Hecuba stewed about nervously, wringing her hands and glancing, every now and then, out the window. She looked at her newly freshened abode. Everything was as in order as it was going to be. There was fresh fruit on the center table and bright colored flowers to lighten up the stone mantle. Those chairs which had cushions had been fluffed. Everything had been polished to a shine. Now it was just the waiting.
She stepped outside and shielded her eyes against the sun. Her skirts rustled with her simple movement. Then she smiled when she caught sight of the colorful woman.
She was tall. She was graceful. Her hair was the color of copper that shined almost golden when touched by the sun's rays for too long. Her face was a little long but her lips were full and her eyes were merry. She wore a knee length skirt and a simple top because she traveled a lot and it was more convenient to ride her small dark pony in the horseman's position than it was to ride sidesaddle and it was cooler in the summer. The pony came to a stop outside of Hecuba's home.
The woman smiled as she dismounted easily. She looped the reigns around an available post and grabbed hold of the saddlebags. "Have I got something to show you." she began in a rapid patter. "I believe," and she waved the bags about, "I have found suitables to meet your requirements."
Hecuba smiled broadly. She waved the woman into her house.
The woman studied the list that an earlier interview with Hecuba provided. She tapped her teeth with her quill. "Now, this was a tough assignment, believe me. But I am a firm believer that we all have a match, even a problem child like yours." The matchmaker set the list down and began opening a pouch. It held a large grouping of scrolls. "Based on your description, I had to narrow some of the possibilities." She began opening some of the scrolls.
Hecuba saw that most were drawings with some description of the individual portrayed underneath. She gasped. Some of the likenesses were remarkable. Hecuba touched one of the scrolls lightly.
The woman smiled, "Yes. I've got some of the best artists at work for me." She unrolled another scroll.
There was another gasp of astonishment from Hecuba.
The matchmaker raised her eyebrows and squinted. She picked up her list and checked it, then looked back at the surprised woman. "You did say she was an Amazon Queen, did you not?"
The mother stammered, "well yes. I did, but. . ."
The redhead touched Hecuba's shoulder gently, "You are aware that Amazons. ."
"I was hoping it was a phase."
The matchmaker's lips quirked and she shook her head lightly. "Being an Amazon Queen is not a phase."
Hecuba's response was meek, "oh."
"Now you mentioned a traveling companion." Again she looked at her list, "Two years." She glanced at Hecuba, "Are you sure they aren't. . ." The matchmaker's hand waved meaningfully.
Hecuba nodded fiercly. "They aren't." Then she looked a little confused, "I think." The mother placed her hands in her lap and looked down. Her face was tense, "She never said anything. . ." Then a hand went to her mouth as little things began to ping in her memory, "Oh dear. . ."
The matchmaker watched the mother's facial expression move from one kind of surety to another sudden comprehension. She began quietly to pack away the scrolls. "Well, I see I won't be needing to do much here."
Hecuba grabbed her arm, "But. . ."
The matchmaker's face took on a look of understanding. "Are they happy?"
Hecuba thought about the few times her daughter had returned home. Each time, save for one, she'd been almost...jubilant, bubbly.. .overflowing with life. She had to grin at her own denseness. "Yes."
The matchmaker patted her hand, "Well then, Aphrodite approves, they'll be fine." So much for that, she thought. The redhead began to stand up.
Hecuba looked down thoughtfully, her mind now fully activated on a new train of thought. She couldn't remember seeing a ring or even a new pendant... .Two years was a fine amount of time to know someone, but there should be something more, more, so no one would mistake. Her daughter was a fine catch after all. She'd have to talk to that dark haired woman of hers. Hecuba, deep in thought, spoke aloud. "There's not been a ceremony yet. Not that I've seen. My daughter better not have eloped. We've got relatives who've been waiting years for this. And a Queen, even an Amazon, should keep up appearances."
The matchmaker sat back down with a grin and began to open up the other pouch. This time she pulled out a big leatherbound casing. Bits of cloth and other materials hung out "Have I showed you the latest fashions in joining ceremonies?"
The smell of horse sweat permeated the air and mixed with the scent of hay and manure. It wafted to Gabrielle's nose on the crests and falls of the warm wind. She squinted into the dark barn. She could hear Xena's low voice responding to a masculine voice. She couldn't understand what Xena was saying, but the man's voice carried and it held the sound of an incipient hysteria.
"I tell you Xena, they are up to something. Why do you think I rode *all the way* over here as soon as I heard you were around?" The sound of towel rustling to the ground was replaced with a kind of scratchy noise. Gabrielle leaned closer.
"mumble mumble Toris, mumble." Damn, Gabrielle thought, she hated it when Xena spoke this low. Made eavesdropping nigh unto impossible. Not that Xena wouldn't tell her what they were talking about, but the warrior was constantly telling her to improve her listening skills. Gabrielle just knew her companion was doing this on purpose. Xena probably knew she was right outside of the barn too.
"You don't understand. They had a *matchmaker* with them! They were even talking ceremony designs." There was a sound of something hitting the floor. His voice raised in pitch. "Oh my Gods! You know what that means. They're plotting to marry me off. I can just feel it." Gabrielle raised her eyebrows. "You have got to do something! I can't get married. . I mean I have other. . I 've made . . .I mean Gabrielle's nice and all, but I hardly know her sister and you know that's who they. . ."
Gabrielle leaned on her staff and tried to move a little closer to the doorway without actually going in. "Toris mumble mumble we mumble mumble. No problem mumble mumble."
There was a bit more rustling and a couple of whinnies from the four legged occupants. Then Gabrielle heard footsteps. She took a few quick ones herself, turned around and made it look like she was just now arriving. She gave a friendly wave, "Hi Toris, been awhile."
Toris gave her a surly nod. He got an elbowing by his sister and his expression changed instantly to one of friendly reception. "Hi Gabrielle. Anything interesting going on?"
The bard stopped and leaned against her pole. Her face took on an aspect of thoughtfulness. "Interesting. Interesting." She shook her head, "Nope." Then she grinned, "But that should change. We're going to Amphipolis pretty soon." Toris stopped midstep and had to set his foot down. Xena grinned and gave the bard a wink. Gabrielle felt a glow of warm pride swell from her heart to her belly.
Xena strode forward, her dark hair drifted in the summer wind. She smiled at the bard and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. "How do you feel about leaving tomorrow."
The bard grinned back and shrugged, "I've got nothing better to do."
Xena raised her eyebrows and bent her head down. "I'm sorry." she whispered warmly into the bard's ear. Xena's face pressed softly against the strawberry blonde's face. "Maybe we can come back later. I'll make it worth your while." The warrior's breath tickled and Gabrielle felt a small jolt quake down her spine.
Okay, so maybe there were some good uses for a low voice. Gabrielle whispered back, "Okay," and let it go at that.
Xena paid for Toris' lodgings.
In his rush to find her, he'd not given any thought to where *he* would be staying. Xena claimed modesty and refused to share a room. She made sure he had a nice one though. He guessed it was a girl thing, though he'd never really thought of Xena as a girl. He'd always thought of her as Xena, his sister. It's not like they hadn't shared rooms before.
But she deftly maneuvered him into accepting her offer. At least the bed was soft.
Toris prepared for a good night's sleep.
Gabrielle locked the door and turned around. She leaned against it with a sigh. Her voice was soft, "That was close."
Xena gave a noncommittal, "mmm." The bed settled under her weight as she leaned back, using her arms as support. Most of her armor was already off. Her eyes smoldered and her lips quirked.
Gabrielle blinked and then laughed, "Okay, maybe it wasn't close."
Xena grinned. Then she crooked her fingers in a summons.
Gabrielle did that little unselfconscious lip licking thing that says, "I am about to get LUCKY." She unpropped herself from the door and headed for Xena's open arms.
Toris had more trouble sleeping than he'd anticipated. Erotic noises had filled a good portion of the night and left him restless. He had no idea who it was, but he didn't know a woman's could keen like that. It had actually aroused him. So of course, he had to do something about it.
Afterwards, though he was more relaxed, he fretted about the whole marriage thing for a few hours. He did have confidence in Xena. But Xena got her stubbornness from somewhere, and he knew from whom it came. His mother was not someone to trifle with. OH Gods! He was going to get married! He gave out a mighty groan, dragged his hands to his face and slammed his head back into the pillow.
He finally drifted off at the point when the night was darkest
The ride back was sweet for Gabrielle. True, she wasn't much of a horse person, but she was definitely a Xena person and Xena had taught her to appreciate some of the . .better. .reasons for riding. This wasn't to say that the bard didn't walk most of the time. She liked walking. She could set a pace that allowed for taking in the sights and extended conversation that way. But she no longer resisted riding as much. She grinned wickedly behind Xena's back as certain memories filtered through her brain. She lay her head softly against the warrior's back.
It started as frustration. Xena's to be specific. They had someplace to go and it seemed as if Gabrielle was just dragging her feet. Gabrielle wasn't dragging her feet, though she was delaying. At some point Xena had enough. She halted Argo, whirled the horse around and pulled the bard up and into the front of the saddle. She wasn't sure why she did it. Usually the bard rode in the back. She guessed that it was a subconscious desire to hurry up, to push the bard ahead.
Xena wrapped strong arms around the bard's waist, started Argo into a quick paced gait, and realized abruptly that she was touching naked skin. Naked bard skin. She felt a sudden flush of desire.
Then things happened.
Gabrielle was complaining loudly, but Xena was too busy thinking mantras to calm the waves of desire that she wasn't listening. The bard shifted around so that her face was looking up at Xena's. She waved fingers in front of the warrior's face, forcing Xena to look down and grimace. "Are you listening?" the bard asked.
Xena gave a curt nod and then got stuck somewhere between up and down when her eyes met Gabrielle's. That flare of desire suddenly boosted in intensity and caused sparks of lust to flash into the dark woman's blue eyes. Gabrielle's mouth seemed to open up invitingly (though she was just going to say something else. . and then it faded from mind when she experienced Xena's gaze). Xena's lips were suddenly touching Gabrielle's in a passionately intense kiss. Her hand stroked the bard's belly and drifted to the trim of the bard's skirt.
After that, there was no going back to hating horses for Gabrielle. There were times, on the road, that they tried other positions in camp. She applied the principal to her riding experiences with Xena. They'd done a version of side saddle, with Gabrielle spreading willingly to Xena's searching hand. They'd also done a version of the straddle, where Gabrielle covered Xena's thighs with her own.
That had been the direct result of a wager Gabrielle made Xena about her ability to distract the ex-warlord. Xena had remained stoic right up until a certain bard's hands had found their way under Xena's skirt. The saddle had to be wiped down later. Somehow Xena managed to guide Argo anyway, or maybe Argo was simply so smart Xena simply let the horse lead the way. It didn't matter. It had been very very good.
It gave her pleasant things to think about when her arms embraced Xena from behind. Gabrielle looked past Xena's shoulder to find Toris' location. He was a ways ahead. Now there was a man in a hurry. Gabrielle grinned and decided to take a risk. It was time for a little distraction.
Gabrielle let one of her arms drift down to Xena's thigh and laid her palm flat. She felt a soft rumbling from Xena, as the warrior began to chuckle. Xena spoke quietly, "and what do you think you are doing."
Gabrielle grinned. "I'm making this ride a little more interesting."
Xena's eyebrows arched in amusement, "Interesting?" She nodded in Toris' direction, "You are aware there is another person on the trail?"
"And you just expect me too . . ."
"Sit still. .ish and let me have my way with you."
Xena smiled. "Oh I wish I could do that."
"But. . ."
"I have no desire to have to wipe my saddle down in front of my brother."
Gabrielle began moving her hand back up to the warrior's waist. She felt the warm grip of Xena's hand cover her own. She clasped the bard's fingers in her own and pulled them up to her lips. She kissed Gabrielle's palm and set the hand back at her waist. "Another time, my bard, another time."
Toris didn't understand the ferocious look he recieved later from Xena.
Cyrene poured Hecuba another glass of water. It had just a touch of wine in it to give it flavor (and to act as an agent of destruction for any nastiness that might otherwise be in the drink). The matchmaker continued with, "Now remember, the key words are," they all said it at the same time, "frustration and begging." The redhead grinned, "we want a certain couple to arrive at such a point of frustration that they will beg to get married." Then she sighed, "By Aphrodite, if only we'd nabbed them when they first became a couple it would have been so much easier." She slapped the table with her hand, "But I enjoy a challenge." She sipped at her ale. Then leaned forward, "So., here's the plan. I think I know someone who would be perfect for. . ." Then the conspirators really got cooking.
They were whispering and giggling like school girls, or so it seemed to their observer. Xena's mouth twitched. She spoke quietly, but her voice carried through the room as if it were an arrow. "Cherise! What are You doing here?" The Amazon's favorite matchmaker (what? You thought all those great couples got together just by chance?... Okay well quite a few, but it never hurt to have some alternative resources) startled back in her seat. Then did a quick turn around, twisting her body so she could get a good view.
Then her expression turned joyful. "Xena! Just the person I want to see!" She stood up and almost rushed over to give the warrior a quick hug. She got away with it because she hugged everyone. There was no use trying to train it out of the redhead. It was even said that she'd been captured by a burly warlord one time and had charmed him with her personality. She had, when approached by him for some "fun," given that warlord such a hug that he forgot what he was after, burst into tears (because no one had ever hugged him before) and had arranged a suitable partnership for him that had gone on three years now. She always kept track of her successful ones.
Xena stood by while receiving the hug then quirked her lips and arched her eyebrows, "Oh? And would this have anything to do with Toris?"
The matchmaker stepped back away from the warrior. She placed a hand on her heart and her expression turned disbelieving. "I am just shocked, shocked, that you would think that I would reveal a confidential. . ."
Xena waved her hand, "yeah yeah yeah." She leaned forward and gave the matchmaker a menacing glare, "well back off. He's in a complete stew about this. Not that I don't think he needs a partner in life," Her eyebrows did a different kind of lift here. She really did appreciate the concept now, "but in the state of mind he's in, I doubt you'd be able to. . ."
The matchmaker, who was no slouch in the height department, was unintimidated. Okay, well maybe a little intimidated. Okay, a lot intimidated, but she didn't show it. Cherise spoke archly, "Never doubt the power of love."
"It is not *love* that I'm worried about here," Xena began.
While Cherise distracted Xena, Cyrene and Hecuba exchanged glances and grinned. This was going to go very well. Cyrene stood up and began making her way towards the statuesque warrior, with the intention of saying hello.
Meanwhile, Toris and Gabrielle entered the inn at the same time, occupied in a conversation of their own. Gabrielle was speaking jocularly, "by then the farmer had only two choices, he could. . ."
She was interrupted in the middle of her story by a loud and piercing, "GABRIELLE!!!" One of the patrons, who'd already had too much of his wine cup, fainted dead away from shock.
Gabrielle gave an enthusiastic reply of "MOM!!" They met halfway and gave each other an astounding hug. Cherise and Xena gave up on the current topic and turned to stare.
The matchmaker looked at the warrior, "Do they always greet each other like that?" Xena nodded and grimaced. Cherise gave an assessment, "Nice Hug. . a little too long, but good if you are family." Xena gave the matchmaker a grin.
Then Hecuba started going into the --what are you doing here rap,-- before Gabrielle could. Toris answered by saying, "I just happened to be on my way to, uh, Conera and they just happened to be, uh, there."
The matchmaker nodded, "Oh yeah, the one with the hot springs. Nice place. Nice place." It was a fave among honeymooners. She gave Xena a speculative glance that softened into something else quickly. "So how were the springs?"
Gabrielle managed a smile that wasn't in the least angry, though she'd been very disappointed, "Oh, we didn't have a chance to see them. We were just passing through."
"Ah, that's too bad." The matchmaker could have kicked Toris. . then she changed her mind. Maybe he'd done them a favor. A very big favor. He should be rewarded and love is a great reward. She gave Toris her best matchmaker's assessment look. The man paled and suddenly had somewhere to be.
Cyrene caught her daughters attention with a smile and then gave her a good hug. "Glad to have you with us, even if it is just for a day. Why don't you take the room upstairs." She patted Xena's forearm. "It has plenty of room, and a very big window. I know how you get about being indoors."
Hecuba smiled, " and Gabrielle can stay with me in my room." The bard started to protest. Hecuba deliberately misunderstood the messages that Gabrielle was sending, acting as she always had except that now she knew the truth, "Oh it is no problem deary. Why the room is double the size of the one at home. Quite a lovely place you have Cyrene." Xena's mother smiled.
