DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, the Amazons, etc and their back stories are owned by Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. No infringement is intended and no profit is being made.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Christmas Wish-list for pocketnympho.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Romancing the Bard
By Del Robertson
The festivities were in full swing, the dancers energetically maintaining a frenzied pace as they cavorted about the fire circles and even occasionally performed acrobatic leaps across the flames.
Sitting cross-legged in the cool evening grass, drinking from her third mug of ale, Xena intently watched a lithe blonde perform a double-flip, sending her loincloth tumbling over her buttocks, revealing the absence of anything worn beneath. Mesmerized, Xena stared as the dancer twirled to a halt in front of the lead scout and reached down, taking Solari's hand in hers and determinedly pulling the brunette Amazon up and into the dance circle.
Solari had no problem catching the tempo, keeping one hand firmly about the handle of her mug and the other on the dancer's hip. Their bodies gyrated to the beat of the big drums, hips rocking against each other as they shimmied their way to the ground and then back up again.
The dancer's hands sensuously moved up her thighs and across her abdomen, her fingers inching towards the leather fastenings that held together the front of her skimpy top. Unable to tear her eyes away, Solari blindly lifted her mug towards her lips. As the leather cording came free in the dancer's hands, revealing her bountiful breasts, Solari's hand shook, sending ale splashing across the other woman's chest.
"Aww, isn't that sweet?" Gabrielle's voice drifted through Xena's inebriated haze.
"Oh, yeah. That's what I call real sweet." Xena licked her lips in fevered anticipation as Solari seemed to be debating on whether or not to allow her tongue to follow the lazy course her ale was making down the dancer's torso.
"That's not what I meant, Xena."
An unexpected elbow to her ribs made the warrior princess grunt in surprise. With an indignant glare, ice blue eyes turned towards her companion.
"That's what I meant," clarified Gabrielle.
Xena squinted, looking across the ceremonial grounds in confusion. Then, she spotted it. Or, rather them. Gabrielle's regent was stretched out on a horse blanket, her legs crossed at the ankles, her head resting in Eponin's lap. And, instead of watching the dancers like any red-blooded Amazon warrior should be, the weapons master was . . . dipping fresh strawberries into melted chocolate and feeding them to Ephiny.
Gabrielle heard the snort, gave Xena's ribs a back-handed slap. "It's romantic."
"She's a warrior. And, she's making a fool of herself."
"She's in love," protested Gabrielle, turning dreamy eyes towards the clearly infatuated couple. "I think it's cute."
"Huh." Xena gave a dismissive grunt and turned her attention back to the fire circle. "Never catch me behaving like an idiot for love." Spotting Solari and her companion, watching as the scout's tongue swept along the dancer's ale-covered nipple, the warrior princess' mouth formed a silent "o" of appreciation.
She scarcely blinked as Gabrielle threw a cloth at her, hitting her in the head with it. The Amazon Queen rattled off something about wiping up her drool before storming off, leaving Xena to watch the celebration alone.
The blows had started out brutal and were becoming more and more so with each passing heartbeat. Hands adjusted on sweat-slicked wood, searching for a better grip. A foot slid on rain moistened grass, boots losing traction as their owner was forced steadily backwards. Sensing victory, her opponent pressed the attack, sending an unrelenting flurry of strikes raining down upon her foe.
Solari had been on her way from giving her morning scouting report to the queen in her office when she'd spotted the crowd gathered around the practice fields. Elbowing her way to the fence line, she wasn't surprised to find the weapons master squared off against the warrior princess. These two always drew a fair number of spectators whenever they sparred and this time was no exception. The scout winced in empathic response as Xena performed a flip, landing behind Eponin and tagging her in the small of her back.
The weapons master spun around, barely getting her guard up in time to block the next strike. Clearly on the defensive now, she gritted her teeth, bracing herself as she blocked each subsequent blow, feeling the wood vibrating in her hands with each hit. As Xena jabbed at her throat, Pony saw her chance, aiming for the warrior's unprotected midsection. In a move that defied gravity, Xena jumped up, her booted foot solidly connecting with Eponin's wrist. The Amazon dropped her weapon, grabbing her injured hand. The next thing she knew, her legs were swept out from beneath her and she was laying flat on her back, a staff firmly pressed against her throat.
"Okay," Eponin panted between gritted teeth, "I give."
Still, the bright blue eyes intensely bore into her. Eponin tapped her open palm against the rain-slicked grass as the pressure upon her windpipe increased.
Solari caught the signal, immediately leapt over the top railing of the fence. Sliding to a halt on both knees besides the combatants, she placed one hand on Xena's back and the other on the staff. She felt the strain on her muscles as she worked to counteract Xena's superior strength.
"Hey," she tapped Xena's back, spoke into her ear, "That's enough. She gave."
There was no immediate response from the warrior. Other than a low, menacing growl emanating from her throat. Solari looked down at Eponin, who had both hands beneath the wood of the staff, pressing into the ground with her elbows in an attempt to keep the staff from crushing her larynx.
Frantically, Solari looked about for help. Apparently, no one else had noticed Xena's overzealousness. Now that the match was apparently over, all the other spectators had cleared out, no doubt to settle their wagers on the outcome.
Eponin's lips were beginning to turn colors. Wide-eyed, Solari did the only thing she thought she could do; she removed her free hand from the staff and used both of them to push at Xena's bulkier body. To her relief, the warrior lost her balance and tumbled onto the slick grass. The chief scout reacted instantly, collecting the staff and immediately tossing it out of reach.
"Xena - " Eponin gasped, one hand on her injured throat.
"Huh?" Xena blinked, shook her head, seemingly coming back to herself. "What? Oh, sorry, Pony," she shrugged, "Guess I was a little preoccupied."
"No kidding?" Pony choked out.
"Xena! What in Tartarus were you thinking?" Solari wrapped a protective arm about a still struggling to breathe Eponin's shoulders. "You nearly throttled poor Pony! What did she ever do to you to deserve that?!?"
Blue eyes instantly narrowed as Solari's words reminded Xena of the evening she'd just endured in the stables. Gabrielle had refused to let her spend the night in their bed, in their hut. She'd accused Xena of being an insensitive barbarian with not a single romantic bone in her body. And, despite her best wounded-pout, she'd had her things tossed out of the hut's only window to land in a mud puddle.
"Because of you - " Xena straightened her fingers and delivered her jab into the weapons master's throat " - I have to court Gabrielle."
"No. No. No." Eponin sat on the healer's examination table, vehemently shaking her head. "Absolutely not."
A low, animalistic growl filled the room. Eyes narrowed as she fingered the chakram hanging at her side. Xena took a resolute step towards Eponin. Towering over the seated weapons master, she pointed a finger at the Amazon and hissed through clenched teeth, "Listen to me, you - "
A dark head tilted to the side as acute hearing picked up the sound of approaching footsteps and the curtain to the examination room being drawn aside. By the time the healer entered, Xena was across the room, casually leaning against the wall beside Solari. An arm slung over broad shoulders and a well-placed knuckle lodged against the brunette's spine ensured the scout would say nothing.
Megara placed the supplies she'd gone to fetch on the examination table beside Eponin. Taking the weapons master's hand in hers, she gingerly felt along the bone. "I don't think it's broken. Probably just strained." She gave a strong tug on the bandage, garnering the warrior's undivided attention. "But, keep that on there until I say otherwise, got it?"
As Eponin nodded her assent, Megara reached out, tilting her patient's chin up so the sunlight streaming in the window fully shone upon her discolored neck. Megara experimentally ran her fingers over the flesh there, checking for swelling. Turning, she cast a suspicious glance over her shoulder. The warrior princess unwaveringly met her gaze, her blue eyes giving nothing away.
