The characters of Xena and Gabrielle and others belong in their entirety to Universal/MCA , Renaissance Pictures, and all the other powers that be. No copyright infringement is intended. I wrote this story at the urging of my muse; it should never be used for profit. Please do not copy or cite elsewhere without express permission of the author.
This story depicts acts of violence and/or their aftermath.
This story involves a loving friendship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something else.
Contains some spoilers derived from events in Seasons 4 and 5 of the series.
Many thanks to my compatriots on LaLa and Netgyrls Tavern Wall where I posted the "beta" version. Your comments and encouragement are always appreciated.
It was good to be home.
Gabrielle leaned back on the bench and savored the warmth of the fire and the fullness in her belly. For the first time in months, she felt satisfied, and safe.
She glanced over at Xena. The Warrior Princess sat beside her, talking quietly with an Amazon captain that Gabrielle did not recognize.
Gabrielle marveled at how beautiful her very-pregnant companion looked. She reached over and gently rubbed Xenas back. Xena turned and gave her a slight smile, then resumed her conversation.
Being with child had mellowed the tall, dark warrior. In the old days, that backrub in public might have earned a scowl. Now, it just felt pleasant for both women.
The young Amazon looked around the dining room. She sat among her sister Amazons, no longer their Queen, but still a princess and, now, a warrior in her own right. She had passed the Queens Mask to Shelaba upon the tragic death the Amazon Regent, Ephiny. Tears sparkled in Gabrielles emerald eyes as she remembered Ephiny, her brave and generous friend. She brushed them away. Such displays of emotion occurred less frequently these days.
So much had happened to Xena and Gabrielle since Ephinys passing: capture and crucifixion at Caesars command, a journey through the heaven and hell of another god, facing old enemies in the land of the Northern Amazons, exciting adventures in Chin. Through it all, the young woman from Potidaea grew stronger and tougher.
When Xena announced her pregnancy almost eight moons ago, Gabrielle willingly chose the role of protector for her companion and their unborn child. At first, the childs paternity bothered and puzzled the young woman. Finally, she accepted that Xena could not identify the father strange, but not uncommon, in the fantastic realm of the Warrior Princess.
"Well," thought Gabrielle, "I may have finally grown up."
Then, for some reason, she recalled her scrolls. Cyrene had managed to save them after the Romans took Xena and Gabrielle, but it had been a long time since the Amazon had written anything, and even longer since she told her stories before an audience.
She felt detached from her old storyteller self. The warrior business was hard work. It left no opportunity for the emotion or imagination essential to a competent bard. The way of the warrior meant closing off to pain and sorrow, but also to joy and fantasy.
More than one person asked the former bard about her lack of recent scrolls or recitations. Gabrielle would reply, "My life is more complicated, now," as if that could explain the abandonment of a vocation that gave her such pleasure, and brought delight to others.
Gabrielle began to understand why it had taken Xena so long to start expressing herself. She had many years of experience being tough a lot of thick skin to shed. And now, just as the Warrior Princess was opening up, the Amazon was shutting down.
"OK, Ill try to relax a little, " Gabrielle told herself, " tomorrow."
Her close friends among the Amazons noted a new stillness and reserve about their former Queen. Gabrielle had always been a good listener, but she also loved to talk and tell her stories. She was quick to laugh and cry, with a ready, open smile for just about everyone. These qualities endeared the young Queen to her tribe.
As they sat across from Gabrielle at dinner, both Shelaba and Eponin pondered the changes in their friend since the last time she had come "home" to the village. Gabrielle still listened intently, but smiled less often; she seldom laughed. She seemed shy and distant. Something was missing from her eyes, or her step, or perhaps her voice. Only when she was in Xenas presence did her friends catch a glimpse of the Bard of old. A wink, word, or nod from the Warrior Princess rekindled the light in Gabrielles face.
To Eponin, Gabrielles body looked physically stronger than ever. She bore the scars of a fighter on her arms and shoulders. When the breeze blew her shaggy blonde bangs from her forehead, or she brushed them back in weariness, Eponin noticed another scar. Despite the Bards outward toughness, her friend wondered about Gabrielles spirit.
Gabrielle sighed. Xena noticed.
"Happy?" asked the tall, dark Warrior.
"As I can be," the blonde Amazon replied enigmatically.
Xena detected a hint of sadness and resignation in Gabrielles response. She reached beneath the table, captured the Amazons hand, and squeezed gently. Gabrielle squeezed back, hard, as if she would never let go. She sought comfort in that touch.
Gabrielle, too, knew something was missing
Gabrielle continued to look around the dining lodge. It was a large, high-ceilinged room, with long, heavy, wooden tables and benches. Warming hearths scattered throughout the hall gave it a smoky glow. Lanterns flickered at each table.
By the light of one such lantern, Gabrielle observed a very young Amazon gazing raptly across the room. She followed the trajectory of the young womans stare. It led directly to another Amazon, who sat apart from the crowd at her table.
Gabrielle could barely make out the other womans features in the dimness. She appeared to be older, with short, dark hair. Gabrielle could not ascertain her height, but she projected an aura of quiet authority, even at a distance. The Amazon Princess decided she was handsome rather than beautiful.
Gabrielle returned to her study of the young watcher. This Amazon was exquisitely beautiful, with sweeping, fair hair that glowed in the firelight not unlike Gabrielles tresses before she discovered the ease of keeping them short.
What Gabrielle noticed most, though, was the look of love and desire on the young Amazons face. She had never seen such a smoldering expression. (Of course, she hadnt studied herself in a mirror when she watched Xena.)
The older Amazon shook her head as if clearing it. She turned. Her eyes met those of the young woman who watched her so intently. Gabrielle blinked. Perhaps it was only the flicker from the candles or the hearth fires, but she saw sparks fly into the night when two gazes encountered, and fixed upon, each other.
These women exchanged a look that generated enough heat to melt the snow atop Mount Amaro. Gabrielle felt like an intruder glancing from one Amazon to the other. Xenas companion noticed her own breath coming in short gasps. Something momentous was happening in that room, and only three Amazons shared the secret.
Gabrielle lowered her eyes and stared at her large hands, resting on her muscular thighs. When she looked up, the older woman was gone.
The Bards imagination awoke, and began to stretch after its long hibernation. She knew she had to get to the bottom of this.
The next morning, Xena rose before Gabrielle and began the gentle stretches that eased the discomfort of her pregnancy. Gabrielle opened one eye and watched her Warrior Princess move gracefully through the routine. She waited until Xena finished, then cleared her throat.
"Hey, good morning," Xena whispered softly when she noticed a tousled Amazon stirring in their bed.
"Good morning," Gabrielle responded. "Any plans for today?"
"I'm riding out to the north perimeter with Shelaba to check some tracks. Probably nothing, but there's heavy troop movement in that area."
Gabrielle swallowed hard. She knew better than to lecture Xena at this point, but she felt it her responsibility as the expectant Warrior's self-appointed protector.
"Xena, I wish you wouldn't." Gabrielle tried to convey a gentle, neutral tone.
Xena looked directly at her companion. Determined, crystal-blue eyes met equally resolute green-blue eyes.
She began to object. The Amazon Princess cut her off with a wave of her hand.
"Go ahead, Xena. I can't stop you, but it's my duty to give you a hard time about it." Gabrielle nodded toward Xena's swollen belly. "Besides, our child would never forgive me if I let anything happen to you."
Xena grinned, then leaned over the bed to claim her companion. She found herself teetering, slightly off balance. Gabrielle steadied her and sat up to take the kiss.
As the Amazon moved, the sleeping fur fell away, revealing strong shoulders, well-muscled arms, and firm breasts. Xena felt a twinge of desire when she glimpsed the young woman's intoxicating body in the early morning light. Gabrielle sensed the feeling. A spark flared within the Bard. Their lips met.
