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For Better or Worse - part 2 of 3

Chapter 10 - Inspiration

Gabrielle stood apprehensively at Xena's bedroom door, not sure how she could face Xena after her earlier angry outburst. Xena was just being honest with her, the bard sighed. Placing her hand on the door knob, the bard took a deep breath...then another. Finally, she opened the door and quickly entered the room, ready to face whatever there was to face. Her heart dropped when she saw she only faced an empty room.

With a heavy sigh, she walked over to a pile of their things the stable boy apparently brought in. She considered she could pass the time productively and sort out what they would need for their short stay in Amazonia. She considered she wouldn't need much for she was going to a well supplied Amazon camp - as Queen after all. She smiled, shaking her head at that still unbelievable fate that befell her. She hoped she would always make Melosa proud.

She started to pack the bare essentials. Though she knew she wouldn't be needing their cooking supplies, she eyed the frying pan with a smirk. If push came to shove with Gurda, she might stand a chance with a frying pan. Xena HAD proven it a dangerous weapon on numerous occasions. And it was likely she had more experience with a frying pan than Gurda. Nah, better not bring it along, Gabrielle decided, concluding it would be too embarrassing for the Amazon Queen to be beaten up with a frying pan.

She sighed as she picked up her bag of writing supplies and unfinished work. They had quills and parchment in Amazonia, no need to bring that with her she considered. Her work? No need to bring that either, she concluded, anticipating being plenty busy with those Amazon scrolls. Besides, if something should happen, her work was safe in Walsas. "Come on Gabrielle, you haven't been beaten yet!" she scolded herself, determined to find a peaceful way out of this problem.

She sat down and pulled out some blank parchment. Writing always helped to calm her. Yawning as she reached for her quill, she quickly concluded she really didn't need anymore calming and was in no condition to write. If she tried, she knew she would fall asleep before Xena got back. She had to stay awake and talk to her.

Yawning again, Gabrielle neatly placed her quill next to her parchment and ink.

Meleager sighed as Xena suddenly walked over to some scrolls in the Library's poetry section. "What are you doing?"

"You haven't finished your poem," Xena stated as she looked over a few scrolls and pulled out a promising couple that might just provide Meleager the inspiration he needed.

"You're not entirely accurate," Meleager replied smugly, causing Xena to eye him skeptically.

"Let me see it," she challenged.

"I haven't even STARTED it!!" He blurted triumphantly, then groaned, realizing there was no reason to be happy about that.

"Meleager, you need to write a poem."

"I know, I know....but I HAVE a couple weeks," He explained. "Gabrielle said inspiration could come at the most unexpected times." He shrugged, sort of believing it might. "I was waiting for inspiration to hit me."

"You don't have time for inspiration," Xena informed him bluntly, setting down a couple of scrolls on the table with a thunk. She grabbed his shoulders and pushed him into a chair.

"Read," she ordered him, pointing to the scrolls.

"What?!? Are you suggesting I copy one?" He asked in shock.

"BRILLIANT!" He blurted happily. "I should have thought of that!" He added with relieved grin.

"Meleager, you'll need to...." Xena paused, deciding how to delicately put it.

"Make sure I don't copy one...exactly." He quickly caught on, correctly finishing her thought. Xena nodded.

With Meleager in search of inspiration, Xena figured it was now time to face her determined bard. Walking past the kitchen, Xena found it empty, concluding she must be in her room.

Reaching for the doorknob, she paused a moment wondering what she would possibly say to her, remembering the hurt look she brought to the bard's eyes. Taking a deep breath, Xena quickly entered to face whatever there was to face. Her heart dropped finding she faced an empty room. Perhaps she was still with her sister, Xena considered, reluctantly leaving Gabrielle's room.

When entering her room, the warrior grinned. Her eyes were immediately drawn to the bard. Gabrielle sat on the bed, waiting for her, leaning on the corner post...sound asleep.

She quietly closed the door behind her. Though she knew Gabrielle was a pretty sound sleeper, Xena was still careful not to make noise while taking her weapons, armor and boots off. She set them down by her saddle bag on a chair, within easy reach from the bed. Moving to the end of the bed, she studied Gabrielle's tranquil face a long, indulgent moment before lifting the bard up in her arms. Gabrielle shifted, instinctively wrapping her arms around the warrior. "Xena?" Gabrielle spoke groggily.

"Shhhh...we should get some sleep. We have a busy day tomorrow," Xena said softly, laying the bard down on the bed. She started to take the bard's boots off.

"Xena?" The bard asked again with a yawn, hearing a boot hit the floor.

"Hmmmm?" Xena responded, tossing the second boot to the floor.

"I'm sorry."

"Me too," Xena relayed, climbing into bed and pulling Gabrielle into her arms.

The bard shifted, melting into the warrior's embrace. "Hmmmm..."

"I know we should talk Gabrielle, but right now, we both need to get some sleep," Xena suggested, then heard Gabrielle sigh heavily.

Xena's eyes rolled.

"Unless you want to talk now," Xena offered reluctantly.

The bard sighed again, making the warrior sigh with exasperation.

"Gabrielle, do you or don't you want...." Xena's irritation was interrupted by the low rumbling against her chest. The bard began to snore. She smiled and kissed Gabrielle's forehead.

"Pleasant dreams Gabrielle," Xena whispered, shutting her eyes. For the moment at least, all that mattered and all she needed was sleeping safely in her arms. For the moment at least, sleep visited the warrior.

Gabrielle rolled over with a muffled yawn, groggily reaching out over the bed. Feeling only cold sheets, Gabrielle's eyes abruptly opened. She squinted in the morning light. "Xena?" she blurted, a little disoriented as she rubbed her eyes.

"Good morning," Xena softly greeted her from across the room. Gabrielle yawned and tried to focus on the warrior who put away some things and got up from the table.

"So far, its a wonderful morning," Gabrielle relayed, eyeing the warrior as she came towards her and sat on her bed. Xena grinned, gently brushing the hair out of the bard's face. She followed up her morning greeting with a quick hello to the bard's soft lips.

When their lips were finished saying hello, the bard and warrior silently looked at each other for an uneasy moment. The Warrior Princess knew the stubborn bard would not change her mind about going to Amazonia and the bard knew the Warrior Princess desperately wanted her to.

"How about breakfast?" Gabrielle broke the silence, making the warrior chuckle and shake her head. "What?" Gabrielle asked, narrowing her eyes in feigned warning.

"Nothing," Xena responded with a odd smile.

Gabrielle's breath caught when she felt the warrior's strong hand slip behind her head. Without hesitation, she pulled the bard in for a longer hello. When she pulled back from the pleasant but all too short visit, the look of longing in the bard's eyes made her regret what she had to do next.

"I'll see to Argo and meet you for breakfast," Xena relayed with obvious reluctance as she got up from the bed.

Gabrielle smiled at her warrior, who proceeded to pick up the saddle bags and walk towards the table to collect the bard's bag of writing supplies.

"Oh, you can leave that Xena," Gabrielle told her, drawing a surprised look from the warrior. "I won't have time for writing," Gabrielle got out of bed. Xena eyed the bag then the bard with a curious look.

"I thought I would pack light for a change," Gabrielle grinned. "And besides, we are not going to be gone that long," Gabrielle explained confidently. Xena looked at the bag then the bard again. She nodded and sighed, hoping the bard was right.

In the dining room, Sarah, Lila and their parents sat around the table being served breakfast. Sarah and Lila agreed with Gabrielle that their mother didn't need to know about the trouble with the Amazons. She already had enough to nag about. Sarah attempted to casually mention that Gabrielle was going to Amazonia.

"She's leaving?!?" Her mother blurted indignantly. Stopping in the doorway, Gabrielle cringed at the outburst of displeasure. Gabrielle contemplated an about-face and a quick escape, but it was too late...she was already spotted.

"Gabrielle!" Her mother uttered in a commanding tone, making Gabrielle feel eight again. "Are you really leaving?" Her mother asked.

Gabrielle took a deep breath and nodded.

"You just got here!" Gabrielle's mother blurted her complaint, getting out of her seat.

It was expected that her mother would not pleased, but Gabrielle felt an unexpected twinge of guilt when her father's sad eyes met hers.

"I know mother," Gabrielle said wearily, dragging herself towards her family.

"She just needs to straighten some things out with the Amazons," Sarah explained casually, causing her mother's eyebrows to furrow.

"Don't worry, we've got the wedding under control here mother, Gabrielle really needs to get to Amazonia," Lila added helpfully.

"Yeah," Meleager added with a half laugh as he entered the room behind Gabrielle. "Or else we might be getting a lot more wedding guests than we planned for," he joked as he sat down at the table across from his future father-in-law. He noticed he was being glared at by the four Poteidaian women. "What?!?" He asked defensively.

Gabrielle's father shook his head and quietly ate his porridge.

"More guests?" Their mother blurted with concern. "Sarah, what's this about more guests? You know we have only so much room in the grand hall. We can barely fit our family and friends that we've invited already." The older woman worried the wedding would turn into a fiasco.

"Don't worry mother," Gabrielle sighed, walking over to the table and grabbing two apples from the bowl of fruit. "The Amazons are not interested in Sarah's wedding." Gabrielle looked at Sarah apologetically.

"You're not even going to have a decent breakfast before rushing off to be with your little friends?" The older woman blurted making her three daughters sigh.

Meleager kept quiet, realizing a little late that that was what he should have done before.

"Before you abandon your family for your IMPORTANT Amazon business, you should at least..."

"Gabrielle," Xena called out, intrepidly interrupting the bard's mother as she barely entered the dining room. "We should get going."

Xena's voice was music to the bard's ears and cacophony to her unhappy mother's.

"Before you take my daughter away...again," she curtly responded to the warrior woman by the door, then turned to Gabrielle. " should a least stay a moment and have a decent meal," Gabrielle's mother urged the bard, not about to give up.

Gabrielle shook her head, feeling a headache coming on.

"Both of you," the magnanimous older woman quickly added with a polite smile.

Gabrielle eyed Xena, very interested in how she was going to respond.

In addition to the bard and her mother, Xena found four other pairs of eyes fixed on her, also very interested in how she was going to respond.

Xena sighed and slowly crossed the room towards Gabrielle. Reaching her destination she stopped and raised her eyebrow questioningly, looking at the two apples in the bard's hands.

Gabrielle gave her warrior an apple and a warm smile.

"This will be fine," Xena responded, reluctantly braking her gaze from her bard and looked at the older woman.

The four pairs of eyes shifted to the irritated older woman.

With an exceedingly polite tone, Gabrielle's mother replied, "Really? I thought that besides murder and mayhem, one of the many things the Warrior Princess was infamous for was her voracious appetite."

The four pairs of eyes gasped. Gabrielle's mother gazed coldly at the warrior, who held her tongue, not wanting to make things worse for her bard.

However, finally fed up now that her mother's caustic comments were no longer subtextually subtle but directly catapulted at her warrior, Gabrielle was unable to hold her tongue any longer.

"Oh, her appetite IS voracious mother," Gabrielle confirmed with a thin smile, then lifted her own apple to her lips and took a bite.

Her mother stiffened and eyed her daughter, who wiped the juice from her mouth and swallowed. "Almost as voracious as mine," she added. "But don't worry, we do our best to never go to bed hungry."

The four pairs of eyes widened in concert with four jaws dropping.

