~ A Journey Of Love And Home ~
by Annmaray


Disclaimer: The characters all belong to Renaissance Pictures, MCA/Universal Pictures and Xena Warrior Princess. No copyright infringement is intended. There is absolutely no profit for me in this - I'm just having a good time. Any characters mentioned that are not in the syndicated television show are of my own creation, as is the story line. If you wish to borrow any of them, please let me know.

Content Warning: This story contains references and descriptions of intimate activity - we are in maintext folks. If you do not wish to read about this type of relationship or are under 18, please feel free to go elsewhere. There are plenty of wonderful and fascinating stories in the General Fiction category.

Violence: None. There is reference to abuse, however, nothing graphic.

Hurt/Comfort: Part of the healing process - there is a lot in here.

Spoiler Warning: Warrior/Bard fans should recognize references to various episodes.

NOTE: This story is the follow up/sequel to The Mist of Pieria. There are references to this fan fiction and you might enjoy this story more, if you read the first one.

I welcome comments and can be reached at annmaray@yahoo.com

June 1999


CHAPTER 1

"GABRIELLE!" The Warrior watched with panic, as her soulmate lost her footing and began sliding down the loose gravel covering the downhill trail. Frantically Xena slid down the trail trying to stop Gabrielle's descent. By the time she was close enough to grab Gabrielle's tunic, the Bard had already coasted to a stop. It all happened so quickly.

"Owww, stupid - stupid - AUGH!" Xena could hear Gabrielle scolding herself for falling. The grading of the trail dropped rapidly and the Bard had been looking back at Xena who was following her. The rapid drop startled the Bard and subsequently she slipped on the loose pebbles mixed with coarse dirt still wet from the morning dew.

The Warrior sat down next to Gabrielle who was rubbing her hands in an attempt to remove the imbedded dirt coating her skin. "Here, let me look, you'll only hurt yourself more." Xena knew as soon as the words came out, that Gabrielle would take them the wrong way. She had hurt herself because she had not been paying attention and as usual Gabrielle was tough on herself. *Hades, why didn't I just ask her if she was okay.*

Very determined to show her soulmate that she was not hurt, even though she was, Gabrielle swallowed the tears she felt surfacing and tugged her hands away from Xena. The Bard consumed in her conversation with Xena had not been paying attention to the trail and subsequently slipped. Quickly she pushed her stinging body to a stand. "I'm FINE, XENA. You don't have to baby me. It was just a stupid mistake. I slipped - don't make such a big deal about it, okay!" The Bard took a few steps back up the trail to retrieve her satchel and staff, both of which were pulled from her grip, as she was sliding. Her thoughts quickly jumped to her reaction to Xena's comments, *Oh gods, what's wrong with me. Why am I reacting like this. * Quickly with her staff and satchel back in her possession the Bard with her eyes focusing on the trail endeavored to pass by Xena, when she was stopped.

Xena kept her eyes riveted to Gabrielle's body noticing the pain in her walk and the abrasions on her right arm and elbow. Understanding that the Bard had a tendency to be hard on herself the Warrior made a decision to confront her. Before the feisty blonde could pass her, Xena grabbed her uninjured arm. "Gabrielle, let me help." Tilting her head down to look directly into the beautiful green eyes of her soulmate Xena could see Gabrielle's distress. "Hey, it's me, remember. I love you. Let me look - please."

Without a word Gabrielle allowed her partner in life to inspect her injuries. While they looked worse than they actually were Xena knew the abrasions probably burned. "Come here and sit down. I want to treat these."

The Bard relinquished the false pride currently holding her emotions, giving into her soulmate's request and sat down where Xena indicated. While the Warrior searched through her satchel for the hollyhock root Gabrielle tried to remain strong and held back the tears pooling in her eyes. She understood that if she spoke, the tears would soon follow her words. Finally finding the root, Xena crushed a few fibers of the hollyhock between her fingers and mixed the powder with a small portion of water to form a paste-like poultice. Well aware of why the Bard was quiet Xena's heart saddened for the emotional and physical ache her lover was feeling. *Okay, I have to say something to her. Try to cheer her up.*

"Gabrielle, hold out your arms so I can clean them." The Warrior instantly reprimand herself. *Oh, good going Warrior Princess, those words will surely cheer her up?..Hades.* Xena could see her soulmate's lips quivering slightly, as she tried to remain strong. Placing her hands on the Bard's knee she spoke tenderly. "I really love you?.and I want to take care of you. Can you let me do that?"

For the time being, Gabrielle knew she could only speak one word. In a low whisper she said, "yes."

Happy for any type of response Xena picked up the waterbag and guided the cool liquid over the abrasions rinsing the dirt away. Not wishing to cause Gabrielle anymore discomfort than necessary she placed the poultice gingerly and delicately covering each and every abrasion. "There, this should help take the sting away. I don't think they need to be wrapped."

A weak thank you was all Gabrielle was capable of voicing and she stood up immediately. Once standing Gabrielle could feel the throbbing in her lower back. Placing pressure with her hand on her hip, she was lost momentarily in the soreness and did not intend to let a small groan of discomfort slip through her lips. Her groan did not go unnoticed.

"You probably bruised your hip." Xena moved to stand somewhat behind Gabrielle placing her hand lightly over the Bards, whose hand was still covering the sore area. Before Xena could assess the damage Gabrielle spun around to face her. Gazing into the depths of Xena's blue eyes was all it took to send the small blonde over the emotional edge she was already dangling from. With tears streaming down her cheeks Gabrielle fell into Xena's waiting arms sputtering pleas to forgive her foolishness. Rocking her gently the Warrior remembered once again why she loved Gabrielle so deeply. "I know you did not mean to yell, you're just tired. Let's try to find a place to camp for the night. We've been pushing ourselves too hard down this mountain." With her head still buried in Xena chest, the Warrior could feel Gabrielle nodding in agreement. Kissing the top of Gabrielle's head and murmuring sounds of 'ssshhh and I love you' Xena was able to calm her soulmate's heart.

The pair continued down the mountain trail at a slower pace in relative silence until Xena finally spoke up. "I'm thinking of someone?" She peeked back at Gabrielle to see, if her statement might coax the Bard into a game of twenty questions. It had been a long time since the two played the game and Xena found she actually missed listening to Gabrielle's attempts at solving the riddle.

Amused by Xena's suggestion Gabrielle agreed. "YOU want to play a game. Okay I'll bite. Is it a warlord?"

"Nope."

As the trail continued to wind down the mountain, the two women found the game made the next candlemark go by quicker. The trail eventually dropped into a shallow stone ridden stream. Looking across the Warrior could see level ground on the opposite side revealing a clearing surrounded by a combination of trees, ferns and odd shaped rocks. Pointing to the clearing Xena relayed her thoughts to Gabrielle. "That looks like a good place to camp."

Playing the question game with Xena help to lift the Bard's spirits and she was beginning to feel a little better. "Looks soft and comfortable to me."

"Soft - comfortable?" Xena chuckled at her lover's description of what looked to her like hard rocky ground.

"Yea, it should be plenty soft for me." Gabrielle paused glancing flirtatiously up at Xena. "I plan on using you, as my pillow."

Xena held her hand out for her lover to take. "Feeling better my Bard, your humor sure seems to be back."

Accepting Xena's hand with a giggle the women crossed hopping the larger rocks peeking through the water.

Once on land Xena insisted Gabrielle rest while she collected wood and started a campfire. Gabrielle, however, could not sit still and laid the blankets on the ground close to the fire. Over a shared meal of olives, cheese and hot tea the women spoke of their journey down the mountainside. It had taken them three days to reach the stream from their mountaintop home and the fast pace was starting to take its toll on them physically. Believing the stream would flow into the Haliacmon River, the Warrior estimated they could be in the Port of Therma within two days.

"Xena, I know this may be selfish but I miss the cave. I felt so safe there."

Moving over to sit behind Gabrielle the Warrior massaged the knots and tension from her soulmates shoulders. Fully aware of her soulmate's uneasiness she too felt the confusion within her own spirit. Xena was starting to believe they might have left too soon. "I miss our home too. We'll go back soon, I promise. I would like us to take something from Amphipolis, Poteidaia and the Amazon Village to add on the altar. Would you like that?"

"Mmmmm?.your hands are like magic Warrior. And yes, I would like to take good memories back home." As the tension and fear slipped away removed by Xena's hands and words of love, the stars began filling the night sky. The Warrior reapplied the hollyhock poultice to Gabrielle's abrasions and the Bard remarked that they were feeling much better.

Please with Gabrielle's healing the Warrior ordered, "Good - NOW let's take your tunic off. I want to see that hip you bruised."

While Gabrielle was removing her tunic Xena could not help but notice the curves of her lover's body. A smile crossed her face and a warm glow filled her body. The Warrior was still awed by the fact that this woman was not only beautiful but that Gabrielle was truly devoted and in love with her. *By your grace, my Creator, you allow this beautiful woman to stay in my life. I will not disappoint you or her.*

Xena was pulled from her musings by the Bard's smooth voice asking a simple question. "Is this someone male or female?"

"What?" Baffled by the Bard's question for a brief moment, Xena shook her head and grinned realizing Gabrielle was asking her one of her twenty questions. "Female. Now lay on your stomach so I can spread this poultice on."

Lying on her stomach, Gabrielle thoroughly enjoyed the warmth radiating from Xena's hands, as she applied a poultice to the bruised area. "Carrier sure left enough medicinal herbs and roots for us."

"Yes, a very generous spirit." Pausing Xena contemplated how Carrier brought them back to life, giving them a place to heal physically and emotionally. "On our next visit home, we will have to find an easier trail."

Pleased to hear Xena reaffirm her opinion of the cave as a home, Gabrielle sighed happily, "Mmmm, home. I like the sound of that."

"Close your eyes, sweetie. Try and get some sleep."

*There's that word for a second time. Once in our home and now. Mmmmm?.I love it, when you talk mushy, my Warrior.* It was easy to close her eyes. Gabrielle was already exhausted and with her Warrior massaging her body?well, it only serve to relax her more.

Since Gabrielle was in apparent need of the massage and just so she could continue to touch her lover, Xena decided she would rub Gabrielle's back until she fell asleep. Being able to appreciate Gabrielle's well-developed muscles surrounded by the softness of her skin Xena started to hum a tender song of love.

Before the end of the song the Bard drifted off to sleep with the full awareness of Xena's love for her.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Standing proudly on the Queen's platform was Shulaba. Both Eponin and Amarice were at her side. Again the same four Amazon's who had been challenging the new Queen's decision to accept Brutus' offer of peace were once again voicing their disapproval.

"Shulaba you are foolish believing Brutus will honor the peace treaty between his Roman world and ours? I demand you guarantee our freedom!" Maris considered herself leader of this small band of Amazon women. She did not like Shulaba as Queen, but then she did not like that pesky little blonde before her either. She hated the Roman's even more - so this 'challenge' suited her needs. *Mmpf, get rid of them all.*

Queen Shulaba tired quickly of the constant demand coming from these women for a guarantee of freedom.

Not immediately providing them with an answer Shulaba stepped down from the platform to face the women on level ground. Eponin and Amarice were right behind her, hands on their swords. Shulaba walked directly to Maris, trying to remember Gabrielle's advice 'think what Ephiny would do'. Shulaba was quickly running out of patience. *I do not have time to deal with this impertinence. And I do not need them to stir up trouble while this village is trying to rebuild.*

Stopping two arm lengths away Shulaba crossed her arms to indicate her irritation. "For the past three days you women have shown disrespect to this nation with your demands for a guarantee and each day you refuse to accept my answer." The Queen boldly took two steps forward closing the distance speaking harshly, "My answer is no different today than yesterday."

Turning to walk away, Shulaba did not wait for the leader to respond. "This meeting is over Amazon!"

"Yea, the gate's over there, don't let it??.OUCH!" Tilting her head to look at her attacker, Amarice rubbed her ear. Eponin was glaring at her. "Well?.you didn't have to HIT ME. Why do you have to be so, so?."

With one stride of her long, muscular legs Eponin was in front of Amarice peering down into her eyes. "KID, YOU NEED TO LEARN HOW TO BEHAVE."

Amarice smiled at Eponin. *Mmmm, tall dark and very, very lovely, when you're mad.*

Angered by her dismissal Maris shouted, "WATCH YOURSELF MY QUEEN, NOT EVERYONE IS YOUR FRIEND."

With unquestionable accuracy and precision Eponin charged Maris landing a jump kick to her chest, forcing her to the ground several paces away. Pulling her sword ready to cut anyone who threatened her Queen, the dark haired Amazon was joined by several of the Royal Guard?.and Amarice.

Shulaba who had also drawn her sword pushed her way through the guards to stand firmly in front of Eponin and Amarice. "Maris, you and your friends are no longer welcomed." The Queen pointed to the front entrance of the village. "Leave - NOW."

The very young, feisty redheaded Amazon inched closer to Eponin and whispered, "See, told ya."

*By the gods, sweet Artemis, why me, why her. Can't you help me with this one.* Rolling her eyes Eponin's continue to watch the small band of women mount their horses and withdraw from the village.

"Thank you Eponin." Shulaba placed her hand on the dark haired Amazon.

Eponin smiled at her Queen. She knew Shulaba was learning how to rule under hard circumstances and wished either Gabrielle or Ephiny were here to help and teach her. "I'm going to get something to eat, would you care to join me Shulaba?"

"No, I think I'm going to read a few of the scrolls Gabrielle left behind. I'll catch up with you later."

The Amazon Warrior kept her attention on her Queen until she walked through the front entrance of her hut. Shulaba refused to move her personal items into the Queen's hut. In her mind and heart the hut was still Gabrielle's. *My Queen, I know you pray at the temple daily for Gabrielle's return. But, I don't?.* Interrupted from her thoughts, Eponin felt the breath of some little irritating bug on her bare shoulder. *Ohhhh, never a moments rest.*

"Hey - tall, dark and beautiful, I'm hungry, I will join you." Amarice did not wait for a rebuttal and gave Eponin's arm a tug.

Shaking her head and eventually dropping it in frustration Eponin followed Amarice to the dining hut. *Please?someone, what did I do wrong.*

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Just as Xena hoped, the stream poured right into the Haliacmon River. Several tributaries later and with the help of a friendly fisherman, the pair managed to secure a boat ride to the Port of Therma. Arriving a day sooner than anticipated, the boat ride was a blessing. It saved them a full day of walking and allowed them both to rest. Gabrielle was especially appreciative because it gave her bruised hip a chance to heal quicker.

By nightfall Xena and Gabrielle secured one room in a well-kept inn. Over a hot plate of food and cool mugs of ale the two lovers enjoyed being with each other. Xena reflected on the habits she still maintained even after returning from death. She still insisted on entering the building first and chose a table that would keep her back to the wall. Smiling with self satisfaction Xena mused, *Path of the Warrior.*

Both women were sitting on a bench rather than chairs so Gabrielle took the opportunity to scoot closer to Xena until their thighs and hips were touching. Gabrielle did not really care what other patrons would think of her desire to express her love for the Warrior. Picking up a handful of grapes Gabrielle began happily tossing them in her mouth one at a time. Xena could not resist and reached across to capture Gabrielle's grape-filled hand bringing it to her own lips. Tenderly with one kiss, Xena slid her tongue between her lover's fingers forcing them apart. Teasing Gabrielle with an enchanting sigh of pleasure, Xena seized a grape with her tongue. The Warrior was reward with a sensual moan and a sly flirtatious grin from Gabrielle. They both discovered since their rebirth that these sensorial teasing moments were not just sexually arousing but a way to express their deep love for each other.

The Bard placed a second grape between her lips and held it there, musing *Yes, my Warrior, let's play. * The Warrior knew Gabrielle was challenging her. She watched the Bard roll the grape between her soft pliable lips causing both the grape and her lips to become wet and extremely tempting.

With a half sided grin and a raised eyebrow Xena responded, "Gabrielle, you are so naughty. You know I can't refuse this offer." Xena was only a breath away from claiming both the grape and the delicious lips holding them, when Gabrielle slid the grape in her mouth and with a smile chomped down on it.

"Ohhhh?you'll pay for that one my dear Bard." With a wickedly seductive look in her eyes Xena decided to take her lover's lips anyway. Gabrielle welcomed her lover passionately.

A loud thud echoed across the room startling the women, which pulled them apart. A young man jumped onto a table, while the innkeeper placed a chair on the table for the young man to sit.

"Xena, a bard! Can we stay awhile and listen?"

The Warrior let her arm glide around Gabrielle's waist. She heard the excitement in Gabrielle's voice and wanted her to be happy. "Sure, for awhile."

She was rewarded with a loving squeeze on her thigh and a gentle kiss on the cheek. From the bench the couple was sitting on the raven-haired beauty leaned back against the wall keeping her arm around Gabrielle's waist. The storyteller began his tale of Ulysses. *Mmpf, he was a mistake. I still can't believe I almost lost Gabrielle because of my fascination with him,* Xena mused.

As the storyteller rattled on, Gabrielle leaned up against Xena pulling the Warrior's arms completely around her. Xena was delighted with her soulmate's need to cuddle. She heard Gabrielle whisper softly. "I love you Xena." The Warrior nuzzled her nose into Gabrielle's silky blonde hair, "Mmmm..you'll always be mine, never forget that." She then gave herself permission to doze off while relaxing into her lover's warmth.

Less than a candlemark passed and Xena awoke to the applause of the audience. Evidently it had been a good story. "How was he Gabrielle?"

"Hey, sleepyhead. He's a good storyteller but he obviously knows nothing about the real Ulysses."

Xena chuckled a little and followed it with a yawn.

"Tired my Warrior?"

"Just a little, but we can stay for another story, if you like."

The storyteller announced his next tale, "I now sing a song of Xena the Warrior Princess??."

Gabrielle began giggling, "Okay Warrior Princess, let's call it a night. I don't think I can stand listening to him mess this story up too."

Xena allowed her tired body to be pulled from the bench. Gabrielle led the way to the rented room with Xena following close behind. Peeking through her sleepy eyes she could not help but admire the sway of Gabrielle's walk. *Well, maybe I'm not that tired.*

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

"XENA!!!!" Cyrene strained to open her eyes. Breathing short and fast she was again dreaming of her lost daughter. Trying to restrain from weeping Cyrene tossed the blanket off while placing her feet on the cool wooden floor. "I've got to shake this. Xena would want me to move on."

The innkeeper moved to the window in her bedroom. Gazing into the night sky overloaded with the weight of the stars Cyrene pictured the deep blue of her daughters eyes, the contagious laughter in her voice and the loyal and strong spirit of her raven-haired child's love for her?.and Gabrielle. A long time ago Cyrene recognized Gabrielle, as a second daughter. And over the years, she watched with amazement, as the young woman captured the heart of her wild daughter.

Speaking with the belief that she would be heard Cyrene directed her thoughts and words to both women. "I will watch over her. Lila is my responsibility now. I will not let either of you down. I promise."

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Maris, along with the three Amazons who insisted on taking their leaders position, drove their horses hard into the night. The dark-haired, well-tanned Amazon with eyes as black as coal knew Shulaba would spread the word of their banishment from the Amazon village. Maris was not stupid nor did she have a tendency to become careless. *I must strike before the word can be spread.*

The darkness that follows the setting of the sun soon made the forest too unsafe for the riders to continue without the possibility of injury. Maris needed all three of the women who rode with her to carry out her plan. Reining back on her horse, "Let's stop here for the night."

Her companions were well aware of Maris' reputation for her temper and chose for tonight anyway, not to question her decision. Quickly the women built a small campfire and consumed what little food and drink they had with them.

"Maris," Pippa, the youngest of the group, just barely fourteen summers in age and also the most inquisitive of the group spoke up. "Where are we heading?.I mean, we have no food or shelter?."

Before Pippa could finish her question Maris struck her across the face with a closed fist, sending the young girl to her back.

"Cut it out Maris, you don't have to kill the kid, she's just scared." Stella was the same age as Maris, thirty-one summers. Both Amazons grew up together and seemed to have a love-hate relationship. The fair-haired Stella often wondered why she put up with Maris but she never cared enough to walk away or change the relationship.

Maris glared at Stella, "Just keep her out of my way and make sure she does what she's told." Suddenly the angry Amazon front flipped landing in a straddle position over the fallen child. "Cause, if you don't listen to me?..I will personally kill you."

The fourth Amazon remained quiet and observed the game being played. Leandra was not pleased with the situation and not extremely happy with Maris' outburst at the village. Tall and lean Leandra sported scars of repeated whippings on her back, shoulders and arms. The Amazon's desires for friendship or companionship were non-existent. She did not discriminate?she hated everyone. Leandra was cold, calculating and had in the past hired her services out as everything from a scout to an assassin. Stella would tell her on many occasions that she had no soul. It never bothered her.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

"Oh?.yes-yes Gabr?.don't stop?oh?that feels so right?." Hearing herself moaning in ecstasy caused the Warrior to open her eyes. *Hades, I hate when that happens!* Looking toward the source of the light flooding the room Xena could see the sun shining brightly through the window. *Mmm, another dream. Oh my sweet Bard how you manage to invade my dreams with your love amazes me. You really do have a power over me - and I love every bit of it.*

Gabrielle was on her side with her back curled up into Xena's chest. One knee was draped and tangled in the blanket while the other was entwined with the Warrior's legs. Xena notice the abrasion's on her arms and hands were healing nicely and wondered if the Creators gift of rebirth and the climb up their individual karma's contributed to what seemed to be Gabrielle's ability to heal faster than normal. A low groan from Gabrielle pulled Xena from her thoughts causing her to reflect on their night of passion and lovemaking. Xena smiled, *This just feels so right and no one will ever be able to tell me different.* Amused by her thoughts Xena circled the Bard's ear with her tongue finally settling on the precious tender earlobe she always enjoyed sucking on.

"Mmmm?..Warrior?" Feeling the wet tongue consuming her earlobe Gabrielle smiled and pulled Xena's hand to her lips kissing each fingertip. Not in a hurry to move and thoroughly enjoying the attention she was receiving, Gabrielle rolled over on her back to seize Xena's lush red lips.

Their tongues and lips twisted and played together in a knowing and understanding dance of love. Neither one pushed the other. The kiss was sweet and tender, one of continuing discovery and one of commitment. A loud knocking on the door startled both women. The Warrior was instantly on her feet grabbing her sword on the way to the door.

"Xena - wait." Gabrielle threw a blanket to Xena indicating she should at least cover up her naked body before opening the door and shocking some poor soul on the other side. "Warrior, I think you are absolutely gorgeous and I'm sure whoever is on the other side of the door will agree with me. I however, do not want any competition."

"Really?..you're not worried are you." The Bard's statement baffled the Warrior just a bit.

Gabrielle fell back to the bed crossing her arms behind her head, grinned and simply answered, "No."

The knock on the door came once again. Xena answered the door to find a young boy about sixteen summers gawking at her from the other side of the entrance.

"Yesss?can I help you?"

The boy had seen many women come and go through his father's inn but never had he seen a woman as mystifying and beautiful as the one now standing half-naked before him.

"WHAT do you want!" Xena could hear Gabrielle giggling in the background.

"Oh?.sss..sorry madam."

The Warrior could now hear the Bard laughing uncontrollably. *She's going to get it. I swear?.*

Xena dropped her ready-to-do-battle stance, lowered her sword and tried once again. "The name is Xena, now what do you want."

