At a Distance - Part 3

by: Melissa Good
Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

Amazon Village - Council Chamber

Ephiny kept a close eye on Gabrielle’s face as the scout made her report. The queen’s pale green eyes didn’t disclose her reaction to the news, neither did the set of her body, which already held lines of tenseness as she sat behind the council table.

"So, in sum, the border posts report that the rumors appear to be accurate." The scout finished, glancing at Ephiny. "There is some kind of army being built at or around Amphipolis, and there have already been skirmishes with two of the local warlords."

"Who won?" Gabrielle asked, in a quiet voice.

"Not the warlords." The scout answered, with a grim smile.

"No question of who’s responsible, then, I guess." Ephiny gave a forced laugh. Giving the queen an uneasy look. I don’t like that look. But then, I haven’t liked that look for a few days now. Something’s up with her.

Gabrielle nodded, and looked down at her hands. The weight of responsibility settled heavier on her shoulders, and she grimaced to herself. What on earth was Xena up to? "I find it really hard to believe Xena is building an army. More likely, she’s just giving them a few pointers on self defense." She said, leaning back with a smile. "She did mutter something about getting bored out there."

Arella narrowed her eyes, and stood up. "That’s not a risk we can take, Gabrielle, and you know it. Despite whatever she’s done in our behalf, a major army that close to us is dangerous." She looked around, sensing support for her views. Xena was an uneasily trusted ally at the best of times, and there was more than one Amazon who was spooked by the whole coming back from death thing. Not to mention her well known connection with Ares. "You can’t guarantee that she’s not just going back to old ways."

Can’t I? The bard mused. "Oh, I think I can guarantee it." she chuckled lightly. "I know her better than you do."

"Are you willing to risk your life on that?" Arella countered, feeling a sense of excitement building. At last, an issue she could override their surprisingly tough queen on. It had been a long four weeks, and she had lost every encounter so far - personal as well as leadership. And when she tried to hate Gabrielle for it, she found, frustratingly, that she couldn’t.

Gabrielle smiled, a real smile this time. "Arella, I have. More times that I can count." She hesitated. "But, I can see you have a concern." She looked up. "Ephiny?" The Amazon leaned forward. "I’m sending you as an..." her mouth quirked. "envoy to this new army. I want you to conclude a treaty with them, to provide a mutual defense of territory." She tried really hard, and managed to keep a grin off her face.

Ephiny nodded. "All right." She said, slowly, dragging the words out. "If that’s what you want." A deep breath. Wants me to check things out, I guess. She seems pretty sure, though...

Arella cleared her throat. Not this time, green eyes. "Excellent idea, but I think, for Ephiny’s protection, we need to send along someone to escort her. " Behind her, she felt Erika stir, and she grinned to herself. "My best crossbow, Erika, will make a good escort."

Ephiny and Gabrielle exchanged glances. No way to gracefully refuse that offer, the bard thought. And I suppose it won’t hurt for the opposition to get a chance to see the truth for themselves. "OK." she nodded. "Dawn, then." She pulled over a sheet of parchment and picked up a quill. "I’ll write out a treaty." And a note, for private delivery. For me to get some of this stuff I have bottled up off my chest, for someone to read who I know I can trust. Who trusts me.

Her usual after dinner walk to the lake left her sitting on a stony projection, staring out over the running water with unseeing eyes, and letting her head rest back against the cool stone. It had been a productive four weeks, she mused, a treaty concluded with the centaurs, a trading agreement with three villages to the south, and a cooperative defense plan with the two farming centers to the east. The villages were willing to trade supplies and foodstuffs for crafts and the Amazon’s protective services. Not bad, actually. She had every right to be very pleased, and somewhat proud of herself.

But the constant pressure was getting to her. She sighed. She could feel it, in her lack of patience, in the strain that left her back and neck aching at night so badly she could hardly lie down. In the constant questioning of everyone’s motives. And the persistent need to be on her guard against the words and physical touches of Arella. And it’s not like I’m not a touchy kind of person. she scowled to herself. After all, I can hardly keep my hands off.... A pause, then a helplessly silly grin. Well, that was different. But Arella just made her feel... ugh. Creepy.

Ephiny knew there was something wrong. Had gently tried to question her on it, but Gabrielle had resisted confiding in her, knowing Ephiny felt guilty enough about calling her here. Knowing if Ephiny knew how bad she felt, the Amazon would feel it her duty to do something. And there was only one something that would help. One someone, and that would ruin a lot of what she was trying to do. She groaned, and let her head slip forward, trying to release some of the tension in her neck. Having the sudden desperate craving to feel a familiar pair of strong hands clasp her there, and with a few knowledgeable kneads, bring relief. After a moment of indulgence in misery, she took a deep breath, and leaned back, squaring her shoulders. I can do this. I may not like it, but I can do it.

I wonder if any of them know just how much I would pay to be the one going to check out the new Amphipolis army? She laughed helplessly. Except, I think... if I did... I’d never come back. I think? NO...I know. That’s really why I haven’t sent word to her...why I won’t admit to Ephiny why I can’t sleep at night...because if she rode into this village, she’d take one look at my face, and just lift me up onto Argo, and ride out. And I’d go...and I wouldn’t look back. And.. she sighed. That wouldn’t be the right thing to do. Right now. But I can’t do this forever. It’s killing me.

A sound at her back raised the hair on her neck, as she recognized the footsteps. Oh great. "Hello, Arella." she said, not turning around. Another reason I can’t send for Xena. Drawing and quartering a fellow Amazon at sunrise in the middle square of the village will really upset some of the negotiations. She turned to see the tall redhead sauntering down the riverbank, stopping when she reached Gabrielle’s rock, and leaning on it with an air of complacent familiarity.

"Ah, my queen." she said, in a bantering tone. "I’m glad you accepted my offer to send Erika along to Amphipolis. I do hope there won’t be any trouble needing her services." She smiled at the bard, who wrapped one arm around her knee and remained silently listening. "Look, I know you think you know best about this, but I’ve asked around...and you know it wouldn’t be out of the question for your friend to be building up another army. She’s done it before."

Gabrielle sighed in annoyance. "Arella, the subject is not up for debate." She let some of her anger show in her glance. "I’m not going to justify, either to you or anyone else my faith in my best friend. You’ll just have to see for yourself."

"What if you’re wrong?" Arella countered softly, laying a hand on the smaller woman’s shoulder, and capturing her eyes with her own. "What then? Do we sit here and wait for an attack, based on" Her voice left little doubt of what she thought that faith was based on.

Gabrielle went very still, and felt a seldom indulged deep anger trying to work its way to her calm surface. She bit her lip until the urge to lash out at the tall Amazon subsided, then drew in a breath. "Well, then... you won’t have anything to worry about." she was amazed at how calm she sounded. "Because I’ll no longer be the queen of the Amazons."

Arella started, and jerked back, not expecting that response. "You’d step down?" she asked, incredulously.

The bard smoothly stood, and stepped up to her. "Yes." She enjoyed the look of confusion on Arella’s handsome face. Because if that happened, I would no longer trust my own judgment. And they couldn’t either. "But I know I’m right."

"I think you’re judgment is a little...clouded." Arella responded, but she sounded unsure. "But I guess we’ll see." She removed her hand from the bard’s shoulder, and backed off, giving her a little smile, then turning her back and walking up the path to the village.

Gods. Gabrielle groaned to herself. I can’t take much more of this. One of these times, I’m going to lose it, and do something I know I’m going to regret, because she can definitely beat the tar out of me. And I’m supposed to be the non violent one. Well, Xena...I just got an up close and personal understanding of that little look you get, you know, that narrowed eye, lip twitching one, when you really want to just bap someone, and you can’t. A whole new perspective, yes ma’am. And I am totally ashamed of myself for desperately wishing I could see you just lay her out with one of those right from the shoulder power hits you’re so very good at. Ashamed. Yep. Bad bard. Bad bard. Suddenly she giggled at the thought, bringing a little relief. And turned as she heard yet another person approaching. Ah. Ephiny. Of course.

The Amazon approached cautiously, with a raised eyebrow. "You’re standing in the middle of the riverbank... giggling. Should I be concerned?" she queried, with a hesitant grin.

Gabrielle shook her head. "No...just doing some therapeutic visualization."

"Huh?" Ephiny blurted.

"Picturing Xena dumping Arella into a pile of centaur droppings." the bard rephrased.

"Ah!" Ephiny exclaimed, then chuckled. "That’s not very queenly of you."

"No." The bard answered. "But I’m enjoying it." She turned to walk back to the village, waiting for Ephiny to fall into step next to her. "You just missed her."

Ephiny turned and put a hand out to stop Gabrielle from continuing to walk. "Hey... is she getting too much for you? Because if she is.."

"You’ll do... what?" the bard countered, serious now. "What, Ephiny? Hit her? She can take you, or almost anyone else. Here, anyway" She wouldn’t release the Amazon’s gaze until Ephiny sighed. "You don’t think I’ve thought of that? Do you know how hard it is to just put up with it when I know with one..." She stopped. "Anyway. I can cope with her. Just go find out what’s going on over in Amphipolis" Turning, she started walking up the path again.

Ephiny squared her shoulders, and caught up. "OK..OK...but it’s damn hard to watch. I gotta tell you that, my friend." Upset made her voice wobble. "I don’t like feeling helpless, Gabrielle, I just don’t. And...I do care, you know."

Gabrielle glanced at her sidelong. "I know. And I appreciate that, Ephiny. It’s all right - I’ve dealt with worse than her. She really hasn’t done anything, it’s just that....ugh..."

"Attitude?" Ephiny provided, knowingly. "Yeah."

"Yeah." Gabrielle agreed. "The I’m too sexy for my skirt attitude."

Ephiny lost it, doubling over in laughter. After a minute, the bard joined her. "Oh.. I’m sorry.." the Amazon gasped, leaning on a tree. "that just struck me so funny..." She took a breath, still chuckling. "I’m glad you’re immune to it. I was.." An embarrassed shrug. "kind of concerned about that. I know you’ve not had a lot"

Gabrielle blushed. "Ephiny" she muttered. "I hadn’t realized just how naive you thought I was until right now." she glanced around. "What am I supposed to tell her, that her ‘appeal’ pales in comparison to what I’m used to?"

Now it was Ephiny’s turn to blush. "You keep surprising me." she admitted, "and you know I don’t really like to pry into your personal business."

"Mmm." the bard agreed. "Well, I need to go write that treaty. Pick it up in a few hours, will you?"

And just what will I write? Gabrielle thought to herself as she settled at the desk, quill in hand. She thought for a long time, then nodded a little to herself, and started writing. For a very long time the only sound in the hut was the sound of her quill scratching against the parchment. First, the treaty. Then, a longer missive, with pauses for thought between the words. At last, she settled back, and reviewed her work. Satisfied, she sanded the ink, blew the parchment dry, and folded it carefully, adding a wax seal.

Dear Xena, (it said)

Sorry about sending Ephiny with this dumb treaty, but your reputation is getting out of hand, and there are rumors that you are taking over the world. Again. Please treat her gently, and try not to beat up the person traveling with her, who is one of Arella’s stooges, and is there to make sure Ephiny tells the truth about what’s going on.

I hope you’re OK, and not busy building blackberry fortifications. I told the Amazons you were probably teaching your people there how to defend themselves, as I’ve seen you teach others. As you’ve taught me. But they’re hard to convince. I guess they don’t know you as I do. I feel sorry for them.

I promised myself I wasn’t going to put anything sappy in this note, as I know you hate that sort of thing, but the temptation to just say I miss you more than anything is just too great. The Amazons are treating me OK, and we are making progress, but there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wish you were here. Sometimes I just want to hear your voice, or have you raise your eyebrow at me. That’s pretty sappy, isn’t it? Sorry about that.

Anyway, assuming you’ve finished conquering the world by then, there’s a festival coming up here during the next full moon, and I thought if you weren’t doing anything else, maybe you could drop by. It’s the fall harvest celebration of Dionysus, and I have a funny feeling that I’m going to be in need of championing.

There... that was a nice polite way of saying I need you, wasn’t it? Because I do.

Be well.


The bard sighed, and leaned back in her chair, feeling a sense of weight being lifted off her shoulders. By the festival, she should have just about everything sorted out, and if not.. well, it didn’t matter. Idly, she realized that she never even questioned herself as to what the response was going to be to this note. When did I become so sure? Her brows creased. I mean, it’s possible that she’s happy where she is now, and won’t show. But her heart laughed at her, and try as she would to feel apprehension, the only thing she came up with was a bubbling surge of happy expectation.

