DISCLAIMER: I do not pretend to take credit for Xena, Gabrielle or anything else that MCA/Universal holds the rights to. Everything else though, you can blame on an over active imagination and my own inquisitive nature :)
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

The Bet
By sHaYcH


Gabrielle was irritated. For the umpteenth time since she'd first followed Xena out of Poteidaia, someone had once again mistaken the bard as Xena's "property" and had offered to "purchase her services" for the evening. She supposed that she should be flattered, but the backhanded compliment was completely lost on the young woman at the moment. Because for the umpteenth time, Xena had not rid the prospective 'Romeo' of his preconceived ideas. Just once, she fumed, I'd like the Warrior Princess to be thought of as mine. However, she held her tongue. As mad as she was, she was not stupid enough to argue with Xena about her physical status in front of the aforementioned 'Romeo'.

"Aw, c'mon Xena. Just one candlemark? Please? I'll give you fifty dinars for her." The wine-soaked, rotten-toothed, wart-covered man wheedled.

Great, I'm not even worth a good pair of boots. What am I saying? Ooo. I just wanna hit something...

"I'm sorry, Maxentes, but Gabrielle is not for sale." The warrior woman smiled and winked conspiratorially at the disgusting man, "besides, I'm not *tired* of her yet."

Tired of me? Not bloody likely, not the cold as a fish Warrior Princess. Grumbled the bard to herself. Maxentes stared at Xena for a moment, then burst out laughing.

"Oh ho! Xena, I'm amazed! To think that you haven't scratched that itch yet?" He winked and nudged the warrior, "well, don'tcha worry she'll come arou...." His words trailed off at Xena's withering stare. "Sorry." He mumbled and ambled off towards the bar.

Oh, yes, I'd love to come around. Hah! Not in this lifetime, Gabrielle.

The tavern that the warrior and the bard had squeezed themselves into that evening was so much like the other taverns that they had passed through together that nothing about it stood out to make it remarkable. Except, of course, 'Romeo'. The two women finished their meals in silence, then made their way to the room they had acquired earlier.

After downing his fifth mug of port, Max decided that he really did want Xena's little 'slave' for the evening. However, when he finally staggered his way back to Xena's table, she and her 'slave' were already gone. "Get 'er once fer me." He slurred drunkenly and passed out.

"Damnit Xena, I am an Amazon Princess, why can't you treat me like one? Do you have to let everyone assume that I'm your slave?" Gabrielle wasted no time in confronting her friend once they had reached their room.

"Because, Gabrielle," answered the warrior distractedly while stowing her saddle bags, "its just easier this way."

"Easier? Easier! Oh, so as your equal I'm inconvenient? How enlightening. Perhaps "mistress" would prefer me out of her life completely if I'm such a bother!" The bard's eyes flashed dangerously.

Xena's head snapped around at the words "out of her life". Gods, no. Don't let her leave me!

"Of course not, Gabrielle." The warrior stopped fiddling with their gear and moved to stand in front of the angry bard. "I'm sorry. I got caught up in that "warlord" thing again, didn't I? Will you forgive me?" Xena looked into Gabrielle's bright green eyes and prayed. Gabrielle lifted her chin to meet the sincere gaze of the warrior. The bard's heart and anger melted away at the pleading look she saw in Xena's liquid blue eyes. The two women stood that way for the space of ten heartbeats, each silently asking the same unspoken questions. Finally, Gabrielle broke the silence.

"Its ok Xena. I just wish that you'd remember that I'm not a little girl anymore. I've been the Amazon Queen, y'know?"

Xena chuckled lightly. "Yes, Gabrielle, I'm very well aware of that fact." The warrior finished stowing their things, then stood still to allow her partner to remove her armor. "But it is easier to let people think that you are my 'slave' in places like this. Slavery isn't illegal here like it is in King Lias' realm and there are plenty of men who would pay large amounts of dinars for a beautiful young woman like you." Plenty of women too. I know that *I* would have, a few years ago. "People like Max respect power, not pleasantries. I would rather not humiliate you, but if that's what it takes to keep you safe, I'll do it. Understand?"

"I guess so," said the bard, "but I would still like to be seen as your equal sometimes." Gabrielle sighed resolutely as she finished removing the last of the warrior's armor. She then flopped onto the bed and pretended to go to sleep.

"Someday Gabrielle, maybe you'll understand that you are *more* than my equal." Xena whispered to herself as she crawled under the covers and curled protectively around her friend. A warm glow spread through Gabrielle's body at Xena's almost inaudible words. Not daring to disturb this moment of openness from her friend, Gabrielle said nothing, but instead sleepily snuggled up to the powerful body behind her.

Believing the bard to be asleep, Xena indulged herself in a rare examination of Gabrielle's face. She let her eyes drink in the smooth planes of the bard's rosy cheeks, followed the line of the strong and sometimes stubborn jaw to the gentle curve of the full lips, gazed across the bridge of Gabrielle's cute nose and came to a rest on the fluttering eyelids that masked the emerald green eyes she so longed to fall into. In the quiet, Gabrielle had drifted off and so did not feel the warrior's hesitant caress as she reached out and placed a single, callused fingertip on the bard's slightly parted lips. "Someday...." whispered the warrior.

Gabrielle had slipped into a familiar dream. She was lying on her bedroll, the firelight growing dim, when Xena knelt down beside her. Without speaking a word, the warrior covered her lips with soft, warm kisses. Enthusiastically, the bard returned the warrior's passionate embrace.

At first, the dream had shocked and frightened the bard, but over time she had grown to enjoy it, to welcome its familiarity and to miss it when it did not come. In the beginning, she hadn't understood how she could even imagine her friend touching her with desire, but after Xena had died and come back in the body of the King of Thieves, she had realized just how much she loved the warrior.

The bard moaned in her sleep, startling Xena and causing the warrior to quickly remove her caressing fingers. "Rest you well, my Gabrielle. May the arms of your dream lover hold you the way I cannot." With that softly spoken admission of love, the warrior clasped her bard close and fell into the arms of Morpheus.

"This sucks!" The bleach blond young man fumed. He was looking into a mirror that, instead of his own admittedly handsome face, showed the scene of Gabrielle and Xena sharing a bed. Yet once again, it was a chaste bed. Cupid slammed his fist into a nearby pillar causing hundreds of tiny cracks to appear. "What in Tartarus am I doing wrong!?" He raged. "I've riddled that leather-clad babe with so many of my arrows that she should look like a pin cushion!" Cupid pounded his palms against his forehead in frustration. "And that bard-chick. Man! I know she totally wants the warrior." He wracked his mind to try and figure out what or who could be interfering. Who could it be? Who would mess with his plans?


"Like what?" In a shower of bright sparks, Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, Beauty Queen of Olympus and Meddler Extraordinaire materialized.

"Have you been messing with my stuff again?"

"No way babe. I've been like, way too busy to play with your toys, Cupid."

"Aw Hades Mom." Cupid's shoulders drooped disconsolately.

"Hey, what's up, kid?" Aphrodite's face grew concerned at seeing her son so down.

"Oh, mom its like, so uncool. I've been like, trying to do something major cool and it just seems to keep fizzling."

"Bummer deal, son."

"Totally. I feel like such a loser. I can't even seem to get two people that are so obviously gone for each other to do more than make moon-eyes." The young god sighed and closed his eyes. "Maybe I need to chill someplace for a few millennia." Aphrodite regarded her son's dejected figure for a moment before slapping him sharply across the face. "Hey, what in Hades was that for?"

"To get you to stop feeling sorry for yourself. Now, tell me about this "major cool" thing you're trying to do."

"Well, you see, its like this: A couple of years ago I was doin my thing with the arrows and Ares came along and sorta dissed on me, sayin that my powers were weak and unnecessary and would never be as useful and cool as his were. So I says 'Like no way man.' and he says 'Way.' and I says 'Dude, the power of love is way more ragin than anything you can do.' and he says 'Oh, yeah? Let's prove it. I challenge you to a duel.' And I was like, uh-oh, I'm gonna get my ass whooped cuz he's the god of war, weapons are his thing. Then, all of a sudden, I remembered that as the challenged, I could choose the weapons, so I like, chose a test of powers. I said, 'ok, man, I'll take you up on that. I choose the challenge of power.' Boy, he was really surprised at that." Cupid smiled a little, then continued. "Anyways, he nodded at me and I says 'I bet you that I can make any two people you choose fall in love.' Now I suppose I should have known by the totally viscous grin he got that I'd just played into his hands, but I was feelin so proud of myself for one-upping him, that I didn't stop and think."

"So, sounds kosher to me. Why are you so stressed out?"

"Just listen, k? Anyways, Ares says, 'ok, I'll take that bet. If you pledge five of your arrows to my service, I'll pledge five of my warlords to yours.' Now, how could I resist? So I says, 'way cool.' and he says 'cool. How about we take, say, two years?' and I agreed. I mean, heck, I'm the god of love, right? I can make anyone fall in love. So Ares says, 'I choose Xena and her little bard friend, Gabrielle.' "

"So sonny-boy, what's the prob? Just shoot 'em and it's done. You win." Aphrodite asked confusedly.

"That's just it, I have shot both of them. Loads of times. It even worked on the bardling. Of course, Xena was dead at the time, but still, she admitted to being in love. It's that warrior chick. She's like, way too stubborn." Cupid's head joined his shoulders in their downward droop. Even his feathers looked wilted. "So, I've like totally failed. I'm gonna have to give Ares five of my arrows and I think you can guess just what kind of havoc the god of war is planning on wreaking with the aid of my Love darts."

"Now, now you know as well as I do that it ain't over till the fat lady sings, and I don't hear any music. How much time do you have until the deadline?" The goddess tried to keep her voice cheerful.

"About a month." Cupid mumbled.

"Only a month? Cupid, babe, why didn't you come to me sooner? Oh well, no use crying over spilled milk. I'm here now and a month will be plenty of time. Ok, this is what we're gonna do...." Aphrodite wrapped her arm around her son's shoulders and drew him off to make plans.

Xena woke the next morning pleasantly shaking the cobwebs of the previous evening's dreams from her head. Gabrielle was tucked snugly against her side, one hand pillowed under her cheek, the other draped across the warrior's slender waist. Xena's heart slammed in her chest as the bard's fingers twitched unconsciously against the warrior's leather-clad back. Carefully, Xena extricated herself from Gabrielle's surprisingly strong embrace and climbed out of bed. The bard whimpered slightly at the loss of her bedmate, then rolled over, grabbed a pillow and curled into a fetal position.

Xena took her time in packing their meager belongings and readying herself for the day's travels. She then went down to the tavern and purchased their morning meal. When she returned to their room, Gabrielle was groggily wiping the sleep from her eyes. Setting the tray of oatmeal, fruit and nutbread down on the rickety table, Xena smiled brightly and said, "good morning, Merry Sunshine."

"Ugh. Xena. How can you possibly be so damn cheerful in the mornings?" The bard cleared her throat noisily. "D'ya have some water? My throat feels like I swallowed broken glass." Xena wordlessly handed the bard a half-full waterskin. Gabrielle drained it dry in one gulp. "Thanks. Ok, I'm ready to face another day now."

"Ah, good. My cheerful bard has risen anew." Xena's smile grew larger as she gestured to the "feast" she had obtained.

"Mmmmm. Breakfast." Gabrielle was up and out of bed and putting spoon to bowl before Xena had even sat down. Her bard? She called me her bard! A warm glow suffused her body.

"A bit hungry, Gabrielle?" Xena's sky blue eyes were shining with her amusement.


"Eat up then. We'll be traveling quite a ways today."

"Oh? Where are we headed?" Gabrielle asked between mouthfuls.

