Philip carefully swept Lila up in his strong arms as everyone watched wide eyed with surprise.
"Lila needs to take a piss," he announced grandly.
The room was suddenly awash in heartfelt, relieved laughter, as everyone drew in a deep breath for what seemed like the first time in hours. Lilas bladder was full, her system had not collapsed, it was finally working as it should. Philip looked deep into soft brown eyes, and for a moment he could not control himself. Water leaked from his eyes as he hugged his love to him with all his strength. Lila buried her face in his neck and stroked his soft beard. Keola swallowed painfully and quickly wiped away a drop of water that had formed in the corner of one eye. She looked down at Darias peaceful face as she nursed and hugged her tighter.
"Its going to be all right," she whispered to the infant, "its going to be all right."
After Philip returned with Lila, and had her comfortably situated on the bed, he looked up at Keola and Hecuba, who were struggling to get an active little girls swaddling clothes changed on a small table by the rooms only window. He smiled at his future mother-in-law with the appreciation of a connoisseur who knew a genius when he met one.
"When do we eat, Im starved?" he enthused.
Keola looked up from a gurgling, laughing Daria, who was happily pulling on her mothers finger, and snorted derisively.
"Tell us something we dont know, farmer," she said, "you were born hungry, youll die hungry and youve been hungry all the time in between. Shouldnt you be used to it by now?"
Philips eyes narrowed at Keola.
"People who work hard for a living have a healthy appetite," he said. "You should try it sometime, Amazon. It would improve your appetite, and your disposition."
"My disposition is just fine, isnt it Daria?" Keola replied as she tickled her daughter under the chin, and smiled at the toothless grin she got in return. "Im kind to people, animals and grazing elephants who eat their body weight in food every day."
"That was a nose joke!" he bellowed in mock anger. He looked at Lila beside him. "Shes making fun of my nose again! Why is she here anyway? Dont Amazons have someplace to go?"
"Shes here cause we love her," she said.
"We?" Philip smiled back. "Dont include me in we."
Lilas smile brightened. "Besides," her hand came slowly up to Philips cheek, index finger touching the end of his nose, "if the trunk fits."
"Ooowww," Philip moaned, playful hurt in his face as he grasped her wrist, "how could you?"
Lila giggled her high pitched, girlish giggle. Suddenly Philips face was serious, dark eyes shinning. He pressed his betrotheds hand against his bearded cheek.
"Your smile is the sunrise," he whispered emotionally.
He leaned forward, as the lovers looked deep into each others eyes and spoke emotions words cannot convey, and kissed her long and passionately, till he was satisfied she understood the depth of his love, and his thankfulness.
As Lila and Philip kissed, Keola looked at Hecuba with a slight, ironic smile.
"To be honest," she said, "Im hungry too."
Hecuba let out a deep sigh as some of the anxiety of the last day eased. Her eyes shifted to the young Amazon.
"I know, child," she said. "We could all use something to eat." She leaned closer to the Scout. "I dont know how these single men survive. I looked earlier and the healer has hardly any food here at all. Someones going to have to go the market and get some. I can use the healers hearth to cook. Im sure that skinny man wont mind a good meal."
"Ill get the food, just tell me what you need," she said. "I could use the walk."
A very enthusiastic smile came to Aneas face when asked if Hecuba could cook them all a big dinner. Herodotus fished around in a small pouch on his belt and came up with a handful of dinars, and Keola was quickly out the door on her errand.
As she entered the village square a disturbance across the common
immediately drew her attention. Several dozen people were clustered in a circle by the
public trough, and more were running to join the group. Body and mind instantly alert, she
unconsciously reached back to check her sword as she joined the rush.
"Really, I I didnt mean to cause any trouble," a very nervous voice said as Keola approached. I know that voice. The Scout pushed and pulled her way through the crowd till she reached the center. Backed up against the trough, Baltus, his son, and half a dozen other men surrounded a tall, thin young man with a scraggly adolescent beard and desperate eyes. "Im just looking for a friend of mine, an Amazon warrior."
"And here I am, Aesop," Keola announced loudly as she squeezed between Baltus and Timon and put herself between the young stranger and the stern faced men of the village.
"Do you really know him?" Baltus asked suspiciously.
"Yep," the Scout nodded reassuringly. "Aesop, whats my name?" she asked over her shoulder.
"Keola," the young man answered quickly, "your name is Keola."
The hard looks eased. The crowd began breaking up, returning to their everyday tasks. A dozen people came up to the scout to smile and say how happy they were that Lila was alive and feeling better, the village grapevine carrying the news instantly when Philip was spotted carrying her out to the healers outhouse and back. Aesop stayed discreetly behind the Amazon, saying nothing, but hearing everything, till the last person was gone.
"Keola," he said as she turned to him, "you saved me again."
The Amazon shrugged.
"I know you may not believe this," Aesop smiled, "but I dont usually need to be rescued. It only seems to happen when youre around."
Keola smiled and shrugged again. The young man looked the Scout up and down and shook his head with amazement.
"Thats so wonderful, "he said. "You dont need your crutch at all?"
Keola picked up her wooden leg, shook it, and put her weight back on it.
"Nope," she said, "Herodotus did a great job making it. I hardly even think about it anymore. Its just a part of me now." She grinned sheepishly. "Uh, I hope you dont mind, I burned that crutch you gave me, to celebrate my new leg working. I cooked a nice sausage over it."
Aesop laughed. "No, I dont mind," he said, "I just wish Id been here to celebrate too. Im so happy for you."
Suddenly a moment of awkward silence descended, as their eyes unexpectedly met. That look the Scout remembered so well from their previous meeting was still there, perhaps even stronger, so serious, intense, devouring. A surprising little tingle raced through her body. I wish you had been there too. Keola let out a small breath at the unexpected thought and feeling. She bit her lip, then smiled.
"Its certainly a nice surprise to see you here," she said. "You didnt walk all the way from Sirrus just to see me did you?"
"Well," Aesop sighed, "I did actually. I had something important to tell you, but from the reaction I just got from the people here when I asked about you and Herodotus, and from what those people were saying about your friend, it sounds like Im too late."
Keola started, like a spark of static electricity had just zapped the end of her nose.
"Damn," she muttered, "of course, youre from Sirrus." She grabbed Aesops arm. "You were at the Inn when Murise met those bastards that took Sula, werent you?" she said intensely.
Aesop let out a surprised breath.
"Well, uh, yes," he stammered. "I came to tell you about some people that were at the Inn a few days ago. I was sweeping out the place for my cousin when they were there."
"There were six warriors, "Keola continued, brown eyes glowing, "two of them black men from Africa. They met a tall Amazon with black hair and tattoos on her arms."
Aesop shook his head in bafflement. "Yes. I was kind of hanging around close to them, trying to get up the nerve to talk to the black warriors. Ive never met anyone from Africa. But they all had such hard looks on their faces, like talking to anyone was the last thing they wanted to do, that I had about given up approaching them when a big Amazon warrior came in and sat with them. I only caught bits and pieces of their conversation, but I heard her say distinctly Herodotus and Potadia, which made me think of you. And she said beware the Lion, only take the child when the Lion is away." Aesop shook his head. "That really bothered me, because who could the Lion be but Xena, the Great Lion from the Amazon Nation. Everyone in Sirrus talked for days about the Lion passing through the village this spring with another woman and a pretty little black girl on the saddle in front of her. Now these black warriors are here meeting an Amazon and talking about taking a child. I I just thought I should come and tell you."
The Scout squeezed Aesops arm hard.
"Do you have any idea what happened to the Amazon, where she went?" she asked urgently.
The young man swallowed at the memory.
"Well, it all sounded so suspicious," he said, "that when she left I sort of followed her out. I wanted to see if she was with anyone. I expected her to head south, on the Corinth road back toward the Amazon Nation. But she went north instead toward Corinth. She was on foot. I followed her out of the village. I tried to stay as far back as I could without losing her in the dark. About half a league out of Sirrus the road curves around some trees. I lost sight of her when she turned the curve and when I got to the curve she was gone." Aesop blew out a nervous breath. "It was creepy how she just disappeared. I stopped and decided well, maybe I had followed long enough, so I turned around and went home."
"Thank Artemis you did," Keola said, and the emotion in her voice surprised them both, "if you had gone on youd be dead. She knew you were there."
Aesops face was serious. "What happened here, Keola?"
The Scout bit her lip, eyes dark.
"The bastards came and stabbed my friend Lila and stole Sula. The two black warriors are headed for Athens with the Lion and Queen Gabrielle after them." She squeezed Aesops arm again. "Are you sure the Amazon was alone and on foot?"
"And she was headed for Corinth?"
He nodded again. Keola took a slow, deep breath, as her eyes became hard and distant.
"No!" Herodotus barked. "I heard the stories about Murise, while I was staying with Gabrielle and Xena after the battle. We should stay together. Youre not going!"
"Now wait a minute," Philip said, his own voice beginning to rise, "I havent heard the stories. I want to know just whats going on." He looked at Keola, the color beginning to rise in her tan face, then at Herodotus. "Tell me right now."
"This Murise," Herodotus spit, "shes a killer. The most feared warrior in the Amazon Nation till Xena settled there. Shes a mortal enemy of my daughters. It sounds like shes behind Sulas kidnapping. Keola is not going to face her alone. Im still the head of this family. We stay together. Youre not going! Thats it!!"
"I dont need your permission, sir," Keola nearly shouted, her cheeks red. "Im an Amazon warrior and I have my orders from the Warleader. Thats enough for me. Im to use my own judgment and thats what Im going to do."
"No, dammit!!" Herodotus yelled. "Well take Lila home and fort up there till Xena and Gabrielle get back. Weve got plenty of food and water. Chances are nothing will happen anyway. Murise has already done her worst. Shes not even headed here. Shes going to Corinth. Im not losing you, your not going!!"
