught her.

Three more down from major wounds that bled freely.

Sasha ducked a sword strike as she bounded to her feet, grabbing up her shield with her boot, tossing it to herself in time to take another sword strike across it. The blow was strong enough to break the wooden shield.

The Greek would-be Viking dropped the shield and drew her sax before beginning to fight with both weapons as the remaining five Valkyries overwhelmed her.

Sasha knew she was in trouble in a matter of moments and used every trick her mothers and Hercules had shown her. She managed to break free from the group and everyone seemed to hesitate a moment, catching their breath. Two more fighters were down, one nursing a split skull from Sasha’s sword hilt and another one holding a bad stomach wound from the young woman’s sax.

The remaining Valkyries spread out as Sasha tried to keep all three of them in sight. She had taken a deep slash and the loss of blood was making her lightheaded.

All three rushed her at once. Sasha, instead of leaping up, as Xena was known to do, or trying to defend against all three at once, dived forward. She rolled into the legs of the lead warrior, causing her to fall into the path of the other two. In a moment, all three warriors were a tangle of legs, arms and weapons.

Sasha slashed at each lightly, causing a small cut along their necks and stepped back to the sound of applause from Odin and Freya.

The trainee felt the goddess’ arms wrap around her as everything went gray from the loss of blood.

Xena bolted up in bed with chakram in hand.

“Easy, warrior,” a gentle voice said softly.

“Freya?” Xena whispered, her voice harsh with sleepiness and surprise.

“Yes, Sasha is safe and passed her first test, she did better than any other before her,” Freya said softly.

“Thank you,” Xena said softly and laid back down, feeling the energy change and knew the goddess was gone. Xena smiled, unable to keep the pride from dancing in her eyes and across her face.

Sasha stretched her aching muscles in the morning sun. She was stiff and sore from the fight the day before and the general healing from Freya. Sasha would carry scars, the goddess refusing to totally heal, leaving sore muscles and scars for memory.

The Greek Viking was surprised and pleased with herself but had blushed most of the night away as her companion Valkyries praised and teased her throughout the night. The group had celebrated almost until dawn.

Now the second part of the testing was coming up and Sasha felt her confidence fading quickly.

The would-be Valkyrie hadn’t been exactly truthful with her mothers. Sasha had been with a couple of women in sexual encounters before, both of them fellow Valkyries but she hadn’t been with a male. Unlike some of the rumors about the Valkyries, not all of them were sexually active with the heroes they chose. That was reserved for full Valkyries given the volatile nature of Vikings, emotions, and the power of life and death over the heroes. The trainee Valkyries, like Sasha and a few others, weren’t allowed to be sexually active with the heroes about to die.

Sasha had no doubts about her sexuality. She desired both sexes but her training had taken up all of her focus and time over the years. Now she was being faced with picking a hero to die and giving him a night of sexual pleasure, precluding his endless night of joy in Valhalla or Folkvang.

The Greek Viking stood up from her stretch and stood facing the sun, absorbing its warming rays. She felt the hackles on the back of her neck standing up and turned to find Odin standing under a nearby tree.

Sasha approached him confidently.

“AllFather,” she said calmly.

“I am pleased with your test yesterday,” he smiled, adjusting the patch covering where his right eye once rested.

“Thank you, Father,” Sasha smiled in return.

“Your next test is ready, I will take you to a large settlement that is facing a battle in two days,” he explained. “We’ll watch the warriors and you’ll make your pick.”

Sasha tried not to let her nervousness show but Odin, watching her eyes, merely laughed.

“Don’t worry, you’ve escorted warriors to our realm before,” he said gently. “This will be more difficult, you’ll actually get close to one of them. You will do fine and I have no doubt you’ll pick a worth warrior for my Einherjar.”

“What are you looking for in this hero?” Sasha asked.

“Someone level headed and calm,” he told the young Valkyrie. “And a good fighter.”

“Of course, it will be done,” Sasha said, sounding more self-assured than she felt.

Sasha walked with Odin as they wandered through the settlement, listening to the debates among the warriors and the general talk among the women. Both were invisible to the mortals and so moved easily among the Vikings.

Sasha had learned from Freya and Odin that a lot more information could be learned from listening to the women than the men, sometimes. Women talked frankly and freely.

God and Valkyrie learned which leader was trusted, which warrior was favored by the young women, which ones were thought cowardly and who was overlooked.

A day and a night was spent among the Vikings.

At dawn the next day, Odin turned to Sasha.

“Have you made your choice?” he asked.

“Yes, AllFather,” Sasha answered slowly. “Thorkell is a good man, a good warrior and level headed. He is admired by both warriors and villagers for his wisdom at such an early age.”

“He could benefit the settlement by living,” Odin pointed out.

“Yes, so could most of the warriors chosen by you and Freya,” Sasha countered. “His brothers are also very much like him but not as good with warrior skills. They will be the asset to the clan.”

“Good choice, I am pleased,” Odin smiled gently.

“What happens now?” she asked.

“You approach him after dark,” Odin explained. “It’s your choice whether you reveal what you are and why you’re seeking him out. Let the night happen and tomorrow during the battle you will point your spear and choose him to fall.”

Sasha swallowed with difficulty.

“It is difficult the first time,” he nodded.

“I know sexuality is different among the gods than mortals but I’m not experienced and I’ve never gotten close to one chosen,” Sasha said slowly.

“It will be easier once it’s over and you’ll have the choice if you want to enjoy him once he reaches Valhalla,” Odin offered. “All sexuality is your choice, even this test. You can walk away with no dishonor.”

Sasha frowned.

“It’s time to choose your path, young one,” Odin said gently. “You will still be treasured among us if being a Valkyrie isn’t your calling. You have until nightfall.”

With that Odin was gone, leaving the young woman to wander through the village. She was still invisible to the inhabitants and Sasha found herself staying away from Thorkell at first but unable to keep her distance.

She spent the day watching as he helped the settlement prepare for the upcoming battle and reassured his mother and sisters that all would be fine. Sasha didn’t listen to the reasons for the battle or even who the settlement was fighting, she didn’t care. Odin and Freya had already decided who would win the battle and it really didn’t concern Sasha and her choices.

The Greek Viking found that her assessment of Thorkell was a correct one. He was also gentle and loving to his family and clan mates.

Sasha sat down in the shadows, alone with her thoughts.

Xena held Gabrielle close as they watched the river passing nearby. They had decided to take the day off after hearing word that Sasha would be facing her final test the next day.

The boys and Hercules were off hunting for spring deer, leaving the two women the perfect chance to relax again.

“Careful, lover,” Xena teased. “We’ll get lazy.”

Gabrielle laughed and nuzzled Xena’s arm.

“Tonight is the moon,” Gabrielle said softly.

“I know, that’s the reason Herc took the boys to the hunting cabin tonight,” Xena said easily. Even after all their years together, Xena knew that the Bacchae craving that hit Gabrielle once a month was still a source of pain for her bard.

“Alright,” Gabrielle said softly.

“Gabrielle, accept it already!” Xena urged.

“Easier said than done!” Gabrielle snapped, pulling out of her mate’s arms. “Even Artemis used it against me at my trial. How many Amazons now think I’m a monster?”

“Gabrielle, I can’t do anything about that,” Xena growled. “She was wrong to bring that up.”

“Well, it happened and now I’ve got to deal with it,” Gabrielle said wearily.

“The Northern Amazons know and don’t care,” Xena countered.

“That’s not totally true, some of them treated me differently once they knew I was like the vampires they were fighting,” Gabrielle protested.

Xena frowned. “How many times are we going to argue this?”

Gabrielle laughed softly, her body and face relaxing.

“Forever?”

“God, I hope not!” Xena teased, pulling Gabrielle back into her arms.

Gabrielle met Xena’s lips roughly, her body covering the warrior’s. Xena moaned, feeling the bard’s arousal rising. Xena loved spending spring and summer days with Gabrielle. Her mate had reverted back to her favorite mode of dress around the farm: small top that showed off her ample breast and beautiful upper body strength, a leather skirt with shorts underneath showed off the bard’s fantastic leg muscles as well. Xena loved watching Gabrielle every chance she got.

Xena didn’t dress in her traveling warrior clothing as much as she did in their early years. Cotton trousers were more practical around the farm most of the time but she still preferred a leather vest like top with bracers.

Gabrielle’s tongue begged and Xena readily parted her lips as her own tongue played back with her mate. The bard’s hands moved to the laces on Xena’s vest and a leg went between Xena’s legs.

Xena moaned and thrust up against Gabrielle’s leg. Her own hands went to Gabrielle’s ties and loosened them. The bard whimpered as she worked Xena’s laces open, both women uttering a small cry as bare breasts touched each other.

“Oh Gods, Xena,” Gabrielle whispered, her breathing fast and her pulse racing.

“Yes!” Xena urged, her hands moved down and tugged at Gabrielle’s shorts. Her mate wiggled until they got the clothing out of the way. The warrior knew her bard’s arousal was always intensified on a full moon and that Gabrielle usually wanted it fast and fairly rough.

That was a side that had surprised Xena at first until she really thought about it. Gabrielle’s inner fire had been something that had drawn the warrior to the gentle bard. Peace loving aside, Gabrielle could be a tiger in bed and Xena had crawled out of their bedding many mornings bruised, scratched, but well loved.

The warrior knew this was one of those times and felt a playful streak come over her. Xena flipped Gabrielle over and pulled her skirt off. Gabrielle growled and wrapped her legs around Xena, wanting her warrior close.

Xena grinned and grabbed Gabrielle’s wrists together and pulled them over the bard’s head. Gabrielle’s eyes widened in surprise. Usually on full moons Xena relinquished control to her, this was new.

The warrior moaned as she lowered her body on top of Gabrielle and the bard arched up to meet her. Xena moved her lips all over Gabrielle’s face, neck and ears, never staying long in one place until Gabrielle was moaning.

“Xena!” Gabrielle begged as the warrior moved to her breasts with her lips and teeth. The warrior ignored her bard’s pleading and Gabrielle’s thrusting against her as she took her time to love her mate. It was something Xena loved doing and never got enough of.

Xena kept a firm hold on Gabrielle’s wrists even as she moved down Gabrielle’s ribs, tracing each one with her tongue and lips, leaving little nips as she went until Gabrielle was whimpering.

Once Xena crawled between Gabrielle’s legs, she released the bard’s wrists but she knew Gabrielle would allow Xena whatever her plan was as the bard clutched at the blanket underneath them. Her body was trembling and sweating as Xena moved to the bard’s feet and worked her hands and lips along the inside of Gabrielle’s legs. By the time Xena got to Gabrielle’s sex, the bard was almost in tears with the need for release.

Xena was determined to take her time and gently spread Gabrielle’s labia lips and ran her fingers through Gabrielle’s wetness without allowing any kind of release. The bard whimpered and Xena smiled up at her love.

Gabrielle’s face was flushed and her eyes were heavy with arousal and Xena thought she had never seen anything more beautiful than Gabrielle during their love making.

Xena felt Gabrielle’s muscles shaking and groaned, her own body highly aroused from all the noises coming from her mate. The warrior couldn’t hold back any longer and entered Gabrielle slowly with one finger, barely relieving the bard’s need.

“Xena!” Gabrielle demanded, rising up, her eyes now Bacchae yellow showing need on all levels.

The warrior smiled and thrust into Gabrielle with several fingers and danced her tongue over the bard’s clit.

Gabrielle’s body arched and her head snapped back with a cry of surprise and arousal.

Xena pulled almost all the way out and thrust back in roughly, knowing Gabrielle was beyond the gentle loving now. She growled and felt Gabrielle’s body thrusting back against her fingers as she entered the bard again.

“Xena!” Gabrielle cried out, clutching the blanket tightly.

The warrior prolonged her loving as long as she could, pulling several minor orgasms from her mate and then ran her tongue over Gabrielle’s clit and entered her roughly once more. Gabrielle screamed as her body arched and then collapsed.

Xena gathered Gabrielle into her arms and gently rocked her mate, holding her close and whispering to her.

Sasha waited until everyone had finished with the evening meal before approaching Thorkell. She finally got her chance when he picked up his sword and walked towards the woods, obviously deep in thought.

She followed quietly until he came to a small stream and sat down on a rock, beginning to sharpen his sword. The habit reminded Sasha of her warrior mother and she had to smile.

The Viking was handsome with reddish blonde hair and beard and he was even taller than Xena and Sasha. She appraised his body with the critical eye of a potential bed partner and found that she was pleased with the firm muscles and lean body.

Sasha mentally shifted to where she was visible and stepped out of the shadows into the moonlight.

Thorkell spun with sword in hand.

“Easy, warrior,” Sasha said calmly.

He took in Sasha’s bright chain-mail armor, weapons, warrior braids and rich embroidery around the hem of her tunic and sleeves.

“Valkyrie,” he said just as calmly.

“Yes,” she nodded, no sense lying to him, she figured. Honesty always worked best, she thought.

“You are for me?” Thorkell frowned.

“Yes, for the battle tomorrow,” Sasha answered softly.

Thorkell sat back down heavily on the rock.

“This is hard, Valkryie,” he admitted, leaning on his sword pommel.

“Yes, for both of us,” Sasha admitted. “I’m Sasha, Thorkell.”

“Will my clan be victorious?” he asked. “Will my brothers live?”

“I can’t tell you that tonight,” Sasha countered.

“What can you tell me, Valkyrie Sasha?” he asked with a smile.

“That you are worthy to be chosen by AllFather,” Sasha said softly, sitting down at his feet, wanting to take away the feeling of deity between them.

“Then my life has merit,” Thorkell said calmly. “What happens tonight?”

“You aren’t married or engaged,” Sasha said slowly.

“No, I’ve had women but no one permanent,” Thorkell answered.

“What would you do on the last night of your life with a beautiful woman at your feet?” Sasha questioned with a small smile.

“Will you be the one to come for me tomorrow?” Thorkell asked.

“Yes, I wanted to know you tonight before taking you to Valhol,” Sasha explained.

“Are we mates?” Thorkell asked with a frown.

“No, we aren’t soul mates but we can pass the time in pleasure or just talk tonight,” Sasha explained.

“I would like to talk,” Thorkell decided. “Knowing I’m going to die tomorrow, I’m not sure it will rise to the occasion tonight,” he joked.

The Viking slid off the rock to sit beside Sasha. She grinned, somewhat with relief. The Greek Viking had no idea how to seduce someone or even if this was a seduction.

The two began chatting, it was awkward at first but discussion turned to Sasha’s training and Thorkell’s brothers and home life. Soon they were talking like old friend, throughout the early evening and into the night.

Sasha found herself laughing so hard she fell against Thorkell’s shoulder as he giggled like a boy over a story he told about himself as a boy. The Valkyrie looked up into Thorkell’s blue eyes and felt a flush spreading over her body.

Thorkell’s eyes darkened and he leaned down, his lips meeting hers softly for a moment.

The sensation sent sparks through Sasha’s body and she moaned, reaching a hand up behind his head, pulling him closer. Thorkell deepened the kiss and pulled Sasha into his arms and the Valkyrie melted easily.

The Viking pulled back slightly and looked deep into Sasha’s eyes.

“You’ll come to me tomorrow as a friend?” he asked softly.

“As a lover,” Sasha corrected and pulled him back to her lips.

Xena felt Gabrielle come up behind her as the warrior sat in front of the fire. They had spent the evening reminiscing about raising the kids and missing Iolaus. Gabrielle had been particularly mellow and relaxed after the day by the river.

The warrior was content. Their sons were healthy and growing up quickly, their daughter was going to be a legend if Odin and Freya had their way and the warrior and bard were still together after so many years.

Gabrielle leaned over Xena, running her hands down the front of Xena’s cotton tunic. Xena felt her pulse begin to quicken when Gabrielle’s teeth nibbled her earlobe.

“Full moon?” Xena teased as she leaned back in the chair, stroking Gabrielle’s arms as the bard hugged her, her hands dancing across Xena’s breasts. “What are you needing, Little One?”

“You, my warrior,” Gabrielle growled, her teeth moving to Xena’s neck.

Xena felt her back arching slightly and her nipples hardening.

“Yes, Gabrielle?” Xena teased. “You needing something? Maybe me in front of the fireplace here, you ripping my clothes off? Your hand deep inside of me as your fangs sink into my neck, breasts and thigh? My blood flowing over your fangs and down your throat?”

“Oh Gods!” Gabrielle growled and moved around the chair with the swiftness of her gladiator past, pulling Xena to the furs in front of the fireplace and covered the warrior.

The bard pulled Xena’s top off in a flash. The warrior grinned as Gabrielle growled and pulled Xena up and onto her knees.

“You want it rough, warrior?” Gabrielle hissed. “Like this?”

Gabrielle pulled Xena’s trousers off and ran a hand between Xena’s legs.

“You’re wet, my love,” Gabrielle growled, turning the tables as Xena moaned in arousal. “Thinking about earlier when you drove me insane? You want me to take my time? Just run my hands over you for the rest of the night without touching you here?”

Gabrielle cupped Xena’s sex and felt the warrior thrust against her.

“No, please! Now!” Xena begged. Just Gabrielle’s voice, husky with desire, was enough to send Xena into a frenzy.

Gabrielle felt her control slipping as her eyes changed to Bacchae yellow and her fangs extended.

She thrust into Xena roughly as her body covered Xena’s from behind. The bard knew her warrior very well and even when giving it rough, Gabrielle knew how to pull more and more out of her warrior until Xena was thrusting back, her body begging for more.

Gabrielle whimpered and Xena moaned as the blonde felt her entire hand being taken by her lover. She stopped for a moment, letting Xena’s body adjust to the sensation until Xena began rocking back into her lover, small noises building as the intensity built.

One advantage of being together so long, Gabrielle knew exactly how to please her wife. She rotated her fists and pulled slightly and then pushed as she plunged her fangs into Xena’s neck.

