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"You don't have to tell me, but can I ask why?" Eponin said quietly. She knew the dark-haired woman sitting across from her would have preferred to have been there in case of trouble but if she wasn't then the reason must be good one.
"I'm not an Amazon, Eponin. I don't have any real right to be at the negotiations," Xena explained.
"But you're Gabrielle's partner. That gives you all the right you need as far as the Nation is concerned," the other woman answered. "Besides, if you are invited, whose to say you can't be there?"
"And the villagers might feel a little intimidated if I am hovering in the background," the tall woman added. "It's not like I have the best reputation around." Xena wondered if people would ever stop being afraid of her and the past she was still trying to amend.
"Well, there is that. Are you sure about this?" Eponin asked.
"Yes, I'm sure. She needs someone she can trust with her and I'd rather it be you than anyone else," Xena replied.
Eponin blushed for a moment at the compliment the other woman had just given her. "Okay, Xena. I'll stand with her. Have you told Gabrielle yet?"
"I'll tell her later when I get back to the palace," Xena said, relieved that Eponin had agreed. She knew that Gabrielle trusted the warrior too. It had been Eponin who had given the bard her first lessons with the staff, showing a great deal of patience with the woman until she had caught the knack of using the fighting weapon. Xena also felt it best not to say anything about Gabrielle's self-doubts. She was assuming a day or so at the negotiating table and the bard would be her usual self again, at least in that respect anyway.
Changing the subject quickly, to take the uncomfortable focus off herself, Xena asked, "And who was that I saw coming out of your hut this afternoon?"
Eponin blushed again, a deeper shade of red than before. "Amaran. She's one of the Royal guards."
"Yes, I did see the uniform. Gabrielle sent her over, didn't she," Xena stated.
"Yep. Seems our princess was rather busy with a hungover warrior this morning," The other woman replied.
"Looked like Amaran was busy with one herself," Xena smiled in return. "Like her?" she asked.
A slow smile crossed Eponin face. "Maybe. A little, I suppose. I mean I have trained with her some and fought beside her once or twice. I'd just never thought of her in that way before," the warrior ended a little lamely.
Standing up to leave, Xena said, "Don't leave it too long, Eponin. Everyone deserves to be happy."
"Even you?" the other woman asked, lifting one eyebrow.
Xena thought for a moment before answering. "Yes," she said, drawing the word out. "Maybe even me."
"Enjoy your afternoon?" Gabrielle asked a little tiredly, as Xena stepped into their rooms.
"It was okay," she answered, looking at the whirlpool of parchments and scrolls the bard had spread across the bed and surrounded herself with. Some were so old the edges were starting to disintegrate into powder and Xena could see the dust floating through the candlelight. Taking the sword and sheath from her back, hanging it on the bedhead, Xena slid in behind the other woman, wrapping her strong arms around Gabrielle's body. "Looks like you've been busy," she said, briefly reading the parchment Gabrielle had in her hand over the blonde's shoulder.
"Just trying to make sense of the agreements the Amazons have made with the villagers. Did you know they only starting trading five cycles back?" the bard explained, holding up another scroll for Xena to see.
"Ummm hmmm. Saw a copy over at Eponin's," Xena replied.
"So that's where you spent the afternoon," Gabrielle said, shuffling through several of the scrolls looking for something.
The warrior tightened her arms around the other woman a little to get her attention. "Well, no. I just stopped in for a visit on my way back."
"Back from where?" Gabrielle asked, turning in Xena arms until she was sitting sideways, leaning against her chest, the bard's legs over the other woman's powerful thighs. As usual, Gabrielle was listening for her favourite sound of all, the strong even beat of Xena's heart.
"The temple," Xena replied softly, not letting herself look into the bard's sea-green eyes.
Gabrielle giggled quietly. "I see the priestess had you repairing all those knife marks you and Eponin made last night."
"She didn't seem to care about them, Gabrielle. She was more interested in whether or not I was going to stand with you tomorrow at the meeting," the warrior said.
"You are going to stand with me, aren't you?" the other woman asked, sounding worried.
"No," Xena replied, keeping her voice as neutral as possible.
Gabrielle twisted around further until she could look into Xena's eyes to try to make sense of what the warrior was saying. "But I need you there, Xena. To help me," the bard paused for a moment, "to help me make the right decisions for the Amazon Nation."
