The Queen of My Heart by LJ Maas

Artwork by Rebekah Lynn

The Queen of My Heart
By LJ Maas
#4 in the Queen Series

Part 1

I don’t know why, but I felt the uneasiness set in the moment we decided to make a visit to the Amazon village. My anxiety grew with every step we took. I couldn’t say for what reason, but it set me on edge, a fact my beautiful wife was quick to notice. I knew she was aware that something was bothering me, but like the intelligent wife she was, she simply raised an eyebrow at my edginess and silently kept the pace, walking ahead of me.

We were perhaps three days south of the village and that night as we slept under the stars, Gabrielle awoke screaming. She threw herself into my arms sobbing once I settled my nerves enough to pry my hand away from the hilt of my sword. Her scream, an ear splitting sound, hastened the end of my life by a good five summers, I’m sure. I wrapped my arms around her shivering body and pulled her close to me. She lay so tightly against me I could feel her heartbeat pounding out of control.

“Sshh, baby, it’s allright…just a bad dream.”

“Oh, Xe, it felt so real. I thought…I thought I lost you.”

“I’m right here, my heart. You haven’t lost me anywhere.” I replied.

Once I soothed her nerves, by holding her and whispering words of love and comfort to her, she quieted enough to tell me the dream. I never ignored Gabrielle’s dreams, even though they may seem only nightmares to another. My wife’s dreams have an unusual way of coming to pass, albeit in bits and pieces. Now, with the knowledge of her heritage, it does not surprise me that she has a touch of the oracle in her.

I reached away from her momentarily and stretched out the length of my body. Gabrielle gathered wood earlier and set aside two small logs in case the night turned cold. I tossed the logs she gathered on the glowing pile of embers and the dry wood immediately took spark and flamed. The warmth and the light, not to mention me, holding her in my protective embrace; aided in her comfort and she finally settled against me in relief.

“You got sick, Xe and I couldn’t make you understand me. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get through to you, but I heard you. In my mind I heard you talking to me and telling me it would be allright.”

“Then that should show you that it’s nothing too serious, Brie. Number one, I never get sick and even if I do, I heal so fast that I feel better in no time. Second, if I was telling you in your dream that everything would be okay, then I’m sure it will turn out that way.” I responded confidently.

“That’s the only problem. When you told me things would be allright…your voice didn’t sound like you believed it.” Gabrielle said with worry.

I could only stare at her for a few heartbeats. What could I say? That I would never lie to her if the prognosis looked grim? She knew me better than that, hence her fear.

“I’ll do my level best to stay healthy. I’ll drink a mug of medicinal herb tea every morning, will that help?” I asked her as I tilted her chin up and grinned. Once her beautiful eyes met mine, she returned the small grin and nodded her head.

When she leaned forward to kiss me, the weight of her body pushed my back flat against the bedroll and all I could do was moan at the sweetness of those lips and the feel of her body against mine. Her caresses became more earnest and suddenly my body felt the way it always does with Gabrielle draped across it. A slow fire began to burn in my belly and there was only one thing that would quench it, this woman’s touch.

I pulled back before I went further than Gabrielle wanted. She just awoke from some startling visions and being held may have been all she had in mind. I needed to know now, so I could douse the sparks that were quickly turning into flames, burning hot and settling right between my legs.

She looked into my eyes and I could see her need burning as fiercely as my own. I growled and moved to take control when I felt her hands press against my shoulders, stopping me from going any further.

“Please, Xe…I need…let me make love to you.” She said softly.

I’ve never heard Gabrielle use that phrase before…I need. I could instantly see the truth in her eyes. She looked as if she needed to ground herself, to find some way to purge the mental images that recently haunted her sleep. I would never deny this woman anything and I wonder if she knows it. Besides, I think, as a small smile comes to my lips. There are far worse ways to spend an evening, but few better than to be made love to by an Amazon Queen.

I pull her close to me once more and we kiss. Just before our lips touch; just as they are delicately brushing together, I whisper to her. The vibration against her mouth causes her to smile.

“Yesss.” I whisper slowly, and then I give myself up to her talented body.

I close my eyes and revel in the feel of her naked skin pressed against mine, her legs straddling my thigh. We do nothing but kiss for a long time and that seems to be enough at first. Our kisses are slow and loving, more of an exploration, really, as our tongues meet and small jolts of energy pass between us.

I feel myself floating on a wave of pure pleasure, sensations washing over me in a torrent of passion. Gabrielle’s mouth presses harder; becomes more insistent, more demanding. My body begins to betray me in more ways than one. Gentle moans filled the air and I am actually surprised that it is the sound of my own voice I am hearing. Gabrielle’s hands seem to be everywhere at once and soon her lips follow, and that tongue, by the Gods, where did she learn that?!

My moans turn into whimpers of need and I silently curse myself. I meant to hold out far longer than this, but the woman was turning my body into six feet of liquid fire. She settled her attentions on my breasts, using her lips and tongue to stroke the tender flesh into submission. It wasn’t much of a battle; I surrendered immediately. Her mouth wrapped around a dark colored nipple and although her seduction started out softly enough, she was soon sucking the pebbled flesh hard between her lips and teeth, tugging at the taut flesh with the voracity of a starving newborn.

“Oh, yesss, Brie…just like that,” I moan in ecstasy.

I don’t need to tell her that, she knows exactly what I like and how I like it. My fingers entwine in her golden hair and press her mouth even harder to my chest, but even that gesture is habit and completely unnecessary. There is no fear that she will pull away for any reason. She will not stop until I’ve had my fill and she tells me so, murmuring the words against my skin, into the hollow between my breasts. Secure in that knowledge, I relax just a little bit more and give my mind as well as my body up to her.

She slides down my body to settle between my legs and in the state I’m in it feels as if she is liquid and simply flows along my skin to her destination, pooling in the spot where I need her the most. She kisses the dark triangle of hair and I feel her pause. If I were more in control of my body I would smile. I love the habit she has of pausing ever so slightly before tasting me. It’s always the same. She breathes deeply as if it will be the last time that I will allow her this pleasure. She takes one long, languid stroke against my sex and immediately I groan at the tenderness of the caress, lifting my hips higher toward the source of the pleasure.

My body shudders and there is nothing I can do to stop the involuntary motion. The warm wetness of her tongue slides within every fold until I am gasping as the muscle slips slowly inside of me. There is a certain deliberateness to her actions and I try to hang on, letting my body simply experience the pleasure of it all. Thank the Gods she has avoided the bundle of nerves that is now swollen and pulses insistently. Gods, she knows how to play me!

By now I am clenching handfuls of the bedroll, my hips rising and falling to keep up a steady motion against the rhythm of Gabrielle’s strokes. I know the sounds that I am making are probably waking up the whole forest, but I am helpless to stop. My legs begin to tremble; I spread them wider in silent invitation for my wife to take all of me that she will. That’s when she does.

She presses the flat of her tongue in a firm swipe across the hooded bundle of nerves that swells even more at the exquisite contact.

“Gods, yesss, Brie. Stoke it…just…like…oh, Gods!”

I explode from within before I can even finish my thought. It didn’t matter because my wife knew exactly what I was going to say and she did exactly what I meant. The roar I heard was surely my own voice, but I only heard it from within a fog. I was lost in a place created of absolute delectation. I could barely feel my own body continue to shiver and twitch as Gabrielle proceeded to lap at the fluid between my legs, careful not to lose a drop.
——————————————————————————–

I hear her stir in the bedroll and know she is awake before her eyes are even open. I sit there, cross-legged on the ground and tug a length of heavy twine through a piece of leather that holds the stirrup to Argo’s saddle. As was my habit, I rose just before dawn. It was something inside of me that bid me to rise at that hour every morning, I’d been that way since I was a small child.

My wife stretched and I suddenly find my hand poised in mid air over my work. How does she do that to me? She looks around the small camp, her sleepy eyes landing on me and suddenly I am alive. No, correction, suddenly I am living for her. It’s as if everything I do, everything that I think and feel, suddenly revolves around her. I don’t understand it, the Gods know I ponder it often enough, even dwell on the amazement of it, but I never…ever question it. That would be as insulting as questioning a gift. When something is truly wonderful and it is given to you without thought of whether you deserve it or not, you should never ask why.

So, she flashes bright green eyes my way and I look at her and grin. It’s a goofy grin, she’s told me so on many occasions, but when I look at her, especially after the incredible passion we shared last night, I simply can’t keep the grin from my face

“Morning, love…you let me sleep late,” Gabrielle murmured, looking up at the sun’s position in the sky.

“Well, we’re not in any big hurry.”

“Hey, you’ve already caught breakfast!” She remarked after her nose alerted her to the scent of cooking fish.

I smile proudly, looking over at the three fish that were gutted and stuck on long sticks leaning over the heat of the fire. I take a lot of teasing, mostly from Gabrielle, my mother, and anyone else that either has a death wish or feels just plain suicidal, about my culinary talents. I admit, I’m not much of a cook. I was never the kind of a daughter that hung around the kitchen with my mother. I was too busy fishing and riding with my little brother for that. There are days, though, and I would never admit this to my mother even upon pain of death, but there are days when I wished I’d learned just a tad more from Cyrene. I can stick anything on a spit and cook it and if you don’t mind the burned bits it’s really not too bad, you just have to pick off the really black parts. Because of this, it was a small treat for my wife to wake up to find breakfast already cooking.

Gabrielle rose and checked the fish, moving them further from the fire. “I’m going to take a bath, I’ll be back before they’re done. Do you mind?”

She looked at me then after she had soap and a towel, and a few other items in her hands. I registered the look on her face and realized I had my tongue hanging out look fixed on my naked wife. I don’t know why I do that or at least why I can’t be a little more subtle about it. People would think that Gabrielle was the woman of the world and I, the inexperienced one in our relationship. All I could do was give her that; I’ve been caught sort of half-smile and blush in embarrassment.

Gabrielle smiled sweetly and without a word she reached out and gently stroked my cheek. This was her way of thanking me for the compliment my eyes were paying her. It didn’t matter that she was twenty-four summers old, I think that when she is old and gray I will still be looking through love’s eyes and thinking lascivious thoughts of her. I watch approvingly as she picks up her staff before strolling down to the stream.

She was out of my line of sight, but I could hear the soft splashing noises she made in the water. I sensed her good mood and was glad that the memories of last evening’s nightmares didn’t continue to haunt her. Gabrielle and I would be married for a full year in another two moons. Gods, will it be the Summer Solstice already? I remember back to the time, just before our joining ceremony, when we discovered that Apollo was Gabrielle’s real father. It’s no mystery to me now as to why my wife’s dreams are tinged through with prophecy. Considering her parentage, it’s a surprise she doesn’t have more powers than she does. Apollo mentioned in a conversation with me that Gabrielle has powers to rival a full Goddess, but her powers are a natural part of her. No, she can’t pop around within the universe, but he explained that her goodness and compassion exceeds that of ordinary mortals, the tremendous capacity for selfless love that resides within her heart, being one of those powers. I smile now remembering that conversation…as if I needed a God to tell me that. I could have told anyone that about Gabrielle.

Apollo did speak to both Gabrielle and I at length one evening by the fire. He told Gabrielle that she had access to a great many hidden powers that she could cultivate if she cared to. He explained that should the time come when she had a desire to learn more about these godly talents, he would be happy to instruct her. My wife politely told her father that she had no desire to accumulate any more power than she already had.

I, personally, think that she still remembers the incident with the Titans…she doesn’t say it, but I can see the remorse in her eye at the feeling of once having wielded such power only to have abused it. When the two of us were alone, we discussed it at length. I was often sorry that the life we chose to lead didn’t afford me the kind of money that would have made Gabrielle’s life easier. I guess I always want Gabrielle to have the best of everything and I told her so. I don’t think I will ever forget the look of absolute devotion in her eyes when she tenderly kissed me and told me that as long as she had my love, she already had the best of everything.

Gods! How the woman can leave me speechless sometimes.
——————————————————————————–

“Boadicea?” Gabrielle asked hesitantly.

“Unh uh,” I shake my head.

It’s turning out to be a beautiful early summer day and my wife and I walk along the worn path, Argo enjoying the rest that using my own legs gives her. Gabrielle and I pass the time traveling in many ways. We often play this guessing game, and I still love the way Gabrielle is determined to beat me. My favorite way to travel is in silence, but I rarely get that, not while Gabrielle is in a good mood anyway. When her mood is light, she chatters on about everything under the stars and I nod and grunt in what I think are the appropriate places. After almost six seasons together you’d think I’d be used to it, but Gods, the girl can talk!

I suddenly realize I am walking by myself and turn around to see my wife standing there with her hands on her slim hips arching an eyebrow at me. Arching her eyebrow at me…can you believe it? By the Gods, I perfected the move!

“What?” I ask, trying to muster as much innocence into my voice as I can. I only pray that she doesn’t get the Godly ability to read my mind.

“You’ve got that grin on your face.” Gabrielle smirked.

I could feel my face start to get hot. “I swear, Brie, I was not thinking about you that way.”

“Oh, I know that,” she began as she walked to catch up to me. “It’s that other grin you’ve got going. I’ve known you long enough to know the difference between your, I want her and I want her now grin and the smile that just tugs at the corners of your lips when you’re thinking Gods I love her, but I wish she’d just be quiet for half a candlemark.”

I chuckled out loud that I’d been caught, which earned me an unexpected swat in the stomach. It wasn’t very hard, though. Gabrielle rapped her knuckles more than once against my armor and she was beginning to learn that she had to wait until I got into the bedroll at night to whack me. I am constantly amazed that the woman who sets down a scroll and a quarter of a candlemark later, can’t remember where she put it, that this woman can remember that my eyes lingered a heartbeat longer than necessary on a pretty barmaid, and will backhand me in the stomach for the infraction as I close my eyes to sleep.

“Oh, I got it,” Gabrielle stopped moving and grabbed my arm, “it’s Cyane!” She said excitedly.

I turned and grabbed her arm in the same fashion, the same excitement on my face. That’s when I gave her an evil little grin and said breathlessly, “Nope.”

“Oh, you!” She laughed and slapped my arm.

I caught her around the waist and pulled her to me for no other reason than to feel her lips on mine and to tell her how happy she made me. She smiled up at me and I realized how far my life had come in six seasons, all due to the woman I now held in my arms.

We slowly pulled away and began to walk again. I realized that now was as good a time to talk to my wife as any. It was still hard for me to open up and bare my feelings, even around Gabrielle, but she has taught me that communication is the key ingredient to our having a successful relationship. So, I push aside the feelings of embarrassment I get whenever I express my heart and begin to feel Gabrielle out on the subject.

“Brie…have you ever thought about us settling down someplace? You know, having trouble come to us instead of going out and looking for it?” I asked, joking at the end so as not to sound too serious.

“Have you?” Gabrielle returned immediately.

“Don’t answer a question with a question.”

“You do it all the time.” She reminded me.

“Yea, well…that’s me. It’s okay when I do it.” I answered with a grin.

She nudged me in the arm and slipped her hand within mine as we walked.

“I guess I’d be lying if I said that I never thought about us settling somewhere permanently, finally giving up the road as a way of life, maybe even raising a child.” Gabrielle answered tentatively.

I felt a familiar pain pull at my heart and knew that it made its way to my face when I looked at Gabrielle.

“I’m sorry, Xe,” she said quickly, lowering her eyes from mine, “I know that since Solon…”

“No, my heart, that’s not it,” I tried to reassure her. I knew she was feeling guilty again over the circumstances that led to my son’s death, but those were hurts we’d forgiven one another for ages ago.

I stopped and turned to face her, gently cupping her face in both my hands. “Do you know that I would do anything for you, my heart? If you asked for the Golden Fleece, I’d go on a journey tomorrow to get it for you. If you asked me to give you a child…Brie, that’s the one thing in this life that I can’t give to you. What’s worse is that the only obvious way for you to have a child would be for you to do something that I don’t know if I can handle. I don’t know if I could take the idea of you being with anyone else, even if it is just for that reason.”

I stopped speaking because I knew that if I kept talking I would only make more of a fool of myself. I could already feel hot tears burning my eyes and brusquely brushed away the few that spilled out onto my cheeks. Okay this was why I didn’t bare my feelings more. I always end up in tears, a very un-warrior thing to do.

“Oh, Xe,” Gabrielle said softly as she pressed herself close to me. She laid her cheek against my chest, just above my armor and I wrapped my arms around her and kissed the top of her head. “First of all, we’re not really at that point in our lives yet, are we?”

She pulled away to look at me and I had to laugh at myself. I smiled through the tears and admitted that I was doing what my wife usually did. I was worrying about things that were a long way off for us yet.

“No, we’re not exactly at that point.” I answered hoarsely.

Gabrielle smiled and wiped the rest of the tears from my face. Besides, I feel exactly the same as you do about it, Xe. When the time is right, we’ll both know it and maybe by then,” she kissed my chin, “well, maybe by then we can see if those Godly powers my father talks about include things like that. I mean, there ought to be some perks to being Apollo’s daughter, huh?”

My wife smiled up at me, and it was plain to see that she was in her take care of the warrior mode. Even though I would never openly admit it to anyone but her, I had fears and insecurities just like the rest of humanity. Gabrielle was the only one I would ever voice those concerns to. She was the only person that I didn’t feel weak around for having those feelings.

“I love you, Brie.” I whispered and kissed her in a way that would convince her of the fact. “You do know that if you wanted a baby…I wouldn’t put up a fight?” I said as my way of apologizing for being selfish.

“I know, love, but let’s reverse our positions here. If you were the one who was going to carry our child, do you honestly picture me casually standing by while you did it with some guy…even if it was just to get pregnant?”

I couldn’t help it, I know my wife too well. I snorted and gave her my best smirk. Gabrielle turns into a fury if another woman even licks her lips while looking me over. I picture her ripping the arms off any man brave enough to want to assist us in starting our family.

“I see you’ve gotten the picture. So, do you know what I mean when I tell you I understand where you’re coming from?”

“Yes, love I do,” I answered with a chuckle.

“Of, course don’t look like it will never happen. We do know that you’re perfectly capable of having a healthy baby.”

I arched my eyebrow at the young woman.

“Oh, don’t look at me that way,” Gabrielle nudged me. “Are you going to stand there and tell me that you honestly don’t remember what a wonderful feeling it was to have a life growing inside you?”

I searched my mind and was surprised at how quickly the memories surfaced. I felt alone and scared most of the time that I carried Solon. I was a different woman back then. I was only interested in being a Warlord, of having power and all that came with it. Perhaps if I had cared for Borias more, if I’d been in love with him instead of in lust, I would have felt differently. I do remember what Gabrielle was referring to, however. It was sort of a feeling of awe that a real live thing was growing inside of you.

I realized I was lost in my thoughts for a few moments when I looked down to see Gabrielle smiling back up at me. She knew from the look on my face that what she said was true. I touched her face tenderly as a sign of agreement. Of course, being who I am, I couldn’t just let it go.

“Yea, well…do you want to know what I remember most about being pregnant?”

“What?” Gabrielle said excitedly, falling right into my trap.

“Oh…throwing up about three times a day, never getting a decent night’s sleep because I had to make a trip out to the bushes about twice a night, and getting so huge even Argo looked terrified when I went to mount her.”

Gabrielle laughed and put her arm around my waist. “Yea, but it was worth it all, wasn’t it?”

“Yea…it was.” I added softly, slipping my own arm around her shoulders as we walked.

“So, you could do it again…” Gabrielle trailed off, with a slight grin.

“I was a lot younger back then! Kind of around the age you are right now. No, my heart, when the time comes, you get to have all our babies.” I laughed.

“Babies? As in more than one?” Gabrielle pulled away slightly to look into my eyes, her own filled with amusement.

“Well, I…uh…” How do I get such a tiny tongue so twisted in knots? I stammered, which I only end up doing in front of either Gabrielle or my mother.

My wife’s lilting laughter filled my senses. “Don’t worry, Xe…when the time comes, I’ll be more than happy to have your children.”

I reached over and kissed her cheek and we continued to walk along like that. I let out the fact that someday I would like to see us settled and with children, that was a big step for me. Neither one of us knew when, but at least we were on the same path with our thinking. I also let it slip that just one child would probably not be enough. I mean, if you’re going to raise a child you might as well do a few of them at once, right?

“So, when someday arrives…where would you like to start a home?” I asked.

“Mmm, I thought you might want to live in Amphipolis, help Cyrene with the Inn?” Gabrielle answered.

“Oh, sweetheart, I love my mother, but if I had to live by her I’d probably end up killing her.”

“Then I guess the logical place would be with the Amazons.” Gabrielle said with some hesitation.

We both pretty much knew that the Amazon village would be where we would live out our lives. I was Consort to the Amazon Queen and that meant that neither of our lives were completely our own. The day we were Joined I knelt and swore an oath to follow and obey her as my Queen. On the road, I was in charge of our lives, but once we permanently settled with the Amazons and Gabrielle took invariable possession of her crown, I would be living under her rule. I would be the Queen’s Consort, Champion to her throne, and resident warrior. No longer would I carry the feared title of Warrior Princess that those throughout Greece knew me by. I wondered if I was ready for that kind of anonymity.

It was for these reasons that my wife was using such a tentative voice. It was also why she was looking at me with that expectant expression on her face, which I could see from out of the corner of my eye. I wanted to dispel any thoughts from her head that would lead her to believe I would not follow her to the ends of the known world. I repeated the words that I told her on the night I gave her the amulet that she now wears around her throat.

“I go where you go, my Queen…my home is where you are.”
——————————————————————————–

It was two days later when we reached the edge of Amazon land. The familiar sound of ropes falling from the trees above us gave way to the site of masked warriors, immediately recognizing us and kneeling at our feet. Gabrielle had long ago become accustomed to her subject’s actions upon her arrival back onto Amazon land, but it still made me feel strange, people kneeling at my feet.

An equally familiar voice came from behind the mask of the first kneeling figure.

“Your Majesty…Your Highness…greetings.”

Gabrielle bid the warriors rise and all three removed their masks. We knew their leader, young Tarazon, who had turned into a fine warrior. She was now a watch commander, but she didn’t look at all well.

“Tarazon, are you ill?” Gabrielle questioned before I could ask the same question.

“As well as can be expected your majesty. There seems to be a fever of some sort going around the village, there are many women a lot worse off than I am.” The young Amazon answered.

“What kind of a fever?” Gabrielle and I asked in unison. I know we were both thinking about her dream.

“I don’t think Sartori knows,” the young warrior answered. “It seems to have hit some of the women quite hard. The Queen Regent has erected tents to be used as infirmaries within the compound. Can I escort you to your quarters Your Majesty?”

“No, that’s not necessary Tarazon, but I am ordering you back to the village with us.” Gabrielle answered.

“But, Queen Gabr–”

“Gabrielle is right, Tarazon, you look as though you’re none too steady on your feet and the trees are no place for you in that kind of condition.” I interrupted.

“Yes, Your Highness.” The Amazon answered. I groaned under my breath, I’ll never get used to someone using that title.

The young Commander gave instructions to the other warriors and left with us to head into the village. Gabrielle was quiet all of a sudden and I knew she was thinking about the visions in her dream. I hate to admit it, but it was on my mind too, the fact that Gabrielle’s dream seemed to have some basis in fact. Tarazon answered our questions, but the girl just didn’t seem like herself. I suspected that perhaps she felt worse than she was letting on. That suspicion was confirmed as we walked into the village.

Ephiny was in the center of the village directing the construction of what seemed a small building. Just as she saw us and began walking in our direction, Tarazon’s knees buckled underneath her. I caught the young woman before she hit the ground. The Regent ran the rest of the way and felt the young warrior’s face. I’m sure she felt the same thing as I did. The heat coming from the girl’s body was definitely a massive fever.

“Bring her into the tent over by Sartori’s hut,” Ephiny asked.

I lifted the young woman into my arms and carried her into the tent. Placing her on the nearest pallet, I looked around at the tent and saw that it was almost filled to capacity.

“Greetings Your Highness, Queen Gabrielle.” Sartori acknowledged both of us as she began removing Tarazon’s armor and stripped the girl down to her shift, placing a cold compress on her forehead.

“Sartori, what in Tartaurus is going on here?” Gabrielle asked in a voice filled with concern and tinged with a bit of fear.

Sartori washed her hands and stood before us once more. The healer was about my age, maybe a summer or two younger, but it was obvious she was bone tired. She looked much older than her years and I could see part of her pain was the frustration over her inability to fight this disease.

Ephiny answered for the healer. “It started about a moon ago, Gabrielle. Nothing the healers have tried has worked. It seems to start like an ordinary summer fever, but it lingers. The women who caught the fever first are starting to get very bad,” The Regent lowered her voice to just above a whisper. “Their weakened condition simply won’t allow their bodies to fight off whatever infection has taken hold.”

“I’m sorry, My Queen, but no medicine I come up with seems to help.” Sartori said in defeat.

“Tori…” Adia, the healer’s bondmate came into the tent and placed her hands gently on her partner’s shoulders. “Gabrielle…Xena,” Adia smiled at the newcomers. The tall healer never stood on ceremony with the two women.

“Tori, you’re about ready to fall down, you need to get some rest, love.” Adia said softly.

“There aren’t enough hands, I can’t leave right now.” Sartori answered her lover.

“There are now,” Gabrielle spoke up. “Sartori, you do look like you’re about to drop. I want you to go get some sleep, that’s an order,” Gabrielle said emphatically as the Healer was about to protest. Sartori closed her mouth again, unwilling to argue with her Queen.

“Come, on love.” Adia said. “I’ll stay here and help as I can.

“I don’t have too bad of a bedside manner, I can help.” I heard my own voice saying. I looked over at Gabrielle and I saw the fear in her face, but she said nothing.

“I’ll stay and help too, now go on Sartori. We need you to stay healthy.” Gabrielle added.

“Xe?” Gabrielle questioned me as the others walked away to the task at hand.

What could I say to my wife? That I neither took her dreams seriously nor feared catching the mysterious illness? That would have been a lie and I think she alone knew how I felt. To actually admit fear, wasn’t in me, however, and I gently kissed her forehead.

“I’ll be careful,” was the only promise I could think to make.

Gabrielle could have ordered me to our quarters, Hades, she could have pleaded with those deep green eyes she has and I would have obeyed. My oath upon our Joining would not have allowed disobedience and if I was nothing else, I was a woman of my word. I knew though that my wife would never do that. Gabrielle would never embarrass me by making me look weak in the eyes of the warriors around us.

She reached out and touched my face then brushed the hair away from my eyes. I saw her push down her own fear with that action. She was telling me that she would never ask me to give up being who I was.

“I love you, Brie,” I whispered.

“Love you too, Warrior,” she returned just before she turned to make her way across the tent.

I made my first stop next door to Sartori’s hut. I gathered up a few herbs that perhaps the Healer hadn’t thought to try yet and brought them into a corner of the tent to work. I watched from across the tent as Gabrielle donned an apron and spoke with some of the women lying on the pallets. I removed my weapons and armor and put on a similar apron, but could immediately feel a change in the atmosphere of the tent. The young women, who were sick and weak, smiled as their Queen, sat beside them offering them sips of cool water, holding their hands or just offering a few words of encouragement.

“She really shouldn’t be in here, Xena.” Ephiny whispered to me looking in Gabrielle’s direction. “If this is some kind of mystery illness, we don’t need our Queen succumbing to it.”

I stopped to watch my wife as she paused next to every woman lying on a pallet, if only to give a look and a smile to each Amazon. Her very touch became healing to these women, for that was Gabrielle’s nature.

“I can’t ask her to be less than she is, Eph.” I responded to the Regent.
——————————————————————————–

The sun had been down for hours when Sartori walked into the tent looking refreshed from her hours of sleep. Her look changed to one of sheer joy when we told her that the two worst cases had been able to swallow a bit of the medicine I prepared. It held their fever in check for the last few hours at least and Sartori thanked me profusely. I explained that I was no Healer, not of her caliber anyway, but I picked up a few things here and there in my travels.

Sartori also brought with her a new wave of helpers and I was finally able to pull Gabrielle away to our hut. I had a young girl from the food hut send some dinner to our quarters and steered my wife in the direction of the baths. Once we’d steamed the ache in our muscles loose, we made out way to the hut for some much welcome food and privacy.

Gabrielle uncharacteristically pushed her half-full plate away from her, leaning back and stretching her back. I looked up at her with concern. When my wife didn’t eat good food, there was definitely something to worry about. I gave her that questioning look of mine and she smiled tiredly.

“I feel fine…I think I’m just too tired to eat.” She yawned. I watched as she stretched again, but she winced in pain this time.

“Hey, come over here,” I stood and walked over to our bed. “Take off your robe,” I commanded and she complied quickly. I gazed at her body and even though my spirit was more than willing to pleasure the young Queen, my body was just too damned tired. “Lay down on your stomach.”

Gabrielle stretched out on our bed and when I sat down next to her with a jar of scented oil she finally realized what I had in mind and smiled contentedly. I warmed the oil in the palms of my hands and began to massage the stiff muscles of my wife’s shoulders and back. I worked the knots and tension loose and before I had barely begun, Gabrielle’s purrs of satisfaction had changed to a heavy breathing that told me she was sound asleep. I tossed my own robe on the chair beside the bed and wrapped my body around Gabrielle’s. She unconsciously pressed her back further into my chest and I held her close, enjoying the feeling of her body against mine. Exhaustion finally claimed me and I fell into the deep, dreamless embrace of Morpheus.
——————————————————————————–

Both of us bolted upright at the pounding on the hut’s door.

“Gods, I feel like we just went to sleep.” Gabrielle muttered sleepily.

“We did,” I answered, noticing the moon was still high in the sky.

I threw on my robe and Gabrielle did likewise before I opened the door. It was Medra, Sartori’s apprentice healer. The young woman looked as tired as Sartori had earlier and there was an expression like panic in her eyes.

“Forgive the intrusion, your Highness, but one of the women has taken a turn for the worse and Sartori asked if the Queen would come?”

“Of course, Medra, tell Sartori that I’m on my way.” Gabrielle rose to stand beside me.

When the young Amazon left to deliver the message, Gabrielle immediately started dressing, and I followed suit.

“Xe, you don’t have to come.” Gabrielle said and I knew what she was thinking, because she refused to let her eyes meet mine.

“Brie, let’s not let fear get the best of us, allright?” I returned. I wanted Gabrielle to know that I refused to live my life according to an oracle’s prediction, even if that oracle happened to be my wife.

“I just…” she began.

“I know, love…I know.” I replied, placing a cloak over her shoulders and laying a gentle kiss on the top of her head before we stepped out into the cool night air.

Gabrielle sat on the edge of the pallet, close to the dying woman. I recognized the young Amazon as one of Gabrielle’s Royal Guard although I couldn’t recall her name. It’s strange the things we remember at times, but I suddenly recalled that on one occasion she walked into the room as Gabrielle and I were in the middle of a rather amorous embrace. The young Guard turned about ten shades of scarlet once she realized where my hand was, yet vainly attempted to deliver her message. The few times I ran into her after that incident, proved to be rather traumatic for her. She seemed unable to look at Gabrielle or I without becoming absolutely tongue-tied.

Now, I watched as Gabrielle cried very real tears as the young Guard held on to her Queen for some sort of strength. There were a number of us gathered there and we could only watch as Gabrielle began to speak to the young woman.

“Don’t be afraid, Kiza.” Gabrielle said, not much above a whisper. “Passing over is just another adventure for an Amazon as brave as you. I’ve been to the Amazon Land of the Dead, have I ever told you that?”

I watched and felt no shame as the tears fell from my own eyes. Gods, how my wife could take this young woman’s death and turn it into a glorious ballad for the young Amazon. I knew, deep down, Gabrielle would prefer not to be in this situation. Sometimes her heart is too tender to lose those she loves, and she does indeed love all her sisters. You would never have known that she was shivering and crying on the inside, though. She put herself into her bard mode and her voice held a strength and compassion that caused the ill woman to open her eyes and fix them on her Queen.

Gabrielle told her of the wonder of the castle within the Great Mountains of the Amazon lands and of the brave and mighty women that would be there to greet her with open arms. My own heart tightened a bit as I recalled the memory of standing in front of that mountain, the cold wind blowing in my face. I remember thinking I would never see my Gabrielle again, choosing to fight Alti and help the Northern Amazons that I had wronged when I was so much younger. I knew at the time that it would be what Gabrielle would have wanted me to do and that’s what got me through. I wondered at the time if I would ever see my heart again and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to express the feelings I had when I came across Gabrielle that day.

I was tracking Hope, the realization that the young bard I loved, but never told that fact, was gone from me forever, caused an ache deep in my soul that nothing in life could ease. I was determined this time. Without Gabrielle there was no sense in living and if Dahok’s spawn was alive, I knew I would kill her and suffer the consequences the fates would throw at me.

When I charged upon her, the forest became deathly silent. I swung my sword up and looked into that face. I knew it would be hard to do, kill the monster that wore Gabrielle’s face, but I wasn’t prepared for that look. It took only a fraction of a second to realize that my heart never pounded that hard unless Gabrielle, the real Gabrielle focused those deep green eyes in my direction.

When she spoke my name…Gods, there was never a sweeter sound, was there?

When I finally broke from my reverie, the sound of weeping filled the Healer’s hut where they’d brought the young Amazon. I looked down and watched as Gabrielle took the oils that Ephiny offered her and anointed young Kiza. A sheer length of gauze was put in place to cover her face and Gabrielle stood to let the young woman’s family come closer.

I came up behind Gabrielle and she leaned back instinctively, feeling my presence behind her. She didn’t turn into my embrace, but I could feel her shoulders shaking as she wept for the young Amazon.

