A Queen’s Tale

Part 31

Gabrielle felt the rays of the western slanting sun warm her shoulder blades as she guided Shadow after Xena’s lead along a hedge covered ridge.   “Careful, Dori. Stay on that side of me, okay?”

Dori was seated on Rusty’s back, looking supremely happy.  She had the pony’s reins clutched in her fingers, and was rambling along at her mother’s side, the breeze off the water blowing her dark hair back.  “Mama! Look!” She pointed up.  “Birdie!”

Gabrielle tipped her head back and regarded the bird soaring overhead.  “It’s a seagull.” She noted.  “Let’s hope he doesn’t decide to make a mess on us like last time.”

“Not unless he wants to be dinner.” Xena called back over her shoulder, her free hand dropping casually to rest on her boot knife.

“Oh, hon, no.” Gabrielle grimaced. “They don’t taste good.” She said. “Even their feathers smell bad.”

Xena chuckled.

They were riding along a relatively steep ridge that overlooked the sea, the city of Thema already far behind them.   Their little army was spread out behind their leaders, riding in twos and threes, bodies easy in the saddle as they made their leisurely way along.

No one was in a rush. The pace was steady, but relaxed.  There was an attitude of shadows left behind, and a profound content to be headed into the setting sun, heading home.

Gabrielle was glad they were on the move.  There had been an undercurrent in the city as they left that had been a little disturbing to her, and though it felt in a sense that they were dodging some consequences, she was in a place where she really didn’t care.

They’d left the Athenian soldiers behind. Jens had said he’d wait for the Athenian Navy, and get a ride home from them once they arrived.  He also promised Xena he’d make sure the real story was told to those who had reason to care about it.

Gabrielle hoped he would keep his word.  She liked Jens, but she knew clearly where his loyalties were laid, just as he was sure of hers.

Eh. It would be what it would be. “Hey Xe?”

Xena reined in Iolaus, and half turned, looking inquiringly back at her.

The bard guided her horse up next to her partners. “Where do you want to stop for tonight? You’re not thinking of riding after dark are you?”

“Nah.”  Xena eased Iolaus forward. “See where the hill slopes down up there?” She indicated some distance ahead. “We’ll go down and camp on the beach.”

“Boo, we go fishes?” Dori was riding up near Iolaus’ head.  “Hungry!”

“Soon, shortie.” Xena smiled indulgently at her.  “You having fun there with your buddy?”

Dori reached forward and patted Rusty on the neck. “Good boy!”

The pony arched his head around and regarded her with a look of equine amusement.  He flicked his shaggy ears and wiggled his nose, reaching down to nibble a bit of the rough sea grass they were riding through.

“Is the beach safe?”  Gabrielle lowered her voice. “What if those waves come back?”

“It’s a sheltered cove.”  The warrior shrugged off the danger.  “The coast curls around there, see?” She pointed along the edge of the rocks. “There.”

“Oh, wait, yeah.”  Gabrielle stood a little in her stirrups.  “Okay, looks good, Boo. Let’s go to fishes.”  She turned and waved the group forward. “Up there, guys. That’s camp for the night.”

Ephiny waved back at her. “Lead on.”

Gabrielle took that at face value, and tightened her knees, prodding Shadow forward on the trail.  A quarter candlemark later she was starting down a gentle slope towards the promised sheltered beach, seawater lapping very sedately at it’s shores.

The sandy area was wide, and it butted up against a cliff that extended down the coast, with only the small slope they were on giving easy access to it.   Gabrielle could already see the darkened recesses of caves promising shelter, and she drew in a breath and exhaled, feeling a certain tension relax.

End of the day.   She slowed her pace as she approached the water, eventually pulling Shadow to a halt as she spotted an ash stained circle of coral apparently long used as a firepit.  “Looks like we’re not the first here.”

“No.”  Xena slid down off Io’s back and caught Rusty’s bridle. “This spot okay with you,  Doriana?”

“Boo! Fishes!” Dori jumped off her pony’s back and raced towards the water. “Gogogogogogo!”  She pattered into the gentle wash just a step ahead of her mother, who grabbed her and lifted her up just as a wave would have taken her head over heels.  “Mama!” She complained.  “No!”

“Hold on there little girl!”  Gabrielle swung around with Dori in her arms and sloshed back out of the water.  “Not yet you don’t. We’ve got a lot of work to do before we play.”

“Mama!” Dori protested vigorously, wiggling her body and legs and almost knocking her mother offbalance. “Go fishes!!!!!!”

The bard wrapped her arms around her child and continued on, aware of the lazily amused expression on her partner’s face. “You could help” She gave Xena a pointed stare.  “Boo.”

Xena was leaning against Io’s side.  At the rebuke she pushed off the animal and held her arms out. “Gimme.”  She took Dori and cradled her, bouncing her up and down a little. “Didn’t you hear your mama?” She asked the now giggling child. “Are you being a terror?”

Gabrielle bumped them both  and circled them with her arms, giving them both a hug.   She looked past Xena’s shoulder to see the rest of the group settling down, picking one or the other of the small caves to put their gear in, talking in low tones.

The Amazons were gathering dried driftwood for the firepit.  Jessan and his crew were gathering all the horses, and hobbling them.   The militia were fanning out and setting a watch.

Xe.” Gabrielle leaned against her. “You know what?”

“What?” 

“It’s nice to have people.”

“Eh?”  Xena lifted Dori up onto her shoulders, where she settled happily, drumming her heels against the warrior’s armor.  “What are you talking about?”

Gabrielle turned her around and pointed. “People.” She said. “We have people, Xena. The militia, the Amazons, our friends. Our family.”

Xena cocked her head a trifle. 

“I’m babbling, huh?”  The bard steered her towards the last of the caves, a large opening that had the setting sun lighting it up in tones of gold and rust.   “Okay never mind.” They walked inside  and found it to be a nice sandy cavern indeed, with some flat, water worn rocks to sit on and the scent of salt and dried seaweed in the air.

It was quiet, and had an air of wild peace about it.  Gabrielle circled around,  her wet boots rasping against the sand.  The walls had a pleasing, striped pattern and she ran her hand over one, feeling the weather softened stone warm under her touch.

I”ll get our bags.” Xena said, from behind her.  Dori’s gonna help me. Right Dor?”

“Boo boo boo.” Dori bounced a little on Xena’s shoulders.

“Okay.”  The bard turned and regarded the space, her thoughts slowly moving from the disconnected dreaminess of imaging to the more practical matter of setting camp, and getting some dinner started.   She edged out of the cave and walked over to the firepit, where Pony was making good progress in starting  the driftwood aflame,  her hands striking sparks into dried seaweed kindling that Cait was holding still.

Familiar faces. Familiar tasks.  The bard paused and watched, smiling a little as Ephiny came up next to her. “It’s going to be a pretty sunset.” Gabrielle commented.

“You know, it’s so nice to be out of that town, and out of that mess, I wouldn’t care if it was overcast and snowing.” Ephiny replied. “I swear I wouldn’t.”

Gabrielle chuckled.

“Its like this for you, isn’t it?” The regent asked. “After all the stuff you get into?”

“Just a quiet night, and a pretty sunset, and life goes on?”  Gabrielle folded her arms over her middle. “Yeah.”  She savored the warmth of the sunlight gilding her, and the softness of the sand under her soggy boots.

“Well, I sure appreciate it.” Ephiny bumped her shoulder with her own. “All in all, job well done, in my view.”

Gabrielle considered that.  From the corner of her eye, she spotted Xena easing into her line of sight, and her attention focused on her partner, who was leaning casually against the rock, giving her a saucy, sexy look, her face cast half in shadows.

Gabrielle?

“Eh?” The bard jerked out of her bemused haze and turned her head towards her friend. “Sorry.”  She apologized. “Long day, you know?”

Ephiny snorted, muffling a laugh. “Gabrielle, you know, you should watch yourself in a mirror when you look at Xena sometime.”

“Huh?” The bard blinked.  “What are you talking about?”

“Gabrielle.” Ephiny gave her a despairing smile and rolled her eyes.  “C’mon.”

The bard chuckled herself, glancing down and drawing a line in the sand with the toe of her boot.  She could sense Xena’s eyes on her, and felt the flush of warm blood along her skin.   “My heart’s a pretty open scroll.” She admitted.  “Always has been.”