As soon as the healer left the room, Xena was beside the bed again. Thrusting a finger into Pony's chest, she emphasized, "You got me into this mess, Amazon. Now, you're gonna get me out."
"Pony?" Until now, Solari had been the weapons master's defender against the warrior princess. But, hearing Xena's tone, she suddenly blurted out, "Pony, what did you do?"
"Gabrielle spied this one - " Xena jerked a thumb to indicate Eponin, " - hand feeding her regent last night."
"Eponin!" Solari's eyes grew as large around as Xena's chakram. "How could you?"
"I - umm - I - uh - " Eponin hung her head in shame, nervously fidgeted with the bandage on her injured hand. "I like Ephiny," she mumbled.
"What?" Xena cupped her ear, pretending she hadn't heard.
"I like Eph." Honey-hued eyes flicked back and forth between the hardened stares of Xena and Solari. "I mean, I really, really like Eph." There was a helpless shrug, "And, it's the Cupid's Day festival." Again, she hung her head in shame and admitted beneath her breath, "And, I guess I got a little caught up in the moment."
"Caught up in the moment, she says." Xena rolled her eyes, then smacked Eponin in the back of the head. "Well, thanks to you getting caught up in the moment, I now have to woo Gabrielle to win her affections." Blue eyes flicked back and forth between Eponin and Solari. "And, you're gonna help me, you romantic fools."
"Now, Xena." Solari held up both hands in supplication, shaking her head as she began backing away. "I didn't do anything wrong here. You can't ask me to help out your love life with my queen."
Xena reached out, deftly catching Solari's nose in her grasp and twisting it, effectively bringing the scout to her knees. Leaning in until her face was scant inches from Solari's, she said, "I don't recall asking ya."
Gabrielle hadn't been thrilled to see Xena standing in the middle of their hut waiting for her when she arrived home from council sessions late that afternoon. Not by a long shot. Truth was, she was still miffed about said warrior princess' behavior of the night before.
"I got you something." Xena produced an object from behind her back.
A soft smile appearing on her lips, Gabrielle accepted the bundle wrapped in a hide and tied closed with leather strips.
"For me, Xena?" Maybe I judged her a little too harshly. I mean, she even took the time to giftwrap. "You shouldn't have - "
"Anything for you, Gabrielle." Xena couldn't keep the smile from her lips as she held out her arms, fully ready to receive an appropriately thankful bard's gratitude.
"No, Xena." There was that tone. "I mean, you really shouldn't have."
Blue eyes had just enough time to see the veins pulsating in Gabrielle's neck and her face turning a deep crimson before a red cloth hit her right between the eyes.
"What in Tartarus?!?" Xena caught the flimsy halter in her grasp as it slowly slid down her face. Holding the sheer fabric in her hand, realizing she could very clearly see each and every one of her fingers beneath the triangle-shaped material, her lips formed into an almost soundless "uh-oh".
"Tell me, Xena, did you pick out this gift for me . . . or for you?!?"
"I - " There was a helpless shrug. Then, the cloth was snatched out of her grasp.
"Is this the size you think I am, Xena?" The warrior's face flushed and her jaw threatened to come unhinged as Gabrielle held the material up in front of the halter she was already wearing. It obviously dwarfed her current bilious green top by at least three sizes. "Is this the size you want me to be?"
Once again, Xena found herself with a face full of fabric as the halter was thrown at her. Then, Gabrielle was behind her, pushing her out the door, yelling at her to "Get out! Just get out, Xena!"
And, before she knew what had happened, the warrior princess was standing outside the Queen's hut, the entrance barred by two burly royal guards with extremely sharp looking spears.
"But, Gabrielle - " Helplessly, Xena looked down at the sheer halter loosely dangling from her fingertips. There was a snicker. Xena looked up to see one of the guards valiantly trying to hold in her laughter. "Oh, grow up!" she snarled out, clenching the halter tightly in her fist and storming off.
"Solari?" Xena wiggled her fingers anxiously, "Come on, scout, I know you're in there."
Eponin looked nervously at Xena's twitching hand and felt a wave of guilt wash over her. Having already been on the receiving end of those deadly fingers, she knew first-hand what Solari was in for.
The warrior princess crept into the lead scout's hut on stealthy feet. Seasoned eyes quickly took in her surroundings even as experienced ears listened for any sound out of the ordinary. She'd been worried that news of her latest row with the Queen had already reached Solari's ears. And, she didn't want the scout to have time to prepare for her arrival.
Xena picked her way past a two-tone wooden table, a vase full of fresh flowers serving as the center piece. There was a bearskin pelt on the floor in front of the hearth, several colorful pillows tossed about nearby to serve as cushions while reclining in front of the fire. Hanging above the hearth was a bouquet of dried flowers, tied together at the stems and arranged in a fan-like shape.
Xena gave a derisive snort. Scouts. That was one thing Pony had going for her. She may have slipped up with her earlier actions, but at least she was a warrior. And, her hut reflected that. Minimally furnished with a bed and two chairs, the walls covered in weapons, the place stocked with Amazonian ale; Xena felt at home in the weapons master's hut. Scouts, she snorted again, picking up a fringed pillow by her fingertips and tossing it aside.
Eponin followed her in, banging loudly on the door frame as she did so. Xena turned and fixed the weapons master with an icy glare. Pony blanched beneath that stare and made certain she kept a fair distance between herself and the warrior princess.
"Devillare, is that you?" a muffled voice called from another section of the hut.
"It's Eponin, Soli!" Pony was just able to blurt out, "And, Xena!" before a large hand clamped down over her mouth.
"Come on in, guys!" Solari's voice drifted to them. "I'm in the bedroom."
With a smug expression, Xena took her hand from Eponin's mouth and made her way towards where Solari's voice had come from. Large warrior's boots climbed three steps to an elevated section of the hut. A calloused hand drew back a curtain made of beads. Reluctantly, Eponin trudged her way up the steps behind Xena.
A big four-post bed, larger than any Eponin had ever seen, dominated the center of the room. A solid oak nightstand was near the head of the bed. And, at the foot, on either side, there were large urns with potted palms. Solari's back was to them as she stirred something in a bowl on the nightstand.
"Hey, guys." Solari turned from the bowl, a small silver spoon held in her grasp, a grin on her lips, "How'd Gabrielle like the lingerie?"
Xena was across the room in two strides, her hand about the scout's neck. Solari dropped the spoon, both hands instinctively going to Xena's wrist, fingers trying to dislodge the warrior's grip as she was bodily lifted off the floor.
"Where . . . did . . . " the fingers tightened with each word " . . . you . . . get . . ." Solari's eyes widened as a familiar looking sheer red halter was waved beneath her nose " . . . this . . . " The last part of the question was indecipherable through Xena's tightly clenched teeth.
"N - N - " Solari struggled to breathe past the hand cutting off her air supply. "Nephele. It's Nephele's." Then, Eponin was there, both her hands wrapped around Xena's forearm, also trying to break her grip.
"Xena! Xena! Stop it!" Brute strength wasn't working. Eponin decided to try another tact. "If you kill her, Gabrielle will know exactly where you got that halter from. Then, how're you gonna explain that one?"
Xena let out an exasperated breath. The weapons master was right. She killed the scout, her dirty laundry would be aired in public. There was no way she could explain how she'd gotten her hands on another Amazon's halter. A very well endowed Amazon's halter.
"What were you thinking?" Xena snarled out, uncurling her fingers. Solari fell to the floor at her feet in an unceremonious heap. "Nephele's breasts are huge! There's a reason her nickname is Mt. Olympus!"
"I - uh - I - " Solari desperately looked to Eponin for help. A smack to the back of the head by Xena had her turning back to the warrior princess again. "What? She's your bondmate! I'd think you'd know her size!"
