DISCLAIMER: None of the characters in this story are mine. They belong to Rob Tapert and Co., RenPics, Studios USA, MCA/Universal, and anyone else who has an investment in Xena: Warrior Princess. I am just borrowing them for use in this story.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Just because I can and because I want them here all the Amazons named in the show are alive and around the age they were seen as on the show... no twenty-five year age gaps. No real show timeline to follow here; this story just is. The Storyteller's Cardinal Rule is in effect.
THANKS: To Phil for the Pan idea and the links and lists I needed to write this. And to Steph for inviting me to play again.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To avaliantheart01[at]gmail.com
In a Time of Ancient Gods....
"Syrinx, love... be reasonable."
"Artemis, I love you dearly; you know that. But I cannot stay cooped up here on Olympus. I'm sorry," Syrinx added when a look of hurt crossed the goddess' features. "I know this is your home and it's a wonderful place for living indoors, but as a nymph, I'll die without the freedom to wander the woods that have always been home to me."
Artemis dropped her head. "I know, sweetheart. I'm sorry too. I don't want you to be unhappy, but I have a bad feeling about this."
Syrinx put her bow down and crossed the room until she could wrap Artemis in her arms. She smiled when Artemis returned the embrace fervently and tucked her face into Artemis' warm neck. Syrinx inhaled deeply and twitched her lips in pleasure, chuckling at the shiver that ran through Artemis' body at the sensation.
"You're teasing, Sy."
Syrinx kissed the spot she had been nuzzling into, then pulled away enough so she could look into golden brown eyes. She gave Artemis an impish smile. "Maybe a little," she agreed. "I just don't want you to forget about me while I am out hunting."
"Not a chance, lover. I have plans for us this evening." Syrinx leaned forward to steal a kiss, wrapping her arms around Artemis' neck when she deepened it. They separated a little breathless. "There," Artemis said with a smile. "Now you won't forget about me either."
"I love you," Syrinx said sincerely, picking up her bow once more and checking her quiver.
"I love you," Artemis replied with a smile. "Good hunting."
"See you shortly, love."
Pan frowned and glowered. The fact that the day was warm and beautiful escaped his notice; he was angry that Artemis had rejected his advances once again. Worse, all the forest nymphs were dismissing him as unworthy of their attention as well. He had spoken to several, and none had deigned to return his greetings. Then he caught sight of a most beautiful maiden nymph walking through the woods, bow drawn. He determined to have her, knowing her to be the favored companion of Artemis.
Syrinx took careful aim and pulled the bow back slowly, not wanting to alert her prey to her presence. But before she could release the arrow, Pan stepped into her line of vision, his lust clear in eyes and body. Syrinx released the arrow in his direction and turned to run before it hit. Pan lifted a hand to catch the small missile, then ran after her, calling out his desire for her.
Disgusted by his words, she ran faster, hoping to escape him before he caught her, but in her haste, Syrinx got turned around and saw the river instead. In desperation, she called on her sister water nymphs for help, and just as Pan's hands grazed her shoulders, the nymphs worked their magic and turned Syrinx into river reeds. Pan screamed his frustration to the heavens. Then the wind blew and flowed through the reeds, creating a plaintive, wistful melody.
In revenge, Pan picked the reeds and formed them into a series of pipes, binding them together and putting his lips to them with a feeling of intense satisfaction. If he couldn't have Artemis, at least he had her companion, and that meant she would be deprived as well. Perhaps the scarcity of love and companionship in her life would make Artemis more amenable to his charms, and in the meantime, he had music to make on his newly created instrument. There was more than one way to possess a woman.
Artemis returned from her visit with the Amazon priestess, fully expecting Syrinx to be waiting for her. What she found was silence and darkness and an emptiness that sent fear skittering throughout her body. She crossed to her scrying bowl, searching for her lover and falling to the floor when she saw her fate. Artemis slumped to the floor in tears. It was this way that Aphrodite found her some untold time later.
With a little effort, Dite and Athena managed to get Artemis off the floor and into her bed where she wrapped her body around Syrinx's pillow. They sat down on either side of their distressed sister and waited for her to explain.
"Art..." Dite said softly when she realized Artemis was still so upset she didn't even recognize their presence. She let her fingers stroke lightly through the dark brown hair, feeling Artemis gradually relax. "What's wrong, babe? What happened to put you in this grody state?"
It took a while the tears had given Artemis the hiccups, but gradually the story came out and Dite and Athena exchanged horrified glances. Aphrodite took a deep breath then spoke. "Artemis, I need you to pay attention to me now, 'kay? We can fix this," looking at Athena whose eyes widened comically before she nodded her agreement. It took a few minutes, but slowly Artemis rolled over to look Dite squarely in the eyes.
"How?" she asked despondently. "He has her, Dite," moving her head into Aphrodite's lap. "He's not going to give her back... especially to me."
"I didn't say it would be easy, Arty. But it can be done... we just need to find the right people to do it. You leave it to me, babe. We'll find them and get Syrinx back in your arms where she belongs."
A Land in Turmoil Cried Out For a Hero (or two)
"Gabriellllllle." Coming from anyone else, that sound would have been classified as a distinct whine, but since Warrior Princesses don't whine, it was more of a high-pitched drawl. The bard in question currently being drawled at just smiled indulgently and patted the ground in front of her.
"C'mon, Xena. I promise not to bite."
"Uh huh... you said that last night too and yet this morning I have the most interesting marks...." She smirked and stopped talking when the blood washed across Gabrielle's face at the reminder. "Not that I'm complaining," she added softly. "I love that side of you, Gabrielle, and I'm glad you trust me enough to share that with me," she said, watching the blush deepen exponentially. Xena wrapped her arms Gabrielle and smiled when she felt Gabrielle relax back into her body. Gabrielle buried her face in Xena's neck and inhaled greedily.
"I hate the need, Xena. I hate it! I hate the fact that I have it and I hate the fact that it consumes me like that sometimes."
