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General Disclaimer: This is a fan fiction based on the television series Xena: Warrior Princess. All characters, locations, quotes, etc borrowed from the show belong strictly to the original creators and whomsoever holds the ultimate copyrights. There is no intention of copyright infringement or profit wherein this fan fiction is concerned. The remaining ideas, storyline, characters, etc are but a figment of my fevered mind and I will bear full responsibility for them.

Other Disclaimers:


Violence is inevitable and may even be overly graphic since a certain Warrior Princess is involved hence anyone who may be uncomfortable with such depictions are advised to avoid reading the stories.

The underlying theme for these stories is a loving consensual relationship between two adults of the same gender. There may also be scenes describing or hinting at sex between others of the same gender, different gender, different species, different tribes. Violent sex scenes may also make an appearance in these stories. Any person(s) uneasy with any of the sexual content above should leave this site now.

In the event that you are under the legal age wherever you may reside or it is illegal in your country to be exposed to any of the contents listed above, please do not proceed to read any of the stories herein.

Please note that I will not be responsible for any trauma resulting from a failure to heed any of my warnings above.

 

Author's note: I have always subscribed to the belief that Xena and Gabrielle were meant to be. But that does not mean I do not also believe that Xena had a soft spot for Ares. In this story, I have depicted what I believed to be the truth of Xena's feelings for the God of War. And to all the die-hard Xena/Gabrielle shippers out there who disagree, let me offer my sincere apologies.

This story is a tribute to the late Kevin Smith who played Ares on Xena: Warrior Princess. May he rest in peace.


- CM
 

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Finding a place to set up camp for the night wasn’t as easy as most people would like to think. There were a million little things to consider; some glaringly obvious, some not. It had to be safe, of course, and relatively sheltered from the elements. Falling asleep to a gentle breeze under the clear night sky was one thing. Being rudely awakened from that same slumber by a surprise thunder storm was quite another.
 
Being seasoned travellers, Xena and Gabrielle knew all the little tricks there were to know about camping in the great outdoors. It was almost second nature to them. Then there was Xena who, regardless of where they found themselves, always knew where to find the best camping spots. One of her many skills, as Xena would say if anyone asked.
 
They had set up camp a good hour or two ago, in a clearing not far from Potidaea. A campfire was already blazing merrily away. Three sticks, each bearing a fat juicy trout, were stuck into the ground near the fire. The camp was totally devoid of human life though Argo, Xena’s ever-loyal battle mare, could be seen grazing near the tree line. A breeze blew in from the south, wending its way through the trees, rattling leaves and stirring up ashes. Argo raised her head, one ear swivelling around in the direction the breeze had come from. She snorted derisively as Xena and Gabrielle came into view covered in a mixture of mud, leaves, twigs, and other unidentifiable bits.
 
“Be nice.” Xena mumbled to Argo as she passed by. Argo rolled her eyes at the warrior princess and resumed grazing.
 
Gabrielle went to check on the trout while Xena rummaged through their travel packs. She pulled out a bathing cloth and a bar of soap then turned to her partner. “Clothes?”
 
“You’ll only get mud on them.” Gabrielle told her.
 
Xena grumbled something about caravans and ungrateful merchants under her breath then waited patiently for Gabrielle to reposition their dinner around the fire. They didn’t want to overcook the fish while they were busy getting the mud and assorted gunk out of their hair and other parts of their body. They also needed to wash their armour and clothes and find some way to dry them overnight.
 
Hidden from view, a shadowy figure dressed in black stepped out from behind a tree. Dark brown eyes tracked the progress of the two women through the woods before winking out in a muted flash of light. Up ahead, Xena and Gabrielle walked on oblivious to the presence of their mystery watcher.
 
***
 
“This is a little dry.” Xena complained, prodding at the fish on her plate.
 
Gabrielle gave her a glare. “It wouldn’t be if someone hadn’t played keep-away with the soap.”
 
“You were sitting on it.”
 
“Xena, it was an honest mistake.”
 
“You always sit on the soap, Gabrielle. Is there something you want to tell me?”
 
“I don’t like what you’re insinuating.”
 
“I’m not insinuating anything, whatever that means. I’m asking.”
 
“Well, I don’t like the way you’re asking.”
 
Xena glanced down at the half-eaten fish head in her hand and thought about chucking it at her partner but decided against it. Gabrielle would never forgive her if she started a food fight now that they’d finally gotten clean. It had been a particularly long hard day and a filthy one to boot. Besides, they had only one set of clean clothes and they were already wearing it.
 
The fish wasn’t half bad. Yes, it was a little dry but perfectly edible and Xena quickly made short work of hers. Not as fast as Gabrielle though. “You gonna share that?” Xena asked as Gabrielle slid the third and final trout onto her plate.
 
“You said it was dry.” Gabrielle retorted, acting all affronted that Xena had criticised her cooking in the first place.
 
“Gabrielle…”
 
“No.”
 
“C’mon…”
 
“No.”
 
“I’ll trade you.”
 
“No… Wait, what?” Gabrielle whirled on Xena, barely managing to keep her dinner from flying off the plate and landing in the dirt. She was curious what the crafty warrior had up her sleeve; or in this case, probably stuffed into her bracers. Then again, Xena’s bracers were drying out by the fire together with the rest of her armour and Gabrielle’s clothes. And since Xena was clothed in a simple linen shift, Gabrielle couldn’t see how the warrior could have hidden anything from her. She narrowed her eyes at her partner suspiciously. “What are you offering in trade?”
 
Blue eyes the colour of the summer sky twinkled with merriment, moments before Xena broke into a huge grin. Gabrielle knew that look anywhere. It was classic playful Xena; a side that most people had never seen and probably never would.
 
“Xena…” Gabrielle growled in warning. She loved the playful side of Xena as much as she loved the rest of the warrior but Gabrielle really wasn’t in the mood for any of Xena’s pranks at the moment. She was hungry, still, and not a little cranky. The merchant, whose caravan they’d rescued from a band of bandits, had turned around and accused them of trying to steal his merchandise. He was the reason they had been covered in mud to begin with. And to add insult to injury, the ungrateful sod had made a number of uncomplimentary remarks about her--
 
“Gabrielle, you’re projecting.” Xena interjected.
 
Their soul-link allowed them to read each other’s mind as well as experience or feel what their soulmate did. But like most things, it was a double-edged sword, possessing the ability to both harm and help. The healer of the Southern Forest Clan had taught them how to harness the power of the soul-link as well as control it. Part of that involved erecting and maintaining mental shields. The shields gave them a modicum of privacy, helped them retain their individuality and kept them sane. Shields were also crucial in preventing an injury or sickness to one party from crippling them both. In a battle or a fight, that could easily mean the difference between life and death.
 
“Sorry.” Gabrielle said sheepishly.
 
Xena shook her head, not in disapproval so much as sympathy. “Here.” She took a cloth wrapped parcel from behind her back and offered it to the bard.
 
Gabrielle cocked her head to one side and eyed the parcel speculatively. “What’s that?”
 
“Trade.” Xena said, waving the parcel in Gabrielle’s direction. “G’wan. Take it.”
 
The parcel was roughly rectangular in shape and seemed rather solid. Her curiosity getting the better of her, Gabrielle set her plate to one side and accepted the gift from Xena. She hefted it in her hands. It was heavy yet not heavy enough to be made of metal. And it was soft so wood was out too. “Xena, what is it?”
 
“Open it, Gabrielle.”
 
Gabrielle laid the parcel in her lap and carefully peeled back the layers of oil cloth to reveal—“Nut bread!” Gabrielle exclaimed in delight, her nose crinkling in that endearing way she had. A beatific grin stretching from ear to ear, she turned to her soulmate. “Where did you get it?”
 
It was a rhetorical question and Gabrielle didn’t wait for an answer she knew wasn’t coming. She broke off a piece of the nut bread and popped it into her mouth. Closing her eyes, she savoured the rich texture of the nut bread, the sweetness of the honey, the moistness of the bread, and the crunch of the walnuts. “Thanks.” Another piece of nut bread quickly followed the fate of its predecessor and she grinned happily at Xena. “You can have the fish.”
 
Xena laughed at Gabrielle’s offer. The bard was crazy about nut bread and there was nothing she wouldn’t do for some. Giving up a plate of fish in exchange for a whole loaf of nut bread was a trade Gabrielle would make all day, any day. Xena leaned back, propping herself up on both elbows and contented herself with watching Gabrielle devour her offering.
 
“You want some?” Gabrielle finally asked, holding out what was left of the nut bread.
 
“Nah.” Xena replied, shaking her head. “Go ahead.”
 
“I think I’ve had enough for now.” Gabrielle said somewhat ruefully. She wrapped the oil cloth around the remaining nut bread and placed it inside one of the saddlebags.
 
Xena frowned, quickly realising the problem as she took in the stress lines on Gabrielle’s face. She grabbed a mug from her travel pack, poured some water from a waterskin into it and placed it over some smouldering coals to heat up. Next, she pulled out a small packet containing dried spearmint leaves and dumped some into the mug. While waiting for tea to be ready, Xena helped Gabrielle ease down onto the bedrolls and handed her a small vial. Gabrielle popped open the vial and took a deep breath. “Ah…”
 
“Better?” Xena asked, concern etched into every line of her face.
 
“Better.” Gabrielle agreed. “Xena, you don’t have to keep going mother hen on me. I’m fine.”
 
Xena sat down beside Gabrielle and gently smoothed the frown lines from her partner’s forehead. “You were fine. Until I gave you the nut bread. I should have prepared the infusion beforehand. I should have known better.” She said, silently berating herself for the oversight.
 
“It’s not your fault, Xena. You know how much I love nut bread. Couldn’t keep me away from it if you tried. I appreciate the thought. Really. And I thought this whole ‘I feel like puking my guts out’ thing was over and done with.”
 
“It happens.” Xena told her. She cast her mind back to her own pregnancies. Xena didn’t recall ever having much problems with nausea but as a self-taught healer, she knew a thing or two about pregnancies and the various signs and symptoms. Some might argue that pregnancies were similar to illnesses in that aspect. Nausea was actually rather common in pregnant women, usually beginning in the first month of the pregnancy and peaking in the first trimester before easing off once the second trimester started. It was different for everyone but it had been a while since Gabrielle last had problems with it so Xena suspected that this was probably a once-off.
 
Gabrielle groaned at the mere thought of going through the entire ordeal all over again. “Gods, I hope not.”
 
The mild aroma of spearmint wafted over with the breeze. “Tea’s ready.” Xena gingerly fished the mug out and wrapped a piece of tough leather around it.
 
“It’s hot.” Xena told Gabrielle as she handed it over, making sure to keep the leather between Gabrielle’s hands and the hot mug at all times. The leather would protect Gabrielle from the heat.
 
“You burned your fingers, didn’t you?” Gabrielle mock scolded as she carefully encircled the mug with her hands, blowing on the hot liquid inside and creating miniature tsunamis within.
 
“Gabrielle, I’m a warrior. We have calluses on our hands and fingers.”
 
“Uh-huh.” Gabrielle said, sipping at her tea. She’d heard it all before. This wasn’t the first time Xena was using her ‘I am a tough warrior’ spiel on her. And it wouldn’t be the last.
 
“You burned your fingers.” Gabrielle reiterated, her tone of voice brooking no dissent on the matter. “Xena, you can drop the tough warrior routine with me. I know you.”
 
Xena just smiled, not bothering to argue the point. She laid a kiss on Gabrielle’s forehead and told her, “Rest, I’ll clean up.”
 
Gabrielle watched Xena putter around the campsite, picking up the frying pan, plates and utensils along the way before disappearing in the direction of the nearby stream. She enjoyed being pampered by Xena—sometimes. The warrior could be an overprotective mother hen at times and even that seemed to have ratcheted up a notch since they first learned of Gabrielle’s pregnancy a little over two months ago.
 