“Wish the rest of us had taken another road?” The regent teased her. “Don’t think I don’t know tall dark and dangerous is behind me making eyes at you.”

Gabrielle started laughing gently.  She shook her head and exhaled, letting the salt breeze and the curles of smoke from the fire wash over her.  “You know, it was a job well done, Eph.  We did the right thing.”

“We did.” Ephiny agreed. “Felt right, you know?”

“Yes, I know.” 

“Felt right, not fighting. That’s strange for an Amazon to say.” Ephiny went on.  “But I was in that town, and listening to those people, and you know something? They were tired of it. “

Gabrielle cocked her head in question. “Tired?”

“Mm.” The regent crossed her arms around herself. “Tired of all the coming and going, the people heading out to Athens demanding things from them, the chance of attack.” She slowly shook her head. “One of the innkeepers there was talking to me before we left. Said at first, the war seemed exciting. They thought they’d have a lot of business from it.”

“Well, they probably did.”   Gabrielle glanced aside as Xena came over, with Dori cradled in her arms.  Xe said the place was packed when she got here. No rooms to be had.”

“Yes.” Ephiny agreed. “They were, we had to practically buy straw place in the stables when we got here, and not just because we were wild and dirty women.” 

“Jackasses.” Xena commented.

“Bothered those featherheads more than me.” The regent grunted. “Anyway, this guy said after the first rush, it just became a lot of people who felt they should get everything for free because they were going off to war. “

“Ah.”

“Lost their taste for it.”  Ephiny summed up succinctly. 

“Probably that’s when Ares went… “ Gabrielle started to speak, then fell silent.  “When he was with us in the valley.”

Ephiny glanced sideways at her.  “You never did say what that whole thing was about.”

“Probably never will.” Gabrielle answered shortly.  She was aware of her friends startled look.  “Sorry.” She said, after a brief silence. “Just wasn’t something I want tell.”  A warm touch appeared right across her lower back, fingers slipping with easy familiarity under her carved leather belt.

“It’s okay.” Ephiny bumped her again.  “Pony’s just dying of curiousity and she wanted me to ask. She knows there had to be more to it that her and Gran sliding down a waterfall then ending up in the grass looking at the boots of the God of War.”

Gabrielle looked up and into her friends eyes. “She doesn’t want to know.” She said, quietly.

Really?

“Really.” Xena intoned, her low voice burring a little.

“Okay.” The regent acquiesced. “Consider the matter closed.” She said. “But maybe someday, when you and I are old grandmas sitting on a porch somewhere you’ll tell me.”

Gabrielle put a hand on her shoulder. “Eph, if you and I ever make old bones, I swear to you I will.”

The Amazon chuckled wryly, conceding the point.  “C’mon over to my cave.” She invited. “I”ve got a half keg of nice cider to share with you.” 

“Mama, fishes?” Dori batted her eyelashes at her mother.  Pwwwweeeeese?”

“I’ll take her.”  Xena grinned tolerantly

“No, I’m half drenched already. You get those leathers wet you’ll be squeaking all night.”  Gabrielle took Dori from her mildly startled partner’s arms and headed for the surf.  “C’mon, Doriboo… let’s go swimming. See what we can catch for dinner.”

Squeeeee!!’ 

Xena watched for a moment, her hands on her hips, then she glanced sideways at Ephiny. “Cider?”

“C’mon.” Ephiny led the way into the cavern the Amazons had chosen, the one next to the big one everyone had left for Xena and Gabrielle.   There were bodies busy inside,  Cait and Paladia were kneeling near the far wall, unpacking supplies, and the stragglers from the city who were intent on joining the Nation were bringing in waterskins.

Milena  was with them, her lithe figure standing out in it’s mismatch of town clothes and half armor, picked up from soldiers in the fighting.   She seemed quiet, and somewhat remote, but was exchanging some small talk with the other newcomers.

Everyone looked up as Ephiny and Xena entered, and most eyes remained on them at least furtively as they crossed the sand floor and settled down on a rock near the back of the cave.   Xena stretched her long legs out and leaned back, as Cait brought over a couple of mugs.

“Gosh, I’m glad that’s over.” The young Amazon said. “Too many odd things, don’t you think?”

“Odd things.”  Ephiny mused, taking the cup and sipping from it. “Thanks Cait.” She added, belatedly.  “I’m glad it’s over too.  Way too much excitement for these old bones.” She glanced at Xena. “Which I already have even if the love of your life doesn’t.”

Xena rolled her eyes and gave the regent a droll look.  She took the cup from Cait and swirled it.  “Thanks.” She said. “Siddown, Cait.” She patted the rock next to her.

Pleased though surprised,  the girl complied.

“Didn’t mean to tick off her nibs.”  Ephiny said, after a moment.

“You didn’t.”  Xena shook her head.  “She’s had a tough couple of days.”

Cait sat quietly, just sipping her cider. 

“Her tough couple of days would be the death three times over for the rest of us, you realize.” Ephiny said.  Xena, go get her out of the water and put a real smile on her face for me, willya?  I still feel like a dipshit for getting us all into this.”

The warrior crossed her legs and the ankles. “Give her a minute to grab some dinner.”   She leaned back against the rock wall. “I can hear Dori squealing. Usually means she’s got hold of something.”

“She fishes?”  Ephiny allowed the subject change, and smiled, watching Xena’s angular face crease into an easy grin. “Like you?”

“Just like me.”  Xena’s grin deepened.  She lifted her free hand and wiggled the fingers. “Gotcha!” 

Ephiny started laughing.

G’wan. Go watch.” The pride in Xena’s voice was unmistakable. “With any luck they’re doing it naked.”

Dead silence in the room.  Everyone pretended not to look at anyone, then every looked at Ephiny.  The regent drained her cup with theatric slowness and put it down on the rock.

Then she slapped her knees with her hands and stood up, letting her eyes roam around the cavern.  After a fascinating moment of silence, she put her hands on her hips. “Would you all prove yourselves Amazons, grab your breasts and move if you really want to see?”

Everyone froze, except Xena, who dissolved into silent laughter, laying back against the rock and holding her stomach.

“Well???”  Ephiny barked. “Are you Amazons or milkmaids!

Pony entered the cavern at the moment, with a fish in one hand, and a fistful of seaweed in the other.  She looked at the crowd, then at her partner.  Mmoooooo!”

A moment later the cavern was empty, except for Xena’s still laughing form, and Cait sitting quietly drinking her cider.

Xena’s chuckles wound down, and she remained where she was, looking up at the ceiling. “Crazy women.”

“They are a bit.” Cait agreed. “Do you like them?”

The warrior folded her hands over her stomach. “I like some of them.” She allowed. “I like Eph and Pony. Solari.  Few of the others. Got some good people in the tribe.”

“Got some not so good ones too.” Cait said.  “There are a lot of selfish, mean people around sometimes.”

Xena twiddled her thumbs. “I can be mean and selfish.” She said.  “People do what they do, Cait. They want what’s best for them, at least what they think’s best.”

“So it’s all right they tried to hurt Gabrielle then?” Cait studied her supine companion.

“No.”  The warrior said. “But that’s part of what the Amazons are.  In their heads, they think they’re doing what’s best for them, and for the tribe.” She turned her head and looked at Cait.  “I don’t like it, but I do understand it. So does Gabrielle.”

“Hm.”  Cait frowned. “I do wish I’d been there when they tried that.  Don’t you?”

Xena’s face took on a thoughtful expression. “Could have been the best thing to happen to both her and the tribe.” The warrior said, unexpectedly. “They’re used to thinking of her as a convenient front, and me as the danger behind the throne. Maybe now they realize she’s got teeth of her own.”

“They know she can fight, Xena.” Cait’s brow creased. 

“Not what I meant.” The pale blue eyes regarded her. “I want them to be afraid of her. Not just of me.”

“Hm.” Cait pondered the idea.  “I hadn’t thought of it quite that way.”

Xena smiled. “Gabrielle hasn’t either.” She conceded. “Yet.”

“Hm.”

**

From where she was, Gabrielle could see the arc of the sky, an inky black curtain shot through with vivid sparkling lights, safe and remote.  There were voices all around her, clusters of friends and her family scattered around the cookfire and low laughter that tickled against her ears.

Solari was sitting next to Bennu and Paladia, throwing dice.   Some of the militia were sparring lazily with each other near the water.

Jessan and his crew were sprawled in the warm sand, counting stars.

