It was a dark and stormy night.
"Are you sure you want to go with that?"
"What?" Xena looked up from the scroll she was writing on to see Gabrielle hovering over her shoulder, a deep frown marring her features.
"That line. It was a dark and stormy night. Are you sure you want to open with that line?"
Xena noted Gabrielle had that
tone. Perplexed, she stared down at the scroll. "What's wrong with it?"
"Nothing's wrong with it. Exactly." Gabrielle flashed a disarming smile, the same one she used when Xena looked just a bit too gleeful holding their cutting knife. She flipped her blonde hair over one shoulder as she sat down on the log beside Xena. "May I?"
"Be my guest."
Xena's eyebrow quirked slightly as Gabrielle tapped the quill against her cheek for several long heartbeats. Her brow reached full arch as Gabrielle drew one line through the sentence she had written. Then, with a satisfied smile, the bard began writing beneath Xena's original line.
The warrior watched for a while, then with an exasperated sigh, she stood up, disappearing into the darkened woods surrounding their perimeter before returning with a thick branch. Nonchalantly, she tossed the piece of wood that was about half the length and just as thick as one of her legs onto the campfire. As she sat back down, her gaze settled on the piece of kindling, idly watching as the flames licked at the tender bark, dancing about the log before one ember finally caught and took hold, drawing it into its warm embrace.
"Okay, look at this."
Gabrielle's voice startled Xena out of a near-slumber. Rapidly blinking, drawing in a deep breath, Xena focused her senses. The moon was high overhead and the fresh log that she had placed on the fire was now more than halfway burned through.
"Okay, see, you took and wrote a good beginning sentence . . . for a beginner. It's just that it could be - " Gabrielle paused dramatically, made a flourishing gesture, "-better."
"Better?" The simple word came out as nearly a one-syllable grunt.
"Now, don't get me wrong. You did fine," Gabrielle rushed ahead, "For a novice."
Xena's spine stiffened more and more with every word that tumbled from the young bard's mouth. Briefly, she wondered if her usual warrior's masque had slipped a bit. If Gabrielle noticed, she in no way allowed it to deter her.
"Listen to this." Gabrielle held the parchment in front of her at arms' length, cleared her throat.
The ominous rumbling of thunder rattled overhead, building into a deafening crescendo as long-fingered bolts of lightning streaked across the sky, illuminating the countryside in erratic spurts of visibility.
Gabrielle paused from her reading, searched her partner's face for her reaction. "Well?"
Xena shrugged noncommittally. Taking that as silent affirmation, Gabrielle pressed the quill and parchment back into Xena's hand. The warrior looked hesitantly at the writing instruments.
"Go on," Gabrielle encouraged, nudging her just a bit.
With a shrug, Xena spread the parchment on her lap, began writing the next sentence. Anxiously, Gabrielle watched over her shoulder, observing as each letter was painstakingly made. As soon as the last word was formed, Gabrielle reached out, reclaiming the parchment.
They found the dryad bones in the cemetery.
"Okay. This isn't bad."
Xena's shoulders straightened at the compliment, a cocky grin forming on her lips. This writing thing isn't so hard.
"Yeah," agreed Gabrielle. "We can definitely work with this."
If she had looked up at precisely that moment, she would have seen Xena's smile turn into a menacing scowl. "Work. With. It."
"Right. You've got the foundation down. But, you've got to build on it . . . expand."
"I thought we were writing a story, not building a house."
"Good, Xena! Now you've got it!" Gabrielle's face lit up. "By my saying foundation, you thought of a house. That's what your words should do; create a picture in your reader's mind." At the blank look from Xena, she elaborated, "What does this sentence say to you?' she asked, tapping her fingertip on the parchment.
"That they found dryad bones in the cemetery."
"Ooookay," Gabrielle acquiesced. "But, it could tell the reader so much more." Snatching the quill from Xena's grasp, she began to hurriedly scribble on the scroll.
Xena sat back on her haunches, head tilted to one side as she watched her bard frantically put down words. Unable to stand it any longer, she reached out, one large calloused hand closing upon Gabrielle's, stilling her movements.
The bard continued to try to write, despite the added weight of Xena's hand upon hers.
"Gabrielle." Leaning in close, just a hint of warlord irritation in her voice, Xena called out again, "Gabrielle." As the bard looked up, Xena forced herself to take on a softer tone. "That's enough."
A look of bewilderment stole across Gabrielle's face. "You don't want to -- ?" she asked, trying to hand the parchment and quill over to the warrior.
Xena firmly pushed the objects back towards Gabrielle. "No."
"Yes." Again, that hint of agitation laced Xena's words. "I'm done."
A frown marring her features, Gabrielle looked from Xena to the scroll, then back to Xena again. The warrior princess moved away from her bard, stretching out her long frame on their bedroll. Tucking an arm beneath her head, looking up at the stars dotting the sky, she let out a low sigh.
Firmly rolling up the scroll, Gabrielle pushed herself off the log and joined Xena upon their bedroll. Assuming her customary position with her head resting on the warrior's shoulder, she, too, gazed up at the night sky.
"You know," she wheedled, absently tapping the rolled scroll against the firm muscle of her thigh, "if you want to give it another try - "
"Gabrielle. No." There was a long silence. Then, "The urge has passed."
"Ah. Which, brings up the question; Why did you want to write, anyway?" Feeling the body beneath her subtly tense up, she hastily amended, "I mean, why now?"
"Dunno." Even with the bard braced against her body, the warrior was able to get in a good shrug. "I guess it's because we're going to the Amazons for the Harvest Festival. And, I know you've been worried there won't be enough stories to be told around the nightly bonfires. I've even heard you talking about it in your sleep." There was another half-heartbeat before the warrior admitted, "I thought maybe I could, you know, tell a story."
"You?!? Get up in front of people and . . . talk?" Gabrielle asked, with a smirk. Then, realization dawning, she twisted her head so she could look up at Xena's profile. "You were really willing to do that; for me?"
"Yeah - well - "
Unsure whether it was an actual blush that colored the usually stoic warrior's cheeks, or merely an illusion cast by the heat of their campfire, Gabrielle grinned. Spontaneously, she moved, quickly placing a kiss on one heated cheek.
"Hey!" Xena swiped at the wet spot her bard had just left on her. "Not like it helped any." Chagrined, she was forced to admit, "Guess the bard thing is harder than I thought it would be."
"Ha! I finally got you to admit it!" Gabrielle triumphantly tapped a fingertip on Xena's nose. "You always thought it was easy making up stories, didn't you? Didn't you?"
"Well, let's be honest; most of your writing
is just retelling the adventures that we've had. It's not like you're trying to create anything new."
"New? You want to talk about new, Xena?" Gabrielle moved away from the warrior and sat up. "Don't think I didn't recognize the beginning of the Bacchus tale."
"I wanted something spooky for the festival." Xena petulantly picked at the fur of the bedroll. "And, it's not like I started from when we found Joxer in the woods with Orpheus' head in a bag."
"You've just proven my point, Xena." A smug smile played over the blonde's lips. "It's not easy being a bard, is it?" Deriving satisfaction from Xena's unwillingness to answer, Gabrielle decided to poke the bear just a little more. "It's okay, I should have known. I mean, what with you being a warrior and all."
That got Xena's attention. Her head snapped up, intense blue eyes piercing her young companion with a deadly glare. "What does that mean?" slowly rumbled up from the warrior's throat.
"It's nothing." Gabrielle worked to keep the coy smile off her lips, knowing she was purposely rankling Xena, "It's just that, well you know -"
"No, I don't know. Tell me."
Biting her bottom lip, Gabrielle quipped, "It's just that everyone knows you have many skills, Xena." She paused, took a dramatic breath before adding, "But, creativity isn't one of them."
"Excuse me? I'm plenty creative! Why, just the other day in that fight, I used a spoon to sever that warlord's - "
"Yeah, yeah," Gabrielle shooed her off with a bored expression. "Fine. You're creative enough to get your juices flowing in a fight." Gabrielle's mind drifted to what had happened immediately after that particular fight. Sometimes, there's a very good reason why I don't ride Argo.
She involuntarily winced as memories of the horse's saddle repeatedly connecting with her already swollen, sore and aching - you'd think if she was going to - - well, not that I minded that -- but maybe a little olive oil before she --
"Let's face it, outside of combat skills, warriors are about as creative as a box of rocks."
Jaw clenched, Xena abruptly stood up, reaching for her sword. Gabrielle's eyes widened just a bit as the warrior pulled the blade free of its sheath.
"I'm gonna go secure the perimeter," The warrior growled before storming off into the darkened woods.
Chuckling to herself, Gabrielle settled down, curled into a ball facing the fire, secure in the knowledge that once her warrior worked off some frustration, she'd come back and join her in their bedroll. Then, Gabrielle would admit she'd only been teasing and they'd have a good laugh together.
Patiently, she waited. As the moon slowly reached its zenith, her eyes began to droop. When the dark of night slowly gave way to the cool grey of predawn and Gabrielle still awaited her warrior, she finally surrendered to exhaustion. Somewhere deep in the realm of Morpheus, the young bard's sleep was troubled by the howling of a lone wolf.
x x x x x x x
Gabrielle was walking through an eerily quiet forest with a perturbed ex-warlord. Okay, maybe walking with is a relative term,
the bard's inner voice chimed in. Walk with
had fallen by the wayside a few thousand paces back. For the past two miles or so, the only glimpse she'd had of Xena had been that of her leather-clad backside.
It had been like that since early morning when she'd been rudely awakened by a skin of cold stream water being squeezed out over her face. Not that the assault was in itself at all unusual for Xena, warrior prankster. For some perverse reason known only to the Gods, the warrior took great pleasure in torturing the bard with different methods of waking her.
This morning's rousing was decidedly different.
Xena had still drenched her. Just like she did on countless other mornings. But, this time -- this time there wasn't that devilish gleam in those baby blues as she'd done it. And, she hadn't waited for the bard's reaction, either. Instead, she'd silently turned away from Gabrielle and began packing their gear into Argo's saddlebags.
Not thinking too much about Xena's quiet demeanor - after all, Xena's never been known for her talkative nature, anyway -
Gabrielle had dutifully scaled the two fish the warrior had left waiting beside the campfire. And, as she fried the catch in their skillet, she chattered on about the Amazons' harvest festival and how she was looking forward to the celebration, the food and the games. In particular, the bards' competition, a first for the nation of warrior women.
"Of course, I'll be strictly judging the competition," Gabrielle rattled on, "As Queen and the only Amazon to ever attend the Royal Academy of Bards, I can't in clear conscience compete against my sisters. It wouldn't be fair."
Along with the scroll reminding their Queen of the festival, the Amazons had sent along a plea that Gabrielle officially open and close the bards' competition with a couple of her original tales. She had been truly touched by the request and had sent the messenger back to the Nation with word that she would be honored to perform in front of her tribe.
"Time's running out. The ceremonies open tonight after the evening meal. I need something entertaining. And, exciting. Something they haven't heard before. Keeping in theme with the traditions of the fall harvest, of course."
That's when it hit her. Xena's ill attempt at penning the bacchae story the evening before. Gabrielle had thought her warrior was being gallant in trying to help her. But . . . maybe . . . just maybe Xena's motives weren't as pure and noble as she'd allowed the bard to believe last night. The warrior had been trying to express herself creatively. Maybe she'd truly wanted to enter the competition.
Gabrielle looked up from her half-eaten fish to find that Xena had already finished her breakfast and was rolling up their bedroll and securing it to Argo's saddle along with the rest of their gear. The only thing thing that hadn't been already stowed for travel was the plate nestled on Gabrielle's lap.
Her back to Gabrielle, only the stiffening of Xena's spine gave away that she'd heard the bard calling her name. The warrior's hands stilled, fingers clenching tightly at the leather fastenings she was cinching about the bedroll. It seemed as if all motion ceased, even the breeze that had been rustling the multicolored leaves upon the tree branches abruptly stopped.
In the heartbeats that followed, the only sound Gabrielle could hear was that of the beating of her own rather loud heartbeat. Climbing to her feet, walking the few paces to where her warrior was still standing, she reached out a tentative hand, stopping just short of actually placing it on the small of Xena's back.
"Last night when I said you weren't creative - " she caught the subtle shift of powerful back muscles " - maybe it didn't come out right. What I was trying to say is that when you're a bard, you have to be able to draw your audience in, make them visualize your words, convince their imaginations that the illusion is real." Still, there was no response from the warrior. Taking a deep breath, she worked up the nerve to place the palm of her hand flat on Xena's back. "Xena, I don't want to fight with you. And, if you want to work on the bacchae story while we travel - "
" - Forget about it, Gabrielle." The warrior decidedly moved away from the bard's touch. "I already have."
x x x x x x x
She'd been forced to walk rather than ride through the woods due to the amount of low-hanging branches and exposed roots upon the forest floor. The last thing she needed was for either her hair to get tangled in the gnarled limbs and forcefully yank her from the saddle or for Argo to trip and send her flying.
Speaking of Argo -
Xena felt the resistance as the mare tried once more to slow their pace. In an uncharacteristic bout of loyalty towards the bard, even Xena's own horse had seemingly turned against her.
"I've pulled mules that were less stubborn than you."
Argo snorted in protest as the warrior princess gave a firm tug on her reins.
"Ah, quit yer whining and come on." Xena wrapped the reins about her hand, gave another taut pull. "She's right behind us."
Xena knew that to be a fact, even though she herself was just as stubborn as Argo, refusing to turn around and visually confirm that the bard was, indeed, still with them. She didn't have to. Her acute hearing was able to detect every step Gabrielle took, every leaf that whispered beneath the sole of her boots, the tap-tap-tapping sound on the hardened ground of her Amazon staff as she dutifully followed in Xena's footsteps.