The warrior’s screamed and bucked against the bard. Gabrielle drank deeply as Xena continued to thrust against her hand until the warrior collapsed against the fur and Gabrielle followed her warrior down. She gently pulled out of her mate and wrapped her arms around Xena.

Sasha moaned as she lowered her body down on Thorkell, taking him deeper again and again until they were both whimpering as he thrust up into her.

It was almost dawn and Sasha found that part of the Valkyrie magic enabled both of them to continue having sex all night. She also discovered that sex with a loving male was very nice.

She collapsed against his chest, panting.

Thorkell held her tightly in his strong arms.

“I have to go soon,” he muttered.

“Yes,” she nodded, reluctant to let him go.

“Will it hurt?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I’ve never died.”

“Me either,” he smirked and kissed her nose. “Oh well, Valhalla awaits!”

Sasha frowned and pulled back from her lover.

“What is wrong?” he asked.

“I’ve never done this before, not this close,” Sasha admitted.

“The rest is simple isn’t it?” he asked. “I go into battle, fall and you gather me up and I meet AllFather and the greatest heroes of history.”

“It’s not just that, I’m the one that points the spear at you, deciding your fate,” Sasha explained.

“You don’t think you can do it because we spent time together?” Thorkell questioned.

“I’m not sure,” she shrugged, reaching for her trousers.

Thorkell reached around her and hugged her tightly. “You decided my fate and I am honored that you chose me for Valhalla, I am honored that you chose me as your first warrior companion, and I am honored to have met you. Finish it or we both lose.”

Sasha nodded and reached for her tunic with a sad smile.

Xena spun around with chakram in hand, knocking the milking stool over. “Odin?” she muttered, not quite believing the sight of the AllFather in her barn.

“Yes, Ysla,” the deity smiled. “Shall we join your mate?”

“Is Sasha alright?” Xena demanded.

“Forgive me,” Odin said quickly, “Yes, she is fine.”

Gabrielle spun just as quickly as Xena had with sai in hand and dropped the goblet she had been cleaning. “Freya?” she questioned.

“Yes, Gabrielle,” the goddess answered softly with a smile. “Sasha is fine, this is a friendly call.”

Freya looked toward the doors and Gabrielle waited patiently for a moment and smiled as Xena walked into the cabin with Odin following her.

“What’s going on?” Gabrielle asked everyone.

“We would like you both to observe Sasha’s final test with us,” Odin explained.

Gabrielle looked at Xena and nodded. The warrior turned to the warrior deities.

“Yes,” she said firmly.

Gabrielle stepped up next to Freya while Xena stood next to Odin.

In a moment they were all standing on a hill overlooking a small valley where two groups faced each other.

“Where are the Valkyries?” Gabrielle asked.

“On the other hill, watching for their chosen warriors,” Freya said, pointing.

The two mothers spotted their daughter among the warrior women watching the opposing forces.

“Can they see us?” Xena asked.

“No,” Freya said gently.

Xena, the experienced warrior, could feel the energy building below as the sun began to rise over the tree line. The forces began stirring and Xena knew they were building up their energy and stress, preparing for the first charge. Judging from the way the warriors were arranging themselves, this wasn’t going to be a battle of tactical skills of the leaders, it was going to be an all out crash between the groups.

It would be a slaughter and a lot of good warriors were going to die or be maimed.

Xena turned away when the warriors screamed on both sides and rushed forward. The former warlord found she no longer craved the first rush of battle. The sound of crashing metal, shouts, and sounds of horses screaming assaulted their ears. Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle as the bard turned away from the carnage.

Xena looked up and saw the Valkyries moving their horses towards the edge of the battle. She spotted Sasha’s dark hair among the typically light colors of her companions. Most of the Valkyries had chosen white steeds but Sasha’s horse was as black as her hair and stood out among the rest.

Gabrielle, feeling Xena’s energy change, turned and followed Xena’s finger and spotted Sasha on her magical horse along with the other Valkyrie.

Sasha found part of the Valkyrie magic was the ability to see every warrior clearly, as if they were standing separately from the others on the field. She easily found Thorkell among the second rank. Sasha knew that he couldn’t see her but when he glanced her way she was startled. He turned his attention back to the battle and fought with skill and a tenacity that Sasha found pleasing.

Sasha found herself watching his opponents and waiting for a worthy one before calling his fate to its end.

The Greek Viking watched closely and found she had fallen into her role naturally. She realized she was honoring not only Odin in choosing a worthy warrior but she was also honoring Thorkell by trying to find him a worthy death.

“She’s made the mental connection,” Odin commented to Freya and Xena saw the goddess nod.

Xena hoped this path was the right one for her daughter; it wasn’t an easy role to fill. Occasionally Xena had found herself in the miserable position of deciding someone’s fate and hated it worse than royal functions.

Gabrielle watched the battle and Valkyries with a natural bardic curiosity. She was also afraid for Sasha’s emotional state. The adopted mother knew she never wanted to be in the position that Sasha had trained for.

Sasha saw three opposing warriors rushing Thorkell; one with a sword and the other two with spears. She knew that Thorkell might be able to take them but made the decision without thought.

The Valkyrie raised her spear and pointed it at her warrior.

Xena and Gabrielle’s breath stopped as their hearts pounded.

Thorkell shouted a battle cry, finished off the warrior he was fighting and turned to face the three rushing him. He deflected one spear with his sword but his shield shattered under the sword and the second spear got through. Thorkell shouted in anger as the spear sank deep into his chest and through a lung.

The spear caught on his ribs and he was left standing as the warrior tried to wrench his spear free. Thorkell coughed up blood as he tried to raise his sword to take the enemy with him when he saw the sword from the other warrior swinging for his unprotected neck.

The Viking fell, his eyes closing before he hit the ground.

Sasha spurred her magical horse forward with a shout and leaned down low off the horse, sweeping Thorkell’s spirit into her arms, away from the battle.

“Odin?” Xena questioned in a whisper.

“Just watch,” he said softly as Sasha took her horse to the opposite hill.

They watched as Sasha dismounted with Thorkell in her arms, tears streaming down her face.

“Thorkell?” Sasha called softly.

The Viking opened his eyes and blinked. Sasha helped him to his feet and he looked down at his unmarked clothing.

“I died?” he asked.

“That’s why you’re here with me,” Sasha smiled, relieved that he was still the same man she knew from the night before and that he wasn’t angry with her.

His eyes sought out the battle and then he shook his head.

“It is strange,” he said slowly. “It doesn’t matter for me anymore. Will you spend time with me in Valhol?”

“I would be honored, warrior,” Sasha smiled and mounted her horse easily. She held out her arm and Thorkell mounted behind her, wrapping his arms around her and nuzzling her neck playfully.

Sasha laughed and spurred her horse towards the sky.

Xena and Gabrielle heard both Odin and Freya sigh and turned to the deities as their daughter disappeared.

“She passed magnificently!” Odin grinned.

“Sasha will be a credit to the Valkyries,” Freya agreed. “She shows intelligence, insight, and a gentleness that will help warriors cross to our realm.”

Xena and Gabrielle sighed and held each other tightly for a moment. Both felt tears filling their eyes.

“Your daughter is grown and has found a part of her destiny,” Odin said gently. “It isn’t an easy path but she faced it with courage.”

“It’s a special gift she’ll bring to the Valkyries, one of gentleness and open emotion,” Freya commented. “Part of Gabrielle’s gift to her, I think. Sometimes a Valkyrie can become hardened to the emotions.”

“Thank you for your training and guidance,” Gabrielle said softly.

“Sasha will visit you soon,” Freya smiled and raised her arms.

Gabrielle and Xena blinked and looked around at their yard as Asher and Virgil scampered out the door. It was barely past dawn and none of the males had missed them.

“Gods, we lead a strange life even when we try to be normal,” Gabrielle muttered as Xena wrapped her arm around the bard’s shoulder.

“Yup,” Xena agreed. “Let’s see if we can rack up a few more years before the next strange event.”

The End
Scrolls from Rome

Storyline: Asher and Virgil have grown and have been asked to go on a special assignment for their Viking clan. Things are always complicated when it comes to Rome, Xena and Gabrielle. Old demons come back to haunt them both.

Personal scrolls of Gabrielle of Germania.

The boys are now 16 and 14, Virgil almost 15, and down south in Greece with Meg. I hate it when the boys are gone. Even though it has become fairly routine, I still hate it. The small cabin seems empty without their big heavy feet tromping through the place.

At the same time I relish the closeness I get with Xena during the absence of the foster brothers. Hercules spends a lot of time during the winter at the small hunting cabin, manning the trap lines and missing Iolaus, giving Xena and me many long winter nights in front of the fireplace.

As I’m writing this, I’m smiling. I wonder if anyone would believe how gentle and romantic my warrior can be? Everyone knows of her passion and ferocity and probably reason that it carries over into the bed but I doubt many of them would believe a gentle and loving Xena.

It does surprise me, though, that Xena has yet to show more signs of her typical footloose nature. She goes out in the Fall and Spring to run the trap line and to do some hunting. That usually takes a few days and she never seems restless or unhappy with all the years we’ve spent here. It’s nice to have a home, healthy children, and a loving mate.

Xena surprised me yesterday by returning home early from the trap line. It’s spring time and she said the flowers and the newness in the air made her miss me. She can be such a romantic mush! She had ran into some traders at Eddval’s Steading and bought a beautiful silver chain with a silver wolf’s head, the eyes made of blood amber. It’s so beautiful and I know she traded some of her best furs for it.

Then she took me for a ride on that wild war horse of hers. Slasher, what a name! I think the Vikings and their affection for naming everything is rubbing off on Xena. I have my own horse, of course, but she insisted on me riding with her. I figured she was up to something when she further insisted that I ride in front of her.

I know my warrior and the heat was almost radiating off her. We rode further into the woods and I realized after half a candle mark that we were headed to the hunting cabin. I leaned back into her and let her arms wrap around me, so much like old times. I sighed as she began to nuzzle my neck.

“Tell me,” Gabrielle insisted.

“Tell you what?” Xena purred, nibbling on Gabrielle’s ear lobe. “That you’re incredibly sexy, that I can never get enough of you?”

Xena grinned as Gabrielle’s body jerked when her hands traveled to the bard’s breasts and began loving them through the tunic.

“Oh gods,” Gabrielle muttered, gripping the saddle horn. “Tell me about the fight.”

Xena’s hands and lips stopped moving and she drew back slightly. “What fight?” she asked slowly.

“The one you got into coming home,” Gabrielle said with a grin, twisting so she could look in Xena’s eyes. “You’re aroused with battle lust, your bracer has two new slashes and I can smell blood.”

Xena shook her head. “You know me too well, Little One.”

“Yes,” Gabrielle said softly, leaning and twisting around to kiss her warrior.

Xena hugged her mate as Gabrielle turned to the front again.

“Some bandits saw me trading for the necklace and followed me on the road,” Xena explained. “There were five of them.”

“Oh Tartarus, I thought you might have actually gotten in a fight,” Gabrielle teased.

“Well, it was fun,” Xena admitted. “I bloodied their noses, took their weapons, which I threw in the river and sent them back towards the Steading with no trousers.”

Gabrielle laughed until Xena had to hold her up in the saddle. “No trousers? They’ll have a devil of a time explaining how they all lost their trousers!”

“Yup and their weapons,” Xena grinned and lowered her lips to Gabrielle’s neck again. “It also got my blood going, I guess.”

“Oh, I’m not complaining, warrior,” Gabrielle said, her voice husky with rising desire.

“Mom!”

Xena looked up from her anvil with a grin. Asher and Virgil slid off their horses, dashed over to the tall woman and lifted her into the air between them.

“Scoundrels! Put me down!” she shouted with a laugh.

“Ash, Virgil!”

The tall Greeks put Xena down and turned in time to grab Gabrielle up in their arms.

Gabrielle laughed and hugged both of them. Both moms made them step back in order to look the young men over critically as they grinned.

Asher was a little taller than Gabrielle but not as tall as Xena and his hair had gone dark brown again. His beard was reddish and his blue-green eyes danced with a mischief that reminded Xena of Gabrielle when she was playful. His body revealed a strength that made him look older than his 16 years. Both mothers thought their son looked very much like a Viking.

Virgil looked a bit like his father, Gabrielle thought, her throat tightening with emotion. He had a shock of black hair that was as unruly as Joxer’s had been and the bluest eyes. The young man was lanky but with a natural grace. He was clean-shaven and looked slightly out of place in the Viking clothing.

Xena set aside the metal she was working on and banked the fire pit. Together the family headed for the cabin.

“Where’s Uncle?” Asher asked of Hercules.

“He’s off with the first of the raiding parties,” Gabrielle explained. “Some renegade Romans stole some cattle and took some horses.”

“There’ll be trouble on the borders,” Virgil nodded.

“Always is,” Xena shrugged.

“Augustus wants to open a new program along the borders and into Germania to reduce the tension,” Asher commented as he and Virgil took off their cloaks and hung them on pegs by the door.

“What now?” Xena asked.

“I still can’t get used to calling Octavian Caesar,” Gabrielle complained.

“I know,” Asher nodded, sitting down at the table as Xena grabbed up a keg of ale and Gabrielle set about preparing dinner. “It’s become a title instead of a name. Must be hard to separate that when you knew the man.”

“Yes,” Gabrielle nodded, watching an expected scowl cross Xena’s face at the mention of Caesar. Just the thought of the Emperor could get a growl out of her.

“What’s the plan?” Xena asked, bringing the conversation back around.

“To exchange warriors with some of the northern tribes,” Virgil began explaining. “They serve four years with a Roman legion, learning Roman ways and teaching the Romans Germanic customs and ways of thinking. The Roman warriors will serve with the tribes, learning and teaching the same.”

“Cultural exchange?” Gabrielle frowned. “I’m not sure how easily either side can adapt to each other.”

“You’ve done well,” Virgil pointed out.

“We aren’t warriors anymore and we were never Roman,” Xena growled.

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed as she watched the subtle glances and exchanges of expression from the young men.

“What’s gives, you two?” she asked.

“Well, uh…” Asher stammered.

Virgil suddenly thought his wooden mug was very interesting and Xena began to glare.

“Why did you two bring this up? Don’t tell me you’re thinking of wanting to be Romans!” she snapped.

“Mom, I know how you both feel about Romans,” Asher began but Xena cut him off.

“You have no idea how we feel about Romans,” she growled. “Gabrielle died on a Roman cross and the Greek Amazons were almost wiped out by them. If you want to know what else happened to your mother, go ask your Roman friends about what they do to Germanic women they capture and sell into slavery.”

Gabrielle winced and lowered her head. It wasn’t something they had talked about with Asher and Virgil. Talking about surviving sexual assault, slavery, torture and gladiator training wasn’t something Gabrielle ever wanted to go over with her sons.

Xena quickly crossed the room and wrapped her arms around her mate, glaring at her son and foster son. “I’m sorry, love,” she whispered. “I didn’t mean to say that.”

“I know, it just hurts,” Gabrielle whispered back.

“Aunt Xena, that’s what we’re trying to prevent,” Virgil said softly. “Axel and Eddval asked us to volunteer for this.”

Xena nodded slightly, understanding better. “Learn Roman ways and learn how to defeat them when they get too aggressive,” she muttered.

“Yes,” Asher agreed.

“So your first loyalty is to the north?” Xena questioned with a frown, unsure how she felt about anything right then and Xena hated feeling confused.

“We’ve been raised Viking and Greek, not Roman,” Asher said calmly.

“There is no Greece anymore,” Xena countered. “It’s part of the Roman Empire.”

“I’m your son first, Viking second and Greek after that,” Asher said.

“I’m the son of Joxer and Meg, foster son of Xena and Gabrielle, I’m Greek,” Virgil said. “Raised part Viking. Rome is not my love.”

“I still don’t like it,” Xena grumbled.

Gabrielle turned out of Xena’s arms and faced the two young men. “Octavian is a decent Emperor and the Empire is peaceful,” she said thoughtfully.

“Don’t tell you’re thinking of agreeing to this,” Xena growled, holding Gabrielle from behind.

“Would we have much choice?” Gabrielle commented. “They are considered grown, in both lands.”

Xena grumbled behind her.

“Do we send them out with the raiding parties or on a raiding ship with our Viking kin or do we let them go and play soldier in the Roman army?” Gabrielle pondered.

“Oh hell, now I know how my mother felt!” Xena muttered.

“At least we’re not sending them off to war,” Gabrielle pointed out. “How does Meg feel about this?”

Virgil grinned a boyish smile that reminded both Gabrielle and Xena of his father, his blue eyes much like Meg’s.

“She, uh, kinda went berserk,” Virgil admitted with a sheepish grin. Asher smiled and ducked his head, remembering his foster mother’s rage and ranting.

“Meg began throwing mugs at us until we dived out a back window of the inn,” Ash added and Virgil smacked his foster brother’s arm.

“Good thing they were wooden mugs,” Virgil admitted. “She eventually agreed though as long as you both agree.”

“Terrific,” Xena growled and went back to turn the meat roasting on a spit over the fire.

“How long would be your service?” Gabrielle asked, trying not to let her natural feelings of protectiveness as a mother interfere with looking at the problem.

“Four years,” Asher said slowly, flinching when Xena threw a wooden spoon across the room in anger.

“Or until Eddval calls us back to the tribe,” Virgil added. “It’s not exactly like joining the Roman army. We have the choice to leave the Roman service if we’re needed back home. Same for the Romans who will be spending time up here.”

“We’ll think about it,” Gabrielle said slowly. “Why don’t you two see to your horses while we fix dinner.”

The youths quickly grabbed the opportunity to get out of sight from their angry warrior mother.

Gabrielle leaned on her elbow on the table, chin in hand as she frowned unhappily. “I’m not ready for this,” she admitted.

“You sure sounded ready for it,” Xena growled.

