For disclaimers, please see part one
Gabrielle slipped into their hut to find Xena methodically sharpening her sword. The familiar position of the powerful body, watching the utter gracefulness of Xena's hands pushing the stone against the blade, brought a smile to the bard.
Xena glanced up with an expectant look on her face and returned the smile.
Gabrielle shrugged. "What would you say if I asked you to go along with her and make sure everything went okay?"
"Don't worry, you're not gonna ask that." The warrior put her blade away.
"Nah, I guess not. Still..." Gabrielle slumped down by Xena and was rewarded with a hug.
"It's the best choice, Gabrielle. And don't chastise yourself. There weren't any good choices, just as you said."
"I hate this part of the job."
Gabrielle felt Xena chuckle. "Tell me that again, Gabrielle, when you've been here a few days without Ephiny around."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It's a lousy job most of the time."
Tedious treaty meetings were the glamorous part. Deciding who would be on wood-gathering duty, settling disputes between well-meaning cooks with very different tastes, advising whoever walked in the door about their problems personal or otherwise... "I'll survive."
* * *
The way her hair flipped around across her shoulders and back, the way she shifted her weight accentuating first one hip and then the other, the way her fingers curled into fists or gesticulated wildly, splayed out as far as she could force them, tendons tight and popping, all entertained Xena. Here the entourage was about ready to make its ceremonial exit from the village and Gabrielle still hadn't finished letting Ephiny have a piece of her mind.
When Ephiny had informed Gabrielle that Solari and Eponin would be staying behind on her orders, the bard blew her top. Ephiny had calmly explained that she didn't feel comfortable leaving the queen without the proper protection, which everyone knew was absurd given her dark-haired champion. Gabrielle just pointed at Xena, and said "With her around? You aren't serious."
Ephiny dismissed the argument and said she'd be taking Opis, the newly-crowned strongest Amazon. Gabrielle stomped around and grumbled until Ephiny left to do her last-minute errands.
Xena, for all her ability to take over and get the upper hand any fight, wasn't willing to step into this one. Besides, it would be nice to have Eponin and Solari around. The forced confinement in the village might dull the fine edge of her skills, but with Eponin and Solari to play with, it wouldn't be as bad. And Xena had every confidence in Opis' abilities. If Opis and Ephiny couldn't take care of a situation, having either Eponin or Solari along--or even both of them--wouldn't make any appreciable difference.
Gabrielle needed to release a little of her tension. Xena was sorry Ephiny had to be on the receiving end, but they'd both feel better soon enough for having said everything they needed to before the entourage left.
Finally, Gabrielle stepped back, hands clasped behind her back. Xena overheard their good-byes. They were just concerned about each other, letting that consideration take precedence over their own needs. They parted only after a long hug.
"Get that straightened out?" Xena bent over to ask her as the bard moped in.
"No." She grumbled and studied the dirt swirls she made with the toe of her boot. "She is so stubborn."
"I'd say it was a pretty close tie." Xena winked at the bard and drew a smile from her.
"I guess so."
Gabrielle relaxed a bit. Her decision making was over. Plans were in motion. Xena knew she always felt better when a direction had been taken; it became time to focus and get the job done.
Agave approached them. "Queen Gabrielle." She bowed slightly. "It has been an honor to meet you and the members of your tribe. And I am grateful that you have permitted the regent to journey with me to my home. It is my only hope that we may extend to her our hospitality in equal or greater measure than I had the good fortune of experiencing here from you."
Xena bit on her tongue to keep from laughing. This woman was rich. She could begin a sentence having no idea where it would go, only that it wouldn't say anything meaningful, and then drag it around the whole barn before finding a way to end it.
"And you, Xena..." A sly smile lit Agave's lips. "I hope we have more time to spend together in the future."
"That would be up to the queen." Without averting her penetrating glare, Xena bowed slightly to Agave. She peeked at Gabrielle whose eyes where shut tight and whose neck was beginning to color slightly, trembling from laughter she fought to keep contained. She'll have my hide later, but it will have been worth it, Xena mused.
Gabrielle shook it off and boldly extended her hand. "It's been a pleasure to meet you, too. Take good care of Ephiny, okay?"
Agave narrowed her eyes. "Of course."
Xena made a mental note to compliment Gabrielle's political savvy. Who needs the bull when you have the wherewithal to be honest? Agave will never understand that.
They watched Agave mount a borrowed horse and ride off ahead of Ephiny and Opis. The Amazons cheered as they wended their way through the village. They were thrilled to see two tribes reunited and to send off Ephiny as their ambassador. Of course, none of them knew about Gabrielle's vision. Xena fervently hoped they would never be forced by circumstances to know about it, either.
But for now, there was a bard to praise. Xena steered her toward their hut, scowling at everyone along the way, doing her best to convince the Amazons that she had important business with the bard. Which she did, in her mind. It just might not have had much in common with what ran through the Amazons' imaginations just then. That was fine with Xena.
* * *
After three dull meetings consisting of nothing more than hearing reports--22 chickens hatched, 78 eggs laid and collected, 7 broken that morning; 44 bolts of heavy woven fabric traded for such a long list of odds and ends that it all ran together into a junk heap; the weekly list of birthdays, petitions for moving huts, leave time, and tree-trimming (Gabrielle could not understand how that had all been lumped together); and even a motion for final approval of the regent's new royal bracer design which Gabrielle insisted they table until Ephiny's return--Gabrielle was exhausted.
She had also overseen the daily sacrifice to Artemis, thankfully not including any animals, and met with the young Amazons who were preparing to choose their apprenticeships. One of them, Bia, went on and on about how strong she was and how the warriors needed her. As much as Gabrielle hated to admit it, there was no other position for Bia but as a guard-in-training.
Nauplia, on the other hand, was as small and frail an Amazon as Gabrielle had ever seen. She was much less focused than Bia, but Gabrielle had already taken a liking to her by the way she could look her in the eye. She was deferential to her queen but not afraid of her, as so many of the young Amazons were. Gabrielle asked Nauplia about her interests and found someone who could have been confused with a young, unfocused, wanderer. But there was a spark behind her eyes, one that betrayed a passion for learning about as many things as possible. Still, young Naupliahad no idea which field to apprentice in. Gabrielle asked kindly if Nauplia could wait a day or two so that the bard could make a better suggestion.
The third one entered the hut to see Gabrielle. "Phrygia?" The bard cocked her head. "What are you doing here?"
"I have come to be given an apprenticeship. It is only right that I offer myself to you."
"But you're our guest." Gabrielle smiled toward the woman. "Please, sit down." Gabrielle studied the green eyes not unlike her own and the faintly freckled skin surrounded by dusky-blonde hair. She wore her hair long and down over her shoulders. Funny, thought the bard, from what I know of Agave, if I had tried to guess which companion she would choose to travel with, I wouldn't have expected her to opt for anyone like Phrygia. This poor girl doesn't look like she has any fighting skills. She was just Agave's pack mule, her errand girl. How sad. "Phrygia, you're not here to work, but tell me, what interests you?"
Phrygia's eyes opened widely. "Excuse me?"
"I'm just curious. If you could do anything in the world, what would it be?"
"I don't know. No one has ever told me what I'm good at."
Gabrielle retrieved two mugs of cider from a table in the corner. She handed one to Phrygia before sitting down. The Kapru Kale's face lit up in genuine surprise when Gabrielle placed the mug in front of her. The bard wondered if anyone in a position of authority had ever done something like that for the girl. "I'm not asking what others have told you to do. I'm wondering what your likes are. Have you ever sat under the stars and just dreamed of what you could be?"
"Um, I guess so."
"So what was it?"
Phrygia dropped her hands into her lap and looked down.
"It's nothing to be embarrassed about, Phrygia. We all have dreams. Sometimes, the more impractical they are, the more precious they are to us." Gabrielle waited, hoping Phrygia would open up to her. "Should I tell you some of mine?"
Phrygia's head popped up. "Yours?"
"Everyone has dreams, Phrygia. When I was a little girl, I mostly thought about telling stories to people. And that's a very important part of my life right now. It didn't seem very plausible when I was little. I was supposed be a farmer's wife and raise a family. But Lila and I used to fashion amazing lives for ourselves." She noticed Phrygia's puzzled expression. "Lila's my sister."
"It's true that you really weren't born an Amazon." Phrygia folded her arms across the table and sat forward in her chair.
"I was raised in Poteidaia. I became an Amazon by rite of caste."
"And they let you be the queen?"
Gabrielle laughed. "Yes, they let me be the queen. But mostly Ephiny runs the place. I'm usually off with Xena."
She's heard many reactions from both friends and strangers to her life with Xena. Some thought she was crazy to trust the most feared warlord in the known world, some thought she was nothing more than a puppy hanging on Xena's heels. But Phrygia's response was much closer to Gabrielle's own feelings about it. "Yeah. Wow." She took a swallow of cider. "Tell me what dreams you've had, Phrygia. Maybe we can find a way to make them come true."
Phrygia's head dropped again. "I, uh..." she stammered and then stopped.
Gabrielle reached out and put her hand on Phrygia's arm. "It must mean a great deal to you."
Phrygia nodded. "But it's dumb."
"No dream is dumb. Sometimes you have to work hard to find a way to make it happen. If it's something that's important to you, it can be worth the effort."
Though her lips quivered, she raised her head to look at Gabrielle. Her nervous voice barely carried enough power for the bard to hear the words just an arm's length away. "The horses we have are so beautiful, so graceful. I've always want to dance among them."
"Horse dancing?" Gabrielle tried to hide her confusion. "What do you mean by that?" she asked gently.
"Queen Gabrielle, I hope that someday you'll be able to see our horses. People come from far away just to look upon them. Some buy them when they can. They're magnificent." Phrygia smiled. "We trade some of the horses for our needs but always keep the strongest and fastest for ourselves. I've never been able to ride well and so I was never given the chance to train with them. But on a clear summer's night, I'd look out into the pasture and watch them. The light of the moon softens their coat, makes them appear as if they're touched by magic. And I'd imagine myself out there, moving among them."
"Dancing with them." Gabrielle now understood exactly what she meant. "Why didn't you do it?"
"Oh, they're very closely guarded. Queen Thalestris forbids any but the trainers to go into the pasture. And only the warriors may ride them."
"I'm sorry you're not allowed to do what you wish to, Phrygia. But in time, perhaps, that will change." A possibility came to mind. "Would you like to meet Argo? Xena might be around. We could ask her to let you have a ride."
"Oh, goodness, no." She blushed. "I couldn't do that. I mean... Xena's horse. Oh no, I don't deserve that."
"It isn't a question of deserving it, Phrygia. I'm just doing something nice for a friend." She held out her hand which Phrygia accepted shyly. "Come on, let's go find Xena."
* * *
Eponin and Solari had both gone off to soak in the baths after their morning workout with Xena. Unfortunately for the restless warrior, she'd hardly worked up a sweat herself and was now roaming about trying to find something to entertain her. Just then, the bard rounded a corner. Xena broke into a big smile. It didn't matter that she had a tag-a-long. Being with Gabrielle was preferable to everything else.
The bard finished her explanation of Phrygia's dream. "So, can we go hang out with Argo?"