"I don't," Xena broke into the tirade. She moved from behind Gabrielle to kneel at her feet, never losing tactile contact. "Gabrielle, I would never have chosen this path for you, but I can't pretend that I'm unhappy about parts of it either."
Gabrielle would have jerked away from Xena had the warrior not been holding on so tightly, but Xena knew her bard well, and she held on until she could explain. First, though....
"What parts could you possibly be happy about, Xena?? The part where the bloodlust overwhelms me? The part where I become an animal and lose control of who I am? The part where I take what I want from you???" Gabrielle's voice became a whisper on the last and her head dropped.
Xena cupped Gabrielle's face in her hands and lifted it gently until their eyes met. Green eyes filled with pain and humiliation closed when they met sympathetic blue ones. Xena brushed a kiss across Gabrielle's forehead. "Look at me, sweetheart." Gabrielle shook her head. "C'mon... lemme see those beautiful eyes." Xena waited patiently, and finally Gabrielle opened her tear-filled eyes. Xena kissed her again, this time on the lips, intent on showing Gabrielle the truth of her feelings. When she pulled away, it was just so she could lean their foreheads together, breathing one another's air.
"I want you to understand something, so we don't have to do this again, all right? 'Cause we both know how much I love sensitive chats." Xena waited for Gabrielle to nod slowly, her pain palpable and her need to be convinced clear. "Good, now," she said, leaning back and blowing out an anxious breath. "You have never, *never* taken anything from me I wasn't willing to give you."
"Gabrielle, do you really think you could overpower me if I didn't let you, even with the strength of a Bacchae?? We shared that bond, remember? My possession was not as strong as yours, but my strength is still greater. It's something I'm glad to consent to. Sweetheart, if I could take the blood lust away from you I would, because of how it makes you feel. But your aggression doesn't bother me I look at it as a sign of your trust and love that you allow that between us."
"You think I allow this??"
"I know you do, love because you know that what we share can support and sustain it. Frankly, the cost is worth it for the immortality it gave. Forever with you won't be long enough for me, all right?"
"All right," Gabrielle whispered after a long moment. She blew out a shuddering breath and gave Xena a tremulous smile. "Sorry," she said softly. "I don't know where that came from after all this time. But thank you."
Xena kissed her forehead again and shifted to sit beside Gabrielle. "For what?"
"Telling me all those things. 'Cause we both know how much you love sensitive chats," smirking in Xena's direction and squealing when long fingers poked her.
"Yeah, well... I'm sorry for teasing. It's never bothered you before... has it?"
"No. I mean, being a Bacchae has always bothered me; it always will. I hate what it does to me. But you teasing me? Absolutely not; I've always counted that as a rare privilege even with the practical jokes - because it is something only I get to see." Gabrielle blew out a frustrated breath. "I'm not sure what set me off tonight. Maybe it's the time of the moon or being back in Greece again or maybe I'm getting ready to cycle or something. It seems worse here."
"Well, we're only gonna be here long enough to say goodbye to the Amazons, and then we can go wherever you want as far away from here as we can manage." She paused and looked up through thick, dark lashes. "We all right now?" Xena asked wistfully.
Gabrielle smiled and leaned into Xena's neck again. "We're better than all right, although this doesn't mean you don't still need a trim. C'mon, the sooner I get done the sooner we can have dumplings."
Xena cut her eyes in Gabrielle's direction and glared at her. "That's not fair, ya know."
"I know... but it works."
It didn't take long and Gabrielle didn't bite, though she did threaten to twice until she realized Xena was baiting her to make a point. Once she was finished, however, she put things away while Xena served up their dumplings. Then Gabrielle took her seat between Xena's legs and they ate in comfortable silence.
When they were done eating, their bowls were set aside and Gabrielle leaned back comfortably into Xena's body. Xena wrapped her arms more firmly around Gabrielle's middle and let her fingers idly trace up and down the soft, bare skin. Gabrielle smiled and allowed her fingers to trail the length of Xena's legs she could reach and for a while, they simply basked in the warmth and contentment flowing between them. Then Gabrielle felt Xena stiffen perceptibly and tilt her head for a long second before relaxing once more.
"All right, show yourself," Xena called out, not shifting her position or ceasing her ministrations.
Pink sparkles made an appearance just before Aphrodite did, her face crinkled up in adorable smile when she spotted the two of them cuddled up together. "Ooh... you two are such a gnarly walking advertisement for well... ME! How rockin' is that??"
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged amused glances, but after the years they had spent together, they didn't feel the need to move.
"You need something?" Xena asked casually. Dite stuck her lip out petulantly.
"I haven't seen you guys in like... mega ages, and this is the bogus welcome I get?? How uncool is that?" She dropped to the ground uninvited and crossed her arms, pouting. Xena and Gabrielle exchanged smirks and waited. Dite huffed. "All right... I do radically need something, but it's so not for me. It's for Artemis."
"Artemis?" Gabrielle frowned. "What happened to her?"
So Aphrodite told them the story of Syrinx and what had happened between her, Pan and Artemis. When she reached the end of her story, she looked at them plaintively. "I know you guys don't like, owe any of us anything, all things considered, but I was totally hoping you might be willing to help out a gnarly goddess like Art. This has been such a major downer for her."
"Why us? And why now?" Xena asked sensibly. "Sounds like it's been going on for a while."
Dite nodded; they were fair questions. "Well, you because you have a totally unique understanding of what she is going through and you have a radical gift for dealing with recalcitrant gods. Now because..." she shrugged. "The timing is way right for this. You don't have anything left to prove to anyone not the gods or yourselves or each other. And she has suffered long enough."
"Wait... you wanted her to suffer?"
"No! That is so not true. But until now, no one has been in a position to help her, ya know? Pan is a clever god. He's got lots of followers on the mortal plane, but not many friends on Olympus. So he remains here where his power is like, focused. With the hex he put on the pipes, it's been impossible for us to get through. We've tried all of us but Artemis, actually." She nodded at their surprised looks. "Yeah, it was a major revelation for us too, but don't look a gift horse, right?"
