Amazon Dreams by Dawn Lemanne

 

Xena, Gabrielle, and Argo belong to Universal Studios. I've borrowed them for this story and am not profiting (financially, anyway). I have copyrighted the rest of this piece, and no parts of it may be used without my permission. I'll be flattered if you ask.

This story contains adult content with descriptions of explicit sexual encounters between women. Don't read any further unless you're over age 18 and live where it's legal to read this kind of material. If the idea of two consenting adult women falling in love sounds like a good idea to you, read on! Otherwise, find another story, 'cause you won't like this one.No sexual violence occurs in this story. Xena gets in a few scraps; however, no more violently than on TV.

Special thanks to the wonderful Xenaverse bard, My Warrior, for her beta reading and encouragement.

Comments? Feedback appreciated! Email me.nlenterprises@dnamail.com

I.

Mercilessly, hoping against hope, Xena spurred the horse on, desperately on, as the wind-lashed rain drove the cold to her marrow. She reined up suddenly at the edge of a cliff and dismounted. The height dizzied her and she dropped to her hands and knees and leaned into the precipice. "No! Gabrielle! Oh gods, no!" she sobbed into the storm-dimmed panorama, searching its depths for any sign of the bard, not wanting to find anything, knowing that would mean the horror she had dreamt had come true...

Gabrielle yawned and stretched in the golden morning warmth of early summer. Orange hues washed the roadside campsite as the eastern sky brightened. Argo grazed nearby. The road to the Amazon village snaked east and faded into the sun, which was just breaching the horizon. The warrior was lying on her side, eyes closed, an arm thrown across the bard. As she rarely woke before Xena, the bard seized the precious opportunity to steal a lingering look at the beautiful warrior princess in repose so close beside her. Xena's lips were parted slightly, and her chest rose and fell in a slow peaceful rhythm as the dying embers of last night's campfire winked out in the new day's glory. Gabrielle simply loved the shape of Xena's lips. They were perfect, she mused. How delightful it would be to trace a finger along the flawless burgundy bow: first the upper lip, then the lower, following the sensuous curves, tugging oh so gently on the sensitive flesh, baring the hidden moisture to glisten in the sun, brushing the delicate mounds with her own lips....

Gabrielle's questing fingertip was just a hair's breadth away when the perfect lips began to move, to form a word. The burgundy flesh parted and came together. "Ga-bri-elle!" The warrior princess stiffened and began to moan and thrash, and Gabrielle could see Xena's eyes move behind closed lids. "Gabrielle! Oh gods, no! No!"

Gabrielle gently took one of Xena's hands and pressed it to her own chest. She didn't try to wake Xena from these now frequent nightmares. There wasn't time. Better to let the dream pass, as it always did, in a few heartbeats. Gabrielle caressed the bronzed hand and Xena's body relaxed gradually again in sleep. Gabrielle felt a familiar ache in her chest as she held her sleeping warrior. She had felt that ache the first night they had been together, together as lovers, that is....

II.

In fact, it had been in the same Amazon village they were now heading toward, but years ago, that she and Xena had fallen into an embrace that had surprised both of them. Well, at least it had surprised Gabrielle. It had been sunrise on summer solstice, several days after the warrior had eaten the ambrosia that brought her back from death, that Gabrielle lay curled soundly asleep in a corner of the little Amazon sleeping hut they shared. Xena had come bursting in, filthy with mud and blood, but surprisingly upbeat and talkative after an early morning hunt with the Amazons. "We got three stags! Perfect for the Moon Rites tonight! It's gonna be a great day, Gabrielle! It's gonna be a hot one, too!" Xena dropped her bloody leathers in a heap as she strode through the door.

"Yeah? Well, it was great sleeping in," groaned Gabrielle, "while it lasted." The bard turned sleepily toward the open door, shielding her eyes and squinting against the harsh sunlight which backlit the warrior princess in the doorframe. What she saw next nearly stopped her heart. The warrior, by no stretch modest, had already stripped off her shift and was tossing it onto the pile of leathers. Xena's full feral magnificence swept into Gabrielle's consciousness as never before. The bard's gasp caught the warrior's attention. Their eyes locked for several heartbeats, then suddenly, cheeks crimson, Gabrielle turned her face away. Naked, Xena scooped the little pile of laundry into her arms, and assuming the bloody mess was to blame for Gabrielle's distress, quickly retired (still naked as was Amazon custom) to the river with her burden to clean up. As she left, Xena glanced quizzically at Gabrielle; then the warrior's expression changed to quiet understanding.

Both women had spent the rest of the day helping the village prepare for that night's special Rites of the Full Solstice Moon. The full moon fell on the longest day only once in twenty-nine years. Artemis, the Moon Goddess, protector of the Amazons, and her brother Apollo, the Sun God, would be honored in this most important of Amazon rituals. The celebration would begin at sunset. As Gabrielle worked, helping in the kitchen, carrying wood for the ceremonial bonfires, collecting flowers and greens from the communal gardens, her thoughts strayed constantly to Xena. Xena was busy cleaning and dressing the venison, and their paths crossed casually several times. A powerful sun beat down on the little village, and Gabrielle thought that perhaps the heat was affecting her. Her breath quickened and her face burned whenever she felt Xena's eyes upon her. She felt weak and even trembled a bit when Xena's hand accidentally brushed her knee as they sat together for a quick midday meal. A strange, pleasant floating filled her belly whenever Xena spoke her name.

Midafternoon that solstice day, years ago, Gabrielle had taken a break alone in the shade. She wondered if she might be coming down with something, or if she'd gotten too much sun. Her mind wouldn't let go of the warrior: Xena's sapphire gaze, Xena's scarred bronze skin, Xena's raven hair, smooth muscular legs, the smell of leather and sun-kissed skin, her dangerous smile, deadly temper, dark voice, her steel grip pulling the bard behind her onto Argo, the feel of the warrior's back tight against Gabrielle's face and chest as she gripped Xena during a thundering gallop. With these thoughts rode powerful new feelings which coursed through Gabrielle's young body relentlessly, begging for something, demanding something. What? What could she do to ease the suffering she was feeling? It was suffering, wasn't it? And why would thoughts of her best friend be so painful, yet so very sweet? What was this delicious agony she was feeling?

Gabrielle had tried to make sense of all this as she lay on the cool grass, eyes closed, hands tucked under her head. The two friends had been close physically ever since they began traveling together. They had shared many embraces, the same ones Gabrielle would have shared with her sister or mother. Gabrielle had found that closeness comforting, in the past. But that day something had changed. The closeness was no longer comfortable. It was arousing, disturbing, dangerous. Gabrielle noticed a new aching warmth in her chest when Xena was near, and her belly tightened whenever she thought of the warrior princess. The young queen dressed with special care that evening, in preparation for the celebration.

Xena, of course, knew lust when she saw it. And she had seen it that solstice day in Gabrielle's newly shy glances, her turning away slightly when Xena looked at her, the bard's lingering touch when their fingers accidentally met on the same cup at the communal Amazon feast that evening, the deep flush on Gabrielle's cheeks at Xena's warm hand on her thigh under the table, deeper than the flush from the strong Amazon wine or the day's sun.

Xena had been waiting for this turn of events, even expecting it. She had been nurturing it for many months, in fact, as the girl from Potedaeia grew into womanhood before her eyes. Xena was certain that Gabrielle loved her deeply and had for a long time, perhaps from their first meeting. But it was a childish love, hero worship really, and of little interest to the former warlord and Destroyer of Nations. It wasn't that the bard's beauty had escaped Xena's notice. She often found herself marveling at the way sunlight glinted off strawberry hair, the scent of smooth down-covered skin, the quick and easy laugh full of bright teeth and happiness. But that had not been enough to capture Xena.

Lately, however, Gabrielle had begun to interest Xena more and more. Xena observed a new confidence quickening in the young bard, a willingness to meet Xena as an equal, able to look Xena in the eye and hold her own, a feat few mortals had accomplished. In fact, several gods had failed at that as well. Gabrielle's heart was strong and pure, and shone with a light that dazzled Xena's shame-darkened soul, and Xena had come to want, no, to need that illumination desperately. If she were separated from Gabrielle, even for a day, the colors Xena had been learning to see would wash pale and lifeless, and a chill emptiness would begin to seep into her soul. Yes, Xena, the great Warrior Princess, had come to need Gabrielle in an elemental way. So without realizing it, Xena did a dangerous thing. She allowed the bard to sit close to her at the campfire, accepted the many small but comforting caresses Gabrielle so generously offered, let the bard curl chastely around her in sleep, or on horseback. In doing these things she let the force of Gabrielle's love surround her cold warrior's heart, protecting it from self-hatred, softening it like butter in the sun. This young peasant girl now unknowingly held the warrior's life, her reason for being, in her gentle hands. In this one way, with Gabrielle, Xena became helpless.