"And why is she going to Corinth?" Keola shouted back. "That doesnt make any sense. Unless shes going to recruit more scum to attack us. Shes on foot. I have a chance to run her ass down on the road somewhere while shes alone. Its always better to be the hunter than the hunted. Im going!!"
The Scout stalked out of the healers front room where Herodotus, Philip, Keola and Aesop had gathered to discuss, or more accurately argue, what should be done about the threat of Murise. Philip followed Keola out and chased her down the narrow street till he was beside her. But he did not try to speak to her. He knew his friend well enough to let her calm down first, before they talked. They went across the village common to the public stable where Keola had bedded Argo and Luka. The Scout handed Phinias, the owner, two dinars when they reached the stable doors.
"Ive given them each a good feed and rubdown, Keola," he said. "And cleaned their hooves, they look like theyve worked hard."
"They have, sir," she said, giving his arm an appreciative pat, "and theyre going to work harder."
Inside, the Scout led Luka out of her stall and retrieved her saddle from the tack holder against the wall and threw it on the animals back. Philip grabbed a strap and helped her cinch it up under Lukas belly.
"All right," he said as they worked, "tell me about this Murise. Who is she and why is she our enemy?"
Keola took a breath and let the last of her anger drain away.
"Murise was the Chief of Trikkala. Our hunting village. A Chief is appointed by the Queen and can be replaced by her whenever she sees fit. Murise had been Chief of Trikkala for years, but when Queen Gabrielle assumed the throne she became a real pain in the Queens butt. At least thats the gossip we heard in Kalvia. Challenging the Queen about everything she did, and pissing off the Warleader and Princess Ephiny no end. Finally, during the battle at Zama ridge things came to a head. I saw it with my own eyes. Murise disobeyed a direct order from the Warleader, leading her village company in pursuit of the retreating Carthaginians when she was supposed to keep them steady in the battleline. The Warleader knocked her on her ass and relieved her from command of the company on the spot. After the battle Queen Gabrielle officially removed her as Chief of Trikkala and appointed someone else."
The Scout finished saddling and bridling Luka and went and got Argo and led her into the middle of the stable.
"Murise was so humiliated," Keola continued, as she fetched the palominos saddle, "that she refused to return to Trikkala. She moved into an abandoned hunters cabin in the hills above the village. The main topics of gossip in the weeks after the battle were about the Queen and the Lion adopting little Sula, and when would Murise come to Farsala to formally challenge the Warleader to a duel of honor, to the death. She had no grounds to challenge Queen Gabrielle. The Queen always has the right to remove a Chief and it cant be questioned. But the Lion hitting her without warning like that. That was a matter of personal honor. She had every right to demand that another warrior accept her challenge, or leave the valley."
The Scout slipped on Argos bridle as Philip cinched up the saddle.
"But the weeks went by and she never came. By the time Herodotus and I left for Potadia we had all come to the conclusion that she had decided not to commit suicide by challenging the Lion. Personally I had forgotten about her."
Keola paused and gently rubbed Argos muzzle as her cheeks colored and her eyes hardened.
"I still cant believe it," she hissed through clinched teeth, "that she could betray an Amazon to her enemies like this. That she could betray the Queen and Warleader. That she could betray us all."
Philip looked at Keolas angry face and his own adrenaline began to surge.
"So just what are your intentions, Amazon," he said slowly, "when you catch up to this woman?"
Keolas eyes shifted to Philips.
"My intentions?" she said, a low growl in her words. "My intention is to kill her. Shes a fucking traitor and Im going to destroy her like I would a rabid dog."
Philip sucked in a breath, to see a side of Keola he had never seen before.
"Is it true, what Herodotus said, that shes a killer, the best warrior in the Amazon Nation before the Lion came?" he asked.
"Yes," Keola answered evenly, "shes a legend among our people. A fearsome slayer. But Ive got twenty years on the legend, Philip, and," her eyes narrowed as they bored into the farmers, "Im a killer too."
"Well then," the farmer said with a nonchalant shrug as he grasped Lukas reins, "if were going to catch this bitch, we better get started."
Keola bit her lip, face stern.
"Theres no we, Philip," she said. "Youre not going."
"Hades can have me if Im not!" the farmer erupted, anger in his eyes. "We go together, Keola. I dont need permission either. Im going and you cant stop me."
"Yes I can," the Amazon answered, then her hard eyes became almost pleading, "please dont make me."
Philip let out an angry, unhappy sigh. "Keola, I can be useful. I "
"No," the Scout interrupted, "you can only get me hurt. If were together Ill be using up too much thought and energy trying to keep you alive, rather than focusing on killing her. Philip, Murise would kill you without working up a sweat. You have no conception what shes capable of." Suddenly Keolas face was sad, eyes soft. "And my dearest friend," she said quietly, "you have no idea what Im capable of." She paused and swallowed. "Its not something I want you to see. Im asking you Philip, please just stay here and take care of Lila. She needs you more than I do."
The farmer took a deep breath, shaking his head, jaw working anxiously.
"Herodotus is right," he said finally, "we can fort up at the farm. We should stay together."
The Scout shook her head decisively.
"Im going," she said. "Murise isnt walking away from this. And Im not giving her a chance to hurt anyone else I care about. She started it, Im going to finish it."
She began to lead Argo out of the stable. Philip stopped her with a hand on her arm.
"What about Daria?" he asked. "She needs her mom. Youre all she has."
"You know thats not true," Keola answered. "Im coming back Philip, but if I dont, I know my baby will have two loving parents who will help her grow up to be a good person." The Scouts eyes were distant as she sighed, "You two can probably do a better job than I know how anyway."
Philip shook his head, eyes dark and angry, unwilling to accept the situation. Suddenly he realized something.
"Keola," he asked, "if youre not going to let me come along, why have we saddled two horses?"
"Im taking Aesop," the Scout replied.
"What?!" Philip exploded. "You wont take me but youre taking that skinny kid.?!"
The Amazon took a breath to keep her own anger from rising.
"Aesops father is a wine merchant, she explained as patiently as she could. "Hes traveled many times between Sirrus and Corinth and through all the other villages in the area buying and selling. Aesop goes with him keeping the accounts. He knows the roads and he knows the villagers. I dont know anything about the country. But neither does Murise. Aesops my edge. Once Im sure I have her trail, Im sending him home."
Philip looked away and slapped Lukas rein on his thigh unhappily. Keola watched a moment, then touched his elbow.
"Come on," she said quietly, "were wasting daylight."
Keola squeezed Daria tight, pressing her cheek against the infants.
"You be a good girl for Hecuba, my precious," she whispered. "I love you so much, so very much."
Herodotus looked on, his face dark as a thundercloud.
"This is a mistake, damn it," he thundered. "I didnt get you on your feet so this murderous bitch could kill you." His angry eyes shifted to his wife. "She listens to you. Tell her. She shouldnt go."
Hecuba took Daria from her mother and cuddled the child to her breast.
"Keola is a warrior, dear," she said softly. "Shell make her own decisions. Thats how it should be."
The Scout tenderly kissed Hecubas cheek.
"Come home, my daughter," the old woman whispered. "Well be waiting."
Keola went around to Argos head and stroked her soft nose.
"I know you belong to the Warleader, girl," she said soothingly, "but I need you to let me ride you. Its very important. I really need you, girl. Will you trust me? Huh? Will you trust me, Argo?"
She scratched the big warhorse under the chin, then went round and carefully placed a foot in the stirrup. Slowly she pulled herself up and mounted. Argo was steady as a rock.
"Thank you, Argo" she whispered in the palominos ear as she leaned down and patted the horses neck.
Aesop mounted Luka and pulled up beside Keola. The Scout looked down into Herodotus angry face and for a long moment they stared into each others eyes. Finally she leaned toward him with her hand out. He blew out a hard, very angry breath. Then his hand came up and his fingers curled around hers.
"Dont." he said, more plea than command in his voice.
"I have to," Keola answered quietly as she squeezed his hand.
She straightened and looked at Philip.
He shook his head.
"Every day, Amazon," he said, "you give me new reasons to kick your ass."
"Not on your best day, farmer," she said. Then she nodded, winked, and put her heels to Argo.
Xena and Gabrielle walked through the silent, deserted streets of Athens hand in hand. Pericles and Aspasia walked a few paces behind them, also hand in hand. Dawn was still a dozen candlemarks away, and the only light was provided by a sky milky with stars and a silvery half moon. They wound their way through the crooked lanes of the city, past dogs rooting in garbage piled at the ends of blocks, and sleepy nightwatchmen gossiping about politics, or the chances of Athens wrestlers in the coming Olympic Games, as they completed their last rounds of the night. They passed through the Dipylon gate and proceeded down the wide cobblestone lane to the harbor of Piraeus, high protective walls looming on either side, to safeguard Athens connection to the sea, and its vital fleet of triremes, in case of war. They entered the little harbor town just as the first faint streaks of orange appeared in the eastern sky.
The harbor made an almost perfect U, open end facing west. At the top was the straight of Salamis that led to the open water of the Aegean Sea and the great world beyond. At the bottom were Piraeus and the dock, crowded with merchant ships from as far away as Britannia. The northern arm to the U was a long hardpacked pebbly shelf. More than one hundred triremes lay side by side along the shelf, water from the swelling morning tide slowly surrounding their beached keels. Shortly after sunrise they would all be floating by their anchors, till the ebbing afternoon tide left them high and dry again. Only Carthage possessed a mightier fleet of warships.
As the little group approached the northern end of the dock, they could see a shadowy working line of sailors passing casks from one shoulder to the next out of a large storage building, across the dock, and onto a trireme, the graceful curve of its sharp ramming bow unmistakable even in the half light. A man jumped nimbly from the bow onto the dock and walked quickly up to the Lion and the Amazon Queen. He was of average height, a middle aged man with a full, luxuriant brown beard and long brown hair pulled back and braided in a pony tall that reached to the base of his neck. His arms and legs were thick and strong, his tunic and short breeches simple and unadorned, but neat, clean and well cared for. There was a sailors squint, and deep weathered lines around his dark eyes. His movements were decisive and confident. A man used to authority.