Thanks to years of practice, the warrior's mask was firmly in place, keeping Xena's surprise hidden. However, the Warrior Princess considered it a good thing she was not eating her apple, or she might have choked.

"Well...I can't say that I'm surprised," the older woman relayed with disappointment, no longer looking at either the warrior or bard.

She briskly turned and walked towards the table to join her husband for breakfast.

The four pairs of eyes and Xena looked at Gabrielle, who sighed and shook her head.

"We're wasting daylight," Gabrielle spoke softly to Xena who nodded.

As they turned to leave, Xena looked back at Gabrielle's mother, who was the only one eating her breakfast. She refused to acknowledge her daughter's departure. However, Xena found Gabrielle's father watching them. He looked at them with a sad gaze and returned his attention to his bowl.

Chapter 11 - Return to Amazonia

As they rode away from Walsas, Gabrielle felt oddly calm despite facing her mother's cold shoulder of disappointment. The bard was where she wanted to be, with the one she loved. A small smile came to her face when she felt a reassuring squeeze around her waist.

"You ok?" Xena asked softly.

"You know..." Gabrielle started but paused, staring at the two Amazons on horseback in front of them. After a few moments of silence, the warrior's curiosity grew too great to wait for the bard.

"Know what?" Xena asked softly in the bard's ear.

"That didn't go so well," Gabrielle observed bluntly.

"Hmmm...and here I thought things went rather smoothly," the warrior noted, making the bard giggle and the warrior smile with relief.

"Gods," Gabrielle sighed heavily. "I wonder if I'll ever be able to talk with my mother."

"You're not the first person to ask that, and I'm sure you won't be the last," Xena relayed thoughtfully.

"But I'm a bard," Gabrielle lamented. "I'm supposed to be good with words."

"You are, Gabrielle. But as a certain bard reminded me a few hundred times, it takes two people to have a conversation," Xena relayed, feeling the bard's hand gently squeeze her arm in thanks.

"I owe you an apology...." Gabrielle sighed. "I didn't mean to embarrass you, but somehow... this appetite thing just popped out before I could...."

"Uh huh." The warrior grinned.

"Xena, I had this very tactful and heartfelt speech planned but when she...." Gabrielle tried to explain.

"Uh huh," Xena interjected, still grinning.

Gabrielle shook her head, knowing there were times with the warrior it was best just to drop a subject. Now was one of those times. She sighed and remained quiet.

"Well, you may not be good at talking with your mother," Xena spoke quietly in the bard's ear. "But you certainly communicated TO her... loud and clear." Xena relayed with a quick peck to the bard's ear.

Later that day, the Amazon camp was abuzz with excitement at the report their Queen and the Warrior Princess had crossed into Amazon territory.

At the edge of Amazon territory, six Amazons gracefully descended from the trees to greet and honor their Queen. Solari and Sustra smiled approvingly at the spectacle. Gabrielle watched with fascination as they lowered themselves down long vines in full costume. The masks, beads, feathers, ornately carved bows, ceremonial swords and daggers that adorned these strong women, made them both terrifying and beautiful.

Once on the ground, the Amazons drew their ceremonial swords and saluted their queen. Good thing they were on her side, Gabrielle thought with a smile. Or were they? Xena felt Gabrielle tense.

"Don't worry Gabrielle, I won't let anything happen to you," Xena whispered to her bard, feeling her relax a little. However, relaxation was something the Warrior Princess suspected neither of them was going to enjoy during this visit to Amazonia.

When the Queen and her ceremonial guard entered the village, Eponin entered the Queen's hut.

"Queen Gabrielle has arrived," Eponin relayed uneasily.

Ephiny nodded and followed Eponin out her hut. Ephiny found a large, buoyant crowd waiting to greet their absent Queen.

The Amazons murmured with excitement over the celebrations and the news and stories their bard Queen would share. Ephiny scanned over the crowd with a smile, until she spotted the two eldest Amazons, Frea and Roeya, eyeing her to remind her of her task. Ephiny's eyes rolled, not needing to be reminded and not happy about the task. Seeing Gurda and Raiz among the crowd with pleased smiles didn't help to brighten Ephiny's mood.

Though not thrilled with the reason that brought them to Amazonia, or the large and suffocating crowd around them, Xena still managed to find pleasure watching the bard greet practically every Amazon by name as they slowly progressed through the village. Everyone was made to feel special, Xena noted with appreciation, knowing that to Gabrielle, everyone was.

"Ephiny!" Gabrielle spotted her friend by the hut and quickly dismounted. The bard gave her a hug which was gladly returned.

The Warrior Princess scanned the crowd and took her time dismounting.

"Gabrielle, welcome home," Ephiny responded, making the bard grin. "Xena," Ephiny greeted the stoic warrior. Xena nodded. "Solari has informed you of the situation I gather," Ephiny spoke with a sad smile.

"Yes, I wanted to read these long lost scrolls for myself," Gabrielle responded casually with a smile.

Ephiny nodded. Gabrielle looked around at the crowd intently listening to their every word.

"But first, I believe we have some celebrating to do." Gabrielle's voice boomed, ensuring the Amazon's in the back would hear. Her comment met with crowd's approval as they burst into cheers and war cries. Gabrielle eyed Xena, who raised an eyebrow. Gabrielle shrugged.

"If you'll come with me, your highness," Ephiny grinned approvingly, sweeping her arm out to formally show the way. As she escorted Gabrielle to the Queen's hut, they chatted about happier Amazon news while they passed many curious ears.

Xena followed the women, eyeing the crowd of happy onlookers as they started to disburse. It didn't take long for Xena to find the enemy.

After the crowd was gone, an Amazon remained, wanting to be seen. Across the village, she stood tall and proud and unaffected by the Warrior Princess' cold stare. Xena stopped walking and slowly faced the threat, continuing to icy stare and assess. With her height, Gurda had a much greater reach than her bard.

Although she considered Gabrielle would be capable of compensating for Gurda's reach, there was one thing Gabrielle would not be able to compensate for - the killer instinct. An instinct so innate to Gurda yet, so foreign to Gabrielle, it made Xena both thankful and terrified. There was no way the Warrior Princess could allow this fight. Xena's mind raced for options.

As if sensing the Warrior Princess' dilemma, a broad smile emerged on Gurda's face before she turned to leave. The Amazon could feel the threatening stare on her back as she met up with another, much more nervous Amazon, Raiz. Raiz glanced back to the Warrior Princess, then quickly returned her gaze forward unable to meet those icy eyes.

The two Amazons turned into their hut, allowing Raiz to breath again. Gurda sat down and started to brush her hair happily.

"Are you CRAZY?" Raiz blurted and plopped down on her cot, shaking her head.

"What do you mean?"

"Why are you taunting Xena?" Raiz asked, getting up to pace, unable to sit still.

"Because I can," Gurda relayed, putting her brush down and turning towards Raiz with a satisfied smile. Raiz exhaled with frustration and plopped back on the cot.

"There they are Gabrielle, all the scrolls from Ratheos," Ephiny relayed with a sigh, looking to Trayla.

Gabrielle walked over to the large pile of scrolls, immediately noticing four were set aside.

"Those four scrolls discuss Walsas," Ephiny explained. "Trayla has looked at them and believes we have a legitimate claim to the land."

"No disrespect to Trayla's abilities, but I want to read them, all of them, myself," Gabrielle relayed looking at Trayla who nodded in understanding.

The bard Queen smiled warmly at Xena when she entered the tent. For an instant, Ephiny observed the warrior's stoic face soften.

"It will take you quite a while to get through all of them," Trayla relayed.

"And I plan to read every one. Starting tonight," Gabrielle relayed, eyeing the scrolls again. "After the celebration, of course." Gabrielle grinned.

Xena stared at the scrolls. At least there was some time to think of a plan, the Warrior Princess considered.

That evening, the music and dancing began shortly after a feast that was enough even to satisfy the bard's voracious appetite. Sitting between Ephiny and Xena, Gabrielle smiled appreciatively as she watched the athletic women circle the fire, dancing with seemingly limitless energy.

On the other side of the fire, Gurda and Raiz chatted with four other Amazons. Ephiny and Xena kept glancing over to their table.

"Look Raiz, our Acting Queen and the Warrior Princess find us more entertaining than the dancers," Gurda called out and laughed, lifting her mug of wine to the two women to salute them, then continued her conversation with her dinner partners.

Raiz gulped her wine nervously.

"Gods she's cocky," Ephiny blurted, averting her eyes and sipping her wine.

Xena exhaled in agreement and bit into an apple, still eyeing the enemy. Xena was not concerned with being polite.

"You two are not very subtle," Gabrielle shook her head as she sipped her water, continuing to focus on the dancers.

The two warriors flanking her turned and stared at the bard curiously.

"Gurda is enjoying your attention and you two keep giving it to her," the Amazon bard scolded them as she continued to watch the dancers.

"Sure she does have a commanding presence," Gabrielle admitted. "She's tall, I'd say a little over six feet...right Xena?" Gabrielle asked, smiling and continuing to watch the dancer that performing in front of them.

"Uh," Xena blurted and eyed Gurda, surprised at the bard's observation. "Yes," the Warrior Princess responded as small grin crept over her face. "A little over six feet."

"With that scar over her left forearm and right thigh, I'd say she's had more than her share of sword fights. Prefers a sword to a staff...right Ephiny?" Gabrielle asked as she clapped with the crowd for the dancing exhibition that just ended.

"Uh," Ephiny blurted, surprised at the observation, then smiled slightly. "Yes Gabrielle. She does prefer the sword."

"Well, I certainly hope you two are not as rude to the next performer as you were to those poor dancers by gawking at Gurda throughout the entire performance," Gabrielle warned them, standing up and turning to the two warriors.

Xena and Ephiny glanced at each other with amused grins.

"Besides, I'll wager the next performer will be much more entertaining than that boring ol' warrior over there," Gabrielle relayed.

As predicted, the next performer was more entertaining. As the bard began to spin her tale, she easily captured the attention of her two dinner partners, as well as the rest of the Amazons.

Now able to indulge in the pleasure of blatantly gazing upon her bard, Xena indulged. Though, her thoughts wandered far from the bard's story.

Watching the story teller move gracefully around the fire, Xena reflected with great pride at how much the amazing young woman had learned. Yet, not nearly enough to do battle with someone like Gurda, Xena considered.

Damn Amazon laws, Xena cursed silently. She wanted desperately to be the bard's champion. She wanted Gurda to know what it was like to go against someone who didn't have to compensate for a reach advantage...someone who would not hesitate responding to that killer instinct with her cold, swift steel.

Xena took a long, calming breath and a sip of wine. Then her eyes met the bard's. For a moment, Ephiny noticed the Warrior Princess' stoic face slightly smile.

Pleased to find the warrior's eyes on her, the bard smiled brightly and returned her gaze to others in the audience.

Fighting Gurda as the bard's champion was not an option. Xena also knew the bard would not tolerate her provoking a fight with Gurda and killing her...or even maiming her badly...or maybe not so badly, but enough to give Gabrielle an edge. The Warrior Princess sighed heavily at all the limitations.

Xena looked thoughtfully down at her goblet, swirling the wine in it. Possible alternatives to a satisfying direct approach began to fill the warrior's mind.

A poisonous herb slipped in Gurda's wine, she considered, glancing over at the Amazon. Or perhaps an unfortunate and, of course, painful accident, Xena mused as she sipped her dizzy wine.