"Gabrielle, you've negotiated trade agreements before. You don't need me there for this one. Besides, I asked Eponin to stand with you instead. She is an accepted member of the Nation. I'm not. When you get down to it, I have no right to be there anyway," Xena said.
"But I want you there," Gabrielle said loudly, thumping Xena's shoulder lightly with one fist. "I want you there behind me, you're my partner, my lover."
"Who would be scaring half the delegation spitless every time I looked sideways at them. Not to mention the anger and suspicion the other half would be feeling as they remember the things I did in the past. Everyone would be too terrified to make a strong statement, afraid I might take their heads off or something. And you know how they would be later if that happens. The villagers will think they somehow got the short end of the deal. It'll only make for resentments and misunderstandings further down the track and no one here needs that," Xena said reasonably.
"But you wouldn't have to wear your weapons and you aren't even dressed in your leathers. You look like most of the other Amazons here. Maybe that would be enough to settle them down. Please, Xena. I need you there tomorrow," Gabrielle said quietly, tears filling her eyes.
Xena felt as though her heart was being slowly crushed but she had already made her decision, now she needed to stick to it. Hardening her expression, she said, "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I can't be there. Not this time. I promise, I'll make it up to you somehow."
Gabrielle rolled out of Xena's arms and climbed off the bed. Quickly crossing the room, she entered the bathing area, closing the door behind her with a thump. The sound of the bolt being slammed home echoed dully through the warrior's mind. Xena's eyes clouded over with hurt as she heard the sobbing coming through the closed door.
Standing angrily, the warrior grabbed her sword from the bedhead and stalked out of the room, not even bothering to sling the weapon across her back before leaving. The guard outside shoved herself hard against the wall behind to stay out of Xena's hurried way. She couldn't be sure but she thought she saw a tear rolling down the cheek of the Warrior Princess as she had passed.
Gabrielle opened the door of the bathing room carefully, peering through the crack as she did so. She had heard the door to their rooms slam shut violently a candlemark earlier as the warrior had left but a part of her wished Xena had returned quietly and was waiting there for her to come out again. The bard knew she had hurt the other woman, probably setting off her fiery temper as well, because that was how she felt herself, every time Xena would stalk out of an argument in anger. But the room was empty and Xena's sword was gone from its place on the bedhead. Knowing Xena, she has probably gone somewhere to work off her mood, Gabrielle thought. At least, that was what she was hoping.
"By the mother of Zeus," Gabrielle cursed mildly. "I really messed that up, didn't I, Artemis." Ever since that morning in the compound, Gabrielle had found herself speaking to the goddess as though she could really hear the bard. Having no one else around with whom she felt she could discuss her questions and doubts, it was comforting to feel as though there was someone listening. The bard knew it was silly. The goddess was not going to concern herself with the problems of one insignificant mortal but it did ease her mind a little to speak aloud to her. If the blonde-haired woman had known just how well favoured she was by Artemis, and how hard she listened when Gabrielle spoke, the bard might have thought twice.
Sitting on the side of the bed, she picked up one of the parchments she had been examining earlier but soon tossed it aside when she found herself reading the same line over and over. Pacing back and forth through the length of the room, she tried to settle herself and think logically. "I've made wrong decisions in the past. Why is this one eating at me so much?" she asked herself. The image of Xena, dead in the compound floated up into her mind's eye again. "Because that decision almost cost Xena her life and I was the one who nearly killed her, that's why." Gabrielle found herself replaying every moment of that early dawn morning, wondering if there was any other way she could have thought to stop the warrior and her madness. Finding no satisfactory answers, she then started to think through every decision she had ever made which had put her, and especially Xena, into danger.
"There was that time with the Titans, to start with. Both of us were almost killed then. Hmmm, when we met the Horde. Mind you, Xena was almost ready to kill me herself once she knew I was outside the walls of the fort. Oh, and Thessaly. How could I forget Thessaly. Xena was ready to die of grief if I hadn't come back," the bard muttered as she ticked off each time they had been in danger or when Xena had come close to dying from some decision she had made. She slumped down into a chair. "Yes, but this time it was me firing that arrow at her and not some enemy." Moving to clear up the scrolls and parchments spread over the bed, she said to herself. "Xena was right. I don't trust myself anymore. And I have a negotiation to look after tomorrow." Climbing between the covers and staring at the ceiling, she wondered if Xena would return that night.
