Disclaimer #1: Xena Warrior Princess characters belong to Renaissance Pictures/MCA.
Disclaimer #2: Dialogue and action from Sins of the Past also belong to Renaissance Pictures and from the great Xena Warrior Princess writer, (Spoilers for Sins of the Past are contained within).
Disclaimer #3: Xenaverse timeline--after Season 2 and before Season 3.
Disclaimer #4: Romance and sex between two consenting adult women (of the fictional variety) and yall know WHY this is a (dis)claimer. This is a first time story.
A Half Moon Before and Two Summers After
By Portia Richardson
Eponin stood beside the carriage extending a hand for her queen. Gabrielle, now adorned in the royal garment of the Queen of the Amazons delicately placed her hand in Eponins and accepted the boost. The young blonde woman crashed onto the floor of the wagon, clumsily righted herself, then took a seat on the long wooden bench.
"Uh, thank you."
"Youre welcome, my Queen."
"Were awfully high up, arent we?" Somehow using the royal `we seemed appropriate for her first journey in the Queens carriage.
"Yes, my Queen." Eponin waited for Gabrielle to get settled on the bench, then shouted out commands. The nine amazons stood erect at their positions and waited for further instruction.
"Queen Gabrielle, well ride only til nightfall, then make camp a few hours from here."
Gabrielle nodded. The Amazon stepped away from the wagon and began walking to the end of the procession. "Eponin? Wont you ride up here with me?"
Eponin stopped and looked thoughtfully at Gabrielle for a moment. "Usually, my Queen, it is your champion or consort or bondmate who would accompany you on your journey. It isnt my place."
"Well, I dont have a consort or bondmate and my champion . . . " Gabrielle lifted her chin and motioned forward, "wants to ride her horse ahead, so. . . Ill go crazy if Im up here by myself until dusk."
"All right." Eponin surveyed her team of Amazons and sighed. She shouted, "Amazons, I will be riding with our Queen. Adjust formation!"
The Amazons quickly fell in place and with a slight tap of her crop, their Amazon driver guided the black warhorse forward with their precious cargo.
Gabrielle was being led to the center of the Amazon Nation for a very special ritual. For moons she had been preparing for the upcoming event and was confident in her abilities to perform as Queen.
"It must be crazy at the village, everyone getting ready for the ceremony?"
"I've been told our new Amazons will be strong and competent warriors. They have been trained well."
"Im really looking forward to spending time with all of you and Xena needs the rest. Weve had quite a few exhausting adventures in the past few moons."
"Youll tell us about your travels, my Queen?"
"Good grief, Eponin, will you please stop saying my Queen in every sentence? Im your friend, too. Right? Or are you saying that Im no longer your friend now that Im Queen? Thats ridiculous. As I recall, you, Ephiny and Solari practically kicked my butt when I was learning to use the staff. How is it that you loved seeing me covered with dirt and bruises, now you cant even look me in the eye when we speak?"
"Its not appropriate . . . "
"Eponin, I need friends. I have a Nation of women who see me as their ruler, it would be nice to have a few I can call friend and who see me the same way."
"There is Xena."
"One needs more than one friend, Eponin. I thought we were."
"Good." She paused, then sighed heavily, "Its hard with Xena. She doesnt open up much and I keep a lot to myself." Gabrielle looked ahead at her best friends hair blowing in the wind. She knew that Xena was loving every minute of leading the procession and knowing she could push harder and not fear for Gabrielles safety.
Eponin did speak to Gabrielle as a friend as they traveled across the land. "Have you tried?"
"You know Xena, Eponin. Its not easy. But Ive been thinking for a while now that there are some things that we *need* to talk about. Thats one of the reasons Im looking forward to this trip. I worry I might say something she wont want to hear. If that happens," Gabrielle stared off into the distance, "Ill need your support."
Eponin nodded. If Gabrielle needed to say more, she would, but she wouldnt press her Queen. Eponin knew exactly what Gabrielle was hinting. She, Ephiny and other Amazons had discussed it at length many times.
Eponin and Gabrielle spoke of negotiations with Centaurs, the powerful leadership of Ephinys rule, and warlords skulking too close to their borders. Before Gabrielle had realized it, dusk was upon them, and Eponin leapt from the carriage. The Amazons posted on the sides of the carriage ran forward, then turned off into the woods. Fifteen minutes later, they stood about fifty paces from their Queen and guided the vehicle toward them. Instantly, it was as if the Amazon party had never been on the path. Wheel tracks and footprints were covered, Amazon guards slid into trees and two stood hidden at the entrance to their campsite.
Gabrielle descended the carriage with Eponins help and walked over to Xena who stood brushing down Argo. The bard had missed being close to the warrior. She breathed in deeply, capturing her favorite scent. She loved the smell of Xenasweat, leathers, and the lemons she used on her skin. She also smelled chicken roasting along with root vegetables.
"It smells good. Did you steal someones campsite? I know thats not your cooking."
"Oh, very funny. Ill have you know that I cooked just fine before you joined me."
"Xena, you had army cooks. Lets see, on your own youve burned bread, prepared undercooked fish, rubbery rabbit, blackened vegetables and your seasoning of choice so far seems to be riverwater." Gabrielle ticked off with her fingers each incident of the warriors failed cooking endeavors.
"Look, Gabrielle, if you dont want to eat, I wont be offended," Xena said with a shrug.
Eponin cleared her throat. "Excuse me, Queen Gabrielle? Xena? The Initiates have completed dinner preparations and we can all sit down for our meal."
"The Initiates?" Gabrielle eyed Xena.
"Wh-what? I didnt say I *did* cook, I just said I knew how." Xena returned Argos brush to the saddlebag and followed Eponin and Gabrielle to the main campsite.
Over dinner, Eponin explained that the nine Initiates into the Amazon Nation were sharing a campfire not too far from the one where they sat. The women who would soon be joining the Amazons were to move in the shadows during this expedition--they were to hunt for food, gather firewood, mend any torn clothing, polish armor, perform general maintenance on the queens carriage and any other duties which might arise. Amazon rule prohibited them from interacting with the queen or any Amazon not assigned to their training, prior to their crossing over ceremony. Gabrielle was unaware of their presence. Xena, on the other hand had met two of the Initiates when she arrived at the campsite.
* * * * *
She had heard one of them in a tree above the path. The young Amazon-to-be was dangling precariously from her tree rope, trying desperately to remove the bindings which had wrapped around her ankle, without being heard. Too late. Xena was off Argo and in the tree. The woman looked up to find herself on the receiving end of Xenas condescending stare.
"What? Hey, howd you get up there?" the young woman whispered.
"Without you seein me is how. Dont tell me youre guarding the Queen?"
"No, we both are." A second Initiate whispered into Xenas ear.
Xenas head whipped around. How in the world had this woman gotten so close? This short, stocky woman with white-blonde hair casually rested her hand on the hilt of her undrawn sword.
"Get out of my way, she needs help," she said in a whisper, but the command wasnt lost on Xena who smiled and took a step up onto another branch, watching as the second woman pulled the rope and her friend up.
"Youre going to be Amazons soon?"
"And you are?"
The two women looked at Xena, then each other. The dark-haired warrior recognized the amazement. Everyday, she was greeted by at least one person offering up a similar expression. She had heard the stories.
But it wasnt Xenas past as a warlord nor her recent work as a fighter for good that the two young women thought of. They straightened themselves the best they could on the narrow branch. "Youre the Queens champion."
"I know," Xena was enjoying this, though still perturbed about having that second woman approach her unnoticed moments before.
"Look, were sorry."
"I dont know what happened. I heard someone on the path, grabbed for my line and as I was going up, I got caught in. . . . "
"Dont worry about it. Just improve. You cant very well be Amazon, if you cant manage to get yourself up a tree." Xena said.
"Well work on that tonight," the white-blonde woman said protectively. She eyed Xena suspiciously. "Youre not Amazon, are you?"
"Yeah, figured. You wouldnt be talking to us if you were. How do you know so much about them? Were you once in training?"
Xena lowered her eyes, hiding both guilt and shame, then looked away. "No." She shook her head. "Look, the Queen should be coming down the path very soon."
With that said the two Initiates returned to position and Xena disappeared from the tree as quickly as she had arrived.
* * * * *
Now, sitting around their fire, she could hear the nine women in the distance. Xena stood and stretched.
"Im going to go wash my dish." Xena reached out for her friends empty plate. "Gabrielle?"
Eponin rose from her log and shook her head, "No, Xena. Leave that for the Initiates. Theyll take care of this site in the night."
Xena nodded and looked around. It was part of her ritual at night to secure their location, maybe do a bit of hunting, before settling in, but those tasks werent required of her on this journey. Shed have to settle for a walk.
"Theres a lot of food left."
"Why dont we take it over to the Initiates? Ill bet they were so busy making sure we had plenty that they didnt even think of themselves?" Gabrielle was filling a plate with roasted chicken, bread and cheese. "Xena, well walk over."
"My Queen, you cant."
"Oh, Eponin, rules are meant to be broken."
