Standard Disclaimer - These characters, most of them, belong to Universal, and Renaissance Pictures, and whoever else has a stake in Xena: Warrior Princess. This is written just in fun, and no copyright infringement was intended.

Specific Story Disclaimers:

Violence –Well… this is a more or less violence lite story. Now.. you've got Xena in it, and Amazons, and Gabrielle with that staff.. so it's not all sweetness and light, but no one gets their heads cut off in this one. (Sorry MaryD)

Subtext - Do I really still have to disclaimer subtext? Someone asked me if I thought Xena: Warrior Princess was a romantic show. My answer was, when a show has one main character state in no uncertain terms to the other main character that she would rather die at her side than live without her, that show cannot be defined as anything less than a romantic tale. Yeah, there's subtext.. maintext… under the table text.. whatever you wanna call it.

This is, of course, PG13 level involvement here, no more. That never changes.. for those of you who are waiting for me to stick in a rip roaring, no holds barred graphic orgy scene, make sure you have plenty of coffee and doughnuts handy. And a comfortable chair.

So - having read this lovely disclaimer, if you then read the story, and are shocked that Gabrielle and Xena are kissing each other, I can't help ya. If you're offended by it, send me your address, and I'll send you a bushel of citrus. We like to send that from here - we have to get rid of all of it somehow.

Any and all comments are always welcome. You can email them to:


Festival - Part 3

By Melissa Good

They found a nice place to settle, under the large, spreading tree that provided shade for one side of the Amazon compound. In front of them, a wrestling square had been set up, and groups of contestants were clustered around, waiting their turn.

Xena crossed her arms over her chest, and wriggled into a more comfortable position, leaning against the tree on the small raised platform that overlooked the erstwhile battleground. Gabrielle was standing nearby, talking with a few of the elders, her body language indicating the conversation was not entirely pleasant. The warrior scowled at that, but turned her gaze from the bard as a hand touched her arm. "Hi." She muttered.

Ephiny squirmed a little closer on the woven mats they were seated on. "Listen.. I really, really meant that congratulations in there."

A grin appeared on the warrior's normally stolid face. "Thanks."

"Quite a surprise." The regent continued, giving her a wry look.

Xena rubbed her chin. "Eyahh… sorry about that." She glanced up to check where her soulmate was. "I.. um… she really wants to do this staff thing… I tried to talk her out of it, but.. " A shrug.

The regent leaned on an elbow, the soft breeze pushing back her curly blond hair. "When she wants something.. she gets it." Hazel eyes twinkled gently. "You should know that by now." She studied the taller woman quietly, realizing the dark edgy energy she'd always felt present around Xena before seemed to be missing, which, considering where she was, puzzled Ephiny no end. "How are you doing?"

Another uncharacteristic grin. "Fine." Now Xena shrugged, and as if realizing she was behaving strangely, resettled herself, and forced her expression into a more familiar pattern. She jerked her chin towards the wrestlers. "Is breast grabbing allowed?"

Ephiny's head snapped around. "No.. and Esta knows better." She growled. "Hey!" She let out a fierce yell, and got a wave back from the referee, who was scolding the smaller woman in the bout. Esta lifted both hands then let them drop, and a few words drifted over.

"Not my fault she presented a target like that"

Ephiny rolled her eyes. The girl's opponent had lost a retaining pin in her leathers, and was, so to speak, waving in the breeze. "Gods."

Xena chuckled, a warm, relaxed sound, and this drew the regent's attention back to her. "You're all right with this whole thing, I take it?" Ephiny asked, delicately. "You seem to be in an exceptionally good mood."

Conflicting emotions crossed very visibly over the warrior's face, before she settled on a wry smile. "I think it's great… Gabrielle's really happy about it, and that's what matters, I guess." She let out a breath. "But yeah… I'm all right with it."

Ephiny eyed her knowingly. "That's a real nice pin she's wearing." She drawled. "Birthday present from someone I know?" The just under the surface happy turmoil she could see in the dark haired woman was intriguing her no end.

Xena just grunted in assent, and gave her a brief nod. Then her eyebrows lifted. "Ouch.. is that allowed?"

Ephiny looked, and winced. "Ah… hey!" She stood and ambled over to the square, putting her hands on her hips as she lectured the combatants.

The warrior sighed, and relaxed, having successfully diverted the wily regent. She let her eyes roam the compound, observing the laughing crowd that had gathered to watch the wrestling. Footsteps caught her attention and she looked up in time to see Gabrielle approaching. "Hey."

The bard settled at her side with a thump, and leaned back. "Okay.. okay… Xena, listen.. there's rules and stuff for this taking of a consort thing.. I don't know…."

"What is it?" Xena interrupted her. "Do I gotta get spanked naked or something?" She crossed her arms expectantly, cocking an eyebrow at her younger partner.

Gabrielle stopped dead, her jaw hanging open comically as she stared wide eyed at her soulmate. "Uh.. gods.. uh.. NO!… what… no no… it's not that.." She finally spluttered.

A shrug. "So… what's the problem?" The warrior inquired, then frowned as an idea presented itself. "Listen.. if it's because of who I am… if they're giving you grief, Gabrielle.. just…" She glanced away. "Don’t worry about it, all right?" Some of her bubbly mood vanished, as reality intruded its dour face. "I know there's a lot of folks here that don't like me."

"No.." The bard replied softly. "That's not it… it's just.. there's certain customs to it, and I'm not sure I want to subject you to them." She paused. "I don't care if it is tradition… we're not exactly traditional people."

Xena tilted her head and regarded her. "Then what are we talking about here? Why don't you just tell me what it is.. and let me decide?"

Gabrielle's voice was very serious. "Because I don’t want you to do something you don't like just because of me."

A gentle smile surprised her. "Gabrielle, that's the only good reason I can think of for doing just about anything." She let her hand rest on the bard's muscular thigh, rubbing the skin a little with her thumb. "C'mon.. what is it?"

A pensive silence dropped between them. Finally the bard sighed, and glanced down at her hands. "You have to go through a physical examination from the healers."

Xena shrugged. "And?" That didn’t disturb her much. Nothing for them to find save a bunch of scars, after all.

"You have to prove you're worth of being an Amazon by fighting their best warrior." The bard muttered.

A hastily muffled snort of laughter. "That's kinda redundant.. I think I've been there, and done that.. what.. twice now? But.. whatever…" Xena looked more amused than upset, her battle skills so beyond question that it put the contest more in the realm of a formality.

"Yeah… I think I got them to bypass that one.. " The bard remarked quietly. " I mean, what's the point, right?"

"What else?" The warrior murmured, seeing the tension in her soulmate's body. This is the one she doesn’t like.

Gabrielle hesitated. "You have to swear fealty to me." She got the sentence out, disliking the taste of the words on her tongue. "I tried to talk them out of it.. Eph told me last night.. but I.."

"Okay." Xena commented, very mildly. "Is that it?" A sense of relief brushed her.

Absolute silence, as green eyes lifted in total startlement and looked at her. She swallowed. "I…" She stopped, then started again. "I didn't think…"

The warrior sighed. "You didn't think my pride would allow me to do that." She grimaced in wry self-knowledge. "Right?"

No answer.

"Well, ordinarily, you'd have been right." Xena glanced off, her jaw tightening. "I don't…take easily to obeying anyone but myself.. you know that." She looked at the matting. "But I trust you… and I don't mind saying in front of these guys what we both know is the truth anyway."

Gabrielle just looked at her.

"Listen… I'm gonna go get my trial by Menelda out of the way… you… stay here." Xena lifted herself to her feet, deciding to give her partner a chance to regain her composure. "I'll be back to help you warm up, okay?"

The bard nodded faintly, her eyes fastened on Xena's face. "All right." She murmured, watching as the warrior ambled off towards the healer's quarters, the sun burnishing her skin in moving shadows as she walked.

"Gabrielle?" Ephiny knelt at her side, and waved a hand in front of her eyes. "What's going on? You look like you've been kicked in the head by a centaur." She glanced over. "Where's Xena off to now?"

Gabrielle blinked. "She agreed." She turned wondering eyes on Ephiny. "To everything you said."

The regent shrugged. "And that surprises you?" She replied with an amused snort. "Good grief, Gabrielle… the woman came back from Tartarus for you.. what's a little medical exam and a swearing of fealty?" She chuckled. "She probably didn't even think twice about it." Then she sighed. "I was actually more worried about Menelda… by tradition she can put a stop to the whole thing if she finds some pretext or other."