Even though it was the middle of the night, we started our day. Those who where physically able, helped with the sick and did everything from caring for the patients to boiling cloths and sheets, burning furs and clothing, anything that might be blamed for the infection. We were running out of options and even the medicine I had concocted the previous day, no longer worked. It was as if the sickness was fought back momentarily, but then it realized what the medicine was and came up with a way to fight it. The fact disturbed me, the idea that we might be fighting an entity of some sort as opposed to a random disease. Another disturbing fact I mentioned to Adia, pulling her outside of the tent so no one would hear me.

“Adia, have you noticed there are no older patients?” I asked

“And none under the age of puberty.” She answered.

So, it wasn’t just me, someone else noticed it too.

“Okay, I’m not about to tell a Healer her job, but don’t you find that odd? I mean, children and the elderly are the first casualties when it comes to the ravages of an illness. Every woman in these tents is a strong warrior of child bearing age.” I explained.

“I know, Xena. I don’t think anyone else has stopped to think about it, but it makes me feel that this is no desultory illness. Do you have any idea at all how we go about finding out what this could be? Could it be a curse of some sort?” Adia turned and I could see the concern burning in her gaze. A concern, not only for her people, but for her own lover as well.

I also saw a keen understanding of what we could be fighting against should this illness be more along the lines of magic rather than a natural sickness of the body. Adia was a mind healer, a woman accustomed to dealing in a person’s dreamscape and fantasies. I knew that she could comprehend better than most the concept of fighting black magic, battling on a level other than the physical.

“I suppose all we can do for the time being is continue to come up with new ways to combat the fever, that seems to be what’s taking the fight out of them the quickest. I must know fifty different mixtures to stave off a fever, I’m sure Sartori knows more. I think what’s slowing us down is the fact that we keep giving them the medicine even though it’s stopped working. You think Sartori would be up for an experiment?” I asked.

“I think she’ll try just about anything at this point.” Adia answered.

“Let’s try this,” I explained leading her in the direction of Sartori’s hut. “We make up a new mixture everyday. If the body doesn’t have time to get used to it, we may be able to keep the fever at bay a little longer. Nobody gets the same mixture twice.”

We walked into Sartori’s hut just as Gabrielle was placing a sheet of gauze across a young Amazon’s face. This had been the second woman to contract the illness. Now, it was obvious that the progression of the disease was rapid. It took only a little more than one moon for it to claim it’s first two victims.

After the family left the hut, Adia and I collected the herbs we would need and quickly made our way out.

“Xena,” Gabrielle called and I handed the items in my hand to Adia before I turned, knowing that the time for a confrontation had come between my wife and I.

“Yes, my heart?” I answered sincerely as I moved closer.

“Xe, I don’t want you helping in the tents anymore.” Gabrielle said tightly, lowering her voice so that only I could hear.

“Gab-ri-elle,” I responded slowly.

Tears suddenly sprung to my wife’s eyes. “Women are dying, Xena, this is a serious situation and in my

dream–”

That’s when she broke down and I moved to wrap my arms around her. I lifted her chin slightly so that I could see her face. She had dark circles under her eyes and I knew she must be utterly drained, the exhaustion only feeding her fear.

“Oh, Brie, I know you would like to see me safe and sound just like I always want you to be out of harm’s way. I may not be Amazon, but in a way, these women are my people too. They’ve come to mean a great deal to me and I can’t just desert them to save my own life.” I held her closer and tenderly kissed her temple, feeling her tears wet my shoulder I leaned closer to her ear and whispered.

“Brie, is this what you would have me do? Because you know that if you make it a command, I will follow it.”

Gabrielle was silent for a moment and I gave her time to process what I said. I could still feel her wet tears on my shoulder, and then I felt the warmth of her lips as they pressed themselves against the skin there.

“No,” she whispered back, “I can’t ask that of you, Xe. You wouldn’t ask it of me, would you?”

The inflection of her voice led me to believe that she already knew the answer to that question.

“Gods, I would want to, my heart. I would want to so badly, but I could never ask you to stop being who you are.”

My wife smiled up at me through her tears and my heart leapt into my throat and broke at the same instant. The two of us came to a precipice that few couples ever have to look over. We were at a point where our own lives and the precious love we held for one another became secondary to the needs of our people.

“Then we’ll just have to trust that Artemis will protect us.” My wife stated.

I reached down and pressed my lips firmly to hers, not wanting the sensation to end. Gods, how the woman has grown in these past five summers. When we are alone and away from all responsibility she turns into the young girl from Potidaea, so carefree and full of adventure and fun. Now, she was the woman I married, all grown up and making grown up decisions. Today she was the Amazon Queen.

We kissed once more and unwillingly pushed away from one another. We each breathed deeply, tucking our affection into a safe spot until we could be alone together later. We entered the tent and Gabrielle squeezed my hand to go off toward the pallets. I refused to release the small hand, pulling it up to my lips instead. I placed a light kiss in her palm and let go. She smiled again and it was as if a piece of the sun came down to touch me.

I worked in a corner of the tent with Adia after we told Sartori of our plan. The Healer agreed wholeheartedly with our strategy at reducing the fever with varying herbal mixtures. I looked up occasionally to spot Gabrielle. She looked exhausted, but the ill women lying around her saw only their Queen’s loving smile.

I absently reached a hand up to touch my own face, relieved to have the skin feel cool. I certainly hadn’t discounted my wife’s dreams and tried to push the thought away. I wouldn’t live my life in fear; that much was a certainty, but I couldn’t dispel the images Gabrielle saw in her dream.

Perhaps if we weren’t both concentrating so intently on protecting me, we would have noticed the flush to Gabrielle’s cheeks and the nagging cough she suddenly developed.
——————————————————————————–

“You look like you’re asleep on your feet.” I said to Gabrielle.

I came up to her and waved my hand in front of her face to bring her back from wherever she’d gone.

“You don’t look well, Brie.” I said with more concern than I normally would have.

“I’m just exhausted,” she returned a small smile filled with fatigue.

“Come on, you’re going to bed.” I said the words in such a way that even Gabrielle refused to argue with me. I was secretly glad she didn’t because I was fully prepared to throw the woman over my shoulder if she had.

The night air had a definite chill to it and even I shuddered when it first caressed my sweat soaked skin, goose bumps rising on my arms. Gabrielle lifted her hair and seemed to welcome the coolness, closing her eyes and standing still as a slight breeze swept across the village compound. I watched the small blonde at my side and suddenly her brow knit together and she appeared to be falling forward. She reached out her hand and I quickly caught her as she leaned heavily against me.

“Xe?” Gabrielle asked as if she didn’t understand what was going on with her own body.

I knew in an instant. All I had to do was feel her skin, a hot dry heat rising off of her. Gods, how could I have been so stupid?

“Brie?” I questioned.

I scooped her small body into my arms just as Medra was passing by us on her way into the infirmary.

“Your Highness–” the young woman started.

“Medra go inside and tell Sartori to come to the Queen’s tent and bring a dose of the fever medicine we just mixed up.”

“Is the Queen–”

“Now!” I hissed under my breath, turning and walking away to get Gabrielle inside our own quarters.

Once inside I pulled the blankets off the bed until only a thin sheet remained. I removed Gabrielle’s clothing down to her cotton shift and poured some water from a pitcher on the table into a nearby bowl. I soaked some cloths in the cool water and began sponging off her heated skin.

“Oh, Gabrielle.” I murmured aloud, waiting impatiently for Sartori to arrive.
——————————————————————————–

I knew it was the Healer because there was a hurried knock on the door and then it opened. No one in the village would come in unannounced except a Healer whose only focus was on her Queen. Sartori kneeled down next to the bed and placed a hand on Gabrielle’s face, grimacing at the warmth rising from the small Queen’s skin.

“No, no…” Sartori muttered.

“Did you bring the medicine?” I asked. There was little I could do for my own wife that we hadn’t already tried on the other women, but I would be damned if I was going to let her go without one Tartaurus of a fight.

Sartori nodded and handed me the mug from her hand. I sat on the bed and pulled Gabrielle to me so that she was secure against my body, her weight upon my chest.

“Brie,” I whispered gently. “Come on, sweetheart…you need to wake up for me.”

Gabrielle’s eyes fluttered open and she seemed lost for a few heartbeats until her eyes focused and took in Sartori and the fact that she was wrapped in my arms.

“You need to swallow some of this, Brie,” I said as I held the cup to her lips.

She groaned at the taste and I’d forgotten that I used to lace medicinal herbs with honey for my wife. She would literally cover her head with a blanket when she was sick and I would offer her a cure. She realized that this was not one of those simple headache remedies, it was far more serious, and so she took a small sip.

“More than that, Brie…come on, take a big swallow.”

She did as she was directed and I handed the cup back to Sartori, placing a small kiss on Gabrielle’s temple.

“This wasn’t in my dream,” Gabrielle looked up at me and said dryly.

I couldn’t help smiling, but it was bittersweet in its release. I explained to Sartori’s questioning gaze the dream Gabrielle had that it would be I who was ill. I held my wife tighter and knew she would have her sense of humor as long as she had her strength. Then she surprised me with her next words; they were not ones I was prepared to hear.

“Ephiny…I have to give Ephiny my right of caste.” She said weakly.

“No, not yet.” I replied vehemently.

“Xe…” Gabrielle responded and I knew she didn’t have the strength to argue with me. Although I shouldn’t have, I took advantage of that fact.

“There will be time for that later if it’s necessary.” I told her, wiping a cool cloth across her face.

Gabrielle nodded her assent and relaxed back into my arms. I could see that Sartori felt entirely helpless. It was her job to keep the Queen healthy and I’m sure that she thought she failed Gabrielle in some way. I observed the same emotions playing across the Healer’s face as my own. I could easily guess what she was thinking. No matter what Gabrielle thought, no mater the amount of protest, she was the Queen and we should not have allowed her to be in those tents. I cursed myself now, but it was hindsight. I was the Queen’s Champion and I let her walk right into the danger.

“Sartori,” I whispered as Gabrielle began to nod off again, “would you have someone bring me the baskets of plants and herbs that I gathered this afternoon. I’ll make tomorrow’s dose for the fever, but I’m not going to leave Gabrielle. I can do it just as easily from here.”

The healer nodded and without saying anything more she walked out of the hut.

I must have fallen asleep because when I opened my eyes and looked out the window by the bed, the moon was low on the other side of the sky. My body was so tired I might have slept through until dawn, but it was the small body next to mine that awoke me.

Gabrielle lay curled tightly against me, the heat pouring off her in waves, her body shivering uncontrollably. I extricated myself from the tiny figure and grabbed a mug of water. I pulled my leathers off until I was clad only in my shift and moved to lay back down with my wife. Gabrielle opened her eyes and her teeth chattered as if there were snow on the ground all around her.

“Here, baby…drink some water…come on, just a little more, good girl.”

“Xena, can’t I have a blanket? I’m so cold.” She pleaded and it tore at my heart.

“No, sweetheart, it will only make your fever worse. Come here and lay against me, I’ll keep you warm.”

I lay down on the bed and allowed Gabrielle to wrap the thin sheet around her and pulled her body close to mine. Gods, the heat coming off her was stifling and began to make me sweat, but she continued to shiver and shake and so I rubbed my hands along her skin to see if I couldn’t relax her enough into falling back asleep. If I could just get her fever down so she could sleep, her body might retain enough strength to fight off the infection.

I don’t know if the fever abated somewhat or if my wife’s exhausted body finally gave up working it’s tired muscles, but some time later she was still and I could hear her deep, even breathing. I felt her skin and realized that the fever was as strong as ever. Her body fell into an exhausted slumber despite the illness.

I slipped from her embrace and sat at the table in the middle of our hut. Medra brought over all the herbs I was working with and I began on a new mixture for tomorrow, which was only a short time away. My mind ran through the different possibilities regarding the strange illness.

The fever appeared to affect only Amazons. Apart from myself, there were few non-Amazon women in the village, who hadn’t contracted it. What was even more puzzling was the fact that only young, healthy women were contracting the disease. It was breaking every traditional rule that I could think of. There were a number of Amazons who hadn’t contracted any symptoms at all, probably due to some natural immunity. If this wasn’t just a random illness, then who could have the power to kill off an entire race of people? The Amazon’s were the chosen people of the Goddess Artemis, Apollo’s twin sister. If this were the doing of another God, then why would Artemis be allowing it to happen? More importantly, why doesn’t Apollo do something to save his daughter?

I could only think of questions in my mind as I crushed the leaves with a mortar and pestle. I was coming to no conclusions and never having been one to shy away from confrontations with Greek Gods, I decided I would walk to Artemis’ temple when the sun came up in the morning and get some answers for myself.
——————————————————————————–

“Artemis! Get your scrawny butt down here!” I shouted for the third time.

The priestess’ scurried through the temple on my arrival and my belligerent attitude and shouting at the top of my lungs, certainly wasn’t the way to endear myself to them. I finally stalked from the claustrophobic silence of the temple, nearly running down Ephiny in the process. The look in her eye told me more than enough.

“How long have you known that Artemis has deserted the temple?” I asked, sorry for the accusatory tone, but unable to keep it from my voice.

“Just after the fever started. The high priestess came to me.” The Regent answered, lowering her head slightly. “Xena, I didn’t want the women to lose heart. If they know their Goddess has deserted them they’ll give up hope.”

I turned away abruptly and began walking toward the Queen’s hut. I don’t know if I’d have done things differently from the way Ephiny handled it, but I was angry and I needed to take it out on someone.

“Xena, my people are dying.” She tossed at my back.

“My wife is dying!” I turned back around to face her, my fists clenched together tightly so I wouldn’t lose my temper completely and start something that wouldn’t help anyone in the long run. I paused and took a deep breath, turning my eyes skyward to push back the tears that statement caused.

“At least we have our confirmation that this just isn’t some random infectious fever. Come on, Eph. Maybe Gabrielle can call up Apollo and we can find out what’s going on.” I said.

I waited for the Regent to catch up with me and we walked down the winding path back to the village. We were rather silent companions; each of us caught up in our own worries of what we stood to lose.
——————————————————————————–

“What’s wrong?” I asked, not sure if I wanted to know the answer when I burst through the door of our hut.

Medra was outside crying and silent eyes followed the Regent and I into the building. I left Gabrielle in Sartori’s care earlier, but the Healer only looked at me with a pain in her eyes that betrayed her own fear.

“I can’t get Gabrielle to respond any longer.” Sartori answered ominously.

I wasn’t willing to believe this latest bit of news. I just looked at the faces of the women in the room and rushed to my wife’s bed.

“Brie…come on, honey, wake up.” I prodded the small figure that lay there, looking rather tiny in the large bed we had made to fit my warrior’s physique.

I stoked her face, only to feel the fever still ravaging her body. Running my hands gently through her golden hair, I didn’t know what else to do. She was the only thing that kept me together in a chaotic world that had a tendency to go mad every once in a while and I just didn’t know what to do. I am a warrior and I could not see the enemy that I needed to fight in order to protect my wife’s life.

“Xena?” I felt Ephiny’s hand on my shoulder, but didn’t turn around. “This makes sense if this is a spell to curse the Amazons. Gabrielle is our Queen, she would be affected the most and for the longest time since she represents all of Amazonia.”

“A curse against the Amazons?” Sartori looked astounded. Suddenly the Healer nodded her head. “Yes…it fits doesn’t it? Xena, who would have the power to do such a thing?”

I just shook my head, never releasing the small blonde lying in the bed from my gaze.

“We need to discuss this with the council.” Ephiny began. “There must be something that can be done. Sartori, how many members of the council are unaffected by the sickness?”

“There’s you, Adia, and three or four of the older council members. Elda has sat on the council the longest, but she is very loyal to the Queen,” the Healer added.

“Xena…Xena…” Ephiny said.

I could hear the Regent talking, but I wasn’t really paying attention. All my thoughts and cares were wrapped around Gabrielle’s well being.

“Xena, we’re going to need your help, my friend.” The Regent said again and I knew she was right.

Out of everyone involved I had the most dealings with Gods and their curses, even though most of my interactions had been forced on me. I realized, as I sat staring at my wife’s still form, that finding the reason behind and putting a stop to the cause of the fever would be the only way I could save Gabrielle. I turned finally to look up at the Regent.

“I need to talk to Adia before we meet with the council. I think I have an idea about how we can find out what’s going on.”

I made my way out to the woods where I knew I would be alone. I didn’t want any of the others to see the confrontation I was going to have.

“Ares.” I snarled the name aloud and my face broke into a sneer as I spoke the word. I couldn’t help it, my distaste for the God of War was no secret and he tried to trick and betray me into fighting at his side on more than one occasion.

Usually the God showed up within a heartbeat of me calling his name, but not this time. I paced until I grew tired of the waiting. I had just about given up, turning back toward the village when I felt his presence. I turned around and there he stood, looking odd in full battle armor, dirt and grime streaked across his arms.

“This better be good, Xena, I’m kind of in the middle of something here.” The God of War said testily.

“What’s going on, Ares…where’s Artemis and why are the Amazons dying? I know one of you is at the bottom of this.”

“You know you’re beautiful when you’re angry.” He said in that leering way of his.

“Then you’re about to see how drop-dead gorgeous I can be because if anything happens to Gabrielle–”

I stopped my ranting in mid sentence as he cocked his head to the side and suddenly vanished.

“Ares…Arrreeessss!” I screamed, letting my own frustration loose.

I continued to scream until my throat was raw. I needed to let loose the anger that was building up and this seemed about as safe a way as any. I leaned my back against a tree and closed my eyes, refusing to let the tears fall. I knew once I started, I wouldn’t be able to stop. Besides, I wasn’t about to admit defeat. It would take all the Gods on Olympus to separate me from Gabrielle. I wasn’t about to let Hades have her just yet.

I pushed myself away from the large olive tree and strode back to the village, a new determination in my heart. I had an idea, but now I had to see if Adia was as good a dreamscape Healer as I thought she was.
——————————————————————————–

“Xena, what you’re asking…” Adia lowered her head, her voice trailing off into nothing.

“It’s the only way we can summon a God, Adia. Gabrielle is the only one who can call Apollo to her side with her ring, if I could, then I would. Ares made it sound like something is happening, but he left so quickly I couldn’t learn anything from him. Something big is going down on Olympus, it’s not like Ares to leave when he could stick around and gloat because of my pain over Gabrielle.”

“Xena, I’ve never entered the dreamscape of a person so physically ill before, I don’t know what it will do.”

I think she caught the look on my face and she hurriedly went on.

“I’m not worried for me…I fear for Gabrielle. Xena, what if my attempt does more harm than good. I don’t know if I could live with myself knowing I caused injury to my Queen with these efforts.” She finished softly.

Once again I was taken back at the magnitude of love and loyalty Gabrielle’s Amazons had for her. My wife earned every ounce of respect and adoration these women expressed and it surely didn’t surprise me, but sometimes the enormity of it still astonished me.

“Adia, I do understand what you’re saying, more than you know. I only know that I won’t be able to live with myself either if anything happens to Gabrielle and I haven’t tried everything within my power to prevent it.”

I didn’t mean to cry, Gods I hardly ever cry in front of anyone besides Gabrielle, but the emotions of the day finally caught up to me and I could feel the tears sliding down my cheeks. It was good in a way because I saw a look in Adia’s eye at my emotional display, one that I interpreted to mean she was reversing our positions in her mind. What if Sartori were the one ill. It’s funny what you can see when you really look into someone’s eyes. I saw the tall, dark-haired woman make a decision without saying a word.

“Come on, the sooner the better.” She said abruptly and I followed her, stride for stride to my wife’s bedside.

Once we were able to explain what we had in mind and Adia talked privately with her own wife, the dreamscape Healer asked us all to leave. I was more than a little nervous, but Adia reassured me that it might take hours in real time once she entered Gabrielle’s dreamscape. She said that I could come back in and check on them at any time, once she was in a deep enough state to cross over to that other reality. I nodded, and not knowing what else to say, I squeezed the tall woman’s hand and whispered a word of encouragement. She smiled that crooked smile of hers that told me my wife would be safe if she had anything to do with it. Just before I closed the door to the hut I saw the dark-haired woman seat herself cross-legged on the floor, her back against Gabrielle’s bed. She closed her eyes and I pulled the door shut.

I sat down on the top step of the stairs to the veranda. I was nervous and frightened and I didn’t even attempt to hide the emotions that manifested themselves physically. I folded my hands together and pressed my knuckles to my lips, mumbling prayers to any God that would still listen to an old warrior. I could feel my body start to rock back and forth.

Hades, I haven’t done this since I was a child, when the howling winds of the winter storms used to keep me awake at night. There was a tree outside my bedroom window, over the inn that my mother owned, that was struck by lightning long before I was born. The tree was bent at an odd angle and whipped against the wooden shutters when the winds grew strong. The sound terrified my for one reason or another. I was four summers old and my mother would come in and snuggle against me in the warm blankets of my bed and rock me back and forth until I fell asleep again. The motion became a sort of comfort movement after that, but it was years since I’d relied on it to ease my frightened heart.

I felt the weight as Ephiny sat down beside me on the step. The Regent placed her hand on my shoulder and for the first time today I realized I wasn’t wearing my armor. Gods, this was a first. I forgot to put on something that was as much a part of me as my very skin. I remembered now that it was placed on the small stool beside the bed, my sword lying over it.

“Adia will come through for us. She’s smart and she knows her stuff.” Ephiny said in the way of encouragement.

I just nodded, unable to speak.

“Xena…Gods, I know this sounds indelicate, but you know how I am. About Gabrielle’s right of caste–”

“That’s my fault.” I answered, quickly looking across at my friend. “I’m sorry, Eph, Gabrielle wanted to give you her right of caste when she first became sick, but I wouldn’t let her.”

Ephiny looked up in surprise as I continued. “I thought…I thought if I could keep her from giving you her right of caste, that I could stop the inevitable. I’m sorry, I was being selfish. I wasn’t thinking of the Amazons I was only thinking about myself and how much I don’t want to lose Gabrielle.”

“Xena,” Ephiny paused, waiting until my eyes met her own. “I can only hope that someday I find something and someone that will invoke those same feelings of love within me. It’s easy for me to put aside my life and think only of the good of my people because I have no one in that way. I understand, my friend, and you have done nothing to feel guilty about.”

I allowed my well-trained veneer to slip aside just a bit for this woman who had become a dear friend to my wife as well as myself.

“The only real reason I bring any of this up, Xena, is because I thing we should all know what’s expected of us no matter what happens.”

My face must have displayed the question in my mind as I gazed at the Regent.

“If, Artemis forbid, anything should happen to Gabrielle, and she hasn’t willed her right of caste to anyone, then the throne reverts to her rightful heir.”

“Gabrielle doesn’t have any children, Eph, you know that.” I responded.

“Then it goes to her spouse, that would be you.” The Regent finished.

I just sat there in silence. I didn’t want to think about this possible scenario, but I couldn’t be a good warrior unless I examined every venue, so I nodded and accepted by responsibility as Gabrielle’s Consort.

“You know if it came to that, Eph, I would turn the crown over to you.” I stated simply.

Ephiny remained silent, not moving for a few long moments. Finally she cleared her throat and when she spoke I knew it was from her heart.

“I can understand why you would want to do that, Xena, but remember to think about what Gabrielle would want for you.”

“I just don’t think I could do it, Eph,” and I felt my voice break slightly. “If anything does happen to Gabrielle, I don’t think I could stay here, there would be too much pain in everything I would see everyday.”

The Regent nodded, but continued on. “I can understand that, but there are people here who could make it easier to bear. The women of this village love you, Xena.”

I smirked at her and she grinned just a bit. “Okay, you don’t have that open, accepting exterior that Gabrielle does, but it doesn’t mean the women feel anything less. We are warriors too, my friend, and there isn’t a woman in this village that doesn’t understand that you and Gabrielle are simply two sides of the same coin. Besides, you still have a promise to keep to your wife, don’t you?”

I didn’t have to ask her what promise. It was the one vow I was determined not to break, whether I could help it or not. It was a few summers ago that I made that promise to Gabrielle, when we considered ourselves only best friends and I hadn’t yet confessed my love for her. I promised that no matter what happened, in life or death, to my bard, I would not become the monster I was as the Destroyer of Nations. I extracted a promise from the Queen Regent that if it looked as if I would ever break my vow to Gabrielle, that Ephiny should strike me down with her blade before I could shame Gabrielle’s name and my love for her.

“It’s just something I think you should think about Xena. I pray we never have to deal with that circumstance, but we both know that Gabrielle would want you somewhere that you could live your life in peace and happiness, not traveling alone with your pain. You always have somewhere that you belong, Xena…remember that.” Ephiny finished.

“That means more to me than you could possibly know, Eph.” I answered and the tears that were becoming annoyingly familiar sprung to my eyes once again.

I couldn’t say it to Ephiny, but as I sat there awaiting word on Gabrielle’s well being I knew that should anything ever happen to my beloved bard…happiness would never exist for me again.
——————————————————————————–

“I had a feeling you’d be here.” Adia said as she stepped lightly upon the rock formation that Gabrielle sat on.

The young Queen looked tired, but she was surprisingly alert given the circumstances. When Adia entered Gabrielle’s dreamscape in the Amazon village, the Healer had no idea where to look for the Queen. Then she remembered the first time they met. Gabrielle was sitting at this pond with Sartori on that sunny day.

Gabrielle clasped the Healer’s strong hands and she couldn’t keep from wrapping her arms around the taller woman’s waist and starting to cry.

“Sshh, Gabrielle…it will be allright, you don’t have to be afraid.” Adia murmured, just as she always did to calm her own wife. “Xena sent me after you…she said something about not being able to find where you put anything so you have to get better.”

Gabrielle laughed and started to cry at the same time, but Adia knew the small jest relieved the young blonde somewhat.

“Come on, let’s sit over here and talk about what’s going on.” Adia sat and seated Gabrielle on a fallen log, realizing the young Queen leaned on her as if for support.

“I’m getting weaker every moment. That’s not normal…shouldn’t I be healthy in my dreams?” Gabrielle asked.

“Gabrielle, Xena thinks that this fever has something to do with the Gods, it’s not just any random illness. Artemis deserted her temple; even the high priestess can’t summon her. Your warrior also thinks the other Gods are involved. We need you to try to call your father into your dreamscape. We need to know how to fight whatever this is.”

“Can I do that, Adia…summon Apollo into my dreams?”

“It’s certainly worth a try…we’re running out of ideas back there.” Adia added softly.

“This was in my dream, Adia.” Gabrielle sounded like she was almost musing aloud. Noticing the Healer’s confused explanation, she hurried on to explain.

“I had a dream I told, Xena about, only in it I thought she was sick because I couldn’t make her understand me, although I kept trying to reach her. The truth is I can hear everything that everyone is saying around me. It’s so strange, like floating outside of myself, but I can’t seem to wake my body up.”

Gabrielle’s tears began to fall at the frustration she felt and once again, the tall Healer embraced the small Queen.

“It’s allright, Gabrielle, I’ll tell Xena that. It will do her heart good to know that you can hear her.” Adia brushed away the young woman’s tears. “Gabrielle, we need to see if we can rouse Apollo, do you feel strong enough for this?”

Gabrielle nodded.

“Try to concentrate on the fact that you’re in a dream. You want Apollo to know exactly where you are…not in the Amazon village, but in your dreamscape. Ready?”

Gabrielle nodded again and closed her eyes. Xena taught her well and she immediately began to meditate, concentrating on everything Adia explained to her. After a few moments that seemed like candlemarks to the Healer, Gabrielle touched the band on the finger of her right hand.

“Father…” The young Queen said aloud.

The young Queen opened her eyes, but unlike the previous occasions she called upon her father, this time Apollo did not appear. Long moments passed and Gabrielle closed her eyes tightly, imagining her dreamscape and concentrating on every detail.

“It’s not working, Adia.” Gabrielle opened her eyes in frustration.

“Give it time, Gabrielle,” the Healer replied.

Adia took one of Gabrielle’s hands in both of her own, trying to infuse a little strength into her ailing Queen. Finally a small shimmering line, almost a tear in the fabric of the air appeared. Materializing in all his godly splendor was Gabrielle’s father, Apollo. His golden armor, usually polished to a high sheen, was scuffed and dirty. It was obvious the God fought in a battle, and one against other Gods, for him to look so disheveled. There was something that overrode the God’s own dealings, however, and that was evident by the concern etched in the lines of the usually happy face. It was concern for his daughter.

“Gabrielle.” Apollo said sharply as he moved to his daughter’s side.

Apollo understood the situation the moment he realized that Gabrielle called to him from her dreamscape. In an instant he felt the gravity of the situation. If he didn’t know what he and his siblings were fighting for, then he certainly recognized it now. Why hadn’t it occurred to him that if his sister’s Amazons died, their Queen would too?

Gabrielle intended to be strong in front of her father, but the sickness and her worry over Xena, the tragedy of the whole business came crashing around her and she sobbed as the handsome God knelt and held his daughter’s weakened body.

“Gabrielle, my child…we’ll get through this. I won’t let anything happen to you.” Apollo murmured to comfort his daughter, knowing that it might not be the truth.

“They’re dying…all my people are dying…I think I’m going to die too.” Gabrielle said through her tears.

Apollo quieted the young woman even as his head began to formulate a plan. He knew it would take someone of exceptional abilities to attempt what he had in mind.

“Gabrielle, is Xena in the Amazon village with you?”

Gabrielle nodded.

I believe I have a way that we can defeat this, but you’ll have to trust me for a while. I have to go, very quickly back to Olympus, but I’ll return in the morning. I want to talk to your warrior, then I explain what’s going on to Xena and I’ll come back to your dreamscape too.”

“You don’t have to, father, I can hear everything that goes on out there.” Gabrielle assured him.

“Gabrielle, I’m going to put a circle of protection around you. I can’t heal you, but my protection will prevent you from getting any worse.”

“Please,” Gabrielle placed her hand on the God’s arm. “Not just me, father…all of the women here?”

Even though time was a rapidly fleeing commodity, Apollo took the time to smile gently at his daughter. Her concern was always for others and it endeared her even more to the ancient God. Apollo nodded his head and stood. Clapping his hands together once, he rubbed the palms until a glowing ball of light emerged in his hand. He tossed the light high into the air and it fell in tiny tendrils, the long trails of light forming a canopy over the Amazon village.

Apollo bent once more and brushed his lips lightly to his daughter’s forehead.

“I have to leave, Gabrielle, but I’ll return to speak with Xena in the morning. Don’t give up hope, my child.” He whispered and suddenly there were only multi colored sparkles in the air where he stood.
Part II
I stood even as Ephiny rose beside me. Candlemarks passed as we sat on the steps of the Queen’s hut. I didn’t dare leave in case Adia should wake with good news and the Regent, ever the concerned friend, waited next to me. Now, we both stood staring at the evening sky as tendrils of light fell all around the village. I remembered seeing something called sky rockets when I was in Chin that were made with the black powder and these lights looked much the same, only these didn’t fade into the blackness of the sky. The branches of light that covered the village sparkled and pulsed as if they were alive in some way.

“I don’t know what it is, but it doesn’t feel bad.” Ephiny stated simply and I had to agree with her.

It was another candlemark or so before Adia awoke. She was understandably exhausted, but gave me an update before she dropped her body down onto the extra cot in the hut.

“First of all,” the Healer looked up with a tired grin, “Gabrielle says to tell you that she loves you.”

I found myself grinning with tears springing to my eyes all at once. More tears, Hades, I have to stop this, it’s getting to be a habit.

“The interesting thing is that she can hear us…hear everything that’s going on around her. We can talk to her and she’ll hear us. She was able to summon Apollo,” the Healer added with a yawn. “He placed a spell of protection over the entire village. No one will get any worse, but he can’t heal them either. He said he’d be here in the morning to talk to you, Xena. He sounded like he had a plan of some sort.”

Sartori seated herself next to Adia and listened to what her wife had to say.

“You know, Xena, Apollo looked a little…well, beat up. He was in full armor, but he looked like he’d been fighting.” Adia commented before she yawned again.

“I know what you mean,” I answered the Healer. “Ares looked the same way when I saw him.”

“Well, we’ve been reprieved…for a while anyway.” Ephiny said.

“Yea, I guess there isn’t much more we can do until morning.” I responded. “Adia, thank you.”

It sounded rather weak to my own ears. Here, the Healer risked her own physical well being for my wife and the best I could come up with was thank you. The dark-haired woman understood, however and gave me a wry smile.

“Lets get you to your hut so you can get some rest.” I said aloud.

“Sartori and I can do it,” Ephiny responded. “You stay with Gabrielle.”

When I closed the door to the hut behind the three women, I was suddenly glad to be alone with Gabrielle. Even though our conversation would be a little one sided, it thrilled my heart just to know that she was aware…of me, of our love…that there was still time to say the things I wanted her to hear.

I slipped on a cotton shift and got into bed with my wife as I have done for a long time now. I pulled her against my chest and wrapped my arms around her. Her skin didn’t feel as hot and I figured that was Apollo’s doing.

“I gotta tell ya, hon…this warrior’s bones must be getting old because this bed sure does feel good at the end of the day. Remember when we first stayed in the Amazon village, when you accepted Terreis’ right of caste? Remember how I could hardly sleep until I laid a blanket on the floor?”

I chuckled to myself at that memory. I was so accustomed to the hard ground that a soft pallet felt unnatural. I remember my wife felt like she was in Ellysia when she laid her body down on the soft, feather stuffed mattress. Of course, Gabrielle wasn’t my wife back then. I gently kissed her temple and realized that was one of the memories I wanted to share with her.

