The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, Ephiny, Eponin, Melosa and Solari from the TV show 'Xena Warrior Princess' belong to Studio USA/Renaissance Pictures/Universal or whoever actually owns them now. No infringement on their rights is intended. All other characters are created by myself, and belong to me.
This story depicts a loving relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top-right corner and find something else to read.
NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR:
: August 16th - 23rd, 2011.
Thank you very much for your help :)
As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D
: What was supposed to be a fun couple of days in the company of Queen Melosa's tribe turns into anything but when Xena and Gabrielle find themselves in the middle of a border dispute. As the conflict escalates, it falls upon Xena, Gabrielle and a small group of warriors and inexperienced juniors to defend the village...
: Season 2, but I'm not following the canon so there's no Solan, no Perdicus and no Callisto. This story can easily be read on its own, but is actually a continuation of the storyline I started in 'It Happened On Winter Solstice Night'. If you're interested in finding out what happened to 'my' Xena and Gabrielle prior to this story, go ahead and read the other ones:
- (1) It Happened On Winter Solstice Night
- (2) A Weekend With Aphrodite
- (3) Under Siege
- (4) A Big Step For Bards & Warriors
- (5) The Amazon Way
Yawning widely, Xena slowly woke up after getting a good night's sleep. High above her, the birds were chirping and tweeting merrily in the trees surrounding the clearing that housed their little camp, and as she dared to open an eyelid, she could see that it was a few candlemarks after dawn.
She rolled over onto her side and put an arm across the space next to her, expecting to find a warm bard but only finding cold, empty space.
With a harrumph, Xena rolled over onto her back and tried to extend her hearing to work out where Gabrielle had gone to. A faint babble soon gave away the bard's position, causing Xena to chuckle as her own bladder made its presence felt in sympathy.
Returning to the camp after taking care of nature's business, Gabrielle washed her hands with a healthy squirt from the waterskin. Looking over her shoulder, she could see Xena's raven-black locks and the top of her head peeking out from the edge of the bedroll, and she decided on the spot to have a little fun with the all-powerful Warrior Princess.
Tip-toeing across their camp in her white sleeping shift, Gabrielle tried to be as quiet as she possibly could by paying extra attention to everything in her path. On her way there, she picked up a large, white feather that some bird had dropped during the night - the perfect weapon for what she was planning to do.
Gabrielle silently closed the distance between herself and her lover, holding the feather ready. When she reached the bedroll, she got down on her knees and moved the feather closer to Xena's head.
A split second later, Xena yelled triumphantly, jumped up from underneath the bedroll and grabbed hold of the bard with both hands.
"YEOW!" Gabrielle squealed as she was dragged into their bedroll; soon, Xena's skilled hands were all over the bard's body, tickling her to within an inch of her sanity.
Almost at once, the two women started rolling back and forth on top of the bedroll, tickling each other mercilessly and loving every moment of it. When Xena decided that she had served enough sweet punishment, she sought Gabrielle's lips and offered the bard a deep, passionate good-morning kiss.
Panting hard from the unexpected exercise, Gabrielle fell down next to Xena and wrapped her arm across the warrior's waist. "Ohhhh? how did you know I was coming? I was so quiet?"
"I can sense you a mile away, love. Usually, you're quite noisy, but now, you sneaked across the camp like a true Amazon. That's when I knew you were up to no good," Xena said and leaned in to kiss Gabrielle's forehead.
"I need to remember that. Speaking of Amazons? how far do you think we are from the Amazon lands?"
"Not far. Three-four candlemarks at the most."
"It's going to be hot today. We need some more water. There's just enough left for you and the tea."
"Finding some water shouldn't be too hard," Xena said as she was tracing the side of Gabrielle's face with her index finger.
Shuddering slightly from her lover's gentle touch, Gabrielle moved in even closer to make their bodies melt together from the top of their heads to the soles of their bare feet. "Mmmmm," she purred, settling down in the nook of Xena's shoulder.
"You are looking forward to meeting Ephiny and the others, aren't you?" Xena said.
"Oh, sure," Gabrielle replied in a muffled voice.
"? Because if you're not, we can just as easily go the other way??"
Chuckling, Gabrielle pulled back so she could look the Warrior Princess in the eye. "Oh, no we can't. You're coming with me to the Amazon village and you're going to spend a few days there with me! Any more questions?"
"No, love. I'm going with you and I'm going to love it there. Right?" Xena said, winking.
"Right. It'll be fun," Gabrielle said and settled down again.
"So? when do you think we need to leave in order to be at the Amazon lands in time for lunch?"
"Not for another couple of candlemarks," Xena whispered, sliding her hand up and down Gabrielle's back.
"I was hoping you'd say that." With a grin, Gabrielle began to place a line of little kisses on Xena's lips. The warrior soon responded, and before long, the birds in the tall trees surrounding the clearing were treated to quite a special show.
A few candlemarks later, the temperature had grown to be so stifling that everything was shimmering in a heat haze, and it didn't help that the dirt road they were travelling on was so rocky that Xena had had to dismount to help Argo around the worst of the rocks.
Gabrielle was walking a few paces back from the warrior and the golden mare, dragging her staff along the ground and generally feeling so exhausted that it felt like she hadn't been sleeping for a week.
"Can we please take a break? My feet are killing me. Actually, my feet and my legs are killing me? and my head isn't far behind, either," Gabrielle said in a fed-up voice.
Xena chuckled and turned around to look at her companion. The heat and humidity had taken a toll on Gabrielle's hair, especially her braid that had come completely undone, resulting in strawberry-blonde locks sticking out in all directions, and her face was rosy and covered by a sheen of sweat.
"All right. Drink some water, that'll help your head."
"We need to ration it. We were only able to fill three waterskins from that spring we found, remember?"
"Oh, I remember, but I'm ordering you to drink some water, Gabrielle," Xena said and pulled Argo off the road and into a cluster of chestnut trees.
"Well? for once, I'll follow your orders. But don't expect it to be a habit," Gabrielle croaked as she turned off the rocky road, earning herself a throaty chuckle from Xena.
Gabrielle sat down with a bump against a tree trunk, uncorked the waterskin and took two large gulps.
"Two more, Gabrielle," Xena said as she checked Argo's shoes for damage caused by the rocks on the road.
"No, there won't be enough for you or Argo."
"Ah, we'll live? but if we show up at the Amazon village with the heir to the Amazon throne an incoherent wreck from dehydration, I'll probably get drawn and quartered."
"Oh! They wouldn't!"
"You know Queen Melosa. She isn't my biggest fan."
"True? all right, you've convinced me," Gabrielle said, took one more gulp and then put the cork back in the waterskin.
"I said two gulps."
"And I took one? fair compromise."
Xena shook her head and started looking around the small grove they were in. The chestnut trees were lined up in perfect rows and they were clearly cultivated by farmers. "This wasn't here the last time we visited the Amazons. It's almost like a small plantation."
"Yeah. I wonder what my Sisters think of this? so close to their hunting grounds, it can't be good news."
"You want to chew on a chestnut? It'll give you some nourishment," Xena said and stretched up. Standing on tip-toes, she was just able to pick a burr off of the lowest branch of the tree.
"No, thank you. I sincerely doubt you can eat that thing? look at all those spikes?"
"But of course you can eat them. Have you never tried chestnut?" Xena said and split the burr with her Chakram to get to the chestnut itself. With a hard twist of her strong fingers, she was able to crack the shell and popped the meat into her mouth. After a few chews, she fell silent and raised her hand.
"Ha! Told ya you couldn't eat that!"
"We're gonna have company," Xena said and resumed chewing on the nut.
Gabrielle grabbed her staff and bounded to her feet as quickly as the heat exhaustion allowed her to. She looked in the direction Xena was pointing, but she couldn't see or hear anything. "Friend or foe?"
"Oh? who is it?"
"A bit too early to tell, Gabrielle," Xena said with a chuckle.
"Must be a hunting party or long range scouts."
"We're about to find out. They're only a couple of candledrips away."
"Would you mind letting out a bird call to let them know we're here? you know, so we don't suddenly find ourselves with an arrow in the butt?" Gabrielle said, leaning against her staff.
Xena laughed and mussed Gabrielle's damp hair. "Good idea. Did you have any specific bird in mind?"
"Any one will do."
"All right. Watch your ears."
At once, Gabrielle covered her ears and slammed her eyelids shut. Moments later, Xena took a deep breath, stuck two fingers in her mouth and let out a piercing bird call that could've scared away a pack of rabid banshee.
Muffled, but excited, voices were heard from some distance away, quickly followed by a responding bird call.
"Xena, what in Hades was that supposed to be?!"
"Eagle," the warrior said, wearing a beaming smile.
"A pigeon would've sufficed!" Gabrielle said, shaking her head. "What was their reply?"
"Then it's not Ephiny? must be a hunting party. C'mon, let's greet them," Gabrielle said and began to move into the chestnut grove.
A few candledrips later, Xena and Gabrielle bumped into Eponin and three junior Amazons who were all wearing suede hunting fatigues and carrying longbows and daggers. One of the juniors was holding two dead rabbits on a string.
"Hello, Eponin!" Gabrielle said excitedly, waving her hand at the imposing master-at-arms.
"Princess Gabrielle," Eponin replied, bowing to the Amazon royalty. When she noticed that her three trainees were standing with their mouths agape, she reached behind her to pull down the closest of them.
"Oh, don't bother with that, Eponin. Who are your companions?"
"Someone who is about to be banished if they don't show some respect!" Eponin growled at the two who were still standing. The two juniors soon snapped out of their reverie and bowed deeply.
Once the ceremonial part of the greeting was over, Eponin got up and clasped hands with Xena. "Hello, Xena."
"Eponin," Xena said and walked over to stand behind Gabrielle.
"And this? well, this is the next generation of Amazons? Artemis help us," Eponin said, pointing her thumb at the three juniors. "Speak up? or did the Griffin get your tongues?"
"No, Mistress Eponin," the first of the juniors said. She was a tall, gangly ash-blonde with blue eyes, pale skin, rail-thin arms and legs, and hardly any curves on her body. "I'm Agata, Princess Gabrielle. I'm so excited to finally meet you," she continued and put out her arm.
Gabrielle clasped it and sent the skinny girl a reassuring smile. "Hello, Agata."
Agata stepped back into the ranks and looked expectantly at her two fellow juniors. After a few seconds, she gave the one to her right a little push.
"I'm Elif of Amisos, Princess Gabrielle," the second young woman said. Unlike Agata, Elif was more developed and had darker skin, dark brown eyes and almost black hair, and she was generally built like a brick - stocky and with broad shoulders. The dark look she was wearing hinted at her being the strong, brooding type.
"Amisos? Where is that?"
"Far east of here."
When Gabrielle clasped arms with Elif, she spotted an unusual tattoo draping the junior's right arm from her wrist to her elbow. Highly detailed, it resembled a fire-breathing snake that twisted its way around her arm. "That's a unique tattoo you have there, Elif. Is there a story behind the design?"
"I'd love to hear it??"
Instead of answering, Elif nodded and moved back to the line.
The last of the juniors - an almond-eyed brunette with a cheeky look on her face - stepped forward and put out her hand. "You have to excuse Elif, Princess Gabrielle. She has already spoken her allotted ten words of the day. Some days, we can't even get that much out of her. Oh, I'm Tatiana, by the way. Fantastic to finally meet you? we've heard so much about you and your Champion."
Gabrielle stifled a chuckle and clasped arms with the last junior who was as tall as she was and of a similar build and, apparently, disposition. "Hello, Tatiana."
Eponin stepped closer to Gabrielle, prompting Xena to put her hands on the bard's shoulders. The master-at-arms didn't seem to register it, but still took a step backwards. "Princess Gabrielle, I'm sorry to be the bearer of disappointing news, but I'm afraid that Queen Melosa will not be present for your stay."
"Oh? oh, rats, I was really looking forward to meeting her again? Have you had problems?"
"Not yet, but to make sure that things wouldn't get out of hand in a small border row, Queen Melosa and a delegation have traveled to a village to enter negotiations."
"The chestnut grove we're standing in?" Xena said.
"Hmmm. Well, there's nothing we can do about that. Has Ephiny gone with Queen Melosa?" Gabrielle said, chewing her lips.
"Oh, no. She's been turning the village upside down to prepare for your arrival," Eponin said with a poorly hidden smirk.
After leaving Eponin and the juniors behind, Xena and Gabrielle continued their trek along the rocky dirt road, walking side by side to ease Argo's burden in the heat.
"Oh, it's really too bad that Queen Melosa isn't here, Xena. I would love to have seen her face when we told her that we've become lovers," Gabrielle said and bumped shoulders with Xena.
"So? how do you think Ephiny will react?"
"Probably. It's so strange to tell our friends? we never know how they'll react. What about Joxer? Or your mother?"
"Joxer will be heartbroken. And Mother? well. It won't be long until we find out."
"Heh, that's true. It's in three moons' time, isn't it? The important date, I mean." When Xena didn't respond, Gabrielle moved in closer and took the warrior's hand in her own. "Xena, it's something that'll happen to all of us provided we live that long? you know, entering our fourth decade. Getting the first gray hairs and all those things. The first wrink-"
"All right, all right. It's just a figure on a parchment," Xena mumbled.