After bringing Xena back from the dead once again, the two of them had stayed with the dragons of the Southern Forest Clan; enjoying their hospitality and benefiting from their superior medical knowledge while Xena recovered from the wounds she’d incurred on Gabrielle’s behalf. Everything had been going so well, until a month after their return from Bimini.
 
That was when Gabrielle first started noticing all the smells around her. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t before. They were just suddenly—amplified. And to make things worse, certain smells made her queasy, the way she used to be on board ships, except this was worse by far. When she started throwing up after every meal, Gabrielle decided to pay the clan healer a visit. It was there that she learned she was with child.
 
It seemed the clan healer and the rest of the clan had known about Gabrielle’s condition for a while but none had dared break the news to her, or worse, to Xena. Given how Xena had supposedly been dead at the time when the child was likely conceived, the dragons had thought discretion to be the better part of valour. The general consensus was that Gabrielle had found comfort in the arms of another after Xena’s death and the child was the result of that union.
 
To say Gabrielle had been shocked at the news was an understatement of the highest order. She had been completely flabbergasted. Other than Perdicus, her ill-fated husband who was long dead, Gabrielle had never been with a man. And the only person whom she even knew that intimately after Perdicus was, well, Xena. There was no way, outside of some sort of divine intervention, that Gabrielle could be with child. Or so she had believed.
 
Initially, Gabrielle had been loathed to bring up the matter of her pregnancy with Xena but the warrior’s persistent questions about her condition eventually wore Gabrielle down and she finally gave in. Surprisingly, Xena hadn’t been too upset by the news. Apparently, Gabrielle was only confirming what the warrior had suspected all along. And what was more, Xena knew who the father was—Xena herself. A particular heated exchange had ensued between the two, with Gabrielle repeatedly demanding answers and Xena furiously defending herself. It ended with Gabrielle leaving in a huff and things became a little strained between them for a while.
 
Xena and Gabrielle’s history with children was unfortunate to say the least. Between them, they had had a grand total of three children, a son and two daughters.
 
Xena’s son, Solan, was born the very same day his father, the warlord Borias, died. He was left with the centaurs shortly after his birth and never learned the truth about Xena until after his own death. Her second child, this time a daughter, Eve, suffered a similar fate. When the Olympian gods learned that Eve’s birth would bring about their deaths, they joined forces to get rid of Eve and by association, Xena and Gabrielle. In their attempt to protect her, Xena and Gabrielle ended up trapped in an ice tomb for twenty-five years, during which Eve grew up believing she had been abandoned at birth. Xena and Gabrielle eventually won Eve over but the damage had already been done and nothing they did could ever change that.
 
Gabrielle’s only child, Hope, was conceived following what could only be termed a rape by Dahak, an ancient powerful god who was the epitome of evil. The demi-goddess killed a man within hours of her birth and Gabrielle had to send her down a river to keep her safe from Xena. Hope subsequently murdered Solan and was in turn poisoned by Gabrielle. She later returned to cause a myriad of problems for both Xena and Gabrielle in the course of furthering Dahak’s plans in the mortal realm. She was finally killed by Xena.
 
As a result of this chequered history, Gabrielle was understandably apprehensive about having another child, much less carrying one to term. However, over time, Gabrielle came to believe this was their chance at a new start; to finally redeem themselves and make up for all that had gone wrong with Solan, Hope, and Eve. In their defence, there were forces beyond their control in all three instances, notably the presence of divine intervention, sinister or otherwise. And Gabrielle wasn’t naïve enough to think that history wouldn’t repeat itself this time around. But this child was conceived by love, from love, and for love. That had to at least count for something. And so, despite herself, Gabrielle was cautiously optimistic that the fourth time would be the charm.
 
The first person they broke the news to was Eve. The Messenger of Eli, as she was commonly known these days, happened to be spreading Eli’s message of love in eastern Chin. That had been a happy coincidence and it only stood to reason that their only surviving child, now very much grown up and mind-bogglingly older than Gabrielle by three years, should be the first to know.
 
All in all, Eve had taken the news well and seemed genuinely happy for them but Gabrielle knew it couldn’t be easy for Eve. How could it be? It had been less than two years since they had been reunited with Eve. And in all that time, she’d spent less than half of it with them. And now, this yet unborn child, was threatening to take away everything Eve could have had and should have had with Xena. That had to hurt. But Eve understood that they had tried their very best to be there for her. It wasn’t their fault that she had never known a mother’s love from a very young age or that she’d been robbed of her childhood by the man they’d entrusted her to. More importantly, Eve knew how much this meant to both of them and she would be the very last person in the world to stand in the way of their happiness.
 
Lila and Sarah, all that remained of Gabrielle’s family, had been next. That was where they had been—Potidaea. They had left earlier that day and really should have stayed another night. At least that had been Gabrielle’s initial plan. But things hadn’t gone as well with Lila as they had with Eve. Lila didn’t have an issue with Gabrielle’s pregnancy. After all, Gabrielle was Lila’s older sister, not that anyone could tell these days since Lila was already in her forties and Gabrielle was still stuck in her early twenties, courtesy of the 25 years the latter had spent frozen in an icy cave.
 
Lila didn’t even have an issue with Xena’s supposed ‘fatherhood’. Or so she claimed. But Gabrielle suspected Lila thought Xena had assumed responsibility for her child much the same way Gabrielle had for Eve. And that would go a long way towards explaining why Lila had wanted Gabrielle to settle down in Potidaea.
 
The idea of settling down wasn’t that bad. It might have appealed more to Gabrielle in the past but she wasn’t completely averse to the idea. What Lila was proposing however, was nothing as simple as just settling down. No, Lila thought it would be in Gabrielle’s best interest to get married and have someone take care of and provide for both her and her child. Unfortunately, Lila’s idea of that someone was anyone other than Xena. And that was the problem. Gabrielle had no intention of losing Xena, not now, not ever, and certainly not at the behest of her sister.
 
Oh, Gabrielle loved Lila. There was no doubt about that. But leaving Xena was not an option and hadn’t been since Caesar crucified them on Mount Amaro. That was when Gabrielle realised that Xena’s path was her path and that her place was right there, alongside Xena. It didn’t matter where their path took them or even what dangers they might face along the way. Xena was all that mattered to her. But Gabrielle couldn’t make Lila understand that. So when Lila started introducing her to all the eligible young men in Potidaea, Gabrielle decided it was time for them to leave.
 
Gabrielle finished the last of her tea and lay back down to stare up at the star-filled night sky. Tomorrow, they would meet up with Ci Nu and make their way to the Amazon village. Gabrielle was actually looking forward to seeing her fellow sister Amazons again. They were like family to her. And as an Amazon Queen, Gabrielle had a duty to not only ensure the survival of the Amazon Nation but to make it strong again. Gabrielle thought she’d finally found a way to restore the Amazon Nation to its former glory. But before that could happen, she needed to convince the Amazons and bring them on board with her plan, their plan.
 
***
 
For some, fighting was about staying alive and keeping the people you care about safe. For others, it was a form of aphrodisiac and a means to take control of their lives. But for Xena, it was all that and more, so much more. Fighting was what made the blood in her veins sing and it transformed the world into a kaleidoscope of colours and light. Fighting made Xena feel truly alive, in a way few things ever could.
 
Sword in hand, Xena spun around, cutting down the unlucky thug who happened to be in the way and lashing out with her boot to send another flying. Baring her teeth in a feral grin, she rounded on the remaining two. Her eyes were like icicles, cold and deadly. Her opponents flinched at the savage look on her face and took an involuntary step back. They exchanged a look, caught between the urge to flee and the need to not appear cowardly in front of each other.
 
“What’s the matter, boys? Too much woman for you? How about I even the odds for you?” Xena taunted. She slid her sword back into her scabbard and spread her arms wide in an open invitation. “Look, no sword. Now, why don’t you come get some?”
 
The two thugs exchanged another look, this one more of a smirk since the idea of ganging up on an unarmed woman seemed more suited to their tastes. They advanced slowly on Xena, their swords at the ready, matching leers on their faces.
 
Xena’s grin grew wider. “Oh yeah, come on boys. You know you want some.” The lout on the left, the younger of the two, raised his sword high and charged Xena in a clumsy attempt at an overhead strike. Unfazed, Xena waited until he had committed himself fully to the downward swing before sidestepping the blow. The bandit stumbled, losing his balance. Before she could capitalise on this, his partner stepped in, aiming a thrust at her face. Xena threw herself into a backward flip to get out of harm’s way then quickly pivoted on the ball of her left foot, sweeping the man’s legs out from under him. A well-placed boot knocked him out cold. The last man charged her again. This time he had his sword extended in front of him as if he was trying to skewer Xena on the end of it. Xena easily backhanded the sword away. She stepped into her assailant, planted her shoulder just below his sternum and lifted, making use of his momentum to help send him flying up and over.
 
Gabrielle was having problems. The last of her opponents was nearly six feet tall and not only strong but quick as well. With his longer reach and fast reflexes, Gabrielle was finding it impossible to get past his guard. As it was, she was on full defensive mode and it was all she could do just to keep his sword and fists and boots at bay. She blocked a vicious cut with the crossed blades of her sais, gritting her teeth as the force of the blow sent her down to one knee.
 
She gathered her legs under her to try and push him back but she couldn’t get enough leverage. There was another way though. Gabrielle could fall back into a back roll. It was risky but given the circumstances, it was the only option she had left. All she needed was a little more space, just a little more. Gabrielle leaned back slightly, the sudden lack of resistance causing her opponent to stumble a little. That was it, the opening she’d been looking for. Gabrielle gathered whatever strength she had left and desperately shoved upwards. Her opponent went flying.
 
Elsewhere, Ci Nu was having little difficulty dispatching the would-be bandits. The dragon warrior fought with two swords, a style of fighting few people had ever witnessed and even fewer were familiar with. That made her a formidable opponent since it was nearly impossible to figure out which was her strong hand and hence which sword they needed to be wary of. Ci Nu was ambidextrous and was able to wield her twin swords independently of each other. That only served to confound her opponents even more.
 
Using her right sword, she parried one strike and deflected another. At the same time, her left sword snaked out to bury itself in the fleshy part of a thigh before cutting across to bite into another bandit’s arm. It was hard to imagine a warrior with her physique being graceful but that was exactly what she was. Watching her fight was like witnessing poetry in motion. Her every movement spoke of grace and finesse. It was downright mesmerising and the four bandits who accosted her found themselves more often than not just watching Ci Nu’s swords dancing and weaving through the air. And that just made it easier for Ci Nu to send them spinning into darkness.
 
“Thanks.” Gabrielle said when Xena came to check on her.
 
Xena gently ran her thumb over a nasty bruise on Gabrielle’s arm. “You alright?”
 
“Could have been worse.” Gabrielle said. “I could have been dead. That man almost had me.”
 
“But he didn’t.”
 
“He would have if you hadn’t sent one of your human cannonballs to take him out.” Gabrielle retorted.
 
Xena placed both her hands on Gabrielle’s shoulders, as if steadying her. Very softly, she said, “Gabrielle, you need to stop second guessing yourself. Act, don’t react. Listen to your gut.”
 
Snippets of a similar conversation from their earliest days together immediately came to mind.
 
Gabrielle: Xena, look out!
Xena: Lie down! Gabrielle, now!
 
Gabrielle: Why did I just freeze up?
 
Xena: “Act, don’t react. Go with your gut.”
 
Gabrielle: I froze, which put us both at risk. If you hadn’t been there--
Xena: But I was.
Gabrielle: I can’t expect you to always be there for me.
 