"I thought we would head towards Thessalonike, maybe even visit the Amazons."

"Oh cool! We can see Ephiny and Solari and Eponin and Phoere and Xandra and Kayla and Jana and if you wanted to we could also go to the Centaur Village and see Solon and Nikal and ...."

"Gabrielle? Gabrielle! Stop. You're rambling. Yes, we'll stop and see all of our friends. And we'll see about visiting my son. I really don't want to risk hurting him by popping in and out of his life like a bad case of the pox."

"Oh, Xena, you could never be that bad," said the bard with a belch and a grin.

"How lady-like." deadpanned Xena. Gabrielle lightly punched the warrior on the arm as she got up to put her boots on.

"I'm no lady."

Once they were on the road to Thessalonike, Gabrielle took up her normal travel chatter.

"Xena, you know I think I've come up with a name for my latest story."

"What's that?" asked the warrior apprehensively.

"Well, you know I've been working on setting down our adventures with Cecrops and...."

"Go on."

"...how does 'The Love Boat' strike you?" the bard finally said, mischief twinkling in her eyes.

"Gabrielle!" Xena glared at her friend, who was attempting to stifle her chuckles.

"Gotcha. Seriously, I was thinking of calling it 'Lost Mariner'."

"Hey, that's not too bad Gabrielle." The warrior grinned at the bard.


On they traveled. Sometimes Xena would dismount and walk beside Gabrielle, others the bard would ride with her a ways. Three days passed in quick, if uneventful, succession. After noon on the fourth day they reached the outskirts of Amazon territory. Familiar birdcalls greeted the two women as they raised their arms above their heads in peace.

Six masked women materialized from the forest around them. One stepped forward after returning the traditional greeting. "Queen Gabrielle, Amazonia rejoices in your safe return." Solari removed her mask and bowed.

The others then revealed themselves.

"Solari. Its good to see you." The young Amazon Queen embraced her friend and then nudged her in the ribs and whispered, "hey, introduce me."

Solari flushed. "Of course, my Queen. The members of my patrol are: Kodra, Kiel, Jada, Ashalla and Morgan."

Each woman stepped forward and knelt before their Queen, who quickly pulled them to their feet with a huge grin."I'm really glad to meet you all." She turned to Solari, "so what's the news of the Nation?" As the Amazons formed an honor guard around their beloved Queen, Xena drew up behind them. The warrior fought down the urge to push past the amazon warriors and sweep Gabrielle up behind her on Argo.

It took the better part of the rest of the day to reach the village.

Ephiny, Eponin, and a centaur introduced as Chefu greeted the party at the southern entrance to the village. Ephiny was very pleased to see Gabrielle. "Welcome home, my Queen." The acting Queen said and knelt before the embarrassed bard.

"Hey now, I gave up the title Ephiny. I should be kneeling before you."

"Gabrielle, you will always be Queen in Our hearts." replied Ephiny. Gabrielle reached her arm out to her friend, and when the Amazon took it in the warrior's handclasp, pulled Ephiny to her feet and into a long bearhug.Xena, trying to control her jealousy, bit her lip so hard it bled. When the two women ended their embrace, Ephiny turned to Xena. "Xena. So nice to see you looking a bit more lively than the last time." Xena couldn't remain angry with the beautiful regent-Queen. She laughed heartily as she clasped Ephiny's proffered arm.

"Thank you. I believe I feel a bit more lively this time." The warrior's face split into a wide grin. Ephiny returned Xena's smile and then turned to face Gabrielle once more.

"I'm really glad you're here. It saves me from having to send out someone to look for you."

"Oh?" the bard's eyebrow arched inquisitively, "what's going on?"

Chefu, the centaur warrior cleared his throat and stepped forward. "Perhaps I can best explain. If I may, Ephiny?"

"Of course, Chefu." The Amazon warrior replied. "But perhaps we should retire to the council hall first?"

"Ah, yes. Forgive my discourtesy. I forget that you humans need to rest your hindquarters at times." This was said with a good-natured teasing tone. Gabrielle, Xena, Ephiny, Eponin, Solari, and Chefu all made their way to the largest building in the village.

"I'm really glad to see the village recovering so quickly after what Velasca did." Commented Gabrielle to Ephiny quietly.

"We try." Shrugged the blond amazon, with a twinkle in her eye.

After they had comfortably arranged themselves around a large table, Ephiny sent one of the young Amazon girls to get some refreshments. "All right, please continue Chefu." Said the acting Queen as she sat back and crossed her legs.

The young centaur nodded at Ephiny and set his mug of ale on the table. "I don't know if you're aware of the latest goings on of the Centaurs, but to be brief, some of us younger Centaurs have decided to migrate north." Gabrielle's face took on an amazed expression, but Xena only nodded and said, "I've long suspected something like this would occur."

Chefu grinned at the warrior princess and continued. "Well, we found a valley up in Illyria that is absolutely perfect for our needs. Perfect except for one thing--its in Amazon territory."

"But we don't have any lands north of Thessalonike." Blurted the bard.

"Actually, Gabrielle, it seems that we do." Ephiny stated quietly. "When Chefu's people went north and discovered a clan of Amazons, they solved one of the greatest mysteries of Amazon History."

"A mystery? What mystery?" asked Gabrielle with interest.

"They found Themiscrya." dryly interrupted Xena.

"Themiscrya? What's that?" The bard focused her attention on her warrior.

"It's not impor..." began the warrior.

"My Queen, Themiscrya is the birthplace of the Amazon Nation. It is from there that we all descend. There are many legends and tales of the greatness of Themiscrya, but none are as sorrowful as the tale of the Great Separation." said Ephiny with a long look at Xena.

"Great Separation?" prompted Gabrielle, now focusing on Ephiny.

"Gabrielle, we don't have time for a history lesson...." grumbled Xena.

"Xena, she needs to know as much as we can tell her if she is to act accordingly," stated the acting Queen.

Xena sighed and prepared herself for a long night. Ah well, at least I can enjoy the sights. Half-closing her eyes, she allowed herself to leisurely study the bard as Gabrielle leaned closer to Ephiny, listening with rapt attention to the Amazon's story.

"I'm listening, Ephiny. Please, continue."

"Many moons ago, in the time of our grandmother's grandmothers, Queen Myralea and her Consort Ashayne ruled Amazonia from the great city of Themiscrya. Myralea and Ashayne were a Truelove Bonded couple."

"Truelove Bonded?" questioned the bard.

"They shared a love that reached to the very depths of their souls... surpassing even death itself." supplied Ephiny.

"Oh..." Gabrielle's eyes went wide, then pensive.

That's it, my Queen, think about that. You can't outrun your desire or your destiny much longer. Thought Ephiny, then she continued her story. "They ruled in a time of peace that had previously been unknown to the lands of Amazonia. Their rule was just and fair, granting many favors and freedoms previously unheard of in our law. They were so well loved by their people that even the smallest girl child would have laid down her life for either of the rulers."

"But, something happened, right?" Interjected the bard.

"You are correct, Gabrielle. As with all great loves, the Gods grew envious of Myralea's and Ashayne's happiness. So, in their jealousy, they decided to put the couple to the test. They would create the perfect mate. Each of the gods would contribute something to this person. From Zeus came a noble bearing, from Hera a strong sense of honor, from Aphrodite, beauty, from Eros, the knowledge of love, from Athena, wisdom. Only Artemis refused to participate in the olympiad's game of cruelty. Ares, to spite his sister, made him male. Apollo made him a bard. Fleetfooted Hermes delivered the newly made man to the edges of Themiscrya and left him there to wander, helpless and unarmed. Trying to find some way to survive, the man made his way to a cave. Unfortunately for him, it was occupied by a bear, and this bear had cubs. The great beast rose to her full height upon seeing the intruder to her home and roared a challenge. The man, seeing the fearsome beast, was so overcome by fear, that he ran as fast as he could to get away from the angered animal. In his haste, he did not notice the cliff-edge and ran right over the edge. Fortunately the fall was a short one; he only broke his legs and a few ribs. An Amazon patrol found him, broken, bleeding and dying of thirst three days later. Ordinarily, the patrol would have left him to die, but so beautiful was he, even in his injured state, that the patrol decided to carry him back to Themiscrya. The man was taken to the healer Janal. She set his broken bones and bound his wounds and gave him water. For ten days and nights did the strange man of the gods lie in death-like sleep. The Queen and her Consort, oblivious to the machinations of the Olympiads, spent much of their free time checking on the stranger. Ashayne in particular grew very fond of his noble countenance and beautiful features and she felt within her the first stirrings of desire for another. On the morning of the eleventh day, in the presence of Myralea and Ashayne, the stranger awoke.

"Though his surroundings were unfamiliar, the man smiled warmly at his visitors. Ashayne noticed right away that his eyes were the color of the morning sky. Myralea was also captivated by the stranger's stunning beauty. Both women were instantly entranced when the stranger spoke. 'Forgive me,' he said in a musical voice. 'I am ill prepared to greet thy beautiful majesties.' The Queen and her Consort both assured the stranger that no insult was taken and asked him his name and where he came from. He cocked his head at them quizzically, then told them that he did not know. Ashayne was saddened that he had lost his past so easily, but Myralea just smiled and said, 'then you shall find a name and a future here in Themiscrya. You are welcome to stay as long as you like.' The stranger thanked the Queen and soon fell back to sleep.

"For three months the stranger learned the ways of Themiscrya. He healed well and soon was able to wander the streets of the great city unaided. Ashayne found herself spending much time in his company and when Ashayne wasn't with him, Myralea was. The stranger soon found he had a knack for the learning and the telling of tales and the singing of songs, so he began to perform for the children of Themiscrya. It was the children who named him. Lyrien they called him, for his beautiful voice and skill with the lyre. Lyrien quickly grew to be a favorite of all the people of Themiscrya, but none loved him more than the Queen and her Consort."

"Ooo. I smell trouble." Gabrielle winced.

"Aye. Trouble it was all right. For Lyrien fell in love with both Queen and Consort. On the day of the Spring Equinox Festival, he came to Ashayne and proclaimed his love for her. Ashayne was astonished, of course, but pleased as well for she too desired him. So as not to hurt the woman she loved above all others, Ashayne began to meet with Lyrien in secret. Unbeknownst to her, Lyrien had also proclaimed his love to Myralea on the same day. Myralea, not wanting to hurt her lover, also met with Lyrien in secret." Ephiny continued her story.

You know, this isn't so bad to listen to after all. Thought Xena. "This is almost painfully funny, Ephiny. Very tragic as well. Please continue." Said the warrior to the Amazon Regent.

Ephiny smiled. She was very pleased that she had captured Xena's attention, for she knew that the more interested the warrior was in the tale, the more likely she would be willing to help the Amazons in their current situation.

"Yes, please go on Ephiny." Gabrielle smiled at Xena, then turned back to the amazon. "Are you sure you're not the bard here?" Ephiny laughed, a full throated, hearty sound.

"No, my friend. You are most certainly the better bard. And so, the triangle of lovers might have continued until the day of their deaths had Myralea not discovered Lyrien and Ashayne together. Instantly, the Queen flew into a rage, accusing Ashayne and Lyrien of betraying her. Ashayne, shamed and hurt by the Queen's words, prepared to leave Themiscrya, voluntarily exiling herself.