"First Citizen," he said with a slight bow, looking past Xena to Pericles. "I didnt expect to see you here in person. Welcome."
"Captain Braccus," Pericles nodded. "I would like to introduce Queen Gabrielle of the Amazon Nation," the Captain bowed formally from the waist to the Bard, "and Warleader Xena, the Great Lion."
Xena extended her arm. Braccus took it with a nod of respect.
"How goes it, Captain?" Pericles asked. "I can see you received my instructions. Do you have any questions?"
"No sir, no questions," Braccus replied. "We were scheduled to leave tomorrow for Thrace. After I received your orders I had my marines comb the bars till they found an old merchant sailor with a dozen voyages to Nubia under his belt. Hell be my navigator." The Captain smiled. "I had to pay the cranky old bastard triple, in advance. He really doesnt want to go."
"Put it on your expenses scroll Captain, and turn it in to me when you get back. Ill cover all your costs myself."
"Yes, First Citizen," Braccus nodded. He looked back at his hard working crew. "Were nearly done loading supplies. Well be ready to leave with the noon ebb." He turned back, and for the first time he spoke directly to Xena and Gabrielle. "A servant boy came with a message not long ago," he said. "The Nubian Ambassador wants me to send some men to pick up his baggage. He requests passage home to Napata."
There was a long moment of silence as everyone digested the import of his words. Finally Gabrielle put her hand on Braccus forearm, making that connection to another that was so effortless for her.
"Captain, how long is the voyage?" she asked.
"Well, Queen Gabrielle," he answered, "old Cyrus says its three weeks if the weather is fair, three months if foul. Well pray hard to Athena that its fair."
The Bard nodded. "And the crew," she continued, "this is so incredibly important to us, sir. Do you have a crew we can trust, trust with our daughters life?"
Braccus put his hand over Gabrielles.
"Ive served with most of these men," he said reassuringly. "Theyre good sailors and good men. They dont need to know all the details. Its enough that they know to keep their mouths shut around the Amabassador about our special passenger. I trust them to do that."
Gabrielle squeezed Braccus arm. "Thank you."
The Captain looked at Pericles.
"First Citizen, if you have no further need of me, I have preparations to make."
He looked at Xena.
"Ill see you aboard ship, Warleader."
"Yes, Captain," she nodded. "Ill be there shortly."
He turned to leave but after a few steps Gabrielle called out, "Captain, I meant to ask, what is the name of your fine new ship?"
"Her name is the Argo, maam," he replied. "You know, after Jasons ship in the legend of the Golden Fleece. That was always a favorite story of mine growing up."
Pericles pulled a scroll from an inside pocket of his toga and handed it to Xena.
"Give this to my Ambassador in Napata," he said matter-of-factly. "Its your introduction and my instructions on what hes authorized to do. My cousin Menelaus is a clever, experienced man. You can trust him, Xena."
The edge of the Lions mouth curled up.
"Are you related to everyone with an official position in Athens?" she asked.
Pericles and Aspasia both laughed.
"Ive been First Citizen almost twenty years now, Xena. My enemies say Ive turned the city into the family business." He smiled broadly. "Its one of the few things we can agree on."
He reached again into his toga and pulled out a small pouch. It jingled with the sound of coins.
"Gold," he said as he gave it to the Lion. "The universal language. Ive bought off many more enemies than Ive had to kill. Let it speak for you in Napata, my friend. It can be very persuasive."
Xenas eyes were serious as she looked at Pericles and extended her arm. He grasped it firmly.
"Thank you," she said quietly, sincerely.
The First Citizen shrugged.
"You saved Athens. You saved all of Greece," he said. "For what you did at the Zama Ridge I owe you ten times this."
Xena squeezed the mans forearm. "For what youve done for my family today, were paid in full," she said.
She let go of Pericles arm and gave Aspasia a hug.
"Come home with her soon, Xena," she said, a slight thickness in her voice. "I want to hold Sula in my arms again, as I did when she was a baby."
Pericles and Aspasia turned and slowly walked away down the dock, to give the mates some privacy. Anxious green eyes gazed a long time into pale blue ones.
"Its not too late, beloved," Gabrielle said finally, "I can still come with you."
"No, beloved," Xena replied. "We agreed. We cant put all our eggs in this one basket. Ships sink. Disease breaks out. Anything could happen between here and Napata. If it does then it will be up to you to get Sula home. Thats all that matters. That Sula is home with her people again, able to grow up happy, healthy and free."
She caressed the Bards cheek. Suddenly her face hardened.
"And its time the Amazon Queen dealt with the traitor. Ill be gone a couple of months at least, Gabrielle. Youll have plenty of time to send Murise to hell."
The look in the Lions eyes shriveled the Bards stomach. Its eating you up inside isnt it, the hatred and pain. The rage is coming back. Its going to consume you this time. Im going to lose the only people that make my life worth living.
Gabrielle pulled Xenas mouth to hers and tried to pour out all of her love and tenderness in one kiss, to reach through the pain and touch her mates soul, to give her something to hold on to, a rope to cling to, to pull herself back from the edge of the abyss she was approaching. She looked up at her beloved.
"We found our home, Xena," she whispered. "Do you remember, my love?"
Gabrielle caressed Xenas cheek tenderly, green eyes shinning up into pale blue.
"Ill see you in ten days, beloved," the Bard smiled.
The Lion put her hand over Gabrielles and pressed it against her skin.
"Ten days," she smiled back, with that smile reserved only for Gabrielle.
The lovers parted, walking in opposite directions from the center of the great grassy common square of Farsala, the Bard accompanied by Solari and Eponin, the Lion by Ephiny. At the western edge of the village Xena entered the small, round Marriage Ritual hut. It was empty of any furniture or creature comforts. Only a packed dirt floor and bare walls. Across from the entrance Zephonia, Chief Priestess of Farsala, sat cross-legged on the ground. She motioned with her arm.
"Xena, please sit."
The Lion sat in the center of the hut. Ephiny quietly lowered herself against the far wall, opposite the Priestess.
"Amazon," the Priestess began, "you have made it known that you wish to take a life long mate, that you and Gabrielle have freely chosen to pass through the Marriage Ritual of the Amazon people together. Is this true?"
"Yes, Priestess," Xena replied solemnly.
"Then today, Xena, begins a period of eight days of trial and testing, of education about the traditions, duties and responsibilities of a mate. Of ritual cleansing of your body and soul of the old habits of life and thought, so you may be born again into a new life with Gabrielle. Your minds and hearts brought together in a permanent union that only death can sever. On the ninth day, if you have continued all the way through the period of trial, you will rest and celebrate in the company of your friends. And on the tenth day you will go before the entire Nation, in the central square of Farsala, and publicly declare your oath to have only Gabrielle as your mate and lover, for as long as life lasts. And as a sign for all the world to see of your commitment to this one person, you will forever bear on your right arm Gabrielles Amazon initiation symbol, so that all may know that your love and loyalty belong only to her. Each night, after your days labor, a Priestess will come to work on the Marriage tattoo. By ancient tradition the tattoo is divided into nine parts. The ninth part, the part that contains the symbols unique to you and Gabrielle, will be completed before the assembled Nation on the day of your union. When both tattoos are done you will be forever wedded to one another, one before the law and the Nation. Do you understand?"
The Lion nodded. The Priestess nodded back, eyes serious.
"These eight days have a purpose, Xena," she continued. "At such a time as this our minds are often cluttered with so many thoughts, so many emotions. It is difficult to separate our deepest feelings and most important convictions from what is temporary and ephemeral. We mistake lust for love, the excitement of discovering a new relationship with true commitment to one special person. We fall in love with love, instead of loving a flesh and blood human being. As these eight days progress, the exhaustion of mind and body you endure will quiet the chorus in your head and heart, until only one voice is speaking, the voice of your truest self. And that voice, Amazon, will tell you if you are ready to make this commitment. Listen to it carefully, Xena. Only have Gabrielles symbol placed on your arm if you are truly ready to be her mate. Our society rests on three legs, the pillars that sustain us. The Initiation Ritual, when a woman makes the Amazon way of life her own. The Marriage Ritual, when she binds herself to one special person whose love will comfort her through the years. And the Adoption Ceremony, when an Amazon family is forged and the future of the Nation is secured. If any leg is wobbly or missing, our society falls. You begin today a step of great import to yourself, and all of us. Are you ready?"
The Lion took a long slow breath in and out.
"Yes," she said firmly.
"Then let us begin," Zephonia said quietly.
One long day followed the next, till they began to blur together in the mind. Sitting for long hours learning from a Priestess the sacred duties of one mate to another. The responsibilities of an Amazon mother to her children. For it was automatically assumed a mated couple would soon begin raising a family, providing the comforts of love, home and hearth to the orphaned and abandoned girls brought to the Amazons to be given a chance at life. Between the sessions of education Xena, Ephiny, the Lions chosen companion through the Ritual, and a Priestess would go on long runs down the bank of the Akheloos river as Xena repeated the lessons she had just learned. On their return to the village Ephiny and the Lion would engage in a heated practice with staff or wooden sword, till the muscles ached with exhaustion. Then after a few candlemarks in a sweat lodge, Xena would be escorted by two Priestess to the river where she would sit on the Ritual rock naked, as they doused her with cold river water, scrubbed her thoroughly, then dried and combed out her long raven hair, all the while chanting sacred prayers to Artemis. As the sun set she was taken back to the Ritual Hut, allowed to eat a spartan meal, then the Priestess assigned to create her Marriage Tattoo would enter. As Xena sat cross-legged against a wall of the hut she would begin her work, a dozen candles lit around the room for light. The tattoo would take half the night to complete, the constant irritating prick of the needle making it impossible to rest. When the Priestess finished there were but a few precious hours to sleep on the bare dirt floor before dawn came with a new day of the same.