"Whoa," said the Warrior Princess as she reluctantly withdrew from Gabrielle's embrace and stood by the bed.
"Whoa is right," echoed the Bard. She caught her breath, then winked at Xena. "I'm probably bound straight to Tartarus just for what I'm thinking now."
Her remark earned a chuckle from the tall, dark woman. Xena returned the wink, grabbed her cloak, sword, and chakram, and strode toward the door.
"Wait, I'll come with you "
"No, Gabrielle. Stay here. Rest. I'll see you this afternoon," Xena called out over her shoulder as she exited the hut.
Gabrielle slipped back under the fur and slept awhile longer, then rose and headed toward the bathing hut. Nothing particular filled her agenda this day, so she decided to explore the mystery of the two Amazons she had watched during last evening's meal.
As she eased her body into the steaming water, something nagged at the corners of Gabrielle's conscience - a feeling that she should have gone with Xena.
Gabrielles day passed quickly. She learned everything she could about Ekaterine and Helena the women she had watched last evening when sparks flew.
Helena, the beautiful younger woman, was new to Gabrielles tribe, but came from the royal lineage of the southern Amazons. When her mother and father perished in an epidemic, relatives sent Helena to live with her aunt a woman of Queen Melosas original tribe.
The quick-tempered and haughty Helena had trouble fitting in with her Amazon sisters. Only their recognition of her youth, royalty, and intelligence saved her from banishment when her temper or sarcasm got the better of her. She had yet to prove herself in battle, and was not known for her physical prowess, but the Amazon trainers saw her potential.
The Amazons that Gabrielle interviewed knew little about Ekaterine, except that she had been a Roman household slave, escaped, and sought refuge with the tribe. Patient, gentle, loath to fight, yet very capable in combat she became an Amazon with ease. She was also an expert at administrative duties and had been appointed to manage the harvest stores, a task she performed with such skill that Shelabas tribe endured the past winter in great comfort, with plenty to eat.
Helena was new enough that Gabrielle would not have had reason to know her while she ruled as Queen. However, the Amazon Princess wondered how she had overlooked Ekaterine. Someone with such a shining reputation would surely not have escaped Gabrielles attention. When she was Queen, she had prided herself on knowing her subjects by name.
"But then again, you werent around very often were you?" her conscience admonished.
This thought convinced Gabrielle that she made the right decision when she gave the Queens mask to Shelaba. She sighed and continued her quest to learn more about the former slave and the young royal. Their story provided great material for a resurrected bard.
Further investigation revealed that Helena and Ekaterine met when Ekaterine served as instructor to the young Amazons, including the tempestuous young woman from the southern tribe. Though inexplicable, their mutual attraction was instant and obvious. Yet, Ekaterine held back. This had gone on now for two seasons. Helena gave chase. The older woman assented, then avoided a commitment. But Helena would not give up.
Gabrielle found herself determined to uncover the mystery of why two people so obviously attracted to each other just could not come together. She considered talking with Helena, but the other Amazons warned her that the girl wore her heart like a banner, and might take offense at the inquiry. The Bard felt unprepared to deal with that much emotion just now. Ekaterine seemed like a safer bet. Gabrielle planned to speak with the older Amazon.
Upon inquiry, Gabrielle discovered that Ekaterine had accompanied Shelaba and Xena on what became an ill-fated scouting expedition.
The day wore on. Evening's approach found Gabrielle walking the village perimeter, scanning the landscape for Shelaba's scouting party, and her Warrior Princess.
As the sun descended, Gabrielle's concern grew. Pausing at the north end of the camp, she stood very still watching and listening for any signs of her companions return. Another woman came up beside her and stood the same way, peering into the darkness.
Out of the corner of her eye, Gabrielle recognized Helena. The Bard stifled a small gasp as she turned to face the other. The young Amazon proved even more exquisite up close than she had been by the lantern light in the dining lodge. Her smooth, shining blonde hair cascaded onto milky, well-shaped shoulders. The features of her face called to mind the best poetry. Those well-proportioned shoulders and a shapely bosom topped slender hips and long, stunning legs. She wore her Amazon leathers as if born to them. "Beautiful" did not begin to describe her.
"Sweet Aphrodite," thought the Bard, "she is worth writing home about."
Helena was almost as tall as Xena. Gabrielle had to look up just to study her classical jawline. In the receding light, she appeared to have large, brown eyes.
Helena ignored Gabrielle, until the shorter blonde spoke.
"Are you waiting for someone too?" asked the former Amazon Queen.
"Yes," came the clipped response.
"Someone from Shelaba's, er, the Queen's, scouting party?" Gabrielle did not want to make a big deal of being on a first name basis with the head of the tribe.
"Yes." This time the reply seemed almost wistful. Gabrielle suspected the woman might be on the verge of tears.
The Bard tried a different approach.
"I'm Gabrielle," she said, offering her right hand to the taller woman.
Helena took Gabrielle's hand. The Bard felt a grip almost as firm as hers, but Helena's hand was cold in Gabrielle's warm, strong grasp.
"I know," said the younger woman. "You're a hero to the Amazons." She uttered those words with something akin to reverence, looking down at the Warrior Bard.
Gabrielle was grateful for the darkness that hid her blush.
"Who are you waiting for?" asked Gabrielle. "As if I couldn't guess," she thought.
"My friend, Ekaterine. And you must be waiting for your lover, Xena."
Gabrielle gulped. She wondered just how much the whole Amazon nation knew about her private life.
Before Gabrielle could respond to Helenas statement, the young woman posed a stunning question.
"Tell me, Gabrielle, what is it like to be that much in love with someone, and to have them love you back?" Heartbreak tinged Helenas voice. She kept her eyes fixed on the distance and did not look at Gabrielle.
"Where did that come from?" the Bard mused silently, pondering her response.
Gabrielle bit her lower lip thoughtfully, then gazed at the horizon. She pictured the Warrior Princess sweeping toward her in the sunset, dark hair flying, Argo blazing gold as they flowed across the violet hills. Gabrielle never tired of this image. It was the way she would always envision her soulmate.
Gabrielle looked out into eternity. She answered with the enchanting lilt of bard and poet.
"It's like holding the stars in your hands. Like setting out on a sparkling new adventure every dawn, yet coming home to safe harbor at day's end. It is your heart and her heart talking quietly to each other in the stillness of night."
Now came Helena's turn to stare at Gabrielle. Suddenly, the small, powerful Amazon with the short blonde hair seemed taller than anyone Helena had ever known. She realized that she stood beside a legend.
But legend or not, Gabrielle was worried. Night had fallen and there was no sign of
Xena or the scouting party.
The Warrior Bard grew impatient. "C'mon, let's see if anyone else has heard anything."
Gabrielle headed back toward the village. Helena followed her. Both women felt a sense of unnamed dread.
Torches lit the village pathways that led Gabrielle and Helena to the Captain of the Guard's hut. Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief when she saw who had the night duty.
"Hello, Princess." Eponin looked up from a map as Gabrielle and Helena entered.
The older Amazon grinned, recalling the day when she first used that name for
Gabrielle - the day Ephiny commanded her to teach the soft, na´ve kid from
Potidaea how to wield a fighting staff. The tough Amazon now approaching bore little resemblance to the girl she knew back then.
The Captain nodded a greeting to Helena.
"Evening, Eponin," Gabrielle responded with a tight smile, trying to keep the concern from her voice. "Have you heard anything from Shelaba's group?"
"No, and I already know they're overdue. I bet you want to lead a search party out there right now." Eponin enjoyed teasing her short, cute friend.
The Bard's smile broadened, despite her worry about Xena.