Gabrielle looked around, "Where's Lila?"
Hecuba stalled, "Lila? Well she's at Potedia. There was no reason to bring her all the way out here, yet."
Gabrielle thought, so they Are plotting to marry off these two. She shook her head. "Mom we have got to talk." She gave Xena an unreadable look as she was led to her room.
Hecuba, Gabrielle's mother, set the poor bard straight (sort of) at the end of the evening, just as they were preparing to sleep for the night. She said, her voice registering amazement, "Lila?" Her bosom heaved in a fit of laughter, "Darling No! This isn't for Lila. It's for you. The candidates will start arriving tomorrow. We were expecting to have to send you a message, but since you are here, this works out so much better."
Gabrielle lay back on the bed in shock, her eyes open very wide. Hecuba turned to the side, effectively blocking the bard against the wall, and chuckled herself to sleep. This was going to be so rich.
Xena sat on the window ledge with one knee tucked under her chin. She watched the stars make their rounds and counted off the days to the next full moon. A full week. Hopefully by then they would be back at Conera, and she would be able to keep her promise.
She closed her eyes and the stars became a vision of the lovely bard. This travelling companion who had become so much more was more valuable to Xena than any Warlord's treasure. She could almost smell the scent of the bard in the wind. She could almost hear. . .voices in the courtyard below. Xena leaned very carefully and listened.
Cyrene: Now, where would Toris have gotten that idea? Not that it's a bad one.
Cherise: Truthfully, I don't know. Though I was going to have him be one of the candidates.
A bit of rustling scroll.
Cherise: I suppose we could still use him, but I have better ones in mind.
Cyrene (slightly offended): There is nothing wrong with my boy.
Cherise: You are too right, there's not. But do you really want them to tangle?
Cyrene: Oh. . .Oh. .I see your point. Best to avoid that.
Cherise: Dern Tootin. But check this list.
More scroll rustling.
Cyrene: But that's a . . .and that one. . and that. How many women have you got on this list?
Cherise: An even number to the men. We want to provide a fair choice. I had to keep in mind the need for an heir. Even if one wasn't chosen as a permanent partner, well contingency plans never hurt and we are dealing with the law now. I've explained everything to Hecuba.
Cyrene issued a small gasp: Is that who I think it is?
The sound of feet and voices fading away.
Xena leaned back into her room and closed her eyes in thought. The law? Whose law? Which law? And who was going to making the choices? If Lila wasn't here, yet Hecuba was involved, then the candidate must be. . .Xena opened her eyes and gave voice to the name, "Gabrielle."
Xena began racking her brain, trying to remember any obscure law that might apply to Gabrielle. In her effort to think the issue through, she never thought to ask herself why her own mother would be involved in this whole affair, perhaps because the reason was too outrageous to think about.
The next morning, Joxer was the first of the candidates to arrive
Cherise caught Joxer's elbow on his way into the inn and steered him back out. "I don't want her to see you yet." she spoke quietly. She pulled him out of plain view, turned around to look at him and whistled. She nodded her head, "Nice. Much better. You followed my instructions. Very good." She turned him around, a little roughly. "You clean up nice Jox." She tapped his sword, "Did you get some training like I told you?"
Joxer answered meekly, "Yes."
She looked at him speculatively, her brows furrowed. "I won't guarantee the outcome Jox. There's some mighty stiff competition and I already know one individual will not quit. But," she waggled her finger, "you keep doing as I say and something good may come out of this. Something better than you ever thought."
The man smiled widely. "As long as I get to be with my love, I'll be in heaven."
"Uh huh." Cherise affirmed with a mysterious smile. "That you will be. You are going to be one lucky guy Jox."
"Er. I'm Jox-er"
"Yeah, whatever, Jox." Cherise beamed, "a truly lucky guy." She put an arm over his shoulder, "Say, did I tell you I saw your mother a few days ago?"
The lanky man blinked and looked at Cherise cautiously, "you did?"
"Yeah, she was doing great. We had a nice long talk." Cherise grinned at the man, "Your mom can cook." Cherise smiled inside at the memory. Joxer's mom sure had a lot to say. She looked at the adventurer and smiled almost gleefully. Then she slapped him on the back in a friendly way. "I'm going to make sure the coast is clear. Give me ten minutes then go and see Cyrene. You know Cyrene don't you?"
Joxer nodded hesitantly, "yes. I know her. I've been to her inn before."
"Good. Good. She'll get you settled then. See you in a few." The matchmaker started to leave, then she turned around abruptly, "Oh and, don't sing that song, except in private, okay?"
Joxer gave a spastic nod.
The redhead clapped her hands silently and said, "good man, Jox." and left to do her work.
Hecuba and Gabrielle were finishing off a massive breakfast when Cherise reentered the inn several minutes later. Cherise grinned, her voice lilted across the room, "Hi Hecuba, Hello your majesty. Have we got things to do today! " she said enthusiastically. Gabrielle choked a little bit on the last bit of cheese and had to do that nasty coughing thing. Cherise ignored it, clapped her hands and began rubbing them together. She addressed Gabrielle's mother first, "Hecuba, I thought we'd take advantage of your daughter's fortuitous arrival and get her gussied up for the contestants."
Gabrielle spoke up, as soon as she could. "Now wait a second, I'm not going to. . ."
"Go about dressed the way you are in front of your suitors. Very wise decision." Cherise finished for the bard. "Don't worry, we'll keep the Amazon spirit. We're just going to lose that green thing and maybe add a little zest to the outfit. You are a queen after all."
Gabrielle tried again, "Xena and I are,"
"really glad to be here. Yes, yes, I know" Cherise gave Gabrielle a shoulder hug, "And we are really glad you are here too." Hecuba grinned into a napkin and finished wiping her mouth. The grin was replaced with an almost serious look when Gabrielle glanced at her mother. Cherise looked around, "Speaking of Xena, where is she?"
Hecuba spoke up, her eyes sparkling, "Cyrene needed help with a few outside chores. She asked Xena to do them. She mentioned something about fieldwork and it taking almost all day."
Cherise grinned, "Well, then, I guess we have most of the day to get you set up, Gabrielle." Hecuba barely managed not to laugh at the double meaning of the words.
Every time Xena thought she was finished with a project, her mother found another equally backbreaking, dirty and annoying request to give her sweet, willing and helpful daughter. For that reason Xena, who found herself almost on the opposite side of town helping some poor young farmer mend his fences, missed the arrival of Gabrielle's Amazon suitors. And when she was helping the smith load some very heavy metal into his shop, she missed the arrival of a certain blonde friend of Hercules. And of course, when she was helping the eldest woman of the village feed her pigs, she missed seeing yet some more willing and handsome entrants into the matchmaking contest.
Meanwhile, Cyrene set Toris straight (sort of) and told him not to worry, that this contest wasn't about him. Xena's brother could not believe his sheer good fortune and was extremely grateful that *he* didn't have to worry about the machinations of that wily matchmaker. He blissfully walked away paying little attention to his destination. Therefore it was his fault when he bumped into a tall gawky stranger with soft, confused brown eyes. "Beg your pardon." Toris said as they fumbled into each other.
Joxer was gracious, "No problem. I deal with this all the time." He disengaged effectively, for him, from the unexpected contact. Toris smiled and backed off. He glanced at the individual in front of him. Not overly handsome, but nice face. Features were a little long maybe.
"You here for the contest?" Toris asked conversationally.
"Oh yeah." Joxer smiled blissfully, "I'm here to win and woo the lovely Gabrielle." He issued an admiring sigh.
Xena's brother grinned and extended his hand, "Well, hope you luck out and get the one you want." Joxer grasped the man's hand in his own and felt a warm friendly grip. He found himself gazing into blue blue eyes. He forgot to breathe for a moment and had to remind himself.
"Yeah," he exhaled. "Thanks." He squinted his eyes, "Do I know you from someplace?"
Toris let go of Joxer's hand and grinned, "Don't think so. I'm Toris. Xena's brother."
"Oh! Okay," the adventurer nodded in final understanding. Now he could place those eyes. "Joxer."
They smiled at each other again and there was a pause. A few seconds later they came back to themselves. "Well, see you around Joxer. Good luck and all that."
"Sure. Thanks. See you around." Joxer the mighty watched in a kind of a daze as Toris the brother left the inn. Wow, he thought, this family sure has charisma. Then he turned his attention to making his way through the bar without another mishap.
There were a lot of people in the bar that night so it was fortunate that it was a fairly sizable accommodation. Some individuals were just spectators, who came to see what Amazons looked like. Some were regulars who would have been there whether Tartarus opened up and spewed into the world. The others were a mix of people came to the inn that night because they were travelers and people who were there for the purpose of wooing the Amazon Queen.
There were several games going on around the room, not all of them subtle. There was a game of knife being played out on the south wall between three Amazons and three male suitors. The bets were being exchanged rapidly (so far the Amazons were ahead). There were some dice and card games and of course a few drinking games. One stalwart Amazon had already out drunk five men. There were two left standing and she seemed as sober as ever. There were several princes among the suitors and a few princesses, they seemed to be vying with each other in social matters, although one set seemed to have been caught up in a game of out gaze each other. Joxer was holding his own in an arm wrestling match, of course it may have been because he was acting as the referee, but still.
Of course, there were those who simply sat apart from all of the going ons, watching, perhaps planning. There were two Amazons who paid no special attention to their surroundings, but rather watched the entrance with careful eyes.
It was noisy, it was busy, and Cyrene kept the mugs filled and the bellies full. (Thank the gods for hired help!) It would have been hard to believe that all that noise could end so abruptly with just a few simple words. Upon her entrance, the two Amazons stood up abruptly and cried out, "Make way for the Queen!" All of the Amazons in the room snapped to attention and turned to face the bard. There were several kicks under the table for those individuals who didn't hasten to show the right amount of respect. The princes bowed, the princesses curtsied. Iolaus shouted, "Hey! Gabrielle!" and waved. Joxer only gasped in amazement, his jaw hanging down and his eyes goggling.
The two guards hopped to it and marched to where Gabrielle stood in a kind of bewildered beauty. She looked every inch the Amazon Queen and her outfit made a striking contrast to her skin, hair and eyes. They escorted her to the makeshift dais that had been prepared, early on, by the Amazons. They stood to either side of Gabrielle as she stepped onto the dais and sat down upon the wooden "throne" (which was really just a simple cushioned straight backed chair). There was a moment of heavy silence in the air, as if everyone was waiting. Gabrielle suddenly realized they were waiting for her. She swallowed quickly and said, "You may continue."
The noise started back up, a bit diluted at first, then as raucous as before. Gabrielle leaned forward into the chair. "Solari, Eponin, what are *you* doing here? Surely you are not here to. . ."
Eponin leaned back and responded, "My queen we were sent to guard you. Ephiny was concerned when she saw the list of suitors for your hand. She thought you might need a little back up."
Solari turned and captured Gabrielle's attention, "Don't worry my queen, we're just here to watch the walls and make sure the children play fair." The Amazon grinned, and received an answering smile in return. Then she pointed casually to two other serious looking Amazons who were doing a whole lot of watching and not much else, "Those are our relief. The tall one is Roen. The tousled looking blonde is Vera. They can be trusted."
Gabrielle sighed, "This is so unnecessary."
Eponin looked sympathetic, "That may be true, my queen, but it is the Amazon law. It has been almost a year and you are in need of a consort. Once the matchmaker was summoned by your mother there was nothing we could do. In three day's time you will have to make a choice. Just be grateful that it doesn't have to be for life."
Gabrielle groaned, but the groan stopped as soon as she heard the door bang open.
Xena stood in the open door way looking like something the cat dragged in. She was bone tired and majorly cranky. What she wanted to do was grab Gabrielle and go take a bath. Instead, she was standing and being gawked at by an unappreciative audience. So she did one of the things she did best. She intimidated. A sneer formed on her mouth, her eyes hardened to icy coldness and suddenly, all that dirt and grime seemed like it had been acquired by some major battle, instead of the mundane (if you could ever call what she did mundane) tasks of the day. The only thing missing was blood. People looked away, which was her intent.
The only one whose eyes stayed plastered to her form was Gabrielle's and they were full of sympathy and worry. Xena stared across the room at her bard. She looked gorgeous. Xena looked down at her dirt encrusted hands and felt a flash of unworthiness. It was time to get cleaned up. She looked again at the bard, whose gaze had never wavered and gave a reassuring grin. Then Xena plastered on the glower again and started marching across the room.
There were those who noticed the exchange of looks with interest. But most were oblivious for various reasons. The Amazon queen almost stood up, but received a warning shake of the head from one of her guards. "You can't." Solari said. "You can't show favorites until the trials are over."
"This is a competition Gabrielle, to find the one worthy to be your consort for a year, maybe more if you like the person. You can't show favorites because they all have an equal chance now. Give it a couple of days."
"Fuck that. I never asked for this. Don't you see how tired she is. I don't give a flying," If Gabrielle hadn't been so frustrated her vocabulary choices might have been different, but it had already been a long and tiresome day and her love looked miserable. She didn't care what some old musty Amazon law said about consorts, she was going to. . .
Eponin's eyebrows raised and lowered and she felt a grin spreading on her face. She interrupted quickly, "My queen, you are under the law now, but I'll go see to your favored. If you wish."
There was an intake of breath and almost a sigh of relief, "Oh, would you?" The Amazon guard nodded formally and turned to catch the queen's gaze.
"I would be honored." Then the guard leaned close and whispered into Gabrielle's ear. "If it makes you feel better, she's on the list. We made sure of that." Eponin smiled wickedly in memory. One small threat was all it took to convince Cherise of the error of not including Xena. There was a flicker of an awareness in the back of the guard's mind. Although, come to think of it, it seemed like the matchmaker had almost expected . . .There was more going on here than met the eye. Eponin smiled reassuringly at Gabrielle. "I'm sure things will work out right. You'll see." Then the guard stood up and looked at Solari.
Solari gave the other Amazon a glare, which softened immediately into another grin. "Eponin, you are impossible you know? Go ahead, go break the rules. See if I care."
Eponin grinned in return, "Whose breaking the rules? I'm just going to see an old friend. Better call over Vera."
Solari nodded and made the signal.
Eponin went to see her "friend."
Fortunately for Eponin, Xena didn't clobber the Amazon when she stepped into the bathing room. Instead, the warrior gave her a frozen look and said, "Why have you followed me here?"
Eponin had a good answer, "Gabrielle sent me. She was worried."
Xena's expression immediately softened and she waved the Amazon to a seat. She began removing her garments and asked, "How's she holding up?"
Eponin pursed her lips, "well, if foul language is any indication, not too well." Xena exhaled a laugh as her shift dropped. It did marvelous things to her abdominals muscles. Eponin pretended not to notice.
The warrior princess lowered herself into the bathtub and sighed with pleasure. "So, what are you doing here?"
Eponin settled back against the wall and stretched out her legs. The palms of her hand rested on the warm stone bench. "Well, technically there are four of us guarding the queen and a few teams of Amazons are here to act as candidates. I followed you for two reasons. One, because my friend was upset and two to act as your coach."
"Oh." Xena began scrubbing down. The skin of her breasts bobbled invitingly in the water. Eponin was hard pressed to ignore the invitation. "Tell me more."
Eponin cleared her throat and looked up at the ceiling. "Cherise mistakenly excluded your name from her list, and that's why you did not receive an invitation."
"And you think I would want an invitation?" The sound of water splashed around the room.
Eponin gave Xena a startled look. "Don't you. I mean. WE thought. I thought you and Gabrielle."
Eponin sighed in relief. "Oh, good." She clutched at her chest, her eyes wide. "You had me worried there."
Xena grinned and ducked into the water. When she came back out her hair was luxuriously wet. She poured a little soap and asked. "Since Gabrielle and I are already lovers, why should I be worried about this competition?"
"It determines who her legal consort is. That individual has free access to the queen, where another might not. It also establishes certain legal powers, such as acting council, that another might not have. In the wrong hands. . ."
"It could cause a lot of problems."
Eponin nodded seriously.
"It seems like a ridiculous law. I don't recall Melossa. . ."
"It is a Way way old law. Even we forgot it, but it was right there in the books. When the researchers found it, Ephiny had to go with it. She can't get rid of the law until the next council session and the arrangements for this this fooferah were already in the makings."
"How come Ephiny," Xena began.
"She'd already declared a consort."
"Planning a little vengeance?"