Gabrielle raised her eyebrows in surprise and in her own irritation. “Don’t get mad at me because they want to go off and be men before we’re ready,” Gabrielle said calmly.

“I know, I know,” Xena growled. The warrior wanted to hit something badly. She jumped as Gabrielle’s arms wrapped around her ribs from behind. She leaned back into Gabrielle’s embrace.

“Why don’t you go out and work off some of that?” Gabrielle suggested.

“You don’t mind?” Xena asked, the relief evident in her voice even though she tried to hide it.

“No, my love. I understand,” Gabrielle said, holding her warrior tightly. “I’m going to finish dinner and then I’ll work some of it off.”

“Okay, I think we need some wood chopped,” Xena said thoughtfully, her voice almost a growl. “Want to spar later?”

“Yes, and then I want to spar in the bedroom, my lover,” Gabrielle grinned, spinning Xena around for a passionate kiss that left the warrior breathless and off balance.

Xena grinned as she hugged Gabrielle.

“You always know how to defuse my anger, don’t you?” she whispered.

“Yup, now go work it out mentally and physically,” Gabrielle suggested.

Asher looked around the barn door cautiously when he heard the familiar sound of an axe splitting wood and saw his Xena Mom taking out her frustrations on the wood. His mother was sideways from him and didn’t spot Asher as he ducked back into the barn.

Virgil looked at his foster brother’s face and smirked.

“Aunt Xena not handling this well?”

“She’s taking it out with an axe,” Asher nodded in agreement.

“At least she isn’t coming after us with it!” Virgil teased, throwing himself onto a hay bale. “Think they’ll agree?”

“Yeah, eventually,” Asher said, sitting down on a hay bale near Virgil. “It’s something that Mom might understand. I don’t know about Mama, though.”

“What was Aunt Xena talking about? I’ve heard that Aunt Gabrielle was a gladiator but they’ve never told us the story,” Virgil asked.

“Uncle Hercules told me when we talked about Iolaus’ injuries once,” Asher said thoughtfully. “Mama and Iolaus were attacked on the road by Roman soldiers. Iolaus was crippled and left for dead and Mama was sold into slavery as a German. She ended up in a gladiator school. You know the rest.”

“Yeah, they were separated while Aunt Xena was pregnant and Gabrielle became a gladiator and fought herself out of the Arena,” Virgil nodded.

“Yes, she was scarred from lashings, branded as a slave, forced to wear a collar and raped repeatedly,” Asher added with a saddened expression and watched his younger brother grow pale.

“I’d never do that to a woman,” Virgil declared firmly.

“Me either,” Asher agreed. “Uncle Herk says a good lover doesn’t have to. That’s not sex, he says.”

“What does he mean?”

“Raping a woman isn’t about sex, it’s power,” Asher explained. He and Virgil had talked about sex often, especially over the last couple of years as their bodies changed and demanded new attention.

“I understand that, the thought of it makes me sick,” Virgil nodded. “I can’t even think of Aunt Gabrielle going through that, my stomach turns over.”

“Me too,” Asher said softly.

“Is it safe to go back inside?” Virgil asked as Asher got up and looked outside again.

“Nope, let’s go out the back and around,” Asher suggested.

“Goddamn Romans!” Xena growled, swinging the axe over her head, splitting another log. She positioned another piece of wood on the chopping block. “Caesars!” Another block split with a crack.

“Emperors!” Another block cracked and Xena growled at the knot that caught her axe. The wood didn’t resist her for long. “Gods and Queens!”

Xena growled and leaned on the axe handle, setting the head on the chopping block. She and Gabrielle had experienced some good years on the farm. Years of relative peace, just minor skirmishes with raiders, rival clans, and roving Romans. Nothing major.

The warrior wondered if the rest of the world thought them dead by now.

Xena couldn’t believe her son and foster son wanted to go to the last place she would ever want either of them to be, into the hands of Romans. Even if it wasn’t as a prisoner or enemy, what would going through the rigorous training of a Legionnaire do to them? Xena knew if she and Gabrielle agreed to this that they would send off two boys and get back men. The question was if they would get back typical Roman soldiers.

Xena knew this day would come but she never expected them to head further South. The warrior had dreaded this, living among Vikings meant it was very likely that her sons would grow up to be warriors and go out on raids or even exploration with their adopted Viking kinsmen. Life in the north was hard, shorter as well.

Countering that was the need to live outside of Roman influences, at least until the world forgot about them, including Mars.

Xena moved the axe and sat down on the chopping block, her ears picking up the sounds of the boys climbing out the back of the barn. She smiled ruefully, that would be something to work on with them: moving quietly.

The warrior missed her Mom and she missed Solan. Xena had been very pleased when her first born had chose not to be a warrior. Xena never wanted that to claim him like it did his father and had almost cost his mother’s life and soul.

Xena growled, it had cost her soul for so many years. Because of a Roman. No, Xena mentally corrected. “I was on that path when Caesar found me, he just intensified it and pushed me towards a course of revenge,” she said to the dog as he padded up to her.

“Cortez started it and he was Greek,” Xena continued, stroking the dog’s head and rubbing his ears. “Caesar could have been Egyptian, Viking or even Celtic.”

Xena’s frown deepened. “Okay, maybe not all Romans are bad but I still don’t like soldiers and Emperors. Even Octavian is power hungry and all Romans are dangerous when it comes to power.”

The warrior stood up and headed for the house. She still hadn’t made up her mind how she felt about the boys choosing this path but she was a little calmer.

Gabrielle smiled when Xena entered the cabin and headed to their room to clean up for dinner. The boys were more subdued in their conversation than usual and overly helpful in assisting with the final preparations of dinner.

“Uncle!” Asher yelled, jumping to his feet when the door opened and Hercules stepped inside.

“Hey!” the Greek demi-god shouted back and grasped Asher’s forearm in his, unlike the usual hugs of a father to adopted son. Xena noticed and frowned slightly as her half-brother accepted her son as grown.

Virgil didn’t settle for a hand grip though, he decided he still liked hugs from his foster father and grabbed Hercules in a bear hug that brought a grin out of the demi-god.

Hercules noticed Xena’s quiet manner and frown and quickly looked to Gabrielle for answers but the bard shook her head. The large male settled in for dinner to wait patiently for answers about the obvious tension between everyone.

Gabrielle wasn’t surprised that once the conversation started and the boys explained their plans that Hercules wasn’t any more enthusiastic about it than Gabrielle was but not as firm in his refusal as Xena.

The discussion turned into an argument and back to discussion again until late in the evening when Gabrielle finally called a halt to it and demanded that everyone go to bed to sleep on it.

Xena paced restlessly in their bedroom as Gabrielle got ready for bed. She knew Gabrielle was watching her and waiting but Xena wasn’t about to explode and get into a fight with her love, nor was she going to give in easily either.

“Damnit! You still tense up whenever you see a Roman uniform and then have nightmares for days!” Xena finally growled, throwing herself onto the bed.

“Yes,” Gabrielle agreed calmly and climbed onto the bed beside Xena. “And you still have nightmares about my crucifixion.”

Xena was startled and felt her body jump. “How did you know?”

“My crucifixion, the Bacchanalia, or finding me dead from Grendel,” Gabrielle shrugged. “Does it matter? You have nightmares of losing me and I have the same ones about you. I dream of you hanging there after Grendel beat you to death, you in chains as I hung on that cross, hanging by your wrists when my ex-brother in law had you. I dream of being raped and of losing you.”

“I missed you and almost went insane while you were gone,” Xena admitted, pulling Gabrielle into her arms. “I miss Solan too.”

“Me too,” Gabrielle said softly, gently nuzzling Xena’s neck as the warrior’s body began to relax slightly. “It also haunts me that we don’t know what happened to Kiryk. A small little boy tossed somewhere at Callisto’s whim.”

“Our grandson,” Xena said thoughtfully. “I’ve tried to figure out Callisto’s twisted thinking and can’t come up with anything new. It’s been so long, he’s almost a man now like Ash and Virgil. We wouldn’t even know him.”

“Only if we check behind every young man’s ear for that birthmark of his,” Gabrielle smiled ruefully. “I can just see you lining every male from every village up and pinning their ears back.”

“I can’t believe he’s gone; Solan, Mom, Iolaus,” Xena whispered, feeling familiar tears springing to her eyes. “I miss them all.”

“I know but they live on in our hearts, my love,” Gabrielle felt her own tears beginning to fall. “I can still see Joxer in that goofy armor of his when we first met.”

Xena smiled, Virgil’s father had been such a clumsy oaf but with a heart bigger than Mt. Olympus. “Trying to impress Callisto by kidnapping you.”

“And then the man he finally grew into,” Gabrielle commented, lost in her memories. “He was a good man.”

“Yes, and he loved you and Meg very much,” Xena said softly, her hand gently stroking Gabrielle’s arm.

“So many losses over the years, Xena,” Gabrielle whispered.

“I know and it will just continue,” Xena said flatly. “The downside of being born from gods, we outlive our family and friends.”

“How could we ever face it if something happened to Asher or Vigil?” Gabrielle asked, her voice fearful. “Sasha is among the gods but even that isn’t totally without danger.”

“The same way we did with Solan,” Xena said gently. “We go on. Mom always said that a parent should never outlive their children. I really didn’t understand that until I saw that arrow sticking out of Solan’s chest. A part of you dies with them.”

“I remember,” Gabrielle muttered. “It was like time stood still, like a dream.”

Gabrielle snuggled closer in Xena’s arms. “Do you think that’s something we would ever get used to if we live long enough?” Gabrielle asked with a frown.

“No,” Xena answered after a moment of thought. “If I ever do, kill me. I would hate to live long enough to where death means nothing, especially the death of a friend or child.”

“With Rome constantly needing conquests, the boys could be heading for trouble,” Gabrielle continued to frown.

“I know,” Xena joined Gabrielle in the frowning. “We could hope that as cultural exchange soldiers that they’ll be kept in Rome or something.”

“I would hate for them to die for Rome!” Gabrielle suddenly hissed, one hand absently scratching at the scars on her wrists.

Xena didn’t say anything but she noticed the unconscious emotional pain coming through her mate and so held Gabrielle closer.

“I would hate for them to die for anything,” Xena commented and nuzzled Gabrielle’s hair as the bard broke into the tears of a mother facing a growing son, a son possibly going off to war.

Hercules glanced up as Xena padded into the living space of the cabin and sat down beside him. The demi-god unfolded his blanket and wrapped it and his arm around his half-sister as they watched the fire.

“Couldn’t sleep,” he finally said and Xena didn’t know if he was asking or stating.

“Gabrielle finally fell asleep after a good cry,” Xena commented with a shake of her head.

“We have to let them go,” Hercules said unhappily.

“I know, I just don’t like it,” Xena grumbled.

“Me either,” Hercules agreed. “I keep seeing Iolaus when we found him, half drowned, frozen and nearly dead. All he could think of was finding Gabrielle.”

“I know, I keep having flashes of the Roman soldiers pounding those nails through Gabrielle’s wrists and then her screams,” Xena said softly. “What if they want Ash and Virgil to become like that? Like I was?”

“Is that what frightens you?” Hercules asked gently. “That Ash will turn to a dark path like you did for awhile?”

“Awhile?” Xena snapped, sitting up. “Years, Herc, years. Yeah, that scares me and the thought of them becoming full Romans scares me. The thought of them dying under a Roman banner scares me and the thought of them going to war against their northern cousins scares me. It all scares me and I don’t like being scared.”

“Me either,” he agreed. “I still can’t believe Iolaus is gone even after all this time. It’s like I’ll reach out and he’ll be there.”

“I know,” Xena leaned back into Hercules’ arms. “I miss his laugh.”

“We’ll miss them all eventually,” the demi-god said bitterly. “I think that’s one reason the Olympians stay clear of humans, mostly. Compared to eternity, normal humans have such a short life span, especially when taken early by war, accident or illness. It hurts, so they detach themselves and surround themselves with each other, never growing older, never getting sick and never dying.”

“I can understand that a little now,” Xena agreed.

“How am I supposed to go on for eternity without him?” Hercules complained. “I believe he was my mate and now he’s gone.”

“His soul will return to you in another,” Xena suggested.

Hercules nodded, not convinced.

“We’ve raised Asher and Virgil to be good men with a strong sense of honor,” he commented after several moments. “They weren’t raised Roman so they won’t be blind in devotion to Her. If pushed, their Viking honor will win out, I think.”

Both of them were silent for a few moments.

“Any idea when Sasha’s coming home for a visit?”

“Probably any moment now,” Xena said with a grin. “She always knows when Virgil and Asher are home and shows up.”

“Would be good to see her too,” he agreed.

“How am I supposed to let them go?” Xena whispered, tears filling her eyes.

“Like any other mother or father, with a smile, a bundle of food, some hidden coin and a lot of tears after they’re out of sight,” he suggested.

“When in Tartarus did the kids grow up?” Xena muttered.

“When we weren’t looking,” Hercules grinned.

The next two weeks went by too quickly for the family. Just as Xena had predicted, Sasha had appeared for breakfast the next morning. Gabrielle had been delighted with the strand of amber pieces Sasha brought her and Xena’s grin had been almost feral when her daughter presented her with a brand new sword, just like the one the warrior had been carrying for years but had almost worn down.

Sasha next gave her Uncle a new cloak that had been woven by Frigga to hold off the cold. For Asher and Virgil there were new Viking long knives called saxs.

Xena had taken out her frustration on the woodpile that day when Asher and Virgil admitted that, if they agreed to the cultural exchange, they could only stay two weeks. Gabrielle had taken to the thick forest in a run and Xena had attacked the wood until there was a stack large enough to see the small steading through a month.

Gabrielle came back resigned to the fact her son and foster son were leaving. Xena had brooded for two more days. Not even Gabrielle could pull her mate out of her mood.

Xena glanced up from the bank of the river and growled, turning her attention back to going through exercises with her new sword. Sasha smiled and sat down on the grass, watching her mother with open admiration.

“Gonna tell me I have to let them go?” Xena growled.

“Nope, Gabrielle is whacking the demons out of several trees with a staff and then she’s going to impale them with those sais of hers, I think,” Sasha grinned. “I thought you might like to spar a little.”

Xena, knowing her daughter was more than an equal match for her, nodded.

Xena’s mood wasn’t much better the day warriors from the major steadings arrived for Asher and Virgil but she kept it to herself. She and Gabrielle managed to say goodbye to the two youths without embarrassing them in front of the older warriors.

When the warriors rode out of sight, Gabrielle turned in Xena’s arms, letting her tears fall. Xena felt her own emotions shutting down. Both Hercules and Sasha recognized the warrior’s tightening jaw muscles and weren’t surprised when Gabrielle backed out of Xena’s arms, gently stroked her wife’s cheek for a moment and then nodded.

“Go,” Gabrielle said softly as Xena stood rigid, emotions playing across her face in a struggle. “Its okay, go.”

Xena whimpered softly and was gone into the tree line in a flash.

“Gabrielle?” Hercules asked as she wiped at the tears.

“You know Xena,” she said simply. “She needs some space.”

“What about you?” he asked, frowning that Xena would leave while Gabrielle was hurting.

“She’ll come in tonight, sneak into bed behind me and hold me while I cry,” Gabrielle answered. “She did the same thing when Sasha left.”

Hercules wrapped an arm around her shoulders.

“I’ll cook dinner,” Sasha offered as Gabrielle glanced towards the woods.

Mothers Brie and Ylsa, Uncle Herkvar; – I hope understand the use of your Northern names.

We both hope this finds you well and happy. We also hope you understand our decision to do this.

Virgil and I are doing well. I must admit that the training is harder than I ever thought. The Roman officers and trainers are hard and treat us almost as captives instead of trainees but the other soldiers accept us easily. It helps that we aren’t the only “barbarians” from the north here. We’ve kept our classical side to ourselves, not even letting some of the Romans know that we speak some of the more civilized languages. It’s come in handy at times. Thanks Mum Brie for that suggestion.

Virgil is actually getting some meat on those skinny bones of his. I think he’ll always be lean but he’s losing some of that awkward boy stage. Me, I’m doing okay with the training. My fellow soldiers in training are amazed that we can read and write and have asked me to write letters home to families almost every night. I’m thinking of hiring my services out. Major laugh there.

We haven’t had any time off in these first six months, so we haven’t gotten into too much trouble. Because of our youth and Northern origins, they’ve assigned us to the Praetorian Guard, probably serving guard duty for some minor Senator or something. We’ll be assigned in another six months. The Emperor likes having Northerners for his guards because of our known loyalty and fierceness in battle.

We won’t be able to make it North for a visit any time soon. We will be able to visit Mom Meg though this winter for a couple of weeks.

How is the farm this year? Hope we can get a scroll from you. We are with the Legion assigned to Rome. Your loving sons Asher and Virgil.

Gabrielle wiped a tear away as she handed the scroll over to Xena and Hercules.

“They sound good,” she said softly.

“Yeah,” Xena agreed, reaching out to hold Gabrielle’s hand. “They grow so damned quick, even when you’re watching them.”

“Yes,” Gabrielle nodded, moving to sit next to her mate, letting Xena wrap an arm around her shoulders. “I love you, Xena.”

Virgil and Asher of Gemania; thanks you very much for your scroll, it was a most welcome surprise, just in time for the Summer harvest. Things are well here, your Uncle managed to break his leg during a boar hunt; he will be fine but grumpy.

Ylsa is off spending time with your sister and her patrons. I’m spending the time preparing the food for the coming winter months. There’s always more work to be done around the steading, as you know. I think your Ylsa mom is getting a little restless without you scamps to keep her busy during the summer months. I must admit that I am missing you terribly but I do understand the need to strike out on your own and forge your own path. I was only a little older than you when I snuck off in the night to follow my dream and Ylsa. I’m glad that you trusted us enough to talk with us about your decision and didn’t have to run off in the night as I did.