It would be so easy, the Warrior Princess considered. It would be so obvious, she rolled her eyes. It would be murder, Xena sighed with a furrowed brow. The 'obvious' part was the biggest drawback. Gabrielle would never forgive her...and leave her. There had to be another way. Xena's mind raced.

Chapter 12 - In Search of an Answer

After the festivities, Gabrielle returned to the Queen's hut, flanked by Ephiny and Xena. As the two eldest Amazons, Frea and Roeya, passed the three, they smiled broadly at their friendly Queen, who greeted them warmly by name. They looked at each other then smiled at the stoic Warrior Princess, who politely nodded. Their smiles faded as they eyed Ephiny, who sighed.

"What was that about?" Xena asked after the elders passed. Ephiny's mouth dropped as she thought of something to say.

"They uh...are subtly trying to remind me of one of many things I have to do," Ephiny blurted truthfully, then turned to the bard. "On some things, even the Queen can get pushed around by the elders Gabrielle," Ephiny explained.

"What kinds of things?" Gabrielle asked curiously.

"Domestic policy, ritual's amazing how much they do have a strong say in," Ephiny informed her. "If they push you to do something, don't forget to complain a makes them think twice before trying again," Ephiny relayed her advice, shaking her head wearily, causing the bard to chuckle.

Xena continued to eye the Amazon, who avoided answering her question.

When the trio arrived at the door, Gabrielle turned and smiled at her friend. "Thank you for the wonderful welcome, Ephiny." Gabrielle reached out and warmly squeezed Ephiny's forearm.

"No problem," Ephiny blurted, not leaving. An awkwardly silent moment passed.

"Oh...You have a place to stay don't you?" Gabrielle asked with concern, knowing it must be odd for her to just hand over her hut. "You're welcome to stay with...." Gabrielle quickly offered.

"NO!" Ephiny interrupted and laughed sheepishly. "Uh...I'm fine," she added as she looked uneasily at the hut then Xena. She was not happy about the information gathering mission the eldest Amazons put her on. The elders knew she didn't want to pry and more importantly, she did not want to annoy Gabrielle or the Warrior Princess. She only did this out of respect for the elders, she silently reminded herself. And, ok, she happened to be curious.

"Something on your mind Ephiny?" Xena asked with a raised eyebrow, making Ephiny slightly grimace.

"Uh...Eponin can bring in an extra cot," Ephiny blurted, looking quickly at the two then the ground. "If you need it."

"Yes, please," Xena cooly responded simultaneously with the bard's warm "No, that's ok." The surprised bard and warrior eyed at each other, neither pleased with the other's answer.

"Okaaaaay," Ephiny relayed uneasily, wanting to be someplace else.

"Well, if it's not a bother," Gabrielle added reluctantly, remembering her promise. "We'd really appreciate it," she added flatly with a weak smile. Ephiny looked at Xena, who plastered on a polite smile.

The Amazon bard watched and sighed as Eponin arrived and brought in the extra cot. Ephiny followed with an extra pillow and blanket and handed it to an unhappy Gabrielle.

"Thanks," the bard said flatly.

"Sorry," Ephiny guiltily relayed to the Queen, drawing a look from the Warrior Princess. "Uh...for not planning ahead...well...enough," Ephiny added uneasily, deciding it would be best to leave - now.

"Good night," Ephiny blurted, grabbed Eponin and left.

Finally alone with the Warrior Princess, Gabrielle tossed the pillow and blanket on the cot and sat down at the table full of scrolls shaking her head and sighing heavily.

"Gabrielle, we've discussed...," Xena responded as she removed her weapons and placed them on the cot.

"I KNOW Xena," Gabrielle interrupted her with irritation. "I know," the bard muttered as she pulled out a scroll from the pile.

Xena sighed, now removing her armor.

"But your argument doesn't really apply here, does it?" Gabrielle continued, looking up from her scroll, unable to let it drop just yet.

Pulling her last bracer off, Xena rolled her eyes and turned to the bard. "Gabrielle, if my enemies knew how much you mean to me, you would become a target...they wouldn't hesitate to hurt you to get back at me," Xena relayed, tired of repeating herself.

"Xena, here, I'm already a target because of my position...not because of you," Gabrielle argued calmly, making Xena furrow her brows at the unpleasant truth.

"Although, I guess the reverse of your argument is something I should consider. If my enemies knew how much you mean to me, YOU would become a target...they could hurt YOU to get back at me," Gabrielle relayed with concern. The bard sighed and refocused on the scroll in her hands. They had to have the answer to this mess.

"Gabrielle, MY safety is NOT the issue here," Xena snapped, annoyed that Gabrielle was trying to confuse the issue which was...which was...which was perfectly clear before the bard spoke, damn it.

"Fine Xena, you got me to promise to be discrete and not engage in public displays of affection and...." Gabrielle sighed heavily, knowing if she continued, she would likely say something she would later regret.

"...and I've really got a lot of reading to do," Gabrielle abruptly changed the subject. "Do you mind?" She asked wearily, looking in the general direction of the Warrior Princess then refocused on the scrolls.

"Gabri...," she blurted out. Seeing the bard now reading the scrolls, her eyebrows furrowed, not appreciating being dismissed.

"I'm going for a walk," Xena announced angrily and left the hut.

Gabrielle closed her eyes, feeling the cool breeze from the warrior's angry departure and an incredible emptiness. She willed herself not to cry as she took a few calming breaths. After a few moments, she opened her eyes and found her calm short-lived. She saw Xena's armor and weapons resting on the cot.

The bard stood up abruptly. Oh gods. Calm down, she ordered herself, Xena doesn't need them here. Oh gods. What if Gurda or someone tries something? Calm down, she ordered herself. Xena is an experienced warrior! Oh gods. She's also an upset warrior that may not be focusing on her surroundings....

After stomping away from the Amazon camp, Xena found herself by a pond. She sighed heavily and sat on a boulder, staring out at the pond's glassy surface which reflected the near-full moon. She picked up a rock and tossed it into the pond, causing a loud 'plunk' and shattering the reflection of the moon into tiny shards of light floating upon the concentric ripples.

The effect of the rock on the moon's reflection was similar to the effect Gabrielle's words had on her solid arguments, Xena considered with annoyance. How could she make Gabrielle understand? The warrior sighed, wondering if she really did anymore.

Picking up a flat stone, she skipped it across the surface.

Xena had to admit the bard was right about the danger here. It was not a result of their relationship, but her position. Although, if it weren't for the Warrior Princess, Gabrielle would never have traveled to the Amazon land, never have be given the Right of Caste, and not be in this situation now, she thought triumphantly. Shaking her head, she softly chuckled. She knew what Gabrielle would say about that argument AND her endless guilt.

Unsatisfied with only three skips of her last stone, Xena picked up another stone and stood to get a better angle. She flung the stone, causing it to skip on the surface seven times. Just another one of my many skills, she smirked, sitting back down on the boulder.

Watching the ripples as they dissipated, the moon's image became whole again. The warrior exhaled thoughtfully, leaning back on the rock to view the moon itself, not just its reflection. Gabrielle would think this place romantic. Of course, the ever-romantic bard would say almost any place was romantic. Xena smiled.

Taking a deep breath, Xena noticed the pleasing fragrances of wild flowers filling the cool night air. The ever-romantic bard would say that was yet another ingredient for a romantic evening. However, even this warrior knew the most important ingredient was missing.

Her nerves begging for more action than pacing, Gabrielle rushed over to the bed and picked up Xena's chakrum and sword. Taking a few steps towards the door, she stopped and looked down at the weapons her hands then eyed the door. She grimaced with frustration realizing it wouldn't be appropriate for an Amazon Queen to run through the camp like a paranoid maniac, lugging Xena's weapons around as she frantically searched for her warrior. Besides, she told herself as she forced a long exhale, she was just overreacting. She resumed her pacing with her warrior's weapons.

As she walked back to the Queen's hut, Xena smiled, enjoying the fragrance of the dozen wild flowers in her hand.

"Who would have guessed...the Warrior Princess loves flowers!" A voice called out from the darkness. Xena stopped calmly, slowly lowering the bouquet.

"What am I going to do with you!" Gabrielle blurted to the weapons in her hands. The bard plopped down on the cot and stared at the weapons now cradled in her lap. "Oh Xena," the bard exhaled softly, an ache in her heart and concern in her thoughts.

"Gurda," Xena spoke cooly before the Amazon revealed herself, stepping from the black cloak of the forest. The Amazon smiled, her drawn sword reflecting the moonlight.

Xena's eyes lowered to the bouquet. She sighed, wishing it was a frying pan. Humiliating this cocky Amazon with cast iron cookware would have been very satisfying. Although, being one who enjoys a challenge, Xena's eyebrow raised as she contemplated the possibilities with a bouquet....

"Hmmmm...perhaps they are not for yourself?" Gurda smiled. Xena's amused smile faded and was replaced by a unimpressed yawn.

"Ah...not one to kiss and tell I see. Your discretion is commendable Xena, though not your choice in flowers," she shook her head with disapproval.

"Have something against wild flowers Gurda?" Xena asked.

"Oh no, not at all...its just that I think you could have selected more appropriate flowers for the occasion." Gurda walked past the Warrior Princess, who slowly turned to face her.

"The lilies are on the other side of the pond." Gurda offered with a smile and was rewarded with a cold glare from the unamused Warrior Princess.

As Gurda moved to return her sword to its sheath, she swiftly and skillfully guided it through the air with one swift motion, decapitating the flowers from the stems of Xena's bouquet.

"Ooops," Gurda blurted with amusement.

After watching Gurda leave, Xena finally looked down at the mangled bouquet of stems and exhaled slowly. She had to find a way.

Gabrielle continued to pace with Xena's chakrum still in hand.

"It's just a walk Gabrielle," she told herself. "She'll be back any minute...nothing to worry about," Gabrielle muttered to the not so empty hut, too busy pacing to notice the quiet entrance of the Warrior Princess.

"Maybe she's having a friendly chat with someone," Gabrielle blurted sarcastically. "Yeah, you KNOW how she loves to talk, talk, talk." The bard paced more. The warrior grinned.

"It's just a pleasant walk...pleasant and..." Gabrielle muttered.

"Lonely," the Warrior Princess offered, causing the bard to abruptly stop and turn to see the most beautiful sight, her warrior standing before her.

Too overwhelmed with relief and emotion to speak, the bard just barreled into the Warrior Princess and fiercely hugged her.

Taking a deep breath and exhaling slowly, an exhausted bard closed her eyes, appreciating the simple pleasures. The freedom to lazily caress the warrior's long body entwined in her's, the feel of the warrior's head against her cheek, and warm breath upon her neck, the rapid beat of her warrior's heart which just started to calm...or was that her own heart, she wondered.

Her heart had no real chance to calm. The warrior started yet another kissing assault on her happy skin, evoking a soft moan of pleasure from her bard. Grinning at her success, Xena pressed on, in search of a more important conquest.

"Gabrielle?" Xena spoke softly, making the bard smile at the sweet sound of her name on the warrior's lips.

"Hmmm?" The bard responded lazily, enjoying the trail of kisses over her chin and the weight of her warrior's body that now blanketed her's.

"You know I love you," Xena whispered in her ear words that always brought a smile to the bard's face.

"Mmm Hmmm," the bard responded blissfully as the warrior kissed her ear.

"You know I want you...," Xena whispered through kisses to her other ear.

Gabrielle grinned.

"... safe."

Gabrielle's eyes opened.