"That's true, and you're only as old as your heart tells you. I'll bet you never thought you'd get to be this old when you were a teenager? oh? that didn't come out right," Gabrielle said and squeezed Xena's hand.
"I know what you meant. And no, I didn't think I'd ever turn thirty. I always figured I'd end up in a pile of broken, bloodied corpses before I was twenty-five."
"Oh, thanks for that mental image, Xena. Gods!" Gabrielle said, shivering all over despite the stifling temperature.
"It's okay, just don't mention it again. Anyway, how old do you think those junior Amazons were?"
"Oh, twelve, thirteen or so. One of them reminded me of you," Xena said and tickled Gabrielle's arm.
"Let me guess? the chatty one? Well, one reminded me of you, Warrior Princess."
"The silent one?"
"Actually, I think the silent one looked a little like Eponin. Do you think she's had a kid without anyone knowing about it?"
Gabrielle looked at Xena with an astounded expression on her face. After a few heartbeats, she shrugged and began to chew on her lip. "Well? Eponin? I guess it's possible, but I can't see how?"
"Oh, probably the usual way."
"No kidding! Sweet Aphrodite, what am I gonna do with you?" Gabrielle said in a mock annoyed voice. When Xena didn't offer a suggestion, Gabrielle laughed out loud and began to swing their entwined hands back and forth.
Some time later, an Amazon scout came out of the forest and ran through the village with long, flowing steps. As she reached one of the nineteen huts that formed the village, she stopped to regain her breath before knocking on the door.
'Enter!' a female voice said from the inside.
Clearing her throat, the scout entered the hut, remembering to wipe her feet on the mat.
Apart from the Queen's quarters and the mess, the command hut was the spaciest of the entire village, equipped with a double bunk, a large desk and several filing cabinets made of hardwood. Behind the desk, a curly-haired woman was hunched over, writing on a scroll.
As the scout entered the hut, the curly-haired woman looked up. "Yes?" Ephiny said, glad to get a distraction from the tedious work of translating a trade agreement into Greek from Latin.
"Princess Gabrielle and Xena are approaching, Ephiny. They're still a mile away."
"Oh, excellent. Thanks, Alexa."
The scout blushed and began to scoff her moccasins against her calves. "Uhhh, they're?"
"What? In trouble? Under attack?"
"No, they're actually, uh? holding hands," the scout said, blushing even more.
"Yes, like? holding hands. And looking happy."
"Oh-ho, are they?" Ephiny said with a chuckle. "Imagine that. Hmmm. That means we have to re-arrange their sleeping quarters. Is Eponin back?"
"I better get on it right away," Ephiny said and rose from the desk.
Fifteen candledrips later, Xena and Gabrielle walked into the Amazon village. Both were rather astounded to be greeted by an honor guard of Amazon warriors wearing the traditional ceremonial suede fatigues, feathers and all.
Ephiny stood at the end of the line, stepping forward once Gabrielle reached her.
"Princess Gabrielle, it's a pleasure to see you," Ephiny said, bowing to Gabrielle.
"Oh, why is everyone bowing to me. I'm just me? Gabrielle!" she said and put out her arm.
Ephiny clasped it with a grin. "I think it's got something to do with your rite of caste. Hello, Xena," Ephiny said and clasped arms with the warrior.
"So, Gabrielle, what do you think of our honor guard?"
Gabrielle looked at the row of tall, buff, strapping Amazons, all armed to the teeth with all kinds of weapons - including longbows, javelins, staffs and even a few krises - and nodded in agreement. "Very impressive, Ephiny. I see that Eponin is keeping everyone fit and sharp."
"Most definitely. I'm afraid that Queen-"
"We already know. We bumped into Eponin and three junior Amazons out in the chestnut grove."
"I see. Well, that grove is at the center of the dispute."
"Oh, so now it's a dispute? Eponin told us it was just a row," Gabrielle said, cocking her head.
"We're hoping to curb it before it gets out of hand. Come, my friends? come see your hut," Ephiny said and led the two women away from the honor guard and over to the command hut.
Opening the door, she ushered Gabrielle and Xena inside before walking around the desk to pull out the chair for Gabrielle.
"A scout told me some surprising news just now. That you were seen holding hands??" Ephiny said with a sparkle in her eye.
"Oh? well, yes, we were. We're together now, Ephiny," Gabrielle said and reached out for Xena's hand. The warrior chuckled and went over to stand at the bard's side.
"Congratulations, Princess Gabrielle. I guess that means I don't have to ask if you want to go on the fertility raid tomorrow?" Ephiny deadpanned.
"You mean one of those raids where the Amazons use all the healthy men they can put in chains as breeding? uh? products? Uhhh, no. No, I got that part covered in full right here," Gabrielle said and tugged at Xena's arm, prompting a chuckle from Ephiny.
"Good. But I suspect you'll be at the party tonight? Both of you, of course," Ephiny said, looking at Xena.
"When have we ever said no to an Amazon party, Ephiny?" Gabrielle said with a chuckle.
"Good. Well, the happy news that you two are an item has created a little dilemma for us. You see, we had planned for you to have Queen Melosa's hut? but there's only one bunk there," Ephiny said, sitting down on the double bunk in the corner of the hut.
"So you can have my hut. I'm a grass widow anyhow while the delegation is away," Ephiny continued, patting the bunk she was sitting on.
"Oh, but we don't want to steal your bunk, Ephiny. That would be most rude," Gabrielle said and moved to get up from the chair, but she stopped when Ephiny waved her hands.
"I insist. Because of the party, we're having an early supper tonight. I suppose we'll see you there, Princess Gabrielle?"
"You can count on it. I haven't had much to eat today because it's so hot. Only a dozen berries or so? oh, and some rabbit roast leftovers from last night. And some jerky to keep my salt balance in check," Gabrielle said, counting on her fingers.
"Hardly anything, then. If you have any questions, I'll be in the Queen's hut," Ephiny said and went over to the door.
"All right. See you later, Ephiny."
As the door closed behind Ephiny, Gabrielle turned to Xena and shot her a look of confusion. "You didn't say much. Is something bothering you?"
"No, I'm fine, Gabrielle. It's just that? well, I don't feel completely welcome here."
"What? Why not? The Amazons are our friends, Xena." When the warrior's only reply was a shrug, Gabrielle got up from the chair and wrapped her arms around the taller woman's waist.
"They're *your* friends. If I came here alone, I think I'd be met by the pointy end of a spear rather than an honor guard."
Gabrielle pulled back and looked Xena in the eye. The two lovers communicated silently for a few seconds and then finished the hug with a little squeeze.
"Don't laugh, but I think I need a nap before we eat," Gabrielle said, looking at the bunk.
"I won't laugh. In fact, I think I'll join you," Xena said and began to remove her breastplate.
The sound of someone pounding repeatedly on a large drum tore Gabrielle from her sleep. She looked around in a daze, surprised to see that the daylight had already begun to fade.
"Wh? whut? Oh, Sweet Aphrodite, we missed the supper!" Gabrielle mumbled in a thick voice. Rubbing her face, she turned to her companion who was still fast asleep next to her. "Xe-Xena? we've overslept! Come on, the party is starting! We've overslept!"
Xena yawned widely and rubbed her eyes. "Overslept?" she croaked.
"We missed supper! Oh, I can't believe it," Gabrielle said as she swung her legs over the side of the bed. As soon as she was upright, she began to search for her boots, looking high and low for the missing items.
When she finally found them, she quickly put them on and scrambled to her feet. "If we get there soon, maybe they'll have some leftovers or something," she mumbled, trying to get her hair to fall into place.
Behind her, Xena sat up and yawned again. "Don't worry, Gabrielle. I'm sure the cook wouldn't mind whipping something up for you. After all, you're the most senior Amazon here."
"But I wanted to eat with the others so they could see I wasn't aloof or anything! Oh? will you hurry up! Listen, the drumbeat is increasing," Gabrielle said and pulled the curtain aside. It turned out to be even later than she had thought - the sun was already setting fast in the western skies and torches had been lit all over the village.
In the background, the drumbeat had turned into a regular musical frenzy with several drummers pounding rhythmically on the large timpani.
"Meaning what, exactly?" Xena said as she put on her gauntlets.
"Meaning that once the drummers reach the, uh, climax, the party will start. Oh, Xena, we can't be late for that. Will you hurry the Hades up!"
Gabrielle rushed over to the door and whooshed it open. Looking left and right, she realized that she and Xena were the only ones not at the party. "Look, are you com-"
Chuckling, Xena put her hand across Gabrielle's mouth. "I'm here. Let's go."
After kissing in the inside of Xena's palm, Gabrielle spun around and left the command hut in a hurry.
A few moments later, Gabrielle barged her way through a pair of heavy, wooden doors and ran into the mess hut that had been temporarily converted into an all-out party zone. Xena arrived at a more leisurely pace and walked up to stand behind Gabrielle.
Most of the tribe was already in there and they all stood up to show respect. Suddenly, one after the other, the Amazons began to clap and cheer, and some whistled or swung their mug in a congratulatory gesture.
"Wh? what are they doing?" Gabrielle whispered out of the corner of her mouth.
"Oh, perhaps they think we've been making love the whole time. We missed supper, after all."
"Oh, Gods!" Gabrielle said and buried her face in her hands. She started shaking her head so much that her strawberry-blonde locks flew in all directions. Taking a deep breath, she held up her hands which, to her great surprise, silenced the Amazons instantly. "We just overslept. That's all! Honest!"
A few murmurs of 'yeah, right' could be heard from the party-goers, but Ephiny soon got up and waved Xena and Gabrielle over to her.
"Princess Gabrielle, how you wish to spend your time is none of our business. Come, we've prepared Queen Melosa's throne for you."
"Her throne? I don't want to sit on the throne, I want to sit with Xena and the rest of our tribe," Gabrielle said, literally putting her foot down as Ephiny put a hand on her elbow.
"Okay? we can arrange that. Would you like to be near the dance floor or the bar?"
Gabrielle looked around, trying to make up her mind. The mess hut had been divided into three zones: the musicians and the dance floor nearest to the doors, three long tables in the center, and the bar and Queen Melosa's throne at the far end.
"Oh, anywhere there's space for two. Is that good enough for you, Xena?"
'Put 'em on the kissing bench!' someone shouted from the back of the room.
Ephiny shot the person a cold sneer, but Gabrielle grinned and nodded enthusiastically.
"That's the best idea I've heard in a while," Gabrielle said, taking Xena's hand in her own. "What are you all standing around for? I thought we were going to have a party?" she continued and began to move down to the nearest table.
The tribe didn't need to be told twice, and within moments, the musicians struck up a merry tune. Almost at once, several Amazons went up to the dance floor and let loose to the tribal rhythms.
A few candlemarks later, the party was more raucous than ever. Xena was still sitting in the same spot she had been in since the party started, nursing a mug of fermented brew.
All around her, Amazons of all ages had taken to dancing on the tables - some less dressed than others - but she only had eyes for the petite strawberry-blonde who was showing off all her special moves on the dance floor, surrounded by a bevy of scantily clad women.
"The house is packed with fit, gorgeous women and you're looking at the one you came with. You got it bad, Xena," a voice said to her right.
"I know," Xena said and wiped a bead of sweat off her brow.
Eponin sat down next to her, holding a full mug of ale. "She's quite something."
"You know, when I first met the two of you last year, I never thought that you'd hook up," Eponin said and thumped Xena's shoulder.
"Me neither. It just happened. I still don't get it," the warrior said with a wistful grin. Shaking her head, she took a swig from her mug. The expression on her face betrayed what she thought of it, and Eponin let out a belly laugh.
"You don't like our ale? I guess it's an acquired taste."
"Tastes like boiled tack. You can have it," Xena said and pushed the mug away.
At the other side of the mess hut, an Amazon decided to become one with nature by tearing off her top and skirt, thus revealing that she wasn't a believer in underwear. She whooped loudly and threw her skirt upwards, making it fly through the air and land near Xena's table.
"That's Melina," Eponin explained, stealing a peek at the Amazon's wiggly bits. "She does that every single time. She drinks too much. In five candledrips, she'll be snoring on the floor somewhere."
"Oh," Xena said, looking at Gabrielle instead of at the stark-naked dancer.
When Eponin noticed where Xena's eyes were, she laughed out loud and leaned in towards the warrior. "Sister? you got it bad!"
When Gabrielle finally returned to the table, she was flushing all over and sweat was pouring off her. Her hair wasn't just damp, it was wet, and she had to use both hands to flick it back from her eyes.
"Wow?" she said, panting hard. "Xena, you haven't danced all night? come on."
"No. Dancing is for the young people."
"Oh, puhlease! C'mon," Gabrielle said, tugging at the warrior's arm. When she noticed that she wasn't going to persuade Xena to come with her, she shrugged and instead took a long swig from the half-filled mug that stood in front of her. "Hey? this is good. What is it?"
"Oh, really? I like it." Gabrielle poured the rest of the ale down the hatch and put the empty mug on the table. "I think I want another one. You want one?"
"No thanks. That was mine, I hated it. Take care, love, it's strong."
"I can handle it. At least it's not wine, wine makes me dizzy. Ale usually doesn't."
"Suit yourself," Xena said with a chuckle. She reached up and waved her hand back and forth to give Gabrielle a bit of fresh air on her neck.
"Ohhh, thanks. I needed that. Boy it's hot in here. You sure you don't want an ale?"