Xena bore all with her accustomed stoicism. She did all that was asked without comment or complaint. In fact she hardly spoke, except when required too, even to Ephiny when they were alone together in the sweat lodge. It was impossible to tell from the iron, emotionless mask she wore what she thought or felt about anything that was happening to her. At last the final day of trial was coming to an end. Wrapped in a robe the Lion was escorted from the river by a Priestess to the Ritual Hut. As they reached the entrance the Priestess stopped her and removed the robe. She opened the door as Xena looked in. The room was empty, her usual meal and the Priestess who created the tattoo both missing.
"Xena, please go to the center of the hut and stand with your back to the door," the Priestess said quietly. Xena entered and heard the door scrape closed behind her.
Candlemarks burned past. The Lion stood with her usual erect, regal posture, hands folded in front of her, senses alert despite her weariness. In the silence she could hear the throbbing of her own heart. Suddenly the door scraped slowly open behind her. Someone entered the room, she could hear the sound of bare feet padding on the hardpacked dirt floor. Out of the corner of her eye she watched as a nude woman appeared, edging gracefully along the curved wall of the hut. The body was strong and athletic, the breasts full and firm, nipples erect. A delicately carved wooden mask that fit over her head like a helmet covered her features. Xena recognized the carved face as that of the goddess Eros, goddess of desire. The woman moved slowly, invitingly. Her hands moved up and down her body, rubbing between her thighs and over her breasts. She disappeared behind the Lion. Then she was pressed against her back. Xena could feel the hard nipples as they moved from the middle of her back down to her buttocks and then up again. The woman came around in front. She leaned forward, pressing her body against the Lion, breast against breast, thigh against thigh, her mouth close to Xenas ear.
"We are young and alive," she whispered huskily. "Our touch is warm. Our breasts are full and firm. Our lips are soft. We are desirable, and desirous." She took Xenas hand and placed it between her legs and held it there. "Our passion is fire that makes the body burn, and the heart erupt in flame. We come in many shapes, many sizes. We are new and different and exciting. We do not become dry and old and wrinkled. We give back energy and youth when age drains it away. Why bind yourself just to one? One who can only grow old and gray and dreary. We are the many who crave the touch of a great warrior. The many whose tender embraces will comfort you through the years. Dont forsake us." The woman released Xenas hand and placed her fingers on Xenas hip. They drifted slowly around her leg toward the black triangle between her thighs. "Dont forsake the pleasure we prom "
The Lions head jerked down, her forehead impacting on the bridge of the womans nose, snapping her head back and cracking the mask. The womans knees buckled for an instant as she staggered back a step.
"Get out," the Lion commanded, a mixture of contempt and menace in her low, quiet voice.
The woman took another step back as she recovered herself. After a moments hesitation, she made a slow, graceful bow and glided from the hut.
Outside Ephiny pulled off the broken mask and shook out her blonde, floppy locks.
"Are you all right?" Solari asked, looking close at the blood dripping from her friends nose.
"Im fine," Ephiny smiled as she wiped her nose with the
back of her hand.
"What were you doing in there anyway?" Solari questioned. "A young priestess is supposed to do that."
"Aw," Ephiny grinned as she sniffed and rubbed her dripping nose again. "I couldnt let some young pup go in there with the Lion. She might have really gotten hurt. Besides," the Amazons eyes took on a suddenly wicked tint. "If Xena decided not to pass on the offer, I sure wasnt going to miss being first in line."
Solari took in a slight, shocked breath, eyes wide. Then both warriors erupted in a long, loud, heartfelt laugh. When it finally subsided Ephiny touched her friends arm, face serious.
"Hows Gabrielle?" she asked. "How did she do?"
"Shes pretty exhausted," Solari answered. "Its been a long eight days, and shes thrown herself into it heart and soul, like she does everything." The warrior leaned closer to Ephiny. "Priestess Matilla says when she put her hand on the Queen, the Queen whispered in her ear, if you dont stop that, Ill break your arm. Matilla says she stopped real quick."
The friends laughed again. Ephiny looked around the dark town.
"Well," she said. "I guess I better get some clothes on. Im sure I look stupid standing here naked."
"I wasnt complaining," she said.
Ephinys eyes narrowed.
"Hmm," she said. "Now, was that a compliment, an invitation, a simple statement of fact, a "
"Ephiny, Ephiny," Solari said quickly, hands up, palms out. "Dont start analyzing this with that big brain of yours. Youll just make my head hurt. Its whatever you want it to be. Well do things like we always do. You lead, Ill follow. It hasnt failed us yet."
Ephiny sniffed and wiped her nose one last time as she regarded one of her oldest friends. Finally she smiled and put out her hand. Solari smiled and took it.
"Eh," Ephiny shrugged, "youre not the Lion," she tenderly squeezed her friends hand, "but youll do for tonight."
"Gods, that was real nice, wasnt it?" Solari complained as Ephiny led her down the dark lane toward her hut. "I give you compliments, you give me insults."
"Shhhh, Solari, stop talking," Ephiny answered. "If you keep talking youll break the mood."
"Mood? What mood?" the Amazon warrior replied as they reached the entrance to Ephinys hut. "Theres no mood. Were just horny."
"There you go," Ephiny laughed as she pushed her friend inside, "breaking the mood."
The Lion did not move after Ephiny left. She stood silently for candlemarks, staring at the blank wall of the hut, her tired mind deep in thought. The Amazons are right. An exhausted state of being does make it easier to hear your deepest thoughts, feel your deepest emotions. The clutter of life disappears.
Xena heard the dry scrape of the door as it opened behind her. After a moment Nefertia, Chief Priestess of the Amazon Nation, Keeper of the Sacred Flame, lit five hundred and forty seven summers before, in the first Temple to Artemis, by the great Cian herself, founder of the Nation, a light in the darkness to lead the people to honor and dignity and respect, walked past the Lion and sat down cross legged on the ground in front of her. The silver haired, dignified old woman adjusted the flowing green robe around her shoulders, then carefully folded her long fingers together and laid them in her lap. The Lion watched intently her every movement.
"Great warrior, please sit," the Priestess said in her soft, authoritative voice.
Xena lowered herself across from the old woman. Their eyes met in the wavering yellow gloom of the candle lit room.
"Till this moment, child," Nefertia said, "all has been done the same for both, according to the ancient ways of our people. To prepare you both for the Ritual you are about to undergo, the joining of your hearts and souls together as one in Amazon marriage. But now I have come to talk to you alone child, because there are things that must be said."
The Lion said nothing, her eyes riveted on the Priestess.
"Our Queen is a most remarkable person," Nefertia said quietly, her eyes unwavering as they met Xenas blue glare, "we have not seen her like here as Queen in my long lifetime. Her intelligence, her experience in the world, thanks to her travels with you, the depth of her commitment to others, the strength of her compassion. She has been marked by Artemis for greatness. To perhaps be the greatest to wear the Mask of Queenship since the blessed Cian herself."
The Priestess paused and took a slow, deliberate breath.
"In two days," she continued, "this luminous being will reach out to you Xena, and place her beating heart in your hands. She will do so with joy and thanksgiving, for it is her hearts desire to stand at your side, bear your emblem, be yours forever. She will give you the gift of herself, a gift whose value is beyond imagining." Nefertia paused. "I will not ask you Xena, if you are worthy of such a gift." Her eyes narrowed. "For you are not. And you never will be."
The words hung in the small room. The Lion would have sworn that they echoed, although she knew that was impossible. Perhaps they just echoed in her soul. for you are not. And you never will be. She unconsciously swallowed as her heart trembled for an instant.
"However, child," Nefertia said quietly, "your worthiness is unimportant. What is important is what you intend to make of your life with Gabrielle. You have been her guide and teacher over these last years. But those times are over. She no longer needs a teacher. She needs a friend, a lover, a mate. She needs to share the deepest parts of herself with the person who will lie next to her for years to come. And she needs to have that sharing returned. She cannot live in the barren soil of a heart that will not open itself to her. That will not trust her with its deepest secrets and greatest longings and most cherished hopes. If you deny Gabrielle yourself Xena, you will fill her with nothing but pain. You will kill her spirit." The Chief Priestesss face became stern, almost angry. "For that wanton act of murder, warrior, I would pray to Artemis every day that on your death she would come personally to cast your soul into Tartarus."
There was a moment of tense silence, then Nefertias face softened to its usual benign expression. She rose slowly to her feet. She approached the Lion and put her hand lightly on her head.
"In two days, Xena, you will begin the rest of your life. If you can find it in yourself to trust just this one person, who loves you more than she loves life itself, you have the chance to finally find healing, peace, family, a future. Search deep, child. Listen close. Are you ready to be Gabrielles mate? Has the Lions restless spirit found its home? Know the answer before you are carried to that platform."
The Chief Priestess left without another word. Shortly after, a meal was brought and picked at. Then the tattoo Priestess arrived and began working diligently on the eighth part of Xenas marriage tattoo. The Lion sat stoically, staring straight ahead, face a blank mask. Finally the Priestess finished and left, without a word being spoken. Xena blew out the candles, till the room was swallowed in darkness. In the silent blackness the Great Lion of Amphipolis, the Warrior Princess, the Destroyer of Nations, prostrated herself on the hard packed floor, arms out, cheek resting in the dirt, and prayed, prayed with all her strength, not to any god of Olympus, but to something infinitely deeper, maybe just her heart talking to her soul, but she prayed that she could find a way to be Gabrielles happiness, that she could find a way to give her beloved the key to open the last locked places of her heart.
The two young Priestesss began to leave. One of them turned at the door and smiled happily.
"You look so beautiful today, Great Lion. The Queens heart will skip a beat when she sees you. Im sure of it," she said.
Xena nodded. "Thank you," she said sincerely. "Thank you both."
The two women bowed and left. They had hardly disappeared when Ephiny entered, clothed in her finest battle dress, a garland of daisys lying delicately atop her blonde locks. She let out a low whistle, then grinned.
