The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess are owned by MCA Pictures and used here without permission. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this story.
This story contains the expression of love between two women. If you're not sure you should be reading it, don't. Hope you find entertaining and meaningful fiction elsewhere.
Feedback regarding this story is welcome at Danae121@aol.com.
NOTE: This story takes place immediately following the events of "The Quest." It fills in the blanks between that episode and "A Necessary Evil." It answers questions such as: What was the significance of M'Lila in Xena's life? Why did Xena 'just leave' Gabrielle? and, Why did Gabrielle give up the mask of Amazon queenhood to Ephiny?
and be her comrade forever - this was all I wanted so long as my life should last...
And, this, I told myself with a kind of wonder,
this was what love was: this consecration, this curious uplifting,
this sudden unexplicable joy, and this intolerable pain.
- Author unknown
Alone with Xena for the first time since coming out of the Hall of Ambrosia, Gabrielle leaned her head on the warrior's shoulder. She watched Xena's hands as they continued to sharpen her sword and delighted in the feeling of life in Xena's body. How many times had she seen her hone that sword and never thought twice about it? Tonight, the sight overwhelmed her.
She closed her eyes and tightened her arm around her friend's waist. The realization that Xena was truly alive began to flood her mind. The impossible had happened! Xena had returned to her from the dead! Surely the gods had heard her desperate plea for this miracle. Gabrielle felt her throat constrict again, as it had so often during the past days. But this time, instead of choking with grief, it became thick with relief and appreciation. Her chest heaved with emotion. "Thank you," she sighed, almost imperceptibly.
"You talking to yourself?" Xena asked softly, bowing her head toward Gabrielle's.
The sound of Xena's voice nearly brought tears to Gabrielle's eyes. She smiled, blinked away the tears, and raised her head.
Xena's arched eyebrows asked the question again.
Still lost in thought, Gabrielle only gazed at Xena.
Xena's expression melted into understanding. She let their eyes communicate for a few seconds. Then she looked down to her sword, held it up straight, and inspected it. She glanced sheepishly at Gabrielle and reached for the sheath. She hadn't really been interested in polishing her sword. It was just a way to focus while she tried to rid herself of the disturbing feeling of waking up in that sarcophagus. She suspected Gabrielle understood this.
Somewhat dazed, the bard shook her thoughts from her head. "Xena, we have to get you some food, and you should sleep. You still need to recuperate."
"She's right." Ephiny, having overheard their last words, walked past the bushes to them. "You both look exhausted. Come home with us now, and the Amazons will provide everything you need. Xena, do you think you can ride?"
"Yes!" the warrior replied sharply as if she had been insulted.
"You'll ride behind me on Argo," Gabrielle stated firmly in a tone that dared Xena to argue.
Xena rolled her eyes and let Gabrielle help her to her feet. Any other
day she wouldn't give in so easily, but she decided not to oppose the Queen
in front of other Amazons.
In a hut which Ephiny had readied, Xena stood near the hearth, staring at the flames. A blanket was draped loosely around her naked body. At Gabrielle's request, a tub was being filled for her, and her armor and garments were being cleaned. The warrior was grateful. She knew warm water would be therapeutic and help her gather her thoughts. Her body was a little weak, but she could tell that the ambrosia had almost fully restored her strength. Spiritually and mentally, however, she felt spent. The energy and determination she employed to reunite with her body was greater than she had put forth in any earthly battle. She could hardly think straight, which made her feel vulnerable. And, vulnerability was not a feeling she enjoyed.
Gabrielle's touch caused Xena to turn with a start.
"Sorry." Gabrielle squeezed Xena's arm gently. Then it dawned on the bard... though she hadn't intended to, she had surprised Xena. "Hey, that's the first time I ever snuck up on you!"
Xena's eyes narrowed slightly, but her voice was not cross. "You took advantage of me. My defenses haven't fully recovered."
"Mm-hmm," Gabrielle nodded in mock acceptance of this excuse. She tossed her head towards the door. "Come on." She grasped Xena's hand and led her out into the brisk, damp air.
Inside a bath hut, Solari poured a bucket of hot water into a steaming tub. Seeing Xena and Gabrielle enter, she dropped her eyes and attempted to duck past them. As Xena stepped up to the tub, Gabrielle raised a finger to indicate that Solari should remain. The Amazon nodded and waited outside the door. Gabrielle made sure Xena didn't want help getting into the tub, then excused herself.
Outside, Solari bowed her head to Gabrielle. "What else do you desire, Queen?"
Gabrielle cocked her head with a small chuckle. She'd almost forgotten... Xena's return had not changed the fact that she was still Queen of the Amazons. Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle looked steadily at Solari. "Thank you for preparing the bath, and thank everyone who helped Xena and me."
Solari lowered her head in acknowledgment.
"Xena needs nourishment. Will you see that something is... "
"It is being done as we speak," Solari interrupted.
Gabrielle smiled sincerely and blinked with a nod that meant Solari could depart. The bard stepped back inside the hut and closed the door. Not yet focusing on Xena, she reeled from the reminder that she still had responsibilities to the Amazon Nation. Her eyes darted along the wooden floor as she thought. The Amazons needed a strong Queen. They were on the verge of extinction; their numbers had been drastically reduced in battle over recent years. More importantly, they had been such a significant part of her life. She was indebted to them. They had helped her more than once... they had offered her a home... and then they had restored her home to her... they had helped to save Xena.
Gabrielle knew she must announce whether she would continue to serve as their Queen. She frowned as she considered her position. After Xena died, she had been ready to make a life with the Amazons. Now Xena was back.
The bard leaned against the door and stared harder at the floor. It suddenly occurred to her that she didn't know why Xena had returned. Why she was back was as much a puzzle as why she left. She tried to fight off her confusion. 'Xena always did work in mysterious ways,' she told herself. She was too tired to think about this. Maybe in the morning it would make sense.
The second time Xena called her name, Gabrielle's head jerked up, and she rushed over to kneel beside the tub.
By now, the soothing water had started to work its magic on Xena. Her muscles were relaxing, and her mind was starting to clear. Xena drew herself up to the side of the tub, placed her hand on Gabrielle's, and squeezed it.
"You alright?" Xena asked. The warrior had noticed her serious expression.
"Getting better and better." Gabrielle's face lit up the room.
Xena gave a low little laugh and pushed herself backward to the opposite side of the tub. She flashed a smile. She leaned her head against the tub and closed her eyes, relishing the tingling water.
When Gabrielle and Xena returned to their hut, they found hot broth, freshly baked bread, fruit, and wine waiting for them on a table. The fire had been stoked, and candles were lit around the hut.
Still wrapped only in a blanket, Xena strode directly over to the table and sat down. "Come on, Gabrielle, you must be starving."
Gabrielle at once felt her hunger and sat down next to Xena. They exchanged few words while they ate, their minds too full of the week's events to concentrate on conversation.
Xena's head whipped around at the sound of a knock on the door.
Gabrielle stood up, "Come."
Ephiny took two steps into the hut. She held a bunch of flowers and two neatly folded tunics.
Gabrielle went to her.
"Gabrielle... Queen. I ask forgiveness on behalf of those who stood against you with Velasca." She bowed and held the flowers out.
Gabrielle looked to Xena and back to Ephiny. "Velasca's evil influence will no longer cloud the judgment of loyal Amazons," she said compassionately. She took the flowers and placed her hand on Ephiny's arm.
Ephiny set her jaw, nodded once, and handed the tunics to Gabrielle. "The guard is outside if you need anything."
"Guard?" the bard inquired.
"Yes. A guard always protects the Queen's hut." Ephiny bid them a good night and departed.
Gabrielle let her thoughts settle and moved to the center of the room. She unfolded one of the tunics and held it open to Xena as an invitation. "Not sure I'll recognize you in this."
Xena walked to where Gabrielle was standing, her left eyebrow arched high. "Just who would you mistake me for?" She turned, let the blanket fall, and slipped her arms into the garment. Xena tied the tunic and swung herself back towards Gabrielle.
Gabrielle's mouth was open. The thin, soft fabric seemed to float around Xena's body, which was still radiant from the warm bath. Her dark hair shined in contrast to the white fabric. "I might think you were an angel," Gabrielle smiled. Then, realizing what she'd said, a look of shock crossed her face, and she grabbed Xena's arms. "Xena, you really are here, aren't you!? You're not a spirit?! You are alive, right?!"
Xena put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders and looked her straight in the eye. "Yes."
Xena watched Gabrielle's eyes fill with emotion. She winced to see the pain and pulled her friend to her. "Gabrielle..."
Gabrielle hid her face against Xena's neck and let out a muffled sob.
Feeling the bard fighting to maintain her composure, Xena was suddenly very aware of how weary Gabrielle must be. She had been through so much. Ignoring her own injury and pain, Gabrielle had taken her to Mount Nestus, only to watch her die. Then, almost sick with grief, she'd brought her body back down the mountain, protecting it from thugs and thieves along the way. Torn by a promise to go to Amphipolis and her loyalty to those who needed her, she made the difficult decision to accept the mask of Amazon queenhood. In the face of defeat, Gabrielle refused to give up on her life and found a way to the Hall of Ambrosia to save her. Even now, she was still tending to her needs... seeing that she was bathed, fed, and clothed.
Her own eyes now stinging, Xena lifted Gabrielle's chin and brushed the tears from her cheeks with gentle fingers. There were things Xena wanted to say, but she knew the bard was on the verge of collapse. "Gabrielle... you must rest." Xena started to guide her to the bed.
"No, wait." Gabrielle grabbed Xena's arms again, making her stop. "Xena, I know you told me that I don't need to say a word to you..."
Xena opened her mouth to speak, but Gabrielle went on insistently. "No, Xena... let me..."
Xena swallowed and stood very still.
"When you were gone, I hated myself for never saying it..." Another tear spilled down Gabrielle's face. She lowered her voice and said slowly, "Xena... I love you... like the whole sky... I love you."
