At a Distance - Part 2

by: Melissa Good
Melissa Good

For DISCLAIMERS see Part 1.

A day out from Amphipolis

The silence was going to drive her mad, Xena thought once an hour, when she stirred her mind to think of anything at all. Every noise was magnified - an owl’s hoot went off like an alarm. The chuckling of branches in the wind. The inconstant snapping of wood in the fire as it was consumed.

She stared into the fire, and tossed a few pebbles its way, then leaned back against the rock she was seated near, and tilted her head up to regard the stars. And then closed her eyes against the ache that caused, from the sudden clear memory of many nights spent idly tracing patterns in the sky with Gabrielle. Let’s drop that subject, shall we?

Halfway home. And she had all that to look forward to. And just why am I going there anyway? A derisive snort. Why? Good question. Just to have someplace to go while she makes her decision? What if she decides to stay with the Amazons after all, then what? I guess I’ll find out.

Question is, was Jessan right, back there at Cirron? He said he could see a connection between us.. Is there really some... attachment... between her and I? Or is it just my imagination? Wishful thinking.. Yeah, probably. We’re not like his people. His parents. You could see the bond there between them, the love that showed in their eyes when they looked at each other. We’re close.. I know that… but that close? I doubt it. She’s the Amazon Queen.. I wouldn’t blame her if she wanted it to stay that way.. and if she does, well.. we’ll just go on, and forget about what might have been.

The pain of that thought was a lot more than she expected. Grimly, she blew out a long breath, then stood, and dusted herself off. Crossed to where her sword was leaning against a log, and grasped the hilt firmly, drawing the weapon. Watched moonlight chase up and down the long blade.

"Guess I’d better do some drills, Argo." she muttered to the mare, who whickered back. "If I keep it up long enough, I might even tire myself out enough to go to sleep." Besides, I know I could probably use it. Haven’t been getting much of that in lately. Putting the reason for that out of her mind, she walked into a small clear space and began to silently attack her unseen enemies.

Stroke and counterstroke, feinting and shifting, and as her muscles loosened up, and the movements turned faster and more deadly, she was almost able to lose herself in the exercise. A flip over an invisible swordsman, keeping her feet tucked in to avoid his upstroke, a turn on landing and a parry, another flip, this time with a mid air twist to allow her sword arm to descend and strike. A tumble on landing, coming back up and advancing, whirling her sword in a complex pattern. For a long march of the moon across the sky, without stopping, until finally she stood quietly, chest heaving, regarding the scattered leaf pattern on the forest floor. Yeah, I thought I needed to start this up again. Some of those moves didn’t used to be so hard.

Sighing in disgust, Xena walked back to the slumbering fire, absently wiping down the hilt of her sword, and returning it to the leather sheath still leaning against the rock. She slid down onto her bedroll, and propped one knee up, wrapping her long arms around it, and gazed sightlessly ahead of her. Then her head turned, as her ears picked up a faint sound, not far away. Puzzled, her eyes flicked over the nearby floor, and she jerked slightly as she spotted something small and moving her way.

"Well, well." she muttered, laying down at full length on the bedroll, which brought her close to the source of the noise, a muted mewling. "what have we here?" A small, dark, furry face looked back at her, with unblinking yellow eyes. "Where did you come from?" she asked, putting out a tentative hand and letting the animal sniff suspiciously. "Where’s your mama?" Looking up in case mama was trotting behind junior into her campsite. Sighing, she watched as the little puppy, apparently well satisfied with what it found in her scent, crawled closer to her and sat down on her hand. "Oh no." The puppy blinked at her. "I don’t think so. Let’s go find mama." She lifted the puppy up, soothing it with her other hand as it started squeaking in alarm. "All right... all right.." And brought the puppy close to her, cupping it against her chest and peering at it half in amusement, half in annoyance. The animal calmed down, and nuzzled her skin, letting out a tiny sigh, and closing it’s eyes.

The absurdity forced a laugh from the warrior against her will. "I don’t believe this." she rolled her eyes. "What is it with me?" Shaking her head, she stood up, and walked to the edge of the firelight, pausing to cock her head, and listen intently. Her brow furrowed, and she closed her eyes in concentration. Nothing. Then...a cough. Her blood chilled, and she reached behind her and grasped the hilt of her sword in pure reflex, still cradling the puppy in one hand.

Metal scraped leather as she drew, and stepped out into the surrounding darkness, every sense alert, putting the wind into her face. Catching the faintest hint of a familiar metallic tang on the wind, and moving grimly towards it.

Moving with more caution than she would have used normally. Placing every footstep with an exactness that stirred not a leaf, crackled not a twig, avoiding even brushing the feathery ferns with her passing. Letting the blood scent grow in her lungs, until she stood outside a ring of trees and rocks, and could hear the sounds of an animal feeding within. With infinite care, she reached out her sword hand, and moved a heavy branch slightly, allowing her to get a view of what was in the clearing.

Green yellow eyes met hers, and with a flash of solid white fangs, and a rush of clawed feet, the hunter was on her, too close for her sword, hot breath blasting in her face. Desperate, she dropped to her back, and caught the animal with a kick that sent it over her head, yowling in surprise. She dropped the sword and puppy, and got her hands up into a defensive position as the cat, twisting in mid air, landed on it’s feet, lashing it’s tail, and launched itself back at her, tearing at her arms with razor sharp claws. Grimly, Xena ignored the searing pain as the animal slashed her, and thrust her arms past, getting a grip on the cat’s throat, and holding on.

The animal landed on top of her, fangs inches from her face, claws digging into her, but catching on the leathers, and holding. Xena’s strong hands clenched hard, seeing the bulge in the cat’s eyes, the sudden change from hunter to hunted, as she cut off it’s breathing. Now it scrambled to get away from her, struggling against her grip.

"Oh no." She growled, rolling over, and pinning the cat to the ground with her weight, bending her head until she was almost touching the cat’s shoulder, and bore down, willing her hands to close tighter, feeling the animal’s windpipe give under her fingers.

At last, it was still under her. Stiffly, she unwrapped her fingers from the rumpled fur, and swallowed hard. Watching the blood trickle down her arms to her shaking hands from the long wicked gashes that raked her from shoulder to elbow. Gods. She sat down and rested her elbows on her knees and caught her breath. A small meeping sound was the puppy, scared, scrambling towards her with quiet desperation. She looked at it, unhappily, as it reached her and huddled against her thigh. Damn. Wincing, she reached down and picked it up, then hauled herself to her feet, and walked into the clearing the cat had been guarding.

And closed her eyes against what she saw. Messy with blood, and the scattered tiny bodies of the puppy’s brothers and sisters. To one side, the mother wolf was laying, with her head facing towards Xena, blood pumping out of the great rent in her belly. Yellow eyes, already glazing in death, staring at the tall human, no... staring at what she gingerly carried. Xena slowly walked over to they dying animal, and knelt down, seeing no fear, only anguish in those eyes. She put the puppy down next to it’s mother’s muzzle, and cautiously looked at the animal’s injury.

No. Way too much damage, even if she knew how to fix it. She glanced down, and saw the mother vainly trying to lick the puppy, who was nuzzling her mouth anxiously. She hesitated, then let her fingers drop to the wolf’s neck, probing and finding a spot which felt familiar. Squeezing, and seeing the animal’s body go limp, as pain and feeling vanished.

The yellow eyes found hers, then blinked, then glazed, and the chest stilled. Xena bit her lip hard and turned her gaze to the dejected puppy, who gave the now dry nose a final little lick and sat back with a plaintive cry. It’s tiny head tilted back, and regarded Xena with bewildered and helpless eyes. Don’t even think about it, Xena. She closed her eyes against the thought. It’s survival of the fittest, remember? Animals die every day. Reluctantly, she glanced down at the puppy. It wobbled onto it’s feet, and stumbled over to her, bumping it’s nose on her knee, and bouncing back on it’s haunches with a little whine. The eyes found hers, and she felt her heart lurch. Damn. I am just getting to be a bundle of mush "Come on." she muttered, scooping up the animal. "I’m sure mother could use a watchdog. " She cradled the puppy as she walked back to her camp, stopping to retrieve her sword on the way, and take a last look at the dark pelted panther, still in the grass. It was huge. That could be me, lying there. Xena mused thoughtfully. Not my day, I guess.

Argo nickered anxiously at her as she moved back into their camp, smelling the blood on her, and the odd scent of her little orphan. She patted the mare’s shoulder, and let her smell the puppy. "It’s OK, girl. Just a few scratches." The warrior mumbled, putting the puppy down on her bedroll, and sinking down next to it, pulling over her medical kit with a sigh. "These are sure going to be interesting scars." she muttered to the puppy, who blinked up at her. "Ouch." she winced. The cleanser stung, but she grimly kept on, until the blood stopped seeping, and she’d gotten a herbal paste onto the long gashes.

The puppy meeped at her. Glancing down, she sighed. "At least you eat meat, right?" she asked, getting out a bit of smoked venison. "Sorry, it’s cooked." She held it out to the small creature, who sniffed, sneezed, then started to nibble on a corner. Against her will, a ghost of a grin twitched across Xena’s face. In her mind, she could hear the delighted coos from Gabrielle on spotting this little bundle. And the teasing she would have gotten for bringing it back to camp. And the terror the bard would have felt when she was fighting off the panther. For a moment, she almost felt the ghostly touch of familiar hand on her shoulder. Stop it. Don’t get started with that.

Idly, she rolled the puppy over. "Well, little man." she mused, ruffling her fingers through his soft fur. "I don’t know what made you come my way, but I guess I can find you a good home." The puppy growled, and nibbled her finger with mock ferocity. She picked him up, and settled back on the bedroll, placing the puppy on her stomach, and stroking it’s head. Realizing how totally incongruous a scene it was. I should leave him.. it.. here. And thought about what Gabrielle would say if she heard her say that. And smiled in wry resignation. Nope. She wouldn’t like that one bit. "You’re lucky." she growled back at the puppy, who was now nodding sleepily at her. "I’m only doing this because of her, you know. She’d kill me if she found out I left you."

The puppy sneezed at her, and snuggled down, sticking out it’s curved pink tongue in a tiny yawn, then settling his dark head on his paws and closing his eyes. "I’m not going to name you." she went on, as several possibilities immediately crowded into her tired mind. Ares, for instance. Hmm.. no that was asking for trouble. So was Hercules. No no.. stop it. Don’t name him. Though... she peered at the sleeping bundle. With that coloring he did remind her a bit of Ares...Xena, STOP IT. RIGHT NOW. She shook her head, and firmly closed her eyes, feeling the comforting warmth of the small body through her leathers. And cupping her hands protectively about him, she dropped into an exhausted sleep.

Just outside the Amazon Village.

