Fate's Gift
Part 1 of 5

by Morgaine
Kenkeltic@aol.com

Disclaimer: MCA owns XWP characters; no copyright infringements were intended.

"Fate’s Gift" 1997 by Kenkeltic@aol.com (Morgaine) The characters not belonging to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures are the sole property of the author and may not be used without the expressed written permission of the author. Copies maybe used for private use only and must include all copyright notices and this disclaimer.

Sex disclaimer: There are no scenes of graphic sex but the love between the two characters is evident.

Violence disclaimer: Be forewarned, this is an action adventure story and graphic violence is present.

This is the second of the "Gift" stories. The first story is "Journey’s Gift". Although not necessary for understanding, it is recommended that you read that story first to fully understand the relationships developed in this novella.

~~A special thanks to the sister of my heart who supported me through this endeavor.~~

 


Chapter 1

The hall quivered and vibrated with undetectable movement. The massive web of strings glistened with moisture from the mist that clung in the air and pulsed with life, and some strings glowed like bright embers while others burned dark. Some snapped and withered away into nothingness, disappearing forever. Others snaked through, wrapped around, and ricocheted off other cords. Their mad dashes carried them toward unknown destinies. Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and patron of the Amazons, barely noticed her surroundings as she made her way confidently through the threads of Fate towards her destination. The challenge before her was enormous, but then again she always enjoyed a challenge. Her lips turned up into a smile as she lived in her mind the challenge of the hunt.

Ah, yes, the hunt. How she loved the hunt! The pounding horse beneath her, its nostrils flaring and body quivering with nervous excitement as she and her hounds raced through wood and glen in pursuit of quick and agile prey. The fear - - she could feel the fear and smell it as she drove her prey onward to its inevitable end. The joy of the experience, the power, the caress of the wind, the warmth of the bright orb, Helios, all bombarding her senses simultaneously was the purest joy. In her mind Artemis sensed the familiar bow clutched in her hands, her knees clamped tightly to her horse’s sides. She stood in the stirrups and moved in perfect rhythm with the animal beneath her. She nocked the arrow, took aim and brought down the fleeing beast, ending forever its terror. Oh, she did love the challenge and she would not be put off.

Entering the chamber of the Fates, Artemis stopped and stood with her fists on her waist taking in the sight before her. Clotho, beautiful and youthful, sat at her spindle spinning the threads of life from the basket which lay at her feet; its contents, a gift from the gods, a mystical essence that glowed and trembled with pulsating energy. The mature Lachesis stood with a loop of destiny threads casually dangling in one hand. As she unwound the strings and stretched them out she measured them from her nose to the tip of the fingers on her outstretched hand. Artemis sighed to herself. How she detested life without passion. The methodical actions annoyed her. Turning to Atropos, she quickly stepped forward and stayed the old hag’s hand as she was about to snip a thick cord with large, black shears. All three women shifted their gaze to this impudent goddess who had invaded their domain.

Artemis spoke to all three but looked into the eyes of the old woman who sat before her wielding the power of death in her clutches, "I came to speak with you on behalf of a mortal." The eyes before her were expressionless.

Lachesis ceased her measuring and replied, "Why are you here, Artemis? The gods cannot interfere with Fate."

Artemis swung around to face her and replied, "No, but you can." She quickly looked at the other two, gauging their reaction to her statement. They looked on indifferently.

"Why, Artemis, would we be interested in interfering with the fates of mortals?" Clotho questioned. "We are not like you gods. We have no interest in outcomes. We seek no revenge. We have no remorse. We do not interfere; humans are not our play things."

Artemis rolled her eyes at Clotho’s lack of emotion and said, "If you care nothing of the outcomes in human terms, then you should not care if a Fate is changed."

The three women exchanged glances. Artemis smiled inside. She had them there.

"You were already granted permission in the past to bring a mortal into the Hall of Fates, thanks to Lord Hades’ entreaty, and here you are back again so soon. Your arrogance is compelling," the hag, Atropos spoke evenly if not sarcastically.

Artemis frowned at this turn but immediately addressed it, "Yes, and I appreciate your indulgence, but that was on the behalf of my uncle, Atropos. It was not my doing." Although not completely true, Artemis would do and say anything to win this argument.

"What is it that you seek, Artemis? For what purpose and to what end?" Lachesis asked.

The mercurial goddess directed her attention to Lachesis and then began a slow, circuitous journey around the room looking at items that cluttered the corners and bits of thread that lay on the ground. She wondered at the mothers who cried for those infants after carrying them for so long within the womb to only have them ripped from their breasts by death’s ugly hand. She was saddened by the sight. Being also the patron goddess of childbirth, she had a soft heart for women and children. She addressed the question, "Nemesis informed my uncle, Lord Hades, that he would soon be sitting in judgment of a certain mortal, and Nemesis...well, you know the rest. After all, Nemesis is your sister." The three women locked eyes. Artemis continued, "This mortal is of special interest to my uncle, and he is very upset. So much so, he is threatening to keep Persephone in the Underworld to help console him at the death of this mortal." Artemis noted that the women almost frowned.

Clotho interrupted her thoughts, "Why is your uncle, Lord Hades, interested in this mortal?" Artemis snorted to herself, ‘Indifferent are we?’ but she maintained an impassive face as she looked at Clotho. "It’s very personal, but you do know how the gods like to dally among human women." The Fates nodded.

"I fear my uncle has a soft spot in his heart for this child of a mortal woman. He can’t bear the thought of seeing one of his own suffering eternity in Tartarus, and just when the mortal had almost made amends for all those wrong doings."

Artemis shook her head sadly, looked down with arms crossed and muttered, "A shame." She then looked up at the three women, "You know how emotional he gets. If he keeps Persephone in the Underworld, imagine how that will disrupt the destiny of humans and the chaos it will cause here." She waved her hands indicating the chamber.

Atropos asked, "What have you to gain from this, Artemis?" Although she dreaded it, Artemis had expected this question, and she shifted her gaze to Atropos.

"The mortal I speak of protects my Amazon Queen. The world needs balance, Atropos. Without the Amazons, the Greek world will spin out of balance and Athens, hungry with power, will go unchecked. This young Queen is the hope of the future for my Amazons. She is the future. She is connected to that mortal, and if the mortal dies, so too shall the Queen’s heart and the future for my people."

"Xena." The name spoken by Lachesis hung in the air for several moments. Artemis could only nod.

"We offered her a change in her fate. She chose her original path. She has a strong will," Clotho stated, "The warrior woman does not care for the gods’ meddlesome ways."

Artemis nodded, "She would never ask anything of the Fates or of the gods for herself."

Atropos spoke, "There is also a child." Artemis frowned not understanding the comment. Atropos smiled slightly, and Artemis almost gasped. "There is a very powerful spirit, a daughter of Hades, who haunts these halls," Atropos continued, "She too has spoken to us on behalf of the warrior woman." Artemis found it difficult to hide her surprise.

"The child is important, Artemis," The flecks of gold in Artemis’ dark eyes danced as she locked stares with Lachesis. "The child, Xena’s child, is the bridge that connects the realms, and it is for her we will grant you your desire." Artemis had no idea what Lachesis was saying, but at least she had won, or at least she thought she had won.

"There will be a price," Clotho stated. Artemis frowned.

"For every action there is a reaction, Artemis. Are you willing to pay the price?" Artemis swung around and peered into Atropos’ eyes. She suddenly felt she was getting more than that for which she had bargained.

"Xena wasn’t willing to pay the price before, Artemis. Will she be willing to pay it now?"

Looking at Lachesis, Artemis spoke before they could tease her any more, "Xena must live at any cost!"

"Very well," the three women echoed together. Atropos took the thick thread in her hand that she was about to cut and handed it to Lachesis. Artemis observed as Lachesis stretched the thread another arm’s length and handed it back to Atropos who indifferently snipped it in two.

Artemis took her leave and retraced her steps through the Hall of Fates. As she neared the end of the hall, a dark shadow stepped out. Blue eyes looked down at her imploring, "Well?"

She nodded but frowned as she said, "It is done, our wish has been granted." The dark face hovering above her dazzled her with a smile. Hades was handsome and Xena did indeed resemble him. But the spirit, the other daughter of Hades, bothered Artemis and she wondered of her uncle’s other secrets. The child, what was her part in all of this. And what of the price? Artemis hated going into battle with only partial information and she was annoyed with Hades.

Wrapping his arm around her shoulder he said, "Why so melancholy, my favorite niece, my little negotiator? You must have a silver tongue."

She looked up at him irritated and said. "They granted us our wish, but as always with the Fates, there are unknown strings attached."

Chapter 2

It was beginning again and Gabrielle could do nothing about it. Even in her sleep she knew the outcome. Regardless of what she did, it would play out to the inevitable end. Xena helped her onto Argo’s back and then lifted Zoe up to sit in front of her. Xena then looked up at her with those beautiful, ocean-blue eyes, and said, "Goodbye, Gabrielle," and walked into the waiting arms of Chloe. They both looked back at Gabrielle and Zoe sitting high atop Argo and then, arm-in-arm, turned and walked away. Gabrielle was left all alone with Zoe in the midst of endless, rolling plains. Tears poured down her cheeks, and as the two crested a distant hill, Gabrielle cried out, "Xena, don’t leave me!"

"Gab, wake up. I’m right here. Gabrielle, it’s all right." Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and held her against her as Gabrielle sobbed uncontrollably in her embrace. Xena pulled away to look down into her tear-filled eyes, "Gab, you’ve got to tell me; what’s going on. You’ve been haunted by this dream every night since we’ve arrived in Amphipolis." She brushed the stray locks of blonde hair from Gabrielle’s face and gently kissed her eyelids and lips.

"Oh, Xena, I’m sorry I keep waking you."

"Gab, don’t apologize! You need to talk about this. You can’t go on. Please tell me about the dream. You’ll never quit having it unless you talk it out." Gabrielle snuggled in closer and clung to Xena. "Can you talk to me, please?" Xena pleaded.

Through her tears Gabrielle said, "Oh, Xena, it’s so silly. It’s nothing really."

Xena was used to her own nightmares, but the thought of her Gabrielle being haunted by bad dreams tore at her insides, "Come on, Gab, you wake up every night with your heart almost pounding out of your chest. You’re soaked in sweat, and you’re crying hysterically. Don’t tell me it’s nothing."

Trying to escape from Xena’s probes Gabrielle hedged, "It’s just a dream, a stupid dream."

"My little bard, I think it’s time for you to tell your warrior about this stupid dream. It’s about me isn’t it?" Gabrielle looked sheepishly up at Xena who rested on her elbow over her. "Gab, you cry out my name every night. I’m sure Cyrene can hear you in the next room." New tears began to cascade down Gabrielle’s cheeks, and she finally confessed with a nod. Xena leaned closer and whispered in her ear, "It’s all right, Gab, you can tell me."

Gabrielle wasn’t quite sure why it was so hard to tell Xena about this dream other than she feared if the words were spoken aloud they might become a reality. Her defenses were weakening, and the dream made her so fearful. She was losing precious sleep at night. Finally she relinquished, "It’s the same every night. We are on those cursed plains." Xena’s stomach clenched at the words. The memory was still like salt in a raw, open wound. "You help me up on Argo. Then you hand me Zoe, and you say goodbye." Gabrielle’s voice caught in her chest, and she wept openly.

"Ssshhh, Gab, ssshhh. It’s all right." Xena spoke softly and gently caressed Gabrielle’s face. "I’m so sorry. I should never have left you and Zoe all alone." Gabrielle shook her head through her tears, and Xena frowned.

Speaking between sobs, "It’s...not that... Xena. When you turn to...leave, you are...with Chloe. And...and you both wave...goodbye to...Zoe and me." Gabrielle broke down and cried as Xena pulled her into her and held her in her strong arms. "It’s so... so final." Xena’s mind raced. ‘Why would Chloe and I leave Zoe behind in Gab’s dream?’

