DISCLAIMER: Xena Warrior Princess characters belong to Renaissance Pictures/MCA.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Dialogue and action from Sins of the Past also belong to Renaissance Pictures and from the great Xena Warrior Princess writer, (Spoilers for Sins of the Past are contained within).
Xenaverse timeline--after Season 2 and before Season 3.
Romance and sex between two consenting adult women (of the fictional variety). This is a first time story.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
A Half Moon Before and Two Summers After
By Portia Richardson
Eponin stood beside the carriage extending a hand for her queen. Gabrielle, now adorned in the royal garment of the Queen of the Amazons delicately placed her hand in Eponin's and accepted the boost. The young blonde woman crashed onto the floor of the wagon, clumsily righted herself, then took a seat on the long wooden bench.
"Uh, thank you."
"You're welcome, my Queen."
"We're awfully high up, aren't we?" Somehow using the royal `we' seemed appropriate for her first journey in the Queen's carriage.
"Yes, my Queen." Eponin waited for Gabrielle to get settled on the bench, then shouted out commands. The nine amazons stood erect at their positions and waited for further instruction.
"Queen Gabrielle, we'll ride only 'til nightfall, then make camp a few hours from here."
Gabrielle nodded. The Amazon stepped away from the wagon and began walking to the end of the procession. "Eponin? Won't you ride up here with me?"
Eponin stopped and looked thoughtfully at Gabrielle for a moment. "Usually, my Queen, it is your champion or consort or bondmate who would accompany you on your journey. It isn't my place."
"Well, I don't have a consort or bondmate and my champion . . . " Gabrielle lifted her chin and motioned forward, "wants to ride her horse ahead, so. . . I'll go crazy if I'm up here by myself until dusk."
"All right." Eponin surveyed her team of Amazons and sighed. She shouted, "Amazons, I will be riding with our Queen. Adjust formation!"
The Amazons quickly fell in place and with a slight tap of her crop, their Amazon driver guided the black warhorse forward with their precious cargo.
Gabrielle was being led to the center of the Amazon Nation for a very special ritual. For moons she had been preparing for the upcoming event and was confident in her abilities to perform as Queen.
"It must be crazy at the village, everyone getting ready for the ceremony?"
"I've been told our new Amazons will be strong and competent warriors. They have been trained well."
"I'm really looking forward to spending time with all of you and Xena needs the rest. We've had quite a few exhausting adventures in the past few moons."
"You'll tell us about your travels, my Queen?"
"Good grief, Eponin, will you please stop saying 'my Queen' in every sentence? I'm your friend, too. Right? Or are you saying that I'm no longer your friend now that I'm Queen? That's ridiculous. As I recall, you, Ephiny and Solari practically kicked my butt when I was learning to use the staff. How is it that you loved seeing me covered with dirt and bruises, now you can't even look me in the eye when we speak?"
"It's not appropriate . . . "
"Eponin, I need friends. I have a Nation of women who see me as their ruler, it would be nice to have a few I can call friend and who see me the same way."
"There is Xena."
"One needs more than one friend, Eponin. I thought we were."
"Good." She paused, then sighed heavily, "It's hard with Xena. She doesn't open up much and I keep a lot to myself." Gabrielle looked ahead at her best friend's hair blowing in the wind. She knew that Xena was loving every minute of leading the procession and knowing she could push harder and not fear for Gabrielle's safety.
Eponin did speak to Gabrielle as a friend as they traveled across the land. "Have you tried?"
"You know Xena, Eponin. It's not easy. But I've been thinking for a while now that there are some things that we *need* to talk about. That's one of the reasons I'm looking forward to this trip. I worry I might say something she won't want to hear. If that happens," Gabrielle stared off into the distance, "I'll need your support."
Eponin nodded. If Gabrielle needed to say more, she would, but she wouldn't press her Queen. Eponin knew exactly what Gabrielle was hinting. She, Ephiny and other Amazons had discussed it at length many times.
Eponin and Gabrielle spoke of negotiations with Centaurs, the powerful leadership of Ephiny's rule, and warlords skulking too close to their borders. Before Gabrielle had realized it, dusk was upon them, and Eponin leapt from the carriage. The Amazons posted on the sides of the carriage ran forward, then turned off into the woods. Fifteen minutes later, they stood about fifty paces from their Queen and guided the vehicle toward them. Instantly, it was as if the Amazon party had never been on the path. Wheel tracks and footprints were covered, Amazon guards slid into trees and two stood hidden at the entrance to their campsite.
Gabrielle descended the carriage with Eponin's help and walked over to Xena who stood brushing down Argo. The bard had missed being close to the warrior. She breathed in deeply, capturing her favorite scent. She loved the smell of Xenasweat, leathers, and the lemons she used on her skin. She also smelled chicken roasting along with root vegetables.
"It smells good. Did you steal someone's campsite? I know that's not your cooking."
"Oh, very funny. I'll have you know that I cooked just fine before you joined me."
"Xena, you had army cooks. Let's see, on your own you've burned bread, prepared undercooked fish, rubbery rabbit, blackened vegetables and your seasoning of choice so far seems to be riverwater." Gabrielle ticked off with her fingers each incident of the warriors failed cooking endeavors.
"Look, Gabrielle, if you don't want to eat, I won't be offended," Xena said with a shrug.
Eponin cleared her throat. "Excuse me, Queen Gabrielle? Xena? The Initiates have completed dinner preparations and we can all sit down for our meal."
"The Initiates?" Gabrielle eyed Xena.
"Wh-what? I didn't say I *did* cook, I just said I knew how." Xena returned Argo's brush to the saddlebag and followed Eponin and Gabrielle to the main campsite.
Over dinner, Eponin explained that the nine Initiates into the Amazon Nation were sharing a campfire not too far from the one where they sat. The women who would soon be joining the Amazons were to move in the shadows during this expedition--they were to hunt for food, gather firewood, mend any torn clothing, polish armor, perform general maintenance on the queen's carriage and any other duties which might arise. Amazon rule prohibited them from interacting with the queen or any Amazon not assigned to their training, prior to their crossing over ceremony. Gabrielle was unaware of their presence. Xena, on the other hand had met two of the Initiates when she arrived at the campsite.
She had heard one of them in a tree above the path. The young Amazon-to-be was dangling precariously from her tree rope, trying desperately to remove the bindings which had wrapped around her ankle, without being heard. Too late. Xena was off Argo and in the tree. The woman looked up to find herself on the receiving end of Xena's condescending stare.
"What? Hey, how'd you get up there?" the young woman whispered.
"Without you seein' me is how. Don't tell me you're guarding the Queen?"
"No, we both are," a second Initiate whispered into Xena's ear.
Xena's head whipped around. How in the world had this woman gotten so close? This short, stocky woman with white-blonde hair casually rested her hand on the hilt of her undrawn sword.
"Get out of my way, she needs help," she said in a whisper, but the command wasn't lost on Xena who smiled and took a step up onto another branch, watching as the second woman pulled the rope and her friend up.
"You're going to be Amazons soon?"
"And you are?"
The two women looked at Xena, then each other. The dark-haired warrior recognized the amazement. Everyday, she was greeted by at least one person offering up a similar expression. She had heard the stories.
But it wasn't Xena's past as a warlord nor her recent work as a fighter for good that the two young women thought of. They straightened themselves the best they could on the narrow branch. "You're the Queen's champion."
"I know," Xena was enjoying this, though still perturbed about having that second woman approach her unnoticed moments before.
"Look, we're sorry."
"I don't know what happened. I heard someone on the path, grabbed for my line and as I was going up, I got caught in. . . . "
"Don't worry about it. Just improve. You can't very well be Amazon, if you can't manage to get yourself up a tree." Xena said.
"We'll work on that tonight," the white-blonde woman said protectively. She eyed Xena suspiciously. "You're not Amazon, are you?"
"Yeah, figured. You wouldn't be talking to us if you were. How do you know so much about them? Were you once in training?"
