Ephiny felt like a little child. She was hiding in a cart, covered with straw, bushels of root crops staining the air. They were taking her to their food storage! A cool cellar deep within a nearby cliff. If it wasn't so unwelcome, it might be funny, she thought. She carefully planned the long speech she would deliver to Solari. It would not be kind.
The entrance to the cave was large enough for Solon to bring in both horse and cart. He unhitched them, lowering the front of the cart carefully. "We're here, Ephiny. Hang on a minute, I'll get you out of there."
When she was uncovered enough to sit up, they both picked pieces of straw from her hair and clothes until they finally had to laugh. "It is rather ridiculous, isn't it," said Ephiny tousling the lad's hair.
"Can you walk a few steps? I'm not sure I can carry you." Solon regained his serious purpose.
Ephiny draped an arm around him and let the boy help her from the cart. He was deceptively strong: she knew where that came from. "I guess we won't go hungry," remarked Ephiny as they walked by rows and rows of vegetables and dried meats stored for the winter. She leaned heavily against him noting he had no trouble taking her weight.
A soft bed had been prepared in a roomy corner. Solon lay her down carefully, then bowed to her and intoned, "Your wish is my command."
She laughed. "Solon, you don't need to treat me like royalty."
"But you are royalty!"
"More like royalty in exile," Ephiny muttered. She saw his dejected posture. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that. It's not your fault, Solon, I'm just tired."
He cast her a look wise beyond his years, "I'll let you rest. I'll be right here, just call if you need anything."
Ephiny let her eyes close, acknowledging the effort expended in getting here had taken a heavy toll. She was asleep in moments. Solon stole in a short while later to see if she was sleeping, coming near her to watch her chest rise and fall in an easy rhythm. Convinced that she was fine, he crept out and positioned himself between Ephiny and the outside world.
* * * * *
Eponin walked about the village. It seemed so strange to be surrounded, under siege, and yet experience the freedom to roam around her home. Hardly freedom, she reminded herself, more like a little space in which to pace. As she knew would be the case, everyone had been told about Gabrielle's death. She was glad not to have to be the bearer of such news about the queen.
Pontonous caught her eye, she strode over to the scout remembering she was one of the party who'd brought Xena and Gabrielle here. Eponin would pay special attention to her today. Pontonous sat on a bench sharpening her sword. How like Xena, thought Eponin.
"May I?" asked Eponin. Pontonous scooted over and made room for Eponin to sit down. "I feel like a caged animal." With that, Eponin gave the scout the opportunity to express herself freely.
"I'd say that about sums it up," replied Pontonous.
"I know what I'd like to do..." A nod from Eponin encouraged her to continue. "I'd like to run through them and mount them all on my sword." Though she spoke in fighting words, she said them in a manner that showed Ephiny it was merely a manifestation of frustration.
"I think we all feel that way," Eponin patted her on her leg. "But actually, I was serious. Do you have any ideas?"
Pontonous stopped her work and regarded Eponin soberly. "A siege? They're dumb. They should know we can hold out longer than they can. We have plenty of supplies, food and water enough, shelter from storms. If we can be patient, it'll be over."
"Can we be that patient?"
"Well, that's the real question, isn't it Eponin." Pontonous pursed her lips. "Don't know." She didn't want to say anything that would make Eponin believe they didn't have confidence in her as their leader, but she wanted to admit that it would be easier if Ephiny was there. And Gabrielle. And even Xena. Instead, she tried another approach, "Do you have any ideas?"
"I can see only two courses of action. The first is as you suggested, just wait it out. The second is to take action. Go on the offensive."
"There are a lot of them out there..."
"And we're supposed to be avoiding a war, not contributing to one." Eponin knew her decisions would be based on many factors, not the least of which was their future. She had to ensure they could fix the damage caused by Eriphyle, not render it irreparable by escalating their situation into an all-out war.
"And so we wait." Pontonous closed her eyes and leaned back.
"And keep thinking." Eponin gave Pontonous' shoulder a squeeze before continuing on her stroll.
* * * * *
Ephiny woke late in the day, feeling better. Solon heard her stir and came in with a water skin and some bread. "I was told I had to get some solid food down you or I'd lose my job." He kidded her as he helped her sit up. His hands were gentle, his touch secure. Ephiny again caught herself amazed by the boy. He has much of his mother in him, she mused.
"I'd hate for you to be demoted," said Ephiny, taking the bread and chewing small bites. It did not go down easily, for it was the first food she'd had in days. "So what have you been doing out there?"
"Not much," admitted Solon.
"You must be bored. All I do is sleep. Sorry I'm not better company."
"No, Ephiny, I'm happy to do this." She could almost see him blushing, "I don't get to spend much time with Amazons."
"I guess you don't. We aren't much for visitors, are we?"
"Not from the likes of me," he grinned in a boyish expression. He really was just a lad. "Ephiny... well if you feel like it... could you...I mean..."
"Out with it!" Ephiny growled.
He shivered at her tone until he read the playfulness in her face. "I don't get to hear many stories about the Amazons, or anybody like that."
"Oh, so you want to know about us, eh? I don't know, Solon, I'm not very good at stories."
"How do you get to be Queen?"
Ephiny shrugged, "I'm not really Queen, just Acting Queen." Then she stopped herself and continued in a hoarse whisper. "No. I guess I really am Queen now."
Solon pressed his small hand over hers. "I'm sorry Ephiny, I didn't mean..."
"I know you didn't. But Gabrielle's life is one that should be talked about. That will be how she lives on, by sharing the good deeds of her life with others just as she was always doing for Xena."
"Where's Xena now?"
Ephiny sighed. "I wish I knew. I'm afraid it will be long while before we see her again."
"I wish she'd let us help her."
"She's a proud woman, Solon. It's not easy for her to let her feelings show. Gabrielle meant everything to her," she put a hand on his cheek, "or at least very close to it," she let herself say. "But I do know you'll see her again." Ephiny eased herself down onto the bed. "Let me have another nap, my young friend. Then I'll tell you the story of how I became Acting Queen. It's a long story and you'll find parts of it hard to believe, but I swear they are true. The heroes are Xena and Gabrielle. I think you'll like it."
* * * * *
Loggera found Eponin in the food hut, "You'd better come and look for yourself."
Eponin paled a little as she stood, then took off after Loggera at a dead run. They climbed the wall to a look-out post and peeked over. "How long has that been going on?" asked Eponin, catching her breath.
"Not long, I came to get you right away. From what I can tell, the two guys on the right started it, along with the dead one over there. They were pushing and shoving, shouting at each other."
"They're Otus' men, aren't they?"
"They're no ordinary townsmen, that's for sure. Gods, that guy has another dagger. How many does he carry on him, I wonder."
"Look," Eponin pointed off to the side. "Here's Otus himself come to settle it."
An enormous man strutted forward. He wore dual swords crossed at his back and a long dagger in a hilt at each hip. His leather vest flapped in the wind revealing a muscled chest cut in half diagonally by a long scar. Without hearing what he was saying, it was easy to figure it out. He snarled something which got the men to stop their little squabble and pay attention to him. One gesticulated wildly, obviously whining through his side of the story, while another had to be held back to keep from jumping on the other guy again.
Once that was done, the second man got a turn to state his case, and whatever he said made Otus very angry. The warlord kicked him hard in the groin. He dropped in agony. Many of the men gathered around got restless. Otus turned on them and yelled a few things, other words were yelled back. They took steps toward him, he threatened them again.
"Eponin, do I see a mutiny happening?"
"It's interesting, whatever it is." Eponin climbed down from the perch. "Let me know if anything else happens, Loggera. And thanks for the show."
Throughout the day, she got reports about groups of men meeting. It was always Otus' men who talked, the townsmen seemed to stay out of it. Toward evening, Eponin was summoned once again.
"They're going to talk to Otus."
Eponin squinted against the setting sun, trying to see in detail what was lit only from behind. "How many do you think they have?"
"Lots, I'd say. If Otus wants to say no to them, he'll have a hard time of it."
"You know, Loggera, when I woke up this morning I was convinced I wasn't going to have a good day. Seems I might have been wrong." They watched as a representative group went into Otus' tent. They waited until well into the evening before seeing them come back out. Runners were sent throughout the soldiers and it wasn't long before they could see gear being packed, horses saddled.
Otus assembled his army and walked away. "He tires quickly, doesn't he?" remarked Loggera.
"Too bad the rest of them don't." Eponin observed the small but determined forces from the neighboring towns re-distribute themselves around the wall and continue their siege.
"We could take them now, Eponin," Loggera suggested.
"No," said Eponin.
"Why don't we?" asked Loggera, more urgency and frustration driving her.
"Because it's important we don't kill any of them. There is none of their blood on our hands now, and I want to make sure it stays that way. We continue to wait."
* * * * *
Xena's hands were numb, but she diligently managed to work the knots holding her legs bound. They were loosening and she knew she would have them off soon. They'd dumped her by their supplies after Eriphyle grew tired of her. Fine, thought Xena, I can work on these knots in peace.
Xena heard the woman running through the passageways before anyone else had. She inched over a bit to see what was going on.
"Eriphyle! Otus has withdrawn!" A guard reported out of breath.
"What? Why?" Eriphyle let her anger rise too quickly, thought Xena. It could be used against her.
"Most of his men threatened to leave, they were bored. If he'd made them stay they could have mustered enough strength to overthrow him, so he gave up and they all went packing."
"Coward! I'll teach him to be a wimp! Come on, let's go have a talk with him. Back out on his word will he..." Eriphyle's voice grew fainter and more diffuse with echoes as she and most of her friends stomped away.
Xena smiled. She worked frantically on the ropes around her legs until they were loose enough to wriggle out of her bindings. Finally free to move, she sat up and listened intently to gauge her opponents. Three? Maybe four? Thank you, Otus, for whatever you did. Without hands, without weapons, Xena still felt confident she could take on three or four armed adversaries. She catapulted herself out into the middle of the clearing, startling the women who'd been left behind. Confused, they ran at her thinking they could take her down easily since her arms were tied to her torso. They were surprised once again.
She vaulted into the air, gaining momentum for a series of fiendish kicks. Disarming them rather easily, she concentrated on taking them out of the fight for a good long while. She twisted and kicked, jumped and dodged with amazing speed and agility for someone who'd been and tied down immobile for a day.
The fight pumped adrenaline through her body. Hissing with glee, Xena pummeled one woman in the abdomen then caught her neck between her knees and threw her down hard. She did not get up. Another tossed herself on Xena, trying to wrest her balance from her, but she threw her off and landed squarely on her neck.
Xena was enjoying herself, stalking the last two when her plans were forced to change. Several more women came from one of the tunnels on the far side of the clearing. Like a well-trained posse, they descended on her as a group. With her hands still tied and the punishment her body had taken recently, there was little she could do with so many arms holding her down.
"Damn! How'd she get loose?"
"Who knows, but I don't want to stick around if all we're going to do is tie her up again."
"Fine, then we'll throw her in there."
"But Eriphyle said we couldn't!"
"Yes, but Eriphyle isn't here. Besides, do you think she be more angry if Xena got loose or was stuck in the cell?"
"I see your point. I'll get the key."
They used rope enough to bind her feet then dragged her toward the massive wooden door. Xena didn't really like that idea, she'd tackled that door before and knew it wasn't one that could be broken down. Beyond it lay the room where they'd found Ephiny. But it was quiet, she'd be undisturbed, and she could find something to help her break the ropes. So long as they eventually opened the door, she'd get out. Until then, she'd have privacy. She did not struggle.
They tossed her in and quickly slammed the door without even telling her to stay out of trouble. They must have know she wouldn't heed a warning. No light lived anywhere in the large room, it was absolutely dark, an annoyance but nothing that would impede her plans. She rolled her body until she thumped against a solid wall then methodically worked along it, memorizing everything in her way, searching for a sharp object she could rub the ropes over.
A rustling of straw distracted her. "Who's there?" she snapped into the darkness.
Her heart stopped. It was a trick, another torture devised by Eriphyle. Willing her voice to sound she called roughly, "Gabrielle?"
"Xena? Are you all right?"
"Oh Gabrielle..." Xena's body shook uncontrollably as she squirmed as fast as she could toward that voice.
"It's okay, Xena, I'm right here... umpf," Xena landed on top of her.
"Untie me, untie me!" she frantically pleaded.
"Well turn over, ow, watch it! Hey, you're shaking all over. Are you sure you're okay?" Gabrielle found the knot in the darkness and slipped a finger into it. "You're not hurt are you?" She untied the cord, letting the ropes fall and Xena scrambled out of them in a frenzied explosion.