"Gabrielle, it’s all right. I’m not going anywhere. Chloe is dead." The knot in her throat almost strangled her at saying those words aloud, but Gabrielle needed her reassurances right now. "I have everything I could ever want right here, two girls I love more than anything else in the world." Xena remembered a blue-eyed doll. "You do believe me, don’t you?" She felt Gabrielle nod against her breast and heard a quiet, "Yes." Caressing Gabrielle’s hair, she whispered, "Everything will be all right, I promise you."

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When Xena awoke the next morning at sunrise, she smiled down at what she discovered in her bed. She was wrapped around Gabrielle. Zoe’s tiny body rested in Gabrielle’s arms protected in the curve of her body. Sometime early that morning, their little visitor had joined them. Xena wondered at her daughter’s ability to slip into her room undetected and could only shake her head. No one had ever been able to sneak up on her like that. She also marveled at how Zoe and Gabrielle had become completely attached to each other. Looking now at the sleeping child whose long, dark eyelashes rested softly on her freckle-dappled cheeks, Xena saw the perfect image of Chloe and smiled a wistful, crooked smile. Chloe’s gift to Cyrene had become a gift to everyone. Toris doted on her and carved her little toys in wood. Cyrene’s face lit with joy every time Zoe smiled up at her. Xena ached inside knowing that the joy she found in Zoe, she had never been allowed to experience with Solon. She silently thanked Chloe for this daughter who showed her the unconditional love she had been forced to forfeit so many years before in the Centaur camp. Somewhere in her mind she imagined she could hear Chloe’s familiar, soft laughter.

Xena rolled quietly out of bed and threw on her clothes. She did not want to wake Gabrielle. It had been a bad night for her bard, and she knew Gab should catch up on some much needed rest. Gabrielle had been having that same dream for a fortnight. She hoped the nightmares would end now that they had talked well into the early morning hours about them.

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When Gabrielle opened her eyes, Zoe stared back solemnly. Gabrielle smiled at the child cradled in her arms and into Xena-blue eyes. She could not help but wonder at the miracle of the child she held. "Good morning, honey. When did you join me?" she asked.

Zoe’s solemn face lit up with the same dazzling smile Gabrielle had loved but had seen so seldom on Xena’s face. "This morning early," Zoe said. "It was still dark."

"Couldn’t you sleep, or were you frightened?"

Zoe’s little nose wrinkled, and she shook her head. "Gabrielle, are you all right?"

Gabrielle was puzzled, yet, at the same time understood the question. "I’m all right, Zoe. It was just a dream. Did I wake you?"

The little girl shook her head, reached out, and hugged Gabrielle’s neck, "Don’t let Xena go, Gabrielle." Gabrielle held on tightly to Zoe’s little body pressed into hers, as her mind grappled with the child’s comment. She eventually pulled the little girl away and searched her eyes for understanding.

"What do you mean Zoe?" Gabrielle asked.

Zoe touched Gabrielle’s face, and Gabrielle pulled the little hand to her lips and kissed the finger tips, "Zoe, can you tell me what you meant?"

"Momma told me to tell you not to let Xena go," Zoe said.

Gabrielle’s mind raced. She knew very well that Zoe had shared her mother’s gift of sight, "Chloe visited you, Zoe?" The little girl responded with a nod of her head.

"Zoe? Gabrielle persisted, "When did she visit you, Zoe?"

"Last night."

Gabrielle caressed a wisp of raven hair from Zoe’s face, "Zoe, can you tell me everything Chloe said to you?"

Zoe’s stoic little face smiled sweetly at the memory of her mother’s visit and she said, "She told me she loved me, and she was with me every day. She said she could hear my thoughts, and it was all right to miss her." Zoe then snuggled deeply under Gabrielle’s arm, and Gabrielle held her as she fought against her own tears. "She said that Cyrene and Toris and Xena loved me very much. She also said that you loved me too, and you would always take care of me." At those words Gabrielle tightened her hug on the child and thought in her heart how much she did indeed love this little girl, this child of Xena and of Chloe. Zoe fell silent for a while.

"Zoe, did she tell you anything else?"

Zoe nodded and wrapped her tiny fingers around Gabrielle’s hand and mindlessly fingered the gold crescent ring Xena had given Gabrielle, "She sang to me and kissed me. Then she told me to tell you not to let Xena go."

"Did she tell you where Xena was going?" Zoe shook her head. Gabrielle could not help but think of the recurring dream as the words ‘Goodbye Gabrielle’ floated through her mind.

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"Look at her, Gab!" Standing next to Xena in the field of tall clover, Gabrielle intently watched Zoe riding Argo. The tiny child and the huge golden horse moved as one in large, lazy figure-eights. "Thracian blood pounds through her veins, Gab!" Xena could not hide the pride she felt when watching Zoe ride Argo. "She’s a natural horse woman."

"Just like her mothers," Gabrielle said softly. Xena dragged her eyes from Zoe to Gabrielle and studied her grinning eyes. Then she wrapped her arm around the smaller woman’s waist and hugged her closely. With a contented smile tugging at her lips, she focused her attention back on Zoe and Argo. "Xena, do you think it’s wise to let Zoe ride Argo?" Xena’s eyes were riveted on the child whose raven tresses waved in the wind.

Xena replied rather distractedly and lost in thought, "Sure, why not?"

"Well, Argo is so tall. If she fell off, she could get hurt. I worry about her, Xena. If something were to happen to her, what would we all do?"

Xena raised her eyebrow and looked down at Gabrielle teasingly, "Hey, you sound more like her mother than I do." Seeing the concern written in Gabrielle’s eyes, she became serious, "She’s not going to get hurt, Gab. Look at her. She rides like the wind."

Gabrielle was insistent, "Xena, she’s not you. She can’t even get on or off Argo by herself. Argo is just too big. I know Zoe seems much older, but she is only three summers old."

Xena stared off intently watching Zoe expertly neck rein Argo through the intricacies of the figure eight. Suddenly she grabbed Gabrielle’s hand and flopped to the ground pulling the smaller woman down on top of her. Looking up into Gabrielle curious eyes she said, "You’re such a worry wart." And with that she rolled Gabrielle over into the clover, and they laughed and giggled as they both tried to tickle each other. Xena finally came to rest on top of Gabrielle and, looking down, she acquiesced, "I suppose you are right. We should find her a smaller mare, one she can handle better. Maybe I’ll make a trek to Thessaly and find the perfect horse for her."

Gabrielle grinned wickedly, "Well, warrior, I’m glad you finally came to your senses, now kiss me." Xena looked deeply into Gabrielle’s eyes and saw the sky reflected there. She gently bent down and softly kissed her lips. Gabrielle never ceased being amazed at the tenderness her warrior could draw upon when they were together and they became lost in each other.

Sometime later Xena raised up to check on Zoe and Argo. They were gone.

Chapter 3

Xena sprang immediately to her feet scanning the horizon for Argo and Zoe before Gabrielle even knew something was wrong. "Xena, what is it?" Xena pulled Gabrielle to her feet and began calling for Zoe. She could see Argo’s trail as it cut through the clover, headed north, and disappeared over a ridge. Gabrielle became frantic, "My, gods, Xena where did they go?" The warrior ignored Gabrielle’s question, and loped off towards the r . Gabrielle followed frantically.

Xena silently cursed herself for letting Zoe out of her sight, ‘Gods, how stupid, please let her be all right.’ When she crested the ridge, she could see nothing. Gabrielle joined her, out of breath from running up the hill and from the fear that clutched her heart. Tears flowed down her face.

"Xena, what are we going to do? It’s my fault. Great Zeus, Xena, I’ve let her slip through our fingers." Xena said nothing but whistled for Argo as she peered across the valley searching the horizon for her horse and her wayward child. Finally she turned to Gabrielle and seeing her tears, drew her into an embrace as the shorter woman broke down into convulsive sobs.

"Gab, it’s not your fault. I should have been watching her. We’ll find her, it’ll be all right." Her words were cut short as the distant pounding of hooves pulled their attention to the ridge across the small valley. It was Argo, riderless. Xena felt her stomach lurch at the sight. She let Gabrielle slip from her arms and melt to the ground as Gabrielle’s legs buckled beneath her.

As Argo came pounding up to them, Xena caught the big horse and tried to calm her. She then bent down and helped Gabrielle to her feet. "Are you coming with me?" she asked. Gabrielle nodded, and Xena helped her onto the excited animal. Xena swung up onto the horse behind Gabrielle and wrapped her arms around her as she urged the golden steed into a full gallop in the direction the animal had just come. As they crested the next hill, Xena pulled Argo up short, and the animal pranced from side-to-side anxious to continue the journey. Gabrielle held tightly to the saddle horn feeling an unnatural nervousness in Argo as the great beast quivered beneath her. Xena pointed to a spot on the horizon.

Gabrielle peered in the direction Xena indicated but could see nothing but dust. "What is it, Xena?"

"Soldiers. A large number of mounted soldiers. Maybe twenty."

"Do you think they have Zoe?" Gabrielle questioned.

"I don’t know. Maybe. I intend to find out," Xena said as she reined Argo to the west and rode her into some trees to await the approach of the troops. They dismounted. "Stay here, Gab, while I move in for a closer look."

"Xena, please be careful," Gabrielle called after her as she moved off through the trees. When the warrior came to an oak with sprawling limbs, she swiftly climbed the tree and maneuvered through the branches until she had a clear view of the approaching riders. One look and she had her answer. She moved hastily through the treetops until she neared the spot where she left Gabrielle, and then swung down to the ground.

"Come on, Gab. It’s all right." Without further explanation, she lifted Gabrielle onto Argo, swung up behind her, and reined the horse in the direction of the mounted warriors.

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Gabrielle thought she would cry with joy when she spied Zoe sitting proudly in front of Petra on her giant, black mare. As the two approached the troop of Amazon warriors, Xena reined Argo to a stop, quickly leaped from the horse’s back, and helped Gabrielle to the ground. Ignoring her queenly status, Gabrielle raced to Petra and reaching up and took Zoe from the Amazon’s hands. She hugged the child to her breast and broke into tears. Xena wrapped her arms around them both and looked up at the warriors who now encircled them.

Zoe spoke, her voice muffled, "I’m sorry, Gabrielle, I didn’t mean to frighten you." Petra raised her eyebrow and shook her head at the sight.

Eponin and Solari dismounted and stepped from the crowd to stand in front of Xena. Eponin, rubbed her chin thoughtfully, "We were quite impressed with our welcoming, Xena. And, I might add, we didn’t know you were aware of our approach." Xena released Gabrielle and thrust out her arm in the traditional warrior welcome. Eponin grabbed her arm warmly.

Slapping Eponin on the shoulder in friendly camaraderie Xena said, "We weren’t aware of your visit," then glancing at Zoe in Gabrielle’s arms, and at the eyes that stared back, amended her statement, "or, rather, Gabrielle and I weren’t aware."

Petra dismounted to greet Xena. Realizing what had happened, she then moved to Gabrielle, laid her fist over her left breast, and bowed slightly. "My, Queen, I am sorry that this little one worried you so." Smiling at Zoe, Petra reached out and brushed her fingers across Zoe’s cheek.

Having regained her composure Gabrielle said, "Thank you, Petra, for your concern." Looking over at Xena briefly, she continued, "I think I need to get used to this sort of thing." Petra nodded knowingly as she looked from Xena to Zoe.

"Xena, we have much to discuss," Eponin interrupted.

"Of course. Cyrene’s inn is not far from here. You can rest your horses and join us in a meal." From the number of Amazons, Xena knew something was brewing.

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Cyrene had never seen so many Amazons in one place and wondered what her daughter was up to. The Amazon nation had always been on the periphery. They had supported Amphipolis against Athenian aggression in the past. Cyrene was also extremely appreciative when Queen Ephiny, sent an Amazon courier to deliver the message that Xena and Gabrielle had arrived safely from their journey to Sinope. She had never expected, however, to have such close contact with so many Amazons in one place. Greek propaganda and particularly that of Athens had always attacked the Amazons as being uncivilized, but, from what Cyrene observed, she questioned this belief. Business was always slow because the inn was situated outside of Amphipolis and saw only a few travelers on any given day. Today the inn was crowded, and every table was filled with the tall warriors who had left a large collection of weapons stacked at the front door. Cyrene was mesmerized by the activity. The women all drank wine, ate hardy, and paid in Greek dinars. She never made this much money in a moon let alone in one day. They all talked to Zoe, played with her, and passed her from strong arm to strong arm. She saw her granddaughter laugh and giggle and hug a dozen different women, but she was amazed as the child was drawn to one tall, young warrior. Zoe was completely comfortable in this woman’s arms. Cyrene thought the silent warrior intimidating and was surprised to find her granddaughter unafraid, even affectionate with this young, dark woman.