"There is no need...," the warrior spoke, gently peppering kisses over the bard's cheek.

"...for you to fight anyone." Xena kissed the bard's neck.

"Ephiny can handle this," Xena suggested and planted a wet kiss on Gabrielle's neck, evoking a shiver through the bard.

"Let her..." Xena exhaled heavily over the wet skin.

"Let her," she repeated the soft encouragement in a whisper as she traced her lips slowly over the bard's ear. "Please..."

Noticing the bard was quiet, Xena stopped her kisses. Finding it suddenly uncomfortable lying on the unresponsive bard, she moved to lie next to her. She nervously studied her face.

"You want me to walk away?" Gabrielle asked softly, turning her head to look deep into the warrior's hopeful eyes.

"YES!" Xena blurted with enthusiasm. "Yes Gabrielle, I do," the warrior quickly added, in a deliberate tone of reason, realizing she still had her work cut out to convince her bard. "And you CAN ...Gurda hasn't challenged you yet," Xena relayed, hope blooming as Gabrielle listened.

"You can leave and let Ephiny make the declaration the Amazons don't want Walsas," Xena explained.

"Then Gurda will challenge her," Gabrielle countered softly.

"Yes Gabrielle, but Ephiny is an experienced warrior. She has been through challenges before. She is more than capable of dealing with Gurda," Xena reasoned as she sat up with the bard, who still appeared to consider the option.

"What about Raiz?" Gabrielle asked calmly as she moved her legs over the side of the bed and looked down at her feet, now dangling just above the floor.

Xena smirked. "What about Raiz? She's not the type to cause trouble like Gurda."

Gabrielle considered that a moment and nodded. Raiz wasn't the overthrow-the-throne-because-I-can kind of Amazon.

Xena felt more confident as they talked and gently stroked the bard's back.

Those subtle attempts of persuasion by the warrior's gentle fingers threatened to rob the bard of the already tenuous control over her anger.

"What about Elea?" Gabrielle asked between clenched teeth as the warrior's fingers moved from her back to swept her hair aside, exposing her neck.

"Elea?" Xena asked, kissing Gabrielle on her newly exposed neck.

"Or Raylas, or Wynna, or Karael?" Gabrielle blurted out three more Amazon names as she abruptly left the uncomfortable bed.

"Who?" Xena asked, suddenly concerned.

"The four who Gurda dined with at the celebration," Gabrielle explained as she put a robe on. "Surely one of them is more...ambitious than Raiz," the bard suggested, eyeing the Warrior Princess, who sighed heavily.

"Maybe," Xena responded, not going to give up. "But Ephiny can ..."

"Perhaps two of them are more ambitious," Gabrielle interrupted.


"Maybe three...or more than those four...," Gabrielle quickly added. "Xena, you want me to walk away and leave this problem in Ephiny's lap?"

"YES!!" Xena snapped curtly, her hope just wilted.

"You want me to walk away and just ignore my responsibilities?" Gabrielle asked, struggling to remain calm and sat down on the cot which creaked loudly.

"Your responsibilities are going to get you KILLED," Xena snapped. The two stared at each other a long angered moment.

"I can't walk away Xena," the bard stated with finality and laid down on the cot.

With incredible exasperation, Xena exhaled loudly as she laid back on the Queen's bed, alone, in frustrated defeat.

Though the hut was silent, sleep visited neither bard nor warrior that night.

Chapter 13 - The Solution

Four days passed and Gabrielle was still sitting at the table in her hut reading the Amazon scrolls. She feared she was closer to finishing the scrolls than finding a solution. Gabrielle sighed wearily, finishing yet another Amazon scroll and with no answers.

As had become their strained routine, Xena returned to the hut with a tray of food, hoping to encourage the stubborn bard to eat something. The bard's voracious appetite had disappeared.

Gabrielle looked up at the warrior as she placed the food next to her and sighed. She picked up another scroll instead of a fork.

"Gabrielle," Xena sighed. "You need to eat something," Xena blurted, picking up an apple and placing it in the bard's hand.

"Ok OK," Gabrielle acquiesced and took an apple. With her hand now preoccupied, she used her elbow to pin down the end of a scroll as she unrolled it with her free hand.

The warrior's eyes narrowed.

"What?" She asked defensively. "I'm eating!" She added, taking a small bite of the apple then presenting the apple to the warrior as proof. "See..."

"You need a break," Xena informed her flatly, unimpressed with the apple.

"Xena, I'm reading about Queen Tuthesa and her treaty with's quite interesting...though I can understand why the Amazons are not too excited about this stuff...not the epic battles and bloodshed they like listening about," Gabrielle relayed. "But it is interesting, I can't stop now," Gabrielle explained. "I'm on a roll," she added, taking another bite of the apple.

"Gabrielle," Xena blurted.

"Xena," Gabrielle blurted back.

"Gabrielle..." Xena countered, then stopped, seeing the familiar determination in the bard's eyes. Xena sighed with familiar frustration and left in familiar defeat.

"How's it going?" Ephiny asked the Warrior Princess, who briskly marched past her as she left the hut.

Xena paused and turned to the curious Amazon. Xena abruptly drew her sword. A few startled Amazons near-by jumped back and instinctively grabbed for their swords.

Ephiny rolled her eyes.

"Care to practice?" Xena asked Ephiny, who wisely shook her head no to Xena's gracious offer.

"Uh...what about Sustra?" Ephiny suggested. Warrior Princess snorted and sheathed her sword. "Come on, she's almost completely recovered from your last practice session and no one else will go near you," Ephiny relayed with a smirk. Xena exhaled with a furrowed brow.

"You know, Solari's arm is still in a sling," Ephiny reminded her, successfully making Xena feel a bit guilty.

"Sorry," Xena blurted.

"How's Gabrielle?" Ephiny asked, glancing at the hut.

"Just wonderful," Xena relayed pleasantly with a smile, surprising Ephiny.

"Reading from first light, throughout the night, then, when she does stop reading...unable to sleep, barely touches her food," Xena relayed with increasing irritation. "And, very soon, going to face a well-rested, well-fed and BLOOD-thirsty AMAZON," Xena blurted angrily.

"How do you THINK she is?" Xena snapped, reconsidering that practice session with Sustra.

"She's not very happy," Raiz relayed to Gurda, as they watched the Queen's hut from across the village.

"I can't blame her. Soon, Gabrielle will have no choice and face me in a challenge to the throne," Gurda relayed thoughtfully. "It must be eating Xena up," Gurda grinned.

Gabrielle read the last scroll on the Treaty of Yuesa. She rubbed her eyes and moaned. There was nothing there that contradicted the claim to Walsas. In fact, the scrolls were very clear to the bard...the Amazons had a claim to the land.

When she got up to stretch her legs, she heard a knocking on the hut door.

"Come in," Gabrielle called. "Sustra?"

"Queen Gabrielle, just checking to see if you need anything. You've been cooped up so much, I was wondering," she asked glancing uneasily at the door, rubbing her still sore neck.

"No...but thanks."

Sustra looked at the pile of scrolls. "Are you finished?" She asked with hope.

"Yeah," Gabrielle relayed unenthusiastically.

"Oh," Sustra sighed. "Perhaps you ought to start thinking about practicing?" Sustra offered with a sad shrug. Gabrielle felt ill as she reluctantly nodded. Sustra smiled at her. "Don't worry Gabrielle, you'll be ready for her."

Exhaling as she grabbing her staff, she felt like she had already lost.

"Are you ok?" Sustra asked, seeing the weary look in her eyes.

Gabrielle smiled warmly at her friend. "I had prided myself on being able to find peaceful solutions," she relayed as they exited the hut and headed towards a field to practice. "This time...." she sighed and shook her head sadly.

"Gurda! She's left the hut. She's going to practice!" An excited Raiz informed the lounging Amazon as she rushed into their hut. "Don't you want to watch?"

"Why?" Gurda grinned, casually locking her fingers together and placing her hands behind her head to rest her confident head on.

When they reached the practice field, Sustra laughed and shook her head, causing her Queen to eye her curiously.

"What in the world would we do with Walsas?" Sustra asked with a shrug. The two contemplated that as they stretched with their staffs.

"The first thing I would do is rename it," Gabrielle joked, making the two chuckle as they stood towards each other.

"Thank the Gods," Sustra relayed with relief, then proceeded to attack her Queen. Sustra's blows were easy on the Queen, but after Sustra's rear found the ground, she realized the Queen was not going to go easy on her. "Hmmmm...." Sustra got up and dusted herself off, eyeing the grinning Queen.

"As long as you are renaming things, could I get a street named after me?" Sustra asked as she once again proceeded to attack her Queen.

"I'd like a street," Sustra admitted between an attempt to sweep the feet out from under her Queen. Unsuccessful with the sweep, she found the staff, with a stupid looking furry thing on the end of it, over her head and rapidly descending. She quickly lifted her staff up just in time for a block.

After Sustra's successful block, the Amazon attempted to overwhelm the Queen with a flurry of attacks. Easily blocking the Amazon's blows, Gabrielle smiled.

"I don't see why not Sustra, you've been a very loyal subject." The bard feigned an attack with one end of her staff and smacked the Amazon's stomach with the other end.

"Oooff." Sustra backed off. "Good shot," she wheezed one moment and attacked the next, almost catching Gabrielle off guard.

"You know, Trayla will be jealous," Sustra relayed as she jumped over the staff swung at her ankles in a sweeping attack from a crouching bard. "If I get a street and she doesn't," Sustra informed her as she countered with a thrust.

Rolling out of the way of the thrust and immediately back in the ready stance, Gabrielle laughed.

"I guess to keep the peace, I'll have to name all the streets after my Amazons," she relayed, receiving another flurry of attacks from the Amazon that succeeded only in hitting wood.

"I hope there are enough streets," Sustra relayed.

"If not, I'll just have to expand the kingdom," Gabrielle countered with a smirk.

"I guess you can do that...being Queen and all." Sustra blocked a counter attack of rapid strikes. "You can pretty much do... want," she responded, punctuating each word with thrusts. Surprising the Amazon, the Queen failed to block the Amazon's last blow. Sustra landed a powerful hit to her Queen's left arm, tumbling her to the ground.

"GODS!" Sustra stopped, her mouth gaping open at her unexpected success. Snapping out of her shock, she rushed over to Gabrielle.

"Are you OK??" She asked nervously. Gabrielle looked at Sustra and smiled broadly. "Oh gods, you're not ok," Sustra blurted nervously at the stupid look on her Queen's face.

"Sustra, you are wonderful!" Gabrielle got up, kissed the Amazon's cheek and gave her a big bear hug.

"If I wasn't dead before, I'm dead now," Sustra muttered.

"Don't worry Sustra, Xena might just hug you too," Gabrielle added with a grin and rushed back to the Queen's hut.

As they waited in the war tent, Trayla, Solari, Sustra, and Ephiny tried to get Xena to reveal what the big news was.

"I told you, I have no idea what she has planned," Xena said with frustration. "She just told me to be patient," Xena added flatly, not feeling the need to inform them the bard giggled when she told her that.

"What did she say to you when you were practicing?" Trayla asked Sustra, drawing curious glances from the other three.

"Uh, well, we were talking about the need to expand the kingdom to get more streets..." The Amazons looked at each other in confusion.

"...and then WHAM! I landed a really solid blow to her arm. The force knocked her...right...down," Sustra paused and cringed, feeling Xena's intense glare at her enthusiastic account.