Xena had set herself a thumping pace as she thudded through the palace, across the compound, passed the training grounds and into the forest beyond. She didn't stop until her heartbeat was thundering in her ears and she was having trouble sucking enough air into her labouring lungs. Whether it was emotion or the pace of her walk that made breathing difficult, she no longer cared. Finding herself in a tiny clearing, she flicked the sheath from her sword and began to work through a series of complicated and difficult training patterns. She wanted something very physical to take her mind away from her feelings and the reactions they were having on her body. Using the trees as targets, she gouged huge chips from their trucks until the floor of the little clearing was littered with them. Only when she felt she had worked off the worst of her temper did she slow down and allow herself to relax a little.
Moving through some slow stretches to permit her overworked muscles to cool without cramping, she heard one of the Amazon bird calls floating on the night breeze. Someone was close by and letting her know it was a friend. Digging the point of her sword into the ground, she briefly clasped her hands over her head. If whoever was there was close enough to see her working out then they were close enough to see her signal in reply to the call. A heartbeat later, she spotted a flash of colour in the treetops just before a warrior jumped from the branches. Even in the moonlight, Xena could see the blue uniform of a Royal guard as the woman approached her.
The warrior pulled Xena's sword from the ground and handed it back to her, hilt first. "I saw you training and thought you might like a partner for a while," the woman said. "I don't often get a chance to work out with someone."
"Why not?" she asked, quizzically. Xena had recognised the guard from the moment she had hit the ground. Amaran, the guard who had taken care of Eponin earlier in the day.
"I usually do the dawn to nooning shift with the Royal guard and then I take care of my daughter in the afternoons. The only time I can really train is at night, so I most often end up training alone," the guard explained.
Xena looked the woman over as she felt her body's responses, wondering if she was up to it. She was a little tired but this was just a sparing session and not something more deadly. Amaran was taller than most of the other Amazons Xena had met, broader across the shoulders and more muscular. In others words, a typical Royal guard. Her long brown hair was tied back in a neat braid, her brown eyes flashing darkly in the moonlight. Xena whirled her blade by the side of her head and dropped into a fighting stance. The other woman quickly drew her own weapon and mimicked the movements. Within moments, they were sparring back and forth as though they had trained together for moons.
A candlemark later, Amaran jumped back and lowered her sword to her side. She was breathing heavily and covered with sweat but a wide, happy grin split her face. "The others had said you were the best they had ever seen. I don't doubt it now," she gasped, as she tried to bring her breathing back under control again. "Do you often train at night, Xena?" she asked, hoping she could spar with the taller warrior again.
"No. I just needed to get my mind off something," Xena replied, picking up her sheath and starting the long walk back to the palace.
Misunderstanding the meaning behind the dark-haired woman's statement, Amaran said, "Yea, a lot of the women are tense tonight. What with that delegation from the western border due to arrive tomorrow, and not one of us understanding why they are demanding passage rights now, especially after the agreement being in force for so long."
Xena let her mind think about the problem for a moment and she found herself making a tenuous connection almost as though part of her mind had been waiting for her to pay attention to it. "Amaran, is the library still open?" she asked suddenly.
"Not at this time of night. But, as a Royal guard," the other woman said, reaching into her belt pouch and pulling out a ring with several keys on it, "I just happen to have a key. What to you want in the library anyway?"
"A map," Xena replied, taking off in a fast run back to the village, Amaran trailing along behind her.
At the centre worktable in the middle of the library, Xena and Amaran had spread out the largest and most detailed map of the Amazon hunting grounds and surrounding countryside they could find. In the flickering candlelight, Xena was carefully tracing the western border region, seeing if her theory stood up to the reality of the landscape.
"I don't understand, Xena. What are you looking for?" the Royal guard asked.
Pointing to each feature as she spoke, Xena tried to explain the idea that had floated out of her sub-conscious mind. "Here are the five villages," she said, tapping each one. "Here is the mountain pass lookout and the ravine next to it." Running her finger along the ravine marked on the map, she traced it down until it met with the river. "And here is the river that cuts through the hunting grounds." Still following the river, her finger crossed the boundary of the western border and keep going. "And here is where the river passes by the last village. It is the only way across that part of the border. All the rest of that section, well past the first village, is nothing but cliffs and crags. You couldn't take a mountain goat through there, let alone a mob of sheep. Eponin told me the delegation is asking for passage rights to cut a couple of days travel in their journey from here," tapping the villages marked on the western border, "to here," she said dropping her finger squarely onto the market town a seven-day from the southern border where they would sell their beasts. "But the only village that would benefit from passage rights is this one" she explained, pointing to the little village on the river. "Do you have a map showing just this section of river, from the border to the mountain pass lookout?" Xena asked.