You know my history with the Romans and soldiers, please be careful and always keep your heads. You already have our hearts with you. Love always, your mother Brie

Gabrielle knew that Asher and Virgil would read between the lines and know that Xena was off with Sasha, Odin and Freya, solving some sort of feud that was about to get out of hand. She didn’t want to worry the boys but she wanted to be honest with them at the same time. They were off becoming men and soldiers, after all.

The bard was more than pleased that Asher and Virgil were writing to them and Meg. She also rejoiced at their intelligence and writing skills.

Gabrielle hated staying around the cabin with Xena gone but someone had to stay and keep the preparations for winter going and look after Hercules with his broken leg. The bard hadn’t revealed how bad the break had been to Asher and Virgil but she knew they’d figure it out if it laid up a demi-god with rapid healing abilities.

In reality, Hercules had almost lost the leg when a boar had snapped a spear and managed to reach the Greek with its massive tusks, ripping into his leg deep from knee to groin, almost taking his manhood with most of his blood.

Xena’s nerve pinch had slowed the bleeding but the bone had been broken badly and the muscles ripped. Even with his rapid healing abilities it was going to take at least two weeks before he could walk without crutches.

Hercules, watching the bard seal the scroll with a heavy sigh.

“Xena will be home soon,” he commented.

“Yes, Odin said it wouldn’t take too long to settle everything,” Gabrielle nodded.

“I’m glad he called on Xena,” Hercules said easily.

“Yeah, southern Germanic tribes with a good mixture of former Romans,” Gabrielle said thoughtfully. “Odin thinks Xena will have insight into the Romans that he doesn’t.”

“It’s a sound move,” Hercules agreed. “But I miss her too.”

Gabrielle said a quick prayer to Frigga and Freya for the safe return of her mate as she settled into an evening with her best friend.

Dearest Mom and Ma; We have been assigned to the Praetorian Guard in Rome. Our duties are guarding the villa of a minor Roman Senator. It’s boring but we get to guard official dinners with the Emperor quite often. He likes to show off his Germanic guards, especially those of us with blonde or reddish hair and beards.

Virgil, looking more Greek or Roman, has been assigned as clerk for most of his time. Once the Romans found out that we could read and write both languages, they snatched him up right quick. It gets him out of some of the more mundane chores around and he enjoys the writing. He likes the writing of the official stuff and numbers while I like the story telling. He says I inherited that from you, Mom.

We’ve made a close friend among the Praetorian Guard, he’s doing his military service in hopes of quickly becoming an officer and advancing to power. His father is a powerful and rich Gladiator school owner, having produced a number of Champions over the years. Our friend, Lycur, has even been in the Games a few times, priding himself on his skills and talents with weapons. I swear Moms that he must have been born with a weapon in his hand, I’m not even sure if I could take him. There are rumors that no one knows who his mother is, that she might have been some Amazon or fierce Celtic warrior his father had in the slave stables. He was claimed at birth as son though, so he’s full Roman and a noble.

Life in Rome is very strange. All the smells and sights are almost overwhelming. I never thought it could be like this. It almost hurts to be in the City and I long for a Viking longship cutting through the waves with the sea breeze in my hair. I miss the gentle quiet of the forests surrounding our home. Alright, I admit it, I’m a little homesick. It’s been a year according to Roman calendars and I miss you all terribly.

As a foreigner and Praetorian, I’m attractive to many of the middle and upper class females but I remember your cautions and have kept mostly to myself and Virgil for company. It didn’t take long to figure out that everyone here has some kind of political game going if they’re upper class or nobles. A soldier caught with the daughter of a Senator is asking for a lashing at the least.

I swear I don’t know how Virgil made it through Legionnaire training sometimes but he has a stamina that is amazing. One officer, trying to break Virgil down, sent him on a message run to a camp a number of miles away with an impossible deadline. Virgil made it and shamed the officer. The Guards use him as a messenger sometimes in the city. He seems to have a talent for running.

Gabrielle laughed as she read that part of the scroll to Xena and Hercules. Both laughed with her after a moment.

“Joxer always did move quickly,” Xena nodded. “Even with that homemade armor of his.”

“Remember when the bacchae wolves were chasing him?” Gabrielle grinned, remembering the friend and father of their foster son.

“Oh yeah, how he kept ahead of those wenches, I’ll never know,” Xena laughed. “Over-sized boots, armor clanking everywhere, carrying Orpheus’ head in a sack and he kept ahead of at least four bacchae wolves.”

“Wow!” Hercules exclaimed. “They move as fast as regular wolves.”

“Yeah, he stumbled across us and climbed a very big rock,” Gabrielle grinned.

“Looks like Virgil inherited his father’s swift feet,” Hercules commented with a grin. “And Asher Gabrielle’s writing talents.”

“Thankfully not my blood lust,” Xena muttered. “Go on, lover.”

Mom, you wouldn’t believe the sights here. It seems like someone from every culture and part of the world comes through Rome. I’ve seen people who are so black that their skin shine. Those from the land of Chin that Ma has talked about.

I have to admit that Roman culture sometimes sickens me and Virgil. We’ve been at dinners where there was enough food to feed a small Steading for an entire season. Most of it wasted and gorged upon until those at the dinner were throwing up so they could eat more.

We’re careful when it comes to advances from the men and women here but they don’t seem as cautious with each other and I’ve seen things that I’ve only heard hints of at insane bacchanalia rites. Poor Virgil has been fighting off the advances of a Senator’s wife that thinks he’s so cute that she wants to snuggle him to death and “make a man of him.” He cringes every time we’re assigned to a dinner at the Senator’s house. She’s cornered him twice and felt him up and he barely got out of her clutches with his uniform still intact.

It’s funny but serious. We’re not connected with anyone powerful and it’s very easy to cross a line and make enemies in this place. Virgil and I have only been here a couple of months and we’ve learned more about playing games than we ever wanted.

I’ve discovered that being a politician or seeking out power isn’t for me or Virgil. He’s not sure what he wants, he thought being a soldier was what he wanted but I think hours and hours of drilling worked that out of him. We’ve seen the veterans of several actions and wars and watching someone try to put on their boots with one hand and a mangled arm isn’t glamorous.

“Wow!” Gabrielle said softly. “How old are they again?”

Hercules smiled softly as Xena sharpened her sword by the fire.

“Fifteen and sixteen, full grown men according to custom,” Hercules answered.

“We also know there’s a lot of growth between thirteen and twenty,” Xena added.

“Sounds like they’ve reached some pretty adult conclusions about life,” Gabrielle said and both lover and friend nodded.

I don’t know what I want out of life. I know I’ll have more of a good idea closer to my end of service here in Rome. I do realize that I don’t think like a Roman though. Our friend Lycur is very ambitious and power hungry. He reminds me of the tales you told us of Caesar whenever Ma wasn’t around to growl. He wants to be an officer in the Praetorian Guard for its prestige and political connections. Lycur also wants to be in the Games and chariot races to win popularity among the crowd and wants to go to war to win acclaim, money, and power.

His father has invited us to spend two weeks with them at his father’s villa. We are encouraged to invite any family or friend along with us since we aren’t allowed to travel outside of Roman territory just yet.

I know how you both feel about Romans but I’d like for you to think about it. Sasha “popped” in on our day off last week and spent the day roaming through the City with us and said that she could “arrange” transportation for both of you to join us at the villa if you’d like. It might be the only chance we get to see you in the next year.

Both Gabrielle and Xena frowned, looking up at each other.

“Whoa,” Xena muttered. “I didn’t expect that.”

“I need to think about this, Xena,” Gabrielle said thoughtfully.

“Didn’t he say that his friend’s father runs a gladiatorial school?” Hercules questioned.

“Yes,” Gabrielle nodded and Xena frowned deeply, watching her mate closely.

“Visiting his villa would be at his school, wouldn’t it?” Hercules asked, pressing the issue.

“If it’s anything like the one I was held in, yes,” Gabrielle said slowly, her eyes lost in memory. “The villa is part of the school.”

“You’d see the slaves being trained? Maybe even a couple of matches arranged for your entertainment?” Hercules asked softly as Xena put her sword aside, both of them watching Gabrielle.

“Yes,” she said softly, her eyes closing and body tensing.

“Could you do that?” Hercules asked and jumped when Gabrielle startled him by leaping to her feet and out the door before he had finished his sentence, Xena right after her.

“Gabrielle!”

Xena caught up with her mate at the bottom of the stairs and wrapped her arms around Gabrielle from behind. She could feel Gabrielle shaking as the bard grasped at her arms tightly.

“Oh gods, it’s been so long! I thought…” she stammered.

“You thought you were over it,” Xena provided and Gabrielle nodded. “You’ll never be over that, my love. You’ve barely faced those memories except in your nightmares.”

“What do you suggest? I find Lycrassius and spit on his grave?”

“No, I don’t know how to help with those memories,” Xena admitted. “Just like I don’t know how to deal with some of mine.”

“Gods, I want to see the boys so badly!” Gabrielle complained.

“I know,” Xena nodded, holding the bard closely. “Let’s finish their scroll and sleep on it. No major decisions tonight.”

“Alright,” Gabrielle agreed, letting Xena hold her for a few more moments before turning to walk inside with her mate.

Mom, I have to admit that Virgil and I attended the Games recently, at the urging of Lycur. I had to help Virgil out of the Circus, the sights sickened him so much. I blamed it on Roman wine and made excuses for both of us. It’s horrible, Mom. The brutality is beyond belief. I’ve never imagined anything like it. We’ve grown up on tales of bloody battles and raids from our Viking families but never did they talk about tormenting someone for pleasure or killing animals for sport. Even when we faced the boar, the mighty stag and fierce aurochs, it was for their meat, fur and horns. We honored them for the sacrifices they made to the Tribe, never this slaughter of throwing men in with wild beasts from the wilds of Africa.

I know now I’m Viking, Mom. I can’t relate to a culture that needs blood and brutality to entertain itself. I could understand feats of strength and skill, combat tests and such but some of this was just bloody and senseless.

Just the thought of you having been in this same place, fighting for your life on a weekly basis made Virgil sick and made my head swim. The thoughts of you both fighting in front of Caesar and Mom’s crucifixion nearly ripped Virgil’s stomach from him and made me angry. I wanted to hit the nearest Roman noble when we watched a female warrior from the dark lands fighting for her life in the Circus against three Roman gladiators.

We were assigned to our first crucifixion last week. I never knew it could be like that. Rome executed a captured Celtic pirate and ordered his punishment be in front of everyone in the Circus. Virgil, fortunately, was spared the assignment on clerical duties. I was chosen because of my Viking looks, I know. Octavian likes his Vikings in public appearances in contrast to the darker skin, hair and eyes of the typical Roman.

Mom, I can’t even write what I feel about this. I struggled to keep the disdain from my face. I know our Viking brothers can be brutal when it comes to a captured enemy and worse to a criminal. I’ve heard the tales of the Red Eagle but the cross is common here. Poison, suicide, assassinations, crosses and Games.

Romans look on us as barbarians but there seems to be something appealing about the simple ethics and complicated religion of my Germanic brothers. There is a cruelty that exists here. Family is seen as property and neighbors as competition.

Well, I’ve written a small epic here. Virgil and I love you all very much and miss you terribly. Please consider visiting. We both understand if you can’t, we probably understand now more than we ever wanted to. Please be safe. Vail – Asher

“Our sons grew up,” Gabrielle muttered.

“Yes,” Xena nodded. “I just wish they didn’t have to see all of that.”

“We did,” Gabrielle pointed out. “At least they don’t have to live it.”

“Oh Gods, no,” Xena agreed, her mind flashing on the memory of Gabrielle hanging on a Roman cross, slowly dying a very painful death.

“Think long and hard about it,” Hercules advised. “Odds are it won’t be a pleasant visit for either of you. This Lycur sounds like another Caesar and his father probably worse. Thinking you’re both Germanic, he’ll probably try to bait and bed you both in the same evening.”

“I know,” Gabrielle nodded. “I need to think.”

“I suggest we head to bed and discuss it over the next few days,” Xena suggested.

“Okay,” Gabrielle nodded.

Xena reached over the next morning and frowned when she found cold bedding instead of her wife. The warrior sat up, listened to the house and tossed the covers back with a growl. It was still dark outside and Xena wanted to stay in bed as long as possible.

Xena wrapped a blanket around her shoulders and softly cursed at the cold floor. Even though it was still warm in the north, the nights were getting chilled and Xena hated cold wooden floors.

The warrior found Gabrielle curled up in a chair next to the fire, a quilt wrapped around her until all that was showing was her wife’s blonde hair. Xena smiled a sad smile, not really surprised that Gabrielle was restless. Any discussion of Rome, Romans and soldiers would bring back the nightmares and panic attacks.

Xena wished she knew how to help her mate. It had been years since Gabrielle had been abused as a slave but it still affected both of them.

The warrior knelt beside Gabrielle’s chair and gently brushed her mate’s hair from her forehead. Xena was cautious, she knew it could be dangerous waking Gabrielle up when she was in one of these states.

“Hey, my love,” Xena said softly and began to gently shake Gabrielle.

“Hmmm?”

“Come on, Gabrielle,” Xena smiled, pulling Gabrielle into her arms, quilt and all. “Let’s go back to bed.”

“Yes,” Gabrielle nodded, wrapping her arms around Xena’s neck.

Xena carefully placed Gabrielle on the bed and curled up behind her, holding the small bard closely. “Just rest, Little One.”

Gabrielle grinned as she looked up from her weaving on the porch and spotted Sasha riding out of the woods into the clearing.

“Sash!”

“Mum!” Sasha laughed and jumped off her horse, hugging her adoptive mother tightly. “Good to see you!”

“It’s been too long, young lady,” Gabrielle scolded.

“I know, that’s why I visited Asher and Virgil recently,” Sasha nodded. “Where’s Mom and Uncle?”

“Off checking the traps, they’ll be back by night fall,” Gabrielle grinned.

“Good,” Sasha smiled, leading her horse towards the barn. “Did you get Ash’s scroll?”

“Yes, and we’ve been thinking about it,” Gabrielle said slowly.

“Have you made a decision?” Sasha asked softly.

“Not really,” Gabrielle frowned. “You know my past.”

“Yes, Mom and I talked about it,” Sasha nodded.

“Asher and Virgil are visiting at a gladiatorial school,” Gabrielle said thoughtfully. “I don’t know if I can go into one of those places without losing it mentally.”

“I know but you might not see them for another year,” Sasha pointed out.

“You’ll be there?” Gabrielle asked softly.

“No, I’ll take you all there but then come back to take care of the place while the three of you are gone for the week,” Sasha explained. “Uncle Herc and Mom will be with you along with Asher and Virgil.”

“Alright,” Gabrielle nodded reluctantly. “Is there anything you’re not telling me?”

“No, just that the Fates and Norns are urging this,” Sasha admitted.

“Terrific,” Gabrielle muttered. “Just don’t tell Xena that.”

“I hadn’t planned on it,” Sasha grinned, reminding Gabrielle of the girl’s mother when Xena was being playful.

Asher and Virgil waited patiently on the hillside for their family and grinned when they blinked and the small band of Greeks turned Vikings stood before them.

“Mom!” Asher yelled and rushed forward a step ahead of Virgil to grab Xena and Gabrielle in bone crushing hugs. Both Xena and Gabrielle laughed and whacked at their arms until the young men put them down.

Both mothers stepped back and took an appraising look at the soldiers in front of them.

“Wow,” Gabrielle muttered.

Xena was grateful at her sons’ insight in their choice of clothing. The two males were dressed in simple Roman clothing of trousers, tunics and rich cloaks instead of their military armor. Xena knew Gabrielle might have panicked at the sight of a Roman Legionnaire coming at her.

Asher had grown another two inches and Virgil another four, bringing them to almost the same height. Virgil had also filled out nicely into a soldier and Asher looked like a Viking warrior.

“You both look good,” Xena agreed and Virgil blushed under the praise.

“You four never change,” Asher complained as he looked at Xena, Gabrielle, Hercules and Sasha.

“Not outwardly but the soul ages,” Gabrielle countered. “We miss you both.”

“Wait until you see this place,” Virgil said excitedly. “It’s huge! We’ve talked to Lycur and we’re going in through the main gate; he knows that you’re not interested in the gladiator school part of the villa.”

“Good,” Xena nodded as they turned to Sasha.

“Take care, Sash,” Gabrielle said softly, hugging the Valkyrie warmly.

“You bet. The steading will be fine,” she assured both moms and uncle.

Xena quickly hugged Sasha as well. “You’ll be listening?” she whispered.

“Yes, if it gets too much, yell for me or Artemis,” Sasha whispered back.

With a flash, Sasha was gone.

Xena frowned, “Artemis?” she whispered and then shrugged.

The group turned back to their soldier sons.

“What have you told your friend and his father about us?” Xena asked as they walked towards waiting horses.

“That you’re Germanic but spent a lot of time in Roman territory and speak Latin and Greek,” Asher said easily. “Other than that, not much.”

“Good,” Xena nodded.

“What do you hear of us, anyway?” Gabrielle asked as they mounted. “And where is the villa?”

“Just over the hill,” Virgil answered.

“We hear tales of you both,” Asher grinned. “Some of it exaggerated, some of it wrong, according to Mom’s scrolls. Uncle Hercules is a legend now. I think everyone believes you’re both dead.”

“That’s good,” Xena nodded. “Rather it stay that way.”

The dinner in the villa was just what the Greeks expected. There was rich, opulent food, good musicians as entertainment and discussion of politics, Roman expansion and the Germanic culture.

They found Lycur a charming and cultured host, just as they would expect from an up and coming Roman. He reminded both Xena and Gabrielle of a young Caesar and it grated on their nerves but they strived to be polite and maintain their Germanic roles.