When Xena turned to face her, Gabrielle felt the warrior's tears dripping down on her chest, then Xena's arms fasten around her. She returned the hold, trying to quiet the sobs racking from the warrior squeezed tightly against her. "It's okay, it's okay," was all Gabrielle could say. In the countless times Xena had flown in to rescue her, Gabrielle had never been met with such an outpouring of emotions. She wished she could see Xena's face to get some clue about why she was crying. For now she would have to wait until Xena could tell her.
"Xena?" The warrior had quieted, but still had the bard in a ferocious hug. "I'm going to permanently wear your breastplate's pattern on my face... not that I mind."
"Sorry." Xena's overly breathy voice unsettled the bard.
Gabrielle squirmed into a more comfortable position. "Xena, please tell me you're okay."
"Ah, yeah. Now." Xena lay her head on Gabrielle's shoulder, her ragged breathing warm on the bard's skin. "How 'bout you?"
"I've been better... but I'm fine now that you're here." Gabrielle waited a moment while Xena struggled to catch her breath, "Xena, I've had some time to think... nothing much else to do... and I really want to say I'm sorry."
"Sorry? For what?" Xena was obviously confused.
"For everything. Starting that fight at the tavern, saying the wrong things at that village, for annoying you all the time. I know you've been mad at me."
Xena's lips found the bard's cheek, "Don't be silly. I haven't been mad at you." She wondered to herself if this was the really time to tell her how she felt.
Gabrielle let go a breath she hadn't realized she was holding, "Really? I've been worried about it the whole time."
"You've been abducted, held prisoner by a mad woman, kept in a dark cell, and you've been worried that I was mad at you?" Xena asked, exasperated.
"Yeah. Kinda. You didn't say much after I did all that stuff."
Xena shifted and caught herself from toppling over off balance, "Oops, feet still tied. Don't go anywhere." Xena finished unfettering herself and leaned her back up against the wall. Then surprising the bard, she lifted Gabrielle into her lap and wrapped herself around her young friend again. "I wasn't mad at you and right now I just need to know you're here." Xena held her close before going on, "I'm sorry I don't express myself better. I know I make it hard for you."
"It's okay. I'm usually pretty good at reading you." Gabrielle smirked. "Like now, I'm getting this little clue that you're pretty upset."
Burying her face in Gabrielle's strawberry hair, she considered how to explain to Gabrielle what she'd been told about her. She took the direct approach. "Eriphyle said you were dead."
"Oh." Gabrielle stopped a moment to let all of the implications come to the fore then brought her hand up to Xena's cheek and rested it there, delicately wiping tears away with her thumb. "Sorry."
"It's not your fault."
"Yeah, but I know what it feels like," Gabrielle said plainly.
"I guess you do, huh?" Xena brought Gabrielle's palm to her lips and kissed it. "I... ah," she cleared her throat. "Gabrielle, there was so much I wanted to have said to you... want to say to you." She sought out Gabrielle's cheek again and met it with her lips. Gabrielle snuggled in closer willing Xena to be brave and the tiniest bit verbose. "When I was faced with the prospect of going on without you, I just... I knew I couldn't. Everything was so... well, it was more like there was just nothing there at all..." Xena's lips brushed across Gabrielle's forehead. "I wanted to tell you..." She lightly kissed her nose trailing a path back up to her forehead.
"I love you, Xena," Gabrielle whispered. She tilted her chin up, meeting Xena halfway as it always should be, and let their first kiss be slow and deep, gentle and knowing, passionate and wild. It felt so right, as if it had been predetermined in another lifetime.
It lasted until Xena's hands began to trail across Gabrielle's body and down her thigh, and the wincing bard pulled back stifling a yelp.
"You're hurt, Gabrielle, why didn't you tell me?"
"We were a little busy," the blush worming its way out even in the darkness.
"Hasn't that healed yet?" Xena explored the stab wound more gingerly, feeling it horribly swollen. "Did you let it get infected?"
"Did I let it? I didn't exactly have a lot of choice in the matter," Gabrielle said a little defensively.
"I'm sorry. Really. I know I say things I shouldn't, or at least not how I mean them." Gabrielle kissed her again to quiet her, marveling in those full lips sliding across hers, the tongue eager to meet hers, the tiny wet sounds they made together.
The bard pulled back to breathe, "Hmmm, if this is what captivity is all about, I could get used to it."
"And I thought it was me that interested you..." Xena lips reached for hers more urgently until they were both out of breath.
"Gods, Xena. Why haven't we done this before?" Gabrielle clung to Xena's neck. "No, don't answer that." She shifted her weight, taking some pressure off her leg, unsuccessfully hiding a flinch.
Xena again explored the area with her hands. She surreptitiously checked Gabrielle for a fever by letting her lips rest on the bard's cheek. A slightly elevated temperature, but it could get worse quickly if the infection wasn't nipped soon. "How bad is it?"
"Oh, it hurts," Gabrielle said sheepishly. "I haven't seen it in awhile, been in here lately... but, I'd venture a guess that you won't be very happy when you get a look at it." Gabrielle drew Xena's hand away from her leg and held it firmly in her own. "Xena, tell me, did you find Ephiny?"
"Yes, and she's fine. She's with Kaleipus now."
"Why Kaleipus?" asked Gabrielle.
"A lot has happened over the past few days." Xena took a deep breath before she began relating the events to her friend. "When you were taken by the villagers, we followed their trail." Feeling Gabrielle shudder, Xena held her securely. She knew Gabrielle had witnessed their massacre and how traumatic that would be for the bard. "Then we picked up Eriphyle's trail which led here. One of the Amazons, Pero's her name, led me through the caves and we found Ephiny. She was in here, actually. That's when I was told you'd been killed."
In a tiny voice Gabrielle asked her, "And you believed them?"
"I was using pressure points on the person who told me."
"I thought you couldn't lie..."
"Generally you don't when you know you're about to die, and Eriphyle may have actually planted that information on the guards, just in case I got to them." Xena added, "She'd told Ephiny, too."
Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hand and said quietly, "So now Ephiny thinks I'm dead."
A breathy, "Yes."
"But why is Ephiny with Kaleipus?"
"This gets a little complicated. Ephiny wasn't able to travel." Xena pressed a finger to Gabrielle's lips stifling her question. "She was weak, but she'll be fine. When Pero and I brought her out, Solari was waiting for us. She told us that Eriphyle had taken her army to the Amazon Village. We decided it would be best to let Ephiny recover with the Centaurs and we sent Pero to the village to tell them our plans. That's about all I know."
"Xena, you left out some stuff," Gabrielle poked her.
"I told you all the important things. You know I don't go in for the details like you do."
"Sure, Xena." Gabrielle waited. "Are you going to tell me how you got here?"
"Ah, that... I came back for you." Xena leaned in for another kiss, this one just to ground herself. Foreheads pressed together, their noses touching, Xena said, "I needed to come back and find you, Gabrielle. I couldn't just leave you here, no matter what." She pitched her voice lower, "I'm glad I did find you."
"Hmmm, me too... So what happened? I mean you didn't tie yourself up and throw yourself in here, did you?" the bard teased.
"Well, if I had known what... oof!" Gabrielle's elbow landed in her ribs. "All right, all right. I was... distracted... on the way here. Eriphyle shot me with an arrow... the tip must have been dipped in a drug. I woke up in the clearing out there. I don't know how long I was out."
That irked the bard's fiery temper, "An arrow? Drugged? Xena, you told me you were okay! Now tell me the truth!"
"I'm fine, really. Really. It doesn't hurt much--they must have taken care of the wound when I was unconscious." Xena's tone made it clear that was the end of the discussion on that subject.
Gabrielle reached out in search of a lock of black hair. She twisted it between her fingers. "So what happens now?"
"Not sure. Eriphyle and most of her friends have gone off after Otus, though I don't know why."
"Otus the warlord?"
"That's the one. I got tossed in here by some of Eriphyle's cronies who had a bit of an argument about it. Eriphyle didn't want me to know you were alive, but I wasn't being a very cooperative prisoner."
Gabrielle chuckled, "I imagine not."
"The next time they open that door, they're going to get a reenactment of just how uncooperative I can be. This time with my arms untied." She heard Gabrielle giggle under her breath. "How often do they come in here? I'm not going to be able to get that door open from the inside."
"Just twice since I've been here, however long that's been. I have no sense of time in total darkness. Once they tossed in a water skin, next they tossed in the Warrior Princess."
Suddenly Xena grew concerned, "Have they treated you all right? Have you had enough water?"
"They haven't exactly offered room service, if that's what you mean."
"Be serious, Gabrielle."
"Okay, okay. I've had some water. Not much. For the first day or so I was blindfolded and I think I was mostly outside somewhere. Eriphyle was around a lot, I guess she didn't like being talked back to so she eventually put me in here." Gabrielle rested her head in the crook of Xena's neck, snuggling close, "It's a little creepy when you're alone."
Xena smoothed Gabrielle's hair behind her ear, very glad for the company as well. "We'll be out soon, I promise."
Gabrielle said, "I know. I've just be waiting for you to show up before I make my move."
Xena laughed heartily, Gabrielle joining in until Gabrielle yawned. "You're exhausted," said Xena. "Let's try to get some sleep. I want to be ready when they open that door." They lay cuddled together, Gabrielle's head nestled on Xena's chest, Xena's arm securely around her, and let the sound of their heartbeats lull them to sleep.
Gabrielle was jogged awake by Xena rising swiftly beside her. She heard a crunch and the loud thump of a body hitting the floor. Gabrielle opened eyes to a thin trail of light coming in, as glorious as the noon-day sun to her. Looking around for Xena, she located her by the sound of more head bashing outside somewhere. Gabrielle thought about getting up to help and changed her mind as soon as she tried. The infection was much worse and she couldn't move without sending excruciating pains up her leg.
Xena headed back, re-sheathing her sword as she ran in. She tapped her chakram, now snugly on her belt. "They left these in a convenient place, right outside the door. Ready?" Gabrielle gamely held out a hand, asking for help up. Xena ignored her and lifted her into her arms. She looked at the bard's thigh, "I can see it, it looks terrible. You're not walking."
"I remember... 'If I say you need to be carried, then you need to be carried'," she growled, trying to imitate Xena.
"Ugh, whoever said that wasn't very nice," Xena smiled at her, "but she was right."
Xena brought her out into the clearing and the bard squinted against the brightness. Xena eyed her closely, she was pale, sweating slightly from the fever, her lips thin and dry, "You look terrible all over."
"Thanks a lot. You should talk. Your hair's a mess." Gabrielle didn't wait for the retort before sinking deep into Xena's arms, exhausted.
Xena navigated the twisting corridors almost without faltering, juggling Gabrielle and a torch to light their way. She did make one wrong turn that lead them to a dead-end before righting herself and finding the Sacred Cave. Argo wandered nearby and answered her master's whistle quickly. Xena boosted Gabrielle up into the saddle and joined her, riding behind the bard to make sure she stayed on.
"Oh, this again," grumbled Gabrielle. "Where to?"
"Good question. I think we should avoid going where they'd guess to look, so that's no Amazon Village and maybe no Centaurs. If we pick a route away from them both, I know a place we can stay." Xena set an easy pace for Argo toning down her fear of getting caught with the need to keep Gabrielle from getting jostled.
"Does it have room service?" asked Gabrielle drowsily.
Xena leaned around to kiss her cheek, "I think that can be arranged."
The light was fading into the west when Xena lifted Gabrielle down from the saddle. "We're here?" the bard mumbled. "Sorry I fell asleep."
"No problem. It's not much of a place, but it'll do," remarked Xena.
Gabrielle looked around, "Not much is an understatement." Xena rolled her eyes until the bard added, "but I'm loving it. Maybe we could line the entrance with birch trees or something."
"I'll ask the management to do that." Xena carried her to the hut, if the dilapidated shack could even be considered that solid. The ramshackle shanty had seen better days generations ago. Surprisingly the interior was in better shape, though Xena had to clean off the palette before she'd even lay a bedroll on it. There was room for little else but the palette and a small fireplace. When Xena brought in their gear and Argo's saddle, the shack was quite full.
With a small fire going and water set to boil, Xena dug through the bags for her herb pouch and clean rags. Xena had glanced at the bard's wounds repeatedly throughout the ride and knew she now had to help Gabrielle stave off a raging infection. Since Gabrielle's fever had soared during the day, Xena prepared an herbal tea to bring her temperature down and found she still had a bit of salve concocted to combat infections at the source.
"Gabrielle?" Xena sat on the edge of the palette reluctantly waking the snoozing bard. "Wake up so you can yell at me."
"Huh?" Gabrielle rubbed her eyes. "I'm awake."