"Xena! The famous Warrior Princess - that Xena!" The young boy was now completely and totally in awe of the woman standing before him. "I heard, I mean everyone said you were dead."

"Yea, yea yea?well I'm not." Xena could hear Gabrielle pounding her fists on the bed in an attempt to control her laughter now accompanied by chants of 'he's got the warrior princess haze'.

The young boy adjusted his pants, lifted his head high and decided to deliver his message. "Father said the horse you asked for his tied out front at the hitching post. The mare is saddled and ready. Father said it will cost you 100 dinars."

"WHAT - 100 dinars!"

The boy quickly stepped back fidgeting and wringing his hands nervously. Xena was well aware they had the money; Carrier had generously left them 2000 dinars. The Warrior just was not willing to give in so easily.

"Xena, stop torturing the boy - 100 dinars is fair." Gabrielle was putting on her emerald green tunic as she spoke. "Boy, tell your father we will pay him, after we see the horse."

With that the young boy abruptly turned running down the hallway. Xena slammed the door and turned to face her giggling partner. "And just WHAT did you find so amusing?"

Trying to control her giggling the Bard decided to change the subject. "Is it Minya?"

Dropping her shoulder and looking to the ceiling in total confusion, "What are you talking about Gabrielle?"

The Bard knew full well that she had the advantage, for the moment. "Don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about. Is it Minya?"

"Aughhhh??" Xena was again caught off guard by Gabrielle. Placing her sword back in its sheath the Warrior intentionally let the blanket drop exposing a fully well defined naked Warrior. "NO, it is not Minya. Now you only have two guesses left."

Very well aware of her lover's naked body moving across the room towards her like a wild, black panther ready to claim its victim, Gabrielle knew she had absolutely no defenses. The Bard found herself hypnotized and bewitched by her Warrior. *How does she do that - I'mmm?.oh well, she has me. *

Gabrielle soon lost all perception of whether she was standing or lying down. Xena had removed her tunic swiftly and was now in full command of the Bard's breasts. The Warrior tickled and nipped lightly at her lover's breasts alternating with wide licks of her tongue in-between, over and around the two exotic, soft mounds and hard pink nipples. "Ohhh, yes?.gods yesssss??."

The Warrior released her mouth from her lover's breast unexpectedly only to hear Gabrielle's disapproval, "Ohhh, Xena?.please?don't stop?."

She stared directly into Gabrielle's glazed over green eyes and with a devilish grin, "Is that a question, my love? If it is, then the answer is I don't plan on stopping?.and you only have one question left."

"Oh no you don't Warrior Princess?you know full well that was NOT a question." Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena' neck pulling her down so she could taunt the lips of her soulmate. Slowly brushing Xena's lips with her tongue the Bard whispered between licks, "That was a plea for you to take me. "

Helpless once again over her lover's seductive powers, the Warrior aggressively took what she knew belonged to only her?...and she found that Gabrielle's lips were open, willing and ready.

A second intrusion startled the lover's causing Xena to storm to the door with fists closed in anger. Gabrielle had no time to tell her to cover her body. Grabbing the door and flinging it back causing it to bounce off the wall and back into her hand, which already reacted to stop it, was the innkeeper's wife.

"WHAT NOW !!!"

The woman's eyes grew as big as tomatoes and her hands were now covering her mouth in shock at viewing the naked Warrior in front of her. She had not anticipated this, when she knocked. Gabrielle was quick on her feet throwing a blanket over Xena's shoulders so she could cover herself. Tugging on Xena's arms to step back, the Bard also wearing a blanket stepped between Xena and the woman.

"I'm sorry for my partner's," she glanced back at Xena, "temper. She means you no harm."

"That's - that's okay." Upon hearing from her son that Xena was upstairs in their establishment - the warrior woman who fought Roman rule - she wanted to do something nice. "I just wanted to let you know that I have some food for you both downstairs." The innkeeper's wife crossed her arms hoping it would help her to stop shaking. "?.It's free?no charge?excuse me I should?.I?.." The woman knew there was no way she could complete her sentence and sound intelligent, so she curtsied respectfully and fled down the hall.

Gabrielle closed the door and shook her head. "Xena, let's go before the innkeeper himself comes up." The Bard went to grab her clothes, "Or?maybe a daughter or uncle or brother or someone else SHOWS UP!"

Xena smiled, happy to see her Bard was just as upset about the intrusion, as she was.

In less than a candlemark both women were packed and ready to leave. Xena observed Gabrielle paying the innkeeper for the horse and then thanking his wife for the food. Xena was actually quite pleased with the mare. She wasn't Argo, but the horse was young, spirited and strong. *Yes, she will do nicely?.until I can find Argo.*

By mid morning, repeating a pattern the pair had done for so many years, the Warrior rode the mare and the little one happily walked along side, occasionally giving her staff a twirl.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Breaking to rest the horses Maris and her small rebel band stopped outside of the Port of Therma.

"Why Maris? What are we doing - Gabrielle is dead, remember." Stella was rather aggravated that Maris insisted on traveling to Poteidaia. What could she possibly want in this stinking little village?

Pippa and Leandra consumed a small meal of cheese while listening to Maris and Stella bickering back and forth. Maris had wanted to travel to Gabrielle's home village. Stella wanted to head south to Athens.

Maris stepped closer to Stella, "Gabrielle has a sister - Lilo, Lina or ??"

Pippa interrupted, "Lila." Then quickly gazed back into the fire hoping Maris wouldn't hit her.

"Yessss, thank you Pippa." Although bothered by Pippa's boldness and interruption, she knew the accuracy of the name was important.

"Why is Lila important, Maris?"

"Because, Stella, she is our precious dead Queen's sister."

Leandra finally reached a point where she could take no more of the guessing game. "HADES, just tell us your plan Maris?..if you really have one."

Maris had no intentions of challenging Leandra, although she did not want Leandra to know that. So Maris decided an explanation would be appropriate. "It is simple. We take Lila, we let Shulaba know we have Lila - then we kill Lila, dump her on Amazon land and blame her death on the Amazons." Maris began strutting around her companions, extremely pleased with her plan. "How do you think poor father and mother will take the news. They never did like the Amazons."

"Mmpf?you're hoping for a war." Stella spat the words out with disgust.

A huge smirk of self-satisfaction crossed her face. "We will get them all."

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The lover's headed northeast at a comfortable pace. The day was warming up nicely which made traveling pleasant and comfortable. Soon the land formations, trees, streams and boulders became familiar to the pair as they came closer to their homelands. Many times the two traveled this path on their way to other territories in Greece. Xena was aware that in less than a candlemark they would meet the crossroads requiring the couple to make a decision. They would either travel southeast to Poteidaia or northeast to Amphipolis. The Warrior decided the Amazon village would not be an option. Xena tossed the reasoning over and over in her thoughts and still came up with the same conclusion. *It is more important for our families to know we are okay. The Amazons can be sent a message, and then we will travel there later.* Xena's biggest challenge at the crossroads would be convincing Gabrielle that they should journey to Poteidaia first. Remembering Gabrielle's reaction several nights ago while they were still at the cave, *She really did a great job of avoiding my question about traveling to her parents first.*

Xena stopped the horse and glanced back at Gabrielle who was dawdling. Not because she was slow, but because she was twirling and jabbing and smacking plants and rocks with her staff, as they were walking. The Warrior was delighted that her lover agreed to accept the staff Ephiny again presented to her. *Okay my love, what is going on through that pretty little blonde head of yours?*

"You're still good with the staff Gabrielle. Doesn't look like you've lost any of your speed or accuracy." Xena was really very proud of her Bard. She remembered how Eponin was ordered to train the Bard. *Poor, Eponin, burdened with a little farm girl.* Xena was extremely fond of Eponin and missed her when they visited the Amazon village. But the Warrior understood Eponin's desire to find her path in life. Looking into the bright sun, *I hope you found your destiny, my friend. I hope we will meet again.*

"I GOT IT." Gabrielle shrieked and ran up to the side of Xena patting her on the leg. "Cyrene - right!!!"

Bending down to give her Bard a little kiss on the head the Warrior responded. "No. Only one more chance and then I win?..again."

Gabrielle let out a sigh of exasperation and leaned her body into her staff to rest.

At the mention of Xena's mother, the Warrior mused, *A perfect opening for me to bring up the subject of which home to go to first.* The Warrior reached her hand out for Gabrielle to take. "Come on, ride with me."

The Bard settled in behind her Warrior and wrapped her arms around her lover's waist. Soon she was snuggling into the blue tunic covering her Warrior. "Mmmmm, it feels so good to hold you Xena."

Urging the horse to continue at a walk Xena brought up her concern. "Gabrielle, you realize the crossroads are coming up and we should consider turning south for Poteidaia."

"Xena, I thought we agreed the Amazon's would be our first stop."

"Well, no not exactly. We were interrupted by Ephiny, remember?"

Gabrielle dreaded this moment, when a decision would need to be made and her thoughts instantly screamed, *Xena, please don't do this, I'm not ready to go to Poteidaia yet. But how do I tell you I'm afraid of my father. He will blame you for my death. And he will again blame me for HIS PAIN and then?father will?.* Before Gabrielle could finish her thoughts she heard Xena speaking.

"Gabrielle, are you ignoring me?"

"Uh, no, just thinking. I'm sorry."

Xena could feel the tension and stiffness in Gabrielle's body and halted the horse to confront her soulmate.

"Uh, Xena?.I have to find a bush?you know." The Bard slid off the horse and ran for the bushes several lengths away. *I have to regroup, have to think.*

Patiently waiting, Xena knew Gabrielle was again trying to avoid the conversation. *I have to pin her down - she has to talk to me. WAIT, that's it?ha ha, yes!* The Warrior jumped from the horse and waited for Gabrielle to return. As soon as she came out of the bushes, the Bard could see Xena waiting for her. Trying to be nonchalant Gabrielle approached her, as if nothing was wrong, stopping an arm length from Xena. The Warrior peered into Gabrielle's eyes and a half-sided smirk crossed her face. The only thing the Bard could think was *Oh-no.*

With accurate precision and speed of which the Warrior was famous for Gabrielle found herself flat on her back with her arms stretched over her head, held by only one of Xena's hands. *How does she move so fast?.* The Bard started to wiggle and yell, "XENA, let me go?what are you doing." Xena's intentions were not to kiss Gabrielle, but suddenly she considered the squirming voluptuous body below her. The Warrior was instantly aroused and lowered her lips to her lover's. Gabrielle's first thought was to fight the kiss but as soon as she felt the warm breath and the tender weight of the Warrior's lips pressing on hers, the Bard relaxed and surrendered to her lover. Xena released her grip on Gabrielle's hands so she could lean her weight on one elbow and wrap her other hand affectionately around her soulmate's neck. She could feel the Bard bring her arms up and dig them deeply into her hair. The lover's deepened the kiss passionately and then without warning the kiss changed. Gabrielle let a low whimper slip through her lips and abruptly took control of the kiss with desperation. Concern caused the Warrior to pull her lips away. Looking directly into Gabrielle green eyes the same eyes that always captivated Xena; the Warrior saw an indescribable fear. One she did not recognize.

"Gabrielle, what are you afraid of?" A reply never came. "Gabrielle, you have to know that I will always be here for you. Whatever is going on in that precious little Amazon head of yours?.well, tell me. Let's go through this together, okay?"

Looking up into the Warriors face, Gabrielle let her fingers trace an outline across her soulmate's lips and chin. "I love you so much Xena, but I have to go home alone."

Although Xena was not convinced this was a complete answer she decided to play it out. "But why, we've been through so much together." The Warrior stood up helping Gabrielle stand with her. She was well aware that Gabrielle's father did not like her.

Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the Warriors' waist. "Xena, please. My father?.." Gabrielle paused searching for words that would prevent Xena from following her home. "After Hope and her child?..well, it only made him angrier. I don't want you to get hurt."

"Gabrielle, I'm quite capable of defending myself." Failure began to consume Xena's emotions. She wanted to fix whatever was wrong and Gabrielle would not let her. Frustrated the Warrior wanted to push her away but instead her love and bonding for this woman commanded her to stand still.

"That's not what this is about, Xena. I know you can defend yourself."

Something about Gabrielle's words bothered Xena. *What is really going on Gabrielle?* The Warrior tenderly lifted Gabrielle's chin in hopes that the expressions on her face might reveal what was really bothering her Bard. Xena mused about how she loved touching, kissing and just watching Gabrielle's face. Holding her chin the Warrior let her thumb slip to the Bard's always tempting lips. Slowly she let her thumb glide over the velvety soft lips, memorizing the texture. *Mmmm, this must be what it is like to float on a cloud.* Gazing into Gabrielle's green eyes that changed hue depending on her mood. The Warrior remembered the deep glazed-over green, when Gabrielle was surrendering her body to the Warrior. She has seen the emerald green reflecting excitement or challenge and the deep sea green hue of playfulness. When Gabrielle was hurt, in pain or confused her eyes would turn cloudy, as the green mixed with tears. Smiling internally Xena was also familiar with the green-eyed monster that would possess her lover when she was jealous. Xena also knew the relaxing, calm meditative green glow in Gabrielle's eyes when she was at peace, happy and contended. There were so many hues and personalities to those captivating eyes and Xena loved everyone one of them. At this moment, however, the only message Gabrielle's eyes conveyed were peaceful love for the Warrior. *You my love are getting better at masking your emotions. In the short time I just spent dreaming of you - you managed to regroup. Who is the warrior - me or you.*

Well aware of the Warrior's motives to examine her eyes for an answer, the Bard quickly buried all emotions except her love of Xena. That is what her eyes would show Xena. *No, my Warrior I won't tell you more so stop trying.*

Holding the Bard by the shoulders Xena gently pushed her backwards to look directly into Gabrielle's eyes. She needed a truthful answer, therefore spoke firmly, "Gabrielle, look at me. If you can honestly tell me from your heart, that you want to go home without me?.well then you better come up with a better explanation than your father's dislike for me."

Xena now managed to limit the Bard's options and it angered her slightly. "No, my love it is not what I truly want?.I would rather not go to Poteidaia at all?.I'm not ready." Gabrielle stepped back removing Xena's hands from her shoulders. "I will send word to my mother, Lila and my father when I reach Amphipolis." Gabrielle walked over and picked her staff off the ground and continued heading down the path towards Amphipolis. Suddenly stopping, she did not look back at Xena, however she did raise her voice in a tone that she hoped would end any further exploration. She was not ready to tell Xena about her father's abuse and if she could prevent it, Xena would never know. "My Warrior, I love you more than anyone. My heart belongs only to you - completely. I miss you terribly when you are gone. And this conversation about Poteidaia is OVER."

Thrown off guard by Gabrielle's response Xena realized she was not going to get her soulmate to share that indescribable fear she had witnessed in the Bard's eyes earlier. *Okay my little one, I will step back from this buried fear of yours..?but only for now.* With those thoughts in mind Xena jumped up into the saddle and nudged the mare into a trot to catch up with Gabrielle. Stopping the mare slightly ahead of Gabrielle in order to block her path the Warrior extended her hand praying her soulmate would take it.

Fully in tune to what the Warrior was offering and what she realized Xena needed from her - Gabrielle accepted her hand. Before she could blink an eye Xena pulled her up on the mare so she was sitting in front. The Bard swung her leg over so she was not sitting sidesaddle and slid her staff into the leather strips that would hold it in place on the saddle.

Keeping one hand in control of the reins Xena glided her free hand and arm around Gabrielle's waist. "I just need to hold you?," the Warrior hesitated then added, "?if you'll still have me."

The Warriors words penetrated Gabrielle's heart and soul. "I love you, my Warrior?and I want you more than I will ever be able to tell you in words." Passionately Gabrielle entangled her fingers with the long strong fingers of her Warrior. Leaning back into her lover, the Bard knew she selfishly wanted to feel Xena's breasts rub up against her back and feel her warm breath tickle her ears. Gabrielle could not help feeling flirtatious and wasted no time conveying her enjoyment of the Warrior's body. "You know Xena, I find there is a real advantage to you not wearing the armor?.and I think I like it a lot. "

Feeling the heat rise between her legs Xena could feel her nipples harden as they pressed up against the athletic curves of Gabrielle's back. Add in the continuous rubbing of Gabrielle's thighs against hers as they rode close together and Xena knew it would only be a matter of time before she would have to seduce her soulmate. Nuzzling into her Bard's windblown hair the Warrior pushed the mare into a canter with the intentions of stopping only when they reached that small waterfall Gabrielle loved so much.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Shulaba was not comfortable with just letting Maris and her companions stroll out of the Amazon village. There was something about that woman and Shulaba's instincts told her Maris could be dangerous. The evening following Maris' banishment from the village the new Queen set out in search of Eponin. She had a pretty fair idea that Eponin could be found in the stables and she wanted to speak with the Amazon regarding her concerns. As Shulaba's got closer to the stables she could hear the banging of a staff over wood. Puzzled by the tone of the sound Shulaba thought Eponin was probably tormenting Amarice again. *Ha, or maybe it's the other way around.* The Queen made the time since Amarice's return to the village to drop in occasionally, as well as observed from a distance the interplay between Eponin and the feisty young redhead. Pleased with her decision to assign Amarice's training to the finely built dark-hair Amazon she found herself chuckling, as to whom was actually training whom. Talking out loud she prayed Xena would hear her words, "Xena, why do I have a feeling only you would understand Eponin's frustration at this moment??oh?.no offense meant Gabrielle. "

As Shulaba entered the stables, she witnessed a very furious Eponin striking, whacking and swinging a staff rapidly between two wooded beams holding up part of the hayloft. Off to the right sitting casually on a bail of hay chewing on a piece of straw was a very amused Amarice. The Queen directed her attention to the young redhead. "Okay, Amarice, what did you do this time."

The young Amazon dropped her straw and jumped up from the bail of hay. "Oh?.umm?my Queen?I did nothing, really."

"Yeah, right!" Shulaba raised her eyebrow and glared at Amarice with a slight frown. "Talk young Amazon - NOW."

Eponin heard Shulaba raised voice and stopped beating on the wood beams. Out of breath she moved over to join the two women and stopped just short of Amarice. With the amazing strength she jammed the staff into the ground forcing it to stand on its own. Grouchy and now tired she stared at Amarice and stated, "YOU?YOU?..don't you ever, ever do that again."

The Queen was now doing everything possible to suppress a grin over Amarice's smile in answer to the Eponin's anger. Gently shoving Eponin back with her hand Shulaba looked at Amarice. "I am running out of patience Amarice, you better tell me what you did to outrage by best warrior."

"Oh?.it was nothing." Amarice kicked some dirt with her foot. "Well, she was brushing down Argo and talking to her. I?I just thought she looked cute and kissed her on the cheek."

"YOU DID WHAT !"

Almost in a whisper, "I kissed her on the?."

Before Amarice could continue Shulaba was bellowing with laughter, bending over holding her waist with one hand and leaning into a bail of hay with the other to keep her balance.

"Oh, very funny Shulaba, thanks a lot." Eponin yanked the staff out of the ground and walked back over to Argo.

By now Shulaba had tears rolling down her cheeks and she was completely leaning against the bail of hay to keep from falling over. Her laughter only got worse and soon she had Amarice joining her.

"BUNCH OF GIGGLING GIRLS - YOU'RE NOT AMAZONS." Knowing she was totally outnumbered she said a quick goodbye to Argo and stormed out of the stables. Every Amazon between the stables and the hot springs had to leap out of the way in order to avoid the charging and very angry Amazon Warrior.

It took Shulaba a half candlemark to calm down, dry her eyes and stand back up. "Come on Amarice, I have to talk with Eponin." The two left the stables and with the help of several confused Amazon villagers Shulaba was able to learn that Eponin's direction was the hot springs. Just before the springs Shulaba turned to face Amarice. "You really are fond of that big dumb warrior, aren't you." The young redhead just nodded in agreement. "Well, this reminds me of another big dumb warrior and a beautiful little blonde. But that's another story. I want you to get some rest. Tomorrow I'm sending you and Eponin out of the village. I have something I want you both to do, but I will tell Eponin. Right now I'm going to try and calm Eponin down so she doesn't kill you tomorrow out on the road."

Amarice thanked Shulaba and quickly retreated to find some place to think rather than rest.

It did not take long for Shulaba to find Eponin, she was right where everyone said she'd be. "Hey, sure you need the HOT springs. Don't you think the COLD stream outside of the village would suit your needs more."

"Oh, very funny my Queen." Eponin splashed enough water at Shulaba for her to decide to strip and join the dark hair Amazon. "Hades?that girl. She is going to kill me yet."

"Mmmm?reminds me of?."

"Don't go there Shulaba?..Amarice is nothing like Gabrielle."

"Oh really??" Deciding to leave some teasing for later Shulaba needed to get down to business. The Queen explained her concerns over Maris and requested that Eponin and Amarice track the women down and find out what they were up too. According to sentry reports after the women were banished Maris and her companions headed southeast.

"You're concerned they will head for Poteidaia. You're worried about Gabrielle's sister." Eponin was pleased with her Queen's wisdom and it was something she herself was considering. "I'll leave in the morning. You realized Gabrielle's family will not want to see us."

"Follow anyway. Use your own judgment, don't let Maris see you, unless you have no choice." Shulaba wet her hair and grabbed the soap left in a container on the side of the springs. "Do me a favor, don't kill Amarice?.she just has a crush."

"Mmpf?.I'll give her a crush!"

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

It was late in the day when the couple reached the crossroads. A light mist was filling the air and the Warrior wanted to get to the waterfalls before dark. First she had to ask Gabrielle once more about going to Poteidaia. Xena slowed the mare down allowing it to graze for a bit. However, still cuddling neither woman wanted to move. "I have to ask once more Gabrielle. Are you sure about putting off?."

Gabrielle twisted her body around in the saddle so she could look directly into Xena's eyes. "Yes, my Warrior, I am sure. I'm just not ready to go to my parents house."

The Warrior leaned forward to kiss her lover but seeing the worry in her eyes she held back from taking Gabrielle's lips completely. Instead Xena just brushed Gabrielle's top lip with a light kiss. The Bard would have nothing to do with a small peck on the lips and moved one hand behind Xena's neck pulling her down. Before their kiss deepened Xena heard Gabrielle whisper, "Please, don't be angry with me." Xena responded to Gabrielle's plea with tenderness and pressed her lips deeper into Gabrielle's, letting her know that she was not angry - just in love with her and concerned. The Warrior did not want to release the full luscious lips of the woman she wanted to marry and her tongue slipped through to caress her lover's top lip. Dropping the reins Xena slid her hand to capture and tease the already firm nipples of Gabrielle's ample breasts. This touch elicited a purr from Gabrielle. The Bard moved Xena's hand down between her legs to feel her wetness and invite her to explore. The mare provided an unwarned interruption by shaking her mane and swishing her tail so it slapped Xena in the back. Startled from her exploration the Warrior grinned, "I guess we should move off this saddle."

"Mmmm?." Was the only response Xena would receive from Gabrielle?and there it was?the eyes?the 'take me now Warrior' look that always captured Xena's heart.

"Not here, my love. I know a place we can camp just north of the crossroads. Then tomorrow we'll travel to Amphipolis." Nothing else needed to be said and with a kick to the mare's flanks, Xena guided the horse towards the waterfalls.