Xena was far from helpless in another way, however. Recognizing her power over the hearts of both men and women, mortal and immortal, Xena knew she could have anyone she wanted. And she wanted Gabrielle, more than she had ever wanted anyone. That solstice day, at last, Gabrielle had been ready.

So that night Xena led Gabrielle by the hand back to their sleeping hut early, soon after the feast, before full moonrise and before the important Rites of Artemis had begun. Elder Amazon eyes knowingly followed the pair and excused the queen's absence, because tonight's was the full moon of the longest day, which came only once in a generation. In Amazon lore, those who joined in love for the first time under this moon were blessed by Artemis and bound for life, and beyond. This was quite fitting for the young Amazon queen. Behind the closed door of their hut Xena merely stood quietly over Gabrielle and explored the depths of her eyes. The warrior found what she was searching for: Gabrielle's eyes were full of love and dark with desire.

As slow deep drumming began to give rhythm to the rites of the moon goddess, the warrior had bent her dark head toward the bard's, pausing as their lips were almost touching. Sensing no withdrawal from Gabrielle, Xena closed the distance and placed her warm lips softly onto Gabrielle's. The bard's legs buckled at the contact. Breaking the kiss, Xena lowered Gabrielle to her knees on the sleeping skins. Outside in the deepening twilight, the drumming accelerated as the chanting of the rites began. The bonfires cast flickering orange shadows through the small windows onto the walls of the thatched sleeping hut. Still wordlessly, without haste, and without once breaking from Gabrielle's wonder-filled gaze, Xena disrobed, then slowly, gently, removed the bard's Amazon garments. Xena knelt in front of Gabrielle. Gabrielle's breathing was fast and deep. Pulling the bard gently into her chest, Xena moaned as the length of their bodies touched in exquisite softness and their lips met again in a deeper kiss. Masked dancers circled the bonfires outside. The chanting quickened. Inside, silken hands wove into long hair and trailed fire along fragrant skin. Sinuous warm tongues snaked between softly parted lips. The bard, just as Xena had hoped, was meeting the warrior's passion equally. It was Xena who could no longer stay on her knees, and she lay back on the sleeping skins, pulling the bard down on top of her. Their breaths mingled as they lay face to face and their hearts pounded just a few fingerbreadths apart, as close as living hearts could be. Xena's mouth opened in pleasure as the bard's soft weight settled on her. Then the lovers began slow explorations with eyes and fingertips.

Xena leisurely stroked the outside of Gabrielle's left breast. "When did you get this?" Xena asked, tracing the small crescent moon tattoo, which curved around the outside of the bard's left nipple. This was the sign of the oath of Artemis, taken by all true Amazons. Amazons of noble rank carried the tattoo on the left breast, others on the right.

"A few days ago, when you...when you-" Gabrielle burst into tears remembering her emptiness and grief after Xena's death.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to remind you of that, of all things. I've never felt more alive than at this moment." Xena raised an eyebrow and the bard laughed, appreciating the humor. Xena smiled then and pulled Gabrielle down for another deep kiss.

Gabrielle had been surprised by the exquisite gentleness of the warrior that night. Slowly, reverently, as if performing a sacrament, Xena drank in Gabrielle's beauty, roaming the smooth hills and valleys with eyes and gentle fingers and tongue, exploring the pebbly peaks of the queen's breasts, skimming along firm flesh to the bard's navel. Gabrielle's head tipped back in pleasure. Xena's hands glided down the bard's back like warm liniment, at once soothing and exciting, then slid back up her sides to linger at the outer mound of each breast. Gabrielle's hips had begun to rock against Xena's smooth belly. The warrior began slow circling caresses of Gabrielle's hips and buttocks, gently parting the bard's tender inner thighs at the apex of each stroke, with each exquisite pass coming closer to the glistening secret gateway. Lightly, so lightly that Gabrielle at first couldn't even be sure where she was being touched, Xena's fingertips brushed the warm, slippery portal. Xena moaned at discovering the silky wet warmth. A tentative finger tested the opening. The bard moved powerfully against her hand.

"Xena, oh yes, now! Xena, please!" The bard's soft pleas were desperate.

Xena entered Gabrielle. One finger, then two, and Xena was lost in a universe of tenderness for her bard. Gabrielle's cries were almost constant now, and tugged at Xena's heart painfully. Amazon lore, she reminded herself, noted that cries of passion and cries of anguish often sound the same, and for good reason. Gabrielle had stayed, stunned, on her hands and knees as Xena, still on her back, slid under Gabrielle until her lips were directly under the queen's golden curls. Then Xena wrapped her arms around the outside of Gabrielle's thighs and the bard truly thought she would die right then and there as she felt Xena's hot breath in a most intimate place.

"By the gods!" Gabrielle had groaned, " This time I'm going to die!"

"Oh, not today!" hissed Xena wickedly. With that she slowly, lingeringly, took one, then the other of Gabrielle's softest rose petal lips between her own and suckled and stroked them with her tongue, adding the most delicate of nips as the bard's senses left her. Outside the little hut, the chanting and drumming reached a fevered pitch. Xena held on tightly to Gabrielle's quaking hips, following the ebb and flow of the bard's primordial dance until she knew Gabrielle was near surrender. Swirling her tongue around Gabrielle's hardening pearl of passion, Xena felt the tiny jewel swell between her lips. She sucked gently. Gabrielle stiffened and held her breath for a heartbeat. Then she relinquished her will and fell spinning into starbursts of color and pleasure which left her spent and glistening. Her cries gradually changed to deep quiet breathing.

Moonlight now streamed brightly into the little hut. The drums had given way to plaintive flute notes as the rites continued outside. Xena moved up to lie beside Gabrielle who was face down in the sleeping skins. Xena heard a muffled sob, and the mighty warrior princess was pierced with an icy fear the likes of which she'd never felt in the most hopeless battle.

"Gabrielle? What's wrong?" Xena tenderly stroked the bard's sweat-darkened hair. "I-I thought you were ready. Please, please forgive me if I've made a mistake!" she choked. Gabrielle turned on her side to face Xena, put her arms around the warrior's neck, and drew her gently to her heart.

"Xena, I love you," whispered the bard simply. "Please, hold me."

Xena, who could not speak, felt the exquisite ache in her chest as the silvery bonds of Artemis wrapped around both hearts and tightened, and the Warrior Princess was conquered completely by the Amazon Queen.

III.

Whenever she remembered that night long ago the ache returned, Gabrielle thought, as the sun continued its rise over the roadside campsite. The ache was even stronger now than it had been then, but sweeter, too. "Xena," called the bard softly. "We have to get up. We have to get to the Amazon village."

Later, after breakfast, the pair broke camp and headed for the Amazon village a few hours journey away. The two were silent except for the general chatter of necessity: hand me that waterskin...thanks...I think Argo needs a rest...I could use one too...We're making good time...Think we'll be there before lunch?...No, but before supper for sure....

They ate a lunch of bread, goat cheese and olives under a large shady oak, and each traveler sat back quietly against the trunk staring out at what had become a hot, dusty ribbon leading into a shimmering, wavy horizon. Argo grazed nearby. Few words were spoken. It was a comforting, close quietude, thought Xena, one of familiarity and completion, a silence born of warmth rather than distance.

Gabrielle broke the silence. "Xena?"

"Mm-hmm?"

"Can you remember how the dream starts?"

"Wh-what dream?" said Xena aloud. "Could Gabrielle know about the dream?" she asked herself wordlessly.

"You were talking in your sleep again; you seemed, I dunno, disturbed."

"Probably the food from that tavern."

"It's happened every night this week."

Xena turned toward Gabrielle. She wondered how much Gabrielle really knew about the dream. "Are you sure? What did I say?"

Gabrielle's eyes narrowed quickly, almost imperceptibly, and she looked away from Xena. Gabrielle remembered very well the name Xena had loosed in her fitful slumbers and it saddened the bard to think she, or at least her shadow form, was causing Xena such distress. It always helped to talk about nightmares, didn't it? Neither woman had admitted to the other how little she was looking forward to reaching the day's destination. Could that be what was disturbing Xena? asked Gabrielle silently. Maybe Xena's memory could be jogged a bit without bringing the bard's image to the fore. "I think you may have mentioned an Amazon," Gabrielle attempted.

"Which Amazon? Who?"

Feeling a familiar tightness in her gut, a sensation that now occurred every time she even thought about being less than truthful with Xena, Gabrielle whispered, "You called my name."

Xena could not get used to Gabrielle's position as queen of the Amazons. 'Amazon' and 'Gabrielle' still didn't fit into the same sentence in Xena's mind. 'Queen' wasn't even in the same paragraph. And now Xena's worst fears for Gabrielle were looming large on the stage of the next few days. Both women dreaded what lay ahead. For several generations the Amazons had had an uneasy peace with the surrounding Greek villages, but under Roman pressure that peace was crumbling. The Greeks had always been suspicious of the odd Amazon way of life, but had tolerated the women because of their renowned healing skills, and perhaps no less because of the Amazons' fierce, quick and devastating defense of their lands and customs.