"When he saw the terrible destruction his love had caused, Lyrien went insane. He stood up from the bed he had been found in and declared, "I am the only one to blame for this, my loves, therefore I shall be the only one to pay for this." and then, the beautiful stranger stepped up to a window's sill and leapt to his death on the cobblestones of Themiscrya. So ended the game of the gods. It is said that Aphrodite's statue wept tears of glass when Lyrien's soul crossed into Elysia." Tears shone brightly in Gabrielle's eyes as Ephiny drew her tale to a close. "Unable to deal with the loss of her beloved Lyrien, Ashayne too went insane. She looked to her once beloved Queen and cried out, "You are to blame for this, Myralea. Lyrien was never meant to belong to you." Then, Ashayne bowed her head, her sanity momentarily returning. "Perhaps he was never mine either." Her madness seized control once more, and with a shriek of pure rage she lashed out and then she struck the Queen across the face. Before the Queen's guard could react, Ashayne picked up her satchel and sword and strode out of the palace. On the way, several of Ashayne's closest friends, hearing of the rift, formed an honor guard around her, following her out of the palace, and finally, out of Themiscrya. They went south, the Exiles, and ended up here, near Thessalonike, and built themselves a new Amazonia. In time, all contact between Themiscrya and Ashayne's Amazons was lost. Nothing was known of the fate of Myralea or any of the other Amazons of Themiscrya."

"Till now." Interrupted Chefu. "We, my friends and I, found it."

"Actually," Xena spoke softly, "I've known about it for a while."

"What?" The room exploded into conversation. After about a quarter of a candlemark, Solari put two fingers to her lips and whistled shrilly. Everyone quieted down and looked at the up till now, silent Amazon warrior.

"Thank you." She turned and looked at Xena. "All right Xena, I believe you have some explaining to do. So talk." Xena's eyes narrowed at the implied threat in Solari's voice, but, upon seeing the pleading look in her bard's eyes, she sighed softly and began to speak.

"Its fairly simple really. Approximately seven years ago, while on a 'murderous rampage', I encountered the Amazons of Themiscrya."

"So, what happened? Xena, please tell us." Gabrielle locked her eyes with Xena's and silently pleaded with the now stony faced warrior.

"You want me to tell you the story? Ok, I will." Everyone sat back down to listen to the warrior's tale. "Seven years ago, just five years before I met you Gabrielle," the warrior pointedly looked at the bard, "my army was traveling through western Thrace, looking for the odd village to conquer." A hard edge sliced through the warrior's voice as she began to relate the story of her past. "I had sent out a patrol of men to scout out a likely looking area for a base, but they never returned. We found what was left of them two days later. I was, to say the least, displeased at the loss of my men. I followed the tracks of the victor to a small valley between two mountains. There my army and I were met by a force of Amazons. We fought for fifteen days, neither side gaining a clear victory. Rather than lose any more of my men, I decided to parlay with the Amazons. Basically, I agreed to leave and they agreed to let me go."

"That still doesn't explain how you knew that those women were from Themiscrya. They could have been from any number of our clans." Said Ephiny, staring pointedly at Xena.

The warrior sighed. I didn't want to ever have to tell Gabrielle this. At least not like this. Oh well, can't be helped.

"Three days after we pulled out of the battle, I got into a fight with one of my lieutenants. I suppose I should have just killed him, but instead, I chose to make an example of him and I humiliated him. In revenge, he fouled my horse's reins and caused me to be tossed over the side of a rather high cliff during our climb over the mountains."

So that's why she's so particular about who touches her horse. Huh. Wow. thought the bard.

"Anyway, I was found, broken and bleeding by an Amazon healer. She took me to Themiscrya and healed me. She did not know who I was and I did not see fit to tell her. After all, she was helping me. Her name was Torane and she was the sister of the leader of Themiscrya, Shaylea. I suppose I should have left Themiscrya sooner, but Torane's company was sweet and I found that I liked living peacefully. Unfortunately, that was not to be." Xena's face grew sad and her eyes grew distant at the passage of the memories. "I was discovered. To escape, I held Torane hostage. Shaylea granted me safe passage from her lands in return for the release of her sister and they let me go once again. Only this time, they extracted my oath that I would never reveal their existence to anyone. Oh, and I was told that if I should ever show my face in Themiscrya again, my life was forfeit. There. End of story. Sorry its not pretty." Xena closed her eyes, unable, unwilling to meet the looks of the occupants of the room. Especially unable to meet the emerald green regard of a certain bard.

"Oh, Xena. That's terrible." Gabrielle reached out a hand to touch the warrior's arm. Xena sharply pulled away from the bard.

"I'm terrible, you mean." she said softly, so only Gabrielle could hear.

"No, I mean, it's terrible that you couldn't have stayed there, and been happy." returned Gabrielle, just as softly.

The warrior's heart melted at the bard's words. Opening her eyes, she lifted her head and was caught in the deep sea of Gabrielle's gaze. Stop it warrior princess. You don't want to go there. She's just a friend. Breaking their eye contact, she turned to the rest of the people in the room.

"So, what's the plan?" Ephiny and Eponin exchanged glances, and then the acting Queen nodded at her second.

"We thought that Gabrielle, as Queen by Rite of Caste, accompanied by an Honor Guard, could journey to Themiscrya and try to heal the ancient wounds." answered the Amazon warrior.

"You want me to do what?" asked the bard nervously.

"We want you to travel to Themiscrya, with a patrol of Amazons and reunite the clans." said Ephiny. "I can't do this Gabrielle, it has to be you. You are Queen by Rite. I am only your Regent."

"Oh Gods." said Gabrielle, then she fainted.

When Gabrielle opened her eyes, all she could see was smooth, tan flesh. Blinking several times to clear her eyes, she realized that she was being cradled in Xena's arms. Oh, wow. This is really really nice. She sighed. I suppose I should sit up now.

"Glad to see you back among the living, Gabrielle." the warrior smiled warmly at the bard. Gabrielle returned the smile and tried to sit up. A wave of dizziness washed over her. Xena just pulled her closer and shifted her around so that her head was pillowed on the warrior's shoulder. "Shh. Just rest Gabrielle. You've had a full day."

If you insist. Gabrielle thought, silently.

Damn. I'm lovin' every moment of this. Xena took a chance and wrapped her arms around Gabrielle a little tighter. When the bard made no protest at her embrace, the warrior settled back into the chair she was sitting in, content to hold Gabrielle in this manner forever if need be. For her part, Gabrielle was in Elysia.

They are so cute together. I wonder if... mused Ephiny while exchanging a look with Eponin and Solari. "Perhaps we should adjourn this meeting for the day. We will meet again tomorrow, at first light." Xena and Chefu nodded in agreement and the Amazons and Centaur left the hall.

"Ugh. Dawn. I hate getting up early." complained Gabrielle.

"I know." said Xena softly. "But we need to iron out the details of the trip."



"I'm gonna have to leave *you* behind this time, aren't I?" asked the bard in a small voice.

"Nope." replied the warrior with a smile.

"Wait a minute. How are you...?"

"I'm going as your slave Gabrielle." Xena stated quietly.

"Excuse me?" Oh, this is too rich. She can't possibly mean it.

"I said, I'm going as your slave. You know, conquered servant. There at your beck and call?"

"Oh, my. This could be..." A roguish grin found its way onto the bard's lips.

"Not another word Gabrielle. Not...another...word."

The bard bit her lip to keep from laughing. I think I'm going to *love* being Queen for a day or so... mused Gabrielle.

"Now, let's go and see about getting something to eat. I'm starved."

"You? The mighty Warrior Princess, actually starved? Oh, this is a first." Gabrielle grinned playfully at Xena. The warrior returned the smile and their eyes stayed locked together until the loud rumbling from both of their stomachs called them back to reality. Both women burst out laughing and hastily disentangled themselves from one another.

Once they were standing, Xena turned to Gabrielle and said, "race ya!" and took off running. Grabbing her staff, Gabrielle quickly sprinted after the warrior princess. Of course, Xena beat the bard to the communal dining area. The amazons had prepared quite a feast for their returned Queen. Even Gabrielle's legendary appetite was soon slaked by the various savory dishes that the cooks had worked all day on.

With the debris of the meal cleared away by some of the younger amazonian children, the musicians came forth and began to play. Several women got up and formed a dancing circle. The wild beat of the music combined with the sweet wine she was drinking pushed Gabrielle into standing, and dancing with her friends. The music swelled around her, filling her with a wild, restless need. She could feel it thrumming in her bones, singing in her blood. It reminded her of how she felt, dancing with the bacchae; only different, more feral and untamed. As the sweat poured off her brow and the weakness of earlier left her, the bard found herself drawn towards Xena, who was still sitting at the trestle table they'd eaten their meal at. A break in the music allowed Gabrielle to catch the warrior's eyes, and she mouthed "dance with me?" at Xena.

Xena was astonished. Quickly covering the shock that registered on her face, she shook her head "no" and went back to contemplating her mug of wine.

The bard eeled her way over to the warrior. "C'mon Xena, please? Dance with me?" the words spoken softly in the warrior's ear caused her to jump.

"Na...no thanks, Gabrielle. You go ahead. I'm feeling a bit tired." What the tartarus is that bard thinking, asking me to dance with her? Does she think I'm made of ice? Athena! I would love to dance with her, but, goddess save me, if I did, I would end up doing something neither of us wants. Covering her disappointment with a goofy grin, the bard returned to her dancing.

Ephiny watched the silent exchange between her Queen and the warrior princess with sadness. Love denied. Will either of them ever see the truth inside?She glanced over at the newly bonded couple of Eponin and Solari and smiled. It had taken a long time for those two to come to her, asking for her permission to bond, but when they did, she was all to happy to grant it.

Eponin took her lover's hand in hers and whispered, "I wonder when our little Queen is going to tire of Xena's evasions?"

"What do you mean by that, my dear?" returned Solari, while nibbling on Eponin's earlobe.

"Mmmm. Its only obvious that Gabrielle has her heart set on a certain warrior princess. And that that same warrior princess returns the feelings," breathed the Amazon weapons master as Solari continued her assault on her lover's ear.

"Well, if Artemis wants it to be, it shall be. Now, what do you say we go to our home and continue last nights "discussion"?" Nodding her assent, Eponin stood and took her newfound love's hand in hers and they drifted off into the night.

The evening had begun to wear down and the amazons started to wander off towards their homes. Gabrielle, tired and flushed from dancing approached Ephiny and said, "so, where'd you put Xena and I?"

"Why don't I just take you two there?" answered the Amazon warrior with a yawn.

"Ok." The two women silently walked over to Xena, who was in the middle of a drinking contest with two very drunk Amazons. Ashalla and a woman Gabrielle did not recognize were just toppling off of the bench when they got within speaking distance of the warriors.

"Xena! What in Hades' tortures are you doing?" exclaimed the bard, upon seeing the inebriated state of the three women.

"Relax Gabrielle. Ashalla and Tiserne just thought that they could out-drink me. I chose to prove them wrong." Xena smiled feraly at Gabrielle and downed the rest of the contents of her mug. "I take it that its time to go to bed now?"

Unsure as to how to take the warrior's comment, Gabrielle just nodded silently. Ephiny lead the warrior and the bard to a large hut that was close to the council hall. "I will come and wake you in the morning when we are ready to meet," said the Amazon, then left for her own hut.

Walking into the cozy interior of the hut, Gabrielle turned to see Xena stagger against the door frame. "Xena? Are you all right?"

"Oh yeah, jus' fine Gabri'elle. Amazon wine's a bit stronger 'an I thought is all..." slurred the warrior as she continued to careen into the walls of the hut.

"Here, let me help you." Barely able to hide the amusement from her voice, Gabrielle led Xena to the sleeping area and helped her remove her armor and battledress. Even in her drunken haze, Xena could feel the burning ache of Gabrielle's fingers as they grazed her flesh through the thin fabric of her short tunic. When Gabrielle's fingertips accidentally brushed her nipple, she was unable to bite back a gasp. The bard turned beet red and said, "oops, sorry." Oh, sweet Aphrodite, I want to do that again!