Xena lowered her eyes, hiding both guilt and shame, then looked away. "No." She shook her head. "Look, the Queen should be coming down the path very soon."
With that said the two Initiates returned to position and Xena disappeared from the tree as quickly as she had arrived.
Now, sitting around their fire, she could hear the nine women in the distance. Xena stood and stretched.
"I'm going to go wash my dish." Xena reached out for her friend's empty plate. "Gabrielle?"
Eponin rose from her log and shook her head, "No, Xena. Leave that for the Initiates. They'll take care of this site in the night."
Xena nodded and looked around. It was part of her ritual at night to secure their location, maybe do a bit of hunting, before settling in, but those tasks weren't required of her on this journey. She'd have to settle for a walk.
"There's a lot of food left."
"Why don't we take it over to the Initiates? I'll bet they were so busy making sure we had plenty that they didn't even think of themselves?" Gabrielle was filling a plate with roasted chicken, bread and cheese. "Xena, we'll walk over."
"My Queen, you can't."
"Oh, Eponin, rules are meant to be broken."
"Think of the Initiates, Gabrielle. They want to enter the Nation the same way their fore-sisters did. Amazon custom and pride in those customs have been taught to them. Even the slightest change would make them feel less than the others."
Gabrielle understood that. She hadn't entered the way all others had and felt deficient to a degree.
The warrior took the plate from Gabrielle. "I'll take it."
Foliage and underbrush hid Xena in the shadows while she watched seven women sitting cross-legged around the campfire testing each other on Amazon history.
Two women stood near a large tree a few paces from the campfire. One was the Initiate who had been hanging from her cord earlier and the other, who carefully made a series of braids and a loop in her rope was the one who had rescued her. She was a strong, good-looking woman. Only one thing about her stood out--her odd white-blonde hair coloring. From behind she appeared to be a much older woman with hair the color of a long life, but face-to-face, she couldn't be more than twenty summers.
The Initiate scampered up the tree like a small animal. Moments later, she returned to the ground.
The warrior cleared her throat. "The Queen asked me to bring you some of our food."
The women practically lunged at the warrior.
"She's the Queen's champion. That's Xena."
The Initiates divvied up the food and all returned to the fire. "Join us, Xena?" The white-blonde woman said.
"Sure, why not?" Xena took a seat on a nearby log.
"What is she like? The Queen?"
Xena sighed and hardened her face so as not to give away the warm and loving feelings she felt for their Queen. She thought about what she'd like to saythe Queen has green eyes I get lost in, she smells like spice, I'm captured by the sway of her hips and the lilt in her voice, I never want to imagine a night falling asleep without her near. Or even more revealing, I crave her. I want to feel her quake when I take her to the edge, know the sounds she makes when I give myself to her. Instead, she said, "She's knowledgeable and fair. She's a hard worker and would put her life on the line if it meant protecting others, especially Amazons." She wondered why she insisted on punishing herself with those fantasies that always left her wet and embarrassed to meet Gabrielle's eyes.
"What's her name?"
"Huh? The Queen?"
"You shouldn't ask that," one of the Amazons scolded. "We'll learn our leader's name at the crossing over ceremony." She answered the question on Xena's face, "We aren't part of the tribe yet. She is the Queen of the Amazons. We are no different from anyone else. We haven't a right to know her name or speak it."
Xena made a mental note to tell Gabrielle that she isn't supposed to run around telling every bandit they encounter that they're messing with Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons. This was a different custom from Amazons tribes she knew from her past.
"We have learned of her--how she became an Amazon Princess, then Queen. We know that she travels with you and that you fought the former Queen on her behalf."
"What does she look like? I've heard she's old and wise," asked the white-blonde haired woman.
"She's wise. Young, beautiful and wise."
"You're willing to lay down your life for an Amazon . . . the Queen, no less and aren't one yourself?" The Initiate continued her line of questioning.
"Because we're friends."
"You must be more than friends to protect her so fervently. Are you her consort as well?"
The warrior's eyes widened. "N-no. We're friends."
One of the Initiates, gave the white-blonde haired woman a shove. "What? You think the Queen might be available for you, Maidia? I'm sure she's got women to cater to her every desire at any time. Right, Xena?"
Xena was beginning to fidget on the log. She was suddenly very uncomfortable. "I wouldn't know about that."
Xena sat staring at the small fire. Maybe coming over to sit with these kids wasn't such a good idea. Finally, Xena spoke. "You've pretty much got the hang of the rope. One thing I'd change is the tautness of the loop. You need a little more give. Here, let me show you."
The white-blonde haired woman placed the leather cord in the warrior's hand. Xena nodded a thank you and began her demonstration. She was in her element. A good training session was about as motivating as a good fight. With practiced ease, she flung the cord into the trees, not even grazing a leaf or small branch. The cord hit its mark and she gave it a light tug. Xena smiled at the Initiates and before it had even registered in their eyes, she was out of sight. The women stood at the base of the tree and waited, but Xena didn't return. Some time passed and eight of them stared into the tree. Maidia leaned against it and stared across the fire at Xena who had slipped quietly from one tree to the next and descended silently onto their camp.
"Hello?" Xena smiled at the women who turned in unison to stare awestruck, at her.
"By the gods, she's wonderful."
Xena cocked her head and stared into the hazel eyes of Maidia, the obviously smartest and bravest of the Initiates. "How'd ya guess?"
"An Amazon always surprises. She'd never do the obvious."
"But I'm not Amazon," Xena replied, stepping around the fire to hand the woman her leather cord.
"But you think like one."
The Queen's party would reach the Amazon Nation before the sun reached its highest point in the sky. If there had been highwaymen or bandits to deal with on this path, the Initiates had made quick work of them. The Amazons had the road to themselves and not even a broken wheel or Zeus' lightning bolts to impede their travel. The head guardswoman was relieved that the Queen's champion had joined the Queen in the carriage. Gabrielle seemed much happier with Xena there.
"The Initiates are very curious about you."
"As I am them. What are they like?" Gabrielle turned to face the warrior and once again, Xena drowned in her eyes. As the days turned into moons and moons into winters it was becoming increasingly difficult for the warrior to hold back her feelings. Every glance caused a longing deep inside, each look a level of desire she'd never known, every touch, a pounding need.
"We talked, but mostly they asked me a lot of questions about you. What you're like."
"What did you tell them?"
"That you're an ogre. That you are the meanest Queen the Amazons could have, but you hate everyone else more than you hate them, so you're a good leader."
Gabrielle hit Xena in the shoulder. "You did not."
Xena nodded. "Yeah, they're pretty much afraid of you now."
"Xena, tell me you didn't say those things? I don't want these kids afraid of me."
"Kids? Most of them are older than you, Gabrielle. Except for one. She looks to be about your age. I think she's the best of the bunch, too. Odd, she has old people's hair coloringblonde, but mostly white. She's young, though."
"White-blonde." Xena watched as Gabrielle's eyes danced. "I had a friend years ago with white-blonde hair. Is she short?"
"Really muscular shoulders and legs? Hazel eyes?"
"Yeah, that describes her.
"Alcestas!" Gabrielle's eyes lit up. "She walks with a limp, right?"
"No, her name is Maidia and she walks just fine."
Gabrielle was obviously dejected at this news. She lowered her head, then looked out onto the horizon.
"Hmm?" Gabrielle seemed so far away.
"Who was this friend, Alcestas? You've never mentioned her."
"Haven't I?" Gabrielle was well aware that she had never told Xena about Alcestas for if she had, she would have told her a story she wasn't ready to talk about. It was as much about Alcestas as it was Gabrielle, as much about Perdicas as it was Poteidaia and it included Xena. Could the bard tell this story now? She wasn't sure. If she did, everything would change. But maybe it was time, maybe this Initiate who looked like her friend was the push she needed.
"No, I'd have remembered. Were you close?" The warrior was both curious and concerned about the expression etched on the Queen's face.