Ephiny found her half asleep over the table when she stopped by an hour later, to pick up her charges. "Hey." She said softly, so as not to startle her.

"Oh." Gabrielle responded, a little foggily, rubbing her eyes and blinking at the Amazon. "Sorry." She grinned sheepishly. "I was sort of out of it there for a minute." She held up the sealed packet. "Here, I finished the treaty. It’s a little on the short side, but I don’t think you’ll need more."

Ephiny came forward and grasped the packet, tucking it away in her belt pouch. "Why don’t you get some sleep? You look wiped." she pronounced, with a sympathetic look at the bard. But more relaxed than I’ve seen her in two fortnights. I wonder what’s in this packet?

"Yeah. Good idea." Gabrielle answered, muffling a yawn. "Have a good trip. Try not to kill Erika, and..." her face creased into a grin. "Give my regards to the conqueror of the world, will you?"

Ephiny chuckled. "All right, I will. Any messages?"

"There’s one in there." Gabrielle nodded at her pouch. "But thanks for asking."

Ephiny grunted. "Very well. Good night, and see you in a week or so." So... that’s what I’m carrying, is it? She laughed to herself, as she walked out into the night G’wan, Ephiny... you are a romantic thing, aren’t you? She spotted Erika, who changed direction to move towards her, and wiped the grin off her face.

"Erika." she greeted the woman. "We leave at dawn."

"I know." the dark haired Amazon answered coolly. "And I hate being late. Don’t worry, I’ll be there, with bells on." She gave Ephiny an amused look. "Won’t this be fun? At least you won’t have to worry about eating on the way there." She plucked her bowstring in emphasis, then sauntered off.

"Aurgh." Ephiny growled, low in her throat. "Just what did I ever do to anyone to deserve this??"

"I dunno." Granella chuckled, slipping an arm around her. "Maybe if you’re lucky, Erika will annoy Xena when you get to Amphipolis, and your trip back will be more pleasant." They walked along for a few minutes, then Ephiny laughed. "That’s a nice thought." She wrapped an arm around Granella’s shoulders, and pulled her close. "Thanks...I’ll keep that thought in my mind when I have to spend three days on the road with her."

"You don’t really think there’s an army brewing there, do you?" Granella asked, curiously.

"Nah." Ephiny shrugged. "I think Gabrielle is right on there. I’ll be glad to see the old war horse, though...maybe I can get a handle
on what’s been bugging our queen. "

Granella snorted. "If you call her an old war horse to her face, she’ll get a handle on you, Ephiny... and toss you into the manure pit, more than likely."

They both laughed, and walked towards the scout’s campfire.

Amphipolis, three days later.

"Here’s the crossroads." Ephiny said, gesturing ahead. "It’s not far up the road from here." She moved forward, not waiting for a response. It had been a long three days.

Erika strode easily next to her, in silence. She glanced ahead, seeing the first edge of fields that meant an upcoming village, and sighed to herself in relief. Traveling with Ephiny had been nerve-wracking, since neither of them trusted the other, and she hadn’t had a decent nights sleep in three days. Nor had her traveling companion. Conversation had been limited to discussion of the path, the weather, the general condition of the lands around them, and that was about it. Erika was looking forward to getting to Amphipolis, army or no army just to have someone else to talk to. And she was pretty sure Ephiny felt the same way.

The fields they passed were well tended, and they began to spot villagers working out in them. Occasionally, one of them would raise a head, and observe them as they passed, but there was no overt hostility there, just mild curiosity. "Looks pretty peaceful." Erika admitted.

"Hmm." Ephiny murmured, then jerked her head towards the fields again. "Maybe, but look again. Word’s being passed on us." Then she noticed the casual scattering of staves around the workers, and spotted a half asleep boy on the wall facing the road, whose lidded eyes followed them. Her spine began to prickle.

Erika moved closer to her in pure reflex. Now that Ephiny had pointed it out, she could see small subtle signs of an uncommon awareness around the hard working field hands and trudging villagers. Still, she saw no armor, no slyly hidden weapons. No fortifications. Puzzled, she glanced at Ephiny, whose face reflected a similar confusion. "Well, that makes me feel better." She commented wryly. "You don’t know what’s going on here either."

They walked on, approaching the village proper, where they got polite nods from the passer’s by, and a cheerful hello from a few who apparently recognized what they were. "Well, they don’t hate Amazons, anyway." Ephiny muttered. "There’s an inn. Let’s go find out where we can find Xena." She directed her steps to the door, and pushed it open, peering inside.

"Hello." Came a voice from within, drawing their attention. Ephiny moved inside, and blinked a little in the gloom coming from the sunny courtyard. It was a nicely appointed inn, with good solid tables, and an appearance of doing well. She turned her attention to the man standing behind the service bar, and jerked a little at the unreal sense of familiarity he stirred in her. Who? What...??? Then she realized it was the eyes. Fiery electric blue, like only one other person she had ever known.

"Hello." He said again, coming out from behind the service bar and moving towards them. "You’re Amazons." Stating the obvious. "Are you looking for Xena?"

Ephiny and Erika looked at each other. "Yes." Ephiny said, tilting her curly head at him. "And you are...?"

"Toris." He extended a forearm. "Her brother."

"Ah." Ephiny breathed. "That explains why you look so familiar." She chuckled. "She never mentioned.."

"She never does." Toris answered, cheerfully. "But here we are. And she’s out in the practice yard running some drills - you can go through the back door there if you like."

"Thanks." Ephiny said warmly, and motioned Erika to go before her towards the door. "Nice meeting you."

"I’m sure we’ll be speaking again." Toris answered, with an amused look on his face. "Watch yourself when you go out there, sometimes those staffs get swung a little wildly."

Ephiny nodded, and moved on. "Wow.." she said in an undertone to Erika, ignoring her dislike for the woman for a moment.

"Yeah.." Erika answered, with a sly grin. "I guess the looks run in the family."

For a moment, an understanding of a sort existed between them. Then they were at the door, and Ephiny was pushing it open cautiously. The sound of wood smacking against wood could now be clearly heard. They peered around the doorjamb, and froze in place, just watching.

The practice yard was a cleared area in back of the inn, with a packed earth floor, and strategically placed haybales. Xena was in the center of it, armed with a long quarterstaff, and facing 10 villagers, mixed men and women, who were taking turns coming at her, and trading blows. The tall warrior was in a sleeveless white belted tunic, and boots, and was patiently explaining to each villager what they were doing wrong, or right, whichever it happened to be, as they came towards her and practiced smooth swings and parries.

Erika and Ephiny traded glances again. "Guess Gabrielle was right." Ephiny smirked. "Sure looks like a defense class to me."

Erika snorted. "Maybe." she grudgingly admitted, though she was privately convinced the queen had been right all along. That wasn’t the reason she was along, and what Xena was, or was not doing wasn’t really relevant. Of course, Ephiny didn’t know that. But she would find out. A smile curled Erika’s lips. She turned to watch the class, as Xena, stepping back, now motioned for all of the villagers to come at her at once. Raising an eyebrow at what she saw.

"She’s pretty damn good." The dark haired Amazon muttered.

Ephiny snorted and rolled her eyes. "Pretty good. Yeah, right. " She watched as Xena, moving with a powerful grace managed to disarm most of the villagers in one dazzling series of movements, then just jumped over the other three, and took their legs out from under them with a backhanded sweep. "Oh ho! I just saw where our queen got one of her moves from."

"That reverse sweep, yeah." Erika admitted. "not bad."

Ephiny rolled her eyes, and looked back at the practice ground, finding her eyes held by a pair of burning blue ones. Xena immediately stopped what she was doing, and loped in their direction, tossing an instruction over her shoulder at the villagers. Ephiny realized the sudden alarm she was causing, and made a quick hand signal to the fast approaching warrior, seeing relief flood Xena’s eyes, and her tense shoulders relax.

In a brief moment, she was slowing to a halt opposite them, extending an arm to Ephiny, who grasped it warmly. "Hello, Ephiny." She shot a glance at Erika, then looked inquiringly at the blond Amazon.

"Hello, Xena. This is Erika." Her grasp tightened on Xena’s muscular forearm for a second, and she saw an answering quirk of the warrior’s eyebrows.

"Erika." Xena drawled. "What brings you two here?" She released Ephiny’s arm, and nodded for them to go back inside the inn. "Go on in." She held the heavy door for them, and followed them inside, grabbing a pitcher and a few glasses on the way to an empty table, and setting them down before pulling a chair up and seating herself. "Help yourself. The ale’s cold, but I warn you, it’s potent."

They poured themselves glasses, and sipped tentatively, then more enthusiastically. "Nice." Erika purred, glancing at the dark haired woman over the top of her glass. Ephiny nodded agreement.

"Tell it to my mother." Xena commented, settling back in the chair with her own glass. "Now, what brings a pair of Amazons to Amphipolis?"

"Your mother?" Ephiny asked, distracted.

"Yeah, Gabrielle hasn’t been telling that story where they found me under a rock again, has she?" Xena’s voice was amused. "This is my mother’s inn." She glanced around. "You’ve already met Toris, I take it."

Ephiny just shrugged. "Honestly, Xena, nobody knows much about you, so I guess it never occurred to us that you had a family somewhere. You’ve kept pretty quiet about it."

The warrior shrugged. "Safer for them that way." She leaned forward. "You still haven’t told me what brings you here." Pinning them both with a baleful blue glare.

"Ah.. yes." Ephiny started. "Sorry. Here." She untied her pouch, and handed Xena the packet Gabrielle had given her. Watching the warrior take it gingerly, and glance at the wax seal, then let a brief grin quirk her lips. "Well, there are these rumors.."

Xena raised an eyebrow at her. "Rumors?" Then she laughed. "Oh... let me guess. I’m out to conquer half of Greece again." She sighed, and took a long sip of ale. "I’d figured that would start. Didn’t think it would start so fast, or go so far." She shook her head. "And... the Amazons were concerned?" Her voice held equal parts annoyance and chagrin.

"Well.." Ephiny glanced at the floor. "Some of them were. Gabrielle, on the other hand, had this pegged exactly for what it was." She glanced up at Xena. "She does know you pretty well." Saw the momentary answering gleam in those ice blue eyes.

"Yeah, she does." Xena answered, quietly. "So.. what’s this?" She indicated the packet.

"Oh.’ Ephiny grinned. "It’s a mutual defense treaty."

Xena burst out laughing. "You’re kidding." Ephiny shook her head, smiling. "Oh this is just like Gabrielle." She broke the seal on the packet and pulled out the contents, putting the treaty to one side, and glancing at the second, sealed piece of parchment. Her eyebrows quirked, and she put it down quietly on the table, then picked up the treaty and read it. "Oh.." a laugh. "Wait a minute." And she got up and reached behind the service bar for a quill and ink, bringing it back, and dipping the point in. She grinned, and made a few notes in the margin of the treaty, then a few more. Finally, she signed the bottom with a flourish, and pushed it back towards Ephiny. "Here. Take it back. You’re protected."

Ephiny scanned the document, and chuckled herself. "Very funny. But what’s this bit here? I can’t read it... what dialect is that?"

Xena grinned. "Don’t worry about it. The Queen can read it. " She took a breath, and her eyes dropped to the table, where the second parchment waited. Casually, she picked it up and broke the seal, unfolding the sheet and scanning it.

The first two paragraphs made her smile and roll her eyes. Then she got to the third, and the smile turned from amusement to something else. She reread it twice, trying to ignore the chills chasing up and down her spine. Then realized the two Amazons were watching her with interest. "Well," she said, folding the parchment up. "Gabrielle says things are going fairly well." She glanced at them. "And that I should treat you two to a night in a real bed and some decent food."

"Thanks." Ephiny nodded, letting the warrior off the hook, having watched her usually inexpressive face react to the note she was reading. Had seen that fondly amused look change, the eyes widen, and that smile...Ephiny would have paid dearly to know just what it was Gabrielle had written to have gotten that response...then she mentally smacked herself. Cut that out, Ephiny. It’s not your business. "We’d appreciate that. It’s been a tough march out here. The weather’s been really unpredictable."