“Gabrielle, do you remember when you met the Amazons and became their Princess?” I asked aloud. “Did you know that I was in love with you back then? Gods, I know I didn’t show it, but I was sure it was just because you were so young and innocent and you looked up to me. I talked myself out of it every chance I got because I knew the last thing an innocent girl like you needed was a warrior like me in your life. I ended up hurting your feelings half the time with all of my quirky ways. I guess the other reason I never told you was that I never thought a young, intelligent, beautiful girl like you could ever love someone like me.”

I brushed the hair off her face and realized that if I was going to bare my soul here I might as well go all the way. I mean how many times would I have to talk to Gabrielle without her being able to get a word in edgewise.

“You know why they put both of us in the same hut when we stayed with the Amazons? Melosa thought you were my body slave. I know I should have said something right then and there, but it seemed kind of convenient, ya know? You were so damned cute in those new leathers and I needed a way to keep those Amazons away from you. Well, most of them were terrified of me anyway so it worked out pretty well.”

I smiled to myself because I knew that wherever Gabrielle was right now, her eyes were about to get as big as full moons.

“Melosa was pretty taken with you, too. I think she was the first to guess that you meant a lot more to me than I let on. She asked to…uhm, well, let’s say…borrow you for an evening. I had to explain to her that I don’t share my property well. She caught me watching you on the practice field with Eponin one afternoon; as usual I couldn’t take my eyes off of you. She told me I didn’t have to lie; I could have just told her that I was in love with you. Everyone knew how we felt about each other but us, my heart. Why in the world did it take us so long?” I finished in a whisper.

Finally, the candlemarks being awake caught up to me and I relaxed, holding Gabrielle in my arms, hearing her deep, even breathing. I felt the steady rise of her chest and the comforting feeling of all this took me gently into Morpheus’ realm.
——————————————————————————–

I felt the odd sensation before I was fully awake; perhaps that added to my confusion. I jumped from the bed clad only in my shift, grabbing my sword in one swift move. Hades materialized at the foot of the bed and a fear like I’ve never known clutched at my heart. I knew only one thing in this terrifying moment, and that was that I had no intention of giving Gabrielle to him.

“You can’t have her.” I hissed, raising my sword in what I hoped was a menacing manner, even though I knew it was futile to threaten the God of the Underworld.

Hades’ brow knit together and his blue eyes looked confused. He didn’t appear to be in a good humor and when he finally realized what I was talking about, he pushed my sword away in exasperation.

“Take it easy, warrior, I don’t want the girl any more than you want to give her up. Apollo said we were to meet here.”

Now it was I who was confused, that is until my senses went on overload and they started to materialize. Apollo was the next to show, followed by Ares, Athena, Aphrodite, and even Hermes. I met each of them at one time or another in my travels, but that didn’t make me feel any less uncomfortable standing in the middle of my own hut, wearing only a thin cotton shift, and surrounded by half of the Olympian Gods.

Apollo immediately walked over to the bed and knelt beside Gabrielle, while I grabbed my leathers and tugged at the laces behind my back. Once I was dressed and pulled my boots on I felt a little more like myself. Apollo rose and gently took my hand. Gabrielle’s father surprised me by leaning closer and placing a soft kiss on my cheek, much to Ares’ consternation. I greeted the tall God as my father in law and could see nothing but concern etched in his features.

“Xena,” he said and it was all I could do not to burst into tears right there…Gods, was I getting hormonal or what?

When I looked up they were all pretty much staring at their feet and, too late I realized that they were all Gods and had the ability to read my mind. This was gonna be a long meeting.

“Apollo, what’s going on?” I asked, focusing my attention on the one person here I felt I could trust.

“I think you better give her the short version and speed this up, Apollo.” Athena hastened her brother.

“She has to know exactly what she’s getting in to, what’s expected of her.” Apollo turned his head in Athena’s direction.

“Hey, I got an idea,” I said testily, “how about talking directly to me instead of about me!”

Athena lowered her head, but looked a little put out. She and I had kind of a long running thing going. It can only be described as adversarial, yet in a non-violent way. She thought of herself as the ultimate female warrior and never liked the fact that most people thought I could kick her butt. I mean, she’s a Goddess so that could never happen, but I think, deep down, she knew that if she didn’t have the Godly powers…yea, I’d kick her butt.

“Xena, it does tend to get complicated in spots, but the long and the short of it is that Hera is trying to destroy mankind again.”

“I thought since the little incident with Prometheus, Zeus had her under some kind of oath that said she agreed not to interfere directly with mankind?” I asked, knowing how the Gods could manipulate an oath to their own advantage.

“That’s just it,” Ares interrupted, “she’s not doing anything to hurt mankind directly.”

I looked back to Apollo for a less cryptic explanation.

“Hera is out to destroy all of you through us.” Apollo explained. “She’s declared war on the rest of Olympus, Xena, and as each God falls, so does the section of mankind that they patron. If she captures Ares,” he nodded to his brother, “then warriors will fall. If Aphrodite is taken…lovers. Do you see? She’s found the perfect way to destroy man, without spilling a drop of his blood herself.”

“Then I take it Artemis has already been taken.” I said flatly.

“Artemis was wounded, Xena” Apollo said, a pronounced wave of pain passing across his features. “She’s dying.” He finished and no one said a word, knowing that Apollo and his twin sister were like one entity. “Yes, Xena, there are ways that Gods can kill one another too.” He added in answer to my look of surprise.

“And, if Artemis dies…” I started, not really wanting to finish that line.

“So do the Amazons…all of the Amazons.” Aphrodite finished looking down at Gabrielle’s still form.

“So, what’s this plan you’ve got?” I said shortly, not wanting to deal with the possibility of losing Gabrielle.

“The Elixir of Life.” Apollo answered.

I paused to look up into his face. “I thought that was just a myth.”

“It’s kept on the island of Delos.”

“Frankly, I thought Delos was a myth too.” I replied.

“Hardly, Xena, it’s just well protected from human eyes. Delos is my birthplace and the Elixir is kept there, deep in the bowels of the island. One drop will cure mortal or God from any wound or sickness.”

“So why don’t you just get it and heal your sister?” I asked, always the suspicious one.

“First of all the protection placed around the Elixir won’t allow any immortal into the room where it’s kept. Secondly, the minute one of us interferes directly, that gives Hera leave to do the same. I think you and I both know what kind of power she wields. She could destroy this entire world in a single day. If we simply help you to obtain the Elixir–”

“You’re playing by the rules.” I finished. “Gods…you’re worse than a bunch of children.” I snapped. Not one of them disagreed with me.

They needed my help just as much as I needed theirs so they were being unusually tolerant. I regretted my outburst when I finally looked at Apollo and saw that he watched Gabrielle’s unconscious form. He had a big stake in this too it seemed. He finally got to know his daughter after all these years and it was apparent to me from the start that he loved her dearly. Not nearly as much as her wife, however.

“Okay, how and when? Give me all you got and let’s get this show on the road.” I said quickly.

I didn’t need to consult with anyone else, their fears and opinions wouldn’t change my mind. I told Gabrielle that if she wanted the Golden Fleece, I’d leave on the journey tomorrow. Well, indirectly she needed this mysterious Elixir and one journey is much like another to a warrior.
——————————————————————————–

Apollo and I sat at the table inside the Queen’s hut. The rest of the Gods joined their forces on Olympus to keep Hera’s armies at bay. We chose to talk here so Gabrielle would know what we were doing and when. It drives my wife crazy not to be a part of my adventures. It was almost noon and the sun was high in the sky and Apollo was still explaining portions of the map to me. He described pitfalls and traps, monsters and guards until I began to feel this wasn’t going to be an in & out kind of job. At one point he paused and looked up at me.

“Xena, will you be able to remember all this?”

I just raised an eyebrow up high and gave him my best smirk. He smiled back, a touch of embarrassment in his face. I think he’d momentarily forgotten to whom he was speaking.

“The Stone Palace is at the center of the island.” He said, referring to the island that was situated deep underground, in the very depths of Delos. “I’ve already alerted my priests, they won’t give you any trouble and they’ll help you where they can. You will find trouble from Hera’s men, though. She sent warriors to guard the Palace the moment fighting broke out among us. I haven’t told anyone else this, Xena, but I think Hera wants the Elixir too. Not just so we can’t get our hands on it, but I think she wants it on hand should anything happen to her own self.”

“That sounds pretty much like Hera…always out for number one.” I couldn’t help muttering.

“Don’t underestimate her warriors, Xena, they’re very good.” Apollo commented.

“I’m better.” I stated matter of factly.

Apollo smiled again and for the umpteenth time I was reminded of how similar he and Gabrielle were. His green eyes sparkled when he spoke and when he smiled, his nose kind of turned up like hers does. Gods, I miss her. I was staring at her still form when I felt the touch on my arm.

“We all want this, Xena and I’ll do everything in my power to defeat Hera.” Apollo said sincerely.

I placed my other hand on top of his. “I know you will Apollo. That makes two of us.”

“You’re going to have more than just guard trouble once you’re inside the Stone Palace. The place is a maze of locks and traps. Anyone who makes it that far had better be able to pick a lock.”

“Then I know just the person I need to go with me.” I smiled as I thought of an old friend. “So, how do I get to Delos in the first place?” I asked.

“Time is the all important factor. You’ll have to allow me to transport you there and bring you back. Anything else would take too long.

I nodded my head even though I hated the thought of leaving my body in the hands of a God, hoping that when I arrived where I was supposed to be that I had all my parts with me.

“You’re going to have to let me off in Corinth before we go on to Delos. There’s a certain King of Thieves that I’ll need to take with me and last I heard he was spending a small fortune up in a brothel in Corinth.

“A brothel?” Apollo arched an eyebrow. “Then he may not want to go with.”

Oh, he’ll go allright…once I convince him that it would be a wise move, health wise.”

Apollo chuckled. “Then we’ll go at first light. I can travel to Corinth with you and send the two of you on to Delos from there. Are you up for all of this, Xena?”

“Sounds like the kind of outing I dream of.” I answered.

A few more moments of chit-chat and Gabrielle’s father left. It was late afternoon by the time I ate a little something and told Ephiny what I was doing. As usual, the Regent wanted to come with, at the very least send some Amazons along. I had to explain to her that this was the kind of trek where having more people around would only make it that much more difficult. She gave in but I could tell she didn’t like it.

When I got to the hut, Sartori sat by the side of the bed. She was reading from some scrolls to Gabrielle. I smiled at the sight. I guess that’s what I looked like in here, talking to Gabrielle like she was going to get up and answer me any minute. Sartori read a list of petitions that were to be decided on by the Queen. When she saw me she lowered the scroll and looked as if she just realized how late it was. She stood and gave Gabrielle’s hand a squeeze.

“Just a little work that the Queen will have waiting for her on her return.” She said, holding the scroll up. “Don’t you think for a minute that you’ll be able to get out of work this way, my Queen.” Sartori finished, speaking directly to Gabrielle.

Once more I was alone with my wife, lying in bed, her body resting in my arms.

“I love you, Brie.” I said softly, simply because it had been a while since the last time I said it.

“I would go anywhere and do anything for you, my heart, you know that don’t you? I’d follow you to the very ends of the world, Gabrielle.” I couldn’t help chuckling a little at that statement. I remembered when I followed her around Athens without her knowing, another story I wanted her to know about.

“Brie, do you remember when you left to go to the Academy For Performing Bards in Athens? Remember how easily it seemed that I let you go, not that I could have or would have stopped you from fulfilling your dreams, but did you ever wonder about that? I never really left you, love. Of course, I know you’re going to smack me as soon as you get back, but I followed you around Athens. Honey, I didn’t know what else to do.” Okay, I realized to myself, now I sound like I’m trying to rationalize the whole experience.

“I mean, I couldn’t stand just letting you leave and I would have been worrying about you all the time anyway. I guess by then I pretty much thought of you as mine and I didn’t like the fact that it might not be true. Gods, I drove you crazy back then didn’t I, my heart? I wouldn’t allow myself the luxury of having you because I didn’t think I was good enough for you, but I didn’t want anyone else to have you either.”

I kissed Gabrielle’s warm lips and held her tighter. It was very true. I could never find the courage to tell Gabrielle of the feelings that grew inside of me for the young bard, feelings that grew stronger and more powerful every day. I even had physical flings on occasion just to try and talk myself out of the notion that my heart was no longer my own. The experiences were disappointing at best. Each time I kissed someone else I likened the feeling to what I felt simply being close to Gabrielle. In the end nothing could compare. I watched, and on some occasions I thought I saw a flicker of the same passion being returned in kind, but still I kept my silence. I never said a word, even on that day that I play over and over again in my mind. I know I should be past it all now, I mean, Gabrielle is my wife and we love each other, but I should have been her first.

There are times when I’m lying in the darkness, holding Gabrielle close to me, that I think of the day she married Perdicus. I can’t go back and berate myself because Gabrielle and I have both made our peace, as well as forgiveness, with one another. We realize what is in the past cannot be undone, but sometimes…sometimes the wanting of it so bad overwhelms me. If I could have but one wish in my life with Gabrielle, I wouldn’t ask for wealth or an expensive home. If I were granted just one wish, it would be to go back to that day when Gabrielle told Perdicus yes. I would swallow my damnable pride and bare my heart to the young bard, who was still more girl than woman. I would offer to love her and protect her for the rest of our lives if she would only choose me…If I could be her first.
——————————————————————————–

“I have to go now, Brie.” I bent over to kiss my wife.

It felt strange to kiss those lips that didn’t respond to my touch. They were warm, though, and if I didn’t know better, I would have swore that the corners curled up ever so slightly in a smile.

“I love you, my heart.” I whispered. “Remember…I’ll never be gone from you for long, Brie, and to find me all you have to do is look inside your heart.”

I kissed my wife again and stood at the open door to the hut as Ephiny walked in with an armload of scrolls and a small bag of personal belongings. The Regent agreed to stay in the hut and look after Gabrielle while I was gone. I smiled slightly at the juggling act the Amazon was doing before she finally dumped the items on the bedside table. Ephiny acted like I wasn’t even in the room as she began speaking to Gabrielle and my smile grew even larger.

“Don’t think for one minute that you can get out of work this easy, my Queen. I’m going to sit here and read every one of these petitions and treaty requests to you and when you get back you can damn well do your own work!” The Regent’s low voice deadpanned and I knew wherever Gabrielle was she was having a good laugh at her friend.

I looked back through the open door once more in my wife’s direction and found it hard to get my feet to take that first step.

“I’ll keep a close eye on things here. Best speed, Xena.” The Regent said.

“I’ll do my best Eph. So long, Brie. I’ll be back before you even have time to miss me.” Then I took a deep breath and walked out of the hut.

Apollo was already waiting for me, but when I reached the bottom of the steps I almost ran into Eponin standing there outfitted for a journey. I immediately knew what the dark-haired Amazon had in mind.

“I go this one alone, Ep.” I said.

“Look, before you say no, think about this Xena. I know you don’t need a whole tribe in your way, I know how you like to work. I understand the need for having Autolycus there, but you need at least one more warrior in case things get dicey.”

I was prepared to argue, but barely got passed opening my mouth and taking a breath.

“Xena…” The warrior paused and I watched as she struggled with the tears that were common place around here now. “Gabrielle means a great deal to me, as do you. Please…as a warrior I can’t sit here protected in this village while someone else goes off to save my own people. Don’t ask me to do that, my friend.”

What was I supposed to counter that one with? I understood exactly what she was saying and as a warrior I agreed with every word.

“Hope ya know how to cook,” I held out my hand as she grasped my forearm, “because without Gabrielle along we could get mighty hungry before this is all over.”

We exchanged a warrior’s handshake and Eponin looked up at me. “Wait a minute, you mean Gabrielle does all the cooking? Well, I may have to rethink this now.”

I punched her in the arm good-naturedly and indicated to Apollo that we were ready.

“First stop, a brothel in Corinth.” I said to the God and without any more of a preamble than that I found my body experiencing the strangest sensation I’d ever felt.

It felt as if my body exploded into a million minuscule pieces, then those pieces rushed forward as if caught in the center of a swirling vortex. I knew my brain was still together because I was able to think, but I wasn’t aware that I had any physical shape. Suddenly, as swiftly as we took off, it seemed like all those tiny pieces were coming together again. Gods, I hoped they all ended up in the right spot.

Apollo easily materialized in front of us, but I felt like my body was suddenly way too heavy and I had to bring myself up sharply to avoid landing on my face. Eponin did just that, ending up face down in the dirt. That’s when my stomach caught up to the rest of me and I fought desperately to keep my breakfast down. Much as I anticipated, Eponin lost her battle with her morning repast.

“That’s gonna get old in a hurry.” I drawled to Apollo, helping a weak-kneed Eponin to her feet.

“Sorry about that, Xena, I should have warned you. Mortals tend to have a bit of trouble with materializing that way.” Apollo apologized.

Apollo hit pretty close to the mark by dropping us in one of the many side alleys off Corinth’s busy city streets.

“I wasn’t sure which brothel you were interested in.” The blonde God said. “So, I put us in the district.”

“You mean we’re going to an actually brothel?” Eponin asked.

“What did you think I meant when I said we’re going to a brothel in Corinth?” I asked the confused Amazon.

“I don’t know…I thought maybe it was a code word for something.” Ep looked up, her face turning a little pink.

I laughed at my traveling companion. “We need Autolycus and last I heard he was staying at a brothel in Corinth. Chances are it’s at Tai Li’s place, but if my hunch is wrong, she’ll know where we can find him.”

“How do you know this Tai Li?” Eponin asked the question I hoped no one would.

“I refuse to answer on the grounds that I met her long before I knew Gabrielle.” I said in a low drawl. Even Apollo couldn’t help but grin a tiny bit.

“It’s called the Pink Lotus, come on, it’s a couple of streets north of here.” I replied and we set off.
——————————————————————————–

“Well, well, the Warrior Princess finally come to visit me again and she bring friends.”

We all turned at once to see the slender Asian woman walk directly up to me and put on a most seductive smile. The small woman was older than her body displayed her to be and when she ran her hands along the muscles of my arms, it was extremely hard to tell my body not to react.

“Tai Li,” I said grabbing her wandering hands and holding them prisoner in my own. “I don’t go by that title anymore. A lot has changed since the last time we saw each other.”

I knew my face must have been turning red because right then and there a vision of what I did in this brothel the last time I was here with this beautiful woman flashed into my mind.

“I’m looking for a man.” I added.

“You…looking for a man? You right, things have changed.” She laughed and I could hear Eponin give a little snort. All I could do was turn even redder.

“I mean I’m looking for a friend, I have reason to suspect he might be enjoying some of the scenery in your establishment. He’s tall, dark hair, a tad good looking, and much more full of himself than he has a right to be.”

“Ahhh, the King of Thieves!”

“That would be him.” I answered. Only Autolycus would bandy that title about in a whorehouse.

“Oh, yea, he been staying in the suite on the top floor. With the way he throw his money around, I give him any girl he want, as long as he want. What about you warrior?” Tai Li started those hands moving again and I felt like I was trying to keep track of a giant squid with a hundred tentacles. “I remember a time when you used to come in and throw money around plenty too.”

By this time Eponin had her hand over her mouth and I just knew it was to stifle the laughter that was about to break free any minute now. I was more worried about the expression that I couldn’t see on Apollo’s face. My father in law was watching another woman paw at me and he was behind me so I couldn’t catch a glimpse of his face. Gods had a lot of quirky ways and seeing his only daughter’s wife playing touchy-feely with the Madame of a whorehouse might be the kind of thing he would not find amusing.

“Uhm, Tai Li…look…I’m married.” I finally blurted out.

The Madame looked a little stunned by the news. She folded her arms across her ample chest and stared at me in disbelief.

I hadn’t told her, to whom I was married yet, perhaps she forgot who Gabrielle was. A few summers back after I helped out in that ridiculous Miss Known World pageant, Gabrielle and I decided we deserved a week in a big city. I suggested Athens and I figured Gabrielle would jump at the chance. My bard wanted to see Corinth. I didn’t have as good a time as I thought I might, at least when we were out in public. A lot of people knew the Warrior Princess in this town, correction…a lot of women knew the Warrior Princess in this town. I had garnered a reputation in a lot of parts of Greece, but Corinth and it’s plentiful whorehouses saw quite a bit of my action in the old days.

Gabrielle and I were strolling around the lanes of the market booths when I saw Tai Li coming straight for us. The small Asian woman was stopping at various booths examining the wares. She looked up as Gabrielle and I passed and as much as I wanted to ignore her so it wouldn’t come out who she was, my integrity wouldn’t allow it. If I was able to walk into the Pink Lotus in broad daylight, then I certainly shouldn’t be embarrassed to know the women that worked there.

Introductions were made and for a brief heartbeat, I thought I saw a flash of jealousy in Gabrielle’s emerald eyes. Hindsight tells me now that’s what it was, but at the time I didn’t think it possible. Of course, my bard being the young woman she was, graciously spoke with Tai Li and soon I found myself strolling behind the two small women, holding a growing pile of market purchases. The Madame was gracious in her own way. It wasn’t good business to let husband’s wives know their men did business at the local brothel and so Tai Li was very closed mouth in answering my bard’s questions. I was sure she assumed Gabrielle was my lover and I didn’t discourage that notion.

By the time we left the market, Gabrielle knew no more about my history with Tai Li and the Pink Lotus than when we all met. The Madame, however, discovered just about everything about my small companion. Finally, when Gabrielle walked over to look at a market stall filled with delicate hair combs, Tai Li pulled me down to her level and whispered in my ear.

“Don’t you come by my place no more, warrior. Little Amazon Princess should be all you need from here on in.” Then she smiled and waved to Gabrielle, leaving me standing there rather speechless.

When I walked up to Gabrielle she was holding a small ivory hair comb and when I saw her hand it back to the vendor, realizing it wouldn’t fit into our budget, I plucked it from her fingers. Reaching into my pouch I pulled a few hidden dinars out and paid for the comb, then, much to my bard’s surprise, I handed the gift to her.

“What’s this for?” She looked at me rather stunned.

“For just being you, Gabrielle,” was the only answer I could give.

I assumed when I first walked in the Pink Lotus that Tai Li thought I left the small blonde by the wayside, since she was looking like she wanted to pounce and devour me. Now she stared at me like I just handed her a bit of information that was impossible to believe.

“You…married…for real?” She finally asked. “Let me see.” She ordered as she held her hand out. So she did remember who Gabrielle was after all.

I pulled my gauntlet off and extended my right arm. She took hold of my hand and turned it over to look at the inside of my wrist. There, no larger than a dinar, was a small tattoo, an Amazon marriage knot. The mark was a sign that I was a bondmate to Amazon royalty, Gabrielle had a similar tattoo on the inside of her wrist.

In many ways the mark was a comfort to me. To the rest of the world, it was a sign of commitment. A person may be able to hide a piece of jewelry that signified their marriage, but this was a little harder to disguise. To me, my mark was a like a brand, signifying ownership and all the responsibilities that entailed. I belonged to Gabrielle just as she belonged to me and the mere notion comforted me. It is a major responsibility…to own someone so completely, to be held accountable for their well-being and happiness. It was one that I know Gabrielle took as seriously as I did.

“Well, Amazon Princess got you after all, eh?” Tai Li smiled and for the first time since entering the establishment I felt relaxed.

I smiled back at her and nodded my head. “Only now she’s an Amazon Queen and I think I’m the one who finally caught her.”

She laughed again, understanding the significance of that statement. “I just send new girl up to your friend’s room. Why don’t you have a drink on the house and he be done soon.”

I looked around and my companions agreed, except for Eponin. The Amazon and Tai Li were making a little eye contact and when Apollo and I sat down at the table in the corner to enjoy our port, Eponin rushed up to the table with a definite gleam in her eye.

“Xena, can you lend me some dinars?” The warrior asked.

“Hey, I told you we were coming to a brothel first, you should have brought some from home.” I ribbed her.

“Oh yea, right. Like you ever take care of the purse strings.” She jibed right back.

I looked up sheepishly at that remark for it was true. Gabrielle usually took care of our money and I rarely knew how much we had if I didn’t ask.

Apollo reached into the tattered cloak he wore to hide his armor and tossed a small bag of coins at Eponin.

“Have the time of your life, warrior.” He smiled, and like his daughter, when Apollo smiled all those around him smiled.

“Hey, Xena,” Eponin whispered to me, “is she worth it?”

“Ep, she’ll make you see colors you never knew existed.” I told her and watched as the Amazon and Tai Li walked upstairs arm in arm.

Apollo and I made small talk through 2 mugs of port, but finally a silence descended on us and when I looked up at last I realized that it was the small blonde back home that captured both of our thoughts. I cleared my throat and pushed away from the table. The last thing I wanted to do was start crying again.

“I think I’ll head upstairs to find Autolycus…I shouldn’t be too long.” I said and the God nodded his head, not knowing what else to say either.

I could tell from the sounds coming from the other side of the door that things were just winding down. This was the room the bartender indicated belonged to my friend and so I figured barging in would be completely appropriate. Hey, I let him finish, which I thought was pretty big of me considering the circumstances. I pounded heavily on the door and then thrust it open. I leaned against the open door frame and waited for the thief to look up. The young woman saw me first and tried to cover herself, which I find extremely odd considering where we are. That’s when Autolycus covered his ass with the sheet and looked over his shoulder.

“Auto, baby,” I drawled…our little long-standing joke.

“Xena…I should have known, he pulled the sheet higher and rolled off the young woman. “What, some orphans need rescuing and you just can’t do it without my help, right? Only you would bust in at a time like this.”

“If I remember correctly you did the same thing to me once…and we were most definitely not finished.” I said referring to a time in Amphipolis. We stayed at mother’s inn and Autolycus was there too. Gabrielle and I started a little something in the baths that we shouldn’t have and once we got rolling, we simply had too hard of a time stopping, so we went for it.

“Hey, if I remember correctly that was not a private bath and if you hadn’t of wanted to be caught you should have stuck a chair under the doorknob.” He replied. “It was definitely worth the price of admission, though.” He grinned.

“I need your help, Autolycus.” I said seriously.

“Oh great. Whenever you need my help it means it’s for the greater good, which means there’s nothing in it for me. Besides, what are you doing in a place like this? Gabrielle wouldn’t let you within a league of this place. Where is the little chatterbox anyway?”

I don’t know if it was what I said or the look on my face that changed his mind.

“Gabrielle’s…she’s not well.” I stated.

He was silent for a few heartbeats, all the while staring into my eyes.

“Give me a few minutes to get dressed,” was all he said.

“I’ll be downstairs.” I responded soberly and left the way I’d come.
——————————————————————————–

I felt a hand on my shoulder and then saw Autolycus slide into a seat at our table.

“Autolycus, this is Gabrielle’s father,” I explained.

“But, I thought–”

“Her real father.” I finished.

He shook hands with Apollo. I left it to the God if he wanted to tell my friend who he really was.

“Well, The King of Thieves at your service. You look rather familiar to me.” Autolycus mused as he shook the God’s hand.

“I should Autolycus, you’ve stolen enough goods from my temples, I’m sure my face was on some of it.” Apollo said with a grin.

Auto looked at me and I couldn’t help smiling too. My friend looked a little panicky.

“Apollo, my friend Autolycus.” I said, trying to stifle my laughter.

“Did I say King of Thieves? Well, what’s in a title…it’s a label and I hate to label people, why just the other day–”

“Autolycus…he doesn’t care.” I stopped my friend’s rambling.

“No harm done, Autolycus.” Apollo said with a small smile.

They all stared at me then, expecting me to speak. For Autolycus’ benefit I related the condensed version of what was happening and watched as the expression on his face grew more serious. I knew I would take grief from the thief for sucking him in on this little vacation in Tartaurus, but that didn’t matter much to me now. I wondered how well I hid my shock when Autolycus looked me in the eye and said,

“When do we leave?”

I looked in turn at my friends and lowered my eyes to my own hands, folded on the table in front of me.

“Look, you two need to know that this could very well be a one way trip. All of a sudden I don’t feel so comfortable bringing you in on this and I’d prefer it if you both just stayed here.” I blurted out.

I tried to give them out in case they were as worried about this journey as I was. I needn’t have worried about their level of commitment.

“Oh, sure, I’m beginning to see how this is gonna be,” Autolycus nudged Eponin and I could only stare at him in confusion. “The great Warrior Princess goes off on her own and saves the known world, and when they ask us where we were during the whole thing, we can say we were in a bar. Then all the glory goes to the Warrior…nobody will even remember the name of the thief and the Amazon. Well, forget it. I’m not about to be left out on all the loot that could come my way from this one.”

Eponin had a huge grin on her face during the thief’s tirade. “Ditto.” She stated.

I could only shake my head at the two. It was hard for me to except such unconditional friendship from anyone but Gabrielle…I was at a loss for words.

“You two are completely pathetic…and I love you.”

I’m not sure I really meant for that to come out and we all kind of gruffly exchanged the sentiment in low mumbles. Gods, I am getting hormonal!

Autolycus had a few things to attend to before he left and Eponin said since we were waiting for him, she trailed off as her eyes settled on Tai Li. I motioned them both away and told them we’d all meet here in the bar in two candlemarks. Apollo decided to pop onto Olympus and see if there were any changes in the way the battle was progressing, which left me on my own.

I found a nice table in the back, against the wall, and ordered a port. I leaned my chair back on two legs and watched the patron come and go through the bar and then into Tai Li’s establishment. It didn’t take long before I was thinking of Gabrielle and wondering how she was. I wondered if she would be able to grasp my thoughts from so far away and I gave her a silent ‘I love you’ just in case.

Autolycus surprised me, but then again it was really no surprise. I think once he knew it was Gabrielle in trouble he already decided he would stand up and fight, so to speak. You see, Autolycus was in love with Gabrielle. It didn’t bother me because first of all I knew my friend would never do anything about it, and secondly, just about everyone we ever ran into fell at least a little for the small blonde. He admitted it on my wedding day of all days. Oh, I don’t think he knew what he was confessing to, but as we stood apart from Gabrielle and some of her Amazons, Autolycus seemed to sober up.

“Don’t ever mess this one up Xena.” Autolycus said. “Don’t ever get tripped up and fall on your face with this one.”

“Why?” I chuckled.

“Because there are too many of us waiting in line to take your place.”

I laughed out loud and slapped his back. “I’ll keep an eye on my feet.” I replied.

I could tell by the look in his eye that he was serious. He and I had always shared a great deal of sexual innuendo in our verbal spars with one another, but the look on his face told me that the way he felt about Gabrielle was on a whole other level. Then of course he had kissed her. I mean, I kissed her, he was just along for the ride. Gods, that kiss.

It was one of the most perfect moments in my entire life…and I was dead. Before Gabrielle was able to save a small bit of the Ambrosia, enough to bring me back to life, I didn’t think I would ever see her again. When she opened her eyes and was in a level of reality where she could actually see me, I nearly wept. I had so much I wanted to say to her, first and foremost was how much I loved her. And not as in ‘you’re my best friend’ kind of love, but deep down, ‘this is it and it’s forever kind of love.’ That’s when I realized I couldn’t do that to her.

If I confessed my love and wasn’t able to return to the living, what would my bard go through? She would have all these feelings, that she may not have shared, just dumped on her and she would have to through the rest of her life trying to reconcile them without me around. And, what if she did feel the same way? Would that have been any less cruel?

So I kissed her.

It was a truly perfect kiss, our tongues barely making contact as we parted our lips. I knew, for at least that one moment, that Gabrielle felt something for me too. If she hadn’t let her mind wander, we would have stayed in that alternate plane. I remember thinking later that it was a good thing Gabrielle’s concentration faltered or else I would have had a very hard time letting go of that sweet mouth.

I wonder now if it was Autolycus’ hand on her backside that brought her back to reality. Gods if my wife could have seen the look on her face when the thief asked her if we got everything straightened out…the expression was priceless. It makes no sense to lie to myself and I have to admit that Autolycus was a good sport about being smacked around later. You see it was my hand that found its way to Gabrielle’s rear. I mean, it was his hand, but…well, I put it there. I guess I can admit it in my own thoughts, but I definitely felt that if I wasn’t going to return to the living, well, I figured I was going to grab a handful of that attractive ass on my way out.

I know, pretty lame from a warrior with a code of honor, but desperate times sometimes make you do crazy things. Love makes you do even crazier ones.

Soon, my companions joined me and I was amazed that I was sitting there reminiscing for over two candlemarks. When Apollo joined up with us all he would say was,

“No change. Gabrielle is still fine, though.”

I knew he said that for my benefit and I guess the word fine was a relative term here. I understood that Gabrielle could get no worse physically, but I’m sure living alone in her dreamscape is a form of Tartaurus for her.

We stopped in a few shops at the north end of town and purchased some supplies we would need. It was mid afternoon by the time we were ready to go. I was rather shocked at the way Apollo grabbed me and hugged me, placing a very gentle kiss on my cheek. It was something a father would do and the weird part about it was I kind of liked it.

“I’ll be placing you on Delos, right in front of the cavern that will lead down to the Stone Palace. Do you remember the map and all I told you, Xena?”

I nodded my head. I found myself unable to speak, overwhelmed by emotions. Apollo looked scared to death and I knew that this just wasn’t about me and Gabrielle anymore; this was about every last human in the world.

“I won’t fail.” I found myself saying with a steely resolve.

“I have one last gift to give you.” The God said and Apollo grasped my hand.