"All right. Let's see, the beginning? No, that would take too long. Hmm?" The bard nervously covered her mouth with her fingers as she thought about the best way to proceed.
"While we're young, Gabrielle!" Xena twirled her hand in an effort to get Gabrielle to get on with it.
"Okay. Alcestas and I grew up together in Poteidaia. We're the same age and I'd known her all of my life. We were pretty much inseparable. People said that we looked more like sisters than Lila and I, but I don't see it. I still had the. . . full cheeks of my youth. Alcestas had lost all of her baby fat." Gabrielle smiled at Xena.
Xena had liked that chubbiness, but she loved the woman Gabrielle had become. Gabrielle was still full of youthful vitality, in spite of all that she had endured recently, but her face and body had changed. She was all woman. Xena had noticed and now was vigilant about making sure Gabrielle didn't notice her noticing.
"As I said, she walked with a limp. It was her most distinguishing feature other than her hair coloring. Alcestas favored her right leg after she fell from my parent's barnloft when we were fourteen winters old."
"Alcestas and I and another friend, Seraphin spent all of our time together. When we were smaller, we played dress up. But as we grew older, we lost interest in Seraphin who had become a little, I don't know, strange, so Alcestas and I spent more and more time together. I guess we were kindred spirits--both ignored by our families, by the village, by everyone. It was like we lived there, but didn't belong there. She was really the only one I could talk to after I became betrothed. We had completed seventeen summers and felt all grown up. We wanted to make our own decisions, but, unfortunately, our fathers were doing that for us with no regard for our happiness." Gabrielle explained, then added slowly, "I was to marry Perdicas.
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle." Even though Gabrielle seldom spoke of him, Xena was positive that the occasional silences around the campfire were due to thoughts of her dead husband.
She shrugged. "Once I was married, there wouldn't be any more long walks, I probably wouldn't have seen much of her. Of course, my mother didn't understand.
"I remember one day, about a half moon before we first met, Xena . . . "
Xena's ears perked up. She had often wondered about the time before they met. Gabrielle almost never discussed her past. It was as if she had none. She wondered how it had been so easy for Gabrielle to pick up and leave her village. When they began traveling together, the young woman spent her time learning how to protect herself and having the adventures she longed for. Looking back over the past two summers, Xena realized that Gabrielle only talked about life in Poteidaia when she had to--when they happened upon Perdicas in Troy and that one time she doubted herself and returned to her village for a while. The bard loved to tell stories, loved to comment on everything, but except for a few minor stories about her sister and mother, she never mentioned her family; except for meeting up with Perdicas, then later when she suddenly decided to marry, she wouldn't talk about him. Xena never asked.
Gabrielle continued her story.
"I was racing out to meet Alcestas and mom called out to me. 'Gabrielle, you're leaving without your basket.' I was already out the door.
I walked back in and picked up the basket of goodies that I would be sharing on my picnic. My mother shook her head and said something about me being so eager and acting as if I hadn't seen Alcestas in winters instead of just a few candlemarks.
She had said, 'She was the last person you spoke with last night and I saw the two of you whispering and conspiring at the market this morning.'
Alcestas had been telling me her dream and I thought I'd share it with my mother. I started, but she interrupted, of course. 'You kids and your big dreams.' I remember her saying that, then returning to de-feathering a chicken.
I thought about saying something to her. Everyone should have big dreams regardless of age. I pitied the woman who no longer dreamed. At times I pitied mom and knew that was wrong. So I just left to meet Alcestas."
"Mothers can be difficult, believe me I know. My mother can be . . . well, you know." Xena interjected.
"Cyrene is sweet."
"She's not your mother." Xena laughed and Gabrielle joined her for a chuckle, then continued her story.
We sat in a grassy clearing on a hill that overlooked a raging river below. This was my favorite spot near home. It was secluded and beautiful, ripe with wildberries, beautiful flowers and soft moss.
"Alcestas, I wrote a poem for you today."
"Gab, don't you ever rest? Your mind goes twelve paces for every other person's one. When did you have time?"
"I made it up this morning after you told me your dream. Ready?"
Alcestas popped a berry into her mouth and nodded to me. I sat up, took a deep breath and did my bard thing.
"Dream of a Queen in a crystal palace,
Pale hands touch alabaster columns.
Locked inside a silent room,
Her heart soars across the land, over the seas.
The wind howls and she hears
The music of another heart,
"Sweet Alcestas, your glow awakens me,
Your smile, a picture; your voice, a song;
Your dream, my dream."
Xena wiped her moist hands on her upper thigh. That poem was a love poem, if she'd ever heard one. Who was this Alcestas? And what did she mean to Gabrielle?
"Thank you. I'm surprised I still remember it."
Xena knew she had to overcome her own anxiety. Her Song of Perdicas was sweet, but this, this held a sense of love and longing. Xena felt left out, somewhat disquieted, and surprisingly pained. "Your friend must have . . . you must have cared deeply for her to write such a song to her. Did she like it?"
"Did she like it?"
Gabrielle shrugged, as she tried to recall that conversation.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and sighed in satisfaction. She waited several beats for her words to sink in, finally opening them to linger on Alcestas. "Well, what'd ya think?"
"That's it? I don't get it."
Gabrielle smiled lightly. She knew that the poem had touched her immediately. "Uh-huh."
"Oh, nothing." Gabrielle leaned back on her elbows and stared at the sky. "It's beautiful today. I wish everyday of our lives could be like this."
Alcestas leaned back, too. Their heads touched as they watched the clouds move. "What do you think that one is?" She asked, pointing to a puffy white cloud.
"Looks like Perdicas on a bad hair day."
Alcestas turned on her side, chin in hand, supported by one elbow, and poked Gabrielle in the rib with a finger. "He's your betrothed. You shouldn't say things like that."
Gabrielle also turned. "I know, I know. It just slipped out. I know what I'm supposed to say. 'Darling, dear. I'm the luckiest woman alive. Aphrodite wishes she had a man like you, Perdicas.'" Gabrielle laughed.
"Gab, you're going to have to at least try. Soon your mom is going to have you at the dressmaker, Lila will be collecting flowers for your hair, your Dad and Perdicas' father will tear down that fence separating the land."
"Ugh. Don't remind me. My father is *trading* me for a few parcels of property, forty-five sheep, twelve goats, fifty-three chickens, five roosters, and an old horse."
"But who's counting, right? Alcestas paused. "Anyway, you're not being traded, your families are joining. Everyone gets half of everything."
"I don't want to be married."
"No, just not yet. When I bond for life I want it to be with someone I can understand and who understands me. Perdicas just smiles and says, 'whatever you want Gabrielle.'"
"Most girls would love a guy like that."
"Not me. I want someone with life. Someone who has dreams about something more than Poteidaia."
"Well, you won't find that here. Every boy wants to stay and work the land just like his father did."
Gabrielle sighed and rolled onto her back. "You're right. I'd better start getting used to it."
"At least you know what your future has in store. Every time my father says my name, I'm afraid he's going to tell me how he has promised me to some old geezer who needs a wife to bear him a boy before he dies."
Gabrielle turned her head and gave her friend a quizzical look. "Why would you think that?"
"It's my father's choice. I was supposed to be a boy. He got stuck with me. I should have been his big, strapping son, instead I'm just Alcestas, his strong daughter. His mistake."
Alcestas and her father never connected. She tried to please him. She worked long hours and her family had one of the most productive farms in town, she sparred with the strongest boys in the village and held her own. Yet, her father always thought she could do better. For Gabrielle, it was very much the same. Her father, Herodotus didn't seem to mind that he had been blessed with daughters. What drove him mad was Gabrielle's wanderlust, her talk of gods and goddesses, and her tales of larger than life characters. She never seemed to focus on the here and now, didn't care about the goings-on in her own village. How many times had she been scolded for burning the bread in the hearth, ignoring it while she studied maps that others had discarded? How often had she been told to obey, to try harder, to be a better daughter? And now this Perdicas thing--her upcoming marriage.