Xena reached for the bard's chin, gently bringing their gazes together. "Do you want to turn back? I could take you far, far away from here. Or, I'll go instead of you, if you ask." Xena's deep voice was soft, steady and sure, filled with a warrior's steel and a lover's passion. "There's only one thing I won't do...."

"I know, Xena, I know," sighed Gabrielle, "You're not an Amazon, Xena. I'm not your queen and I can't command you to obey me. But be warned. I'll do anything to get my way in this!" But Gabrielle knew she had already lost this battle. She wrapped her arms tightly around her warrior's neck and kissed her deeply and frantically as tears sprang free and bitter from her eyes.

Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons, had received word from the Amazon militia by messenger one week ago. The messenger was a young woman, who hastened through the dusty town unnoticed in local farmwoman's garb. As she slid into the tavern bench next to the queen she quickly opened her breastcloth to show Gabrielle the Amazon tattoo near her right nipple and began talking. It was unusual for an Amazon to travel on a war mission alone, the queen had thought. They always traveled in pairs. 'Battlesisters,' Gabrielle recalled as the messenger's account unfolded. The Amazon's name was Helena. A Roman legion outpost had been set up near the Amazon village with orders to destroy any armed settlements in that part of Greece that refused to ally with Rome. Tensions were high between the nearby Greek village, Corylis, and the Amazons, as the Greeks were more inclined to accept the terms to avoid war with Rome.

And then two Amazon hunters, girls really, Althea, 15 summers old and Danai, 14, had encountered a small band of Roman soldiers and Greek mercenaries on the edge of Amazon territory. According to the surviving Amazon, the soldiers had attempted to capture the girls, most likely to use them in bargaining for a treaty. As all Amazon children were taught effective means of self defense from the earliest ages, three Romans and one Greek were killed by the two girls before the younger one escaped into the woods and back to the Amazon village. The Roman soldiers were nameless to the local Greeks, but the dead Greek was Ariad, the promising son of a high-ranking nobleman. The nobleman, Almeides, had demanded the extradition and execution of the surviving Amazon girl, Danai. Of course the Amazons had refused. Several skirmishes had occurred with a few casualties on both sides. Rome was offering to ally with Almeides and his city, Corylis, against the Amazons. Without Roman backing the Greeks would not have been a serious threat to the Amazons, but now the Amazons were facing annihilation.

Gabrielle had been alone in the gloomy tavern at midday, working on her scrolls and waiting for Xena to return from some errand or another when the messenger had found her. Xena had not heard the next part of the story: the Greeks had offered to make peace only if the Amazon queen would give herself in place of the murderous hunter, Danai. Otherwise the Amazon village would be attacked and utterly destroyed by a combined Roman and Greek force. The messenger told Gabrielle that she and the other Amazons would understand if the queen did not wish to return to the village under those circumstances, and that if she did return the Amazon militia would gladly lay down their lives defending their queen and their way of life.

Then, just as Xena walked into the dark tavern, the messenger pulled a blue glass vial out of her cloak, drank its contents, and fell to the floor. "I may have been followed, my life now endangers you and the Amazons," gasped the messenger, then she twitched once and stopped breathing. Mouth wide in surprise, Xena glanced at Gabrielle then stooped beside the fallen Amazon and felt for a throat pulse.

"Quick! Out the back door," hissed Xena.

"What about the messeng-"

"Now!!"

Gabrielle ran for the back door stuffing the scrolls into her leather back pouch. Xena, with her fingers still on the Amazon's throat, spied the blue vial on the floor near the body. Xena scooped up the bottle and corked it with the stopper that still lay in the Amazon's hand. As Xena slipped out the back door after Gabrielle, she locked eyes with a Roman centurion who had burst through the tavern's front door.

"Xena! Let's go! Hurry!" cried Gabrielle, tugging uselessly on Xena's arm, just outside the back door of the tavern.

"Sorry, looks like I'm gonna have to do some work here," Xena growled, as the centurion emerged squinting, into the midday brightness. His silver breastplate gleamed in the sun. As the centurion drew his sword Xena positioned herself between the sun and his blade, and as he tried to make out his target in the blinding light the warrior princess kicked the weapon out of his hand and jabbed her fingers into both sides of his throat in one move. He dropped to the ground like a stone. As the centurion struggled for breath Xena leaned into his fear-contorted face and snarled, "Why are you following us? What do you want?"

"A-ma-zon qu-queen, treaty with G-Greeks, must stop-" he croaked. Xena released him from the pinch, then slammed him into unconsciousness with a brutal punch.

It had now been six days since Helena and her message had reached Xena and Gabrielle. The pair set out again after lunch and headed east, toward the beleaguered Amazon village.

The Amazon village throbbed with war drums and feathered dancers as the travelers arrived late that night. Argo and riders had been met far from the gates by the perimeter sentries and escorted quickly and quietly into the center of the torchlit camp. Inside the command hut, the captain of the elite Amazonian Guard, a tall, handsome woman with graying temples and short-cropped dark hair, briefed Queen Gabrielle. One of the captain's breasts was bare, as was Amazon warrior custom, the left breast, in her case. It bore a small crescent. The captain wore a serious expression. The Greeks had agreed to one last peace attempt. The queen was to meet the Greek leader tomorrow, at noon. More stalling was out of the question. Tensions were high enough with the two-week delay the Amazonian envoys had been able to achieve, but that delay had given the Amazons time to get word to the queen. The enemy no doubt had spies all along the road that had brought the queen, so they were likely to know Gabrielle had arrived. Amazon intelligence knew that the Greeks were under orders not to molest the Amazon queen or attack the village until the Roman reinforcements arrived. The Romans were now a day away.

Xena stood unmoving against a wall in a shadowed corner of the hut listening carefully. Xena couldn't be trusted not to interfere in matters involving the queen's safety, of this Gabrielle was certain. Gabrielle would have to trick Xena into leaving, and it was almost impossible for the bard to lie to Xena. Gabrielle would have to endure the now familiar knot in her belly, though to keep her warrior out of harm's way, out of a war that was not hers, the bard gladly would have endured far worse. Many Amazons would die if Gabrielle's surrender did not work, and Xena did not deserve to be among them. No, Gabrielle could not allow Xena to block her plan. Xena must be sent away, decided the queen. It was a selfish decision, because Xena's exquisite warring abilities could surely aid the Amazon cause, but the outcome would still be defeat for the Amazons and death for all still in the village. It was selfish, but wasn't Gabrielle about to lose everything, absolutely everything else, perhaps even the nation which depended on her? She would not sacrifice Xena to a lost cause. Xena, who looked tired, or even ill, suddenly excused herself and left the briefing.

Gabrielle had talked with the captain at least another hour, perhaps two, before retiring. "Gabrielle," the captain had said, "I have to remind you that all Amazons have sworn to defend our way of life. We're here because our former lives were not worth living. We've sent away the children who are too young to make that decision for themselves. Any woman who felt differently about this war knew that she was free to leave. A few, less than a handful, did leave. Even those who left freely gave the Oath of Sisterhood, swearing never to harm an Amazon by act or omission. Everyone remaining will stay beside you to the end. We don't want to die, but we won't live as slaves either. Your life is not worth more than any other Amazon life, but neither is it worth less and we will defend it. Please, Gabrielle. Please reconsider your decision."

Xena was already asleep under the sleeping skins when Gabrielle finally returned to the sleeping hut. The bard quietly prepared for bed. She slipped under the skins and gently kissed the dark head before lying down, eyes wide open. Xena nuzzled close in her sleep and threw an arm across the bard's waist, drawing her near. Gabrielle twirled a raven lock around her finger as she watched the warrior princess sleep. It was odd, remembered Gabrielle, that Xena had not participated more in the briefing and planning session earlier that evening. She had made a few suggestions when invited by the captain, but had otherwise offered only a few terse bits of general advice, and had actually excused herself to go to bed early. The warrior, thought Gabrielle, must have been tired from her week of disturbed sleep.

IV.

Xena had not been feeling well at all at the briefing, likely because of the horrible implications of the next day's meeting, she thought. Xena knew exactly what Gabrielle intended to do at that meeting, and she knew that Gabrielle would try to send her away before she, Xena, could interfere with her strategy. Best to get out of the way so the queen and the captain could make said plans. The sooner the queen's scheme was in place the sooner Xena could counter it.