Gabrielle's expression grew serious. "Like what?" Her eyes fastened now on Ephiny's face, cool and intent. "She's perfectly healthy, Eph… she hardly ever gets sick, and you know how fast she heals."

The regent nibbled her lower lip. "I know… that's true. The only question I was kinda worrying about is if she starts going into … " She paused. "The rules are… candidates need to be able to provide the Nation with children. I.."

A dark, angry storm erupted in the mist green eyes facing her. Gabrielle's temper flared with a frightening rapidity. "So help me, Ephiny.. if she asks her that, I'll personally go there and put her through the wall of that hut." The bard growled, her voice dropping ominously, as she scrambled to her feet. "I am not going to.."

"Whoa..whoa.. hold on.. " The regent grabbed her arm, and pulled her back down. "Hey.. hey… just take it easy for a minute, okay?" She could feel the steely strength under the bard's skin as she resisted her pull, and was suddenly, startlingly made aware of just how much Gabrielle's strength had grown over the years. "Easy… "

The bard was fuming. "She's had it in for Xena since the last time we were here, Ephiny.. I'm not going to put up with it."

Ephiny held on to her. "She's had it in for her since she saw you ripped to pieces the time before that." The regent spoke clearly, and forcefully. "So you just settle down. Xena's a big girl, and she can take care of herself, Gabrielle."

A tense silence fell. "Not always." The bard finally replied. "Everyone thinks that, you know? That nothing ever hurts her, and no one ever bothers her, but you know what, Ephiny? That's a crock of lies." She firmly disengaged the regent's hand from her arm. "Excuse me." The bard stood, and strode off in the direction her soulmate had disappeared into.

Ephiny sighed, and crossed her arms, leaning back against the tree, and looking up as Solari scrambled closer.

"What was that all about?" The dark haired Amazon murmured, glancing after the queen.

The regent rolled her eyes. "Everyone thinks Xena's the dangerous part of that pair.. boy.. are they ever wrong." She sighed. "I hope Menelda behaves herself, or she's going to be picking splinters from Gabrielle's staff right out of her butt."

"Ouch." Solari winced. "Hey.. are you going to disqualify Lista for biting Erran in the leg?"

Ephiny glanced at the square. "Son of a Bacchae.. what is it with these people today?" She let out a puff of air in exasperation, then hoisted herself to her feet, and strode over to the combatants. "What's going on?"

The referee turned and gave her a look. "She bit er in the leg." She pointed at the bloody mark on the tall, lanky woman's ankle.

Ephiny put her hands on her hips. "Lista, what is up with that?"

The shorter woman scowled. "She kicked me in the mouth."

The regent sighed. "Erran, go get that taken care of."

Lista smirked.

"And you… you get a rematch for your troubles." Ephiny informed her sweetly. "With me." She waved everyone out of their way, and gestured for the shorter woman to go to the center of the fighting area.

"Uh." Lista smiled hesitantly. "I didn't know you were entered in this."

Ephiny grinned evilly. "Royal privilege." She turned her head and addressed the referee. "Mark me down." She flexed her shoulders and cracked her knuckles, her body responding eagerly. Did she understand Gabrielle? Oh yeah. "C'mon, kid… get yourself ready."

The referee cleared her throat, marking something down on the list with her quill. "Any handicaps to declare, your highness?"

Hazel eyes regarded her drolly. "Mental. I volunteered to run this place."

A titter of laughter ran around the assembling crowd, who had spotted her in the center of the square.

Ephiny ignored them, and watched her opponent, who was taking several deep breaths, obviously centering herself for the coming bout. She reviewed the younger woman's form with experienced eyes, knowing the girl outweighed her, but deciding she had the edge in speed and experience.

They circled each other, and Ephiny felt her focus narrow, disregarding the ring of watchers and concentrating on the girl's torso, which would give her a clue to her next move. Lista shifted to the right, and feinted, her hands going to the opposite direction as she sought a hold on the regent's body.

Ephiny dodged the outstretched hands, and slipped inside her guard, ducking down and getting a hold on the girl's shoulders, which slipped and moved under her grip from sweat. Her fingers caught and held on Lista's upper arms, and the girl grappled with her in much the same manner, as they threw their weight against each other.

The regent let her opponent's greater weight lunge past her, and ducked under her arm, swinging around and pulling the girl's arm up behind her back in a secure hold. Then she swept her legs out from under her and dropped down as she fell, locking an arm around her neck with expert skill.

Lista arched her body, and struggled, but after a minute, she panted, then patted the earth with her free hand. Ephiny grinned, and released her, stepping up and back to let her stand up. Still got it, I guess. The regent chuckled to herself, watching the girl push her hair back out of her eyes. Good to remind everyone of that, once in a while. "Again?"

Lista spat on her hands, and rubbed them down her leathers, nodding.

Ephiny winced, and made a mental note to have a chat with the wrestling instructor about protocol before she shook her arms out, and reentered the fray. This time Lista wasted no time, but attacked immediately, trying to overpower her with sheer force. They tumbled to the ground, and Ephiny squirmed out from under her, pouncing on her back quickly before she could turn and get a hold. The girl slammed an arm backwards, catching the regent in the ribs, but she held on, getting an arm under the shorter woman's, and forcing it up and around the back of her head.

With a growl, Lista flipped herself over, landing on top of Ephiny's body, and slammed down with her other elbow. But the regent saw it coming, and turned somehow, letting her impact the hard earth instead. She kept her hold up, now sensing the girl was off balance, and powered them both over, managing to get her other arm wrapped around Lista's and into position, putting pressure on until the girl's chin almost touched her chest.

Silence, as Lista writhed impotently, throwing herself around in an attempt to dislodge the persistent Ephiny, then she stopped, and the blond Amazon felt her body relax in defeat, as she tapped the ground again.

Ephiny released her, and rolled free, coming up onto her feet in a smooth move and dusting her hands off. A round of friendly clapping greeted her, and she grinned, planting her fists on her hips defiantly. It was best two out of three falls, so Ephiny had just won her bout, and she drummed her fingers against one hip bone, considering continuing. Wrestling was one of her favorite pastimes, and most of the Amazons knew that. She was, in fact, one of the only Amazons who could, and did, regularly wipe the mat with Eponin, their acknowledged master.

"Pounding on the kiddies?" A familiar gruff voice caught her attention, and she turned to see her lover pushing her way through the crowd, arriving at her side with a brief grin. "Where's the challenge in that?"

Ephiny let a smile of pure competition cross her face. "You offering to provide a better one?" She cocked a blond eyebrow at the weapons master. "Thought you were running the race."

Eponin cleared her throat. "Um… well, I was.. but there was this… um… " A hand lifted and dropped. "The path got washed out, and there was this badger, and…well.. I jumped over.. they didn't.. so I guess I won."

"Uh huh." Ephiny peered at her. "Where is everyone else?"

"Oh.. they'll be along." Pony told her innocently, holding up the small, leather bag trimmed with beads that had been the race prize. "There was this mud hole below the washout though.. might take a while."

Ephiny nodded, then glanced up at the sky. "It's starting.. I knew it.. the Gabrielle effect. " She sighed, then gestured to the center of the square. "C'mon, Pon… let's wrassle… show these kids how it's done."

Xena wasn't in a particular hurry as she crossed the smaller of the two circles that made up the Amazon village. Most of the occupants were either watching the games, or participating in them, so she only saw a few people, as she wandered across the hard packed earth.

Her face creased into a grin as she remembered Gabrielle's stunned face, and she glanced ahead, observing the approaching healer's quarters with something less than trepidation. She knew she was in for a grilling.. Menelda hated her, but somehow.. she just couldn't muster up either reluctance or tension and she found herself not really caring about the healer, or her opinions, or the outcome of the meeting.

She paused in front of the door to the hospice, then took a breath and pushed it open, breathing in the familiar scents of the herbs and cleansers as she hesitated to allow her eyes to adjust to the dim interior.

The double row of pallets were empty, and it was very quiet inside. Only the faint scrape of a mortar and pestle cut through the silence, along with a rustle of wind as it passed over the thatch roof, and brushed the trees outside.

Menelda was leaning against her worktable, mixing up something, and watching her with a closed, hooded expression.

Xena returned the look. "You need to talk to me?" She crossed the room, and perched on the edge of a second worktable, mimicking the healer's posture. The light from the window fell squarely on her, and she leaned back, crossing her arms on her chest.