"I didn't unwrap it. I trusted you when you said you had the perfect gift."
"Yeah?" Solari momentarily brightened at the revelation that Xena trusted her. Until an answering scowl wiped that smile right off her face. "Well, how am I supposed to know her size? It's not like I go around looking at my Queen's - " Solari's face paled and she helplessly gestured at her own chest area.
"And, you better not start, either!" Xena popped her in the back of the head again. She started to give her another one for good measure, but Solari ducked, shielding her head with both hands and arms. "Hey, what's this?"
Expecting a trick, Solari only half-lowered one arm, just enough so she could peer up. Xena was standing beside the nightstand, peering into the silver bowl she'd been tending to earlier. Still wary, Solari slowly climbed to her feet. Xena picked up a nearly full bottle of oil and uncorking it, held it beneath her nose and took an extremely large sniff.
"Umm," Solari picked up the spoon she'd been using off the floor and surreptitiously wiped it on her leathers before placing it back in the bowl and gently stirring. "It's a scented oil."
Solari lifted out a spoonful of the scented oil. Asking permission with her eyes first, the scout reached out and took Xena by the hand. Holding the spoon over the warrior's forearm, she dribbled a small amount of the liquid onto Xena's skin. Replacing the spoon in the bowl, she used the fingers of both hands to knead the oil into Xena's flesh.
"Hey, that feels really good."
"As the oil penetrates the skin, it works to help relax tired, overworked muscles." Solari dipped another spoonful onto Xena's other forearm and kneaded.
Xena had to work hard to suppress a groan of appreciation as the oil seeped into her pores, aided by Solari's firm touch. Then, through heavy-lidded eyes, she spotted the low-burning candles strategically placed on the nightstand.
A dark brow arched over a blue eye. "Aww, Solari, tell me you aren't one of those new-age Amazons."
There was a snigger from where Eponin was standing at the end of the bed, repeatedly running her fingers through the palm fronds of one of Solari's plants. "Stop that," she ordered, slapping at the weapons master's hand. To her consternation, the warrior abandoned toying with the palm frond only to pick up a silk-covered pillow and begin playing with the decorative tassels.
"It's not like that, Xena," Solari said, snatching the pillow from Eponin's grasp and tossing it towards the other side of the bed. "The candles are just to heat the oil." Seeing the unconvinced look, the scout felt the need to explain. "Okay, imagine this. A beautiful woman stretched out on her stomach on the bed, her back bare, a thin sheet sliding low on her hips. You with me so far?"
Xena and Eponin could do little more than wordlessly nod their heads as they were both already picturing the women that got their hearts to racing in the position the scout had just described.
Solari continued, her voice dropping to a sensual pitch. "The feel of the heated oil as it's spread over a well-defined back, fingers giving a deep-tissue massage. Working knotted muscles. Slowly, she begins to relax beneath the touch. Eyes drift closed, a murmur of appreciation escapes her lips. Hands drift lower, massaging, kneading that little divot in the small of her back. She arches beneath the touch. The sheet slides lower." Seeing both warriors with their eyes locked on the bed as though they could see their lovers there, Solari finished with a cocky grin, "Then, my fingers slip down and beneath that sheet to get at what I wanted all along, anyway."
The spell effectively broken, warrior princess' and weapons master's eyes both rapidly blinked. Xena was the first to recover her composure. "So, the heated oil massage is just an excuse for you to get beneath a set of leathers?" Xena grinned. "Always knew there was a reason I liked ya!" The slap Xena delivered to Solari's back nearly sent the brunette Amazon doubling over.
"Yeah, that's our randy chief scout for you." Eponin picked up an extremely long feather off the bed, twirling it between her fingers as she contemplated how it would look in an Amazon mask. "Always looking for a way to score with the ladies," she good-naturedly laughed. Suddenly, the weapons master's laughter died away, the rakish grin fell from her lips, the feather she'd held between her fingers drooped. "Hang on! When we came in, you called out Devillare's name. You were expecting her."
"Ex-captain of the guard Devillare?" Xena asked around her laughter.
"Yes," Solari answered.
Both dark brows rose in surprise. "As in sits on the Council of Elders Devillare?"
"Yes," Solari grinned.
"Oh, Solari!" Xena gasped for breath. "She's gotta be twenty seasons older than you!"
"I know," Solari grinned, "Listen, there may be a little snow on the roof, but there's still a fire in the hearth, if you know what I mean."
"Hey! That's my mentor you're talking about," growled out Eponin, tossing the feather away and climbing onto the bed.
"Your - " Xena pointed a finger at Eponin. "So, you're - " here, she pointed at Solari " - trying to bed - " and, back to Eponin "Pony's adopted mama?"
Before Solari could answer, Eponin let out a fierce Amazon war-cry and leapt off the bed, throwing herself at the scout. Solari went down beneath the weapons master's bulkier weight. Determinedly, she jammed her open palm into Eponin's nose.
Stifling her laughter, Xena took the bowl of oil off the nightstand, along with the small silver spoon. She turned to go, then stopped long enough to reach back and also grab the bottle of oil. Gingerly, she picked her way around the ball of flying fists and feathers and headed towards the door.
Nightfall was edging closer and in the distance, the sounds of the big drums signaled the second evening of the Cupid's Day festival. Soon, Gabrielle would return to the royal hut to don her ceremonial leathers.
"There." Xena wiped her hands on her leathers and backed away towards the center of the hut. "All done."
With a critical eye, she surveyed her handiwork. The fur covers on the Queen's bed had been pulled down in preparation, towels spread out over the straw-filled mattress. The bowl she'd taken from Solari's hut rested in the center of a small table Xena had dragged over beside the bed. The contents of the bowl simmered beneath the heat of a dozen candles the warrior had strategically surrounded the bowl with. The empty bottle sat nearby, the colored glass catching and reflecting the glow of the candlelight.
Xena turned in a slow circle. The entire hut was awash in candlelight. No small feat, considering she'd spent most of the afternoon collecting and placing nearly a hundred-score candles about the interior. Then, had come the time-consuming task of lighting them all.
But, it'll be time well spent if it gets me back in Gabrielle's good graces. And, her bed.
"Sorry the council session ran so long, Gabrielle," Ephiny apologized as she walked beside her friend.
"It's okay, Ephiny. We should have expected as much. I mean, Gods knows some of the elders are such sticklers for propriety."
"Mmm." Ephiny chewed her bottom lip, thoughtfully. "Still, you'd think they'd realize we aren't trying to do away with tradition. We're merely trying to update some of the ceremonies."
"Yeah. I mean, who really wants to be whipped with palm fronds in a sweat lodge as part of a purification ceremony every third moon, anyway?"
"Actually," Ephiny gave a wry smirk, "I'm rather fond of that one."
"Oh?" Two blonde brows shot up towards a hairline. "I didn't know you were into kinky, Ephiny." With a saucy wink, she added, "Guess it all depends on the size of the palm frond, huh?"
Ephiny pulled up in her tracks, her mouth dropping open as she dumbly stared at her queen. Gabrielle took no notice of her regent's flustered state, continuing down the path along the familiar route back to her hut. "Come on," she urged, looking back over her shoulder at a still-stunned Ephiny, "Hurry up or we'll be late for the celebration."
"You're the Queen, Gabrielle!" Ephiny called out as she jogged to catch up with her friend, "I doubt they'll start without us!"
As they approached the Queen's hut, Ephiny moved ahead of Gabrielle, reaching for the hide covering to move it away from the entranceway. As she lifted the flap with one arm, a ball of flame came hurtling out of the hut, immediately engulfing the hide covering. Gabrielle reacted instantly, knocking her regent to the ground and throwing handfuls of loose soil over Ephiny's armguard in an effort to extinguish the flames. Feeling the waves of searing heat pouring over them, Gabrielle grabbed Ephiny beneath her arms and somehow managed to drag them both away.