"I don't want to talk about it." Alcestas dropped onto her back and stared up at the clouds.
Gabrielle reached out and lightly touched her friend's arm. "Okay, we won't."
There was some awkward silence before the women resumed any conversation. "Gab, are you still feeling *nervous* about being married?"
"Nah. Like you said, Perdicas will do whatever I ask."
"Are you scared about losing your virginity?"
"Not really. I know Perdicas. He'll be gentle. I just hope I'll know how to act when he does it."
"Gab?" Alcestas whispered her name.
Gabrielle held her breath and waited.
They were nearing the borders of the Amazon Nation and the guardswomen were quickly changing formation in preparation for their arrival.
Xena had been lost in Gabrielle's story and didn't realize how close they were to the Nation. What was Alcestas' question? she wondered.
The Queen's memory had taken over and she had fallen into a quiet contemplation of that day, so long ago. She hadn't noticed Xena leap from the carriage, nor seen all of the Amazons save Eponin standing with arms raised and hands clasped in the clearing between the trees. Her personal guardswoman cleared her throat and finally whispered, "Queen Gabrielle. We're here."
"Oh." She snapped out of her daydream quickly and joined the others on the ground. A moment later she clasped her own hands, Amazons descended the trees and tossed their masks aside. Ephiny embraced her first.
"Gabrielle, my Queen."
"Ephiny." Gabrielle pulled her into a long hug. "It is so good to see you."
"I hope you're ready for a huge celebration. The Initiates will cross over this evening and there are a few things you need to know to prepare for that ceremony. We don't have time to waste."
"All right. I thought we were right on schedule?"
"You are, but there's still a lot to do." To Eponin, "Let's move on out. We need to get back to the Nation quickly."
"Gabrielle, I'll ride with you. Xena, do you want to ride Argo in?"
"Sure." Xena *wanted* to hear more of the story. She hated to be left hanging.
Ephiny climbed into the carriage. "C'mon Gabrielle."
Gabrielle reached out for Ephiny's outstretched arm and was just about to pull herself up when Xena tugged at the other arm.
The Queen turned to face her champion. "Yes, Xena?"
"What was Alcestas going to ask and why were you holding your breath?"
The young woman dressed in the finest of fabrics and most expensive jewels, sucked in her lips, narrowed her eyes and anyone could see that she was making a heavy decision. Finally, she answered, just above a whisper. "She wanted to know if we could kiss." She paused, knowing that she was about to expose herself in a way she hadn't planned. "Again." She glanced down at the mud caked into the corners of the carriage. She wanted to look anywhere, but at Xena. "I was hoping that's what she was going to ask, and she did."
Gabrielle couldn't face Xena. It was out there now, hanging over their heads. She placed her hand around Ephiny's forearm and pulled herself into the carriage. Xena stood next to the vehicle, mouth agape. She had not expected to hear that.
While lowering her mask from the top of her head to cover her face, Ephiny said, "the Initiates will be roaming around the village. You'll need to stay masked."
On the floor of the carriage was the mask of the Queen of the Amazons. Gabrielle leaned forward, picked it up and covered her face, just in time to hide the few tears that were beginning to fall.
She nodded occasionally as Ephiny rambled on, though she wasn't listening. Her eyes were glued on Xena until the procession passed, then her thoughts returned to Alcestas.
"If you want, we could practice the kissing thing again? You know to help you with Perdicas."
It had started a quarter moon earlier, Gabrielle recalled. Alcestas had broached the idea in a similar fashion, to help her friend prepare for her future husband. They had laughed hysterically about it after the short kiss had ended. Neither had opened their mouths nor even moved their lips. They had just pressed lips against the other, then stopped.
Then it happened again the next day, outside of Hestia's temple. Alcestas was pretending to be Perdicas and had wrapped her arm around Gabrielle's shoulders.
"Gabrielle thank you for being my long-suffering, dedicated wife. Thank you for providing such a wonderful home for me, your handsome and dull husband," Alcestas said in a deep, manly voice.
"Oh, sweetheart. How could I not want only the best for you? You make me so happy. You're my dream come true," Gabrielle had responded in a shrill, overly sweet voice.
"Then kiss me, darling."
Alcestas turned Gabrielle in her arms and kissed her lightly on each cheek, then moved to her lips. The two young women tenderly pecked at each other than burst into laughter.
Gabrielle felt light-headed. She liked kissing Alcestas. Her lips were soft and sweet. She wondered why she didn't feel the same for Perdicas. That evening she constructed situations that would result in more kissing. She valued her friendship with Alcestas and didn't want her natural curiosity to be construed as something else. But if it *was* just curiosity, why couldn't she stop thinking about it?
A full quarter moon had passed before the opportunity arose for them to be alone again. The two women had picnicked just a few feet away on that same clearing. It was the day after another celebration of her upcoming marriage. Alcestas sensed that it was all beginning to sink in and Gabrielle finally confessed that she was worried.
"What if I can't please him? I won't be able to fake it with him." Gabrielle sat on the blanket wringing her hands. Alcestas sat cross-legged inches in front of her.
"Gab, just having you there will be enough for Perdicas. Trust me. I've known the guy forever. He's crazy about you."
"I can't do it. I've kissed *you* more than I've kissed him. I mean, I can't even worry about that other stuff, cause I'm not sure about the easy stuff."
"Gabrielle, I'll show you how to *really* kiss. That's what friends are for." Alcestas smiled at her and took Gabrielle's hands in hers. "It's going to be fine." She kissed her friend's hands and then held them tightly. "Really."
Gabrielle had hoped for this moment. She stared at their entwined hands, then slowly raised her head to look candidly into her friend's eyes. "I believe you."
Alcestas dropped Gabrielle's hands and gently caressed her friend's face. She scooted around so that they sat side by side, put her arm around her shoulders and pulled her toward her. Once again, their lips pressed together, but this time, Gabrielle felt herself warm all over. Alcestas increased the pressure against Gabrielle's lips. Gabrielle wanted to reach out to touch her hair, to run her hands down the other woman's back, to kiss her deeper, but she was terrified. Instead, she squeezed Alcestas upper arms until she was sure she would bruise them, but she didn't dare let go. She didn't trust herself or her hands to let go. Moments passed.
"Well, that was good." Alcestas said, breaking away from her dear friend.
Gabrielle blushed and laughed.
"It was good, but you're going to have to be more . . . I don't know . . . I can't tell if you liked it."
Gabrielle's voice quivered. "I liked it."
"Okay, maybe we'll try it again sometime."
"I need all the help I can get." Gabrielle said then.
Even as Gabrielle sat quietly beside Ephiny, remembering an old friend, she was anxious and took several deep breaths trying to calm herself. She wondered what Xena must be thinking about her. The warrior could be utterly disgusted by her. She couldn't believe she had admitted to kissing and wanting to kiss another woman. Sure, she was an Amazon and women together was part of everyday living at the village, but she and Xena shared the road. What if this confession changed that? Hadn't the subsequent actions changed her that day, so long ago?
"I need all the help I can get." She had said that to Alcestas days earlier, and that day she said it again.
Alcestas closed the gap between the two of them. She sat up and bent to kiss Gabrielle who still lay reclined on the ground. Just as before, she kissed her cheek, then her lips. She pressed hers against Gabrielle's and waited. Gabrielle lay still beneath her, unable to move. Alcestas lifted her head and her hazel eyes warmed Gabrielle's very soul. "Remember, you should let me know if you like."
She bent and kissed her again, then waited. Finally, Gabrielle lifted her stiff arm from her side and placed it on Alcestas' back. She was rewarded with soft lips pressed harder against hers. Gabrielle moved her hand up her friend's back and placed them in the silky white-blonde hair. This time, Alcestas parted her lips and touched Gabrielle's with her tongue. This slight touch caused Gabrielle eyes to flutter, then close. Alcestas pried Gabrielle's lips apart with her tongue and for the first time in Gabrielle's life her own tongue caressed another's. Her other arm came around and pulled Alcestas into her for a strong, loving hug as Alcestas soft tongue danced and swirled in her mouth.