The healer put down her task, and walked over, making a show of examining the warrior from head to foot. "Why the Hades are you even doing this?" The woman rasped.

The warrior regarded her in silence for a moment. "Because she wants me to." Xena replied, then fell silent.

Menelda exhaled. "That's the only reason?"

Xena nodded. "I don’t need to be a gods be damned Amazon, Menelda. I don't need to have people like you who hate my guts sitting judgement on me, all right? I don't need it." The warrior stood, using her height to good advantage. "But she wants it."

The healer's hackles rose. "After what you did to her, you can stand there, and say that?"

Xena's own temper flared. "You listen to me, you self righteous piece of centaur dung.. I don’t need you to remind me of what I did, or what I didn't do, got me?" Her voice dropped to a low growl. "I have to live with that every waking moment of my life, and then in for an eternity in Tartarus, so I don’t need to hear it from you."

Menelda just looked at her, a shocked and wary expression on her face.

"Every.. " Xena stepped closer. "Single." Even closer, and her voice took on a deadly fierceness. "Moment… Every time I look at her, every time she touches me.. I think of that.. so damn you, I don't need to hear it from your stinking mouth." A deathly quiet pause. "You got me?"

Very slowly, the healer moved to her worktable, and sank down into the chair behind it. She shuffled a pile of parchment in front of her, then folded her hands over it, not looking at Xena. "Are you saying you regret that, then?" She finally asked, in a quiet, almost toneless voice.

"Regret?" Xena let out a humorless chuckle. "I'd rip my heart out of my chest and toss it on that table if that could change what I did." She paused "But the only option I have is to live with it, so if you're done chastising me, let's get on with this, or forget it."

Menelda twirled a quill between her herb stained fingers, and regarded the parchment in front of her. Finally, she looked up. "I have to ask you a series of questions. Some of them are very personal."

Xena just raised an eyebrow as an invitation to continue.

The healer merely nodded, and dipped her quill in the inkpot in front of her. "How old are you?"

Xena told her.

Menelda looked up in frank surprise. "I didn't think… "

"I was just going on fifteen when Cortese attacked Amphipolis." Xena explained quietly.

The healer sat up. "Then.. during that war you… " Her brow creased. "You weren't much more than a child."

A shrug. "I grew up fast." Flatly.

Menelda went back to her parchment, visibly rattled. "You .. were born in Amphipolis."


"Your surviving family consists of your mother, and your brother."


A breath. "Have you had any serious injuries?"

Against her will, a droll smile edged across Xena's face. "Define serious." She commented, then waved the healer off as she started to speak. "Both legs shattered, broken back, both shoulders dislocated a few times each, most of my ribs broken, punctured lung, twice." She paused, reflecting. "I had a pretty severe skull fracture a little over a year ago." Her eyes dropped to Menelda's face, and she almost laughed at the look of startlement there. "Cold, damp mornings really piss me off."

"I can imagine." The healer murmured. "You managed to recover from all that, I take it."

"That last one was a real bitch, but yeah." Xena replied, with a faintly mocking tone. "I won't mention the times I've been stabbed, slashed, or shot with arrows.. that's why I had to learn to catch the damn things, I got tired of pulling them out of my guts."

Menelda kept her head down, her eyes focused on the parchment. "You bore a son."

Dead silence. "Yes."

A scratching sound, as the quill made a mark.

"Do you intend to bear other children?"


Another mark. "We usually require candidates to at least attempt to provide the Nation with a child." The healer's voice stated, with a careful lack of emotion.

Xena didn't answer her for a long time, she merely gazed out the window, her face expressionless. "Not this candidate." She finally said, remotely, then turned and looked straight at the healer, challenging her to comment.

Menelda chose not to. She studied her papers for a while in silence. "What does it feel like to die?" The healer finally asked, looking up. "That's not a question in here, I was just wondering."

Xena slipped off the table, and walked to the window, putting her hands on either side of the sill and peering out. "It's like going to sleep when you're very, very tired." She murmured, then sighed gently. "And I was."

"Then why in Hades did you come back?" Menelda asked, quietly.

A voice answered her from the doorway. "Because I needed her to." Gabrielle entered, letting the curtain of beads that kept insects out swing behind her. "And that's all you really need to know about that." The bard stood squarely in the center of the room, collecting the scattered sunlight in her golden red hair. Her face was set, and stern, and she bored into Menelda with eyes that held sparkles of anger deep within them.

Her hands balled into fists, as she swiveled and regarded her soulmate carefully. "What's up?" She looked, at that moment, very much like a Queen of the Amazons.

Xena had turned, and was leaning against the window, watching her with a gentle, proud smile. "It's all right.. Menelda and I reached an agreement before." She let her eyes flick to the healer's. "Right?"

"Yes." The healer muttered. "May I finish?" She avoided Gabrielle's intense stare.

"Go ahead." The bard crossed to her partner's side, and settled against her. "Don't mind me."

Xena bit her lip to keep from smiling at the aggressively protective gesture, and slipped an arm around her.

"Any illnesses?" Menelda asked, her tone precise.

"Not recently." Xena answered. "Other than the odd fever or two."

"How tall are you?"

"About three and a half cubits."

"Three point four seven." Gabrielle corrected her quietly. "Nicklios was very accurate."

Menelda gazed at her, then looked back down at her paper. "Could you please come here and stand in the light?"

Xena disengaged herself from her bristling soulmate and paced across the room, ending up in the light from the other window, right in front of Menelda's desk. She stood at ease, as the healer studied her intently.

"Well, that's a pointless question." The woman muttered, scratching something out. "And so's that… and gods.. I'm not going to go into that… "

Blue and green eyes exchanged very wry glances.

"All right." The healer finally said. "That's all. Thank you."

Xena nodded, and turned, heading for the door. Gabrielle pushed herself off the windowsill and made to follow her, but was stopped by Menelda's voice.

"Your majesty, a moment, please."

Gabrielle stopped. Xena shrugged a little. "Meet you outside.. I'll get your staff when I pick mine up."

"All right." The bard smiled at her. "Be right there." She watched the tall form push through the door, then she sighed, and squared her shoulders, and turned around. "Yes?"

Menelda sat up stiffly, and folded her hands. "I think we need to discuss your priorities."

Gabrielle looked at her. "I think you need to kiss my butt."

Shocked silence. "Excuse me?"

"You heard me." The bard continued quietly. "I had absolutely no idea in the world what in Hades I was getting into when I threw my body over Terreis' two years ago, but I did it, and now you're stuck with me. So don't be telling me we have to discuss my priorities." Gabrielle put her hands on her hips. "In case you can't tell, I'm in a really bad mood right now. Maybe we'd better talk later."

"Perhaps." Menelda replied uncertainly.

Gabrielle just nodded, and turned to leave, pausing in the doorway. "Did you get the answers you needed?"

The healer looked up, with a tired expression. "The only one that mattered was the first one." She shifted the parchment around with a listless finger. "I'll make no objection, your Majesty."

The bard nodded again. "Thank you." And she turned and walked out, pausing outside to take a deep breath and stop shaking. Her eyes fell immediately on the tall, quiet form leaning against the wall, a wolf huddled at her feet. "Hi."

"C'mere." Xena opened her arms, smiling as the bard bolted for her, and hurled herself into them, knocking her backwards a step. She enfolded Gabrielle's body in a fierce hug, and lifted her right off the ground, hearing the soft grunt as the air was forced out of the smaller woman's lungs.

"Ugh." Gabrielle sucked in a breath, as she was released. "Thought you were going to get our stuff."

Xena wrapped an arm around her shoulders and steered her towards their quarters. "I started to, then I heard you tell her to kiss your butt, and I thought I'd better stick around in case she tried."

The bard blushed, and chuckled. "To knock her silly?"

"Noooo… " Xena purred. "I figured she might have needed the services of a healer." She ruffled the bard's hair. "Thanks for coming to my rescue." She gave her soulmate a fond smile.

"Hey!" They both looked up at the hail, to see Solari trotting towards them. "Hey!"

They exchanged looks. "What's up?" Gabrielle yelled back, shading the sun from her eyes with her free hand.

"You gotta see this… Eph and Pony are fighting it out for the wrestling championship… it's getting real.. interesting." Solari grinned. "C'mon!" She started back in the other direction, and with a shrug, they broke into a jog to follow her.