"Think of the Initiates, Gabrielle. They want to enter the Nation the same way their fore-sisters did. Amazon custom and pride in those customs have been taught to them. Even the slightest change would make them feel less than the others."
Gabrielle understood that. She hadnt entered the way all others had and felt deficient to a degree.
The warrior took the plate from Gabrielle. " Ill take it."
* * * * *
Foliage and underbrush hid Xena in the shadows while she watched seven women sitting cross-legged around the campfire testing each other on Amazon history.
Two women stood near a large tree a few paces from the campfire. One was the Initiate who had been hanging from her cord earlier and the other, who carefully made a series of braids and a loop in her rope was the one who had rescued her. She was a strong, good-looking woman. Only one thing about her stood out--her odd white-blonde hair coloring. From behind she appeared to be a much older woman with hair the color of a long life, but face-to-face, she couldnt be more than twenty summers.
The Initiate scampered up the tree like a small animal. Moments later, she returned to the ground.
The warrior cleared her throat. "The Queen asked me to bring you some of our food."
The women practically lunged at the warrior.
"Shes the Queens champion. Thats Xena."
The Initiates divvied up the food and all returned to the fire. "Join us, Xena?" The white-blonde woman said.
"Sure, why not?" Xena took a seat on a nearby log.
"What is she like? The Queen?"
Xena sighed and hardened her face so as not to give away the warm and loving feelings she felt for their Queen. She thought about what shed like to say--the Queen has green eyes I get lost in, she smells like spice, Im captured by the sway of her hips and the lilt in her voice, I never want to imagine a night falling asleep without her near. Or even more revealing, I crave her. I want to know the feel of her ankles on my shoulders, what she tastes like, how she sounds when she lets me take what I need. Instead, she said, "Shes knowledgeable and fair. Shes a hard worker and would put her life on the line if it meant protecting others, especially Amazons." She wondered why she insisted on punishing herself with those fantasies that always dampened her underwear and left her too embarrassed to meet Gabrielle's eyes.
"Whats her name?"
"Huh? The Queen?"
"You shouldnt ask that," one of the Amazons scolded. "Well learn our leaders name at the crossing over ceremony." She answered the question on Xenas face, "We arent part of the tribe yet. She is the Queen of the Amazons. We are no different from anyone else. We havent a right to know her name or speak it."
Xena made a mental note to tell Gabrielle that she isnt supposed to run around telling every bandit they encounter that theyre messing with Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons. This was a different custom from Amazons tribes she knew from her past.
"We have learned of her--how she became an Amazon Princess, then Queen. We know that she travels with you and that you fought the former Queen on her behalf."
"What does she look like? Ive heard shes old and wise," asked the white-blonde haired woman.
"Shes wise. Young, beautiful and wise."
"Youre willing to lay down your life for an Amazon . . . the Queen, no less and arent one yourself?" The Initiate continued her line of questioning.
"Because were friends."
"You must be more than friends to protect her so fervently. Are you her consort as well?"
The warriors eyes widened. "N-no. Were friends."
One of the Initiates, gave the white-blonde haired woman a shove. "What? You think the Queen might be available for you, Maidia? Im sure shes got women to cater to her every desire at any time. Right, Xena?"
Xena was beginning to fidget on the log. She was suddenly very uncomfortable. "I wouldnt know about that."
Some awkward time passed before Xena finally spoke. "Youve pretty much got the hang of the rope. One thing Id change is the tautness of the loop. You need a little more give. Here, let me show you."
The white-blonde haired woman placed the leather cord in the warriors hand. Xena nodded a thank you and began her demonstration. She was in her element. A good training session was about as motivating as a good fight. With practiced ease, she flung the cord into the trees, not even grazing a leaf or small branch. The cord hit its mark and she gave it a light tug. Xena smiled at the Initiates and before it had even registered in their eyes, she was out of sight. The women stood at the base of the tree and waited, but Xena didnt return. Several seconds passed and eight of them stared into the tree. Maidia leaned against it and stared across the fire at Xena who had slipped quietly from one tree to the next and descended silently onto their camp.
"Hello?" Xena smiled at the women who turned in unison to stare awestruck, at her.
"By the gods, shes wonderful."
Xena cocked her head and stared into the hazel eyes of Maidia, the obviously smartest and bravest of the Initiates. "Howd ya guess?"
"An Amazon always surprises. Shed never do the obvious."
"But Im not Amazon," Xena replied, stepping around the fire to hand the woman her leather cord.
"But you think like one."
* * * * *
The Queens party would reach the Amazon Nation before the sun reached its highest point in the sky. If there had been highwaymen or bandits to deal with on this path, the Initiates had made quick work of them. The Amazons had the road to themselves and not even a broken wheel or Zeus lightning bolts to impede their travel. The head guardswoman was relieved that the Queens champion had joined the Queen in the carriage. Gabrielle seemed much happier with Xena there.
"The Initiates are very curious about you."
"As I am them. What are they like?" Gabrielle turned to face the warrior and once again, Xena drowned in her eyes. As the days turned into moons and moons into winters it was becoming increasingly difficult for the warrior to hold back her feelings. Every look brought desire, every touch, a pounding need.
"We talked, but mostly they asked me a lot of questions about you. What youre like."
"What did you tell them?"
"That youre an ogre. That you are the meanest Queen the Amazons could have, but you hate everyone else more than you hate them, so youre a good leader."
Gabrielle hit Xena in the shoulder. "You did not."
Xena nodded. "Yeah, theyre pretty much afraid of you now."
"Xena, tell me you didnt say those things? I dont want these kids afraid of me."
"Kids? Most of them are older than you, Gabrielle. Except for one. She looks to be about your age. I think shes the best of the bunch, too. Odd, she has old peoples hair coloringblonde, but mostly white. Shes young, though."
"White-blonde." Xena watched as Gabrielles eyes danced. "I had a friend years ago with white-blonde hair. Is she short?"
"Really muscular shoulders and legs? Hazel eyes?"
"Yeah, that describes her.
"Alcestas!" Gabrielles eyes lit up. "She walks with a limp, right?"
"No, her name is Maidia and she walks just fine."
Gabrielle was obviously dejected at this news. She lowered her head, then looked out onto the horizon.
"Hmm?" Gabrielle seemed so far away.
"Who was this friend, Alcestas? Youve never mentioned her."
"Havent I?" Gabrielle was well aware that she had never told Xena about Alcestas for if she had, she would have told her a story she wasnt ready to talk about. It was as much about Alcestas as it was Gabrielle, as much about Perdicas as it was Poteidaia and it included Xena. Could the bard tell this story now? She wasnt sure. If she did, everything would change. But maybe it was time, maybe this Initiate who looked like her friend was the push she needed.
"No, Id have remembered. Were you close?" The warrior was both curious and concerned about the expression etched on the Queens face.
"All right. Lets see, the beginning? No, that would take too long. Hmm?" The bard nervously covered her mouth with her fingers as she thought about the best way to proceed.
"While were young, Gabrielle!" Xena twirled her hand in an effort to get Gabrielle to get on with it.
"Okay. Alcestas and I grew up together in Poteidaia. Were the same age and Id known her all of my life. We were pretty much inseparable. People said that we looked more like sisters than Lila and I, but I dont see it. I still had the. . . full cheeks of my youth. Alcestas had lost all of her baby fat." Gabrielle smiled at Xena.
Xena had liked that chubbiness, but she loved the woman Gabrielle had become. Gabrielle was still full of youthful vitality, in spite of all that she had endured recently, but her face and body had changed. She was all woman. Xena had noticed and now was vigilant about making sure Gabrielle didnt notice her noticing.
"As I said, she walked with a limp. It was her most distinguishing feature other than her hair coloring. Alcestas favored her right leg after she fell from my parents barnloft when we were fourteen winters old."
"Alcestas and I and another friend, Seraphin spent all of our time together. When we were smaller, we played dress up. But as we grew older, we lost interest in Seraphin who had become a little, I dont know, strange, so Alcestas and I spent more and more time together. I guess we were kindred spirits--both ignored by our families, by the village, by everyone. It was like we lived there, but didnt belong there. She was really the only one I could talk to after I became betrothed. We had completed seventeen summers and felt all grown up. We wanted to make our own decisions, but, unfortunately, our fathers were doing that for us with no regard for our happiness." Gabrielle explained, then added slowly, "I was to marry Perdicas.
"Im sorry, Gabrielle." Even though Gabrielle seldom spoke of him, Xena was positive that the occasional silences around the campfire were due to thoughts of her dead husband.
She shrugged. "Once I was married, there wouldnt be any more long walks, I probably wouldnt have seen much of her. Of course, my mother didnt understand.