"Time to play doctor again. It's going to hurt," Xena confessed.
Gabrielle tried to smile, "Fine, sure, go ahead. I told you that you wouldn't like it when you saw it."
"And you were right, as usual." That encouraged Gabrielle to laugh at her.
Though Xena was as gentle as she could be and Gabrielle tried to buck up and take it, by the time Xena had cleaned and dressed the wound, Gabrielle was losing her battle with tears. Xena rolled Gabrielle onto her lap and held her as tears released at least some of the pain and the tension. Gabrielle didn't feel any need to hold back: she knew she was safe though dirty and exhausted, she relished the thought that she'd finally kissed the warrior holding her but wondered how long it would be until they could explore that arena more, and she knew without question that she was in love. Draping an arm around Xena, she squeezed herself against her. "Xena?" she asked through dying sobs, still not able to control her breathing.
Xena brushed strands of wet hair from Gabrielle's face, "Shhh." She handed Gabrielle a clean rag. "Blow."
Gabrielle complied then continued her question haltingly as she finished crying, "Can you tell me how it is possible to feel so great and so rotten all at the same time?"
Gabrielle felt Xena's chuckle. "Nope, can't explain that. Can you drink some tea now? It'll help your fever break." Xena propped her up and sat behind her, letting Gabrielle lean against her frame as the bard begrudgingly followed orders and drank all of the hot herbal remedy. The warrior laid her back down and set the mug aside.
"Good. Now what would you like for dinner?" Xena tried to sound cheery. "I did promise room service."
"Nothing. I'm not hungry." Her arms covering her head, Gabrielle looked every part the sick puppy.
"How can you say you're not hungry? I'm starving!" Xena enjoying the rarity of her position.
"Go ahead, don't let me stop you," drawled Gabrielle.
"Come on, you can't have eaten much lately." When that didn't elicit a response, Xena grew concerned. "How much have you eaten, Gabrielle?"
"Ah, not much," she admittedly sheepishly.
"How much not much?" Xena demanded, "When was the last time you ate?"
Gabrielle hid her eyes, "Amazon Village."
Xena sat back stunned, "You haven't eaten anything in days? Don't you think you should have told me?"
"We didn't exactly have a kitchen handy, Xena. What good would it have done?"
Xena fought the urge to run out of the hut and hunt down Eriphyle to kill her, the urge to wring the bard's little neck for not saying anything earlier, and the urge to run her fist through the wall just because she felt like it. Instead, she said evenly, "Start with broth," then rummaged noisily through their bags in search of some dried meat. She found a few small pieces and unceremoniously tossed them in a pot of water to steep with a few more herbs.
"What?" she answered too crossly.
"Please don't be mad at me."
That stopped her dead in her tracks. "Gabrielle," she sat by the bard, taking a small hand in hers, "I'm not mad at you. I'm sorry you always seem to be on the receiving end of my moods. Gods, how do you put up with me?"
Gabrielle stared at Xena incredulously, slapping the warrior playfully, "Put up with you? Xena, I love you, I don't just 'put up' with you."
Xena watched the firelight reflected in Gabrielle's eyes. She put a hand at the base of the bard's neck and felt Gabrielle's pulse beneath finger tips. She replayed the sweetness of her lips, her honesty, her passion. "I love you, as well, Gabrielle. I hope you know that."
Two very tired eyes convinced her, "I do, Xena. I know you do."
"Sleep for awhile, my bard. I'll wake you later to have some broth, okay?"
"Okay," she agreed, the temptation of sleep to great to argue anything further. Before succumbing to Morpheus, Gabrielle reached for Xena's hand in a grip that was at once meant to convey her vast love for the warrior and also to reassure her that Xena was there for her.
Xena didn't relinquish her hold on Gabrielle's hand until she was sure the bard was asleep. Even then, she lingered under the touch, savoring the feelings rather than suffocating from them. In all her life she'd never encountered someone like Gabrielle, she'd never fallen so hard, been infused with such giddy revelry, been more at ease with another person. Never had her sensibilities so completely escaped, running amok on their own deliciously wild journey, grounded only by another presence and not by her own monumental sense of purpose. It was new. She loved it.
Argo was munching on grasses nearby, content and rested. Xena found an old apple in their bags, too mushy for her taste but she knew Argo would appreciate its sweetness. Convinced that her steed was fine, she returned to the hut and methodically placed her weapons, saddle, belongings, and armor where they could be retrieved as quickly as possible. Finally, she had no choice but to pour broth in a mug to cool slightly. Its aroma a comfort, its need a thorn. She remembered she herself hadn't eaten in some time as well, a friendly growl reacting to the smell of a hot meal. A few bites of hard bread and dried figs quelled her hunger. Tomorrow she'd trap a rabbit and scavenge for wild fruits and vegetables to make up for it.
Gabrielle downed the broth without complaint, though she wasn't fully awake. Xena gently lowered her back onto the palette then squeezed in behind her, the contours of her body molding to the slumbering bard by her side. She allowed herself to relax in the closeness and the comfort.
* * * * *
"Eponin, can we talk to you?"
"Loggera, Pontonous, come in," The scouts shuffled into to Eponin's hut and stood scuffling their feet, both examining their boots closely. Eponin stifled a little chuckle at their obvious awkwardness, "Was there something you wanted to talk to me about?"
Loggera elbowed Pontonous, who glared back at Loggera. Loggera began, "Eponin, we all know this is hard, and we mostly understand why you don't want to do anything..."
Eponin stopped them, "Getting restless?"
Pontonous responded, "Yeah, actually. We feel like we're under arrest or something."
"Why can't we do anything about the siege? It's so stupid and pointless now." Loggera made a small gesture with her hands, "There are so few of them! It's not like we'd have to kill very many. It would be over and done with in a flash!"
"No. You really don't understand." She offered them both chairs, they accepted knowing now, at least, they wouldn't be summarily thrown out. "The only way to make sure Eriphyle loses is to make sure every bit of her plan fails."
"Assuming she's behind this part," mumbled Pontonous.
"Yes, assuming that, but I think she is. She's smart, she's cunning, she's twisted and mad. I have no doubt she planned this. And it's very important that we don't do anything that will make negotiations with the villagers harder in the end." Eponin sounded serious but a tinge of defeat undercoated her speech. "Eventually this will be over and we have to make sure we can go back to the good relationships we once had with our neighbors."
"You should know that there are a lot of us who don't like waiting."
"I already know that, Pontonous, and I don't like waiting either. But I'm going to do it and so are you. We need to help each other get through this." Eponin suggested, "When your friends tell you they're anxious about it, try to calm them down, reason with them. If that doesn't work, send them to me--and tell them I won't bite. I'm fighting the same instincts they are."
Loggera and Pontonous thanked her for listening and left her to mull over her private thoughts. Oh how she wanted to flatten those idiot men out there. Ephiny and Solari were out there, beyond the blockade somewhere. And Xena, gods knew where she was. Eponin kept reminding herself how Gabrielle and Ephiny would handle the situation and then she knew she was doing the right thing. However much she hated it.
Just as she began to pour herself some port, the sounds of a commotion snatched her attention. She dropped the carafe and mug and ran out to see if her words of warning were already being ignored. A group had crowded around the south gate, several were up on the wall yelling and shouting.
"What the..." Eponin broke into a dead run and scaled the ladder up the wall. She clutched the woman nearest her, "What's going on? What do you think you're doing?"
The woman took her head and turned it so Eponin was looking out over the wall. "Look, Eponin."
She did. And she couldn't believe what she saw. One woman riding in through the surprised, then angered, then attacking men laying siege. One woman that made her heart soar. "Solari..."
The delight at seeing Solari was soon overtaken by a genuine fear for her safety. Solari ran her horse through a line of defense, men were moving toward her with swords flailing, a few were aiming arrows her way. Fortunately the shafts all fell out of harm's way.
When one man got close enough to Solari to make a potentially dangerous lunge, Eponin found her heart thumping wildly. Solari timed a judicious kick to the attacker's sword arm and escaped relatively unscathed. Eponin barked out instructions to the women below, "Get ready to open the gate!" She watched Solari's horse gain distance on her attackers and near the wall. "Now!" Eponin screamed. Solari didn't slow her mount and flew in at breakneck speed. As soon as her horse's tail had cleared, the women barred the gate closed again.
Solari slowed her horse and turned back toward the crowd, now loudly cheering her return. Solari grinned from ear to ear, lightly jumped down, and found herself wrapped in a bear hug from Eponin.
"That was the stupidest thing I've ever seen," Eponin yelled at her. "Gods I'm glad you're here. Are you all right? And where is Ephiny?"
Solari laughed, and pulled herself out to arms length from Eponin. "I missed you, too. And I'm fine. And so is Ephiny. Come on, I'll tell you all about it." They slung arms around each other and trekked toward the center of the village on the promise of a good meal. There at the food hut to greet them was Pero. "You made it! I was worried about you."
Pero gave Solari's arm a squeeze, "And I was worried about you. How's Ephiny?"
"Okay, okay, I get the idea. Sit with me and I'll fill you in." Trays of fruits and dried meats were set on the table flanked by pitchers of water and wine. Solari waited for the bread and ripped off a hunk to eat with some cheese. "First of all, Ephiny is going to be fine."
Eponin's heady joy at seeing Solari was starting to wear off, "Whatever possessed you to come back here without Ephiny?"
Solari caught the undercurrent of a reprimand in Eponin's question. "It wasn't my idea. Otus threatened to attack the Centaurs, the Centaurs made a deal with him. They could keep Ephiny there under their protection, and Otus would leave them alone. But Kaleipus didn't think that was enough, so they sent me off as a decoy. They fixed me up with a scarecrow thingy made to look like Ephiny to drag in a litter. It was kinda cute."
Now Eponin was mad, "You left Ephiny there alone? When Otus might be after her?"
"Eponin, please. I didn't like the idea but Kaleipus can be very persuasive. Besides, I think he was right. If Otus' men were watching, they'd have seen me take off apparently with Ephiny and travel away from Amazon territory. It was the best way to keep Ephiny safe. She wasn't ready to be moved much."
"And what's that supposed to mean?" growled Eponin.
"She was very weak. Eriphyle hadn't given her any food or water and they forced her to stay awake for four days."
Pero muttered, "No wonder she looked so terrible back at the cave."
Eponin asked incredulously, "No food? No water? No sleep?"
Solari assured them, "The Centaurs' healer said she'd be fine. She slept a lot when I was with her. She did eat and we got a lot of water down her. But now I have to ask: what happened to Otus?"
Eponin shook her head lightly, "I think his army got bored, so they threatened to overthrow him. Instead of duking it out, they all left."
Solari savored a mouthful of cheese. She chased it with a long drink of wine, then put the mug down slowly. "Now what?"
"That's the question of the week, isn't it?" Eponin replied bitterly. "We wait. We wait until those men out there decide it's time to go home."
Solari thought about this, took another sip of wine, and said, "Yeah. I guess that's all we can do."
For the first time in days, Eponin relaxed. Finally she had an ally, a compatriot in conviction. The two of them could see this through together and when Ephiny returned, she'd be proud of them.
Pero shuffled in her seat. "Solari, where's Xena? Wasn't she with you?"
Solari and Eponin regarded each other closely before Solari answered, "She had to do something."
Pero wasn't sure what it was though she had some idea about what it was related to. To her credit, she recognized that Solari's answer meant there would be no further discussion of it. "Well, I guess I should be on my way. I'm glad you're back, Solari."
Solari ate a few more bites, her interest in food waning. Eponin reached over for her hand. "You okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine, Eponin. It's just been a hard few days."
Eponin agreed, "For all of us." Eponin squeezed Solari's hand, then sat back and crossed her arms. "So how was Xena?" she asked quietly.
"What would you expect? If you didn't know her well, you'd say she was the same old cold, stiff, mute warrior of always. Until you looked in her eyes. It was scary, Ep, I've never seen anything so scary in my life."
"She went after Eriphyle?" Eponin asked.
"She went back for Gabrielle. Said she had to take her home." Solari closed her eyes, "I almost hope she doesn't find her. It won't be a pretty sight."
"You know something," said Eponin, flatly.
Solari told her what Ephiny had said about Gabrielle's death. The cruelty and torture inflicted on their queen by the lunatic Eriphyle sickened Eponin. As Solari told her the whole story, the color in her face drained away, leaving her shaking. Neither spoke for long moments, each trying to calm themselves before dividing their meager resources to help the other.
Eponin suggested, "Let's keep that to ourselves for now." Solari nodded. "And let's hope that Xena finds some peace."
* * * * *
In the quiet, still hours before dawn, when the anticipation of the day clings to overtures of morning dew, Xena listened. She listened intently to the soft, simple breathing next to her. Gabrielle.