Amaran carefully sorted through the maps until she found the one she was looking for. Spreading it over the top of the main map, she watched as Xena quickly started tracing over it.
"I thought as much," the warrior said. "Amaran, can you take both these maps and explain to Eponin what I just told you?" she asked.
"Sure," Amaran answered. "But I'm not certain I understand myself," she admitted.
"Doesnt matter. Eponin will understand it. Tell her I am going to have a look at something just outside the hunting grounds," Xena explained quickly, turning towards the door. Turning back for a moment, the warrior said, "Oh, and if Gabrielle asks, tell her not to worry. Okay."
"Okay. When will you be back?" The Royal guard inquired quietly. "She bound to ask, you know."
"She won't but tell her sometime tomorrow afternoon," Xena replied, just as she stepped through the door.
Gathering up the maps and locking the door of the library behind her, Amaran couldn't help mumbling to herself, "Won't ask indeed. That would be the first thing I would want to know. Maybe the Princess knows something about that warrior woman the rest of us don't."
Gabrielle stared at the two maps spread over most of Jadax's body as she lay stretched out flat on the bed. The little scout had grumbled about being nothing more than a piece of furniture now but it was the only place where everyone, the forest scout included, could see the maps and listen to the information Eponin was trying to explain.
"I know I am not usually this slow but explain it to me again, Eponin," Gabrielle said. The warrior had already made several attempts to explain the maps to the bard and Amaran had tried as well, using exactly the same words as Xena had the night before but the confusion of lines, marks, trails, paths, watering places and all the other details on the maps were confusing her eye and making her lose track of what Xena had seen on them the night before. Gabrielle had never seen maps this intricately drawn before. To her eye they looked more like works of art and not a way of representing the landscape of the hunting grounds and the surrounding countryside.
"There are five villages along here," Eponin started to say, pointing to the five marks that represented them.
Jadax rumpled the map from underneath and interrupted. "Eponin, there are just too many details on these maps for Gabrielle to understand them. She has never walked the ground, step by step, the way the rest of us have and doesn't know what is really there," she said. "How about letting me try it. I do understand what is supposed to be there. Most of that area is my patrol circuit anyway."
"Go ahead. I never was very good at explaining things with words. Guess I'll never make a bard," Eponin replied, grinning cheekily at Gabrielle standing next to her. "Your directions to that cavern were spot on. Would never have found it otherwise."
Jadax smiled at the compliment and then thought for a moment before starting to explain why the maps were so important. "The only village to gain any benefit from having passage rights along that river would be the one right next to it. Only problem is, in several places along the river, especially on this side of the border, the walls of the river valley come almost to the waters edge. Someone on foot might be able to move along the banks to cross over into the hunting grounds but there is no way known a mob of mindless sheep could do the same trip. They'd lose more beasts to the water than they have ever lost to the canyons and ravines going the way they usually do."
Suddenly it made sense to the bard. She grinned with understanding. Another thought hit her and set her to frowning again. "If they can't get sheep up the river by moving along the banks, why is any village demanding passage rights?" she asked no one in particular.
"I think that is what Xena has gone to find out," Amaran said quietly from her position behind everyone else.
Xena crouched at the top a the last long, low hill before dropping down to the flood plains. She had crossed the border two candlemarks before dawn at the place where the southern and western boundaries of the Amazon hunting grounds met. The markers had been in plain sight and she had noted them as she had run passed. After seeing the map, she knew the southern route was slightly longer than cutting straight across the western border; at least in terms of physical distance anyway, but if she had gone that way, she would still be in the crags now trying to find a way down again. By coming the way she had, she avoided a climb down the cliffs on the other side of the western border.
The warrior breathed deeply, as she methodically chewed her way through a scant breakfast of jerked deer meat and mouthfuls of water from the waterbag she had taken from the mess before she had set out. Xena would have preferred to have ridden Argo but the rugged, and sometimes rocky, terrain would make any trip for the mare rough going and she hadn't wanted to risk her horse in the darkness.