Xena had excused herself and slipped out of the command hut into the bonfire-lit village alive with dancing and chanting. The deep drumming seemed to intensify the fleeting memories of the nightmare, and the dream threatened to press itself closer to consciousness. Now she felt really ill. Closing the door behind her, the warrior squeezed her eyes tightly shut. She tucked her chin to her chest and pressed both fists to her temples. As she stepped away from the command hut her vision blurred. Her head pounded. Many dancing arms reached for her and drew her spinning into the revelry. With her eyes open or shut, Xena saw Gabrielle in every Amazon face she looked into: Gabrielle at the edge of the precipice, Gabrielle over the edge falling freely, Gabrielle crushed and broken at the bottom of the cliff, Gabrielle dead by her own hand. "Why, why? Gabrielle, oh gods, no!"

Pressing through the sweaty crowd of swaying swirling Amazons, Xena unsteadily made her way through the flickering village and staggered up to a familiar hut. She entered without knocking, shut the door, and slid to the floor with her back against the door, eyes closed, head lolling, breathing hard. The sturdy old woman inside barely glanced up from her work and continued to sort some dried herbs into clay pots of various sizes. Despite the heat she was dressed in the traditional black bearskin robes of an Amazon shaman. The walls of the hut were lined with shelves carrying labeled ceramic and glass vessels of all shapes and sizes. Drying twigs, leaves, and roots hung from the ceiling. Several large candles lit the small room.

"Ah, Xena. Always one to enjoy a good party, aren't you...what in Tartarus?!" Hurrying to the fallen warrior the old woman placed a hand upon Xena's damp forehead.

"Gabrielle! Why? Why did you do this? No! No!" moaned Xena, eyes still closed, head thrashing, now slumped all the way to the wooden floor. The shaman pressed a finger firmly behind the warrior's left ear and Xena stilled, her breathing gentle and calm as in sleep. That accomplished, the shaman quickly set about examining her patient carefully in the fashion of learned Amazon healers, first feeling about the face and skull for broken bones, lifting the eyelids to note the closing of the pupils against the candlelight, checking the throat pulse for rhythm and strength. Next she bent and straightened all four limbs, one at a time. Still finding no clue as to the cause of Xena's affliction, she unclasped the warrior's armor and began to roll down her leathers to search for arrow or knife wounds. As the old woman's hands pulled the leather down from Xena's breasts, a corked blue bottle fell to the floor and rolled a short distance away. The shaman frowned in surprise. She rose, retrieved a small piece of cloth from a shelf and carefully picked up the little container, using the rag to shield her hands from the oily liquid that coated the outside of the blue glass. Searching her shelves, she chose a small flask of clear spirits and added a pinch of white powder. She gently swirled the flask over candleflame until the powder dissolved completely and the liquid was clear again.

"Well, well, Princess. You'll feel a lot better once you get this off your chest," she said, more to herself than to the unconscious figure. The old woman stroked a clean white cloth soaked in the clear contents of the flask along the space between Xena's breasts, removing any remnants of the offending oil. Holding a pouch of strong smelling herbs under Xena's nose she called out loudly, "Xena, listen to me! Take a deep breath... come on... that's it. Again!" Xena's lids fluttered open. She struggled to focus her vision. As the shaman supported her head Xena raised herself on both elbows and drank something from a cup that the old woman offered.

"Blechh!" Face contorted, the warrior princess turned her head and pursed her lips to spit out the bitter liquid.

"No you don't. Drink it all. Now."

The shaman pushed the cup back to Xena's lips. Holding the cup with a shaky hand, Xena tipped her head back and drained it as commanded, then lay back down on the floor panting against nausea.

"You'll be alright now." The old woman held up the blue bottle, still wrapped in the rag. "I gave this to Helena last week. Some of the concoction leaked out of the bottle when you put it in your leathers. It's meant to be drunk, but it's activated by warmth and can soak through the skin. It works more slowly that way. You must have been having hallucinations, or at least nightmares since it spilled inside your leathers. How was it for poor Helena, anyway? When you showed up with the queen but without Helena, we all wondered...Can you walk now? Here, let me help you up." The old woman wrapped one of Xena's arms around her shoulder and helped the warrior to unsteady feet.

Xena really was feeling a little better at this point. The seemingly endless banter of the old woman was actually soothing. It reminded Xena of Gabrielle.

"Gabrielle! Oh no!"

"Shhhhh...we'll talk about that in a minute."

The shaman helped Xena to the healing pallet, which was a low, very wide bench covered with sleeping skins and set in a corner of the room. On the pallet, Xena leaned against the wall in a half-sitting position with her knees bent in front of her, her back cushioned by several fine Amazon goosedown sacks. Her leathers were still folded down around her waist, and the old woman was sitting on the edge of the pallet, again rubbing Xena's breasts carefully with the white cloth, searching for any remnants of the poison oil.

"Hmm...I see you still haven't taken the Oath of Artemis, Xena," said the old woman rather disinterestedly, finally folding up the cloth and setting it down on a small table next to the pallet.

"Chrysale, you know I'm not much into oaths and gods," replied Xena earnestly.

"Shame about the queen then, isn't it," added Chrysale, again nonchalantly. She was watching Xena closely, however. Xena's eyes blazed.

"You know I don't need an oath to give my life for Gabrielle. Anyway, no oath could bind me if it meant harming her, or allowing anyone else to harm her. No one could ever love anyone more than I love Gabrielle."

"So you would even break an oath to...Gabrielle?" Chrysale shrugged.

"Yes, if it would protect her. Even if it ended her love for me."

"What about 'the greater good' and all that?" Chrysale's tone had greater urgency now. "Would you ask any other Amazon to die in her place?"

"Gabrielle's life isn't worth more than anyone else's. I wouldn't ask anyone to give up their life for my happiness, for Gabrielle. Except me."

"Well, then," said Chrysale, reaching for a tiny jar filled with blue ink, "I know you're going to try and stop the queen's meeting tomorrow, and I think being an Amazon---temporarily of course---might come in handy. Trust me on this one."

Xena considered this for only a heartbeat, then raised her right arm over her head so the shaman could tattoo the small Amazon crescent next to her right nipple. "No, no. The other side," muttered Chrysale as she set to work. "You're the queen's consort, for the gods' sake." The healer set about her task efficiently, talking the whole while. When the task was finished, Xena stood and pulled her leathers up. She put on her armor and turned to go.

"Take this with you." Chrysale held up a stoppered blue glass vial identical to Helena's. Seeing Xena's hesitation she added, "Hey, don't worry, I put a better cork in this one. Use it only in the way I explained. Follow my instructions exactly or it won't work." Xena shuddered, remembering that Helena still had had a faint pulse when Xena reached her in the tavern. She hoped Helena hadn't suffered too much.

"I will," said Xena. "Thank you." Xena turned to go.

"And Xena," said Chrysale as the warrior's hand was on the door.

"Yes?"

"Use it only to stop your own suffering. Don't give it to anyone else."

Xena left the healer's hut feeling stronger than she had in days. She realized she had something that had been missing for the past week. She had hope. She returned past the dispersing drummers and dancers, and entered the dark sleeping hut. Gabrielle wasn't there. Xena washed quickly, donned a sleeping shift and slid into bed. She quickly fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Later, in the deepest part of the night, Gabrielle still lay sleeplessly staring at the thatched ceiling. The straw gleamed silver in the moonlight and the war drums had long given way to crickets and an occasional rustling of a light breeze in the warm air. Xena breathed softly and steadily beside her and pulled her closer in sleep. Gabrielle lifted a lock of dark hair from the sleeping warrior princess' moonlit face and marveled at the beauty that was Xena's. This would be the last time she would watch Xena sleep, thought Gabrielle, and the silvery ache surrounded her heart like a noose. Sleep came to the queen only as the eastern sky began to lighten.

V.

Bam-bam-bam! "Queen Gabrielle! Wake up!" The captain of the guard was pounding on the door. Xena, who had been up and dressed for an hour, was at the door brandishing her sword in a heartbeat. She stepped aside to let the captain enter. "So, it's time for the diversion," thought Xena. "Well, I'm ready. Haven't felt this good in years!" she continued silently, and waited for her cue.

"Gabrielle," panted the captain, "the Greeks are mobilizing for an attack! It looks like they're not going to wait for the meeting." The captain had dispensed with formalities, as was Amazon custom in times of crisis. Xena thought that the captain was a very good actress. She seemed quite earnest, believable.

"We might be able to get reinforcements from the northern Amazon village. We sent word to them at the same time as we sent for you, but we haven't heard back from them. Their village is three days hard ride from here," continued the captain. "I've already formed an escort party." With that, two very large Amazons, each a hand taller than Xena, entered the queen's hut and genuflected. Each held a brightly-feathered arrow over her heart with her right hand. In their left hands, which were also crossed over their chests, were powerful Amazon longbows. On her back each Amazon had a large quiver of arrows, and a broadsword and several daggers hung from each waist strap. The two fighters rose, quivered their arrows, and stood at attention. Each rested the end of a longbow against the instep of her right foot. The young warriors impressed Xena. They would come in handy in a scrap. It should also be obvious to anyone that these two surely could do the errand without her, she thought.