Xena arched an eyebrow and grinned. "Just a tiny bit. But, oh well, I'll think of something."
Eponin made a mental note to warn Ephiny.
"So coach, tell me what I need to know." The warrior began the process of rinsing off.
Eponin grinned, "Well the first thing you need to know about are the challenges. They are based on the four cornerstones of being, Spirit, Mind, Heart and Body." Eponin gazed evenly at the warrior princess. "I don't believe you will have a problem, and certainly most of the candidates will disqualify themselves rather quickly." She shook her head, "Did you see some of our competition? I'm betting that a lot of the nobility will fade right out at the physical challenge. I don't know what Cherise was thinking." Eponin's thoughts came back to her discussion, "Anyway, I can give you the lowdown on what to look for and do. You can pretty well guarantee that most of the Amazon candidates know the score and won't be trying too hard, though they have to give it a sincere effort. If it's not you, we want the consort to be one of our own."
Xena nodded, "understandable."
"Oh, there's one Amazon to look out for," Eponin cautioned. Xena listened carefully as she sponged her arm clean. "Her name's Kalai. She was one of the Amazons who helped," Eponin paused meaningfully, "convince Cherise of her mistake, but she gets a strange look in her eye when we talk about the competition. I think she's taking it very seriously. You should watch out. She's young, but she's wiry and tough, and she's smart. I've seen her on a hunt. She'll keep you on your toes."
Xena grinned, "I'll keep that in mind." Xena finished her bathing and stood up. She looked like an absolute goddess when wet, Eponin thought before she remembered to turn her eyes.
Xena stepped out of the bath casually and grabbed a towel. Her mind was racing with new thoughts. Now that she was a little better informed she believed she knew how to go about handling the situation. She grinned confidently as she wrapped the towel around her body modestly. Then she picked up her leathers. "Eponin, come with me to my room. I want to hear more about the challenges ahead."
Eponin stood up quickly and held the door open. She figured she might as well get in the practice.
Solari glanced at the small, carefully wrapped package in her hands and speculated about what it might contain. Her lips quirked as she remembered standing outside the door, acting her part as guard and waiting on Eponin. What had that woman been doing? She'd certainly acted smug when she'd finally arrived at the door of the Queen's room and dumped the package in Solari's hand with a bid to give it to Gabrielle. Then her warrior friend had scurried off without so much as an, "I'll be back."
The light haired Vera glanced at Solari and waited for the signal to knock. The senior guard nodded and Vera knocked cautiously, fully aware of the Queen's rather grumpy mood.
The heavy wooden door swung open rather abruptly and an angry strawberry blonde glared at her guards. "WHAT?" she asked, not so nicely.
Solari gave a shaky smile. "Something for you, your majesty, from Xena." The amazon extended the bundle to the bard queen. Gabrielle's expression softened as she retrieved the package from Solari's hand.
"Thanks. Sorry for growling at you." Gabrielle gave her guards a genuine smile, "It's been a . . .long day." Her guards returned her smile and waited as she closed the door, then they returned to their duty.
Solari turned to Vera. "I'm going to find out what Eponin is up to. I'll send Roen up as your relief. Tomorrow night Eponin gets the midshift watch." Vera grinned at the Amazon in appreciation. Those hours after the middle of the night to almost but not quite dawn we're almost always the most challenging. It was good to know *she* wouldn't have to worry about it.
Gabrielle was grateful, though she would have rather been with Xena, that she was at least in a room by herself tonight. One of the perks of being a Queen, you don't have to share a room with your mother. She set the package on her bed and wondered what Xena could have sent her. She knelt by the bed and began unwrapping her gift.
Gabrielle's fingers carefully separated the items before her. Her eyes were wide with appreciation and her heart was full of the knowledge that Xena loved her indeed. She picked up the small note which only said, "Think of me." and pressed it to her lips, then she set it aside. Then she opened a very tiny cloth bundle tied with string and revealed its contents of clipped short dark curls, small fragrant petals and herbs, and one shimmering pearl. The implications of the gift caused her heart to catch her attention with its powerful response. She carefully retied the bundle and laid it by her pillow.
Her next gift consisted of a blue silken square of cloth. It was the exact color of Xena's eyes and Gabrielle wondered where the warrior could have procured it and when. It was so soft that she held it to her face. Then she caught the pleasurable scent of Xena herself. When Gabrielle realized what she was smelling she couldn't stop from grinning and she held the kerchief up for a deeper inhalation. She let her fingers explore the cloth and realized that it was still a little wet. Gabrielle moaned quietly and was mighty glad she wasn't standing up for her body suddenly felt a little weak.
Gabrielle pulled herself onto the bed and sat down with her legs folded under her. She grinned, "Think of me indeed." Gabrielle laughed gently. "Now I'll think of nothing else." She could feel her pulse pounding and a warm tightening in her belly. She sniffed at the kerchief again and had a vision of blue blue eyes gazing with desire. The bard's mouth suddenly felt dry and she had a vivid awareness that if she wanted to sleep, she was going to need to . . .need to.
She shrugged out of her night clothes quickly. Her nipples tingled alert and she splayed her fingers across one of her breasts, surrounding her nipples with her lovely digits. She brought that hand up to her mouth and licked those fingers, then she tweaked her nipples, imagining that they were Xena's lips. Her mouth even whispered her warrior's name. There was an answering surge of wetness and warmth and she let one hand drift down to her reddish blonde curls and play. The other continued its teasing manipulation of her breasts.
She was so slick with desire that the wetness had already seeped past the small hairs of her triangle. Gabrielle's breathing changed as she let her hands do their work and find their rhythm. She lay back on the bed and tilted her hips for easier access. Then she began rocking, her mind imaging the woman she loved, the warrior's scent still fresh in her memory. She imagined what the warrior princess would be doing if she were here in the bed with her, right now and that fantasy was so powerful, so persuasive and liberating, that the exclamation of her climax was almost equal to what it might have been if Xena *had* actually been there.
Gabrielle let her body unroll and brought her wet hand to her lips. Then she found the kerchief and laid it on her pillow under her head. She curled her hand around the other bundle and held it loosely. The last word she said, before she fell asleep, was the warrior princess' name.
Toris couldn't sleep. Well he could sleep, but he woke up startled and had experienced enough sleep that he couldn't go back. So now he stood in an open doorway taking in the predawn sky and listening to the first birds of the morning warble. It wasn't a bad time to be awake, though he had intended to sleep in. The summer air was still cool and he was enjoying it while he could. The air had a tang to it, which meant it was going to be a long and hot day. He intended to take advantage of the fact there was a multitude of people here and Not do work. He intended to be a spectator and enjoy the show. Maybe later this afternoon he'd find his way to the creek and do a little swimming. That would be fun. Toris stretched and sauntered back into the inn and to his room, maybe now he could catch a little nap before everyone started making a ruckus.
He met Joxer in the hallway. Apparently he wasn't the only one feeling the energy of the day already. He greeted the man in a friendly way, "Hello Joxer. Fine morning."
Joxer was actually startled. Someone had called him by his correct name. Last night everyone called him Jox or Hey You. The lanky man swallowed and smiled, "Good morning."
Toris observed Joxer's body language. It spoke of tenseness, stress, and lack of sleep. Xena's brother narrowed his eyes. "Hey, are you okay?" The adventurer's shoulders slumped.
His voice tried to fake Toris out, "hey, well, you know, I've been looking forward to this competition and. . ."
Toris grabbed the man by those same shoulders and steered Joxer to the dining area of the inn, then caused the adventurer to sit down on an available seat. Toris stood behind Joxer, his massive hands still on those shoulders. "Now listen Joxer, you seem like a nice enough guy, but I have to tell you," He squeezed Joxer's shoulders very hard, "I hate it when people lie to me," and let go. Joxer winced, but at the same time felt weirdly better. Toris began kneading the man's shoulders. "Now talk. You've got a long day ahead and you shouldn't be carrying around whatever load it is that's got you all bothered."
Joxer gave Toris a strange look, but thought about what he said and then spoke, "Were you there last night?"
Toris' hands stopped kneading, "Where?"
"Here, last night, when Gabrielle came in."
Toris started kneading again, "Uhm, actually no. I've been trying to avoid the whole thing, although I plan on watching today."
"Well I was. Here I mean. I was watching these guys arm wrestle and slam, the door bangs open and there's Xena looking madder than . . .than a, well really angry. And tired. And dirty. And her face changed, you know, like this." Joxer tried to approximate the bad warrior attitude that Xena exhibited and failed miserably, but Toris knew what he was talking about.
"Okay, I'm following."
"Anyway, Everyone else quit looking except me and a few others. I mean it's kind of scary when she does that, you know." Joxer's shoulders were feeling much better. Toris, mmhmmed and that short vocalization seemed to rumble through the adventurer's frame. Joxer lost track for a second, then started up again, "Anyway, I kept looking, because I've seen that look before and this time it wasn't directed at me and I was watching and then Xena smiled. You should have seen that smile, sweetest thing. Well it was a grin actually, but it was still nice and I looked to see who she was smiling at and it was Gabrielle and she looked so worried and concerned and a bit I dunno angry herself and it seemed as if that space, you know that distance between them was I dunno too much, and then Xena did that face again and went upstairs and it only took a few minutes. But I realized something."
"What was that?"
"I shouldn't be in this competition." Toris stopped rubbing Joxer's shoulders.
"I shouldn't be in this competition." Joxer smacked his forehead, "I mean I should have realized. How could I be so stupid? They've been together how long? I mean I saw that look you know."
Toris face took on a perplexed expression. He walked around the chair and stood in front of Joxer and realized he was towering over the man, so he knelt down. "What are you saying Joxer."
"Xena and Gabrielle are," Joxer's face took on an incredibly red hue.
Toris blinked and shook his head. "No."
Joxer blushed even more and shook his head up and down. "They are. And so I can't compete." He grabbed Toris' forearms and looked Xena's brother in the eye, "If I won the competition, Xena's heart would be broken. Xena's my friend. I can't do that to her. And I can't do that to Gabrielle. I mean if she and Xena are together, then they shouldn't be. . ."
Toris took a minute to think about this. His sister and the bard? His sister. . .and . . .Gabrielle. His sister. . .OH this explained so so much. He remembered, rather vividly that night in the hotel and felt a warmth travel down his chest to his belly. His sister and a very vocal vocal bard or had it been his sister who had been so noisy. The implications of that idea washed over him in a funny kind of way, This time Toris was blushing. But he was still thinking.
"Joxer, Joxer, wait a minute. Is Xena even in this competition?"
Joxer nodded, "I asked Cherise last night, before I went to bed and got no sleep."
Toris grunted. "Do you think she could lose?" Toris didn't think so, this was his sister after all, but what if? His sister would be unhappy. Very unhappy. He would be dealing with an Unhappy Xena. Not in this lifetime, if he could help it.
"You know Xena. She's strong, beautiful, capable."
"Yeah, but what if? I mean if she did, and someone else. . .someone who didn't understand, about Xena and Gabrielle."
Joxer looked up, his face took on an excruciating look of thoughtfulness. "If someone else won, they might not let them be together. I would be different. I wouldn't stop them from," he nodded his head in that funny way that indicates that one is talking about sex, "you know. They could be together. I would be helping them." Joxer's face took on a sudden nobility which took Toris' breath away. Toris got himself together. Now was not the time to get distracted.
"Okay. Okay. You haven't had a good night's sleep. Do you still think you could?"
"Are you kidding I'm Joxer the. . ." the adventurer smiled sheepishly, "well I have confidence in myself. I can do it. I've got the motivation."
Toris clapped Joxer on the shoulder and uncrouched, "Good man. I'll be rooting for you."
For some reason that statement really gave Joxer the inspiration he needed. He smiled at his new confidant and stood up ready to play his part.
They lost quite a few of the participants that morning. Iolous was one of the first to resign, saying that he hadn't really come to participate, but simply to see how his friends were doing. So, Cherise snagged him as one of the "impartial" judges. There were also a few couples which seemed to have formed overnight. The royalties who had been trying to "out gaze" each other, Prince Andrew and Princess Melony, became an item. Then there were two Amazons who found out they had more compatabilities than knife throwing and there were two young men who woke up in each others arms and found a new (or not so new) cure for hangovers. Then they lost quite a few, mostly nobility and a couple of bards, to the dress code or rather the lack of dress. In fairness, the standard dress for the competition didn't have to be enforced, but Cherise felt that the recommendations had been put there for a purpose. So, Gabrielle got an eyeful as she made the first field inspection, with her judges, that morning.
It wasn't that the individuals participating in the event were fully uncovered, rather, there simply wasn't much. Everyone was required to wear a simple loincloth, a halter for the women was optional, as were footwear. Xena wore the halter and her boots, not out of any sense of modesty, but out of practicality. Besides, Gabrielle already knew what they looked like. (To say that Xena looked good would be an understatement, so we won't even bother describing her delicious gorgeousness.)
By the time everyone was lined up, there were about ten men left, including Joxer and about nine women. The contestants alternated by gender in the line, so when Gabrielle was conducting her inspection, it went boy, girl, boy, girl and so on. Gabrielle was paying attention. However, she already knew who she wanted. Her mouth formed a slight smile, as her eyes passed over one of the more buff male candidates giving him some hope, but her mind wasn't on him. Rather it was on the small square cloth tucked neatly in her bodice.
She noticed that Joxer had put on a little muscle and that he was maybe a little less white than normal. This was good, she'd been concerned when she'd found out what the dress was going to be. She'd had visions of lobster colored Joxer. He might actually make it through the day, but she was going to watch him. She might not like everything he did, but he still counted as a friend and she wasn't going to let him get himself fried over this. She smiled at him and he returned it, then he stood up straighter and his expression turned very earnest. It was then that Gabrielle understood that he was serious about this. Her heart did a little stop, then she relaxed as she gazed at the other contestants. He didn't stand a chance. She would have to think of something properly consoling to say.
Some of the participants flexed and postured a little, though they weren't supposed to (mostly it was the nonAmazons). The Amazons usually gave her a solemn nod or a wink, except for a brown haired, brown eyed young Amazon who gave her a rather brazen return gaze. Like Joxer, her expression held a tinge of earnestness. This young one didn't wear a halter, showing off nut colored skin and wiry muscles. Gabrielle didn't smile, but didn't frown and the Amazon noticed that the queen lingered just a few seconds longer than with the others. She stood up a little straighter.
Gabrielle hardly glanced at the next candidate, who's muscular form drew many a contented sigh from some of the local spectators (not all of them women). Her gaze fell lovingly on Xena, taking in the dark hair, beautiful face and limber body. If one was watching the queen's body language, and Toris was, one would have thought she would bed the warrior princess on the spot. One of the judges had to push the queen to the next contender.
Xena kept a stoic look on her face even though she saw the fiery gaze her young lover gave her. The warrior princess wanted to smile back, but if she was going to participate in this silly contest, then she was going to do it right. Still, even standing still she emanated a power and a control, that the other candidates lacked. There was no need for posturing.
The challenge of the day had to do with two things, the spirit and the mind. The contestants were to search for and find a treasure that was located somewhere in the town and the surrounding area. Then they were to bring it to the local temple and make a sacrifice to the Gods. There was one catch. There were several treasures to be found, but the contestants could only bring one to the temple. Some clues would be provided, but the candidates would have to search them out.
There were several grins exchanged among some of the contestants. It sounded easy enough. Xena only looked thoughtful.
After the nature of the contest was announced, almost everyone of the candidates ran off the field in a hurry. By golly, they were gonna find that treasure. Joxer nearly got ran over by a buff warrior type, but she saw him on time and managed to make a detour. Instead he got toppled by another guy who wasn't looking where he was going. Joxer decided it was safer on the ground and waited for the field to clear out. Gabrielle, who by now was seated at the shaded dais, watched the pandemonium in awe, hardly believing all of this was for her. She noticed that there were only three people who didn't seem to be in a hurry. Xena, that brown haired girl she'd noticed before, and Joxer who was actually acting with wisdom for once.
Xena also waited for the rest of the candidates to clear the field. Then, her face giving away nothing, she herself strolled towards Joxer and helped him stand up. She leaned forward and whispered something in his ear. The man gave her a startled look and she returned it with an even gaze and a slight smile. She leaned forward again and said something else. He nodded. Then he smiled and shook her hand and said something in return. Gabrielle thought she could make out the words, "I'll do right by you." She watched as the lanky man left in a completely different direction than everyone else.
Then Xena approached the young woman who still lingered on the field, but somehow her back was turned towards the bard so she couldn't make out anything from either person, not so much as a facial expression.