Gabrielle slept soundly curled between Xena's hip and neck, her hands slipped under her cheek as pillows. 'So this is it,' thought Xena. They'd crossed a physical barrier, one that had been unspoken and invisible yet as strong as any wall she'd ever encountered. All those months she'd believed it to be an insurmountable task, something too frightening for the both of them. But the passion laid bare by the meeting of their mouths pressed truth to the surface. She was in love.
She wasn't just in love. She was in passion, in obsession, in teenage-giddiness, in mesmerized, in weak-kneed, heart-palpitating love with Gabrielle. The intensity of it was surprising to her and it did initiate a small streak of panic. What if she suffocated Gabrielle? What if the measure of commitment wasn't on equal ground? What if... Well, the answers wouldn't come in a day. Best just to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Gabrielle rolled over onto her back. Xena could see her face better. The dying embers of last night's fire combined with the light glow from the moon illuminating the room in a soft bath. Xena could steal a long look without concern that Gabrielle would catch her; she need no longer worry about having to explain why. The cute nose, those sensuous lips... Xena smiled. Now she had a new way to keep the bard from rattling off story after story, a new way to engage that mouth, that tongue.
Xena tried to stop her thoughts from escalating but had no control over them, particularly because Gabrielle chose that moment to roll over again, this time coming to rest on top of Xena. Warm breath on her breast found no resistance from the light fabric of her cotton shift. A knee on top of her thighs. Xena let her legs spread apart--there would be no holding them back--and a heaviness pressed against her. It was too much to bear.
It was either time to get up or wake Gabrielle out of a deep slumber and ravish her wildly. She rose, donned her leathers, and stepped outside into deceptively peaceful air. Xena wondered how Ephiny was, if Pero had made it back to the village safely, where Eriphyle was--there was still a score to settle there--and what Otus had to do with Eriphyle. Still too many unanswered questions but unlike a few days ago, they weighed less heavily on her now. How everything had changed because one thing had changed.
Not long after dawn, Xena had a rabbit trapped, skinned, and dressed. She re-entered the hut quietly so as not to wake Gabrielle. "I wondered where you were," a groggy voice greeted her from behind.
"Getting room service ready," replied Xena without turning around. She snapped the makeshift spit into place, satisfied the rabbit could cook slowly with little attention before looking at Gabrielle. Her breath caught when she did. 'Yup, I've got it bad,' she thought.
"I thought you'd sleep longer," said Xena.
"I missed you." Gabrielle patted the bed next to her and Xena gladly stretched out alongside. The bard nestled into the crook of Xena's neck. "Better, thanks."
"How do you feel? Your fever seems to be down." Xena pressed her palm to Gabrielle's cheek.
"Right now I feel wonderful." Gabrielle looked up at her, a hunger in her eyes, "How 'bout you?"
Having held back all morning, Xena was losing the battle. She lifted Gabrielle's chin and slowly, ever-so-slowly lowered her lips.
They felt each other trembling.
Xena let herself go. From shy quivering, to a more sure greeting, to a thorough exploration, to the release of unbridled passion, their mouths linked them. Gabrielle surprised her. Her fingers demanded access to Xena's whole body. Together they shed her leathers and shift, then as Xena was tossing aside Gabrielle's shift, the bard latched onto her breast.
"Oh gods..." moaned Xena. Completely overwhelmed by the aggressive bard, Xena let herself be tossed onto her back, taking Gabrielle's weight on top of her. Gabrielle devoured her, nipping and licking, sucking and pulling one nipple, while her hand kneaded and pinched the other. "Hmmm, yes..." Xena moaned again as Gabrielle's hand trailed down her side.
Their hips bucked against each other, Xena slightly rising to meet her while Gabrielle squirmed back and forth. "Gabrielle, I can't... please..." Gabrielle shifted a little, her hand parted Xena's leg, slid up the inside of her thigh, spread her lips. And touched her.
Xena's hips flew off the bed, dumping Gabrielle between her legs. The bard's mouth, however, never lost contact. It slithered down Xena's stomach and landed at her very core. It was too much, Xena climaxed immediately.
The bard hung on, lips against the warrior's nub, fingers poised at her opening. When Xena's body began to relax, Gabrielle plunged in, deeply. Xena moaned incoherently, her head rolled from side to side, she was unable to do anything but take Gabrielle in, feel her inside her body, melt at her touch. The warrior's hips seemed detached from her body--they had no trouble moving in the passion dance--but the rest of her was on overload.
Gabrielle sensed it and took total possession of Xena's body. Her lips toyed with Xena's nub, her fingers pounded in and out. First one, then two, then when Gabrielle added a third finger, she sealed her lips around Xena and sucked, letting her tongue dip and sway in parallel movements to her frantic hand.
Xena lost all semblance of control. She grunted and moaned with every breath, now coming more and more often until she was gasping for air, hanging for dear life, in the throes of the most intense orgasm she'd ever experienced.
Then Gabrielle was there holding her, covering her body with hers, gently stroking tears away, helping her re-inhabit her body once again. "You okay?" Xena could only nod. "I love you." She nodded and smiled but couldn't get her eyes to open. "You need me to get off?" She shook her head and managed to put an arm around Gabrielle, symbolically holding her in place.
"Good." Gabrielle lay her head so she could whisper right in Xena's ear. "I love you. I love you completely, I am yours." She paused. "Gods that was wonderful."
It was all they'd ever dreamed of and hoped for. It was all they could handle.
Gabrielle reached over and turned the spit, the rabbit charred a little on one side. "Smells good."
Xena found her conscious mind. "Do you think you can eat something?"
Gabrielle giggled, "I believe I just did."
"Hmmm, yes, and you'll have to tell me how you learned that." Xena pried open one eye and wiggled her eyebrow suggestively.
"I have ears. I'm a bard. I'm not quite as naive as I let on," Gabrielle retorted lightly.
"Apparently not. I'll try never to underestimate you again. Though I didn't mind being proven wrong just now." Their eyes locked, their bodies began to rub against each other again, and Xena took control. She savored the contact, tracing patterns on Gabrielle's skin, hinting at them magnifying into erotic play. She had wanted this for so long, desire and affection mingling together.
She let Gabrielle remain on top of her as before, and just as Gabrielle thought she could have her way with her again, Xena reached between them and entered her swiftly. It was Gabrielle's turn to lose contact with the outside world, her eyes closed involuntarily, her lips parted slightly, and her head dropped down onto Xena's breasts. Xena stirred her fingers inside Gabrielle, she reached to leave her mark on every bit of lubricated velvet she could find. Holding herself back, she gradually shifted the circular, exploratory movements into small thrusts, pulling back a bit more, re-entering a little farther with each new motion. Gabrielle squirmed, not able to contain her movements with any sense of propriety, she wiggled and twisted until she fell into deliberate thrusts meeting the warrior's hand. Harder and harder they pounded into each other, Xena brought her other hand down to tease Gabrielle's nub, making the bard scream into Xena's own flesh. Gabrielle braced herself on the bed with her hands and knees straddling Xena, rising up before each downward thrust against the warrior's vigorous hand. When the powerful contractions began their ride from Gabrielle's core through her abdomen, to the outer reaches of her entire body, Xena pressed harder and faster, willing Gabrielle to experience an orgasm as overwhelming as the one she had just been given. Leaving one hand to continue driving in and out of Gabrielle, Xena drew her other arm around the bard's waist and held her as she spasmed over and over, screaming the warrior's name.
Struggling to breathe, Gabrielle collapsed onto Xena. Xena slid her hand out and caught a soft, sad moan escaping the bard. Then, the big warrior wrapped her arms around Gabrielle, hugging her as hard as she could.
Several minutes later, Xena pulled Gabrielle up to her waiting lips and kissed her deeply. The kiss was leisurely, their frantic urges sated for the moment, allowing them to focus on the intimacy of tongue and lips, softly caressing, breaking apart to breathe, returning out of comfort more than need.
"Hmmm, good morning," gurgled Gabrielle.
"I'll say," laughed Xena. She stretched out and turned the spit again, the rabbit nicely charred and ready for consumption. "Would you care for a more conventional breakfast?"
"I'd say I worked up an appetite. But does this mean I have to move?"
"Yes," Xena poked her lightly in the ribs. "I will need to get up, eventually."
Gabrielle rolled off of Xena and snuggled up next to her, trying to hold her down as the warrior sat up. Xena gently unhooked Gabrielle's grasp, swung her feet off the bed and took the rabbit off the spit. The meat fell off the bones in juicy and savory pieces. She piled the fare onto a plate and set it between them on the bed. "Be careful how much you eat, Gabrielle. You haven't had any solid food for awhile."
"Don't remind me." Gabrielle put a small morsel to her lips and smiled. She shoved in another bite, and another, until Xena held her hand back. "I'm chewing, I'm chewing," she mumbled with her mouth full.
They had their fill, Xena watching everything Gabrielle ate very carefully. Then Xena put the carcass in a pot of water for broth and threw in a few herbs. It could simmer for several hours and would make a nice lunch for them later.
Gabrielle lay against the headboard, hands clasped at her waist, in a contented half-awake state. Xena wanted to share that repose with her though other matters stole her attention. She crawled down the bed and sat by Gabrielle's legs. "Let's have a look."
One eye opened, "I think it's much better."
Xena unwound the bandage from the bard's thigh and agreed, "I was worried we may have... aggravated it."
"Xena," the bard spoke seriously. "We need to go back. We need to find Ephiny and go back to the village."
"I wondered how long it would take for you to bring that up." Xena took Gabrielle's hand. "I know you want to go, I do to, but we're not leaving before you're ready."
"I'm ready. I'm sure I can walk now." Gabrielle sighed, "Xena, they think I'm dead."
Xena didn't say anything right away. She finished cleaning and re-bandaging Gabrielle's thigh, then scooted up next to her at the head of the bed. "We can leave at sunset, I don't want to show up there except under the cover of darkness." Gabrielle tried to say thank you, but Xena interrupted, "And you do what I tell you, no questions. If we get half way there and need to turn back, we will. Understand?"
"Okay, it's a deal." She leaned over and gave the warrior a quick kiss to seal it.
Gabrielle napped in the late morning and again in the afternoon, but she was ready to go when Xena came to get her. Argo was saddled and their belongings packed. Gabrielle stood by the bed letting the warrior put an arm around her waist. The bard gamely walked to the door, only a slight limp showing, and then stopped.
"What is it?" asked Xena, concerned.
Gabrielle brought her arms up to Xena's neck and pulled her down into a kiss. "I love you, Xena."
Xena grinned. "Feeling nostalgic for this place already?" Gabrielle smirked at her, unsuccessfully hiding the fact that she'd been caught in a romantic daydream. "Me, too," Xena admitted. She reached for the bard's hand and pulled, "Come on love-o'-mine, we're outta here."
The sunset had completely finished and the moon had not yet risen when they reached the outskirts of the Amazon Village. Xena insisted Gabrielle wait in a secluded glen while she went ahead to spy. Gabrielle tried to be patient and although Xena hurried it took much too long for Gabrielle's liking.
"Well, they're under siege, if you can believe it," Xena told her. "And they're being held at bay by only a handful of men from the towns."
"Huh? That doesn't make much sense." Gabrielle shook her head.
"If I know Eponin, she'd be trying to avoid making things worse, so maybe they're planning to sit tight until the men just go away."
"So what do we do?" asked Gabrielle, exasperated by this news.
"Oh, we can get in." Xena gleamed, "we just need a distraction."
"Why don't I like this..."
"Come on Gabrielle, let's see what we can do." Xena gave her a hand and then boosted her up on Argo.
"Xena, do you have a plan?"
"Not yet, but I'm working on it." Xena settled in behind Gabrielle and snaked an arm around her waist. "First, we let our friends know we're here."
They rode to the edge of a line of trees ringing the village. From there, Gabrielle could see a few fires and small groups of men mulling about them. She whispered, "They don't look very serious about this."
"No, but I still don't trust them. Shhh." Xena whistled a high soft hoot of an owl. They heard an answer. She whistled again, repeating it twice this time and was answered with two hoots. "Well, they know someone's here." Argo pranced in anxious anticipation so Xena leaned around Gabrielle and stroked her neck. "Everything's fine, Argo. Just hang on."
* * * * *
Solari burst into the hut, "Eponin, someone's out there. They've been calling."
"Out there? Who?" Eponin threw down the scroll she was reading and followed Solari out into the night. "Is it Ephiny?"
"It's not her call. Best guess is it's Xena." Solari led her toward the gate and let Eponin climb up the ladder first. "Whoever is out there is back in those trees." Solari pointed in the general direction of the calls they'd heard.