"Am I that easy to read?" she wondered, but said, "Yes, Id like to take out a small patrol and make sure theyre all right."
Eponin's grin faded. She sighed and rubbed her eyes. There were no warriors to spare.
"Look, I know you're worried about the Queen, and Xena, but I don't have anyone to escort you tonight. Shelaba has us on high alert, with all available fighters guarding the village perimeter."
Gabrielle was determined. "I can go alone, slip out and "
Eponin cut her off.
"No, Gabrielle." They're probably just late. Maybe a horse came up lame, or they stopped to hunt. I can't let you go out there on your own tonight."
"But you can't stop me either."
Eponin frowned. Instantly, Gabrielle regretted her words. She knew she sounded like a petulant child and sought a way to soothe her unnecessary harshness.
"What if I took Helena with me?" she offered.
Helena straightened at the mention of her name. The legendary Gabrielle wanted her company on an adventure!
Eponin glanced at the statuesque, young Amazon. The Captain of the Guard rose from her chair and moved closer to the short, blond Warrior so obviously determined to go after her lover.
"Trust me. Helena has not been tested in battle. She hasn't proven herself in drills yet, either."
Helena wilted at Eponin's blunt assessment. Eponin looked directly at her.
"No offense, Helena. You have fire, but it's untrained."
Facing Gabrielle again, the Captain continued. "She'd be a hindrance, or maybe even a dangerous distraction, if you had to protect her in a fight."
Gabrielle knew Eponin was right. It would be folly to ride off and get captured or injured in the darkness. She flashed back to her early years with Xena when she, too, had endangered the warrior's life with her inexperience. "What goes around " she thought.
Tears stung Helena's eyes. Upon seeing them, Gabrielle regretted involving the girl.
"OK, Eponin. I'll wait, just until dawn. But I'm going then, even if I have to go alone." Gabrielle's tone was husky and resolute. She looked Eponin directly in the eye and dared her to forbid this action.
"So be it," the older Amazon replied. She reached a hand toward Gabrielle's shoulder, but the young woman quietly eluded her touch and left the hut, followed by Helena.
"What in the name of Artemis is going on with that girl?" wondered the Captain of the Guard. She wasn't thinking of Helena.
By the torchlight, Gabrielle observed Helena's dejection and saw the tears spilling down her cheeks. She had just been humiliated in front of her hero.
The Bard placed a strong hand on the young woman's forearm.
"Helena, don't take it personally. Eponin was watching out for both of us. She's right you know. And you'll make a fine warrior one day, if that's what you really want."
Helena flashed a bright smile and brushed away her tears. Gabrielle swallowed hard. The other woman's eyes held a look of love, or hero worship, or maybe both, that made Xena's companion slightly uncomfortable. Then, Helena leaned down and kissed Gabrielle on the cheek.
"I'll ride beside you tomorrow, my Queen," she whispered with passion. Helena turned away sharply and disappeared into the darkness.
"I'm in deep trouble," Gabrielle muttered aloud as she touched the spot that burned her cheek and thought of Xena. A disconcerted Amazon Princess staggered toward their hut to endure a sleepless night.
Gabrielle tossed and turned, alone, in the bed she usually shared with her Warrior Princess. Worry over Xena, and the memory of Helenas kiss, shattered any thoughts of sleep.
The Amazon rose at first light. Gabrielle knew she looked like Medusa; the mirror only confirmed her suspicion. She splashed cold water on her face, donned her leathers and boots, tucked her sais in their places, and headed toward the stables. A loud growl from her stomach compelled her to stop at the dining lodge to grab a pear and a piece of hard cheese. On her way past the well, she took a dipper of water and drank it down in one gulp.
She planned to ride out alone, avoiding Helena and any more complications.
"Xena goes away for one day and Im already in more trouble than I care to handle," she chuckled to herself. "Thank the gods I can still laugh." She ran her hand through tousled hair. "Wait until she sees me "
"Gabrielle, slow down."
The Bard turned and saw an exhausted Captain of the Guard walking swiftly toward her.
"Weve heard news of Shelaba."
Gabrielle noted Eponins worried countenance, then took a deep breath.
"Tell me," she commanded.
The two women paused in the middle of the path and faced each other. Eponin wanted to reach out and hold the young Amazon, but refrained. Yesterdays Gabrielle would have welcomed her touch, but this was a different Gabrielle one who stood straight and hard before her, prepared to ride into Tartarus to find her soulmate. Eponin realized that Gabrielle teetered on the edge of recklessness, but she could think of no gentler way to break the news.
"Shelabas scouting party was attacked. A messenger made it back early this morning. Theyre on their way home, with two wounded and one dead."
Gabrielles felt her chest tighten. She forced out the next question, dreading the answer.
"What about Xena?"
"We dont know. The messenger collapsed and hasnt awakened yet."
"Where?" The Bard demanded.
"Wait here. I sent a patrol out to meet them."
"Where, Eponin?" Gabrielle repeated, ignoring her friends command. The Captain of the Guard knew there was no stopping her.
"The forest road, on the way to the northern huts," she began.
Gabrielle had heard enough. She whirled and ran toward the stable.
"Let her pass!" Eponin shouted at the unfortunate Amazon guarding the stable entrance. The sentry failed to move quickly enough. Gabrielle strong-armed her to the ground without a word and hurtled through the door.
Helena witnessed the whole episode from the doorway of the barracks where she lived with other Amazons in training. She rushed back inside, grabbed her sword, and raced toward the stables. Eponin caught her arm as she ran by and held her.
"Where do you think youre going?" the Captain of the Guard inquired.
"With Gabrielle. Release me!" Helena squirmed in the powerful grip, but Eponin had had enough of willful young Amazons this morning.
"No. You stay here. Thats a direct order. Ill lock you up I have to. Now, stay!"
Helena stopped struggling and glared at the older woman.
Gabrielle maneuvered her horse through the stable door. She urged the steed into a fast trot, heading north.
"Artemis be with you, Gabrielle," Eponin prayed as she moved to help the dazed stable guard to her feet.
"Ill be waiting, my Queen." Helena said a prayer of her own while watching the Bard ride off.
Gabrielle rode north with intensity born of desperation. The blood pounded in her ears; the wind tore at her hair and the fair skin of her bare shoulders and arms. She ignored all discomfort, her mind preoccupied with images of a wounded Warrior Princess, or worse. She kicked her horse into a full gallop, grasping his reins and mane for stability.
"Artemis, I'll do anything . Just let her be all right," the Amazon bargained with her goddess.
She pushed hard all morning. Sweat and dust stung her eyes. Her mount never faltered and she occasionally reached down to gratefully pat his strong neck.
As Gabrielle topped a small rise in the trail, she saw Shelaba's party, and the patrol that Eponin had sent to help them. She reined her horse to an abrupt halt, dirt and pebbles flying with the sudden motion.
The Bard studied the group that moved slowly toward her. She scanned back and forth until she sighted a familiar figure. Tall, dark and straight in her saddle rode the woman who held Gabrielle's heart.
"You can relax now." She commanded herself to stop holding her breath. Uttering a small prayer of thanks to the god on duty that day, the Amazon Bard trotted her horse down the hill.
As Gabrielle neared the group, Xena rode out to meet her.
"Gabrielle, what are you doing here?" The Warrior's tone fell halfway between scolding and wonderment. Xena looked tired and dirty; scratches and bruises marked her face.
"I came for you . That is, I came to see if you needed any help," replied the Bard in her best stoic fashion. But the quaver in her voice betrayed her.
Xena noticed her friend's relieved expression, wild hair, windburned skin, and reddened eyes. These signs told her why Gabrielle was really there. Her spirit leapt. She moved as close to the young Amazon as their horses would allow, then reached over and took the Bard's large, strong hand in her own and pressed that hand to her lips.