"I remember one day, about a half moon before we first met, Xena . . . "
Xenas ears perked up. She had often wondered about the time just before they met. Gabrielle almost never discussed her past. It was as if she had none. She wondered how it had been so easy for Gabrielle to pick up and leave her village. When they began traveling together, the young woman spent her time learning how to protect herself and having the adventures she longed for. Looking back over the past two summers, Xena became cognizant that Gabrielle only talked about life in Poteidaia when she had to--when they happened upon Perdicas in Troy and when she doubted herself and returned to her village for a while. The bard loved to tell stories, loved to comment on everything, but except for a few minor stories about her sister and mother, she never mentioned her family; except for meeting up with Perdicas, then later when she suddenly decided to marry, she wouldnt talk about him. Xena never asked.
Gabrielle continued her story.
* * * * *
"I was racing out to meet Alcestas and mom called out to me. Gabrielle, youre leaving without your basket. I was already out the door.
I walked back in and picked up the basket of goodies that I would be sharing on my picnic. My mother shook her head and said something about me being so eager and acting as if I hadnt seen Alcestas in winters instead of just a few hours.
She had said, She was the last person you spoke with last night and I saw the two of you whispering and conspiring at the market this morning.
Alcestas had been telling me her dream and I thought Id share it with my mother. I started, but she interrupted, of course. You kids and your big dreams. I remember her saying that, then returning to de-feathering a chicken.
I thought about saying something to her. Everyone should have big dreams regardless of age. I pitied the woman who no longer dreamed. At times I pitied mom and knew that was wrong. So I just left to meet Alcestas."
"Mothers can be difficult, believe me I know. My mother can be . . . well, you know." Xena interjected.
"Cyrene is sweet."
"Shes not your mother." Xena laughed and Gabrielle joined her for a chuckle, then continued her story.
* * * * *
We sat in a grassy clearing on a hill that overlooked a raging river below. This was my favorite spot near home. It was secluded and beautiful, ripe with wildberries, beautiful flowers and soft moss.
"Alcestas, I wrote a poem for you today."
"Gab, dont you ever rest? Your mind goes twelve paces for every other persons one. When did you have time?"
"I made it up this morning after you told me your dream. Ready?"
Alcestas popped a berry into her mouth and nodded to me. I sat up, took a deep breath and did my bard thing.
"Dream of a Queen in a crystal palace,
Pale hands touch alabaster columns.
Locked inside a silent room,
Her heart soars across the land, over the seas.
The wind howls and she hears
The music of another heart,
"Sweet Alcestas, your glow awakens me,
Your smile, a picture; your voice, a song;
Your dream, my dream."
* * * * *
Xena wiped her moist hands on her upper thigh. That poem was a love poem, if shed ever heard one. Who was this Alcestas? And what did she mean to Gabrielle?
"Thank you. Im surprised I still remember it."
Xena knew she had to overcome her own anxiety. Her Song of Perdicas was sweet, but this, this held a sense of love and longing. Xena felt left out, somewhat disquieted and surprisingly pained. "Your friend must have . . . you must have cared deeply for her to write such a song to her. Did she like it?"
"Did she like it?"
* * * * *
Gabrielle closed her eyes and sighed in satisfaction. She waited several beats for her words to sink in, finally opening them to linger on Alcestas. "Well, whatd ya think?"
"Thats it? I dont get it."
Gabrielle smiled lightly. She knew that the poem had touched her immediately. "Uh-huh."
"Oh, nothing." Gabrielle leaned back on her elbows and stared at the sky. "Its beautiful today. I wish everyday of our lives could be like this."
Alcestas leaned back, too. Their heads touched as they watched the clouds move. "What do you think that one is?" She asked, pointing to a puffy white cloud.
"Looks like Perdicas on a bad hair day."
Alcestas turned on her side, chin in hand, supported by one elbow, and poked Gabrielle in the rib with a finger. "Hes your betrothed. You shouldnt say things like that."
Gabrielle also turned. "I know, I know. It just slipped out. I know what Im supposed to say. Darling, dear. Im the luckiest woman alive. Aphrodite wishes she had a man like you, Perdicas." Gabrielle laughed.
"Gab, youre going to have to at least try. Soon your mom is going to have you at the dressmaker, Lila will be collecting flowers for your hair, your Dad and Perdicas father will tear down that fence separating the land."
"Ugh. Dont remind me. My father is *trading* me for a few parcels of property, forty-five sheep, twelve goats, fifty-three chickens, five roosters, and an old horse."
"But whos counting, right? Alcestas paused. "Anyway, youre not being traded, your families are joining. Everyone gets half of everything."
"I dont want to be married."
"No, just not yet. When I bond for life I want it to be with someone I can understand and who understands me. Perdicas just smiles and says, whatever you want Gabrielle."
"Most girls would love a guy like that."
"Not me. I want someone with life. Someone who has dreams about something more than Poteidaia."
"Well, you wont find that here. Every boy wants to stay and work the land just like his father did."
Gabrielle sighed and rolled onto her back. "Youre right. Id better start getting used to it."
"At least you know what your future has in store. Every time my father says my name, Im afraid hes going to tell me how he has promised me to some old geezer who needs a wife to bear him a boy before he dies."
Gabrielle turned her head and gave her friend a quizzical look. "Why would you think that?"
"Its my fathers choice. I was supposed to be a boy. He got stuck with me. I should have been his big, strapping son, instead Im just Alcestas, his strong daughter. His mistake."
Alcestas and her father never connected. She tried to please him. She worked long hours and her family had one of the most productive farms in town, she sparred with the strongest boys in the village and held her own. Yet, her father always thought she could do better. For Gabrielle, it was very much the same. Her father, Herodotus didnt seem to mind that he had been blessed with daughters. What drove him mad was Gabrielles wanderlust, her talk of gods and goddesses, her tales of larger than life characters. She never seemed to focus on the here and now, didnt care about the goings-on in her own village. How many times had she been scolded for burning the bread in the hearth, ignoring it while she studied maps that others had discarded? How often had she been told to obey, to try harder, to be a better daughter? And now this Perdicas thing. Her upcoming marriage.
"I dont want to talk about it." Alcestas dropped onto her back and stared up at the clouds.
Gabrielle reached out and lightly touched her friends arm. "Okay, we wont."
Some time passed before the women resumed any conversation. "Gab, are you still feeling *nervous* about being married?"
"Nah. Like you said, Perdicas will do whatever I ask."
"Are you scared about losing your virginity?"
"Not really. I know Perdicas. Hell be gentle. I just hope Ill know how to act when he does it."
"Gab?" Alcestas whispered her name.
Gabrielle held her breath and waited.
* * * * *
They were nearing the borders of the Amazon Nation and the guardswomen were quickly changing formation in preparation for their arrival.
Xena had been lost in Gabrielles story and didnt realize how close they were to the Nation. What was Alcestas' question? she wondered.
The Queens memory had taken over and she had fallen into a quiet contemplation of that day, so long ago. She hadnt noticed Xena leap from the carriage, nor seen all of the Amazons save Eponin standing with arms raised and hands clasped in the clearing between the trees. Her personal guardswoman cleared her throat and finally whispered, "Queen Gabrielle. Were here."
"Oh." She snapped out of her daydream quickly and joined the others on the ground. A moment later she clasped her own hands, Amazons descended the trees and tossed their masks aside. Ephiny embraced her first.
"Gabrielle, my Queen."
"Ephiny." Gabrielle pulled her into a long hug. "It is so good to see you."
"I hope youre ready for a huge celebration. The Initiates will cross over this evening and there are a few things you need to know to prepare for that ceremony. We dont have time to waste."
"All right. I thought we were right on schedule?"
"You are, but theres still a lot to do." To Eponin, "Lets move on out. We need to get back to the Nation quickly."
"Gabrielle, Ill ride with you. Xena, do you want to ride Argo in?"
"Sure." Xena *wanted* to hear more of the story. She hated to be left hanging.
Ephiny climbed into the carriage. "Cmon Gabrielle."
Gabrielle reached out for Ephinys outstretched arm and was just about to pull herself up when Xena tugged at the other arm.
The Queen turned to face her champion. "Yes, Xena?"
"What was Alcestas going to ask and why were you holding your breath?"
The young woman dressed in the finest of fabrics and most expensive jewels, sucked in her lips, narrowed her eyes and anyone could see that she was making a heavy decision. Finally, she answered, just above a whisper. "She wanted to know if we could kiss. Again. I was hoping thats what she was going to ask, and she did."
Gabrielle couldnt face Xena. It was out there now, hanging over their heads. She placed her hand around Ephinys forearm and pulled herself into the carriage. Xena stood next to the vehicle, mouth agape. She had not expected to hear that.
While lowering her mask from the top of her head to cover her face, Ephiny said, "the Initiates will be roaming around the village. Youll need to stay masked."
On the floor of the carriage was the mask of the Queen of the Amazons. Gabrielle leaned forward, picked it up and covered her face, just in time to hide the few tears that were beginning to fall.
She nodded occasionally as Ephiny rambled on, though she wasnt listening. Her eyes were glued on Xena until the procession passed, then her thoughts returned to Alcestas.
* * * * *
"If you want, we could practice the kissing thing again? You know to help you with Perdicas."
