Complications by Gin

Complications
by Gin
#2 in the Negotiations Series

Part 1

The seventh day after the full moon. Brenin was up early. She bathed quickly and arranged her brown hair in a complicated braid, smiling at the memory of the Queen’s compliment on the style, and blushing at the memory of Gabrielle’s hand reaching out to touch the pattern. She noticed her hands shaking when she reached for her box of supplies and berated herself, “Get a grip Bren. You go see The Queen on this day every month . You’re the best scribe in the Nation. Gabrielle said so.” She smiled wistfully at the memory of that day. That was also the day The Queen had told her to call her Gabrielle. Brenin had struggled against the necessity of her absence last month but she was after all an amazon so she took her rounds on border patrol just like the rest of them.

It would be good to see what treaties and proclamations had occured since she had been gone. The northern border was fairly isolated and she wasn’t up to speed on current events. ‘I’ll bet Gabrielle has been working every day.’ She made her way through the predawn light. ‘Darn. I’ll probably have to spend all day with her.’ Brenin smiled at the thought and continued sarcastically. ‘Wouldn’t that be awful.’ Her smile abruptly ended when she saw the Royal Guard at the door of the hut. They were standing with their staffs crossed in front of the door. ‘What the…. ‘ Her thought trailed off until she recognized Karis as one of the guards and smiled again “What’s up, captain?” Brenin pointed to the crossed staffs.

Karis smiled at the scribe’s use of the title. It was often directed at her in jest because she was so young. The youngest actually. ‘Ironic’ Karis thought. ‘She doesn’t know that now I really am the leader of the guard.’ Her recent appointment as head of the Royal Guard had not come without opposition but that had been half-hearted at best and was quickly silenced by the queen herself. Karis laughed. “Not them.” A thumb indicated the hut behind her. “You’ll have to wait.” The other guard, Bekka, chuckled quietly and mumbled, “or come back later.”

For a reason Bren couldn’t begin to grasp both guards chuckled at that. “I’ll wait.” She walked to the nearby bench. It was built under the large tree near the entrace to the hut. ‘Solan must have spent the night with his mother last night. The little brat!’ She thought. Putting as much confidence in her voice as possible she said. “Gabrielle will want to see me.”

Using the Queen’s given name made Bekka bristle but Karis just smiled, “I doubt that Gabrielle, will be seeing anyone outside the hut today.” Her own use of the queen’s name was not lost on Brenin. “But you are welcome to wait.”

The red tinge of sunrise was just fading when Solan walked toward the hut with a huge tray of breakfast. Brenin was startled. She had assumed he was inside. His appearance started her mind whirling. ‘But Karis said them. If Solan is out here….Then who…..’ Her thought trailed off. The sudden realization gripped her heart. ‘Gabrielle has a lover!’ She shook off her griefstricken daze in time to hear part of Solan and Karis’ conversation.

“I don’t want her startled….” Karis was quietly trying to talk Solan out of entering the hut. “You know how difficult it is to wake the healer at this hour of the morning.”

Her mention of the healer only upset Solan more. “She won’t hurt me. I will be very quiet and I won’t even go near the bed.” He indicated the tray he held. “I still have another one of these plus the pitchers. No one was around to help me carry this morning.” Ephiny and Eponin had taken Phantes on a camping trip two days ago. Solan was not looking forward to two more trips to the communal kitchen. He turned his most charming smile on Karis, “Mother says breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”

All three amazons listening knew that for their Queen EVERY meal was the most important meal of the day. No one in the Nation could understand how Gabrielle could eat the amounts she did and still have such a perfect body. Karis relented and Solan slipped quietly into the hut.

Now Brenin was hurt and confused. Gabrielle had a lover. Solan not only knew about it but was OK with it too. She quickly ran through the potential candidates in her mind. ‘Not Ephiny, or Eponin they were solid together. Not Solari, she was the one who relieved her border duty. She was told Velasca had been sent on a scouting mission. Obviously it wasn’t Karis or Bekka so who could possibly have won Gabrielle’s heart.’ It was becoming urgent for her to know. ‘I wish I could get in there and see who it is.’

Karis watched the play of emotions across Bren’s face and decided the woman needed to be taken down a peg or two. ‘Be careful what you wish for, Bren.’ She thought. Solan was exiting now and she caught his arm. “Why don’t you get Brenin to help you carry?” She indicated the seated woman. “Your mom usually sees her today anyway.”

Solan nodded and gestured to Bren to follow him. He didn’t want to speak at the moment. He was only 11 almost 12 but his voice was already starting to break into it’s adult register. Having Karis holding his arm did nothing but aggravate the situation. She was the only guard that treated him normally. The only one that understood Gabrielle’s adoption of him had less to do with the technical reason for his being allowed to stay on amazon land, as it had to do with the fact that the amazing woman who was now their queen, loved him. The woman walking next to him however was completely opposite. He knew that she was one of the people who opposed his claim as a centaur prince. Even though his uncle, Kaleipus had been the leader of their village and technically he fell under the law as written by his mother. ‘Zeus…’ He thought. ‘She probably copied that declaration fifty times. She should know it as well as anyone.’ He knew that Brenin didn’t hold any love for him which was fine with him. He had seen too many wistful looks from the woman in his mothers direction for him to be comfortable in her company. ‘Is she ever going to be surprised.’ He chuckled and then nearly missed the step up into the kitchen. ‘Wow. Karis knows that.’ His appreciation for the young guard rose a notch.

Brenin was surprised at the activity in the kitchen. Usually only oatmeal was served in the mornings, but today the entire staff seemed to be concentrating on a breakfast fit for a Queen. Fruits were sliced neatly and arranged in decorative shapes, sausages, eggs, and a large stack of the flat fried cakes that Gabrielle loved along with several small jars of flavored sweet syrup were placed on a tray. She grabbed the three pitchers Solan indicated and followed him back toward the hut. ‘Citrus juice, milk, and water’ Brenin thought about the large tray Solan had already delivered and snorted. “How many people are we feeding?”

Solan shot the woman a look. “Three or maybe four.” His emphasis on maybe indicated that she may possibly be allowed to join them but he doubted it. He saw Karis and Bekka uncross the staffs at their approach and gave Karis a wink and a smile before he glanced sideways at Brenin.

The scribe saw Karis wink at the boy and took a deep breath before following him into the hut. She stopped just inside the doorway to let her eyes adjust from the morning sun. The queen’s quarters were just as she remembered them. Except there was now a small table in the far corner and at the foot of the bed there was a chest she had never seen before.

Solan immediately deposited his tray on the table next to the first one he had delivered and went back to the door to relieve her of her burden. Once they were safely on the table, he began to push her back out the door. Before he could accomplish his task however he heard her gasp.

Turning he saw his mother entering the main room from the washroom. He could only imagine what the woman was thinking but mother or not he knew Gabrielle was beautiful.

‘Gods…’ Brenin thought. She watched as Gabrielle’s smile collected the light in the room and concentrated it in her eyes. ‘How does she do that.’ The scribe took in the sight of her Queen in all her radiance. Her silken strawberry blonde hair contrasting with the equally silky white robe only served to bring her that much closer to Godhood in the awestruck amazons’ eyes. It was almost too much for the woman’s heart to take when Gabrielle’s melodic voice spoke her name.

“Brenin? I didn’t think you would be back until tomorrow.” The scribe was one of the people that Gabrielle interacted with on a regular basis and she considered her a friend. She crossed the room quickly and hugged the woman as a friend would do if they hadn’t seen each other in a while. “All’s quiet on the northern border I take it.”

Brenin looked around cautiously. She didn’t see anyone else. ‘Maybe she left while we were getting breakfast.’ She thought. The sight of the ruffled bed covers made her laugh nervously, “I think Solari can handle it …….” Her voice trailed off when she saw the woman leaning casually against the doorway of the washroom. Brenin watched as the exact opposite of Gabrielle raised one eyebrow and glided into the room. Her long black hair blending with the silk robe so perfectly it looked like she was surrounded by shadows. Indeed, just as Gabrielle seemed to radiate light, this woman was cloaked in darkness. Her skin was deeply tanned so the only color on her whole body seemed to be the pink tint on her perfect lips and the blue in her eyes that matched the lilac she held in her hand.

Gabrielle could tell that Xena was walking up behind her. Not that she could hear her, Artemis knew the woman was silent as a cat, but the expression on Brenin’s face and the grin on Solan’s gave it away. She smiled as the black robed arms circled her and laughed when she saw the offering. Xena knew that lilac was her favorite.

Xena bent to kiss Gabrielle’s cheek then lifted her gaze to Brenin. “Aren’t you going to introduce me, love?” The warrior’s sharp eyes didn’t miss the slight widening of the amazon’s eyes at the endearment.

She snorted and reached up to hold the arms circling her. “Like you need an introduction.” Gabrielle looked over her shoulder at her infamous partner, green eyes twinkling with her widening smile. “You’re a legend.”

Xena laughed and winked at Solan. “Well that may be but I’m a hungry legend and I would like to know who brought us our breakfast.” She didn’t miss the smug look on Solan’s face when he realized that the newcomer wasn’t going to join them for breakfast. ‘Interesting.’

Gabrielle chuckled as the mention of breakfast set her stomach to rumbling. “OK. OK. Geez, you don’t have to bribe me with food.” The amazon queen took a deep breath and continued. “Xena, this is Brenin. The best scribe the amazons have.” She smiled at the nervous scribe. Taking another breath she continued. “Brenin this is Xena….” A quick inquiring glance over her shoulder asked for confirmation. “…The Warrior Princess?” Gabrielle still wasn’t sure about the designation Xena had so many different personalities it was hard to tell which one was dominate at any given time. During her last visit the Warrior Princess and the Conquerer had quite a struggle for power. Gabrielle fervently hoped that the intervening weeks had brought about some kind of balance. From the smile on Xena’s face and a few revelations from last night she thought an acceptable balance had been achieved.

She tilted her head, “Yeah, or the Conquerer, the Destroyer of Nations, there are too many to name…” Some of which she didn’t want uttered in Solan’s presence. “… but all would apply at the moment.”

Brenin’s heart nearly gave out. “X…Xe….Xena?” She couldn’t believe that Gabrielle would ever get involved with such an evil woman? Every story she had ever heard about The Conquerer was cold and heartless. She knew that reports were coming in from the western border right before she went north about a small force gathering there but surely Xena wouldn’t have gotten involved in that herself and that was only two months ago. This monster was acting like she had been with Gabrielle forever!

She watched as Xena lowered her head to whisper in Gabrielle’s ear and then released the embrace. For a brief moment Brenin thought about how difficult it must be to actually let go of Gabrielle. She had dreamed about having the Queen in her arms the way Xena seemed to take for granted and knew if it ever happened she would never let her go. The warrior draped one arm around Solan’s shoulder and led him over to the table. He seemed at ease in the presence of the legend. That disturbed Brenin even more. She had never been able to get past her amazon trained responses to men. The boy wasn’t supposed to be here and she was sure that if it hadn’t been for him Gabrielle would be sharing breakfast with her, not this wanton killer.

Gabrielle reached out to touch the scribes arm. “Bren..” She jerked her hand back at the jump her touch caused. She assumed the woman was embarrased to have been caught staring at the corner table. “I know this is our day to go over the treaties but right now is not a good time. Can you come back this afternoon?”

“Sure no problem. I should go check on Micha anyway.” Brenin tried to sound casual as she turned towards the door and Gabrielle walked over to the table. The scribe looked back through the closing door just in time to see Xena rise to meet the Queen and pull her into her lap. ‘They look like a family.’ She thought. She was only dimly aware of the trip to the nursery. Micha had been staying there while she was on patrol. Most of her brain was still trying to grasp the concept of Gabrielle having a lover much less that person being Xena. She hoped Micha would provide enough distraction to get her mind off of the royal couple until she had to go back this afternoon. She didn’t notice Karis watching her departure.

———–

Xena was content to sit and watch Gabrielle and Solan work off their breakfast with a lively round of staff practice. Fortunately no one else was in the hut with them, because the best seat to observe the sparring was the throne and Xena had no qualms about sitting in it. She found herself amazed at the grace the amazon queen displayed during the fights. Solan was young still but she could see Gabrielle’s training beginning to emerge in his technique. She smiled inwardly when he used a move that she knew she would use in the same situation. ‘Maybe he gets some of it from me after all.’ She thought. It was still a little overwhelming to think of all the things Gabrielle had done for her over the years. The best of which was rescuing her son from the fire ravaged village. She tried not to remember it was her army that caused the devastation. Xena had not even remembered their first meeting until a few nights ago. It was amazing to think that the beautiful amazon queen had been watching her and keeping track of her all these years. She wished she could go home and thank her mother for forcing her to babysit the annoying merchants daughter that day. Xena chuckled, ‘She was fiesty even at five.’ She was pulled out of her musing by Solan’s voice.

“We are leaving after lunch today.” He had been excited about the trip until Xena’s arrival. He would rather stay here with the warrior and his mother than go off camping with a bunch of children.

Gabrielle dodged his swing and smiled, “I am very proud of you for helping out on this trip.” She knew that he didn’t want to go. She called a halt to the session and put her weapon in it’s customary place by the head of the bed.

“Where are you going Solan.” Xena wasn’t sure she liked the idea of him being off somewhere unknown. The maternal instinct surprised her.

“We are taking the nursery children on a campout. I’ll only be gone a few days.” Solan smiled. He was fishing to see if Xena would be here when he got back. Last time she stayed for six days.

“Oh.” She was noncommittal in her response. “Be careful.”

Gabrielle watched Xena talking to her son. ‘She doesn’t want to tell him she won’t be here when he gets back.’ The thought of Xena leaving was too depressing to dwell on and Gabrielle tried to think of something pleasant instead. “Solan.” She gestured him over to her and she whispered in his ear. He nodded and waved at Xena before he left the hut.

“Where is he going all of a sudden?” Xena’s narrow eyes fell on the grinning Queen.

“To order lunch of course.” Gabrielle rolled her eyes at Xena’s laughter and became playfully defensive. “Hours of staff practice makes me hungry.” She rotated her shoulder and grimaced. “And stiff.”

Xena started to rise from the throne but to Gabrielle’s surprise launched herself into a flip that landed her only inches away from the amazed queen. She cupped the woman’s face in her hands and laughed. “Everything makes you hungry.” Glancing at the fire, she linked elbows with the now laughing amazon and led her toward the washroom. “Solan is taking care of the hungry part so I get to make the stiffness go away.” She reached up as she entered and pulled a small lever. The large tub began filling with water, heated as it ran past the fireplace. “A warm bath and massage should get the job done don’t you think?”

Gabrielle thought that was probably the best idea she had ever heard.

————

Her hair was just dry when Solan returned with their meal. She had assembled her favorite outfit and laughed when Xena opted to stay in her black robe.

“Hey, I’m on vacation here.” Xena was playfully defensive.

Gabrielle smiled and Solan looked puzzled, “Vacation?”

“Sure.” She looked at the little prince. “You don’t think ruling the world is easy do you. Even I need a break every once in a while.”

“Ruling the….. Wow. I forgot.” Solan’s face turned pink at the admission. His blushed deepened when he heard his mothers laughter but then almost disappeared at her words.

“It’s easy to forget when she’s here. We are very isolated from the rest of the world. We always have been.” Gabrielle had at one time been opposed to the strict isolation the Amazon Nation observed. It was a tradition that the young village girl had thought was past due for a change. As queen she knew that isolation from the outside world was the only way the Nation would survive and it was that very isolation that gave Xena the opportunity to rest and relax. “The last time she was here, I forgot too.” She smiled at her son and turned to catch Xena’s blue eyes watching her.

“I did too. ” Xena’s quiet admission startled the boy. She held the sea-green eyes a moment longer and then ruffled Solan’s hair. “Let’s eat.”

————

Brenin arrived back at the Queen’s hut just after the noon meal. Her mind was whirling with the information she had gotten from various acquaintances as well as her own daughters account of Xena’s dramatic return during last nights story time. Brenin had barely managed to control her outrage at her daughters wistful “Isn’t it romantic.” comment. Karis and Bekka had long since gotten off duty so one of the new guards knocked on the door to announce Brenin’s arrival. Solan answered the door and held it for her to enter before he left. She almost forgot this mornings encounter when she saw Gabrielle sitting on the throne. She wore amazon casual leathers. Those were the kind the queen preferred, as they showed off her abs better than the formal outfit. Brenin preferred them as well.

Xena watched from the bed as Brenin entered and approached Gabrielle. ‘The woman has to be suicidal to look at Gabrielle like that in my presence.’ Xena watched the scribes body language carefully and didn’t much like what she saw. The Conquerer in her argued that the woman should die out of hand, but the warrior princess countered with a wait and see attitude that gained Brenin at least a few more days of life. It was still a new experience for Xena to have her personalities merged like this. Before she met Gabrielle five weeks ago the woman would have been subjected to the decision of whichever part of her was in control at the time, usually the Conquerer. Now each part had her say and Xena as a whole determined the appropriate course of action. Gabrielle’s love had bound the shattered parts of Xena’s mind into one mostly balanced individual. Simply stated, Gabrielle made her whole.

“I really only have one pressing item this time, Bren.” Gabrielle handed her a scroll. “The standard twenty-five copies will be fine. Then have them sent to the main outlying villages.”

Brenin’s eyes widened slightly. ‘A proclamation or a treaty?’ She wondered. “That’s all?” Her eyes trailed to her left past the fireplace, to the large desk the queen worked at most of the time. Many times Brenin had used that desk herself to copy the odd scroll or two.

“Well…” Gabrielle took a breath to add a few more things when Xena’s soft voice purred from the bed.

“Gabrielle. Is this going to take all afternoon?” Xena’s tone left no doubt in Gabrielle’s mind as to what she had planned for this afternoon. A royal decision was made; It wasn’t going to take all afternoon but she was going to drag it out just to tease the warrior.

Brenin looked toward the sound of Xena’s voice and was momentarily confused because she couldn’t see anyone there, only shadows. Then the warrior bent her knee and the black robe fell open to reveal an exceptionally long length of tan leg. She followed the line of tan past the point it disappeared and saw the gleam of white teeth and two blue eyes piercing the shadows.

Gabrielle’s resolve to stretch the appointment nearly faded when the leg appeared. She chuckled and chided Xena. “I am not going to neglect the Nation for you. Not again.”

“Why not?” Xena’s playful pout was replaced with a sensual smile as she dropped her voice to it’s most seductive register. “I’m neglecting the world for you.” The warrior smiled. She knew from Gabrielle’s reaction this wasn’t going to take much longer at all.

Gabrielle closed her eyes as Xena’s sultry voice reached inside her. She linked her elbow with Brenin’s and led the scribe to the door. “We’ll get together in a few days and finish up the odds and ends.” She walked all the way out the door with her. The guards were aware of the Queen’s presence and stood at attention. She patted Bren’s forearm and said “Thanks” before turning to reenter the hut. She gave the guards a significant look and as soon as the door was closed the staffs were firmly crossed. They had guarded the Queen often enough to know the ‘no visitors’ look when they saw it.

Gabrielle headed for the bed, the last place she had seen Xena, and stopped short. She was gone. Gabrielle checked the washroom. No Xena. A smile crossed her face and she climbed up and stood on her toes to look out the window towards the small bed of lilacs. Not there either. Re-entering the main room she was on the verge of a panic attack until she saw Xena’s sword leaning next to the headboard. ‘So she is still here.’ She cried out more in relief than surprise when arms circled her from behind.

“Looking for me?” Xena put as much innocence in her voice as possible. Not an easy feat for her. She placed a quick kiss on Gabrielle’s cheek and dropped her arms.

Gabrielle spun to grab the warrior but she was nowhere to be seen, again. “How do you do that?” Gabrielle addressed the, as far as she could tell, empty room. Spinning at the sound of Xena’s voice from the bed.

“Easy. I just stand where you aren’t looking and when you start to look there I move.” Xena gestured. “Com’ere.”

“You’re not going to disappear when I get there are you?” Gabrielle narrowed her eyes suspiciously.

“No.” Xena laughed. “Why on earth would I do that.” She dropped her voice and locked eyes with her love. “This is where I want to be.”

Gabrielle was on the bed, in Xena’s embrace before she realized she had moved. Her arms found their way under the robe and she basked in the warmth of the warrior’s bare skin. It was all she could do to pull away from the haven. She cut off Xena’s protests by reaching around to undo the fasteners on her top. “This is my favorite outfit. I’ll not have it fall victim to your insidious campaign of conquest.” The potential casualty of war was discarded in a heap next to the bed. Only to be covered a moment later by Xena’s robe.

“Conquest? No, No my Queen this attack is a simple loot and pillage operation.” Xena pinned the smaller woman down on the bed. Her wrists securely held above her head. “Now what shall I take first?” Xena hovered over the woman for a moment before dropping her head for a gentle kiss. Gabrielle groaned at the contact and strained against the hold on her wrists. Xena deepened the kiss and accepting the royal invitation explored her first purloined treasure. Breaking off, Xena chuckled. “That was nice.” She trailed kisses up the captive amazons’ jaw. Whispering in a low voice she sounded surprised to find the ear hidden behind a lock of honey red hair. “Well, what do we have here?” The warrior investigated her new find thoroughly.

Gabrielle understood and prepared herself to be taken part by part until she was entirely possessed by the pillaging warlord. “How long does it usually take to loot and pillage?” Gabrielle cursed her curiosity when the warrior stopped her attack and looked up.

“It depends on the quality of the loot. Sometimes everything of value is easily obtained and it’s over quick. But other times…” Xena resumed her attack heading down her loves throat. “there are so many riches to be gathered…” Xena released the amazon’s wrists and found delicate hands immediately tangled in her hair. ” it could take hours.”

——————

Brenin looked at the treaty again. “This is insane.” Her words echoed in the empty council chamber. “I can’t believe…. the way this is written Xena is practically an amazon now.” The treaty had been negotiated during Xena’s last visit, while Brenin was away. The date indicated it was just over a month ago. “and now she is sharing Gabrielle’s bed.” The scribe had talked to some of the guards and understood the situation better. Xena had amassed a huge army on the western border a little over a month ago. Gabrielle had invited Xena to the village and negotiated for the dissolution of the troops on the border. The second clause in the treaty indicated unnamed services to be performed by the Amazon Nation for Xena. To Brenin it was clear that Gabrielle was using herself to keep the Conquerer from invading the Nation. ‘That has to be it.’ She thought. ‘That is the only logical explaination for the Queen’s sudden uncharacteristic actions with the evil woman.’ She wanted to make Xena pay for forcing Gabrielle into this situation and for taking the Queen from her.

Karis watched the scribe begin to copy the treaty then slipped quietly away from the window. ‘That is trouble brewing.’ She thought. ‘I need to talk to the queen about it.’ She saw the crossed staffs of the guards on duty and chuckled. “Later.”

—————————

Xena woke to find herself wrapped in and around a dream. For a moment she couldn’t tell where she stopped and Gabrielle began. Then she smiled. Did it really matter? To her surprise the answer was, No, it didn’t. A sigh escaped her and the green-eyed beauty shifted and continued sleeping. The warrior did not want to wake her contented love but they needed to talk.

Xena gently shook the amazon. “Come on Gabrielle, Time to get up.” Shaking only served to remind her exactly how much skin was in contact with her own. ‘Ok,’ Xena thought, ‘new tactic’ Trying to move as little as possible she tried to wake the queen again. “Gabrielle.” She grinned as the sleeping woman nipples became taut at the sound of her name. ‘Gods, You’re not making this easy.’ “You’re going to miss supper.”

“Don’t care.” Came the mumbled response. Impossibly, she moved closer to the warrior. “Say my name again. I love the way you feel when you say my name.”

Xena chuckled softly, “I love the way YOU feel when I say your name.” She grinned. “Gabrielle.”

“Mmmmmmm… yeah just like that….all the way to my toes.” Gabrielle sighed at the sensation and the fact that Xena was right. It was time to get up.

Xena went to the trunk at the foot of the bed and drew a knee length, short sleeved burgandy tunic from it. Gabrielle simply retreived her favorite outfit from the floor. Since they were both dressed, a minor miracle in Gabrielle’s estimation, a thought occured to her. “Do you want to take a walk?”
She knew Xena had been out to get the flowers but didn’t know how much of the village she had seen or if she even wanted to see it.

“That sounds nice.” Xena focused her blue eyes on Gabrielle’s. “We need to talk anyway.” She saw the green eyes turn sad and quickly embraced the woman. “Let’s walk.” They left the hut arm in arm. The fact that the guard followed right behind them was incidental, both women were used to having one or two guards hovering about.

Karis saw the strolling couple and decided it was time to say something. She changed her path and kneeled before Gabrielle. “My queen, I need to speak with you.”

“Karis, I told you. You can call me Gabrielle. Please. Get up.” Gabrielle held out her hands to assist the woman up. “Is there a problem?”

“Possibly.” She looked apolegetic as she rose without taking the offered hands. She glanced at Xena and back to Gabrielle. “It’s Brenin.” Another nervous glance at Xena then she continued. ” I think she is in love with you Gabrielle.” Karis quickly explained her observations and the woman’s comments she had overheard in the council chamber. “I thought you should know.” The guard realized that at some point during her recital Xena had begun to growl.

Gabrielle’s arms circled the warrior’s waist, “Don’t worry love. We’ll take care of it.” She turned to Karis. “Thank you for telling us, captain. Tell Brenin I would like to see her this evening, after the meal.”

Xena looked closer at the girl when her title was used. Noticing for the first time the insignia cluster on her shoulder. “Good choice.”

Karis took those two words as the highest praise she could get. She was right to do so. “I’m sorry to interrupt your walk but it was important.” She looked at Gabrielle. “You may want to talk to Solan about Brenin too. She has never liked him you know.” Karis smiled at the couple and bowed before leaving to find the scribe.

“She’s right you know. Brenin loves you.” She squeezed the amazon playfully, “Not that I blame her.” Sunset brought out the red highlights in Gabrielle’s hair and her green eyes twinkled. ‘Gods…How could I blame anyone for that?’ Xena sighed, “It does make leaving a lot more difficult though.”

Gabrielle tensed at the mention of Xena’s leaving. “How long can you stay?” She held her breath.

“Not long. I should probably leave tonight but I think I’ll wait and see what the little scribe has to say before I go.” Xena stopped walking and held Gabrielle’s eyes for a moment. “Let’s not talk about this now.”

It was a reprieve that she was willing to take. “OK. Later.” She smiled a mischievious smile and questioned the warrior. “Where do you think we are now?”

She inhaled deeply and smiled, “The dining hall, naturally. I knew you must have had an alterior motive for wanting to walk with me.” Her chuckle was quickly cut off by Gabrielle’s hurt expression.

“You are all the motive I need for doing anything, my warrior.” Finding herself on the step to the kitchen she was thrilled to be nearly eye to eye with the warrior. “Remember that.” She closed the distance between their now almost even lips and seared the lesson into Xena’s brain.

Something was lost in the translation however and the only thought in Xena’s mind was how wonderful steps were.

Brenin walked out of the main entrace of the dining hall and looked to her right. She saw Gabrielle standing on the step kissing Xena. It was nearly enough to make her lose her recent meal. She didn’t hear when Karis approached her.

“They make a beautiful couple don’t they.” Karis watched the lovers until they disappeard into the kitchen and the guards stationed themselves outside the door.

“I guess so.” Brenin didn’t realize she was frowning

Karis looked at the hurt and disappointment in the woman’s eyes. “The Queen requests your presence after the evening meal.”

She was no longer frowning. It was all she could do to refrain from jumping for joy. “Great. I’ll go over in about an hour.” She smiled at Karis and walked toward her hut with a spring in her step.

The royal guard just shook her head. She had seen when the disappointment had turned into hope. ‘That is going to be one major broken heart.’ Karis sighed. She went to talk to the guards at the kitchen door.

————————

All activity in the kitchen stopped when the Queen and her consort entered. Xena was feeling playful and decided to have a little fun. She left Gabrielle standing by the door and stalked into the room. Her low growl could be heard clearly in the silence. “Who was responsible for our noon meal?” She turned her gaze on the nearest cook who immediately began backing away, denying any involvement at all.

Gabrielle knew that lunch had been superb. Xena had actually commented on it. She also knew the girl that had cooked it, Rayna. It was her special recipe. She signaled the young cook with some quick hand gestures and placed herself between the girl and the menacing woman, trying to keep a straight face. “Now, Xena…” She held out her hands to ward off the warrior.

Xena whirled at Gabrielle’s voice and seeing the frightened child behind her advanced on the duo. “Don’t you dare try and protect her Gabrielle.” The amazons were amazed when she grabbed their queen by the waist and spun her out of the way. “She is going to get exactly what she deserves for that meal.” There was not a closed mouth in the place when Xena grabbed the girl in a great bear hug and swung her around. They looked from the astonished girl to the queen’s twinkling green eyes and back. “That was the best lunch I have ever had!” Xena steadied the girl for a moment before releasing her. “Truely if I didn’t have Gabrielle to answer to, you would be part of my permanent entourage.” She pulled Gabrielle to her side. “You see what I give up for you, love?”

Rayna had been frightened despite the Queen’s reassurance. It was a great relief to read the compliment as it formed on the warrior’s smiling lips.

“Ha! Now I know why you came back. I guess I don’t compare to Rayna’s cooking, huh?” Gabrielle affected a hurt expression complete with protruding lower lip.

Xena ducked to capture the target presented. After a moment of sweet torture, she released her captive and murmered. “No. No comparison at all.” She looked around at the silent kitchen and tried to be gruff. “What’s to eat around here anyway. We can’t have a starving Queen on our hands now can we?” Activity suddenly began with renewed vigor and in short order a sumptuous dinner was presented to the head table.

It was a wonderful dinner. Good food and Xena was Gabrielle’s idea of Elysia. Rumor spread quickly that Xena was eating with the Queen in the dining hall. Nearly everyone in the village stopped in to see the couple. Most of the doubters were pleasantly surprised to see their Queen happily feeding Xena or even more surprising being fed by Xena. Even Brenin couldn’t stop herself from returning to the hall to watch the couple for a moment but she was not feeling very pleasant. Karis had also returned but instead of watching the couple, she was watched Brenin very closely.

——————————–

Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief when they entered her hut. Dinner had been excellent but near the end she had started to become nervous at all the people watching them She was glad to be alone in Xena’s arms again. She suddenly felt dread at the conversation they were going to have. She knew Xena was going to leave. “How long will you be gone?”

“I don’t know.” Xena sighed and rested her chin on top of Gabrielle’s head. “I have to go to…”

“China.” Gabrielle finished for her. “Yes I know.” She thought about the report that had been received from her eastern scout. She started slowly. “The boy you captured in order to take over, he was next in line to rule. Correct?”

“You already know that.” Xena’s heart began to pound, knowing the direction the questioning was going to take. “I’m sure your scouts have reported the whole story.”

“You didn’t kill him though.” Gabrielle had been relieved to hear that the child had not been hurt by Xena.

“No. I killed his father….” Xena wasn’t sure how to explain her actions.

“And left his mother in charge.” Gabrielle supplied.

“Yes.” Xena dropped her head to place tiny kisses on Gabrielle’s shoulder.

“Did you love her?” Gabrielle was having trouble concentrating as Xena dropped to her knees and continued her assault on the queen’s exposed middle.

“I thought I did.” Xena looked up into Gabrielle’s eyes. “but I was wrong.” Xena rose to her feet, sweeping her love up in the same motion. “I love you, Gabrielle.” She lowered the amazon to her bed.

“I love you, Xena.” She manuvered her arms under the warrior’s tunic, marveling at the warmth and softness of the woman whose reputation was so cold and hard.

Both women groaned when a knock on the door interrupted them. “Be right there.” Gabrielle called sweetly. “That will be Brenin. Promise me you won’t kill her.” At Xena’s silence she took a frustrated breath. “Xena promise me. I think all we have to do is convince her that I’m not doing this against my will and we will be fine.”

“She thinks I would….. She thinks you…..” Xena was ready to kill her now.

“Xena listen. She is just a scribe. She takes her border duty but beyond that she doesn’t know anything about the scouts or their purpose. I am sure when she saw the services clause in the treaty she got the wrong idea. Just like Darphus did.” Gabrielle saw the shudder at the mention of the man’s name. “I don’t want her to end up like him.”

Karis had told her that the man made a rude comment about an amazon queens services and Xena had killed him. It was a gruesome story and Gabrielle would rather not think about Xena being that protective of her.

“I’ve got that part under control now too.” Xena admitted. She didn’t like having the dark sleeper in her mind but now that she wasn’t a shattered soul, the sleeper only woke when she wanted her to or when the necessity arose.

Gabrielle double checked the fasteners on her outfit grinning when she found four of them loose and went to let Brenin in.

——————————————–

Xena elected to remain on the bed propped up on her elbows, her hands under her back and her ankles crossed. It was the only position she could think of that would make her stop for a second before killing the woman. When she saw Brenin’s face as she entered the room her hands unconciously moved out from under her.

Gabrielle saw the hateful look Brenin gave Xena and Xena’s movement to a better position. She realized that Xena had never promised not to kill the scribe and tried to diffuse the situation. She settled herself into the comfortable throne. “Brenin I want to know how you feel about the treaty I gave you to copy.”

That was not what the scribe had expected Gabrielle to say. Brenin looked at the queen, puzzled.

“I realize that you were gone during Xena’s last visit and may not understand the seeming sudden start of our relationship.” Gabrielle watched Brenin’s head nod absently and continued. “The thing is, most people don’t know me very well and while some are concerned at my choice,” She smiled at Xena. “they aren’t particularly worried about my actions.” She had Brenin’s focused attention now. ” You work with me on a regular basis and know that I don’t, haven’t, interacted with anyone on anything other than a professional or formal basis. So based on the fact that we are friends, if you have any questions for me. Please ask them now.”

“I just want you to be happy.” Brenin looked up at Gabrielle.

“I am happy, Bren.” Gabrielle looked at Xena. “Xena makes me happier than I ever thought possible.”

Xena had been listening to Gabrielle she didn’t often speak as a Queen to her subjects and it was facinating to hear the royal tone in her lovers voice. Her heart melted when she heard Gabrielle tell the woman that she was happy. ‘I make her happy?’ Xena thought. ‘Making her happy for one moment is enough to make my life worthwhile.’

Brenin heard the words Gabrielle was saying but couldn’t in her heart believe them. Xena was not the person for Gabrielle, she was and she would prove it, somehow. Xena wasn’t going to be around forever. She knew there were constant assasination attempts by rebels in the Realm. Fighters against this evil woman’s tyranny. ‘When she is gone.’ Brenin thought. ‘Gabrielle will turn to me.’

“Brenin, do you understand?” Gabrielle was a little concerned at the woman’s silence.

“It is your choice. Your decision.” Brenin forced herself to smile.

“Great! I don’t like it when my friends are upset.” Gabrielle stood and linked elbows with the scribe, leading her to the door. She patted her arm before opening the door for her. “I’m glad you understand.”

Brenin took a deep breath, smiled and nodded before exiting the hut. She couldn’t trust herself to speak at the moment. ‘Friends. Right. ‘ Brenin’s thoughts turned dark. ‘As soon as I figure a way to get Xena out of the picture, we will be much more than friends.’ She didn’t see Karis hiding in the shadows or know that the guard had correctly interpreted the scowl on her face.

‘There will be three guards posted at the queen’s door from now on.’ Karis thought. She silently followed the angry scribe. ‘This one is definitely trouble in the making.’

———————————–

“You handled that well, my love.” Xena stood and stretched the muscles that had tensed in the scribes presence. “I don’t think she is convinced though.”

“I know.” Gabrielle sighed. “But it’s a start.” She watched Xena stretching and couldn’t help reaching out to touch the flexing arms. Stilling their action, she reached up to caress Xena’s face. “You are so beautiful.”

Xena held Gabrielle in a full embrace for several minutes. “Gods… I am going to miss you.” She hated the necessity of going to China. It was a long trip and she didn’t know how long it would take to clear things up once she got there.

‘Months.’ Gabrielle thought. ‘She is going to be gone for months.’ Her grip tightened around her newfound love and she began to shake. Holding back tears had never been easy for her.

“Hey, What’s wrong?” Xena’s heart broke to see Gabrielle upset. She felt even worse knowing she was the reason for the tears.

“I miss you already.” Gabrielle tried to laugh at he irony of missing the woman she held in her arms but it just wasn’t funny.

“Hey, I’m right here.” The warrior firmly held the crying queen in her arms. “I’m right here.” For the thousandth time she wished she didn’t have to go. “Damn those spice traders.” She muttered.
“I wish I knew what they were up to.”

Gabrielle laughed at Xena’s comment. “Your wish is my command.” She said and crossed to her desk, retrieving a parchment and handing it to Xena. “Preliminary report from our eastern scouts.”
She explained and watched Xena, reading the message, slowly sink to the edge of the bed and arch both eyebrows. “I have always had a few scouts in the east but after you left I sent one with specific instructions to find out about the spice traders alliance. She is the best scout I have. I can send word for her to meet you. You’re going by ship right? She can meet you in India if you like.”

“How will I know it is her?” Xena was grateful for the information. Her own spy network had not come up with anything nearly as useful as the information this preliminary message held. She could only imagine what had been learned since this report was sent.

“She will give you a code word. She is tall, thin, gray eyes, brown hair. She will contact you when she can.” Gabrielle sat next to Xena on the bed. “She is the best, Xena.”

Xena could no longer concentrate on the message in her hand. Gabrielle’s proximity and the fact that she was going to be gone for so long made the report irrelevant in her mind for the moment. She let the parchment drop to the floor and turned to Gabrielle. Gently brushing fire gold hair from her eyes she traced the queen’s jawline with her fingertips, brushing her lips with the tip of her thumb. “So soft.” She murmured.

Gabrielle closed her eyes at the sensation of Xena’s fingertips tracing every curve and angle of her face. She opened her eyes when she felt the fingers begin their explorations on her throat and then lower. “What are you doing?” She whispered. She reached to tangle her fingers in Xena’s hair. “Trying to memorize me by heart?”

Xena’s soft breath caressed her lovers ear “I already know you by heart.”

Gabrielle’s intention of spending the rest of the night creating memories to carry her through the impending seperation passed quickly as she melted into Xena’s touch. She knew the memory of this long, lovely night would last her forever.

—————————————————

Xena woke before even predawn light touched the sky. She dreaded leaving but had to go. She rose quietly and began dressing. Her green tunic with matching leggings and boots made her almost invisible in the trees. It would be easy to get back to her camp undetected. She chuckled at the thought of slipping past the amazon sentries and heard her mirth echoed from the bed.

Green eye’s peered out of the shadows and watched her every move. “They see you when you leave. You know that don’t you?”

“What?” Xena was puzzled for a moment. ‘I only thought that didn’t I?’

“You were thinking about slipping past the sentries. You don’t. They let you go.” Gabrielle was smiling at Xena’s confusion. “Xena. You have every right to be here. The treaty makes it so. If you want to make a game of it and try to slip past them you can but I’m telling you, they see you leave the territory.”

“Prove it.” Xena didn’t think Gabrielle had any way to prove her outlandish statement.

Gabrielle crawled across the bed toward Xena. She reached out and took her right hand. “When you get out of the trees. Hold up two fingers.” She manipulated the warrior’s fingers so that the index and middle fingers were straight and her thumb held the other two close to her palm. “The sentries will whistle the code for two.” She kissed the tips of the straightened fingers. “Then you’ll know.”

Xena was quickly becoming facinated with Gabrielle’s hands on her own but one word penetrated her distracted brain. Code. “The scout that you’re sending to meet me in India. What is her code word?”

The Queen didn’t stop her assault on the warrior’s hand and dropped a kiss on her palm. “Her name is Velasca.” She began a small loot and pillage operation involving each of Xena’s fingers. “And…” Taste of index finger. “her….” Middle finger is just as good. “code word….,” Ring finger delicious. “is……” Pinky finger, the best for last. “……. Ambrosia.”

————————–

Solan returned from his camping expedition in a halfway decent mood, despite his exhaustion. The head of the nursery had shown him the report on his exceptional handling of the children. He snorted and thought to himself ‘All I did was tell a few stories.’ He slowed his approach to his mother’s hut when the flickering torchlight revealed three guards at the door instead of the usual two. He decided to take the back way in and changed his path to take him around the hut. He climbed to the small washroom window and entered quietly. He had been doing this since the first day he arrived in the village and Gabrielle never said a word about it. No one else, except Xena, seemed to even notice. Of course no one else but Xena would be able to access the window either. He entered the main room cautiously, trying not to startle his mom.

Despite the dim light of the candlelit room, Gabrielle was sitting at her desk reading a scroll. Well, trying to read it anyway. She just couldn’t seem to get past the first few lines without thinking about Xena. She sighed and tried again, failing miserably. “Focus Gabrielle.” She berated herself. “Get a grip. It’s not like you haven’t been alone before.”

“You’re not alone.” Solan smiled as his mother turned in her chair toward his voice. He noticed the tunic she was wearing. It was way too big for her and he remembered Xena wearing it the first time she was here.

“Solan you’re back.” Gabrielle thought her face would crack from the enormous smile she felt. “Com’ere.” She hugged him fiercely and pulled him over to the fur in front of the fireplace. “Tell me all about your trip. Did you have fun? Was there any trouble? Were the girls OK?” She knew the head of the nursery would give her a report but she wanted to hear it from him.

He laughed at his mother’s enthusiasm. “Yeah, I had fun. No, there wasn’t any trouble to speak of and the girls were scared of the dark..” He rolled his eyes and smiled at her. “…Until I told them some of your stories.” That was old news to him though. He really wanted to know what was going on with her. “There are three guards outside. What’s up with that? And where is Xena?” He twitched the fabric of the tunic she was wearing.

She felt her smile disappear. “Xena had to go to China. She will be gone for a while.” She tried to smile when he seemed depressed by the news, “but hey she’ll be back. It’s not like she will be gone forever.” She waited for his expression to lighten before she continued. Trying to decide how much to tell him, she was vague on the reason for the guard. “The guards were Karis’ idea. She thinks that someone may be after me and wants me to be safe.” She smiled and leaned forward in a conspiratorial whisper. “I think she just wants to impress Xena by keeping me totally safe while she’s away.”

Solan shook his head. “Not if the person she is afraid of is Brenin.” The shock on Gabrielle’s face confirmed his suspicion. “I don’t like the way she looks at you.” It was obvious to Solan that she didn’t know what he was talking about. “She looks at you like Xena does, only it’s OK for Xena.”

Gabrielle had no idea her son had caught the lustful looks Brenin had been hiding so well from her. In the few days since Xena had left it had only gotten worse. Everywhere she went Brenin was right there. In the dining hall, outside the council chamber, in the bathing pools, picking up Micha after storytime. Everywhere. “It will work itself out.” She told him. “Karis will make sure no one gets hurt.” She patted his knee. “Are you going to stay here tonight? Ephiny and Eponin won’t be home.” She didn’t want to tell him she was a little frightened for him to be alone. Gabrielle remembered that the scribe was one of the people opposed to his remaining in the territory. She was sure Brenin wouldn’t hurt her but she wasn’t at all sure she wouldn’t go after Solan.

“Are they still gone?” Solan was almost worried. “Man, I didn’t think Eph would keep Phantes out this long. He hates camping.”

Gabrielle bit her lip and then decided to let him in on the secret, well part of it anyway. “They aren’t camping. They are on a scouting mission.” She thought she would lose it when both his eyebrows arched just like Xena’s.

“What kind of mission?” Solan was sure Ephiny wouldn’t put Phantes in harms way but this sounded like an important assignment. He was a little jealous of his friend’s opportunity for adventure. He never got to go anywhere, especially outside the territory.

“Just some information gathering.” Gabrielle tried to sound casual but she was actually worried about this particular expedition. It was one of those rare times when it was possible for a mission to succeed and fail at the same time.

He realized he wasn’t going to get any more information about his caretaker’s absence right now so he turned his thoughts to the other question at hand. “Hmm.. I don’t know I haven’t been home in a while.” Solan began thinking about the potential threat to his mother and realized the scribe may threaten him too. He saw the fear in Gabrielle’s eyes, looked at the low fire, noticed the condition of his clothes, grinned and continued his thought. “But a warm bath would feel pretty good right now.” It was hard for him to remember specifics of living in the outside world. The centaurs and men that lived in his village often made crude jokes referring to their Amazon neighbors so he knew that many men in the world would love to be the only man in an amazon village but for him, just on the verge of manhood, the communal bathing pools could become quite embarrassing. He was glad his mother was queen and she had her own private bathing facilities.

She smiled and immediately got up to stoke the fire. Gabrielle loved that as long as there was a fire she could have a warm bath. Her engineer’s ingenuity never ceased to amaze her. They had set up a system to pass the water through the back of the fireplace before it went into the tub. All she had to do was pull one lever and the water was automatically routed past the fire and warmed before going into the tub. It was much better than having to heat the water one bucket at a time. Of course the warm mineral springs that fed the communal bathing pools were nice too. “Do you want me to send a runner to get you some clean clothes?” She wasn’t sure the one’s he was shedding now would ever be fit to wear again.

“Nah, I think there is something here I can wear. What about that green tunic you said was too small for you. I like that one.” He thought it would be neat to wear because it was the about the same color as the one Xena was wearing when she appeared during storytime a few days ago.

Gabrielle thought for a moment. “Yeah, I know the one. It is too small for me.” Checking the fire again she went to the washroom door and pulled a small lever just over her head. Hearing the water begin to fill the tub she went to find the clothing in question. She found it just as she heard the water stop, a loud splash and a long drawn out sigh from her tired son. It had only been a few days but it was good to have him back.

——————————–

Karis saw the children return from their trip. She smiled at the exhausted look on Solan’s face and the condition of his clothes. She knew the experience was not entirely restful for the boy. Brenin took Micha home for the evening so Karis was free to follow Solan back to the Queen’s hut. Her smile widened when he noticed the guards and went around back. ‘Scamp.’ She thought. ‘I wonder if he has eaten yet?’ It was perfectly logical for her to be concerned about the boy. ‘I am the head of the royal guard.’ She told herself. ‘ It’s my job to look out for The Queen and The Prince.’ She went into the kitchen and requested a snack be prepared for the queen and her son. She stopped by the nursery and picked up the report about the camping trip. It wasn’t sealed so she read it on the way to Gabrielle’s. Smiling again at the glowing recommendations the nursery head gave Solan.

The guards snapped to attention when they saw her approach and knocked on the door of the hut. She shifted her burden slightly gesturing the designated runner over. “Go to Brenin’s and make sure she is still there. Don’t let her see you. Just let me know if she isn’t there, OK” The woman nodded and left quickly. The entire royal guard had been briefed on the situation and were always on the lookout for the Queen’s stalker. Most of them thought the woman should be put in prison but Gabrielle herself had insistently denied that request. Karis remembered the queen’s quiet words. “She hasn’t done anything wrong. She hasn’t broken any laws. We can’t … I won’t… do anything until she steps over the line.” It was a very brave philosophy for Gabrielle to take but Karis sighed, it sure did make her job a lot tougher ……… but not impossible.

Gabrielle was pleasantly surprised to find the captain waiting and whisked her inside. “Karis, What brings you here at this late hour.” She went into Amazon Queen mode and studied the woman. ‘She hasn’t been sleeping enough.’ She thought. ‘This Brenin thing is really bothering her.’ The scribe followed her everywhere but Gabrielle had a hard time believing she was in any danger from the woman. She was about to question the guard about her overprotectiveness when Solan entered the room. His hair was still wet from the bath, making darker patches of green on the shoulders of her old tunic. Seeing the look in Karis’ eyes when she saw Solan raised both Gabrielle’s eyebrows considerably. “Oh.” Now the queen understood but for the moment she wasn’t sure she approved. Her son was still very young.

Karis blushed when she heard the queen’s exclamation and realized she had been caught staring at the boy. “I brought you the report on the camping trip.” She held out the parchment. “And I thought you might like a late night snack.” Indicating the large pack at her side. “They said there wasn’t time to eat during the trip back.” The fact that she found out about the missed meal after she had gathered the snack wasn’t something she thought the queen should know.

Solan’s eye’s brightened when he saw Karis. He had missed her. “Great, I’m starved.” He pulled her and the pack over to the small table in the corner, pushed her into one of the chairs and began unpacking the welcome meal. He sat in a chair right next to her and looked up as Gabrielle stood at the end of the table. “Come on dig in.” He leaned over to nudged the guard with his shoulder. “Karis brought plenty, look” He indicated the small feast. “All my favorites.”

“I see that.” Gabrielle’s tone was undecipherable. Her green eyes fixed on the rising blush in Karis’ face. Without a hint of a smile, Gabrielle held out her had to Karis, offering to help her up. She saw Karis swallow hard before accepting the hand and rising. Her motion toward the door was halted however by the steel grip of the queen. Gabrielle led Karis instead to the chair Xena preferred. “Warriors..” Now Gabrielle smiled at the guard, “..and guards. Like to sit with their back to a corner and facing the door. Right Karis?”

Karis recognized the tone in Gabrielle’s voice as a mother teaching her young son a lesson. It not only impressed upon the guard the boys age it also reminded her who his mother was. She swallowed nervously. “Right.” She tried to take the same older teacher, younger student tone. “It’s better to be able to see the door and to know that no one is sneaking up behind you.”

Solan groaned. “Aww Mom, now you’ve got her doing it.”

Gabrielle looked shocked, “Doing what?”

He raised his hands in a helpless gesture. “Treating me like a baby. I’m not a baby anymore. I’m nearly a man.” His voice cracked on the last word and he thought he has lost his argument.

That shift in his voice had however struck Gabrielle fairly hard in the gut. “You’re right. ” She said softly. “You are nearly a man.” She glanced at Karis and saw the guard had caught the emphasis on nearly. “Can you forgive your old mother?”

He nearly knocked her over with a sudden hug. Her admission of his impending manhood, especially in front of Karis, was all he needed to wipe away the last of the exhaustion he felt from the camping trip. He released her and looked in her eyes, only a hint of exasperation showing in his face. “Can we eat now?”

“I could eat.” Gabrielle said thoughtfully and quickly pointed a finger at him to silence his retort. “Don’t say it.” Her appetite was a great joke in the nation and she wasn’t above poking a little fun at herself every now and then. “I guess we should have someone bring breakfast by in the morning, since you will be staying here tonight.” She saw Karis’ head nod approvingly at the sleeping arrangements.

“I’ll send it over.” Karis spoke up. She hadn’t wanted to joke about the queen’s eating habits or make a comment on Solan’s progress toward manhood. Breakfast seemed to be a safe subject.

They finished the snack in companionable silence and Karis rose to leave for the evening. Gabrielle glanced at Solan with a grin. “Be sure to bring enough breakfast for all of us.” Sparkling green eyes didn’t miss Solan’s smile or the widening of the guards eyes. They walked to the door and as Solan opened it, Gabrielle caught the guards face in a gentle touch, forcing eye contact. “Get some sleep, Karis.” It was a royal order and a suggestion from a friend at the same time.

Karis reached up to pat the hand at her face. “Sure, I just have to check on one thing then, Morpheus can take me.” She walked out of the hut thinking about how great the snack had been and the upcoming breakfast when she saw Brenin in the treeline watching her. She motioned to the runner and when she was close enough whispered, “I thought I told you to tell me if she was out of her hut tonight.” Karis was angry now. Her orders were not to be ignored. She was aware of the runners anxiety when she stammered her reply. “I..I…I.. J..ju…just saw her th..th..there. We w..w..were about to knock when you c..c..ame out. ” Karis gripped the woman’s shoulder and shook it slightly. “OK. Sorry. I’ve just been on edge lately.” She realized the door had been open when Gabrielle had forced the eye contact. Maybe she could use that to her advantage. “Brenin may follow me for awhile but if she comes back here let me know… and do not..under any circumstances..leave the queen with less than two guards.. or let Brenin anywhere near the Queen or Solan. I want both the Queen and the Prince protected at all times. You got that. ” The orders were just loud enough for all three guards to hear. Karis waited for acknowledging nods before she turned toward her own hut. She smiled grimly as Brenin’s eyes followed her progress. ‘Sorry Gabrielle but I don’t know how much sleep I’m gonna get tonight.’ The radical nebulous thought that had raced through Karis’ mind earlier came back and this time it took form and stayed awhile. ‘Gabrielle is not going to like that.’ She thought. ‘ but it just might work.’ The leader of the guard doubled back and settled into a good position to watch the obsessed woman and finish formulating her plan.

——————————————–

Time passed slowly for Gabrielle but not entirely unpleasantly. Solan and Karis shared meals with her normally in her hut but occasionally at the head table in the dining hall. She smiled grimly at the memory of the guard at the head table sitting so stiffly in the chair Xena sat so casually in. Knowing the tension was due to the ever present Brenin. It seemed like forever since she had seen Xena and she hoped everything in China was going OK. She smoothed the fabric of the oversized tunic she was wearing. ‘Has it really only been a month?’ She thought about how long it seemed and wondered if Ephiny and Eponin were all right. ‘They should be back soon too.’ Then the thought hit her. ‘Oh Gods…. today’s the day.’ The seventh day after the full moon. Her regular appointment with Brenin. It gnawed at her nerves to think about the scribe waiting so late in the day to arrive. ‘She is usually here before dawn for the appointment.’ Gabrielle thought. ‘It’s not like she isn’t nearby. Gods… she is probably out there right now.’ She was beginning to feel like a prisoner in her own hut. So far it had been fairly easy to avoid the woman, claiming nation business, but today, today she had to see her. Luckily there were several scrolls she needed copied. Gabrielle piled the scrolls on the corner of her desk. She didn’t want to do anything to upset the scribe or her normal routine and having no work for Brenin would qualify as disturbing both. She also reminded herself that nothing said she had to be alone for the visit and if she knew a certain royal guard as well as she thought she did, she wouldn’t be alone with the obsessed woman for a moment. ‘Bless you Karis.’ The guard was a gift from the Gods and Gabrielle knew it.

The knock on the door startled her and she said “Come in.” Before she could stop herself. Grabbing the scrolls she needed copied, Gabrielle quickly headed for the throne. When her heart jumped at Brenin’s form in the doorway she berated herself. ‘You can take care of yourself. ‘ Her reassurance turned logical. ‘Get a grip Gabrielle, your the best staff fighter in the nation. It’s not like you can’t defend yourself against one untrained woman.’ She looked at the practice staff leaning against the wall next to the throne. It was usually an annoying reminder of the situation when she looked around the room to see staffs within easy reach of any location she might be. Now however she felt better able to protect herself and was glad Karis suggested the placements. She was just entering Queen mode when Karis appeared right behind Brenin. Gabrielle gave a small sigh of relief when the guard brushed past the scribe and approached the throne.

Kneeling on the customary one knee, Karis spoke respectfully. “A message for you, My Queen.” She handed a small piece of parchment up to her curious and relieved ruler.

Gabrielle read the message. Both eyes widening at the scrap and gazed down at the guard. “Wait over there.” She directed her towards the corner table and the remains of her late afternoon meal. “I’ll have a reply for this as soon as my business is finished.” She watched Karis bow and withdraw to the corner seat, now in a position to watch every move the scribe made.

Brenin walked forward at Gabrielle’s gesture, she was disappointed that Gabrielle was not wearing her favorite outfit. She thought the oversized tunic hid far too much and cursed under her breath when she realized it was Xena’s. She saw the small pile of scrolls and wasn’t sure what to think. It was obvious the Queen was ignoring her but if she had work for her then maybe Gabrielle did want her around after all. She suspected that Karis was part of the reason Gabrielle didn’t pay any attention to her. She glanced at the corner. Since Xena left the guard had practically never left the Queen’s side. It seemed like everytime she saw Gabrielle, Karis was with her, and Solan too. ‘I wish she wouldn’t look at me like that.’ Brenin thought. ‘She’s always looking at me like that. I need to focus on Gabrielle. She is the one I want, even though Karis is quite good looking.’ The scribe shook off her thoughts of the guard and refocused on Gabrielle.

Gabrielle forced her voice into a regal tone. “This is all we have today. The standard copies and distribution will be fine.” She handed the scrolls to Brenin. Remaining expressionless when the scribe unnecessarily brushed her hands in the exchange.

“Is that all?” Brenin could still feel the tingle where her hands had made contact with Gabrielle. Many times that simple question had garnered a few more items. Some of which only needed one or two copies and were done right here at Gabrielle’s own desk. It was hours of work that Brenin treasured.

Gabrielle’s eyes were green ice when she replied simply, “Yes. That will be all.”

‘Cold.’ Brenin thought. ‘How can she be so cold? I love her.’ She looked over at the corner. ‘Karis doesn’t look cold.’ She took in the guards deep brown eyes and continued her thought as she walked out the door. ‘Karis doesn’t look cold at all.’

Karis couldn’t see the Queen’s face but the stark ‘yes’ had sent a chill down her spine. She saw Brenin shudder at the coldness of the response as well as the fact that it was a dismissal. Karis could however see the disappointment in the scribes face at not being allowed to stay and work in the Queen’s quarters. The look Brenin gave her was enough to set the guard’s mind working. ‘Good.’ She thought and groaned to herself. ‘Gabrielle, is not going to like this at all.’ It shocked Karis to realize how often she called the Queen by her given name in her thoughts, if not out loud. She chuckled at the closing door and poured a glass of juice for Gabrielle. Rising to take it to the throne only to find the Queen joining her at the table.

“Thank you.” Gabrielle accepted the juice and gestured for the guard to pour one for herself. She knew Karis understood her thank you was more for being here during the interview than for the drink. She studied the guards face carefully. ‘She still isn’t sleeping well. She probably guarded Solan’s hut all night.’ Gabrielle was grateful for the woman’s concern for her son. “How’s Solan?”
She thanked Artemis that she had swallowed her sip of juice. Choking in front of the Queen was not something the head of the royal guard should do. “Fine.” She said cautiously. “I have two guards assigned to him.”

Gabrielle smiled, “But he doesn’t know that does he?” She nodded approval at Karis’ slow negative nod. “Good. Now about this message…..” She brandished the blank parchment under the guards nose and saw Karis’ smile slowly creep out. “….What’s up with that.”

Now Karis laughed outright, She wondered where Solan had picked up his favorite phrase. “I’m sorry but I didn’t want to take the chance of her seeing it.” She let her laugh work itself out before her look turned serious. “I do have a message for you though.” She pulled a larger piece of parchment from under her bracer and handed it over. “It’s from Ephiny.”

It amazed Gabrielle that the simpleness of the written words could grip her heart so tightly.

Greetings Sister
We have arrived safely and are looking into buying some land in the area. This is a great village. For the moment we are renting a room at the local inn/tavern. The woman who owns it seems very nice. I think she might be sick though. More on that later. I hope everything is going well at home. Tell my nephew I love him. I will write more later. Love from us all.
signed Ephiny, Eponin and Phantes.

“Not exactly the standard scout report.” Karis was noncommittal at the casual letter. “Of course, many scouts use false stories to get the information they need.” She knew the pretext of buying land was a great way to ask questions about the area and it’s inhabitants without causing too much suspicion.

Gabrielle barely heard the guard’s statement. ‘Sick? How sick?’ If it was serious there was only one thing Gabrielle could do and she knew that no one in the Nation would protest more than the woman sitting across from her…unless…. “Yes, false stories and the ability to back them up are essential to a successful scout.” She was suddenly filled with worry about too many things, Xena, Solan, Brenin and now this. It was a nervous energy that needed to be released. She looked at Karis wickedly, “Feel like sparring?” Laughing when she could almost see the ‘Uh Oh.’ in the guards eyes, Gabrielle reached for her favorite staff.

——————————

Xena watched from her elevated position with satisfaction as her camp was setup. India was nearly the half-way mark to their destination. It was the perfect place to take a break from the long sea voyage. ‘And this is where Gabrielle said her scout would meet me.’ She closed her eyes at the image and sensations the thought invoked. Her fingers tingled from the memory of the amazon’s little loot and pillage operation.

She heard two people approaching and opened her eyes. Appraising the approaching figures she inwardly reaffirmed her love for Gabrielle. ‘She is good.’ The Conqueror thought. Xena merely crossed her arms and waited.

“Empress Xena.” The short guard presented his companion. “This is a messenger from Lao Ma.”

Xena looked at the messenger and remembered Gabrielle’s description. ‘She is tall, thin, gray eyes, brown hair.’ Xena’s only reaction was a slight raise in eyebrows. ‘Well that certainly fits. Let’s see if she knows the code word.’

“How is Lao Ma?” She kept her tone neutral.

The tall messenger smiled. “She rules like water over the land.”

‘Like water…’ Xena thought. ‘Soft, yet hard at the same time.’ Keeping her expression noncommittal she replied. “Water can be poisoned.”

“True.” Twinkling gray eyes looked up at The Conqueror. “But to a man dying of thirst even poisoned water can taste like ambrosia.” She offered the intimidating warrior her message scroll.

Uncrossing her arms to accept the scroll, Xena dismissed the guard with an absent gesture. “Leave us.” Turning her cool gaze to the messenger, she continued. “Walk with me.” It was not even remotely a request. Unrolling the scroll, she scanned it’s contents, both eyebrows raising. “This says the leader of the Chinese spice traders is coming here.” She glanced at the messenger, who nodded.

“He was coming west with a trade caravan anyway.” Velasca was all business. She didn’t want Xena to know that it had been Gabrielle’s idea to persuade the trader to meet Xena in India or how disappointed Lao Ma was when she heard Xena didn’t have to make the entire trip.

“Uh huh.” Xena looked again at the parchment. “This is a different name than my sources gave me. Are you sure he is the leader?” The look leveled on the messenger harbored bad tidings for anyone that lied.

“Yes, I’m sure.” Was the only response the amazon gave, the only one she could give, it was the truth.

They were near the main food preparation tent. Xena could smell her favorites being prepared. ‘I have been in a bad mood if they are going to that trouble.’ The Conqueror’s chuckle echoed in her head. Silencing her dark sister Xena addressed the scout. “Will you be staying with us for a while.” It would be difficult to explain the messenger’s continued presence but she was willing to take on the challenge if the woman wanted to.

“No.” Velasca declined. “I have strict orders and other duties.” The scout’s steel gray eyes looked into the cool blue gaze. “My leader is a determined taskmaster.”

“Then you should not neglect the duties she has assigned you.” Xena gestured to the tent. “Take what supplies you need for your journey.” Inclining her head toward the amazon, she continued. “And tell your leader I will see her soon.” All the voices in her head sang in chorus. ‘It had better be soon.’ Surprisingly, The Conqueror’s voice was the loudest among them.

A slight smile crossed Velasca’s face. “If I see her first, I’ll tell her.”

Xena thought about that reply, as she watched the scout disappear into the tent. ‘Her next mission must be a long one. Otherwise, how could I see Gabrielle first?’ She walked quickly to her own tent and proceeded to look over the message scroll with intricate detail. ‘Hopefully the traders will be cooperative. I don’t want this to take any longer than it has to.’ She had been separated from her love for too long already.

——————————

Solan entered his mother’s hut hours into the sparring match. He waved at the women when they paused long enough to acknowledge his arrival. He laid on his stomach, the soft bed giving him a good view of the action, not as good as the throne but more comfortable, and cupped his chin in his hands. ‘This is great.’ He thought. ‘Watching mother fight is almost as good as sparring with her myself.’ He chuckled to himself when he noticed Gabrielle was still wearing Xena’s tunic until he realized that he had automatically put on the green tunic Gabrielle had given him. He quickly forgot about clothing choices and prepared to watch his mother in action.

Gabrielle had worked off most of her excess energy by the time Solan arrived. Her muscle’s protests were a clear indication she should back off. She did a few drills at a marked slower pace and cooled down before calling a halt to the session, claiming exhaustion. The relief in Karis’ eyes made her realize the demanding pace she had set. Her eyes widened at the guard. “Not many people can keep up that pace, captain.” She saw the tips of Karis’ ears turn pink. “Xena was right. You were a good choice.” Now the woman’s entire face was red.

Solan had recognized his mother’s cool down routine and was silently disappointed. He had started out watching Gabrielle’s attack but instead found himself enthralled with Karis’ defense. The way the muscles in her arms flexed when she deflected a strike, the way her thighs and calves tensed as she braced against the overhead blows, he was fascinated by her rippling stomach muscles and realized that during the fight was the only time they were apparent, usually she looked just as soft as any regular amazon. ‘No. ‘ He thought to himself. ‘Softer.’ That thought made him gasp. ‘Whoa. What’s up with that.’ He watched Karis as she ran her hands through her damp brown hair and smiled at him. ‘Oh.’ The phrase ‘What’s up with that’ suddenly began to take on a whole new meaning for the young man.

Gabrielle felt her hair sticking to her face and decided she could use a bath. “I think I’ll go the bathing pools this evening.” Her own tub was nice but the mineral waters were soothing and she needed to be around people. Concern for her safety had begun to tap into her normal routine. She hardly ever took meals in the dining hall and when she did there were at least five guards plus Karis. Everywhere she went she had a contingent of guards and the ever watchful Karis, but she was grateful because there was also Brenin. Not always close but always there, always watching her. It was kind of creepy to think that she could look out the door or over her shoulder at any time day or night and see the woman standing there.

Karis sighed. She knew she couldn’t keep Gabrielle cooped up in the hut forever. Pulling her fingers through her hair she asked. “Mind if I join you?” Grinning at Gabrielle’s rolled eyes.

“Like I have a choice. There probably won’t be space left in any of the pools once all the guards arrive.” She was very tired of all the security and wished for it all to go away.

The exasperation in her voice was evident and it solidified Karis’ plan. “No.” She smiled. “No guards except me.” It had been a radical idea but the last few weeks had laid the ground work and the strain on Gabrielle was now unacceptable to the guard. When she saw the look Brenin gave her as she left this afternoon, Karis knew her plan was working and the baths would finish it.

Gabrielle called to Solan, “Do you want to join us in the baths?” She saw the blush creeping up on his face an mentally berated herself. She tried to give him a way out. “Or would you rather read for a while?”

“I think I’ll stay here and read if that’s OK.” He often read the stories his mother had written or remembered and transcribed. It was a great thrill to read the stories about far off lands and it was kind of nice to read about simple village life too. He thought again about Phantes out on a scouting mission with his mother and Eponin. ‘Lucky guy.’

“Sure.” She smiled at her son indulgently. “But only the stories OK. I don’t want to come back and find that you have been bored to tears by all the dull treaties I am forced to keep in the archives.”

He turned up his nose at the thought of reading the treaties. He avidly avoided the scrolls with the endcaps marked as treaties. “Those things? Come on, I’m surprised you can even stay awake long enough to write them. I think I’ll re-read the Xena baby-sitting little Gabrielle story. Now that I know it’s really you and Xena it’s kind of funny.” Solan laughing at the thought of Xena in a normal situation reached for the scroll. His laughter faded as he was caught up in the writing on the scroll he retrieved.

As they walked out the door the guard started to fall in behind them. Karis waved them off and pointed to the hut. “Solan is still in there. I’ll take care of Gabrielle. We are just going to the baths.” She motioned to the two guards she had assigned as Solan’s personal protectors and spoke to them quietly. They nodded and left. She then gave the third guard her orders. “Go around back and watch the washroom window. If Solan leaves, follow him but don’t let him see you.” Finished with her orders Karis turned to rejoin Gabrielle on their trek to the bathing pools. She was very glad Solan had opted not to join them.

“You are very organized.” Gabrielle was impressed with the woman’s leadership of the royal guard.

“You’re surprised..” Karis grinned at her queen.” … Because I’m so young.” It always struck her as funny when people commented on her rank and age. Eighteen years seemed like an awfully long time to her.

“I guess so. It just seems like you are older most of the time and then something happens to remind me you’re younger than me.” Gabrielle had looked through the records and discovered that at twenty one she was actually the youngest Queen ever.

Karis smiled and took the comment as a compliment. “My mother was head of the royal guard for many years.” Her voice took on a respectful tone. “And while I don’t think she had time to teach me everything she knew. She surely has taught me everything I know. ” She saw the sadness in Gabrielle’s eyes. “I think one of the things she taught me may just help us out of this Brenin situation.” She saw hope flicker in the sad green eyes.

They had arrived at the bathing pools so Gabrielle didn’t have time to extract the details. Karis looked around the cavern and took note of who was there. Several off duty royal guards, a few scouts and surprisingly enough, Rayna, she signed hello to the little deaf cook. She nodded OK to Gabrielle and they quickly shed their clothes and immersed themselves in a currently unoccupied warm mineral pool. Modesty was not an issue for amazons and even if it was neither Karis nor Gabrielle had anything to be ashamed of.

