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 9

By Melissa Good

"Eph?" The voice nudged the regent out of her dreams, and she objected, pulling her pillow over her head and curling away from the light coming into the window.


A hand on her shoulder, shaking her. "Eph?"

That didn't help the pounding in her head, and she was unpleasantly reminded of just how many cups of ale she'd downed the previous night. With great reluctance, she pried one eye open, and squinted it at her tormentor. "S'matter?" The eye rotated towards the window. "Quarter candlemark past damn dawn, Pony… what're you waking me up for?"

The weapons master grimaced. "Yeah.. I know…but I figured you'd want some time to get going before stuff started." She hesitated, then dropped a hand to the regent's neck, and kneaded it. "Sides, I'm tired of being rumor patrol."

That got Ephiny's attention, and she uncurled a little, cranking her other eye open to regard her lover. "What's up?"

Dark brows knitted together. "Not sure… but the buzz is something's wrong with Xena." Pony advised her. "Don't know if that's not true.. she was acting real weird last night, and Gabrielle had to help her back to their quarters… Esta said she about passed out."

The regent raked a hand through her curls. "Really?" She considered. "She was okay when we saw them last night… but now that you mention it, Gabrielle told me she was going to get her, and put her to bed."

They looked at each other. "Did she get hurt yesterday?" Ephiny asked. "I went with Gabrielle.. you were out by the river."

Pony eased herself down onto the pallet, and thought about the question. "Well… " She mused. "Damned if I know… she was moving so Hades be damned fast, I couldn't tell if she was taking hits.. though I know she got clipped by a few arrows." She worried her lip with her thumb and forefinger. "Wait a minute.. yeah… she went down under a bunch of them before we got over there, and I saw someone pounding her with a mace." She reported. "She was kinda slow getting up."

Ephiny scowled. "Damn… and it's not like I can have Menelda go look at her, right?"

"Nu uh." Eponin shook her head. "Wouldn't Gabrielle have asked for help? I mean… " She paused, and gave her head a little shake. "Damn, Eph… what if she's really hurt?" She didn't envy the bard if Xena was half the patient she herself was.

The regent rolled over and rested one hand negligently on her lover's thigh. "Centaur poop." She muttered softly. "Stubborn old fool wouldn't admit it to us now, would she?" She drummed her fingers on Pony's leg. "She'd rather swim upstream hogtied than have to show a weakness to us.. damned if I don't know it, too."

"Mm." Pony agreed, gruffly. "You… uh… want me to um… go and scout her out?"

Amused hazel eyes regarded her fondly. "Oh.. yeah.. I can picture this… you two doing a little heath discussion together… " She cleared her throat, and deepened her tone to approximate the weapons master's. "So… Xena.. how're you feeling?" Then she pursed her face up into a scowl. "Fine. Go away." She barked in mock response, deepening her voice further to match Xena's low pitch.

Eponin snorted. "Think you could do better?"

The regent sighed. "Probably not.. best way to do this is go through Gabrielle." She shoved herself up to a sitting position. "C'mon."

She was chasing rabbits. And the funniest thing was, it didn't seem like that was a strange thing to be doing at all, as they bounded across the sunny plain ahead of her, their tails flipping impudently. Xena dashed after them, feeling the ground uneven beneath her feet, and the warm wind whipping across her face brought hints of churned earth, and water far off, and the sweet smell of the grass as it brushed against her. She felt.. wonderful. Alive, and full of energy, and she lifted herself up into several flips out of sheer exuberance.

The rabbits turned suddenly, and hauled off in another direction and she bolted after them, leaping over the boulders and chasms that opened magically in front of her feet, her body responding with a lightness that she hadn't felt in years.

It was wild here, and very quiet, only the drumming feet of the rabbits, and her own breathing stirred the air, as even the wind passed silently. Around the sunny plain, a dark ring circled uneasily, but she didn’t let it worry her because it was there, and she was here, and there was no danger.

A splash of color caught her eye, and she noticed the bunnies were headed for it so she followed them, reveling in the warmth as the sun bathed the bare skin of her arms and shoulders.

Ah…exactly what she was looking for.. the splash resolved itself into a form, seated in the grass, in rust and cornflower blue, who turned as she watched and looked towards her. The sunlight seemed to collect in Gabrielle's blond hair, and green eyes gathered her in, with delighted surprise.

"Xena!" A brilliant smile crossed Gabrielle's face. "I didn't expect you here."

Xena grinned right back, and bounded over, settling in the grass next to her and extending her long legs. "Why not?"

The bard looked around her, and a sad, anxious expression crossed her face. "This isn't a nice place." The circle of darkness around the plain seemed to grow closer, and a faint, almost imperceptible whistle could be heard, as though wild winds were howling far off. "Bad things happen here."

Xena shrugged. "That's okay.. I'm not a nice person." She flipped over onto her back, and crossed her ankles casually as she looked at the younger woman. Gabrielle was dressed in the tattered remains of the outfit Xena had first seen her in, though stained heavily, and ripped in almost shreds that fluttered around her body, and she carried a slim, bound volume in one hand. "What are you reading?"

Her companion looked down at the volume, and turned it in her hands. "I don't know…" She traced a finger along it's cover, where interlaced ropes were intricately drawn. "I can't open it." She held it out, and watched as Xena took it, and bent her dark head over the volume, as she easily lifted the cover and peered beneath. "Oh… look at that." She craned her head around. "What does it say?"

"It's a poem." Xena showed it to her.

"Oh." Gabrielle let out a startled little laugh. "Hey… I wrote that." Then she looked up, as the wind moaned. "You shouldn’t be here."

The warrior's face fell. "You don't want me here?"

A flicker of fear crossed the bard's face. "No… no.. I do… please.. gods, yes, I do." She reached out, touching the warrior as though assuring herself of the realness of her skin. "It's just that… usually I'm here, and then people come and I… " She looked at her hands, turning them over and over. "I kill them."

"Well, not today." Xena assured her confidently. She handed over a bunny to the bard. "Today it's just you, and me, and the bunnies."

Gabrielle petted the furry animal, tracing the black and white sections as it nibbled her socks. "But they're coming. I can hear them." She looked up at the taller woman.

"They won't hurt you."

"I'll hurt them."

"No, you won't."

Rustling in the grass now, and dark shadows, which came closer, making the rabbit huddle against Gabrielle, and sending dark stripes over Xena's sprawled form.

The bard moved, nervously. "They're here."

"Ignore them." Xena held out a hand, palm upmost. "Come."

The wind howled, whipping dark hair and pale into twisted patterns.

"No.. they'll hurt you… I have to stop them." A knife appeared, dark with old blood, grasped in a strong hand. Gabrielle half rose, her eyes darting around the shifting, dark circle that surrounded them. "I have to protect you."

"No." Xena pulled her down, despite her resistance, and gently took the knife from hr hand. "Just come here… you'll be okay.. they can't hurt you." The bunny hissed at the shadows, who chuckled, and came closer, shifting and whispering The warrior tucked the shivering bard into her arms, surrounding her with a wall of warm muscle.

"She is ours…" A sibilant hiss. "We will take her."

"She's mine." Xena's voice rumbled in counterpoint, deep and velvety. "You'll never get her away from me." She felt Gabrielle huddle closer to her, and she bared her teeth at the shadows. "Never."

The sound built, screaming around them in a whirlwind of terror, tugging at their bodies, and attempting to rip them asunder. Xena laughed back at it, feeling her own inner strength rising to match the challenge, pushing them back and surrounding the frightened bard with a wall of utter confidence. "Never!" She yelled above the wind, her strong voice echoing weirdly in the wind.

And then darkness faded, leaving them in sweet, gentle light. The bunny chewed a bit of clover contentedly, as Gabrielle raised her eyes, and stared at her. "It's really you, isn't it?" She lifted a hand and touched her dream companion's face in fascination. It seemed more sharply planed than her waking one, and a brilliant spirit danced in her eyes, lighting her features with fierce, feral joy.

With no apologies for what she was. "Oh yeah, it sure is." Xena replied, with a laugh, as she hugged the bard happily. "See? They're gone… " She tweaked Gabrielle's nose. "C'mon.. let's play." Long fingers tickled the bard's ribs through the tattered cloth, and they both scrambled to their feet and dashed off over the gently waving clover grass, laughing up at the benign blue sky, the fear forgotten as though it had never been.