"Xena, if anything had happened to you ."
Gabrielle remembered the foreboding that possessed her the day before. Willingly, she let Xena keep one hand captive, and the other hand controlled her steed's reins.
"Shhsshh Gabrielle. I'm fine." A small cloud blocked the sun and Xena's expression darkened. "Some of Shelaba's warriors were not so lucky."
She let go of Gabrielle's hand, reached up, and brushed away her companion's tears with her thumb. "Why do you do this, my love?" she thought as she realized the dangerous speed at which Gabrielle must have ridden to intercept them this far from the village.
When they drew closer to the scouting party, Gabrielle noticed three litters. One carried the wrapped body of the dead Amazon; another held an unconscious warrior with a thick bandage around her head. On the third litter lay the woman Gabrielle recognized as Ekaterine.
Ekaterine was conscious. Gabrielle could not tell the extent of her injuries. Her face was drawn and she grimaced when the litter found the trail's rough spots. Yet, she did not cry out. In fact, Ekaterine protested that she would rather ride or walk.
Several Amazons nodded at Gabrielle, and Shelaba managed a tight smile. For the most part, though, it was a grim patrol returning to the Amazon village.
Xena and Gabrielle fell in with the group's pace.
"What happened?" asked the Bard.
Xena explained how a large band of marauders ambushed them near the northern border of the Amazon territory.
"They were slavers, bent on taking some captives to sell, probably in Rome." Xena almost spat as she described the lowlife scum that attacked them.
Ekaterine groaned when her litter jolted over a large rock. Xena glanced quickly at the fallen Amazon. Gabrielle noted remorse and pain in the eyes of her Warrior Princess.
"Xena, what else happened out there?" the Bard urged softly. She reached again for her soulmates hand.
Gabrielle and Xena slowed their horses and dropped behind the group.
Xena described the battle with the slavers in a flat, controlled tone. However, Gabrielle sensed something boiling just below the Warrior Princess cool facade.
After considerable effort and probing from her Bard, Xena admitted that shed gone down during the fight, when three slavers attacked her at once. As Gabrielle listened to her friends account of the battle, she imagined the action and shuddered at what might have been.
Xena dropped two of her oncoming attackers effortlessly. She whirled to face her third opponent, but the unfamiliar gravity of her pregnant body caused her to slip. She intentionally released her sword as she fell, using both arms to cradle and protect her precious "passenger" before she hit the ground. This left her vulnerable just long enough. The third thug was preparing to cleave her skull with his battleaxe when Ekaterine intervened.
Xena heard an agonizing scream and saw the point of Ekaterines blade protruding through the slavers chest. He stared at his wound in disbelief, then crumbled to the dirt. The quiet Amazon reached down to extract her sword. She failed to see the thug who caught her from behind and Xenas warning shout registered a moment too late. The big man slammed his staff across her shoulders. She pitched forward, falling hard, next to the Warrior Princess. He drew back for a fatal blow to her head. Ekaterine stared at him defiantly and whispered two words: "Goodbye, Helena."
Miraculously, several of the other Warriors raced to aid their fallen sisters and surrounded the slaver. He died beneath the skilled slicing and hacking of Amazon blades.
"I cant determine how badly shes injured Gabrielle, but Ekaterine risked her life for mine." The Warrior sounded slightly desperate as she gazed into the calm, green-blue eyes of the Bard. Long ago, Gabrielle had realized Xenas extraordinary ability to assume an extra burden of guilt. The Warrior Princess had just added another stone to her heavy sack.
Gabrielle didnt know what to say, so she kept silent, and listened.
"I should never have been out there," Xena told her companion, in a low, sad voice.
"You were right to warn me." She paused, then added, "Arent you going to say I told you so?"
Instead of replying directly, Gabrielle reined her horse to a stop. When Xena halted as well, the Bard leaned over in her saddle and kissed her companion on the cheek. She was aiming for Xenas inviting lips, but couldnt quite reach that far.
"Maybe its time you settle down until our child arrives. I can do the fighting for awhile."
The corners of Xenas mouth turned upwards at these words from the feisty young woman looking at her with love and forgiveness.
"Xena, promise me youll think about it?"
"Yes," the Warrior responded tentatively.
They trotted on to rejoin the other riders and proceeded home.
Grim sentinels moved aside respectfully as Shelabas group entered the village. Amazons quickly surrounded the party to help with the dead and wounded, take care of the horses, and learn what happened. Ekaterine rose from her litter and insisted that the healers tend to the other injured woman first.
A tall, blonde Amazon pushed her way through the crowd toward Xena. Helena couldnt see Gabrielle, but she knew that her Queen would not be far from the Warrior Princess.
Ekaterine observed Helena break through the circle surrounding the group. She shouted the young womans name and started shakily toward her. Helena gave Ekaterine a quick smile and squeeze on the forearm, then turned and enveloped Gabrielle in a passionate embrace.
Gabrielle gasped and glanced apologetically around Helenas shoulder at Xena. The Warrior Princess face registered shock at first, but this soon gave way to bemusement.
"You have a lot of explaining to do," she mouthed at Gabrielle who squirmed to extricate herself from Helenas death hug. The Bard rolled her eyes and sighed.
Several of the other Amazons whooped or simply looked on aghast at the sight of Xenas "woman" in the arms of another. Ekaterines expression of sorrow and surprise changed to dark, dangerous anger as the quiet Amazon watched Helena holding Gabrielle.
"Ouch!" Gabrielle yelped when Xena began to spread the strong-scented ointment over the Bard's collarbone and shoulders. Her body and hair reflected the golden glow of the candles illuminating their hut that evening.
"I could do it myself, you know," the young Amazon protested with mock irritation as the potion began to soothe her painfully windburned skin.
"Yes, but you'll heal faster this way." The Warrior Princess flashed an evil grin and massaged further down the Bard's front.
"Uh, Xena, that part didn't get burned." Gabrielle inhaled deeply and closed her eyes. She groaned with pleasure as Xena applied the salve to some particularly sensitive areas.
"I'm not the one who decided to ride bare backed all day, at full gallop, through wind and dust." Xena cocked an eyebrow at her companion. She thought she detected a blush, though it was hard to tell by candlelight.
"I was trying to rescue you," Gabrielle replied dreamily, letting the pleasant touch claim her.
"By the way, what is going on between you and Helena? And what about that hug this afternoon?" Xena tossed the questions nonchalantly while her skilled fingers continued their ministrations.
"What?" Gabrielle hadn't expected an inquisition during such an intimate time. The questions jarred her out of her reverie.
"Oh, Helena has a crush on me, I think. Or maybe she just wants to make Ekaterine jealous. I'll handle it tomorrow."
"Is there anything else I should know?" Xena adopted her best warlord-questioning-her-captive tone and applied slightly more pressure to the Bard's skin.
"Is this what you do to all your prisoners, Warrior Princess?" Gabrielle responded with her back-off-I-am-the-Queen persona.
"Not just this, but sometimes this, too."
As she spoke these words, Xena began tickling Gabrielles taut abdomen. The Bard giggled and tried to cover herself. Soon, raucous laughter filled the hut.
The Warrior Princess enjoyed this game. During her pregnancy, Gabrielle often treated her like a rare, delicate vase -- almost afraid to touch her in their familiar way. This despite the fact that she still fought formidably, even as her middle grew and she found it harder to lace up her leathers. Her friend's cautious behavior forced Xena to find creative ways of sharing bygone pleasures.
Gabrielle caught her breath and relaxed. She felt a strong-yet-gentle hand moving through her tousled, newly-washed hair, brushing stray wisps into place, caressing her cheek. She captured that hand in hers and applied the exquisite torture of her lips to a callused palm.