What Gabrielle didn't know was that Xena was conducting an evaluation of her own. First, determine if the young one was a threat. Second, determine what she wanted out of this experience. Third, make sure the Amazon would not stand in her way. Xena deliberately blocked Gabrielle's view and began a quick, yet thorough interview.
"You're Kelly. Right?"
The brown eyes blinked, "Kalai."
"Yeah, Kalai." Xena folded her arms and managed to look very impressive. Kalai's eyes gleamed and Xena recognized that look. It was the same hero worshiping look that Gabrielle used to give her. Kalai was no threat.
Xena decided to be helpful. This one hadn't run like a chicken with her head cut off. There was potential. "This is my home ground Kalai. You know that don't you?" Xena was saying two things at once, she wondered if the woman would catch it. The Amazon nodded very carefully, the color of her eyes changed a little in response. She caught it. "I'll make you a deal."
Kalai swallowed. "You give your damnedest to this contest and don't slack off and I'll help you." The Amazon looked confused, was this another double message? "Gabrielle is my," there was a significant pause and an emphasis, "best friend. You seem motivated enough." Kalai snuck a look past Xena's shoulder and her expression went very carefully neutral. Xena was right on. "I will be doing my damnedest too. You understand."
Kalai read the message as, 'you will probably lose,' and gave another nod. "But if something should happen I want someone reliable." Blue eyes pierced into Kalai's very soul. The Amazon nodded emphatically since she was still in that speechless phase. Definitely. Absolutely. Damnedest. "Good, we understand each other." Then Xena, placed a hand on the woman's shoulder and told the wiry young Amazon one of her secrets. Kalai grinned from ear to ear and loped off the field.
Xena then sauntered off in the opposite direction of the inn.
Gabrielle wasn't worried at the warrior princess's apparent lack of speed. She had no doubt that the former warlord had treasure troves pocketed all around the area, not to mention the whole of Greece. She'd figured that out a long time ago. How else would one explain how they never really lacked for dinars, at least not for long, or why Xena never worried about acquiring any. Not that Gabrielle didn't do her fair share of raking in the dinars with her own story telling abilities, it's just that she didn't fear a great lack in their future.
Gabrielle also doubted that those same treasures were the ones being discussed at the opening of the contest. Most people simply didn't know about Xena's . . well anything actually, except for maybe the stories that Gabrielle told or the former Warlord days. But no one really knew Xena like she did and she only knew so much. Which meant, the treasure everyone was searching for, was not any of the warrior's per se. Yet the wording of the contest didn't discount it either. So Xena shared some locations, though the bard wasn't actually sure why, except maybe it was out of the goodness of the warrior's heart. Gabrielle's own heart warmed at the thought. She decided that there must be rumor of treasure and this was what the, she glanced at her mother and the "impartial" judges who were already discussing the attributes of the contestants (rather vocally), arbiters of this little competition must be referring to.
Gabrielle sighed loudly and shifted in a bored way in her chair. Her elbow was positioned on the armrest and her hand cupped her chin. Cherise turned to look at her and smiled gently. She excused herself from the other's company and an drifted to Gabrielle's side. Then she looked out on the field. Her voice was understanding, "This really is the least interesting part of this whole thing. We won't get results in for several hours. Why don't you go back to the inn and get some rest or do your bardly thing." Cherise looked at Roen, who was standing guard. "I'll be sure and contact your guard to tell you when it is time for you to come to the feast."
Gabrielle's eyes lit up at the word feast. "You didn't tell me there would be food involved."
Cherise grinned, Queen Ephiny's description had been accurate, "Yes, we've invited several of the finest chefs and cooks to Amphipolis. These next couple of nights there is going to be feasting and festivities. Tomorrow there will be a dance and hopefully by the third night you will have had at least a consort's joining, though I'd rather you had something a little more permanent. But that's just cause I'm a matchmaker." Cherise didn't worry about letting too much slip, she believed in the power of subliminal programming. It was time to get the bard thinking along those lines.
Gabrielle started really thinking about this whole matchmaking concept and realized that cost had to be involved. She had a sudden worry.
"How is Mom going to pay. . ."
Cherise waved her hand, "Honey, your Mother is just a judge now. She's not paying for anything. This is all in care of the Amazon nation." Gabrielle gulped. Cherise patted her on the back, "and trust me, you can afford it." Gabrielle stared at the gently smiling redhead. The bard hadn't thought of that. Cherise decided that Gabrielle probably ought to go away from the field now. It was time to pull Iolaus into the strategy, although, with the way Xena was looking, she didn't expect that it would be as hard as they had anticipated.
Gabrielle talked to Roen on the way to the inn. The Amazon, who at first had been reluctant, began telling the bard about her life experience and ambitions and about her small crush on Vera. Gabrielle quipped, "well, I guess with all this matchmaking stuff going on, love is just in the air." This got a small grin out of the normally stoic warrior.
Gabrielle decided to take a morning nap since she rarely got them and then maybe later she would do some catching up on her scrolls. She shut the door tight behind her and she looked at her bed, which was still unmade. That brought a smile to her face and she dipped her hand into the bodice of her outfit and lifted out the blue silk cloth. She made another plan and headed for the bed.
She was stopped abruptly by a strong arm which encircled her waist, a warm body pressed against hers and a hand cupped to her mouth. Then a familiar, "shh," brushed passed her ear and the bard found herself really smiling.
The execution of Xena's plan for optimal privacy went smoothly. Their exodus from Gabrielle's conveniently located floor window went unnoticed, as did their carefully maneuvered entrance into Amphipolis' temple. It was handy that Xena knew the back way (one of the benefits of growing up in the lovely town). It was also handy that the warrior princess knew which rooms in the temple had locks. There were three, Aphrodite's, Ares' and Artemis', which looking back on it, was pretty felicitous considering, but there were logical reasons. One, almost everyone had used Aphrodite's room as a hideaway, because they knew she wouldn't mind. Two, anyone who used Ares' room usually needed the privacy as there was no sense in scaring the public with blood sacrifices. Three, Artemis was, well Artemis, and privacy was her thing.
Xena planned on using all three rooms if she had to, based on her knowledge of the schedule that the priests kept. She figured they had plenty of time. Certainly it would take hours for Joxer and Kalai to find their respective treasures, and they had a clue as to where they were going. Meanwhile, as far as Xena was concerned, she had her treasure right here with her. Besides, she could always go get something quick if she had to. Xena was a resourceful woman.
She guided the bard discreetly into Aphrodite's room. Priestly services had already occurred and she didn't expect any interruptions in the near future, but, just in case, she drew the bolt securely into place. The warrior princess' grin turned sultry.
Gabrielle noted that amorous smile and started grinning herself. Xena strode up to the bard and in one swift move gathered Gabrielle into her arms. She carried the Queen of the Amazons and settled her on Aphrodite's amazingly comfortable altar. Then Xena dropped a small bundle at the floor of the altar. Gabrielle glanced at Xena in surprise and opened her mouth to say something, but it was too tempting for the warrior princess. Xena's mouth swooped down on the redhead's tender lips and rendered the bard speechless with a few simple movements that sent tremors of lust through the bard's body. Gabrielle hadn't known one could have an orgasm just from a kiss, but she sure appreciated it.
Xena pulled wetly and reluctantly away. Her blue eyes frothy with eroticism. "How would you like to be my offering today?" she spoke in a naughty murmur. Gabrielle returned Xena's gaze with a stormy anticipation of her own. She pulled Xena back in for another kiss, pressing her body close to the woman.
"I thought of you all night." the bard whispered. "I hardly slept. I kept waking up, smelling you, but you weren't there."
Xena nipped at one of Gabrielle's earlobes, "ooh, I'm so sorry about that," she said in a tone that wasn't truly sorry at all. Gabrielle felt a shiver pass through her body at Xena's low tones. "Tell me bard, when you thought of me, what did you think about?"
Gabrielle had planned on this question, after all she did know Xena. She'd planned on a pretty funny answer too, but it just wouldn't come to her lips. Instead, she found herself locked in an eternal gaze of love with the warrior princess and all her mouth could say was "Xena."
After that, there was no more talking, only the "sacrificing" of inhibitions. The pressure of Xena's body against the bard's caused Gabrielle to lie back against the soft altar. Her legs already parting for the warrior's gentle invasion. Gabrielle's mind took the time to fully appreciate the skimpiness of the candidate outfit and then she forgot about it because it was soon laying in a pile of clothes, her own included.
Presently their bodies were slick with each other's sweat and motion. Their hands kept tempo with their desires in profound accuracy and admirable talent. Their breath mingling with delectable kisses and urgent murmurs of affection, including Xena's fervent expression of "You *are* my treasure," which was issued in a low growl to the bard in a moment of ecstatic pleasure.
Their return to the consciousness of their location was slow and luxurious. Xena disentangled herself from Gabrielle's arms so that she could spend a brief amount of time leaning down off the altar, which caused Gabrielle to once again appreciate how limber her warrior truly was. Gabrielle heard a bit of rustling, then Xena sat up with a brief, "Aha!" She grinned wickedly at Gabrielle who stared at the contents of Xena's hand. The warrior held two small silk squares, one a very familiar blue and one the color of the bard's eyes. Gabrielle gave out a gasp and reached for the blue silk, but Xena held it away from her. "No no." she laughed quietly. Then the warrior separated the silks from each other, and cupped on in each hand. She nodded at the bard and lifted her eyebrows in silent command. Gabrielle picked up the thought, grinned, leaned back, spread her legs again, and moaned with pleasure as Xena very carefully and gently used the greenish blue silk to gently wipe the bard dry (Although not entirely. The whole "cleaning" process was itself very arousing) Then Xena used the same technique on herself (which was not as disappointing to Gabrielle as one might think because she got to watch). When she finished, the warrior princess (whom Gabrielle was now in increasing agreement with Ares that Xena should really be called the Goddess of Desire, not that Aphrodite was in anyway poor at her job, but Xena seemed to have a flair for this kind of stuff) put the two pieces of silk together and twirled them so they wrapped around each other. She knotted the ends together so that the silk formed a kind of circular bracelet. Then she laid the newly crafted object in a cup at the head of the altar. "I thought we should leave a little something." Xena explained.
Gabrielle only grinned. Here she was the bard and Xena rendered her so easily speechless. Xena smiled in return and then hopped off the altar casually. She turned around and opened her arms to Gabrielle. "Come, my little bard, there are other Gods we must appease." The redhead laughed sweetly and fell easily and trustingly into Xena's arms.
She didn't expect to be led into Ares' room next, nor did she expect the sound of the bolt being shut to click so loudly or finally in her ears. It was darker than Aphrodite's room, that was sure, and even a little redder (that made sense). The altar was hard rock and there was blood stains that seemed to pour down it's side. The cup on the altar was the color of rust, but she knew it wasn't because of poorly cared for metal. An Ares statue (about half of his height) stood watching over the altar with his usual smirk. There was a heavy thump as Xena's bundle hit the floor of the altar. Gabrielle gulped and questioned softly, "Xena?" The bard turned slowly to look at her lover and gasped.
Xena stood casually, her arms dangled loosely at her sides, yet to Gabrielle, she'd never seemed more dangerous. A smoky sensuality exuded from the warrior. Her eyes were a dark dark blue. Gabrielle felt a spark of something go off in her belly. Xena licked white teeth, which seemed suddenly dazzling and the bard felt like she would melt into the floor. The warrior princess spoke, her voice held a earthy rumble. "Gabrielle?" she questioned the redhead, "Do you trust me?"
The bard swallowed hard against a sudden dryness, but she managed to squeak out, "yes."
The warrior took one step forward and Gabrielle surprised herself by taking a cautious step backward. Xena grinned wickedly, "Do you really trust me?" Gabrielle wasn't sure, but she had an intuition that she had to answer this question correctly.
Her voice was stronger, "I trust you Xena, but you scare me sometimes."
Xena laughed a little wildly and seemed to almost tackle the small bard, though all she did was pull the red head in her arms. "Good," her voice shivered down Gabrielle's spine, "because you scare me too." Gabrielle blinked in wonder at that statement. Her? Scare Xena? Even so, in Xena's arms, Gabrielle suddenly felt incredibly safe. "Gabrielle?" The bard looked up at a questioning face, "Do you trust me?"
Gabrielle's, "yes." was as firm as Xena had ever heard it. There was no denying the look on Gabrielle's face. It was surrender.
The warrior mouth claimed the bard's in one heck of a ferocious kiss, the kind that makes the toes curl and steam drift out of the ears. She lifted the woman up, so the bard's legs had no option but to wrap around Xena's waist, and she carried her bard to the altar. She settled Gabrielle gently against the cold stone. The bard gazed unwaveringly at her warrior standing between her legs. Xena knelt and reached, without looking, into the bundle on the floor. She pulled out a exquisitely sharp knife and captured Gabrielle's hand. Her thumb rubbed Gabrielle's palm open and splayed the bard's fingers. Then she captured the index finger in a gentle grip.
Xena didn't say a word but looked the question at Gabrielle, who nodded solemnly. Then the warrior, very quickly and efficiently pricked the bard's finger, causing a quick gasp. She guided that hand over the cup and let three drops fall, then she turned Gabrielle around so that she was facing the statue and placed her finger against the statues lips and dragged down so that it marked the god's lips and chin. Then she turned Gabrielle around again so that she faced a Xena with dark and hungry eyes. Xena bent her head down and licked the rest of the blood away, tenderly and savagely at the same time. Gabrielle forgot she was in any sort of pain, minuscule as it was.
Then Xena took the knife and placed it in her bard's hand. Her voice was firm at Gabrielle's questioning look, "Do it, Gabrielle." The redhead's hand's trembled but her faith was in Xena. She pricked the woman, maybe a little less quick, but as carefully as she could. Then she followed Xena's pattern exactly, three drops in the cup, bloodmarks down the lips of the god and suckling the finger.
Xena's voice rippled through her again, "Very Good." Gabrielle looked up at the warrior and Xena's finger fell out of her mouth and rested on her chin. Xena's hand curved to cup Gabrielle's face. She bent down and brushed warm lips against waiting mouth. Then her hand reached behind Gabrielle's head and gripped the bard's neck. "Hear me Gabrielle." It was a command, not a question, but her voice was a total seduction. "I am your warrior. I am the one who will fight for you. I will live for you. I will die for you. I am yours and You are mine." Her hand tightened against the bard's hair and pulled a little. Her mouth made a demand against ruby lips. "I claim you Gabrielle. I don't care what prissy little ceremonies anyone creates. Nothing will keep me away from you, not the gates of Tartarus or the peaceful fields of Elysus. Nothing." She pressed against Gabrielle's mouth demandingly and received the response she'd hoped for. When she pulled away, Gabrielle's own eyes lowered in a craving and Xena found herself being dragged back into a passionate embrace.
If their lovemaking in Aphrodite's room had been sweet and wild, their passion in Ares' room was savage and primitive. They groaned and screamed into each other. They marked each other with bites and scratches of such primal carnal love that it would have startled even the most jaded of sexual artists. But it was only because they were striving so hard, arching their bodies into each other with a ardent intent to bind their souls together (not they weren't already, but this was an affirmation of that which was already true) so that there was no question in anyone's mind, who belonged to whom. They belonged to each other, no ifs, ands or buts and they made it completely totally clear to a certain god of war at the end by marking the blood on the statue with their combined essence.
To be truthful, it was amazing they could walk without bending their knees funny when they were finished (Xena had a few "toys" in that bag and those toys had been used quite imaginatively and thoroughly), but they headed on over to the next room in a very relaxed, almost casual manner. So they barely missed the entrance of the priests and priestesses who walked into Ares' room with the intent of having a fairly normal ritual and instead found the God of War himself crouching on the altar sporting a massive hard on, licking his lips and grinning. The God, leapt off the table and whispered something into the startled high priest's ear. Then Ares disappeared in God fashion with a hearty laugh. It would be months and months before he bothered them with something petty like trying to win Xena's soul (and even longer before he could personally appear to either of them without his body betraying him). Besides, now he thoroughly and completely (he thought) understood what Xena saw in the bard. Who knew? Gods, it had been magnificent!
This time it was Gabrielle who threw the bolt on the door and Xena who sat upon the alter, her leg swinging lazily and a wide grin stretching across her face. The bundle lay half open on the altar beside her. Xena opened her arms wide and the bard sailed into them with abandon. Xena rubbed her cheek lovingly against Gabrielle's face and inhaled deeply. "You were breathtaking. Positively outstanding my love." Gabrielle's smile, while being held in Xena's arms, would have cured anyone's ills it was so miraculously beautiful.