"Those Priestesss did a wonderful job, Xena," she said admiringly. "I guess that old saying isnt true is it?"
"What saying?" Xena asked suspiciously.
"You know," Ephiny smiled. "About the silk purse and the sows ear. It appears you can make a purse out of an ear. Here you are. Living proof."
The Lions eyes narrowed. "I had a chance to kill you when we fought in the tree, that day we met. Ive since come to regret my lack of good judgment."
Ephiny laughed, and Xena could not stop a slight smile from crossing her face. Then her eyes became serious, her look softer than it usually was. She let out a breath.
"Ephiny, do I really look good?" she asked. "This one day in my life I want to be beautiful. I want to be beautiful for Gabrielle."
The Amazon warrior looked the Great Lion up and down. At the new boots, with their freshly made and oiled luster. The leathers that a Priestess had spent all night oiling and rubbing, till they were supple, soft and shining black. The armor and weapons that had been scrubbed and polished until they gleamed. The raven hair, clean and brushed, with strands of colored beads woven through it and a garland of wildflowers placed atop her head. The faint scent of roses filled the room, perfume sent from Athens. A personal gift from Pericles.
"Yes, Xena," Ephiny said. "Today you are beautiful. Gabrielles heart will overflow with pride when she stands beside her beloved."
The Lion took a deep breath, shoulders back, head high, the charisma of her regal bearing powerful and unmistakable. Surely there can only be room for one Lion in the world at a time, Ephiny thought as she looked on.
"Nervous?" she asked.
Xena squinted her eyes dismissively at the Amazon. Ephiny shrugged.
"Just asking," she said. "Are you ready?"
The Lion nodded. She started toward the door, Ephiny following behind. But when she reached the entrance and spotted the four Priestesss waiting by the sedan chair to carry her to the central square, she hesitated.
"I am nervous," she said out of the corner of her mouth.
Ephiny smiled as she put her hand on the Lions back and gently pushed.
"Too late," she grinned.
Xena was carried on the shoulders of the Priestesss, Ephiny leading the way, down a narrow lane and out onto a main thoroughfare that led to the great central common. Late arrivals to the Ritual crowded to the side of the street to let them pass. Everyone who could possibly attend had arrived for the great day. The first Royal Wedding in a hundred years. Half the population of the Amazon Valley was gathered in the common, more than five thousand Amazons, all in their finest clothes. Warriors in full battle dress, faces painted in fierce colors. Farmers in gaily colored cotton blouses and wool skirts. Hunters from Trikkala with wolf skins wrapped around their shoulders and a bow and quiver slung on their backs. Shepherds with brightly polished knee high boots and colorful short jackets edged in fleece. Artisans in ankle length dresses with flowers in their hair. They had all gathered to witness history, and to enjoy the biggest, most drunken revel any of them would ever attend. The few men in Farsala, merchants and traders attracted by Queen Gabrielles opening of contacts to the rest of Greece, a half dozen or so, had been carefully rounded up and escorted under armed guard to a large hut on the other side of the Akheeloos river. There they were provided with plenty of food and drink to celebrate the occasion, but the guards remained outside the door. No man, not even male children of Amazon mothers, was permitted at an Amazon Marriage Ritual.
As Xena reached the common a great, wild Amazon cheer went up, half high pitched war cry, half happy shouting. In the center of the square the Lion could see a large, head high platform had been erected. On it stood several dozen dignitaries. Village Chiefs and Priestesss, members of the Royal Council of Advisors, Chief Priestess Nefertia in her most impressive, flowing, green robes, several wives of important men from around Greece, and Aspasia. Her invitation had been delivered by Gabrielle personally, after meeting with Pericles on some important trade issues. The Bard well understood the importance of cultivating a personal relationship with the two most important people in Athens. But past politics, she was anxious to enjoy a friendship with a woman of exceptional beauty, intelligence, grace, culture and taste. A woman, it was rumored in Athens, whose exquisite face was being used as a model for the forty foot statue of the divine Athena that was to be raised inside the Parthenon, her Temple, when it was completed. The Athenian was easy to recognize from a distance. Her shimmering green and gold dress, made just for the Ritual from the finest silk from Chin, clung alluringly to her perfectly proportioned figure. And her height, almost as tall as Xena, put her a head above the women around her, a diamond tiara in her perfectly arranged auburn hair sparkling in the sun, the way Athenas burnished bronze helmet must have sparkled under her brothers light.
The cheering got louder as Xena saw Gabrielle appear above the crowd in her chair, on the other side of the platform. The Lion swallowed, then smiled at the sight of her. She looked radiant, her brightest smile adorning her beautiful face, a garland of wildflowers resting on her long, braided redblonde hair. Her dress was the traditional dark forest green of an Amazon Queen. The flowing garment was held at the waist by a thin leather belt that emphasized her figure. Her arms were bare, the dress rolled delicately at the shoulder. A lane was formed by warriors holding spears sideways to keep back the pressing throng so the Queen and Warleader could be carried to the platform. The cheering lasted till they were both delivered to the podium and helped onto it by a Priestess. Ephiny, and Eponin, Gabrielles chosen companion for the walk, quickly hurried up the stairs to join them. At a sign from Nefertia the dignitaries all sat in their assigned places on benches on the platform, so the assembled Nation could see the ceremony. The Chief Priestess stood in the center of the platform and held out her hands. Gabrielle and Xena placed their right hands in hers. She held them up.
"People of the Amazon Nation," she intoned, in the words used for a dozen generations, "we have gathered to celebrate a union. Our sisters Gabrielle and Xena have tested themselves. Their love and commitment to one another has found favor in blessed Artemis eyes. Therefore, according to our laws and ancient traditions, they will be mated this day, and for all the days to come. Let us in joy and thanksgiving witness this miracle. When two Amazons choose to take their journey through life forever together. When two hearts become one beating heart. A heart that thunders with the power of commitment, and throbs softly with the tenderness of love. May Artemis bless them and all of us."
"May Artemis bless them and all of us," the people repeated in unison.
Two Priestesss walked solemnly up the stairs to the platform, holding green, three legged stools in front of them. The three legs symbolic of the three sacred rituals that formed the basis of Amazon society. They placed the stools in front of Xena and Gabrielle. The two Amazons sat, facing each other. Next the two tattoo Priestesss came solemnly up the stairs, holding their tattooing tools and ink on silver trays before them.. As they knelt in front of the Bard and Lion to begin work, Priestess Ortygia came up the stairs and went to the side of the platform facing Farsalas Temple to Artemis, the largest and most elaborately decorated Temple in the Nation, still standing on the site of the first Temple, built by Cian with her own hands, to honor the goddess who had guided her and her homeless people to the fertile valley that became their home. Ortygia took a deep breath, and as she did the great throng around the platform knelt as one and bowed their heads. The Priestess began, in a beautiful alto voice, to sing the sacred poem of the Amazon people. The Amazonika. The epic recounting of the founding of the Nation, and its glorious history since. Sung at every Amazon Marriage Ritual, it was a powerful reminder to all these women, brought from all over Greece, and from the world at large, who they were, how they had arrived at this time and place, and what they believed. Sung slowly and clearly, it was a prodigious feat of memory and vocal stamina. Priestesss gifted by Atemis with a competent voice spent years in study and practice before ever attempting it at a Marriage Ritual. Ortygia of Kalvia was a minor legend in her own time. As great a singer of the Amazon epic as even the oldest Amazons could remember. And when it came to the singing of the Amazonika, every true Amazon thought herself an expert on its intricacies, and a fully qualified critic.
As Ortygia came to the final stanzas of the song, the tattoo Priestesss were also finishing their sacred task. At the most successful Ritual ceremonies, both tattoos and the last note of the song would all finish together. Nefertia smiled proudly to see that her Priestesss were up to the occasion at this, the most important Ritual they would ever take part in. The Lion and the Bard were scarcely aware of the song, the pricking of the tattoo needles in their flesh, or anything but each other. They gazed into each others eyes and spoke to one another as only lovers can.
As Ortygia finished the epic with a vocal flourish only her talented voice was capable of, Nefertia and the assembled Amazons rose as one.
"May Artemis bless the singing and hearing of our sacred Amazonika, the history of our people," the Chief Priestess said. "May Artemis bless all her people."
"May Artemis bless us all," the Amazons answered.
Nefertia came to Gabrielle and Xena as they stood. She grasped their right hands and held them over her head.
"Gabrielle, Xena," she said, in that practiced Priestess voice that carried to the farthest limits of the throng, "do you swear as Amazons of honor, before Artemis and your people, to love, comfort and defend each other?"
"I do!" they shouted, for Amazon tradition demanded that all should hear them freely and publicly take the oath together.
"And do you swear as Amazons of honor that you will forsake the touch of all others, only your mate finding comfort in the warmth of your embrace and the softness of your lips?"
Nefertia squeezed their hands tightly in hers.
"Then from this day forward," she said, " you will bear on your right arm the symbol of your partner. So all the world will witness that you have found your true companion in life. Wear it with a pride and dignity that will every day bring you and your partner honor and respect."
She brought Xena and Gabrielles hands down and put them together. The women laced their fingers tightly.
"I declare before Artemis and the Amazon people," the Chief Priestess said solemnly, "that Gabrielle and Xena are one. Mates in a union that only death may break. May Artemis bless them and all of us."
"May Artemis bless them and all of us," the Amazon Nation repeated. Then they broke into a wild, overpowering screech of celebration that must have carried from one end of the Amazon valley to the other. The mates looked slowly around the crowd, acknowledging the cheering with smiles and waves. Finally Xena looked down at her beloved and gathered her in her arms and kissed her deeply. The volume of the crowd grew to another level and the dignitaries on the platform stood and clapped and cheered as well. At last they parted and waved around at the cheering crowd one more time. Nefertia then raised her arms and the noise subsided.