Surges of I don’t know what shot through me and I nearly dropped to my knees at the sensation. It was an incredibly powerful impression and my face flushed in embarrassment considering the feeling reminded me of something akin to an orgasm. This exchange only lasted for a few heartbeats, but it left my hands shaky as Apollo loosed his grasp on me.

“The strangeness will wear away in a moment or two.” He responded, understanding what I was going through. “It won’t help you materialize any fireballs, but the strength I’ve given you will give you an added edge.” He explained. “When you need the most strength, concentrate on what gives you power in life, and the force will be there for you.

Then I knew what the unbelievable feeling was. It was adrenaline, plain and simple. The rush that went through me was like the feeling I get when I start to fight; only this was much more concentrated and intense.

“Sure, she gets the God powers, we get swords.” Autolycus looked at Eponin as he deadpanned. “That seems fair.”

Without another word Apollo sent us on our way.
——————————————————————————–

The trip to Delos barely affected me this time and I could only surmise that the cause was the power that Apollo infused me with. On the other hand my two companions were on their knees in the sand, tossing up the port that they consumed earlier.

“How many more times do we have to do that?” Eponin asked, rising to her feet.

“Sorry about that guys,” I apologized and helped each of them to stand and get their bearings. “Hopefully the next time we do that we’ll be going home.”

“I won’t be recommending this anytime soon to my travel agent.” Autolycus fussed, trying to compose himself. “Okay, Xena…what now?”

They both looked at me and I had the pleasant task of informing them that we were to enter the yawning cavern we faced.

“I was afraid that’s what your answer would be.” Eponin muttered as we prepared to enter the cave.

We were all a little in awe of the massive cavern. I don’t think I’ve ever been something quite as large before and the walls seemed to be made of some type of multicolored crystals that sparkled when the light from our torches hit them. Apollo said to immediately take the path to the right and we veered that way, feeling the path grow steeper as we went. Finally we came to the edge of the cliff, below us a drop off into complete blackness.

I tossed one of our torches down into the blackness, knowing we wouldn’t need them once we descended. All three of us leaned over the edge and waited for what seemed like an eternity until the flame was extinguished by the inky blackness. We all straightened up and looked at one another. A loud audible gulp was heard as we all three swallowed at once.

“You sure he said veer to the right?” Autolycus asked, worry evident in his voice.

“Yea, we have just to make a little climb to get to the bottom.” I answered.

“Xena I don’t think we have enough rope to make it even half the way there.” Eponin added.

I pulled the pack from my shoulders and rummaged until I found three lengths of rope. Apollo said they were a gift from Aphrodite. I had a few gifts like this in the sack that I carried, and my father in law said I would know when each of them would be needed. This seemed like a good time for the rope, especially since there was three of us and three lengths of rope.

“Is that to hang ourselves with, because you don’t seriously think that is going to take us to the bottom?” Autolycus complained.

“They’re a gift from Aphrodite and the rope is supposed to grow in length as you need it.”

I tossed the other lengths of rope to my companions and tied the end of mine to a stalagmite, which appeared to be growing out of the cavern floor. I fastened the other end around my waist and back again and waited while the other two prepared theirs similarly. Once they were finished we all looked down again and they looked to me.

“I take it that means I go first?” I asked dryly.

“Well, it is your expedition.” Autolycus answered watching a bit of gravel go over the side.

I positioned the balls of my feet on the edge of the drop off and tentatively let my weight go against the rope. I gave a weak grin and motioned for Eponin to hand me one of the torches. I found it a bit unsettling that the last thought to roam through my head, as I let my complete weight lean into the rope I was suspended from, was that I hope Aphrodite didn’t take all those wise cracks of mine personally. This would be a very bad time for her to get even.

I descended into the dark and once the cliff face disappeared and I lost a place to put my feet, I felt a few heartbeats of apprehension. I could feel the length of rope dangling behind me, but miraculously it grew as our descent continued. Dropping into the pitch black, no sound but our own breathing and drops of water as they fell into cavern pools, I began to talk to my friends. When Eponin answered the first time I could tell by the strain in her voice that she felt the same anxiety. I hoped that if they had something to concentrate on, it would take their minds off of the nothingness we plunged into.

“Ep, has Autolycus ever told you about the statue of Pax?” I started with a grin.

“Pax? What the heck is that?” Eponin answered.

“Oh, just a little statue about twenty feet high that was supposed to be the personification of peace. The thing came up missing during the annual celebration and guess who happened to be in town.”

“Autolycus…I’m impressed.” Eponin replied. “How did you make off with something that big?”

“I didn’t, hey, Xena…tell her what really happened!” Autolycus responded.

I had them talking at least. Hopefully now their minds were on the story being related and not what was below us. I encouraged Autolycus to tell the tale. I only kept one ear open, since I lived it along with the thief. I have to admit that suddenly my thoughts strayed to my bard once again. She and I had decided to play a couple of outrageous character in Auto’s little espionage ploy. He pleaded with me saying he had to get his title as the King of Thieves back and so Gabrielle and I promised to do it his way…finesse and subterfuge over brawn. We had to head to Mykonos to follow the thief who really stole the statue, but I’ll forever remember a very short interlude Gabrielle and I shared in that bedroom.

Of course, this was before my wife and I revealed our feelings for one another, but this was about three years after I met Gabrielle. We had experienced some intense healing after the rift that developed between us. It was right after some very emotional times. Most memorable to me was the time spent in that barn, waiting for the Persian army to attack and realizing that if my bard died from that poison arrow, I would rather die in battle than live without her. That’s when I made her the second biggest promise of our lives, that even in death, I would never leave her.

Gabrielle went through the torture of playing judge, jury, and executioner for Crassus while we were in Rome and she finally felt the healing waters from Mnemosyne’s temple after that. It was a rough season for us emotionally, but Gabrielle and I grew closer as friends, not realizing that both of us wanted to progress further in the relationship. I often wonder how differently things would have turned out for Gabrielle and I had Autolycus not burst into that room on the island of Mykonos when he did.

We saved the statue and Autolycus regained his crown, but we were forced to wait until the next day to sail from the island. That night was only one of many torturous evenings I spent being consumed by my desire for my innocent young bard.
——————————————————————————–

“Xena, you’re hurt,” Gabrielle said when I turned toward her after I closed the door to our room.

I followed her eyes and remembered the wound that I acquired earlier that day. It was right underneath the left breast portion of my armor, a small slice in my leather where my ribs began. “Oh, yea…I kinda forgot.”

“Forgot? Xena, it looks like it’s three inches long.” Gabrielle fussed in that way that made me realize that there would be no rest until I let her stitch it closed for me.

By the time Gabrielle gathered a few first aid items from our bags, placed water in a bowl, and was waiting for me on the edge of the bed, I actually thought about where my wound was.

“Here let me help you.” Gabrielle said, relieving my fingers, which suddenly went quite numb, of the task of removing my breastplate. “Pull your leathers down,” she said rather matter of factly.

I was so thankful that she turned her head to thread the needle after she said that. My eyes were about to pop out of my skull at the thought of Gabrielle attending to me a few inches away from where I really needed her to be ministering to me. I stole a few glances back at the door and simply thought about bolting, but what would I use as an excuse?

Gabrielle turned to face me again. “Xena…what are you waiting for? Are you okay?”

“Oh, sure.” I managed to croak out.

I slid the leather straps off of my shoulders and peeled the close fitting leather down my body. I steeled my jaw as my body reacted to the cool air, not to mention the blonde’s stare. I had it down to my waist when Gabrielle spoke up.

“You might as well take them off for the night and I’ll sew that tear for you too.” Oh, yes…let the torture begin.

I was left standing in front of the woman who captured all my fantasies and secret desires with nothing but my breeches on, and when she placed her hands gently against the outside of my breast, I wanted to moan, groan…whimper. I wanted to pull her head closer and watch her enclose a very tight, aching nipple into that warm inviting mouth of hers. Instead I clamped down and began grinding my teeth together.

“Xena, this is kind of difficult when you clench your stomach muscles like that. Here, why don’t you lay on the bed.”

I sat down and felt the pressure of her hand on my shoulder push me back against the bed. Oh, Gods…Hades take me now because Tartaurus couldn’t possibly hold a worse torture for me.

I lay there and had to resort to meditative practices. Gabrielle’s soft touch and gentle loving manner was sidling its way into my very soul and I wondered what she would think if I reached out and took her hand in mine, placing it over my breast? At the very least, I wondered what she would say if I asked to kiss her, to make love to her?

She finished and helped me with a cotton shift. The wound wasn’t affecting me at all, but the bard’s nearness definitely did something to my control.

“Gabrielle…I need to ask you something.”

“Yes, Xena?”

I thought I saw a touch of something odd in her eyes that day, in that moment, but I dismissed it. I look back now and wonder what a fool I was not to have recognized my wife’s look that tells me she loves me and that I am her whole world. Back then I sure missed it.

I leaned closer and whether it was the scent of her skin, or the warmth in those green eyes, I knew I was going to kiss her.

That’s when the door burst open and Autolycus barged in.

“Hey, either of you two have a little salve I can put on these aching muscles? Uhm…oops, did I interrupt something?” Autolycus broke in.

“No!” We both answered in unison a little forcefully.

We both began to blush so I have no doubt in my mind what the thief suspected. After all, he was there the season before for the kiss. I don’t know if he and Gabrielle exchanged any words, I only remember stalking off in my cotton shift and boots, with a mumbled, “gonna go check on Argo.” I was halfway through the castle when I realized that we took a ship to the island and Argo was back on the mainland in a cozy stable.
——————————————————————————–

I was so caught up in my own memories that I didn’t notice how light it was becoming all around us and I wondered how long it had been that way. We could see the bottom of the cavern now and were perhaps two hundred feet from the gravel surface. I was amazed at the beauty of such a place and my first thought was how very much Gabrielle would love this place. The thought of my wife was what brought me out of my memories of the past.

When my feet touched down on a firm surface once again I had to shake the stiffness out of them. It took Eponin and Autolycus a moment or two until they had their legs back under them also. We still held our torches in the air and I was rather amazed that what Apollo explained to me was absolutely true. He said we wouldn’t need torches or lamps beyond this first immense cavern because of something called Fire Quartz. I didn’t know what that substance was, but I put the torch out and motioned to Eponin to do the same. I turned and gazed at the walls of the huge cave and noticed they sparkled and glowed as if lit from behind. The walls of the structure looked like folded draperies found in castles that stretched from ceiling to floor. A waterfall from high above fell into a pool below bathed in an eerie green light. It too glowed as if from its own light source. Great stalactites hung from portions of the ceiling, while stalagmites pushed up from the floor. It was the largest, most beautiful cave I ever saw and judging by the silence, my friends agreed.

To the left of where we stood was the great waterfall and just to the left of the pool where the water fell, was an opening about half as tall as myself. I started moving and had to remember that this wasn’t a sight seeing trip.

“Remember, keep your eyes open. This is just the beginning.” I said to the two behind me as we crawled through the undersized opening.

We barely began traveling along the well-lit path that Apollo gave me instructions to follow when a large armored soldier jumped into the middle of the path we were on. Interestingly enough, his armor was all flash. Painted flames adorned the breastplate and the mask he wore over his face had the image of a skull painted on it. He did a few high kicks in the air and began tossing his sword from hand to hand, taunting me.

I looked at the guy like he’d lost his mind. I couldn’t sense anyone else around so I just turned my head slightly to look at Eponin. The Amazon shrugged her shoulders and loosened her crossbow from her back. We watched the lunatic warrior for the few heartbeats it took for Ep to notch an arrow, and then she took a step forward.

“Stand down and surrender your sword.” She commanded.

He began to twirl the sword around a little more forcefully and took a step closer to me. I already had my sword drawn and this guy must have known who I was, still he advanced. Finally he lunged at me and as sparks jumped from our blades, where metal encountered metal, I took one last look at the Amazon.

“Go for it, Ep.” I said.

Eponin raised her crossbow and the mysterious warrior never wavered. Ep let loose an arrow that buried itself easily into his flimsy armor. The arrow imbedded itself deep into his chest and he sunk to his knees, his face in the dirt. I kicked him a couple times before reaching down to remove his mask.

A burning sensation rose in my throat as I swallowed down the bile that forced its way up. Lifting the mask pulled the warrior’s whole helmet off and thousand of beetles and roaches poured from the form of the man. I backed up quickly, but not before the stench of rotting flesh assailed my nostrils.

“I guess Hera knows we’re here.” I said simply.
——————————————————————————–

The path we were on widened and we stopped to take a few swallows from our water skins. It was time to share a little more about where we were going in case the unthinkable happened and I was injured or incapacitated in some way. I knelt down to the cave floor and began drawing in the dirt, going slowly to ensure that my friends remembered this little lesson.

By the time we stood and were ready to continue, I was ready to tell them about the next chamber we would be entering. Apollo called it the Cavern of Lost Souls. He wouldn’t tell me who these lost souls were, but he was very explicit in his directions, do not listen to them. I explained this to my companions.

“I don’t get it,” Autolycus responded. “What could they know about us?”

“I don’t know the details, I only know Apollo said they would try to get in your mind and mess with your head. Their goal is to get you to take their place and they’ll use any thought in your head to do that. Remember…don’t listen to what they have to say.” I finished and we continued on down the wide path that kept leading us steadily downhill.

The walls on either side of the path soon contained a gruesome display. As we walked we noticed that the rock face was carved with hundreds of faces, some captured in a moment of agony, others looking forlorn and weary. We passed by the carvings, keeping our eyes on the path ahead of us and moving as quickly as we could. Suddenly, I had the uneasy feeling that I was being watched. When I looked up to assuage my fear, I couldn’t stop the gasp that left my throat.

“Don’t look up…not even to save your life. Keep your eyes in the path. And keep following me.” I yelled behind me before they had a chance to look up also.

I stared and became horrified, and I have seen a lot in my lifetime. The carvings were all real flesh and blood and the terrifying thing was that the faces all looked familiar to me. I kept putting one foot in front of the other, slowly plodding along, trying not to acknowledge that their eyes followed after me. That’s when I first heard it.

“Xena…Xena?” A male voice called out to me and I knew immediately who it was. I tried not to respond, but it was so hard. Finally I caught sight of him.

“Lyceus?” I asked.

He nodded as much as his limited movement would allow.

“This is your doing, Xena. If you had been quicker, I wouldn’t have died at Cortes’ hand that day. Why Xena…why did you let him kill me?”

“No, Lyceus, that’s not how it happened and you know it.” I knew I shouldn’t be responding but it was torture not to.

“I’m dead because of you, Xena. You let your little brother die that day. Wouldn’t you trade places with me if you could?” The face that looked like Lyceus asked.

“No. I’m sorry, I can’t. It’s not really you!” I turned my face from the wall and moved forward quickly. I felt the cool breeze hit my face and I knew we were almost out. I should have known they would save the best for last.

“Don’t leave without me, Xe…you promised. You promised…” Gabrielle’s mournful wail called after me and I kept walking.

“Even in death you said…even in death you would never leave me. I died, Xe. Before you could get back with the Elixir, I died.”

“Nooo!” I shouted, covering my ears.

“You failed, Xena. You were my champion and you let me get sick and now I’m dead. You can’t bring me back this time.” Gabrielle’s facial apparition accused.

“I’m so sorry….” I cried, my hands still over my ears to try and block the sound.

“Xe…join me. Even in death…that’s what you promised. Is there really any reason to go on if we can’t be together?”

I felt my head shaking back and forth. It was true. Gabrielle died; I failed her again. What good would life be without my bard? I found my hand reaching out, extending to some unseen force to bring me to my wife. I tried to move my feet forward, but after a few steps I was frozen in place.

“Nooooo! Stop it!” I screamed, trying to take control once again.

A sharp blow to the small of my back surprised me and knocked the air from my lungs. Lying on my stomach just inside the entrance to another portion of the caves, my head felt clearer already. I lay there gasping for breath, and looked to the ground beside me to see both Eponin and Autolycus, each on one side. It appeared as if my companions had literally shoved me the remaining few feet of the way.

“Sorry,” Ep said. “I didn’t know what in Tartaurus was going on, but I wanted out of that place in a hurry.”

“I never thought I’d be so thankful for someone hitting me.” I smiled weakly.

We got to our feet and decided to take a break and catch our breath. A pool of fresh water was not too far away and Autolycus volunteered to fill the water skins. I sat down on a rock ledge and began chewing absently on a piece of dried beef.

The words that I heard that manifestation of Gabrielle saying continued to echo through my consciousness. I remembered that day…that promise. I made promises to no one in this life, but Gabrielle. And I never uttered the words unless I truly believed them. My wife always seemed able to extract an oath from me, especially if she asked for one. On that day, though, she didn’t ask, not with words or in any way that a bystander would recognize. Perhaps it was because she didn’t ask that I made the vow.

Even in death, Gabrielle…I will never leave you.

And I meant it. I did something I never thought I’d do. I gave up. Me, who can always pull that one last little trick or perform one final miracle to save the day. I couldn’t save my bard and I knew that life would hold no appeal for me once I was without her.

And, she looked at me, her eyes so full of confidence in the decision she once made, two summers before, to follow an ex-warlord. To leave her home and all that she knew and loved. Her eyes burned with the fever of the poison, but I saw something else on that day. I saw a fire in those green depths that told me that my young companion developed beyond me. She surpassed me with her wisdom and convictions. Like the warrior she spent two summers emulating, her courage became all she had and she stood at the very entrance to Hades Domain and felt no fear.

When the apparition accused me of failure, it got to me because that’s exactly what I was feeling lately. I am the Queen’s Champion and it is my job to protect the Throne from seen as well as unseen foes. It was too late now, but it’s true, I should never have allowed the Queen in those infirmary tents.

My feelings went deeper than failure, however. It was guilt, plain and simple, that was plaguing me now. If I couldn’t save my wife from this illness, just like I couldn’t reverse the effects of the poison from that Persian arrow, was I still willing to follow her into death? That was what troubled my thoughts since my wife fell ill.

There was a time when I would have had to die; life would have been unbearably painful without Gabrielle in it. Now, the pain would be no less, but through my wife’s love and compassion to this old warrior’s soul, she showed me that perhaps I could go on. I would not want to, and life would probably hold little else besides loneliness, but Gabrielle has infused a strength in me that I never knew I didn’t have. She has given me something I never knew was missing before…the strength to live my life without her. And, for that I felt guilty.

Eponin came over and sat down beside me, bringing me out of my melancholy thoughts.

“Can you talk about it…what happened back there? I mean, what was that all about, Xena?” The Amazon asked in a quiet voice.

I didn’t look up, just continued to stare at my boots.

“Guilt.” I answered. I didn’t offer any more explanation than that and she didn’t press. Before too long we were on our way again and I had a feeling that what I just experienced, was only the beginning.
——————————————————————————–

When Autolycus returned from filling up the skins we were more than ready to put some additional distance between us, and the Cavern of the Lost Souls. We passed by the large pool that Autolycus just left and, referring to the map in my head, I easily located the ledge we needed to climb to. It wasn’t anything I couldn’t flip to, but might be a little trickier for my companions. It was a ledge that extended over the pool of water, a good twelve to fifteen feet above the water’s surface. The bad part was that if you stood on the pool’s edge, jumped and missed the ledge, you would end up sliding straight down a deep ravine. We quickly decided that I would jump to the outcropping and lower my whip to give the others a hand. Eponin came after me with no problem, but I was grunting at the effort of pulling up the thief.

“You’re getting old, Xena.” Autolycus teased, once at the top.

“Hah. You need to go on a diet.” I countered.

“Oh you think so, huh? I’ll have you know that this figure has tempted the greatest beauties of Greece.”

“Tempted them to do what?” Eponin shot back.

“Oh, I get it…you women all stick together.”

We all chuckled good-naturedly. For a few moments it was almost as if we weren’t on a mission for our lives, but merely having a benign adventure. Autolycus thought twice about his weight as we peered over the ledge. We came to a dead end and this was the bottleneck Apollo told me about. Handholds were cut into the rock all the way down the wall like a built in ladder. About forty or fifty feet down the hand holds disappeared into a hole in the ground. I knew, from Apollo’s instructions, the tunnel would narrow considerably, before we hit the ground. Then the tunnel was supposed to open up into another large cavern approximately twenty feet further.

Eponin was an excellent rock climber so she volunteered to go first. Autolycus would follow her and I would bring up the rear, just in case there was anyone following us. I had to admit that from Apollo’s warnings, I expected more in the way of armed soldiers.

“Just remember, Auto…you fall on me and I’ll break you like a twig.” Eponin said with a wink in the tall man’s direction.

“I just love it when a woman plays rough.” Autolycus replied with a grin.

The climb over the ledge and down wasn’t too difficult, rather like climbing down a stationary ladder. The only tricky part was keeping your grip. This cave was like any other and water dripped from every rock and through every crevice. Water seeped from the cliff face and the carved hand and foot holds not only became slippery, but ages of erosion wore the carved areas smooth in some places.

Eponin took her time and carefully checked each spot, making sure it was safe, before placing her booted foot in the next opening. I heard Autolycus groan and knew the big man was at the bottleneck. We had our packs in our hands and we passed them down to Ep, who tossed them to the bottom. I already removed my scabbard from my back and handed my sword down as well. I could feel my armor scrape along the tunnel, but I was able to make it through the narrow shaft without any trouble.

Once we put our feet on solid ground, we had to duck our heads slightly to move through the rest of the passageway. We came out into a long wide cavern, not as high as the first cave we entered, but longer. Immediately to our left was a deep pool, in which water fell from the crevices in the rocks above. The stalagmites that rose up from the cave’s floor were numerous; some came down from the ceiling in thick columns. It looked like a forest of stone and suddenly I had that feeling. It was a tingling down my spine that told me trouble was near.

“I got a bad feeling about this place.” I said to my companions and all three of us drew our swords.

It didn’t take long until they stepped from behind the columns. They all wore the same flashy armor as the first warrior Eponin nailed, but these guys were a lot better. There were three of us and perhaps twenty-five of them…I figured the odds weren’t bad.

I didn’t wait around for them to talk or make an offer; I pretty much knew their order was probably to bring Hera my head. I gave out with a throaty battle cry and did a front flip in front of the closest two. I brought my sword sharply against the first one’s blade and at the same time kicked out with my right leg and doubled over the second. When his knees hit the ground, his head soon followed. I spun and brought my blade across the first warrior’s middle, the steel easily slicing him in two.

I caught their movement out of the corner of my eye as Autolycus and Eponin both used their swords effectively, the Amazon adding a short sword in her free hand that confused the warriors with broadswords. Autolycus wasn’t trained as a warrior, but he held his own as well and I focused my attention on the next four that came at me.

I leaped into the air, my boot heading straight for the chest of the first attacker. He fell and took the legs out of the second man. The remaining two smartened up and stopped their charge, waiting for me to come to them. I advanced a little slower, but they didn’t worry me much. By this point instinct took over and I was all skill and intuition. Besides, now I could feel some of Apollo’s power flowing through me and I wasn’t getting as tired as I usually did. I leaped again and split my legs apart, kicking each man with an uppercut to the chin at the same time. It didn’t incapacitate them, but it sure made them think twice.

Before they could even rise to their feet, I instinctively thrust my blade behind me, pulling it in a swift motion, from the chest of one of the warriors. We pushed on; the three of us staying relatively close together. We advanced toward the back of the cavern and suddenly there was only us. The bodies that were strewn about the cavern floor were either dead or dying.

“Well, that could have been worse.” Autolycus panted.

Without warning, two or three dozen more men rushed from the end of the cave we’d just come from.

“You were saying.” I shouted over the oncoming clamor.

We worked ourselves out onto a flat ledge and when I looked down I realized where we were. Below us was a steep incline of rock and mud. I knew this was where we had to go anyway so I crept closer to the edge and peered over again. It was about a five-foot drop from the ledge to the incline.

“Remember the lake I said we had to go through to get to the palace?” I barked.

They both looked at me and then over the side, realizing what I was suggesting.

“Whatever we’re gonna do, we better do it in a hurry!” Eponin yelled.

“Follow me!” I cried as I flung my body over the ledge and landed on my backside, sliding straight down the steep hill.

It was wet so I picked up momentum in a hurry. I hit the water with such an impact that I almost skipped across the surface like a stone. It wasn’t easy treading water with the heaviness of my armor weighing me down and a sword in one hand. Once the other two hit the water I motioned them under the outcrop of rock where we could hang onto the rocks to catch our breath and, especially, where we would be safe from the volley of crossbow arrows that were coming our way.

“Okay, we needed to be here anyway. The opening is at the bottom of this pool, about twenty feet down. Just take a deep breath and follow me. Any questions?”

When they shook their heads I took a couple deep breaths and dove under. I didn’t have to expel much strength as my own weight carried me rapidly to the bottom. I could see the opening easily as if there were light coming from the other side. When I pushed my way through I experienced the same odd sensation that I did when I came through the underwater portal to the Underworld. I hit the ground and unfortunately, heartbeats later; Autolycus came through and landed on top of me, knocking the air from my lungs.

“Oh, yea…you’re definitely going on a diet.” I grumbled once I could stand and talk.

Amazingly enough our clothes and packs were perfectly dry. Part of me wanted to press on immediately, but we were to make a right turn and cross the Black Lake by way of a rope bridge, suspended hundreds of feet above the water. I had a feeling such a spot had the makings for a perfect ambush, so I elected that we rest for a while. We agreed that we needed the rest and would sleep for a candlemark each, leaving two of us awake at all times. Autolycus and Ep said they were too fired up to sleep so I stuffed my pack under my head and like a good warrior, fell asleep almost the instant I closed my eyes. My last thought was a vision of a blonde head and bright green eyes.
——————————————————————————–

At first I didn’t realize I was dreaming, it all seemed so real. The sun was high up in the sky and birds and butterflies flew across my field of vision. Then, I saw the small blonde lying on an outcropping of rock, her arm hung over the low ledge as she twirled her fingers absently in the clear pond water. This was Gabrielle’s place, the small pond outside of the Amazon village where she came to get away from everything. Adia told me this was where she found my wife when she entered her dreamscape. Gabrielle and I did this once before, but it was a mystery as to how we could end up sharing a dreamscape. I only knew that it would give me the chance to hold my bard again.

“Brie?” I called out softly.

She turned her head and the look on her face could melt any warrior’s heart, this one in particular. The look of unconditional love and devotion that always smiled out at me from Gabrielle’s face still had a way of stealing my breath away.

“Oh, Xe!” she exclaimed, once her brain registered that I was truly there.

I barely let her feet touch the ground once I caught her up in my arms. “Gods, I love you, Brie.” I cried out.

“Xena, I missed you so much.” Gabrielle murmured against my neck.

“I missed you too, baby. Brie, how did you do this…get me into your dreamscape?”

“Me? I thought you did it. I’m already asleep.” my wife countered.

“I’m afraid it was me.” A deep voice behind me answered.

I turned, quickly positioning my body between the stranger and Gabrielle. I drew my sword before I stopped to think that if this were a dream, what was a stranger doing there? He was tall, nearly seven feet tall was my guess. He had a small mustache and beard and deep set brown eyes, and his skin was the color of polished ebony. His bald head and flowing robes caused him to look like a mystic. That’s when I realized who he was.

“Morpheus.”

“Very good, warrior. Apollo’s daughter…” he bowed slightly in Gabrielle’s direction.

“Are you really Morpheus?” my wife asked.

“Yes, your Majesty, I am.” The tall God responded, out of respect for my wife’s Amazon status.

“I’m not sure I understand.” I said warily.

“I am not a warrior, Xena, I am a God with, shall we say, limited skills. I focus my abilities in the world you see around you, the dreamscape. Apollo explained to me the gravity of our situation against Hera and I am here to do my part. I cannot give you powers or stand with a sword at your side, but I can give you and your Queen this time together. It may not be all that you desire, but remember…it is your dream.”

He didn’t say another word, just dematerialized in front of us, leaving us both a little shocked, yet deliriously elated.

“Should I have brought up the trial he put me through to become his bride.” Gabrielle said with an arch to her eyebrow.

“I don’t think Morpheus ever had anything to do with that, love. That was simply a case of his priests and henchman debasing his temple and the mystic beliefs.” I answered. “Hey,” I said turning and wrapping my arms around my wife. “Where were we?”

I leaned down and pressed my lips to Gabrielle’s soft full ones. She felt so good, she always felt like the perfect fit with my arms draped around her. I didn’t want to think about the reality that waited for me when I awoke. I simply wanted to be with my wife and enjoy the deep, abiding love we shared.

“What have you been up to all this time?” I asked as we walked to the sunny ledge and sat down. I watched as a number of large trout swam under the shaded area the outcropping provided. “Hey, I bet the fishing’s great.”

That comment earned me a smack in the arm, but I expected it. As a matter of fact that was the reason I said it. Gabrielle was never much of a fishing buddy, but she sure loved to eat them.

“I talk to myself most of the time, or talk to the trees and the butterflies, just about anything to stay sane. I don’t know how you do it, Xe, enjoy the silence. It’s deafening.”

I laughed out loud at my wife’s description of the blessed silence I reveled in. “So, what have you been talking to the trees about, love?”

She snuggled up against me and we sat there, shoulder to shoulder.

“I’ve been working on some new stories. At first I didn’t think I could because I didn’t have any writing materials, but then as soon as I thought about it a quill and parchment showed up, lying right beside me. I tried that with food, but it’s just not the same.” She looked rather serious and I couldn’t help laughing again.

“Would you like to hear a story?” she asked with excitement.

Now, this is the point where I usually groan or roll my eyes. Gabrielle is unequaled as a bard, but I still give her a hard time over listening to her stories. I’m sure that part of her expected the same treatment and it felt so good to be able to surprise her.

“Yes, please.” I replied with just the proper amount of enthusiasm.

Oh, I love that look. Gabrielle’s eyes sparkled and her smile stretched across her whole face. It was an expression of more than joy. Even before we became lovers, she seemed to come alive at my praise. Her whole being displayed her happiness at pleasing me, and when I took the pleasure she offered, it only served to intensify her satisfaction.

She motioned me toward her and rearranged herself so that my head lay in her lap. The exquisite feel of being cradled by my wife was second only to being able to gaze up at her beautiful face as she wove her tale. The story she told was light and funny and I found myself laughing out loud in spots. Gabrielle had a great sense of humor and she spiced up the narrative by making it slapstick funny in certain areas, and dryly humorous in others. She threw in just enough sex; the lines delivered in a low sexy voice, that at the end of the recital I could feel a growing dampness between my thighs.

As her tale concluded, Gabrielle reached down and flicked my lips with her tongue before capturing my mouth in a breath-stealing kiss.

“Oh Gods, Brie.” I groaned, feeling the dampness become a slow trickle of liquid fire

“Xe, can we make love in the dreamscape?”

I returned her question with a sexy, lopsided smile. “I don’t see why not…My Heart, I’ve made love to you in my dreams for seasons now.”

I pulled her down until she lay beside me. I had a thought and decided to see if the dreamscape could be controlled the way Gabrielle conjured up a quill and parchment. I closed my eyes and wished. Suddenly, my wife and I had our naked bodies pressed together and a shudder ran down the length of my spine at the delicious contact.

We both moaned at the feel of bare flesh. The trickle suddenly became a flowing river.

It was no where near enough, however, and I spread my legs and pulled my wife’s body tightly to me. This time it was Gabrielle’s turn to groan once her thigh made contact with my drenched center.

She wedged her muscled leg between mine and began a slow sensual grind against me. With each smooth movement, a little more pressure was applied, and I felt the tight bundle of nerves between my legs pulsate strongly.

Gabrielle leaned over me and I couldn’t resist the full breasts, swaying above me, just out of my reach. The moment my wife saw what I had my eyes on, she began to tease, keeping the flesh just out of reach. She had to have known that I could be teased only so long considering the state of arousal I was in. I growled loudly and grabbed the firm mounds of flesh, pulling them each toward me and enclosing my mouth around both nipples at once.

“By the Gods! Oh, Xe…yes.” Gabrielle moaned.

My wife’s moans filled the air, not to mention the sound of wet flesh slipping and sliding together. The sounds, the scent of Gabrielle’s arousal, her touch as she positioned her fingers between her thigh and my sensitive folds, all served to carry me higher. She used her thigh to press her fingers harder into my flesh. My hips bucked at the sensation and I knew that I didn’t want to come alone. Not to be left out, I slipped my own long fingers into my wife’s silky folds, teasing and reveling in the soft, warm wetness.

Gabrielle cried out and spread her legs further, continuing the motion against me. As she eased herself lower I thrust three fingers inside her and pumped in and out, letting her hips dictate the rhythm. Just as suddenly I felt my wife enter me. I felt so full I had to wonder how much of her hand she had inside me. Her thumb ran in a tight little circle against my clit and I knew that if she kept that little move up, I was toast.

I used my free hand to massage the breasts that swayed temptingly before me. I was so close, but I wanted Gabrielle with me. I pulled her to my mouth and sucked on one nipple as if it was the first time I tasted the delicacy.

“Oh Xena…Gods…yes, oh yea…oh yea…” My wife began to chant, rocking her hand inside me and pressing her chest against me harder.

I felt the tremors in my own legs first. I continued the thrusting in and out until Gabrielle’s moans stopped and turned into high-pitched whimpers. Just as I felt the first spasms clenched at my fingers buried deep inside her, none too gently, I bit down on the nipple inside my mouth. Gabrielle’s whole body convulsed violently against my own and, unable to control my own passion, the sound of her ecstasy brought me to my own climax. We shivered in each other’s arms as tiny aftershocks reeled us both. There was a word for this kind of satisfaction…absolute bliss.