Xena nodded, and stood up, draining her cup and putting it behind the service counter. "Let me tell Johan you’re here. Be right back." She padded through the door in the rear, heading further into the inn. And as soon as the door closed behind her, she slumped against the wall, suddenly weak in the knees, and leaned her head against the crosspost letting a totally unexpected avalanche of emotion just take her.

Was it just that easy? She unfolded the parchment again, and reread it. In a single, simple paragraph, the bard had laid her heart out open, and, honestly, as she did everything else, reaffirmed their bond. And that last line...Xena realized she must have a very silly grin on her face, and shook herself, pushing off from the wall, and glancing around. C’mon, Xena, you’re way too old to act like this. Get a grip on yourself. C’mon, c’mon... tough warlord act. You know that one. Let’s go... let’s go.. you can melt into a puddle later. Much later. With a deep breath, she settled her shoulders, and went in search of Johan, who was glad to set aside two rooms for the Amazons.

"Are you sure... two?" Johan asked, giving her a sly look.

Xena raised both eyebrows at him. "Johan...whatever could you mean?" She grinned. "But in this case, yes, I’m sure. These two have no love lost between them." She chuckled, and cuffed his arm. "Troublemaker."

"Not at all." Johan protested, but smiled at her.

"OK, all set." The warrior said, as she swung back through the doorway, seating herself again. "rooms and dinner, as requested by your queen." She propped one booted foot against the table support and leaned back. "Mother has a bathing room upstairs also, if you’re interested." She saw the appreciative gleams in two pairs of eyes. "Go on and enjoy yourselves. I have some drill to finish, then I’ll join you for dinner. It can get a little...crowded in here, but folks are polite, and they’ll know who you are."

Ephiny raised her eyebrow at that. "Is that good or bad?" she asked, only half joking.

Xena gave her a tolerant look. "It’s good. Mother and Toris and most of the folks here know Gabrielle, and they’re familiar with the Amazons, with you lot being so close."

"Fine." Ephiny said, then jerked her head at Erika. "I’m going upstairs. You?"

Erika put her cup on the table, and nodded, then gave Xena a tolerably respectful nod, and followed Ephiny towards the stairs.

Xena watched them go, then snorted and shook her dark head. "Amazons." She sighed, glancing at the ceiling. "It never ends."

"What doesn’t, dear?" Cyrene asked, walking over to her, and peering up the stairs. "Were those the Amazons I heard were here?"

Xena glanced at her. "Yeah."

Cyrene nodded. "Hmm. And how is Gabrielle?" She asked, watching her daughter’s face with a small smile. Seeing the gentle sparkle appear in her eyes at the mention of that name.

"Fine." Xena answered, quietly. And managed, somehow, to not break into that stupid grin again. "Well, I have things to do." she said, and hoisted herself out of the chair. "They’ll be staying the night." she added, as she stood up and moved around her mother towards the door. Aware of the fond smile following her out. Damn.. am I that transparent?

Dinner, as she suspected, was crowded, but the two Amazons seemed to enjoy it anyway, watching the villagers with amused interest, and being watched in return. They asked, and she related the truth behind the rumors of her army building.

"It was not a big thing." the warrior sighed. "Look, a bunch of the younger guys came to me, and asked me to just provide them with some basic defense skills. You know, some staff, some hand to, I did." She shrugged. "They took to it... better than I thought they were going to, in fact. So then, one of the local warlords decided to run a raid on the village." She stopped and took a sip of ale. "And we stopped them."

"Just like that." Ephiny grinned. "with a little help from you, personally, I would guess."

"No." Came the very surprising answer. "That wasn’t the point. We all know I can fight." She grinned in self deprecation. "They did it themselves." She glanced around. "And then they did it again. So... that’s how the rumor started." Another sip. And then she sat back and regarded the crowd. "They’re not bad people." A quirk of a grin. "Most of them even talk to me now."

"I noticed you aren’t in armor." Ephiny commented, leaning back in her chair with a sigh. "Whoa... that was good. Compliments to your mother."

Xena quirked a grin. "Yeah, I leave the armor off because it makes people a little nervous." She glanced at Ephiny. "I’ll pass along the compliments, by the way. She enjoys stuffing people." she snorted. "I’d be in real trouble if I didn’t spend half my day sparring and the other half hunting for the table." And half the night doing drills. I like her cooking way too much.

Ephiny smiled. "Worse things could happen to you. " She yawned, and noticed Erika was nodding a little sleepily as well. "I think we’ve about had enough for today, though." She stood, and Erika did the same, having said very little during the meal. "Thanks again, Xena. I needed this." She gave the warrior a quiet smile.

"Anytime." Xena nodded at them, and stood as well. "See you in the morning." She added, as she stepped around the back of the table, and left them to go upstairs.

The barn was cool and quiet, and Xena spent a moment just breathing in the familiar scents of hay and horse and dust before she stepped in and shut the door behind her. Argo whinnied at her, and she crossed to the mare, glancing around before pulling out the parchment and letting the horse sniff it curiously. "Recognize that, Argo?" The mare whickered. "Thought you might." She went towards the loft, almost bowling over Ares as he catapulted out from under the tack table and attacked her boot. "Hey, watch it." she muttered, lifting the puppy up and tucking him under her arm, then hoisting herself up one armed into the loft, and laying back on her bedroll.

"Roo." Ares protested, wriggling out of her grasp, and climbing up her arm onto her chest, sniffing at the parchment which she held in front of her. She lifted it out of his range, and just read it again, this time just letting the wash of giddy emotion happen, and quietly closed her eyes, basking in it. I don’t deserve it. I really don’t. But if it’s happening, well...I’m going to let it. I’m tired of fighting this. She rolled her head one side, and regarded the puppy. "I bet you’ll like her, too." she murmured to the animal, who cocked his head at her. "Well, I have to get up and do some sword work, Ares. So be a good boy, and go to sleep, OK?"

She rolled out of the loft, and stripped out of her tunic, putting on the quilted gambeson she used to practice sword work in. It had padding in the shoulders and arms, where she tended to smack herself when in the middle of working out flips and turns in mid air, and saved her from some annoying bruises. It also had clips and buckles to hold her sheath on, and was cut high on the sides to allow for some of her more complicated kicks. She adjusted the straps, and clipped the sword on, then ducked out the door and headed down the path towards the treeline, sucking the cool air down into her lungs and breaking into a run just because it felt good. She threw a few running flips in just for fun, and arrived at the clearing in record time, bouncing a few times on the balls of her feet to get the sword and gambeson settled into the right places.

Damn, I feel good. A long rolling wave of happiness cascaded over her. She drew the sword, and hurled herself into a wild series of
mid air passes, letting the emotion work itself out slowly as she settled down to some complicated and frankly, overly fancy sword
attacks, which featured twirling and releasing the blade while in the middle of doing reverse moves. It was really hard. And she loved
every minute of it, feeling the moves slip into a familiar, comfortable groove. Gods, that’s sweet.

She grinned to herself, then switched gears, and started a more normal set of standard passes, which got faster and faster until the blade itself blurred. Then, then she added the aerial maneuvers, starting with easy forward flips, and progressing to the more complicated ones, which involved twisting in mid air, and the to the really hard ones, the backflips, which she had to do mostly blind, trusting her instincts to place blade, and body, and feet on landing. She’d been having some trouble with those, but tonight.. tonight it all flowed so everything just slid into place without effort. She laughed out loud, doing a wild backward toss, then bouncing forward into a forward tumble, then up and around into a mid air extended leap that was almost, almost like flying. At last, she relaxed on her back in the grass, arms extended fully, just looking up at the stars. Feeling the dew soak into the gambeson, cooling her off. Just breathing in the scent of the pine forest, the water soaked grass, and the damp earth.

A faint sound came to her, and her defenses came back full force. She bounced to her feet, and slid the sword into it’s sheath, moving into the trees and out of the moonlight. Her senses found a moving body - and she stepped towards it, stopping in the shadow of a large tree to concentrate on the forest in front of her. Her nostrils flared and caught the fitful wind, bringing a faint scent to her, along with the barest hint of a crackle of floor debris underfoot. She stayed where she was, until the intruder passed her still, silent gaze, then rolled her eyes. Ephiny. Would the woman never learn? Sighing, she slid out from behind her tree, and moved into position behind the Amazon, who was clearly following some trail. Hers, she realized, which she had taken absolutely no pains to conceal. Amused, she followed Ephiny until the woman came to the edge of the clearing and looked out, laying one hand on the rough bark of the last tree before the open space. Finally, Xena just cleared her throat, and crossed her arms as the startled Ephiny whirled.

"What is it with you?" The warrior exclaimed, leaning against a nearby tree. "Can’t you just say, "Hey, Xena... can we talk?" Do you have to go sneaking up on people..?" She straightened up, and walked over to where the Amazon was standing, hands on hips.

"Like you never do that either." Ephiny retorted, laughing a little. "Sorry." she said, sheepishly. "It’s a habit. You know us. Never walk when you can sneak." She gazed at Xena. "What are you doing out here, anyway?"

The warrior blew out a breath, and flexed her shoulders. "Sword practice." She nodded at the clearing. "Plenty of space, no villagers to scare."

"Practice?" Ephiny asked, quizzically. "I didn’t know you had to."

Xena scowled at her. "You know, that always amazes me." She said, with a touch of annoyance her voice.

"What does?" Ephiny asked, moving closer and cocking her head, regarding the taller woman in some confusion.

"Why does everybody just assume I just wake up in the morning being able to do things like jump over my own height and catch arrows?" Plaintively, she looked at Ephiny. "Do you really think Ares just steps out from behind a tree, sprinkles me with dust, and there I go?"

Ephiny stood, shocked, and tried to think of something to answer that with. "Uh...Well...Hmm. It’s your own fault." she replied, crossing her arms. "You make it all look so easy... I guess everyone just assumes...I mean... I don’t know what they assume. I guess I always...oh, Hades, Xena. I have no idea what I thought. You just do things." she finished, giving the warrior a little shrug with both hands. "You do things I’ve never seen anyone else do."

Xena sighed, and rubbed her upper arms, "Do you have any idea how long it took me to build up my body to the point where I can do those things?" She gave Ephiny a little grin. "And it takes constant working at it to keep it that way." She chuckled. "So, yeah, Ephiny. I practice. I even hit myself in the head sometimes. Just ask Gabrielle."

She looked at the Amazon, letting serious look take over her face. "What’s on you mind, Eph? I doubt you came out here to watch me do backflips."

Ephiny crossed her arms and leaned back against the tree. "It’s Gabrielle." She said, finally, glancing up and into Xena’s now guarded eyes. "I’m worried about her." She pursed her lips. " Something’s really bothering her, and she won’t talk to me. Or anyone for that matter. "

Xena’s brow creased in some consternation, caught between worry and the realization that she probably knew perfectly well what the bard’s problem was.

"It’s...she’s not sleeping. And she thinks I don’t know it. I think the tension of this whole thing is getting to her. And Arella isn’t helping." She didn’t meet Xena’s eyes. "She’s... putting a lot of pressure on Gabrielle. And she’s not being very subtle about it. " Now she finally looked up. "Don’t get me wrong, she’s handling it just fine. Frustrating the heck out of Arella. " A faint grin from Xena. "But... it’s wearing her out, Xena. And it hurts me to see it. " She paused. "She needs a friend."

"Aren’t you that, Ephiny?" Xena asked gently, her pale eyes searching the Amazon’s face intently.

"I’m one of the people looking to her for solutions." Ephiny sighed. Then bit the arrowhead, and continued. "I really think the friend she needs is standing here in front of me." She took a breath, and glanced at the ground. "Look.. it’s not my business, I know that. But... I like Gabrielle. And I don’t like seeing her the way she is now. She’s in need of something...something we can’t give to her." The Amazon looked up into a pair of still, quiet blue eyes. "But I think you can."

Xena let out a breath, regarding her with a thoughtful expression. About to speak, she suddenly stiffened, and held up a hand, cocking her dark head to listen.

"Crossbow." she mouthed at Ephiny, whose eyes widened. "Pointed at my back." she barely breathed, every sense tuned and alert.

"Who?" Ephiny breathed back, shivering. There was no panic in the eyes facing her, but she could see the sudden sharp edge of readiness tense Xena’s muscles, and her nape hair lifted.

"Question is, which one of us is the target?" The warrior responded softly, then looked intently at the Amazon. "Ephiny, do you trust me?"