It was a pretty night. Gabrielle licked her lips, tasting a hint of the fish she’d caught for the common dinner fire, six big and very tasty monsters who ended up grilling very nicely.   They’d had that, and some waybread along with Ephiny’s cider and she was pleasantly full and just a touch sleepy.

Tomorrow they would ride, and maybe end up in some nice meadow, amongst wild apple trees. Xena had mentioned such a spot, and casually said they should stay clear of towns just in case.

Just in case.  The bard wiggled her toes. Just in case someone had their stories wrong, or old information. She had no intention of facing the treachery they’d found on the way to Thema.  Better to go home the wild way, the back way, and wait for things to settle down.

The real story would percolate out from the port city, and even if it didn’t, Gabrielle was perfectly capable of spreading the story she wanted heard her own self.

After all, she was the Bard of Athens, wasn’t she?  Gabrielle chuckled softly under her breath.  Maybe when they were closer to Amphipolis, they’d stop in. Maybe at Potadeia, to let her family know everything was all right.

The thought of being home, of being in their cabin, surrounded by the wild forest was beginning to really appeal to her.   That wasn’t unusual – usually when she was away from home she wanted to be there, it was only when she was there that she wanted to be somewhere else.

This felt a little bit different though.  Gabrielle exhaled. She wanted to be on their porch, with a cup of mint tea in her hands, listening to the birds sing as the sun rose.  Hearing the soft patter of leaves overhead.

She wanted to finish some of the things she’d started.  Maybe put some long range plans into work.

How to reconcile this wanting with the equally deep need she thought she had for seeing new things?  The bard stared quietly into the fire.  Did that wandering urge mean more to her than Dori’s need to be with her friends?

More than Xena’s need to be the queen of her mountain?  The bard’s lips twitched faintly.  Was it worth the risk they both took exposing themselves to every dark force they found on the road?

What was life worth, really?  Especially if you knew what death was like?

The fire snapped and sent sparks skyward, and she idly followed them with her eyes, which opened a little wider when a trickle of warm breath stirred her nape hairs.  

Xena settled into the sand behind her, draping an arm casually over her stomach. “Dor’s finally asleep.”

“After you let her ride that pony again or not?”  Gabrielle dropped her head back against her partner’s shoulder.  “I thought I heard little pocky hoofbeats.”

‘You did.” Xena confirmed. 

“Sucker.”

Xena tilted her head forward and caught her partner’s earlobe in her teeth, then she gently suckled on it, eliciting a faint subvocal sound from the bard.   Gabrielle’s body relaxed against her in a rush of warm contact.

“Mind if I ask you a question?” Xena leaned on one arm, nibbling the edge of Gabrielle’s ear.

Nuh uh.” 

“How come you let the kid come back with us?” 

Gabrielle shifted a little, lining her sight to match her partners. “You mean Milena?”

“Uh huh.”

Gabrielle thought about that.  She could see Miliena across the firepit, sitting with some of the new recruits. She’d gotten out of her mish mash of armor and was just in a light tunic, looking slight and pale against the weatherworn Amazons next to her.

Cute kid.  The bard studied her. A beautiful face, and a lithe body that promised strength.  “Well, I could just say it’s because she asked.”  She laid her hand over Xenas.  “Seems like a lost sort of soul. Maybe she’ll find what she’s looking for with the tribe.”

“I know what she’s looking for. So do you.” The warrior pointed out.

“Mm.” A sweet smile crossed Gabrielle’s face. “I think maybe the truth is I wanted to mark how far we’ve come… well, I’ve come really…  to where all I can feel is sorry for her.”

“Could be annoying as Hades for me.”

Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder, watching the flame’s shadows flicker over her partner’s face. “Xe, I never thought you minded people lusting after you.” She said. “Do you ?

A smile slowly appeared. “Nah.” Xena’s lashes flickered as she blinked a few times. “I just don’t have much taste for kicking lovesick kids out of my way anymore.”

One of Gabrielle’s very pale eyebrows lifted sharply, then after a brief pause, she grinned.

Xena blew gently in her ear.

“Do you want me to tell her not to come?”  The bard asked, in a serious tone. “People who annoy you sometimes end up regretting it.” She said. “In a permanent sort of way.”

Xena didn’t even so much as flinch.  “Now that.” She disengaged her hand and lifted it, riffling through Gabrielle’s hair.  “Should tell you just how far we’ve come, you and I.” She let her hand slide down and cup the bard’s cheek, then she leaned forward and kissed her.

Ahhh.  Gabrielle half turned, letting her hand drop onto Xena’s hip as she leaned into the pressure, savoring the passion of it.  She took a breath and looked up as they parted a little,  seeing the look of gentle humor in her soulmate’s eye.  “I love you.”

“I love you too.” Xena touched her nose to Gabrielle’s.  “Let’s go continue this discussion on our bedroll.”    She got to her feet and pulled the bard up with her, giving the others around the fire a casual wave.  G’night folks.”

They left the circle of firelight and crossed the sand to their rocky haven, into a cozy darkness broken only by the camp light fluttering in one corner. 

**“She sure aint a shy village kid anymore, huh?” Pony crossed her booted legs and tipped her mug in the direction of their departing leaders.

“Hasn’t been for a while.”  Ephiny gazed fondly after them.  They were heading off to their cave hand in hand, for once completely unselfconscious, and the campfire outlined them in crimson shadows as they wound their way through the crowd.  “I think I’m liking her more and more every day, Pon. “

“She did great on the way to the city, according to the kids and Soli.”  Eponin said.  “She even told Fuzzy to off one of the guys that tried to ambush them in the woods near home.”

“She knows.”  Ephiny responded.  “She’s got it in her. I knew it when she went after that bitch in the war. You remember?”

Heads were leaning closer to them, and Ephiny had noticed.   The new recruits, and Milena in particular had edged over to listen.

“Sure I remember.”  Pony held up her end, her golden eyes shifting to the listeners and back to her partner’s face in a mere flicker of motion.  “Who could forget that?  She led us to where they had Xena like they’d painted a big red stripe right across the ground.”

“Who had Xena?” Milena asked, glancing to either side of her as two of the other newcomers shifted closer.  “You don’t mean she was captured do you?”

Ephiny took a sip from her mug and eyed the girl.  “Matter of fact, she was.”  The regent said. “During the war with Andreas.  There was an ambush.”

Xena went out to draw them out. She knew it was coming.”  Pony put a different slant on it. “She knew they were after her, and she wanted to find out what was going on with Andreas army.”

Ephiny nodded. “She didn’t want any of us to risk it so she did. And they got her.”

“Oh.” Milena muttered.

“We didn’t know where they took her.” Pony said. “But Gabrielle did.”

“They seem pretty close.” One of the newcomers said. “Doesn’t seem posed.”

Eponin and Ephiny exchanged looks.  “Posed?” Pony queried.

“You know what I mean.” The woman said. “You guys have been around.  Sometimes it’s all a game, you know?”

Ephiny studied her for a minute, then she nodded. “I know what you mean.” She said. “We had something like that way back when.”  She took a sip of her cider.  ‘Sometimes, a queen will pick a consort strictly for how they fight.” She explained to MIlena.  “They want someone to answer challenges for them.”

“Yeah.” The stranger Amazon nodded. “Our queen was like that.  No love lost there.”

“Challenges?” Milena watched Ephiny’s face closely.   “What is that?”

Oh kid.  “Sometimes, an Amazon will decide they can do a better job running the tribe than the person who carries the right. So they challenge them for it.” EPhiny said, evenly.  “They fight.” She clarified. “Sometimes, to the death.”

“Really?” Milena’s face twitched a little.  “So Xena fights for her?”

‘Not always.” Solari spoke up from her shadowed corner.  “Gabrielle can kick ass all on her own.  I seen her do it. “  She leaned forward and circled her knees with both arms.  “I’d welcome her at my back anyday.”

Xena welcomes her at her back.”  Pony said.  “That about says it, y’know? ”

“Well.”  One of the recruits shrugged.  “No diss on her for having someone to fight on her behalf.  Lots of queens do that in our part of the world.  Sort of a business thing.

“That ain’t what it’s like here.”  Pony said.  Xena and Gabrielle are tight.”

“Wouldn’t blame her for picking Xena.”  The Amazon said. “She’s pretty kickass.  I saw her taking out those soldiers up on the hill.  I’ve never seen anyone fight like that before.”