Although, to Xena's practiced ears, she could tell the bard's determination was waning. She'd started out strong, righteous indignation giving power to each step, making the staff sound that much louder in Xena's ears. With her longer stride, it had been easy enough to set up a ground-eating pace she knew Gabrielle's shorter legs couldn't keep up with.
Though she certainly did her best,
the warrior had to grudgingly admit that the once soft village girl had garnered both strength and stamina from their travels together. When they'd first met, Xena could easily outdistance the little blonde, bust a few heads and down a couple of ales in the local tavern before Gabrielle even stepped foot into town. Now, though, she found more and more often that Gabrielle was right beside her in any fight.
Course, it's been a long time since I've tried to actually leave her behind.
Xena slowed her pace. Cocking her head to one side, the dark-haired warrior intently listened. Gabrielle's pace had changed; her stride was shorter, her movements no longer fueled by that determined anger, her step seemed to have the feel of . . . resignation . . . about it. Still, she could hear the faint, persistent tapping of that Amazon staff.
Some of Xena's anger slowly began to fall away, replaced by feelings of guilt. And, her pace slowed a little more.
Why should I feel guilty?
her warrior's persona demanded to know. She's the one that was making fun of me --
She was only teasing you, you fool!
the voice of sanity screamed in her ear.
First rule of survival; never tease a warrior about her skills!
threw back the warrior persona.
And, since when did the warrior get to be so sensitive, anyway?
For once, the screaming, rampaging warrior was uncharacteristically mute.
Since you fell head over chakram for a cute, little bard,
that niggling voice of reason gloated.
Letting out an exasperated breath, Xena abruptly stopped walking. Standing there, feeling Argo obediently halting beside her, she let the reins drop from her limp grasp. Head tilted back, staring up through the thick canopy of branches and leaves at the late afternoon sun, she resisted the urge to scream out against her impotence as she waited for the bard that had somehow conquered a warlord while she wasn't paying attention.
x x x x x x x
She'd been waiting long enough that she'd had time to drain their waterskin half dry. Best save the rest for Gabrielle,
she thought, shoving the cork back in and draping the leather strap about Argo's saddlehorn. She figured the bard had to be just as parched as she'd been, especially since she knew Gabrielle carried no supplies with her other than her fighting staff.
"She can have the rest," Xena confided in Argo's ear, "I'll wait until we reach the Amazon village." Seeing one of Argo's intelligent eyes blinking back at her, she clarified, "Amazon wine, girl." She gave her mare an affectionate pat, "And, of course, those little green apples Solari spoils ya with."
Argo snorted, shuffling her hooves amongst the autumn leaves scattered on the forest floor. At first, Xena thought Argo's reaction was one borne of excitement as she recognized the Amazon scout's name. Of all the things Xena could find to fault the Amazons for, their ability to care for a horse was not one of them. Oft times when Xena and Gabrielle visited the village, the warrior princess teased that they took better care of Argo than they did her.
Of course we do,
Xena recalled the regent's response, Argo displays better manners than you do.
Then, she realized Argo's reaction was one of nervousness, rather than anticipation. "Easy, girl, easy," Xena said, reaching out, patting the suddenly skittish mare.
Experienced eyes scanned the darkened recesses of the forest around her. Head cocked to one side, she intently listened. She could hear Gabrielle, of course. And - nothing else,
she realized. No chirping birds, no forest sounds of any kind. An involuntary shiver ran down her spine as she thought she caught a set of eyes watching her from the underbrush. Then, in an instant, they were gone.
A covert distance check revealed Gabrielle was nearing. She briefly considered yelling for Gabrielle to run!
but was unsure whether anyone had circled back around behind them. The only thing she was certain of at this point, was that there was definitely more than one someone out there. Cautiously, she began edging her way towards the approaching bard.
Xena cursed her mulishness that had led to her outdistancing Gabrielle in the first place. Not only was it downright childish of her, it was also irresponsible. Especially considering where they were.
The warrior princess ran through her mental map of the area. She was familiar with the territory and had an uncanny sense of direction. She had no doubt that they were more than three-quarters of the way deep within what was marked on most local maps as The Dark Woods. Even at the height of summer, it was a dark, foreboding place, easy to become lost and disorientated in. With the shorter days of fall in effect, it was bordering on downright sinister. And, adding to the melancholy ambiance was the legend that travelers regularly disappeared in these woods, never to be seen again.
By nature, Xena scoffed at such superstition. She'd long ago decided that those travelers had been ill prepared and gotten themselves either turned around or completely lost. Maybe they were set upon by bands of outlaw brigands. Or, that perhaps the women were liberated
into the swelling ranks of the nearby Amazon nation. And, the men? - Well, the Amazons had no use for men.
Please, let it just be some featherheaded idiot that doesn't have the common sense the Gods gave a horse.
Even as she wished it, Xena knew it wasn't likely.
Although, it was possible she'd misjudged the distance, she was almost certain that they were still a good two candlemarks' hike from the outermost boundary of the Amazon Nation. And, of course, it was also possible that an anxious regent had dispatched a scouting party to find her errant queen. But, if that was the case, she would have sent Solari. And, the amiable scout wasn't prone to suicidal attacks. She would have announced her presence to the warrior princess.
Once before when they'd been expected, Eponin thought she'd organize a training exercise for a group of her warriors. Not realizing at first that they were friends, Xena had reacted instinctively, defending herself and Gabrielle against what she had at first perceived to be a band of thugs.
She'd ended up having to build litters to transport the weapons master and half her warriors back to the Nation's hospice. Not that Eponin was about to admit to her warriors - or even Xena, for that matter - that she couldn't walk on that busted ankle. The stubborn Amazon was determined to grit her teeth and hobble all the way back to the village on nothing more than her wounded pride. An equally hardheaded warrior princess was just as determined to use pressure points on Ep and throw her over Argo's back - with or without her consent.
That's when Gabrielle stepped in.
With just a few low-spoken words from her Queen, the ferocious Amazon warrior meekly surrendered and, without another grumble of protest, climbed onto the pallet. And, just to make sure she stayed there, Gabrielle walked along beside her weapons master's litter, holding her hand and amiably chatting with Ep the entire trip into the village. The look on the regent's face when the cream of their warrior crop was escorted home by their tiny Queen --
Eph's kept a pretty tight leash on Pony ever since,
Xena reflected, recalling that the next time they visited, the weapons master wasn't even allowed outside the village to greet them. Ephiny had been like an overprotective mother that visit, too, finding some pretense to step in between them each time Pony and Xena so much as looked at each other funny. And, forget sparring --
With their leader essentially grounded, Xena had been unable to entice any of the other warriors into sparring with her. Given that,
Xena figured, one of Ep's bunch wouldn't be stupid enough to try that twice.
Spotting something looking back at her from the dense coverage of the bushes, she added, And, I've never seen an Amazon with yellow eyes before, either.
Something moved in the thick underbrush behind her and she sharply spun around, her hand already on her chakram. Gabrielle heard it, too. Less than thirty yards away now, the bard's step slowed, her grip upon her staff imperceptibly tightened as the weapon was drawn up into a defensive position.
The warrior princess was aware of many things at once. The heightened sound of Gabrielle's breathing as she anxiously awaited Xena's cue. Argo's nervousness as she trampled upon the leaves scattered about the forest floor. The hairs on her arms and the back of her neck standing on end. And, the sense of many, many sets of eyes watching every move she made.
"Go on, girl." She spoke softly in Argo's ear. "Get out of here." At the brief flicking of the mare's ear, she ordered in a firmer voice, "Go. Now."
As Argo bolted, there was a gigantic rustling of bushes as all about them several somethings
chased after the mare. Sharp eyes caught sight of dark fur covered forms crashing through the forest. Silently, she sent a fevered prayer to any deity listening that Argo would outdistance whatever was after her and find safe passage out of the forest.
"Xena?" Gabrielle's voice cracked with tension.
"Gabrielle." Blue eyes furtively darted about the woods. She signaled with her hand, "Don't move."
The blonde halted mid-step, her eyes frantically looking this way and that as she readjusted her sweaty palms on the grip of her staff. It seemed as if that heartbeat stretched out forever; she was frozen in place, as was Xena, only their eyes moving.
Then, in a blur, Xena was shouting her name and charging at her, pulling her sword from its sheath. At the same time, she saw something large running straight at her. It was all dark fur and yellow eyes, with great globs of saliva dripping from the sharpest fangs she'd ever seen in her life.
She reflexively brought her staff up, knowing a stick of wood was no defense against fangs and claws. Her entire range of vision was filled with dark, matted fur and the stench of decay and hot breath assaulted her nostrils. She desperately tightened her grip on her staff and tried not to squint her eyes closed in the face of the beast's attack.
There was an ear-piercing battle cry, then a figure clad in leather flipping through the air, landing in front of her. Then, it was all leather and fur flying together; the sound of the warrior screaming, of metal hitting bone, the beast yowling in pain.
"What - was - that?"
"Wolf," was the succinct reply as the warrior watched the retreating animal bolt for the safety of the underbrush and the darkened forest.
"Yeah? Well, that's the biggest one I've ever seen, let me tell you. Makes Cerberus look like a puppy in comparison."
Suddenly, the smell of copper hit Gabrielle squarely in the face. And, she noticed for the first time the way the warrior was clutching at her neck. And, the rivulets of crimson blood pouring from her wound.
"Hey! You're bleeding!" there was a sense of urgency as she moved Xena's hair back away from her neck so she could get a better look at the bite.
"Just a little nip," Xena shrugged off the bard's questing fingers. "Looks worse than it actually is."
Right before her world tilted on its axis and she hit the forest floor face first.
x x x x x x x
"I'm not staring, I'm just looking."
"You haven't taken your eyes off my neck in the past half-candlemark. Where I come from, that's called staring."
"A giant wolf used your neck for a chew toy." Gabrielle quickly stepped in front of Xena, blocking her stride. "Pardon me for caring."
"He wasn't that big. And, I already told you, it's not that bad." Folding her arms over her chest, looking down at the bard, she added, "Thank you for being concerned. But, it's nothing."
"Nothing." A hand cocked on a hip and a tapping of a booted foot conveyed the bard's irritation. "That nothing
the reason you ate dirt earlier?"
Xena pinched the bridge of her nose between her fingers. Closing her eyes, she slowly counted to ten. They'd been going at it like this for what seemed like ages now. Certainly ever since she woke up to find Gabrielle hovering over her, attempting to stop the blood flow from her wound with a huge clump of spider's web. When she'd first tried to stand, the world had once more tilted beneath her. With the aid of the bard's staff, she'd eventually made it to her feet.
"My equilibrium was off just a bit." Surreptitiously, she placed her hand over the area that was throbbing beneath the bandage Gabrielle had wrapped about her neck. "Come on, would you?" she asked, pointedly stepping around Gabrielle. "We've got a lot of ground to make up and it's nearing dusk already."
Not that she'd ever admit it to anyone, not even her bard, but the warrior princess was more than eager to put as much distance between themselves and the forest as possible. They'd lost a lot of time and dark was full on approaching. Gods knew without a horse, they'd never reach the Amazon border before nightfall.
Xena fought to suppress the shudder she felt go through her body. Wolves were creatures of the night. Well-organized predators that tended to travel in packs. Worse, their leader may have been injured in their initial fight, but he'd tasted human blood. No doubt he would want more.
She wouldn't mention it to Gabrielle. She didn't want to scare her companion. But, the warrior was worried. Very worried. The pack had the scent of her blood. It would be easy to track her. Alone, on foot, they would be no match against another attack.
The warrior princess had been so lost in thought she didn't realize anything was wrong until she heard the nervous tremor in Gabrielle's voice. Looking up, her heart skipped a beat as she saw half a dozen mounted riders on the horizon, the sun behind them, obscuring their features. The only detail she could be certain of was that they were armed. Very heavily armed. Great; just what we need; raiders.
Xena subtly made sure she pushed Gabrielle behind her as the lead rider approached. Reaching over her shoulder, she drew her sword, adjusted her grip on the pommel. Bracing the hilt waist-high, she held the blade at an upward angle away from her body. Straightening her stance, she boldly met the leader's gaze head-on.
"My, my." As the leader dismounted, brown eyes swept over the length of the warrior princess' sword. "You expecting trouble, or are you just glad to see me?"
"Solari!" Gabrielle pushed her way past Xena and caught her chief scout in a hug. "And, you've brought Argo!" she exclaimed, recognizing the palomino mare the Amazon had been riding.
"Solari." Xena nodded her head, graciously accepted the Amazon's forearm in greeting. "Thanks."
"No problem." The scout grinned, handing the reins over to Xena. "Actually, she brought me." At the arched eyebrow above a piercing blue eye, Solari elaborated, "Eph was getting a little nervous and I was already gathering up a squad to go out looking for you when Argo just strolled into the village like she owned the place. Some of the younger girls were chasing her, trying to catch her. She managed to elude every one of them and then just came right up to me."
"Course she did," Xena shrugged the incident off like it was no big deal. "She remembers you, don't you girl?" she asked Argo, rubbing her horse behind the ear.
"More likely, she remembers who feeds her." Gabrielle gave them a smug look. "I told you; she's a horse, she'll follow anyone for an apple."
"Anyway - " Solari picked that instant to interrupt what she figured was an ongoing argument. " - I mounted up and asked her to take me to Xena." Remembering the stance Xena had taken when she'd first ridden up, recognizing that the warrior held the sword braced against her body because she lacked the strength to hold it outright, she looked her over from head to toe for injuries. Casting a sidelong glance at the bandage partially disguised by her long hair, she asked, "What happened?"
"Her throat was nearly ripped out by a beast - "
"Nipped." Xena cast an exasperated look at Gabrielle. "By a wolf."