In the distance she could just make out the glinting of the river as the first light of dawn reflected off its rippling surface. Visually mapping her route, she estimated it would be another two candlemarks before she reached the point on the river she wanted to see, a point about halfway between the last village she had seen on the map and the boundary of the western border. Tucking the last of the jerky into the pouch at her waist and slinging the waterbag across her back, Xena began the run to the river, using the same moderate but ground eating pace she had used all through the night.
Approaching the river, she could hear the rush of its waters over the sound of her boots thudding onto the ground and the slap of the waterbag against her back. Coming over the bank, she could see the river was quite deep there but further down it became much more fast flowing as it ran over a shallow bed of rocks and boulders. Changing direction to walk along the bank, Xena headed for the shallow section of water, carefully moving from boulder to boulder.
Squatting down near the shallow ford, she tossed several handfuls of cool water over her sweating face and arms. Not bothering with the waterbag on her back, she took a long drink before scanning the banks on both sides of the river carefully. It was only a matter of heartbeats before she spotted what she knew would be there. A dozen paces down Xena saw the three-sided box shape of one of the gold sluices Jadax had described to her shortly after she had returned to her senses. Walking down to it, she dragged it from its place between the rocks so she could have a closer look at it.
Xena found the sluice coming apart in her hands as she moved it up onto the drier bank. Between poor construction and moons of sitting in the fast running water, sections of the box were starting to disintegrate. The warrior brushed her fingers through the fine grit and rubble collected in the steps at the bottom but found nothing there other than more grit and dirt. There was no sign of any gold dust or tiny nuggets. Dropping the saturated wood to the ground, she slowly walked along the bank in the direction of the village, looking for more of the boxes.
She had travelled almost a thousand paces down the river and every few steps she would find another box wedged between the rocks in the water. All seemed to have been abandoned and none of those she examined had a single flake of gold in them. Rounding a sharp bend, she came across the first sign of genuine mining. Several large sections of the river bank, on both sides, had been dug out and the earth washed in the waters of the river. Walking around the hills of discarded dirt, she saw that this area too had been left, probably because there was no gold to be found in the rich loam of the flood plains.
Deciding she had seen enough there, the tall warrior retraced her steps to follow the river back across the plains. Xena now wanted to know just how far up the river the villagers had been setting their boxes and whether they had been mining the banks closer to the Amazon hunting grounds. Or worst still, in the hunting grounds themselves.
"Remember the first time you help me dress in this?" Gabrielle asked, holding her arms up so Eponin could slide the bodice of her ceremonial costume comfortably over her breasts.
"I remember a young, chatty girl who had absolutely no idea what she had let herself in for," the warrior replied, laughing lightly. "Turn around so I can lace you in, Gabrielle."
Turning her back to the warrior. "Oh gods, I hope I have grown up a little since then," the bard said, blushing redly at the thought of just how young, and hopelessly inexperienced, she must have appeared to these competent Amazon warriors.
"I think you have grown up a lot, Gabrielle though, you still view the world through such fresh eyes, even after everything you have seen. Takes a real talent that," Eponin remarked.
"Stop it, Eponin, please. I'll be blushing all through the meetings and the villagers will wonder what on earth is wrong with me," Gabrielle said.
"What? You don't think you have a gift for life?" The warrior questioned as she rose from her knees.
"Well yes. I guess I just don't like to be told about it, I suppose. I never was one for accepting compliments gracefully. Just ask Xena what I am like," the bard replied, a little shyly.
A brief knock at the door to Gabrielle and Xena's room was quickly followed by the appearance of Amaran, once the bard had given permission for the guard to enter. "Delegation is here, Princess," the Royal guard said.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes to the ceiling. Now she knew exactly how Xena felt about the adoration of the younger women in the village. No matter how she tried, the bard simply couldn't get the guard to call her anything else other than princess.
"It looks better than it did last cycle. Almost half of them are women this time," Amaran explained. "Though one of the men..." her voice trailed off uncertainly.
"Yes. One of the men, what?" Gabrielle asked. She had no patience for games right now. There was a feeling in the pit of her stomach which had made eating her nooning meal impossible. The bard kept telling herself she was just a little nervous and she would settle down once the greeting and welcoming ceremony was over. Gabrielle was trying to ignore the fact her soul was still chasing itself into ever-tightening spirals over her fears about making the correct decisions for the Amazon Nation.
"To put it bluntly, Princess, he is even bigger than Kaliope," Amaran explained.
Continued - Part 4