Xena crossed her arms. "I don't think she's much of a dancer."
"I don't want anyone going out of their way on my account," offered Phrygia. "But your mare is an extraordinary horse. I noticed her first thing when we met out in the meadow."
"Even before noticing the queen?" Xena teased her, which she knew better than to do.
"Don't worry about it," Xena said in apology. "I like people who like Argo." She led them to the barn, the tallest structure in the village. The Amazons took pride in the building; though it was old, it was in good repair. Insect-damaged boards were quickly replaced. Fresh coats of paint coated the outside, protecting the wood against the weather. The sweet-smelling hay was piled high in the loft and the floor had been freshly raked. Argo tossed her head towards them, whickering when Xena padded up to rub her nose.
Phrygia smiled at the sight. "You're good with horses, Xena."
Gabrielle lightly poked an elbow in the warrior's ribs. "She has many skills."
"Yeah, well, leading an army into battle usually requires a good relationship with a horse. If you get bucked, you lose your job... and maybe your life."
Phrygia moved up shyly toward Argo and softly stroked her mighty flank. The horse's muscle twitched under her hand. "It's more than that. I've seen our warriors with their horses. It's as if they understand each other."
"I can vouch for that," remarked Gabrielle who was leaning up against a post enjoying the scene. "Argo reads her mind better than I do."
"I wouldn't go that far." Xena flashed a grin toward the bard. "Well, at least not as often."
"Xena?" Phrygia took a step back from Argo. "Could I ask you a favor?"
Xena knew what was coming. Everyone wanted to ride Argo, not thinking that she was a war horse and didn't take kindly to any master but herself. This girl could get hurt. On the other hand, would it be politically strategic to deny a visitor such a simple request? "Sure, what can I do for you?"
"Would you ride her?"
"Me?" That surprised Xena.
"I'd like to see you together. I can only imagine how beautiful it would be."
Gabrielle snickered behind her. "Come on, Xena, let's go down by the river and take a picnic. I'll bet you wouldn't mind getting away for awhile and I'm certain Argo would love it."
* * *
Gabrielle and Phrygia sat perched against a tall tree which also provided a nice canopy of leaves overhead. Xena had Argo out on the makeshift race track from the competitions of a few days earlier, bringing her up to a gallop and taking her through a series of intricate maneuvers.
The bard loved to watch Xena with Argo but when she saw her sweet appreciation of their graceful display mirrored on Phrygia's face, she realized how foolish she probably looked. Well, at least Phrygia shared her wonder.
Phrygia was like a calm breeze to Agave's howling wind. The only reason Gabrielle could imagine Agave traveling with her was Phrygia's sincerity. If she was as quick to offer herself to Agave as she had without pretense to Gabrielle, she'd be a welcome companion even for one so testy as Agave.
Gabrielle smiled as Xena turned her mount toward them and urged Argo into a full gallop. Phrygia dropped her jaw when she saw what headed straight at her, a dangerously powerful warrior on a superbly trained mount. She pressed herself back against the tree, hoping to get out of the way and expecting the worst.
But when Xena fiercely reined Argo to a halt and somersaulted off the horse's back to land two steps in front of them, hands on her hips, Phrygia clasped her hands together and grinned. "That was marvelous!"
"Show off," Gabrielle mumbled. The bard would have to talk with Xena about scaring their guest. But she loved it and knew that Xena knew it as well. "How about a game or something?"
Xena quirked a brow. "Or something?"
Gabrielle dug down into her bag and pulled out five small bones. "Ephiny had one of these in our hut. I asked her what it was."
"Oh, knucklebones!" Phrygia laughed. "Haven't you ever played that? It was all we did as kids."
"It seems that some Amazon traditions have grown in parallel between the tribes." Gabrielle liked finding small details in common. It made her feel better about knowing there were people out there she was related to that she'd never even known existed until a few days back. "Ephiny tried to explain it to me, but maybe you'd better show me how to do it."
Xena settled down cross-legged next to the bard. "Ankle joints."
The bard looked at her. "Huh?"
"Those bones are ankle joints. Probably a goat."
"You're so technical, Xena." Gabrielle patted Phrygia's arm. "Okay, so show me what to do."
"It's simple in concept, but takes some practice. You hold all the bones in your hand like this." She cupped her palm and shook the bones slightly. "Then you throw them up in the air, turn your hand over, and catch them on the back of your hand." She got four of the five bones to stick.
"Oh, that doesn't look so hard." Gabrielle took the bones and blew on them, then closed her fist and rattled them around. Testing their weight, she bobbed them up and down before tossing them up much higher than Phrygia had. Only two actually hit her hand and they both bounced off.
Xena snickered softly.
"That's pretty good, but if you throw them up too high, they're too hard to catch." Phrygia retrieved one that had rolled away and handed it back to Gabrielle.
"Let me try this again." The bard tested their weight and tossed them much more softly. This time, she hadn't tossed them high enough. They were already their way down before she turned her palm down. She missed them all.
"Try it with one," Xena suggested. And soon, Gabrielle could catch it easily. Xena had her add a second one, and after a few more tosses, the bard gauged how high to throw them. She added one at a time, but when she finally got to five, the problem was in keeping them lumped close enough together. They tended to fall in a wide pattern and Gabrielle couldn't get her small hand under all of them.
"Fine, so it's hard." Gabrielle pressed them into Xena's hand. "Here, you try it."
Xena shrugged, tossed them up, and caught all five of them, three between her knuckles, the other two in a neat row just underneath.
"I should have known..." Gabrielle rolled her eyes.
"Wow, I've never seen anyone do that before." Phrygia exclaimed.
Gabrielle groaned. "She has many skills."
* * *
Xena tagged along with Gabrielle and Phrygia on their excursion to the kitchen. Somehow the two of them had detoured into a lengthy discussion of cooking root vegetables and had agreed to show each other their secret techniques for leaching the bitterness and improving their texture. Xena had to concede that Gabrielle knew how to do just that, but that still didn't make it an interesting subject.
The reason she followed was for a bit of entertainment of a different kind. She wanted to watch the reactions of the cooks as their Queen and her guest took over their space. They wouldn't like it. They wouldn't be able to say a thing. They'd be in agony. Xena looked forward to that.
"My Queen, really, we can handle this." Locria tried not to be short with Gabrielle. "Doria and I have everything under control. We really don't require any assistance."
Gabrielle shooed the head cook away. "This is a diplomatic mission."
Doria wedged her heavy frame between Gabrielle and the work table. "Those knives are sharp, Queen Gabrielle. We can't have you hurting yourself."
The bard took a breath and eyed Xena briefly. "Thank you for your concern, but I've been around sharp knives before. I can handle chopping a few tubers." Gently she place her hand on the cook's arm. "But I do thank you for your thoughts."
"Why don't you let me and Locria do the chopping for you?"
"Doria, please. I can cook. I like to cook. I cook every day I'm not here. Besides, this as a ceremonial demonstration. We're sharing traditions between our two tribes. Now let me at that yam."
Xena had tried to stay out of it, but when Gabrielle gave an order and Doria still didn't budge, it was time to step in. "Maybe I can show you a few things about knives while the queen and her guest go about their business." Xena slipped two long fingers down her cleavage and slowly withdrew her breast dagger. She let her eyes narrow into malevolent slits.
Two pair of eyes automatically widened in response. Locria fumbled for Doria's arm and tugged. "Come on, we can go pull weeds in the herb garden." They stumbled over each other getting out of the kitchen.
"You could have been a little less threatening," said Gabrielle. But the smile on her lips told Xena she'd appreciated the help.
"I was less threatening than I wanted to be. They walked out on their own accord, didn't they?" She pulled herself up to sit on a sturdy worktable and watched Phrygia slice the yam against the grain, explaining that it helped to break up the texture. "You really think that's going to help?"
"You just don't like yams, Xena. At least not until they're cooked into a yellow-orange mush and sweetened up like candy." Gabrielle returned her attention to Phrygia's nimble hands. "Did you cook for Agave?"
Phrygia apparently didn't think anything of the question, but it caught Xena off-guard. She didn't believe Gabrielle would be so bold as to talk to the foreigner about her superior. Now she really was glad she tagged along. She wanted to hear what Phrygia had to say about Agave.
"Sometimes. She's pretty picky and so she likes to do things herself." Phrygia picked a small boning knife to peel the next yam. "She has very specific likes and dislikes."
"Well that was obvious," replied Gabrielle. "I figured that out from the moment we met."
"Don't be too hard on her, Queen Gabrielle. She's not an easy person to get to know."
"Phrygia," Gabrielle began carefully. Xena could tell she was going to ask something that could backfire. "Agave had a pretty strong reaction to Xena. It seemed like she... well, it was like she wanted to hate her but she liked her a little too well, instead. Any idea why?"
Phrygia put down her knife and turned to the bard. "Yes, I think so." Shyly, she glanced at Xena who had the good sense not to stare at her. "There's a lot about Xena that reminds me of Themis, and I'll bet Agave had the same reaction. Themis is our best warrior and the queen's champion, like Xena is to you, and she's Captain of the Guard." Phrygia again peeked toward Xena. "And she's really good with horses and very strong and has a bit of a sense of humor mixed in with her fierce loyalty to the queen. Agave has always had... an interest in Themis but it's never been reciprocated."
Gabrielle put her hands on her hips. "So it *was* jealousy I read in her. I thought so. I take it that Themis doesn't like Agave?"
Gabrielle chuckled. "Perhaps Themis' affections are promised elsewhere?" The bard winked at Phrygia.
Phrygia turned from away them. "It's nothing that we could ever let happen."
Gabrielle stepped toward Phrygia and put a gentle hand on her shoulder. "I don't understand. You like her?" Phrygia nodded. "You're in love with her?" She again nodded. "But she doesn't love you?"
"Oh no." Phrygia spun back. "That's not it at all. We're..." A look of anguish spread across the Amazon's face. "We just can't. That's all."
"So you love each other but something is stopping you from getting together?"
"I told you, Themis is the queen's champion."
"What has that got to do with anything?"
Phrygia regarded the bard soberly. "Xena is your champion."
Gabrielle looked to Xena but the warrior could offer her no help. She was just as confused as the bard was.
Gabrielle tried to make sense out of it. "Themis is the queen's champion because she's your best warrior, right? She must be a good Amazon to be so loyal to Thalestris."
"Themis is loyal to the queen, yes. But not the person. She is loyal to the office." Phrygia suddenly looked very worried. "You mean it's different here?"
Gabrielle was almost too shaken to answer. "Yes. Yes, it is quite different here. Xena and I choose to be together because we love each other. Everyone is free to choose her partner here. We'd never want that any other way."
"That's remarkable," whispered Phrygia, in awe of Gabrielle, in awe of Xena, in awe of what their relationship suddenly meant to her.
"Queen Gabrielle?" Phrygia approached her timidly.
The bard had finally wrangled her way out of the dining tent and was heading back to her hut to meet Xena who'd escaped earlier. It had been awhile since they'd been able to spend any time alone together, and she was looking forward to ending the evening quietly with Xena at her side. She willed herself to be nice. "Hi, Phrygia."
"I don't mean to disturb you, but I was wondering..." Phrygia paused, her eyes anywhere but on Gabrielle.