The knot in the warrior's throat muted her voice. She bent close to Gabrielle and mouthed the words, "I love you back." Their eyes locked for long seconds before they fell against one another, hugging tightly.
After a few minutes, Xena straightened herself and took a deep breath. "Now, listen, we both need sleep."
"You're right," Gabrielle nodded in resignation. "I'll just change." She walked over to kneel at the water basin near the fire. It took her some time to remove her Amazon garb. Out of respect for what the costume represented, she disrobed carefully and methodically. She sponged water over her body and on her face, quickly dried off, and donned the other tunic.
When she turned from the fire, she saw Xena had already lain down on
the bed. She also noticed Xena had put the flowers in a vase. Gabrielle
crawled up on the bed. She looked down at Xena, then looked closer. Xena
was asleep. She pulled a blanket over the warrior's legs. Smiling at the
dozing woman, she shook her head and whispered, "She really could
pass for an angel." Gabrielle pressed her fingers to her own mouth
and then touched them lightly to Xena's lips. The bard put her head on
the pillow and watched Xena. She was asleep a minute later.
Xena's eyes flew open, and she nearly leaped to her feet. Had she heard Gabrielle cry out? She snapped her head sideways to see Gabrielle lying next to her. Xena sat up in the darkness and peered down at her companion. It was obvious Gabrielle was having a nightmare. Her face was wet with sweat, and her hands clenched. Her head moved back and forth like she was saying 'no' over and over. Xena was horrified at the agony on the girl's face. She didn't know whether to wake her or not. Gabrielle's breathing shallow, she let out small whimpering cries. Xena couldn't stand it. She shook the bard's arms. "Gabrielle. Gabrielle!"
Gabrielle awoke with a lurch and sucked in her breath. Her wide eyes strained as she tried to determine where she was.
Xena stroked her hair. "It's okay, Gabrielle, I'm here."
"Xena?" Gabrielle breathed with disbelief.
"Yeah." Xena gripped her shoulder. "It's me." For an instant she thought she saw mistrust in Gabrielle's eyes.
"Xena!" With a shaky gasp, Gabrielle flung her arms around the warrior's neck, holding on as if she were about to fall.
The distress in Gabrielle's voice was startling. Xena locked her arms around her in an effort to displace the anguish which possessed her friend. Gabrielle's weeping filled the room. Xena had never wanted so badly to comfort someone nor felt at such a loss to do so. She repeatedly renewed her hold around the bard to let her know she was being cared for.
Gabrielle's body continued to convulse with sobs. Alarmed by her friend's torment, Xena withdrew herself and looked into Gabrielle's eyes. She wiped her palms over the streaked cheeks. "Gabrielle, what...?"
Gabrielle shook her head several times. "I thought they would stop now," she said as if talking to herself.
"What would stop?... Nightmares?" Xena's brow furrowed, and then her eyes widened with a terrible thought. She took Gabrielle's face firmly in her hands to make the young woman look directly at her. "Have you been having these dreams every night?!"
Gabrielle didn't answer.
Xena was perplexed. While she was separated from her body, she had heard Gabrielle's thoughts. Indeed, it was those beautiful, loving thoughts which had driven her to find a way back. After hearing her thoughts, she knew no one had or would ever love her as purely as Gabrielle did. But, why hadn't she heard Gabrielle's nightmares?
Xena used the back of her hand to smooth away fresh tears. "Gabrielle, what do you dream? Tell me."
Gabrielle grimaced and looked away.
"Tell me... please."
Gabrielle remained silent, shaking her head and looking off into the dark.
Frustrated, Xena's mind raced. What was it? Why wouldn't she tell her? Gabrielle had never kept anything from her before. Except... of course!... except when it was something that might hurt her. She held Gabrielle's head between her hands again and said in her most serious tone, "Gabrielle, I'm want you to tell me your dreams... even if they'll hurt me."
Gabrielle hesitated, looking up doubtfully.
"Gabrielle, perhaps if you talk about them, they'll go away."
This made the bard pause. Maybe Xena was right. After all, words always worked like a tonic for her, and she usually felt a sense of release after she told a story.
Realizing that Gabrielle was finally persuaded, Xena leaned to the side on one elbow. She let her hand rest on her friend's nearest shoulder and waited for her to speak.
Gabrielle looked uncertainly at her, then looked at the beams in the roof. Choosing her words carefully, she began. "It's always the same dream. It starts when you were lying hurt against that tree... only in the dream you're not injured... just leaning there with a miserable look on your face. I tell you that I'll do anything to help you, but you don't even look at me. You just keep saying 'only she can save me.'" Gabrielle stopped and turned her head towards Xena. The warrior's face was blank, but her fingers pressed Gabrielle's shoulder.
"Then, we're on Mount Nestus, and you're lying on the litter behind Argo. You wake up, and I tell you that I'm there for you. But, you look right past me and tell Nicklio to let you go. Then you get off the litter and walk into Nicklio's hut. It's so dark inside I can hardly see. I ask you where you're going and why. You don't hear me. You lie down on the table... and you close your eyes..." Gabrielle's voice caught. She swallowed hard. "...and then your just gone."
Gabrielle heard Xena take a raspy breath, but she didn't look at the warrior. She went on. "I'm leaning over you, calling for you to come back. It's now snowing inside the hut, covering you, and I'm so cold. Ephiny is there. She tells me to let you go and holds a parka open for me. But, I keep clearing the snow from your face, trying to understand why you didn't talk to me, or tell me what you were feeling, or..." The bard exhaled heavily. She was afraid to see Xena's reaction, so she kept looking at the shadows the candles threw on the walls.
"Is that all?" Xena's voice was level and dark.
"No." Gabrielle bit her bottom lip. "Next, I'm sitting in the woods with your sarcophagus and people approach... different people in every dream. Sometimes it's Joxer, sometimes Hercules... or those bastards who tried to steel you body."
Xena's was surprised by her friend's language but dismissed it.
"But, in the dream they don't want your body. They want me..." Realizing how Xena might interpret those words, she hurriedly explained further. "I mean, they want to kill me. They tell me it's my fault you're dead... that I could have saved you. Then Iolaus is there with them. He's furious with me... telling me that I should have told you how I felt. They all scream at me.... they say if I'd told you how much I care for you and how much the world needs you that you would have had more hope... would have fought to live... or would've at least have said goodbye."
Gabrielle waited for Xena to say something. She didn't. "That's all," Gabrielle said after a minute, her eyes full of tears again. At last she looked at Xena. She blinked to be sure of what she saw. Tears were streaming down Xena's cheeks. Gabrielle choked back a sob. She felt as if her heart would break.
Xena did too.
For the first time, she made no move to hide her tears from Gabrielle. Now she knew why she hadn't been aware of the nightmares. The dead hear the thoughts of the living, but not all their thoughts... only those about the dead. Xena hadn't heard Gabrielle's dreams because they weren't about the warrior. Gabrielle's dreams were about herself, about what she perceived to be her own failure.
Utterly moved, Xena's mind swam in the deluge welling from inside her. She could hardly fathom or believe the love she was feeling, both for and from Gabrielle. She ached to express what she was experiencing... to explain to Gabrielle the revelation she'd had while she was out of her body... to tell her it was not her fault. She knew tonight was not the time. But she had a compelling need to reassure Gabrielle right now, so that the woman could sleep without fear of those dreams. Yearning to comfort Gabrielle but not knowing what to say, her body instinctively took over. In one swift motion, she caught Gabrielle up in a smothering embrace, laying herself almost fully on top of the bard. She kissed her cheeks and forehead again and again and buried her face in Gabrielle's hair. Her heart pounding in her ears, Xena closed her eyes and deliberately slowed her breathing. Still holding her, she spoke into Gabrielle's ear. "We have to talk... but not tonight."
Gabrielle nodded against the warrior's cheek and held her tightly. She lay silently in Xena's arms for a long while, too depleted to think about anything more. Her eyelids heavy, she reached for Xena's hand. "We're okay now."
Xena squeezed her hand and kissed the top of her head.
When Gabrielle awoke, she immediately sensed Xena was not in the room. This was not unusual. Xena was always awake and about before she was. Gabrielle put her hand on the bed next to her. It was still warm. She caressed the sheet, thinking again how marvelous it was that Xena was back. She sat up and looked around. The flowers Ephiny had delivered the night before were easy on her eyes. She breathed in the morning smells of dew and breakfast. Scratching her forehead, she slid off the mattress, trying to identify the voices she heard outside the door. It sounded like Xena arguing with Ephiny. Before her mind was clear enough to be sure, Xena stepped into the hut with a tray and held it up. "Ephiny brought us something to eat." She placed it on the table.
Xena moved to her friend and touched her shoulder. "Did you sleep?"
"Yeah." Gabrielle took Xena's hand from her shoulder and kissed the palm quickly.
The concerned look on Xena's face remained.
"No dreams," Gabrielle said brightly to convince her. She searched the warrior's eyes.
Xena gripped her arm gently and directed her into a chair at the table. "Let's eat."
Knowing Xena didn't like to be doted on, Gabrielle reached for a pitcher and asked casually, "How is your body?"
"You won't be able to catch me off guard today." Xena raised an eyebrow. "Or ever."
"I'll take that as a challenge," Gabrielle retorted with spunk. She poured some juice and held the cup to Xena.
Xena drank and then looked solemnly at Gabrielle. "Ephiny and some of the others want you to call a council this morning. She said there are matters they must discuss with you about the western tribes."
Gabrielle's eyes became anxious. She put down the grapes she'd been eating and waited, knowing that Xena had more to say.
The warrior recognized the same expression she'd see on the bard's face in the bath hut the night before. "Gabrielle, you need rest. You should tell them you will wait a few days before you're ready to discuss Amazon politics."