"Mmm." Gabrielle moaned into their mouths. Nothing had ever felt quite like this. Alcestas caressed Gabrielle's shoulders, ran her fingers through Gabrielle's reddish-blonde hair. Gabrielle's tongue reached out to capture as much of her friend's mouth as possible. She heard Alcestas sigh.
Alcestas' hand lowered and she gently and swiftly grazed the outside of Gabrielle's breast through her blue peasant top. For Gabrielle, it was a glorious feeling. Her heart pounded in her chest. She felt alive for the first time and prayed to the gods that her friend would continue the lesson.
Suddenly, Alcestas stopped. She moved back and looked into Gabrielle's green eyes that had teared with an overwhelming sense of their deep friendship. Alcestas dropped onto her back and took a deep breath. They lay on the grass taking in big gulps of air like two thirsty children. Gabrielle turned to Alcestas with a broad grin plastered to her face.
"I think we'd better get back. It's getting late. They're going to come looking for us." Alcestas said, while staring up at the sky, completely missing the joy on Gabrielle's face.
"Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Gab." Alcestas was unconvincing.
"It was no big deal, right? You were helping me. We were just being stupid."
"No, big deal." Alcestas stood. "Let's pack up, 'kay?"
Drums beat out the arrival of the Queen and the Queen's Regent. The procession entered the village, moving slowly between two rows of drummers and dancers. Those Amazons not performing, lowered their bodies in a sign of respect, bowing to their most revered one. They rose in unison and crossed bows and arrows over their chests in honor of Queen Gabrielle.
Again, the Queen of the Amazons was helped from the carriage. It was difficult to move in a royal fashion when the heavy headdress and mask she wore weighed her down, but she noticed all Amazons were so disguised. Only the Initiates and their mentor moved throughout the village unmasked.
"Yes, they're finishing up a lesson." Ephiny said, watching the Initiates each receive instruction from their teacher, nod and walk toward the hut they had been assigned.
Gabrielle's eyes moved in closer, looking through her mask at each Initiate. The woman with white-blonde hair spoke with the teacher who nodded repeatedly, then patted her on the shoulder. The Queen watched the woman. What had Xena called her? Maidia? Maidia maneuvered around a group of children with grace and quick reflexes, and casually walked toward the hut. At the door, Maidia stopped and looked in Gabrielle's direction. The Queen gasped.
"What is it?" Ephiny caught Gabrielle just as she was dropping in slow motion to the ground.
"Who is she?" she whispered as she clung to Ephiny.
"Do you know her?"
"She looks just like an old friend of Gabrielle's from Poteidaia." Xena took hold of Gabrielle's other arm and helped her steady herself. The warrior, from across the clearing had seen her best friend sliding from a standing position and ran to her aid. "Are you all right?"
"Yes. No. She looks so much like Alcestas. They could be twins."
"Well, it's not as if that doesn't happen. Look at me and Princess Diana or Meg."
"Yeah, I suppose. It's uncanny."
"Gabrielle, maybe you should rest after your journey. We'll meet briefly to discuss the ceremony."
"Don't worry, Eph, I know what I'm supposed to do. You don't have to guide me anymore." She patted her best Amazon friend's hand.
Xena slowly helped a weakened Gabrielle across the village's center and into the Queen's hut.
"You need to take it easy, Gabrielle."
"I just never expected to see someone who . . . It's hard to explain."
Once Xena had settled Gabrielle in her bed and helped her sip from a cup of water, she leaned against the wall and watched her best friend. She was worried, but not just worry about Gabrielle's physical health, but the meaning behind Gabrielle's response. Obviously, just this reminder of her friend still caused Gabrielle to have strong reactions. Gabrielle never becomes faint when she looks my way. There was so much that Xena hadn't heard and the warrior, in spite of how it might hurt her, wanted to hear it. She stared at the Queen stretched out in the bed.
"Do you feel up to telling me about her? Alcestas, not Maidia."
"No, not yet."
But sleep didn't come easily to Gabrielle, not with the noisy preparations for the night's ceremony and just as Gabrielle would start to drift off, she thought of Alcestas, then Xena.
"Gabrielle?" Xena stood over the bed and gave Gabrielle's shoulder a shove. "Gabrielle? You're not sleeping."
"What is it, Xena?" She turned to face the warrior. Why couldn't Xena leave me alone about this? I can't lose her.
"Look, you've got a lot on your mind. It might help to talk it out. You can tell me."
"I'm your friend."
Her friend? I guess that's all I'll ever be. She sat up. "Please don't judge me if I do this? All right?"
"I'm hardly one to judge."
"I don't want you to attach any meaning to it other than a story. It's just something that happened."
Gabrielle crossed her legs on the bed and waited for Xena to settle down next to her before beginning. "Well, we did kiss. We had kissed before, but it was so innocent. I could have kissed my sister or my mom like that. Well, maybe not." She smiled. "It was close to innocent, let me put it that way. But that day, the day I was telling you about, we kissed more and I really, really liked it. She did too and I think we each felt strange about that. We were friends. This shouldn't have been happening." Gabrielle cast a quick glance at Xena from the corner of her eye and saw the warrior looking straight ahead with an expression that revealed nothing.
Friends, she thought. It shouldn't have happened between friends. Xena nodded, understanding more than she wanted. Gabrielle believes that intimacies should not occur between friends.
"Alcestas practically ran away from me that day and then I didn't see her for days. I went by her parents' house, but she was too sick to come out one day, too busy doing chores another. She was obviously avoiding me. I was furious. I was very angry with myself, with the game we had played. I was angry with her because of her reaction. I had told Alcestas stories about the Amazons and how two women sometimes lived together as one. I was sure that she thought I was some weird, mythical Amazon."
"Little did you know about the Amazons, huh?"
"I had lost the only good thing about my life in Poteidaia. I felt . . . " Gabrielle shook her head trying to call up all of those feelings. "Like an outcast. I wanted to disappear. Instead, I was preparing for another engagement party."
"Oh, Gabrielle." Xena knew how it felt to be an outcast. She knew better than Gabrielle could ever imagine. She wanted to throw her arm around the bard's shoulder, draw her in to comfort her, but decided it best to keep her distance. She listened as Gabrielle continued the story.
Perdicas' cousins were visiting the village and her family would be entertaining her soon to be cousins-in-law for the evening. It was the last thing she wanted to do. While Hecuba and Lila prepared the night's meal, Gabrielle stowed away in the room she shared with her sister. She couldn't bear another party, another set of well wishes from friends and family. Gabrielle couldn't remember a time when she was more miserable.
Hecuba wiped her floured hands on the bottom of her skirt as she entered the room. Seeing her daughter lying on her stomach, hugging her pillow, sprawled across the bed, tugged at her heart. This was a scene she would miss when Gabrielle left. She was certain her daughter was cooking up another story, letting her imagination run wild.
"Gabrielle? You should bathe and do your hair up for tonight. You'll want to look especially pretty."
Gabrielle turned to face her mom and Hecuba saw for the first time that Gabrielle had been crying.
"What is it? What's wrong, Gabrielle?"
"I don't want to marry."
Hecuba sat on the bed and rubbed her eldest's back. "Gabrielle, sometimes we have to do things we don't think we can. It's part of growing up. Perdicas is a good man and he'll be a good husband and one day . . . " she chuckled, then continued, "a good father to many beautiful children."
"But why me? Why now? Why can't I decide whom I want to spend the rest of my life with?"
"You know honey, many boys have come by to discuss you with your father. They know you're a good catch. Your father chose someone who would also be a good catch. He wants what's best for you. Look, maybe we should have had this talk long ago."
Gabrielle sat up and her mother took her hand.
"Honey, I didn't love your father. He was far too blunt for me, ill-tempered and demanding. I remember telling my friends that I hoped it would be anyone other than Herodotus, then my father made the announcement. Suddenly he was my betrothed and I wanted to throw myself in front of a wagon. What kind of husband would he be? Your grandparents told me he'd be a good provider and I'd eventually learn to love him."