"'S all right." <hic> If she does that again...I don't...I don't...I don't think I could...control myself. Xena fell into the soft pallet and soon, Gabrielle joined her. The warrior sighed happily when she felt the bard snuggle up to her and soon both were fast asleep.

"Aww. Isn't that cute?" Cupid looked at his mother skeptically. "Cute? C'mon mom, I need more than just a furkin' boob shot! I need an actual declaration of real_love!"

"Chill out, Cupie-dollhoney, you'll get it." Aphrodite winked mischievously at her son.

True to her word, Ephiny woke the warrior at dawn. Xena blinked her eyes sleepily at the too-cheerful face of the Amazon Regent. "Y'know, Eph, one of these days, I'm going to learn not to drink that much Amazon wine."

Ephiny chuckled. "Aye, warrior, or you'll be giving yourself a bad name. Wouldn't do for the world to know that Xena, the great Warrior Princess, can't hold her liquor." Xena lunged for the now chortling amazon, knocking her to the ground.

"I'll have you know, Amazon, that I can hold my liquor quite well." She punctuated her statement with a sharp poke to Ephiny's ribcage. The amazon couldn't help it, she started to giggle. It was really rather funny. Here was Xena, almost completely naked, lying on top of her and poking her in the ribs. And damnitall, it tickled.

"Oho! I do believe I've found your weakness, you heathen witch!" chuckled the warrior mischievously. And started to poke Ephiny in the ribs some more, till they were both rolling around on the floor, laughing and giggling like a pair of children.

Gabrielle opened her eyes on this sight, and rubbed them twice to make sure that she wasn't seeing things. "Hey..." she croaked, "can't a girl get some sleep around here?"

Instantly the two warriors ceased their tussling. "Gabrielle," said Xena huskily, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to wake you."

"Well, I did. It's time to get up, My Queen." Ephiny grinned to cover her embarrassment.

Gabrielle groaned, then looked at Ephiny. "I didn't know you were ticklish?"

"I'm not. Not usually at least. Must be them damn long fingers of Xena's."

The warrior had the good grace to blush a little.

"No. I have many skills. Tickling is just one of them." A small hint of a smile played the corners of her lips.

"Yeah. I know." Snorted Gabrielle, who was now sitting up and stretching. A glint of something, mischief perhaps, found its way into her eyes, and suddenly, she pounced on Xena and started to dig her fingernails into the warrior's sides. Xena jumped, grabbed Gabrielle by the waist, and had her pinned to the floor, looming above her in less than three heartbeats. Green eyes were locked into blue when Ephiny cleared her throat.

"Well, this is quite a picture ladies, let me tell you, but..." Almost as one, both the warrior and the bard reached out and grabbed an amazonian leg. Pulling Ephiny down onto the floor, they began to tickle her and each other, mercilessly. Soon, all three were reduced to giggling, laughing, and chuckling puddles.

"Oh, oh. This is fun." Gabrielle chuckled breathlessly. "I think I like waking up this way."

"You do?" Xena's eyebrow shot up into her hairline.

"Yeah. Its, somehow, invigorating." Of course, I would never tell her how much fun it is to be able to touch her...anywhere...in the quest to tickle her.

"Well, I'll just have to do it more often then. You're up and about much sooner than normal. If I'd have known two years ago that all it took to get you moving was a tickle fight, then I would have done it sooner." Hades yeah, I would've...damn...my fingers are still tingling, my flesh still burning from touching her and being touched by her.

Ephiny staggered to her feet and, still laughing a bit, left for the council hall. Xena and Gabrielle took a few minutes to catch their breath, then dressed quickly and hurried over to the council hall. A small repast of bread, fruit and cheese awaited them as well as Solari, Eponin, and Chefu.

Quickly, they came to an agreement on their travel plans. Chefu would lead the way, Ephiny and nine other Amazons would accompany Gabrielle as her honor guard and Xena would go as her slave. Gabrielle could tell that Xena was having some trouble with the "slave" thing, but knew that her friend would not abandon her to the mercies of such an unknown force as the Themiscryans. They finished up their discussion and broke to go and pack. Packing was simple for Xena. She stripped off all her armor pieces and carefully wrapped them in linen, then, reaching into the bottom of one of her saddlebags, she removed a worn, but still quite serviceable, iron slave collar. "Here Gabrielle, put this around my, " she swallowed convulsively, "neck."

With a stricken look that said everything she couldn't, Gabrielle locked the collar firmly in place around the warrior's smooth throat."I wish it didn't have to be this way." The bard whispered softly, tears in her eyes.

"I know, my bard, but if you think I'm letting you go off and have all the fun..." Xena purposefully put a bantering tone into her voice as she handed the bard a small bronze key. Her reward was Gabrielle's radiant smile. "Now, will my Queen allow her humble servant to assist her in dressing for the journey?" Nodding silently, Gabrielle turned around and let Xena begin the arduous process of attaching all the bells and whistles that were a part of her Queen's Regalia.

They left after midday meal. A processional of twelve women, eleven horses and one Centaur left the village with as much fanfare as the Amazons were capable of. Gabrielle rode at the head of the Amazons on Argo with Xena seated behind her, the warrior's large hands wrapped around Gabrielle's waist. The bard's skin prickled under the warrior's grip, causing gooseflesh to creep over her entire body. Xena noticed this, and smiled into Gabrielle's amber colored tresses. I wonder...nah, she's still just a little ticklish from this morning is all.

About a week out of Amazonia, after a visit to a village for some directions and supplies, Xena pulled Gabrielle into their tent.

"Gabrielle, I need to talk to you."

"What is it, Xena?"

"You need to be more...how shall I put this..."mistressy" with me."


"I am your slave Gabrielle. You must treat me as such, or the Themiscryans will never believe that you control me."

"Oh, yeah, well, you might have a point there. So, um, what do I do?" The warrior spent the remainder of the day instructing Gabrielle on the proper treatment of slaves. "You mean, I have to beat you? Not a chance, warrior princess, I may be ignorant of the "mistressy" ways, as you so eloquently put it, but I'm not stupid."

"As you wish, mistress." Xena contritely lowered her eyes, but could not keep the glint of amusement over her bard's vehemence from showing. The next day, Xena began the task of showing Gabrielle how to use a whip in a convincing fashion.

"Xena, tell me again why I have to use a whip?" asked the bard after she had smacked herself in the face for what seemed like the hundredth time.

"You have to be able to discipline me. Convincingly. And the only way you're going to be able to do that is if you can crack that whip over my back." At the bard's involuntary flinch, she took Gabrielle's hand in hers and said, "don't worry, I know that you won't hurt me." Xena's unswerving confidence in her convinced the bard that she could do this. And she did. After only a little bit more time working with the woven leather strap, she was able to "crack" the whip quite loudly.

"Verrrry good, Gabrielle." Praised the warrior once Gabrielle had gotten the knack of whip use. The bard beamed.

Less than a week from Themiscrya, the travelers came across a mountain lake. The women were pleasantly surprised by this gods-sent gift. Stripping almost as a unit, the amazons, Gabrielle and Xena raced one and other to the water's edge. Soon, they were all splashing and swimming about with child-like abandon. Gabrielle was in heaven. The water was extremely cold, but she could not feel it for the heat that raced through her every time she caught a glance of Xena's sun-kissed body sliding lithely through the water. Swimming over to a rock outcropping intending to pull herself up and sun a bit, she stopped short when she heard unusual sounds from the other side of the rocks. She listened for a bit, then almost gave herself away when she swam off, blushing. She had "caught" Kodra and Kiel sharing a moment of intimacy. Because of this, she did not see the warrior's broad back, and ran right into her.

"Oof. Oh, excuse me, Xena." The warrior turned around, and noticed the flushed face of her bard.

"Gabrielle? Are you all right? You look a little flushed."

"Oh fine. Just fine." The flush deepened as she swallowed. "How are you? Are you enjoying your swim?"

"Yes. Thank you. Mistress." Xena allowed her eyes to take in the naked form of the bard. Gods, she's so beautiful. I want nothing more than to take her right here and now.

"I wish you wouldn't call me that when we're alone, Xena. We both know I'm not your mistress."

"Gabrielle, if I don't get used to calling you "mistress" we won't last one candlemark with the Themiscryans." Besides, I kind of like calling her "mistress". What? Oh...gods...I do. Oh, this could be trouble Xena...

"I know. Its just...strange is all." Xena couldn't stand to see her bard in such a gloomy mood, so she did the only thing she could think to do--she splashed her. At first, Gabrielle just floated there, in shock, but soon, when the volume of water being slapped into her face got to be more than just a sprinkle, she started fighting back. Ephiny noticed this, and shortly, all of the Amazons were engaged in various forms of a water-splash fight.

It took them a bit more than a fortnight to reach Northern Illyria. Most of the journey had been easy. No one dared to bother such a large group of obviously battle trained warriors. When they would stop in small towns and villages for supplies, the people gawk and point and all together make a big fuss about the Amazons and the Centaur who rode with them. When they reached the mountainous area near Themiscrya, they gathered their courage and began the climb. On the seventeenth day of their journey, they met the Amazons of Themiscrya.

It had been a long day, the dawn breaking cold and clear on the mountain top. Gabrielle was just fitting her ceremonial mask over her head when Kodra came running up to her. "My Queen, they're here!" she gasped, and dropped to her knees before the startled bard.

"Gather the warriors, Kodra. Let's go and meet our sisters." Said Gabrielle in a loud, formal tone. "Slave!" She turned to see Xena come out of their shared tent, carrying her staff. "Ahh, I see you have finally learned to anticipate your mistress' needs. Good, I will not need to punish you again." This too said loudly, for Gabrielle could sense the strange women now entering the camp. Xena wordlessly handed Gabrielle her mark of Caste and knelt down next to the bard.

"I shall endeavor to do as my mistress wishes of me always." came the soft murmur.

Gabrielle's heart thudded painfully in her chest as she did her best to ignore the rampant thoughts running through her mind. Calm down bard, she didn't mean what you wish she meant. Gabrielle turned to meet the Themiscryan delegate. Raising her arms above her head in the traditional sign of peace, she steadied her voice and said, "greetings, I am Gabrielle, Queen of Amazonia."

The amazon returned the greeting and replied, "I am Kaylana, of Themiscrya. Welcome, Queen Gabrielle. We thank Artemis for your safe arrival." Then she noticed Xena, still kneeling beside Gabrielle. "Pardon me for questioning you, Your Majesty, but why have you brought this, " she gestured to Xena, "trash to Themiscrya. She is...anathema here."

Drawing herself up to her full height and using her most imperious tones, Gabrielle replied, "I know that the former warlord known as 'Xena' was not welcome in Themiscrya, however, I chose to bring my war-slave 'Xena' along because she...amuses me." Oh, sweet goddess, I'm going to pay for that comment. But it was so much fun.

"As your majesty wishes." came the sullen answer. "If you would instruct your people to break camp and follow us, we shall be honored to guide you the rest of the way to Themiscrya."

"Of course." In short order, camp was struck and they were following Kaylana and her scouts through the mountain pass and into Themiscrya. As the morning fog burned away, the city of Themiscrya came into view. As if the gods had planned it so, Apollo's light reflected off of the central tower of the palace, creating a white halo that beckoned them into the fabled city. Gabrielle, Ephiny and the other Amazons were awestruck.

"Its beautiful." murmured the bard. Xena leaned forward and put her lips against Gabrielle's ear.

"So, it takes an architectural wonder to rob you of your speech?" she whispered.

"Xena!" hissed the bard, then, a wicked look crossed her face, unseen by the warrior. "Well, no, but I'm sure that you wouldn't want to find out what else does."