"Then she smiled," Sustra quickly added, hoping to appease the Warrior Princess, who raised her eyebrow. "Of course, she surprised the Tartarus out of me when she jumped up and ...uh," Sustra laughed awkwardly when she glanced nervously at Xena. "I don't know either," she smiled sheepishly and shrugged.

Gabrielle finally came into the war tent with Eponin, who carried four scrolls in her hands and set them down on the table. The bard turned to her friends.

"I have reviewed the scrolls very carefully and agree with Trayla's findings - the Amazons have a legitimate claim to Walsas," Gabrielle relayed this unpleasant news. The Amazons shifted uncomfortably, exchanging glances among themselves.

"And as Queen, I have decided to honor that Amazon claim and declare Walsas Amazon territory," Gabrielle informed them, carefully watching the response of the women.

"WHAT!?!" Was the joint response from the dumbfounded Amazons.

"How hard did you hit her?" Trayla asked Sustra, who shrugged uneasily.

Chapter 14 - The Details

Xena eyed her bard, who was smiling confidently with that familiar devious glimmer in her eyes. Silently the two exchanged glances, giving Xena a sense of hope she hadn't felt for a long time. Gabrielle had a plan and knowing Gabrielle, it would be interesting, the Warrior considered.

"Are you CRAZY?" Ephiny blurted, not worried about the potential penalties of insulting an Amazon Queen. "Do you really want to attack Walsas?" She asked, making Gabrielle chuckle.

"There is no need to attack least not yet. I think we can settle this between the thrones, peacefully. It may news to some, but I have some pull with the Queen of Walsas and think she'll agree to my demands, without the need for bloodshed." She smiled at Ephiny then turned to see a grin on Xena's face.

"How...what...huh?" Ephiny blurted, scratching her head.

"The scrolls had the answer in them," Gabrielle relayed with a shrug.

"Believe it or not, Gurda's stunt is not the first time someone has tried to use a territory issue to get control of the throne." Gabrielle feigned surprise.

Xena noticed the bard was enjoying this from her buoyant confidence and smile on her face. Xena also noticed just how much she missed that beautiful smile.

"If you read beyond the four scrolls on Walsas, there are detailed accounts of how, long ago, the Amazon nation PEACEFULLY settled claims and managed lands, from small villages to sizable kingdoms," Gabrielle happily relayed the tale to the room of now-interested Amazons.

"Once a land is claimed and a treaty is signed, it is no longer an issue for the throne. The Amazon nation did not need all the lands claimed in the past. However, the Queens sought the lands and treaties because of politics. They wanted to avoid constant challenges to the thrones. Surprisingly, very few battles were necessary." Gabrielle eyed the smiling Acting Queen.

"The Amazons were incredibly successful collecting treaties, especially from the small lands. Even when the terms were obscenely favorable to the Amazons, the people wisely did not want to face the Amazon nation on the battlefield." Gabrielle looked over to Xena, who shook her head with amusement at the bard Queen.

Gabrielle paused a moment to enjoy the amazed looks on the Amazon faces. "A treaty was never signed for the land, now named Walsas. Amazon Law is crystal clear on this unfinished business. Gurda has the right to demand the throne to claim the land." A satisfied grin crossed the bard's face.

"But, Amazon Law is also crystal clear on the role of the throne. As Queen, I have shall set the conditions of our claim and I will write the treaty," Gabrielle relayed forcefully, eyeing the Amazons, who realized their Queen had just pulled the rug out from under Gurda.

The women erupted with laughter of relief and amusement. "Now no more worry of challenges!" Eponin blurted, generating relieved nods and chuckles from the women, except Sustra who noticed Gabrielle's polite smile.

"Gurda could still challenge her," Sustra noted with a shrug. The other Amazons laughed knowingly. Xena grinned, hoping Gurda would.

"It wouldn't be over the throne, just a personal challenge Sustra," Solari relayed to her the obvious. "And Gabrielle would name a champion."

Ephiny laughed. "Gurda's not crazy enough to fight Xena," Ephiny added shaking her head.

Sustra looked over to Gabrielle who sighed as she quietly collected the scrolls.

"Well, she was crazy to plan on challenging Gabrielle over Walsas," Sustra countered with a shrug, making the Amazon's laugh and her bard Queen smile warmly at her loyal friend.

Xena eyed Sustra curiously.

"Yeah, Walsas of all places," Eponin blurted, evoking more chuckles.

Seeing an irritated Sustra open her mouth to correct Eponin, Gabrielle interjected.

"Hey, Sarah DOES have a nice castle..." Gabrielle shrugged and smiled at Sustra, who sighed and remained quiet.

Now Xena eyed her bard curiously.

"We should all get some rest tonight, I will make my announcement tomorrow morning," Gabrielle relayed to the grinning Amazons, who couldn't wait to see Gurda's face.

In the Queen's hut, Xena watched the bard sit down at the large table and pull out a quill and a blank parchment.

"What are you doing?" Xena asked. "Writing a story about this?" The warrior grinned.

"No, I'm drafting up my demands," Gabrielle responded seriously, dipping her quill in ink.

"Why?" Xena chuckled, removing her weapons.

"To ensure the safety of the Amazon nation! To seek a lasting peace with the kingdom of Walsas!" Gabrielle announced grandly. "To bridge the great chasm between..."

"Uh huh," Xena interrupted, removing her armor then reclined on the very uncomfortable cot, her stiff bed for the past few nights. She had concluded her first night on the cot that the nosey Amazons deliberately provided them most uncomfortable cot they could find.

" what should I demand," Gabrielle asked, stroking the quill under her chin thoughtfully. ""

"Money??" Xena questioned with a smirk, folding her hands behind her head as she stared at the thatch ceiling. When that familiar bump on the frame jabbed her shoulder again, Xena grimaced, finally concluding she would have to kill the cot maker.

"I think it's a good about a MILLION dinars a year!" Gabrielle declared. "Gabrielle," Xena blurted, poorly hiding her amusement, "she's got to be able to pay it or you'll be forced to attack her."

"Oh, right...thanks!" The bard happily wrote the slightly less demanding demand down. "Hmmm...I've also been thinking of renaming Walsas, what do you think?"

The cot creaked loudly as an amused Xena rolled over on her side and propped her head on her hand. She silently eyed the bard.

"How about Gabriellopolis!" The bard asked enthusiastically. Xena's eyebrow raised.

"North Gabriellopolis??" Xena's second eyebrow raised to meet her first. "Ok Ok...that's not exactly's more like North EAST Gabriellopolis," She offered. Xena smirked.

"Why don't I just keep that open for give you a chance to mull it over before commenting," She relayed diplomatically as she cheerfully wrote down a note to rename Walsas. Xena smiled. There was nothing more wonderful than seeing her beautiful bard so happy.

"Of course, being a benevolent Queen and champion for the people, I want to right wrongs, correct GRAVE injustices done to POOR unsuspecting innocents," she declared dramatically and wrote down another demand.

"What?" Xena asked with a little concern.

"No pink."

"Huh?" Xena asked the bard, who unconsciously rubbed her aching left arm and grimaced.

"A long, and very disturbing story..." Gabrielle sighed writing down her explicit requirements on that very important demand for justice.

"What else?" Gabrielle asked, looking up to the cot finding it empty. She found her warrior sitting down on the bench beside her and inspecting her aching arm.

When Gabrielle recoiled slightly at her gentle touch, Xena sighed. "Why didn't you say something about the pain?" Xena asked softly.

"'s nothing," Gabrielle relayed with a shrug, slightly grimacing at the movement. Xena sighed and got up to retrieve some medicine from her bag.

"Really, there's no need to bother..." Gabrielle relayed to the Warrior Princess who shook her head as she pulled out an herbal powder.

"It looks like you took quite a blow. You're lucky she didn't break your arm," Xena blurted with a furrowed brow as she returned to the table and grabbed a goblet.

"Yeah, or Sustra would have surely died of panic right there. You should have SEEN her face when she hit me - WHAM. When I went down she lost ALL the colour in her face," Gabrielle relayed with a chuckle of amusement. Amusement that the bard noticed Xena didn't share.

"Hey, it was my fault for not focusing," Gabrielle confessed. "Something I'm sure you'll agree I need to work on," she added quickly. "You'd think after a few of these...," Gabrielle pointed to her forearm that now sported a thin scar. "...I'd learn pay more attention," Gabrielle joked.

"Gabrielle, you got that because I wasn't paying attention," Xena admitted bitterly, pouring some water in the goblet.

"Xena, I didn't react fast enough," Gabrielle corrected her.

"You wouldn't of had to, if I had done my job," Xena responded, mixing the powder in the goblet.

"Your job?!? I can't believe you are taking the blame for MY mistake!" The bard blurted with exasperation.

"Gabrielle, the simple fact was - I wasn't paying attention that day at that bazaar. I was..." Xena sighed heavily, remembering her completely hopeless state of mind that particular morning. She should have never agreed to go to that stupid bazaar, especially after she had made such a point of no public displays of affection, she mentally scolded herself.

"I was...too busy looking at you to notice the threat," Xena blurted out the shameful truth and handed the bard the mug. "You could have been killed because of my carelessness," Xena added, dropping her gaze to the floor.

"What?!?" The bard blurted in utter amazement. "I seem to remember being there. And as I recall, I had a staff! And I could have used it to stop the attack if I wasn't so busy looking at the beautiful woman who had who COMPLETELY and UTTERLY took my breath away that wondrous night before!" Gabrielle declared.

"So don't you DARE try to blame yourself for MY lack of focus!" Gabrielle blurted, then paused a moment and added sheepishly, "Uh, perhaps I should rephrase that."

The bard noticed a small smile on the warrior's lips.

"You know, this is just another reason why public dis..." Xena relayed thoughtfully.

"STOP it!" Gabrielle erupted. "I promised and I intend to keep my promise. But I am NOT going to sit through another lecture on the dangers of public displays of affection," she added with frustration.

"And I'd really appreciate it if you didn't rub it in that you got me to promise."

"GOT you to?!? Gabrielle...we've discussed..." Xena relayed amazed at the bard's reaction.

"Xena DON'T! Just...don't" Gabrielle interrupted and sighed wearily, shaking her head. As the bard sipped from the goblet, the warrior watched with confusion.

Xena opened her mouth to say something but didn't know what to say. It was clear the bard finished their discussion. She quietly continued writing the treaty and her demands. Xena once again found herself lying on the cot, looking up at the ceiling and sighing heavily.

When the bard finally completed her task and retired to her bed, Xena looked over at her bard lying still, also finding the thatched ceiling fascinating.

"Gabrielle?" Xena called softly, causing the bard to turn her head towards the warrior. "Never mind," Xena sighed and turned her gaze to the ceiling.

"You have no idea why I'm mad, do you?" Gabrielle asked softly.

"No," Xena admitted gruffly. "I thought we discussed it."

"I see," Gabrielle sighed, returning her gaze to the ceiling. "Tell me Xena, if I had agreed to walk away from this Amazon problem when you asked...right after we made love...would you have also considered THAT a discussion?" Gabrielle asked sharply.

The realization of what she had done finally hitting her, Xena abruptly sat up. "Gabrielle...I only...I ...I never meant to hurt you," Xena spoke earnestly. "I...." Unable to continue, Xena's eyes moistened and her heart pounded with fear. Fear that in her blind desire to protect Gabrielle, her blatant manipulation would prevent Gabrielle from ever being able to trust her again.