For as long as Gabrielle could remember her parents had always presented a united front. Hecuba never disagreed with him, never spoke back. She was loyal, even when Herodotus was mean and cold.
"But you love him now?"
"I. . . respect him and care deeply for him. He loves you and Lila. I know he doesn't say it, Gabrielle, but he's so proud that you're one of the few women in town who can read and write." Hecuba shook her head. "Perdicas is of good humor. He'd walk through fire for you. What about him makes you so unhappy?"
"He's not the one, mom. He's not *the one*. I don't love him."
"Do you love someone else?"
Once again, at a crucial point in the story, Gabrielle was interrupted. Those Amazons have the worst timing in the known world, Xena thought. The Queen's entourage entered with barely a pause after their knock. Ephiny, as usual headed up the team.
Never had she believed her friend had been in love with Perdicas, but Alcestas, well, that was possible. Certainly, the feelings were there.
"Gabrielle, while you're getting prepared, I thought we might go over what you'll be doing."
Quickly, two Amazons began to undress Gabrielle while others poured countless buckets of water into the tub placed discreetly behind a wooden screen. She turned to see Xena looking lost in the chaos, but she also saw something else, maybe disapproval. Yes, it was disapproval. She lowered her eyes as she shimmied out of her skirt and when she looked up again, Xena was gone.
The warrior somehow found herself standing at the door of the Initiates' hut, her mind muddied with a million thoughts. It was part of her mission to make things right, seek redemption for past misdeeds and setting things right would have to include bringing Alcestas and Gabrielle together again. Gabrielle's reaction to Maidia was strong and now Xena had to know.
Xena cursed the gods and her own bad luck. It makes perfect sense, the gods dropped Gabrielle at my feet. Which one was responsible or had they worked together against me? I let Gabrielle into my life, thinking that she'd tire of me or fear my darkness and go back home. But Gabrielle hadn't, and the nuisance became a friend, the friend became a best friend, and then I fell in love. At least I fooled the gods, I never told Gabrielle. So, I fell in love with her, but no one was the wiser, especially Gabrielle. I'll get over her. She wasn't convinced.
Xena knocked and waited.
"I need to talk to Maidia," she informed the woman who had answered.
"Yes. Just a moment."
Seconds later, Maidia appeared in the door frame. "Hi. You asked for me?"
"Look, this is gonna sound like a strange question, but did you once walk with a limp?"
Unconsciously, Maidia ran a hand down her right thigh and shifted her weight to her left leg. She wondered what the question could possibly be about. "A limp?"
"Your right leg." Xena said in confirmation, drawing her lips into her mouth, staring at the hand that remained on Maidia's thigh.
"Yes. How did you know? When I first came to this village, just before I began my training, the healer re-set it. She had to break it again, but it's like new now."
The answer made Xena's mission easier, but it broke her heart just the same. It was a struggle to get the next question out and it was asked in a whisper. "And your given name is Alcestas?"
The Initiate tilted her head in question. This was all quite strange. "Yes. How did you know that? Have we met before? I've traveled a lot. I've been on the road for over two summers. I would have thought I'd remember someone like you." She smiled warmly, almost flirtatiously at Xena.
"Can you step out here? We need to talk."
"I'm still getting ready for tonight, but if it's important . . . "
Maidia stepped out of the hut, closing the door behind her. She and Xena walked toward an open field away from the center of the village.
"What is it?"
"It's about your Queen."
Of course, Maidia assumed that she would be placed on a special royal guard duty or was being singled out to perform a particular act for the Queen. Xena was being nothing short of mysterious, walking them farther and farther into the field. "Hey, what's this about?"
"The Queen, I just told you that."
The warrior was going to hold onto the bard for as long as she could, to cherish the last few moments of their friendship. Xena knew everything was about to change. If Maidia felt the same way Gabrielle obviously did, they would probably be joined within the next few moons. Xena would be alone on the road once again, without Gabrielle, without her guide, friend and the only person she had ever truly loved and been in love with. Everything was about to come to an end for her and so she prolonged the inevitable.
"I have to prepare for the ceremony. Xena?"
"Your Queen . . . " the words caught in her throat. "Your Queen is Gabrielle of Poteidaia."
And the same swoon that overtook Gabrielle earlier in the day, now brought Maidia to her knees. "Gab . . . Gabrielle?" she whispered, while pulling herself up with Xena's help.
"Yes. She's told me about you, about the two of you." Xena was glad for the darkness because her eyes were tearing more than she would have anticipated.
"Gabrielle? The Amazon Queen? But I thought she was still in Poteidaia. Married to Perdicas. What happened?"
Xena turned to face the young woman. She now had more information. Alcestas left Poteidaia first. After Gabrielle became engaged and prior to the bard joining the warrior on the road. This girl left first! No wonder Gabrielle wanted out of her village. She wanted to find her. "I think that's for Gabrielle to tell you.
As Gabrielle was bathed, then dressed, her duties as Queen barely entered her thoughts. It was of an evening almost three winters ago.
The cousins droned on and on, while Gabrielle smiled, laughed at their jokes, asked about their village, spoke of the government in Athens. She told a few stories, yet the evening would not come to a graceful end. Perdicas' oldest cousin requested another toast and mugs were lifted again. Thank the gods she was drinking only cider.
"To Perdicas and Gabr'elle. May your marriage be long and happy."
"To Perdicas and Gabrielle," the other families said in unison and drank.
"Perdicas, you've got a beautiful woman, there."
"Thank you. She is quite beautiful." Perdicas just beamed. He glowed with love and admiration for his soon-to-be wife. Gabrielle smiled weakly. "She's beautiful and smart and you know what else? She has the gift of prophecy."
"Ha-ha. The gift of prophecy. Just like you, my dear," the cousin said to his wife who sat quietly at a corner table. "Honey, what do you see in their future? What do you see in Gabr'elle's future?"
His wife stared at the young woman for several moments. She whispered, "I see a tall, dark, stranger."
The room hushed at this pronouncement, then Perdicas laughed nervously. He reached out for Gabrielle, placing a possessive arm around her shoulders. "Well, not a stranger. Right, Gabrielle? Not a stranger." Gabrielle nodded, locking eyes with the quiet woman in the corner.
"Give us a kiss. Give us a kiss," the younger, drunk cousin slurred. "C'mon Perdy and Gabby give us a kiss."
Soon the entire room, Perdicas' family, Gabrielle's parents and sister and the five visiting cousins were shouting at the couple. "Give us a kiss. Give us a kiss."
Perdicas shrugged and beamed again at his betrothed. "We've got to give them what they want." He drew Gabrielle into an embrace and kissed her meekly on the lips. Immediately, Gabrielle pulled away, lowering her head in embarrassment and hiding her anger.
The drummers had been performing all day and evening, but now the beat changed and Gabrielle knew that it was time for her appearance. The door to the Queen's hut opened and the Queen of the Amazons stood in all of her royal glory. Xena had only seen her dressed in ceremonial attire a couple of times and now, as before, she found her best friend breathtaking. Xena and the Amazons stood with mouths agape, watching the Queen's procession descend from her hut, enter the center of the village and move to the stage where Xena, as champion and three guards stood waiting. Gabrielle seemed to glide up the stairs and onto the stage and the warrior couldn't control the ear-to-ear grin that appeared on her face.
Gabrielle nodded a thank you to her entourage and waited as the Amazons settled into their places.
Xena was overcome. "You look so beautiful," she whispered very close to Gabrielle's ear. So close that it caused the Queen to shiver with an arousal she normally kept well hidden.
"Thank you. You do, too."
"I'm dressed in my usual leathers."
"You always look beautiful in them."
Xena's face warmed considerably.
The drumming slowly faded out and the Initiates were introduced as a group. One of them shouted, "A Tribute to Our Queen. A Reenactment of the Fight For Leadership."