When Gabrielle realized where Xena was planning to camp, she was excited. It had been a long time since they camped near the falls. The last time was over ten moons ago and to Gabrielle it was very memorable. They had just left Joxer at his grandmothers and were happy to be alone without him constantly interrupting their desire to make love. *Poor Joxer, he is clueless. Even when I told him my heart belonged to Xena - he still gave that duh puzzled look and thought I was joking.*

The mist moved over the countryside faster than Xena would like but she mused that it would offer a veil of protection for them. She wanted Gabrielle all to herself tonight especially after all the interruptions of the day between the innkeeper's family and then this mare. Xena picked out an area close enough to the waterfalls, yet far enough away so they would not feel the spray of the rushing water. Behind them was a wall of rock along with scattered boulders and trees making up the boundaries that would offer them privacy. After a light meal and some hot tea Xena retreated to a log in order to sharpen and clean her new sword. Over the past days she had become use to the grip, weight and temper of the metal and decided Carrier made an excellent choice.

Pulling out her scroll she had hoped to write some more about Ephiny, but listening to Xena's whetstone slide across the steel of her blade drove the Bard into a fantasy of the Warrior's hand gliding and caressing over her thighs. Tossing her scroll to the side the Bard mused, *Oh well, sorry Ephiny.* She then focused all her attention on the movement of the Warrior's long sleek fingers gripping the whetstone and her powerful hands expertly holding the sword. *Warrior you need to be over here with me rubbing your fingers over my skin - touching my breasts. Oh yes warrior, put your sword down and look at me, because here I come.*

Xena's attention was lost in the sharpening of her sword until out of the corner of her eye she caught pure seduction crawling towards her like a wild uncontrollable animal. Chills ran up Xena's body as this wild creature undressed her with shimmering dangerous emerald gems for eyes. Xena stopped sharpening the sword and watched this hungry woman crawling directly to her - licking her lips wetting them in preparation for attack. The Warrior could feel the heat rising in her and the wetness of her passion coating her thighs. She was trapped under this bewitching woman's spell and knew this was a battle worth losing. Gabrielle was kneeling in front of Xena much quicker than the Warrior could react too. Taking Xena's sword and whetstone, Gabrielle dropped the stone and gingerly held the sword upright sliding the grip between her thighs. While still on her knees she lifted herself slightly and started slowly and sensually grinding her mound against the ribbed handle. At the same time, with the tip of her tongue she licked the flat part of the polished blade carnally. Xena's eyebrows raised *oh gods, Gabrielle you have way too much knowledge in seduction.* The Warrior could not help the deep-throated moan that slipped, as she witnessed her lover play an inviting game. Pleased with the response; the sword was placed to the side and Gabrielle ran her fingers teasingly up Xena's thigh's stopping just short of her destination eliciting a groan from her lover. Dragging her nails lightly down the powerful thighs on the dark-hair woman the Bard removed each of Xena's boots. Xena was already working on the belt of her tunic.

In an arousing growl Gabrielle demanded "?come to me Warrior - now." Taking her hands the Bard led Xena to the blanket. Slipping her soulmate's tunic off to reveal the tall tanned firm body Gabrielle guided her to the blanket. After removing her own boots, Gabrielle rested on her knees straddling her lover and stripped her tunic away. Licking her lips the Bard lowered her body to meet with Xena's. The Warrior opened her mouth immediately needing Gabrielle's tongue to explore. Finding herself close to orgasm just from teasing, Gabrielle entered her tongue deeply into Xena. The Warrior responded and slid her fingers past Gabrielle's earlobes until she could lace them through the soft blonde hair.

Fondling and rubbing Xena's breast Gabrielle required more and dragged her tongue and lips from the warm mouth of her lover settling on the firm dark nipples. "Oh, yes?yes Gabrielle?.please..now."

The Bard recognized the moans coming from her lover. She was pleading for Gabrielle to bring her to climax quickly. Obeying her lover she slid her hand between Xena's hot trembling thighs and cupped her soulmate's center of pleasure. As she began rubbing in circular motions, she slipped her fingers in and out of the hot channel. Leaving a breast to the cool misty air Gabrielle asked "Warrior, do you belong to only me?"

"Oh gods?yes..all ?yours."

Licking the Warriors stomach her tongue went directly to the tattoo only she and Xena shared. Circling the design on the Warrior's left hip she was reminded of what this tattoo signified. With a satisfying grin and several nibbles to the hip Gabrielle commanded her tongue and lips to join her active fingers and she buried herself in the tasty wetness that was only her lover. "You taste so good my Warrior?scream for me?let me know you want this. " The licking and twisting and flicking of her center drove Xena mad and she did indeed scream, as her hips increased rotation to keep up with the love her Bard was giving. As her orgasm took over her body, the forest echoed with a warrior's cry of surrender.

Gabrielle held on to her lover until the tremors stopped. "I love you Xena."

"My Bard, you are so - so very dangerous." The Warrior was beginning to reclaim her breath. "Come here."

Her comment brought giggles from Gabrielle, which were soon muffled with Xena's lips. "Mmmm?it is my turn now. "

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Eponin and Amarice were able to follow the trail left by Maris to the crossroads. A heavy mist was covering the land at a fairly rapid speed and Eponin realized she would not be able to follow the already fading tracks for much longer. Deciding they should camp for the evening and attempt to pick up the trail tomorrow the Amazon chose a site just east of the crossroads situated among the trees. Although there was not any running water or lake close by both the waterbags were full along with the extra bag Amarice carried on her horse. Feeling tired and a bit grumpy Amarice was all too happy to stop for the night.

"Amarice start a fire and pull out something for us to eat. I know you have some cheese and dried meat in your saddlebag. Oh, and heat up some water, I'd like a hot cup of tea."

Slamming her bedroll on the ground Amarice was in no mood to be ordered around. "And just my mighty warrior what will you do?"

The brown-eyed Amazon turned to look at the young redhead. "I'm going to collect some more wood and check the perimeter. Just do what I asked. Oh?and I'm not your mighty warrior. GOT IT." Before Amarice could respond Eponin disappeared into the trees.

After consuming a meal in silence Amarice drifted off to sleep and Eponin stood watch. If she slept at all that would be okay but she would sleep sitting up. There was just something about the mist that crawled through her warrior instincts. The Amazon watched the moon rising in the night sky and eventually it became hidden by the treetops. Glancing down at the young woman sleeping next to the dwindling fire Eponin wondered. *What possesses you to wander redhead. And what do you see in me that leads you to follow me.* A disturbance about fifty paces from the camp interrupted Eponin's thoughts and brought her to her feet. As an animal ready to protect its territory, Eponin pulled her sword and cautiously moved toward the noise. She dropped her sword when a doe popped her head up from the bushes. "Oh?by the gods, you startled me." Sheathing her sword she turned around to retreat to the campfire. "You should consider yourself fortunate that I am not in the mood for deer meat."

"No, you should consider yourself fortunate that I don't beat the amazon attitude out of you."

Not sure whether she was dreaming or Amarice had finally drove her insane. Eponin rapidly turned around and saw her friend. "Ephiny?? "

"Yes you old dumb warrior - it's me. Didn't think you'd get rid of me that easy."

"But??but?.how you?di....YOU DIED!!!" Ephiny moved closer to Eponin and offered her hand in friendship. Eponin however was not sure she wanted to touch an obvious spirit. "Can..can I touch you?"

"Of course, for a while it is okay." Ephiny and Eponin clasped each other's hands. "It is good to see you Eponin."

"Ephiny, why aren't you in??"

"That seems to be a popular question." Ephiny paused for a moment before answering deciding the full story was not necessary. "Artemis needed to me hang around?..so here I am." Backing away slightly Ephiny rested her hands on her hips. "I need you to go to Amphipolis. Don't ask me why just go. You will understand once you are there."

"Okay - but Shulaba ordered me to trail?."

"I know, Maris and her so called friends. Yea, go to Amphipolis anyway." The curly-hair Amazon turned to leave and just as she slipped out of sight Eponin heard her last words. "Go my friend, everything will come full circle and you will understand."

With the mist thickening Eponin returned to the campfire while she could still see it's light to guide her. Not waking Amarice, she would do as Ephiny instructed. She would change their direction in the morning and head to Amphipolis.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

CHAPTER 2

The lovers traveled all day stopping only to eat and rest the mare. Gabrielle walked most of the way until about midday, when Xena insisted Gabrielle double up with her on the mare. The Warrior was determined to make Amphipolis by nightfall. The crescent moon was high in the night sky when Xena and Gabrielle rode into Amphipolis. Most of the homes and businesses were dark and Xena noticed only old man Alexos tavern still had the fires burning with the hard core drinkers keeping him in business. *Some things never change.* The Warrior smirked and realized not that much time had actually passed since she was last home. *It seems so long since we celebrated Gabrielle's birthday.* The couple soon found they were in front of Cyrene's. A low light glimmered through the front window of the inn.

Gabrielle riding behind Xena gave her Warrior a firm hug. "You okay Xena?"

The Warrior nodded yes and halted the mare in front of the inn. She jumped down and reached up to help her soulmate off the mare. At the front door, the Warrior paused, taking several deep breaths to steady her heart rate and slow her pulse. Closing her eyes she gave a sincere thank you to her Creator. Grabbing the handle on the front door Xena felt like time had stopped and she was moving in slow motion. Stepping over the threshold into the inn both women found the main room dark except for the burning embers in the fireplace. Looking to the back Xena saw a warm glow coming from the kitchen. "Mother must still be up." Taking her sword she placed it on a table and reached for Gabrielle hand.

"You go - I'll wait by the fire." Gabrielle firmly believed this reunion between mother and daughter should be private and sacred.

"Are you sure?I?."

Reaching up to lightly kiss her Warrior on the lips, "Sssshhh?yes, take your time. I'll be here, when you are ready."

Xena bent over kissing her soulmate gently, "I love you Gabrielle."

"I know. Now go." Gabrielle watched, as her soulmate moved cautiously to the kitchen. Then she retreated to the warm fire and the cozy oversized rocking chair sitting next to it.

Xena stopped in the doorway to observe her mother looking out the rear kitchen window. Cyrene seemed to have her eyes closed and her head raised as if she was reaching to the stars. Little did Xena know that Cyrene was deep in prayer and thoughts about the little girl she lost to the Romans. Almost in a whisper Xena called out, "Mother."

Cyrene heard the voice and at first though she was dreaming. Turning to the voice the innkeeper's heart rate picked up rapidly, her body began to tremble and she collapsed to her knees. "Xena? Is?.is it really you?"

The Warrior raced across the kitchen to her mother joining her on the floor. She forcefully and protectively held onto her mother's shoulder looking into her eyes. With tears now streaming down Cyrene's face all her little girl could say was, "Hi mom."

Tears now pooled in the Warrior's eyes and she pulled her mother in tightly. For over a half candlemark mother and daughter sat on the floor and could do nothing more than cry, kiss, hug and rock one another. Eventually Cyrene with her face still buried in her daughter's shoulders asked, "Xena what happened?did you really die?"

"Yes mother, but I'm back now." Backing away from her mother's hold, the Warrior wiped her tears with the back of her hand and then began wiping her mothers. "Come on, let's sit and I'll explain." Xena helped her mother to stand but she could tell Cyrene was jumpy and nervous. *I have to remember to be careful what I say. I don't want to hurt her.* This was all Xena could think about. She would have to choose her words carefully - especially around the horrors of being nailed to the cross. Protecting her mother became extremely important to the Warrior.

Cyrene walked over to the stove nervous and afraid this was just a cruel dream - and yet knowing it was not. "How about a nice hot cup of tea. I'll add some lemon. You always did love lemon in your tea. Do you remember Xena, when you were five or six summers old and you tried to convince me lemon in tea was your favorite!" Cyrene placed a pot of water on the stove to boil, and chuckled quietly. "I found out later, you just like to suck on the lemons so you could make your cheeks and lips pucker horribly. Then you use to chase poor little Lyceus around telling him you were possessed and would eat him, if he didn't run."

The Warrior smiled warmly at her mother. "Yes mom?and lemon is still my favorite." Xena did not miss that her mother's hands were still trembling from the shock and Cyrene began to babble bouncing between Xena's childhood stories and events in the village. The Warrior approached her mother. "Mom, slow down, I'm really here and I'm not leaving. Now, you sit down and I'll finish up the tea." The innkeeper gave her daughter's hands a squeeze and sat down. While the water was heating Xena began her story starting with Ephiny's death. Even though Cyrene already knew about the loss of Ephiny from Shulaba and Eponin's visit, she did not wish to stop her daughter from talking. She just needed to hear Xena's voice. Two candlemarks flew by as the two sipped on lemon tea and Xena relayed the tale of Caesar, their capture and death. She purposely toned down their death on the cross trying to spare her mother and she was not over anxious to talk about that herself. The Warrior told her about their spiritual encounter and how an apparition put both her and Gabrielle back on their paths.

Just then it hit Cyrene and she felt ashamed for not asking sooner. "Xena, where is Gabrielle?"

"She's with me, mother. Gabrielle is in the main room."

"Is she okay? I mean does she know?..has she been to Poteidaia yet?" The innkeeper was extremely worried and frightened for the young blonde whom she considered a second daughter.

"No mom, she hasn't. What's going on?"

"Lila is living with me. I gave her Toris' old room upstairs in the back."

Xena shook her head not fully understanding why Lila was living here and what was it Gabrielle obviously did not know. "Mom, why? Can you tell me?"

Reaching for her daughter's hand across the table Xena felt her mother tighten her grip. "Lila came to me five days ago. Her mother had been so distraught after hearing about Gabrielle's death..," Cyrene paused to organize her words, "?well you already know Gabrielle's father loved the ale?unfortunately to make matter worse Herodotus began drinking heavier and heavier spitting out horrible words of hatred and vengeance. He stopped working the farm and spent all their dinars on drink." Then pausing again Cyrene knew what she would tell Xena would anger the Warrior. "Herodotus started yelling words of disgust about Gabrielle?and Hecuba could not take the way he was slandering Gabrielle's memories. He hit her hard with his fist sending her into the wall. Lila jumped between them to stop her father?and he started slapping her. Evidently Hecuba managed to get up and jumped between Lila and Herodotus, but he just struck her again in anger." Cyrene paused to take a sip of her tea. "Lila said her father went charging out the door and?."

The Warrior was visibly shaken by what she was hearing and stopped her mother to ask, "Where is Hecuba?is..is she okay?"

"No, Xena. She died two days after the fight. The healer said her heart just gave up and stopped. Nothing could be done." Cyrene watched as her daughter's eyes filled with fear and pain. "Lila buried her mother the next day and came to me. Poor girl said her father kicked her out. Said it would be best, if she did not stay. Xena as sick as that man is Herodotus had enough sense to send Lila away before he hurt her. Lila did not know where to go - so she came here."

At that moment, the Warrior felt like someone reached down inside of her and ripped her heart out. She began to shake with fear and anger at Herodotus. *There was no way Gabrielle could have known of the death of her mother.* Trying to hold back the tears Xena stood and held her hand out for her mother to take. Together mother and daughter walked hand in hand to the main room. They could see Gabrielle sitting with one leg curled up under her in the big old rocking chair next to the fireplace. The warm red embers and occasional flickering flame bounced and danced off of Gabrielle' profile. Both women witness the Bard deep in sleep. Her head resting back and slightly tilted to the side, her arms draped loosely over the arms of the chair and her hands open and relaxed. Xena did not want to wake her knowing her young life would again change so drastically.

Cyrene sat in the rocking chair opposite Gabrielle. Xena knelt down on one knee next to her soulmate. Mother and daughter did not disturb the Bard - they let her sleep for just a bit longer. Finally unable to hold her hands in place Xena reached up lightly brushing the bangs from Gabrielle's face. "I love her so much mother."

"I know you do, dear."

Smiling at her lover's peaceful face, "I asked her to marry me, mother."

"It is about time, dear. I suppose I don't have to ask what her response was." The innkeeper reached out and patted Xena on the shoulder. "Would you like me to leave you two alone."

The expression on Xena's face was sheer heartache. "Please stay mother. I think she would want you here?.and so do I." Cyrene simply nodded understanding her daughter's needs. The innkeeper had experienced many tragedies in her life. Many were dropped in and mixed among happy times. In wisdom grown from living life for so long, Cyrene knew this death would be hard on the two young women she loved so deeply. The Warrior delicately picked up Gabrielle's hand intricately weaving their fingers together. This action caused the Bard to stir slightly. Bringing their intertwined fingers to her lips the Warrior gently kissed each of Gabrielle's fingers. "Gabrielle, wake up."

A huge smile crossed the Bard's face and her eyes barely peeked through her eyelids. "Mmmm, is it time to get up already?" Not hearing a response Gabrielle opened her eyes to find Cyrene sitting across from her while Xena was kissing her fingers. Being Gabrielle, the playfulness in her voice was apparent, "Hello, Warrior Mom??we're back. "

The innkeeper smiled back at the amazing innocence that at times radiated from Gabrielle. "Welcome home sweetheart. I missed you."

Not wanting to break the moment and yet knowing it would only be worse if she waited, Xena squeezed Gabrielle's hand. "I have something to tell you." Xena lowered her head to catch her breath and then looked at her soulmate. "It is not good."

Lying with her head against the back of the chair Gabrielle shook her head lightly. "What is it Xena."

Briefly closing her eyes and taking a deep breath the Warrior looked straight into Gabrielle's questioning eyes. "You're?..you're mother passed away seven days ago. Her heart just stopped."

Gabrielle made absolutely no sound or motion. She just stared with out reaction or expression directly at Xena, as if she did not hear what was said.

Xena moved closer taking both Gabrielle's hands. "Gabrielle, did you hear me?"

Gabrielle heard clearly what the Warrior was telling her but she found her voice could not form words properly. Feeling the increase rate of her heart beating the Bard asked, "Wh?.where is Lila?"

Cyrene spoke up, wanting desperately to help. "Lila is with me Gabrielle. She came after your mother was buried. She is doing okay. Gabrielle I am going to take care of her."

Gabrielle could not move. She could not even respond to the love and concern she heard in Cyrene. The Bard became afraid to physically move from the chair. If she did - that would be it, she would fall apart. The chair was safe right now. After a few moments which felt to Xena and Cyrene like an eternity the women heard Gabrielle mutter a single question. "Did he kill her?"

Although Gabrielle would need to know the whole story, both mother and daughter glanced to each other and without words nodded in agreement that now was not the time. "No, Gabrielle. Her heart was just weak."

"Yes he did?.he killed her. " After speaking Gabrielle did something that could not have been predicted. Xena and Cyrene anticipated the Bard would collapse in tears. Tears she would need to shed in order to begin healing. But Gabrielle did not cry. Instead Gabrielle shocked both mother and daughter. She let go of Xena's hands and stood up. With her eyes staring straight ahead, as if she was blind, Gabrielle mumbled, "I'm really tired, I?.I'm??I'm going to bed."

Gabrielle staggered without emotion away from the two women. Xena froze in place feeling helpless and scared. "Mom, what do I do?.what?."

"Let her go to bed and give her some time. She is denying what she heard." The innkeeper hoped her advice would help both women. "Xena, the loss will eventually hurt too much for her to pretend nothing happened. And then you and I will both be here for her."

The Warrior could do nothing but watch her soulmate drift into the back area of the inn, where they shared a room Cyrene kept for them. Her mother wrapped her arm around Xena's waist and the two stood there for sometime in silence before Cyrene suggested another cup of tea. The Warrior would give her soulmate a little more time alone and then she would join her. For now she would listen to her mother and the two women returned to the kitchen. With a hot cup of tea in front of them, mother and daughter talked about the bitter sweetness that reunions sometime brought. This night in Amphipolis both happiness and sadness entered the inn simultaneously. In the morning Gabrielle would have to face Lila. The thought frightened Xena. She hated this helpless feeling, she was a warrior - strength and having the solutions to win battles were all valued gifts for a warrior to possess. If this new warrior path meant feeling helpless, then Xena feared the journey might already be over before it could begin.

Without thought Xena spoke, "I refuse to remain helpless!"

The innkeeper's bond with Xena enabled her to just about read her daughter's thoughts. Now, Xena verbalized the unmentionable. Her beautiful, strong, loving child thought she was a helpless warrior unable to help her soulmate heal. "Xena?.you are thinking too much. You're tired."

"Mother, I'm supposed to know what to do?how to help?I'm a warrior!"

Moving around the table to hug her daughter Cyrene searched her long years on this earth to answer her daughter, "Xena, you told me a wonderful story about a power that brought you back to life with the sole purpose of letting you walk your chosen path. Don't question yourself when tragedy strikes. Instead draw on what you know?listen to that warrior spirit - stay on your path."

"Mother, you are so wise." A few unshed tears fell from the Warrior's eyes.

Cyrene laughed lightly and squeezed her daughter's hands. "Go to bed, Xena. Go to your soulmate. I'll talk to Lila when she gets up in the morning."

One candle was still burning when Xena entered the bedroom. She could see Gabrielle's figure lying in bed facing the wall. Quietly the Warrior removed her tunic noticing that Gabrielle had left her some cool clean water, some soap and a towel. *My Bard, you still think of doing the little things for me?even now.* Xena knew Gabrielle was probably trying to stay in a routine to help keep control over her emotions. When she was done washing, the Warrior slipped on a short nightgown. Her mother always left little things in the room for the women in case they should ever visit. Blowing out the candle the Warrior slipped under the blanket. She was careful not to touch Gabrielle right away. Unsure about what her Bard's needs would be at this point Xena did not want to scare her. A small part of Xena's heart dreaded that her Bard might not want to be touched. The Warrior listened for the pattern of Gabrielle's breathing to determine if she was asleep or awake. All of a sudden Gabrielle rolled over moving closer to Xena. She whispered, "Hold me?please. Don't let go, just hold me." That was a request Xena had no trouble with and had actually hoped for. Pulling her in tightly the Warrior kissed Gabrielle many times on the top of her head. "I love you, Gabrielle. I promise I will never let go."

A good candlemark passed before either woman drifted off to sleep. A sleep brought on by emotional exhaustion.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

"MARIS STOP HITTING THE POOR KID." Stella was loosing patience with the constant threat and slaps Maris was dishing out to Pippa. "She is telling the truth. I heard the same rumor in the tavern that Pippa heard in the stables.

Leandra could no longer contain her humor and began laughing. "This is really rather ironic don't you think Maris. How could it get any better."

"I still can't believe they cheated death!" Maris sat down in front of the campfire. "Well this just changes plans a bit. Actually it may even be sweeter." The black-eyed Amazon rebel pointed her finger at Pippa in a threatening manner. "You'd better hope that blacksmith in Therma was telling the truth or I will kill you for his lie!!"

"Maris I'm assuming we are now going after Gabrielle?"

With evil laughter filling the night air like a demon Maris answered the question. "Oh yes Leandra our destination is to kill one Amazon Queen. We will see how well she can cheat death this time." Maris threw her dagger into Pippa's bedroll. "You my child better get some sleep because tomorrow we look for tracks. Gabrielle will only go one of two places - home or Amphipolis." Retrieving her dagger Maris added, "Tomorrow we split up. Leandra and I will go to Poteidaia and Stella you take the brat and check out Amphipolis. We meet at the crossroads tomorrow night. I don't care how hard you have to ride - you just be at the crossroads."