Ephiny stared into those compelling eyes for a long moment. Then took a deep breath and nodded. "Yes, I do."

"Then don’t move." Xena warned softly. "Not one inch, not one bit." She closed her eyes, and focused every fiber of her being behind her, feeling the tremor as the crossbow was released, sensing the movement of the air as the quarrel headed towards her. Time compressed, as she let trained instinct take over, and dropped to one knee, and whirled, and caught the quarrel as it blazed past her left shoulder then the second as it passed her head. Freezing her muscles into place, turning her head and checking the flight of the arrows, at the target several inches to her rear. At Ephiny’s heart.

For a heartbeat, she held Ephiny’s gaze, then she dropped the quarrels, and stood up, putting her body between the trees and the Amazon. "They’re gone." she said, turning to look at the blond woman. "What’s going on here, Ephiny? Those were aimed at you...aimed by someone who knew I’d not only hear them, but be able to get out of the way."

Ephiny sank down the tree trunk until she was seated on the forest floor, and rested her head in her hands. Xena crouched down next to her, concerned. "Sometimes, you know, Xena.." she finally muttered. "It’s just not worth the trouble." She let her arms rest on her knees, and leaned her head back against the tree. "It had to be Erika. Crossbow is her specialty, and she’s the only one in the area who I can even remotely think has a motive."

Xena’s dark brow creased. "Erika? Why kill you? If they’re out after the queen’s mask, it makes more sense to kill me." She seemed unemotional about this. "After all, if they want to take that away from Gabrielle, they have to go through me to do it."

"True." Ephiny gave her a wan smile. "But what if they can make it look like I went here for a parley, and you killed me?" She almost laughed at the dumbfounded look on Xena’s face. "Bam. We have a situation where Arella can push through almost anything in the way of a challenge, and you wouldn’t be acceptable as a champion, because...well, you’d have killed me. "

Xena let a slow, feral, lazy smile cross her face, sending a chill down Ephiny’s spine. "Ephiny. If anyone threatened her, do you think I’d let Amazon law stand between me and them?" Her eyes bored into the Amazon’s. "Besides, crossbow isn’t my style. I wouldn’t have killed you that way."

Ephiny took a deep breath, and tried humor. "Well, if Gabrielle was here, she’d have said you wouldn’t have killed me. In any way." She swallowed. "By the way, thank you."

Xena rose smoothly to her feet, and reached a hand down to help up the shaken Ephiny. "Anytime." she said, then added. "And.. Gabrielle would have been right. As usual." She grinned at Ephiny. "Thank you. For being concerned about her."

Ephiny glanced down at the ground, then peered off into the forest. "We have a festival coming up, Xena.."

"I know." the warrior chuckled lightly. "I got a written invitation."

"Oh." Ephiny blushed. Then laughed. "I should have known. Will you be there?"

"I’ll be there." Xena replied, giving her a push back towards the village. "It’s Dionysus’s festival. Someone has to protect her innocence from you Amazons."

Ephiny started, and glanced back at Xena in surprise, then snorted in laughter, shaking her head as they made their way back to the inn. Instead of heading for the tavern, though, Xena steered her towards the barn. "Safer, I think, though not nearly so comfortable." she muttered, sliding into the doorway with Ephiny right behind her. Who stopped short at the sight of a boisterous wolf puppy who stumbled furiously across the floor and flung itself on Xena’s booted foot. "Oh, hi Ares." Xena said, absently, moving the animal aside gently and crossing over to the tack table.

‘Ares?" Ephiny said, her voice rising in astonished question. "You must be kidding." She peered at the wolf. "Where in the world..."

"Long story." Xena said, pulling a piece of parchment to her, and sitting down with a quill and an absorbed expression. "If Erika was the person behind that crossbow, just how safe are you going to be on the way home?"

Ephiny seated herself on a convenient lump of hay, and considered. "I’m not sure."

Xena studied her hands. "Well, I may have a solution. A...witness, more or less, for you." She paused thoughtfully. "We have an orphan here...named Cait. Her parents were killed by a roving warlord band." She sat back and regarded Ephiny. "She makes her living hunting small game, and selling it to the locals. She’s good - and she’s only 12 years old."

"That’s young to be alone." Ephiny mused.

"Very." Xena agreed. "She begged me to teach her sword when I got here. I convinced her it probably wasn’t a good idea. But.." She nodded at Ephiny. "she’d make a good Amazon."

"Does she want that?" Ephiny asked, considering. "You know we don’t just adopt people just because they’re orphans, or whatever."

"She wants it." Xena stated, flatly. "She asked me to take her to your village, in fact. I told her I’d think about it... when I went." She leaned forward. "It’s a risk, I know...but she’s tough, and she’s not a complete innocent."

Ephiny nodded. "All right. I’ll take her."

"Good." Xena sighed. "Now, roll up in the hay and get some sleep. I need to write a note."

Ephiny smiled. "Sounds like a good idea. To both." she said, getting a startled response from Xena, and grinning. Then she grabbed a spare horse blanket, and curled up in the soft fodder, asleep in minutes.

Xena watched her a minute, then laughed gently herself. Then concentrated on the parchment in front of her. Oh... this wasn’t going to be easy. Words aren’t my thing. But....let’s see...

Dear Gabrielle (it said)

Well, yes, I’m out to conquer the world. Again. And I started here in Amphipolis. On to Potadeia next. I’ll give your regards to your family, since I’m sure they remember me fondly. It was nice to have Ephiny visit, and get word on what was going on there. I did keep from beating up Erika, but you might want to when they get back, because we think she tried to introduce Ephiny to a pair of crossbow quarrels.

Never a dull moment when you’re involved, huh? Mother and Toris send their regards, and Ephiny will be carrying something from mother to you that I think you’ll like very much. I do. The place has been OK with me so far - besides the world domination plan, that is.

Yeah, as a rule I don’t like sappy stuff. But didn’t I once tell you you’re the exception to the rule? I think I remember doing that...besides, I miss you too. I wouldn’t miss your festival for anything - count on me being there.

Hang in there, my bard - keep your head down, and be careful. And you can tell your friend Arella if she lays one finger on you, I’ll scatter parts of her up and down the road to Athens so small they’ll have to use tweezers to pick them up.


I mean it.



Well, she thought, artistic it isn’t. But I think it gets the point across. She folded the parchment, dripped wax on it, then paused a moment, thinking. Gabrielle had sealed hers with an Amazon seal, I guess I’ll have to drag this thing out. She walked over to Argo’s saddlebags, and dug around, until she came up with a small pouch, from which she extracted a signet ring. Hers. From the bad old days, when sigils marked with this insignia struck terror across the countryside. She looked at it thoughtfully, then crossed back over to the table, and pressed the signet into the warm wax. About time that sealed something that...she left the thought unfinished, and blew out the candle, grabbing Ares, and climbing to the loft.

She stretched out, floating in a pleasant tiredness that made the loft seem like a feather stuffed mattress. Thinking. This time not wanting or needing sleep to take that away.

Erika was sullen the next morning, Ephiny noted with a grim smile. The dark haired Amazon ate in silence the excellent and large breakfast provided them by Toris and avoided meeting Ephiny’s eyes. Ah... she’s very young. Ephiny considered, though not by any means ready to use that as an excuse for murder. So’s Arella. Maybe that’s part of the problem...She darted a glance across the room to where Xena was seated, forearms braced on booted knees, talking softly to a very young girl seated across from her. Taller than average, pale, pale blond and very slim - the girl had a short bow slung over her shoulder, and a quiver depended from her wide belt. A traveling pack slumped bonelessly at her feet as she listened intently to the warrior.

"Cait, you know you don’t have to go if you don’t want to." Xena said, quietly. "You can stay here, mother said there would be a place for you in our.." here she smiled a little. "home, if you want that."

Cait regarded her solemnly with her almost colorless gray eyes. "I want to go. I...there’s things I want, that I can’t find here." She let a half grin cross her face. "I think you understand."

Xena nodded. She did. And what she hadn’t told Ephiny was that after her parents were killed in the raid, this little girl slipped into the enemy camp, and slit the throat of the raid leader. A dangerous girl, was Cait. One whom she had a rather unique understanding of.

"All right. Ephiny will take you to Amazon country, and get you fostered. She’s OK, you can trust her. " She lowered her voice. "But the other one isn’t. We think she tried to shoot Ephiny last night."

"She did." Cait answered carefully. "I saw her, and followed her out when it looked like she was headed to your usual spot."

Xena gave her a grin, knowing for a while that she had a silent watcher. "And have you been enjoying the show?" she asked, a wry note in her voice.

Cait grinned, unashamed. She’d been very annoyed with Xena when the warrior had refused to teach her sword work, but over the weeks, she’d developed at first a liking, then a true and enthusiastic appreciation for her. For the one person she felt she could talk openly to. The one person she had met in all her short life who understood exactly where she was coming from. "Last night’s was the best ever." she breathed, eyes lighting. "It was like...magic."

Xena looked at her, bemused. "Yeah, it was a pretty nice workout." she drawled. "I was in a really good mood."

"I could tell." Cait answered softly.

"You could, huh?" Xena replied, grinning. She straightened up. "There’s something I’d like you to do for me."

Cait nodded. "I’ll try."

Xena picked up two items and slid them across the table. The first, a sealed parchment packet, she handed to Cait. "This, I want you to give to the Amazon Queen. That’s Gabrielle. Do you remember her?"

Cait nodded vigorously. "Oh yes. Your friend, with the red gold hair. The storyteller."

"Yeah, that’s her." Xena let a grin flit across her otherwise serious face. "Just hand it to her - she’ll recognize the seal. " she held the other item, turning it over in her hands. "This, I need you to carry, and give to her also. Can you do that?" She handed over the item to Cait, who took it cautiously, and examined it. A cunningly wrought knife, cast in the same mold as her long sword, with a seal embedded in the hilt. A seal that matched the parchment wax. Cait drew it gently from the leather sheath, and examined the razor blade, and the twin engraved channels down either side. She looked up at Xena, with a knowledge past her 12 years, then looked back at the blade and slid it back home.

"I can do that." the girl said, with quiet finality.

Xena nodded, and touched her hand, lowering her voice. "I want you to keep an eye on Ephiny, Cait. It’s important that she gets home." her blue eyes bored into the gray ones.

Cait kept her gaze, but brought the blade up to her lips, and pressed it there. "I will." she breathed, as two feral souls exchanged an understanding. "I promise."

"OK, so when you see her," Xena added, sparing a glance to the waiting Amazons. "Give that knife to Gabrielle.
Tell her it’s from me. For...emergencies. And give her one more thing for me."

Cait stood, knowing it was time to leave. "What’s that?"

"Come here." Xena said, and as the girl moved closer, she reached out and pulled her into a hug, which, after a stunned moment, Cait returned with vigor. "Just like that." Xena said, releasing her. "OK?"

Cait grinned. "I think she’s going to like that better than the knife." She said, wisely.

Xena chuckled. "Oh, I think you’re right. But give it to her anyway." The knife.. that was still revolving in her mind as to whether or not it was a good idea. Not that she expected Gabrielle to use it, no... how the bard felt about drawing blood was something Xena was passionately aware of. No.. but the arrow incident had left her anxious about her safety, and had almost driven her to throw caution and everything else to the winds and just.. go.. herself to the Amazon Village. In fact, standing in the wind in front of the barn at dawn, she had felt a sudden urgent pull in that direction and had actually taken several steps before she caught herself, and stopped. No, Gabrielle wouldn’t use the dagger.

But she was wise enough to know that wearing it on her belt just might, might give a potential threat pause. And...the seal made sure everyone who saw it knew exactly who stood behind the beleaguered Amazon Queen. I could just go...but she said she needed a little more time...and by Ephiny’s analysis, any challenge is still in the planning stages. I don’t want to mess things up for her, but I sure don’t want her getting hurt, either. Or worse. A little more time, my bard? All right, but not much more. I don’t think I’m going to wait until that festival to pay you a little visit. she grimly decided. Not... mind mocked her gently. like you need an excuse, right?

"Oh wait... almost forgot." Xena muttered, with a quickly suppressed grin. "I’ll be right back." She disappeared into the kitchen, and quickly found Cyrene, who was standing over a mildly bubbling pot. She looked up when she heard her daughter’s distinctive footsteps.