Karis counted forty seven heartbeats before Brenin walked in the cavern. The guard gave herself a grim chuckle. ‘I win.’ She thought. Her bet with herself had been that the woman would show up in less than fifty. Karis was thankful she had a plan because this situation was obviously escalating. ‘Gods she hasn’t taken her eyes off of Gabrielle since she walked in.’ She dropped her arm under the water and found Gabrielle’s shaking hand giving it a slight reassuring squeeze and a sign. Nearly everyone in the room watched as Brenin walked straight to the pool the Queen was in, stripped and got in the water. A glance to one of the off duty guards got a boisterous distraction for the rest of the room and let Karis concentrate on Gabrielle’s safety.

Gabrielle was almost relaxed when she felt the entire cavern hold it’s breath. She looked up to see Brenin walking straight toward her. She felt Karis’ hand squeezing hers, recognized the hand signal for ‘Don’t Move’ and suddenly wondered what the guard was going to do as Brenin entered their pool. It was too quiet for Gabrielle, her nerves were about to go. Suddenly a rowdy water fight broke out in one of the other pools so everyone, except Rayna, forgot about the Queen, the guard and the scribe. She noticed Karis wasn’t surprised by the outburst and wondered if it was part of the plan.

Brenin could hardly believe it when she saw Gabrielle walk into the cavern. This was too good. This was even better than the casual leathers. This was Gabrielle with nothing on. It was pure lust that guided her to the edge of the pool. She didn’t remember taking off her clothes or actually getting in the water until Karis’ face came into view.

Karis purposely moved between Gabrielle and her stalker never taking her eyes off Brenin. She lazily reached for the soap and moved back to her original position. It took concentration but she held the scribes eyes on her for a full minute before she looked back at the queen. When the contact was broken Karis again moved in front of Gabrielle, to replace the soap, but re-established eye contact with the increasingly confused woman. This time she stayed on the side of the pool with the soaps, shampoos, and towels but moved slightly closer to Brenin. The guards sharp eyes picked up on the increase in her pulse and breathing. ‘Thank you mother.’ She thought and continuing her assault, moved in for the kill. Dropping her voice to it’s most provocative she purred, “Brenin, Would you like anything.” She raised her hand to gesture to the soaps and things, also bringing her breast to the top of the water. She saw the look in the scribe’s eye and thought, ‘Gotcha.’ Karis knew the obsessed woman would be severely frustrated by now. The agony of having the object of your affection be unavailable was a feeling Karis knew all to well. Holding the woman’s gaze she picked up two large towels and rose out of the water. She held out her hand to help Brenin up and wrapped one of the towels around the scribe. Using the other towel for herself Karis led the woman out of the cavern, without even a backward glance at Gabrielle.

The squeeze and signal on her hand was the only thing that held Gabrielle silent during the display. When she realized what Karis was doing it nearly broke her heart. ‘Gods… Don’t do this Karis… not for me… ‘ Watching Karis lead the woman out of the cavern was one of the most difficult things she had ever done. She dug her nails into her palms to keep herself from interrupting the guards plan. When the women were gone she heard one of the older guards chuckle.

“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” The woman’s eyes widened when she realized she had spoken out loud.

Gabrielle was wasn’t sure if her stomach was queasy from the intense anger she felt or the idea of what Karis was doing at the moment. She cleared her throat and fully entered Queen mode. “Explain that.” Gabrielle leveled her royal green gaze at the amused woman. Her tone and expression conveyed the fact that she didn’t find any of this the least bit funny.

The woman cleared her throat nervously, “It was one of her mother’s favorite sayings.” She glanced at the other guards they were all nodding in agreement. None of them liked the idea but they knew the reasons for it and admired their leader even more. She went to the entrance and looked out. “It’s safe to leave now my queen. If you are ready to go we can give you an escort back to your hut.”

Not bothering to dry off and not trusting herself to speak, Gabrielle rose from the water, grabbed her tunic and pulled it over her head in one fluid motion. She didn’t care if they followed her or not. The one and only threat to her was currently occupied. She managed to clear her mind enough to make it back to her hut and she even smiled slightly when Solan looked up from the scroll he was reading.

“Hi …..Mom.” He smiled and looked behind her. “Where’s Karis?”

Gabrielle barely made it to the washroom in time. Solan heard the violent retching and ran for a guard to bring the healer.

————————————————–

Karis led Brenin to her hut. The guard didn’t know whether to be thrilled or repulsed. Her plan was working perfectly. She held the scribe as closely as she could and still walk unimpeded. The lust emanating from the woman frightened her for a moment. Suddenly she heard her mother’s voice whispering to her softly. ‘It will only help your plan. You are doing great. Now just relax and follow the plan. You can do it.’ Karis took strength from her mother’s memory and held the door for the woman to enter. She didn’t bother lighting candles or a fire, this part of the plan didn’t require light. She let her towel drop to the floor and soundlessly added the scribes to the heap.

Brenin was confused by the turn of events. ‘It’s the Queen I want.’ She thought and looked at the woman walking next to her. ‘Isn’t it?’ It was difficult to tell anymore. She loved Gabrielle. For Brenin it was a fact, but the lust she felt for the queen seemed to spill over to Karis. ‘Gabrielle was so cold.’ The scribe shuddered at the memory and at the removal of her towel. ‘Karis is anything but cold.’ She found herself lowering onto the bed, the warm firm body above her. The guard’s encouragement wasn’t lost on Brenin and she gave in to her long pent-up lust.

‘You have her now. Find your opportunity and finish it.’ Her mother’s voice was comforting and correct. Brenin was exactly where Karis wanted her. She held her own growing desire barely in check as she felt Brenin tense on the verge of release. Kissing the scribe’s jawline lightly, she followed it to her ear tugged gently on the lobe and, sending a quiet prayer to Artemis, whispered, “Oh..Gabrielle” The sudden stillness in the form under her was the best indication she could have gotten and she prepared herself for the onslaught.

In the dark, imagining the guards brown hair as the queen’s reddish blonde locks was easy. The illusion was just getting good when the soft voice in her ear shattered her world. She pushed the woman off of her and screamed, “YOU BITCH. YOU CAN’T HAVE HER! SHE’S MINE.”

“No.” Karis’ quiet voice barely penetrated Brenin’s rage. “She belongs to someone else. You will never have her.”

The scribe was furious, speaking loudly but no longer screaming. “I will have her or I’ll make sure no one else does.”

“How. How will you stop us?” Karis readied herself.

“I’ll kill you. I’ll kill anyone who touches her.” Brenin was searching the dark unfamiliar room for anything she could recognize as a weapon.

‘Almost.’ Karis thought. She continued her verbal assault. “You can’t kill everyone.”

“Then I’ll kill her. I’ll kill Gabrielle and then no one can have her.” Brenin’s face twisted with glee at the thought of keeping her Gabrielle safe from unwanted admirers.

‘Gotcha, again.’ Karis moved faster than the scribe thought possible and had her prisoner held securely when the door opened to reveal Solan’s personal guards. She looked up at their flushed faces, “You heard?” She locked her jaw to prevent a smile when they nodded. Grabbing the first set of leathers her searching hands found in her clothes chest, she quickly dressed. Nodding approvingly when the guards roughly dressed the prisoner in an old tunic they had brought with them. “Lock her up.” Her hard voice left the guards with no choice but to obey. She didn’t wait for their acknowledgment and nearly ran to the Queen’s hut. ‘Gabrielle will need reassurance.’

————————————

Solan had been frantic waiting for the healer. He had never seen anyone be so violently ill for no apparent reason. It took forever for the healer to get there and now it had been another eternity since she disappeared into the washroom. When Karis walked through the door he had never been so glad to see anyone in all his life. He rushed up to her and hugged her tightly. “Mother is sick.” Keeping his arms around her he looked her in the eye, “Please help her.”

Her plan had gone off without a hitch but this was an unexpected complication. She never thought about seeing Solan so soon after. It was all she could do to suppress the recently awakened desire and pull away from the young man’s embrace. “I will.” She promised; her voice rough with feeling. She allowed herself the luxury of wiping away his tears before heading toward the washroom.

The sight of Gabrielle in a heap on the floor nearly made her regret her actions ….. nearly. The healer was glad to give up responsibility for the patient. The queen kept saying, “I’m not sick.” over and over anyway. Karis knelt beside the sobbing woman and tried to comfort her. “It’s OK, Gabrielle. Everything is fine.” The words were meant to comfort the queen but they had a soothing effect on herself as well. A smile at the realization that it really was over crossed her face.

The voice she heard soothing her nerves was not the healer’s. Looking up Gabrielle saw Karis’ smiling face. “Karis?” She hadn’t counted on seeing the young woman at all tonight. When Gabrielle thought about the reason why her guest was so unexpected she began sobbing again. “Oh Gods ……. Karis ……. you shouldn’t have ……. not for me.”

“Shhh…. It’s OK now. Brenin won’t bother you anymore.” Karis was surprised she could speak at all as tightly as Gabrielle was holding her. From this position it was marvelously easy to stroke the sobbing woman’s hair. The guard could feel the tears warming her chest. ‘Sweet Artemis. Give me strength.’ She tried to reassure Gabrielle. “It’s over now.”

It took several minutes to calm the sobbing queen. Karis was becoming uncomfortable with the touches Gabrielle needed to reassure herself that the guard was there. Karis held the crying woman’s hands still. “Gabrielle, please don’t.” Hiding the lust in her eyes was impossible and Karis knew Gabrielle saw it. “I think you better leave now.” Pausing for only a moment she continued her quiet request. “And don’t let him come in here either.” She bowed her head at the admission. Karis was sure Gabrielle would never let her near the prince again.

Gabrielle nodded slowly, leaving the guard kneeling in the middle of the room, she went to let Solan know she was OK. Before walking out the door, she reached up and pulled the lever above her head. Sparing a final grateful look at the guard she closed the door.

The sound of running water penetrated her senses. Karis looked up at the filling tub and the closing door. She was moved by the gesture. Submerging into the steaming water, immediately took away the worst of Karis’ tension. ‘Great.’ She thought. ‘Now if I can just stay here long enough I’ll be fine.’ Searching the extent of her feelings she sighed. ‘Five years ought to do it.’

Gabrielle slipped into full Queen mode. Her grip on Solan’s hand was steel and she forced herself to stay detached, to stay the Queen. She walked purposefully to the door. “Bring me someone who knows what happened.” It was not a friendly request but a royal order. The guards identified it as such immediately and the runner took off to obey the command. Gabrielle sat on the throne with Solan on her lap. She almost felt sick again when she realized that he was going to have to hear the whole story. He would find out eventually anyway. She hoped Karis understood it was better for him to hear it now, rather than later. She shifted his weight slightly when the guard approached the throne and swallowed hard before she gave the one word command. “Report.”

The woman only gave Solan one startled glance before the look in Gabrielle’s eyes convinced her to talk or else. She proceeded to layout Karis’ plan for the royal audience. She kept it fairly clinical for the prince’s sake. “Basically, Karis seduced Brenin. During the last few weeks she had been watching the stalker and trying to establish a relationship with her, eye contact, casual touches, etc. By being close by when she was watching you, Karis put herself into the path of Brenin’s lust until the scribe couldn’t take it anymore.” The guard knew Gabrielle had witnessed the scene at the bathing pools so she didn’t go into that but continued her story. “And then Karis made her angry enough to threaten your life.” She looked up at the throne. “That is a serious offense and we locked her up.”

Gabrielle had felt the tension in Solan’s muscles as the story was told. ‘This is harder on him than I anticipated.’ She sent a quiet thank you to Artemis when the informant skipped the bath scene. She dismissed the woman with a gesture and a grateful look and telling Solan to stay on the throne, walked to her desk. She quickly wrote a letter and went to speak to the guard outside. Speaking quietly she gave the wide eyed woman her instructions and the parchment with her seal closing the edges. She turned to walk back inside and saw Solan curled up on the throne, sleeping. The days events had caught up with him. ‘He looks so small.’ She thought. Suddenly the activities of the day hit her too and she was extremely tired. She used the last of her strength to carry her not so young child to the bed and curled up next to him, asleep an instant later.

——————————————————-

Karis cautiously entered the main room. She had soaked in the tub until the water was cool and figured Solan had gone home by now. She looked at the scene on the bed as Gabrielle held the boy in her protective arms. It was touching to see the Queen in Xena’s tunic and Solan in his mother’s. She looked down at her own garment, a subconscious choice. ‘One of mother’s.’ She thought. ‘It does help keep you connected to the one’s you love.’ She looked at the sleeping boy again and wondered who his parents were. ‘I wonder if he looks like them?’ She thought Gabrielle knew but Karis didn’t imagine she would ever find out. ‘It would be nice if he had green eyes like Gabrielle’s.’ She looked at her Queen’s green eyes and froze. ‘Whoa.. She’s awake.’

Gabrielle heard Karis enter the room. She felt her stop next to the bed and look at them. Opening her eyes she saw not the lust she had seen earlier but unadulterated love. She knew it when she saw it because it was the same look Xena leveled at her time and time again. In her own mind, Karis was now part of the family. When the guard froze, Gabrielle smiled and mouthed silently, “Report tomorrow.” She didn’t wait for a reply and simply closed her eyes. She heard the door close before sleep overtook her again.

—————————————————-

Ephiny looked at the exhausted face of her son. She was very proud of the young centaur. He had not complained once during the rushed trip home. Poni was worried they were pushing the boy too hard but the vagueness of Gabrielle’s letter and their own news pushed the trio faster than even they thought possible. The journey that had taken the messenger and healer more than a week to get there was shortened to only four days on the return. They would be home in a few hours and then she would question her queen thoroughly on her cryptic message. She recalled the note vividly.
___________________
Sister

Please return home at once. I need your help with a family emergency.

Hurry.
Gabrielle
___________________

It was bad enough to recall them off the mission and urgent enough to use the royal seal, although no one outside the Nation would recognize Gabrielle’s insignia, it let the women know whatever the situation was, it was serious. Ephiny hoped they would be in time to help. Two weeks was a long time by any standard, much less if there was a crisis going on.

———————————————————–

Cold blue eyes stared in amazement at the men arguing before them. They had been fighting all day stopping only for meals, now as the dishes were cleared and the torches were lit they began anew. Had they been paying the least bit of attention each of them would have known exactly how close to death they were.

Xena hated this. She hated the whole situation. She hated tents. She hated travel. She hated being away from Gabrielle. At least now she was talking to the right people, thanks to the information Velasca had provided. The leaders of the Egyptian, Indian, and Chinese spice traders were still fighting amongst themselves. The part of her that was the Conqueror was screaming to just get it over with. ‘These are the leaders of this whole thing. Just kill them and we can go back to Gabrielle.’ It was a very persuasive argument, very tempting. It had been months now since she had seen her love. The longest months of her life. She began to remember the feel of Gabrielle wrapped in her arms, she could almost smell the lilac/leather/Gabrielle combination when the men’s voices penetrated her daydream. For that alone she nearly killed them. ‘That’s it!’ She thought. ‘I don’t have to take this. I am Xena, dammit, I rule the world.’ She took a deep breath and projected her voice to every corner of the negotiation tent and beyond. “CEASE!” Everyone in the tent stopped everything they were doing, including breathing. All three men dropped to their knees, as Xena rose from her elevated throne.

She would have preferred any of the more comfortable robes, Egyptian, Indian or Chinese and it rankled her that politics forced her to wear a neutral style. Of course she had chosen the most intimidating outfit she could find, the ornate black leather armor she used to wear when she was still plundering small villages. Glimpses of tan muscular legs could be seen through the long black skirt. Her warrior boots landed heavily as she advanced on the cowering men. The tone of her voice was grating and decisive. “Get up.” She looked at the guard by the door. “Tell the cross maker, three.” He bobbed his blonde curly head once and left. ‘Let’s get this over with.’ She thought. She towered over the men and looked each one of them in the eye. “Those crosses will be filled unless you come to an agreement by noon tomorrow. If not I believe your second in command’s will be sufficiently motivated to do what it seems you cannot.” She returned to her throne and gestured. “Now go.” The guards ushered them out without much problem. She closed her eyes and sighed. ‘Fools.’ She began her daydream again, it took several minutes before she could clear her mind adequately. She was almost to the point of feeling Gabrielle’s soft lips pressing against hers when she heard the guards bring in a group of people. She didn’t want to lose the vision so she kept her eyes closed. “Report.” Her tone was bored and frustrated at the same time.

“We were looking for wood to make the crosses when we found these four camped outside the compound. They claim to be travelers and are willing to work. We thought you would want to decide.” The guard figured they would be killed but he didn’t know if Xena would want to do it or not. The last thing he wanted to do was upset the Empress. Xena had not been in the best of moods since their journey east began. She opened her eyes and saw four figures in traveling cloaks. All of them had their hoods on but one stood slightly ahead of the others. Xena addressed the apparent leader of the group. “What kind of work?” It was almost a sneer.

The leader snaked an arm around the figure closest to her and threw back both their hoods. Brilliant green eyes twinkled up at the stunned Conqueror. “I have been told that I am a good storyteller.” She held Solan tightly against her both for her sake and for his. Gabrielle had warned him that Xena may have to make some comments he may not want to hear. ‘I may not either.’ She thought and continued to look at their captor. ‘Gods it’s good to see her.’

The shining blue eyes closed once and reopened to see the same thing as before, ‘Gods it’s good to see her.’ She forced herself to laugh a cold grating laugh while her eyes drank in the sight of her love standing before her, defiant and beautiful. Xena smiled a wicked smile and could see the ‘Uh Oh.’ in Gabrielle’s eyes. She put as much ice in her voice as possible, “I don’t listen to children’s stories woman.” She laughed again and the curly haired guard laughed too. “What about them?” She indicated the other two captives. Not surprised when Karis threw back the hood of her cloak but slightly taken back when the other figure was revealed as Rayna. “My sister.” Gabrielle indicated Rayna. “Is an excellent cook. She is however stone deaf and requires my other sister to interpret and communicate for her.” Gabrielle had fought against the necessity of bringing Rayna. The young woman was not a scout or a warrior but she had performed admirably so far and was necessary to explain Karis’ presence which was automatic when Solan was involved.

“A cook I can use.” Xena said thoughtfully. She gestured to a guard. “Take them to the kitchen but watch them closely.” She returned her attention to Gabrielle. “If she is as good as you say they can stay.” Xena rose from the throne and advanced on the remaining pair. She negligently shoved Solan aside, praying he would play along and remain silent. “But as for you, bard….” She circled Gabrielle, appraisingly. “Storytelling is not in very high on my list right now.”

“Please.” Gabrielle caught Xena’s gaze and held it. “I’ll do anything.” Green eyes peered out from honey-fire bangs. The corners of her mouth twitched as Xena’s eyebrow arched higher than she had ever seen.

“You hear that boys?” Xena spoke loudly to her guards, never taking her eyes off of the teasing amazon. She repeated the word in a long sultry purr. “Anything.” Her deep chuckle joined her guards as they caught the drift of her thoughts. “Bring her.” She began to walk out of the tent toward her own living space when one of the guards spoke up.

“What about the boy?” They knew what was going to happen to the woman but the boy’s fate was anything but certain. The guard dragged Solan over to Xena, for her inspection.

She stopped her exit from the tent and looked at the struggling child. ‘If he bruises from that handling this guard is going to hurt badly.’ She thought. Holding the boy’s chin with her fingers Xena scrutinized his face. “How old are you boy?” Giving him an almost imperceptible approving look when he was silent and defiant, she put as much venom in her voice as she dared. “I said. How old?” It almost killed her to do it but she raised her hand as if to strike him.

“Twelve.” He flinched back trying to avoid the potential hit.

“Twelve huh?” She seemed to ponder the age for a moment and then shrugged. “Bring him too.” Noticing the looks on the guards faces she raised both eyebrows. “It’s never to early to start training slaves.” She walked out of the tent without a backward glance.
Part 2
“What in the Gods names are they doing here?” Xena fumed. It was the most important of about a thousand questions Xena wanted to ask Gabrielle. Calming herself somewhat on the walk to her tent she tried to focus on the situation logically. ‘They aren’t hurt so I’ll just let Gabrielle explain when she gets the chance.’ Reconsidering her hasty decision, she knew that having Solan brought to her tent was a mistake. ‘I’ll change my mind, but I’ll have to have a good reason.’

Xena was seated a long low couch that doubled for a bed in her quarters when the guard brought in her two prisoners. Their traveling cloaks had been removed and their hands were now tied securely with rough rope. Xena noted the blonde guard’s leering look and lingering touch as he checked Gabrielle’s restraints. ‘Sentry duty for him.’ She thought. ‘Although he does know what to leer at.’ She took another long look at the firm body of her lover. Short boots and short skirt left little of the amazon’s muscular legs to the imagination. The hideous green cropped top also only covered the absolute necessities for modesty leaving her stomach muscles free for anyone’s casual inspection. The reality of the situation struck her again. Gabrielle was here. As the guard began to cut the bindings on their wrists Xena rose gracefully. “Leave hers, Iolaus.” She smiled at the widening green eyes. “She will have to earn her freedom.” It was more of a glide than a walk that brought her within inches of shining green eyes. Bound hands were no match for The Conqueror’s superior strength and a demanding kiss was taken from the captive. Xena was impressed with Gabrielle’s acting. ‘I thought she was really fighting me for a minute.’ Glancing at Iolaus’ jealous expression she let a wicked grin touch her eyes. “I have changed my mind about the boy.” She returned her gaze to the captive woman. “If there is that much fight in you. He probably shouldn’t be here tonight.” Ripping her eyes away from Gabrielle she focused on Solan. This was the first time she noticed the slight bulge of muscle in his biceps. “Take him to the kitchen. He looks strong enough to lift and carry and he can keep an eye on his sisters that way.” She held his chin and forced him to look in her eyes. “Don’t make any trouble. You wouldn’t want to make me angry now, would you?” Her back was to the guard so she gave him a quick wink and a flash of a grin before turning towards the guard. “He can help them carry breakfast. I want them all present when I judge the girl’s cooking.” Watching his back as he led the young man from the tent, she drawled loudly. “Now bard, let’s see what that mouth of yours can do.” Smiling as Iolaus’ step faltered. ‘Sentry duty for a month.’ She decided as he cleared the door.

Thoughts of the guard were no longer possible when she felt Gabrielle’s bound arms loop over her head. “Don’t be too hard on him, love.” The amazon laughed at Xena’s amazed face.

“How do you do that?” She knew she had only thought about reassigning the man. “How do you know what I’m thinking?” Searching the green eyes intently she found only love and a little amusement.

“The same way you know what I’m thinking.” Gabrielle focused on the woman in her arms. “Try it.” She narrowed her eyes, concentrating her message as Xena ducked to capture her lips. Their months apart melted away in a few moments. Smiling as she broke off to take a breath Gabrielle laughed, “See. It’s easy.”

“Oh yeah? What am I thinking now?” Xena narrowed her eyes at the laughing captive. Her crooked grin gave away her thoughts to the now sober amazon.

“You wouldn’t.” She mock protested. “I can’t defend myself.” She wiggled her hands and somehow Gabrielle didn’t think that helped her argument. She was right.

Xena scooped up her love and carried her quickly to the soft bed. Her voice was just audible through her low growls. “That, my bard, is precisely the point.” She easily pinned the woman’s bound hands above her head. Smiling as her sultry voice sent visible chills down Gabrielle’s spine. “I have you now.” She lowered for a kiss.

Breaking off for air, Gabrielle corrected. “No.” Smiling at the warrior’s confused look, she continued. “You have me …… always.”

Xena began to wonder who exactly was captor and who was captive. She looked at the woman below her. Green eyes, dark with passion, peered up from a halo of auburn and she knew they belonged to each other. A small shiver raced through Xena. Letting someone so close was frightening to her. Everytime she had they betrayed her somehow. Father, Caesar, Lao Ma, Boriaus, Marcus all of them. She didn’t think she would ever let anyone that close again but now, this was different. This was Gabrielle. ‘Gabrielle will never hurt me.’ She thought. ‘Gabrielle will never leave me.’ Praying to whatever Gods might be listening that it was true, because if the unthinkable happened she wasn’t sure the form her wrath would take, knowing only that ‘The world would tremble.’ At that thought the dark sleeper in her mind stirred. Realizing she had stopped the attack on her captive, she tried to lighten her mood and grinned. “What was I thinking about then?”

Totally serious now, Gabrielle freed her hands from the loosened hold and looped her arms around Xena’s neck. “You were thinking about how much you love me.”

Xena did not confirm the statement but didn’t resist when the increased pressure pulled her down for a long, slow, heart-melding kiss. She still had a thousand questions for the Amazon Queen. None of which seemed quite as important when Gabrielle’s hands began to explore her body, reminding themselves of the softest and most sensitive places. It did register in her mind that Gabrielle was free of the ropes. One eyebrow shot up and the laughing amazon chided her.

“Amazon’s know quite a lot about ropes and knots.” She caressed a favorite curve and chuckled when Xena moaned incoherently. “Very useful.” She spent the rest of the night reacquainting Xena with several other useful skills amazons knew.

——————————————–

The guard’s knock on the door frame of the tent evoked a gruff enter command. He held the flap open for the three newcomers to enter with the large breakfast trays. A gasp from the cook and growls from the woman and boy forced the guard’s attention into the tent. He nearly gasped himself. The captive apparently had not won her freedom. She was hanging by her bound wrists from a hook on one of the tent support poles. There were several bruises and a few bite marks visible on her neck, arms and shoulders. There was a thin blanket wrapped around her but it was obvious to Iolaus the woman was naked underneath.

He chuckled to himself. It had concerned him recently, since she returned from the Amazon campaign, that Xena wasn’t acting like herself. Seeing the bruises and bite marks, it occurred to him that she hadn’t had any … companionship… since her return. ‘I guess that was the problem all along.’ He breathed an inward sigh of relief.

‘Rayna really knows her stuff’ Karis thought taking another look at Gabrielle as she arranged the trays on the table, noting that the bite marks were real. It was the little cook’s suggestion to use berry juice for convincing bruises. They had perfected the mixture during their journey and concealed a small vial in Gabrielle’s boot. The Queen had warned them that the Xena they knew in the village was not the same Xena that ruled the world. It would be too risky for The Conqueror if it seemed she was going soft. They had also been warned that, if this plan was used the possibility of nudity was not ruled out. It was a good thing they opted for a covering. The guard’s leering looks at her queen were almost enough for Karis to kill him herself. She could only imagine what Xena must be planning for the man.

Xena casually smoothed the fabric of her favorite black silk robe. “You planning on stealing something else from me Iolaus?” Xena’s face was expressionless but her voice was steel.

Reminding him of their first meeting as often as possible was good policy. ‘He’s not just a thief.’ she reminded herself. ‘Anyone who could survive through the destruction of their village at such a young age, deserves some respect.’ He was actually one of the best hunters she had and he seemed to be loyal. She trusted him as far as she trusted anyone in her employ. He did however have an eye for the ladies as did several of her men. She would have to do something to protect Karis and Rayna or the guards were liable to get carried away with the newcomers. The first night they were safe because the guards would’ve been unsure of her claim but the longer they stayed the more danger they were in, unless…. Grinning wickedly she walked to her apparently beaten captive. Keeping her back to the guard she whispered. “I need to protect Karis and Rayna or the guards will have them.”

Widening green eyes conveyed understanding and just a little mischief. Gabrielle licked her lips and groaned. “Yes. Please.” She saw Xena’s jaw clench and her brilliant blue eyes narrow slightly at the deliberate echo of the previous night. Warm fingers on her chin forced her compliance in a demanding kiss that she mock struggled to escape.

Karis tried to control her emotions as she watched Xena take the forceful kiss from her Queen then approach her with deliberate intent. She knew what was going to happen. She had seen the look in several of the guards’ eyes last night. ‘Now I know how Darphus felt.’ She thought. ‘Gods… I can’t move.’ It was very difficult to make herself combat against the soft lips. Solan’s presence during the journey here had done nothing for her frustrations. She did however manage a respectable struggle and glare at the upraised eyebrow when the kiss was finished. The nuzzle at her ear and Xena’s soft, warm whisper nearly broke her. “Tell Rayna, I have to or he will.” Karis saw blue eyes glance at the guard. It was a few subtle hand signals later that Rayna’s eyes flew open and a quick acknowledgment was given. Karis followed her queen’s lead in audible covert responses. She saw the corners of Xena’s mouth quirk at her breathless response, “Yes.” Karis watched as the little cook fought bravely against the dark towering woman.

Keeping her hand cupped against Rayna’s cheek, she said. “I don’t like it when things are stolen from me.” She gave the guard a pointed look and noted the disappointment in his eyes. Xena sat and prepared to enjoy her breakfast. Knowing it would be excellent because Rayna prepared it. She only wished she could let the others share it with her. Looking suspiciously at the cook and her translating sister, Xena gestured to Solan, “Com’ere boy.”

Solan glanced at Karis before beginning his slow walk to the table. He was still fighting the emotions stirred when Xena kissed Karis. He had been confused, angry and a little jealous until the hand signals to Rayna explained the reason.

She appreciated his hesitant compliance. “You will eat this too. Just in case your sister got creative with some poison.” Xena looked at Karis and gestured to Gabrielle. “Get her down. All of you will eat this.” She saw Iolaus’ expression and continued. “Just in case.”

Naturally there was no poison and the next half hour was almost pleasant. At the end of the meal, Xena announced that Rayna was indeed an excellent cook and in exchange for her talents at every meal, she, her sister and her brother would have a place with the kitchen staff. Dragging Gabrielle back to the post she laughed, “This one will stay here a while longer though.”

Gabrielle watched while they gathered the dishes and when the guard had taken her companions back to the kitchen she slipped out of the bindings around her wrists. “Xena? Will they leave us alone now?” She peered cautiously at the door.

“Yes.” She knew Iolaus wouldn’t interrupt what he thought was going on. “Until I have to meet the spice traders at noon.” Xena leveled her gaze at her not so captive amazon. There were questions to be answered. “So you just happened to be in the neighborhood? What’s up with that?”

———————————

Xena’s face darkened with rage as she heard the long story of Brenin and the events of the past several weeks. “I knew I should have killed her when I had the chance.” Xena was pacing now, heavy boots thumping ominously, and growling. “I knew it.”

“No, Xena. It is an Amazon matter. Ephiny will deal with it according to Amazon Law.” Gabrielle was actually more concerned with the real reason she was here. “It’s over now. Thanks to Karis.”

“Ephiny will deal with it?” Xena was confused. Amazon customs were not well known in the outside world. “Is she some kind of judge?”

“Actually…” Gabrielle looked sheepish. “She is the Queen now.” Holding up a hand to forestall Xena’s outraged reply she continued. “Only in my absence. I made her my Regent. She has all the authority of Queen as long as I’m out of the Territory.”

“Why are you out of the Territory and why is Solan with you? Now that I’m asking, why isn’t Karis back at the village protecting Ephiny?” Xena still wasn’t sure why they had made the journey here. “She is still head of the Royal Guard right?” After the lengths she went to protecting Gabrielle if she wasn’t the leader already she should be promoted.

Gabrielle snorted. “Right. Like Eponin is going to let anything happen to Ephiny.” She was stalling because she didn’t want to tell Xena the real reason Karis was along. Taking a deep breath she began to explain. “Solan is with me because I wasn’t sure where we were going from here.”

“What do you mean?” Xena was becoming frustrated at Gabrielle’s evasions and was still angry from the Brenin story when the guard’s footsteps could be heard approaching. She checked her bracers and looked up to see Gabrielle, hands back in the ropes, hanging from the pole, moaning softly. One eyebrow went up and back down just as Iolaus entered the tent. No knock. The eyebrow went back up.

“The spice traders are in the negotiation tent.” He sounded respectful but his eyes wandered to the hanging woman.

Frustrated enough to let The Conqueror take over for a short time, Xena strode out of the tent, punching Iolaus in the gut as she went. She stopped momentarily to lean over and whisper, “Knock next time.” Leaving him on his knees gasping for air, she went to meet the unfortunate spice traders.

It took several minutes for him to regain a normal breathing rhythm. Standing slowly he checked the door and walked over to the captive. “So you caught her attention did you?” When he got within arms reach he wrinkled his nose. He reached out and ran a finger across a berry juice bruise and furrowed his brow.

“Caught the contents of a wineskin.” Her sullen voice was low. She was glad that some of the bruises were real, as were the bite marks. It had been long months for both of them. Now it just added credibility to her captive identity. “Could use a bath.”

He nodded and laughed. “Why didn’t she just lick it off?” Smiling at his own private joke.

Gabrielle looked up, pure hatred flashing in her eyes, “She got tired.”

Ignoring the look, Iolaus took a step closer. “I’m not tired.”

“Are you insane? She nearly killed you for not knocking. What do you think will happen to you if you do this?” Gabrielle was preparing to slip her hands out of the bindings when footsteps approached the tent. A quick hand signal was all that kept the new arrival from attacking the man.

It took three deep breaths for Karis to control her outrage. “I brought you some lunch, sister.” She indicated the bowl in her hand. It seemed that Iolaus was hesitating on allowing the meal so she continued, putting as much venom in her voice as she could. “I thought you might need your strength for Xena this afternoon.” It was a lucky thing his back was turned or he would have seen Gabrielle’s wry grin.

They were all silent for a moment, until shouts and screams could be heard from a short distance away then suddenly, silence. Iolaus quickly forgot about his opportunity with the captive and brushed past Karis to see what was up.

—————————–

‘That felt good.’ The Conqueror laughed, remembering the sound of air escaping Iolaus. From the protests coming from the negotiation tent, it was only a taste of things to come. Xena strode into the tent. Even her intimidating presence wasn’t enough to keep the men from arguing. The growl that escaped her was as close to animal as a human can get. She grabbed the nearest trader, that happened to be the Egyptian and dragged him out of the tent. The guards brought the other two. The trader’s confusion only lasted until they realized the crosses were in sight. Then the screaming and begging commenced in earnest. The trader’s screams could be heard all over the compound until Xena’s steel voice cut through the din. “The next person that makes a sound gets their legs broken.” Utter silence drifted over the clearing. She looked at the cross maker. “Three more.” He nodded and was gone, in search of more wood. Turning her gaze to the second in commands she raised both eyebrows. “Noon tomorrow.” It was their deadline and they knew it. ‘Now we will get somewhere.’ She chuckled to herself as they began talking quietly to each other.

Greed had started the whole stupid problem. Egyptian and Indian spice trader’s profit margins weren’t where they wanted and they decided that spices from Chin were cutting in on their business. Refusing to allow Chinese ships docking privileges had seemed like a good idea to them. Without being able to stop in India or Egypt, Chinese ships didn’t have enough room to carry the supplies needed to get past Egypt and spices to sell as well. Their only choices were to go overland by a treacherous northern route or pay outrageous waterway fees to the Persians. Xena could order that the ships be allowed to dock, of course, but that would cause more problems than it solved. Leaving men to insure that her orders were carried out often became a larger problem than the original. The people involved had to work it out for themselves but due to the world wide impact the solution had to have Xena’s approval as well.

At this point Xena didn’t even care, she would gladly give up her favorite foods for the rest of her life if it meant not dealing with these fools anymore. Immediately upon entering her tent she found herself wrapped in an embrace. It took a second for her mind to understand it was Gabrielle but her body knew instantly and relaxed under the touch.

“You had to put them on the cross, didn’t you?” When she was on Amazon land Gabrielle didn’t have to think about the ruthlessness of her love’s ruling tactics. Even in Potidea Xena’s rule was lax because of the proximity of Amphipolis. Ironically, it had been that lapse in control that allowed the slavers to operate in her area three years ago. Here, however, in the middle of Xena’s camp there were constant reminders of the reasons for The Conqueror’s cold, heartless reputation.

Karis had seen the tension fade from Xena’s body as soon as Gabrielle’s arms surrounded her. ‘It must be great to love someone like that.’ The image of Solan’s smiling face came to her mind and she smiled. ‘It is.’ Xena’s voice interrupted her thoughts.

“The second in command’s will work it out.” She looked at the amazons wryly. “Indian’s have a caste system you know.” Grinning at their shocked faces she continued. “Not as complicated as amazons but the Indian leader was a political/warrior caste. He just couldn’t make himself give in to the others offers. His second is a trader/farmer caste he will be much more willing to negotiate. By noon tomorrow an agreement will be reached.” The relief Xena felt was evident in her last statement and in the look she gave Gabrielle.

Karis cleared her throat to get their attention. “I had better get back to the kitchen. I don’t want to leave Solan or Rayna alone for too much longer.” She smiled at Gabrielle’s knowing grin and left before Xena could see the blush rising on her face.

Reluctantly releasing the warm embrace, Xena crossed to her clothes chest. “Here.” The warrior tossed Gabrielle a length of silky white material.

Using the light from the dying fire, she examined the gift. “It’s just like my favorite robe at home.” Gabrielle was grateful for the small taste of home. The pangs of homesickness that hit her during the journey here were unexpected. After the turmoil of her rescue from slavers and her new life with the amazons, she had never once missed her village life. Slipping into her newest garment she hugged Xena tightly.

“Do you miss home?” Xena returned the embrace, savoring the feel of warm skin penetrating the cool silk robe.

“Never when I’m with you.” Gabrielle looked into the darkening blue eyes, inwardly sighing because she knew this was the opening she needed to tell the rest of the story. “Do you?” She saw confusion at her question and clarified. “Your village, I mean.”

It was a long thoughtful moment before Xena answered. There were a lot of variations and reasons but she settled on the plain truth. “Yes. Sometimes.” She smiled. “After I found you. I wished I could go back and thank mother for forcing me to baby-sit that day.”

“Why don’t you?” Gabrielle held her breath. This was important.

“I don’t want to hurt mother. She….. “It was difficult to talk about but this was Gabrielle. “It’s not safe for her and…” Xena closed her eyes against the painful memory of her mother’s eyes and the hatred she had seen in them at her brother’s funeral. ” … I don’t think she wants to see me.”

“Xena.” Gabrielle waited until the blue eyes opened and focused on her. “She does want to see you.”

“You sent scouts?” Xena was touched by the gesture. She had always wanted to stay in contact with her family but to do so would mean exposing them to the danger of her enemies.

“I sent Ephiny and Eponin. I didn’t trust anyone else.” Gabrielle was worried about Xena’s reaction to the news. “I had to come myself. I was afraid you wouldn’t believe anyone else.” And she wanted to be here for moral support. She tried to keep the pain out of her eyes but she knew Xena could see it. “She is sick Xena, very sick…. “Gabrielle swallowed hard but could only manage a whisper to finish her statement. ” …and she’s asking for you.”

Xena nodded absently, thinking of routes to return home and pass by Amphipolis without causing questions or raising suspicions, and tightened her embrace. “I would have thought it was a trick.” She knew if anyone else had told her that her mother was ill she never would have believed it.

Gabrielle returned the embrace for a moment then cleared her throat. “Iolaus knows about the fake bruises.” She held up her hand to stall Xena’s outrage. “I told him I spilled wine and I think he bought it. You might want to order a bath though.” Gabrielle grinned at the raised eyebrow. “Do you have a tub big enough for two?” Laughing as both eyebrows joined Xena’s hairline.

“Gabrielle,” Xena chided. “I am the supreme ruler of the world.” She spread out her arms and spun in place to encompass everything.

Gabrielle yawned and waved her hand in the air. “Yes. Yes. I know all that.” She paused and grinned. “But do you have a tub big enough for two?”

“No.” She admitted then grinned. “Better. Come with me.” She grabbed Gabrielle’s hand and led her to the back of the tent where a tear in the seam allowed their exit. It was harder for two to go undetected especially in the middle of the day but Xena managed to make it up the ridge to the small cave entrance with no one the wiser. “This is why I set up camp here.”

Gabrielle looked around the cavern. From the outside it looked like any other ridge ledge. The entrance to the cave was so small it was hardly visible until you were right on top of it but once inside it was magnificent. The walls of the large cavern were lined with some kind of glowing material so no torches were necessary. The best part was a large pool of steaming water in the center of the cave. She could barely speak, “Oh Xena, It’s beautiful.” She didn’t wait for Xena but simply dropped her newly gifted robe and stepped into the water.

Xena had no idea how Gabrielle managed to glow brighter than the iridescent lichens on the wall. She purred softly. “Yes it is.” It only took a moment to join her in the water.

—————————–

“This is wonderful, Xena.” Gabrielle snuggled back against the warm chest and hugged the arms holding her. She knew the warrior was worried about her mother. She almost regretted telling her the news. They had to stay here until at least another day and now Xena would be worried the whole time.

“Mmmmmm…” Xena kept her eyes closed and tilted her head to catch the warmth of the lowering sun. “This ledge is one of the best things about this place.” She opened her eyes to take in the view. >From this vantage the plains stretched out to the horizon. “You see that.” She loosened her embrace and gestured broadly to the panorama.

Gabrielle looked out across the plains. “What?”

“My Realm.” She tightened her embrace and inhaled deeply.

For Gabrielle, it was an overwhelming thought. “The whole world.”

Xena felt more than heard the amazon’s response. Flexing her arms, she bent to her lover’s ear. “Everything the light touches.”

“Oh Xena.” At one time during their months apart Gabrielle had wished Xena would give up being the Ruler of the World and stay in the Amazon Nation with her. It was a wish that, now, Gabrielle knew would never come true. How could she ever think Xena would give this up for her?

“Would you like it?” Xena shifted to the side to see confusion in wide green eyes.

“What?”

Laughing and gesturing again the warrior answered. “The world, Gabrielle. I am offering you….” Caught in shining green eye the rest came out as a whisper. ” …… the world.”

“I don’t want the world Xena.” She turned her back on the magnificent scenery to face, what she considered the more breathtaking sight. “All I want is you.”

It was a valiant effort on Apollo’s part. The sunset he painted was spectacular. Everyone who saw it that night swore there were colors they had never seen before. Still, the two women on the ridge only had eyes for each other.

————————————-

It was getting late and Xena knew they needed to get back. The evening meal would be served soon. Iolaus knew better than to skip that. She was slightly surprised that activity in the compound had not lessened during their mid-day escape. There was nothing really to do but wait for the traders to come to an agreement. She tried to slip them back in unobserved. It wasn’t like she couldn’t go where she wanted but she wanted to keep the location of the cave her secret. After a few tense moments, Gabrielle pointed to a relatively safe looking path back to Xena’s tent. Xena looked and nodded affirmative. Once back inside the darkened tent they relaxed. “I have figured out an overland route to reach Amphipolis. I’ll have to stop and deal with the Persians along the way……” Footsteps approaching, stalled Xena’s explanation of their plans.

Quickly pushing Gabrielle back into the darkness of the tent, Xena stepped in front of the smaller woman. The black robe Xena wore was her favorite for more than the comfort factor. It was also great camouflage in shadows. No one entering the tent would be able to see them unless Xena wanted them to.

————————————

Iolaus stalked through the darkening compound. His mind whirled, trying to make sense of the disappearance. Xena was missing. It was all he could do to keep it from the other guards. ‘Did Xena take the little slave somewhere or was it the other way around? If something happens to Xena, I will be killed.’ That thought drove him on toward the kitchen and, in his mind, the one’s responsible for his predicament.

The entire kitchen staff watched the magnificent sunset fade before returning to their duties. When Iolaus entered the kitchen they all watched but said nothing as he roughly tied the newcomer’s hands together and led them away. It was a common enough occurrence. They were all just glad it wasn’t them.

When Solan winced at the tight ropes, it was all Karis could do to keep from killing the man. Logic prevailed, however, maybe Xena had asked for them to be brought, besides it was too public here. Quick hand signals to the others advised them not to struggle. Solan and Rayna both signaled back affirmative.

Nearly dragging them through the compound, Iolaus shoved them through the entrance of the tent and quickly followed. “Where are they?”

Karis looked around the apparently empty tent, decided to torment the man and possibly draw his attention from the others. “How long have they been gone?” It was a logical question that seemed to make him angry.

“You tell me.” He shoved her shoulder.

Karis’ body twisted to absorb the shove but her feet didn’t move. She did a conscious imitation of Xena’s low growl. “You don’t wanna be doin’ that.”

“Oh no?” Iolaus was taunting her now. He turned to Solan. “How ’bout this then.” Shoving Solan to the floor and smiling.

Karis prepared to release her hands from the restraints. She didn’t have to imitate Xena’s menacing voice now.

“You really don’t wanna be doin’ that.” Xena’s low voice flowed from the darkness. She took a step forward and pulled Gabrielle to her side.

Karis turned at the sound. She saw Xena emerge from the darkness and Gabrielle appear at her side, as if from nowhere. For a moment she just stared at the couple. Light and Dark, complete opposites and yet they fit together perfectly.

“Xena!” Iolaus was confused and then he looked at the smaller woman. Now he was captivated. She was beautiful, radiant. His eyes began to water from the sight. ‘She looks like a Goddess.’ He thought.

The corners of Xena’s mouth twitched and a few small wrinkles appeared at the edges of her eyes. “She cleans up nice, huh.” Her good mood only lasted until Solan started to rise from the floor. “You all right boy?”

Blinking to clear his vision, Iolaus heard the tone in Xena’s voice. It was the dangerous velvet sound of death. He prayed and let out a sigh of relief when the boy said he was fine. Then he looked again at his leader. ‘Why is she so concerned about him?’ Other than the tone of voice though there wasn’t any sign that she was concerned with the boy at all. She actually seemed more interested in the translator. “You weren’t here earlier and I thought….”

Karis shook with rage as Solan picked himself up off the floor. She wanted to go to him. She wanted to help him and hold him and tell him everything would be OK. She wanted to kill Iolaus. ‘Get a grip, girl. He is fine.’ She reassured herself. Slowly calming down, she tried to follow the conversation.

“I wasn’t aware I needed to report my activities to you.” She made herself comfortable on the couch and pulled Gabrielle into her lap.

“No of course not. I just… was concerned that’s all. When I couldn’t find you and the prisoner was missing too… well…I thought..” He couldn’t figure a way to say it without getting another punch to the gut.

“You thought, I had been taken.” She supplied. The menacing edge of her voice raked his nerves. “You thought, I couldn’t defend myself during the heat of passion. You thought, this ONE little woman could take me.” Careful not to hurt her, Xena negligently tossed Gabrielle off her lap and rose to her full height. “You thought, I needed YOU to protect ME.” Now she towered over the shaking guard. “You thought, WRONG.”

His hand reflexively gripped the hilt of his sword. It was a conscious effort not to draw, knowing if he did he was dead, even though she was unarmed and in a flimsy robe. He looked at the ground and shook his head, causing his blonde curls to dance. “I know. I’m sorry. It will never happen again.”

As if a dam had burst, Xena suddenly calmed down. “Yes, Well see that it doesn’t.”

He looked up to see the smaller woman standing at Xena’s side with her arms around The Empress’ waist. ‘Gods she surely doesn’t have that kind of power over Xena.’ He looked again at the embrace. ‘But if she does….. ‘ He cleared his throat. “I will go get your meal.” Motioning to Karis, Rayna, and Solan he began walking toward the exit.

“Leave them.” Xena’s order was clear. “I want to talk to them.”

“Uh… OK.” He tried to be casual. “Back in a flash.”

“Just don’t spill anything and bring plenty. Washing captives makes for hungry work.” She sent a grin down to the blushing woman.

It would have looked like a leering grin to anyone else. With his knowledge of the woman’s calming effect, however he knew it was more than that. His own grin could have been interpreted as wry but it would have been more accurate to say sly as his mind processed the new information about the travelers. ‘Interesting……’ He had a lot to think about on his trip to the kitchen.

————————-

As soon as Iolaus was out the door, Xena and Gabrielle were at Solan’s side. Each one examining him for injuries. Both asking him rapid fire questions. “Are you OK? Did he hurt you?” He held a hand to his head. “Did you hit your head? Are you feeling dizzy?” Xena did a quick exam of his skull and looked in his eyes. Pushing slightly on his ribcage she asked. “Does this hurt?” At his negative response she was finally satisfied that she wouldn’t have to kill Iolaus, yet. Gabrielle waited for Xena to finish the exam and then hugged him tightly. “You were so brave.”

He wasn’t sure what caused more embarrassment the women’s treatment of him or the fact that they did it in front of Karis. He looked over at the dark haired amazon and was startled to see the same look from her that his mother was giving him. ‘Great.’ He thought. He had had just about enough of all this motherly mush but maybe he could turn this to his advantage. “I didn’t see you at first Xena..” He looked up at the tall warrior.

“At first? Did you see me before I spoke up?” Xena was concerned she hadn’t hidden well enough.

“No I didn’t really see you as much as I felt you watching.” He smiled at her amazed look then turned his gaze to the amazon guard. ” But I knew Karis would protect me.”

Xena watched the blush rise on Karis’ face and suddenly knew why the girl was along. “Oh.” One eyebrow raised. She wasn’t sure if she approved. Her son was still very young.

———————-

They were sitting around the large table when Iolaus directed two heavily laden kitchen drudges into the tent. Xena noted the looks their three co-workers got as the meal was set on the table. ‘Rumors will be flying in the kitchen tonight.’ Xena chuckled. ‘Each rumor would only safeguard the girls and possibly……’ Xena looked at Karis in a new light. ‘Possibly …..’

Gabrielle was studying Xena carefully. ‘Something’s up.’ It was a thought that she wasn’t sure she liked. She tried to keep from being jealous at the amount of time Xena spent looking at Karis. Her tension eased when she realized it was an evaluation Xena was doing. Thinking back to her own intelligence reports and events up to this very dinner, she realized what Xena was going to ask Karis to do. It was more than she could take. “Xena.” Her voice brought the cool blue gaze back to her. “May I talk to you for a moment.” She rose and walked toward the back of the tent.

Xena looked at the startled faces of her dinner companions and shrugged, then grinned. “Yes my Queen.” She compliantly followed the smaller woman.

Once they were out of earshot Gabrielle hissed. “You can’t ask her to do that.”

Xena was stunned at the topic of conversation. “Gods …… How do you do that?” The accuracy of Gabrielle’s mindreading trick was unnerving.

“Look you know as well as I do, if you ask her she will but please think about this.” Gabrielle didn’t want to be left with no fall back plan. If they started out on this path there would be no turning back.

“Gabrielle.” Karis’ soft voice caught the arguing couple’s attention. Karis was rising from her seat. “I’ll do it.” She closed her eyes and then opened them to Solan’s confused face.

“Do what?” He didn’t like the sound of whatever it was and he didn’t even know what it was yet.

Glancing at Xena she looked directly into Solan’s eyes. “Xena wants me to infiltrate the resistance. I’m going to have to be very angry when we get back to the kitchen. I’m going to say a lot of vile stuff about Xena and the way she rules. I should be able to get some attention if not from members at least from sympathizers. ” She didn’t want to tell him what kind of attention she would be getting from the loyal guards. ‘Beatings or worse.’ She thought.

Xena was impressed. She had not only deduced what she was supposed to do, she already had a plan to do it! “You were definitely a good choice, captain.”

“It sounds dangerous.” Solan was not at all convinced this was a good thing for Karis to be doing.
A loud bang from Rayna’s fist on the table made them jump. When their attention was focused on her she began to explain her outburst. Gabrielle translated for Xena. “They will never believe it.” She looked at Karis. “No offense but your body language is all wrong.” She smiled at the shocked face. “Granted I am better at reading body language than most but it is still all wrong.” She paused to try and gather her thoughts. “You just don’t seem afraid or angry when you say the words.” Sparing the briefest glance at Solan she continued. “You were convincing with Brenin in the pools. Can you manage that again?”

Karis shook her head. “That was a special circumstance. I had been planning that for weeks.” She looked at Xena. “Rayna’s right. I can see how much Gabrielle loves you and I just can’t make myself afraid of you.” She saw relief in Gabrielle and Solan but only grim determination in Xena.

Processing Karis’ reaction to Iolaus’ treatment of Solan, Xena silently approached the would be spy. Diamond blue eye’s drilled into earthen brown as her voice chilled them all. “Be afraid.” She was now within reach of her victim. “Be very afraid.” Lighting fast hands touched Karis’ neck and the now gasping Amazon was on her knees, Xena immediately following to whisper in her ear.

Solan slowly joined his mother while Xena menaced Karis. When he saw Xena whispering in her ear, he quietly turned to Gabrielle. “What’s she telling her?”

The one arm draped around his waist tightened reassuringly. She started to smile down at the boy but found herself looking slightly up at the young man. “Just the truth.”

Rayna couldn’t hear the warning Xena gave but saw the guard’s body signals shift after the pressure points were released. ‘Wow. Whatever she said to her worked great!’ When they looked at her to confirm the change she only signed one word. “Good.”

———————————————–

Ephiny sat regally as the guards brought the prisoner before her. For weeks now it had been part of her normal daily routine right between eating breakfast and sparring practice, but today was different. Today was the last day. Today was her last chance. She studied the woman as she was presented to her for the last time. It was still inconceivable to her that this woman, so average looking, could be so twisted. Brown hair, brown eyes, average height. Her peaceful occupation didn’t lend itself to muscles but she was toned, as all amazons were. Life in the Nation was not easy. A person would be hard pressed to find an out of shape amazon. ‘She looks like every other amazon. Can anyone just snap the way she did?’ That thought scared her. She looked around the packed council room. ‘Could any of these women be the next one to go?’

The scrutiny was becoming unbearable. ‘Why doesn’t she just get this over with.’ Brenin tried to avoid the hazel eyes, only then noticing that more than one set of eyes were upon her. ‘Gods…’ She swallowed convulsively. Every off duty member of the royal guard, in fact every person that could manage it, was packed into the council chamber silently watching. It was apparent to her that they wanted her dead. ‘I guess some people do get what they want.’ It was an irony she didn’t appreciate.

Ephiny rose from the ornate throne. “Brenin.” She waited for the woman’s attention. “The charges against you are serious. The penalties are equally serious.” She scanned the crowd, then leveled her gaze at the quiet scribe. “Treason can be punishable by death. Do you have anything to say today?” She waited a long silent moment. “This is the last chance you get before sentencing. Are you sure you have nothing to say in your defense?” The crowd murmured when Ephiny finally shook her head at Brenin’s silence. “Very well.” She sat and trying to imitate Gabrielle in Queen mode, looked up at the woman standing next to her. “Eponin would you please read the charges?”

The temporary head of the royal guard took a step forward and began reading from an official looking scroll. “It has been charged that Brenin did willfully and with malicious intent threaten the life of the head of the royal guard, Karis.” Pausing to take a breath, she waited for the crowd to settle, then continued. “It has been charged that Brenin did willfully and with malicious intent threaten the life of Queen Gabrielle.” Eponin scowled at the last charge and took a step back rolling up the scroll as she went.

The Regent looked out into the crowd. Taking a deep breath and unclenching her jaw, Ephiny spoke with the low tones of someone who didn’t really like what they were saying. “The charge of threatening Karis has been dropped.” She held up her hand to forestall the crowd’s frustration. “Karis explained to me, before she left, the circumstances of that threat were unusual. Therefore, we agreed to let it drop.” Turning her full attention to Brenin she continued. “Threatening the Queen, however, is another matter entirely. I have sworn testimonies from three members of the royal guard that state you threatened Queen Gabrielle’s life.” She paused to let that sink in. “I have been petitioned however to spare your life.”

Brenin’s heart did a flip and she spoke before she could stop herself. “Gabrielle..”

“NO!” Ephiny’s hard voice silenced everyone in the room. “My instructions from Queen Gabrielle were to follow the law.” She waited to see if the woman would think about the one other person who wouldn’t want her dead, saddened when several minutes past without an inkling of comprehension. Scanning the murmuring crowd she realized that most people had forgotten too. “I have never heard five more persuasive words. ‘Please don’t kill my Mommy.’ She said. I wiped away her tears and promised her I wouldn’t.” A deep breath and a quick scan of the now chastened crowd gave her voice confidence. “The Queen of the Amazons ALWAYS keeps her promises.” She took a deep breath and projected her declaration to every corner of the room. “The sentence of death is commuted.”

Brenin closed her eyes when she heard Ephiny repeat Micha’s plea. For one brief, frightening, moment she returned to reality. ‘My daughter, Gods what’s going to happen to her? What’s going to happen to me?’ Her thoughts of the future were cut off as the seriousness of Ephiny’s voice brought her firmly into the present.

“You will gather your belongings and leave the village before nightfall. You have three days to be off of Amazon Land or this decision will be reversed….. I promise. You no longer have any rank or status in the Nation. You are, from this moment on…” Ephiny paused to take a deep breath.” ….. no longer an Amazon.” Ephiny held her breath and waited. She would only give the woman until her breath ran out, one chance and one chance only, because Gabrielle requested it.

For an Amazon, not being able to claim her birthright was a fate worse than death. As the sentence penetrated Brenin’s brain she realized what hadn’t been decided. “What about Micha?”

Ephiny let out her breath. ‘Gabrielle was right. Brenin gets to make the decision after all.’ She thought sadly. Trying to keep her voice as normal as possible she offered the choices Brenin had for the fate of the child. “Amazons don’t punish children for their parent’s crimes.” She paused to scan the murmuring crowd and thought. ‘It’s a good thing too or a certain young prince would be in a world of hurt.’ Thoughts of Solan’s unlikely mother and the possible danger to the boy still sent her reeling. “If you decide to take Micha with you, she may return at anytime. She will always be welcome here. You may however choose to leave her here to be raised as an amazon.”

“By who?” Brenin looked around the room. She wasn’t sure she trusted anyone anymore. Everyone hated her who would care enough to raise Micha?

“Micha is a wonderful little girl.” Ephiny’s laced her fingers with Eponin’s. “There are many of us who would be willing to share responsibility for her care.” The emphasis on us made it clear who would be Micha’s primary caretakers if she were allowed to stay. “In a few years she will be old enough to begin preliminary warrior training and she has asked me before about scouting. It won’t be long before she is living in the training barracks.” The decision was up to Brenin, but Ephiny desperately wanted Micha to stay. She had spent a lot of time with the little girl during the past few weeks and although she loved Phantes, she had always wanted a little girl too.

The evaluation of Micha caught the scribe off guard. She suddenly realized she didn’t really know her daughter at all. ‘Scouting?’ She thought. ‘I never realized she even thought about doing that. Much less talked to Ephiny about it.’ It was a hard decision but for the first time in months, it was the right one. “I think she should stay.” Brenin grip on reality was fading. “I know she will be well cared for here.” ‘And maybe.’ She thought, back in her fantasy world. ‘Since Ephiny takes care of Solan too. Micha can convince Gabrielle to let me back on amazon land, after she gets back from wherever.’ The fact that she didn’t know where Gabrielle began to gnaw at the back of Brenin’s mind.

Eponin tightened her jaw at the pressure Ephiny was putting on her hand. If the situation hadn’t been so serious she would have smiled. “Eph is gonna spoil her rotten.’ She felt the final squeeze as the personal matter was over and it was back to Nation business for the Regent Queen.

“The guards will escort you back to your hut. Gather your belongings and say good-bye to Micha. You may go any direction you want but an escort will be provided until you reach the border.” Ephiny gestured and two members of the royal guard stepped forward.

The guards stood quietly one on each side of Brenin. It took a moment for the scribe to shake her thoughts of Gabrielle and head out the door. She packed quietly taking only a few things she needed and left the rest for Micha. She was nearly finished when her daughter arrived.

“You have to leave now?” There were tears in the girl’s eyes. She didn’t know her mother very well. It seemed that most of her time was spent copying and delivering treaties. The last few months she had practically no contact with her at all. Brenin had been on border patrol for a month before she started spending all her time watching Gabrielle, and then there was jail. During the last few weeks, Ephiny had been helping her with her lessons and Eponin seemed to enjoy teaching her to hunt with a bow. Still, she didn’t want to see her mother go.

“Yes.” She stopped packing long enough to fall to her knees and hug her daughter tightly. “Ephiny and Eponin will take care of you.”

“Queen Ephiny is nice, huh?” Micha was glad that The Regent had kept her promise.

Brenin couldn’t think of a response to that so she simply repeated the word. “Nice.” She got up, double checked her packs and looked around the hut. ‘There’s not much left.’ She thought and looked at the sad little girl. “The rest of this is yours. Ephiny will help you decide what to do with it later.”

“Mom?” Micha’s quiet voice pulled her back to sanity for a moment. “You wouldn’t really have hurt Queen Gabrielle. Would you?”

Trying to find a good way to answer she hugged the child again. Her impulse reaction was that she would never hurt Gabrielle, but after she thought about that night with Karis she wasn’t sure. “I don’t think so honey, but I can’t be sure.” Taking a deep breath she continued. “It’s better if I go away so Gabr… Queen Gabrielle is safe.” She looked at the guards, their stares were cold but both were nodding. This was the story Micha would hear from now on. Brenin left to insure the safety of the Queen. It was an acceptable compromise for the child’s sake. The mention of the Queen had however pushed her back to her own little world.

“But she isn’t even here now. Can’t you wait to go until she gets back from China?” Micha didn’t understand the urgency of the departure. She had heard Solan talking to Phantes before he left on his trip. It seemed to her they were going to be gone a while.

“No. Ephiny says it’s best if I go now.” She looked at the guard’s again, now desperate to leave. This time asking for confirmation. “Isn’t that right Bekka?”

The guard walked over and knelt beside the child. She was often on duty during storytime so the child was familiar with her. “It’s true. Queen Ephiny said it was better if your Mom left before Queen Gabrielle returns. That way everyone is safe.” Bekka looked into the child’s sad eyes. ‘Gods… seven is way to young to have to deal with stuff like this.’ The thought increased her dislike for Brenin. She tried to think of a way to get the girl away from her mother. “Isn’t it time for class?”

“She doesn’t have to take lessons today.” They were all startled and turned toward the door where Ephiny and Eponin stood hand in hand. The Regent quietly continued. “Sometimes life is more important than school.” She spared a one-sided smile for the quiet little girl before turning to Brenin, once again all business. “Are you ready?” At Brenin’s nod she continued. “Poni and Bekka will escort you to the border.” She held out her hand to Micha and spoke in a softer tone. “You ready to go?” She was glad she had already given her orders. The lump that formed in her throat, as the little head nodded, rendered speech impossible and the small fingers closing around her hand may as well have been closing around her heart.

Eponin caressed her partner’s cheek with the back of her curved fingers and returned the warm smile it caused. “Back soon, love.” She motioned for Brenin and Bekka to proceed out of the hut and the escorts followed the condemned woman’s decisive lead. ‘It’s going to be hot today.’ She thought. ‘At least we won’t have the sun in our faces this afternoon.’

———————————————-

‘Now that …… is a thing of beauty.’ The Conqueror’s voice rang clearly through Xena’s head. ‘It’s even more glorious when there are more of them.’ She called up a memory of thousands of X crosses dotting the landscape each with its own tormented soul attached. ‘Ahh… The good old days.’ Her dark sister’s memories were not amusing to The Warrior Princess. She scowled. ‘Those days are gone. Be grateful for what you get.’ The Conqueror chuckled a ‘We’ll see’ and was silent.

Xena looked up at the hungry and tired traders. Her voice conveyed the disdain she felt toward the so called leaders. “Your second’s have come to an agreement. Thanks to them you get to live.” She gestured to the guard. “Cut them down.” ‘It doesn’t matter if they live or not.’ The Conqueror sneered. ‘It was these three that kept us from Gabrielle so long in the first place.’ The Warrior Princess reluctantly agreed but simply replied. ‘Gabrielle wouldn’t like it if we left them there.’ She walked slowly back to her tent, giving orders to break camp along the way. On impulse she changed her path and walked to the main food preparation tent. Karis, Rayna and Solan were all there, just as she hoped.

Seeking out the head cook she gave the orders for breaking camp. “We will be leaving in the morning. I want to leave at first light so break down as much as you can tonight.” As she spoke, she continually glanced over at Karis, taking note in the process of each of the amazon’s activities. The translator’s back was toward her and she seemed to be occupied, helping Rayna with the current meal’s preparation. Solan was moving wood from the stack outside to the small interior firepit. It struck her again how he was growing so quickly. She could see the Centaur influence in his movements. Watching him walk she could see Gabrielle’s staff training was having an effect on him as well.

Upon seeing Xena enter the tent the robust woman had commenced gathering lunch for two. Glancing up from packing the meal basket, she asked. “Am I gonna hafta do without the girl tonight?” The cook had been around long enough to know, good food was not the only thing Xena had an appetite for. “She was quite angry with ya last night.” The woman nodded at the upraised eyebrow. “I think she called ya a few names that hadna been thought of yet.”

“Really?” Xena took a longer look at the new girl and sighed. “Probably not. Her sister is still fairly amusing.” Returning her attention to the cook she continued her orders. “Cold supper and light breakfast. I don’t want to have to wait for a fire pit to go out before we leave.” She saw the woman acknowledge the standard order and looked again at Karis, raising an eyebrow thoughtfully she voiced her thought. “Names that haven’t been thought of yet, hmmm………..” She left the slowly nodding woman and began a purposeful approach toward Karis.

A quick sign to the little cook warned her not to alert the guard. Rayna watched as Xena stalked her unsuspecting prey, the girl wondered that Karis was ever NOT afraid of warrior.

It was not a sign but Rayna’s sudden stillness that alerted her to the danger. Karis whirled to see Xena only inches away. Every instinct she had screamed ‘Move’ but her muscles were frozen solid in the hypnotic, ice blue, stare. The guard in her said this was necessary. By treating her this way Xena was insuring the motive for her hatred while giving her a future opportunity to get close. Anyone attracting this much of Xena’s attention would eventually be in her bed and everyone knew it.

It was unnecessary but her firm hand on the back of Karis’ neck, thumb under her jaw made eye contact unavoidable. “I’m told you were quite creative in your tirade against me last night.” Her low chuckle took on a sultry tone. “Your sister was quite creative last night as well…..and this morning.” Her fingers traced the amazon’s jawline to her chin and back, then continued down to her collarbone. Letting her index finger remain at the hollow of Karis’ neck, she arched one eyebrow and laughed. Releasing her gaze, she turned, walked back to the head cook and retrieved the meal basket. “You keep her …. for now.” She nodded a greeting to Iolaus and continued out of the tent as he entered.

He looked at the head cook. “She’s in a good mood.” It was a statement but also a question to see if the cook knew why.

The woman made a disapproving noise and filled a basket with the perimeter guard’s meal. “She’s got a new plaything.” She gathered the meal and giving Iolaus a sly look handed him the basket. “Karis.”

He thought about Xena’s newest distraction, her angry outburst last night and her sister’s calming effect on the angry warrior. ‘Interesting…..’ The perimeter guards thought the choice was interesting as well.

—————————————

A gentle touch on Ephiny’s forearm diverted her attention from the scroll she was reading. Looking up to see Micha standing there, she smiled and raised her eyebrows in question. “What is it honey?” It had been several days since Brenin had left and the Regent was trying her best to make Micha feel comfortable.

“I.. I wondered if you would have lunch with me?” She usually ate with Phantes at the school but his class was on a day trip and the girl didn’t really have any other friends. Micha was still unsure about her new living arrangements. She had spent a lot of time with Ephiny lately but it seemed weird somehow to suddenly be living with the Queen. It was like she was being rewarded while her mother was being punished. She wondered how long it would take for Ephiny to begin ignoring her like her mother had done for so long.

Ephiny squinted out the window. “Is it lunch time already. Wow.” She grinned at the now smiling girl. “Thanks for telling me.” She heard a sound and looked over at the door. Seeing Eponin with a lunch tray she leaned to the girl conspiritorily. “I guess I have two people looking out for me, huh.”

Micha’s smile grew wider when she realized that Eponin had brought enough for all of them to share. The weapons master hadn’t forgotten her! It was a pleasant lunch. Eponin told Ephiny all about the new girls in her weapons training class and Ephiny let Eponin know how much the ancient law she was reading bothered her. The girl noticed that both women smiled more when they were around each other and was delighted when they even asked her questions from time to time. Scouting and its consequences interested Micha the most though. “When you go off on scouting missions, what happens to me?”

A quiet look passed between the women. “If we both leave at the same time, you will stay in the nursery. Like you did when your Mom was on border duty.” It was unlikely that they both would be gone at the same time. Gabrielle didn’t like to assign duties that way when children were involved. The trip to Amphipolis was an extraordinary circumstance.

“So why didn’t Solan stay in the nursery while Gabrielle went to China?” Micha’s question was logical and heartstopping for the women.

“Well he is older than you.” The Regent began. She brushed the little girl’s bangs from her eyes. “How do you know Gabrielle is in China?” Ephiny’s voice was normal but Micha could tell both Eponin and the Regent were upset.