Eponin chewed her lower lip, "We need to get her in here. Can we cause a commotion that will draw attention away from the gate?"
Solari smiled, "We're already on it. Pero and Loggera went to get some goats, Pontonous is at the wall making it ready."
"Cutting a hole in it, you mean," Eponin shook her head. "I hope we don't regret losing a few goats."
Solari was shocked, "You'd rather...?"
"No, Solari, it's fine. A good plan. I don't want anyone else making the entrance you did. Not even Xena."
Pero called up to them, "We're ready. Just say the word."
Eponin herself sounded the owl hoot and gave the word when she heard the answer. Soon, three goats were running around outside the fence, first truly scaring a few of the men who weren't sure what they were, then irritating them. Several gave chase but to no avail, so more joined in. Those stationed near the gate let themselves be drawn to the side, more out of the entertainment value than any apparent need to help catch the goats.
Eponin and Solari stayed at their post, watching for the rider to make her break. They saw the golden horse take flight and a figure hunched over in the saddle. "It's Xena alright, I hope she's not hurt." Solari spoke to Eponin without taking her eyes off the warrior riding toward them.
"Ready the gate," cried Eponin, this routine becoming old hat. "Now!" The gate was pulled open and swiftly shut again behind the rider. As Argo came into the village, everyone saw that it was indeed Xena, leaning forward awkwardly, but as she turned the great mare and slowed her, she sat up straight in the saddle revealing the precious bundle she had been protecting.
"My gods..." Eponin willed her legs to hold her as she clambered down the ladder. She shoved her way through the crowd as Xena lowered Gabrielle down from the saddle. Eponin engulfed her in an enormous hug barely hearing Gabrielle mumble something about "...greatly exaggerated..." But then Xena was there insisting everyone give Gabrielle room to breathe, explaining what had happened, and firmly demanding that the queen be allowed to rest.
Solari and Eponin escorted them to the royal hut, plying them with questions and pinching themselves to make certain it wasn't a dream. Gabrielle gratefully indulged in a snack while Xena turned the tables and asked the Amazons about the siege.
Eponin filled her in, "Otus was in on it at first, at least until his army got restless and that didn't take very long at all. There are just the few men from the towns left out there. We're hoping they'll give up and go home as well." That mystery solved, Xena discovered how hungry she was and sat by Gabrielle and the food. Eponin let out a sigh and admitted, "I must say I'm very glad you're here. I could use some help in this."
Solari burst out, "Eponin, you've been great! Don't let her fool you, she's been wonderful. Really."
Xena smiled, "I know that. And I also understand that it is a great responsibility you've been shouldering, Eponin. Now that the queen is back, though, don't expect your role to change much." Gabrielle nodded, her mouth too full to voice her agreement aloud. "And now, I think it will be best to give the queen a well-deserved rest."
Gabrielle stopped in mid chew, looking like a forlorn puppy dog about to be sent outside to sleep alone. Xena caught the look and kept her reaction to herself. Eponin and Solari hid their reaction less well. Solari stumbled over her words, "Sure, ah, we should let you sleep... you've been through a lot."
Eponin openly watched the interplay between the women, thoroughly enjoying the drama. Xena hadn't given in, Gabrielle was actually pouting. Solari started toward the door, Eponin waited to see if Xena would follow. Finally, Xena looked at Gabrielle again, and even from behind, Eponin could see her soften around the edges. Without turning back, Xena said, "Goodnight, ladies." Eponin and Solari tripped over themselves getting out of the hut.
"You were playing with them!" said Gabrielle accusingly. "That was mean."
Xena dragged Gabrielle to the bed. "It worked. They might have stayed for hours and you need to get your strength back."
Gabrielle wormed her hand into Xena's. "Oh, I don't know, I don't think that's a problem."
Xena narrowed her eyes. "I'm serious, here. You're going to sleep." Xena pushed her back onto the sheets. "And that's all!"
"Says who?" The bard reached up and fastened her hands behind Xena's neck. When she pulled down without any success, she lifted her own body up to Xena and pressed their lips together. "See, I'm not tired."
"You're incorrigible. And I do love you, but I'm going to win this fight, so you might as well give up now." Xena lowered them both down, then rolled over next to the bard. "Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere. I have to make sure you sleep." She closed her eyes.
"I hate fighting with you, Xena. You always win." Gabrielle crossed her arms over her belly and tried to pout again.
Xena peeked at her and stifled a laugh, "Only when I'm right."
"Which is all the time!" Gabrielle complained.
"And your point is..."
Gabrielle rolled onto her side and snuggled up to the warrior, stretching an arm across her, coming to rest with one hand cupping Xena's breast, a thumb lazily trailing across the hardening flesh. "Goodnight, Xena. Sleep well."
Not to be outdone, Xena flipped her over and deposited a long, wet sloppy kiss on the bard. She teased her with her tongue and slipped her lips all around Gabrielle's hungry mouth. When she knew she had Gabrielle thoroughly aroused, she gave her a peck on the cheek, turned on her side facing the wall and said, "Goodnight to you, too."
"Ugh," was all Gabrielle managed to say.
* * * * *
They both slept late the next day, long past the first rays of dawn, long past the breakfast rush. No one dared wake them as Eponin had left strict word to leave them alone, and as much as hated to, she followed her own orders. It didn't keep her from picking routes that would take her by the queen's hut several times that morning, though. Finally, Solari had to tell her the whole village was on to her and that she'd better find a new place to pace.
Eponin did avoid walking by the royal hut, but kept one eye on it nonetheless. When the duo finally emerged and strolled toward the food hut, Eponin counted to ten, then took off after them, intending to accidentally run into them and join them for their meal.
Eponin fell in several steps behind them, checking her gait to keep her aura of nonchalance intact. As she studied her feet to make sure they walked softly, Xena called back to her, "Good morning, Eponin. Looking for someone?"
"Ah, no, no. Just getting something to eat. You going that way?"
Gabrielle walked back to her, grabbed her by the arm, and said, "It's okay, Eponin. You're invited."
"Thanks. I was hoping..." Eponin blushed slightly, but didn't let that stop her from huddling with the two former refugees. All through the meal, women stopped by to say how happy they were to see the queen. Gabrielle was gracious to each of them, Xena became more and more annoyed with every petty conversation.
Gabrielle kicked Xena under the table a few times when her body language became a little too intimidating for many of their visitors. Eventually, Xena leaned back against the wall, a bowl of olives in her lap, and only half listened as she licked and nipped every morsel off each of the olive pits.
Much to Gabrielle's consternation, Eponin insisted Gabrielle pay a visit to Saras, the Amazon healer. Xena agreed and used the excuse to check on Argo, having not seen to her since the ride in the night before, though she knew she'd have been well cared for.
Eponin escorted the queen to the healer's hut. "Saras would never forgive me if I didn't bring you."
"I'm fine, Eponin. You're worse than Xena!"
Eponin doubted that, enjoying very much the doting looks Xena slyly plastered on Gabrielle that morning, thinking no one would notice. Saras did pronounce the young queen fit, though she would not remove the stitches even when Gabrielle begged her. "They itch because they're healing, not because they are healed," Saras told her. She knew better than to do anything rash, she didn't want the legendary wrath of the Warrior Princess to descend on her.
Gabrielle and Eponin headed back to the royal hut gathering Solari on their way, just as Xena returned from the stables. Eponin again caught Xena and Gabrielle staring at each other. 'Well, I can hardly blame them,' she thought. 'They're the perfect mismatch, made by the gods.'
"If you're still walking around, then I guess Saras didn't see fit to lock you up under her care," joked Xena.
"Hardly. She said it was okay to release me to your custody," Gabrielle replied, straight-faced.
Xena arched an eyebrow, "Indeed?"
Eponin and Solari sat at the table, finally making it clear to Xena and Gabrielle that they weren't about to leave. The bard plopped down on the bed and spoke with them, "So, what's on your minds, you two?"
Xena took a chair near the door, not trusting Gabrielle to keep her hands to herself. It was one thing when they were alone, but Xena wasn't willing for any of it to carry over into a public forum, not even one as intimate as this gathering of friends.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes at Xena and made a note to herself that they next chance they had to talk in private, she'd have to let the warrior know that nothing was secret around here, and that Xena hadn't been doing a very good job of hiding things anyway. She asked no one in particular, "Is anyone as worried as I am about those poor men out there?"
Eponin looked at her incredulously, "You're worried about them?"
"Yes. I don't think they really want to be there, I'm sure they'd rather be home with their families. It's cold at night, they don't have much shelter. What if it rains again?"
Xena shook her head, "Gabrielle, in case you hadn't noticed, they're the enemy."
"No they're not! They're a little misguided, is all. We really should talk to them. I'm sure we could straighten everything out," pronounced the bard.
"Well I'm worried about Ephiny," butted in Eponin. "No one's heard from her in a long time. I think we should send someone out after her."
"And who'd you have in mind?" Xena asked, knowing Eponin would want her to go but would never ask her.
"Oh, I hadn't really thought about that yet, Xena. It's just an idea." Eponin backed down, seeing her plan to goad Xena into it wouldn't work.
Solari cleared her throat, "I'm worried about Ephiny, too, but I've also been thinking about the Centaurs. Otus had threatened them when I left. His army may have left here bored only to go there to stir up some trouble."
Gabrielle glanced at Xena, she had her perfectly unreadable, stoic warrior look on. "I'm sure the Centaurs are fine, Solari, or we would have heard about it."
"I think you're all forgetting the really important thing here," Xena spoke slowly. "Eriphyle."
No one had a response to that, she was at the crux of all their problems. No one knew where she was or what she was up to.
Finally Gabrielle said her peace, "Xena's right. Eriphyle will have to answer for her crimes, but first things first. We have to end this siege or all any of us can do is sit around and talk about what we need to do instead of actually doing what we need to do. So, I have a plan. I'll go out there and have a little chat with them."
"You will do no such thing!" Xena shouted.
"Xena, I need to do this. You should understand."
"Oh, I understand all right," Xena said, smoldering. "I understand that it's a stupid idea."
"Fine," shot back Gabrielle. "You got a better one?" Xena narrowed her eyes and glared at her. "Yeah, I didn't think so."
Xena stood slowly and pulled her long legs toward the bed. "Eponin, Solari, would you excuse us please?" Again, the Amazons tripped over each other tying to get out the door. Once they'd shut the door, Xena started in on Gabrielle, "You are not going to waltz out of those gates and into an army."
"It's hardly an army, Xena."
"You're not going to go out there. They're out for blood, they want revenge, and I shudder to think how they'd relish capturing the Amazon Queen."
"I think they'll reasonable. They've been drawn into a fight they never wanted. They'll want to talk."
Xena rested her fists on her hips, "If you go, and I really do mean if, then you're certainly not going alone."
"Right Xena, an armed warrior tagging along? Don't you think they would send the wrong message?"
"It would be the right message in my book, Gabrielle."
"Well, I don't think they'd understand it that way."
"You're not going without me." Xena's simple statement was uttered with complete conviction.
Gabrielle lay back on the bed, her arms flailing out onto the sheets. "Isn't this a turnaround? You're worried about me doing what I do best."
"That's hardly fair, Gabrielle. I don't generally go walking out unarmed into an army of men."
Gabrielle sat up so Xena could see the fire in her eyes, "No, you do it armed, but you still do it, no matter what I say. Now you know what it feels like." Gabrielle watched Xena's jaw muscles clenching and unclenching but the big warrior didn't say anything. Gabrielle spoke softly, "Xena, I need to talk to them. This mess could go on for a long time and everyone will suffer for it."
Xena thought for a moment, "So you want to talk to them?"
"Yes, that's the idea."
"What if one comes here?" Xena offered.
"Who's going to invite them, you?"
"Yeah, that's the idea. Sort of," Xena shuffled her feet.
"Xena, that's insane. The answer is no."
Xena descended on Gabrielle swiftly and growled in her ear, "Either one comes here, or I go out with you. Take your pick. There aren't any other options."
"You're going to kidnap one of those men and force him to talk to me, or I have to bring the most dangerous warrior in the known world along as I try to negotiate a peaceful settlement?" Gabrielle's anger threatened to overpower her, but she knew Xena was too close to the edge to let herself go over as well. "Which one's got a better chance of working?"
Xena relaxed, she'd won. "I'd feel much better if we conducted negotiations here."
"Don't scare him too much, promise?"