"My turn," the Amazon half-growled.
Xena laughed and Gabrielle marveled again at the beauty of that sound and the gleam of the Warrior's crystal-blue eyes as they took in her body.
"What you do to me, my love, my Warrior Princess " she thought.
Gabrielle extended her arms and the tall, dark woman entered.
A sharp knock at the hut's door stopped them mid-embrace.
"By the gods," Xena huffed in frustration.
"I'll answer," the Bard offered. She wrapped herself in a sleeping fur and padded toward the door with a candle in her hand.
Gabrielle opened the door. She stiffened at the sight of the other Amazon standing before her.
Candleglow and torchlight gave a frightening dimension to the angry, tear-swollen face of the powerful Amazon confronting Gabrielle at the huts doorway.
"Ekaterine?" The surprised Bard couldnt think of a more appropriate greeting. She recognized signs of intoxication as the older Amazon swayed slightly before her.
"Thats right, Gabrielle," Ekaterine snarled. "This isnt a social call. Im here to talk about Helena."
The young Amazon chose her next words carefully. Something about the way Ekaterines feelings surfaced in her voice made Gabrielle feel sorry for the other woman.
"Ekaterine, I know how it looked today and I apologize. You need to work this out with Helena. I havent any desire for her, but she seems to have a sort of crush on me. There is really nothing between us." Gabrielle forced a smile.
"Thats not what she says,
Princess!" The older Amazon spat out the title mockingly. "Helena told me you
started it when she was waiting for Shelabas patrol with you. You touched her. You
told her something about two hearts talking in the stillness of the night
The Bard realized how Helena had twisted the events of the past few days -- whether out of misplaced devotion or sheer manipulation, Gabrielle couldnt be sure. But she now faced one very drunk, very hostile Amazon. The situation assumed riskier proportions.
"Please, come inside, sit down. We can talk there," Gabrielle implored.
"No. Ill say what I have to right here." Ekaterine narrowed her eyes and glared down at the Bard. Gabrielle shivered from cold and fright. She took courage when a strong, warm hand pressed the small of her back. Xena.
Ekaterine leaned toward her rival and shouted, "Gabrielle, Amazon Princess, by the rights granted me under Amazon law, I challenge you for the hand of Helena, my partner!"
"Im not going to fight you, Ekaterine." The Bards response was low, controlled. "Youre drunk. Now, either come inside and talk, or go home and sleep it off."
Gabrielle staggered back as an unexpected right hook from the jealous Amazon glanced off her jaw. She tripped on the sleeping fur and almost fell. Xena caught her partner, and pulled her into their hut. Swiftly, the Warrior Princess moved between Ekaterine and Gabrielle.
"Go home, Ekaterine," she commanded.
A small voice in Ekaterines mind warned her about the power and danger of the woman now confronting her the woman whose life she had saved just a few days ago.
"My fight is not with you, Xena. It is with the thief and harlot who now hides behind you."
Xena sensed Gabrielle trying to move in front of her. She blocked the Bards path.
"Go home, now, and well discuss this in the morning." The ominous threat in Xenas voice broke through Ekaterines drink-clouded judgement.
"The challenge stands!" the inebriated woman declared as she walked away, staggering slightly.
Xena noticed Amazons from nearby huts standing in their doorways, watching. By morning, the news of Ekaterines challenge would be all over the village.
The Warrior closed the door and turned to her partner. Gabrielle gingerly moved her jaw from side to side. Tears welled in her emerald eyes and Xena could see some swelling to the left of Gabrielles chin.
"I dont want to fight her, Xena. Its not my battle."
"Is there anything in Amazon Law that says you have to accept this challenge?"
The Bard gazed sadly at the Warrior Princess and shook her head in the affirmative. Xena opened her arms and Gabrielle fell into them.
Neither Bard nor Warrior slept that night. Thoughts crowded their minds, but they kept silent. Xena simply held Gabrielle until dawn.
"I know I can protect her from Ekaterine," Xena deliberated. "But, I owe that woman my life, and our child's."
Gabrielle pondered quietly along similar lines. She dreaded combat with a sister Amazon - especially over something so ridiculous as a first-time crush. Besides, Ekaterine saved her companion and their child from the slaver's axe. How could she fight someone who had given her such a precious gift?
Reluctantly, Gabrielle moved out of Xena's arms and sat up to face the dawn. Her jaw ached where Ekaterine had punched her last night.
"Stupid, stupid, stupid." The Bard spoke with restrained anger, her fists clenched tightly on her thighs. "Xena, may I beat the Tartarus out of Helena for getting me in to this? It's not Ekaterine's fault."
"I know, Gabrielle. We owe Ekaterine." Then Xena smiled. "Hey, maybe we could gang up on Helena, or just leave town until it blows over "
"No. Our child will be here soon." Gabrielle gently massaged Xena's midsection. "You deserve the comfort and security of the village. We won't leave, but if necessary, I'll disappear for awhile."
"Not an option. We go together or we stay together, but together is the only way," Xena insisted.
"I love when you talk like that," the Bard responded with a grin. "But I still have to face Ekaterine. I must accept the challenge and fight her, or reject it and be exiled from the village for a term specified by the Tribal Council."
"What if you concede?" asked Xena.
"I thought about that, but I don't know if it would resolve things or just make Helena resent Ekaterine and feel sorry for me." Gabrielle sounded trapped.
"On the other hand, giving up might send a message to Helena that you're not willing to fight for her."
Xena's logic made sense to Gabrielle, until she remembered the sparks that flew between Helena and Ekaterine when she caught them watching each other in the dining lodge only a few nights before. The Bard's romantic nature told her that concession would not bring these two souls together.
"Maybe there's something in Amazon law we can use to get you out of this." Xena was not above proposing a legal loophole.
The Warrior Princess sat up beside her companion. Absentmindedly, Gabrielle rubbed Xena's back.
"Gabrielle, you choose the weapons, right?"
"Yes. The challenged Amazon chooses, but the council has final say. Why? Are you thinking of combat with sticks or feathers, or maybe pillows?"
"No, but you have a tactical advantage, here, O Bard."
"Xena, it's too early in the morning for riddles. "
"Why not accept the challenge, but choose your best weapon?" Xenas excitement mounted at the prospect of resolving this dilemma.
"What? Staff? Sais?" The Bard sounded slightly exasperated.
"Words, Gabrielle, words. I know a woman who can charm her way out of the Titan's lair, or talk herself off a cyclops' dinner platter. Use what you do best "
"I don't think the council would approve. That's not how Amazons usually handle combat challenges."
Xena cocked an eyebrow. "Since when did either of us do things the usual way?"
Gabrielle began to catch her partner's enthusiasm. She was confident she could best Ekaterine in a battle of the bards, and maybe help Ekaterine and Helena fulfill their destiny as a couple.
"Now if we can just get Helena off my back, and I mean that literally."
Xena laughed. But inside, her uneasiness about the council's reaction matched Gabrielle's.
"I accept your challenge, Ekaterine, but only because I can't risk banishment right now, not with Xena so close to her time."
Gabrielle stood proudly at the doorway of the older Amazon's hut. She shivered in the morning drizzle. Light rain plastered her short, shaggy hair to her forehead and a raindrop threatened to drip right off the tip of her nose. In the back of her mind she hoped Ekaterine would withdraw her challenge for the right to court Helena. The Bard barely concealed her anger at the statuesque blonde who had caused so much trouble.
"When and where?" Ekaterine questioned abruptly.