The crowd was clustered around the square now, and included a group of mud covered runners, who flicked bits of dried muck off them as they watched the action before them. Gabrielle nudged around the edges of the crowd, looking for a good spot to watch the action, but was frustrated by the densely packed Amazons, most of whom were taller than she was.

As she passed a tree, however, a touch on the top of her head made her look up in startlement, spotting her soulmate resting comfortably in the branches. Xena held a hand down, and lifted her eyebrows invitingly.

Gabrielle glanced around, then grinned, and took the offered hand, allowing herself to be pulled up into the tree and into Xena's lap. She tried to disentangle herself from the warrior's grip, but Xena merely clucked at her, and settled her into a comfy spot resting against her chest, with both arms wrapped around her middle. "Mmm." She chuckled softly into the bard's ear.

The bard sighed happily and relaxed, thoroughly enjoying the warm sensation where their bodies connected, mostly bare skin against skin. "I like when you wear those," she commented, laying her hands over the warrior's. Xena's fingers were making absent, gentle circles on her belly, and after a moment, she decided she really liked the way that felt. "And I like when you do that." She spent a moment imagining her tiny baby, swimming around inside her. Could the baby feel the warmth of Xena's touch? She smiled a little, thinking about that, and decided the baby could.

"You do, huh?" Xena chuckled, resting her chin against the bard's head, and watching the action below. "Oh… wow… ouch." She muttered, as Eponin got the drop on her lover, and dumped her to the ground, with an audible thump. "She's gonna be sore from that."

"Ugh." Gabrielle winced, as the regent rolled up, and launched an attack at the weapons master, catching her with one hand under her thigh, and picking her up, then rolling over and landing them both on the ground, with Ephiny working hard to get a pinning hold. The two women were pretty evenly matched, with Eponin having, perhaps, a tiny edge in strength, and Ephiny an equally tiny edge in height.

Eponin wriggled out, though, and scrambled to her feet, breathing hard and circling the blond Ephiny with a rakish grin on her face. "No fair pinching, Eph."

The regent let a lazy smile shape her lips. "Not my fault you're getting soft enough to have things to pinch, Pon." She shook a finger at her. "Gotta lay off those nutcakes."

"Oo." Gabrielle winced. "That was cold."

Xena chuckled. "She's trying to make her mad."

"You're gonna regret that crack, Blondie." Eponin dove for her, getting her around the knees and tackling her with enthusiasm.

Ephiny went with the move, and rolled as she hit, surprising her lover, then got one leg free and clamped both of the dark haired Amazon's lower limbs in a strong hold. She arched her body, throwing both of them over, then slammed her upper body down on top of Eponin's, pinning her. "No I'm not, fuzzybutt."

Blue and green eyes quickly met. "Fuzzybutt?" Xena whispered, biting her lip. "Oh boy.. you definitely got it over Eph in coming up with nicknames."

Gabrielle giggled. "I'm not gonna be the one to ask if that's literal."

"Nu uh." Xena vigorously shook her head. "Don't go there."

Eponin growled, and shifted, tensing powerful muscles in an attempt to throw the blond woman off, but after a moment she stopped, and sighed, a rueful smile crossing her face. Reluctantly she tapped the ground. "How can I seriously try to get outta this with you calling me that?"

Ephiny held her there for a minute, then deliberately leaned over and kissed her, causing a perceptible flush to cover the weapons master's skin. "I'll make it up to you." She chuckled, as she released her, then got to her feet, and offered Eponin a hand up.

Still brick red, the older woman bounced to her feet unaided, to a round of applause and laughter from the assembled Amazons. "Don't you all have something better to do?" She complained, glaring at them.

"No." They chorused back.

Ephiny released a chuckle, then looked around. "Hey.. wonder wh… oh Hera's tits." She snorted. " Would you look at those two?" She planted her fists on her hips and shook her head.

Eponin turned, and glanced in the direction she was pointing, snorting when she spotted the two watchers comfortably ensconced in the nearby tree. As she watched, Xena shifted and without warning, dropped neatly off her perch, Gabrielle still clasped protectively against her. The warrior bounced once, then released her partner, who trotted towards them with a flash of sun on her red gold hair.

"That was great." Gabrielle complimented them, as she drew near.

Ephiny dusted her hands off, and waited until the bard came right up next to her. "Everything all right?" She asked, in a low voice.

"Fine." Gabrielle replied in the same tone. "We… worked things out." Her eyes caught Ephiny's and her chin lifted a trifle. "Looks like you'll be celebrating three joinings tonight."

That brought a relieved expression to the regent's face. "Tell me later how you did that, huh? I could use some pointers with the old curmudgeon."

The bard smiled. "Your on… and by the way, looks like you're giving everyone else here some pointers.. that was pretty impressive!"

Ephiny preened a little. "Not bad.. not bad… didn't Xena ever teach you how to wrestle?" Her eyes twinkled with mischief, as she regarded her friend with mock concern.

"Eeeeyahhh… ." The bard drew the word out teasingly. "You could say that…we used wrestling a lot to kinda use up some energy last winter.. when we were stuck inside all the time." She glanced behind her quickly, spotting Xena chatting with Cait. "You know."

Ephiny crossed her arms, and let her brows lift. "Hmm… but did she teach you the right way?"

Gabrielle realized suddenly that a ring was forming around them, and she worked hard to keep a grin off her face. "Well… I really don’t know…" She managed an innocent shrug. "Not much to judge against, huh? I mean… some of the stuff you were doing looked kinda familiar.. but.. "

"Tch tch." Ephiny shook her head. "Y'know… all Amazons really should know the proper forms… I think I'd better make sure you do."

The bard stepped back. "Oh… no.. c'mon, Eph… " She held up a hand. "You just finished a couple rounds… and I've got to get ready for the staff thing… "

"No no.. " The regent protested. "Just a few throws… I'm fine.. and it'll warm you up a little, right?" Her eyes twinkled. "Tell you what… I betcha I can pin you in less than a minute."

"Eph…. " The bard hesitated. "I don't know… "

"C'mon.. c'mon…. five dinars." Ephiny coaxed. She was aware of the friendly chuckling and whispered bets passing behind her back. "You can spare that, huh?"

Gabrielle sighed, and lifted both hands, then let them drop. "Well… all right.. I guess… but remember, you're the expert at this… okay??" She backed off a little, then waited for Ephiny to join her, aware in her peripheral vision of Xena's tall form joining the watchers. She turned her head a little, and caught her soulmate's eye, giving her a little, helpless shrug.

Xena shrugged back, then crossed her arms, and relaxed her stance, her expression noncommittal.

"Okay." Ephiny cracked her knuckles, and circled her victim, noting with interest that Gabrielle swiveled to follow her motion. The bard stood with her legs slightly bent, and her arms just a bit away from her body, breathing easily in the sunlight. "Now… the first thing ya gotta do is get a hold of the other person." She darted in and took a grip on Gabrielle's' shoulders, feeling the muscles move sharply under her fingertips. "Then you.. yow!"

Gabrielle had stepped forward, and slipped a hand between the regent's legs, then grabbed her closer arm and heaved, lifting the taller woman up and onto her shoulders. "Like that?" She inquired, innocently, hearing a muffled snort of laughter from her partner. Heh… A silent chuckle rippled her belly.

Ephiny blinked, totally stunned. "Gabrielle, put me down." She squeaked, her hands grabbing for purchase on the bard's tensed upper arms.

"Put you down?" The bard repeated. "Put you.. down.. is that what you want me to do?"

"Yes." The regent growled. "I'm not sure how you… ouch!"

The bard dropped to a knee and flipped her off, dumping her on the mat with a tiny thud. "Ok.. you're down." She cheerfully reported, as the regent rolled up, and onto her knees, with an outraged expression. "What's next?" Gabrielle propped her elbow on her knee and rested her chin against her hand, her eyes sparkling with mischief.

For an answer, Ephiny launched herself at the bard, and they grappled in earnest, tumbling across the mat in a flurry of arms and legs. Ephiny got a good hold on Gabrielle's arm, but the bard twisted her body, the leverage tossing the regent off her, and into a heap. Well.. that's a heck of a lot easier with her than with Xena, that's for sure. She realized. Getting her partner over like that was just about impossible, given their respective differences in size and weight.

"My turn." The bard muttered, as she leaped over the scrambling Ephiny, and caught her offguard, getting her over onto her back and throwing her body on top of her. She caught both the regent's wrists in her hands and bore down, pinning her body tightly and ending up nose to nose with her.