“I heard Solan tell Phantes that he was going to China with Queen Gabrielle. It sounded like they were going to be gone a long time.” Micha saw the looks on the women’s faces and her voice became small and frightened. “Did I do something wrong?”

Ephiny immediately hugged the little girl. “No.” She reassured her. “You didn’t do anything wrong. It just surprised me, because I didn’t think anyone knew where Gabrielle was.” She rested her chin on the girl’s shoulder and looked at Eponin. “By the way, did you tell your mother where Gabrielle was?”

When the little girl nodded affirmative, a thought hit Eponin and she gasped. “Gods… Ephiny. Brenin went east.” She watched her lover’s hazel eyes close at the revelation.

———————————————

Xena sat with her back to her favorite depression in the rock ledge. The light from the rising moon bathed the plains in a pale soft glow. It was, in its own way, as spectacular as the afternoon sun-drenched vista. She could see small animals scurrying to find their meals before any larger animals found them. Losing herself in the sounds of the night and the warmth of Gabrielle in her arms, Xena closed her eyes.

“We will need to go back soon.” It was a quiet admission from the thoughtful warrior. “I told everyone we would leave at first light.”

“Do they know the route we are taking? Are they upset?” Gabrielle was sure everyone would be annoyed about the long overland trek instead of the longer but much easier shipboard voyage. She for one was glad of the reprieve from the incessant sea sickness she suffered.

“Some do and some are.” Her smile touched her, now open and twinkling, eyes. “But I don’t care. They do what I say and I need to check on the Persian’s control of the inland water route.” She had heard of the huge taxes the Persian’s were exacting from anyone they deemed unworthy to use their waterway. This seemed like an excellent way to overtly check on that situation and covertly check on her mother at the same time.

Helping Gabrielle to her feet Xena couldn’t help being overwhelmed once again by her partner’s beauty. Moonlight washed all the red tint out of her hair leaving only pale blonde silk in its place. It was amazing the effect darkness had on her eyes. Rings of deep green floating on dark pools nearly drowned the warrior. She felt her heart flutter and take control of her voice. “You are so beautiful.” Gabrielle’s smile rivaled the moon and Xena caught her breath. ‘Gods…’ Bending to kiss those perfect lips, Xena was struck by a thought. ‘This may be the last time we are ever here.’ It was a depressing thought. In only two days they had made some wonderful memories.

Gabrielle was up to her old mind reading trick again. “We will come back here someday. Won’t we?”

Xena moved to nuzzle her lover’s ear. “Only if you want to.” She whispered. The ever present lilac/leather/Gabrielle scent momentarily overpowered her. “We will do anything you want.”

“Did you hear that boys?” Gabrielle addressed the rocks and any small animals within the sound of her voice. She chuckled and dropped her voice to a fair imitation of Xena’s purr. “Anything.”

The moon was nearly finished with it’s journey when they finally returned to camp. Sometimes ‘anything’ turns out to be ‘everything’.

——————————-

“Here.”

Karis looked up from the back of the wagon to see Iolaus’ concerned face. Taking the offered cup she smiled. “Thanks.” Her eyes watered at the potent drink. “A little early don’t you think?”

Bolder now, he stood in front of her and rubbed her shoulders. “It’ll help with the tension.” Feeling her relax slightly he gave her a final squeeze and sat down next to her. “She won’t bother you again until we stop to set up camp.”

“BOTHER ME!” Karis’ outburst caused several glances their direction before the curious onlookers continued packing. She lowered her voice and leaned closer to hiss at the man. “I would hardly call what she’s doing bothering me.” The memory of yesterday’s hypnotic gaze sent a shiver of excitement down her spine and a shudder of outrage through her frame. Taking a deep breath she controlled her anger and her eyes narrowed suspiciously. “How do you know she won’t call for me until then?”

He chuckled and shook his blonde curls. “It’s her pattern. She never has more than one….. companion…during a move.” Smiling he gestured to the women on the large golden horse. It was evident the Empress wasn’t going to let the smaller woman out of her sight.
“She seems fairly satisfied with your sister.”

Following the man’s waving hand, Karis saw Gabrielle wrapped in Xena’s embrace. It looked like she was afraid of the warrior behind her. “My sister has many skills.” Glancing again at the terrified expression on her Queen’s face she thought. ‘Acting seems to be one of them.’

Gabrielle wasn’t really acting. The fact was, she was scared of horses. She only agreed to ride because Xena assured her she would be safe if she rode in front. Admittedly she did feel quite comfortable for the first few seconds, until the beast actually moved. Seeing Karis and Iolaus, the queen raised her left eyebrow. It was part of the coding they had worked out. ‘Is this the one?’

Looking down and to the right Karis answered the signal. ‘Possibly.’ Massaging her own shoulders with her left hand continued the covert conversation. ‘Too soon to tell.’ Iolaus took over the massage and once again the tension temporarily drained away, until Solan walked up to the wagon.

“Get your hands off her.” Solan’s still deepening voice was almost menacing. He clenched his hands into fists but held them at his sides.

Iolaus laughed. “Who’s gonna make me?” The girl’s brother was very protective but also too small to be a threat.

Solan had spoken out of anger. When he saw the man with his hands all over her he couldn’t help it. Karis had explained the necessity but he couldn’t get over feeling jealous. He wished he had a staff.

Gabrielle saw Solan approach Karis and Iolaus. Getting Xena’s attention with a gasp, she quietly directed her gaze to the confrontation. The bard in her wondered exactly what language Xena was speaking, the curse sounded very …..colorful. She tried to ease the warrior’s tension slightly. “Gods… Are you planning to kiss your mother with that mouth?”

Xena snorted, relaxed and led Argo to the tense scene, reining to a halt next to Solan. Tapping the boy’s shoulder with her toe, she drew his interest away from the guards. “You have work to do, boy.” It was not a question. For a second she thought he winked at her. ‘It must have just been something in his eye.’ She thought. She watched him walk away, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand as he went. Letting her gaze shift to the guards Xena continued her royal orders. “You have work to do as well.” She let a slow feral grin spread across her face as she leacherously raised her left eyebrow at Karis.

Looking down and to the right and massaging her shoulders with her left hand, Karis stood. Her walk was slow as she moved to help pack the last kitchen wagon. Iolaus watched her go and looked up at Xena questioningly. The Empress knew what he was asking and denied it. “Don’t even think about it.” Karis had covertly confirmed her suspicion that Iolaus was probably involved in the resistance. ‘I knew he was trouble the first time we caught him stealing food.’ The Conqueror sneered. Xena laughed at his dejected look and slow walk toward his duties.

Everyone within the sound of Xena’s cold laughter was on their best behavior. The traveling company were all seasoned members of The Empress’ permanent entourage and the reason they had lasted so long was easy. ‘Don’t make Xena mad’ It wasn’t as easy as it sounded but it had kept them alive. If you ever did find yourself face to face with an angry Empress it was best to just relax and watch her, mostly expressionless, face. Grins, sneers, and snarls were usually OK but Gods help you if she smiled because when Xena smiles, it’s too late anyway.

——————————————

It was the slowest trip Xena ever remembered taking. She was anxious to get to Amphipolis. The last report Gabrielle had from her scouts put her mother’s condition as declining and Xena wanted to get there as soon as she could. Checking the landmarks and the lengthening shadows, she silently cursed. ‘Now I have to stop and deal with the Persians.’ Thinking of the time she had wasted in negotiations with the spice traders, filled her with dread. ‘The Persians won’t take that long.’ The Conqueror’s tone was agitated. The Warrior Princess was surprised. ‘You’re worried about mother.’ The accusation caused a sneer from her dark sister. ‘Of course not, I just want to put more people on the cross. You know how I love to see our initial dotting the landscape, striking fear into the hearts of everyone who sees it.’ The warrior could almost see The Conqueror rubbing her hands together. Still she wasn’t convinced. Her dark part loved Gabrielle. She knew that was true because when the Amazon Queen was around The Conqueror stayed in the background. Since the capacity for love was there she thought it was entirely possible that her dark side had feelings for their mother as well. ‘I don’t think the cross will be necessary in this case.’ She grinned at The Conqueror’s disappointment. ‘A little good old fashioned intimidation should do the trick.’ It was The Conqueror’s chuckle of glee that made Gabrielle look up.

“Xena? Are you OK?” Gabrielle had been relaxing in the warrior’s embrace during the trip. She was almost ready to admit that horseback riding wasn’t so bad…. when someone was holding you. During the last few minutes she had felt the shifting in muscle and attitude, then when Xena laughed the woman was entirely foreign to her. Immediately after she asked the question, Gabrielle felt her familiar warrior return.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” She briefly tightened her embrace. “I was just having a little conversation with…. myself.” Her dark part’s chuckle echoed in her head. ‘You mean with me.’ With the Warrior Princess firmly in control Xena outwardly grinned in reassurance at the bard and inwardly responded to The Conqueror. ‘That’s what I said.’ She urged Argo forward toward the cluster of messengers. “We’re stopping here.” She announced. “Spread the word.” She made a satisfied noise as they scattered to their assigned stations and the large caravan came to a quick halt. She leaned down to Gabrielle’s ear. “See. They do what I say.”

The amazon snorted. “What choice do they have?” She smiled up at her protector. “You’re irresistible.”

Xena’s retort was cut short by a messenger’s approach. “Queen Xena.” He dismounted and kneeled. “I have a message from my Lord Cortese.”

“Cortese?” Despite Gabrielle’s presence, Xena felt The Conqueror surface. Gabrielle felt it too.

“Yes, my Queen.” The messenger was oblivious to the change. He was terrified of Xena anyway. The Conqueror was known to kill the messenger, sometimes even before the message was read. Swallowing hard he continued. “He heard you were passing through the area and wishes to speak with you. His castle is not far and he offers his hospitality during the talks.” Finished delivering his message the man looked up. Seeing for the first time the true danger he was in.

Xena’s outraged sneer was cold. “HE WISHES!” Her voice dropped low and dangerous. “You can tell that walking, talking piece of pig shit that if he ‘wishes’ to talk to me he can do it here.” The initial outrage at the name was over and The Warrior Princess regained temporary control. She continued the angry onslaught. “And as for hospitality, he had better bring anything he needs with him because MY hospitality only extends to not killing him on sight!”

The messenger was visibly shaking now. No longer able to speak he only nodded frantically and turned to leave when The Conqueror’s low growl stopped him in his tracks.

“Did I say you were dismissed?” Xena’s eyes narrowed at the terrified man as he turned to face her. She grabbed Gabrielle and dismounted. Setting the amazon aside she jumped toward the man applying pressure to his neck and dropping him to the ground. Closing in on the dying man she whispered in his ear. “You only have seconds to live so listen close. Never, EVER, turn your back on me or leave my presence without being dismissed. Do you understand?” She took his frantic nodding as a yes and released the gasping man. Crossing her arms and looking down, she waited for him to catch his breath and look up. Her face was expressionless save one arched eyebrow. “Now you may go.” Gesturing to his horse with an open palm hand, she suppressed a grin as he backed away from her and only turned when he needed to mount. She saw him shudder when her cold laughter followed him back down the trail.

“Xena?” Gabrielle’s concerned voice brought The Warrior Princess firmly back into control. “Was that really necessary?” Gabrielle knew that Cortese was the warlord who had attacked Amphipolis all those years ago but still.

Dreading the hatred she would see in Gabrielle’s eyes she turned to find only warm green love. She basked in the warmth for a moment before returning her thoughts to Cortese. Embracing the concerned amazon, she took a deep breath and replied. “Yes. Yes it was.”

A chuckle from the lengthening shadows caused an abrupt end to the women’s embrace. The laughing woman advanced on the pair and knelt before them. “Yes my Queen.” Confident that no one would suspect she was addressing Gabrielle. “Revenge is sweet.” Smiling gray eyes focused up on twinkling green. “Almost as sweet as……. ambrosia.”

Xena looked at the kneeling amazon. ‘What is she doing here?’ Glancing at Gabrielle she noticed that the smiling redhead was concerned at the scout’s presence but not surprised. “What do you know about revenge?” Their previous meeting had really only been long enough to pass on the required information.

“I know how I felt when I slit the throat of the person responsible for Melosa’s death.” Velasca’s matter of fact statement was enough to convince any skeptic.

“Xena.” Keeping eye contact with the kneeling scout, Gabrielle offered her hands to help Velasca up. “Queen Melosa was Velasca’s mother.” She smiled warmly at the amazon scout.

“Your mother?” Xena took in the hawklike features of the woman and warily noted the hands clasped around Gabrielle’s. She wasn’t sure she liked the idea of such a bloodthirsty woman being so familiar with her bard. ‘HA! Look who’s talking.’ The Conqueror’s chuckle bounced in her head. “Wouldn’t that make you Queen?”

“Adopted mother.” The scout supplied, rising and patting Gabrielle’s hand affectionately. “And I was never meant to be Queen.”

“Wait a minute. You said, Melosa was killed in a hunting accident.” Xena pointed an accusing finger at Gabrielle’s chest.

“She was.” Gabrielle eyed the pointing finger, frowning like it was a dangerous weapon, which in some cases it was, then smiling because in some cases it wasn’t. That thought left her temporarily at a loss for words.

Velasca came to her Queen’s rescue. “It happened during a hunting trip. It’s a long story but in short a warlord was trying to stir up trouble among the amazon factions and thought her death would do it.” She smiled. “All it got him was dead.”

Xena was about to ask for the whole story when she saw Iolaus approaching their group. “Empress Xena. I was told to inform you your tent is ready.” He looked at the new arrival with extreme interest and questioned Xena with his eyes. ‘If Xena claims this one too…. I think I’ll just explode.’ He thought.

With a wry grin Xena introduced Iolaus to Velasca. “This…” She clasped Velasca’s shoulder in a firm grip. “… is the best assassin I have.” Gabrielle had already told her that the amazon was the best scout and considering the revenge story, assassin was not a far stretch.

He looked at the new arrival with a curious and, realizing Xena put no claim on her, lecherous grin. “What makes you the best?”

“Pain.” Playing along with Xena’s assassin story, she returned a savage grin. “I like it. I like what it does to people and I like what it makes people do.” She glanced at a now chuckling Xena and her amused Queen. Locking her twinkling eyes with the curious guard she dropped her voice low. “And I’m good at it.”

“That’s why she’s the best.” Draping one arm companionably around the scout’s shoulders and one arm possesively around Gabrielle’s she led both amazon’s toward her tent.

Iolaus watched the women walk away. It struck him that the little slave walked with almost as regal a stride as Xena did. ‘Interesting….’ Combining that with the fact that the ‘assassin’ seemed to defer more to the plaything…..’What had Xena called her? Gabrielle….Where have I heard that name?’ …. than Xena peaked his curiosity. ‘I may be able to endure a little pain to get some information.’ He thought, smiling. ‘Anything for the cause. Right?’

—————————————

“Hello. Anyone here?” The woman’s soft voice echoed in the empty tavern. The creaking of a cot and shuffling feet from the room behind the bar encouraged her to walk forward. “Hello?” She waited for a response.

An older woman emerged from the back room. Her long blue dress was worn but clean and well mended. Her salt and pepper hair was slightly frazzled but it seemed more due to ill health than hard work, only because the tavern was empty. Taking a deep breath and suppressing a cough, she smiled at the potential customer. “Can I help you?”

“Yeah. I was looking for someone. About so high.” She held her hand up to her chin. “Reddish hair, green eyes. She would have a boy with her. Her name is Gabrielle. Have you seen her?” It was too much to hope that Gabrielle would stop in this rathole town but you never knew.

The woman thought for a moment. “No. Can’t say as I have. Not too many people come through here these days.” Under her breath she cursed the Persians and their high waterway fees. “If I do see her, who should I tell her is looking for her?”

“No one important. I’ll catch up to her later.” She fished a coin out of a small pouch. “I could use an ale though and directions.”

Smiling wider at the sight of the coin and ignoring the pain in her chest, the barkeep poured her new customer a drink. “Directions to where?”

Brenin took a sip from her cup and smiled appreciatively. “Potidea.”

————————————

Xena held Gabrielle in her arms and listened to Velasca’s report. She glanced down at the woman with quiet appreciation. The Amazon Queen had given her scout precise instructions. After meeting Xena in India she was to continue overland to investigate the Persian waterway problem. Velasca’s thorough investigation impressed Xena.

At the conclusion of the report, however, Xena could only focus on one fact. Cortese was responsible. The Conqueror laughed with evil glee. ‘Now I get to kill him.’ Xena shifted in her seat and hugging Gabrielle close she answered her dark sister. ‘No.’ Surprising even herself with the thought. ‘I do.’ She was unprepared for The Conqueror’s response. “That’s what I said.”

Questioning green eyes only hesitated a moment before taking command of the situation. “Thank you for your report. I told Xena you were the best.” She smiled at the scout’s grin. Giving Xena a pat on the cheek she rose and escorted Velasca to the door, speaking quietly to the amazon. She patted the woman’s arm and only watched for a moment as the scout crossed the compound. Turning back to see Xena now pacing the length of the tent, she smiled at the unconscious finger wiggling Xena always did when she was planning.

Upon discovering Cortese was responsible for this unwelcome situation Xena immediately regretted not taking him up on his offer to meet. She began pacing to try and figure out what to do if he didn’t come to her. ‘I could just sneak in during the night and kill him. No. That’s no fun.’ The Conqueror snorted. ‘Of course it is!’ Ignoring her dark side, Xena continued her thoughts. ‘I could change my mind and go see him.’ This brought an outraged roar from her head. “NO.’ She thought. ‘ Yeah you’re right, not after what I did to his messenger.’ She didn’t regret the action. She wasn’t lying when she said that it was necessary. ‘I had to let off some steam.’ Xena thought. ‘I would have killed him otherwise.’ The Conqueror’s casual correction amused her. ‘You mean I would have.’ She smiled sweetly to her internal demon. ‘That’s what I said.’ Leaving her dark part to ponder that, she was back to the problem at hand. ‘Gods… what if he doesn’t come.’

“Xena.” Gabrielle caught up with the pacing woman and held the large nervous hands between her own. “He’ll come.” Letting go of her hands she cupped both sides of the larger woman’s face with her small hands. “I told you you’re irresistible.” It only took a gentle pressure to bend the dark head down to her lips.

“I’m going to kill him.” Xena’s trepidation at voicing the thought to Gabrielle was immediately replaced with shock at the amazon’s almost casual response.

“I know.” Smiling at her lover’s shock Gabrielle nuzzled closer. “I just don’t want to talk about it.” With that said, Gabrielle proceeded to make talk of killing not only unwelcome, but impossible.

——————————–

Solan was collecting wood for the kitchen firepit when a familiar voice attracted his attention.
“Hey, Bub, Com’ere a minute.” The low voice was followed by a shaking of some shrubbery to his right.

He cautiously looked around to make sure he was alone and slowly moved to his right. It was not as dangerous as it seemed. He only knew one person that called him Bub. His eyes lit up when he saw the figure in the shadows. “Aunt Velasca!” He quieted his suddenly too loud voice. “What are you doing here?” He dropped his burden to hug her.

Gabrielle had received the rite of caste from Melosa’s true sister and since the queen had adopted Velasca the title of aunt was correct. Velasca smiled down at her young nephew, but not very far. ‘He has grown.’ She thought. “Gabrielle asked me to stop and check on you before I leave.” She tilted her head at his expression. “Com’on now don’t be that way. She loves you.”

He ran his hand through his hair with an exasperated sigh. “I know, but she needs to worry about herself.” A random thought bounced around his head. ‘Besides Karis will protect me.’

“She also wanted me to tell you to stay away from Iolaus.” The scout gripped his shoulder’s tightly, shaking them for emphasis. “This is important. Karis has to gain his trust.” She looked at him wryly. “If you keep after him, she will start to display more than sisterly feelings for you and that will get her in trouble.”

A flare of hope shot through him. “What do you mean ‘more than sisterly’?”

“She is the head of the royal guard. You are the Amazon Prince. There is no way she will let anything happen to you, even if she has to blow her cover to do it.” Velasca had known Karis’ mother and if Karis had half the sense of duty her mother did the scout felt very safe leaving her extended family in her care. “How’s Rayna holding up?”

Solan was disappointed at the explanation of Karis’ concern but did a double take at the casual question about Rayna. “Fine.” He answered, then grinned at his concerned aunt. “I’ll tell her you asked.”

“I’ll bet you will.” She paused and examined her teeth with her tongue, then making a decision continued. “If you’re going to give her a message, tell her…. tell her.. I miss her cooking.” She couldn’t hide the softening of her eyes. She grinned and rolled her eyes at his confusion. “She’ll know.” That reassurance was all he was going to get. Footsteps in the underbrush warned them of guests. Solan leaned over to pick up the wood he had dropped and when he stood he was alone. ‘Geez, I hate it when she does that!’ He didn’t have any more time to think about amazon disappearing tricks as one of Xena’s guards approached.

“Hey! I found him!” The stocky guard yelled back at his associates and eyed the boy intently. Frowning at the small amount of wood in his hands until he saw the larger pile at his feet. “I guess you get away with it this time.” His displeasure at tromping about in the woods for an errant boy was obvious by the twitching of the scar on his cheek.

Since he had been the one to find the boy, the stocky guard was assigned the task of escorting him back to the kitchen tent. When they arrived he immediately sought out Karis. She saw him approaching but pretended not to notice, so she was not totally unprepared as he thrust Solan at her and barked. “Keep your brother on a shorter leash.”

It was harder to keep herself from dodging the blow across the face than she thought. ‘Gods.. He’s slow.’ Crumpling to the ground she took Solan with her. She found his ear and whispered. “Play along.” Squeezing a tear from her eye she whined. “Please don’t hurt him. He’ll be good from now on.” She looked at Solan frantically. “Won’t you.”

He was wrestling with his feelings. He wanted to hurt the guard that had hit Karis but now she was rolling around with him on the floor so it wasn’t that bad. Her voice in his ear had left him speechless so he simply nodded yes.

The guard wasn’t really convinced but he had other duties. “You just make sure he doesn’t cause anymore trouble.” He left the threat hanging and stomped out of the tent.

Solan kept his hands in Karis’ as they rose from the floor. “Gods Karis I’m sorry. I didn’t….” Her shaking head stopped him mid-apology.

“It’s all right.” She released his hands to examine her jaw, gently testing the extent of the damage with a slight side to side motion. “Now we know he’s a loyal one.” The grim thought floated through her mind. ‘One down, twenty nine more to go.’ She smiled at his concern. “Cheer up.” She playfully touched his cheek. “They won’t all be that bad.” Her smile didn’t quite touch her eyes as a bleak thought floated across her conciousness. ‘Some will be worse.’
Part 3
The sound of gentle rain falling and the whoosh of steel cutting the air woke her. Gabrielle looked up from the bed to see Xena in the middle of the tent. She was dressed in a set of well worn fighting leathers. Weaving her sword against an invisible opponent, she moved silently through the shadows. Gabrielle watched fascinated as the polished steel blade flickered and danced in the torchlight. Flashes of light briefly illuminated various parts of her graceful lover as she twisted and wove around the empty space. Glimpses of tawny skin and flashing eyes heightened the dreamlike scene she was witnessing. Finishing the routine, Xena stood in the darkness of the tent with a single strip of light highlighting her eyes. Unable to stand the silence any longer Gabrielle whispered. “By the Gods…. You are beautiful.”

Turning her gaze toward the bed, Xena spoke softly. “I didn’t mean to wake you. ” Blue eyes filled with concern. She had actually melted an entire candle simply watching Gabrielle sleep before deciding to do some drills.

“Xena. If you ever do that again without waking me, I’ll be upset.” Grinning at Xena’s rolling eyes she continued. “I mean it. It’s not often I get to watch poetry in motion.”

Xena put away her sword and knelt by the side of the bed. “I do.” She reached out to brush Gabrielle’s cheek with the tips of her fingers. “Every time you walk across a room.”

“Xena. I’m just…..” Gabrielle’s verbal protest was cut short by the warrior’s questing lips, but her thought continued. ‘a bard from Potidea.’

Pulling away long enough to stand and remove her leathers, Xena joined her love on the bed. “You are not ‘just’ anything.” She gathered the younger woman in her arms and closed her eyes at the sensation. “You’re not that little girl from Potidea anymore. You’re Queen to the amazons. You’re mother to Solan.” She tightened her embrace and whispered. “You’re everything to me.” The slight body shaking in her arms opened her eyes. She saw a tear escape it’s green prison. Capturing the fugitive with her lips, she focused on her love. Relying on the bard’s ability to read her thoughts, her blue eyes asked what her tightening throat no longer could. ‘What’s wrong?’

It took a moment for Gabrielle to regain her voice. It still came out in a whisper. “I didn’t think you remembered.” She knew she had never mentioned her home village’s name in Xena’s presence.

“I have spies of my own you know, but I remember where a certain little blonde kid I had to babysit came from.” She tried to be playful but holding Gabrielle in her arms, just as she had done so long ago, returned her voice to a whisper. “I remember everything.”

“Oh..Xena.” Gabrielle returned the embrace and allowed herself to fall asleep, just as she had done so long ago, content in the warmth of Xena’s arms.

———————————–

Rayna woke, startled for a moment. She looked at the forms sleeping next to her and smiled. She had watched the pair closely during their travels and recognized Karis’ intense feelings for Solan. Any other amazon would have accounted for the guard’s actions as her duty. Rayna knew better. She could read people’s body language better than anyone. It was a necessary skill she acquired to compensate for her inability to hear a spoken command. Looking around at the bustling kitchen she caught bits and pieces of conversations people were having. It was the phrase forming on the head cooks lips that made her understand what had awakened her.

Rayna shook Karis awake and waited as the guard disentangled herself from Solan’s unconscious embrace, she signed quickly. “A messenger came in earlier. Iolaus woke Xena.” Her smile disappeared. “There are a lot of wagons coming.” Seeing Karis’ confused expression she continued. “I can feel them.” She placed her hand on the ground for emphasis.

Karis imitated her action and widened her eyes as even the busy kitchen workers couldn’t mask the vibrations in the ground. ‘Gods… How many wagons does it take to shake the ground like that.’ She thought. Waking Solan quickly, they helped in the preparation for what could only be called a small army that was headed their way.

—————————–

“Gabrielle…. Gabrielle wake up.” Xena tapped the sleeping amazon’s cheek, brushing the her bare shoulder with, black silk in the process. “Gabrielle it’s time for your breakfast.” She laughed when the green eyes flew open.

Lifting her head from the pillow, Gabrielle looked around. “So where is it.” Her eyes narrowed suspiciously, “Wait…’My’ breakfast?”

“It’s not here yet and, yes, I’m afraid you’re going to have to eat by yourself.” Xena’s apology was sincere. She would like nothing better than to spend every moment with Gabrielle but matters of the Realm had to be dealt with sometime. “A messenger came in this morning.” She gritted her teeth and growled the name. “Cortese is on his way.”

Gabrielle understood that she would be alone for most, if not all, of the day. She rose and found her robe. She really didn’t want to stay by herself. “What kind of reception do you think I’d get in the kitchen?”

“No.” The warrior shook her head. “I don’t want you at risk.” There were too many variables in the camp to take into account. She had no idea how many members of the resistance had infiltrated her entourage. If any of them suspected the true extent of her feelings toward Gabrielle they would capture her in a heartbeat.

Hugging her protective warrior, she spoke quietly. “I want to see Solan.” She looked up and tightened her grip. “And I am always at risk.” She smiled as Xena tried to pull away only to find herself caught in the amazon’s steel embrace. “Xena. No one knows who I am. I’ll be fine.”

Listening to the strategist in her, Xena sighed and relaxed into the embrace. “It would be normal to send you to help in the kitchen.” She searched her lover’s face intently. “You understand that I don’t want to be without you for a moment don’t you?” She bent to steal a kiss, that turned out to be freely given.

Breathless from the kiss, Gabrielle managed to speak aloud. “You’re never without me, Xena. I am always right here.” She put her hand over Xena’s heart. “And here.” She reached to touch the warrior’s temple when her motion was stopped by a gentle hand.

“You may be more comfortable staying in my heart.” Xena moved the hand back to her chest. Her smile didn’t touch her eyes. “It’s not as crowded.”

————————————-

Gabrielle forced herself to keep walking toward the kitchen tent. It took all the willpower she had not to turn and run back to the lonely looking warrior she had left sitting, still in her robe, on the bed in their tent. ‘Her tent.’ She corrected her thought. ‘I’m only a ….. ‘ She knew what the entourage thought she was but supplied herself with a much nicer euphemism. ‘…..servant.’

Immediately upon entering the tent the head cook grabbed her and directed her toward her sisters. “Karis.” She yelled across the noisy kitchen. “Get your sister some decent clothes.” She looked in disdain at the hideous green top and short brown skirt. “You canna serve the Empress dressed like that.” Several snickers at her wording were silenced by the large woman’s glare.

The amazon ignored the snickers and sly looks, as she did what she could to help with the meal preparation. She gave a quick encouraging smile to Rayna and was able to hug Solan briefly before being reprimanded. The large purpling bruise on Karis’ face, raised her eyebrow but there was no time to talk. She was told to change into the servant dress she had been given. It reminded her of her village days and was actually very similar to the outfit she had been wearing when the slavers had attacked her village. The breakfast was loaded onto two trays and now it was time to present it to the Empress.

Gabrielle didn’t know if the cook was trying to please or distract Xena by sending both herself and Karis to serve the meal. It was fortunate for them however as the short walk to the negotiation tent allowed them an opportunity to talk briefly.

“Who did that to you.” Gabrielle indicated the large bruise on the guard’s jaw.

Karis tossed her head to settle her hair behind her shoulder. “I don’t know his name yet. It was the stocky guard with the scar across his cheek.”

They stopped at the door to knock and only had to wait a minute before Iolaus pulled back the cloth cover to allow their admittance. Gabrielle only dimly registered the formal uniform he and the rest of the guards were wearing, as her entire focus was immediately on Xena.

When she left the tent earlier Xena had yet to dress so Gabrielle was totally unprepared for the sight before her. Sitting on the raised platform, Xena was dressed in a Chinese style robe. The robes flame pattern increased the sense of danger The Empress was radiating. Her hair was up in a bun and her regal face was framed with a golden headpiece that resembled feathers or maybe leaves, from this distance Gabrielle wasn’t sure which. There was one thing she was absolutely sure of though and she smiled when Karis’ breathless whisper echoed her thought.

“By the Gods….She’s beautiful.” Karis’ eyes widened as she realized she had spoken aloud. She glanced quickly at Gabrielle.

“Yes she is.” The Amazon Queen’s smile quickly eased any fears the guard had about offending her Queen. “Come on.” Gabrielle walked to the small table and deposited her tray. Taking the smaller plates from their carrying tray both amazons arranged the dishes on the table. Winking at Karis, Gabrielle took a small plate of sliced fruit and approached the waiting ruler. She bowed low and offering the plate with both hands, asked. “Do you wish to break your fast now, my Queen or will you wait for your guest to arrive?”

“My guest.” She sneered. “Can fend for himself.” Xena affected her most royal demeanor and gestured to the woman before her. “Attend me.”

Following the gesture, Gabrielle walked up the two steps and knelt next to the throne. She again held out the plate and almost smiled at the raised eyebrow. Choosing a bite size piece of melon, she quietly held it up for Xena to take from her fingers. Shuddering at the sensation of Xena’s lips brushing her fingertips, Gabrielle could feel her heart flutter with each bite.

Xena had felt her heart lurch when she saw Gabrielle enter with the tray. ‘Gods… I don’t want her to see me kill Cortese.’ The Conqueror knew there was an easy enough solution. ‘Send her away.’ The thought of ordering Gabrielle away was not only unacceptable but as far as The Warrior Princess was concerned impossible. Even The Conqueror couldn’t bring herself to give the order when she began to eat from the delicate hands. The other occupants of the tent began to fade out of her consciousness as Xena focused on the woman kneeling beside her.

Karis tore her eyes away from the scene on the platform to observe the others reactions. Most of the guards lined up along the tent wall were oblivious to the display. Iolaus on the other hand was watching intently and Karis could almost see the wheels in his head turning. ‘Trouble in the making.’ She thought. A loud gong, announcing the arrival of Cortese, brought her out of her observations.

The plate was only half empty but Gabrielle prepared to rise and return to the table. Xena’s quiet command stopped her. “Don’t go.” Blue eyes finished the request. ‘Please.’

“As you wish.” She grinned. “My Queen.” Gabrielle watched and was rewarded with a grin when Xena remembered saying those exact words to her. Warm memories were replaced with cold rage when Cortese entered the tent.

Despite the refusal of his invitation, Cortese was confident as he strolled into the tent. His confidence came from his unwavering belief in man’s superiority over women and his own history as a warlord. ‘I was raiding villages before this… woman… was born.’ He thought as he appraised her age. ‘I probably raided her village at some point.’ He looked at the woman on the throne. He had heard the stories but didn’t believe half of them. ‘No one could be as ruthless as the stories say…especially a woman.’ He appraised the Empress’ soft silk outfit and fine features. ‘She does make a beautiful Queen…. Now all she needs is a strong King at her side.’

Gabrielle was the only person close enough to hear the low growl emanating from Xena’s throat. “I am told you ‘wish’ to speak with me.” Her sneer made him think twice about his appraisal of her softness.

“Yes.” His confidence returned. “I understand that the Chinese spice traders will no longer be using my waterways…..” He stopped talking at her upraised hand.

“Your informants are correct.” She began. ‘And quick.’ She thought. ‘I knew the caravan was moving slower than usual. I wonder if that was planned.’ Several faces of possible saboteurs ran through her mind. “But you are mistaken…” She smiled grimly at his confusion. “….all the waterways around here, and everywhere else, belong to me.” She narrowed her steel blue eyes at his calculating gaze. “What have you done with the fees you collected.”

His face became dark with angry thoughts. ‘Your waterways!?’ He had wanted to wait before pulling his hero card but anger took control of his tongue. “I contributed the bulk of the fees to the Temple of Ares. It was his wish that the fees be so high.” Cortese had served Ares nearly all his life. He firmly believed that the God of War would protect him.

Gabrielle was watching Xena closely. She had seen the initial anger at the man’s presence and knew it was barely held in check. The invocation of Ares name, however, made the danger flowing from the warrior nearly palatable. It was evident in her next statement and Gabrielle saw the man shudder.

“What would the God of War want with money?” Xena’s voice was low and her tone was one Iolaus had identified long ago as the soft velvet sound of death.

“It was His wish.” Cortese shrugged in an attempt to be casual and to try and ease the growing tension in his shoulders.

“Really.” For the first time since his entrance she glanced down at Gabrielle. The tension she had felt when she saw her lover enter the tent drained away. She wouldn’t have to kill the man in front of Gabrielle after all. The soft death in her voice was replaced with subtle amusement. “You speak often do you?”

“Of course. I worship at His temple regularly.” He was confused at the sudden turn the conversation had taken. She was supposed to be awed at the mention of Ares. She didn’t act like a proper woman at all.

“And he answers your prayers, of course.” Her amused sarcasm was lost on Cortese.

“He gives me signs.” He was becoming impatient. ‘Why doesn’t she get back to the point. If I can get her to agree to taking a portion of the high fees then I can blame them on her.’ That’s why he didn’t believe all the stories he had heard. Most of them, he knew were probably just warlords like him making up stuff to justify their own actions.

“Signs.” Xena smiled. She glanced at the row of guards by the wall and noticed their discomfort. She knew their little saying about her smiles and they were right, it was too late for Cortese. At his affirmative nod, she continued conversationally. “When a God takes an interest in a mortal they usually keep tabs on them. Did you know that?”

Cortese sighed inwardly at the question. “Of course. That’s why he sends me signs.” His confidence was returning. ‘She must be impressed that I communicate with Ares after all.’

“When a God takes such an interest sometimes the mortal becomes their Chosen, or if the mortal is important enough to them, the God will appear when that mortal calls out their name.” Xena’s expression became challenging. “Say His name Cortese. Call out for the God of War. Let’s see if he comes.”

Gabrielle knew what was going to happen and was a little frightened at the absolute certainty in her lover’s voice. She prepared herself, just in case.

“Say it. Say His name Cortese.” Xena’s challenge became louder and more demanding, as she leaned forward on the throne. “say it………., Say It……….., SAY IT!….”

“ARES!” The name was ripped from his chest. He looked around at the unchanged occupants of the tent and back at her, challenge clearly in his eyes. “You say it.” He was confident in his challenge, if he couldn’t do it then certainly this woman couldn’t either.

She could feel Gabrielle watching her intently as she leaned back into the throne and took a deep breath. Closing her eyes, Xena spoke softly, almost a whisper, “Ares.” Opening her eyes just in time to see the flash of light in front of her, she smiled and drawled. “Hello Ares.”

“Xena! I was right in the middle of..” He stopped at her raised hand.

“They will be fighting over that island forever. You’re not missing much.” Xena indicated her awed guest. “Cortese and I were having a discussion and I needed your point of view.”

“Who?” Ares turned toward the shaking man.

Cortese was not at all pleased that the God of War turned his attention toward him. It was all he could do not to faint. He decided to cover his weakness with an act of supplication and dropped to one knee. “I am at your service mighty Ares.”

Ares glanced back at Xena with a look of disgust on his face. Xena returned the look and sneered. “Pathetic, isn’t it?”

The God answered the rhetorical question. “Pretty much.” He regarded the kneeling man again. “Hey I remember him now.” He almost laughed when Cortese looked up and smiled with satisfaction. “This is the pawn I used to…”

“… create me.” Xena finished. Only her eyes turned sideways at Gabrielle’s quiet gasp. She settled into her seat and continued. “He claims you as his guiding force.” She raised her eyebrows. “Have you been receiving the tribute he has been paying you Ares? He claims the high waterway fees he charges are all for you.”

Ares snorted. “What would I do with money?”

“That’s what I said.” She dropped her voice low. “But when Cortese said you ‘asked’ for the money, I thought the fastest way to find out would be to simply ask you.” She knew that ‘asking’ was the term Ares had long used to refer to gaining favors with mortals. Granting what they ‘ask’ garnered him favors in return. For a mortal to claim that He had ‘asked’ for something from them was totally unacceptable to the War God, and Xena knew it.

“He said I ….. ‘asked’….” He moved toward the kneeling man. “What else were you going to claim I ‘asked’ for?” Ares outrage was growing. How dare this man, this nothing, claim to speak directly with Him. Cortese was shaking so hard now he couldn’t have spoken even if he tried. “ANSWER ME, PAWN!” He raised his hand at the shaking man and threw a ball of light toward him.

The Conqueror watched with crossed arms and a satisfied smile, as Cortese flew backward across the tent. She noted the angle of his neck and couldn’t hide the amusement in her voice. “I don’t think he’s going to be answering anything now.”

He looked at the crumpled body in disgust. “Are mortals so fragile?” Turning back to Xena with a smarmy smile, he stroked his beard thoughtfully. “I don’t recall you being that fragile.”

Uncrossing her arms, Xena leaned forward on the throne. “Don’t even go there.” This was the only snag in her plan. Getting rid of Ares was not as easy as calling him. She felt Gabrielle’s warm breath on her arm and before she could turn to the kneeling amazon, a flash of light illuminated the tent.

“ARES.” The Goddess’ bellow was just loud enough to convey her irritation.

The object of her annoyance rolled his eyes. “What now Artemis?”

“Your little fighters scared off my game.” The Goddess dressed for hunting, as always, brandished her bow in his face. “If you don’t do something about that, I’m gonna start hunting more than animals.” She smirked at his stricken face. “How many fighters do I have to kill before your temples start to decay?” She nocked an arrow and aimed at the first guard by the wall, Iolaus. “Let’s find out shall we?”

Ares put his hand on the arrow tip and pushed it down. He didn’t care about the man but once Artemis started she wouldn’t stop. “I’ll take care of my fighters. Why don’t you just hunt on Amazon land and keep out of my business.” With that said, he flashed away.

Artemis remained long enough to reply to the space where Ares had been. “Because Amazons mean too much to me.” Flashing a wink and a smile in the direction of the throne, she continued. “And with their Queen’s appetite they need all the food they can get.” Her laughter lingered in the air longer than the light she disappeared into.

“Well.” Xena rose and gestured for Gabrielle to do the same. “That was certainly exciting.” She took the two steps down and looked at Cortese’s lifeless body. “Somebody get this trash out of my sight.” She gestured to Iolaus. “Come here.” She waited for him to approach and when he was close enough spoke quietly. “Leave a contingent of guards here to make sure no more unreasonable fees are collected from travelers.”

“That will leave the caravan fairly unguarded.” It was almost a question of the order but not quite.

Blue anger flashed in her narrowing eyes. “Are you questioning my orders?”

“No. I just meant that…. ” He wasn’t really sure what he meant. He was warring with his own emotions now. Cortese’s vaults would be his for the taking if he stayed and if the wagons he brought were any indication, the wealth he had amassed was considerable. But this was also the perfect opportunity to get rid of the last of the guards loyal to Xena.

“Just choose the ones to stay. I can take care of myself.” Xena seemed to consider that for a moment. “Yes. I think a vacation is in order. I’ve been traveling, surrounded by fools, for too many weeks.” Watching Iolaus’ reaction to that she continued. “There is a small village a not far from here. I think I’ll spend some time at their inn.” She crossed the room and stood next to the table where her breakfast still waited. A tid bit of fruit was examined and consumed.

“I’ll give the order to break camp immediately. We can set out for the village by mid-afternoon.” Iolaus had made up his mind to leave the loyals here. Fifteen resistance sympathetic guards under his command was too good an opportunity to pass up. ‘Money will come later.’ He thought.

His thoughts were once again interrupted by Xena’s angry response. “You weren’t listening. I said I was tired of traveling with you people.” She glared at his confused expression. “I will go to the inn on my own.”

“But you need guards and attendants and ….” His blustering protest stopped at her upraised hand.

“I can take care of myself, but if you insist. I’ll take a healer, a cook…” She considered that and looked at the amazons standing next to the table. “your sister.” Her eyes narrowed at the bruise on Karis’ jaw. “That means you come too.” She turned her gaze to Gabrielle and raised an eyebrow. “You definitely will be there.” Her laughter was lecherous at Gabrielle’s angry glare.

“You will need someone to take care of the chores and the horses.” He was offering himself for the job and he knew it. Hopefully she wouldn’t take him up on it. He wanted to stay at camp and figure out their next move.

“You need to stay with the caravan.” She found another piece of acceptable fruit. “I don’t want the remaining guard’s going soft in my absence.” She knew that most of them were slower than tree sap in winter anyway but it was a good excuse. “You should continue back to the Palace. I’ll join you after my rest.”

“But the danger….” He was pushing his luck but he wanted to seem as concerned as possible.

“I TOLD YOU I CAN TAKE CARE OF MYSELF!” She felt Gabrielle’s light touch on her back and calmed instantly. “Besides no one will believe it’s me if I’m only traveling with five other people.”

“Five?” He ran through the list in his head. Healer, Cook, Translator, Plaything, who was the fifth?

“I’ll bring the boy to do the chores.” She glanced at the relieved amazons. “I wouldn’t want to break up a happy family.” She put as much sarcasm in her voice as she could, for Iolaus’ benefit.

He decided not to protest again and simply nodded to accept the situation. “When do you want to leave?”

“Tell Kima to be ready to go after the noon meal.” She gestured for him to leave. “Tell her she shouldn’t bother with supplies too much. If anyone does attack us, they won’t require her attention.” A feral smile crossed her face. “Tell the boy to be sure and pack a shovel though, even shallow graves are hard to dig with your bare hands.” Her cold laughter followed Iolaus out of the tent. She gestured for the rest of the guards to follow him. “Leave me. I want to eat what’s left of my breakfast in peace.” She pulled the chair out from the table and watching the guards stop to pick up the body, prepared to sit.

The last two guards barely had Cortese’s body out the entrance when she turned on Gabrielle, sweeping the Amazon Queen up in her arms and twirling her around the empty tent. Her laughter was carefree and she planted a kiss on the surprised woman before setting her down in her original position. “That was brilliant.” She looked a Karis. “You have a genius for a Queen.”

“Xena. I…” Gabrielle was trying to suppress a grin and failing. She lost herself in the silk folds of the robe’s sleeves.

The happy Empress interrupted her. “You.” She hugged the grinning amazon tighter. “You called Her.” She released the hug and tapped the end of Gabrielle’s nose with her finger. “Don’t try to deny it.”

Gabrielle glanced at Karis. “All right.” Her grin widened. “I won’t.”

Karis felt her knees beginning to buckle and gripped the edge of the table. ‘She called Artemis.’ It was a breathtaking revelation about her Queen’s importance to her people. Gabrielle’s safety was always top priority but somehow, for Karis, this ability raised the stakes. ‘I can’t ever let anything hurt Gabrielle.’ She couldn’t believe she had allowed the Brenin thing to go on for so long.

Gabrielle recognized the guards weakness and helped her sit. She smiled at the bruised woman and patted her unhurt cheek. “It’s OK Karis. Really.” She chuckled at the guard’s expression. “Your actually taking this quite well. When Ephiny found out I could call our patron Goddess, I thought she was going to have a centaur.” She thought about that saying and how it applied to Ephiny and added. “Full grown this time.”

They all laughed at that. Xena gestured for them to sit and share the breakfast which they did gladly. The mornings activities had not allowed them time to eat before coming to the tent. Xena noticed that Karis was not as easy going around Gabrielle as she used to be. ‘Gabrielle being Artemis’ Chosen really got to her.’ She reached up to rub her neck and realized she was still wearing the headpiece. She took it off quickly and tossing it aside shook her hair free from the pins that were holding it up. She looked at Karis again. She had seen the tension in the guard’s muscles when she had moved too quickly to remove the headpiece. ‘It’s time to remove the hypnotic fear. It will only get in the way when we are traveling.’ Standing quickly she circled the table and looked deeply into Karis’ eyes. “Karis.” She waited for the slight nod before uttering the spell breaking phrase. “You love Solan.” She waited until the woman’s muscles relaxed then continued conversationally. “Solan loves you too.” She knew Karis didn’t understand the softening in her eyes. ‘But she will.’ Xena thought. ‘Soon.’

———————————–

Brenin added another small stick to her campfire. She looked across the hills to the town in the distance. ‘Potidea.’ She thought. ‘Gabrielle’s hometown.’ It had been her intention to go East to China and find her love but, even through her fantasy filled brain, logic prevailed. ‘It would be so easy to miss her if she was going one way and I was going another.’ Brenin looked again at the small village. ‘But she will surely stop at her hometown on the way back.’ She imagined the look of love Gabrielle would give her when she saw her waiting for her arrival along with her family. ‘If I can get her family to like me then Gabrielle will have to love me.’ The logic of that statement seemed fool proof to her. She curled up on her thin blanket and smiled. Sleep was her friend. When she slept she always dreamed of Gabrielle and their loving reunion. ‘Tomorrow.’ She thought as Morpheus took her. ‘Tomorrow I will meet Gabrielle’s family.’

————————————

Xena led her tiny group toward Amphipolis until the darkness made further travel unsafe. They stopped to setup camp and quietly went about their duties. Karis and the healer gathered firewood, Rayna began to prepare a small meal. Solan brushed down all the horses except Argo, Xena brushed her. Gabrielle unpacked the bedrolls and arranged them around the fire.

When she was done brushing Argo, Xena went to examine Solan’s work. “Good job.” She circled his shoulders with one arm and squeezed. She could feel the beginnings of his father’s stature.

He grinned up at her. “Thanks M… mother often sends me to help out in the stables.” He put his hand up to hide the next words from Gabrielle, even though he spoke loud enough for her to hear. “I think she just doesn’t want me to be afraid of horses.” At this he laughed and dropped all pretense of hiding the conversation. “She forgets that I was raised in a ‘Centaur’ village.”

“Centaurs are ‘not’ horses.” Gabrielle protested. “You can’t talk to horses.”

“Sure you can.” Xena and Solan spoke in unison.

Gabrielle regarded them for a moment. Seeing Xena standing with her arm around Solan was enought to take her breath away. ‘The two people I love most in the world.’ She took a conciliatory breath and continued the friendly banter. “OK fine but horses can’t talk back.” At that moment Argo chose to nicker and pop her lips at the group. They all laughed and Gabrielle saw Xena take the opportunity to ruffle Solan’s hair. ‘We are going to tell him tonight.’ She thought. ‘Good.’

Rayna interrupted them with a few sharp claps of her hands. “Anyone want to eat?” She signed and grinned as they all moved toward the fire eagerly.

———————————

Gabrielle watched as Karis and Rayna cleaned the dishes. Kima had gone to search for some herbs that grew in the area, saying night was the best time to find them. She had noticed Xena’s glances at Solan and to her surprise Solan sneaking a look or two at Xena. She wasn’t sure what was up with that. It was obvious to her that Xena had no idea where to start, so she went to sit next to the warrior. ‘I can at least move the conversation to the right subject.’ She thought. Catching Rayna’s eye and making sure her hands were illuminated by the firelight, she signed. “That was the best meal I’ve ever had on a camping trip. Where did you learn to cook like that?”

Rayna looked puzzled at the question but repeated the information Gabrielle already knew. “From my mother.”

“Well my mother never cooked like that.” Gabrielle smiled at Xena’s chuckle. “What?”

“If your mother cooked like that.” Xena indicated the previous meal. “Argo would refuse to carry us both.” She grinned and accepted the amazon’s playful backhanded slap.

“My mother taught me a lot of things.” Karis’ voice was quiet. She she looked at Gabrielle. “Cooking was not one of them.”

Solan couldn’t stand to see Karis so sad. He went to sit next to her. Putting his arm around her he spoke quietly. “I wish I had gotten the chance to know my mother.” He kept his arm around Karis and continued. “Sometimes I can feel her… watching me.” He looked directly at Xena and heard Gabrielle’s gasp when he finished his thought. “Even in the dark.”

Xena was sure her whisper would be drowned out by her heartbeat. “How long have you known?” She felt Gabrielle’s hand take hers.

Gabrielle thought back over the past months and answered for her son. “Since the night Karis arrested Brenin.” She looked at the boy. “Right?”

He nodded. “The scroll your journal is written on, it is right next to the little Gabrielle story.”

“My journal has a treaty endcap on it.” Her tone was playfully accusing. She saw a blush rising on his face.

“Well, I was sort of …..” He glanced at Karis.” ….. distracted and grabbed the wrong one.” He looked back at Xena. “Are you disappointed?”

“Disa…. Why would you say that?” Xena wanted to go to him and hold him but she held back.

He had removed his arm from Karis’ shoulder but kept hold of her hand. “Well.. I’ve always been kinda small and I’m not a warrior…”

It only took a gentle pressure from Gabrielle to propel Xena across the campsite. She knelt in front of the boy and cupped his face in her hands. “Are you disappointed that I’m your mother?”

He looked confused. “Why would I be?”

Tears had began to run down her face. “I’m not a nice person, I’ve done terrible things to a lot of people. I’ve killed so many men, I will never wash the blood from my hands.” She released him and bowed her head. “Why would you want the likes of me for a mother?”

Gabrielle held her breath. Karis was speechless. Rayna having read the confession on the warrior’s lips dropped her hands to her side. Solan reached out one hand, tilted Xena’s face up to meet his own and whispered. “I am the likes of you.”

Xena’s ragged sob as she gathered Solan in her arms turned to joyous laughter when she stood and twirled him around the campfire. They ended up next to Gabrielle. Solan looked at the only mother he had ever known. “Now I have two mothers.”

Gabrielle hugged him fiercely. “I was hoping you wouldn’t be mad at me.” She looked into his eyes. “For not telling you sooner.”

He looked at the ground and sighed. “It’s a good thing you didn’t.” He paused. “At least not before I met her.” He smiled. “And saw how happy she makes you.” Gabrielle’s worry did bring up a curious thought for him though. “Why are you telling me now?” He hadn’t actually said it out loud and they didn’t have to confirm that Xena was his mother. He felt a moments panic and began to examine Gabrielle’s face earnestly. “Are you OK?” He immediately felt Gabrielle’s comforting arms around him.

“I’m fine.” She looked at Xena over his shoulder and at her affirmative nod continued. “We are going to see your grandmother. She is sick, Solan. We hope we will get there in time.”

His eyes glistened in the firelight. “We’re going to Potidea?”

“NO!” Gabrielle took a deep breath and calmed down. “No. It’s Xena’s mother who is ill. We are going to Amphipolis.”

Xena knew that emotions had been running high but Gabrielle’s reaction to the thought of returning to Potidea was too intense. She made a mental note to ask her about it later. They were after all fairly close to Potidea. “That’s why I brought Kima along. She is the best healer I have.”

“Why thank you.” The healer walked into the camp. Her arms were loaded with all kinds of plants. She looked around at the women’s and even the boy’s red eyes. “You know if you use good dry wood you won’t get so much smoke in your eyes.”

They all laughed at that, even Kima, although she didn’t know why. Xena cleared her throat and announced that it was time for sleep. Everyone agreed, except Kima. “I need to sort these.” Seeing the look on Xena’s face she continued. “It won’t take long.”

Xena nodded and stretched out on her bedroll then turned on her side. Gabrielle fit perfectly into the curve created and to Kima’s surprise, the boy laid down just the same way next to Gabrielle. Kima’s eyes softened. ‘Gods… they look like a family.’

Kima sorted the plants and noticed the boy tossing and turning until his sister whispered in his ear and gave him a little shove. The healer noted the grateful smile and watched as he made his way over to Karis. ‘That must be the one he is most used to.’ She thought as he was asleep immediately after laying down. ‘But she seems a little apprehensive.’ Kima watched the exchange and thought. ‘I think I missed something.”

Rayna and Karis had curled up each on their own bedrolls. Karis rolled onto her back and searched the stars. She was reeling at the implications of Solan’s parentage. ‘But Xena and Gabrielle both know that I love him. Gods.. and Xena said Solan loved me!’ She started to drift off when she felt the familiar warmth of Solan’s arm drape over her stomach. She looked down at the sleeping face and raised her head to look across the fire. Two pairs of eyes one blue and one green twinkled with smiles. She returned a grateful smile and settled back to sleep almost instantly.

‘Tomorrow.’ Xena thought. ‘Tomorrow, I will see my mother.’ She fervently hoped she would get the chance. ‘She should at least meet her grandson.’ She didn’t know what part of her mind finished the thought. ‘Before she dies.’

Gabrielle felt one warm tear drop on her shoulder before Xena’s breathing became slow and regular. She whispered. “Sweet dreams, my love.” She felt Xena’s instinctively tightened embrace and as she snuggled closer, heard a low mumble from the sleeping warrior. “Sweet dreams.”

——————————————–
They had traveled the better part of the day when Gabrielle felt the warrior tense. Xena had been in such a hurry to get to Amphipolis when she reigned Argo to a halt the Amazon was confused. “Xena..” Gabrielle began to question the sudden stop but fell silent at Xena’s gentle touch.

“Shhh… Listen.” Xena closed her eyes and let the familiar sound of home wash over her.

Listening closely, Gabrielle heard it. Voices in the distance. ‘Singing?’ She thought. Her questioning green eyes examined Xena’s almost peaceful face. “What is it?”

Keeping her eyes closed Xena replied. “It’s the women in the fields. They sing to make the work go faster.” She tried not to hear the sadness in the voices or remember that it was a traditional song often sung at funerals. She opened her glistening blue eyes and took a deep breath almost as if she could smell the music in the air. “It’s the sound of home.” She urged Argo onward, glancing back to make sure the others knew which path to take at the fork then continuing faster at Karis’ ‘got it’ signal.

As the singing became louder, Gabrielle sent a silent prayer to Artemis. ‘Let us get there in time.’ She had no contact with Ephiny between the preliminary report and her arrival home to deal with the Brenin issue but based on the ‘I think she might be sick’ line in the scout’s first report, she had sent their best healer along with the recall notice. Ephiny’s report when she had returned to the village was not good news and now Gabrielle could only hope that the heart behind her, beating nearly in time with the horses hooves, wouldn’t be broken by what met them when they arrived.

————————–

The town market was a pleasant but unusual experience for Brenin. In the Amazon Nation markets were unnecessary. The only thing close was festival time. Amazons did barter with each other for items not found in the communal storage huts but that was usually a one on one type of arrangement whenever the need arose. She watched as the busy villagers bargained with each other for their wares, a large piece of leather was exchanged for a bolt of cloth, three chickens was apparently the going price for a smoked ham, and if the sticky faces of the playing children were anything to go by, it seemed the baker had a sweet deal going on some small handheld pies. She watched as a young woman presented two children with one pie each. It was obvious to Brenin that they were twins but not identical, one was a boy and the other a girl. They looked about three, with rosy cheeked faces, big green eyes, and reddish blonde hair she had only seen once before in her life. A picture of Gabrielle floated through her mind. ‘They have to be related.’ She thought.

They were the picture of sweetness, sitting on the bench contentedly munching their treats. Suddenly the boy grinned. Brenin frowned when he smushed the last of his pastry in the girls face but then smiled when she simply wiped it off with her fingers and then licked her fingers clean. ‘Definately related.’ She thought. ‘Gabrielle would never allow good food to go to waste either.’ Brenin tried to figure out how to meet them when their mother called to them. They looked at each other and were in motion at the same instant, not toward the call but exactly away from it, straight toward her! The mother’s call was plaintive now and on instinct Brenin reached down to capture one child in each arm. She tucked her squirming bundles securely under her arms, trying to avoid staining the only cloth tunic she owned and walked over to the distressed woman.

“Thank you!” She reached to relieve the stranger of her children. Placing them on their feet, she gave each of them a stern look. “You two stay here.” Looking back at Brenin she smiled. “Sometimes I just don’t know what to do with them.” A large man passed by and laughed.

“You could just feed them to the Amazons, Lila.” He laughed louder as he walked away. “It worked for your parents.”

Lila glared at the man as she knelt to comfort her now crying children. She tried to hug them both and reassure them that the Amazons weren’t going to get either of them but the boy pushed the girl away, totally dominating their mothers attention.

Brenin frowned at the treatment and tried to reassure the girl. “Amazons don’t eat children.”

Lila surprised herself with the anger in her voice. “What do you know about Amazons?” She looked at the stranger again. Her tunic was an older style but well made. She noticed the berry stains her children had caused during their attempted escape but it was the jewelry that caught her eye. The beaded and feathered necklace just visible under the neckline of the top was unmistakeable. ‘Amazon.’ Her eyes widened. She looked around for someone then whirled to scoop up the children. Glancing nervously at the growing morning-market crowd, she looked back at Brenin and whispered. “Come with me.”

————————-

Gabrielle felt Xena take her hand as they entered the tavern. It should have been time for the dinner rush but the place was deserted except for one barmaid sitting at a table, crying. She felt Xena’s grip tighten. ‘No.. please no’ Gabrielle chanted in her mind as she cleared her throat to get the girl’s attention. “Hello.”

The girl looked up startled. “I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you come in.” She jumped up and ran around the bar. “What can I get for you?” She tried to keep the tears from spilling down her cheeks but was unable to manage it.

Gabrielle spoke softly to the girl. “What’s wrong?” Keeping their fingers entwined, she leaned closer to Xena and linked elbows with the distressed warrior.

The barmaid tried to smile. “I’m sorry. It’s just that there has been a death in the village.”

Gabrielle bit her lip to prevent the yelp at Xena’s grip on her hand. The problem with doing that however was it made speech impossible. The sound of Xena’s strangled voice nearly broke her heart.

“Who?” Grief was poised to overtake her and her shaking grip was only the beginning. She prepared herself to run out the door, unwilling to subject Gabrielle to the rage that would follow the answer.

“His name was Johnathan. He had lived here for almost ten years.” She burst into tears. “Everyone loved him.”

Xena felt her stomach do a flip and her knees turn to jelly at the girls first word. ‘His’ was all she needed to hear. Gabrielle’s solid grip and sheer force of will kept her standing. Her patience, however, was now gone and she wanted answers. “Where can I find Cyrene?”

The commanding tone in Xena’s voice stopped the girl’s tears but she sniffled as she spoke. “You can’t see her. She is sick. The healer won’t let anyone in to see her.” She didn’t know who the woman thought she was but she didn’t like the tone in her voice one bit. “The only people Salla let’s in are family.”

Gabrielle kept a firm grip on the warrior’s hand, partially for support and partially to keep her from attacking the girl. She gave her lover a significant look and turned back to the girl. “Can we see the healer please.”

The look on Xena’s face startled the red-eyed young woman but she sniffled again and nodded at Gabrielle’s quiet request. It only took a moment after she disappeared through the door behind the bar to return with a much older but still spry woman.

It was the healer’s turn for her stomach to flip. She never expected to see her Queen here. ‘She should never leave the Territory. It isn’t safe.’ The healer’s thoughts took a darker turn. ‘Especially around this area.’ She nodded to the women and gestured. “This way.”

Much to the amazon healer’s dismay, Xena nearly dragged Gabrielle down the hall, directly to the door she knew was her mothers. She waited for the healer to open the door and make sure Cyrene was awake before she let go of Gabrielle’s hand and entered the room. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the faint light filtering through the small window. All she could hear in the darkened room was her mother’s ragged breathing. It was a crazy thought but she was so relieved she felt like laughing. ‘Breathing…. By the Gods…. She’s breathing.’ It was a terrible rasping breath but it was something. She approached the bed slowly so as not to scare the sick woman. Barely holding back her tears as she looked at the sunken eyes and pale, gaunt face. She sat close but didn’t touch the sick woman. She didn’t want to hurt her. “Hey there.” It was barely a whisper but it was all Xena could manage at the moment.

The healer started to speak to her Queen but stopped at the upraised hand. Gabrielle wanted her full attention on Xena, the report could wait a few minutes. She felt her own tears begin when she saw the weakened woman reach toward Xena and try to speak.

“Xena……” Her incredulous tone penetrated even the heavy rasping every breath produced. Cyrene couldn’t believe her eyes. She had to touch the woman sitting next to her. She had to know if she was real this time. Silently cursing her weakness, Cyrene felt her arm begin to shake and lower, unable to make it all the way to the face of her dreams.

Gently, Xena lifted the lowering hand and held it in place on her cheek. “It’s me mother. I’m here.” Two hearts stopped when Cyrene’s eyes closed and the rasping sound was silenced.

The healer jumped forward at Xena’s anguished sob to quickly explain. “She’s just sleeping. Look.” She pointed to the woman’s chest still rising and falling in an almost regular rhythm. The warrior and the Amazon felt their hearts begin beating again. “When she sleeps her muscles relax and she doesn’t have as much trouble breathing.” She gestured them out of the room. “Let’s talk in the hall.”

Xena didn’t want to leave her mother’s side but recognized the healing power of sleep. She replaced her arm at her side and brushed her hand against the now peaceful face. Assuring herself there was no fever, she rose to follow the healer.

Once out in the hall the healer spoke in more normal tones. “She has pneumonia. It was very close for a while… ” She glanced at Xena. “..I think she actually died once…” Her tone was wistful. “I have no idea how she came back from that.” Seeing the question in Gabrielle’s eyes she continued. “We aren’t out of the woods yet…” She paused and smiled. “But the treeline is in sight.”

Xena was not as up on Amazon speak as they were and at the moment wasn’t worried who knew it. “Out of the woods?” She looked to Gabrielle for the explanation.

“If an Amazon is out, scouting, hunting, or on patrol and gets sick it can be bad. The only way to get better is to get to the healer in a village. Our healers…” She glanced at the woman. “…well they’re the best. You will always be OK if you make it ‘Out of the woods.’ ”

“But we aren’t out of the woods yet?” Xena now looked to the healer.

“No. She was improving. For a while she was even able to get up a little. She liked to stay on the cot in the backroom, so she could hear the activity in the tavern, not that there was much but locals. One day I left her sleeping and went to gather some herbs. When I returned, I found her collapsed on the floor behind the bar. There was a glass on the counter and a small coin beside it. I assumed a customer came in and she tried to serve them. If not for the coin, I may have thought she went delusional again.” The healer’s eyes turned sad and doubtful. “Since then she hasn’t gotten out of bed.” The silence that followed that statement was broken by the barmaid’s voice, shuffling feet and a cry of pain.

————————–

They had found the town but Karis wasn’t sure which building was the tavern/inn until she saw Argo standing patiently in front of the largest one. The group walking into the empty tavern startled the barmaid even more than the two previous visitors, still she tried to do her job. Wiping her eyes on her sleeve she spoke politely. “I’m sorry. Can I help you?”

Karis opened her mouth to speak but Solan beat her to it. “Where’s my Mother?” At the moment he wasn’t sure which woman he was talking about and he wasn’t sure he cared. Where one was the other was anyway. He saw the girl’s involuntary glance at the door to the back and headed that way.

The first two strangers were bad enough. The waitress had thought the tall one was going to kill her for a minute but now for this boy to push her around too….. Well it was just too much to take. She reached out to grab Solan’s arm and prevent him from going into the back. “Hey! You can’t go back there.”

Rayna and Kima both felt their jaws hit the floor as Karis moved, fast. Nearly the same instant the girl grabbed Solan, her grip was broken by the protective guard. It took a only took a moment for Karis to control her breathing but when she looked up Xena and Gabrielle were standing in the doorway assessing the scene.

Solan saw them too. “I want to see her.” It was as near a command as he had ever attempted. The corners of both womens mouths twitched despite the seriousness of the situtation.

Gabrielle began. “She is sleeping right now…” She thought her words would be enough to reassure him. Xena had other ideas.

“Come on.” She gestured and smiled as the boy followed her immediately to the last door in the hallway. She held up one finger and pointed it at his nose. “Don’t go in. I don’t want to wake her…” She opened the door quietly and they both looked into the room. “See she’s sleeping and when she wakes up I’ll take you in. OK?”

Solan looked into the room and saw the sleeping woman’s form on the bed. He was disappointed that he couldn’t see her face from here. Vaugely aware when Gabrielle came up behind him, he took in the rooms layout, noting that it was a corner room and there was a small window across from the empty fireplace. He smiled at Xena and nodded. “OK.”

Narrowing her eyes at the sweetness of the compliance, Xena thought. ‘Uh huh.’ She had seen his appraisal of the room and the lingering of his eyes on the window. A glimpse into Gabrielle’s twinkling eyes confirmed that she had seen it too.

Holding the warrior’s gaze for a moment, Gabrielle smiled and tapped Solan on the shoulder. “It will be chilly tonight. Do you think you can gather some wood for her fire?” The brightening of his face was all it took to know his plans.

“Sure. I’ll do it right now.” His enthusiastic turn to leave was stopped by Xena. He hadn’t expected it but was quite pleased to find himself wrapped in the strong arms. After three years with Gabrielle as his mother Solan had quite a bit of experience with hugs. It was Xena’s cheek against his temple that let him know, this one was the kind that you were supposed to say something to break, so he said what was in his heart. “I love you, mother.”

Breaking the embrace she cupped his face in her hands. “I love you, Solan.” A genuine smile crossed her face and she released him with mock gruffness. “Go on now. Your grandmother will be cold tonight if you don’t get to work.” Xena gave Gabrielle a significant look and when he had disappeared through the entry to the main room, they grinned and put their ears to the door.

“Forty-five.” Xena said quietly.

Gabrielle shook her head thinking. ‘Less than that.’ “Thirty.” She whispered.

She counted twenty-nine heartbeats before the soft sound of a body hitting the floor and quiet footsteps could be heard in the room. Gabrielle chuckled and looked at the arched eyebrow of the raven haired beauty beside her. “He’s my son too.” She glanced at the door to the main room. “Come on.”

Xena wanted to stay by the door and was able to peep through the keyhole long enough to see Solan standing motionless next to the bed before allowing Gabrielle to drag her back to the main room. To resist would cause too much noise. ‘And besides.’ She thought to herself. ‘When Gabrielle is determined to get what she wants, resistance is pretty much futile.’

—————————————

Solan crept quietly up to the bed. He looked at the sleeping woman with a quiet reverence. ‘My grandmother.’ He thought. For so much of his life he had seen families all around him. He had always thought of his uncle like a father but never did he dream that he would actually be able to meet his parents, much less his grandparents. He examined her face closer and reached up to feel his own cheekbones. A flash of Xena’s angular face appeared in his mind and he knew they were all the same. ‘Wow.’ The blood connection he had with the women was awesome. His eyes closed at the thought and Gabrielle’s face floated in the darkness. He smiled and opened his eyes. His bond with Xena was growing stronger everyday, but he doubted it could ever reach the love that he felt for Gabrielle, his first Mother. He heard footsteps stop outside the door and quickly went back out the window.

When Kima and Salla entered the room the only movement they saw was the sleeping woman and the gentle waving of curtains in the breeze.