Solari's eyes bounced back and forth between Queen and consort. Her queen was blessed with the golden tongue of a bard and the warrior was gifted with understatement. Figuring the truth lay somewhere firmly in the middle of those two statements, she merely nodded her head.
Placing her fingers to her mouth, she gave off a warbling birdcall. One of the mounted warriors approached, halting her mare beside Argo. She thumped her fist against her chest, saluting her queen. Solari reached out for the outstretched hand and deftly pulled herself up onto the horse behind the mounted warrior.
"We should get to the village." Solari warily scanned their surroundings. "The regent's probably ready to send out a full squad after us by now." Then, with a grin, she added, "Besides, I don't want to run the risk of encountering the wolf that tried to make a snack out of the warrior princess."
Xena quickly mounted, held out her hand to help Gabrielle. The bard was no sooner sitting behind Xena than the warrior clicked her heels against Argo's flanks. Immediately, the palomino raced after the band of Amazon warhorses. Gabrielle held on tightly, arms firmly locked about a leather-clad waist. Casting a last glance over her shoulder, she swore she saw at least a dozen canine-shaped silhouettes.
x x x x x x x" . . . It was a dark and stormy night . . . "
Xena snorted, wine spewing out her nose and mouth, drenching the Amazon directly across the table from her.
Solari was just about to wipe her cloth napkin across her lips when it was abruptly snatched out of her grasp, causing her bare hand to instead connect with her chin. "Hey!" she protested, turning to glare at the Queen's consort seated beside her.
"Sorry - " Xena briskly ran that cloth over her face, blowing the remaining wine out her nose. " - Sorry."
Then, before the weapons master could react, she reached across the table and used the same cloth to wipe at Eponin's wine-spattered face and upper chest.
"Hey! Hey!" Ep shouted, startled at the contact against her breasts. She jumped up and back so quickly that the stool she was perched upon toppled over.
Suddenly noticing the deafening silence, Eponin slowly looked up through thick, dark lashes. Dioxippe, the young craftswoman who had been narrating her story had now stopped and was looking directly at her. Sensing an overwhelming number of eyes now focused upon her, Pony's gaze dropped.
And, she steadfastly kept it lowered as she hooked her ankle about the stool and righted it. Head bowed, heat suffusing her cheeks, the weapons master suddenly found the wood grain on the table top extremely fascinating. It wasn't until Dioxippe took up the thread of her tale again that Eponin dared to look up.
Leaning across the table, looking Xena in the eye, she hissed out between clenched teeth, "What in Tartarus is wrong with you?"
"Nothing." Xena snickered. "The stories."
"Yeah, well maybe they're no Sappho," Pony frowned at the clearly giddy warrior, "But, I think they're pretty good."
"Yeah, yeah," Laughing, Xena nodded her head in agreement, "Course they all start with that same opening line." They'd sat through six stories so far. And, of those six, five had started the exact same way. A fact that Xena was planning on mercilessly teasing her bard about later.
Eponin nervously glanced around. People were staring at them. Again. A sinking feeling settled in her gut, souring the vast amounts of wine she'd already consumed. A furtive look at the Queen and the Regent upon their thrones atop the dais confirmed that both royals were indeed giving them stern, disapproving looks.
"Keep it down, would you?" She whispered, signaling with her hand for Xena to lower her voice. "You wanna get us all in trouble?"
"Aww, what's wrong?" Xena thrust out her bottom lip, giving a sniveling pout. "You afraid if you don't behave Eph ain't gonna play ride the Pony with you later?"
Eponin's jaw clenched and her hand balled into a fist. Solari reached across the table, fingers closing about the weapons master's wrist. "Let it go, Ep. She's been acting loopy ever since Megara stitched her up and made her drink that herbal tea."
"Herbal?!? - Oh!" Eponin's eyes widened. "Right. Herbal. Tea."
Eponin nodded in understanding. Megara had prescribed the same remedy for her last summer when she'd gotten her ribs broken during a sparring match. She'd been miserable; even breathing had been excruciating. Until Megara had mixed up what she referred to as a special brew
and it had mellowed the weapons master out enough that she was finally able to rest.
"Poppy seeds?" she mouthed to Solari.
With a broad grin, Solari nodded. "Poppies," she whispered in confirmation.
Xena missed the interaction between the weapons master and chief scout, her nose firmly entrenched in her mug of wine. Polishing it off, licking her lips, she reached for the pitcher. Discovering it, too, was empty, she stood up and held the pitcher above her head, shouting, "Refill!" while turning in an unsteady circle, "Refill!"
There was an insistent tugging on the leather folds of her skirt. By the time she shooed Solari's hands away and sat back down with a rather undignified huff, the serving wench was already at their table with another pitcher. Xena unsteadily poured herself another mug. As she looked up, her head lolling back onto her shoulders, she met the perturbed gaze of the Queen of the Amazons.
Gabrielle was leaning across the table, both palms braced flat against the surface as she stared Xena in the eye. "What - are - you - doing?" she asked, each word sharply punctuated.
"Um - " She looked around, as if to make certain no one else was looking. Abruptly, all heads turned the other way, every Amazon concentrating on Dioxippe's tale. Satisfied, the warrior put on a sloppy smile, "You. Soon, I hope."
"Xena." Despite her agitation, the small blonde couldn't keep the smile from her lips at the blatant attempt at innuendo. Noticing the way her lover downed her mug of wine, she frowned, "Maybe you should go easy on that."
"A little Amazon wine never hurt nobody." She refilled her mug, pointedly clinked it against Eponin's before draining it dry.
For her part, Eponin looked like she was about ready to crawl beneath the table. Content that the weapons master wasn't encouraging her consort's bad behavior, Gabrielle turned her attention back to the warrior.
"You were mauled by a wolf this afternoon. You lost a lot of blood." Catching Xena's hand within her grasp, she attempted to get the warrior to stand. "Maybe you should let me take you back to the hospice - "
" - Maybe you should back off." Xena snatched her hand out of Gabrielle's grasp. "I've already told you; it's nothing serious." Blue eyes narrowed to tiny slits as she realized Dioxippe was speaking louder in an attempt to drown out her conversation with the queen. "Besides," she sneered, "don't you have a competition to judge?"
"You're absolutely right, Xena." Green eyes flashed in retaliation. "I certainly do. And, as a judge, I respectfully request you keep your voice to a minimal level. If you cause another scene, I'll have the guards remove you." A look about the table made Solari and Eponin guilty by association. "And your friends."
With that, the Amazon Queen turned on her heel and stalked away. Reclaiming her seat beside her regent atop the dais, Gabrielle willed herself to concentrate solely on the young Amazon that was narrating her story. Even though she could sense blue eyes burrowing into her soul, she steadfastly refused to look Xena's way.
x x x x x x x" . . . The bite pierced the skin, fangs sinking into flesh and blood, drawing out the life force of its victim . . . "
Xena tuned out the story-teller. "Who's she think she is, anyway?" She grumbled beneath her breath. "Questions me; my judgment."
Solari and Eponin exchanged puzzled looks. "Look, Xena," Solari was careful to keep her tone lowered, "She's worried about you, that's all."
"Yeah," agreed Pony. She ducked her head as she spoke, fearful that her deeper timbre would be enough to carry over the sound of Lexine's voice as the higher-pitched Amazon recited her story. "I mean, you did get attacked by a pack of wolves."
"Wolf," Xena slurred out, "It was a wolf. One. Wolf."
"Led by other wolves." Eponin rolled her eyes. "Fine. One wolf. Point is, you're lucky you got away with just a minor injury."
"Luck has nothing to do with it." Xena rested her cheek on her closed fist, pierced the warrior seated across from her with her deadliest look. "I have many skills," she disclosed, just before she let out a gut-wrenching belch.
"So we smell." Solari crinkled up her nose in disgust. "But, Pony's right. Wolves don't usually come this close to our territory. Yet, several scouting patrols have reported seeing packs of them well within our borders. And, wolves attacking humans is practically unheard of. But, we had a harsh winter last year and a dry summer. Hunger may be driving them to look for - alternative food sources."
" . . . Her lover's eyes changed from light brown to a glowing yellow. Dark fur sprouted out over her arms and back as with the rising of the moon, she began to change . . . "
"Anyway," Eponin piped in, refocusing her attention from where it had drifted with Lexine's story, "back to what I was saying. Your woman's worried about you."
"For no reason."
"For no reason," Eponin offered in a patronizing tone. "All I'm saying, is why not take advantage of that? Indulge her, let her pamper you a little - "
Xena snorted into her mug. "You still not allowed out of the village?" she asked. "Who would've thought it; the weapons master to the Amazons - whipped."
Eponin curled up her lip, bristling at the insult. Reminding herself that Xena was suffering from the combined effects of an injury, healing herbs and potent Amazon wine, Pony forced herself to remain calm. "Ephiny and I have an understanding," she answered through clenched teeth, "She rules outside our hut. Any decision she makes regarding the nation, the tribe, the warriors, I support. Out here, she is the Amazon Regent. But in our hut, and most assuredly inside our bedroom, she's first and foremost a woman. My woman."
"Uh-huh." Xena made the hand motion and the cracking sound to go along with it. "Whipped."
" . . . knowing what she had to do, Reyvanne clutched the newly sharpened silver dagger tightly in her grasp and crept on stealthy feet across the room to where her naked lover slept in their bed . . . "
Rolling her eyes at Lexine's over-dramatics, letting out a long-suffering sigh, Xena moaned out, "Can you believe she doesn't think I'm creative?"
Eponin chose that moment to hastily excuse herself, citing something about needing to rest her bowarm up for tomorrow's archery competitions. Solari glared at the departing weapons master, silently promising payback for leaving her alone with the warrior princess. Rubbing at both temples, she tried to ignore her looming headache and instead concentrate on the ending of Lexine's tale.
" . . . she left the silver dagger embedded in her love's heart, knowing that it must forever remain there to defeat the curse of the werewolf. Yet, for the rest of her days, whenever the moon was full, she would be forever haunted by the cry of a lone wolf mournfully howling. "
Whistles and rounds of applause rewarded Lexine as she ended her story. Gabrielle stood up, calling for the Amazons' attention.
"Well done, Lexine. Well done, all of you," she graciously added. "Since it's late and Artemis' moon is well past its zenith, we'll conclude for the evening and resume the competition tomorrow eve."
"Does that mean you'll open with another story?" called out a voice, quickly followed by several others echoing the request.
"Okay, okay." Gabrielle held up her hands in surrender. "I'll tell another story tomorrow night. A short one. In the meantime, I would suggest that all of us turn in and get a good night's rest - " then, in a macabre voice, she added, " - if you can."
Looking about, Gabrielle's eyes adoringly swept over the faces of her tribe. They momentarily settled on Xena, then seeing the warrior watching her, resolutely moved away. With a grim determination to her step, the Queen left her dais.
Like everyone else, Xena watched Gabrielle with appreciation. No doubt about it, the Amazon Queen was also a very talented bard, able to work an audience. As Gabrielle, and then Ephiny, left the throne, she continued to remain seated, thoughtfully sipping her wine. Slowly, the milling throng of Amazons began to disperse, each chattering excitedly about the stories they'd heard that night and eagerly speculating about what tomorrow eve's tales might bring.
Solari continued to sit with Xena, worried about leaving the out-of-sorts warrior on her own. Sipping from her mug, she kept her eyes lowered, knowing that Xena was staring at her. Finally, unable to stand it any longer, she looked up.
"What?" she asked, already dreading what the answer to her question might be.
Rubbing her chin, Xena looked askance at the Amazon scout. "Solari, were you listening to Lexine's story?"
"Yeah," shrugged Solari, "I guess."
"Tell it to me."
Solari breathed a sigh of relief. She'd been thinking Xena was going to ask her to do something illegal or immoral, like that time they broke into the Temple of Artemis and drank the sacrificial wine. Instead, the warrior just wanted a bedtime story.
"Sure thing, my friend." Feeling more confident, Solari poured them each another mug of wine. "Then later, if you want, we can talk about your creativity problem. I've got this great phallus and harness set that's guaranteed to please even the most demanding of lovers - "
x x x x x x x
Ephiny stood with both feet braced on the lowest railing of the fence circling the perimeter of the training grounds. Leaning her upper thighs against the wooden fence for balance and using one hand to shield her eyes from the rising sun, she eagerly scanned the row of archers. Cupping her hands about her mouth, she let loose a fierce war-whoop.
"I take it your warrior's in the finals?" was asked as Gabrielle pushed her way through the assembled crowd and took up her place beside her regent.
"Well, she is the weapons master." Despite the attempt at nonchalance, the curly-headed blonde couldn't keep the proud grin from her lips. "Her not being in the finals would be like . . . well, it'd be about as likely as Xena not making them, either."
"Mm. That's my warrior," Gabrielle deadpanned, "The woman of many skills."
The lack of enthusiasm made Ephiny turn to look her way. Her usual chipper, chatty queen was markedly subdued, her appearance more than a little rough around the edges. Her usually lustrous hair hung in limp, damp strands. And, despite the appearance of having recently washed up, she had heavy, dark circles beneath both eyes.
"Would some of those infamous skills be the reason you look like death warmed over?" Ephiny smirked, "Although, it's always been my observation in the past that a nighttime sparring session with Xena usually leaves my queen feeling exhilarated the next morning - "
"Huh." Gabrielle folded her arms across her chest, blew out a huff of air. "We'd have to be speaking for that to happen."
"Well, not if you're doing it right." Ephiny waggled her eyebrows suggestively and Gabrielle couldn't help laugh at her regent's rakish grin.
Momentarily distracted by her lover taking up her position at the firing line, Ephiny's laughter trailed off. Gabrielle's followed suit and she climbed upon the fence, sitting down on the top railing to watch the competition.