"Xena," began Gabrielle.

"OK. Bet this is my cue," thought Xena, sliding her sword back into its scabbard.

"Will you get help from the northern Amazons? You've been there. They know you, right?"

"This is pretty lame, but I can't make this look too easy," thought the warrior princess. Looking at the queen she said, "I'm not leaving you. I told you, I would never let you do what you're planning. You and your Amazons will have to kill me first." "There," thought Xena, "and I'm not even lying yet."

The captain spoke next. "Gabrielle, I can send these two soldiers. Xena can stay and help us defend-"

"No!" Gabrielle almost spat in fury. "It's not right for so many to die when it could all be stopped! When I could stop it."

Suddenly the air outside the sleeping hut hummed with blazing arrows and a soft crackling sound filled the hut as several fires started in the thatch.

"I'm going to go talk to the Greeks now," said Gabrielle. "I have to stop this. If you won't leave, Xena, I can't make you. But by the gods, don't get in my way."

Smoke began to fill the tiny hut, and the two Amazon guards began beating out the flames with skins. In the distance Amazon war cries pieced the air amidst the sound of hoof beats and sword clashes.

"Gabrielle," said the captain, "please, take the guards," and glancing at the warrior princess she added, "and take Xena."

The little party made its way as quickly as possible on horseback through the woods, the two guards in the lead, followed by Gabrielle, with Xena bringing up the rear. The guards knew a pathless way to Corylis so as to avoid the fighting. The going was slow, made difficult by frequent dismounts to lead the horses over the rough, swampy ground.

Suddenly the warrior princess shot out of her saddle and somersaulted through the air. Her battle cry rang through the trees. She landed snarling in front of Gabrielle's horse, sword drawn, crouching, battle ready. Argo turned with a whinny and ran back toward the Amazon village. The guards reined up short just as dozens of Roman soldiers poured out from between the trees. Xena dispatched several of the Romans with three swift sword strokes as the guards dismounted. One of the Amazons pulled Gabrielle off her horse and threw her to the ground, placing herself between the queen and the attacking soldiers. The other Amazon had already joined Xena in battle against the Romans. By sheer force of numbers the women were overcome, but not without exacting a heavy toll. At least a dozen Romans lay dead or dying as their leader rode up. He appeared to be a young Greek lieutenant, a mercenary. One of the Amazons had been slightly wounded and clutched a shoulder. Blood ran down her arm and dripped into the damp earth. Twelve men held Xena at sword point, and twelve more held each Amazon guard.

Being unarmed and of unformidable appearance, Gabrielle had slipped into the woods unnoticed in the melee. She darted away as far as she dared, then hid behind a large log some distance from the battle as the Romans focused their attention on the three warriors. From her hiding place she strained to hear what the Romans were saying.

"Yes, sir, there was another one. She seems to have gotten away. Want us to search for her?"

Gabrielle was sure the Greek lieutenant had glanced in her direction, locking eyes with her for an instant. She ducked more tightly behind her log, heart sinking as she expected the worst. "No, don't bother. We have exactly what we came for. Let's go!" ordered the lieutenant. The three prisoners were bound hands behind back and led away on foot. Suddenly Gabrielle was very alone.

VI.

At the Roman encampment the three prisoners were taken directly to the centurion's tent. Inside they were forced to their knees in front of a Roman officer. The centurion had not yet arrived, and the second in command began to question the Amazons.

"All right, which of you is the queen?"

The two Amazon guards looked at each other, their eyes wide as Xena spoke. "I am," she said. The handsome young Greek lieutenant watched from a corner of the tent, and his brows knitted at Xena's answer. The questioner, a very intelligent man, thought Xena, caught the surprise of the two Amazon guards and the Greek.

"It's simple enough to see if you're telling the truth, Amazon, or protecting one of these others, the true queen." He motioned to a soldier who drew his broadsword and sliced through the armor straps of the three Amazons so that the leather, skins, and cloth fell away, baring three blue crescents. Two on the right, one on the left. "So you were telling the truth, Amazon."

"I could have told you that," said the centurion, entering the tent. "I trailed an Amazon messenger who led me to her in a tavern a week ago. So we meet again, Amazon queen." He stood in front of Xena and backhanded her viciously. She slowly turned back to face him.

"I see you've still got some hard feelings about our first meeting," she replied, noticing the purple-red swelling that almost shut his left eye.

"We'd heard rumors after you arrived in the Amazon village that you were going to give yourself up in place of the little Amazon hunter." The centurion went on. "If I had known that I would have killed you right there in the tavern..." Xena rolled her eyes. "...but I thought you'd come back and get on with fighting the Greeks," he continued.

"And the war would weaken the Amazons and the Greeks just enough to make them both easy pickings for Rome," Xena said.

"Well, Amazon, I've stopped your noble plan, the Greeks and Amazons will have their little war, and you-" He raised his hand to strike her again as he spoke.

"Sir!" The Greek mercenary stepped forward and interrupted, "I have a bone to pick with the Amazon queen. Ariad was my brother."

"A special request, huh? Amazons certainly aren't to my taste, so I suppose...sure, go ahead. Don't kill or disfigure her though." Xena raised an eyebrow at this last remark. "An Amazon gladiator will bring a good price at the coliseum." He turned to the Roman soldier, the second in command. "Let the other two go; they look like they could kill a lot of Greeks for us. In fact, release them near Corylis, right in the middle of their little war. That way they can get started right away." The centurion laughed loud and long as he left his tent.

Xena was chainshackled at ankle and wrist and led away by two Roman soldiers to the Greek lieutenant's tent. She was shoved through the opening and fell face first on the dirt floor. The soldiers left without a word. Xena was painfully raising herself to a sitting position when the young lieutenant ducked into the tent. He was broad-shouldered, but slender and had intelligent brown eyes and black hair. His fine bronzed features were set in a kind expression. He reached with one hand toward Xena; with the other he put an index finger on his lips. Spitting out dirt, Xena hissed, "You really don't want to make me mad!"

"Shhhh!" The Greek crouched as near as he dared to Xena, but her savage expression held him at arm's length. "I'm a friend," he whispered. "I know you're not the Amazon queen. My mother's an Amazon. My name's Lyrian, son of Almeides. I grew up in the Amazon village, until I was seven anyway. Then I went to live with my father. You know, Amazon custom. My mother keeps in touch with me. My father blames the Amazons for Ariad's death, but it was an accident. Sort of. I mean, you have to be pretty stupid or pretty drunk to threaten an Amazon. The identity of the queen is an Amazon secret, but my mother told me to watch for a young blond woman with short hair, who wasn't exactly, well, built like an Amazon. And to help her, if I could."

"And why should I believe you? You're a traitor all around. Look at your uniform. Traitor to the Romans, traitor to the Greeks...traitor to the Amazons. Seems like you've probably broken every oath you've ever taken."

"I can't blame you if you don't believe me, but what I'm telling you is the gods' truth. Anyway, no oath under heaven could bind me if it meant harming an innocent person, or allowing anyone else to. That's why I let the unarmed blond Amazon get away in the woods."

Xena's face softened as she took Lyrian's words in. "So you're a wrench in everyone plans around here, huh? Well, Lyrian, I'll trust you to do one thing. Take me to your father."

"Why? How will that help?" Lyrian tilted his head questioningly.

"Take me as the Amazon queen."

"But he'll try to kill you!" The young Greek looked truly worried.

"I'm counting on it!" Then she added gently, "Don't worry, Lyrian. I'm hardly an innocent."

VII.

It was midafternoon when Lyrian and Xena set out for Corylis. They had agreed that it was best to leave Xena's wrists shackled to avoid attention from the Roman soldiers. Indeed, not one soldier batted an eye as they watched Lyrian shove the warrior princess ahead into the woods. "Don't get too convincing, Lyrian. I'm not always known for my sanity in these situations," Xena warned.

"Sorry," replied Lyrian smiling weakly. "Believe me, I'd rather fight lots of Romans than an angry Amazon." When they were safely in the woods he removed the remaining shackles. "Who are you anyway? I don't remember you from my early days in the village." When Xena didn't answer, he continued, "You've got a noble crescent. I'd guess you're from the northern Amazon village?" He was thinking out loud now as they walked. "I'd heard that the new Amazon queen wasn't from our village either. Joined to a Greek warrior on the full moon of the longest day...I never did get that whole story...."

"By the gods," thought Xena, "I do get stuck with the talkers."