Gabrielle: I can’t endanger you. Don’t you see that? I’m just a liability.
Xena: It’s a risk I can take.
Gabrielle: But I can’t.
 
The sound of Xena’s voice calling her name brought Gabrielle back to the present. She blinked and found herself staring into the worried blue orbs of her soulmate.
 
“I remember the first time you said that to me.”
 
“Me too.”
 
“You’re right, Xena. I need to trust my instincts and follow them, not waste my time worrying about something that might or might not happen.” Gabrielle raised one hand to the warrior’s cheek, stroking its velvety softness. “And if that fails, Xena, I have you.”
 
Xena reached up and took hold of Gabrielle’s hand. She pressed her cheek against Gabrielle’s palm. “Yes. Yes, you do.”
 
They kiss.
 
The sound of footsteps headed in their direction intruded upon the moment and Xena and Gabrielle reluctantly drew away from each other. They weren’t usually given to public displays of affection. At least they didn’t use to. But their relationship was no longer a secret and there really wasn’t any reason to keep up pretences, even if there were those who still refused to acknowledge it, most notably Gabrielle’s sister Lila.
 
“Problem?” Xena asked, turning away from Gabrielle to face the newcomer.
 
In reply, Ci Nu gestured to the man and his family whom they’d stopped to help. They were standing off to the side of the road, as far away as they could get from the writhing and groaning bodies of the bandits that were strewn all over the place.
 
“Right.” Xena nodded to Gabrielle. “You wanna take care of them? I’ll go get Argo.”
 
Gabrielle rolled her eyes at her partner. “Why do I always have to do this?”
 
“Because you are better at the sensitive chats.” Xena said with a wink and a smile.
 
“Fine. Whatever.” Gabrielle threw her hands up in resignation, squared her shoulders as if she was preparing to face an angry mob instead of a grateful family and strode purposefully away.
 
Xena put her thumb and index finger into her mouth and gave a sharp whistle. An answering whinny came from somewhere nearby, followed soon after by the sound of hoof beats. A moment later, Argo rounded the corner and trotted into view. The palomino mare walked right up to the warrior and greeted her with a gentle nudge of the head. Xena took hold of Argo’s reins and stroked the mare’s face affectionately.
 
Ci Nu spent a brief moment watching Xena and Argo before turning her attention to Gabrielle. The man was vigorously pumping Gabrielle’s hand up and down as he thanked her profusely for saving his family and him from whatever fate the bandits had in store for them. Having been in Gabrielle’s shoes before, Ci Nu knew how frustrating the entire exercise could be. She watched with admiration as Gabrielle kept her smile through it all, accepting the man’s thanks with graciousness and overall handling it with a patience and humility that Ci Nu had never managed in all her centuries as the daughter of the Southern Forest Clan Chief.
 
“She’s good.”
 
Xena looked over to where Gabrielle was still speaking quietly to the man’s daughters. “She is.”
 
Seeing the pride on Xena’s face, Ci Nu said, “She had a good teacher.”
 
“Gabrielle’s a natural. That’s why she’s an Amazon Queen and I’m only a warrior princess.” Xena said, laughing out loud.
 
It was a good laugh, a happy laugh and Ci Nu realised belatedly that the pride she’d seen on Xena’s face had nothing to do with the warrior and everything to do with Gabrielle.
 
Xena noticed the expression on Ci Nu’s face and recognised it for what it was. “People underestimate Gabrielle because she’s been living in the shadow of my reputation for so long. They don’t realise she’s more than just a sidekick. Ask the Amazons and all the people whose lives she has touched and they will tell you Gabrielle’s their hero.” She paused for the briefest of moments before adding, “I know she’s mine.”
 
***
 
“We’re getting close.” Xena pointed to a strange looking wreath swaying from a tree branch barely twenty paces ahead. “See that?” When Ci Nu nodded, Xena explained, “Those are no trespassing signs. Put up by the Amazons to warn intruders away.”
 
“Stay close.” Gabrielle told Ci Nu. “And remember, when you hear a rustling sound from up in the trees, make like a statue and clasp your hands above your head. Like this.” Gabrielle demonstrated the Amazon symbol of peace for Ci Nu’s benefit.
 
Ci Nu nodded, somewhat amused by Gabrielle’s actions. “I understand.”
 
The forest was quiet, unnaturally so, almost as if every living creature was holding its breath, waiting. The only sound they heard as they walked under the wreath and entered into Amazon territory was the crunch of dry leaves under their boots. None of them said a word as they ventured deeper into Amazon land, the silence becoming more and more pronounced until a faint rustling sound stopped them dead in their tracks. Three pairs of hands shot up into the air, clapping almost in synchronisation.
 
Six women rappelled down from the trees on what appeared to be vines of some sort. Two of them were carrying crossbows while the others had swords in scabbards slung over their backs and a number of daggers secreted on their bodies. All of them were wearing ceremonial masks made out of wood and leather and topped with feathers. It took Ci Nu a while to realise the masks had beaks, just like a bird’s.
 
Birds in trees. Ci Nu thought with amusement. She’d met a few Amazons in her time but she’d never once encountered an Amazon wearing a bird mask.
 
The Amazons closed ranks, forming a loose circle around them and effectively hemming them it. The crossbows remained trained on them and there was, once again, silence.
 
After a while of this silent treatment, Gabrielle grew impatient. She lowered her arms and looked around at the Amazons, trying to identify them by their armour or weapons alone. Still, nobody moved. “Okay, who’s in charge here?” She asked.
 
All six bird masks stared impassively at her. Finally, one of them pushed her mask up onto her head and said, “That would be me.”
 
“Varia.” Xena and Gabrielle said in unison.
 
“Gabrielle… Xena.” Varia said, nodding to each in turn.
 
“And this is Ci Nu, a friend of ours from Chin.” Gabrielle said.
 
Varia gave Ci Nu a perfunctory nod. Addressing Gabrielle, she asked, “What are you doing here?”
 
Gabrielle frowned. “I didn’t realise I wasn’t welcome in these parts.”
 
“Things change.” Varia told her.
 
“Varia, what’s going on here?” Gabrielle asked.
 
“We have a new queen.” Varia replied.
 
“A new queen?” Gabrielle’s frown deepened. “I thought you were queen.”
 
“Not anymore.”
 
Realising this could jeopardise their mission, Gabrielle asked, “Who is queen now?”
 
“Nobody you know. She’s from a distant tribe. They arrived two months ago.”
 
“And the Amazons made her queen?” Xena spoke out from behind Gabrielle.
 
All the Amazons, Gabrielle included, turned to look at Xena. The warrior princess was looking straight at Varia, to whom her earlier question had been directed.
 
“The royal challenge for the Mask of Queenhood is a fight to the death. You’re not dead. And I doubt you would willingly give it up to someone else. Varia, what are you not telling us?” Xena asked.
 
Varia squared her shoulders and met Xena’s steely cold gaze with one of her own. It wasn’t as good as Xena’s but it had plenty of attitude behind it. Varia had a chip on her shoulder the size of Mount Olympus. Born and raised in an Amazon village, she’d witnessed death and destruction from an early age. When Livia, as Eve was known back then, raided her village and killed her sister, Varia dedicated herself to hatred and vengeance.
 
Strongly loyal to the Amazon Nation and highly suspicious of outsiders whom she accused of contributing to the decline of the Amazon Nation, Varia had the utmost respect for Xena, even going so far as to consider her a mentor of sorts. That was probably the reason she had such a volatile relationship with Gabrielle. Varia thought she was better than Gabrielle but everyone seemed convinced of the bard’s greatness, even after Varia had defeated her in one-on-one combat.
 
“For someone who isn’t an Amazon, you sure know our traditions well, Xena. You forget; I didn’t kill Gabrielle when she challenged me.”
 
“You saying this new queen of yours spared your life?” Xena didn’t believe it but she had to ask the question all the same.
 
“No. You are right. No challenge was issued. There was no need. I gave up the Queen’s mask willingly. It was the right thing to do. Weren’t you the one who taught me that, Xena?”
 
This time, it was Gabrielle’s turn to barge in on the conversation. “You entrusted the future of the Amazon Nation into the hands of a stranger?”
 
“I wouldn’t call the Mother of the Amazon Nation a stranger.” Varia retorted, turning her chilly brown gaze on Gabrielle, as if she would like nothing better than to freeze the bard where she stood for interrupting her conversation with Xena.
 
“This could get complicated.” Gabrielle muttered to herself.
 
***
 
They were escorted under armed guard to the Amazon village and handed over to the Queen’s personal guards, all of whom neither Xena nor Gabrielle recognised. Once her duty was done, Varia turned and left with her little band of Amazons, heading back the way they had come.
 
The Queen’s Guard, for that was what they were called, wore leather cuirasses over long sleeved tunics and long narrow trousers held up by waist belts made of animal skin. A simple scabbard holding a short sword hung at one side while a wicked-looking double-bladed axe hung on the other. They also had a small crescent-shaped shield, which Gabrielle reckoned they used like a buckler, slung over their backs. Compared to the other Amazons, especially those of Gabrielle’s tribe, who generally favoured skimpier outfits, the Queen’s Guard appeared severely overdressed. Basically, they stuck out like a sore thumb. And from that observation alone, Gabrielle was fairly certain they belonged to whichever distant tribe the new Queen supposedly hailed from.
 
It stood to reason that the new Queen would choose members of her own tribe, whom she knew and trusted, over complete strangers, who might have wished her ill, as her personal guard. It was a smart move and one Gabrielle thoroughly approved of, even if it did make matters that much harder. And judging from the looks and whispers of the Amazons as the guards escorted them through the village, their arrival had been expected, if not exactly welcomed. Gabrielle could not understand why someone they had never met would have an axe to grind with them but she was sure they would find out soon enough.
 
They stopped in front of a heavily guarded hut which Gabrielle presumed to be the Queen’s hut.
 
“Is that them?” One of the guards outside the hut asked.
 
The more senior member of their escort party nodded. “The Queen expecting them?”
 
“Yep. Go on in.” The guard waved at the sentries standing guard at the entrance and they stepped out of the way.
 
The interior of the hut was unspectacular. In fact, it was downright ordinary. Four more guards stood at attention within. But that was it. This wasn’t a throne room. Gabrielle’s tribe never did have one though they had a raised dais in the middle of the village where the Queen could address the Amazons and preside over official business when the need arose. The new Queen either had no issues with the present arrangements or she hadn’t gotten around to making any changes—yet.
 
A partition two-thirds of the way in blocked off the bedroom and living quarters of the Queen, allowing the rest of the hut to be used as some sort of audience chamber.
 
“My Queen.” The de facto leader of their little party called out. “We have brought the—visitors.”
 
The woman who stepped out from behind the partition was nearly as tall as Xena, which would put her at an even six feet tall, or thereabouts. Her long blonde hair fell in loose curls down her shoulders and over her breasts. Sultry grey eyes framed by high cheekbones set in a face that could only be described as ‘a vision from heaven’, seemed to capture every detail of everything. Her every movement spoke of confidence and arrogance, as if she was head and shoulders above everyone else.
 
At her appearance, the guards all dropped to one knee, leaving Xena, Gabrielle and Ci Nu the only ones standing. She looked at them, studying them as she would some form of interesting specimen. Perhaps she was waiting for them to pay homage to her. Or perhaps she just wanted to check out the competition. Gabrielle couldn’t tell.
 
“Leave us.”
 
The guards exchanged concerned looks at her words. “But my Queen…”
 
“I said, leave us.”
 
The leader of their escort party looked ready to protest but she obviously changed her mind at the last moment because all she said was, “Yes, my Queen.” One by one, the guards filed out, a few of them stealing one final glance at their queen to reassure themselves that they were making the right decision in obeying her.
 