The archery contest was designed to be a fun event, like all the other harvest festival games. Even the customary targets had been removed, large pumpkins with bulls-eyes painted on them erected in their place. A shot too soft and the arrow might ricochet off the target. Too hard, and the pumpkin might be shattered to pieces. It was a light-hearted contest with the winner customarily being awarded a huge pie baked from the sacrificed pumpkins.
However, as everyone knew, any time warriors were involved, a fun event could turn into a heated battle in the blink of an eye. A scuffle over a line call had resulted in two archers being simultaneously disqualified in the previous round.
Now, the competition had been whittled down to four. They'd compete in two groups of two, with the winner of each bout facing off against each other for the victory. A random drawing of hay-straw had pit Eponin against Solari and Xena against Cordele, one of the nation's best hunters.
Solari's last shot hit too lightly, the arrow bouncing off the thick skin and harmlessly falling to the ground. Eponin stepped to the line, coolly and efficiently drawing her string back. The arrow flew true, hitting the target dead center. As Solari stepped forward and offered Eponin her arm for a warrior's handshake, the crowd cheered. Waving her bow in the air in acknowledgement, the chief scout graciously left the field.
"So, what gives?" Ephiny asked, turning her attention back to her queen as young Amazons took to the field to swap out the target for the next round. "I mean, I know you're not a morning person, but even you usually make it out bed before now."
"Just tired," Gabrielle covered a wide yawn with her hand, "Didn't get much sleep."
"Worried about what happened last night at the bards' competition?"
"Nah, not really." Gabrielle waved off Ephiny's concern as Xena and Cordele stepped to the firing line. "I mean, Xena's always been reluctant to let me coddle her, even when she's sick or hurt. I just thought we might have gotten past the point where her first instinct is to bite my head off."
Xena drew back, taking aim. Then, she paused, lowering it. Cordele openly glared at the warrior as she briskly scratched at her scalp. Shrugging her shoulders, tossing her hair from side to side, Xena raised her bow again, lining up her sights. A hit dead center split Cordele's arrow in two, effectively eliminating the hunter from the competition.
Once again, the younger Amazons hurried onto the field to remove the damaged pumpkin and set up a fresh target. This pumpkin was decidedly much smaller than the one used for the last round. And, the firing line was moved back another twenty paces from where it had previously been.
"How'd Pony sleep last night?"
Leaning on her forearms against the fence, Ephiny looked up at her friend with a tender smile caressing her lips. "Like a baby. She was already sacked out by the time I came home last night. I don't think she so much as twitched before dawn."
"Wish I could say the same for Xena," Gabrielle groused. "She kept me up most of the night, tossing and turning. And, when she wasn't doing that, I could hear her pacing. I think she may have worn a rut into the floor the length of the hut."
"Maybe she was anxious about today?"
"The woman who stared down the Horde?" Gabrielle scoffed. "Believe me, when it comes to weapons, Xena doesn't get anxious."
Ephiny turned to look at the warrior princess. Xena and Pony were squared off at the line, both ready to take their shots at the same time. Just as the judge was about to give the signal, Xena lowered her weapon and briskly scratched her fingers through her hair.
"She did go up against a huge wolf yesterday," Ephiny commented, thinking perhaps the bandage on the warrior's neck was bothering her, "Maybe she was just still a little worked up about the attack."
Gabrielle pursed her lips together as the judge called the round a tie and another, even smaller pumpkin was set up in its place. Once again, the warriors stepped up to the line. They raised their bows in unison, drawing the string back to their chins, then their cheeks, and their ears in perfect tandem. The only difference in their forms was that Eponin's was at a perfect angle to the target and Xena's was - well, Xena was rubbing her ear against her shoulder as she let loose her arrow.
Stepping up to the target, inspecting it closely, the judge stood up with a shake of her head. Once more, the target was replaced, this time with a pumpkin that could hardly be considered more than a hand-sized gourd. And, the line was moved back another five paces.
The crowd held their collective breath as Eponin and Xena squared off against each other. At the signal, both women nocked their arrows and raised their bows. For the weapons master, drawing in tandem was always trickier, because she could see her opponent mimicking her actions through her peripheral vision. And, the fact that her opponent this day was the legendary warrior princess didn't help to settle Eponin's nerves any.
Taking a steady breath, Eponin drew the string back, feeling the fletching of the arrow brush against her cheek. Steadying her aim, she prepared to let her fingers slip off the string. Just then, she caught sight of Xena scratching behind her ear, furiously rubbing the side of her head against her leather shoulder guard.
Her concentration broken, Eponin's shot went wide, missing the center of the target. Giving a resigned sigh, she watched helplessly as Xena's arrow struck true, piercing the center of the pumpkin with enough force that it was sent flying backwards off the target stand.
With a triumphant yell, the warrior clapped Eponin on the back and hefted her bow in victory. Both regent and queen were roughly jostled as cheering Amazons scrambled over the fence and onto the field. Before long, Xena was swept up on the shoulders of her admirers and carried off for a celebratory round of drinks.
x x x x x x x ". . . The fire engulfed the castle, and both creator and creation perished in the flames . . . "
Xena turned her head as soon as the last line was uttered. Even though she was now facing away from the storyteller, Xena just knew the young hunter would be blushing furiously as her queen commended her for a job well done. Then, she would take her bow as the other Amazons fiercely clapped in appreciation. She felt her eyes roll as predictably, the series of events unfolded just that way.
"What?" Solari asked, catching the look. "Don't tell me you didn't like that one, either?"
"A monster created out of spare parts that the warlord gathered up from the battlefield?" Xena snorted, "Are you serious?"
"Hey, I happened to like that one," protested Eponin.
"You would." Xena reached across the table, cuffing Ep across the ear.
The weapons master glared at her, but resisted the urge to immediately go after Xena. She risked a quick look at the dais. As if sensing her, Ephiny turned and looked at her, offering up a smile. Knowing she'd made the right decision, Eponin sank back down onto her stool and contented herself with throwing imaginary daggers at the warrior princess, instead.
Although, she had to admit the warrior had been much more subdued this evening than last. Dinner had been served and she'd eaten ravenously, literally tearing the meat from the bone with her teeth. Gabrielle and Ephiny had eaten with them, then afterwards, retreated to their respective thrones to begin the bards' challenge. Xena had continued to drink with a voracious appetite, but she hadn't made the spectacle that she had last eve.
But, she was still a distraction. The constant squirming. The occasional scratching behind the ear. The obvious disdain for each story as it was told. It had been enough to warrant several looks from their rulers, but as Xena hadn't actually come out and done anything, Gabrielle had kept her distance.
Blue eyes narrowed as Xena counted the number of wanna-be bards waiting in line to try their hand at their queen's craft. And Gabrielle was worried there wouldn't be enough competition.
To Xena, it seemed as if there were entirely too many Amazons using the contest as a means to get in good with their Queen.
The line for this evening had started out at well over a dozen. They were only halfway through that number now. At the thought of having to sit still through six more amateur story-tellers, she had to force down the urge to reach for her chakram and use it on herself.
"I don't get it." Xena leaned across the table, lowering her voice to a whisper as the next bard began.
"Get what?" Solari asked, also careful to keep her voice lowered. Not that she had to fear retribution from a regent - or queen - as her spouse, but she also wasn't about to take any chances of being assigned extra scouting patrols.
"Not a single story has started out with the it was a dark and stormy night
"Thank the Gods," agreed Solari. Then, seeing the warrior princess seemed actually disappointed, she explained, "Gabrielle met with the performers this afternoon and gave them some pointers on being a successful bard."
"Yeah," Eponin piped in, "Suggested they not use over-abused phrases."
Xena turned around to look at her bard. Sitting atop her throne, looking relaxed with a goblet of wine held loosely in her grasp, Gabrielle slowly became aware of Xena's scrutiny and turned to look back at her. A dark eyebrow slowly rose towards a hairline as she cocked her head to one side and gave her bard a quizzical look.
Gabrielle gave her a nervous smile before returning her gaze to the tree stump the latest wanna-be bard was standing on as she recited her story. A smile curved Xena's lips as she realized that although the bard was no longer looking at her, she also was no longer completely engrossed in the story, either.
"Well," asked Xena turning around to face her tablemates, "Isn't that kind of unfair to the bards that told their stories last night?"
"The harvest festival events are about having fun, Xena," Solari patiently explained, "We've worked hard as a nation all spring and summer long to prepare for the upcoming season when Demeter's grief over losing her daughter to Hades spreads a frost to cover the ground and wither any crops left in the field."
"I'm familiar with the tale of Persephone eating the apple while in the Underworld, Solari."
"Then, you can also understand that not only is our harvest festival to honor Demeter, but it's also to give us a chance to celebrate life and to realize what is truly important; good times with friends and family while they are still here to enjoy them with us," Solari continued, "Not every competition held is about winning."
"Yeah," Eponin looked pointedly at the warrior princess "Xena."
"Oh, get over it already, would ya?" Xena made a point of scratching behind her ear, knowing it would serve to further agitate her companion. Several Amazons had petitioned the judge on Eponin's behalf, claiming their weapons master had only lost because of the antics of the warrior princess. "The judges ruled the archery competition was fair."
"Yeah, they also gave you the foot race, didn't they?"
Xena grinned. That one had been classic. Eponin had started out strong on the cross-country run. Uncharacteristically, Xena had fallen back, letting all the other runners outdistance her as they entered the forest. And, as the weapons master rounded the last bend out of the wood, the spectators at the finish line began cheering. With only five yards left to go, it looked like Pony would easily take the race.
Until a completely naked warrior princess bolted past her. A dismayed Eponin pulled up short, her jaw dragging the ground as Xena breezed across the finish line. The controversial win was taken before the tribunal, who in the end, ruled that if a contestant felt hampered by clothing, then she could by all means strip down and run buck naked through the forest.
"As a matter of fact, I would openly encourage the practice," one judge declared as she crowned a grinning - still sans clothing - Xena as the victor.
"I guess you're also gonna protest the three-legged race?" Xena puffed out her bottom lip in an exaggerated pout.
"Ya should've been disqualified for switching partners." Eponin growled out as she folded her arms across her chest.
"Hey - " Solari hissed out, signaling for them to keep it down. " - You want the queens over here?"
The three-legged race was an event where traditionally lovers and spouses were paired up together. This season, there was a huge turnout as everyone placed bets on who would cross the finish line first; the queen and her consort or the regent and her weapons master. No one seriously expected either pair to actually win the race, considering the height differences in both couples.
Then, just before the race started, Xena pulled one of the judges to the side and confessed that she and the queen were having - strained relations - and shouldn't compete together. The request put the judges in a precarious position; the event had been highly publicized as having none other than the famed warrior princess as one of the competitors. Wagers had already been made. It would be chaos if they announced that Xena was no longer a participant. So, instead of forcing the warrior princess to withdraw from the competition, they'd instead changed the rules to allow her to choose another partner.
No one was certain who had been more shocked when the announcement was made. The queen - who stood there with a hurt and confused look on her face at the blatant rejection - or the stunned weapons master when Xena announced that she wanted Ephiny to be her partner.
In the end, the regent had graciously accepted. And, the weapons master had gallantly offered to be her queen's partner for the race. Gabrielle agreed, even though her heart wasn't it, especially knowing that with her and Pony's stature, they'd have no real chance at beating Xena and throwing her decision back in her face.
Not that they hadn't tried. Both short-legged Amazons had worked well together, running for all they were worth. And, their close proximity in height actually allowed them to pass the rest of the competition. But, it had been no contest - especially near the end when Xena had looped an arm beneath Ephiny's hindquarters and somehow managed to run while holding the curly-headed blonde up off the ground.
As the latest story was wrapped up and the applause died down, Gabrielle called for an intermission. As the queen and regent approached, there was a glint in Xena's eye. Propping both elbows on the table, she leaned in and dropped her voice to a huskier pitch.
"If you weren't so - " Her gaze raked over the weapons master's body from head to toe and back up again " - lacking - as a partner, your mate might not have been so quick to change partners."
Eponin bolted from her seat, forcefully slapping her open palm down flat on the table. The fingers of her other hand reflexively clenched and unclenched about the grip of the dagger sheathed at her waist. A cold smile graced Xena's lips as she licked them in anticipation.
"Something wrong?" Gabrielle asked, the tension in the air palpable.
Solari sat stock-still, only her eyes moving as they rapidly darted back and forth between Xena and Eponin. The weapons master's nostrils were flaring, her lip curled into a sneer as she stared down the warrior princess. Xena flicked a glance at Gabrielle and Ephiny, smiling coyly, then casually scratched behind her ear.
"Nothing a flea bath wouldn't cure," Eponin growled out, giving Xena one more disgruntled look before snatching up her mug of wine and storming off.
"What's her problem?" Gabrielle wondered out loud as Ephiny chased after her lover.
"Learning curve." Xena smirked, that same glint in her eye as she watched Ephiny and Eponin in the distance, the regent running a hand along a shoulder and down a muscular arm in what was clearly meant to be a soothing motion. Her voice was so low, Gabrielle almost didn't hear the added, "She's having problems comprehending who's the leader of this pack."
x x x x x x x
The next day's competitions were surprising. Surprising in the fact that Xena failed to make an appearance for a single event. As a matter of fact, no one had seen her since breakfast when she'd somersaulted onto the bench beside her mate, sitting back on her haunches as she watched Gabrielle eat a slice of melon.
"Hey," greeted Solari, straddling the bench, settling down next to Ephiny. "Where's Ep?" she asked, looking around the dining hut.
A dark look flitted across Xena's face at the mention of the weapons master, only to disappear a heartbeat later.
"Practice fields," Ephiny answered around a mouthful of eggs, "Getting warmed up for the staff competitions."
"Oh!" Gabrielle's face lit up. "Maybe I'll enter, give her a run for her dinars. How about you, Xena?"
