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See Part One for full disclaimers.
Subtext, yes. Joxer, no. Violence, some. Spoilers, aplenty. Heavy petting between adult females and alcohol consumption, ahoy.
The main characters are not mine, every word of the text is, however. No reprinting without permission.
Author’s Note: Sorry it took so long to post this installment... real life, and all that. Many thanks to those who e-mailed me with comments, and asked to see more. What a rush!
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Ephiny tossed off another cup of wine; she’d lost count long ago. Painkiller, she’d been telling everyone, pointing to her broken arm, and that was true enough.
"Rejoice, O Amazons... for this is our Queen’s joining feast. Unofficially official, or is that officially unofficial?" she muttered to herself. "Whatever."
She’d started drinking in earnest when the pair made their entrance, strides matching in a manner unusual for people of such disparate heights. Gabrielle looked beautiful, as always, in a scaled-down version of her regalia. The real surprise was her escort, who’d forgone her own armor for the leathers the Queen had commissioned during their last stay, the formal rig of a Captain of the Guard, done up in the forest greens and rusts that were Gabrielle’s colors, with a few— admittedly flattering— alterations. The bodice was cut fuller, leaving a mere glimpse of skin above the wide tooled belt; the skirt was less tight than traditional, with a deep slit down the left leg. For maneuverability, the warrior in Ephiny noted, and I’d lay even odds there’s a knife in her boot. Even though the outfit was ceremonial, Xena couldn’t be comfortable in something that would hamper her in a fight. Yes, Gods forbid any of our little traditions make the Queen’s Champion uncomfortable!
Artemis herself had joined them; the news had spread through the village like wildfire. Yet another part of the legend. Xena’s questionable sanity only added to the romance surrounding their Queen, whose mere presence could calm the former Destroyer of Nations. Not this last time, though. Gabrielle had spoken of healing and second chances, but whatever change of heart had occurred, it had been after a vicious attack. To stay with Xena after that— more, to claim her in public— was something Ephiny couldn’t understand. The woman was a volcano, whose eruption was not a matter of if, but how often. And Gabrielle, for some reason, insisted on living in the path of that inevitable destruction. Never mind how attentive the tall warrior seemed now. That was a pattern Ephiny had seen all too often; her own blood sister had succumbed to it.
Phaedra had been younger than Gabrielle, on her first journey outside the village, with several other young Amazons. In one town she’d met a handsome coppersmith, fallen in love, and married him, in less time than it would’ve taken a messenger to make it back to the village with the news. During Ephiny’s visit to her sister’s new home, Marton lost his temper, and hurled a water pitcher against the wall. Phaedra placated her husband, as if she weren’t Amazon born; then came the apologies, the coppersmith’s considerable charm increased tenfold. An uneasy Ephiny let her sister assure her that it was an isolated incident, and went home.
As it turned out, Phaedra had told the truth. There had only been two instances of violence in her marriage; the second one killed her. Marton brought her body home himself, nearly incoherent with grief and guilt. He’d been in a rage, there’d been a knife at hand, and somehow the former Amazon had been unable to defend herself. Nor did the coppersmith try to defend himself from Amazon justice; Ephiny had been his executioner, driven her sword through him, before he could express his remorse yet again. If you cared so much, how could you have hurt her?!
The wine had reduced everything to a dull ache, which just wouldn’t go away. She peered over the rim of her cup at the dancing couples. At Gabrielle, contentedly enfolded by a pair of long arms, head resting against a broad shoulder, while her taller partner nuzzled her hair. The Warrior Princess dances! There had been more public displays of affection from the woman in the past few days, than Ephiny had seen during their entire acquaintance. She noticed Xena looking at her over Gabrielle’s fair head, one eyebrow arched in mild inquiry. Ephiny stared back. You can keep your innocent looks, Queen’s Champion. I’m onto you. The handsome brow furrowed, then Xena shook her head slightly, and returned her full attention to her partner.