Gabrielle was pensive for a few seconds. "Of course I will. The Amazons will observe a day of morning for Velasca. No councils will be held."
Xena's jaw dropped slightly. Gabrielle's decency never ceased to amaze her. Who else would be so honorable as to recognize Velasca's blood rites instead of her depravity?
"Besides, Xena, you said we need to talk. The gods know how seldom you say that."
Xena smirked. "Gabrielle."
"We do need to talk, Xena." The bard stood and became serious. "Today, you and I will ride into the country." She walked towards the door. "Oh, and don't even think about wearing your armor or leathers. We're going out there to talk, not fight. I'll ask Ephiny to bring us some real clothes."
Xena's face went blank. 'Real clothes?' she mouthed under her breath, wondering if she should feel insulted.
Gabrielle raised her eyebrows at Xena expectantly.
"Alright, agreed, but I'm bringing my sword. I need practice, and we could need protection."
"What, you forgot how to parry while you were gone?! No, Xena. You won't need it. I'll bring my staff. It will be protection enough. Hurry up and finish eating and then get Argo."
Xena grumbled to herself, "Uh-huh. She's in that 'I'm the Queen, I'll give the orders' haze." She shoved a piece of bread into her mouth and began popping grapes off their vine. Her mouth half full, she muttered, "A 'please' would've been nice."
Gabrielle leaned out the door and waved for one of the guards. "Please saddle Xena's horse and ask Ephiny to come see me."
Xena's head shot up, and then she rolled her eyes back down to the grapes. "She says 'please' to the GUARD?!"
On a woodland path which followed a stream, Xena and Gabrielle rode on Argo. A slight breeze blew through their hair. It was a fresh, warm day, and there were only a few clouds in the sky. Ephiny had given them directions to the most remote Amazon territory where they wouldn't be disturbed. Amused by Gabrielle's request for 'normal' clothes, she had also found some casual attire for them. They wore loose-fitting, sleeveless blouses; short, cloth wrap-skirts; and sandals. They were both pleased with themselves, each thinking she talked the other into a day of relaxation.
"Surprised you didn't insist on holding the reins," Xena teased over her shoulder.
"I'm right here if you need help," Gabrielle said in a lazy tone. Her head was leaning on Xena's left shoulder; her arms loosely encircled the warrior's waist. She was thinking for the hundredth time how happy she was to have Xena back.
"Tell me where we're going, Queen."
"We could go swimming in this stream," Gabrielle offered. "A picnic in a sunny meadow would be nice, or we could lie under a tree all day."
Xena tugged Argo to a stop and twisted around with a smile. "Let's do all those things."
Thrilled to hear Xena's uncharacteristic enthusiasm, Gabrielle jumped down and began to take her sandals off.
"What are you doing?!" Xena looked befuddled.
"Swimming was first on the list, right?" She jumped up and ran over to the bank of the stream. She pulled off her clothes and jumped in before Xena could dismount.
Amused by her friend's spontaneity, Xena chuckled and watched her splash in the water.
"Xena, the idea was that WE could go swimming. What are you waiting for? Solstice?!"
"Be right there." Xena slid to the ground and tied the reins to a branch. She stripped her clothes off and walked to the water's edge.
Gabrielle swam to the bank and held one hand out to steady Xena's decent into the stream. As soon as Xena stretched her fingers out, Gabrielle grabbed and yanked her in head-first. Before Xena resurfaced, Gabrielle held a brass warrior's helmet out above the water. Xena's head rose right up into it.
The warrior's eyes widened for only an instant before she heard Gabrielle's laughter. She stood in the stream, scowling but making no effort to remove the helmet.
"Ha, ha," Xena said flatly. She finally lifted the muddy thing off her head and studied it. "Where on Olympus did you find this?"
"In the sand where I stepped into the stream."
"It's not Greek..." Xena turned it in her hands, pondering its design.
Gabrielle paddled over to Xena. "How do you think it got here?"
"You plopped it on my head!" With lightening speed, Xena dropped the helmet onto Gabrielle, gave a loud yelp, and dove under the water.
Gabrielle threw it off and chased after Xena. They wrestled and splashed in the water for a while, elated to be together.
The stream was not more than twenty feet wide, but it was deeper than an ordinary stream. Its current was slow, and the water was crystal clear.
"I'm going to check on Argo." Xena waded over to the bank. Satisfied her mount was fine, she turned back to the water. She didn't see Gabrielle at first. Then she spotted the bard about ten yards downstream. She was treading water near the opposite bank, looking intently at something. Xena swam to her. "What is it?"
"I'm not sure... a chest, I think." Gabrielle pointed through the water to something partly submerged in the bed of the stream, about eight feet below.
Xena saw it too. She dove beneath. Two minutes passed, then she burst through the surface. "You were right. It is a chest. I was able to clear the sand covering it. If you help me, we might be able to pull it up."
"Let's do it," Gabrielle said excitedly.
"On three," Xena prompted. "One, two..."
"Three!" Gabrielle plunged below, pulling Xena with her.
They worked furiously to dig sand away from the sides of the chest. They each found a handle. Nodding to one another, they strained to pull it upwards. It moved a few inches. Knowing they couldn't finish the job without more air, Xena motioned to go up.
"We'll get it this time," Gabrielle's said, her face flushed with the challenge. She gulped a few deep breaths. "Ready?"
"Yeah." Xena dove, and Gabrielle followed.
Xena scooped away more sand from her side of the chest and gestured for Gabrielle to try again. Gabrielle gripped the handle and waited for Xena's signal. The warrior planted one foot against a rock and nodded to Gabrielle. They both heaved with all their might. The chest came loose and rose, causing shifting sand to cloud the water. Running out of oxygen, Gabrielle let go and swam up. Xena pulled the chest sideways so it wouldn't fall back into the hole it came from. Before she kicked to the surface, she noticed it was locked.
"We did it!" Gabrielle sputtered as she emerged.
Xena pushed her bangs back off her forehead. "Well, we uprooted it. It's very heavy, Gabrielle, and it's locked."
"Xena, do you think this chest is related to the helmet I found?"
"Probably. The design on the chest is the same as on the helmet."
"We have to try to open it." Gabrielle looked at her companion with anticipation.
Xena thought for a second. "A hard blow with a stone might break the lock... it looked like it has deteriorated some." Xena swam to the bank. She found a dense, straight-edged stone and held it up. "This could work." She returned to Gabrielle.
Before they dove again, Gabrielle touched Xena's arm and laughed. "You know, this is way more fun than hunting for the Sumerian treasure."
Xena grinned in agreement. "Let's go."
When they reached the chest, Xena began hammering at the lock. After three blows, it broke. Xena's fingers worked rapidly to remove the lock from the clasp. It fell to the bottom. She jarred the top of the chest. Gabrielle watched intently as the lid opened and sunlight reflected through the water on thousands of pieces of gold.
"Are you sure we couldn't drag it out, Xena?" Gabrielle sat on a blanket lacing her sandals.
"Even if Argo could pull it to the bank, Gabrielle, then what? We'd need a wagon to haul it anywhere." Dressed, except for her blouse, Xena continued to squeeze water from her long hair.
"You're right," Gabrielle said disappointedly. "I just wanted to see the look on the Amazons' faces when we brought it back this evening. Xena, think how that gold could be used! The huts can be repaired, the boundaries fortified, new weapons and supplies..."
Xena pulled her blouse down over her head. She walked over and kneeled next to the bard. "Gabrielle, they'll be just as happy when you tell them about it... and you have all day to perfect the story."
Gabrielle's eyes sparkled. "Xena, who do you think that chest belonged to?"
"Don't know, but it has been there for very long time."
"I wonder why no one found it before now."
Xena shrugged. "Ephiny said this was the least traveled part of their land."
"Or, maybe a storm or flood uncovered it recently."
Xena nodded at the possibility. "Anyway, it will be waiting for us when we come back."
A look of doubt crossed Gabrielle's face.
Xena laid a hand on her friend's shoulder. "Someone would have to come a long way through Amazon territory undetected to get to this stream. Chances are next to none that anyone will find that chest between now and tomorrow. We'll come back then with a heavy wagon and horses. Gods know how much all that gold must weigh!" She stretched her shoulders back, as if they were sore.
Gabrielle nodded and absently straightened Xena's blouse around her neck. "Isn't it wonderful, Xena?"
"Yeah, it is." Xena stood and held out a hand to help Gabrielle to her feet. "Now, what's next on your list to do?"
"All that digging and lifting made me hungry. Shall we find a place to eat?"
"Sounds good." Xena rolled the blanket and secured it to Argo's saddle. She climbed onto the horse and pulled Gabrielle up behind her.
Gabrielle wrapped both arms firmly around Xena's middle as Argo started.
Knowing that a tight hold wasn't necessary, Xena turned her face to acknowledge
Gabrielle's affection. When she did, the bard placed a soft, quick kiss
on her cheek. Xena laid her hand over Gabrielle's arm and steered Argo
from the stream.
After talking a little more about the chest, Gabrielle became quiet. Xena assumed she was thinking up a story about the gold.
The warrior let her thoughts wander. She was infinitely pleased to be back in her body. She was especially glad for the feeling of Gabrielle leaning against her back. The bard's arms about her reminded Xena of the intimacy they had shared in the past two days. She thought about their kiss. She wondered if Gabrielle assumed it was Autolycus who influenced that kiss. Maybe it didn't matter.
Xena knew she loved Gabrielle with all her being. The bard had stirred parts of her heart which were nearly dead. She couldn't imagine life without Gabrielle. The woman touched her soul beyond words. That was just it... beyond words. When she kissed Gabrielle, it was because she had been overwhelmed with the desire to convey her love. Although she didn't like to admit it, verbal expression was not one of her strongest skills. With Gabrielle, she had used a kiss to say what she didn't have the time or composure to put into words.