Lycur had been casual about their unannounced relationship and hadn’t asked about both women being called mother by both boys. Virgil’s fostership was known but Xena could see the curiosity in his eyes as to who and what roles they played in Asher’s upbringing and life. It didn’t help that Asher looked a bit like both of them with his shifting eye color and dark hair but reddish beard.

“Is your mother here, Lord Lycur?” Hercules asked.

“I never knew my mother,” the young Roman answered easily. “Father says she died in childbirth and was one of his trainees.”

“I’m sorry,” Gabrielle said softly but the young man merely shrugged.

“You have a farm in the north, then?” he asked the two women over a goblet of wine.

“Ja,” Xena answered. “My brother, Brie and I run the place. We have fur in the winter and summer, and small crops.”

“Ylsa and Herkvar are excellent blacksmiths as well,” Asher said proudly.

“And you, Brie?” Lycur asked and Gabrielle found herself watching the young man. She knew he wasn’t much older than Asher and Virgil but he had the manner of a full-grown man accustomed to power.

“Whatever is necessary around the farm,” she answered calmly.

“Brie has also been a fighter and a scribe,” Virgil said proudly, unable to resist bragging about his foster mother.

“Fighter? All of you?” Lycur purred, brushing a lock of his sandy brown hair from his forehead.

“When necessary, as are all Vikings,” Hercules answered quickly.

“I was wondering about those weapons you carry at your boots, Lady Brie,” Lycur said, pointing to the sais as Gabrielle lounged on the settee.

“I can use them,” Gabrielle said with a flash of her eyes.

“My father tells me tales of a great fighter in the Circus that fought with weapons like those,” Lycur said softly, his eyes dancing as she shifted uncomfortably.

“They are a common weapon in the east,” Xena growled.

“Yes, that’s what Father said, but that this woman was fantastic in the Arena and even won the coveted Wooden Sword,” Lycur continued.

“Your father?” Gabrielle asked softly, a sense of dread sweeping over her.

“Yes, he has trained many fighters,” Lycur shrugged.

“Your father trained that fighter?” Xena hissed and the young man looked confused at the sudden tension in the room.

“I need some fresh air, please,” Gabrielle muttered, quickly jumping to her feet.

Xena caught up with the bard in the hallway, grabbing Gabrielle by the shoulders.

“Gabrielle, we don’t know for sure!” Xena hissed softly.

“Get me out of here, Xena!” Gabrielle pleaded.

“Ah, you must be my son’s guests!” a voice called from the other end of the hall. Both women looked up at a wealthy Roman approaching them, handing his cloak to a collared slave. An older man, probably over fifty years, Xena judged. Well built, probably once a fighter as well.

“I’m….”

“Lycrasius,” Gabrielle whispered and Xena tightened her grip on the bard’s shoulders.

“You know me, MiLady?” he asked, his friendly expression turning into one of confusion as he took in her terrified expression. He quickly looked his visitors up and down as his son and other guests entered the hall from the dining area.

Blonde hair, well developed fighting body, green eyes with a dark haired and blue eyed warrior. His eyes fell to the sais and he turned pale and looked back up into Gabrielle’s eyes. Lycrasius suddenly grinned as he regained his composure.

“The Fates are strange, aren’t they?” he asked. “Hello, Dancer.”

“You son of a….” Xena growled and then shouted in rage as Hercules and Asher grabbed her firmly by the arms and Virgil drew Gabrielle into his arms.

Asher and Virgil looked confused as Xena growled and struggled, her face one of rage.

Lycur moved next to his father with a puzzled expression as Lycrasius laughed.

“It is good to see you, Brie,” he grinned. “Or should I say, Gabrielle, Xena and Hercules? I thought the rumors of your immortality were true.”

“You know our mothers?” Asher demanded as Xena tried to calm herself and drew a shaking Gabrielle into her arms.

“I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting the famed Xena but I had many pleasures with Gabrielle. She was trained here at this very school,” Lycrasius smirked, his arms crossed over his chest.

“Trained? Here? You?” Virgil stammered. “She…”

“She was my slave, yes,” Lycrasius continued to smile.

“What you did to her…” Asher growled, his hands shaking.

“Nothing more than any owner can and will do to their property,” Lycrasius said calmly. “You have slaves in the north, you know this. A third of the entire known world are slaves and civilization can’t exist without slaves.”

“Mom, Ma!” Virgil snapped as Xena growled. “You can’t do anything! We’re foreigners in a Roman villa as guests!”

“The boy is right, you even touch me and all of you will be nailed to a Roman cross within two days. I understand you already know what that’s like, Dancer,” Lycrasius smirked arrogantly.

“Come on, Xena,” Hercules said softly. “Let’s get Gabrielle out of here.”

“Xena, please!” Gabrielle begged, shaking so hard Xena and Virgil had to hold her up.

“Lycur, have their horses saddled,” Lycrasius ordered. “Perhaps we can catch up on old times another day.”

“Only at the point of a sword,” Xena growled but Lycrasius laughed.

“You have no cause!” he grinned. “And no case to even complain to any authority! She was property! You’re fortunate I didn’t take her to my bed more often than I did!”

Hercules quickly tightened his hold around the two women as Asher stepped between his mothers and Lycrasius.

“I advise you to stop taunting my mothers,” Asher snapped. “You know them and you know their reputations are well earned.”

“You trained Gabrielle,” Virgil added. “You’ve aged and they haven’t.”

“Let’s go,” Hercules urged. “We’re going back to Germania. I would advise you to drop this, Lycrasius.”

“Its no concern of mine what you barbarians do,” Lycrasius smiled. “Gabrielle was bought and paid for in full. As for your sons, I think I could consider my silence as a sign of patronage. The names of Xena and Gabrielle are well known throughout the Empire and you still have powerful enemies, including some of the gods.”

“We also ensured Octavian’s position as Emperor,” Xena countered. “Don’t push it. You keep silent about our sons and I promise not to kill you in very unpleasant ways.”

“Deal!” Lycrasius laughed as Lycur joined his father again.

“Father?”

“Our guests are leaving and both sides have come to an agreement,” Lycrasius announced. “We agree to not reveal who your friend’s parents are and Xena promises not to kill me.”

“She wouldn’t dare!” Lycur snapped, his face flushing with anger.

“Control!” Lycrasius snapped. “Never let an enemy see any show of emotion except contempt. As for Xena, you know they could kill everyone in this villa. Once they are thinking clearly, they won’t risk a war with Rome but for now, everyone walks away.”

“Lycrasius, if I could, I would throw you into a slave galley so you knew what it felt like!” Xena growled.

“Leave, Greek,” Lycrasius growled. “Take your used bitch with you.”

Hercules barely held onto Xena as she screamed in rage and Asher turned and grabbed Gabrielle as she collapsed.

The Greek demi-god spun Xena around and hit her across the jaw and caught her in his arms.

“Asher! Virgil! Get Gabrielle out of here!” he snapped as they struggled down the hallway.

“Is she okay?” Asher asked as Virgil examined Xena’s unconscious form as Hercules held Gabrielle.

They had traveled quickly through the countryside until reaching a clearing in the woods. It was already dark so camp was set up very quickly. Xena was still unconscious and Gabrielle an emotional wreck.

“She will be, he almost broke her jaw,” Asher said softly, resting Xena’s head on a bedroll.

The two Roman soldiers looked over at the weeping Gabrielle and Hercules as he held her.

“I…I never thought…” Virgil stammered.

“Me either,” Asher agreed, his voice cracking. “We knew Mom’s history, I just never thought we’d be faced with it.”

Asher looked as pained as Virgil and just as lost.

“Can you watch Ma for a minute?” Asher asked after a couple of minutes.

“Sure but where in Hella’s Halls are you going?” Virgil demanded.

“For a walk. No, I’m not going back there to kill them, I just need to think for a minute,” Asher assured his brother.

“Alright,” Virgil mumbled.

Asher quickly trotted through the woods and stopped at a large oak.

“Sasha!” he hissed. “Answers! Now, sister!”

Asher felt the hairs on the back of his neck standing up and whirled around with Viking sword in hand. The young warrior’s eyes reflected his anger as he took in his sister standing by the tree.

“Why did you set this up? Did you know who he was?” he demanded.

“Yes and no,” Sasha said calmly. “I knew the Norns and the Fates wanted this to happen but I didn’t know why or who. I serve Odin and Freya, brother, it was their wish.”

“Why?” Asher snapped. “Why bring this up again? Why hurt Gabrielle like this? I thought they liked our mothers!”

“They do,” Sasha said gently. “Sometimes I’m not even sure the Gods know the end of things and the reasons they do the things they do.”

“Verdamnit!” Asher snapped. “Tossing Gabrielle in with her rapist and former master? How does that fit into any scheme?”

“I don’t know,” Sasha admitted. “All I can say is that the gods feel this is something Mum has to go through.”

“Sasha, you know how Mom feels about the gods and their interference in our lives, why do this?” Asher demanded.

“I do what I’m called for,” Sasha said calmly. “Go to them and help them through this and guard your back from this day forth. You’ve made a powerful enemy among the powerful of Rome because of our mothers.”

“Sasha,” Ash started to protest but his half sister was gone.

Asher returned to find Xena shaking her head as Hercules and Virgil helped her sit up. He quickly glanced around with a worried expression.

“Where’s Mom?” he asked.

Xena shoved Virgil out of the way and glanced around with the others.

“What?”

“She was just here!” Virgil protested.

“Damn!” Xena growled as Hercules helped her to her feet.

“She wouldn’t go back there, you swore not to kill him,” Hercules grumbled.

“I did, she didn’t,” Xena pointed out as she rubbed her jaw and dashed for the horses they had purchased in the nearby town before heading to the villa.

Lycrasius held his breathe when he felt the sharp edge of a blade pressed against his throat and someone sitting down on his chest.

“I thought you’d be back,” he said calmly to the dark figure hovering over him. “There’s guards outside. Unless you slit my throat quickly I can have them in here in a moment.”

“Your guards have decided to take a nap,” a voice hissed at him and Lycrasius felt his heart begin to speed up in fear. “It’s just you and me….MiLord Master.”

Lycrasius’ eyes adjusted to the dark and he could take in Gabrielle’s face and cold green eyes.

“Nothing to say…Master?” she hissed.

“What can I say? I treated you just as I would have done and will continue to do with any beautiful slave,” Lycrasius said calmly.

Gabrielle growled and hit Lycrasius across the jaw and raised the dagger over his chest.

“Do it, Dancer! My son will have yours on a cross in days! Do it!”

Gabrielle hesitated, seeing nothing but contempt in the old man’s eyes.

“Come on, Dancer! Just like I taught you!” Lycrasius taunted.

Gabrielle spun the dagger in her hands and brought the hilt down over the bridge of Lycrasius’ nose. The Roman howled in pain and Gabrielle jumped off his chest and dragged him out of the bed.

With a spin she kicked Lycrasius in the chest, sending him into an expensive dressing screen. Before the bloodied Roman could recover, Gabrielle grabbed him by the feet and dragged him into the center of the room.

Gabrielle could feel her rage building and didn’t know what to do with it as she placed a foot on the back of Lycrasius’ neck.

“Stay!” she ordered and looked around. With a hardening to her eyes, the bard threw her dagger into a log on the fire. She pulled a long leather lacing out of a belt pouch and quickly tied Lycrasius’ hands behind his back.

“Slavery may be a reality for others in your hands but I’m going to give you a taste of it!” Gabrielle growled and retrieved the dagger with a cloth wrapped around her hand. She watched Lycrasius’ eyes widen as he watched her walk across the room.

“You wouldn’t dare!” he snapped.

“Why wouldn’t I?” she countered. “Didn’t you teach me to be brutal and without mercy. Isn’t that what Dancer is?”

“Yes, nothing more than a trained animal,” Lycrasius smirked until the red hot blade burned an eyebrow. He yelped and tried to move away.

“You’re right, that’s what Dancer is,” Gabrielle frowned, squatting down in front of him with the dagger. “It took me awhile to put Gabrielle back together and that includes a little bit of Dancer. I’m not Dancer.”

Gabrielle tossed the dagger away.

“You’re weak,” Lycasius snarled.

“It doesn’t take strength to kill you,” Gabrielle said wearily. “It takes strength to walk away from killing you. I’m warning you, though, you do anything to my sons and I’ll come back, brand you, castrate you and shove it up your ass.”

Lycasius apparently decided that silence was now a good choice.

Gabrielle stood up and looked down at the naked old man. With a swift movement, she grabbed the back of his hair and rammed his face into the floor, breaking his nose.

“That’s my slave mark for you,” she growled and opened the door slowly. She smiled when she saw Xena leaning against the wall, keeping an eye on the two unconscious guards.

“Ave, Little One,” Xena said softly. “Is he alive?”

Gabrielle looked up into her lover’s eyes and saw no judgment, just a question.

“Yes, a little bloody but alive,” Gabrielle said softly.

“I’m glad, that’s not a path I wanted for you,” Xena commented as they began to walk cautiously down the hall. “Let’s get out of here.”

Gabrielle smiled shyly at her sons and Hercules as they rode back to the temporary camp.

“I’m alright,” she said as she dismounted and the young men ran to hug her.

“Did you kill him?” Virgil asked, his face worried.

“No,” she answered softly. “Just broke his nose.”

Asher grinned as Virgil frowned. Hercules looked relived as he finished dinner over the fire.

“We’re heading home tomorrow morning,” Xena informed them. “It’ll be better if we get far away from here.”

“I’ll keep watch tonight,” Hercules nodded. “You can spend time with the guys.”

Both women spun with weapons in hand at the sound of footsteps approaching the camp.

A slave stammered and dropped the sack she was carrying. “Please! Pax!”

“Who are you?” Xena demanded.

“I am Neda, slave to Lord Lycrasius,” the woman squeaked.

“Neda? Do I know you?” Gabrielle asked softly and the older woman grabbed up the bag and hurried up to them.

“Yes, you knew me,” the woman answered. “We must hurry before those guards wake up or Lord Lycasius gets loose.”

The old woman moved closer to the fire, into the light.

“Brie, do you remember me?”

“You were a young kitchen slave,” Gabrielle nodded.

“Yes, and you were kind,” Neda smiled. “You and Nikki would pretend to take me to bed whenever the most vicious trainer turned his eye to me.”

Gabrielle blushed and shrugged. “I tried, it hurt to leave you behind.”

“I know and I understood, none of us were free to make our own decisions,” Neda commented.

“Do you want to go with us now?” Xena asked. “We’ll take you to Germania, you’ll be free.”

“No, I have saved enough money from betting and odd errands in my spare time to buy my freedom next year,” Neda responded in a soft voice. “My freedom and that of my children.”

“How can we help you?” Gabrielle asked.

“Bring Lycrasius down,” Neda growled, her voice becoming hard.

“How? He’s a powerful Roman,” Xena asked.

“In this bag are scrolls, maps, and correspondence between a group of powerful Romans,” Neda said slowly. “Lycrasius has been plotting to overthrow Octavian and move Lycur into position to overthrow Tiberius in a few years.”

“There’s proof?” Xena asked softly.

“In this bag, in Lycrasius’ own hand,” Neda nodded and Gabrielle began to smile widely.

“Can we do it?” Gabrielle asked her mate.

“Yes,” Xena nodded. “We find a trusted messenger and send these to Octavian, he’ll handle it from there.”

“We don’t have to go to Rome?” Gabrielle asked, her voice soft and fearful.

“No, Little One,” Xena smiled. “We find a mansion, a staging post, and an honest official or messenger.”

“What about you, Neda, he’ll kill you,” Gabrielle asked, turning to the slave.

“Bruise me, you’ve assaulted the Lord and stole the scrolls,” Neda suggested.

“Damn, I hate this part,” Xena growled.

“Do it!” Neda urged. “Both of you!”

Gabrielle sighed and snapped her hand out, hitting Neda in the eye as Xena followed through with a cross to the slave’s jaw, sending her to the ground.

Gabrielle quickly helped her sit up.

“You okay?”

“I will be,” Neda mumbled. “I’d better get back.”

“Once you gain your freedom, find us,” Xena urged.

“We’ll see,” Neda said as Gabrielle helped her stand.

“Thank you, my friend, vale,” Gabrielle said softly.

“Use it to take Lycrasius down or blackmail him, whichever will help you,” Neda urged. “Be safe.”

The old woman disappeared into the shadows and, once out of sight of the camp, shifted into the form of Sasha.

“Thank you for letting me use your form while you sleep, Neda,” the Valkyrie whispered softly.

Dearest Mom and Ma; Virgil sends his love along with this scroll as do I. I am pleased to tell you both that Virgil and I are doing well. We’ve managed to avoid Lycur most of the time. With his father’s influence, he was shifted to guard duty at the Senate, with lots of other guards around. We’ve noticed that he hasn’t been assigned anywhere near the Emperor or important senators.

We received word from the Acta Diurna, the daily posting of news in the city, that Lycrasius died last week. It is rumored that a high ranking noblewoman was going to implicate him in a sexual scandal in Rome and he took his life rather than face public humiliation. Virgil and I know the truth because the Emperor himself met with us two days ago.

On the surface word was spread that he was meeting all of the cultural exchange Germans privately but he admitted he knew who we were. Octavian received the information you sent through the messenger. He explained that he couldn’t afford a political shake up at this time and chose to handle it quietly. Those involved were confronted, the higher level conspirators were either killed or committed suicide. Lower level ones were banished.

Lycrasius chose suicide. Since nothing has been declared publicly, Lycur is going to be able to maintain his position and inherit his father’s wealth and school. He won’t be allowed anywhere near the Emperor and he will be watched closely and won’t be able to advance in rank or power as long as Octavian lives. Effectively, he is stuck where he is and under suspicion day and night. There is also the possibility that Octavian might consider him too dangerous and have him assassinated.

I have to admit, Mom, we’re ready to come home. I never thought we would get involved in politics like this. We knew we would be put on display as the barbarians but we never meant to take on Roman plots of overthrowing the Emperor.