"Really, my bard? Are you so sure of that?" The warrior's low purr almost robbed Gabrielle of all conscious thought and she swallowed several times before responding.

"No, I'm not, actually. Listen, I think we need..." and she was interrupted by the booming of many drums as the gates of Themiscrya opened to receive them.

They were met by a delegation of beautifully dressed Amazons. One of them, wearing the mask of a ruler, stepped forward. She lifted her mask and revealed her face. "Greetings and welcome Queen Gabrielle. I am Shaylea, Ruler of Themiscrya. I and all my people are grateful to the gods that you have arrived safely."

"I thank you for your kind words of Welcome, Shaylea. I am Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons." Gabrielle dismounted Argo and walked up to meet the Themiscryan ruler. Extending her hand in the traditional warrior's clasp, she inclined her head towards Ephiny. "This is Ephiny, my second and Regent."

Ephiny stepped up and bowed before Shaylea. When she stood, their eyes met, and Gabrielle, being as close as she was, could see something happen. Ephiny's eyes glazed over as she extended her arm to Shaylea."It is truly an honor, Your Highness." she breathed. Shaylea took Ephiny's arm in hers and their eyes locked for what seemed an eternity.

"You are welcome, Regent Ephiny. I hope that we shall be working closely in the future." replied Shaylea. She broke eye contact with the blond amazon and looked up at Argo's other passenger. And laughed. "Ah, how the mighty have fallen. So we meet again, Xena. You don't know how much it pleases me to see the collar of a war-slave around your neck." She turned to Gabrielle, "pardon me for asking, Your Highness, but you wouldn't consider selling her, would you?" Xena almost fell from her perch on Argo's back when she saw her bard actually appear to consider Shaylea's question.

"Shaylea, as much as I'd like to oblige you and just give Xena to you, I find her...irreplaceable in some matters. However, if I ever tire of her, I'll be sure to remember your offer." The bard then turned and winked at Xena.

Ooo, my little bardling, I'll get you for that one.

A Themiscryan guard stepped forward. "My lady, perhaps we should continue this discussion in the dining hall?"

"Yes, of course Tandra. Please, lead us there." Tandra signaled to the guards and they all formed up around the two monarchs and continued on into the city.

Dinner was a formal affair, with the exchanging of pleasantries between the leaders of both Amazon Nations. After the meal, Gabrielle stood to make a toast.

"Here's to the healing of a centuries old wound. Here's to the rebirth of a united Amazon Nation." Cheers echoed off of the dining hall roof. She and Shaylea touched goblets, then downed their wine in unison.

Xena, seated behind Gabrielle's chair, used this moment to scan the hall, looking for potential troublemakers. Some of the faces were familiar to her. Faces she had seen on her last stay in the lost city. One in particular stood out. Torane. She could see the amazon healer seated next to another woman, a weaver by the look of the Craftbeads on her belt. I wonder how Torane has done in these last years? I wonder if she still hates me? The sad look that crossed her face disappeared when she spotted Chefu and some of the Ruler's guards having a friendly drinking contest. Well, at least there shouldn't be too much trouble with that. Then she noticed Ephiny. The Regent was just staring at Shaylea, her food untouched and her wine undrank. Uh-oh. I believe that our Ephiny has gone and fallen for Shaylea. Hmmm. Perhaps this is not a bad thing? The warrior's musings were interrupted by Shaylea calling for the bards to perform. Gabrielle re-seated herself and turned her chair to face the stage. Unconsciously, she dropped her hand onto Xena's head and laced her fingers in the warrior's raven hair.

"My friend, for I hope we are friends, please allow the finest bards we have to entertain you." Said Shaylea as she waved her hands at a group of women sitting at another table. Each woman walked over to the stage and took up an instrument, accept for one, who stood apart from the others. "It is my honor to present Daphne, Niru, Medra, Shyla, Allasha and Ryn." The women, accept Ryn, began to play. A haunting melody filled the air. Then Ryn began to sing. She sang of the Rifting, the breaking of Themiscrya and of the Exiles. The song soon wove its way through the hall, causing the hum of conversation to die out, till the only sound to be heard was the musicians and the voice of the beautiful amazon singer. The melody changed, now it became bolder. And the song spoke of the arrival of the centaurs, of the news of the Exiles, and then of the arrival of Gabrielle. Ending on a hopeful note, a desire for peace and harmony, the song left not one dry eye in the hall.

"That was wonderful, Shaylea. Your bards are excellent." Gabrielle was awestruck. I know I can tell a good story, but Hades! those women just put me into the dirt.

"Thank you for the compliment, Your Majesty. I've heard that you fancy yourself something of a bard...so I take that as high praise indeed."

"You seem to know an awful lot about me and the rest of us, yet we do not know much about you. How did you come to know so much, so quickly?"

"Chefu and his people spent almost a week here in Themiscrya, answering our questions before returning to Thessalonike. I'm sorry to sound so omniscient, when I'm not really."

Gabrielle smiled at Shaylea."Oh, its quite all right, it saves us some of the hassles of getting to "know" one and other. I'm assuming then that you know of Chefu's request for his people?"

"Yes, I do, but we shall not talk of such matters tonight. Tonight, we celebrate the return of our Queen."

"Wait, I thought...I mean, your name...its very similar to Myralea and Ashayne's names. I just thought that you..."

"Were a direct descendant of Myralea? No, Gabrielle, I am only Ruler by general election. True, I was named for our most famous rulers, but I am not related to them. After Ashayne left Themiscrya, and after the death of the stranger Lyrien, Myralea wasted away to nothing and died, heirless. Uncertain as to what to do, my great great grandmother Janal the healer suggested that we have an "election" to determine who was to rule, until such time as a Queen returned to rule Themiscrya. That day has now come, Gabrielle. You are our Queen."

"Oh, dear." was Gabrielle's only response. Then she began to steadily try to put as large a dent into the wine reserves of Themiscrya as she could. She got so drunk that Xena had to carry her to their room.

"Gabrielle, next time, warn me before you decide that you are going to try and outdrink a Dionysian festival goer," was the warrior's only comment as she laid Gabrielle into their bed after removing the Queen's regalia. Gabrielle didn't hear her however, she had already passed out.

When Gabrielle woke the next morning to sunlight streaming in on her face, she immediately regretted her haste made decision of the night before. "Ugh. I feel sick."

"Good morning, mistress. Can I get you something to eat?" Amusement colored Xena's voice. The bard turned green at the thought of food.

"Uh, no, but perhaps you could find something for this Tartarus of a headache?"

"As my mistress wishes." Xena dug around in their saddlebags, pulled out her herbal pouch, mixed a few herbs into a cup of water and handed the concoction to Gabrielle. The bard drank the contents, grimacing at the taste.

"Ick. Why does medicine always have to taste like a midden heap?" Xena just shrugged and handed Gabrielle a freshly made cup of tea. "Thanks." The bard sipped the hot liquid, smiling at the sweet taste. "So, what's on my agenda for today?"

"Regent Ephiny will be here momentarily to talk to you about that, Mistress." Just then, there was a knock on the door.

"Enter." Ephiny walked in, a strange look on her face. "What is it, Eph?" asked Gabrielle, concern in her voice.

"We may have a problem. One of Shaylea's advisors has invoked the Rite of Rulership."

"What's that?"

"It seems that in order for you to become the true Queen of Amazonia...that is a United Amazonia, you have to climb a mountain."

"Well, that sounds fairly easy. Xena can help me."

"I wish it were. You see, you have to do it alone. You can only take one possession with you...and no other can aid you."

Gabrielle's eyes grew distant. "Wait, isn't Xena a "possession"?"

"According to Themiscryan law, yes. Why?" Ephiny looked puzzled for a moment, then, "oh, I see your point. Good call, My Queen." Xena's eyes shone with her pride in her bard.

Gabrielle smiled. "So, when do I have to climb this mountain?"

"Six days from now there will be a festival. Shaylea and I thought that would be the perfect chance for you to climb."

"So, you and Shaylea are getting along well?" Ephiny blushed a deep crimson.

"Yeah, you could say that."

"Good. I could tell that there was something between you two almost immediately."

"I think I might be falling in love with her, Gabrielle. If I am, will you approve of a Bonding?"

"You know I will. As long as she wants it."

"Of course I do." The Themiscryan Ruler's voice made everyone jump. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you. I was just coming to speak to you Gabrielle and I saw that your door was open." Shaylea went to Ephiny's side. Drawing the Amazon into her arms, she said, "I knew it was a Truelove Bond the moment I saw you, Ephiny. Please, tell me you feel the same?" Passion was in her eyes and in her voice as she held the blond amazon close.

"Yes, Shaylea, yes. I feel it. I will not deny my feelings." 'What the heck could she mean by that?' wondered both bard and warrior princess.

"Thank Artemis." and she kissed Ephiny. Blushing at the intimacy, Gabrielle turned her head away, only to be caught in the depths of Xena's sky blue eyes. Green and blue shared a timeless voyage into one and other's souls. Questions were asked, but before they could be answered, Shaylea cleared her throat. "My Queen, may I have a word with your slave?"

"Hmm? Oh, yeah sure. Go ahead." Gabrielle forced herself to look at Shaylea's face instead of Xena's. Shaylea turned to Xena.

"Warrior Princess, listen you well to me. Unlike my sisters, I have heard of your deeds since you were with us. I know you are truly no slave of Gabrielle's, and I will go along with the charade, but only because I see the greater benefit of joining the nation as a whole again. I do not, nor will I ever, like you. But, I respect you. If half of what I have heard is true, you have become a person of great conscience. Perhaps you will find it in your conscience to speak to Torane, and ease her pain."

"I will do as you ask, Shaylea. Thank you for giving me a chance." The warrior bowed her head, refusing to meet the Themiscryan's eyes. She turned to Gabrielle and quietly asked, "may I have your leave to go and speak with the Healer Torane?"

"Of course, Xena. You know that." Gabrielle reached out and took Xena's hand and brought it to her face. "Would you like me to go with you?"

Xena smiled at the concern in her bard's voice. "No, My Queen, my friend, this is something I must do alone." If I take you with me, she won't believe that I'm telling her the truth. Goddess, I didn't want to do this...

Gabrielle nodded and released the warrior's hand. "Shaylea, could you perhaps, introduce me to some of your better mountain climbers? It seems I have a mountain to climb."

"Sure. I'll be happy to instruct you myself." The three amazons went off, chattering about which ropes and knots were the best to use when climbing a mountain.

Xena sighed to herself, and then gathered her courage and went in search of Torane.

She didn't have far to look. Torane was where the warrior suspected she would be--in the infirmary. Silently, Xena walked up to the healer and placed a hand on her shoulder.

"Torane." The healer twitched, acknowledging the warrior's presence.

"I knew you'd come back." came the softly spoken reply, her gentle hands never slowing in their task--sewing up a sword cut on the leg of a passed out amazon.

"Yes, I came back. But I'm not here to stay. I'm just here with my mistress."

"I know. Still, you have come back to me. I told you that we weren't finished. Now, here, take this, and finish this work, and mind you, make the stitches small. This one doesn't like big scars." Xena grinned, a full faced grin, and went to work.

Hours later, bone weary and brain dead from absorbing so much information, she staggered back to Gabrielle's quarters. Gabrielle was there, also looking a bit worse for wear, sitting at a table, pouring over some very ancient looking scrolls. She looked up as the door opened. Seeing that it was Xena, she jumped up and ran to give her a hug."Where have you been all day? I've been worried sick about you!"

"With Torane in the infirmary." came the weary reply.