Solari and Ephiny watched with barely concealed amusement as Xena was sniffing all about Gabrielle's hair, neck and shoulders.
"Xena?" Gabrielle shrugged her shoulder, knocking Xena's nose away, only to find it back, burrowing into her hair as the warrior audibly inhaled. "Xena?" This time, she forcibly shoved the warrior away.
"Hmm?" Xena stared at the bard's succulent lips, watching as a trail of melon juice rolled down her face towards her chin. The warrior licked her lips in reflex.
"Are you going to compete with staffs?"
"Nah, think I'll pass." Hungry eyes gazed longingly at the bard. "Not the sort of sport I'm interested in." She missed the awkward looks passing between scout and regent and Gabrielle's deepening blush as she watched the cook place two plates of eggs on the table, one in front of her and one in front of Solari. Bringing her nose down to the plate, Xena sniffed at the eggs, then curling up her nose, looked up at the cook. "You got any meat?" she asked.
"Not til later, Xena," answered the cook, "Hunters brought in a stag, but it won't be cooked through until dinnertime."
"I don't mind it raw," Xena answered, lasciviously licking her lips.
"Raw?" The cook laughed boisterously. "Raw. Good one, Xena. Save that appetite for tonight, warrior."
Xena patiently watched as the cook returned back to her kitchen. As she came out again, alert eyes followed every move she made as the woman deposited plate after plate on the table before warriors arriving for the morning meal. After she'd come and gone no fewer than three times, the warrior princess visible slouched.
"Does that mean no meat?" she asked with a tiny whimper.
"Eat your eggs, honey," Gabrielle soothingly patted her warrior on her thigh. "Your diet has to consist of something besides meat and wine."
"I want meat," Xena let out a dissatisfied grunt. "I'm going hunting," she declared before scrambling off the bench and loping off towards the nearest forest.
"Gabrielle," Solari remarked, "Maybe you should take Xena back by the hospice. She's been acting strange ever since you got here."
"What's ailing her can't be cured by the healer," Ephiny sniggered. Seeing the puzzled expression on the scout's face, she asked, "Gods, Solari, when's the last time you got laid, anyway?"
"Wha? - But - Xena - she - " Solari's mouth opened and closed like something akin to a fish as she made hand gestures towards a furiously blushing Gabrielle "Umm - I - uh - "
"Oh, come on!" Ephiny looked between tongue-tied scout and embarrassed queen. "You know how relentless you warriors are when you're in heat. It's like you're insatiable."
"Speaking from experience there, Eph?" Gabrielle pointedly zeroed her gaze in on a suspicious looking mark peeking out from around the edge of her regent's halter.
"I - um - " Flustered, Ephiny quickly placed a palm over the love-bite Gabrielle was staring at.
"It's okay, Eph." Gabrielle grinned, reaching across the table to playfully tap her friend on the nose with her fork. "Like I didn't see you engaged in a little one-on-one out on the practice fields last night?"
"That was - " just a hint of pink tinged the tips of Ephiny's ears " - that was practice. For the competitions."
"Really?" Gabrielle adopted an air of innocence as she commented, "I don't recall seeing either of you with a staff. Unless it was a ... very ... tiny ? staff."
"Oh - Gods." Solari's eyes bugged out and she choked as her eggs went down the wrong way.
"I - uh - I - " Blushing a deep scarlet, Ephiny nearly crawled beneath the table.
x x x x x x x
It was nearing dusk when Gabrielle returned to the hut she shared with Xena. She'd gotten drenched during the bobbing-for-apples event and figured she had just enough time change tops before dinner. The hide covering had barely fallen into place across the doorway behind her when she reached for her halter, smoothly pulling it over her head and tossing it onto the end of the bed.
Bending over, rummaging through the saddlebags on the floor in the corner, she had the sense of being watched. Feeling the short hairs on her arms standing up, she glanced back towards the door. The hide was fluttering with the breeze, but no one was there. Turning back around, sighing at her overactive imagination, she started to put the russet colored top on.
A low growl caused her to stop mid-motion. A sliver of fear shot down her spine. She'd heard the reports from the scouts, knew that a large wolf had been spotted last eve. But, surely it wouldn't be so bold as to actually come into the village, into a hut?
Knowing her staff was by the doorway and decidedly out of reach, realizing she didn't dare call out for help, she as slowly and calmly as possible turned around. Her heart leapt into her throat as she saw Xena crouched upon the bed, eyes narrowed to tiny slits as she hungrily eyed the bard.
Seeing the predatory glint in Xena's eyes and recalling this morning's conversation with Ephiny, remembering that they hadn't decently kissed and made up after their little disagreement on the way to the Amazon village, Gabrielle felt a puddle of moisture pooling between her thighs. Xena's nose crinkled as she audibly sniffed, then ran her tongue across her lips in anticipation. Desire fueling her courage, Gabrielle approached the bed, shaking hands working to loosen her braided belt and push her Amazon skirt to the floor. As she reached the edge of the bed, Xena growled, lunging for her, thrusting her nose and entire face into the juncture between her legs.
"Xena - " she moaned as she felt a talented tongue eagerly working along her folds. "Xena - " she cried out with just a hint of pain lining her voice as sharp teeth nipped at engorged lips.
Reaching out, she tangled her fingers in her warrior's dark locks, forcibly pulling her lover's mouth away from her sex. Xena continued to lick her lips, struggling to reinsert herself between her bard's parted thighs.
"Xena," Gabrielle husked, "Let's get you out of these things first, huh?"
Trembling fingers worked at the fastenings on Xena's shoulder guards. Then, moved to her breastplate. Gabrielle ran a hand through Xena's ebony locks, smoothing her hair back as she placed tender kisses about the warrior's mouth, ears and neck. Moving her way down to a collarbone, she slid both hands along Xena's arms, removing her gauntlets as she went. Bringing her hands back up, she continued to kiss and lick as she raised her lover's arms to remove the rest of her outfit.
Xena groaned her rapture as Gabrielle's tongue moved away from the swell of her breast and towards her underarm.
"Gah!" Gabrielle jumped back as she got a taste of something decidedly unsavory. "Ugh!" she protested again, gagging and spitting.
"Uh." Gabrielle spat again. "What was that?!?" she choked out, reaching out with one hand and forcibly lifting Xena's arm and turning her around so the lighting was better.
"Oh!" Xena glanced down at the dark hair beneath her armpit.
"Eww!" Gabrielle scraped along the length of her tongue with her finger. "Haven't we talked about that?!?"
"But, I shaved this morning," Xena protested with a pitiful whine. Then, looking back at Gabrielle apologetically, she shrugged, "Hormones must be out of whack."
"Yeah. You should have known my Granny Hortense. Had enough leg hair we could have shaved her and used it to make a winter throw." Then, seemingly recalling something, she asked, "Do me a favor, huh? If I start sprouting chin whiskers, don't be afraid to let me know, huh?"
"Um - " Gabrielle quickly swallowed. "Trust me, not gonna be a problem."
x x x x x x x
Dozens of tiny figures sat hunched about the tree stump the storytellers usually stood on to recite their tales. This bard, though, was comfortably seated on the stump, one leg crossed over the other as she spoke in a confident voice, delighting in each upturned face watching her in rapt awe.
". . . And in the end, it was little Soli who tracked the thieves' trail to their lair and found the stash of stolen harvest sweets."
As Gabrielle concluded her tale, she motioned for Solari to step forward. Feeling awkward, the chief scout stood beside her queen, holding open a large cloth bag. Gabrielle stuck her hand in the bag, drawing out handful after handful of sweets and passed them out to the beaming faces of the young Amazons gathered about. As the last one, a tiny thing with feathers and beads twined in her hair took the offered treat from her queen's hand, she shyly rushed forward and gave Gabrielle a hug before running off to find her mothers.
Queen and scout joined their friends on a pile of furs scattered on the ground a short distance away from the bonfire.
"Well, what'd you think?" Gabrielle asked, indulging in a piece of hardened honey.
"It was great, Gabrielle." Ephiny was sitting curled up on a thick fur, leaning against and back into Eponin. Her warrior had both arms wrapped about her regent's waist, one large hand tracing idle patterns upon a flat abdomen. Her chin rested on Ephiny's shoulder, their dark and light locks intermingling. Gabrielle couldn't help smile at the adorable picture they made. Impulsively, she tossed two pieces of candy at her regent. Ephiny easily caught the candy, popped one into her mouth and twisted about, depositing the other piece into Eponin's. As she withdrew her fingers, a quick tongue darted out, licking honey from the tips of Ephiny's fingers. "As always."
"Yeah," agreed the weapons master. Then, as Solari sat down beside her, she couldn't resist leaning over and planting a kiss on the scout's cheek.
"Ewww!" Solari frantically swiped at her cheek with the back of her hand. "What'd you go and do that for?"
"I just wanted to thank you for saving the harvest treats." Eponin grinned wickedly as she added, "That was really -- sweet of you . . . little Soli."
Everyone around the campfire got a good laugh out of that one. Even Solari, who had at first been shooting looks that could kill at Eponin, had eventually relented and started chuckling, too.
Gabrielle's smile gradually faded as she noticed Xena was the only one not sharing in the good humor. "Xena?" At the sound of her name being called, the warrior looked up. The light of the fire reflected in Xena's eyes, making their normally blue cast glow an eerie yellow.
"Gabrielle?" Xena drawled out in that dangerously seductive voice that never failed to make the bard weak in the knees.
"You're awfully quiet." There was a nervous grin before she added, "Even for you. Something troubling you?"
"Nah. Just trying to figure it out."
Even though they were sitting side by side, Xena's voice still carried to the rest of the campsite's occupants. Gradually, the laughter faded and all heads turned towards the warrior princess.
"This - " Xena gestured. "All of this."
Gabrielle, Ephiny, Solari and Eponin slowly looked about the grounds. The long tables had been removed, their queen having decided that a harvest festival's story-telling competition should be held in a more comfortable setting. Queen and regent gave up their thrones in favor of lounging on furs and blankets at campsites set up around the perimeter of a large bonfire. And, the opening story would be a tale designed specifically with the children in mind. And, keeping in mind the mothers who had to tuck their little monsters into bed, the decision was made to have a short intermission before the tales resumed. Or, as Gabrielle called them, the spookier, nail-biting-for-adults-only bedtime stories.
It had proven to be a popular decision and met with everyone's approval. Everyone, that is, except Xena. She'd constantly groused throughout Gabrielle's story that there had been no action, no blood, no gore. Eponin and Ephiny exchanged glances, worried that Xena was going to openly criticize Gabrielle's performance and hurt their bard-queen's feelings.
"What's the point, Gabrielle?"
"Of - ?" Blonde brows knitted in confusion.
"Sitting around a campfire, listening to children's stories. Pretending to be interested." Gabrielle felt her indignation rise, then drop as Xena pierced her with a seductive stare. "When we'd all rather be doing something - " she leaned into the bard, licking at her neck as her hand moved along Gabrielle's inner thigh " - much more pleasurable."
"Xe - " Gabrielle's breath hitched in her throat " - na. Please - "
"Please what?" Xena asked, nuzzling a supple neck, inching her fingers higher beneath Gabrielle's skirt.
"Uh - "
Gabrielle forced herself to move, catching Xena's wrist in her hand. She helplessly cast a pleading look towards their friends. Stunned, Ephiny, Eponin and Solari watched with open mouths and unblinking eyes, unable to look away. Enraptured, they stared as Xena moved around behind Gabrielle, draping her body about the bard's shoulders. Blue eyes bored directly into Eponin's, almost daring the weapons master to interfere as she kissed and suckled her way along the shoulders of the Amazon Queen.
Marshalling her strength, Gabrielle resolutely pushed Xena's hand away. "This is not the time - or the place."
Xena drew back, dark hooded eyes holding Gabrielle captive. She spoke lowly, intimately. "Why not?" Her nose twitched. "I can smell your scent, your arousal." Then, boldly looking about the campsite, her gaze unwaveringly falling on each of their companions, "And, theirs."
"Xena - " Gabrielle fended off the hand that was once again creeping between her thighs.
"Fine." Xena removed her fingers, gave them a nonchalant lick before cajoling, "Then, come back to our hut with me."
"I - can't." Gabrielle knew her voice sounded weak. And, she knew if Xena demanded it of her again, she would go. "I have to judge the bards' competition."
Xena cocked her head to one side, acute hearing picking up on the night sounds coming from the surrounding woods. Without another word, she was up and running across the field. The Amazons watched as the warrior dropped to all fours and seemingly sniffed at the ground just before she entered the forest.
"Gods, Gabrielle," Solari declared, in a decidedly huskier pitch than normal, "Maybe you should think about keeping her on a leash."
x x x x x x x
It was a barely awake Queen of the Amazons that sat with her head propped up on her hand at the table. Seated across from her, noticing the drooping eyelids, Ephiny abruptly stopped speaking mid-sentence.
Suddenly aware of the acute silence, Gabrielle's head bobbed up. "What?" she asked, "What'd I miss?"
"Nothing. I was just droning on about the trade agreement with Athens we're considering." A teasing smile graced Ephiny's lips as she added, "Sorry to have bored you."
"It's not you, Eph, it's me." Gabrielle worked to stifle a yawn.
Ephiny made a showing of tidying her desk and rolling up the treaty scrolls they were supposed to be reviewing. It was painfully clear to the regent that they weren't going to get any work done today. She sent a silent prayer to Artemis that her queen would help her finish up at least half the stack that was piled as high as Mt. Vesuvius before the warrior princess tired of village life and dragged her Queen off to the open road again.
"Xena still keeping you up nights?"
"Not exactly." Gabrielle twisted around in her chair, checking the position of the sun out the open window. It was still Gods'-awful early, the first rays of sunlight having barely crept over the horizon. "I wasn't awake last night because of the tossing and turning. Or, the pacing."