I love you, My Heart.” I whispered, once I could breath again.

“Mmm, love you too, warrior.” Gabrielle replied sleepily, snuggling deeper into my embrace.

Neither of us could keep our eyes open and yet we knew that when I awoke, it would be into the waking world.

“Xena…your watch.” I heard Eponin say and I was instantly awake. I splashed some cold water onto my face and looked with aching sadness at my reflection in the shallow pool. I missed my wife already and yet, I felt the way I always do after making love to that woman…invigorated, loved, and completely satisfied.

I came back to discover Eponin fast asleep and Autolycus drawing in the dirt with his dagger. Before I could wipe it off my face Auto looked up. From the expression on his face, I could tell he suspected what my goofy grin was all about.

“Must have been one Tartaurus of a dream, that’s all I have to say.”

I chuckled softly so as not to wake Eponin. “You don’t even know the half of it, friend.”
Part III
Autolycus took his turn at rest and when I sat down next to Eponin, she had an expression on her face that told me something was up.

“Okay…what?” I asked after a few more heartbeats passed.

“You were making some rather interesting noises in your sleep. Kind of like…uhm…”

“Like I was getting laid?” I finished for her.

“Yea…exactly like that.” she admitted with a grin.

“Well, Ep, you get married and you’ll be dreaming like that too.” I responded.

She laughed at that. “Don’t need to get married. I have those dreams all the time.”

“Yea, well, you get married and you get to make them come true.” I arched an eyebrow as I finished the sentence.

Eponin just lowered her head and shook it back and forth, a large smile on her face. “Marriage is good for you, Xena.”

“Keeps me out of trouble.” I quipped.

“I mean it…Gabrielle’s been good for you.” she said seriously.

I wasn’t prepared for this serious turn in the conversation and I wasn’t sure how to respond. “Yea, well…she’s an incredible girl.”

“You’re probably the last woman I know who stills calls her that.” Eponin commented.

I thought about it a moment and agreed. Aside from Hecuba, Gabrielle’s mother, I was probably the only woman around who thought of Brie that way. She was a grown woman, Queen to the Amazon Nation, yet part of me would always remember the young girl I met outside of Poteidaia. No matter what she will ever look like or how old we will grow, when I close my eyes I will still be able to picture the long blonde hair, blue peasant blouse, and dirty brown skirt.

“I might add that the opposite is just as true. You’ve been good for Gabrielle as well.” Eponin added.

“Oh, yea, I’m sure getting kidnapped and having her life threatened continually has done wonders for her.”

“You know what I mean. Gods, I remember when she first came to the village. She looked like a refugee from a camp somewhere. We all thought she was your–”

She stopped abruptly. “I mean…it’s just that the two of you…”

“I know,” I interrupted, “that’s the way I wanted it. Hey, give a warrior a little credit for having a brain cell functioning…a pretty blonde virgin? There was no way I was letting any of you know she didn’t belong to me.”

“And now she does.” the Amazon stated.

“Now she does.” I repeated softly with a smile that I knew gave away what was in my heart.

“Come on big tough warrior. Let’s wake up Auto and get moving.” Eponin rose and lifted her pack.

“Hey, come on, I’ve got a reputation to think of.” I joked.
——————————————————————————–

Once again I thought of my beautiful bard as we packed our meager supplies and pushed on, the memories of our lovemaking still fresh in my mind, even if it was in a dreamscape. The memory was the sweetest one I would be able to afford my wife for quite a while.

“Apollo called her the Oracle of T an.” I told them as we walked along the narrow path toward the bridge.

I didn’t sound pleased. Like it was any big surprise to anyone that I would enjoy confronting a prophet. It’s not that I didn’t respect true seers and oracles, it was that I wasn’t a big fan of anyone telling me that my future was going to go a certain way and there was nothing I could do about it. When I commanded an army, I watched as many of my men based the way that they fought, even the days they would fight, on a soothsayer’s predictions. It usually turned out that they ended up getting their heads lopped off, not because of fate, but because they refused to believe they could command their own future.

“We’re supposed to pay a price to the Oracle before we can cross the bridge. Let’s just hope that Hera’s men didn’t have the fee.” I continued.

“How much will it cost us for passage?” Autolycus asked.

“Apollo would only tell me that whatever the Oracle asked, it would never be more than we had. I have a sneaky feeling he wasn’t talking dinars, however.”

“Well we’re about to find out.” Autolycus chimed up as we rounded a large column of rocks.

The rope bridge seemed sturdy enough from this distance. It was about thirty feet long and spanned the gap, high over the Black Lake, and there, in what looked almost like a throne, was the Oracle of T an. I knew it was the Oracle, but I had to admit that she looked wildly out of place. First of all a throne in the bowels of the earth was not something you saw everyday. Second, she was quite elderly, yet looked as regal as some dowager queen.

“You are the Oracle of T an.” I stated without question.

“Very good Warrior Princess. Perhaps you should be an Oracle.” she commented with a small smile.

I sneered slightly in reply.

“There is something about me you do not care for, warrior?” she asked me.

She worried me a tad. She was unlike any Oracle I ever met before and she had a sparkle in her eyes that looked strangely like amusement.

“I don’t much go in for fortune tellers.” I replied.

“That is because you do not care to know what your future holds, do you?”

“I’d rather make my own future…I don’t like relying on fate, or giving up control.” I could see my two companions watching me out of the corners of my eyes.

“Perhaps that’s because you haven’t yet learned the difference between your fate and your destiny.” she responded.

“And, the difference is?” I asked.

“You can change your fate. Your whole life you were expected to take the left fork in the road, but when you arrive, suddenly you take the path to your right. In doing so you have changed the fate that awaited you.”

“And, my destiny?”

“Your destiny was simply to be on the road in the first place.” She leaned forward in her chair, her elbows resting on her thighs. “Try as you might, you cannot change your destiny, Xena.”

I was growing tired of her word games and was anxious for us to be on our way.

“We need to cross the bridge. Apollo said there would be a price.” I said shortly, my legendary patience already wearing thin.

“Young people are in such a hurry, never time to talk with an old woman.” the Oracle replied, shaking her head back and forth.

I was about to reply, my tongue getting ready to throw a few barbs her way, when Eponin saved me from myself.

“Forgive us, Grandmother, but the quest that we are on is of the greatest importance. Hera’s men may have already beaten us to the other side.”

“Ahh, Hera…she is nothing to me.” The Oracle said with a wave of her hand.

“She is a Goddess of considerable strength.” Eponin stated the obvious.

“She is a petulant child.” The Oracle exclaimed and drew and unexpected smile from all of us. “Hera feels this world is hers and all those in it, her playthings. She has not seen all that I have seen, not traversed the universe as I. I was here long before the Gods decided to make this world their toy, when everything was quite new. My sisters and I have always been here, shaping the universe’s fortune.”

She seemed to be lost in her own thoughts as she told us of her life. That’s when I took a guess at who the Oracle’s three sisters might be.

“That’s right, warrior…Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos.” She responded to my unasked question.

“The three fates.” I explained to my companion’s stares. “They’re her sisters.”

“You are a quick one, warrior. Apollo’s daughter chose well.” she smiled.

She unnerved me with that one. “Do we get to pass or not?” I responded brusquely.

Again she lowered her head and shook it slightly. When she raised her eyes, her age suddenly manifested itself through her gray eyes.

“So much strength and pride, Xena…if only you could reveal your heart, half as well as you control the physical world around you. You may pass to the other side. The price of your passage I demand from you.”

“How much?” I asked quickly. This woman was starting to freak me out and I wanted to put some distance between us.

“The price is your past and your future. Two questions will I ask of you and only if you answer honestly and listen to my words will I allow you safe passage.”

I didn’t like what she was asking. Frankly, I didn’t want to answer anything an Oracle might ask me…if they were a seer, shouldn’t they already know the answers?

“Hey, why don’t you ask me…my life’s an open scroll.” Autolycus finally spoke from his spot to the left of me. Leave it to Auto…always trying to be gallant.

The old woman laughed and suddenly her eyes were sparkling again.

“Autolycus, you are indeed known to me, and in other circumstances, I would enjoy hearing about your amoral experiences, it would make my heart young again.” Her face grew serious once more. “But, the payment I seek is from the warrior.” she finished, looking at me.

I folded my arms across my armored chest and looked at her, my lips raising into a sneer.

“Allright,” I hissed, “what do you want to know?”

“Come here…take my hands. I want to see the truth of it in your eyes.” she requested, but it felt more like an order and I bristled.

I extended my hands and she took both of them in her own. I was rather amazed at how smooth her skin felt against my own worn and callused palms.

“When you were a young girl, who was your best friend?” she asked.

It was a strange question and I wasn’t prepared for it. I thought about that for a few moments and thought of my brother. “My brother, Lyceus.” I finally answered.

She seemed to think about that as she watched my eyes and I stared back, my blue gaze unwavering.

“Do you love your Gabrielle?”

“With all that I am.” I shot back immediately. I didn’t need to think about that one at all, the response was natural.

The Oracle smiled at my reply and nodded her head. Then her brow furrowed and if I didn’t know better I would say there were tears in her eyes.

“Xena…a great sadness is going to come upon you.” she began.

All of a sudden I knew I didn’t want to be here, in front of this woman, and I didn’t want to hear what she had to say. I could feel my body going into fight mode and my eyes searched for a way to pass her by. I tried to move around her. I didn’t want to hear that I was going to lose Gabrielle…how could this old woman be so cruel?

“I don’t want to hear this!” I rasped, trying to pull myself from her firm grasp.

She held tightly to my wrists and I found that her frail appearance was deceiving. She easily held me solidly in place. There was nothing I could do but listen to her words.

“Calm yourself, child. It’s true that from this sadness will come a heartbreak that will be so great that you will wish for your own death. But, from this pain will come a miracle for you Xena…you will begin a new chapter in your life that will make you curse the day you thought to choose death over life.”

Without warning she released my hands and I pulled away fiercely.

“You may pass,” she said to all three of us, waving her arm.

I moved first and didn’t even look back to see if my companions followed me. I was unnerved by the Oracle’s statement and all I could think about as we traversed the swinging bridge was how thoroughly empty my life would be without my bard in it.
——————————————————————————–

I looked over the edge of the rope and peered down. The Black Lake was two or three hundred feet below us. It wasn’t just dark because of lack of light. It was truly as black as ink. Having crossed the bridge we made our way across a ledge that seemed physically impossible to exist the way it did. We were walking across it, but it sure didn’t seem to be attached to anything much for support.

Perhaps a hundred feet ahead, the ledge fell away into an endless pattern of stairs. The steps were hewn from the cavern rock itself, making their way down to where I knew was the entrance to the Stone Palace. It took a while to make our way down. We were at a disadvantage, not knowing if Hera’s soldiers waited at the bottom and we didn’t want to announce our coming. The second reason we were going a little slow is that the steps had no rails of any kind between their surface and the depths below. It wasn’t a problem for me, but my friend Autolycus, not usually afraid of heights, blanched a little at the task. It was hard to blame him. The air was close and muggy the lower we got, unusual for a cave, and it made breathing a bit more difficult. Plus water and erosion had done their part and some portions of the carved series of steps were tricky.

We reached the halfway point and I remembered from Apollo’s drawings that the rock ledge we now stood on was actually the top of the Stone Palace. We took a moment to prepare our weapons in case of a confrontation at the bottom and pressed on. Only about five hundred more steps, I thought to myself.

Nearing the bottom, it surprised me that Hera’s soldiers were making so much noise. As silently as possible we made it to the base, behind the huge stalagmites swelling from the ground. The large rock formation surrounded the Palace gates and effectively hid the three of us from the soldier’s eyes. Crouching down I saw two men playing a dice game and six others, leaning wearily against the Palace doors. They looked like a motley bunch, not up to Hera’s usual standards. That’s when I realized that if Hera was waging war against the other Olympians, then chances are she was suffering some losses too. Maybe these guys were just plain tired, or maybe they were simply replacements. Whatever the reason was, it was to our advantage.

We moved closer, keeping low to stay covered by the rocks. Now, we could have charged them and easily won, but why expend the energy? I motioned to Autolycus and Ep, and pointed to the two men playing dice. They each quietly freed their crossbow. They would take care of those two, now the other six were my problem.

I was working on the logistics of how to slit their throats with one chakram toss when I looked over their heads. Overhead, just above the Palace Doors hung a huge, narrow block of stone. Thick chains that disappeared into the palace, through the stone wall, suspended the slab of rock. The block of stone could apparently be lowered from the inside to block the doors of the Palace. Since it was on the outside and the doors opened in I could only surmise that it was to keep someone from getting out of the Palace, not to stop someone from getting in.

I hoped that my chakram was up to it. I motioned for the others to wait and let the metal disc fly. It hit two rocks before settling itself between the two chains that held up the block of stone. It bounced rapidly back and forth between the heavy chain, cutting gouges into the strong metal. The sound of metal striking metal and the resulting groan as the slab of stone readjusted its weight, caused the six soldiers to look up. Just as they did, a few tons of granite came down on them. As that was happening, Autolycus and Eponin took out the dice players with an arrow apiece.

“You know I thought we were trying to keep a low profile.” Autolycus said, stepping over the large slab of stone. “Why do you think we used arrows?”

“Yea, well, I like to keep my methods fresh.” I answered and we pushed the heavy doors open.

Inside was a medium size foyer, two regular size doors just ahead of us.

“It’s probably locked.” Autolycus said, pulling a lock pick from his pouch.

“Ya think?” I responded sarcastically.

“Here,” Ep said, getting ready to kick the doors in.

“What’s with you two and these destructive tendencies?” Autolycus asked, pushing Eponin aside and getting down on one knee to examine the lock. “Ahh, Corinthian steel. These are some of the finest locks made in the Known World. Why the spring mechanism alone…look, let me just–”

Ep and I rolled our eyes and took one look at each other. The silent message was passed and just as Auto bent to have a closer look at the metal lock, we each raised a leg and kicked hard against the solid wood. The door went swinging open, leaving the thief on his knees in front of the open passage.

“Or,” Autolycus drawled.

“Don’t sweat these, Auto,” I reassured my friend. “The finesse part comes when we enter the maze.”

“A maze…well, doesn’t that sound like fun.” Eponin bantered.

I didn’t have time to explain to my companions, but they followed me without a word down the twisting castle halls until we stood in front of another door made of solid wood. I motioned for the both of them to stop behind me and, standing about three feet away from the doorway, I drew my sword. I stretched my arms forward and thrust the tip of my sword against the wooden door. I heard a faint click and suddenly a portion of the brick floor in front of me fell away to reveal a yawning hole leading into who knows where.

“Think you can reach the lock from here?” I asked Autolycus.

“Just stand back and watch the master.” He replied.

Sure enough it took him less than ten heartbeats before the door swung open. We hopped over the trap door and into the next room. I stopped as we came to a wall with a long hall running to the left and to the right. I closed my eyes until I could see Apollo’s map in my mind. Left, left, right, left, right, right, left, left… I had the sequence burned into my mind, so when Autolycus piped up with one of his usual quips, he got nothing but a hard glare from me.

We walked carefully down the stone corridor, taking in every detail around us. I told my friends that Apollo instructed me on the traps and pitfalls that were a part of the Palace, but there was no way of knowing how many little snares Hera may have set up for us.

I slowed down, staring at my feet, then stopped completely. I bent to one knee and scooped a bit of dirt and sand into my palm and tossed it into the middle of the corridor. The dirt revealed a thin filament, intricately tied into a grid-like pattern, the squares of the grid large enough to place my foot through. Eponin kneeled down beside me to get a closer look.

“I’ve never seen anything so fine. It’s like human hair.”

“You’d never even know you were running into it until it was too late.” I said.

I motioned them back a step and gave a slight tug to one of the strands of fiber. Immediately, small holes opened up an each side of the stone passageway, short arrows hissing from the openings. The feathered shafts hit the walls and fell harmlessly to the floor.

I stood up and explained how we needed to cross the twenty feet of mined corridor.

“Just remember to lift your foot up high enough to clear the line, the slightest pressure will spring the trap and there’s a lot more arrows where these came from,” I said, examining the shaft of one of the fallen darts.

As I stood a smell that was a cross between rotting eggs and decaying flesh assailed my nostrils. I looked to my right to find Autolycus suspiciously eyeing me.

“Don’t look at me.” I drawled.

“Then where is that coming–”

I heard a shuffling noise behind us and we all three quickly turned, swords drawn.

“What in Hades are those?” Eponin said as disgust filled her voice.

“Xena, please tell me those are not giant rats underneath that armor.” Autolycus said and I heard the fear in his voice too.

“Skaven.” I hissed.

There were at least six of them; they never traveled alone. They were in every way like their four-footed brethren, quick, vicious, and cunning. These creatures weren’t your everyday big rats with beady eyes and long worm-like tails, though. These creatures were bipedal man-sized killing machines. My one and only encounter with them was when Hera sent a few of them after me when I was in a castle a lot like this one. I was after the sword Hercules and I eventually used to free Prometheus and I rounded a corner and found these guys staring at me.

I found, that on their own, they were ill-disciplined and complete cowards, but together, in large packs, they become fanatically over-confident and bold. They wore filthy rags and scraps of armor, some brandishing crude weapons and others with more sophisticated gear. On everything, helmets, shields, or shoulder armor, they painted their standard, the Great Horned Rat, the dark god of the Skaven.

So, I attempted to do now what I did back then.

“Turn around and start moving…carefully, and when I say run, you better be able to high step or you’ll end up full of arrows.” I said in a low voice. “I’ll keep them busy for as long as I can.”

I didn’t fully have it in my mind what I was going to do yet, but I sure hoped it would come to me. My companions turned, slowly at first and began to maneuver through the trap. The Skaven hissed and sniffed the air at our movement. Two of them rushed forward in a false charge to see if I’d cower in fear. I did just the opposite. I twirled my word with a flip of my wrist and started screaming at the top of my lungs. It scared the shit out of them, which was evident by the floor around them.

There was only one major flaw in my plan. Skaven don’t like to be afraid. It unnerves them to the point that they’ll do the last thing you could think of. In this case that meant charging right at me. They were in an absolute frenzy now and I didn’t want to be anywhere close to those rabid fangs. I turned around to see my friends were almost there.

“Run!” I shouted and took my own advice.

It only took a heartbeat and they were nearly on top of me. I could hear them chittering and feel their hot breath on my neck. If one of them had been smart enough to reach out a paw, he could have dragged me to the ground. Actually, I was surprised the smell alone didn’t knock me out. I figured that since they were right on my back I’d see if I had any of Apollo’s infused power left.

I saw that Auto finally cleared the trap and when Eponin saw me barreling down the corridor, she dove the remaining few feet. I ran through that passageway like my life depended on it, which it did. I never bothered with trying to avoid the hair-like filaments; I just barreled on through, setting off the traps. The arrows made a sharp hissing sound as they passed me, but I twisted, turned, and dodged until I skidded to a stop in front of my friends who were still standing there, a look of open-mouthed wonder on their faces. I turned around and all six of the hideous creatures were riddled with arrows, breathing their last. One other thing about Skaven…they’re not notoriously bright.
——————————————————————————–

Two more lefts and a right and we found a secure room where we could take a break. Apollo said it was a storage room for the priests. We found it mostly empty, a number of baskets and other paraphernalia lined up against one wall. I closed and bolted the door; it was the only way in and out, according to my father in law.

We sat and caught our breath, eating some dry rations; the only sound was our own breathing. I heard a sound outside the bolted door that caused the skin at the nape of my neck to prickle. It was a Gods awful racket like a man half-yelling, half moaning in agony. Whatever it was, it was from Hera’s back of tricks. Either that or Apollo forgot to tell me something.

Suddenly something crashed against the locked door…something big. The pounding continued as I realized we were trapped in here with no other way out. Whatever it was, we were going to have to confront it to escape. The hinges on the door began to rip apart and finally chunks of the wooden door flew to bits. When the door was flung into the room what stood in the entrance was the most powerful looking warrior I’d ever seen, and believe me, I’ve gone up against the biggest and the baddest.

He came straight for me, no preamble, no “I’m gonna kill you, Xena.” He was making a ghostly moaning sound that could only mean he was a Beserker. Once men, they were trapped within their armor, usually by Gods or sorcerers. They, like the Skaven we just encountered knew only one thing, how to destroy your enemy. They never slept or ate, and never got tired. They simply fought until they were killed or killed you.

Killing a Beserker was a challenge in itself. This one had on massive amounts of black and white armor over a coat of chain mail. His gloved hands came down into gauntlets that were all hard leather and metal. Over his boots and up to his thighs was the same leather and metal combination. His face was covered completely in a metal helmet, a long slit cut into the device for him to see through. In the very top of the helmet was a sharp curved spike the color of bone, covered in dried blood from some other unfortunate victim.

I met his charge against my blade with my own battle cry. Soon I was in full fight mode and could only hear my own blood pounding in my ears as instinct took over. I could occasionally feel myself grunting or shouting as I wielded my blade, but for the most part I was lost inside the part of me that is a warrior. Nothing existed for me beyond those boundaries.

Unfortunately, even with Apollo’s strength, I was not a Beserker and I began to tire. That’s when I came to an awareness of my companions. Eponin and Autolycus both entered the fray with their swords, but even with three of us combining our strength, the creature could not be brought down. Finally, he tossed his sword aside and pulled what looked like a huge sledgehammer that he was carrying on his back. The wooden-handled hammer was a big thick block of metal at its head with spikes sticking out of it. He swung the weapon in a wide arc, fending off our blows with a large round shield held securely in his other hand.

Stepping back to catch my breath, my companions charged in to give me a moment. It was then that I saw the area I needed to attack. The Beserker’s gauntlet came almost to his armored elbow protector, but there was a gap of two or three inches between the elbow protector and where his shoulder armor came down onto his upper arm. It was just about the only unprotected area on his body.

Eponin was slammed against the wall, the spikes from the creature’s hammer slicing open a thick cut on her arm. I stepped in front of the fallen Amazon to try to draw the creature’s attention away, but he smelled blood now. That turned out to my advantage because while he was totally focused on the fallen warrior I stepped in. I would only have one chance and the timing had to be perfect. The only time the gap in his armor showed was when his arms were raised. I waited until he brought his weapon hand up, to finish off Eponin, then I saw it. I raise my sword and with all my strength, brought it down, just as his arm was striking downward in the Amazon’s direction.

I could feel the difference in texture immediately. Instead of striking hammered metal, my sword felt like it was slicing through a soft melon. The howl the creature let loose made my ears ring as my blade sliced the arm from his body. Still he wouldn’t quit fighting and I knew he wouldn’t until he was dead. Autolycus and I took turns harassing him and he swung at us with the shield in his remaining arm. Seeing an opening, I severed his other arm just as I had the first. I kicked him in the chest and he toppled to the floor.

I moved to Eponin who had already staunched the flow of blood from her arm with a tourniquet. The wound was wide, but not nearly as deep as I first thought.

“I’ll sew it up for you as soon as we get out of here.” I said and she nodded as I pulled a clean cloth from my pack to put around it in the meantime.

The Beserker was still moaning and howling on the floor, but without his arms he couldn’t go anywhere. The loss of blood was finally causing him to grow weaker and he lay there panting. Autolycus went near him and I could see the kind-hearted thief was going to try to get the creature’s helmet off, in an attempt to help him breath.

“Don’t touch him.” I said quickly and Auto jumped back like he was just exposed to swamp fever.

“If you remove a Beserker’s helmet and look into his face, you end up condemned to take on his fate. You trade places with him.” I said, which caused Auto to back up even further.

“Are we just gonna leave him like that?” Eponin asked.

“Beserker’s were once warrior’s just like you and I.” I explained, wrapping the clean bandage around her arm. “Then one day they gave in to the seduction of a God or a sorcerer. The promise of power and strength that would be theirs forever was what turned this one into what you see now. They have no recollection of their previous lives, they only know of death and conquest.”

I looked over at the fallen creature as I spoke and knew that it was taking its last breaths. “He made his choice. He’ll have to see it to the end.” I answered.

We helped Ep to her feet and she told us she was fine. We left through the destroyed doorway and I realized that Hera was playing for keeps this time and I wondered how long our strength and our luck would hold out.
——————————————————————————–

All three of us were in need of a little sleep and some warm food, even myself, yet we pushed on through the semi-dark corridors of the Stone Palace. I could feel the very slight downward slope that the passageway had and whether my companions realized or not, we were descending lower with every step. Ultimately, by the time we reached the Diamond Chamber we would be fifteen levels further below where we entered the Stone Palace.

I heard footfalls behind us, obviously not someone trying to cover the sound from us. Actually, it sounded like they were trying to keep quiet, but they were failing miserably.

“Keep moving,” I said to my friends as we rounded the next corner.

I flattened myself against the wall and waited as Ep and Autolycus moved on. The stranger’s footsteps grew nearer and just when they were about to round the corner, I reached out and grabbed the man’s collar. He wore priest robes and carried no weapons. By the time my two companions heard the noise and rushed back, the priest was on his knees after I’d interrupted the flow of blood to his brain.

“Who are you?” I questioned and he struggled to speak.

“T-The…strength of…Apollo…f-flows in y-you.” he gasped.

I quickly recognized the safe phrase Apollo gave me and released the pinch from the terrified priest. He fell to the floor, sucking in great gulps of air. My father in law told me that any priests that were loyal to him might aid us along the way. He gave me this phrase as a way I might be able to recognize them from any that were turned to Hera’s cause.

I helped the man to his feet and apologized, but we needed to be sure. He bowed slightly at all of us.

“I have been told to bring you to a safe place where you may rest for a time.” He said.

“The Trias?” I asked.

“Yes…you will follow me?”

I looked at Ep and Autolycus and indicated that we should follow the priest. The Trias was one of the two places in the Stone Palace where immortals could not go. Well, they could but Apollo’s exact words were that they would be, “rendered powerless.” I knew we’d be safe there. With a wave of my arm, I bid the priest lead us. I knew round about where the Trias was according to Apollo’s map, but only the priests knew the secret passageways into the sacred temple. Even Apollo himself was not privy to this mortal shrine in his honor. Delos was set up this way by Apollo himself to protect the Elixir of Life from just the sort of thing we were going through now.

Lying in a soft palette, a warm stew filling my belly, I thought I could sleep for a week. I knew the half a dozen candlemarks we agreed on would be more than enough, however. After we ate and I stitched Eponin’s arm, we were each shown to a separate room, probably one of the many priest’s quarters. A steaming tub of warm water awaited me and I reveled in its soothing heat, thinking that I was getting far too old for all of this.

Now, nearing sleep, I remembered the last time I was in a temple that belonged to Apollo. How strange to revisit that memory and know that now Gabrielle was the God’s daughter. I was so in love with her then. If I could have known then that I was to lose my bard when she tried to bring Hope to her death, just a few moons later, I would have surely told her what was in my heart.

Keeping my wife and Tara apart was a little tricky since Tara was convinced she would be my next partner. If only the girl understood what Gabrielle really meant to me. Tara later admitted that she initially thought Gabrielle was merely my body slave, a girl that I kept around to meet my physical needs. I almost laughed out loud when I heard that. Seems most of Greece thought that about Brie. Someday I’ll have to ask her if she knew that. I set the youngster straight, and told her that Gabrielle and I were just friends. She looked rather like she didn’t know whether she should believe me or not.

I remember trying to stay in between the two of them. I loved Gabrielle and no one could have ever come between us, but I saw something in Tara. It was like looking at a younger version of myself. I knew, right off, that bad girl image was a lot of bluster on her part. The first night we spent together, when Tara sidled herself up to my bedroll in Gabrielle’s usual spot, I was in a fix. I didn’t want to make too much of it for fear my bard would think I was getting a bit too possessive and wonder why her best friend simply had to sleep by her. So, I blew it off and Gabrielle settled further away from me than usual and the loss I felt at the mere few feet was immediate.

I was just losing myself to sleep when I felt the small hand on my thigh. I don’t think I knew what was going on right away, since my sleep fogged brain was trying to register the fact that Gabrielle usually slept beside me and sliding her hand up the inside of my thigh was certainly not one of the things my bard usually did. Then the fingers on that hand began to slide under my breeches and my eyes shot open as sudden realization flooded over me.

I grabbed Tara’s wrist and, without a sound, I gently pushed her hand away from me. I could already hear Gabrielle’s deep, even breathing telling me she was asleep, thank the Gods. I felt the young girl’s insistent hand return and this time I roughly stopped her wandering fingers and leaned up on one elbow, glaring down at her.

“Stop!” I hissed quietly, trying not to wake Gabrielle.

“But, you said you two were just friends.” Tara whispered in response to my glance over at Gabrielle’s bedroll.

“It doesn’t matter, Tara.” I replied, and suddenly I wanted to be honest with the girl. “Gabrielle holds my heart and this would be a betrayal of that affection.

“Doesn’t she even know…I mean, that you love her?”

“No, and I would rather keep it that way for now. Tara, someday I hope you find someone that will open their heart and be willing to forgive all the wrong things that you’ve done in your past. Someone that will love you no matter what you’ve done or who you’ve been. Gabrielle is that person for me and I will never again do anything to jeopardize that love.” I finished.

“I’m trusting you with this knowledge, Tara, I hope you won’t let me down.” I finished.

“I won’t, Xena.” Tara said finally, turning over to sleep.

Of course, I should have known that Tara was too immature to process what I told her that night. She proceeded to push Gabrielle, in her jealousy over me, until my wife had no choice left but to pummel some sense into the girl. It was an act filled with an odd, almost bizarre satisfaction from all parties concerned. Tara found out that she wasn’t so bad after all and that just because a person was long-suffering and tolerant, it didn’t mean they were weak. Gabrielle learned that some heads are hard, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are a lost cause. Then there was me.

Once we returned the Urn of Apollo to the temple, Tara and Gabrielle stayed for the cleansing ceremony. I heard Tara’s question to Gabrielle loud and clear.

“Doesn’t she want to be forgiven?” she asked.

My bard simply turned and looked at me. She alone knew the thoughts that ran through my head. I would not, could not allow myself forgiveness. I was determined to earn my place in Ellysia by trying to atone for every life I took. Nothing could bring back those people from my past and no amount of forgiveness could absolve me from the shame and the guilt. I would give back one day at a time until Hades came for me.

My words to Tara reminded me that forgiveness for my crimes against humanity would have to come from Hades himself at the end of my time in the mortal realm, all other forgiveness I received from my bard. Through trial and tribulation, she forgave me all my past misdeeds. How did I know this to be so? Because she told me so everyday, in a thousand little ways.

There would never be any need for another’s forgiveness…I had Gabrielle.
——————————————————————————–

My internal clock woke me just shy of the time we were to wake. The priests fed us a morning breakfast of bread and cheese, although it only felt like morning since I slept uninterrupted for six candlemarks. In truth I had about lost track of whether it was night or day in the world above us.

I sat inside the temple, a most interesting place, architecturally speaking. The Trias was set up with three altars, for reasons I hadn’t yet learned from Apollo. He said it was a place of great strength and that the three altars were aligned so that they literally drew energy from the forces of nature. Because of this, the priests explained to me that it was a place with great healing powers.

“Xena…” Eponin came into the room, “you have got to see this,” she said.

She removed the bandage from her arm and showed me the thin line of stitches I put in earlier. Underneath the suture line the skin was completely healed. I pulled my breast dagger out and cut away the light twine I used to hold her wound together.

“Well, Ep, it looks like you’re living proof of the power of this place.”

“Now we know why they keep it such a well guarded secret.” She responded, still amazed at her body’s miraculous ability to heal within the confines of the temple.

Autolycus entered the room we sat in, rubbing his shoulder and stretching his back. “I didn’t even know I had this many muscles that could ache.” He said.

I chuckled at my friend and realized that life’s little everyday pains must not be on a grand enough scale for the Trias to play a part in healing. We munched on our food and spoke with a few of the priests, but they couldn’t give me much more information than I already knew. I explained the rest of our journey, drawing some simple sketches on a piece of parchment one of the priests gave to me. The rest of the maze turned into a spiral, circling down, lower and lower until we would enter the Great Hall. Across from the Great Hall lay the Diamond Chamber.

“Look, what we’ve experienced so far has just been a taste of what Hera can throw at us,” I began. “Actually, a lot depends on how the battle on Olympus is going. If Hera’s is busy enough, she may lose track of us. Even better would be if the battle is going badly for her, then she may ignore us completely.”

“But, we can’t depend on that, right?” Autolycus stated.

“Right. We have to plan for the worst, though. That’s why if either of you want to stay here with the priests until this thing is over with, I’ll understand.” I added.

They both looked at each other, then at me.

“I think you know what my answer is, Xena. I’m here for my people and if I have to die to prove my worth to Artemis, then so be it.” Eponin responded.

Autolycus had his head lowered and when he raised his eyes to mine I could see that there was no jest in them. “Xena, this just isn’t about Gabrielle or even the Amazons anymore. It’s about all of us…humanity. Hey, I’m the first guy to admit that there are a few unsavory types that I could do without, but I don’t think we should all get dumped on because of it.” he finished with a grin.

“Allright then…let’s get on with it.” I replied, standing up and shouldering my pack.
——————————————————————————–

The priest that originally led us to the Trias again led us out through hidden, twisting and turning passageways. He never gave his name and so I respected his silence. He explained where we would end up and I was happy to know that we would be avoiding the level where Apollo said they kept the Serpent of the Undead. Now, I am no coward, but I was in no hurry to confront anything with a name even remotely similar to that. Apollo tried to ease my worries by saying the serpent was nothing compared to what followed him around.