The sounds of wind and grass whispering slowly merged into the rustle of leaves, and the far off clangs and thumps of an early morning in the Amazon village. Xena let her eyes drift open to see a mild, pale sunlight pouring in the room, spreading a leaf shadowed blanket over the bed they were lying on. As she regarded the room quietly, the details of her dream faded, leaving her with a sense of quiet bemusement as she wondered if it was just a dream, or more than that? Well.. she reflected. She could always ask Gabrielle what she had dreamed about, just to see if her dreams were similar, right? Nah…quit being silly, Xena. She scoffed at herself gently, and sighed. Time to start the day, I guess.

But not right now. She was curled up on her side, with Gabrielle's warm body nestled against her, the bard's hands tangled in her shirt, and her head resting alongside Xena's outstretched arm. Her face was relaxed in peaceful sleep, and Xena spent a few moments just watching her, smiling a little at the faint traces of babyish softness that still lingered, blurring the more mature planes that had recently settled on her features.

The bard stirred a bit, shifting a little closer to Xena's warm body, letting out a tiny sigh, and a murmur as she nuzzled the warrior's shoulder. Gabrielle's shirt had slipped down, and by the dawn's soft light, the watching woman could now see the subtle beginning of the changes caused by her pregnancy. A smile of wonder crossed Xena's face, as she ran a very gentle finger across the lightly swollen breasts, and the darkened nipples, then her expression darkened as she spotted the clearly visible ribs underneath. Damn. Competitions, battles, digging tunnels.. and what she'd gone through last night… it had to stop. She pulled the bard's shirt up, and tucked it around her shoulders, then kissed the top of her head as she wrapped her arm more firmly around her.

Idly, the warrior's eyes flicked to the table, where a covered tray was resting, having been brought by the helpful Amazon the night before. Gabrielle had been fast asleep, and Xena had decided not to wake her, instead she'd nibbled on a few of the tidbits while watching the stars wander across the sky through the darkened window.

Thinking about what had happened, and starting the process of accepting it. Her mind worked like that, it worried about things that she could do something about, and discarded everything else, rationalizing that it was a waste of time crying over spilt ale. It was how she survived during ten years of savage brutality, by not dwelling on the details, merely accepting them, and moving on. Gabrielle, on the other hand, took all that inside her, and worried over it, trying to make sense of the world and her part in it.

Lips nibbled her skin, and she glanced down, to see half open green eyes peering lazily up at her. "Good morning." The warrior drawled.

Gabrielle simply studied her for a moment, then slipped a hand under her shirt and rubbed her skin lightly. "Thanks."

Xena's brows knit. "Huh?"

"You said you'd be there.. in my dreams.. and you were." The bard answered, simply. "Thanks."

Blue eyes blinked. "What dream did you have?" Xena asked, curiously.

Gabrielle traced the smooth muscles under her skin. "The field.. the rabbits… you… " She paused, and shrugged. "You don't believe me, right?" A gentle sigh. "Want me to recite the poem?" A brow raised in challenge. "I lay here, at the break of dawn, as the first light sneaks across the trees…"

"I believe you." Xena breathed. "I.. um… have no idea how that happened, but… "

The bard laughed. "It happened because you said it would, Xena." She tickled the warrior's ribs and felt the jerk of muscles as she fought a chuckle. "Oo… I think you, my love, are getting more ticklish." She ran her fingers down Xena's side, and watched her squirm. "You are."

"Augh… Gabrielle, cut that out." Xena pleaded. "C'mon…"

"Oh, all right." The bard relented, as she snuggled closer. "Ow." She winced, drawing a concerned look from her partner. She glanced up with an embarrassed look, shifting her position slightly. "I'm a little tender up top, I guess." She blushed.

Xena chuckled softly. "Mm… yeah, I noticed a bit of a difference." She traced the outline through her partner's soft shirt. "However… " Her expression went stern, as her fingers dropped to the bard's ribcage, and ran along her slim waistline. "You need to stop pushing yourself so hard, Gabrielle. I mean it."

The bard rolled over onto her back, and crossed her arms. "Xena, it was not my fault the village got conquered, we had rescue people, dig tunnels and fight bad guys the whole day yesterday." She protested reasonably.

"Maybe not, but right now… you're going to stay put while I bring you some breakfast." Her soulmate stated, grabbing hold of the bedposts and vaulting over her. "Or else."

The bard stretched out on her side, propping her head up with one hand as she watched the taller woman pull on an old, faded green tunic pulled from their packs. "Or else what?" She inquired.

Xena looked up from where she was tugging on her boots. "What do you mean, or else what?"

Innocent green eyes peered at her. "You said, I have to stay put, or else." She responded. "So I'm asking…or else what?"

The warrior stood up, and put her hands on her hips. "Look.. nobody asks me what else, Gabrielle, okay? " She found a scowl somewhere and forced it onto her face. "It's that evil, mean, nasty warlord thing." A pause. "Got me?"

The bard's face wrinkled up in laughter. "Oooo… " She pulled the pillow over her head to muffle her giggles.

Xena sighed. "You are ruining my reputation, little bard."

The giggles got louder, and the warrior rolled her eyes, then shook her head and moved towards the door. "I'll be back." She tossed over her shoulder. "Try not to suffocate under there, huh?" With that, she stepped out the door, and headed across the compound into the early morning sun.

Eponin paused in mid sentence, then gave Elaini a harried look. "Okay… I gotta go." She took a breath, then broke into a brisk trot, as she spotted a familiar form moving through the mist towards the dining hall. Slipping in and out of the tree's shadows, it was hard for her to judge her quarry's condition, but she finally caught up to Xena's powerful stride and fell into step next to her. "Hi."

Pale blue eyes glanced down at her. "Morning." Xena drawled. "Kinda early for you to be out, isn't it?" She asked with disarming innocence.

"I was just.. uh… doing my rounds, and I.. " A pause. "Hey!" Eponin glared at her. "What kinda crack was that?"

The warrior grinned. "Sorry.. just kidding." She apologized, glancing around at the early morning activity.

Pony scowled. "Everybody's a comedian…I've been getting that poop from the whole bunch here since me and Eph.. um.. " Her eyes flicked to the taller woman's face. "You know."

Xena nodded agreeably. "Oh yeah.. I know… " She chewed her lip briefly. "Hey… I have to deal with it too.. Toris gives me a hard time when we're home."

Eponin looked at her. "Really?" She asked, intrigued.

"Yeah…" A rueful chuckle. "Being with Gabrielle has definitely changed my outlook." The warrior advised her. "I can't remember the last time I voluntarily got up before dawn."

"Oh." Pony mused. "Yeah?" She felt suddenly better about her recent bouts of laziness, and a happy smile captured her face momentarily. Then she recalled her mission. "So.. uh… how's everything?"

One dark brow inched up. "Fine." Xena replied, slowly. "Why?"

"No.. no reason.. just asking… everything work out okay last night?" The Amazon put her hands behind her back. " you seemed a little.. I don't know…." A faint shrug. "Disturbed."

"Disturbed?" Xena repeated, with a quizzical look.

"Uh.. yeah.. you know… upset… pissed off… bothered… "

"Ah." The warrior exhaled. "Yeah… I guess… I just wish I… " Xena went silent for a long moment, a sudden sequence of ideas cascading into her head. "Wish I'd gotten some sleep… it was a rough night." She slowed her pace, and sighed, rotating her shoulders stiffly. "After a very long day… when is this thing supposed to happen?"

Eponin watched her like a hawk, her brows knitting in worry. "Um… about two candlemarks… Eph's got the council warden drawing up the paperwork."

Xena nodded. "Good… I'll be glad when that's over." She reached up casually and rubbed the back of her neck, closing her eyes briefly and wincing. "Hey… " She forced her eyes back open. "For the sentence, how.. "

"Crossbow." The weapons master supplied readily. "It's fast." She reached the door and pulled it open, stepping back to allow the warrior to precede her. "G'wan……. you sure you're okay?"

Xena gave her the best impassive look she could muster. "I'm fine." She replied coolly, as she ducked inside the hall, and headed up to where the cooks were portioning out breakfast. "Morning." She greeted the dour Esta, who grunted at her, and gave Eponin a dark look.

"Fine mess you left things in." Esta growled. "Mud everywhere.. and that horses' ass locked up in the cellar… how am I supposed to get anything down with her down there?"

Eponin snorted softly. "Be a welcome breakfast without those damn onions in it." She retorted. "Stank so bad I had to burn the damn leathers I was wearing."

"Hmph… damn things needed a burning… animal that died for 'em wouldn't have taken 'em back." Esta sniped.

"Oh yeah? What's that supposed to mean?" Pony growled.