"Well, if Xena isn't your champion because you're the queen, and if you really did fall in love with each other, how did that happen?"
The poor, sweet girl, thought Gabrielle. Xena would have my scrolls if I brought Phrygia back to the hut and made her listen to this. "That's a long story, Phrygia. Let's go find a fire and get comfortable."
They stayed in the deep shadows just beyond the reach of the fire's light. Various women mingled near them, but it was a time of quiet talk and no one interrupted them. Gabrielle began by explaining how she'd met Xena just outside of Poteidaia when she'd been taken by slavers. And she talked of her first encounter with Amazons when she was give Terreis' rite of caste.
"How did you become queen?"
Gabrielle knew that question would come. Though it brought to the surface many painful memories in her life, she didn't feel right avoiding it. "I was taking Xena's body back to her home."
Gabrielle made light of it. "I told you that Xena has many skills. She found a way to come back to life." It was still so hard to talk about that time. Even though it led to them admitting to each other their deepest and most private feelings, allowed them to acknowledge their love and commitment to each other, Gabrielle had never come to terms with the whole ordeal. Xena had given up and died. The bard prayed to the gods that she would never feel that dreadful, furious pain again.
"You know, if you'd said that about anyone else, I'd had said it was untrue. But I guess I'm becoming a believer where Xena's concerned. And," Phrygia added, "I would guess that you played a larger part in that whole story than you're letting on."
"She did," Xena said, sliding out of the shadows to join them. "You okay?" she asked the bard quietly. She got a timid smile in return. "Gabrielle has done a lot for the Amazons. She's taught them to look for their answers carefully, to think about long-term resolutions, and to move beyond their aggressive heritage."
The words stunned Gabrielle. "I wouldn't say that."
"Well, I'm sayin' it." Xena hugged her then kept one arm perched across the bard's shoulders. "So tell us about Kapru Kale, Phrygia.
Gabrielle silently thanked Xena. At the moment, she was in no mood to play the part of a bard. All she wanted to do was to melt into Xena's presence, touch her in reassuring repetition.
"I wouldn't know what to say about my home," began Phrygia. "I'm beginning to understand this place is very different, but I can't imagine what all those differences might be." She took a breath and tucked her hair behind her ears. "Hearing about the two of you, you know, actually being in love with each other, queen and champion... It's just so... I can hardly even explain it."
"I'm sorry your life has been hard, Phrygia." Gabrielle smiled at her, safely ensconced in Xena's embrace. "Maybe now things will change. Ephiny can be very persuasive. Once she sees what's going on there, she'll have suggestions they won't be able to ignore. I'm sure of that."
Suddenly Phrygia grabbed at her stomach and doubled over.
Xena was at her side immediately, trying to figure out what had happened. Phrygia tried to slap her away, tears springing to her eyes as if she were in excruciating pain. Xena merely held the Amazon's hands at bay and continued to look for a cause of the agony.
Gabrielle took a gentler approach. "What's wrong, Phrygia? Can you tell us where it hurts?"
Phrygia shook her head forcefully, the strain of the incident evident on her tear-stained face.
Xena took the cue from the bard and softened her bedside manner. "If you tell me what hurts, I might be able to help."
"No," Phrygia wailed. Her breath came in gasps between sobs. "That's... not... it..."
Gabrielle eyed Xena. A frightening possibility began to form. "What's not 'it'?" Gabrielle placed her palm on Phrygia's cheek to reassure her that she was safe. "Do you mean that you're not in any physical pain?"
Phrygia nodded and rocked, her arms still fiercely gripping her sides.
"So something else is wrong." Gabrielle did her best to figure out what was going on. Phrygia wasn't in any condition to tell them.
Xena jumped to the right conclusion. "It's Ephiny."
Phrygia nodded again. "Ye... Yes."
Gabrielle felt her stomach flop. Ephiny's in trouble and I've sent her right into it. Gods. Now what do we do?
Xena continued the questioning. "Are they going to Kapru Kale?"
Phrygia rubbed at her tears, leaving reddened blotches on her cheeks. Desperately, she tried to regain some measure of control. "Yes," she managed to say at barely more than a whisper. "And we..." The sobs came again, this time even more forcefully.
"Let's get her inside," Gabrielle suggested. "We have to calm her down." She knew that Xena's temper would be on a short fuse, but she sensed that Phrygia would tell them much more if it weren't a public interrogation. "Besides, we're drawing a lot of attention."
Xena glanced around and grumbled at all the pairs of eyes on them. "Come on," she said, pulling Phrygia up with one hand and Gabrielle with the other.
To her credit, the Kapru Kale let herself be led into the Queen's Hut and seated on a chair. She accepted water from Gabrielle, sipping it until she could silence her hiccups and drink more deeply. With the mug drained, Phrygia still wheezed. At last, her breaths slowed down and she sighed. "I am so sorry. I can't believe what we've done."
"Why don't you tell us everything, okay?" Gabrielle kneeled by her, vowing not to be distracted by Xena's pacing behind her. Phrygia was on pins and needles right now, and what they needed was information, not a hysterical Amazon. "It's okay, Phrygia. You can tell us."
Phrygia smiled weakly. "If I had only known what you were really like..." She closed her eyes briefly before beginning her tale. "We had heard stories of you, of these Amazons. Agave was sent out expressly to look for you. We were lucky that we ran into Despoina and Nephele so far to the north. It made our entrance here so much easier."
Phrygia shivered slightly. "We are ruled by a cruel woman. That's Queen Thalestris, just as we told you. But what we didn't say was that she wants to extend Amazon lands and her tribe by any means possible. She drives us almost beyond our very abilities, forcing us to farm huge fields and train as warriors and even log timber. We send the logs downstream for sale at the shipyards. The wood is prized by the shipbuilders and she makes them pay a huge fee for it. Lately, we've had to work the stands of trees closer to the marshes and many of us have taken sick. So many, in fact, that Queen Thalestris decided it was time to swell the ranks. She had everyone on logging duty who wasn't training the horses. And then more of us took sick."
"What kind of sick?" Xena asked. She hadn't spoken in some time. Gabrielle was relieved not to hear a threatening tone in her voice.
"It's a bad sickness. A horrible chill one minute and terrible fever the next. Your body aches and aches."
Xena stopped her pacing and pinned Phrygia with her eyes. "Does it cycle? Does it seem to get worse in one part of the day and better later on, so much better that it was as if you really weren't sick at all?"
"Yes, it does. And sometimes Queen Thalestris would send them back out into the fields saying they were faking it. And then they'd get really bad, sometimes even die. No one understands it."
"I do. It's disease I've known about from far south of here. It happens sometimes where there are swamps. I'd heard some rumors that it had flared up north of Amphipolis."
"Let me get this straight. So many of your people are sick, Queen Thalestris sent you to get us, to ask us to help you out?"
"No, Queen Gabrielle. Well, you're partially right. Queen Thalestris sent Agave and me to get you, but we were supposed to trick you into coming to Kapru Kale so she could conquer you. She plans to use you to replenish our work force." She dropped her head into her hands. "Agave got real nervous when she heard about you and Xena. She didn't know what to do. I get real scared of her when she gets that way."
"Phrygia," Gabrielle said softly, using every means she had to keep her wits about her while everything crumbled in her hands. "You didn't have a choice about coming here, did you?"
"That doesn't excuse..."
"You're right, it doesn't excuse you. But it does make a difference. You've told us what's going on. That took a lot of courage. I thank you for that."
"Well, I guess you'll have to put me under lock and key now, won't you."
"Why, are you planning on going somewhere?" Xena asked this, reassuring Gabrielle that she shared her instincts to trust Phrygia, at least for the moment.
"But... I..." Once again, the Amazon shook her head in disbelief. "But after what I just told you, I should be put to death."
Gabrielle stood up, working the kinks out of her knees, and put her hand on Phrygia's shoulder. "You still have a lot to learn about us, Phrygia."
* * *
Gabrielle chose not to make any decisions or discuss the situation with the rest of the Amazons until the morning. Xena agreed it was best to give it time. Though neither slept well that night, they both at least had awhile to get adjusted to the idea that their lives had indeed turned upside down. And that Gabrielle's vision was beginning to show its veracity. Ephiny was in trouble. Gabrielle wondered what else would come so literally true.
Just after dawn, Gabrielle calmly called for a guard and asked her to please invite the elders to a meeting. She had something important to discuss with them. She would begin when the first shafts of sunlight swept across the village paths. The guard did her bidding without question.
As Gabrielle turned to walk back to her hut, she saw Xena waiting for her at the threshold. Gabrielle knew the burden it was for her friend. Under almost any other circumstances, Xena would take control. In this case, though, that would not be possible. At least not so others could see. Gabrielle, however, planned to seek Xena's advice at every turn.
"Want breakfast?" the bard asked her.
"I think I'll skip it. How 'bout you?"
"I couldn't begin to face food right now." Seeking the shelter of privacy one last time, Gabrielle walked back inside. She made no move to sit. She just stood in the middle of the floor, dazed.
"You know what their reaction is going to be." Xena settled in behind the bard and wrapped her arms around her.
"They're going to want war." How can this be happening to me? How can I keep these women safe and still be fair to their needs? "Xena, I can't lead them into war. Not with other Amazons. Not with anyone. There has to be another way."
"Let's just keep our minds open and listen to everyone and then make the best decision based on what's on the plate. I'd rather not rule out anything before we start."
Gabrielle turned around in Xena's arms to look her right in the eye. "You want to go to war, don't you. You believe it's justified. Xena, how can anything like that ever be justified? How can it be right to cut down someone on a battlefield and let their blood run at your feet?"
Xena smiled sadly and brushed a fingertip across the bard's cheek. "I'm not trying to justify anything. I'm just saying we shouldn't make up our minds about it yet."
Gabrielle dropped her head against Xena's chest, snuggling in. "You're right. I'm sorry."
"And Gabrielle, sometimes when you look at all of your options, none of them is right. None of them is justified. You just have to take the best of the lot."
* * *
Gabrielle shifted nervously. The small movements were noticed by more than Xena's knowing eyes. Solari sought out the warrior while women were still filing into the large meeting hall.
"Why don't I think I'm going to like this?" Solari quietly asked through clenched teeth.
Xena patted her arm once. She made only a feeble attempt to hide her dark countenance from the Amazon. But before Xena could be further questioned, the bard called to everyone, gathering their attention.
Gabrielle cleared her throat. "We have some things to discuss."
Xena caught the bard's eyes and shook her head ever so slightly, trying to convey to her that she should act like an authority figure for the Amazons. While sharing and discussion sufficed for peacetime, right now the Amazons needed a leader, someone to lend her strength to everyone in the village. That meant making statements and guiding them, not opening up the floor to a free-for-all.
Gabrielle waited until all of the women were seated. The creaking of the old wooden benches was punctuated by the breeze blowing through the thatched roof. All was as quiet as it would get.
The bard had ordered the head table taken away, so she stood before the Amazons, simply and unadorned, as their queen. "Phrygia, our guest from Kapru Kal e, has provided us with some valuable information. She has informed me that the Amazons of Kapru Kale are in great need right now. Many of them are sick and they need help."