"The Queen’s Turn!" someone shouted. Gabrielle buried her flushed face against Xena’s chest, as the cry was taken up by almost all present. Xena said something into her ear that caused the bard to lift her head, with a delighted smile. They consulted briefly, foreheads touching, laughing at what was clearly a private joke. Then the tall warrior escorted Gabrielle to the meeting hall’s small stage, kissed her hand, and quietly withdrew to her habitual spot against the back wall.
"Hey, wanna wrestle?"
"I want to hear this story, Ephiny. Keep your voice down."
"You’ve heard ’em all ten times, right? Hades, half of ’em are about you! C’mon outside... jus’ a friendly li’l match..."
"We did that earlier today." She wrinkled her nose. "Whew. How much wine have you had?"
"Almost enough, but don’t change the subject." She pointed unsteadily at the bruise on the sun-bronzed cheek. "You’re scared, aren’cha, Queen’s Champion, ’cause I pasted you good."
"Ephiny, that blow only landed because I let it. Now get ahold of yourself, before Gabrielle notices. I don’t want anyone upsetting her tonight."
"’Course not. No one’s allowed to upset her but you."
Twin slivers of crystal blue ice pinned her. "Walk away now, friend."
The voice was even colder than the eyes. Ephiny swallowed hard. What am I doing?
A firm hand settled on her shoulder. "Let’s get you some air, Eph."
"Hey, Pony... you wanna wrestle?"
"Yeah, sure. Outside." Eponin steered the regent out of the meeting hall, then stared at her in exasperation. "I’ll bet you used to poke hornet’s nests with a stick, when you were a kid! What in Tartarus were you trying to prove?"
"It’s not fair. All that damage, and she gets rewarded! Did’ja see those cadets fawning over her? ‘Oh Xena, show us how you draw your sword! Show us how you scratch your—’ "
Eponin clapped a hand over her mouth. "You’re crazier than she is, you know that? Damn it, Eph, when someone successfully completes the Rite of Testing, she’s supposed to be brought back into the community."
"She wasn’t a part of the community to begin with— hey!" Suddenly, she was upside-down, facing an expanse of broad, leather-covered back. "What’re you doin’?"
"Indulging a childish whim, and then I’m putting you to bed."
She started to protest, and then the ground seemed to rush up at her head, bringing with it blackness.
Gabrielle had made good her threat with the very first story. Even Xena found herself laughing at this telling of their misadventure with the Hestian Priestess Leah, deftly tailored for an Amazon audience. At the tale’s conclusion, she sketched a point on Gabrielle’s side of their invisible scoreboard, which was accepted with a regal nod. That elicited a fresh burst of laughter, which the bard rode into the next selection, a traditional fable that would settle them down, before she got to the serious narratives. Gabrielle had stated her intent to do what Salmoneus called ‘image enhancement’; Xena had stated her intent to make a strategic withdrawal, when it got too embarrassing to listen.
The next two weren’t so bad: ‘Lost Mariner’ she rather enjoyed, though she could swear the distance between the shore and Cecrops’ ship increased significantly with each telling. ‘Prometheus’ had been the source of friendly argument for two summers, Xena of the opinion that the emphasis should be on Hercules, rather than herself. ‘Let him get his own bard,’ was the usual response.
So far, Gabrielle’s skill had painted a Warrior Princess who was intensely loyal, and too stubborn to know her limitations. Considering that the Amazons liked to hear at least one story about themselves, most likely the next would be...
"I sing of a time most trying to the Amazon Nation, and to her Queen," Gabrielle began.
Yep. Time to check the village perimeter. She met the question in the green eyes with a reassuring smile, then stepped outside. Spotting Eponin by the well, she strode over. "Finished wrestling with Ephiny?"
"I, ah... sort of dumped her in the kitchen midden. Didn’t realize she was out cold, until she started to sink a bit." She blushed, as Xena began to chuckle. "So I pulled her out, and got her back to her hut."
"Did you at least clean her up, before tucking her in?" The warrior laughed harder, seeing her stricken expression. "Now, that was cruel. Better pray she doesn’t figure out what happened."