As Cyrene served the women, she noticed how considerate they were of her, almost as if she was an icon to them. When she carried heavy platters of meats and cheeses from the kitchen, several leaped to their feet and insisted on carrying the trays for her. ‘If only all of my customers were this polite,’ she thought. Cyrene quietly observed Xena and Gabrielle sitting in the corner with two Amazons who apparently were of some rank. Cyrene curiously noted there was no conversation at the table until every Amazon had approached the table, grasped Xena’s arm, and then bowed to Gabrielle with their fist over their hearts. Some actually dropped to one knee, and Cyrene could hear them mumble words of deference. Gabrielle would smile and nod and speak sincerely with each of them as Xena solemnly looked on. It was all quite strange.

____________________________________________

After everyone had shown their respects to Gabrielle and greeted Xena, Xena addressed Eponin and Solari. "What brings an entire troop of Amazons to Amphipolis?" Xena knew an escort party was only six warriors strong.

Solari and Eponin looked at each other, glanced at Gabrielle, then back at Xena. Eponin began, "Ephiny sent us to escort Queen Gabrielle to the safety of the Amazon nation."

Xena furrowed her brow. "Why? What’s going on, Eponin?" The mention of danger and Gabrielle in the same breath was enough to send the warrior into a heightened state of anxiety.

Eponin looked at Gabrielle with some trepidation and said, "My Queen, I apologize in advance for the details I must reveal in front of you." Gabrielle simply nodded and the warrior continued, "A score of Amazons and four Amazon children were brutally murdered in one of our outlying villages a few days ago. We know the vicious crime was that of Athenian soldiers escorting Athenian citizens to new settlements on our borders in Thrace."

The news shocked and sickened Gabrielle as images of her childhood haunted her briefly, "But why? Why are the Athenians attacking Amazons? I thought we had a truce with them," she asked. Xena grabbed her hand.

Solari spoke, "This is true, my Queen. We do, or rather did, have an uneasy truce with the Athenians."

Eponin added, "There has been bad blood for years now between the Amazon nation and the Athens city-state."

"They are still angry because we refused to send Amazonian troops to help them in their war with the Spartans," said Solari with a pained expression.

Looking directly at Gabrielle, Eponin explained, "Our truce has been one of non-aggression since Poteidaia." Then with barely controlled anger she said, "We could not align our nation with a city-state that would intentionally cause the death of innocent women and children." Gabrielle’s eyes shifted to the table top as she became lost in memories of herself as a child. She had seen ten summers when the Athenians laid siege. The vivid visions still stalked her dreams.

Solari continued, "Three summers ago when Athens set its sights on Amphipolis, Queen Melosa sent two hundred Amazons to support the supply lines to Amphipolis. There had been nothing we could do for Poteidaia because of its location, but we would not allow Amphipolis to suffer a similar fate. If the Athenian butchers took Amphipolis, they would be at our doorstep. Now, as we speak they are trying a new tactic to overwhelm us. They are parceling out land in Thrace to poor Athenian citizens. This land is on our borders and already we have had to defend against encroachers. A few nights ago Athenian guards raided one of our villages. A wounded soldiers left for dead confessed the plan."

Xena carefully followed the narrative. "So exactly why are you here now? And what does this have to do with Gabrielle?" she asked.

Eponin grasped Xena’s arm lying on the table, "My friend, this Athenian-Spartan war has been dragging on for more than ten cycles now. Neither city-state is willing to sign a truce and Athens will stop at nothing to gain the upper hand. If she can remove the threat of the Amazons from Thrace, she can throw all her energies into destroying Sparta. If Athens does that, there will be no stopping her. If the Athenians discovered our Queen unprotected in Amphipolis, how long do you think it would take for them to be here?"

Xena scowled, "Gabrielle isn’t unprotected."

Eponin sat back, "You cannot hold off an entire Athenian brigade, Xena. If they capture Queen Gabrielle, the Amazon nation will be forced into a truce and even then they would hold Gabrielle as a prisoner indefinitely to neutralize us."

"Ephiny wants Gabrielle to return with us," said Solari, "Not just for her own safety but also to help with negotiations if we can maneuver the Athenians back to the bargaining table. She wishes to avoid a war, but we are not willing to sit idly by and let Amazons be slaughtered."

Gabrielle looked at Solari and said, "Of course, if Ephiny needs me, I’ll leave whenever you’re ready."

Wrapping her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulder, Xena spoke, "We’ll leave early tomorrow. Your troops may as well stay here tonight and get a fresh start in the morning." Solari and Eponin nodded their agreement.

Chapter 4

Later that evening Cyrene was finally able to wrestled Zoe away from her Amazon friends and get her ready for bed. After her bath, Cyrene tucked Zoe into her bed and started to sing her a lullaby when Zoe began talking, "Cyrene?"

Smiling down at her grandchild Cyrene said, "Yes, Zoe."

"Tomorrow Gabrielle and Xena will be leaving."

Surprised at this revelation Cyrene asked, "How do you know? Did Xena tell you?"

"No, I just know."

Cyrene lifted her left eyebrow in question and Zoe smiled up at her. "What are you smiling at, Zoe?" She couldn’t help but smile back at this delightful child.

Zoe giggled, "You looked like Xena when you did that."

"When I did what, honey?"

"When you raised your eyebrow. Xena always does that too." Cyrene laughed. That was the first time she could recall anyone mentioning that Xena looked anything like her, and it pleased her deep inside. "Cyrene, Xena and Gabrielle are going to need me," Zoe said solemnly interrupting Cyrene’s momentary happiness.

Trying to hide her concern Cyrene asked, "What do you mean, Zoe?"

The little girl reached over, picked up her doll, and clutched it to her chest. "I need to go with Xena and Gabrielle tomorrow, Cyrene."

Cyrene finally understood what Zoe was saying, "Zoe, I think you should stay here with me. Your mother wanted you to live with me, and Gabrielle and Xena have to travel often, but they will be back." Cyrene thought that Zoe was just suffering from fear of separation.

Zoe looked deeply into her grandmother’s eyes, "Cyrene, I know Momma wants me to live with you, but last night she told me to go with Gabrielle and Xena."

"What are you saying, Zoe?" Cyrene said as she fought the anxiety in her voice.

"Momma told me it was very important. I need to go with Gabrielle and Xena tomorrow." Cyrene stared at her granddaughter in disbelief and started to shake her head when Zoe continued. "Momma told me to remind you of Theron."

Cyrene gasped at the name. Theron was the son of the blacksmith in Amphipolis and a friend of Chloe and Xena’s. Late one autumn the young man did not return home from a hunt. The search for him was given up after two days. That night Chloe awakened from a dream and went to Cyrene’s room and quietly informed Cyrene that she knew where he was. The young man was found in a ravine exactly where Chloe said he would be. His leg was broken, and he was delirious, but he survived.

"It will be all right, Cyrene," Zoe said seriously, "I’ll come back home to you." At that Cyrene gathered the child up in her arms and rocked her gently as tears streamed down her face.

"Cyrene?"

"Yes, baby."

"You might have to make Xena take me." Cyrene laughed at the thought. If she had not known Chloe so well and that this child was Chloe’s daughter, she would almost believe that she was being manipulated by Xena when she was twelve. The only difference being when Cyrene didn’t give in to Xena wishes, Xena would fly into a rage and run off on her horse for the rest of the day and half the night. Cyrene could only shake her head at the memory of her raven-haired child and her adopted daughter, Chloe. So different, but they both always got their way. The child was more than a perfect blend of them both.

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The Amazons filled the four empty rooms in the inn, bunked in the stables, and took turns standing guard for the night to protect their queen from a surprise attack. After everyone was bedded down, Xena and Gabrielle climbed the stairs to their room. Xena told Gabrielle she was going to talk to Cyrene about their departure tomorrow. Gabrielle nodded somberly and Xena watched her slowly make her way to their room. The bard’s unusual pensiveness concerned Xena. She would to talk with her later.

Xena knocked softly on her mother’s door hoping she would not wake Zoe. She was surprised when her mother quickly opened the door and stepped out into the hall fully dressed. "Xena, I’ve been expecting you. Let’s go down stairs where we can talk without disturbing Zoe."

Puzzled, Xena followed her mother to the stairs, "Mother, why did you say you were expecting me?"

Cyrene smiled and walked quickly down the stairs, "Oh a little voice told me." Xena paused, frowned, then hurried to catch up with her mother. Once in the kitchen, Cyrene fetched the kettle still hot from the glowing embers of the evening fire and fixed them some herbal tea, and Xena sat down at the table.

"Mother," she began, "I’m sorry I couldn’t speak with you sooner today about all the activity..." but Cyrene cut her off.

"It’s all right, Xena. We can talk now. What’s going on?" Her mother’s bluntness made Xena raise a silent eyebrow in question. Cyrene smirked at her daughter’s action and shook her head.

"What, Mother? What is it?" Xena frowned.

Cyrene just smiled, "Nothing, dear. Now what did you want to talk to me about?"

Looking at her mother, Xena shook off another question and began, "Gabrielle and I will be leaving in the morning."

"With the Amazons?"

Xena nodded, "Yes."

"Why?"

Xena realized how little her mother really knew of the relationship she and Gabrielle shared with the Amazon nation. "It’s rather a long story, Mother."

"Well, we have all night, Xena." Xena twisted her head and looked at her mother amazed. "Why don’t you start by telling me about Gabrielle’s part in this. Why were all those women bowing before her?"

Xena let out a large sigh, "Mother, Gabrielle is their Queen."

Cyrene raised her eyebrow. "I thought Gabrielle was born of farmers near Poteidaia."

"Yes, she was, but she also risked her life to save the Amazon Princess Terreis, Queen Melosa’s daughter, and before she died, Terreis gave Gabrielle her right of caste. When Melosa was killed, Gabrielle became their queen. She temporarily appointed Ephiny to act in her absence until she is ready to take the throne."

"And why have the Amazons come here?"

"Apparently the Amazon nation and Athens have had a falling out, and Ephiny feared Athens might try and take Gabrielle hostage. She wants Gabrielle to return to the center of the nation so that she can be better protected from Athenian hostility."

Cyrene frowned at the mention of Athens. She remembered well Queen Melosa’s intervention when Athens threatened Amphipolis. "I did not know the Amazons were ever aligned with Athens."

"They have had a non-aggression pact with Athens for the last several years. Believe me there is no love lost between the two. Now the Athenians have been attacking unprotected Amazon villages and slaughtering innocent people." Xena looked up into her mother’s face. "Gabrielle doesn’t want to bring the Athenians down on Amphipolis. She has decided we should leave tomorrow."

Cyrene, lost temporarily in thought, only nodded, then she looked at her daughter sitting across from her and said quietly, "Xena, I want you to take Zoe with you tomorrow when you leave."

The request shocked Xena, "No, Mother, I can’t do that. It’s too dangerous."

Cyrene understood Xena’s concerns, but also she believed that somehow Chloe was communicating with Zoe. She had learned a long time ago never to doubt Chloe’s gift. She would have to convince her daughter to take Zoe with her. "Xena, I am fearful of the Athenians. I know that Zoe would be much safer under the protection of the Amazons."

"Mother, the Athenians are threatening the Amazon borders right now. We have to cross those borders before we can reach safety. It will be extremely dangerous. Zoe needs to stay here."

"Xena, listen to me. Gabrielle and Zoe are as close as mother and child. If the Athenians discover this relationship, Zoe will be in danger. They will stoop to anything to win this war with Sparta. A child’s life means nothing to them. Remember Poteidaia."