Xena quietly gathered up a wooden tray, and selected a number of items from the preparation table, piling them on the tray with little regard for order or symmetry. When she was done, she straightened. "I'm gonna stop by the healer's, then head back. We'll see you in a candlemark or so, I guess." She exhaled, then headed out, conscious of the two pairs of eyes firmly fastened on her back. The sill to the door suddenly became an obstacle, and she caught her balance against the jam, passing out into the cool, morning air with an audible curse.

 Silenced reigned behind her, and she cocked her ears expectantly, catching the faint sound of leathers against wood, and softly placed footsteps. With a half grin, she continued on her mission.

Fragrant steam rose, curling around Gabrielle's face and bathing her senses in mint and honey. She took a slow sip, as she spread her diary out on her lap, and removed a quill from her case. Ares had hopped up onto the bed, and was curled up against her legs, his thick fur warming her skin. "Well, Ares… "

The wolf lifted his head, and looked at her over his dark shoulder. "Roo?"

"Guess I'd better get this over with, huh?" She sharpened the quill tip and dipped it in some ink, then smoothed the parchment page down and paused, as she collected her thoughts.

This is a hard thing to write. I had to make one of the hardest decisions in my life last night, and I still don't know if it was the only thing I could have done. I know I can't let Arella loose to hurt any more people, but the thought of taking her life from her is making me sick to my stomach.

I guess, in a way, that's not a bad thing. If I could just do things like this, without caring, or without it bothering me, then… well, I wouldn't like it, that's all.

Xena… was really great last night. She so wanted to take the whole thing on her shoulders… I could just feel that in her, and believe me, a big part of me wanted to let her. That's awful, but I can't help it. If there was anyway to get out of this, I think I would have, but there just wasn't.

Part of me wants to go talk to her. To Arella, I mean, and just… see how she feels, find out why she did this.. but I think I realized that there really is no good reason for it. I know she desperately wanted the Amazons to become more aggressive, and more warlike, but violence is not the way.

Ironic - here I am saying that, and I've sentenced her to death. I wish there was another way… and I know she won't challenge me. Xena's hoping she does, because then it makes it a death by battle, and it's… well, it's just different. But Arella's scared of Xena.. she really is, and she knows she can't beat her, so..

She was so gentle last night. It was like she got inside me, and just put me together like one of those puzzles of hers. I was hurting so much, and then I thought she was… oh gods, for a minute last night I thought we were back a few months ago, and it was starting all over again. I almost…I couldn't stand it.

And then it turns out the problem was me, not her… she was just reacting to what I was going through and once I got that all out…


She came into my dreams last night. It feels so weird to write that, but it's true - and it wasn't… I mean, I didn't make her up, you know? She was really there..really …real. All fierce, and wild… is that the way she really sees herself, I wonder?

What does that say for me? I always feel so.. small… so… hateful in that dream. But not last night. Not after she chased all the bad things away, and we ran together over the grass.

My protector and defender. You know, I might be ready to believe that again. It sure felt good last night. I started off wearing that old, rotten outfit I left home in, like I was hanging on to that. But by the time the dream finished, I was… I was wearing leathers.

Wonder if that's my insides telling me it's time to bid farewell to that little girl who left Potadeia.

Maybe it is. I always like to think I kept a piece of that.. kept who I was then a part of me, but the more I think about who I am now, the more I realize I don't have much in common with her anymore.

So, goodbye then, little girl. Stay home. Stay there in Potadeia, where it's sunny, and the worst thing you'll have to endure is locusts, and the spring flooding rains.

I have a different destiny.

The faint knock disturbed her concentration, and she looked up, sucking on her quill end, and sighing. "Yes?"

Ephiny's curly blond head poked itself inside. "Morning."

Bacchae bottoms. "Hey." Gabrielle put a smile on her face, and motioned her forward. "Morning."

The regent entered, and padded over to the bed, perching on a corner of it, and giving her friend a grin. "You're up early."

Gabrielle studied her, noting the bloodshot eyes, and the faint lines around her mouth. "You too." She commented quietly. "What's up?"

Ephiny rubbed her temples. "I need to… ah… I mean, I figured by what you said last night, that you'd.. um…" She let her words trail off weakly, and cast a look at the bard.

"Ah." The bard exhaled. "I've.. decided to ask that she pay for her crimes with her life, yes." The words sounded so strange, they almost lost their meaning. "I don't really see any other option."

The regent stayed quiet, regarding the blankets with a pensive frown. "Gabrielle, I…. "She looked up at the bard, a pained expression on her face. "I'm sorry."

A gentle hand curled around her wrist. "It's all right." Gabrielle answered softly. "It was hard… last night.. but Xena was there for me, and we got through it." We. Such a tiny word, with such a huge meaning to her. "I'll be fine."

Ephiny's eyes met hers, and the regent forced a smile. "I know you will… I just feel rotten you had to face this." She paused, then glanced around. "Xena off on a run?"

A shake of the bard's head. "No… actually, she's getting me breakfast." Gabrielle assumed a rueful expression. "The overprotective streak is running rampant… with all the stuff we've been involved in, she's worried that I'm getting a little run down."

"Mm." Ephiny chewed her lip. "Well, you are pregnant." A faint twinkle entered her eye. "Not that anyone could tell."

Gabrielle smiled sheepishly. "Yeah… well, that won't last forever." She replied quietly. "What's going to happen now?"

The regent paused. "Well, it's a short thing.. very businesslike. I'll read the charges, she has a moment to respond, then you pronounce sentence." She tried to keep her voice casual. "It's done with a crossbow, and Pony's already said she's going to be the one to do it." Ephiny considered that. "She'll make sure it's done right, first time."

The bard nodded grimly. "All right." In her mind, a torture room in Chin appeared, and a vision of Xena spread-eagled on an altar to evil, glittering knives resting nearby. Or herself strapped up on a cross, with a centurion taking aim for her legs. "There are worse ways, I guess."

"Mm." Ephiny waited for a space. "Listen… I need to ask you a question." She looked around. "It's about Xena."

This got the bard's attention, and she put her quill down, focusing her intense green eyes on her friend's face. "What is it?"

The regent exhaled, running over her possible options. "Well, Pony told me she took some bad hits during the fight yesterday.. and I heard from half the village that you practically had to carry her back here last night." She watched Gabrielle's face, seeing the faint flaring of her nostrils. "I'm worried about her."

That earned her a charming smile from the bard, whose eyes warmed appreciably at her words. "Thanks for being concerned, Eph."

A little silence fell. "But?" Ephiny finally prompted her.

"She's fine." Gabrielle answered easily. "She got her usual collection of bumps and bruises.. I don’t think she feels them much anymore." She advised her wryly. "A couple of arrow cuts… nothing a stitch or two couldn't handle. I took care of it… she was just a little tired last night."

Ephiny studied her. "For real?"

A nod. "For real." Gabrielle confirmed. "She was fine this morning… she's… well, she takes a licking, and keeps on ticking, that's all."

The regent's brows contracted. "What does that mean?"

Gabrielle shrugged. "I dunno.. but it rhymes." She put her diary down, and stretched luxuriously, then cocked her head. "You can ask her yourself.. she'll be here in a minute."

"Uhhh… no.. no… that's okay.. " Ephiny hastily stood up. "No need to mention it.. I was just curious… " She held up a hand. "No problem." She glanced up as the door pushed open, and revealed Xena's lithe, powerful form. "Oh… hi."

Xena traded glances with her soulmate, and put the tray down on the small table next to the bed. "Hi." She replied mildly. "You'd probably better go check on Menelda."

Ephiny's eyes widened. "Uh…"

"I didn't do anything to her." The warrior stated flatly. "I just passed through the healer's hall and picked up some herbs I needed.. and I heard her raising Hades in there."

"Right." The regent ran a hand through her curls, disordering them. "I'll be back shortly." She muttered, and headed out the door.

Gabrielle watched quietly as her partner fussed with the contents of the tray. "So… did you get rid of her for a reason, or…what?" She teased gently.

Blue eyes looked up at her innocently. "Get rid of her? Gabrielle.. I have no idea what you're talking about… I thought she might want to take care of a problem there…something wrong with that?" She picked up a dish of various items, then settled down on the edge of the bed with it. "Come on… get started on this."

The bard obediently set her diary aside, and took the offering. "Everything okay out there?" She inquired, around a mouthful of muffin, which surprised her with a delicate, honeyed taste. "Mm." She hadn't thought she could eat much, really, the impending sentencing crouching over her conscience was putting a damper on that, but suddenly her body decided differently and she attacked the plate.

Xena watched her for a minute, then reclined across the foot of the bed, propping her head up on her hand.