"I'll just pop up to the bar and get one for mysel-"
At that exact moment, two Amazons got into a catfight down at the dance floor. The quarrel was soon settled, but not before one of them had ended up on her rear. The other fighter offered a hand to the fallen Amazon to help her up, and soon, they went back to dancing like nothing had happened.
"Amazons?" Xena mumbled under her breath. She looked to her right and noticed that Gabrielle was already on her way back from the bar holding two large mugs of ale.
"I didn't want one, Gabrielle."
"The bartender said that it was the joyous candlemark? or something. I didn't quite understand it? but never mind," Gabrielle said as she put the two mugs down on the table.
"Bottoms up!" she said and began to drink from one of them.
"? and tomorrow, it'll be bards down," Xena added with a worried look on her face.
Early the next morning, Gabrielle was, predictably, sitting on the edge of the bunk, wrapped in a sheet and holding a bucket in her hands.
"Gods, I did it again? I can't believe I did it again?" she croaked, clutching the bucket.
"Well, the ale was strong, love," Xena said and sat down next to her partner. With a sad chuckle, she reached over and pulled Gabrielle's damp bangs out of her eyes.
"But it was so sweet? how could I know it had such a kick??"
"The sweeter the ale, the worse the kick."
"I'll never touch it again," Gabrielle said, getting the heaves just from thinking about the taste of the ale.
"I'm sorry to push you, but you need to get dressed and send Ephiny and the party on their way. Eponin told me it's trad-"
"Don't even mention the word party!" Gabrielle croaked.
"All right, I won't, but it doesn't change the fact that you need to send them on their way. They're waiting outside."
"Oh, Xena, I can-? *hurrrrrllll*," Gabrielle suddenly said, delivering another load into the bucket.
"I'll help you over to the window. You can just say a word or two from there," Xena said and offered Gabrielle the waterskin. The bard took a sip to rinse her mouth and then spit it out into the bucket.
"I'm dying, Xena? please just let me die?" Gabrielle said in a gravelly, monotone voice.
"No you're not, you're just hung over. Besides, it's tradition, Gabrielle. You know how the Amazons feel about their traditions. Come on," Xena said, lifting the reluctant bard off the bed.
The two women shuffled across the floor, Gabrielle moaning and groaning and clutching her bucket, and Xena pinching her nostrils.
Gabrielle sat down with a bump on a chair next to the window and waited for Xena to pull the curtains apart. Once the warrior did, Gabrielle put her elbow on the window sill and leaned out in a rather labored fashion.
Outside, Ephiny, Eponin and the ten Amazons who wanted to get impregnated were waiting on horseback, and most of the village had showed up to give them a proper send-off.
On the lead horse, Ephiny had to bite hard down on her tongue to stop herself from breaking out into a loud belly-laugh once she saw how miserable Gabrielle was looking.
"Princess Gabrielle! Now we shall venture off the sacred Amazon lands to continue the age-old tradition that will ensure our Nation's survival," Ephiny said in a strong voice that resounded through the village - and directly into Gabrielle's sensitive head.
"Go in peace, Amazons. And don't come back until you're pregnant," Gabrielle croaked and immediately folded the curtain back so she could get back to the bunk.
Eponin scrunched up her face and shook her head in confusion. "Hey, wait a minute? that's not the traditional farewell greeting? she's supposed to say 'May the great Goddess Artemis touch you all and bless you with a new life'," she whispered to Ephiny.
"Well, yeah? ah, it's basically the same thing. Amazons! Let's ride!" Ephiny shouted as she spurred her horse into action and rode out of the village.
Behind her, Eponin and the others all did the same thing to the sound of cheering and shouting from the assembled Amazons.
On her way back to the bunk, Gabrielle dragged her feet and clutched her bucket. "Xena? wake me up in a candlemark. If there's any drama in the mean time, it's all yours."
"Oh, terrific," Xena said with a chuckle, carefully closing Gabrielle's sheet to make sure the royal cheeks wouldn't get exposed.
Meanwhile, outside the command hut, the three junior Amazons looked at the last of the riders leaving the village.
"Just imagine, that could be us in a few years," Agata said, pulling the string holding her scroll case further up her shoulder.
"Never," Elif said, shaking her head vehemently.
"Never say never, Elif. My sister said that she'd never, ever have kids, and look at her now? now she has three boys and she's living off our lands," Tatiana said.
"Not me. No way," Elif said and turned around. The three juniors began to walk back to their shared hut. With all the senior Amazons away, discipline wasn't even considered, so instead of walking briskly or stealthily like Eponin had tried to teach them for better part of a year, they shuffled along and had fun with each other.
When Tatiana opened the door to their hut, she immediately spotted the scroll lying on her bunk. "Uh-oh," she said, pointing at the scroll.
"Your bunk, your problem," Elif said and sat down on her own bunk, but Agata walked up to stand behind Tatiana and peeked over her shoulder.
"Well, aren't you going to open it?" Agata said.
"Oh, I guess I have to," Tatiana said and reached for the scroll. After clearing her throat, she read out loud: "Agata, Elif, Tatiana, you are to report to Princess Gabrielle and her Champion as soon as you read this. They'll be in charge of your activities for today. Eponin."
"Oh, great!" Elif said and fell backwards onto the bunk. She groaned loudly and covered her eyes with her hands.
"How hard can it be? The Princess doesn't look like a slave driver," Agata said and took off the scroll case she was carrying on her back. She sat down on her bunk, reached into the drawer of a night stand and took out several scrolls that she proceeded to roll up and put into the case. "I'm definitely going to show Princess Gabrielle my stories. She's a bard, you know."
"Oh, I know. And I also know a few things about her Champion. My sister told me when I visited her earlier this year," Tatiana said conspiratorially, hoping to garner some attention from her companions. When nothing happened, she sat down on her bunk and assumed a dark expression. "She told me tales of blood, of destruction, of mayhem? of how Xena was once a disciple of Ares. Of how she? no, it's too cruel."
"Oh, you can't stop now! Go on, for Artemis' sake!" Agata said.
"Of how Xena murdered an entire Amazon tribe to the far north of here."
That information made even Elif sit up and pay attention. Furrowing her brow, she began to run her fingers up and down the tattoo on her right arm.
"But I don't know how much of it is true," Tatiana continued. "Anyway, Eponin will pin our hides to her wall if she finds out that we didn't follow her instructions? so we better get over there? in a little while."
Half a candlemark later, Xena was busy trying to fix a small crack in her right boot when she was interrupted by someone knocking on the door. Annoyed, she looked over to the bunk to see if Gabrielle had woken up, but the bard was still snoring merrily.
With a harrumph, Xena put away the needle and thread and went over to the door before the unknown person could knock again.
Her expression must have been a thunderous one as all three junior Amazons took an involuntary step back when they saw it.
"Mistress Xena," Tatiana said. "We've been ordered to report to your hut. We were told that you'd be our teachers for today."
"Your teachers? This is the first I've heard of it," Xena said, cocking her head.
"Oh, thank Artemis! We're terribly sorry? there's been a misunderstanding. We won't bother you again!" Agata said and made to run away, but Xena stopped her with a loud 'Ahem!'
"Wait here, I'll see if there's anything on Ephiny's desk," Xena continued and closed the door behind her.
On her way over to the desk, she chuckled briefly when she heard Agata's muffled voice saying 'Great, they don't know anything about it? and now we've made her mad, too!'
Xena looked at the pile of parchment on Ephiny's desk and scratched her chin. With a thoughtful 'hmmm', she began to rummage through the files. A short while later, she found what she was looking for.
"Note to self: Advise Princess Gabrielle that three junior Amazons will be?" Xena mumbled as she read the note. Sighing, she went back to the door.
The three juniors all snapped to attention at the sight of the warrior holding a parchment in her callused hand.
"All right, I've found the document in question. We weren't told, but I promise that we'll do our part of the deal. As soon as the Princess awakens from her beauty sleep, we'll be over. Which hut is yours?" Xena said in an authoritative voice.
"Th-the large one at the end of the v-village, Mistress. The Princess will know where it is," Agata said.
"My name is Xena."
"Y-yes, Mistress. Ow!" Agata said, rubbing her ribs where Tatiana had elbowed her.
"We should always respect our elders!" Tatiana whispered through her teeth.
A brief look of annoyance flashed across Xena's face, but she decided that the three juniors were too adorable to growl at for the 'elders' comment, so she didn't. "The Princess and I will be over later," she said and closed the door.
After putting the parchment back on the desk, Xena sat down and picked up the needle and thread - but before she had time to continue her work, Gabrielle coughed and rolled over onto her side.
"Who was that you were talking to just now?" the bard croaked.
"The junior Amazons. Looks like there's something Ephiny forgot to tell us."
"Eph? Ephiny is back already?"
Xena looked at the stricken bard and let out a long sigh. "No, the three junior Amazons we met out at the grove yesterday. Remember?"
Gabrielle furrowed her brow, trying to get her brain cells to remember that far back. "Can't? who? where??"
"Blotto. Damn that Amazon ale to Hades," Xena said under her breath.
"I just need a little more slee-ZZZZZzzzzz?" Gabrielle said and fell onto her back.
With yet another sigh, Xena put away the needle and thread and went over to the bunk. After tucking Gabrielle in, she sat down on the bed and moved a few damp strawberry-blonde locks away from the bard's clammy forehead.
The proverbial tallow-candle ignited over Xena's head, and she quickly scooted off the bunk and put on her boots. Before she left the hut, she returned to the bunk, leaned down and gave Gabrielle a gentle kiss on the lips that made the bard smile and mumble a few unintelligible words in her sleep.
Wearing an expression that was a mix of worry and trepidation, Gabrielle picked up the mug Xena had offered her and brought it to her lips.
"Don't smell it, just drink it. At least half of it in one go if you can," Xena said and put her fingers on the bottom of the mug in case Gabrielle lost faith halfway through the potion.
Gabrielle's eyes narrowed slightly as the odor came into contact with her nostrils, but she girded her loins and took a long swig.
As she swallowed, her eyes popped open so wide that they eventually resembled Amazon dinner plates. "Blech!" she croaked loudly, contorting her face so grotesquely that Xena was afraid it might stick. "What is this concoction? Are you trying to poison me?"
Two narrow streams of the foul-tasting potion were running down both sides of Gabrielle's mouth, but she didn't do anything to wipe them off - she suspected it would take the dye out of the sheet she was wearing if she did.
"It's a great cure against hangovers, Gabrielle. Come on, you need to drink at least half of it."
Gabrielle sighed and looked down at the mug. "I've faced Ares? and Titans? and a hungry Cyclops? but nothing could have prepared me for this? oh well, this looks like a good day to die, anyway. It was nice knowing you," she croaked before draining the mug of its contents.
"That's a good girl. You're still here, see?" Xena said and took the mug out of Gabrielle's hands.
"Just barely. What's in it?"
"I'll tell you later. Now, these junior Amazons?"
"Who?" Gabrielle said and furrowed her brow.
"The junior Amazons we're supposed to be teaching all kinds of things."
"Oh? hey, what?"
Xena chuckled darkly and showed Gabrielle Ephiny's parchment. "I tried to tell you before, but you were too far gone to understand. The juniors came by to tell me that we're supposed to be their teachers while the senior Amazons are away. Here, you can read Ephiny's scroll yourself."
Gabrielle snatched the parchment and unrolled it so she could read it. " 'Note to self: Advise Princess Gabrielle that three junior Amazons will be?' Oh, I can't believe that Ephiny didn't tell us! I had something planned for today that most decidedly didn't involve three junior Amazons?"
"We would probably have had to wait until your stomach had settled down, anyway," Xena said dryly.
"Well? I guess."
"At the bottom, Ephiny has made a list of the classes they're supposed to have today."
Gabrielle looked further down the parchment and found a short list. "One: cooking in the rough using nature's own ingredients. Two: Basic hunting techniques. Three: Close combat sparring with staff and spear! By the Gods, Xena? I'm in no condition to do any of those things!"
"Sure you are, you just have to let the potion work. You can do the first part, the outdoors cooking. The hunting we can do together, and to cap it off, I can show them a few moves with your staff."
"Uggh. I guess we have to. When?"
"As soon as possible," Xena said and handed Gabrielle her rust-brown skirt and her pea-green top.
"No, Xena? if I have to do this, I want to wear the proper clothes. Would you mind getting the saddlebags? I want to dress up in the full Amazon outfit."
"Ooooh, I'll help you lace the top," Xena said with a wide grin that earned her a slap on the back of her hand.
A short while later, Gabrielle wiggled left and right, adjusting the suede top.
"Is that better?" Xena said behind her, holding the laces.
"Much better. I can breathe now," Gabrielle said and pulled the top up so it would cover her attributes better.
"Excellent. How's your head?"
"You know, that's a lot better as well. What was in that potion?"
"Oh, I'll let you know in a few years' time. Here's your necklace and your arm bands."
"Thank you," Gabrielle said and put on the items. "So? what do you think we should cook for them?"
"Your rabbit stew. That's one of your best," Xena said with a broad smile.
Gabrielle responded similarly and stood up on tip-toes to place a little kiss on the Warrior Princess' lips.
"One thing is quite typical of the Amazons, though? if we go by the plan, we have to do the cooking before we've done the hunting," Gabrielle said with a snicker.