Lyrian suddenly stopped in midstep. "That's it! You must be the queen's consort! I've heard of you, you're a famous warrior, right? But I thought she...I mean you...weren't an Amazo-"

Xena had grabbed the hapless young man by the throat and shoved his back against a tree trunk. Her face a handbreadth from his, she spat, "You lived in the Amazon village once, ate their food, took their affection and teachings. Next you lived with the Greeks. I found you in the Roman camp wearing a Roman uniform, carrying Roman arms. So if you want to live another minute don't you tell me whether or not I'm an Amazon!" Her anger spent, Xena dropped her hands to her side. Lyrian slid down the tree trunk rubbing his throat "Sorry," said Xena flatly.

"Boy, you weren't kidding about that sanity business. But I'm sorry if I offended you. It's just that if you're who I think you are...I mean, what you're planning to do only an Amazon would do for another Amazon...or for someone she loves."

The pair reached Corylis at suppertime. The walls were teeming with Greek soldiers in full battle array. Lyrian was recognized at the gate and he and his captive, now back in shackles, were let in immediately. The gates were locked behind them. Lyrian took Xena to his father Almeides, as he had promised. As they entered the nobleman's villa, Lyrian had asked Xena if she could come up with another plan other than presenting herself as the Amazon queen.

"Trust me. This has got to work. Besides, can you think of anything else that'll stop this war today?" Xena asked. She shuddered as she remembered that Gabrielle would be trying to make her way to Corylis at this very moment.

Xena finished her negotiations with Almeides just before the full moon rose. The nobleman was hard. He would accept nothing less than the life of Danai, or the Amazon queen. Very well, offered Xena, but he must give his word not to collaborate with the Romans against the Amazons. The Romans were no friends of the Greeks, as his son Lyrian could tell him. It was Lyrian's act that had delivered the Amazon queen to Almeides. The nobleman's remaining son had thwarted the Romans' divide and conquer strategy, making the Amazons and Greeks allies instead of enemies. Lyrian would now be considered a traitor by the Romans and would be executed if caught. The Amazons would protect him, however, if the Greeks kept the treaty.

Also, Xena continued, there would be no public execution. It was to be a private affair between Almeides and her, as was Greek custom. Lyrian would witness it. Lyrian turned his face to the wall and wept. The body would not be mutilated, and Lyrian would escort it immediately to the Amazon village for a proper funeral rite. All Amazon prisoners of war would be released immediately after the execution to return with the body to the Amazon village.

"Agreed." Almeides stood up.

"Then let's get on with it." Xena pulled the little blue bottle from her right boot and drank.

"Lyrian," she said with her last breath, "don't forget...Gabrielle...."

VIII.

Gabrielle had waited in her hiding place for at least a half-hour before she was sure the Romans had gone. Xena would get away from the Romans eventually, thought Gabrielle. Wouldn't she? Gabrielle's heart went cold with fear as she realized that if the war weren't stopped very soon Xena could be in mortal danger. Desperately Gabrielle turned toward Corylis. She tried to hurry through the woods as fast as she could but was soon lost. The brush scratched her face and arms. She tripped over hidden roots and fell into the mud. Her clothes were ripped into rags. Several groups of Greek soldiers tramped through the forest near her, forcing her to hide until they passed. Occasionally shouts and war cries filtered through the otherwise gloomy silence of the forest. Suddenly, and strangely, thought Gabrielle, the battle sounds ended, just as the full moon began to rise.

It was long past sunset and the full moon had risen by the time Gabrielle, filthy and exhausted, staggered up to the gates of the Greek town. The gates were open, and soldiers, Greek soldiers, streamed into the city. They were celebrating , Gabrielle realized. She walked unnoticed into the city, mingling with the throngs of townsfolk. "What is it? What's going on?" She tugged at the sleeve of a drunken celebrant. The man flashed a toothless grin.

"The war is over!" he cried.

"What? Already? How-"

"The Amazon queen, she's given herself up! We've got justice!"

Another villager added, "One day's taste of our swords and the Amazons gave in, gave us their queen."

"That's right," continued the first villager."

"B-But I'm the Amazon queen!"

The two men guffawed loudly. "Yeah, and I'm Hercules!" said the first. The two men laughed until they were doubled over. "Nah, we got the real queen, left-sided moon and all!" said the second, making an obscene hand gesture.

Gabrielle turned away, her mouth open in surprise. She pondered the implications and settled on what had to be the most likely scenario. The only other Amazon in her village with a left crescent besides the queen was the captain. The captain must have heard about the ambush and gone to the city in her stead, thought Gabrielle. Yes, of course. That must be it. It made perfect sense, didn't it? She would have to find the captain, arrange her release, and fix this horrible mistake.

Gabrielle pushed her way to the town square. The Amazon captain was in shackles with a group of about forty Amazon prisoners of war. Gabrielle also recognized the two guards who had escorted her out of the Amazon village. Beside the guards was an Amazon who looked vaguely familiar to Gabrielle, like Helena the dead messenger. A young Greek nobleman, by demeanor anyway, was unlocking the chains. He seemed familiar with some of the Amazons. He seemed kind, even tender with the Amazons, thought Gabrielle, as she watched him unchain the captain.. The captain felt Gabrielle's gaze upon her. She was the only Amazon who saw the queen and she was careful not to give away her secret. As soon as the captain was free she made her way to Gabrielle. She covered Gabrielle's mouth with her hand and pushed her quickly into a dark shadow.

"Shhh! By the gods, don't give yourself away now, Gabrielle! How did you get away?" whispered the captain. "They told me I was too late, Gabrielle, that you'd been executed."

"Romans. They attacked us. I hid in the woods. The others were taken," said Gabrielle.

"I came after you," said the captain, "when Xena's horse showed up alone in the village. Our spies told us your escort party never made it to the city. I rode Argo to Corylis. I ran into the two guards outside the city. They were fighting and we were taken prisoner. The guards told me that you had gotten away during the ambush, but that Xena had been kept by the Romans, and given over to a Greek mercenary. Then Almeides came out of his villa and suddenly called a truce. He said the war was over. His son had captured the Amazon queen and she had been executed. Almeides said that the honor and nobility of our queen had impressed him. Before she died, he said, she had sworn him to a peace treaty that could only benefit the Amazons and the Greeks. He would honor the treaty. He would free the prisoners and return the queen's body to us."

Gabrielle glanced back at the freed Amazon prisoners. They were carefully lofting a plain wooden box onto a cart. The young Greek nobleman was on horseback, beside the box. The horse drawn cart began to creak toward the city gates, with an Amazon leading the carthorse. Argo! The captain was silent for a moment. Then a stricken look darkened her face. "Gabrielle, wait here. Don't move!"

From the shadows Gabrielle watched the captain walk over to the young nobleman and ask him something, pointing to the box. He nodded, and the captain climbed into the cart and lifted the hinged lid a little. The captain could see the contents very well in the full moonlight. Xena! She dropped the lid, open-mouthed, and looked back in Gabrielle's direction. The queen was gone.

Gabrielle had known suddenly what the captain was looking for. The captain's expression had said it all. Xena had saved the queen, and the Amazons. Maybe the Greeks as well. And she had lost Xena. She had wanted to save Xena, above all, and she had failed. Oh, Gabrielle knew that the calculus of justice and logic probably favored this outcome. This was the greater good that Xena had taught her. Xena wasn't an innocent. That day Xena had saved many lives more pure than her own. It didn't matter. Nothing at all mattered anymore. This time Gabrielle would not go on without Xena. She would join her in death. Besides, whatever treaty Xena-as-queen had cooked up with the Greeks, it was likely to work better if the real Amazon queen didn't show up suddenly and spoil the trick.

Having decided this, Gabrielle immediately felt better, lighter. Soon the leaden heaviness in her chest would be dulled forever. She could rest, sleep. She headed for the nearby mountain in the bright moonlight. As the road rose above the town Gabrielle turned and looked down on the reveling town. She could see the sad little cart and the funeral procession outside the gates, heading slowly toward the Amazon village. The cart turned off onto a fork in the road and was soon swallowed up by the trees. Gabrielle continued her climb.

IX.

Lyrian jumped off his mount as soon as the procession was in the forest. He grabbed the captain by the arm. "Quickly, take my horse and go to the village. Get the physician. The queen said she'd know what to do. You have to hurry!"

"What are you talking about?" asked the captain, accepting the reins from Lyrian.

"Your queen... or whoever she is... isn't dead, just drugged." He held up the blue vial. "But the antidote has to be given soon, or-or-"

"-or she will die," Helena said as she stepped up to Lyrian and the captain. "Captain, that's the drug I took when the Romans followed me to the queen. My battlesister brought the antidote into the tavern after the ruckus had died down. I didn't want Gabrielle diverted by worry about me, and I really didn't want the Romans to know I was alive."

"Gabrielle!" cried Lyrian. "Which one of you is Gabrielle? Your queen said a 'Gabrielle' would be in the city tonight with the Amazons. She made me swear to get a message to her as soon as possible. Some sort of secret code only Gabrielle's supposed to know, I guess. The message was 'Don't go to the mountain. I'm just dreaming.' " The captain and Helena stared open-mouthed at each other, then turned back to Lyrian.