Gabrielle paused, and gave her a stern look. "Where's yours?" She put her muffin down, and crossed her arms obstinately until her partner sighed, and pushed herself up off the bed, padding over to the remains of the tray and collecting a piece of flatbread to which she added a slice of cheese, and a piece of smoked meat. The bard cleared her throat, and grinned, as the warrior gave her a look, then picked up a pear and carried them both back to the bed. "That's better." She resumed munching. "Nothing else going on?"

The warrior shrugged. "Not that I could tell… Menelda was yelling about something… Elaini said she came in and just started rearranging things this morning. She tried to stay out of her way."

"Elaini?" Gabrielle inquired.

"Yeah." Xena nodded.

They finished a quiet breakfast, then Gabrielle dusted her fingers off and let out a sigh. "Wow…" She observed her now empty plate. "Guess I was hungrier than I thought." She gave Xena a wry look. Guess it's time to get started. She sighed. "I'll.. need a little help to put all that stuff on."

Xena had finished her meal and was lying lazily on her back with her eyes closed, her hands folded across her stomach. "No problem." She replied. "You ready?"

It was, Gabrielle admitted, a good thing Xena had been there. She'd developed a case of fumble fingers that frustrated her until the warrior merely removed her hands from her leathers, and did the job herself, adjusting the intricately tooled top with a little, knowing grin. "Fits a little different." The bard commented, with a faint blush.

"Uh huh." Xena fastened the metal chain armor to her shoulder, and adjusted it down the length of Gabrielle's biceps. She moved the bard's hair out of the way, and gently kissed the back of her neck as she adjusted the catches, watching goose bumps skitter across her skin in response. "You all right?"

Gabrielle closed her eyes briefly. "Not after that I'm not." She joked nervously. "I guess I'm a little… scared."

The warrior paused in her efforts, and put her arms around the smaller woman. "I know." She turned Gabrielle around, and faced her, gazing into her eyes with bleak compassion. Every instinct was screaming at her to find some way, any way to protect Gabrielle from the next little while. "You can do this." She said, deliberately forcing her clamoring conscience back. "I'll be right there with you."

Aching green eyes looked back at her. "I need you there." The bard admitted, moving closer and tucking her chilled body against her partner's. "I don't think I'm cut out for this, Xena."

The warrior petted her hair gently, rocking them both a little. "You'll be fine….it'll be over before you know it."

Gabrielle allowed herself to get lost in the comforting warmth for a long moment, then she straightened up, and sniffled. "Okay… let's go." She stepped back, and eyed her partner's sleek form, encased in Amazon leathers. "Gods.. you really do look good in that, Xena… I mean it." She ran her fingers over the tanned skin, and gave her a little pat. "But I'm not the only one who has to stop pushing themselves so hard." The warrior's skin seemed to be pulled over muscle and bone with stark tautness, and the ugly arrow wounds stood out with angry prominence. "I can almost see through you."

"Mom'll take care of that." Xena replied lightly, kissing the top of her head. "When we get home."

Home. Gabrielle treated herself to a moment imagining the days ahead, and it allowed her to settle her composure for the task at hand. She looked up at Xena, and let her eyes absorb the sunlight dappled face, a smile edging her lips. "I love you."

Xena's eyes softened, and she returned a smile. "I love you, too." She tilted the bard's chin up, and ducked her head, kissing her with a simple, gentle passion. "Remember your promise, okay?" She reminded her.

Promise? Oh.. right. "Xena… " Gabrielle put both hands against her partner's chest. "She's not going to challenge you… what point would there be in that?"

A momentary silence, as Xena idly straightened the braids hanging down on either side of her soulmate's face. "I… Gabrielle, if I were face with either being cut down, or dying in battle… I think you know which one I would choose."

Gabrielle considered that. "Yes." She conceded. "I do know which one you'd choose.. but Xena, that's you… and we both know you'd have a chance against whoever you were pitted against." She thought a moment more. "And I don't think Arella would give you the satisfaction of being the one to… I mean, she knows you can beat her. I don't see her making that choice."

No. Xena privately admitted. Not unless she though she had a chance. Blue eyes glinted in the sunlight. "Maybe you're right." She conceded. "But I'm not gonna pretend I'm not hoping she does anyway."

The bard nodded in understanding. "Time to get going." She allowed Xena to make a few last minute adjustments to her Amazon outfit, then she straightened her shoulders, and headed for the door, the warrior's powerful, shadowy presence a comforting bulwark at her back.

Eponin loped across the open ground, to where she'd spotted Ephiny in deep conversation with one of the apprentice healers. She pulled up next to the regent with an explosive sigh. "Definitely something's up."

Ephiny glanced at her, then dismissed the healer. "No kidding." She muttered in response. "Gabrielle's got her lips fastened, but Elias there tells me Xena stopped for an awful lot of painkillers from the healer's…and she said she thought Xena almost passed out when she was standing up after she said hello to Cait."

They looked at each other. "Damn pigheaded stubborn piece of.. " Pony let the thought trail off. "Tell you what… once we get through this thing, we'll gang up on her." She sucked in a breath suddenly. "Great Artemis… what if that damn bitch challenges?"

Ephiny stared at her. "Oh crap." She breathed. "I hadn't thought of that…. She wouldn't be that stupid, would she?"

Eponin shook her head. "She's crazier than a wildcat in heat, Eph… I don't know." She considered a moment longer. "She's had a taste of Xena's fire… maybe, maybe not." A beat. "If she thought she was running on all hooves, probably not."

Ephiny sighed in exasperation, putting her hands on her hips. "All right… then let's keep this really quiet. We don’t need rumors flying around where she can hear them." She remarked grimly, as glanced up, noting that a crowd was beginning to gather near the platform at one end of the circle they were standing in. She could see a group of warriors forming up near the dining hall, assigned to bring the prisoner forward. The sun was just rising over the trees, and painting the village in gold, and Ephiny spotted Gabrielle's distinctive form moving in from the direction of the queen's quarters. "Maybe we'll get lucky, and get through this without a fight."

The queen walked with a quiet assurance, her russet leathers complimenting her tanned skin as she stepped up onto the platform, and stood waiting. At her left, Xena took up a position of quiet alertness, choosing not to step up onto the wooden deck, perhaps to avoid overshadowing her smaller partner.

As if she could help that. Ephiny mused, studying the taller woman anxiously as she made her way across the compound, Pony at her heels. Xena had donned her set of Amazon leathers, and with that much of her body showing, the marks of battle from the day before were distressingly obvious. The warrior stood watching the gathering Amazons, the wind stirring her dark hair, her face expressionless.

Ephiny joined Gabrielle on the platform, giving her a tight smile as Pony continued on and took up a position next to the Xena's dour form. "You all right?" She muttered under her breath.

Mist green eyes turned to her, and darkened slightly. "No." Gabrielle admitted quietly. "But I don't think I'll ever be ready for this, so let's get going."

The regent put a hand on her shoulder, and nodded. "That's exactly the answer I expected from you, my friend." She replied, then turned her head towards the crowd. "Bring the prisoner." She raised her voice.

A silence fell over the crowd, as the small group of warriors clustered near the dining hall moved forward, their soft boots scuffing the packed dirt of the courtyard as they surrounded the tall, disheveled form. Arella's red hair picked up the sunlight like a torch, and she glared around her, eyes fastening on the platform with dark intent.

Pony darted a look at her taller companion, shifting her crossbow a bit on her back as she surreptitiously studied Xena's watchful attitude. The warrior's shoulders were tense - the Amazon could see the movement of the muscles under the skin of her shoulders as Xena drummed long fingers against one bare thigh. She was wearing her sword on her back, and her chakram was clasped on a thin belt that circled her waist, the darker leather contrasting starkly against the crimson surface of her skirt, and the sunlight winked briefly against the ring that circled one finger.

Eponin struggled with her conscience, then edged closer to the warrior. "Xena."

Piercing blue eyes swept over her, one dark brow rising in question. "What?"

"Listen… " Pony snuck a glance at the approaching group. Arella's eyes were pinned on Xena's tall body, and a faint smirk was edging her lips. "If she's dumb enough to throw a challenge.. lemme take it."

Xena's eyes widened in surprise. "What?"

"Don't… " Eponin lowered her voice. "Just… just… let me, okay? I know her, I can take her."

"Pony, thanks, but I can handle this." The warrior muttered back, ducking her head so that her voice wouldn't carry.

"Xena… this is no time for pride, damn it!" The Amazon hissed back. "It's serious."

Icy eyes regarded her. "Damn serious." Xena replied, then turned her head as the penal group reached them. "Just stay out of my way, Eponin."