Ephiny had, as promised, met Gabrielle as she crossed the border into Amazon country. She had actually managed to hear the approaching Amazon before she showed herself, for which the bard patted herself silently on the back. Xena’s lessons had begun to stick, recently, and she found herself more aware of what was going on around her, without having to consciously think about it. If she closed her eyes, she could hear that low voice. "Be aware, Gabrielle. The world is talking to you. Listen.."

But that brought that quiet ache back, and she lost track of what Ephiny was saying. "Sorry.. what was that again?" she said, laying a hand on the Amazon’s arm. "I lost that last bit."

Ephiny turned and looked at her, concerned. "Gabrielle, are you OK?" she questioned, lowering her voice. "You look worried. Or distracted. Or something. I can’t tell."

The bard rubbed her temple, avoiding Ephiny’s sharp gaze. "Yeah, I’m OK." she assured her, patting the Amazon’s arm. "I’m just a little tired, I guess. I didn’t get much sleep last night." She glanced down the path, where the rest of Ephiny’s greeting party were paused, waiting for them to catch up. "I’ll be fine." she finished, making an effort to give the blond woman a reassuring smile. "You were saying, about the centaurs?"

Ephiny gave her a last searching look, then sighed. "Last I talked to them, they were willing to at least discuss the possibility of having a jointly defended border. I’ve managed to keep the few incidents between us on the level of just ‘oh you know, girls will be girls, and centaurs will be centaurs’, but it’s getting a little weak."

Gabrielle smiled. "I see your point." She chewed her lip. "Have you disciplined the Amazons who were involved in the ‘incidents’?"

The Amazon gave a little shrug. "There’s a problem."

"Arella?" the bard asked, knowingly.

Ephiny nodded. "Most of the women involved are in her little trendy group. She protects them, saying they only have the good of the nation at heart. And, people do see her point."

"Uh huh." Gabrielle mused. "I don’t know, Ephiny - sounds like she’s the major problem." She walked a few more paces. "Does she really believe she’s doing the right thing?"

Ephiny shook her head. "Does she? Who knows. Does it matter? She’s doing it."

The bard stopped walking, and stared at her. "Ephiny! Of course it matters. When someone does something, you have to know why they’re doing it, or you can’t figure out a way to make them stop." Her brow furrowed. "When people do things because they really believe in them, it’s really hard to get in the way." Her gaze grew distant for a moment, then cleared. "but sometimes you can." A smile that puzzled Ephiny slid onto Gabrielle’s face. "It depends, on what your relationship is to that person."

Ephiny gave her a sideways glance. "OK." she finally answered, putting a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder and guiding her towards a familiar entranceway. "There’s the village. Let’s get this over with."

Arella waited, relaxing on the raised shaded area in front of her quarters, for Ephiny to return with their quote queen unquote. A few of her cronies lounged around nearby, taking in the sun with bored expressions. Ephiny was pathetic, really. Pretending she hadn’t gone running for this non Amazon pretender queen as soon as she realized she was going to have some real competition for a change. Arella rolled her gray eyes, shaking her head in disgust.

"What?" Erika purred, leaning against the pole she was seated next to. "Let me guess. Ephiny? The queen? The weather?"

Arella smirked. "Two out of three aint bad, Rika." She grinned up at the smaller woman. "I can’t believe she’s actually bringing her back here." She stretched lazily, admiring the ripple of muscle in her long arms. "She must be nuts."

Erika seated herself next to Arella, dusting off the tops of her laced boots. "Well, maybe." she shrugged. "Eph isn’t stupid, she’s just...I don’t know..."

"A wimp?" Arella proffered, with a bright grin. "A wuss? No...anyone who gives birth to a centaur can’t be a wuss...I take that back."

"A pacifist." Erika concluded, crossing her arms over her chest. "I just don’t get that."

"Me either, but here they come." Arella jerked her chin towards the village entrance, where Ephiny’s honor guard were trooping in, followed by Ephiny herself and their oh gods... queen by rite of caste.

"Well, at least Eph got her to wear the clothes this time." Erika smirked, nudging Arella in the ribs.

"Yeah." the taller woman mused, studying the strawberry blond woman at Ephiny’s side. "And she doesn’t look too bad in them, either." This could get interesting. She watched the queen move across the compound, noting the ripple of muscle in her upper arms and torso. The sense of sureness in her movements. The knowledgeable grip on that staff . The alertness in her gaze, as she swiveled to take in the village, while listening to Ephiny’s ramble.

"Don’t get any ideas." Erika rumbled in her ear. "Remember who her best friend is, OK? You don’t want to be tangling with her."

Arella snorted. "You think I’m scared of Xena?" She took another long look at the queen. "I’m not. Besides, the longest campfire debate in the nation is whether or not those two are an item. You in the betting pool? I am."

Erika tilted her dark head. "I’m telling you, Arella. I’ve seen her fight, you haven’t. Don’t mess with her, because let me tell you, she is one really big piece of very bad news." But she knew it was a lost cause. She’d seen that look in Arella’s gray eyes before. "Whether or not they’re together isn’t the point - she’s really protective of that little squirt."

"Yeah, but she’s not here." Arella smiled lazily. "And I am." She glanced over at Erika, waggling one crimson tinged eyebrow. "Who knows? Maybe she’s in the market for some fresh action." She tilted her fiery head, and watched the queen stand, arms crossed, as Ephiny pointed out the new ceremonial platform they had recently built. Rebuilt, she reminded herself with a snort. "Besides, I just bet she can tell some great...stories." She smirked at Erika.

"Oh gods." Erika sighed, rolling her eyes. "Just remember, when the centaur poop starts flying, I won’t be anywhere near you. I don’t want that woman after my butt."

"Chicken." Arella scoffed, giving Erika a shove. "Maybe I’ll do it just to take her on." She stood up. "C’mon. I’m going to get introduced to this little fake Amazon." She waited for Erika to join her, then set off across the compound.

Gabrielle saw them coming, and motioned to Ephiny with a tilt of her head and one raised eyebrow. Ephiny darted a glance to her right, and sighed, glancing at the ground and crossing her arms.

The bard appraised the approaching pair out of the corner of her eye. She’s big, all right. A lot of muscle there, but somehow it doesn’t look really functional. she mused. Like it’s for show. So, maybe she is, too. She heard a familiar voice in her head comment, as Arella moved closer. "When people try to intimidate you, Gabrielle, stand your ground, and smile. It’s the smile that gets em nervous." She grinned to herself, picturing the glint in those blue eyes and the demonstration of that smile. Oh yeah... gets em nervous all right. She kept that picture in her mind as Arella stepped into her personal space, and loomed over her.

And leaned casually on her staff, stood her ground, and let her mouth quirk in amusement. "I’m sorry, I guess we haven’t met." she commented, holding out a hand. "I’m Gabrielle."

Arella had to step back to take her hand, and was taken off balance. The reaction was not at all what she was used to. The woman didn’t look in the least bit intimidated by her, in fact, she seemed to be amused. "Arella. Yeah. Well, hello." she answered, warily, taking the offered hand, and shaking it gingerly. Surprised by the strength of the grasp, and the feel of calluses under her fingertips. Green eyes looked directly up into hers, and she blinked first, startled by the compelling nature of the look. "Nice to meet you." she managed. "I’ve heard a lot about you. From Ephiny, I mean." She glanced over at the blond Amazon, who was watching the exchange with interest. "Glad you made it. Maybe we can talk sometime. " She gave Gabrielle a brisk nod, and backed off, strolling towards the communal dining hall. Erika followed, darting glances back at the queen and Ephiny from time to time.

"Wow." Erika blinked. "She’s..."

"Yeah." Arella snapped, scowling. "More than I thought. This could be trouble."

Ephiny managed to hold in a giggle until they were out of sight, then lost it in a very undignified way. "Oh.." she gasped, grabbing Gabrielle’s arm. "that was perfect. You were perfect." She took a deep breath. "Oh, where did you learn to do that? It was great."

Gabrielle chuckled quietly. "I have a very good teacher, Ephiny." She grinned at the Amazon. "Who knows lots and lots about intimidation."

"Ah" Ephiny laughed. "Of course. Figures." She had a mental picture of Gabrielle getting lessons on the subject from Xena. "Did she teach you the ‘look’?"

Gabrielle composed herself, then dropped an intense expression onto her face, and ducked her head down, narrowing her eyes slightly, and looking directly into Ephiny’s startled gaze.

"Yow!" the Amazon breathed, jaw dropping. "You got that down pat!" She burst out laughing again. "I can’t believe you got her to show you how to do that."

The bard joined in chuckling. "She’s actually a lot of fun, once you get to know her." she admitted, ignoring Ephiny’s raised eyebrow. Fun. Yeah. That too... "But I guess I get to see a different side of her." she admitted, noticing the skeptical look on the Amazon’s face.

"I guess so." Ephiny allowed, giving Gabrielle an indulgent grin. "Let’s get you settled into your quarters, your Majesty." Ignoring the rolled eyes, as she led the way towards a larger hut set some distance apart from the others.


Xena sat quietly on Argo’s back, surveying the valley below her. Home. Amphipolis. "Been a while, Argo." she muttered to the mare, who flared her nostrils into the oncoming breeze. She looked down, and scratched little, damn. I am NOT going to name him that. ..on his head, and watched as he chewed contentedly on a piece of her leather skirting. The animal had been an unexpected comfort, she grudgingly admitted to herself. Keeping her thoughts on something other than what was going on two days north of here. Giving her something to focus on that didn’t involve thinking about possibilities. Or the lack of them.

She glanced up, and spotted a person on horseback, heading out from the village, and grinned a little in recognition as the rider moved closer and turned out to be her brother, Toris, on a long limbed roan stallion with a rough gait. Still can’t sit a horse worth a damn. "Come on, Argo." she said to the mare, as she kneed her forward towards the road.

Toris didn’t see her until she was almost on top of him. Typical. He straightened in the saddle, and gave a little yell as Argo came even with him. "Xena!" He grinned wholeheartedly. "Boy am I glad to see you."

"Oh yeah?" Xena said, giving him a sideways glance. "What’s wrong?"

Toris scowled. "Can’t I be glad to see you just because your my sister?"

Xena raised an eyebrow at him. And waited in silence.

Toris rolled his eyes, blue as hers, and gave a little sheepish shrug. "OK, well, I am glad to see you. But..." He glanced down at her saddle. "What is that?" He leaned over and got closer to it. "Is that what I think it is?" He looked up at Xena with a wicked grin. "You got a puppy. How cute."

Xena somehow, managed to keep herself from backhanding him off his horse. It was a struggle, though. "No." she growled. "YOU have a puppy." But she didn’t relinquish her hold on the small creature. "I was bringing it to mother."

Toris laughed. "Oh, right." He looked at her. "Hey, you look good. But what did you do to your arms?" Leaning forward to get a good luck at the angry red marks. "That looks recent."

His sister sighed, and jerked her chin towards the bundle of fur. "Mother was killed by a panther." She met Toris’ horrified gaze, with an air of nonchalance. Tweaking him was always fun. I’d forgotten that. Mostly.