“You won’t.” Pony smiled. “Xena’s one of a kind.”

“Until Dori grows up.” Ephiny said. “Big X better keep her sword sharp. She’s the only one who’s going to be able to spar with that kid I’ll tell you that.”  She paused, then a faint smile touched her lips. “ Though her mama’s no slouch either.”

A silence fell. Ephiny waited it out, watching their new recruits as they puzzled through her words and wanting to know which one of them would have the guts to ask.  

“So.” Milena cleared her throat. “Xena’s not her mother? Looks just like her.”

“Well.” Ephiny twiddled her thumbs. “Gabrielle carried Dori and gave birth to her.” She said. “But they’re both her mothers.”

Xena adopted her you mean.”  One of the recruits said. “You make that official really?  We never did.” She glanced at her companions.  “The kids just became children of the tribe but yeah, she’s right. The kid looks just like her.  They find a guy like that for it?”

“No. That’s not what I mean.”  The regent responded. “Dori has two mothers.  She’s Xena’s kid as much as she is the Queen’s. There was no guy involved.”

Silence.

“Cool, huh?” Pony finally broke it. “Like I said, they’re tight, you know? “

Silence.

“So anyway, back to that story about the war.”  Ephiny said. “There we were, Xena’s missing, and the next thing I know…”

Solari sat back to listen, keeping her eye on the newcomers and especially Milena.  There was a sharpness in her expression that rang a warning,  She had seen the kid watch Xena earlier, and Solari was more than experienced enough to know a lustful glom when she saw one.

No penalty for that.  Lots of people she knew wanted to jump into the sack with either their queen or her consort, or both.  But the kid had a sneaky look Solari just didn’t like.

A quick shift of her eyes showed Pony also watching, her honey colored eyes narrowed. 

Might be trouble.   Like they didn’t already have enough of that waiting back home?  Solari wondered if bringing in new, and smartass blood was a good idea right at the moment.

She watched Milena turn her head slightly, watching the two shadowy figures standing out side the last cave. Xena and Gabrielle had paused to watch the moon rise,  the warrior’s arm draped casually over her shorter companion’s shoulders.

Gabrielle circled Xena with her arms, and leaned against her, the silent happiness visible even in the low light.

It made Solari smile. But she noticed some others who definitely didn’t.

**

Inside the cave Gabrielle could hear the surf still, but the omnipresent wind was cut off, and they both walked together to the furs spread out just to the outside of where Dori’s folding bed was and settled down on them.

Gabrielle rolled over onto her back and wriggled her butt a little into the sand, which was more than deep enough to make a comfortable bed for them.   It was nice to be quiet, and alone and she savored the soft rustle as Xena stretched herself out next to her, the warrior’s long, bare legs extending just past her vision.  “So.”

“So.”   Xena reached over and unbuckled her belt. “Where was I?”

Gabrielle turned on her side, and plucked at the laces holding Xena’s leathers on.   She watched the surface under the hide move as the warrior took a breath, and released it.  “Seriously Xe. You want me to tell the kid to take a hike? “

“Nah.”  Xena shrugged. “I don’t care. “ 

Gabrielle studied the candlelit face across from her.  After a moment, Xena’s lashes fluttered, and she looked up as their eyes met.

Clear depths. The blood burnished soul in them so profoundly evident. 

Gabrielle tangled her fingers in the leather laces and tugged,  seeing the smile appear on her partner’s face .   “Eh.  If she messes with you, I’ll kick her butt.”

Xena chuckled, and resumed her removal of Gabrielle’s clothing.   The scant fabric still held the scent of the sea, and she watched a faint trail of goosebumps appear on the bard’s belly as she slid her fingers under the belt and pulled it free.  “Cold?”

She eased over and nibbled the soft skin around Gabrielle’s navel, glancing up mischeviously as she felt the bard’s ribs expand outwards as she drew in a quick, short breath.   Hm?”

Her partner’s eyes were half shut, and her nostrils were flared a little.  “No.”  Gabrielle responded, clearing her throat a little.   She was propped up on her elbows watching and as Xena resumed her nibbling, she let her head drop back, then settled down onto the furs as her hands reached out to respond to Xena’s touch.

With a slight pouncing motion,  Xena got both arms planted on either side of her willing victim and slid a thigh between Gabrielle’s.   She bit the lacing holding the bard’s top on and tore it free, then delicately catching the edge of the fabric in her teeth and moving it aside.

Gabrielle’s eyes closed.  Her hands eased the loosened leathers down  Xena’s body as the warrior moved upward.

Xena continued her exploration,  putting gentle pressure with her thigh as she felt Gabrielle push back against her, the bard’s touch caressing her skin as she caught one of her nipples in her teeth and teased it.

She could feel the surge of passion through their connection and it set her guts on fire. 

They fed off each other like that.  It made it more intense and far more personal somehow, and Xena felt her own breathing speed up as Gabrielle’s did, and the bard’s hands cupped her breasts in reciprocation.

“I love you.”  Gabrielle breathed the words into her ear.  “More than life.”

Xena smiled, her eyes closing, savoring the literal truth of the words.  “And I love you.” She eased forward and kissed Gabrielle on the lips. “More than living forever.”

She felt Gabrielle’s lips move under hers, stretching into a distinct smile.   Xena lifted her head a little and looked down into her partner’s eyes, finding them open and waiting, the look of complete joy in them making her catch her breath.

So incredible,  with all the darkness she lived with, to be able to produce that gorgeous spark of light.  Xena returned the smile, then she ducked her head to kiss Gabrielle’s lips again,  almost lurching forward in surprise when the bard’s arms wrapped around her and hugged her so hard it almost pulled her over.

The bard’s head pushed into her neck, and Xena felt her body jerk and realized she was crying.   She wasn’t sure what was happening, but she returned the hug, folding her arms around Gabrielle’s body and pulling her close.

She couldn’t feel unhappiness from her. Not grief, or anger either.  Only joy, and so she wondered if it was true that you could just want to cry from that.

She never had.  Xena rocked them both a little.  In the most joyful moments of her admittedly dark life, she’d often passed out cold.  Was that better than crying?

“Oh.”  Gabrielle drew a shaky breath. “Sorry.”

“You okay?”  Xena asked, cautiously.

The bard drew in another breath, sliding her hand up to clasp Xena’s shoulder.  She squeezed it.  “I’m okay. I’m just… “ She sniffled a little, then exhaled.  “Sorry.  I can’t believe I did that.”

Xena cradled her gently, as Gabrielle relaxed in an almost boneless way against her. “It’s all right.” She said. “Feel better now?”

Gabrielle cleared her throat a bit.  “I wasn’t feeling bad before.” She muttered. “As a matter of fact.”  She rubbed her face, then left her hand there, shading her eyes. 

“But?”  Xena felt the deep breath, and the slowly deliberate exhale.

The bard shifted,  her hand coming to rest against Xena’s collarbone. “You know, Xena… it just struck me that ever since the day we met, something in me was waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Xena’s brow creased sharply.  She paused, then tentatively stroked Gabrielle’s head. “We’ve had a lot of things drop on us.” She ventured.  “But what brought that up?”

Gabrielle remained silent for a long moment. “That something I just realized.. “ She got out, then stopped again. “That I… that you… “ She stopped again.

Xena studied the bent head tucked against her chest.  You  finally realized I’m really never going to leave you?” She asked, in a gentle voice.

The bard started crying again.

Now Xena did too, a few, quiet tears that slipped down her cheeks, to slide unnoticed into Gabrielle’s pale hair.    She wasn’t sure if it was sadness or joy.   Sadness that her soulmate had hidden that fear deep inside for so long, or joy that she’d finally figured out a way to allay it.

Maybe it was just relief.

Maybe she’d been waiting for that other shoe too.

Or maybe they were both just exhausted after a long couple of days.

Xena sighed. “You’re stuck with me.   Get used to it.” She gently scratched Gabrielle’s back with her fingertips.  “Stuck with me forever,  my friend. Like it or not.”

The bard exhaled, the warmth of her breath tickling against bare skin.  “I’m sorry, Xe.”

“For what?”  Her partner asked.

Gabrielle rubbed her face and sniffled.  “I feel like such an idiot.” She muttered.  “How could that still have been stuck in there.   She wiped her eyes with impatient fingers.  “How far have we gone together?  What haven’t we done for each other by now, Xena? That I should still think..