"Oh, I see. Just who is Torane anyways? I wanted to ask you that before, but I never had the chance." Xena sighed. She didn't really want to have to tell Gabrielle about this, but she knew that the bard would just pester her until she did. Taking a deep breath and collapsing into a chair, she began her story.

"Torane, aside from being the one who rescued me after I was thrown from my horse, was my mentor. She taught me much of what I know about healing. It seems that I had a knack for healing. So she claimed me as her apprentice. When my identity was revealed and I was ordered out of Themiscrya, she took me aside and told me that she wasn't done teaching me, that I would be back some day." Here, Xena laughed a bit, "she told me then that my path wouldn't always be dark, that I wouldn't always be a killer. I laughed in her face and told her that she was wrong. Now it seems that she was right all along." Gabrielle was silent for a while, absorbing this information.

"So, Torane is like a..." she left the sentence hanging.

"A mother, a big sister...a teacher. One that I can still learn a great deal from. That's what I spent my day doing. Helping her with her patients and learning some medical lore." Is she jealous? I think she's jealous. Could this be true? Hmmm. Looks like I need to re-evaluate my bard's feelings for me. Please, Aphrodite, I've never asked for anything from you before, but, somehow, if what I think I see is true, please give her the courage to tell me, for I have not the courage to tell her. I couldn't bear the idea of her leaving if I were wrong. "So, mistress, what did you do all day?"

"Xena, please, when we're alone, call me Gabrielle. 'Mistress' is beginning to get on my nerves. And don't give me any of that 'but we have to nonsense', we're alone here."

Xena chuckled and nodded."All right Gabrielle. As you wish."

"Thank you. To answer your question: first, I spent several hours with Shaylea and some of her best mountaineers learning about the proper ways to climb, second, I wandered around Themiscrya some--oo, I found a weaver's shop that I really want to go back to, and finally, I've been pouring over some of the ancient Themiscryan legal records. I wanted to see if I could find a precedent to free you, and forgive you your crimes here. I don't like having to treat you as a slave." She looked up to see a single tear coursing down the sculpted features of the warrior's face. The bard slid out her chair and walked over to Xena's. Kneeling down beside the warrior, she took Xena's hand in her own. "Xena, I know that you weren't always the best of people, but what you are now so far outshines what you were then, I just don't think that its right for you to suffer anymore. You have paid for your mistakes here, and I'd much rather have you by my side as my friend than as my slave." C'mon Gabrielle, tell her. Say it. You can do it. No? Chicken. Xena was speechless. She couldn't think of a single thing to say that would express just exactly how she was feeling, so she pulled Gabrielle into her arms and held her tightly. Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena and held back, just as tightly. Inaudibly, the bard whispered, "I love you Xena."

The next day, Gabrielle and Xena went shopping. The merchant's bazaar of Themiscrya was truly impressive. Gabrielle's eyes were everywhere as she took in the sights, sounds and smells of her bargain hunter's fantasy come true. Xena found herself being dragged from one end of the city to the other in Gabrielle's quest to find the perfect gifts for her friends and family. Finally, at lunch time, she stopped the frenetic bard long enough to eat. They found an inn, called "The Whistling Wind" and went inside. Ryn, Allasha and Daphne, the musicians from the first night's feast, were performing on the stage as a buxom young amazon strode up to them, bowed low and said, "Good afternoon, I am Pagral, how can I serve you, My Queen?"

"We're just here to get a bit to eat, Pagral, and please, call me Gabrielle." replied the bard with a smile.

"Of course, Gabrielle. If you'll follow me, I'll be glad to show you to a table." The serving woman led them to a table at the back of the inn and asked them for their orders. After a full meal, Gabrielle and Xena sat back and enjoyed the bard's performance. The refrain of Ryn's song caught both women's attentions.

"Under my skin..
I feel it burning
Under my skin..
the world is turning
Under my skin..
I feel it passing
Under my skin..
my love everlasting."

Both warrior and bard became uncomfortably aware of the proximity of the other. They were quiet for a few moments following the ending of the song, then Gabrielle tentatively broke the silence. "Ahh. That was delicious. Y'know, I could get used to this 'royal treatment' stuff. And those bards...they are fantastic."

Xena grinned at Gabrielle. "I'm sure that you could, mistress. You know, you could stay here full time. You don't have to waste your life following around a battle scarred ex-warlord."

"Not on your life Xena. You won't get rid of me that easily. Besides, I like following you around. Its...interesting."

"Uh huh. So that's why you follow me around. Maybe I should start leading a boring lifestyle." Xena winked to show that she was kidding. "Now, are you going to take me to that weaver's that you were talking about all last night?" They paid their bill and left for the weaver's.

A sign proclaimed the place "Warp and Weft". The warrior and the bard entered the tapestry rich storefront, instantly taken with the beautiful weavings that hung from every available surface. The amazon that Xena had seen seated next to Torane the first night came out from the back of the store.

"Welcome to my humble establishment, Your Highness. What can I do for you?"

"Thank you. Call me Gabrielle, please. I saw your work yesterday and I just had to come back and take a closer look."

"Only if you call me Jezebel." the weaver smiled. "Are you looking for anything in particular, Gabrielle?" she asked.

Gabrielle considered Jezebel's question for a moment. "Yes, actually. I'm looking for a bonding-gift..." Jezebel smiled and led the warrior and the bard on a tour of her shop. Half a candlemark and several dinars later, Gabrielle and Xena left the shop carrying a linen wrapped package.

"Really, Gabrielle, a bedspread? I should think that both Ephiny and Shaylea have plenty of blankets."

"Ahh, but do they have a bedspread that is theirs?" Grinned the bard in response.

At dinner that evening, Xena's "mistress" instructions were put to the test. One of the amazonian councilwomen made a ribald comment as to the nature of Xena's "usefulness" to their presumptive Queen. Before she could stop herself, Xena had jumped up, grabbed the amazon by the throat and was slowly choking the breath from the terrified woman.

"Slave!" Gabrielle brought the handle of the whip she carried down on Xena's unprotected shoulder blade, "release her." The bard's voice was a low growl. Immediately the warrior dropped the nearly unconscious woman and fell to her knees.

"This is an outrage!" cried another councilmember. "I demand that she be punished."

"And she will be." Deadly calm threaded Gabrielle's voice. I'm so sorry Xena. she cried inwardly and then, she gestured for Ephiny to bare the warrior's back. Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle then delivered ten lashes to the warrior's smooth skin. Biting back tears at the sight of the bloody welts she had raised, she grimly said, "escort this slave to my quarters, Ephiny. I'll be up shortly."

Through it all, Xena had remained utterly silent, not even crying out when the bard had whipped her. I'm so sorry Gabrielle. I never wanted that to happen. How can you ever forgive me? raged the warrior inwardly.

When Gabrielle reached her room that night, she found Xena chained to the wall. Swallowing the sobs that threatened to overwhelm her, the bard called out quietly, "Xena?"

The warrior lifted her head, but refused to meet the bard's eyes. "Yes, mistress?"

"I'm so sorry." A tear slipped down her cheek. Hearing the shuddering intake of breath as the bard tried unsuccessfully not to cry, the warrior slammed her head into the cold stone of the wall she was attached to. The bard muffled a whimper of sympathy and went over to their packs and removed some clean cloth and Xena's herb pouch. "Xena, I need you to tell me what herbs to mix to make a poultice." she said softly.

"Willow bark, chamomile, a spider's web and aloe." came the gruff reply.

Gabrielle quickly mixed the herbs into a thick paste. Unchaining Xena, then leading her over to the bed and directing her to lay down, Gabrielle peeled the warrior's battledress away from the still oozing lash marks. Xena's hiss of indrawn breath was the only indication that she felt the bard's gentle ministrations as Gabrielle slowly cleaned the wounds. After the poultice had been applied and clean dressings placed over the cuts, Gabrielle put her hand on Xena's shoulder and firmly motioned for the warrior to turn over and face her. Carefully, Xena rolled over to meet the bard's sorrowful gaze. Tears were streaming down Gabrielle's cheeks.

Instantly, Xena was sitting up and wrapping her arms around the bard, drawing her close in a comforting embrace. Softly, she kissed Gabrielle's forehead. "It's all right, my bard. I'm not mad at you. You did what you had to do." Gabrielle sat for a moment, enjoying the warrior's warmth, then she pushed herself away and looked Xena in the eye.

"I will never do that again. I don't care if I have to walk through the fires of Tartarus itself, I never want to lay a hand in anger on you again." Said the bard with conviction.

"Gabrielle..." started Xena softly.

"No. Xena, I don't care what it takes, I will find a way for you to be here in Themiscrya with me as you, Xena: Warrior Princess, not, Xena: Gabrielle's Slave. You are not a slave. Not mine, nor anyone else's. I...I need you to be you, not what would make people more 'comfortable'."

The warrior's eyes glistened with unshed tears, and her voice cracked as she jokingly said, "will you at least wait until after you climb that blasted mountain?"

"I suppose I have to, don't I?"

"Yup. I'm not gonna let you go alone."

"Oh, really?" the bard's eyebrow rose in perfect imitation of Xena's "look".

"Yeah. Really." Xena smiled.

"Well, in that case, my warrior, scoot over. I need to get some sleep. I'll have to be at my full strength if I'm going to beat you up that silly mountain."

Xena slithered out of her battledress, slid over and opened her arms to her bard. Standing, Gabrielle removed her clothes and slipped on her sleeping shift. Then it hit her that Xena was naked. Naked, in bed, about to be sleeping next to her. Oh gods. I'm never gonna get any sleep now. "Xena, would you like me to find you a clean shift?" She managed to choke out.

"Nah. I'm fine." Sleepily murmered the warrior. Nope, no sleep at all. Steeling herself, Gabrielle climbed into the bed and curled up in Xena's warm embrace. Even though the sensation of Xena's naked body pressed up against hers was enough to drive her completely insane with desire, Gabrielle somehow managed to fall asleep.

Xena smiled into the golden locks of Gabrielle's hair as she heard the bard's breathing drift into the regular patterns of sleep. So my being naked disturbs you, eh, my bard? Well, well, well. Maybe the gods will be kind to me after all. Xena sighed softly and kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. "Sweet dreams, my heart." she whispered, then closed her eyes and let sleep overtake her.

The rest of the week passed uneventfully. Xena spent her days with Torane and Gabrielle either learned the in's and out's of mountain climbing or poured over the ancient texts of Themiscryan law. Finally, the day of the climb came.

They gathered in the main square of Themiscrya to see their hopeful Queen off. Shaylea and her advisors, Gabrielle, with Xena kneeling at her side, and Ephiny and the honor guard. Shaylea stepped forward and spoke in a loud voice.

"Gabrielle of Amazonia, you have made a claim to the throne of Themiscrya. To prove your worth you must go forth and climb Atlas' Shoulder. By the ancient laws, you may only take with you only one possession of your choosing. Do you agree?"

"I agree."

"Then choose your possession and may the Gods be with you."

"I choose to take my slave, Xena." A collective gasp exploded from the crowd. Several advisors started chattering and grumbling at once. One spoke out above the rest.

"Can she do that?"

"Nixia is it?" inquired the bard with an arched eyebrow, "I figured you would have doubts, so I spent some time researching the laws of Themiscrya. By your own laws, a slave is a possession. Since I have the choice of which possession I wish to take, Xena is mine."

In more ways than one. Thought the warrior with an inaudible chuckle.

Gabrielle placed her hand on Xena's shoulder. "Will anyone say me nay?" Silence. "All right then. I shall see you all tomorrow." She pulled Xena to her feet and they walked out of Themiscrya, towards the mountain.

"That was either really brave, or really stupid of me, wasn't it Xena?" the bard asked when they were several miles away from the amazon city.

"Uh huh."