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The following day the sound of movement in the room was enough to wake Xena. Instantly the Warrior sensed the empty space next to her and scanned the room to find an already clothed Gabrielle on a chair tugging at her boots. It appeared to be pass midday and well into late afternoon when Xena realized they slept through most of the day. Wanting to say something caring and loving to Gabrielle but not sure of how she would react Xena blurted out, "Are you hungry?" Instantly regretting her choice of words *Great going warrior - are you hungry - sure that'll show her you care.*

"No, not really. Sorry if I woke you."

There was absolutely no hint in the tone of Gabrielle's voice to indicate anger, sadness or love. She just simply answered Xena's question. With her boots on the Bard walked toward the bedroom door, opened it and walked out of the room. No final 'see ya later' or 'come with me' and no kiss or hug. She just left. A horrifying weight punctured the Warrior's spirit. This sensation terrified Xena and she was unsure which hurt more, watching Gabrielle physically die or watching her emotionally die. The Warrior slumped back on the bed pulling Gabrielle's pillow over her face and sobbed.

Gabrielle found Lila and Cyrene in the kitchen with two of the innkeeper's employees who cooked meals, cleaned rooms, served customers and tended bar. When Lila came to Cyrene, the innkeeper without hesitation offered her a job. She prayed her decision would inspire independence in the young brunette and help her heal from the deaths of her mother, Gabrielle and the abuse of her father. Cyrene was pleased, when Lila agreed. Deep down inside Cyrene welcomed the freshness youth could bring to a home. Now that Gabrielle was alive Cyrene mused it could only help Lila's healing. When Gabrielle emerged into the kitchen Cyrene quickly shooed her employees out to give the two sisters privacy. Before leaving them alone the Warrior Mom watched them embrace furiously. Xena came up behind her and placed her hand on Cyrene's shoulder.

Turning to wrap her arm around her daughter's waist the innkeeper whispered, "I explained everything to Lila. She wanted to wake Gabrielle up but I convinced her to wait."

Xena's body language was clearly sad. Also obvious to Cyrene was that she had been crying and her daughter did nothing to hide her emotions from her mother. "I'm afraid mom. Afraid I will loose her?.she won't talk."

Before leading her daughter from the kitchen both women could not help but notice, as Lila was rapidly sputtering the events that transpired with their parents and then suddenly she would switch to her happiness over Gabrielle's rebirth. Alternating between the two topics without a pattern Lila was clinging desperately to her older sister. Lila cried as her voice ranged up and down in varying tones. What saddened both Xena and Cyrene was that Gabrielle said absolutely nothing. She held Lila like a small child occasionally wiping Lila's tears. But the Bards face was without expression and without tears. Lila's older sister was totally detached from all emotions. The passion, innocence and excitement of Gabrielle's personality were missing. Leaving the young girls together Cyrene took her daughter's hand and led her to the garden in back of the inn. "Let's sit on the bench Xena. I'm worried about you."

"Mom, I will be okay, as soon as Gabrielle is okay."

As they sat close to each other, Cyrene pulled her daughter's head to her shoulder and began rubbing her back. "Hmm?..I suppose this is the 'soulmate' bond you two have. Sounds like a very big obligation."

Not sure quite how to read her mother's statement the Warrior sat up straight feeling she needed to clarify her bond with Gabrielle. "Mother this is an obligation that both of us agreed too. I know we will go through times when we are sad or hurt, as well as arguments." Pausing for a moment the Warrior kissed her mom on the cheek. As they journeyed to Amphipolis, her guilt kept pointing the finger at her heart. She blamed herself for Gabrielle's death and every time the inner voice would come up, Xena masked it with fear and denial. They should have stayed longer at the cave. They should have given themselves more time to heal. Tears were running down Xena's face, as if the dam broke.

Cyrene guided her daughter's body so she could cradle Xena. "Oh, my child I know you are suffering with memories that are hard to share. When you are ready remember that I am always here to listen." Fully aware of the suffering and pain Xena and Gabrielle experienced at the hands of the Romans, she realized that her daughter was unaware of the horrible stories that drifted through Greece concerning their deaths. The innkeeper did not want to bring the topic up until her daughter was ready. There was, however, another matter, which Cyrene knew in her heart that she had to tell Xena. Cursing herself for not telling her sooner the innkeeper decided it would be best, at this time if Xena heard about Gabrielle's abuse from her. "Xena, I must tell you something that I should have told you years ago. Please forgive my dreadful timing and please forgive me for not telling you sooner." The no-nonsense seriousness of her mother's voice caught the Warriors attention. Her tears stopped and the Warrior sat up. "My daughter, I had hoped Gabrielle would tell you and a part of me prayed you would see the bruises once you became intimate with her but?."

"Bruises? Mom what are you talking about?"

The determined look in her mom's face told the Warrior that she needed to listen attentively. Cyrene related the story to her daughter how she accidentally discovered the bruises on Gabrielle several years ago. How the Bard had cried and how she begged Cyrene not to say anything. She then continued by relating Lila's stories of how Gabrielle was abused repeated through her childhood right up until she left Poteidaia to chase after Xena. After that the abuse was not as frequent. The Warrior's anger began to take control and the innkeeper saw the change. "Xena, don't do this to yourself."

"How could anyone??I?I?" Xena started slamming her fists repeatedly into the stone bench. "How could I have missed this??I must be blind!" Then the pieces fell into place and the Warrior spoke in a murmur not conscious that her mother heard "She was afraid her father would beat her?.that was the look I saw in her eyes - that indescribable fear."

Standing in front of her daughter Cyrene grabbed her fists preventing her from slamming them into the stone bench. "XENA, listen to me!! Don't be angry with you or with her. Gabrielle is going to need you more than ever?.and YOU MY DEAR WARRIOR DAUGHTER will need her just as much to heal through your own pain. "

Standing up the Warrior wiped her tears of anger, sadness and frustration away. "I will kill that man, if he ever comes near Gabrielle. Mother, I swear??."

". He is still her father. You do not need to be the one to take that away from her. Control your anger Xena or it will destroy you??please. I am begging you Xena.? I CAN NOT BEAR to see you once again become that ruthless warlord you once were."

Looking at the fear in her mother's eyes the Warrior remembered how she became a madwoman with the death of Lyceus. She knew her mom was right. Anger would only destroy her and it would also destroy the woman she loved so dearly.

Unannounced and grinning ear to ear Lila came bursting through the back door stumbling into the garden stopping short of the Warrior. "Xena, thank you - it feels so good to have Gabrielle back. I've missed her so badly?.and, well thank you."

The fading yellow bruises surrounding Lila's left eye and various areas of her arms were more apparent now, than when she saw Lila standing in the kitchen. The Warrior approached Lila intending on giving her a hug. Lila did not wait and threw her arms around Xena. Excited and happy Lila realized she was also pleased that Xena was okay. "I'm glad to see you too. I was so unhappy when I heard about?well, the Romans??and, anyway I love your mom??she has been so good to me."

The Warrior chuckled. *Typical Lila, can't string one thought together without jumping to another.* But Xena was pleased that Lila was receptive because she could remember back to a time when Lila was jealous of her relationship with Gabrielle. "Lila where is Gabrielle?"

"Oh, I have some chores to do before the evening crowd shows up, so Gabby went shopping. Probably just as well, I did all the crying and talking anyway. I think she was getting tired of listening."

In unison both mother and daughter questioned. "SHOPPING? "

Totally na´ve Lila added, "Yea, she grabbed her staff and said something about steel and leather."

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Racing out of the inn, Xena knew Gabrielle's comment of 'steel and leather' meant she was shopping for a sword and clothing only a warrior would wear. The Bard had no need for either item unless she was planning to go into battle or kill someone. There was only one shop in Amphipolis where weapons could be purchased and several shops for clothing. Xena would try the weapons shop first. Her Uncle Tensandi owned the shop so Xena decided to warn her Uncle not to sell anything to the Bard. Xena was almost to the shop when she saw a crowd gathering in the village square. Just then her Uncle rushed out of his shop and headed toward the commotion in the square. Uncle Tensandi would never leave anyone alone in his shop unattended so Xena followed the growing crowd in the square.

The Warrior pushed and nudged her way though the crowds to find Gabrielle shoving her staff into the body of some poor soul that must have made her Bard angry. Moving to stop Gabrielle before she hurt this poor individual the Warrior felt the pressure of an extremely strong tug on her arm. Turing around to decide whether she would kick this person in the face Xena was shocked to find Eponin.

"Eponin? What's going on?.."

Eponin chuckled lightly and gave Xena a hard but friendly pat on the back. "Good to see you, my friend. You sure don't like staying dead do you." Laughing at her own attempt at humor Eponin pointed to the body underneath the Bard's staff. "Unfortunately Gabrielle was not too happy to see Amarice."

Xena looked again and saw that the person her Bard had pinned to the ground was indeed Amarice. "Well, I see she got away from the Romans. They probably threw her out in hopes that some unfortunate soul would claim her."

The Amazon rolled her eyes, "Yea, no kidding. I was the unfortunate soul. Shulaba's idea of humor."

Suddenly both warriors heard a plea of help from Amarice. "Uhhh, someone want to get peace-lover off of me."

Problem was at that moment, no one understood that Gabrielle no longer felt at peace and that she was teetering on a dangerous emotional edge. It was becoming too difficult to hold her anger and pain especially after spending time with Lila. At this point, she understood that she was loosing control and it was not going to take much to send her over the edge one way or the other.

"Hello??Eponin?..come on this woman is crazy. " Amarice began to feel fear of death creep into her heart. She could see only too well that the once peace-loving woman with her staff to Amarice's heart had lost complete control.

With the wisdom borne from years of battle Xena and Eponin moved swiftly and without hesitation. The Amazon kicked the staff away from Amarice's heart while the Warrior grabbed her lover from behind forcing her arms down and causing the staff to fly from her hands. The sudden force overpowering Gabrielle from behind acted as a catalyst and the Bard found her voice. "PUT ME DOWN!"

Eponin helped Amarice to her feet and Xena gently released Gabrielle. Uncle Tensandi began dispersing the crowd and Xena acknowledged his help with a smile and a nod. Once to her feet the redheaded Amazon quickly moved to hide behind Eponin. No one spoke, as Gabrielle withdrew pushing her way through the remaining crowd and headed in the direction of the beach.

Eponin grabbed Xena's arm before she could follow Gabrielle. "Amarice pick up Gabrielle's staff and follow her."

"ARE YOU CRAZY SHE JUST TRIED TO KILL ME."

The dark hair Amazon was in no mood for disobedience. "You heard me Amarice. Follow her just don't get close. If she attacks?..then run. If she leaves the village area, follow her and send back a message." Forcing a puff of air through her lungs to show her irritation Amarice grabbed the staff and jogged to catch up with the Bard.

The Warrior turned to Eponin. "Listen, thanks for the help, and it is great to see you?..but I have to go after Gabrielle."

"No my friend, give her some time. Amarice is capable of looking out after her. First you tell me what in Hades is going on! I thought you were dead. And what's with Gabrielle I've never seen her like that."

With the knowledge that Amarice was following her Bard, Xena relinquished her need to chase Gabrielle. Together Xena and Eponin walked to the inn. The Warrior explained their deaths as well as their rebirth and new mountain home. Xena did not mention Ephiny. By the time Xena began telling Eponin about what she knew of Gabrielle's abuse Cyrene had joined them. Although Eponin already knew about the some of the abuse, she thought it would be best to let her friend talk. For a good candlemark Eponin and Cyrene listened as Xena pour out her heart, her hopes, her fears and her dreams.

With the setting sun Amarice came through the front door of the inn still holding Gabrielle's staff. The Warrior, Amazon and Cyrene were seated at the bar. Out of breath from running she told Eponin, "Listen, I'm hungry. I have to eat."

"I thought I told you?."

Amarice interrupted Eponin before she could scold her any further. "Yea, yea. She's down on the beach meditating. I figured it would be safe to come back for something to DRINK and EAT. I'm starving."

Cyrene not really wanting to debate Eponin's reasoning decided to speak up to ease the atmosphere. "Amarice, I don't think we've met. Come on into the kitchen and I'll get you some food. In fact you can meet Lila, I think you are the same age."

The Warrior found humor in Shulaba's wisdom to match Eponin and Amarice together and decided to rub that in a little bit. "Wow, Shulaba sure learned fast how to be Queen."

Placing her hand on Xena's shoulder Eponin lowered her head and sighed. "Xena, I'm disappointed. I thought you would take my side."

"Eponin, I need to go to her." The Warrior stood up reaching her arm out offering a warrior's handshake, which was immediately accepted. "Thank you for listening to me. I never thought talking would be for me?but somehow it has eased some of the hurt"

It was not difficult to find Gabrielle. The lovers had a favorite spot on the beach tucked among several sand dunes. Rocky cliffs bordered to the north and the sea was in front. The waves slapping the shore were far enough so the tide never poised a threat on the nights the couple decided to sleep on the warm beach under the stars. Hoping she would find Gabrielle in this spot the Warrior was not disappointed. The Bard was in a simple yoga position crossed legs, back straight and arms resting on her knees. The Warrior located herself closely behind Gabrielle and waited. Her wait was not long.

Gabrielle opened her eyes unable to focus properly for meditation. Her thoughts were tumbling and she was unable to stop them. As subtle as the Warrior could be, Gabrielle knew Xena was behind her. "Xena, I'm sorry. I know you wanted to help and I pushed you away. I've hurt you and ignored you. I've ruined your reunion with Cyrene. I've shamed you in front of your village. I've lied to you about Poteidaia and my father. I even was ready to leave you in order to kill my father. I do not deserve you Xena. I betrayed our promise to always work things through together."

Her voice was low - almost a whisper, it was soft and concerning and the Warrior understood her soulmates sorrow. From behind the Warrior moved closer until she was only a breath away and paused momentarily hoping Gabrielle would not push her away. Slowly she wrapped her arms around her soulmate pulling her out of the yoga position until she rested completely and securely within her grasp. At first the Bard's body stiffened but she did not reject the affection Xena was offering. Not sure whether to be serious or add some humor the Warrior decided to try both. Nuzzling into Gabrielle's hair and tempting close to her earlobe the Warrior whispered tenderly. "You are not going to get out of our marriage that easy." Physically feeling Gabrielle relax she continued. "First - you did not ruin my reunion with mom and you did not embarrass me. You are everything I desire Gabrielle and I don't know how I would have reacted, if the situation were reversed. I know when Lyceus died I turned to hate. Thank the gods that you have not. I know it will not be easy for you to heal the pain your father has caused or the death of your mother but I will ALWAYS be here for you. Please?please don't lock me out. I love you and we need to go through this together." They sat without conversation under the stars.

Breaking the silence Gabrielle turned her head looking up into the Warrior's sculptured face. To Gabrielle she possessed the face of a god - complete beauty. Softly and in a shy whisper Gabrielle made a request of her soulmate. "Xena?would you sing for me?" With a smile the Warrior continued holding and protecting her lover and the Bard allowed her too. As the stars danced through the night sky a voice pure and mesmerizing sang a song of love and faith to her soulmate. The moon was high overhead before Xena suggested they go back to the inn.

"Gabrielle, have you had anything to eat since we arrived at mom's?"

"No, I've not been hungry."

Standing the Warrior pulled her Bard up into her arms giving her a delicate kiss on the head. "Well, let's go, I'm sure mom will have some nutbread hiding in a cupboard for you. Promise me you'll at least try to eat." Gabrielle agreed and accepted the hand her soulmate offered.

Watching the couple leave from her position in the shadows at the top of the cliff, a lone Amazon stood guard. "Thank you Ephiny for trusting in me."

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Maris and Leandra made good time to Poteidaia arriving by mid afternoon. With stern orders to the stable boy to rub down and feed the horses the women ventured to the local tavern. Typically the best place to hear rumors and find answers to questions. Neither woman was disappointed. In fact just about every drunk and harlot in the place was talking about how Xena beat Caesar. Both women were into their third mug of ale before they heard the news of Hecuba's death and Lila's move to Amphipolis. The stories of Xena and her sidekick, the hometown bard, eventually turned to gossip. That was when Maris smiled at what she felt was bonus information. Gabrielle's father had been abusive. Maris would find a way to use this bit of information against Gabrielle. After a fourth ale, the banished Amazons retrieved their horses riding hard and fast back to the crossroads.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Gabrielle slept on and off the rest of the night. For the most part she had not been sleeping soundly or peacefully since hearing of her mother's death. Adding to her anxiety was Lila going on and on about their father. The Bard understood that Lila needed to talk - the problem came when Lila explained that after Gabrielle left Poteidaia their father started beating their mother, as a replacement for Gabrielle. The tender emotional Bard began to blame herself for her mother's suffering. And young na´ve Lila, did not have enough experience in life to include Gabrielle in her mourning. Instead she would talk and relive the events without stopping long enough to realize her sister also needed support. So every time Gabrielle was near Lila all of her sister's words would haunt the Bard?..and the guilt was becoming overwhelming. A small murmur came from her sleeping Warrior pulling Gabrielle from her musings. She did not want to wake Xena. In her emotional needs she was drawn to Xena and could not stop herself from running her fingers casually through the long silky raven hair. Last night after agreeing with Xena to eat, the Bard found food did not really have any taste to it and only consumed an apple. The Warrior made no further demands and when they came to bed, Xena just held her giving her several kisses on the top of the head until she fell asleep. It was not much longer after that, when Gabrielle woke to find their positions reversed. Xena needed to be held. Drifting on and off between the dreamworld and life Gabrielle never moved and instead increased her hold securely around her soulmate. Unrealistically believing she had caused further pain to Xena and had neglected the Warrior's needs, Gabrielle began scolding herself and withdrew emotionally without realizing what she was doing. Tragedy does strange things to people.

The Warrior awoke to the feeling of her soulmates fingers fondling her hair. Rather than moving she relaxed soaking in the love she was receiving. Gabrielle was always generous and mushy with her feelings for the Warrior but with the death of Gabrielle's mother - her Bard seemed to lose the ability to express her feelings until last night on the beach and at this very moment. Reality set in quickly and she realized once again that they both slept in. Xena decided to move. The Warrior wanted to get Gabrielle back into a routine hoping it would help her to talk about her grief. Leaning up to rest on her arm Xena smiled to find her soulmate's eyes looking back at her. "Ready to get up. I could use a hot bath and someone to wash my hair and scrub my back. Interested in the job?" With a faint smile the Bard only nodded her head.

Running her finger over the lips she wanted to kiss Xena decided to hold back. She did not want to force Gabrielle into anything she would not be ready for. "Would you like to go shopping later? I sure would like to get back into some leathers." Hoping Gabrielle would agree and then kiss her, the Bard gave an even weaker nod of her head in agreement. Outside of holding hands, a few comforting kisses on the cheek or head and of course, the cuddling, Gabrielle did not make any attempt at intimacy. Gabrielle was always finding a reason to kiss the Warrior and she always kissed Xena when they awoke. The Bard's apparent decision to hold back only confirmed the Warrior's fears that Gabrielle was not emotionally ready. *Okay my love, I will not push you. What is most important now is that you talk about your pain and loss?maybe once you can cry then?..* The Warrior was pulled from her musing by a Bard crawling out of bed.

Several moments later the pair headed for the bathhouse connected to inn. Before they reached the end of the hallway Lila came strolling towards them. "Good afternoon. Boy you two are sleepyheads." Giving Gabrielle a kiss on the cheek, she then whispered something in her ear. Quickly turning to face Xena the young brunette patted her on the arm and dropped two towels over the Warrior's shoulder. "Bath is nice and hot. Your mom thought you might be waking up." Tuning quickly to face her sister. "Gabby you feeling okay?"

"Yes, I'm fine Lila. How are you feeling?" Gabrielle squeezed Lila's hand and returned the kiss on her sister's cheek.

Quickly Lila giggled like a small child, "I feel wonderful. It really helped to talk with you yesterday about mom's death. And maybe we can talk some more later. Hades, and thanks Gabby for taking most of?well you know?.the bea?.." Lila abruptly stopped talking. She had almost forgotten that Gabrielle told her not too talk about father around Xena. "Well?.I have chores to do, see you both later."

The Warrior did not miss how Lila dropped the subject nervously. Glancing at Gabrielle for a reaction, the Warrior found none. The wall was already built and Xena did not like Gabrielle hiding secrets. She mused that her beautiful soulmate was Herodotus' target and release for his anger. This only fueled the Warrior's anger.

As the women continued toward the bathhouse Gabrielle slyly offered her hand to Xena. "I have to thank your mom for taking Lila in." Pleased that Gabrielle reached out to hold her hand the Warrior squeezed it tightly and thought. *Hang in there Gabrielle we can get through this together.*

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Eponin and Cyrene were having a nice cup of tea when Amarice walked in and plopped her self in the chair next to the Amazon Warrior. Refusing tea the young redhead would only accept water from Cyrene. With one elbow on the table and her head leaning into her hand Amarice watched Eponin.

"Amarice will you go find something to do. Go take care of the horses."

"Already did."

"Well then go chop some wood for Cyrene."

"Done."

"Okay - go sharpen your sword."

"Taken care of."

Cyrene was enjoying this exchange immensely. *Oh my Amazon friend, this young pup is not going to let you get off that easy.* Clearing her throat to stop from laughing only gained a raised eyebrow from Eponin.

"Amarice go help Lila with her chores."

"Chores are done. Eponin, are you trying to get rid of me?" The innocence of Amarice's question sent Cyrene over the edge and she started laughing under her breath.

Eponin could not miss the shaking shoulders of the innkeeper and her strain at keeping her lips sealed together. "Cyrene this is really not very funny - you know that, right?"

The innkeeper could do nothing but close her eyes, nod her head and continue suppressing her laughter that now included several squeaks slipping from her lips.

"OKAY - I'M OUT OF HERE." Eponin knocked the chair to the floor as she attempted to stand. Turning around to pick up the chair she slammed her shins into the chair legs. "HADES - Amarice find something to do in a place where I will not be!!!" With that being said the Amazon stormed out of the kitchen.

At that point, Cyrene was in tears and the laughter no longer needed to be suppressed. "Oh my sweet young child, that Warrior will definitely be a challenge for you."

Amarice was also amused. Taking Cyrene's hands in hers and with a big smile she asked, "Do you think I stand a chance? I mean was Xena this bad?"

"Oh yes my dear - you sure do stand a chance. And yes, Xena was horribly confused and clumsy and flustered before she admitted her love to Gabrielle."

The young Amazon kissed Cyrene's hands and got up to leave.

"Where are you going Amarice?" Cyrene could not let her leave without knowing.

Blowing the older woman a kiss as she ran out of the kitchen, the young woman shouted back, "I'm going to find my Amazon."

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The bath was uneventful compared to many others the couple had taken together. Gabrielle washed Xena's hair and scrubbed her back. She also allowed Xena to reciprocate but then quickly took the sponge, washed her body and stepped out of the tub. The normal soak, cuddle and play that often accompanied their bath time were missing. The Warrior made a promise to herself that she would give her soulmate another day before she would confront Gabrielle about the loss of her mother. She was starting to worry that pushing her might be the only way Gabrielle would grieve.

Walking toward the kitchen hoping her mom would take pity and cook something for the two of them Xena offered, "You still have one more question left."

Gabrielle knew she had been too quiet and upon hearing the uncertainty in her lover's voice Gabrielle went along with the game they had started days ago. "Okay?does this person?this female have anything at all to do with family?"

"Well?.yea?sort of."

"Xena, yes or no is all you can say. You can't tell me sort of."

While she was thinking how to answer, the Warrior tilted her head back and forth pretending to concentrate eventually flashing a smile at Gabrielle. "Yes, this female is family."