Xena listened but still shook her head, "There is no way they will find out about Zoe, Mother."

Dealing with her stubborn daughter required more drastic measures. "Xena, Zoe is your child. She is your responsibility." Xena frowned, hurt by the conversation’s turn. Cyrene shifted her approach. "Xena, please, I love you and I love Zoe." She paused and thought a moment, "Do you ever have dreams any more, Xena? Do you ever hear the voices?"

Xena raised shocked eyes. She had never confided in her mother about that secret she had shared with only Chloe, Lyceus, and Gabrielle. Cyrene read her expression, "Chloe told me, Xena, a long time ago. She tried to relieve my fears once when you had taken off and were gone so long. I was so worried, and Chloe was so kind-hearted. You remember how she was? When she could no longer stand to witness my pain, she told me and made me promise that I would never tell you or Lyceus."

Xena felt weak in the stomach as all those memories bombarded her again. Her mother continued, "Xena, call it a dream, a message, a premonition -- I don’t know. I just know that you must take Zoe with you, please." Xena could only nod in silent agreement.

Chapter 5

Xena returned to her room slightly dazed by the talk with Cyrene. She, however, had no time to recover. Gabrielle lay in their bed crying. Xena immediately went to her and took her into her arms. "Gabrielle, what is it? What’s wrong?" Gabrielle could hardly talk so Xena held her and tried to comfort her with soft words. "Gab, everything’s going to be all right."

Eventually Gabrielle quieted down and was able to speak, but it was as though a dark, evil cloud had enveloped her. The lack of emotion, so unlike Gabrielle, frightened Xena.

In a quiet voice filled with loathing, Gabrielle began, "You know, Xena, I wanted to believe that the world was basically a good place. But I’ve been a fool. It’s not a good place. It is evil. I always wanted to believe that everyone, no matter who they are or what they do, was capable of changing and was capable of doing good." Gabrielle looked up into Xena’s face with cold, hate-filled eyes. "I was naive and stupid to believe that. People are basically bad. Everyone is capable of evil." This was too much to tolerate from the sweet bard.

"Gabrielle, what is wrong? Why are you talking like this? I can’t believe these are your words."

"Well they are my words, Xena. This is the new me, so get used to it."

Xena looked helplessly around the room expecting Ares to appear and laugh at her, but he was not there.

"Tell me Xena, what kind of world is this where innocent children are murdered? What kind of people can kill others for no reason except that they don’t live in Athens? What kind of people can murder old and rape the young, starve innocent children to death because they were unfortunate enough to be born in the wrong city-state?" Xena dropped to her knees on the floor next to Gabrielle. "What kind of people can eat the flesh of others just to remain alive only so that they can walk this evil, repulsive world?" Finished the young woman with a rush. Xena grabbed Gabrielle’s hand in hers. She had heard the stories, but she had never known what was truth and what was myth.

In a stern voice she commanded, "Gabrielle, stop it now! This is not Poteidaia. That was ten years ago. It’s in the past. Let it go, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle’s gaze was fixed on the opposite wall. "Gabrielle, listen to me!" Gabrielle stared straight ahead as if not hearing. Xena quickly rose to her feet and sat on the bed in front of her. She grabbed her by her upper arms and shook her hard. "Gabrielle! Gabrielle! Stop it! Gabrielle! Listen to me!" Suddenly as if being awakened from a deep sleep Gabrielle’s eyes focused on Xena and her face dissolved into abject anguish and tears that clawed at Xena’s heart.

Gabrielle spoke. For the first time she gave voice to the horrors of her childhood, and Xena held her brave little bard as she spoke.

"They laid siege...they burned our fields...slaughtered the livestock...we were trapped...for moons and moons...we were so very hungry...first we ate all the food in storage...we chewed on leather...and sucked on pebbles...we were starving...and we ate the horses...and my baby brother died and then we ate the dogs...and the cats." She paused gulping air and sobbing. "There...there was nothing to eat...but rats...and my little sister died...and they made us...eat human flesh, Xena."

Xena closed her eyes at the stabbing pain she felt in her heart when Gabrielle cried her name. Gabrielle, exhausted, repeated herself. "We were so hungry...and my baby brother was so weak...mother had no milk...he died... from starvation, Xena, and they made us eat human flesh... and my little sister grew weaker and weaker, and one morning she just didn’t wake up and finally Poteidaia surrendered, but too late, Xena...too late."

Gabrielle lay in Xena’s arms. Tears trickled down her cheeks as she stared at nothing, reliving the horrors in her mind. "Why, Xena? Why did they do that to us? Why did they make us eat..." the voice trailed off in a sob.

Xena caressed Gabrielle’s hair and rocked her like a baby. "Ssshhh, Gab. It’s over now. It’s over. Ssshhh, you can let it go now. You’re all right now." Xena was emotionally exhausted too and felt completely at a loss. She never knew that Gabrielle had two other siblings or Gabrielle carried such deep hidden pain. Many things now seemed crystal clear. No wonder Gabrielle had to leave Poteidaia. She had to escape the memories. And her appetite; she seemed to always have an insatiable hunger. Xena made a mental note never to tease her about food again. The wonderful stories! Had Gabrielle become a bard to escape through her stories? Xena’s mind drifted to her own past and what she had become. How weak she had been! She then looked down into Gabrielle’s face surrounded in the golden halo of hair. Xena realized then how much she loved this young, beautiful woman. She also recognized just how strong her bard was.

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Xena held Gabrielle in her arms all night long and when the first light of morning came through the window, realized they both were lying there awake. "Gab, you really didn’t mean those things you said last night did you?" she asked softly.

Gabrielle rolled over in Xena’s arms and tucked her head under the taller woman’s chin and replied quietly into her throat. "No, not really." Gabrielle swallowed hard at the memories of the night before, somewhat embarrassed by her raving revelations. Sadly she admitted, "I wish I could believe all those things; it would make it so much easier, but I can’t."

"Good because I used to believe all those things. Then you entered my life and changed all that." Gabrielle looked up into Xena’s face and smiled sadly at her warrior. "Thanks to you, Gab, I was able to find the good in me I believed was long gone. I was also able to see the good in others. You saved me, Gab, from myself. I couldn’t stand life without your goodness."

Gabrielle pulled in closer to Xena and whispered, "And you are my strength and my anchor in the dark night. Please, Xena, touch me, hold me, make love to me." Together tenderly and passionately they celebrated the life they shared. Each drew from the other and filled their separate voids with the love that sealed their union. Together they chased away their private demons.

Chapter 6

By late morning the Amazons were packed and waiting for Xena and Gabrielle to say their good-byes to Cyrene and Toris. Gabrielle was pleasantly surprised at the news that Zoe was joining them on the trip and wondered how that had come to pass. Toris had arrived the evening before from a supply trip into Amphipolis. An armed Amazon escorted him to Xena. Luckily they all knew him from his two trips into the Amazon nation earlier in the year, and he was treated with the respect due Xena’s brother. Toris had been so happy to see his sister and Gabrielle return a fortnight ago and had already lost his heart to his little niece. He wasn’t happy to discover, however, that Xena intended to take Zoe with her and was about to make a scene when Cyrene intervened and gave him the look he had come to know so well.

As the three were about to saddle up, Zoe turned to Xena, "I would like to ride with Petra today, Xena." Petra smiled proudly and Cyrene furrowed her brow and wondered about her grandchild’s intentions. She was so much like Chloe, and Chloe had seldom done anything without reason.

"Well, I suppose you can if Petra will have you." Xena smiled and swung the child up into her arms and took her over to Petra. Looking up at her warrior friend she asked, "Would like a companion for a while?" Petra grinned and nodded.

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On the morning of the third day Zoe tagged after Petra and as she tightened the cinch on her horse’s saddle, the child wrapped her little arms around Petra’s right thigh and looked up at her. Petra glanced down and saw the beginnings of a question. She knelt down and smiled encouragingly into the little freckled face.

Zoe spoke very seriously, "Petra, I’m going to ride with Xena and Gabrielle today."

Petra laid her huge, hardened hand on the little girl’s shoulder, "All right, my little friend." Zoe furrowed her eyebrows and for the briefest moment Petra thought the child was going to cry. "What is it, little warrior? Why so melancholy?" Zoe threw herself into Petra’s arms and squeezed her tightly around the neck for several moments. Xena watched the interchange and arched her left eyebrow curiously.

Petra stood with Zoe in her arms and walked over to Xena who had just helped Gabrielle into the saddle. "Well, Xena, my little companion wishes to ride with her parents today." And with that she handed the child to Xena and strode off to mount her own horse. Xena was mystified by Zoe’s behavior. She could feel the child was torn. Xena shrugged and handed Zoe up to Gabrielle who was pleased to have the little girl in her arms once more. Then she stepped into the stirrup and swung up behind Gabrielle, and wrapped her powerful arms around her charges. For the remainder of the morning, Xena noted that Zoe kept a watchful eye on Petra.

As the Amazon party traveled deeper into the wilds of Thrace towards their homeland, the forest thickened and the terrain became more rugged. The Amazons were on high alert for Athenian ambushes. Eponin dropped back next to Xena as Petra moved forward on the other side. Xena realized the flanking of the two women was planned to protect their queen.

With her eyes scanning the trees, Eponin spoke, "We are nearing the village where the first attack occurred. The remaining Amazons who escaped have been relocated to more protected areas." Xena nodded, but like Eponin, her eyes searched the trees for trouble.

Too quiet, she thought. "Eponin, something is not right here," she said, "Pull back your warriors." But before the order could be given Xena grabbed her chakram and spurred Argo quickly forward, zigzagging through mounted Amazons. She had seen the glint of an arrow tip in the tree branches. The Amazons scattered at the Warrior Princess’ sudden charge, Petra frantically urged her horse in pursuit. Xena released the chakram in a backhanded toss over Gabrielle’s head, but not before the hidden archer let go a deadly arrow. As he tumbled from the tree with the chakram lodged in his chest, his body bounced from limb to limb, and an Amazon slammed to the ground with an arrow through her chest.

Zoe cried out, "Petra!" and struggled to see behind Gabrielle.

The remaining Amazons swarmed through the trees like angry hornets, with arrows nocked and swords drawn. Beating a hasty, yet ill-fated retreat through the underbrush six Athenian soldiers soon lay dead.

Xena saw Petra lying on the ground, her fisted hands wrapped around the arrow buried deep in her chest. Xena swung down from Argo and ran to her yelling over her shoulder at Gabrielle, "Get Zoe out of here; I don’t want her to see this."

Zoe pounded on Gabrielle’s hands and cried, "No, Gabrielle, no, take me to her!" Before Gabrielle could spur Argo, Zoe wiggled through her arms like a slippery eel and slid down the saddle, hanging on to the horn she pushed off, and landed on her feet.

Gabrielle screamed desperately, "Zoe, no! Xena!"

Xena looked up to see her child jump from the saddle and land running, headed in her direction. Xena was torn between grabbing up Zoe and attending Petra. Zoe must have read Xena’s thoughts because she stopped dead in her tracks. When Xena made to go for her, she darted away. Xena didn’t have time for this cat and mouse game and vowed to punish the child later when she got her hands on her. Xena turned her attention back to Petra as Gabrielle scurried after Zoe who dodged and evaded her at every move.

Xena gently removed Petra’s hands from the shaft and with her dagger cut her leather shirt away from the arrow. It was buried deep in her chest high and just to the left of the breast bone. "Xena," Petra spoke through her teeth clenched against the pain.

"Ssshh, don’t talk. Save your strength, my friend," Xena said.

Petra shook her head, "Tell Electra, I love her, and she was in my final thoughts in this mortal life." Petra gasped, "Please help her get home if she wants to return to her family." She grabbed Xena’s hand, "Promise me, Xena." For the briefest of moments Xena saw Chloe lying before her and heard her voice, ‘Promise me Xe.’ She was frozen, locked in time.