* * * * *
That evening, Xena sneaked out. It was child's play to pass by the snoozing men unnoticed. She circled around the back of the tent and listened. Bored men making plans, must be the command tent. She secreted herself into a nook and waited. Two men eventually left the tent trotting off to bed yawning and reeking of wine. Xena recognized one as Amythaon, the villager who tried to kill Gabrielle when this whole thing began,
Xena waited just a little longer then slipped into the tent. A small man was sleeping soundly having passed out over his bed diagonally. Xena reached down and covered his mouth with her hand, jerking him awake.
"Hi there. You're going to come with me and we'll have a little talk. Don't worry, I'm under strict orders not to hurt you." The man nodded and let himself be led away. 'That was too easy,' Xena thought.
She shoved him through the small opening in the wall and took him to the royal hut. "What's your name?" she asked.
"Laertes," he squeaked.
Xena peered into his eyes, they were wide with fright. "Sorry, I wasn't supposed to scare you, Laertes. Come in and meet the queen."
She opened the door and beckoned him in first. Before Laertes really knew what had happened, Gabrielle was there introducing herself, shaking his hand, offering him something to drink and a place to sit. Xena slunk back into a dark corner, trying to stay out of the way but unwilling to leave Gabrielle alone with the enemy.
"Laertes, I hope you and I can come to some sort of agreement about this whole mess," Gabrielle began.
"Like what?" he stammered.
"Oh, I guess I should apologize for the manner in which you were brought here," she paused to glare at Xena who shrugged her shoulders in answer. "We didn't know how best to begin the negotiations. I hope we can make it up to you."
"Perhaps I should start at the beginning." Putting on her best bardly voice, Gabrielle told him the story of Melosa and Valesca, of Eriphyle's quest for revenge--she kept checking to make sure he was awake and engaged in her story--of Eriphyle's attacks on the towns, the abductions, meddling with Otus, and finally of Ephiny's journey to the Centaurs and Gabrielle's own trek back to the Amazon Village.
Laertes kept quiet throughout the entire oration; the wine wearing off, the ludicrously improbable kidnapping he's just suffered, and the outrageous fiction he was sitting through made him feel light headed. He looked at Gabrielle who stood near him expectantly, and then back to Xena hidden in the shadows. "You expect me to believe that?" he finally said.
Gabrielle sighed, "Do you think I could have made that up?"
"I don't know, you're a bard as you say, but I really can't believe what you've told me is true."
Gabrielle sat down by him. "It is the truth. But I understand that there is little trust between us yet, and we must do something about that before you can take my word as the truth. So, tell me about yourself. Do you have a family?"
Laertes was taken aback. "I thought Amazons didn't care about families." To her credit, Xena didn't throttle him.
"No, Laertes, Amazons do care about families, as do I. I'm from Poteidaia. I have a family there I love. Do you have children?"
"Two daughters." He spoke tenderly, "They are six and five summers old. One wants to be a healer."
Gabrielle asked softly, "And the other?"
"She told me she wants to be an Amazon. But that was before..."
"Laertes, not all Amazons are good and I hope you believe that not all are bad. Perhaps you will one day be proud to have your daughter visit here, then she can learn more about the Amazons. But until then, don't you think it's important that your daughters grow up knowing of peace with their neighbors?"
"Of course we would all prefer that. But..." again he looked over his shoulder at Xena, "Why haven't you put a stop to this earlier. I mean, she was able to get me so easily..."
Xena finally offered her opinion, "You're not warriors, Laertes. Don't feel bad about fighting poorly."
"We're not warriors, it is true. But we want to punish the people who ravaged our homes," Laertes said.
"And you will get a chance to do that," Gabrielle told him.
"But why didn't you just come out and shoo us away or something?"
The bard tried to explain, "Laertes, that's not our way. We didn't want anyone to get hurt. And I apologize, again, for bringing you here the way we did. To tell the truth, I was getting worried about you and your men. You have no shelter, little food, and you all must miss your families."
Laertes regarded Gabrielle carefully, "I'm beginning to believe you, Gabrielle."
All three of them turned toward the door, loud shouts distracting them. Xena mumbled, "what the..." just as the door burst open.
"My Queen," Pontonous stood at the threshold, "Ephiny has arrived." Xena moved quickly to the door, effectively keeping Gabrielle and her guest from running out. Laertes tried to see around Xena and Pontonous, but his view was completely blocked by the two women in front of him. He didn't have to wait long to catch a glimpse of the newly returned Amazon though, as Ephiny made Gabrielle's hut her first stop.
Ephiny stopped briefly to smile at Xena then turned to Gabrielle. "Now there's a sight I never thought I'd see again." They gave each other a hug, breaking it to simultaneously ask how the other one was.
They laughed, "No, Ephiny, you go first."
"How? I mean... Eriphyle said... then Eponin told me... and who is this man?"
Gabrielle introduced them, "Ephiny, meet Laertes, one of the leaders of the men holding fort out there."
Ephiny took his hand, "Well, this is good news, too. It is a night full of good news. I'm glad you could join us, Laertes."
Laertes stumbled, "Yes, well, uh, Xena invited me."
Ephiny glanced back at Xena and they exchanged a brief but knowing look. "Laertes, I do want to talk with you, but please excuse me for one moment. I thought Gabrielle was dead, and I need to see how she's faring." They all laughed, Ephiny having lightened the tone of the meeting while still making Laertes feel important. "So, Gabrielle?"
"I'm fine, Ephiny. How are you and how did you get back here?"
Ephiny poured herself some water. "I am feeling much better thanks to a young man who doted on me night and day." She winked at Xena. "I finally convinced Solon that I needed to return and he saw fit to bring me. I ran out of stories to tell him. My, he is a curious one. Couldn't get enough of the adventures of Xena and Gabrielle." Gabrielle kept her eyes glued on Xena but the warrior maintained her indifferent pose. Ephiny continued, "He told me, by the way, to say he was sorry he couldn't stay."
Laertes groaned, "So now how many people have broken through our blockade?"
Xena answered him, "You don't really want a count, do you?" She mentally added it up: Pero, Solari, Gabrielle and herself, Ephiny and Solon.
Gabrielle stepped in, "Laertes, as we said, we didn't want to do anything that might cause injury to one of your men."
"You've made it abundantly clear that our siege is pointless, that you can run it at anytime. I guess I should thank you for not bowling us over and sending us high-tailing it back home," Laertes said with an air of defeat.
Gabrielle reassured him, "You were out there because you thought it was the right thing to do. You had no way of knowing about Eriphyle. No one blames you, Laertes."
Ephiny added, "She's right. We respect you for taking a difficult stand. We'd like to think we could muster the same courage as you've shown us."
Laertes stared at them, mouth agape. He couldn't believe these heathen women were so civilized. No, it was more than that, he admitted to himself. He was actually beginning to like them. "Do you have a proposal?" His reluctant tone now overshadowed by optimism.
Gabrielle suggested, "Maybe we should get some sleep. In the morning, I'll walk you back and we can talk with the rest of your leaders. I'd like to think that together, we can compose a treaty that will please everyone." Gabrielle refused to look at Xena, she knew she was scowling. "I'll have you escorted to a hut nearby. You will not be guarded. Call for me if you need anything."
He stood and took her hand. "Goodnight, Gabrielle. I will sleep with hope-filled dreams for the first time in many nights." He smiled at Ephiny and passed Xena with a nod before leaving.
Gabrielle smiled, "Well, that went well."
"Gabrielle..." Xena used her voice of authority.
"Look, Xena. I went along with you the first time, now it's your turn to trust me."
Sheepishly, Ephiny said, "I guess I came in right in the middle of something."
Gabrielle put a hand on her arm, "Sorry, Ephiny. Wow, I'm really glad you're here and that you're okay."
Xena glared at the other women for changing the subject.
"Not nearly as glad as I am to see you!" Ephiny hugged the bard again.
Xena had put up with enough, "Gabrielle..."
"What?" she asked smugly.
"You mind telling me what you plan to do tomorrow?"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes, "You heard me. Laertes and I are going to put an end to this mess."
"I thought we agreed you wouldn't do that?" Xena reminded her.
"We agreed", she said, "to let you bring one of the men here. You did, we talked, now we move on. Look, Xena, I've got to trust Laertes for this to work. You should, too."
All Xena said was, "I don't."
Ephiny interrupted, "Xena, Gabrielle's right. But if it will make everyone feel better, I'll go with you."
Gabrielle put a stop to that, "No, you just got back."
Even Xena agreed, "I can't let both of you go. That would be foolish. One has to stay here."
"Good, then you agree with me," Gabrielle flatly stated. Xena didn't answer her, but it was enough of an admission of consent for Gabrielle to know she'd convinced Xena.
* * * * *
Laertes and Gabrielle walked out of the gate side-by-side. Neither was armed yet both walked with the calm authority of command, confident strides taking them toward the command tent from which Laertes had been taken the night before.
Xena stood at the wall, or more accurately she paced along the wall, Ephiny and Eponin on either side of her. They were forced to give her a little room to move on each pass. All of the Amazons lined the wall or manned the gate, in anticipation of either celebration or action. They maintained an uneasy readiness in case they were called upon to rescue their queen. Ephiny ordered all weapons out of sight knowing her archers were within easy reach of their bows but wanting no provocation to come from a needless display of power. Most of the women realized, however, that they would be given no chance to attack, even if it became necessary, because the tall, restless warrior could--and would--single-handedly make mincemeat out of their oppressors.
As Laertes and Gabrielle neared the command tent, several scruffy men surrounded them. Xena couldn't hear the words exchanged, but she could see Laertes hold his hands up in front of them, trying to calm them. Two men darted toward Gabrielle and grabbed her by the arms. While Gabrielle made no protest of the treatment, Ephiny and Eponin had to hold Xena back from jumping over the wall to teach those men a lesson. Laertes put a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder and the group disappeared into the tent.
Gabrielle was pushed into a chair by the two less-than-gentlemanly thugs grasping her arms. They finally let her go only to stand directly behind her, trying to intimidate her by their superior size and authoritative presence. Laertes brought her a water skin, "They're sorry," he said, "they didn't really mean to treat you so rudely."
"Laertes, what's going on?" Gabrielle cringed as she recognized the voice of Amythaon clomping into the tent. "And what are you doing with that bitch?"
Laertes swung around quickly and caught the villager's face with the back of his hand. "Amythaon, you'll do well to hold your tongue. This is Gabrielle."
The bard smiled, "We've met."
Laertes looked confused until Amythaon explained, "She and her friend Xena infiltrated my village."
"Xena and I happened onto them just after Eriphyle attacked them," Gabrielle explained.
"Who's Eriphyle?" demanded Amythaon, now dabbing his lip with his hand, almost disappointed not to find blood there.
Laertes had heard enough. "Just shut up for a minute, Amythaon. All your questions will be answered in due time. Gabrielle, forgive my manners, I haven't introduced you to everyone else." He stepped toward an elderly man whose flowing beard mingled with his silver hair. "This is Elpenor and," he gestured to a stocky man sitting across from them, "This is Neleus. Gentlemen, I'd like you to meet a friend of mine: Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons."
That was too much for Amythaon, "Queen? You're the Queen and you had the nerve to say you weren't an Amazon."
"Amythaon, I'm sorry I couldn't tell you the truth, but I didn't think it would do either of us any good for you to know. You needed our help," Gabrielle reasoned. "Besides, I am Queen only by Right-Of-Caste. Mostly, I'm on the road with Xena and Ephiny rules in my absence."
"What a load of..."
"Silence, Amythaon!" Elpenor rose and shuffled toward Gabrielle. His frame was bent by the years but his bright eyes displayed the vigor of a young man. "Now, Gabrielle, why don't you tell us why you're here."
She smiled at him, a new ally. "I came to explain why certain events have happened, to tell you that the Amazon Nation has been fighting the same enemy you have, and to try to renew the peace we once had."
Elpenor signaled for a chair, Laertes brought him one. "Tell me." It was a simple request, one Gabrielle recognized as genuine, and she related the same tale to them as she had to Laertes the night before. Occasionally, Laertes punctuated her remarks, particularly when she told them of Ephiny's return.
Amythaon blandly tossed a dagger into the air, catching it by its hilt and flipping it again. "You'd do anything to wear down our defenses, wouldn't you?"
Gabrielle tried a new approach, "Amythaon, it is true that if I wanted to lie to you I could have come up with this whole improbable story. But please admit to me one thing." He caught the dagger and waggled it toward her in an odd encouragement for her to continue, "If I am telling the truth the story just might sound the same."
"You're admitting you're lying?" Amythaon asked slowly, a fiendish grin curling his unshaven lip.
"No, I am saying that I understand how you can hear my words as either truth or lies, and I'm asking you to admit the same," Gabrielle replied calmly.
Amythaon caressed the blade of his dagger, "Okay."