Gabrielle and Xena traded confused looks, then Gabrielle shrugged and scratched her chin. "So what is it you want us to do, exactly?"
"Recover the pan flute. Once it is out of his hands, we can take care of the rest."
"What's the catch?" Xena asked cynically.
"I don't know if you can get the flute back and I don't know if the hex will work against you or not... since you're not exactly like, you know, mortals anymore." Dite immediately noticed the startled widening of two sets of eyes regarding her. "Oh," she waved her hands to reassure them. "It's not common knowledge. I just did some checking after, you know...." waving her hands again for emphasis.
Xena and Gabrielle studied one another then, their eyes meeting in wordless conversation while Aphrodite watching them with unabashed delight. Finally, they nodded at one another and turned back to Aphrodite.
"All right," Gabrielle said. "We'll do what we can. We're on our way to the Amazons for the harvest festival; we promised Melosa and Ephiny we'd be there. Maybe they can help," she added, shrugging. "They are Artemis' chosen people after all."
"Whatever," Dite said. "I'll leave you to it. Thanks, babes... you rock!!" Then she disappeared in a shower of pink rose petals. Xena blew off the one that was hanging on the edge of her nose while Gabrielle shook them from her hair.
"We're gonna regret this," Xena said, sliding down to curl around Gabrielle's hips, nipping lightly at her ribs. She chuckled when Gabrielle jumped and glared at her before shifting so that Xena was spooning behind her. Gabrielle twisted her head until she could see Xena's face.
"Oh, I don't know... I think it will make an interesting story."
Xena wrapped and arm around Gabrielle's stomach and kissed her temple before muttering wryly, "Yep... we are definitely going to regret this."
"Pony, what are you doing?"
Eponin looked up, a fierce frown of concentration on her face. "Making my costume... what does it look like?? Whose bright idea was it to make this a costume party anyway? Isn't it enough we dress in leather and feathers everyday?"
Ephiny could tell her lover was more than a little frustrated with the coming harvest party. She was never so verbose otherwise. She took the material from Eponin's hands and held it up, trying desperately to figure out what on earth it was supposed to be.
"Um... this is...."
"A nightmare. You don't even know what it's supposed to be, do you?" she asked with a disgusted sigh. "Maybe I'll just skip this stupid thing."
Ephiny put the green material to one side and put her arms around Eponin instead. "Nah... you can't do that. Gabrielle would kick your butt especially since she and Xena are coming here just for the festival."
"The sad thing is she probably could these days. Some weapons master I am."
Ephiny pulled back just enough to look into Pony's eyes without losing tactile contact. "What's wrong, Pon? It's not like you to be so negative and down on yourself."
Pony frowned again in thought. "I dunno... I just... something just isn't right."
Ephiny smiled. "You just need a break from sewing is all. How 'bout you and I go out to the practice field and do some sparring? I wanna at least give Xena and Gabrielle a little bit of a challenge when they do finally get here."
"I wanna kick butt," Eponin said with a chuckle, "but I'll take what I can get. Did the queen tell you where they have been for so long?"
Ephiny bit her lip. "Not to me; she might have to Melosa, but I don't think so." She got up and pulled Eponin with her. "C'mon... there should be plenty of butt kicking we can do. With all the tribes gathering for this festival.... Hmm... maybe that's why you're so out of sorts."
"Maybe." Pony shrugged, anxious to change the subject. She picked up her sword. Ephiny smiled wryly, easily taking the hint. She grabbed her own blade and they headed out for the practice field together.
In the shadows, Pan chuckled. He had only just begun to cause mayhem and mischief for Artemis' chosen people. Having them all gather together in one place was an opportunity he could not ignore. And any havoc and heartache he could cause for Artemis was a good thing in his book. He shimmered out of sight with an evil little grin; he would be back later to share more nightmares.
"This was a wonderful idea, Melosa. It's been good to see the tribes together as a whole Nation, despite the competition it has inspired," Cyane smirked down at her southern counterpart.
Melosa chuckled wryly. "I dunno, Cyane. I think the competition had been the best part. I haven't had this much fun since we made peace with the Centaurs."
"Hmm," came the noncommittal response. Both regents focused their attention back on the various exercises going out on the practice field. They could both see some interesting liaisons forming and turned to exchange conspiratorial smiles. This could wind up with better, far longer reaching consequences than anyone had anticipated. Cyane cocked an inquiring eyebrow. "So what made you decide to do this, Melosa? We haven't been a single nation in generations."
"Yes, but we do have a single queen by virtue of a number of odd happenstances. I though it would be nice to let her visit the Nation as a whole for a change, though I do hope we are not subjected to the 'Gabrielle Effect' while she's here."
"The 'Gabrielle Effect'?"
Now it was Melosa's turn to smirk. "Surely you have noticed, Cyane. Anytime our queen is around any part of the Nation, things... happen. Usually unexpected and normally disastrous in some way though in all fairness, things generally work out even better for us when all is said and done."
"Hmm," came that noncommittal response again. "So bringing everyone together with her at the same time is going to be a good thing how?"
"I'm hoping with all of us together, we can defeat it once and for all." Before Melosa could elaborate or even draw breath to speak further, their attention was caught by the high priestess running towards them with a frantic sense of purpose. She didn't wave her arms or call out, but she did draw the attention of everyone on the training ground and all activity ceased as she reached the place where Melosa and Cyane were standing. Most of the other regents - Varia, Marga, Chilapa and a younger Amazon also named Cyane - joined the two older regents and after a concise explanation by the priestess, the regents followed her back towards the temple.
Melosa paused briefly to speak to a youngster who ran to fetch Ephiny while Melosa joined the others. Ephiny accepted the directive with a nod and exchanged a puzzled look with Eponin before she ran to catch up with the rest, following the priestess into the temple.
Solari came to stand beside Eponin and they watched until the doors closed. "Wonder what that was all about?"
Eponin shrugged. "Dunno, but now maybe I can finish my costume for this party."