I took a moment after the priest left us to get my bearings. Two, maybe three candlemarks passed as we walked in silence, carefully avoiding the traps that were in place. It seemed like there was a door every ten feet and Autolycus was sure doing his part with his trusty lock pick. The corridor started widening and soon we were walking through passageways nearly forty feet across. I realized, noticing the numerous doors that lined the corridor’s walls, had we not had Apollo’s instructions, we could have wandered this castle for years. I knew which doors to take, however and we plodded along, anticipation increasing the closer we got to the Great Hall.

A familiar odor wafted through the corridors to engulf us and I begin searching the passageway with my eyes, trying to figure out which door would make a good direction for a hasty exit.

“Do not tell me it’s the rats again.” Autolycus stated.

I wasn’t sure, but for the smell to be that powerful this far away; it would have to be a whole platoon of Skaven. If that was the case, we didn’t stand a chance. The roar we heard coming from the passage ahead caused me to freeze in my tracks. A moment of panic, something I am unaccustomed to feeling on a routine basis, clutched at me. Had I turned the wrong way somewhere? Apollo warned me that the Serpent of the Undead had an ear splitting roar that could cause an otherwise fearless warrior to cringe in fear. We were not supposed to be on this level, had the priest lied?

My brain searched for these answers in the few heartbeats that passed before we saw the huge beast shuffling toward us.

“By–the–Gods!” Eponin enunciated each word severely.

“Oh, this can’t be good.” Autolycus responded to the approaching serpent.

I drew my sword, mentally going through the items Apollo loaded in my pack, wondering if one of them was meant for this creature. Well, nothing was coming to me so I drew my sword and headed toward the beast. It was a sickly, rotting green color; it’s skin hanging off its body in tatters, completely exposing the bone in some places. When he attempted to roar again a portion of his lower jaw simply fell off. The thing was big and lumbered along slowly, causing me some concern at what would back this thing up.

“Careful, keep your eyes open. Apollo said something worse backs this thing up.” I shouted over the monster’s din.

“Worse? Worse than an undead dragon?!?” Autolycus shouted, his voice raising an octave.

“It’s dead, how dangerous can it be?” I responded and immediately moved forward to cut a deep gash in the monster’s belly.

Now, I’m a seasoned warrior. I’ve seen sick horrible things, watched them happen, Hades, I’ve done some of them myself, but never have I ever felt as sickened as when I stepped back from the rush of, Gods know what, that spilled from that creatures belly. A mixture of maggots, worms, and black beetles poured from the wound, followed by the thumps of human body parts as they hit the ground. Autolycus promptly turned around and threw up his breakfast.

As disgusting as this mass of unliving flesh was, it wasn’t much of a threat. It snapped it’s jaws, but bits of him kept dropping off all over the place. Along his long neck, the skin had fallen away, revealing some loose bits of muscle. What was most prominent was the cream color of the two lengths of vertebrae than ran to the dragon’s head. I stepped in and with one strong blow I severed the creatures head. Of course, that didn’t stop him, he was already dead after all.

The beast’s body still flailed about, huge wings flapping, trying to impale one of us with the large claws on the end of each joint of his tattered wings. Eponin thought quickly and, removing her crossbow from her back, she notched an arrow and let it fly. I was about to shout a warning that it would do no good to fill it with arrows when I saw where the first shaft struck the creature. Eponin shot it’s wing, just as the animal was raising the limb and the appendage was pinned to the wall, as the Amazon’s arrow was imbedded into the mortar. Autolycus took the warrior’s lead and let fly with his own arrows. Another few heartbeats and they succeeded in pinning the animal to the wall, at least enough for us to pass.

Auto and I went closer to examine the beast.

“Well, when Hera wants ya dead she sure doesn’t skimp, does she?” Auto deadpanned.

I realized then that it wasn’t I who made a mistake. We were in exactly the spot I thought we were.

“Somehow, Hera let this thing loose on this level. I guess that means she’s here…and she’s not happy.” I said aloud.

“So, why doesn’t she just nail us herself, and I thought you said the Gods didn’t have powers down here?” Auto asked.

“First of all it’s that direct intervention thing. Zeus prohibits Hera from interfering directly in the lives of humans. Her answer is to kill us or slow us down with these things.” I kicked some of the still crawling bugs from my boots. “And, the Gods do have their powers down here, but they’re limited. I would probably be on equal terms when it came to fighting them, but I seriously doubt Hera’s going to challenge me one on one down here. There are only two places the Gods can’t go down here…or two that I know of, the Trias and the Diamond Chamber. Actually, they lose all their powers if they enter one of those places.”

I felt an odd warmth against the back of my neck and a drop of wetness struck my shoulder armor. When I turned my head slightly I was looking into the face of a salivating hydra. I grabbed Autolycus and we dove just as two sets of jaws snapped into the air where we had been standing.

We all drew our swords and carefully prepared to fight off the advancing five heads. Long and low to the ground its body appeared to be like a big lizard. Well-muscled and protected by heavy scales a few of the creature’s heads turned toward the still bound dragon and sniffed the beast. It used one of its short legs to push at the dragon as if it were an injured pet. That’s when it turned and headed in our direction. If it was possible for a hydra to look pissed, then this one definitely was.

“Remember to ask me on this kind of adventure again, Xena…it just keeps getting better and better.” Autolycus quipped.

I got ready to see how many of the heads I could take off with my chakram, but the problem with a hydra was unless you cut all five heads off at once, they would grow back. I remembered my pack and Apollo’s words. I would know when I needed them. I fell back to where it lay on the ground and grabbed for it while Eponin and Auto distracted the hydra. Feeling the smooth metal I pulled out a disk that looked suspiciously like my chakram. It had five layers to it, which seemed perfect for this little problem, but I wondered if it was meant to act like a chakram. Well, if it looks like a chakram, feels like a chakram…I used all my strength, and some that Apollo gave me, to fling the object in the hydra’s direction.

The metal object split apart into five separate disks, just before slicing through each one of the five necks that reached for us. The beast writhed for a moment and then was still. We were all breathing hard and I suspect it was more from adrenaline than actual exertion. Leave it to Autolycus to break the silence.

“I just want to know one thing…how come you get all the cool toys?”

I laughed so hard tears came to my eyes.
——————————————————————————–

We again made our way into the depths of the Stone Palace, traveling for what seemed like candlemarks. Thank the Gods, we didn’t run into anymore of Hera’s little monsters, but I didn’t want to let down my guard in case she planned it that way. More likely than not the other Olympians were giving her more than she could handle up on Olympus.

We stopped to rest our legs for a while and to share some of the water the priests filled our skins with. I sat on the ground, my back situated against the wall, my eyes closed as I rested. The musty smell of the Palace and the caves reminded me of another time. I lost Gabrielle to death more than once during our travels together, but by far the pain I remember the most was that day in a bombed out temple in Thessaly. The musty smell of the Stone Palace reminded me of the temple we chose to take refuge in.

It took me so by surprise, Gabrielle dying that day. That wasn’t supposed to happen…couldn’t happen…not to my Gabrielle. When those around me told me to ease up, to let her pass over to the other side, I was in shock. There are no words to describe what I was feeling, mostly because I didn’t take the time to examine my own feelings. I only know that I absolutely refused to let Gabrielle leave me. I acted on instinct alone and my sole reaction was anger. I was angry with the Gods for stealing away the young woman that I knew I was in love with even back then. We had only been traveling together for just under a season, yet I already knew there was something different about this girl, something that would save me.

I grew angry with myself for a hundred different reasons. It was my fault we were there in the first place; I led the woman I cared for; who depended on me, right into the arms of danger. My damnable pride led us into again, yet I should have been thinking more of Gabrielle than my own abilities. I was angry because I never told Gabrielle of my feelings for her, and because I wasn’t able to save her from death. Lastly, I was angry with Gabrielle. She had no business going out into the battle zone; she should have known her own limitations. Mostly I was angry with my beautiful bard because she died. She had the audacity to die, to die on me…I was the Warrior Princess for Goddess sake!

I didn’t say any of these feelings of anger would make sense or were in the least rational, but it’s all I can remember going through my mind at the time. To tell the truth I didn’t even remember half the things I said until, in privacy, I asked Ephiny to go over it with me.

“She is not dead…I wouldn’t let her. Come on, Gabrielle, wake up. Come on, wake up. Come on, wake up. You’re scaring me. Wake up. Wake up. Gabrielle, breathe. Come on. Come on, breathe, breathe. Maybe she just needs air. I need to get some air in her lungs. Come on, breathe!”

“No. No… Come on, Gabrielle. Come on. Come on. Don’t leave me. Don’t you leave me! Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me! Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!”

Funny, but she never asked why or looked like I was asking her anything odd at all. I think she always knew how I felt about Gabrielle and I’m sure she suspected why I asked her. There are very few times in my life that I have truly “lost it,” been so whacked out that I couldn’t remember all my actions. Up until that day, when I lost Gabrielle on that altar, the last time it happened was when I became a true killer. It was the day M’lila was killed and I swore I would kill Caesar…kill all Rome to balance the scales.

What got me through the incident with Gabrielle in Thessaly was the time we spent together after, once her body began to heal. I was ecstatic that my bard was alive and I should have shown her how much, but what did I do? I ran off and hid. For days I helped the villagers rebuild and played healer until I dropped down at night next to Gabrielle’s pallet exhausted, falling instantly into a deep slumber. I was guilty and wondered if Gabrielle blamed me, but I was also ashamed at myself for failing to protect her. Finally she caught me one night and, like always, Gabrielle had to speak up first.

I wandered down to the small lake beyond the temple and took a real bath. My skin and hair hadn’t seen soap in a while and when I was through I was so clean I almost squeaked. I returned to the temple clad only in my leathers, still toweling dry my damp hair. I found a comfortable spot in one corner of the temple earlier on for Gabrielle and constructed a palette so she wouldn’t have to lie on the floor. I fastened one of our blankets up as a makeshift wall and my bard was able to rest and enjoy a slight bit of privacy.

Hippocrates stopped me on my way in and pushed a bowl of warm stew into my hands, saying something about not taking care of myself. I had to admit I was a little lost in that arena. Gabrielle usually took care of me in those little ways. I eased my tired body down onto the blanket on the floor beside Gabrielle’s pallet. I just settled down when I heard my bard begin to moan as if in pain. It wasn’t a sharp cry, but Gabrielle’s body tossed back and forth restlessly, small sounds of discomfort coming from her throat. I knelt beside the bed and raised a hand, brushing back the hair from her face.

“Gabrielle? Gabrielle, are you allright?”

“Xena? I’m sorry I guess I just hurt.”

“I know, your body’s not used to being so banged up. Let me fix you something.” I stood and rushed off, but it didn’t take me long to fix some willow bark tea with a pinch of painkiller.

When I returned Gabrielle was awake, leaning up on one elbow. She looked uncomfortable as all get out and considering what happened to her in the last few days it was no wonder.

“Here, drink this, it will take the edge off your aches and pains.” I wrapped her fingers around the warm mug and she just continued to look at me, not yet taking a drink.

“Xena…would you sit up here with me?”

“I didn’t make that pallet for a warrior, Gabrielle, I made it bard sized.” I returned lightly, trying not to meet her eyes.

“Please?” Gabrielle pleaded.

When I looked up I was trapped. The combination of soulful green eyes displaying a combination of trepidation and pain and the plea from her voice. I simply couldn’t refuse.

“Move forward a little.” I said, moving to sit at the head of the pallet. I stretched one long leg on the pallet and one foot remained flatly on the floor. I eased Gabrielle’s sore body so she was sitting between my legs, her back resting against my chest.

“How’s that?” I asked, knowing it felt like Ellysia to me.

“Much, much better, thanks. Xena?”

“Sshh…drink your tea first.” I ordered gently. I wasn’t sure I was ready for what Gabrielle wanted to say.

My bard finished the warm drink and I placed the mug on the floor. There was continued silence and I thought that Gabrielle might have dropped off to sleep.

“Xena?” Gabrielle whispered my name,

“Hhmm?”

“I’m glad you brought me back,” was all she said.

“It was you that came back,” I answered as I brushed my fingers through her honey colored hair. Gabrielle leaned her head back and rested it on my shoulder so I continued to stroke her hair and face. “I’ll bet you would have rather woken up in Ellysia than still here with this old warrior.”

“Don’t say that…I came back because of you. I love you, Xena.” Gabrielle responded and the words rendered me speechless.

Gabrielle meant that she loved me as a friend and a piece of my heart broke, longing for more, but most of my heart was flying high. Even as a friend…she loves me. After all we go through, all that she knows I’ve done…and still.

“I love you too, Gabrielle.” I surprised myself by saying, with a catch in my voice.

We just lay there together after that. I continued to stroke my friend’s face and hair, running a gentle hand along her bruised arm. I could feel Gabrielle snuggle into my body further and I wrapped my arms around her tighter and held her.

“Does this warrior pillow feel better than a hard pallet?” I teased with a whisper.

Gabrielle chuckled and I felt her head nod. I kissed the back of her hair and held her, moving very slightly in a rocking motion. I began to hum softly into her ear and the combination of all of this, plus the effects of the tea, soon had my bard sleeping peacefully.

I suppose I could have removed myself from the pallet. Certainly the painkiller would allow Gabrielle to sleep through the night, but I had no wish to be anywhere else in the world. This was my best friend and she loved me enough to postpone Ellysia to be with me. I held the bard closer and knew that whatever the two of us would encounter in our future, we would always be best friends.

I jerked awake at the sound of boots next to me. Eponin was rising and stretching her back.

“Ready?” She asked.

I nodded, realizing that I hadn’t been asleep long, just enough to dream of my bard. As I stood and stretched, working the stiffness out, I thought about how much my wife always sacrificed for me. Starting down the corridor once again I wondered if Gabrielle would have enough strength to forgo Ellysia for me one more time.
——————————————————————————–

We prepared ourselves for the final leg of our journey. We were now on the fifteenth and lowest level of the Stone Palace. Walking along the wide corridor I felt my apprehension grow waiting for Hera’s next move. It was a bit unsettling not to know whether there would be an attack or whether she had her hands already full on Olympus. I didn’t need to think along those lines for long, though. When we rounded the next corner we ran right into our friends with the flashy armor.

There wasn’t much time to think of anything beyond staying alive. The soldiers outnumbered us three to one, but each of us fought our hardest.

“Ayah.” I grunted, my blade slicing into another soldier. Each time I killed or incapacitated one of Hera’s soldiers it seemed that another came in quickly to take his place. I’d been in bloodier battles against more dangerous foes than this, so I acted on instinct alone.

Cutting…stabbing…punching…another soldier came at me and I parried his first blow, kicking out behind me like a mule to take out a sneak attack. My battle cry rang out and the more I fought, the less aware I became of my surroundings. The blade in my hand and the opponent before me became the only things I could focus on. My brain absolutely refused to focus on anything else. Perhaps that was why I lost track of Eponin and Autolycus so easily.

I looked up for a fraction of a moment and Eponin and Autolycus were fighting side by side, suddenly the floor opened up as they backed onto a trap door and both of my companions went sliding out of sight.

“Noooo!” I heard myself scream, which only brought more soldiers my way.

I was quickly becoming outnumbered as soldier after soldier charged to take a chance against my blade. More often than not he found himself impaled against it, but they were coming closer and closer to taking my head. I backed off further down the corridor, and then with a cry and a front flip, I sailed over their heads. Before they had time to turn around, I kicked in the only door available and rushed through. Fate was with me, a large gate lock hung above the door. I jumped up and slid the wooden bar in place. The door held securely as the soldiers on the other side pounded a few times then gave up. I thought that a little curious until I heard her voice.

“Hello, Xena…how good of you to join me.”

I cursed my own lack of foresight to have fallen for her trick. I let myself be herded exactly where she wanted me. I turned and put a look of casual defiance on my face, realizing that I stood in the Great Hall.

“Hello, Hera.” I answered.
——————————————————————————–

“Now, there are two ways to do everything, Xena–”

“Yea, yea…the easy way and the hard way, yadda, yadda. Get on with it.”

“You should take care with that tongue of yours warrior, it’s liable to get your throat slit.” Hera hissed back at me.

“Hera, let’s not fool ourselves. If you wanted me dead I’d already be that way…not that you haven’t tried since I’ve been on this little holiday. You obviously need me for something, so let’s cut to the chase, shall we?” I replied.

Her plastered on smile disappeared and her demeanor became a little less intimidating. I kept looking around the huge empty hall, but saw no one beyond the Goddess and myself. I felt that weird nagging feeling that something was wrong, though. It was that tingling that I get down my spine, when the bad guys are just around the corner. Carefully scrutinizing the expansive room with its high stone walls, I could see nothing out of the ordinary so I returned my focus to the Goddess. Hera sat, in what appeared to be, a makeshift throne of some sort, her elbows resting on the arms of the chair and the fingertips of each hand lightly tapping together.

“Allright, Xena…let’s talk, shall we? There is something I want, but as much as it pains me to say it, I need your help to get it.” Hera finished, her pale eyes watching every move I made.

“Keep talking, Hera, but if you ask me to get the Elixir of Life for you the answer will be one you won’t want to hear.” I replied coyly.

“I could make it worth your while, warrior.”

“Hah. What could you possibly offer me that would make me turn my back on the rest of humanity?” I questioned.

“Gabrielle’s life.” She said easily and I knew that she read my mind before I could attempt to hide my thoughts.

“What makes you think I could even do such a thing, trade Gabrielle’s life for the lives of every single man and woman in this world?”

“Xena,” she smiled, and I didn’t like the smug attitude she displayed. “That’s probably the most ridiculous question you’ve ever asked of anyone. Even if I couldn’t read your thoughts, it doesn’t take a seer to know that you would do absolutely anything to ensure your young Queen’s health.”

I became more careful and quickly slid a mask down over my thoughts.

“How would you save Gabrielle without healing Artemis?” I asked.

“All it takes is one drop of the Elixir. Gabrielle would be healed and you could go your own way.”

“With the rest of humanity dead?” I stated more than asked.

“Oh, I’m sure we can come to some kind of arrangement…” she trailed off.

She thought she had me over a barrel and in a way she did. I would do anything for Gabrielle, go anywhere, face any foe, but there is one thing that I would never do and that is to place Gabrielle in a situation like that. If I saved Gabrielle’s life at the cost of the lives of, not just the people we love and care about, but the lives of every other human, what kind of life would she have? It would be an existence filled with pain and incredible emptiness. I loved my wife more than my own life, surely, but I would have to say goodbye and hope to meet her in the Fields if this was to be our only choice. I know Gabrielle would not only applaud my decision, she would love me all the more for it.

“No deal, Hera. Not now, not ever…the cost is too high.” I answered, realizing that if she had her full powers down here she would have used them by now.

She stood up so fast she almost knocked the makeshift throne backward. It took her a moment to calm herself, I could see she just wanted to blast me with a fireball right then and there. Finally, she smiled, and that worried me more than anything.

“You are a fool Xena. We shall see how quickly you change your mind once you see Gabrielle’s life wane slowly and painfully away. Trust me, I’m sure I can get you to change your mind.” she finished.

“You and what army?” I snorted.

“Well, it’s rather amusing that you put it like that…” the Goddess motioned into the air with one of her hands

I raised my sword, which I hadn’t yet placed back in its scabbard. I turned in a complete circle, and didn’t immediately see anyone, but that sense I had was raising the hairs on the back of my neck. Suddenly, my eyes widened in surprise, as the walls seemed to come alive. I think I even shook my head a little to shake the odd hallucination from my field of vision.

Unfortunately, Hera has played me again and once more I find myself cursing the fact that I am only mortal. Hera’s immortal army stepped away from the walls; their armor painted the same color, in the same stone design. When they were pressed up against the walls their armor blended so well that I couldn’t tell that there were even beings standing there.

Now, I had a hundred swords pointed in my direction just waiting to plunge themselves into my body. I ground my teeth together and tried to be smart, which isn’t always in my nature. I am a warrior by nature and sometimes walking away from a battle is a difficult feat to accomplish. I lowered my blade and chakram to the floor and stood glaring at Hera. This time I was taking the advice I had so often given my wife…sometimes it’s best to be able to live to fight another day.

“Chain her.” Hera said.

She was smart. I could only wonder if Hephaestus fashioned these locks for her. I was shacked by my ankles with metal cuffs and a bar that held my legs a shoulder’s width apart. My arms were raised above my head and the same, shackles with a bar in the middle, was attached. A length of chain was lowered from the ceiling and was attached to the top bar, fitted through a metal ring in the middle of the solid rod. I was left standing, but I’m sure hoisting me up would be part of the entertainment she had planned.

I gave her a look that told her she’d have to do better than this, to which she responded with a slap to my face. I found myself grinning back at her when I felt the strike. Being down here definitely sapped a God’s power. She struck me and the force of it wouldn’t didn’t even make me think twice.

“You won’t have that smirk for long, warrior.” She commented.

I understood what she meant. She needed me. I was mortal and could retrieve the Elixir for her, but that didn’t mean I needed to have all my body parts to do it. I knew she would torture me, and that just came with the territory, of being a warrior on this kind of a mission. I already knew I would die before I would help her, but I wondered how much blood I would lose and how long it would take her to realize that fact.

The first strike is always the hardest, when you see your own blood or hear your bones break. After that it’s all down hill. To tell the truth I think she told her guy to go easy on me. When he backed away, signaling that the first round was over, I felt sore and generally beat up, but nothing nearly like I anticipated. I have to say the worst pain was the sting of my split lip. I knew it could and probably would get a lot worse as time went on.

“I’ll give you some time to think it over, Xena,” Hera said.

I wondered if her powers were waning further or it was my mental blocking that kept her from reading my thoughts. She dematerialized and was gone and the soldiers filed out of the great hall. I stood there, suspended but with my feet still touching the floor. I thought of Eponin and Autolycus for about the hundredth time that candlemark and could only hope that they were still alive. I looked up at my manacles and realized a good thief would be just the thing to have right about now.
——————————————————————————–

I leaned my head back and raised up onto my toes to ease the ache that was beginning in my shoulders from having my arms raised so high. Better than a thief…I’d give my chakram for one of Gabrielle’s back rubs, the kind where she can ease the kink out my left shoulder, the one I always seem to dislocate.

Of course, now I am remembering the time I was in Ellysia during one of my wife’s massages, the time that ended up with me in a position much like the one I was in right now. I thought of Thalassa, a young woman much like my bard, and a silent pain swept through me at the memory. I wronged the woman…terribly, but just like Gabrielle, Thalassa eventually forgave me and was more concerned about when I would forgive myself. I will always remember her words to me before I left that island.

“My ability to do good had been crippled…the evil Xena, she did that to me…don’t let her do it to you.”

This latter became a great deal more difficult to accomplish. As a matter of fact…have I yet? Brie had it right when we said goodbye on those docks before they hauled me away to the island prison. She knew there was more going on inside my head, but she accepted my answer, if not my decision. I was no longer looking for redemption when I accepted incarceration; I desired only punishment. When I looked into Gabrielle’s face, standing there on the dock, waiting for me to be shipped away, I realized this was my real punishment. If only they all knew that all they ever had to do to me to make me pay for my crimes, was to take me away from my bard. I tried to tell her, tell her how much I loved her, how much I would always love her. I wanted her to know, but just when I reached out to her, they grabbed me and dragged me to the ship. I know my bard didn’t understand why I let them take me. Her cries echoed in my ears for a long time as I sat huddled in the hold of the ship, until I clamped my hands over my ears to drown out the still lingering pleas.

“Xena. Xena! Xena, listen to me! Xena, please don’t do this! Xena!”

I hadn’t forgotten Alti’s vision. Somewhere, deep inside, past all my pain at the knowledge that I would never see my Gabrielle again, was the realization that if I were not in my bard’s life, I would not end up leading her to her death. The vision of the snow covering the top of Mt. Amaro and Gabrielle and I being crucified began to haunt my waking as well as my sleeping moments. If this were the price to pay to keep Gabrielle safe, to live out the rest of her life, then I became willing to pay it.

I didn’t even realize that Gabrielle and Thalassa kept in touch with one another, until after my wife and I were married. We stopped at the Amazon village while on our way to visit Jordan, the young heir that became such a close friend to both Gabrielle and I, during the young Princess’ stay in the village before our wedding. Gabrielle always fit in time for a little paperwork when we visited the Amazons. Friends that my wife corresponded with knew that if they sent their scroll on to the Amazons, Gabrielle would eventually see it.

Brie told me that Thalassa and her new friend hadn’t been able to make it to our joining and sent regrets. I was shocked. I had no idea Gabrielle stayed in contact with the woman from the small fishing village in the Saronic Gulf. My wife explained that Thalassa was no longer Commandant of the prison on Shark Island. She left the place that was as much a penitentiary for her own soul, as for the criminals that were sentenced there. She did go about making some wonderful reforms to the place, and although it is still a penal colony for hardened criminals, the treatments are more just and the facilities somewhat more humane. It was working with a commission from Athens that lead her to her friend, who in truth, Gabrielle said, was her lover.

When Brie first mentioned paying a social call on Thalassa and friend, I balked at the idea. Of course, the Queen does have a way about her and when she read me some of the scrolls that the redhead sent her, I was a goner. I was rather impressed at the healing process that Thalassa finally allowed herself and the brightness to her letter to Gabrielle. She told my wife of the love she found with a woman who saw her for who she was and thanked Gabrielle for explaining the concept of looking through “love’s eyes”. She spoke of me in a friendly, an even joking manner, and I could tell that I must have been a source of conversation between the woman and my wife on more than one occasion. I was especially suspicious when Gabrielle insisted on reading the scrolls to me, refusing to let me see them myself.

“Brie…come on, let me read them.” I pleaded.

“Xe.” She looked at me with exasperation. “These are private letters.”

“So you have been telling her about me.”

“Only…some things…I mean, we talk.” Gabrielle hedged.

“What kind of things…Gods, you don’t tell her what we do in bed, do you?” Now I was worried.

“No! I mean…well…not…a lot…”

“What? Gabrielle! Give me those scrolls.” I demanded.

“Xena! They’re my letters and we really don’t talk about you…much. I mean, they’re, well they’re…you know woman to woman stuff.”

Gabrielle was doing a pitiful job at getting herself out of this one. My usually eloquent bard was digging this hole deeper and deeper, so I thought I’d have a little fun.

“In case you haven’t noticed lately, my lovely bride, but I am a woman too.”

She smiled as her face took on a beautiful blush. “Yes, I know. You proved that fact quite well last night.”

“And, again this morning.” I added.

I reached for the scrolls and she backed up just out of my reach.

“Xe…it’s a wife thing.”

“And, I would be?” I folded my arms across my chest, tapping my boot against the floor.

By this time my poor wife was in a frazzle. She didn’t know whether I was teasing or serious and she looked as if she didn’t know whether to giggle or cry.

“It’s just not a warrior thing, okay?” She finally admitted, somewhat near tears.

I smiled and kissed her forehead. “Well, why didn’t you just say that, my heart?”She smacked me in the arm and reached up to kiss me, finally realizing I was teasing. I wrapped my arms around her, intent on proving to her for the second time that day that I was indeed a woman.
Part IV
I think Hera believed that I fell asleep and she wasn’t at all pleased that I was becoming so relaxed. She snapped at everyone from the guard who held the door for her, to the henchman that cracked his knuckles loudly before starting to throw punches at me.”Unhhh.” I couldn’t quite keep my mouth closed that time as I was punched right in the stomach. I had a hard time catching my breath, but it could have been worse…he could have been aiming for my ribs.

“You know, Xena…I can keep this up for a very long time.” Hera said from her temporary throne.I lifted my head and sneered. “What about Olympus…how much time have you really got?”I received a boot to my midsection that time. Gods my stomach is going to be sore for days. Hera glared at me with those pale eyes that were like chips of ice and I could see her arms were shaking in her anger.”Don’t think I won’t kill you, warrior.” The Goddess hissed.I shrugged, well; I gave as much of a shrug as I could under the circumstances. Nobody really wants to die and I didn’t think Hera would actually do it, but if I had to go, then this was the kind of thing I wanted to go out doing. Gabrielle taught me about fighting for the greater good and there was no better example than this. Perhaps I was delaying Hera just long enough for Apollo and the rest of the Gods to win the battle on Olympus. Hopefully Auto and Eponin were still alive and could find a way to the Diamond Chamber. There were other ways this could still play out. I so wanted my wife to be able to go on, to experience all the goodness that life had to offer. If the Olympians failed; my sweet Brie having her life cut short, and I was to meet Hades right now, then at least I would be able to hold my head up when I met my wife in the Fields, knowing I did what was right. I looked at the goddess through the one eye that wasn’t swollen shut. “Give it up, Hera…it’s never going to happen.”

“Bring her down!” Hera ordered.

I felt the chain that held my feet off the floor give a little, but when my feet were finally within reach of the ground, I found I couldn’t hold the chains and myself up. I dropped to my knees and when the chain continued to lower my arms, they too fell to the ground until I was on all fours, my back and shoulder muscles screaming in relief.”I want her head.” Hera said slowly and I knew that she said it that way just so it would sink in.The interrogator turned executioner pulled a broadsword from a scabbard on the table. I tried to even out my breathing, my mind searching for that one last trick, my body trying to pull itself together for one last stand. I couldn’t accomplish either.

“No, use her own sword. That makes it so much more fitting, doesn’t it Xena?” Hera was enjoying this now.

I’m not sure what the Goddess expected me to do. She knew me better than to think I would beg and plead for my life. I would plead for Gabrielle’s if I thought it would do any good, but I knew that wasn’t the case. I had no intention of leaving the mortal realm with any less dignity than the way I lived while I was here.

“The way you kill me doesn’t really matter, Hera…I’ll be just as dead. If you’re thinking you can frighten me into changing my mind then think again. No one will help you Hera, not after what you’ve done to mortals already.” I gained a little strength from my soliloquy and raised my body up to sit back on my heels.

“There isn’t a mortal alive who will help you to destroy this world, Hera. If you kill me you lose your one chance at getting the Elixir…who else will help you?” I raised my voice.

“Who will help you when I’m dead, Hera? Who, eh? Who will get the Elixir for you then?” I was nearly screaming as the executioner lifted my sword.

“I will.” A steady voice came from the back of the Great Hall.

Half of me wanted to shout with joy at the sound of the familiar voice, while the other half wanted to scream in agony over my friend’s decision. Everyone, including Hera turned at the sound.

“Spare Xena’s life and lives of the Amazons and I’ll retrieve the Elixir for you.” Eponin said.

“Well, it seems you brought an Amazon with you on your noble little quest, Xena.” Hera responded to Eponin’s statement, turning back to look at me.

The executioner still held my own sword over my neck and it crossed my mind to hope that his arms weren’t getting tired. Eponin came forward slowly and half a dozen soldiers made a move to intercept her. Hera backed them off with a wave of her hand and I realized that Eponin had no idea what she was getting herself into. I searched the Amazon’s eyes, looking for a sign, something meant for me alone. Perhaps she planned an escape and this was all part of her plan. I realized, however, as I penetrated those brown eyes with my own intense gaze that this was no ruse. Eponin had every intention of carrying out Hera’s wish.

“Ep, don’t do this.” I pleaded.

“We don’t have a choice, Xena.” Ep replied.

“We do have a choice, Ep. We don’t let her fucking win, that’s our choice, that’s the only choice!” I was surprised that Hera was letting me talk, but I think it amused her to see us at odds. I’m sure she was as pleased as all get out to see me in chains at her feet trying to reason with my friend.

“Gabrielle is my Queen, Xena…the Amazons are all I have. I have to at least try.”

“Do you really think Gabrielle will want to continue living that way, Ep? You know her nearly as well as I do. Do you honestly believe Gabrielle will want to go on living knowing her mortality was paid for with the blood of all humanity? For the love of Artemis, Eponin, don’t do this.”

Eponin looked like she was actually thinking about what I said, but when she turned to Hera, I knew I’d lost. The Amazon made her decision and, chained as I was, I was helpless to stop what came next.

“Hera, my name is Eponin, in case you aren’t aware. I will go in and obtain the Elixir, but in exchange I demand the lives of Xena, Gabrielle, and all the Amazon nation be spared.”

“You’re not in much of a position to demand anything, Amazon.” Hera replied.

“Actually, I am. I’m an Amazon Warrior and I can be just as stubborn and strong as Xena. If you want to behead both of then so be it, but I’m your last chance at getting into the Diamond Chamber.” Eponin lowered her head.

I hated her at that moment, but at the same time I couldn’t condemn her. She was only doing what she thought was right. She was risking her life, her mortal soul, for her friends and her people. She just didn’t realize how misguided her actions were. Hera gazed at the bowed head for a few long moments.

“Nooo, you’re not my last chance…there is another. Your thoughts give you away Amazon. Where is the thief?” the Goddess asked.

I watched as my Amazon friend lifted her head, tears coming from her eyes, rolling down her cheek to spill from the edge of a hard set jaw.

“He’s dead.” She replied softly, and I felt a sharp stab of pain in my own chest.

“I can feel the truth of it.” Hera responded to Eponin’s admission. “Very well, Amazon. If you keep your part of the bargain and deliver the Elixir to me, I will spare the warrior and all the Amazons from annihilation. I know the oath of an Amazon warrior is strong. Do you swear on your Queen’s life that you will bring the Elixir to me?”

Eponin’s brow furrowed and I watched as a bead of sweat trickled from her scalp and then down the side of her face.

“I swear on the life of my Queen and by all that is sacred to the Amazons, that I will retrieve and deliver the diamond bottle to you alone.” Eponin said through clenched teeth.