"Good morning, dear." she smiled up at her.

"Hi." Xena replied, leaning against a wooden support. "I don’t suppose you have any of those cakes around, do you?"

Cyrene laughed. "I think I have an new addict." she teased, "all part of my plan to keep you here."

Xena smiled fondly at her. "Not for me. For a friend."

"Oh, sure." Cyrene snorted, then paused and looked up. "Ah... wait!. For Gabrielle?" She watched her daughter’s face with a twinkle in her eyes. The grin on Xena’s face answered her. "Well, in that case, I’ll pack some up for you."

"In that case?" Xena queried, raising an eyebrow.

Cyrene reached up and caught her chin, and chuckled. "Well, she’s part of the family, now, isn’t she?"

Oh. Xena felt the blush creep all the way up her neck to her cheeks. No point in lying. Not to her, anyway. "Yeah, I guess she is." Came the quiet answer, with a light chuckle following.

Her mother smiled, and patted her on the belly. "Love becomes you, my dear. " She went behind a storage case, and pulled out some wrapping, giving Xena time to compose herself, then reemerged with a neatly wrapped bundle. "Here you go."

"Thanks" the warrior replied, with a little grin. "I know they’ll be appreciated."

Cyrene waved her off. "Away with you. I have stew to attend to." She waited until she heard the door close, then chuckled to herself. If someone had told me this was going to happen a month ago, I would have chased them out the front door with a broom. Now look - business is stronger than it’s ever been, and the village is...renewed, with a self confidence that came straight from her. I think she’s finally paid off that debt. At least to me she has. I think I love her, again. No, I know I do.

"All right." Xena said, walking back to the table and guiding Cait over to the Amazons. "Everyone ready?" Cait smiled shyly at the two women, having already tucked the blade away and out of sight. "This is Cait, and she wants to go with you. Cait, this is Ephiny and Erika, and they’re Amazons." She handed Ephiny a packet, with a grin. "Give that to her majesty, please. With my mother’s compliments."

"Hello, Cait." Ephiny smiled warmly. "You all packed?" Erika just nodded at the girl.

"All ready." Cait said, hefting her pack.

Ephiny patted the girl on the shoulder, and guided her towards the door. She turned as she opened it, and glanced back towards Xena, who was standing, arms crossed, watching. "Take care." She called, with a nod.

"Be seeing you." Xena replied, raising an eyebrow, and giving her a ghost of a wink. Seeing relief follow comprehension across the blond Amazon’s face.

Amazon Village - Evening, two days after.

Gabrielle put her head in her hands, taking deep breaths to try and calm herself. The scene in the council chamber today had scared her more than she was willing to admit, though she had held her ground, and won the point. Again. But how much longer could she keep on doing this? First, the rumors of centaur invasion in their territory. Proved wrong. Then word came that there were brigands from the neighboring village raiding the fields. Again, proved wrong. Each time, peace prevailed. Calm prevailed. The other morning, she thought sure Arella was going to call challenge on her, right there at the breakfast hall. The pang of pure unreasoning fear had been difficult to deal with. But she had. Now, word came that Ephiny was inbound, with Erika in tow, and an unknown young girl.

"Gabrielle?" Came Granella’s soft voice at the door. She looked up, to see the slim Amazon looking at her in some concern. "Ephiny’s at the gate. Thought you’d want to know."

"Thanks." the bard said, taking a deep breath, and pushing herself up from the desk. Crossing the room, she paused in the doorway, spotting the blond immediately, and watching as Erika stalked off towards Arella’s encampment with a very dour look. She cheered up, realizing that meant only one thing, not that she’d had any doubt. Ephiny caught her gaze, and moved in her direction, motioning for the third member of their party to join her. Who on earth...the bard mused. She seemed vaguely familiar, but Gabrielle couldn’t remember from where for a minute.. though her memory cleared as they drew close and she did recall. Huh…

"Gabrielle!" Ephiny called out, looking tired, but relieved. "You were right on." Her lips curved in a smile, matched by the one on the queen’s face. "and I have a signed treaty for you from the conqueror of the world."

Gabrielle moved towards them, feeling some of the tension drain out of her. "I bet she rolled her eyes when she saw it." the bard laughed, then gazed at the young girl. "Hello, Cait.. long time no see."

The girl’s eyes lit at being remembered, and she gave Gabrielle a shy grin. Gabrielle grinned back, and ushered both of them inside her quarters. She’s gotten taller, but still looks like a ghost.

"It seems Cait here wants to be a part of our extended family, Gabrielle." Ephiny drawled. "Xena recommended her."

"Well, that recommendation’s good enough for me." The queen replied, winking at Cait.

"I have some things for you." Cait replied, moving forward a little.

"Do you?" Gabrielle asked, a bit puzzled. "Like what?"

She held out the parchment first. "This."

Gabrielle took it, glancing at the seal, then smiled easily. "I can see who this came from." she laughed. A warm glow started in the pit of her stomach.

Cait smiled too. "Yeah, And this...she said to say it was in case of emergencies." the girl tugged a long item out of her pack, and handed it over solemnly.

The bard slowly reached out and took it, running her eyes over it, and gently touching the seal in the hilts. Her eyes darted to Ephiny, taking in the exhausted rings under the blond Amazon’s eyes, and the troubled gaze. "Thank you." For emergencies...what could have happened that had gotten Xena shook up enough to send this?

Cait waited. "One more thing." She intoned, softly.

Gabrielle dragged her attention back to the girl. "OK, what is it?" she asked, forcing a patient, cheerful note into her voice.

"This." And the girl stepped forward, and hugged the startled bard, trying to squeeze as hard as she could. As hard as she knew that warrior back there wanted to. Because this friend of hers really seemed to need it.

Gabrielle took a long shuddering breath, and hugged the girl back. "Thank you, Cait." she said, as she released the girl, ruffling her hair. "That was the best thing."

Cait let a half grin onto her face. "I told her you’d think so." she said.

"All right, Cait, let’s get you settled." Ephiny sighed, glancing back at the doorway, relieved to see Granella waiting there. "Gran, can you..."

"Sure." The scout laid a gentle hand on Cait’s shoulder. "Come on, Cait...I bet you’re hungry." She exchanged nods with Ephiny, and led the girl out.

Gabrielle watched them leave, then turned to Ephiny and pulled her arm. "Sit down before you fall down. What’s going on?" she asked, crisply, perching on the edge of the desk. "What happened that caused me to get this.." She lifted the knife. "From my generally level headed, though overprotective best friend?"

Ephiny told her. "So, we think, and now Cait confirms, that Erika was trying to set it up so that Xena couldn’t champion you. I was just a convenient...excuse." She gave the queen a sardonic look. "However, your champion was quick to point out to me that Amazon law wasn’t going to apply to her if anyone messed with her Gabrielle." The Amazon grinned privately at the quick blush that passed over Gabrielle’s fair features. "And, by the way, she sends this." She handed Gabrielle the wrapped package. "Said it was with her mother’s compliments."

Gabrielle took the bundle curiously, and unwrapped it, an unexpected grin appearing on her face. "She does know me." she said, laughing softly, as she exposed the pastry. The smell was wonderful, and she immediately taste tested, eyebrows rising in appreciation. "Oh wow.. these are great!" She offered one to Ephiny, who suppressed a smile and accepted, munching thoughtfully. "So.. how are things there?" the bard asked, casually.

Ephiny gave her a knowing grin. "Fine, I think - she’s won over Amphipolis, by the way. And... oh yeah, she’s somehow found this wolf puppy that follows her around all over the place."

Gabrielle giggled. "A puppy??? What I wouldn’t give to see that." Oh.. how true that is. Like right now.

"Yeah, she wouldn’t tell me the story behind it, but he’s a cute little thing. She calls him Ares." The Amazon drawled, watching the queen’s attitude lighten considerably. "And I got up during the night last night to rearrange my straw mattress, and caught her sleeping with him tucked into the crook of her arm, all snuggled up. It was unbelievably precious. If you tell her I saw it, though, she’ll probably kill us both." The delighted grin on Gabrielle’s face was worth the danger.

"Not a word, I promise." the queen giggled. "She hates it when people get under that coldhearted warrior act of hers."

"Except for you." The words were out before Ephiny could stop them, and she held her breath, waiting to be told off.

Gabrielle looked at her for a minute, then grinned, and shrugged a bit. "Except for me." She agreed cheerfully. "But that took a lot of time and effort." she paused. "Not that I minded."

Ephiny chuckled. "I bet." she continued with her report. "And although she’s got a couple of brand new scars on her arms that look a lot like panther marks which she also wouldn’t explain, otherwise she looks really good. I think this little time with her family has been a good thing for her." She watched the queen absorb this like a sponge.

Gabrielle nodded. "Thanks.. it’s good to hear that. Not that I was know Xena. She’ll find a way out of almost any situation."

Ephiny grinned agreement. "That’s true. She’s pretty unique."

The bard grinned in agreement. "Among other things." She picked up the parchment packet and broke the seal, scanning the contents curiously. Then she read it again, and this time a slow smile crossed her face. The treaty had been amended in a few pretty funny places, and added an addendum about protecting Potadeia for an extra few dinars. And the sign off... written in a dialect the warrior knew darn well only she’d be able to read. And she said she didn’t like sappy stuff. She traced the words with a fingertip. A giggle, inappropriate to the seriousness of the situation, forced itself to the surface. "Sorry. She’s pretty funny here." She glanced up at Ephiny, who was watching her face with an air of weary amusement. Then on to the second parchment, which made her burst out laughing. "Oh.. that’s good." She read the last paragraph to Ephiny, who found the strength to chuckle as well. "I wish.."

Ephiny looked up when the bard’s voice fell silent. The queen was turning the parchment over in her hands. "Gabrielle.." she said, hesitantly.

"Yeah." The green eyes looked up and blinked. "Anyway, I’m glad you made it back safely." She managed a reassuring smile. "Why don’t you go get some sleep - you look pretty wiped out."

The Amazon heaved herself to her feet. "I am." She sighed, "Hard sleeping with one eye open, although.." she mused "I noticed little Cait keeping a pretty tight eye on me. " She gave the bard a sly grin. "I think a certain overprotective friend of yours might have given her some private instructions."

Gabrielle considered this a moment, then laughed softly. "Xena doesn’t like leaving things to chance." And I wish I had her overprotective arms around me right now. "So I wouldn’t be surprised."

"G’night’ Ephiny sighed, and gave her a little wave. "And try to get some sleep yourself, OK?" She gave her a mock glare, and left, shaking her head.

"Yeah, sure." The bard muttered, sitting down on the bed and looking down at the parchment still clutched in one hand. She read it through a few times, lips twitching as she imagined the words, complete with intonation, coming from Xena. Especially that last bit, because she could hear in her mind the deliberate drop in pitch, and the faint growling tone that would go with it. Two weeks until the full moon. I don’t think I’m going to make it.

She lay down flat on the bed, and stared moodily at the ceiling. I’m tired. I’m really tired, and really exasperated, and I just want to...gods. She closed her eyes, and focused every bit of that wanting on it’s subject, putting all her energy into the sending. Xena... I know you can’t hear me. I know only the dead can hear our thoughts. But I don’t know what else to do, so I’m going to pretend that you can. Please. I need you.

Then fitfully, she dropped into sleep, waking only when the worst of her dreams, the old familiar nightmare of Xena dying, taking half her soul with her and leaving emptiness behind grabbed her, and tossed her up into a waking world, where the past and the present melded and left her not knowing if it was a dream. She sat bolt upright, heart pounding, taking in her surroundings with a sinking heart. Until a rustle of parchment made her look down at the sheet clenched in her fist. Until her eyes took in the words and made her remember that this was now, and Xena was very much alive, and she was here to help straighten out the Amazons, not because she had no better option.

"Oh gods." She said aloud, waiting for her heartbeat to settle down. OK.. OK.. deep breaths…C’mon, Gabrielle, it was just a dream, you’re not a kid anymore. Shuddering, she got up, and walked over to the pitcher on her desk, pouring a glassful of water and drinking it in long gulps. Then carefully, precisely, she set the glass down, sank into the chair, and put her head in her hands. Oh well.. almost dawn anyway. Her brain mused foggily. Guess a cold dunk in the water couldn’t do any harm.

Amphipolis - Same evening.