Xena was jarred from her haze as Zoe slammed down next to her. Gabrielle came running and panting up to her and grabbed the child to pull her away from the bloody scene. Zoe screamed and kicked to escape Gabrielle’s grasp, "Noooo! Let me go, Gabrielle! Let me go!" The intensity with which her usually gentle, little girl fought against her, shocked Gabrielle.

Petra’s pained eyes looked into Xena’s, "Let me see her, Xena, please."

Xena nodded and turning to Gabrielle who was wrestling with the child said, "Let her go, Gabrielle."

Zoe bounded from Gabrielle’s arms. Gabrielle flopped back in the dust as the child pushed off and ran to Petra. Zoe dropped and kneeled by the big warrior’s head. She bent down and kissed Petra on the lips and then, looking straight into Xena’s eyes said, "Push it through, Xena, and burn it!"

It took only a moment for the words to register. Turning to Gabrielle and the Amazons Xena yelled, "Build a fire, quickly!" Xena was already analyzing possible outcomes. There was little blood. It had missed the major arteries but had probably clipped the lung. Pulling the arrow out was dangerous. The flange would probably snag the large artery in the chest and there would be nothing anyone could do. From the looks of the shaft length, the tip of the arrow was not far from exiting anyway.

The fire was now blazing and Solari and Eponin kneeled next to and across from Xena. "Gabrielle, bring a torch from the fire," Xena commanded, "Solari, you and Eponin help sit Petra up." Turning to Petra she said, "I’m sorry, my friend, but this is going to hurt like Hades, but I would much prefer you talk to Electra yourself. I think I frighten her." Petra grinned through her pain and then fastened her gaze on Zoe.

As Solari and Eponin sat Petra up, she flinched. Using the knife, Xena cut Petra’s shirt away from her back as Eponin positioned herself behind the wounded warrior to help hold her. Gabrielle kneeled next to Xena with the flaming log from the fire. Xena spoke quietly to Zoe, "Pull Petra’s hair out of the way, Zoe."

Zoe whispered something in Petra’s ear. Then she deftly gathered the warrior’s long braids, pulled them over her shoulder and held them with her hand. Solari grabbed Petra’s wrists in a bone crushing hold as Xena gripped the shaft in her left hand and rammed it through Petra’s back. The warrior only gasped as the arrow tip exited and blood poured down her back. Xena quickly snapped the point from the shaft and tossed it aside. She wiped the shaft clean with the fluid from the tiny flask at her waist. Drenching the protruding shaft with the same fluid and taking the burning log from Gabrielle’s hand, Xena set the shaft afire and swiftly withdrew it from Petra’s chest searing the wound shut.

The warrior felt nothing after that. She slipped into oblivious unconsciousness. Gabrielle ran to their supplies for bandages, blankets, and Xena’s medicine kit. Zoe could not be persuaded to leave the big warrior’s side, as Xena and Solari dressed and tended the wound. Gabrielle heated water to bathe the blood from Petra’s body. Solari finally spoke, "What are her chances, Xena?" Gabrielle looked at Xena expectantly.

Xena shrugged and before she could speak, Zoe interjected, "She’s going the be all right." Xena looked up from Petra’s bandages and into her daughter’s eyes. Her heart lifted. Xena really like Petra. She was a good friend and Xena would have missed her very much. Chloe’s blood flowed through the Zoe’s veins, and Xena was coming to learn that she should never doubt the child just as she had never doubted Chloe.

"Come here, Zoe." The little girl looked at Xena and stood. Glancing down at Petra, she walked around her friend and into Xena’s outstretched arms. Xena buried her face in the child’s hair, held her tightly, and whispered, "I love you, Zoe, with all my heart and soul."

The child pulled away and gave Xena the gift of her beautiful smile before she grew serious again. "Xena, I’m sorry I disobeyed you. I know you were really mad at me."

Gabrielle came over, sat down next to Xena, looked into Zoe’s beautiful face and ran her fingers through Zoe’s dark hair. Zoe looked somberly at Gabrielle. "I’m sorry I ran from you Gabrielle, and I’m sorry I kicked and tried to get away from you." She turned back to Xena, "You can punish me if you want." and then looking back to Gabrielle added. "I’ll understand."

Gabrielle and Xena exchanged a parental look and Xena said, "I think Gabrielle and I need to talk first, but for now there will be no punishment. I would like for you to stay here with Solari and watch over Petra while Gabrielle and I go talk about this." Zoe nodded solemnly and walked back over to Petra. She sat down cross-legged beside her and tugged Petra’s hand into her lap. Solari and Eponin nodded to Xena as she rose to her feet and pulled Gabrielle after her.

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Xena and Gabrielle made their way to a stream near the settlement. They washed the blood and dirt from their hands and arms and then sat on the bank and watched the water flow by them. Gabrielle finally spoke, "I’m sorry, Xena, Zoe escaped from me when I had her on Argo."

Xena began to laugh, and Gabrielle looked at her strangely. "I’m sorry, Gab, but you should have seen yourself trying to catch her. Great Zeus! If it hadn’t been so damn serious, it would have been the funniest thing I ever saw!"

Gabrielle said, "Yeah, well you may think it’s funny now, but you weren’t laughing then." At that Xena laughed harder and laid back on the bank.

Catching sight of Gabrielle’s serious face she teased, "Well, my bard, you’re mighty fast with words, but on your feet, a child of three summers made you look pretty bad." Gabrielle punched her on the arm, and she joined in the laugher.

Holding her sides and wiping the tears from her eyes she said, "I noticed you gave up before she even started to run!"

Xena, trying to stop her own laughter responded, "Hey, I know when I’ve been licked!"

Gabrielle stretched out next to Xena and sobering a little said, "Your poor mother! I’ll bet you were just like that when you were little."

"Yeah, well it looks like Mother is going to have her revenge," Xena observed ruefully. Gabrielle nodded and Xena continued thoughtfully, "You know, Gab, I think she knew Petra was going to catch an arrow in the chest."

Remembering the words Zoe had shared with her a few days ago, a feeling of dread engulfed Gabrielle. She rolled onto her side, and looked over at Xena, "What makes you say that?"

Xena faced her. Resting her head on the heel of her hand, she looked over at Gabrielle and explained, "She followed Petra everywhere this morning, and at one point, I saw Petra speaking to her, and Zoe looked like she was going to cry. And all day she kept an eye on Petra. I think she chose to ride with us this morning because she knew it was going to happen and she didn’t want to be in the way. She’s only cried twice that I’m aware of once after her mother died. And then when she was staying with Petra and Electra. You were sick, and somehow she knew it, remember?"

Gabrielle nodded, looking off and thinking back to those horrible events.

"Xena, I think she cried out Petra’s name before the arrow even left the bow," she said and then remembered what they were supposed to be doing. "What are we going to do? You told her we were going to discuss her punishment."

Xena snorted, "We are not going to do anything." Gabrielle smiled, with relief and rolled onto her back. "She saved Petra’s life," Xena said. "I was only moments from ripping that arrow out of her chest. All that commotion between the two of you distracted me long enough so that I could resist the desire to get the arrow out as soon as possible. Did you hear her tell me how to handle it?" Gabrielle nodded. "I mean inside I knew that’s what needed to be done, but I froze. All I could see was Chloe lying there with an arrow through her chest and then Electra’s face. When Zoe spoke to me, I snapped out of it, and I knew exactly what to do."

"How does she do it, Xena?" Gabrielle asked.

Xena shrugged and shook her head, "She is her mother’s child; she has the gift. I guess we had better pay closer attention to her."

Gabrielle grinned mischievously at Xena, "You can tell she’s yours too. When she can’t get her way through reasonable means, she does whatever it takes."

"Are you saying I’m unscrupulous?" Xena asked with mock indignation.

"Yes," Grinned Gabrielle as Xena leaned over and looked down into her eyes.

"Well, just remember, bard," she growled, "a child kicked your butt, think what I could do if I had a mind to!" With that she bent to Gabrielle’s lips and kissed her long and deeply.

Chapter 7

The Amazons fashioned a litter and moved the unconscious Petra to one of the recently abandoned huts, and Gabrielle carried their things into the same hut. Zoe would not leave Petra’s side, so they decided they might as well all stay together. That evening Xena sat by Petra’s bed and monitored her friend’s progress. Zoe perched on Xena’s lap and silently watched Petra’s chest rise and fall well into the night. Finally Gabrielle climbed out of bed, approached the stoic pair, and kneeled beside them. Xena smiled at her caressing her hair and face. Gabrielle took Zoe’s little hand into hers.

"Zoe, I’m lonely, won’t you come to bed with me? Xena will stay up with Petra, and you and I can take care of her tomorrow while Xena sleeps." Zoe was groggy, but determined to continue her vigil. She simply shook her head.

Xena leaned down to her and said, "Zoe, go on to bed with Gabrielle. If Petra awakens or if anything happens, I promise I will wake you immediately. I’m going to need you to take care of her for me tomorrow because I’m going to be very tired."

Zoe stared up into Xena’s eyes intently looking for the truth and Xena stared straight back. "All right, Xena," she said finally. She gave Xena a hug and kissed her good night. She stood up, gently touched Petra’s cheek, and slipped her hand into Gabrielle’s. Gabrielle bent down and kissed Xena before taking the child to their bed.

Xena watched as they cuddled together under the covers and turned her attention back to Petra. She felt the woman’s cheek for fever and checked her pulse. Petra’s heart beat strongly, and she was cool to the touch. Xena pulled back the blanket to checked the wound in her chest and rolled her patient gently onto her side to look at the exit wound. There was only minimal bleeding. Satisfied that everything looked good so far, Xena covered the warrior, leaned back in her chair, and prepared herself mentally for the long night that lay ahead.

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When the morning birds began to chatter announcing the new day, Petra stirred. Xena touched the warrior’s brow, relieved to find it still cool. Xena stood and stretched and walked quietly over to the bed where Gabrielle and Zoe slept. She stood for several moments drinking in the peacefully sleeping pair, almost crying at the sight she thought, ‘Great goddess, how I love them.’ Uncovering Zoe she lifted her carefully from Gabrielle’s arms. Xena draped the cover back over Gabrielle and cradling Zoe in her arms returned to her chair by Petra. When Petra opened her eyes a while later, Xena gently wakened Zoe with a little kiss and a whisper in her ear. "Zoe, wake up, someone needs to see you."

Zoe’s eyes fluttered into focus. She smiled up at Xena and then looked over at Petra. With a raspy, dry voice Petra said, "Hello, my little warrior friend."

Zoe’s smiled radiantly, "Hello, Petra. I knew you would be all right, but I was still worried about you." Petra smiled back weakly, as Zoe turned to Xena and hugged her. "Thanks, Xena. Can I wake Gabrielle?" Xena nodded and Zoe slipped down from her lap and scampered off to jump in bed with Gabrielle.

Xena turned to Petra, "How do you feel, warrior?" Xena reached for a water skin, lifted Petra’s head, and supported her so that she could take a sip to relieve her parched throat.

As Xena eased her back Petra replied, "I’ve been better. I want to thank you for what you did."

Xena shook her head and nodded towards Zoe, "That’s the one you should thank. You need to rest. We can talk later." As Petra closed her eyes Xena headed over to rescue Gabrielle who was being tortured awake by Zoe.

Zoe had treated Gabrielle to a rude awakening, sitting on the bard’s chest, clasping Gabrielle’s face firmly between her little hands as she squeezed her cheeks together. Gabrielle slightly confused, still drifted in the fog of sleep when she heard Zoe say, "Gabrielle, you look funny when I do this."

A laughing Xena arrived just as Gabrielle captured Zoe’s hands and said patiently, "Zoe, I think you need to find a different way to waken me ." Then enveloping the little girl into her embrace, she looked up at Xena. "And what’s so funny, warrior?"

"Oh, nothing except you looked like a fish laying there." Xena imitated what Zoe had been doing to Gabrielle and laughed and shook her head.

"Very funny," Gabrielle grumbled, "Just wait, I’ll get you both."

"Gabrielle," Her attention was drawn back to Zoe, "Petra is awake." She let go of Zoe and struggled to sit up as Xena nodded with a smile.

Gabrielle stumbled out of bed and crossed the room to see for herself. She grabbed Petra’s right hand as the woman smiled at her weakly, "My Queen."