It had started a quarter moon earlier, Gabrielle recalled. Alcestas had broached the idea in a similar fashion, to help her friend prepare for her future husband. They had laughed hysterically about it after the seconds long kiss had ended. Neither had opened their mouths nor even moved their lips. They had just pressed lips against the other, then stopped.
Then it happened again the next day, outside of Hestias temple. Alcestas was pretending to be Perdicas and had wrapped her arm around Gabrielles shoulders.
"Gabrielle thank you for being my long-suffering, dedicated wife. Thank you for providing such a wonderful home for me, your handsome and dull husband," Alcestas said in a deep, manly voice.
"Oh, sweetheart. How could I not want only the best for you? You make me so happy. Youre my dream come true," Gabrielle had responded in a shrill, overly sweet voice.
"Then kiss me, darling."
Alcestas turned Gabrielle in her arms and kissed her lightly on each cheek, then moved to her lips. The two young women tenderly pecked at each other than burst into laughter.
Gabrielle felt light-headed. She liked kissing Alcestas. Her lips were soft and sweet. She wondered why she didnt feel the same for Perdicas. That evening she constructed situations that would result in more kissing. She valued her friendship with Alcestas and didnt want her natural curiosity to be construed as something else. But if it *was* just curiosity, why couldnt she stop thinking about it?
It was almost a week before any opportunity arose to kiss again and they had. The two women had picnicked just a few feet away on this same clearing. It was the day after another celebration of her upcoming marriage. Alcestas sensed that it was all beginning to sink in and Gabrielle finally confessed that she was worried.
"What if I cant please him? I wont be able to fake it with him." Gabrielle sat on the blanket wringing her hands. Alcestas sat cross-legged inches in front of her.
"Gab, just having you there will be enough for Perdicas. Trust me. Ive known the guy forever. Hes crazy about you."
"I cant do it. Ive kissed *you* more than Ive kissed him. I mean, I cant even worry about that other stuff, cause Im not sure about the easy stuff."
"Gabrielle, Ill show you how to *really* kiss. Thats what friends are for." Alcestas smiled at her and took Gabrielles hands in hers. "Its going to be fine." She kissed her friends hands and then held them tightly. "Really."
Gabrielle had hoped for this moment. She stared at their entwined hands, then slowly raised her head to look candidly into her friends eyes. "I believe you."
Alcestas dropped Gabrielles hands and gently caressed her friends face. She scooted around so that they sat side by side, put her arm around her shoulders and pulled her toward her. Once again, their lips pressed together, but this time, Gabrielle felt herself warm all over. Alcestas increased the pressure against Gabrielles lips. Gabrielle wanted to reach out to touch her hair, to run her hands down the other womans back, to kiss her deeper, but she was terrified. Instead, she squeezed Alcestas upper arms until she was sure she would bruise them, but she didnt dare let go. She didnt trust herself or her hands to let go. Moments passed.
"Well, that was good." Alcestas said, breaking away from her dear friend.
Gabrielle blushed and laughed.
"It was good, but youre going to have to be more . . . I dont know . . . responsive. I cant tell if you liked it."
Gabrielles voice quivered. "I liked it."
"Okay, maybe well try it again sometime."
"I need all the help I can get." Gabrielle said then.
* * * * *
Even as Gabrielle sat quietly beside Ephiny, remembering an old friend, she was anxious and took several deep breaths trying to calm herself. Xena could be utterly disgusted by her. She couldnt believe she had admitted to kissing and wanting to kiss another woman. Sure, she was an Amazon and women together was part of everyday living at the village, but she and Xena shared the road, Xena relied on her and she trusted Xena to maintain her focus. What if this confession changed that? Hadnt the subsequent actions changed her that day, so long ago?
* * * * *
She remembered that day. "I need all the help I can get." She had said that to Alcestas days earlier, and that day she said it again.
Alcestas closed the gap between the two of them. She sat up and bent to kiss Gabrielle who still lay reclined on the ground. Just as before, she kissed her cheek, then her lips. She pressed hers against Gabrielles and waited. Gabrielle lay still beneath her, unable to move. Alcestas lifted her head and her hazel eyes warmed Gabrielles very soul. "Remember, you should let me know if you like."
She bent and kissed her again, then waited. Seconds passed. Finally, Gabrielle lifted her stiff arm from her side and placed it on Alcestas back. She was rewarded with soft lips pressed harder against hers. Gabrielle moved her hand up her friends back and placed them in the silky white-blonde hair. This time, Alcestas parted her lips and touched Gabrielles with her tongue. This slight touch caused Gabrielle eyes to flutter, then close. Alcestas pried Gabrielles lips apart with her tongue and for the first time in Gabrielles life her own tongue caressed anothers. Her other arm came around and pulled Alcestas into her for a strong, loving hug as Alcestas soft tongue danced and swirled in her mouth.
"Mmm." Gabrielle moaned into their mouths. Nothing had ever felt quite like this. Alcestas caressed Gabrielles shoulders, ran her fingers through Gabrielles reddish-blonde hair. Gabrielles tongue reached out to capture as much of her friends mouth as possible. She heard Alcestas sigh.
Alcestas hand lowered and she gently and swiftly grazed the outside of Gabrielles breast through her blue peasant top. For Gabrielle, it was a glorious feeling. Her heart pounded in her chest. She felt alive for the first time and prayed to the gods that her friend would continue the lesson.
Suddenly, Alcestas stopped. She moved back and looked into Gabrielles green eyes that had teared with an overwhelming sense of their deep friendship. Alcestas dropped onto her back and took a deep breath. They lay on the grass taking in big gulps of air like two thirsty children. Gabrielle turned to Alcestas with a broad grin plastered to her face.
"I think wed better get back. Its getting late. Theyre going to come looking for us." Alcestas said, while staring up at the sky, completely missing the joy on Gabrielles face.
"Are you all right?"
"Im fine, Gab." Alcestas was unconvincing.
"It was no big deal, right? You were helping me. We were just being stupid."
"No, big deal." Alcestas stood. "Lets pack up, kay?"
* * * * *
Drums beat out the arrival of the Queen and the Queens Regent. The procession entered the village, moving slowly between two rows of drummers and dancers. Those Amazons not performing, lowered their bodies in a sign of respect, bowing to their most revered one. They rose in unison and crossed bows and arrows over their chests in honor of Queen Gabrielle.
Again, the Queen of the Amazons was helped from the carriage. It was difficult to move in a royal fashion when the heavy headdress and mask she wore weighed her down, but she noticed all Amazons were so disguised. Only the Initiates and their mentor moved throughout the village unmasked.
"Yes, theyre finishing up a lesson." Ephiny said, watching the Initiates each receive instruction from their teacher, nod and walk toward the hut they had been assigned.
Gabrielles eyes moved in closer, looking through her mask at each Initiate. The woman with white-blonde hair spoke with the teacher who nodded repeatedly, then patted her on the shoulder. The Queen watched the woman. What had Xena called her? Maidia? Maidia maneuvered around a group of children with grace and quick reflexes, and casually walked toward the hut. At the door, Maidia stopped and looked in Gabrielles direction. The Queen gasped.
"What is it?" Ephiny caught Gabrielle just as she was dropping in slow motion to the ground.
"Who is she?" she whispered as she clung to Ephiny.
"Do you know her?"
"She looks just like an old friend of Gabrielles from Poteidaia." Xena took hold of Gabrielles other arm and helped her steady herself. The warrior, from across the clearing had seen her best friend sliding from a standing position and ran to her aid. "Are you all right?"
"Yes. No. She looks so much like Alcestas. They could be twins."
"Well, its not as if that doesnt happen. Look at me and Princess Diana or Meg."
"Yeah, I suppose. Its uncanny."
"Gabrielle, maybe you should rest after your journey. Well meet briefly to discuss the ceremony."
"Dont worry, Eph, I know what Im supposed to do. You dont have to guide me anymore." She patted her best Amazon friends hand.
Xena slowly helped a weakened Gabrielle across the villages center and into the Queens hut.
"You need to take it easy, Gabrielle."
"I just never expected to see someone who . . . Its hard to explain."
Once Xena had settled Gabrielle in her bed and helped her sip from a cup of water, she leaned against the wall and watched her best friend. She was worried, but there was so much more going on inside. Obviously, just this reminder of her friend still caused Gabrielle to have strong reactions. Gabrielle never becomes faint when she looks my way.
The Queen stretched out in the bed.
"Do you feel up to telling me about her? Alcestas, not Maidia."
"No, not yet."
But sleep didnt come easily to Gabrielle, not with the noisy preparations for the nights ceremony and just as Gabrielle would start to drift off, she thought of Alcestas, then Xena.
"Gabrielle?" Xena stood over the bed and gave Gabrielles shoulder a shove. "Gabrielle? Youre not sleeping."
"What is it, Xena?" She turned to face the warrior.
"Look, youve got a lot on your mind. It might help to talk it out. You can tell me."
"Im your friend."
Her friend. I guess thats all Ill ever be. She sat up. "Please dont judge me if I do this? All right?"
"Im hardly one to judge."
"I dont want you to attach any meaning to it other than a story. Its just something that happened."