If the sound of destiny could have made a noise it would have been heard in the echo of Eponin’s voice, resounding off the high stone walls, as she swore a blood oath to the High Goddess of Olympus.

“The chamber is across from this room. Shall we my young Amazon friend?” Hera motioned with a wave of her hand, allowing Eponin to go first.

“But, Xena…I may need her help.” Ep stammered.

“I’m afraid Xena can’t be trusted just yet. Lift her back up.” Hera ordered and my executioner returned my sword to its scabbard and left it on the table. “She’ll be here safe and sound when we return.”

The large soldier turned the wheel against the stone wall and I was returned to a standing position, but thankfully he left my feet still on the ground.

“Eponin!” I called out. “Please…”

“I’m sorry, Xena…I have to do it this way.” The Amazon replied.

My executioner folded his massive arms and remained within close range, but Hera seemed to have other ideas. “She’s not going anywhere…come.” She ordered and the soldiers filed out behind my friend and the Goddess.

With that action I knew that Hera had no intention of keeping her end of the bargain. Once she took possession of the diamond bottle, she would murder Ep and leave for Olympus. I assumed that was the reason that she took all her soldiers with her. My suspicions were confirmed when Hera strolled back into the Great Hall alone. She walked up close to me and ran a hand along my face.

“You would have been a handsome addition to my collection of concubines, warrior.” Hera remarked.

I snapped my teeth at the hand that burned like acid against my skin. Jerking my head away from her touch, I snarled at her.

“Well, perhaps your little Gabrielle will be able to fill that spot.” Hera purred.

“Don’t flatter yourself. Besides, I’m not an idiot, Hera. I know you plan on having us killed once you get the Elixir. Eponin is just a little more trusting than I am. How do you plan on enslaving Gabrielle if she’s dead?”

“As for Gabrielle…All it will take is one drop of the Elixir to cure her. Surely, I will be able to spare one drop. Then I’ll take your little Amazon whore and keep her as my own. She and I will have a wonderful time. From the stories that I hear about the two of you she’ll make a lovely body slave, don’t you think?

“Gabrielle will die before she lets you touch her!” I hissed.

“Oh no, warrior,” Hera moved in and lowered her voice to a whisper. “I’ll make her mine and after I’m through training her, she will beg me to touch her…and she’ll love it.”

There was no way I could pretend that those words didn’t affect me. That voice inside my head told me I would never stand for anyone else touching my bard. Her love and her body belonged to me alone. Her laughter and her tears…only I would be able to see that side of the Queen. Hera laughed at my frustration, knowing full well how her words struck me. I tilted my head back and let out an angry howl that sounded part human, part beast. By the time the sound carried throughout the Hall and slowly echoed back to me, Hera was gone.

I shook the chains and tried to use what strength I had to bend the bar that was between my wrists. After a candlemark of failed attempts, I let my muscles go slack to ease the sharp pains that ripped through my aching muscles. I wanted to scream or even cry, but I no longer had the strength.

Starvation and dehydration weren’t pleasant ways to die and I seriously began regretting that Hera didn’t take my head when she threatened to.
——————————————————————————–

“You feel like a stone wall behind me, Xe…what’s wrong?”

I rode in my usual position atop Argo, behind Gabrielle. I always said it was because I was a better rider, but if the truth were to be known…it was only because I enjoy where my hands get to roam.

“It’s this whole situation. Brie, I know you and Thalassa have become good friends, but I don’t know if going to see them is such a good idea. I feel…I feel odd. I mean, Gods…what is her lover going to do? If the positions were reversed I’d be inviting me here to kill me!” I finished in a slight panic.

“It’s not like that at all, sweetheart…hey, trust me, okay? I would never put you in that kind of situation.”

I felt her hand rest softly against my forearm and she turned her head, already leaning back against my chest, then placed a gentle kiss at the hollow of my throat. As always, I melted at my bard’s touch and repeated the often-used phrase in my head. Whatever Gabrielle wants…Gabrielle gets.

Thalassa and her partner, Suko owned a small inn, no more than four rooms, but they had big plans. I was a little unnerved when the redhead introduced her lover. I expected her to go for the warrior type, then I expected I would have to go for my sword, but her partner was rather like…Gabrielle? Petite and blonde, with a personality and exuberance for life that just screamed Gabrielle. Thalassa found someone she loved, but that someone favored my bard’s appearance, My bard! That threw me a little.

The two women were a joy to be around and I felt myself relaxing a bit more than I thought I’d be able to. I really was enjoying myself, right up until the moment when I noticed Thalassa watching Gabrielle when she though no one else was watching, and probably a little closer than was necessary. By the end of the evening it was apparent she was flirting…well, at least it was apparent to me! Gabrielle said she was just being nice.

“It’s still about two candlemarks till we serve dinner, Gabrielle. What don’t you and Xena go to your room and settle in. Suko is making sure there’s a nice hot bath waiting for you in a tub that just happens to be warrior sized. Thalassa said.

Well, that sounded like just the thing, but Thalassa cornered me outside our room and asked me to take a walk with her. I reluctantly went and listened to her speak of her newfound love and how she’d put all the feelings of self-loathing behind her. I couldn’t help but admire her courage for taking that first step into a new life. I wanted to let her know that I was watching her all afternoon, while she watched my wife. I wanted to call her on it, but damn, if the woman didn’t beat me to the punch and leave me tongue tied at the same time.

“You’ve come a long way, Thalassa, and I’m very happy for you. It still feels strange…” I started to apologize for the past once again.

“Let’s not even go there, Xena,” she said softly, lightly touching my arm.

I nodded and we spoke of the inn and the plans the two women had. Finally the redhead turned to me and stopped walking.

“It would probably be best if I was completely honest with you, Xena. I suppose you’ve already noticed how Suko tends to favor our favorite Amazon Queen?” she asked, but I knew it was a rhetorical question.

“I didn’t bring you here or make friends with Gabrielle to try and steal her from you, warrior.”

“That would probably be a wise move on your part,” I responded with a high arch to one eyebrow, folding my arms across my chest.

“I suppose everyone falls a little in love with your bard, don’t they?” Thalassa asked seriously.

My bard…interesting choice of words and I’m glad she phrased it that way. I wasn’t at the ‘smoke coming out my ears’ jealousy stage yet, but at least I knew I wasn’t going crazy or becoming more paranoid than I know I can be.

“I’m not sure I know what to say to this.” I answered. “But, no, you wouldn’t be the first person to become enamored of my wife.” I threw in that that possessive term of endearment for her benefit.

“Between you and I, Xena…she doesn’t know she does that to people, does she?”

I chuckled. “No, Thalassa, the woman has no idea what she does in that regard. It’s my job to see that no one takes advantage of her innocence when it comes to those matters.”

Thalassa and I stared at one another; neither of us seemed willing to be the first to back down. I could feel my gaze beginning to turn fiery at the thought of anyone else trying to take my place with Gabrielle and I think Thalassa was smart enough to see it. She lowered her eyes and began to speak.

“I love Suko very much. I had no idea, in my conscious mind anyway, that I was comparing her to Gabrielle. I may have become attracted to Suko for that reason, but it’s not why I fell in love or why I want to spend the rest of my life with her.” Thalassa turned and began walking again and I followed alongside.

“Xena, I would never think of coming between you and Gabrielle.” She paused.

“Always a good thing to know.” I quipped.

I didn’t joke to embarrass, but I wanted her to know that I understood what she was saying. Sure there was this little voice in my head that told me to beat the Tartaurus out of the bitch for even thinking about Gabrielle that way, but I was getting extremely good at blowing off that little sound in my head. I knew, better than anyone did, just how hard it was to resist Gabrielle’s innocent charms. Nothing is more of a turn on than a woman who has no idea how beautiful she is.

“I’m sorry,” I apologized, “go on.”

“Don’t apologize, Xena…I feel better just speaking to you about this. I know that tonight I’m going to have Hades to pay when Suko and I get alone. She had no idea what Gabrielle looked like. Xena, I’m afraid Suko will think that’s the only reason I love her.” She stopped at looked at me expectantly.

I thought for a moment and wondered how I would convince Gabrielle if our positions in this little scenario were reversed. I let my lips stretch into a small smile.

“You’ll have to convince her.” I said.

“But, what if she doesn’t believe me…no matter what I say?” Thalassa asked.

“Sometimes words aren’t enough. There are times and circumstances when you can’t merely tell someone they’re loved…you have to show them how much. Make Suko believe that she is the only woman in your heart.”

“Oh.” The redhead responded with a blank look. “Ohhhh.” She then added as realization flowed through her. She looked at me with a devilish grin. “So, is that what works for you?”

“Absolutely.” I affirmed with a smile.

Thalassa laughed out loud. “No wonder Gabrielle is such a happy woman.”

“I haven’t had any complaints yet.” I responded, bowing slightly at the waist.

Thalassa laughed again. “Oh, Xena…Gabrielle was right about you.”

“What about me?”

“That you have a one track mind.” The redhead answered laughing loudly at my embarrassment.

“Hey…she’s telling all my secrets!” I laughed just as loudly.

It felt good, being there and laughing next to a woman that I could now call friend. Suddenly Thalassa’s scars disappeared from my eyes and the woman I saw was lovely, on the inside as well as the outside. All it took was for her to believe it herself and for someone to look at her through love’s eyes. The young woman looked at me and I felt her offer up an unseen olive branch. Thalassa moved on past the horrible life I condemned her to live and I could see that she wanted me to do the same. As we walked back to the inn I felt something stir inside of me, and if it wasn’t forgiveness, it felt a lot like it.
——————————————————————————–

By the time I got back to our room, Gabrielle was already reclining in a large tub, steam rising in thin wisps around her. Gods, she looked incredible and she belonged to me. Never mind that most of the time I was just thankful that I belonged to my young Queen. Suddenly, however, my talk with Thalassa had me feeling very possessive. That small voice was back and it repeated one word over and over again, echoing in my head.

Mine.

I bent down and kissed her neck. I could tell that she already knew I was there, even though I slipped in rather silently. Gods, she’s getting good at that.

“Well, did you two have a good talk?” Gabrielle asked.

“Quite enlightening.” I answered.

I removed my garments quickly and knelt down outside of the large tub just behind Gabrielle. I began to massage her neck, then her shoulders, moving my hands lower along her back until she moved forward to give me clear access.

I saw my opportunity and slipped into the bath behind my wife. I pulled her to me until I could feel her backside press against the dark curls between my legs. It took everything in me not to moan at the pleasurable sensation. I picked up a soft bathing cloth and a little soap and began the gentle seduction of my wife’s skin. I ran the soapy cloth all across her skin, never lingering in one area. I brushed quickly over her sensitive nipples, feeling her breath quicken, then I ran the cloth lightly between her legs, to be rewarded with a slight gasp at the action. When I turned her around and handed her the cloth, indicating it was my turn, she grinned, putting my body through the same wondrous torture.

When she made a move to leave the still warm water I pulled her back against me again, slipping an arm around her waist and spreading my legs wider just to feel her against me. I caressed her ear, first with my tongue, then running my teeth along the heated skin. I spread her legs wide and ran both my hands along the inside of her thighs, letting my fingers run along the crease where her legs met the rest of her body.

“Xe…we can’t do this.” Gabrielle breathed heavily and I already knew that she was close to begging me. “Sweetheart, we’re guests here…ohhhh, yes…how will it sound?”

“It will sound like I’m having my way with my wife.” I replied, pulling her body more tightly to my own and relishing in the small sparks of fire that came as my breasts slid against her back, the dark nipples growing hard from just that small bit of contact.

My hands have made love to her hundreds of times, they know every inch of her skin like it was my own and I let those hands roam to explore all the spots on her body that I was sure would cause her to change her mind. I breathed in the scent of her hair and kissed her shoulders and neck, letting my tongue reach out to slide against her skin. I couldn’t help smiling when I felt her body shiver as the taste of her exploded on my tongue.

“Xe, we can’t…not here. It could be embarrassing.” My wife made an extremely half hearted attempt to move away from me.

I stopped, but kept my arm locked around her waist. “I cause you embarrassment?” I asked.

I admit, my jealousy and possessiveness in regards to my wife was pushing me into warlord mode, and there is nothing more fragile than a reformed warlord’s ego.

Gabrielle turned her head back to me quickly and the look on her face told me I might be wrong, but it was the way she voiced the single word she spoke that convinced me that I was mistaken.

“Never,” she practically hissed.

I reached out and let my fingertips gently touch the cheek of the face that was turned toward me. My hand slid down and held her chin, reaching in to place a soft kiss on those contrite lips. It was my wife who escalated the tender kiss into one filled with heat and passion. She knew what it did to me when she ran her tongue teasingly along my upper lip that way and I groaned as the sensation heightened my own arousal. My hand found its way to a beautifully smooth breast and I covered the flesh with the palm of my hand while continuing to let my wife tease my mouth. When I felt a hard point press against my palm, I began to knead the flesh, to receive Gabrielle’s breathless moan in reward.

She pulled away and I could see she was breathing a little faster. She searched my eyes and then lowered them, a charming blush spreading across her cheeks.

“Xe…it’s just the things you do to me…I know I’ll be…I mean, I’ll be loud. I’ll embarrass the both of us.” She finished.

Once more I lifted the proud chin until her eyes met mine. I moved in swiftly and took possession of my wife’s mouth. It was a fiery kiss that left little doubt as to who the Queen of my heart really was. We both had difficulty breathing when our lips finally parted.

“Who do you belong to, Gabrielle?”

She never hesitated. “You, Xena…always you, my love.”

I kissed her again, harder this time as if to reaffirm my ownership. I was never long on words and usually just when I needed them the most they failed me, but the site of this woman, relinquishing her body…her very soul to me, gave me the ability to speak.

“You could never embarrass me, my heart. I want you to be loud, Gabrielle. I want everyone within ten leagues of this inn to know that you belong to me, to know that no one else can make you feel the way I do. I want them to hear you and know that no other will ever know this indescribable pleasure but me. I want them to hear how absolutely beautiful you sound when you come for me. I want them to know that you’re mine.”

Her chest was heaving, trying to bring in air, and I knew that my words did indeed work their magic. Gabrielle turned her body until she sat in my lap, facing me, and wrapped her muscled legs around my waist.

“Get me out of this tub and I’ll scream your name until they hear me on Olympus.” she rasped in a desperate tone.

I didn’t have to be asked twice. I stood and lifted us both from the water, Gabrielle’s legs wrapping around me tighter, her arms encircling my neck. I stopped and kneeled at the end of the bed and lay Gabrielle on her back so that her knees dangled over the edge of the large mattress. I spread her thighs apart and ran my hands along the top of the trim, muscled legs, licking my lips in anticipation when I caught the scent of her arousal. I continued on across her belly, finally cupping a breast in each hand.

The water ran in thin trickles down her body and I used my tongue, everywhere I could reach, to gather up the moisture that flowed across her satiny skin. Gabrielle moaned and leaned up on one elbow to watch me deliver the tantalizing strokes and I took care to run my tongue across the muscled plane of her abdomen. A tiny drop of water mesmerized me as it made its way down her chest, rolling along one perfect breast. Just as the droplet let go of the hardened point of flesh, I speared out my tongue and felt the moisture fall there.

Gabrielle groaned loudly as I swiftly enveloped the pale pink nipple in my mouth. I alternated between each breast, relentlessly licking, sucking, and then nibbling on the stiff peaks.

“Xena…please.” Gabrielle pleaded.

I smiled at the sound and knew that I wasn’t about to make it that easy. I leaned back on my heels and moved in once more to taste the passion that seemed to emanate from Gabrielle’s skin. I worked my tongue up the inside of each thigh and it took all my efforts at control not to cry out in ecstasy when my tongue slid through the delicious wetness clinging to the inner part of her legs. Breathing deeply, I exhaled a warm breath against her center and she strained to propel her hips in my direction.

I pulled back slightly and chuckled, a low rumbling sound that caused my wife to whimper in frustration. Allowing only the tip of my tongue to graze across her swollen lips, I pulled back again to listen to her groan sharply in disappointment.

“Is this what you want to feel?”

“Oh Xena, you know it is.” Gabrielle responded, then thrust her hips in my direction once more.

“Then let me hear how badly you want to feel me.”

“Gods, Xena…please, do it!” Gabrielle practically screamed.

That’s what I wanted to hear. I nearly climaxed right then and there at the heady scent of Gabrielle, combined with the pure adrenaline that shot through my veins. I pulled the writhing hips toward me and slipped my tongue within the drenched folds. The first taste of my lover was like an aphrodisiac to me. I was in a frenzy and I simply couldn’t get enough. Plus, the sounds Gabrielle was making urged me even higher, knowing full well that anyone within a stone’s throw of our room could hear the sounds of her pleasure. I was absolutely lost in the sensual delight located at the apex of my wife’s thighs. Her scent and that sweet musky taste, they caused me to relish in every exquisite detail. I lingered, exploring and comparing the textures under my tongue.

Gabrielle reached down and slid her own fingers into her wetness, brushing past my tongue to finger the hardened area that was now swollen with need. During our lovemaking I encouraged my wife to touch herself, my own pleasure derived at the site of her caressing herself. This was not to be one of those times and I quickly claimed the hand in mine and growled.

“No…mine!”

I pushed the hand away and urged her thighs further apart. Within moments, the wayward hand returned. This time Gabrielle moved in slowly, it was her way of telling me I was moving much to slowly to suit her. The threatening snarl was something I was barely aware of as coming from myself, and the sound reminded me of a wild animal, protecting its territory, daring another to take what was theirs. My wife was slow to grasp the concept and she reached in once more. I swiftly grabbed both her wrists and held them at the side of her body, while I leveled an intense blue gaze on her.

“Gabrielle, this is mine. Your body belongs to me right now and I am in control, of you and of the pleasure you will be allowed. Do you understand?”

I could see my proud wife warring with herself, her panting breaths the only sound in the room. Gabrielle and I had enjoyed a little play acting in the past with me in warlord mode, but it was never this intense. This was different because it was real, and although I would explain it to her later, right now I wanted to see how freely my wife would give herself up to me. Her next action should not have surprised me.

Gabrielle slowly lay back onto the bed and I released her wrists. She raised a hand to run her fingertips across my cheek and deliberately placed her arms above her head, her fingers digging into the blankets. I smiled at her choice.

“Oh yes, that’s my girl, Brie.”

I rose up and leaned over her prone form, pressing my body down on top of her. Sliding my hand into the golden mane, I held her hair in one hand and pulled back gently, exposing her throat to my kisses. I sucked hard at the flesh on her neck, marking her as mine. I let my skin slide against her own as I moved lower, continuing to mark the skin on her chest, breasts, and belly. I repeated the action along the inside of her thighs and when I nipped the sensitive skin, hard enough to leave my teeth marks embedded there, Gabrielle cried out from a mix of pleasure and pain and spread her legs wider.

I released another involuntary growl that had little to do with anger as I swiftly buried my face within the soaked, honey-blonde curls. Gabrielle cried out in delight and relief, and I enthusiastically situated my tongue so that it felt like it was everywhere at once. Her hips thrust themselves harder against my face and by this point I was surprised someone from the inn had not yet come to see what all the noise was about. My wife was being her usual audible self, and I did nothing to discourage the sounds.

I captured the hard swelling between my lips and sucked on the flesh, my tongue occasionally flicking over it. I also slipped a finger inside, followed by another and Gabrielle was so close, she was trembling in mere anticipation of the moment.

“Oh yes…Xena I–”

Gabrielle started to call out, and when I raised my eyes, never stopping my tongue or the in and out gliding motion of my hand, she realized her error and clamped her mouth closed.

I was well acquainted with my wife’s body and I knew what she desired. I was proud at the way she was willing to forgo her own enjoyment, simply to accede to my demand to be in control of her pleasure. Rewarding such behavior would only bring about pleasurable results the next time we were in this situation, so I did reward my bard.

I looked up with a devilish grin. “More?” I asked.

“Oh yes, please!” she pleaded.

I slid my fingers from their slick haven and thrust three fingers deep inside. Gabrielle’s hips thrust back hard onto my hand again and again and I resumed tonguing the pulsing area at the top of her cleft.

“Oh Gods…yes…yes…Oh, right there…Xena…” I could feel her body as it trembled uncontrollably, her cries taking on strength. Suddenly her back arched and her body froze as I continued to penetrate her, leading her into the arms of her climax. “Gods…Xeeennnnnaaaa!”

The scream that girl let out must have truly been heard at least on the foothills of Olympus. I cried out sharply as my own release ripped through my body, simply from feeling the convulsive tremors as my wife clenched down hard around my fingers.

We could do no more than lie there, each of us taking in great breaths of air. I sunk down to the floor and rested my cheek against one of Gabrielle’s thighs. I tenderly slid my fingers from her, as her body still quivered from aftershocks. I knew without looking that the smile on her face matched my own.

I reached in and placed a feather light kiss on that very intimate, sensitive area.

“Mine.” I whispered against the damp flesh.
——————————————————————————–

“You’re the only woman I know who can have erotic dreams while bleeding and hanging up in chains.”

The voice came from above me and I realized that I had been in a deep sleep, naturally dreaming of my bard. I was going to have to start being careful about talking in my sleep. I became oblivious to my surroundings, but I wasn’t so bewildered that I couldn’t place that smart-ass voice.

“Auto?”

“The one and only King of Thieves.” He tossed back.

By the Gods…I thought…I thought you were dead.” I tried to say it without my voice breaking. I could feel tears rise to my eyes.

“Can you get me out of these things?” I shook the manacles.

“Can I?” Auto’s voice was tinged with indignation.

“Sorry…will you?”

“Workin’ on it now. You’ve got these things so bent up…what in the world have you been doing?”

“Oh, not much…just hanging around. Come on Auto…”

Both manacles came loose at once and I dropped like a sack of dried fruit. I felt my friend unlocking the restraints around my ankles, but I just laid back and closed my eyes for a moment to fight away a sudden attack of nausea.

Autolycus helped me to sit up and offered me a waterskin, which I guzzled from. He pulled a cloth from the pack he still carried and poured some water on it, wiping the majority of the blood and dirt from my face. I was sure I looked a lot worse than I really was. Hera had her guy knock me around, not beat me to a pulp.

“Tell me Eponin is in this with you.”

“Her idea…great little actress, huh?”

“I hope she doesn’t act her way to getting her throat slit. Hera doesn’t have any intention of letting us live…what was she thinking?”

I held out a hand and groaned as Autolycus helped me to my feet. I found my armor, pack, and weapons laid neatly on the closest table as if simply waiting for my return.

“What’s her plan?” I asked my friend.

“Well…” he hesitated, “she does what you saw her go off and do, and I get you out of the chains…and…” he trailed off.

“And? And what?” I began to feel stronger once my armor was in place and the realization dawned on me.

“There is no plan, is there?” I asked flatly.

“Oh, like you always have a plan.” Auto responded.

“Great. Come on.” I marched toward the main door. Stopping abruptly I turned and looked at the thief.

“Thanks, Auto…I owe you big time.”

“And, don’t think I won’t collect.” He answered with a wink.

“Come on,” I smiled, ignoring the pain that action caused my bloodied lip. “Let’s go give our Amazon actress a hand.”
——————————————————————————–

Autolycus lead me up along the narrow passage that he came down through earlier. It was like an attic that led out the Great Hall and left an opening high up on the ceiling. The entrance to the tunnel was covered with a small wooden door, painted to blend perfectly with the stone. Without really examining the trapdoor, one would never realize it wasn’t a part of the ceiling.

We made our way on our hands and knees, thankfully we didn’t run into any of my favorite rodent friends. Seems like every castle tunnel or dungeon I get thrown into, that I end up being accosted by rats. When we reached the end of the passage and we quietly lifted the trapdoor off its frame, we found out than we were nearly on top of the whole scene playing out below us.

Our timing was perfect. I could see that Eponin was just coming through the open door of the Diamond Chamber. I had no idea what she thought she was going to do once she turned over the brightly sparkling bottle of Elixir. Was she waiting for me to come up with a way to snatch it before it actually fell into Hera’s hands? Damn! I found myself mentally cursing my friends for not being clear on what the plan was to be.

I suddenly realized that I sounded like Brie. She hated the way I constantly told her to simply trust me. She always wanted to know ahead of time what the plan was. It wasn’t that I was being mean to her, only that most of the time I didn’t have a plan. I went by instinct and, being the hedonist I am, what felt good at the time. So, as I watched my Amazon friend begin to extend her arm, the diamond bottle held loosely in her hand, I did exactly what Gabrielle would have done to me. I took a huge breath, let out an insanely loud battle cry, and jumped right into the middle of the whole mess.

Hera tried to snatch the bottle from Eponin’s grasp, but missed when the warrior turned toward me, a look of surprise on both their faces. Hera did appear genuinely astonished to see me, which I loved. I had to nail the few soldiers, who were quick enough to come to their senses and attack me, but I was moving in one direction, and that was toward Hera.

I heard Auto drop to the floor behind me and caught the sound of metal against metal as he drew his sword and attacked. I tossed my chakram with a hard flick of the wrist and took out the next three advancing soldiers. Eponin saw where I was headed, but damn if she didn’t make one move to…well, move! She had the strangest look on her face when I thought she realized just what I was up to. I could hear Auto still at my back and I prayed that Ep would get with it and at least move away from Hera. I knew the minute the Goddess got her hands on the bottle, she would dematerialize and be gone.

It all happened in only a few fractions of a moment, but I knew there was only one way I could keep that bottle from the Goddess, and that was if she had no powers at all. We just happened to be standing in front of the place that would do it. I feigned swordplay with one of Hera’s soldiers on my right, but out of the corner of my eyes I saw where Hera’s hand was headed and Eponin appeared oblivious.

“Xena, No!” Eponin cried out.

I flew right at the Goddess and just as her fingers wrapped themselves around the neck of the small gleaming bottle, I hit her in the midsection propelling the both of us through the open doorway of the Diamond Chamber. Eponin was right behind me, shouting something unintelligible, Auto brought up the rear just as I slammed the door shut.

“Are you nuts?!” Eponin stood in front of me and shouted.

“Me? What was that back there…could you have been anymore dense about what I was trying to do?” I shouted back. “You let her snatch it from you like she was some sort of expert pick-pocket!”

“I had a plan and it was working!”

“Oh, it was, was it. Well, what was this great, almighty plan of yours, to just give the damn thing to her?” I questioned, my voice raising about an octave in pitch.

“Yes!” Eponin glared back at me.

I didn’t need to see the huge smirk on her face to realize what I’d done. I closed my eyes, lowered my head, and placed my hands on my hips before I spoke in a, softer than even normal, tone.

“The Elixir isn’t in the bottle.” I phrased it as a statement since I now knew the answer.

Eponin held up a small waterskin that had been looped through her belt, hanging by her left hip.

“I looked up and rubbed my hand across my face. “Have I told you how good it is to see you again?”

Ep chuckled and shook her head. “You look like Tartaurus. Looks like your face ran into somebody’s fist again.”

“Uh, ladies…I do hate to break up this touching moment, but I’d like to point out that we happen to be in a locked room with a very pissed off Goddess and her fan club out there doesn’t seem to like it.” Autolycus said, putting Ep and I in action.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff, my friend.” I said to the thief, walking toward Hera, who was seated on the floor. “As you can see,” I said, pointing to Hera, “she barely has enough strength to stand in here. That’s what the place does to immortals. And these guys, who are beginning to become a pain in the ass, won’t fare any better.”

To demonstrate my point and to stop the infernal pounding, I unlocked the door and pulled it open, swiftly dragging the closest of Hera’s soldiers into the small room. He immediately sank to his knees as if his armor were to heavy to hold up. His mates took one giant step backward, the heroes that they were.

“This is what happens to you when you come in here!” I shouted out the door, scooping up the fallen warrior and tossing him out the doorway. The minute he was out of the Diamond Chamber, his strength returned and he led the way for his friends as they turned tail and fled.

“Brave bunch you got there.” I said to Hera as I again slammed the door shut, just so the Goddess wouldn’t try and crawl away.

“See, things aren’t so bad.” I said to my friends as I circled the small room, hands on my hips, searching the ceiling for some means of escape. “Yup…only one little problem at this point.” I drawled.

“We’re trapped in here.” We all said in unison.
——————————————————————————–

“Well, I’ve been over every inch of this room…twice, and I only have one thing to say.” Autolycus paused and looked over at us. “We’re stuck here.” He finished.

“That’s just what I wanted to hear.” Eponin growled and glared at Hera.

“You shouldn’t have put your faith in the Warrior Princess,” Hera commented. “She has a habit of letting people down.”

“Shut up before I slit your throat!” Eponin drew a dagger from her boot and advanced on the weakened Goddess.

I stepped in front of Ep before she made it to Hera. The Goddess was sitting on the floor, her back leaning against the rough stone wall. She saw Eponin coming at her, but in her present condition there was nothing she could do to fend off the angry Amazon.

“Ep…take it easy.” I tried to calm her.

“Don’t tell me you’re going to defend her?”

“There’s nothing I’d enjoy better than to see her get what she has coming, but while she’s in here it would be tantamount to murder. I won’t even kill an enemy unless they have a fighting chance, not in cold blood like this, Ep.”

I touched the top of her hand that held the dagger and she slowly put the weapon back in its sheath, hidden down in her boot.

“Why Xena, I didn’t know you cared.” Hera said in a tired voice, still able to fix a superior smile on her face.

“I said I wouldn’t kill you, I didn’t say anything about not beating the crap out of you, so just sit there and shut up.” I turned and hissed at her, while Ep stood off to the side, grinning.

“Tell me again why Apollo just can’t zap us out of here?” Autolycus said picking at some loose mortar surrounding a piece of stone.

“Because he can’t enter the Diamond Chamber or he’d be as useless as her.” I pointed in Hera’s direction. “As it is just being in the caverns severely limits any use of their powers.”

A few moments of silence passed until Eponin spoke.

“What’s that look for?” Eponin asked and I realized I must have that glazed over look going.

“I was just thinking about something Apollo said to me…remember when he infused me with his power before we left? He said, When you need the most strength, concentrate on what gives you power in life, and the force will be there for you. I didn’t really focus on what he was trying to tell me at the time.”

I continued to stare at the wall where Autolycus chipped away some loose mortar. “You know, if I had enough of Apollo’s power left, I bet I could blast through this wall.”

They all looked at me as if I was a Cyclops with two eyes. Brother, I was going to have to explain.

“When I traveled in Chin I learned a great deal. Ep, you remember me telling you about Lao Ma?” Ep nodded her head and waited for me to continue. “She taught me a lot about how to channel certain types of energy and turn that energy into raw power, chi she called it.” I paused as I remembered the woman that I loved before I knew my bard.

“So, you’re trying to tell us you’re just gonna use this mind power and blast through ten feet of stone?” Autolycus had that look on his face and I’m sure he rolled his eyes when I turned my back.

“I just need to concentrate is all.” I said, standing in front of the back wall. “This is an outside wall, so to speak. I figure if we can get through, we’ll end up in the cavern recesses. At least Apollo would be able to get to us there.”

I loosened up a little so I could focus. The last time I tried to use Lao Ma’s powers was when Gabrielle and I ended up in Chin. I was out for revenge against the Green Dragon and it turned out my innocent little bard made a deal with Ares to get her there before me. Brie thought she was trying to save me from myself by betraying my intentions to Ming Tien, turned out she was just jealous. I look back and wonder how I could have been so thick. Was that the action of a best friend or a woman in love? Oh well, it’s a moot point now.

I was about to be executed when I started remembering all the things Lao Ma said to me in her subtle way of teaching. She was the first person to ever call me, Warrior Princess, and to this day I’m sorry I bastardized the title with my headstrong lust for power. She meant it to be a title for me as a changed woman, a keeper of peace.

I was never really able to call the power out again, certainly not at will. I always saw traces of it, but not nearly enough for what I needed to do now. I thought about her words, the ones I heard in my head just as I was to be executed.

“The entire world is driven by a will…blind and ruthless. In order to transcend the limitations of that world, you need to stop willing. Stop desiring. Stop hating.”

I bent my neck to the left and to the right, hearing the bones pop. I concentrated on the wall then I closed my eyes. I tried everything that Lao Ma taught me in the next few candlemarks, but I still couldn’t harness more than a bad headache. I snarled in defeat and a small chunk of rock broke off and fell to the floor.

Autolycus leaned over and picked up the piece of stone, no larger than his palm. “Oh hey, it works. What do ya think…another forty or fifty seasons and we’ll be out of here.”

“Auto.” Ep cautioned as I turned my back on all of them to go sit in the corner.

“I just need to think.” I mumbled and they let me be.

I couldn’t figure out why Lao Ma’s words incited me to such power when Gabrielle and I were in Chin, I mean, I broke the whole damn palace apart. I’m still the same me, well a little more whipped than in those days, but what the hell, belonging to Gabrielle has always been worth a little humiliation. So, why didn’t it work this time? I was concentrating on the same teachings that Lao Ma instilled in me. The only thing different between then and now is that Gabrielle was there.

I leaned back against the cool stone and sighed in exasperation. I tried to concentrate, but all I could focus on now was Gabrielle.
——————————————————————————–

“Xena?”

“Hhmm?”

“It’s kind of cold out tonight.”

“Yea, I’m a little cool myself. Here, let me throw some more wood on the fire, that should help.”