—————————————

Karis saw Solan practically run through the main room. The only thing that stopped her from following immediately was his wink as he exited the tavern. She looked at the two healers, both trying to examine the waitress’ wrist, and rose to follow the boy. She was stopped again, this time by Rayna demanding her attention.

“I can fix dinner. If you think that would be all right.” Rayna was a little uncomfortable around all the sad people and thought cooking would be a good excuse for her to leave. “I don’t know if I should use this kitchen though.”

Karis understood and looked at the barmaid. “How does the owner feel about strangers in her kitchen?” A deep chuckle from the back doorway halted the girls response.

“What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.” The warrior’s glistening blue eyes locked on Rayna. “I would appreciate a good meal.” She turned to the little waitress. “Show her the way.”

That was too much. She flexed her wrist and hopped off the barstool. She may not have been very old but she wasn’t intimidated very easily. She was used to dealing with large drunken farmers and traders, now to top it off she was angry. “Now you see here. This is Cyrene’s place. You can’t just come in here and start giving orders. Who do you think you are?” Her anger quickly dissapated when she saw the effect her words were having on the woman. Nothing in her experience had prepared her for The Look.

The blue eyes that had been softened with emotion were now ice hard. She gritted her teeth and growled at the girl. “I’m Xena.”

Gabrielle watched the girl’s eyes widen slightly before she fainted. She chuckled and patted Xena’s shocked face. “You do have that effect on people, dear.” Both healers rushed to attend the collapsed girl. Gabrielle grinned and turned her attention back to the girl and the healers. “Salla why don’t you take Kima back to see Cyrene.” It was a polite request from the Queen of the Amazons to one of her subjects.

Salla almost bowed then nodded and gestured for Kima to follow her. Kima remained by the unconcious girl. ‘I don’t take orders from slaves.’ She thought. ‘No matter how attached Xena seems to be to them.’

It was as much the tone in Xena’s voice as it was the words that got her moving toward the back. “Kima. Cyrene is my mother.”

The healer swallowed hard at the narrow eyed gaze. Kima could hear Xena’s voice as clearly in her head as if the Empress had actually spoken. ‘If she dies, you die.’ She quickly went to join Salla.

Xena watched Gabrielle gently tending to the now rousing waitress for a moment before announcing. “I’m going for a walk.”

—————————————

Brenin followed Lila and her young charges to a small house on the edge of town. They hadn’t spoken since the marketplace. Finally arriving in front of her home she put the children down and turned on Brenin. “You’re an Amazon.” It was an accusation tinged with hope.

Her response was cut off by the children. The word Amazon had turned their heads to each other then back to Brenin for a brief moment before screaming and running full pelt into the house. Seeing that Lila wasn’t going to go after the children, Brenin responded truthfully. “I’m not an Amazon.”

“But your necklace.” Lila looked at the jewelry as her hand reached up to feel her own bare neck.

‘Oh.’ She thought and conceded with a smile. “That is Amazon.” At Lila’s confused look she continued. “It was a gift.” It was, in fact, the only thing her mother had ever given her.

“So you know some Amazons?” Lila was excited now. Her father may still be angry but, despite everything, she loved her sister and wanted to know if she was all right. At Brenin’s nod, Lila continued. “How?”

Still being as truthful as she could, Brenin began. “I am a scribe. I have copied several of their treaties and proclamations.” She smiled. “Their Queen has been busy the last few years.” She held out her hand. “My name is Brenin, by the way.”

Lila blushed and brushed her thick black hair away from her eyes. “I’m Lila. The two terrors..” She indicated the house. “….are Gabe and Brie.” She smiled wistfully. “I named them after my sister. She went to live with the Amazons a few years ago.” It was too much to hope for but she continued. “I was hoping you could tell me if she was all right.” She knew Gabrielle had been upset and angry when she left. ‘I can’t really blame her.’ She thought. ‘Maybe this woman can help me get a message to her. I know she probably hates me but she is my sister after all.’

Brenin held her breath when she heard the children’s names. ‘Her sister?’ The scribe looked at the woman in front of her. A mane of thick black hair framed her round blue eyed face. ‘She doesn’t look anything like Gabrielle.’ Torturing herself with maybes was getting nowhere so Brenin took a deep breath. “What is her name?”

Lila smiled. “Gabrielle.”

“Yes I know her.” Brenin studied Lila’s eager face and chuckled to herself, thinking. ‘This is just too easy. She likes me already!’

————————————————–

Solan dropped to the ground outside his grandmother’s window. He looked around and seeing nobody started around the corner of the building, toward the woodpile he had seen earlier. Turning quickly, he bounced off a leather wall that hadn’t been there until a few moments before. He looked up from his sudden sitting position to see Xena, standing with her arms crossed, leaning against the building.

“You didn’t wake her did you?” She said it with a smile because she already knew he hadn’t. Uncrossing her arms, she offered her hand to help him up.

“I just wanted to see her.” His tone was plaintive and a little defiant.

She smiled wider. “We know.” At his groan, she laughed out loud.

His eyes twinkled up at the laughing woman. “Is there anything you guys don’t know?” Solan wondered if he would ever be able to know what everyone was thinking and what was going on the way Gabrielle and Xena seemed to be able to do.

She brushed his hair off his shoulders. “Not much.” She looked into his smiling face and realized there was something she really did know and wondered if he did too. “When is your birthday?” When they were back in camp, he had told her he was twelve. She hadn’t thought about it much at the time, but now, being back here forced her to think about exactly how much time had actually passed since Cortese had attacked.

He looked at her with questioning eyes. “I’m not sure. Uncle always celebrated my birthday on Winter Solstice. That’s only a month or so away and then I’ll be thirteen.”

Xena listened to his answer and looked at his compact frame. ‘Lyceus was small for his age too.’ She did some quick math in her head and checked the turning leaves on the trees. ‘This is one to talk to Gabrielle about, first.’ She traced his jawline with her index finger, feeling the beginnings of a soft beard. She reached up to ruffle his hair and push him in the direction of the woodpile. “Come on. Let’s get some of this brought in. Rayna will need wood for the kitchen fire too.” She widened her eyes at the young man in mock fright. “I heard Gabrielle’s stomach growling a little while ago.”

“Uh Oh. We had better hurry then.” He happily played along with the joke. It was nice to be able to talk to someone who loved Gabrielle as much as he did.

——————————————-

“You’re telling me Gabrielle is Queen?” Lila stirred the pot on the stove, handed Brenin a glass of juice and sat down at the kitchen table.

“Yes.” Brenin sipped the juice. “She has been now for three years.”

“How do you know all this? Are you sure you’re not an Amazon?” Lila’s suspicious look was not very convincing. She was too excited about getting news of her sister to let anything dampen her spirits.

“I told you, I’m a scribe. I work with her to copy treaties and such.” Brenin was determined to stick to the truth. It was easy to lie but then you had to keep track of what you had told who and eventually you get caught. Truth is simply easier to remember.

“So you’ve seen her? How is she? How does she look? When was the last time you saw her?” Lila had about a million questions for her new information source.

Brenin thought about how Gabrielle looked and smiled. Then she thought about the last time she saw her. The one and only visit the Queen had made to the jail. The cold look she remembered in the normally warm green eyes stopped her answers from forming. There was no further chance to speak anyway because of the stomping footsteps at the door. She looked up at the opening door to see a man entering the house. He didn’t look happy to Brenin.

“Lila. I….” His eyes narrowed at Brenin. “Who’s this?” He sat at the table and began to relace one of his boots.

Lila had jumped up at his entrace and was spooning the contents of the pot into a storage container. “This is Brenin. The children ran away from me this morning and she caught them before they got too far.” She packed the container along with a loaf of bread and a waterskin into a basket.

Flexing his ankle to test the knots he had just made, he looked at Lila and growled. “I told you how to solve that problem.”

Slamming the basket down on the table in front of him, she smiled sweetly. “I will NOT put my children on leashes like dogs!” They had been through this whole discussion before and Lila wasn’t in the mood to go around again, especially in front of Brenin.

Brenin was sure, Amazon training or not, she didn’t like this man. His whole attitude toward Lila was irritating but when the children entered the kitchen Brenin’s dislike turned to active hatred.

“Daddy. Daddy.” The children were in perfect chorus as they launched themselves at the seated man.

He smiled and held the boy on his lap, totally ignoring the girl. “I heard you were a bad boy today at the market.” He smiled indulgently at the child in his arms.

“It was Brie’s fault, Daddy. She made me.” His father followed his pointing finger to the stricken little girl’s face.

“Is that true Brie.” The tone in his voice let Brenin know that even if it wasn’t the little girl’s word didn’t mean much in the face of the boy’s accuasations. Still she tried to deny it.

Brenin saw the terror in the child as she backed away from the glaring man, pressing her back into Brenin’s knees. The very real danger of her father’s wrath was enough to make the child forget the imagined danger of the stranger. Brenin picked her up and held the terrified girl on her lap. ‘Don’t worry Gabrielle. I’ll protect you.’ Brenin thought.

Lila took a deep breath and set a bowl of stew in front of the glaring man. “Eat something before you leave.” She didn’t want him to know anything about Brenin’s association with Amazons. Her husband hated them almost as much as her father did. ‘Stupid male pride.’ She thought. She picked up the basket and sparing a brief glance a Brenin said. “I’ll go hitch up the team.”

Brenin rose from her seat shifting the child from her lap to her hip. “We’ll help.”

“She can do it.” His flat refusal of help on Lila’s behalf was ignored by Brenin.

“I didn’t say she couldn’t.” She returned his glare. “I just said I would help.” Brie squirmed in her arms and as soon as Brenin put her down she was out the door to play. The boy jumped off his fathers lap and the chase was on. Brenin noticed the man’s slight smile at the boy.

Lila gestured for Brenin to follow her quickly. She stopped at a fully loaded wagon and placed the basket on the seat before continuing the short walk to the barn. She whispered to her
new friend. “Don’t mention the Amazons around him. He hates them.”

“Why?” Brenin could understand the children being afraid if the adults threatened them with
scary Amazon stories but she couldn’t possibly imagine why an adult would hate Amazons. She
took the reins Lila handed her and let the younger woman lead her to the wagon.

“When the slavers took us…” She began. “The men of the village came after us.” Lila stopped to
calm down her horse. “They aren’t warriors or even hunters really so all they did was get beat
up.” She patted the horse Brenin was hitching up. “When most of them were down, the
Amazons showed up and … well … ” Lila wasn’t sure how to say it.

“The Amazons kicked a little slaver butt?” Brenin supplied the phrase and Lila laughed.

“They kicked A LOT of slaver butt.” She sighed. “The men think the Amazons waited just so
they could show them up.” Lila had never understood that attitude because one of the Amazons
had actually died. It wasn’t the only reason but it was enough to satisfy the woman’s curiosity.
The rest was too personal to share with a stranger. She saw her husband approaching and quickly double checked the rigging. ‘No sense in asking for trouble.’ She thought.

Brenin saw his approach as well. “Hey. I’m gonna go check on Brie.” She gave Lila a little smile. “I haven’t heard any screaming or yelling in a few minutes.” She winked at Lila’s grateful smile and walked back toward the house.

“Listen Lila.” He walked up behind her and crossed his arms. “I’m sorry. I’m just upset.”

She turned to look up at him. “Upset?”

He sniffed and nodded at her concern. “A trader came through this morning. He said he passed by Amazon land a few weeks ago and the drums were going crazy.” He sighed. “I don’t know what they are up to.” He looked her in the eye. “I’m going to take the shipment to Amphipolis and then try to find out what the Amazons are doing.” Squinting up at the sun, he took a deep breath. “I have to.” He rewarded her affirmative nod with a little smile before climbing up to the wagon seat. His faint smile turned into a smirk. “I don’t know how long I’ll be gone.”

She thought he had seen Brenin’s parting wink, so she knew what he was implying and hated it. Perversely, she wanted to torture him and hear the jealousy in his voice so she waited for him to ask the question.

“Is your new friend going to be here when I get back?” His sneer was more derogatory than jealous.

“Maybe.” She inwardly cheered at his wince. She watched as the wagon rolled down the road and breathed a sigh of relief. She hated his continuous snide remarks and was glad to get a break from them. She had endured them for months until she discovered that if she vaugely confirmed his little comments it irritated him enough to stop making them for a while. ‘Just because he hasn’t touched me in months he thinks I’ll turn to the first warm body I find.’ She thought. ‘And if he thinks I don’t know about the sorry little barmaid in Amphipolis, he is even stupider than Gabrielle thought he was.’ She was really beginning to hate his accusations. She could feel the tears forming in her eyes. She was really beginning to hate him.

—————————————————

Xena and Solan stocked the kitchen hearth with enough wood to cook for an army which in their estimation was almost equal to a hungry Amazon Queen. She left Solan and Karis to arrange the wood in piles by the hearth and went to find Gabrielle.

—————————————————

Finding herself alone in the main room, Gabrielle had looked at the layout and rearranged some of the tables. The new arrangement accommodated a small space, clearly visible from all parts of the room. Sitting on a single stool in the middle of the space, Gabrielle began to recite a story to the non-existent audience. She had missed storytime during their journey and had jumped on the opportunity to practice.

Standing in the shadows, Xena watched as Gabrielle addressed the empty room. The Amazon Queen’s soft voice floated through the air and wrapped itself around her. It was a beautiful story about two people who were so much in love that when they died the Gods turned them into trees with intertwining branches.

When Gabrielle dropped her arms to her sides and bowed her head, Xena moved out of the shadows. “That was beautiful.” She smiled at the beaming bard. “I think I have a story for you too. What do you think about this…”

Gabrielle’s eyes nearly popped out of her head when Xena finished the narrative. “Oh Xena. Are you sure?” She didn’t want to believe it almost as much as she wanted it to be true.

“Uhh.. I don’t think I would forget that.” Xena rolled her eyes at the memory, suddenly feeling very old.

Gabrielle was excited now. “When can I tell it?”

“Tonight.” She reached to brush a strand of blonde hair from Gabrielle’s eyes and smiled. “After dinner, I think I’ll request a story, my bard.”

“Tonight, my warrior.” Gabrielle smiled seductively. “You will get anything you request.” She smiled at the arched eyebrow.

“Anything?” The soft purr and passionate kiss only hinted at the possible request list.

Breathless between kisses, Gabrielle managed to mumble two of the sweetest words Xena ever heard. “Yes. Anything.”

———————————————

Brenin moved away from the window quickly when she saw Lila returning to the house.

“Are you all right?” Trying to comfort the red-eyed woman, Brenin wrapped one arm around her shoulders.

Lila accepted the embrace and turning suddenly fully returned it. She sobbed on Brenin’s shoulder long enough to thoroughly wet the material.

Pulling away from the comforting arms Lila gasped in dismay. “Look what we’ve done to your
outfit!” She indicated the tear stained shoulder and the berry stained sides compliments of her children’s escapade. “You can change in the spare room.” She grabbed Brenin’s hand. “Come on.”

“I don’t have anything to change into.” Brenin resisted the pull on her hand.

Lila smiled. “I’ll find you something.” She dragged Brenin the rest of the way to the room before releasing her hold and snapping her fingers. “I know. I have some stuff stored out in the barn that will fit you.” She looked appraisingly at Brenin. “Wait here. I know just the thing.” It didn’t take long to find the dress she wanted and return to the house. “I think this should fit you…..” Her voice trailed off when she saw her new friend, naked.

Brenin had taken off the stained outfit and was waiting for Lila’s return. Modesty was not an issue for Amazons so the scribe was confused when Lila gasped and averted her eyes. “Hey? What’s wrong?” Brenin moved closer to Lila. “Lila? What is it?”

She blushed and handed Brenin the dress. “Nothing.” Keeping her eyes averted she cleared her throat and spoke quietly. “I …. I need to …. tend to the livestock. Will you watch the children?”

Brenin noticed as soon as she had put on the dress Lila looked at her. “Sure. I’ll watch them.” From the blush on Lila’s face and the fact that her husband hadn’t touched her once when he was here, even to say goodbye, it wasn’t hard to figure out why she didn’t want them with her in the barn. Brenin grinned at the blushing woman and dropped her voice to a near sultry register. “Take your time.” The woman’s deepening blush and quick departure confirmed her suspicion. Brenin chuckled to herself. ‘It’s been a long time for me too. Maybe later I will….uh.. tend the livestock.’

Lila barely had time to reach the barn before Brenin had engrossed the children in a story. Especially Brie, since this one was about a little village girl named Gabrielle and her sworn protector for the day, Brenin.

—————————————-

Thunder rumbled in the twilight. It was not in season but the storm was welcomed by the farmers, who needed the rain. It was also a stroke of luck for a certain pair of mothers. A bit of privacy was exactly what they required for a story that needed told. The tavern was empty. Locals didn’t want to get out in the storm so it was just Xena and Gabrielle, Solan, Karis, and Rayna. The healers had opted to stay in Cyrene’s room to watch her reaction to the treatment they started. Xena sent the barmaid home saying there weren’t any customers so there was no reason to stay. The grateful girl had left quickly.

After the excellent dinner, that consisted of as many of Solan’s favorites as Rayna could manage, the little cook excused herself and went back to the kitchen. Xena waited a few minutes and when she heard three taps on the back of a pan, she gave Gabrielle a grin. Looking at Solan, she began to speak. “Solan.” She smiled at the effort it took him to tear his eyes from Karis. “Remember this afternoon when I asked about your birthday?” She waited for his nod before continuing. “Well it isn’t on Winter Solstice.” She paused and grinned at his confusion. She waited long enough for Rayna to reappear with a large cake. “It’s today. Today is your birthday Solan.”

His face lit up with the idea of not having to wait to be a year older. He glanced quickly at Karis. “Wow. Did you know?” When Karis shook her head negative they both looked back at his mothers.

Gabrielle continued where Xena had left off. “In honor of your birthday. We have agreed to give you …”

Xena jumped in. “..One wish….”

Gabrielle finished. ” …And one gift.”

He didn’t know what to say to that. But he was certain that his true wish could not be granted by anyone. He let his gaze linger briefly on Karis, before looking at Xena. “I don’t think even you can grant my wish.”

Xena smiled at his sad statement. “You will find, my son, that I can do a great many things.” She turned to Gabrielle. “You heard him. The wish part is mine, so you get the gift portion of the evening.”

Gabrielle nodded and rose, gesturing for Solan to take her vacated place next to Xena as she moved to the recently created performance area. Karis remained where she was and Rayna sat behind her but still close enough to see Gabrielle’s lips as she spoke. “My gift to you, is a story.” She smiled at the enchanted look on his face. Glancing once at Karis, she focused on Solan and began.

“This story starts out with my first trip to Amphipolis. I was four years old and my parents brought me with them on a trading caravan. We stopped here for a festival. While my parents were at their booth, Xena, the innkeeper’s daughter..” Gabrielle smiled at Xena. “..had the privilege of watching me.” She saw Xena’s arched eyebrow and returned the gesture. “Naturally the next day my parents took me home.

And now we switch the story to Xena. She spent the next year doing all the things teenagers do until one day the village was attacked by the warlord Cortese. Young Xena rallied the town. They all fought bravely and battled back the warlord but he escaped into the countryside. The battle was not without it’s casualties. Xena’s brother, Lyceus had been mortally wounded in the fight.” Gabrielle watched a tear make it’s way down Xena’s cheek but the warrior’s eyes begged her to continue. “Her grief at the loss of her brother pushed Xena to do more than protect her town. She gathered her army and swept across the land.

For the next two years she fought warlords and gained control of thier armies, toppled kingdoms and looted their treasuries, no one was safe from Xena’s wrath. The entire known world trembled at her feet. On her way back from Chin she discovered that she was going to have a child.”

Gabrielle paused to gather her thoughts. Xena had told her about this part of her life but they had decided that was a darkness Solan didn’t need to know about. “When the child was born, his father, Borias, took him from Xena, to protect him from the evil people she was associated with at the time.” She saw Xena close her eyes and with one arm around her son’s shoulder squeeze him tightly. “Xena did look for him but his father had hidden him well. When the evil people killed Borias, Xena knew that the child would be better off living without her.

There was too much danger in her life and the boy would probably be killed because of her. So the boy lived happily with his adopted father until his village was attacked. He was rescued by a group of Amazons. One of which loved him very much and adopted him as her own son.” She looked at her son with a smile.

“That would bring the story back to me. I could adopt him because I had been made Queen not too long before. At twenty one, I was the youngest Queen ever. That was three years ago.” She paused and saw Xena lick her lips. “Now if you have been paying attention you will know that the child I’m talking about is Solan. And if you have been paying very close attention you will be able to figure out…” She watched Xena lean to Solan’s ear and could see the words forming on her lips. ‘Wish granted.’ Gabrielle simultaneously finished with a smile. “That he is sixteen years old.”

————————————–

Solan was thrilled with the story. He always loved Gabrielle’s voice but to know why he had been given up was worth more to him than anything. It had always hurt a little to think she didn’t love him enough to keep him. To know that she was concerned for his safety even in the beginning was an incredible feeling. He heard Xena’s soft voice in his ear. ‘Wish granted.’ He started to look at her when Gabrielle’s final words cut through his confusion. ‘What!’ He knew he had to have heard wrong. Shaking his head to clear his confusion he looked up at Xena’s smiling face.

“Your mother tells a good story, huh.” She saw her eyes reflected in his.

He swallowed hard and whispered. “Is it true?” He saw Xena glance at Gabrielle and turned to her. “Is it true?”

Gabrielle stood in front of her son. “It’s true……” She pulled him to his feet, hugged him and smiled. “….I promise.”

Disbelief was rapidly being replaced with sheer joy. It would only take one more reassurance to convince him. He held her at arms length and studied her face intently. “The Queen of the Amazons always keeps her promises?” He didn’t breathe as he waited for the answer, closing his eyes at the perfect harmony of his mother’s voices. “Always.” Suddenly a vision floated in the darkness before him. His eyes flew open and immediately focused on his best friend. As fast as his heart had been beating from the news, it nearly stopped when he saw Karis. ‘She’s crying!’

———————-

Karis had been thrilled at the news that today was Solan’s birthday. ‘One less year to wait.’ She thought. She divided her attention between the story Gabrielle was telling and his smiling face. That was almost a mistake. The shocked and confused look on Solan’s face nearly made her miss the ending of the story. She had been around Rayna long enough for the little cook to teach her a few things about reading lips so when she saw Xena whisper to Solan.’Wish granted.’ She was a little confused. ‘He didn’t make a wish did he?’ Gabrielle’s words penetrated her thoughts. ‘Sixteen?’ She thought. ‘What?!?’ She quickly went back over the story in her head. ‘Gabrielle is twenty-four now. She was four when she was here the first time. That’s twenty years difference. One year before Cortese attacked, that’s nineteen years. Two years to pillage and plunder through Chin, that’s seventeen years and one year to have him. God’s …. he is sixteen!’ She felt one tear of joy sliding down her cheek and closed her eyes thinking. ‘I don’t even have a present for him.’

A quiet smile was shared between blue and green as Solan knelt in front of Karis. He reached up to gently wipe the tear from her face. “Hey there.” He smiled when her eyes flew open. “What’s wrong?”

The concern in his eyes nearly broke her heart. “Nothing’s wrong.” She assured him, knowing he wasn’t convinced.

“But you are crying…” He reached up to catch another falling tear and tilting his head, turned on his most charming smile. “…What’s up with that?”

Her short bark of near hysterical laughter was followed by a deep breath. Having kept her feelings in check for so long it was almost automatic for her to grasp the most innocent thought in her head. “I don’t have a gift for you.”

He glanced at his mothers. Seeing only love and encouraging smiles, he turned back to Karis. Rising to his feet, he took her hands and pulled her up with him, pleased that he was as tall as she was. Gently brushing her hair from her eyes, he traced her jaw with his fingertips and whispered. “You are a gift to me.” He slid his hand behind her neck and with the gentlest of pressure closed the distance between their nearly even lips.

When Rayna saw Solan kiss Karis she glanced at the proud parents. Xena had moved to stand next to Gabrielle and they were now locked in as passionate a kiss as their son was. Rayna decided it was time for her to leave. She moved quietly toward the door to the kitchen. To her surprise, as she rounded the corner she ran into Kima. The healer held up a cup and mouthed ‘For Cyrene’ as an explanation of her presence but even in the shadows, Rayna could see the blush on her face. ‘I wonder how much she heard?’ The little cook took a deep breath. She smelled the chicken broth, the herbs the healers had been treating Cyrene with and something else she couldn’t identify at the moment. Making a mental note to tell Karis about the eavesdropper, she smiled, nodded, and continued toward the kitchen.

Kima had been mortified that the little cook had found her spying. Luckily, she covered well. ‘Simple girl. She doesn’t suspect a thing.’ The healer was too busy thinking about what she had found out to see that Rayna had turned to watch her go down the hall. ‘So the little slave is actually Queen of the Amazons and the boy is Xena’s son. I guess this news will change a few of Iolaus’ plans.’ She chuckled to herself until she realized the seriousness of her situation. ‘Assuming I can pull the old woman through and get back to the palace to tell him.’

Rayna returned to the main room with enough cups for everyone and a large pitcher of wine. She was about to fill the glasses when she saw everyone look toward the door. Looking up, she saw a man standing in the doorway. He was soaked to the skin by the storm. To her surprise he was staring past her and when she turned to follow the gaze she saw her Queen’s wide green eyes staring back at him.

When the figure appeared in the doorway, Xena felt Gabrielle tense. She looked to see her love’s wide green eyes focused on the soggy stranger and gave her a little squeeze. “Do you know him?” Gabrielle’s stunned reaction to the man was beginning to frighten her.

Gabrielle swallowed and nodded. “Yes.” She couldn’t believe her eyes. ‘Why here? Why now?’ She thought. She looked up at the concern in Xena’s eyes and hoped the warrior wouldn’t overreact. “We were to be married.” She held Xena firmly around the waist, feeling the growl that was not yet audible. Looking back toward the doorway she heard him speak.

“Hello Gabrielle.” His strangled voice echoed in the large room.

Willing her voice to be normal she replied. “Hello Perdicus.”
Part 4
‘Kill him.’ The Conqueror’s low growl rumbled in her head. It was so tempting. Tempting enough to take a step toward him and grin at the thought of her chakram at his throat. ‘Oh just think of the feeling when the blade slices the skin and the warm bloo …’ The Conqueror’s seductive voice was silenced by the Warrior Princess’ command. ‘Quiet.’ It was the iron grip around her waist and the shock of The Conqueror’s words that gave him a reprieve from death. ‘I thought you were gone.’ Xena hadn’t heard from her dark side in a while and hoped she had decided to leave. ‘Leave?’ The Conqueror chuckled. ‘No. No. My sister. I will never leave.’ Seemingly amused at Xena’s confusion she continued sarcastically. ‘You don’t need me for the mushy stuff but this is my domain. Com’on let’s kill him.’ Xena felt the muscles in her legs tense and knew that if Gabrielle let go The Conqueror would pounce on the man. She looked into Gabrielle’s eyes and responded to her dark sister. ‘No. It would hurt Gabrielle.’ That was unacceptable so The Conqueror backed off, for now. Xena could feel the tension in her legs relaxing and knew the critical moment had passed.

Gabrielle nearly lost her grip on Xena’s waist as the warrior took a step toward the dripping new arrival. She moved with her and shifting her embace turned to face the warrior. Seeing the turmoil her arms were feeling, Gabrielle waited for the familiar blue to return her gaze before speaking. “Are you OK?”

“I’ll be fine.” She frowned at Gabrielle’s worried face.”It’s you I’m worried about.” She smoothed the Amazon’s furrowed brow with her fingertips and brushed the hair back from her temple. “Is he why you were so upset about going back to Potidea?” The return of the wrinkles and shaking of the arms around her was all Xena needed for an answer. One eyebrow inched up. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

“He’s part of the reason.” She paused. “I need to talk to him.” Slowly she began to release Xena’s waist, watching her face intently. “If I let go, you won’t kill him, will you?”

She glanced a the dripping traveler and noticed he was looking everywhere but their direction. “No, He’s safe from me.” Xena looked into the concerned green eyes.

“What about from her?” Gabrielle was serious. The Warrior Princess may not kill him but she wasn’t so sure about The Conqueror.

Xena caught her breath, sighing heavily she nodded. “Her too.”

Gabrielle slowly released her grip and turned to face her past. His dark brown hair was nearly black from the rain. It was almost comical to see his deep brown eyes darting around the room, looking everywhere but at her. ‘He is cute.’ She thought. ‘Too cute for his own good.’ Remembering the last scout’s report she had received made her angry. On her orders, that particular scout had tested the man’s loyalty to Lila. Gabrielle frowned at the results of that test. ‘He cheats on her.’ Suddenly she knew who the man was looking for and became not only a protective sister, but the Amazon Queen.

——————————————–

Perdicus watched Gabrielle talking to the tall warrior woman. It was obvious they were together and the thought of it made him sick. ‘If she kisses her I think I’ll puke.’ His expression mirrored his disgusted thought. He didn’t want to watch anymore and looked at the other occupants of the room. Solan and Karis caught his eye. Standing together in nearly the same position as Gabrielle and the tall woman they too looked like a couple. He appraised them critically. ‘Those two look almost normal. He’s a little young though.’ He turned his attention to the servant. ‘She is young too.’ As Rayna handed him a towel, he looked again. ‘No. Not young just small.’ Glancing at the door to the back he wondered if Sari was here. His thoughts of the barmaid were cut off by Gabrielle’s voice.

“She went home.” Intense green eyes bored into him, with no trace of a smile. His puzzled expression prompted her to clarify. “Sari, the little barmaid, the one you cheat on my sister with, she went home.” She felt Xena’s hands drop to her shoulders and squeeze. That reassurance and a deep breath allowed her to clear her thoughts and continue in a more conversational tone. “She seemed quite anxious to go. Maybe she isn’t always so happy to see you hmm?”

Karis saw the effect her Queen’s words were having on the man. She released Solan and moved slowly to a position between Perdicus and Gabrielle but not interfering with their line of sight.

Perdicus looked at his former fiance in amazement. He knew she had not been home since she left with the Amazons over three years ago. It was impossible for her to know the things she was so calmly spouting. The last time he was here Sari had told him she had met someone else. Closing his hands into tight fists and taking a step forward, he decided not to defend himself but to attack Gabrielle. “So did the Amazons get tired of all your Xena stories too?” Seeing the momentary shock on her face as a good sign he continued with a sneer. “Does your tall friend there know that when your with her your fantasizing about Xena?” The memory of finding Gabrielle’s journal and the knowledge that she would rather be with a woman, and not just any woman but Xena The Conqueror, was still painful.

Immediately reaching behind her to calm the bristling warrior, Gabrielle chuckled. She had never done more than kiss the man but that really only made her next statement cut deeper. “When I’m with her… I don’t have to.”

“Why you little…” Perdicus raised his fist and moved toward Gabrielle. He hadn’t noticed Karis’ change in position and was therefore surprised to find his arm pinned securely behind him and his face mashed into the table a split second later. He struggled to free himself from the girl’s grip. That was a mistake.

Karis instantly held his elbows together and pushed upward toward his shoulders. “Move again and I’ll break both of them.” She gave him a sharp push to let him know she wasn’t kidding. She leaned close to his ear and snarled. “You threatened Gabrielle. I could kill you for that alone.” She looked at Xena. “Do they have a jail here?”

“Jail? What are you talking about?” Perdicus had just about reached his maximum confusion level.

Xena ignored the man’s questions, stilled her own rage against the threat to Gabrielle, and answered Karis. “Actually they usually use the room you are in. It has the best lock and no windows.”

A quick nod of her head and Karis agreed. “Fine. I’ll put him there.” With a glint of mischief in her eye she glanced at Solan. Pulling Perdicus to his feet she continued. “I don’t need my own room anyway.” It was all she could to to keep from bursting out laughing at the looks on Xena and Gabrielle’s faces. ‘Gods…. They really think I would do that. Wow.. Would they let me? Get a grip girl you can wait.’ She let a grin cross her face and clarified her statement. “I can bunk with Rayna.” She shoved her prisoner toward the back.

A surge of motherly instinct was controlled quickly when Gabrielle felt Xena’s strong arms circle her shoulders and was grateful for the woman’s support. She patted the arms around her, partially in thanks and partially to request release. When the arms dropped, she turned to look at the face of her love. “I need some time.” Green eyes begged for understanding.

“You can tell me anything.” Xena stopped her reply with two fingers on her lips. “When you’re ready.” Removing her fingers she replaced them briefly with gentle lips. “I love you.”

“I love you too.” Gabrielle smiled. She walked back to their room, lost in memories. The bard in her thought this was excellent source material for a story but her more practical side wasn’t ready for that. She never liked the sad ones anyway.

——————————————————-

Rayna watched Gabrielle leave and decided to approach Xena about Kima’s snooping. She moved closer and began to sign her worries to the warrior. The puzzled expression on Xena’s face made her stop the rapid sequence of gestures and with a look of comprehension at the warrior’s confusion she began again, slower. “When I went to get the drinks, I found Kima in the hall. I think she heard the whole story.”

‘She won’t have a chance to get a message out tonight.’ Xena thought. ‘Not with this storm.’ Her response to the cooks little bit of information was cut off when Salla appeared in the doorway. If not for the smile on her face, Xena knew her heart would have stopped at the healer’s words.

“Come quickly.” Salla unnecessarily gestured to the already in motion warrior.

Solan tried to follow only to be stopped by Xena. “Wait here.” She glanced at Karis, just returning from securing her prisoner. “I think you and Karis need to talk.” Xena had seen the disappointment on her son’s face when Karis announced the new room arrangements. “I’ll be back in a minute.” She decided not to bother Gabrielle yet and went quickly to her mother’s room. As soon as she entered the room she stopped.

Heat from the fire kept the storm’s damp air from permeating the room and allowed the pungent herbs the healers used in their treatment to assault her senses. She could almost taste the minty aroma. It wasn’t the tang in the air that made her eyes water though, the sight of her mother sitting up in the bed, smiling, did that. “Mother!” Xena could not believe the change. It had only been a few hours but Cyrene’s condition had improved so much that, if she hadn’t seen her earlier, she would not have believed she had been so near death. She looked at the healers approvingly. “You are miracle workers.”

“It was her idea.” Both women pointed to each other at the same time and laughed.

Kima began to explain. “Salla had already started using hot chest compresses to loosen the congestion…..”

Salla chimed in. “But it was Kima that suggested the mint leaves and the increased frequency of changes.” Salla had been waiting for the compress to get cool before replacing it with a new one. She just couldn’t risk raising the woman’s temperature. Kima had insisted on changing them often enough to keep the compress and the affected area warm.

Kima continued. “When she could breath a little easier and cough harder the congestion cleared quickly.” She crossed to the sick woman and felt her forehead. “As long as we can keep her fever down and she doesn’t stress herself. I think we will be fine.”

Xena nodded, tearing her eyes from her mother’s smiling face, and looked at Salla. “Out of the woods?”

The amazon nodded, smiled and confirmed. “Out of the woods.”

“Xena.” Cyrene’s rough voice was like music to Xena’s ears. “You were here earlier? I thought I was dreaming.”

She nodded a thank you to the exiting healers and moved to sit on the bed next to her mother, Xena smiled. “No. You weren’t dreaming. I was here.” She held the shaking hand in a solid grip. “I am here.”

“I had almost convinced myself that you were real, then I saw Lyceus standing next to the bed and I wasn’t sure.” Cyrene was momentarily overwhelmed by a racking cough. “When I saw him again, stocking the fireplace, I was sure I dreamt it all.”

Xena looked at roaring fire and saw the wood stacked in the neat little piles that were Solan’s trademark. There were tears in her eyes when she looked back at her mother. “That wasn’t Lyceus mother.” She hesitated then continued softly. “It was my son, Solan.”

“Your son?” Cyrene thought about all the stories she had heard regarding her daughter, The Conqueror. Not one of them mentioned a word about her having a child. “I didn’t…. I mean I never….” She wasn’t sure what her next question was, not to mention how to ask it.

“No one knew mother.” She carefully chose her next words. “His father stole him from me shortly after he was born. The life I led then was too dangerous for a child and I let him stay hidden.” She squeezed the woman’s hand. “That’s why I haven’t been back to see you either. It’s dangerous to be related to me.”

“Xena?” A racking cough gripped Cyrene for a few moments, the muscle spasms forcing her to bend nearly double before it was over. The exertion was too much and she laid back on the bed exhausted. “Can I meet him?”

Xena worried at the sound of the cough. Despite the outward improvement Cyrene was still very ill. She kissed her mother’s hand, smiled and stood to go. “I’ll be right back.”

———————————————–

Gabrielle stared at the ceiling. She barely felt the soft bed under her. Thinking about the turmoil of her last days in Potidea was enough to force her eyes closed and overload her brain into shutting down.

Xena knocked softly on the door to their room, but hearing no answer opened it quietly. She saw Gabrielle lying on the bed with her arms crossed over her chest. Talking with her mother had brought back a flood of memories and a flash of Lyceus in his coffin was laid over the present scene. Xena gasped. Rushing to Gabrielle’s side she roughly shook her love awake. “Gabrielle….Gabrielle…” Her tone was slightly frantic. “Please Gabrielle wake up.”

“Oww… Xena …” The sleepy, mumbling Amazon was annoyed until she saw the look of relief and the tears in her lover’s eyes. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” She pulled her close. “You scared me for a minute. That’s all.” Releasing the embrace, Xena looked at the raising eyebrows and widening green eyes and almost laughed.

“I.. scared… you?” Gabrielle wasn’t sure she heard right.

“Yeah.” She took a deep breath and letting her relief guide her playfulness. “I forgot how hard it is to wake you without food.” Xena smiled and tickled the exposed sides of Gabrielle’s stomach.

“Hey!” Gabrielle laughed and squirmed to get away from the wiggling fingers. “No fair tickling.”

“All’s fair in love and war.” Xena countered.

Gabrielle turned serious. “Hey, that’s pretty good. Maybe I should write that down.”

Xena rolled her eyes. “Spare me. The resistance does a good enough job misquoting me without giving them ammunition.” She reached up to brush the mussed red hair away from Gabrielle’s face.

“Right.” Gabrielle was silent for a moment savoring the feeling of Xena’s fingers running through her hair. “Uh.. Xena?”

“Hmmmm…” Xena was mesmerized by the silken texture of Gabrielle’s hair.

“Do you think there is any cake left?” Gabrielle’s plaintive tone and furrowed brow was enough to make Xena laugh out loud.

“I think so.” She grabbed the bard’s hand and pulled her toward the door. “We can take a piece to mother.”

“Is she that much better?” Gabrielle was astonished. Only a few hours ago the outlook wasn’t so good.

Xena stopped and grabbed her concerned lover in a great bear hug. Swinging her around in her enthusiasm and kissing her soundly before stopping the wild ride. “YES!” She stopped the swinging and steadied the dizzy woman by her shoulders. “And now I want her to meet you… and Solan….” Shifting her hands from, Gabrielle’s shoulders to her neck she caressed the Amazon’s jaw with her thumbs. “…..my family.”

“Your family?” Gabrielle liked the sound of that. “Well then…” She grabbed the suddenly subdued warrior’s hands. “..Let’s go get them.”

——————————-

Perdicus was grateful for the room until he heard Karis say goodnight to Gabrielle and he realized it was right next to hers. He was just nodding off when he heard her… friend enter the room and call out her name. Their voices were too low to catch the conversation but he gritted his teeth at the laughter and sudden silences when he knew they were kissing.or doing who knows what else. He sighed when he heard the door close and tried to doze off again. ‘Maybe I can be asleep before they get back.’ He thought.

——————————–

Brenin listened to the gentle rain falling on the roof. ‘Lila’s nice.’ She thought. ‘And the kids are too.’ Smiling at the memory of the children’s faces during the story and during supper, she snuggled back into the bed. ‘I could have been out camping in this.’ She shuddered at the thought of spending the night in the rain and was glad Lila had insisted that she stay in the spare room. She drifted off to sleep anticipating the familiar comfort of Gabrielle’s arms, that always dominated her dreams.

———————————

It was Salla’s turn to watch the patient so Kima went to try and get some sleep. Salla met the little group at the door. Shaking her head, she took the small piece of cake from Gabrielle. “She shouldn’t have any cake right now.” She looked directly at her Queen but spoke for Karis and Solan’s benefit as well. “Normally I only let family in to see recovering patients.”

Gabrielle felt Xena’s tension but simply smiled and gripped the healer’s shoulder with her now free hand. “There’s no one here that isn’t family.”

Salla looked to see that Gabrielle’s other hand was firmly held in Xena’s. No big shock there. The shock came when she saw Karis’ fingers loosely laced with Solan’s. The quiet support was touching but Salla wasn’t sure it was appropriate for the guard to be so familiar with the Prince. Unwilling to challenge her Queen, Salla shrugged and opened the door. “Don’t take too long. She is still very weak.” She waited for their nods of acknowledgement before motioning them in. “Call me if you need anything” She said. “I’ll be right outside.” The healer shut the door to give them a little privacy and keep the cool air coming down the hall from creating a draft in the room. She waved goodnight to Rayna as the little cook entered her assigned room and took her seat next to her patient’s door. She made herself a mental note to compliment Rayna on the cake.

————————————-

Immediately upon entering Cyrene’s room, Gabrielle released Xena’s hand and gestured for Solan to accompany his mother closer to the bed. She was surprised to feel a small stab of jealousy when, he turned to Karis, instead of following her gesture toward Xena.

Solan took both of Karis’ hands and tried to pull her with him toward his grandmother’s bed. “Come with me.” His whisper carried the trepidation he felt and his eyes implored her to stay with him.

Karis smiled and, releasing her hands from his grip, reached up to touch his cheek. “Go with Xena. I’ll be right here.” She gestured toward Xena and watched as he slowly approached the bed.

Gabrielle and Karis both smiled when Xena circled Solan’s shoulders with one strong arm. They also heard Cyrene’s gasp.

“Gods…. He looks just like Lyceus.” It was astonishing for the sick woman to see the boy standing before her. There was no doubt in her mind, this young man was family. She smiled. “Hello. Solan.”

When he heard the woman say his name he turned on his brightest smile, the one he usually reserved for Karis. “Hello….” He wasn’t sure what to call the woman.

The smile took Cyrene’s breath away. ‘His smile is even the same.’ She thought. Understanding his hesitation at naming her she said. “I have other grandchildren so I am not adverse to being called grandmother.” She smiled up at the boy and continued. “I’m also not going to break if you….. give me a hug?”

He sat on the edge of the bed and leaned forward to hug his new relative. Leaning back from the embrace he was grateful for Gabrielle’s hand’s dropping to his shoulders from behind him. He saw his grandmother’s questioning expression and heard Xena introduce Gabrielle.

“Mother.” Xena moved to stand behind Gabrielle and circle her shoulders with comforting arms. “This is Gabrielle.” She gave her love a gentle squeeze. “She is Solan’s mother too. She is also Queen of the Amazons.”

Cyrene felt a nudge in her memory when she heard the name ‘Gabrielle’ but it was pushed aside at the revelation that she was also Solan’s mother. The innkeeper deduced from the embrace that she had gained another daughter. It was the royal title that she commented on though. “So you are the Spider Queen the traders complain about?”

Gabrielle bit her lip and tried not to smile at Xena and Solan’s reaction to that title. She had heard through the scout’s reports of the name the traders had given her. “Yeah, that would be me.”

“Spider Queen?” Xena looked down at the blushing woman. Shifting her gaze to Solan’s astonished face, she raised an eyebrow.

Cyrene laughed. ‘Gods it feels good to laugh.’ She thought. “They say when you try to negotiate with the Spider Queen she will weave a web of words around you and you don’t even know your trapped until you try to escape.” Cyrene’s smiling laugh turned into a cough. “One trader said when he tried to negotiate for passage rights through the northern territory, he ended up going the long way around, glad he still had the clothes on his back.”

Gabrielle laughed. “If you saw him you know why I didn’t ask him for his clothes.” She rolled her eyes and wrinkled her nose.

“Point taken.” Cyrene looked at Solan and smiled weakly. “Your mother is very wise.” She relaxed against the pillows behind her and closed her eyes. The days revelations would have taken their toll on anyone, not to mention someone who had been sick for so long.

“Gabrielle…. Solan” Xena gently urged them away from the bed. “I think it’s time to go.” The trio began to walk out when Cyrene suddenly opened her eyes.

“Gabrielle.” She smiled when the Amazon turned around. “Someone was here looking for you. A woman.”

“What was her name?” The names of the scouts assigned close to this area ran through her head.

Cyrene settled down into her covers. “She didn’t tell me her name. She just asked directions. Drank her drink and left.”

Suddenly, Gabrielle got a sinking feeling in her stomach. “Directions to where?”

Cyrene managed to mumble, “Potidea.” before drifting into the Realm of Morpheus.

Xena saw Gabrielle’s hand shaking but didn’t comment. It was the look Karis gave her Queen that forced speech from the warrior. “Gabrielle. Do you know who was looking for you?”

It took a moment for Gabrielle to calm down and think logically. “Brenin.” She glanced at Karis who nodded.

“It almost has to be.” Karis spoke through her gritted teeth. “The scouts would have at least given the code name.”

The guard’s confirmation of her thought solidified Gabrielle’s plans. “She doesn’t know who my family is. It will take her awhile to find them.” She looked into Xena’s concerned blue eyes. “I’m going to Potidea.” She saw confusion and then comprehension in the deepening blue.

She thought of the story Gabrielle had told her in camp. ‘Brenin’ Xena’s thought nearly made her growl. “We.. are going.” Xena stopped her protest with a brief kiss. “WE.. are going.” She glanced back at the sleeping woman. “Mother will be fine now.” Gesturing for them all to preceed her through the door, Xena continued. “We can leave as soon as you want to tomorrow.”

Salla stood when she saw the door opening. She waited for them to exit before moving to check on her patient. Xena’s words stopped her momentarily. ‘Good.’ She thought. ‘Gabrielle should get back to Amazon territory as soon as she can.’ She watched the couples stop in front of the doors at the far end of the hall. She watched Xena pull a reluctant Gabrielle into their room and smiled at the tender kiss Solan and Karis shared before entering their individual rooms. She chuckled to herself when Karis and Solan reluctantly parted. ‘He is too young for that.’ She thought. ‘Karis has always been one of the good ones.’ She smiled to herself. ‘Her mother saw to that.’ Shaking off her thoughts, she refocused on her patient. Cyrene was still her main concern. There was no way she was going to let her patient have another relapse. She entered the room quietly, careful not to disturb the sleeping woman.

————————————————————-

Xena entered their room and when Gabrielle hesitated to follow, grabbed the bard and pulled her into the room.

“Hey!” Her protest at the treatment was louder than she had planned and she clamped her hands over her mouth. Her wide eyes looked at the wall that separated their room from the room Perdicus was in. Removing her hands she whispered. “What’s the big idea?”

Xena whispered. “The big idea is to get you alone. Why are we whispering?”

“I don’t want him to hear us.” Gabrielle spoke just above a whisper now. She groaned at Xena’s wicked grin.

“The Spider Queen is scared of a little noise?” Xena clucked her tongue and smiled at the blush rising on Gabrielle’s cheeks. She was measuring off the distance from the tavern’s outside wall to a point on the dividing wall.

“I just don’t want him to get the wrong idea.” Gabrielle was trying to think of the right words to explain when Xena interrupted her thoughts.

“Oh I think he will get the right idea.” Stopping where she knew the head of the bed in the other room was she leaned close to the wall and moaned loudly. “Oh…. Gabrielle.” Seeing the stunned look on her lover’s face she chuckled quietly and continued loudly. “Oh… yes… Oh… Gods…Gabrielle….” The look on Gabrielle’s face nearly made her laugh but she held it in and continued. “Please Gabrielle… Please.. ” Xena reached for her whip and smiled.

Gabrielle moved at that point to stop the game. She meant to say, ‘Don’t. Please, stop.’ meaning for Xena to stop her little impromptu scene but it came out jumbled with a sultry inflection. “Please don’t stop.”

Xena cracked the whip once before letting it drop to the floor. She knew what Gabrielle was trying to say. “As you wish my Spider Queen.” Gabrielle was close enough now for the playful warrior to scoop her up and carry her quickly to the bed.

She felt Xena’s roaming hands and surrendered herself willingly to their explorations. Even as she succumbed to the minstrations, however, she was able to mumble a protest at the title. “I am not a spider and you are not a fly.” Gabrielle had never liked the trader’s nickname for her.

Forgetting about the torment she had intended inflicting on Perdicus, Xena looked deeply into her lover’s eyes and smiled. “You’re wrong. I was trapped in your web just like all the others. The difference is….” Silencing Gabrielle’s retort with a single finger to her lips, she continued in a whisper. ” …. I am the fly who dreams of the spider.”

Lost in the loving blue of Xena’s eyes, Gabrielle melted into the warm haven of her embrace.

Xena loved the feel of Gabrielle in her arms and wondered how long the Amazon would let her hold her.

“Forever.” Gabrielle was pleased at the amazement on Xena’s face. “You were wondering how long we could stay like this. I say…. forever.”

“Then I say Mother was right.” She looked into the deepening green eyes of the Amazon in her arms. “You are very wise.”

They settled back under the warm covers and let the sound of the, now gently falling, rain lull them to sleep.

———————————————

Karis crept into the room. It was funny to try and be quiet because she knew Rayna wouldn’t hear anything but the woman had an uncanny sense of knowing when someone was around her. The guard had asked her once how she knew and the cook had told her she felt their presence. Stretching out slowly on the bed, Karis relaxed and allowed her mind to wander on it’s own. Naturally most of her thoughts centered around Solan. ‘Sixteen.’ She thought. ‘It’s going to be harder to wait now than ever.’ It was too soon after the revelation of his true age for them to move their relationship to the next level and she knew it. She recalled the conversation they had while waiting for Xena to return. ‘Solan is my friend.’ She thought. ‘I want him to stay that way.’ A vision of her mother’s smiling face floated in her mind. She returned the smile to the darkness and heard the melodic voice teaching her about love. ‘Love is a wonderful thing, Karis.’ Her mother’s wistful face turned mockingly stern. ‘Don’t back away from it when it comes. If you know in your heart it’s right for you.’ Karis felt a single tear make it’s way to her ear. “Thank you mother.” She said softly. Being very careful not to disturb the bed, she quietly got up and left the room.

———————————————-

Brenin awoke to full daylight streaming into the room and the unfamiliar sound of children playing. She lay in bed and listened as they taunted each other. “Oh no.” “I’m gonna get you.” “Momma can we go now?” “Yeah!” “Race ya.” The laughing faded in the distance and Brenin thought. ‘Lila must be out by the barn. I didn’t hear her reply.’ Brenin rose and stretched, surprised to find her tunic lying on the end of the bed. ‘Lila must have cleaned it.’ Brenin was touched. ‘That was awfully nice of her.’ She thought about the young woman and smiled. ‘Of course she’s nice. She’s Gabrielle’s sister.’ The Queen’s name made Brenin gasp as she realized. ‘I didn’t dream about her last night!’ After being so long obsessed with the image of Gabrielle to not be able to call it up for a moment was an odd feeling but to Brenin’s surprise it was kind of a good one.

She ran her fingers through her wavy brown hair and started out the door. ‘I wonder if Lila needs any help.’

———————————————

The sound of the door closing forced Gabrielle’s eyes open.

“Well…. you’re awake……” Xena’s sarcastic voice filled with laughter at Gabrielle’s groan. “….Sort of.” She waved a package in front of her. “I guess I won’t be needing this then.”

“What is it?” Gabrielle eyed the package suspiciously. Xena was entirely too cheery. Gabrielle noticed the full armor and weaponry the warrior was wearing so casually. “Where have you been?”

“I went to make sure Argo was OK and survey the storm damage.” She sat on the edge of the bed, careful not to poke the still sleepy woman with her armor, and offered her the package. “This is your breakfast of course. ”

“Mmmm… Gimme.” Gabrielle reached for the package only to have it snatched away by Xena’s quicker hands.

“What do we say?” Xena waited for the polite request and laughed at the Amazon’s response.

“Now.” Gabrielle grabbed the package from Xena’s amused hands. “Ha! Got it.” She opened the package to find a small piece of leftover birthday cake. Smiling at the gift, she looked up at Xena. “So how was it?”

Xena, mesmerized by the smiling green eyes, shook her head. “Huh?”

“The storm damage…” Gabrielle prompted. “How was it?”

“Oh.. Oh it.. it was fine. Nothing major.” The warrior stood and tried to clear her thoughts. “The stream beds are flooded though. It may take until this afternoon before they go down.”

Gabrielle nodded. “Yeah, I figured….. with all the rain…. but luckily there aren’t any to cross between here and Potidea. I want to leave as soon as we can.”

Xena laughed. “That means after breakfast right?” When Gabrielle looked at the small piece of cake, Xena raised an eyebrow. “You don’t expect me to believe that is all you want for breakfast, do you?” She smiled. “Rayna is in the kitchen right now fixing a breakfast fit for … well a Queen.”

“I don’t suppose it will make that big a difference. If we wait to leave until after breakfast.” Gabrielle had been creeped out by Brenin constantly watching her, but even after the woman had threatened her life, she still had a hard time believing that the scribe was dangerous. She didn’t think her family was in any real danger she just wanted to make sure they were all right. She sighed and thought. ‘I was going to have to go back soon anyway.’ She tried to reassure herself with some logic.

‘Brenin may have only stayed there long enough to figure out I wasn’t there.’ Calmed by that line of thought she continued the scenario. ‘If that’s the case then she would just be wandering around out there looking for me.’ The Amazon Queen suddenly had a flash of memory. Once some of their sheep got out of the pen and scattered into the hillside. They found all of them quickly except one. She remembered thinking how lonely and scared that one must be all alone when it was used to having the rest of the flock around it. Three days later a neighbor returned the sheep saying it had mixed in with his flock.

‘Brenin is my little lost sheep.’ She was glad Ephiny had decided on banishment instead of death. ‘It’s what I would have done.’ Still, she felt like she should go find the stray. Returning it to the flock was another matter. She finished the last bite of cake and licked her fingers clean of the sticky icing. “I need to talk to Perdicus.”

Xena nodded. “When she wakes up, I’ll have Karis bring him out after breakfast.” Her nod turned to a shake that mimicked Gabrielle’s head movement. “What do you mean No?”

“I mean I don’t want to wait ’til after breakfast. He can eat with us.” Gabrielle was up and dressed now. She turned to Xena quizzically. “You think Karis is still asleep?”

“I didn’t see her anywhere so I just assumed…..” It was not a pleasant expression that crossed Xena’s face. She stalked past Gabrielle and barely noticed when the Amazon came up behind her at door to Rayna’s empty room.

“She lied to us.” Xena’s low growling voice hinted at punishment.

Gabrielle immediately became the protective Amazon Queen. “I don’t think so. At least not intentionally.” She pointed to Karis’ boots under the table and her belt draped over the back of a chair. “She loves Solan. She wouldn’t push him.” It was a fact that Gabrielle clung to with desperate fervor. She was surprised then to hear Xena chuckling and see the resignation in her mild blue eyes when she turned.

“Solan loves her.” Taking a deep breath and remembering the disappointed look on her son’s face, Xena continued. “She wouldn’t have to push.”

“I guess we could go see.” Gabrielle’s questioning green eyes were torn. They could go… but the question was SHOULD they go. The answer was probably not…. but they found themselves at the foot of Solan’s bed anyway.

Gabrielle glanced at Xena to guage her reaction. The muscle in her jaw was working overtime but the look in her eyes could only be described as tender. ‘Of course it’s tender.’ Gabrielle thought as she looked back at her son. ‘Anyone’s heart would melt at this sight.’

Karis was lying on her back. Her dark hair was slightly mussed up and splayed out on the pillow under her head. The serene look on her face was breathtaking. Solan was curled at her side her right arm around him. His right arm was draped over her stomach and his head rested easily on her shoulder. The gentle smile on his face spoke of absolute contentment. They were both fully clothed and it was obvious that they had done nothing but hold each other.

“Just like us.” Gabrielle whispered. Her voice was awed.

“Yeah.” Xena’s barely audible reply. “I’ve missed so much.” A single tear found it’s way down her cheek. She remembered the feeling of Solan as a child in her arms. ‘My baby.’ The feeling that he was being taken away, again, was almost too much for her.

Gabrielle pulled Xena toward the door. “C’mon…. Let’s go before they wake up.”

———————————-

Brenin found Lila trying to mend the corral fence. Apparently a few of the cows had been frightened enough by the storm to crash through it, but not frightened enough to go very far. They were just putting the finishing nails in the barrier when Brenin realized the children weren’t anywhere around. “Where are the children?”

Lila continued working on the fence while she replied. “Oh they love to go to the riverbed and catch small fish that get trapped in the pools after a rain. They’ll be back in a while.”

Brenin was appalled. “WHAT!” She had seen the clouds last night at twilight and knew that the storm was worse to the north. The possibility of flash floods was enormous. “Where?” At Lila’s pointing hand, Brenin took off to find the missing kids. Her panic infected Lila and she too ran toward the river bed.

When Lila arrived her stomach dropped and her heart lept to her throat. The river was swollen and churning, almost black with mud and chunky with debris from upstream. Nearly in the center of the turmoil were Gabe and Brie huddled together on a large boulder. She saw Brenin taking off her boots and couldn’t believe it when the woman she had only known for one day dove into the icy water.

Despite her lack of ability with weapons, Brenin was an excellent swimmer. Still, the icy water was enough to take her breath away for a moment before she began to win her battle with the current and make headway toward the children. She climbed onto the rock and noticed that Brie had gotten wet and was shivering. Projecting her voice, over the sound of rushing water, she told Gabe. “I’m going to take Brie first. She is wet and needs to get dried off as soon as she can.” Brenin held the girl and noticed that her lips were turning faintly blue. Looking directly into Gabe’s little green eyes she promised. “I’ll be back for you.” She put her lips to Brie’s cold ear and whispered. “Ready? Hold on tight.” The little girl couldn’t speak through chattering teeth but Brenin felt the child double her grip as she jumped back into the raging flood.

Lila was at the shore waiting with open arms for them. It was heartwrenching for her to see her little girl all blue and shivering. She held the child close when Brenin handed her over.

“I’m going back for Gabe.” Brenin touched Lila’s shoulder to get her attention. “Take Brie to the house. We need to get her dry as soon as possible.” The scribe took a deep breath and turned toward the lone child on the rock. With a running start she dove into the water again. This time the temperature didn’t shock her and she knew that she was in danger from the cold too. It seemed to take longer to reach the rock this time. Pushing on, she finally reached the child’s position. Not bothering to climb up, not sure she had the strength to, she moved so the water was pushing against her back. Using her legs to brace herself against the side, she yelled up to Gabe. “Jump.” At his hesitation she opened her arms wide. “I’ll catch you.”

Gabe looked into his savior’s eyes and jumped. Landing squarely in Brenin’s embrace, Gabe was quietly amazed. He didn’t know anything about the dangers of hypothermia or how close Brenin was to succumbing to the lethargy it caused. All he knew was this woman was saving him. His father always said women weren’t good for anything. Now Gabe knew different. It was with adoring eyes that the little boy admired his hero, as she carried him all the way home.

—————————————–

“C’mon Xena.” Gabrielle gently pulled the warrior toward the door. “I don’t want them to know we were here.” She looked at the sleeping couple again. Her knowledge of her son’s habits and the fact that it was so late in the morning, made it obvious to her that Solan was getting ready to wake up. She knew that as soon as he did Karis would rouse as well.

Xena removed Gabrielle’s hand from her arm and responded with a low growl. “I do.” She didn’t, however, want to scare them too badly so she continued toward the door. Stopping as she exited, to hang her chakram on the inside doorknob. Silently she wished she really were a fly so she could see Karis’ face when she found the weapon.

——————————————-

Perdicus sat on the edge of the bed, scrubbed his face with both hands and stared at the locked door. He hadn’t slept at all and his patience was wearing thin. ‘They are probably still asleep.’ The thought made him slightly nauseous and brought back the reason he hadn’t slept. He had been just about to drift off when the dark haired woman moaned Gabrielle’s name. The sound had frozen every muscle in his body. His grinding teeth were nearly loud enough to drown out most of the sounds from the next room but when he heard the whipcrack and then silence it was almost more than he could stand.

He was in the middle of berating himself for spending the rest of the night straining to hear more from the next room when he heard the latch click on the door. He looked up to see Gabrielle, rested and confident, in the doorway with the tall warrior behind her.

“Your actions last night were out of line.” She kept the royal confidence in her voice. “Karis was within her rights to arrest you but I have decided to pardon you.” She smiled sweetly at his expression. “You hungry?” She inhaled deeply to savor the effects of Rayna’s handiwork. “Our cook has made cinnamon rolls.” Leaving the door to his room open she linked arms with Xena and headed toward the kitchen.

“Your cook?” Perdicus was confused at the possessive word and since he was a little hungry followed the women down the hallway, automatically pulling the door closed behind him.

————————————————–

When Brenin arrived at the house with Gabe, Lila had already dried off Brie, wrapped her in a large blanket and was rocking her by the fire. A sip of warm broth was being offered to the child when Brenin entered the room. Quickly setting Brie in the chair, Lila moved to take Gabe from the shaking woman. “I put some towels in your room and a dry change of clothes.” Brenin reluctantly let the protesting boy be taken by his mother, smiled at the now rosy cheeked little girl and knowing Lila would take care of the boy stumbled toward the spare room. She had enough strength left to dry off and change clothes before sinking into the soft welcoming bed. Only as she drifted off to sleep did she realize the phrase Lila had used. ‘My room?’

———————————————–

Solan felt a gentle hand stroking his hair. Waking slowly he looked up at Karis and smiled. “Good morning.” His smiled turned to a frown of concern. “What’s wrong?” He followed the guard’s stricken gaze to the door. When he saw the chakram swinging on the knob he gasped and nearly choked on his own heart.

“Xena was here?” His whisper didn’t adequately express the fear he was feeling. Karis tried to calm her love’s concern.

“You don’t have anything to worry about.” Karis steeled her voice. “That was left as a warning to me.” She smiled down at the not so young man as he tightened his embrace.

“She won’t hurt you.” Solan was confident that neither of his moms would hurt the guard.

Karis smiled at the reassurance but finished it with her own flat statement. “Unless I hurt you.”

“You would never…” Solan began to protest the possibility when Karis’ fingers on his lips stopped it.

“Unless they think I have hurt you.” She clarified.

Solan removed Karis’ hand and held it. “Xena won’t hurt you.” His eyes were fierce. “I won’t let her.”

Karis chuckled at the protective growl he managed. ‘So like Xena’ She marveled. She took a deep breath, detecting a faint trace of lilacs in the air. ‘Gods Gabrielle was here too.’ She saw a little hurt in his eyes. ‘He thinks I’m laughing at him.’ She quickly explained a fact that she just realized herself. “It’s not Xena I’m afraid of.”

“It’s not?” His puzzlement was evident.

“No.” Karis laid her head back on the pillow and reveled in the sensation of Solan in her arms, at being in Solan’s arms. “The worst she could do is kill me. Gabrielle on the other hand….”

Solan was definitely confused now. “Gabrielle would never kill anyone.” It was a statement of fact that they both knew.

“No. She wouldn’t kill me she would do worse.” Karis smiled and ran her fingers through his hair. “She would banish me.” Whispering words finished her thought. “And I would never see you again.”

A single heartbeat of silence was followed by Solan’s quiet voice. “Yes you would.” He reached up to silence her retort. “Because I would come with you.”

“They wouldn’t let you.” Karis was grateful for the offer and a little scared at its intensity. ‘Does he mean it?…. Gods… Would he choose me over his family?’

He was totally serious. “Karis. They couldn’t stop me.” He shifted his position and a lingering kiss took away any doubt the guard had.

It was an odd sensation for Karis to feel protected by the person she had been protecting for so long but she thought to herself. ‘It feels kinda good.’ She motioned for Solan to let her up and as she exited to get her boots from Rayna’s room she gingerly took the chakram from its place. Unable to stop herself, she examined the legendary weapon. ‘It’s heavier than I thought it would be.’ On the walk to Rayna’s room she tested the edge with her thumb. ‘Wow! Sharper too.’

Setting the weapon on the table, Karis sat in the chair and laced up her boots. A stray shaft of light from the window reflected off the jewel encrusted circle and made Karis blink. After stomping her boots into place, she tilted the golden loop toward the light and marveled at its beauty. ‘How can something so beautiful be so dangerous?’ Suddenly a picture of Xena herself entered her head. ‘Oh! Beautiful and dangerous, I guess the weapon fits the owner.’

Her assessment of the weapon and its owner ceased when Solan appeared at the open door and offered his elbow to link. She couldn’t help smiling in his presence. Her smile only lasted until she checked the door to Perdicus’ room and found it was unlocked. She was about to panic when she heard Gabrielle’s laughter from the main room.

——————————————

Rayna outdid herself with the large batch of rolls. She had considered fixing the usual but quickly decided against it, she thought Xena appreciated a good pastry and she KNEW Gabrielle did. Yesterday had been very rough on everyone and she thought a nice treat was just what they needed, besides, she hated oatmeal. She was just finishing icing the last batch when, through the soles of her boots, she felt the vibrations of footsteps behind her. Controlling her elation at the familiar sneaking pattern she calmly finished the last roll and casually put down the icing bowl. For several heartbeats she surveyed the table in front of her and when she couldn’t stand it anymore she finally put her hands out to her side and signed. “Are you going to just stand there all day?” She whirled to smile at Velasca’s shocked face. “Or are you going to hug me?”

Closing the distance between them Velasca spoke clearly. “You are the only person I know that can do that.” Embracing the smiling cook and thoroughly enjoying it, she looked down into the suddenly serious eyes.

“Good.” Rayna was aware that her fears were marring the reunion but she knew the scout’s ability to sneak was important and if anyone else could detect her presence…… Well, they might not have another reunion…. At least not one they were both alive for.

“Hey… I didn’t mean to upset you.” Leaning down to kiss away the cook’s fears, she pressed close and continued. “I’m always careful.” A smile against her neck and delicate fingers wrapped around her wrist forced a word into her mind. ‘Busted.’

“Not careful enough.” Rayna’s eyes and raised eyebrows chided as she looked down at the scout’s cinnamon roll thieving hand and her own hand firmly stopping the crime.

“Can I help it if you distract me?” Velasca’s twinkling gray eyes absorbed Rayna’s smile and without another thought of cinnamon rolls or food of any kind really, the wayward scout fully focused her attention on the little cook. Neither of them were aware they had been seen.

————————————–

Backing away from the door slowly, Xena and Gabrielle suppressed chuckles until they were nearly back to Perdicus. Gabrielle directed the man toward the door to the main room. “Breakfast my be a little while. We can wait in the main room.” They walked to the table Xena had decided was her favorite. From here she could see the entire room and still have her back to the wall.

He was tired and more churlish than usual. “What’s the matter ‘your’ cook not as good as you thought?”

Xena pulled Gabrielle to sit next to her, leaving Perdicus sitting across from them with his back to the open room. The warrior’s chuckling response made the amazon lose it. “No Perdicus. Rayna is definitely on top of things in the kitchen.” Xena joined in with Gabrielle’s laughter until she saw Karis and Solan appear at the door. Her smile gone, Xena absently rose from her seat. Her eyes never left the young couple. “I’ll be right back.” Silently she was wished for a way for to talk to Karis alone when she felt Gabrielle holding her hand. She looked down at the twinkling green eyes studying her and was amazed when her wish was granted.

“Solan.” Gabrielle grinned up at the warrior then directed her gaze to the youth. “Come meet your Uncle Perdicus.” She smiled fakely sweet at the man across from her, then genuinely up at the grinning warrior.

‘Gods I love that smile.’ Xena brought the hand in her hand up and bent to kiss the palm of her love. She noticed the disgusted look on Perdicus’ face but didn’t really care. Walking around the table she met Solan on his way to meet his boorish relative.

He put on his best puppy dog look. The one that always worked with Gabrielle. He saw the hard blue soften slightly and went for the kill. Hugging her tightly, he whispered in her ear. “Please don’t hurt her, mother.” He smiled when he felt the hug returned in an ‘OK because you asked for it’ kind of way. He was glad that three years with Gabrielle as a mother made him fluent in the language of hugs.

Releasing her hold, she pushed his bangs out of the way and kissed his forehead. “Go on now your mother’s waiting.” She gestured to the now standing Gabrielle and waited ’til his shoulders were firmly circled in Gabrielle’s arm before turning to the nervously waiting Karis. ‘I basically promised Solan I wouldn’t hurt her….’ She thought and a wicked grin crossed her face. “….but I never said anything about not scaring her.”