Gabrielle was stumped. She had hoped Xena would have said no - but she said yes. Before Gabrielle could think any deeper Amarice was shouting at them from the opened front door. "Xena, Gabrielle come out here!"

Eponin was thrilled with the impact registering in Xena's face, as she stepped through the front door to see her pale warhorse.

"ARGO!!!" The Warrior rushed to the mare swinging her arms around Argo's neck hugging, patting and rubbing the horse. She was rewarded with a few warm whinnies and a shake of the head. "Oh..girl I've missed you so much."

Xena could hear Gabrielle, "Oh, no?.that's it, isn't it Xena?the answer is Argo." The Warrior answered her soulmate with a laugh and a grin. Gabrielle shook her head in submission that her Warrior once again won the game. She would have never guessed it was Argo without this reunion. The Bard joined her partner giving Argo a couple of strong pats on the neck and nose. She had to admit she too missed the horse. But right now, Gabrielle was contented to see Xena so very happy and childlike. Somewhere tucked away in her heart Gabrielle was afraid her inability to share her sorrow would become a burden. And with that burden her Warrior would leave.

On the rooftop of the inn an owl perched observing and listening to the inner voice of her Chosen One. "My beautiful Amazon Queen your pain is breeding a mask of deception and unrealistic fears." Leaving the rooftop for the blue sky Artemis prayed to a greater god that the Warrior would stay strong and protect her Chosen One.

The Warrior turned to Eponin who quickly explained that the horse came to Cyrene and she in turned asked Eponin to care for Argo. Both women soon became recipients of powerful hugs and thanks. Returning to Argo with a tremendous amount of excitement, "Come on girl you want to go for a ride?" Not waiting or expecting an answer Xena jumped onto Argo's back with a single leap and then the thought hit her like a battle-ax. Xena did not want to leave Gabrielle and therefore she reached out for the Bard to take her hand. Gabrielle rested her hands on the Warrior's knee and lovingly massaged the knee and leg tenderly. Xena did not miss this display of affection and instantly melted into Gabrielle's eyes. Bending down from the saddle to get closer to her soulmate the Warrior said, "Come with me Gabrielle."

"Not this time Warrior. You go on and enjoy your time with Argo."

Xena's heart sank slightly, "But, I want?." Unexpectedly the Warrior was pulled into a kiss, which was sensitive and sweet. Sooner than she desired the Bard also ended the kiss and whispered, "Go, my Warrior. You can take me for a ride later."

Staying upright in the saddle was proving to be difficult. The kiss and Gabrielle's tenderness made Xena's muscles feel like mush. "Okay, but I'm going to keep you to that promise. I won't be gone long." The dark-hair Warrior tugged on Argo's rein and with untamed laughter she kicked Argo's flanks directing the horse in a full canter out of the village. Cyrene just sighed aware that she would probably owe several villagers who were now vaulting out of Xena's way, an apology.

Once Xena was out of view the women entered the inn. From the window of Alexos Tavern, Stella absorbed every unvoiced gesture and every face surrounding the Queen. She also took note that Eponin and Amarice were in Amphipolis. *Umpf?.I wonder what they are up too. No matter Amazons you can not stop the fate of your Queen.*

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Lila laid claim on her sister as soon as they entered the inn. There were only a few customers at the bar and for the most part the inn was quiet, thus making Lila believe that Cyrene would not mind if she spent time with Gabrielle.

"Eponin, can I see you in the kitchen." Both women headed toward the kitchen with a tail behind them.

The Amazon stopped abruptly forcing the little redhead into her back. Without turning around she said, "Amarice, I did not hear your name mentioned. Go practice being nice to Gabrielle and Lila."

The innkeeper did everything in her power to suppress the grin creeping up to her face. *Very interesting Eponin?.you fight her too hard.* Continuing on into the kitchen with Eponin by her side the temptation to pursue this was too great. "You like her, don't you Eponin?" There was no response, which only confirmed what Cyrene believed. Internally smiling she mused, *Looks like denial to me. And it reminds me of some other warrior I know?who was just as stubborn.*

Once in the kitchen Cyrene motioned for Eponin to sit. Pouring the Amazon a mug of ale and one for herself Cyrene sat across from her warrior friend. "Eponin, be honest with me, why are you and Amarice in Amphipolis? And why did you follow Xena to the beach? Oh, and how did you hear about Xena and Gabrielle being alive?" Pausing to take a sip of her ale the Warrior Mom added, "?and don't beat around the bush. I know when someone is avoiding the truth."

Admiring her spunk Eponin explained the incident at the Amazon village, Maris' threat and Shulaba's instructions to track and spy on Maris and her little group. At first she hesitated telling Cyrene about her meeting with Ephiny in the mist but quickly agreed that the truth would be important, so she relayed her encounter with the doe and Ephiny.

"What did Maris mean with her threat to Shulaba?"

"We are not sure. That is why I was tracking her until Ephiny told me to come here. I had no idea Xena and Gabrielle were alive until Gabrielle knocked Amarice to her back." Emptying her mug of ale the Amazon stated. "I have not told Xena about Maris yet."

Refilling Eponin's mug Cyrene's curiosity asked, "Before we talk further, just why did Gabrielle knock that pretty young girl down?"

The Amazon started to laugh. "Cyrene, that pretty girl is not that helpless. I suppose it is not really that funny but when Gabrielle saw Amarice, she attacked her mumbling something about her being a coward and running." Eponin reached across the table to affectionately pat the innkeeper's hand. "Cyrene I will tell Xena about Maris when she returns and then I will let her decide whether Gabrielle needs to know." The Amazon noticed Cyrene's mug of ale was almost empty and she reciprocated pouring the innkeeper another mug. "I have already sent word to Shulaba about Gabrielle and Xena being alive. Shulaba is a good woman and she will want to know."

Before either woman could finish their ale Amarice was standing by the table. Playing with one of the feathers in her hair, the Amazon was apparently frustrated. "What's wrong my child." Intentionally Cyrene sounded motherly.

Amarice liked Xena's mom so she allowed the reference to the word 'child'. "Look, I tried - okay! But Lila talks way too much. And she never stays on one topic - she bounces all over the place - and I think she's driving Gabrielle crazy. All that peasant rambles on about is how her father beat up on Gabrielle and how Gabrielle took Lila's beatings for her?..and when Gabrielle left, her mother stepped in to take the abuse so Lila would not have too." Amarice started waving her arms around to emphasis her point and irritation. "I think Lila is a spoiled brat."

Sitting back in her chair desperately holding her temper over what she was hearing, Eponin refilled her mug again. "Amarice, go back out there and talk to Gabrielle. Interrupt Lila if you have too. Talk about the Amazons. You do have that in common with Gabrielle. Maybe Lila will calm down once she knows you are talking to her sister."

Just as Eponin was bringing the mug to her lips Amarice grabbed it from her hand causing some of the ale to spill over Eponin's hand. Taking a drink from the same mug that touched Eponin's lips was exactly what Amarice wanted. "Can't talk to Gabrielle now, she's gone."

Fear struck deeply into Cyrene's heart. "What do you mean she is gone???where!!!!"

The dark-hair Amazon was out of her seat in lightening speed and almost knocked Lila over on the way into the main room. Grabbing a disheveled Lila by the shoulders Eponin sternly questioned. "Where did your sister go?"

"She said she was tired and was going to lay down."

Eponin, Cyrene and Amarice bolted down the hallway towards the bedroom. Stopping just short of ramming into the door the trio piled up on each other. Cyrene knocked on the door. Not hearing a response she opened it slowly. Gabrielle was not there.

"HADES, where could she have gone." Eponin slammed her fist into the wall. "Cyrene check the grounds around the building. Amarice check the beach and the eastern side of the village, I'll cover the remaining area." Everyone was in agreement and each set out in search of the Bard.

In their haste to get out of the inn Eponin and Amarice found themselves competing, as to whom would get through the door of the inn first. Eponin won and Amarice found herself flat on her back. Xena was just entering the village when she witnessed the struggle through the door of her mother's inn. *Yes my friend, you have it bad for that little redhead.* Xena dismounted from Argo and as she got closer to Eponin, she could see the concern in the dark brown eyes of her friend.

"Xena, we are looking for Gabrielle have you seen her."

Xena knew her soulmate was faltering on the edge of collapsing and immediately cursed herself for not insisting the Bard ride Argo with her. The mare was quickly abandoned, as the Warrior bolted into the inn. A quick check of their bedroom confirmed Amarice's echoes that Gabrielle was not in there. Breathing hard just to keep up with her increasing heart rate the Warrior halted when she reached the garden and saw Gabrielle sitting under a tree with her mom close by. Cyrene immediately saw Xena. Before the Warrior could get to them both women were standing and walking to her.

Cyrene forced the conversation so Xena would have a moment to calm down. "Xena, did you have a good time with Argo. Gabrielle and I were just having a little conversation about Lila." The innkeeper gave Gabrielle a motherly hug around her shoulders.

The Warrior took one of Gabrielle's hands. "Hey, you okay? Everything okay with Lila?"

The Bard merely nodded her head and offered Xena a weak but pleasant smile. "Xena, I'm kind of tired. I?..I guess everything is just catching up with me." The Bard's face was pale and began to perspire. Xena could feel Gabrielle's hand tremble ever so lightly, her voice was lacking in strength and her eyes began to roll back. The Warrior realized her soulmate was in trouble just in time to catch her, as she lost consciousness.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

CHAPTER 3

Gabrielle slept through the remainder of the day and evening, waking only occasionally, when Xena massaged her body with a cool wet cloth or attempted to get her to drink fluids. The Bard really had no clue what was going on and would quickly fall back into a deep state of sleep. The Warrior refused to sleep that night. Instead she paced the floor and spent time talking with her mother and Eponin who took turns keeping her company and tried to reassure her that Gabrielle would be okay. Eponin was able to tell Xena about the banished Amazons, which unfortunately only added to the Warrior's concerns. Lila stopped in to see her sister only twice. Both times she was brief and tearful. Xena could not bring herself to ask Lila any questions. Before dawn the Warrior finally fell asleep with her arms wrapped around Gabrielle. Waking by late afternoon Xena placed a light kiss to her lover's lips and left Gabrielle to sleep a little longer. The Warrior went in search of her mother. Departing the inn she was thoroughly amused to find Amarice helping Lila wait on tables and serving meals to the late afternoon crowd. Cyrene was found sitting on the bench outside the inn with Eponin, as her companion. The innkeeper and the Amazon were happy to see Xena. In spite of the fact that she still appeared tired, there was something about the way she held her muscular frame that told the women the Warrior was up to something. "What my dear warrior daughter is running through that beautiful head of yours?"

"A celebration! Mom, I want us to have a private celebration right here at the inn. Invite only close family and friends - basically people who will be supportive and uplifting - no talk of death. I want lots of food and drink, music, dancing, story telling?the whole works!"

"Xena, do you really think this is a good idea. Gabrielle needs to face her grief. Aren't you worried this, 'small private celebration' might help her cover her grief up."

Falling to her knees Xena held on to her mother's hands. "Mother, don't you see. Gabrielle can't shake this numbness that has taken over. She won't talk about it, she eats extremely little and she passed out because she is shutting down. Look how long she's been sleeping. Mother, she avoids anything intimate beyond a simple kiss on the cheek. That woman walking around in Gabrielle's body is not my need-to-touch and feel sentimental Bard."

Laughing loudly at Xena's last statement the dark hair Amazon interjected, "Gee Xena that kiss she gave you yesterday when you were on Argo looked pretty intimate and inviting."

Xena found herself blushing slightly. "Don't you see, that was the only time since she heard of her mother's death that she even acted remotely intimate with me and then she backed away. Hades - we are suppose to get married and it's like?" Both Cyrene and Eponin could hear the fear of loss in the Warrior's voice. Xena was desperately trying to hold on to Gabrielle and herself. Without a need to converse the women glanced toward each other and their eyes agreed that there has been too many drastic events over the recent moons. "?.I need to shake her up without hurting her. If she can at least focus on the good in her life, then maybe it will help. Right how it is like nothing matters to her anymore. And anyway by the time Gabrielle and I get back??."

"Where are you going Xena?"

"Mother, I am taking my future wife to the temple overlooking Kolpos Bluff."

"Xena, that is one of Aphrodite's temple. Why there?" Cyrene's motherly instinct took over and she needed to know what her daughter was up too.

"Mom, trust me. What better place can I possible take Gabrielle than a temple devoted to love." Xena took her mother's hand and placed her other reassuringly on Eponin's shoulder. "Look, I can't explain why I need to do this. When I was sitting on Argo this white owl took a dive at me. It almost knocked me out of the saddle. Then the thought came to me about taking Gabrielle to a temple. I'm praying that without distractions, especially from Lila - I just might get Gabrielle to talk to me."

A huge smile crossed the brown-eyed Amazon's face and she uttered a single word. "Artemis!"

The Warrior laughed, "Yes, that is what I thought also. Aphrodite's temple is the closest and somehow I can't imagine Artemis being upset with love. And the celebration - well I'm hoping it will ease her back into life. You both know how she loves parties and people. I want to give her something she likes."

"Okay Xena, okay. I will help you on one condition." Cyrene agreed somewhat with her daughter but was not entirely convinced this would work. "You have to tell Gabrielle why you are doing this." Xena's face had the look of rebellion. Shaking her finger at her daughter in a scolding manner. "Don't you give me that look. I'm your mother. You do as I asked."

Eponin was attempting to look distracted and actually started to whistle, as if she was no longer a part of the conversation. Xena reached over and slapped Eponin in the side of the head. "YOU my friend get those Amazons in here. They are always loud and they love parties. I want this celebration in four days."

"And what will we tell everyone we are celebrating?" Cyrene had to ask if for no other reason than to see what Xena would say.

Xena gave her mother a big hug and sloppy wet kiss on the cheek. "Make something up mother. I don't care what we celebrate. I just want my Bard to be happy?.I want her to heal." As the Warrior was leaving to go after Gabrielle, she turned back to her mother and friend. "Have Amarice saddle up Argo for me and have Lila pack some food and drink for us."

Eponin jumped to her feet and stopped Xena. "My friend, I hate to say this but Maris is out there roaming around. With the threat to Shulaba, if she hears Gabrielle is alive?..and I'm sure she will just like the rest of Greece, then Gabrielle is no longer safe."

The innkeeper understood Eponin's concern and was not pleased that Xena and Gabrielle would ride alone. The temple was a good two candlemarks away, therefore the Warrior Mom sternly stated, "Eponin - you and Amarice need to escort my daughter and Gabrielle. I will not loose either one of them again." Looking to her raven-hair daughter who grew into a wise beautiful woman she concluded her demand with, "?.and you will not argue Xena. They can camp outside the temple!"

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The first messenger arrived in the Amazon village late in the day. The sentries escorted the messenger directly to the Queen. Hearing that Eponin sent the messenger from Amphipolis Shulaba anxiously broke the seal on the scroll and began dancing with any member of her royal guard that she could catch. Calling an immediate meeting of the village Shulaba announced the news of their Queen's rebirth and that of her Warrior. The rest of the day the Amazon's celebrated the wonderful news. Shulaba ordered that early the next morning an Amazon party would leave for Amphipolis to greet their lost Queen.

Teklai, Captain of the Royal Guard, caught Shulaba before she retired to her hut. "My Queen?are you okay with the news of Queen Gabrielle?"

Shulaba was indeed pleased and she wasted no time in telling her childhood friend. "My beautiful Teklai I am so happy to have Gabrielle back. She has always been the rightful Queen and Artemis' Chosen One. If she would have me as Regent I would be honored but the choice must be hers. Teklai my duty and loyalty has always belonged to Gabrielle."

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

"Breath Xena?come on you are a Warrior. You can do this. You are stronger than she is. You love her. This is for her own good."

Amarice heard Xena standing outside her bedroom door talking to herself. "Xena, Argo is saddled and Eponin and I are ready." The Warrior simply nodded her head thanks. The young redhead was entertained by Xena's fear of Gabrielle. *Just like Eponin - you big tough warrior-types always fall to us little ones.* Shaking her head and chuckling Amarice left Xena alone.

Wasting no more time Xena opened the door and knew she had to be quick yet gentle. She did not want to hurt Gabrielle and she also did not want to give her a chance to fight. With a quick prayer *Artemis help me see this through,* the Warrior approached the bed. Gabrielle did not stir as the Warrior took her in her arms. Very cautiously she carried her soulmate through the inn to a waiting Argo and friends. Carefully Eponin took Gabrielle so Xena could get up on Argo. Once settled in the saddle, Eponin lifted the Bard to Xena's waiting arms. Through all the movement the young blonde did nothing more than mumble a few indistinguishable words.

The journey to Aphrodite's temple took slightly longer than two candlemarks. Xena kept the pace slower than normal. Partly because she did not want Gabrielle to wake up scared and because she needed more time to think about how she would convince her soulmate to open up about her sorrow. Through the entire ride Eponin and Amarice acted as royal guards to their Queen and her companion. There was no sign of trouble and they met no one along the way. This particular temple of Aphrodite's was a smaller temple situated tightly in the cliffs overlooking the sea. The tight location was accessible only by horse or foot and was easily protected. Finally back on foot, Xena entered the temple carrying her Bard. It was agreed that Eponin and Amarice would not disturb them unless there was danger.

Once inside the temple the Warrior heard an all too familiar voice. "Warrior!" Xena turned to find herself face to face with both Artemis and Aphrodite. The Goddess of the Amazons motioned for Xena to place Gabrielle on a pallet covered with plush blankets and furs. Xena obeyed and discovered the Bard was starting to moan indicating she was beginning to wake. Artemis moved closer to the Warrior peering directly into her eyes. "Do not disappoint me Xena. You will not be pleased with my temper should Gabrielle?.."

"Yea, yea, yea?come on Art lighten up - Warrior Babe will take care of blondie." Over time Aphrodite grew fond of the couple and she could trust and depend on both Xena and Gabrielle for assistance. Artemis was just being a little too demanding and she was not shy telling her. "You know she loves Gabrielle now leave her alone. I agreed you could use my temple?.not run it!!"

Calming down somewhat Artemis advanced closer to the Warrior. "Don't wait too long to marry my Chosen One. I might get tired of waiting and find her another warrior." White light surrounded the Goddess and she disappeared.

"Gee - get a grip Art!" Aphrodite flashed one of her many flirtatious grins at Xena. "You are protected Xena as long as you are in my temple. Now - if you don't mind I'm out of here. Looks like I can have a tiny bit of fun with your two Amazon friends waiting outside." The Goddess of Love strolled toward the entrance disappearing before she hit the door. Xena could hear her giggling about her new challenge of love camping outside her temple. The Warrior could only think, *Good luck Eponin?you are going to need it.*

Focusing all her attention back to her precious soulmate the Warrior knelt down next to Gabrielle and whispered softly, "Gabrielle, wake up?.it's time to wake up." All Xena received were several murmurs of words she could not understand. Kissing her gently on the lips, "Come on Gabrielle, wake up?I need you to open your eyes." She wanted to get the Bard's eyes opened and looking at her before she did anything more. Placing several more kisses on Gabrielle's lips and eyes her soulmate began waking.

Struggling to open her eyes the Bard tried to focus and felt Xena holding her. "Xena?"

That was the recognition the Warrior needed to hear and countered it, "I love you Gabrielle. No matter what happens, I love you."

Not fully awake or comprehending her location Gabrielle's heart intuitively forced her to concentrated on the words of love she heard from her soulmate. Looking up she saw the penetrating blue eyes that belonged only to Xena. With fear so close to her heart Gabrielle also noticed the strange surrounding and immediately lost focus on Xena. Feeling trapped she bolted to a sitting position and attempted to stand. Xena was there to stop her from running. "Gabrielle, sit back down." Reaching for the waterbag Xena was able to get Gabrielle to drink.

"Xena, where are we and what is going on."

The Warrior knew this was her opportunity and she acted. "We are in a temple outside of Amphipolis. Here drink some more water."

Gabrielle pushed the waterbag away. "I don't want anymore. Why are we here."

"You have to talk to me about your mom."

Boiling under the surface of the young woman was a monster that had been growing. The monster fed off of all the emotional losses the Bard experienced over a short period of time. Xena's paralysis by Callisto, Xena's death on the cross, fear of Xena abandoning her when the Warrior found out about the abuse, the death of her mother and her own guilt over her mother's death. Gabrielle was no longer able to control the monster and the hidden beast came out. "MY MOTHER IS DEAD. THERE IS NOTHING TO TALK ABOUT." Unexpectedly the Bard shoved Xena back causing her to loose her balance and fall backwards.

The Warrior was quick to stand and grabbed a now running Gabrielle by the upper arms. "Oh, no?you are going to talk to me. You have to get this out before it kills you."

Green eyes scowled directly into the Warrior's. "LET ME GO!" For reasons unknown to Xena, she released her grip. The Bard turned her back to Xena.

"You must talk about this Gabrielle?.you can't go on like this?.I don't want to loos?.." Before Xena could complete her plea Gabrielle swung around with her fist aiming for the Warrior's face. True to her nature the Warrior captured the angry fist before it struck. That's when her soulmate snapped. Those same green eyes so enraged a moment ago began filling with tears, the luscious pink lips began quivering, her fingers reached out to touch the cheek she was ready to strike and the words "please forgive me" emerged from the depths of her soul. Collapsing in tears that were held back for days Gabrielle felt Xena's protective arms catching her, holding her, comforting her and loving her. The Warrior took Gabrielle back to the blankets and together the real healing process began. The tears continued for close to a candlemark before Gabrielle could calm down enough to string more than a few words together. Xena released her hold on the Bard to retrieve the waterbag for both women to drink. Joining her lover back on the blankets the two women sat so they could look into each other's eyes.

Xena caressed Gabrielle's cheek tenderly. "Can you talk to me."

"I don't know where to start."

Pausing to search for the best words the Warrior drew upon her experiences when tragedy struck. "Tell me how you feel right now?.only for right now." Xena remembered saying similar words to Gabrielle when the two of them were striving for reconciliation and healing in Illusia. Gabrielle also recognized the words and between tears and moments of being unable to get her voice to speak the Bard told Xena how she was feeling over the loss of her mother and the guilt associated with it. To Xena's surprise Gabrielle also spoke to the loss she felt when Xena was hurt, watching her Warrior's suffer in pain and die. Nothing was mentioned about the extent or history of Gabrielle's abuse by her father other than she was afraid Xena would think she was shameful and her fears of loosing the Warrior's love. The raven-hair Warrior encouraged her soulmate to voice everything that needed to be said, even if it only meant a few words. Hidden in-between the words and occasionally drink of water Xena made sure she was physically touching Gabrielle at all times. Xena craved this contact and hoped it would ease the pain her soulmate was feeling. Eventually Gabrielle came to a point where she could not talk anymore and she closed her eyes which were now stinging from the constant tears.

The healer in Xena came from the warrior body. "Your eyes burning?" The Bard sighed and nodded her head. Xena went to her satchel to remove a soft piece of fabric and poured water onto the cloth soaking it. Returning to Gabrielle, she tilted the young woman's head and dabbed the cool cloth on her eyes. After a few seconds Xena softly asked. "How does that feel?" Before Gabrielle could respond Xena's desire to reassure her of her devotion came out. "Gabrielle, I want you to listen to me. There is nothing in this life that could ever make me be ashamed of you or hate you or want to leave you. I love you sweetie?.I want.." The biggest grin crossed Gabrielle's face prompting Xena to stop speaking. "What's so funny?"