"Stubborn piece of.. " Eponin cursed, then fell silent as Ephiny stepped forward, and unrolled a scroll.

A faint, almost imperceptible smirk twitched Xena's lips, as she studied the bound prisoner. Arella was staring back at her with equal intensity, a look of feral hunger on her face.

"You are charged with murder, attempted murder, and betrayal of the Amazon nation." Ephiny stated flatly.

"You're charged with being a piece of peace loving crap." Arella answered immediately. "I guess we're both guilty."

Ephiny just looked at her, and shook her head. "Do you have anything intelligent to say in your defense?"

Arella stepped forward, smirking at the surrounding Amazons who took hold of weapons in warning. "Defense? No thanks… I'm not defending a damn thing." She held her head high. "What I did, what I've always done, is in the best interests of the Amazon Nation." She focused her attention on the silent Gabrielle. "In fact, I'm challenging you, little green eyes, for that damn mask you have no business wearing."

Gabrielle sucked in a breath, surprised. She still believes that. The challenge took on a desperate tone, as she realized this was Arella's last, fierce hope to bring what she considered her people out of the pit of peace she'd percieved them falling into.

Maybe it was for the best, she mused. Xena knew… she was hoping this would happen to spare me the need to look this woman in the eyes and tell her she was going to die.

But I know Xena. If I accept this challenge, that's exactly what I'll be doing anyway. But it's Arella's choice. She doesn’t know what I'm going to sentence her to.. for all she knows, I'm going to hand her over to the civil law, or let her go, or… no. She's chosen this course.

Ephiny's eyes widened, and she half turned, lifting a hand towards Gabrielle, who was standing a step behind her. The bard shook her head slightly, and put her hands on her hips. "You're not worthy of leading the Amazons, Arella… all you've done is get them killed." She pushed past Ephiny, and came face to face with the taller woman, unintimidated by her size. "Being aggressive and stupid doesn't qualify you to lead."

Everyone jerked, a little, unused to hearing that kind of speech from the gentle Gabrielle. Arella recovered, however. "And being weak and useless does?" She replied, challengingly. "What have you done, other than get them involved in puling peace treaties, and fights with goddesses?"

Gabrielle felt a deep anger rising in her, and she briefly played with the idea of accepting the challenge personally. It would be her choice of weapons, and with her staff, she had a good chance of defeating the taller woman.

But that still left the question of whether she could kill her. And in her heart, Gabrielle knew, really knew, felt it deep, and strong, and real, that she couldn't. She'd be right back in the position she was in now. But was offsetting that on Xena's shoulders fair?

Gabrielle sighed inwardly. There was no good decision. There was no way to get out of this without blood on her hands. She looked up at Arella. "You have no idea what strength really is."

That puzzled the tall redhead. "What the Hades does that mean? Do you accept, or not?"

Ephiny grabbed Gabrielle's arm, and pulled her back, setting her lips next to the bard's ear. "Don't do it… you don’t' have to."

The bard gently pried the regent's fingers off her arm. "It's all right, Eph."

"Gabrielle! She knows she has an advantage, for the sake of Artemis, just sentence her." Ephiny hissed in response.

Blond brows knit. Advantage? She gave Ephiny a look. "Back off, all right?" Then she turned to the waiting Arella. "I accept."

A loud, nasty laugh erupted from the woman's chest. "Fool… " She rubbed her hands together. "Okay, green eyes… what'll it be? Your little stick?"

Gabrielle gazed at her. "Actually, since you'll be fighting my champion, I think that's your choice." She replied mildly, then paused a moment. "Not that it matters." She got a raised brow from Xena at that, but she was glad she'd said it.

Pony cursed under her breath, and all eyes turned to the quietly watching Xena, who gazed back at them dispassionately.

Arella took a breath in, and grinned ferally. She spread her arms out empty. "Nothing." She purred. "Just these." She flexed her big, formidable hands.

It was, Eponin realized, a crafty plan. Arella knew damn well she wasn't in Xena's class with a sword, hurt or not. And chobos would give Xena an advantage of reach. Hand to hand, though… if Arella could get in and deliver a barrage of body hits to the injured warrior, that… a chill went down her back. That could work. She started forward, only to have a powerful grip descend on her shoulder and stop her.

"All right." Xena's low voice penetrated the murmurs. "Let's get this over with."

A circle slowly formed, of living bodies that penned them in. Xena stepped forward, pausing a moment at Gabrielle's side, and looking down at her.

The bard looked back, then took up both of the warrior's hands, and gently brushed her lips against the fingers. "Be careful." She said, softly.

Xena winked at her. "I will."

She turned her attention to her opponent, and stalked into the circle of sunlight.

Gabrielle folded her arms, and glanced to either side as Eponin and Ephiny came up to flank her. Uh oh.. she noted the furious expressions on their faces. What's up with them?

"Gabrielle.." Ephiny dropped her voice to a low, angry growl. "What are you trying to do?" She expelled a breath. "I thought you'd made up your mind… why didn't you just do it? Why didn't you just sentence her to death?"

The bard felt very tired, suddenly. She turned her head and looked right into Ephiny's eyes. "I did." She replied softly. "Don't you realize that?"

Ephiny sucked in air, wondering if Xena had kept her condition from her partner as well. Must have. She concluded, as she turned to watch, her heart sinking. Damn… how can I stop this…. She watched the two fighters size each other up, and saw a cruel smile edge Arella's face.

She was bigger than Xena, heavier, and far more muscular than the older warrior. She was fast, Ephiny knew, and was probably one of the best hand to hand fighters their Nation had ever produced.

The advantages Xena would normally have, that of skill, and intelligence, were discounted in this kind of brute contest. Arella had planned well, and by the looks she was giving the dark haired woman Ephiny suspected she'd heard the warrior had been injured in the fight.

What if Arella won? Ephiny darted a glance at Gabrielle's face. It was resigned, and sad, but not concerned, though if the bard didn't know about her partner's handicap…

Gods. Ephiny straightened, and found Eponin at her elbow. "She's not gonna win." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "She can't, Pony."

Eponin looked right at her. "She won't." The weapons master vowed.

Xena circled Arella, consciously loosening up her muscles as she paced over the packed earth. The warm sun draped itself over her shoulders, and she could feel the cool breeze brush against her bare skin. A surge of dark energy wound it's way up from her guts, and she welcomed it, feeling the hairs lift on her arms, and a seductive buzz stir her blood.

Ahead of her was Arella, and Xena fully indulged her hatred of this woman, who had caused her precious soulmate so much pain. She let the wolf rise, and a low laugh trickled from her lips, as she saw the sudden widening of Arella's pale eyes. That's right. Be afraid.

Arella watched the smooth play of light ripple over her opponents tanned skin, as she planned her attack. Before she could lose her nerve, she charged, launching herself on top of her opponent, and bearing them both to the ground, yelling at the top of her lungs, as she slammed her blows down on a body that somehow was no longer beneath her. A knee connected, and she grabbed what holds she could, striking hard with an elbow into Xena's ribs, using her heavier weight to hold the dark haired woman down.

The shock jarred her shoulder, and she felt herself being flipped over, as a muscles tensed under her grip, and hands closed around her with chilling strength. She butted her head against Xena's jaw hard, feeling the warrior's grip loosen briefly, and she took advantage of that, slamming her fists against the older woman's stomach with all her strength.

By all rights, Xena should have gone down. If what Arella had been told was true, she should have caved in like a thatch roof under a rock fall.

Instead, a low, throaty laugh answered her, and she felt a searing pain as a hand gripped her wrist, and snapped it like a stick. The scent of blood, and sweat, and leather overwhelmed her, as her body was jerked out of her control, and she felt a dizzying whirl of air as her feet left the ground. Awkwardly, she flailed her limbs, trying to knock Xena off balance, but she felt a surge of animal power as she was lifted, and turned, and then the ground was coming up.

She was upside down, and the last sight she saw was the sunny sky, and puffy white clouds, and a bird whose cry echoed in her ears as her back impacted on a bent knee, and a tremendous shock of pain seared through her.

But it only lasted a moment. Then she felt nothing, nothing at all, save a faint burning, and the blue sky darkened to night. But there were no stars.

Xena let the body slide off her knee, to drop lifeless and broken to the ground. She eyed it a moment, then stood up, brushing her hands off against her leathers. After a long, frozen silence, a cheer rose, more of a triumphant chant, and she lifted a hand to it, as she turned to face Gabrielle.

Their eyes met, and two souls reached out.

Gabrielle ignored protocol, and jumped off the platform, running over and throwing her arms around her partner.