Karis saw the grin and a surge of fear swept through her. ‘Gods…’ She thought her knees were going to buckle. ‘I thought the hypnotic fear was bad!’ It took her until Xena spoke to control the genuine terror coursing through her.

“I believe you have something of mine.” Xena spoke in a low dangerous voice. It was just enough to momentarily send visible shivers down Karis’ spine. She was impressed, however when the guard controlled her fear and responded calmly.

“I believe I do.” Karis offered the chakram to the waiting warrior.

Taking the weapon and playing with it absently, Xena raised an eyebrow. “That’s not all you have.”

“That’s all I’m prepared to give back.” Karis put as much defiance in her eyes as she could muster and braced herself for an attack. She was therefore surprised at Xena’s chuckle.

“Good.” Xena softened her expression and explained. “If you’re willing to stand up to me…. well….. you must love him very much.”

Karis glanced at the far table and smiled. “I do.”

“That’s probably only going to make what I have to say more difficult.” Xena gestured for the guard to sit, made sure she could see Gabrielle at a glance and related Rayna’s observations of Kima and her own thoughts on Iolaus. “It will only be a matter of time before Iolaus remembers it was Gabrielle’s name at the bottom of the Amazon treaty.” Gabrielle was a fairly uncommon name. She thought Iolaus was smart enough to figure it out or at least his superiors in the resistance would eventually and she knew it.

Karis considered the implications of the resistance knowing Gabrielle’s true identity. “The plan we started in India won’t work now…not all of it anyway.” She saw Xena’s nodding acknowledgment. “…but what if we..” Karis began laying out a new plan.

Xena sat at the table, glancing occasionally at the far table and listening carefully as Karis quietly explained what she had in mind. She was impressed. Xena worried that, if she was actually involved in the resistance, Kima would be able to get a messenger to carry her information while they were in Potidea. Movement of Gabrielle’s hands caught her eye and she answered affirmative. If they implemented Karis’ plan however it didn’t matter if the healer sent a message or not. She marveled at the young woman’s tactical skills and agreed with the entire thing. There was only one immediate complication and she thought she should bring it up now. Xena’s eyes flickered across the room at Solan.

“What about Solan?” She knew her son would be opposed to the plan, partially due to the danger it would place Karis in and partially due to the actions she would have to take to implement it.

Karis took a deep breath and scrubbed her face with her hands. “I love Solan.” She looked directly into Xena’s eyes. “Nothing will change that.” She paused for the right words to come. “But loving him doesn’t change who I am or my duty to the Queen and Nation.”

Xena agreed but knew it would be a hard sell to Solan. “Discuss it with him.” She softened her expression. “But if you need help explaining……..” Her offer of help trailed off as the voices across the room rose in volume.

——————————————-

Gabrielle saw the puppy dog look and chuckled inwardly. ‘Xena will never be able to stand up to that!’ She thought she could see just a hint of smug satisfaction in Solan’s eyes as he walked over to join her at the table. Circling his shoulders with one arm Gabrielle introduced him to the sullen man.

“Solan. This is your Uncle Perdicus.” She shook his shoulders slightly. “He is married to my sister, Lila.”

Solan wasn’t exactly thrilled to meet the man that threatened Gabrielle last night. He knew that Xena wanted to talk to Karis alone and this was just a distraction to separate them. Even before he became Gabrielle’s son, however, the Centaurs had taught him basic manners so he smiled and offered his hand. “Nice to meet you.”

Perdicus apparently had no such training. Ignoring the offered hand and appraising the boy critically, he questioned Gabrielle. “What makes me his uncle?”

“He is my son.” Gabrielle answered flatly. She sat down pulling Solan next to her. Releasing her hold on his shoulders she placed her hand on his knee reassuringly. Solan simply smiled as he clearly read the confusion on the rude man’s face.

“Hold on. I know you don’t have a child. Especially one his age.” Perdicus’ sneer conveyed his doubt that she would ever have a child.

Solan felt the tension in Gabrielle and decided to take over the conversation. “That is correct sir. I’m sixteen years old.” He gave Gabrielle a little sideways smile that she returned. “Gabrielle adopted me about three years ago, when my village was destroyed by raiders.”

“Why didn’t you come home then? Where have you been living?” Perdicus wasn’t an expert in Amazon customs but he knew that men were not allowed in the territory. Everyone knew that!

“I have a home with the Amazons.” Gabrielle was momentarily taken back by the question. ‘He knows perfectly well why I didn’t return to Potidea.’ She thought. ‘Amazons or not.’

“But he is male!” Perdicus wasn’t going to let this drop. He was confident that he had caught her in a lie.

Solan’s chuckle was enough to momentarily stop Gabrielle’s retort. “Sir, The Amazon Queen herself made an exception in my case.”

Gabrielle caught Xena’s glance and signed. ‘I’m going to tell him I’m Queen.’ She wasn’t really asking permission but quietly sighed when Xena responded ‘OK’.

“The QUEEN!” Perdicus was definitely not believing any of this. “Why didn’t she adopt you then?” The man’s sarcasm generated a low growl from Solan. This time it was Gabrielle’s chuckle that cut off Solan’s reaction.

“She did.” She glanced at Solan’s shocked face then looked back at Perdicus. He was turning red with anger. She leaned on the table with her elbows, rested her chin on interlaced fingers and calmly examined his face. “You really should calm down. I don’t think it’s healthy for your veins to pop out like that.”

“You’re trying to tell me you are the Queen!” He had just about reached his limit. He was tired and now very hungry. “I don’t believe it.”

Gabrielle had expected the disbelief but Solan was angry. “Are you calling my mother a liar?”

Perdicus’ grating laugh filled the room. “That’s all she did for YEARS.” His raised his voice in mocking imitation. “No Perdicus I’m OK with the betrothal.” “Yes Father everything is fine.” “Oh Lila I’m so happy.” His veins began to pop out again. “For YEARS you PRETENDED our betrothal was OK with you.”

“I really didn’t have a choice did I.” She saw him wince and suddenly understood. “That’s it isn’t it. You’re mad because when I had a choice I chose them. I chose the Amazon’s over you and you can’t stand it.” She knew she was provoking him but couldn’t stop herself from adding. “I’ll tell you Perdicus.” Pausing for effect she narrowed her eyes at the apoplectic man. “I would have chosen the slavers over you.”

He stood suddenly to get a better angle to hit her when a soft voice in his ear, a warm arm around his shoulders and cold metal at his throat froze his arm in place.

“I wouldn’t..” Xena emphasized her low growl by tightening her grip around his shoulders and tilting the chakram at his throat.

“By the Gods.. Xena….” Gabrielle didn’t want to see Perdicus’ throat cut right in front of her or Solan.

Unable to move his head, Perdicus’ eyes darted to Gabrielle. His mouth was suddenly dry, but he managed to mutter. “X.Xena..” Before his frightened eyes rolled up in his head and he slumped forward.

Xena let him fall unceremoniously to the table and looked at Gabrielle quizzically. “Why does this keep happening?”

Karis couldn’t believe it. She was still halfway across the room. ‘I have never seen anyone move that fast!’ She thought. One moment she was talking to Xena at the table and the next Xena was across the room holding her chakram to the man’s throat.

Gabrielle’s chuckle pulled Karis out of her thoughts. “You’ve almost made me faint a few times.”

Xena raised an eyebrow. “Almost?” She grinned at the now laughing woman.

“All right, Geez..” Gabrielle looked at Karis and rolled her eyes. “One time and she never lets me forget it.”

They were all still laughing when Rayna appeared with a large tray loaded with breakfast. She kept her eyes averted and quickly set the tray on the table. It was only with a questioning look and a glance at the unconscious man did she make eye contact with Gabrielle. “Is he OK?”

With a gleam in her eye that wasn’t entirely for the cinnamon roll she was reaching for, Gabrielle responded quickly. “Sure. He just found out that Xena is well… Xena.” She smiled at the little cooks nod of comprehension.

Rayna recalled the first time she had met Xena in the kitchen back home. “When I first met Xena she nearly made me faint.” She wasn’t sure what was so funny about that but smiled as they all laughed and dug into the breakfast.

Perdicus roused and eyed the women warily as he ate several of the delicious rolls. He didn’t believe that Gabrielle was Queen of the Amazons or that the dark warrior was actually Xena. ‘It was just a trick to make me look bad in front of the boy.’ He thought. He looked at his so called nephew and the tender glances the boy was giving the girl seated beside him. ‘They are poisoning his mind with all that ‘women are as good as men’ load of bull.’ Sitting with his back to the door he didn’t realize when new arrivals entered the tavern.

Halfway through the meal Velasca sauntered into the tavern. ‘No surprise here’ Gabrielle thought until a phalanx of guards followed her. They stood in a rough V formation behind Velasca. ‘Whoa…. What’s going on?’ Several dire thoughts crossed her mind before she calmed down enough to acknowledge the scout. She stood and addressed her tablemates. “Excuse me.”

She was slightly disturbed by the formality when all the guards simultaneously dropped to one knee at her approach. ‘Gods… how long did they practice that!’ Gabrielle was growing more uncomfortable by the minute with the ceremonial pomp. It had been a while since she had to be Queen. Velasca kept with the ritual and offered two messages to her. “My Queen, Regent Ephiny sends her regards and these pressing messages.”

She took the parchments and suppressing a grin, gestured to the kneeling women. “Rise.” She couldn’t suppress the slight twinkle in her eye as she leaned close to Velasca. “If they were so urgent you should have given them to me before your little trip to the kitchen.” She kept her face expressionless at the blush crossing the scout’s face. “You made me wait for breakfast!” She spoke in low tones and narrowed her eyes to impress up on Velasca the gravity of the situation. “You made me wait….. for Cinnamon Rolls.” Gabrielle had a good idea what the messages would be and based on one of them she continued her beratement of the scout. “You will have to be punished for that.”

“Punished?” Velasca thought Gabrielle was kidding but a look at her Queen’s expressionless face, even the twinkle in her eyes was gone, made her uncertain. She was grateful when the others spoke up for her.

“My Queen, we made very good time.” “Yes, I doubt if Regent Ephiny even expects us to get here before tomorrow.” “Please don’t punish Velasca.” It was a tug on her arm that pulled her attention away from the guards.

“It was my fault.” Rayna signed. “Please.” She had seen the stricken look on her love’s face and reading the lips of the guards was aware of Gabrielle’s threat.

Gabrielle simply smiled an amused little royal smile and broke the seals on the messages. One informed her of the official fate of Brenin and the other was as she suspected a recounting of an ancient law. ‘I wondered when she would find that one.’ Gabrielle looked up at Velasca and Rayna now side by side holding each other. “One persons punishment is another’s reward.” She looked directly at Velasca. “I’ll deal with you later.” Shifting her gaze to Rayna she signed. “Do you think you can find something for seven hungry Amazons to eat?”

Rayna did a double take at the Queen’s request. Her words and her body language were at odds and it only took a moment for the cook to decide it was the actions she would rather believe. ‘Gabrielle isn’t going to punish Velasca.’ She thought and was definitely relieved. “Sure.” She gestured for the guards to follow her to the kitchen. “There’s plenty.”

Gabrielle had time to wink conspiratorially at Bekka and Solari before turning back to her own meal. She was startled to see three pairs of twinkling eyes watching her and a pair of astonished ones.

“You ARE the Queen!” Perdicus was blown away by the revelation. Part of the reason he had been skeptical of the claim was simply because he couldn’t believe someone he knew could be royalty, much less Amazon royalty. His eyes widened at the correlation. “That means that…”

“I AM Xena.” Xena finished for him and chuckled. “Not many people… no I take that back you are the ONLY person to have ever felt the edge of my chakram at their throat and lived to tell about it.” She laughed as he turned to look at her. “It’s because of Gabrielle you are still alive.” Her eyes turned to steel as her voice dropped. “I would just as soon kill ya as look at ya.” She saw the man swallow hard and was about to continue the verbal torment when Gabrielle stopped her.

“Xena we need to start for Potidea. It will already be late when we get there.” Gabrielle was anxious to get going.

“Sure.” Xena rose from her seat. “I’ll just go say bye to mother and we’ll be off.”

Solan and Karis rose as well. “We will get the horses ready.” Solan looked at Xena. “Do you think Argo will let me saddle her?”

“I think so.” She smiled at her uncertain son. “Argo likes you.”

Gabrielle was walking back to her room when Perdicus’ sneering words stopped her in her tracks.

“If you get there too late, knock first. I wouldn’t want you to interrupt Lila and Brenin.” Perdicus’ mood was deteriorating quickly. Near death experiences and no sleep tended to do that to him. Passing out in front of the boy didn’t help either.

“What? Who?” Gabrielle was sure her heart was going to stop.

“Lila’s new friend Brenin. They were best of buddies when I left.” Perdicus’ sneer implied a deeper attachment. He was looking for a confrontation and was surprised when they all suddenly ignored his presence went to their individual travel preparations at top speed.

“Gods…” Karis was up and moving with Solan hard pressed to keep up. “We’ll hurry with the horses.” They left quickly.

“I need to say bye to mother.” Xena was torn between getting things finished up to leave and holding Gabrielle to comfort her.

“It’s OK.” Gabrielle patted Xena’s forearm. “I need to talk to Velasca.” She looked up at the concerned warrior. “I’ll meet you at the stables.”

Xena walked part of the way to the kitchen with Gabrielle before heading toward her mother’s room. She smiled when she heard the shuffle of feet at Gabrielle’s entrance to the kitchen.

———————————-

Squaring her shoulders and putting on her best royal pose Gabrielle pushed open the door to the kitchen. The quick scramble to attention almost made her lose it but she held her composure and gestured for Velasca to approach her.

She waited for the scout to drop to one knee and look at the ground before she began. “You neglected your duty for personal reasons.” Gabrielle stopped for a moment to keep a grin from crossing her face, then continued. “I have decided that until you get your priorities straight you will be taken off of active scout duty.”

At that Velasca’s head jerked up. Several of the others gasped and even Rayna who didn’t believe that her lover was going to be punished clenched her jaw as she read the words forming on Gabrielle’s lips. ‘Off active duty. What does that mean?’ Rayna couldn’t begin to guess.

She gestured for Rayna to join them. Unable to suppress a grin any longer, twinkling green eyes looked down into concerned gray. “This tavern is owned by Xena’s mother, Cyrene. She is very sick. I think she is going to need someone to stay and make sure things run smoothly while she is recuperating.” Gabrielle saw comprehension in Velasca’s face and continued. “I would feel better if someone were able to protect Cyrene in the process. I think you would be perfect for this…. assignment….” The smiling Queen offered her hands to help the kneeling woman up. “…You know you’re going to need a good cook.” Gabrielle took a deep thoughtful breath and sighed. “Oh well I guess you’ll find one somewhere.”

Velasca was speechless. She felt the little cook’s arms circle her waist and dropped her arms around the shaking shoulders. ‘Gabrielle is offering us our greatest wish.’ She thought. ‘It will be like a home with Rayna. No more missions. No more danger’ She looked down into Rayna’s liquid eyes. Her thoughts were interrupted by Gabrielle’s voice.

“There is one catch.” The Queen looked at the rest of the guards and gestured for them to go. Smiling satisfactorily as they let themselves out the back door quickly. She turned to the couple and taking a seat at the table, showed Velasca the message about the ancient law, noticing the slight widening of the gray eyes as the scout read the parchment.

“Gods Gabrielle what are you going…..” Velasca’s questioning was halted by Gabrielle’s upraised hand.

“It has actually been taken care of…” She smiled at the astonished scout and quickly told her all about the plan to iron out this ancient, out of date and much in need of change rule.

————————————-

Salla met Xena at her mother’s door. “She is sleeping.” It was obvious that the healer didn’t want the patient disturbed.

“I need to tell her goodbye. We are going to be leaving soon.” Xena didn’t want to wake her mother but she didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye either.

“I’ll let her know you had to leave.” Salla shocked Xena by patting the warrior on the arm. “Gabrielle should get back to Amazon Territory as soon as she can.”

Xena gently removed the woman’s hand from her arm and smiled. “We aren’t going back just yet.” She continued at Salla’s puzzled expression. “Gabrielle wants to go to Potidea before she returns home.”

“Gods above…How did you manage that?” Salla’s shock was enough to put Xena on alert.

“Why?” It was a casual enough question but Salla’s reaction was more than concerned.

“It’s not my place to say.” The healer wrung her hands indecisively. She wanted to help Gabrielle but she didn’t want to betray her confidence.

Xena understood the woman knew something and wanted to wring it out of her. She felt her fingers momentarily stiffen to apply pressure points before a softer side took over. Looking directly into the healer’s eyes she spoke softly. “Help me. Help her.”

Salla would never have believed the Fates themselves if they had told her that Xena The Conqueror would be begging her for help. “You love her so much?”

Xena never broke eye contact. She knew Salla was talking about her begging plea and Xena responded the only way she could. Tilting her head slightly to the side, she whispered. “Yes.”

The genuine love in the blue eyes made Salla relent. “I don’t know exactly what happened but when Gabrielle first came to live with us she had trouble sleeping….” She gestured for Xena to sit in one of the chairs by the door. Making herself comfortable she continued. “… She had nightmares.” The healer closed her eyes and drifted back to the time when the princess came to her. “I assumed they were about the slavers and her captivity.” She opened her eyes and focused on Xena. “They weren’t. She told me they were about her family. Her father specifically.” She took a deep breath and continued. “Like I said I don’t know exactly what happened but….” She paused and continued quietly. “He disowned her.” Salla saw Xena’s nostrils flare and the muscles in her jaw grinding her teeth back and fourth. “She doesn’t think her mother agreed with him but understands why she didn’t defy her husband.”

Xena unlocked her jaw long enough to growl. “And her sister?”

Salla shook her head. “That I’m afraid is a story for Gabrielle to tell. All I know about that is the same as you. She was betrothed to Perdicus and now he’s married to Lila. It really doesn’t take a prophet to figure that one out.”

“I’m glad you are taking care of mother.” Xena smiled at the woman. “I will have to thank Gabrielle for sending her best healer.”

Inclining her head to accept the praise, Salla’s return praise startled Xena. “It was you that did the trick.” She smiled at the shocked warrior. “Knowing that you were here was enough to make her want to fight.”

“Thanks.” She looked at the door. “Tell her I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“I will do that.” Salla poked her head in the door just to be sure the woman was still asleep. Assuring herself that her patient was comfortable she nodded at Xena. “Safe journey.” She watched the warrior stride down the hall and whispered. “Good luck.”

———————————

Gabrielle rechecked her pack as she walked to the stables and was astonished when she looked up. In addition to Karis and Solan all six of the new arrivals were mounted and ready to go. “What are you doing?”

Karis chuckled at her Queen’s surprise. “They are going to guard you.” She smiled knowing Gabrielle felt completely safe in Xena’s care. “They didn’t fight for the honor just to have you run away from them.” She laughed as the guards all suddenly had better things to look at than the Queen. Several of them, it seemed, found the rafters quite interesting.

Studying the guards closely, Gabrielle noticed several of them sported bruises in various shades of purple and a few had some rather nasty cuts that were just starting to heal. “Fight?” She looked to Karis for an explanation, mostly because Karis was the only one that would look at her.

A quiet smile played on the head guard’s lips. “Apparently Eponin would only allow six of them to come….. ” She grinned at Bekka. “…… so they had a little contest.”

Unable to help herself, Gabrielle gently teased the group. “Lost. Huh?” She smiled satisfactorily as every one of their heads snapped to look at her. Her chiding voice and wide smile made them all relax. “You can’t guard me if you won’t look at me.” Green eyes were still twinkling at their sheepish grins when Xena entered the stable.

Smiling at Gabrielle’s expression, Xena checked Argo’s tack, mounted quickly and offered her hand to help the smiling Queen up. Xena looked at the Amazon’s they would be traveling with wrapped one arm around Gabrielle’s bare stomach, leaned close to her ear and whispered. “Gods….. Potidea is going to think they are being invaded.” She chuckled. “We are probably going to scare them witless.” She gave Argo the familiar signal to move and was reluctantly impressed as the others followed quietly and efficiently.

Gabrielle closed her eyes to absorb the sensation of Xena’s arm around her. The warm breath at her ear sent a toe curling shiver through her. She did return Xena’s chuckle and although she didn’t answer aloud she had definite thoughts on their destination. ‘They are close to witless now, my love, but I think you’re right.’ She snuck a peek back at the trailing guards and made herself a mental note to change into her formal Amazon outfit before they arrived. Silently she wished she had her Queen’s mask. Hugging the protective arm around her, she laid her head against the oddly soft yet firm biceps of her love. It wasn’t long before she was lulled into Morpheus’ Realm by the soft rocking motion, steady hoofbeats and the warm comfort of Xena’s embrace. ‘Riding isn’t so bad….’ Her last concious thought as always was of Xena. ‘…as long as someone is holding you.’

——————————————————-

Brenin woke in stages. She slowly became aware of a small bodies snuggled close to her. Cracking her eyes slightly, she saw the distinctive honey-fire hair of the twins. ‘What the….’ She checked the sun’s position out of the window and thought. ‘Sweet Artemis…. How long have I been asleep?’ Gently disengaging herself from the sleeping children, Brenin rose and stretched, hoping her cracking joints didn’t wake the children. She heard sounds from the kitchen and went to see if Lila was OK. She knew she hadn’t always been the best mother but she did remember the panic she felt when Micha had been hurt in an accident. She had always been grateful for the support her sister Amazons had given her. A quiet pang of regret for what she had lost passed through her.

Lila looked up when she entered the kitchen. “They didn’t wake you did they?” She had wanted to let Brenin rest and had intially refused the pleading children’s request to curl up next to their hero. She found her refusal was useless. Checking on the woman a short time later, she discovered her twin terrors peacefully draped over their hero. It was a picture much too endearing to disturb and she hoped Brenin wouldn’t mind that she left them there.

“Nah..” She smiled at Lila and at the memory of their sleeping faces. “They are still asleep.” Taking a seat at the table she looked up at the frazzled mother. “They’ve had a rough day.”

Lila widened her eyes at the understatement and nodded in agreement. “Yeah… I guess you could call it that.” She slumped down in the chair across from Brenin, and sighed.

“I think maybe your day wasn’t that great either.” Brenin clasped her hands together and steepling her index fingers pointed at Lila’s exhausted face. “You should rest too.”

In a totally unconcious gesture Lila reached out to take Brenin’s hands. “You saved them.” She smiled and patted the woman’s hands. “Gabe says you are his hero.” Continuing in a whisper she admitted. “Your my hero too.”

Brenin was too shocked at the admission to say anything. She simply sat at the table with Lila holding her hands and to her amazement the loss of the Amazons eased slightly.

Lila too felt the quiet comfort of the moment. Not since Gabrielle left, had she felt this type of rapport with someone else. She had conciously avoided friendship with other women in an effort to evade Perdicus’ and her father’s snide remarks but she missed her sister. She missed this… and, no matter what her husband or her father said, she decided she didn’t want to miss it anymore.
Part 5
Patches of sunlight filtering through the trees mottled the well beaten path they were traveling. Xena found it too hard to concentrate on the road and look at Gabrielle’s peaceful face so she gave up trying to do both. Slacking off on the reins to give Argo her head, she concentrated fully on the woman cradled in her arms. The others trailed far enough behind that she was able to imagine they were alone on the road. Xena loved this feeling and used the quiet time to simply look at the Amazon’s serene face.

“Are you just going to look at me all day or are you going to kiss me?” Gabrielle smiled but kept her eyes peacefully closed.

“Faker.” Xena’s retort only widened the Amazon’s smile.

“Me?” Her tone was mocking and amused. “I’d say you were the one doing the faking.” Finally opening her eyes she grinned at Xena’s confused look. “Pretending to be leader of our little band when all along it’s Argo who says when we move ….” She looked around. “…and when we stop.”

Xena groaned. She had been totally absorbed in Gabrielle and now realized that Argo was standing, stock still, smack in the center of the road.

“Don’t get me wrong this is a beautiful place.” She patted Argo’s neck affectionately “I thank you for stopping to let me see it, but we really need to get moving.” Gabrielle lightly touched the horse’s sides with her heels and the obedient mare moved a few steps before counter orders were offered.

“No.” Xena’s quiet refusal and subtle pressure with her knees were enough for Argo and she again stood patiently in the center of the sun-dappled road. “We are nearly there and we need to talk.”

They had been sitting still for a while now and Gabrielle knew that the guards would be getting nervous. In an effort to forestall the inevitable story she had to tell, she started to gesture to them. Xena grabbed her hand to stop the motion. The Amazon, knowing her guards better than Xena did, gasped. “Kiss me, quickly.” Naturally, Xena complied. Bending her head forward to capture the waiting woman’s lips she felt a breeze at her back. The wind blew her dark hair forward and the edges of her black traveling cape also surrendered to the whim of nature.

The guards looked at each other nervously then settled their gazes back on the couple. All of them were uneasy at the sight of the darkness surrounding Xena enveloping their Queen. It did seem though that Gabrielle was quite comfortable with the situation. Karis afforded them a small nod of approval at their quick response and signaled them to lower their weapons.

Xena broke off the kiss and nuzzled Gabrielle’s ear. “How’s that?”

Gabrielle closed her eyes at the feel of Xena’s warm breath on her ear. “Mmmmm nice but …. over and above I think…. I just didn’t want you to get seven arrows in the back for grabbing me.”

Startled, Xena craned her neck and sure enough all six of the new guards had a bow in her hand. Several of them still had arrows nocked in them. “Seven?” She looked back at Gabrielle. “Karis doesn’t have a bow.”

The Amazon rolled her eyes. “Like she would shoot you anyway….” Gabrielle laughed. “…Solari would have shot two.” Green eyes twinkled at the disbelief in Xena’s face. “It’s her trademark. One shot, two arrows.” She patted Xena’s arm. “Let me down.” She groaned as Xena gently lowered her to the ground. Standing gingerly on legs used to horseback she grinned wickedly at Xena and patted Argo’s neck. “Is it OK if we take a little break here?” She smiled when the golden mare snorted and tossed her head. “I’ll take that as a yes.” She signaled the others to break.

Breaks were longer than rests so the horses got the burden of their saddles removed for a little while. Gabrielle wished that her burdens could be as easily lifted as the removal of a saddle was for the horses. She sat in the shade on a large boulder next to the road and hugged her knees as the guards and Xena tended their individual mounts.

A subtle signal from Xena informed Karis to keep the guards back. She wanted to talk to Gabrielle or more acurately she wanted Gabrielle to talk to her. Argo accepted a final rub on the nose from her dark haired friend before ambling off into the woods to find a snack. Xena watched the other horses following not too far behind and thought. ‘Maybe Argo IS the real leader.’ She looked over at Gabrielle to tell her she was right but the sight took her breath away.

A single shaft of sunlight broke through the tree cover and unerringly found it’s way to Gabrielle. The Empress spent a brief moment contemplating several dire consequences for Apollo to suffer for such a brazen kiss. She knew, however, that she would gladly endure any of them for the same opportunity and suspected he would too. Xena watched the Sun God’s touch play with the red highlights in the seated woman’s hair and although she expected it was quietly disappointed when the light faded slowly at her approach. “Hey there.” She sat next to the brooding Amazon. The rock was still warm from Apollo’s contact and a wave of regret and doubt swept through her. ‘I only bring darkness and shadows to her life.’ She thought. ‘Why does she love me? She deserves to live in the light.’

“Hey.” Gabrielle tried to stall for time with some small talk. “Warm today.” She squinted up at the tree cover. “I thought this rock would be in the shade. I like it better when it’s shady and cool.” She looked suspiciously at the guards who were disappearing into the trees and then questioningly at Xena. “What’s up with that?”

Xena was amazed at the woman’s comment. ‘She likes it shady?’ It baffled the warrior to no end wondering how the very embodiment of light could like it shady. Gabrielle’s question forced her to look up. The guards were all fading into the trees. “Hunting of course. We have been traveling all day and not stopped to eat once. I’m not sure eight of them will be enough.” She frowned slightly as the pack went off one way and Karis and Solan walked hand in hand out of sight in the other direction. ‘Those two better bring back a lot of food.’ She thought, even though she knew it was highly unlikely. Gabrielle’s quiet admission startled her out of her thoughts. “What did you say?”

“I said. I’m not hungry.” The sadness in Gabrielle’s voice gripped tightly at Xena’s heart.

Comforting people had never been easy for Xena but as she looked into the liquid green eyes of her love all she wanted to do was take away the pain she saw there. Trying levity first, hoping to hear the Queen’s musical laughter, she placed her hand on Gabrielle’s forehead. “Hmmm.. no fever but not hungry.” Narrowing her eyes at the silent woman she jokingly questioned. “Who are you?”

Gabrielle hugged her knees tighter and whispered. “I don’t know.”

Xena quietly berated herself for making things worse. She shifted her body and pulled Gabrielle so that the smaller woman was nestled snugly in front of her. Circling her arms gently around the Amazon she nuzzled her ear and whispered. “Talk to me.”

Gabrielle took a deep breath, leaned back into Xena’s warmth, glad the warrior had opted to remove her armor for the long trip. “What did Salla tell you?”

Xena gasped. “How did you know I talked to Salla about you?”

The smiling Spider Queen let go of her knees and hugged the arms around her. “I didn’t.” She grinned at the exasperated sound Xena made. “What did she say?”

“You tell me.” Xena challenged. “You know everything anyway.”

Gabrielle tilted her head thoughtfully. “True.” She grinned and accepted the challenge. “All right… I can do this.” Taking a deep breath she closed her eyes. She had seen a palm reader at a festival once when she was young. The woman was covered in flimsy robes and bracelets and necklaces that chimed and tinkled when she moved. A gypsy she called herself and she spoke with a definate accent. Gabrielle hoped she could still roll her r’s and borrowed the speech pattern for a moment, lowering her voice a register. “The princess was havink nightmares. They were all about her family. There was a man… Her father….yeas that’s it her father…. he says NO! If you go with the Amazons, do not come back. You are not my daughter anymore.” A quiet catch of breath told Xena the game was over. She held the shaking woman in her arms and barely heard the whisper in her normal voice. “You are not my daughter anymore.”

Xena felt the warm tears on her arm and not knowing what to say simply held the sobbing Amazon until she cried herself out. She held her breath and forced herself to remain silent as Gabrielle began speaking quietly.

“I never fit in at home. Whenever a bard passed through I would con a few lessons out of them, hoping they would take me with them. I would pester philosophers to death about visions and destiny. I studied maps for hours on end plotting the best way to get out of Potidea…” She continued the thought silently.’ … the best way to get to you.’ She felt the tears spilling over her cheeks again. “I knew they would never let me go. I knew I would be trapped in a loveless marriage, in a dismal town, forever.” Wiping the tears from her eyes she looked into Xena’s searching face and thought. ‘Prepare to be shocked my love but you deserve the truth.’ Taking a deep breath she spoke with more calm than she thought she could muster. “What I told Perdicus was true. I would have chosen the slavers over him.” Another deep breath allowed her to continue. “I wanted to be taken by the slavers.”

Xena’s gasp was followed quickly by denial. “You don’t mean that!”

“Shhh…” Delicate fingers combed through Xena’s hair. “I wanted out so badly that I welcomed the opportunity, any opportunity, to get away.” She smiled at the distressed warrior. Combing her own hair back and scrubbing her face with her hands Gabrielle tried to erase the memory of that desperate time from her mind.

“When the slavers took us…” Gabrielle began slowly. “….the men of the village came after us.” She swallowed at the memory of the slave cages. “We were packed in the cages for days before the men caught up with the wagons.” Hugging the strong arms around her she continued. “When they did… finally catch up… Gods Xena it was awful. None of the men were fighters. Some of them had never picked up a weapon in their life. The slavers beat them…. badly.” Gabrielle took a deep breath. “I always wondered why none of them were killed.”

“Hmmm… were the slavers men?” Xena was curious and thought she could answer Gabrielle’s question too.

“What? Of course. What woman would…. ” Gabrielle’s voice trailed off at the sudden stillness in the form behind her. “Oh.” She knew Xena’s past was sordid and at some points evil but when specific incidents came up it was always a shock. Knowing that Xena had inflicted on someone the same treatment she had recieved was almost enough to bring on more tears.

“Yeah….. Oh.” Xena’s rough voice was distant. “Most male slavers are greedy but they aren’t killers. They are just looking to make a quick profit. Once the girls are marked they are slaves for life anyway and killing their family in front of them tends to reduce them to tears.” Her voice dripped with sarcasm. “Most slave owners like the defiant ones. They like to break them in themselves.”

“What?” Gabrielle didn’t understand that logic. “Why would they be defiant with the family still alive? Wouldn’t they be angrier if the men were dead?”

“You were there Gabrielle. When you saw the men go down but knew they were still alive, how did you feel?” At Gabrielle’s silence she continued her own logic. “If the rescuers aren’t killed the captives have hope that they will try again.” Xena slowly finished. “If the rescuers were killed, the captives wouldn’t have had any hope of rescue.” Xena was drifting through the past. “Their spirit will be broken and the slavers won’t get as much for them at the market.”

“So you’re saying, I was lucky because the people that took us were greedy?” Gabrielle thought about the nature of luck.

“I’d say the men were lucky too. Greedy slavers that don’t kill the rescuers and don’t sample the merchandise are few and far between.” Xena didn’t want Gabrielle to ask the next question but knew it was coming.

“When you captured slaves….You killed their rescuers didn’t you?” Gabrielle thought she knew the answer but still closed her eyes at the confirmation.

“Yes.” It was painful admitting the harsh things she had done and she wanted to get off the subject. “So what happened after the men went down?”

“The Amazons showed up.” Gabrielle’s voice conveyed the awe she felt. “It was amazing Xena they came out of … well at the time I thought… nowhere. Of course they had been following us for a while, keeping to the trees and watching for the right moment to attack.” It was a good memory. One of the few during that day. “They fought like harpies in a bad mood and the
slavers went down quickly but not before one of them got an arrow into Terreis.” She felt the tears filling her eyes and didn’t fight them. “I tried to shield her. I covered her body with my own and frankly expected an arrow in the back at any moment.” ‘In fact ‘ She thought. ‘I wished for one.’ “I did get wounded. Look.” She offered her arm to the warrior and pointed out a thin pale scar on her bicep. “The arrow grazed me.”

Xena examined the scar she had kissed more times than she could count, added another kiss to the tally and commented “Nice.”

Gabrielle drifted back into her memory. “Terreis was impressed with my selfless act.” She poured as much sarcasm in her voice as she could. “She said what I did. Only one Amazon would do for another Amazon. She said I was a true Amazon at heart and gave me her rite of caste before she died.”

“She was right.” Xena’s warm purr and briefly tightened embrace emphasized her words. “Not many people would risk their lives for a complete stranger.” She tried not to think about how lost she would be without Gabrielle.

“She was wrong.” Gabrielle’s whisper was barely audible.

“What?” Xena couldn’t believe what she thought she had heard.

Gabrielle leaned back into the warmth of Xena’s embrace and taking a deep breath, repeated her statement. “She was wrong. I didn’t care.”

“You had to care. You risked your life for her.” Xena didn’t understand and was becoming concerned at Gabrielle’s distant expression.

“Oh I didn’t want her to die.” Gabrielle was shocked by the bitterness in her own voice. “But I didn’t care if I died or not.”

Xena cluched at the slight form in front of her. “Don’t ever say that again!” The thought of Gabrielle’s death was enough to make her heart pound frantically. It was difficult not to give in to the mindblanking terror the thought of losing the other half of her soul caused.

“I would rather have died than go back.” She snorted laughter. “The ironic thing is I thought maybe if I saved Terreis the Amazons would let me stay with them.”

Xena managed to control her racing heart, smiled and softly teased. “I guess they did.”

“Yeah but at a price.” Gabrielle pursed her lips and continued. “Father was already angry because Perdicus had found my journal….. my PRIVATE journal.” She gave Xena a significant look, enough to let the warrior know she was featured prominently in those writings. “And showed it to him.”

Gabrielle knew that Perdicus had known for a long time she wasn’t in love with him. He didn’t know however who she was in love with until he found the journals. His rage was nothing compared to the silent disappointment and revulsion Gabrielle had seen when her father read the work. Fresh tears welled up in her eyes as she remembered the cold brown eyes of her father staring at her, through her. She had ran out of the house that day in shame and now wished she had endured the stare longer as it was the last time he actually looked at her.

“It was more than he could take to find out that I wasn’t the little girl he wanted me to be.” Gabrielle sniffed and wiped her tears away. “I spent the next three days trying in vain to catch my father’s eye. He simply wouldn’t look at me and I was nearing the breaking point myself….. Gods Xena..” She looked up into loving blue eyes. “I nearly apologized….” She reached up to brush dark hair back and grimiced. “I nearly told him I was wrong. What a mistake that would have been!”

“What stopped you?” Xena wanted to know and she wanted Gabrielle to keep talking. Holding Gabrielle so closely Xena felt the storyteller beginning to relax as she told about the past events.

“My sister, Lila. She knew I didn’t love Perdicus and, although I think she was shocked at my journal too, she didn’t want to see me trapped in a loveless marriage.” Taking a deep breath Gabrielle continued. “I think she loved Perdicus…..” Smiling up at the woman holding her she confessed. “I saw them kissing once.” She thought wryly. ‘I guess they did more than that ’cause the children would be a little over three now.’

“Loved?” Xena was confused a the past tense of the word.

“He doesn’t treat her well. I think she realizes now what I knew all along.” Gabrielle didn’t like to think of Lila trapped by her own naiveté. “Perdicus was always very gentle in public but when defied in private he became anything but gentle.” Gabrielle reflected on the changes the years had made in the man. Before she left he never would have threatened to hit her in public, and in the last two days he had done just that, twice. The scouts had never reported physical abuse so Gabrielle hoped none had occured…. otherwise she wouldn’t be responsible……

“He hit you?” Xena’s voice was dangerously low.

“No…Not really.” Gabrielle smiled. Even though at the time it was scary, now it was kind of funny. She turned sideways in Xena’s lap and wrapped her arms around the warrior’s neck. Laying her head on the broad shoulder she continued. “You stopped him.”

“Me??” The warrior had not expected that at all. “I didn’t even know you then.”

“Ahhh… but I knew you. I have always remembered the day you babysat for me and gave me that staff to play with.” Gabrielle smiled at the memory.

“It was supposed to be a sword.” Xena tapped the end of Gabrielle’s nose with her finger. “You were all hyped up ’cause I had a sword on my wall.”

“Yeah, well, whatever, it was a big stick OK?” She grinned and took a deep breath. “Anyway… I would go for walks and find sticks to practice with.” She narrowed her eyes and nodded. “There were several trees in the area that would shake in their roots at my approach……” A gentle tapping on her shoulder stopped her narrative. “What?”

“I was just wondering what all this has to do with Perdicus not really hitting you.” Xena didn’t really want to interrupt the story. She loved to hear Gabrielle’s voice no matter what she was saying but the pack would be back soon and she wanted to be sure and get the whole story before they were overrun with hungry Amazons.

“I was just getting to that.” She took another breath and resisting the urge to kiss the soft skin on Xena’s exposed neck she continued the story. “I was out walking with my favorite stick, like normal. I was nearly to one of my best practice trees when Perdicus joined me. He asked if he could walk with me. I told him I wanted to be alone. When his requests for more than a walk became ….persistent and when I firmly refused he became angry. Since we were alone he raised his fist to hit me.”

The Conqueror’s voice echoed in her head. ‘I knew we should have killed him.’ It took Xena a minute to control the surge of anger toward the man. “What did you do?” Xena, although battling her own inner turmoil, was curious about the fighting technique Gabrielle used then.

“I hit him in the groin. Then when he doubled over I hit him in the head.” Warm green eyes regarded her love. “Just like you did when you protected me from that uggy man.”

Xena thought about that for a moment. “No elbow to the nose?”

Gabrielle grimaced “Too much blood.”

That pulled a grim smile from Xena. ‘Too much blood?’ She thought. ‘There are far bloodier things than that, my love.’ She heard an evil chuckle in her head as examples of various killing techniques flashed behind her eyes, all of which featured Perdicus as the example. “Well, lucky for him he didn’t hit you.” Xena knew if he had laid one finger on Gabrielle he would be dead the next time she saw him.

“You would kill someone for me, wouldn’t you.” Gabrielle was not going to kid herself. It had not been a question but The Conqueror’s answer shook her to the core.

“If anyone ever hurts you, Gabrielle.” Her arms became steel to match the tone of her voice and the look in her eyes. “There’s not a word for what I’ll do to them.”

“Oh Xena..” The Spider Queen suddenly found herself at a loss for words. The mixture of emotions she was experiencing was unexpected. She didn’t like the idea of Xena taking someone’s life for her…. of being so protective of her… and…. she really liked the idea of Xena being so protective of her. A distant bird whistle brought her out of her thoughts and she tried to pull herself together.

Xena also heard the returning Amazon pack and summarized the story knowing it was a cold way to put it but continuing anyway. “So your sister married your fiance and your father disowned you.” She looked thoughtful for a moment and asked. “What about your mother?”

Gabrielle reluctantly climbed out of Xena’s lap. She stood in front of the seated warrior and stretched her unused muscles. “Mother loves me, but she won’t go against father’s wishes.”

“Anything else I should know before we get there?” Xena didn’t want any surprises. An overreaction in front of Gabrielle’s family could be disastrous for everyone.

“Lila has two children but I think I’ve covered the basics.” Gabrielle was feeling quite a bit better about everything now. She realized that she wasn’t the same girl that left home to live with the Amazons, now she was Queen and she wasn’t going to hide that from her family. “I really need to change clothes.”

“Oh..hoho….The formals?” Xena’s eyebrows waggled in anticipation. “That’ll show ’em.”

“HA! Now whose reading whose mind.” Gabrielle smiled at the astonished warrior.

“Wow I did didn’t I?” Xena was amazed at her newly aquired ability and puzzled because she had no idea how she did it or if she could do it again. Her thoughts were interrupted by the return of the pack.

—————————————————–

Lila sat for a few more moments enjoying the sisterly camaraderie then patted Brenin’s hands and released them. “My parents are coming over for dinner.” She stood and turned back to the stove. “They often do when Perdicus is gone.” Her husband’s absence was the main reason Hecuba would visit her daughter.

Lila’s mother had made her feelings about Perdicus quite clear to her. Oh how she wished she had listened. Closing her eyes, she remembered that conversation vividly. Her father and Perdicus had just left to celebrate the wedding, and both women hoped the men would be able to recover from their hangovers in time for the ceremony the next day.

——

“I don’t like him.” Hecuba’s usually gentle voice was firm. She wrung the cleaning rag in her hand and scanned the room for something to use it on. Since Gabrielle had left, and now Lila was gone most of the time, working on what would soon be her own home, Hecuba kept her place practically spotless. Finding nothing to clean she simply sat at the table and stared into the fire.
Sitting next to the woman, Lila pleaded with her mother. “Mother please try to be happy for me.” She had been so close to Gabrielle, she didn’t want to lose her mother too.

“All I have ever wanted for my children is their happiness.” She saw the glimmer in her daughter’s eye as she confirmed the existence of Gabrielle. It was an acknowledgement she would never make in Herotodus’ presence. “But what if this doesn’t make you happy?” King Silvas was a fair ruler but he did not, ever, dissolve marriages. She knew, all too well, once her daughter committed to the man she chose, happy or not, she would have to live with her decision for the rest of her life.

“It will.” She gently patted her mother’s cheek. “You’ll see.”

Giving in to the moment Hecuba hugged her daughter tightly and sighed. “I hope so.”

Lila felt the tight squeeze and knew her mother was still upset. She tried to think of something to ease the older woman’s mind. “I’m sure that we will be just as happy as you and father are.”

‘That’s what I’m afraid of.’ Hecuba thought. She released the hold on her youngest daughter reluctantly. “Whatever you decided to do… always remember that I love you.”

——-
“I love you too, mother.” Lila whispered.

“What?” Brenin looked up from the half peeled potato in her hand. When Lila became lost in her thoughts, Brenin had simply looked around the kitchen saw the pile of vegetables and started peeling.

Lila smiled at her new friend. “Nothing… Just thinking.”

“Oh.” The former Amazon continued peeling the vegetables. She thought for a moment about the preparations Lila was making for dinner and teased. “Your parents sure do get the royal treatment… It’s a wonder they don’t come over more often.” She couldn’t tell if it was the heat from the stove or not but Lila’s face was a deeper color when she turned to face Brenin.

“This isn’t for them.” She confessed. “It’s for you.” Lila had not wanted to tell Brenin but thought it might be better than surprising her. Things might get a little awkward in front of her parents and Lila would rather not have to deal with her father’s attitude.

“For…me?” Brenin was actually stunned. No one, ever, had cooked specially for her.

“Well yeah.” Lila put down her stirring spoon and knelt in front of the surprised woman. “You saved my children.” She layed aside the knife and vegetable and held the stunned woman’s hands squeezing them for emphasis whispered. “I will never forget that.” She could tell that Brenin had no idea how to respond so she simply patted her hands again and stood to resume her meal preparations.

——————————————————

Solari approached the couple and knelt in front of her Queen. “The hunt was successful, my Queen.” She rattled off an impressive list of the hunt results not the least of which was several wild sweet potatoes.

The Queen rolled her eyes. “Rise.” She had always hated that kneeling thing. It just seemed so degrading. Gabrielle regretted that Rayna was still in Amphipolis. ‘I love how she prepares those little sweet potatoes.’ She thought about it a little more. ‘It is almost the way Mother used to.’

Karis and Solan returned, to Xena’s relief, with a large amount of firewood in a makeshift travois that was also combustable.

It was only after the fire was started that the guards looked at each other in dismay. They were all perfectly capable of feeding themselves on a mission but none of them were willing to subject the others to their own version of what was edible. Gabrielle smiled and quickly eased their minds.

“Since you all went to the trouble to hunt.” She smiled and sighed wearily. “I suppose it’s the least I can do to cook the stuff.”

All the guards started to protest their Queen performing such a task when Xena chuckled. “I’d take her up on it if I were you.” She smiled at their startled faces. “I can assure you none of you want to try MY cooking.”

During the time it took Gabrielle to season the meat and prepare the gathered vegetables, Apollo finished his daily journey and slowly began to paint the sky. Gabrielle rejoined Xena on their rock to wait for the meat to cook and watched the slowly forming sunset, contentedly nestled in Xena’s arms.

“Wow! I have never seen that shade of red before.” Gabrielle was in awe of the breathtaking sunset. She thought it was because such a weight had been lifted from her and she felt happier than she had felt in a long time but Xena had other ideas.

“I have.” Xena spoke softly into the bard’s ear. “I see it everytime I look at you.” The warrior’s low chuckle and warm breath on her ear made the smaller woman shudder. “It’s the color of your hair.” She smiled at her love’s astonished look and pointed back to the sunset. “That is the gold flecks in your eyes. ” She moved her hand slightly. “That is the pink of your perfect lips.” Indicating the deep color now spreading through the display she glanced at Gabrielle and smiled. “And that, my love, is the shade you’re blushing right now.”

“You can’t be serious.” Gabrielle could feel her heart pounding. When Xena was in a romantic mood it always took her breath away.

“The first time I saw you I thought that Apollo took his inspirations for sunsets from you. Then I decided that he hadn’t seen you yet because he would have just given up trying to paint anything as beautiful.” She leaned closer and whispered. “You were right about the rock. It should have been in the shade. That was Apollo checking out the competition. I guess he’s going to keep trying after all.” She sighed at the futility of it.

“Competition?” Gabrielle wasn’t sure she wanted to compete with a God at anything.

“Well I’m certainly looking at you and not the sunset so yeah…. competition.” Xena settled the Amazon Queen in her arms and would have stayed lost in this moment forever if she could have.

Low mumbling from the pack distracted Gabrielle from her thoughts and she noticed Solan and Karis copying her and Xena’s embrace. The looks the guard’s were giving each other were pensive and she spoke up. “Solan.” She grinned as her son ripped his gaze from the woman in his arms. “How does it feel to be sixteen?” Her green eyes regarded him thoughtfully and glancing at the pack she raised her eyebrows questioningly.

He suddenly understood the looks he and Karis had been getting and smiled. “Was my birthday only yesterday? Wow.” He smiled at his mother and hugged Karis tighter. “It feels great.” He settled back against the log he was using for support and smiled at the belated congratulations from the pack. Solari was the bravest among them and decided to ask the burning question in everyone’s mind.

“How do you know your sixteen?” She knew the last birthday they celebrated in the village had been for his eleventh.

He glanced uncertainly at his mothers and at their nod he replied. “Xena told me.”

Solari glanced at the dark warrior and unable to bring herself to speak directly with Xena turned back to Solan. “How does she know?”

“I was there.” Xena’s chuckle forced all eyes on her.

Solari was still curious and surprised herself by asking the warrior directly. “You knew Solan’s mother?”

Although for years every member of the pack would swear Xena was looking directly at them, Xena returned Solari’s direct gaze, took a deep breath and spoke. “I am his mother.” She felt Gabrielle’s quiet gasp and quickly bent to her ear. “Karis and I have a plan. We don’t have to hide your identities anymore.”

Gabrielle nodded. “I suppose it is only a matter of time before someone realizes that I was the one who signed the Amazon treaty.” She looked up a Xena’s astonished face and continued matter-of-factly. “Gabrielle is not that common a name.”

“You are amazing.” Xena couldn’t help being impressed.

Gabrielle tilted her head to accept the praise and Xena immediately took advantage of the newly exposed area of the Queen’s neck, managing several light kisses before Gabrielle reluctantly pulled away. The dark warrior held tightly to the Amazon’s hands and tried to coax her back. Gabrielle laughed.

“If you don’t let me go we will be wishing for your cooking.” She indicated the spitted meat and boiling vegetables. “It’s going to burn.”

Grimicing at the thought of her own cooking, Xena reluctantly released Gabrielle. She thought about all the Queen’s she had known in her life and inwardly laughed at the notion of any of them knowing where their kitchens were, much less what to do when they got there.

—————————————————-

Lila and Brenin both smiled when they heard two pairs of tiny feet hit the floor and run through the house. It only took a moment for the twin terrors to appear in the kitchen. Lila smiled at the sleepy children and noticed their hair was mussed up. ‘Father will have a fit if he sees them like that.’ She looked at Brenin and rolled her eyes. Momentarily forgetting about her cooking she scooped the children up in her arms. “Hey you two, Grandma and Grandpa are going to be here soon.” She eyed the hair-style sleep had given them. Their hair was sticking up looking for all the world like little red pan horns. ‘Appropriate.’ She thought. ‘Pan is probably the one that gives them the inspiration for all their mischief.’ A slight hiss from the stove drew her attention and she jumped to stir the boiling pot, only to find her arms full of squirming children.

Brenin saw the dilemma and quickly stirred the mixture. “You go ahead and get them cleaned up. I’ll watch the stove ’til you get back.”

“I can’t ask you to do that.” Lila was torn. It would be a great help and she did need to get the children cleaned up but… “This dinner is supposed to be for you, not by you.”

Brenin chuckled. “It’s really not a problem.” She waved the spoon, making small circles in the air. “Go on.”

With a grateful smile, Lila took the children out to the creek. She had expected to get complaints about the cold water. Instead she got solemn looks and a quiet inquiry from Gabe.

“Is Brenin gonna stay with us forever?” His tone indicated that was exactly what he wanted her to do.

“I don’t know honey. She might have other things she needs to do.” Lila was surprised at the flare of hope that shot through her. It would be so nice to have a sister again.

“Maybe if we ask her really nice, she’ll stay.” Brie too wanted their savior to stay. She remembered when she had been scared of her Daddy, Brenin protected her then too. She felt very safe when she sat on the woman’s lap.

“Maybe… but we can do that later. Right now we need to get ready for dinner.” She saw the groans before she heard them. “Com’on now. This is a special dinner just for Brenin to say thanks for saving you.” She smiled at both pairs of twinkling green eyes. ‘So much like Gabrielle’ She thought.

“To say thank you?” Brie was thinking of something.

“Yeah. ‘Cause she could have gotten hurt but she didn’t think about that and saved you.” Lila was sure the children wouldn’t understand how terrified she had been at the sight of them surrounded by the raging floodwater.

“I want to draw her a picture…” Brie loved to draw.

“I want to make her somethin'” Gabe was no artist but he loved to try and build things out of different stuff around the house.

Lila smiled and smoothed down the last of the pan horns. “I think that would be nice.” She also thought it would be a good way to keep them out of trouble ’til her parents arrived.

——————————————————-

Despite massive protests from the pack, Gabrielle not only cooked the meal but served it as well. They all enthusiastically complimented her on the flavor and she modestly denied most of it claiming the seasoning of hunger had more to do with it’s edibility than her meager efforts.

“You are too modest, my love.” She grinned at the blushing Queen and unable to resist teasing the guards added. “If you can cook like this… you would be a welcome addition to my kitchen any day.”

Gabrielle laughed. Glancing at the hard looks the guards were giving Xena, she lowered her voice to a sultry register and walked slowly toward the warrior. “Is the kitchen really where you would want me?”

Xena quickly dismissed the guards from her mind and moved to meet the not so modest after all woman. “It depends on how many tips you have gotten from Rayna.”

“Mmmmm..” They were standing close enough to each other that Gabrielle reached out with her index finger and traced a path up Xena’s arm. “I would love to show you some of them.” She sighed regretfully. “But I really need to get changed and we need to go.” She looked at the stars that were beginning to shine in the sky. “It will be late when we get there but not that late.” She went to Argo’s saddlebags and pulled out a small package. Heading for a small clearing a short distance from the campsite, she called over her shoulder. “I’ll be right back.”

Karis looked inquiringly at Xena. “What’s up with that?”

Xena was slightly taken back by the phrase that was so commonly used by Gabrielle and Solan coming from Karis. She shrugged and grinned. “Formals.” She turned toward the place she had last seen Argo and putting two fingers to her lips whistled loudly.

Karis’ eyes flew open and she jumped to her feet. She addressed the other guards as she looked through her own saddlebag. “You heard her… formals.” She smiled in satisfaction as they all moved quickly.

———————

Gabrielle was appalled at her wish for attendants. Formal leathers were a lot easier to put on when someone helped you …she thought. ‘Gods above you’d think I could at least dress myself.’ Finally getting everything in place she was reaching awkwardly behind her for the last fastener when strong warm hands gently tightened the loop. She turned to see shining blue eyes and a dazzling smile.

“You look beautiful.” Xena leaned forward and rested her forehead on Gabrielle’s.

“You are prejudiced.” Gabrielle teased.

“I suppose love can do that.” She cupped the side of Gabrielle’s face, sliding her hand around to the back of the Queen’s neck and bending her knees, captured the waiting lips. The Amazons would need more time to complete their surprise and Xena was happy to find a way to keep the Queen busy for a few moments.

It was very hard to pull away from the caressing hands. “Xena…. we need to go.” Gabrielle protested weakly and gasped for air as Xena dropped to her knees and attacked the exposed area around the Amazon’s navel. Her resolve to get to Potidea that evening was beginning to weaken. Feeling her knees buckle she relied on Xena’s strong arms to lower her slowly to the soft mossy ground. “Gods Xena… I….”

“Shhhhh…” The warrior’s caress became more insistent as she felt delicate hands begin to explore on their own. She worked her way slowly up to the Amazon’s neck. Nibbling on the tender flesh she found there illicited incoherent moans from the smaller woman.

When Xena heard the soft moans she knew that the Amazons were going to have all the time they needed and quickly put them out of her mind as she concentrated fully on the woman below her.

Gabrielle found Xena’s ear and whispered desperately. “Xena… I need you.” She closed her eyes as a low chuckle reached inside her.

“Gabrielle…. I’m here.” The warrior’s whisper only emphasized her soft caresses. She was very aware of the emotional drain the earlier story had been on the Amazon. So it was with exquisite tenderness that Xena filled her lover’s need.

—————————-

Gabrielle lay in Xena’s arms for several long lovely moments, basking in the afterglow, before she spoke quietly. “Xena….”

“Hmmmm…..” Xena reached out to stroke the silken honey-red hair.

“Gods…. ” Gabrielle closed her eyes to savor the feel of long fingers running through her hair. The warm ripple of love that washed through her when Xena laughed quietly was enough to make her want to stay right were she was. Unfortunately they really did need to go. She turned to find herself captured in passion blue eyes. “Xena…..” Two fingers on her lips quieted her attempt to speak.

“I know it’s time to leave.” Helping the regretful Amazon to her feet she smiled at the once again dark green eyes. “Go ahead…. I’ll be there in a minute.”

Gabrielle nodded and, checking the fasteners on her outfit, made her way back to the fire, calming the pounding of her heart on the way. The scene that greeted her was not what she expected. All of the Amazons had changed into formal leathers and masks. Mounted, each on their own dark horses it was an imposing sight to say the least. Even Solan had changed into a deep burgandy tunic with dark leggings, matching boots and headband. She thought it may have been the proud mother in her but he looked to her very royal, and every bit the Prince. When Karis approached and knelt in front of her she was momentarily confused because the woman held her hands behind her back. “Karis?”

Reaching up with one hand she pushed her own mask up to rest on top of her head and with the other she offered a package. “This is yours, my Queen.”

A surge of hope flashed through her when she saw the package. ‘It’s the right size.’ She thought. ‘Only one way to find out.’ She took the offering, opened it gently and smiled when she saw her own familiar mask staring back at her. “Thank you.” Her eyes were threatening to spill over. “Thank all of you.”

Even through the masks anyone watching could tell that the guards were embarrassed by the gratitude of their Queen. Gabrielle heard a chuckle and low voice from behind her and turned to a sight worth taking another look at.

“Potidea is going to be scared out of their minds when they see you.” Xena stepped into the fire’s circle of light and everyone gasped, including Solan. She had changed too. The outfit she now wore was not exactly formal but definately far more intimidating than her usual leathers.

Deep black leather only served to make the polished metal strips in her skirt and gleaming breastplate armor brighter. Her dark hair brushed claw like shoulder guards as she adjusted the fasteners on her black cape. The gold chakram hanging at her waist and the shining hilt of the sword on her back completed the picture.

“I think, my dear, that you are all it would take for that!” Gabrielle was certainly glad she didn’t have to meet this Xena anywhere close to a battlefield. She closed the distance between them and examined the new outfit in detail.

“What are you doing?” Xena had a good idea but wanted to hear it from Gabrielle.

“Just checking out the competition.” Gabrielle continued her examination.

“Competition?” Xena wasn’t sure that was the right word.

“Of course,” Lowering her voice to it’s most sultry. “Anything that keeps you from me is competition.” She found the last fastener and touched gently. She smiled at Xena and quickly touched every fastener on the armor, not unclipping it but letting Xena know she knew where they were.

“Ahhh…. I see.” Xena grinned and returned the show of knowledge by doing the same thing to Gabrielle’s outfit.

The grinning Queen rolled her eyes and when she heard the fire being doused behind her sighed. “Ready?”

Xena nodded and mounted Argo, leaning down to offer Gabrielle a hand up. The new armor took some getting used to but a few minutes of riding was all it took Gabrielle to settle into a comfortable spot. ‘Gods…’ Gabrielle thought. ‘I hope everything works out.’ It was the first time she had time to truly think about her plans and wondered if she would get the chance to carry them out. Her father’s reaction and Lila’s response would be the determining factor. ‘I guess we will know soon enough.’ She sighed and felt the immediate tightening of Xena’s arm around her. ‘I guess I could always just go and live with Xena.’ Suddenly she wasn’t sure if she wanted her plans to work or not. Being with Xena all the time was a very tempting idea.

—————————————————-

“The children are being awfully quiet.” Brenin was concerned at the lack of yelling. Silent children were not the norm and she knew it. She sat at the kitchen table and watched Lila finishing the dinner. There was nothing left for her to do but she didn’t want to go into the other room. It seemed perfectly natural for her to stay in the kitchen and talk with Lila so she did.

“They are fine.” Lila replied. “They are just getting ready for my parents. They know their grandpa doesn’t like it when they run around crazy so they practice being quiet before he gets here.” It wasn’t quite the truth but it would do. She didn’t want to ruin the children’s surprise. She tasted the stew and satisfied pulled it off of the heat. “I need to change clothes.” She indicated the large number of stains that had accumulated during the cooking process.

Brenin looked down at her own not so clean clothing and nodded. “Me too.” She walked back to the spare room and suddenly realized that she was beginning to think of this as ‘her room’. ‘That is crazy.’ She thought. ‘I’ve only been here two days!’ But no matter how she tried to fight it she couldn’t overcome the sense of peace she had here. Voices from the main room broke through her thoughts and she finished buckling the thin belt Lila had given her. She looked in the mirror and was surprised by the result. Clothes borrowed from Perdicus’ closet were a little large on her but the sleeves of the white shirt billowed out nicely past the edges of the dark green vest. Green leggings and her own dark boots completed the outfit satisfactorily. She ran her fingers through her brown hair and berated her reflection. “What are you waiting for?” She was nervous about meeting Lila’s parents and she couldn’t for the life of her figure out why.

Lila quickly rose from her seat and met Brenin at the door of the main room. She guided the woman to a seat next to the fire and introduced her to her parents.

“Mom, Dad, This is Brenin.” She smiled at the nervous smile Brenin gave her parents. “Brenin this is my mother, Hecuba and my father, Herotodus.”

Brenin studied the couple closely. He was typical man as far as she could see. His suspicious eyes, frowning mouth and thinning hair made him look very grumpy. She was quite pretty, nothing less than what a person would expect from Lila and Gabrielle’s mother. It struck Brenin that if the red highlights were gone from the children’s hair then it would be the same color as their grandmother’s. That thought made her smile a little less nervously.

Hecuba returned the hesitant smile but Herotodus looked suspicious. “Why are you wearing Perdicus’ clothes?” The green vest had taken Hecuba two days to make and a woman dressed in such masculine clothing made him uncomfortable.

“Father…please.” Lila was upset at her father’s rudeness. “Brenin’s clothes got dirty and torn when she saved the children from the flood. These were the only one’s I could find to fit her.”

“What!” Hecuba stood up and frantically looked around for the children.

“They are fine, Mother.” Lila rushed to Hecuba’s side to calm the frantic woman. “You know how they love to play in the river after a rain?” At the acknowleding nod she continued. “Well I didn’t realize the storm was so bad in the north. They were caught on the large boulder in the middle of the river and….” She glanced at Brenin. “Brenin swam out to get them.” Lila looked at the floor. “I shouldn’t have let them go, but I was busy trying to get the cattle back in the corral and mend the fence. If Brenin hadn’t been there…..” There was a tear in her eye when she looked up at her mother. “I don’t know what I would have done.”

Hecuba hugged her daughter tightly. She looked over at Brenin in gratitude and releasing her hold on the guilty feeling woman asked. “Where are they?”

Lila called to the children. “Brie, Gabe, Your grandparents are here.” She turned to her mother. “They will be here in a minute.” She looked at Brenin apologetically. “I’ll be right back.”

Brenin spent an uncomfortable moment, enduring Herotodus’ still suspicious glare and Hecuba’s grateful look before the whirlwind that was the twin terrors ran into the main room to greet their older relatives. “Hi Grandma.” They stopped for a hug at the woman’s seat and moved on.. “Hi Grandpa.” They stopped in front of the man he gave Gabe a hug and gave Brie a tap on the cheek with his fingertips. They looked around and not seeing their mother moved on, to Brenin’s surprise right to her lap.

They each claimed a side, snuggled in and looked at their grandparents with awe. “Brenin saved us.” Gabe said. He looked up at his hero. “She was wonderful.”

“Yeah.” Brie chimed in. “She didn’t even care if she got hurt or wet or dirty or anything..”

Brenin dropped her arms around each child’s shoulder and gave them a little squeeze.

“She was very brave.” Lila reappeared in the doorway. “That is why we are having a special dinner tonight.” She grinned at the children seated with Brenin. “I lit the brush your father has been clearing from the treeline.” She saw their eyes sparkle. “Tonight we have a bonfire.”

“Yeah.” They quickly squirmed to get out of Brenin’s embrace and ran out the door.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Hecuba wanted to do something for the woman who saved her grandchildren and was silently berating her daughter for not telling her beforehand. ‘I could have brought something.’ She thought.

Lila laughed. “No everything is done and it’s all outside, so com’on.”

———————————–

The group of Amazons rode down the main road and as they neared the outskirts of the village, Gabrielle called a halt to their progress. “We need to go left here.” She pointed to a spot in the distance. “You see that bonfire?” She heard their acknowledgements and continued. “That is my sister, Lila’s house. We will go there first.”

Xena turned Argo toward the marker and quietly asked. “How do you know that is where Lila lives?”

If there had been enough light and she wasn’t wearing the Queen’s Mask, Xena would have seen her grim smile. Instead she heard it. “Because it’s the house Perdicus built for me.”

Xena didn’t know what to say to that so she simply went forward guiding them through the darkness literally like moths to a flame.

————————————————–

Lila found herself wishing that her father had stayed home. She wanted the dinner to be nice. Her father’s presence and distrust of Brenin didn’t make things as easygoing as she had hoped. It was by silent mutual accord that he took the chair on one end of the bench Lila and her mother shared and Brenin took the chair on the other end. The seats were the farthest apart, nearly on opposite sides of the fire, but they were also facing each other. They all sipped their drinks and Lila hoped, now that they were finished eating, some conversation would lighten the mood. She watched the children dancing around the fire and was glad she had fixed their hair. Small horned creatures dancing around a fire never boded well for an evenings festivities. ‘Unless you’re Hades or Baccus.’ She thought wryly.

Brenin had been staring at Hecuba for some time and Herotodus couldn’t stand it anymore. “Why are you staring at my wife?” His suspicious look returned. “You’re not one of them are you?”

Brenin had a good idea what he meant by that but chose to ignore it and answer his first question. “I was just thinking that with the fire highlighting her hair it was the same color as the twins.” Before she could stop herself she added. “Gabrielle’s too.”

Even in the darkness at the edge of the fire they could all see his face growing darker. “I KNEW IT! YOU’RE AN AMAZON.”

Hecuba looked at Brenin with a flare of hope. A glance at Lila’s shaking head dashed it quickly.

Brenin quietly replied to the angy accusation. “No I’m not an Amazon.”

Advancing on her he raised his fist. “YOU’RE LYING!”

A new voice from the darkness startled them all. “No She’s Not!”

They all stood and whirled at the sound. Herotodus’ arm and his jaw dropped at the same time. Both Lila and Hecuba covered their mouths with their hands to stop their gasp and Brenin simply stared at a scene straight from her dreams.

From out of the darkness an Amazon appeared, then two more, then two more, then two more. They were in a V shaped formation with the point in front. The point guard looked around and at her silent signal the V inverted itself. She stepped aside to reveal another Amazon. This one it was obvious was an important person. The others masks were detailed but this one was ornate and intricate in it’s design. She stepped forward and raising her mask, Gabrielle smiled at the speechless man. “Hello Father.”

The crackling fire and the soft hissing of night insects were all that could be heard for a long moment. Finally Herotodus found his voice.

“What are you doing here?” His angry voice carried clearly in the night air.

Pushing aside the hurt she felt at his words, Gabrielle took a deep breath, squared her shoulders and fully entered Queen mode. “Well it’s nice to see you too, Father.”

“Stop calling me that! You are not my daughter anymore.” He deliberately mimicked the phrase he used so long ago. He knew it would strike a nerve with her and he was angry enough to want to inflict his pain on others. “And you are not welcome here.” He smiled grimly when he saw her close her eyes. It was short lived satisfaction, however when he heard his other daughter’s words.

Lila saw the pain in Gabrielle’s eyes before she closed them. “That’s enough!” Everyone turned to look at the now angry Lila. Even the children, peeking out from behind Brenin’s legs, tore their frightened eyes from the line of Amazons to look wide-eyed at their mother. She was glaring at her father. “You may be too stubborn to admit when you are wrong, FATHER, but this is MY home. I say who is welcome here.” She took a deep breath, knowing he may disown her too, looked at Gabrielle and continued softly. “And my sister is always welcome.”

“When Perdicus gets back….” Herotodus’ threat was cut off by Lila’s angry retort.

“Perdicus will be gone for as long as he can…..” Her tone was mocking. “He has to finish his delivery…” She continued with a sneer. “…and will want to stay and ‘talk’ with the sorry little barmaid in Amphipolis.” She narrowed her eyes at his reaction to that. ‘By the Gods, he knows Perdicus is cheating.’ She glanced at her mother’s face, felt her heart break just a little and thought. ‘Oh mother…. How have you lived with him for so long?’