A short while later, Xena and Gabrielle had created a firepit just outside the village, and the three junior Amazons sat on blankets on the ground watching the proceedings intently.
"So, pay attention, please!" Gabrielle said loudly, holding up a freshly killed rabbit. "With this rabbit that my charming Champion has just delivered, we shall go ahead and create rabbit stew only made from our Great Mother Gaia's own resources. First, we take a cooking pot and scoop up some water from a creek-"
"Princess Gabrielle!" Tatiana said and put up her hand.
"Aren't you just conforming to the gender roles?"
"Uhhh, I'm sorry?" Gabrielle said - her face had turned into a very large question mark.
"Well, Mistress Ephiny has taught us that in patriarchal societies, it's always the women who toil away in the kitchen."
"Uh? yes? As far as I can see, we're all women here??"
"Yes, but your Champion has assumed masculine qualities."
"And besides, it's not fitting for an Amazon Princess to cook. You should let your Champion do it," Tatiana said, nodding.
"Well?" Gabrielle said and looked at Xena. "All right, this will be an important lesson in practical solutions. Xena, would you mind??" she continued, taking a step back from the pot.
"I'd be delighted to," Xena said and began the task of adding ingredients into the stew.
Twenty candledrips later, Xena poured a ladle-ful of stew onto Tatiana's plate.
"Here ya go," the warrior said, wearing a devious smile.
Agata and Elif held up their plates as well but Xena just shook her head and went back to the pot.
Sending her fellow juniors a big, toothy grin, Tatiana began to eat from her plate - she only made it as far as the first mouthful. As she tried to avoid swallowing the horrible meal, her face lost all color and her cheeks bulged out until she resembled a chipmunk.
"Tatiana, go over to the trees and spit it out," Gabrielle said.
Tatiana didn't need to be told twice and she immediately jumped up and ran over to the trees, leaving Agata and Elif to stare wide-eyed at their companion as she spit and spluttered to make sure that everything was gone from her mouth.
"What you've seen here, Amazons, is the difference between politics and the real world. Politics are fine in some situations, like the Amazon council, but out here, practical solutions are far more important. You understand?" Gabrielle said as she poured out the contents of the cooking pot.
All three juniors nodded, including Tatiana whose face was still devoid of color.
"Good. I cook because I'm good at it. Xena doesn't cook because? well, because it's not one of her many skills. All right, let's start over, I'm hungry."
"Sorry," Agata said and looked at the twig she had broken with her moccasin.
"When you're trying to sneak up on a deer or a boar, you would be best advised not to step on any twigs," Xena said and picked up the broken twig.
"Sorry," Agata said again and shuffled back to her blanket.
"It's all right, Agata, you're here to learn," Gabrielle said, holding a quill and a parchment on which she made little notes on the progress of the juniors.
"Elif, your turn," Xena said, pointing at the practice area.
Elif got up and began to roll her shoulders to prepare for her test, a gesture that reminded Gabrielle of Xena.
The junior Amazon began to sneak through the trees with plenty of agility and skill. Using the foliage as a natural camouflage, she inched closer to her target - a wooden cutout of a stag - with her spear poised to throw. When she was close enough, she released the spear with a powerful throw that sent it hurtling toward the stag.
The throw sent the spear on a collision course with the cutout, and it swiftly and neatly penetrated the wooden stag where the ribcage would have been had it been a live animal. On Elif's way back to her blanket, she received an appreciative nod from Xena that made her grin to her fellow juniors.
"Excellent, Elif. Tatiana, the stage is all yours," Gabrielle said.
"Princess Gabrielle, I don't have the strength Elif has. May I use a rope instead?"
"A rope? Well? why not?" Gabrielle said, scratching her hair with the feathers of her writing quill.
"Go right ahead," Xena said after having yanked Elif's spear free of the wooden stag.
"Thank you, Princess Gabrielle," Tatiana said and walked up to stand at the line on the forest floor that marked the start of the training course.
Moments later, she began to swing the rope around and around in mid-air, eventually creating a perfect circle. When it was large enough, she ran towards the target along the right side of the course, releasing the rope when she was within a few yards of the wooden cutout.
Much to Gabrielle's surprise, the rope fell down over the wooden stag's head, and Tatiana started pulling it at once to bring the target down - ultimately, she wasn't strong enough or heavy enough to tip the target over, but the intent was clear.
"Uh? well done, Tatiana. You get a mark for ingenuity," Gabrielle continued, making a note on the parchment.
"Clever. But dangerous," Xena said to Tatiana as she handed her the rope. "It'll work for horses, but not stags? the antlers will get in the way. And then the animal will be your worst enemy."
"I know, Mistress Xena. I haven't perfected it yet," Tatiana said, putting away the rope.
"All right, let's take a short break!" Gabrielle said and rolled up the scroll.
Tatiana sat down next to her fellow juniors with a beaming, if slightly self-satisfied smile.
"What are you laughing about? You didn't pass the hunting test," Elif said surly.
"Sure I did. I just used my head instead of my muscles."
"Do you think Princess Gabrielle would mind if I showed her my stories?" Agata said, biting her fingernails.
Elif just shrugged but Tatiana leaned towards the gangly girl and put her hand on her knee. "You'll never know if you don't try, Agata."
Agata took her scroll case and started to get up, but lost her confidence at the last moment and bumped back down to earth. "I think I'll wait until after the staff practice," she said with a sigh.
"What do you suppose they're talking about?" Gabrielle said on the other side of the small camp site they had been using for the classes.
"Probably how mean we are. If you wanted to listen in on their conversation, you shouldn't have insisted that we sit way over here," Xena said as she lit the fire to make some herbal tea.
"Oh, but they deserve some privacy. They can't have that if we're within earshot of them. Didn't you ever do that when you were younger?"
"Avoid the grown-ups and just spend some time with your friends??"
"I had very few friends, Gabrielle. It was always just Lyceus and me. And we usually played boys' games, like Bacchae hunting or wrestling? things like that."
"Figures. How's the water coming along?"
"What do you think of Tatiana's hunting technique?"
Xena shrugged. "Well, like I told her, it was clever but dangerous."
"The water is ready," Xena said and took pot off the fire.
Gabrielle found her mug and held it steady while Xena poured hot water and herbs into it.
"What do you think Princess Gabrielle and her Champion are talking about?" Agata whispered.
"Probably thinking up a devious plan for our staff practice," Tatiana whispered back.
"One thing's for sure? you can't win that by being clever," Elif said, still smarting from being bested in the hunting class.
"On your feet, please," Gabrielle said as she walked over to the three young Amazons. The juniors did as they were told and lined up shoulder by shoulder.
"This is the third and final part, the close combat sparring. Now, Xena and I have decided?"
"Told ya so," Tatiana whispered to Agata.
"? that it would be a waste of everyone's time if we pitted her against any of you? or even all three at once, for that matter? anyway, we have decided that I shall spar with you."
Agata groaned and began to shuffle back and forth.
"Something wrong, Agata? You need to pee?"
"No, Princess Gabrielle. It's just that? well, Mistress Ephiny will punish us for days when she finds out that we've sparred with you. We're below you."
Gabrielle harrumphed and looked at Xena. "I think I need to have a word with Ephiny once she gets back," she said under her breath.
"Well, Agata, we're Amazons. Forget the various titles we use, we're all one tribe. We're Sisters. It's the cooking thing all over again; once we're on the battlefield, we all depend on each other so we need to work as a team, fighting as one. Isn't that right, Xena?"
"Very right, Princess Gabrielle."
"Good. Now that the politics are out of the picture, let's start," Gabrielle said and picked up her staff. "Who wants to go first? Tatiana?"
Tatiana shook her head repeatedly.
"Oh, yes, I think you'll go first. Come on." Gabrielle crouched down slightly and held the staff ready in an offensive position, remembering the things Xena had taught her over the last year.
Tatiana gulped but stepped forward. With hands that were trembling slightly, she raised her staff and held it in a defensive position.
"Fight!" Xena shouted, moving closer so she could study the fighters.
At once, Gabrielle went in deep, avoided Tatiana's clumsy parry and swept her legs out from under her, leaving the junior Amazon flat on her rear and looking up into the blue sky, wondering what the Hades had just happened to her.
At the same time, Agata and Elif looked at each other with identical, shocked expressions on their faces.
"The idea was that you should have blocked my sweep. How long has Eponin been teaching you close combat techniques?" Gabrielle said as she helped Tatiana back on her feet.
"Only for a moon, Princess Gabrielle," Tatiana croaked.
"Good. You are where I expected you to be. Get ready."
Tatiana groaned but picked up her staff and assumed a defensive position.
"Fight!" Xena shouted.
This time, Gabrielle moved in very slowly, moving her staff down towards Tatiana's legs so the junior had plenty of time to block the sweep. The two staffs made gentle contact before Gabrielle pulled hers back.
"Good, now reverse sweep," she continued, reversing her grip on the staff and moving in on Tatiana's right leg. This was blocked too, instilling an over-confidence in Tatiana that made her move too far ahead.
At the speed of a striking cobra, Gabrielle moved in high, knocked the staff out of Tatiana's hands and held the butt of her own staff at the junior's throat.
"Crushed windpipe," Gabrielle said grimly. "All right, go back to your blanket. Agata, come up here, please."
Tatiana gulped loudly and staggered back to the two other juniors. Elif sent her a look that was a mix of sympathy and 'I told you so', but sympathy eventually won out, and she leaned forward and gave Tatiana a pat on the thigh.
On her way to the plate, Agata's knees were knocking so badly that she ended up tripping over her own feet. When she fell down onto the grass, the fingers on her left hand were caught between her staff and the ground, and she let out a piercing howl that made both Xena and Gabrielle rush over to help her.
"Oh! Are you all right? C'mon, sit up, Agata. Did you hurt your fingers?" Gabrielle said as she helped the unfortunate Agata up in a sitting position.
"Y-yeah," -sniff- "my fing- OH, SWEET ARTEMIS!" -sniff- "LOOK AT MY FINGER!" Agata howled directly into Gabrielle's ear. Her middle finger had been pulled out of joint and was resting in a very odd angle.
"Xena, we need your skills," Gabrielle said, holding Agata's hand tenderly.
"Kids, don't try this until you know what you're doing," Xena said to the two other juniors who both nodded vigorously.
Taking Agata's finger, Xena swiftly twisted it, making it pop back into the socket with a sound that made even Gabrielle queasy.
"Oh-ewwwwwwwwwwww," Agata howled and covered her eyes with her good hand.
"No more staff practice for you, Agata. When Eponin gets back, I'm going to ask her to teach you something less, uh? dangerous," Gabrielle said, patting Agata's good arm.
"I don't wanna be a warrior, I wanna w-write stories!" Agata whispered.
"Oh? you write? What a coincidence, I write, too. What kind of stories have you written?"
"Oh, just a few poems and a short story?"
Xena, knowing that the conversation was about to turn to matters she had very little interest in, dusted off her hands and took a few steps back. She looked at Elif who was still sitting on her blanket, looking slightly bored with things. "Gabrielle, would you mind if Elif and I did a little mock fighting?"
"Uh, no, but? if she ends up bleeding, you're going to sleep on your own for a few nights. Catch my drift?"
"*Most* decidedly," Xena said, picked up the practice staff Agata had dropped and threw it on the ground in front of Elif.
The junior Amazon took it and got up. To prepare for the fight, she cracked her knuckles and rolled her shoulders, gestures that were mirrored by Xena.
After a good think about it, Xena decided to take off her sword and her Chakram, worried that she might draw them out of pure reflex if the fight would turn out to be realistic enough - and she hoped it would be.
"All right, let's go through the rules. I have promised Princess Gabrielle not to hit you hard, and that means low-force strikes only. I presume you know what I'm talking about?" Xena said, twirling the staff in her hands.
"Good. It's your choice whether you want to go at half or at full speed, and you're free to use high skill maneuvers if you want. Oh, and if you hit me, Princess Gabrielle will probably have a word with you," Xena said, adding a wink and a sly grin.
"I understand," Elif said, gripping her staff hard.
"Ready," Elif said and crouched down slightly.
"Fight!" Xena yelled and jumped forward. In an instant, the two fighters engaged in a ferocious struggle; the training grounds echoing from the sounds of their wooden staffs hitting each other. Occasionally, one of the fighters got a body hit in on the other, producing a softer sound.
Even though Elif could match most of what Xena threw at her, save for a few battlefield tricks, she was pushed back little by little until her back was metaphorically against the wall.
"Break!" Gabrielle yelled to even out the match.
Elif hunched over and put her hands on her knees. Panting hard, she could feel her entire body burning from the exertion, and her arms and shoulders were throbbing mercilessly. When she looked at Xena, she saw to her great dismay that the leather-clad warrior wasn't even flushed - in fact, she looked fresh as a daisy.
Sighing deeply, Elif adjusted her grip on her staff and rejoined the fray.
"No, Elif, you've had enough," Gabrielle said.
"An Amazon never quits!" Elif barked and rushed towards Xena with her staff raised high in the air.
Xena effortlessly sidestepped the assault and spun around to keep the angry junior in sight.
"Elif, don't let aggression blind you. Unfocused anger is the best way to get yourself killed. Calm down, analyze the situation and-"
Ignoring the advice, Elif roared and came back at Xena, but the warrior simply grabbed the junior as she went past and flipped her over the hip, prompting a chorus of gasps from the audience.