Solari nodded. "Yeah... I'm having the same problem." She shook her head. "Why I decided sewing was a skill I had, I'll never know. Because gods know what I wanted to be and what I'm gonna end up as are two different things."
Eponin chuckled softly and Solari looked offended for the split second it took for her façade to break. Then she laughed as well. "C'mon," she said, hefting the sword she had been practicing forms with. "I hear a mug of cold ale absolutely screaming my name and I don't want to deprive it the pleasure of my company any longer."
Eponin shook her head. "You're nuts."
"Um hmm," Solari agreed. "It makes me a good Amazon."
"I should be concerned about that," Eponin decreed. "But somehow...."
"I know. Now let's go get that drink."
From behind the tree where he had been hiding, Pan laughed. This could turn out to be more fun than he had originally anticipated.
Their Names Were Xena and Gabrielle
"My Queen?" The priestess knelt as she caught sight of Gabrielle and the seven regents with her followed suit. Gabrielle sighed and rolled her eyes at Xena when Xena snickered.
Gabrielle slapped at Xena's middle and hissed, "Be nice!" getting her own eye roll in return before Xena moved to lean against the altar. Gabrielle gave Xena a nose crinkling smile that Xena returned with a wink before Gabrielle turned back to the waiting Amazons.
"Ladies, please," chuckling at the raised headed glares she got in reflexive response. "Good," she continued honestly. "Rise, my friends... we are all equals here."
The regents exchanged glances with one another and the priestess before shrugging and standing to their feet. Then they waited for Gabrielle to speak. Surprisingly, it was Yakut that spoke first. "My queen... Gabrielle... why do you do that? You are our queen."
"In name only, Yakut. Besides, Xena and I have come to say goodbye. After the festival, we plan to leave Greece."
"For how long?" from Ephiny.
Gabrielle looked back at Xena who moved up behind her soundlessly in support. She bit her bottom lip, but met each of their eyes squarely. "We won't be back."
No sound was her answer; it was as if the air had been sucked right out of the room. The regents and Yakut just stared at her, waiting for further illumination. When Gabrielle didn't speak further, Ephiny swallowed and spoke again. "Why? Where will you go?"
Gabrielle motioned them to seats and waited, then she and Xena went back to lean against the altar. There was no space between them as they touched along their lengths. The Amazons smiled among themselves. So much had changed between them from when they had first come to know Xena and Gabrielle and it was clear to all of them that the Amazons would always come in second to what they shared together. Perhaps this decision was for the best for all involved, so they waited for Gabrielle to resume speaking.
"I think we're gonna head west. There are a lot of places we haven't visited yet and no one really knows us there. We're tired, Eph. We've been doing this a long time and after our last... adventure...." Gabrielle shuddered involuntarily and Xena wrapped an arm around her. Gabrielle snuggled into Xena and took a deep breath, letting Xena's scent settle her nerves. "We just want to find a little peace."
"And you won't get that with us," Cyane stated as a matter of fact.
Melosa chuckled. "That's the truth. We don't do peace very well... even among ourselves." The rest of the regents laughed with her and nodded. "It's one reason we all schedule regular war games in our tribes; tends to keep the tensions down."
"And the cycling problems as well." Varia's quip was followed by loud groans and Gabrielle's laughter.
"Yeah, can't say I'll miss that."
"We're not going to be able to change your mind on this, are we?" asked Marga.
Gabrielle shook her head. "No, and when you think about it for a little while, you'll see this really is the best choice for everyone. The Amazons need a queen who will stay here and lead. I can't do that." She paused. "But before we leave, we have a festival to celebrate and a favor to take care of."
"A favor?" Chilpa repeated. "What favor? For whom?" Everyone sat forward, anticipating a bit of excitement in the offing.
Gabrielle stepped forward from Xena's embrace and assumed her storyteller's pose. Then she told them the story Aphrodite had shared with her and Xena. "We promised Aphrodite we'd try to recover Syrinx from Pan."
"Do you think you can?"
Now Xena stepped forward. "Yes. We've defeated far worse than he is."
Cyane pinched her bottom lip between her fingers in thought. "I dunno, Xena. He may not be the most powerful god, but he is clever and devious. And he still has a large following in parts of Greece." She waited a moment, pinching her lip again. The rest waited. "That being said, however, if there is anything we can do to help...."
"You know..." Melosa said thoughtfully. "I wonder if he knows that you're coming for him. There's been a real upswing in nightmares in the Nation recently. And it would definitely explain some of the other weird things that have happened around here lately."
"Since you can't blame it on me, you mean?" Gabrielle asked with a twinkle in her eyes and a sly look in Xena's direction. Xena just returned her look stoicly, giving her only the barest ghost of a wink in return. The regents and the priestess had the decency to blush. Gabrielle chuckled. "Don't worry, guys... you're not the first to mention a 'Gabrielle effect' and I'm sure you won't be the last," with another look in Xena's direction.
"However, from what Aphrodite told us you are more right than you know. Pan has made Artemis' chosen people a special target for his particular gifts for years, though he hasn't been obvious about it. Since tomorrow night's party falls on the full moon as well, we expect Pan will take advantage of the fact it is All Hallow's Eve to cause as much chaos as he can."
The rest nodded their understanding, having read the scrolls Gabrielle had written about the Celtic customs she had seen and been told about during her time in Britannia.
"So what can we do?"
Xena shrugged. "For now just be aware and go on with things like normal."
"We really don't have a plan yet," Gabrielle added.
"Well, there is supposed to be a dance tonight after dinner," Melosa started. "We thought it would be nice to welcome you back to us as a whole Nation again, and this was a fun way to get everyone together for a change, instead of on the sparring grounds and the training fields."
"A little competition going on among the tribes?" Gabrielle asked with a smile.
"Oh yeah," they all agreed. "But it's been mostly good fun and a learning experience for us all to boot," Cyane replied over the rest. "I for one am glad we did this," she paused for effect. "Even with the Gabrielle effect."