Sitting on the edge of the cot, the warrior searched at the ground as if she would find a fix.

"Xena," Gabrielle softly spoke as she left her bed. She sighed when she sat next to her ashamed warrior who, refused to look at her.

"Your not the only one guilty of trying to manipulate the other like that...and neither of us liked it when we were on the receiving end," Gabrielle relayed, then couldn't help but grin slightly.

"Well...that's not entirely true, I guess I didn't mind it THAT much, at first," Gabrielle admitted. Xena finally looked at the bard, who smiled warmly.

"But after you got mad at me for trying to convince you to go to Amphipolis, I realized you were right to be angry. That no matter the reason, we attempted to manipulate each other, at a very vulnerable time." Gabrielle looked into her warrior's moist eyes.

"I think we should promise each other we won't resort to that again," Gabrielle proposed, Xena nodded. Gabrielle wrapped her arms around her warrior and hugged her.

"Never again," Xena exhaled with relief, tightly holding her bard.

"Good. You had an unfair advantage, you are much better at it than I am," Gabrielle relayed, revealing a grin and reached to wipe a tear from Xena's cheek.

"Who says?" Xena challenged her, capturing her hand and gently kissing her palm. Gabrielle smiled warmly, then surprised the warrior.

"It's getting late, we should get some sleep," Gabrielle informed as she stood up.

Xena sighed and nodded, reluctantly releasing the bard's hand. As she started to lie down on the cot, it groaned loudly.

"Xena," the bard held out her hand to the Warrior Princess, who looked up hopefully. "We'll both sleep much better in my bed."

As they laid down together in each other's arms, they found peace and, for the first time in many nights, sound sleep.

Chapter 15 - The Demands

In the center of the Amazon village the Queen arrived with her entourage of senior advisors and a Warrior Princess. Gabrielle sighed when she looked out over the large group of Amazons gathered and did not find Gurda.

Finally, the cocky Amazon made a show of her arrival as she emerged from the crowd, followed by group of Amazons. Gabrielle knew each of them and was not surprised by their allegiance to Gurda, though it still saddened her.

Xena crossed her arms as she watched Gurda make her way to the front of the crowd. The two warriors coldly eyed each other. Gurda smiled and turned her gaze towards the Queen and her advisors for an indication of nervousness, surprised when she found none. Gurda had to admit, being cool under the pressure was an admirable trait, even for the bard Queen.

With all finally gathered Gabrielle began her announcement. "As you know, there has been a request by Gurda that the Amazons claim the land, now called Walsas."

Heads nodded as the crowd quietly murmured.

"This claim was based on Ancient Amazon scrolls kept by the Northern Tribe in Ratheos. After carefully reviewing those scrolls..." Gabrielle paused and looked Gurda in the eye. "I can only confirm Gurda's assertions that the Amazons have a claim to Walsas," Gabrielle relayed, making Gurda inhale deeply with a big victory grin.

A disturbed murmur erupted through the crowd.

"With this claim, I am faced with a decision," Gabrielle relayed dramatically, starting to pace. All Amazon eyes on her except Gurda's, who was watching Xena, not understanding why Xena's eyes rolled with impatience. Gabrielle glared at the Warrior Princess, who sighed.

"As the sister of the Queen of Walsas, whom I dearly love, I wish no harm to come to her or her people. I have a responsibility to see to that," Gabrielle relayed, continuing her pacing the other way as the Amazons intently watched and listened. Except Gurda, who was watching Xena, not understanding why the Warrior Princess seemed more interested in a stray thread on her bracer than the Queen's speech.

"However, as the Amazon Queen, a position for which I have the utmost respect and intend to bring honor to, my responsibilities require me to see Walsas for what it really is....AMAZON LAND!" Gabrielle blurted with conviction, surprising the crowd. Gurda's mouth dropped, her full attention abruptly captured by Gabrielle.

"NO! You can't be serious..." Gurda blurted, looking back towards Xena, who was smiling broadly. The bard noticed how much her warrior was enjoying this.

"You are willing to attack your own sister? What kind of sister ARE you???" Gurda added, trying to find a way to salvage the situation. "Amazons! Do we want a Queen who is willing to attack her own sister in the back to avoid a challenge?" The Amazons looked uneasily at each other.

"ENOUGH!!" Gabrielle erupted with an anger that surprised Xena. "Gurda, if you wish to challenge ME go ahead. But it WON'T be over Walsas and it WON'T be over the throne," Gabrielle snapped, eyeing the woman, who shook her head as she eyed Xena, who smiled and cracked her knuckles.

"I'm not stupid Gabrielle," Gurda responded as she made an about-face and marched through the crowd, who's eyes returned to the Queen. Gabrielle took a moment and a few calming deep breaths before continuing.

"My sisters," Gabrielle called out with her hand up to settle the disturbed crowd. " assured, there is no need to attack Walsas," she informed them with a smile as she saw the curious looks throughout the crowd.

"As allowed by Amazon Law, I have drafted up my demands and a treaty, which Xena will deliver to the Queen of Walsas," Gabrielle relayed to the gathering, careful to avoid the gaze of a certain, very annoyed Warrior Princess.

Xena's eyes narrowed at the bard, who apparently didn't remember to inform her of this little trip she was about to make.

"Once the treaty is signed, the matter of Walsas will be behind us," Gabrielle relayed, her smile and words serving to pacify everyone, except the Warrior Princess.

"Gabrielle I will NOT leave you here ALONE!" Xena exploded when they got back to the hut. Gabrielle sighed, tying a ribbon around the scroll of demands and the treaty, waiting quietly for the warrior's anger to settle.

"I can't believe you didn't ASK me!" Xena blurted as she paced behind the bard. "And DON'T think just because you told the WHOLE village I was going doesn't mean for one MOMENT that I am!....I can't believe you didn't ask me!" Xena repeated, stopping for only a moment and continued to pace. "Why don't you get Sustra to go...I'm sure she'd be more than happy to please her Queen!" Xena snarled.

When Gabrielle turned to face her jealous warrior, she wisely wiped the amused grin off her face.

"Xena," Gabrielle spoke in a soothing voice. "You are the only one Sarah trusts. I can't send anyone else," Gabrielle reasoned, trying to make eye contact with the pacing warrior.

"Fine! She trusts you too. We should go together," Xena argued, avoiding eye contact. Gabrielle smiled warmly at her warrior.

"I'd love to Xena, but I have to send my demands and treaty and wait for a counter proposal," Gabrielle rattled off the procedure, causing Xena to furrow her eyebrows and start to pace again.

"If she has one, then we'll need to meet at a neutral land and get the treaty signed....I want to do this by the scrolls all the way..." Gabrielle relayed firmly, then grinned. "What are you so worried about?" Gabrielle stood in Xena's path, stopping her pacing.

"Gabrielle, I don't like this. Gurda might try something," Xena relayed, finally looking into the bard's eyes, revealing great worry in her own.

"I think she's made it pretty clear she's not interested in challenging me now," Gabrielle relayed with a smirk. Seeing Xena starting to object again she quickly added. "Please Xena, do this for me," the bard asked softly and held out the scrolls.

Xena sighed heavily as her eyes dropped to the scrolls.

As she mounted Argo, Xena grimaced unhappily as she looked down at the Amazon Queen, who ceremoniously displayed the treaty to the crowd. After placing the scrolls in Xena's saddle bags, Gabrielle looked up at her warrior.

"Don't be long," Gabrielle instructed her warrior with a familiar twinkle in her eye.

Ephiny noticed the Warrior Princess' grimace dissolve into a small crooked grin.

"HAhhh!" Xena called out to Argo, who immediately lurched forward, kicking up a cloud of dust. As the thundering hooves swiftly carried Warrior Princess away from camp, Ephiny turned to Frea and Roeya.

The three Amazons nodded confidently.

"She wants to WHAT?!?" Sarah blurted in confusion as Xena tried to explain the situation to Gabrielle's sisters and Meleager. Lila and Meleager eyed each other, then Xena as Sarah stared at the scroll in in disbelief.

"She wants to resolve this territory issue with a the scrolls Sarah, it is very clear what Gabrielle trying to do," Xena explained patiently. Sarah shook her head in amazement. Following Xena's advice, she returned her gaze to the incredible treaty in her hands.

"I Gabrielle, Queen of Amazonia...blah...blah...yadda...yadda...claim Walsas as AMAZON territory," Sarah reread the words and blurted again. "She wants to WHAT?!?"

"Sarah, it would help if you read beyond the 'claim Walsas' part," Xena suggested with a sigh. Sarah shook her head and started to read again.

"...claim Walsas....yadda...yadda...blah...blah...upon agreement of Amazon demands..." Sarah read the words. "She has DEMANDS?!?" Sarah, Lila and Meleager blurted in unison.

Xena wondered if just attacking Walsas wouldn't be easier.

"So what does this Furry Wegget look like?" Sustra asked her Queen as they dismounted at the mouth of the cave.

"Size of a chicken, furry...and NO I have never seen one," Gabrielle blurted with annoyance, having been asked that question many times by the Amazons with her.

Solari was last to dismount. With a sigh, she eyed her hunting party consisting of Sustra, Trayla and Eponin...all recruited by their Queen to get this egg. Though they were all known as skilled hunters, none of them had ever heard of a Furry Wegget before.

Gabrielle smiled when she looked into the dark cave and took a deep breath of cave air. "Amazons...I smell SUCCESS today," she blurted confidently, then coughed. The Amazons eyed her with concern.

"Here little Wegget, here Wegge Wegge Wegge..." Gabrielle called out to the darkness as she entered the cave with a torch in hand.

The Amazons looked uneasily at each other.

"How hard did you hit her??" Trayla asked Sustra, who shrugged innocently.

"She wants to WHAT???" Sarah blurted upon reading another demand, making Xena cringe. "How can she rename Walsas?" She asked indignantly. "It's always been Walsas...hasn't it??" She asked Meleager and Lila, who shrugged.

"Well, what does she want to name it?" Meleager asked helpfully. Xena rolled her eyes and braced herself, remembering Gabrielle's suggestions the night before.

"Galisar" Sarah blurted, surprising Xena. "Why in Tartarus would she want to name it that?" She complained, shaking her head.

"I dunno...but it sounds a lot better than Wal..." Meleager admitted, then cringed at the displeased glare from his future wife. "Well it DOES!" He responded defensively.

Xena grinned, realizing how the bard picked that name. "It's from all your names," Xena relayed, appreciating the bard's choice. Sarah looked up confused.

"Gabrielle, Lila and Sarah..." Lila laughed. "I LIKE it! Keep it! Oh you've GOT to, please??" Lila pleaded with her sister, who sighed, not ready to admit she also liked it better than Walsas.

"Don't know why SHE gets to be first," Sarah muttered as she read the next demand.

"Damn it," Sustra blurted as her torch blew out again. The occasional cool gusts from the caverns below extinguished their torches. Sustra fumbled around in the dark to get her flint stones out. Clacking the stones together, she produced a successful spark that relit her torch.

Gabrielle relit hers from Sustra's. "Thanks," she relayed with a smile and resumed her hunting. "Here wegge wegge wegge,"

"Sustra," Eponin pulled her aside as Gabrielle continued to hunt around the cave for Furry Weggets. "How do we even know this bird even exists? I mean...WE'VE never seen it or even heard of it, and Gabrielle has said SHE'S never seen it. And after you hit her..." Eponin shrugged as if it was obvious.