“Well, well, well…” The Queen of the Amazons said once all the guards were gone and they were alone. “What do have here?” She ignored Ci Nu and Xena, choosing instead to go straight for Gabrielle. “Gabrielle, isn’t it?”
 
“Yes. And you would be?”
 
“Otrera. Do you know who I am?”
 
“Varia calls you the Mother of the Amazons.” Gabrielle replied.
 
“I hear you are a bard, Gabrielle. Surely you have heard of me.”
 
Bards were professional story tellers and any bard worth their salt knew all the classic stories there were to know about the many heroes and gods in Greek history. Gabrielle knew all of them by heart. She also knew some of the less well-known stories; stories she’d learned during her travels with Xena and from the many travelling bards she’d met along the way. Some of the lesser known stories did indeed mention an Amazon named Otrera. Gabrielle took a deep breath and began reciting what she had heard.
 
“Legend has it that Gaea, Mother of the gods, gave birth to a daughter and a son. The son, Uranus, became her husband and from their union the Titans were born. When Cronus castrated his father, Uranus, killing him, Gaea secretly sent her daughter away to keep her safe. After Zeus and the Olympians overthrew the Titans and began their rule over Greece, it is said that Ares, God of War, found and courted Gaea’s daughter. From that union, came a whole new race of warlike women; women who were rumoured to be as courageous and fearsome as men in battle. These, were the Amazons.”
 
Mock applause greeted the end of her story. “Indeed, you know your lore.” Otrera said wryly. “But Ares had nothing to do with it. They were my daughters. Mine. Not his; never his. He tried to steal them from me but Artemis beat him to it. Conniving scum, the both of them, just like their father.”
 
Of the three, Gabrielle was the only one visibly surprised by Otrera’s revelation. She was staring at the daughter of Gaea with her mouth open the whole time. As an Amazon Queen, Gabrielle was well-versed in Amazon history even though she was somewhat rusty on the various rules and customs and traditions that went with it. And what she knew of that history did not seem to support Otrera’s version of events. But it was common knowledge that history was often rewritten by whoever happened to be in power to reflect what they believed should be the truth. Which meant history was often as much fiction as it was fact.
 
Otrera had moved on from her rant about Artemis and Ares. “With Zeus and Artemis dead, I can finally reclaim what was unfairly taken from me. How long have I waited for this day. And I owe all my thanks to you.” Otrera turned away from Gabrielle and looked straight at Xena. She took a step towards the warrior and their gazes locked; icy blue versus stony grey in a contest of wills where neither seemed willing to concede any ground.
 
“Did you really think I wouldn’t find you eventually?” Otrera asked quietly. “Did you really think you could hide from me forever?”
 
Xena’s face betrayed no emotion and her nonchalant answer seemed just as divorced of emotion, “So, you found me.”
 
“With a little help, of course.” A disembodied voice interjected from out of nowhere. The air shimmered and coalesced into a figure familiar to everyone but Ci Nu.
 
“Ares!” Both Gabrielle and Xena growled when they saw who the newcomer was.
 
The god of war was dressed in his usual all-black leather ensemble. A studded leather vest that showed off his muscular chest and gave tantalising glimpses of his ripped abs. Then there were the tight leather pants which drew attention to his strong powerful thighs and seemed to testify to just how much of a stud he was.
 
“Hello Xena.” Ares drawled as he sauntered over, ignoring everyone else except the warrior princess. He slowly walked around Xena, giving her the once-over. “You know, you had me worried for a while there. With all that talk about doing the right thing, blah blah blah. Thought you were going to give up the ghost for good.”
 
Gabrielle unsheathed her sais and glared at Ares.
 
“Oops. Guess little blondie over there wasn’t too pleased with that.” Ares smirked. His next words were directed at Gabrielle. “And whose fault was that?”
 
Xena laid a restraining hand on Gabrielle to stop her from attacking the smug bastard. “Drop it, Ares.” She warned.
 
“I’m not afraid of your little girlfriend, Xena.”
 
“Then you’re a bigger fool than I thought.” Xena retorted.
 
All the commotion must have caught the attention of the guards outside because one of them stuck her head through the doorway to see what was going on. She immediately noticed the sais in Gabrielle’s hands and the apparent standoff between Xena and Ares. As a member of the Queen’s Guard, it was her duty to ensure the safety of the queen even if Otrera was more than capable of handling any threats to her safety by herself.
 
“My Queen?” The guard looked askance at Otrera, more to see whether they could be of help than whether Otrera actually needed any.
 
“Ah, Aristomache, your timing is impeccable.” Otrera smiled, glad for an excuse to break up the bickering children. “Please escort our visitors here to suitable lodgings. Make sure they are made comfortable but keep them under armed supervision at all times. I’m entrusting their care and welfare to you, Aristomache. If they are harmed in any way, you will answer to me. Do you understand?”
 
“Yes, my Queen.”
 
***
 
The three companions were led to a modest hut smack dab in the middle of the Amazon village, completely bypassing the dungeons which Gabrielle had been expecting to land up in. Usually, that was where the Amazons dumped any unwanted ‘visitors’. In comparison, the hut was actually quite comfortable. It had everything they needed. Well, almost everything. The outhouse was, not surprisingly, outside so every time any of them needed to perform a bodily function, they had to ask permission from their ‘captors’ and wait to be escorted. It was an inconvenience but one they could live with; for now anyway.
 
Though they were technically under house arrest, no one had confiscated their gear or weapons. Nor did anyone go through their travel packs to ensure they weren’t carrying anything that might be used to facilitate their escape from their supposed captivity. It was true that they weren’t allowed to leave the premises except under armed guard but otherwise, they were very much left to their own devices. In fact, none of the guards were posted within the hut itself so they could have planned and plotted to their hearts’ content if they so desired. Moreover, Aristomache had made it clear that they should feel free to approach any of the guards if they required any assistance.
 
Gabrielle doubted they would let them go even if they asked nicely but anything else seemed to be fair game. For one thing, she could definitely use a long soak in a hot tub, preferably with scented oils and two bars of soap so she didn’t have to fight with Xena for it. But that could wait. Right now, Gabrielle needed some answers.
 
“Why do I get the feeling you two know each other?” Gabrielle asked Xena.
 
“Because we do.” Xena replied.
 
Ci Nu had no desire to get involved so she grabbed a chair, moved over to a corner and sat down. Obviously, she had a vested interest in how things turned out with the Amazons since it would likely solve the problems her kinsfolk were facing back in Chin. That is if Gabrielle and Xena succeed here. But it wasn’t exactly a do-or-die scenario. The life expectancy of a dragon typically lasted thousands of years; and with the tyrant dead and the threat to them gone, it was conceivable and highly probable that the situation would improve with time and things would go back to the way they used to be. However, with the help of the Amazons, that day could come sooner rather than later.
 
“Let me guess, you knew her from back in the old days,” Gabrielle was saying.
 
“It was just before I met you.”
 
“Wasn’t that when you first met Hercules?”
 
“After.”
 
Gabrielle sat down on one of the beds and gestured for Xena to continue her story.
 
Xena folded her arms across her chest and found a pillar to lean against. She knew from experience that Gabrielle wouldn’t take no for an answer but she hardly knew where to begin. It was a long story; one that ended in one of the darkest days of Xena’s life and prompted her return to Amphipolis to make peace with her mother, and after that, to take her own life. By all accounts, she should be long dead and rotting in the ground. But the day she met Gabrielle, everything changed. She had a purpose in life once again and she knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life. How long Xena would have stayed on the straight and narrow if Gabrielle hadn’t insisted on following her was anyone’s guess but here they were and she owed it to not just Gabrielle but also to Ci Nu to explain her history with Otrera and the possible implications for their mission.
 
“This was after Hercules and I killed Darphus; the second time. I had just been kicked out of my own army and I didn’t know where to go. I could have gone with Hercules but I didn’t. I just knew I needed some time to make peace with myself and to start making up for all the evil things I had done in my life. So I headed east, following the same route I had taken years earlier after M’Lila sacrificed herself to save me. I was hoping to find answers. Instead, I found Otrera and the Daughters.”
 
“The Daughters?” Gabrielle interrupted.
 
“That’s what they call themselves. The Daughters are not Amazons, not the way we know them.” Xena told her. “According to their legends, Artemis tricked some of the Daughters into leaving with her for Greece. She renamed them Amazons and adopted them as her own daughters. She became their patron goddess.”
 
“So Otrera really is Gaea’s daughter?”
 
Xena shrugged. Otrera had never discussed her parentage with Xena. “Gabrielle, I have seen her fight. She’s not human.”
 
“No, she’s not.” Ci Nu said.
 
Both Xena and Gabrielle swung around to look at the dragon warrior. They had been so engrossed; Xena in telling her story, and Gabrielle in listening to it, that they had forgotten all about her.
 
“It’s her aura.” Ci Nu told them. “Whoever she is, she’s very powerful and very old. Definitely not mortal.”
 
Gabrielle sighed. “This just keeps getting better and better. So, what happened?”
 
Xena picked up the story again. “They were at war with the Scythians and Otrera could see I was a warrior. She asked me to stay and help. I did. I thought this was my chance to do something good and right. Maybe even start afresh. Then Otrera made me war queen.”
 
“After that, everything fell apart. And I left.”
 
It was obvious that Xena was glossing over a lot of the details but both Gabrielle and Ci Nu could see how much the memory pained Xena and they did not probe further.
 
“We’re screwed, aren’t we?” Gabrielle said. With the bad blood between Otrera and Xena, it was unlikely Otrera would even agree to listen to their proposal, much less consider it. Besides, they were prisoners. They certainly weren’t in any position to negotiate anything, other than, perhaps, their freedom.
 
Xena surprised them however. “Not necessarily. Otrera loves her daughters. Let me talk to her.”
 
“Aren’t you forgetting something, Xena?” Gabrielle said. “What about Ares?”
 
Baring her teeth in what could pass as either a grin or a snarl, Xena said, “Just leave him to me.”
 
***
 
Night had fallen and most of the Amazons had retired to their huts. Torches, placed at regular intervals around the village, provided the only illumination around. Traditionally, the Amazon tribes celebrated the new moon and the full moon. Celebrations differed from tribe to tribe but they generally involved dancing, carousing, staged fights and of course merry-making that lasted through the night. This night, however, the night of the new moon, there was none of the above. Perhaps it had something to do with the presence of unwanted visitors in their midst. Or perhaps, it was just an indication of how things had changed under Otrera.
 
Inside the hut that housed the three companions, a solitary candle burned, its tiny flame doing very little to dispel the darkness that permeated the room. Off to the right, Ci Nu was already fast asleep on one of the beds. Her twin swords hung in their scabbards off the side of the bed, within easy reach. She was dressed in only a woollen tunic and pants, having taken off her chainmail armour before going to bed.
 
Xena and Gabrielle shared the bed on the left, leaving the bed in the middle empty. Given the size of the beds, it would have been more comfortable if they had chosen to sleep separately. But they were used to sharing the same sleeping space and despite the space constraints they did not appear in any way discomfited.
 
Gabrielle was snuggled up tight against her partner, her head resting in the hollow just below Xena’s collarbone and her cheek pillowed upon the warrior’s left breast, Xena’s left arm curled possessively around her back and holding her close. She should have been asleep. But something was bothering her. Gabrielle listened to the slow thumpa-thumpa of Xena’s heart and willed herself to let it go. But she couldn’t.
 
“Xena…”
 
“Mmm?”
 
“You and Otrera. You two weren’t just friends, were you?”
 
Xena let out a sigh. “No, Gabrielle. Otrera and I—we were lovers.”
 