Herotodus was shocked and dismayed at the rebellion of his youngest daughter. In his mind blamed the Amazons for her attitude. “I guess Amazons take all my children.” He looked at his wife and gestured. “Com’on. We’re leaving.”

After a moments hesitation Hecuba gave Lila a long hug good-bye and deliberately walked slowly past Gabrielle toward her husband. She wanted so badly to talk to her daughter but for the moment was satisfied with seeing what great shape she was in. The formal leathers didn’t leave much doubt as to the fitness of the woman wearing them. Sleek muscles were highlighted by the fire and she knew even in the daylight the exposed skin would have a golden glow. Her outcast daughter’s soft whisper was enough to strengthen her resolve and continue toward her home with the angry man. She had always loved to listen to Gabrielle tell stories but she had never heard two sweeter words pass through her daughters lips. “I understand.”

Gabrielle watched her parents walk off into the darkness and when they were nearly out of sight made a subtle gesture. Immediately Karis pointed to the two guards standing farthest from the Queen, who broke formation and quietly followed the angry man and his wife.

Everyone was silent a moment longer, until Lila asked. “Where are they going?” She had been amazed at the instant action at Gabrielle’s gesture.

“They will make sure Mother is all right.” Gabrielle smiled at Lila’s concerned frown. “Don’t worry. Father will never even know they are there.” She continued her thought to herself. ‘Unless he tries to hurt mother.’ She winked at her sister. “Royal guards are the best.”

“Brenin told me you were Queen.” Lila said matter-of-factly.

“Really.” Gabrielle drawled and leveled her royal green gaze on Brenin but continued speaking to Lila. “What else did Brenin tell you?”

Brenin felt her mouth go dry when Gabrielle spoke her name. She couldn’t help admire the way the fire highlighted the muscles in her legs and abs as the Queen moved gracefully to sit in the middle of the bench. Her thoughts of Gabrielle were cut off when the children began to tremble. Squatting down between them she circled each of their waists and as they clung tightly to her, tighter than when she pulled them from the river, stood up again, one child on each hip. She looked back at the Amazons. Karis stood to the right of Gabrielle while the others arranged themselves one on each end and the other two behind. Anyone who was watching would know without a doubt that the seated person was royalty.

Lila, however, saw only her long lost sister and plopped down next to her. “She told me you were Queen but she didn’t tell me how great you looked!” Gabrielle narrowed her eyes at that but had no more time to think about it as she bobbed her head and tried to follow the rapid fire words her sister was spouting. Lila it seemed was determined to catch her up on three years of gossip as quickly as possible.

Gabrielle glanced at the guards who seemed amazed that anyone could talk so long without taking a breath and suppressed a chuckle.

At the end of her spiel Lila couldn’t contain herself any longer and gave her long absent sister an enthusiastic, somewhat rough, hug. It wasn’t Gabrielle’s huge smile that eased the guard’s concerns about the manhandling of their Queen though, Karis’ smile and amused comment did that.

“Princess Lila seems happy to see you, my Queen.” The head guard smiled at Lila’s expression. The shock of hearing her title was evident.

“Princess?” The woman looked at her older sister quizzically.

“Of course, ” Gabrielle put her fingers under Lila’s chin to gently hold her gaze. “You’re my sister.” She returned Lila’s smile and paused thoughtfully for a moment before she continued. “That’s something I wanted to talk to you about….” She narrowed and then softened her eyes at Brenin and the frightened children. “After I deal with……” Her voice trailed off when one of the guards that followed her parents returned and knelt before her.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, grinned at Lila and sighed. “Report.”

“Your mother got home without incident. Your father went to the tavern. We weren’t sure if you wanted us to but we approached your mother and she said as soon as he returns and she knows he has passed out for the night, she will come back. Lucinda stayed to guard her.” Bekka sighed at her Queen’s response.

“Rise, Bekka.” She offered her hands to help the guard up. “You did the right thing. Thank you.”

—————————-

Xena barely held her anger in check when Herotodus verbally attacked Gabrielle. She quietly applauded Lila and from the darkness, narrow blue eyes glanced jealously at Karis standing next to Gabrielle. ‘That’s where I should be.’ Xena thought then quietly sighed. ‘It is an Amazon matter…. Gabrielle has to handle it her way.’

Ruling the world was a difficult task for one person. Xena left certain Kings in charge of certain areas and only interfered when circumstances got out of hand. Kings had the power to rule over the land but Xena could overrule any of them at anytime. Amazons were different though, Xena couldn’t overrule Gabrielle’s decisions. ‘Not that I’d ever want to’ She thought.

Her patience was beginning to wear thin and watching Brenin admire Gabrielle, scared children or not, was not helping matters. She held her cloak tightly around her and heard Solan’s feet shuffle slightly behind her. Unless she dropped the cloak or moved no one near the fire would see her or Solan. When she heard Bekka’s report, however, a slow feral smile crossed her face. Slowly and quietly she backed up. Pushing Solan back until they were far enough away from the fire for him to be hidden without her dark form in front of him, she turned and spoke quietly.

“I’ve got something to do.” She smiled at his confusion and chuckled. “You can move closer but don’t come out until Gabrielle calls for you. Tell her I’ll be back soon.” She walked a little farther into the trees and retrieved a flask from Argo’s saddle. She watched Solan stop just outside the circle of light before she headed off on her self appointed mission. ‘This is gonna be fun.’ The Conqueror’s evil chuckle to escaped into the night.

—————————–

Gabrielle waited for Bekka to position herself behind the bench before returning her gaze to Brenin. She was sure she heard Karis gasp when Brenin, using the hand gestures designed for Rayna, silently begged. ‘Please…. not in front of the children.’

Quickly shifting her plans to accommodate the request, she turned to Lila. “I need to talk to Brenin alone. Will you take the children in the house for a while?”

Lila shook her head. “Not before I introduce you.” She called for the children and gestured for them to come to the bench. “Come and meet your Aunt Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle watched as the scribe put the children down and they immediately clutched to Brenin’s legs. Intense green eyes missed nothing as the former Amazon knelt to hug them. The scribe whispered to them and her nod at their query garnered her a kiss on the cheek from each of them. Gabrielle added this to the list she had started in her mind and watched as, with a little push from Brenin, they approached the bench.

“Children this is my sister, your Aunt Gabrielle. She is an Amazon Queen.” She smiled at their wide green eyes. “Gabrielle this is….” Before Lila could speak their names, Gabrielle held up her hand. “Wait.” She smiled at the children. “Let me guess.” She pointed to the boy. “You’re Gabe.” Then turned her finger toward the girl. “So you must be Brie.”

“Wow!” Brie was delighted that this woman knew her name. “Are you really a Queen?”

Gabrielle chuckled. “Yes.”

“And Mama is a princess?” Brie was not quite believing her ears.

Gabrielle nodded. “Yes.” She added. “So are you.”

Now it was Gabe’s turn to speak up. “What am I?”

“That would make you a prince.” She smiled at the boy and turned to Lila at her exclamation.

“Gabrielle! There aren’t any Amazon Princes.” She didn’t want her son to be teased by the other children and she knew he would be, if he went around saying he was an Amazon Prince.

“You’re wrong Lila.” She shot a grin up at Karis. “My son is an Amazon Prince.” Her grin turned to a full fledged smile at Lila’s shocked face. “Would you like to meet him?” She chuckled as Lila simply nodded her head. Gabrielle called over her shoulder to her quiet son. “Solan. You can come out now.”

———————————-

Herotodus hugged his mug as he hunched over the bar. This was only his third and he knew with the meal he had recently eaten it was going to take several more before he could sufficiently forget his problems. He lifted his drink for a nice long swallow when someone bumped into him roughly, spilling almost the entire contents of the mug down his front. “You clumsy fool… Now look what you’ve done.” He didn’t care about his clothes, Hecuba would wash them, but his drink was now empty. He looked suspiciously at the cloaked figure.

“Sorry ’bout that.” The deep voice rumbled. Herotodus was slightly mollified when he heard the stranger talking to the barkeep. “Two more of whatever he was having.”

Herotodus tried to see the stranger’s face but dark hair and the cloak’s hood obscured it. “You from around here?” He sipped the drink the barkeep handed him.

“No.” Xena grinned to herself and growled. “My wife is visiting her relatives. I don’t want any of them to know I’m here drinking.” She leaned closer to the not quite drunk man. “I hate her bastard father and he hates me.” She took a sip of her drink, immediately spraying it all over the bar. “Auughh… you call this a drink?” She produced the flask from her cloak pocket and waving it at Herotodus claimed. “Now here’s a man’s drink!” Grabbing his mug, she added a portion of the liquid to it. She watched with quiet satisfaction as he tasted the mixture and then smiled when he drained it quickly.

“Another round.” He called to the barkeep. He held out his quickly delivered drink to the cloaked stranger and was happy to see another portion of the flask being added to his mug.

Xena punched him in the arm. “There you go, pal.” She smiled at his wince and picked up her own drink to sip.

After several rounds his arm was quite sore, he wished the drink addition didn’t come with a punch every time. The stranger’s constant chuckling was starting to bug him too. He tried to focus on the hand pouring the last of the liquid from the flask into his mug. He was drunk enough now not to be able to see clearly but could still make out the calluses. “You….. s’ordsm’n?” He watched the fingers wiggle and the torchlight sparkle off of the ring the stranger wore.

“I can hold my own.” Xena kept her voice low and deep. “I protect my family when I need to.” She didn’t want any drunken challengers. The rounds that had been served were beginning to take their toll on her too, mostly because she had to add some of the flask to her drinks as well. She knew if she got into a fight now, her reflexes would take over and someone would get killed. ‘Not the best way to start a visit with Gabrielle’s family.’ She thought.

Herotodus nodded. His speech slurring badly. ” Tha’sw’at a man should do. Al’ays shhhhould pr’tekt women…. weak.”

Xena smiled as she watched his head fall forward and hit the bar. “Right.”

———————————————–

Gabrielle was torn between watching Solan appear out of the darkness, and seeing the expression on Lila’s face when it happened. She decided to watch her son and only heard her sister’s gasp of astonishment.

“But… You… He…” Lila wasn’t sure how to ask what she wanted to ask.

Gabrielle laughed. “I adopted Solan about three years ago.” She looked at her dark-haired sister’s questioning eyes. “He was sixteen yesterday.”

“Hello.” Solan bowed to Lila and knelt on one knee in front of the children. “Nice to meet you.” He held out his hand to greet the boy.

“Hi.” Gabe shook the offered hand.

When Brie started to shake her cousin’s hand too Solan smiled at her and kissed the back of it very formally. She couldn’t keep quiet any longer. “Mama he looks like the prince from the story!”

Both Gabrielle and Solan looked expectantly at Lila who took another look at Solan. She smiled at her excited daughter. “I think you’re right.” Turning back to the confused pair she explained. “Several days ago a traveling bard came through here. He was from Britannia and told the children a lovely story about a sword in a stone and a young prince that would one day be king.” She looked at Solan. “From the description he gave, he could have been talking about you.”

Gabrielle smiled and looked at the children. “I love stories… maybe you could tell it to me?” They looked at each other for a moment then turned back to her and nodded simultaneously. “Good.” She glanced up at Brenin, nervously waiting. “Right now though I need to talk to Brenin. Will you wait for me in the house?”

“You won’t hurt her will you?” Both children asked in perfect unison.

Gabrielle shot a startled glance at the nervous scribe. “You’ve accumulated some champions.”

Gabrielle was almost as amazed at the unison of the twin’s voices as she was at the words they spoke. “She saved us.”

Again Gabrielle looked to Lila for an explanation.

“The children were playing in the river bed this morning when a flash flood came through.” She was not a storyteller and she didn’t know how to express the terror of that experience so she simply said. “Brenin saved them.” She shuddered at the memory of going back to the river’s edge later and seeing the rock completely covered with water. Reaching one hand to each child, she stood to go inside. “Com’on it’s time for bed.”

The children took their mother’s hand but as they started walking toward the house they both pulled away and ran to hug Brenin. She saw them coming and bent down to scoop them up, one in each arm. They both kissed her and she returned them in kind, grateful their cheeks weren’t covered with sticky pie filling. Returning them to the ground she gave them each a little push toward Lila and watched them enter the house. Turning back to Gabrielle, she waited for the Queen to finish talking to Solan and signal for her approach.

Gabrielle saw the children say goodnight to Brenin and added another note to her mental list before she spoke to Solan. “Where is Xena?”

Solan shrugged. “She said she had something to do and would be back soon.”

Gabrielle narrowed her eyes. “When did she leave?”

“Right after Bekka came back.” He sighed at the look on his mother’s face. ‘She knows what Xena is doing.’ He thought. ‘Gods I wish I could figure things out like they can.”

Gabrielle smiled slightly and chuckled. “I need to talk to Brenin.” She gave Karis a significant look. “Alone.”

The head guard started to protest then sighed and gestured for Solan to precede her back toward the horses. They were a few feet behind Gabrielle when at Karis’ signal they all drew arrows from their quivers and nocked them in readiness for any sign of danger to the Queen. Gabrielle didn’t see it but Brenin did.

When Brenin saw the signal to approach she did so slowly, hoping not to get six arrows buried in her chest before she could apologize. Suddenly she wasn’t sure what she could possibly say or do to apologize for the things she had done. ‘I can at least show her the respect she deserves.’ Brenin thought and knelt before her former Queen. Gabrielle’s annoyance at the posture only lasted until she realized it was not a degrading act of supplication but rather a genuine gesture of respect. Another note was added to the list.

———————————————

Xena shifted her grip on the unconscious man, glad she had managed to drink only a few mugs of the potent mixture. Her meal had been longer ago than his and she fought a wave of dizziness. ‘Whoa… Now I remember why I don’t actually drink that stuff.’ She hoped she didn’t have a need for it before returning to the palace. She chuckled. ‘The brewmaster is gonna think I set the whole world on fire.’ This particular supply of 200 proof had been in Argo’s saddlebag for several months. ‘I just don’t breath fire as much as I used to.’ She sighed.

She looked around for the house the barkeep had described. “Great.” She mumbled. “They all look the same.” A bit of Bekka’s report floated through her mind and sighing at her own stupidity, she whistled the code for ‘report’. It didn’t take long before Lucinda’s warbling response had her standing in the correct doorway and Hecuba was guiding her to the bedroom.

With Lucinda’s help Xena navigated the hallway and dumped the man on his back. She watched as the devoted if not loving wife pulled the covers over him. Shaking her head Xena turned to the guard. “Stay here and watch him.” She looked at the man with open disgust. Reminding herself that he was Gabrielle’s father and remembering the remains of the meal near the bonfire, regretfully added. “If he starts throwing up….” She sighed and made little circles in the air with her hands. “Turn him over.”

Hecuba watched the new arrival give orders to the Amazon. She was amazed at the response because there wasn’t one, the guard simply sat in the chair in the corner of the room and watched the sleeping man. Hecuba touched the cloaked figure’s arm. “Are you an Amazon?”

Xena smiled. “No.” She patted the hand on her arm. “But I’ll take you to Gabrielle now if you like.” She saw the hesitant look toward the bed and reassured the woman. “He will be out for the rest of the night.”

“It usually takes him much longer to get even half this drunk.” Hecuba had been resigned to the brief encounter she had with her daughter being the only one she would get. Now she desperately wanted to believe it was safe for her to see Gabrielle.

“He was drinking stronger stuff tonight.” Xena looked into Hecuba’s eyes. Blue to blue she promised. “He won’t wake up ’til morning.”

The intense gaze stole her voice for a moment. When she was able to speak she managed get out two words. “Let’s go.” Hecuba had no idea who this woman was or why she trusted her but still she followed the perfect stranger into the darkness.

———————————————————–

“You don’t have to kneel Brenin.” She gently reminded the woman. “I’m not your Queen anymore.”

“Amazon or not, you will always be my Queen.” Brenin countered. She saw Gabrielle’s eyes narrow but she was determined to stick to the truth.

“I have something for you.” Gabrielle produced a folded parchment and handed it to the kneeling woman. She saw a tear in Brenin’s eye when she opened it and read the first line. Another note got tacked onto the mental list.

Brenin felt like she had been kicked in the gut when she read her daughter’s words.

__________

Mom.

I’m not mad at you for deciding to leave me. Ephiny says you did it ’cause you love me. I believe her ’cause she promised and she doesn’t break her promises.

Ephiny helps me with my lessons and Poni says I’m really good with a bow. It’s kinda nice to have a brother too. Phantes is great and we eat lunch together almost every day.

I hope you are OK. I just wanted you to know that you don’t have to worry about me ’cause Ephiny and Eponin love me too.

Love
Micha
__________

Brenin read the note several times before she folded it neatly and tucked it under her belt. As she wiped the tears from her face and cleared her throat, she asked. “How did she know where to send it?”

“Ephiny knew you were tracking me.” Gabrielle saw the startled look on the woman’s face. “She also knew I would eventually be in Amphipolis. She sent the message along with Bekka just in case you had tracked me to there.” She paused for a moment and then asked. “Why did you come to Potidea?”

“I thought if I could get your family to like me then you would like me too.” Brenin couldn’t believe how dumb that sounded now, when only a few days ago it was the most logical idea in the world.

“You thought wrong on that one!” Gabrielle snorted. “The only reason I’m here now is because I heard you were here.” At Brenin’s questioning look Gabrielle supplied. “We ran into Perdicus in Amphipolis.” She didn’t want to mention Xena’s mother just yet. The expression on the scribe’s face at the mention of the man earned her another note on Gabrielle’s mental list.

“Oh.” Brenin asked tentatively. “You heard I was here and came to see if I was going to hurt your family?” She sighed deeply at the solemn nod. “A few weeks ago if I had heard anyone talking to you like your father did tonight, I would have killed them.” She took a deep breath and shook her head. “But now I just don’t know, I feel different.” She looked at Gabrielle and felt a distant longing she was surprised she could suppress. “I still love you….but….I don’t ONLY love you.” She wrinkled her nose. “Does that make sense?”

“Yes.” Gabrielle almost felt sorry for what she was going to ask the woman next. “It makes perfect sense.” She produced another parchment. This time it was an official document and she saw Brenin swallow hard when she recognized the declaration of adoption.

If a child’s mother was killed in an accident or in battle the paper only required that the Queen sign it, but in Micha’s case Brenin was still alive and the document needed the parent’s consent to be legal.

“This is a decision you need to make.” Gabrielle handed her the document. “It’s why I gave you Micha’s note first. I wanted you to know that she is happy with Ephiny and Eponin.”

Brenin took the parchment and nodded. “I’ll think about it.” The spark of maternal instinct Gabe and Brie had fanned in her was beginning to glow for Micha as well.

“That’s all I’m asking.” A slight breeze made Gabrielle shiver. The bonfire had nearly burned itself out and it was getting chilly. “Let’s go in.” She stood and pausing only a moment offered her hands to help Brenin up.

Brenin took the offered hands and when she was standing easily released them. ‘No tingling.’ She thought. ‘Odd.’

As they were walking in Brenin fell back and talked to Bekka. “Bekka, How’s Micha? I know what her note said but…. tell me.”

Bekka took a deep breath. She had never liked Brenin that much and it was difficult to keep the sneer out of her voice. “Micha is happier now than I have ever seen her.”

Brenin sighed and made her decision.

Only two guards stayed outside, one stood by the door and the other went to patrol the perimeter and set up camp.

———————————-

Xena began walking down a road in the general direction of Lila’s house. When they came to a T in the road, to her surprise, Hecuba continued walking straight. ‘No wonder it didn’t take long before Bekka returned.’ Driving a cart on this path would be impossible, but walking afforded many opportunities for shortcuts.

“I didn’t see you before.” Hecuba finally got the courage to speak to the woman again. The authority the stranger seemed to have over the Amazons and the ornate armor she was wearing slightly intimidated the older woman for a while.

“No, I stayed back.” Xena wasn’t sure why she just didn’t tell the woman who she was but something held her tongue. She would like to think her silence was due to her automatic survival instinct but a small portion of her thoughts insisted it was because she was scared of Gabrielle’s mother, of the possible reaction to who she was and the relationship she had with her daughter.

“Then you went drinking with my husband?” She wasn’t sure she liked that particular aspect of the stranger and she let her disapproval seep into her voice.

“I wanted to get him drunker faster so you could see Gabrielle sooner.” Xena’s teeth gleamed in the moonlight.

“Why?”

“Because Gabrielle loves you and wants to see you.” Xena’s flat statement carried clearly through the darkness.

Hecuba considered the quality in the stranger’s voice when she spoke Gabrielle’s name “You love her?” It was an odd concept for her to grasp but Xena’s reply started her mind wrapping slowly around it.

“With all my heart.” Xena heard rustling in the shadows and whistled the code for ‘two women, no danger.’ Upon hearing the response she trilled out a few more whistles and smiled when they were answered affirmative. Satisfied her surprise would be ready she moved on silently past the dying bonfire toward the house.

————————————-

Gabrielle chuckled at Lila’s reaction when she entered the main room. It had taken awhile to get the children to bed and the Amazon invasion of her home was a shock. She looked around and marveled at the scene. The guards each stood in a corner of the room leaving only one corner empty. Brenin reclaimed the seat she had earlier and the small couch was filled with Gabrielle in the middle, Solan on one side and the leader of the guard on the other. Only one chair remained empty. Lila quickly lit the lanterns and candles around the room. Stopping with the candle on the small table next to Karis’ end of the couch. She was about to offer them some drinks when Brenin spoke.

“Lila. Do you have a quill and ink?” The scribe looked at Gabrielle. “I have an agreement to sign.”

“Uhh… I think so.” Lila moved some stuff off of a trunk in the unoccupied corner and dug through it efficiently. “Yes.” She handed the box to Brenin. “I don’t know if it’s still good….” She dusted off her hands. “…. I haven’t used it since….” She realized when and dove for the box, too late, Brenin was already unfolding the parchment she found inside.

“Gods Lila….” Brenin’s eyes went wide as she looked at the document.

Gabrielle didn’t hide her curiosity. “What is it?”

Lila was too embarrassed to protest when Brenin handed Gabrielle the parchment. While the Queen was absorbing the words she read, the scribe found the small bottle of ink and a quill. She wrote her name quickly on the adoption paper knowing it was the best thing for her daughter. She sat the ink bottle on the stand next to her chair and blew on the signature to dry it quicker. ‘It’s the right thing to do.’ She thought. It broke her heart just a little to know that Micha was no longer her daughter. Gabrielle’s quiet voice pulled her out of her thoughts.

“I had no idea…..” The scouts had reported that Perdicus didn’t treat her well but Gabrielle was surprised Lila had taken things this far. She looked again at the parchment in her hands and reread the top. Declaration for Dissolution of Marriage. She took a second look at the date as well. ‘It’s old too.’ She thought. The signature lines were even signed by both Perdicus and Lila… the only thing left unfinished was… “Have you taken this to Silvas?”

All eyes were on Lila, waiting for her response. “Dissolution of Marriage is something King Silvas doesn’t do.”

“Silvas is a bitter old fool.” Xena’s voice forced them all to look quickly at the door. “His wife left him years ago and now he wants everyone to suffer.” She removed her cloak and hung it on a peg by the door. Striding across the room to meet Gabrielle on her way to greet her mother, she took the parchment and a quick tender kiss from her love.

Gabrielle tasted the alcohol on Xena’s lips and looked into her slightly unfocused eyes. “You OK?”

“I’m fine, Gabrielle.” She grinned and raised an eyebrow suggestively. “I’ll show you just how fine I feel….” She looked around the room and chuckled. “…Later.” Regretfully she parted from her partner and moved with only a slight sway toward the couch.

Gabrielle watched Karis quickly suppress her smile as Xena gestured her to move over next to Solan. The warrior princess sat, moved the candle closer and held the document up to the light to read.

When Xena began reading, Gabrielle turned to her mother. “I’m glad you could come back.” She hugged the older woman, tentatively at first and then tighter when the embrace was fully returned.

“She brought him home.” Hecuba whispered. “Drunker than I have ever seen him in such a short time.”

Gabrielle chuckled. “She knew I wanted to see you.” Gabrielle looked over at the couch and smiled.

Hecuba had been struck by the gentleness of the kiss and now the look on Gabrielle’s face when she gazed at the seated woman forced the question. “You love her?” She was trying to understand the relationship.

Gabrielle never took her eyes off Xena. “With all my heart.” With a deep breath, she tore her eyes away from Xena and looked at her mother. The rapt expression on Hecuba’s face forced Gabrielle to ask. “What?”

“When we were coming here. I asked her if she loved you.” Hecuba was embarrassed that she had pried into her absent daughter’s life.

“And?” Gabrielle didn’t understand and thought. ‘Surely Xena said she did.’ To think otherwise was impossible.

“She said ‘With all my heart.’ ” Hecuba’s eyes went wide with awe. “Exactly like you just did.”

“Oh.” Gabrielle looked over at Xena and couldn’t quite suppress a smile, especially when the cool blue eyes twinkled up from the parchment.

Hecuba saw the smile on her daughter’s face an thought in wonder. ‘What does that feel like?….’ She looked from Gabrielle to the dark stranger and back. ‘ To love and be loved in return.’ At one time she thought she knew but now, seeing the look passing between them, she wasn’t sure.

Gabrielle linked elbows with her mother and they walked to the last empty chair in the room. Hecuba began to protest and Gabrielle’s response….”I can sit in the floor…” was countered by Xena’s low rumble.

“No need for that.” Xena patted her lap for Gabrielle to sit and was dismayed at the Amazon Queen’s refusal.

“Uh uh….” She indicated the intricate armor and laughed. “The floor would be softer.”

Dropping the parchment she could only half concentrate on, Xena stood quickly, held her arms out to her side and smiled. “Do you want the practice?”

Gabrielle smiled nervously at the room in general and her mother in particular before she grabbed Xena’s arm and hauled her over to the door. When they were out of earshot she whispered to the warrior. “If you think I’m going to undress you in front of my mother and our son you are drunker than I thought.”

Xena seemed to consider this for a minute then winked and pointed her index finger at the little strawberry blonde. “Right…” She didn’t see Gabrielle’s smile at her agreement vanish when she continued her thought. “… let’s go outside.” Xena grabbed her cloak and headed out the door.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes and thought. ‘Ye Gods…’ She smiled again at the room, laughed nervously and apologized. “We’ll be right back.” She saw the guards shaking to suppress grins and sighed before she followed the warrior out the door.

——————————————–

As soon as the door closed, Karis spoke sternly to the guards. “Not one word when they come back.” She looked at each one of them in turn. “If I hear so much as a snicker, whisper or smirk, it will be NORTHERN border patrol for a month… you got me?” She nodded satisfactorily when they all solemnly acknowledged her order. She noticed several glances at Brenin and only then did she realize the threat she had made. It was common rumor around the barracks that a month of border patrol in the North was what had caused Brenin to snap and start stalking Gabrielle.

Hecuba looked warily at the head guard. “What….” She thought about the right question to ask grateful, sort of, for Karis’ answer to her unspoken, half formed question.

“Ma’am, I would not even speculate what they are doing out there.” The work it took Karis to keep the grin off her own face made her voice deep and almost jealous sounding. ‘Gods.’ She thought. ‘I’m gonna have to send myself North.’

Solari wondered about the tone of Karis’ voice and mumbled. “Whatever it is…. I’ll bet she comes back without her armor.” She wanted to get her comment out of her system before the couple returned. The border patrol threat didn’t scare her but she really didn’t want to upset Xena. Several of her own rules of survival came to mind. ‘Never blow in a snake’s face. Never poke a bear with a stick. And never, ever taunt a warrior when she’s drunk.’ She thought about that and added. ‘Especially that one.’

Lila was becoming uncomfortable with the insinuations even though, considering the kiss, she couldn’t help making a few of her own. Solari’s comment was loud enough for her, if not her mother, to hear and it reminded her a little too much of the snide remarks Perdicus was fond of making. “Mother will you check on the children for me?” She smiled when Hecuba practically jumped out of her seat. “I put them in my room.” Hecuba nodded and headed out of the crowded room. Lila turned to her new friend. “Brenin will you help me with the drinks?” She didn’t like the looks some of the Amazons were giving her children’s savior and thought she might appreciate a little time away from the glares. Heading for the kitchen she smiled, as Brenin followed quickly behind her.

——————————————

Gabrielle nodded only briefly to the guard at the door before peering into the darkness for Xena. When she didn’t see her immediately, Gabrielle turned back to the guard. “Did you see where she went?”

“She went into the barn, my Queen.” The darkness hid the smile on her face. Although she didn’t have anything to do with the preparations she had heard Xena’s whistled orders to Jana.

“Thanks.” Gabrielle absently gestured to the guard as she made her way to the barn. By the time she got there she was shivering. Pushing the door open only wide enough to allow her entry, she was grateful that the animal body heat warmed the interior of the building slightly. “Xena? Are you in here?”

“Up here Gabrielle.” The low voice purred out of the shadows and Gabrielle looked up at the hayloft.

“Xena come down here.” Gabrielle was exasperated at the warrior’s antics. This wasn’t the time. ‘Of course…’ She grinned at the thought. ‘It wasn’t the time when I was changing clothes either.’ She looked around and noticed a shadow moving outside the door.

After considering the wording of the request for a moment, Xena smiled and replied. “Maybe later…. first I want you to come up here….” Gabrielle could almost see the sultry smile and half lidded eyes just from the tone in her voice. “I’ve got something to show you.”

Gabrielle took a deep breath. “I’ll bet you do.” She grinned and then furrowed her brow as her senses caught up with her. She took another deep breath and thought …. nahh.. it couldn’t be… wrong season. She climbed the ladder to the hayloft and nearly missed the top step at the sight.

Xena had spread out her cloak in the patch of moonlight shining through the loft door. She was reclining on her elbows sans armor which was a sight in itself but by the Gods if she wasn’t surrounded by more lilacs than Gabrielle ever remembered seeing.

“Xena! How…..” Gabrielle was overwhelmed. “When….”

Effortlessly Xena rose and crossing the loft linked arms with the speechless woman. Leading her to the door, she pointed to an odd shaped building not far away. “You see that… that’s a greenhouse.” She released the hold she had on Gabrielle’s arm and circled her shoulders lovingly. “Lilacs are all he grows.” She smiled down at the woman in her arms, marveling at the effect moonlight had on her. “You must have grown up smelling lilacs in the air all the time… I wondered why you loved them so much….. ” She paused to see if Gabrielle would catch it, of course she did.

She gasped. “They reminded me of home.” It was a realization that brought tears to her eyes. She had never thought she was homesick but now she realized she was and just didn’t know it. “Gods Xena..” Circling her arms around Xena’s waist, she laid her head on Xena’s shoulder and felt a tiny kiss on the top of her head. She had dreamed this so often in her youth…. to be standing in the moonlight, in Xena’s arms. She stared out into the night and whispered. “Thank you.”

“Gabrielle.. It’s just a few flowers.” Xena was at a loss. She had hoped Gabrielle would like her surprise but this reaction was over the top.

“Not for the flowers.” She smiled up at her dark warrior. “Although those are good too.” Gabrielle took a deep breath and smiled. “I meant….” She looked down for a moment, embarrassed, then back up into the liquid blue eyes that threatened to drown her. “….. for making my dreams come true.”

Xena chuckled. “Well I got lucky on this one.” She dropped her chin to her chest and tapped Gabrielle’s nose with her finger. “You’re gonna have to tell me the rest of them or I won’t know what to do.”

Gabrielle smiled. “OK.” They both heard the soft shuffle of feet outside the barn door. “I think Norin is listening.” She looked speculatively at the warrior. “You wanna give her an earful too.” Gabrielle wished she could have seen Perdicus’ face when Xena started her little game back in Amphipolis.

Xena thought about that and looked at the pulley hanging outside the loft door. “Nah… I got a better idea.” She smiled at Gabrielle, held her arms out to her side and said. “Hold on tight.”

Naturally, Gabrielle complied and Xena grabbed the ropes, normally used for lifting haybales up, to quietly lower them down out of the loft. Suppressing giggles they snuck up behind Norin who was crouched down next to the barn door and Xena whispered. “What are we doing in there?”

Without turning around, Norin waved them off whispering. “Shhhh.. I’m trying to hear…..” The explanation of her actions trailed off when she realized what had been asked. Slowly she turned around to see Xena and Gabrielle standing with their arms crossed in front of them. Both of them had very grim expressions on their faces. “Oh Gods….”

Xena would have tormented the woman for much longer but Gabrielle relented and grinned at the extremely embarrassed guard. “I’d say you’d better get back to your post before Karis finds you missing.” Her grin turned to a smile as the guard made deep tracks in the dirt to get back to the door.

Xena laughed at the hasty retreat and found herself being poked in the ribs. “Now who’s the faker.” Green eyes twinkled up at the laughing woman. “You’re not drunk at all!”

Xena wiped a tear of laughter from her eye and took a deep breath. “Actually I could use a little exercise to get rid of the residual buzz.” She gave Gabrielle a deep kiss knowing what kind of exercise she would choose given the opportunity. Regretfully she took another option. “I’m going for a run.” She headed inside the barn to get Argo.

Gabrielle stayed at the door and advised needlessly. “Keep to the open road. I don’t want you running over unfamiliar ground at night.”

“To the crossroads and back.” She tested the extent of her intoxication. “Maybe twice.” Pausing only for another quick kiss, Xena began jogging toward the road, with Argo keeping pace beside her.

Gabrielle watched the golden horse and her dark shadow disappear down the moonlit road before she chuckled and headed back toward the house. Shifting her path she went around to the kitchen door instead of the main entrance.

—————————————————–

Lila and Brenin entered the kitchen and Brenin couldn’t suppress a sigh. Lila kept her back toward her new friend. “Can you get a tray please.” Her choked words made Brenin pause and then move closer, seeing tears in Lila’s eyes.

“Hey. Lila? What’s wrong? Why are you crying?” Brenin gasped. “Is it because I showed Gabrielle the Dissolution decree?”

“No.” Lila wiped her eyes and thought. ‘I would have shown her that anyway.’ She looked into Brenin’s eyes and said. “I’m crying because you lied to me.” During the short time it took to get to the kitchen she had realized the reason for the guards stares at her friend.

Now Brenin was speechless and could only shake her head in denial.

Lila gave her a hard look and continued. “Everyone of those guards know you. I saw the looks you were getting. You said you weren’t an Amazon but you are.”

Now the scribe understood and took Lila’s hands. She sat down at the table and tried to make the younger woman understand. “I didn’t lie. I’m not an Amazon…..” She looked directly into Lila’s now drying eyes and continued. “…. not anymore.” Holding Lila’s hands tightly enough to gain strength from the contact but not so tightly that the woman couldn’t pull away if she wanted, Brenin began to tell the story of her and her obsession with Gabrielle. She was quietly amazed when not only did Lila not pull away but actually increased her hold on the handclasp. When the story was over Brenin asked. “Do you have questions?”

“You loved her?” Lila was surprised at the slight jealousy in her voice.

“I thought about her every waking moment and dreamed about her every night.” Brenin said.

“Do you still?” Lila looked into the deep brown eyes across from her. “Dream about her I mean.”

Brenin released the hold she had on Lila’s hands, ran her fingers through her medium brown hair and sighed. “Not every night.” Truth is best.

“Glad to hear it.” Gabrielle’s quiet voice from the doorway startled them both. When Gabrielle saw shadows moving in the kitchen she stood by the door and listened to the last part of Brenin’s story. In her heart Gabrielle had never really thought the woman would actually hurt her and now hearing the story in Brenin’s own words only reinforced that belief. She looked at Lila. “Are you Ok?”

“I’m not sure yet.” Lila looked from Gabrielle to Brenin. “I may need some time to sort this out.” She started arranging mugs on the tray. “We better get back out there, those women are probably thirsty by now.”

Karis saw Lila returning from the kitchen with a large tray of mugs and Brenin close behind with two pitchers of wine. When she saw Gabrielle carry in another pitcher, Karis jumped to her feet. “Where’s Xena?” Her first instinct was to protect the Queen. ‘Gabrielle should never be left alone.’ She thought.

Luckily the mugs on the tray were empty because, Lila nearly dropped it. “X..X…Xena? THE Xena?” Gabrielle and Karis’ affirmative nods sent her stomach into knots. Knowing that the ruler of the known world had been sitting in her living room just a short time before was enough to set her shaking. She put the mugs down on the small table, covering the forgotten parchment with the tray.

Gabrielle smiled at Lila’s surprise. “She wanted to work some of the alcohol out of her system. She went for a run with Argo… down to the crossroads and back.”

“She did seem a little tipsy.” Karis commented casually.

Solari snorted. “Horseback riding is not going to do her much good.” She didn’t like Karis’ concern for The Conqueror, it was Gabrielle they should be worried about.

Gabrielle smiled wryly. “I said she was running with, not riding on.” She waited for them to catch on and smiled wider at their gasps.

“Gods… Can she keep up?” Bekka couldn’t imagine anyone running as fast as a horse.

“Oh sure…” Gabrielle picked up a mug and calmly poured herself a drink. Deliberately misinterpreting Bekka’s comment she responded. “Argo is a very fast horse.”

—————————————————

Hecuba pushed open the door to her daughter’s room slowly. She didn’t want to wake the children. She found her caution wasted as they were both laying wide awake in the bed. “Hey you two. You should be asleep.” She sat down on the edge of the bed and rubbed their stomachs through the blankets.

“We can’t sleep.” Gabe answered for both of them.

“Yeah, Grandma, we’re to…. ” She looked at her brother. “What did mom call it? Buggy?”

Gabe rolled his eyes. “Antsy.”

Brie smiled and nodded. “Yeah that’s it we’re antsy.”

Hecuba thought about that for a moment. “Sometimes when your antsy it means your worried about something. Are you worried about something?” She watched them look at each other and then back at her before solemnly nodding. “Sometimes talking helps. You wanna tell me about it?” Hecuba could never quite get over the shock of her grandchildren’s voices speaking in unison but this time it was the words that left her speechless.

“We are afraid Aunt Gabrielle is going to hurt Brenin.” They looked at their grandmother sadly. “She never said she wouldn’t.”

“Gabrielle wouldn’t hurt Brenin.” Hecuba reassured them. “Is that all?”

Another long mutual look and unison response. “We’re afraid Brenin won’t like our presents.”

“Presents?” Now Hecuba was confused.

“Yeah….” Both children scrambled out of bed and went to the table in the corner.

“See.” Brie held out a drawing.

“This is what I made her.” Gabe handed over his handiwork.

Hecuba was nearly in tears at the gifts and sat for a while just examining them before she hugged the children tightly, stood, tucked the presents under her arm and offered them her hands. “Let’s go give them to her.”

———————————————-

By the time Xena got back everyone was sipping their drinks quietly, chairs had been brought for the guards but they remained in the corners seated instead of standing. Hecuba’s chair was empty and she noticed Lila was standing farther away from Brenin. She also noticed the quizzical look Lila was giving her.

Gabrielle had risen at Xena’s entrance and remembering the reason for her run, poured her a drink of water instead of wine. She waited for Xena to sit before making herself comfortable on the warrior’s pleasantly warm now armor free lap, leaving the chair free for her mother’s return.

Xena lifted her chin to indicate Lila’s expression. “What’s up with that?” Her eyes widened as Gabrielle whispered the explanation in her ear. Xena glanced at Brenin and whispered back to Gabrielle. Nodding at Gabrielle’s response she glanced at Karis, then Brenin. Movement from the hallway entrance caught her eye as Hecuba and the children appeared in the doorway.

All the Amazons remembered the terror in the children’s eyes when they first arrived so each guard remained perfectly still so as not to frighten the children again.

Hecuba cleared her throat and said. “The children wanted to say goodnight to Brenin.” She released the little hands and watched her grandchildren as they went straight to Brenin and climbed into their hero’s lap.

The guards found it very difficult to keep quiet at the children’s words. “We wanted to make sure Aunt Gabrielle didn’t hurt you.”

Brenin draped one arm around each of them and squeezed the adoring children. “Gabrielle would never hurt me.” She looked at each of them with narrowed eyes. “You should be in bed.”

They climbed down and when they reached their grandmother Brie took a parchment from her. All eyes were on the little girl as she walked back to Brenin, this time shyly. “I drew this for you.”

Brenin shot a startled glance at Lila and took the offering. She pursed her lips together when she saw the picture. “It’s lovely.” She smiled at the little girl. “It’s the best picture ever.”

Lila saw her new friends effort to hold back tears and moved to sit on the arm of the chair. She looked at the drawing and reached down to hold Brenin’s hand in support. It was obvious that the figure in the center of the picture was Brenin holding hands with Brie and Gabe. There was a house in the background with Lila standing in the doorway.

Gabe approached the chair. “I made this for you.” Gabe handed his hero a small bracelet. It was made of feathers and small odd shaped stones that glittered in the candlelight. “I tried to make it like your necklace.”

Brenin dropped Lila’s hand to accept the gift but was grateful that she didn’t move away from the chair.

Gabe’s eyes twinkled when Brenin examined the gift and smiled. “This is wonderful. You did a good job. Thank you.” She looked at Brie. “Thank you both.” She leaned forward in the chair and hugged them both. It was an unconscious gesture but as she leaned back, she reached back for Lila’s hand, the fact that it was there threatened a flood of tears again.

Hecuba cleared her throat. “OK children you’ve seen she’s fine and given her your gifts. Com’on now it’s really time for bed.”

They reached for Brenin for one last hug. “G’night Brenin. We love you.”

Letting go of Lila’s hand and allowing her tears to fall freely she leaned forward and hugged them both. Kissing each of them on the cheek she whispered. “I love you too.” It took a small push on the back to get them moving in their grandmother’s direction but once started they only looked back once before heading down the hallway to Lila’s room.

When Gabrielle heard Brenin tell the children she loved them her plans shifted slightly and she was super glad there had been so many witnesses to this scene or she would never get away with it. She watched Lila closely and noticed her sister didn’t move away from Brenin even after the children left. “Lila..” She smiled at the small jump her sister made. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” She picked the tray up off the table. “In the kitchen.”

Lila followed her sister into the kitchen. Brenin was trying to get her own emotions under control and each guard was trying to reconcile the scene they had just witnessed with the rumors and gossip that had been spread about Brenin. Karis was watching Brenin closely. Even Solan had a lot to think about.

Xena watched Gabrielle disappear into the kitchen and thought. ‘Well this will make things easier. We need something to fight over.’ Casually, she picked the parchment up off the table and began reading it again. ‘This was written before the children were born.’ She raised an eyebrow at one clause. ‘I wonder if Lila still wants this?’ Xena continued to read the yellowing parchment.

————————————————–

As soon as they entered the kitchen, Gabrielle whirled on Lila. “Are you OK with Brenin?”

Lila took a deep breath and sat at the table. “Gabe and Brie love her.” She smiled as Gabrielle sat next to her. “She is my friend.” Taking her sister’s hand she continued. “I know what she did to you was bad but she is over that now and….” Lila swallowed hard. “… She saved the children.” That was the one fact Lila couldn’t ignore or forget. ” ……I don’t…. I can’t…. blame her for her past. Do you understand?”

Gabrielle patted Lila’s hand and chuckled. “Lila… I’m in love with Xena for crying out loud… you don’t think I know about forgiving someone’s past?”

“Oh..” Lila’s eyes grew huge and round. “OH!”

“Yeah… Oh.” Gabrielle patted her hand.

“But I don’t love Brenin….” Lila protested.

“Of course you do. You hold her hand just like you’re holding mine now.” Gabrielle held their hands up in front of Lila’s blushing face. “I can’t stay.. and you need a sister.” The Amazon continued her thought in her head. ‘Whether it develops into more is up to you two.’

Lila nodded. “I do like having someone around to talk to.”

Gabrielle nodded. “Thought so. OK. This is what I have in mind….” As she explained, it was obvious Lila was going to go along with it and for that Gabrielle was extremely grateful.
Part 6
Xena continued quietly reading, waiting for Gabrielle and her sister to return from the kitchen. She glanced up briefly when Hecuba returned to the room and reclaimed her chair but when Gabrielle and Lila returned she totally forgot about the parchment in her hands. She knew it was show time when Gabrielle accepted the offered lap, nuzzled her ear, and whispered. “Ready?”

When Xena nodded affirmative, the Amazon turned toward Brenin, noting Lila had again taken her seat on the wide chair arm. “Tell me Brenin.” She smiled at the woman. “What do you know about ancient Amazon laws?”

“Queen Melosa had me copy them all down once, and bind them into a great big book.” Brenin looked at Gabrielle questioningly and thought. ‘She already knows this.’

“Mmmm…. Yes, the one we keep in the council chamber. It has all the laws in it correct?” Gabrielle held her breath and thought. ‘Please answer the way I want you to.’

Lila had reclaimed her right hand so Brenin waved her left hand in the air. “All the laws… all the traditions.. all the poems the Queen could get her hands on…”

“Hmmm… Do you remember any of them?” Gabrielle forced herself to breath and noticed all the guards listening intently to the exchange.

“Of course, I remember everything I copy.” Brenin was proud of that fact but again knew that Gabrielle already knew it.

“I see.” Gabrielle tested the waters. “So… if I were to ask you to recite one of them you could?”

“Of course, I know all of them…all the laws… all the traditions… everything in the book.” Brenin was becoming more and more confused at the questioning. She looked up into Lila’s shining eyes and felt a slight squeeze on her hand.

Gabrielle brushed an errant lock of hair out of her eyes and said. “Recite for my guards The Law of Successor, please.”

“The Law of… Wow that would be an old one.. they don’t call them ‘the law of’ anymore.” She felt Lila’s hand tighten and somehow knew it was important to get this right. Clearing her throat Brenin began. “The Law of Successor, sure.. ” Swallowing hard, she closed her eyes and began reciting the law just as if she was reading it out of the book. Which in fact was what she was doing because she saw the picture of the finished page in her mind and was reading off that. “The Law of Successor states that, any Amazon Queen must have an heir of the royal bloodline, at least one year of age, before the fifth year of her reign or else….” Brenin’s eyes flew open and looked at Gabrielle. “Gods….”

“or else she must relinquish the Mask of Queen.” Gabrielle finished softly.

All the guards jumped to their feet, Karis included. Gabrielle stood and held up her hand to calm them. Looking at each one in turn she smiled. “I don’t want anyone to strain themselves with the math so let me tell you. Even if I could find a man that Xena wouldn’t kill..” She glanced at the warrior’s scowl and heard her mother’s gasp. “I still couldn’t have a child in time to meet the requirements.”

It was an outdated law from the time when the Amazons were divided into several tribes. Often the tribes were ruled by the same family for generations. The Law of Successor was written to insure the continuation of the ruling family. Now, however, since there was only one Queen, Gabrielle knew she needed to change the law to reflect the change in the Nation’s makeup. One family, even hers, should not be allowed to rule the Nation indefinitely. For now though the law stood on the books and she had to comply with it.

She let the murmurs run their course and walking over to Lila, continued. “It doesn’t have to be my child though, only my bloodline, Terreis was Melosa’s heir, her true sister. Traditionally…… Lila, would be next in line to wear the Mask of Queen. BUT..” She spoke loudly to overrule the immediate protests and looked at Lila. “No Amazon would follow her. She hasn’t been trained in the traditions. She doesn’t know our laws… and she doesn’t live with us.” Gabrielle took a deep breath and glanced once at her mother before she swept her gaze around the room. “I have therefore decided to name Brie as my successor.” Smiling at her sister and chuckling at the guards murmurs she explained. “Brie is old enough to be eligible and young enough to be trained.”

“I had originally thought that Brie could come and live with me in the village.” She held up her hand to forestall her mother’s protest. “I see now that is impossible. Her bond with Gabe is too close and, unfortunately, Gabe can’t come with us.” That had been the main reason Gabrielle had been putting off this request to Lila. She had fought an internal battle against the necessity of separating the twins ever since she found the law. Now she didn’t have to. “So someone will have to stay here with her and teach her our ways.” Her original idea had been for Velasca to train Brie. Now, however, there was another option.

Gabrielle stood directly in front of Brenin and never took her eyes off the scribe. “Brie will need to be taught by someone who knows all the laws… all the traditions.. everything.” She smiled at the slight widening of the scribe’s eyes. “It will have to be someone Brie trusts and maybe….. even loves.” She saw the tears forming in the scribe’s eyes and quietly asked. “Will you do it Brenin? Will you be Brie’s teacher?”

The entire room was utterly silent no one even breathed until Brenin’s quiet “Yes.” filled the void. “If Lila says it’s OK.” Brenin looked up to her friend’s tear filled eyes and smiled when Lila enthusiastically nodded her approval.

Gabrielle’s soft smile reflected her thought. ‘My little lost sheep has found a home.’

Karis took a deep breath voicing her protest. “She can’t train the Queen. She’s not an Amazon.”

“Hmmm… you’re right.” Gabrielle smiled at Brenin. “You’re an Amazon again.”

“WHAT!!!” Karis used her slight anger to fake being really angry. All the guards present knew that she spent weeks plotting to capture this nutcase she was even going to……… with her just to catch her and now Gabrielle was not just restoring her status but actually elevating it. None of them blamed her for protesting the Queen’s decision, it was just too much to take. Karis saw the guards approval at her outburst and smiling to herself continued. “You can’t do that.”

“Karis calm down.” Gabrielle turned to look at Karis. She waited until the guard was breathing slower and explained calmly. “The only reason she’s not an Amazon is because Ephiny said so… Well I’m saying she IS an Amazon… and I’m the Queen.”

Karis kept up the act. “What about weapon’s training?” Everyone knew that Brenin was not the best at any weapon.

“That is a few years away but before we left Amphipolis, Velasca agreed that if anything should happen to me before Brie is of legal age to wear the Mask then she would be Brie’s Champion.” The mention of something happening to Gabrielle was enough to make the warrior gasp quietly but Gabrielle resisted the urge to comfort Xena, instead she turned to look at Lila. “Since Brie won’t be coming back to the village with us and Velasca is staying in Amphipolis indefinitely, I’m sure that she would be more than happy to make regular trips down here for Brie’s weapons training and to check her progress in other areas.”

That qualifier eased each of the guard’s tension slightly. At least Brenin wouldn’t be solely responsible for Brie’s training. Velasca was a well respected member of the Nation and no one would have protested if she had claimed the Mask of Queen when Melosa was killed. Her participation in Brie’s training nearly assured the girl’s acceptance into the Nation, village raised or not.

“It won’t work.” Hecuba could feel every eye in the room looking at her. “Perdicus will never allow Brenin to stay here.”

Lila looked at her mother and wanted to cry. “Gods… she’s right. I forgot about Perdicus.”

Xena glanced at Karis’ relieved sigh. Clearing her throat, she picked the parchment up off the table. “If this was signed… he couldn’t say anything about it.” She looked at Brenin. “Hand me that ink and quill.”

Brenin handed over the bottle with the quill sticking out the top.

They all watched as Xena made some corrections and listened as she explained. “This was written before the children were born.” She slashed through a clause and wrote some notes in the margin. “I am adding an amendment that says Perdicus can see them if he wants to but only if two Amazon guards and either Lila or Brie’s teacher are present for the visit.”

It was a concession she made for the children’s sake, not for Perdicus’. Xena’s own father had been absent most of her childhood and she thought she would rather have had him around no matter how bad he was. Gabrielle’s continued hope for her own father’s acceptance reinforced that belief. She reread a few more things and slashed a couple of things out before she handed the amended document to Lila. “Do you still want this?”

Lila read the amendment and saw what Xena had cut out. Her eyes widened at the changes.

Xena chuckled and glanced at Gabrielle. “At least I left him with the clothes on his back.” She asked again. “Do you still want it?”

Lila nodded and handed the parchment back to Xena. She watched as Xena signed on the line King Silvas should have and was fascinated when the warrior pulled a small stick of red wax from a hidden pocket of her leathers. Xena held it to the candleflame, melting one end and smearing a blob on the parchment beside her name. No one in the room, except Gabrielle, had even realized it but Xena wore a ring. It was her royal insignia and she pressed it into the wax. No one would dispute the validity of a document with Xena’s seal on it.

Karis was now pacing the floor from the couch to the door glaring alternately at Xena, Gabrielle and Brenin. She was obviously upset at the turn of events. Solan tried unsuccessfully to calm her. When he shot a helpless look at the room in general, Xena rose and moved to calm Karis. Gabrielle watched Xena grip the irate guard by the shoulders and speak quietly to her for a moment before she tapped the concerned warrior on the shoulder.

“Can I see you in the kitchen.” Gabrielle smiled when she spoke but didn’t seperate her teeth even the slightest bit.

That earned the Queen a glare from the warrior. She released Karis and the guard immediately began pacing. Xena took a reluctant step toward the kitchen door and the disapproval in Gabrielle’s most regal voice stopped Karis’ pacing. “You too Karis.”

All the guards watched as Gabrielle, Xena and Karis went into the kitchen for a moment. Sounds from the room made it obvious they were arguing but only bits and pieces of the conversation could be identified.

“..can’t…after all I did…. capture..” Karis’ voice was agitated.

” … don’t blame…be upset myself…” Xena’s rumbling tone.

“…took her side…signed…. how could….” Karis’ obviously answering Xena’s comment. The guards were amazed at their leaders bravery. Not everyone could talk to Xena like that.

“…Amazon matter… ” Gabrielle’s voice was easily identified.

“Karis… right to… upset.” Xena’s low tone barely carried out of the room.

“…defend her……not question … do what she is told…… Queen…” Gabrielle obviously upset and getting louder.

“I could overrule you.” Xena’s confident statement carried easily out of the room. The guards figured they were moving back to the door.

“You can’t, this is an Amazon matter. Treaty or not. I am the Queen. You don’t have any power here!” Gabrielle’s triumphant voice rang through the room. All the guards knew she had won the argument.

Karis noticed the nervous glances each of the guards gave her when she returned from the kitchen. When Solan tried to go to Karis, Gabrielle pulled him away, keeping her back to Xena the whole time.

Xena crossed the room and handed Lila the signed and sealed document before meeting Karis halfway to the door. Everyone heard her low growl. “Let’s get outta here.”

All three guards exchanged looks when the two upset women left.

“Com’on.” Gabrielle pulled Solan’s hand. “I’ll introduce you to your grandmother.”

Brenin was already worried about the argument Xena and Gabrielle were having, knowing it was partially due to her so when she sensed a family moment approaching she excused herself. “It has been a really long day. I think I’ll go check on the children and then turn in.” She smiled at Lila. “Goodnight.” It was easier than she thought to say goodnight to Gabrielle and remembering the Queen’s words….thought “I’m an Amazon again.” She was able to ignore the feeling of the guard’s eyes on her back as she walked out of the room.

Gabrielle counted to twenty before addressing the guards. “Leave us.” She gestured them out of the room. “I’m sure Jana has camp set up by now.”

Although reluctant they followed orders and filed out of the house quickly. They didn’t notice Gabrielle wink at Solan or the slight smile he gave his mother.

———————————

Norin stood solidly by the door when Karis and Xena exited. The guard was curious at the unlikely pair but remembering her last attempt at snooping she held her post when the women entered the barn.

“I had Jana set up a surprise for Gabrielle up here. ” Xena explained. “I need to get my armor.”

Karis nodded and lounged at the bottom of the ladder waiting for Xena to collect her gear. She called up to the loft. “I guess that went as well as could be expected.” She ran her fingers through her wavy brown hair. The plan was to stay in the barn long enough to start the guards talking. Rumors were so easy to start.

“Hey, I can’t find one of my shoulder guards.” Xena poked her head over the edge of the loft. “Come up here and help me look.”

Karis sighed and climbed up. “Where did you leave them….” Her voice trailed off when she saw the collection of flowers. “Gods….” She looked at Xena. “You set this up for her?” The tender side of Xena was something Karis was only just learning about. Traveling with someone tended to bring out all sides eventually. She was already starting to learn that Solan also had a romantic side.

Xena nodded. “Yup.” She continued casually looking for her missing armor.

“When did you tell her about the plan?” Karis wasn’t sure when the warrior would have had time.

“I explained it to her after dinner on the way here. You should talk to her she has some ideas for a few backup plans.” Xena’s search brought her closer to Karis’ position. “You tell Solan?”

“We talked about it when we were gathering wood.” Karis thought Solan understood but was still nervous about her Queen’s opinion. “And she was okay with…… everything?” The guard’s increasing nervousness was starting to show. Her hands shook as she pushed aside the hay to look for the missing gear.

“Yes.” Xena stooped to look between some bales for the armor. “Gabrielle understands. She may not like it much but that will only help the act.” Standing suddenly she turned to Karis. “Are you okay with…. everything?”

Karis licked her lips. “Uh.. I think so.” She swallowed hard, suddenly realizing where she was and who she was with. She knew that there were hundreds of Amazons who would give their right arm to be where she was right now, alone in a hayloft with the hottest warrior in the world. But she was not just one of the masses and the hottest warrior in the world happened to be her boyfriend’s mother.

“I think it was easy for you to act angry just then because it was Brenin.” Xena leaned casually on a pile of hay and regarded Karis. “From the story I heard your seduction of her was quite intense. I don’t think you’ve had a chance to put the experience of her capture in its proper perspective and now it’s catching up to you.”

“I agree that it was the anger I felt toward Brenin I was using.” Karis nodded. “But your wrong about the capture. That wasn’t real.” She sighed and admitted. “It may be more difficult with you though.” She held onto the frame of the loft door and looked out onto the countryside.

Xena smiled and began to move closer. “Because of Solan… because I’m his mother?”

Karis leaned her head out the loft door, suddenly the barn seemed to be closing in on her. “Yes.” She saw movement in the shadows. “They’re out there.” She laughed nervously and joked. “You wanna give them a show?”

Xena’s response was unexpected. “Sure.” Anything the guards saw would only help the rumor mill produce better stories.

Karis swallowed hard and taking a deep breath confessed. “It feels strange to be about to kiss your boyfriends mother.”

Xena chuckled. “You are one of the good ones. My son is very lucky to have found you.”

“Thanks?” Karis was feeling very strange now. The warriors slow sensual advance on her position didn’t help matters at all.

Xena was only inches away from Karis now and both of them were bathed in moonlight. Leaning forward she whispered in the guard’s ear. “We can put on a little show for them and I can let you know what to expect.” There was a slight silence before Karis responded.

“I know what to expect.” She licked her lips. “You kissed me before… in India. Remember.” Karis could feel the softness of Xena’s lips on her own when she thought about the claiming kiss. The warrior’s chuckling brought her out of her memories.

“Oh no. That was an act of the shallowest kind for Iolaus’ benefit and you didn’t know I was Solan’s mother then.” Xena was now warring with herself. Gabrielle knew this was necessary. Gods she even said she understood but somehow it still felt like a betrayal. The Conqueror’s thoughts ran through her head. ‘You want betrayal without guilt. I’m your gal.’ Xena agreed and allowed the Conqueror to take over before she continued talking to Karis. “This will be an act too but we will have to be much more convincing than that little kiss. You will have to forget I’m his mother.” Closing the slight distance between them she slid her arms around Karis’ waist. “Are you sure you want to do this now?”

Karis was barely able to speak. “The guards need something to start a rumor with and it might help me… to prepare. I don’t think I will be able to forget you’re his mother though.” Karis swallowed hard as Xena’s purr ran down her spine.

“I’ll do my best to help.” The Conqueror stared into the deep brown eyes. “Just remember, you don’t have to fight me this time.” She leaned in to nuzzle the guards neck and whispered. “This time… you get to act like you enjoy it.”

Karis thought she knew what to expect. But Xena was right, this time was different, this time when their lips touched Karis thought her whole body was on fire. She couldn’t even think of a word that fit, intoxicating, powerful, sensuous, erotic, maybe none of them, maybe all of them. It took her breath away and became her breath at the same time. When Xena pulled back from the kiss, the guard was grateful for the arms around her. She wasn’t sure if her legs could hold her up on their own.

“Now you know what to expect.” Loosening her hold, Xena continued. “The question is….” She looked into the panting guard’s eyes. “…Will you be able to do what we have to and still face Solan?”

Slightly taken back by the question Karis pulled her fingers through her hair and thought about it. “Yes.” She nodded and looked up at Xena. “I love Solan and this…” She paused and licked her lips. “… or anything else we do won’t change that.” She hoped he felt the same way.

“Good.” Xena hugged the guard. “I think they’ve seen enough. Let’s go back in.” She smiled and stepping out of the patch of moonlight, she gathered a bunch of flowers and headed for the ladder.

A comment Xena made earlier floated through Karis’ memory. “That kiss was an act?”

Xena chuckled and nodded. “That was about what you can expect, it was just business though. My real kisses are a little more…. intense.”

“Gods…” Karis was overwhelmed. ‘How does Gabrielle deal with that!’ She thought. Her already high opinion of the Queen went up a notch.

“What about your shoulder piece?” Karis had almost forgotten about the other reason they were out here.

Xena picked up the pile of armor and rolling her eyes, reached a little deeper in the hay under it. “Here it is.” She grinned. “Let’s go.”

When Norin saw the pair exit the barn she narrowed her eyes. Karis seemed distracted and Xena’s smile was bigger now than when she went in. ‘It took them an awfully long time to get that armor.’ Norin thought slyly. ‘I wonder what else they were doing in there?’

Karis could practically read the guards thoughts and inwardly patted herself on the back. ‘And she didn’t even see the little show. It’s too soon for that’ She admonished herself. ‘We are only just getting started.’ Still she couldn’t help feel a little proud at the execution of the plan, now when they went to Corinth and the resistance probed the guards about her relationship with Xena the rumors would insure her at least minimal acceptance into their ranks.

—————————-

Solari and Bekka exchanged glances as they looked up at the loft door. Xena and Karis could be seen clearly in the moonlight. When Norin told them where the pair had gone the guards were worried about their leader being alone with the dangerous woman and by mutual consent went to check on her. They were both stunned when they saw Xena put her arms around Karis and kiss her.

Solari’s mind whirled at the implications. ‘How can they do that?’ The betrayal of the Queen was something that she wouldn’t discount from Xena. The stories of her legendary rise to power didn’t discount anything, but for Karis to do something like this was inconceivable. Both guards were silent on the walk back to the campsite.

—————————————–

Hecuba watched Xena and the guard leave. She didn’t know if it was the hopeful mother in her or just years of life experience, but she did know that despite the argument, her daughter and the warrior were very much in love. ‘So that was Xena.’ The older woman’s eyes shined at her wayward daughter. ‘She found her dream after all.’ A slight smile played on her lips and she continued her thought. ‘Good.’

Gabrielle smiled at the look in her mother’s eyes and put her arm around Solan’s shoulder. “Mother, I’d like you to meet Solan. He’s my son.” She gave his shoulders a little squeeze.

Hecuba looked at the young man. ‘He doesn’t look much younger than her’ The older woman’s
face betrayed her thoughts.

Gabrielle laughed. “I adopted him about three years ago.” A proud glance at her son and
another little squeeze. “He was sixteen yesterday.”

“Nice to meet you.” She gave Solan a polite smile and a little nod.

Solan smiled at the older woman and offered his hand. “Nice to meet you, too.” He was quietly
disappointed when his newest grandmother shook his hand politely. Xena’s mother had
accepted him immediately.

Gabrielle saw the disappointment on Solan’s face. She knew what her father’s feelings about
adoption were but didn’t think her mother felt the same way. “Mother. Father isn’t here now.” It
was a gentle reminder tinged with the hope that at least one of her parents would accept her
son.

Hecuba realized that she had tempered her reaction to the boy based on what her husband
would expect. She silently berated herself for that and quickly pulled the boy into a nice to see
you grandmotherly type hug.

Gabrielle clamped her lips shut with her fingers and tried to hold back the tears she felt forming when her mother hugged Solan. She let out a short burst of laughter when Hecuba, looking over Solan’s shoulder, reached one arm to her and made it a three way group hug. At that moment Gabrielle was absolutely positive that the only person who gave better hugs than her mother was Xena.

“Ahem…” Lila cleared her throat. “Can anyone get in on this?” She smiled as two arms reached out to include her in the family embrace.

None of them knew how long they stood there wrapped in each others arms but Gabrielle knew that her tears of joy had dried. She reluctantly began to disengage from the others and Solan did as well.

He notice the fire in the fireplace dying down and the meager supply of wood next to the poker. “Where is your wood pile? I’ll go get some more wood for the fire.”

Lila was floored and blurted. “Carrying wood is a woman’s work!” There were many lessons her father had ingrained in her. The line between a woman’s chores and a man’s work was only one of them.

Gabrielle was about to berate her sister for the comment when Solan’s quiet laugh and comment stopped her thought.

“Aunt Lila. In the Amazon Nation….. EVERYTHING …is a woman’s work.” He smiled, laughed at her reaction and asked again. “Where’s the woodpile?”

Lila quirked her mouth in an embarrassed half smile. “Out the kitchen door, to the left.” Her eyes twinkled at his back when he turned to follow her directions.

Hecuba too watched him go quickly to his self-appointed task and commented. “At least there is one sensible man in the family.”

Gabrielle was taken back by her mother’s comment. ‘Solan is still a boy.’ She thought. Then she looked at the retreating form again. He was slightly taller than she was now and his shoulders were broader. The slight bulge of his biceps was noticeable even under the heavy tunic he wore. ‘Gods… when did he grow up?’ Two days ago he was twelve and today he was sixteen. ‘I’ve missed four years in an eyeblink.’ She knew that soon he would be making a life of his own and suddenly she felt a great empathy with Xena. ‘She’s missed his whole life.’ The loss that must be to her love nearly drove her to tears, much to her mother’s dismay.

“Gabrielle…. Gabrielle, what’s wrong?” Hecuba and Lila both moved to comfort the teary-eyed woman.

“I just realized he IS a man.” Gabrielle was at a loss to explain the feeling to her mother, but somehow Hecuba understood.

“Don’t worry.” She wrapped her arms around her oldest daughter. “He will always be your son. No matter how old he gets.” She looked at the disbelief in her daughter’s green eyes and laughed. “Just like no matter how old you get….” Holding the green eyes firmly in her blue ones she continued softly. “….you will always be my daughter.”

Lila didn’t try to get in on this hug.

—————————————————–

Karis and Xena were nearly to the door when a shadow behind the house caught both their attention. Karis quietly told Norin to hold her post as she circled left around the house. Xena dropped her armor and went around to the right. Silently, the women crept toward the unknown presence. Pressed against the wall of the house Karis cleared her mind and waited for the approaching footsteps to be within a few strides of her hiding place before jumping at the intruder. She nearly got a armful of wood in the face when Solan was startled into dropping most of the bundle he was carrying.

“Karis!!? Whoa. Wait. It’s me…” He waited a moment for Karis to recognize him before he came any closer. He had seen her in tactical games before and knew if she was focused on her objective it took a moment for her to control her reflexes.

“Solan? What…” Karis looked at the pile of wood at his feet and the larger pile behind him. “Oh…Gods don’t do that!” She ran her fingers through her hair and smiled. “You scared a years growth out of me!”

Tossing the last piece of wood in his hand casually over his shoulder, Solan closed the distance between them. “Good.” He smiled and pulled her close. “Now we are only 1 year apart.”

Karis felt her arms slide around his waist and up his back completely on their own. When she felt Solan’s arms circle her waist and his soft lips on her own, she couldn’t help compare the feeling with her earlier experience in the loft. It only took a moment to decide that she liked this much better. ‘Genuine love beats fake lust, everytime.’ she thought.

Solan saw the look in her eye and swallowed hard. He knew what she was thinking about but wasn’t sure the outcome. He forced himself to ask. “So…. how do I compare?” It was odd to think about competing with his mother in this particular area.

As intense as kissing Xena was at the time, Karis could barely recall it now. She gently smoothed his worried forehead and pushed his hair back over his shoulders. “I thought we talked about that? You know it’s all just an act with her right?”

Solan sighed. “I know… but…” He tightened his grip on the guard. “… I didn’t expect to feel so…” He didn’t know the right word for his mixed emotions on the subject.

“Jealous?” Karis smiled at his sheepish grin. “Trust me.” She found his ear and gently nibbled on the soft lobe. “You have nothing to worry about.” Her reassurances were quieted as Solan moved to capture her lips.

——————————————

Xena heard Solan identify himself. She watched until Karis recognized him and they embraced before she melted back into the darkness. ‘They need to talk.’ She thought. Retracing her steps she retrieved her armor and the flowers before making her way back to the front door. Shrugging at Norin’s curious look she simply said. “Solan.” before she continued into the house.