Gabrielle crossed her legs on the bed and waited for Xena to settle down next to her before beginning. "Well, we did kiss. We had kissed before, but it was so innocent. I could have kissed my sister or my mom like that. Well, maybe not." She smiled. "It was close to innocent, let me put it that way. But that day, the day I was telling you about, we kissed more and I really, really liked it. She did too and I think we each felt strange about that. We were friends. This shouldnt have been happening." Gabrielle cast a quick glance at Xena from the corner of her eye and saw the warrior looking straight ahead with an expression that revealed nothing.
Friends, she thought. It shouldnt have happened between friends. Xena nodded, understanding more than she wanted. Gabrielle believes that intimacies should not occur between friends.
"Alcestas practically ran away from me that day and then I didnt see her for days. I went by her parents house, but she was too sick to come out one day, too busy doing chores another. She was obviously avoiding me. I was furious. I was very angry with myself, with the game we had played, with her reaction. I had told Alcestas stories about the Amazons and how two women sometimes lived together as one. I was sure that she thought I was some weird, mythical Amazon."
"Little did you know about the Amazons, huh?"
"I had lost the only good thing about my life in Poteidaia. I felt . . . " Gabrielle shook her head trying to call up all of those feelings. "Like an outcast. I wanted to disappear. Instead, I was preparing for another engagement party."
"Oh, Gabrielle." Xena knew how it felt to be an outcast. She knew better than Gabrielle could ever imagine. She wanted to throw her arm around the bards shoulder, draw her in to comfort her, but decided it best to keep her distance. She listened as Gabrielle continued the story.
* * * * *
Perdicas cousins were visiting the village and her family would be entertaining her soon to be cousins-in-law for the evening. It was the last thing she wanted to do. While Hecuba and Lila prepared the nights meal, Gabrielle stowed away in the room she shared with her sister. She couldnt bear another party, another set of well wishes from friends and family. Gabrielle couldnt remember a time when she was more miserable.
Hecuba wiped her floured hands on the bottom of her skirt as she entered the room. Seeing her daughter lying on her stomach, hugging her pillow, sprawled across the bed, tugged at her heart. This was a scene she would miss when Gabrielle left. She was certain her daughter was cooking up another story, letting her imagination run wild.
"Gabrielle? You should bathe and do your hair up for tonight. Youll want to look especially pretty."
Gabrielle turned to face her mom and Hecuba saw for the first time that Gabrielle had been crying.
"What is it? Whats wrong, Gabrielle?"
"I dont want to marry."
Hecuba sat on the bed and rubbed her eldests back. "Gabrielle, sometimes we have to do things we dont think we can. Its part of growing up. Perdicas is a good man and hell be a good husband and one day . . . " she chuckled, then continued, "a good father to many beautiful children."
"But why me? Why now? Why cant I decide whom I want to spend the rest of my life with?"
"You know honey, many boys have come by to discuss you with your father. They know youre a good catch. Your father chose someone who would also be a good catch. He wants whats best for you. Look, maybe we should have had this talk long ago."
Gabrielle sat up and her mother took her hand.
"Honey, I didnt love your father. He was far too blunt for me, ill-tempered and demanding. I remember telling my friends that I hoped it would be anyone other than Herodotus, then my father made the announcement. Suddenly he was my betrothed and I wanted to throw myself in front of a wagon. What kind of husband would he be? Your grandparents told me hed be a good provider and Id eventually learn to love him."
For as long as Gabrielle could remember her parents had always presented a united front. Hecuba never disagreed with him, never spoke back. She was loyal, even when Herodotus was mean and cold.
"But you love him now?"
"I. . . respect him and care deeply for him. He loves you and Lila. I know he doesnt say it, Gabrielle, but hes so proud that youre one of the few women in town who can read and write." Hecuba shook her head. "Perdicas is of good humor. Hed walk through fire for you. What about him makes you so unhappy?"
"Hes not the one, mom. Hes not *the one*. I dont love him."
"Do you love someone else?"
* * * * *
Once again, at a crucial point in the story, they were interrupted. Those Amazons have the worst timing in the known world, Xena thought. The Queens entourage entered with barely a pause after their knock. Ephiny, as usual headed up the team.
Never had she believed her friend had been in love with Perdicas, but Alcestas, well, that was possible. Certainly, the feelings were there.
"Gabrielle, while youre getting prepared, I thought we might go over what youll be doing."
Quickly, two Amazons began to undress Gabrielle while others poured countless buckets of water into the tub placed discreetly behind a wooden screen. She turned to see Xena looking lost in the chaos, but she also saw something else, maybe disapproval. Yes, it was disapproval. She lowered her eyes as she shimmied out of her skirt and when she looked up again, Xena was gone.
* * * * *
The warrior somehow found herself standing at the door of the Initiates hut, her mind muddied with a million thoughts. It was part of her mission to make things right, seek redemption for past misdeeds and setting things right would have to include bringing Alcestas and Gabrielle together again. Gabrielles reaction to Maidia was strong and now Xena had to know.
It made perfect sense, the gods had dropped Gabrielle at my feet. Which one was responsible or had they worked together against me? I let Gabrielle into my life, thinking that shed tire of me or fear my darkness and go back home. But Gabrielle hadnt, and the nuisance became a friend, the friend became a best friend, and then I fell in love. At least I fooled the gods, I never told Gabrielle. So, I fell in love with her, but no one was the wiser, especially Gabrielle. Ill get over her. She wasnt convinced.
Xena knocked and waited.
"I need to talk to Maidia," she informed the woman who had answered.
"Yes. Just a moment."
Seconds later, Maidia appeared in the door frame. "Hi. You asked for me?"
"Look, this is gonna sound like a strange question, but did you once walk with a limp?"
Unconsciously, Maidia ran a hand down her right thigh and shifted her weight to her left leg. She wondered what the question could possibly be about. "A limp?"
"Your right leg." Xena said in confirmation, drawing her lips into her mouth, staring at the hand which remained on Maidias thigh.
"Yes. How did you know? When I first came to this village, just before I began my training, the healer re-set it. She had to break it again, but its like new now."
The answer made Xenas mission easier, but it broke her heart just the same. It was a struggle to get the next question out and it was asked in a whisper. "And your given name is Alcestas?"
The Initiate tilted her head in question. This was all quite strange. "Yes. How did you know that? Have we met before? Ive traveled a lot. Ive been on the road for over two summers. I would have thought Id remember someone like you." She smiled warmly, almost flirtatiously at Xena.
"Can you step out here? We need to talk."
"Im still getting ready for tonight, but if its important . . . "
Maidia stepped out of the hut, closing the door behind her. She and Xena walked toward an open field away from the center of the village.
"What is it?"
"Its about your Queen."
Of course, Maidia assumed that she would be placed on a special royal guard duty or was being singled out to perform a particular act for the Queen. Xena was being nothing short of mysterious, walking them farther and farther into the field. "Hey, whats this about?"
"The Queen, I just told you that."
The warrior was going to hold onto the bard for as long as she could, to cherish the last few moments of their friendship. Xena knew everything was about to change. If Maidia felt the same way Gabrielle obviously did, they would probably be joined within the next few moons. Xena would be alone on the road once again, without Gabrielle, without her guide, friend and the only person she had ever loved and been in love with. Everything was about to come to an end for her and so she prolonged the inevitable.
"I have to prepare for the ceremony. Xena?"
"Your Queen . . . " the words caught in her throat. "Your Queen is Gabrielle of Poteidaia."
And the same swoon that overtook Gabrielle earlier in the day, now brought Maidia to her knees. "Gab . . . Gabrielle?" she whispered, while pulling herself up with Xenas help.
"Yes. Shes told me about you, about the two of you." Xena was glad for the darkness because her eyes were tearing more than she would have anticipated.
"Gabrielle? The Amazon Queen? But I thought she was still in Poteidaia. Married to Perdicas. What happened?"
Xena turned to face the young woman. She now had more information. Alcestas left Poteidaia first. After Gabrielle became engaged and prior to the bard joining the warrior on the road. This girl left first! No wonder Gabrielle wanted out of her village. She wanted to find her. "I think thats for Gabrielle to tell you.
* * * * *
As Gabrielle was bathed, then dressed, her duties as Queen barely entered her thoughts. It was of an evening almost three winters ago.
The cousins droned on and on. Gabrielle smiled, laughed at their jokes, asked about their village, spoke of the government in Athens. She told a few stories, yet the evening would not come to a graceful end. Perdicas oldest cousin requested another toast and mugs were lifted again. Thank the gods she was drinking only cider.
"To Perdicas and Gabrelle. May your marriage be long and happy."
"To Perdicas and Gabrielle," the other families said in unison and drank.
"Perdicas, youve got a beautiful woman, there."
"Thank you. She is quite beautiful." Perdicas just beamed. He glowed with love and admiration for his soon-to-be wife. Gabrielle smiled weakly. "Shes beautiful and smart and you know what else? She has the gift of prophecy."