"You got that animal away from a panther?" He reeled in his saddle. "Xena, you’re nuts."

"I didn’t say I got it away from a panther." Xena commented, watching his brows contort. "It wasn’t anywhere near the panther."

"Oh." Toris answered, relieved. "That’s a relief. For a minute there, I thought you were going to tell me you fought off a panther on it’s behalf." He chuckled. "Those mountain panthers are far too dangerous to play around with."

"No, " Xena drawled casually. "I fought off the panther because it jumped on top of me." She glanced at him. "The puppy just got lucky." she continued, pretending she didn’t see his jaw drop, and his horse stop in it’s tracks. Her eyes gleamed with amusement. Served him right. She turned as rapid hoofbeats caught her up, then slowed as he came abreast of her again.

"A panther." he repeated, wincing at the healing gouges on her shoulders. "Boy, Xena." he shook his head. "So, where’s your bard friend?"

Xena had practiced the answer to this. "Running the Amazons for a while." In an unconcerned tone. She glanced at him, and their eyes met, and Xena got an idea of what it was like to look into eyes as vivid as her own. It was interesting. Maybe that went a long way towards explaining that very odd look Gabrielle got sometimes when they were spending time just...Anyway. "They’re having some problems with their neighbors. "

Toris considered this for a moment. "So.. why her?" he asked, puzzled. He sort of liked the little bard, and had a sneaking suspicion his hard as nails sister more than sort of liked her too.

Xena shrugged. "Well, she is the queen by rite of caste, Toris. She thinks it’s her responsibility to try and help them out." She shrugged. "She’s big on responsibility."

"Really?" Toris was intrigued. He knew about the Amazons. Most did, who lived in this general area." Just how did that happen?"

"Long story. " Xena said, glancing ahead. "I’ll tell you later, but you better tell me what’s going on first, before I have to hear it from mother. "

Toris accepted the change of subject gracefully. "OK. Well, yeah - it’s been rough around here lately. There are two warlords in the general area, and they’ve sort of divvied up territory between them. We’re about in the middle, and get harassed by both. "

"Harassed?" Xena asked, quietly, feeling her temper start to rise.

"Yeah." Toris sighed. "They ride in, take food, take supplies, that sort of thing. Or sometimes they just want cash payment, in return for which they don’t come back for a while. " He didn’t meet Xena’s eyes. "You know what I mean."

His sister nodded. "I know exactly what you mean."

"So anyway." he continued awkwardly. "it’s hard, and it’s made business slow. Mother’s worried about the inn." His eyes turned to her. "I think she’s going to be glad to see you. She’s talked about you a lot, lately."

Xena snorted. "I can imagine, given what you’re going through with warlords, one of which I used to be." Her eyes closed in disgust. "Maybe coming here was a mistake."

Toris grabbed her arm, startled when he felt her flinch, then remembered who it was he was grabbing. "Sorry." he muttered, but didn’t let go. "Listen...the only thing that’s kept us whole, Xena... the only thing... is the fact that both those warlords know who we are. They know I’m your brother. And she’s your mother. And they won’t touch us. There are three villages in smoking ruins to the south, and another to the east. But not us. " He smiled a little. "They’re scared of you, little sister."

Xena raised an eyebrow at him. "Little?" she chuckled wryly. "Watch it. Or you’ll find out just how little I’m not."

"Oh yeah?" Toris grinned, reaching out again and grabbing one forearm. "Is that a challenge?"

"Toris." Xena growled, reaching down and clamping a good hold on Argo with her long legs. "I’m not in the mood." Grimly, she tucked the puppy into a saddle pouch as Toris began to try and lever her arm. "Cut it out."

Toris laughed in delight. "Oh ho...I’ve got you now!" He pulled enthusiastically on the arm, trying to unbalance her. "Yow!" he yelped in surprise, as he was lifted out of his saddle and dumped on the dusty ground, losing his hold. "How do you DO that?"

Xena shook her head as she adjusted her bracer. "You never learn." She nudged Argo towards the inn. "Come on, let’s go." Sighing as he laughed and leaped back aboard the roan and followed.

The inn was at the edge of town, a one story building with a heavy door in front which closed in a seating area, and was backed by a service bar which hid the kitchen and cooking areas from the patrons. At this time of day, it was empty, though recently the time of day hadn’t been very relevant to the number of customers frequenting the place. A stocky woman of middling height leaned against the service bar, regarding the empty room with a somewhat grim expression.

"Cyrene, do you think we have enough barley here to do a stew?" Johan’s gentle voice reached her, disturbing her thoughts.

"Hmm?" she answered, leaning stiffly to peer at what he was doing. "Oh, yes. Johan. We have enough. Go ahead." She sighed. Barely. And if there were more would depend on if there were enough guests to pay for this potload. She wiped her hands on her apron, and moved back to the counter, resting her elbows on the worn wood and gazing, unseeing, at the late afternoon sunlight pouring into the front of the inn.

Business had been bad for a long time. Even the locals kept to their homesteads, not wanting to advertise the fact that they had dinars to spend on food and drink, where someone from the warlord’s troops might see them. And the troops confiscated everything they could get their hands on, leaving the villagers with ends and odd lots, mostly. Survival, but just getting by all the time made people angry, and upset, and it just got worse. She got angry, a lot, at the warlords, and their soldiers, at the meekness of her fellow villagers, but she was just one, aging, worn out woman. They needed something more. She moved to the window with a lightness that belied her years, and stood gazing out at the road, and across it towards the balance of the village. After a moment, Johan joined her. "Stew’s on." he commented. "Will Toris be back for dinner?"

Cyrene shrugged. "Probably. He usually doesn’t miss a meal." She let a quirk frame her mouth for a moment, thinking of her eldest son. He was a good boy, really. She loved him, but though she never said it, she kept looking in him to see the fire of Lyceus, and never found it. And sometimes, like now, she looked at him hoping to see some of his sister’s courage, and didn’t find that either. Xena. His sister. Her daughter. Cyrene shook her head in bemusement. It was hard to believe sometimes. And though she had once both feared and disowned her fierce offspring, now.. now.. she had gotten a feeling that, given time, she could both come to appreciate, and even like the woman grown from the wild little girl she’d borne. Their last parting had been warm, and Cyrene had almost grown comfortable thinking about who Xena was, now. And found herself wishing, more and more often, that she would be given the opportunity to get closer to her.

"Here he comes now." Johan commented. "He’s not alone." he continued, surprise tingeing his rough voice. He had spotted two horses heading their way. One Toris’ roan, the other a golden colored animal with a cream mane and tail. With a rider almost Toris’ height, and with his coloring. "Zeus...that can’t be who I think it is, can it?"

"Gods." Cyrene whispered, spotting them. "I can’t believe it." She grinned, for the first time in a long while. "It’s my daughter." She headed for the door, Johan right behind her. "Of all the times for her to just show the moment I was thinking about her."

The two siblings pulled their horses up to the inn’s tie off rail, and dismounted, Xena handing something to Toris before she headed for the door, and her mother’s compact form. "Mother." she nodded, in greeting, faintly surprised when Cyrene wrapped her arms around her in a brisk hug. She returned it, and with a small grin, lifted the smaller woman off her feet. "Nice to see you too."

"Let me down!" Cyrene laughed, pounding Xena on the back. "Show off." But she was smiling, and continued to smile, as she grasped her daughters arm, and tugged her inside the inn. "Let me see you." Her eyes drank in the tall form, wincing as she spotted the angry claw marks. "What have you been doing?" Not waiting for an answer. "Where’s Gabrielle?"

Toris sat down on a nearby bench, looking amused. "She’s running the Amazons."

"Really?" Cyrene and Johan asked together. "How did that happen?" Cyrene glanced at Toris. "And where did you get that wolf?"

Sister and brother looked at each other, in the way that only siblings could. "I think we’d better sit down, so I only have to say this once." Xena sighed.

The Amazon Village compound, Queen’s hut.

Gabrielle sat pensively, chewing the tip of her quill as she considered her next words. It was late on her first night in the village, and she had decided, since sleep seemed to be eluding her again, to keep a sort of running diary of her thoughts.

A light knock sounded on her doorpost, and she glanced up sharply. It was a little late for visitors. "Come in." And was somehow not surprised when it was Arella’s tall form that darkened the doorway verge. As she had told Jessan, sometimes you just knew when people meant to do bad things to you; Now was one of those times, she knew in her gut Arella was no friend, nor ever could be, because she wanted power and Gabrielle had it, and her conversation with Xena came sharply into focus as the tall, powerfully built Amazon sauntered into her hut, and stood gazing at her with unfeigned interest.

"Hi." Gabrielle said, closing the tied scroll she was writing in, and leaning back in her chair. "You’re up late." She kept eye contact with the tall redhead, waiting to see what her next move was. What would Xena do? She’d stay cool, and relaxed, and pretend nothing was wrong. Right. OK. Here we go.

"Yeah, well." Arella said, casually, seating herself in the chair opposite the bard’s desk. "I was out scouting, and saw you still had a torch lit. Thought I’d drop in and say hello." She studied the woman behind the desk critically. "You know, not to get personal or anything, but we probably could get you a sleep shirt that fit." Damn... she looks like a little kid in that thing. Ephiny should know better than that, though I suppose she’d say what the queen wears to bed is her own business. Maybe I can make it my business. A smile curved her lips upwards. "You are the queen. "

Gabrielle let a slight smile cross her face, and glanced down at the ink stained quill twirling in her fingers. The shirt was too big for her, the shoulders slid half way down her arms, and the length was almost to her knees. Not surprisingly. "No, this is just right. I like them this way." She assured Arella with a cordial grin. "But thanks for asking."

The redhead shrugged. "Your choice." she looked around the room. "So, how do you like it so far? This must be different that what you’re used to." she returned her gaze to the bard’s face, still and reserved in the faintly flickering torchlight. She’s harder to read than I thought she’d be. I used to think Xena kept her around for laughs. Now I’m not so sure. Nice eyes.

"Well," the bard laughed. "not exactly. I spend a lot of time sleeping on the ground, for one thing. She glanced at the walls. "Or in small village inns." Her eyes studied Arella. "And, occasionally, in the odd palace or two." She stood up, and walked over to her pouch, putting the manuscript inside of it. Aware of the eyes on her. "So.. did you find anything interesting while you were scouting?"

"Oh, this and that." Arella drawled, "But I shouldn’t keep you up." Saying that, she stood and stretched, and sauntered over to where Gabrielle was standing. Let’s give this a try. Should be amusing. She flicked the bard’s overlong sleeve with one hand, and smiled. "So, you like them big, huh?" Capturing the green eyes with her own. "I’m the yardstick they use to gauge that around here."

Gabrielle blinked at her, innocently. "How nice for you." she smiled. "that must make you feel pretty special." Folding her arms across her chest, and catching the faint, familiar scent rising from the fabric, which shielded her against the edgy energy flowing from the Amazon standing far closer to her than courtesy demanded.