Both Amazons lay prone on the ground, staring at the structure even as the sound of alarm went up. Thick, black smoke billowed from the window and beneath the framework. Bits of thatched roofing peeled back as embers caught and burned the dry straw. An ominous orange glow filled the night sky above the structure as the flames crackled and popped.
"Um, Gabrielle?" Ephiny coughed as the thick smoke invaded her throat, searing her lungs. "I think you're gonna need a new set of ceremonial leathers."
Eponin rolled over onto her back, throwing her forearm across her eyes in an attempt to ward off the first rays of dawn's light edging over the horizon and directly through her open window. Dimly, as her body began to waken against her wishes, she became aware of the chill morning air prickling at her skin. Blindly, she reached for her blanket.
The weapons master fairly leapt from her bed, grabbing a weapon from beneath her mattress and instinctively landing in a fighter's stance. Shaking the last vestiges of sleep away, she worked to focus her double vision into one image.
"Keep it down, would ya?" An equally bleary-eyed warrior princess mumbled as she sat upright, the blanket pooling about her waist. Holding a hand to her throbbing head, she stared at the Amazon crouched in the center of the room, wearing nothing more than a handful of feathers and sporting a knife. "What's going on?" she asked, warrior's body instantly on alert for an attack.
"What're you doin' in my bed?" Eponin scowled, throwing her knife so the blade embedded itself in the wall above the headboard.
"Queen's hut burned to the ground last night, remember? Gab's staying with Ephiny. You said I could stay with you."
"I said you could sleep on the floor."
Looking about, finding her leathers and boots piled together on the floor, Eponin began hurriedly dressing.
"Yeah, well the floor's uncomfortable," Xena shrugged. Reaching beneath herself, pulling out a three-quarters empty flask of wine, she grimaced, "Bed ain't much more comfortable, if you ask me."
"Well, nobody asked ya." Eponin reached out, snatching the flask out of Xena's grasp. Uncorking it, she upended it, draining the remaining contents in one swallow. "Just like nobody asked ya to share my bed."
"Anyone ever tell you that you're a grumpy bear first thing in the morning, Ep?"
Xena swung her long legs over the side of the bed. As she did so, the blanket fell away, revealing her full body length to Eponin. Her full, naked body length. Eponin spun around, desperately searching for another flask of wine.
Catching the reaction, Xena smirked. Bracing her hands on the edge of the mattress, she started to push herself up. As she did, sensitive ears picked up on a crinkling sound. The kind of sound Gabrielle's scrolls made when she sometimes rolled over onto them in her sleep. Curious as to what the weapons master might be reading, she thrust her hand beneath the mattress and pulled out a thin sheet of parchment.
Pony heard the unmistakable sound, hurriedly turned around and rushed to take the parchment from Xena's grasp.
It was too late.
"Ep?" Puzzled blue eyes looked up, meeting Eponin's embarrassed gaze. "What's this?"
"None of your business."
Eponin tried to snatch the parchment from Xena's grasp. Xena was able to easily hold the parchment out of the shorter Amazon's reach. Moving to the open window, she held the scroll up to the sunlight where she could see it better.
Not a scroll. A drawing. Xena's eyebrow slowly rose. It was a drawing of the Amazons' weapons master, posing with her warrior's mask pushed back on top of her head, her sword drawn . . . and wearing nothing else save a very skimpy ceremonial loincloth.
"Ep, it's . . . it's . . . "
" . . . private."
Xena somberly passed the wrinkled parchment back to Eponin. Pony gingerly took it in both hands. Crossing the room, she opened a weapons chest. Lifting out the top layer, she carefully tucked the parchment inside, replaced the weapons and closed the lid. Then, she turned around and sat down on the chest.
"Couple of seasons ago." Eponin shrugged. "That's traditional costume for masking ceremonies. Anyway, Eph made the comment that I looked really good in that gear." Suddenly, Eponin was very interested in staring at the tops of her boots. "Anyway, there was this artist in the village that made drawings and stuff. And, I asked her to - "
"But you never gave it to Ephiny?" Xena guessed.
"Yeah. Well." Eponin's words trailed off.
"Damn, Pony. You got it bad, don't you?"
Whiskey-hued eyes looked up at the warrior princess. "Just don't tell anyone, okay, Xena?"
Eponin's idea had been brilliant. Whether she realized it or not. The only thing holding her back was that she hadn't had the nerve to present her gift to Ephiny.
Xena had the experience, the confidence that the Amazon weapons master lacked in the sexual arena. There was nothing else in all the world like the female body. Nothing more powerful, beautiful or alluring. It was Helen's face that launched a thousand ships. It was the voice of the Sirens that lured sailors to their doom. It was Aphrodite's visage that caused countless sculptors and artisans to take up their tools in an effort to capture the goddess' image.
A woman's beauty could rule the world. Xena knew this to be true. After all, hadn't she once bent even the God of War to her charms? It was this knowledge that made the warrior princess a sexual predator. And, what gave Xena the courage to do what Eponin had been unable to.
Not only do, but to go one step farther, in true Xena fashion. Whereas Eponin had merely had a drawing on parchment commissioned, Xena would give life to her art.
Any time now. A glance out the window at the position of the sun confirmed that it was a candlemark past sunrise. If she ran true to schedule, Gabrielle would have just finished breakfast at the dining hut and would be heading to her office to organize her morning scrolls that she would need to take with her to the council sessions.
Removing the last of her armor, Xena somersaulted onto the wooden desk in Gabrielle's office. She positioned herself carefully, laying full length on the pine, being careful to avoid creasing any of Gabrielle's parchment. Hearing footsteps outside the door, the warrior princess had just enough time to reach for her sword before the hide covering was pushed aside.
"Conquer this, if you can, Queen of the Amazons," was offered up with a sultry smile and a purr.
"Xena?" Gabrielle stopped dead in her tracks, her mouth dropping open at the sight of her warrior sprawled on top of her desk. Her very naked warrior, holding her sword cradled in her arms as though she would a lover.
Gabrielle's sudden stop caused Ephiny to plow into her backside. As did the elder behind Ephiny. And the elder behind that elder. And . . .
"Uh-oh." Xena's eyes widened in surprise as Gabrielle's office was soon filled with the Queen, the Regent and the entire Council of Elders.
Rolling off and beneath the table, the warrior princess scrambled to gather up her clothing before making a frantic rush for the door. Elbowing her way past the regent and elders, she felt more than one set of fingers reach out and pinch her bare bottom. To add insult to injury, she heard one of them tell Gabrielle, "Hope you've got a spare quill, your majesty."
"No. No way. No how. Absolutely, positively not in a thousand lifetimes."
"Solari, come on. Look, it can't fail." Placing a comradely arm about the scout's broad shoulders, she cajoled, "You've heard the way to a woman's heart is through her stomach, right? That phrase was coined especially for your Queen. What better way to fill her appetite than with a romantic meal?"
Solari nearly gave into those baby blues batting at her; then she came to her senses. "Xena, no. You've already burned down the Queen's residence. I won't have you burn down the dining hut, too."
"Aww, come on, Solari." Crossing her fingers behind her back, Xena swore, "My cooking skills aren't that bad."
"Xena." The chief scout continued to block the doorway, hands on her hips as she resolutely stared the warrior princess down. "By the Gods, Xena, if we let you near the cook tent, you could be single-handedly responsible for starving the entire Amazon Nation to death."
"You want another black eye to go with that one you're already sporting, scout? I can tell Pony you've been making goo-goo eyes at her mama again."
"Call it anything you want." A smug smile caressed Xena's lips. "Either Gabrielle gets her romantic dinner or Eponin gets an earful."