"Children," she said. "A day of celebration in honor of this blessed and sacred event has begun. The Queen has generously provided food, drink and entertainment for all. As you enjoy this day, also remember to pray for our people, and for the Queen and Warleader, that their union will be a long and happy one. May Artemis bless us all."
Ephiny and Lintilia had spent long days organizing the Marriage Ritual feast, and the drinking and dancing to follow. A Marriage Ritual celebration was normally a village event. All village chiefs had experience with that. But the first Royal Wedding in a hundred years. How does one feed over five thousand people in a single afternoon? How much good Amazon wine and strong Theben beer is enough? And if you bring in that wonderful Athenian female ensemble of flutists and lyrests recommended by Aspasia, will your local village musicians be insulted?
The two anxious organizers stood side by side on the platform and watched as the warriors of Farsala, acting as ushers, gently herded the crowd toward the north and south ends of the common, where all the large cooking kettles in the Nation had been gathered and were now full of steaming mutton stew. Whole pigs, deer and elk roasted over open fires on great spits. Casks of wine and beer were stacked neatly, ready to be opened as needed.
"Do you think Gabrielle will have us tied and thrown in the river if this turns into a disaster?" Ephiny asked with a grin.
Lentilia turned to the mates. Gabrielle was holding both of Xenas hands in hers, looking up at the Lion, face glowing and eyes sparkling, as Xena quietly spoke words meant only for her.
"Ephiny," the old Chief said, a smile in her voice, "I dont think the Queen could care possibly care less. Today is the happiest day of her life and nothing is going to spoil it."
Ephiny rubbed her flat, firm belly.
"I guess this nervous stomach Ive had for the last week was a waste of time, wasnt it?" she said.
Lentilia put her hand on her own stomach. "You to, huh?" she laughed.
As the crowd sorted itself out into a dozen long lines at each end of the common, to receive their heaping plate of meat and fruit, fresh oranges, apples, grapes, and a tall cup of wine or beer, tables were carried to the platform and quickly set up for the official wedding party. Eponin and Ephiny escorted the mates to the head table, where they took their seats next to each other. As they sat all the other dignitaries also sat at their assigned tables and places. At the mates large square table, the place of honor reserved only for friends or family at an Amazon Marriage Ritual celebration, Chief Lintilia and Chief Priestess Nefertia sat across from Xena and Gabrielle. Ephiny sat on the Lions left, Solari at her side. Eponin sat on Gabrielles right, Aspasia at her side. After they were seated the Athenian bowed toward the mates.
"Queen Gabrielle, Warleader Xena," she said. "I am deeply humbled that you would include me at your table on such a great occasion."
"Aspasia, we are honored that you accepted our invitation," Gabrielle smiled. "We hope your first visit to the Amazon Nation will not be the last." Xena nodded in agreement.
Food and drink was brought to the guests on the platform and the celebration feast began with a blessing from Nefertia. The long lines at the ends of the common steadily shrank as people got their meal and spread out over the green grass of the park, sitting on the ground in little circles of family and friends. As the afternoon sun slowly sank toward dusk the common hummed with conversation. Gossip about the Queen and Warleader, Ortygias singing of the Amazonika, the ceremony, the food and drink, politics, the effect of the rainy weather on the wheat and oats and barely. Half way through the meal the Athenian ensemble that had accompanied Aspasia set up in a corner of the platform and began playing for the mates. The gossip quickly turned to the quality of Athenian musicianship. The consensus was not favorable.
As darkness descended warriors brought out large bundles of kindling and pre-cut logs and built up four great stacks of wood in the middle of each side of the rectangular common. As the last orange rays of the setting sun disappeared behind the Zama Ridge to the west, the huge bonfires were lit. Musicians from all six villages of the Nation gathered in little groups at each fire and began playing. The beer and wine flowed freely as three and four rings of dancers formed around each blaze, jumping and twirling in an ecstasy of uninhibited motion. Many more stood outside the circles, drinking, singing with the ancient Amazon songs, watching. Some with hungry eyes as they followed the movements of a favorite dancer.
At the table of honor the conversation was pleasing and entertaining. If there was anyone in Greece who was a better talker than the Bard it was Aspasia. Between them the wit and laughter flowed around the table like a sparkling stream engulfing everyone in its warm waters. But no one failed to notice the look on Eponins face at the evening progressed. She watched Aspasias every movement with wide, soft eyes, a smile on her face that never dimmed. The Athenian noticed as well, and flirted with a divine subtlety, until she finally leaned into Eponin and whispered a sweet, private witticism in her ear as she lightly touched her leg. She could feel the slight, excited tremble in Eponins body at her touch. Not long after the Amazon warrior excused herself to answer natures call, having drunk her share and then some through the evening.
"Aspasia," Solari said with a smile, after Eponin was gone, "I believe you have an admirer."
"I believe I do to," Aspasia smiled back. "She really is quite charming and attractive, isnt she? And such an impressive woman, strong, sturdy, every inch a proud warrior." She looked around at the other guests. "I hope I wouldnt be making any enemies if I expressed my admiration."
"No, no," Solari laughed. "Our big Eponin is quite unattached. She changes partners more often than she does her clothes. In fact, I think thats why they come and go so quickly."
Everyone laughed, but Aspasia noticed the look in Gabrielles eyes.
"I think Queen Gabrielle finds my interest in beautiful Eponin a bit shocking," she smiled at the Bard.
"Well, uh," Gabrielle stammered, surprised her feeling had been discovered, "I I am a bit. I thought uh."
A slight blush tinged her cheeks. Aspasia let out an amused little laugh at the Bards embarrassment.
"My dear friend," she said affectionately, "your confusion is hardly surprising. Theres much you dont know about the scandalous Aspasia."
She looked around at the other guests, who were obviously hanging on her every word, and back at the Bard.
"First," she said, "Ive always found myself to be quite undiscriminating when it comes to the pleasures of human contact. I like to enjoy the company of interesting, attractive people. I care not in the least what sex they are, only that they can give me a new experience of thought or pleasure." She nodded slightly at Xena as their eyes met. "I understand the Great Lion shares my attitude about the meaninglessness of gender when it comes to matters of the heart."
Xena answered with a slight nod of her own.
"Second, Im not betraying Pericles, Gabrielle. Our relationship is a " she searched for the right word, "unique one. You would have to know who we are before you could understand it."
The Bard leaned eagerly forward.
"I would love to understand, Aspasia," she said. "Lives
are stories. Im certain your story is a fascinating one. Wont you share
The Athenian looked around uncertainly. Every face mirrored the Bards. Finally she shrugged and smiled her beautiful, charming smile.
"Well, why not, if youre interested." She took a breath. "I was born several summers ago," everyone around the table smiled, "in Miletus, an ugly wart of a city on the coast of Asia Minor."
The Bard frowned.
"Thats not true, Aspasia," she gently scolded, "Xena and I passed through there several times in our travels. Its a perfectly lovely little city with a nice harbor and high mountains all around."
"The tricks of perception and familiarity, my friend," Aspasia answered. "All I remember are heat, insects, boredom and backward, narrow people with backward, narrow minds."
"My Queen," Solari said, a hint of exasperation in her voice, "you know you should never interrupt a bard when shes telling a story."
"Sorry, sorry," Gabrielle said, a slight blush in her cheeks. "Ill keep my mouth shut."
Xena snorted, and got an elbow in the ribs as everyone laughed.
"I apologize for my mates rudeness," Xena said, and as the word mate left her mouth a pleasing rush rose up through her body, one she knew Gabrielle shared without looking, "please continue."
"Well, lets see " Aspasia said as she remembered where she left off, "I was the daughter of Xanthos, our family part of the aristocratic class of Miletus for a ten generations. My father was a bit of an intellectual, and a very talented lyrest and singer. The man could charm the birds from the trees with his voice. He schooled me himself, when all the other girls of Miletus were left in ignorance. He taught me reading and writing and philosophy and art and music. He taught me to love beauty in all its forms, to open myself to the possibility of it everywhere. I loved him beyond any measure."
Aspasia took a deep, happy breath at the memory. The air came out in a sad sigh.
"Unfortunately my father was also a drunk and a gambler. I was sixteen when he died. He left us destitute. The lands, the villa, the slaves, all sold. And we still owed money. My mother," the word dripped contempt, "sought to sell me in a marriage contract to a fat, smelly, ignorant winesack of a minor nobleman. A second cousin of the King of Miletus. For paying off our debts I was supposed to let him grind his foul hips on me and produce fat, smelly, ignorant winesack children to carry on his name." Aspasia shook her head in disgust, face dark with anger. "I think not!"
She paused to clear the unpleasant emotion.
"So, I did what any sensible person would do," she continued. "I stole aboard a ship bound for fabulous Athens, a city of light and culture I had heard about all my life, and left dear mother behind. Whats become of her I dont know or care."
Aspasias face beamed.
"Athens was all I hoped for, and more. The great Socrates was alive then. Stalking the streets of the city with that hunched, ugly body of his, challenging everyone to think and reason. I followed him many times with dozens of others, bees buzzing around the flower of his amazing intellect, collecting the pollen of his wisdom. Art, philosophy, music, being created everywhere by men of talent and genius. I was determined to be in the center of all of it."
The Athenian smiled a coy smile.
"I had a certain beauty then."
Ephiny swallowed. If you were more beautiful than now, it must have been painful to behold you.
"So I became a hetaira."
Solaris eyes crinkled questioningly, along with everyone but Xena and Gabrielle. Seeing the confusion Aspasia chose another word.
Ephiny understood, but Solari, Nefertia and Lentilia still shook their heads.
"A professional mistress."
The women finally understood.
"I chose the men carefully," Aspasia continued. "Rich, intelligent men of parts. Not ignorant winesacks." She smiled her coy, sly fox smile. "Men as a rule are such easy creatures to control. You make a comfortable saddle for them to ride a few candlemarks of an evening, and you have all day to spend their money enjoying the finest things of life."