Ephiny glared at her for a long moment, then started to chuckle ruefully. "You're the expert here.. " She mimicked the bard in a high, squeaky voice. "I shoulda known better… you little.. "

A blond brow lifted. "Yes?" Gabrielle pronounced, in a very reasonable facsimile of her partner's deep tone. She heard another muffled chuckle behind her.

The regent laughed, then tapped the ground with her fingers, the only part of her upper body that was capable of moving. "All right.. all right…. Damn you, Gabrielle.. what have you been doing, lifting rocks?"

The bard rolled off her, and got up onto her knees, as she felt a pair of hands descend on her shoulders. "Not really… Xena just taught me to make the most of what strength I do have… how to use it right… and I gotta tell you, Eph.. it's a whole lot easier to throw you around than it is her." She peeked over her shoulder and caught the indulgent grin on her partner's face. "Know what I mean?"

Ephiny propped herself up on her elbows, and regarded the tall ex warlord. "Oh yeah… I can see where that would be.. I betcha you never tried that lift with her."

"Uh… " Gabrielle's face scrunched. "Once." She rubbed her neck in remembrance. "I got yelled at." She got to her feet, and offered the regent a hand up.

Ephiny studied her. "How about best two out of three?" She offered, with a grin, then lifted her gaze to Xena's. The warrior was cocking an eyebrow at her meaningfully. "On the other hand.. . we do have to get that staff competition going.. " She waved a hand at the chorus of disappointed groans. "Come on now… you'll get to see the Queen in action again soon enough.. scram…." She stretched out her shoulders. "I'm gonna go get a drink of water."

Gabrielle sighed in mild relief, and leaned back a little, resting against Xena's warm body with a sense of simple pleasure. The warrior's hands gently rubbed her neck, and worked a light massage across her shoulders. "Mm." She turned and glanced up. "Was that good, or what?"

Xena brushed her lips against the bard's pale hair. "Oh.. that was good.. that was real good… in fact.. " She pulled a coin from the pouch she had fastened to her belt. "I won ten dinars from Eponin. Here."

"Tch.. Xena… that wasn't fair.. " The bard whispered, darting a glance around as the Amazons dispersed, regrouping for the staff bouts to one side.

The warrior shrugged innocently. "She insisted." She tugged a lock of her partner's hair. "C'mon.. let's get you warmed up, Pounding Pauline."

Gabrielle giggled. "Shh… you're having entirely too much fun."

"Hey, Xena!" A voice brought them both up short. They turned to see Eponin squarely in the center of the wrestling area. "I'd like to see you demonstrate that little move on me."

"Charon's left buttock." Xena muttered, then said something else in a language Gabrielle didn't recognize. "Not now, Pony… I got things to do." Damn… I shouda known she was gonna pull this. "Besides, you don’t wanna wrestle with me."

The weapons master grinned. "Ah ah.. now Xena… " She spread her arms around to the once again desperately interested Amazons, who had immediately gathered around. "EVERYONE wants to wrestle with you.. so.. c'mon, c'mon.. get your red leathered butt over here."

Gabrielle scratched her nose, and debated whether or not to watch. Xena's pride was a touchy thing, and you never knew what kicked off an instinctive reaction sometimes. She peeked up at her soulmate, and was relieved to see nothing but wry amusement in her eyes and body language.

"Eponin." Xena exhaled, then padded forward, her long, athletic stride bringing her to the center of the mat with startling rapidity. She stopped within reaching distance of the Amazon and put her hands on her hips. "You wanna wrestle ."

"Mmhmm." Eponin nodded briskly, rubbing her hands. "I'm feeling pretty good today, and you're looking a little soft.. I think I can take you."

Gabrielle winced, and covered her eyes. Oh.. that was a bad idea. Toris had found that out real fast.. and had finally stopped using that kind of teasing on his sister, who would immediately proceed to prove otherwise, usually by painful means.

One finely shaped dark brow lifted. "I have a better idea." Xena purred, and moved.

So quickly Eponin didn't have time to breathe, much less defend herself. The warrior was just a blur, who slipped in, and evaded her panicked hands, and tore her Amazon halter right off her body. "Yow!!!!!" She let out a howl, shocked.

Xena danced back, holding it. "Here's the game." She grinned at the now furious and half-naked Amazon. "Catch me." And she took off, with a howling Eponin right behind her. She reached the first rank of laughing Amazons and just launched herself over them in a flip, as they staggered and parted for her determined pursuer.

"Damn you, Xena…" The Amazon cursed, as she chased after the taller woman. "I'm gonna kick your butt when I catch you."

The warrior grinned, and ran backwards for a few steps, waving the top. "Gotta catch me first." She dodged around the tree they'd been sitting in, and took off again, as a few other Amazons joined in the chase. "Gotta have help, Pony? You're slipping." She taunted, leading them around to the edge of the cleared space.

They almost caught her, hands outstretched, but she was better than that. Xena crouched, then launched herself skyward, grabbing a tree limb above her head, then flinging herself out ward into space, flipping twice before she landed, and took off again, this time heading right across the compound. She turned on the speed as they circled around to chase her, making good use of her long, powerful legs. As she passed her soulmate, leaning against the tree, she tossed her the top. "Catch."

Gabrielle got her hands up just in time to do so, then looked at the top. Her eyes grew wide, as she glanced up, to see a pack of howling Amazons headed towards her, and she cursed, then bolted, outrunning the leading chasers by a hair and ducking under Eponin's outstretched arm. "Whoops.. gotta do better than that."

Panting , they all turned again to chase her, and broke into wild dashes, but Gabrielle hadn't spent three years of almost constant activity for nothing. She tucked the halter into a fist and ran, feeling the wind whip her hair back as she outdistanced the frustrated women easily.

She just forgot to watch out for Ares. The wolf, bounding back and forth excitedly, had turned to follow Xena, who had crossed her path, and ended up right in front of her. They collided, and she fell into a rolling ball, hearing the wildly triumphant shout of the crowd in back of her. Instinctively, she tucked her body into a ball and held her breath as she felt the rumbling of the ground caused by the approaching herd.

Air whistled, and she grimaced, but the body landing on top of hers first splayed its limbs around her like a living cage just before the rest of the Amazons got there.

It was like being landed on by a wagonload of wheat sacks, but Gabrielle didn't feel it, she just sensed the impact on the body that had covered hers, which she recognized instantly as her soulmate's. Xena's muscles tensed, and she heard the warrior draw in a quick breath. "Hey." She put a hand on the face bowed close over her own. "You all right?"

"No." Her partner grunted, as they all piled on, hands digging for the prize. "Ask Eph what the Hades she's been feeding these monsters."

Gabrielle heard the regent's voice yelling, and realized Ephiny was trying to get the crowd off of them. She took the opportunity to lift her head, and gently kiss Xena's lips. "I love you." She commented softly, to distract her partner from the chaos.

Xena forgot the jarring pain, forgot the stress she was forcing on her body, forgot the Amazons, and the wet grass, and the hot, sweaty, grunting women lying on top of them. "Hey.. I love you too." She kissed the bard back, letting the touch linger until she felt cool air on her back, and the weight lifted off of her. A hand tapped her shoulder.

"Are you all right?" Ephiny's voice sounded halfway between anger and worry.

Xena lifted herself peacefully off from over her partner, and rolled over onto the grass, gazing up at the regent with a slight smile. "Never been better. You?" She licked her lips, and crossed her booted legs, putting her hands behind her head and relaxing.

Ephiny put her hands on her hips, looking from Xena, to Gabrielle, who was lying on her back, twirling Eponin's top from the strap on one finger, her legs crossed comfortably. "Was there something in that nutbread?" She demanded. "What was that?" She turned to see her lover half-naked and fuming. "What are you doing? I leave for five minutes to get a drink of water, and I come back to this???"

"She stole my top!" Eponin pointed to Xena in outrage.

Ephiny couldn’t help it. She started laughing. "She did, huh?.. well, that explains why you're.. um… " She artfully arranged the older woman's dark, long hair to cover her chest. "Um.. "

"Pickled centaur farts." Eponin cursed, then turned to Gabrielle in appeal. "Your majesty.. could I… "

"Sure." Gabrielle balled up the top, and tossed it to her, then bounced to her feet. "You know, I like festivals.. you're right, Eph.. they're fun." She hauled her soulmate up and patted her on the back. "Xena just wasn't in the mood to wrestle."