A rush pulsed through Xena's body when she thought of Gabrielle's lips. Perhaps there could have been more to that kiss. Long ago she'd recognized she was attracted to the bard. At first, she was hesitant to admit it to herself. Even when she did, she refused to let her mind entertain erotic thoughts. Their relationship was the one pure thing in her life. She would not disrespect it with notions that weren't requited. She had erected a mental wall to block such temptation.
Xena shifted her weight in the saddle. She wished she could hear Gabrielle's thoughts again. True, those thoughts she'd heard from the other side contained nothing amorous. But, then, Gabrielle would not have been thinking of physical pleasure at a time like that. Her mind had been saturated with grief.
But now, Xena couldn't help wondering if Gabrielle didn't also perceive there could be more. Gabrielle had allowed her kiss... perhaps she had even kissed her back. On the other hand, Gabrielle was probably just riding a wave of emotion... a wave which took her where she ordinarily wouldn't go. Xena sighed. They had both been so fatigued and fragile that night; things could be easily misinterpreted.
'Oh, get off it,' Xena scolded herself. She hated it when she over-analyzed things. She nudged Argo to quicken the horse's sluggish pace.
Gabrielle hopped off Argo and looked around. Xena had found a gorgeous place for them to have lunch. It was a lush, green meadow, not far from the stream. The bard could hear the water as it rippled through a shallow bend. Rolling hills met the horizon in the distance.
"Xena, this is beautiful! I am going to write about that gold... and when I develop the story, I'm going to put this spot right in it!"
The warrior pulled their pouches from Argo's saddle and unrolled a blanket. A few minutes later, she reclined and watched Gabrielle unpack the lunch Solari had made them.
Gabrielle sensed Xena's eyes on her. Without looking at the warrior, she held a wine skin out with one hand while she continued to work with the other. "The whole sky," she said coolly.
Xena took the skin and lifted it to drink. Then remembering Gabrielle's words from the night before, she hesitated and let the skin drop. She looked at the bard.
Gabrielle's face, now turned toward Xena, held the hint of a smile. She had been waiting for Xena to realize what she meant.
The warrior smiled genuinely. She raised her eyes towards the clouds. Gabrielle had such an uncanny way of catching her off guard. Yes, 'the whole sky' was the perfect way to describe the extent of her love for this woman. She smiled in spite of herself and took a long drink from the wine skin.
"Not too much, or you'll be falling asleep too." Gabrielle traded Xena an apple and some dried meat for the wine. "Not that you don't need more sleep. Xena, how do you feel?"
"Verrrry well. You don't need to worry anymore, Gabrielle."
"I'll try not to, Xena, but you can't blame me. Just yesterday your body was dead, and today it was fighting a warrior for a chest of gold."
About to take a bite, Xena's teeth stopped short of the meat in her hand. Baffled, she stared at Gabrielle. "What warrior?!"
"The one the helmet belonged to," Gabrielle giggled. "I'm going to write him into the story to make it more dramatic. You know... like, how about this? ...'the warrior dove into the water and attacked her like a blood thirsty shark.'" The bard flailed her arms in the air for emphasis.
Xena rolled her eyes. "If you really want to add a little authenticity, you should just wear the helmet while you're telling the tale."
"But it looks so much better on you!"
Xena gave a wry grin and bit into the meat.
"You know, Xena, that was the second time in as many days that I got you."
"The first time didn't count because it wasn't intentional, and catching a person off guard after you've just tried to drown her isn't playing fair," Xena replied in a bored tone.
Gabrielle threw up a hand in feigned exasperation.
They'd been eating for several minutes when Gabrielle looked tentatively at her friend. "Xena, you said we should talk." The bard knew it was difficult to coax Xena into talking about her feelings. Sometimes the warrior would just walk away from her when she didn't want to talk. Gabrielle had learned that Xena was less likely to refuse if she were already preoccupied with something else... like eating. Many of their best discussions had been at dinner.
Xena munched on a bite of apple and cocked an eyebrow at Gabrielle. "Yes, I did."
She looked at the half-eaten apple in her hand with false interest. She took another bite and another. Her eyes became clouded as she gazed into the distance.
Gabrielle sliced some cheese, trying to seem patient.
Xena sat up. "Gabrielle, you remember, at Cirra, I said I wanted to understand why I was who I was. I want you to know what I've learned... what happened while I was out of my body."
Gabrielle put a piece of cheese into her mouth and chewed while she waited, staring intently at Xena.
Xena turned the apple core over in her hand, looking at it as if the words she would speak were written on it. She sighed and threw it over her shoulder into the weeds. "Did Nicklio tell you how I came to know him?"
"Yes. He told me about M'Lila... She must've been a remarkable person." Gabrielle saw the immediate pain on Xena's face.
One glistening tear came to Xena's eye. She brushed it away before it fell. "She was."
Not sure what to do, Gabrielle grabbed a another piece of fruit and handed it to her.
Xena took it without thinking. She seemed to be miles away. Her blue eyes narrowed, and a sneer crept over her face as she began to speak.
"After Amphipolis was attacked... after Lyceus was killed... nothing made sense." Xena cringed with a dark chuckle. "I'd never have admitted it then, but I was very lost and alone. I tried to fill the void with the plunder of those I defeated and with power. ...But, I was still empty."
Gabrielle hung on Xena's words.
"Then M'Lila came. During the months we spent on my ship, we were very close, although I didn't realize how close until later. At the time, I was oblivious to everything except power." Xena's nostrils flared.
"M'Lila showed me much more than how to fight. She taught me... about loyalty... about wisdom... about love. Besides my brother, M'Lila was the only person who had ever loved me unconditionally. She was the only one who gave to me without expectations... fought for me without reason. I now recognize that she'd replaced what I lost when Lyceus died." Xena stared at the fruit in her hand but didn't see it.
The bard lowered her eyes and considered what Xena was saying.
"In the face of all the evil and greed and betrayal... M'Lila's goodness was the only thing that helped me make sense of the world. When they killed her... there was no more goodness. I had no hope of ever finding it again... in myself or anyone else. I only had hope for revenge... for her death and for Amphipolis... I believed it was my destiny."
Gabrielle held her breath until Xena spoke again.
"After M'Lila died, there was only blackness... but I didn't care. The perpetual darkness meant I didn't have to look at those I murdered... or at myself. Xena bowed her head and said lowly, "Even after Hercules... even after I returned to Amphipolis... the shadows were always there, obscuring everything."
A lump formed in Gabrielle's throat.
Xena pushed herself up and stepped off the blanket. She continued to look into the field. "M'Lila was the girl."
Gabrielle's eyebrows shot up, and she leaned forward.
"She tried to come to me when we were there, near Cirra. She knew I couldn't see it on my own... she was there to help me. But then..." Xena frowned and became quiet.
Wanting very much to hear more, Gabrielle restrained herself from urging Xena to go on.
"While I was on the other side, M'Lila found me. She said it was up to me to choose my destiny. But she knew that I couldn't see to choose... because I'd become blind from looking at the dark for so long. ...And, so she made me listen."
The warrior shook her head to clear it. She looked down and focused for the first time on the peach she held in her fingers. She turned and kneeled in front of Gabrielle, laying the fruit aside. She placed her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders.
"Gabrielle, what I heard was your voice." Xena spoke with barely more than a whisper. "I heard you... loving me, fighting for me, trying to teach me... giving me a reason to go on." Tears welled in Xena's eyes. "I heard your goodness as if it were ringing from the temples in Athens."
The bard grinned through her own tears at Xena's choice of words.
Xena hands moved to hold Gabrielle's. "I heard my destiny."
"Xena..." Gabrielle started to embrace her, but Xena stopped her arms and tenderly lowered them.
"I'm not finished."
Gabrielle looked at her steadily, astonished to hear the warrior express herself this way.
"Gabrielle, I'm so sorry I didn't see..." Tears slid down Xena's cheeks. "How many times did you try to tell me goodness could change things... change me." The warrior pursed her lips as she searched for the right words. "You know that saying, 'it's darkest before the dawn?' ...It was like that. These years we've been together, your goodness has shined on me... like a light. Even in my darkness, I must have felt it... getting brighter and stronger... I must have sensed there was a truth to be seen. I know I longed for it.... longed to be convinced the blackness in my soul wasn't permanent... but I couldn't see it. That made the darkness all the worse. I think that's why I was so distant and despondent those last days... why I didn't say goodbye."
Now Xena let Gabrielle put her arms around her. Kneeling on the blanket, they held each other. Gabrielle thought she felt Xena's body shake with a sob. Xena took Gabrielle's shoulders in her hands again.
"One more thing, Gabrielle... the most important thing." Xena's voice became firm. "Don't blame yourself. You told me so many times that goodness could conquer... and you showed me in a hundred ways how much you care." She looked more intently at the bard. "I know now that you love me like no one else ever could." She smiled and sighed. "But, there was nothing you could have said to extinguish that darkness. I had to go to the other side to be able to see it... and be able to hear you."
Gabrielle touched Xena's cheek. "Let's not punish ourselves anymore." They hugged closely again for a long time.
Feeling the tension and emotion beginning to subside, Xena stood and helped Gabrielle to her feet. She took a step back. Gabrielle blinked with understanding and gave Xena a cheerful smile.
Needing to settle herself, Xena backed up a another pace. "I should take Argo to drink."
Gabrielle clutched the warrior's arm. "No, Xena... I'll take her. Why don't you pull the blanket over to a tree and lie down in the shade. A nap was third on the list, remember?"
Before she could respond, Gabrielle was half way to the horse. Xena watched her guide Argo across the path to the stream.
The warrior turned and looked at the blanket, then to the shady grass under a nearby tree. She couldn't recall the last time she took a nap in the middle of the day. After repacking their leftover food, she dragged the blanket next to the tree. She lay down and looked at the branches above her, taking a deep, cleansing breath. She could see the sky through the leaves. She closed her eyes.