The warrior princess pulled the bard into her lap and kissed the bard, almost, but not quite chastely. Then she looked at her very seriously, "I want you to know something, Gabrielle." The red head returned her earnest gaze. "While what I said in there," and she nodded in the direction of Ares' room, "was absolutely true, and don't you forget it," Gabrielle grinned, it wasn't likely that she would ever forget. "I know you have obligations. I do not expect nor would I want you to have difficulty in meeting your people's needs."
Gabrielle thought she'd better get some clarification, "What do you mean?"
Xena sighed and thought of how to phrase this, "I mean, that you are my home. Where you go I will go. I will support you in what you need to do, no matter who wins this silly contest."
"But." Xena shushed the bard with her hand.
"I love you more than life itself. You are more valuable to me than anything. But you are Queen of the Amazons. That is an obligation you took upon yourself and your integrity will call you to fulfill it sooner or later." Gabrielle's eyes went wide.
"But I like being with you."
Xena grinned, "I know. And I like you being with me. But things change, I just want you to know that I am more flexible than I may appear. I like to travel, but I can stay in one place too and for that matter so can you or we can do the opposite." Xena was saying two things at once, Gabrielle was sure of it. Her breathing changed at the implications, "And there are ways of meeting our need to be together and the needs that may arise. I just wanted you to know that your options were open," and Xena leaned forward, "and that I can share if I have to."
Gabrielle blushed at the implications of what Xena was saying. "Oh." She gripped Xena's arms. "You won't lose." She spoke only to the one topic.
"I expect I won't, but I thought we should be prepared for. . .any. . .contingency." Gabrielle gulped and nodded. "But I,"
"Don't worry about it right now, my love. Time will tell us what we need to do." Xena gave her bard a reassuring kiss. "You make a lovely Queen." The warrior released Gabrielle's lips and smiled. "I have something for you."
Gabrielle grinned, "I liked the last something you had for me," she quipped. Xena practically purred when she captured the redhead's lips again. This time their kiss was passionately intense, but they lingered and savored each other's mouths and then pulled back at a mutually appropriate time.
Xena's smile was wicked, "now don't distract me again or I may forget to give you this." Gabrielle leaned against Xena's body and placed her head against her warrior's shoulder. "I meant to give this to you in Conera, before we were so rudely interrupted." Gabrielle smiled softly. Xena's hand shook imperceptibly, she felt more nervous than she let show. She pulled out a thin silver bracelet.
"This is my token to you of my affection, my adoration, my desire. There is no one I would rather spend my life with than you. It is not a joining piece. That will come at another time. I'd like you to help me look for something that would suit us both, but this. . .this I thought might serve as a reminder, although you don't have to, but I would like. . ." Xena thought she was expressing herself poorly, and tried not to dig herself deeper, "Especially now that. . ."
"Oh Xena!" Gabrielle gasped and Xena found herself drowning in kiss so sweet it took her breath away. Then it changed and Gabrielle's voice became voluptuous, "Oh, Xena."
Now neither of them had expected to feel the fire of their passion spark so thoroughly again. Xena practically fell off the altar into Gabrielle's arms and they ended up connecting with each other on the floor in an intense mating ritual that stole any doubts they might have had about each other away. Xena found nurturing in suckling Gabrielle's nipples. Gabrielle found liberation in fondling Xena's lovely triangle. Both of them found joy in each other. It was sweet and almost mystical and certainly it was spiritual for they communed with each other in glorious recognition.
And when they were finished they rested, laying gentle, healing hands upon each other and finding comfort.
Gabrielle gazed up at the altar. "We should give her something. She is my people's Goddess after all."
Xena traced a soothing design along Gabrielle's thigh. "Well, I hadn't intended to make love in this room, to be truthful. I didn't bring anything, really." Xena frowned and started worrying.
Aphrodite, she knew would be totally into someone loving in her room. Ares, well they would find out what he thought later, but it had been important. She'd only meant to declare her love in front of Artemis, not Make her love in front of the Amazons' goddess. She sighed. She could only hope that Artemis wouldn't be pissed.
Gabrielle sat up, then stood up and smiled, "Yes you did." She reached down a hand and helped her lover up (though she didn't really need it, but sometimes it's nice to do something like that). Xena stood up agilely and smiled quietly at Gabrielle. Then she watched in shock as Gabrielle picked up the bracelet and dropped it in the cup.
"Gabrielle?" she questioned, afraid of the answer.
Gabrielle turned to Xena with a bright smile. She touched the area of her heart and then Xena's, "I accept you Xena as my love and true desire. I will honor the contract of my people, as it turns out, but know this, you are my haven and I love you." She looked at the silver bracelet and bit her lip. Giving it up was harder than she thought, but she knew it was the right thing to do. "We will select our joining rings when it is time. For now, let's play the game as if we mean it. This way we will spare my people shame and only shock our parents." Xena gave Gabrielle a full out grin.
She pulled Gabrielle close, "Has anyone told you how wise you are my love?"
The bard laughed, "Not recently, but I'll take any compliment you give me."
Xena laughed, "You really do make a great Queen." Then she kissed the bard quite thoroughly again.
A little later they snuck out of the temple, and back to inn. The smell of food was already in the air. Miraculously, neither looked worse for wear despite the intensity of their experience nor were they missed. The bid farewell with a parting kiss and hug, then Gabrielle opened the door to her room and requested a bath. Vera smiled at the Queen and did as she was bid. Xena went and found some "treasure," deposited it in front of some astounded judges (How in the Heck did she carry all of that?), went to the temple and offered a really simple sacrifice and then went back to her room to clean up.
Kalai spent a little time chastising herself for becoming tongue-tied in the warrior princess' presence, but she got over it. A huge grin was plastered on the woman's face as she made her way through the forest. Xena's directions had been simple and precise. Kalai expected to find what she needed in a couple of hours and be done. Then she'd have all day to prepare for the evening's festivities. She couldn't believe her good luck. One, Xena had noticed her and two, Gabrielle had noticed her and three, they'd both noticed her, and four, Xena was Helping her, and five. . . well her mind could have gone on and on with that tangent of enthusiasm.
But, her happy thought process was disturbed by the sound of falling timber, crunching leaves and a scream. Kalai, who was in good shape for running, hastened her already quick pace in the direction of the noise. On first glance, she knew it wasn't as bad as it sounded. Oh there was a broken tree limb on the ground, but the individual hanging from a different limb seemed to be in good condition. Kalai managed not to laugh, but joked in serious Amazon fashion, "How's it hanging Arete?"
A tall, muscular Amazon was dangling a good distance from the ground. There was no obvious way around her location except down and Kalai could appreciate the blonde's reluctance to break her legs or whatever happened to land first. Arete grimaced at Kalai, "Could you just get me down?"
"Well, okay, since you asked," and Kalai began to tell one of the most boring and sad stories she knew.
"Kalai!!!!" the frustrated Amazon groaned, "Help me!"
Kalai laughed and climbed a nearby tree. She positioned herself a little higher than the blonde and then hung upside down, using her legs as leverage on what she hoped was a sturdy limb. "Swing it on over Arete." The Amazon in crisis began swinging her body forward and let go. Kalai caught her easily and lifted the woman to safety. She groaned, "What *have* you been eating Arete?"
For that, when she managed to right herself, she got a solid punch in the arm. The young warrior just grinned and teased the sheepish Arete. "That was a pretty loud warble I heard. What was that . . .hawk? No, much to harsh. Magpie, it was. . ."
"Kalai!" Arete threatened and they got involved in an intricate, yet ridiculous chase through the trees which left both of them laughing and breathless when they finally came back down to the earth. The blonde's hands rested warmly against Kalai's shoulder, her belly was still moving with merriment, "God's Kalai, I needed that."
The smaller Amazon grinned, "Yeah, well, I coulda left you but I would've felt guilty later." That got Kalai another punch in the arm, except it was gentler. Kalai's face took on a questioning look. "What were you doing up there anyway."
Arete shrugged, "Scyllia gave me some directions for a "golden" treasure, but I got a little mixed up. I was just trying to orient myself and," she demonstrated with her hands, "the branch just broke. Thought I was gonna get my ass busted." She shook her head, "you know the sad thing, I was sure it would hold my weight. I mean, I know I'm good sized, but usually I know what branches will support and which won't."
Kalai comforted with, "Happens to the best of us Arete." She patted the warrior's shoulder. "So did you figure out which way you had to go?"
Arete laughed, "Well kinda, but I think I'll stay on the ground now. Besides, I caught sight of a wheat field not far from here." She pointed in an easterly direction, "I think that's what Scyllia was talking about."
"Oh, that makes sense. Not all treasure's money."
"Too right and they left it open so you could interpret. All we have to do is bring one."
Kalai looked thoughtful, "Hmm." She grinned, "Well see you around."
"Yeah, See ya!" Arete waved farewell and trotted off in the opposite direction of her original purpose and was out of sight before Kalai could stop her, though Kalai did run after the woman.
Kalai chuckled a bit and said, "Oh well." Amazons may have many talents, but that didn't mean some weren't directionally challenged. "I can't believe they let her run this race." Kalai shook her head and made her way back to her original trail and started after Xena's treasure.
It wasn't that big a place, Kalai noticed. In fact, for a cave, it was actually quite tiny. But there was enough room to squeeze in the front and to stand up. She held up one of Xena's prepared torches and looked around. Then she spotted the stone marker. Kalai licked her lips in anticipation. She found a place to hook the torch so it would illuminate and not require her hands. Then she moved the stone, which was heavier than she'd anticipated. She had to use a lever.
But once it was moved, her eye caught the sight of gold and she lifted the gorgeous small statuette into the light. "Aphrodite," she murmured in awe. Kalai set the statuette aside and put the stone back into place as Xena requested. Then she backed out to the entrance of the cave, doused the light and crawled back into the day.
She was on her gleeful way in moments.
Kalai reached the temple in no time flat, comparatively speaking. Apollo had started his afternoon rounds some time ago and the only one who seemed to have been there before her was Xena, but the Amazon expected that. She grinned at the startled judges when she settled the little naked statue of Aphrodite on the table. Then she went and made her offering.
She laid a perfect blue feather in the offering cup of the main hallway. The Amazon realized she didn't even know what to say, but her heart was full. She bit her lip and thought. Finally, she burst out with "Thank you. Thank you for giving me this chance. Please, I only want. . .I want," It was hard for her to even articulate, "If it's possible, If I could. Someone," Her mind saw the images of the two women she most admired, "like them. Good. I just want to be loved and to love. I'd do right by them, whomever, I mean. I would. Please. Thank you." Then she rushed out of the temple in a fit of embarrassment. Public prayers really weren't her thing.
For the second time that day, a priest (in this case a priestess) encountered a real live God. Artemis smiled quietly and beckoned the young woman close, "I have a few things to tell you," she said. Her eyes were firm, but kind.
The lanky adventurer slowed to a walk as soon as he was out of town. He'd learned to pace himself a long time ago. He supposed he could have jogged, but with Xena's directions in mind he knew he would arrive at the spot in two hours at an even walk. She'd been kind of specific about that, he thought, but Xena typically was very direct. It was one of the qualities that he liked about her. Joxer smiled happily, looked around to make sure no one was looking and began to sing his way along the trail. "Joxer the Mighty, He's very. . ."
Joxer made some good time, but wasn't even half way to his destination yet, when he heard the sound of hoof beats. Long habit caused him to get off the trail and to the side. He didn't need trouble today.
Toris waved to the man as he reigned in his horse. "Hey Joxer, how goes?"
Joxer gave an easy smile and stepped back on the road. "Okay. I'm almost there."
"I talked with the judges Joxer, did you know you could have help?"
Joxer shaded his eyes against the sun and looked up at Toris, "How do you mean."
"You can have a coach to help you. You could have ridden a horse. They didn't set any limitations on how you get to wherever."
Joxer blinked in thought. "You're right." Now it made sense why Xena helped him.
"I thought I would offer my services. I have a stake in this. Xena unhappy makes for Toris unhappy not to mention the rest of the known world." The man grinned easily. He leaned down and offered an arm. "How 'bout it?"
Joxer backed away, "uh, thanks, but I really don't," he swallowed nervously. "I walk."
"You walk." Toris looked at Joxer questioningly, he leapt softly off the horse and looked at Joxer. He kept his gaze even, but found himself evaluating and finding the adventurer appealing.
"I don't really," Joxer began, "do horses. They're a bit," he used his arms to demonstrate, "tall."
Toris nodded understandingly, "Oh." He peered at the man, his face expressionless, nonjudgmental, "You've never ridden one before have you?"
Joxer pursed his lips, looked embarrassed and shook his head. Toris looked up a the sky and watched a cloud float pleasantly in the air. Then the man looked at the brown eyed adventurer. "How far have you got to go?" Joxer looked thoughtful and told him.
"That's over an hour away. If you walk I mean."
"True, but I'm used to walking."
Toris thought about it. "If I promised you that I wouldn't let you fall, would you consider riding? I'd feel better if we got this whole treasure temple thing finished and out of the way. You know, so you'd still be in the race and all." He gave Joxer a coaxing grin.
Joxer looked thoughtful. He was making good time, but this was kind of a race. Though come to think of it, the judges had never called it a race. Still, he knew the way and he didn't think Xena would mind, really, but it was a horse. But this was about helping his friends. He opted for bravery. "I can do anything." he reminded himself.
Toris clapped Joxer on the back. "That's the spirit." Xena's brother lifted himself back on the horse and leaned down. "Come on up. I'll let you ride up front." Joxer grabbed the man's strong arm and was hoisted up to the saddle. Surprisingly, there was enough room for both of them. It helped that Joxer was a thin man. A strong arm wrapped around his flat stomach. Another one simply held the reins. Joxer felt Toris' thighs against his own and the kick that Toris used to signal the horse to move on. Joxer refused to look down and stared straight ahead.
If the lanky man trembled a bit, Toris didn't comment on it.
Toris thought it was uncanny how Xena found the most beautiful secluded off the path genuinely difficult to find unless you have directions places in the known world, even in their own backyard. "You ready?" he spoke into Joxer's ear. Toris meant those words innocuously enough, but Joxer's body's response was something altogether different.
The whole trip, Joxer had been aware of the warmth of Toris' big palm pressing against his abdomen and dark man's chest against the his back. At first, he tried to distract himself by sitting up tall, but that had seemed to only encourage Toris to settle even closer, until Joxer to could feel the man's hips rocking against his to the rhythm of the horse's pace. It had been all he could do not to gasp with pleasure and his eyelids had drifted almost completely shut. By the time they'd arrived Joxer had quite unconsciously settled himself firmly against the other man's chest and his breathing had evened out to an almost hypnotic state.
And with Toris words, the gentle individual found himself approaching an embarrassingly aroused state. Joxer tried to cover manfully by jumping off the horse and talking quickly, "Oh yeah, I'm ready. Completely. Totally. Ready. I've got to get that treasure. It should be right over there." Toris had meant to give the man a hand down, just as he'd helped him up. Instead, he found himself catching Joxer into his arms and against his chest before the adventurer fell in an ungainly fashion.
"Whoa there, what's the rush. There's an art to getting off."
Joxer blushed a crimson hue before he could avoid it. He cleared his throat and said, "Yeah, well, . .horses," he tried to excuse.
"I know." Toris spoke reassuringly. "But if you'll just relax, your first time will be a better experience."
If it were possible to turn even redder, Joxer managed it. Get your mind out of the gutter, he commanded himself. Joxer took a deep breath and then another.
"That's it." Toris rumbled gently. "Relax." Toris hand reached down and under Joxer's thigh and he lifted the adventurer's leg up and over. "Gentle, just like that." Then he slid his other arm up under Joxer's chest and under the adventurer's arm until their arms were clasped in each others hands. He settled Joxer softly and carefully on the ground. "See, much better. Right?"
Joxer gave Toris a shaky nod and was careful not to turn around. He looked at the ground and surreptitiously at himself. Down Boy, he thought, Down! He bit his lips and thought of cold lakes, cold showers, cold ice, ice, ice blue, blue, blue eyes, blue handsome eyes, Toris' blue eyes just like his sister's, just like Meg's blue blue gorgeous eyes. Toris and Meg, blue eyes, ice, blue. Toris' warm blue.