Gabrielle had guessed as much. During Xena’s warlord days, her sexual appetite had been legendary. Gabrielle had heard all the stories of how Xena would choose some lucky man in her army every night to satisfy her needs. The same man was rarely chosen more than once but Xena obviously had her favourites. But that was about sex and nothing more. Even early in her travels with Xena, before their friendship turned into something much more, Xena had a habit of disappearing for an hour or two whenever they were in town. Gabrielle knew the warrior frequented the various taverns where she would usually pick up some stranger for, as Xena put it, a little quickie to take the edge off.
 
So no, Gabrielle wasn’t surprised. And she wasn’t usually prone to bouts of jealousy though many of Xena’s prospective love interests and suitors over the years would certainly disagree. Gabrielle might not admit it but it was common knowledge that she was as possessive of Xena as the warrior princess was of her; perhaps even more so.
 
“Did you love her?”
 
“Gabrielle…”
 
“I know, I know. I’m sorry. Just—humour me. Please, Xena.”
 
Xena sighed again. It was going to be one of those days. Xena blamed it on Gabrielle’s raging hormones. And since she was the one who got Gabrielle pregnant, she really only had herself to blame.
 
“Love had nothing to do with it, Gabrielle.”
 
“So it was just sex.”
 
“You could say that.” Xena conceded though the truth wasn’t anywhere near that simple. Yes, it had been about sex. But not just sex. It was never just sex when two very strong and equally dominant people came together so intimately. It was more, so much more; which was the reason Xena always had a soft spot for Ares and bad boys. And Otrera, well, she was a goddess in her own right, and well worth a bad boy or two at the very least.
 
“And what does she say?”
 
“You would have to ask her that.”
 
Gabrielle doubted she ever would. It wasn’t important, not really. But a small little voice in her head just wouldn’t let it rest. If Xena’s plan succeeded here, there was a very real possibility that Otrera would return to Chin with them. And since Xena and Gabrielle had initially planned to stay with Ci Nu’s clan until the birth of their child and perhaps even settle down there, having Otrera around didn’t seem like the best idea. Gabrielle wasn’t worried about Xena cheating on her or even leaving her for an old lover. It was just—an irrational thought and should be buried in some dark dank place where it would never see the light of day again.
 
Then, there was Ares, the god of war who had a perpetual hard-on for Xena and who seemed determined to woo the one-time Destroyer of Nations back into his arms. And he didn’t particularly cared how he did it, as long as it worked. He never played by the rules and if there was anyone Gabrielle should be worried about, it would be him. But Xena knew most, if not all, of his little tricks and she’d proven more than equal to any of the schemes he had attempted so far.
 
Xena was confident she could handle Ares and Gabrielle believed her. But they also had to be careful. If Ares ever found out that Gabrielle was carrying Xena’s child, things could get complicated in a hurry. After what Ares did to Eve, Gabrielle had no intention of finding out what would happen if Ares ever got his hands on their child.
 
***
 
It was nearly noon the next day before Aristomache came to get Xena. As expected, she was brought to the Queen’s hut and ushered inside. Aristomache and the guards did not follow her in. This time around, there weren’t any guards within the audience chamber and though the partition blocked her view of the living area, Xena had a feeling Otrera and she were the only ones there.
 
Otrera was already waiting for her. She was wearing the same armour as she always did, even thirty years ago, back on the steppes where the Daughters and the Scythians had been at constant war.
 
The two women stood there staring at each other; Xena barely inside the doorway, Otrera at the side of the partition. It was almost as if they were frozen in time, the weight of their shared past hanging like a guillotine blade in the space between them, perfectly poised to sever the past from the present at any moment.
 
Otrera was the first to speak though it was hard to tell whether she was speaking from the past or in the present.
 
“You never said goodbye.” Otrera croaked. Her voice was hoarse with anguish, as if Xena had committed the ultimate betrayal by disappearing without a word all those years ago.
 
“I couldn’t stay.” Xena said softly, apologetically.
 
True, she’d told Gabrielle that her relationship with Otrera had nothing to do with love. Well, at least not that sort of love. She had loved Otrera, in a way. Unlike the Olympian gods, Otrera had spent nearly all her existence with her people, the Daughters, and she cared for them deeply. Xena had admired that fierce loyalty of Otrera’s towards her people. The proud warrior goddess had a ferocious passion for life and like the wild horses of the steppes she could not and would not be tamed or broken.
 
Their relationship began as one of mutual respect and companionship. And being passionate warriors, they soon developed a healthy sex life. Why would they not? They were more than compatible in the bedroom; in fact, sex between them was like Greek fire, hot and heavy and highly combustible. But now, judging from the broken look on Otrera’s face, it seemed that Xena had overlooked one little detail.
 
“I’m sorry.”
 
“Not as sorry as I am.” Otrera told her. She turned away for a moment. When she turned back, her face was an inscrutable mask. “We could have conquered the steppes together, you and I. The Scythians, the Parthians, the Cimmerians, the Sarmatians, the Huns and the lesser nomadic tribes; none of them would have stood before us.”
 
Xena shook her head. “That’s why I had to leave, Otrera. It’s exactly how I first started down the path of no return. I was only trying to keep my family safe but I ended up terrorising the whole of Greece and half the known world. I couldn’t go through all that again.”
 
“You wouldn’t have.”
 
“You don’t know that, Otrera. I killed a child, an innocent child. He was just a kid, he didn’t deserve to die. But I killed him. I couldn’t take that back but I sure as hell wasn’t going to let it happen again.”
 
“Xena, it was an accident. You couldn’t have known he would be there. It wasn’t your fault.”
 
“I gave the orders to cut the horses loose. It was because of me that boy got trampled to death. I was responsible.”
 
Knowing this was one argument she couldn’t hope to win, Otrera changed the subject. “So, Gabrielle… She seems—feisty…”
 
Xena was more than happy to play along. “Well, don’t let Gabrielle hear you say that.”
 
Otrera frowned. “Why not?”
 
“She’s a little sensitive about her size.” Xena said with a crooked grin. Sensitive was probably an understatement. Gabrielle positively hated it when people made fun of her height. To be honest, Xena didn’t understand the why of it though she was, of course, six feet tall and no one in their right mind would call her shorty, much less say that to her face; unless they wanted their face rearranged. Still, feisty probably did describe Gabrielle to a T.
 
“I’ll try to remember that.” Otrera said. She had a thoughtful look on her face. “You love her, don’t you? I’ve never seen such a goofy grin on your face before.”
 
If Xena could blush, she probably would. But she was Xena, warrior princess; she did not blush. Then again, goofy grins probably didn’t do wonders for her reputation either. So Xena settled for impassive.
 
But that did not fool Otrera. She burst into laughter, long and loud. And when that finally died away, she had a rueful smile on her face. “You know, I never believed the rumours about you and Gabrielle. Guess I was wrong.”
 
“You mean about Gabrielle being my sex slave?” Xena quipped.
 
When Gabrielle first started travelling with Xena, everyone was convinced that the younger woman was Xena’s sex slave. It was the only explanation that made sense, given Xena’s reputation for being a heartless bloodthirsty warlord. No one believed Xena could be fond of the baby-faced village peasant who couldn’t seem to keep her mouth shut; much less that they might actually be friends.
 
“That too.” Otrera agreed with a smile. “Though I’m sure you would agree with me that the sex slave rumours were easier to believe.”
 
Xena gave a derisive snort. “Can’t say the same about you and Ares.”
 
“He would have found me the moment I stepped into Greece. It’s easier this way. With him on my side, I was able to march right in without any opposition from him or the other Olympians. And I needed him to find you.”
 
“Where is he anyway?” Xena asked.
 
“Oh, off playing war somewhere. I would rather he not be here for our little talk.”
 
“You don’t trust him.”
 
Otrera seemed to find the entire idea absurd. “I wouldn’t trust Ares with my bootstrap.”
 
Xena nodded. “What’s your plan, Otrera?”
 
“I thought you might help me with that. Our numbers are too few and the Scythians too many. The steppes are no longer safe.”
 
“It’s not any safer here.” Xena told her. “But I might have the answer to your problem.”
 
She told Otrera about the dragons in Chin and their declining population and how she thought the Amazons and the dragons might mutually benefit from an alliance.
 
“Ci Nu is the daughter of the Southern Forest Clan chief and she represents the dragons in this matter. I can get Gabrielle and her to work out details of the alliance with you. If you want to.”
 
An alliance with the dragons was a tempting offer and Otrera would have been crazy not to accept it. But it was a huge decision and the implications for the Amazons as well as the Daughters could be substantial. It was hence more prudent for Otrera to seek the advice of the Amazon Elders and the leaders of the Daughters before she gave Xena her answer.
 
“I’ll call for a council meeting.”
 
“Include Ci Nu and Gabrielle. They can answer any questions you or the council might have.”
 
Otrera didn’t even have to think about it. “I’ll ask Aristomache to fetch them when the council is convened.”
 
Outside the Queen’s hut, hidden in the shadows, a pair of brown eyes watched as Xena and Aristomache turned a corner and disappeared from sight. Moments later, Ares stepped out from his hiding place and looked after them thoughtfully. He might not have overheard the entire conversation between Otrera and Xena but he’d heard enough to be intrigued. And a glimmer of an idea was starting to take shape in his ever-scheming mind. The air shimmered around him and he was gone.
 
***
 
Lunch had consisted of bread and cheese; which was what they had for breakfast that day, and also lunch the day before. It wasn’t anything near what Xena and Gabrielle had grown accustomed to during their stay with the Southern Forest Clan but no one was complaining. It was impractical to expect the same kind of variety and quality of food while travelling and this was standard fare for the Amazons and for most Greeks. In fact, bread and cheese was a staple during the years Xena and Gabrielle spent travelling around the known world. Dinner tended to be more extravagant though, depending on the success of the day’s hunt.
 
Actually, lunch wasn’t the problem. They were just bored out of their minds, having been cooped up inside for the better part of two days. And who knew how long they had to wait before Otrera managed to round up the Council of Elders and how much longer after that before the Council reached a decision on the proposed alliance. That could take hours, or days, or even, may the Fates forbid, weeks.
 
All this waiting, well, it couldn’t be healthy; at least not for Xena. She was a woman of action and here, hemmed in by four walls, she couldn’t do much of anything except fiddle with the bits and pieces of her gear, all of which did not require any repair whatsoever. It was enough to drive a warrior crazy. Gabrielle was faring better though. She had her writing to turn to and what better time to start working on her scrolls than all this downtime they were having.
 
Ci Nu, on the other hand, didn’t mind the boredom much. As an immortal, boredom was only to be expected. That’s probably why the dragons travelled so much. It gave them something to do and made it easier for them to pass whatever spare time they had. Also, it could be entertaining at times, watching the petty concerns and struggles of the human race and participating in the resulting drama that invariably followed. Unlike their western brethren however, oriental dragons generally didn’t do well in enclosed spaces, at least not for prolonged periods at a stretch. They were creatures of the air and sea; they were born to be free, not restrained.
 
There was a knock on the door and Aristomache appeared in the doorway. Gabrielle, who was the nearest to the door, got up to see what she wanted. After a brief conference, Gabrielle turned around and shouted, “The Council of Elders will be convening tonight, after dinner. Otrera has asked Ci Nu and me to attend.”
 
Both Xena and Ci Nu nodded their acknowledgement. It was good news. Not the part about Ci Nu and Gabrielle being invited to sit in at the Council meeting. That, they were already expecting since it was Xena’s idea in the first place. The earlier the Council meeting was held, the sooner they would get out of here.
 
But Gabrielle wasn’t finished. “That’s not all. According to Aristomache, we are no longer ‘prisoners’ but guests of the Queen. So… we are free to go...”
 
Gabrielle waited for a reaction. Ci Nu cocked her head to one side, and Xena raised an eyebrow in part query but that was it. If Gabrielle had been hoping for some sort of exuberant outburst, she was sorely disappointed.
 