"Well on that note," Gabrielle smirked, "I think we should head back out and let you each get back to whatever it was we interrupted. Xena and I will meet you for dinner and dancing later."
The regents blinked at one another. They had hoped... had expected... that Xena and Gabrielle would spend some time on the sparring field everyone wanted a shot at them, even knowing they had very little chance of defeating either of them anymore. They wanted to ask, but seeing the identical look the pair wore, each of them instead gave a gracious nod of the head and moved back out the door and towards the village proper. Yakut, Xena and Gabrielle watched them go, then the priestess gave a small nod of her head as well. "If you need anything, my queen," before heading to her private quarters at the back of the temple. Xena waited until her door closed before she spoke.
"You know they're wondering," with just a hint of an evil smile.
Gabrielle shrugged and wrapped her arms around Xena's neck. "Let 'em." Then they left as well, glad for the privacy of the queen's quarters and bathing hut.
In the meantime, Pan was preparing for what promised to be the most exciting thirty-six candlemarks of his entire somewhat godly existence.
Dinner had been fun excitement running high at this pre-festival event. Everyone was looking forward to the morrow with its games and activities. Dancing, on the other hand, had been something of a surprising entertainment venue. Gabrielle had decided to teach the Amazons to line dance and that had produced some interesting results. She expected several Amazons to be walking funny and others to be sporting bruises when the festivities got underway later. For now, though, she was comfortably ensconced in Xena's warm embrace as they watched the sun come up around them.
"Xena?" chewing on the warm buttered bread she held. She passed it back to the warrior who took her own bite.
"Hmm?" Her arms tightened reflexively around Gabrielle and she chewed and swallowed hastily, knowing a question was in the offing.
"Do you really think Pan will be here tonight? Do you think we can catch him?"
"I think he's already here. Not all of that moaning and gasping we heard last night was from pleasure - most of it sounded more like the nightmares Melosa mentioned yesterday. Why else would Amarice have panicked when she thought she saw a snake in the tree? C'mon, Gabrielle... after the time we spent traveling with her, when did she ever lose her cool like that? And Otere she's never been one to just run off screaming for no apparent reason.
"Yeah, but you know I'm still gonna get blamed for that pile-up last night."
Xena chuckled soundlessly. "Well, trying to teach drunk Amazons a coordinated dance was probably not the best idea, in retrospect."
"Umm, no kidding. I'm gonna be remembered as the most dangerous queen *to* the Nation... not *of* it." She sighed. "But at least if we can recover Syrinx, the other gods will be able to banish Pan far away from the Amazons."
"Oh, we will. I have a plan."
Gabrielle cleared her throat and turned her head enough to glare. "Wanna share there or are you gonna make me guess?"
"What's the one thing Pan can't resist?"
Gabrielle smiled briefly, then it faded. "He has so far, Xena. According to Aphrodite, this has been going on for a long time."
"I know. But we're going to make him an offer he can't refuse. He already has what he wants most but he keeps playing with the Amazons because they are Artemis' people. It has less to do with them than with her, but if he could have a few of them, he wouldn't turn them down either." Gabrielle wrinkled her nose in disgust. "I know," Xena agreed, "but he fancies himself some sort of stud."
"He tries to fancy the Amazons a little too personally, he may find himself studless."
Xena's laughter pealed across the compound. "That would be an added bonus."
The Amazons wondered what the joke was as they slowly stirred to start the day.
"I don't know, Xena. I don't like using Amazons as bait like that," Melosa said plainly. "We're warriors; we fight openly, not behind costumes playing a role. Isn't there a way we can lure him out into the open?"
"I don't think so. As Cyane pointed out yesterday, Pan is clever and devious. His goal here is to torment. He's not gonna come out into the open unless there is a reason to."
"We'll find some volunteers." But she didn't sound too thrilled. Xena and Gabrielle exchanged looks and Gabrielle shook her head just slightly. Despite their lack of enthusiasm, the Amazons would follow orders without knowing all the details. She wasn't ready to share everything with these women she called friends; she hoped she would never have to.
There was evidence of Pan throughout the day, though no one actually saw him. The three legged race managed to drop every pair of contestants into the mud at some point. The rhubarb pie filling for the pie eating contest was missing the honey. An arrow went astray during the skills competition and knocked a bees' nest to the ground, causing a bit of hysteria. Another went wild enough to knock several Amazons into a large patch of brambles. Several others managed to shimmy up a tree to recover the prize that had been hidden there, only to discover a sudden, previously unknown fear of heights. When Xena finally managed to get them down, Gabrielle called for a break in the games.
"This isn't working, Xena. Pan's gonna have the entire Nation bedridden before the party tonight at this rate. There has to be another way to do this." A beat. "I think we need to let the regents in on what we are gonna do... and how. After this morning's fiasco, they should be more willing to help provide our distraction now."
"Gabrielle, are you sure? You know it means...."
"I don't see another way at this point, Xena. Pan has upped the ante on us. He's got to know we're planning something. Otherwise why would he be antagonizing us so aggressively? I've never heard of anything like this happening before... not to this extent."
A knock on the door of the queen's hut interrupted their conversation. "My queen... Xena? It's Yakut may I come in? I have some information that might be of interest."
They exchanged glances before Gabrielle called out, "Please, come in." The priestess did so, tucking the scroll she held beneath her arm before turning to close the door behind her. Gabrielle motioned her to the room's one chair while she and Xena sat on the bed. "What can we do for you, Yakut?"
For answer, she offered the scroll she held. Gabrielle opened it and she and Xena read it together. Then they looked at Yakut, waiting for further enlightenment.
"When you told us your story yesterday, I started doing some research. I figured given the heartbreak it had caused her, surely Artemis had written something about what Pan had done. She hadn't, but Athena had. And she had given a copy to the Amazons for safekeeping."