"Shh. " Xena hugged her. "It's over." She lifted her eyes and met Ephiny's and Eponin's gaze, as they stood watching her in awed confusion. "It's all over." She patted the bard's back.

Gabrielle drew a shuddering breath, and looked up at her. "Are you all right? She hit you pretty hard." The bard anxiously examined her partner's body, smoothing fingers over the raw red marks on her belly. Watching Xena body press the larger woman over her head had been shocking, and she'd shuddered hearing the low growl of rage coming from the warrior's throat as she let Arella drop onto her knee and broke her back with a hideous crunch. It had made her a little sick.

The warrior rested her arms on her partner's shoulders. "I saw it coming." A wry grin edged her face. "I had time to tighten up." She circled Gabrielle with one arm. "Come on." They turned away from the still, slumped form and moved over to where the elders had surrounded the regent and her lover. "Let's put this behind us."

Gabrielle let out a breath, and leaned against her. She felt utterly relieved, but guilty for that, and her mind flicked remorselessly back to a cave, where her heart had been hot with anger at Perdicus' murder, and she'd locked eyes with a blue eyed, raven haired avenger, and told her. "Get her, Xena."

She'd never… really had the courage to ask Xena, afterward, if those words led to her deliberately watching Callisto sink into the earth. But she'd known, in her heart, that it was what she had intended.

Now she faced that, and the fact that she'd come to accept that life was full of hard choices.

She just hoped she'd always choose wisely. "I don't understand why she did that, Xena… she knew what she'd be facing."

Xena paused, as they reached where Eponin and Ephiny were standing. "Maybe she didn't."

"Well, Xena… " Rena gazed at her approvingly. "Damn nice job." She poked one of her cronies. "Fast, efficient…I like that." She turned to Ephiny, who was still just looking at Xena, with an indecipherable expression. "Well, shall we get this festival finally started?"

"Yeah." Ephiny blew out at breath, and shook her head a little. "Sounds like a good idea." She eyed Gabrielle. "You all right, your majesty?"

The bard was tucked against Xena's body, and she spared the regent a quiet look. "Yes." She pinned Ephiny with her eyes. "Can we talk later?"

Hazel eyes flicked to Xena, then back to the bard. "Sure."

They walked on towards the dining hall as the normal sounds of life rose once again around them.

"Well?" Cait pulled herself up, as she spotted Paladia slouching back in the door. She was almost frantic with her inability to get up, and she ignored the pain so that she could get to a sitting posture before the tall ex renegade arrived at her pallet. "Well?"

Paladia looked around, then sat down on the stool next to the pallet. "Glad that mucking Bacchae's gone." She'd suffered Menelda's tongue twice that morning already.

"Paladia…. Will you tell me what happened?" Cait asked, exasperated.

"Oh." The taller woman cleared her throat. "Right.. .well, she's toast."

"Who.. is toast?" Cait asked, none to patiently.

"The redhead." Paladia answered. "Didn't take long." She had privately been impressed with the fight, but she had no intention of letting on to that. "Damn Xena broke her in half."

Cait's eyes widened. "Really?"

"Oh yeah." Paladia's voice gained enthusiasm. "It was something else… the redhead got hold of her, then Xena flipped her off like some kinda leaf, then Red grabbed her again and punched her so hard I could hear the impact, but Xena.. boy.. she didn't even flinch.. then Xena picked Red's nasty butt up, put her over her head, then let her drop down onto her knee." She grinned. "You could hear the bones crack. Sounded like dead wood."

"Gosh… that's fantastic." Cait responded. "I wish I could have seen it." She gave her shoulder an annoyed look. "Bother this dratted arrow." She moved the wrong way, and her face tightened. "Ow."

"Hey.. " Paladia glanced around to make sure no one was watching, then she dropped to her knees, and gently eased the younger girl back against the pillow. "Stop moving around so damn much, will ya?"

Cait sighed. "Being hurt is the absolute pits." She blew out a breath, puffing the straight blond hair up off her forehead. "I can see I'm going to have to make sure this doesn’t happen again."

The tall ex renegade snorted. "Whatcha going to do… become a Hestian priestess?"

The girl gave her a dour look. "Very funny." She exhaled, looking over Paladia's shoulder at the drab interior of the hut. "I'm so tired of this place."

"You've only been here a day…gimme a break." Paladia laughed, then looked around. "But yeah.. it's pretty depressing.. specially with that damn cross grained goat of a healer around." She licked her lips in nervous thought for a moment, then grinned. "Hey… " She leaned forward conspiratorially. "Listen.. I was gonna cut out for a while.. work on my picture.. you wanna come too?"

Cait frowned. "Don’t you have chores to do?" She asked, pointedly.

Another grin. "Yeah… but I did a bunch already… I was just gonna sneak down by that crick we found for a little bit."

The girl drummed her fingers on the blanket. "The healers are going to be simply furious."

"Uh.. yeah." Paladia agreed.

"We're going to get into frightful trouble."

Another nod. "Probably."

"Hmm.." Cait considered. "Well, that's two plus things… I suppose you can't ask for better than that.. but.. " She took a pained breath. "I don't think I can get out of this bloody bed."

Paladia looked around carefully, noting that the other patients were either too far away or sleeping. Solari was the closest, her dark hair spilled in a disordered wave across the pillow. "Look." The ex renegade's voice was gruff. "I could carry you."

A moments pause. "Could you?" Cait asked, cautiously.

"Well.. yeah… " Paladia studied her. "You don't hardly weight nothing… about half of old Queenie, and I saw Xena carrying her around like a rag doll yesterday."

"That's Queen Gabrielle, to you." Cait corrected her, indignantly. "And she is certainly not old."

The blond woman rolled her eyes. "Yeah yeah yeah…. Whatever… listen, do you wanna go, or not?"

Cait considered. "Yes." She finally decided. "I do."

"Right." Paladia edged closer, then stopped, her brow creasing. "How do we do this?"

"How did Xena and Gabrielle do it?" Cait asked, reasonably. "You said you saw them."

The ex renegade thought a moment. "Quee… uh.. Queen Gabrielle had her arms around Xena's neck." She stated hesitantly. "And then… Xena was just kinda… uh… " She eased closer, and nervously slid a hand behind Cait's back. "Uh.. I think… and… " She stopped speaking as the girl painfully managed to wrap a tentative grip around her neck. "Yeah… yeah… and .. " She got her other arm under Cait's knees, then slowly sat back, cradling the girl in her arms.

They looked at each other, embarrassed. "Uh." Paladia glanced around.

"Just don't drop me, all right?" Cait bit her lip. "I think you stand up now."

Paladia staggered awkwardly to her feet, almost sending them both pitching into the next row of pallets. "Whoa!" She yelped, then got her balance. "Damn.. that's harder than it looked."

"Shhh!" Cait pried her eyes open, and looked around. "Quickly… surely they heard that."

"Yeah yeah… everyone's a critic." Paladia muttered, as she made her way towards the door, pausing as she reached it. "Uh oh."

"I don't like the words uh and oh." Cait whispered. "At all…what's the matter?"

The tall woman blinked. "We don’t fit." She blurted, looking at the door.

Cait gritted her teeth, then pulled herself up against Paladia's chest, breathing in the warm smell of leather as her cheek pressed against it. "Go on. .hurry!"

"Ab..uh.. ar… " Paladia gave up, and slipped through the door, darting towards the nearest bank of trees which would hide them from sight. "Okay." She rasped, as they reached the safety of the woods. "You can let go now."

"Hmm?" Cait glanced up. "Oh.. oh.. sorry. " She released her grip, and settled back demurely.

Paladia looked at her. "How old are you?" She asked suddenly.

The girl's brows peaked. "Fourteen." She answered promptly. "But I'll be fifteen shortly. How old are you?"

The ex renegade peered around suspiciously. "Sixteen, but don't you tell no one."

"Really?" Cait bit off a grin. "You don't look it."

Paladia scowled. "I grew big." She muttered. "C'mon… my arm's hurting." She nudged her way through the trees, then hesitated. "Um… there's another narrow bit up here."

Cait obligingly pulled herself closer again. "You know, Xena was only fifteen when she defeated Cortese."

Rolling eyes. "Aw.. how did I know that was coming?"

"Well, she was."

"Bet she can't make pictures."

"I bet she could… she can carve."

"Get outta here." Paladia snorted, as she squirmed through the branches to a small, quiet glade they'd found a week or two back.

"She certainly can.. she carved me a duck."

"Yeah? Well, watch that duck while I go get my picture." The ex renegade set her down with acceptable gentleness, then backed off. "Be right back."

Cait settled down, with her back against a smooth barked tree, looking out over the water. "Okay.. wait.. bring back some lunch."