"It exists! She said so...and I DIDN'T hit her THAT hard!!" Sustra relayed defensively.

Outside the cave, Solari stiffened as Gurda and five other Amazons rode up. Solari whistled a warning to the sisters in the cave.

"Solari...there's no need for that," Gurda smiled as she gracefully slid off her mount. "I mean you no harm," Gurda relayed truthfully as she watched Solari reach for her sword.

Sustra, Eponin, Trayla and Gabrielle quickly emerged from the cave. "Your highness," Gurda bowed. "Lovely day for a hunt isn't it?" She noted, walking towards the Queen. Gabrielle's hunting party stepped protectively around her but Gabrielle held her hand out to stop them.

"She wants WHAT?!?" Sarah blurted on the final demand. "No pink?!?"

Xena listened curiously.

"It's only fair Sarah," Lila relayed, looking over her sister's shoulder at the scroll.

"But the bridesmaid dresses are already done!" Sarah blurted.

"You were going to make Gabrielle wear a pink dress?" Xena asked in amazement.

"Uh...yes...I really LIKE pink, though I can't wear it because of my hair...colour...," She explained, then cringed under the glare of the Warrior Princess.

"Alright, alright, no pink bridesmaid dresses...even though it IS my wedding," Sarah blurted with annoyance.

"She can go around NAKED now, for all I care..." Sarah muttered, causing the Warrior Princess slightly grin. That would certainly add to at least HER enjoyment of this Traditional wedding, Xena considered. Her grin faded as her eyes drifted over to the door.

Gabrielle's mother just entered the room.

"It is a lovely day Gurda," Gabrielle relayed to the Amazon with a pleasant smile.

"I've been thinking about what you said, Queen Gabrielle," Gurda relayed respectfully.

"I'm glad to hear that," Gabrielle responded with a smile.

"You said if I wanted to challenge YOU, I could," Gurda repeated the bards statement.

Trayla and Eponin started to laugh.

"I meant it," Gabrielle said cooly, meeting Gurda's gaze.

Trayla and Eponin stopped laughing.

"Good. I would like to take you up on your offer then, your highness," Gurda stated calmly, but with eagerness in her eyes. "Now," she added.

"Staff?" Gabrielle asked calmly.

"Certainly," Gurda answered holding her empty hand out. Raiz quickly filled it with Gurda's staff.

"Queen Gabrielle, I would be honored if you would allow me to be your champion," Trayla interjected uneasily. Gurda snorted and rolled her eyes. Gabrielle smiled warmly at Trayla and shook her head no.

"Please, your highness, I would be greatly honored to be your champion," Eponin blurted nervously in an another unsuccessful attempt to protect the Queen.

Solari and Sustra didn't bother to offer, knowing full well their stubborn Queen would also decline it.

Seeing the concern in her Amazon's faces Gabrielle sighed. "She is challenging ME and I will fight," Gabrielle explained with confidence.

Gurda grinned.

CHAPTER 16 - The Conflict

Xena watched as Gabrielle's mother walked towards them, her cold eyes fixed on the Warrior Princess.

"Where is Gabrielle?" She asked briskly.

"Back in Amazonia mother," Sarah interjected drawing her mother's annoyed glare from the Warrior Princess.

"I asked Xena the question Sarah, not you," she snapped then returned her gaze to the Warrior Princess.

"Sarah is right, Gabrielle is still in Amazonia," Xena responded cooly.

"You left her there...alone?" She asked incredulously.

"Mother, she is not exactly alo..." Lila blurted, quickly silenced by her mother's sharp stare.

"Gabrielle asked that I deliver these scrolls to Sarah," Xena relayed, pointing to the treaty and demands. "I did as she asked," Xena added simply, though the woman's words weighed heavily on Xena's already concerned mind.

"She CAN be pretty stub...born," Meleager interjected then coughed when his future mother-in-law turned her icy glare towards him.

"Who will protect her from that...that...woman?" The older woman blurted, having not slept since she finally wore down her daughters' resistance to explaining to her the disturbing reason for Gabrielle's abrupt departure.

Surprised the older woman was aware of the situation, Xena looked over to Sarah and Lila, who shrugged innocently.

"Once these scrolls are signed, the claim to Walsas is settled and Gurda no longer has an ability to challenge the throne," Xena explained cooly, staring at the older woman.

Sarah quickly took her quill out and decided now would be good time to sign the treaty.

"If Gurda challenges Gabrielle now, it will be a personal challenge and she can name a champion to fight for her. I will fight for her," Xena spoke calmly and confidently.

"Xena's the best fighter mother," Sarah interjected as she blew on the ink to dry it, hoping to further allay her mother's fears.

"She MUST be if she can fight a woman in Amazonia all the way from WALSAS!" She snapped.

Xena's gaze dropped to the floor, the mother's words successfully hitting their mark.

"Gurda wouldn't risk challenging Gabrielle now, she'd be crazy to," Lila interjected, amazed to find the Warrior Princess so...passive.

The older woman looked at her daughters then Xena.

"A few years ago, I knew my daughter," she paused wearily, slightly shaking her head. "The woman," The older woman exhaled slowly. " not the Gabrielle I raised," the woman relayed, looking up into the warrior's eyes.

"Gabrielle has grown into an amazing woman," Xena spoke with conviction.

"She is more willful, ready to take chances...You know Gabrielle better than I do Xena. If she is challenged, are you SURE she'll name a champion?" She asked and waited for and answer that Xena didn't have.

"Xena," Sarah asked with concern, seeing the warrior's face as she hesitated in answering. "She wouldn't fight Gurda, would she?"

In front of the cave, the Amazons watched uneasily as the challenge began. Immediately, the towering Gurda launched into a fierce attack. Gabrielle stumbled backwards while blocking each powerful strike from her opponent, who was trying to use her superior strength to overpower the smaller bard.

Solari and Eponin gasped at Gurda's intensity. Sustra just nudged a concerned Trayla and shook her head with a knowing smile.

To Gurda's surprise, this BARD Queen quickly responded with her own attack. Sustra noted that while the bard's blows did not have the same power, they were more controlled and came closer to hitting her opponent. Gurda's brow furrowed as she realized it would take longer than she expected to beat this bard.

After long rounds of hitting and blocking, blocking and hitting, Gabrielle knew she needed an edge. Gurda's strength would eventually overwhelm her if they kept this pace up.

"First you loose the chance at the throne," Gabrielle called out as she lunged towards the Amazon.

The Queen's attack was easily deflected by the Amazon, who quickly countered with a grunt-filled attack of her own. Gabrielle swiftly blocked the rapid strikes but at the expense of valuable energy. The muscles in her arms started to quake with fatigue, never before pushed so hard. Gods I should have practiced more, the bard silently scolded herself.

"...and now your losing this challenge," she blurted, continuing her verbal assault and making Gurda very annoyed.

The bard thrust one end of her staff with an enthusiastic and distracting cry. Deliberately stopping short of her opponent's high block, she deftly reversed her attack. With an underhanded thrust from the other end of her staff, she successfully slipped passed her opponent's defenses, making solid contact with the Amazon's ribs.

Grins formed on the faces of the hunting party as Gurda recoiled in pain.

"Tell me Gurda, aren't you tired of losing to me yet?" Gabrielle continued her attack.

"Gods don't you ever shut up?" Gurda spat with irritation as she lunged at the bard, who blocked the attack but felt her strength draining away. The bard concluded she would definitely have to practice more.

Gabrielle crouched down and attempted to sweep the feet from Gurda, who easily jumped the bard's staff. The bard looked up with wide eyes, realizing she was too slow and left herself open. Not having enough time to raise her staff to block Gurda's next attack, Gabrielle attempted to dive out of the way.

Sustra gasped watching Gurda's staff plummet down with great force and strike the Queen's back. Gabrielle collapsed into the dirt.

Still dazed by the blow, Gabrielle barely managed to roll out of the way of Gurda's violent downward thrust, aimed at the injured Queen's head. The smile of vicious glee faded from Gurda's face when her staff only hit dirt. Gurda's eyes widened with the realization that she had now left herself open.

"Ughh," Gurda groaned loudly when the felled bard slammed the end of her staff in the Amazon's already aching ribs.

Sustra blurted out her joy at the bard's skilled move from the ground. "YES!!"

Stumbling back a moment, Gurda gasped, allowing the bard time to get back on her feet. The fatigued Queen quickly glanced over her shoulder at the gaping mouth of the cave. When Gurda rushed her again, Gabrielle retreated into the black void to Gurda's surprise and amusement.

"Running already Queen Gabrielle?" Gurda laughed as she followed the bard into the darkness. "It will only delay the inevitable..." Gurda blurted confidently.

Solari and Sustra grabbed their torches. "No!" Eponin called to her sisters. "We can not interfere," she relayed to the unhappy Amazons.

"I am not going to interfere, just see what's happening. A challenge needs witnesses doesn't it??" Sustra argued, taking a torch and lighting it.

"I'll go too," Raiz added grabbing Solari's torch. "To witness..." Raiz added, making Solari sigh and release the torch. Sustra nodded in agreement and entered the cave.

Ahead of their field of vision, Sustra and Raiz heard the two women fighting in the dark. "Is she crazy?" Raiz shook her head and asked Sustra.

"Well, you know Gurda better than I do..." Sustra responded sarcastically.

The sounds they heard next were confusing. In rapid succession, they heard a dull thunk, what they thought was a muttered 'in the name of Hera', a very loud grunt, a swat, a moan and someone collapse to the dirt.

As they rushed towards the noise, their torch light revealed their exhausted Queen standing over Gurda. Gabrielle held her staff at the ready, waiting for Gurda to move while praying she wouldn't. Sustra smiled broadly when her Queen quickly glanced at her.

When Gurda rolled over on her back, Gabrielle held her staff threateningly. "It's...OVER...Gurda," Gabrielle called out between gasps. Gurda lifted her hands to her forehead and moaned. "Gurda!" Gabrielle yelled at her. Gurda nodded and lifted her hands up in a formal gesture of defeat.

"It's over..." Gabrielle exhaled with relief that the burden of the whole Amazon situation was finally over. She looked up at her loyal Amazon, who was grinning ear to ear. Gabrielle smiled back and forced her exhausted body towards her friend as Raiz helped the moaning Amazon up.

"Don't be too relieved, we've still got an egg to find," Gabrielle relayed with a grin to her friend, who shook her head in amazement at the tenacity of this bard.

As they started to leave, a cold gust extinguished the two torches. Sustra and Gabrielle heard Gurda's chilling war cry, just before they felt the impact of the Amazon.

Xena rode Argo hard all the way from Walsas and arrived in the Amazon village before the Amazon scouts at the edge of the territory could even announce her arrival. She dismounted and rushed into the Queen's hut. Bolting from the empty hut, Xena scanned the village and called out for her bard. "Gabrielle? Gabrielle?" Xena waited uneasily for a response.

"Xena! What's going on?? Why are you so up..?" Ephiny met up with the Warrior Princess outside the Queen's hut.

"Where's Gabrielle?" Xena sharply interrupted her.

"Hunting for that furry...chicken thing with a small hunting party," Ephiny relayed with a shrug. "I'm not exactly sure why she was so determined to..."

"Where's Gurda?" Xena interrupted, not attempting to hide her concern. Ephiny was too slow in responding. "Where's Gurda?!?" Xena snapped impatiently.