When the door opened all three occupants of the couch looked up. The sudden silence made the sound of Xena’s armor hitting the floor echo loudly in the room. They had obviously been in a deep disscussion and Xena almost felt like an intruder, until Gabrielle smiled at her. ‘Gods….’ Xena felt her heart pound as the green eyes twinkled with happiness. ‘She is so beautiful.’ It was a thought that brought a smile unbidden to the warrior’s face. Her smile widened as Gabrielle rose and crossed the room to meet her.

“Everything go okay?” Gabrielle had assured Xena that she was okay with the details of the plan. It was after all only an act right? Still she couldn’t help feel a little….

Xena raised her eyebrow at the jealous tinge in the question. “Everything went fine.” With a slight flourish and a bow she presented the small bunch of flowers to the Amazon. “You okay?”

Gabrielle covered the warrior’s hand with her own to accept the flowers. She inhaled the familiar scent and threw her arms around Xena’s neck. “I’m fine.” She released the hug and echoed the warrior’s own earlier comment. “I’ll show you just how fine I feel….” She paused to glance at her mother and sister before adding a sultry. “….Later.”

Xena smiled at Gabrielle’s waiting relatives, leaned closer to the Amazon and, with a little sideways glance, spoke quietly. “Can’t wait.”

——————————————

Brenin quietly opened the door to Lila’s room. She smiled at the children’s peaceful faces. ‘I get to stay.’ She thought. ‘I get another chance.’ It was something that she had never even considered a possibility. Wandering through the countryside, alone, was the only thing she had to look forward to until Gabrielle forgave her. ‘I won’t let you down Gabrielle.’ The scribe’s thoughts were echoed the gentle smile on her face. ‘I’ll be sure that Brie is ready when you are.’ She knew that it was not only when the Queen died that the Successor took over. The Queen could also decide to step down in favor of the younger candidate. Brenin suspected that Gabrielle would do just that when she was sure that Brie could handle the job. She watched the sleeping children just long enough to assure herself that they were all right before moving to her own room. It had been a long day and she didn’t even bother taking off her clothes before she collapsed on the bed, asleep nearly as soon as her head touched the pillow.

—————————————–

Xena noticed as she and Gabrielle joined Lila and Hecuba by the fire the Amazon’s relatives became very nervous. She tried not to let it bother her. In the bad old days she had always wanted to see that look of fear in people’s eyes. ‘Yeah.’ The Conqueror’s chuckle echoed in her head. ‘That’s when we did our job right!’ The Warrior Princess nearly snarled at the thought. ‘This is Gabrielle’s family.’ The Conqueror’s retort stunned her mostly because she agreed with it. ‘NO! We are her family. You and me and Solan.’ Swallowing hard Xena added quietly. ‘AND Lila, Brie, Gabe, and Hecuba.’ It was too soon to add Karis to the list but Xena had the feeling she would be doing just that eventually. She felt Gabrielle’s hand on her forearm and focused on the Amazon’s question.

“Xena are you okay?” Gabrielle could feel the shifting tension in the muscle under her hand and knew that The Conqueror was again tormenting her.

Patting the hand reassuringly Xena smiled. “Yeah.. I think she’ll behave now.” Clenching her teeth at the laughter in her head and the lilting voice. ‘That’s what you think.’ Xena sat on the couch and pressed the palms of her hands over her eyes for a moment. ‘Why are you back now? We aren’t in any danger here. There are no enemies.’ Xena was actually confused by The Conqueror’s sudden reemergence. ‘I’m just practicing for when we go home. I have to be ready. You can’t act all mushy when we’re there……. unless you want to die?’ Xena took a deep breath. ‘No. You’re right.’ The Warrior Princess conceded. ‘You need to be ready.’ She almost pleaded with her dark sister. ‘But not now okay?’ The Conqueror gloated at the victory and graciously granted the request. ‘Okay. Not tonight….but soon.’

Gabrielle looked at the clenching muscles in Xena’s jaw. Sitting next to the troubled woman she draped her arm around Xena’s shoulder and spoke quietly. “Are you sure?”

Xena didn’t care who was watching when she looked into concerned green eyes. She simply leaned over and kissed the woman she loved. “Yes. I’m sure.” She held the green gaze in her clear blue eyes until Hecuba clearing her throat attracted their attention.

“It’s getting pretty late. I think I should go home.” Seeing the disappointment in Gabrielle’s eyes the older woman promised. “I’ll come back in the morning.” She patted Lila’s hand and rose from her chair.

Gabrielle walked to the door with her mother and indulged in a final hug before opening the door. Norin, who was leaning against the wall, straightened quickly when Gabrielle spoke.

“Escort my mother home.” She nodded once at Norin’s salute. Turning to her mother she continued. “Do you want the guards to stay with you tonight?”

Hecuba considered her daughter’s offer before quietly refusing. “No.” She smiled at the reaction. “I think it’s better if there aren’t any Amazons around when he wakes up.”

Gabrielle nodded and continued her orders to the guard. “When you and Lucinda return you may go back to camp. We won’t be needing a guard tonight.” Tilting her head to acknowledge Norin’s bow, Gabrielle turned to her mother. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

She watched until the pair were out of sight before reentering the house. Solan and Karis had returned with two great armfuls of wood and Solan was busy stacking it into the neat little piles he was so proud of. Lila seemed to have gotten over her reaction to Xena and the two looked like they were deep into a discussion until they noticed her at the door and stood quickly. ‘Uh Oh.’ Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed suspiciously at the twinkling blue eyes. ‘Now what’s she got planned?’ She watched a look of utter innocence pass over the face of her love and then no expression at all, except the twinkle in her eye. Lila didn’t meet her eye, suddenly finding the floor extremely interesting. ‘Double Uh Oh.’ Gabrielle thought.

Lila took a deep breath and spoke quietly to her sister. “I put the children in my room so there is a room available if you want to sleep inside.” She saw Gabrielle take a breath to answer when Xena spoke up.

“I think it would be better for Solan to sleep inside.” Xena smiled at her son then looked at Lila. “Gabrielle and I can stay in the loft, if you have extra blankets.”

Lila shook her head. “I only have two extras. That won’t be enough.. it’s really pretty cold tonight.”

Xena and Gabrielle both laughed at that. Gabrielle glanced at her now smiling warrior and gripped her sister’s shoulder forcing eye contact. “I don’t think we will have any problem keeping warm.” She raised an eyebrow and grinned as Lila’s eyes widened and a quiet ‘Oh’ formed on her lips.

Lila quickly got the blankets and Gabrielle accepted them with a smile. “Thanks.” The sisters shared a quick hug goodnight before Lila turned to her new nephew. “I’ll leave the children’s room door open for you.” She hugged the boy tightly. “Goodnight. ”

“Goodnight Aunt Lila.” Solan was nearly overwhelmed by the last two days events. He had aquired two grandmothers in as many days and now he could add aunts and cousins to his family roster. He watched his new relative walk through the entrance to the hall and felt Karis’ standing supportively next to him. ‘It’s going to feel weird sleeping without her.’ He thought. He turned to hug the guard goodnight and was unprepared for the intensity of her return embrace.

Karis too was shocked at the strength of the emotions she was experiencing. The thought of sleeping without him, without his arms around her, twisted her stomach in knots. She wondered breifly if begging his mothers to let her stay with him would do any good. She released her hold and turned toward the watching women when she felt Solan’s fingers on her lips. Hiding his lips from his mothers eyes Solan found her ear and whispered. “Watch this.”

The amazed guard watched as Solan put on the most adorable puppy dog face and turned it full force on his mothers. From the corner of her eye she saw him tilt his head and raise his eyebrows. She couldn’t be sure but she thought they both nearly took a step backward at the impact of the pleading gaze. She could see that Xena was nearly at the breaking point when Gabrielle spoke.

“I would feel more comfortable if Solan had a guard tonight.” She looked at Karis. “Assign someone you feel will be able to watch him all night.” She looked back at her now slightly smug son. “I don’t want the children awakened by the guards changing shifts.”

Xena added quietly. “He should be as safe here as he was in Amphipolis.” Karis’ nod assured the warrior mother that her message had been understood. ‘Sleep only.’ Karis thought. ‘Yes ma’am.’

“I’ll take care of everything.” Karis assured them. She held their gaze until Solan’s insistant tugs on her arm forced her to move toward the hall.

When the couple had disappeared through the doorway, Xena nudged Gabrielle playfully with her shoulder. “You shouldn’t have given in so quickly.” She smiled and chuckled. “He thinks he can get away with anything now.”

Gabrielle returned the low chuckle with a melodic laugh. “Then he would be right!” She raised an eyebrow at Xena’s expression. “Right?”

Xena held both sides of the Amazons face to secure her gaze. “Of course. ” She rolled her eyes and kissed the smiling lips. Recapturing the twinkling green gaze, Xena continued with a slight shake of her head and a smile. “But he doesn’t have to know it.”

Tucking the blankets under one arm, the laughing Amazon pulled her love toward the door. “Com’on.”

————————————-

The delivery wagon rolled on through the night. Perdicus checked the stars position again and mumbled. “It will be after sunrise when I get there.” He didn’t have to speak clearly, there wasn’t anyone around to hear his voice. Traveling alone never bothered him before but now he had so much to think about, he would have appreciated a sympathetic ear to tell his problems too. The horses plodded along as he began to verbalize his thoughts. “Lila will probably listen to them. She may even agree with them. I make too many deliveries for her to remember her place.” ‘At least Herotodus will be on my side.’ He thought. ‘He won’t let them fill my son’s head with all that women are as good as men crap.’ He grimiced at the memory of Xena holding the chakram at his throat. “Well. Xena won’t be able to stay forever. ” He told the horses. “Then Lila will get a lesson she will never forget.” He smiled viciously at the thought and urged the horses faster.

————————————–

Solan and Karis stood at the open door and stared at the room’s contents. It was a room for children no doubt. There was a small table to the left of the door, with blocks scattered on it’s surface and a few underneath. A shelf full of toys stood to the right of the door and there was a small chest for clothing at the foot of EACH child’s bed. They looked a the narrow beds a moment longer and then at each other in complete dismay.

“There is no way we will both fit on one of those.” Solan was upset. He hated wasting his puppy dog look. He knew it wouldn’t last too much longer. Karis’ deep chuckle brought him out of his thoughts.

“Well then I guess we’ll have to improvise.” She pulled him into the room and shut the door. “Com’on give me a hand.” She started to turn down the blankets on one of the beds. “Quietly.”

———————————————————-

Gabrielle shook out the blanket and laid it flat over a large pile of hay. “There. That will be soft enough.” It was a thick blanket and she knew that the hay wouldn’t poke through.

Xena laughed and leaned casually on a large bale of hay. “When was the last time you slept in a hard bed?” She admired her love’s form in the moonlight. Graceful even when she wasn’t trying.

“Before we met you in India we were sleeping on the ground.” Gabrielle moved to twitch the corner of the blanket into place. She never saw the warrior move, all she knew was suddenly she was wrapped in warm loving arms. “Xena….what……”

“You should never have to sleep on the ground.” Xena buried her face in the honey-fire hair, finding the softness of the neck underneath to tempting to refrain from kissing. It was her turn to be surprised when the Amazon pushed her away.

“Xena stop that!” Gabrielle took two steps back, pulled her fingers through her hair and sighed. “You are always doing that.”

“What?” The question was echoed in her head.

Now the Amazon moved forward again slowly. “Holding me.” She began to circle the silent warrior. “Kissing me.” Gabrielle reached out her arm and traced a path around the warriors body with one finger. “Making me weak in the knees until I am helpless in your arms.” She stopped her hypnotic pace and looked directly into deep blue eyes. With a whisper and a sultry smile she sent visible shivers through Xena. “Tonight it’s my turn.” Taking the larger hands in her own the Queen of the Amazons led the Ruler of the Known world to the single blanket laid over a pile of hay. Kneeling at the edge of the blanket, Gabrielle pulled Xena to her knees as well. Leaning in the Amazon found the exposed portion of Xena’s neck just as tempting as The Empress had found hers moments before.

“Gods, Gabrielle…..” Xena’s attempt to speak was cut off by the most perfect lips she had ever seen capturing hers. Succumbing to the subtle pressure being applied to her shoulders, Xena laid back on the blanket.

Gabrielle never broke the kiss and moved with the warrior to the more comfortable position. It was several more moments before she found herself becoming dizzy and had to break for air. She looked at the warrior below her and gasped. Blue eyes filled with desire peered up from a halo of raven hair. A breathless whisper found it’s way to Xena’s ear. “You are so beautiful.”

The feeling of Gabrielle above her was nearly enough to push her over the edge. The warm breath on her ear and the impact of her words forced a small groan to escape the warrior. Weaving her fingers into the honey hair, Xena pulled the young Queen down to meet her waiting lips. The crushing force applied spoke volumes to the young Queen.

“You need me so much?” She looked into the half lidded blue eyes.

“Yes.” The admission wasn’t easy for the warrior. She always tried to keep her desire to a manageable level.

“Then take me…. ” Gabrielle saw the blue eyes go wide. “Take me Xena…..” She watched the fire within Xena dampen slightly at her words and then flare brighter than ever when she continued. “…..If you can.”

Xena rolled to put the little Queen under her and chuckled. “Oh…. I can.” Running her finger lightly across the Amazon’s abs she felt the muscles jump and smiled. “And I will….” Nearly of their own accord Xena’s fingers found the fasteners on the Amazon’s leathers. “…..even if it takes all night.”

Gabrielle started to send a silent prayer to Artemis that it would take all night and then in a heartbeat reconsidered. ‘Why bother Artemis?’ She thought as the warrior concentrated her attention on the now fully exposed chest. ‘Gods.. It’s not like Xena needs any help.’

———————————————————-

The wagon rolled on through the night. Perdicus was a little guilty over his treatment of the horses. He was pushing them very hard. Speaking as though they were human and understood him he addressed them almost kindly. “Sorry to push you so hard fellas, but I gotta get home.” He sighed. “As soon as we get there I’ll get you some nice hay and you can stay in the warm barn, okay?” He didn’t get an answer. He wasn’t expecting one. ‘It will be just after sunrise when we get there.’ He thought. ‘Everyone will still be asleep, so I can take some time for the horses.’ He thought a moment longer. ‘I’ve been needing to pitch some more hay down out of the loft anyway.’

————————————————————

It was the silent time between night and day. The nocturnal creatures had already hidden from the advancing light and the other animals seemed to be waiting for the pink tinge to leave the sky before rising to their daily tasks. With quiet satisfaction Perdicus pulled the wagon up to the barn with not so much as a creak. He took great pride in the fact that he kept the wagon in such good condition. It was important for the delivery service, and his self esteem. No one could say he wasn’t on time and he wasn’t about to risk making a late delivery just because of poorly maintained equipment. Neat and orderly, that’s how he liked things. He pushed open the door to the barn and was dismayed to see several hay bales had fallen from the loft and a large amount of loose hay covered the floor. Looking up he saw a bare leg hanging over the edge of the loft “What the….” He spoke softly and headed for the ladder. ‘Who in Hades is up there.’ He thought. He climbed the ladder quickly and almost missed the top step at the sight.

Gabrielle was collapsed across Xena, in what appeared to be a state of total exhaustion. The blissful look on her face nearly made him smile until the limbs protruding from the blanket forced him to realize that both women were naked. He felt his stomach turn at the thought and at the realization of why the hay was scattered. Even as he looked at the sleeping women the thought of them being together sickened him, and yet he couldn’t look away. The scent of lilacs overpowered his senses and when his former fiancé stirred in her sleep, shifted her head to rest on the warrior’s shoulder and sighed it was like a knife in his heart. ‘She could have been with me.’ He thought. Lost in thoughts of being with Gabrielle, he was startled when a sleepy voice cut through the stillness.

“Perdicus.” Gabrielle’s drawl almost made him jump. “I suggest you leave. Unless you want to be beaten senseless by a naked woman.” She kept her eyes closed and snuggled closer to Xena.

“This is MY barn. I don’t have to leave…. and I’m not afraid of her.” He stood a little straighter in defiance, but moved slightly closer the edge and the ladder.

Clear green eyes opened and focused on him. “I wasn’t talking about her.” She felt the low growl rumble under her arm and heard The Conqueror’s added comment.

“I wouldn’t bother beating you. I would just kill you.” It wasn’t a threat, it was a factual statement. Pale blue eyes stared at him from a halo of dark hair. She remembered pushing several haybales over the edge of the loft, to make room, and judged his position casually. ‘Maybe he’ll miss.’ She thought and, loosening her grip on Gabrielle slightly, The Conqueror snarled and lunged at the man. Instinct or fear, she didn’t care which sent him over the edge of the loft. She listened and heard the oomph and rustle of hay as he rose unharmed from the fall. ‘Can’t win them all.’ She sighed. She heard the barn door open as she settled back with Gabrielle to enjoy a few more moments of peace. Gabrielle had other ideas.

“Xena we have to get up.” She tried to break free from the warrior’s embrace. “He will go after Lila.”

Xena didn’t want to move and she countered reasonably. “Karis will handle him.” The Conqueror tightened her grip and growled. “I don’t want to let you go.” Gabrielle’s frightened whisper forced her to retreat.

“Xena…. let me go.” Gabrielle was unable to hide the fear in her eyes.

The Warrior Princess released the Amazon and quickly helped her to her feet. “I’m sorry… She….” Her apology was quieted by gentle lips.

“Shhhh… It’s okay…. It …. it just scared me for a minute, that’s all.” Loving green held regretful blue for a long moment. “I love you.”

Xena drowned in the sea of green and admitted. “We love you too.” She hugged the Amazon quickly and headed for the ladder. “Let’s go help Karis.” She started down the ladder then looked back at the motionless Amazon. “What?”

Gabrielle bit her lip but could only hold back her laughter for a moment. She reached down to the pile of clothes at her feet and offered a familiar leather outfit. “You might want to get dressed first.”

“Oh..” Xena grinned and shrugged. “If you insist.”

———————————————————-

Lila loved this time of day. It was easier to remember the good times during the peace of early morning. Moving quietly she extracted herself from the children draped over her and tiptoed out of the room. She stopped to open the shutter at the end of the hall and out of three long years of habit, pushed open the door to the children’s room.

Solan and Karis had done some rearranging. The beds had been pushed together. One was against the wall and the other was braced with the clothing chests against it’s legs. She hadn’t realized that Karis was going to stay inside too but somehow she felt better knowing the guard was here. Seeing the way they were wrapped in each other’s arms, she suspected that Solan felt better too. The smile that crossed her face at the thought was quickly wiped away as Karis’ deep brown eyes opened to regard her quietly.

Lila shrugged and whispered. “Habit. This is the children’s room.” She began to slowly close the door.

Karis accepted the explanation for the intrusion with a nod and closed her eyes in tandem with the door.

Lila thought about the young couple on her walk to the kitchen. ‘They looked like they were in love.’ She mused. ‘I wonder if I will ever find someone like that.’ As she passed Brenin’s room she absently turned her head toward the door, surprised to find it open. Worried slightly for her friend she took a closer look inside the room.

Brenin was sprawled over the bed. ‘She must have been exhausted.’ Lila’s eyes flicked over the still clothed former and again Amazon. ‘Perdicus always says that is the most uncomfortable vest he has ever had.’ She found herself moving into the room and kneeling next to the bed. This was the first time she had the opportunity to actually study the woman’s face. Brown hair fell casually around the almost thin face. Lips, not too full but not thin. From memory Lila knew the woman’s eyes were the same shade of brown as a thousand people she had seen in the market over the years. She heard Perdicus’ voice in her head. ‘Average.’ Then she heard her own assessment override it. ‘Beautiful.’

At that moment Brenin stirred. Brown eyes opened, a long arm snaked out to hold the side of Lila’s face and before the young mother of two knew what was happening the sleeper kissed her on the cheek. Speechless from the unexpected action, Lila stood quickly and watched as Brenin turned over to continue her sleep.

Lila left the room quickly confused by the mixture of emotions she was feeling. Entering the kitchen, she opened the shuttered windows and suddenly she felt nothing but cold terror. “Gods……. ” She blinked and looked again, hoping against hope that she was having a nightmare. No still there. Perdicus’ wagon, next to the barn only meant that he was inside and that meant trouble. “Gabrielle…Xena….” Her mind was frantic. There was no telling what kind of reaction he would have if he found them in the loft. She didn’t question her choice to go to Brenin’s room first.

“Brenin…. Brenin wake up.” Lila shook the scribe’s shoulder frantically.

“Lila? What..?” Brenin rubbed her eyes.

“It’s Perdicus… He’s back.” Lila was pulling her friend toward the door. “He has gone to the barn. I don’t know what he’ll do when he finds Gabrielle there.”

Now Brenin was fully awake. ‘The Queen’s in trouble.’ She thought. Gripping Lila by the shoulders she asked quickly. “Do you know where the guards camped?” Her heart sank as Lila shook her head no.

“One of them is in Solan’s room though.” Lila headed toward the children’s room. Brenin got there first.

“Karis…” The scribe saw the captain’s eyes open when the door did. “…The Queen is in trouble.” Brenin barely had time to move out of the doorway before Karis was nearly down the hall. The others followed quickly.

————————————

Perdicus muttered to himself as he stalked out of the barn. ‘Lila will pay for this.’ He thought. ‘How dare she let them stay here. She knows how I feel about that sort of thing.’

Karis saw the man emerge from the barn and even from this distance she could see his rage. She could also read a few of the words he was muttering. ‘Lila will pay’ Caught her attention and she whistled the alert to the rest of the camping Amazons. ‘I hope I can hold him off ’til they get here.’ She thought. ‘He’s not a particularly large man but he’s mad.’ She wished Lila, Solan, and Brenin would stay in the house and sighed as they moved toward the man when she did.

Each step sent Perdicus’ anger a notch higher. He was so focused on his rage he nearly missed the group of people coming from the house. In actuality he didn’t notice them until one let out an ear splitting whistle. ‘Amazons.’ He sneered. His hands opened and closed rapidly, advancing quickly on the group. The sight of his wife’s new friend kept them in fist position. ‘She is wearing my clothes!’ For him that was enough to convince him that Lila had replaced him with Brenin and the thought of his wife, doing the things he did with other women, with another woman pushed his rage into almost blind fury. Close enough to the group now, he grabbed Brenin and punched her in the gut, hard. Grinning savagely as she doubled over, he didn’t see Karis’ open palm until it connected with his nose. Pain and rage exploded behind his eyes and in the same open hand style, he delivered a return blow.

As Brenin doubled over in an attempt to regain her breath, she looked up to see Karis flying backwards into Solan. They both ended up on the ground and the imprint of the back of Perdicus’ hand slowly began to appear across the guard’s cheek.

Lila was shocked when her husband grabbed her and raised his fist to hit her. He had hit her before but never in public and never with such a look of rage in his eyes. ‘He’s going to kill me this time.’ She thought and closed her eyes.

“NO!” The scream in perfect unison cut through the morning and brought Lila’s eyes open wide. She saw the twins running toward her and held out her hands to fend them off.

“Stay back.” She didn’t want the children within reach of their father right now. She watched in terror as Gabe, the faster runner, leaped at his father and was instantly flying backwards through the air. He landed a few feet away and Lila saw the impact of his head with the ground. She thought her heart would stop when he didn’t move after that. It was with the fury of a mother protecting her children that she lunged for Perdicus but he was simply too strong and after landing one good punch to his jaw, she was also lying on the ground. Brie ran to her mother and tried to protect her. She flinched but held her ground as her father raised his huge fist above her head.

Brenin regained her breath and, knowing she couldn’t take out the man, did the only thing she could think of to protect Brie. With a two step running start, the scribe dove to intercept the punch, catching the full force of the hit on her temple. Before her world went dark she saw the most incredulous look pass over the man’s face.

Xena and Gabrielle emerged from the barn in time to see Gabe land on his back and Brenin’s protective leap to Brie’s defense. Xena had her chakram in her hand and was poised to bury it in the man’s chest when suddenly her target was obscured.

Perdicus watched the woman wearing his clothes slam into the ground and pulled his arm back for another strike when he felt an unfamiliar pressure in his chest. He looked down and blinked as he saw two arrow shafts protruding from his body, the feathered ends still quivering from their delivery. He blinked twice before he was on his knees. Following the ends of the arrows to their origin he saw the Amazon archer lowering her bow. Falling to the ground he could dimly see the still form of his son lying a few feet away. ‘I killed Gabe.” He thought and even as his life’s blood seeped onto the ground around him he snarled. “He’s better off dead than living with these women.” He watched as drops of blood formed on the tips of the arrows and as one fell to the ground, Perdicus drew his last breath.

———————————–

Solari lowered her bow and watched the man fall. She berated herself for not moving faster at Karis’ signal and whistled ‘situation secure’ before moving to check on the injured women and child. She saw the other Amazons moving from their places farther back and absently assessed their positions. ‘I was the only one with a clear shot.’

Lila quickly reassured herself that Brie was unharmed and went to check on Gabe. He still hadn’t moved and she approached him with a hesitant step. Kneeling next to the small still form she reached out to lift him up and hug him. Her action was stalled by Xena’s commanding voice.

“Don’t move him!” Xena dropped to her knees across from the grief stricken mother. She saw Gabrielle kneel next to her sister and hug her for support. She could feel both women’s eyes on her as she examined the child’s head for fractures. To her relief she didn’t find any. Moving her hands slowly down to the boy’s neck she felt for the tell tale signs of injury. No, that seemed fine as well. Knowing the women were nervous about the findings she spoke quietly. “No sign of fractures.” It was a false hope that she berated herself for giving the young mother. She had seen injuries like this before. Many men on the battlefield had fallen without apparent injuries and yet they never woke up. Still, the look in her lover’s eyes forced her to keep up the false confidence. The warrior was peripherally aware of Karis taking charge of the situation and knowing Solan was okay and in good hands, Xena carefully picked up the child. “Let’s get him inside.” Keeping him as flat as possible she walked slowly to the house.

Karis helped Solan up and assuring herself he was okay, she scanned the scene. Xena, Gabrielle, and Lila were kneeling next to the boy’s still body. She looked back at Brie. The child was kneeling protectively over her hero’s body. Noticing that Brenin too had yet to return to consciousness, Karis moved toward the frightened little girl. Seeing suspicion in the child’s eyes she spoke soothingly. “I only want to help.” She dropped to one knee next to the scribe’s body. “Let me look.” Gently she rolled Brenin over and winced as she saw the large bruise spreading from her temple. Not good. Not knowing which of the pack had grabbed it and not wanting to take the time to look she called out a general order. “I need the emergency kit.” She continued her examination of the scribe’s injuries and added. “NOW!”

——————————————

Hecuba heard her husband’s groans and gathering a water bowl and rag quickly went to their room. She waited for him to empty his stomach into the pail she kept next to the bed before she dipped the rag in the cool water and, sitting next to him, applied it to his forehead. This was a routine she knew well.

“Augh… What ….. ” Herotodus held his hands over his eyes. “Oh…” He looked up at his wife. “She came back?”

The woman dipped the rag into the bowl again and nodded as she offered it to him. After he took it, she rose and crossed the room to set the bowl on the dresser.

The memory of the previous evening was slowly returning and he growled. “She brought those damned Amazons with her too.” He looked at her suspiciously. “You went to see her, didn’t you?” He forced himself to stand and was surprised that the room held steady, when he first woke it was spinning rather quickly.

She turned to face him and answered quietly. “Yes I did.” She didn’t even try to duck when he struck her. She knew that he would be angry and she knew it was her fault. Crumpling into the corner, she heard him mutter something about an Amazon invasion as he stalked out of the house. A few months after the slavers came, the town organized a militia. Hecuba recognized her husband’s rallying cry and understanding that her children were in trouble stood shakily. She ignored the stinging sensation on her cheek and a wave of dizziness as she quickly headed to her daughter’s house.

——————————————

Xena held the boy’s limp form as Gabrielle and Lila quickly separated the beds in the children’s room. When enough space to walk between them was created, Xena placed the child on the bed next to the wall. The warrior surprised herself in her reluctance to release the child. It worried her that despite his unconscious state he was breathing erratically and rapidly. A small measure of rage found it’s way into her thoughts. ‘How could I have thought it would be better if they knew their father?’ One of the pack appeared at the door, Xena absently named her, Bekka.

“Where should we put Brenin?” Bekka had never been a fan of the scribe. The woman’s treatment of Micha was less than adequate in the guard’s eyes, but when she saw the leap to protect the future Queen, her opinion changed. Gabrielle’s reversal of Ephiny’s punishment had not sat well with any of the guards but now she knew that the scribe really was an Amazon.

“Has she come around yet?” Gabrielle was worried, as she would be about any Amazon.

Bekka shook her head slowly. “No….. It’s a really nasty looking bruise.” She glanced at Lila. “I’m not sure she…..” Lila’s gasp and Gabrielle’s order stopped the guard’s thought.

“Bring her here.” The Amazon Queen pulled the covers off the empty bed. “It will be easier to watch them both at the same time.”

Bekka nodded and left quickly. Lila left and returned with a chair, placing it between the beds. Karis and Bekka brought Brenin in and situated her on the empty bed. Karis had bandaged the injury but wasn’t sure how much good that would do. The Captain watched their host hold the scribe’s hand and quietly thank her for saving Brie. ‘Gods she’s right.’ Karis hadn’t thought about it before but now realized that if Perdicus had hit the girl it would have killed the child. They all heard Brie’s protests when the rest of the pack tried to keep her out of the room. Gabrielle went to check on the girl.

“What’s the problem here?” All the guards snapped to attention when their Queen appeared and Brie took the opportunity to run past them. Gabrielle scooped the little girl up as she tried to enter the hallway. “Wait.” The future Queen struggled in her aunts arms and Gabrielle spoke louder than she intended. “WAIT!” She felt the child go rigid with fear and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry.” She hugged the girl. “I just want to tell you some stuff before we go in okay?” She smiled at the girl’s nod. “Gabe and Brenin have been hurt so when you go in don’t shake them okay?” Brie nodded. “And don’t talk to loud, okay?” Another nod. “Okay.” She smiled as the girl relaxed slightly. “Let’s go.” She carried the girl to the room and only put her down when she was inside the door.

Everyone was totally surprised when Brie went directly to Brenin’s side. Lila spoke quietly to her daughter. “Don’t you want to see your brother?” The girl’s reply left the entire room speechless.

“No. He’s worried about Brenin… I have to show him she’s okay.” Brie held her hero’s hand and put it up to her cheek, it was warm and comforting. She climbed up and kissed the scribe’s unbruised cheek. They were all amazed when Gabe’s breathing slowed and deepened into a normal steady rhythm.

Gabrielle was the first to find her voice. “Brie. We need to get some more water. Will you take me to the well?”

Brie looked at her mother for permission and receiving a tearful nod, patted Brenin’s hand once more before she left, hand in hand, with her Aunt.

Xena watched Gabrielle leave with the girl and resisting the temptation to check on the boy again moved to examine the scribe’s injury. She was about to compliment Karis on her fine bandaging job when she heard Gabrielle’s frantic cry. “XENA!” The Warrior Princess nearly knocked over three guards as she ran through the main room. Once outside she skidded to a brief halt when she saw Gabrielle on her knees with her mother in her arms.

Quickly joining them she heard Hecuba mumbling but couldn’t understand the words. Gabrielle answered the warrior’s puzzled look.

“Father has called the town militia to arms….” Gabrielle looked frightened. “… They’re coming.”

The frightened look in her lover’s eyes, combined with the still bleeding cut on Hecuba’s cheek poised the Ruler of the World on the edge of rage. She knew it scared Gabrielle more but she couldn’t help the growl that escaped her. “Let them come.”

Solan had also heard his mother’s shout and was appalled at the condition of his grandmother’s face. Even from this distance he could see a large cut on her cheek was bleeding rather profusely. He felt his hands clench into fists at the thought of someone hitting her, just because she didn’t think the same way they did. He was grateful for Karis’ presence at his side as he approached the small group.

Gabrielle saw the look on her son’s face as he approached and knew he felt helpless in this situation. Quickly deciding to let him help she motioned for him to speed up. The relief on his face at her gesture reassured her it was the right decision. “Solan. Help your grandmother into the house.” She turned to the worried little girl. “Brie… Run and tell your mother that Solan needs a rag, some water, and bandages. Okay?” She smiled as the little girl nodded and ran to the house.

Hecuba was struggling to her feet now and pleading with Gabrielle. “Run child. Get away from here.”

Gabrielle gripped her mother’s arms to steady her shaky stance and, glancing at Xena, looked directly into cloudy blue eyes. “No more running mother. Not from him. Not ever again.” She smiled to try and relieve the woman’s tension. “Everything will be fine.” She motioned to Solan and he offered his arm to the injured woman. Motherly pride nearly beamed from Gabrielle as Solan took charge of his patient. One more protective act and the Amazon Queen could concentrate fully on the impending mob. “Solan.” She waited for him to look up at her. “Try to keep Brie inside. I don’t want her to see this.” She smiled at the play of emotions across his face, defiance, anger, acceptance. He knew that in order to keep Brie inside he would have to stay in as well.

“I’ll try.” He promised. His mind whirling to figure a way to keep that and also help with the confrontation. He could already hear the sounds of the approaching militia.

Xena turned to Karis. “I want archers positioned there, there and there.” She pointed to the respective places and started to give another order when Gabrielle’s quiet voice overrode them.

“No.” She remained expressionless as the women looked at her. “No more.. no more running, no more hiding. We will make a stand here….” She sighed. “… and fight if we have to.” She ran her finger’s through her hair. “Father’s gone too far this time and he has to learn…. sometimes we fight back.” Turning to Karis she gave her orders. “Form a line of defense in front of the house.” She turned to face the direction she knew the militia would approach from. “I’ll wait for them here.” She didn’t want to fight her father. In the back of her mind she thought she could reason with him and stop a lot of people from getting hurt. She was as grateful for Xena standing next to her as she was for the warrior’s spoken words.

“WE… will wait.” Xena felt the Conqueror stir and was suddenly keenly aware of the weight of the sword on her back. She knew that if it came to a fight the militia didn’t stand a chance.

Karis would have protested but Xena’s quiet support was enough for her to know that the Queen would be protected. She heard the approaching mob and went quickly to carry out Gabrielle’s orders.

—————————————–

They didn’t have to wait long. The speed the militia had organized dismayed Xena a bit. ‘It will be too bad to kill such organized people.’ She appraised the approaching group with narrowed eyes. Twenty five, not a bad number for a town this size. Five women, she frowned, dangerous. A woman protecting her home and children from a perceived threat could be as dangerous as any fighter. It was Herotodus that caught her eye however, leading the pack. She could see the hatred in his eyes. ‘Maybe I won’t have to kill them all.’ Gabrielle’s deep breath pulled her out of her plans.

Seeing her father at the head of a mob was bad enough but knowing the mob was coming to get her nearly shook her to the core. ‘He really does hate me.’ She took a deep breath. ‘Why does that still hurt.’ She looked up at Xena, unable to hide the pain in her eyes. “I don’t think I can do this.”

Xena held the sea green gaze for a moment and quietly reassured her. “Yes you can.”

Gabrielle nodded and smiled gratefully at the warrior by her side, before she turned to the approaching mob. They were close enough now that her projected voice carried to them. “Father don’t do this. This is not a job for the militia. Please let’s work this out among the family.”

Herotodus poured as much loathing in his voice as he could. “We are not family.”

Gabrielle’s quiet intake of breath gave Xena all the strength she needed to do what had to be done. Regretting that the mob was too close for her to comfort the Amazon the way she wanted to, Xena gripped Gabrielle’s upper arm quickly and then moved to place herself between the oncoming people and the woman she loved. They were close enough now and she let the Conqueror take command of the situation. “STOP!” She hadn’t really expected them to obey but was glad they did at least slow their advance at her command and then stop when one of the townspeople gasped…’Xena’. She quickly found the face of the man who recognized her. ‘He wasn’t in any of my armies…. great… that means he knows me knows me from when I took his town.’ That was a wildcard. If the man joined the militia he may be brave enough to take her on, but if he remembered her well enough she might be able to use his fear against him. That was secondary to the goal though and she turned most of her attention to the leader of the group.

Herotodus had taken the brief opportunity to look around and spoke gruffly. “That is Perdicus’ wagon.” He pointed towards the barn. “Where is he?”

Xena growled at the man’s name. “Dead.” The Conqueror’s eyes flicked to a woman who cried out at the news. Glancing at Gabrielle, she saw the Amazon make Rayna’s sign for mother. The Conqueror sneered at the woman. “If he hadn’t been so fond of hitting women and children he may have lived a little longer.”

“My son would never…” The woman’s indignant reply was cut off by Gabrielle pointing at the house.

“There are two injured women ……..” The Amazon began only to be cut off by her father.

“They probably needed a lesson.” His narrow eyed sneer turned to wide eyed fear as Xena’s snarl drew his attention.

“A lesson.” The Conqueror’s voice was low and dangerous. She glided away from Gabrielle towards the so called man. “What lesson would a small boy need so badly that it takes a punch to teach it.”

She noticed the mob step back at her approach, leaving Herotodus slightly separated from the group. She circled the man waiting for his answer and cutting him even farther out of the herd, just like any good predator would. At his continued silence, she continued her verbal assault and her circling.

“Maybe YOU need to be taught a lesson..hmmmm.” She forced him to take another step away from the safety of the mob and continued. “Maybe I should teach you what it feels like to be beaten by someone bigger..” Another step away. “..and stronger.” Another step. “..And maybe then you will see how wrong you have been.” Another step and now she had enough room. “..Or maybe……. it will just Make ME Feel Better.” The Conqueror snarled and struck him across the face with the back of her hand.
“How does that feel?” She punched him in the stomach and when he bent over hit him on the back with both hands. “Have you learned your lesson yet?” She watched him rise to his feet and smiled. “No? Good.” Jumping his feeble attempt to trip her, Xena landed a open palm punch to his nose and swept her leg to knock his feet out from under him. When he got up again, Xena was amazed. “Gods.. you are a slow learner.” She looked him in the eye. “Are you sure Gabrielle is yours, she is brilliant.”

“She is a fool for having anything to do with you.” Herotodus was enraged by the implication that Gabrielle wasn’t his. “You will only hurt her.”

Gabrielle was filled with mixed emotions as she watched the fight. The man’s comment only confused her more. ‘He thinks she will hurt me? What does he think he’s doing?’ She didn’t want the man killed, he was her father no matter how much he protested otherwise, but something inside her wanted to see him suffer. She felt very guilty for wanting to see her father beaten and decided he had enough. “Xena I think that’s enough.”

“No, no Gabrielle. ” The Conqueror countered, she turned a feral grin on the bleeding man. “Not yet.” She glanced at Gabrielle’s confused expression and spoke matter-of-factly. “He hasn’t learned his lesson yet.” She turned back to the swaying man. “Have you?”

He yelled and ran towards her. She stepped aside and caught him in the neck with her stiffened arm. Looking at her Amazon lover she shrugged. “See?” She looked down at the man. He dragged himself to his feet and she could tell the fight was going out of him, but she wanted to beat him some more so she taunted him in a low playful voice. “Com’on pal, you can do better than that.” Moving in quickly she punched him on the arm.

His eye’s went wide at the realization who he had gotten drunk with the night before. “YOU!” Her laughter enraged him. He lunged at her only to find she had sidestepped his grasp and he was face down on the ground. He rose to his hands and knees, until a hard fist connected with his jaw, putting him right back, flat on the ground.

She smiled when he tried to get up and collapsed again, turning to the mob she asked. “Anyone else wanna play?” The Conqueror laughed coldly at the fleeing backs of the so called militia. ‘Xena wins again.’ She thought as her wildcard ran with the pack. She noticed Perdicus’ mother stayed and Xena turned her full attention on the woman. “Yes?”

“Where is my son?” Her question surprised both Xena and Gabrielle, partially because they didn’t know. Gabrielle gestured to the guards and Karis trotted over.

“Where is Perdicus’ body?” Gabrielle unconsciously looked at the spot where he fell.

Karis replied casually. “The guards moved it around back, near the woodpile.”

Gabrielle nodded and gestured to the waiting woman. “This is his mother. Take her to him please.”

The Captain of the guard regarded the villager with a hard look. ‘What kind of woman raises such a monster?’ She thought but her spoken words were very formal. “As you wish, my Queen.” She bowed to Gabrielle before gesturing the woman to walk with her. “This way.” Karis only stopped briefly to disperse the guards at the door. One guard remained and the rest went to patrol the perimeter.

—————————————

Solan left Brie with her mother in the sick room and tried to go back out. The defensive line at the door wouldn’t let him pass and only because Karis herself asked him to he returned to the house.

From the window, Solan saw his grandfather point toward the dead man’s wagon. He was too far away to hear the question but when the woman cried out and Gabrielle made the sign for mother he could guess the crowd had been told of Perdicus’ death. He watched, facinated by the flowing movements of his mother as she taught his grandfather a lesson. ‘Like Gabrielle when she fights.’ He thought. ‘Only Xena is ….’ He couldn’t think of the word to fit the difference in styles. Deadly may have been a good choice. While both women fought with similar intensity and flowing power, Xena went into fights knowing the other person may die, Gabrielle only sought to disable her opponent and never imagined killing her enemy.

Solan watched Karis guide the ‘mother’ woman around the house and when he saw his own mothers moving back toward the door he quickly moved away from the window. They were barely in the door before he hugged Gabrielle and asked. “Are you okay?” At her nod, he released her.

“Where is Brie?” Gabrielle was a little worried that the girl had watched Xena beat up her grandfather.

“With her Mom.” Solan gestured to the room with all the injured in it and followed his mothers down the hallway.

—————————————

Hecuba applied a damp rag to Gabe’s small forehead and Lila did the same for Brenin The older woman, glanced at her daughter and suppressed a smile. She doubted Lila realized the tenderness she exhibited in carefully avoiding the worst of the teacher’s injury.

Brie moved between one bed and the other. The obvious distress the child was experiencing eased slightly when her mother finally finished with Brenin and moved to dump the water from her bowl. Brie immediately curled up at the scribe’s side and began murmuring in her ear. Lila let her daughter stay for awhile but didn’t want Brenin disturbed too much longer and tried to move the girl.

“C’mon now sweetie. Let Brenin rest.” Lila tried to move the little girl away from the injured woman.

“No! I wanna stay.” Brie grabbed her hero’s arm and gripped tightly.

Lila tugged gently on the child. “C’mon.” She tried to distract the girl. “You can draw her a picture.”

Brie stubbornly refused and held on tighter. “No!”

Lila took a deep breath. She was starting to become angry at the child. ‘Brenin needs quiet.’ She thought and began to berate her daughter in the low voice, full name usage of a mother losing her patience. “Brianna…..” She stopped when a whisper reached her ears.

“Let her stay.” Brenin opened her eyes to look at the upset mother. “Please.” She started to rise from the bed.

Any amount of annoyance Lila had, dissipated as soon at she saw the pleading brown eyes. Kneeling next to the bed she put her hands on Brenin’s shoulders to prevent her from rising. “Don’t try to move.”

Brenin lifted her hand to her face and winced at the light touch. Even though it hurt she was much more concerned about the children. She knew Brie was right beside her so…. “Where’s Gabe?” She followed Lila’s involuntary glance at the bed next to her and gasped. The child was so still and pale it frightened the Amazon. “Has he….” Her thought trailed off as Lila shook her head.

“No he hasn’t been conscious since he fell.” Lila berated herself for the wording. ‘Gods… have I been trained so well?’ She quickly corrected herself. “Since Perdicus hit him.”

Hecuba glanced sharply at her daughter and then sagged her shoulders in resignation. It was shameful the way Perdicus treated her daughter and her grandchildren but it didn’t really matter anymore now that he was dead. Even in her earlier frantic state the older woman knew the man she saw the Amazon’s carrying was dead. She looked back at her grandson lying so peacefully on the bed. It was almost easy to fool yourself into thinking he was asleep. Then she realized. ‘He may not wake up.’ Fresh tears began to well up in her eyes.

Lila smiled slightly at Brenin and moved to comfort her mother. “C’mon Mom. Let me change your dressing.” She guided the older woman to the chair and gently began to remove the blood soaked bandage, grateful the cut didn’t reopen at it’s removal. She heard her daughter talking to Brenin.

“….and they wouldn’t let me see you, but Gabe needed to know you were all right. Aunt Gabrielle brought me in and….” She paused and smiled. “…. he knows you’re awake now.” Brie was patting her teacher’s hand during the telling.

Brenin looked over at the boy’s serene form. “How do you know he knows?”

“Cause it’s like he’s asleep and I can tell what he’s dreaming.” Brie curled up next to her hero. “We dream the same sometimes.”

Lila was amazed at this revelation. She had often comforted the twins after a nightmare but she always figured that one of them had been dreaming and scared the other.

Brenin was facinated. “Do you know what he is dreaming now?”

Brie closed her eyes and smiled. “He’s in a green field with lots of nice people. There are blue skies and birds.” She opened her eyes and looked at the faces of the women watching her. “Everyone is happy there.”

Lila and Hecuba smiled at the girl and almost simultaneously spoke. “That’s nice dear.” Brenin on the other hand was distressed.

“NO!…. Gods….” She struggled to get up, ignoring the wave of dizziness and the other women’s protests knelt next to the boy. “Gabe, honey, it’s Brenin….. Listen to me…. Come back to us okay? Please… we all love you and we want you to come back.”
She was crying now and she didn’t care. She brushed the boy’s hair from his forehead. “Please… I …. I know that you feel very safe now but…. don’t leave us.” Kissing the boy’s hand and holding it to her unbruised cheek she continued pleading. “Gabe… You’re mother needs you to come back…….I need you to come back.” She took a deep breath and started to continue. ” Gabe….” The rest of her plea was cut off by the boy’s groan and the little green eyes blinking open.

“My head hurts.” He tried to get up but Brenin held him down.

“Don’t move too fast or it will hurt worse.” She smiled at the boy. “You really had me scared for a minute.” Scared was an understatement. Brenin was sure that if Brie’s description of the Elysian Fields had been different she would never have known that the boy was about to cross over. She silently thanked whatever God made the girl’s words identical to the healer’s journal she transcribed a few years ago.

“Mom……?” Gabe smiled as his mother came into view. Then frowned at the bruise on her cheek. “He hit you.” Turning to Brenin he continued. “You too.”

Lila sat next to her son and rubbed his belly to soothe his fears. It was a voice from the door that verbalized her thought though.

“He won’t be hitting anyone else….ever.” Gabrielle found her voice full of emotion. She had remained quiet during Brenin’s pleading with her nephew and she was very glad the boy was awake. She looked at the warrior standing next to her and smiled. “I don’t think your Grandpa will be either.”

Hecuba gasped. “Is he…” No matter how much she disliked him at times…. he was still her husband.

“No.” Gabrielle reassured her mother. “Xena just gave him a taste of his own medicine.” She looked at Xena with pride. “I think he learned his lesson.”

Hecuba looked at the dark woman standing next to her daughter. “You beat him?” At Xena’s nod she looked at Gabrielle. “Where is he now?”

Gabrielle blushed. She just realized that she had left her father bloodied and beaten outside collapsed on the ground. She felt Xena squeeze her hand and looked up into twinkling blue eyes.

“I’ll take her.” Xena released her grip and retrieved the Amazon’s emergency kit from the foot of Brenin’s bed. “He’ll need some of this.”

——————————————–

As soon as Solan saw the boy open his eyes he left the doorway to tell Karis. He was grateful that Gabe was awake and also happy to have a legitimate excuse to find her.

He found Karis standing a few feet away from Perdicus and his mother. Circling her waist with his arm, he felt the warmth of her arm returning the favor. “Brenin and Gabe are awake.” He smiled at the guard.

She started to reply when she noticed the woman trying to move her son. “Ma’am, wait here. I’ll send someone to help.” She didn’t like being so polite but the woman had just lost her son, no matter what kind of monster he was. Maybe she wasn’t so bad, maybe it wasn’t her fault.

“I don’t need help from the likes of you.” The distraught mother sneered.

‘Then again maybe it is her fault.’ Karis thought, released Solan’s waist and walked over to the woman and the body. “That’s good.” She knelt down and grasped the arrow shafts. “Because I don’t want to help the likes of you.” With one vicious pull both arrows came free and Karis stood quickly. She heard the woman mutter.

“Murderers! You will pay for this.” It was a statement full of a mother’s grief.

Karis poured all the venom in her voice that she could. “Your son hit women and children… and enjoyed it. He was about to kill his own daughter. He deserved what he got.” She held up the arrows. “The person who shot these will get exactly what they deserve for their action.” She finished the thought in her head. ‘The highest honor I can think of, and Solari deserves it.’

Solan spoke up quietly. “What if I just help you get him to the wagon?” He hated to see anyone in so much pain. He could tell that she loved her son very much.

Karis looked at her love and sagged her shoulder’s in resigned acceptance. She would have made the woman drag the jerk’s body all the way home. “I’ll go hitch up the team.”

——————————————–

Lila started to put another ladle of oatmeal in the bowl. “Eat up. You need your strength.” Brenin’s warm fingers on her wrist stopped her.

“Lila. It’s been a week. I’m strong enough.” Seeing the hurt in her friend’s eyes she continued with a smile. “Besides… I’m stuffed.” Gabrielle’s melodic laughter distracted their gaze from each other’s eyes.

“Not everyone eats the way we do Lila.” Gabrielle’s twinkling green eyes caught her sister’s blush and the fact that Brenin had yet to let go of Lila’s wrist. She looked around the breakfast table. Everyone was here, Xena, Solan, Karis, Lila, Brie, Gabe, her mother and half of the Amazon guards. She took a deep breath. ‘This is nice.’ She thought and then she looked at the Amazons and sighed. She knew where the other three guards were and she knew they were probably finished. “I guess we should be going.”

“Where?” Lila was not anxious for her sister to leave again.

“Back to Amphipolis first.” She looked up at Xena who nodded.

“Yes… I want to check on my mother’s condition before I return to Corinth.” Xena hadn’t wanted to speak her plans out loud. Just the mention of the impending separation from her love made her heart ache slightly.

Gabrielle continued slowly. “I need to speak with Velasca, too.” She smiled at Brie. “You’ll like her. She’s nice.”

“Will you ever come back?” Brie was curious about her Aunt. Both she and her brother loved the stories she told and didn’t really want her to go.

“Sure I will….” Gabrielle paused, then continued slowly. “Maybe someday you can come and visit me too.” She saw Lila take a deep breath and clench her jaw at her daughter’s response.

She jumped into her Aunts lap in her enthusiasm. “REALLY! In a real Amazon village?” Brie was excited about that thought. The stories Gabrielle had told about the Amazons were fascinating and watching her Aunt spar with the other guards was exciting as well.

Gabrielle smiled down at the girl. “Yes a REAL Amazon village.” She squeezed the girl’s shoulders and laughed. Glancing at her distressed sister she continued. “But not for awhile and until then Brenin, Lucinda and Anna will stay and tell you all about the Amazons okay?” She decided to leave only two guards until they could get back to the village and send a proper contingent.

Norin appeared at the door. “The horses are ready, My Queen.” She bowed at Gabrielle’s acknowledgment and went back to the barn.

Gabrielle patted Brie’s back and lifted her gently as she stood. “Time to go.” She hugged Lila and her mother. “Don’t let him hit you mother.” She knew her father was in no shape to hit anyone now, but when he recovered from the pounding Xena gave him she wasn’t so sure of her mother’s safety. The older woman’s smiling face reassured her immensely.

“Never again.” Hecuba hugged her daughter fiercely and whispered. “Thank you.”

——————————————-

Xena looked down at the woman cradled in her arms. “You’re awfully quiet.” They had been riding nearly all day and she wanted to make sure Gabrielle was okay before they got to Amphipolis.

“Just thinking.” Gabrielle’s soft voice barely carried over the horses hoofbeats.

“Mmmmm… dangerous.” Xena let a wry grin touch her eyes as the indignant Queen playfully slapped her. “What about?”

“Well about lot’s of stuff.” Reaching up and tangling her fingers in the black silky hair, she pulled Xena’s face closer. “Mostly I was wondering why you are letting that man follow us?”
Part 7
Argo’s hooves thudded twice against the sun baked road, before Xena opened her eyes wide in mock surprise at the question. “Man.. What man?” She grinned as the Amazon turned to roll her eyes in exasperation.

“Xena, you know perfectly well that man has been following us since we left Potidea.” Gabrielle pulled her fingers through the raven hair and traced the warrior’s jawline lightly.

The grinning warrior closed her eye’s to enjoy Gabrielle’s touch. “Hmmmm….” She allowed an eyebrow to edge up. “Has he?” Xena’s tone indicated this was all news to her. In fact, her wildcard militia man had watched them for several days before they left. She had told Karis to simply keep an eye on him. It would be bad publicity for the Amazons to kill another person during their visit, but she also had plans for the man once they reached Amphipolis.

Gabrielle’s annoyance was building. “You know he has.” She had thought about the various reasons the man would be allowed to trail them. She hoped that Xena was simply going to leave him to his observations and go about their business… that was the naïve theory and she knew it. She sighed to think that Xena’s motives were part of some elaborate scheme of mystery and intrigue. Just as likely, The Conqueror simply didn’t feel like killing him, yet.

Sensing her lover’s frustration, she admitted. “I know.” Xena slacked off on the reins and circled Gabrielle’s shoulders with her arms. She hugged the bard gently, dropped her head to nuzzle the soft spot just behind and below her ear and took a moment to trace one of the most perfect ears she had ever seen with the tip of her tongue. “Mmmm…”

Gabrielle knew that Xena was trying to distract her. ‘Doing a good job of it too.’ She thought. She let herself succumb to the warm breath on her ear. When the arms around her loosened their grip, she almost protested. Long fingers tangling in her hair, holding her head in place for a renewed assault, stopped the protest mid-thought. “Gods…. Xena…..” The passionate whispering in her ear made her shudder.

“Shhhh….” Xena felt waves of desire crashing through her. “Have I told you today, how beautiful you are?” The warrior brushed her fingertips through the silken hair of her love.

“Today…?” Argo’s steady gait pounded in her ears, or maybe it was her own heartbeat but either way Gabrielle was having a hard time concentrating on anything. She turned to look at the woman behind her. “I don’t remember.”

Sky blue eye’s immersed themselves in sea green and Xena chuckled deeply. She leaned in to capture waiting lips. They swallowed each others moans as the leaning motion signaled Argo to a faster gait.

Xena knew if she let this continue they might not reach Amphipolis tonight so, reluctantly, she broke the kiss and slowed Argo to a sedate walk. She chuckled at Gabrielle’s resigned sigh.

“I hope there is a room at the inn available.” The Amazon Queen cared about Cyrene too but at the moment the thought of being alone with Xena was quite tempting and very distracting.

“It’s okay if there isn’t.” Xena smiled at the narrowed eyes of her love and purred. “Mother’s house has a barn with an excellent hayloft.”

Gabrielle closed her eyes to enjoy Xena’s voice moving through her. “Uhmmm… Xena.”

Xena saw the green eyes close and she knew why. She waited two slow hoofbeats and kept her voice at its lowest register. “Yes, Gabrielle.”

“We are almost there aren’t we?” She shook in anticipation of the response.

“Yes, Gabrielle.” She felt the woman in front of her shudder.

“Your mother will probably be at the inn?” Gabrielle thought it would be the most likely place to find Cyrene, sick or not.

“Yes, Gabrielle.” Xena smiled at Gabrielle’s thoughtfulness.

“And if there aren’t any rooms we can stay in your mother’s barn?” A tiny shiver went through her, remembering Lila’s loft.

“Yes Gabrielle.” The warrior felt the shiver and grinned. She liked this game.

“Xena?” Gabrielle was not ready for Xena to stop saying her name.

The warrior again used Argo’s slow steady pace as a timer for her response. “Yes, Gabrielle?” Something told her that the Amazon was enjoying hearing her name as much as she was enjoying saying it.

“Even if there IS a room available, can we stay at your mothers?” There was a tiny bit of pleading in that question.

Xena knew that even if ALL the rooms were available they would be staying in the loft tonight. “Yes, Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle was silent for a long thoughtful moment. “Xena?”

Four hoofbeats passed and Xena grinned. “Yes, Gabrielle?”

“Amphipolis is just over that next ridge isn’t it?” Gabrielle pointed toward the landmark.

“Yes, Gabrielle.” She resisted the urge to nuzzle the Amazon’s neck, and waited for the next question.

Gabrielle tilted her head to consider the ridge in question and also to expose more of her neck to the woman behind her. “Xena?”

Xena never took her eyes off the newly exposed flesh and licked her lips. This time she didn’t resist the urge and nipped lightly at the offering as she mumbled. “Yes, Gabrielle?”

“Can we go faster?” Gabrielle was aware Xena had been using Argo’s maddeningly slow pace as a timer for her responses and was now kissing her once for every other step the horse took.

Xena had time for one more kiss before she found Gabrielle’s ear and whispered. “Yes, Gabrielle.” She didn’t bother to signal the trailing pack and simply urged Argo to gallop ahead. ‘They know where we are going.’ She thought.

————————————————–

The tavern was packed. Since the waterways were now reasonable to navigate without losing 9/10 of your profits, a steady flow of merchants had been passing through for three days now. Pale grey eye’s watched a small woman move through the chaos with total ease. Crossing her arms, Velasca tilted her chair to lean back into her favorite corner and observe the room in general and the love of her life in particular. She grinned as Rayna bent to pick up a tumbler and a burly patron at the next table reached for the target presented, only to find an empty serving tray casually placed in the way. Meeting her love’s rolling eyes with a raised eyebrow she signed. ‘Do you want me to rough him up?’

Glancing at the man in question, Rayna responded with a mischievious smile. ‘Me first.’

Cyrene gave the Amazon a little sideways grin, knowing where most of her attention was focused. “How did you two meet?” She was enjoying this opportunity to be up and hoped such a personal question didn’t offend her new manager/bouncer.

“We grew up together.” Velasca clenched her jaw. She didn’t want to color the woman’s judgement. Apparently Rayna had other ideas and Velasca caught the sign before the little cook returned to the kichen. ‘Tell her.’

“Rayna was not born an Amazon.” She glanced at Cyrene then looked back at the crowd. “She joined us when she was three and was adopted into the Nation a few years later.”

“That’s pretty young. Is that normal?” Cyrene was curious about Amazon ways. From what little she saw of Xena when she was here the tavern owner knew that the Amazon Queen was a major part of her daughter’s life.

“Age really wasn’t the issue. The circumstances were special.” Velasca swallowed her revulsion at the actions Rayna’s birth parents took. “Rayna’s parents abandoned her at the edge of the hunting grounds.” She glanced at Cyrene’s gasp. “Apparently it took them a few years to notice that she couldn’t hear.” It took a moment to control the tears that threatened to overflow. “When the hunting party found her she was nearly dead. They think she had been on her own for more than a week.” She looked into Cyrene’s concerned eyes. “No one knows for sure.”

“It’s a miracle.” The tavern owner couldn’t imagine a child that young surviving so long on their own.

“She’s the miracle…. her spirit… her courage and will to survive is just….” Velasca couldn’t find words to adequately describe her depth of feeling for her life partner. She shook off the urge to try and continued the story. “When they brought her back to the village, I was working in the kitchen.” She grinned at Cyrene’s confused look. “We, the children, all take turns at different tasks until we find something we like. Our schools allow for that in addition to our regular studies.” She took a sip of her drink and answered Cyrene’s unspoken question. “And no, I didn’t stay in the kitchen long.” She smiled at the taven owners nodding reaction and continued the story. “I was there at the right time though. When the healer called for a bowl of broth I was assigned to take it.” The scout fell silent for a moment remembering the first time she saw Rayna. No tears fell but Cyrene could hear them in the Amazon’s whispering voice. “She was so small.”

“You couldn’t have been that big yourself.” Cyrene eyed the tall lean frame of the woman next to her.

Velasca smiled. “I was always tall for my age and I am several years older than her.” She drained her cup. “I didn’t realize that she had been unconcious since they brought her in. The healer’s were busy trying to figure out how to wake her but she looked so thin and pale I couldn’t help myself. I sat down next to her, soaked a corner of a rag in the broth and brushed it against her lips.” She looked at Cyrene and explained her knowledge. “Once when I was sick that’s how mother fed me.” Velasca felt the empty tumbler being pulled from her hand and looked up into the eye’s of love.

Rayna smiled down at the seated scout and, knowing it would be translated for Cyrene signed. ‘She saved me.’ Looking at Velasca she motioned toward the tavern owner. ‘Tell her.’

Grinning a wicked challenge she signed and spoke. “You tell her.” It wasn’t often she could get the little cook to talk about those times but it was always good for her. It had worried the scout that her partner would be awkward around strangers but if she felt comfortable enough with Cyrene to tell her this story then Velasca knew they would be very happy here.

Rayna huffed a breath of air in Velasca’s general direction and began the tale. She knew if she didn’t Cyrene would only hear half the story anyway. Closing her eyes she recalled the events and told them now just as she told them to the healer after she learned to communicate. ‘I was in a green field with lots of nice people. There were blue skies and birds.’ She opened her eyes and looked at the faces of the women watching her. ‘Everyone was happy there. Then I saw a girl holding a bowl of broth. She called to me and I followed her. I was so hungry, and when I tasted the broth the field was gone and I was lying on a bed.’ She looked at Velasca and smiled. ‘But the girl was still there.’

Cyrene was facinated. “She pulled you back from the Elysian Fields?”

No translation was needed for the simple reply. Cyrene already knew the wrist flexing fist sign meant. ‘Yes.’ She was about to go on when boots stomping on the floor and empty mugs pounding on a table stopped her. She rolled her eyes and grinning at her love signed. ‘Duty calls…. you finish.’ Setting both women’s now empty drinks on the tray she admonished. ‘Don’t leave anything out.’ Rayna knew that the scout had a terrible habit of downplaying her part in their relationship.

Velasca knew what Rayna meant and with an emphatic. “Yes Ma’am” She promised to relate the rest of the story faithfully.

Cyrene watched the cook turned waitress turn and go directly towards the demanding patrons, even though she couldn’t hear the calls for more ale. “How does she do that?”

Velasca shrugged. “Beats me. All I know is she does it and I can never sneak up on her.” She watched the little Amazon sidestep a drunken grab and signed. ‘Nice.’ The saucy ‘Thank You’ got a wink and a grin returned before the bar and thirsty customers blocked their view of each other and effectively cut off the conversation.

“What about the hand signals? Where did she learn them?” Cyrene couldn’t imagine that the parents that gave her up to the woods would have taught her anything as complex as the silent language seemed to be.

“Like I said, I didn’t stay in the kitchen long but while I was there I took the meals to the healer’s hut every day. When my time in the kitchen was over…” Velasca looked sheepishly at Cyrene. “I asked to go to the healer’s next. Everyone goes everywhere for awhile but I mostly just wanted to see her. She was my friend and I was worried about her. She was strong enough by then to take walks and I would go with her to the dining hall to eat.” The scout smiled at the memory. “She was facinated by the kitchen and spent most of her time watching the cooks prepare meals. Lyssa, the head cook, liked her and took her under her wing. When my time to start weapons and hunting training came around I wasn’t worried because I knew Lyssa would take care of her.”

“But you still came to see her right?” Cyrene didn’t like to think of the little girl being abandoned by her friend as well as her parents.

Velasca patted the concerned woman’s arm and nodded. “Every chance I got. Amazon hunters, scouts, and guards use a combination of hand gestures and whistles to communicate. Hand gestures if the line of sight isn’t obscured and it’s daytime. Whistles for distant messages. I was just starting training so when I went to see her I was also practicing the gestures.”

“She picked up on them?” Cyrene was becoming quietly amazed at the woman who was now her cook.

“Yes. She picked them up faster than anyone.” She dragged her fingers through her hair. “Picked them up and… expanded on them.”

Cyrene stared wide eyed at the scout next to her. “You’re telling me she taught herself?”

“Herself and me at the same time.” Velasca nodded affirmative as she spoke.”I didn’t know it at the time though. I thought it was a game we played.” She scanned the taven for problems and finding a potential troublemaker discretely watched him as she continued. “When Lyssa petitioned to adopt her, the council was reluctant. For several weeks we endured the debates and protests. Rayna’s ability to communicate with them was the only thing that saved her. They said they had never heard such a passionate plea from anyone much less someone as young as she was.”

“You translated for her?” Cyrene waited for the acknowledgement before continuing. “What did she say?”

“I don’t remember exactly.” The Amazon lied. “Basically she told them about how happy she was and how much she loved Lyssa.” The rest of the details were too personal to convey.

Cyrene suspected part of the plea also had to do with friendship and a certain young scout. “So that’s why she is such a great cook, because Lyssa taught her?”

Velasca nodded. “If anyone asks her she will say she learned from her mother.” She rose to take care of her troublemaker. “Excuse me.”

The innkeeper took the opportunity to watch Velasca quietly and efficiently escort the rowdy drunk outside. She watched the returning bouncer and considered the story. She spoke quietly to herself. “She said WE endured.” Cyrene’s heart went out the the young friends and thought about her own daughter. ‘I wonder how different things would be if Xena had a friend back then to help her through the tough times.’ When Velasca returned to their table, Cyrene summed up the story. “Your friendship saved her.”

The bouncer smiled grimly. “If you ask her she will agree.”

“You don’t?” Cyrene was puzzled by the half agreement.

Velasca shook her head. “She would have been fine without me….” She felt a sad smile cross her face as Rayna reemerged from the kitchen with a fully loaded tray. “…but I shudder to think where I would be without her.”

Rayna noticed the sad expression on her partner’s face, distributed her burden to the appropriate customers and quickly joined the occupants of the corner table, sliding next to Velasca with practiced ease. ‘You Okay?’ Earth brown eyes peered into misty gray for a long moment before the smile she loved to see reappeared.

“I’m fine now.” Velasca hugged the smaller woman tightly.

‘Do you want me to finish the tale?’ Rayna knew what point they were to because her love always got that expression during this part.

The scout smiled, grateful for the offer. “No. I can do it.” She glanced around the room and grinned at her love. “You better get back to work or Sari will be jealous of your break time.”

Cyrene had been watching the exchange but was amazed at the response Sari’s name caused in the small Amazon. The rapid gestures and scowling face suggested to her that the cook had also seen the barmaid’s attempts to…. umm.. satisfy her…… curiosity.. about Amazons and their rituals, apparently their….. mating rituals were quite…… interesting.

Velasca too raised her eyebrows at the tirade and started an indignant protest. “I would never….”

Rayna sighed and sandwiched the scout’s hands in her own, effectively stopping the protest. ‘Sorry.’

Pulling her hands from the hold, Velasca gently brushed the back of her fingers against the blushing cheek of her love. Caught in the deep brown eyes she barely managed a whisper. “I would never……”

It was Cyrene’s turn to blush as her new employees shared a tender kiss. She took a deep breath to try and contain her emotions only to find hersef in the middle of a coughing fit. She sighed and thought. ‘Nearly time to go home.’

When the kiss was over Rayna stood and with gentle authority signed. ‘You don’t have to…’ Velasca’s raised hand stopped the gestures.

“It’s okay. She asked and it’s part of the story.” Velasca smiled and nodded to reassure her partner. “I’ll be fine.” As Rayna moved off into the crowd, the scout turned to Cyrene. “My mother was killed during the Great War with the Centaurs. I was devestated. I pushed everyone that ever meant anything to me away and filled myself with hate. I hated Centaurs for killing my mother, I hated my mother for leaving me, I hated Amazon’s in general for getting into the war, I hated and hated until that’s all there was for me… blind hate.” She sought out the small form of her love moving through the tables. “She wouldn’t let me push her away. My mother and Queen Melosa were close friends and when Melosa adopted me I saw my opportunity for revenge on everyone. I was going to be Queen and then they would all pay… the Centaurs, the Amazons, everyone. I was so full of anger, when Melosa decided to name her sister heir to the Mask of Queen I almost challenged it.” The scout pulled her fingers through her hair. “Rayna stopped me from making that mistake.” She glanced at Cyrene and then kept her eye on another potential troublemaker. “Her friendship and love pulled me through the darkest time of my life.” A slight change in air pressure forced her to look towards the door. “Speaking of Dark.” She directed Cyrene’s gaze to the door and smiled at the innkeeper’s gasp.

Xena stood in the doorway and assessed the crowded tavern. Instinctively her gaze landed on her favorite corner spot. She smiled when she saw her mother. Glancing at the patrons again, she only saw one potential troublemaker and gestured Gabrielle forward.

The taven owner and the bouncer both smiled as, even dusty and windblown from travel, the appearance of the royal couple stopped all conversation in the room. Every head turned to watch them until they stood in front of the occupants of the corner table.