Gabrielle gained confidence, "So, you must be the judge here. All of you. I have told you my story and now it is up to each of you to look inside your hearts and judge me. The stakes are high. If you choose to believe me, then there will be peace in our lands. The Amazon Nation will live near you, offer protection when you need it, leave you alone otherwise. Or, if you choose to judge me a liar, this siege may well escalate into something more deadly. I don't want that to happen.
"Threats? This little girl is threatening us?" Amythaon began to lunge toward her, Gabrielle sat, trusting the others to keep him from doing anything rash, though she swallowed very hard and secretly wished Xena was there at that particular moment. Laertes tripped Amythaon, sending him unceremoniously to the dirt.
Neleus, who had until then sat quietly observing all that went on, finally spoke. "Gentlemen, please." Amythaon spit dirt out of his mouth and got to his knees, glaring at Neleus. "While the woman speaks brave words, we cannot forget that many of our good folk will react as Amythaon has. His deeds are not without reason," Amythaon grinned triumphantly, "but they are without honor." Amythaon growled under his breath.
"We must all take the time to ponder this carefully. No quick decision should be made, I hope you understand that Gabrielle." Neleus' tone was gentle.
"I agree," the bard said.
"Good. Laertes, why don't you stay here with Elpenor and our guest, I'll have a meal sent in. I'd like this opportunity to take a walk and clear my head." He rose. "Amythaon, would you care to join me?"
The two dipped out of the tent and Gabrielle felt herself relax. Elpenor reached over and put a hand on her arm, "Neleus is a good man."
"I'll say," the bard agreed. "He defused that sticky situation pretty well."
"Laertes here has had you to himself for awhile. I'm going to monopolize you now, with his permission," Laertes nodded to Elpenor. "Good. Tell me how you became Queen of the Amazons. What a story that must be."
Gabrielle smiled and launched herself into bard mode.
* * * * *
"Xena, would you please calm down, you're making everyone edgy!" Ephiny had finally had enough and was willing to risk life and limb to protect her Amazons from this woman.
Xena glared at her and kept pacing. Then she stopped suddenly and froze.
"Thank you," said Ephiny.
"Shhh." Xena held up a finger and pivoted slowly, peering into the woods off to the side. "She's there."
Eponin tried to see whatever it was that Xena could, but to no avail. "Who's there?"
Xena spun on Ephiny, "You can't risk sending an armed posse out there."
Ephiny nodded, "As usual, you're right."
"So you'll let me go alone." Xena's eyes pleaded, her posture demanded acquiescence.
"Okay, Xena." Ephiny took her hand, "But I'll have to answer to Gabrielle, you know."
Xena smiled. "I'll be careful." And she was off.
Eponin raised a questioning eyebrow to Ephiny. Ephiny answered, "Eriphyle."
"Oh." Together they watched Xena slink across the tall grass but they lost her as she climbed a tree.
Xena played Eriphyle well, she knew the Amazon wanted to meet her alone and she was quite willing to let her have her way--this one time. The thrill of the hunt pulsed blood through her veins, she was in her element and nothing would stop her now. It was one thing to pursue someone who had captured you, but it was quite another to stalk a woman who had threatened Gabrielle.
She ducked behind a large limb as an arrow whizzed by her. Eriphyle was toying with her, she knew a bow was poor choice for weaponry in the trees and a poor choice against someone with the reflexes of the Warrior Princess. Xena judged its point of origin from its flight path and took off.
Jumping easily from tree to tree, she drew closer to her opponent. Eriphyle had picked a defensible spot and lay in wait, watching her prey close in on her. They were both excited by the duel.
Xena was but three trees away when Eriphyle began taunting her, "Xena, dear, have you come back for more?"
"Only to give you your due, Eriphyle." Xena laughed as she swung her long legs and landed on the next large branch.
"You should know that you can't defeat me, Xena. I've already proven that once."
"No one has ever bested me and lived to tell about it."
They stared at each other, only a long jump away, the brilliant green foliage around them a non sequitur in their dangerous game of revenge. Xena tasted Eriphyle's fear and let loose her famous war cry, flipping over in a double somersault and landing, sword drawn, within arms reach of Eriphyle.
Steel met steel. Xena's strength was enhanced by the added risk of doing battle in the trees, Eriphyle's by the distinction of fighting the greatest warrior in Greece. They each planned to win.
Eriphyle pulled out a few tricks of her own, kicking to her right and engaging the trigger of a cross bow pointed directly at Xena. Xena parried with her sword, meeting the rushing arrow with ease and knocking it benignly to the forest floor.
"Very good, Xena. Very good." Eriphyle climbed a few branches above her. "But you'll have to do better than that." She reached up and split a branch above her with her sword. It had been laid with netting, another trap prepared for her worthy foe.
Xena didn't have enough time to react, the netting spreading out over her body. As Eriphyle laughed in triumphant glee, however, Xena jumped down, grabbing the branch with her hand, and swung out from under the net which was now caught on the limb where she had been standing. Xena landed one branch below Eriphyle and gripped the Amazons boot.
"No, no, no! You're not going anywhere," Xena said smugly.
Eriphyle kicked hard, freeing her boot, but Xena was already thrusting with her sword, meeting flesh this time. Eriphyle cried out then let her own sword make amends, taking several wild swipes at Xena as she retreated farther up into the tree. Eriphyle took a moment to judge her position then leaped into the next tree and kept going. She knew the trees better than Xena, knew which branches could hold her weight, and she gained ground on the warrior chasing her.
Eriphyle pushed on, ignoring the small gash Xena had made in her leg. She wanted to reach the rim of the tree ring, now obsessed not only with killing Xena, but with accomplishing the feat in front of an audience. Once again, she chose her position carefully. The tree in which she turned to fight was an old friend, she knew its strengths and its weaknesses.
Xena did not wear herself out on the chase. As long as she kept Eriphyle within her sight, she was satisfied. Xena knew all too well what the compulsive Amazon was planning. If it was spectators she wanted, then she would get spectators. Xena reached the tree next to Eriphyle's, then pulled herself into the crotch between two large limbs and sat down. She would annoy Eriphyle, goad her into taking unreasonable chances. Xena preferred not just to beat her opponent, but to make her look bad in the process.
"Xena, what are you waiting for? Come on and fight." Eriphyle yelled at her. It drew the attention of the Amazons along the wall and the men in the blockade. The men drew back from them, wary of the two warriors.
Xena did not respond. Eriphyle threw more taunts her way, "Are you so afraid of me that you'd back down now? The great Warrior Princess give up in the middle of a fight? You're nothing like your reputation, Xena. I should have tormented you as I'd planned to back in that cave. You'd never have survived it."
"Think again, Eriphyle." Xena shifted her sword to her left hand and toyed with her chakram in her right.
"You don't know what I had planned, do you? You don't even want to think about it, do you? Well, let me tell you, Xena. I had you convinced that Gabrielle was dead, didn't I?" Xena did not look up, but Eriphyle could see her muscles tensing up. "Good, I see that I did. You remember how I told you I'd killed her? I was going to make you watch as I actually did impale her on my blade. I was going to make you listen to her suffering. She would cry out for you, wouldn't she, Xena? I was going to make you lie with her dead body, to smear you with her blood. How would you have liked that, Xena?"
All her warrior training could not contain her anger, Xena unleashed her chakram, slicing through the branch just above Eriphyle, and vaulted into the tree. Eriphyle was blinded for a moment, falling branches and twigs disorienting her. She felt Xena latch onto her in a grip so powerful, she wouldn't have believed it possible to stem from a mere mortal. Like two cats fighting, the clawed at each other, twisting out of the way of the branches, trying to get a clean path to the other's throat.
Eriphyle felt her legs giving way and scanned the tree beneath her for a new perch. What she saw both saddened and stimulated her. If she couldn't win, at least she could make certain it was a draw. With Xena's hand inching toward her windpipe and the other wresting her sword, she let herself fall onto the branch below. The old, diseased branch broke cleanly from the tree, pulling others down with it, cracking the tree in half vertically, and as an ensemble Eriphyle, Xena, and tree fell to the ground with a resounding crash.
The men now ran away with abandon, fleeing the scene of death. The Amazons, heedless of any future causalities, came out en masse to assess the situation. Eponin and Solari were the first on the scene, they frantically dug through the twisted mass of branches, trying to clear away enough debris to find their fallen comrades.
The located Eriphyle first. She had landed over a branch, her back contorted at an impossible angle over it, a stubby nub piercing her forearm, skewering her in place. "Wait," yelled Ephiny to the women trying to pry her loose. "Don't move her yet." Ephiny kneeled down by her nemesis, stepping lithely between the mangled branches. "Eriphyle?" The Amazon's eyes opened. "Can you feel your toes?"
Eriphyle did not answer right away. She seemed to be having a conversation with herself, or at least with her body. "Leave me here, Ephiny."
"Answer me, can you feel your toes?" Ephiny asked sternly.
Eriphyle squeezed her eyes shut, "No."
"Your back is broken. There's nothing we can do." Ephiny almost felt sorry for the disreputable woman under her gaze. She spoke to the women standing by her, "You can move her, but be gentle. No more harm can come to her now."
Ephiny watched as three Amazon warriors lifted Eriphyle and a fourth quickly bound the gaping hole in her arm. They carried her back to the village. The rest of the women had lingered about watching the last stand of a brave but deranged sister, until Ephiny turned her attention back to them. "Find Xena," she pleaded softly.
The hunt was more systematic now, lifting and checking for a body then pulling aside great piles of branches. Ephiny leaned heavily against a tree, the one Xena had leapt from before succumbing to the mad desires of Eriphyle. She wiped her forehead with the back of her arm, and closed her eyes, too afraid to hope for good news.
The search went on too long. All that was left to move was the massive trunk itself and the central limbs still clinging to it. Eponin directed them to hack away at the branches, she knew the trunk would be too heavy to lift, but more importantly, if that was where Xena lay, she could not have survived the fall. With their swords, they chopped away leafy branches, careful to peer under them before letting loose their blades. Finally, someone spotted something gleaming in the light. "Hey, over here. Xena's chakram."
Ephiny bounded over, she and Eponin taking the front line pulling away debris as quickly as they could. As Ephiny was handing a bundle back to Solari behind her, Eponin clutched her arm. They had uncovered a leg. Working as rapidly as they could while still ensuring everyone's safety, the cut away the branches around her body.
Xena had landed on her side, her arms covered her head deflecting the scraping branches from her face. Her arms and legs, though, were a jumble of bloody scratches. Ephiny put a finger under Xena's nose. "She's breathing!" she cried. Next she carefully ran her hands along Xena's arms, legs, and torso scanning for broken bones. Miraculously, she found none. "Let's get her back to Saras!"
Ephiny, Eponin, Solari, and Pero carried Xena to the village and into the healer's hut. Eriphyle was there already, sedated and looking deathly pale. Saras shooed them all away while she gave Xena a much more thorough examination but Ephiny insisted on remaining in the room. Saras mumbled as she worked, "No fever... No broken bones... Breathing steady... Color good..." She asked Ephiny, "You say she fell out of a tree?"
"Same as Eriphyle." It was slowly dawning on Ephiny there might actually be good news to spread after all.
"She's got a bump on her head and no doubt she'll wake up with a headache, but I can't find anything else wrong with her. Amazing..." Saras scuttled away mumbling something about concocting a special tea.
Ephiny pulled a chair up by Xena and sat down next to her, shaking slightly. Now that she knew Xena was okay, it seemed her own body wanted a chance to let go, to let some of the tension she'd been holding for so long evaporate. She buried her face in her hands and sobbed.
* * * * *
Gabrielle heard the deafening crash of the tree in the distance. Somewhere in the back of her mind, a very dark thought tickled her soul, but Amythaon was still complaining about the treaty and she couldn't dwell on it. He didn't want the border to remain with their original demarcation of the Thermadon River banks. He wanted to get something out of the deal.
Elpenor and Laertes tried to soothe him, to coax him out of his hysterical tirade, but Amythaon would have nothing of it. He pranced about the room until finally Neleus took control.
"Shut up, Amythaon. Shut up and sit down or I'll have you throw out of here." The tip of Neleus' sword rested against Amythaon's throat. "And don't think I'm doing this just for show. I've had enough of you and if I didn't think so highly of Charon, I'd send you down the River Styx right now." Amythaon bent before the point of the sword and sat in the chair Neleus slid under his knees.
"Now, I think we can get this over and done with so long as you keep quiet," he growled to Amythaon. "Forgive me, Gabrielle, my patience wore thin."
Gabrielle smiled at him, inwardly very grateful for his actions. "No need to apologize," she told him.