"I don’t know what came over me," Eponin sighed. "She’s been driving me crazy lately, and that was the least violent outlet. I’d hoped— now I’m not sure I even want to be friends with her anymore." She shook her head. "Why am I telling you all this?"
"Kindred spirits, maybe. Though you seem to prefer farce to high drama."
"It hardly compares with— I mean, I’m not sure I care enough to—"
"Try to kill her?" She let the bitterness into her voice, which she’d been filtering out, for Gabrielle’s sake. "Flowers are probably a better idea."
"Oboy." The drill instructor swallowed hard, then nodded toward the practice field. "C’mon, let’s take a little walk. You don’t need everyone hearing you say that kinda stuff."
"Doesn’t matter what I say— Gabrielle will fix it." Gesturing toward the meeting hall, Xena said, "Right now, she’s telling the story of how I died and came back."
"For her," Eponin said softly. "It was really awesome."
"See? That’s the part you remember, because of the way she tells it."
"I was there, Xena."
"So was I, after a fashion. I did come back for her. I had to... I’d caused her so much pain by dying, just giving up. She makes it sound so heroic, leaves out the mistakes, the selfishness..."
"You’ve clearly never heard it through. C’mon." When Xena didn’t budge, the drill instructor folded her arms, saying, "Not that I can give orders to the Queen’s Champion, especially when she’s too chicken to—"
"Once my probation’s over, Pony, I am going to kick your butt."
They made their way back to the meeting hall. Gabrielle’s narrative had reached the part that took place in the Temple of Ambrosia, drawing everyone’s amused attention to Solari, with a description of exactly how Autolycus had obtained a lockpick to open the cell door. The tale then became serious, with time running out, Velasca climbing the ropes toward the ambrosia, and Autolycus in no shape to overtake her. Listening, Xena remembered her own desperation, floating above her two friends, forced into an action she’d been trying to avoid...
"What makes a hero?" the bard asked her audience. "Well, if that could be defined in a few words, I suppose my stories would be much shorter." Pausing while the laughter subsided, Gabrielle locked eyes with her partner. "A hero does the impossible on a regular basis, because sometimes that’s what’s needed. Now, the queen knew she wasn’t strong enough to get up the ropes in time, let alone defeat the renegade in single combat."
Xena’s eyes widened. Gods, you were considering it, weren’t you? Gabrielle gave a slight shrug and looked away, pacing the small stage.
"She had to get that ambrosia, no matter what. She needed her friend back, the world needed its hero... and the renegade needed to be stopped." A small smile touched the bard’s lips. "It would be a disservice to the Muses to claim a different order of priorities, but in any case, the dilemma was the same. And then, two soft words were spoken into the queen’s ear: ‘May I?’ The queen gladly gave up control, and watched from a safe corner of her own mind, while her body... did the impossible."
‘May I?’ Big, tough warrior, falling back on what few manners Mother managed to teach me... but there was no way I was going to just commandeer her body! The answer had been two words as well: ‘Of course.’
Gabrielle’s eyes were closed as she described the final battle, the words becoming a chant, almost an invocation. She stood completely still, arms raised slightly, palms outstretched— holding her audience in those small, capable hands. No one listening could doubt who was the hero this time: a courageous queen whose love could literally pull a soul back from Tartarus. The soul in question swelled with pride.
The tale was coming to a close, the audience holding its collective breath, as Gabrielle paused, just after describing placing the ambrosia in Xena’s mouth. And most of us were there! How does she do that? Sea green eyes opened, unerringly finding her soulmate’s. Xena was transported back to when she’d returned to life: the first thing she’d seen were those same eyes, brilliant with tears... I am yours... that same loving smile... but you’ve known that all along, even before I did.
"The queen had succeeded in her quest, and at that moment, all was right in the world. I thank you all. Good night."