"It does." Arella answered, quietly, then stepped back, and gave Gabrielle a little flourish with one hand. "your majesty." And then she was gone, gliding out the door with neat precision.

Gabrielle sighed, shaking her head and laughing a bit to herself. Pity she doesn’t realize I’m used to a different yardstick. One about 3 inches taller. She giggled. and about a thousand times more...she tried to find a word to describe it. Complicated? Maybe. Complex? Definitely. Dangerous? Oh, no question there.

"Gabrielle?" Ephiny’s head poked in the doorway, a worried look on her face. She spotted the bard near the bed, apparently deep in thought, but the green eyes lifted after a second and found hers. "Everything OK?" she edged into the room, flicking her eyes around. "I saw Arella come out of here." she walked over to Gabrielle, concern edging her voice.

"Everything’s fine, Ephiny." the bard sighed. "Please stop worrying. I can handle myself." She added, with a touch of annoyance. "she just came in to pass the time of night, I guess, and to...I don’t know... play around with me a little." She glanced up at Ephiny, who was looking at her with an inscrutable expression. "She’s really obnoxious." she added, making a face.

Ephiny snorted in laughter. "She thinks she’s irresistible, yknow. We call her Arella the Irresistible behind her back." I guess she’s not to Gabrielle. Won’t that be a ego sinker. "She’s made a lot of her.. er.. conquests that way." She scowled a bit. "She’s pretty persistent. You let me know if she gets to be too much of a bother." She tilted her head to one side and her brow furrowed. "And, where on earth did you get that shirt? It’s way too big."

Gabrielle gave a deep sigh. "I know." she said, bursting out laughing. "Arella said the same thing." She sat down on the bed and wrapped her arms around herself. "If I’d have known Amazon Queens frequently got visitors way after late watch, I would have dressed more appropriately." She glanced at Ephiny, who still seemed to be waiting for some kind of explanation. She raised her hands in surrender. "All right, all right, look - I grabbed it by mistake when I was packing, OK? It’s pretty obviously.." and she held out the shoulders. "one of Xena’s. So...can we get on to the next subject, please?" Grabbed it, yeah. By mistake? Uh.. sure. Right.

"OK..OK.." Ephiny held out both hands, laughing. "I get the picture." Do I? Hmm.. I wonder. . She sobered. "but be careful with Arella, OK, ? Listen, we’re friends, right?" she caught the bard’s eye.

"You know we are." Gabrielle answered, warmly. Though you used to think I was Xena’s pet. Not anymore...

"All right. I know you don’t want to drag Xena into this." Ephiny said, seriously, reaching out and touching Gabrielle’s arm. "But your being queen is not going to keep Arella away from you." A wince crossed her face. "She doesn’t like taking no for an answer." A grim look formed. "So, if you have to use Xena’s rep to beat off Arella, don’t you feel bad about it. Don’t, please? I asked you to come here because I thought it was important, but I don’t want to see anything happen to you, I really don’t." Because, among other things. Xena will never forgive me for that. And she will take this place apart. I know it. "Look." she lowered her voice. "Everyone knows you and Xena... are really close. Right? Nobody in their right mind is going to cross her, Gabrielle." Her eyes flicked briefly to her shirt, then back to her face, a glance the bard didn’t miss.

Gabrielle stayed silent for a long time. Everyone knows, huh? She grinned to herself. Finally she tilted her head in acknowledgment. "Thanks. I appreciate that, Ephiny. A lot." She looked at the ground thoughtfully. "You’re right. I don’t want to drag Xena into this. That was the whole point of her not coming here with me, remember?" The Amazon nodded. "I’ll do that only as a last resort. And this wasn’t a last resort." She moved over to her working table, and picked up a small item, idly turning it in her fingers. "Besides, Xena told me more or less to do the same thing." she gave Ephiny a little smile. "She warned me there would probably be some people like Arella around." She was right. Gods, I hate when she’s always right.

Ephiny had to be satisfied with that. Reluctantly, she nodded, and turned to go. "That’ll have to do, then. Good night." She gave the bard a brisk nod, and walked to the door, passing through it and into the night, almost bumping into one of her own lieutenants. "Watch it, Granella."

"So.. what did the Irresistible one want?" the slim brunette asked, falling into step next to Ephiny. "Already making designs on our new leader? She doesn’t waste time."

Ephiny snorted. "Yeah, but Gabrielle sent her packing. Must have been a shock." She gave Granella a sly grin. "However, I discovered that our queen sleeps in one of Xena’s old shirts, so you might want to pass that around. It might save her some headaches."

Granella chortled lightly. "Oh ho...really?" Her elfin face broke into a grin. "Aww.. that’s sweet, Eph."

Ephiny grinned along with her. "Yeah, it is, isn’t it? I guess I’m still a romantic at heart."

Her lieutenant raised an eyebrow. "I guess you are, but I never figured Xena to be." She cocked her head thoughtfully. "You sure it isn’t an advanced case of hero worship?"

Ephiny thought about that while they walked across to Ephiny’s quarters. "I used to be pretty sure it was. Now..." She shook her curly head. "There’s something there, Gran. Something that runs pretty deep. I don’t exactly how deep, but if I were Arella, I sure wouldn’t want to find out."

"Well, you’re not. And boy am I glad." Granella snorted. "You up for a little hot spiced wine? It’s getting cooler at night." She waggled an eyebrow in invitation. "C’mon, let us fawn over you for a change."

Ephiny smiled, lifting her hands in resignation. "All right... why not. I want to hear the latest gossip from the scouts anyway. Let’s go."

Amphipolis, early morning.

Xena opened one blue eye cautiously, blinking a little in the pre dawn gloom. She took in her surroundings, and relaxed, stretching her long limbs out and yawning a bit. The stable walls could barely been seen, and the only real light was coming in the glazed window which bisected the hay loft she was comfortably curled up in. A rustling sound drew her attention, and she peered down at the tiny ball of fur nestled in the crook of her arm. Great. Just great. All these people and he picks me to attach himself to.

The puppy had followed Xena all over the inn last night, causing a lot of giggling at her expense. She had tried to ignore both it and him, but finally had ended up picking the beast up, and carrying him around, fully aware of the amused grins from both her family and the curious villagers. "You’re ruining my image." she muttered to the sleepy puppy, who opened his yellow eyes, and blinked at her, then stretched his tiny head out across her forearm, and yawned, making little satisfied noises. A tiny pink tongue appeared, and tasted the inside of her elbow.
"Hey!" the warrior hissed, biting her lip. "That tickles." She clapped her hand over her mouth, and darted a glance around the barn. Then she put her lips down close to the puppy’s tiny ear. "If you ever, ever, so much as breath a word of that to ANYONE, I’ll make you into a fur muff." She glared at the pup. "Got it?"

The yellow eyes looked up at her solemnly. Then the pink tongue licked the edge of her nose, and the puppy nestled closer to her. Xena shook her head in amused disgust. "I know I’m going to regret this." she said to no one in particular. "If Gabrielle ever sees this, I’ll never live it down." If. That turned her thoughts sober. She laid her head down on her outstretched arm, gently petting the small form with her other hand. "I wonder what she’s doing right now, Ares." she whispered wistfully to the half asleep wolf. Glancing at the window. "Sleeping, probably." she concluded with a tiny grin.

The argument with mother had been pretty spectacular, she mused, as she rolled onto her back and regarded the ceiling not far from her head. She had wanted to pay for a room, seeing the bare cupboards in the inn kitchen, and having the dinars. Mother... had refused, saying she was not going to have people say she was making profit off her own family. She’s stubborn. Xena admitted, wryly. But then, so am I. The money was refused, so Xena had simply refused the room, saying she’d rather snug down with Argo.

Actually, she reflected, it was true. The hayloft had been one of her favorite childhood haunts. She lifted a hand, and brushed her fingertips across a scarred wooden crossbeam, tracing deeply engraved lines there. Her name. Lyceus’ also. They had lain side by side, making up stories about how they were going to be great warriors when they grew up. And one day, after Xena had found part of a long forgotten blade in a field not far away, they had crudely carved their names in the crossbeam. She swallowed hard, then glanced at the window again.

Time to earn my keep. Came the sardonic thought. Mother won’t take money. All right... but I bet she’ll take meat for the pot. A grin curved it’s way around her mouth. And that I can do. Along with fixing up some of the stuff around the place, gods, which hasn’t been done in years. Yeah... maybe it’s about time I put some sweat into the old inn. Hades knows mother has been for ever. She rolled over, and dropped out of the hayloft, landing neatly not far from where Argo was dozing, startling the mare. "Sorry, girl." she apologized, giving her a pat. "You stay here and relax." She rummaged in her saddlebags, pulling out some cloth. "I think we’ll ditch the armor for a few days, Argo.. no sense in startling the locals more than I need to."

Not long after, she slipped out the barn door, and headed towards the distant tree line at a purposeful jog, carrying a longbow and quiver. Nice morning. she reflected, drawing close to the start of the forest. Let’s see what we can find, hmm? She paused, taking in the cool breeze, catching a faint hint of a familiar smell on it. Well, that would certainly be an addition to the inn stocks.

She moved deeper into the trees, feeling the dew form on her skin, and the wet morning air drench the dark green linen tunic she was wearing. The scent got marginally stronger, and she changed direction slightly, ducking under fallen branches, and carefully avoiding the slick leaf litter where an unwary hunter could slip. At last, her ears confirmed the scent, picking up the unmistakable sound of an animal patiently chewing the rough forest foliage. Ahh...her movements slowed, and she crept forward a pace at a time until she could part the last set of feathery fronds, and see her quarry.

Handsome. A buck, every inch of five feet at the shoulder. Even field butchered, this was going to be stretch to carry, she reminded herself, then grinned. Well, I said I could use the exercise. I think this was a little more than I’d planned, but...the buck was unaware of being hunted, and continued to crop the grass as she settled the fletching of one long shaft onto the bowstring. Pausing for a moment to settle herself, she raised the longbow, and leveled the point at the animal’s jugular. Slowly, she drew her right arm back, smoothly bringing the shaft with it, until she was at full extension, and held, rechecking her aim. Without even a whisper of sound from the release, the arrow found it’s mark, taking the buck in mid chew, and dropping him to his knees in a spurting explosion of blood.

Hmm. Not bad, considering how long it’s been since I hunted longbow. She mused, a touch surprised. It’s usually shortbow, and rabbits, Or tossing the odd fish at Gabrielle. A smile flickered briefly at the thought, then she moved into the clearing, and dropped to one knee at the side of the gasping deer. One touch, and a sudden wrench ended its agony, and Xena set to work making the kill ready to be carried back. She bled the animal, and removed its organs, tossing them to the assembling scavengers, then removed the head, and tied the legs together.