The junior's breath - and her fighting spirit - were forced out of her when she landed flat on her back with a bone-rattling crunch. Moaning, she rolled over onto her side and pounded her fist into the ground in frustration.
Tatiana and Agata were quickly at her side and helped her to sit up.
Annoyed with herself and with how the situation had turned out, Xena threw down her own staff and walked back towards Gabrielle. "She wasn't ready. She looked ready, but she wasn't. I shouldn't have fought her. I'm really sorry, Gabrielle," she said as she sat down.
"It's not your fault alone, Xena, I shouldn't have approved of it," Gabrielle said and took Xena's callused hand in her own. "Boy, she has a lot of anger inside her. She won't make it long out in the real world."
"Or worse? with that ambition and fire, there's a risk Ares will be attracted to her. You need to tell Ephiny to keep an eye on her."
"Ares? You really think that?"
"I do. Her skills are similar to mine at that age. She only needs a mentor to take her to the next level. And that's the role Ares loves to play the most."
"Gods?" Gabrielle said quietly, looking at the three juniors.
Several candlemarks later, an Amazon ringing the dinner bell with plenty of vigor prompted Xena and Gabrielle to walk over to the mess hut.
Opening the door, Gabrielle stepped inside and licked her lips. "I missed supper last night, Xena, I'm not going? to? miss?"
Her voice slowly trailed off as she took in the chaotic scenes that took place inside the hut. The junior Amazons had recovered from their ordeals and were sitting at a table by themselves, laughing and singing a raunchy song that tinted Gabrielle's cheeks red; two Amazons were engaged in a manual tug-of-war in the middle of the floor to loud cheers and jeers from an excited crowd, and if that wasn't enough already, two older Amazons were arguing with the cook over how much soup they were allowed to take.
"When the cats are away, the mice come out to play," Xena said and patted Gabrielle's shoulders. "Do you want to go back to our hut?"
"I want to get some supper is what I want to do," Gabrielle said and stepped further into the mess hut.
When the Amazons noticed that their Princess had arrived, they all fell quiet and rose from their seats - save for the two fighters who were still trying to pull each other's right arm off. Their strained grunting became embarrassingly loud in the quiet mess hut, and it lasted for several heartbeats until they noticed that everyone else had gone quiet.
"As you were," Gabrielle said and walked up to the cook. After taking a bowl and a large wooden spoon, she peeked excitedly into the three different pots the cook had prepared.
When she realized that all three contained the same brown-green hotchpotch, she furrowed her brow and looked inquiringly at the cook.
"Root soup, Princess Gabrielle. With herbs," the cook said. The cook was a colorful, rotund Amazon in her late fifties with warm eyes and dimples, and her friendly appearance made Gabrielle re-think her original plan of wrinkling her nose in disgust.
"Oh, no, Princess Gabrielle. Queen Melosa only eats meat once a moon. We got it a few nights ago."
"Yes, well, I'm sure that's good for her, but I'm not Queen Melosa."
"No, but what the Queen eats, we all eat," the cook said, digging a wooden ladle into the thick root soup.
"Oh? in that case, I'd like a bowl of soup, please," Gabrielle said with a sigh.
Ten candledrips later, Gabrielle pushed the half-empty bowl across the table. "Sweet Aphrodite, take it away? I can't eat that," she said whispering so she wouldn't hurt the cook's feelings.
"That, love, must be the first time in your life you've ever said that," Xena said quietly into Gabrielle's ear. To cap off the sentence, she leaned in and gently kissed the bard's strawberry-blonde hair.
"Even I have my limits. Yuk!"
"How about I ask the cook if she has some bread and cheese?? Then we could go back to the hut and make some tea and have a quiet evening for ourselves. I believe you said you had some plans for us??" Xena whispered.
"Best idea I've heard all day? but I better ask the cook. Flowery prose is my forte," Gabrielle said and got up.
"Oh, this is much better," Gabrielle said, reclining on the bunk and eating some white bread with a slice of good, strong cheese. She had taken off her boots and was absentmindedly running her foot up and down the other leg's calf, sometimes stopping to wiggle her toes.
Outside, one of the sentries patrolling the village turned on the torches, signaling that it was officially evening. Taking the cue, Xena struck her flints and ignited a candle on the desk. Soon, the orange light filled the hut, bathing everything in flickering shadows.
"Mmmm-yeah, much better," Xena echoed, looking at Gabrielle's bare calves and thighs.
"Do we have any water left?" Gabrielle said, smacking her dry lips.
Xena took the waterskin and walked over to the bunk. When she sat down, she put Gabrielle's bare legs across her lap which earned herself a few giggles. After handing Gabrielle the waterskin, she began to run her fingers along the bard's bare legs from mid-thigh to her ankles.
"I'm not familiar with all the Amazon traditions. Do you think it's taboo for the Princess to sleep with her Champion?"
"I think it's expected of her, actually," Gabrielle purred.
"Good. We better do it while we can. Soon, I'll be too old to remember the details."
"Oh, Xena? will you stop talking about it like that? It's just a birthday. I've had plenty of birthdays? do I look old to you?"
"Don't be sill-"
"And your mother? Isn't your mother twenty years or so older than you?"
"Does she look old to you?"
"Well, no? but-"
"No buts, Xena. It's just a figure. Come on, we've both met old, old, old people who were still as active as us? well, almost, but you get the point. Some of them were nearly fifty!"
"You're going to be a terrific thirty-year-old, Xena. And a fabulous forty-year-old? and I'll bet you'll even be a gorgeous fifty-year-old. Your hair will be white, your wrinkles will be as deep as the Strymon river and your bosom will hover down at your ankles, but you'll be gorgeous!"
"You're. Not. Helping. Much!" Xena said and began to tickle Gabrielle's legs, starting mid-calf and steadily climbing upwards. For every inch she progressed, Gabrielle's giggles got stronger until they were just one, long, throaty laugh.
The tickling fingers had just reached the hem of Gabrielle's skirt when someone knocked on the door.
"Go away, we're buHHHMPFFF," Xena started to say, but her voice was instantly muffled by Gabrielle placing a hand across her mouth.
"Who is it?"
'Elif, Princess Gabrielle. I've come to apologize for my behavior today.'
"Aw, Hades!" Xena said and sighed deeply. Resigned, she leaned down and placed a little kiss on the inside of Gabrielle's left thigh, a move that earned her a new giggle and a gentle rub on the back of her head.
"Come in, Elif," Gabrielle said and sat up on the bunk. Sighing again, Xena shuffled over to sit on the chair at the desk.
Elif came into the hut and stood with her head bowed. "I'm sorry for acting like a child today, Princess Gabrielle. I know better than that, and it won't happen again," she said, looking down at her feet.
"How old are you, Elif?"
"Fourteen, Princess Gabrielle."
"Mmmm. Then you are a child. On the cusp of adulthood, but a child nonetheless. Tell me, Elif, has such a situation occurred before?"
Elif gulped and moved nervously. "Yes, Princess Gabrielle."
"Were you punished by Ephiny or Eponin?"
"Yes, Princess Gabrielle."
"Latrine duty for a week."
Gabrielle made a horrified face and jumped off the bed. "Well, that's not going to happen this time. Instead, I want you to think about why it happened and what you can do to control your anger. All right?"
"Y-yes, Princess Gabrielle," drawing an audible sigh of relief.
"And now I'd like to hear the story behind your tattoo," Gabrielle said and put a maternal hand on Elif's shoulder.
"Come on, sit down on the bunk. This reminds me too much of the times when I had to tell my Dad that I had forgot to shut the door to the chicken coup?"
Elif laughed nervously but followed Gabrielle over to the bunk. Once she was comfortable, she held out her arm and looked at the tattoo. "I had it made so I'll never forget my old tribe. We lived to the far east of here, in Amisos, a coastal town on the south bank of the Black Sea. My tribe w-was slaughtered in a war when I was eight. I lost everything? everyone."
"Oh, Sweet Artemis, I'm so sorry to hear that," Gabrielle said and wrapped her arm around Elif's shoulder.
"They had made a deal with a local warlord but he attacked them anyway. Two of the tribe elders managed to get some of the children into a cart, but s-so many were killed. I got away. One of only five survivors."
"Gods?" Gabrielle said and looked at Xena whose stony face betrayed that she was thinking of a similar situation from her own past.
"Ever since that day, I've wanted to grow up fast so I could go back and destroy the warlord. I've d-dreamt of killing him with my bare hands," Elif said and clenched her fists.
"Vengeance is sweet, that's true. But addictive," Xena said in a dark voice. "Once you start down that path, there's no return. Soon, you will have become what you hated the most. Elif, you have great skills? use them to do good. To help others, like Princess Gabrielle. Don't let the darkness in? if you give it an inch, it'll take you whole."
Xena looked at Gabrielle and was surprised to see tears forming in the green eyes.
Elif nodded solemnly. "I underst-"
Suddenly, the evening silence was shattered by someone pounding wildly on a bell.
"What the? what are they ringing the dinner bell for?" Gabrielle said, wiping her eyes.
Elif twitched and slammed her hand down on Gabrielle's knee. "That's not the dinner bell? that's the alarm bell!"
Xena jumped up and tore out of the door, nearly knocking over a figure that came the other way. She grabbed hold of the figure and got ready to pounce, but realized at the last moment that it was Alexa, the scout.
"Princess Gabrielle! There's a large group of marauders charging us from the south-east. At least twenty men on horseback? with crossbows and nets!" Alexa said, panting hard after running from one of the outposts.
"Nets?" Gabrielle said as she hurriedly put on her boots.
"Slave hunters," Xena added grimly.
"They chose the wrong Amazon village! Xena, you know what to do? do it!" Gabrielle said and grabbed hold of Elif.
Xena nodded and disappeared into the semi-darkness.
"Princess Gabrielle, let me help you!" Elif said.
"No. War is for adults. Go make sure your fellow juniors are safe."
"Y-yes, Princess Gabrielle," Elif said and hurried out of the door.
Gabrielle ran over to the wall and took her staff off the hooks it had been hanging on. "Alexa, how many warriors stayed behind when Ephiny and the others left this morning?"
"V-very few, Princess Gabrielle!"
"All right, I'll lead them myself. Get to the main barracks and tell whoever you can find to assemble here at the command hut. Move!" Gabrielle said and shoved the panting scout of the door.
All over the village, Amazons came out of the huts in various states of undress, carrying longbows, swords and other weapons. Some of them began to bark orders left and right to small groups to create some form of defense, but most just went out on their own.
Holding her Chakram in her hand, Xena raced through the village to get to the main entrance before the riders, but when she turned the last corner, she could see that she was too late - the marauders were already too close.
The ground was shaking from the many horses, and the pounding hooves and the men's battlecries created a wall of sound that was highly effective in confusing the defenders.
Even though they were met by a volley of arrows from a detachment of guards on the ground and in the trees, the riders continued at unabated speed and were soon inside the village perimeter. Xena quickly jumped to the side to let the riders past, but not all were as swift - at least one Amazon guard was crushed under the hooves of the marauders' horses.
Suddenly Xena had to duck for cover into a sentry box as the air became thick with bolts from the crossbows and smoke from the torches the marauders were carrying. Several bolts slammed into the walls of the sentry box Xena had chosen, and she let out a long series of colorful Thracian curses.
Running back out of the small hut, she released the Chakram at the rear of the marauders' lines, with success, as one of them fell off his horse.
Connecting the dots, Xena knew that the marauders were going to use the torches to ignite the roofs of the huts; that ensured that the Amazons would have to engage them at point blank range on the street instead of using the huts as natural covers - and that would make it nearly impossible for the Amazons to evade the nets the slave hunters would throw at them.
Xena cursed even louder and set off running back to the command hut where she had left Gabrielle and the scout.
Elif barged into the hut she shared with the other juniors and shouted at the top of her lungs: "WE'RE UNDER ATTACK!"
"We already know!" Tatiana said, hiding under the table.
"Where's Agata?" Elif said, looking around frantically.
"Under my bunk!" Agata said in a muffled, trembling voice.
"We need t-to do something? we need to fight back. Come on, take your bows and arrows. We can shoot out of the windows when they-"
Elif never had time to finish the sentence before the marauders had reached them. When the large group of horses thundered past, several crossbow bolts came through the windows and embedded themselves with resounding thwacks in the far wall of the hut.
Elif shrieked, dropped down on the floor and scrambled over to Tatiana.
Agata crawled out from underneath the bunk to look around. When her eye caught sight of the four bolts sticking out of the back wall, she crawled back and curled herself up into a little, trembling ball.
"Those rotten sons of whores! We need to do something!" Elif growled, protecting her head with her hands.
Outside, the battle continued to rage on, and screaming and various other horrific sounds came in through the windows, terrorizing the three juniors to the point of breaking.
"You're lucky Eponin isn't here to hear you use that kind of language!" Tatiana said in a trembling voice, digging herself even further down into the wooden floor.
"Hey, I got it?! Tatiana, what happened to the sling you made a few moons back?"
"My sling? It's on the shelf above my bunk. Why?"
"We can use it to shoot out of the windows? let me get it," Elif said and moved to get up, but Tatiana gripped her arm hard.
"It's suicide, you fool! Stay down and let Xena and Princess Gabrielle handle it!"