“… As long as we stay within Amazon territory and have a guard with us at all times.”
 
And with that, Ci Nu and Xena jumped to their feet, both already fully armed, and by some unspoken agreement, headed straight for the door.
 
“Where…” Gabrielle opened her mouth to ask but they were already gone.
 
***
 
Two sweaty and very satisfying hours later, Xena and Gabrielle were swimming and frolicking in a lake a short distance from the Amazon village. Ci Nu had long since finished her bath and excused herself, leaving with one of the guards in the direction of the village. The other two guards were seated on a rock formation near the lake where they could keep an eye on their charges while giving them the illusion of privacy.
 
“Let’s get outta here,” Xena said, “I’m starting to prune.” She swam for the shore, her strong powerful arms and legs propelling her through the water with all the grace and speed of a shark scenting blood.
 
Gabrielle tried to keep up but with her shorter reach, she could not hope to get anywhere near Xena. Luckily, this wasn’t a race.
 
Not surprisingly, Xena was the first to step out of the lake. Water ran down her body in little rivulets, drawing the eye to the warrior’s many curves and then some. She gathered her dripping wet hair behind her with one hand, wringing it semi-dry and twirling it up into a loose bun on top of her head before letting it fall loose down her back.
 
A few steps behind, Gabrielle stopped short, barely avoided doing a complete face-plant into the mud, and stared, completely fixated at the sight before her. “You’re so beautiful.” She blurted out before she could stop herself.
 
Hands on hip, Xena mock-glared at her soulmate. “Gabrielle, you been taking henbane again?” She demanded, half serious and half in jest then grinned at the blush that crept up Gabrielle’s face and painted it nearly bright red.
 
“C’mon. You’re pruning.” Xena chided. She helped Gabrielle out of the lake, grabbed a clean dry cloth and started wiping her partner off. Once done, she handed the cloth to Gabrielle. “Now do me.”
 
When they were both dry and fully clothed, they found a comfortable spot with a good view and sat down to wait for sunset.
 
The sky was awash with colour, streaks of varying shades of orange and red mixed in with blue as the great big ball of light that was the sun sank lower and lower, too tired from its travel across the sky to hold itself up any longer.
 
Xena and Gabrielle were seated, back to front; Xena leaning against the trunk of a tree and Gabrielle leaning against her, their arms loosely wrapped around each other’s. They were enjoying the moment and each other, contented and happy.
 
“Gabrielle…” Xena murmured into the bard’s ear. “I was thinking…”
 
Gabrielle started to turn, to see what it was that Xena was trying to tell her but the warrior princess tightened her grip around her.
 
“Don’t.” Xena said quietly, almost pleadingly.
 
So Gabrielle didn’t. She forced herself to relax back into Xena’s embrace and just focus on the pretty colours the sky was turning with each second that went by. Gabrielle had no idea what was on Xena’s mind. The warrior was shielding herself so hard that all Gabrielle was getting from her was a whole load of nothing. And that was making her jittery.
 
It was a minute, two at the most, before Xena spoke again but it felt like an eternity to Gabrielle.
 
“I was thinking… about getting married.” Xena said, sounding hesitant and almost unsure which was completely out of character for her.
 
“What?!” Gabrielle shouted. She hadn’t meant to. It just came out that way.
 
Xena flinched but, like the brave warrior she was, she forged ahead anyway, “Will you marry me?”
 
“What? No!”
 
Gabrielle jumped to her feet, whirling around to face Xena and said almost in accusation, “Is this about Lila?”
 
She didn’t wait for Xena to answer though. No, Gabrielle was in full rage mode and as she spoke, her voice grew progressively louder until she was almost shouting. “We talked about this. How many times have we talked about this? I thought we had an agreement!”
 
“What we have—it’s special, it’s sacred. You don’t mess around with something like that. I don’t care what other people think. I don’t even care what Lila thinks. I know she’s my sister and I love her. But she has no right to tell me what to do about us. That’s my business, our business. I don’t need you to make an honest woman out of me. If I wanted that, I could have just stayed in Potidaea and married Perdicus. Xena, we have nothing to prove, to ourselves or to anyone else. What we have, it’s stronger than any one of us. It works. So, no!”
 
“Nothing has to change, Gabrielle.” Xena said softly.
 
“No!”
 
“Gabrielle…”
 
Gabrielle’s arm shot out in a horizontal chopping motion, rudely cutting her off. “Xena, I said no. You hear me? No! End of discussion.”
 
“I…”
 
This time, it was Gabrielle’s finger that stopped Xena. It stabbed at the air in front of her face forcefully and repeatedly as if Gabrielle was trying to punch a hole through it.
 
“I mean it, Xena. Never bring this up again. Ever. You understand me? Never!”
 
And with that, Gabrielle spun on her heel and stomped off, causing one of the guards to scramble off the rock formation, nearly falling in the process. She righted herself, spared Xena a quick accusatory glance and started jogging after Gabrielle.
 
Xena could have done the same but she didn’t. Instead, she leaned back against the tree and closed her eyes. Far off on the horizon, the sun continued its tired descent into darkness. But not before the last of the sun rays glinted off a solitary tear trickling down Xena’s face and past her cheek. It paused for the briefest of moments at the proud line of her jaw, as if contemplating the reason for its existence, before taking the plunge to land in an insignificant splat on the back of Xena’s right hand.
 
***
 
There were twenty of them in the audience chamber of the Queen’s hut; twelve representatives from the Amazons, five from the Daughters, Otrera, Gabrielle and Ci Nu, the last of whom was representing the oriental dragons.
 
Discussions had been going on for a while now. At the moment, Varia had the floor and she was arguing rather passionately against the proposed alliance. It was only to be expected. Varia had been born and brought up right here, in this very village. Nearly all the people she cared about in this world had either died or lived here. This—was home. Hers was the voice of the Telaquire Amazons, to whom this place was everything they held dear.
 
Varia actually raised some valid points, and if Gabrielle had been paying attention, she would have agreed with her. But Gabrielle’s mind was somewhere else altogether. She still couldn’t get over what had happened at the lake with Xena. And truth be told, Gabrielle was worried. She hadn’t seen Xena at dinner and no one else seemed to have seen Xena since before they left for the lake.
 
Thanks to their bond, Gabrielle knew her soulmate was somewhere in the vicinity but that was extent of the information she had. She was sure she had hurt the warrior and she wished she could have done it all differently. If anything, Gabrielle wanted to be out there, actively looking for Xena; to tell her she was sorry, that she hadn’t meant what she’d said, at least not where it really mattered. But Xena wasn’t responding to Gabrielle’s numerous attempts at communication via their soul-link and Gabrielle doubted she could just excuse herself from the proceedings without jeopardising their entire mission.
 
Xena, please. Gabrielle tried again to reach out to Xena through their soul-link but all she received for her troubles was a resounding silence. She half-heartedly tuned back to the discussion at hand and realised Ci Nu was preparing to answer a question Varia had raised.
 
“The terms of the alliance are simple. Each clan will set aside a portion of their lands for the Amazons or the Daughters to live in. The size and location will differ based on the individual clan. Some clans, like mine, have their lands hidden away in the forests. Some have theirs up in the mountains. And some have theirs near the sea. You will need to split up into groups which you will have to decide amongst yourselves. Each group will get to choose which clan they want to live with.”
 
“You expect us to believe the dragons want nothing in return?” Varia asked sceptically.
 
There were nods all around the room. These women had seen more than their fair share of battles. They had given life and they had taken them. Some had even been sold into slavery and escaped. They knew the world they lived in was harsh and cruel and none of them were naïve enough to believe that the dragons would give them something in return for nothing.
 
“We only ask that nature be allowed to take its course.” Ci Nu said.
 
“And what is that supposed to mean?” One of the Amazons shouted from the rear.
 
Ci Nu continued, as if she hadn’t been interrupted. “For many years now, our numbers have been steadily declining. Our females have not been able to carry the young ones to term and none of the clans has celebrated a birth in nearly three years.”
 
”So what? You want us to be baby farms and churn out little dragons?” This time, the question came from one of Otrera’s people.
 
Ci Nu did not appear offended by the question. Or if she did, she hid it well. “It is not unheard of for a dragon and a human to have a child. We have many instances in our long history. But we are not interested in coercion. If in the course of living in such close proximity, an Amazon or a Daughter falls in love or chooses for whatever reasons to have a child with one of our own, that’s their choice. I would be lying if I said that wasn’t our hope. But that is the nature of life. What will be will be.”
 
“How does that work?” A dragon and a human.”
 
Ci Nu spread her hands wide, as if putting herself on display. “As you can see, we have human forms.”
 
“What I mean is—would the child grow up to be a dragon or a human? And who will get to raise them?” The same person asked.
 
“Ah yes. A son will always be a dragon; a daughter, human. For practical reasons, it would be best for the sons to be raised by the clan and the daughters by your tribes. Either way, both parents will still be able to raise their child.”
 
Curiosity piqued, Otrera asked, “Why are the females always humans?”
 
“It is not that simple.” Ci Nu said.
 
Otrera gestured for her to elaborate and nobody objected. It seemed everyone was curious.
 
“I’ll try to explain.” Ci Nu told them. “The determining factor lies in the father of the child.”
 
“If both parents are dragons, the offspring will always be dragons.” She paused to see if anyone had an issue with that but no one did. After all, it made complete sense.
 
Ci Nu nodded and continued. “If the father is human and the mother is a dragon, the offspring will always be human.”
 
So far so good.
 
“But if the father is a dragon and the mother human, only the male offspring will be dragons. The female offspring will be human.”
 
There were a few frowns around the room and a whispered conversation or two as the council members tried to wrap their heads around this last bit. But Ci Nu’s explanation had been clear and concise and though few of them completely understood the why, they at least understood that the species of the offspring were determined by the species of the father.
 
Ci Nu’s explanation done, the meeting moved on to other matters and Gabrielle’s mind drifted once again to her missing soulmate.
 
***
 
It was dark. The sun had long since set and Xena really ought to be getting back to the Amazon village and the dinner that was waiting for her. But she wasn’t particularly hungry. And it was quiet and peaceful out here, just what she needed at the moment.
 
Unfortunately it wasn’t going to be quiet or peaceful for long.
 
Xena didn’t look up, not that she could have seen anything in the pitch blackness. “You here to gloat?” She asked.
 
The shadows parted and the familiar silhouette of Ares came into view. “You know, you’re still the only mortal who can do that.”
 
“I doubt you’re here to talk about my many skills. What do you want, Ares?”
 
Ares took a step closer, dropped into a squat and reached out one hand to caress Xena’s cheek. “Look what she has done to you, Xena.”
 
Ares could be an egomaniac and overall world class prick but he had his moments and this was one of them. It reminded Xena of all the tender moments they’d shared over the years. Granted, most of them happened when Ares was mortal but that was also when Xena came to realise that Ares wasn’t the ultimate embodiment of her dark side as she’d once believed. She’d loved him once. And if she were to be completely honest with herself, she still did. It didn’t mean she loved Gabrielle any less. It just was.
 
“She doesn’t deserve you, Xena. But you and me, we were made for each other.” Ares leaned in towards Xena, his mouth mere inches from her ear. Their faces were so close she could feel the coarse hairs of his goatee against her cheek.
 
He brushed his lips against Xena’s earlobe and whispered, “You feel it, don’t ya?”
 
He was kneeling before her now, straddling her, their bodies so close they could both feel the heat emanating from each other. Ares rocked back onto his heels and Xena leaned in towards him, drawn almost seemingly against her will by the animalistic magnetism that existed between them. Their eyes were closed, their lips slightly parted, barely touching. It was hard to tell who was resisting who or even if either of them was but what happened next was inevitable.
 