Well, it wasn't the intro Xena would have given. But there would be enough furor to calm soon enough. Perhaps Gabrielle's approach was best.
The bard continued. "Phrygia has confided a great deal in us and I am very grateful to her for that." She smiled at the young woman seated to the far side of the front row. "It appears that Agave had come looking for us. We didn't meet by happenstance."
A low murmur began. Xena could feel the tension rising in the room.
"Queen Thalestris is, according to Phrygia, a..." Gabrielle paused and looked toward their guest once more. Phrygia nodded and closed her eyes in silent permission. "She is a cruel leader. She intends to take us into her tribe as replacement workers."
Now the murmuring grew into a roar. Some direct questions were shouted above the din. Gabrielle waited for a moment and then held her hands up, trying to silence them. As the noise faded again, one Amazon yelled out loud and clear, "So what about Ephiny?"
Xena watched Gabrielle take a deep breath and she could feel the empathic constriction in her own throat as the bard swallowed.
Gabrielle looked directly at the woman who'd asked the question. "Ephiny and Opis are our main concern right now."
"So let's go get them back!" someone shouted from the rear of the hall. A chorus of support swept down the benches, threatening to drown whatever control Gabrielle still commanded.
Gabrielle silenced the women once again with her hands, not letting her reactions escalate at the same speed as the Amazons'. "Let's think this through, okay? If we went out after Ephiny and Opis now, Thalestris would have us right where she wanted us. Right in her front yard."
"You can't be considering sacrificing Ephiny?" This came from Solari.
Gabrielle turned to her friend. "No, I'm not suggesting that." She scanned the room. "I can see two options. One: we send out a small party on horseback and hope to overtake Agave and Ephiny before they reach Kapru Kale." She sighed. "But they're on horseback as well and have a two-day lead on us. That's not likely to happen. Option number two: we send out a full war party."
That was met by whoops and hollers, obviously throwing Gabrielle for a loop. She blinked a few times. Xena wished she were up there with her, but she knew Gabrielle had to stand alone in front of her Amazons.
"Hey!" Gabrielle yelled as loud as she could over the din. They quieted for her once again, though the tension in the air, now directed toward a specific goal, was taut enough to send the women into a shouting frenzy at any moment. "Don't you realize what this is? We're talking about a war against our own people. Amazon against Amazon. Our lives, all of our lives, yours and mine, are at stake here. Be certain this is what you want. Are you willing to come home fewer in number, having seen your friends and family die on the battlefield?"
Solari stood. "If our other choices are to abandon Ephiny or to live in slavery, then yes, this is what we want."
Her words imbued with passion, Gabrielle asked quietly, "Isn't there another choice? There's got to be another way."
"If there is another choice, we'll find it Gabrielle." Xena's deep voice carried across the room silencing everyone. "But there aren't enough horses to carry us all. We'll have to travel at marching pace. It'll take many days, time we can spend imagining all of the options."
"So, you're saying we wouldn't be committing to anything and we wouldn't be losing out on anything if we set out to Kapru Kale prepared for war." Gabrielle paused a moment then straightened up. "Take one day to get ready. We'll leave at first light tomorrow."
"What about her?" Solari pointed toward Phrygia. "Do we trust her?"
Gabrielle put her hands on her hips defensively. "She hasn't given us reason not to."
"I beg to differ." Phrygia stood and spoke for herself. "I know I haven't given you any reason to trust me. All I can say to you is that I speak the truth. You're walking into great danger. We are well trained and ready for war. Queen Thalestris isn't likely to let Ephiny go until she has what she wants and what she wants is you. All of you."
Solari dropped her accusatory tone. "Why are you telling us this?"
"Let's just say that I've seen with my own eyes a better way to live now." Phrygia smiled at Gabrielle.
Gabrielle returned it. "I trust you, Phrygia."
Xena took the time to set her eyes on everyone in the hall. Most of them seemed to take Gabrielle's trust of Phrygia on pure faith. Their queen had never done them wrong before. But there were a few who would need watching. That was okay with Xena, for in her mind, Phrygia hadn't yet earned that blind trust the bard bestowed on her so effortlessly.
Their hut buzzed with Amazons. Some came with simple progress reports, others sought creative solutions to knotty problems. Should they travel with minimal weapons and armor, reducing their gear in the name of speed? Or should they take everything they had to be better prepared for what might await them? If they took more, their progress would be slowed. More horses would draw carts, more warriors would be forced to walk the distance.
Who would stay and guard the village? How much food and water would they take? Would they travel with tents or sleep out in the open? The weather had already begun to turn cold. If their mission grew lengthy or if they encountered a nasty storm, would they be risking more problems by not taking the tents?
What about the wounded? Would they treat every injury using everything at their disposal? Could they bring the grievously wounded home in carts? Would they send anyone home early?
Eponin and Solari helped with the decisions as best they could. Often one of them asked Xena's advice, sparing Gabrielle from being the one to turn to Xena each time. Xena organized the troops, assigned squadron commanders, discussed tactics and strategies, and lent her experience in leading an army in ways most of the women had never even considered.
Gabrielle's head already spun. Here she was, a little peace-loving bard from Poteidaia, leading one of the fiercest armies in all of Greece into battle. Not just battle: civil war. Amazon against Amazon.
And here was Gabrielle asking for help in war from Xena, former Destroyer of Nations. Asking her friend to relive those long-gone days, to imagine what might occur with an army and how to counter attack, to risk the blood lust rising to the fore to infect her once again.
Xena was Gabrielle's ultimate responsibility. The bard could feel that truth in her very core. Gabrielle had to make certain the Xena that she knew stayed with her. The old Xena could never be let out, for if she roamed free, their whole world could come crashing down.
That was because Gabrielle had to be in charge. She was queen. And if that other Xena reared her raging, angry heart, the one Gabrielle had seen with the Athenian army as they fought the Horde, Gabrielle would have to silence Warlord Xena immediately. Otherwise, Gabrielle would risk losing her authority. And this time, she didn't have a choice about that. The mask and all the responsibility that went with it wasn't hers to give away. It belonged to the whole tribe.
And if Gabrielle had to rein in Xena publicly... would Xena ever forgive her for that?
Gabrielle's attention was drawn back to the discussion at hand. Xena tried to explain something. "You have to be able to do repair work in the field. I'm not saying you need to pack up the whole stinking forge, but you'd better be able to fashion one in a pinch."
Locria, the smithy, shook her head. "Too much weight. Too much stuff. It'll take three ofthe carts to carry all of it. We'll need the carts for other things like food and water."
Xena disagreed. "I've been in battle without the means to repair swords and armor. It shouldn't take a dead soldier in Tartarus to tell you otherwise, but there are plenty who've gone there because of such a mistake." Xena softened her voice. "Locria, I understand that you're trying to keep our weight down so we can move faster. But if we don't use those carts for weapon repair, we'll be using them to bring dead bodies home."
Locria caved in. "All right, Xena." There was no hint of animosity in her voice. Xena's logic was one no Amazon would choose to dispute. "I'll take what we need and try to keep it to a minimum."
Gabrielle reached out and lay her hand on the smithy's arm. "That would be a great help to us, Locria."
* * *
It was well into the wee hours of the morning before Xena and Gabrielle could crawl into bed. They had to be up so soon after that, neither fretted about getting any sleep. No matter how much they slept, it wouldn't be enough.
Xena coaxed Gabrielle into her arms and gently massaged the bard's temples. "You were wonderful today."
"You're just saying that, Xena. I made it through the day. Nothing more."
"Give yourself some credit. You made certain everyone did what they had to do. You didn't back down from anything or anyone."
"Only because you were there." Gabrielle caught one of Xena's hands and brought it to her lips. "Thank you for that, Xena. You don't know how much I needed you there today. None of this could have happened without you."
"That's funny," intoned the warrior. "I was just about to say the same thing about you."
Xena chuckled at Gabrielle's wimpy slap on her shoulder. The warrior resumed her temple-rubbing until the bard stirred.
"Can I ask you something, Xena?"
"Of course. Anything."
"Are we doing the right thing?"
Xena moved her arms down around Gabrielle's waist. "I'd have come to the same conclusion. I think everyone in this village would have made the same choices, Gabrielle. Sometimes you can never really know if you're doing the right thing or not, but if everyone else would have chosen the same path, then you should believe you made the best decision."
"What if something happens here while we're gone? What if Thalestris was planning for this and is just waiting for our defenses to march off to Kapru Kale so she can swoop in here and take everyone who's stayed behind?"
"It's pretty hard to play when you don't have enough cards. There's no way to protect everyone. There never is, Gabrielle. You've got to risk some to make others safer."
Gabrielle rolled over onto her side and looked at Xena in the dim candlelight. "Am I really leading an army into war?"
Xena would never have believed this day would come. How could she answer the bard? Anything less than the truth and she'd never forgive herself. And Gabrielle would know, anyway. "Whatever happens, I'll be right there with you. You're not doing anything alone, Gabrielle."
Tears streaked down Gabrielle's cheeks. "I can't do this, Xena. We have to find another way. We just have to."
"If another way is to be found, we'll find it." Xena reached out and wiped away the tears. "I know how hard this is on you, Gabrielle. If there was any way for me to take the load from you, I would. So let's just take it one step at a time. No one has declared war, yet." She leaned over and let her lips gently caress the bard's cheek. "Gabrielle, please don't worry about how hard this is. If it were easy for you, then I'd really be worried."
"Is that supposed to make me feel better?"
"Okay, it does," Gabrielle admitted. "I'm not such a rotten person."
"Whatever gave you that idea? You're as far from rotten as is humanly possible. I wouldn't want to trust the fate of the Amazons to anyone who relished war. They need you, Gabrielle. They need you because of who you are, not what they're asking you to be. If there is a way to avoid a war, we'll find it. If there isn't..."
Gabrielle buried her head in the blanket. "Gods, Xena. I can't stand this."
Xena pulled her in close and held her. There would be no way to remove the burden from Gabrielle's shoulders. Her only hope was to help share it in some way.
* * *
The third day of marching turned into the third day of cold, driving rain and mud-caked clothing. Those lucky enough to ride on the carts or on horseback were able to cover themselves with cloaks, but even the thickest wool had been soaked through from the unrelenting downpour. Most of the Amazons walked, slipping and trudging along the path, clods of heavy mud sticking to their boots and making their steps even heavier.
Gabrielle clung to Xena as they rode Argo. The great mare carried them both without complaint, though the horse couldn't hide the misery in her eyes from those who rode her. She was as wet and cold as everyone else.
Xena heard something behind them and twisted quickly in the saddle.
"Why don't you just toss me to Tartarus," Gabrielle griped, losing her hold and then grabbing for better purchase on Xena's leathers. "Can't you be a little more careful?"
"Wagon threw an axle," Xena said simply in response without tacking on an apology. She kneed Argo around and threaded their way back through the long line of wet, miserable Amazons.
"Great," muttered Gabrielle. "Another delay." They'd spent a big chunk of the afternoon the day before re-shoeing a horse, then marched until sunset to try to make up time.
Xena dismounted and instructed one of the nearby women to run up to the front of the caravan and tell Solari and Phrygia to stop everyone.