Everyone smiled as Aspasia winked.
"Finally eight years ago the man I was with at the time, Hestephon, arranged a dinner party to introduce me to the First Citizen. I was, to be immodest, the most well known hetaira in Athens. Powerful men courted me behind Hephestons back to move in with them. Hepheston introduced me to Pericles hoping my charms might help him secure the ambassadorship to Rome. The First Citizen had just divorced his wife, a witless and whining woman he had married in his youth, and was quite pleased to invite me to his bed. He is a man as eager as myself to experience all the pleasures of life." She covered her mouth delicately as she giggled. "And like all men he fancies himself a great lover. He is not."
"But in the morning we shared breakfast and started talking. Talking about everything and anything. His mind is breathtaking in its diversity, curiosity, depth. He wants to know everything. He soaks up knowledge like a sponge. And he shares it with such insight and lucidity. I was enthralled. As he escorted me to the door of his home I wanted to weep and beg him not to stop talking to me. When an invitation came the next evening for me to join him for dinner, I can hardly describe the feeling of elation. I was certain he had already forgotten me. We talked all night. We forgot to make love, we were so busy talking," Aspasia laughed. "We were too fascinated by each other to even think of sex. We talked art and music and politics. He showed me the plans for the Parthenon that was just beginning construction then. I made a few minor suggestions for changing some of the artwork on the portico and he adopted them on the spot."
Aspasia shook her head in wonder at the memory.
"A week later Hepheston was on his way to Rome and I was moving in with the First Citizen. Weve been together since. Hes become my dearest and best friend. I love him." She bit her lip pensively. "In fact the constant struggle of my life is that I love him too much and not enough." Everyone looked at her questioningly. She smiled wanly. "I love him too much to ever live a day without him. But I dont love him enough to do whats best and leave him. As you can surely guess, Im the great continuing scandal of Athens. Pericles slut. An affront to all decent women everywhere. His enemies whisper darkly about me at every election. Im the butt of endless jokes. One playwright called me the dogeyed whore in his play." She laughed. "It was otherwise a very funny work. Pericles and I enjoyed it thoroughly." Aspasia sighed. "I should leave but I just cant. I couldnt bear the emptiness of life without him to talk to and hold and tell my adventures to. Hes " she looked at Xena and Gabrielle, "hes my soulmate, if you believe in such things."
Xena grasped Gabrielles hand and brought it to her mouth and kissed it tenderly, then held it to her cheek.
"Its the one thing in life I do believe in, Aspasia," she said.
The Bard leaned over and rested her head on Xenas shoulder. "Its what I believe in too," she whispered. "Never give it up."
Eponin returned. After a few candlemarks of talking Aspasia looked out onto the common at the roaring fires and the dancing circles of women and the sensual music that drifted over everything. She placed her hand lightly over Eponins where it rested on the table.
"Warrior," she said, looking deep into Eponins brown eyes, "would you dance with me?"
The Amazon sucked in a slightly shocked breath, then burst out in a glorious smile.
"Yes, I would be most honored to dance with you."
She rose and offered her hand to Aspasia. As they passed Gabrielle the Bard took the Athenians other hand.
"Eponin, go on," she said. "I would like to say a word to Aspasia before she leaves. I might not see her again tonight."
"Yes my Queen," the warrior replied and she continued to the stairs to wait, face still glowing with happy surprise at her good fortune.
The Amazon Queen looked up at the Athenian with serious green eyes as she put both hands over hers.
"Eponin is a great warrior," she said, "strong and fearless and unyielding. Her friendship and loyalty is a great joy to me. But inside shes a wide eyed fawn. Youre more than shes ever imagined, Aspasia. More than she can possibly cope wit "
"Gabrielle," Aspasia interrupted, patting the Bards hand, "Im an expert at giving and receiving pleasure. Some people like pain mixed with their pleasure. I dont. Eponin and I will remember this night together with a smile. Shell shed no tears over me. I promise."
The Queen nodded and released Aspasia. She quickly joined Eponin and they disappeared down the stairs into the darkness hand in hand.
The night was late. A half moon hung in a starry sky. The bonfires had started to burn down. Past the circles of light they threw out, forms writhed in the darkness on the soft grass of the common. The sounds they made were quiet and breathless. In places musicians still played and drunken songs were sung and dancing continued. But it was not circles of communal dancing any longer. It was the slow, intimate movement of couples sharing the sensuous pleasure of their bodies with one another. The platform was half empty, many of the guests lost somewhere out on the common. Xena leaned close to Gabrielle.
"Do you want to dance, beloved?" she asked.
The Bard looked up and smiled. "Id love too," she said, "will you wait here while Ephiny and I dance."
Ephiny had wine shooting out of her nose and dripping off her chin as she burst out laughing in the middle of the drink she was taking.
The Lion made an evil face at the Bard.
"Oh Xena," Gabrielle giggled, "you know you cant dance. Thats why you waited this long to ask." The giggle stopped and her green eyes looked deeply into blue. She gently touched Xenas cheek. "But thank you for asking." Her hand lovingly caressed Xenas face, moving across her lips, touching her nose, eyes, forehead, as if exploring the beauty of her features for the first time. She leaned closer. "No, I dont want to dance, beloved," she whispered. "I want to be alone with you."
The Lion kissed her mate, letting her lips brush lightly over her face. Suddenly she stood up, the Bard standing with her.
"Ephiny, its time," she said quietly.
The Amazon nodded. Quickly a sedan chair and four Priestesss were gathered at the platform. People not too drunk, or otherwise occupied, to notice began gathering along the route from the platform to the Council Hall of the Nation, the Queens residence. With half a dozen warriors on either side of the Priestesss to keep the path clear, Ephiny led the procession to the Hall, Gabrielle sitting snug in Xenas lap, her arm around her neck. Amazons cheered with thick tongues or offered lewd toasts as they passed. At the entrance to the Hall they were lowered and Gabrielle gave Ephiny a long hug and kissed her cheek.
"Thank you for making this such a wonderful day," she whispered emotionally.
"Your welcome," Ephiny answered sincerely.
Xena looked the Amazon warrior in the eyes and slowly nodded her head once. Ephiny answered with a non-chalant shrug that said anytime.
The guard opened the door. Xena took Gabrielles hand and raised it. A great shouting of warcrys and wild
cheering erupted. The mates stood at the entrance for a moment, listening to the celebration, then they disappeared inside and after a candlemark the noise died away and the crowd drifted back to the common for more drinking, dancing and whatever else they might find in the darkness.
Gabrielle finished lighting the last of a dozen candles in the bedroom and looked over at her mate. Xena was sitting on the edge of the large bed. She had removed her weapons and armor and boots but still had on her leathers. The Lion was staring at the wall, her face serious, pensive, blue eyes dark. The Bard came and sat beside her, not knowing what to make of such a look. She turned Xenas face and kissed her passionately. They lay back together on the bed and kissed for a few moments, till Xena suddenly pulled away and sat up again. Gabrielle watched silently as the Lion stared at the wall, not moving, not even breathing it seemed. Finally she rubbed her mates back soothingly.
"Xena, please talk to me," she said through a thick knot in her throat. "Please tell me what youre feeling."
The Lion did not answer. She slowly rubbed her face. Her body was like granite where the Bard touched her back. Gabrielles heart began to pound painfully in her chest. Water welled up in her eyes. The silence, the terrible silence, was settling over them again. Walls of silence too thick to be broken down, too tall to be climbed, too deep to tunnel under. A sigh that was more a shudder escaped Gabrielles lips. At the sound of it she felt Xena tremble under her fingers, her whole body quivering as if she were on the verge of some horrible convulsion. She sat up and put her arm around Xena and hugged her hard.
"Xena, please," she begged.
The Lion suddenly gulped a breath like she had not breathed in candlemarks.
"Gabrielle, Ive Ive prayed for this day so long" her voice was thick and small, "and now Im Im suddenly so frightened. So very frightened."
The Bard swallowed. She had never heard that word from Xenas lips before. Her heart pounded harder.
"Im here, beloved," she whispered. "Were together. Why are you frightened?"
The Lion took another breath. "I tried to kill you once. I love you and I tried to kill you." She took another breath like there was an anvil on her chest and she had to force in each gulp of air. "I tried to destroy you because thats what I do to the things I love. I destroy them."
Gabrielle hugged Xena harder as water trickled down her cheeks. "Xena, its not true."
The Lion forced in another breath.
"Yes it is," she said. "I had a family in Amphipolis. A mother and father and two brothers. Till my mother had to kill my father to keep him from killing me, because he thought I was a bastard child. I always told mother I was too young to remember that night. But I remember, Gabrielle," her body shuddered to its soul, and the Bard could hear the faint echo of a horrified little girl in Xenas faint whisper, "I remember everything."
"Xena," Gabrielle murmured, hugging her mate with all her strength, her heart a painful knot in her chest. The Lion forced in another breath.
"Then ,like two wolf cubs fighting for dominance in the pack, I finally forced Torris out, my first great victory." Bitterness flowed out with the memory. "Lyceus died the very day Torris left. He thought he was dying for Amphipolis, but he really died for my pride. I killed him. I killed my brother. My mother wouldnt tolerate me sleeping in the same house with her for years. Even now the doubt is still in her eyes. I see it there. Will I become again that person she hated so much. The one who destroyed her family."
Xena rubbed her dripping nose with the back of her hand. A tear tracked slowly down her cheek and over her lips. She tasted the bitter salt of it.
"Borius had a family. A woman and a fine son. He was the son and grandson and great grandson of plunderers and thieves and slavers. Scavengers. He could have been the same. But he didnt just want more. He wanted better. A better life. A decent life. An honorable life. A life he could be proud of, for himself and his son. The Cian of the northern Amazons told me I wasnt good enough for him. She was right. I was never a help to him. Only an anchor holding him back, dragging him down into the shit of my own life. Finally I got him killed trying to save me and Solan." Xena gasped like she had been stabbed in the heart. "Then I gave his son away to strangers. And I wasnt there when Solan needed me. When he needed me the most I wasnt there. I destroyed Borius family."