"Then - ?"
"I was up all night because Xena never came home."
"I must have drifted off at some point last night, because when I woke up, she was curled up at the foot of our bed. Naked, clothes nowhere to be found. And, she was covered in dirt, leaves and twigs matted in her hair. It looked like she'd been rolling around on the forest floor." Ephiny stared, dumbfounded. Given the warrior princess' behavior of the night before, she had thought that perhaps Gabrielle was going to tell her Xena had been out drinking and wenching all night. The last thing she expected to hear was "Oh, Ephiny, I'm afraid Xena's turning into a werewolf."
x x x x x x x
In retrospect, it probably wasn't the most tactful thing to say when she'd asked her queen, "Have you been dipping into the henbane?"
"This is serious, Eph! I'm serious."
"So am I."
Gabrielle pushed a hand through her hair in obvious frustration. "Just hear me out, okay? Last night after Xena - umm - "
"Sexually embarrassed us all and then ran off into the woods?" Ephiny helpfully supplied.
"Okay, yeah. Anyway," Gabrielle rushed ahead before she could lose her nerve. "It was after that, during the bards' competition. Calliope told that tale about the innocent maiden accosted by the big, bad wolf on the way to Artemis' temple."
"Gabrielle, that's a child's tale. Not a particularly happy one, mind you," Ephiny acquiesced, recalling that the heroine of the story was eaten by the wolf at the end, "Every Amazon over the age of three can recite it. Don't tell me that's what's convinced you Xena's turned into a big, hairy monster?"
"No, but it did get me to thinking about another story. The first night of the competition. Even with the dark and stormy night
opening, Lexine's tale was memorable."
"The story about the star-crossed lovers?" Ephiny's brow furrowed as she tried to recall the exact details of that story.
"Precisely. And, you recall why Reyvanne stabbed her lover through the heart with a silver dagger? Because she had been turned into a werewolf."
"Gabrielle, that's ridiculous. It's just a story. A legend. Nothing more."
"That's what I've been telling myself." Gabrielle rose from her chair, moved to the open window and stared outside, keeping her back to her regent as she spoke. "As a bard, I know that most stories hold a kernel of truth. As Xena herself reminded me, most of my own stories aren't made up; they're just loosely based on my adventures with her."
Ephiny was fast losing patience with anything that had to do with Xena. As far as she was concerned, the warrior princess' behavior this visit had certainly left something to be desired. "And?"
"And, before coming here this morning, I visited the Hall of Scrolls. There's one that dates back before the reign of Melosa's mother. And, it references two Amazons doomed by the curse of the werewolf."
Ephiny scrubbed a hand across her face. "You know, I've half a mind to have the healer check you over for a head injury." A long-suffering sigh sent a puff of wind upwards, causing riotous blonde curls to lift off her forehead. "But, Gods help me, you're my friend and I love you."
"I know it sounds crazy, Eph. But, it also makes perfect sense." Gabrielle began pacing the floor as she laid out her case. "The restless nights, taking off into the forest for long stretches at a time, then last night, the not coming home at all. The way she's been acting lately. Her needs revolve solely around food, sleep and sex."
"That doesn't make her any different than any other warrior I know."
Gabrielle tried to force a smile at Ephiny's attempt at levity. And failed miserably. "Then, there's the scroll in the archives."
"So?" Ephiny shrugged, still unconvinced. "Some bard ages ago with an overactive imagination wrote down a horror story."
"Eph?" Gabrielle gazed into her regent's eyes and asked the question she already knew the answer to. "What was the name of Melosa's mother?"
"Rey - " the two-syllable word stuck in Ephiny's throat " - vanne."
x x x x x x x I need to have my head examined for even considering this,
Ephiny silently berated herself. Again.
A few bats of those big, green eyes and a well placed please
in that sweet tone of hers and Ephiny was outside the village and chasing through the woods. After Xena. Like I said, I need to have my head examined by a trained professional,
Ephiny repeated her mantra as she knelt down to examine a boot print left in the mud.
Then again, Gabrielle had made a very convincing argument. Especially when she'd pointed out that Reyvanne was not only the name of one of their former Queens, but also that of one of the tragic lovers in the scroll she'd found. What had really swayed her opinion, though, had been what had happened at the dining hut shortly thereafter.
Queen and Regent had arrived to find Eponin and Solari already seated at the table, shoulders slumped as they listlessly dragged their spoons through what looked to be congealed oatmeal.
"Who peed in your oatmeal?" Ephiny asked as she straddled the bench beside Eponin and placed a chaste kiss on her cheek.
"If only I were so lucky." Eponin sighed heavily, standing her spoon on end in the center of the bowl. Ephiny's eyebrows rose as the spoon remained standing perfectly upright even after Pony had withdrawn her hand.
"Definitely the eggs for me this morning." Gabrielle motioned for the cook.
The elderly woman bustled over, depositing two bowls in front of the queen and the regent. Both looked at the bowls' contents in disdain. "Actually, I was thinking I'd have eggs."
"You didn't tell them?" The cook placed one hand on her wide hip, scolding Eponin with a shake of her serving spoon. "We got fruits. And, we got oatmeal."
"Fruit," Ephiny and Gabrielle echoed simultaneously. Without another word, the cook turned and waddled away. "Tell us what?" They both turned on the weapons master at the same time.
Eponin shrugged a set of broad shoulders. "I came in and heard the cook squawking about there being no eggs this morning."
"That's a fact," Solari confirmed. "Something tried to get into the henhouse last night."
"Wolf?" Gabrielle exchanged a nervous look with her regent.
"Possibly." Solari shrugged. She knew her queen was still shaken up over the attack in the woods. And, the effect that attack was having on her consort. "Whatever it was, it scared the laying hens badly enough that there's no eggs this morning."
Based on that incident and Gabrielle's increased anxiety, Ephiny had reluctantly agreed to keep an eye on her Queen's consort. That had worked out fine at first, considering Xena slept the morning and most of the afternoon away. When she'd arrived at the dining hut to discover there'd be no meat until the evening meal again, she took off for the nearby forest. Making her excuses to her tablemates, Ephiny had left her half-eaten soup and bread and followed the warrior into the woods.
Should've gotten Solari to come along; she's the scout.
Ephiny paused once again, just as she did every few feet to kneel down and check the forest floor for tracks. When they'd first left the village, she'd been able to keep her quarry in sight. Then, when she'd lost her, she'd had to resort to reading trails. It had started out fairly easy, then had gradually gotten more and more difficult the deeper they'd gone into the forest. Then again, that would have meant telling her that Gabrielle and I think Xena's a -
A snapping of a twig caused Ephiny to stand and abruptly turn around. Her hand instinctively went to her sword hilt, but she'd hadn't time to pull it a fraction of an inch from its sheath before something - something large - charged, slamming her into a tree.
The back of her head connecting solidly with the aged bark, elicited a pained grunt from the regent and caused her to see stars. Reflexively, she gulped as her attacker's full weight pressed against her and she felt heated breath against her cheek and neck.
When she was finally able to open her eyes, she wasn't surprised to see that it was Xena that was leaning into her, pressing her back against the tree. A forearm was braced against her throat, effectively holding her in place. Intense blue eyes bored into hazel ones.
"You trying to track me, Amazon?"
Stupid! She's been toying with you. You never would've been able to track Xena this far if she hadn't let you!
"You - you left without eating," Ephiny stammered out as Xena let up just enough of the pressure on her windpipe to allow her to speak. "Gabrielle's concerned about you."
An enigmatic smile bowed Xena's lips. Cocking her head to the side, one eyebrow arching as she studied the regent, Ephiny realized how much that particular gesture made the warrior resemble a wolf. A shiver raced down her spine, causing her entire body to quiver.
"And what about you?" Was whispered in a husky breath as lips were brought so near, she could swear she felt them brushing against her ear. "Are you concerned about me, too, Amazon Regent?"
"Of course I am, Xena," Ephiny husked out, breath hitching as Xena's face moved and she felt a nose burrow into her neck, then a tongue on her throat. "We - we all are." Desperately, her hands closed about a solid waist in an attempt to push the warrior away.
"Even . . . Eponin?" Xena's lips curved into a grin as she caught the increase in pulse rate she elicited merely by mentioning the name of Ephiny's consort. Quickly moving her head, she caught Ephiny's lips in a searing kiss and pressed her thigh solidly between the captured regent's legs.
Ephiny's mind railed against the assault even as her traitorous body refused to act in self-defense. All of her motor skills had ceased to function, save those that told her brain - in clarifying detail - exactly what was happening.
Logically, she knew - Oh, she was very
much aware - that this was Xena that had her pinned against a tree. And, it was Xena's tongue that was repeatedly thrusting in and out of her mouth, her teeth nipping at Ephiny's bottom lip. And, there was no doubt whose hand was mauling and roughly kneading her breast through her halter. Just as there could be no mistaking the identity of the other hand that was pressed firmly between a thickly muscled thigh and the juncture between her legs, pressing up and in, skillfully applying just the right amount of pressure.
The knowledge that this was the Queen's consort - and what would happen if they were to be caught - only made the regent that much wetter. As Xena ended the kiss and released her prey, Ephiny's knees buckled, only her grip on the bark of the tree keeping her upright.
"Next time you try tracking someone, little Amazon," Xena moved back, grinning as she wiped her lips across her forearm, then dramatically bringing her fingers beneath her nose and sniffing them before tentatively extending her tongue and tasting, "Make sure you're ready for the consequences of finding them."
Breathing heavily, Ephiny found herself unable to move as Xena slowly backed farther and farther away. Held in place by mesmerizing blue eyes, all she could do was stare as the warrior performed a backwards somersault, landing on an overhead tree branch. In the blink of an eye, Xena was gone.
Body still trembling, Ephiny at last pushed herself away from the tree. On shaking legs, she slowly made her way back to the village, not trusting each step she took. As she rounded the last bend leading out of the forest, she gave one last look back over her shoulder. And nearly screamed as a massive blue-eyed wolf with black fur stared back at her.
x x x x x x x
"Eph! Hey, Eph!"
The regent visibly cringed as she heard her queen calling her name. She had hoped to elude Gabrielle at least long enough to grab a towel and a soap and duck back down to the river for a washing. Instead, the little strawberry blonde had spotted her and followed her into her hut.
"Well?" Gabrielle asked, throwing herself onto Ephiny's bed. "Did you track her? Where'd she go?"
Ephiny kept her head lowered and her back to her friend as she busied herself picking up and folding one of Eponin's doeskin skirts. "I - um - "
"Hey -" Gabrielle was up and off the bed instantly. One hand on Ephiny's arm, she slowly turned her regent around. Seeing the crestfallen expression, she asked, "Hey, what's wrong?"
"I - " Ephiny averted her gaze, "She - uh - got away."
"That's okay." Gabrielle engulfed Ephiny in a supportive hug. "It's okay. I'm sure you did your best."
Unable to speak around the lump in her throat, Ephiny clung tightly to Gabrielle, selfishly immersing herself in the hug. Burying her nose in Gabrielle's hair, she fervently prayed to Artemis, Gods, please don't let her smell Xena on me!
Ephiny jumped away from Gabrielle as Solari burst into her hut without knocking. Solari looked from Gabrielle's tear-stained face to Ephiny's guilty one, then back again. Mentally shrugging at the scene she'd obviously interrupted, she bluntly asked, "What's wrong with Xena?"
"Xena?" Gabrielle grabbed Solari's arm in a vise-like grip. "What's happened to Xena?"
"That's what I'd like to know." Mahogany eyes narrowed as Solari sensed there was something she wasn't being told. "She's been acting strange ever since you got here. And now, I go down to the stables to take my mare out for some exercise and - "
"Oh, Gods!" Gabrielle covered her mouth with both hands. "She didn't do anything to Argo, did she?"
"Nooooooo," Solari drew out the word as she gave her queen a bewildered look. "Argo's fine."
Both regent and queen gave an audible sigh of relief.
Okay, now I know there's something you two aren't telling me,
Solari thought. "But, when I went in, Argo was backed into the far corner of her stall. All the horses were." She paused, remembering the clearly distressed look on the warrior's face when she was unable to approach her own mare. "Argo was skittish, wouldn't let Xena near her. Finally, Xena gave up and left. It wasn't until after she was gone that I was able to calm Argo down with a fresh bag of oats and a good brushing down."
"Maybe Argo was just having an off-day. She can be moody like her owner, you know."
"That wouldn't account for the behavior of all the horses. You didn't see them, Gabrielle. It's like they were terrified." Folding her arms across her chest, giving her queen a skeptical look, she asked, "What's going on with Xena?"
x x x x x x x
Solari clapped Ephiny on the shoulder as she moved around to the opposite side of the table and purposely sat down beside Gabrielle. As she used her knife to slice her venison, she warily scanned the interior of the dining hut. So far, there was no sign of Xena. But the chief scout had no doubt the warrior would make an appearance. Seemed like that was the only time Xena showed up in the village anymore, was meal time.
When they'd first told Solari, the scout had thought her regent and queen were pulling her leg. Then, when Gabrielle began to give voice to all the strange goings-on in the village since they'd arrived, and having witnessed first hand the incident in the stables, she was forced to admit that it was possible.
Would certainly explain why Xena and Pony have been at odds lately.
Being the chief scout, Solari was not only an expert tracker, she was also thoroughly versed in the habits of the local wildlife. Including wolves.
"Most packs contain an Alpha-male and an Alpha-female," Solari had explained to Ephiny and Gabrielle. "Now, assuming Xena is turning and taking on more and more characteristics of the wolf, it would also be a safe bet that knowing the warrior princess, she'd be top dog in her pack. Eponin's a threat to that."
"As Queen, wouldn't Gabrielle be a more likely target?"