"I can't! I won't let it happen again!" Elif howled and got on her feet. In an instant, she hurried over to Tatiana's bunk and reached for the sling and a handful of pebbles and small rocks.
"I got it! Come on, let's fight back!"
The marauders made another pass, but this time, they stopped outside the juniors' hut. The men shouted something to each other and then one of them threw something on top of the hut.
"Now's our chance," Elif said and prepared the sling. She crept over to the window and raised herself up to peek out of the bottom corner. Taking a deep breath to control her trembling hands, she started twirling the sling, eventually building up enough speed to make the shot a hard one.
The stone screamed through the air and hit one of the marauders squarely on the chest, sending him reeling - unfortunately, he was able to stay in the saddle.
Undaunted, Elif put another large pebble in the sling and released it as fast as she could.
At the same time, Agata thought she could smell something that wasn't supposed to be there, so she left the safety of the bunk and crawled out onto the floor. When she turned over onto her back to get a better look, she saw to her great horror that smoke was billowing down from the thatched roof and that it had begun to glow deep orange in places.
"FIRE!" she shrieked and scrambled to her feet to run out of the front door.
"No! Get down!" Tatiana yelled and grabbed hold of Agata's legs, bringing her down hard. "They're still out there! They'll kill you for sure!"
"We'll burn up in here!"
"We can't go out there?" Tatiana said through a veil of tears, but her voice was drowned out by a horrific groaning sound from the roof. Looking up, she could see that a corner of the roof had begun to droop, and she knew it wouldn't be long before it collapsed.
"Elif! Elif! The roof!"
"I know, I know? we need to go!"
The three juniors ran over to the door and crouched down. Looking outside, they could see at least two marauders waiting for them, both holding large nets.
"Ares' balls!" Elif said, coughing and spluttering from the smoke.
Behind them, burning pieces of thatch began to rain down onto the bunks, soon turning the hut into a living Tartarus.
"Go!" Elif roared, pushing on Agata's back, but the tall, gangly girl put her hands on the doorjamb and pushed back.
"My scrolls? I'm not leaving my scrolls!" she shouted, jumping back into the inferno.
"They won't do you no good if we're caught by the marauders!" Tatiana said and pounded her fist into her hand in frustration.
Moments later, Agata came back clutching the scroll case to her chest. "I'm not leaving them behind!"
"Never mind that now, we gotta go," Elif and pushed both her friends out of the door.
The two marauders were ready for them and threw their nets at the same time. Agata was caught by the first one and fell down, screaming in pain when she landed on her bad hand.
The second net missed Elif by inches, and she immediately raised the sling and twirled it, shooting a large pebble at the nearest marauder. At point blank range, she couldn't miss. The rock hit the man in the middle of his forehead, and he slipped off the horse and fell out of sight.
"Come on! Get Agata out of the net!" Elif said, pushing Tatiana forward. Behind them, the roof of their hut collapsed, sending a firestorm of burning thatch through the air, causing the three juniors to scream and try to douse the many smoldering embers from their hair and skin.
The remaining marauder turned his horse around and tried to drag the net holding Agata away from the others, but after a few yards, the tether broke and the net fell off. When the marauder noticed, he roared and shook his fist at the juniors, but then took off further into the village.
Agata was crying inconsolably, nursing the hand she had injured earlier in the day. The disability made it difficult for her to crawl out of the net, but she finally managed it with Tatiana's help.
"We can't stay here," Elif said, looking at the burning remains of their home. "We need to? to? to find Princess Gabrielle. She'll know what to do!"
Through the use of coordinated arrow volleys, Gabrielle and a small group of Amazons had been able to stop the marauders from getting close to the command hut. Originally, four Amazons had rushed to aid their Princess and the scout, but two had been struck down by crossbow bolts and another had been severely wounded.
Five fallen marauders littered the space in front of the hut, but more were approaching from several sides.
Ducking down behind a barrel, Gabrielle's knuckles ached from clutching the staff so hard. She had tried to use a longbow against the marauders, but the arrow had missed by such a degree that she felt it safer not to try again. She groaned, wishing that she and Xena had practiced using the bow so she didn't have to crouch down like a big chicken while her Sisters risked their lives to protect her.
Movement to their left made everyone jump, but when the figure crossed through the light from the many torches, Gabrielle put a hand on the nearest Amazon's arm.
"Don't shoot! It's Xena!" she shouted and briefly moved up from her position behind the barrel.
Xena spotted her at once and picked up the pace. Moments later, she went into a neatly executed forward somersault, ending up next to her partner.
Gabrielle didn't even wait for Xena to get her hair out of her eyes before she wrapped her arms around her tall lover's neck and pulled her down for a relieved kiss.
"By the Gods, why do we always end up in these things?" Gabrielle croaked, reluctant to pull her face back from Xena's.
"Don't? know? must be our? magnetic perso? nalities," Xena said around a series of kisses.
When they finally separated, Xena peeked over the rim of the barrel at the five dead marauders that were lying in the middle of the village.
"I got another four," she said, showing the bloodied Chakram. "One down at the entrance and three around the village. There's another dead marauder down at the juniors' hut. It's gone, Gabrielle. Burned to the ground."
"Gods? did you s-see any bodies??"
"No Amazons, just the marauder outside."
"Let's hope they got away. How many of those marauder bastards do you think there are left?"
"Hard to say. Probably more than ten."
"Two marauders approaching!" one of the Amazons shouted, releasing an arrow at them. The marauders responded to the shot by firing off several bolts from their crossbows, but they all impacted harmlessly into the barrels or the wall of the command hut. Soon after, the two men went back into the shadows.
"We need to go out into the village and take them on one by one," Xena said into Gabrielle's ear. "It's no good defending this position if they burn down the rest!"
"We can't leave the command hut unprotected, Xena? all the scrolls? the entire history of our tribe is in there!"
"Then send me out to kill 'em all," Xena said, gripping Gabrielle's shoulder.
"No! It's too dangerous out there, even for you!"
"Princess Gabrielle, we can protect the hut? then you can go with your Champion. When you find other Sisters, tell them to come here to reinforce the position," Alexa said.
Gabrielle looked from Xena to the scout and back - finally making up her mind, she nodded and took Xena's hands in her own. "Let's go, love. If we die, at least we'll be together."
"There'll be no dying today, Gabrielle. But I agree, let's go. It's high time to take back the village," Xena said, drawing her Chakram.
"Movement to the right!" one of the Amazons said, making everyone raise their weapons and look in that direction. Just when they thought it had been a false alarm, a faint bird call came from the shadows, quickly followed by an identical, stronger one.
"Sisters," Alexa said before she responded to the bird call.
Not long after, three hunched-over figures sprinted across the open terrain and dove for cover behind the barrels and crates.
"By the Gods, am I glad to see you," Gabrielle exclaimed when she realized that the figures were the three juniors. Agata was still crying and nursing her hand and all three were incredibly filthy from the massive amount of soot in the air, but at least they were in one piece.
"W-we lost our hut!" Tatiana croaked, out of breath from the harrowing experience.
"I know, Xena told me."
"There's a dead marauder down by the hut. I'd say you evened the score," Xena said, looking at Elif.
"D-dead?? Are you s-sure??" Elif said, suddenly growing quite pale.
"Completely. He had a good-sized hole in his forehead and his eyes were glassy. A sling?"
Elif nodded faintly. Suddenly, her stomach clenched and she ran off to the side to throw up.
"Agata, what happened to you? Were you hit by a bolt?" Gabrielle said, holding the crying Agata.
"No, she was caught by a net and fell on her hand," Tatiana said. "I don't know for sure, but I think her wrist is broken."
"Oh yes, I see. Tatiana, I need you to stay here with Alexa and the others. Xena and I are going to go out and? and take care of the marauders. Understand?"
"I understand, Princess Gabrielle. We'll stay here," Tatiana said, nodding vigorously.
"I'm ready," Xena said and drew her sword.
Two candledrips later, Xena and Gabrielle slipped into the shadows and moved away from the command hut. Once they reached the other side of the main square, they looked back and established - to their great relief - that if the marauders wanted to attack the fortification the Amazons were using for cover, they would have to get so close that they would be big, fat targets.
"Now what?" Gabrielle whispered.
"I haven't quite decided yet. This is a completely different situation to the siege we were in back in Elinaius. Whoever these slave hunters are, they're much smarter than Abraxus and his son ever were."
"Yeah. Look, they've burned down most of the huts over here?" Gabrielle said, pointing at a row of charred logs that used to be corner pillars in huts.
They continued running along one of the burned-out hulks until they came to the large hut that housed the mess.
"They're using the mess hut as a base. Seven horses are tied up outside it. That leaves three marauders hiding among the huts," Xena whispered.
"Mmmm? should we draw them out?"
"Yes. I'll run ov-" Before Xena had time to finish the sentence, Gabrielle had already taken off, sprinting across the open area like a fox on the lam. Almost at once, one of the marauders came out into the open and aimed a crossbow at the running Amazon.
Xena jumped up and released the Chakram with a powerful throw. Screaming through the air, the circular blade went directly for the marauder, slicing his throat without a sound before returning to Xena's hand.
On the other side of the open area, Gabrielle stuck her head out between two charred planks and gave Xena a thumbs-up.
Far from happy with Gabrielle's spontaneous action, Xena shook her fist at the Amazon Princess, but added a grin to take the sting out of it.
Suddenly Gabrielle pointed to somewhere behind and above Xena, and the warrior spun around to investigate. Half a heartbeat later, a crossbow bolt thwacked into the ground next to Xena's left boot, forcing her to perform a reverse flip to get out of the firing line.
Out of sight of Xena, the marauder cursed and reloaded his crossbow. Apparently his weapon suffered a malfunction because he cursed again and began to pound his fist on the weapon.
This was the opportunity Xena needed, and she instantly flipped up on the first floor through a hole in the wall and landed in front of the surprised marauder. With a growl, she high-kicked the crossbow out of his hands, backhanded him across the face and finally flipped him over her hip.
Landing with a crash, the marauder arced his back off the ground, moaning and groaning from the hard impact.
The marauder was surprisingly well dressed in a dark blue tunic and dark pants, and the way his hair and beard were neatly groomed told Xena that the group was more than just ragtag slave hunters.
Not wasting any time, Xena dove down and applied her pinch to the man's neck. "I have cut off the flow of oxygen to your brain. You have thirty seconds to live before your brain explodes. Who hired you to attack this village?"
"I d-d-don't know? I'm j-j-just a s-s-soldier?" the man croaked.
"Uh-huh? Are you sure?"
"Who's your leader?"
"Never heard of 'im."
"W-we belong to L-L-Licantus' R-r-raiders?"
"Licantus of Crete?"
When the marauder's eyes started rolling back in his head, Xena relented and took off the pinch. She finished the interrogation by punching his lights out in a quick and efficient manner.
"Licantus of Crete," Xena said out loud, remembering some of the stories she had heard of the Cretan slave trader. 'Why would he be interested in Amazons? Every trader knows that Amazons can't be broken in,' she thought, furrowing her brow.
Pushing those thoughts aside, she dusted off her hands and signaled Gabrielle that she should return to her if possible.
Half a candledrip later, Gabrielle ducked into the burned-out hut Xena was using as cover, staring daggers at the unconscious man.
"Did you see the third marauder anywhere?" Xena said.
"No. What did you think of my little run? You've told me more than once that I should make quicker decisions. Can't get any quicker than that, huh?"
"No, but I didn't mean that you should risk your life doing it. I was thinking more about the times you've debated with yourself for ten candledrips on whether you wanted fish or stew for supper!" Xena said and pulled Gabrielle into am embrace.
"Oh, ha ha."
"Gabrielle, it looks like there's a bigger picture here. The marauder said that they're part of a group called Licantus' Raiders. Licantus of Crete has become a very wealthy man from hunting and selling slaves all over the Mediterranean. There must be a reason why they're operating so far from their base."
"Hmmm? oh, I wish Queen Melosa was here? wait a minute, maybe it's connected to the border dispute?"
"Possibly, but I can't see how the villages around here could afford someone like Licantus? Anyway, here's my plan. First, we drag this prisoner back to our lines and then I'll go back to the-"
"*We'll* go back to the mess hut, Xena. That's what you meant, right?"
"No, it wasn't. It'll get ugly, love."
"I can't be seen to be hiding while my Champion takes out the threat? that would only lead to unrest, Xena. And besides, I would never be able to look my Sisters in the eye again if I didn't participate in the fight. Not after all they've lost."
"All right. But in any case, we're going back to the command hut with this fella," Xena said, picked up the marauder's arm and began to drag him out of the hut.
By the time Xena and Gabrielle got back to the command hut, seven more Amazons had joined the group that had been there since the start of the attack, and they all greeted the Princess as she crouched down behind the barrels.
"Princess Gabrielle, just before we got here, we ran into a marauder over by the stables. He tried to steal the horses, but we nailed him before he could set them free," a tall, buff Amazon said.
"Yeah, his mother won't recognize him now? he's sort of a head shorter than he was this morning," another Amazon said, earning herself a few chuckles from the assembled warriors.
"Good. Then we don't have to hide anymore," Gabrielle said and got up. When she didn't come under fire, the rest of the group got up as well.
"Xena and I got two on the other side of the village, including this one," Gabrielle continued, patting the back of the unconscious prisoner. "Our best guess is that the remaining marauders have cooped up in the mess hut. I need two volunteers to go down there to keep an eye on things. Anyone?"