I think I may have bitten off more than I can chew, this time. The warrior mused, measuring the load skeptically. Oh well. Sooner started, sooner finished. She cleaned her knife, and tied the bow across the carcass to keep it out of the way. Then she took a deep breath, and, grabbing the tied legs, hoisted the bulk to her shoulders, settling it as comfortably as possible. Oh boy. her mind mocked her. I’m about to regret all those long evenings lounging around the fire when I should have been getting drills in. Oh yeah. Get going, Xena, before you drop this thing.

Sometimes, she mused, almost to the village. I’m not sure if I’m really this strong, or just too stubborn to admit I can’t do something. Stopping a minute to catch her breath, she resettled her burden, dismissing the burning ache in her shoulders and focusing grimly on the early daylight washed roof of the inn, where a curl of smoke was wafting up out of the fireplace vent. Not much further, she grinned to herself, approaching the door, and hearing the murmur of voices within.

"Last night might have saved us, Johan" Cyrene stated, shaking her head in bemusement. "At least for a little while. Now, if I can only get some fresh supplies, we can maybe turn this around a little bit." Sighing, she peered at the empty cupboards. "I guess I’d better go shopping. Maybe I’ll get some salt meat. You can do those sandwiches again."

"This would probably be better." Came a low, amused voice from the doorway, surprising them both. "Watch out." Xena warned, as she smoothly swung her burden off her shoulders, and laid it down on the long low table at the back of the kitchen.

"Xena!" Cyrene gasped in shock. She reached out a hand in disbelief and touched the skin of the carcass. "What... how......"

The taller woman just patted the bundle, and grinned. "You won’t take money." she shrugged. "I went out and found something else you would take." Brushing off her tunic, she turned and headed for the door, not waiting for Cyrene’s reply. As the door closed behind her, she leaned against the wall for a moment, working a painful kink out of her back. Whoa. I’m glad I don’t have to do that every day. A wry grin crossed her face. The expression on Cyrene’s face had been worth every minute of it.

"Hey!" Toris called, as he stepped around the corner and spotted her. "What are you doing up so early?" He fell into step with her as she started walking towards the springhead, above the village.

"I was out getting breakfast." Xena answered, casually. "And I’m always up this early." She glanced at him. "Going for a swim. You interested?"

Toris gave her a sideways glance. "Brrr… Not this early, thanks." He fingered the sleeve of her tunic. "Blood?"

"Breakfast." the warrior answered, jerking her head back towards the kitchen.

"Oh. You got a couple of rabbits?" Her brother patted her on the shoulder. "That’ll be nice."

"Yeah," Xena answered, a glint in her eye that Gabrielle would have recognized instantly. "Really weird looking ones, too. I’ve never seen anything like it."

"Well," Toris cleared his throat. "I’d better check it out. I know all the types around here. I’ll tell you what kind they are." He turned on his heel, and headed back towards the inn door.

Xena chuckled to herself, and headed up to the spring.

"Cyrene." Jahon asked, in awe. "Tell me, truthfully. What on earth did you feed her when she was a child?" He walked around the deer carcass, and moved one hoof, shaking his head.

Cyrene folded her arms across her chest. "Well, she did drink a lot of milk." she mused, laughing a little. "But other than that... would you look at the size of this thing? We’ll have meat for two weeks." She ducked her head and smiled. "Brat. Did you see the twinkle in her eyes?."

Jahon gave her an indulgent look. "Just like her mother’s when she’s gotten one over on someone." He teased, ducking the light slap. "She’s not at all what I expected, Cyrene."

"No." the innkeeper said, her face thoughtful. "She never is."

Amazon Village - Council Chamber

"I’m sorry." Gabrielle repeated, politely. "Explain to me again why attacking the Centaurs will help us gain stability in the region? I didn’t quite get that part." The bard folded her hands on the table, and cocked her pale head in sincere interest. At her side, Ephiny was maintaining a solemn expression, now and then taking a few notes on the scroll in front her . Now, she looked up, and traded a quirked eyebrow with Solari, who was seated midway back in the chamber. Solari yawned in answer, and silently moved out of the room, and headed for the dining hall.

"I said." Arella enunciated clearly, a touch of annoyance tingeing her voice. "As long as we have a disputed border, there’s no way we can safely extend the hunting lands to the north." She gave the queen a frustrated look. Was the woman that dense?

"Ah." Gabrielle acknowledged. "I see. Well, you know, I think I’d like to try sending a negotiation team to the Centaurs first. Making a common border agreement with them seems to be a lot less trouble to me than going out and fighting them. Don’t you think?" She smiled at Arella, meeting the tall redhead’s direct stare with one of her own. After a long moment, she turned to Ephiny. "Do you have someone to lead a party over there?"

"Mmm" Ephiny considered, pursing her lips. "Yes. I do." She jerked her chin at Granella, who was leaning against the far wall support. "Assemble a small group, six or seven, to leave tomorrow dawn." The slim Amazon nodded in understanding, and slid out of the room. "All right, that’s all the issues on the table this morning." Ephiny leaned back and stretched a kink out of her neck. It as going well, better than she had expected, actually, even with Arella’s consistent opposition. She looked up as Solari reentered, moving gracefully up to the council table and setting a pitcher of cold tea on the table along with brace of glasses. Ephiny smiled at her. "Thanks." she muttered, selecting a glass and pouring it half full. "Here." She offered, handing the cup to Gabrielle. "Talking all morning makes me thirsty. I can’t imagine how you feel."

Gabrielle accepted the cup, and sat back in her chair, scanning the room as she sipped the cool drink. The tension in the room was making her shoulders ache, though they were making progress. She ignored Arella’s undisguised disgruntled stare, and glanced out the window instead. The expressions in the room ranged from hopeful, to skeptical, to outright adversarial - but one thing they had in common was their focus on her. Knowing they were, knowing they were all looking to her to solve their problems left the bard feeling very isolated. Even Ephiny, she mused, wouldn’t understand because of course, she was an Amazon. I’m not. And they think I have this magical cure for all their problems. This wasn’t unusual, after all, isn’t that what she and Xena did, all the time? But...she usually wasn’t the focus of attention. It’s scary. I’m not really sure I like it. And suddenly, from the inside, she got a good sense of what Xena went through, almost every day. Gods... how does she do it?

The bard lost herself in thought for a moment, considering. It was true - whenever they walked into a situation, everyone’s hopes, expectations...were dropped on a pair of certainly broad, but very human shoulders. If she closed her eyes, she could see Xena’s expression - that little furrow in her brow, the concentrated look, the subtle squaring of her body and a deep breath, as she took in the circumstances, delved into her knowledge and experience, and tried to come up with an answer. And when the situation’s bad, where’s the first place I look? How much pressure can one person stand up under? Gods... I never realized. How many times have I told her I was counting on her to come up with an answer to a question that had no answers? And...she does. She never puts the responsibility off on anyone else. And even realizing that, and knowing this is my job... and my responsibility, and not hers.. I still...still wish she was here. I wish I could open my eyes, and see her leaning against the doorway, rolling her eyes at the Amazons, and giving me that look.

"Gabrielle" Ephiny’s low voice interrupted her thoughts. She opened her eyes and met the concerned Amazon’s gaze. "Are you all right?" Ephiny continued, putting a gentle hand on her knee. "You have the oddest look on your face."

"No, I’m fine." Gabrielle smiled wryly. "I was just thinking, that’s all." She gave Ephiny a wink. "That’s what you hired me for, right?" She took another sip of tea, and tried to pretend a nonchalance she wasn’t really feeling. "So, what’s next on the agenda?"

Ephiny propped her elbow on the table, and gave the bard a long look. "Well, lunch, actually." she admitted, chuckling. "and the Elder’s Council wants to talk to you right after." she shrugged. "and after that, maybe we can work off some tension with a little sparring?"

Gabrielle nodded amiably. "OK - that sounds great." She stood up, and started around the table, sliding to one side as Arella attempted to close in on her. "Excuse me." she gave Arella a smile. "No hard feelings, right?" Letting her eyes meet Arella’s shadowed gray ones.

"None" Arella answered, drawing the word out. "But I can see you and I could do with some conversation on some issues." She casually crossed her arms over her chest. "Would you have some time, say over dinner, to talk?" Keeping her voice deliberately light, and unthreatening. Come on, little queen. Maybe we can find a common ground. Talk to me.

Gabrielle’s mind raced, though she maintained a politely thoughtful expression. Should I? Maybe she can be reasoned with after might be worth a try. "Sure." she answered, letting her smile linger. "That would be nice."

"Tonight, then." Arella responded, and gave her sort of a nod before she turned and left the Council chamber, joined at the door by two of her closer cronies.

Now, Ephiny comes over, and says, That’s not a good idea, Gabrielle. The bard predicted to herself.

"That’s not a good idea." Ephiny said, giving Gabrielle a warning look, surprised at the sudden suppressed grin that fleetingly crossed the queen’s face. "I think you’re playing with fire, here." What was she thinking of? Surely she could see what Arella was up to...

"Ephiny, please relax." Gabrielle answered, with a touch of annoyance. "First off, I can take care of myself. Second, maybe she has some good ideas… how am I supposed to know if I don’t listen to her? Third," And she lowered her voice and put her head closer to Ephiny. "I’m not as naive as you think I am."

Shaking her head, she ushered Ephiny out the door, and towards the dining hall. "Come on. I’m hungry." But she wasn’t, really. Strange...I am, and I’m not, or I am, but...Gods, Gabrielle, just go eat lunch. Which was fairly bland, and tended to cooked grains. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t very interesting. Gabrielle plowed through the stuff, though, having little choice. Well, I could just go out to the stream and catch myself a fish, I guess. Yeah, right. Some great impression there.

The Elder’s meeting was interesting, though, and Gabrielle liked the opportunity to talk to some of the retired Amazons, whose memory stretched back before her birth. She liked the olders, and had a feeling they liked her too. She was smiling as she walked out, and spotted Ephiny and Eponin talking near the sparring ground. Oh yeah. Staff practice. Almost forgot. With a casual wave at them, she changed her direction to her quarters, to pick up her staff and drop off her meeting notes. Ephiny crossed the middle ground and joined her at the door.

"Hi." The Amazon greeted her briefly. "Getting your staff?"

"Yeah." Gabrielle replied, putting her notes down, and reaching for the smooth wood, which came to her hand with a familiar feel that always kind of surprised her. I never thought I’d get used to carrying this. I guess you can get used to anything.

"Have you been getting in some practice?" Ephiny asked, giving her an amused look. "Eponin isn’t going to be gentle with you." She glanced at the bard, taking in the look of almost mischief in her mist green eyes. Noticing the added muscle in the arms and shoulders. Oh, I bet she has...too...and she’s got some sparring partner. "Hmm?" she prodded, with a smile.