"Ha-ha. The gift of prophecy. Just like you, my dear," the cousin said to his wife who sat quietly at a corner table. "Honey, what do you see in their future? What do you see in Gabrelles future?"
His wife stared at the young woman for several moments. She whispered, "I see a tall, dark, stranger."
The room hushed at this pronouncement, then Perdicas laughed nervously. He reached out for Gabrielle, placing a possessive arm around her shoulders. "Well, not a stranger. Right, Gabrielle? Not a stranger." Gabrielle nodded, locking eyes with the quiet woman in the corner.
"Give us a kiss. Give us a kiss," the younger, drunk cousin slurred. "Cmon Perdy and Gabby give us a kiss."
Soon the entire room, Perdicas family, Gabrielles parents and sister and the five visiting cousins were shouting at the couple. "Give us a kiss. Give us a kiss."
Perdicas shrugged and beamed again at his betrothed. "Weve got to give them what they want." He drew Gabrielle into an embrace and kissed her meekly on the lips. Immediately, Gabrielle pulled away, lowering her head in embarrassment and hiding her anger.
* * * * *
The drummers had been performing all day and evening, but now the beat changed and Gabrielle knew that it was time for her appearance. The door to the Queens hut opened and the Queen of the Amazons stood in all of her royal glory. Xena had only seen her dressed in ceremonial attire a couple of times and now, as before, she found her best friend breathtaking. Xena and the Amazons stood with mouths agape, watching the Queens procession descend from her hut, enter the center of the village and move to the stage where Xena, as champion and three guards stood waiting. Gabrielle seemed to glide up the stairs and onto the stage and the warrior couldnt control the ear to ear grin that appeared on her face.
Gabrielle nodded a thank you to her entourage and waited as the Amazons settled into their places.
Xena was overcome. "You look so beautiful," she whispered very close to Gabrielles ear. So close that it caused the Queen to shiver with an arousal she normally kept well hidden.
"Thank you. You do, too."
"Im dressed in my usual leathers."
"You always look beautiful in them."
Xenas face warmed considerably.
The drumming slowly faded out and the Initiates were introduced as a group. One of them shouted, "A Tribute to Our Queen. A Reenactment of the Fight For Leadership."
For the next hour Gabrielle sat on her Amazon throne and watched as the women retold the story of Velascas royal claim and the fight for ambrosia. There were times when Gabrielle was relieved to feel Xenas warm hand on her shoulder, giving it a squeeze of comfort. The Queen suspected that those horrible days being portrayed so realistically would be forever etched in her memory, raw and real, frightening and alarming. She realized the Initiates wanted to honor her, but she would have been happier if they had chosen another tale.
The Amazon audience applauded and many nodded their heads in remembrance of the events still fresh in their minds. Some Amazons were still healing from the wounds suffered, others were attempting to reestablish friendships that had been severed when Amazons chose sides.
Finally, Gabrielle was on. She intended to bring drama and passion to a common, traditional ceremony. This was her first "crossing over" ceremony and it would be remembered.
"Initiates! You come to this village today well trained in the ways of the Amazon." Her voice rang out clear and strong. "You come to this village today to receive the greatest of gifts from a tribe of women who will become your family, your friends, perhaps your mates. This gift is your sense of purpose, your sense of belonging, your future. As your Queen I am here to bestow upon each of you a special virtue that you must maintain with honesty, commitment, and dedication. Together, these virtues create your destinies, combined with your Amazon sisters throughout the world, these virtues make up the destiny of our Nation. This is a heavy responsibility, for an inability to protect your special virtue weakens the Nation. The strength of the Amazon Nation depends on the strength of each of you individually, the nine of you collectively, and the entire tribe of women standing here today, the women in our thoughts who are not nearby, and those who will come after you." Gabrielles voice boomed through her mask. Her many hours of practice had paid off.
"Are you ready to accept your virtues?"
"Yes, we are Queen of the Amazons," the masked Initiates said in unison.
"Please form your Initiate line and would each of you join me on the stage."
One by one, the Initiates ascended the stairs and knelt in front of the Queen.
Ephiny stood beside Gabrielle and holding a scroll said the first name. "Dara."
The first Initiate lifted her mask and stared up at her Queen. "Dara, your virtue is that of Humility. Do you accept this as your Amazon-given role to always fulfill?"
"I do my Queen."
"Lead your sisters down this path following a victory in battle. For you must never treat a hard-earned fight as your right. Honor our Goddess Artemis at all times."
The second in line, removed her mask and held it at her side while gazing up at Gabrielle. "Galia, your virtue is that of Honesty and Trustworthiness. Do you accept this as your Amazon-given role to always fulfill?"
"I do my Queen."
"Always turn to this virtue in times of negotiation. Be known as an Amazon who is fair and just; an Amazon who does whats best for her Nation. Resolve conflict knowing that Artemis, our Goddess is there to hold you when you falter."
This part of the ceremony was going smoothly. Gabrielle knew what she was doing, and did it with ease and charm. Ephiny speculated that for once the ceremony wouldnt go over two hours. A first for the village. She had predicted this just before the fourth Initiate joined them on the stage.
Slowly, the white-blonde woman slid her mask up to rest on top of her head. "Maidia, your virtue is . . . your vir . . . " Behind her mask, Gabrielle blinked several times.
By the Gods, this was Alcestas. I cant be wrong.
"Gabrielle?" Maidia whispered.
Ephiny cleared her throat showing various levels of displeasure.
Time stopped. Xenas jaws clenched, fingers bent inward in fists.
Somehow, who knows how, the ceremony continued. The Queen made it through all nine Initiates with many false starts, forgotten words, long pauses and a quivering voice. Gabrielles eyes seldom left Maidia/Alcestas even as she bestowed virtue after virtue upon the new members of her Tribe. The nine new Amazons represented Humility, Honesty, Self-Discipline, Faith, Loyalty, Respect, Prudence, Compassion and Perseverance. The latter was the virtue that had been stammered out to Maidia.
Xena was certain she might collapse on stage from an inability to breathe. A knot had formed deep in her throat and her air passages were virtually closed. It was sheer willpower that allowed her to remain on stage, playing her role as champion.
As dusk faded into night, the end of the ceremony was received with cheers, applause and well wishes for the nine novice Amazons and the entire Nation. Gabrielle elegantly descended the stage in royal fashion. When she hit the ground, she tossed her mask aside, and ran like the young, child-woman she was two summers ago to the group of new Amazons. The circle parted and Gabrielle and Alcestas stood, face to face at last.
"By the gods."
"Gab. Oh, Gab."
The two hugged for a long time and finally their upper bodies separated and they held each other around their waists, gazing into each others eyes.
Ephiny walked down the stairs from the stage and stood next to Xena who had suddenly lost all ability to move.
"You all right?"
As Gabrielle led Alcestas to the Queens hut, Amazons struck the stage, disassembling the planks and beams while others moved long benches to the center of the village for the evening party. It was a warm night, so dinner would be served outside as well.
Xena closed her eyes and thought, See how Im forgotten? She didnt even look my way. Okay, so Ive done my thing, She wanted to find this woman and I was just a means to an end. Fine, fine, fine.
The warrior hung around the village for some time, somehow getting in the way of the Amazon carpenters, cooks, and everyone else. Woman after woman bumped into her and quickly followed up with a polite "excuse me." It was as if she were invisible. She certainly didnt feel like she belonged there anymore. Finally, she simply rested against a hut, a hut that directly faced the Queens dwelling.
She stood there, staring at the door and window where behind them were Gabrielle, the woman she loved with all her heart, and Alcestas, the woman Gabrielle loved. It was dark and though it was a star-filled night, to Xena, the sky seemed all black. The festive sounds of drum beats and lyres being strummed seemed dull. Instead of being just a few paces away, the music sounded faint, belonging to a village far from the Amazon Nation. The smell of baking bread and roasted pork which were usually so aromatic never penetrated Xenas nostrils. Everything seemed bleak, paler, dim--everything but the candle glowing brightly in the Queens hut. Xena wanted to leave, but she was mesmerized. What was going on in there?
"Trying to set Gabrielles hut on fire?"
"The way youre looking, you could set a blaze."
"Do you want to talk about it?" Ephiny waited for a response, but received none. "So Gabrielle knows her? I dont see how that has any effect on what you two have."
"Gabrielle cares for you. Shes just visiting an old friend."
Xena pulled her eyes from the hut and turned to Ephiny. "Shes more than a friend. Shes her former lover."
Ephiny nodded sympathetically and it was now her turn to stare at the hut. Xena joined in the look and just as she did, she saw the candle being snuffed out and the hut went black.
* * * * *
While Xena was becoming increasingly lost in her fantasy about what was going on in the Queens hut, Gabrielle and Alcestas visited inside. They talked about old times, where they had been and the adventures each had experienced. Gabrielle had walked in the shadow of a great warrior. She had, of course become not only an Amazon, but Amazon royalty not long after leaving her village. She had seen things she couldnt have dreamed. Alcestas on the other hand had been on the run, always trying to stay a few paces ahead of slavers, rapists, and bandits. She had worked in kitchens, taverns, and a fishermans boat, often performing back-breaking tasks for a meal. She stayed hungry because there had been many days she had done without. With that information, Gabrielle stuck her head out and requested a tray of food be brought to the hut immediately.