For the next hour Gabrielle sat on her Amazon throne and watched as the women retold the story of Velasca's royal claim and the fight for ambrosia. There were times when Gabrielle was relieved to feel Xena's warm hand on her shoulder, giving it a squeeze of comfort. The Queen suspected that those horrible days being portrayed so realistically would be forever etched in her memory, raw and real, frightening and alarming. She realized the Initiates wanted to honor her, but she would have been happier if they had chosen another tale.
The Amazon audience applauded and many nodded their heads in remembrance of the events still fresh in their minds. Some Amazons were still healing from the wounds suffered, others were attempting to reestablish friendships that had been severed when Amazons chose sides.
Finally, Gabrielle was on. She intended to bring drama and passion to a common, traditional ceremony. This was her first "crossing over" ceremony and it would be remembered.
"Initiates! You come to this village today well trained in the ways of the Amazon." Her voice rang out clear and strong. "You come to this village today to receive the greatest of gifts from a tribe of women who will become your family, your friends, perhaps your mates. This gift is your sense of purpose, your sense of belonging, and your future. As your Queen I am here to bestow upon each of you a special virtue that you must maintain with honesty, commitment, and dedication. Together, these virtues create your destinies, combined with your Amazon sisters throughout the world, these virtues make up the destiny of our Nation. This is a heavy responsibility, for an inability to protect your special virtue weakens the Nation. The strength of the Amazon Nation depends on the strength of each of you individually, the nine of you collectively, the entire tribe of women standing here today, the women in our thoughts who are not nearby, and those who will come after you." Gabrielle's voice boomed through her mask. Her many hours of practice had paid off.
"Are you ready to accept your virtues?"
"Yes, we are Queen of the Amazons," the masked Initiates said in unison.
"Please form your Initiate line and would each of you join me on the stage."
One by one, the Initiates ascended the stairs and knelt in front of the Queen.
Ephiny stood beside Gabrielle and holding a scroll said the first name. "Dara."
The first Initiate lifted her mask and stared up at her Queen. "Dara, your virtue is that of Humility. Do you accept this as your Amazon-given role to always fulfill?"
"I do my Queen."
"Lead your sisters down this path following a victory in battle. For you must never treat a hard-earned fight as your right. Honor our Goddess Artemis at all times."
The second in line, removed her mask and held it at her side while gazing up at Gabrielle. "Galia, your virtue is that of Honesty and Trustworthiness. Do you accept this as your Amazon-given role to always fulfill?"
"I do my Queen."
"Always turn to this virtue in times of negotiation. Be known as an Amazon who is fair and just, an Amazon who does what's best for her Nation. Resolve conflict knowing that Artemis, our Goddess is there to hold you when you falter."
This part of the ceremony was going smoothly. Gabrielle knew what she was doing, and did it with ease and charm. Ephiny speculated that for once the ceremony wouldn't go over two hours--a first for the village. She had predicted this just before the fourth Initiate joined them on the stage.
Slowly, the white-blonde woman slid her mask up to rest on top of her head. "Maidia, your virtue is . . . your vir . . . " Behind her mask, Gabrielle blinked several times.
'By the Gods, this was Alcestas. I can't be wrong.'
"Gabrielle?" Maidia whispered.
Ephiny cleared her throat showing various levels of displeasure.
Time stopped. Xena's jaws clenched, fingers bent inward in fists.
Somehow, who knows how, the ceremony continued. The Queen made it through all nine Initiates with many false starts, forgotten words, long pauses and a quivering voice. Gabrielle's eyes seldom left Maidia/Alcestas even as she bestowed virtue after virtue upon the new members of her Tribe. The nine new Amazons represented Humility, Honesty, Self-Discipline, Faith, Loyalty, Respect, Prudence, Compassion and Perseverance. The latter was the virtue that had been stammered out to Maidia.
Xena was certain she might collapse on stage from an inability to breathe. A knot had formed deep in her throat and her air passages were virtually closed. It was sheer willpower that allowed her to remain on stage, playing her role as champion.
As dusk faded into night, the end of the ceremony was received with cheers, applause and well wishes for the nine novice Amazons and the entire Nation. Gabrielle elegantly descended the stage in royal fashion. When she hit the ground, she tossed her mask aside, and ran like the young, child-woman she was two summers ago to the group of new Amazons. The circle parted and Gabrielle and Alcestas stood, face to face at last.
"By the gods."
"Gab. Oh, Gab."
The two hugged for a long time and finally their upper bodies separated and they held each other around their waists, gazing into each other's eyes.
Ephiny walked down the stairs from the stage and stood next to Xena who had suddenly lost all ability to move.
"You all right?"
As Gabrielle led Alcestas to the Queen's hut, Amazons struck the stage, disassembling the planks and beams while others moved long benches to the center of the village for the evening party. It was a warm night, so dinner would be served outside as well.
Xena closed her eyes and thought, 'See how I'm forgotten? She didn't even look my way. Okay, so I've done my thing, She wanted to find this woman and I was just a means to an end. Fine, fine, fine.'
The warrior hung around the village for some time, somehow getting in the way of the Amazon carpenters, cooks, and everyone else. Woman after woman bumped into her and quickly followed up with a polite "excuse me." It was as if she were invisible. She certainly didn't feel like she belonged there anymore. Finally, she simply rested against a hut, a hut that directly faced the Queen's dwelling.
She stood there, staring at the door and window where behind them were Gabrielle, the woman she loved with all her heart, and Alcestas, the woman Gabrielle loved. It was dark and though it was a star-filled night, to Xena, the sky seemed all black. The festive sounds of drum beats and lyres being strummed seemed dull. Instead of being just a few paces away, the music sounded faint, belonging to a village far from the Amazon Nation. The smell of baking bread and roasted pork which were usually so aromatic never penetrated Xena's nostrils. Everything seemed bleak, paler, dim--everything but the candle glowing brightly in the Queen's hut. Xena wanted to leave, but she was mesmerized. 'What was going on in there?'
"Trying to set Gabrielle's hut on fire?"
"The way you're looking, you could set a blaze."
"Do you want to talk about it?" Ephiny waited for a response, but received none. "So Gabrielle knows her? I don't see how that has any affect on what you two have."
"Gabrielle cares for you. She's just visiting an old friend."
Xena pulled her eyes from the hut and turned to Ephiny. "She's more than a friend. She's her former lover."
Ephiny nodded sympathetically and it was now her turn to stare at the hut. Xena joined in the look and just as she did, she saw the candle being snuffed out and the hut went black.
While Xena was becoming increasingly lost in her fantasy about what was going on in the Queen's hut, Gabrielle and Alcestas visited inside. They talked about old times, where they had been and the adventures each had experienced. Gabrielle had walked in the shadow of a great warrior. She had, of course become not only an Amazon, but also Amazon royalty not long after leaving her village. She had seen things she couldn't have dreamed. Alcestas on the other hand had been on the run, always trying to stay a few paces ahead of slavers, rapists, and bandits. She had worked in kitchens, taverns, and a fisherman's boat, often performing back-breaking tasks for a meal. She stayed hungry because there had been many days she had gone without. With that information, Gabrielle stuck her head out and requested a tray of food be brought to the hut immediately.
As they sat and ate, Alcestas continued her tale of how she had roamed Greece looking for a place to call home. She knew she had the option of returning to Poteidaia, but what was the point. "I just couldn't. Not with you marrying Perdicas. To be without you and to see you unhappy would have destroyed me. You ended up marrying him anyway. Why?"
"For all the wrong reasons. I kept looking for an escape. I thought he needed me."
"An escape? From whom? Xena? Has she hurt you?"
"No, no. Never. She's very protective, very good to me. I was still so unsure what I wanted or how to go about getting it. I thought Perdicas was the answer. I now know he wasn't. I've found the answer, I think." Her last sentence was said almost to herself.