"Joxer?" Toris' voice startled the man out of his thoughts. The startlement helped.
Toris pointed, "you said the treasure was over there."
Joxer nodded, "Oh, yeah, right. Thanks." He walked very carefully to where Xena said the treasure was hidden.
Toris dropped off the horse in an easy fluid manner on the opposite side of the animal and so managed to miss most of the contortions Joxer made so as not to reveal himself. By the time Xena's brother made his way around, Joxer was bending over a stone and trying to lift it by himself.
"No!" Toris yelled, startling the poor guy, "No. Not like that. You've got to lift with your legs. Not your back." Toris grinned, "I speak from experience. You learn things like that when you're a farmer. Here I'll show you." Toris crouched easily and placed his hands under the rock. He nodded for Joxer to do the same. Then he counted off and they lifted. They breathed heavy and rolled the rock to the side.
Toris laughed as they looked at the now uncovered hole in the ground. "Know what's sad Joxer? I'll bet you ten to one Xena placed that rock herself."
Joxer looked to the side at Toris and grinned. Then he stared back down at the golden object before him and lifted it out carefully. He laughed. "Priapus." Toris' mouth gaped and then he guffawed.
"Gods! Only my sister!" He laughed until the tears rolled from his face.
With Toris' admonition to relax and the ribald jocularity inspired by the Priapus statuette, Joxer managed to enjoy the ride back to the temple. Once they got into town he would go on foot, give the object over, strive very hard not to crack the joke about fishing that Toris had just told him, and give his offering. Then he and Toris would have plenty of time to prepare for the feast. The sun hadn't even started it's afternoon descent.
Toris slowed the horse down and pointed at a small body of water, which reflected the noon sun. "Hate to say it Joxer, but this laughing has made me thirsty. I've got to get a drink."
Joxer snickered, "Man, I can totally understand that. It sounds like a good idea." This time the effort to dismount the horse was much easier and less dangerous.
Toris tied the horse's reigns to a nearby tree (not too tight, not too loose) and walked over to the stream. He looked around cautiously and only saw green growing things and the occasional tiny paw print. Okay. He traced the water up a little bit and found a spring. He knelt, tasted, and smiled appreciatively. "The water's fine!" He said loudly.
Joxer knelt besides Toris, cupped his hands, dipped and drank. He grinned appreciatively. The water was sweet to the taste, "Good. Definitely." He smiled up at Toris and was caught in a suddenly intense blue gaze. His mouth was suddenly dry again.
Toris leaned close, his breath brushing against the man's lips. "Joxer?" he whispered the question. The adventurer took advantage of the fact that Toris was wearing more clothes than he was, wrapped his hand in the man's collar and pulled him close until their lips met in a tender kiss. Toris' hand clasped Joxer's head and soon they were granting each other kisses that were more potent than wine and sweeter than fresh picked berries.
It wasn't long before they found a nice soft spot and were engaging in a contact sport more fun and stimulating than wrestling, though it was incredibly tender. Warm hands caressed trembling thighs. Hot lips tasted salty skin. Bodies strained against each other, seeking release and joy in each other. If the woods heard noises it was unaccustomed to, it revealed no secrets.
After trying to ride back to town and getting totally distracted twice, Joxer insisted on walking the rest of the way. He began to appreciate why Gabrielle walked and wondered if she and Xena had the same problem. Joxer arrived at the temple a bit after Kalai and quite a bit before everyone else. He was greeted outside by the warm smile of his lover and with a companionable shoulder hug. He grinned in anticipation. They had the rest of the day to themselves.
The dark haired woman leaned over the table, switching the cooling trays. Her arms were strong and tan from working. Flour speckled her outfit despite the apron, which was tied carefully around her waist. She wasn't too concerned about her looks though. Her aim was simple, to play her part and help make the feast tonight one of the best and most memorable possible. She hummed a happy little tune and turned around.
The noise that came out of her throat could only be called heartrending. It certainly hadn't been intentional, but when her eyes caught sight of Joxer, being held lovingly by strong dark man, she felt a grief in her heart unlike any other. Joxer's warm brown eyes looked up and connected with wounded blue eyes. Toris found his mouth saying, "Xena?" in confusion.
Joxer said, "Meg." He'd forgotten how beautiful she was.
Meg said, "You! You! You!," she spluttered. " You have room in your heart for *her* AND *him* but Not For Me?!!!!!" When Joxer had told her that he was in love with Gabrielle, she'd supported him. Given him her blessing in fact. She liked Gabrielle. She had even told him that he would always have a place in her heart and he could visit when he wanted. And he'd been so noble, saying that he could only love one at a time. But now, seeing that he indeed had room in his heart for more than one person, but not for her, she felt a wound extreme. Her face contorted with a painful rage. "What's wrong with Me? Why couldn't it have been me?!!!"
Joxer's hands raised themselves, and he tried to explain, "Now Meg, it's not," He didn't get very far before he felt warmish pastries splattered all over his chest and face. Each pastry smacked to the rhythm of Meg's vituperative exclamations (most of which included a truly false genealogy, not to mention impossible carnal actions, but we won't go there), until he was quite covered in baked crust and a red colored filling. The tray fell emptily to the floor and Meg ran crying from the room.
Toris, in an effort regain his aplomb, for he was truly shocked at Meg's likeness to his sister, took advantage of lover's privilege and swiped a finger across Joxer's chest. Then he tasted and nodded, "Hmm. Cherry."
Meg didn't watch where she was going since the tears got in her way and she ran smack into a tall, blonde, lost Amazon who'd been trying to find her way to the kitchen to see if she could weasel a small snack. The feast was still a few hours away and she was hungry. She'd finally decided to follow her nose, since the other way hadn't been working. Arete found her arms around a crying woman who looked amazingly like Xena.
She had no idea what Xena would have to cry about, but figured that she could think of worse things to be doing than holding the warrior princess. (Though, why was she wearing an apron?) And so, being an intelligent woman but only having so much information, she began to do her best to reassure the woman she thought was the warrior princess. She patted the raven haired woman on the back consolingly. "I'd heard it was tough on you two, but had no idea." Meg bawled even harder. "Don't worry. It'll all work out. We Amazons know the score." Arete's tunic was getting decidedly soggy.
Arete looked up just in time to notice a woman wheeling a large cart down the hallway. There wasn't enough room for them and her. "Uh, we gotta move." She patted the woman's shoulder, but she was still crying. "Hello?" Still crying, not moving. Arete made a hasty decision and lifted the sobbing woman into her strong arms and made a quick run down the hallway until they were out of the cart's thundering way. She set Meg down again and stepped away. She shook the woman gently and looked her in the eyes. Arete's own green eyes held compassion. Who knew something like this would be so tough? But she guessed, if you really loved someone, being parted even for a little while might be difficult and maybe Xena didn't know that the Amazon's fully intended to help out, in case. Arete started wiping the tears from Meg's face. "You have *got* to get it together. You can be with your love as soon as the competition's over. I mean no one's gonna stop you from,"
Meg found herself gazing into sympathetic green eyes. Her soul was hurting and it made her body ache. Something snapped into place. An erotic something.
Arete was continuing, "You need to,"
Meg's voice turned sultry, "I know what I need."
Arete, big and strong as she was, was not dumb. She recognized that tone of voice, "Uh, what are you saying?"
Meg's hands started moving provocatively against the Amazon's bare skin. "I need you."
Arete tried to stop Meg's hands from moving by stepping back and out of the way, but Meg just stepped closer and made a surprise claim on Arete's lips. Arete, pulled away and backed up until she was against a wall. "Really, I'm sure we could get you into," she meant to say Gabrielle's room, but never got there.
"So, big and strong. You're just lovely. And I need someone who understands. You understand don't you?" Arete was getting confused and distracted. Meg knew how to use her hands and her mouth.
"I do, I do, but." She tried to wiggle away from Meg, but found herself pinned by a strong grip and a warm body. "What about Queen Gabrielle?" she managed in a panicked whisper?
"Gabrielle?" Meg's eyebrows shot up. "Trust me, she won't mind. She won't mind at all." Warm hands cupped the stunned Amazon's breasts, "I'm sure she'd want you to help me. We're good friends after all. And I need some. . .consoling, and you are just the one to do it." Arete really really did try to resist. But Meg pegged Arete to the wall with a final persuading kiss and that was that.
Eponin grinned as Xena looked at herself in the mirror. Her armor was polished to an almost blinding shine and her leather's seemed suppler, more pliant. Xena's lopsided smile reflected back at the delighted Amazon. "This is," Xena spoke sincerely, "really quite impressive."
"I fixed that squeak too."
Xena's lips quirked, "I noticed." She patted her own belly and a looked to the side, "This is nice Eponin. Really nice." Her fingers caressed the leather, "They almost look new."
"I had to do a little repairing."
Xena grinned. There were some people who needed to hear more than words. She turned around quickly and grabbed the Amazon in a bear hug. "Thank you." She said firmly and she held on until Eponin relaxed in her arms. "You did good." When she released the Amazon, there were no more comments, but only a happy smile. Xena's smile changed so that her eyes crinkled up, "I can't wait to see Gabrielle's reaction."
Xena laughed and looked back in the mirror, "Are you kidding, she's been after me about that squeak. She'll love it."
A more relaxed and soothed woman kissed a satiated but stunned Amazon, who was thinking, *Damn, when Xena said she had many skills, she wasn't kidding.*
"Thank you so much," said Meg. "I really needed that."
Arete stuttered out a, "You're welcome."
Meg trailed a lazy hand across a muscular belly and sighed, "too bad I have to go and finish preparing for the feast tonight. I could get used to spending time with you." Arete blushed. Meg smiled and kissed the Amazon lightly, "I'll see you around Arete." Arete smiled shyly in return, sat up and watched as the woman dressed herself neatly.
Meg sighed happily, "I feel so much better. You work wonders. I'm going to have to tell. . ."
Arete spoke in shock, "You're going to tell Gabrielle about this?"
Meg blinked, "Well, I was. . ." she started to explain that she had a friend she was learning to correspond with. She had been practicing her writing. One day she hoped to surprise Gabrielle with an actual letter.
"Don't you think she'd be hurt?" Meg looked at Arete blankly.
"Why would she be hurt? Gabrielle knows about me."
"You mean you do this kind of thing all the time?"
Meg's face did that "NO!" thing, even as she said the word. "I don't do this nearly as often as I used to. Before I met Gabrielle, why you could say I slept with almost anything that moved. I've been a lot more choosy since. Though right now I'm questioning my choices."
Arete blinked and thought, Oh my Gods, that's what this is about. "Look, I don't know how you two have things arranged, though I guess it's a lot more relaxed than I'd supposed, but I know you're loved. I mean all you have to do is see the look and you'd know what I mean."
Meg looked up, "Really?"
Arete nodded firmly, "Absolutely. The look is right there for everyone to see. Everyone with eyes that is."
Meg bit her lip. "I don't know what to say."
"Maybe you just need to see if you can work something out, you know, for during the competition."
Meg looked at the blonde, "You're pretty smart." She got a smile. "I think I'll try that." She gave the warrior another kiss and then grinned, "But now I've got to go. I have things to do, people to see. It was fun."
Arete nodded. Crisis averted. "Yes it was." Things really would work out.
The Feast was held outdoors. Colorful decorations and fresh flowers created a happy ambiance. Amazon drummers and bardic musicians provided the rhythm and song for the evening. Of course, Gabrielle was given a place of honor at the head of one huge table that seated all of her candidates. To her right was seated a tall blonde Amazon who was introduced as Arete and to her left was the young Kalai.
Xena was seated much farther down the table. She was too far to talk to, too far away to touch or anything, and simply much too far away in Gabrielle's estimation. She'd noticed how breathtaking Xena looked and had struggled to stifle the urge to move Xena closer. But the warrior had winked at her and had sent the message with her body language that all was well, so Gabrielle decided to trust her love's instincts.
The saving grace was that her present companions were easy to talk to, though the blonde one had to be dragged into the conversation a bit. At first Arete blushed every time the Queen's attention was on her, but after a little while she got into the cadence of the conversation and she contributed her own witty dialog. Their discussion ranged in topics, from the personal ("It wasn't that I didn't want to, it's just the timing wasn't right. I had to let her go so I could go on, you know what I mean?" "Yeah, Kalai, but it's different when you are your age. It's something you can," "Different? Let me tell you about different.") to the political ("It's not just our lands being affected by that decision, but the results of the trade hasn't been all that good. If I had to make the selection I would go with . . ." ) to the hysterically morbid ("God's Kalai I can't believe you said that! I'm trying to eat here.") and funny ("Oh you should've seen Xena's face. I mean I laughed so hard I didn't see her heading in my direction until it was too late. I didn't even have a chance to run before she caught me and dumped me in the vat. I was purple for days." "Breathe, Kalai, breathe.")
For Arete's part she was grateful that Gabrielle didn't seem to hold her indiscretion against her. She wasn't hurt that at the beginning of dinner, when everyone was being introduced, Xena's eyes seemed to skip right past her and on to Gabrielle, that was how it should be. Any acknowledgement, other than in private or in the most general sense, might have been embarrassing and there was no need for it. Inside, she praised Xena's wisdom. Meanwhile, Arete found the Amazon Queen charming, kind, intelligent, and dazzlingly beautiful and she knew, that despite Xena's earlier protests to the contrary, Gabrielle was more than just a friend, for she saw the way the two lovers looked at each other during dinner. There seemed to be no tears or worries in either pair of eyes and Arete's easy going heart could only be glad they had worked out the problem.
She was also enjoying young Kalai's presence. She found her political reasoning astute and her cautioning words to the Queen quite practical. And her face was so expressive. Arete found the brown eyed girl fascinating in her own right and was happy to get to know her better. Just because most everyone knew each other's names in the Amazon circles, didn't mean that they knew each other well. It was easy to get caught up in a small band of friends and to stay there. Besides, the memory of that morning now held a warm spot in her heart, even though Kalai started teasing her almost immediately for going in the opposite of her intended direction. That was okay, Arete knew she had to compensate a lot when finding her bearings. It was why she usually hunted with a friend when out of home territory. If she were home, she simply learned all the markers and found her way by learning the familiar.
And Kalai? Well Kalai was practically in Elysius, with Gabrielle meeting all her expectations and exceeding them with a deft humor and compassion that thrilled the young woman beyond words. And my, but the Queen was comely. The outfit for the night did everything for her, highlighting her skin and her lovely red gold hair in the firelight. Kalai did nothing to hide her admiration, but Gabrielle took it in stride and that only made the Amazon appreciate her more.
Kalai had been surprised too, by Arete's wisdom, though she still maintained that her youth didn't make her experiences in love's arena less painful, but otherwise she had been impressed. Sometimes it was good to get to know an Amazon better. She found herself liking Arete more and more as the evening passed and accepted the muscular blonde's amiable teasing in good humor. The evening seemed to fly by.
Xena, meanwhile, chatted easily with the company around her. She was surrounded by two good-looking and supportive Amazons (just because she loved Gabrielle didn't mean she didn't notice other people's attractiveness, but we knew that already.) and a couple of male warriors, one of which was kind of seedy looking, but his conversation was more intellectual. They got into discussions about armor and weaponry ("I've found that if you put a little oil on the blades it has less of a tendency to rust." "Fool, a blade isn't a cook pan. You should try. . ."), politics ("Athens is the last place I'd want to be right now. I understand the senate has been debating . . .") and somewhat ribald topics ("And there she was, naked as the day she was born, sitting on top of the largest. . .")
After dinner, but before the evening was over, Xena took the time to charm information out of some of the candidates. The Amazon reasoning for their participation was pretty straight forward, they were there to insure the safety of the nation and the Queen should Xena miss the mark (she was touched by their confidence and understood the necessity completely.) Her main concern was about the male candidates, but she found that most of them were simply there because they were invited by Cherise. There was one fellow who, despite his obvious physical attributes (strong shoulders, full lips, dark eyes, brown hair), she found distasteful because of his ego and his apparent dislike of women. If what Eponin said about tomorrow was true, then Xena planned on taking this one out of the competition early. It was her opinion that he shouldn't have even been invited, but since she wasn't the one who had a say in the matter, there was no room for her to complain. The only thing she could do was troubleshoot (and if she had an arrow handy. . ., she glared inconspicuously at the man).