Gabrielle shifted her weight forward to rest her left boot in the stirrup. As she swung her right leg over Argo's flanks, her boot slipped and she found herself sitting on her behind in several inches of mud.
While two Amazons helped her up, Gabrielle glared at Xena who steadfastly refused to meet her eyes. The warrior princess was too busy assessing the damage to the listing cart to bother with Gabrielle. Or so it felt to the bard. She flicked great gobs of mud off of her arms and thighs, harrumphed, and trudged over to see about the cart. She couldn't help noticing the pitying looks from those around her. It only served to annoy her further.
"Thanks for helping me down," she grumbled to Xena.
Xena ignored her and peered under the cart. "It's cracked beyond repair. We'll have to make a new axle. I'll go find a tree."
Gabrielle started to say something to Xena, but the warrior brushed past her to grab an axe. Gabrielle exhaled sharply, paused for a moment, and then said, "Fine." She watched Xena's back disappear into the forest. Putting her mind to the task, Gabrielle helped clean up the spilled items and unload the rest of the gear from the cart.
Two of the Amazons, Elara and Bia, struggled to get a barrel of olive oil down from the cart. With all the rain and their muscles tired from traveling, it was hard to get a good hold on it. Eventually, they juggled it between them and lifted it from the cart, but it dropped onto Elara's foot. "Of all the Satyr loving, mule kissing, centaur tipping..."
"Give me a break, Elara. In all that mud, it didn't hurt anything." Bia tilted the barrel toward her so Elara could yank her foot out from under it.
"I think it's broken." Elara rubbed the toe of her boot and pouted.
Bia ignored her. She bent to pick up a bag of oats. Seeing Elara holding her foot, Bia sneered at her, then carelessly flipped the bag up off the path where it split open and spilled its contents.
"All right, everybody just stop." Gabrielle glared the unhappy Amazons. Bia reached for another bag of oats and the bard snapped. "I said stop! Look at what you're doing! We're all tired and we need to be careful. Otherwise, we'll ruin all our supplies."
"Not all of them," Bia barked back.
Elara gingerly put weight on her foot. "Go bite Aphrodite. When the queen says to stop, you stop, all right?"
"Don't you tell me to what to do." Bia stepped toward Elara and pushed a fist into her chest.
Elara would have none of it. "You're the one throwing our food around like we had an endless supply. What's with you? Don't you want us to rescue Ephiny?"
Bia was on Elara in an instant, scratching and clawing at her skin. Gabrielle reached in to pull them apart but their wrestling escalated, and she got her feet knocked out from under her. Once again, the bard found herself in the mud. She felt a hand grab her. "Hey, that's me you've got. Cut it out, both of you." Gabrielle did her best to latch onto flailing limbs and hold them still. All it did was make liberal quantities of flying mud land on her.
"You heard the queen." Xena's voice drifted over the crowd, which parted silently to let her through. She knelt by the wrestling Amazons. "Get up and behave or I'll be the one tossing you around in the mud. You got that?" Bia and Elara froze in place. "That's better." Xena helped Gabrielle up, looked at her filthy clothes and shrugged.
The bard rolled her eyes in frustration and wiped off the large chunks of slimy dirt which had stuck to her legs. She made a split-second decision. "Okay, everybody's really tired right now. Let's stop for the day and take it easy."
"Sounds like a good idea," Xena agreed. "Bia and Elara get to collect our firewood." She raised an eyebrow at the two contrite women who were still tangled together in the mud. "All of it. I'll stay here and fix the cart, the rest of you go on and find a place to camp." Xena glared at the women standing around her. "And make it snappy!"
They jumped to their tasks, running into each other, until eventually the area cleared of everyone but Xena and Gabrielle. The warrior walked over to Argo and dug in the saddle bags. She pulled out a bit of cloth and a water skin. "Here, this'll get the worst of it off."
Gabrielle wet the rag and cleaned her face. "Thanks, Xena. I needed that." She continued on to wipe off her arms while Xena began to shave the log she'd fetched, fitting it to the cart. "Why is traveling with the Amazons so frustrating? Can't they control themselves?" She stopped and looked at Xena. "How can I make a good decision about... you know, what might happen... if they keep having fights among themselves."
Xena put down her knife and walked over to Gabrielle. "They're tired and frustrated. You said so, yourself." She snaked her arms around the bard and hugged her. "Everyone is cold and wet and scared about what's to come. I think they're holding up pretty well."
"Really?" Gabrielle's green eyes looked at Xena intently. "You mean your army would get the same way?"
"Oh, yeah." Xena chuckled. "In fact, a lot worse. Maybe it was something about them being mostly guys, but they handled the pressure a lot worse than the Amazons. A fight like today would have involved swords and daggers before you could even blink." Xena leaned over kissed the bard's forehead. "In which case, I wouldn't recommend so eagerly diving in to break one up."
"Well someone had to, Xena."
"I know why you did it. I think it's great. You take your responsibility very seriously and everyone who saw you today understands that a little better."
Gabrielle gave Xena a last squeeze and pulled her over to the cart. Xena smiled and resumed her work on the log.
"I wish I knew what to do for them." Gabrielle sighed. "I wish there was some way to end this right now."
"I'm afraid it's going to be more of a challenge than that." The warrior shifted the log and began to taper one of the ends. "But you're doing fine, Gabrielle. Giving them some time off this afternoon was a great idea."
"I think I said that mostly because I wanted it."
"And why is that wrong? It's easy for a leader to be so focused on a task that they forget to pay attention to their own feelings. And their feelings often match everyone else's." Xena hefted the log and slipped it in place on the cart.
"Don't you need a hand with that?" Gabrielle asked. She laughed when Xena gave her the look. "I guess not."
Xena positioned the new axle and secured it, tugging on the fastenings to test them before righting the cart. "There, that's done. Now all we need is for the rain to stop."
"And a good, hot meal." Gabrielle tried to hide her grumbling stomach.
"Oh, I think that can be arranged."
Xena crinkled her nose. There was game close by but every little furry creature could hear the booming footsteps of Amazons. All them had scurried away into impenetrable hiding places strewn about the thick, damp forest.
Solari stood at Xena's shoulder and cringed. Even she could feel the thudding of the so-called silent Amazons. The weather had finally let up and a whole group of them had insisted on joining Xena for the hunt. "Sorry they had to come along," she whispered to the tall warrior. "Should I take them back to the camp?"
"Nah. We'll get something anyway." It took a great deal of effort for her to say that. Xena wished for nothing more than the peaceful serenity of solitude and the rush of a good hunt. "We need this, I think."
"It works for me." Solari laughed lightly, brightening Xena's mood a bit.
"How was riding with Phrygia?" Xena wanted to hear Solari's thoughts about their visiting Amazon. Solari had kept Phrygia under close watch, while using her as a guide. Xena was fairly certain Phrygia could be trusted at this point, however she wasn't about to let up her guard.
"She's fine. I think she's being honest with us, if that's what you're asking."
Xena chuckled. "I am."
"She doesn't say much but when she does talk, it's all about you and Gabrielle. Phrygia's pretty taken with the two of you and what you represent."
"Yeah, poor kid. I guess she doesn't get to do much by her own choice."
"So it seems. Sounds like their queen is rotten." Solari pinched a leaf from a low-growing shrub and rolled it between her fingers nonchalantly. "So, um, how's things with our queen?"
Why can't they mind their own business? Xena moaned to herself. Fortunately, she heard a distinctive noise and cocked her head to listen intently off into the distance. "We might be in luck."
"Really?" asked Solari, accepting the change in topic gracefully.
"Boar." Xena smiled, her teeth glinting in the sun that had begun to peek through the clouds. The trees around them dripped gently from every limb and the late-afternoon light cast a warm yellow glow across the forest. The setting could soothe even the most rankled warrior.
But before Xena could direct the hunting party, two of the Amazons aimed their bows toward the approaching wild hog and fired. Their arrows were no match for the thick hide of the boar. They glanced off the creature and clanked uselessly to the ground. The boar reacted by grunting angrily and heading right toward the archers.
Xena and Solari sprinted in the direction of a piercing shriek. The pair of Amazons had been treed by the snorting boar. They colorfully cursed it while the animal, clearly at the advantage, clawed at the base of the tree.
Others in the hunting party came running to see what the commotion was. At once, they were worried for their sisters and salivating at the thought of feeding everyone a huge, delicious dinner with one kill.
Another arrow whined through the air. This one bouncing off the boar's hind quarters.
"Don't waste your arrows," Xena shouted. "You'll never take that way."
The boar, distracted from its intent on the prey in the tree, turned its enormous body with surprising agility. It lifted its head, thrusting great tusks into the air, sniffing out everyone around it. It twisted toward Xena and Solari.
"Ah, Xena..." Solari edged away from the scene. "Is it coming...?"
"I'm counting on it." Xena let loose her trademark war cry and flipped directly into the path of the boar. She could hear Solari move to hide behind a tree, cursing aloud about having to tell Gabrielle what happened to Xena. That's right, thought Xena gleefully, you'll be telling her about it.
A bright wheep echoed through the trees as Xena unsheathed her sword. She wrapped her left hand around her chakram and waited.
"By the gods, Xena. Be careful!" Solari screamed at her.
For the sake of not terrorizing the women further, Xena chose not to toy with the boar. She feinted left once, drew its charge, and buried her sword deep into its neck, severing the jugular vein. The whole thing was over in an instant.
Solari jogged out from her hiding place. "Xena, you are amazing."
Xena twinkled her eyes at the Amazon. Bracing one foot against the dead boar, she yanked her blade out from the animal's thick hide. "Not amazing, just hungry," she tossed off in reply.
* * *
"Mmmm, that is great." Gabrielle licked her finger and marveled at the combination of sweet and sour tastes. "You've got to tell me how you make the sauce."
Phrygia stirred a big, simmering pot, concentrating hard on how the spoon moved through the liquid. "I showed you what went into it, my Queen."
The bard sighed. "Please call me Gabrielle."
"But..." The woman pouted, then immediately erased the look from her face. "Yes, Gabrielle."
Oh gods, this wasn't going well, either. "Look, Phrygia, I don't mean to boss you around. I just prefer being called Gabrielle, that's all. But you can call me whatever you like, all right?" Once again, she swept her eyes across the camp, hoping to catch sight of Xena.
"You're looking for someone?" Phrygia asked.
"Xena. I... well, I'd like to talk to her." Gabrielle reached for a handful of carrots and began to slice them. "I got pretty frustrated earlier today and I just wanted thank her again for being so wonderful."
"She'll be able to see that in your eyes."
Phrygia's bold comment rattled the bard. She felt a warm blush moving through her cheeks.
"It's nothing to be embarrassed about, my queen. I mean, Gabrielle." Phrygia tossed up her hands. "Whoever you are." Her pleasant laugh carried across the bubbling pots. "What you show in you eyes warms everyone around you. It gives them hope that they can find someone like you have in Xena."
"Ah..." the bard said, trying to respond intelligently. "Thank you."
Phrygia laughed again. "It's all of us who should be thanking you." Her face turned more serious. She shuffled over and stood before the bard. "I can't begin to thank you. You've shown me that my dreams can come true. I'd never have been given that gift if I'd stayed in Kapru Kale. I'd never have known that a life could be so full of wonder and joy. Everyone here is a part of that. Everyone. It's... it's just so amazing to me. Oh... I'm explaining it badly."