Gabrielle let a grin form on her lips. "Oh, a little." she assured the Amazon blithely. "You know, here and there. I get to use it for real sometimes." She hefted the staff, and motioned Ephiny to go ahead of her. "Come on - I know Eponin hates to be kept waiting." They walked across the middle ground, towards where Eponin was waiting, leaning casually on her own staff. A few other Amazons were scattered around, but Gabrielle was aware of their interested attention. So... this is a show, huh? She felt a seldom experienced jolt of anticipation start in the pit of her stomach.

Her staff proficiency was something she was acquiring to keep her alive, and to gods... prevent Xena from having to go crazy worrying about her in a scuffle, but she didn’t have the joy in battle that Xena did, and she didn’t even understand where that emotion came from. But she was getting better - Xena said so, and as much as the warrior humored her in a lot of things, in this... this..., Xena wouldn’t lie or exaggerate. Not when her life could depend on it, something Xena took with very deadly seriousness. "Hi, Eponin." she smiled, as they came abreast of the older Amazon. "Thanks for taking the time to do a little practice with me. Just like old times."

Eponin studied her. "I hope you’ve been keeping up your skills, your majesty." she allowed a small smile to cross her face. "Shall we?" she motioned to a clear area, and glanced around to make sure there wasn’t anyone too close.

They faced off, and Eponin wasted no time, but closed in with her, and probed her defenses with several testing thrusts. Which she parried, feeling her body settle into a familiar rhythm as she responded to the attacks with practiced ease. The smack of Eponin’s staff against hers felt...light, she was surprised to notice, and lacked the sting she was used to. Experimentally, she moved forward a little, and threw in a double parry she often used with little effect against Xena.

Eponin’s face was a study in surprise as her staff went flying out of her hands, and Ephiny didn’t bother to disguise her bemused amazement. Whoa! Check that out! Gabrielle waited for Eponin to retrieve her weapon, then, feeling a little irritated at the Amazons surprise at her competence, went on the attack, letting her blows fly with a grim satisfaction. Now Eponin’s face was serious as well, and the Amazon started using far more effort in her strokes, trying in earnest to get through the bard’s defenses and disarm her.

Gabrielle was having none of it. Condescend to me, will you? Act like I’m a clueless child, will you? OK.. take that. Smack. Oh, and Xena taught me this, too. Smack. The Amazon’s face grew angry. Whoops, that must have stung. Gabrielle grinned. Eponin’s efforts doubled, and her breathing grew a touch strained. She grimly drove for Gabrielle’s body, slamming the staff against the bard’s with stunning power. But Gabrielle found her blocks holding, her muscles used to turning back a far stronger effort, and she thrust the Amazon back, knocking her off balance and leaving her open to a backhanded sweep, one of her favorite moves. Eponin’s staff went flying again, and this time, Gabrielle curled an arm around her own weapon, and leaned against it, with a smug feeling of satisfaction. In her peripheral vision, she saw several dozen watching Amazons, ringed loosely around them. Good. Let them take me seriously. I’m no warrior, but I’m sure not the clumsy kid I was the last time I stood on this practice ground.

"My compliments, your majesty." Eponin said, stiffly, still breathing hard. "It seems you have been practicing, indeed."

Gabrielle shrugged nonchalantly. "Thanks. I do get to use it a lot, you know. We run into trouble...all the time." She shrugged. "And I have a pretty good sparring partner." As she said this, an irrepressible grin crept onto her face. "Even if she only goes half speed, and I end up getting dumped on my rear most of the time."

Eponin nodded. "I should have remembered. But I didn’t think Xena would waste her time with a staff." Her eyes flicked to Ephiny, who shrugged.

Gabrielle cocked her head in puzzlement. "You have some really strange ideas about her, you know that? She’s just a person... she’s funny, and warm, and...a good teacher.." she paused, and smiled. "and a good friend." she finished quietly. "And she uses anything she can get her hands on as a weapon. Believe me." She chuckled, then swung her staff down to her side. "Should we finish?"

Ephiny took a turn at her, then Solari, and finally Granella, who grinned as she asked Gabrielle to show her the backhanded sweep. The Amazons now treated her just a little differently, which Gabrielle found kind of funny. They bring me here because I’m a peacemaker. And they don’t respect me until I can beat them up. Something’s not right here. But she enjoyed herself, and it was a relief to work off some of the tension that had been building in her all day. She stretched as she and Ephiny walked back towards her quarters side by side. "Wow...that took the kinks out." she said, half laughing, to the Amazon.

Ephiny gave her a glance. "You can say that again." She bumped the bard lightly with an elbow. "You certainly had fun with us." she laughed a little. ‘Why didn’t you tell me you’d gotten that good? I feel like an idiot."

"Well.." Gabrielle hesitated, then spread her hands out. "It’s kind of hard to judge, Ephiny... you forget who I have to measure myself against." She felt that grin that sort of just came out of her when she thought about Xena appear. I can’t help doing that, lately.

Ephiny ducked her head in acknowledgment. "OK.. good point." she admitted. Wondering if Gabrielle knew just how her face lit up when she was talking about her warrior partner. "She’s done quite a job with you." More than you know, more than with that staff, my bardic friend.

"Time to wash up and get ready for dinner." the bard mused. "I know... I know... I’ll be careful." She gave Ephiny a look. "Wish me luck."

Ephiny sighed. "All right. But I’m going to have someone outside, not far away. By the gods, Gabrielle, you yell if you need something." She touched Gabrielle’s arm in farewell, and changed direction towards her own quarters.

Gabrielle shook her head, and continued into the hut, carefully putting the staff in a secure place near her desk, and skinning out of her leathers. She grabbed a linen wrap, and went to the wash area, which was fairly empty at this time of the afternoon. The late sunlight dropped lazily through the lattice windows, and dusted distorted squares of light on the mat covered floor, as Gabrielle claimed a tub, and filled it with water heated in the ever present fireplace. The bathing room backed onto the smithy forge, an economical use of heat, she’d always thought. With a groan, she settled into the water, wincing at a strained muscle in her shoulder.

Gods, that’s painful. A plaintive thought. if.. Xena were here, I could beg for a rubdown. She just knows exactly where it hurts. And she’s got the nicest, warmest hands...she sighed. Gabrielle, just don’t go there. You chose to do this, so just get used to it. Moodily, she finished washing up, and drained the tub, wrapping the linen around her and trudging back to her quarters. What in Hades is wrong with me? Here I am, taking charge of an entire nation of people, and when I should be thinking about what to do to solve their problems, I end up thinking about...she stopped in front of the desk, and picked up the piece of amber resting there. And smiled, and let her shoulders drop in amused defeat. I end up thinking about being in love. Because I am. And it’s like...standing under a waterfall, on a sunny spring morning it feels so good…For a moment, she let that thought run, hugging the linen wrap to her, and feeling an incredulous grin stretch her face from ear to ear. Then she laughed, and got dressed, and was composed and ready when the knock came at her doorpost, and Arella was there.

"Are you telling me, " Arella later said, pouring her a second cup of wine, after dinner was complete. "that there’s always a peaceful solution to any problem?"

Gabrielle shrugged. "I’d like to say yes, but...I’ve traveled with Xena for two years.." She cast a glance at her guest, and didn’t touch the wine glass. Oh no... learned my lesson there, thanks. One’s my limit. "Sometimes, you don’t have a choice. But I’d like to think we can work on situations so that we always do have a choice. " Her voice was calm and reasonable.

"But you agree that sometimes violence is unavoidable." Arella pursued, leaning across the small table. Knowing by now that Gabrielle would not back off from her.

"Unavoidable, yes. Desirable, no." the bard answered, leaning on one elbow, and regarding Arella.

"Desirable." Arella repeated, letting her eyes wander over her dinner partner. "That depends." Her gray eyes traced the exposed collarbone of the woman facing her, and stopped on the necklace winking in the candlelight. "That’s beautiful." she murmured, reaching over and laying a fingertip on the sea green stone.

Gabrielle managed not to twitch at the touch, and kept her voice level and unconcerned. "Thanks."

Arella tilted her russet head, and regarded the eyes across from her. "Good match for your eyes, your majesty." She raised an eyebrow. "That must have been a tough find. It’s an unusual color."

The bard felt her heart begin to pound in alarm. This was more aggression than she’d counted on... should she yell for the guard? How dumb would that sound. A thought occurred to her, which made her lips twitch in a reluctant grin. "That’s what people tell me." She answered, giving Arella a mild look. "But Xena managed somehow. She surprised me with it not long ago." She let her gaze drop to the table, and laughed a little. A glance back up at Arella, whose expression was now a good deal more reserved. OK, Xena. I owe your reputation one. We’ll settle up later.
"But I think we should approach violence as a second option, especially with the centaurs. They’re neighbors - doesn’t it seem better to you if we can make peace with them?"

Arella leaned back against her chair, and cupped her chin in her hand. "I don’t know, Gabrielle." Yes I do, but you can’t hear me. "We have such a long history of fighting with them. How could they trust us?" She shrugged. "We’re too different to be allies."

Gabrielle surprised her by laughing. "Oh, that’s not true at all. You’d be surprised at how much we all have in common, when you get right down to it. We just left a city where the residents found some new allies in a race of half men, half lions that lived nearby." She enjoyed the look of disbelief on the Amazon’s face. "It’s true.. I was there... I saw it. I know them." She stood, and stretched, wincing as she stressed her shoulder. "So, anything is possible. But we’re not going to decide this tonight. Though, " the bard stared at Arella, seriously. "I do appreciate your viewpoint."

Arella also stood, and nodded quietly. "We’ll have to discuss this further." she said, softly, capturing Gabrielle’s eyes with her own. And finding unexpected compassion there. "Good night." she finished, and turned to leave. Gabrielle walked around the table and escorted her to the door, laying a gentle hand on her shoulder as they reached the threshold. Feeling the slight flinch at the contact. "Thanks for joining me for dinner." She said, cheerfully. "Have a good night."

The tall Amazon paused, and glanced down at her, a thoughtful expression on her shadowed face. "You too, Gabrielle." And smiled. And brushed by her to clear the door, making the most of the contact.

Sighing, the bard crossed back over to her desk, and pulled out her diary, spending several minutes writing with absorption. So, I had a visit from the Enemy tonight, Xena. She thinks the only way to do things is with violence. We don’t know anything about that, right? Right. She’s...really intense. And I think she wants something from me... something I know I can’t give her. I’m not sure what to do about that - I tried to take your advice and warn her off - but I don’t think she cares. That’s scary. We’ll have to see what happens. Hey - you’d have been proud of me today - I got to beat up some Amazons at staff practice. Wish you could have seen it. Yeah, I do wish that. It’s silly, I know. I’ve only been here two days. But a tiny part of me is always wondering what you’re doing, and where you are, and I find myself missing just having you around. I hope you’re doing OK, and not getting into too much trouble.

Finally, she finished, and closed the diary, and changed into her now favorite shirt, and climbed into bed. And stared at the wooden beams holding up the ceiling. And thought about what Xena could be doing, three days away from here, under the same stars, hearing the same fitful wind outside. She chuckled a little. Sleeping, probably, was what she was doing. With a shake of her head, Gabrielle joined her.