Predictably, all the Amazons put their hands in the air, including the three juniors. Gabrielle chuckled and pointed at the two warriors who had eliminated the marauder at the stables. "You and you, go up to the mess hut. At the first sign of trouble, report back to us."
"Yes, Princess Gabrielle," the two Amazons said and hurriedly moved into the shadows.
"Princess Gabrielle, with the seven new Amazons, we should be strong enough to charge the last marauders head-on," Alexa said.
"Yes, in theory, but that would leave the command hut wide open for a counterattack. No, we can't risk it. We need someone to stay here? and that would mean we'd be spread too thin."
"Well, all right, but?"
"No, Alexa, Xena and I will deal with the marauders in the mess hut," Gabrielle said and put a reassuring hand on the scout's shoulder.
Behind them, Tatiana began to pick up her ears, listening intently for a very familiar sound that was fast approaching from the east. When the other Amazons began to talk amongst themselves, she waved her hand to get them to keep quiet, but it didn't work.
The sound came closer, and now she was able to recognize it - horses, and plenty of them.
"Shhh? shhh!" she said, trying to get her Sisters to quiet down. "WILL YOU SHUT UP!" she roared, feeling acutely embarrassed when everyone, including the Princess, stopped talking and stared at her.
"Horses! Can't you hear them?! Many horses!" Tatiana said in a trembling voice.
"Hades! More marauders??" Gabrielle said and grabbed her staff.
"If they're marauders, we're all gonna die? we're all gonna die!" one of the Amazons said just before she broke out into a series of howling sobs that gave everyone present goosebumps.
"It could be more marauders or it could be Ephiny's group," Xena said and looked around. In an instant, she climbed up the command hut's wall and scooted up one of the support beams, careful not to step on the thatch.
Inching closer to the highest part of the hut's roof, Xena realized that she wasn't able to identify the approaching riders. Scrunching up her face, she tried to look for telltale signs, but the only thing she could register that was out of the ordinary was that the hooves made a very different sound to those on the marauders' horses.
Xena scooted back down the roof and leaned over the side. "Alexa!" she whispered, trying to draw the attention of the scout.
"Yes, Mistress Xena?"
"What kind of shoes do you put on your horses in this tribe?"
"None, Mistress Xena."
"Good," Xena said and swung herself off the roof. "Gabrielle, the horses are shoe-less."
"All right. Amazons, scatter, get out of sight until we've established the level of danger," Gabrielle said to the rest of the warriors who dispersed immediately, disappearing into the shadows. "Xena, come with me. We're staying here."
"Yes, Princess Gabrielle," Xena said with a smile, neatly absorbing the exasperated look Gabrielle shot her. At once, the two of them ran into the command hut.
The riders entered the village in complete darkness. As some of them filed past the command hut, Gabrielle could see that they were covered by brown cloaks and carrying unlit torches.
"They're not marauders," Gabrielle whispered.
"No, but they're not Ephiny's group, either. It could be the people who hired the marauders here to check if we're defeated," Xena replied in a similar whisper.
"I have an idea? Elif's sling," Gabrielle said and picked up a letter weight from the desk.
"We don't have a sling."
"But we have a rock. Watch me."
Gabrielle pulled her arm back and sent the large letter weight flying through the air. The rock hit one of the riders squarely on the shoulder, prompting the victim to let out a long, highly imaginative blue streak in the local Amazon dialect.
"Amazons!" Gabrielle said in relief. "Wait a minute? I know that voice? that's Solari!"
She ran over to the door and peeked out at the dark riders. Sure enough, the rider she had hit pulled back her cloak, revealing herself to be Solari, Queen Melosa's scribe - and Ephiny's lover.
Breathing a huge sigh of relief, Gabrielle ran out of the command hut and onto the open area in front of it, holding her arms out wide to show that she wasn't carrying any weapons in case one of the returning Amazons had an itchy trigger-finger.
"Princess Gabrielle!" the Queen's characteristic voice said from within the group of riders. At once, the other Amazons spread out to allow the Queen through.
"Queen Melosa, it's good to see you," Gabrielle said and bowed to the Queen.
"And you? by the Gods, what's happened here?"
Seeing the Queen's tall, graceful - yet powerful - figure sitting astride a palomino mare instilled some relief into Gabrielle, and she let out a long breath she hadn't even realized she was holding.
"We were attacked by marauders, Queen Melosa. Slave hunters. We've killed most of them, but there are still seven or so left, ensconced down in the mess hut."
"How many Sisters have we lost?" the Queen said in a steely voice.
"We don't know yet, Queen Melosa, but quite a few huts have been burned to the ground."
"Where's Ephiny and Eponin?"
"Not yet back from the fertility raid, Queen Melosa."
"Hades? we could see the fire from two leagues away. Once we got close enough, the sounds of the battle had died down and we decided to go the rest of the way in darkness."
All around them, Gabrielle's Amazons ducked back out of the shadows to join their Sisters in the main group. Agitated words were soon flying back and forth, whipping up a heated mood, and before long, they were ready to go down to the mess hut and tear the men apart with their bare hands.
"Let's end this now. Those marauders will be sorry they chose this village," Queen Melosa said and made to turn her horse around, but Xena put a hand on the horse's tack at the very last moment.
"Queen Melosa, if it's at all possible, we should try to spare the leader's life. His name is Carminius. We have a prisoner and he told us that they are part of Licantus' Raiders. I'm sure you've heard of them."
"I'll try, but I can't make any promises, Xena. You've been in this situation? did you spare anyone?" the Queen said and rode off towards the mess hut, closely followed by all the warriors.
"No, I guess I didn't," Xena said quietly.
Gabrielle put her arm around the warrior's waist and gave her a little squeeze. "Xena, even with the Queen here, we still need to be a part of it. It's vital that my Sisters see that I don't shy back from the more? well, horrific sides of Amazon life."
"I know, Gabrielle. And your tribe needs to set an example to other marauders. Otherwise, they'll see you as an easy target."
Knowing what was to come, Xena grimaced and put her hand on Gabrielle's cheek. "? but like I said before, love, it's not going to be a pleasant experience for you. Please just let me deal with the marau-"
"No. No, Xena, I'm going to fight side by side with you and my Sisters, simple as that. Now let's go, we're going to be late," Gabrielle said and took off with determined steps.
Watching Gabrielle walk down towards the mess hut, Xena began to chew on her cheek. In her mind, there was no doubt that Gabrielle didn't fully understand what was going to happen - yet at the same time, trying to explain it to her would only lead to unwanted drama.
Sighing, she set off after her lover.
By the time Gabrielle and Xena reached the mess hut, Queen Melosa had already deployed the remaining warriors to cover all exits.
"Ah, Princess Gabrielle? for a moment there, I was afraid you weren't going to join us," Queen Melosa said, putting out her arm to show Gabrielle that she should crouch down.
"I wouldn't miss it for the world," Gabrielle said - but even to her own ears, the statement sounded horribly untruthful.
Returning from a brief scouting mission, Alexa ran up to Queen Melosa and leaned in towards the Amazon ruler to whisper in her ear. "Queen Melosa, there are seven men in there. Presently, they're debating what to do. I couldn't hear all of it, but judging by the tone of their voices, I'm guessing they were taken by surprise by the fierceness of our resistance," the scout whispered.
"Good. Thank you, Alexa," Melosa said. "Well, Princess Gabrielle. The time is as good as any. Let's show these pigs what happens when they mess with Amazons."
Xena grunted in agreement and drew her sword, but a pointed glare from the Queen made her stop.
"Xena, this isn't your fight. This is Amazon business," Melosa said in a steely voice.
Gabrielle couldn't quite believe her ears and she quickly put a hand on Xena's elbow. "But, Queen Melosa, Xena and I always fight toget-"
"Not this time, Princess Gabrielle. Like I said, this is Amazon business."
Drawing her sword, Melosa stepped out of the shadows and moved stealthily towards the mess hut's doors and the two Amazons waiting there.
At once, Xena put her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders and pulled her close. "Gabrielle, listen to me? this will be a fight unlike any you've ever been in. Stay focused, extend your senses, always know what happens around you? do you understand me?"
"Yes, yes?" Gabrielle said, almost brushing Xena off in her eagerness to join her Sisters.
"Gabrielle, this is no game! If you make the tiniest mistake in there, the next thing you'll feel is Celeste tapping on your shoulder!"
"I understand, Xena? but it's something I must do."
Behind them, Queen Melosa waved her sword in the air. At her command, all the warriors stood up and held their weapons ready.
"AMAZONS, ATTACK!" Melosa roared, leading the charge by kicking down the doors to the mess hut. All around her, Amazons rushed towards the hut and streamed in through the opening their Queen had created, Gabrielle included.
Holding her staff high in the air, Gabrielle thought she knew what she would face, but as the first volley of crossbow bolts screamed past her, she realized that she had been far too na´ve.
To her immediate right, a bolt embedded itself deeply into an Amazon's throat, sending a squirt of warm blood onto the bard's shoulder. The Amazon warrior fell silently to the floor, eyes wide in terror.
Another Amazon went down further to the right, but it didn't stop the berserker charge. Soon, the air was filled with screams and shouts, and with crossbow bolts and arrows. When the first Amazons reached the other end of the mess hut, the marauders' swords created a wall of steel, and the battle soon turned into an ugly, bloody brawl where no enemy was spared.
By now, the Amazons had begun to open fire with their longbows, finishing off two marauders in the first volley. Queen Melosa stood erect like a totem pole at the rear of the Amazon lines and fired continuously at the marauders - sometimes even shooting between her own warriors.
In the midst of this inferno, Gabrielle threw herself under one of the benches, frozen solid with fear and staring wide-eyed at the unbelievable brutality of the battle and at the carnage it left behind. Her teeth were chattering in her mouth and she had to grip the staff hard in order not to drop it.
As a bolt from a crossbow hit the bench she was hiding under, she felt a wave of panic sweep over her and she let out a brief scream. When two more bolts hit the bench - one of them ricocheted off it and nearly struck her arm - she scrambled to get away from the her cover, knowing that it would only be a matter of time before she was hit.
Moving away, she found the Amazon who had been hit by the bolt early in the fight. When she realized that the warrior was dead, a sense of dread washed over her - if she had been another two feet to the right when the bolt struck, it would've been her lying on the floor in a pool of blood.
A shadow fell over Gabrielle, and she looked up, hoping it was Xena.
Instead of her lover, she found herself face to face with a marauder who had broken free of the battle at the other end of the hut. Moments later, the man gave her such a hard shove that she lost her balance and fell down on the floor, landing next to the dead Amazon.
Roaring insanely, the marauder raised his sword high in the air and thrust it downwards, only missing Gabrielle's stomach because she rolled to her right at the very last moment.
Undaunted, the marauder went for another attempt at stabbing Gabrielle, but before he had time to bring the sword down again, his chest was sliced open by a very familiar circular weapon. The man let out a grunt and took a staggering step backwards, staring in disbelief at the blood pouring out of his chest - then he dropped the sword and fell to the floor.
Belting out her battle cry, Xena somersaulted over the top of the fighting Amazons and landed next to Gabrielle. In a heartbeat, the Warrior Princess wrapped her arm around her partner and dragged her outside, away from the fight - a fight that hadn't even lasted three candledrips for Gabrielle.
"B-by the G-Gods?!" Gabrielle croaked. Suddenly realizing how close she had been to death, she fell down on her hands and knees and began to hyperventilate. Trembling all over, she couldn't hold back the tears, and soon, a steady stream of large teardrops escaped her eyes and fell to the ground.
Xena sighed deeply and crouched down next to her partner. "I tried to warn you, love?" she said, putting a calming hand on Gabrielle's trembling back.
"I n-need some w-water," Gabrielle croaked and moved into a sitting position.
"We need to get to a safe spot first? come on," Xena said, reached under Gabrielle and picked her up like she weighed nothing at all.
"H-hey, I c-can walk!"
"Sure you can, but not while I'm carrying you."
Xena carried Gabrielle all the way back to the command hut where she put her down very gently. The three juniors came out of the shadows, shooting concerned looks at the paleness of their Princess.
"She's all right, just a little shook up. Do any of you have any water?" Xena said, making sure that Gabrielle was seated comfortably.
"Yes!" Tatiana said and ran back into the shadows. Moments later, she returned with a full waterskin. Uncorking it, she handed it to Gabrielle who took several greedy gulps.
"Princess Gabrielle, Agata is in a lot of pain. Someone needs to take a look at her wrist," Elif said, trying not to stare at the blood on Gabrielle's shoulder.
Gabrielle put the cork back in the waterskin and ran a hand through her disheveled hair. "All right," she said and began to rise, but Xena stopped her by putting a hand on her shoulder.
"I got it, love. Just relax for now."
"Agata? Come here, let me take a look," Xena said and moved a torch closer to have some light to work by. The gangly junior shuffled over to the warrior and held out her arm, sniffing loudly to hold back the tears.
When dawn broke, the extent of the destruction brought about by the marauders was revealed. Gabrielle and Xena had volunteered to survey the damage, and they were walking around the burned-out hulks taking notes.
"Eight huts completely gone, another four badly charred, only seven untouched. By the Gods, Xena, it's even worse than I thought," Gabrielle said in a shaky voice, taking a long swig from a waterskin to get the smoky taste out of her throat.