But  you don’t.”  Xena interrupted gently.  “Isn’t that what you just said?”

“But I did.”

“But now you don’t.” 

Gabrielle sighed.  Xena.”

“I know.” Her partner rested her head against the bard’s. “Everyone always thought you were the lovestruck, self sacrificing one of us.”   She paused, and reflected. “No one ever expected me to be capable of anything like that. Even you.”

Gabrielle went very still.

“Even me.” Xena went on. “Never figured it.” She tilted her head and looked at Gabrielle’s shadowed profile. ‘I saw your face when I told them off up there.”

Gabrielle leaned her head back and returned the look.  “It happened too fast for me to even be scared.”  She said. “I didn’t’ know what to say.  Didn’t know what I could say, that wouldn’t sound so damn self centered it would embarrass both of us.”

“Would you have begged me not to stay?”

“Absolutely.” The bard answered without hesitation. “I would have cried my guts up at your feet.” She rested her cheek against Xena’s breast. “You know that.”

“Mm.”   Her partner nodded. “I know. “

“That why you said no?”

Xena smiled, a little. “No.”  She gazed fondly at her soulmate.. “I said no because I didn’t want to stay there.”   She watched Gabrielle watch her, a look of dreamy, complete openness on her face. “I said no because I knew it would separate us, and I didn’t want that.  I want to be with you.”

Gabrielle smiled.  Her expression lightened into one of contented happiness that lit her eyes from within and transformed her face.

Xena hugged her.   “I should have told Zeus to kiss my ass a lot sooner.”

Now the bard’s body jerked with a completely different emotion.  A muffled laugh emerged, and Gabrielle took hold of one of her partner’s hands and turned it over, kissing the palm with gentle passion. 

“Now.” Xena brushed the disheveled hair back off Gabrielle’s forehead.  “Where we we?”

“Before I lost my mind?”  Gabrielle’s lips twitched. “I was well on my way to being ravished by the most beautiful woman I know.”

That got her one of Xena’s full, happy, sexy grins.

“Thank you, Xena.”  Gabrielle said, in a more quiet, serious tone.  “For blessing my life.”

“Likewise.”  Her partner responded, in the same manner.

They regarded each other for a moment. Then  Xena slowly rolled them both over on the furs, ending up pinning Gabrielle lightly down, braced on her elbows as she let her body slid up and over the bards. “Let’s enjoy the moment.”

“Let’s enjoy all of them.”  Gabrielle reached up and cupped her face, drawing her down as their lips met  and she arched her back, welcoming the heat as their bodies pressed together.  “Every single one.”

**

Gabrielle sat quietly with her back against the stone, her legs dangling off the boulder she was sitting on as she watched the sun rise and paint the water with tints of rose and gold.   The cool breeze ruffled her hair and she rested her elbow against a bit of rock, feeling for the first time in a very long time a sense of personal contentment.

She was happy. Not with what she was doing, or where they were, or the future, or the past. She was just happy to be who she was, and she really wasn’t used to that.

She had spent some time thinking after they’d finally sated each other, wrapped in Xena’s arms as the warrior drifted off to sleep.    About her life, and their future, and how some things now seemed to her to be different.

Maybe it was moving past the what ifs.

A soft crunch of boots against the sand caught her attention, and she turned her head to see Ephiny and Solari approaching. “Good morning.”  She greeted them with a smile.

“Morning, your maj.” Solari returned the compliment.  “You guys get a good night’s sleep?”

Gabrielle grinned briefly. “Well, what sleep we got was good, yeah.” She responded. “It was nice not to have either floods or battles or the odd Spartan disrupt us. “ 

“You said it.” Ephiny leaned against the rocks next to her. “You must have been exhausted after all that stuff.”  She crossed her ankles.  “I know I was, pregnant or not.  Glad we’re out of that place.”

“Felt good just to chill.” Solari agreed.  “I was over all the creeps.”

“Yeah, me too.”  Gabrielle said.  “We’ll stay along the coast for a while, then cut inland.  We left a lot of debris in our wake on the way here.”

Ephiny nodded. “The kids were telling me.” She said. “We finally got around to sharing all the crap we’ve just been through last night over the rest of that cider.”   She grinned wryly. “Cait’s so pissed off she missed your challenge and Paladia didn’t.”

Gabrielle returned the smile. “You know, I was trying to get inside those elder’s heads and understand why they did what they did. But you know something Eph?  There is no good reason.  They really tried something that could have been very destructive for the tribe.”

“Yes, they did.” Ephiny’s expression turned serious. “They need to be dealt with.”

“They will be.”  The bard said.  “Everyone wanted to use the Amazons for their own purposes in this war. Even the Amazons. It’s time they started becoming a people who can depend on each other instead of taking advantage.”

Ephiny cocked her head a little at her queen, blinking a little when Gabrielle turned her head and met her gaze directly.   “You aiming to teach them how, Gabrielle?” She asked, after a moment’s silence.

“Maybe.”  A twinkle entered Gabrielle’s eyes, and her face eased into a rakish grin.   “Maybe instead of running off  to some other place it’s time I tried to make the place I’m at better.” 

Dori came running out before Ephiny could comment, the child completely naked with damp, disheveled hair.  “Mama!” She held up something. “See what Boo made me!”

Gabrielle took the bit of driftwood, neatly carved into the shape of a seabird, and examined it.  “That’s so pretty, Dor. Did you say thank you?”   She set the bird down and picked Dori up, setting her on her lap. “Why are you running around with no clothes on?  Did Boo forget to dress you?”

“Boo was tying her boots on.”  Xena emerged from the cave in her leathers, her hair as damp as Dori’s.   She leaned her arm against the rock and handed Gabrielle one of their daughters jumpers. “Someone didn’t feel like waiting.”

 “That’s a very pretty bird you made.”  Gabrielle traded the trinket for the jumper and started getting Dori into it.  “Just like her birthmark.”

“Our birthmark.”  Xena regarded Ephiny and Solari. “Morning.”

“Morning.” Solari  grinned at her.  “Did you make that last night?”  She took the bird from Xena’s hand and looked at it.   “Cool.”  She glanced up at Xena. “You do all those little toys she has back home?”

Xena nodded. “Always been a hobby.” She admitted.  “That’s how the whole damn thing with the horse started. “

“Yes. Xena carved her a pony.”  Gabrielle ruffled her daughter’s hair affectionately.  “And Dori decided she wanted a life size one, didn’t you?”  

Dori grinned and bounced on her mother’s lap.  “Go get Wusty, Mama! He c’n have breakfast with us.” She squiggled down off her perch and raced off, her small, bare feet kicking up little puffs of sand as she ran.

“Bet she can’t wait to show all her friends the little beast.” Ephiny said. “Toris’ boys will be green with envy.”

Toris’ boys can’t ride any more than he can.” Xena said. “But yeah, she was just saying how she couldn’t wait to get home.”

“Me either.”  Gabrielle spoke up.  She took her partner’s hand and raised it, casually kissing the knuckles, then rubbing them against her cheek.  “After this I really do want to get back there. “

“Make that three of us.”  Ephiny leaned against the rocks.   “What about you, Xena?  Been a crazy couple of moons for you two.”

Xena put her hand on Gabrielle’s back. “We’ve got a lot ahead of us the next couple.” She said.  “We need to make some changes around Amphipolis.  I’m tired of sweating every time Athens burps.”  She ran the edge of her thumb along the bard’s spine. “I can see some changes ahead.”

Gabrielle nodded, but she didn’t say anything.

Around them, the camp was stirring.   Xena’s militia were out and about, rebuilding the cookfire, and heading off towards a nearby stream with waterskins and folding buckets.   One of Jessan’s crew was wading into the sea, claws flexing as the sun painted his fur a pinkish russet.

The seagulls were wheeling overhead, and a bright, fresh breeze came off the sea, the tide lapping at the sand in tiny wavelets.

Gonna be a nice day.” Solari said.

Xena half turned and let out a whistle.   Candlemark, and we move out.” She called over to the cookfire.    “Get packing.”

Genr’l.” Bennu raised his good hand in salute.  “We go the coast road?”

“If that means fish for lunch, I’m all for it.” Ephiny spoke up.  “Those monsters you caught last night were fantastic,  Gabrielle.”

“Want to learn how to cook them next time?” The bard eased off the rock and flexed her hands, gently bumping against her partner.  “We could get a head start on lessons.”