"Fine." Solari let out a long-suffering sigh. "But, I'm not letting you anywhere near an open flame. You bring back whatever you want to feed the Queen and I'll make sure someone cooks it for you. Better yet, I'll cook it myself."
"Thanks, Soli." Xena slapped the scout on the back as she lifted the Amazon's bow and quiver of arrows off her shoulder. Before Solari could reconsider her decision, Xena had disappeared into the waiting forest.
Gabrielle emerged from the river, water cascading from her hair as she picked her way to the bank. Grabbing a cloth hanging off the limb of a nearby tree, she leisurely toweled off the droplets lingering on her arms, legs and torso.
"This was such a good idea you had."
"What?" asked Ephiny from where she was sunning atop a flat boulder. "You mean skipping out on today's council session to go skinny-dipping?"
"Now that you mention it, yeah." Gabrielle chuckled as she imagined the looks on the elders' faces when they reconvened after lunch only to discover both their queen and regent absent. And unlikely to be found any time soon, either. Gabrielle had seen Ephiny slip one of the royal guards a dinar to look the other way while they made their escape. She glanced over to see Ephiny give a wide yawn and close her eyes, a relaxed smile forming on her lips. Uptight, duty-bound Ephiny, playing hooky; who would've thought it? "You do this sort of thing often?"
"Nah, only when things get too overbearing. Sometimes I just need a chance to get away from the village and everything going on there, you know?"
"Yeah, I guess so." Gabrielle slipped her skirt on over her still-damp skin. "Sometimes, I think Xena and I tend to get a little burned out on the road, righting wrongs all the time, fighting evil. Don't get me wrong; it's important, the work that we're doing."
Ephiny lifted her head, shielding her eyes from the mid-day sun as she idly watched Gabrielle getting dressed. "But?" she prompted.
"But," Gabrielle sat on the ground at the base of the boulder Ephiny was decadently stretched out upon. Leaning back, tilting her head, she looked up into hazel eyes curiously peering down at her. "But, we're so busy fixing everyone else's lives, that sometimes, I think we lose sight of ours."
"Uh-huh." Blonde brows knitted beneath the regent's braided crown. "You feeling a little under-appreciated by any chance?"
"I don't know. Maybe." Gabrielle shrugged. "I mean, I know Xena loves me. But- "
"She doesn't always show it?"
Gabrielle gave a very un-queenly snort. "That's an understatement. Xena's idea of foreplay is sharpening her sword in the bedroll."
"Ouch." Ephiny winced in empathy. "Give her time, Gabrielle, she'll come around. You know how stubborn warriors can be. And, Gods know they aren't going to talk about their feelings."
"Yeah, ain't that the truth, Eph? I think it took me more than a year to get her to string more than three words together in a conversation. Gods knows how long - " Gabrielle's voice trailed off as there was a rustling sound coming from the bushes. Peering closely, she was just able to make out a splash of brown. "Eph?" she asked, reaching up and rapping Ephiny's flank with her knuckles.
Ephiny cocked her head to the side as she listened closely. At first, she thought perhaps Pony and Xena had trailed her and Gabrielle to the river and were spying on them from the bushes. Then, she realized if it had been their warriors, neither one of them would've ever heard their approach in the first place. She started to slide off her boulder, her intention to retrieve her sword from where it lay on top of her pile of clothing some ten paces away.
Kneeling down, bracing one arm on her thigh, she intently studied the ground. Experienced eyes picked out more than half a dozen tracks, some of them hardly more than a mark beneath a brittle leaf on the forest floor. Lightly, fingertips traced the outline of one print.
Moving forward, still in a crouch, she followed a lone set of tracks. The sound of rustling leaves caught her attention. Head raising, she openly sniffed the air. She gently eased an arrow from the bag slung over her shoulder and laid it across the string of the bow she loosely held in her grasp.
An enigmatic smile formed on full lips. "I've got ya now." Staying low, Xena crept forward, her bowarm already drawing the arrow back until she felt the tension in the string and in the muscles of her arm.
Gabrielle sensed Ephiny's movement, held up a hand to stop her. Slowly, Gabrielle rose to her feet. A nose poked out from the bushes. Then, a front leg. Gabrielle held her position, almost afraid to take a breath. Two ears gradually emerged. It seemingly took forever, but eventually, a deer emerged from the bushes.
The doe spotted Gabrielle and froze. Gabrielle remained rooted to the spot, stuck somewhere between the deer's escape into the forest and the river. In slow motion, Gabrielle raised her arm, palm extended.
"It's okay, I won't harm you."
Gabrielle continued to coax the doe, speaking to it in hushed tones until it eventually relented and approached her, cautiously sniffing.
"One of Artemis' deer, Gabrielle." Ephiny could scarcely believe her eyes. In all her seasons as an Amazon, she'd never seen someone charm one of her goddess' creatures as easily as her little queen just had. "A very good omen for the tribe."
Solari tracked Xena to the river, Eponin trailing along right behind her. They found the warrior princess sitting on the steepest part of the embankment, legs dangling over the edge. She was randomly tossing stones, sending them skimming along the surface of the water before sinking. The two Amazons silently sat down on either side of her.
It was a quarter candlemark later before Solari finally said, "Damn odd way of fishing you got there, Xena."
Eponin quickly caught on. Making a showing of looking at the ground about them, she noted, "Looks like you've been at it all morning and ain't caught a single fish, yet."
Xena ignored them, continuing to silently chunk her rocks.
"Maybe it's like hunting, Soli?" Eponin asked, leaning around Xena to better see the scout.
"Could be," Solari shrugged. "Maybe she's planning on hitting one in the head with a stone and then grabbing it as it floats unconscious to the surface."
Eponin snickered. "Yeah, then she's gonna wrap a bandage about its little fins and toss it back."
"You wanna end up swimming with the fishes?" Xena drawled, giving the weapons master an icy look.
Wisely, Eponin chose to back away from the edge of the embankment. "I was just teasing, Xena. No need to get riled."
"Yeah, we were just having a little fun," there was a heartbeat before Solari added, "dear."
Solari burst out laughing at her own pun. Eponin stoically tried to hold it in for as long as she could, but then lost it, ending up rolling on the ground, clutching at her midsection as hearty chuckles racked her body.
"Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, you two."
Xena knew as soon as word about what happened reached these two, she wouldn't hear the end of it. Not that she could blame them. If the situation had been reversed, Gods knows she wouldn't let either of them live it down. Then again, what were the odds of anyone else tracking a lone deer through the forest for candlemarks, waiting for the perfect shot, only to realize as soon as she loosed the arrow that her lover was petting the very same animal she was trying to make dinner out of?
She tossed another stone, harder than the others she'd thrown. It skimmed the surface of the river in two bounces and then hit a tree on the opposite bank before disappearing.
"Gods, I don't even need a kitchen to ruin dinner."
Noting the head hung low, the stooped shoulders, the dejected voice, Eponin and Solari instantly sobered. Feeling bad for having made fun, they both sat down in their respective places on either side of Xena again. All three sat staring out at the river for several long heartbeats.
Then, Solari said, "Sorry you're having such a rough time of it, Xena." Several more heartbeats passed before she added in a timid voice, "Maybe romance just isn't your thing?"
"Yeah," Eponin piped in. "As romantically challenged as you are, maybe you should think about getting some help."
"That's what I came to you two idiots for."
"No, professional help." The weapons master rubbed at the spot on the back of her head where Xena had just popped her one. "I mean, you supposedly talk to the Gods all the time, right? Why don't you just ask Aphrodi-ummmphhhhh....."
With a start, Xena realized which name was rolling off Eponin's tongue and hastily clamped a hand over Pony's mouth. Too late. The Goddess of Love's arrival was heralded by a flash of light and pink sparkles.