"Stupid...stupid...stupid. Oh well, nothing I can do now. I just hope I made the right choice."

"So do I, Gabrielle. So do I."

They reached the base of Atlas' Shoulder at noon. By dusk they were a quarter of the way up the mountain. They spoke little, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, one hand into tiny crack after another. They stopped after the sun set to get their breath and take their bearings.

Peering around in the darkness, Xena commented, "if we continue to make this good of time, we should reach the top by midnight."

"Good, that means we can rest on the top for the night and then climb down in the morning." Gabrielle pushed herself off of the rock she had been leaning on. "Ok, I'm ready. Let's get this over with."

"Pay up Cupid. They're never going to admit they love each other. Just admit defeat to me and I promise I'll be nice." Said Ares as he watched Xena and that annoying bard make their way up the mountain in the darkness.

"What's the matter Ares, afraid my boy's gonna whup your butt? You gave him two years and two years is what he's gonna get." Aphrodite looked at a sandglass, there were still a few grains of sand left to fall. "Check it out, slime breath, there's still a couple of hours left."

"Yeah, what she said." Interjected Cupid.

"All right, Aphrodite. I'll play your game. But when I win, I won't be nice." growled the god of war.

The climb was growing steeper now, Gabrielle could hear her own labored breathing as she scrambled for hand and foot holds. Below her, her beloved warrior tirelessly followed her. Funny, I've always been the one to follow. Now that I'm leading, suddenly, I can see so much more. She looked up, and could just make out the pinnacle of the mountain top. So close, so far away. Everything always seems to be just that way. The bard reached for another groove in the rock face. She pulled on it gently, testing it first. Just like reaching out to Xena, I have to use a gentle touch, to see if she will crumble away at any pressure. The rock held strong and she pulled herself upwards once more. A little more...c'mon Amazon Queen, you can do it. She encouraged herself. She reached, stretched...there, she caught the edge of the cliff. Pulling herself up, she realized that she could not continue to deny her feelings for the warrior. Like climbing the mountain to prove her worthiness as Queen, she now had to face the warrior and prove herself as a woman. Xena arrived a few heartbeats later, breathless and flushed, her hands scraped and bloodied from the sharp rocks. Gabrielle reached out and took the warrior's hands.

"Xena, we made it. Isn't it beautiful up here?" she gestured to the panoramic view of both valleys.

"Yes, it is." The warrior's eyes, however, were locked on the bard's face. They stood in silence, the cold mountain wind chilling them to the bone. Seeing her bard shiver, Xena drew Gabrielle into the circle of her arms.

Gabrielle sighed contentedly, then pulled away from the warrior.

"Gabrielle, you're freezing, let me keep you warm."

"No, Xena. I have something I must say first. All I ask is that you listen."

"All right, I'm listening." An owl's cry floated up from one of the valleys below them. The moonlight illuminated the bard's face and cast a silvery glow around her pale form as she stood there, eyes closed, hands clasped firmly behind her back. Then her eyes opened.

"I love you Xena. And, I think, you love me too. Not as a friend, no. But like Ashayne and Myralea." She began to edge her way towards the sheer cliff behind her. "As we climbed this mountain, I realized that I was doing you and I a great misdeed by not admitting my feelings. In fact, I think I've been slowly killing myself inside over it." Now she was standing at the precise edge of the cliff, one mis-step and she would topple over the side. "So now, its come to this: your love is what I want and what I need. I'm dying here, as surely as if I'd fallen off this cliff. Xena," the bard swallowed sharply and stuck one foot into empty air, "your love can either be my killer, or my healer, it's up to you to decide which one it will be. So I ask you, do you love me?" She stood there, balancing on one foot, the other dangling over the side of the mountain, waiting for her warrior's answer.

Xena's heart swelled with love. "Yes." came the softly spoken reply. Then, louder, "yes, Gabrielle. I love you."

High on Mount Olympus, Cupid high-fived his mother and then turned to the extremely irritated god of war. "You snooze, you lose, buddy. Pay up."

A string of curses that would curl the hairs on a Peloponnesian slave trader's chest blistered their ears, then Ares growled, "all right, which ones do you want?"

Cupid smiled wickedly, "well, for starters, you can lay off of Xena. She's mine now. Second, I think I dig that Draco character. He's got promise..."

Ares' moans of pain were heard throughout Olympus as Cupid listed the warriors he wanted.

Gabrielle felt her knee go weak with the strain of holding herself up. Swinging her other leg around from the empty space below her, she stumbled over towards Xena's waiting arms. Her hand slid up to cup Xena's cheek, their eyes met. "Xena, I..."

"Shh, Gabrielle. I know." The warrior's voice rumbled from deep within her chest. Taking Gabrielle's chin between her thumb and forefinger, she slowly, carefully raised the bards lips to her own. When they kissed, time seemed to stop. All they could feel was each other's lips, warm against the chill of the night. A soft sigh escaped the bard's throat, and she moved her mouth against Xena's. Passion exploded in the warrior. Gentle behavior now a thing of the past, she strove to possess the bard's mouth, parting their lips with her tongue, tasting Gabrielle's mouth, caressing her warmth with long, sensuous strokes. Gabrielle's hand feathered around behind Xena's head and held her pinned, not wanting to break this sweet contact. Xena's hands moved everywhere across her bard's body, touching, teasing, caressing any bit of exposed flesh that she could find. Finally, they parted to breathe, long, slow gasps of breath.

"Xena, I don't want to stop. Please tell me this isn't a dream. I don't think I could take it if it were."

"This is no dream, my bard--my love." Once again, Xena captured her love's lips, kissing, teasing the bard with slow, breath-stealing touches of her mouth. Dragging her lips across Gabrielle's chin and cheek to her ear, she whispered, "I have loved you so long, my bard and I will never stop loving you." A shaft of pure desire shot up from the deepest core of Gabrielle's heart at the warrior's softly spoken words.

In a voice made husky by passion, Gabrielle said, "I want you Xena, make love to me." Xena kissed her again, and hesitantly cupped her broad hands over Gabrielle's soft breasts. The bard gasped at the intense sensations being drawn from her body by the warrior's tentative touch.

"Oh, my bard, as much as I would love to do just that, I want our first time to be special. I want it to be something like from one of your stories." She smiled widely, "and somehow, I don't think doing it while half frozen on the top of a treacherous mountain peak qualifies for 'romantic'."

"Yeah," choked Gabrielle, trying hard to regain her composure, "I guess you're right. How 'bout you just hold me instead? It is freezing up here."

"With pleasure." Xena found a notch between two boulders just large enough for her and the bard to curl up into, cautiously seated herself on the ground, then held out her arms for Gabrielle to cuddle up in her arms. As she felt her love's breathing slow into the rhythm of sleep, the warrior sent a silent prayer of thanks to Aphrodite.

The next morning both warrior and bard woke with the first rays of the sun. Stiff and sore from their night's sleep on the mountain, neither felt much like talking. Silently, they began the trek down the mountain. Climbing down was much easier than climbing up and they reached the base of the mountain just before sunset.

"By the gods, I'm glad to be done with that." groaned the bard as she ran a grimy hand through her hair.

"That was the easy part Gabrielle. Now that you've proven yourself worthy of being Queen, you have to be their Queen."

"Did you have to remind me of that?"

"Yup. Can't have you disappearing off to your quarters on a whim now, can we?"

"Even if I want to disappear with you? Warrior o' mine?"

"Well...yeah. Even with me." A sad look crossed the warrior's face. "Gabrielle, look...the Themiscryans aren't going to deal to well with the fact of our feelings for one and other, so if you want to stay...I..um, don't worry about my feelings, ok?" Gabrielle skidded to a stop, turned around, and with her hands planted firmly on her hips, gave Xena a look that could have peeled an egg.

"What do you mean "don't worry about your feelings"? Are you trying to tell me something warrior princess? Hmm? Are you saying that you don't love me? Is that what you're saying? Did you just tell me that you loved me to keep me from jumping?" the bard's voice rose with each statement and she stepped closer and closer to Xena's shocked form until they were almost nose to nose.

"No. Its just that..." the warrior shrugged a bit and backed off slightly, "you've done it before." Gabrielle's jaw dropped. Silence reigned between the warrior and the bard. Then, with tears in her eyes, Gabrielle turned and began to walk away. Good job Xena, she's finally gone and admitted how she feels and you have to ruin it all by sticking your foot in it. Serves you right too. Shoulda just kept your big mouth shut and tackled her away from that ledge. The warrior shook her head, but she could not clear her mind of the thoughts that threatened to drive her screaming from the valley. Say something warrior, before she walks out of your life forever. "Gabrielle..." she whispered hoarsely.

Somehow, the bard heard her and whirled around. Tears were streaming down Gabrielle's face.

"You're talking about Perdicus, aren't you?" The question like a crossbow bolt, shot straight into the warrior's tormented heart.

"Yes." Xena couldn't meet the bard's eyes. Couldn't bring herself to face the hurt she knew was there.

"I always wondered why you didn't stop me. I guess now I know. You're too scared to love me Xena, aren't you?"

"Yes." a single word spoken softly, gave the bard the key to Xena's heart.

"Don't be. I will never leave you again. I'm through leaving you. I'm not afraid of what I feel anymore, and you shouldn't be either." Gabrielle reached for Xena, hoping, praying that she wouldn't turn away. Xena looked up, a single tear creeping down her finely chiseled cheek. And saw only love in Gabrielle's eyes.

"You mean it?"

"Yes. Now c'mere, my warrior, and kiss me before I die of wanting you." So she did, again and again, till both their lips were bruised from the force of their kisses. Gasping for breath, they both drew apart at the same time."I think we need to get back to Themiscrya, before I decide I really don't want our first time to be romantic." commented the warrior.

"Yeah, I think you're right." The two women wrapped their arms around each other and began the long journey back to Themiscrya.

They reached the city just before the moon rose high overhead. Shaylea, Ephiny and a large entourage of Amazon guards were waiting for them just outside the city gates. Ephiny immediately went to Gabrielle's side and hugged her hard.

"I knew you'd make it."

"Was there ever any doubt?"

"No, not really. But I thought I'd say it anyway." The blond amazon smiled warmly at her friend, then, she noticed that some of the lines of tension on her Queen's face had smoothed out. Leaning close she whispered, "so, did you and Xena finally talk?" Gabrielle's blush answered her question. "Well, its about time!" she smiled to show the bard that she approved.

Shaylea then stepped forward and clasped the bard's arm.

"I am pleased that you have passed the test My Queen. Welcome home." The Themiscryan bowed low in front of Gabrielle.

"Aye, I have returned." She turned to face the assembled crowd of amazons. "By the way, if any of your are thinking of climbing that mountain, watch out--that last jump's a real bitch." Everyone laughed at their Queen's candid comment. "Now, I think that I'd like to get some food and sleep."

After they had eaten, Xena and Gabrielle retired to their room. A warm bath was awaiting them, as well as fresh clothes. Gabrielle silently stepped up to Xena's side and removed the slave collar. "I'll put it back on in the morning. Tonight, I want us to be Gabrielle and Xena, not Amazon Queen and slave." Xena heart felt like it was going to burst.

"I love you, little bard. You know that?" said the warrior quietly.

"And I love you, warrior o' mine. Now, help me undress. I'm ripe."

Sinking into the steaming water, Gabrielle sighed in pleasure. "Ahh, this is truly a piece of Elysia. Why don't you join me, Xena?"

"Whatever you wish, mistress." Gabrielle's eyebrow shot up.