Virgil and I are hoping that Octavian has given orders that we not be assigned anywhere with Lycur. I don’t think he’ll attempt anything against us since he’s being watched so carefully but I don’t want to push it either. He is deadly in a fight.

Virgil sends his love as do I. Stay safe. Hopefully we’ll be home before the four years is up. Much love to everyone, Asher – son of Brie and Ylsa.

Dearest Virgil and Asher, it was good to hear from you. It was too short a visit for us. Surprised to hear from me than your Mom? I know I don’t put pen to scroll often but thought I’d let you know your Mom is doing well. Some of the nightmares have ended. Normally a visit to Roman territory would have set off nightmares for two weeks. I don’t know what the Norns and Fates have set in motion but I know this may have actually helped Brie.

I just hope when you two return home that we’re done with Rome for a long time. I wanted to kill Lycrasius. I still do. The thought of what he did to your mother drives me insane and I hate that politics and rules stopped me. I know it’s for the best in the long run but I’m still tempted by the desire for revenge.

I love you both. Brie and Herkvar send their love. Love Ylsa

The End
Champion of Rome

Storyline: Rome and the past once again catches up with Xena and Gabrielle and their families
Asher sighed heavily as he pulled the thin blanket over his body. He had barely managed to get undressed from his double shift of guard duty at the Senate and he was exhausted. Everyone had been working double duty because of Octavian’s illness and the potential political upheaval that his death would soon bring.

He glanced over and saw Virgil working on some scrolls near an oil lamp and absently wondered if it was Roman Legion business or his own writings. Asher smiled, his adopted brother was so much like Asher’s mother than Asher was at times. Then again, the young Viking smiled, he was more like his other mother, Xena, as he preferred weapons to pen.

Asher closed his eyes, trying to forget the shouting matches that typically filled the senate ever since Augustus Octavian Caesar had fallen ill in his old age. The son of Gabrielle and Xena remembered the tales of the assassinations, executions and ultimate civil war that had occurred after Julius Caesar’s death and hoped the next transition of power would be easier on everyone, especially him and Virgil.

“Virgil! Asher!” a feminine voice called urgently, sitting Asher up in his cot and reaching for his gladius sword.

Virgil was on his feet and staring at the figure standing between him and his brother. “Sasha?”

“Don’t worry, the others can’t see or hear me,” the Valkyrie daughter of Xena and Ares said hastily. “You must move quickly! I have horses waiting!”

“What is it? Mother? Mom?” Asher demanded, pulling his uniform on.

“No, you both are the ones in danger,” Sasha explained as Virgil put his scrolls away. “Octavian has uncovered a plot against his life. Unfortunately, one of the bastards tortured named several Vikings in on it. Octavian has brought Lycur in to find them and any other Germanic involved.”

“By the Gods, he’ll name us in revenge!” Virgil exclaimed, turning slightly pale.

“Yes, he’s on his way. Our mothers are on their way as well. My powers and interference is limited. I could come here and warn you or transport them to Meg or Lila’s.”

“Verdamnit,” Virgil growled. “Hasn’t his family caused enough pain to us? His father owning Mum all those years ago and forcing her to be a gladiator and now the bastard son wants our heads?”

“Yes, his year in the Arena has made him popular and a favorite of many soldiers. Lycur’s moving against you and our families in revenge for his father’s political fall and suicide,” Sasha continued.

“What kind of move?” Asher demanded as he stuffed his few belongings and travel food into packs and saw Virgil doing the same.

“He’s been given mastership over three sets of Legionnaires, one is on the way to seek out Virgil’s family and the other two are on their way here to capture you,” Sasha said calmly.

“Eighty men in each set,” Asher quickly calculated, “One hundred and sixty coming just for us?”

“Yes,” Sasha nodded. “We must hurry to reach Meg.”

“Can’t you just take us there, why aren’t they going after Lila as well?” Virgil whimpered, the thought of his mother and sister Rachel in the hands of Legionnaires terrified him.

“They are, after Meg. She’s closer and, no, the Norns forbid it,” Sasha shook her head. “Hurry! Word of Hermann’s defeat over the Romans in Gaul will reach Rome soon and all Germans and Vikings will be sorely pressed to survive the week.”

“Arminius turned against the Romans?” Virgil asked, stopping and looking at his sister in disbelief.

Hermann, a powerful chieftain of a tribe of Gauls, had been raised and trained by the Romans, much as Asher and Virgil in the south. Arminius, his Roman name, was well liked by the Roman Generals and was thought of as a loyal Roman subject.

“The killing took four days and the Romans were wiped out to a man and horse,” Sasha nodded.

“Oh by the Gods,” Virgil exclaimed. “Rome will go insane! Legionnaires massacred by Gauls?”

“Yes, and Lycur will use that against you,” Sasha finished.

Asher grabbed Virgil’s packs and handed his brother their weapons. “What about Mum’s family?”

“Meg is closer, we’ll go to Lila next,” Sasha explained as they dashed out of the barracks towards the horses waiting for them. It did help to have a powerful demi-goddess for a sister, Asher reflected. Attempting to desert their post as Legionnaires would earn both Asher and Virgil death by flogging or crucifixion even if Lycur wasn’t out to kill them.

“Do we wear our uniforms or our civilian clothing?” Virgil asked as they rode into the night.

“Uniforms for now, no one will stop Legionnaires once word spreads Octavian is dead,” Asher decided. “Ride, Virgil!”

Virgil screamed and threw himself from his horse when they approached the village where Meg and daughter Rachel lived. The Viking saw the t-shaped crosses and the bodies. Asher whimpered deep in his throat, realizing two of those were his foster mother and sister.

Sasha reached over and took the reins from Asher and walked their horses closer. Virgil was on his knees in front of the two crosses that greeted the first visitors to the village from the north.

Asher and Virgil had seen crucifixions before and had always been sickened, it was only through willpower that they had managed not to disgrace themselves in front of the Romans by throwing up.

Death by crucifixion was one of the most unpleasant ways to die imaginable in the minds of the Vikings/Greeks, especially taken with the added knowledge that their own mother, Gabrielle had been crucified twice. Once by Caesar and once by Bacchus and had managed to survive only with the help of the gods.

Meg and Rachel hadn’t gained the favor of being born from deities and Sasha knew instantly that they were dead as she and Asher approached.

The sign leaning against their feet read “Family of Traitors” in Latin, Greek and Germanic.

“Come on, Virg,” Asher said softly as he dismounted. “Let’s get them down and put them with Joxer. Sasha, can you get word to Mum and Mom?”

“Yes, get to Mum’s family and we’ll meet you at Lila’s,” Sasha said, turning her horse and riding back towards the woods where her Valkyrie powers wouldn’t be seen.

“I’ll kill him, Ash,” Virgil said softly. “I will kill him, no matter what it takes!”

“I know, Virg,” Asher sighed softly as he looked at most of the citizens of the village hanging from crosses; their only crime was probably living next to Meg and Rachel.

Xena pulled up her horse with a startled look, Hercules and Gabrielle a moment behind her.

The warriors blinked at the sight of a large group moving down the road towards them. Lila and her grown children and grandchildren in the leading wagon.

“Lila?” Gabrielle said softly and was off her horse in a flash and dashing to the wagon.

Lila jumped down from the wagon and the sisters embraced tightly. Gabrielle pulled back slightly, looking her sister over for injuries. “What happened?”

“Virgil and Asher came tearing into town and said a Legion was heading towards the village and told us to get out,” Lila explained, gesturing towards the villagers behind her. “They said we needed to run or we’d all be massacred like Meg and her village.”

“Meg?” Xena said softly. “The entire village?”

“That’s what Asher said. Virgil was almost hysterical with rage,” Lila nodded.

“Oh Gods,” Gabrielle whispered, clinging to her sister.

“Where are the kids?” Hercules asked anxiously, searching the end of the group for the warriors.

“They, uh, stayed behind to slow the Romans down,” Lila said slowly. “Some of the villagers reinforced the city defenses and caught up with us.”

“Do I escort them to Amazon lands or stay with you and fight?” Hercules asked with a frown.

“We can make it to the woods before nightfall,” Lila said firmly.

“Start leading them to Amazon territory,” Gabrielle said firmly. “Xena and I can handle a troop of Romans.”

Xena’s smile wasn’t pleasant as she nodded.

“Stay with Herc,” Gabrielle instructed her sister. “We’ll catch up with you.”

“Gabrielle, no!” Lila cried, trying to hold onto her sister. “The Romans will kill you both. Leave with us! Haven’t you fought long enough?”

“Yes, we have,” Gabrielle nodded. “It’s also our sons back there.”

The warrior bard vaulted onto her horse, following Xena as the warrior yelled, setting her horse into a dash.

# # #

Xena pulled her horse up to a stop on the road with a snarl. The village was on fire, the barricades breeched and set ablaze, the gates hanging broken.

A handful of villagers had stayed behind to help Asher and Virgil and now they were hanging from Roman T-crosses. At the far end, the first one crucified, was Virgil. The Romans had apparently been setting the crosses up for most of the day. The soldiers had stripped off their cloaks and armor and were now down to their tunics, sweating in the noonday sun.

Gabrielle growled as the next cross was raised and the victim was Asher.

Xena pulled her chakram up and shouted in anger, her famous battle cry, as her horse leaped forward. Gabrielle followed, a sai in one hand. She grabbed up a spear from a dead villager’s chest in the other.

The Romans looked up with startled expressions. Most of them were milling about the area and quickly pulled out their swords or dashed for their tripod stacks of spears. The ones handling the digging and posting of the crosses ran to grab their armor and weapons.

Xena hit the troops full on with her horse in a full gallop, leaning down to slice a soldier down the back and another across the back of the neck.

Gabrielle blocked a spear thrust and stabbed the soldier through the chest with her own spear, losing the spear. She pulled her second sai as she kicked a soldier grabbing for her reins.

Xena spun her horse around and kicked him into action, bearing down on the soldiers trying to overwhelm Gabrielle. She saw her wife dive off the horse, sais and feet flying.

The dark-haired Greek launched her chakram and pulled her sword. The chakram sliced through the back armor of two soldiers and bounced off the helmet of another, splitting it and dropping him.

Gabrielle snapped her hand up with the pointed end of the sai, hitting a soldier in the throat, under the chin. She back-kicked another in the nose and blocked a Gladius sword with her other sai.

Xena launched herself off her horse with a recognizable Warrior Princess battle cry, landing beside her mate. They turned back-to-back and grinned.

The handful of Roman soldiers began to slowly back away.

“Go on! Get out of here!” Xena growled, almost disappointed the fight was over so quickly. She could feel Gabrielle trembling with anger behind her.

The soldiers began to reform and look to each other for guidance.

“I’m Xena and this is Gabrielle in case you didn’t figure that out,” Xena growled. “And we definitely live up to our legends. Do you really want to try this?”

The soldiers began grabbing their wounded comrades and backing towards the road.

A horse rounded the corner of the stonewall and both Greeks growled when they recognized Lycur.

Xena looked up at Asher and Virgil and screamed, launching her dreaded chakram at the Roman officer.

Lycur snarled back at the warriors and brought up a shield at the last moment, deflecting the chakram and splitting the shield.

Xena caught the chakram with a stunned expression as the Roman officer turned, taking his horse out of sight and galloping away.

“X-Xena?” Gabrielle asked softly. “Has anyone except Callisto ever done that?”

“No,” Xena shook her head and growled as the soldiers began running. “To Hades with him, get to the kids and villagers!”

# # #

Xena walked up behind Gabrielle and placed a hand on her mate’s shoulder. “How is he?” she asked softly.

Gabrielle shook her head as she held up a cloth to catch the blood as Virgil coughed. The young man was sitting up in bed to ease the pressure on his lungs. Bandages were wrapped around his wrists and ankles after the 7-inch Roman spikes had been removed.

“How many dead?” the bard asked softly.

“The last three, including Asher live,” Xena answered. “The other four are dead.”

“Virgil will join them,” Gabrielle said softly.

“We can’t do anything?” Xena whispered, her voice cracking.

“He’s too injured,” Gabrielle shook her head. “The flogging before the crucifixion weakened him and he was one of the first ones. The fluid has built up in his lungs. I’m using enough healing energy to keep him alive but I can’t heal him without giving everything.”

“That’s not an option,” Xena growled. “We still have Sasha and Asher.”

“I know. You’d better bring Asher in,” Gabrielle nodded wearily.

A few minutes later Xena and a farmhand carried in Asher on a litter.

“Where’d he come from?” Gabrielle asked softly, sponging Virgil’s forehead.

“He was on a farm outside the walls, he saw the smoke and came in,” Xena explained.

“Mom?” Asher asked softly, his face twisting in pain as he looked at Virgil.

“You need to say goodbye, Ash,” Xena said gently.

“No! Not yet! Not him!” Asher hissed, trying not to yell and disturb his brother.

“Asher, it’s time,” Gabrielle said firmly. “Let him go.”

Asher nodded, biting back tears. He let Xena help him sit up.

“Virgil, can you open your eyes? Asher’s here,” Gabrielle said softly as he gasped for breath.

Virgil struggled to open his eyes and tried to smile as he coughed.

“Don’t try to talk, Virg,” Asher said firmly but his voice cracking with emotion.

Virgil nodded as tears escaped his eyes.

“Let go, Virg,” Asher urged, reaching to hold his brother’s hand.

Gabrielle felt tears streaming down her face and could feel the pain radiating from Asher and Xena as well.

“We love you, Virgil,” Xena said softly, kissing the top of his head. “We’ll always love you and see you on the other side.”

“You’re our son, Virgil,” Gabrielle said gently. “Meg and your sister are waiting.”

“I love you, Virg,” Asher added, leaning his head on Virgil’s arm.

Virgil closed his eyes and began coughing, spitting up blood and phlegm.

Xena helped sit him up and sat behind him, pulling the young man into her arms. She began stroking his temples, trying to calm him. After a few moments she increased the pressure slightly until Virgil slumped in her arms.

“M-mom?” Asher asked, almost in a whisper.

“He’s gone, Ash,” she answered and helped Gabrielle move Virgil to lie on the bed before moving to hold their son as he wept.

# # #

Gabrielle stood by the funeral pyre of Virgil and the villagers, holding their foster son’s hand.

“We have to go, Gabrielle,” Xena said softly, holding the torch ready.

“I know, Lycur will return with more troops by daylight,” the warrior bard nodded and stepped back, walking towards the wagon that held the remaining villagers and Asher. She heard the fire blaze into action but didn’t turn back.

She heard Asher beginning to cry again as she mounted the wagon and clicked the horses into movement.

Xena rode up and took the lead, her face stern and unemotional but Gabrielle knew inside her wife was seething with anger and grief.

# # #

Moving steadily, the small group caught up with the rest of the villagers two candle-marks before dawn.

Lila quickly took over the care of Asher and the other three survivors as Xena explained to Hercules.

The large demi-god shook his head and stormed off into the woods upon hearing the news about his foster nephew.

Gabrielle curled up in Xena’s arms against a tree as the villagers grabbed some sleep and Lila worked with the survivors of the crucifixion.

“He’ll come after us, won’t he?” Gabrielle said softly.

“More than likely, yes,” Xena nodded. “We’ll move Lila and the others as fast as we can, get them out of Roman territory. Then we’ll go home.”

“You’re not going tie me up and disappear in the night again, are you?” Gabrielle smiled ruefully.

“No,” Xena smiled gently. “As much as I want revenge, I want Asher and Lila safe and to leave Rome behind.”

“No more cycle of revenge?” Gabrielle asked gratefully.

“No, we’re leaving it,” Xena nodded. “I’m tired of the death too.”

“Let’s go home and never see Rome again,” Gabrielle mumbled, closing her eyes.

# # #

For three days the group pushed as fast as farm horses and oxen would take them. Everyone was tired and disheartened but kept moving forward, trusting in the Warrior Princess and Warrior Bard to get them through.

One more of the four survivors of the crucifixion died on the second night, his fiancée was pulled sobbing from his grave by her father.

Asher continued to improve slowly and Xena thought he might eventually recover use of his hands and feet with some of her special healing knowledge from the Far East. What wasn’t healed was his heart. He and Virgil had grown up as brothers, inseparable from their toddler years.

Xena sharpened her sword as she watched Gabrielle trying to comfort their son. The warrior tried to focus her thoughts on Asher’s recovery and getting everyone safe rather than her almost overwhelming desire for revenge. Gabrielle and the others needed her thinking clearly, not the battle crazed warlord she had once been.

By the end of the fifth day, everyone was exhausted and barely aware of their surroundings. Gabrielle moved to the front of the caravan as they approached Amazon lands and Xena moved to the rear. The Amazons would recognize either woman quickly but they’d respond faster to their absent Queen.

Gabrielle stopped, holding up her hand to stop the wagons. She cocked her head, listening and watching after spotting the subtle signs on the trees marking Amazon boundaries.

A whistle sounded in the trees and Gabrielle raised her arms above her head, crossed at her wrists.

Several Black Forest Amazons stepped out from behind the trees and one slid down a rope from a tree.

“Heilsa, Hallvor!” Gabrielle called with a small smile.

Hallvor bowed slightly at the waist and raised a hand in greeting. The other Amazons followed suit. Unlike the Southern Amazons who would go to a bended knee to their Queen, the Black Forest Amazons, influenced by their Northern sisters, did not. Germanic custom of not bending knee to anyone but the gods themselves was spilling over into the Amazon life.

“Heilsa, my Queen,” Hallvor grinned, raising her head. “You bring a rag-tag looking bunch.”

“Aye,” Gabrielle nodded, moving forward to hug her friend as Xena came up the line of wagons on her horse, smiling a greeting to the women warriors. “Can you put them on the outskirts of Amazon land? Romans wiped out their village. This bunch includes my sister, niece and nephews.”