Ephiny glanced from the now composed warrior to her cursing lover, and back. "Ah." Understanding flickered across her face. "Gotcha." She sighed. "I sent Cait for your staff.. I think you're pretty warmed up." She watched as Eponin stalked off, adjusting her clothing, and sighed.

The bard ran her fingers through her hair, and exhaled. "Oh yeah." She squared her shoulders. "Let's get started." She turned her eyes to the group assembling, all carrying staves, and most watching her with what she realized was wary fascination.

She lifted her head, and felt a surge of confidence. See? I am an Amazon… did I surprise you? She caught the quiet respect in Ephiny's eyes, as the regent steered her towards the competition area. I think I did surprise all of them… of course, I also kinda surprised myself, but… The bard glanced over her shoulder to see Xena watching her, a look of obvious pride in her face. I didn't surprise her, though, did I? The warrior winked at her. No.. I sure didn't. "Sorry about Pony… " She murmured to the regent.

Ephiny shrugged. "I told her not to do that…. she's just got a competitive bug up her butt when it comes to your other half there… don't worry.. she'll live."

Gabrielle smiled. My other half. "Sorry about the wrestling thing."

The regent just looked at her. "No.. that was my fault. I was trying to show off, and picked the wrong person to do it with." She chuckled. "When did you get so strong?"

When indeed. It was an odd feeling, and Gabrielle put off answering the question while she examined the sensation. It hit her like a thunderclap. What Xena had said, about her being able to hold her own in a challenge, as the Queen, was true.

What a weird feeling.

She wasn't entirely sure she liked it.

Xena found a nice, warm rock, and settled herself on it, leaning back and letting the sun's heat captured in the stone penetrate the stiffening muscles in her back. She was tough, and she knew it, but holding half the Amazon nation off her partner's body had put a strain on even her rugged frame.

She sighed, folding her arms across her chest and concentrating on letting the pain go past her awareness, tucking it away in the back of her mind with quiet discipline. After a minute, she relaxed, and that helped too, as she stretched her long legs out, and gingerly crossed them at her ankles.

Amazons roamed around her, most of them now not giving her a second glance.

Well, a faint grin touched her mouth. Not giving her that kind of second glance, anyway… she was certainly getting veiled looks, and even a friendly wave or two. She turned her head as a tall, slender redhead approached, and perched on a rock nearby. The woman just smiled at her, then turned to watch the warmups. Xena exhaled, and nodded a little. Not bad… not bad… the atmosphere was definitely warmer around here.

She hadn't really intended to do that to Eponin… Her brow creased. It really was kinda.. juvenile, she chastised herself. But it was better than tossing the woman on her butt.. which Xena knew she was more than capable of doing. Why Eponin constantly had to poke at her like that..

Xena sighed. A challenge, right? She let out a breath and slowly tensed her back, relieved when she only felt a nagging soreness, and not the sharp, agonizing jolt that meant she knocked something out of place. That's all I need.. She glanced up as Cait approached her, with Paladia ambling behind her, looking around with carefully disguised interest. "Hello, Cait." She gave the taller woman a neutral nod, which was returned.

"Hello." Cait settled on the rock ledge next to her, and motioned for her charge to do the same. "That was quite naughty of you." Her gray eyes studied the warrior. "I’m afraid Eponin is very upset."

The warrior shrugged. "Maybe next time she'll pick on someone else." She let her eyes flick to Paladia. "How's the arm?"

The ex renegade blinked, pausing as though considering the question. "All right." She moved it a little, having left her sling behind for the day. "Sore as Hades right now… I knocked myself into a tree laughing at all those damn women chasing you around."

Cait turned. "It wasn't funny." She reprimanded her sternly.

Paladia's lips quirked.

"C'mon, Cait.. sure it was." Xena chuckled. "Even Ephiny was laughing… I figured that was better than me and Pony tearing into each other."

The girl scowled. "I think she felt awful."

For a moment, Xena felt guilty. Then she snorted softly. "Too bad." She turned her gaze on Cait levelly. "Maybe next time she won't try forcing me into reacting."

Cait kept quiet, then she stood and walked off. "Stay there." She tossed tightly over her shoulder at Paladia, who showed no signs of wanting to budge.

Xena exchanged looks with the renegade, then shrugged slightly, and turned her attention to the fighting square. A group of Amazons were clustered at one end, all armed, and the rest were scattered around the space watching. Gabrielle was leaning on her staff in a familiar pose as she listened to the referee. Thoughts of Eponin faded from her mind as Xena allowed herself to focus on her soulmate, noting the visible difference between the bard's lean sleekness and the rest of the group's sometimes overstated muscularity.

Gods, she looks good. The warrior bit her lip to keep the goofy grin off her face. The sun was making the bard's body fairly glisten, between her tan, and the faint sheen of moisture from the heat of near noon, and as she watched, Gabrielle raked her fingers through her hair, pulling it off her neck and riffling it loose in the fitful breeze, then turned, and nodded as the woman next to her made a low comment.

There were three bouts before the bard's first one, and Xena's practiced eye evaluated quickly that any of the three sets wouldn't have been a match for her partner She shifted a little, leaning forward as Gabrielle walked to the center of the square, facing off against a tall, dark skinned woman with short black hair, and very muscular shoulders.

After a moment, the referee stepped back, and the two women circled each other. Xena noted the bard's stance, her center of balance squarely over her feet and her knees half bent defensively. Gabrielle waited for her opponent to make the first move, as the bard often did, and was rewarded with a heavy rush, as the dark skinned woman slammed her staff against hers, and tried to push her backwards.

Gabrielle's thighs tensed, then she recoiled, shoving back, and slipped under the woman's defenses with a swift crack of wood on flesh as her staff impacted the Amazon's ribs. She followed that up with a snapping reverse, which whipped her opponents weapon out of her hands, and sent it bounding across the ground.

A murmur rose.

Xena smiled, with feral intensity. Paladia's voice floated over, with frank interest. "She's pretty good with that thing, huh?"

"Yep." The warrior replied, hearing the note of pride in her voice. "She sure is." She watched as Gabrielle allowed the other woman to retrieve her staff, then waited for her next attack. The woman was more cautious, this time, and settled for a testing parry, as they engaged each other, the sound of their staves contacting echoing across the compound. The dark skinned woman tried to use her height to advantage, but that was a lost cause on Gabrielle who was well used to defending herself against her taller partner. She ducked, and let a shot whistle over her head, then took the woman's feet out from under her with a powerful reverse sweep.

The Amazon dropped with a thud. The bard stood, and waited while she scrambled to her feet, and shifted her staff in her hands, now visibly disconcerted. She tentatively tried a side sweep, which Gabrielle blocked, then the bard brought the other end of her staff around, and clipped the woman's hands, taking her weapon out of them again.

The Amazon peered at her, then peered at the staff, which had bounced several feet away, then just lifted her hands and gave Gabrielle a little bow of concession. The referee nodded and made a mark on her parchment. "Round to Queen Gabrielle." She called out, then motioned for the next pair of fighters.

The bard cocked her head, as though not quite believing it was over, then turned and gave her partner a little look, and a shrug, as she moved back to the waiting ranks. Xena lifted one hand and moved it to her lips in a drinking motion, and smiled as her soulmate rolled her eyes, but tapped a young girl standing by with waterskins on the shoulder and took possession of one, unstopping it and taking a long swallow of its contents.

Xena felt an indulgent grin forming, and just let it, ignoring the look she knew she was getting from Paladia.

"You're just stuck all over her like tree sap in the winter, huh?" The renegade snorted, a note of amused disgust in her voice.

The warrior slowly turned her head, letting an icy look settle on her features before she leveled her gaze at the other woman. Paladia perceptibly flinched, and Xena smiled grimly, as she summoned up as much menace as she was capable of, dropping her voice and narrowing her eyes. "Want the other arm broken?" She asked bluntly.

Paladia edged away from her on the rock, and blinked. "No."

"Then shut up." The warrior growled.

The renegade's brows knit. "Touchy, ain't you?" She commented in an undertone, then shook her head, and hunched her shoulders.

Xena darted a look at her, then muffed a smirk, as she returned her attention to the contest. Gotta keep that reputation intact a little, she decided wryly. I've been pretty much blowing it otherwise.

Gabrielle's next opponent was a spunky youngster, about her height, and bubbling with energy. Xena wondered if her partner was seeing a little of herself in the kid, who bounced around nervously, obviously intimidated by facing her queen. The warrior saw Gabrielle shift her staff from one hand to the other, and lean on it, putting her other hand out in a calming gesture, and speaking to the girl. The young Amazon took a breath, and nodded, then settled down, a painfully intense look on her face.