"Oh, so we're back to that, are we?" Xena glanced at the door and mouthed 'guards'. Gabrielle made an 'O' shape with her mouth and grinned mischievously. "Come here *slave*. Its time you earned your keep." Xena felt her insides turn to water at the tone of command in her bards voice. Quickly, she shucked her battledress and undertunic, then slid into the water. Gabrielle turned herself around so that her back was to Xena. "Wash my back, slave." Xena took a rag, soaped it, and began to rub the lathered cloth across Gabrielle's tense shoulders. The bard moaned with pleasure at the sensation of the rough cloth on her smooth skin. Once the dirt was scrubbed off, Xena rinsed Gabrielle's back then drew her against her chest. "Mmm. This is verrry nice." Xena smiled to herself and began to gently wash the bard's front. When she got to the bard's full breasts, she slowed down and used the rag to tease Gabrielle's nipples to taunt peaks of flesh. Whimpering, Gabrielle tilted her head up to look at Xena's face. The warrior's eyes were half-lidded with pleasure. Pulling the rag out of Xena's hands, Gabrielle took her warrior's fingertips and brought them to her painfully erect nipples. "Touch me, slave. I desire you." A rush of wetness that had nothing at all to do with the bath water flooded between Xena's legs as she began to stroke her bard's breasts.

"Gods, mistress, you feel so good." whispered the warrior as she continued to squeeze and rub Gabrielle's soft flesh.

"Don't talk Xena. Just make love to me." returned the bard in a desire ridden whisper. Xena bent her head and started trailing kisses up Gabrielle's neck and shoulders.

When she reached her bard's ears, she took the lobe between her teeth and bit down softly then breathed, "keep calling me 'slave' Mistress, it...excites...me."

An indescribable feeling shot through Gabrielle when Xena said "mistress". She had said it in such a way that Gabrielle felt like she had total control over the warrior.

Reaching her arm up behind her and wrapping it around Xena's neck, Gabrielle pulled Xena's lips to hers and growled, "all right, slave kiss me. Hard." Their lips met so hard that Gabrielle tasted blood, but she didn't care, she ruthlessly thrust her tongue into Xena's waiting mouth, delighting in the tastes and textures she found within. A groan escaped the warrior's throat and she convulsively clamped her fingers down on Gabrielle's nipples. Knowing that the fire inside each of them was not going to be quenched soon, Gabrielle broke their kiss, rolled over to face her warrior and said, "let's get this bathing thing over with. Now. I'm not gonna miss a single part of our first time just because there isn't enough room." They took the quickest bath in the history of the known world.

Xena got out of the tub first, to lay a fire in the hearth and make a soft nest of blankets to lay her love on. When she was done, she helped Gabrielle out of the tub and slowly, sensuously dried her off. Then, letting the damp towel fall to the ground, she lifted her bard up into her strong arms and carried her over to the bedding. Carefully she laid her precious cargo down, then knelt beside her bard.

"Ask of me what you will, Mistress, I am yours to command." the warrior's voice was husky with desire. Sitting up, Gabrielle placed her hands on Xena's broad shoulders.

"I just want you." Then she kissed her warrior softly, tenderly. Not stopping with just the kiss, the bard continued to trace her lips down Xena's chin, across her neck to stop at the joining point of neck and shoulder. Her eyes caught the barest glimpse of two pinpoint scars. Memories of how that scar came to be flooded her mind and she moaned softly. Gabrielle slid her hands around to Xena's shoulder blades and pulled gently to bring her closer and then covered those scars with her mouth, then sunk her teeth into the warrior's flesh and began to suck, mimicking the very way the warrior first received the scars. Xena's head dropped sideways and she arched her back into Gabrielle's passionate bite.

Lacing her fingers into the bard's honey colored hair, she choked out, "yes, Gabrielle, yes." Xena's hoarsely voiced words drove Gabrielle to continue her explorations of the warrior's body. Trailing her mouth across Xena's shoulders and down the line of her collarbone, Gabrielle moved her hands around to cup the warrior's full breasts. "Gods." breathed the warrior heatedly. Xena couldn't control herself any longer, she had to take her bard, now. Dragging her fingers from their pleasant entrapment, Xena pushed Gabrielle back onto the blankets and then began to cover the bard's body with a fiery ribbon of kisses.

All pretense of slave and master disappeared at the first touch of Xena's lips on the bard's skin. "Xena..." passion clouded Gabrielle's mind and voice. "Touch me...I need you to...love me." The bard's words only fueled Xena's desire as she reached Gabrielle's tender breasts and took a rapidly hardening nipple between her teeth, bit down lightly and began sucking at the same time. Gabrielle was adrift on a sea of sensation, the incredible feeling of Xena's tongue on her nipple was eliciting emotions that she had never felt before and she was sure that she never wanted to feel again with any other besides her beloved warrior. The warrior shifted to the other side, lavishing the same tender affections on that nipple and breast.

Somewhere inside, a dam broke and Gabrielle began to move her hips in a rhythmic rocking motion. Noticing this, Xena carefully slid her body on top of the bard's and using her knee, she spread Gabrielle's legs. Bronzed silk shifted smoothly against alabaster marble as their legs entwined. Hips met, ground together, a track a passion slicked wetness appeared. Neither knew which one moaned first, or if they released their vocal longing together. Lips met, tongues tangled, hands searched blindly for any piece of the other to touch, then, finding the center of each other's longing, reaching inside, touching the heart of their love's fire and bringing the other to the fields of Elysia. Then, they slept the sheen of their loving glistening in the dying firelight.

Xena's eyes opened with the dawn. Glancing down at the sleeping woman lying snuggled in her arms, the warrior set aside all her inner turmoil and gave herself fully to the love glowing in her heart. Smoothing an errant strand of hair away from Gabrielle's face, she placed a light kiss on the bard's forehead and spoke one word. "Forever." Then she drew a sleep tossed quilt over their bodies and slipped back into Morpheus' arms. She never noticed the single tear that crept down the bard's cheek.

Later that day, after they had eaten, Gabrielle called a meeting of the Themiscryan council. Seated at the head of the council table, Gabrielle looked plainly at ease in her role as Queen.

"Thank you all for gathering so quickly. We have much to discuss." said the bard as she smiled and nodded at each member of the Council. "First, I believe we should discuss the Centaur Chefu's request." A spirited debate of two hours produced a bare bones treaty that allowed the Centaurs use of the neighboring valley.

"Ok, next on my list is the subject of my slave, Xena. Xena, please stand and face the council." Some of the amazons present began to whisper among themselves, wondering what their queen had in mind. All there knew of the warrior princess' past deeds and were clearly interested in what fate their new queen was going to do about them. Xena stood and faced the council table, her eyes never leaving the bard's. Gabrielle stood up and walked over to Xena. Reaching her side, she motioned for the larger woman to kneel before her. Xena knelt, her uncertainty written on her face. Gabrielle smiled reassuringly at her love and, withdrawing a key from her vambrace, unlocked the iron slave collar and tossed it aside. "Xena, warrior of Amphipolis, I hereby free you from slavery and absolve you of any past crimes against Themiscrya."

Tears welled up in the warrior's eyes.

A general uproar began. Councilmember Nixia stood and voiced everyone's protests. "How can you do that? Xena is nothing but a slime dwelling war monger."

Ephiny and the other amazons from Amazonia jumped up to defend their queen.

"No, Ephiny. Relax. I can handle this." With her eyes, Gabrielle commanded her guards to stand down. Then she turned a baleful stare upon Nixia. "I told you before that I had spent time researching Themiscryan law. I learned a lot. I can, will and have freed Xena according to your own laws."

"Oh yeah, prove it." was the heated retort.

"Your law states that a slave may be freed if they perform a service to the monarchy above and beyond what is expected of them. I say that Xena has fulfilled this qualification quite well."

"How?" Nixia sneered. "All that she's ever done for Themiscrya is take Her people's lives."

"That Xena is dead. This Xena," Gabrielle gestured to the kneeling warrior, "has saved my life on numerous occasions. She even," the bard smiled, "brought me back to life once."

"Bah. That's heresy. No proof."

"Untrue, Councilmember Nixia. I was there." Ephiny spoke up now. "It was during the Mitoan-Thessalian war. I'm sure you've all heard of that?" Reluctantly, the councilmembers nodded. "During the last few days of that battle, Gabrielle was mortally wounded. She died in Xena's arms. So strong was her dedication to her Queen, Xena stole Gabrielle from Hades Himself." Now, several of the councilmembers looked upon Xena with a new light in their eyes.

Shaylea spoke. "Most of you have chosen to ignore the tales of the bards from other lands, but I have not. What Queen Gabrielle says is true. Xena has changed. She is no longer the scourge of Amphipolis. She is now only Xena, warrior of Amphipolis."

"Thank you Shaylea. Will anyone deny me my right to free a slave? No? As for absolving Xena of her crimes, I feel that the good she has done for Amazonia far outweighs whatever damage she may have caused in the past. Besides," and here, Gabrielle's eyes sparkled, "she is my Bondmate." Jaws dropped. The look on Xena's face alone was priceless. Swallowing her laughter, Gabrielle once again captured the warrior's attention and said, "I will not be without you any longer Xena. Bond with me."


Ephiny, Shaylea and most of the hall exploded into cheers. Even Nixia had to smile at the obvious glow of the TrueLove Bond.

"Good. Then we can have a double Bonding Ceremony. Ephiny, Shaylea, come forth." The two amazons looked at Gabrielle suspiciously, but got up and walked over to their Queen. "My friends, tonight we will celebrate. Tonight, four halved souls are to be reunited."

More cheers. Shaylea blushed. Ephiny and Xena exchanged a 'look' that said "*dead* bard".

They gathered from all over Themiscrya in the great Temple of Artemis. The High Priestess Desdra, after having been informed of the ritual to be performed, had sent the underpriestess' and acolytes into a cleaning frenzy in preparation. The temple shone in the light of the myriad candles that decorated every niche and surface. Shaylea and Ephiny were dressed in the finest amazon garb and Gabrielle was looking every inch the Queen in her crimson and gold armor. But it was Xena who stole the breath of everyone present. Forsaking her habitual battledress and armor, the warrior instead wore a simple tunic of unadorned blue. Taking her place at Gabrielle's side, the warrior leaned over and whispered, "close your mouth, Gabrielle, you don't want to swallow a fly."

"You look...perfect." replied the bard.

"Why thank you. I tried." Came the sardonic response.

High Priestess Desdra cleared her throat. "Amazons, we are here to witness the birth of not one, but two miracles. Artemis has smiled on these two couples and brought them together and Aphrodite has blessed them with love. Precious indeed are these four, for they not only signify the joining of four souls torn asunder, but also the healing of a nation long apart. With their joining, let there be peace. With their joining, let there be love. With their joining, let there be healing." As she said these words, the High Priestess sprinkled each couple with incense. She then produced four identical silver bracelets. Handing a bracelet to each woman, she commanded, "let no one tear apart what the gods have brought together." Each woman slipped the silver hoop onto the wrist of their partner, then took their beloved into their arms and sealed the ceremony with a kiss. Wild yells of joy soon deafened all those in attendance.

When the din had died down to a dull roar, Ephiny turned to Gabrielle and said, "I guess this means that you're leaving us?"

"Well, not for a while, but yes, Xena and I will be returning to the road." replied the bard.

"We will miss you, My Queen."

"I know. But we will be coming back. Frequently. You'll get tired of us. I promise." and she smiled at Ephiny. "Anyways, you and Shaylea will be better leaders than Xena or I could ever hope to be."

"You are wrong, Gabrielle. But we Amazons are a patient people. We will wait for our Queen. We are good at waiting." interjected Shaylea with a smile.

"Don't hold your breath." quipped Xena, smiling fondly at her bard.

"Xena!" The two couples left the altar to be congratulated by their friends.

The End

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