The quiet Amazons head pounded with the aftereffects of last night's binge, and her back ached from the fight with the slavers. Normally, she never drank more than a goblet of wine. She didn't need alcohol to bolster her courage, but Helena's affections for Gabrielle, combined with the pain of her injury, had pushed her beyond her limits. She felt almost sorry for the short, muscular woman now standing before her. Ekaterine had supreme confidence in her fighting skills. Gabrielle was as good as dead, but she would make an attractive corpse.
"Now where did that come from?" thought the quiet Amazon.
Ekaterine began to see Gabrielle through Helena's eyes. There was a certain grace and beauty about the young woman. Under different circumstances... those lips and eyes... her strong shoulders, taut abdomen, and shapely...
"I choose the weapons of course." The Bard's voice stirred Ekaterine from her fantasy.
"Of course," echoed the challenger.
"Words." Gabrielle issued her own challenge.
"What?!" Ekaterine had expected fighting staffs, or even the sais that Gabrielle wielded with consummate skill during battle practice.
"A duel of bards, and the winner gets to choose whether to pursue Helena."
Gabrielle looked directly into the grey-blue eyes of the taller woman and dared her to respond.
Ekaterine couldn't believe her ears. Her retiring nature made her a poor candidate for such a contest. She could command and administer with ease, but she was not sociable, and definitely possessed no inclination to perform before an audience.
"I'm taking this to the council," she protested. "It is not true combat."
"Well, it's better than what we usually do," Gabrielle retorted, " beat each other half to death, then say we're sorry. That's not the way to settle differences and you know it, Ekaterine."
The quiet Amazon's head told her that Gabrielle was right, but her pride and the pain in her heart would not let Ekaterine admit it.
"The council must decide," Ekaterine rejoined coldly.
"As you wish. I'll meet you at midmorning, and we'll petition Shelaba and the councilors."
Gabrielle tried to appear unruffled by Ekaterine's stubborn objection. Her heart was pounding, though. What if the council vetoed her choice? Someone could still get hurt, and no one would win.
The Bard started to leave, but stopped when she heard a soft voice behind her.
"Why?" Ekaterine asked.
Gabrielle turned back to face her challenger. Ekaterine appeared so vulnerable, so hurt. Gabrielle's heart went out to her sister Amazon.
"Why did you try to take Helena from me? Why lead her on?"
"I had no intention, " the Bard began, then decided to take a riskier tack. "How was I to know about you and Helena? Have you ever openly declared your love for her?"
Ekaterine swallowed hard before answering, and lowered her eyes. "No. I'm not very good at that sort of thing."
"Then how would anyone get the message to keep away? How would Helena even know you care?" queried the younger Amazon.
Ekaterine could not reply. Beautiful green-blue eyes met her gentle grey-blues. Both women regretted what had transpired.
"Gabrielle, forget the challenge. I withdraw." Ekaterine stood straight and offered a firm handshake.
Gabrielle took Ekaterine's hand between hers, then smiled up at the older woman.
"Don't do that just yet," whispered Xena's companion conspiratorially, romance shining in her eyes and a plan forming in her quick mind.
Xena looked up from her work as Gabrielle almost danced into their hut. A drenched, but happy Bard beamed at the Warrior who sat on their bed, surrounded by her armor and a variety of weapons.
The dark woman put down the sword she had been polishing and concentrated on the young companion who stood before her, dripping water all over the floor.
"This doesn't look like the face of a combatant-to-be." Xena grinned wryly as she reached up and stroked Gabrielle's cheek.
"And this doesn't look like a mother-to-be getting her much needed rest." Gabrielle shot back. She gestured around the newly-swept room and pointed at the gleaming, sharpened objects on the bed.
"Sorry, Gabrielle. Guess I have a little nesting urge going on." Xena gazed down at her stomach and gave it a confident pat.
Gabrielle knelt in front of her soulmate and placed her hands on Xena's lap. The Bard looked like she had just finished a fine meal, or bested the gods in a battle of wits.
"I take it you convinced Ekaterine not to kill you." Xena's left eyebrow lifted skyward.
"On the contrary. We're going to have a battle of the bards after all. And everyone will win." Gabrielle radiated confidence.
"Don't get cocky, kid," Xena admonished in an amused tone.
"Xena, I have a plan to bring Helena and Ekaterine together. After all, they're destined to be lovers." Gabrielle appeared slightly flushed and breathless as she said this.
"What gave you get that idea?"
"I swear I saw sparks fly when they looked at each other in the dining lodge three nights ago. They had such passion, such fire "
"Gabrielle, the Romantic Matchmaker," Xena teased.
The Bard grinned as Xena reached out and ruffled her damp hair.
"AAAhhh .chooo!" A violent sneeze shook the young Amazon, but she laughed.
"You're drenched," Xena observed. "Why don't you get out of that wet leather and let's go find some breakfast."
Gabrielle stood, retrieved a spare shirt and leggings from a peg on the wall, and began to remove her soggy garments.
Xena pretended to concentrate on her polishing and sharpening.
Later, over a breakfast of fresh fruit, bread, and tea, the Bard shared her plan to bring Ekaterine and Helena together. Xena agreed that it might work. By meal's end, though, Gabrielle's energy evaporated. The Warrior noted her companion's flushed cheeks and slight hoarseness; she even rejected a second helping of nutbread. The rain had stopped, but Xena suggested that they spend the day indoors, readying the hut for the coming of their child.
Gabrielle nodded, then sneezed again.
As the two women walked out of the dining lodge, they heard a growl behind them. Both turned to face Helena.
"How could you?!" howled the stunning blonde, anger glowing in her large, brown eyes, which were fixed on Gabrielle.
"How could I what?" Gabrielle barely concealed her irritation.
"Ekaterine challenged you for my hand and you chose a battle of words! How humiliating!"
"What did you want? Swords? Javelins at 30 paces?" Gabrielle's voice dripped with sarcasm. Her head had started to hurt during breakfast. She didn't know how much of this she could take.
"That's not the way to show your devotion. A real woman would fight for her beloved."
Xena saw her companion wince at those words; the Bard offered no defense. In fact, she looked exhausted.
"Maybe because there's nothing here to fight about," Xena interjected. "And how smart is it to ask your lover to risk death or to kill another in order to prove her love? Seems like everyone loses there."
Gabrielle gazed at the Warrior Princess with respect and awe. "How beautifully you've grown," she thought, and took strength from her friend's wisdom.
"The challenge stands as is. I don't want you Helena. Look in your heart and see that. See who really loves you." Gabrielle decided she wasn't feeling well at all. She spoke to the young Amazon with uncharacteristic bluntness.
The Bard's harsh statement stunned Helena. The tall blond could only watch as the short, muscular Amazon stalked away.
Xena glowered at the young woman who had caused so much trouble.
"Listen to her, Helena. And go have a talk with Ekaterine." The Warrior Princess turned on her heel and followed Gabrielle, leaving a speechless Helena in her wake.
When Xena opened the door to their hut, she saw that Gabrielle had collapsed on the bed, fully clothed and uncovered. Her companion smiled wearily as the Warrior Princess crossed the room toward her. The Bard shivered and closed her eyes.
"I don't think I'm up to cleaning the hut today," she apologized in a tired voice. "And maybe we should postpone that contest with Ekaterine."
Xena watched the sleeping fur rise and fall with each breath her soulmate took. She had helped Gabrielle change into a loose, warm shift, then tucked her into bed several candlemarks ago. Willow bark tea and a sedative powder brought on slumber and relief from the fever that Xena detected when she felt the young Bard's forehead.
"Too much excitement, too little sleep, and too much rain," the Warrior Princess sighed. She gazed on her friend's peaceful face, now illuminated by candlelight in the late afternoon.
"Gabrielle, what am I going to do with you?" the Warrior whispered. She paused and took a deep breath. " And what would I ever do without you?"