They came together, their heads tilted at just the right angle so that they fit perfectly as their lips locked. It was air and fire all at once. And it was heat, pure unadulterated heat, burning in their veins, burning through their skin and threatening to engulf them completely.
 
Xena came to her senses first. She pushed Ares away from her and dug her fingers into the rough bark of the tree at her back, using the pain to firmly anchor herself in reality.
 
“Oh Xena Xena Xena, why do you insist on fighting me?” Ares chided, clucking his tongue disapprovingly. “You know this is how it was supposed to be. Me and you. Together.”
 
Ares leaned in again and Xena placed her hand on his chest to stop him. “And Otrera?” She asked.
 
“It’s you I want, Xena. That’s the only reason I’m here.”
 
“So tell me, what do you really want, Ares?”
 
Ares shrugged as if the answer was blatantly obvious. “What I always wanted. You, me, an army, conquering the world. The Amazons aren’t half bad. They are decent fighters. Could be better but between the two of us, we’ll whip them into shape. Like this.” He snapped his fingers. “And we could recruit those serpentine friends of yours from Chin. They would prove very useful. What do you say?”
 
“My warlord days are behind me, Ares. I’m not going back.”
 
“I’m not asking you to. We can conquer the world and skip all the death and destruction stuff. You would make a good queen.”
 
“I don’t believe you, Ares.”
 
“Have I ever lied to you, Xena? We might have to strong-arm a few people to bring them over to our way of thinking but there’s no need for any more death or destruction than absolutely necessary. C’mon, Xena. Think about all the good we could do.”
 
Xena’s resolve seemed to waver and Ares was able to close the distance between them. He grinned and tried to kiss her again but she stopped him.
 
“What about Gabrielle?”
 
“What about her?”
 
“If I agree, I want you to leave her alone.”
 
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever.”
 
“I’m serious, Ares. You so much as touch her and the deal is off.”
 
“Done.”
 
“Done.” Xena agreed.
 
“Now, where were we?”
 
Ares leaned back in and Xena let him. He kissed her then started nuzzling his way down the side of her face. She arched back against the tree, exposing the long line of her neck in the process and pressing herself more firmly against him. Ares didn’t need a second invitation. He kissed his way down, to the hollow at the base of her neck then buried his nose between her cleavage, breathing in her earthy scent. “You have no idea how long I’ve waited for this.” He murmured.
 
Xena wasn’t interested in the answer to that. She pulled him back up, roughly yanking his vest off in the process and kissed him long and hard, bruisingly so. Ares returned it eagerly, almost hungrily. She ran her hands down the hard planes of his chest and then his abs, stopping just short of the waistband of his tight leather pants. Ares growled and she pulled him closer then they got down and dirty.
 
Not far away, the guard who was supposed to be shadowing Xena was slumped over, deeply asleep. When she woke up much later, she would have no recollection at all of what had happened or what she had been doing out there, alone and in the dark.
 
***
 
The meeting had gone as well as could be expected but there were still a few minor details to iron out before the proposal could be put to a vote. Otrera would inform them on the Council’s decision tomorrow, before it was officially announced to the rest of the Amazons.
 
When Ci Nu and Gabrielle stepped into the hut, Xena was already in bed and seemingly fast asleep. The warrior was lying on her side, facing away from them, so close to the edge of the bed that it would have been only too easy to nudge her off. But that also meant she had left more than enough space for Gabrielle to climb into bed with her, if Gabrielle so desired.
 
Gabrielle stood there looking between the empty bed in the middle and the one Xena was on. It had been a long time since they had gone to bed after an argument or disagreement without making peace with each other. Unfortunately, this seemed to be one of those times. Gabrielle let out a quiet sigh. She didn’t like it but it didn’t look as if there was anything she could do about it. She wasn’t going to wake Xena up. What would she say? That she was sorry? It wasn’t nearly enough. But Gabrielle didn’t want to sleep alone either. What she needed right now more than anything was the reassurance that she hadn’t unwittingly destroyed their relationship. To that end, she needed to feel Xena’s strong arms holding her close, the way the warrior had done for nearly as long as she could remember. Somehow, Xena always made her feel safe.
 
Her mind made up, Gabrielle slipped off her boots, placed her sais on the bedside table and carefully eased herself onto the bed so that she was facing the same direction as Xena. She didn’t want Xena waking up. It would be awkward and Gabrielle couldn’t deal with that right now. She spooned herself against the taller woman but it just wasn’t enough. Instead, Gabrielle felt small and lost and completely and utterly alone. It made her want to cry.
 
All that jostling had inevitably jarred Xena to wakefulness. She could feel Gabrielle pressed up so tightly against her back that there was nowhere for her to go except perhaps to fall off the bed.
 
“Gabrielle?”
 
Gabrielle froze at the sound of Xena’s voice. She couldn’t move, didn’t dare to.
 
“Gabrielle, you need to get off the bed.”
 
The world seemed to slow down in that moment as Gabrielle tried to comprehend what Xena was saying. It seemed that her worst fears were being realised.
 
Ever so slowly, Gabrielle climbed off the bed. She stood in front of the bedside table, not looking at Xena and not seeing much of anything at all. She knew she should move or at least pick up her sais, not stand there like some lost child without her mother. But even that seemed beyond her.
 
Without Gabrielle glued to her back, Xena was finally able to turn around. The first thing she noticed was Gabrielle. It was impossible not to. The bard was just standing there, looking so forlorn that Xena’s heart immediately went out to her. In fact, it felt as if someone was stabbing a thin and very sharp dagger repeatedly into her chest. Xena forced the pain down.
 
“Gabrielle...”
 
Time slowed to a crawl for Gabrielle. She turned her head towards Xena, her body hunched in upon itself as if she was steeling herself for a fatal blow.
 
Xena lifted one arm in invitation, careful not to move too fast in case she spooked her soulmate. Treating the bard as she would a frightened child, she kept her voice gentle and soft and completely unthreatening. “C’mere.” 
 
At first, Gabrielle didn’t move, as if she couldn’t quite believe what was happening. But she eventually unfroze and hesitantly crawled back onto the bed. She initially lay on her back but the bed was small and it was a tight squeeze so she turned onto her side, facing away from Xena. It was better this way. She couldn’t look at her soulmate. She was afraid and so brittle. Gabrielle felt as if she might break into a million pieces at any moment. All it would take was a harsh word or a look of censure from Xena. She curled into a ball, trying to make herself as small as possible. Perhaps then, when she did break, it wouldn’t hurt as bad.
 
When Xena shifted closer, Gabrielle flinched. She couldn’t help herself. Xena was close enough that Gabrielle could feel her warm breath on the back of her neck. It tickled. And yet, it was comforting in its familiarity. Gabrielle relaxed a little, enough that she didn’t react too strongly when Xena wrapped one arm around her, pulling her even closer. This was exactly what Gabrielle had hoped for but strangely enough it also made her feel like weeping.
 
“I’m sorry.” Gabrielle whispered, her voice broken, just like her heart.
 
Behind her, Xena’s heart broke too. Gabrielle was projecting too strongly for Xena not to feel her pain. But even without their soul-link, Xena would have felt the same way. She hated seeing Gabrielle hurt. If Xena had a choice, she would rather bear all of Gabrielle’s pain for her. But that wasn’t the way it worked. So she just tightened her grip on the bard. “You don’t have to be sorry for anything.”
 
Xena buried her nose into the crook of Gabrielle’s neck, inhaling deeply, reassuring herself with the warm familiar scent of her soulmate. And all the while, she crushed the bard to her, as if that might somehow make everything right again. “It’s okay.”
 
“I…” Gabrielle choked on her emotions and couldn’t continue.
 
Xena hushed her. She pressed a kiss to Gabrielle’s shoulder. “It’s okay, Gabrielle. I’m right here. I’ll always be right here.”
 
With that, Gabrielle started to cry, big heaving sobs that rocked her body like a miniature earthquake. And Xena just held her, whispering reassuring nonsense into her ear until the bard was all cried out and they finally fell into exhausted slumber.
 
***
 
Aristomache knocked on the door before poking her head in. “Gabrielle, the council has reached a decision.”
 
“That’s fast.” Gabrielle said, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. It was nearly noon but Gabrielle was still in bed. In fact, she had been sleeping up until half an hour ago.
 
It had been a rough night. She had a pounding headache and her eyes were still red and puffy from her crying jag the night before. Gabrielle pulled on her boots, grabbed her sais off the table and tucked them into their sheaths. Very gingerly, she stood up, holding on to the bedpost for support. As she waited for the room to stop spinning around her, she noticed a mug on the table. There was a note tucked under it with Xena’s all-too-familiar writing on it.
 
               Gabrielle,
                              Drink this. It will help with the headache.
                                                                                           X
 
Gabrielle picked up the mug. Dried flowers with a yellow centre and off-white petals floated in a light brownish coloured tea sweetened with a touch of honey. Chamomile; the chamomile flower had many uses. As a salve, it could be used to treat wounds and skin diseases. As a tea, it could be used to relieve cramps, ease pain, soothe the stomach and promote sleep and healing. It was also commonly found in Greece. Gabrielle took a sip, then another. Surprisingly, it was still warm. After a few more sips, the pounding in her head eased to a dull ache.
 
“Sorry about that.” Gabrielle told Aristomache. “I’m ready. Where are Xena and Ci Nu?”
 
“They should be on their way to the Queen’s hut.” Aristomache replied.
 
“Let’s go then.”
 
By the time Gabrielle and Aristomache arrived, Ci Nu and Xena were already in the audience chamber talking with Otrera.
 
Otrera waved her in. “Gabrielle. Come, join us. I have good news.”
 
“Let me guess…” Gabrielle said, walking over to stand beside Xena. “The Council approved the alliance.”
 
“Yes, indeed. We—are going to Chin.” There were smiles all around.
 
The festive mood did not last. For just as Otrera called for the guards to bring them some wine, there was an ear-splitting clap. Ares had decided to crash the party.
 
Otrera took a step towards him. “I don’t remember inviting you, Ares.”
 
The god of war sneered. “That’s the problem with you, Otrera. You don’t remember a great many things. Personally, I find that disturbing for a goddess of your reputation. The Amazons are mine. Or have you forgotten that too?”
 
Otrera drew herself up to her full height. “These are my people. My duty is to them, Ares, not you. I don’t owe you anything.”
 
“Harsh.” Ares said shaking his head. “Ungrateful too. Well, two can play at this game.”
 
He dropped his left hand to the pommel of his sword and Otrera reached for her weapon. But Ares had no intention of crossing swords with Otrera. There was no need. He had something much better. He raised his right hand, palm up and concentrated. A roiling ball of fire appeared and before anyone could react, he threw it at Otrera.
 
The fireball exploded on impact, sending Otrera flying across the room. Even before she landed in a crumpled heap, Ci Nu and Gabrielle had their weapons drawn. They stepped between Ares and the injured Otrera, shielding her from his line of sight and preventing him from hitting her with another one of his fireballs.
 
Ares snarled at the interfering mortals but, at the same time, he noted with satisfaction that Xena was keeping up her side of the bargain. The warrior princess hadn’t even drawn her sword. In fact, she was standing on the side lines, as casual as you please; arms folded across her chest, a knowing smile on her face as she watched the whole thing play out. The smile reminded Ares of a similar one she’d sported during their moment of passion the night before.
 
That was when it hit him. This was it. This was really it. What he’d been waiting for all this time. Xena was finally his, all his; no more sharing with the irritating blonde. He bared his teeth at the blonde in question, showing off his perfect set of sparkly white teeth, then pulled back his hand and flung the fireball at his lifelong nemesis, his one and only true competitor for Xena’s love.
 