Amphipolis - several days later

"You’ve really made a difference." Toris’ voice was lowered, and directed for her ears only. "It’s turned around for us, Xena. I don’t know what we would have done if you hadn’t shown up."

Xena sat back against the wall, taking a deep draft from the cup she held cradled in both hands. "You would have found a way, Toris. Anyway, all I did was bring in a little game and fix some tables." She did survey the room, though, and was surprised by the number of lunch patrons casually strolling in. There were three new tables, now - her handiwork, along with Toris’ contributions of a few chairs. Not bad, for a beat up old ex warlord. She grinned privately, remembering the startled looks on both her mother and brother’s face when she set up a workshop outside the barn though why they thought soldiers were incapable of doing routine chores was a mystery.

"Xena." Toris said, reaching out and touching her arm, pleased when she didn’t flinch.

"Hmm?" the warrior answered, raising an eyebrow at him.

"You know..." he hesitated, then rushed on. "Well, what I mean is, this is your home. You don’t have to... I mean.. you.. well, you belong here, if you want to." He fell silent, and watched her still face for a reaction.

"Did mother send you out here?" his sister countered, but with a smile that took the edge off the comment. "It’s a nice thought, Toris, and don’t think I don’t appreciate it. I do." She glanced at the table, then back up at him. "More than you know. But I can’t risk it." She leaned back and braced one booted leg up on the bench, resting her arm on her knee. "I can’t expose you and mother to what I have to live with."

Cyrene appeared behind them, and slid into a place next to Xena, pushing over a plate she was carrying that contained small cakes. "Here." she said, nodding at the plate, and giving Xena a sly glance. "I know you like them." Blithely ignoring the look of amused exasperation from her daughter. She had been using little tricks like this to poke and prod at Xena’s well developed emotional armor for days now, and it was beginning to have an effect. The warrior had visibly relaxed in their presence, and was starting to show flashes of a wry humor and lively wit that Cyrene had long suspected lurked under all that brass and leather. "Come on, come on."

Xena chuckled, and shook her head. "Mother, you’re dangerous."

"Yes, well, you had to get it from somewhere, dear." Cyrene answered, patting her arm, pleased when both siblings started laughing. It’s been a long time. Her mind mused, as she glanced from one child to the other. Xena had traded her armor for a dark blue rough hewn linen tunic, and weaponless, almost allowed Cyrene to forget what she was and seated next to her brother, both playfully pushing at each other and fighting over the cakes, she had an illusion of time rolling back. A bittersweet feeling, which faded as she quietly gave thanks to the gods that she had, at least, this moment in time to reunite part of her badly sundered family.

"Xena, stop that!" Toris gasped, ducking as his grinning sister managed to get a handful of crumbs down his shirt. "Augh!" he shivered, untucking the shirt from his trousers and scattering the cake bits on the floor. The puppy Ares immediately growled, and sniffed the offering, poking out a tiny tongue and scooping a bit up, chewing enthusiastically.

"Now, children." Cyrene laughed, reveling in the sound of that. Both of them turned to her, and her heart almost stopped at the sight of the two similar faces, with a pair of mischievous smiles, and identical blue eyes that looked back at her. "If you don’t stop that, no dessert for you tonight." She threatened. Gods, I wish this could last. I know it can’t. But...

"Now, there’s a threat." Xena drawled, leaning back and dusting her hands off. She picked up her cup and took a long swallow, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. That offer of Toris’ - took me off guard. She let her gaze travel over the inside of the inn, drifting over her brother’s face, and resting at last on Cyrene’s. There’s a part of me that wants this so bad... I thought I’d never sit at this table, listen to their voices, feel my mother’s touch...again.. once. I threw closed the door to this place.. thought I had it locked pretty tight until Gabrielle showed up. Against her will, a smile forced its way onto her lips. And damned if she didn’t walk through all the locked doors as though they weren’t even there. How did I let that happen? Now, I have a chance to go home. Reality settled on her shoulders. And I can’t.

"Xena." Cyrene touched her arm.

"Yeah?" she replied, tilting her dark head to regard her mother.

Cyrene steepled her fingertips, putting them in front of her lips. "I... don’t know what your plans are." She hesitated. "But I want you to know that I really like having you here." Her eyes met the blue ones in a motionless face across from her. "And I hope you’ll consider giving us a chance to spend some time with you."

The warrior broke her gaze, and let her chin drop to rest on her linked hands. "Look." she said, finally. "I.. the thought of getting chance to become part of this family, something I never thought I’d have the opportunity to do." She studied her hands. "And.. it’s something that’s very appealing to me." She glanced up at them, their eyes riveted on her face. "But I can’t take the risk of doing that. " A shrug. "There are a lot of people out there who would love the chance to do me, or the people I care about harm."

"But Xena.." Toris objected "We’re still going to be your family. That can’t change, whether you’re here or not."

"Not quite, Toris." his sister answered quietly. "With me gone, you might get the odd opportunist who happened to hear we’re related. With me here.." She let out a slight sarcastic laugh. "It would be open season for every warlord with a grudge and every budding fighter out to make a name for themselves to visit. You don’t want that. I don’t want that. " She sighed. "However, I do need to stick around for at least a while, until I’m sure the Amazons are settled down."

Cyrene leaned forward at that, interested. "Why? Don’t you think your friend is capable of handling them?" She actually liked Gabrielle, and suspected the bard had been a very good influence on her wild progeny. In fact, she had a motherly instinct telling her that her daughters feelings for Gabrielle went quite a bit deeper than she had been willing to admit. Yet.

"Gabrielle is just fine." Xena answered, tersely. "But there are certain members of the Amazon nation that don’t agree with a peaceful course of action. And there’s a possibility that one or more of them just might challenge for the leadership." She paused, considering. "That’s a challenge to the death." She added, watching the horror cross their faces.

"So...Gabrielle has to fight someone to the death?" Toris asked, eyes wide. "That’s crazy. She’s a talker, not a fighter."

Xena smiled. "Well, actually, she’s a little of both. But no, she doesn’t have to do it. The queen can name a champion to fight the challenge for her."

Cyrene felt understanding dawn. She caught her daughter’s gaze and smiled. "And you’re her champion." It was not a question. She watched a faint blush travel up Xena’s neck, and chuckled to herself.

"Yes." Was all the warrior answered. Among other things. Her mind teasingly inserted. She saw that look in her mother’s eyes, and was caught between chagrin and exasperation. She’s hard to keep things from. am I. I guess I come by it honestly. She let a smile play around her lips as she returned her mother’s gaze, giving her a little shrug, and a nod. Cyrene’s eyes widened, and she returned the smile, comprehension apparent. The woman was about to speak when a noise startled all of them, and turned their attention to the door.

Toris cursed, as three half armored men strolled into the room, glancing around. "I’ll take care of this." he muttered grimly, sliding out of his chair, and heading towards them.

"Bregaris’ men." Cyrene uttered in a low tone. "the southern warlord. Probably here for tribute." She glanced at Xena, and blinked. Her daughter’s face had settled into a chill steadiness, eyes pinned on the three soldiers.

Idiots Xena mused, feeling her instincts begin to sharpen, and the blood start to pump in her veins as the first two men cornered her brother, as the third, a massive silent hulk stood watch. She slid her knee down so both feet were squarely on the floor, and let her hand curl around the edge of the table, clearing the bench out of her way with silent efficiency. She spared a quick glance at Cyrene, who was watching her with undisguised fascination, and gave her a wry quirk of her lips.

Soldier one now had Toris by the front of the tunic, and had half lifted him onto the serving bar. OK.. that’s enough. Xena thought grimly to herself, as she rose to her feet and started across the tavern.

Cyrene sat back and watched, as Xena moved forward, controlled power in every movement, hands flexing a little as she approached the soldiers and Toris. Against her will, she felt a flicker of pride stir in her heart, not for the violence she suspected was fast approaching, but for her daughter’s willingness to risk herself in someone else’s defense.

Toris was starting to have trouble breathing, when he saw a tanned hand descend on his tormentor’s shoulder. The man looked up, annoyed, and jerked a little when his eyes found a slightly shorter, female version of the man he had in his grasp at his elbow.

"Hi." Xena drawled, low and deep in her throat. "I think you’d better let go of my brother." She let a smile part her lips. And summoned up the edgy menace she could project when she needed to. "Now."

The man dropped Toris, and turned to face her. "Really? Would you like to take his place?" His face was ugly, a scar crossing it from ear to cheekbone and a scraggly beard struggling to cover it.

"Sure." Xena answered, and brought her fist up in a sudden explosion of power, catching him under his jaw, lifting him off his feet, and dropping him like a rock in front of her. Taking out the second one with a short vicious elbow thrust. Catching the massive third one as he rushed her against a booted foot, watching his bewildered face as she flexed her thigh muscles and sent him crashing back against the door. He tried to get up, and she put him to sleep with a kick, then turned and straightened Toris’ tunic, brushing him off with amused toleration. "Better now?" she asked, flicking a last bit of debris of his shoulder.

"You are...amazing." Toris laughed in relief. He shook his head at the three prone men. " They’re not going to be happy when they wake up."

Xena shrugged. "No, but we can send them back with a message. I know Bregaris. He’s a coward, and once he’s challenged, he’ll back off and find easier pickings." She headed back to the table, where Cyrene was still waiting. Sliding back into her chair, she picked up one of the remaining cakes, and bit into it, darting a glance at her mother. Oh...hey… I do like these...her mind chuckled at her. And Gabrielle would love them. She grinned. "So. Enjoy the show?"

Cyrene cleared her throat. "I always like watching an expert at work." she said dryly. "You certainly don’t waste any time. " Pretending she didn’t see Xena snag another cake. "Speaking of which, do you mind if I ask you where you go at night?"

Xena raised an eyebrow, but shrugged. "Into the forest. There’s a clearing there, big enough for me to do sword drills without scaring the neighbors." she answered, giving Cyrene a wry smile. "That takes a lot of practice to keep up. " She gave her mother a sly grin. "Besides, I have to do something to work off all these cakes. " And get rid of the excess energy. And get myself so exhausted I don’t lay in bed and...think.

Cyrene nodded slightly. "That’s what I thought. I saw you coming back in this morning, and you were carrying your sword." And looking pretty tired, but we won’t mention that. "You shouldn’t work yourself so hard." Studying the taller form seated next to her. Feeling a strong motherly pull of affection that she hadn’t felt towards this woman for a very long time. "Well, I have to go see if dinner’s started." She sighed, standing and moving around Xena towards the kitchen. As she pressed past, she put her hands on her daughter’s shoulders, and leaning forward, brushed her lips across the top of her dark head. Continuing on without comment, aware of the blue eyes which followed her until she was out of sight behind the kitchen door.