The regent gave her a wry look, then smiled.

“Hey, I taught Xena to boil eggs the other moon.”  The bard announced. “She did a great job.”

Several pairs of eyes swung to Xena, who smiled.  “I promised her breakfast in bed for her birthday.” The warrior said. “Something besides bread and cheese.” She clarified. 

“Hey I’m game.” Solari said. ‘You gotta start somewhere right?”

Gabrielle chuckled. “I’m going to go get things packed up. “ She released Xena and the warrior started off in the direction of the horses.  “Let’s go people.  Places to go, and things to see today.”

**

They stopped at midday after a long, quiet ride to rest the horses and have some lunch. They had seen no other people on the way and now they were at the point where they would leave the coast and start heading inland again.

Gabrielle was standing in the shade of a scrubby tree, a waterskin in hand as she watched the waves come in and break against the rocky shoreline.  After a minute she walked down and strolled along the beach, her eyes fastened on the ground.

"What's she up to?" Pony nodded in the queens direction.

Ephiny was laying on her back in the grass, her ankles crossed. "Better not to wonder sometimes." She advised. "She's probably looking for rocks. That's where that kid gets it from y’know."

"Yeah." Pony stifled a yawn. "You don't see Xena carrying around bags of rocks."

No, Ephiny thought, you didn't see Xena doing that.  She turned her head to look and found the subject in question standing nearby, Rusty's bridle firmly in hand. Dori was bouncing in the saddle looking like she was ready to take off again. 

A pony. What had Xena been thinking?

Like the kid wasn't hard enough to catch and keep track of? She had to give her a damn pony? The regent shook her head.  She hoped at least they would keep the critter in the barn down in town and not try to bring him up the mountain.

Knowing Dori she would want him in her bedroom.

**

Gabrielle walked along slowly, searching the ground. She spotted a bit of color and dodged a wave to skip over to it, bending down to pick up the seashell and taking a step back to examine it.

It was pretty and cone shaped, with a deep coral pink interior and orange stripes on the outside.  She peered carefully the inside and waited, watching for any sign of life before attempting to stash it away.

She'd learned the hard way on that subject.  There was no forgetting that smell after a long day in the hot sun. 

She was around the corner of the rocks waiting for her treasure to dry when she heard the faint scuff of someone nearby.  It wasn't  Xena - and she didn't think it was Ephiny.

Friend? Or was it one of the newcomers with some other motive? After all, she and Xena had indirectly been responsible for their own queens death.

Friend? Enemy?  Her hackles lifted and she felt that indescribable sense of warning that had developed so very slowly in her but now was distinct.

Enemy.

She set her body over it's center of balance and put the shell in her belt pouch, not really alarmed or worried.  There were dozens of people nearby not to mention Xena and anyway she could take care of herself.

She'd proven that, hadn’t she?

So she crossed her arms and waited, turning to face the direction the faint noises were coming from.  After a pause, a figure came around the other side of the rocks and faced her.

Hera. Unexpected. Gabrielle felt her heart start to pound and she debated trying to simply escape by running.  Should she call Xena?  She felt her heart lurch and suspected she wouldn't have to.

A sense of the air compressing around her set off warning bells, and she felt a tingle against her skin.

"So. Mortal." The queen of the gods said. "Do not cry out.  They cannot come aid you. Even your creature." She came to face Gabrielle and folded her hands, examining the bard as though she was some interesting insect.

"Why do you call her that?" No need to point out she needed no yell to alert her soulmate. "Its not her fault where she came from."

Hera approached her. "Because in my eyes these assignments are abomination. Do you know what that is? It is a corruption of our bloodlines and I will not have it.". She stopped within reach of Gabrielle. "Nothing against you, mortal. You have no blame in this."

“Don’t I?  I chose to love her.”  The bard said, feeling a layer of sweat start to appear along her spine.

“Did you?”  Hera’s eyes were cold, but there was a level of understanding there Gabrielle hadn’t expected.

She took a breath. "What are you going to do?"

"Take that creature and the thing you have produced between you and remove them." Hera said, matter-of-factly. "I tolerate my husbands error because I must for his sake.  But not them."

“Remove them?” She could barely get the words out.

“Send them to a place of nothing. They will see nothing, be nothing.  Cease to exist so far as you understand it.”  Hera said.

"What happens to me?" Gabrielle put every ounce of effort she could in remaining calm.

Hera shrugged. "You may live out your mortal life as you see fit. As i said, I have no interest in you."

Gabrielle sat down on a rock.  "So you are going to take away my family.  My partner, and my child and leave me to live here without them?"

"I will remove this threat to my families legacy, indeed." Hera said. "What you care to feel or do about it doesn't interest me.  The only reason I am wasting my time telling you this is because I told my daughter i would. Now I have and so I will go finish this situation."

It was curious that again, she really felt no fear.  Gabrielle got up and faced Hera.  "You should care about what I will do.  Was it Aphrodite? She knows." She put her hands on her hips. "You destroy my life, Hera, and I swear on the heart you're about to break I will bring down Olympus."

The queen of the gods stared at her.

"I will turn every being within the sound of my voice against you. " Gabrielle took a step forward. "Just like I opened hearts for Xena I will travel to every point I can reach and show all of them this broken, piteous creature you are about to create and teach them to spurn you like they would a viper."

“Do you really think they would listen to you?”

Gabrielle swallowed a lump in her throat. “They’ll listen to me.” She said, her voice raspy. “They always have. Spilling my heart and soul out has always attracted a crowd.”

Hera regarded her with a frosty expression. "I could just destroy you instead."

"The person I am will die either way."

Now, Hera's expression shifted to thoughtful. "So that was what my daughter meant. Your passions truly are the ruin of you mortals.."

Gabrielle lifted her head and looked the queen of the gods right in the eye. "They are." She admitted quietly. "But I feel sorry for you for not having them."

Then she let her hands drop to her sides and waited. She felt a warmth on her shoulders and though she knew it was the sun, the sudden emotion that went with it made her believe it was Xena's touch, and that she could feel her presence right behind her.

But this was her throw of the dice.  Her sacrifice to make. Her threat. Her promise. And as she watched the goddess in front of her and saw the shift of her eyes, she knew this ancient force understood the truth of all of that.

There was both pity and anger in those frosty eyes.

"You would do well to keep your silence, mortal. " Hera said. "Your threats are nothing to me. But it occurs to me that your creature might yet prove valuable to us. I will allow them to exist.  For now."

And then she was gone.

Gabrielle felt her knees start to shake and she  moved towards the rock to sit down but hadn't taken a step before she felt Xenas arms wrap around her. She exhaled and turned, lightheaded with relief.

"Damn." Xena uttered.

“How much did you hear?”

“All of it.”  Xena rested her cheek against Gabrielle’s hair. “That took a lot of guts, my love.”

"Ugh.  Just glad she didn't call my bluff." Gabrielle buried her face into Xenas chest.

"Was it?"

The bard looked up and their eyes met. "No." She shook her head faintly. "It wasn't"  She savored the hug that followed. "I think I just grew all the way up, Xe."

Xena hugged her again, then she wrapped her arm around the bards back, steering her towards the path back to shore.

**

A sevenday later, they were heading up the river road, the bridge to Amphipolis in sight.   It was late afternoon, and the sentries had already announced their presence, a set of strongly triumphant whistles that went flying up the waters path.

Home.  Gabrielle stretched in her saddle, very glad to see the familiar outlines of the town ahead of them, along with the chance to get off Shadows back, and the prospect of a hot bath and a soft bed to come.

Well guys.  Jessan pulled up as they reached the fork that would either lead over to Amphipolis, or continue down around the mountain to the valley where his people made their home. Its been fun.

Xena extended a hand to him. Thanks Jess. She said. I appreciate you guys taking the risk.

Jessan smiled his big, toothy grin and clasped her arm.  It was strange. He admitted. I expected those people to freak out a lot more about us.

Xena had expected that too.  Maybe stories got out from the last war.

Jessan nodded. Some of the guys in the town, those soldiers, they knew about us. He said.  Spartans did too.

Really? Gabrielle said.

The forest dweller nodded.  So it was okay. He said. Maybe well take a chance again, travel around a little more. He leaned over and gave Gabrielle a hug. Take care, little sister.

You too, Jess.  Gabrielle returned the hug. Come visit us soon.