"Xena." Cyrene called, softly, then reached out and touched her daughter’s hand. The warrior had stopped in the middle of chewing, and was sitting silent, with an absorbed expression on her face.

"Hmm?" Xena started, shaking her head a little to clear it. "Uhm. Sorry." She put down her fork and sat back a minute, taking a deep breath. What was that??? Gods... I think there’s something really wrong with me. I’ve been doing this all night.

Cyrene leaned closer to her. "What’s up with you?" she whispered, concern now audible in her voice. "that’s the second time tonight you’ve just gone out on me."

"I...don’t know." Xena admitted, shaking her head slowly. "I just keep getting the feeling that something’s wrong somewhere."

"Is it Gabrielle?" Cyrene asked, rubbing her thumb against the back of Xena’s hand.

The warrior didn’t even bother to try and dissemble. "I don’t know." she answered, staring ahead, to where Toris was moving back towards the table with another glass of ale.

Toris saw the look on her face when he approached, and quickly settled back at her side. "What is it?" He flicked a quick glance at Cyrene, who gave him a little shrug. "What’s wrong?"

"Listen, I think I’m just tired." The warrior said, pushing back from the table, and standing. "I’m going to go relax for a while." She gripped her mother’s shoulder, and gave Toris’ head a pat. "Have fun." She left the tavern, and walked out into the cool night air, which was heavy with the thick smell of rain. Far off, she heard the rumble of thunder, the quick flash of lightning on the horizon.

A deep breath did nothing to dispel the sense of panic she’d been feeling for the last few hours, a feeling without obvious cause, but which was as real as any she’d ever felt. Was it Gabrielle? Admitting that meant admitting that Jessan was, in all probability, right, and they shared a connection that she wasn’t sure she understood. Or was this just her own imagination, working over the incident with Erika and Ephiny’s unease?

Funny... I’ve always trusted my instincts before. She mused silently, leaning on the hitch rail in front of the tavern. She heard the door open behind her, and turned as Cyrene came up beside her, and also leaned against the rail.

"Still worried?" Cyrene asked, glancing up at her. Not really needing to ask. Feeling the tension almost radiating from the tall form next to her.

"I can’t shake this." The warrior answered, staring pensively into the darkness. "It’s twisting my gut up into knots." She shook her head as if to clear it. "It’s nothing solid, just...this sinking feeling. "

Cyrene bit her lip a minute, then put a hand on the arm next to hers. "Xena... sometimes our minds, and our hearts try to tell us
things that we’re not really ready to listen to. " She met the startled gaze evenly. "And I think you should listen."

Xena turned her gaze back out into the night. "I know that." She finally answered, in a low voice. "I’m just not sure if it’s telling me something I need to know, or something I just want to hear." She shook her head, and stood up. "But I don’t think I can risk not finding out."

Cyrene smiled. "You’re going."

"Yeah." Came the answer, as the warrior stood and turned towards the dimly seen barn.

"Be careful." Her mother warned, reaching out and giving her a quick hug.

Xena nodded. "I will." And moved purposefully down the path, and through the door, shutting it behind her. Now that the decision was made, her movements turned deliberate and decisive. Shucking her tunic, she traded linen for leather, and buckled the shoulder straps with smooth precision. Lifting her shoulder armor, she ducked her head into it, settling the plates with a soft chime of metal on metal, clipping the retaining buckles into place with a satisfying snick.

She walked over to Argo, flipping a saddle blanket over her shoulders as she raised her head, already restive, knowing that arming for what it was. Cinching the blanket, then lifting her saddle off the stall divider, and settling on the horse’s back, tightening the girth with one smooth practiced tug. Sliding the bridle over her head, tucking her ears under the headstall and pushing her forelock through the strapping. Buckling the chin strap and easing the bit into her mouth. "Easy girl" She murmured. "Come on." Kicking the door open. "Back, now." Moving out of the way as Argo obediently backed out of the stall, and followed her towards the door.

Xena grabbed her bracers, and sat down briefly to buckle on her leg armor, stamping both booted feet to settle the protective grieves. She looked up as the door opened, and her mother poked her head in. "Just about ready." she said, standing up and reaching behind her to clip her sword sheath into it’s buckles, and settling the chakram at her waist.

"So I see." Cyrene breathed. "You look a lot...bigger... when you wear all that." She said, moving inside the barn, and reaching out one hand to touch the gleaming armor plates.

Xena looked down at her, with an affectionately amused grin. "Like I’m not big enough already." she remarked. "Looks like I’m going to get wet tonight, on top of everything else." A supply bag went across the mare’s withers, buckled to one of the extra saddle rings.

"Here." Cyrene said, handing her a packet. "I doubt you’ll have a chance to stop and eat."

Xena laughed. "Mother." she said, but took the packet, and gave her a quick hug. "Thanks. Wish me luck."

"Good luck." Cyrene said, obediently. "And do me a favor?"

Xena glanced at her, raising an eyebrow. "If I can, sure."

"Bring Gabrielle back here with you." Cyrene said, laying a hand on her arm. "I want to get to know her."

The warrior took a deep breath, then released it. "All right." Smart, Xena -you get the two of them together, and you’re dead. Oh well. "I will." she promised, and lead Argo out the door, mounting in one smooth movement, and turning her head to the road.

Amazon village, that same night

Erika strode impatiently into Arella’s quarters, startling the tall redhead. "No go." the dark haired woman spat. "And let me tell you something, you’d better think twice about that challenge."

Arella, looked up from the map she was studying, and cocked her head. "First off, welcome home." She said, walking over and giving the smaller woman a hug. "Second, it was worth a try, don’t feel bad." She smiled. "I made some progress here, though damn, that woman is tough." Her brow creased. "Now, what’s this about the challenge?"

Erika sat down with a thump, resting her forearms on her knees. "What a week in Hades. The way out there was nerve-wracking. That Ephiny and her damned eyes. Then we get there, and sure enough, our little queen is right. As you suspected." she sighed wearily. Arella walked over to her small table, and poured a tall glass of crimson liquid into a glass, and handed it to Erika, crouching down next to her, and patting her knee.

"Thanks." she accepted the glass, and took a sip. "OH.. that’s good." She rested her head on the glass for a moment. "So, anyway - I spotted Xena taking off into the forest late that night. I followed...wanted to know what she was up to. And my gods...Arella, what I saw wasn’t human. She shouldn’t have been able to do the things I saw her do."

Arella tired of crouching, and sat down in front of Erika cross legged. "What do you mean?" She propped her chin on her hand. "I don’t understand."

Erika shook her dark head. "She did... I don’t know, sword drills, I guess. But she did them so fast I couldn’t make out the blade, Ari. And then she started doing them while doing flips, and in the air maneuvers...she would just...Look, just don’t, OK? I know you’re really good, Ari, really good - but this wasn’t just good. It was something beyond."

Arella chewed on her lip thoughtfully. "I could challenge now...she won’t be able to get here in time."

"Won’t work, you know that. She’s a named champion. They’ll make you wait." Erika replied, flicking a lock of hair out of Arella’s eyes.

Arella sighed. "Well, then we have to prevent her from getting here at all." She glanced up at Erika’s startled face. "Listen, I tried and tried to get through to our so called queen. She’s absolutely determined to follow her course of running us into the ground. Every turn I make she counters. Every rumor I stew up she squashes. I swear, the woman is..." She shook her head. "Anyway, she concluded a treaty with both of the northern villages, and that tears it. They’ve started putting homesteads in the northern woods." She gripped her temples. "I don’t understand why I can’t make her see what she’s doing to us. She doesn’t understand what we are, Rika. She thinks we’re farmers, or something . After her living with Xena for two years, you’d think she’d get a clue as to what makes a warrior. I guess not. Maybe she thinks she can change Xena like that too."

Erika gently massaged the burly shoulder next to her. "I know. But let me tell you, that fire runs very deep - she doesn’t know what she’s playing with there. " She grinned wryly. "Anyway, so I wait until Xena’s finished with this impossible display of technical talent, and then I realize Ephiny’s followed her out there too. A perfect opportunity I I get behind them. They’re talking, see.." she wove the tale, aware of Arella’s appreciative eyes. "Because Xena heard her too, though gods know Ephiny’s not a bad tracker, and got behind her. Startled her, too, it was kind of funny to watch. So they’re talking, and I get my crossbow cocked, and then I realize Xena heard that. I swear, that woman has the ears of a wolf, Ari, my crossbow mech is quieter than two blades of grass rubbing, you know that. So I see her go real still... and I figure, well, you were right - if the stories are true, she can dodge my quarrels. So I shoot. And, damned if she doesn’t move out of the way."

Arella leaned forward. "You missed???? I don’t believe it.!"

"No!" Erika threw up her hands in disgust. "the damned woman catches the damned crossbow quarrels! Out of mid air! And believe me, I had to take a minute to drag my jaw back into place before I took off out of there." She took a long sip of the wine. "Ari, she scares me." She looked into Arella’s eyes. "She really does. I got to have dinner with her, and I couldn’t look her in the eyes for more than a second. She’s so intense."

Arella looked thoughtful. "As long as she’s alive, we’re trapped, Rika. She looked grim. "As long as she’s Gabrielle’s champion, then it’s Gabrielle’s rules we live by. I can’t live with that. I’m no farmer, and as a people, we’ll die without the need for fighting. You know that. We’ll become just another group of villagers. Do you want that? I don’t. I can’t live with it. I have the taste of battle on my tongue... and I can’t give that up. So I guess I have to put my body where my beliefs are. She glanced at the floor. "Is she coming here?"

"I think so." Erika said. "I think Gabrielle asked her to, in that note Ephiny was carrying." She grimaced. "And, Ari...whatever else...there’s something between them. Xena’s a hard read at the best of times, but even she couldn’t keep from reacting to whatever was in that note."

Arella nodded. "Then we have to stop her. At the mountain pass. If we put enough of us there, we can catch her offguard, and I don’t care if she’s Ares himself, she won’t be able to fight off all of us." She looked up, and into Erika’s eyes. "This is my own destiny, Rika. And if I have to take on Xena, then that’s what I have to do. Our heritage is too important to lose."

Slowly, Erika nodded. "All right. I’m with you. We all are - none of us wants to be dirt grubbers for the rest of our lives. And I don’t want any daughters I have growing up like that either."

"I’ll gather us up." Arella said, stroking her cheek. "You get some sleep. You look like Hades." She walked to the door, thinking An ambush...that would work. And she’d stir up some trouble with the damned centaurs to keep everyone’s attention of what was going on in the pass. If she knew Gabrielle, and she was beginning to think she did, the woman would jump to the centaurs defense. And maybe, just maybe, she could use that betrayal of Amazon interests to drive a final wedge between the stubborn queen and her people. I feel...sorry for her. she mused, staring off into the darkness of the forest. Because she doesn’t understand just how strong this need of ours is...she has no experience with it. How does Xena put up with that, I wonder? It’s kind of sad...little Gabrielle with her morals - determined to reform the old warlord. Silly...doesn’t she see she has no chance? I guess not... because she’s sure trying it with us. Well, little Gabrielle, I’m afraid you’re not going to have your chance at reforming your friend, because I can’t let her live. She’s too dangerous to us. Pity... because she’d make one damned fine ally. Better than you, at any rate.

Somewhere between Amphipolis and Amazon country, later that night.

The only sound in the air was Argo’s steady hoofbeats, at a ground eating canter that almost lulled her rider into a half sleep. Xena’s mind was racing, though, and the steady sense of unease in her gut kept her triggered. Jessan’s words kept echoing in her head, keeping her company the weary miles before the mountains. Gods... what if he’s right...the thought gnawed at her. Admit it. He is. He can see what’s going on, but you can feel it, you know you can. You have for a long, long time now. You always know when she’s in trouble. She reached down and took a long pull from the waterbag, then set it back into place. What if I’m too late? The thought struck terror in her gut. Damn... it’s too far. I should have gone that night. I knew I should have. I waited because she said she needed more time...but my gut was telling me to go. I should have listened. Now...she closed her eyes and gripped Argo’s mane for support, hearing a snort from the running mare. if... something happens to her because I was stupid and didn’t listen to my own long, long tested instincts...I won’t survive it. I can feel that, lurking in my gut, too. I had one taste of it, back in that healing temple. She’s stronger than I am, that way. I wonder if she realizes that? She would have recovered after I died, would have gone on, continued her life. I won’t.