"Warrior-babe!" The pink-clad goddess squealed in delight. "And, like, more warrior babes!"
Aphrodite waggled her fingers at the stunned Amazons. Eponin was able to recover enough to return a little wave and somehow make it to her feet. Solari just sat there dumbfounded, her mouth opening and closing in succession, mimicking the fish she was referencing earlier.
"Got it in one, sweetcheeks." The goddess slowly circled Eponin, her eyes openly traveling up and down the weapons master's toned body. She paused behind Ep, one hand encircling her waist, long nails tracing an idle pattern on taut abdominal muscles. Leaning over Eponin's shoulder, breathing in the shell of an ear, she husked out, "And, like, I so totally mean sweetcheeks."
Aphrodite giggled at the reaction she was receiving. She did so love making an entrance . . . and Gods knows mortals were just so easy sometimes. The warrior she'd just groped had jumped nearly two feet in the air and was now turning at least five different shades of red. The other warrior babe was still standing there in shock, staring at the goddess, her mouth working, but no sound coming out. And, Xena? Xena was rubbing a calloused hand over her face in exasperation.
Having attained a suitable reaction to her entrance, Aphrodite stood with one arm draped over a still blushing Eponin's shoulders and asked, "So, like, who needs to be touched by the Goddess of Love?"
"Aphrodite," Xena got out between tightly clenched teeth, "I don't need your touch. Or, anything else you might be offering."
"Course you don't, sweetie!" The goddess flashed a brilliant smile. "You've already got a bardster." Eyes twinkled as Aphrodite glanced around. "So, like, where is your little honey-bunny, anyway?" Not receiving an immediate answer and seeing the look on the warrior's face, an unsettling feeling immediately began to take root in Aphrodite's godliness. "Xena?" she warily asked, "What have you done to Gabrielle?"
"Flowers," Aphrodite declared with a nod of her head that sent blonde voluminous curls bouncing, "Definitely flowers."
"No offense, but are you sure?" Eponin cast a nervous glance at her buddy. "I mean, she shot an arrow at the Queen. I would think she'd need something a little . . . well, more."
"Flowers can fix anything," With a giggle and a smile that emphasized her dimples, Aphrodite added, "Trust me, this is what I do for a living." Spotting the still skeptical look, Aphrodite draped her arm about Pony's broad shoulders and asked, "How'd that moonlit ride ending with that picnic basket at the waterfall work out, anyway?"
Both of the weapons master's eyebrows made a path for her hairline. "You know about that?"
"Well, duh! I am, like, the goddess of love. You warriors wouldn't have a romantic thought in your heads if I didn't put it there, sweetcheeks!"
"Flowers?" Xena's jaw muscle twitched as she mulled over the idea. "Flowers will make things right with Gabrielle again?"
Aphrodite dismissed the concern in the warrior princess' tone with a wave of her hand. "Oh, yeah, most definitely."
Xena bit her lip in contemplation, then nodded her head in acceptance. "Then, it looks like I'm gathering flowers."
"Way to go, warrior babe," Aphrodite said with a wink. Gods knew it wasn't always easy to get a warrior to listen to advice, let alone take it.
"A - A - Aphrodite?" Solari finally managed to stumble out.
"Oooh, look who's finally joined the party, Ms. Fashionably Late." Seeing the deer caught in the bowsight's look still on the Amazon's face, Aphrodite detached herself from Eponin and sauntered towards Solari.
Solari knew she was blatantly staring. But, she couldn't stop herself. A blonde goddess clad in a shimmering pink nightie was coming straight towards her. She was all curvaceous hips and voluptuous breasts with dazzling eyes, a brilliant smile and a pert nose. And, when she winked at her; Solari's heart dropped into her stomach.
Fully cognizant of the Amazon's discomfort, Aphrodite flashed a wicked grin. Oh, mortals are just so fun sometimes. Stopping directly in front of the speechless woman, Aphrodite reached for the clasp at the front of Solari's halter and toyed with it.
"Aphrodite, back off before you make the poor woman's heart give out," Xena warned, arms folded over her chest, impatiently glaring at the goddess and the flabbergasted Amazon scout.
"Ex-squeeze me, but you've had your allotted daily allowance of a goddess' time. Now, it's someone else's turn." Dropping her voice an octave, Aphrodite said, "I like your style, Amazon babe. Nice touch with the silk veils and the bedposts last night." Fingers trailing over the edge of Solari's halter, she added, "Have I got some totally bodacious stuff to show you later, girlfriend."
Unable to speak, unable to think, poor Solari couldn't do anything else save promptly faint. Aphrodite smiled and waved farewell to the other two mortals before disappearing in a shower of her customary pink sparkles. However, the goddess of love's lilting laughter lingered long after her heavenly presence was gone.
Gabrielle and Ephiny both immediately slowed their pace. Xena was standing outside the regent's doorway, one hand clutched behind her back. Spotting Gabrielle, the warrior offered up a tumultuous smile before suddenly dropping her gaze, almost bashfully staring at the toes of her boots.
Ephiny nudged Gabrielle towards the waiting warrior while she lingered a ways back. Spotting Eponin idly standing beneath a distant tree, eating an apple, she joined the weapons master. Leaning into and against Pony, Ephiny gave her warrior a lingering kiss. As she drew back, she stole Eponin's apple and took a sharp bite.
The blatant theft of her lunch didn't bother Eponin. As a matter of fact, anyone who witnessed the exchange between the usually stoic weapons master and the regent could swear whole-heartedly from the grin on Pony's face that she didn't mind a bit.
"Cute couple," Xena observed as Ephiny next held the apple to Eponin's mouth so she could in turn take a bite.
"Noticed that all on your own, Xena?"
Uh-oh. Gabrielle's tone was short and clipped, the way it was for moons after Xena used a small corner of her scroll in the bushes that day. Not knowing what else to do, the warrior pulled her arm from behind her back and abruptly thrust it out at Gabrielle.
"I got these." Xena cast a critical eye at the crumpled bouquet of wildflowers. They weren't wilted when I picked them. "For you. To apologize for the whole shooting an arrow at you thing."
Gabrielle had instinctively reached out and taken the crushed flowers, her lips bowing into a smile. Then, when Xena's attempt at an apology reached her ears, "It wasn't just me, Xena." Slapping the bouquet against Xena's breast armor, she said, "I can't believe you shot one of Artemis' sacred deer!"
"How was I to know, Gabrielle? All deer pretty much look the same." Xena paused from trying to disentangle the stems and leaves from her breastplate long enough to point out, "Give it a moon or two at most and it'll be running around the forest again, doing whatever it is sacred deer do."
"That's your answer, Xena?"
"Well, yeah." The warrior shrugged. "How about a little credit, Gabrielle? I've never tried to give a deer medical treatment before. What do you want from me?"
Gabrielle's fists clenched and unclenched, her face turned red. Counting to five to bide her time, she raked a hand through her blonde hair. "What do I want from you, Xena? What do I want from you?" At the warrior's blank expression, she exploded, "You'd think after all these seasons together, you'd have some idea what it is that I'd want from you!"
Suddenly overcome with anger, Gabrielle snatched back the bouquet of flowers and repeatedly hit Xena about the head and upper body with them. Unwilling to raise a hand to her bard, Xena merely reacted defensively, raising her arms to protect her face. Finally, she gave up and simply turned her back on Gabrielle, storming away from the regent's hut.
Seeing Xena's furious approach, Ephiny quickly said her goodbyes to Eponin and scampered away. A glance back at the tree confirmed the sight of the warrior princess stalking up to the weapons master, grabbing her by the front of her halter and dragging her away.
"What was that about?" Ephiny asked as she joined her queen.
"Xena brought flowers."