Gabrielle put down her knife and wrapped her arms around Phrygia. The hug was returned forcefully. Gabrielle could feel the defensive bulk around this hardened woman's heart begin to crack. She wished that she could do that for everyone in Kapru Kale.
Gabrielle stepped back from Phrygia, who released her awkwardly. "I wish your life had been easier. Maybe we can show your people a better way to live."
"I hope so." She returned to stirring her pot. "I really do hope that comes true."
* * *
As the sun set, the activity around camp picked up. A runner had come back to tell them that the hunting party had killed a huge boar, so many of the women were busy constructing a large spit over the main fire. It would take too long to cook the boar whole, though that was done occasionally on traditional feast days, but at least part of the carcass would be spitted along its back and roasted over the fire.
For the rest of the meat, small spits were prepared. The Amazons built up several fires, readying them for hot-burning wood when cooking time neared. It was happy work, a shared labor in preparation for a community meal. The sweet, clean smell from the rain filled their lungs. Though the precipitation had stopped, the clouds still lingered overhead. They helped to insulate the land and keep the night air from turning too cold.
Gabrielle lost track of time as she worked to finish a soup stock, prepare a variety of vegetables both foraged and packed in with them, and a few treats as a surprise for later that evening.
Phrygia's sweet and sour sauce was an enormous hit, so much so that the pot had to be guarded to keep the tempted cooks from sampling it so often there wouldn't be enough to pass with the boar. Gabrielle stationed herself as guard so she could make sure it still tasted okay. No one dared to tell the queen to keep her fingers out of the pot.
At last, the hunting party returned. They marched single file, Xena in front, hoisting a long log with their strong shoulders. The boar had been lashed to the log by its feet. Its massive body almost touched the ground as it swung gently with the Amazons' gait.
At once, the camp shifted into high gear. A group of six women worked efficiently to carve the beast into roasting portions, another four took charge of passing out shares to everyone who came by with a spit. Soon the air filled with the delicious aroma of roasting pig and joyous laughter. A feast was about to be served.
Though her mind was occupied with cooking, Gabrielle still took time to look for Xena. She caught glimpses of the warrior's sword, its hilt visible above the crowd, riding in Xena's scabbard. She sometimes heard Xena's rich, powerful voice carry above the din. But what she wanted most of all, to lock with those blue eyes, was a long time in coming.
But it did happen at last. From across the camp they chanced to glance toward each other at the same moment. The distance between them compressed to a heartbeat, all of the noise instantly muted. It was just the two of them, alone under a blanket of stars.
Gabrielle felt her heart constrict and then pound wildly. The power those eyes had over her still astounded her, still warmed her as they did the very first day the bard saw her soulmate. The command Xena's eyes had over her weakened her knees, loosened her grip on reality, and toppled every bit of logic she had remaining. And she prayed that it would never change.
Xena sent a huge grin her way and then winked before turning back to the horses she was grooming and talking with. Gabrielle tried to hide the goofy grin on her face. At least no one teased her about it, even if all the cooks were considering it.
Her mind came back to the present when she heard two women disagreeing about a subject she knew about first hand. "I swear it's true. His upper body was regular like ours and from the waist down he was a snake."
Ionia shook her head. "Nope. Cecrops was all human. I know he was. How could Athens ever allow a half-snake to become their king, huh?"
"They've had plenty of snakes as king since then!" A chuckle passed between them.
"Excuse me," Gabrielle said softly. "Are you two talking about my friend Cecrops?"
Ionia snorted. "Your friend? You don't look that old. We're talking about the first king of Athens, you know, the king who got the Athenians to start burying their dead, stuff like that."
"That's the Cecrops that I know." Gabrielle settled onto a nearby table and got into story mode. "He's the one who had to settle a dispute between Athena and Poseidon, right?" The pair nodded. A few more women came closer to listen, circling the bard with a growing audience.
"Well," continued Gabrielle, "Cecrops sided with Athena, making her the patron goddess of Athens, and Poseidon became very angry with him. Poseidon cursed him to sail the seas forever, never able to die." Gabrielle tucked her hair behind her ears. "Once when I was shipwrecked in a storm, I ended up on his ship and I was cursed, too."
"You were shipwrecked?" Asked Ionia, her eyes wide in disbelief. "And cursed? How come we don't hear about these things?"
"I'm telling you now," chided the bard who proceeded to relate the whole tale of Cecrops and Poseidon and how Xena saved them all.
When she finished the story, it was time to serve the feast. The Amazons insisted she sit and enjoy her meal rather than dole out the enormous portions of food for everyone. They told her that she'd helped more than enough already, and so she piled her plate high and found a nice spot to eat with her back resting against a log near one of the smaller fires.
Phrygia and Ionia joined her and asked her for another story. She told one slowly, between bites and lots of yummy sounds, about King Gregor, Pandora, and the baby Gabriel whom Xena saved.
At the end of the tale, she felt a presence behind and turned, smiling, to see Xena seat herself next to her. "Thanks for the great dinner," the bard said.
"Whatever makes you think it was my doing?"
"You trying to tell me someone else killed that boar?" Gabrielle waited a moment for Xena to say something. "I thought so."
Xena patted the bard's belly. "Did you get enough?"
"Oh yeah, way too much. They're gonna have to roll me out of here tomorrow morning."
"I know just the thing for that." Xena extended her hand. "Come on, let's go for a walk."
Gabrielle groaned, not happy about having to exert herself so soon after gorging on boar, but she took the hand, delighting in the warm pressure around her fingers which didn't diminish once she was on her feet. Xena grabbed a torch and they walked silently in among the trees, leaving behind them the cheerful sounds of a contented camp.
"Xena, I'm really sorry about today. I shouldn't have gotten so frustrated."
"Hey." Xena stopped and jabbed the end of the torch into the wet ground, so she could clasp her warm hands over Gabrielle's shoulders. "Don't worry about venting a little anger. You're human. You're supposed to feel that way... sometimes."
Gabrielle leaned forward, inviting Xena to fold her into a hug, which the warrior did. "You're amazing. You know that?"
"Uh huh. Now follow me."
Xena took Gabrielle's hand again, picked up the torch, and led her well into the forest, away from her burdens. They neared an outcropping of rocks and Gabrielle could feel the air turn warmer. "What is this place, Xena?"
"Just a little hideout I found." Turning a corner, Xena touched the flame to a series of torches. They sputtered and sparked to life around a steamy pool, the harsh smell of minerals wafting up from it overpowering even the soft, rain-swept air.
"Oh, this is perfect," exclaimed the bard, divesting herself of her muddy clothes. She slipped into the water, which was pleasantly warm, and sank in until it lapped gently against her chin.
"Thought you might like it," murmured Xena who'd quietly settled into the water behind Gabrielle and was now working her hands in a deep massage of the bard's neck. "I figured we could have it for ourselves for awhile. Then we'll tell the others."
"No one will get any sleep tonight if we do." Gabrielle closed her eyes. "Mmmm, that really feels good."
"Actually, I think if we let the Amazons stew in here for a time, we'll have trouble getting them to wake up, not coaxing them to bed. It'll put 'em out like babies."
"Think so?" mumbled Gabrielle. The heat and the water and all that food were sending her into a delightful trance. If Xena hadn't been there with her, she worried that she might fallen asleep and drowned before she knew what was happening.
They decided it would be better to wear wet and clean clothing back to the camp than moist, dirty outfits. Even Xena admitted that the mud had really bothered her, caked into every seam of her leathers as she scrubbed them clean. They arrived at the camp, told one Amazon about the hot spring and it wasn't two minutes later that a group of twenty set out for it.
"Thanks for not mentioning it to anyone else first, Xena." Gabrielle had her hand on the warrior's forearm in a familiar gesture. "It's selfish, I know, but I'm really glad we had the time there alone."
"I found the place. I think that entitles me to use it first." Xena snatched their bedrolls from the store of gear near the horses and hitched them up under her arm. "What's your pleasure?"
"I'd prefer," Gabrielle replied with a wicked grin, "to go back out there and be alone with you."
"You're a big pile of mush now from that nice, warm soak. You'd be asleep before you could get my leathers off."
"Hardly," Gabrielle said, then yawned. "Maybe."
"Besides, they'd get pretty worried if their queen disappeared."
"I know. But someplace dark and unobtrusive would work, wouldn't it?"
Xena laughed and led them to a spot by a small fire. It would be the best she could do under the circumstances.
* * *
The stones were all so unbearably heavy. She could feel their weight beating down upon her, crushing her chest into her lungs. She tried to cry out for help, but had no air to power her voice. Pushing the stones with her flagging strength did nothing but scratch long gashes in her hands and arms from the rough surfaces.
She saw rocks piled up in long rows. As far as she could see there was nothing but stone upon stone, now growing up to the sky, encasing her in a gray, rock prison.
One tiny portal remained where she could look outside of the box, one tiny door to the outside world. She struggled to her feet and peered out.
Outside, there was only more stone. The distant rocks seemed to be alive with the heads of ferocious beasts: wolf-like, fanged, hungry. The longer she gazed through the portal onto the stone-wolf rocks, the closer they seemed to be. She could neither sense her own movement, nor that of the rocks, but the perspective kept changing nonetheless. She was closer to the wolf rocks or they were closer to her. Which it was didn't matter. None of it made sense.
Voices echoed. She couldn't understand their words nor could she locate their source. They came from all around her. It might have been the rocks themselves talking, perhaps, but not likely. The sound penetrated deep into her bones, her nerves itched, she felt the sweat trickling down her cheeks, along her thighs. Suddenly she felt as if she were on fire.
That dreadful sense of something being terribly wrong had returned with a vengeance. It thwacked her hard, sending her doubling over in pain. She smelled death. She tasted tension and turmoil, fear and hatred. And she knew she would fail if she didn't hurry. The pressing urgency overwhelmed her.
The last thing she remembered was drowning. Her head was held under a spring. She didn't know who kept her there. She didn't know how she got there. She knew only the deadly ache from chilly, icy water.
Xena held her. That was the first thing she was a aware of though it was soon supplanted by the need to retch and retch, not stopping to breathe. The insatiable need to cleanse herself drove everything foreign from her body, expelling it in violent spasms.
"It's okay, Gabrielle. I've got you. Just relax now."
She knew that voice. She trusted that voice. Panting from the intensity of the vision and the exertion of throwing up, she settled back into the protective embrace of her lover. "Bad one."
"Yeah, I can tell. I've got Solari going for the herbs. You'll be feeling better in just a minute. Hang on, okay?"
She tried, unsuccessfully, to relax. People were moving around near her, but all she could do was plant her hands on the ground and disgorge her stomach. She felt a cold, damp cloth pass over her mouth, gentle hands caressing her. She heard Xena's voice ringing inside her head. She was going to be fine. The herbs were right there. She just had to open her mouth and sip them.
"That's a good girl. Not too much. Just enough to settle your stomach so you can catch your breath."
She felt her body shiver uncontrollably. Her limbs seemed strangely detached from her. In fact, the whole world sounded distant and muffled.