Joxer for some reason was given a bowl of extra extra extra spicy stew for dinner. He was lucky to survive the evening with his mouth intact and he would swear for weeks that he couldn't really taste anything (when he was eating food that is. He seemed to have no problem tasting other things.) Fortunately bread was handy to soothe the fire in his mouth and he was able to hold his own in conversation. Later that night he would discuss the mystery with Toris and they would decide together that maybe it was time to talk to Meg about the whole thing.
The judges of the event spent the evening observing the contestants, jotting notes, comparing results and eating. Iolaus thought he noticed the makings of another pairing (an Amazon and a male warrior seemed to be hitting it off very well). Cherise praised him for his insight. Hecuba and Cyrene were sharing daughter stories and comparing recipes (something they'd pretty much been doing the whole time, except when they were plotting and sending off invitations).
By the time the evening was over and night had fallen, most of the candidates were ready to go to their rooms and sleep (good food and a long day). They formally excused themselves by walking to Gabrielle's seat, bowing before her and wishing her a good night. Gabrielle was gracious to them all, but waited expectantly for her lover, who did not disappoint. Xena's smile was provocative and her good night was a luscious purr that caught Gabrielle in an erotic snare. The bard had a difficult time composing herself for the next suitor, but somehow managed it. She couldn't wait to get back to her room now.
Almost everyone slept well that night, except Eponin, who had to deal with that weird shift between the deepest dark and the earliest light. Her compensation though was a delightful early morning breakfast hand delivered by her friend Solari. It was going to be a good day.
Gabrielle, the lovely traveling companion of Xena, the warrior princess, was up pretty much before almost anyone else save Eponin and Solari. It wasn't as an unusual occurrence as some might suppose from her usual morning behavior. Just because she liked to sleep in didn't mean that she couldn't be up and at 'em when she wanted to be. And boy did she want to be up this morning. She grinned in anticipation.
Her two guards jumped to attention, some crumbs spilling to the floor, and greeted their queen. Gabrielle smiled brightly, her good humor seeming to be restored from last night's festivities. Her guards returned her greeting. "Eponin, shouldn't you be napping or something." the Queen asked.
"Gabrielle, I'd just as soon stay up as nap. There are big things ahead and I want to see them." Eponin grinned in anticipation. Xena was gonna wipe the field, she was sure of it. In fact she had a fifty dinar bet going with an overly confident male coach. The Amazon already knew how she was going to spend the money.
Gabrielle nodded in understanding. She licked her lips unconsciously and said, "Well, I'm heading to the kitchen. I suppose you'll want to accompany me?" (as if they'd ever not. . .) Eponin and Solari bowed out of the Queen's way and followed at a respectful distance.
Because the festivities would be going on at least two days, the cooks had created a system of shifts to ease the burden of having to be in the kitchen for extended periods of time. The raven haired beauty scooped a cup of fresh berries in preparation for her latest morning pastry masterpiece and set it on the table, then she looked up and saw the face of her friend, "Gabrielle!" she squealed. Fortunately for the bard, Meg was not one to hold a grudge.
The bard's face lit up when she caught sight of the familiar face. She was glad the cook was wearing the apron with the big M on it and praised the wisdom of whoever thought of that idea. "Meg!" she squealed back while two Amazon onlookers staggered to a halt in amazement. (They looked at each other, flabbergasted, the likeness was uncanny, and trust the Queen to know about it).
The two friends found their way to each other and exchanged genuine hugs. "Little bit early for breakfast aren't ya?" Meg asked, well aware of Gabrielle's propensity towards morning snoozes.
Gabrielle managed not to blush. She'd had this idea stirring in her head for quite a bit of the evening. Xena's small bundled gift had provided the inspiration. "I wanted to make Xena something special for breakfast."
Meg raised her eyebrows and said, "Oh?" Solari and Eponin looked at each other again. UNcanny.
"Well she needs her energy and," Gabrielle paused significantly, "I wanted to provide a little inspiration."
Solari delivered the breakfast, her expression composed in that Amazon stoic manner. She knocked, careful not to tip the tray in any way. A wide awake, already dressed, self-composed warrior answered the door. "Gabrielle sent you breakfast." the Amazon said quietly.
Xena nodded, her bard was so thoughtful, "Oh, yeah, set it on that table would you." She wasn't quite ready to eat as she was still mentally preparing herself for the day. Solari glided into the room and carefully set the tray down. She turned around and wished the warrior luck and sailed out of the room, her expression as serious as ever. Xena thought to herself, *That woman has just got to lighten up one day.* and went about her morning's discipline.
Once Xena's door was closed, gold exchanged hands. Meg giggled, "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it," she told Eponin. She tried to mimic Solari's stern expression. "How does she do that? I gotta learn it." She poked the grinning Amazon in the ribs, "You Amazons are a kick and a half you know?" Then their expressions turned semiserious when Solari turned the corner.
They were all startled at the burst of "Oh my Gods, Gabrielle!" followed by hearty laughter that exploded out of Xena's room.
They looked at each other for a few solemn seconds and then all of them burst into quiet hysterics. Who knew food could be arranged to pattern after a woman's lovely inner folds? Solari had a vivid flash of the colorful (and obviously tasty) pattern that Gabrielle and Meg had concocted. The location of the cherry was a stroke of genius, not to mention the fig. Eponin spoke first, "Meg, *you* are a true artist!" There was more laughter and Meg bowed. Then she excused her self with a huge grin. After all, she did have to prepare breakfast for everyone else. Though she didn't think it would be quite as much fun. Eponin accompanied Meg with the intention of getting to know the spirited cook a little better. She liked the woman's sense of humor and besides, it's always good to know someone who knew how to spice things up.
Solari was still chortling when she went to relieve Roen from guarding the queen's room so the tall Amazon could go back to bed. She was glad she'd be able to tell the queen of her success.
The sun was up, the sky was blue, the air was muggy. It promised to be a warm day and the scents of the woods and the field hung heavy. Spectators had gathered at the edge of the field, some of them straddling the fence so they could get a better view. Gabrielle was seated in the shadowed dais and watched as Iolaus explained the next part of the contest.
Again two facets of being were combined. In this case it was the body and the heart. They would be tested by having the candidates take part in several small physical event and one large one. The physical events included tests of martial skill (such as wrestling, sword play and believe it or not, archery), balance and other feats of strength. The final event, the largest one, would be a free for all distance race, with the only limitation being that there should be no weapons. Xena grinned in anticipation. This would be the fun part.
Things got noisy after that. Spectators cheered on their favorites. Coaches shouted advice. Bodies slammed to the ground. Metal clashed against Metal. The contest inspired a lot of play acting among the kids, who ran about the field probably a bit more freely than they should have been allowed (one kid almost got the stuffing knocked out of him when some poor fellow got thrown). Colorful banners flew when the wind finally picked up and started moving the air around. Someone named Salmoneous was making a slew of cash off of a concession stand and he was very happy about it.
Even though Xena was her personal favorite (like who hadn't figured that out) Gabrielle rooted for her table mates too (when they weren't competing against Xena that is). Toris and Meg somehow found themselves in near proximity and at first their glances at each other were kind of baleful, then they found themselves getting into the spirit of the contest and forgot that they were mad at each other. At any point in time one or the other would root for either Joxer or Xena as the occasion allowed. Amazons rooted for Amazons. The other spectators rooted for whoever they were betting on. Xena and Gabrielle's mothers would have rooted for Xena, except they were supposed to be impartial (good luck).
Of course Xena did very very well. She was, after all, very skilled, very strong, and very persistent. This surprised no one (except the one coach who realized now he was going to lose a lot of dinars). However, the warrior princess, had an odd experience while wrestling with a sizable blonde Amazon. She thought for a moment that she'd been felt up, then had tossed that idea as inappropriate. Wrestling was, after all, a contact sport. It wasn't until she found herself looking down into some serious green eyes, after pinning the woman to the ground, that she questioned if her first idea wasn't correct after all.
Joxer held his own, even in the swords contest. His newly acquired abilities allowed him to duck and jab with the best of them (almost) and he actually managed to win two rounds and stay in the game. Kalai demonstrated her extraordinary balancing skills on a sawhorse and her definite talent at knife throwing. Arete caught and lifted a huge, oiled sow and held on which impressed everyone, including Xena (she also began to suspect that Arete let her win the wrestling match, because she hadn't shown that much strength when they were competing. This didn't mean that Xena couldn't have beat her fairly, just that the warrior's strategy might have been different if the Amazon had actually been trying. It annoyed Xena, which meant Arete was gonna get a solid taking down once the competition was over.)
By the time the smaller contests were over, the candidate choices had been narrowed down to twelve. Xena, Joxer, Kalai, Arete, Maphaus (the seedy looking intelligent guy), Drakus (the odious good looking guy), Cynthia (an Amazon-- the one with eyes for Talus), Talus (a warrior--the one enamored of Cynthia), Helen (Amazon, limber and tough), Althus (warrior and the only nobleman to make it this far), Hector (warrior, kind of hairy), and Lyneaus (a farmer who kept getting lucky). Cynthia and Talus hung in there for two reasons, to outdo each other and thus to impress each other. So far they were succeeding in their goal.
One unsuccessful candidate was very vocal in his disappointment, but found his situation improved by the presence of a very buxom nurse. He got well a lot more quickly than he expected. Meanwhile the candidates who were supposed to participate in the run were told that they could have a few moments to relax and prepare. Meaning, it was lunch time and nap time and it was too hot for anyone to do anything quite yet.
Xena took the opportunity to capture Arete's ear. Literally. "The next time you fake out on me, I will rend you like a piece of cloth. Do you understand?" she spoke in a low hiss. Arete winced at the tone and at the pain in her ear and nodded.
"I'm sorry Xena, I just wanted you to win." Xena let go of the Amazon's ear and narrowed her eyes. Arete covered her ear with her hand.
Xena shook her head, "I wish you Amazons would let up on trying to allow me win. What fun is a contest if you all keep," she made a *gah* noise in her throat, "helping me? hmm?"
Arete's warm green eyes gazed into blue one's. She smiled and laughed and her voice turned seductive, "You sure do like your fun, don't you." Then she kissed the stunned warrior on the lips quick and strode away. She turned around and waved, "I'll do better in the race. You just watch me."
Xena raised her eyebrows and touched her lips. Now *that* was an interesting experience.
The warrior princess snuck into Gabrielle's room after lunch. They had a couple of hours before the judges would decide it was cool enough to start the final race. And a couple of hours spent in her bard's arms would be precious indeed. She hid very carefully, squeezing her body into a small area, but not uncomfortably so. She wasn't really trying to hide from Gabrielle, just her Amazon guard.
The red head entered the room by backing into it. She was talking animatedly with Roen about her favorite subject, Xena. The object of her affections waited patiently and put her time to good use by practicing a simple meditative technique. It was one of the methods she used that allowed her to function on less sleep than most and it had come in handy when she'd had to deal nightmares, before Gabrielle that is. Now the bard *was* her meditation. Xena let Gabrielle's voice smooth right over her body, enjoying the sound and letting the words float in her consciousness. She caught a name, "Meg." Ah, that explained that. Meg must be one of the cooks. She heard her name several times. Oh the difference it made to have someone say one's name with love. So different from hearing it said in anger or hate. She let go of the trail her thoughts were taking and listened to the voice that soothed her nights. A little more discussion, this time about how early the Queen must arrive for the second half of the competition, then a whisper of noise as the door shut and a final click.
Xena smiled, opened her eyes and stepped out. She silently made her way behind the bard and wrapped long arms around a lovely Queen's waist. Gabrielle turned in her arms and she was treated to an enchanting smile. "Sometimes, my love," Xena whispered, "you are just too beautiful." Gabrielle grinned.
"Did you like breakfast?"
Xena smiled softly, "Oh it was good. Very good." Her eyes lowered to the red head's lips, "Quite tasty actually." She began pushing the bard backwards towards the bed, using her body as a the means for steering. "It reminded me of something I want very much."
"Oh?" Gabrielle did her own version of the eyebrow thing.
Xena did it better, "Yes. Something better than ambrosia."
"Better than ambrosia?"
"Mmhmm." Xena's hum rippled through Gabrielle's body pleasantly.
"Xena can I ask you something?" Xena quit nuzzling Gabrielle's ear so she could focus. At least, that was how Gabrielle interpreted her actions.
"How do you keep this up?"
Xena laughed, "*You* are asking *me* this question? I could ask the same of you I think." She bounced a little and licked her lips. Her eyes were merry. "You keep me on my toes little one." A hand smoothed down to Gabrielle's backside and squeezed gently." She smiled at her love. "Are you trying to tell me something?"
Gabrielle looked down, feeling a little embarrassed. This was so rarely a problem for her. But, best to suck it up, "Honey, the truth."
"Yes," Xena led.
"The truth is I'm kinda tired. I was up a little early and," she gazed up at understanding pale blue eyes. She hadn't really slept all that well, though it had been better than the night before.
"Ah. I see." Xena stopped their backward momentum. She smiled down at her sweetheart and caressed a lovely cheek. Then she moved swiftly, eliciting a gasp from Gabrielle, and swung the bard into her arms. She strode to the bed and laid the bard gently down. Her blue eyes strayed appreciatively down the bard's body then moved back up to meet the loving gaze of the Queen. She kissed Gabrielle quick and hard, then lay on her back to Gabrielle's side.
Gabrielle snuggled up against the warrior princess and sighed, almost in relief. Her voice was soft. "I've missed this."
She got a squeeze for that. "Me too." Meaning, it was hard to sleep without each other now. They could do it, but it wasn't as easy.
Gabrielle's hand drifted to the flat of Xena's abdomen. "Xena?"
"mm?" Xena was deliberately slowing her breathing. Her eyes were already closed.
"Did you have fun this morning?"
Xena smiled. She'd grinned all day practically, her cheeks were a little sore. "You could say that. I enjoyed the challenge."
"Mm. Do you like this outfit?"
Xena's eyebrows lifted at the question, but her eyes remained closed. She felt Gabrielle's hand moving in intricate patterns on her bare skin, some coming perilously close to the top of her loincloth. "Why do you ask?"
"Well, I like it." Xena heard a but.
"I like your leathers better."
"Oh." Xena smiled, "Why is that?"
"They're more exciting to take off." Xena didn't laugh, though her smile broadened. Gabrielle continued, the motions of her hand becoming more distracting by the second. "And I have a problem with this outfit."
"I can't seem to stop touching you." Gabrielle's voice was breathless. "I mean, if you wore this all the time we'd never get anywhere at all. I'd never make it past any soft green spot. We'd be the slowest travelers in the world. We'd never get around to rescuing anyone because we'd be too busy," Gabrielle was chattering now. Xena recognized the signs.
"Do you still want that nap?"
The bard's hand continued its tingling motions as tender lips pressed softly against Xena's parted mouth.
Xena grinned against the kiss, "I'll take that as a no." She pulled the red head on top of her and let her long fingers do the talking. Not too long after, but definitely not too soon, Gabrielle lay snoozing in Xena's arms and the warrior princess, after setting her internal clock, took a well earned deep restful nap.
Xena slipped away as quietly as she arrived after kissing Gabrielle awake so that the Queen would continue to be in a good mood rather than one of those damn it you woke me from a really deep nap and I'm not going to be sociable for another hour moods. Gabrielle really liked waking to kisses. Really liked it. And it was always Xena's pleasure.
The warrior decided to head over to the fields where it was recieving its makeover and far along the way to becoming a greuling obstacle course. She watched as a pair of Amazons swung a huge log across a small muddy pond and grinned. *This* was going to be great.
Once the air had cooled a little and the breeze was strong again, the judges summoned the Queen and her candidates to the challenge field. Spectators were all over the place and it seemed that the Amphipolians and all their neighboring villages had decided to make this a day of festivity. Toris took advantage of being Joxer's official coach and he led Meg to a good spot providing a nice undiluted panaromic view.
Toris settled the blanket on the ground and escorted the lovely cook to its surface. Meg set a basket of snacks by her and liberated a flask of wine from the container. They had spent the afternoon talking about Joxer and themselves. Toris learned that not only was Meg a fine cook (he had really appreciated dinner last night), but that she was really quite openminded about a few things. He also discovered that not only did he have a thing for soft brown eyes, but certain blue eyes led to their own kind of inspiration. And while he noted the similarities between Meg and his sister, he also appreciated the vast (okay, not so vast, both of them had drive, both had intelligence (though Meg grew up with several disadvantages) and both were sexier than all get out) differences. Besides she was spirited and charming.