Another few words from the bard, and a questioning motion of her hand, and the Amazon nodded again. Gabrielle gave her head a little shake, then moved her weapon back into place, and set her feet, waiting. The girl bounded forward, with a nice, moderately skillful move that engaged the bard's staff, with a scuffing sound as the two wooden poles scraped along each other. She brought the end back around and aimed for Gabrielle's legs, and was completely startled when the bard simply hopped over her blow, making her overbalance and lunge forward.

Gabrielle was kind, and didn't follow that up with a whack across her back, which she certainly would have done if her opponent had been seriously attacking her. Instead, she took a step back, and waited, until the girl righted herself then came whirling back with a very well done combination move, intended to get inside the bard's guard, and disarm her. It almost worked, or would have if the bard wasn't used to a far stronger motion. She caught the girl's staff against the end of hers, and twisted, then swiveled her body and let the Amazon go past her, stumbling to the ground and losing her weapon with a gasp of surprise.

Paladia leaned closer. "That's their wonderchild."

Xena peered at her. "What?"

"That kid… s'all they talk about.. staff this, staff that… some kinda prodigy."

The warrior scratched her jaw. "Uh huh." She peered at the girl, speculatively. Well… she was nicely built, all muscles, and pale reddish blond hair, with a swath of freckles across her face. Her moves were fast, and skilled, but… "She's pretty good." She admitted, watching the kid try a quick, savage reverse that almost got her partner, because it was set down low, where Gabrielle almost never had to defend against. She mostly faced opponents who were much larger than she was. But the bard managed to get her staff down in time, and deflected the blow, then swung her own top end across, and whacked the kid across the cheekbone with an audible crack.

The kid went down, and Gabrielle froze, then backed off, a few wind whipped words of an apology floating back to Xena's sharp ears. The girl looked up with a rueful grin, and rubbed her jaw, then picked up her staff, and resumed the fight. It didn't take that long, another few parries, and one drawn out one, where the Amazon really worked hard, and managed to get Gabrielle in a tight spot, with their staves crossed above the bard's left shoulder, the girl bearing down on her fiercely.

"Duck.. duck.. " Xena whispered, her own muscles tightening in sympathy. As though she heard, the bard let her upper body drop, and the girl's staff slipped over her shoulders, giving her an open shot on the Amazon's ribs. She took it, and took her down, and this time, the girl stayed there, waving a hand in concession.

The scratch of a quill. "Round to Queen Gabrielle." The referee commented, then looked up. "Quarter candlemark break.. get water, you lot."

Gabrielle trotted over and claimed her waterskin, sucking from it as she let her heart settle down. She could hear the whispers around her, and spotted a small group around her next adversary, who were shooting glances her way. It made her feel uncomfortable, and she was suddenly aware of a distance being put between her and some of the Amazons, and realized maybe she was being too challenging.

It was a lonely feeling, and she felt her shoulders slump, until the pressure of warm fingers closed over them, and the unmistakable presence of her soulmate flowed around her. She looked up. "Hey." Her voice betrayed just how glad she was to see that friendly face.

"Turn around." The warrior said, quietly, letting her forearms rest on the bard's shoulders when she did. "They making you nervous?" She indicated the small group with her jaw.

"Not.. " Gabrielle hesitated. "Not nervous.. I just… it's.. like me and them, you know?"

"Us and them" Xena replied evenly. "You think they're talking about you?"

The bard nodded silently. "Yeah… I heard a few words.. what to look for.. how to get me.. I… " She looked up plaintively. "I know it's all just fun.. just a competition, but I don't like that, Xe."

"Mm." The warrior made a point of looking right at the conspirators over her soulmate's shoulder, and studying them, then whispered into the bard's ear. "Well.. that's exactly what they think I'm doing, okay.?" She nibbled the edge of the pink surface. "You think that's scaring them?"

The bard chuckled faintly. "Probably." Her opponents suddenly seemed much less important, as she concentrated on the warm tingles her partner was causing in her gut.

"Oh yeah.. I'm looking at each one, and whispering to you… and looking… yeah, they're starting to sweat all right." Xena's low voice burred against Gabrielle's hearing and she let her self slip forward, leaning against the tall form. "Probably think I'm giving you secret techniques about now." The warrior continued.

"So.. you got any?" Gabrielle whispered softly. "Or should I just quit… I think I proved my point.. I don’t want to shake everyone up, Xena." She sounded dejected.

Xena leaned her head against the reddish gold one tucked into her shoulder. "You made your teacher very proud, love… you did everything right, and I don’t think there's any doubt in anyone's mind exactly how good you really are." She heard the bard's breathing catch. "You can stop anytime… you don’t have anything left to prove to anyone.. and you never did to me, because you're one of the few people I'd trust to watch my back , you know that, right?"

Mist green eyes peered up at her in simple gratitude. "Okay." She breathed. "If I win this next one, that's it… besides, I'm starving." She sighed in mild complaint. "I feel like I could eat an entire sheep."

The warrior grinned, and reached a hand down, rummaging in her belt pouch and coming up with a trail bar. "I came prepared." She chuckled as the bard snatched it, and bit off a chunk, chewing it happily. "That next one.. watch out, because she's one of their older, more experienced fighters.. she was with the Velaska faction during that whole thing." The warrior's voice was steady, and low. "She'll try to redeem the Amazon's reputation.. she'll go after you fast, and looked to disarm you quickly… go for her chest, in a frontal." Her ears twitched. "They're discussing what they think are your weaknesses… she thinks you hesitate to attack because you don't know any, not because I taught you to let the other person make the first mistake."

Gabrielle nodded firmly. "Right.. gotcha." She took another bite.

Xena smiled quietly. "They think you're really good looking."

The bard stopped in mid chew, and goggled at her. "Xena!"

A shrug. "I’m not arguing with them." She brushed a bit of the bard's fair hair back. "I think so too."

"Uh huh.. and what are they saying about you?" Gabrielle inquired, poking her lightly in the belly.

"Sorry." Xena smirked. "Too much wind.. musta missed that part." She was glad to see her soulmate's spirits back up. "Pony's mad at me… so's Cait. Was I so bad?" She asked, wryly.

"Mm." Gabrielle reflected, licking her fingers thoughtfully. "You did kinda surprise me, but…she started it… you tried to warn her off.. she didn't listen… she said some rude stuff… nah." She looked up. "But you should go talk to her." A hand lifted, and went flat against Xena's bare skin. "I think she really does like you."

Xena sighed. "All right.. after this.. and after you get some real lunch." Her brows contracted. "You feeling okay? No shortness of breath.. or anything?" She put a fingertip against the bard's pulse point, relieved at the even, steady beat.

"I feel absolutely great. " Gabrielle told her. "Really sharp… my reflexes are right there… I wasn't even breathing hard after that last bout." She turned as the referee called her name out. "Wish me luck."

The warrior folded her arms around her, and pulled her close, then ducked her head and kissed her, feeling the bard's body melt against hers for a long, swirling moment. She pulled back a little, very conscious of the stares surrounding them. "Good luck." She told her, on a husky note.

The bard's eyes were fastened on her face, totally absorbed. "I can't believe you did that."

A dark brow quirked. "Nothing they haven't seen, remember?"

Gabrielle lifted a hand up and gently traced her cheekbones. "I remember." She let herself float in her soulmate's blue regard for a long moment, then smiled, and gently disengaged herself, getting a grip on her staff and walking towards the center of the woven mats that marked out the fighting area. It was very quiet, and she could hear the leaves rustling in the wind, and felt everyone's eyes fastened on her.

At the center of the square, she stopped, and rested her staff in the crook of her arm, regarding the Amazons quietly. The expressions facing her ranged from deep envy, to wonder, to disbelief, and she smiled gently back at them, secure in the knowledge of what it felt like to have love surround her. Her opponent moved out to face her, shifting her staff from hand to hand. The woman was taller than she was, and rangy, with a steely strength apparent in her motions. She had faintly silvered chestnut hair, cut shoulder length, and held back off her sharply featured face with a leather thong.

Gabrielle sensed a difference in this bout, and she glanced quickly behind her, spotting Xena's tense form standing next to Ephiny. Okay.. okay.. just.. relax… and go with this. She's here.. she won't let anything horrible happen. She took a deep breath, and waited, as the referee dropped her hand.