"Not necessarily. Although Gabrielle rules the tribe and you second her," Solari looked directly at Ephiny, "Xena is more likely to view Gabrielle as a mate. Wolf packs rule by strength. Out of all the Amazons, the weapons master is our most physically perfect specimen. Xena would view her as a danger to her dominant position. And, possibly even a threat to her having her pick of any potential mates."
Solari had deliberately looked straight at Ephiny as she'd delivered that last part. The nearly audible swallow, the hastily averted gaze, the nervous shuffling gave Solari all the answer she needed about what was going on.
Solari frowned, rubbing her chin thoughtfully. Since Xena's transformation began, her relationship with Eponin had deteriorated from one of friendship into flat-out animosity between the two. As long as Xena viewed Eponin as a threat to her standing in the pack, she'd do anything to undermine her.
Figuring Xena's sudden interest in Ephiny had more to do with whose mate she was than with Xena actually desiring the regent, Solari decided to keep her thoughts to herself.
"We need to ask the priestess - discreetly - to petition Artemis," decided Gabrielle, "surely our Goddess must know of a cure. Meanwhile, I'll head back to the library and see if I can come up with something in one of the archived scrolls."
"Careful, my Queen. If Xena discovers what we're up to - "
" - I'll go after the evening meal, before the final readings of the bards' competition. Xena won't stay in the village; it's not like she'll even miss me."
There was a sadness to her Queen's voice that Solari just couldn't shake. Fearful for Gabrielle's safety, she'd wanted to immediately assign a guard to the Queen. Typically, Gabrielle vetoed the idea instantly, on the grounds that she never has one while she's in the village. It was understood by everyone without question that Xena fulfilled the role of their Queen's champion and protector.
"If I start having armed escorts following me around now, that will only tip Xena off - and cause a panic amongst the tribe. Besides - " Gabrielle reassuringly patted Solari's arm " - Xena loves me. More than anything. And, even if she were turning into a werewolf, she wouldn't intentionally hurt me. I believe that."
Do you also believe the Xena you know would never be unfaithful to you?
Solari wanted to scream out. Because that's the Xena that's been sleeping in your bed!
Not having the courage to break her little Queen's heart by revealing the ugly truth of just what her warrior was becoming, Solari decided to appoint herself as Gabrielle's personal protector. Whether Gabrielle was aware - or approving - of her actions or not. Popping a piece of venison in her mouth, spotting Xena at last entering the dining hut, she chewed slowly, warily watching the warrior princess' approach.
If it were possible, Solari could swear she saw the hair on Xena's hair bristle when she saw her seated next to Gabrielle. Acting before she could second-guess herself, the chief scout intentionally scooted nearer her Queen; close enough their forearms brushed as Gabrielle lifted her fork to her mouth.
Solari breathed a sigh of relief when the only retaliation from Xena was a low, rumbling growl in the back of her throat as she passed by and sat down on Gabrielle's opposite side. As she took her seat, she glanced at the Amazon seated directly across the table from her.
Gabrielle nudged her warrior in the side with her elbow in an effort to get Xena to stop glowering at Pony. Likewise, Ephiny attempted to distract Eponin by engaging her in conversation about her latest win in the harvest festival events.
As Eponin went on about the edged-weapons competition, Gabrielle watched Xena's face for reaction. Normally, this was the sort of contest Xena lived for. To Gabrielle's dismay, there was no response whatsoever, except complete disinterest.
Xena dug into her meal, elbows on the table as she hunched over her plate and ate with her hands, leaving her knife and fork unused. Unable to stomach Xena's eating habits, Gabrielle ducked her head, determined to ignore the warrior and instead concentrate on her own plate.
She was only about three bites in when she heard a yelp and a curse from the other end of the table. Gabrielle looked up, her eyes instantly seeking out Xena. The warrior was still hunched over her plate, a bone clutched in her fist, a self-satisfied smirk on her face.
Opposite her, with a painful grimace etching her face, the weapons master was protectively clutching her left hand as she methodically rocked back and forth. There was blood seeping out from between the fingers of her opposite hand. Ephiny had one arm about Eponin's shoulders, supporting her as she also used her free hand to apply pressure.
Amber-hued eyes flashed as Eponin's head snapped up and she glared at her Queen. "Yer freakin' consort bit me! I was reaching for a piece of bread and she bit me!"
"She was going for my meat."
Although she never raised her voice, there was deadly intent in Xena's tone.
"Xena, you must have mistaken her intent." Gabrielle ran a hand along Xena's shoulder and arm in an effort to placate her. "Pony wouldn't steal your dinner."
Xena tolerated Gabrielle's touch, but never took her eyes off Eponin. By this time, she had the bone in her mouth, teeth working at the joint, trying to get at the marrow. "She was after my meat."
"No, she wasn't. Apologize." Xena cast a disdainful look at Gabrielle. "Apologize," the Queen demanded, poking the tip of the warrior's nose with her finger. "Now."
Xena growled, the bone still clenched between her teeth. She turned her head to look at Eponin, but didn't offer up a word for the injured Amazon.
"That's it!" Gabrielle abruptly stood up. Turning to face Xena, hands on her hips, she ordered. "Go home!"
"Wha - ?" Xena couldn't have been more startled if Gabrielle had hit her between the eyes with her staff.
"You heard me!" Tapping her booted foot impatiently, she reiterated, "You. Go. Home. Now. I'm going to help Ephiny take Eponin to the hospice. Then, you and I are going to have a talk about your behavior. And, don't you dare think about leaving before I get there!" Green eyes stubbornly bored into blue. "Do I make myself clear?"
Xena grumbled something beneath her breath. Something too low for Gabrielle to hear. But, she obediently did slide off the bench and glumly slunk off in the direction of the Queen's hut. It didn't escape anyone's notice that she took her bone with her.
"Now," Gabrielle turned to where Ephiny was assisting her weapons master. "Let's see about getting that looked at, huh?"
x x x x x x
It was several candlemarks later when Gabrielle arrived home to a darkened hut. After she'd helped get Eponin to the hospice, Solari had come looking for her, reminding her of the bards' competition. Knowing she couldn't ask Ephiny to fill in for her as acting judge, she'd had to return to the grounds herself.
Fortunately, there had only been a handful of inspiring bards remaining. But, after hearing their stories, she'd had to render her decision and award the top three artists. Then, of course, she couldn't immediately leave the ensuing celebration. In the end, she'd had to excuse herself under pretense of a mounting headache.
She hadn't honestly expected the warrior princess to still be there. Not after her recent behavior. And, it having been so long since Gabrielle had issued her ultimatum. Perhaps if she'd arrived sooner -
Spotting the familiar sword hilt and chakram glistening, reflecting the light of the moon shining in the window, Gabrielle felt drawn to the writing table her warrior's weapons were resting on. Picking up the sheathed sword, cradling it to her chest, she rested her chin against the pommel.
Her gaze drifted, eyes locking on the breast plate, bracers and knee guards haphazardly left in a discarded pile on the floor beside the bed. Kneeling down, trembling fingers reached to trace the design on the breast armor. Covering her mouth with her hand, Gabrielle choked back a sob.
Finding her strength, Gabrielle rose on determined legs and stumbled towards the doorway. Pushing the hide covering aside and stepping out, she looked about. It appeared most of the activity was still centered around the bonfire at the other end of the village. Grateful she wouldn't be accosted by any well-meaning Amazon sisters, she wiped her eyes and headed in the direction of the library.
She'd almost reached her destination when she became aware of someone - make that something - watching her. Although her first instinct was to run, she forced herself to maintain a normal pace. Cursing the fact she'd left her staff in her hut, she mentally counted the remaining paces to the front steps of the library.
She was less than a dozen paces away when a form suddenly leapt in front of her. Startled, Gabrielle jumped back, nearly unable to stifle her scream of surprise. Hand near her throat, feeling her heart beating out of control, she was shocked to see ice-blue eyes looking back at her.
A very familiar set of blue eyes. Eyes she had spent gazing into every night for the past few seasons - and had woken to every morning. But, this set wasn't attached to the form of her beloved warrior princess. Instead, this intense gaze belonged to a wolf. A huge wolf. With ebony black fur.
The wolf continued to stare at Gabrielle, but made no move towards her. Mesmerized, Gabrielle stretched out her hand, palm up as she inched forward. The wolf remained where it was. Gabrielle slowly closed the distance, taking her time. When at last she was within reach, the wolf sniffed at her hand before licking it.
Feeling the tears welling up in her eyes again, Gabrielle spoke in soft, soothing tones to the wolf. Gabrielle moved her hand, stroking her fingers through the surprisingly soft fur, ruffling the hair behind an ear. As her touch became more sure and eventually turned into long strokes down a solid back, a bushy tail began swishing along the surface of the marble step. Hesitantly, the wolf sat back on its haunches.
Fur-covered ears twitched. Gabrielle cocked her head to the side, wondering what sound the wolf had heard. The wolf mimicked her, intelligent eyes gazing up at the woman. Then, it turned its head sharply to the side. Reflexively, Gabrielle followed the action, but was unable to see anything, despite the added light from the full moon.
She felt the brush of fur against her palm and fingers as the solid mass shifted beneath her fingers. When she looked back, the wolf was already halfway through the village and headed directly towards the forest.
x x x x x x x
Eponin yawned as she stumbled from the bed to answer the tapping on the doorframe. Pulling aside the hide covering, blinking the sleep from her eyes, she was surprised to find Gabrielle at the door. Moving aside, she allowed her Queen to enter.
"Eponin." Her gaze immediately going to the bandage, she asked, "How is it?"
Eponin flexed her hand. "Couple of stitches. A little stiff." Looking over her shoulder, then leaning in towards her Queen, she dropped her voice conspiratorially, "Between you and me, Eph bites harder."
Gabrielle couldn't help but chuckle. "Oh, Ep." Immediately sobering, she drew her weapons master into a hug. "I'm so sorry."
"Pony?" called a voice heavy with sleep from the direction of the bed. "Who's there?"
"It's me, Eph!"
Gabrielle moved all the way into the hut. A large pile of furs covered the bed. And, beneath those, discernible only by the curly blonde locks sticking out from beneath, was her regent. Reaching down, using two fingers to drag the covers back, Gabrielle revealed two hazel eyes blinking back at her.
"Hey." Ephiny let loose a wide yawn, glanced towards the nearby window, revealing the light pink hue of a newly dawning day. "What're you doing up so early?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "Couldn't sleep. Wanted to check on Pony."
A look passed between Ephiny and Eponin. The warrior moved into the room, hastily changed out of her sleeping shift and into her leathers. Leaning over the bed, she deposited a kiss on her regent's forehead before announcing, "Think I'm gonna head down towards the river. Get in a bath while it's not crowded."
"Save some water for me!" Ephiny called out as her lover grabbed up a towel and a bar of lye soap and headed for the door.
Gabrielle smiled, fondly recalling how many times her and Ephiny had gone down to the river to find Xena, Eponin and Solari taking baths. It seemed like every single time those three got together near water, there was so much horseplay and splashing about that it looked like there was more water on the banks of the river than actually in it.
Ephiny caught the wistful cast in Gabrielle's eyes, accurately guessed where her friend's thoughts had carried her. Allowing her queen time to collect herself, Eph sat up in bed, the covers pooling about her waist with the movement. Yawning, she reached for the nightstand, retrieving her gauntlets and armbands. Snapping them into place, she picked up her regent's crown. Pushing her blonde hair back, she secured the braided leather headband in place.
"There. All official now." A rueful smirk appeared on the Amazon's lips as she looked down at herself and added, "In my regent's nightshirt." Her self-depreciating joke was met with a tumultuous, half-smile. "So, you ready to tell me the real reason you're up at this time of the morning?"
"I was all night in the Hall of Scrolls, looking for a cure."
The expression on Gabrielle's face told Ephiny that she'd had no luck. Then, Gabrielle told her about what happened before she'd reached the front steps of the library.
"Gabrielle." Ephiny clenched her fingers about the fabric of her nightshirt. "Listen to me. That . . . that thing . . . you encountered last night, that was not Xena. That was some . . . creature. You could have been killed."
"Ephiny, but don't you see? It was Xena." Gabrielle's eyes were shining with unshed tears. "I was perfectly safe. She wouldn't harm me."
"Like she did Pony?" Ephiny couldn't bite back the words before they tumbled from her mouth. Then, once they were out there, she realized that she didn't
want to censor herself. "Gabrielle, Xena's dangerous. She bit Pony! Bit her! You left for the bards' competition before she was examined. You didn't see Megara irrigate the wound because the flesh was punctured clear to the bone. Do you know how many stitches she needed?" Gabrielle wordlessly shook her head. "I lost count at fifteen. That's how far I got before I couldn't see through the tears anymore, I was crying so much because I couldn't stand to see her in pain any longer."
"Oh, Ephiny. I'm sorry."
"I don't want apologies, Gabrielle. All the apologies in the world can't make up for what Xena's done."
"Eph, please. Xena's aggression towards Eponin stems from the Alpha-female order. Solari explained that."
Ephiny took a shaky breath, vocalized her deepest fears. "Have you given it any thought, Gabrielle? Xena turned because she was bitten by a wolf. Eponin was bitten by Xena. What if she begins to turn, too?" Then, anger overriding fear, she snapped, "What if someone else is bitten? I have a duty to this tribe. To protect the Amazon Nation, keep our sisters safe from harm. And so do you, my Queen."
Gabrielle's face blanched.
"I - I need to go back to my hut. Get a little rest." She reached for Ephiny's hands, clasping them in her own. "Then, I'll go back to the Hall of Scrolls. I'll find a cure. I'll fix this. I promise."