Gabrielle pulled the wet cloth from her eyes. "You called me sweetie. Do you realize what you are saying?"

"Aaaa?I?I didn't think you noticed." The Warrior had intentionally called her sweetie on a few occasions. It was just how she was feeling and she actually enjoyed the mushy little word. "Would you rather I did not?"

Gabrielle inched closer so she could crawl into Xena's lap. The Warrior welcomed her and placed several tender kisses on her head. "I love when you say all those mushy words." Gabrielle looked up into the deep blue eyes that told her of the Warrior's love and the Warrior's needs. Slowly the Bard reached up sliding her hands around Xena's neck and let her lips caress the Warrior's.

Backing away from the lips she wanted so desperately Xena asked. "Are you sure?"

"Mmmm?.yes - I need to show you how much I love you. I want you to let me touch you and make love to you." Gabrielle nibbled Xena's lower lip and was pleased with the soft needy moan she received.

Keeping hold of her thoughts for anything other than Gabrielle's passion was soon going to be impossible for Xena and she had to tell her soulmate one thing. "I want to marry you, Gabrielle. I don't want to wait much longer. I don't want us leaving Amphipolis without?.."

Placing her fingers to Xena' lips she knew exactly what her soulmate was asking. "I love you Warrior and I will marry you before we leave. Now kiss me."

After candlemarks of tears and words, touching and healing, the magic that makes up the bond between the Warrior and the Bard found renewal. Exhaustion was unimportant, as the soulmates were consumed by their passion for one another and their deep need to feel alive. Unknown to Xena and Gabrielle two goddesses stood witness to the healing and the beginnings of the passion. "Okay Aphrodite, time for us to leave them alone."

"Oh come on Art - just a little bit longer."

Artemis grabbed Aphrodite by the ear. "No - they don't need your help or mine in this area. I think they know exactly what to do and I might add they do it wonderfully."

Aphrodite gave a squeal of delight. As the two goddesses left the temple Aphrodite told Artemis of an old temple priest who lived in the mountains north of Amphipolis. Artemis' laughter roared in agreement with Aphrodite's wise choice.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

After Xena, Gabrielle and the Amazons left for Aphrodite's temple Cyrene and Lila kept themselves busy coordinating and planning Xena's demand for a private celebration. Laughing to herself Cyrene knew her daughter's demand was actually a plea for help and was for her as much as it was for Gabrielle. Uncle Tensandi's son knew several musicians and they agreed to play for all the free ale they could consume at the celebration. Cyrene sent a second messenger to Shulaba instructing her to bring the Amazons for a celebration. While Eponin had already sent a messenger out about finding Xena and Gabrielle, Cyrene did not think a second message could hurt. The innkeeper also sent out messengers to close friends of the soulmates. Locally Cyrene's list of close friends and family members grew beyond the 'private celebration' Xena had envisioned.

"Cyrene don't you think forty-two villagers, six messages, and the gods only know how many Amazons is a little more than Xena wanted?" Lila was slightly concerned that the innkeeper was asking too many people.

"Yes, Lila I am sure it is much more than Xena anticipates. But, she put me in charge and I'm her mom. She won't get too mad." The innkeeper laughed devilishly. The more she went around the village looking for messengers, ordering food and drink the more her friends would ask her what the celebration was for. Well, one thing led to another?how could she ask Aunt Petrina without including her children and their families. Then the village healer Memnos overheard and?.well he tended to Xena's illnesses throughout her childhood. So eventually the list grew from small and private to large and private. Enlisting the help of her employees and the various businesses donating food and drink, Cyrene was confident that everything would be ready in time.

By the end of the day both women were exhausted. Cyrene eventually settled into her favorite rocking chair in front of the fire with a hot cup of tea. Shortly after Lila joined her.

"Cyrene, what does Xena want really want to celebrate?"

Cyrene pointed to the footstool inviting Lila to sit closer. "Lila, trust my daughter. She loves your sister so very much. Xena hoped this little party would help Gabrielle."

Lila crossed her arms and leaned on her already bent knees. "Gabby is really happy with Xena, isn't she?"

"Does that bother you dear?"

"Well?at first it did. But now?." Lila paused for a moment trying to find the right words. "As long as no one else hurts my sister I am fine with whoever she chooses. And I really do like Xena, although I used to be jealous of her."

Cyrene reached for Lila's hands pulling the young brunette to her lap. Lila rested her head in Cyrene's lap accepting the love this innkeeper was so willing to give. "Lila, why don't we just celebrate life and love. What do you think?"

"Yea, I like that idea."

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Stella and Pippa arrived at the crossroads close to midnight. Maris was pleased with the information they were able to gather while in Amphipolis. The rebel explained to her companions how she watched as Xena and Gabrielle left the village with the Amazons and how she stayed behind to follow the old woman that seemed to be making demands of the Warrior.

Maris was irritated that Stella did not follow Gabrielle and interrupted Stella. "Are you STUPID - why didn't you follow them!!!"

At that point Stella thought about killing Maris rather than Gabrielle. "I had every reason to believe the foursome would return because Gabrielle seemed to be sick or something and their horses were not packed for a journey. Turns out I was SMART to stay. The old woman is Xena's mother and in less than four days they are throwing a celebration. This is our opportunity to strike undercover."

The leader of the rebel Amazons was pleased with this information. They would set out for Amphipolis tomorrow in order to scout the village and prepare for the assassination of the Amazon Queen.

That night as Pippa laid in her bedroll, she could not sleep because her thoughts troubled her greatly. Rubbing the recent bruise on her cheek Pippa wondered if this is the life that she really wanted to live.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The rumors about Xena and Gabrielle being seen alive trickled throughout Greece. First because they appeared to have cheated death at the hands of the mighty Caesar and second because it was Xena - her reputation, as being a cruel warlord turn good, was news worth following for any Greek citizen. It did not take long for Poteidaia to also hear of the news. The village elder almost broke the door of the tavern down trying to reach Herodotus' farm.

After the elder left, Herodotus entered his now empty home. The house began to deteriorate after his wife's death and Lila's departure. Angry and drunk he assumed Lila would seek out Cyrene or Minya. Herodotus was convinced Xena took his entire family away from him. The insanity controlling his mind continued to deny that he was solely responsible for his own loss. If he had been honest with himself, the old man would realize that Gabrielle was lost to him ages ago, when she was just a little girl of three or four. Spitting on the floor he poured himself another mug of ale. Talking to his drink, "Well my precious little Gabrielle it would seem you cheated death. I wonder just what you would do, if you knew it was the news of your death that caused your mother to die. My dear daughter you will replace her even if I have to kill that warrior of yours. Then maybe, I will forgive you." Staggering to the kitchen cupboard Herodotus pulled out a piece of parchment. Eventually finding a quill and some ink the angry old man sat down at his table to compose a letter to Gabrielle. Again talking to no one but his drink Herodotus laughed over the anguish he would cause his wayward daughter and the Warrior. "This should bring you home my daughter."

Finishing his cruel task Herodotus set out to find a messenger that would deliver it into only Gabrielle's hands. The old man wanted someone who would also deliver the parchment for free. It had to be someone who could enjoy bringing pain to the Warrior without a price. In his drunken stupor the old man still knew any pain he brought to Gabrielle would cause twice as much pain for Xena. Realizing it would take several days to find that type of messenger Herodotus shoved several dinars in his fist and headed to the tavern. He would wait there - after all he had all the time in the world.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Lightening broke the early morning sky followed by the clapping of thunder. The violence of the thunder startled the sleeping soulmates causing Gabrielle to bolt into a sitting position. The Warrior could see Gabrielle was visibly shaken and sat up to hold her. "Gabrielle it's okay, just thunder." Rubbing the Bard's back hoping it would calm her down Xena suddenly remembered the two Amazons sitting out in the open. The bluff offered very little protection. "I have to tell Eponin and Amarice to get in the temple. They do not need to be out there in this storm."

"Why are they here Xena. I thought only you and I were here?" The Bard looked puzzled and the Warrior knew she would have to explain about Maris and the group's banishment by Shulaba.

"I'll explain everything once I get them out of the storm." Throwing a blanket over her shoulder the Warrior reached back down to give Gabrielle a quick kiss on the lips before leaving the temple.

Gabrielle wrapped a blanket around her body and decided she was actually hungry. It did not take long for the Warrior to return with Eponin and Amarice in tow. With a piece of nutbread in her hands the Bard greeted the two Amazons with a smile and a quick hello. Xena was pleased to see Gabrielle rummaging through the food Lila prepared for them and was not at all surprised nutbread was her first choice. Together the foursome consumed a morning meal, as the rain began to fall and the thunder rolled through the sky. As promised, the Warrior told Gabrielle why the Amazons had accompanied them to the temple and the story of Maris' disrespect for the Amazon nation and her subsequent banishment.

Eponin also filled in the missing parts of how Amarice returned to the village, Brutus' offer of peace and the grief of the nation and especially Artemis. The brown-eyed Amazon explained that the news of all their deaths triggered her return home from the land of the pyramids and sand. For the moment, Eponin did not tell Gabrielle of the visit to Poteidaia, which resulted in Herodotus' attempted attack on the Amazons party. And no one talked about Hecuba's death. When Xena had gone outside to bring Eponin and Amarice into the temple she mentioned to both that Gabrielle was finally able to talk about her grief over a number of topics, however she circled away from details surrounding her father's abuse. Therefore although both warriors felt anger about the cruelty of Herodotus a quick glance between each other in an almost unwritten warrior code confirmed that the subject should not be brought up.

Unexpectedly Gabrielle stood up to move away from her three companions. She looked tired and on the verge of tears. Just before turning away she spoke, "Amarice - I?.I just want you to know I'm sorry. I had no right to call you a coward and to attack you. I don't know why I did that?.please forgive me."

"My Queen, I do not find fault with your actions or reasons. You actually did me a favor?.I too thought I was a coward. I am so sorry for abandoning you and Xena. I only ask that both of you forgive me." Amarice stood up and bowed her head respectfully. "Please excuse me, it sounds as if the storm has passed and I must see to the horses." Before anyone could stop her, the young redhead was gone.

Eponin was extremely proud of the response Amarice gave Gabrielle. "Gee, maybe there is hope for her yet." Looking to Xena and Gabrielle the Amazon smiled, "I think I will help her with the horses. When will we be leaving Xena?"

The Warrior looked to her soulmate who had already returned to the pallet and was getting dressed. "Eponin let's leave later in the day so we can make Amphipolis before nightfall. I want to give Gabrielle a little more time."

With a smirk playing across her face Eponin reminded the Warrior, "Xena, don't forget to tell her about the celebration."

"Oh?yeah. Well maybe later."

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Eponin caught up with Amarice who was trying to regain the fierce little attitude she was becoming well known for. Although she was brushing her horse down after the rain, Eponin could tell she was not serious about the task. Going against the hard-nose warrior grain Eponin addressed her young companion. "Amarice are you okay?"

"Yea, sure I'm fine." Not looking at Eponin was a struggle. She was so attracted to her and yet she knew Eponin was only acting like Shulaba ordered - a mentor. Had their relationship been different Amarice would have reached out in tears for Eponin. She was so tired of acting like a tough brat. Deep inside Amarice knew it was a charade.

"I'm proud of you Amarice. I know what you said took a lot of courage and?"

Partly fearing the affectionate words from Eponin and partly her own need to be loved she turned to face her mentor. "Let it go Eponin?it was no big deal." Before the Amazon Warrior could react or reach out Amarice dropped the horsebrush and walked away. Eponin could not help but notice the redness in her eyes and not knowing what else to do she let her go.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Once Eponin left the temple Xena approached her soulmate. She could tell it was difficult for Gabrielle to focus on what Eponin was explaining. Xena believed it would be tough on her Bard for awhile but at least now she was talking. Standing behind Gabrielle the Warrior reached out placing her hand gently on the Bard's shoulder. "Gabrielle - you okay. I know it is hard?"

Gabrielle turned around wiping the few tears that were falling. "Xena, I..I just feel so bad about attacking Amarice. And I feel horrible for how I've treated you."

The Warrior would not let her finish and pulled her soulmate into a strong embrace. "No Gabrielle, don't do this, okay. I love you through good and bad. Nothing can change that. You are my soulmate forever - in every life and in destiny. Too much has happened since your birthday and you are being much to tough on yourself." Xena paused to kiss the tip of her lover's nose. "If I remember we made a promise to follow our paths side by side. What I have seen over and over again is the beautiful emotional woman that I fell so deeply in love with. If you want to show me you care - then please don't ever shut me out - deal?"

The Bard gazed into her lover's blue eyes. They had the color of protection and love - the color of the bluest sky. "Xena, I love you and?.yes it is a deal."

The lovers needed no words to show their commitment to each other. Together they shared a physical, emotional and spiritual love that penetrated and filled their souls and hearts. Accepting the need to grieve was the first step to healing. Xena knew Gabrielle had taken that step here in Aphrodite's temple with her help. To the Warrior that trust Gabrielle gave to her meant the world to Xena. They would be okay.

"Gabrielle, would you like to try and meditate together?"

Normally it was Gabrielle trying to talk the Warrior into joint meditation so the Bard's soul began to beat quickly at the offer. "Yes - I would like to try?.it has been difficult for me to focus?.but, yes I would like to try."

The Warrior gave her soulmate a quick kiss and they moved to the center of the temple. "Gabrielle, think of our ocean - remember - the ocean of belief. "

"Yessss, I do remember. It was such a beautiful place and so peaceful."

Like well-orchestrated music the soulmates clasped hands and slid into their complimentary positions. Their bodies created a meditative arrangement that spoke volumes of their spiritual and soulful bond. When both women were completely at peace their essence mingled and their souls mated as one. The peak reached with this joint meditation was the unexplainable power they could feel enter their spirits. Both women assumed it was from their Creator and a promised rainbow?.and it felt as if they were receiving total unconditional love.

Later the women shared their physical love slowly and sensually. Eventually Gabrielle drifted off to sleep in her Warrior's arms. Xena followed shortly after. When they woke the sun that popped out after the storm was now hanging low in the western sky. The couple packed their satchels between moments of kisses and comforting words and left the temple in search of the Amazons.

Eponin and Amarice were waiting for them on opposite sides of the temple grounds. The young redhead was standing on a boulder overlooking the sea and Eponin was sitting on a rock facing away from the temple. Xena could see Eponin throwing her dagger into the ground between her feet repeatedly. Observing the body language of both women Gabrielle asked her soulmate a question. "Xena?did I miss something?"

The Warrior wrapped her arm around Gabrielle's waist pulling her close. "Looks familiar doesn't it."

Gabrielle reached up leaving a small kiss on the Warrior's lips. "Yes, I guess it does. Any bets on how long it will take Amarice to wear Eponin down?"

"Bets?" Xena laughed, "Let's hope Eponin does not have to die first to find out she's hopelessly in love with Amarice." Memories flooded back to both women about the time Xena kissed Gabrielle while in control of Autolycus' body. Suddenly the Warrior reflected back to Gabrielle's comment of taking bets. "My Bard - what do you mean when you say bets?"

Gabrielle giggled innocently before answering. "Ephiny, Solari, Eponin, Shulaba, Teklai, your mother and I all had bets on when you would fall my Warrior." Surprising Xena with another kiss she continued, "When you would fall into my arms and surrender."

Shock registered on Xena's face. "MY MOTHER???"

Before Gabrielle could respond Eponin turned to see the lovers on the temple steps and stood up quickly. This movement distracted Xena and she did not have a chance to question Gabrielle further on the bet or her mother. However, she made a mental note to speak with her later about this. The Warrior was not too sure she liked everyone betting on her day of surrender - even if it was for Gabrielle.

Consumed with her thoughts of Amarice the Amazon at first did not hear Xena and Gabrielle approach. When she faced them Eponin was visibly shaken. Xena took the opportunity to rib her friend. "Slipping Eponin. Must be pretty important. Could it possibly be someone has occupied your heart." Walking right to the Amazon she added. "Normally a warrior only looses sight of their surrounding, when their heart is in control instead of their mind."

Eponin blushed and could see Gabrielle's attempt to stop giggling. "Oh, very funny. I'm just tired, that's all."

As Xena and Gabrielle walked passed Eponin toward Argo, Gabrielle could not resist joining in on the teasing. "Give it up Eponin - surrendering is so much more fun."

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

By the time the foursome arrived in Amphipolis the sun was already asleep and the stars now took control of the heavens. Cyrene and Lila were extremely happy to see the women home and wasted no time showering Gabrielle was kisses, hugs and words of love. Quickly Cyrene shoved the women to the kitchen and began placing a great amount of food and drink in front of the four adventurers. No one mentioned Gabrielle's pain over the last few days. Cyrene explained gently and motherly that Lila needed to let go and to give her sister a chance to heal. The innkeeper was pleased how well Lila responded. Both Xena and the Bard were grateful. Xena knew it would take time for her soulmate to work through the pain and over time it would lessen. While they were eating Lila blurted her excitement about the upcoming celebration.

"What celebration?" Totally in the dark about the celebration Gabrielle asked with curiosity.

"Xena - didn't you tell Gabrielle about the celebration!" Shaking her head pretending to be irritated Cyrene slapped her daughter in the head.

Gabrielle looked to Xena for an answer. "I'm sorry?I meant too, I just?well we just?"

"Oh come on Warrior - you were a coward." Eponin was now enjoying how the tables were turning. "I can't believe this beautiful little blonde still scares you. I thought when you surrendered - the fear went away."

Xena knew Eponin was thoroughly enjoying this whole situation. Turning to face Gabrielle, who was actually smiling Xena, decided to use charm. "Sweetie?I.."

"SWEETIE." Everyone roared with laughter and surprise over the mighty Xena Warrior Princess Destroyer of Nations using the endearing term 'sweetie'. Of course, between laughter Eponin could not let this opportunity go by. "Oh boy - does she have you around her little finger."

Xena was dismayed to find everyone else laughing and agreeing with Eponin. Placing her elbows on the table and her hands up to cover her face the Warrior just shook her head not too sure what to do. Within seconds Gabrielle had her arm around her lover's waist pulling her strong hands from her face. Kissing her on the cheek reassuringly the Bard looked at the four laughing women. Then decided quickly to focus on one Amazon Warrior. "Oh Eponin might I remind you of one tiny little thing." Gabrielle was holding her fingers in a position to indicate the size of 'tiny'. The Amazon's laughter stopped abruptly and she knew this was the end. She was in big, big trouble now. She should have known Gabrielle would come to Xena's rescue. Sitting back in her chair she closed her eyes waiting for the attack. With a huge smirk crossing her face Gabrielle said, "Eponin, keep one thing in mind - your dagger will not keep you warm at night."

With that statement the eruption of laughter from the women became uncontrollable. Eponin's eyes burst open wide! Looking at a smiling Gabrielle she began shaking her finger, as if threatening to get her back. The Amazon knew, however, she could never hope to out master a Bard with words and instead began to join the laugher. "Xena, you are indeed fortunate my friend?so when is the wedding?"

The Warrior looked to her soulmate. "As soon as I can find someone who will perform the marriage."

Gabrielle took Xena's hand to hold nodding her agreement about their marriage and then added, "Xena, I love you, but you are avoiding the original question. Why don't I know about this celebration?"

"I thought a small private celebration might be helpful. We have so many people that care about us and rather than spend our time traveling all over Greece?well I thought bringing them here might be a good idea. You and I can use a celebration. Please don't be mad?I was so worried about you."

Gabrielle gave Xena a huge bear hug and a kiss on the cheek. "It's okay Xena. I understand. So when is this celebration and who is coming?"

Cyrene took this opportunity to speak up. "The celebration is the day after tomorrow and since yesterday I think we are up to fifty-eight villagers, six messages were sent out and who knows how many Amazons will show up. Although I already know Toris, Hercules and Iolaus are too far away to make it in time. But they should be here in time for the wedding."

"MOTHER - I said small - private."

"Yes dear, and you also promised me to tell Gabrielle. So I guess we are now even." Cyrene was rather pleased with her justification.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

CHAPTER 4

The day before the celebration the Amazons started to arrive. From Alexos Tavern, the four rebels, dressed in peasant clothes watched Shulaba leading the Amazons into Amphipolis. Leandra mused there must be at least fifty of them, including Teklai. Maris was not too concerned and felt they could easily mix in among the villagers, friends and family. They would not be looking for the rebels, especially dressed as peasants and Leandra added that because there were so many to protect Gabrielle and Shulaba they would get careless.

Shulaba and the Amazons were excited and loud when Gabrielle and Xena walked out of the inn to greet them. Both looked tired and while Gabrielle did not seem to be quite her normal playful self she took on the roll of a true Amazon Queen. While her soulmate went around to talk with each and every Amazon, Xena was able to pull both Shulaba and Teklai aside and fill them in on the death of Gabrielle's mother and the abuse by her father. Even though Shulaba knew of the abuse she said nothing to the Warrior. She also briefly mentioned Caesar and their rebirth but did not expand on the events. Cyrene insisted Shulaba and Teklai stay at the inn while the rest of the Amazons would camp near the stable owned by the innkeeper. The villagers all came out of their shops and homes to watch the Amazons enter Amphipolis. Many stopped them to shake hands and welcome the women. The village was always supportive of the Amazons.

Amarice took it upon herself to follow Gabrielle around, as she spoke with the Amazons individually or in small groups. *You really are a good Queen. I really underestimated you Gabrielle.* The young redhead noted after several candlemarks of constant conversation and demands of the Amazons that her young Queen was appearing slightly shaken. While never close enough to hear the topics and certainly not close enough for Gabrielle to realize she was following her around, Amarice noticed the change in her Queen's posture and her eyes seem to be having a difficult time focusing. Looking around she wondered where Xena was. It was obvious that Gabrielle would need rescuing any minute now. Suddenly Gabrielle appeared to loose her balance and Amarice bolted to her side taking her by the arm offering support. "My Queen?" looking directly into Gabrielle's eyes Amarice continued without causing embarrassment to Gabrielle in front of the Amazons, "Cyrene said the noon meal is ready and she is looking for you."

Knowing full well that this young redhead was aware of her weakened state, she simply answered. "Yes, thank you Amarice." Turning to the women she was talking with, "You'll have to excuse me, when Cyrene calls?well she's a mom and means business." The Amazons laughed and nodded respectfully as Amarice led Gabrielle away. Walking toward the inn Gabrielle thanked Amarice and asked her if she'd like to join several other Amazons and herself later on that afternoon. Amarice was receptive and thought it might give her a chance to talk to Gabrielle about Eponin. The Queen was happy that Amarice agreed and asked if she would not mine coming to get her, when the other Amazon's were settled and had eaten a noon meal.

All the women except Xena began consuming much more ale than needed. Eventually the subject of Maris and her companions came up, as well as Shulaba's request for Xena and Gabrielle to come to the Amazon village. Gabrielle needed to take her rightful place as Queen, in front of the nation. Xena agreed to do so but not until Gabrielle was feeling better and they were married. The Warrior wanted to give Gabrielle longer to rest and heal before facing the demands of an Amazon Queen. Here in Amphipolis the women would not demand the attention or bring problems to Gabrielle as they would, if on Amazon territory. Missing Gabrielle terribly and realizing that she had been outside with the Amazons in the heat for much too long the Warrior excused herself to find her lover. She was pleased that Amarice took the responsibility of watching out for her lover, as it was important for Xena to talk with Shulaba. In the process of moving to the door Gabrielle and Amarice came through the entrance. It was very apparent to Xena that Gabrielle was not feeling well and Amarice had a strong grip on her. Xena rushed to help Amarice and pulled her lover into an embrace.