Paladia put her hands on her hips. "Lunch?"

The girl gazed up at her. "Yes… have you had yours, yet?" She made a face. "All we got in the healer's cot was gruel."

The tall blonde's face scrunched up. "Gruel?"

Cait lifted her shoulder. "Yes."

Paladia rolled her eyes. "All right.. all right.. I'll see what I can do. No promises." She stomped off into the woods, muttering.

Cait waited until the footsteps faded. Then she tipped her head back and let out a soft, joyous laugh, heard only by the brook, and the trees, and the silently listening lizard bobbing on a branch nearby.

"I don't get it." Eponin was sitting in a corner of their quarters, on a low padded bench. "I don't get it, I don't get it.. what the heck was going on?"

Ephiny was lying on her back on the bed and staring up at the ceiling. "I haven't a quarter of a clue." She lifted her hands and let them fall back onto the bed. "Not that I have a problem with how it happened, right?"

"Pfft." Pony let her head rest against the wall. "Either she's a actor worthy of the Parthenon, or there's nothing wrong with her, Eph… she for frigging centaur hooves pressed that damn woman over her gods be blasted head!"

The regent winced at this string of profanity. "She sure did." Her head shook back and forth in disbelief. "It was… pretty unbelievable." She rolled her head to one side. "The elders have a new hero, you realize."

Pony rolled her eyes. "Oh gods… yeah.. I know… they sound like a group of juniors having their first crush."

Ephiny chuckled a little. "Do you remember your first crush?" She asked, idly.

Eponin grunted. "Long time ago."

The regent glanced at her. "Listen to the old crone, here." She held out a hand. "C'mere."

The weapons master grudgingly gave up her corner seat and padded over the bed, flopping down on it and resting on her elbows. "You think she's part god, Eph?"

Ephiny gave that some serious thought. "I dunno." She finally said. "She's part something.. that's for sure… you remember Velasca always said she was more than she seemed."

Pony snorted. "Velasca always said we were the daughters of Ares, too." She reminded her lover. "Remember?"

"Yeah… " Ephiny mused. "And she said Xena was a true Amazon, though she'd never acknowledge that." They looked at each other. "You know the old story."

"Mm." The dark haired Amazon agreed. "That would explain some things."

Ephiny eyed her. "Would it make you stop trying to get the jump on her?" She asked, hopefully. "Cause if it would, heck. I'll go burn an offering to Artemis and just ask if it's true." She was kept from pursuing that by the sound of hoofbeats approaching. "Ah!" She got off the bed, and got to the door just in time to open it, and let in a small, charging figure. "Hey!"

"Ma!" Xenon threw his arms around her enthusiastically.

Ephiny dropped into the chair nearby and hugged him. "Xe… oh, it's so good to see you." She rubbed his back, her fingers trailing over the line where soft skin became tickly hair. "When did you get here?"

"Now." Her son stated briefly. "Granpa's outside."

Ephiny bit off a chuckle at what she imagined the dignified Tyldus' reaction to being called Grandpa was. "Okay… I should go say hi to him." She glanced behind her. "Xenon, you remember Pony, right?"

Xenon gave his mother's lover a sunny grin. "Hi!"

Eponin grinned back. "Hi." Xenon shared his mother's curly blond hair, and his rounded face also bore a strong resemblance to the Amazon. "He's a cutie, Eph."

Ephiny smiled proudly. "Yeah, he is, isn't he?" She ruffled the young centaur's hair. "C'mon.. you r aunt Xena and aunt Gabrielle are here."

"Yep..yep.." He bounced on all four hooves expectantly. "I know." Then his small face grew serious. "Ma… are they okay?"

The Amazon caressed his cheek. "Yes, honey.. they're very much okay."

Innocent blue eyes peered at her. "I miss Solon."

"I know, Xenon… but he's someplace nice, okay?" She combed through his blond curls. "He's with his daddy."

"Oh." Tiny hooves shifted. "Will I get to see my daddy someday?"

Ephiny felt tears ripping at her. "Yes, honey.. but not for a long time, I hope."

"He's in a nice place too, right?" Xenon persisted.

"Oh yes, definitely." His mother assured him. "He was very, very brave."

"Good." The boy nodded, then he turned as the door pushed slightly open and Tyldus ducked his russet head in. "Granpa… here I am."

"So I see." Tyldus rumbled, giving Ephiny a wry look. "Greetings. I hear we just missed some excitement."

Ephiny waved a hand at him. "Yeah… I'll explain later." She covered Xenon's small pink ears. "It's a Xena thing."

Tyldus grunted understandingly. "Ah."

"Well, come on… I've got some new friends to introduce you to." Ephiny stood, and gave Pony a wry look. "I think you'll… um… like them." She gazed blandly at Tyldus. "They're good friends of Xena's."

"Oh." The centaur carefully backed up, clearing space for the women and Xenon to exit the hut. "More Amazons?"

"Um.. not exactly." Ephiny kept an arm around her son's shoulders as they walked.

"Oh.. humans, then." Tyldus shrugged.

"Not exactly." The Amazon chuckled. "Just wait. You'll see."

"Mind if we take a walk?" Gabrielle glanced up at her partner's quiet face. "I could use a few minutes of peace ."

Xena reached down and took the bard's hand in hers. "Sure." She interlaced their fingers and gestured up a leafy path. "How about up there?"

"Works for me." The bard agreed, as they started in that direction.

The morning air was still cool, and it brushed against them as they traveled up the shady path, climbing up the slope with matched, powerful strides. They passed two outposts, where guards peeked out at them in mild startlement, then reached the crest of the ridge, and found a nice, comfortable spot where they could peer through the trees, and see the rising face of the next mountain.

Gabrielle stretched her booted feet out, and crossed her ankles, her fingers toying with her soulmate's as she took a breath of the clean upland air. "It's nice here."

Xena drew one knee up, and rested her forearm against it. "Yeah." She exhaled slowly, and turned her head, to watch her partner's face. "You all right?"

A gentle sparkle entered the mist green eyes. "I was just going to ask you that." The bard admitted. "I guess you got what you wanted, huh?"

Xena studied her hands. "It.. wasn't what I wanted, Gabrielle. It was something… I mean, I don't take joy in killing." She paused. "Anymore." She amended, honestly. "But it's something that's very much a part of me, and of who I am.. and I didn’t want you to face that."

"I know." Gabrielle leaned her head against the warrior's muscular shoulder. "Half of me wants to.. oh, I guess it wants to know that I'm grown up enough to make that kind of decision, and the other half… Xena, the other half wants to just tug on your sleeve, and have you take care of it for me." She sighed. "I know I could have done it, I guess that's the important part."

"Mm." Xena agreed.

"I still don't understand why she did it." The bard shook her head. "I guess that's just one of those warrior things I don't get." She turned her head to gaze up at the warrior. "Why would she choose that way to die, Xena? "

The warrior was utterly silent for a long moment, then she sighed. "Maybe she thought it was the best choice… because she had a chance, that way."

"Xena." Mist green eyes darted to her face. "Come on now… it's not like she didn't know who you were, or what you were capable of."

"I know that." Xena answered quietly. "But if she thought I was… incapacitated, then maybe she'd choose that."

"Incap… " Gabrielle half turned, and put a hand on her shoulder. "But you're not…" Her voice trailed off. "Wait a minute.. that's what Ephiny was going on about.. .she thinks you're hurt." The bard blurted. "She came and asked me about it this morning."

A faint smile faced her. "Yeah… Pony asked me the same thing."

"But… " Gabrielle's face contracted in confusion. "Where would they get an idea like that?"

Xena looked at her, pale blue eyes glinting lightly in the leaf shadowed sunlight.

The bard felt the air go out of her lungs. "You let them think that." She gasped.

The warrior closed her eyes in confirmation, then let them flutter open again. "Yes, I did."

Gabrielle sat in stunned silence. "You were faking last night?"

Xena's eyes dropped. "No." She lifted her gaze regretfully. "That must have started them talking, though… I picked that up this morning when I went to get you breakfast. I just…." She lifted a shoulder into a shrug. "Gave them a little more evidence."

"You.. lied to them?" The bard seemed to be having difficulty with the concept.

"No.. " Her soulmate leaned back. "I just…fulfilled their expectations of how they think I should act…that's all." Xena waited, then glanced over at her. "Are you mad at me for that?"

Gabrielle considered the question. "Was it so important to you?"

"Yes." A single answer, very quiet.

The bard exhaled slowly. "I should be. Mad, I mean, because it was supposed to be my decision, Xena.. I'm not a child anymore, and I can take responsibility for myself."