I leave my bedroll and throw a few small pieces of wood that Gabrielle gathered earlier, onto the fire. I’m not really cold, but I know she would feel she was imposing if I got up to do this just for her. Gods, the girl can be funny sometimes. I go back to my own bedroll, on the other side of the campfire, and sit there, pretending to be drinking from the waterskin by my bed. I can’t sleep and I know she can’t either. We need to talk, to go over what’s happened. We both need explanations and some reassurance, but neither of us makes the first move. Being the closed mouth warrior I am, I wait for the bard to begin. She doesn’t and that confuses me. There is only one thing that could stop this girl from talking and that’s if she thought that I was angry with her.

“Want some?” I hold up the skin.

I see her shake her head, but she looks unhappy and that breaks my heart. She doesn’t know that I’ve fallen in love with her and that now I can feel her pain as my own. I was angry, earlier…when I first put it all together, but it didn’t last long. It took about a fortnight for me to piece it all together. Gabrielle would wake up screaming at some point in the night and be unable to return to sleep. She started to lose weight, of which she could ill afford, and the dark circles that hung under her eyes made her look sullen. Then Gabrielle started talking in her sleep. Once I heard the truth from her own lips, that she’d made a deal with Ares to get her to Chin ahead of me, I was shocked…then I was angry.

I tried to think of all the reasons Gabrielle could have for doing such a thing, but when I learned the truth, all that anger melted away. My sweet, beautiful bard. I professed to love her, but when a debt needed to be paid on account of an old lover, I left her knowing I would probably never return. I told her it was a one way ticket and refused to even explain who Lao Ma was. So caught up in my own hurt that I never even looked up to see Gabrielle’s suffering. She was jealous and afraid and so she made a rash decision. Of course, how well I know how Ares can incite one’s emotions.

I was losing Gabrielle and it was tearing me apart. We went through the healing of Illusia and grew even closer when we thought we were to lose our lives against the Persians. Gabrielle lay dying from a poisoned arrow wound and so I prepared to journey with her to meet Hades, and die in battle. All this we suffered through and now I had to watch the woman of my heart die a little bit every day because of her guilt. That’s when I knew Gabrielle would have to go through Mnemosyne’s ritual if she were ever to have a chance to get past this.

I knew if I led Gabrielle there on the pretense of meeting me, she would go in. I watched from a long ways off as she tried to decide what she would do. I sat there and cried for a long time after she entered the temple. I knew she was in a great deal of pain and she didn’t know why herself yet. I wouldn’t have blamed her if she had taken Mnemosyne’s cure. I cried because I realized that the next time I saw Gabrielle she might have no recollection of who I was and what we meant to one another. That was the cruelest pain of all.

Now, I stare at her face and I see that the pain of hiding the truth is gone, but it’s been replaced with something new. Gabrielle has that look on her face, as she curls under her blanket and stares into the fire, that she used to get a lot when we first started traveling together. It was a cross between fear and sadness and she would grow melancholy whenever I grew moody and she thought I was about to ship her back to Potidaea. If she only knew I gave up that idea after only a few days of traveling together.

I see it will be up to me to reassure my friend. I love this young Amazon Queen, and whether it’s in friendship or as a lover, I want to show her all she does for me, and exactly what she means to me. I rise and pick up my bedroll and blanket and move to her side of the fire, lying my blanket down right next to her.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m kinda cold. Do you mind if we share both blankets?” I asked with as much innocence as I could muster.

Gabrielle brightened immediately and I felt my heart grow lighter. I was right in my assumption about what was still troubling her and it felt good to be able to make her smile. I brushed my arm against hers and she was cold, but I also knew she got that way when she was nervous.

“Move over here.” I said and put my arm around her shoulder.

I lay there on my back and Gabrielle rested her head on my shoulder. I kissed the top of her head and I think she took that as a bit of encouragement.

“I’m so sorry, Xena.”

Then the tears began. Usually I will do anything to stop those tears because they break my heart so, but I let my bard cry and wrapped my arms around her and stroked the blonde hair. When she cried all her tears out I lifted her chin and kissed her forehead.

“After what we’ve gone through in the past year…Gabrielle, I’m just happy you’re still my friend. We are still best friends, huh?”

She nodded and smiled. “Always.”

“Always.” I repeated. “I can’t say that I would have acted any differently, if you’d just gone off and left me. I’m sorry, Gabrielle, I never meant to hurt you. You’re my bestfriend and I love you, you know that, right?”

“I do now.” Gabrielle answered softly and I realized that too many times I didn’t let her know that. “I love you, too, Xena.”

“Gabrielle, I know I don’t tell you the kind of things you’d like to hear all the time and I know I can be brooding and sullen, and a royal pain in the ass most of the time, but don’t ever think that it’s because of you. Do you know how much you mean to me? You’re the only thing that keeps me going sometimes. You’re funny and smart and strong and just so many things I can’t name them all.” I paused and encouraged her to lift her chin again and look at me.

“Do you know on the day we met, I had given up hope. Not just hope at ever seeing my family, or of being loved. I didn’t want to live this life any longer. When I buried my armor and my weapons I wasn’t just giving up being a warrior, I was giving up on life. I had every intention of taking my own life that day, then I saw you. When you offered to take the place of those other women and then when you started beating the Tartaurus out of those slavers, at that moment I knew.”

“Knew what?” Gabrielle asked gently, her green eyes looking up at me.

“I knew that you were the bravest girl I’d ever seen, braver than even me.”

“Oh, Xena.” Gabrielle thought I was teasing her.

“I mean it, Gabrielle,” I continued. “Me, Xena, the Warrior Princess, I gave up. Then here comes this tiny thing that knew she was never going to win a fight against grown men, but that didn’t stop her from trying. That’s why you will always be my source, Gabrielle. Whenever I need strength all I ever have to do is think of you and I find a force available that I didn’t have before. You, my friend, are what gives me power in this life.”

“Do I really do all that, Xena?”

I chuckled and pulled the blanket over her shoulder. “Go to sleep, Gabrielle.” I said and kissed the top of her head one more time.
——————————————————————————–

“To conquer others is to have power; to conquer yourself is to know the way.”

Lao Ma’s words rang in my head and sudden realization spread over me. There was a difference back in Chin when I last used the power of the chi. I learned the way that Lao Ma was speaking of, lying there on that wooden board, waiting to meet Hades. I remember looking over at Gabrielle and realizing that in the scheme of things, I was really nothing. Every good thing about me was because of Gabrielle…she was my way.

That young woman who gave all of herself to me, everyday. She willingly shared the light of her heart with an old warrior that walked a thin line just this side of Tartaurus.

That ‘s what was different back then…Gabrielle. With all my thoughts and focus on my wife, I could suddenly feel the rush of power as it surged through me like adrenaline. I stood up quickly and crossed the room to the far wall. No one said a word as I stared so hard at the stone and concrete I thought I was going to be able to see through it.

“Get back.” I said in a low, even voice. I didn’t look, but they must have seen the look in my eye because I could hear them moving to the other side of the room.

I couldn’t keep my arms from trembling as I held back the force that was rushing to get out. I raised both hands; arms extended in front of me, and felt a tremendous pressure in my chest, swirling around like a whirlpool. My eyes narrowed to slits and my body jerked as the enormous bolt of energy was launched from my hands. I cried out at the almost cathartic release and watched in fascination as stone, mortar, and rock wall were blown backward.

The dust settled and no one was more amazed than I was. I shuddered a little to think that the power of my love for Gabrielle could be harnessed in such a way. Frankly, something this strong worried me a little and I wasn’t in a hurry to do it again. In the past I thought it was solely because of Lao Ma’s teachings that I had this ability. Now, knowing the truth, it doesn’t surprise me. I have always said that it is because of Gabrielle that I do any good in this world at all.
——————————————————————————–

“Well, you guys coming, or not?” I turned around to face an awestruck audience of three. Even Hera looked a tad impressed.

“Ep, you better keep her back her until Apollo shows.” I indicated the Goddess on the floor.

Eponin handed me the waterskin, now filled with the Elixir. “Xena…that was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Nah, it was nothin’.” I replied with a wink before making my way out to the caverns.

I had one last item from my pack of toys and I definitely knew what this one was for. I reached into the small leather pouch at my waist and pulled out a thin metallic band. It was the exact replica of the one Gabrielle received from her father. Apollo gave it to me before we left and told me to use it when we were ready to return home. I knew I was going to feel a little foolish doing this and I kind of wondered why he didn’t enchant the ring differently, but it was only a word.

“Father.” I called out.

In only took a heartbeat and I figured that with Hera out of commission, he must have been waiting for my call. When the God materialized he held a figure in his arms. For a moment panic seized me as I thought it might be Gabrielle. As he knelt to the ground I could see that the woman he carried was Artemis. She looked pretty bad. There was a large gash on her head and a similar wound along her ribs. Her face was a mass of cuts and bruises and it was obvious that Hera did a number on her.

I knelt down beside the two and Apollo reached out and took my hand in his own, squeezing it tightly. I felt I was looking into Gabrielle’s own green eyes when I gave him a slightly embarrassed smile.

“I knew, Xena…I just knew you would be the one to save us all.” He said in a voice filled with emotion.

I handed him the waterskin and he looked at it strangely.

“It’s a long story, but it’s the Elixir.” I assured him.

Apollo uncorked the skin and gently tipped the flask forward. One drop was all the God said that it would take and he was right. The single drop of liquid fell onto Artemis’ lips and the effect was immediate. I’m not sure I would have completely believed this part of the story if I hadn’t seen it for myself. Her bruises began to fade and quickly disappear, followed by the injury to her side. When the head wound closed itself and rapidly shrunk away to nothing, the Goddess’ dark eyelashes fluttered open.

Apollo handed me the waterskin and wrapped his arms around his twin. It took Artemis a second to figure out what happened, but her gray eyes warmed at the site of her beloved brother. When she turned to see me she smiled and I held out a hand to help her rise to her feet. She was a little wobbly, but near death experiences will do that to you and I told her so.

“Xena…why am I not surprised to see you here?” She said and then indicated my own battered face.

“Hey, trouble just seems to show up when I do, what can I say?” I replied, nonchalantly.

Ares showed up next, followed by the same group who popped into the Queen’s hut that morning. Right now, that day seemed like an eternity ago.

“Where is she?” Artemis asked, the color returning to her face and then some.

Autolycus stepped back toward the opening in the rubble, trying to stay out of the way. Artemis caught the movement and drew the blade at her hip. It was probably foolish, but I stopped her in much the same manner that I intercepted Eponin earlier.

“Move out of my way, Xena.”

“Artemis I can’t let you do that. She’s completely helpless in that room.” I reasoned.

“As helpless as you will be if you enter.” Apollo explained. “Let it go, sister. We have already won.”

Artemis slowly thrust her short sword back into its scabbard with a heavy sigh. I knew how she felt. Revenge is a hard thing for a warrior to walk away from.

“My Amazons!” Artemis cried out and dematerialized before our eyes.

“She’ll be back in a moment as soon as she learns that they’re fine.” Apollo seemed to find it necessary to explain his sister’s hasty departure.

“So, has anyone come up with any brilliant ideas to get them out of here?” Ares jerked a thumb in my direction.

I raised an eyebrow in Apollo’s direction. “Come–up–with any ideas?” I enunciated slowly.

A few of the Gods shifted around nervously. “We’ve run into something that I didn’t anticipate.” Apollo said.
——————————————————————————–

“Gabrielle…wake up, my Queen.”

Gabrielle yawned and stretched to the smiles of the women in the hut. The green eyes opened in wonder and surprise at the sight before her.

“Artemis!”

The Goddess sat down on the edge of the bed and wrapped her arms around her niece. Pulling away, Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak.

“She is fine.” Artemis anticipated the young Queen’s question.

Tears filled the Queen’s green eyes. “She did it then? I just knew she would.”

“Yes, she most certainly did. Did you know that you are married to the most wonderful woman in the Known World?” Artemis asked.

Gabrielle did what was so naturally her. She blushed and smiled at her aunt.

“Yes, I know that already, but thanks for saying it.”

“I have to go back now, it seems we’ve run into a snag.”

Gabrielle looked worried and the Goddess reassured her. “It’s nothing that can’t be fixed. It’s just that I left a bunch of men in charge and you know how that can be.”

The Queen laughed and Artemis touched gentle fingertips to the young blonde’s cheek.

“Now, you better get out of this bed, my Queen. Take a bath and put on something very attractive because I’m going to be sending your warrior home shortly.”

At that, Artemis kissed her niece’s forehead and was gone.
——————————————————————————–

“It’s not something I knew would happen, Xena…just give me a moment and I’ll thing of something.” Apollo was saying to me just as Artemis popped back in.

Artemis took one look at my face and turned to her brother. “I take it she knows.”

“She does,” I said, “and she’s not happy.”

“It seems as if the caverns here on Delos render us, while not powerless, a little lacking. We can transport ourselves, but don’t have the power to send anyone else.” Apollo explained to his sister.

“I know, I heard your thoughts, brother. I have a simple solution.” Everyone looked at Artemis, especially me.

“No one of us has enough power to do the trick, but there is a way for each of us to give you a small fraction of our power. With a little of all of our strength in you, you will have the ability to transport yourself and your friends back in the same way as my brother sent you here.” Artemis explained to me.

I know what my face looked like at that moment and it wasn’t pleasant. There wasn’t an immortal in the room that didn’t know that getting any kind of godly powers was the last thing in this life that I wanted.

“Xena?” Artemis asked finally.

My mouth remained closed and I was weighing the options. The only thing that made up my mind was Artemis.

“Xena…Gabrielle is waiting for you.”

“Oh, you Gods play dirty.” I smirked. “Well, I guess beggars can’t be choosers. Let’s do it.”

The six Gods stood in a circle and placed their right hands into the middle of the circle. They all touched hands and a warm glow began in each of their chests until the light moved down their arms. When it released itself into a burst of blinding light at their hands, Apollo scooped up the pulsating sphere and came toward me.

“Ready?” he asked.

I nodded.

“It will be much more intense than the last time.

“Do it.”

Apollo held the ball of light in his hand and took my hand in his own. The light felt warm, but not painful. I could feel it worming its way up my arm before I even saw the flash when it entered my chest, feeling like it was exploding into a thousand pieces and spreading rapidly throughout my body. I sunk to my knees at the intensity.

“Good Gods!” I exclaimed as I was helped back up again.

My body felt like an over strung bow. It felt…I didn’t think I could describe it. I could see out of my eye too. Before my eye was almost swollen shut and now; not one ache or pain.

“Kind of makes you want to be a God, huh?” Ares gloated.

I just glared. I was in a hurry to be away from here. I had a strange fluttering in my belly and a growing ache in my groin, which I attributed to knowing I would be with Gabrielle in a few short moments.

“Watch out…it’ll make ya as horny as all get out.” Ares sounded off again.

“Well, if it does, leather boy, I have a feeling you’ll be the last person she asks to relieve it for her.” Artemis grinned as she one-upped the God of War.

“Allright can we get this show on the road.” I interrupted. “Ep, Auto!” I shouted for my companions. The growing ache between my legs was getting downright urgent.

“Xena…I owe you my life, thank you.” Artemis thanked me. I didn’t expect that and so simply clasped hands and mumbled something unintelligible. She said something about seeing us in the village later and disappeared. As if on cue the others took off and Apollo and Ares were the only ones left.

“What do I do with her?” Eponin asked Apollo and nodded her head back toward Hera.

“I think we’ll let Zeus deal with her.” Apollo replied. “We owe the three of you a debt of gratitude.” He finished as Autolycus came into view.

I noticed the thief was a bit chunky around the middle and I rolled my eyes. “Auto…put them back.”

“Aw, Xena…the place is lousy with them, who’s gonna miss a few rocks.” he responded.

I arched an eyebrow impatiently and he opened his shirt and tossed the diamonds out. Apollo laughed at my friend’s actions. He bent down and retrieved two of the larger stones and held them out to Ep and Auto.

“A small reward.”

“Thanks but no thanks.” Ep replied. “I’d probably just get into trouble with some girl over it.”

“I think I’ll sell mine and get into trouble with a lot of girls,” Auto said, then caught my disapproving glare.

“On second thought,” Auto began again. “I couldn’t possible accept anything, it was after all for the greater good.” He spat the last two words in my direction.

I chuckled and turned to Apollo. “So, what do I need to do?”

“It’s simple. You just picture where you want to be and that’s where you’ll end up.” He answered.

“Wait a minute…you mean you’re powering us back?” Ep asked. I think I was as afraid as she was.

“Don’t worry…piece of cake.” I lied.

“I sure hope so,” Auto added. “I’d hate to get there and find out you left an important piece of me behind.”

“You’re telling me.” I whispered under my breath.

“Uhm, you better tell her that last thing.” Ares nudged Apollo.

Apollo looked stricken. “Didn’t Artemis–”

“Nope.” Ares answered smugly.

Apollo pulled me away from my two companions and tried to say something, but his face was red and he stammered a lot.

“He’s trying to say don’t nail the irritating little blonde as soon as you get back.” Ares jumped in.

Apollo glared at his brother. “What he means, Xena, is that…well with the power…it’s very…potent…even for women. You might want to…well, wait just to be sure.”

I just nodded like I understood what in the world he was talking about. So, he was trying to say that I’d have some residual power left for a while…big deal. Truth was, all I could focus on was the rather intense need to see my wife.
——————————————————————————–

It wasn’t so bad; I could get used to this kind of travel. Hey, and nobody threw up this time, we must be getting better, I thought as we made a landing in the middle of the Amazon village. We were given a hero’s welcome, the likes of which I am sure Hercules never even saw. Amid all the noise and back slapping the door to the Queen’s hut opened.

No one heard the door actually open, but all eyes were drawn that way anyway. I turned and thought I would surely never breath again. Gabrielle stood in the doorway looking as breathtaking and regal as any Goddess. The outfit she was wearing, or not wearing depending on how you looked at it, was my favorite. The same fawn colored doeskin that she was wearing the night she first seduced me. One slim piece of leather barely covered her breasts, and the loincloth touched the ground in front and behind.

Gabrielle stood there and I realized that she was waiting for me to come to her. If anyone expected me to do anything different then they didn’t know me very well. I just about ran across the compound and flew up the half a dozen steps in two long strides. I swept the small figure into my harms and held to her tightly.

“I missed you, my heart.” I whispered.

“Missed you too, Warrior.” Gabrielle returned and I felt the soft breath from her response against my cheek.

Now who would have thought that nothing more than the sweet scent of her breath so close to me would send me into such a tailspin? The whole world narrowed down to this porch and this woman in my arms. Nothing else in life existed for me. That ache between my legs returned with a vengeance. I leaned down and kissed my wife in a way that she could not possible mistake for anything but what it was. It was my, I need you and I need you now kiss.

Gabrielle pulled back and those beautiful emerald eyes, that I thought I might never see again, sparkled back up at me.

“Yes,” she responded softly to my unspoken plea.

I couldn’t hold back any longer as I swept her up into my arms and entered our hut, slamming the door closed with my foot.

“Well,” Ephiny began, watching the door slam close. “I think we’d best get some drinks and music going because I think it’s going to be a very noisy night.” She laughed.
——————————————————————————–

I remember thinking for a very brief moment about what Ares and Apollo told me. Something about not making love to Gabrielle right away, but I couldn’t remember if they said why. It’s very hard to remember anything when an Amazon Queen has her tongue in your mouth and her hand in your breeches.

I think we got into this position so fast by me saying something about not being able to wait. Now I had my back up against the door as I prepared to be taken by my wild young Queen while I was still standing there fully clothed.

“Oh Gods, Brie.” My head slammed against the wooden door as I groaned in a mixture of pleasure and relief. The pounding ache at my center turned into a burning need and Gabrielle’s fingers were taking the edge off of it quite nicely.

I sounded like my wife when I came and it did cross my mind that I should be embarrassed or that I should at least be a little more quiet, but neither thought was getting through right now. Gabrielle never stopped the motion of her hand and the slow fuck brought me quickly to another climax. By the time I reached the third, my knees were telling me, for Goddess’ sake lie down on the bed.

We tossed leather and armor all across the room, setting some sort of record for disrobing, I’m sure. I sat on the bed and asked Brie to leave the thong on for now. She looked so incredible with just the tiny patch of leather covering her mound, her very shapely backside exposed to my caresses.

Now, usually I end up leading the way in our love making, if for no other reason than I’m bigger and stronger and can usually get my way. Suddenly, though, it was if my brain were between my legs and some other highly sensitive parts of my body. I knew what lust was, hey, I had no morals or scruples at one point in my life so I took who I wanted when I wanted, but this feeling I had now was beyond normal lust or desire. It was becoming damned uncomfortable.

So, I guess that’s why when my wife slid to her knees between my legs I not only didn’t stop her, I encouraged her. There was no pretense, no teasing arousal. Gabrielle was a smart woman and I’m sure she could see that my need went way beyond foreplay at this very moment.

I did manage to remember Apollo’s warning and it struck me that was the reason why I was so damned insatiable…must be the power they gave me. I wanted to warn Brie that this could go on for a while.

“Brie…honey…The Gods gave me this, oh, I don’t know…some power and I really shouldn’t be doing all this yet. I mean, that’s what your father said. He said I should wait and Gods, I think I’d die if I had to wait…do you mind if I’m a little…I don’t know…ravenous?” I panted and looked down.

She moved closer to me, and the minute I saw that lovely pink tongue spear out of her mouth, I was a goner. I groaned and wrapped a hand into those golden locks and pulled her head in the rest of the way. Situating her right where I needed her the most. The feeling…even the sound of her licking at my sex was extraordinary. I felt instant relief from the pounding ache that was consuming me and within moments I came. Of course, just because I was finished rather quickly didn’t mean my Queen had any intention of finishing with me.

Okay, now I admit I could be considered pretty whipped where Gabrielle is concerned. I mean, if Brie wanted some, well, day or night…I’d be there, ready and willing. I have, however, never been a complete slave to my desire before. If I had to, I could say no. Not this time, though. Gabrielle continued to take in the abundant wetness between my thighs and I could no more have stopped her than I could keep night from descending. I lost count of the number of orgasms my wife’s talented tongue brought me to.

I was finally sated; well that might be pushing it. Let’s just say the edge was taken off. I picked Gabrielle off the floor and placed her on the bed, covering her body with my own. I kissed the lips that had my own taste on them and that started a burning fire all over again. No part of my beautiful wife’s body went untouched by my hands, my lips and tongue. By the time my shoulders were situated between her legs, the small patch of leather between her legs was soaked. I used the tip of my tongue to caress her all along the edge of the drenched garment and she shivered and pressed her hips toward my face.

“Please…Xe, I didn’t tease you.”

“No, you certainly didn’t, my heart. Thank you.”

Without further delay I wrapped two fingers around the thin tie of the thong and with one strong tug the material was in my hand and I tossed it to the end of the bed. The scent that had previously been contained was now released and the fragrance of my wife’s need just about undid me. I buried my face in that wetness and ate and drank like it was ambrosia.

My hand found its way to my own center and I touched myself, circling and sliding my fingers across my own need in time to the rhythmic way Gabrielle’s hips pushed against my tongue. When she sped up the movement of those thrusting hips, I increased the movement of my own fingers. Gabrielle’s cry at her release was like music to my ears as I let myself go simultaneously.

I moved up to hold the still quivering woman of my heart. Gabrielle’s legs wrapped around me tightly, which only served to press my mound against hers. That’s all the encouragement I needed. I began a slow, sensual grind against already sensitive flesh.

“Oh Gods, Xe…yes.”

I smiled and kissed her again, our tongues only reminding us of the soft, wet flesh that pressed together further south. Gabrielle spread her thighs farther apart and I reached my hand down between us. Spreading my lips apart, I pressed into her again and we both immediately groaned at the feel of the silky wet folds. Gabrielle moved her own hands down to imitate my action and another jolt of arousal hit me as she opened herself for me and I slid across the heated, velvety flesh.

“Baby, don’t stop.” I pleaded, as my wife lifted and rocked her hips in counter rhythm to my own.

It might have been my own sex filled imagination but I swear I could feel every fold, every nuance and texture as I slid against her wet flesh. When we sped up our movement it happened as if we were one, both our minds linked much the same way as our flesh. I could feel her increasing wetness and I wrapped my lips around a very erect nipple, sucking harder when I felt the centers of our desire rubbing against one another.

We both climaxed in what seemed like a blinding flash. There was no light or otherworldly effects, but when I closed my eyes, the sparkling lights and the colors were definitely there. I lifted myself up onto my hands and pressed myself into Gabrielle firmly until I could feel her convulse against me as she came again. I groaned loudly at the feel of her trembling body and felt a warm rush of liquid flow from me at another release. I could feel my essence overflow onto Gabrielle, only to be swallowed up by her open sex.

I eased my body down and kissed Gabrielle’s cheek.

“Thank you.” She mumbled, still trying to get her breath back.

I smiled and waited a few moments and kissed her again. I pressed my lips so softly against hers that she opened her eyes at my tenderness.

“Hi, honey…I’m home.” I said quietly.

Brie started laughing first, which was contagious enough for me to begin. We ended up collapsing into one another’s arms, blissfully sated, laughing until we cried.
——————————————————————————–

“Okay that’s it Brie…you’re worrying me.” I said to my wife who happened to be hung over the rail of our porch, tossing up her morning meal.

I helped her back inside and she washed her mouth out and brushed her teeth. I gave her a few mint leaves to chew on and prepared to fix her a tea to settle her stomach.

“I’m sure it’s just a stomach thing going around, maybe some residual effects of the spell.” Gabrielle tried to explain.

“That was two moons ago, Brie. You are going to see Sartori and it’s going to be this morning.” I added. I turned and looked at her with my best no nonsense glare.

“Yes, Xena.” She said in defeat.

Walking across the compound, hand in hand, I had to admit that I did feel comfortable in this village. It was the one spot in the Known World where I knew that people cared about us and we didn’t have to hide who we were, our feelings for one another, or my past.

When we arrived at Sartori’s hut the healer who, to Gabrielle’s great joy, finally started calling her by her first name, welcomed us. My wife explained how she was feeling of late and Sartori listened.

“Do you feel nauseous at any other time?”

“Nope,” Gabrielle replied. “It seems to only happen after my morning meal…sometimes it’s as soon as I wake up, then blech.” The motion of Gabrielle’s hand indicated what came next.

“Are you more tired than usual?”

“Well, yes as a matter of fact I am.” Gabrielle started to look a little worried herself now and that worried me.

“Do you know something, Sartori?” I asked and the healer looked at me in the strangest way.

“Uhm, why don’t you step outside for a few moments, Xena, and let me examine Gabrielle.” The healer replied.

I looked at the healer and then at Gabrielle. Now I was really worried.

“I’ll be allright, Xe.” Gabrielle squeezed my hand and so I reluctantly rose and left the hut.

Within moments Eponin wandered up. “Hey there, tall, dark, and deadly…what’s the scoop with Gabrielle?”

Just as I opened my mouth to speak Ephiny walked up as well. “Is Gabrielle allright?”

I shook my head. “You Amazons are worse than old women. Gossip moves like wildfire around here. Actually she’s just got a bit of an upset stomach…probably something that’s going around.” I finished, sitting down on the bench outside the hut.

“Would you like a little company while you wait?” Ephiny asked, placing her hand on my shoulder.

I looked up the two women, concern visible in their faces, and nodded nervously.
——————————————————————————–

“Well?” Gabrielle asked as she finished refastening her skirt.

“Gabrielle…have you missed your time of the moon, say the last few times?” Sartori began.

“Well, as a matter of fact the last two, but I thought it was probably some lingering effects of the sickness. It’s not?”

“Have you ever been late before or missed it completely?”

“Never.” Gabrielle answered and Sartori suddenly realized just how young her Queen really was.

“Is it something terrible?” the Queen asked and Sartori chuckled, then smiled.

“No, Gabrielle, it’s something wonderful, but I’m not sure how it happened, which is none of my business, and I’m also not sure how to tell you. Actually, Gabrielle, you’re a bright girl…I bet you can figure it out.”

Gabrielle wasn’t so worried now that Sartori seemed relieved. The healer actually appeared glad. See I told Xe I was allright. The blonde’s brows furrowed together and thought about this whole thing. She was young, but she wasn’t a complete idiot. She was sick in the morning, tired all the time, and she’d missed her last two cycles. She ate like there was no tomorrow, but that was nothing new. Now that she thought about it, though, her skirt was a little tighter around the middle than usual.

Gabrielle laughed slightly. “Well, if I didn’t know any better I’d say I was–”

Gabrielle looked up into Sartori’s smiling face and froze.

“Oh Tori, I can’t be…I don’t know how such a thing could have happened. I mean, I know how it happens; I just don’t know how it happened to me! I haven’t…I would never…oh Gods, Xena’s going to freak!”

Gabrielle’s mind searched for an answer. She just knew that Xena would never believe this and think she’d cheated on her. Xena was the only one she’d been to bed with in a long time, like almost ever! When her wife returned from the mission to obtain the Elixir, it was the first time they’d been together since they arrived in the village. Gods, that was one incredible night! Xena was absolutely insatiable…she had the constitution of a God!

Gabrielle looked up at the healer in astonishment as realization flooded over her. “Oh, it’s not possible.” She said aloud to a confused Sartori.

It did feel like it at the time though, didn’t it? Gabrielle asked herself as she placed the flat of her hand over her belly. The last time they made love the day of Xena’s return. When their release washed over them, Gabrielle had the strangest feeling, like she could feel life surging into and through her. Then from a place far in the back of her memory she replayed what Xena said that day, trying to tell Gabrielle something about what Apollo warned her about.

“Brie…honey…The Gods gave me this, oh, I don’t know…some power and I really shouldn’t be doing all this yet. I mean, that’s what your father said. He said I should wait and Gods, I think I’d die if I had to wait…do you mind if I’m a little…I don’t know…ravenous?” I panted and looked down.

How could she not have told me? Gabrielle fumed to herself.

“I’m simply going to kill her!” the Queen said aloud. Turning toward the doorway she stood there and shouted.

“Xena!”

Sartori watched as Gabrielle’s features clouded over and she arched an eyebrow high up under her blonde bangs. The young Queen folded her arms across her chest and waited.

Within a heartbeat I was through the door, fear running through me at Gabrielle’s shout. “Brie?”

I took in my wife’s demeanor and knew this wasn’t going to go well for me. Ephiny and Eponin bumped into me as they ran in to back me up. Yea, that’s perfect, all a warrior wants is for her friends to be there when she’s about to get reamed by her wife for some inexcusable thing she’s done.

“Honey?” I asked, not feeling the endearment was going to get me out of whatever Gabrielle found that I was guilty of. “Gabrielle, what is it…what’s wrong?” I asked, knowing, like any good warrior wife would, that whatever was making her so unhappy was my fault any way you looked at it.

“I’m going to have a baby!” Gabrielle said in a deep even tone.

I knew I was in some serious centaur stuff now because my wife only uses that husky tone when we’re in bed or when I am so dead. Then I realized what she just said.

“You’re what?” I said with a highly improbable laugh.

“A baby…with child…up the duff! How many ways do you want me to phrase it for you? You and I are having a child together. So, Xena…why don’t you explain to me how this happened?”

“I–” I stopped and looked around the room and wondered myself. Then all of a sudden I knew the only way it could have happened and my blood began to boil.

“Oh, no,” Gabrielle stared at me, obviously knowing where my mind was headed. “Guess again. Go back to the day a certain Warrior Princess got home from a certain mission.”

I looked at her as though she’d lost her mind. Staring down at my boots, I remembered that day, Gods, I don’t think I’ll ever forget it, I couldn’t walk without it hurting for three days. It was actually pretty incredible, I couldn’t get enough and all due to that little burst of power that–Oh, shit!

Gabrielle had a way of reading my mind as well as my face and when I looked up at her, she had sort of a look of triumph across her own features.

“I thought…he said that I probably shouldn’t…but then he didn’t say why…I mean, he said potent, but I figured…I never even thought about…I mean who knew?”

I stammered badly as I realized just what Apollo’s admonition meant. He didn’t mean that I would have an unquenchable appetite for my wife…that just happened as a side effect. When he said potent, he meant that I would be carrying this powerful seed and my sweet Gabrielle could very well be ripe for the planting. That’s why he warned me to wait. Hades, that warning was about as clear as the Styx.

Everybody realized what was going on by this time and Sartori still smiled, Eponin snorted at my obviously pathetic attempts at an explanation, Ephiny hid her grin under a well placed hand. I should have been on my knees begging Gabrielle’s forgiveness for not warning her about what her father said; I should have looked contrite, or even ashamed. All I could manage, though was this huge, shit-eating grin when I thought about the fact that Gabrielle was pregnant with my child.

Gabrielle seemed supremely satisfied that I made a fool of myself in front of our friends and I could tell by the way the corners of her mouth pulled up that she was fighting off a smile.

“This is a good thing, though…right?” Gabrielle asked hesitantly.

My grin grew wider if that was possible and I moved to take her in my arms.

“This is a very good thing, my heart.” I said.

That’s when she punched me in the stomach. Gods, I have to remember to wear my armor more when we’re in the village.

“What do you have to say for yourself, Warrior?” she looked up at me with more than a hint of amusement in those green eyes.

Okay this is your chance. Say what she wants to hear. Something all mushy and sentimental, kind of flowery like those poems she likes to read. You’re Xena, the Warrior Princess…come on you eloquent devil…say it.

“Oops?” I shrugged.

I was pathetic when it came to words and she understood that. I could tell that she saw it in my eyes, though, that she would always be the Queen of my heart. She didn’t care what the words I voiced to her were. And, in the end it didn’t matter what I said…she stood up on her tiptoes and kissed me anyway.

 

 

The End

Continued in Happy Anniversary, Gabrielle

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