The forest dwellers  moved on, heading away from them down the road that would swing around through the mountain pass and take them out of sight.     Gabrielle watched them go, finding it strange and a little surreal to think that it had been so short a time before when shed been running for her life down this very road.

Cmon.  Xena motioned the rest of the group ahead, a milling mixture of militia and Amazons, already looking forward to getting home.

As they approached the bridge, she could see a crowd gathering near the inn at the top of the slope, and Cyrenes familiar shape on the porch.   Look Dori, theres Grandma.  Gabrielle pointed.

Gramma!!!  Doris eyes lit up. Cn I go show her Wusty mama?  She asked. And my friends?

Sure.  Gabrielle judged the remaining distance, and decided not much harm could come of it. Go on.

Eeeeee! The child needed no further prodding. She took hold of Rustys reins and booted the pony gently in the ribs. Go Wusty! Go to gramma!

The animal obliged, breaking into a canter as his rider aimed him across the bridge and up the slope.   The crowd around the inn stirred, and from where she was perched on Iolaus back Xena could see her mother folding her hands in front of her in her best doting grandmother pose.

Shed never had a pony of her own.  There hadnt been many in Amphipolis back then and most belonged to the better off merchants. Shed stolen rides not on them, but on the draft horses that worked in the fields when their owners werent looking.

Shed graduated to a full size horse of her own at around the age of ten, when shed stolen her one from some raiders who had camped out in the hills above the town.  Hed been a scraggly cross grained beast, more willing to bite than run but she learned to stick on him and it had served her well in later years.

Dori would have the opportunity to learn the right way.   Xena smiled as she watched her daughter pull Rusty to a halt in front of the inn, and was engulfed by the crowd and Cyrenes welcoming arms.

Mine, Boo? Mine? 

Xena smiled more broadly.  She loved the echo of those words in her memory.

The area around the town looked untouched.  She could see the normal harvest activities going on, and it appeared the sojourn of the Spartans in the area had done little or no harm.

Xena was relieved.  She hadnt thought the Spartan captain was lying, but you never knew with people.  Although.  The warrior considered. Shed made it pretty clear that if any damage had been done, she was going to take it out on them in blood.

Everyone had understood that. 

She directed Io off the end of the bridge and onto the road leading up to the sturdy, though small gates.  The militia with her were breaking ranks as their compatriots from the town started down to meet them, and then they were in the town, and she was jumping off Ios back. 

Home.

In a flicker of focused attention, she took in the attitudes around her.  The faces were happy and welcoming, and she sensed only relief and excitement at their presence.  She felt her body relax and she ducked aside and grabbed Shadows reins as Gabrielle slid down next to her, moving without hesitation through the crowd to where Cyrene was being shown her granddaughters new friend.

Welcome home lass. Johan came up behind her and patted her arm. We missed ye.

Xena surprised him with a hug.  Glad to be back. She said. I see the place is none the worse for it.

Nah. Johan lifted a hand. Buggers turned tail and ran, they did. Chasing down the little one.  He indicated Gabrielles pale head. Didnt care a dinar for us, though your mother did her best, she did, to tempt em to.

Xena gave him a look. Johan shrugged, extending his hands out to either side before letting them drop. Xena, she is YOUR mother, yah?

Yes. Xena sighed. She is my mother. Cmon.

She guided him over to where Gabrielle was standing. Mother. She greeted Cyrene. 

Welcome back.  Cyrene said. Glad you made it in one piece for a change. She studied her daughter.  You did, didnt you?

We did. Xena said. More or less.

Cyrene rolled her eyes.  Cmon inside. She took Xenas elbow in her hand.  I just cracked a new keg open after the sentries said you were on the way.   She gestured at all the Amazons and the militia. Everyones invited! First rounds on me.

Two of the town grooms ran up, puffing.  Can we take the horses? The first one asked. We were just about to turn out the herd.

Xena and Gabrielle turned over their reins, then regarded Dori, still perched on Rustys back. Dori, why dont you help them take care of Rusty, and make sure he has lots of nice things to eat, okay? Gabrielle said. Then come back here and Gramma might have some cookies for you.

Cookies for Wusty too??  Dori countered.

Cyrene laughed.

Xena  glanced around, watching the militia disperse to their homes, surrounded by their  wives and husbands. I see you met the new member of the family.  She patted Rustys rump.  Cute, huh?

Cyrene scratched the ponys ears. Hes adorable. She said.

Gramma Boo gave him to me! Dori told her. Hes mine!

I know, honey.  Cyrene smiled at her. Xena made you a beautiful present, didnt she?  She looked up at the warriors tall form, seeing the smile. Shes such a good mother, isnt she?

Xena felt a prickle of what might have been embarrassment, but she accepted the profound compliment with a grin. Takes one to know one. She lifted Dori off Rustys back and set her on the ground. Now, remember. You have to take care of him.


I will Boo!  Dori carefully took the reins and pattered after the grooms leading the other horses away, her pony following her with no prompting required.

Mom. Thanks for the offer. Gabrielle gave Cyrene a hug. But were going to head up the hill to the village, and get our guests settled. She indicated the Amazons theyd brought with them and Miliena.  Ill come back down then and tell you the whole story.

Cyrene drew her aside. Theyve been real quiet up there. She uttered into the bards ear. Be careful. She added. We sent word you were on the way in but the runner said he couldnt find a sentry there and didnt want to risk just walking in.

Gabrielle exchanged looks with Ephiny, who had eased closer, her expression altering to wary alertness.  Thanks mom. She said. We expected some kind of trouble.

Yknow, I used to get sorta insulted when Big X would say stuff like Amazons.  Ephiny commented. But right now?  I get it.   She jerked her head at Eponin. Cmon. Lets go kick some butt, so I can chill out and get one of those bubble baths Xenas always talking about.

Hang on. Gabrielle ducked to one side and pressed her body up against Xenas.  Xe,  were going to head up the hill.  Mom thinks there might be something squirrelly going on up there.

Xena gave her a dour look.

Stay and get your ale. The bard gave her a hug. Ill yell if I need you. She paused as she saw Xenas brows hike up. The other kind of need. She clarified. Let me see if my bluff before I left had any legs.

Xena didnt protest. But she saw Gabrielles eyes watching her, and the faint, wry smile that reacted to whatever her face was showing. That instinct was bone deep, and they both knew it. Be careful.  She told her partner.  I have plans for tonight that dont involve you having any bumps or bruises.

The bards smile eased and widened, and she gave Xena a pat on the side. I will be.  She bumped her gently, then slid past and gathered the Amazons around her, indicating the path through the town that led to the back entrance and the steep climb ahead.

Xena watched them disappear, then she turned and mounted the steps to Cyrenes inn, pushing the door open and going inside.

**

The town was relatively quiet, this close to the end of the day.  Gabrielle lifted her hand and returned the waves as she passed a few of the inhabitants heading home, and she spared the town barn an affectionate smile as they walked by.

She could hear Dori inside, her high, piping voice alternating with the lower burr of the grooms and she caught a glimpse of two small bodies bolting for the door, their dusty brown hair familiar.  Hey guys!

The two skidded to a halt. Auntie Gabrielle! The nearer one yodeled.  You back!

Yep! Gabrielle pointed at the barn. Doris in there with her new friend. Go see.

The twins didnt need any further prodding. They bolted for the door and tugged it open, dashing inside as their voices rose in an excited clamor.

Gabrielle chuckled. Theyre so cute. 

They are. Ephiny agreed. They sure love their cousin.  Listen to them. She smiled. Does Dori like playing with the kids down here more, or the ones up in the village?

Gabrielle tilted her head, as they crossed through the back gates and started up the path. I never asked her that. She said. Im not sure she favors one over the other. She really likes playing with Jesss three kids though. They go nuts together.

They can keep up with her. Solari said. Most of the rest of these guys cant.  Shes a powerhouse.

Like her mothers.  Ephiny said.

Her mothers have trouble keeping up with her.  Gabrielle muttered.  She leaned forward a little as they climbed, her eyes flicking ahead to watch the path, not really sure what to expect.

She wasnt nervous. She had Ephiny and Pony with her, Solari, and Cait.  Between the five of them she was pretty convinced they could hold off most of the tribe, and if it got really bad they could just hold them off long enough for Xena to get up to them from the town.

And then?

Gabrielle flexed her hands a little, suddenly aware of the fact that she was weaponless.  It wasnt typical of her to carry her staff in the town, and she was a little disturbed to find herself considering the Amazon village a dangerous enough place to need her to.