"Gabrielle, what happened, you okay?" Xena was concerned and began to feel a bit guilty.

Allowing herself to fall into Xena's embrace, she answered in a low voice. "Yes, I'm just tired and a bit hungry." Looking over to Amarice she reached for the young woman's hand. "Thank you Amarice. I owe you one."

"No you don't my Queen?for you I am here, always." Amarice turned and walked out the door followed from a distance by Eponin. The Amazon Warrior needed to find a way to talk to Amarice?.and so far her stubbornness would not allow her to surrender even a little bit.

Shulaba came up to Gabrielle and Xena. "So how is it going between the stubborn warrior and the little redhead? Have any bets been placed yet?"

Both women shook their heads and laughed. Gabrielle said, "Shulaba you are a wonderful Queen and no the bets have not been placed?..yet."

"Mmmm, I think I'll get the bets started. Oh and Gabrielle I might add you are the Queen - thank the gods!"

"Shulaba, I ?."

"No my Queen?do not refuse your destiny."

"You will remain as Regent then?please." Gabrielle was happy that Shulaba agreed and reached out to hug her. Returning her gaze to Xena. "Come on Warrior, help me to the kitchen I need to eat, spend time with you?.and catch up on all the kisses and hugs I've missed over the past several candlemarks." Xena had no problem with this request and led her lover to the kitchen.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

After sharing a midday meal with her soulmate along with tender displays of affection, Gabrielle regained her strength and was actually feeling better. Cyrene, Lila, employees and Amazons wandered in and out of the kitchen but no one disturbed the two lovers sitting at the corner table enjoying time spent without interruption. Cyrene was especially pleased that Gabrielle was pulling herself out of her sadness with the help of Xena. *That was all she needed?to talk about the pain.*

Eventually the peacefulness was disrupted by an arriving Joxer tripping through the entrance of the kitchen, followed by Minya and Autolycus. The Warrior and her Bard gladly greeted the trio of misfits and Xena focused the topic of conversation on their three friends. A protective Xena just did not want too many questions directed at Gabrielle. Since they returned from the temple her Bard mentioned nothing about her mother or father. Keeping her arm around Gabrielle's waist the Warrior took joy in her soulmate's happy reaction to their friends. *My sweet Gabrielle, be happy right now. I know we must visit the gravesite of your mother. I just need you too?* Just then Xena realized Joxer was pulling on Gabrielle's arm in his typical Joxer-type outburst. Before she could do anything to stop Joxer someone grabbed him by his ear and pulled him back causing him to trip and fall.

The young redhead who had pulled Joxer by force looked at Xena. "What is that?"

Xena raised her eyebrows. "It's a Joxer."

Lila rushed to Joxer and helped him off the floor. As he was rubbing his ear screaming ouch, Lila was dragging him into the front room. She had such a crush on him. Thanking Amarice with a Warrior smile and nod of the head Xena asked, "Do you need to see me for something?"

"No." Amarice turned her eyes to Gabrielle and extended her hand. "My Queen are you ready."

Gabrielle turned to Xena giving her a hug and a kiss filled with promises to come. "See you later - okay!"

Xena hung on to Gabrielle's tunic. "Whoa my Bard -just a minute. Where exactly are you going?"

"Staff practice. Some of the Amazons have been practicing and we thought a demonstration at the celebration might be fun."

"Okay. I'll find Eponin and we will watch."

The Bard placed her hand out to stop the Warrior. "Oh no you don't my love. This is a closed practice. I want it to be a surprise. Why don't you go talk to Eponin about a certain little redhead."

Not sure whether to be happy over the suggestion that she should torture Eponin for a while or jealous that her soulmate was spending time with a bunch of Amazons, the Warrior relinquished, "Well, since you won't let me watch, I guess I'll go grab Eponin for sword practice?.and a bit of torture." As Xena watched her soulmate skip off with Amarice, a part of her was contended that the two women appeared to be building a friendship. But most of the Warrior's happiness was to see Gabrielle beginning to bounce back from sadness.

Minya interrupted the Warrior from her musing with a slap to the back. "See Xena?..I told you she was yours."

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Before the sun rose over the village of Amphipolis the Warrior was awake. Not disturbing her soulmate she just wanted to soak in the warmth of Gabrielle's body snuggling with her. Gabrielle had been very aggressive in their love making last night. Nothing cruel or forceful she just seemed to have an awful abundance of energy. *Just what did you do in that staff practice my Bard. You were very difficult to settle down last night?not that I minded.* Xena could not resist and slid her hand over the thigh Gabrielle had draped over the Warrior's hip. Caressing the softness of the skin and the strength of Gabrielle's muscles the craving within the Warrior beckoned her to crawl up her lover's thighs to the treasure that always waited for her to claim. Her hand reached around her lover's waist gently pulling Gabrielle on top of her. Lifting Gabrielle's head that was now resting just below the Warrior's chin, she pressed her lips to her soulmates. The kiss caused Gabrielle to automatically respond and she opened her mouth slipping her tongue out for Xena to take. Deep sleepy groans slipped through Gabrielle, as her body started to respond before her eyes would open. The Warrior felt Gabrielle's hands massage her breasts and Xena pulled her kiss away.

"Oh no my love?.I want you and I won't take no for an answer." Gabrielle opened her eyes to find a very seductive pair of deep blue eyes digging deeply into her heart. Xena again claimed the lips of her soulmate with passion. She explored and tasted - feeling secure in the love they shared. Slowly Xena began to pull Gabrielle over her head stopping to give caressing attention to each breast. The same perfectly shaped mounds that use to drive her to perimeter checks years ago for want of tasting and holding them. Her sucking and licking caused several sharp gasps and cries of ecstasy from Gabrielle. Sliding underneath the athletic body of her lover Xena pushed Gabrielle upward until her curly golden center of pleasure was resting over Xena's tongue. The first lick caused uncontrollable shutters and tremors from Gabrielle. The Warrior had her heart and soul. Gabrielle with complete trust allowed Xena to own her. Xena increased the pattern and motion of her tongue and lips - pleasuring her future wife. The taste and wetness drove the Warrior mad with desire and she could feel her own need growing. Without asking Xena felt Gabrielle arch her back and slide her hands down to the Warriors wetness. Passionately the Bard rubbed her fingers in Xena's velvet wetness causing the Warrior to rotate her hips to meet the dancing fingers and hand of her lover. Both were very close to the edge this morning and as Gabrielle increased the circular rubbing of Xena's wet center, the Warrior increased the same motion with her tongue over Gabrielle's swollen folds. The rotation of hips matched each other in speed and direction. The Bard cried out for Xena to take her and together they rode their orgasms as one body, one soul and one heart.

Collapsing in her lover's arms the Bard peeked up at Xena. "I love it when you wake me up like that!" The soulmates giggled for awhile remembering all the mornings they shared together and all the different ways they woke each other up.

The knock on the door came sooner than they hoped. Cyrene's voice bellowed good morning from the other side, as she passed by their room. "Mom sure likes to do that. Knock and leave."

Deciding it was indeed time to get up both wanted to eat a morning meal and spend time with Cyrene before their guests started waking up for the celebration. The Warrior was pleased with the shopping they did yesterday after Gabrielle was finished with staff practice. Xena was able to pick out a black leather tunic similar to her last one. This time there was no metal clasps holding the shoulder straps. Instead leather ties held the straps in place. The tunic length was slightly longer but not by much. The leather ties holding the tunic together were now across her breasts. The Warrior also purchased upper arm and wrist bracers made of black leather stamped with circular designs reminding her of the chakram. Over the top of her leathers she chose a gold breastplate similar to the last one only this plate lacked the shoulder guards. A sturdy leather strap fastened to the back of the plate allowing her to carry the sheathed sword, as before. Today, however, Xena would leave the sword behind. The black leather boots had upper side fasteners and pulled on fairly easy stopping just below her knees. For now she decided against the knee guards. Xena included a black leather belt around her waist with a hook for her chakram and a pouch for a small dagger. The chakram would also be left in her room for today's celebration. The Warrior decided only the dagger would remain at her side.

"By the gods Gabrielle it feels so good to be back in leather!" Turning to face her soulmate the Warrior could not speak, as her eyes filled with so much of her soulmate. "GABRIELLE - there is no way I'm letting you out of this room until you put some clothes on!"

Totally pleased with the reaction she received Gabrielle responded. "Xena, I do have clothes on."

Xena walked up to her Bard taking her by the arm and turning Gabrielle to face her. "Gabrielle, I'm serious. This was not the clothing we bought for you yesterday."

"I know that. This is the new Amazon clothing Shulaba gave me as a gift. I need to wear it today. Especially since I'm the Queen. I don't want to hurt Shulaba's feelings or allow the Amazons to think I do not wish to be apart of their culture."

"You don't want their feelings hurt!!! Well what about mine?? I do not want everyone drooling all over you!!."

Gabrielle pulled her arm away from Xena's grasp. "Listen no one will touch me but you. I love you Xena, remember? I am marrying you - remember??? Now help me with the bracers." The Warrior made no attempt to move so the Bard pulled on Xena's arm and reached up to kiss her lover.

*I'm so weak?oh Gabrielle?how do you get me to cave in so easily.* Xena increased the passion of their kiss and in return could feel the love radiating from Gabrielle. The Warrior's heart and soul told her inner fears to calm down - this Bard was indeed all hers.

Later in the morning Cyrene and Amarice helped Gabrielle braid portions of her hair with strips of leather, beads and owl feathers. Even after the passion of their kiss the soulmates got into a dispute over Gabrielle's Amazon skirt and the Warrior eventually threw her arms in the air and left. Gabrielle had not seen her since. The Bard was angered by Xena's jealousy and allowed her own temper to fuel the argument. Once Gabrielle calmed down she understood that it was not a lack of trust, rather it was Xena's fear of loosing her soulmate. Death had damaged their self-confidence and Gabrielle realized her Warrior was still blaming herself for the pain Gabrielle went through and that her obsession with Caesar is what eventually killed the Bard.

"My Queen, did you hear what Cyrene just said? She asked if you would like some lemon tea." Amarice noticed how suddenly Gabrielle drifted off and she also was aware there had been a small fight between the lovers. It did not take an oracle to read the Warrior's anger, as she paced the kitchen earlier refusing to speak with anyone.

"Oh yes. I'm sorry Cyrene?my mind was just drifting."

The innkeeper smiled at Gabrielle and set off to make the tea. Cyrene was amazed how this young Amazon Queen truly regulated the mood of those around her without even attempting to do so. Cyrene's employees became suddenly formal around Gabrielle. When the blonde Amazon first entered the kitchen, Uncle Tensandi who agreed to help Cyrene tend bar bowed respectfully. The innkeeper smirked and whispered to Gabrielle that Uncle Tensandi never bowed for anyone. Upon hearing this Gabrielle immediately bowed her head acknowledging his sign of respect. Uncle Tensandi left the kitchen with a small bounce to his step and the three women broke apart with laughter.

By midday Gabrielle's hair, which was now hanging just above her shoulders was completed. Cyrene and Amarice entered the main room followed by the Amazon Queen. Xena saw her immediately. The beauty and power illuminating from her soulmate brought tears to her eyes. The Warrior was not the only one who was captivated by Gabrielle. The inn was filled with several Amazons but the majority was villagers. Everyone stopped to watch this gorgeous woman enter. Whether it was just the mystique of her rank as Queen or the awe of the Queen being Gabrielle - either way it did not matter for she stopped everyone's heart. The clothing she wore was made of deer hide and beaten until it was soft and pliable exposing every curve and muscle. The skirt was a short wrap-around with slits up the sides exposing more of Gabrielle's muscular thighs than Xena wanted. Even after Gabrielle reassured the Warrior of her love, they argued about the amount of thigh Gabrielle was exposing and Xena eventually stormed out of their room angry. Once she cooled off she was feeling rather foolish in her jealousy. When Xena decided to talk to her soulmate about her reoccurring underlying fear that Gabrielle would leave her, the Bard was already in the kitchen with her mother. Now as she observed her soulmate, Xena was relieved to see that several leather ties were in place stopping the slit where the Warrior had originally demanded - upper mid thighs. A beautiful leather belt composed of a complex design woven with various color beads wrapped around the Queen's waist holding the skirt in place. Thin strips of leather adorned with delicate seashells gracefully hung down from the belt dancing in front, as Gabrielle walked. Her top was a halter style with an extremely low cut held together by six tiny golden clasps. The halter very generously revealed Gabrielle's tight abdomen, bewitching breasts and powerful shoulder blades. There was not a whole lot left to the imagination except the fantasy of bedding this beauty. On her wrists the Queen wore leather bracers to match her clothing. Her feet were protected with the finest brown leather boots. Each boot had leather ties half way above the ankle to secure the footwear to her calf with the length cutting just below the knees. Around her neck she wore the traditional rawhide necklace with a single bear tooth and several small sparrow feathers.

Gabrielle entered the room, slowing down when she realized everyone was watching her. There were numerous whistles and groans of appreciation, as she moved further into the room. She was searching for Xena and finally caught sight of her standing by the fireplace. Remembering their argument Gabrielle could instantly tell by the look on Xena's face that her Warrior was feeling slightly overwhelmed and fearful of the type of attention she was receiving, as Amazon Queen. The whistles increased in number and Gabrielle saw Xena lower her head. With complete control and pride Gabrielle instantly became the Amazon Queen. Her walk became determined and her eyes honed in on their target. People began moving out of the way, as Gabrielle made her way straight for Xena. Looking up just in time, the Warrior saw the emerald eyes of her lover. Gabrielle winked which instantly sent Xena a message. The Warrior reached down pulling Gabrielle up to meet her lips. In this single kiss Gabrielle allowed Xena to mark her territory, laying claim as the Queen's Champion. When the kiss ended, Xena led Gabrielle to a corner table where the patrons already sitting there moved quickly and respectfully leaving the table available for the Queen. The crowd followed the two women with their eyes. Xena sat down in a chair and motioned for Gabrielle to sit in the chair next to her. The Queen had other plans and instead sat on the Warrior's lap straddling her thighs facing Xena. Interweaving her fingers with the long black raven hair Gabrielle pulled her Champion in for a passionate kiss. The kiss did what Gabrielle hoped for - the crowd quieted down and went back to private conversations.

The Warrior was consumed in the love her soulmate was pouring on her. Severing the kiss for the rich luscious skin within her reach Xena trailed her lips to Gabrielle's neck sucking and biting lightly. The Queen's breasts were right in front of her and the Warrior tilted her head to kiss the warm flesh. Running and sliding her tongue into the exposed cleavage elicited sensual moans from her Bard.

"Ahem?excuse me Xena." With a slanted eyebrow and a smirk across her face Cyrene placed two mugs of ale in front of them, followed by plates of food. "You two need to calm down. Here EAT - please!"

Glancing at each other Gabrielle moved to the next chair and the soulmates laughed over Cyrene's interference, as they enjoyed their meal. Eventually Eponin, Amarice, Shulaba and Teklai joined the couple and raved about the rumors spreading through the inn on how the Warrior conquered the Queen. Leaning over Xena whispered in her lover's ear. "Sweetie - we both know it is you who conquered me. But thank you again for letting it look the other way."

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

By late afternoon the celebration was in full swing and everyone was becoming anxious for the special Amazon staff demonstration. Knowing full well what the type of performance the people of Amphipolis were going to see Shulaba deferred her right to introduce the Amazons to the village council. After the council bickered, straws were drawn and Memnos, the village healer won the honor to introduce the women.

Memnos stepped up on the wooden platform constructed especially for this performance and addressed the participants of the celebration, which by now became the entire village. "Folks thanks to Cyrene," Memnos bowed to the innkeeper, "we have a wonderful celebration today - a celebration about life. Thanks to Queen Gabrielle and Regent Shulaba our guests have a special Amazon drill team which will entertain us with a special staff demonstration. I've seen these beautiful women in practice?and?" Memnos wiped his brow, "?if any of you find your heart rate increasing - don't bother me until after the performance." This comment elicited a huge roar of laughter from the crowd.

Approximately two hundred paces away sitting outside of the inn were Xena, Eponin, Cyrene, Lila and Shulaba. Close by Autolycus, Minya and Joxer were mingling with the villagers and Amazons. Eponin was not too sure to liked what Memnos was insinuating and turned to Xena. "What exactly did he mean by that!!"

Xena shrugged her shoulder. Neither she nor Eponin were allowed into the private practice so they had no idea what style this demonstration would take on. "Don't worry Eponin, the old man's heart probably increases whenever he comes near an Amazon. After all it was only a staff demonstration." Although the Warrior had not been happy with Gabrielle's choice in clothing for the day, she assumed a staff demonstration was all business. Her Bard always took practice serious. Now, however, she began wondering what other mischief her little Bard might have created. Pulled from her thoughts by Gabrielle, Amarice and the Amazons stepping on the platform, the Warrior sighed at the sight of her lover looking so beautiful. Feeling proud that Gabrielle chose her above everyone else in the world Xena thanked the Creator first and then all the gods one by one.

Five Amazons began a steady slow pulsing thump on a deep bass drum reminding the audience of a heartbeat. Twelve Amazons, including Gabrielle, moved through various warm-up swings and stretches with their staffs. Next they formed three rows in offsetting positions so all twelve women could be seen. Matching the cadence of the drums the Amazons began to tap the end of their staffs to the wooden platform. Soon three more drums joined the rhythm adding a deeper tempo to the already arousing beat. Without warning the drill team began to slowly sway their hips and shoulders back and forth keeping pace with the drumbeats. This enticing movement from the scantly clothed Amazons sparked several howls of appreciation from both men and women in the audience. Several metal drums joined causing the acceleration of the rhythm and giving the musical impression of lungs matching a heartbeat. Picking up their staffs the women took several pivotal steps forward before dropping to their knees. Above their heads the staffs were held high. Immediately four Amazons playing massie cymbals could be heard causing the pace of the drums to increase. From their knees the drill team performed a series of intricate revolutions and acrobatic maneuvers with the staffs. Abruptly all the music stopped. The Amazons jumped to their feet and paired off, giving the impression that a battle would follow. Each couple began executing complex jabs and thrusts against their partner. All that the listeners could hear were the slapping and banging of wood against wood. Each timed to precision - not a beat was missed. From the silence the five bass drums emerged once again setting the cadence with a hypnotic deep thumping and pounding. The team maneuvered like wild animals' back into their original rows. Everyone watching started to clap hands with the vibrating pulse of the drum. As before, the Amazons made repeated taps with their staffs to the platform floor. This time more force was applied and the crowd could witness the strength and flexing of muscles on each Amazon body holding a staff. Slowly and intentionally each woman proceeded to rotate her hips sexually. Before the bellowing whistles from the crowd could die down each member of the drill team held their staff vertically with their body. The bottom tip of the staff touching the platform remained stationary, as each woman began lowering the top portion at an angle forcing them to seductively crawl, in small steps a determined path up the slanted staffs. At no time did their bodies actually touch the staff, however the suggestive gyration of their hips and the arching of their backs, shaking of their shoulders and closing of their eyes sent a seriously sexual messaged to the crowd watching. To make the atmosphere more erotic the music turned very seductive forcing wolf howls and propositions from the audience to the Amazons on stage. The clapping crowd helped the drums keep cadence to the staff crawl. The drill team had total control of their audience - men and women. As the crawl ended team members dropped their staffs to the platform and continued to maintain a straddling position. The masse cymbals and all drums now joined together controlling the rhythm once again. Each Amazon laced their fingers seductively through her hair and feathers shaking and rocking her head in coordination with the gyration of her hips and shoulders. In unison the team continued the dance of seduction adding in several slow hops to the steps and pelvis thrusts, as they backed down the length of the fallen staffs. Ultimately each Amazon picked up their staff pounding the end twice to the platform and the music abruptly stopped.

Villagers and non-performing Amazons were totally aroused and out of control with excitement and enthusiasm. Many shouted and screamed for the team to repeat the performance, several villagers rushed the platform. The drill team disbanded with laughter at the overwhelming acceptance they received. Gabrielle and Amarice almost fell to the ground while hugging each other like happy little girls. Everyone was so positive and the compliments, as well as propositions, became overwhelming for the drill team.

Clapping and whistling with fascination over the wonderful performance Shulaba, Cyrene and Lila turned to speak with Xena and Eponin. Both warriors stood frozen in place. Their mouths were dropped wide open and both had eyes as big as the moon. Cyrene knew her daughter well enough to realize this reaction was not good. * Well I have two choices. I can rub it in and tease Xena a bit or I can settle her down so she does not kill anyone.* It only took a moment for the innkeeper to choose the first option. *Oh well, people around Xena will just have to duck, when her fist comes close to them.* The innkeeper positioned herself right in front of her daughter and Eponin. "Dear, the performance is over, you can close your mouth now." Cyrene could not resist laughing at the reaction she was witnessing in both warriors. "Wasn't it wonderful - Gabrielle and Amarice were just?..just so very?..sexy! " Cyrene knew full well she was stepping out on a limb and at that moment she did not care. This was just too much fun for the innkeeper.

Neither warrior could respond to Cyrene's comments. They both heard her but neither could find a voice to answer. Xena could not believe what she saw. Her Gabrielle dancing seductively and erotically with a bunch of Amazons for all of Amphipolis to see?..and with a staff?..and everyone including her own mother thought it was perfectly okay. Men and women howled at her Bard and they offered Gabrielle a night of suggestive entertainment. Xena wanted to clobber Eponin for teaching Gabrielle the staff but when she looked at her friend, she was just as shocked.

Both Lila and Shulaba loved the demonstration and motioned for Cyrene to join them in congratulating all the women. Xena began to unfreeze and continued to look around at the reactions from the villagers and other Amazons. A short distance behind Xena was Joxer who had passed out and was now face down kissing the dirt. Seconds later Minya bolted by Xena mumbling something about staff lessons. Autolycus was right behind Minya and as he passed by Xena he quickly volunteered his services should Xena ever need anyone to father a child for Gabrielle. If the Warrior was not so shocked, so jealous, so angry?and if she could move faster she would have kill Autolycus for the suggestion.

Uncle Tensandi finally tapped Xena and Eponin on the shoulders. "Great performance - you two going to go congratulate them. I can't believe they really pulled that off."

The Warrior with teeth gritting turned to her uncle. "What do you mean pull it off."

Laughing and a bit surprised at his niece's reaction Tensandi explained. "I let them use my barn for practice, they swore me to secrecy. I thought the villagers might find it a bit too?.well you know. But the council loved it. It would seem the whole village loved the performance!"

The two warriors stormed to the inn only to be greeted by the Captain of the Royal Guard who was blocking their entrance.

"Get out of the way Teklai!" Eponin ordered.

Teklai just grinned at the two warriors and crossed her arms. "Now if that was my woman on that platform dancing seductively, invitingly and I might add executing superb staff maneuvers, I would first be extremely proud that she was my woman. Second I would make sure I told her how proud I was and third I would be right at her side making sure no one else tried to claim her. And last but not least I would ask for a private performance. Let's face it warriors?.it can only get better! But a word of warning - don't wait too long or your beds might be cold tonight?.and probably for some time."