As they sat and ate, Alcestas continued her tale of how she had roamed Greece looking for a place to call home. She knew she had the option of returning to Poteidaia, but what was the point. "I just couldnt. Not with you marrying Perdicas. To be without you and to see you unhappy would have destroyed me. But you ended up marrying him anyway. Why?"
"For all the wrong reasons. I kept looking for an escape. I thought he needed me."
"An escape? From whom? Xena? Has she hurt you?"
"No, no. Never. Shes very protective, very good to me. I was still so unsure what I wanted or how to go about getting it. I thought Perdicas was the answer. I now know he wasnt. Ive found the answer, I think." Her last sentence was said almost to herself.
Alcestas smiled broadly. "Really? Me, too." She looked down at the tray of food and picked over it with her finger, while thinking. "I was lost until I met an Amazon. She asked me what my name was and I told her she could call me whatever she wanted, they were her dinars. She liked the name Maidia."
"What? Her dinars?"
"I had to live. I only did it with women, I swear. And that Amazon and I became close. Shes a friend."
"You sold your body for dinars?"
"Sometimes dinars, sometimes for supper, or clothes, or even just so Id have a place to sleep and be out of the rain and snow."
Gabrielle was in shock. "My gods." Gabrielle stood and began to pace.
Alcestas lowered her head in shame, then raised it in false pride. "I had to survive, Gab. There arent many ways a woman can out there. I didnt have a protector like Xena nor did I want to be her. Sure, Im strong enough, but I didnt want every day to be a battle with a sword or staff." She stood as well and trailed behind Gabrielle trying to explain. "The first time I did it, the woman was so nice. It almost seemed like a date. I was hungry and tired, so she fed me, then led me to her room in this small inn. I was planning to sleep, but that wasnt what was on her mind. The next morning, she was gone and on the table next to the bed, a stack of dinars and a good luck token. It was obviously meant for me. It was that easy."
Gabrielle turned and faced her. "That easy? Alcestas, I thought . . ."
The new Amazon touched her old friends hand. "Yes, it was easy, yet it was the hardest thing I could do. Ive been with a lot of women Gabrielle, but my heart has always belonged to only one."
The Queen turned away, she knew where this was heading, but Alcestas reached out and swung her around to look into her eyes. "I never stopped loving you, wanting you. A few times I would imagine that I was with you, when I was with those women, but it felt wrong. So I learned to empty my head of all thoughts. And it was when I was alone, fishing or eating wildberries, or dreaming that I thought of you."
With those warm hazel eyes gazing into hers, Gabrielle felt time slipping away. As much as she loved her life with Xena, she had a physical longing that jumped to the surface when she looked at Alcestas. Perhaps, it was just the memory.
* * * * *
Hecuba was worried about her daughter. Gabrielle had always had a more than healthy appetite, but she wouldnt eat. Normally, she talked incessantly, but now had no voice. She moped around in the barn, was methodical with her chores instead of her usual hurry up and get it done attitude. At the butcher, Hecuba had run into Alcestas and begged her to come by the house to see her friend. Whatever was going on with Gabrielle, Alcestas could help.
Apollos chariot had crossed the sky and it was well into evening when Alcestas finally arrived at the house. Hecuba practically pulled her into her home and hugged her tightly.
"Im so glad you could come over. Gabrielle needs her friends."
"Sure. No problem."
"Ive made plans to work on a wedding quilt with Perdicas mother. Im on my way over. Gabrielles father is at the tavern and I dont expect him home until late. Lila is staying over at Seraphins tonight, so youre welcome to stay here. If your father wont mind? Id like to have someone with Gabrielle."
"No, he wont mind. I can stay."
Shes in her room. Just go on in."
Gabrielle was in her all too common position on the bed--on her stomach, face buried in the pillow. Her body, drained of tears for she had cried all evening.
"Hi, Gabrielle," Alcestas said as she opened the door. Gabrielle turned to the door and her face lit up at the presence of her friend. She scrambled into a sitting position, then stood.
"I wasnt sure you wanted to see me again."
"Youve got to be kidding?"
Alcestas walked into the room, looking around as if shed never seen it before. For some reason, she was finding it difficult to make eye contact with her friend.
"I hear Lilas at Seraphins."
"Oh, probably. Ever since I became betrothed, Lilas been taking applications for a new sister. She and Seraphin are pretty much inseparable. I think Lila likes her because she can boss her around. If Lila tells her to jump, which Lila probably has by now, Seraphin will ask how high."
That was the ice-breaker they needed. They were no longer freezing each other out, but there was still this invisible wall to break through. The friends moved closer, standing awkwardly in the room, exchanging pleasantries.
"How are you? What have you been doing?"
"Not much. What about you?"
"Still getting married. Preparing for that."
Alcestas nodded. "I heard, you know, the other night. You had a rowdy bunch here."
"Perdicas relatives were bloody drunk."
"I think the whole village heard them yelling, give us a kiss." she said like a jovial drunk, then turned bright red.
"Hmm. That was fun," sarcasm dripped from Gabrielle.
"No. It was annoying."
"Did you? Kiss?"
"We had to. They wouldnt drop it until we did."
"Whatd you think?"
Gabrielle inhaled deeply and moved a step closer to her friend. "That the kiss couldnt compare to one of yours," she said softly.
Alcestas closed the gap between them and took Gabrielle in her arms. Instantly they both knew that this kiss would be different from the others theyd shared. There was a sense of urgency about it. The desire had been building for both of them. Gabrielle had spent days replaying the last kiss on the hill. It was the only thing that got her through her days.
It was Gabrielles tongue that ventured out and into Alcestas' mouth first. She pressed Alcestas short, muscular body into hers. Her hands moved across her friends face, slid down her back, moving down until one hand rested on her lower back. She did what came naturally, tried to swallow Alcestas. Gabrielle broke away long enough to catch her breath and move them across the room and onto her bed.
Alcestas lowered Gabrielle onto the bed and then stretched out on top of her. Their kisses continued and Alcestas hands seemed to be everywhere--in Gabrielles hair, on her face, tickling her throat. Wherever Alcestas' hand went, her lips were soon to follow. She licked Gabrielles neck, kissed her collarbone, stretched the blue material of her top to sprinkle kisses on her chest. Gabrielle panted. The two young women hadnt a clue as to what to do nor how to do it, so they did what they had seen before. Kissing, kissing and more kissing. Many hours passed and the two kissed as if they had not only invented it, but were trying to perfect it.
Gabrielle could feel her body respond as it had the last time, but now there was more. Her hips were moving in a way that was new to her. They were pushing into Alcestas. She also felt something else. Between her legs, she was wet and that dampness was increasing with every nibble of her flesh, with every caress to her face.
"Stop," Gabrielle said between breaths.
"Did I do something?" Alcestas lifted her body off of Gabrielles, stood and crossed over to the other bed.
"Yeah." Gabrielle smiled. She paused, then added, "I mean, no." Gabrielle sat up and faced her friend. "No, you didnt do anything. Alcestas, Im all keyed up right now. Ive got so much on my mind and Im having all these feelings that I cant explain."
"I just need to step back and take a breath." Gabrielle stared at Alcestas with a warm smile and evident confusion.
"Maybe we should go to bed?"
Their knees practically touched as they sat in the dark trying to figure out what the other was saying. Gabrielle was trembling. "You want to go to bed?"
"If you do."
"Are you tired?"
"No. Im confused. I just need to think."
Alcestas inhaled, then exhaled deeply. "Lets go to sleep." She pulled her legs up, then stretched out in Lilas bed. "Well talk tomorrow. Goodnight."
"Goodnight." Gabrielle continued to sit, alternately staring into space and staring at her friend.
* * * * *
That night seemed like another lifetime, but all of those feelings raged and stormed through Alcestas body. She pulled Gabrielle to her. "Ive thought about that night every single day. I think about you always. I remember it all so vividly." She placed her hands on either side of Gabrielles face and kissed her. It was one of those sweet, tender, innocent kisses, but Gabrielle wasnt fooled, she felt the hidden passion behind it, knew that Alcestas was waiting for the go-ahead.
Gabrielle broke away. "I. . . cant do this."
"Why? Because of my past?"
"No, of course not."
"Because youre my Queen? Im your subject? The Queen can take a consort, a lover."
"Its not that."
"Please, Gab. I remember it all. You know, I heard you that night." Alcestas stared into the Queens eyes, waiting for that comment to register.
Instantly, a flush spread across the Queens body and her face reddened with the notion of an embarrassing moment. "You what?"
"I heard you pleasuring yourself. I wanted to reach out to you, but I was so scared. Instead I listened and I touched myself, too. I pretended it was you."