But then, she hadnt left on the best of terms, had she?  Gabrielle thought about what would have happened if shed either backed down, or lost the challenge.

Ugh. 

Excuse me, your majesty.  Cait squiggled past Gabrielle and took the lead on the path.  We really wouldnt want any terribly nasty surprises. You cant tell when things get slippery on this walk, you know.

Right you are, Cait. Solari slipped by Ephiny on the other side and joined the younger Amazon.

Gabrielle gave them both a look of tolerant amusement. 

"Do we really think something's going on?" Ephiny lowered her voice. "I know there was that mix up when you left, but it's hard for me to believe any of that was really serious."

"Hard to say." Gabrielle replied. "They tried to send word up and no one was on sentry. Now - was that because there was something going on, or did the sentries respond to something going on, or were they asleep? Who knows?"'

"Asleep?" Eponin's brows lifted. "Better not have been."'

They approached the leveling of the path that split in two directions, one heading to the Amazon village, and the other leading up to Xena and Gabrielle's cabin.  The bard wondered, briefly, if anyone had disturbed their home, but decided to wait until later to find out.

Everything she truly cared about had been with her anyway.  Gabrielle drew in a breath and released it, then turned and they started up the path to the rise that led into the village.

It was quiet.  The late afternoon breeze rustled through the branches, dislodging a few of them that felt with a gentle patter on the hard packed ground.  It reminded Gabrielle that the year was turning, and her birthday was approaching.

"No guard." Ephiny didn't look happy.

"I'm going to kick some ass big time." Pony agreed. "What in Hades are they thinking?" They reached the rise and topped it, pausing to look down into the big central area before continuing.

A big group of women were in a circle, on the other side of the fire pit. There was a lot of motion, scuffling, and raised weapons and it became obvious there was a fight going on. 

"Looks like we got here just in time for the fun." Solari commented. "That's Nala, holding them there. Let's go give her a hand."

"Lovely." Cait smiled, with absolutely no humor.  "Right. C'mon, Pally." 

Solari and Cait broke into a run, with Paladia reluctantly behind them. Eponin took after them and in a moment, they had far outdistanced the still walking Ephiny and Gabrielle.

"Idiots."  Ephiny sighed.

"Xena once explained to me about chickens, and pecking orders." Gabrielle said. "And I yelled at her and said we aren't chickens, we are reasoning, thinking people who can make choices based on smarts, not a pecking order."

"You were wrong." Ephiny informed her. "Much as I love you, Gabrielle, and I do, there's more chicken in us than you know."

"Yeah." The bard agreed mournfully.  "I realized that during this whole war thing. It wasn't about thought, or even personal gain. People just like beating the snot out of each other and coming out on top."

"Not always." The regent said.  "Let's wait to see what the story is here. They could surprise us. "

They strolled across the square, watching as Pony, Solari and Cait reached the circle, bowling several women over bursting through it and jumping immediately into the scrum going on inside. 

The new recruits were watching with undisguised interest. "This is more like it." One said. "Fighters. I like that."

"Yeah." Another agreed.

"What's going on?" Milena asked warily.

Now the scrum turned into a melee, and yells broke out, the sounds of wood hitting flesh clear and sharp on the wind. Heads were turning, and eyes widening as they spotted both the regent and their queen approaching, and the watching crowd began to scramble, some pointing in their direction and others looking wildly around.

"I have no damn idea what's going on." Ephiny admitted. "But I don't think I like it. Whatever IT is."

Gabrielle was busy studying body language.  It was obvious to her their arrival was a surprise, and it was equally obvious it was not a pleasant one for some.  She could see a bunch of the old timers on one side of the circle, and on the other, her contemporaries led by Aalene.

Now they were close enough to see the middle of the circle, and Nala, bracketed between Pony and Solari, with Cait standing in front of all three of them with a knife in both hands, one with blood on it.

"Get back!" Cait repeated her yell. "I am not playing games!"

Nala was bleeding, a cut above her eye dripping freely down the front of her leathers, a chobo gripped in each hand. She was breathing hard, and when her eyes met Gabrielle's there was nothing in them but utter, profound relief.  "My Queen." She said, loudly.  "Welcome home."

"Hm." Ephiny grunted. "The irony's a little crunchy."

Gabrielle approached the circle and it parted quickly before her, allowing her into the center.  Six of the old timers were faced off against Nala, and their arrival had apparently broken up what looked like it might become a tail whipping.

She moved to the center of the circle and halted, slowly turning and surveying the crowd. Her head dropped just a little and the expression she felt shaping her face echoed an image in her mind of her partner.  The one Xena used when she was really, really disappointed about something.

She put her hands on her hips, her body language fitting the expression and bristling with more aggression than she generally displayed.

The old timers glared at her. She glared back, her uncharacteristic silence making them drop their eyes after a long moment.

Ephiny folded her arms and waited, watching this new manifestation of their Queen with bemused interest.  This was not Gabrielle the Bard.  This wasn't even Gabrielle, partner of Xena of Amphipolis.   This was something different, and she was curious to see where her friend was going with it.

Gabrielle pointed at Nala, then at Aalene, then circled her finger to include Pony, Ephiny,  and herself.   "My quarters." She said. "Solari, could you please get our new sisters, and prospective sisters settled? I'd appreciate it."

"Yes ma'am." Solari said.

"Cait."  Gabrielle looked around slowly, then faced the young Amazon. "Keep an eye on things out here, would you?"

"Absolutely."  Cait said.

"If anyone starts any trouble, stop it."  The queen said.

"I certainly will."  Cait stood a little taller, her face expressionless.

One more sweep of the chilly, mist green eyes of the crowd. "One candlemark.  Meeting hall for the rest of you."

Then she turned and headed for her quarters, motioning with her hand for the small group to follow her. 

Solari put her balled fists on her hips and glared at the rest of them. "You guys SUCK." She said, with startling violence.  "You aint' worth the risks we took to get them damn Spartans out of here, and take care of them.  And come back to find you ganging up on Nala?" She spat on the ground. "You make me embarrassed to be an Amazon."

"Shut up Solari." One of the old timers said. "Suck ass."

"No." Solari grew serious. "When I took my oath to obey the queen, there wasn't any out on it, like only when I felt like it, or when she agreed with me. You dried up old crap bags  always talking up tradition?  Try living the talk sometime."

"She's a fake!" The woman closest to her said.

"She's the queen." Solari answered, her voice steady. "She's the queen by right of caste, by the right passed to her by Terrais as she died, that was given her by Melosa. That's our law, if you like it or not. She's the queen, and her right's been proven a dozen times, Telas."

"The only reason she's the queen is Xena." Telas said, bluntly. "Otherwise that little fraud would be dead and you know it."

Cait stirred, and started forward, her body in liquid motion that stilled as Solari put her hand up.

"Yeah." The veteran warrior said. "She'd be dead a thousand times without Xena. So would we. So would Eph. And if you're so stupid you don't get that she's gonna come up here and stain that dirt circle red if you keep messing with that woman I don't know what else to tell you."

Telas spat.

"And anyhow, that woman you're calling a fraud was kicking the crap out of Artemis for not protecting us so you better watch yourself because let me tell ya, she doesn't need Xena to kick ass for her anymore."

"That's a lie."

"You're an idiot." Paladia commented. "You're all idiots."  She added. "These people talk to gods and tell off gods and probably are gods so you should stop screwing around with them before you get your tits blown off."

Utter silence fell, and everyone left turned to stare at Paladia.

Cait sheathed both knives and politely clapped. "Oh, well done, Pally."

"Seriously." Paladia added. "Knock it off. You're gonna croak."

After an awkward pause, the crowd started to disperse, with uncomfortable expressions on their faces.  Solari waited for them to leave, then she turned and regarded Paladia. "Nice" She said. "Yknow, you're all right."  Then she pointed at the group living quarters. "Let's go people.  YOu wanted excitement? Ya got it."

At last, only Cait and Paladia were left in the village square.  "That really was quite good." Cait said.

"Should have kept my mouth shut and just let Xena cut em up. Be a lot quieter around here."  Paladia grunted.

Cait stretched to her full height and leaned forward, giving her partner a kiss on the lips. "You're really not bad for a coconut palm."

"Psycho."

They moved off towards their quarters as an uneasy peace settled over the village.

**

Concluded in Part 32