Sometime later, the infant stirred in Xena's womb, responding to the soft lullaby she hummed in her beautiful, deep voice.
"And what do you have to say for yourself, my little one?" She smiled and spoke to her bulging midsection. "Shall we get the Bard to tell you a story when she wakes? Or are you just letting me know it's feeding time?"
"Do you always talk to your stomach?" The question came from beneath layers of sleeping furs, accompanied by a quiet laugh.
The tall, dark Warrior pretended to investigate her bed for the source of the noise.
"Oh, its you," Xena teased. "I thought maybe the furs had taken on a life of their own."
She reached over and laid a cool hand on her friends forehead. Gabrielle was still warm, but looked and sounded stronger.
"It's time to finish the challenge," the Amazon said, starting to rise.
A powerful arm across her chest pinned her in place.
"No you don't," Xena growled. "Tomorrow is soon enough. I sent word to Ekaterine. And, by the way, she apologizes for punching you."
Gabrielle sank back into the comfort of their bed. She shifted to the other side, patted the spot she had just warmed, and raised a hopeful eyebrow to the Warrior Princess.
"We're getting fat and lazy here, you know," Xena grunted as she lifted herself out of the chair and lay next to her soulmate. The Bard rubbed her companion's shoulder.
"If this is the only way to make you rest, then I'm willing to get fat and lazy," Gabrielle said, grinning slyly.
Soon, Xena snored softly beside her. Gabrielle stared into the rafters and began formulating a tale. She rehearsed it in her mind. The fate of two lovers rested on her storytelling skills. The Bard hoped she could once again live up to her title.
The following evening, all was in readiness for the contest that would determine Helena's suitor. The Amazons erected a small stage in the community lodge; the incessant rain precluded an outdoor performance. Braziers and torches illuminated the stage and the dining tables had been moved as near to the platform as possible. Gabrielle had explained that storytelling was an intimate art, more suited to a warm, close atmosphere.
"Close is right," thought Ekaterine as she looked around the empty hall.
Her Amazon dress leathers chafed and she dreaded reciting before an audience.
Gabrielle had spent the better part of that morning coaching her, showing her how to breathe and visualize her story. The older Amazon was glad to see the young Bard feeling better. She had decided that Gabrielle and Xena would make worthy friends. She wondered what gods blessed these women -- so different, yet so obviously meant for each other.
During that morning's practice, Ekaterine apologized again for slugging Gabrielle when she challenged her for Helena's hand. The Amazon Princess rubbed her jaw and replied, "Yeah, guess I owe you one," but she smiled as she spoke.
After checking out the stage, the older Amazon stepped back outside in the light rain and walked the length of the village, practicing her story and thinking. She knew she loved Helena and was quite sure that the exquisite young Amazon loved her, at least until she set her sights on Gabrielle. But Ekaterine could not fathom Helenas motives.
Yet, when she saw Gabrielle and Xena, she understood how people of disparate backgrounds and temperaments could love each other and grow together. Perhaps, as Gabrielle told her, every person really was destined from birth to search for her soulmate throughout a lifetime. The soulmates completed one another. Those fortunate enough to find each other found a treasure beyond compare.
Ekaterine had lived much of her life alone, yet she seldom felt lonely. The soulmate concept was new to her and clashed with her individualistic nature. After some lively debate with the Bard, she resolved that a woman had to be complete in herself to recognize her soulmate. This is what allowed the opposing traits of each half to complement each other as the two became one.
Ekaterine possessed confidence in her completeness. She hoped that Helena did too.
She had shared this philosophy with Gabrielle that afternoon as she sought some last-minute storytelling hints from the young woman.
"If Helena truly is your other half, then she is one lucky Amazon," the Bard told Ekaterine. In just a short time, Gabrielle had come to like and respect this intelligent, reticent woman. The quiet Amazon's inner steel reminded her of Xena, but her peaceful spirit beckoned to something within Gabrielle herself.
Ekaterine sighed and started another round of breathing exercises.
She didn't notice Helena following her at a distance.
Back in their hut, Xena and Gabrielle prepared for the evening's event. The Bard selected a simple, pale blue tunic. One lovely shoulder remained bare. She fastened the tunic over the other shoulder with a brooch in the likeness of Artemis, Goddess of the Amazons.
For a moment, Gabrielle wished her hair was long again. She knew the dramatic effect that would have on an audience, braided and up, or flowing over her shoulders. The moment passed and she ran her fingers through the short, convenient tresses, then shook her head as if to clear it. She focused on the evening's contest.
Xena donned a loose, dark-colored tunic and comfortable woolen vest. She looked regal. Gabrielle smiled broadly when she saw her.
The Bard closed her eyes and began her breathing exercises as she stood in the middle of their room. She visualized her story once more. Xena sensed her nervousness and placed an arm around her shoulders.
"You OK?" asked the Warrior Princess. Gabrielles forehead felt almost hot to her companions touch. She still ran a slight fever, but had insisted on holding the contest tonight.
"Considering how long it's been since my last performance, I guess I'm all right. At least the butterflies in my stomach seem to be flying in the same direction."
Being a Bard came naturally to Gabrielle, but it did not come easily. In her early days on the road with Xena, she worked at her craft, practicing night after night where they camped, recording events on her scrolls, performing whenever she got the chance. She could not recall the last time she had recited for an audience. Given the events of the past twelve moons, she had a lot of catching up to do. Tonight was the beginning of a whole new chapter.
"Ready?" asked Xena. She wrapped a warm cloak around her companion's shoulders.
"Let's knock 'em dead," the Bard replied confidently.
Xena kissed her companion gently on the forehead.
"For luck," whispered the Warrior Princess.
Gabrielle gazed up at her with a world of love in those sparkling, emerald-blue eyes. Xena's heart leapt.
They started toward the community lodge.
The air in the lodge sizzled with excitement and anticipation. A battle of words was a new concept for the Amazons. They looked forward to the comeback performance of the most famous Amazon Bard, Gabrielle of Potidaea. Pre-event betting had been heavy, with Gabrielle as the odds on favorite. Much as the tribe liked and appreciated Ekaterine, they knew the quiet Amazon dreaded public display and lacked experience in this arena.
The Tribal Council would decide the winner, based on both content and delivery of the story. They had spent considerable time and effort that day developing the standards for a good recitation. If this worked, maybe the Amazons could find methods less damaging than combat to settle differences between tribe members.
Gabrielle and Ekaterine had drawn lots that morning for the order of performance. Gabrielle won and elected to go first.
Xena and Gabrielle entered the community lodge. Throughout the room, heads turned to catch a glimpse of the awesome Warrior and her ravishing companion.
Xena scanned the crowded hall, her face an impassive mask. Gabrielle chose not to look at the spectators just yet and kept her eyes down. She felt the tightness in her chest and accelerated heartbeat that signaled an approaching performance. An Amazon usher directed Gabrielle to a small bench just at the right of the stage and pointed to a front-row seat reserved for Xena.
The Warrior Princess used a strong arm to guide Gabrielle toward her place near the stage. She knew the young woman was now in her own world, preparing to share her story and heart with the audience. After a quick hug, she left the Bard and took her chair.
Gabrielle removed her cloak and sat on the bench. Soon, Ekaterine entered from a side door. The Bard caught a faint scent of wine when the quiet Amazon eased into the room, unnoticed, and sat next to her.
Ekaterine flexed her icy hands to warm them and tried to slow her breathing. She barely heard Shelaba read the rules for the contest and introduce the competitors.
The quiet Amazon stole a glance at the back row. There, she found Helena. The young woman seemed deep in thought as she stared at the stage. Her beauty reminded Ekaterine why she had challenged Gabrielle. The inexperienced contestant felt a sudden surge of confidence.