* * * * *
Gabrielle had pushed herself back onto the bed, turned on her stomach and tried to sleep. That wasnt happening, however, and her eyes opened again to glance at Alcestas, who had rolled over and was facing the window. What a great kisser, she thought. Gabrielle pushed her pillow lower in the bed until it was just below her abdomen and let instinct take over. She began to grind her body into it and that felt incredibly good. Licking her lips, she stared at Alcestas silky hair, her creamy shoulders just visible under a peasant top, a bare calf dangling off the bed. She pushed into the pillow more, increasing the pressure and the rate of speed her hips thrust. Gabrielle groaned as quietly as possible and felt a fire building inside of her. She crooked her index finger and stuck it in her mouth. Biting down, she continued this unusual ride, staring at her friend, then closing her eyes to focus on the burning desire igniting between her legs. Her sturdy bed frame began to creak under the movements, however, nothing could make her stop or slow her down. Gabrielle was on the way to something, she just didnt know what. The need she had felt all evening was finally being satisfied. Everything felt different. Curiosity bested her, so she moved her hand between her legs and inside her breeches and was surprised to feel a thick coating of liquid on her fingers. This hands index finger slid around her inner lips, then stumbled upon a nub which seemed to be the center of all this new passion. Just touching it lightly caused her to buck. Quickly, she moved her hand away. She bucked again and again, hips ground into the pillow, rose slightly, then pushed down again. Her fingers returned to the flow of passion and quickly she moved one finger over the hardness she had discovered. Her finger slid up and down in a heated, frenzied dance. She was able to suppress a low moan, but the next one slipped from her mouth and so did the next. She moved forward, pressed her center into the softness of the pillow, squeezing it between her legs, and then it happened. "Oh, gods," she said aloud, but softly. Gabrielle bit down hard on her finger as she exploded, her body jerking. "Oh. . . oh. . . oh." Her quiet pants were somewhat vocal, but she couldnt help it. Her heart was racing and her breathing came in rapid, shallow breaths. Slowly she extracted her hand from between her legs. She took one breath after another, inhaling and exhaling as quietly as she could, while marveling at what had just happened. Her body continued to twitch and contract and she even became excited by that. It felt so wonderful. Gabrielle was sated, but quickly realized that feeling was temporary. She wanted something more. She gazed at Alcestas sleeping softly next to her, then she turned over and faced the other wall. Gods, whats wrong with me? she wondered.
* * * * *
Oh my gods, Gabrielle thought. "I. . .I. . ."
"Gab, it was a normal reaction. We had been kissing for a long time. If I had known what to do, believe me, I would have. I would have joined you in your bed. I would have pleased you." Alcestas gave her a seductive smile. "I know what to do now." She bent in and kissed her again and just as Gabrielle had guessed, the innocence was gone, replaced by desire. Just as Alcestas lips touched Gabrielles, the Queens thoughts turned to Xena and in her minds eye, soft blue eyes stared lovingly into Gabrielles green.
"I cant," she said, breaking away. "I cant do this. We cant do this." Gabrielle quickly moved across the room.
Alcestas followed her, walking past the table where a sole candle illuminated the hut. She blew it out. "Yes, we can. Weve waited too long. Were here together for a reason, Gabrielle."
In the dark, Gabrielle listened to the voice of her old friend and kept moving keeping a bit of distance between them. "No, you dont understand."
Alcestas was surely a natural Amazon, for she had moved beside Gabrielle without a sound and once again encircled her body and drew her close. "We can." She whispered in her ear.
* * * * *
Xena stalked out of the village, turning only once at the edge of the living area to glance back at the darkened Queens hut.
She berated herself for having never spoken of her feelings, then praised her control in that area. She thought about Perdicas and how jealous she had been of him, but that didnt compare to the jealousy over Gabrielles feelings for that woman. She cursed "that woman." That woman, that woman. Sneaking up into the tree like that. Kissing Gabrielle! Maidia, Alcestas, whatever. An Amazon! The Amazons! Gods, how I hate this place.
After a long walk, she wasnt feeling much better. She knew it had been too much to hope for that the Amazons would have called it a night. The festival was in full swing. These Amazons party like Apollos chariot isnt going to travel tomorrow. What she needed was some place where she could be alone, wallow in her sense of loss, remind herself how she wasnt deserving of love. She just wanted to get to her hut and drink until she fell asleep. Her attempt to fade into the background failed. Eponin caught up to her, grabbing her upper arm.
"Xena, come join us."
"I dont feel like it."
Eponin nodded, squeezing her lips together in understanding, but not accepting Xenas dismissal. "Sorry, Queens orders. She wants you to come sit with us."
I am so sick of these Amazons making demands, telling me how and what I need to do. "Look, I dont want to sit."
"No," her voice boomed largely and all Amazons turned her way to hear the beginnings of a confrontation. Gabrielle, now dressed in casual Amazon clothing, a beige skirt and a brown and yellow halter top, looked at Xena too, giving her the warmest, most loving smile Xena could recall. "All right." Fool.
Xena sat on the very edge of the circle on the end of one of the makeshift benches. Gabrielle sat next to Ephiny and their royal guards surrounded them. The warrior noticed that Alcestas/Maidia sat with her eight sisters who had recently become Amazons. Its certainly an Alpha letter day for her. She becomes an Amazon and gets back together with the love of her life. How nice.
The large fire glowed brightly, highlighting the soft smiles, rugged good looks, innocent expressions, wrinkled faces, worldly eyes of the various women sitting around. Xena knew that she could probably take any of them to bed with no more than a glance and gesture. She could have her pick, but the only one she wanted was the blonde woman who was Queen. But maybe tonight she would choose an Amazon to help her forget. No, Xena wanted the bard, the friend whom she traveled with, the sweet woman who had turned her life around. Her eyes narrowed in anger again and her need to vent was becoming desperate. The warrior felt the hairs stand up on the back of her neck and knew she was being watched. When she turned she discovered Alcestas glaring at her, frowning and making no attempt to conceal the look. Alcestas crossed her arms over her chest. Neither would relent.
Gabrielle cleared her throat and both Alcestas and Xena were surprised to find her standing at the front of the semicircle, smiling at her subjects and friends. "This has been a day I wont soon forget." She looked at all of the Initiates, but Alcestas eyes burned into her. "I met up with an old friend whom Ive longed to see again. But today, I also welcomed nine new women into the Nation and I speak for all Amazons--we *love* you. You are family."
The Amazons cheered.
"I shared this day with all of you and my best friend, Xena who claims she isnt Amazon, but we all have our doubts."
Amazons laughed while Xenas expression went blank to mask her lingering guilt of actions many winters earlier.
"As you all know, Im a bard. When we journey to the Nation, it is usually due to pressing business. I seldom get to share my stories with you. Tonight, I have a story to tell. Im going to tell you a story about a young woman. Lets call her . . . Gabrielle."
"This is a story about a woman named Gabrielle and how she came to leave her home village of Poteidaia."
They laughed again.
"First, you should know that Gabrielle had a childhood friend named Alcestas who later went on to rename herself Maidia."
All eyes turned to the new Amazon, then back to their Queen.
"Now, Gabrielle and Alcestas had been friends since birth, but in their eighteenth summer, something changed. For one, Gabrielle became betrothed and two, she and Alcestas discovered the joy of kissing--*each other.*"
The Amazons broke down, pounding on the bench, slapping each others back, laughing heartily. Xena bit the inside of her lower lip. With me as her audience? I can't believe this.
"One night, not too long before Gabrielle left her village, they spent the entire evening kissing on Gabrielles bed. They kissed as if the village planned on banning the activity."
"Is that all they did?" a woman shouted from a bench.
"Yes, thats it. It seems thats about all they knew they could do."
Sighs were heard all around, a few whispered.
"Gabrielle was scared because she was betrothed to this guy . . . Perdicas, but her mind wasnt on her wedding, it was on Alcestas lips."
Gabrielle stared at her old friend, who returned the look with a smile.
"After that night of kissing, they really couldnt get enough of each other. How were they going to stop this? Why would they want to? Gabrielle and Alcestas had become very resourceful, finding numerous excuses to be alone together, creating diversions so they might meet while shopping, then sneak away for long kisses."
The Amazons were an interactive bunch, repeatedly interrupting to laugh and applaud the young kissing couple.
"They walked to *their* special place, a clearing overlooking a raging river and as had always been the case, they talked about everything under Apollos sun and Artemis moon. But now, those discussions always led to serious kissing sessions.
One sunny day, both girls had rushed through their chores so that they might spend some time together. They had been sitting on a blanket in their clearing laughing and basking in the sun. Both of them had demurely raised their skirts to the knees to tan their pale legs.
Now Alcestas had a crooked leg. She had broken her leg several summers earlier and it hadnt healed properly. Gabrielle looked at that leg and asked, Does that hurt?
My old loft injury? Nah. The healer did a lousy job setting it, huh? Look at how the bone sticks out.
Can I feel?
Yeah, go ahead.
She moved over and lightly touched Alcestas' leg, but quickly withdrew her hand when she felt the hardness of the bone. Did I hurt you?
Continued - Part 2 (Final)
Return to The Bard's Corner