"Mmmm," Xena said with her hands on her hips. "This used to be the juniors' hut," she continued, looking at the blackened ruin. Inside, the left wall was partially collapsed, and the bunks had been crushed under the weight of the charred support beams.
"I'm glad they were able to get out there alive. I really like those three girls," Gabrielle said, rolled up the scroll she had been writing on and put it into her scroll case.
"Gabrielle, do you want to stay to help your Sisters rebuild the village? Especially with Ephiny's group not back yet??"
Gabrielle shrugged. "I don't know. It's a big decision either way."
"Yeah. Come on, let's get back to the command hut. I'm sure Solari needs some help with the paperwork," Xena said and put her arm across Gabrielle's shoulders.
"How many Sisters lost their lives, Solari?" Gabrielle said the moment they stepped inside the hut Ephiny had offered them.
The dark-haired Amazon wiped her eyes and put down the scroll with the figures. When she tried to speak, her voice broke, and she had to clear her throat several times to get it under control.
"Fewer than initially feared, Princess Gabrielle," she said hoarsely. "Ten fatalities? two at the main entrance, two at the command hut, two in the mess hut, three further around the village? and the cook. She tried to defend the mess hut from the last of the marauders, but she wasn't used to fighting so she didn't stand a chance."
"But her Amazon blood spurred her on," Gabrielle said, thinking about the loud, cheerful cook.
"Yes. In addition to the fatalities, we have fourteen warriors with various injuries, the most common being broken bones and lacerations. Some have deep wounds from the crossbow bolts. One warrior is in critical condition from a bolt to the chest. Thank Artemis the healer's hut was spared."
Sighing, Solari leaned back in the chair and rubbed her weary eyes.
"I think I'll go and make myself useful," Xena said, scooped up an armful of full waterskins and stepped out of the hut.
"Excuse me, please, Solari," Gabrielle said and followed Xena outside. "Hey, give me a few of those. You're going over to the healer's hut, right?" she continued as they walked across the open area.
"And I'm going with you. Oh? you have a soot stain on your temple. Hang on," Gabrielle said and stuck her index finger in her mouth. When it was sufficiently wet, she rubbed it against the stain, removing it completely.
Chuckling, Xena wiped the excess saliva off her temple and then looked at Gabrielle with a cheeky gleam in her eye. "I'd say you've recovered from the fight?"
Gabrielle shuddered briefly, but nodded. "I guess. Thank Zeus you were there for me when I needed you."
"Zeus didn't have anything to do with it. I could sense that you were in trouble? so I helped."
"I feel so guilty for abandoning my Sisters, though?" Gabrielle said quietly.
"Don't. You weren't ready for such a brawl. I tried to tell you, but?"
"But I refused to listen. I'm sorry, Xena."
"Ah, forget it. I'm just happy that I don't have to build a funeral pyre for you, love."
The words made Gabrielle grimace and she instinctively reached for Xena's hand and gave it a strong squeeze.
"Anyway, you might want to find a mirror. Your hair is almost as black as mine," Xena continued, winking.
"Oh, yuk, really??" Gabrielle said and fluffed her hair with her hands, producing a regular soot-storm.
The healer's hut was quite literally the eye of the hurricane. On one side of the hut, injured warriors were waiting in line to get treated, and on the other, dead bodies had been placed in two lines; one for the Amazons and another, more careless one, for the marauders.
Two of the healer's assistants were preparing the ten fallen Amazons for their final journey by cleaning their wounds and arranging their ceremonial feathers.
When Gabrielle reached the Amazon dead, she stopped and fell silent. Xena walked past the Amazons to look at the pile of marauders. The tall, buff Amazon they had met at the command hut was guarding the dead marauders to stop the other warriors from taking revenge by desecrating the remains.
One of the dead marauders was the man Xena had put the pinch on. Now, his face was bloated and bruised, and his throat had been slit from ear to ear. When Xena realized that it was her prisoner, she scrunched up her face and strode over to the guard.
"That man was perfectly fine when we last saw him. What happened?"
"Killed while trying to escape," the guard said bluntly.
"He wasn't just killed, he was butchered."
"Do you have a problem with that?"
"Perhaps you should."
"Hardly," the guard said and turned away from Xena. Shaking her head, Xena walked back to Gabrielle and put her hands on the shorter woman's shoulders.
"Xena, I need to stay. I can't leave now," Gabrielle said in a trembling voice.
"It won't be long, only a week or so. I just don't feel it would be right to-"
"Shhh, love, you don't have to explain yourself to me. I'll support your decision whatever it is."
"Thank you," Gabrielle said and pulled Xena into a warm embrace.
"Ahem, Princess Gabrielle?" Alexa said, clearing her throat.
"Queen Melosa wishes to see you."
"I'll be right there. Uh, Xena? she?"
"I know. She doesn't like me. I need to find Elif and have a little talk with her, anyway. Are you going to be all right?" Xena said, caressing Gabrielle's cheek with her knuckles.
"Sure. Go on, I'll catch up with you later."
A few candledrips later, Gabrielle stepped through the hastily erected curtains that formed the new walls of the Queen's scorched hut. She stopped dead in her tracks and felt an ice cold shiver run down her spine when she realized that the leader of the marauders was literally hanging off one of the charred corner pillars.
The man had been stripped naked, and his face, his chest and his genitals had been horribly mutilated. His arms and legs had been nailed to the beam, and the way the skin was stretched around the nails made Gabrielle's stomach flip and churn repeatedly.
Instinctively, she put out her arm and began to walk closer to him, but Queen Melosa's strong voice stopped her before she could reach him.
"Don't bother. He's been dead for several candlemarks," the Queen said, sitting on the throne that had been brought over from the mess hut.
"Why? Princess Gabrielle, I think that's rather obvious."
"W-was it really necessary to cut him up like that?" Gabrielle said, looking at the pool of largely dried blood at the man's feet. A rising tide of bile forced her to swallow several times, and she hurriedly looked back at the Queen.
"Necessary? Come now, Gabrielle. In the words of the great Queen Cyane, 'If you come with open arms, you'll be met by open arms, but if you come with a sword, you will surely die.' Such is the Amazon way. I thought you understood that by now."
"W-well? did he s-say anyth-thing?"
"He confirmed that the group was part of Licantus' Raiders. I suspect that the people we were negotiating with had a hand in the attack. I have no evidence, of course, but my nose tells me that they are involved. They're trying to push us off the sacred Amazon lands. We cannot allow that to happen."
"The chestnut grove??"
"Yes." Queen Melosa said and leaned forward on her throne. "Gabrielle, Alexa told me-"
Gabrielle looked down at her feet and took a deep breath. "I know, Queen Melosa. I had to leave before the end of the fight. I? I just couldn't?"
"That wasn't where I was going, Gabrielle. I noticed Xena dragging you out of there. Unfortunate, but not entirely unexpected. No, I was going to say that Alexa told me how well you commanded the warriors in the skirmish at the command hut. You have obviously come a long way."
"Oh? thank you, Queen Melosa."
"Once Eponin and Ephiny are back, I'm going to start planning a series of retaliatory strikes against the nearby villages over the coming moons. I want to know if I can count on your support. Are you with us?"
Ten thousand thoughts raced through Gabrielle's mind, some in favor of the Queen's question, most against. After getting one last look at the dead man, she drew a deep breath and faced the Queen.
"No, Queen Melosa. I can't be part of a war against innocent villagers."
"Innocent? They are threatening our sacred lands, Gabrielle. And besides, in this world, who is really innocent?" Queen Melosa said and waved her right hand in a condescending gesture.
"I have made up my mind, Queen Melosa. I can't join you," Gabrielle said quietly.
"All right. In that case, I think you should leave, Gabrielle. You and your Champion. The sooner the better," the Queen said and got up from her throne.
As the tall woman stood up, Gabrielle noticed for the first time that there was a blood-smeared, saw-toothed dagger hanging from a belt on the Queen's hips. When Gabrielle realized that the dagger's teeth matched the wounds on the dead man, she felt like she had been punched in the gut.
"Yes, Queen Melosa. I'll find Xena and we'll leave at once," Gabrielle said in a faint voice, walking backwards to show the queen respect.
As soon as she had moved through the curtains, Gabrielle ran as fast as she could back to the command hut - to find Xena, to pack their things, and to get away from the madness of the Amazon village.
Behind the command hut, Xena was talking to the three juniors, debriefing them on the various things that had happened during the battle. Agata's wrist was supported by a splint and she nursed it by holding it close to her stomach. In her other hand, she held her precious scroll case that had only suffered minor damage in the fracas.
Tatiana's usually so cheeky face was still quite pale, and occasionally, she reached up to wipe a few tears away from her eyes.
Elif was leaning her back against the wall of the command hut with a distant look in her eyes that Xena knew all too well.
"I'm sorry you had to experience such an attack," Xena said, reaching over to put a supporting hand on Elif's knee. "You are too young to see such horrors. But you fought well. You used your heads and you made it out alive. That's the most important thing."
Elif sighed and shrugged. "I've never been so terrified in my whole life. When the roof collapsed, I thought we were going to burn to death," she said quietly. Her fellow juniors both nodded in agreement.
"I know it sounds corny, but you shouldn't dwell on the things that didn't happen? instead, you should concentrate on the things that did happen, like getting out in one piece. It worked for me when I was at your age," Xena said and patted Elif's knee.
The sound of somebody running behind them made Xena turn her head and look - moments later, Gabrielle bounded into the command hut.
"What the? I'm sorry, Gabrielle needs me," Xena said and got up. The juniors nodded and gave the warrior a small goodbye wave.
Quickly entering the command hut to see what was going on, Xena was astounded to find Gabrielle packing - or rather, throwing their belongings haphazardly into the saddle bags.
"What in the world?? Gabrielle, what? what are you doing? I thought you said you wanted to stay?"
"I can't. Queen Melosa? she?" Gabrielle stopped packing and looked around to make sure that they were alone. "She's insane. She's tortured the leader of the marauders to death? with a dagger! She mutilated his face and his? his?" When the words failed her, she touched her skirt below her waist to get the point across, and then resumed the frantic packing.
Xena bared her teeth in disgust and went over to help Gabrielle pack. "Please calm down, love. You didn't get any sleep last night. You'll fall to pieces if you continue at this pace?"
"What about the juniors? We can't take them with us? but the thought of those three girls exposed to Melosa's teachings makes me sick? Gods? what if Ephiny and Eponin are like that as well?" Gabrielle said, flapping around all over the hut like a stressed-out butterfly.
"Melosa is going to start a war in the Autumn, Xena. That's why we're leaving now. Maybe we could come back in a moon or two and take the juniors to another tribe? maybe we cou-"
"Gabrielle? Gabrielle! You need to calm down. If you want to leave, let's just pack our bags and get out of here in good order," Xena said and took a firm grip on Gabrielle's shoulders.
Sighing, Gabrielle leaned her head against Xena's chest. "You're right. I can't save them all. Sweet Artemis, I hope they'll be all right."
Xena put her hand on the back of Gabrielle's head and gave the soot-stained strawberry-blonde hair a little rub. "I'm sure they will be, they're smart young girls. I had a word with them just now; they understand what has happened here. They're shocked but not paralyzed."
"Yes, and once they have helped rebuild the village, they can go back to something approaching normality. I'm sure they're going to be fine."
"Let's hope so," Gabrielle said with a shudder. Sighing, she stood up on tip-toes and placed a loving kiss on Xena's lips. "I dearly hope so," she whispered, once again resting her head on Xena's chest.
Ten candledrips later, after having said a swift goodbye to the juniors, Xena and Gabrielle quietly left the Amazon village on Argo without looking back even once. Gabrielle was wearing her rust-brown skirt and her pea-green top; the Amazon outfit had been put away in one of the saddlebags.
The three juniors were observing them from a grassy hill they often went to when they wanted to be alone. Elif found a little pebble in the grass and began to play with it, but threw it down when the vision of the marauder getting hit in the head entered her mind.
Agata, nursing her arm and clutching her scroll case, sighed deeply and moved closer to her friends. "I just heard that Queen Melosa is planning a war later on this year. Maybe in the Autumn."
Tatiana shook her head slowly. "I'm not sure I want to be here when that happens."
Shocked, Elif stared at her friend and opened her mouth to protest, but before she had time to speak, Tatiana cut her off.
"Do you? Do you want to be here in a war, Elif? Where last night will be repeated day in day out until we're all dead or worse?"
"I'm an Amazon? so are you. And you, Agata," Elif said quietly.
"Amazons aren't just warriors, Elif. We're healers, bards? we're so many things."
Agata nodded in agreement. "I don't want to be a warrior. I want to write. If we get into a war, I'm going away."
"Me, too," Tatiana said and put her hand on Agata's skinny knee. "What about you, Elif? Do you want to stay behind and kill people on the Queen's orders while Agata and me leave?"
Elif shook her head slowly. "No. You're my friends? my family. I want to be with you," she said quietly, touching her tribal tattoo.
"Good. That's settled, then. If we go to war, we're leaving. Pact!" Tatiana said and put out her hand. Agata put her own hand on top of Tatiana's at once, but it took Elif several heartbeats to follow suit.
"Pact," Elif finally said, once again looking at the distant figures of Xena, Gabrielle and Argo leaving the Amazons behind.