Gabrielle dropped to the floor next to Petra’s bed, "Oh Petra, I’m so glad you are all right. You really had us worried. I don’t know what I would have done if anything had happened to you because you were trying to protect me."

"It would have been an honorable death to die in your service, my Queen."

Gabrielle winced, "Petra, will you please do me a favor?"

"Anything, my Queen."

"Would you please call me Gabrielle?"

Chapter 8

The Amazons remained in the village that day and made preparations to transport their wounded comrade back to their home village. They outfitted a wagon with a sun canopy and filled the bed with new, clean straw over which they laid a feather mattress. Xena rested as Zoe sat by Petra’s bed in a silent watch. The Amazon slept most of the day. Gabrielle was under constant guard by either Solari or Eponin every time she left the hut to run an errand. The entire camp was on high alert for possible attack. Eponin was anxious to get moving and would have gone that afternoon if Gabrielle had not put her foot down.

The next morning they loaded Petra into the wagon. The warrior was feeling the full effects of her injuries and could no longer escape through oblivious sleep. Xena discovered a cracked rib in addition the arrow wound. Petra was extremely sore and found breathing difficult. Xena knew her pain was intense, but the injuries would not be fatal. Moving the woman was not the best thing, but they had little choice. They were all very vulnerable to attack this close to the border.

Their progress was painfully slow through rugged terrain ill-suited for wagon travel. Petra felt every jolt and squeezed her eyes shut and bit her lips against the severe pain. Xena would have liked to give her willow tea, but was afraid the tea, which thinned the blood, would cause internal bleeding in the area she had seared. Zoe sat in the wagon with Petra while Xena and Gabrielle rode alongside on Argo. Xena kept a watchful eye on her patient. Finally, two candlemarks after sundown the exhausted party arrived in the capital of the Amazon nation where Ephiny and the other Amazons greeted them.

Xena swung down from Argo, helped Gabrielle down, and immediately jumped into the wagon, picked up Zoe, and handed her over to Gabrielle. Zoe protested, "I want to stay with Petra."

Xena was stern, "Zoe, Petra is in pain; we need to move her to the healer’s hut. You can see her later, I promise."

With Zoe in her arms, Gabrielle turned and called for Ephiny who immediately pushed through her Amazons, "What is it, Gabrielle?"

The bard desperately searched the crowd for Electra. "Ephiny, where is Electra? Petra’s been injured."

"We know, Gabrielle, couriers arrived every candlemark with news of your progress." Ephiny scanned the crowd as well. "I’m not sure where she is, Gabrielle." Turning to Gabrielle she searched her face. "How bad is it?"

"I think she’ll survive, but she’s in terrible pain from the trip."

"Gabrielle, there she is." Zoe pointed to a small woman standing back with her hands over her mouth.

Handing Zoe to Ephiny, Gabrielle headed for Electra ignoring the crowd that parted before her and whispered solemn greetings. Before she even reached Electra, Gabrielle could see the woman was in tears. Gabrielle opened her arms to the young Amazon and enveloped her in her embrace. "She’s going to be all right, Electra." The tiny woman collapsed in Gabrielle’s arms. "Come on, they’re taking her to the healer."

As Gabrielle helped Electra walk towards the hut, she tried to reassure the weeping woman. Through her tears Electra asked, "What happened?"

"We were ambushed. An archer hidden in a tree got an arrow off before Xena killed him with her chakram." Gabrielle cringed at the effect her words would have on Electra.

"Where did it hit her?"

"He hit her in the chest, but Xena removed the arrow and stopped the bleeding immediately. She cracked a rib when she fell from her horse, but she is going to be fine." The woman beside her was almost inconsolable. Gabrielle did not want to deliver an hysterical woman to the healer’s hut, but she also knew that Petra needed to see Electra.

Gabrielle slipped into her queen act, "Electra, I am your Queen, and I’m telling you Petra will be fine, do you believe me?" Electra nodded.

"Good, now listen to me. Petra has ridden in that horrible wagon for more than fifteen leagues feeling every bump and rock in Thrace. She is in a great deal of pain right now. The broken rib makes it painful for her to breath. The arrow through the chest just barely missed her heart. She is extremely lucky to be alive, but she will make a complete recovery. The last thing she needs to see is you in tears. She wants to see you, but you cannot upset her, all right?"

At Gabrielle’s changed tone, Electra quickly regained her composure. "Yes, my Queen. I am sorry for my behavior."

Gabrielle put the queen act away and hugged the young woman tightly, "Don’t be sorry, Electra. If it were Xena, I would be in worse shape. I just don’t want you to upset Petra. She really loves you, and she is going to be fine."

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That night after they had all dropped into bed exhausted from the stress-filled trip, Xena awoke with a start and quickly checked on Gabrielle next to her. The bard was sleeping soundly, but Zoe was gone. Xena rose from their bed, pulled a linen shift over her head, and jerked it down her body. She knew where she would probably find Zoe. She silently slipped out of their quarters into the night.

Moments later Xena entered the healer’s hut and headed for the room in which they had delivered Petra earlier. When she entered the room, she found Electra sitting in a chair by Petra’s bed. She was slumped forward with her head resting in her crossed arms next to Petra’s left side. In the crook of Petra’s right arm, Zoe slept peacefully. Xena stood staring at the sight she beheld when Thyra, the Amazon healer, stepped out of the shadows and stood behind her. Sensing her presence, Xena quietly inquired, "How is she, Thyra?"

Replying in a hushed tone Thyra said, "The wagon ride took a great deal out of her, but she’s young and strong. It will take a while, but she will be fine, considering she should be dead."

Xena frowned and turned to the older woman, "Why do you say that?"

Thyra motioned with her head for Xena to follow her into the other room and waved for her to sit down. "That Amazon escort party was traveling without a healer. That arrow nicked several arteries and veins in her chest, not to mention the fact that it went through the upper lobe of her lung. The shaft was probably sealing the wound closed. Had that arrow been removed in the usual manner, Petra would have died." Thyra stared at Xena intently. "What healer would have even thought to seal a chest wound with fire? Xena, you should have been a healer not a warrior."

Xena leaned back in her chair and sighed, "Well, Thyra, I guess it was just not my destiny."

"It’s not too late, Xena. The Amazon nation could use good healers, especially now that we are facing a war with the Athenians."

"The Amazon nation could also use some good warriors right now, Thyra. Besides, that fire thing was not my idea." Thyra looked at Xena with a question on her face. "It was Zoe’s suggestion." Xena thought to herself, ‘Or rather, Zoe’s command.’

Thyra exclaimed, "Zoe!" But before she could question Xena further, they were interrupted by the sudden presence of Electra. Xena stood at once and walked over to the tiny, haggard woman, and putting her arm around Electra’s shoulder escorted her to the chair she had just vacated. Thyra stood and announced, "I’m going to go check on Petra; Electra, you need to go home and get some sleep. I’ll come and get you if Petra needs you."

Xena dropped to her knee in front of the petite woman, "Let me take you home, Electra. Petra is in good hands here with Thyra," and then added with a smile, "and Zoe."

Electra couldn’t help but smile in return, nodded, and stood, "All right, I am very tired." The two headed for the door as Electra said, "I want to thank you, Xena, for what you did for Petra. She told me she would be dead if not for you."

Xena just shrugged off the thanks and helped the woman out the door. When they arrived at Electra and Petra’s hut, Xena opened the door and lit an oil lamp. She was familiar with her surroundings because she had spent a considerable amount of time here with Petra the last time she and Gabrielle were visiting. Unfortunately, that visit was not very pleasant either. Finally Electra spoke, "I am so tired, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to sleep."

"Let me fix you some tea. That should relax you so you can get some rest. Why don’t you sit down?" Electra nodded and moved to a chair near the fireplace as Xena set about starting a fire.

Electra watched the tall warrior in front of her expertly kindle a warm blaze and prepare the kettle for tea. She remembered not so long ago the expertise Xena drew upon in taking her Petra down in a vicious sword fight and how she had left her mark on Petra’s throat. She still sported a small scar from that disagreement with their Queen’s consort. Electra wondered at this woman who now stood and smiled down at her so kindly. She had seen how gentle Xena was with the Queen and with the little girl who looked so much like her, but she had also seen how ruthless and how cold the warrior could be. Electra had never trusted this dark figure with deceivingly light and enchanting eyes, but her Petra did; even when she was so angry at Xena over Queen Gabrielle, Petra still respected her and admired her. And now Electra owed this woman a debt of gratitude. She had given her back Petra. Her musings were interrupted by a gentle hand on her shoulder.

"Electra, are you all right?" Electra, startled from her thoughts, jumped at Xena’s voice, and Xena quickly withdrew her hand. "I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you. I guess I should go."

Electra looked up suddenly, "No!" Realizing she sounded desperate, she cast her eyes to the ground, "I’m sorry, Xena." She then looked into the confused face of the Warrior Princess. "Please, will you sit with me for a while?"

Xena moved a chair next to Electra, sat down on the edge of the seat, and looked questioningly at the tiny bronze-colored woman in front of her. She felt uncomfortable around Electra because she felt no matter what she did, Electra either did not like her or was afraid of her. She was so very different than Petra. Xena wondered if people considered her and Gabrielle such a mismatch.

Electra looked at Xena shyly. "I need to talk to you Xena." The warrior raised her eyebrow curiously as Electra continued. "I’m not very good with talking to people. I’ve always been kind of shy." Xena nodded and sat forward in her chair. "Xena, you are the reason Petra chose to stay here in the Western Nation." Xena raised her eyebrow at the revelation. "Petra has no family other than me. Her mother died when she was young, and her sister perished during a plague." Electra paused and looked away. "Petra considers you more than just a friend and a fellow warrior...she feels you are more than even a sister to her. When you asked her to take care of Zoe for you, that sealed your friendship in her heart forever. She considers you, the Queen and Zoe her family." Electra smiled shyly. "I tease her about picking the Amazon royal family to adopt." Xena smiled and shook her head. She had never considered herself a member of the royal family.

"I consider Petra more than just a friend too, Electra. I’d like you and me to become friends also. You must be a very special person because you have completely captured that big warrior’s heart."

Electra blushed and looked down at the floor grinning. "Petra told me how you advised her on winning my heart. I’ve wanted to thank you for a long time" she shrugged, "but I didn’t know how." Suddenly she grinned again, "Petra’s so dumb sometimes; she didn’t know she already had won my heart long ago."

Xena laughed, "I guess that’s a warrior trait. You and Gabrielle could share stories, I’m sure."

Electra looked down, "Oh, I could never talk to Queen Gabrielle like this."

"Nonsense, why not?" Xena asked surprised at the comment.

Electra looked up perplexed and said, "She’s the Queen. I can’t believe I’m having this conversation with you, her consort." Xena couldn’t believe she was having this conversation either. She wasn’t used to being the one to start conversations, especially this personal and this long. But she had gone this far, she might as well continue. Perhaps a little of the bard had rubbed off on her.

"Electra, Gabrielle is the kindest most unpretentious person I know. She also is the easiest person in the world to talk to. If you can talk to me, believe me, you can talk to her."

Electra sighed and looked down, "Xena, when I first met you, I didn’t like you. You frightened me, and when you got in that sword fight with Petra, I hated you." Electra looked into Xena’s eyes. "I didn’t know until later she had goaded you into that fight. I really thought you were going to kill her. I was so mad at her for picking that fight. She just kept telling me you would never hurt her. I didn’t understand how she could have so much trust in you. She hardly knew you. I am sorry I didn’t see you the way Petra did; I was wrong." She dropped her eyes and a tear fell to the floor.

Xena moved to the floor, squatted in front of Electra, took her hands in hers, and looked up into her crying face with a raised eyebrow. Electra laughed through her tears and pulled a hand free to wipe her eyes. "Xena," she smiled, "You look like Zoe kneeling there. How many times have I seen her do that!"