Xena wandered outside after instructing Toris and some burly buddies of his how to tie the soldiers onto their horses. She wrote a little note, and signed it, for them to pin on the little group’s erstwhile leader, then left them to it. A low growl caught her attention, and she looked down to where the wolf puppy was following her determinedly, teeth worrying her boot. Gods. She sighed, reaching down and picking up the animal. Little Ares transferred his teething attention to her finger, and let out another heartfelt growl. "You’re very scary." Xena informed the puppy. "Aroo." the puppy responded, blinking it’s yellow eyes at her. "Yeah." Xena answered, glancing quickly around to see if anyone was watching. "Come on. It’s nap time for you." She carried the animal with her into the barn, and reached up, settling him into the hayloft, where he snuggled down immediately. After a moment’s hesitation, she climbed up, flipping over the dark form, and relaxing on her back, hands folded behind her head. Ares took the opportunity to scramble over to her, nuzzling happily against her side.

"Ares, cut that out." she sighed, rolling her eyes. The puppy meeped at her. "Oh, all right." she relented, lifting him up and settling him onto her ribcage, where he curled up happily, blinking sleepy eyes at her in adoration. She laughed gently, then turned her gaze to the woodwork. Recalling the sensation of her mother’s hands on her shoulders, and that casual kiss that she hadn’t felt since she was very small. Maybe it was possible...her mind turned that idea over. Maybe.

Her thoughts moved onto Gabrielle, and the increasingly hollow spot she could feel inside her that missed the bard’s presence. Missed? How about needed.. She closed her eyes and thought about that for a minute. And just when did that happen? Well, I can pretend it’s not true. That was the echo she was trying to beat out with the clash of metal every night, the pull that clenched her heart in her chest at unexpected intervals. And it was getting worse. I guess we’ve just gotten used to having each other around. Two years is too long a time to spend with one person, day and night, and not develop… what, a dependency on them? Is that what this is? Maybe.

She took a deep breath and let it out. If Gabrielle was destined to remain with the Amazons, maybe she would give a stab at staying here. Become the village’s protector, like it should have been all along. Rejoin her family. I could do it… not be out there fighting everyone all the time. Maybe pay the Amazons a visit once in a while. Yeah.

Blinking, she watched the deep scratches in the wood above her head blur and clear. "Lyceus, I’m sorry." She whispered, reaching up and touching his name. "I could have brought you back, you know. " She bit her lip. "But the price was something I couldn’t pay... and I don’t think you would have wanted to be bought for that, either." She sighed, and lowered her hand to stroke Ares, who tangled one front leg in her fingers and held on. Then lulled by the warm sunlight, and the sleeping puppy, Xena let her eyes drift shut. Just for a few minutes, her mind assured her.

When she opened her eyes, a quick glance at the window told her it had been a lot more than a few minutes. Startled, she shook her head to clear it, then allowed her body to relax again when she realized where she was, and what had happened. Gods.. when was the last time I let myself do that Ares opened his eyes at her movement, and sighed, nuzzling her sleepily.

Well... a mental chuckle. I did get pretty enthusiastic about working on backflips last night. Doing that till dawn was probably not the smartest thing going. Did nail that new one, though. Yawning, she stretched her long frame, flexing muscles still a bit tight from the previous evenings workout. The puppy stretched too, yawning in imitation, and extending his front and back paws in a puppy sized version of her motion. Caught by surprise, Xena laughed, then pulled herself upright, tumbling the puppy onto the straw in front of her bedroll.

"Come on, time to cut firewood, Ares." she commented, grasping the side of the loft, and lowering herself down to the ground, then grabbing puppy and hand ax in one hand, she ran her fingers through her disordered hair with the other, and headed for the door, almost colliding with Cyrene. "Hey." She said, stopping short.

Cyrene took the puppy from her, scratching his ears fondly. "Wanted to see where you disappeared to." She smiled up at Xena. "You have the village buzzing, you know." She turned and walked by her side to the woodpile, and watched as the warrior lifted up a large log and split it with lazy strokes.

"I do, huh?" Xena answered, chuckling. "Is that good or bad?"

Cyrene pursed her lips, but kept a smile off her face. "Quite good." She glanced at her daughter. "You’re doing great things for business, so I owe you a big thank you."

Xena looked up, pinning her with a serious stare. "You don’t owe me anything." She said, grabbing another log and setting it on the jacks. "About time I did something positive for this place." She let a reluctant smile cross her face. "Besides.. it’s kind of a nice change."

The older woman chuckled. "Honey, you can change your pace here anytime you want." She patted Xena’s shoulder and headed back towards the inn, turning back to put down Ares. "Here, he’s your shadow."

"Yeah." Xena said, glancing at the puppy, who sneezed, and ran over to her. "I’m not really sure why." Ares curled up against her boot, poking out his tongue and panting. "Roo" he commented.

Cyrene grinned at the expression on Xena’s face. "Well, dear… animals are very perceptive. And they always did like you."

Xena rolled her eyes. "Oh yeah." She sighed, and kept chopping.

"Roo." Ares stated, tugging on her boot.

"Not a word out of you." Xena growled, giving him a look.

"Grr." He growled back.

Another full evening in the tavern, Xena mused, wryly. And word had spread about the visit by the warlord’s soldiers.. and how they’d left. She could tell by the sidelong glances in her direction, which had been obvious the first night, but had tapered off after that as the villagers became used to her presence. Two of the merchants had actually come over and talked to her, real progress for them, and one of the village girls had stopped to make conversation on her way from the back table to the serving bar.

Right now, Toris had his head together with a group of his relative peers, planning... something. Xena distrusted Toris’ planning...something. She suspected very strongly that she would be a part of whatever the something was. Sighing, she sat back in her chair, and sipped gingerly at a tall cup of her mother’s potent ale. She had learned her lesson with it the first night, when only a constitution as solid as a rock prevented her from falling down drunk in front of everyone. Who wouldn’t have noticed, really, because they were falling down themselves. She smirked. And made a note to warn Gabrielle off the stuff, since it was frothy and sweet, and the bard would probably love it. A wistful smile crossed her face.

"Hey, Toris." Beltran whispered. "Are you sure? I mean, she’s not going to get upset, is she?" He peered nervously at his friend’s intimidating sister.

"Nah." Toris said, shaking his head. "She’s in a good mood."

Tellar raised his eyebrow. "How can you tell?"

"Idiot." Toris replied, slapping him. "I’m her brother."

"Look.. why can’t you just teach us?" Beltran hissed, poking him. "You said you used to be a warrior."

Toris rolled his eyes. "Don’t be a moron. Yeah, I could hold a sword. Yeah, I could punch someone. Yeah, I can ride a horse. That doesn’t make me a warrior. She’s the best there is. Who would you rather learn from? "

Both of them looked at him. "Don’t answer that." Toris groaned. "Look, stop being such cowards. She’s just a person. Look at her."

They turned and glanced over toward the back of the room. Then they turned back around and looked at Toris, who sighed. "Come on." They crossed the room, heading for the back table where Xena was seated, watching them approach. Toris pulled up a chair and motioned for his pals to do the same. "Hi."

Xena looked them up and down, before letting a grin slowly form on her face. "Hi." Her gaze flicked to Toris. "What’s up?"

They told her.

"Wait. Stop." Xena held up both hands. "This is how this all started. No. Sorry, but no." She scowled at Toris. "You know better than to ask me to teach people in this village how to use weapons."

Toris blew out a breath. Gods... she’s stubborn. Just like mother. "Not weapons, not really. Just for defense, Xena. Come on, you taught Gabrielle how, you can teach these guys." He grabbed her arm. "Look... you said it yourself - these warlords respond to intimidation. If we can even make it just a little harder for them to ride in here and take anything they want, maybe it’s worth it."

His sister leveled a look at him that made him release her arm and lean back. She remained silent for a long time, glancing at each of them in turn, then crossed her arms over her chest and let out a long sigh. Should I do this? Is it even worth trying? Maybe...because I’ve been here long enough to attract attention, and that’s not good. Do I owe it to them? Yeah, maybe I do, after all I’ve put this place through.

"All right." she finally said. "Staff and hand to hand only." She stared at Toris. "No bladed weapons. And you have to get them staves. I’m not going scouring the countryside for them."

They looked at each other in surprise. Didn’t expect me to say yes, huh? The warrior grinned to herself. "Every day, between lunch and dinner. No whining."

Toris nodded. "Deal." he said, succinctly. The rest of them just nodded.

The next day there was a ring of them out there, nervous but determined. She started slowly, showing them the basic moves, and had them practice them the rest of the afternoon, wincing when they accidentally hit each other. Well… they’ll learn. She mused, thoughtfully.

And they did, and kept coming back every day for a few hours after their field work was done, and eventually she had to set up a real training area. Now, as they got used to handling the heavy staves, it became more interesting for Xena, because she got to serve as a training pell for their fledgling attempts at attack. More than once, she desperately wished for Gabrielle’s competence facing her.. but it was a way to keep busy, and the villagers were getting better, being naturally strong and used to hard work.

After two weeks, they were… actually OK. To her bemused surprise. Not experts, no… not anywhere even in the bard’s league. But they could hold their own, and were eager to learn more.. though the thought of doing hand to hand with her was still spooking them. She finally had to coax Toris into being the first victim, and what a show that had been. She had used him as a bad example over and over, until he got upset, and when he was upset, he did stupid things.

And one of the stupid things he did was try to grab her in an inappropriate spot, which he figured would knock her off her stride enough for him to get an advantage. All he got for his efforts was a grin, and a "Boys have bigger targets, Toris" before she responded in kind.

Cyrene, peeking through the shuttered windows at the action, turned to Johan. "I don’t think I’ve ever heard a man make a noise like that before."

Johan cringed in reflex. "I think you better go and keep your children from killing each other."

Cyrene peeked out again. "Oh… well, I’m sure Xena won’t hurt him. Much." She flinched as they went at each other, hitting the ground with an audible thump. "I hope."

And she hadn’t, Xena mused, as she relaxed much later that night in a hot bath. Much. But the session had gone smoothly after that, and the villagers seemed less intimidated by her. Some of them were even starting to practice little moves out in the fields during breaks… she shook her head in mild amusement. She allowed the hot water to relax her, stretching out and laying her head back against the wall of the tub. Gabrielle liked hot baths, she reflected. Especially when they would splash around with each other, like kids. I miss that. She grinned wryly. I’m always a lot more playful around her than anyone else. A lot less serious. Huh.

The next day brought an unexpected test, when a group of Bregaris’s men, a hunting party, rode in looking for trouble. They got it, and more than they expected, when the previously meek villagers stood in their way, armed with stout staves, and no nonsense expressions. It hadn't taken long, and Xena herself merely watched from the inn window, though kept weapons to hand just in case. That night, they celebrated, and more than one toast was given to Xena, much to her discomfiture, but she coped, because they were proud of themselves, and in truth, she was pretty proud of them too.

Continued in Part 3

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