She took a deep breath and they waited. "Aphrodite told you about the spell?" waiting for their nods. "If Athena is right, tonight will be the best chance anyone has to defeat the hex for a hundred or more cycles. A full moon on All Hallow's Eve puts all magic into play; it renders Pan's spell basically useless. There may be some residue left, but he has to know that he is vulnerable tonight. That is why he is trying so hard to incapacitate us today."
"I wonder why he doesn't just leave... keep us from even trying."
"He can't; according to the way Athena recorded the spell, part of it requires him to be here to taunt Artemis with Syrinx during all festivals where we ask for her blessing on the Nation. So close to her and yet so far. Giving her a chance to recover Syrinx, knowing the hex is too strong to allow it."
"His nature wouldn't allow it anyway," Xena added. "This is about his vanity - it's all about winning and flaunting that victory in front of the loser. He doesn't care how he wins as long as he does." She and Gabrielle exchanged long glances then turned their attention back to Yakut.
"Please find the regents and have them meet us in the temple. It is the one place we are guaranteed privacy from him. Xena and I will collect lunch and meet you all there as soon as possible." Yakut nodded and bowed her head, then made her way quickly out the door. Xena and Gabrielle shared another knowing look before Gabrielle blew out a nervous breath. Xena pushed blonde bangs out of green eyes.
"No matter what," she said softly, "I'll always be right beside you." Gabrielle nuzzled into her neck and relished the peace for a long moment; then she kissed Xena tenderly and rose from the bed.
"C'mon," she said, offering Xena a hand up. "Let's go get this over with."
The regents were seated quietly around in the front of the table when Xena and Gabrielle crossed the threshold. Several of them moved to help bring in the lunch and they sat quietly while they ate. Then Gabrielle cleared her throat to speak, but Ephiny beat her to the punch.
"We have our volunteers. After this morning, it wasn't hard to recruit some warriors willing to do it."
Gabrielle nodded and swallowed hard. "Good. If they can lure him out into the open, Xena and I can handle the rest."
Before anyone could open their mouth to inquire how, a scout came running into the temple, causing the lot of them to stand up, waiting for her to catch her breath. Yakut pressed a cup of wine into her hands bust she shook her head. "No time," Eris wheezed. "You need to come outside," pointing to Ephiny. "Pony's fixing to try something really crazy."
They rushed out of the temple as a group, then stopped dead in their tracks when they spotted her on the roof of her hut. Ephiny walked forward alone slowly, trying not only to not startle Eponin, but to figure out exactly what was going on. Pony was standing calmly on the roof wearing her costume for the party, flapping her arms and causing the green material to billow wildly behind her.
"Pony?" Eph called softly. "What are you doing?"
Eponin whipped her head in Ephiny's direction and gave her a hurt look. "Can't you tell what I am now, Eph?" She waited a beat, then growled, "I'm a bat. These are my wings," lifting her arms and causing the material to flutter once more, "and I'm gonna fly now."
Ephiny's screamed directive was lost in Pony's war cry and the rippling sound the wings made when air ran underneath them, giving Eponin a brief moment of flight before they folded and she plummeted to the ground to land with a sickening crunch. The sound stirred everyone to action and Ephiny was the first to arrive at Pony's side. Xena took possession of the other and quickly evaluated her condition. She looked at Gabrielle, then at Ephiny and gave a slight smile.
"Nothing's broken and I don't think she did any damage to her insides. I think she just got her bell rung."
About that time, Eponin opened her eyes and looked around in confusion before wincing. "Ow. Damn, that hurts," blinking rapidly. "What happened? And how did I wind up down here?"
"What's the last thing you remember, Pony?"
"Sewing. I had to finish my costume for tonight." She looked down at herself, then back up at Ephiny. "I missed something pretty important, didn't I?"
"Yep. What made you think you could fly?"
"Huh? Eph, you crocked? I'm not Xena." Xena crossed her arms over her head and arched an eyebrow; Gabrielle just smirked back at her.
"No, but you did try to fly," Ephiny replied calmly.
"Good question why? What made you think you could?"
Eponin started to shrug, the winced and froze. "I dunno... seemed like a good idea at the time?" She slowly relaxed the muscles she had tensed in reaction to the pain. "Can I get up now? I need to get something for this headache."
Ephiny helped her into a sitting position and then Xena eased her to her feet. With Ephiny on one side and Eris on the other, Eponin gingerly walked to the hospice. Gabrielle caught the regents' eyes.
"Make sure the warriors are ready. This ends tonight."
Surprisingly, it was quiet for the rest of the afternoon except for the occasional odd scream from whatever unfortunate soul had fallen asleep, only to wake in a blind panic. Pan smiled in satisfaction; he hadn't had this much fun since he'd taken Syrinx away from Artemis in the first place. He wondered why he had waited so long to cause so much chaos and confusion for Artemis' chosen people, then realized he'd never had so much as stake before. They presented the first real threat to his victory since the beginning.
No matter he had thrown them completely off-balance. He only had to hold them off for another few candlemarks and he would be safe for another hundred or so cycles. He leaned back and brought the flute to his lips, relishing the reedy sound with perverse pleasure.
There was no way the Amazons could defeat him now not even with the help of the infamous warrior princess and her queen companion.
Darkness settled quickly but the fires were already lit and the Amazons slowly gathered in the center of the village. The atmosphere was tense but determined. Tables had been set up around the perimeter; most of them held food tidbits. One was full of pumpkins that were being carved with a variety of weird and bizarre faces. Beside another was a large tub of water floating a few apples with several sack of the fruit nestled beside it. There were a few games set up for the younger Amazons and parchment ball stuffed with candies and trinkets hung from one of the lower limbs of a massive oak.
Everywhere there were Amazons dressed in costumes, though by the queen's command there were no warriors. Instead, there were a few gods and goddesses, a satyr, a minotaur, a couple swashbucklers, someone doing their best imitation of Autolycus, some fairies and a few wood nymphs - all in all a highly eclectic representation of costumes. And that didn't even cover the few scary creatures roaming around as well a couple of ghosts, and odd looking skeleton and....