Hanging onto the saddle horn, Gabrielle leaned against Argo while the horse drank. She was glad to be alone. She didn't want Xena to see her tears which were falling again.
Xena had just opened up to her like never before. She was profoundly affected by the warrior's words of pain... and love. While Xena was talking, she had wanted to rush to her... to comfort her. Like always, she had wanted to say so many things. But, she knew it was Xena's turn to talk. She knew she must bottle her words and emotions so Xena would feel it was okay to release her own. But, Gabrielle was not one who could hold in her feelings. She had to get away from that field or burst with the love she was feeling. So she held onto Argo's neck and cried it out.
When she had calmed herself, she splashed water on her face and inhaled the fresh air. She picked up Argo's reins. "Come on, Girl." She led the horse back to the field.
Seeing that Xena was asleep, Gabrielle approached the blanket quietly. She sat down close to her. Asleep in the daylight, Xena looked more like a goddess than an angel. Her distinct features and physique were stunning. Gabrielle stroked her hair softly. Xena stirred and squinted sleepily a the bard. Gabrielle hushed her and patted her own thigh, indicating that Xena should lay her head there. The warrior obeyed and fell back to sleep.
She continued to run her fingers over Xena's hair. Gabrielle remembered how cold and remote Xena was when they first met. Yet, she had seen that magnificent spirit in Xena's eyes from the beginning, and it had captured her. She thought about the transformation she'd watched the warrior go through. It was probably transparent to the rest of the world... her guard was still so high. She was thrilled to know Xena trusted her. She knew she loved Xena more than she had ever loved anyone.
The warrior changed her position, putting her hand between her cheek and Gabrielle's leg. The bard looked at Xena's other hand. She wanted to take it in her own. She wanted to feel as connected to this woman as possible. If she thought Xena would allow it, she would lie down next to her and hold her as closely as she could. She wanted to say 'I love you' over and over in her ear.
Gabrielle felt her heart skip a beat. Maybe she shouldn't allow it herself. There were times she had impulses to touch Xena in a manner that would reveal more than friendship. She'd always pushed these thoughts away, remembering that Xena had never said anything which could be taken to mean she had the same urges.
She sighed and let her eyes drift. Yes, Xena kissed her through Autolycus, but had she kissed her with passion? That was an overpowering moment for both of them. She knew Xena may have simply reacted to the staggering emotions they'd felt. That kiss could be misconstrued in many ways.
The bard rested her hand on Xena's shoulder. She grinned at herself.
Why was she fretting about this? She was blessed to even have Xena with
her again. That was all that mattered. She smiled, lay back, and fell asleep.
Xena's hand on her shoulder woke Gabrielle.
"Shhh." Xena removed her hand and pointed to five women walking across the field in the distance. Each of them led a horse, and one of the horses pulled a wagon. They all wore swords, and two of them carried staffs as well. "They're dressed like Amazons, but I don't recognize them."
Gabrielle lifted her head and attempted to make out their faces. "I can't tell from here who they are."
"They're well armed... surprising, considering they're on their own land." Xena started to move but then looked at her companion. "What shall we do, Queen?"
"Like you said, Xena, it would be difficult for anyone to get this far into Amazon country. They're probably friends. Let's make ourselves known and find out." Gabrielle hoped she'd made a smart decision.
Xena winked at her. "Let's go."
Xena picked up Gabrielle's staff from beside the blanket and handed it to the bard. They walked toward the group of women. Noticing Xena and Gabrielle, the Amazons stopped and assumed a guarded stance. Xena increased her pace to get in front of Gabrielle. The tallest woman took three determined strides toward Xena.
Gabrielle stopped abruptly. She threw down her staff and locked her hands high above her head.
The reaction on the women's faces caught Xena's attention. She looked around to see what Gabrielle had done.
The woman who had stepped forward raised her chin in acknowledgment but frowned. "You offer an Amazon greeting... but you're not Amazons." Her eyes scanned them slowly, and a crooked smile came to her lips. Her posture became less rigid, as she took another step closer. "Telana..." she said over her shoulder.
One of the other women perked up. "Yeah?"
"What do you suppose two such extraordinary beauties would be doing out here alone together... in the middle of the day... looking as if they've just woken up?"
"Doesn't strike me the slightest bit odd," the other woman retorted. "Except, I can think of more interesting things to do than sleep!" All of the Amazons snickered.
The first woman saw Xena's eyes narrow. Her grin became kinder. "Okay, so who are you?"
"I'm Gabrielle, and this is my best friend, Xena." Gabrielle moved to stand next to the warrior.
The woman in front froze and stared at them. One of the women drew her sword. Xena tensed, and Gabrielle took a step back. The leader held up a hand as a signal to the others.
"Queen Gabrielle and Xena, Warrior Princess?" the woman asked suspiciously.
"Yes," Gabrielle said a little less pleasantly.
"Are you telling me that the Queen of the Amazons is out strolling through the countryside the very day after she took the throne?"
"That's... yeah, that's strange, isn't it?" Gabrielle's voice took on its usual story-telling cadence. "You see, we actually..."
"How dare you?!" The woman's voice was very stern. She slid her sword out of its scabbard. "The Warrior Princess is dead, and Queen Gabrielle is in morning. Now, who are you, and what are you doing in Amazon territory?"
Xena leaned toward Gabrielle and said under her breath, "A sword would come in handy right about now."
Gabrielle shot Xena a look of consternation.
"So, you've heard of the Warrior Princess?" Xena asked as she took a step forward.
"Who hasn't?" the leader shot back.
Almost before the woman spoke, Xena sprang into the air, somersaulting over her head. "Yi-yi-yi-yi-yi!" On her way down she kicked the sword out of the other woman's hand and landed behind her. The woman spun and lunged at Xena. The warrior did a back flip. As her feet flew up, they caught the woman's chin and sent her sprawling on the ground. Another woman ran at her, but Xena grabbed her arm and twisted her around. She put two fingers on the woman's jugular. "No, please!" the woman gasped. Without pinching the artery, Xena flung the woman to the grass and jumped into another somersault, coming down in front of Gabrielle. She kept her hands up, ready to fend off another Amazon. When none of them moved, she straightened and let her arms fall to her sides.
"Now you've met the Warrior Princess."
A deep crease formed between the leader's eyebrows. "You... were dead. How can this be?"
"I have amazing recuperative powers."
Gabrielle moved to Xena and gripped her elbow. She said in her most convincing tone, "The Amazons helped me bring Xena back from the dead. We were able to save her with ambrosia."
Astonished, the woman continued to study Xena, then her eyes came to rest on the bard. "And, how can we know that you're really the Queen?"
Gabrielle tightened her grasp on the warrior's elbow to keep her from charging at the woman. She thought for a moment. She picked up her staff and held it out.
The women's eyes were drawn to the blue and red merkin and woven leather binding. They immediately recognized it as the Queen's ancestral staff.
"Only the true Queen could carry a staff marked with those colors and that pattern," the leader stated in a low voice as if she were reassuring her companions. After a few seconds, she dropped to one knee. The others followed suit. "Please forgive us. We have come to honor you, Queen."
Gabrielle looked at Xena out the corner of her eye and whispered through her teeth. "I told you my staff was all we'd need."
The warrior's eyes blazed, but she didn't take them off the woman. She clenched her jaw to keep an ugly grin from her lips.
Gabrielle took two paces forward. "Rise and tell me who you are."
"We are from your tribe near Troy. I am Penthea. We received word that Princess Gabrielle had assumed the mask of queenhood. My sisters and I have traveled far to bring gifts and pledge our loyalty to the new Queen of the Amazons." Penthea approached Gabrielle and knelt again. She took the Queen's hand in her own and touched her bowed forehead to it.
Gabrielle's mouth dropped open. Xena watched expressionless.
"Welcome," Gabrielle stammered.
Penthea stood up directly in front of Gabrielle. She nodded her head with respect but kept her gaze riveted upon the queen. Her eyes were large and very deep brown. Her golden, shoulder length hair was pulled back through a leather headband. She looked to be the same age as Gabrielle. "The new Queen is indeed beautiful, as we've heard." Penthea's eyes twinkled and then rose to meet Xena's. "And, she keeps impressive company."
The corners of Xena's mouth turned up slightly, but she said nothing.
Looking to Gabrielle, Penthea went on. "The new Queen must also be very resourceful to find a way to bring someone back from the land of the dead. We share your joy for Xena's return."
"Thank you." The bard eyed Penthea curiously.
"It is our good fortune to find you here..." Penthea glanced at their clothing. "...but we have interrupted a day of leisure."
"Xena and I are spending a day away from the village."
"Of course. We will not bother you. We'll go on and perhaps have the pleasure of seeing you this evening." Penthea stepped back a pace. "Before we go, however, please accept a token of our allegiance." She opened a pouch which hung from her waist and extracted a large, sparkling blue sapphire. She placed it in Gabrielle's palm.
Gabrielle raised her hand to look at it more closely. It shone brilliantly in the sunlight.
Penthea observed the sudden smile on her face.
The bard held it up higher and whispered to Xena, "This doesn't compare to your eyes."
The warrior's lips parted in surprise.
Penthea overheard this remark, but pretended she didn't. "That is one of the many spoils of my tribe's recent battles. My tribe has fought bravely to win back Amazon territory that was lost during the ridiculous Trojan war... and we have conquered. On our wagon are other such gifts for you to divide among the Nation as you see fit."
"You were involved in the war at Troy?!" Gabrielle asked eagerly.
"My tribe did not fight for either side, although, as you must know, there were Amazons who fought with the Trojans. It was all my tribe could do to keep the Greek devils off our land. They took over much of our territory to set up their camps, as they did that of other neighboring villages. Since the war, there have been many territorial disputes, and we have been fighting to reestablish our boundaries. I am proud to report that we have actually extended our previous northeastern border."