Worried voices passed in and out of her consciousness. She listened for only one of them: Xena's. And it was always right there, at her ear, rumbling through her flesh as their bodies touched. Its nearness made each next breath possible.
* * *
"What else can we do for her?" a very nervous Eponin asked. She stood, hunched over Xena who held the bard.
"Nothing, thanks. The herbs should take effect soon. She'll need some time to sort through everything, see what she can remember."
"We'll try to keep everyone out of your hair." Solari looked over Xena's shoulder at the worried Amazons who had gathered to see what was wrong with their queen. She shooed them away with a dismissive flip of her wrist.
"I'd appreciate that." Xena gently stroked Gabrielle's hair. The bard was sprawled across her lap, dazed, unsure of where she was or what had happened.
"How long has she been having these... visions?" Eponin asked.
"Since she was a kid, but she said they weren't so bad back then. The ones that hit her like this are rare, thank the gods." Xena lifted her eyes to Eponin and Solari's concerned faces. "It'll be awhile before we can continue. She gets pretty sick for a few days."
"No," rasped the bard. "We've got to hurry."
"Shhh, you just take it easy." Xena forced a smile for Gabrielle.
"Please... listen to me." Gabrielle struggled to form the words. "We have to hurry. We have to."
"We'll talk when you're feeling better." Xena kept her voice gentle but hoped Gabrielle could hear the unwavering stubbornness in it. They wouldn't budge from this camp until Gabrielle was ready to go.
"No, this is important. What I saw..." Gabrielle swallowed against a dry throat.
Phrygia hovered nearby. As Xena stretched to grasp the water skin, she quickly picked it up and handed it to the warrior who smiled back at her.
Xena offered water to Gabrielle. "Slowly. Don't take too much. Your stomach can't..." She leaned the bard away from her as she threw up again. Xena waited until she could feel the muscles in Gabrielle's stomach unclench before repositioning the bard on her lap and wiping her mouth once more. Gabrielle was asleep before Xena finished.
Solari knelt by them, visibly shaken. "Gods, Xena. What do we do?"
Eponin put a reassuring hand on Solari's shoulder. "I guess the real question is how much of what she says is true?"
Xena fought against answering that honestly. But she realized what Gabrielle would want: to continue on their way immediately. And Xena knew what Gabrielle would say to her when she found out that wasn't going happen. "It's always true in some form or another. The details aren't necessarily what we'll run into, but the impressions are accurate."
"And this business about hurrying... is that a detail or an impression?" Solari gently ran her fingers along Gabrielle's lower leg.
"It's the first time she's said anything about having to hurry."
Eponin gasped. "She's had visions about this before?"
"Yes, one. We told Ephiny about it." Xena didn't want to delve into many particulars. She had no idea how the Amazons would react if they discovered Ephiny had knowingly walked into danger when she left with Agave. And they might well believe that Gabrielle had ordered Ephiny to go in order to save herself. Xena had no desire to protect Gabrielle against an entire camp of angry Amazons. Especially not now, not when the bard was so sick.
"Maybe I can help separate detail from impression." Phrygia moved closer, sitting down by Xena. "Did she see anything about where we're going?"
Xena breathed a sigh of relief. She might be able to skip the uncomfortable aspects about Ephiny while gaining some very useful knowledge. "Gabrielle said she saw a strange, foreign place made of stone. She said there were Amazons she didn't recognize."
"By the gods..." Phrygia started. "Kapru Kale is a fortress. It's made completely of stone. The walls are made of such huge rocks, legend has it that it was built by the Titans, for only they could move mountains." Phrygia took a deep breath. "When did she have this vision?"
"About two weeks ago. We were already on our way when we got Ephiny's note asking us to come." Gabrielle grew restless in Xena's lap. The warrior leaned over and whispered to the bard until she settled.
"This is a lot to take in." Eponin straightened up and paced. "How long until Gabrielle can tell us more? We have to know what she means by hurrying."
"I know." Xena circled her finger around Gabrielle's ear tucking in an errant strand of hair. "She'll sleep for a day or two."
Unfocused green eyes blinked open. "Gotta leave at sunrise."
* * *
The day dawned gray from horizon to horizon accompanied by a sharp, chill wind, but at least the rain had been vanquished. The Amazons bustled about quietly, as if fearful of disturbing their queen. However they worked now with a clear purpose. Many had heard Gabrielle's plea for urgency. It had spread through the women like wildfire. Though no order had been given to pack, everything was ready to throw onto the carts. They could be on their way within an hour.
Xena had moved Gabrielle to a slightly more secluded spot than they'd been in the night before. A protective cove of trees and rocks kept the wind and the Amazon's prying eyes at bay. It felt to Xena as if Gabrielle were on exhibition. No one needed to see their queen when she wasn't at her best.
The question of what to do churned her thoughts. Gabrielle would awaken soon and no doubt insist they continue on their way. But Xena could see how much this vision had depleted Gabrielle. Her pallid, sweaty skin did little to camouflage the dark circles under her eyes. She'd been able to keep almost no water down, having lost several more bouts with her stomach through the night.
The bard was in no shape to do anything but sleep.
So the options were to stay a few days until Gabrielle had recovered sufficiently, to divide up the troops sending most on ahead, or for everyone to go now with Xena trying to keep Gabrielle as comfortable as possible.
Xena thought through the options. Dividing their numbers might well prove the most foolish, for as Phrygia had explained late last night, the women at Kapru Kale already greatly outnumbered them, although some portion of them were sick. Also, the fortress had no weaknesses Phrygia knew about. Taking it by force would be difficult under the very best of circumstances.
So, it would be Xena's job to find a weakness and infiltrate the fortress. And that meant she'd have to be there when the first party arrived. She was not about to leave Gabrielle's side, therefore that precluded sending an advance party.
She asked herself what she'd do if it were she who lay too sick to travel. She'd insist on going, just as Gabrielle would. And she'd be mighty angry at anyone who tried to argue with her if she knew deep down it was the only way. To Tartarus with Gabrielle's visions!
Gabrielle stirred. Xena had held her the whole night through, and now she slept with her head on the warrior's lap. As Xena pulled the blanket up tucking it in around the bard, Gabrielle opened her eyes and quirked her lips into a weak smile. "Hey there."
"Good morning. Want to try some water again?"
The bard nodded and shifted; Xena helped her to sit up, and eased the bard back against her chest, supporting her.
Gabrielle took a few sips from the skin and stopped. "Xena, we need to talk."
"Yeah, I know."
"And I want Solari and Eponin here."
Xena realized that would damn them to leaving that very morning. But she acquiesced and called for the pair who were eager to hear first-hand of Gabrielle's vision.
Gabrielle chose to stay reclined against Xena's strong body while she told the trio of her vision. She explained the stones and how they felt like a crushing prison, the ferocious wolf-rocks, the fever, and the icy-cold aches. And once again, she pressed the matter of urgency.
"Did this need to rush have a reason attached to it?" Xena asked in her gentle questioning; as always, the bard counted on her to dig out the information laying dormant just under the surface.
"No, not that I can remember. It was just an overpowering feeling that we need to move quickly. We can't ignore that, Xena. I can't ignore it. It's still really strong."
Eponin and Solari watched the interchange silently.
"But you're sick, Gabrielle. You know you can't travel."
"It doesn't matter." Gabrielle wrapped her fingers around the muscled forearm clasped across her chest. "Don't argue with me on this Xena, I just know we have to leave. Right now." She focused her eyes on the Amazons. "Get everyone ready to go."
"We're almost there. All we needed was the word." Solari regarded Gabrielle gravely.
"Wait," Xena said with force. "What about you?"
Gabrielle laughed. "Xena: Worrier Princess. I'll be fine. Just put me on a cart and I'll sleep like a baby."
Xena looked up just in time to see Eponin and Solari mouth 'Worrier Princess' to each other. I'll get you for that, Gabrielle, she promised herself. Tensing her face into its best threatening look, she erased the smiles from Eponin and Solari's lips instantly.
* * *
The Amazons marched with purpose. Gabrielle's courage in the face of a crippling sickness drove them forward, defying Xena to listen to her heart and slow them for the sake of her bard. The warrior rode on the cart with Gabrielle, using her own body to cushion the jerky ride as best she could.
Somehow, Gabrielle managed to sleep most of the first day. When they stopped that evening, they'd made good progress. Well into Thrace and near Doriscus, they still had two days before they would ferry across to Calchedon at the shores of the Black Sea. From there, it was two days more along the coast, then inland to Kapru Kale.
Xena coaxed Gabrielle to take some broth. She could tell that the bard was refusing to complain about how she felt but only by sheer, stubborn will. Gabrielle looked horrible; she must feel horrible. Fortunately, the Amazons left them alone but for Eponin and Solari who came by regularly to see how the queen fared.
The second day after the vision was worse. Gabrielle's body no longer required the deep, mind-numbing sleep of the day before. Now she was subjected to every bump and creak on their little cart. Xena couldn't do anything to make her more comfortable. Gabrielle assumed the role of stoic sufferer. To the Amazons, she became their martyr, their queen for whom they would do anything.
But to Xena, Gabrielle was an obstinate, bullheaded, headstrong bard who refused to take care of herself. Then she took a deep breath, reassessed the situation, and reminded herself that Gabrielle was indeed a hero. One who was enduring a terrible trial both mentally and physically.
The frustration fermented inside of her. Not having any outlet for her was going to kill her. She forced herself to keep her anger at the world to a steady simmer thinking of what she might do to Agave and the Kapru Kale queen and everyone else who had forced Gabrielle to feel so horrid. For the time being, Xena just imagined what could be.
* * *
Day three since the vision, day six since the Amazon Village, and the party had to find a way across the inlet from Byzantium to Calchedon. There would be no way to do it quietly. To cross on their own would mean travel over a much wider stretch of water on the Sea of Marmara, and they had no boats.
So, they took the direct course, went to the docks, paid for passage, and began to load their gear onto the boats. Ferrying across to Calchedon was bigbusiness, but rarely did such a large party come through Byzantium, and certainly not one so interesting as an Amazon war party. The women had their orders to keep trouble from starting, and most assuredly to keep it from getting out of hand.
Gabrielle sat in the Harbor Master's office sipping tea. Everything creaked because they were on a dock and Gabrielle's stomach had already begun to protest in earnest. She tried to ignore how she felt by studying the walls, wooden and covered with a thick clear glaze. It helped protect them from the effects of years by salty water, Xena had once told her.
The Harbor Master himself was a slimy man, too rich for his own good, no doubt from years of taking coin in exchange for looking the other way. Absently, Gabrielle wondered why he hadn't used some of his wealth to repair his ugly teeth. Perhaps someone could have fashioned a harness inside his mouth to straighten them, and she had even heard about products available in Athens that were said to return teeth to their whitest. No bother, she thought. They'd be out of there soon enough.
One of the boys who ran messages around the harbor came into the office and reported something to the Harbor Master. He thanked him by pressing a dinar into his palm. The boy beamed and shared his gratitude with Gabrielle before slipping back out the door.
"Says they're just about ready." The Harbor Master spoke to Gabrielle.
"That's good news. Thank you."
"Says you Amazons are on your way to war."
"Our journey is none of your concern. I thought we'd made that clear."
"But you travel with the War-Maker."