"Good. Now, let's settle this. We withdraw, you help us rebuild our villages, we get some protection from our enemies, the borders don't change, and we get Eriphyle."
Gabrielle thanked her lucky stars, someone who was willing to talk seriously. "You withdraw, we gladly help you rebuild, the borders are no longer an issue, the Amazons will come to your aid if ever Otus and his men should decide to pay you an unwelcome visit, but Eriphyle must stand trial with the Amazons first."
Neleus was adamant. "Eriphyle murdered our people. We deserve the right to punish her."
"Neleus, I understand. She committed vile acts against you, your families, and your homes. But she committed treason against the Amazon Nation. Seditious acts constitute the most heinous crimes under Amazon law. To an Amazon, ideals and values are extraordinarily important. We owe more than our lives to each other and because of that, treason is the most atrocious action any Amazon can take." Gabrielle spoke from the heart. "We will, of course, extradite her to you for trial, but the Amazons will judge her first."
"Can I say something?" Amythaon asked glumly. Neleus relented. "What guarantees do we have? How do we even know if you won't attack as soon as we withdraw?"
Neleus looked like he was about to throttle him again, but Gabrielle intervened. "I will stay with you until the withdrawal is complete. No one will be stabbing you in the back, I can assure you, Amythaon."
Elpenor spoke up, "That's a kind offer, Gabrielle. I'm sure Amythaon is in agreement with us now." Laertes and Neleus smiled at each other. "And if you don't mind," Neleus groaned under his breath waiting for the other shoe to drop, "I'd like to keep our young bard company while she waits for us to get out of their hair!" Elpenor sensed victory.
Neleus grabbed a piece of parchment and wrote out their agreement. Gabrielle made some minor corrections and signed it. Neleus, Laertes, and Elpenor each added their signatures below Gabrielle's.
The Amazon Queen picked up the quill and handed it to Amythaon. "I'd feel better if you joined us," she said.
Reluctantly, he took the quill and scratched on the scroll. Then he grunted at everyone and stormed out. Neleus laughed, "He couldn't give in all the way. His pride would have never withstood it. Gabrielle, I thank you. Laertes, we owe you a debt as well. With your leave, I'll give the order to withdraw."
* * * * *
Ephiny had long since stopped crying though her hands still cradled her head. She was content to sit in a dark room where no one would disturb her. When someone dared to poke her, she was so unnerved, she bolted right up out of her chair, searching left and right for the inebriate who would have done such a monstrous thing. She heard someone softly chuckling, "Xena? You're awake. How do you feel?" Ephiny kneeled by Xena's bed.
"Where's Gabrielle?" Xena croaked.
"Oh, she's not back yet." Ephiny had so hoped Xena wouldn't ask that.
Xena tried to sit up and throw her feet over the bed. "No, no, Xena. You lie down right now or I'll bring in ten Amazon Warriors to hold you down."
"But... Gabrielle..." Xena fell back onto the bed.
"She's fine," Ephiny hoped it was true. "The troops out there are packing up and leaving. Everything should be back to normal soon."
"Why did you let her stay so long? Didn't you send anyone out after her?" Xena was getting rather angry.
"Xena, calm down, please. Gabrielle can take care of herself. She's going to be mighty irate that you let yourself get hurt. Now what am I supposed to tell her when I see her?"
That gave Xena pause. "Help me sit up, please." Against her better judgment, Ephiny did. "Not bad. I'm a little sore, but that's all. So, help me get back to the hut."
"What? Xena you fell out of a tree. By all rights you should be dead."
"Well, that didn't happen. Come on, Ephiny, I don't want to worry Gabrielle." Xena's big blue eyes pleaded her case.
"Okay. But I'm not responsible, got it?" Ephiny helped Xena stand and steadied her. "Headache?"
"Not bad," Xena lied.
"Saras has been steeping something to help that. I'll have it sent over once we get you in bed. And that is where you're going!" Ephiny put on her most commanding tone.
Xena tried to walk on her own, but had to rest an arm on her, then slowly transferred more of her weight to Ephiny. She was winded when Ephiny plunked her down on the bed. "I'll get that tea for you. Stay awake long enough to drink it!"
"Sure, Ephiny. Whatever you say. And Ephiny..."
"You're welcome." Ephiny smiled, "And thanks for all you did for us."
"Anytime, Ephiny. You know that."
"Yeah, Xena. I do."
* * * * *
Gabrielle was met at the gate by Ephiny, Eponin and Solari.
"Where's Xena?" Gabrielle demanded.
"She's resting. And before you start yelling, she's fine!" Ephiny blurted out.
Gabrielle grabbed Ephiny, "Explain."
"Eriphyle paid us a visit. There was no way to hold Xena back, I hope you realize. Anyway, they had it out and they both fell out of a tree."
"Fell out of a tree?" Gabrielle screamed. "You let her fall out of a tree? In the middle of a fight?"
Eponin tried to help. "It wasn't Ephiny's fault. And Xena really is fine. A lot better than Eriphyle..." Solari poked her in the ribs, but not soon enough.
"Uh huh, and how's Eriphyle?" Gabrielle demanded.
Solari swallowed, then told her, "She has a broken back."
Ephiny jumped in, "Xena only has some scratches. I swear, it's true. Not a broken bone on her body."
Gabrielle shoved a scroll at Ephiny, then stood, arms akimbo, "Here's your treaty. Take me to Xena, now."
Gabrielle didn't let anyone come in the hut with her. She shut the door immediately behind her, only to find Xena fast asleep on the bed. Gabrielle stood by the palette and watched Xena's breathing, her chest rising and falling in delicate rhythm. It was a peaceful sight. The bard did notice the scratches on Xena's arms and legs, many of them well on their way to healing, reminding her that even her Warrior Princess was vulnerable.
But it was too difficult to be apart from her. Gabrielle crawled up the bed and lay down by Xena, softly taking her into her arms. Xena mumbled and snuggled in close, then calmed again and reclaimed her deep slumber. There was something magical about holding Xena in her arms, it was a feeling Gabrielle treasured and would continue to treasure for the rest of her days.
When those eyes opened and looked at her the world stopped for a moment. Nothing could affect her like those cerulean jewels. Gabrielle teared up before she could stop herself, "Sorry."
Xena wiped away her tears, then reached over and kissed her gently, "I was worried about you."
"You were worried about me?" the bard asked incredulously. "You fell out of a tree and you were worried about me? How dare you!"
"I was worried about you," Xena repeated, gently.
"Well, I'm here and you're here and everything's fine now." Gabrielle ran her fingers lightly across Xena's cheek.
"How'd it go?"
Gabrielle could tell she didn't want the long answer. "Fine. Our friend Amythaon needed some extra coaxing but I didn't have to do much of it myself. We have a treaty."
Xena smiled at her. "I'm proud of you."
That stopped her cold. Gabrielle teared up again, this time burying her face in Xena's neck. Gabrielle let her tears run their course, settled into a few deep breaths, and pulled back so she could look into those eyes again. "Xena, tell me something."
"How did you survive falling out of that tree? When I think of what it did to Eriphyle..."
Xena chuckled, "Well, you've just gotta know how to fall."
"You must be pretty good at it," said Gabrielle.
"I've had practice lately... I fell for you, didn't I?" 'Got her again,' thought Xena, 'I'm liking this.'
Breathlessly, Gabrielle whispered, "And sometimes I wonder why you ever did."
"I don't." Xena leaned over and kissed her again, this time more deeply.
* * * * *
"Are you sure you feel up to this?" Gabrielle asked, straightening her top.
"Somebody's gotta keep an eye on you. Ephiny isn't very good at it," Xena sneered.
"Only when she's too busy keeping an eye on you," came the wicked retort.
"Ouch! Fine, you win. Here help me with this." Gabrielle finished buckling Xena's armor.
"There, now you look better than I do." Gabrielle said with a flourish.
"Never, my bard."
"Don't be so sure. I take the time to watch all those lecherous women, Xena. They're much more interested in you than in me."
"That's because they know what I'll do to them if they so much as wink at you." Xena accepted the playful slap from Gabrielle.
The bard turned serious, "Look, Xena, if you get tired, you tell me. Promise? We'll leave right away."
"What and spoil your party?" Xena tickled her.
Gabrielle pulled those busy hands away and held them, "Hey, I mean it. You promise me."
"Yes, Mother. When I get tired, I'll let you take me home and put me to bed."
Gabrielle pulled Xena's head down and growled in her ear, "Then you'd better plan on leaving before you get tired, if you get my drift."
They celebration was already in full swing when Xena and Gabrielle arrived. A bonfire was ablaze in the village quad, women were congregated in the food hut or were dancing around the fire to the pulsating beat of a drum core. Ephiny, Eponin, and Solari insisted Gabrielle and Xena sit with them. Xena, as usual, situated herself with her back to the wall so she could observe everything around her. Large mugs of ale were delivered to the table and consumed, more ale was brought, and soon Gabrielle was off dancing with Eponin and Solari.
Xena leaned back and chatted amiably with Ephiny, always keeping one eye on Gabrielle.
"You know, Xena, one of these days you and Gabrielle will come and we'll have a normal visit. No adventures."
"Sure, Ephiny. Believe that and I can sell you a bridge in Athens," Xena drawled.
"I hope none of your visits will be as busy as this one," said Ephiny.
"I hope not as well."
Ephiny leaned back next to Xena. "I've been meaning to tell you something." Xena hooked an eyebrow. "About Solon." Xena didn't move. "He's a wonderful kid. And in many ways he's a lot like you. He's very strong and yet he has a gentle touch. He is quick to defend his friends in any way he can, and he's troubled when it is reciprocated. And he really did keep asking for stories about you and Gabrielle."
"What did you tell him?" Xena was almost afraid to ask.
Ephiny sensed the trepidation but forged ahead, "This whole thing can be traced to Valesca. He had a right to know it all."
"I suppose you're right. Besides, it's not like he knows..."
"No, Xena. He doesn't know."
Xena squeezed Ephiny's hand briefly under the table, "Thanks, Ephiny. Again. I'm glad you got to spend some time with each other."
"Me, too. And, Xena, you could visit him."
Xena tilted her chin away and caught a glimpse of Gabrielle as she threw her head back laughing, trying to dance under a staff two women were holding parallel to the ground. Gabrielle slipped under it, but the next three Amazons who tried it fell in the process. The staff was lowered and Gabrielle made another stab at dancing under it but landed on her behind. Xena watched closely as Gabrielle tried to get up and pitched over again, still laughing.
"Time to take someone home, I think," Xena said.
"So you'll be going soon?" asked Ephiny. Xena didn't take her eyes of Gabrielle as three women helped her to her feet and they all stumbled together.
"You know me, can't stay in one place very long."
Ephiny couldn't stop herself, "She's very lucky, Xena."
Xena turned back and held Ephiny's eyes. "No, I'm the lucky one."
Ephiny watched as Xena draped an arm around Gabrielle then quickly lowered it to her waist to hold the young queen upright while the walked. 'They're both lucky,' thought Ephiny.
"You're not tired are you?" slurred Gabrielle as they neared the hut.
"I'm fine Gabrielle. I'm in much better shape than you are." Xena pulled the door open with one hand while she held the other one around Gabrielle, resting the bard against her hip.
"What's that supposed to mean? I feel great!"
Xena shut the door and sat Gabrielle on the bed. She began to unlace the bard's green top. "Hmmm, that's nice, Xena." Gabrielle rolled forward, plunking her head on Xena's chest. Xena reached around her, unhooked her skirt, laid her back on the bed and removed her skirt, then her boots.
"Where are you?"
"Oh." Gabrielle regarded the ceiling. "Where am I?"
"In bed, where you should be." Xena lifted the bard's feet onto the bed and pulled Gabrielle's head up to the pillows.
"Wow. You're good at that."
Xena poured a big mug of water and sat on the bed by Gabrielle. "Here, drink this."
Gabrielle sat up and sipped it, then spit it out, "Ugh, it's water!"
"I know. If you drink this now, it will help your hangover tomorrow. A little." Xena forced Gabrielle to finish it.
"I'm gonna have a hangover?" Gabrielle dropped her head onto her pillow a little too suddenly, "Ow, I mean... Xena?"
"Are you going to be sick?" Xena scanned the room quickly for a receptacle. The wash basin would have to do.
"No, I don't think so. Not yet, anyway. Aren't you coming to bed?"
"In a minute. And Gabrielle, you sleep on the outside tonight!"
"Sure, Xena, okay," she mumbled. Being horizontal with her head on a pillow made the bard quite drowsy. As soon as Xena was convinced Gabrielle really was asleep, she crawled into bed next to her, tucked in as close as she could get to the bard, and joined her in a deep slumber.
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