It took a glare from Xena and a sharp “What?!” to break the silence and bring the noise level back to it’s usual din. She raised an eyebrow at Gabrielle’s chuckle and inquired with a quieter. “What?”

“Don’t be too hard on them, love.” Gabrielle nudged the irate warrior with her shoulder. “They just can’t imagine being in the same room with someone so beautiful.”

For that comment, Gabrielle was rewarded with a smile and a chuckle that was as close to a laugh as any could be. “I guess you’re right…. ” She tapped the end of the Amazon’s nose with her index finger. “….They were looking at you.”

Velasca rose gracefully and motioned Xena to take her place. “Excuse me I have some business to take care of.”

Xena watched the scout walk purposefully toward the potential troublemaker she noticed earlier, before rounding the table and hugging her mother soundly. “You look great! What do the healers say?”

Cyrene returned her daughter’s hug and smiled at the Amazon Queen. “Kima left with the first merchant caravan to Corinth. Salla says as long as I don’t overdo I’ll be fine.” She snorted and glanced at Gabrielle. “Not that Velasca or Rayna will let me do anything anyway…. Gods I feel like such a lazy bum sometimes, letting everyone else do my work.”

Kima’s desertion caused an exchanged look between the royal couple. Xena had expected as much and simply chuckled. “You shouldn’t have to do anything.” She raised an eyebrow at the reaction to that. “You are MY mother after all.” She grinned. “I could send a whole army of people to be at your beck and call if you want.”

Cyrene held up her hand to forestall even the thought of that. “No Thanks! Two Amazons are enough ‘help’ for me… I think any more would drive me crazy.”

Velasca walked back to the table and dusted off her hands in satisfaction. She looked at Gabrielle and smiled. “I met the pack outside. There is enough room for the horses in Cyrene’s barn and since all the rooms here are taken I told them they could stay in the loft tonight.” She watched the twinkle in her Queen’s eye die out and suddenly realized she had made a mistake. “I’m sorry, I naturally assumed that you would be staying in Xena’s room.”

“Haven’t you turned that into storage yet?” Xena had never even considered her old room would be available.

“Never.” Cyrene grimly. “Not as long as you were alive.” She had always hoped her daughter would come back to her.

Velasca cleared her throat. “I really don’t want to change the subject but….umm. who’s your friend?” She discretely indicated the wildcard militia man sitting at the bar. “He followed the pack into town but not to the stables. He has been watching you ever since he came in.”

Pushing down a sudden surge of emotion from her mother’s statement, Xena answered casually. “He has been following us since Potidea. I’ll take care of him later.”

“Oh.” Velasca smiled. “So I passed the test?”

The warrior glanced at her mother and then settled her gaze on the confident scout. “You passed.” That was the final nail in the man’s coffin. Xena had only wanted to test Velasca in matters of security before she disposed of the nuisance. Gabrielle’s chuckle shifted her attention.

“I told you she was the best.” Gabrielle was not only speaking of a fellow Amazon but also about a friend, as close to family as she had in the Nation. “I guess you don’t trust my judgement.”

Xena’s blue eyes twinkled mischieviously. “Really? I think maybe your judgement may be suspect…. just last night you said I was the best.” She licked her lips and smiled at her blushing love. “You said it quite loudly as a matter of fact.”

“Xena could you walk me home now, please?” Cyrene was sure Gabrielle could use some fresh air and she was feeling the tightness in her chest returning.

A little voice in her head whispered to her and Xena playfully whined. “Aww… Mom we were just gonna have a drink… do we have to….”

The pressure in her chest now had more to do with the sudden leap backward in time than with her illness. Cyrene played along with the trip down memory lane and fell into her standard motherly response. “I said now. I meant now. That means now!”

Xena, hastily held up her hands in defeat. “All right already!” She stood and offered one arm to her love and the other to her mother. Tears that threatened to overflow the older woman’s eyes seemed to have found their way to Xena’s as well but, thanks to a small squeeze from Gabrielle, the warrior managed a small whisper. “Let’s go home.”

Velasca watched the trio exit and marveled at the tavern owners quick dominance over Xena then smiled to herself. She knew if her mother or even Melosa were still alive they would have just that power over her too.

——————————————–

In deference to Cyrene’s condition the trio walked slowly from the tavern to the house. Xena enjoyed the leisurely pace and took the rare opportunity to remember good times. “Not much has changed.”

Cyrene spoke through the burning in her chest. “We tried to rebuild as close to the original as possible.” She was unable to control the coughing brought on by walking and talking.

Xena supported her and Gabrielle was instantly on the other side with a helping hand. They continued walking but now they both paid more attention to Cyrene than their surroundings until the older woman stopped in her tracks. Xena looked up and gasped.

“What?” Gabrielle looked at the building warily.

“My son’s tomb.” Cyrene answered and looked up at Xena. “Do you need a moment?”

Xena stood dumbstruck in front of her brothers tomb. She could only nod negative to her mother’s question. “Not tonight.” The cool twilight breeze prompted her to action. Unfastening her cloak, she wrapped it snugly around her mother and took Gabrielle’s hand at the same time. “We need to get mother inside.” They walked the remaining distance to the house in silence.

——————————–

Karis leaned back against the solid barn. She closed her eyes against the dimming light and tried to identify the sounds that drifted on the breeze. It was a game to keep her mind from wandering back to the barn loft in Potidea. ‘I thought I was over that.’ She thought. It had nearly taken her knees out from under her when the wave of memory hit her. Only force of will alone allowed her to exit the barn without anyone getting suspicious. Once outside she calmed down and understood what had happened. The warmth of the barn, combined with the sound and smell of rustling hay and snuffling horses had taken her back to the encounter with Xena. Solan had gotten into his mother’s saddlebag for a clean shirt and the small bundle of lilacs tucked away there was enough to engage all her senses in the memory. ‘Gods… I have to sleep in there!’ That thought was nearly enough to set her knees shaking on it’s own. She tried to control her reaction to this latest revelation and as she heard the barn door creak open had almost succeeded. Then another thought occured to her. ‘Solan will be in there too.’ She groaned at the self control it was going to take to stay away from him.

Solan peeked out the barn door and heard Karis’ groan. Instantly concerned he moved purposefully toward the seemingly relaxed figure. When he opened his mouth to speak, he found out that looks can be decieving. Before one sound was uttered his back was against the wall and one strong forearm across his neck pinned his head immobile. “Uh… hi?” He grinned weakly and looked into flashing brown eyes.

“Don’t Do That!” Karis released her hold and before she knew it her back was against the wall with Solan’s arm pinning her across her chest.

“Do what?” Solan grinned mischeiviously and relaxed his hold.

Karis was not quite over her earlier feelings and now having Solan this achingly close to her was as near to sweet torture she ever wanted to be. Emotions deepened her voice to a sultry level. “Don’t sneak up on me.”

Looking into her deep brown eyes, Solan could almost feel Karis’ words pulling him closer. Closing the distance between them he slid the arm that was pinning her to the wall around to pin her to him. When he felt her soft tongue slide past his lips and a delicate hand behind his neck, both his arms joined in the extremely easy effort to keep her close to him. Neither of them heard the footsteps approaching.

Xena licked her lips and glanced sideways at her companions. Her mother had her hand over her mouth and her shoulders were shaking suspiciously like a woman supressing a laugh. Gabrielle to Xena’s surprise wore a grim smile and looked a little sad. ‘Yes, my love. He is growing up.’ She thought and looked back at the couple. ‘Ok that’s enough.’ She grinned at Gabrielle before she put her hands on her hips and ‘The Look’ on her face, then cleared her throat. The sudden stillness of the two nearly wiped out the look but she got it back into place before Solan turned around.

“Solan, I want to speak with you.” Xena didn’t know how she kept the amusement out of her voice but she continued in the low dangerous tone most of her entourage knew well. “You Karis will go inside.”

Karis was mortified. First she had let her emotional state take over where Solan was concerned and second she had gotten caught……by his MOTHERS. She hoped he wasn’t in too much trouble.

When Karis hesitated to comply with her order, Xena grabbed her by the arm and dragged her to the door. She yanked open the door and pushed Karis roughly through, never letting go of her arm. From the corner of her eye, she caught the rest of the Amazons watching from the loft but pretended not to notice. She looked back toward the door in an obvious attempt to see if Gabrielle had followed before she released the guard’s arm and sliding her hand into the thick brown hair pulled Karis close and whispered in her ear. “I want a guard on the door and on the perimeter tonight.” Hearing the guard’s affirmative acknowlegement, Xena chuckled deeply. “Next time try making out BEHIND the barn.”

The stunned guard could only nod affirmative as the warrior released her hold and exited. Karis put her hands on the door and rested her forehead on the back of them. She chuckled quietly and thought. ‘Gods… only Xena could take THAT situation and turn it into grist for the rumor mill.’ It was a long moment before she heard the rustling of hay and knew that the pack had moved away from the edge of the loft. She took a deep breath and pushed off the door. “Hey.” She looked up toward the loft. “Anybody up there?”

Solari supressed a surge of anger and motioning the other shocked Amazons into silence, poked her head over the edge of the loft. “Yeah… we’re all up here.” She tracked her leader’s path across the barn as she moved to the ladder.

“Good.” Karis let out an exaggerated grunt as she climbed up. “I won’t have to repeat myself then.” She stepped onto the all to familiar loft setting and let the emotional turmoil that hit her turn to anger when she saw the four bedrolls laid out. “You’re going to sleep when that man is following us?” She snarled at their guilty expressions. “You are members of the Royal Amazon Guard! For the love of Artemis and our Queen….” She looked directly at Solari. “….we do this by the book!”

Turning back to the others she continued. “I want standard sentry and perimeter patrols. No one is to come within arrow range.” She looked them all in the eye. “You got that?” She waited for each of them to nod affirmative before she unrolled her own bedroll and laid down. Because there were only five of them standard patrol and sentry meant that her shift would start early in the morning. With her back turned toward the pack, she allowed a smile to cross her face as Solari took command. ‘I can’t tell her.’ Karis hugged herself, thinking about the Solari situation. ‘But if she realizes what I’m doing maybe she will back off.’

Karis had caught the angry looks Solari had been tossing her way and knew the attitude could turn into a big problem. Doing things by the book may be the solution. ‘I really don’t want to leave her behind when we go to Corinth.’ Solari, after all, was one of the best. Karis sighed and thought. ‘That’s the problem.’ Hearing Solari and Bekka leave for duty and Norin and Jana settle in to grab some sleep before their shift, she closed her eyes, hoping her dreams would ease the ache in her heart. It was a futile hope, she knew no dream no matter how vivid, could fill the cold spot next to her.

————————–

Xena stepped out of the barn and using the door to shield her expression from Solan, grinned and winked at Gabrielle before closing the door behind her. She looked at Solan with no expression at all. “You, young man, are coming with us.” She held is elbow gently and guided him toward the house without another word. Cyrene and Gabrielle followed silently, both trying to figure out what Xena was going to do next.

For once Gabrielle couldn’t fathom what was going on behind those beautiful blue eyes but after the grin and wink, the Amazon Queen knew it was going to be something unexpected and wonderful. She patted Cyrene’s arm reassuringly and gestured the woman to preceed her through the door. She absently noted Solari and Bekka exiting the barn and closed the door.

The innkeeper had already found a seat next to her grandson on the low sofa and Gabrielle moved quickly to sit on the other side of him. Gabrielle took the short time during the walk from the door to the sofa to look around the room. It was warm and cozy with a fire blazing in the large fireplace. A long low table sat in front of the sofa. Wall hangings and narrow wall hugging tables filled with nick nacks completed the room and Gabrielle tried to imagine what it must have been like to grow up here. Xena stood in front of the fire glaring at the middle occupant of the couch. Wrapping her arm around his shoulders, the Amazon shook him slightly and whispered. “You okay?” He nodded and reassured by the warm protective arm found his voice.

“Where is Karis?” He didn’t like to be seperated from her at all, much less under these circumstances.

“Quiet.” Xena’s growl didn’t do much to reassure the boy but now Gabrielle was certain that the warrior had something planned. She watched as the ice blue eyes closed, the raven head turned slightly as she redirected her intense gaze to Cyrene. “When did Kima leave?”

“Yesterday morning?” Cyrene’s questioning tone made it obvious to Gabrielle that the innkeeper didn’t understand why Xena wanted to know. Unfortunately, the Amazon Queen did know why.

‘She’s going to have to leave in the morning.’ It was a thought that tied her stomach in knots and she nearly gasped when she realized. ‘We won’t be able to spend Solstice together.’

Xena saw the look in Gabrielle’s eye and smiled sadly. ‘Yes my love.’ She thought. ‘This will be our last night together….. for awhile.’ Turning her sad smile into a frown she looked a Solan. “To answer your question. Karis is probably asleep.”

“What did you say to her?” Solan was finding his embarrassment turning to anger, for no other reason than Karis was asleep and he wasn’t there to hold her.

“I ordered standard sentry and perimeter patrol.” Xena now smiled a wide toothy grin. “And I told her that next time she should try making out BEHIND the barn.” It was impossible not to laugh at the incredulous expression on Solan’s face at that statement. Impossible until Cyrene spoke up.

“If you do that.” She patted her grandson’s knee and looked up into twinkling blue eyes. “Make sure no one is getting water from the well, first.” Cyrene’s grin matched Xena’s tooth for tooth and her laugh took over when Xena’s fell silent.

“You saw……” The warrior ran her fingers through her hair. “Gods….”

“Maphias was a cute guy.” Cyrene glanced at her seated companions and winked. “And so was…” The innkeeper held up her hands to begin counting off on her fingers.

“Hey!” Xena cut in and when her mother’s list making stopped she breathed a sigh of relief. A wry smile held Gabrielle’s gaze. “They weren’t my type anyway.”

“Was my father your type?” Solan’s quiet voice floated through the room. “Did you….. love him?”

Xena sat on the table directly in front of Solan. She reached up to brush his hair from his eyes. “I loved him as much as I could love anyone at that time.” She smiled at the hope shining in his eyes, Borias’ eyes. “More than that, he loved me.” She inwardly cringed at the memory of telling her son’s father that she would puke if he said the word family. “I won’t be able to stay for Solstice.” She reached into a pouch hanging at her side. “So I want to give this to you now.” Holding her son’s hand by the wrist she dropped a small object into his open palm.

Solan examined the ring he had been given. It was much too large for his finger but the design was familiar. Suddenly he caught a sparkle from Xena’s ring and realized. “It’s just like yours!”

“Not quite.” Xena’s voice was now quiet and she knew that both her mother and Gabrielle were watching her. “See.” She pointed to a spot on her ring. “This is the symbol for warrior and this…” She moved her finger slightly. “..Is the symbol for woman. On yours…” She took the ring from him and pointed to the same spots. “It’s leader, and man.” She handed the band back to him. “This was your father’s.” She smiled at the reverent look on her son’s face and wiped a tear from her eye. “He always wanted to have a kingdom of his own…. to pass down to his children.”

Gabrielle wanted nothing more than to ease the warrior’s distress and slid off the couch. Sitting on the floor she leaned her head on Xena’s leg just above the top of her boot, and gently patted the exposed skin. A grateful hand stroked her hair a moment, before she heard the warrior take a deep breath and felt the warm fingers under her chin. Looking up into an ocean of love, Gabrielle reclaimed her seat and watched Xena move to give her gift to Cyrene.

“Mother….” She started to say something and then simply pulled a folded piece of parchment from the pouch. “I didn’t know what to get you.” Cyrene interrupted the halting speech.

“You didn’t have to get me anything. Your being here is enough of a gift to me.” She smiled and brushed raven tresses from her daughter’s pale blue eyes. Much like Xena had just done with Solan.

“I thought you might say that.” Xena smiled and handed her mother the parchement. “So I got you this.” When the puzzled look appeared on the innkeeper’s face she continued. “If you ever need me… for anything… send this. I’ll be here as fast as I can.”

Cyrene felt the tears falling unchecked from her eyes and looked at the large lettering again.
‘Come Home.’ Two words had never touched her heart as much as that simple phrase. She hugged her wayward daughter fiercely, before the emotional moment was set aside for a round of violent coughing.

“Where is the healer?” Xena was worried about the sound of that cough.

Cyrene patted her daughter’s hand. “Salla sleeps on a cot at the foot of my bed.” It had worried the sick woman that the healer slept so much but Velasca and Rayna had both informed her that the healer slept most of the time she wasn’t actually helping a patient. Salla herself claimed she was saving up sleep so that when she needed to stay awake she could. Cyrene couldn’t think of a time when she had needed the woman and she hadn’t been there so the quirk was accepted and dealt with. “She is probably asleep right now.” She looked at her grandson’s shining eyes. “You should probably get some sleep too.” She rose and gestured to Xena. “Show him where Lyceus’ room is okay?”

“Sure.” Xena nodded and helped the older woman all the way to her bedroom door before saying goodnight. Returning to the main room she gestured for Solan to follow her to his room.

“Aren’t you going to give mother her present?” Solan was upset that they had gotten something and Gabrielle hadn’t.

“Solan.” Gabrielle admonished her son for his rudeness.

“No. No no that’s all right. I can give you your present now.” Xena crossed the room quickly and took Gabrielle in her arms, kissing her until she had to come up for air. Grinning mischievously at her son she laughed. “There’s more…. do you want to see that too?”

Solan held up his hands in defeat and to cover his eyes. “No thanks….. Nevermind…. Geez…”

Keeping on arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders, she guided Solan to his room and with a quick hug goodnight left him to settle in. Upon entering their own room, she was unprepared for Gabrielle’s laughter. “What’s so funny?”

The laughing Amazon took a deep breath and wiped a tear from her eye. “I was just wondering what you would have done if he HAD wanted to watch.”

“I would have given you your present.” Xena reached for the pouch but her hand was stilled by warm fingers wrapping around her wrist.

“Me first.” Flashing green eyes caught questioning blue as she reached into her own belt pouch and withdrew a necklace. “This is for you my Warrior Princess.” She looped the chain over Xena’s head.

Blue eyes dropped to the charm now hanging from her neck and as her left hand reached up to examine the gift The Conqueror’s voice rang through her head. ‘What about me?’ Xena only had enough time for the design to register on her brain. ‘It’s a chakram.’ Then she realized. ‘It’s half a chakram.’ Gabrielle’s voice brought her out of her thoughts.

“And this is for you my Conqueror.” She looped another chain over the dark tresses.

Xena now saw her own right hand holding the new gift, each charm was half of a broken chakram. She felt Gabrielle’s small hands on hers and yielding to the pressure they exerted felt the jagged edges snap together seamlessly. “Together you make the soul that I love.”

The warrior looked down at the now complete circle and shook her head. “No.” Snapping the halves apart with a quick motion, she looked at Gabrielle. “That’s not true.” Removing her half The Warrior Princess looped it over the silken honey hair and whispered. “You, are the other half of our soul.”

“Oh Xena…” Gabrielle’s protest was cut off by Xena’s questing lips and swift sweeping motion that landed her first in powerful arms and then on a soft bed. She reveled in the feeling of Xena pressing her back into the softness and groaned when the warrior moved to stretch out by her side.

Xena chuckled at her lover’s groan. “I haven’t given you your present yet.” Dragging her hand teasingly slow across the Amazon’s navel, Xena reached into the small pouch at her waist once more.

Gabrielle closed her eyes when she felt the touch on her stomach and only opened them again when she felt the cool metal band slip on her finger. Holding up her hand she gasped at the ring she now wore. “It’s my seal.” The Amazon brought her hand closer to her face and examined the ornate ring in detail. It was oval shaped and carved with her royal seal in the same metal that Xena’s ring was made of.

“Not only yours.” Xena smiled and pulling a small pin out slightly turned the signet on it’s long axis to reveal another design. Pushing the pin back in she breathed a deep breath. “There.”

Gabrielle looked at the new formation and gasped. It was Xena’s seal and this time it WAS exactly the same only smaller. The implication of equal power rocked her. “Xena. I told you before, I don’t want the world…..” She closed her eyes as Xena began to make small circular motions on her exposed abs. “…. all I ever wanted was you.” Xena’s warm chuckle sent a wave of heat racing through her.

“But you already have me, Gabrielle.” Xena leaned to kiss the middle of the circle she had been tracing. “The world is all I have…..” She laid her head down on the soft skin and listened to the heart she valued more than her own. “…. I would give you more if I could.” The Amazon’s soft chuckle tickled her ear.

“More?? Like what? The moon and stars?” Gabrielle’s laughter stopped abruptly when the dark head raised. Deep blue eyes searched her face.

“Is that what you want?” Xena was totally serious. “The moon would be easy… Artemis likes you…. ” She stretched out next to the dumbstruck Amazon and nuzzled her neck. “……The stars may take awhile.”

Gabrielle savored the feeling of soft lips caressing her and believed at that moment, Xena would get the stars for her if she wanted her to.

————————

The smell of hot candle wax and the soft rustle of turning pages forced Gabrielle’s eyes open a fraction. Keeping her breathing rhythmic and even, she watched the flickering light play across her lover’s features as the warrior rose from the desk and quietly dressed. Only after Xena’s shadow was fully gone from the doorway did she rise from the bed, don her own warm tunic and follow the silent woman.

Nodding to Solari, who was standing guard at the door, Gabrielle watched as Xena’s dark form melted into the pre-morning mist. She heard the guard’s gasp as first one and then two shadows trailed after the vanishing woman. ‘The milita man and Karis.’ She thought.

“Is she going to kill him?” Solari spoke in low tones even though all of the figures were too far away to hear.

“Karis won’t unless he attacks her….or me.” The Amazon Queen spoke confidently about the leader of the guard. Her tone took on a speculative quality, and she played with the pendant hanging from her neck, when she spoke of the warrior. “I’m not sure what Xena will do though.” She patted Solari reassuringly on the arm. “Hold your post. I want Solan protected.” Moving silently through the night, Gabrielle went unerringly toward Xena. Even in the dimly moonlit mist she knew exactly where the other half of her soul was located.

Xena waited until she was nearly to her destination before doubling back on the man. ‘He’s a good tracker.’ She thought. Fog and darkness were not the most ideal conditions for tracking and he had done an admirable job of keeping up with her. She couldn’t give him all the credit though. ‘Of course it is disipating and I wanted him to follow me…..’ From her tree branch vantage point she watched him pass below her. ‘….so I guess he’s not THAT good.’

The Conqueror felt a surge of excitement pass through her as she dropped silently behind her victim. ‘Just a quick snap of the head and it will all be over.’ That thought was quickly replaced by another option. ‘Of course, the feel of the chakram slicing the skin is also nice.’ She was closing on her prey and had nearly decided on a combination slice and snap when the Warrior Princess made her opinion known. ‘I want to question him first.’ The tone was firm and The Conqueror knew her fun was going to be put off….. for awhile.

Karis stopped dead in her tracks when she saw the dark form fall from the tree and pace after the man. On reflex she grabbed an arrow and had it nocked in the bow before she realized it was Xena and not a predatory cat stalking him. “Gods…” Her breathless curse was followed by a chuckle from above.

Gabrielle’s quiet laughter was cut short when she found herself looking at the business end of an arrow aimed at her. She prepared herself to catch the projectile when the archer realized her error and lowered the weapon.

‘Sweet Artemis…. ‘ The thought made her blood run cold. ‘I nearly killed the Queen!’

Gabrielle held her finger to her lips indicating silence. A slight breeze rattling dead leaves on the trees around them covered the sound of her impact with the dew-laden ground. Twinkling green eyes took in the guards horrified pale face and the Queen whispered. “Don’t worry Karis, one arrow that I know is coming will never touch me.” It was not a boast but a simple statement of fact. Queen Melosa had insisted that she learn to dodge and/or catch arrows shot at her. The former Amazon Queen was not about to lose two heirs to the mask if she could prevent it at all. ‘She should have taken that training with me.’ Gabrielle thought sadly. Shaking her mind clear of the past, she focused on the present and gestured to a tree branch several feet ahead.

Karis nodded, understanding that from there Xena’s handling of the man could be seen clearly in the dissipating mist. Both Amazons climbed quietly to the vantagepoint and watched The Conqueror move in for the kill. As the man dropped to his knees and gasped for breath, the Warrior began her interrogation. An added bonus to their position was a clear view of both the man’s face and Xena’s. Neither of them would have needed to see the first question though, it was the obvious one.

“Who are you.” She could see that the low rumbling growl frightened him almost as much as the fact that he couldn’t breath.

“Spiros.” He gasped his name and clutched his throat.

“Why are you following me.” Xena’s eyes narrowed at the dying man. She didn’t recognize the name.

He looked up at her with hatred in his eyes. “I am a Survivor of Cirra.”

When she saw the name of the town form on his lips and the anguish on her partner’s face, Gabrielle nearly jumped off the branch and ran to Xena’s side. Karis stopped her. “No.” The authority in her low voice and the firm grip on her queen’s arm surprised both of them. “Let her finish.” Green eyes flashed anger at the woman who dared to keep her from Xena. The guard steeled her eyes to match her grip until the Queen nodded. Karis released her and they turned to watch the rest of the interrogation.

The Warrior Princess’ initial reaction turned to rage at the mention of the town. She immediately released the pressure points though. The liar would die otherwise and she wanted to ask him some more questions. As he supported himself on all fours, The Conqueror grabbed a handful of thick black hair and forced him to look at her. “You are NOT a survivor of Cirra.” She hissed. “There were only a handful of survivors and all the men were older than you then.” She remembered seeing the little group of survivors, all of them terrified except one little blonde haired girl. The feeling shining from her young brown eyes was not terror, it was an expression Xena knew as well as her own reflection. Hate filled eyes always took on a fire of their own.

“No I didn’t live there, I joined them later.” Spiros glared at his captor. “After your army destroyed my village and killed my wife and baby.”

‘Joined them.’ Suddenly the resistance had a name. The Survivors of Cirra. ‘Gods… ‘ Xena had not realized that the apparently well organized group against her had been in operation for so long. Then the reality of his words penetrated The Conqueror’s quickly working mind. ‘I NEVER ordered my army to kill women and children! They acted against orders when they did.’ The Warrior Princess supplied the memory of one such event and they both recognized the chance to gain an ally, a slim chance. She released his hair roughly. “Get up.” She watched him rise slowly, suspicion warring with the hatred in his eyes. “How do you know your child is dead?”

“The entire village was burned. EVERYONE was dead.” His grief was as fresh today as it was all those years ago. “Your army killed everyone.” His accusation was wasted. She knew the truth.

“My army.” She countered. “Acted AGAINST my orders…..” Recalling her order clearly she thought. ‘They were supposed to wait ’til morning.’ Shaking off her memory The Conqueror continued. “…..and the person responsible was severely punished.” A picture of Darphus’ back and the whip marks he acquired from that act of disobediance flashed behind her eyes. ‘I should have killed him then.’ The Conqueror thought but The Warrior continued speaking to her captive. “They didn’t kill everyone.” She saw a flare of hope in his expression. ‘He never found the baby’s body.’ She thought and continued. “When I returned from my scouting mission the village had already been taken…..” She studied his face closely and thought about the young stable boy and his adopted mother. “….. but there was a baby still alive and I wouldn’t let them kill it.”

The flash of hope returned and filtered into his voice. “Was the baby a boy?” It was almost too much to wish for after all these years but his heart still lurched when Xena’s head nodded affirmative. Past a dry throat he asked the most important question he had ever contemplated. “Did he have a birthmark on his left leg?” Every fiber of his being ached to hear her say yes, and steeled itself to hear no. The yes answer nearly brought him to his knees and the breath he didn’t know he was holding was enough to utter. “That’s my son.” Gratitude edged its way into his expression and before he could ask Xena volunteered the information.

“He was adopted by a shepherd woman. They live just outside my palace in Corinth and work in the stable. She named him Bennett.” The look of determination in his eyes prompted The Warrior Princess to add. “He’s a good boy and loves his mother.” She continued in a near Conqueror tone. “If you try to seperate them I will, personally, hunt you down.” She had occasionally visited the stable to retrieve Argo and, since he had a tendency to hang around when his mother worked, had given him a job not too long before her first visit to the Amazon Nation. After Gabrielle opened her heart to love and she returned to Corinth it was a great surprise to find that Bennett held a small portion of her feelings. ‘Not family.’ She told herself. ‘But special.’ No one but his mother knew of her involvement with his rescue and the only time she saw him was to get Argo from the stables, so he was safe from being associated with her. Still she knew if he wasn’t there she would miss him.

“Bennett.” Spiros rolled the name on his tongue. ‘Little Blessed One.’ He looked at the fierce woman in front of him and decided the name was appropriate for his son. He offered his hand in thanks.

Xena gripped the arm offered warrior style and The Conqueror knew that her fun with this man was deferred indefinitely. She watched him check the few remaining star’s positions and head off in exactly the same direction she would soon be going herself. He was dismissed quickly from her thoughts as she tried to organize things for her departure. ‘Just a few things to take care of before I go.’ She thought and turned toward the building now visible in the clearing mist. ‘First, I say hello….and goodbye to Lyceus.’ She walked slowly toward the tomb and the past that helped create her.

The pair of watchers lost sight of their subject’s faces when Xena grabbed the man by the hair. It was obvious that there was something intense going on though. Both women raised both eyebrows in astonishment when Xena and the man shook hands. Even more astounding, Xena let him go.

“Why did she let him go?” Karis didn’t claim to understand the workings of Xena’s mind but knew that many times Gabrielle had anticipated her moves with great accuracy.

“I’m not sure.” Gabrielle wasn’t able to hear most of the words but the tones of the conversation seemed to indicate he was grateful for something Xena had done. ‘At Cirra?’ She thought. ‘Gods…that was terrible story.’ The story of the town’s destruction was etched into her mind. Shaking off nightmare images, she became worried when the warrior walked slowly toward the tomb.

“He’s not going back to Potidiea.” Karis wondered where the man was headed now. With an apologetic smile, she dropped from the limb and followed him silently.

Gabrielle chuckled and spoke quietly even though the guard was already out of earshot. “It’s easier just to ask.” She too dropped silently to the ground but instead of following the man, the concerned Queen slowly closed the distance between her and her love.

———————————–

Xena stopped cold at the threshold of the tomb. The flickering torchlight beckoned her forward but she could not move. ‘We have to say goodbye.’ The Warrior Princess urged. ‘I don’t want to.’ The Conqueror held her ground. The torchlight was all that allowed her to see inside her brother’s burial-chamber. The large vault was farthest back in the cave as a tribute to his bravery in defense of the town. The intricately carved sarcophagus, placed on the raised dais in the center of the room, caused tears to well up in her eyes. She felt a chill, not attributable to the damp cave, shake her and still she couldn’t move.

Gabrielle walked through the entrance to the building and saw a large room with many seats and benches arranged to face a podium and a large empty space. ‘They have services here.’ She thought.

Amazon funerals were centered around the pyre and could last for days. ‘Melosa’s lasted five days.’ She thought. ‘I heard Karis’ mother’s took seven.’ Unable to stop her morbid thoughts as she passed through the room to the entrance of the cave and the interred bodies. ‘I wonder how long my funeral will last?’ Looking down the hall she saw Xena standing at the entrance to one of the burial-chambers. The visible tremor that raced through her love caused the Amazon to move faster.

Xena felt the tension in her muscles relax as two warm, familiar arms wrapped around her waist.

“You really shouldn’t sneak up on me like that.” The Conqueror looked down at the small woman and growled. “I might hurt you.”

Green eyes, filled with nothing but love, returned the gaze. “You would never hurt me.”

“The morning Perdicus came home, you were scared of me.” The anguish in The Conqueror’s voice was only thinly veiled. “I frightened you.”

“You surprised me.” Gabrielle corrected and thought about the incident. “I was scared that Perdicus was going after Lila….. Otherwise…” She shifted her hold to move face to face with her dark lover, well aware that she was talking to The Conqueror. “… I would have stayed with you for as long as you wanted me to.” Long arms wrapping around her shoulders rewarded her pledge.

Xena rested her chin on top of Gabrielle’s head and knew that even if they spent an eternity together… it wouldn’t be long enough for her. A deep breath of contentment was cut short by the sight of her brother’s sarcophagus.

“Do you want a minute with your brother?” Gabrielle was confused at Xena’s reaction and started to release her hold on the warrior.

“No!” Xena tightened her hold. Taking another deep breath she looked over the Amazon’s head at Lyceus’ final resting-place. ‘I don’t want to forget him.’ She thought.

“Xena.” Gabrielle’s gentle voice floated to her ears. “You will never forget him.” She placed one hand on the warrior’s chest. “He lives in your heart.”

Xena was always amazed at Gabrielle’s ability to read her thoughts and taking the hand over her heart, lifted it to her lips. “With you.”

Gabrielle smiled. “With me….and Solan…and your mother…”

“Careful.” The warrior chuckled. “It’s gonna get pretty crowded in there.”

“Funny thing about hearts…” Gabrielle’s eyes twinkled up at her love. “…the more people you let in, the more room there is.” She smiled and slid her arms away from the warrior. “I’ll let you talk to your brother.” Brushing the back of her fingers against the tan cheek, she continued. “I’ll wait for you in your room.”

Xena caught the hand, kissing the palm and playing with the new ring. “I don’t have anything that is not yours too. I’ll be back to our room shortly.”

Gabrielle nodded and watched Xena walk slowly toward the dais. She only stayed long enough to see the Warrior brush some dirt off the engraving and chide her brother for not keeping his face clean before she walked out of the mausoleum.

——————————————–

Solari watched her Queen return to the house and when she was close enough reported. “No one has left the house.” The guard took a deep breath and smiled. “But I think someone is up.”

Gabrielle also inhaled deeply and upon recognizing the cinnamon and sugar combinations she smiled at Solari. “I do love Rayna’s cinnamon rolls.” She patted the guard on the arm. “Tell Xena that I’ll be in the kitchen.”

“Yes, My Queen.” Solari smiled at the rolling green eyes. Everyone in the Royal Guard knew how the Queen hated formalities. She retained her smile as she watched Gabrielle’s chuckling form disappeared into the house. Her smile vanished when Karis trotted up.

“Hey was that Gabrielle?” The Captain of the Guard indicated the now closed door.

“Yes.” Solari bristled at Karis using the Queen’s name.

“Was Xena with her?” The casual question was accompanied with a smile and Karis could tell that the guard didn’t want to answer.

“No.” Solari ground out.

“Hmmm….” Karis grinned at the sentry. “Guess it’s back to patrol for me.” She winked and turned to walk off in the same direction Xena had gone earlier.

Solari noted the direction. ‘It’s gonna be hard to stop the rumors from circulating.’ She thought. ‘But, I’m gonna try. The Queen shouldn’t hear about it like that.’ She knew, if the former Queen were alive she would agree. ‘Melosa was the one who assigned me to protect Gabrielle when she first joined us.’ Solari wanted very much to prove she was worthy of that trust.

—————————————

Karis was thinking of options to handle the Solari issue, when she met Xena emerging from the interment building. The expression on the warrior’s face concerned the guard. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I’m fine.” She managed a half-smile for the worried woman. She had seen the guard’s far away look and asked. “What’s up?”

Running her fingers through her hair, Karis sighed. “Solari is becoming a problem.” She explained that Solari’s fierce loyalty to the Queen would compel her to stop the rumors. The fact that the guard’s loyalty might be a threat to Karis’ own life was also mentioned.

Xena considered this development and shrugged. “Then we have to take her out of the picture.”

“What!!” Karis was appalled. “We can’t just….” Her outburst was halted by Xena’s chuckle.

“Calm down.” Xena patted Karis on the arm. “I didn’t mean kill her.” She smiled at Karis’ relieved expression. “Just leave her here to guard mother.”

Karis hedged at that. “Well, She is a problem but… I want her with us in Corinth.” Karis looked Xena directly in the eye. “I won’t be able to protect Gabrielle all the time while we are there.” She saw the warrior bristle and continued quickly. “Neither will you.” The guard waited for Xena’s acknowledgement of that statement before she went on. “I want to make Solari my second in command and tell her the plan.” The rest of her explanation was cut off by Xena’s rough voice.

“NO.” The warrior took a deep breath and continued calmly. “Promote her but don’t tell her.” Xena stopped Karis’ protest with a look. “Leave her here. When you get back to the village send a replacement for her. That will give the rumor mill time to work and she will be back in time to get her promotion and accompany you to Corinth.”

Karis didn’t like keeping Solari in the dark but agreed, for the moment. No one’s safety was as important as Gabrielle’s, even hers and the guard knew it. “So we have to endure an entire month of Gabrielle being separated from you?” Karis rolled her eyes. “Ye Gods, I hope the Nation is prepared.”

“What are you talking about?” Xena began moving toward the house as she questioned the head guard.

“It’s just that…..well…” Karis walked briskly to keep up with the warrior’s stride and tried to think of the right words. “The Queen becomes very…. intense…….. about Nation business when you are away….. ” She felt the grim smile on her face. “Last time the situation kept her inside for the most part and almost drove her crazy.” She rolled her eyes and looked up at the grinning warrior. “This time she will be able to go out ….. ” Karis grinned and gave an exaggerated shudder at the possibilities. She could only imagine the projects Gabrielle would concoct to keep her mind off the loneliness.

Xena saw the shudder and grinning draped one arm companionably around the guard’s shoulder. “I might be able to do something about that.”

The easy conversation put Karis into a playful mood and upon hearing the near promise of stalling the impending frenzy of activity, she dropped to her knees in front of the startled warrior.

First clasping her hands in front of her heart, then spreading her arms wide she bowed almost low enough to touch her forehead to the ground. “Oh mighty Xena, if you can do that, we will be forever in your debt.”

Putting on her best fake royal pose, Xena spoke nasally. “Rise, Lady Karis.” She offered her hand to help the young woman up.

Karis accepted the hand and rose with a chuckle. “Lady Karis…..” She laughed. “….like I’m royalty or something.” She snorted. “…Not likely.”

Holding the guard’s hands in front of her, Xena looked into the deep brown eyes. “He is still very young but if my son has anything to say about it….” She smiled gently at the confusion in Karis’ eyes. “…. I’d say……very likely.”

‘What does Solan have to do with my being royalty?’ She thought. ‘Sure as Gabrielle’s son he was considered a Prince but…..’ Suddenly she realized that Gabrielle was not his only mother and as Xena’s son……….. She swallowed hard at the thought of who the woman she was so casually talking to really was and the Realm her son would inherit. “Gods…”

The exclamation was enough for Xena to throw her head back and laugh loudly. “No.. They are safe….” She released the guard’s hands and resumed her arm around the shoulder embrace. With a slight shake of the guard’s frame, a wink and a sideways grin, she continued. “…For now.” She grimaced and wrinkled her nose disdainfully. “Olympus is too high up anyway.”

They took several steps before Karis brought their progress to an abrupt halt. “You’ve been to Olympus?” The awe in her voice was evident.

The memories of those excursions were not pleasant for her, despite the impression she left Ares with, and she grimaced as they flashed in her mind. “I have.”

Karis could feel the tension in the arm around her. Deciding not to press the subject, she cleared her throat. “I really should get back on patrol.”

“Sure.” The warrior dropped her arm from the young woman’s shoulders, took a deep breath and smiled. “One more circuit before your relief arrives?” She waited for the guard’s acknowledgement before offering. “Join us for breakfast?” From the fragrance in the air alone, she could almost taste the cinnamon rolls. ‘Raspberry tea would be great with those.’ She thought.

Karis couldn’t have stopped her smile if she had tried. “I’d love to.” Earlier, Xena had indicated that Solan still wanted to see her but the status of their relationship in his mother’s eyes, especially Gabrielle’s, was still very much in question. The guard had worried that getting caught by the barn was going to cause the women to mistrust her intentions but she knew that Xena wouldn’t invite her if Gabrielle was upset. Karis gave the warrior a jaunty wave as she trotted off to finish her duties.

Walking on toward the house Xena saw the hard look on Solari’s face. She breathed deeply and winked at the guard. “Gabrielle in the kitchen?” The warrior rewarded the guard’s grudging mumbled affirmative with a fierce scowl. “I am not used to defiant guards. Don’t think your disrespect will go unpunished just because you are an Amazon.” She grinned wickedly at Solari’s expression. “I am not without influence where your Queen is concerned.”

Solari was embarrassed that she had been unable to keep her emotions in check and responded automatically. “Karis will protest…..” Xena’s chuckle stopped her angry retort.

“I am not without influence where Karis is concerned either.” The Conqueror laughed louder at the guard’s darkening face. “You’re lucky though…. If you were one of my guards, with that attitude……” She leaned closer and growled. “….I’d kill you where you stand.”

Solari couldn’t quite keep the hardness from her eyes as the dark woman disappeared into the house. ‘Influence with Karis indeed.’ If she had not actually seen the kiss that night in Potidea Solari would not have believed Xena’s boast. As things stood now, inconceivable as it was, the only assumption possible was that Karis was betraying the Queen. ‘That can’t be.’ Solari warred with herself. ‘She wouldn’t do that…. I’m missing something.’ Solari decided that a discreet surveillance of Karis would get her the answers she needed. ‘If I confront Karis directly.’ She thought. ‘She will throw me out of the guard and I will miss my chance to find out what is going on.’

—————————–

Gabrielle was pleased to find that she was just in time for the first batch of rolls to come out of the oven. Joining Cyrene and Velasca at a large table in the corner she nibbled at the treats as she related the events of the last week in Potidea. She could already feel herself slipping in to a rhythmic pattern of speech and knew that before long she would have a polished story to tell anyone who wanted to listen.

Her audience was amazed at the bond between Brie and Gabe. Although Velasca was curious, Cyrene asked. “Does that sort of thing run in your family?”

Gabrielle drained the last of her tea and rose to get some more. She thought about the question as she absently poured the fragrant liquid into two mugs. Snagging another plate on her way back to the table she sat and put a roll on the new plate and another in front of her. “I don’t think so.” She nibbled on her roll. “Mother never mentioned anything like that to me.” She smiled as Xena walked through the door and the Queen indicated the place setting next to her.

Xena saw Cyrene and Velasca exchange a look and quickly took her place next to Gabrielle. She sipped the tea appreciatively. ‘Mint.’ She thought. ‘Not bad.’ She nudged the Amazon Queen’s shoulder. “Thanks.”

Gabrielle smiled as she swallowed a bite of roll. “Well, it’s not raspberry but it’s pretty good.”

The royal couple enjoyed their quick breakfast together. Knowing it was their last for awhile, the occasional brush of arm on arm as they reached for another roll or thigh on thigh as they shifted positions slightly was enough to focus all their attention on each other. A coughing fit from Cyrene pulled each of them out of their absorption in the other.

The innkeeper’s waving hand kept them from rushing to her side. Sighing at the sick woman’s stubbornness and at the inevitable, Gabrielle looked at her lover and spoke quietly. “I think Rayna is finished packing your supplies.”

“Yeah….” The warrior sighed sadly. “I need to get going.” She knew that the merchant caravan that Kima left on would take longer to get to Corinth than it would for a single rider but since they left two days ago she was going to have to take at least one of the shortcut she knew, just to catch up. Glancing at Gabrielle she rose gracefully and offered the Queen her hand. “I need to talk to you.”

Nodding, Gabrielle rose and let a gentle hand on her back guide her to the room they shared.

————————–

Karis walked into the kitchen expectantly and deflated slightly when Solan, Gabrielle, or Xena were nowhere to be seen. ‘Great, they’ve already finished breakfast’ She thought and simultaneously planned all sorts of odd and disgusting jobs for Jana. ‘She is always late for patrol.’ The problem was, once Jana was there and on duty, nothing got by her. Karis sighed. ‘She is a member of the Royal Guard so she has to be the best…. late or not.’

Cyrene saw the guard’s smile disappear and she knew why. “He’s not up yet.” She indicated the door leading to the main room and the hallway beyond with her thumb. “Second door on the right.” It would have been impossible for the grandmother not to chuckle at the speed the young woman exited the kitchen.

————————-

For one long soul-soothing moment Xena stood in the middle of her childhood room, holding the love of her life in her arms. ‘I don’t care where I’m standing.’ She thought and breathed deeply the lilac/leather/Gabrielle combination that was ingrained on her senses. ‘As long as Gabrielle is in my arms….. I’m home.’

“I will miss you.” The Amazon Queen buried her face in the raven hair cascading over the warrior’s collarbone. She knew her tears only made things worse but she couldn’t help it.

Xena felt the warm droplets wetting the ends of her hair and the skin below. “Hey.” She tilted the tear-stained face up to catch her eye. “Tears from the ruthless Spider Queen?” She wiped the water away with her thumbs. “Think of your image.”

A short bark of laughter and a sniffle stopped the drops from falling. “My image.” Gabrielle forced a smile. “I think your image could be in trouble if anyone saw you consoling a blubbering woman.”

Xena nodded and frowned. “It’s my image I wanted to talk to you about.” She released the Amazon and sat on the edge of the bed.

“Xena, don’t worry.” Gabrielle sat next to the warrior and patted her knee. “Your ruthless image is still intact.”

“No.” The Warrior Princess stilled the hand on her knee. “You don’t understand.” She turned to face the Amazon. “When you were telling Solan the story on his birthday I realized how much of the bad stuff you glossed over…. for his sake and for mine.” She walked over to the desk and gently rested her fingertips on the book she was reading earlier. “I understand that most stories about me go the opposite way.” Picking up the book she turned to look at Gabrielle. “I know that it can’t be told while I still rule, but I want you to write about me… the whole me.. the one that you know…the one I would like Solan and his children to know…..not just what some bard wants to blow out of proportion…… to do that, you need to know…. everything….the truth,
good and bad……” Looking at the wide green eyes of her only love, Xena took a deep breath and continued. “This is my journal, from when I was young.” She handed Gabrielle the book. “I have others from my later years, those are in my rooms at the Palace.” She sat next to the stunned Amazon and examined the palms of her hands. “I want my family at least to know the true story.”

“Xena…..” Gabrielle was speechless for once. The implicit trust it took for Xena to give up her journals was overwhelming.

Gabrielle’s hesitation sent The Conqueror pacing around the room. ‘I told you she wouldn’t. It’s too much to ask her…’ The Warrior Princess ran her fingers through her hair. ‘No she will do it… she’s the only one who can.’ Shaking her head and continuing to pace The Conqueror continued. ‘I don’t want her to know the horrible things I’ve done…’ The Warrior Princess interrupted the gruesome scenes flashing behind her eyes. ‘She loves us, despite what we have done.’ The Conqueror nearly wailed. ‘How can she? She doesn’t know…..’ A flash of a woman being impaled on a tree limb was dismissed as Gabrielle’s gentle voice interrupted the internal battle.

“Xena.” She wiped a tear from her eye and waited until the dark woman turned to face her before gesturing. “Com’ere, please?”

The Conqueror snarled. ‘Now see what you’ve done. She’s crying.’ The Warrior Princess crossed the room and took the Amazon’s outstretched hand. ‘No she isn’t …. look.’

At Gabrielle’s gentle insistence Xena dropped to both knees in front of her. “I love you, you know that right?” She waited for the hesitant nod, took a deep breath and continued. “I was able to gloss over the story for Solan because I already know a lot of the events in your life …..” She put her fingers to stop the warrior’s protest. “I’ve been watching you for a long time….. and I have already started this story.” She smiled at the confused blue eyes and hugged the journal to her chest. “This will help fill in the missing parts.” Brushing the warrior’s dark hair with her fingertips, Gabrielle leaned in to gently kiss her love. “Thank you.”

The Conqueror pulled back from the kiss. “You’ve already started?” Hands strengthened from years of staff use kept the dark woman from rising.

“Yes. At first, I just wanted to be able to tell them what happened…… ” Gabrielle’s explanation was interrupted.

“Them?” Xena didn’t know who Gabrielle was talking about. “You mean Solan?” She watched green eyes close as Gabrielle bit her lower lip and nodded. Suddenly, The Warrior Princess whispered quietly to her dark sister. ‘Centaurs….’ Xena had been overwhelmed when the little Centaur had thanked her for sparing his mother’s life… ‘I killed them all…’ The Warrior Princess felt her guts twist. ‘NO!’ The Conqueror corrected. ‘I did.’ The Warrior sighed. ‘That’s what I said.’ Blue eyes gazed into a field of green. “And little Phantes…?” Gabrielle nodded.

“Yes, It’s like the story you told me of his father’s death… ” She rubbed her palm against the smooth leather book. “…these will fill in ……the missing parts.” She leaned over, placed the book on the small table next to the bed and, with her now free hands, began to caress Xena’s face and stroke her hair.

The Conqueror closed her eyes to savor the gentle touch but wasn’t quite finished with the conversation. “You mean when there were no survivors.” She thought about it and knew there were too many instances of that. Sighing and hanging her head, she admitted. “There are a lot of those.” Delicate fingers under her chin gently forced her head to tilt up. The Conqueror looked into pure green desire and swallowed hard, hoping the Queen would answer the way she wanted.

“Gabrielle?” The Conqueror closed her eyes as Gabrielle’s fingers lightly traced her jaw.

Keeping her eyes focused on her fingertips, Gabrielle smiled and murmured. “Yes Xena?”

“You know why I want to get to Corinth before Kima, right?” The dark frame shuddered as the Amazon brushed locks of raven hair from her shoulders.

“Yes Xena.” She did know why but thought the warrior was going to tell her anyway.

“So I can follow her and find out who her contact in the Resistance is.” The soft skin now exposed was too much of a temptation and Xena felt Gabrielle’s mumbling response on her neck.

“Yes Xena.” The spy would go directly to her contact thinking that she was safe as long as Xena was still out of Corinth. A warm whispering breath on her ear made her shudder.

“Gabrielle?” The Conqueror tangled her hand in the honey hair.

“Yes Xena?” Quickly losing all semblance of self-control Gabrielle moved closer to her love.

From her kneeling position the warrior had to look slightly up at the Amazon. The feel of Gabrielle’s knees on either side of her waist increased her heartbeat nearly double. “If I got there too soon then I will have to hide and wait for the caravan to arrive, right?” Pulling Gabrielle even closer to the edge of the bed exposed a good portion of the Amazon’s shapely leg. A portion that Xena explored thoroughly as the Queen answered.

“Yes Xena.”

It took a moment to focus on the next question. “If that’s the case, then don’t you think I should wait awhile to leave?”

“Yes Xena.” Gabrielle wrapped her legs firmly around the warrior’s waist as the kneeling woman stood.

Holding her love tightly to her, Xena looked into deep green eyes. “Do you have any ideas on what we can do ’til then?”

Closing the intolerable space between their lips, Gabrielle whispered. “Yes. Xena.” She echoed Xena’s groan as the exquisite pressure from the woman above her pressed her back against the soft bed. Questing hands and lips forced the Amazon to gasp. “Oh, Yes Xena.” Before the ability for rational thought was driven from her and coherent speech was not even an option.

———————————————————–

Karis knocked quietly on the door. No answer. Concerned she poked her head inside the door and seeing Solan still sleeping she approached the bed quietly. Resisting the urge to wake him Guard trainee style, which involved the entire bed being turned over, Karis shook his bare shoulder gently. “Hey there, Sleepyhead…. wake up.”

“Wha…hmmm.” Solan opened his eyes and smiled at the guard. “Morning already?” He stretched leisurely and reached out for a hug.

The guard watched, fascinated, as Solan’s biceps flexed with his stretching motion. She sat on the edge of the bed and leaned into the open arms eagerly. It was amazingly easy to stretch out beside him and just relax quietly in his arms. She let her hand trace up and down his smooth stomach, feeling the toned muscle underneath. Slowly, so he wouldn’t notice, she moved her hand closer to his side. Just before she began to tickle him he grabbed her hand.

“Don’t” He smiled at her. When she persisted in attacking other known ticklish spots he used both hands to capture hers. She immediately spotted the ring.

“What’s that?” She tried to get a better look at his hand as he moved it rapidly around, over, behind and beside him, trying to keep her from seeing it.

“What’s what?” He grinned. “Ohh… you mean this.” Allowing Karis to capture his arm, he explained. “Xena’s Solstice present to me.”

Karis examined the ring… it was much too large for Solan but a string had been wrapped around the bottom half of the circle resizing it to fit his still growing finger. It was the design that struck her. “It’s Xena’s seal.”

Solan smiled a little sadly and shook his head. “I thought so too but on Mother’s this and this are different…. ” He looked into deep brown eyes and whispered. “… this one was my Father’s”

“Oh Solan.” Karis hugged him tightly. She knew that he loved his Centaur Uncle but in his heart he wanted to know his father. He returned the hug gratefully and took a deep breath.

“Hey are those cinnamon rolls I smell?” He smiled then looked panicked, jumped up, grabbed his shirt from the back of the chair and headed toward the door, dragging Karis behind him. “Com’on. If Mom gets there first we will miss them!”

Karis laughed at that. She had seen the trays of rolls Rayna was baking, most of them to be taken to the inn for the breakfast crowd and then she thought. ‘It is Gabrielle we are talking about.’ She increased her speed just to be on the safe side.

———————————-

Cyrene watched happily as her grandson and the Amazon he obviously adored ate breakfast. She grinned at Velasca, who rolled her eyes and chuckled. The young couple did not require her full attention, however, and she found herself glancing often in the direction of the sleeping rooms. To her relief, when Solan and Karis were nearly finished, Xena and Gabrielle returned to the kitchen.

“Mother. I have to go.” Xena hugged the older woman tightly before turning to Solan. “Behave.” She wasn’t sure if the exasperated sound he made was from her comment or her hug. Glancing once at Gabrielle, she pulled Karis into a quick hug, whispering. “I think I took care of that little problem we discussed… the Nation can rest easy.” Releasing the astonished guard, Xena took her place beside Gabrielle. One hand automatically wrapping around the Queen’s waist. “Walk with me?” Only a touch of sadness seeped into her words.

“Of course.” Gabrielle slid her hand between the sword scabbard and armor to wrap her arm around the warrior’s waist and walked quietly to the barn. It was a peaceful morning. Warm for this time of year. The sun was shining brightly in the blue morning sky. Birds were singing. Small animals scurried to find their stored food. She thought she could hear children playing in the distance. Xena was walking next to her. It was perfect and it was horrible. Xena was leaving. The Queen sighed. ‘At least I can stay busy writing some missing parts of her story.’ She thought and chuckled remembering some of the busy work she had initiated last time. ‘Ephiny will be glad to hear that. ‘ She looked at Xena with suspicious eyes. ‘I wonder….’

Twinkling blue with as much innocence as Xena could muster met the green gaze. “What?”

Pursing her lips, Gabrielle exhaled sharply and shook her head. “Nothing.” She watched as Xena checked the tack and saddled Argo. So lost in the play of light along well defined muscles, she barely noticed Xena reaching into one of the saddlebags.

Xena grinned at Gabrielle’s observations and put her hands behind her back as she walked toward the now blushing Queen. “These are for you.” She produced a small bunch of wildflowers surrounding a sprig of lilac.

“Oh Xena.” Gabrielle could feel the tears welling up in her eyes. “They are beautiful.”

“No.” The Warrior Princess corrected. “They…. are flowers.” Caressing the Queen’s cheek with her thumb she continued. “You… are beautiful.” She leaned in to taste the softness of the lips she knew so well, one last time. ‘Okay you’ve said your goodbye.’ The Conqueror said. ‘Now it’s my turn.’ The Warrior Princess gave way without a fight. It was The Conqueror that ruled and she was the one that should be in charge now.

Gabrielle felt the intensity of the kiss change and matched it. She knew that The Conqueror had arrived. When Xena broke the kiss and jumped into the saddle, The Queen looked up into shining blue eyes and patted the exposed portion of Xena’s leg. “Take care of yourself.”

She stopped the hand from patting her leg and gripped it tightly. “You too.”

Sheer force of will stopped the tears that threatened to overflow Gabrielle’s eyes and she nodded. Biting her lip, not trusting that a sound could pass the lump in her throat, she simply waved and slowly lowered her arm as Xena rode out of sight.

‘It’s not forever.’ She thought. ‘I’ll see her again, soon.’ Reassured by that thought, Gabrielle cleared her throat and wiped her eyes. ‘Now we get something done.’ Running her fingers through her hair she whistled the code for report and walked back to the house. She was not surprised to see that all the guards and all their packs had gathered in front of the house by the time she got there. Seizing the opportunity to reinforce the rift between her and the head guard, Gabrielle turned on Karis. “You told them to pack?”

A moment of panic gripped Karis’ heart. ‘She is angry at me.’ She thought before a calming voice soothed. ‘No, she’s helping you.’ Swallowing hard Karis nodded. “Yes. Did you not want to leave today too?”

Gabrielle thought about that question. Yes she most certainly did want to leave today. She wanted to leave and follow a lone rider on a large golden horse and when she caught up to them she wanted to stay with them forever. Sighing, Gabrielle acceded the point. “Yes I do but…” She put on her long unused royal pose and turned to the rest of the guards. “Since the waterways are useable again, Velasca is busy at the inn…. I worry about Xena’s mother and so does she so one of you will stay as guard.” She turned back to Karis. “Your choice… who stays?”

All the guards were dismayed at the news. None of them wanted to stay, each for their own reasons. Bekka had overheard a snippet of conversation between Karis and Xena and knew that a trip was being planned for Corinth. She thought that whoever stayed wouldn’t get to go. Jana thought she was going to have to stay as a punishment for being late this morning. Karis had been very upset. Norin wanted to get back to the Nation and tell the rest of her friends all about the trip, especially about Karis and Xena. She still couldn’t believe what Bekka had told her about the hayloft kiss. Solari, naturally, wanted to watch Karis but never seriously considered herself a candidate for staying. After all she was the most experienced of the group and guard duty was not her area of expertise.

Karis watched them all carefully and took a deep breath. “Solari will stay.” It took every ounce of self-control she had not to smile at the gasps of all the guards. The hard look Solari gave her was not lost on the head guard. “You have a problem Solari?”

“Yes I do…” The angry guard began and then saw the questioning look on Gabrielle’s face and sighed. “……but I will deal with it.”

“Now I know Cyrene will be well protected.” The Queen complimented. With that settled she started to enter the house. “Saddle up the horses…. I’ll pack and get Solan.” She continued inside and grinned at the flurry of Amazons grabbing their packs and heading toward the barn.

She had packed her things when Xena did so it didn’t take long to pick them up from their room, grab her cloak and find Solan. He didn’t have to report when she whistled so he opted to stay in the kitchen and talk to his grandmother and aunts. When Gabrielle entered the kitchen, Velasca was examining the ring Xena had given Solan.

“Very nice.” She handed the signet back to the boy.

“Thanks.” He slipped it back on his finger.

Gabrielle subtly checked to make sure her ring had the Amazon seal facing out before she approached the table. She held out her hand, the one with the ring on it, to Solan. “You ready to go?”

“Hey! Wow! Is that your present from Xena?” Solan’s eyes tracked the ring.

She smiled at his enthusiasm. “Yup… See.. ” She held it closer. “It’s my seal.”

“That is so cool.” He grinned up at his mother. Karis’ arrival at the door interrupted his comments.

“The horses are ready my Queen.” She bowed and left quickly.

“Why is she being so formal?” He knew she took her job seriously but com’on it was just them here.

“It’s necessary.” She smiled and tapped him on the cheek. “Ready?”

He understood that the formality was a necessary part of the plan Karis had told him about. She had also told him a little about covert communication. “Already?” That one word conveyed his reluctance to leave but also asked about the plan being set in motion.

“I’m afraid so.” Gabrielle smiled indulgently at her son. ‘He is growing up….’ She thought. ‘I wonder if I should put his first covert conversation in his scrapbook?’

He heaved himself up from the table and hugged Velasca and Rayna goodbye before turning to his grandmother. “It was very nice to meet you.” It had come as a great shock to meet so much of his family in such a short amount of time but he felt very strongly toward this woman. He guessed it was because he looked like her son but she watched him all the time and sometimes tears would well up in her eyes, like they were now.

“It was nice to meet you too.” The innkeeper opened her arms for a hug. She held him tightly forcing herself to remember that she would see him again, sometime.

Gabrielle waited until the hug was over before she spoke. “Solan, go tell Karis I’ll be there in a minute.” She smiled as he grabbed a leftover roll off the tray by the door. Reaching out to touch the innkeeper’s arm she spoke quietly. “I know Xena said she would come if you needed her but the Nation is closer than Corinth so if you need anything send one of the Amazons and I promise you, we will do all we can to help.”

Cyrene held the hand on her arm and played with the ring for a moment before pulling Gabrielle into a hug similar to the one she gave Solan but she also whispered in the woman’s ear. “Thank you, daughter.” The Amazon’s shining green eyes were all she needed to see for a proper ‘Your Welcome, Mother’

———————————————————

The tired band of travelers made their way across the village commons. It was a long trip from Amphipolis to the Nation, over seven days if you didn’t push. Gabrielle was amazed that Ephiny, Eponin and little Phantes had made it in four. ‘Even on horseback it took us nearly six.’ The Queen thought and chuckled. ‘Wasn’t everyone surprised when you jumped into the saddle.’ Taking full advantage of Xena’s many skills, she had coaxed a few lessons from the warrior. She still didn’t like it but would ride when she had to.

Sending Jana and Norin to the stables with the horses, and Solan off to his own quarters, she longingly eyed her own hut as she continued with Karis and Bekka toward the Council Chamber. ‘I have things to do first.’ A long hot bath was going to feel very good though.

Ephiny ran her hand through her dark blonde curls as Gabrielle entered the hut. The Queen stood at the doorway for a moment to adjust her eyes to the dimmer interior and to remove her cloak. The Regent took that moment to examine her Queen in detail. Her hair was longer, naturally, she had been gone a long time. When the cloak was removed Ephiny saw the full extent of the changes travel had made on their young Queen. Gabrielle was much thinner than she remembered. Every movement caused well defined muscles in her arms, legs, and stomach to flex and shift. She would have been concerned that the Queen wasn’t eating enough or was sick if not for the glowing smile and shining eyes. ‘No one who is sick glows like that.’ Now that Gabrielle’s well being was confirmed in her mind, Ephiny’s thoughts turned personal and she worried as the long absent Queen approached the throne. The Regent instinctively found Eponin’s hand for support. “You look well my Queen.”

Gabrielle smiled at the compliment and at the linked hands. “Thank You. I’m a little tired though…long trip.” She grinned at Ephiny’s knowing expression and continued. “I probably ought to sit down.” Biting her lip to keep from smiling didn’t help as Ephiny simply nodded in agreement. Laughing outright, Gabrielle licked her lips and asked. “So are you gonna get outta my chair or what?”

Ephiny looked stricken and shot up off the throne as if someone had set it on fire. “Gods.. I’m sorry I just forgot…” Her apology was cut off by the sight of her Queen rolling on the floor laughing.

Residual bubbles of laughter escaped her as Gabrielle hauled herself to her feet and wiped a tear from her eye. “Oh thank you Ephiny. I haven’t laughed that hard in days……” She smiled and quickly hugged the Regent. It was one step up to the vacated seat and Gabrielle was too much of a bard not to stand in front of the empty throne and survey the room for a dramatic moment before accepting the responsibility of sitting in the ornate chair.

As soon as Gabrielle reclaimed the throne, Ephiny knelt in front of her and held out a small scroll. “This was delivered a few days ago.” She needed to get the formalities out of the way first before she could ask about the personal issues.

Gabrielle removed her traveling pack and placed it on the floor next to the throne. When she reached for the offered message, Ephiny noticed her ring and grabbed her hand. Quickly stopping Karis’ reflex action with an upraised hand, Gabrielle smiled at the Regent. “You like that?” Showing even more teeth at Ephiny’s nod she rose, placed the scroll on the arm of the throne and gestured her to the corner supply table. It wasn’t safe for everyone to know but Ephiny at least should be aware of the depth of feeling Xena held for her. She turned the ring to show Ephiny the design on the other side and smiled at The Regent.

“Is that…. Xena’s seal?” Ephiny spoke in a whisper partially to keep the others from hearing and partially in awe.

“Yes.” Twinkling green eyes watched as Ephiny’s expression went from happiness for a friend to astonishment, to awe.

“That means….” Ephiny couldn’t believe that Xena would give anyone that kind of power. No one could dispute a document with The Conqueror’s seal on it. With it Gabrielle could sign anything and by putting the Empress’ seal on it, it would be law, no matter where she was. “Gods… she gave you…”

Gabrielle smiled quietly, turned the ring so the Amazon seal was facing out and confirmed. “She gave me the world.” The Queen closed her eyes, savoring the memory.

Ephiny let Gabrielle drift in her memory as she tried to reconcile her Queen’s relationship with the Ruler of the World. A deep breath from Gabrielle drew her out of her thoughts.

“I guess we have some business to take care of.” She smiled at the still stunned Amazon. Gathering a blank parchment, a pen and ink, she returned to the throne. Setting aside the supplies for the moment she unrolled the message. The scroll was, as she suspected, an invitation to the Imperial Palace in Corinth for the annual Winter Festival. She knew that the guest lists for such occasions were made out well in advance and she wondered how long The Amazon Queen and entourage had been included among the invited. She could imagine the look on the subordinate’s face as Xena gave the order for the Amazons to be included. Ephiny’s nervous shuffling brought her out of her daydream. ‘Gods… how could I be so stupid.’ She thought and quickly rummaged through her pack for the parchment. Handing the document to the Regent she smiled. “Congratulations…. It’s a girl!”

Ephiny knew that without Eponin’s arm around her she would have fallen. “You saw her…. she signed?” The relief in her voice was evident. In the months since her mother had left Micha had become family and now that Brenin had signed the adoption papers, no one could take her away.

“Yes.” Gabrielle took a sheet of blank parchment and wrote a list of names. Handing it to Karis she spoke quietly. “Have these guards report to my hut for the evening meal.” She saw Karis’ eyes widen at the list. “You come too.” As Karis left to find the women, Gabrielle rose and linked arms with Ephiny. “I know that you and Poni want to celebrate but I have a long story to tell you…. and I need a bath.” She could feel the grit of the road on her neck. “I’ll try not to take too long………..”

—————————————————————

Xena heard the brook and dismounted to walk through the trees to the water. It was more than she had hoped for. A small tree had fallen across the stream and trapped a pool of water behind it. She had taken every shortcut she knew and by her estimation was only a few more days from Corinth. She had passed the merchant’s caravan Kima was traveling with two days ago, they were traveling slower than she thought, and now had the luxury of stopping to bathe. Quickly stripping down to her shift she began to wash the travel grime off and think about the upcoming confrontation. ‘Iolaus will have been back in Corinth for seven days or so by now.’ The Warrior Princess warned. ‘There is no telling what kind of surprises he has for you.’ The Conqueror sighed. ‘I know…. but the first step in avoiding a trap, is to be aware of it’s existence.’ From far down the road she heard hoofbeats. ‘Four horses.’ She thought absently and continued to wash thinking about how much more fun baths were when Gabrielle was around until the hoofbeats stopped and Argo neighed. Quickly returning to the road she found four large men, dressed in worn leather armor trying to catch Argo’s reins.

“I wouldn’t do that.” Narrowed blue eyes sized up her opponents. ‘Big… ‘ They turned at the sound of her voice and she continued her assessment. ‘…..but slow.’

“Well, well, well… lookee here boys…. maybe we will have some fun after all.” The apparent leader of the group sauntered forward. “The only woman in the caravan we raided died before we had any fun at all.” He played with a pendant hanging from his neck

She looked at the pendant and recognized it. “That is the medallion of an Imperial Healer.” She was angry now. Kima was dead and all her travel was for nothing… she could have stayed with Gabrielle. Of course she had planned on explaining her traveling companions absence by saying she had sold them as slaves to some merchant. Now she could say they had died in a raider’s attack.

“Yeah… so?” He laughed loudly and shook his thumb in the direction of his comrades. “It’s not like any of us haven’t killed people before.” They all agreed to that.

“The punishment for killing a member of the Imperial household is death.” She smiled as the tone of her voice caused one of them to step back.

“Who’s gonna tell?” The leader insanely took a step toward her.

Whistling a command to Argo the horse pushed through the men and stopped next to her. Retrieving her sword and chakram, The Conqueror laughed. “No one.” The men were going to die and The Warrior Princess was powerless to stop it. ‘That’s right, my sister.’ The Conqueror’s gleeful claim rang in her head. ‘It’s MY time now.’ In a blur of motion the chakram found it’s mark on the three lackeys and they hit the ground before she caught the bloody ring. Turning to the leader, she smiled savoring the fear in his eyes and reveling in the power that coursed through her. Laughing at the sheer exhilaration of it she purred. “No one at all.”

End

Concluded in Invitations

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