Concerned that thoughts of Troy might be painful for Gabrielle, Xena interrupted. "We look forward to hearing more about this tonight."
Penthea touched her knee to the ground again. "Farewell, until this evening." She rose and motioned for the other women to carry on.
"Wait," Gabrielle said. "Do you know Ephiny?"
"Yes, we do," Penthea responded.
"When you arrive in the village, ask for her. She will see that your load is secured and you are well cared for."
"Thank you." As she followed the other Amazons towards the woods, Penthea cast a quizzical smile back over her shoulder.
Xena and Gabrielle were almost to their blanket before either of them spoke.
Gabrielle grabbed their pouch and tucked the gem inside. She sat down happily on the blanket. "Xena, such amazing things have happened today! First the gold, now visitors bearing valuable gifts, and word that the Nation is reclaiming its land!"
"Such is the life of a queen, Gabrielle." Xena walked past the blanket and looked to see that Argo was okay. The horse looked up and whinnied.
Xena turned and smiled knowingly at the bard. "How does it feel to control wealth and power?"
"You should know," Gabrielle stated.
"Hmmh... Those days were long ago, and my wealth was acquired by very different means." The warrior leaned against the tree.
"You know, Xena, the Amazons need a strong queen to ensure that gold is put to good use. The Nation could be rebuilt and regain the dominance it once had. The Amazons used to be such a stabilizing force in this part of the country. I'd love to see them be able to stand again against the warlords. With that gold and strong tribes like Penthea's, it could be possible."
"You're right, Gabrielle, but it won't be easy to do. If word gets out about that gold, every warlord from here to Sparta will be trying to get at it. The Amazons aren't yet prepared to defend themselves against multiple attacks. It will take a patient and shrewd strategy to strengthen the Nation without arousing suspicion or causing alarm."
"Can you imagine how Velasca would have handled this?" Gabrielle shuddered. "I have to talk with Ephiny when we get back. We've got to come up with a plan." Deep in thought, the bard's eyes glazed over.
Xena's eyebrow arched, and she stared at Gabrielle. She could tell the wheels were spinning in her friend's mind. Was Gabrielle considering remaining with the Amazons as their Queen?! The excitement on her face seemed to indicate she was. This was something the warrior had not expected. She mentally kicked herself. Why had she assumed Gabrielle would ride off with her and leave this life with the Amazons? Gabrielle had left Potidaea in search of adventure and to fulfill a sense of service. A life as Queen of the Amazons would certainly seem more thrilling and dignified than life as sidekick to a warrior princess. The feeling in the pit of her stomach reminded her of when Gabrielle announced she would go to live with Perdicus.
"Are you ready to head back?" Xena didn't wait for a response.
She walked toward her horse. "I'll get Argo; you bring our things."
Panic rising in her, she needed to do something besides think about Gabrielle.
She didn't know what in Tartarus she would do if the bard wanted to stay
with the Amazons, but she wasn't going to think about it right now.
Xena was still sullen when they rode into the village. Gabrielle, engrossed in her thoughts about the Amazon Nation, hadn't noticed. They were greeted by three members of the tribe who helped them dismount and took Argo to the stables. One woman whistled loudly and immediately a young girl appeared from a hut. She couldn't have been more than sixteen. Her hair was very blonde, and her hazel eyes shined. Her olive skin glowed with youthfulness. Clearly awed by Xena and Gabrielle, she shyly approached the Queen and bowed her head. She nodded at Xena without meeting her eyes. "Welcome back, Queen," she said nervously. "I am Tirce. A bath and fresh clothes are waiting for you. As you know, we have guests in the village. A dressed lamb and catch of trout are being prepared to share with them. The meal will be served when you are ready. Is there anything you would like?"
Surprised again by all the pampering, Gabrielle tried not to show it. "Where is Ephiny?"
"She is in her hut, with Penthea."
"Ask her to come to me after Xena and I have bathed."
"Yes, Queen." The girl took a took a breath of relief at being given such a easy task. She extended an arm in the direction of the bath hut. She smiled timidly and waited for Gabrielle and Xena to walk ahead of her.
When they neared the hut, Tirce almost stumbled as she rushed to open the door. Inside, she ran to put a log on the fire and then back to Gabrielle. "Please..." She motioned for Gabrielle to sit on a bench. The bard complied. Tirce's eyes were as round as Xena's chakram as they followed the Queen. Her mouth hung open as if she were in the presence of a goddess. Gabrielle blushed and stole a look at Xena.
Her mood rapidly thawing, Xena lowered her head and tried not to smile at the girl's blatant admiration.
Tirce kneeled and started to unlace Gabrielle's sandals, but the Queen stopped her.
"No, no, don't do that." Gabrielle took the girl's hand and urged her to stand up.
Tirce looked as if she would faint. Gabrielle put one arm around the girl's waist and touched her cheek with her other hand. The girl's mouth fell open. Xena continued to watch through her bangs, thoroughly tickled.
"I'm sorry," Tirce said, barely loud enough to hear. "Did I do something wrong?"
"No, you've been very helpful." Gabrielle smiled as warmly as she could. "It was very kind of you to offer to help me undress, but I think it's more important that you take my message to Ephiny, okay?" She led Tirce toward the door.
The girl gazed into Gabrielle's eyes, forgetting to let go of her arm. Then she remembered herself. "Oh, right, I'll tell her straight away." She bowed and scampered out of the hut.
When she turned, Gabrielle was greeted by a broad grin on Xena's face. The bard walked back to the bench and pointed a finger at her. "Don't start."
"What?" Xena asked innocently.
"You know what."
"I happen to think she has the right idea."
"About undressing me??" Gabrielle eyes widened, and she stood still.
Now it was Xena's turn to blush. She faltered for a second. "I meant her adoration for you."
"Oh," Gabrielle nodded and dropped her eyes. She looked back to Xena and smiled. "Thank you."
Xena's cheeks remained flushed as she watched Gabrielle begin to remove her clothes. "I'm not sure that tub is big enough for both of us. I'm going to take a walk. I'll bathe after you've finished." Xena was out the door.
Gabrielle wasn't surprised by Xena's quick exit. She could tell the warrior was feeling the same awkwardness she was about the 'undressing' thing. They had helped one another disrobe many times without embarrassment or tension. Gabrielle shook her head. That kiss had definitely changed things.
The bard looked down at the knot which tied her skirt at her waist. For a brief instant she saw Xena's hands begin to loosen it. She felt the warrior's fingers brush against her skin and saw them suddenly become still. She felt Xena's fingertips tentatively touch her waist and then felt warm palms become brave as they slid over her skin to her back. She inhaled sharply as she was pulled against Xena's body. Before she had a chance to catch her breath, the warrior's mouth was on her own in a full, urgent kiss. Powerful emotions propelling them, they kissed with an intensity that caused the bard to release a small cry from her throat.
Gabrielle's knees buckled, and she sat down hard on the side of the
tub. She caught herself before she fell in. "Dumb, dumb, dumb,"
she said aloud. She ripped the knot of her skirt apart. 'You know better
than to do this to yourself,' she thought. 'You're going to drive yourself
insane if you don't keep these thoughts out of your head.' All of her clothes
on the floor, she stepped into the tub, sat, and leaned against the side.
'Xena...' she breathed as she laid her head back against the bricks.
Xena strolled through the village. Because Gabrielle had declared a day of morning, it was very quiet; few Amazons could be seen. The warrior enjoyed the privacy. She sat down on the steps of the ceremonial platform. The funeral pyre had been cleared from the village center. Black flags hung from the poles which normally displayed the Nation's colors.
Xena chuckled as she remembered the terror Autolycus had felt as she flung his body to the top of the funeral pyre. He was certain death was imminent and had rattled off a prayer to Hermes. Dear Autolycus. She wondered how she could repay him.
The warrior heard footsteps, and she knew them. "Hello, Ephiny," she said without looking at the approaching figure.
"Hello, Xena." The Amazon sat down next to her. "I expected to find Gabrielle with you."
"She's bathing," Xena said, a wistful look on her face. She glanced self-consciously at Ephiny. "You've been talking with Penthea?"
"Yes, Penthea and I are old friends. She used to visit our tribe often, before Melosa became Queen. She has brought wonderful news... and a cargo of treasure."
"Where is it now?" Xena's expression became serious as she faced her friend.
"Don't worry, it's well protected."
Xena was quiet for a few moments. "How much treasure?"
"Enough to make a huge difference for us," Ephiny said with a satisfied grin.
"Gabrielle is hoping it will. She wants to talk with you about it. She has some ambitious ideas."
Ephiny gaped. "She's going to stay then?! I half expected her to renounce the mask now that she has you back."
Somewhat surprised by Ephiny's frankness, the warrior returned her gaze to the clearing in front of them. "I don't know what she plans to do, Ephiny."
Puzzled, Ephiny studied Xena. She saw the tension in her face. "What will you do, Xena?"
The warrior blinked but didn't reply. She kept staring ahead.
Mustering her courage, Ephiny raised her chin slightly and said evenly, "You two are very lucky, you know."
Xena gave her a questioning glance.
"You and Gabrielle... what you have. It's rare."
"Yes, Gabrielle is the best friend anyone could ever have."
Ephiny hesitated at the warrior's words. "Friend?"
Xena felt the heat rise in her face.
The Amazon wrinkled her brow. Why was Xena being coy with her? Surely they had come through enough that they could talk about this. Then she saw the color on Xena's cheeks, and an absurd thought entered her mind. It couldn't be! How could Xena and Gabrielle not have acknowledged their feelings after all this time? Ephiny stared harder at Xena.
Becoming annoyed, Xena responded with a raised eyebrow.
"Xena, I'm talking to you as someone who has spent her whole life with women who love each other... I know I'm not mistaken."
"What are you saying?"
Ephiny exhaled incredulously. Was the Warrior Princess going to make her spell it out? "Xena, you were in Gabrielle's mind. You do know how she feels... don't you?"