"Solari, what exactly are you supposed to be?" The holey linen whirled to face Ephiny dressed as the goddess of love.
"I'm a ghost, Ephiny. Can't you tell? And how did you know who I was?"
Solari, there is more of you showing than is hidden. Did you have a little problem with the knife? You look like a potato with a lot of eyes."
Solari sighed. "Yeah, I shoulda asked Tyro to make my costume. I thought this would be something I could manage. You look great though."
Ephiny smiled. "Thanks. Finally all those lessons my mother made me sit through paid off. I wonder where Xena and Gabrielle are."
"They will be here once the party is in full gear. Apparently their costumes are a little more complicated and require a bit of extra time."
Their Courage Would Change the World
"Are you ready?"
"Not really, but let's do it. Are we all packed?"
"Yeah I've loaded everything on Argo, just in case, but I don't think the Amazons are gonna react badly, Gabrielle. As far as they are concerned, these will just be really great costumes."
"Until they see my behavior, Xena... it's not like I can control this. You allow the burning, but even you act instinctively past a certain point. The fact that there is a full moon and it's the harvest festival just makes it easier for the Bacchae behavior to control us."
A smattering of rose petals falling around them stopped their conversation and they looked at Aphrodite with hidden annoyance when she materialized. She glanced back and forth between them, sensing her presence, while not necessarily unwelcome, was probably interrupting something important.
Gabrielle closed her eyes and sighed. "I don't think there could be a good time right now, Dite. What's up?"
"I came to help. I, um... I can't change, you know," she said vaguely, motioning between them. "But I can make it easier for you to manage it well, temporarily at any rate." She held her hands out and a cup appeared in each; she extended the cups to them. "Well?" wanted to wave her hands but stopping just before the liquid sloshed over the rim. Hesitantly, they reached out and accepted the offering, then looked at her for an explanation. Aphrodite huffed and put her hands on her hips.
"Not really into that whole trust-the-goddess thing yet, huh? That is so not cool what have I done to deserve that? I thought we were friends." She pouted then sighed. "Then again, I guess we don't have a real gnarly track record with you babes, do we? All right... it's nectar. It will allow you to control your actions for a little while; I don't know how long."
"Why? I mean... I appreciate it, Aphrodite. We both do, but...?"
"I heard what you said, you know... before." She shrugged. "I just figured if there was a way to do something about it here around the Amazons, it might be, ya know, a good thing for you."
Gabrielle stepped into Aphrodite's personal space and kissed her cheek. "Thank you." Aphrodite blushed.
"Right... well, I gotta split. We'll be close by though. If... *when* you get the pipes, just call out. We'll do the rest." She was gone before they could say anything else and Xena and Gabrielle just exchanged amused glances. Then they tapped glasses.
"Cheers," Xena smirked and downed the liquid in a single gulp. Gabrielle drained hers a little slower, but the end result was the same. An unexpected warmth flowed through their veins, then they turned to one another and began the dance that would allow the burning in their blood to transform them.
When they stepped from the hut, the party was in full swing and they were full Bacchae only with a clear awareness of who they were and what they needed to accomplish. Their senses were heightened - able to see better, hear better, smell better. Most of the whispers that followed them were those of appreciation for their costumes; a few expressed awe at the amazing realism they had managed to capture. Only Yakut recognized how very real they were, but a nod of her head assured them that their secret would remain so.
With Gabrielle's appearance, the music changed, growing more sensuous and haunting. The drums pounded rhythmically and from nearby the sounds of pipes and a lyre rose up. Xena took Gabrielle's hand and led her towards the fire. They remained intently focused on one another; it was safer for everyone that way.
The rest watched for several very long minutes, entranced by the sheer eroticism flowing from Xena and Gabrielle as they danced together. Then slowly, one by one, others joined in, though the regents remained on the outskirts of everything, watching.
It was nothing obvious at first, though Xena and Gabrielle heard the change in the flute sound before the rest detected it. It was smooth and sexual and almost impossible to ignore; it intensified everything they felt.
Slowly, the sounds fell away until there was only breathing, and the rustle of material on skin and the music of the pipes. Pan smiled as he played; no one... not even the Amazons... were immune to the sound of his music. He would own all of them before the night was over, and when it was done, he would still have Syrinx in his possession.
The music changed slightly, calling the nymphs to him and one by one they went to his side as Pan emerged from the darkness. Round and round him they danced as he played, yet Xena and Gabrielle remained separate from him as did the rest of the Amazons. His brow furrowed how were they resisting? His music was made to entice and influence and it had always been successful against them before. Why now were most suddenly able to withstand the lure of Syrinx?
Pan shifted tone and tempo again and this time Xena and Gabrielle moved towards him. The nymphs dancing around him were distracting and he had to focus to keep the rhythm of the music. His upper brain kept trying to sound an alarm, knowing he was in serious danger of losing. His lizard brain, however, didn't care; it was too close to carnal satisfaction.
Xena managed to block her activities from watching eyes the Amazons playing nymphs were focused on keeping Pan distracted and everyone else was too far away to see clearly... everyone but Yakut and Ephiny. Gabrielle leaned in close from behind and let her eyeteeth extend, sinking them into Pan's neck and causing him to lose track of everything. Pan screamed with pained pleasure and Xena took the pipes smoothly out of his hands as she extended her own fangs. Pan slumped over as she sank them into his jugular. Then several things happened at once.
Time slowed to a crawl as Hecate, Aphrodite and Athena emerged from the shadows of the forest. Hecate gave a nod of her head as she held her arms above her head, and Athena and Aphrodite crossed to Xena and Gabrielle. A touch on their foreheads brought them back into time with the goddesses and they were able to extract their teeth from Pan. A deep breath allowed them both to refocus and their eyeteeth receded back to normal length. A glance in Hecate's direction caused the goddess of the moon to drop her arms and time resumed its regular course even as she shifted into her person of Artemis.