Gabrielle furrowed her brow. "Excuse me?"
The Harbor Master stood and came around from behind his huge desk, perching himself on the closest edge. "The War-Maker. You travel with her."
"I'm sorry." Gabrielle smiled. "I'm not sure what you're talking about."
They both turned as the door opened. Xena strode in, took in the Harbor Master's non-threatening position and then let her eyes land on Gabrielle. "How do you feel?"
Xena put one hand on a hip. "Liar."
"Fine... for the moment," Gabrielle corrected. "But we'll be on the water for how long? I could probably hold my breath the whole time."
"Yes, but I'd rather you didn't."
Gabrielle laughed. It caught in her throat as she noticed the Harbor Master. The blood had drained from his face and he trembled from head to toe except where his white-knuckled fists clung to the edge of the desk. "What's wrong?" she asked with genuine concern.
Xena sighed. "I'll meet you outside, Gabrielle."
"Ah, sure." Gabrielle wondered what that was about until she noticed the Harbor Master breathing a little more easily after the door closed. "Wait a minute... you think that Xena is the War-Maker?"
"I don't know how you can be so at ease around her." The Harbor Master slid off the edge of the desk and limped around to collapse in his chair. "Must be that all those Amazons have sworn to protect you."
"Hardly. You're a little behind in your stories. If I had time to fill you in I would, but I can see that we're boarding." Gabrielle stood. "Maybe on our way back I can tell you about the last few years of Xena's life. She's changed. She fights for the Greater Good now, something you probably know little about." She grabbed the door handle. "Or maybe you do, but the smell of dinars keeps you in this slovenly dung-heap."
The bard pulled open the door and got out as quickly as she could. Got a little cranky there, didn't I? She chuckled to herself. Sometimes, it's okay to defend Xena's honor and be a little dramatic at the same time, isn't it?
For two days they traveled near the shore of the Black Sea, skirting great marshes, fending off swarms of flying, stinging bugs. At night, the wind stilled, and in its stagnancy, a whole new world of insects emerged, biting bare flesh and leaving itchy welts as reminders.
So near to the bogs, cold, wet air flooded their lungs. Fog rose from the fens, stabbing right through clothes and deep into bones. Gabrielle couldn't get her body to stop shivering. The heat she could normally steal from Xena's body dissipated into the humid chill, and no amount of blankets could stem it.
"Come on, let's get you back by the fire." They'd tried to sleep, but the bard's constant shivering kept them both awake.
"Sorry. I don't mean to do this to you." Gabrielle's body immediately relaxed when Xena picked her up and carried her over by the main fire. Other Amazons were there trying to keep warm as well, but Gabrielle's need for warmth outweighed the need for privacy that night.
Xena put the bard down and slid in behind her, then wrapped them both in the blankets. "That should help. If not, I'll get someone to make you tea."
"I'll do it." Phrygia appeared out of the flickering shadows. "It's not usually so cold so early here. Tomorrow, we'll head up into the foothills and it'll be better."
"Tomorrow we get to Kapru Kale," Xena said flatly. She'd feel better if she could talk this through once more. "Would you mind bringing back tea for all of us?"
It didn't take Phrygia long. They weren't the first to think of a hot drink and there was already a good supply of water boiling.
"Thanks." Gabrielle took her mug and held it between her hands, warming them before sipping the tea.
"Can I ask you some more about the fortress?" With just her eyes, Xena directed Phrygia to sit by her.
"Ask me anything. I'll answer as best I can."
"What should we expect?"
Phrygia expelled a breath loudly. "I wish I knew. They probably know we're coming. They may decide to meet us right away. They may hole up in the fortress until we get so cold, we just decide to go home."
"That doesn't sound likely," Gabrielle muttered, "for either side."
Xena silently weighed the tactics. "If I were leading them, I'd come out and show us what we're up against. That's what they'll do, too."
Phrygia continued, "I told you about the wonderful horses. They'll probably come riding against us. So many of us are on foot..."
Xena understood. "But there are ways to turn that into a disadvantage for them. We'll just stay near trees. Our Amazons are good in trees, horses aren't."
"But in front of the fortress, they've cleared a huge area. Getting in will be difficult."
"I won't be able to solve that puzzle until we're there." She smiled at Phrygia. She'd come to like her on this journey. She was often near enough to lend a hand but never became one who hovered. Still, tomorrow would be the final test of her loyalties. Xena would watch her closely.
She cast her eyes across the whole lot of Amazons. They were tired. It had been a long trek and an emotional one for them. She doubted many had ever left home to fight a battle before. But it was Gabrielle's vision that truly changed them. Xena could feel every woman harden her resolve after that night. Gabrielle was their queen now, their leader for better or worse. And she managed to do it in a way which was uniquely Gabrielle. She didn't best anyone in combat. She laid bare her soul and shared who she was with the Amazons. That took more courage than all the Amazons could muster between them.
Xena sighed. It was not an army that should be trekking into a battle. They needed a day or two of rest. But, it wouldn't happen here in this gods forsaken quagmire. And, she realized fondly, she'd never get them to agree to it, either. Nor would she be able to convince Gabrielle. So tomorrow they would meet their enemy.
She settled for the night by the fire. Eventually, Gabrielle fell asleep in her arms, warm at last. As Xena met Morpheus, she was still maneuvering pieces to the plan. How to get through an army on horseback; what to do when they did; and most importantly--how to keep Gabrielle from danger.
* * *
The path climbed along the River Thermodon. It seemed too easy. The road took two carts abreast with packed dirt that precluded any delays for digging out buried wheels. There were few places suitable for ambush. This was a path built by Amazons to give them safe passage home.
Xena knew it wouldn't be so inviting for long. The Kapru Kale Amazons would have ensured an advancing army could be stopped before reaching their doors.
And they were an advancing army.
Twisting and climbing through a low set of hills, the army marched on. At the summit, they could look out onto the valley below, and to the fortress of stone built into the hills beyond.
Gabrielle gasped. "Xena, those mountains..."
Perhaps it was the light playing tricks on them, but the peaks and valleys really did seem to form the heads of beasts. Outcroppings of rock became snouts; summits appeared to be the tips of ears.
The bard faltered in her step. "I saw those."
Xena steadied the bard then left one arm around her. "Those are the wolf stones you mentioned?"
Phrygia explained. "They're the Dogheads. In the light of midday, they look calm. But at sunset, they can take on a menacing presence as if they're protecting Kapru Kale."
So more of Gabrielle's vision comes literally true, thought Xena. She shook the disquieting thought from her head and assumed the role of strategist, studying the valley below. An enormous stretch of land had been cleared in front of the fortress. They wouldn't get very close under the protection of trees. But at least the trees rimmed the valley. They'd have several options once they were on the valley floor.
The fortress itself was magnificent. Xena could see where it would have gained the reputation of having been built by the Titans. Each piece of rock was larger than one she'd ever seen moved. They had been carved to fit together so cleanly that the joints themselves would add strength to the already immovable masses of stone.
There was only one way in and out. It provided a brilliant means of defense. But of course, in return, the inhabitants risked not being able to get out quickly if they needed to. The stone, however, would inhibit fire, and neither storm nor earthquake could damage those walls. She doubted they would ever need to evacuate the fortress.
Xena smiled at Gabrielle. "Ready?"
The bard nodded and followed Xena down the path.
* * *
As they hit the valley floor, Xena spotted the problem. A long swath of stumps from newly cut trees greeted them. They would have to cross in the open before they could again reach the safety of trees, or they'd be stuck there, too far from the fortress to be of any good.
She heard thundering hooves. "Make a run for it!" Xena shouted to the women. In a split decision, she kept Gabrielle with her on Argo, and broke for the trees. "When we get there, you're staying put."
Gabrielle couldn't answer. She was too busy hanging on. Argo had to run an obstacle course of tree stumps, and she occasionally decided to take two or three in a flying leap. The ride, even under the best of circumstances, was nerve-wracking. But when Xena pulled them up so hard Argo reared, Gabrielle came dangerously close to losing her grip and falling off.
"Damn them to Tartarus," Xena screamed. She flipped Argo around and headed back the way she came.
As they turned, Gabrielle could see a line of archers at the edge of the trees. They wore long leather shirts and leggings, and soft leather caps flopped on their heads. Each of them held a curved bow, and each of those was pointed at her.
"I have to get off so you can fight, Xena." Gabrielle felt the need to shout even though they were sandwiched together on Argo. Battles were loud.
"No place safe," Xena yelled back. She drew her sword and took a swipe at an advancing Kapru Kale. The woman fell from her mount, the dust lifting as she landed.
The din of horse hooves beating the earth began to drown out shouted orders and calls for help. More riders spilled from the fortress, rumbling across the valley. Xena took Argo right into the fray, for there was no other way back to the rest of their Amazons.
Solari waved to them from behind a hastily built barrier. They'd turned several of the carts on edge, positioning them in a semi-circle. Behind the barricade, they'd quickly erected a supply area. Working as fast as possible, they replenished arrows and replaced lost swords.
And too soon, they dug into their healing supplies to treat the wounded.
Gabrielle didn't bother to complain. She took Xena's arm and dismounted, running and diving behind the barrier as fast as she could.
Xena turned her attention back to the battle. She had to find a way to bring it under control. First, she would take several of the Kapru Kale Amazons alive. They would need a bargaining chip and a great one had just been handed to her. She instructed a group to follow her and round up everyone she felled.
While doing this, Xena watched the troop movements carefully. Someone at the center of the maneuvers was directing them. That would be the one to defeat. She sensed several small radii indicating autonomous groups. That would make them all the more difficult to overcome. But one woman was at the nexus. A strong and proud warrior who rode tall in the saddle and kept her cool. She would be the one.
Their eyes met. They would both enjoy this battle.
Suddenly, a wedge formed, plowing into their defenses. Xena evaluated it and saw the target: Phrygia. She postponed her plan to go after the tall warrior and went to the defense of her new friend, instead.
Amidst shouts of "traitor," Xena flew through the wedge of horses, bumping riders from the saddle and trying to slow them. As they neared Phrygia, the young Amazon stood alone and dropped her weapon. It was as if she knew and accepted the fate that awaited her. But when Phrygia's face flooded with anguish, Xena followed her eyes. Behind them, the tall warrior woman galloped in, taking out her own soldiers as she came to Phrygia's rescue.
"Themis!" wailed Phrygia. "Don't!"
Before Xena could interfere, Themis had scooped up Phrygia. Arrows darkened the sky, hitting them both, and driving them to the dirt. Without thinking, Xena took off toward the pair, intending to shelter them with her own body if necessary. Argo bucked as an arrow grazed her flanks. Xena realized the fury mounting around her was quickly getting out of control.
No place was safe from the fighting. Arrows and swords sliced friend and foe. But the Kapru Kale leader was down. Now was the time to end this.
In a mental picture, Xena drew a front line. The cart-barrier would be behind it. Nothing else mattered. She charged Argo down that line, pushing her enemies away from it. She turned to charge back, and felt her world give way.
The barrier had broken. The enemy was behind the carts. And in their arms was Gabrielle, a hostage now. Cheering in triumph, the victors tore back to the fortress, the whole of their army between Xena and her bard.
concluded in part three
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