"You made the decision." Her partner argued. "You know you made it, and the Amazons know you made it.. it served it's purpose. I just… I didn't see the need for you to have to watch her be spitted like a deer."

"Maybe I did need to watch that." The bard replied sharply. "That's the consequence of my decision.. remember?"

Xena fell silent, and dropped her gaze to the dirt. "I'm sorry."

Gabrielle tucked a hand inside her elbow. "Don't be… I'm not mad. I said I should be, but…." She sighed. "It was her choice, Xena… and after what she said, I have to believe she'd have done it anyway, regardless of whether or not she thought she had a chance."

The warrior let out a silent sigh of relief. "Probably."

A little silence fell.

"That was pretty subtle, though." Green eyes studied her with interest.

Xena smiled. "Yeah it was, wasn't it?" She chuckled softly.

"No one ever expects you to be subtle, do they?" The bard leaned closer, rubbing her cheek against her partner's upper arm. "That's why you get away with stuff like that, huh?"

"Sometimes." The warrior agreed. "Wasn't anything I really planned.. I just saw an opportunity with Pony, and kinda went with it." She shifted a little. "I figured knowing the Amazons, it'd get around."

"Especially in the dining hall." Gabrielle added. "Where it just so happened Arella was being held prisoner."

"Right." Xena nodded. "Better than have them talking about your belly button."

A half choke, half snort came from her partner. "What?"

The warrior batted her dark lashes at the younger woman. "That was the subject being discussed before I went in there."

"Xena, don't be goofy.. how could they have an entire disc…. What is there to discuss about my belly button?" Gabrielle protested, glancing down at it. "It's just a hole."

The warrior rolled over onto her side, and inspected the topic of conversation. "Well, I dunno.. " She leaned forward and nibbled the area gently. "They didn't ask my opinion."

Gabrielle sucked in a breath, as her partner's lips did very distracting things against her skin. "Xena, that's not very subtle." She muttered, on an irregular breath. "And these woods are crawling with sentries."

Xena sighed, and relented, but remained where she was with her cheek pillowed against the bard's belly. "Gabrielle, I don't think it would surprise them to find out that I consider you incredibly attractive." She remarked wryly, sneaking another nibble.

Green eyes gazed shyly down at her. "Likewise."

They exchanged grins, and Gabrielle began running her fingers through the dark, soft hair lying over her stomach. "Should I tell Ephiny it was a setup?"

Xena had her eyes closed, blissfully enjoying the bard's fingers against her scalp. She considered a moment, then eased open a blue orb and regarded Gabrielle. "Good question." She thought a bit more. "On one hand, you don't want her thinking you endangered the Nation by indulging my ego."

Gabrielle's eyes popped out. "I'm sure she wouldn't…gods, Xena."

The dark brow above the orb lifted. "On the other hand, it would make her feel lousy to know she'd been duped." A pause. "Used, in a way."

"Hmm." The bard's forehead crinkled in thought. "I guess the best thing would be to let her think she just overreacted.. I mean, after all, I actually told her point blank that you were fine." She frowned ."But I hate lying, Xena."

They exchanged quiet, thoughtful looks. "I know." Xena commented quietly. "But you didn't.. you told the truth. For that matter, I told the truth… but they were expecting a lie."

Gabrielle exhaled. "Yeah…not that I blame them, because that's exactly what you'd do, even if you were hurt." She turned a stern eye on her partner. "Except to me, right?"

Xena chuckled softly, sending a trail of warmth up her partner's chest. "Right."

"So.. I guess we'll let her think she was just being a little over protective." The bard decided.

"All right." The warrior accepted this, then closed her eyes again, murmuring contentedly as Gabrielle continued to run her fingers through her hair.

It brought a little smile of wonder to the bard's face, as she watched Xena's total acceptance of their closeness, and she reflected on the fact that their relationship now really was different than it had been before all the ugliness divided them.

In some ways it was deeper. In a lot of ways it was more equal, even though they still had their moments, when Xena's past triggered her aggressive need to take control, but even then, like now, she usually got an apology afterward.

Once, that would have been unthinkable… Xena, apologize? Not. Her soulmate was consciously more considerate, but she was also quieter, and sadder, and Gabrielle knew there were things that weighed on her mind just like they did on her own.

She ruffled through the dark strands looking for grays, and a blue eyeball appeared, with an amused glint in it. "Find any?"

Gabrielle laughed softly. "Nope… and you know what? I don't think I ever will."

The eyeball's brow arched sharply. "Nice sentiment, my love, but not very realistic." Xena replied, with a wry chuckle. "I'm no Hercules."

They looked at each other in silence for a long moment, bearing witness to a truth neither of them wanted to voice. "Well, I'll believe it when I see it, then." Gabrielle finally murmured. "But my mother started getting them very young.. I bet I get some before you do."

Xena considered their age difference. "I bet you don't." She replied ruefully.

The bard's blond head tilted. "Fifty dinars."

"Fifty!!!" The warrior yelped, watching the smirk appear on her soulmate's face. "Gabrielle, that's…"

"Hmm?" One finger found it's way down to perch on Xena's chin. "Put up, or shut up, Warrior Princess."

A long sigh. "All right." Xena shook her head, tickling the bard's belly and making her giggle. "You're a tough negotiator, Amazon Queen.."

Gabrielle chuckled triumphantly, and resumed her massage, as they both fell silent for a while. The trees rustled peacefully in the wind, and she found herself very contented to merely stay here, and spend time with Xena, leaving the bustle of the Amazon village behind. However. "They're going to be missing us, aren't they?" She finally sighed, reluctantly.

"Probably." Xena mumbled sleepily. "I'm supposed to be injured… you could be chastising me."

"Hmm? Oh yeah… bad girl." Gabrielle teased. "Get some of that Amazon discipline going."

"I thought we decided the Amazons have no discipline." Xena remarked smugly. "I gotta tell you, Gabrielle.. getting caught in their skins in the bath… that's pretty damn bad." She opened her eyes. "Even with the fact that Arella knew the codes to get past the guards."

The bard sighed. "I know.. I know… " She looked speculatively at her soulmate. "Hey.. maybe you can give them some lessons while we're here!"

"Oh no." Xena shook her head. "Oh.. no no no.. .that's asking for trouble, and you know it. They'll go nuts." She briefly imagined Eponin's face at the suggestion. "Gabrielle, I've got enough problems here, okay?"

"Xena." Gabrielle leaned forward, and poked the tip of her nose. "After tonight, you're going to BE an Amazon, remember? It'll be different… right?"

Wryly amused blue eyes looked back at her. "Look.. you can put me in leathers… " She indicated her body. "That doesn't make me an Amazon, and we both know it."

The bard chewed her lip. Xena was, she had to admit, right about that. Even though she loved her soulmate in the Amazon garb, she knew the tall warrior was about as comfortable in it as she herself would have been in Xena's armor. It just wasn't who she was, and for that matter, Gabrielle felt the same way. "Okay… I see your point." She admitted reluctantly.

It wasn't who she was. Gabrielle considered that. "Xena."

"Mm?" The warrior folded her hands across her bare stomach.

"Would you do something for me, at the ceremony tonight?"

Both dark eyebrows lifted. "Um… " Xena wondered what she was going to get into. "Okay… sure." She screwed up her courage. "You can't ask me to wear less.. this is pretty minimal." She joked faintly, glancing down the length of her body again.

"No… I want you to… " Gabrielle gently traced a line down her shoulder. "Um.. wear your armor." Her fingers wandered. "The whole get up."

Xena remained silent for a long moment. "Uh…" She looked at the bard in puzzlement. "Uh.. okay… " What was that all about? "Sure… it's more comfortable for me anyway." She watched Gabrielle's face closely. "What's up?"

The bard's youthful features settled into a serious pose. "I've been thinking about who I am, a lot lately." Her fingers lifted a piece of the metal armor draped along her upper arm, and let it fall. "And of all the people I've had to be so far, I think I've decided I like being the Bard of Potadeia the best." Her green eyes lifted to Xena's face. "So that's who the Amazons are getting tonight." She reached down and traced a dark eyebrow gently. "Along with a very famous warrior I've tagged along after making stories up about."

Xena folded her arms across her chest and smiled at her. "And what a lucky warrior that was." She nodded twice. "All right." Then she cocked her head. "Definitely time to go back."

The bard's eyebrows contracted. "You hear them calling for us?"

Wicked twinkle. "I hear your stomach growling."

Gabrielle groaned. "Gods… all right, let's go… we've got a party to get ready for."

 Continued in Part 10