"That's the message?" asked the captain, mounting Lyrian's horse.

Lyrian shrugged. "That's it, that's the whole message."

The captain spoke. "Lyrian, Gabrielle is our queen. The woman in the casket is Xena, Gabrielle's consort. Gabrielle was in the city tonight, but she left just ahead of us. I assumed she'd make her way back to the village."

Lyrian raised his brows. "Not if she figured out who was in the casket," he said looking across the valley toward the mountain.

"Helena," said the captain, "unhitch Xena's horse and go to the mountain. You're the only one Gabrielle will believe right now. Hurry, Helena. You have to find her quickly!" With that the captain galloped off toward the village.

The captain's mount thundered up to the healer's hut. The captain burst in and found Chrysale sitting in front of her jars and pots, sorting dried twigs, leaves, and roots. She barely glanced up from her work.

"Ah, captain. Always up for a good battle, hmm? You warriors sure come around a lot when there's a war. Xena was here just last night. She was even grumpier than you. The antidote's over there." The old woman waved her hand toward a tightly corked flask on the table next to the pallet. It contained a clear liquid. "Sit her up first, then pour a little in her mouth, just enough to moisten her lips. When she comes around, make her drink the rest." The captain grabbed the flask and quickly walked back to the door.

"Thanks."

"Captain?"

"Yes, Chrysale?"

"You Amazons have all done very well."

"Thanks, Chrysale." The captain swung the door open and stepped outside.

"And Captain?"

"What?!"

"Make sure she drinks it all."

Gabrielle had climbed for almost an hour when she reached the cliff. She was beyond exhaustion. The ache in her chest came in choking waves until she could hardly breathe, then it would subside for a few minutes into emptiness. She sat down at the edge and looked over. She could see the little farm huts surrounded by a patchwork of silver fields and pastures. It was cold on the mountain, even in summer, and Gabrielle's tattered clothes were of little use. She took them off, and lay what was left of them over her as a makeshift blanket. The Amazon village was hidden in that patch of forest just beyond the meandering river, she mused. She would wait for the funeral pyre that would send Xena to Artemis, then she would leap over the edge. Perhaps their souls would meet on the way, she thought. She waited and watched for a long time, but the funeral pyre never appeared.

X.

The captain galloped up to the stranded funeral procession with the precious flask and leapt into the cart. Lyrian was waiting for her. He opened the lid and lifted Xena's limp form into a sitting position. The captain carefully poured some of the liquid between Xena's parted lips. After a tense long moment Xena sputtered and coughed. Then she opened her eyes. "Here, drink this." The captain held the flask to Xena's lips. Woozy, Xena made a face and turned away from the drink, flailing fiercely at the captain. The captain motioned to the two guards. Instantly they hopped into the cart. One pinned Xena's arms and legs while the other held her head in a neck lock. The captain poured the liquid down Xena's throat and the guards gently released her.

Xena lay back down in the open box and retched miserably. "Gabrielle! Gabrielle! Where are you? Oh gods, Gabrielle, Iím coming." she babbled. "Donít go. Here, take my hand. Gabrielle! Please! Come with me, Gabrielle," Xena moaned. The captain reached into the box and tried to comfort her. Lyrian's horse was hitched to the cart, and the procession creaked on toward the Amazon village.

By first light Xena was feeling much better. The events of the evening before began to fit into place in her mind. Chrysale wiped the warrior's face and chest gently with a cool damp cloth that smelled of pungent herbs. Xena sat up on her elbows on the healing pallet and saw that she was in the healer's hut. And naked. "What happened to my clothes?!"

"You don't want to know. But they're okay; I cleaned them. Here, drink this," said Chrysale, holding yet another cup to Xena's lips. Xena rolled her eyes but did as she was told.

"Let me see Gabrielle. I know she must be mad as Hades-" Xena stopped. The captain was standing in the healer's hut looking down at Xena with a worried expression. Xena flew off the pallet to her feet. "Where is she? Didn't Lyrian give her my message?"

"Xena, Gabrielle didn't get your message. She left the city before us. Helena went after her last night...up the mountain. They haven't returned."

Chrysale was handing Xena her clothes. "I suppose she can take your horse?" said the old woman to the captain. Xena was already dressed, out the door, and mounting the captain's horse. She kicked the poor steed with her heels, and with a loud "Hee-yahh," was off.

"I guess so," said the captain.

An unusual cold snap had settled on the valley. The sky was dreary and gray as Xena headed out of the Amazon woods and crossed the river. By the time she passed Corylis, a fine cold drizzle was falling. As she reached the base of the mountain, rain began pouring down in great gray sheets. Xena's heart was bursting with anguish as she drove up the mountain, keeping her horse at full gallop. Mercilessly, hoping against hope, Xena spurred the horse on, desperately on, as the wind-lashed rain drove the cold to her marrow. She reined up suddenly at the edge of a cliff and dismounted. The height dizzied her and she dropped to her hands and knees and leaned into the precipice. "Gabrielle!" she sobbed into the storm-dimmed panorama, searching its depths for any sign of the bard, not wanting to find anything, knowing that would mean the horror she had dreamt had come true...She saw something small and dark fluttering on a ledge far, far below. Clothes? "No! Oh Gabrielle, no!" Xena's voice was ragged and choked. An icy agony twisted around her heart.

"Xena? Xena, it's me." Gabrielle knelt beside Xena at the edge of the cliff and clasped the warrior's hand to her chest. Xena looked confusedly at Gabrielle then back down over the precipice. "Your clothes! All over that ledge... I thought you...my dream-" stammered Xena. Behind Gabrielle, Xena saw Helena come out of some woods a little distance away.

"I sat at the edge of the cliff last night," said Gabrielle. "I could see the Amazon village. I watched for your funeral pyre. I waited a long time. It was cold. Finally, I fell asleep." Gabrielle continued her account. The next thing she had heard were hoof beats pounding close to her head. The moon was high and small by then. She was startled as a figure leapt off a horse. She had jumped to her feet, and her little pile of clothes floated over the edge of the cliff. Helena had reached her in a heartbeat and pulled her away from the cliff.

"Queen Gabrielle, do you remember me?" Helena had asked, shaking her gently by the shoulders. Gabrielle's puzzlement had gradually turned to recognition in the silvery light.

"Helena? The messenger? But you died...you took the poison and died... I saw you. A-are you a ghost?" At this last question Gabrielle had shrunk away from Helena in fear.

"No, Queen Gabrielle," Helena had explained. I'm not dead, and neither is Xena. It wasn't a deadly poison, at least not if it's used right."

Gabrielle stopped talking and Xena, eyes squeezed shut, pressed the bard tightly to her chest, resting her cheek on top of the golden head, oblivious to the stinging cold rain and wind.

Helena had reached the pair. "It's pretty convincing, though, until the antidote arrives, isn't it?" she said. "Come into the hut. You'll get mountain fever out here in this rain." The hut wasn't visible from the trail. Helena led the way into a dark grove of trees.

The Amazon hunting hut was warm and cozy. It was kept well stocked by the tribe for winter hunting excursions. (Recently joined Amazons customarily favored long hunting excursions together.) Helena had set it up the night before, after rescuing her nearly frozen queen. A blazing fire crackled in the hearth. The table was set with flatbread, cheese, olives, wine, and dried fruit and meats. A large bathing basin filled one corner of the room and several sets of sleeping skins and woven blankets were folded in a loft in another corner of the hut. Helena had even found a spare set of Amazon hunting clothes, including boots. Xena thought Gabrielle looked very well in them, even if they were a little, well, large for her.

Helena was packing some things into a leather saddle pouch. "I hope you won't mind if I head back to the village. I'm a big one for parties, and tonight's should be a good one. Full moon last night and solstice today."

"That's fine, Helena. I'm sure Gabrielle and I have some things to catch up on," said Xena, wringing out her wet hair.

"Great. I'm going to take the captain's horse back. Argo's fine, Xena. She's in the little stall out back." With that Helena was gone.

XI.

Xena tended to Argo while Gabrielle heated water and poured it into the bathing basin. Then she spread the sleeping skins over the floor of the loft and threw several fine Amazon goosedown sacks on top of the skins. Several ornamental Amazon candlegrips graced the two walls backing the loft area. Gabrielle lit the candles slowly, as if performing a sacrament. After they had bathed and eaten, Xena and Gabrielle retired, full of food and wine, to the warm loft. Outside, the dreary rain, powered by gusts of cold wind, pelted the little cabin.

Gabrielle was sitting against a wall of the loft leaning on a down sack, with Xena's head cradled in her lap. The warrior lay on her left side facing the cheery fire which burned down below, her right hand on Gabrielle's knee. The bard pondered the flickering candlelight as she tenderly but absently fondled the long raven tresses. Bare skin glowed in the firelight. The two were quiet. It was a comfortable silence, thought Xena, but there was something she needed to ask. She blinked twice and turned her head a little to look up at the bard.