Xena twisted her head toward Ephiny, a dangerous look in her eye.
Ephiny gulped but maintained her inquiring gaze.
Xena looked away. "There wasn't time for that, Ephiny. We were fighting Velasca, for Gaia's sake."
Not daring to say more, Ephiny remained silent.
After several long minutes, Xena spoke. "How do you know so much anyway?"
"I have two eyes."
The warrior kept staring into space. "And what is it you see?" she asked cautiously, wondering if she had been blind to yet another obvious truth.
Ephiny lowered her voice with tenderness. "I see that Gabrielle is in love with you."
Xena didn't move or say a word.
"And, it's obvious that you're in love with her." Ephiny put her hand on Xena's shoulder.
A tear fell from the warrior's eye. She wiped it away immediately. "It's not that simple, Ephiny."
"Isn't it?" She squeezed Xena's shoulder. After a few seconds, she stood and left the warrior alone with her thoughts.
Xena walked along the outskirts of the village. The low, early evening sun flickered through the trees as she passed them. Ephiny's words echoed in her mind.
'Give it up,' she said to herself, finally surrendering to the fact that she might just be in love with Gabrielle. Still, she couldn't dare think the bard was in love with her too. Ephiny had seemed so sure, but Xena wasn't. This took a good deal of believing.
Voices in the distance caught Xena's attention. She looked through the trees and recognized two Amazons from the village. They were walking towards her very slowly, talking softly. They were holding hands. The warrior remembered the countless times she and Gabrielle walked through the woods, sharing their thoughts, telling stories from their pasts, learning about one another... enjoying each other's company.
When Xena returned her gaze to the women, she didn't see two Amazons. She saw herself with Gabrielle. She felt the bard's soft hand in her own, the thumb caressing her forefinger. A tug on her arm made her stop and turn towards Gabrielle. She saw loving eyes looking up at her and saw them begin to smolder as the bard pulled her another step closer until their bodies were almost touching. She felt the fingers of Gabrielle's other hand touch her cheek softly before they moved to her neck just below her ear. Like a feather, the bard's thumb brushed over her earlobe once as her hand became firm on the back of her neck and pulled her head close. Gabrielle removed her other hand from Xena's and placed the fingertips lightly on the warrior's mouth. Xena felt herself tremble. The bard moved her fingers across Xena's lips. Then, she slowly replaced her fingers with her mouth, her fingers barely breaking contact before her lips touched. Gabrielle kissed her with exquisite tenderness. Her lips gently parted the warrior's. She sensuously touched her tongue to Xena's and leaned fully into her body.
"Are you okay, Xena?"
The warrior jumped and focused her eyes on the two Amazons, who had by now walked to where she was standing.
She recovered herself. "Yeah, I'm fine."
"You looked like you were breathing hard, and your face is flushed," one of the women said with a concerned look. "Would you like us to walk back into the village with you?"
"No, you go ahead. I'm okay... truly."
The women gave her another doubtful look and proceeded on their way.
Xena leaned her head back and breathed deeply. Maybe she did need help back to the village. Her body felt like mush. She tried to get a hold of herself. A part of her wanted to sprint into the village, find Gabrielle, pull her close, and repeat the scene she had just imagined. But, she knew if she did, she would never want to let go. She sighed and admired the colorful sunset.
Another part of her suddenly screamed. What was she thinking?! She knew neither of them were ready for that. It hadn't been long since Gabrielle lost Perdicus. Also, the bard's experiences with intimacy were unbelievably limited. 'I might scare the life out of her,' Xena thought.
More to the point, she still didn't know what Gabrielle's intentions were regarding the Amazons. If she was going to keep the mask, Xena wasn't sure what that would mean to their relationship. No sense introducing intimacy into their lives at such an uncertain time. She would have to find out what the bard planned to do before she could even think about anything else.
Xena sighed and clenched her fist. She wondered how her heart could
ache so intensely and simultaneously sing with such incredible joy. A little
calmer, she turned around and increased her pace and towards the village.
After she'd bathed and dressed, Xena stepped out of the bath hut. She could smell food. Looking down at her Amazon clothing, she grimaced and promised herself she'd never again turn her armor and leathers over to Gabrielle. The clothes which had been left for her were comfortable enough, but she didn't feel herself in them. She wore a leather skirt which hung just a little lower than her own leathers and a sleeveless cloth blouse. The blouse was similar to the one she'd worn during the day, except it was made from a finer material. It was accented with leather at the shoulders, and it had leather lacings at the abdomen. She had been given boots instead of sandals, for which she thanked Artemis.
Xena looked and listened for Gabrielle. She hadn't seen her since she left the bard in the bath hut hours ago. She strode toward the village center. A hush still permeated the atmosphere.
The warrior stopped when she reached the clearing. An enormous fire burned in a dugout. Another smaller fire flamed under several pots. Torches lit the vicinity. She saw Penthea and two of the visiting Amazons standing with Solari, apparently engaged in light conversation. 'No doubt, Penthea is flirting with Solari,' Xena mused. The other two guests sat on benches near a table which was set for a meal. Neither Solari nor the others wore armor. They all held wine goblets in their hands. Xena approached Solari.
"Xena! We've been waiting for you." Solari motioned for a girl to bring wine for Xena.
"Where's Queen Gabrielle?" Xena asked as she held up a hand to refuse the goblet of wine.
"There, with Ephiny." Solari pointed to a hut. "They've been talking for a long time." Xena could see Ephiny through the thin fabric which hung over the door. She headed towards the hut. As she neared the door, she heard Gabrielle's voice. Its tone made her stop in her tracks. She listened.
"The Amazons have done so much for me, Ephiny. You've given me a home." Gabrielle paused. "Funny... it's the hardest decision I've ever made, but it's also the easiest."
"I know, Gabrielle." Ephiny's voice trailed off.
Xena could tell the two women had embraced.
"Now look," Gabrielle was talking again. "I'll do it first thing in the morning. Afterwards, we'll retrieve Velasca's body from the Hall of Ambrosia and make arrangements for the funeral." The bard's voice became excited. "And, then, we'll go pull that gold out of the stream!" They both laughed.
Xena could hear that they were now walking toward the door. She started to back away so it wouldn't appear obvious she'd been listening. Before she could move, she heard Ephiny's voice become serious.
"Gabrielle, when will you tell Xena?"
The warrior was rooted to the ground. She looked at her feet, willing them move. Her ears burned as she waited to hear Gabrielle's response.
Xena's head jerked up. Her eyes met Gabrielle's as she pulled the fabric back from the door. Xena didn't know what to say.
"Where've you been?" The bard put her hand on Xena's arm. She asked playfully, "Have you been in the tub all this time?" She took one of Xena's hands and inspected the palm. "Nope, your hands aren't pruney."
"Come on you two." Ephiny goaded them towards the table. "Our guests are probably faint from hunger."
Gabrielle was dressed in attire much like she'd had on the day before. The only difference was she wore a shorter skirt and a cloth bodice. Xena noticed an earring hung from her left ear. She looked every bit the Queen of the Amazons.
Gabrielle and Xena exchanged greetings with the visiting Amazons and took their places;
Gabrielle at the head of the table, Ephiny at the other end, Xena on Gabrielle's right, and Penthea on the left. The Queen reached and squeezed Xena's hand quickly as they sat down.
Xena looked up in time to see that Penthea had noticed this gesture.
Solari signaled for the servers to bring the food. Roasted lamb, fried trout, and a variety of vegetables were offered to everyone. Baskets of bread and fruit and flasks of wine were set on the table.
Interested in the warrior's exploits, Penthea immediately attempted to engage Xena in conversation. Xena replied to most of her questions with one-word answers. Eventually, Penthea gave up.
As they ate, they all discussed Xena's rescue. The warrior, however, remained very quiet. Penthea thought she appeared flustered and began to study her nonchalantly.
Gabrielle studied her too, but with apprehension.
"...Because Velasca had broken his arm, Autolycus couldn't climb the ropes. So, Xena..." Ephiny described how Xena had entered Gabrielle's body and fought Velasca.
The Queen looked at Xena with what Penthea thought was one of the most loving gazes she'd ever seen. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Xena slowly lift her face to Gabrielle. She saw her take a deep breath and look away with a hard swallow. Even in the firelight, Penthea could see the glow on Xena's face.
"...And, then, Gabrielle placed the ambrosia into Xena's mouth..." Ephiny's voice became hushed. The guests stopped eating, listening with rapt attention.
Xena looked back to Gabrielle. Penthea forgot herself and stared at them. The warrior's eyes seemed to become smoky.
Penthea suddenly raised her chin slightly, as if she'd just realized something. She looked curiously at the Queen and then at Ephiny.
The glint in her eyes warned Ephiny she was up to something. Ephiny finished the story and narrowed her eyes at her friend.
Penthea smiled slyly and turned to Gabrielle. "So, Queen Gabrielle... traveling with the renowned Warrior Princess must be very... stimulating and... enjoyable. Tell us... what has excited you most?" Every head at the table looked up except the bard's.
Gabrielle finished chewing a bite of potato and looked at Xena, who seemed to be glaring at Penthea. Still gazing at the warrior, she said with enthusiasm, "Oh, it is exciting! But, I could never narrow it down to ONE thing." She turned to the guests, and her hand gestured in front of her. "Every day with Xena is unique. Some days there's excitement in the morning... you know, we've been unexpectedly aroused by something... but Xena always takes care of it in time for breakfast. Or, I remember once, in the middle of the afternoon, a fire was burning in a valley... and Xena rushed down to quench it. And, oh, at night... I never know what to expect. One time, I was fast asleep, and all of a sudden I was awakened by something wet on my face. It was..."
"They get the idea, Gabrielle!" Xena growled into her plate.
The Queen smiled warmly at the warrior and turned to Penthea who had stopped eating. "Is the fish to your liking?"