Alcestas smiled broadly. "Really? Me, too." She looked down at the tray of food and picked over it with her finger, while thinking. "I was lost until I met an Amazon. She asked me what my name was and I told her she could call me whatever she wanted, they were her dinars. She liked the name Maidia."
"What? Her dinars?"
"I had to live. I only did it with women, I swear. And that Amazon and I became close. She's a friend."
"You sold your body for dinars?"
"Sometimes dinars, sometimes for supper, or clothes, or even just so I'd have a place to sleep and be out of the rain and snow."
Gabrielle was in shock. "My gods." Gabrielle stood and began to pace.
Alcestas lowered her head in shame, then raised it in false pride. "I had to survive, Gab. There aren't many ways a woman can out there. I didn't have a protector like Xena nor did I want to be her. Sure, I'm strong enough, but I didn't want every day to be a battle with a sword or staff." She stood as well and trailed behind Gabrielle trying to explain. "The first time I did it, the woman was so nice. It almost seemed like a date. I was hungry and tired, so she fed me, then led me to her room in this small inn. I was planning to sleep, but that wasn't what was on her mind. The next morning, she was gone and on the table next to the bed, a stack of dinars and a good luck token. It was obviously meant for me. It was that easy."
Gabrielle turned and faced her. "That easy? Alcestas, I thought . . ."
The new Amazon touched her old friend's hand. "Yes, it was easy, yet it was the hardest thing I could do. I've been with a lot of women Gab, but my heart has always belonged to only one."
The Queen turned away, she knew where this was heading, but Alcestas reached out and swung her around to look into her eyes. "I never stopped loving you, wanting you. A few times I would imagine that I was with you, when I was with those women, but it felt wrong. So I learned to empty my head of all thoughts. And it was when I was alone, fishing or eating wildberries, or dreaming that I thought of you."
With those warm hazel eyes gazing into hers, Gabrielle felt time slipping away. As much as she loved her life with Xena, she had a physical longing that jumped to the surface when she looked at Alcestas. Perhaps, it was just the memory.
Hecuba was worried about her daughter. Gabrielle had always had a more than healthy appetite, but she wouldn't eat. Normally, she talked incessantly, but now had no voice. She moped around in the barn, was methodical with her chores instead of her usual 'hurry up and get it done' attitude. At the butcher, Hecuba had run into Alcestas and begged her to come by the house to see her friend. Whatever was going on with Gabrielle, Alcestas could help.
Apollo's chariot had crossed the sky and it was well into evening when Alcestas finally arrived at the house. Hecuba practically pulled her into her home and hugged her tightly.
"I'm so glad you could come over. Gabrielle needs her friends."
"Sure. No problem."
"I've made plans to work on a wedding quilt with Perdicas' mother. I'm on my way over. Gabrielle's father is at the tavern and I don't expect him home until late. Lila is staying over at Seraphin's tonight, so you're welcome to stay here. If your father won't mind? I'd like to have someone with Gabrielle."
"No, he won't mind. I can stay."
She's in her room. Just go on in."
Gabrielle was in her all too common position on the bed--on her stomach, face buried in the pillow. Her body, drained of tears for she had cried all evening.
"Hi, Gab," Alcestas said as she opened the door. Gabrielle turned to the door and her face lit up at the presence of her friend. She scrambled into a sitting position, then stood.
"I wasn't sure you wanted to see me again."
"You've got to be kidding?"
Alcestas walked into the room, looking around as if she'd never seen it before. For some reason, she was finding it difficult to make eye contact with her friend.
"I hear Lila's at Seraphin's."
"Oh, probably. Ever since I became betrothed, Lila's been taking applications for a new sister. She and Seraphin are pretty much inseparable. I think Lila likes her because she can boss her around. If Lila tells her to jump, which Lila probably has by now, Seraphin will ask how high."
That was the ice-breaker they needed. They were no longer freezing each other out, but there was still this invisible wall to break through. The friends moved closer, standing awkwardly in the room, exchanging pleasantries.
"How are you? What have you been doing?"
"Not much. What about you?"
"Still getting married. Preparing for that."
Alcestas nodded. "I heard, you know, the other night. You had a rowdy bunch here."
"Perdicas' relatives were bloody drunk."
"I think the whole village heard them yelling, 'give us a kiss.'" she said like a jovial drunk, then turned bright red.
"Hmm. That was fun." Sarcasm dripped from Gabrielle.
"No. It was annoying."
"Did you?" She paused before continuing. "Kiss?"
"We had to. They wouldn't drop it until we did."
"What'd you think?"
Gabrielle inhaled deeply and moved a step closer to her friend. "That the kiss couldn't compare to one of yours," she said softly.
Alcestas closed the gap between them and took Gabrielle in her arms. Instantly they both knew that this kiss would be different from the others they'd shared. There was a sense of urgency about it. The desire had been building for both of them. Gabrielle had spent days replaying the last kiss on the hill. It was the only thing that got her through her days.
It was Gabrielle's tongue that ventured out and into Alcestas' mouth first. She pressed Alcestas' short, muscular body into hers. Her hands moved across her friend's face, slid down her back, moving down until one hand rested on her lower back. She did what came naturally, tried to swallow Alcestas. Gabrielle broke away long enough to catch her breath and move them across the room and onto her bed.
Alcestas lowered Gabrielle onto the bed and then stretched out on top of her. Their kisses continued and Alcestas hands seemed to be everywhere--in Gabrielle's hair, on her face, tickling her throat. Wherever Alcestas' hand went, her lips soon followed. She licked Gabrielle's neck, kissed her collarbone, stretched the blue material of her top to sprinkle kisses on her chest. Gabrielle panted. The two young women hadn't a clue as to what to do nor how to do it, so they did what they had seen before. Kissing, kissing and more kissing. Dusk had turned to night and the two kissed as if they had not only invented it, but were trying to perfect it.
Gabrielle could feel her body respond as it had the last time, but now there was more. Her hips were moving in a way that was new to her. They were pushing into Alcestas. She also felt something else. Between her legs, she was wet and that dampness was increasing with every nibble of her flesh, with every caress to her face.
"Stop," Gabrielle said between breaths.
"Did I do something?" Alcestas lifted her body off of Gabrielle's, stood and crossed over to the other bed.
"Yeah." Gabrielle smiled. She paused, then added, "I mean, no." Gabrielle sat up and faced her friend. "No, you didn't do anything. Alcestas, I'm all keyed up right now. I've got so much on my mind and I'm having all these feelings that I can't explain."
"I just need to step back and take a breath." Gabrielle stared at Alcestas with a warm smile and evident confusion.
"Maybe we should go to bed?"
Their knees practically touched as they sat in the dark trying to figure out what the other was saying. Gabrielle was trembling. "You want to go to bed?"
"If you do."
"Are you tired?"
"No. I'm confused. I just need to think."
Alcestas inhaled, then exhaled deeply. "Let's go to sleep." She pulled her legs up, then stretched out in Lila's bed. "We'll talk tomorrow. Goodnight."
"Goodnight." Gabrielle continued to sit, alternately staring into space and staring at her friend.
That night seemed like another lifetime, but all of those feelings raged and stormed through Alcestas' body. She pulled Gabrielle to her. "I've thought about that night every single day. I think about you always. I remember it all so vividly." She placed her hands on either side of Gabrielle's face and kissed her. It was one of those sweet, tender, innocent kisses, but Gabrielle wasn't fooled, she felt the hidden passion behind it, knew that Alcestas was waiting for the go-ahead.
Gabrielle broke away. "I. . . can't do this."
"Why? Because of my past?"
"No, of course not."
"Because you're my Queen? I'm your subject? The Queen can take a consort, a lover."
"It's not that."
"Please, Gab. I remember it all. You know, I heard you that night." Alcestas stared into the Queen's eyes, waiting for that comment to register.
Instantly, a flush spread across the Queen's body and her face reddened with the notion of an embarrassing moment. "You what?"
"I heard you pleasuring yourself. I wanted to reach out to you, but I was so scared. Instead I listened and I touched myself, too. I pretended it was you."
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