Xena smiled, "Really?" and Electra nodded. Xena smiled inside at the thought. She liked the idea that Zoe looked like her. Drawing her attention back to Electra she asked, "Did Petra ever tell you about the first time we met?" Electra frowned and nodded. "Well, let me tell you, Gabrielle didn’t like her very much either. If your warrior hadn’t been such a poet when she apologized, the Queen might have had her head on a platter." They both laughed.

Xena stood up, "I think that tea is ready." She poured two cups, handed one to Electra, and sat in the chair as they both sipped quietly for a few moments before Electra spoke again.

"Xena did Petra tell you that I am an archer?" Electra asked.

Xena was shocked, "No, she didn’t."

Electra nodded. "I am an instructor in the mounted archery division of the Eastern Nation." Xena was incredulous and wondered how this petite woman could even draw the bow string let alone use a bow on a galloping horse. Her thoughts were interrupted by Electra’s next words. "I saw Petra’s wound. It was a clear kill." Xena looked at her puzzled and Electra explained, "In mounted archery we have kill sights. On the torso there are three, overlapping kill sights that fall within three circles. The circle stretches from the tip of the little finger to the tip of the thumb." She demonstrated by placing her splayed hand on her chest. With a finger from her other hand she showed Xena exactly where Petra was struck. "As you can see, Petra was struck almost dead center in the first and most favored kill sight. She should be dead. You and Zoe performed a miracle, Xena. I will always be grateful."

Chapter 9

Ephiny stood, arms crossed, shaking her head vehemently. Eponin slammed her fists on the table and turned angrily away from her. To Ephiny’s left sat Gabrielle. Xena leaned against a far wall. Solari occupied a chair at the end of the table, and several other Amazons were seated on the periphery including Alethea and Electra.

"I tell you, Ephiny, it’s the only thing the Athenians will understand," Eponin said as she paced the counsel hall animatedly. She trapped Ephiny with her glare as she made her circuit, "How many Amazons are you going to let them murder before you let us take action?"

Solari jumped to her feet and shouted, "Eponin, shut up!" Eponin stopped her pacing and scowled at Solari. Ignoring Eponin’s glare, Solari continued, "You can’t blame this on Ephiny. Just because you want a bloody war with Athens, it doesn’t mean you speak for the rest of us."

Eponin angrily retorted, "I don’t want a bloody war with Athens, Solari, but by the gods, they started this. I’m not too cowardly to give them back a taste of their own tactics."

Solari responded sarcastically, "Apparently we all know how you feel, but I think murdering innocent people is an act of cowardice regardless of who you are, Athenian or Amazon."

Enraged Eponin demanded, "Are calling me a coward?"

"What you are proposing is an act of cowardice, Eponin," Solari shot back.

Eponin began to move slowly towards Solari in a quiet rage. Xena leaned back and watched the drama unfold waiting for the Amazon war counsel to come up with some reasonable and workable strategy to handle the recent Athenian threats. She began to play possible scenarios in her mind, ignoring the conflict developing between the two warriors she knew so well. They could be at each other’s throats one minute and getting drunk together the next. Xena was unconcerned and lost in thought until Solari landed flat on her back at her feet, and Gabrielle yelled in a not-so-queenly voice for her Amazons to calm down.

Eponin stomped towards Solari who was sprawled in the dust when Xena stepped over Solari and between them, grabbed a handful of Eponin’s leather top, and shoved her roughly back. In a fluid motion Xena caught Solari by her shirt, jerked her to her feet, and shoved her in the opposite direction. Ignoring the indignation of both, Xena approached Ephiny, "Ephiny, you said the Eastern nation is sending Amazons to pressure Athenian settlements and troops in eastern Thrace?" When Ephiny nodded, Xena asked, "How long will it be before they arrive?"

Sitting back down in her chair, Ephiny replied, "They should be in position to strike within the next five or six days."

"Do we know how many Athenian troops threaten our borders to the south and the west?" Ephiny shook her head. By this time Eponin and Solari had stopped glaring at each other and had turned their attention to the conversation between Xena and Ephiny.

Xena raised her hands, "Well, there you have it. Until you know their exact numbers and where their bases of operations are, any action will be wasted." She turned to Eponin and Solari, "You two are both right. We do need to terrorize them and let them know we will exact an enormous price for every Amazon life forfeited. But we do not have to kill Athenian civilians. We need to know where the army is and make precise strikes on their military forces. We need to move in fast, hit hard, and get out just as fast." The women sitting around the counsel room all began to murmur and nod. Gabrielle smiled at the brilliance of her warrior.

Eponin moved closer with her fists on her hips, "And how do you plan to do this?"

Turning to Eponin, but addressing the rest of the counsel too Xena explained, "We have at least five days before the Eastern Amazons take action against Athenian aggression in eastern Thrace. In those five days, we need to gather as much information as possible. When the Eastern Amazons begin their attacks, so should we."

Electra shook her head and smiled at her new friend. She could not wait to tell Petra of Xena’s strategy. Electra was only in attendance because Petra could not be and had asked Electra and report everything back to her. Electra smiled inside at the sight she imagined to be taking place in their hut. Her big warrior would be propped up in bed, Zoe would be entertaining her, and waiting on her every need.

Xena continued to lay out her strategy, "First I want to use those famous Amazon communication links. We locate the enemy. Then we send some scouting parties to analyze their strengths. While they’re doing that, we’ll put together a strike force that can move as a well-trained chariot team, one that can get in quickly and get the job done. You’ve forgotten these forces have very long supply lines. Therein lies their weakness. We take out their supply lines, cut them off from Athens, hit them hard, hit them fast and hit them continually, and they will run home with their tails between their legs." Xena turned and look at Gabrielle and said with a wave of her hand, "Then our diplomats can take over when they beg our Queen to meet them at the bargaining table." Xena lightly tapped her chest with her fist and bowed slightly towards Gabrielle who beamed at her as she moved back to stand against the wall.

Gabrielle stood and addressed the counsel, "Does anyone else have anything to ask or to add?" No one did. The counsel accepted the proposal, and couriers were immediately dispatched to the Amazon patrols. The wheels were in motion, and there would be no turning back.

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Within the next three days, the Athenian supply lines had been severely damaged by small Amazon strike forces that moved like lightning and disappeared like morning mist. The Amazon communication lines located three large Athenian military units and quickly sent word back to Ephiny. Eponin, Xena, and Solari lead separate scouting parties to reconnoiter each of the Athenian military units. Xena reminded Eponin not to attack the units. Xena knew Eponin was aching for revenge. When they returned the next day, they had all the information they needed. Each unit contained about a hundred well-armed soldiers. The attacks would occur simultaneously in two days. The preparations were being completed as the final plans were wrapped up.

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While Xena was gone with her scouting party, Zoe spent the day tagging after Gabrielle. At first Gabrielle did not notice but finally realized Zoe was actually underfoot. Normally the child was making her rounds playing with the other children, visiting Thyra, talking to the stable master, and spending most of the time with Petra and Electra. But for some reason, she seemed unusually clingy and Gabrielle suddenly remembered Xena’s words, ‘I guess we had better pay closer attention to her.’ Her dream! ‘Goodbye, Gabrielle.’ Gabrielle’s heart began to pound in her chest, and a sick feeling overwhelmed her; she had to sit down. She thought she would weep when she realized something was wrong, and she cried out, "Xena!" Zoe looked at her, climbed into her lap, and wrapped her arms around Gabrielle’s neck as the bard broke down and began to cry.

"Gabrielle, you’re the Queen. You can stop her." Gabrielle held Zoe tightly for a while and struggled to regain her composure.

Shifting Zoe in her lap, Gabrielle looked down at her. "What are you saying, Zoe?"

Zoe replied quietly, "You can stop Xena from going."

"Zoe, do you know what’s going to happen?" Zoe was quiet. "Zoe, did you know Petra was going to get hurt?" Zoe nodded. "How did you know?"

Zoe’s face became void of emotion, "I saw it happen."

"You saw it happen before it actually did happen?" Zoe nodded. "Did you know exactly when it was going to happen?"

Zoe looked seriously into Gabrielle’s eyes, "No."

Gabrielle frowned and thought a moment, she then asked hopefully, "Zoe, have you ever seen things that did not happen?"

Zoe did not immediately answer, but looked down, fixing her gaze on the ring on Gabrielle’s hand, "No."

With fear ripping at her gut, Gabrielle asked in a shaky voice, "Zoe, do you know if something is going to happen to Xena?"

Zoe’s little brow furrowed, "I’m not sure, Gabrielle."

"Have you seen it happen?"

Zoe replied impassively, "No."

Gabrielle felt confusion gnawing at her and she asked, "Then what makes you think something is going to happen to Xena?"

"Momma told me." And she looked up at Gabrielle, "Remember, Gabrielle? She told me to tell you not to let Xena go." Then desperately the child pleaded, "Gabrielle, you have to do something. Don’t let Xena go, please Gabrielle." Zoe then did something Gabrielle had never witnessed before; she cried. She held on to Gabrielle and she cried as if her little heart would break. She cried until she fell asleep in Gabrielle’s arms. Gabrielle continued to hold her well after the tiny child had given in to exhausted sleep, and as she cradled Zoe in her arms, she let her mind wander.

‘Zoe, how am I going to stop Xena when I couldn’t even stop you from running to Petra?’ And then she thought of Zoe’s comment, ‘Momma said you loved me too, Gabrielle, and you would always be there to take care of me.’ She didn’t say Xena would always be there. She then thought of her life with Xena. How happy she was. How much she loved her warrior. Her warrior...her Xena. How safe she felt with her...the warmth she felt. And she saw in her mind’s eye Xena’s ocean-blue eyes smiling down at her...she saw the heart-stopping smile that could turn her insides to mush...and that crooked little grin...and the way her eyebrow shot up when she was perplexed...and the way she said her name....

Gabrielle...she loved the way she said it...and then she thought, ‘What would my life be without her?’ And she too wept as if her heart would break, and she stood up, and she carried Zoe to their bed. She laid down with the child, and cried herself to sleep.

Chapter 10

Xena was incredulous, "Gabrielle, I can’t do that! We’ve planned this together; I can’t just tell them, well, there it is, but it’s too dangerous so I’m going to stay here while you Amazons go and risk your lives."

"But, Xena," Gabrielle pleaded, "you were the one who said we should listen more to Zoe."

Xena moved closer to Gabrielle, "I know I said that, but I can’t let them down, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle looked up at her angrily, "Oh! Well that’s just great. You can’t let them down. Well what about Zoe and me, Xena? What’s going to happen to us if something happens to you? What if you are killed?" she asked abruptly turning away.

Xena reached out and touched Gabrielle’s arm, "Gab, nothing is going to happen to me."

Gabrielle jerked away from Xena’s touch and whirled to face her, "Xena, you weren’t here to see your child sobbing for more than a candlemark. She knows something is going to happen to you, and you know she knows." Xena did not reply. "Xena, she has already lost Chloe, but she has you." Gabrielle begged, "Think about Zoe. What will happen to her if you die?" Xena had no answer. She knew anything she would say would simply be insignificant or would give Gabrielle more to use against her. "Xena, you lost two people in your life you loved and look what it turned you into. What will this do to Zoe?" Xena looked down unable to meet Gabrielle’s eyes, but Gabrielle refused to let it go. "Say something!"

Xena met Gabrielle’s eyes, "Look, Gab, if anything happens to me, Zoe will still have you and Cyrene. She will have Toris. Petra and Electra will always be here for her."

"And who will I have, Xena?" the bard asked in a low tone.

"Gab, please, I love you, but don’t ask this of me. You know I have to go with them."

Gabrielle turned away from Xena again and spoke quietly, "I could have you arrested and thrown in prison."

"You would do that?" Xena asked.

"Zoe thinks I should."

Xena came up behind Gabrielle and gently wrapped her arms around her and pulled her into her, and Gabrielle turned in her embrace and laid her head on Xena’s chest, her cheeks wet with tears. Xena kissed Gabrielle on top of the head as Gabrielle listened intently to the strong heart beating in her warrior’s chest, and she silently prayed to Artemis, ‘Please let this heart keep beating strongly, and bring her home to me.’