When the Amazons realized who was in their midst, they dropped to a knee in respect as much as shock. Artemis hadn't walked among them since Syrinx had been stolen from her; none of these Amazons had ever seen her, though they all recognized her from the likenesses of her in the temple. She smiled sadly and let her fingers touch a few of them lightly as she passed through them, stopping only when she reached Xena and Gabrielle.
Already Xena's eyes had resumed their normal blue, her skin flushing with color the nectar and Athena's touch having restored her control over the Bacchae side she was able to call up when the situation called for it. Artemis walked directly to her and cupped her cheek softly. "Thank you," she said simply and Xena nodded, offering her the flute she still held. Artemis couldn't stop the tears that welled in her eyes though she did not allow them to escape. She accepted the pipes reverently then crossed to stand in front of Gabrielle who was still fully Bacchae. The nectar gave her some semblance of control, but the burning still held her in its grip.
"My poor queen," Artemis said quietly, so no one else could hear her words, not knowing the Amazons could not hear her regardless. "I am so sorry for this; I would remove it if I could. But know you and your champion will always have a place to rest and call home for the rest of your immortal lives. Thank you, Gabrielle." Gabrielle tilted her head in understanding but stayed out of touching reach. She was still very close to the edge and there was only one touch she craved. Artemis bowed to her and the Nation sucked in a breath in surprise. Then she walked to where her sisters waited with a still unconscious Pan. He had been bound hand and foot to assure their success.
Each of them placed a hand on the flute and their lips began to move. A glow began to emanate from the instrument and slowly a new form took its place. The glow became too bright for eyes to remain open and focused on it, and when they reopened, Syrinx the nymph stood before them. Artemis assured herself of her lover's well-being, then turned back to the women who had dedicated themselves to her despite her absence from them.
When she opened her mouth to speak, the entire Nation lifted both hands to their ears. Perplexed, she watched as they removed the bits of cloth stuffed into them and suddenly understood how they were able to resist the call of Pan's music. She smiled at their cleverness.
"I don't know what to say to all of you," Artemis said, letting her voice carry across the courtyard, "except thank you. I will return to you soon, but my blessings on your festival." With that, they three goddesses, Syrinx and Pan disappeared in a shimmer of sparkles.
It took a moment for the Amazons to realize what Artemis' words meant, but once they did, a wild whoop went up from them, ringing out into the night. No one but Yakut and Ephiny noticed Xena and Gabrielle had disappeared as well. Now that the danger had passed, they were too busy moving into true party mode.
Xena cradled Gabrielle closely as her eyes returned to their vibrant green. "You all right?" feeling the blonde hair tickle against her naked skin. Before Gabrielle could answer, another voice spoke.
"Hey dudettes!" Aphrodite called out before she shimmered into view. Xena pulled the sheet up over their naked bodies and waited for the goddess to materialize. "Sorry to interrupt," she apologized, sounding genuinely regretful, "but I wanted to stop by and say thanks. Pan has been banished to an island off the coast and Artemis is totally stoked. The Amazons won't remember the Bacchae thing at all, except that you had great costumes." She shrugged. "Seemed like the least we could do." She brushed a kiss over each of their foreheads and disappeared before they could formulate a response.
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances, then released the breaths they had been holding. "Wanna go back to the party? Artemis left us some costumes so we can be Bacchae without actually becoming Bacchae."
"Honestly, no, but we need to. No costumes, though. This will be our last chance to say goodbye, because you know no one is going to be sober enough to see us off in the morning and I would prefer to say goodbye as just Xena and Gabrielle."
"We could wait a day or two...." Xena offered, but Gabrielle was already shaking her head no.
"No... I'm ready to be alone with you. If we stay, you know they will be looking for reasons for us to stay. I'm not willing to risk it."
"At least they don't know the truth about the Bacchae thing." Xena rolled from the bed and extended her hand to Gabrielle. "C'mon, my queen. Let's go enjoy the rest of the harvest festival with old friends. Tomorrow is a new beginning for us."
Syrinx was completely ensconced in Artemis' embrace as she and the goddesses watched the Amazons party the night away. The younger children took their carved pumpkins and placed candles inside before putting them outside the doors of the huts to ward off evil spirits. Then they went around to each of the tables, collecting treats for their efforts before being shuffled off to bed.
In the meantime, the older girls were swatting at the stuffed balls and bobbing for apples and periodically being led off one by one by their warrior trainers, only to return ghostly white and shell-shocked from their experience in the 'haunted woods'.
The warriors and elders sat together toasting their victory over Pan and enjoying the good food, better ale, and for the moment at least, peace in the Nation. Who knew perhaps Melosa's initiative to bring the tribes together might bring about a better, more flourishing Nation in the long run.
Gabrielle and Xena were content to sit on the dais out of costume and watch the activity around them. No one seemed to care; they were too busy enjoying themselves. One by one, the Amazons from all the tribes had come up and spoken to them most of them expressing regret at their leaving.
Melosa and Cyane were the last as leaders of the largest tribes and they offered Gabrielle and Xena a pair of bracelets that had been forged and crafted as a joint effort by the best craftswomen in all the tribes. "Just in case you make your way back to us one day," was all they said, then headed back to join their comrades in raising a toast to their queen and her consort.
"One last dance?" Xena offered.
"One last dance," Gabrielle confirmed and let Xena lead her back to the fire. Their presence drew cheers and smiles, then the party kicked into high gear.
The sun was just peeking over the horizon when Xena and Gabrielle rode out of the compound. "That was fun. Wonder how long the tribes will stay together before they all head out for home?"
Xena chuckled. "It's gonna take them a few days to recover from that party last night. Wonder how many of those traditions they'll take with them."
"Dunno. Guess we'll be able to keep an eye on it."
"Guess we will at that." They walked on in silence for a while until Xena mounted Argo extended a hand down to Gabrielle.
"Shall we ride?"
"Into our future?" Gabrielle asked as she took the proffered hand and climbed on behind Xena. "You betcha. I wanna see where the road is gonna lead us." Far off, the sound of a pan flute could be heard, but this time, it was only music.
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