“Of course, your family is our family,” Hallvor nodded. “Eponin will be delighted to see both of you. Warriors, lead our friends around the edge of the lands and settle them in by the small lake in the south. We will have a celebration feast tonight to welcome them. What’s happened, Gabrielle, Xena?”

“Romans attacked our families,” Xena began. “Virgil’s home village was slaughtered along with our friend and adopted sister Meg, his mother. The boys rushed to the next village to protect Lila, Gabrielle’s sister.”

“They got the villagers out,” Gabrielle continued, glancing back at her sister as she climbed up into the lead wagon to care for Asher. “Our sons stayed behind with some villagers to hold the Romans back.”

The bard looked away and Hallvor sighed, she knew what any army unit of the world was capable of, especially the Romans.

“They were captured and crucified,” Xena said softly. “Hercules is behind us, covering our trail.”

“Virgil died,” Gabrielle said, wiping a tear from her eyes.

“We will honor him at our fires,” Hallvor said firmly. “The males will be welcome along with the women for the first three days as they settle in and we help them.”

“Thank you, take us to Pony, please,” Gabrielle nodded; letting some of the weariness hit her.

Xena leaned over and squeezed Gabrielle’s hand. “We’ll rest here for a day before taking Asher home.”

# # #

Lila walked up to Gabrielle as the bard watched the children of the village splashing in the creek and lake. The younger sister sat down on a rock next to Gabrielle with a moan. “I swear my body is protesting more and more every year.”

Gabrielle looked at her sister, noting the hair was more gray than dark now and the lines framing Lila’s face. Her hands were showing signs of the pains and were calloused and rough.

Lila noticed her sister’s glance and smiled. “Yes, I look like mother now and you haven’t aged. You still are young and beautiful. I’m 52 summers, Gabby.”

“I know,” Gabrielle said softly.

“Will we be safe here?” Lila asked, looking around at the deep woods, much different than the farmland she had just left.

“Hopefully,” Gabrielle said truthfully. “It will be hard this winter. It’s colder here and life is different. You’ll have to encourage the others to adapt.”

“Who will help me adapt,” Lila smirked. “From farmer to what here?”

“They need weavers here too,” Gabrielle smirked back, bumping her sister lightly, playfully. “And they keep livestock and do a little farming.”

“What about you and Xena?” Lila asked slowly. “Can you let it go?”

“I think so,” her sister said thoughtfully. “We have to. It just becomes an endless circle. If we helped bring Lycur’s father down because he was once my brutal owner, now the son kills our foster son and hurts Asher badly. What next? We kill him and some bastard son fifteen years from now comes calling for vengeance? No, it has to end somewhere.”

“And Asher and Xena?” Lila asked softly. “Will they let it go?”

“Yes, Xena’s as tired as I am and Asher is too wounded in body and spirit,” Gabrielle sighed heavily. “In a year or two he might feel the burn of the anger but, hopefully, we’ll have him firmly entrenched in the northern life.”

“Will they follow us?”

“It’s possible,” Gabrielle admitted. “Romans are quite stubborn when they think they’ve been insulted or beaten. With Imperial backing, Lycur just might push his vendetta to the north. We live far enough North that it would cause some major conflicts if he tries to push that far. The Amazons will protect you to the last; you and the villagers are family now.”

“I used to envy you about your travels and adventures but knew that wasn’t for me,” Lila said thoughtfully. “Do you regret it? Any of it? You are scarred, almost lost your son, have been brutalized. You’ve seen so much grief, Gabrielle. So much violence and death, it’s… inconceivable.”

“I regret a lot of it, mostly what the Fates threw at us,” Gabrielle nodded after a moment, looking at the bracers on her wrists that hid the crucifixion scars. “I regret a few of my actions and, in hindsight, would find a different way. Do I regret my life with Xena? Never, Lila. She’s still the love of my life and I like the person she’s become and that I’ve become.”

“You certainly aren’t the naïve dreamer,” Lila smirked, nudging her sister.

“No, now I’m a dangerous warrior,” Gabrielle said sadly.

“No, that’s not all you are, it’s a small part of you, Gabrielle,” Lila said gently. “You wanted to be a warrior when you left home and quickly changed your mind about that. Becoming one was a matter of survival and honor. There’s no shame in that. Are you happy in the north?”

Gabrielle’s smile brightened her face visibly. “Yes, very much so. It’s a hard life but it’s satisfying. Never thought I’d like it, did you? Hauling water, making bread and sewing.”

“No, I still can’t believe it but it suits both of you,” Lila smiled. “There’s an aura of peace around both of you, something I never thought I’d see, especially with Xena.”

“War and vengeance have a higher price than we’re willing to pay any longer,” Gabrielle said thoughtfully. “Solan killed, Kyrck kidnapped, Virgil, Rachel and Meg dead, all too costly.”

“Let’s go back and lend a hand, everyone is cutting timber for shelters. It will be interesting, everyone have agreed to try the northern way of a long house for easier heating and comfort,” Lila suggested as she stood and offered a hand to her sister.

“It… it takes some adapting,” Gabrielle laughed. “You learn though, it becomes comforting to have all those people around. Just keep everyone’s hands and minds busy during the winter months.”

“We’ll work on it,” Lila nodded.

# # #

Xena, Gabrielle and Hercules spent three more days among the Amazons and the new settlement of Greeks. Watching the two groups interacting, Gabrielle wondered if the future of the Amazons was doomed to integration into the societies around them, losing their female oriented focus. The bard smiled softly, reflecting that human nature was one of adapting. Adapting or dying and those cultures and groups that had failed were now part of history. The Amazon Queen said a quick prayer that this wasn’t to be the future of her tribes.

The rest of the journey towards home was taken slower, now that they were in their home territory, they felt safer. There had been no sign of any Romans following the fleeing villagers and Gabrielle began to feel hopeful they might actually leave the revenge and politics of Rome behind. At least until the Empire expanded and drew close to them.

Noticing something ahead, Hercules jumped down from his horse and Xena pulled up short, her hand going to her chakram. Gabrielle stopped the horse and cart, pulling her sais into her hands. “Stay down, Asher,” she said softly.

Asher whimpered, wishing he could at least grip a dagger. The proud Greek hated being helpless.

Hercules examined the ground and motioned Xena to join him. The warrior knelt down beside him after dismounting, frowning at what he saw as well.

“Lots of horses, all shoed,” he pointed to the tracks.

“And iron-rimmed wagons,” Xena sighed. “Heading north.”

“Merchants?” Hercules ventured.

“Possible but not likely,” Xena shook her head. “Too late in the season to be heading north unless they plan on staying at a large steading.”

“That’s a lot of people to welcome in for the winter,” Hercules agreed. “Romans.”

“Most likely,” Xena frowned. “Let’s get home. We’ll get to the Steading just in case.”

Hercules nodded, remounting his horse. After being adopted by the Germanic tribesmen, he knew they’d defend the Greeks to the death. To them, there was no difference between a Viking born family and the Greeks now.

Xena trotted back to the wagon. “We might have Romans around here,” she explained to her wife and son. “We’re heading to the steading and we should move quickly. Can you handle it, Asher?”

“Yes,” the former Legionnaire nodded. “Anything to keep any of you from falling into Lycur’s hands. He knows Mom was crucified and her fear of that.”

Gabrielle shook her head. Asher had just been through a crucifixion and lived and he was more worried about her. “I love you, Ash. Let’s move, Xena.”

# # #

Hercules slowed his horse and let Xena catch up with him. She sighed and looked around. “Campfire smoke and noises. Large group, can we go around?”

“I can carry Asher,” Hercules nodded. “To where though? They’re sitting in the middle of our yard, I’m guessing. The only option is the Amazons.”

“And we might be leading them right back to our kin,” Xena nodded.

“No one can cover tracks like you, we could make it,” Hercules ventured. “Even if it isn’t Lycur, they could still execute Asher for desertion.”

“Do we keep running or face this?” Gabrielle called from the wagon.

“We end it,” Xena said firmly, her blue eyes flashing. “I’m done running. Gabrielle…”

The blonde shook her head. “I know, take Asher and make for the Amazons and be safe. No, I’m with you, wife.”

“I’m not leaving either of you,” Hercules said firmly before Xena could ask.

“Alright, then we take Asher into a camp of Romans with crucifixion wounds?” Xena demanded.

Gabrielle looked angry but kept quiet for a moment and Hercules finally nodded. “You’re right. They’ll finish him off before even asking questions. I’ll start with him towards the Amazons, you two catch up with us.”

“Love you, brother,” Xena said softly, grasping his hand in a warrior clasp.

“Be safe. I really don’t want to take on the Roman army again,” he smirked and walked his horse back to the wagon to bend over and kiss Gabrielle’s cheek. He switched places with her and glanced back at a sleeping Asher.

“The pain herbs should keep him sleeping for another two candlemarks,” Gabrielle said softly, looking down at her wounded son. “Keep him safe, Herc.”

“My word,” Hercules nodded, clicking the horse back into movement, slowly turning the wagon around the way they had come. Both women warriors knew he would pick a different route at the first opportunity.

Gabrielle turned and trotted up next to her wife. “How do you want to handle this? Straight into the fire or pick some of them off?”

“Both plans have merit,” Xena frowned, thoughtful. “Let’s scout them out and see if they’re carrying war banners.”

Gabrielle nodded and dismounted. She moved to the nearest set of trees and sighed. “It’s harder up north,” she complained as Xena joined her, fastening her chakram down tightly.

“Trees are taller and branches higher,” Xena agreed, boosting her smaller wife to the nearest branch.

“Just because some of us are tall,” Gabrielle muttered.

Xena grinned, despite the situation. One thing never in doubt was her love for Gabrielle and their unique sense of humor together.

# # #

The two warriors worked their way towards their small steading, the sounds of encampment getting louder as they approached. Gabrielle made a sign of disgust and tugged on her ears. Xena nodded in agreement, the Romans weren’t being quiet about their presence.

The women resisted growling aloud when they were able to see their home and the invading Romans. It seemed like there was a Roman everywhere they looked. Gabrielle pointed out that the families that had joined them over the years were all huddled near the animal pens. The men were bruised and battered and so were some of the women.

The Romans had slaughtered several cows and pigs and were busy roasting and cooking. Gabrielle sighed, recognizing some of their utensils and stocks of food.

Xena pointed towards the main tent and Gabrielle nodded, recognizing the standard of Lycur’s Legion.

The two Greeks moved back to a safe point in the trees where they could talk.

“They aren’t going to leave any time soon and I’m betting there’s another cohort at the main steading,” Xena growled. “If we wipe them out, it’ll mean a war with the Romans and the new Emperor. Just what he might want, an excuse for a war, to expand Roman territory.”

“War is always popular with the Romans,” Gabrielle nodded. “And new Emperors.”

“And if we leave, they’ll destroy our home and the steading and still find an excuse to go to war,” Xena said thoughtfully.

“Suggestions? We can’t leave the Russ to them,” Gabrielle sighed.

“We go in, find out what they want and negotiate. If that doesn’t work, we take care of them and hope to treaty with Rome before the next group shows up,” Xena shrugged.

Gabrielle nodded. “Then let’s do this but with some conditions. I am not just turning both of us over to Lycur’s hands without something to bargain with.”

Xena grinned. “We can do that, come on.”

# # #

A short time later the outer guards sent word that a single rider had approached the steading and they were escorting her in to see Lycur.

The Roman waited in front of his tent in a camp chair. He smirked at the sight of Xena, the Warrior Princess, being escorted into the camp. The guards had forced her to walk while they kept on their horses and took the reins of her horse.

“MiLord, you said she’d have the bard with her,” his second-in-command commented with a frown.

“No matter, she’s probably with her Amazons,” Lycur shrugged. “Once she hears what we’ve done with her mate, she’ll come running with revenge in mind and she’ll drag the Amazons and the Germanics into a war. Rome will have the perfect excuse to take over the land from Italia to the northern lands.”

The Roman remained seated as a gesture of contempt as the warrior approached his table. He quickly noted one of the guards was carrying her sword and the infamous chakram.

“Where’s the other one?” he asked without any false pleasantries.

“What do you want, Lycur,” Xena countered and one of the guards hit her in the small of the back with his sword pommel. The warrior flinched slightly but ignored him.

“Proper manners, barbarian,” the guard hissed. “That’s MiLord Lycur if you’ll not use his proper titles.”

“I see the son of a disgraced little man who thought he had power,” Xena smirked, satisfied to see the anger flash in the Roman’s eyes.

“Where is Gabrielle?” Lycur demanded again.

“Actually, she’s close by with a hunting party of Amazons,” Xena smirked. “All with arrows aimed at your head and heart.”

The guards who didn’t have a spear or sword in hand, quickly rectified that and glanced around nervously. Lycur’s eyes narrowed.

“I don’t believe you,” he said softly.

Xena smiled and raised her left hand in a fist and one of Lycur’s personal guards clutched at his throat, an arrow completely through it. The Warrior Prince didn’t blink as he fell dead at his master’s feet.

The guards erupted into pandemonium; one of them grabbed Xena, his sword at her throat.

“Don’t!” Lycur commanded, jumping to his feet.

Xena’s calm manner obviously unnerved the Roman officer and former gladiator.

“I kill you and they’ll kill me, correct?” he growled.

“Yes,” Xena said calmly. At a motion of Lycur’s hand, the guard removed his sword from around the warrior’s throat.

“Why did you come in?” Lycur demanded. “And how do I know there’s more than one out there?”

“You know the Amazons, do you want to risk it?” Xena shrugged. “You’re their first target and won’t be around to see your men slaughtered.”

“I could threaten to kill the Germanics over there,” Lycur snarled, sitting back down and motioning for a chair to be brought for the warrior.

“Same results,” Xena smirked and sat down. “It’s simple, leave Germanic territories and forget your feud with us. Go fight with the Egyptians or something to fill your coffers.”

Lycur frowned, appearing to think it over and then shook his head. “No.”

“Then let’s settle this one-on-one,” Xena countered. “You and me, here and now.”

“I know your reputation and you’re the daughter of a God,” Lycur leaned back smirking. “I don’t like those odds. I want the Champion of Rome.”

Xena blinked and scowled. “No.”

Lycur grinned. “Don’t think your mate could handle it? We were both gladiators, she even won the wooden sword. I think the odds are probably fair. If not, I’ll hunt you both down and crucify you both and anyone that survived the crucifixion.”

Xena’s hand went to where her chakram usually was and growled, realizing it was in possession of the guards.

“Gabrielle and me, in your Viking style,” Lycur bargained. “Rope off an area, select weapons available and one of us walks off the winner. If I win, I will take my troops and leave with either you or the Vikings who deserted their posts to stand trial. If she wins, the troops will withdraw.”

“Why so fixated on Gabrielle?” Xena demanded.

“Because my father was,” Lycur snapped. “He talked of her endlessly, especially how she won the wooden sword, how talented she was with those sais of hers and, of course, her spirit. You two caused his death and I want hers.”

“Your father died because he was plotting against the Emperor’s life, look to your own culture for the reasons,” Xena said wearily.

“You brought it to light,” Lycur responded. “She faces me or you get a war with Rome here in the north.”

Xena frowned. “Romans are notorious for not fighting fair and breaking their word.”

“Take it or leave it, I give you my word that no one will interfere in the fight and no retaliation if Gabrielle wins,” Lycur said indifferently.

“I have to talk to the Amazons,” Xena said as she stood and held out a hand for her weapons and reins.

“Have Gabrielle meet me in a square enclosure at dawn,” Lycur smiled, knowing the Greeks would agree to it. At least Gabrielle would, from what he knew of the bard, she was willing to sacrifice herself for others. He intended on using that.
Part 2
Gabrielle wasn’t surprised when Xena was against the bargain and Xena wasn’t surprised that Gabrielle wanted to agree to it. The arguing went on well into the night when they finally had a cold dinner and Xena drew her arms around her wife, leaning against a tree.

“It’s the best course and you know it,” Gabrielle said softly, her arms over Xena’s.

“Yes,” Xena agreed but still hating the situation.

“You’ll let me go?”

“No,” Xena shook her head.

“You pinch and tie me up again and I’ll divorce you!” Gabrielle threatened, lightly smacking Xena’s arm to show she was half joking.

“I won’t stop you,” Xena promised.

“Alright,” Gabrielle said softly. “Hold me tonight? Love me?”

“Forever,” the warrior promised.

“I’ll always love you, Xena,” Gabrielle said softly.

“I’ll always find you, this world or the next,” Xena promised as she untied Gabrielle tunic, enjoying the growl of arousal it brought from her wife. She was surprised when Gabrielle suddenly pushed her away lightly and sat up.

Xena leaned up on her elbows. “Gabrielle?”

“Give me a minute,” the bard muttered and Xena recognized a huskiness to her wife’s voice and sat up beside Gabrielle. She turned Gabrielle’s face towards her and sighed at the yellow eyes.

“Gabrielle, how many seasons have we dealt with this?” Xena asked gently. “I love you and I don’t care about this side of you!”

“I wanted to make love to you without this!” Gabrielle snapped.

“It doesn’t matter to me! How many times will we argue about this?” Xena asked softly. “Besides, I like your fangs, I love the bacchae sex and it’ll connect me to you even more tomorrow. Let it go and accept this, love.”

Xena extended her wrist in front of Gabrielle’s lips, her breathing quickening as her wife kissed the inside wrist and lightly ran her fangs over the nerve endings. “Oh Gods, little one, yes!” the warrior whispered, pulling Gabrielle down on top of her.

# # #

Dawn found the two Greeks standing on one side of the clearing and Lycur on the other as Roman soldiers drove stakes into the grass and tied ropes around them, marking off a square area for the contest.

“Don’t trust him,” Xena advised as Lycur stripped down from his Roman armor into a simple tunic and trousers, cross-laced over the lower legs, Germanic style.

“Everything is fair in the arena,” Gabrielle nodded, pulling off her over tunic, revealing a top that barely covered her breasts and showed off her athletic body to perfection. The women ignored the looks of appreciation and surprise from the nearby soldiers.