The tears fell fast and dripped off Xenas chin. Her shoulders began to shake. She was losing control of herself after so many years. Suddenly she turned and buried her face in Gabrielles neck.
"How long before I destroy this family," she said, the words barely audible through her constricted throat, her body convulsing with emotion. "It hurts, Gabrielle," she whispered raggedly, "gods, it hurts."
Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena and cried her own heartbreak at feeling the agony of her mate. Finally she pulled back and tenderly covered Xenas face with kisses. The tears on her wet cheeks felt hot to Gabrielles lips, heated by the fires of guilt and regret that boiled her soul.
"Beloved," the Bard whispered as she pressed her forehead against Xenas, "youre not going to carry this alone anymore. Do you understand? Youre not alone anymore. Im going to help you carry it. Were going to carry it together. Sometimes burdens are too heavy for one. But two can make it. My back is strong, my legs are sturdy. Together it wont crush either of us."
Gabrielle stroked Xenas cheek. Her eyes flashed green fire as she looked into her mates pale blue.
"And I dont want to hear words like that again, Xena. About destroying this family. Thats not what today was about. Today was about building the foundation of our family. Were not living anymore day to day. Holding our breath over weather this will be the last day for one of us. Today is the first day of the future,
Xena. Thats what were going to think about. Thats what were going to do. Build the future. Were done destroying."
Xena looked a long time in those fierce, iron willed emerald eyes. Eyes that feared nothing. Not even the Lion. She put her arms around Gabrielle and kissed her and hugged her as tight as she could. Till the Bard could hardly breath.
"I love you," she whispered.
"I love you," Gabrielle whispered back, and as she held Xena she could feel the tension and emotion in her body slowly drain away.
Finally Xena pulled back and rubbed her face and smiled weakly.
"Im sorry," she said. "This isnt what I wanted for us tonight."
The Bard smiled and caressed Xenas face. "I dont know, I think its been pretty good so far," she said as she brushed some long black hair out of her mates eyes. She stood up. "I havent given you your wedding gift." She went to the cedar chest at the foot of the bed that held her clothes and fished around for a moment. She straightened holding half a dozen scrolls wrapped in a fine, embroidered white cloth held by a green ribbon. She plopped down on the bed by Xena and handed them to her. The Lion took them, face questioning.
"Ive been trying desperately to come up with a good pithy name for them." Gabrielle said. "Homer is getting famous all over Greece for his Odyssey. The story he wrote of Odysseus journey home from Troy. Im certain hes succeeded in immortalizing himself and Odysseus. Ill just call them the Xena Scrolls for now." Gabrielles face became serious. "Theyre your story, beloved. The history of your life, your accomplishments, the greatness of the Great Lion of Amphipolis. Im determined that history will remember your name, Xena. Its what you deserve." She took the Lions hand. "Its why Im so incredibly proud to wear your emblem, beloved. To be your mate."
Xena smiled and sighed. She leaned down and rubbed her nose on
Gabrielles and kissed her. "Thank you," she murmured. She took the scrolls
and moved a decorative vase on a small table and put them in its place.
"Ill read them tomorrow," she said. "Im sure I come off better than I should."
"Actually," Gabrielle giggled, "I mention myself quite a lot. I dont think your name appears till the third scroll."
Xena laughed as she went to her regular side of the bed and sat and pulled out from under it the plain wooden locker she kept her few personal possessions in. She opened it, withdrew an undecorated cloth sack, and handed it across the bed to Gabrielle. The Bard opened the sack, a curious smile on her face. She took out a scroll and unwound it and read a few lines.
"Oh," she said, pleased, "its a scroll of Sapphos poetry. My favorite poet." She quickly counted the scrolls in the bag. "Nine scrolls," she smiled. "Sappho is supposed to have written nine scrolls of poetry. I have six but Ive never been able to find any copies of the last three." She looked at her mate. "Did you find those last three scrolls for me? That is so thoughtful, Xena. Thank you." The Lions face was blank as she looked back. Gabrielles eyes crinkled at the strange expression. She looked again in the sack and pulled out another scroll. She opened it and read a few lines. "Yep, I have this one too," she said. She was about to roll it up and put it back when something caught her eye. Slowly she unrolled the scroll to the end and looked at it closely. She sucked in a stunned breath as the color drained from her face.
"Xena," she gulped, "this scroll is in her own handwriting, with her signature at the bottom. I recognize it from that fragment Pericles has of one of her poems. This scroll is over two hundred years old." She carefully rolled the parchment like it was made of butterfly wings, eyes wide. "I didnt think all her works, in her own hand, still existed. This must be the only full collection of her original poems in the world." Gabrielle looked up at her mate. "Xena, how "
The Lion reached across the bed and put her finger over Gabrielles mouth. "Shhh," she smiled, "Its impolite to ask."
"Xena," Gabrielle said, shaking her head, "these scrolls are priceless. A cultural treasure beyond value."
"Yes," Xena said quietly, "they are valuable. Because they give me a voice to tell you the feelings of my heart, when my own voice is too rough and tongue tied to speak.
"For whenever I look at you for a moment,
Then nothing comes to me to say,
But my tongue is frozen in silence,
Staightway a subtle flame has run under my skin,
I see nothing with my eyes,
And my ears are buzzing a little short of death
I seem in my distraught wits.
I long to speak of love,
And caress your ears with gentle words,
That convey the depths of my affection,
But the Gods have made me mute.
And I can only dream,
That you hear me in your dreams."
Gabrielle swallowed and sighed, eyes soft and wide. She put her hand behind Xenas neck and pulled her mouth to hers. "I hear you, beloved," she whispered as they kissed. The passion of lovers began to rise as they touched. Xena pulled Gabrielle down on top of her and let her hands roam up and down the Bards firm body. Gabrielle found that special spot on Xenas neck that always made her sigh with pleasure. Suddenly the Bard pulled back.
"No, not yet, Xena," she said breathlessly. "I have a little surprise still."
The Lion groaned. She tried to pull the Bard back to her, but she held herself away. "No Xena, please," she smiled, eyes sparkling. "It will just take a moment, lover."
"Aaaaarrrrrggh," the Lion rumbled, but she let Gabrielle go. The Bard was quickly off the bed and out of the room.
Xena sat up with a disgusted sigh. She got up and loosened the drawstring on her leathers and peeled out of the tight clothes. She picked around in her locker under the bed and pulled out a small, delicate, clay vase. She pulled out the cork and took a deep sniff. She dabbed a little of the perfume from Pericles on her neck, then sprinkled some over the bed. Finally she laughed and poured out a good dollop on her palm and rubbed her feet. Lets see if Gabrielle complains about my feet tonight.
Just as Xena lay back on the bed, after putting away the perfume, Gabrielle appeared at the door. She slunk sensuously into the room, wearing a diaphanous green silk gown that clung to her small, firm, feminine figure, showing every rounded curve. The faint sound of music from the common could be heard, and Gabrielle began to move to its rhythm, eyes closed, letting herself float around the bed like a disembodied spirit. As Xena watched a smile slowly spread across her face, until it turned into a muted laugh. Gabrielle opened her eyes and her shoulders slumped.
"Xena," she whined, "dont laugh."
"Im Im sorry, Gabrielle," the Lion said, trying to make her face straighten up. "Its just that Ive never seen you try to be sexy on purpose before."
"I know," the Bard sighed, "Im sure I look like a fool. But, "her green eyes were soft as she looked at Xena, "I wanted to be Eros for you tonight."
Xena put out her hand, Gabrielle took it and was pulled on top of the Lion.
"It was funny," Xena said, looking deep in her mates eyes, "because why would a peacock need more feathers to look beautiful. You are Eros every day to me, beloved. Everything you do. Every way you look and move excites me. I never want to stop touching you."
"Thats good, beloved," Gabrielle whispered huskily, "because I never want you to stop touching me."
They kissed long and passionately. Xenas hands moved over her lovers body, slowly pulling the silken gown up till Gabrielle let it slip over her head. They let their warm bodies excite each other, moving and rubbing and touching as they kissed. The Bard slipped her hand between Xenas thighs and let her fingers move through the hair wet with ecstasy till they were rubbing the full clitoris. The Lions breath quickened as she sighed deeply her pleasure. Gabrielle let a finger slip inside her lover for an instant as Xenas hips moved in response. Immediately she brought her hand up and put the finger in her mouth and pulled it slowly out, leaving the taste on her tongue.
"You are life to me, my beloved," she whispered, looking deep in blue eyes, "your taste is ambrosia."
Xena put her hand between Gabrielles legs and in a moment her lovers taste was on her tongue.
"I was dying of thirst, Gabrielle," she whispered back, "till I found you."
They began to kiss again but the Bard pulled her head up and looked around the candlelit room.
"What?" Xena asked.
"Do you feel it, Xena?"
The Lion shrugged her shoulders uncertainly.
Gabrielle looked down at her lover.
"Were home, beloved." Gabrielle whispered. "Here, now, this place, this time, with each other. After all our wanderings, were finally home."
Xena pulled some stray redblonde hairs away from Gabrielles face. "Yes," she said. "I feel it. We are home."
"What ever you have to do out there," Gabrielle said, "always remember, home is here. Home is waiting. Come home, beloved. Come home to me. Please come home."
Xena looked deep in emerald eyes and let out a slow breath. She kissed her mate one more time and stroked her cheek.
"I know where my home is, beloved," she said. "Its wherever you are. Ill find you again. I promise."
Xena rubbed her nose on Gabrielles. Then she turned and walked decisively to the Argo and jumped aboard and disappeared. The Bard wiped the tear that had started to fall from her eye. She turned and joined Pericles and Aspasia for the walk back to his villa.
End of Part I of Birthright, Kidnapped.
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