The other woman was called Kenete, Gabrielle remembered just as the attack came. Xena had been right, Kenete wasted no time in getting down and dirty, her staff smacking against the bard's with a lot more force than her previous two opponents. Gabrielle's block held, and she slipped around to one side, deflecting the fierceness of the lunge.

She backed off and waited, catching a combination move and returning a couple of quick parries meant more to test her reactions than to seriously attack. She shifted her staff and stepped one way, then swung the opposite direction, in her own test of the woman's reflexes, not surprised when the Amazon efficiently blocked her.

"I'm not a kid, your… Majesty.. so don't try any of your tricks on me." The woman spoke softly, as their staves crossed again, and she shoved the bard back.

"Tricks?" Gabrielle countered, sending her weapon low to intercept a sweep aimed at her knees, then reversing her direction and catching the counterblow near her ear. "I'm sorry… circus animals do tricks." She started one way, and waited for Kenete to commit herself, then whipped her staff back the other way and slammed the woman's shoulder with a nasty smack. "I don't know any."

Kenete paused, eyeing her, then circled around the bard's left, and darted in, getting a blow in that impacted Gabrielle's thigh. The bard winced, but returned the compliment, getting under the taller Amazon's arm, and catching her ribs.

"You think we're all scared of your friend there." The woman muttered, initiating a rapid exchange, which had their staves rattling against each other.

"You should be." Gabrielle countered, ducking a high shot, and dropping to her knee, getting a good blow in to the woman's knees, and slamming her in the chest with the end of her staff. "She taught me all this."

Kenete staggered back, taking a breath, as she watched the bard recoil to her feet, and circle around. "We'll see." And then she attacked in earnest, pulling out all the stops and going after the bard with what Gabrielle suddenly realized was almost lethal intent.

The staff was streaking for her head with enough force to crack it, and she ducked, hearing the whistle as it sliced the air. Then Kenete whipped the back end of the staff right for her gut, and she blocked in a reflex action, twisting slightly to deflect the blow. Kenete growled, and redoubled her attack.

Gabrielle's movements were a blur, as she fought off the lunges, putting every ounce of energy she had into evading the rapid sequence of hits, as she ducked and parried, using her staff and her footwork to stay clear of the Amazon's fierce blows.

One caught her in the ribs, and she sucked in a breath, seeing stars, then she felt Kenete charge, and she didn't have time to set herself. The woman bowled her over, but she went with her teaching, and let it happen, tucking her body into a roll that brought her back up onto her feet and out of the startled Amazon's way.

Kenete snarled, and turned, and set herself for another rush.

Not ever expecting the woman she knew fought strictly defensively to launch her own attack. Never seeing the powerful legs throw Gabrielle into motion, never having the chance to brace herself as the bard's staff thunked down onto the mat, and provided a launching point for a compact, muscular body that was suddenly airborne and heading for her at a frightening pace.

Gabrielle's booted feet hit her right in the chest, and carried her to the ground, as the bard landed on top of her, jerking her staff up and around and laying it across the Amazon's throat.

Shoving hard. Green eyes electric with anger. Youthful features set into hard lines of fierce intent.

Queen of the Amazons.

Kenete stared up at her, seeing the sparks of fury, then lowered her eyes, and tapped the ground with shaking fingertips. "Your majesty is a very skillful fighter." She murmured.

Gabrielle let out a hissing breath. "You betcha."

Slowly, she stood up, and backed away from Kenete, letting her heart slowly stop its frantic pounding. She glanced over her shoulder to see her soulmate, still as a granite boulder, eyes hooded.

Unsheathed knife in one hand, fingers wrapped around the hilt so tightly that Gabrielle could see the stark whiteness of her knuckles even from where she was. She looked at the referee, who was very pale. "Are we done?" To the spectators, it had looked only like a well fought bout. But she knew. And Xena knew. And Kenete was lucky she was alive, because from this distance, her partner could have put that knife right through her heart.

The referee stared at her for a long moment, then shook herself. "Y..yes." She cleared her throat. "The staff competition has finished. The winner, with three rounds complete in victory, is Queen Gabrielle."

An enthusiastic yell went up, and furious clapping, but the bard didn't hear any of it. She slowly turned, and using her staff to aid her steps, walked over to where Xena was standing, and in silence, fit herself into a warm, waiting embrace. The warrior's body was shaking, and Gabrielle knew hers was as well. She felt Ephiny's hand on her back, and she lifted her head to gaze at the regent blankly.

"You all right?" Ephiny's voice was very soft, and very gentle. "That was fantastic… you were incredible."

Gabrielle just stared at her, then she slowly tipped her head back and looked up at her soulmate's face, gathering in the still furious blue stare. A tiny nod. "I understand." The bard whispered, hoarsely.

Xena let out a breath, and shook her head, her face tensing in dismay.

Gabrielle felt tears gathering. "Can I go back to telling stories now?" Her voice broke, and she buried her face into Xena's chest, feeling the strong arms close around her in safety.

The warrior let her head rest against her partner's and gazed at Ephiny quietly. "That's enough fighting." She stroked the bard's hair comfortingly. "That one carrying some old baggage?" She indicated the shaken Kenete.

Ephiny rubbed Gabrielle's back. "I should have vetted the lists… I didn't realize… well, I guess I didn't think she'd want to go the whole way through." She glanced around at the still cheering Amazons. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle."

The bard lifted her head, her composure mostly restored. "It's all right… " She paused, and ran her hand through her hair. "I guess I just wasn't expecting that." She found a smile somewhere and forced herself into it, then waved at the crowd, who cheered louder. "Guess they think I'm one of them, now, huh?" Her voice was very quiet.

Xena's eyes closed momentarily, then she sighed, and reopened them. "C'mon… let's go siddown and relax for a while.. watch other people sweat."

"Good idea." Ephiny let her hand rest, hesitantly, on Gabrielle's arm. "You okay?"

The bard took a breath, and straightened up. "Yeah.. I'm fine.. just hungry." She managed a smile for the regent. "Let's go." She felt Xena's arm settle securely on her shoulder, and she leaned against the warrior as they walked, letting Ephiny get a little ahead of them. It felt so good to do that, to feel the solid reassurance of Xena's presence that gave her the opportunity to distance herself a little from what had happened.

So she'd had a rough bout. Kenete was obviously holding a grudge, and decided to take the opportunity to revisit the past.

Bottom line, Gabrielle realized quietly. She lost. I won. I wish I could feel good about that.

"Gabrielle?" Xena finally spoke, as they were about halfway to the dining hall, which was now bustling with hot, sweaty, dirty Amazons.


"You'll never be one of them." The warrior spoke with quiet certainty.

Gabrielle stopped walking and looked up at her. "How can you know that?"

A hand tilted her chin up and she found herself drowning in that pale blue regard. "Because you feel like you do right now." Xena replied gently. "Any true Amazon would be celebrating her victory. You're not." She laid a hand over the bard's heart. "You've got too much in here."

Maybe. She reflected wearily. I sure don’t feel like celebrating. I feel like a centaur pooped on my head. "Thanks." She curled her fingers over the warrior's. "Good thing all of what's in there is yours." She paused. "Would she have killed me, Xena?"

A ghost of a feral smile crossed that angular face. "No." Then Xena steered her towards the hall again. "And…I don't think she wanted to, love… she was just real frustrated, that's all." She sighed. "You hit em right in the pride, and you know how it is with us hack fighters and our pride… "

An attempt at humor, which touched Gabrielle despite its forced nature. She let out a feeble snort. "You're trying to make me feel better."

"Is it working?" The warrior inquired hopefully. "I could juggle, if you'd rather see that."

That produced a smile, finally, and Gabrielle relaxed a little. She kept silent until they were almost to the door, then exhaled. "I guess you were right."

"Bout what?" Xena inquired.

"Me being able to fight my own battles." The bard chewed her lip. "But you know what?"


Green eyes warmly regarded her. "I'm really glad I don't have to." She patted the powerful arm that surrounded her.

Xena smiled, then touched her forehead to the bard's. "It's a lot easier on my nerves when ya let me do it, y'know?" She confessed wryly. "I was a nervous wreck the whole time you were out there."

The bard smiled. "I know… I saw you twitching." She reached over and rubbed the warrior's bare belly. "But I was glad you were there."

They entered the hall arm in arm.

To be met with an avalanche of thick, musty, colored, cinnamon smelling, shredded thatch. And a village full of voices yelling at the top of their lungs.

 Continued in Part 4