"I don't KNOW Xena...what is going on??" Without another word, Xena left for the caves, with the confused and concerned Amazon close behind.

"I won, I've defeated the Queen!" Gurda yelled triumphantly as the bruised and bloodied Amazon stumbled out of the cave. The Amazons noted with shock the amount of blood on her, unusual for a staff fight.

"Gurda!" Eponin blurted angrily. "We will hear from our witnesses before declaring the victor."

An uncaring Gurda sneered at her.

"Raiz! Come here!" She spat back to the cave. Surprising Gurda, Raiz emerged with Sustra, helping their injured Queen out of the cave. Gurda's mouth dropped.

"Raiz?" Gurda questioned her, panicked she would actually help that bard.

"Aren't you..." Gabrielle spoke with great effort. "...a little declare...victory?" Gabrielle's breathing was labored.

There was so much blood, Eponin's mouth dropped.

"Arrest her," Raiz spoke coldly. The Amazons who arrived with Gurda froze, not knowing what to do. "She acknowledged the Queen as the victor, then stabbed her in the back," Raiz spit angrily, throwing the bloody dagger on the ground before their feet. Elea and Raylas stepped up and grabbed Gurda's arms.

Gurda yanked her arms out of their grip. "NO! Elea...Raylas...listen to me! I beat her! I beat her!" Gurda shook her head emphatically, her eyes darted between the women that rode with her, not getting the support she expected. She looked to Wynna and Karael, who looked upon her with silent disgust. "NO! I WON...I WON," she repeated as she frantically backed away from them. Suddenly, she made a mad dash for her horse and mounted.

"Stop her!" Trayla called out to the Amazons, as Gurda started to get away. Now a matter of personal honor, the group that formerly rode with Gurda, rode after her.

"How are you doing?" Sustra said with a shake in her voice, still applying pressure on her Queen's wound. With only a moan in response, Raiz and Sustra lowered the very weak bard to the ground.

"We need a healer NOW!" Sustra blurted as she eyed Eponin, who nodded and quickly left with the most important mission in her life.

Chapter 17 - A Long Night

Gabrielle moaned and shivered. "ssso ...c cold," the bard mumbled. Raiz rushed to her horse and retrieved a blanket. Sustra kept pressure over the wound.

"Oh Gods..." Sustra silently prayed, not truly knowing fear until now. They placed the blanket around the shivering bard the best they could.

"Fire...make a fire...," Sustra blurted to Solari, who numbly followed Sustra's orders.

"Stop the...bleeding," Gabrielle relayed weakly.

Sustra looked at the fire then Raiz. "Sword, get your sword..." Sustra relayed nervously, seeing no other options. She prayed she could do what needed to be done. Raiz nodded, standing by, waiting for Solari to get the blaze going.

"Sustra?" Gabrielle called softly.

"I'm here, Gabrielle," Sustra responded nervously.

"Tell Xena ...I love her," Gabrielle relayed, barely above a whisper.

"NO! No, I won't," Sustra responded forcefully. "You'll have to tell her yourself Gabrielle." The bard closed her eyes.

"Gabrielle? Gabrielle!" Sustra yelled at the bard, who's eyes opened again.

"Tell her..." Gabrielle softly urged the Amazon, grasping her arm with surprising strength.

As Sustra was about to cave in and promise her Queen, she heard the frantic hoof beats of three horses approaching them. Looking up she saw Eponin, Ephiny and the Warrior Princess arrive and quickly dismount. Grabbing her saddle bags, Xena rushed over and knelt by her bard.

"Gabrielle, I'm here," Xena informed the bard in a voice much calmer than her eyes, which anxiously surveyed the injury after Sustra removed her hand. "I'm here..." Xena repeated, reapplying pressure to the wound with her hand.

The wound was going to require a large number of quick and small stitches to stop the bleeding, the warrior considered. For Gabrielle's sake she wanted to avoid searing the wound. That would be the last resort, she considered, swallowing hard.

The weak bard smiled with relief. "About...time," Gabrielle blurted.

"I should have never left you..." Xena added with a crack in her voice as she opened her saddle bag with her free hand to begin her task.

"Xena?" She called to her warrior with concern in her voice.

"I'm here Gabrielle..." Xena said uneasily, caressing the bard's face.

"You know how much..." Gabrielle spoke softly, gazing intensely in the warrior's worried eyes. Losing her struggle with consciousness, the bard passed out.

Xena gasped sharply, nervously checking for a pulse. The Warrior's reaction alarmed the Amazons. Xena sighed raggedly when she felt a faint beat.

"I know," Xena answered in a whisper and proceeded to swiftly and meticulously stitch up the bard's wound.

Ephiny brought over soup to the Warrior Princess who hadn't budged from Gabrielle's side for hours. "Hungry?" She asked.

Xena's gaze never left her bard, who endured much more adversity than she ever deserved.

Having done all that she could, Xena could now only sit and wait... and remember. Remember the other times, the too many other times, where she anxiously waited for her injured bard to recover. In Corerik when her brave bard stood up to the prejudiced Uncle Ustas' after she fell off a cliff while leading an escape attempt from Verbinia, after the bard had her gift brutally torn away...and now....

To helplessly wait, while this gentle soul she loved with all of her dark heart, suffered.... She knew THIS was the Warrior Princess' Tartarus, Xena numbly concluded, still gazing upon her injured love.

Ephiny sat down with the bowl of soup, undeterred. "It's not that bad if I do say so myself," Ephiny added, taking an exaggerated sniff of the bowl. She sighed, getting no response.

"Trayla and Eponin offered to be her champion," Ephiny informed Xena, finally getting a response...a cold glare. "She said no to both of them," Ephiny added, placing the bowl next to Xena, who's eyes glanced at the bowl with disinterest and returned to the bard.

"She had something to prove Xena," Ephiny relayed.

"Something to prove?!?" Xena blurted. "All she proved was that she shouldn't have fought Gurda."

Gabrielle moaned and shifted. Xena was immediately checking her forehead and pale cheeks for a temperature. "It's ok Gabrielle, I'm here..." Xena spoke soft words of encouragement to the bard and sighed with relief, finding no temperature.

"You're going to be fine," Xena added firmly, sounding more like an order than encouragement. She had to be fine, the warrior closed her eyes tightly, fighting the tears that threatened to come.

"Gabrielle won the challenge Xena," Ephiny relayed, drawing another sharp look from the Warrior Princess, who didn't care. Xena's gaze softened when it returned to the bard, who she knew did.

"But she had already won...she found a peaceful solution, even when others...I ...doubted her," Xena said hollowly, guiltily shaking her head as she gently traced over the bard's pale cheek.

"Yes. Yes she did," Ephiny nodded and sighed. "But even when she found her solution, we still made her feel she had something to prove." The truthful words finally defeated Xena in her battle against the tears, which started to escape from Warrior Princess' eyes.

Ephiny set the bowl of soup down and stood up. "Eat the soup Xena, Gabrielle needs you to be strong," Ephiny told her.

Wiping the tears from her face and drawing in a steadying breath, Xena stared at her bard then the soup bowl. When she grabbed the bowl, Ephiny nodded and returned to the other side of the fire.

Ephiny sighed and sat next to Sustra. "No fever," Ephiny relayed the bit of hopeful news, drawing Sustra's eyes from the fire.

"She lost so much blood," she added, a quiver in her voice escaping.

Ephiny nodded and looked across the camp to the Warrior Princess, who tenderly ministered to the bard. She noted how the stoic warrior, who once struggled to hide her love for her bard, could no more hide her love now than the sun could keep from setting.

"I'm going to get some rest," Ephiny remarked. "You see to it they get whatever they need." Ephiny instructed Sustra, who nodded. "You should also get some rest," Ephiny told the group of concerned Amazons pacing by the cave.

Sustra watched as Xena gently checked Gabrielle's face and forehead for signs of a fever. As she showered the bard with soft words of encouragement and love, Xena would gently lift up the bard's ugly but protective tunic to tend to the wound.

To think those same gentle hands could wield such a deadly sword, was amazing to the Amazon.

"Sarah signed the treaty Gabrielle," Xena noted to the unconscious bard. "She was not exactly thrilled with the demands," Xena grinned slightly as she caressed the bard's face. "But I think she really likes the new name," she noted. "I know I do," Xena relayed softly. "You surprised me my bard...again," Xena admitted, her eyes moistening once again.

"Xena, do you need anything?" Sustra asked uneasily, startling the Warrior Princess, who's head jerked up abruptly.

"No," she answered briskly, wiping the evidence of weakness from her eyes before it escaped again.

Sustra nodded wearily and started back to the other side of the fire, mentally scolding herself for bothering the Warrior Princess.

"Sustra," Xena called, making the Amazon turn. "Tell me what happened," Xena asked softly, surprising the Amazon, who nodded.

Ephiny turned her head towards the two warriors who kept watch over their Queen and quietly talked. Ephiny smiled and closed her eyes.

"She fought as an Amazon Queen should," Sustra noted with a satisfied grin. "Melosa would have been proud," Sustra added. Xena looked at the bard, knowing how important that was to her.

"Gurda underestimated her," Sustra relayed, shaking her head as she looked down at the Queen. "Just like everyone does."

"Except you," Xena noted, surprising Sustra, who's gaze was drawn from the bard.

"I've practiced with her," Sustra explained with an embarrassed shrug. "It's not wise to underestimate anything she does...I've found out THAT the hard way," Gurda grimaced, making Xena reveal a small smile.

"She drew Gurda into the cave and fought her. We thought she was crazy. You can't even see your own hand, let alone your opponent. But then Raiz and I went in to see what was going on. We heard them fighting and then someone collapse. When we got to them and could see what was going on, there she was..." Sustra grinned at the fond memory as she looked at her unconscious Queen. "...standing over Gurda, who just held her head and moaned."

Xena's eyebrow raised. She glanced over to the cave then down at her bard. A small, knowing smile, emerged as she realized Gabrielle had compensated for Gurda's advantages with one of her that was far superior...her devious mind.

"She got Gurda to admit defeat and then...when we started to leave the cave," Sustra relayed, then grimaced angrily. "I shouldn't have turned my back on Gurda...I was so stupid," she blurted.

"Sustra, Gurda admitted defeat. That means the matter is could not have known Gurda would not honour that Amazon custom," Xena relayed, fully understanding this Amazon's guilt.

"I should have," Sustra said bitterly.

"And I should have been there to protect her," Xena countered.

"Xena, you couldn't have...she asked you to deliver the Treaty," Sustra responded.

"And you couldn't have known Gurda would be dishonourable," Xena relayed, making the Amazon sigh and shake her head in disagreement.

"Gabrielle doesn't blame you...and neither do I," Xena added sincerely. The Amazon looked up from the bard and eyed the warrior.

"She must be rubbing off on you then," Sustra blurted, not ready to give up her guilt.

"I hope so," Xena said softly, returning her gaze to the bard.

As the sun finally rose and peeked over the mountains, Xena glanced around the camp, seeing the Amazons stirring.

"How is she?" Ephiny asked as she approached the Warrior Princess.

"So far, no fever," Xena relayed. "It is still too early to tell if she's past that," Xena admitted with a weary sigh, gently brushing her fingers over the bard's cheek.

"Can she travel?" Ephiny asked.

"Not yet," Xena relayed, her gaze fixed on the bard's pale face.

"When we do travel, I'm taking her to Galisar," Xena added firmly, finally looking up at Ephiny, who knew better than to argue...though she wondered where that was.