Gabrielle had fought hard during the night to maintain a level of calmness she knew she’d need when entering a fight zone. Usually just the sight of a Roman legionnaire was enough to give her the shakes. Today, she ignored them.

Xena sharp eyes tried to watch everything that was happening around them, especially looking for hidden archers or any sign that the Romans were ready to rush in and seize the Greek women.

Lycur walked around the area and approached the women slowly, keeping his hands in sight.

“You have your sais, I have a sword,” he said calmly. “What other weapons would you like? Shield, spear, trident, net?”

“Spear and sword,” Gabrielle responded.

Lycur motioned to the soldiers nearby and they approached with an armful of spears and swords.

“You choose yours,” Lycur shrugged as his assistant planted two spears on the other side of the enclosure and laid a sword next to them.

Xena quickly moved forward to examine the weapons, looking for minute cracks and weakened spots on the spearheads and the shafts. Xena placed her own sword next to the spears she had chosen.

Gabrielle stretched quickly and moved into the enclosed space, her eyes darting around, looking for movement from any of the soldiers that spoke of a trap.

“Relax,” Xena said softly. “You worry about him, I’ll worry about everything else.”

Gabrielle nodded and picked up a spear as Lycur did the same. The former gladiator felt her mind and body shift as everything narrowed down to the man in front of her. Dancer came forward and the gentle bard retreated.

Xena frowned as Gabrielle’s body moved along the side of the enclosure. The warrior had seen Dancer in action very few times but knew she was looking at the deadly gladiator that had won the coveted wooden sword.

She watched Lycur’s eyes narrow as he, in turn, watched Gabrielle. Both fighters began moving and gauging each other’s talents, moves, and battle attitude. Xena and the fighters ignored the shouting encouragement from the Romans as their beloved leader struck first, feinting with the spear.

Dancer avoided the spear, letting it slide almost along her ribcage, turning with it and bringing her own spear into play, using the blunt end to whack Lycur’s hand, causing him to drop one hand off the spear. He quickly retaliated with a backhand blow to Dancer’s jaw.

Instead of dropping her weapon like an inexperienced Arena fighter, the bard tightened her grip and brought it down, pinning his spear below hers as she headbutted him, causing him to drop his other hand off the spear.

Dancer brought the spear end up under Lycur’s chin, knocking him off his feet. Xena shifted her hand to her chakram as a rumbling spread through the Roman soldiers but they held back.

The female gladiator moved to follow through with the spear but Lycur countered by pulling his sword and slashing at the woman’s legs. The female gladiator somersaulted back, avoiding the blow. Both fighters were now on their feet.

Dancer tossed the spear aside, pulling her Sais out to counter Lycur’s sword.

Lycur rushed the warrior bard with a vicious overhead strike that surprised Dancer, forcing her to block the sword with both sais. The Roman’s weight and strength causing her to bend backwards, close to losing her balance.

Xena winced and felt her body wanting to respond but held back. One wrong move and she knew the Romans would pounce on the opportunity to attack her and Gabrielle. The Greek warrior shut her eyes to regain control, opening them again to watch her wife’s battle.

Gabrielle twisted, pulling the sword down alongside her body, turning until she was almost side-by-side with Lycur. The Roman snarled, his sword trapped. He freed one hand and pulled his dagger.

Dancer growled and brought an elbow up into Lycur’s nose, the movement breaking them apart. Lycur slashed with the dagger as he stumbled back and Dancer winced slightly as the blade slid across her left side.

Lycur slashed out with the sword and Dancer snarled, catching the blade with her Sais again, twisting until the weapon was pulled out of his hands. The Roman hit Dancer across the jaw and rushed towards the spare weapons.

Dancer followed, tackling the soldier to the ground and was surprised at how fast he moved, turning over and hitting her across the bridge of her nose. Gabrielle hit Lycur with the blunt end of a Sais but was hit in the back of the head with his Roman boot.

Xena frowned, Gabrielle was taking too long to recover. She had seen her mate fighting for decades and knew Gabrielle wasn’t one to hesitate unless it was senseless killing.

Lycur got to his feet first and kicked the female in the ribs, sending her to the grass again. Dancer kicked out with her feet, keeping him from kicking her again as she flipped up to her feet.

Xena saw Dancer shake her head with a frown and glance down at the lightly bleeding wound along her ribs.

Dancer snarled and dodged a sword slash aimed at her shoulder but Lycur had anticipated the move and Dancer winced and cried out as the dagger sank into her left shoulder. She kicked the Roman away from her and moved back several feet.

Lycur followed her, slashing relentlessly with the sword and dagger. Dancer fell back, parrying the blows but barely.

Xena growled as she watched Gabrielle stumble and begin sweating badly. “Goddamn you,” she muttered, recognizing a common poison used in the Arena by nobles to ensure that they would win.

Gabrielle dropped one Sai and dived under a sword strike to grab up Xena’s sword, rolling over to block Lycur’s sword with it and the dagger with her remaining Sai.

Xena whimpered softly when Gabrielle glanced at her and the warrior recognized a flash of desperation in her mate’s eyes. They both knew that Lycur was an exceptional gladiator and now he had more of an edge to counter Gabrielle’s quickness and skill.

“Come on, Amazon!” Xena said loudly. The Warrior Princess could see equal skill in both gladiators and knew Gabrielle needed to react differently than a trained Arena fighter. Dancer’s shoulder was also beginning to drop from the knife wound.

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed and she circled Lycur, watching the grinning Roman’s eyes.

Her Sai and guard dropped as the blood flowed freely from her left shoulder and Lycur practically leaped forward to take advantage of the slip. Xena held back with a cry of terror as Gabrielle parried Lycur’s dagger with her sword but couldn’t get her Sai up to parry his sword and she fell back onto the grass, the sword slicing into her shoulder.

Gabrielle dropped Xena’s sword as Lycur followed her down to stab her with a killing blow with his dagger. She used an Amazon fighting move with her legs, wrapping them around the Roman’s neck and spinning him over and down, stunning him as he hit the grass. Dancer lashed out, hitting him in the back of the neck with her elbow and pulled his sword out of her shoulder and moved to bring it around to decapitate him.

Xena was stunned when the sword stopped at just barely slicing his skin open. Gabrielle looked confused.

“Gabrielle! Do it! He’ll keep coming if you don’t!” Xena urged.

“Do you surrender?” Gabrielle demanded, hissing in the Roman’s ear.

“Kill me, bitch,” Lycur growled, his hands clutching at the grass in anger.

“I have answers about your mother and father, Lycur. Want to die before hearing the truth?” Gabrielle whispered.

Lycur hesitated and then spread his arms in surrender.

“Say it loudly,” Gabrielle demanded.

“I surrender, she wins!” Lycur called out and Gabrielle pulled the sword back, collapsing onto the ground.

The bard blinked when she was suddenly being lifted and looked into Xena’s eyes. “Let’s get you patched up, my love,” Xena whispered. “You! Release the Vikings and surrender your weapons to them until we sort this out. I swear you won’t be harmed.”

Gabrielle let the darkness claim her, feeling safe in Xena’s arms.

# # #

Xena breathed a sigh of relief when Gabrielle opened her eyes slowly. “Hey,” she said softly as the bard tried to focus.

“Hey,” Gabrielle whispered. “I survived the poison?”

“And the two stab wounds,” Xena nodded with a smile. “It was a mild dose to slow your reactions down but not enough to be obvious enough for charges.”

“Lycur?” Gabrielle asked quickly trying to sit up and biting her lip when a wave of pain hit her and she grabbed at her shoulder.

“Waiting with his troops to leave,” Xena shrugged. “He swears that he won’t return once you explain some things to him. What’s going on, Gabrielle?”

“You can’t let him leave, Xena,” Gabrielle said firmly, her eyes bright.

Xena reached out and felt Gabrielle’s forehead. “You’re going to have a round of fever, little one.”

“Don’t let him go! He’s Kiryk,” Gabrielle said anxiously. “Behind his right ear, the tattoo Reija placed on him just after his birth, her Amazon tribe sigil.”

Xena sat down on the edge of the bed, clearly stunned. “Kiryk?”

“Send for Hercules and Asher, we have to decide this as a family,” Gabrielle urged closing her eyes. “He’s your grandson, my love.”

“And he killed our foster son and family and nearly killed you,” Xena muttered. “He’s my grandson?” The Greek stood up quickly, yelling for one of the youths to ride with a message to the Amazons and Hercules.

Xena glanced back at her sleeping mate, her face troubled. “We do anything to him and we’re kin-killers. Can we take him in though? He’s a Roman, not Greek,” she muttered.

# # #

The Romans grumbled but settled into camping on the steading once they realized the Vikings weren’t going to harm them and treated them like guests, much to the surprise of the Romans. Xena had laughed and had tried to explain to Lycur Kiryk that it was Viking nature. Anyone was welcome and honored once hostilities had ceased. If the Romans misbehaved though, Xena pointed out, they’d be slaughtered without a thought. In turn, the Romans set about cut wood and hunting to replenish the stocks they had used.

Lycur had been unhappy when Xena demanded he stay until Gabrielle was on her feet but she had insisted, pointing out that Gabrielle was a Roman citizen and champion, that the Roman owed her that respect due to Gabrielle’s victory over him. The Roman was forced to agree, reluctantly.

It was three days before Hercules drove a wagon into the yard, his face expressionless as he and Asher took in the Romans milling around and Lycur sitting in front of his tent, watching them closely. Hercules could feel Asher’s anger building.

“Easy, Ash,” Hercules suggested. “We promised no action until we talked with your moms.”

“Alright, then I kill him,” Asher growled, getting down out of the wagon slowly and heading towards the house.

Lycur and his lieutenants frowned and waited nervously as shouts of anger and disbelief drifted out of the house. It was a candlemark before Xena appeared at the front door and approached the Roman leader slowly.

Lycur was vaguely comforted by the fact the Warrior Princess wasn’t in her typical warrior garb of short skirt, leather and weapons. She was dressed much like a male from the North, woolen trousers with boots and leather lacings criss-crossing the lower trouser legs. Her tunic was a simple green but decorated around the collar and hem with fine embroidery of gold thread. The leather jerkin vest was well worn but cared for.

Lycur recognized the leather bracers from his previous encounter with the warrior and everyone knew about her strange Indian weapon, the chakram at her side.

The Roman stood up as she approached his tent.

“Can we leave yet?” he demanded bluntly.

“Gabrielle and I would like to talk to you, by the fire?” Xena responded, suggesting the main fire rather than in the house where the Roman might suspect a trap.

“Yes,” Lycur agreed and motioned his lieutenants to stay back.

Gabrielle and Hercules walked towards the fire from the house while Asher stood in the doorway, glaring at the Romans, his wrists still bandaged.

“What is so important that you’d spare my life?” Lycur demanded as the Greeks and Roman came together.

“I’m not in favor of killing my mate’s grandson,” Gabrielle sighed. The bard had a headache from arguing with Xena and Asher and debating with Hercules as to what to do with the information they now had.

“Make sense, woman,” Lycur growled. “I know my father.”

“No, he claimed you but Lycrassius was not your father,” Xena shook her head. “Did anyone ever ask you about the small tattoo behind your ear?”

Lycur’s hand moved to his ear with a frown. “Yes, my father said it was some tribal thing from my mother and not to concern myself. That I am a Roman, not a barbarian.”

“Actually, you come from a line that was civilized while Remus and Romulus were scratching in the dust,” Hercules grumbled.

The next candlemark was spent telling the Roman the highlights of Xena and Gabrielle’s lives, especially surrounding Callisto and Solan. They ended with the current day, discovering the tribal tattoo on the Roman.

“You’re saying I’m your grandson?” Lycur asked with disbelief. “Because of a pissed off chaos goddess?”

“Yes,” Xena nodded. “Just think of it, the perfect revenge on us. Giving you to Gabrielle’s former master to raise as our enemy.”

Lycur frowned as he absently scratched at the tattoo. “I’m the son of an Amazon? The enemies of Rome? Grandson to Xena, enemy of Rome?”

“You were raised Roman but you were born Greek and Amazon,” Gabrielle said softly. “Your grandfather, Borias, was a great warrior from the steppes and you know Xena’s reputation.”

“My father?” Kiryk asked with a deep frown, looking at the ring on his finger. The family symbol of Lycrassius, a symbol of Roman power and influence.

“A brave and gentle young man,” Hercules smiled. “A talented hunter and loving father.”

“Where is my mother?”

“With the Amazons, we’ve sent word that we found you,” Gabrielle smiled. “You’re at a crossroads, Lycur Kiryk, you can either continue on as you’ve lived, as a Roman of power or you can discover your family.”

The Roman frowned. “And your son? I killed his foster brother and best friend and family.”

“Well, we can’t kill you,” Hercules smirked. “The Gods frown on kin-slayers. Asher probably will get over it in about twenty seasons.”

“You almost killed my sister and family, Kiryk,” Gabrielle pointed out. “It will take time for everyone.”

“No,” Lycur snapped, standing up and pacing. “I’m Roman! I am a Roman officer and have the Emperor’s trust! I am not like you!”

Xena and Gabrielle sighed as the Roman stormed out of the cabin.

# # #

It took another three days before Lycur Kiryk returned to the cabin. Xena had watched the young man riding the countryside at breakneck speed on his horse, slashing at trees with his sword and brooding at night in his tent. He had barely said a word to anyone, including his own men and aide.

The Greek-Roman was unshaven and obviously hadn’t slept much in those three days.

He was frowning when he sat down near Gabrielle’s bed as Xena sat beside her wife and Hercules and Asher stood against a wall.

“Alright, I’m your grandson,” he said finally. “What do you want from me? I can’t go back to Rome. The Emperor will expect a war with the north. Either I’ll be sent back here with troops or banished and disgraced.”

“What are we going to do, Xena?” Gabrielle asked wearily. “Rome will just keep coming after us now.”

“Some of the steading families are moving east to one of the trade routes, the Russ clan,” Hercules said slowly. “Perhaps the wilds of the steppes will discourage Rome from wandering any further. There’s no gold or abundant source of slaves. They aren’t trappers for the fur, they’ll leave that to the tribes and trade rather than work.”

Kiryk nodded. “There are no plans to expand in that direction. Rome will always have its eye on the desert and the north.”

Xena looked over at her mate as Gabrielle looked around their home, both thinking of the years spent in the cabin building a new life together. “Won’t be the first time we’ve moved on,” she said softly, taking her mate’s hand.

“And won’t be the last given our years,” Gabrielle nodded. “We should leave before the season changes. What about Kiryk, Asher won’t tolerate him with us for awhile.”

“I’ll take him traveling,” Hercules suggested. “I want to show him where he comes from, Greece, the old Amazon lands, see his mother, visit the Northern Amazons and see the Empire from the other side.”

“No, I don’t want charity or sympathy!” Lycur Kiryk snapped. “I won’t return to Rome. I’ll find my own way!”

The former Roman officer stormed out of the cabin again as Gabrielle sighed.

“Now what?” she asked softly, reaching for Xena’s hand.

“I’ll follow him,” Hercules suggested. “I remember his grandmother being about that stubborn at a cross-roads in her life,” he smiled. “She eventually listened to me.”

“And still had to leave and find my own way,” Xena added.

“We’ll see what happens,” Hercules smiled. “There’s a nice symmetry to it. A lost warrior with a past to be redeemed from.”

“He’s certainly related to you,” Gabrielle smiled, lightly teasing her mate.

Xena smiled and nodded. “Take care of him? Bring him round when he’s ready?”

“Of course,” Hercules smiled and stood to follow the Roman.

Asher frowned and continued looking at his boots.

“Ash?” Gabrielle asked softly.

“I’m not going East,” he said suddenly. “I’m going raiding next season. I’ve seen Rome, now I want to spend time with my Vikings for awhile. Maybe settle in Caledonia or something.”

“Britainia?” Xena asked, surprised.

Asher shrugged. “New culture, new land, damned few Romans. I’ll find you in a couple of summers.”

“Ash…” Gabrielle began softly but Asher shook his head.

“No, Mum, not yet. You can accept him, eventually,” Asher frowned. “I still hear Virgil’s screams as they pounded the nails into his wrists and ankles.”

The Viking walked out slowly.

“He’ll come around as well,” Xena said firmly.

Xena wrapped an arm around Gabrielle as the bard leaned into Xena’s arms.

“We found Kiryk, Xena,” she said softly.

“And I wish I could visit Tartarus and pound Callisto a few more times for this one,” Xena growled. “She takes a small little boy and we get a vengeful Roman in return.”

“Now we have a confused young man whose life is upside down,” Gabrielle countered. “We’ll have him back, Xena. Hercules works miracles.”

“Now to build our lives again with the Russ,” Xena sighed. “Or would you rather go to the Northern Amazons?”

“No, they accept me but the bacchae thing is still there,” Gabrielle frowned.

“Onto the steppes then,” Xena smiled. “Hunting, trapping, farming.”

“Raiding, sailing, fighting,” Gabrielle added with a smile. “I know you and the Northmen.”

“Come on, lover,” Xena said softly, pulling Gabrielle into her arms and carrying her mate out onto the porch to watch the setting sun and the Romans packing to leave their territory.

# # #

Author’s Note: I want to take a moment to thank everyone who has followed this series from the beginning. It’s been a wild ride at times. Some high and some lows but I’m pleased with the stories and where it’s come.

This is the last story of the series. There will probably be more throughout the centuries facing Xena and Gabrielle but not on a continuing time-frame.

I hope you re-read the series from time to time – there’s certainly enough there to keep anyone busy for awhile. LOL – Also, please check out my other series and original work and let me know what you think. I value you readers and your opinions.

Thanks again for a wonderful ride!

Skaal

Hunter

One thought on “An Awakening Part 4 by Hunter Ash

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