The miles slipped by, until she came to the road turning that curved around the mountains, and pulled Argo up, resting the sweating mare, and thinking hard. The road lead around the long way, but to go over the mountains was lunacy. She thought about the crags above her, and then about the price. "Come on, Argo. You’ll go with me as long as you can." she whispered to the mare, and turned her off the road.

They moved through the shadows of the trees, following her sense of direction, passing silent cots deep in the forest, past sleeping beasts startled by Argo’s hooves, and sensing the quiet hunters which, perhaps deferring to their scent, slunk out of their path.

Two streams, forded with ease, and a river, which Argo swam in snorting protest, and Xena waded, and then they were in scrublands, where she had to watch Argo’s footfalls. Dawn caught them as they crossed another river, and Xena paused to rest the lathered mare. "I know, girl. I know. This is rough." she murmured into a flicking ear. She rinsed off a square of linen, and wiped the lather off Argo’s flanks, letting her graze for a short while, and breaking into her mother’s packet.

Off again, this time trotting across rising grasslands, as the mountains which separated Amazon country came into view. The weather was worsening, dark clouds piling across the peaks of the mountains, and the wind, which had been blowing steadily since the dawn changing fitfully every short while, and causing the mare to fidget. "Easy, Argo. I see em" She kneed the mare forward, wanting to get to a place of safety, since Argo, at least, would not travel in the kind of storm that was fast developing. But I will. The anxious feeling in her gut had gotten worse, building with every mile she moved towards the mountains. That, more than anything else, sparked her to keep traveling with an urgency that would not be denied.

At last, she crossed the last of the grass, and the long rolling foothills, and the mountain loomed over her. The thunder was getting louder and closer, and Argo was getting nervous, her ears plastered back on her head, and her nostrils flared. "Come on, just a little further." Xena coaxed her, feeling the first drops of rain touching her back. They rode around a tall crag, and Xena pulled the mare up short, her heart sinking. So. Here was why everyone used the road. Ahead of her was a sheer escarpment, running off into the distance, as far as her eyes could follow it. No path up, no path around. "Damn." That single word echoed off the rocks, mocking her.

She rode Argo to the foot of the escarpment, and glared at it. To double back now meant a days lost traveling time. At the top of the escarpment, she remembered, the road itself looped lazily, bringing itself through the high pass, and down into Amazon territory.

Xena swung down off the mare, and walked to the edge of the cliff, staring up. Most of the surface was sheer and unbroken, without hand or footholds. I can’t climb this. Her eyes studied it, and balanced it against the aching pull in her guts. Or am I stubborn and stupid enough to try? In the rain? In the coming dark? She closed her eyes, and tentatively explored the nerve wracked fear assaulting her...fear, she realized, with a sudden startling clarity, that truly wasn’t her own. That had a familiar flavor, that woke images in her mind of the short time she had spent in control of Gabrielle’s body. When she fought Velasca. Oh gods... she glanced up. "Yeah, I am that stupid."

She looked around, spotting a protected rock outcropping, and led the mare over to it. "Sorry to do this to you, Argo... but I have no choice." She stripped the mare of her tack, and tucked it neatly away under the outcropping. Then she took what essentials she needed from the saddlebags, and using one as a backpack, settled them on her own shoulders. Lastly, she grasped the mare’s face in her hands, and looked her in the eye, letting her lips brush the downy soft skin of her nose. "Be good, Argo. And if I do something really dumb up there, and don’t come back, well... take care of yourself, all right?." The mare whickered, nuzzling her. "Yeah, I love you too." she said softly, hugging her neck.

She walked to the wall, took several deep breaths, rubbed her hands on her leathers, and started looking for a place to climb.

Amazon village, next morning.

Ephiny rolled over, blinking blearily into the sunlight pouring into her quarters. Cursing, she sat bolt upright, and started scrambling out of her bed, rattled at having slept so late.

"Ah..ah..ah.." Solari said, wagging a finger at her. "Queen’s orders. You sleep." She pushed Ephiny back into her bed with one strong hand. "And I’m not going to argue with her. She’s in some kind of mood this morning."

Ephiny sighed and let her head drop, stifling a yawn. "OK... OK...." She smiled. "Is everything all right??"

Solari waggled her hand. "All’s quiet so far today. Arella’s sent a big bunch of her lot out on an extended hunting expedition, so that’s a good thing. At least we won’t have them underfoot." She gave Ephiny a sly grin. "And it looks like rain, so I wish the best to them."

Ephiny grunted in amusement, letting her body relax back onto the bed. "That’s good." she said idly. "Maybe we’ll have a quiet day for a change. A rumble of distant thunder vibrated in her ears. "On second thought, maybe not."

"That’s coming in over the mountain." Solari commented, I feel sorry for anyone caught out in it. The wind’s picking up something fierce." She watched as Ephiny let her eyes close again. "That’s better." she chuckled, as she left the hut, and walked towards the dining hall, feeling the wind whip her hair in what seemed like two directions at once. "Oh yeah.." she muttered to no one in particular. "this is going to be evil."

"What is??" Granella asked, falling into step next to her. "Oh, the weather?" she shrugged. "Good day for sleeping in." With a sly poke at Solari. "Which is where Eph is, I assume?"

"At my orders." Came Gabrielle’s voice behind them. They turned to see the queen moving up the path, a somewhat grim look on her face. "Good morning, by the way." she added, with a friendlier look. They continued on to the dining hall, where most of the village was already seated. Gabrielle went up to take her usual place at the head table.

"Gods, she looks twitchy today." Solari muttered in an undertone to Granella. "I wonder what’s up?"

The bard sat down, surveying the room. Noticing the missing Amazons, and mentally counting. Twenty people for a hunting party? Her brow creased. If they were successful, they’d have enough game to last weeks. Maybe that was Arella’s idea...or maybe she thought her bunch were getting a little slap happy, and she though this was a good way to diffuse tension. Gabrielle liked that idea, and it even made her feel a little better about her chief nemesis. A little. But not much, because sure enough, here she came for her usual morning debate.

"Good morning, my queen." Arella greeted her, raising an eyebrow at the chair next to the bard, and receiving a little wave of her hand towards it. "Thanks." She seated herself, and murmured to the Amazon who came over with a pitcher of herbal tea. "Wind’s rising" She commented to Gabrielle.

"That’s true." The bard answered, trying to concentrate on her porridge. She had a sudden overwhelming wave of nostalgia for one of Xena’s odds and ends breakfasts, which, though unpredictable, were always tastier than this. "Is the hunting party going to be all right out in this weather?" More for something to say than because she was really curious.

"Sure" Arella reassured her. "There are boltholes throughout the hunting territory where they can take shelter." She took a bowl of the porridge from a server, and liberally poured honey into it. "Have you tried this in your breakfast?" she inquired, holding out the jar with a friendly grin. She knew by now that Gabrielle was not a morning person, and it was the best time to annoy her. In a nice sort of way.

The bard looked up, and grimaced. "Arella, I’ve tried every possible thing in this stuff, and it still tastes like ground up leather bits."
She gave her a glance. "But thanks for asking." She took a long sip of tea to wash down the stuff, and gazed across the room. "Did we really need 20 people for a hunting party though?" She flashed a quick glance at Arella’s face, seeing the eyes go wary.

Well, green eyes is more observant than I thought. "Well, we’re going after big game this time " And isn’t that the truth? I’m going to enjoy presenting the fruit of our hunt to you, my queen. "And the more people you send out when you do that, the safer they are." There, argue with that, storyteller.

Gabrielle cocked her head, and regarded her, those damnable eyes picking up her slightest reactions. "OK, if you say so." she answered, mildly. What is she up to now? A growing sense of unease made the thought of any more porridge unfeasible. "Well, that’s enough for me." she said in a normal voice, and pushed back her chair to stand up.

Arella stood up with her, and gave a nod of her head. "Careful of the weather, my queen - there’s a bad storm brewing... you don’t want to get caught out in it." Now, what made me say that? Do I still have a sneaking liking for this woman? I think I might. Pity.

Gabrielle leaned forward, and caught her gaze, surprising the redhead. The green eyes seemed especially intense, as she leaned even closer, and refused to release her for a very long moment. Then.. "Thanks for your concern, Arella. But storms and I are old acquaintances. It takes more than that to scare me off." And then she did a scary thing. For no reason that Arella could see, the queen smiled right into her eyes. Then she backed off, and left the table, and only then did Arella notice the new addition to the queen’s garb. A leather sheath, well worn, holding a finely crafted dagger, whose hilts were knicked by a dozen deflected sword strokes, and marked by a round distinctive seal

So. Arella thought, watching the queen stride out of the dining hall. So...she dons steel at last. And just where did she get that lovely, lovely piece of work? That’s no showpiece. That’s a killing blade, if I’ve ever seen one. Huh. Only one place that could have come from...I wonder... I better send word out to the Pass for them to be on their toes. And I’d better get my diversion started. She got out of her chair again and walked quickly to the door, almost colliding with Erika who was just coming in. "Watch it." she said, sliding past her.

"Hold on." Erika said, pulling her aside. "Did you see what she’s wearing?" She kept her voice low.

"Yeah, nice piece of work. Why?" Arella answered, keeping her voice down as well.

"You know whose that is?" the dark haired amazon hissed.

"Relax." the redhead soothed. "Yeah, I figured that out. I was about to send someone to the Pass. You up for it?"

"I’m gone." Erika said, ducking out of the door.

So. The tall Amazon mused. You like storms, do you, Gabrielle? All right. I’ll give you a storm. She strode across the middle ground, collecting a few of her favorites with a glance. They casually crossed over to meet her as she arrived in front of her quarters.

On the escarpment, in the rain.

At least twice an hour, Xena was convinced she had gone totally out of her mind. Just don’t look down. she kept reminding herself. Cautiously, she freed one hand grip, and reached above her for a new one, finding a bare crack to curl her fingertips into. Gaining a secure hold, she shifted her weight, and reached up with her other hand. For aching hours, one hold after another, she’d made her way up the sheer wall, mostly without incident, but there were several close calls, and one slip, which was very painful until she reached out and grabbed for a hold. And got lucky.

Two places where she could brace her back against the wall, and take a breather, for water, and to rest her arms and hands. Stubborn, huh? Oh yeah, am I ever. I gotta be nuts. She reminded herself once again, as she found her other hand hold, and lifted herself up, catching a foothold on a lower rock and moving further up the wall. If she had looked down, she would have seen that she was halfway, an unbelievable climb in wind and weather, and lack of sleep. But she didn’t look down. Down wasn’t important. Up was important. And up right now was an overhang, which was looking impossible to get over. But at the worst of times, it only took a moment of letting that cold nervous feeling that wasn’t hers surface, and somehow, she found a way.

I am going to do this. Her mind said, fiercely. I said if all the legions of Hades were between us, that wouldn’t stop me. What’s a little mountain? Move, Xena, before you get hit by one of those lightning bolts. She spotted a gnarled root extending from above the overhang, and stared at it. Let’s just see how stubborn I really am. She gathered herself, and sprang forward, releasing all her holds at once, and relying on just momentum, and her hand strength to save her.

It did, to her mild surprise, as she grabbed the root, and hung on, waiting for her body to stop swinging so she could pull herself up. And over, onto a tiny ledge, which gave her a moments respite. The wind cascaded around her, lashing her with rain from the lowering clouds. She sat quietly, letting the stinging water revive her. OK, let’s go.

The Amazon Village - midmorning

"So, you’re up." Gabrielle said, as Ephiny walked into her quarters, looking rested, if still a bit sleepy.

"Mmm." Ephiny responded, then glanced at her. "So, I see you have a new adornment." She jerked her chin at the knife hanging from the queen’s belt.

"Yeah." the bard answered, absorbed in a treaty scroll. "I’ve been telling everyone that Xena found out I didn’t have a parchment opener, and this was her way of taking care of that little problem."

Ephiny snorted in laughter. "Really?"

"Yeah." Gabrielle answered, letting a weary grin cross her face. "It makes a good story."

She finished scribbling some notes on the treaty, and sat back, wincing at the stiffness in her back. Too much sitting around does that to you. Isn’t that what Xena always says? Gods, I hate when she’s always right. And how would she know? When does she ever sit still for more than an hour or so? She laughed to herself. Wonder what she’s up to right now? Probably whacking poor defenseless villagers with a staff, I bet.

They both looked up at a sudden commotion outside.