"So, you beat her over the head with them?" Ephiny asked, gaze flicking to the abused bouquet still clutched in Gabrielle's grasp. "Gods know I have the same reaction every time Pony brings me flowers." At Gabrielle's resounding glare, the regent gestured towards the door. "Come on, if you're gonna kill the regent, at least do it within the privacy of my own hut."
Gabrielle followed the taller Amazon inside. Staring dead center at her regent's back, she asked, "I suppose you think I was a little harsh on her. But, you don't know Xena; you didn't hear her. She can just be so flip sometimes. If I thought her apology was sincere . . . but, really; how hard is it to pick a bouquet of wildflowers and mumble I'm sorry?"
"Umm, Gabrielle. I think maybe you should see this."
Ephiny moved out of Gabrielle's line of sight. Green eyes went wide at the sight. The regent's hut was filled to brimming over. Flowers were everywhere. Some were held in containers of water, lined along the edge of the walls. Others were scattered on top of the clothes chest, the weapons chest, even the dresser located near the bed.
Knees going weak, Gabrielle sat down in the nearest chair. She fingered the flowers in her grasp, caressing the broken stems, wincing at the various bruised petals.
Ephiny crinkled her nose up as the combined fragrances of the difference flowers assaulted her senses. "Damn, Gabrielle, did she pick clean the entire field?"
"Welcome to life with a warrior princess." Gabrielle gave a half-smile as her gaze leisurely roamed over the room of wildflowers. Unexpectedly, she sneezed. "She's nothing if not intense."
"I know what you're thinking, Eph. Sometimes a little intensity can be a good thing. And - " Gabrielle sneezed again. "And, sometimes it can be exhausting."
Ephiny didn't say anything, merely arched her brow in response.
Sighing heavily, Gabrielle asked her regent, "You think I've been too hard on her, don't you?"
Ephiny knelt before her queen. Taking Gabrielle's hands in both of hers, thumbs caressing over smooth skin, she gazed up into the red eyes of her queen. "It doesn't matter what I think, Gabrielle. That's a question only you can answer."
Ephiny winced as another sneezed racked Gabrielle's frame. Followed by another. Then, another. Embarrassed, the blonde bard wiped her nose with the back of her hand. Then, she sneezed again.
"Go on, get out of here." Used to dealing with stubborn warriors, undaunted by Xena's superior stature, Megara shooed the raven haired woman out the hospice door. "Already told you; Queen Gabrielle's resting."
"I just want to see her," Xena protested as the healer somehow managed to back her out onto the porch and down the steps.
"Let her rest now and you'll be able to. Tomorrow eve."
"Tomorrow - " Xena's voice rose a notch " - eve?"
"For the finale of the Cupid's Day festival. Already told the regent. She'll be able to preside over the closing ceremonies." Megara placed both hands on the porch railing, blocking the path with her wider body in case the Queen's consort got any cute ideas about trying to get past her and back inside. "If the swelling's gone down enough."
Having delivered her diagnosis, the healer turned on her heel and climbed the steps leading up to the hospice's entryway. Dumbfounded, Xena silently watched her go. As soon as Megara disappeared, she turned and punched the nearest tree.
"Hey, Warrior-babe! Thought I pop in and check the progress!" The upbeat voice heralded the arrival of the Goddess of Love. Her eyes went wide as she saw Xena repeatedly hitting a tree with her closed fist, her knuckles split open and bloody. "Whoa, like, easy there, sweetcheeks! You'll totally bruise your delicate mortal flesh."
Xena gave the tree a few more erratic punches, taking small satisfaction in the bits of bark sent flying off beneath her assault. At last, chest heaving, sweat dripping from her brow, arms aching, she leaned face first against the trunk. Weakly, she gave the pine a resounding slap with her open palm before turning and sliding down to sit at the base of the tree.
"Ouch! Guess the flowers didn't make your sweetie swoon?"
Xena lolled her head back, looking up at the goddess. She wanted so badly to lash out at the perky blonde, but found in the end that she lacked both the strength and the desire.
Finally, she just settled on, "Gabrielle's in the hospice. Healer said she's never seen such a severe allergic reaction to wildflowers."
"Like total bummer, babe. That should have totally wooed your bard." Aphrodite deposited both hands on her hips, tapping her foot as she contemplated the failure of her plan. Then, her gaze settled on the image of the brooding warrior sitting on the ground at her feet and her eyes narrowed. "Just how many flowers did you use?"
By the time the sleeping herbs finally wore off and Gabrielle woke up, it was full dark. To her relief, the sneezing seemed to have stopped. And, the swelling had gone down enough so that she could see through more than just a sliver in her eyelashes.
The rash still persisted, though. Reaching for the mixture of lotion Megara had left for her on the stand beside the cot, Gabrielle liberally poured the green gel onto her open palm. Generously coating her skin, she fought the urge to scratch.
It started as just a light rub. Then, a little harder. And a little more. Until she was full out scratching her legs and arms and bare stomach. Ooh, yeah; right there . . . she struggled to reach an itching shoulder blade.
Something niggled at the edge of Gabrielle's senses, pulling her attention from her scratching. Wearily, cracking open one eye, she listened for the cause of the disturbance. At first, all she heard were the usual night sounds of the village. An owl hooting in the distance. A lone wolf howling at the moon. Someone reciting poetry about the Queen.
Both eyes flying as far open as possible, Gabrielle bolted upright. Struggling to climb from the bed, she inched her way towards the solitary window in her hospice room. Propping her elbows onto the window ledge, she stood on tiptoe to peer outside.
Across the way, standing beside a patch of bushes, she could just make out the silhouette of a lone figure. Squinting, she was able to discern the shape of a sword hilt protruding over a shoulder and the unmistakable outline of breast armor.
"Okay, you've got her attention." Eponin parted the bush she was hiding behind with the tips of her fingers. Sure enough, Gabrielle had been lured to the open window.
From her position crouched beside the weapons master, Solari held a crumpled parchment in her hands. Dutifully, Xena repeated the lines as Solari fed each one to her. Between Solari's halting words as she struggled to read the words by the dim light of the moon and Xena not following the proper stanza, the reciting came off as stilted.
She'd been practicing for most of the afternoon. Ever since Aphrodite had pried out of her what sort of things Gabrielle might appreciate. Obviously, food was at the top of the list. But, Xena had already bungled the romantic dinner fare. Finally, they'd stumbled upon the answer as Xena remembered Gabrielle saying something about how she liked the work of Sappho. But, having no ear for poetry, the warrior princess was suffering from an inability to remember her lines.
That's where Amazon One and Amazon Two came in, reflected Xena as she belatedly realized she would have been better off having one of the tribe's historians reading the scroll.
"Your heart lights up the room like a thousand beams of moonlight." Even from the the distance she was at, Xena thought she could see Gabrielle's eyes sparkling with tears of happiness. "My knees weaken with your applause . . . approach . . . " she hastily amended. "My knees weaken with your approach. I can't beat . .breathe."
Xena cast a furtive glance at the coconspirator bush. Solari helplessly shrugged as she stumbled over the next line. Keeping an eye, sensing Gabrielle's waning interest, Pony signaled for Xena to pick up the pace.
"Roses are red, my love. My eyes are a deep blue."
"What's she doing?" Eponin nudged Solari with her elbow.
"I don't know." Solari frantically searched the length of the parchment. "I can't find that verse."
"Honey is sweet, my love. I'd like to lick it off - "
"Well, it certainly ain't Sappho." Pony shook her head.
"I think she's gone off scroll, Ep."
"There was a young girl from Potadeia. If you saw her - "
"Gee, ya think, Soli?"
Solari's eyes rapidly darted away from the scroll she was still trying to make heads or tails out of as she recognized a well-known verse of a particularly bawdy limerick. Dropping the scroll, she hastily grabbed Eponin by the scruff of her halter and pulled her backwards out of the bushes. Under cover of darkness, both Amazon warriors ran for their lives.