Staring at the boldness of the Captain who dare cross rank to confront them, both immediately realized the wisdom in her words. Simultaneously they turned around to notice how the crowd was already swallowing Gabrielle and Amarice. The village musicians joined in with the Amazons to play what was now known as the Staff Song. Everyone began dancing, bumping and grinding - being silly, loud and having fun. No one cared who his or her partner was. Others began eating and drinking the food and ale donated by every business in town. The Warrior patted her friend on the back. "Teklai is right. And Gabrielle has been hurt enough. I sure don't need to add to her pain by my own jealousy."

Eponin was not sure she was in complete agreement and questioned the Warrior. "Xena, they seduced this village with their?..bodies?.and?and?and?"

"You're stuttering Eponin. Listen, if you want to loose a chance with Amarice then that is your business. I do not plan to loose Gabrielle." The Warrior glanced at her friend who looked puzzled. "Come on Eponin, you'll catch on after awhile. It took me two years to admit I love Gabrielle. Do Amarice a favor and yourself, move faster."

Maris and Leandra were also amused with the performance. "Maris?before we kill Gabrielle - I want time with her."

The rebel leader slapped her companion on the back confirming she had no trouble with that request. "When you are done - then I will also have a turn."

Stella was already located among the crowd close to the inn preparing to cause a distraction for Xena and Eponin. Pippa was standing behind Maris and Leandra listening to them changing their plans. The problem now became larger. Not only were they going to murder this woman, they now planned to kidnap and rape the beautiful Queen. In her heart the good started to surface over the desire to be needed, which was the only reason, she stayed with Maris and her gang. The littlest Amazon decided she would find a way to warn Gabrielle.

The crowd of people around Gabrielle and Amarice were too many for Leandra to just stroll in and take the young blonde. Plus as long as Amarice stayed close, she for sure would recognize Leandra. No longer contended with just killing her, the assassin would need to make a few adjustments to the plan they spoke of earlier today.

After some pushing, shoving and hearing way too many suggestive comments about their women the two warriors finally stood face to face with Gabrielle and Amarice. Both were somewhat out of breath and appeared frustrated. The Warrior discovered that the closer she got to Gabrielle the more fear she had of loosing her to someone else. Now that she was standing in front of her soulmate Xena froze unable to touch her.

Gabrielle was extremely happy to see Xena. She began to worry, when Xena appeared to be walking away. The Bard actually grabbed Amarice and had intended on chasing after her. The last thing Gabrielle wished for was to have Xena mad at her for the demonstration. Now her lover was standing in front of her appearing to stop short, as if she was holding back from touching Gabrielle. It did not take long for Gabrielle to realize the Warrior seemed upset and confused. "Xena, what's wrong?" Not getting any response, the Bard moved closer to her soulmate reached up and pulled Xena in for a kiss. The Warrior welcomed the warm and tender lips of her soulmate and sighed with relief. Gabrielle heard the sigh and she stopped the kiss allowing several groans of disapproval slip from Xena. "What is wrong Xena. Are you angry at me?"

"By the gods I love you. Don't ever leave me." Xena petitioned Gabrielle's lips with force and the Bard reciprocated, as their bodies pressed tightly sealing any chance of even air coming between them.

Neither one was watching the interaction between Eponin and Amarice. Only Shulaba and Cyrene noticed, as the two stood and looked deeply into the other's eyes. "They are both stubborn Cyrene?I don't know about this."

"Have faith Shulaba. Have faith." Cyrene patted her Amazon friend on the shoulder and the two walked back to the inn for some food and drink.

About half way back Teklai came running up to them. "Shulaba where is Gabrielle. Maris is in the village." The trio ran back to where they had just left the four women.

Calm and completely in control of her emotions, as only the Captain of the Royal Guard should be, Teklai nudged the Warrior on the shoulder interrupting a kiss. "Xena we have a problem. Maris is in the village, and we've captured two of the rebels."

Not wanting to break away the Warrior looked down at her lover. "We better get back to the inn. You are not safe out here." Gabrielle placed one more kiss on Xena's lips and allowed her soulmate to lead her to safety. Eponin and Amarice followed closely behind. Eponin cursed slightly at the disruption because she was beginning to get brave enough to at least ask Amarice, if she could hold her hand.

At the inn, Pippa was sitting on a bench in the corner with her hands tied while four Amazons guarded the young rebel. Stella had ropes binding her wrists and ankles and was sitting on the floor outside of the kitchen surrounded by six Amazon guards and Uncle Tensandi. Teklai explained how Pippa came to the inn trying to find Gabrielle and she immediately recognized the young rebel and ordered her arrest. Soon after, Stella came rushing in only to see we already had hold of the little one. She tried to fight and Uncle Tensandi quickly took her down from the behind.

Being the tender emotional woman that made her a good Queen, Gabrielle walked over to the young rebel. The expression across this child's face was fear and loss and the Bard saw these emotions. As Gabrielle sat down across from the child, she could see that her face was bruised, her arms and legs had marks from punches and scratches. And Gabrielle could relate to the fear, loss and the pain of abuse. As Gabrielle attempted to maintain control of her emotions, it was difficult for her not to react as the memories of her own pain began to creep back in. The Bard covered her face with her hands to hold back tears and regroup. Xena, Shulaba and Cyrene witnessed the emotional drain that swept over Gabrielle and they presumed her memories of abuse were flooding her heart. Without words the Warrior sat on the bench next to her soulmate and wrapped her arm around Gabrielle's waist. Soon Shulaba sat on the opposite side and Cyrene sat next to her daughter. Symbolically the Bard understood the support she was receiving from the three women.

Lowering her hands she took a deep breath and searched for Xena's free hand to hold hers. Once the Warrior had a tight grip on them Gabrielle spoke very softly to the young rebel. "Teklai tells me your name is Pippa. Do you know who I am?"

The young rebel nodded her head and said, "You're?you're the Queen. Everyone thought you were dead."

Gabrielle smiled, "Well, I'm not, although a lot of people thought so. Can I ask you why you are with the woman tied up in the corner?"

"Stella - she's not so bad. It is the other two - Maris and Leandra. They want to kill you and more."

The Warrior and Shulaba were both ready to jump in and pull the information out of this little girl, but Cyrene had a grip on Xena's tunic and Shulaba knew intervention would only lead to a reprimand later. She had not yet become as bold around Gabrielle as Ephiny had been. Gabrielle paused only a moment and asked, "What do you mean Pippa, when you say more. Did they plan to kill others?"

The young rebel was beginning to feel comfortable with this Queen. She was soft and gentle, she was pretty and she did not hit her. "They talked about killing Shulaba too. And I think they still want too, but they wanted to hurt you more."

The protective nature in the Warrior was now running out of patience and she spoke up without giving Gabrielle an opportunity to ask more. "Pippa - do you like your Queen?" Xena motioned to Gabrielle. The young girl nodded her head yes. "Then will you please tell us what we need to hear to help protect her and Shulaba." The Warrior felt her soulmate squeeze her hand and even though she knew she spoke out of turn Gabrielle did not disapprove.

"They want to kidnap the Queen and they each want to?.to?" Pippa lowered her head in shame. "I'm sorry my Queen?I never wanted you to be harmed. I never wanted Shulaba to be killed. I came to warn you. Even if they kill me?.I had to tell you."

Once again Gabrielle's heart controlled her actions and she reached out and untied the ropes holding Pippa's hands in place. No one questioned the mercy Gabrielle was showing the young rebel. "Pippa, no one will hurt you. I will make sure you are safe, okay. Do you trust me?" The young girl nodded her head yes. "Then please tell me everything. My friends can't protect me or Shulaba, if you don't tell them." The Warrior tightened her hold on Gabrielle's waist and pulled her closer.

Pippa took a second to organize her thoughts. "At first Maris and Leandra were after Lila. They were going to kill her and blame it on Shulaba. Then when they found out you were alive, my Queen, they decided to kill you and Shulaba." The Regent handed the rebel a cup of water. After taking a long drink she nodded her thanks and continued her explanation. "Then, when we found out about the celebration Maris thought they could kill you both here and still get away by hiding in the crowd. But, when?.when they saw you dance." Pippa lowered her head and fiddled with her clothing. "Well?they both decided they would kidnap you and?and ra?rape you many times. And then when they were done?.well, they would kill you."

Shulaba excused herself and went over to relay the information to Eponin and Amarice who were attempting to question Stella. At first Gabrielle said absolutely nothing and then she asked Pippa, if she was hungry - which she was. The Queen directed the guard to isolate her and give her something to eat. Her orders included that the child was not to be harmed in any way. Once Pippa was led away Gabrielle turned to face Xena and Cyrene. "I'm really not ready to talk to the other rebel. I?I need some time to think."

Without hesitation the Warrior walked Gabrielle to their room. No sooner was the door closed and Gabrielle began to sob. Xena lifted her and carried her to the bed where she leaned her back against the headboard holding her soulmate on her lap. The Warrior knew exactly why Gabrielle was upset. It was partly for the pain Pippa had been through and the rest was for the horrible memories that were triggered by the young rebel's abuse. Xena was angry with the rebels for threatening her lover with rape and death and the Warrior was angry with the Bard's father. The pair stayed entwined until Gabrielle from shear exhaustion fell asleep. The Warrior refused to move and stayed holding her soulmate until there was a knock on the door. Sliding Gabrielle off her lap the Warrior discovered Eponin on the other side.

"Is Gabrielle all right? Xena, I know you don't want to, but she is going to have to come and help us. The older rebel, Stella, is demanding to see her. She won't talk to anyone else."

In a concern voice the Warrior asked, "Eponin, did anyone beat her?"

Before Eponin could answer the Bard was standing next to Xena. "I will be extremely upset Eponin, if ANYONE beat that woman!"

The Amazon Warrior bowed respectfully to her Queen. "No - I made sure no one touched her. Any bruises she may have were not caused by any Amazon."

The couple thanked Eponin and asked that she give them a moment to organize their thoughts. Once Eponin was gone the Warrior turned to find Gabrielle who was at the wash basin splashing cool water on her face. "Sweetie, why don't you rest. I will talk to this rebel?.and I promise no one will touch her."

Doing only what comes natural for someone like Gabrielle, she slipped her wet arms around her soulmate and with a sweetness that tugged on Xena's heart, Gabrielle pressed her lips to the woman she loved more than life. "Thank you my love - for holding me, protecting me and most of all for loving me so deeply. Let's talk to this rebel together. The nap helped and you just being with me helped."

Stella was moved to the storage room off the kitchen and the couple found she was still tied up sitting on the hard dirt floor. Standing tall and proud Gabrielle was still dressed in her Amazon leathers. The feathers from a white owl marking the wisdom of a queen were braided intricately in her blonde hair. Xena could not help but be proud of her soulmate. *You have come so far my love?.so far.*

The fair-hair rebel raised her head to look up at the face of the Amazon Queen. "You are beautiful."

Not at all happy with the forwardness of the rebel Xena stepped in front of Gabrielle with her hands balled tightly closed in anger. "Keep you tongue quiet or I am liable to cut it out!" The Warrior felt a soft small hand tugging on one fist. The gentleness caused Xena's hand to open and instinctively the strong warlike fingers curled with the fingers of peace.

Not missing the physical exchange between the young woman and the hardened warrior, Stella let a smirk cross her face. She was well aware of Xena's reputation and was amused by the power the Queen had over her. "I will speak to the Queen alone - Xena!"

Before Xena could object the Bard spoke up. "Then you have nothing to tell me." Gabrielle turned to walk away.

"My Queen, I will talk to no one else." Stella began to feel panic run through her veins.

Gabrielle heard fear and pain in Stella's voice so she faced her once again. "Let's get one thing clear rebel." Squatting down at eye level with the fair-haired woman, Gabrielle continued. "I am in charge - not you. If I say Xena stays?.then you better get use to it. Now do you still have something to tell me or not?"

Glaring up at Xena the rebel found the Warrior smiling proudly and tenderly at Gabrielle. Looking back at the Amazon Queen whose penetrating and commanding green eyes never left Stella, the rebel spoke. "Is Pippa okay?"

"Yes, she is being protected and fed. Who beat her?"

A small tear formed in Stella's eyes taking both Gabrielle and Xena by surprise. "Maris mostly. I have never beaten or slapped her. I?.I love her and I'm worried."

It only took one look from Gabrielle to Xena and the Warrior knew what her lover was requesting. Xena bent over and untied the ropes from Stella's hands and ankles. Shocked by this action Stella stayed on the ground and did not move. The next thing she could see was the Queen's hand reaching out with an offer for Stella to accept. She hesitated and said, "My Queen, I can not accept your hand. I've betrayed you."

"Didn't I already tell you I was in charge." Stella nodded her head. "Then take my hand Stella and tell me about this young child that you love."

Once standing Xena offered Stella water, which she took with thanks. "Pippa is my daughter."

"Stella, do you know about the murder attempt on the Queen and Regent." Stella nodded yes so Xena continued. "And do you know Maris and Leandra planned to kidnap and rape Gabrielle before killing her."

The Amazon rebel took two steps forward. She wanted to look directly into Xena's eyes. It was important to Stella that the Warrior believes she would not lie. "I swear on the life of my daughter - no, I did not know of that plan. I only know they wanted to kill the Queen and I was to provide a distraction. Maris promised to let Pippa and I go when it was over." Stella's body slumped and she sat back on the ground with her hands covering her face. "I let my stupidity and stubbornness get in the way and?.I only wanted to be with Pippa." Several tears fell from Stella's eyes. "You see?she?Pippa does not know I am her mother. I just so wanted to be with her?.and make up for abandoning her?.I was so young. I'm sorry my Queen for betraying you."

Memories of Solan flooded the Warrior and she lowered her head. Quickly Gabrielle moved to stand in front of Xena wrapping her arms around the Warriors waist. The time spent in Illusia helped Xena heal the shame she felt for abandoning Solan. Now most of her sadness was caught up in scattered memories. Lifting Gabrielle's chin the Warrior smiled and kissed her soulmates lips thanking her and softly whispered, "I'm okay?really. She just caught me off guard." Xena focused her attention back to the rebel. "Stella - do you have any reason to think Maris and Leandra will stay around now that you've been captured?"

"No Xena. Maris is determined and Leandra is just an assassin. Their hate runs deep for the Amazons. They will do has they planned - it may just take them longer. They also believe that Amazon custom will execute any one of us that gets caught."

Gabrielle reached over and patted Stella on the arm. "I have to hold you prisoner. You know that, don't you." Stella lowered her head and mumbled she understood. "I will arrange for you to see your daughter. Then I will have both of you taken back to the Amazon village. Stella, I can not guarantee the outcome of your trial, but I will do my best as long as you cooperate and do as I say."

"Thank you my Queen."

Gabrielle and Xena left the storage room to find Shulaba and Eponin. The first person to greet them was Cyrene. One look at Gabrielle's face spoke volumes to Cyrene's' heart. She opened her arms hoping the Bard would accept her warmth and love. Gabrielle happily fell into them. At this moment, Gabrielle craved the love only a mom can give and she welcomed Warrior Mom's offer to hold her and hug her. The Warrior stepped around behind her mother and ran her fingers through Gabrielle's hair. "Gabrielle, I'm going to give instructions to Teklai about Stella and Pippa. Is that okay with you."

Peeking up over Cyrene's shoulder Gabrielle blew a friendly little kiss to Xena. "Yes please." The innkeeper with Gabrielle in tow moved to the window seat and continued holding and hugging the young blonde for sometime.

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Later that evening as the villagers and Amazons awoke from late afternoon naps, the celebration continued. The village musicians and the Amazons by now played and sounded beautiful together. The dancing and eating and drinking continued on pass the midnight candlemark. Xena sat on the bench in front of her mother's inn with Gabrielle leaning up against her. The day's activities finally caught up with Cyrene and bidding her daughters' goodnight she shuffled off to bed. Joxer was passed out from consuming too much port and was laying somewhere under the platform where the Amazon's performed earlier that day. The couple could hear Minya deep in conversation with Shulaba and Teklai about becoming an Amazon. And no one knew where Autolycus was. Gabrielle assumed he found the company of several willing Amazons. After the capture of Stella and Pippa, members of the royal guard were sent throughout and around the boundaries of Amphipolis in search of Maris and Leandra. They came back with word that several villagers saw two women riding horses extremely fast out of the community stables almost running a child over. Sentry patrols were then sent out to pick up the trail. The trail eventually went cold, as the rebels headed into the mountains west of Amphipolis.

Completely enjoying the firm yet soft body she was cuddling up to the Bard realized that Eponin and Amarice had been missing for sometime now. "Xena, have you seen either Eponin or Amarice lately?"

With her eyes still closed the Warrior continued to soak in the pleasure of her lover's body so close to her own. "Now that you mention it - no I have not seen either for awhile."

The Bard sat up and looked to Xena. "Really??you think just maybe?"

Peeking through one eye Xena let her hand caress Gabrielle's cheek. "After that performance the two of you gave?well let's just say Eponin was extremely shocked and jealous. She definitely has it bad for Amarice."

Feeling impish Gabrielle coyly asked. "Warrior, were you shocked and jealous?"

Clearing her throat it dawned on Xena that she just walked straight into a trap and with Gabrielle's traps the only way out was honesty. "Well?.yeah I guess I was surprised?.and jealous." Opening her eyes completely Xena smiled at her soulmate. "Listen once the shock wore off and I could move from my frozen state?.well I was really proud of you, and?." Releasing a deep throaty growl of pleasure, "?and let's just say your body stimulates poetry in my heart."

"Really?mmmm?poetry? " The Bard was elated that not only did Xena notice, she even got a little bit jealous. Gabrielle would never admit that to Xena but it always made her spirit sparkle, when her Warrior became so possessive. *?.And you are becoming so very mushy, my lover.*

Observing that her Bard suddenly got lost in thought Xena added to her response. "Yessss, I noticed and so did everyone else in the village!" Lifting Gabrielle's hand to her lips the Warrior covered her hand with several tiny kisses and then sensually peered into those sea green eyes. *So, you are feeling a bit playful, my love.* Capturing the Bard's face the Warrior pulled her close, as if she was going to kiss her soulmate but stopped short and whispered a seductive request. "But do you give private demonstrations?"

Gabrielle fell hopelessly into her lovers' arms and the Warrior watched, as her soulmates playful eyes turned to that deep glazed-over green that meant Gabrielle was surrendering her body to Xena. "Mmmm?only for you my Warrior?only for you."

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CHAPTER 5

The day after the celebration the village was quiet. The Amazons were packing to return home with Stella and Pippa. Joxer left earlier with a horrible hangover mumbling something about visiting his grandmother for a cure. Cyrene managed to talk Minya into staying longer. The innkeeper openly admired the woman who not only stood up to Xena but continued to carry her daughter's whip. Shulaba and Teklai decided to stay and wait for the wedding. Although Xena still had not found anyone to marry them, she knew once things settled down somewhat she would find someone. Everyone assumed Eponin and Amarice would stay although no one had seen them since last night. The only one left was Autolycus who was now sporting a black eye.

"Well Cyrene, once again thank you for an absolutely fantastic party."

The innkeeper shoved away Autolycus' offer to kiss her hand and pulled the King of Thieves into a big bear hug and kiss. "Don't forget to come back for the wedding."

"Aaaaah, yes. Well send out word. I won't be too far." The King of Thieves cautiously shook hands with Xena and tilted his head in respect to Gabrielle.

"Xena."

Looking down into her lover's smiling face Xena knew exactly what she was going to ask. "Yessss."

"Who punched Autolycus in the right eye?"

Shulaba, Teklai, and Cyrene started giggling. Teklai could not resist squealing on the Warrior's jealous temper. "Xena punched him. It was really a great hit too! Poor guy never saw it coming." Giggles turned into laughter.

"And just when and why did you hit poor Autolycus?"

Realizing she was in big, big trouble Xena attempted to justify her reasoning. "Look - he had it coming. And I punched him, when you were with mom." Xena could see Gabrielle's raised eyebrow and that look. The look that told the Warrior she would be sleeping alone, if she did not explain. Xena turned and held her soulmate's hands. "Gabrielle, after that dance - Autolycus was bold enough and stupid enough to tell me if I was ever looking for someone to be with you, so we could have children?well he wanted the job."

"Children!" Gabrielle was caught off guard by the topic. Tenderly she slipped into the Warrior's waiting arms and the giggling women stopped, realizing there would be no fireworks and left the couple alone. "Xena, you know we can't have children without a man."

"Gabrielle, I don't care. Well - no, wait. I do care. We will just have to adopt or go on with our life without children." The Warrior kissed Gabrielle on the lips tenderly. "I will not allow anyone else to touch you intimately and please don't ask that of me!"

The thought of children never really crossed Gabrielle's mind. After the loss of Solan and Hope, the Bard just assumed as long as they remained lovers - children would not be possible. Then after they died and were reborn Gabrielle understood that each of them would just move up the karmic ladder popping into different lives where the Creator destined them to be. She did not question the foolishness of her thoughts or the wisdom of the Creator. Gabrielle felt complete knowing she was Xena's soulmate for all eternity. Memories of all the messengers, the various religious doctrines, the prophets and the gods came flooding back to Gabrielle. After four winters of trying to understand and find a place in her heart for all of them, Gabrielle finally concluded that there was indeed only one Creator running the show and the rest were all just a part of that Creator. Pulled from her thoughts she felt her soulmate running those strong fingers through her hair.

"Hey, where did you go Gabrielle? You okay?"

A smile grew over the Bard's beautiful face. "Yes my Warrior. I will not ask you to do something that would cause you pain. When the time or desire comes for children - then we can decide. Right now more than anything I just want us to bond in front of people who love us."

Relieved that she was not upset the Warrior led her soulmate outside. Pointing to the mountain north of Amphipolis Xena explained. "See the outcrop to the left of that mountain. Well there is an old temple priest up there. Before he retired he was the priest at Aphrodite's temple - the one at Kolpos Bluff. I'm going to take Eponin and Shulaba with me and see if that old man will marry us."

"Why can't I go with you?"

Taking both of Gabrielle's arms the Warrior bent over to look directly at Gabrielle. Xena did not want the Bard coming with her because she planned on making a special side trip to pick up a gift for her soulmate. It was something she ordered prior to their deaths and hoped that one day she would be able to give this to Gabrielle. A tender kiss grazed her lips pulling Xena from her thoughts. "Gabrielle, if you come with me, then there is no one left behind to monitor mother. You know in her excitement she will slowly twist out of control without even realizing. I want this marriage ceremony to be about you and me. Only people close to us will understand what we have."

No longer able to contain her craving Gabrielle seized Xena's lips in a forceful and searing kiss that only served to confirm that her soulmate was in full agreement. Demanding entrance into the warm moisture of her lover's mouth Gabrielle could feel her body tremble, when the Warrior surrendered to her demands.

From the platform in the village Artemis, Aphrodite and Ephiny watched the interaction between the lovers. All three were privileged to both the conversation and thoughts exchanged between Xena and Gabrielle. Artemis placed her hand on Ephiny's shoulder. "Well my Amazon, you better tell that old priest to pack a satchel. Oh and where exactly are Eponin and Amarice?"

The Goddess of Love looked to both Artemis and Ephiny. "Well I'm working on them. Eponin is pretty stubborn." Almost immediately laughter broke out among the trio, as they remembered the stubbornness of one other particular Warrior.

The End

Hope you enjoyed the sequel. annmaray@yahoo.com



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