"I can do this, I can do this, " Ekaterine repeated quietly to herself.
"Of course you can." Gabrielle smiled warmly at her challenger.
"It sure beats combat," the Bard whispered. "Just remember what we practiced this morning."
Ekaterine nodded gratefully.
Shelaba announced Gabrielle. The Bard moved to the platform with quiet grace. The thrill was back. It would be a good performance after all.
Gabrielle gazed out at her audience. From the front row, Xena flashed her a confident smile. She winked in return, took a relaxing breath, and began.
No one stirred as the small, powerful woman presented her tale of adventure, pain, death, honor, love, and redemption. It was the story of Xena. She had shared some of it with the Amazons on other occasions, but by the time she finished, her audience was thoroughly enthralled and completely updated on the exploits of the Warrior Princess and a certain blond sidekick.
The audience applauded enthusiastically, whistled, and shouted for more, but Gabrielle shook her head from side to side.
"This is Ekaterine's moment," she said firmly and extended a welcoming hand to the other contestant.
Ekaterine's stomach somersaulted three times, then she found herself walking toward the platform. When they passed each other, Gabrielle squeezed her forearm reassuringly.
"Remember to breathe and focus," the master storyteller advised the novice challenger as she headed for the bench.
Ekaterine also remembered not to trip when she took the stage. "So far, so good," she thought.
She stood quietly until the audience settled down and waited in silent expectation. Xena gave her an encouraging nod. Then, her gaze fell on the beautiful Amazon at the back of the room - her Helena.
Observing Ekaterine and Helena, Gabrielle saw the sparks fly again. The older Amazon looked radiant and the young woman at the back of the room concentrated intently on the performer. An earthquake would not have diverted her attention.
Suddenly, the Bard realized that she was competing with destiny.
Part 18 (Conclusion)
Ekaterine's strong, quiet voice filled the room. Her confidence grew as she told her tale.
Yesterday I encountered a friend whom I had not seen in a long time. As we laughed together and shared our recent experiences, I noticed that she wore a small silver figure on a chain about her neck. On closer inspection, I saw that it was the nude likeness of a beautiful, muscular young woman. The statue's long hair flowed over her shoulders, framing a gentle, lovely face. The tiny figure attempted modesty by the strategic placement of her arms over her breasts, as if unwilling to release something precious. Her pose and expression were that of one yet familiar with innocence.
Captivated by the beauty of the statue, I asked my friend to explain. She took the figure in her fingertips and turned it over. I saw wings gracefully attached to the young woman's shoulders. The wings wrapped her softly from behind, following her exquisite contours, and extending the length of her body. The artisan had made these wings almost translucent.
"You see, " whispered my friend, "she is a very modest goddess who, if she ever chooses to unfold her arms, will spread her wings and fly."
Ekaterine bowed her head to signal the end of the vignette.
The audience reacted with stunned silence. This was not what they expected. It challenged tradition.
Ekaterine turned uncertainly to Gabrielle. The Bard reassured the quiet Amazon with a look that signaled her to remain patient. Ekaterine trusted this new friend and fought the urge to flee the stage.
A single Amazon at the back of the room began to clap. Soon, the room reverberated with wild applause, followed by cheers. Ekaterine's unique story had touched a nerve for each woman there. It told of the risks and pleasures of taking flight with one's own sensuousness.
When Ekaterine scanned the back of the hall for Helena, she could no longer see her. Moments later, the statuesque young Amazon appeared near the stage. She went straight to Gabrielle and graciously congratulated her on a good performance. Ekaterine thought her heart would shatter within her chest. Tears welled in her grey-blue eyes and she did nothing to brush them away. She had given her best, and lost.
Then, Helena turned to the woman on the stage and smiled. Her smile, and the movement of her head, told Ekaterine everything she needed to know. No matter what the Council decided, Helena had answered "yes" to her true soulmate.
Ekaterine mouthed a silent "thank you" to Gabrielle. The Bard's expression told the quiet Amazon that she was welcome.
The next few candlemarks passed in a fog for the contestants. They waited by the stage together, but chose not to speak. No one in the audience moved or spoke either. Tension and anticipation filled the lodge as the Council adjourned to deliberate the competitions outcome.
Although unconventional, Ekaterine's story fascinated her listeners. She told it with such beauty and simplicity that the judges chose to overlook her break from form.
Gabrielle had bested her challenger in the way she related her tale, holding her audience in the spell of adventure, charming them with her rich, hypnotic voice. But the content was traditional, and some of it had been heard before.
After an eternity's wait, Shelaba strode to the stage. The audience held its collective breath as the Amazon Queen announced the Council's decision.
"We have selected the winner of this contest," she projected with authority, "and that person is "
Silence and suspense reigned. Every Amazon strained to hear. Xena's heart pounded. Gabrielle held her breath.
" Ekaterine of Rome!"
A smile lit the quiet Amazon's face and Helena rushed into her arms. Together, they walked toward the stage to accept the victory laurel from Shelaba. Some Amazons cheered, others applauded, still others kept silent.
Gabrielle looked over at the Warrior Princess and shrugged, then grinned. She felt awkward and conspicuous standing beside the platform as the winners mounted it.
Shelaba held up her hand and the audience immediately quieted.
" and Gabrielle of Potidaea!" the Amazon Queen proclaimed in a booming voice.
The Council declared the contest a tie!
Gabrielle sank to the bench, overwhelmed. It took her a moment to recover before she approached the stage to accept the second laurel.
"That's my bard!" Xena shouted. Gabrielle heard her and laughed.
Many hugs and congratulations later, Ekaterine and Helena politely declined Shelaba's invitation to the post-competition celebration and stole off to spend some time alone together.
Xena and Gabrielle attended the party, but the Bard's recent illness gave them an excuse to slip out early. The remaining Amazons caroused until dawn.
Once back in the privacy of their hut, the soulmates performed their nightly ritual in comfortable silence.
Xena had already climbed into bed and was watching the Bard undress. Gabrielle removed her tunic and undergarments slowly, serenely. She felt Xena's gaze caressing her, consuming her. In return, the Amazon radiated a sensuality that always delighted the Warrior Princess. Both women sensed the growing warmth of arousal.
Gabrielle moved to a corner of the room. Xena noticed a metallic glint in the candlelight as the young woman carefully removed an object from a pouch and secured it about her neck.
When the Amazon approached the bed, the figure of the Winged Goddess adorned her body. She wore nothing else.
The Dark Warrior herself had fastened that token around Gabrielles neck the first time they made love. It was her gift to the Innocent who redeemed her soul and awakened her passion. Now, years later, Gabrielles face glowed with the memory of that night.
Xena reveled in the vision of the golden, muscular young woman standing before her shoulders, breasts, waist, hips, thighs -- all thrillingly displayed for the Warriors pleasure. Gabrielle paused, then shifted gracefully into bed beside her companion.
They held each other for several candlemarks without speaking. Finally, Xena broke the silence.
"You gave your story to Ekaterine for the competition," the older woman remarked. She rested a gentle hand upon Gabrielle's left breast, near her heart. The heartbeat was strong.
"That way, we all won," replied the Bard.
"And this?" Xena reverently fingered the statue resting at the hollow of Gabrielle's throat.
"Ephiny kept it safe for me," the Amazon responded quietly. "She had to. It was from you."
"I treasure you beyond life itself, Gabrielle."
The Warrior Princess snuffed the bedside candle, took the Bard's hand, and pressed it to her warm, soft lips.
Gabrielle offered a contented sigh. Love had triumphed, and two pairs of hearts would hold wonderful conversations in the stillness of that night.
Comments? Questions? Constructive feedback gladly accepted at: MsCL@ix.netcom.com