Standing at the window, Gabrielle's expression had gradually changed from one of heartfelt adoration to outright horror. Face flushing crimson as Xena hit her stride and belted out a rhyme about the Amazon Queen's tight little ass, Gabrielle turned away from the window and determinedly made her way back across the room. Resolutely climbing back in bed, she pulled the blanket up to her shoulders.
Rolling over, she beat her pillow repeatedly with her closed fist, venting some of her pent-up frustrations. Then, at last, fluffing the down-filled pillow, she laid down, covering both ears in an attempt to block out her consort's off-colored poetry rendition.
Much to the tribe's relief, the final night of the Cupid's Day festival arrived with their beloved Queen able to preside over the closing ceremonies. Megara had deemed her sufficiently well enough to attend, providing she take things easy. As per tradition, Gabrielle had made a short speech extolling the tradition of the holiday and joining several couples in hand-fasting ceremonies. Then, she'd led the first dance, the lead scout standing in for the Queen's consort in her absence.
Solari led a winded Gabrielle from the dance circle and escorted her to the royal dais. The scout hastily deposited her queen in her chair and then hurried back to the dance circle.
Still feeling a little under the weather from her severe allergy attack and missing her consort despite her promise to herself not to, Gabrielle threw herself across the Queen's throne. Gratefully, she took the mug of wine one of the servers brought to her. Catching her breath, Gabrielle looked out upon the faces of her celebrating sisters.
Seated on her joint throne beside the Queen, Ephiny leisurely drank from her own mug of wine. Sitting in a chair beside her was the weapons master, the fingers of her right hand intertwined with Ephiny's left. The chair beside the Queen was conspicuously empty.
Xena watched from the privacy of the upper limbs of one of the trees flanking the perimeter of the ceremonial grounds. From her position, she was able to observe the entire celebration without fear of being seen in return.
"Like, why are you up here all by your lonesome instead of shaking your groove thing with your honey?"
Xena tried her best to ignore the shimmering goddess that had appeared on the branch beside her.
"Don't tell me the Sappho-thing didn't work, either!"
Xena's refusal to answer spoke volumes.
"You went overboard, didn't you?" Aphrodite pointed an accusing finger at the warrior. "You did, didn't you?"
There was a snort. "I just put my own spin on things."
"So, Sappho wasn't good enough for you?"
"There's something wrong with poetry that doesn't rhyme."
"One of the greatest poetresses of your time and you try to rewrite her work?" Aphrodite folded her arms across her chest in an exaggerated pout. "Typical. You do this all the time, you know."
"Try too hard. You take something simple and needlessly complicate it."
"No, I don't."
"Ex-squeeze me! You so do! Gabs told me about your need to try to find new and different ways to kill someone in a fight. And, how you don't like to use the same plan twice."
"I just figured if one bouquet of flowers was good, then ten - "
"A hundred was better."
"Why does it always have to be about doing it bigger and better than anyone else? Why can't you just do things like everyone else?"
Xena was more than taken aback by the normally flippant goddess' serious side. So much so that instead of becoming as defensive as she normally might, she found herself actually opening up to her.
"Because I look at Gabrielle and I wonder what it is that she sees in me. You know, she first tagged along after me because she wanted to be this bigger-than-life warrior. She said she wanted to be like me. So, I figure if I'm just like everyone else, she'll no longer want to be with me."
"See, I happen to know that's not true. Yes, she followed after the warrior babe. But, she fell in love with you. You need to show her that underneath all that leather and attitude there's a tender-hearted warrior."
"No offense, Aphrodite, but the tender-hearted warrior nearly killed the Queen of the Amazons."
"Okay, look. Forget warrior princess. Forget Queen. Just be yourself."
Chewing her bottom lip, Xena peered through the branches of the tree. The Amazons were drinking and dancing, celebrating the romance of the season. Eponin and Ephiny were well into their drinks, the regent having given up her throne and curled up on Pony's lap in her chair. Xena guessed there would be more than a score of love bites decorating the weapons master's neck when she called her training class to order in the morning.
She wasn't surprised to find Solari in the center of the dance circle. What did surprise her, however, was that the roguish chief scout was consorting not with a dancer, but with a distinguished elder. And, surprising her even more, Solari's arms were wrapped about Devillare's neck and the ex-captain's hands were on the scout's waist and there wasn't even a hint of impropriety.
Seated atop her throne, Gabrielle smiled as Amazons randomly approached the dais, laying gifts at the feet of their Queen in celebration. Gabrielle graciously thanked each warrior in turn. Although her lips were curved, her smile never reached her eyes.
"Go on," Aphrodite prodded, "Go to her."
"I - " Xena choked on the word " - can't."
"Huh. Thought for sure you had it in you." Aphrodite stood up from the branch she'd been reclining on, dusted herself off. "Let's face it, warrior babe, romance just isn't one of your many skills." She started to snap her fingers.
"Wait!" Xena reached out for the goddess. "That's it? You're just giving up?"
"Nothing more to be done," Aphrodite shrugged. "Sometimes, it just happens that way. Gotta know when to cut your losses. Now if you'll excuse me, there's a virgin in Thrace begging for my help." Snapping her fingers, the goddess of love disappeared.
The big drums had long since been retired for the evening. And, even the smaller drums were fading as the celebration slowly wound down. Couples that were still dancing around the fire circle were now moving at a much more sedate pace. Solari's feet were hardly moving as she leaned heavily on Devillare. Ephiny was curled up in Eponin's arms, her head resting on a broad shoulder, soft snores escaping her exhausted body.
Gabrielle continued to nurse her mug of wine. Her third. No, perhaps her fourth. Not that it mattered. Leaning back, dangling her legs over the arm of her throne, she lazily snapped her fingers for the serving girl to bring her another.
Abruptly, the drums stopped completely. All movement ceased as the Queen's consort stepped foot onto the ceremonial grounds. Keeping her eyes fixed firmly on Gabrielle, Xena approached the dais.
The warrior princess knelt on the cold ground before the Amazon Queen and bowed her head.
"My Queen, I regret that I have failed you and humbly request your forgiveness."
"Xena?" Gabrielle instantly sat upright and waved off the approaching serving girl.
Eponin nudged a bleary-eyed Ephiny awake.
Lifting her head, raising her eyes, Xena confessed, "I have tried all throughout the Cupid's Day celebration to prove myself worthy of your love. Time after time, though, all I've managed to do is prove just how unworthy of you I really am."
There was complete silence as Xena unsheathed her sword. Gabrielle's breath caught in her throat as her consort announced, "I have no gift fit to honor the Amazon Queen." She began breathing again when Xena laid the sword on the bottom step of the dais. "As a warrior, all I have is my sword and my life. I have nothing else to offer."
"But, you do, Xena." Gabrielle's voice trembled, but was still loud enough to reach every ear. "Offer me your heart."
"I can't." There were unshed tears forming in Xena's eyes. "I can't offer what you already possess, Gabrielle."
The words were scarcely past her lips before Gabrielle was off her throne and descending the dais steps. Kneeling on the ground in front of her warrior, she took Xena's face in both her hands and deeply kissed her. With trembling arms, Xena embraced her soulmate, planting feverish kisses along her forehead, her cheeks, her jaw.
All about them, Amazons watched their display, not seeing a warrior making a fool out of herself or a queen throwing herself at her consort's feet. But, rather two women deeply in love.
Sitting on the uppermost branch of a tree, a scantily clad goddess watched the scene below. "Way to go, warrior babe," she whispered. Then, with an air-blown kiss and a wink, she faded from view, leaving behind only a delighted giggle and a shower of heart-shaped sparkles.
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