"Uhmm... yes... thank you." Penthea collected herself and looked at Ephiny with wide eyes.
Except for the clearing of throats, there was silence for a few seconds.
Gabrielle cocked her head at Penthea. "Tell me more about the Trojan war. What do you know about the Amazons who fought with Troy?"
Penthea hesitated, then spoke. "My mother fought with Troy."
Gabrielle put her fork down and stared at her. Penthea continued to eat.
"Queen Gabrielle..." Ephiny said.
The bard looked across the table to her friend.
"Penthea's mother was Penthesilea... she was once the Amazon Queen... before Melosa."
Gabrielle fixed her eyes on Penthea.
"I've never completely understood why my mother chose to leave the Amazons and fight for Troy. But, whatever her reasons, she fought valiantly. It took a god to defeat her."
"Which god?" Gabrielle asked, mesmerized by the Penthea's words.
"Achilles," Xena said with a steely voice.
Gabrielle clutched Xena's wrist, just as it was lifting a bite. "You know this story?! Why haven't you told me about it?"
"You're the story-teller, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle glanced at Xena. Something was definitely not right with the warrior. She turned her attention back to the others. "I'm sure there are dozens of wonderful stories about the Amazons. I hope I can add to them."
Xena felt her blood run cold. What was Gabrielle saying?! What had she said to Ephiny in that hut? The warrior's mind whirled. She stared at the fire. She'd might as well prepare herself... Gabrielle was going to tell her that she was wanted to rule as Queen of the Amazons.
"Xena?" Gabrielle's soft voice near her ear startled the warrior.
Xena looked into the bard's eyes. The concern there was so sincere. Xena felt herself unraveling. She stood up. Every eye turned to her as she did. She looked at Ephiny but said to everyone, "Please excuse me. I suppose I haven't fully regained my strength. Have a good night." With that, she strode across the clearing.
Gabrielle looked worriedly to Ephiny. Ephiny's face held a similar expression.
Solari glanced at them both quickly. She immediately took over the table conversation. "Have you all heard the story of when Xena fought as Gabrielle's champion against Melosa? Let me tell you about it...."
Gabrielle looked behind her, watching Xena walk away, and then at Ephiny.
The Amazon smiled and nodded at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle placed her hand lightly on Penthea's arm and said quietly, "I need to go. If I don't see you again this evening, please come and talk with Ephiny and me first thing in the morning."
"I will." Penthea grabbed the Queen's hand as she started to withdraw it. She looked in the direction where Xena had disappeared and back to Gabrielle. She said in a low voice so only Gabrielle could hear, "Does she know how much you want her?"
Gabrielle's breath caught, and her eyes bulged. She lowered her face as it began to redden.
"Forgive me, Queen, but I have loved enough to recognize the frustration of unfulfilled passion when I see it."
Gabrielle felt Penthea's eyes boring into her. "You both wear it on your faces every time you look at one another."
The bard's heart beat wildly against her ribs. She raised her head and opened her mouth, but nothing came out.
"I tell you this... partly... for selfish reasons..."
Gabrielle drew back slightly.
Penthea held up a reassuring hand. "I mean, I want my Queen to be calm and... contented before we do battle. It could be very dangerous for all of us if the Queen's mind was otherwise preoccupied with... unsatisfied needs."
Gabrielle wished she could lift her eyebrow the way Xena did. Instead,
she stood and grinned at Penthea. "Thank you," she said with
a hint of both sarcasm and sincerity.
When she opened the door of their hut, Gabrielle strained her eyes but saw no one in the dark room. If Xena hadn't come here, where would she have gone? She stood in the doorway, trying to decide where to look next.
"I'm here, Gabrielle."
The bard snapped her head towards Xena's voice. She could barely make out her figure standing in the shadows near the window. She wished she could see her face.
She closed the door and walked slowly around the bed to where Xena stood. Even when she got close, she couldn't read the warrior's expression. She put her hand on Xena's arm which was folded over the other in front of her body. Gabrielle pulled her into the bright moonlight.
Xena squinted and turned her head slightly.
"Xena... are you alright?"
"Yeah. Just thinking."
"About what?" Gabrielle searched her eyes.
"You... and me."
Gabrielle smiled instinctively but then furrowed her brow again.
Xena took Gabrielle's arm, backed her up a few feet, and made her sit down on the bed. She found a flint and lit a small oil lamp at the foot of the bed. She sat down herself and bent one leg up on the mattress so she could face the bard. "I want to talk to you, Gabrielle."
The bard's eyebrows raised. "Twice in one day! You're going to spoil me, Xena."
The warrior grinned and looked down for a second. After a deep breath, she said, "Gabrielle, I want you to know that I support your decision... and we'll work something out."
Gabrielle frowned and started to speak, but Xena cut her off with a raised hand.
"I told you this afternoon that I've found my destiny... that destiny is fighting for goodness." She paused and touched the bard's shoulder. "I suppose there are many representations of goodness in the world. But, for me, Gabrielle... YOU are goodness." She looked steadily into the bard's eyes. "You have given me a reason to atone... you've given me the belief that I can." Unable to come up with the words she wanted to say, Xena bowed her head. "...I need you."
Tears brimmed in Gabrielle's eyes. She tried to say something, but Xena stopped her again.
"I know you've decided to stay here as the Queen, and I understand why."
"Xena, I..." Gabrielle tried once more, only to be interrupted again.
"If it makes you happy, I want you to do it. ...And, I want you to know that I'll stay with you... somehow." Xena sat back a little and waited for the bard to talk.
Gabrielle blinked. She was very touched but very puzzled. Her eyes darted back and forth to each of Xena's.
The warrior waited... and waited. "You can talk now, Gabrielle."
The bard smiled and touched Xena's face. "Xena..." She shook her head. "Where in the known world did you get the idea that I decided to stay here?"
Xena looked shocked. She paused a second, then said, "All day long you've been talking about the how you could help the Amazons rebuild their Nation... the gold... Penthea's victories... I heard you tell Ephiny..."
"Well, I don't know what you heard, but you obviously missed something." Gabrielle gently picked up Xena's hand. "Xena, did you hear me say it was a hard decision?"
The warrior nodded and frowned.
"Hard, because I do want to see the Amazons become the strong Nation they once were. And, hard, because I love them. I would do anything I could for them. ...But, as much as I cherish the honor, I'm not cut out to be their Queen. ...I don't have the skills or the training to lead them in territorial battles." Gabrielle followed Xena's eyes as they started to drift. "I told Ephiny I want to turn the mask over to her... in fact, I intend to do so first thing in the morning."
Xena blinked with disbelief.
"Xena, you must have also heard me say it was the easiest decision I've ever made."
The warrior didn't respond.
"That's because the choice is YOU. What could be simpler than that?" Gabrielle scooted closer and took Xena's other hand. "More than ever, Xena, I feel like I belong... right here." She squeezed her hands. "In Potidaea, I always felt so dissatisfied and unsettled. I never feel that with you, despite our constant roaming. ...I've come to realize that home means more than the place I was born. I now know home means contentment... that place where my soul is nurtured. ...That place is with you."
The warrior brought one of Gabrielle's hands to her mouth and kissed it. She kept her lips pressed against it for several seconds as she studied the bard's face.
Gabrielle moved her hand from Xena's lips to catch a tear which fell from one of those impossibly blue eyes.
"Are you sure, Gabrielle? As Queen, you could have a very good life here... all your needs attended to... power... and all that gold."
"Xena!" Gabrielle's voice was a serious, pleading whisper. "I don't want that gold! ...I want you!" She placed her palm on Xena's chest, above her breasts. "I want the gold in your heart."
Another tear escaped Xena's eye as she pulled Gabrielle against her. "Gabrielle, you ARE my heart."
Some time later, Xena extinguished the flame in the lamp.
In the early morning sunlight, Ephiny and Penthea stood together not far from the ceremonial platform. Penthea's face was trained on Gabrielle and Xena. Xena stood behind the bard on the platform. Gabrielle was talking to the tribe, explaining that she would relinquish the mask. Ephiny adjusted her armor and prepared to join them on the platform.
"What do you think?" Penthea asked without taking her eyes from the two women.
"About what?" Ephiny looked at Penthea and then followed her stare to Xena and Gabrielle.
"Do you think they finally put it all together?" Penthea voice became husky. "Do you think they..."
"Hard to say." Ephiny watched them closely.
"How could they not?" Penthea burst out. "We practically drew a picture for them." She tilted her head and continued to scrutinize their actions.
Ephiny studied them too. She observed Xena's expressions, and she noticed Gabrielle's eyes when they glanced at the warrior. "I don't think they did."
"What makes you so sure?"
"Just look at them."
"I am." Ephiny frowned. "I don't see any difference." She straightened her braces. "It doesn't matter... What they share far surpasses what most people even dream about. I don't think I've ever witnessed a relationship as beautiful as theirs. We all should be so fortunate."
"Yes..." Penthea sighed. "...but it would be pity if they didn't..." She scrunched her face and cocked her head to the other side, as if a different perspective might reveal something she hadn't seen before. She pouted. "Maybe you're right... maybe they didn't."
Ephiny looked at her compatriot with impatience on her face. "It's a puzzle, Penthea. Let it go. Besides, if they still haven't, they're on their own. Matchmaking isn't high on my list of things to do today." She straightened her shoulders and took a step toward the platform.
Penthea smirked. "But, I hate it when a puzzle is missing a piece."
Solari approached and smiled. "We're ready, Ephiny."
Penthea emerged from her reverie and looked at Solari. "What do you think, Solari?"
Ephiny rolled her eyes. "Ignore her," she said, pulling Solari along to the platform.
Penthea resumed her study of Xena and Gabrielle. "Hmmm... maybe they did..."
NOTE: No helmetless warlords, nameless Amazons, or lambs were harmed during the writing of this story. Cannot comment on the fate of the fish, but quite certain no harm was done.