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That night Zoe stayed with Petra and Electra, but in the early morning hours before the break of dawn, Zoe left the hut and made her way to the queen’s quarters, and there, she climbed into bed with Xena and Gabrielle. She made sure Xena heard her. Xena spoke quietly so as not to awaken Gabrielle, "Zoe are you all right?"

"Yes, Xena, but I need to talk to you," Zoe whispered.

"What do you need to talk to me about?"

"You are going to go, aren’t you?"

"Zoe, I have to do this."

"I knew you would say that. Gabrielle said you would say that and so did Mommy." Xena frowned at the mention of Chloe. Zoe continued, "Xena, you have to be very careful."

"Don’t worry, Zoe, I will be careful," Xena said trying to assure the child.

Zoe warned, "Xena, watch out for foot soldiers with long spears."

"Tell me what you know, Zoe."

Zoe furrowed her little brow and said, "It was a foot soldier. He has a helmet with a broken nose protector. He will spear you though the heart, and you will die. I will miss you, Xena." With that the little child began to cry quietly, Xena wrapped her in her arms, rolled her away from Gabrielle, and tried to quiet her with promises she knew she probably would be unable to keep. Behind her Gabrielle sobbed silently into her pillow.

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Ephiny and Alethea picked Gabrielle’s unconscious body up out of the dust as the last of the warriors disappeared from the village center. She had fainted as soon as Xena turned Argo and trotted off with her troops. Ephiny could not understand Gabrielle’s reaction. This was not the first time Xena had gone off on a raid, and she immediately sent an attendant for Thyra. She feared her young friend, their Queen, was ill. She was mystified by Zoe’s stoic reaction as the child simply stood looking down at Gabrielle’s crumpled body, but then again everything about Zoe mystified the acting Queen. Petra, who had dragged herself out of bed against Electra’s wishes, leaned helplessly and heavily on Electra but insisted she follow Gabrielle back to her quarters . The big warrior was so frustrated; she wished only to be riding into battle at Xena’s side.

When Thyra arrived, she silently took in the sight before her. Gabrielle lay unconscious in the middle of her large bed. Zoe lay next to her with her arms wrapped protectively across the Queen’s chest. Zoe’s eyes reflected anguish and tiny tears clung like little diamonds to her eyelashes. Petra sat forward in a chair pulled close to the Queen’s bed; she clasped her chest as if to hold its content in place. In her other hand, she gently cradled Gabrielle’s still hand. Electra was draped across her warrior’s shoulders helping to hold up her weakened companion. Ephiny stood on the other side of the bed, arms crossed, face painted with concern mixed with fear as her eyes searched Gabrielle’s face for any movement. They were all surprised when Thyra crossed the room, sat on Zoe’s side of the bed and proceeded to question the child rather than examine the Queen.

She spoke gently as she probed for answers, "Zoe, my dear, do you know what is wrong with Queen Gabrielle?"

Zoe did not look at Thyra but simply nodded.

"Is she ill?" Zoe shook her head.

"Can you please tell us what is wrong, Zoe, so that we might be able to help her?"

Zoe looked up at Thyra and then over into Petra’s eyes. Petra thought her warrior’s hard heart would break at the look on the child’s face. Still holding Petra’s gaze, Zoe responded, "Gabrielle knows that Xena will not return alive."

There was a collective gasp in the room. Petra dropped her hand from her chest and reached for Electra as Electra’s hand instinctively searched for hers. Ephiny sat down on the edge of the bed next to Gabrielle’s head, the wind momentary knocked from her chest, and then lovingly caressed her friend’s brow.

Finally finding her voice, Thyra continued, "How does she know this, Zoe?"

Zoe still stared deeply into Petra’s eyes as she continued to answer Thyra’s questions, "I told her."

"Zoe, how do you know?" Thyra asked, "Did you have a vision?"

Zoe shook her head, "Mommy came to me and told me to warn Gabrielle."

Petra looking deeply into Zoe’s eyes, realized the truth, and tearing her gaze away said frantically, "Queen Ephiny, send some fast riders. Bring Xena back."

Before Ephiny could respond or even think about the suggestion, Zoe interrupted, "It won’t do any good, Gabrielle already tried. Xena refused."

Petra jumped to her feet and grabbed her chest in pain as Electra reached for her. Ignoring the stab in her chest she said, "We can’t sit idly by and let her ride to her death." Noting the confusion in Ephiny’s face, Petra turned and began to stomp out of the room.

"Stop, warrior!" Ephiny’s voice commanded. "You will not leave this village. That is an order, and I am your Queen. If you choose to disobey me, you will be arrested."

Petra swung around and looked Ephiny in the eye. The pain written on Petra’s face struck a chord deep in Ephiny’s heart, but she was not about to let Petra kill herself in a futile attempt to stop Xena. Ephiny knew full well when Xena came to a decision, even the gods on Olympus could not dissuade her.

Electra had never seen her warrior cry and was amazed at the emotion she saw playing across Petra’s features as tears threatened. Electra went to her and wrapped her arms around her. Petra, still staring into Ephiny’s eyes, rasped out through a tear-choked voice, "She’s my friend."

Chapter 11

The Amazons hid in the tree tops, while their mounted warriors waited deep in the thick woods; the attack would commence just before dawn. Guards were posted and relief sentries assigned. Every minute detail was worked out, and the troops tried to catch what sleep they could. Solari and Eponin chattered incessantly, and Xena casually noted the two must have put aside their differences again. They tried to pull her into their conversations but finally gave up when she continually failed to respond to comments and questions. Xena was deep in thought. She couldn’t get Gabrielle and Zoe out of her mind, and she knew that was very dangerous. She needed to be totally focused if she were to survive tomorrow’s battle. Zoe’s words haunted her. Not that she was afraid to die; at one time she even welcomed death and went out of her way to put herself in danger. But now -- she had so much to live for. Zoe had touched her heart, and she owed it to Chloe to raise their child as best she could. She couldn’t help but smile at the thoughts of Zoe, and she laughed to herself when she thought of the little girl evading Gabrielle so easily. Gabrielle -- when Xena thought of Gabrielle, her heart ached. Memories of Sinope and how she’d hurt Gabrielle saddened her. And now this. It would have been better for them not to know. Xena cursed the gift of sight. She’d turned her back on the gift when she’d glimpsed the future while lying in the throes of a raging fever so many years before. It horrified her. She vowed she would rather be without the gift than to be cursed with such knowledge. She didn’t trust the sight anyway. It was more inconstant than the moon. The moon. Artemis, her patron goddess. She had finally come to a reconciliation with the goddess of the hunt. She had seen the errors of her judgment, admitted her mistakes, and reluctantly, taken Artemis back into her heart. ‘Artemis, if you are listening, please give Gabrielle and Zoe strength.’ Xena lay down in her bedroll and drifted off into an uneasy sleep, as a dark image stared down at her with piercing blue eyes, and then...

"Xena?"

"Yes, Zoe?"

"Remember the foot soldier with the broken nose piece."

"I’ll remember, Zoe. Zoe?"

"Yes, Xena?"

"I’ll always love you. Would you please take care of Gabrielle for me?"

"I love you too, Xena, and I’ll take care of Gabrielle for you. If you see Mommy, tell her I miss her."

"I’ll do that Zoe."

"And, Xena?"

"Yes, Zoe?"

"I’ll miss you."

Starting awake, Xena was not sure if that was indeed a dream, but she did not have time to contemplate the question. It was time for the attack.

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When Gabrielle awoke, she found she was not alone, and it frightened her to see the Amazons who sat in silent vigil around her. She was fearful her nightmare had become a reality from their somber expressions. She looked down to see Zoe cradled in her left arm, and she spoke but one word to her, "Xena?"

Zoe replied quietly, "It hasn’t begun yet, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle made no effort to move and neither did the others who sat around her. Petra and Electra had returned to their chairs next to Gabrielle. Although she hurt, Petra refused to leave the Queen’s side, and she dozed occasionally where she sat. Ephiny remained seated next to Gabrielle on the bed. Gabrielle had slept all day and most of the night, and it was just before daybreak when she awoke. Electra had been awake the entire time, carefully watching Petra and listening to Zoe murmur in her sleep.

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The battle had begun. The strategy was simple, hit hard and fast doing as much damage in as little time as possible and then retreat. The enemy camp was just beginning to stir when the attack came. First it was silent death as a hail of arrows rained down on the Athenian soldiers. Then came abject terror as screaming, mounted warriors in avian masks fell upon the camp. Tents and men in tents were crushed beneath thundering hooves. Those who managed to escape were slashed to ribbons by flashing swords and a singing chakram.

The Athenian guard never even saw the Amazons as they slipped past them in the early morning mist. When cries rang out from behind them, the guards turned to defend their encampment and ran straight into retreating Amazon swords.

Zoe’s voice screamed in Xena’s mind as she lead the retreat. The attack had been a brilliant success, and Xena calculated eighty percent casualties for the Athenians. She also knew the threat was not over. They still had to escape through the sentries posted to guard the camp. The Amazons in the trees had made a clean escape. The returning guards were oblivious of the danger above them, and when their stragglers perished silently with arrows in their backs, those in the front were unaware of their comrades’ fates.

Somehow during the retreat, Solari and Eponin joined Xena as they galloped their horses through the ancient forest. Xena was the first to see the helmeted soldier step from a tree. He shoved his long, cavalry spear toward Eponin’s chest, but Xena’s chakram interfered with his deadly plan first splitting the spear in two and then slicing into the man’s throat. Xena leaned to Argo’s left when she let fly the chakram and only had enough time to jerk upright on her horse when in the beat of a heart another soldier dropped to his knee and dug his spear into the ground aiming for her, Zoe’s voice sang in her head, ‘Lean to the right, Xena’. Xena saw the missing nose piece on the helmet of her murderer too late. The spear slashed through her leather shoulder strap, tore away her armor, and pierced the muscle in her upper chest. It snapped the collar bone, driving and grinding into the shoulder joint wreaking destruction along its path. The impact of the weapon slammed the warrior up and snapped the spear as it slashed its way out of her shoulder. Xena’s left foot flew out of the stirrup as she spun to the right. In a moment of lucidity, she realized she would soon hit the ground, and she prepared for the impact. On her descent her other foot slipped through its stirrup, and when she hit the ground, she was jerked savagely forward bouncing and crashing limply through the underbrush and under Argo’s hooves. Another soldier cut Eponin’s horse from beneath her, and she somersaulted through the air, but an Amazon arrow ended his threat. Solari, who had helplessly witnessed the entire episode, raced after the frantic Argo who dragged Xena’s limp body across the rocky terrain. After what seemed ages to Solari, she brought her horse up as close as she dared, and leaning out with her sword, desperately slashed the leather strap securing the stirrup to its saddle. The momentum continued to slam Xena’s body in a spinning motion away from Solari’s horse, and she finally came to rest in a tattered mass, unconscious and bloodied. Solari feared to even hope that the warrior who lay before her could have survived that pounding. She looked back over her shoulder at Eponin’s calls.

"Over here, Eponin." Solari jumped from her horse and dropped the reins as she approached the broken warrior.

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A candlemark after dawn Zoe looked up at Gabrielle and spoke, "It’s over, Gabrielle." Every one held their breath expectantly. "He missed her heart. It still beats; I can hear it."

Gabrielle sat up and looked at Ephiny, "I want to ride out and meet them, Ephiny."

Ephiny nodded and stood, "I will give the orders. We will take a wagon for the wounded, and we will take Thyra. Be ready in a candlemark." Gabrielle nodded.

When Ephiny left, Petra rose to her feet but swayed unsteadily as Electra tried to hold her. Gabrielle was immediately by Petra’s side, "Let me help you. Petra, you should have been resting. I should have made you go home to bed."

"My, Queen...I mean, Gabrielle, I am glad you did not give that order. Will you be all right?" Gabrielle and Electra although dwarfed by the warrior bore most of her weight and guided her towards their hut

"Yes, thank you, Petra, for being there for me and Zoe. Xena considers you her best friend."

"I am honored to be called friend by Xena," Petra said seriously.

Continued...Part 2 of 5

 


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