The fireball slammed into Gabrielle, lifting her clear off her feet. She hit the far wall hard, seeming to defy gravity for a moment before sliding bonelessly to the ground. Ares’ next fireball sent Ci Nu spinning out of the audience chamber and into the living quarters where she ended up sprawled on the ground like a lifeless doll.
 
Everyone was down for the count. There was no one left to oppose him and to stop him from claiming what should rightfully have been his all along. But first, he had a little business to take care of. He dismissed the fireball he was holding with a mere thought and drew his sword. It was time to finish off the only person in the room whom he deemed remotely capable of being a threat to him—the warrior goddess of the Daughters, Otrera.
 
Swinging his sword in one hand, Ares casually sauntered over to Otrera, as if he didn’t have a care in the world. He should have known better. After all, the god of war had forgotten something or rather someone very important. Lesser men than him had paid for the consequence of their oversight; they were all dead and buried and serving the greater good as worm food.
 
A familiar war cry stopped Ares dead in his tracks. It was a sound he was intimately familiar with; one that used to give him a hard-on just thinking about it. This bloodcurdling war cry had sown terror and fear on battlefields all over the known world and turned battle-hardened veterans into lily-livered cowards who would sooner run than fight and die where they stood. And to think, he, Ares, god of war, was the one who had unleashed this force of nature upon the unsuspecting world in the first place.
 
He turned to find Xena stalking towards him, sword in hand. Her face was twisted into an ugly snarl and her steely blue eyes flashed with what could only be interpreted as murderous intent. She was a predator and he was the prey. But fear was the very last thing on Ares’ mind. No, the god of war was too busy drinking in this vision of a perfect warrior, the absolute Holy Grail for any discerning god of war. Indeed, Xena was the one and only woman worthy of being Goddess of War, the Queen to his King.
 
A sword stroke aimed at his head snapped Ares out of his reverie. He raised his sword and blocked the blow easily. In the same movement, he pushed Xena back and went on the offensive. He swung and stabbed and cut. Angry now, he roared, “We had an agreement!”
 
“Deal’s off, Ares.” Xena growled in reply. She parried his strike and took a punch to the face for her effort. She blocked the next few blows then landed an uppercut of her own. Ares stumbled back but recovered quickly. They traded blow for blow, going back and forth. Sometimes, Xena came out on top but mostly it was Ares who did. For as much of a legend as Xena was, she was only mortal and this was one fight she could not hope to win. Ares, was a god; any wounds he received just healed right back up. He—could not be killed.
 
But Xena certainly could. The warrior princess was already bleeding from half a dozen cuts and bruises covered her face and body where Ares had pummelled her with either his sword or his fists. One eye was swollen shut and she was a little unsteady on her feet. The numerous blows she’d taken to her head seemed to have taken a toll on her.
 
Ares swung his sword in a powerful two-handed overhead chop that Xena blocked easily with the flat of her sword. But the force of the blow was too much for her wobbly knees to take and she went down. The impact jarred her but Xena managed to get one knee under her and stop Ares’ sword from cleaving her in half.
 
“You’re weak, Xena. Weak.” Ares sneered. “And soon, you’ll be dead. And when I’m done with you, your precious girlfriend will be next. How do you like that?”
 
Xena turned to one side and spat. A bloody wad of spit with something hard and white mixed in it landed on the ground beside her. She felt around with her tongue, probing at the hole in her mouth and cursed under her breath, “Damn, that was my favourite tooth.”
 
“What did you say? You need to speak up, Xena. I can’t hear you.”
 
“I said you need to stop counting your chickens before they are hatched, Ares.”
 
Xena shoved upwards with her sword, twisted away from the downward swing of Ares’ sword, tucked her left hand under her, pushed down and, using every ounce of her strength, kicked out at Ares with her right boot. He was catapulted into the air, as if struck by a battering ram, the tip of his sword dragging on the floor with a high-pitched scraping sound that put Xena’s nerves on edge.
 
Moments before he struck the wall, a portal shimmered into existence and he continued his flight through it. All anyone could hear before the portal snapped shut was the sound of Ares shouting, “Xeeennnnnaaaaaaa!!!!!!”
 
Otrera dropped her hand wearily, as if the act of summoning the portal had drained her of all her energy. And it probably had. Unlike her Olympian colleagues, Otrera did not possess any special powers other than her immortality, her superior strength and speed, and her god-like recuperative powers. Opening a portal was definitely not in her repertoire of skills. But Ares had personally taught her how to do it and if nothing else, Otrera was a fast learner. She sunk into a chair and flashed Xena a tired but triumphant smile. “That should hold him for a while.”
 
“How long?” Xena asked.
 
“A month, maybe two?”
 
Xena nodded her head in satisfaction. “Long enough.”
 
They really only needed Ares out of the way until they could get the Amazons and the Daughters out of Greece. Once out of Greece, Ares wouldn’t be able to touch them.
 
Gabrielle came over and fussed over Xena, poking and prodding and clucking her tongue at the warrior’s injuries. Xena stopped her. “I’ll live. I’m more worried about you.”
 
“Always looking out for me, hur.” Gabrielle said with a smile. She brushed her thumb over a rapidly purpling bruise on Xena’s cheek. “I’m fine. A little bruised but nothing a good back rub won’t fix.”
 
“And a new top.” Xena quipped gesturing at the singed marks on Gabrielle’s red velvet top.
 
“And a new top.” Gabrielle agreed.
 
“It was a good plan.” Cin Nu said, interrupting their easy banter. She was standing beside Otrera now; one hand placed almost possessively on the latter’s shoulder.
 
Noticing this, Xena and Gabrielle waggled their eyebrows at each other and grinned.
 
If Ci Nu noticed their little exchange, she did not show it. Instead, she asked, “How did you know Ares would not keep his side of the bargain?”
 
Xena hadn’t really explained the plan to any of them in detail. She’d given each of them only enough information for them to play their part and nothing more. With Ares lurking about the village and possibly overhearing any conversations they might have, Xena couldn’t risk him finding out and exposing her plan.
 
“Ares hates Gabrielle and everything she stands for. As long as she lives, I will never truly be his.” Xena told Ci Nu.
 
“If that is the case, why did he believe you?”
 
“Because people believe what they want to believe.” Gabrielle replied on Xena’s behalf. “Ares’ ego would not allow him to believe anything else.”
 
There was an almost wistful look on Xena’s face at Gabrielle’s answer and the bard frowned.
 
Otrera rose from her seat, holding on to Ci Nu’s arm for support, even though she didn’t appear to need it. “I should go check on everyone.”
 
Gabrielle nodded her head in agreement. “It’s odd that no one came to investigate. We weren’t exactly—quiet.”
 
At the door, Otrera turned and said, “If all goes well, I’ll make the announcement tonight. And we’ll have a celebration.”
 
“The Amazons would like that.” Gabrielle said with a smile.
 
After they were gone, Gabrielle turned to Xena. “You still have the hots for him, don’t you?”
 
Xena’s mind flashed back to the night before—the kiss she’d shared with Ares, all passion and fire and life. The god of war made her feel alive, the same way that putting her life on the battlefield did. She missed it—sometimes. And if things had turned out differently, who knew what would have been? Xena shook those memories away and focused instead on the woman before her. Gabrielle deserved to know the truth.
 
“Maybe, a little.”
 
Gabrielle opened her mouth to say something but Xena beat her to it.
 
“But I chose you, Gabrielle. And if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. You are my life, Gabrielle. I love you. I will always love you. I would rather have one second in your arms than an eternity without you.”
 
“Smart choice.” Gabriele leaned forward and kissed her.
 
“Ow!”
 
“Too sore?”
 
“Nah. If you don’t mind, I won’t.”
 
Xena pulled Gabrielle down on top of her and they kissed again. Three days was too long to go without making love and they planned on rectifying that right then and there.
 
***
 
The Amazon village was an absolute hive of activity. Everyone was busy running around getting supplies ready or packing up whatever belongings deemed too valuable to leave behind. Otrera’s decision to leave the Amazon village and head for greener pastures had been rather well received, all things considered. But Artemis was long dead and the constant invasion of their lands and the decimation of their fellow sisters had taken a toll on the Amazons. With the arrival of Otrera, their new patron goddess, the Amazons were ready for a fresh start and it made sense that they would need to leave behind their past for that to happen. Still, there were a few issues that needed straightening out but Otrera and the Council of Elders had that well in hand.
 
Xena and Gabrielle were travelling back to Chin with the Amazons. That was their original plan after all. But unlike the Amazons, all their worldly possessions were already packed and ready to go. And so they just stood there watching, a million different thoughts running through their minds. Xena was thinking about Ephiny and the promise she’d made to the late Regent. Gabrielle was remembering all the people she’d met here in this place where the Amazons had accepted her as one of their own; all the memories that had been forged, the good and the bad and the painful. And she realised this was how it was always meant to be.
 
Turning to her soulmate, Gabrielle placed both her hands and part of her forearms on Xena’s breastplate and looked up into eyes the colour of the winter sky. She took a deep breath, let it out slowly and asked, “Can we have a do-over?”
 
Xena looked down at Gabrielle quizzically then smiled and slid her hands down Gabrielle’s side until they stopped just above the bard’s wraparound skirt. “Hmm?”
 
“Ask me again.” Gabrielle said. Her eyes were still locked on Xena’s but all her other senses were in overdrive. She was very much aware of Xena’s hands on her waist, the feel of the well-worn calluses on the warrior’s palm rubbing against her soft skin. She could hear, no, feel, Xena’s heart beating ever so slowly and steadily within her chest, the familiar sound as comforting and reassuring as it always was. And above and beyond it all, Gabrielle could feel Xena’s soul calling out to her through their soul-link; needing her, wanting her, desiring her, completing her.
 
Xena moved her hands lower until they were resting just above the swell of Gabrielle’s butt and pulled the bard closer. Her eyes were darker now, whether in desire or arousal, it was hard to tell. Xena licked her lips once and when she spoke again, her voice was husky. “You sure about that?”
 
“Ask me again, Xena.” Gabrielle almost added ‘please’. But she didn’t need to. With Xena, she never needed to.
 
Xena nodded once, took a deep breath, and said gravely, “Gabrielle, will you marry me?”
 
Gabrielle broke into a huge grin. “I thought you’d never ask.” She slipped her hands around Xena’s neck and pulled the taller woman down even as she lifted herself up onto her tippy toes. Their lips touched and it was soft and tender and everything that was right in the world.
 
When they finally came up for air, Xena pulled away slightly. “Is that a yes?” She asked. Her voice was a little breathless from the kiss.
 
“You bet your scrawny ass it is.” Gabrielle sounded not only starved for air but for a little something else besides.
 
Xena raised a well-sculpted eyebrow at her soulmate. “My ass isn’t scrawny.”
 
As if to prove that point, Xena pulled Gabrielle closer, placed her hands under the bard’s thighs and lifted the smaller woman up. Gabrielle hooked her legs around Xena’s waist and wrapped them over the swell of the ass in question. In this position, Gabrielle was able to actually look down into Xena’s face and that was what she spent one long moment doing, just looking into the warrior’s eyes and basking in the sheer power of the love she found shining back at her from within its pale blue depths.
 
“I love you, Xena.”
 
The washed up ex-warlock and one-time Destroyer of Nations broke into a radiant smile at this pronouncement and said, “I love you too, Gabrielle. More than anything in this world.”
 
They kissed. Again. This time, the Amazon village and the hustle and bustle around them seemed to fade away. And it was just the two of them there, as it should be.
 
Some distance away, Otrera watched them with envy. She might have grown rather fond of Gabrielle in the brief time they’d known each other but watching the two of them being so intimate still hurt. Shaking her head, she turned away, only to come face to face with Ci Nu. The dragon warrior gave her a warm smile and Otrera found herself smiling right back. She reached out to take Ci Nu’s proffered hand. Somehow, she had a feeling this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

 

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