Ephiny's gaze hardened. "See that you do, Gabrielle." She jerked away, deliberately distancing herself from Gabrielle's touch. "Because I swear by the Gods, if Xena comes near Eponin again, Queen's champion or not, I will have her hunted down and killed like the wild dog she's become."
x x x x x x x
It had taken all of her infamous negotiating skills, but Gabrielle was finally able to strike a bargain with her regent. Ephiny promised to allow Gabrielle until the end of the festival to resolve things. In return, Gabrielle vowed that if no cure was found by then, she would take Xena and they would leave the Amazon Nation. Forever, if necessary.
Having done that, Gabrielle then ordered Ephiny down to the river to spend quality time with her lover. What neither woman voiced was the realization that it might be the last chance Ephiny would have to spend with Pony. If the weapons master turned before a cure was found, Ephiny herself might be forced to take drastic measures against her own partner.
It was with a heavy heart that Gabrielle returned home. What she hadn't told Ephiny was that after her encounter with Xena, she had been inspired to find a cure. And, in her fevered determination, she had gone through nearly every scroll in the archives.
Her last hope rested with the priestesses of Artemis. Leaving Ephiny's, stopping by the temple on the way home, she sought counsel with the head priestess. The priestess had related to the Queen of the Amazons that Artemis had indeed answered her prayers. All hope was shattered, however, when the priestess revealed that the cure for a werewolf transformation was a silver blade through the heart.
"Just a little rest," Gabrielle promised herself as exhausted legs carried her towards her bed, "Then, back to the library."
Mostly asleep on her feet, Gabrielle's eyes drifted closed. Knowing the layout of her hut by heart, she kicked off her boots and threw the fur covers back. Climbing in, settling down into the soft, straw-filled mattress and pulling the covers up to her chin, she let out a bone-weary sigh.
And bolted upright when she felt something wet and sticky in bed with her.
Leaping from the bed, grabbing her staff in one hand, she threw back the covers with the other. Bile crept up into her throat as she took in the sight of chicken feathers scattered on the mattress. Lots of bloodied chicken feathers.
x x x x x x x
Leaning against her staff, Gabrielle surveyed her surroundings. She was no chief scout, but she had to admit, she was a fairly decent tracker. She'd been able to pick up Xena's trail leading out of the village and into the woods. Knowing what she had to do, she had set off after her consort.
After requisitioning something from the armory, first.
Kneeling down on the moist ground, Gabrielle traced the impression of a boot left in the tall grass. That and the occasional chicken feather reassured her she was on the right trail. Gripping the hilt of the knife she had tucked into the belt at her waist, she rose to her feet, determinedly following the tracks.
She'd gone quite some distance when it fully dawned on her where the trail was leading her. Straight to the river. And Ephiny and Eponin.
Heart in her throat, Gabrielle broke into a run. She could hear the sounds of the river in the distance, but was still too far away and there were too many trees and bushes for her to see. Twigs and brambles cut at her arms and legs as she desperately pushed her way through the bushes.
She had just plowed her way through a thick bush, vines snaring about her ankles, when she abruptly stopped. Standing directly in front of her, looking like she'd been caught red-handed raiding the henhouse, was Xena.
Gabrielle's gaze dropped. Xena was holding something in her hand. As Gabrielle focused on the items, Xena's hand opened, as if showing her what she held. Gabrielle's breath stilled as she recognized Ephiny's braided crown and her leather halter.
"Xena?" Eyes were riveted to the stains darkening the leather.
"Gabrielle - "
"Xena, I can forgive you a lot of things. The staying out until all hours of the night. I can even overlook the occasional carcass in the bed. But, this - " Gabrielle shook her head, face turning red as she fought to choke back tears. "This - - Xena, I can't believe you ate my regent!"
In response, Xena offered up a sheepish smile. From Gabrielle's view, Xena's incisors shone brightly, looking much sharper than she'd ever recalled having seen them before.
With a deafening scream, Gabrielle launched herself at Xena, repeatedly hitting the warrior. Purely on the defensive, Xena dropped the garments and threw her arms over her head, shielding her face and upper body. Fury giving her strength, Gabrielle continued to beat Xena, the warrior's protestations falling on death ears.
Hand darting to her waist, withdrawing the silver dagger, Gabrielle drew back her arm.
"Gabby, wait!" Xena held both hands out in front of her. "I'm not a wolf! I'm not a wolf!"
"Hey, what's all the shouting about?" Eponin asked, coming to investigate the disturbance, her hair still dripping from her swim in the river. She stopped, staring open-mouthed at the tableau before her of her Queen about to plunge a dagger into Xena's chest.
"Pony, I thought you were going back to the village to fetch me another - " Ephiny stumbled through the underbrush, eyebrows rising as she spied both halter and crown in a heap on the ground. "Here it is!"
Eyes widening at the appearance of her regent, her mouth opening and closing several times before she actually got any words out, Gabrielle asked, "You didn't eat her?"
Xena shook her head. Ephiny turned her back, struggling to get into her wet halter. With a shrug, Xena confessed, "Stole her clothes while she was bathing."
"And, you're not a wolf?"
"Umm - " a fine, ebony eyebrow arched skywards " - no?"
Gabrielle nodded her head, looking about at her surroundings as she chewed her bottom lip in contemplation. "So, this is some kind of - what? - elaborate practical joke?"
"Umm, not exactly?"
"Come on, warrior of mine, you've got some explaining to do. And, then you're returning the chickens from where ever you've hidden them. And, getting rid of the feathers in our bed. Every last one of them."
Eponin bit her bottom lip to keep from laughing at the sight of her little Queen grabbing the big, gruff warrior by the ear and leading her back like that. "Come on, Eph," she urged her regent, "This, I gotta hear."
x x x x x x x
"So, your feelings were hurt because I made that crack about warriors not being creative?"
"What?!?" Eponin immediately objected, until Ephiny kicked her in the shin.
In the end, given the state of the Queen's hut, the decision was made to pick up a bottle of wine and meet at Solari's hut. Several very loud knocks, followed by Xena storming into the hut had revealed the chief scout was still in bed. And, not alone. A highly embarrassed guardswoman beat a hasty retreat, rushing from the chief scout's bed carrying her clothes in one hand and attempting to cover her naked tailfeathers with the other.
"Come on, Pony. Even you've gotta admit, nearly every story we heard the first night of the bards' competition all started the same way." Even though Solari was now wide awake and dressed, she was none too happy about either of those things. And, although she sorely wanted an explanation as to what had been going on in the village, her libido still wasn't convinced that explanations couldn't wait.
"Yeah, but we're plenty creative in fights - " Eponin protested.
" - My point exactly." Xena folded her arms across her chest, smirked at the bard sitting in the chair opposite hers. "And, we don't easily get our feelings hurt."
"I hurt your feelings."
Xena started to argue the point, but knew it would be useless. Rolling her eyes, she conceded, "It wasn't about that." She stole a sideways glance at the three Amazons sitting on the edge of Solari's bed. She would have preferred not to have done this in front of an audience, but Gabrielle had decreed she'd lost the right for privacy when she pulled a stunt that affected not only them as a couple, but also their friends. So, the Amazons had gotten a ring-side seat while Xena and Gabrielle sat down in chairs in the center of the room and . . . talked. "You insulted my many skills," was grumbled beneath her breath.
"You insulted my skills," Xena answered in a louder voice. "Then, you gave me that lecture about how a bard has to draw their audience in and capture their imaginations. You said I didn't have those skills."
Gabrielle suddenly saw where this was going. "So, you set out to prove to me that you do?"
"Well, not at first." Xena lowered her gaze, suddenly finding the toes of her boots extremely fascinating. "But, after I got bit by the wolf and you made it out to be more serious than it was - " There was a helpless shrug of shoulders " - then hearing that werewolf story at the competition - "
"So, let me get this straight," Eponin leaned towards Ephiny, "Xena's been acting crackers because she's been pretending she's a werewolf?"
"Uh-huh," Solari and Ephiny nodded in unison.
"The cheating at the games? The only eating meat thing? Scratching fleas like there's no tomorrow?" asked Ep.
Again, regent and scout nodded.
Gabrielle rose from her chair, coming to kneel in front of Xena. Cupping her warrior's face in her hands, she stared her in the eyes for several long heartbeats. "Xena, I love you with everything I am." There was a tremulous smile from the warrior as she braced herself for the but.
"But, I don't know whether to kiss you because you're not a werewolf or go ahead and stab you with that silver dagger just to make certain."
"I'd go with kissing me," suggested the warrior.
Gabrielle leaned forward, pressing her lips to Xena's. A chorus of "Awwww's" rose up from the trio of Amazons on the bed.
Pulling back, ending the kiss, Gabrielle rested her forehead against Xena's. Blue eyes slowly blinked open, meeting green. "Listen to me, Xena," The threat was made in a calm, yet deadly voice, "If you ever pull a stunt like that again, I will make your life a living Tartarus. You got me?"
"Yes, love of my life."
Suddenly realizing that Xena wasn't a werewolf and she herself was in no danger of becoming one, either, Eponin suddenly jumped to her feet. "Xena!"
Sensing where this was going, Xena stood up from her chair and slowly began backing away from the advancing weapons master. "Now Pony, don't do anything rash - "
"Rash?" Eponin held her bandaged hand up in the air. "You bit me! Bit me, Xena! For the sake of a practical joke."
Continuously turning so that she was edging her back towards the door, Xena urged, "Come on, Pony, just stop before you do something you'll regret later."
The weapons master's step faltered. Taking advantage of the momentary hesitation, Xena bolted out the door.
"The only thing I'm gonna regret, warrior princess," Eponin shouted, giving chase, "Is not kicking your ass sooner!"
x x x x x x x
Gabrielle whistled a happy tune, a lightness to her step as she walked along beside Xena. Argo trailed behind them, content in the knowledge that she'd witnessed Solari sneaking extra apples into her saddlebags when Xena wasn't looking.
"You know," Xena drawled out in her usual, husky voice, "I'm really proud of you. You really outdid yourself this year."
"Well, it's not like I had a tough audience."
"No, guess not." Xena's lips twitched. "You know, only problem with telling such a good story this season means you'll have to work that much harder on next festival's story."
"Uh-uh, no way. This bard is retiring from telling the Amazons any more stories." Gabrielle dramatically wiped the imaginary sweat from her brow with the back of her hand. "Too much work."
"Sure you are." The twitching increased until Xena's lips curled into a full-blown smile. "But, you'll change your mind as soon as the next invitation arrives."
"You're probably right," Gabrielle conceded.
They walked along in silence for a few more heartbeats before Gabrielle mentioned, "A story within a story within a story within a story. Sheer genius. You know, sometimes, I even amaze myself."
"Me, too." At the semi-offended look the bard shot her direction, she amended, "I mean, it was like something from another dimension."
"I don't know," Xena shrugged, "Hercules told me something one time about another him, an evil version, ruling an alternate reality. I think he was jerking my leathers."
"Huh." Gabrielle momentarily chewed her bottom lip, giving that one serious consideration. I'll have to ask Herc about that. Might make a good story, everyone behaving the opposite of the way they really are.
Xena fought to suppress her smile. Her bard had been talking nonstop about the bards' competition and her role in it ever since they'd left the Amazon village. Then again, she deserves a little bit of ego-stroking.
"Do you think it's good enough for the Academy?"
Xena drew up short, Argo running into her backside. Of all the things she'd expected her bard to say, that hadn't been one of them.
"I don't know, Gabrielle."
The bard looked crestfallen, but understanding, "You think they won't believe in werewolves, huh?"
"Nah, I figure they'll find werewolves credible enough. I think it's the Amazons they're not gonna believe in."
"Hey! Those are my Amazons you're insulting!"
"Yep, they certainly are."
Gabrielle gave Xena a playful push and their travels were briefly interrupted by an impromptu wrestling session. That turned into a tickling session. Shortly followed by kissing and all sorts of other pleasurable past times.
Afterwards, as they lay stretched out beneath an oak tree well off the beaten path, Gabrielle cradled lovingly in her arms, Xena asked, "Gabrielle? In your story, I was pretty mean to you."
"It was just a story," Gabrielle sleepily reassured her love by running a caressing palm over a breast.
"Yeah, I guess." The warrior turned her head so she could see her bard's face. "Do you really think if that had happened, us fighting and all about my creativity, do you think I would have gotten that bent out of shape?"
"Given your obsession at having many skills?" Gabrielle softly smiled. "Of course."
"It's not that I mind so much you making up an embarrassing story about me and telling it to your Amazons. But you made me the big, bad wolf."
Hearing the tone, Gabrielle made a mental note that the very next tavern they stopped at, she would the tale she told would be one about Xena's most heroic deeds.
"That's okay, look at what I did to Eponin. I turned her into the comic relief. That's normally a role reserved for Joxer."
Xena hadn't considered that. "You know, you're really lucky your weapons master has such a good sense of humor. She's a lot better at wielding dangerous weapons than Joxer is."
Gabrielle contentedly lay curled against Xena, her mind drifting. Then, she rolled over, smiling into a warrior-sized breast.
"You know, Xena, you make a really cute wolf."
"Cute?" A incredulous brow arched. "Gabrielle, you turned me into a werewolf. And, you were going to stab me with a silver dagger."
"Oh, Xena." Gabrielle's voice was thick with the sleep of the satisfied. "You know no matter what, I wouldn't have killed you. We would've found some way to make things work out."
"Yeah, I guess."
Xena sighed heavily, feeling her own eyelids becoming heavy with sleep. Cracking one lid open, she checked the position of the sun. To her surprise, Apollo's sun had already descended and Artemis' moon was climbing high into the sky. Guess we've traveled enough for one day, anyway.
One final kiss to top of her bard's head and the warrior drifted off towards slumber.
From the distance of a nearby ridge overlooking the valley, a large, black wolf with blue eyes intently watched the sleeping lovers.