The escarpment

Xena was in real trouble, this time. She had two decent handholds, but the rock she had been using as a foothold had cracked out from under her, and left her hanging, with no possibility of getting another grip. She closed her eyes, trying to ignore her strained breathing, the stinging rain, and the fiery ache in her shoulders. what? Her mind panted. She looked up, Nothing. A sheer wall, with no breaks in it. To her left, was a cleft, but there were no sure holds there, either. And above this section...she gritted her teeth. One last ledge, and she was at the top. So. Does it stop here? She took the chance and glanced down, barely able to make out the general shape of the forest below, let alone individual trees. Oh.. that’ll be deadly. Yep. I’ve come this far, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to just let go and die here. She looked up again, giving her head a quick shake to get the wet hair out of her eyes, and concentrating on the cleft.

One chance. One reliance on her ability to move her body through the air with precision. After a day and a half of non stop traveling. And in the rain. And...damn. I can do this. She closed her eyes, and centered herself, reaching down deep, and calling up reserves of strength. And of confidence. And, it was simple, really, just a winding up of the body, and a release, and...

And she was there, and had both feet in a secure hold, and could rest her screaming arms. Oh boy. I’m going to pay big time for this. But she didn’t care, because right above her was that last ledge, and before she had time to think about what she was doing, she leaped for it, and twisted in mid air, and there she was. Just like that. Like Ares had stepped out from behind a tree, and sprinkled her with dust. Whoa. She rested there for a few minutes, breathing hard, and pressing her body against the cold stone, to leach some of the trembling heat from her.

Then she stood, and hopped over the last rock, and there, before her, was the road. Gently winding up to the pass, which she could just make out through the trees. Sighing, she just stood on the side of the path, and let the now pouring rain run over her, rinsing off the rock dust, and rinsing away her fatigue. Then a wave of sudden fear almost took her knees out from under her, and when she could stand without shaking, she broke into a steady run, and headed for the pass.

The Amazon Village.

"Centaurs!" Came the yell from the middleground, and both Ephiny and Gabrielle jumped to their feet, and headed for the door. Arella was striding across to meet them, holding a crossbow. "It’s happened." She spat, throwing the crossbow down at their feet. "Tell me that’s a mistake, then. Three arrows in one of our scouts, and from that bow."

Ephiny glanced at it. Centaur, no doubt there. "Maybe there was a mistake." she said quietly, tensely.

Arella laughed. "Yeah, our mistake, in trusting them. Look, if you want to have a chit chat with them, go ahead. I’m taking a force in. "

And she was gone, and they were looking at each other, as Arella’s forces moved out at a trot, leaving behind a bewildered group of Amazons.

"They can’t do that." Gabrielle fumed. "We have to stop them." She ducked back into her quarters for her staff, and took off after them, but Ephiny grabbed her.

"Just where do you think you’re going?" She yelled, pulling the bard to a halt. Not as easy as she had expected, though, and she found herself being dragged a few steps. "Gabrielle!"

The bard whirled on her. "I’m going to stop Arella. What does it look like? Does anyone else here want to go?" Her green eyes flashed, and there was a fire about her that Ephiny had never seen before. "Let me go." she growled at Ephiny.

"All right.. all right.." Ephiny yelled. "Let me get my weapons, for the sake of the gods, Gabrielle, you can’t do down there alone. Don’t be crazy!" She pelted for her quarters, being joined in a run by Granella and Solari, and a few others who now started moving.

Gabrielle didn’t wait. She had marked the direction Arella’s group was moving in, and took off after them, running lightly, and keeping her staff out in front of her. After a moment, she realized someone was shadowing her, and turned her head. "Cait! Go back!" she said, startled.

The blond girl kept pace, and shook her head. "It’s all right."

"NO.." the bard snapped, stopping, and grabbing her shoulders. "You’re just a girl, Cait - you don’t belong in this."

Cait reached out and touched her, meeting her eyes. "You’re wrong... it’s you who doesn’t belong." She drew her own knife, and met Gabrielle’s eyes, letting through in her gaze what she thought of as her true self. And saw, not a cringe, but a recognition dawn in the bards eyes. Who had seen that look before. And knew it’s source.

Gabrielle took a deep breath, then sighed. "Come on." she said, quietly, and started running again, Cait at her shoulder.

The Pass

Xena loped up the path, keeping a steady fast pace up the trail. Before her was the pass, and after that, it was downhill to the village, and she knew she could make some real time there. She was just inside the inner pass wall when her senses came full alert, and before she had time to think, long honed reactions had her sword out in her hand.

Because a net dropped over her head, and only the slimmest chance kept the sword upmost, and it sliced through the hemp like butter as she whirled, and the netting settled around her broad shoulders.

A quick bouncing jump, and it cleared her legs, and then she was under a dozen bodies, and being borne down to the ground. But as her hand hit the earth, she coiled under the weight, and pushed back up, tossing bodies off. A sharp pain in her back was a knife, she knew, and she reached around with her left hand and got a grip on fabric, and pulled with all the power she had in that arm. The pain stopped, and a body hurtled over her head and thudded onto the ground.

Now she could see her assailants. Amazons. A burning fire woke inside her, and the next move was a sword slash, which caught one of them in the belly and nearly cut her in half. A quick elbow took out a second, and she heard bone crunch as she kicked at third into a tree. Another sword slash, and blood was flying, and she had an arm in her grasp, which she wrenched and heard a popping sound as the shoulder it was attached to dislocated.

A jump, and kick, and now there were only 10 facing her, and she whirled her sword, and laughed, and dared them to come at her. And the rain exploded in a deluge, as she bolted towards them, and they ran, and she caught two of them, and knocked their heads together with a sickening crack. And then she was alone on the path, chest heaving, blood now coloring the rain running off her back. And the fear rising in her made her heart pound even faster, and she took off running again.

The Centaur Village.

"This is chaos!" Gabrielle yelled, as she and Cait rounded the corner into the village, and found it a nightmare of blowing rain, and fighting centaurs and Amazons. She saw an Amazon about to fire a crossbow at a Centaur, and bolted forward, slamming her staff across the Amazon’s back and sending her to the ground. The Centaur looked at her, then nodded in recognition, and dashed off.

Oh gods... what am I doing here? She stopped thinking, and started reacting, as another Amazon came at her with blood in their eyes, and then she had dropped the staff, and was grappling with the woman, thanking the gods for every single second that Xena had patiently spent teaching her how to wrestle. She grabbed her opponents arm, and twisted it over her head, throwing the Amazon to the ground with a heavy thud. One down. She grabbed her staff and ran on, targeting another archer.

The Amazon Village

"Oh, I don’t think so, Ephiny." Erika sneered, as she cocked her crossbow, and pinned Ephiny and her group to the wall with a line of crossbows. "Not this time. Now is our time. Just stay still... you won’t have to do a thing." She jerked her head at two of her subordinates. "Tie them up."

"Erika.." Ephiny started, but Erika turned suddenly, and cracked her across the jaw with the butt of her crossbow, tossing the woman back into the wall.

"Shut up." She grinned. "I’ve been wanting to say that to you for a long time." She watched as they were tied, hanging from a pole outside the dining hall. "And, when our ‘hunting’ party gets back, we can have them tell you all about the hunt..." she smiled. "You’ll love it. Do you know what the quarry was this time, Ephiny? Do you?"

Solari grimaced. "You’re itching to tell us, so why don’t you?" She spat. "You’ll never get away with this."

Erika chuckled. "Oh yeah, we will...because our hunting party was out for ex warlord...and you know what that means...our little queen has no champion. " She walked over, and poked Ephiny. "And so... we’ll have a new queen."

A high pitched whistling sound interrupted her. Ephiny heard it, and felt a wild hope jump in her chest. I know that impact thudded above her head, and then she felt her ropes give way, and she dropped to her knees in reaction, along with the rest of her group, but looked up and over their shoulders, to see, through the curtain of rain, and briefly highlighted by a nightmarish lightning bolt a fast moving, dark clad form bounding towards them.

Erika whirled, and her group brought up their weapons, but her eyes widened in recognition when another lightning bolt lit up the sky, and reflected off an upraised sword, and glinted out of a pair of ice blue eyes.

"Come on." Ephiny growled, and jumped forward. "She doesn’t have time to play with these idiots. Get them." And herself took out Erika, with a kick that lifted the dark haired Amazon up and tossed her into the growing mud lake. Her group fell to with a vengeance, and she headed for Xena, and grabbed hold of her armor, pulling the warrior to a stop.

"Centaur Village." She yelled, seeing comprehension dawn in those wild eyes. "I’ve got this here... for the love of the gods, GO!" She shoved Xena in the right direction, and picked up a staff, wading into the fight with a will.

Centaur Village

Gabrielle ducked under a wildly thrown punch, and countered with a quick staff blow, then a second, and went on to the next fighter. Suddenly she saw her nightmare - a group of centaur children, backed against a tree, frightened. Her heart stopped, when she saw what was facing them.

Arella, face red with bloodlust, holding a sword already dripping with Centaur blood. She laughed, and advanced towards them, enjoying the fear in their eyes.

"No." Gabrielle breathed, and started running. She caught up to Arella as the woman was about to take a first swing at the eldest, who crouched in front of his charges, pale eyes wide and unbelieving. The bard braced herself, and swung, a short, powerful stroke that took Arella’s legs out at the knees, and dumped her on the ground.

She howled in rage, and bounced back up, this time facing her attacker. And laughed. " you do have guts, after all. I wondered about that." She picked up a staff and sheathed her sword for the moment. "First, let me get that thing away from you. I have no desire to be dumped on my ass again." She swung forward, slamming her staff against Gabrielle’s expecting it to fly out of the bard’s hands.

"Sorry, Arella." the smaller woman breathed. "My usual sparring partner can do better than that."

Arella grunted, but then smiled. "Sorry, little bard, your usual sparring partner will be dead by now... because that’s what my hunting party was after." She smiled, seeing the change in Gabrielle’s face. "Yeah, that’s right... you’re all alone drop the staff, before I mount you on it."

Was it possible? Gabrielle felt a sick feeling in her gut. Anything was. But..."What with.. .twenty Amazons?" She peeled her lips back in a grin. "You think that could stop her?" she laughed softly. "You have no idea." And she parried forward, knocking Arella’s staff out of position, and getting in a hit on her shoulder.

"Oh, I have a good idea." Arella growled, and came back, slamming her staff into the bard, and driving her back a step.

"No.. you don’t." Gabrielle panted, knocking that blow aside, and thrusting forward to catch the redhead in the knee. "You’re a coward. You didn’t dare challenge her, so you found another way to get what you so desperately want." And I so desperately don’t want. It would be funny if it wasn’t so dire.

A low growl was her only answer, and then the redhead moved forward with a fast series of attacks, driving Gabrielle back towards the Centaur children. But the bard was stubborn, and kept turning her blows aside, and countering with ones of her own. I can’t keep this up forever, though. Her mind whirled. I’m getting really tired. Then what? Hades.

Arella sensed her tiring, and bounded forward, at last getting the staff out of her hands. She whipped her weapon around, catching
the bard across the head, and taking her down. She stepped over her, and raised her staff for a savage stab. And a small flying form
drove against her, knocking her back, and making her stumble. She roared, and slammed a fist against a small blond head, smashing her against the nearby tree.

Gabrielle felt a red wash come over her vision, as she struggled to get up, and felt Cait’s form slide down the tree next to her. She shook her head to clear her vision, and then wished she didn’t. Because Arella was bracing herself, and cocking a Centaur crossbow. Oh...her mind went into shock. She’s going to kill me.

"That’s right, green eyes. " Arella said, getting the quarrel cocked. properly. "I am, and with a Centaur weapon, so we won’t have any more of these treaties, and peace, and good will. We’ll have war, and that’s what we want, Gabrielle... why can’t you understand that?"

"Because violence isn’t the way." She answered, rising up on her knees, and motioning the centaur children to keep down. They cowered around her, gazing up at her with frightened eyes. "Because there’s a better way to live."

"No." Arella answered, raising the bow. "You’re wrong. There is no better way, no better feeling than this." She aimed, expecting the queen to beg. Expecting her to flinch, or duck, or turn her head from the cruel arrowhead. But the eyes never turned from hers, never blinked, and she held that gaze as Arella’s finger tightened on the release, and squeezed.

Continued - Part 4

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