Xena had made her way to the front of the room, while the Amazons were cheering, and waited by the stage, an indulgent smile on her face. Taking a last bow, Gabrielle jumped off the platform and was caught about the waist by large, warm hands.
"Show off." She got a kiss on the nose, before being set down.
"Learned from the best. Let’s get out of here." She took Xena’s arm and let her move them through the crowd of well wishers, more quickly than she could have managed by herself, though still not as quickly as she’d prefer. Figures this would be the night Xena has more patience with my "fans" than I do! "Thank you," she replied automatically to the usual comments and questions, "Sorry, no... maybe tomorrow night... I’ll have to check with Ephiny..."
"Hey, where is Ephiny?" she asked Eponin, who was standing near the door.
"I, uh... I guess she turned in." The drill instructor shifted her feet nervously. "She had a fair amount of wine, y’know."
"About half a cask," Xena said. "Maybe you should check on her, Pony— just in case."
The two warriors exchanged an indecipherable look, then Eponin mumbled, "Good idea," and trotted off toward Ephiny’s hut. The bard watched her with a thoughtful frown, then shook her head. It was a beautiful, moonlit night. They strolled away from the meeting hall, arms about each other’s waists.
"I hope you weren’t party to whatever Eponin’s trying to undo."
"Gabrielle, you wound me. Why would I want to play a trick on Ephiny?"
"Hmm. It’s funny, when two people have been together for awhile, they start getting more alike. You, for example, actually speak in full sentences now." That earned her a gentle poke in the ribs. "As for me... just because I don’t mention something, doesn’t mean I didn’t notice it. I’ve learned a little bit about trajectories, from watching you throw your chakram, and I know you never just trip. So when I find my staff halfway across the village square, after ‘accidentally’ punching you, I’d say that adds up to a ‘why’."
"A split lip’s a small price to pay, if it made her feel better."
"It didn’t, though. You willing to let her keep whacking you until she’s satisfied?"
"Well, I’m not. I see you bleed too often, as it— mmff." The woman of action had resorted to her favorite method of bard silencing. Gabrielle kissed back wholeheartedly, arms twining around her partner’s neck. When they disengaged, she remarked, "We will be discussing this later."
"You’re the boss, Gabrielle." There was a mischievous glint in the blue eyes. "Still wondering what Pony did?"
"As long as you’re not planning a demonstration." The bard took a cautious step back.
"Couldn’t possibly— I have to live with you. On the other hand, you’d probably fit in the cistern..."
"Don’t you dare!" Gabrielle bolted. It was an extremely short chase, ending with the Amazon Queen being scooped up into the arms of her insolent champion. "Hey, come on, you’ll ruin my best outfit! You big bully..."
Suddenly, there was a shout of "Unhand the Queen!" Someone flew at Xena from behind; there was a dull thud and an ‘oooff’ as the warrior’s boot connected with that someone. She whirled and leapt, kicking out to either side and knocking over another two. Then she took a few steps back, gently setting Gabrielle down before rounding on the three Amazon cadets.
"Not so easy from the front, is it?" Xena snarled. "Come on, my hands aren’t full now!"
"No, don’t!" The combatants ignored Gabrielle’s protest. Young Amazons charged at the legendary warrior, and were sent tumbling in all directions; two had the sense to stay down. Xena’s hand closed around the throat of the third cadet, lifting her off the ground.
"By the Gods, Xena!" Gabrielle screamed. "She’s just a kid!"
That got through... I know it did. Xena had gone completely still, her trembling muscles the only sign of the inner battle being waged. Her eyes never leaving her soulmate’s face, Gabrielle moved slowly, carefully closer. She heard several sets of running footsteps, a crossbow being cocked, then Solari’s voice: "No, give the Queen a chance, first!"
"Xena, please." She placed a gentle hand on her warrior’s arm, kept her voice quiet. "Battle’s over; everyone is safe. We’re safe."
After the longest minute anyone present had experienced, the iron grip loosened, dumping the red-faced girl on the ground. Mere seconds later, six feet of warrior landed face first in the sod.
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