"Gabrielle? Would you have..." Xena paused.

"Would I have what?"

"...jumped?"

The bard's hand stilled a moment on Xena's head, then resumed caressing the silky mane.

"I don't know; I don't think so." She looked down tenderly into Xena's eyes. The warrior's brow lifted questioningly. Gabrielle continued. "It just hurt so much to lose you. Again. And I was so angry with myself. It was supposed to have been me..." She returned her gaze to the candle. "ÖBut after I fell asleep at the edge of the cliff I had a dream. In my dream I saw the box again, your coffin, in the little cart. I missed you so. I wanted to be with you, wherever you were. The box was open. The captain was reaching into it. Then someone was riding a horse up the mountain, calling for me. The hoofbeats were loud. They kept coming closer and closer. I was frightened. I wondered if the rider might be you but I wasn't sure; I couldn't see her face clearly. She kept calling my name. I thought she was probably sent to take me back to the Amazon village. But I wanted it to be you. I wanted so much to go with you. The rider stopped beside me, still on the horse, and asked me to come with her. She held out her hand to me. I saw that the rider had an Amazon crescent, a left crescent. She told me not to jump. Just then I woke up and Helena pulled me away from the cliff."

The silence returned for a few heartbeats. Xena closed her eyes and relaxed into Gabrielle's comforting caresses. Nothing in this world or the next could match the deep peace she felt in Gabrielle's arms.

"Xena?"

"Hmmm..."

"May I see it?"

"See what?"

"Your crescent."

Xena, still in Gabrielle's lap, rolled onto her back and folded her left arm behind her head.

"Well, where is it?" asked Gabrielle.

Xena lifted her head and examined her left breast. "It's gone! The healer! She must have removed the tattoo last night while she was treating me in her hut."

"Well, you were a great Amazon, while you were an Amazon." Gabrielle laughed, then looked thoughtful. "You know, that physician is pretty smart."

"Yeah, that's why she's the healer. What's your point?" Xena lay back again in Gabrielle's lap and looked up at the bard.

"You know, if you were still an Amazon, if you still had a crescent, that'd make me your queen."

"And?" The warrior raised an eyebrow.

"Somehow I don't think you'd like having to obey me." A mischievous smiled crinkled Gabrielle's face.

Xena's voice was earnest as she looked up from Gabrielle's lap. "Gabrielle, I'd do anything for you-"

Gabrielle brushed a lock of hair off Xena's forehead and smiled gently. "I know," she interrupted.

"-except one thing," said Xena. Gabrielle looked surprised. Xena continued. "I would never, ever allow anyone to hurt you. Even if it were your idea. Even if it cost me my life. Even if it cost me your love. That's the only oath I'm capable of taking." Xena was silent again.

Gabrielle shuddered. She understood. If she had turned herself over to Almeides, if she had jumped, she would have destroyed Xena. She would have inflicted a mortal wound, as deadly as a sword thrust through the heart, as fatal as the darkest poison. She held Xena's soul in her hands as surely as Xena held hers. Xena, the mighty warrior princess, was defenseless, helpless in this one way: with her, Gabrielle. Gabrielle felt the silver cords tighten around her heart in a familiar sweet ache.

"I'm sorry," Gabrielle whispered. "I'm so, so sorry." She bent her golden head and kissed the warrior on the lips. "I understand now."

Xena's eyes were closed in pain, and a single tear slid out and down toward her ear. Gabrielle remembered Amazon lore about the face of love and the face of pain being indistinguishable. And Gabrielle understood. She captured the precious droplet with her tongue, then returned to her kiss, tracing Xena's lips with slow, salty strokes. No treasure on earth or Olympus, she thought, could compare with what she held at this moment, as her hands cupped around Xena's face. Gabrielle strengthened the kiss. Her partner's chest rose and fell deeply, rocking the bard like waves on the open sea. Xena, still in the bard's lap, stretched upward to meet Gabrielle's caresses, and was met and supported by the firm power of the young queen's arms around her shoulders, a strength born of a fierce love. Xena gasped as warm breath, hard white teeth and strong tongue fastened onto the pulse point of her throat. Gabrielle felt Xena's lifeblood bounding powerfully against her lips.

"Yes, Gabrielle, only you, it's always been you," whispered Xena.

Gabrielle kept her grip on the warrior's throat while her right hand, loosed from Xena's hair, slid down a soft delicate earlobe. The small appendage burned with the gesture and Xena writhed in almost unbearable pleasure. The fingertips continued to traverse the landscape, exploring the ridge of jawbone, traveling down the slope of the neck to the collarbone, resting in the little hollow just below it to ponder the swell of breast ahead.

The bard released Xena's throat and studied the left breast, which now trembled in her hand. No trace of the crescent remained. Gabrielle traced where the little moon must have been, just outside the nipple, first with her eyes, then with a feathery fingerstroke.

Xena felt something on her right breast also. Or did she? She wasn't sure. Suddenly wave after wave of voluptuous sensation flowed through Xena as a tentative, then firm tongue on her right nipple replaced Gabrielleís warm breath. Gabrielle's mouth reverently coaxed longing and yearning and desire out of her lover's breast. Sinuous undulations rippled through the warrior's body. Xena's soft cries of pleasure moved Gabrielle to tears. How much like pain they sounded. How much pain she had caused her poor friend without knowing it. Gabrielle ached with tenderness for Xena, and the bard groaned in pain and passion. Gabrielle's free hand continued its adventure with great care, gliding slowly past heaving ribs, over quivering abdomen, circling back to breasts and throat. The hand was tossed to and fro on the vast sea of arousal and finally came to rest lightly on the familiar, but mysterious dark triangle.

Xena stilled for a moment and opened her eyes. What Gabrielle saw there stopped her heart. Xena's eyes were filled with love and desire, but that was not all that Gabrielle saw. She saw the very soul of the warrior princess, her warrior princess, fully and completely open, vulnerable, trusting. She knew that she, Gabrielle, was the only one on earth or Mount Olympus who would ever witness that. Why hadn't she seen this, known this, before now, she asked herself. The silver bonds twisted again, this time so tightly that Gabrielle thought she would die of joy and sorrow at the same time. She kept Xena's gaze. With her longest finger, gently, delicately, as if she were caressing a butterfly's wings, Gabrielle stroked the hidden gossamer lips, and with each pass, her own longing grew. She longed to infuse Xena with her love, which now flowed like molten silver through her veins. Gabrielle paused at the silken entrance, now dewy with invitation, and groaned. Xena moved mightily against Gabrielle's hand.

"Yes!"

Gabrielle entered Xena. First one finger, then two, and the bard was awash in an ocean of love for her warrior. As if in an underwater dream, Gabrielle found that she could breathe deeply and freely in this sea. Like dolphins playing in a ship's wake, Gabrielle's fingers dove and resurfaced as Xena's senses left her. Gabrielle held on tightly to the thrashing, quaking warrior, and said in a clear voice, one that Xena had not heard before, "Come to me now. You're safe with me."

Xena felt Gabrielle lightly stroke her tiny hidden jewel of pleasure, and she felt the inexorable rise to climax begin. Again! Again! Yes! Xena could not tell whether she was actually crying out, could not tell where the world outside of her sensations began. There was just Gabrielle. Gabrielle!

"Oh gods, Gabrielle! Yes! Yes!"

Xena folded forward as the first wave hit then fell back into Gabrielle's arms as the powerful shocks coursed through her again and again and again. Gabrielle held her ground until the spasms relented and the warrior relaxed in her arms. Xena's labored breathing gradually slowed. Her skin was flushed and glistened with sweat. Gabrielle kissed her on the forehead and lips and hair.

Night had fallen around the little cabin. The rain had stopped some time ago and the nearly full moon peeked out from behind dispersing silver clouds. Down in the valley the Amazon village was alive with celebration. Amazon bonfires twinkled in the distance, and could be seen from the cliff.

In the healer's hut, Chrysale sat in her black bearskin at a table sorting herbs into various clay pots. When she saw that the moon was shining again, she rose and went to a window. In a chalice on the sill were two silver threads. They were partly intertwined. The healer gathered the strands in her palm as if she were weighing them. "Excellent," she said softly. She gazed at the strands affectionately and gave them a gentle twist; then she placed them in a little blue jar and corked it. "Moonbathing certainly agrees with Amazons," she said to the little container. She placed the jar under a small statue of Artemis in a corner of the hut. Then Chrysale looked up at the moon and added, "Yes, my Amazons have all done very well."

In the little cabin in the trees next to the cliff, a bard rocked her warrior to sleep, then curled up around her under the warm skins. Both slept soundly and dreamlessly, far into the next day.

The end:)

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