Meg on the other hand learned that Xena's brother was an okay guy, much like his sister. Toris was strong and good and kind and, like his sister, very appealing. She could see what Joxer saw in the man. She could also see he was attracted to her, but she wasn't the type to poach once someone declared an allegance, so she just enjoyed the man's company and silently congratulated Joxer on making a good choice. Besides the whole looking like his sister thing added a kinky element that she wasn't sure she was ready to deal with. If she was gonna mess with anyone that close to Xena, that person had better darn well be able to tell the difference. So she fought against the impulse to rest her gaze in his and instead focused on the events that were to play themselves out on the field.
When Joxer arrived on the field, looking a bit sleep rumpled, but rested, they both cheered him. He looked a little perplexed but smiled widely and gave them a jaunty wave. Toris wrapped a friendly arm around Meg's waist and they waved happily in return. Meg blew him a kiss and Joxer wondered how in Hades things had gotten worked out without him having to beg.
Kalai stretched and limbered up for the event. She could already see that some of the obstacles might be truly challenging and she wanted to be able to make her way through easily. She saw that there were some individuals wearing the Amazon masks and carrying weapons, which meant, not only would they be trying to maneuver around the complications of the field, but that there would be live confrontations to meet. Much like life, she supposed. No wonder they said this was more about the heart, than about the body.
Arete was so wrapped up in her own preparations that she never saw Meg. Someone fell over one of the benches provided for the candidates, so she picked up the bench and moved it a little bit so it was less dangerous, picked up a rather startled Joxer and set him on the bench and then began her own version of the stretches designed to make the body flexible. Joxer was impressed.
Xena may or may not have warmed up. No one really saw her preparing, but she seemed agile enough and some supposed Xena to have some mythic abilities when it came to physical activities anyway, so no one asked or even really speculated hard. The warrior princess took to the time to assess her competition. Joxer she wasn't too worried about, nor was she worried about Lyneaus since she knew it was unlikely he would make it pass the live action players. Althus would rely on his strength, but Arete had him beat hands down (Xena had to roll her eyes at the blonde's earlier deception. How could she have *missed* that, especially watching the way she manhandled that bench. It was a good thing Arete considered herself an ally.) Kalai had youth and speed which would negate Hector's slow gate. Talus and Cynthia were barely in the race anymore, but she didn't doubt they would put up a good show. Her main concern was Maphaus, who didn't seem very athletic, yet somehow had managed to keep up in the physical competition. She would have to watch him closely. Not to mention Drakus, who seemed overly confident. Helen she had no worries about. The Amazon would run the race and try to beat her, but she didn't have Xena's motivation.
Xena cast a glance at the shadowed dais and saw Gabrielle was speaking animatedly with Cherise about something. Cherise seemed to be holding a large, tattered book (the kind with stuff falling out of it) in front of the Queen and pointing. Hecuba was standing behind her daughter and pointing too, while Cyrene was simply shaking her head and rolling her eyes. Xena wondered what the matchmaker was up to, but turned her attention away when the summoning drums began to beat out the Amazon challenge.
It was time to begin.
The green kerchief floated softly and lyrically to the ground landing in a dainty heap upon the dry surface. Not that any of the candidates noticed as they broke for it and ran. The first obstacle didn't appear to be that much of a challenge and only seemed to require that the competitor be able to leap over a barrier. But looks can be deceiving, as Joxer found out when he made a lengthy leap and got toppled to the side by an aggressive Amazon impediment. Xena laughed, but not at Joxer. She was really going to enjoy this.
The warrior princess' face took on the expression of glee, which kind of scared some of the other contestants, including Lyneaus. Kalai reached the barriers next and did a perfect tumble off of the shoulder's of her living obstruction. Arete simply punched her's out and used her body weight to carry her forward. Xena leapt on the barrier, balanced and than startled the heck out her's with her battle cry. It also startled Lyneaus, who was beginning to wonder if this whole thing was worth it. Xena didn't look behind to see how anyone else fared, although the other candidates used various methods (some more successful than others) to get around the Amazons. She would have been gratified to see Joxer gamely try again and succeed.
It was like that through the whole of the obstacle course, seemingly simple problems would manifest themselves some new surprise or other or not. There was no way to tell when or how someone or something would erupt to startle and delay the candidates somehow. Plus there was the other problem that arose. Some of the candidates themselves started pushing the others out of the way or using them as springboards or even the occasional punching bag. It got down and dirty.
Xena was having the time of her life. The challenge of pitting her mind, heart and body against crazy odds always stimulated her and this time she didn't have to deal with small time thugs or unimaginative warlords. She didn't mind the down and dirty part of the game (for a game was what it was to her) and she participated fully, often pulling some nasty tricks from her nonweapons repetoir on an unsuspecting candidate or a living barrier. She was a wonder to behold.
Joxer wasn't doing badly himself. Once he established that anything could happen, he simply got in flow with it (as per his instructions during that training that Cherise sent him to). Joxer decided that he wasn't going to try to win the race, since it seemed obvious to him that Xena was doing fine on her own. But he didn't see why he couldn't act as a living barrier to the living barriers. He even tackled some of the other male candidates who seemed like they were getting too close to Xena. His last tackle was when he found out that one of the candidates was armed.
His scream ripped through the air, causing Toris to leap to his feet and Meg to follow soon thereafter. They saw that Joxer was involved in a mighty struggle and watched helplessly as Maphaus somehow managed to push the taller Joxer away. Even from this distance they could see that the gangly man was terribly injured as he backpedaled away, with his hand to his shoulder and fell to the ground. They were on the playing field in an instant. Maphaus bolted as if he was still part of the contest. He knew who he was after now.
Xena turned back to look and saw that Joxer was injured, but she had problems of her own. She and Kalai were stuck dealing with a group of four armed and determined Amazons who had surrounded them at a tall climbing wall. So far all she and the young Amazon had managed to do was duck and dodge a lot. Xena watched carefully for a useful opening, one that wouldn't get the living obstacle killed, yet would allow Xena to take advantage of a distraction. That opportunity soon provided itself. The warrior princess leg swiped one of the taller Amazons, toppling her in the direction of her teammates and sending them, now unbalanced, clattering into each other. She grinned and got ready to run up the wall and was tackled at the "v" of her legs. She looked down in time to avoid a nasty swipe from a knife that would have cut an artery open at her thigh, which would have lamed her and most likely killed her, but not in time to avoid the weight of the man yanking her thigh joint loose from the hip. It pissed her off, first because deadly intent always pissed her off and second because her game had been ruined and third, and most importantly, because now there was no way she could make the run necessary to win the game. It angered her beyond words.
The warrior princess snarled and grabbed the man by the ears, her fingernails digging into tender skin and she yanked Maphaus up, hard. "You are Dead Meat, Maphaus." She intoned unnecessarily. The man had that figured out as soon as he saw her eyes. When he was far enough away from her vulnerable thigh she broke wrist of the hand that held the small sharp knife. He cried out in sudden pain. Then she grabbed his neck, with the intention of breaking that too.
Kalai cried out, "Xena! NO! You'll be disqualified!" Xena winced. She was already disqualified, but she didn't kill the man, only rendered him unconscious. Xena made an instant decision. The Amazons were still trying to unpile themselves, Maphaus had lamed her, and Kalai looked stricken.
She looked at the young warrior and jumped, a little less nimbly than usual, at Kalai, grasped her around the waist stared into the girl's eyes and growled, "Do Your Damnedest!" Then she hoisted the brown eyed Amazon with all her strength up and over the wall. Kalai sailed up, grabbed the ledge and headed downward without a word, but with a firm commitment in her heart. When she landed, she ran with a purpose.
Arete saw what happened. She saw Joxer go down and she saw Maphaus get up. She hadn't been able to stop the man because of several Amazon types with spears. But as soon as she saw Maphaus heading for Xena she determined to make sure to stop him. Those same Amazons soon found themselves scattered on the ground. Arete sailed under the rope trap, up the vine and swung across the muddy moat and was not on time to capture Maphaus and do him damage like she planned. Therefore she saw the whole thing, including Xena's heroic boost for Kalai. Arete realized that she was deeply deeply in love.
The blonde warrior made a snap decision and broke her promise. Now it was not a matter of fun. Now it was a matter of necessity. Arete ran as fast as her legs would carry her, scooped a startled warrior princess into her arms, swung the dark haired one around so that Xena had to clasp her arms around her neck (which meant that Xena caught on instantly to Arete's intent) and scrambled up the wall even as four angry Amazons descended upon a very unconscious Maphaus.
Getting over the wall was the easy part, but landing required Arete to swing Xena around again (which caused some major pain). But once the warrior was settled into Arete's arms she was quick to get into the rhythm of the woman's movements. Arete screamed, "Kalai!" even as she ran to catch up with the Amazon. The young one turned briefly, saw that the blonde's arms were full of warrior princess, and started to slow down.
Except Xena shouted, "No! Go! Go!" and waved her ahead. Kalai was indecisive for about two seconds, then started pelting away again. She wasn't sure of the warrior princess' intent, but knew that it was her job to protect the Amazon Queen. Then she thought she knew Xena's reasoning.
Kalai saw them rushing out at her and knew that it would only be a matter of dodging the Amazons, but that Arete was encumbered. Kalai made a decision. She used her body as a wedge to make a path for Arete by slamming the Amazons away and to the side. It slowed her down, but her intent worked. It also helped that Cynthia and Talus entered the fray and committed themselves to the same task. They too had seen Maphaus tackle Xena and Kalai sailing through the air. They also saw Arete scoop up the warrior and climb. They didn't even bother going up the wall. Now it didn't matter to them if they won anyway. The living barriers didn't stand a chance.
The final obstacle was the rocking log which swung over a mud pit several feet wide. It would require finesse and a lengthy stride. Arete was sweating, but she was still breathing fine. Kalai was only just ahead. Cynthia and Talus were making life tartarus for the Amazon barriers. (It was going to be lucky if any one of the Amazons chosen for that task could stand up for the dance that night.) Lyneaus was a long time out of the race as well as Hector. Althus stopped to help Joxer. Drakus was the only other individual taking the race seriously, and he was the other half of Maphaus' plan. He scrambled up the now unguarded wall and through the busy Amazon obstruction. He was closing in on Arete and started making that body motion which meant he was going in for the slam and then he was tackled by an Amazon devoted to her people. "Not in this lifetime," Helen growled as she punched the woman hater out.
Kalai made the jump onto the log and off just fine, of course. Arete found the whole maneuver tricky but managed to do the same. Xena hung on for dear life as Arete settled into a full out run for the finish line. Soon she and Kalai were running close together, their feet keeping perfect time. Kalai started to drop back, but Xena's intuition called out and the warrior moved around in Arete's grasp, snaked a long arm out and pushed against the slowing runner, "Run, Kalai, Run!"
Kalai called out, "You have to be on your own two feet Xena!" in a desperate plea. She didn't want to win the race now, but Xena kept pushing her.
Arete shouted, "Don't worry!" and the two Amazons dashed the final lengths of the course. Xena felt Arete shifting her weight and knew that her legs were going to be touching the ground in no time. She pulled every ounce of will she had (which was quite formidable) in preparation. Damn if she wasn't going to go over the finish line on her own feet. Xena found herself grinning again. She was going to give Cherise a shock.
She felt Arete drop her grip and pull away at the last moment, but Xena grabbed the woman by the halter, even as she paced the finish line. All three of them went over the line at the same time. Xena rolled to the ground as soon as she could. Arete followed soon after. Kalai was the only one who managed to stay on her feet.
Pandemonium swept the spectators, not to mention the judges' stand. It was Iolaus who called the race. "Tie!"
"But, A Tie?! You declared it a tie!" Cherise was shouting, quite uncharacteristically. Her voice was raised to a pitch that would have assaulted less sturdy ears than Iolaus, but the man had heard everything or almost everything, so a little shouting didn't bother him and he stood firm. The redhead continued to rail. "Xena was supposed to win. XENA!"
Iolaus' arms folded across his chest, his body stood in a stance that said, I'm not budging, "BUT, she didn't, did she. Xena tied. They all tied." The blonde's arms flew up in frustration. "What in Hades was I supposed to do? Everyone saw it! I couldn't just say, well, the other two crossed the line at the very same time, but Xena wins! That wouldn't have been fair."
Cherise growled in frustration. "This wasn't about fair. It was about. . ."
"Setting Xena and Gab up, which was a pretty stupid idea in the first place. What I don't get is why you all just didn't ask one or the other if they wanted to. . ."
"They were being too slow." Iolaus stepped closer and stared up at a lovely, angry face.
"For whom, Cherise?" Cherise swallowed at the look the small man was giving her. His face had taken on a soft intensity and his eyes a different type of kindness. "Why do you say that? How has their relationship been too slow for you?"
"They, they," The matchmaker was losing her train of thought. She shook her head and pointed a long finger at Iolaus' chest, "Quit trying to distract me. I know all about you. You're a woman at every port kind of guy and I'm not going to be one of them."
Iolaus' eyes narrowed speculatively and then he grinned and stepped back, "Alright, but you have to admit it. You shouldn't have been trying to manipulate Xena and Gabrielle."
Cherise groaned and rolled her eyes heavenward. "But they make such a cute couple."
Iolaus grinned, "Yea, well, now there's four people involved in that cute couple." Cherise winced. *How could this have gone so badly. It had been such a perfect plan.*
"We'll have to do an Amazon Judicial court. We're just going to have to separate them. There's no way in Hades the gods are going to allow. . ."
A small man stood humbly at the door, waiting for an appropriate moment to interrupt the conspirators. His priestly robes seemed to glow in the night, though it was just the fire's light showing through. His hands were folded softly together. "May I speak?" He asked carefully. Two pair of startled eyes turned to look at the slightly balding priest. "The Gods have already made a ruling." It was kind of funny to watch two pairs of jaws drop at the same time.
Meanwhile, Gabrielle was having quite a rail session of her own. She wasn't shouting, out of respect for the wounded, but her whispers were intense and delivered the message just as well. "You could have asked! We would have told you. But No! Instead you have to start this ridiculous,"
"Now daughter," Hecuba tried to soothe. She reached for the bard's arm, but Gabrielle stepped out of the way with a jerk.
"Don't now daughter me!" She whispered vehemently, "How could you do this to us?" Her voice was ragged with worry for Xena. Her hazel eyes flashed angrily.
Xena, in her wisdom had asked the bard to leave even as the healers were preparing to move the joint back in place. ("But I want to be with you." "Gabrielle, you'll just be upset. Please." Warm hands clasping her own. Pained blue eyes not quite begging, but not to be refused. The firm shoulder clasp of a healer on her shoulder. "Xena," almost a prayer. "I'll be fine.")
Gabrielle's voice caught as she addressed what she considered to be the real problem "If you'd just asked, Xena wouldn't be,"
"Gabrielle," Cyrene began, her voice soft with her own agony and self recrimination. Xena's injury was the last thing she'd thought would happen. Then her eyes fell on two very miserable Amazons. Arete's arms were wrapped protectively around a distraught Kalai. No, that wasn't true, Cyrene thought. The tie was the last thing she thought would happen. "Be reasonable."
"I AM being reasonable." Gabrielle intoned. "I am being very reasonable considering this whole stupid mess."
"But the four of you can't." Hecuba started.
Gabrielle brought herself up to her full Queenly height and her eyes flashed. "Oh YES, we can," the queen spoke very firmly, "*I* am the *Queen* of the Amazons and *They* are my legal consorts thanks to your efforts." She pointed at the blonde and the brunette and the mothers flinched. "The only thing lacking now is the joining ceremony. And I intend to meet my obligations in," her voice drawled suggestively, "All Ways."
The mothers gasped in shock at her implied meaning. Hecuba recognized that stubborn look and knew that the red head wouldn't budge from her decision. *Good Gods, what had they done!* She tried another way, "But darling what will people think?"
Gabrielle's nostrils flared, "They will *think* that our *mothers* interfered!" She turned away abruptly as the two women exchanged a shamed look. Both of them held the same thought, *How could this have gone so badly. It had been such a perfect plan.*
Gabrielle walked back to the woeful Amazons and softly spoke to them. Her voice comforting and benevolent. One hand rested gently on Kalai's shoulder and the other about Arete's waist. Her face was full of compassion and gratitude. "Thank you so much for what you did," she spoke from the heart and looked into soft, worried green eyes. Then she looked into wet brown eyes.
The Queen gently wiped a tear away from Kalai's face. "Xena will be alright." She comforted, "thanks to your efforts." Arete winced. She could still hear the healers swearing at her for letting Xena run that last little bit. Arete bit her lip.
"I shouldn't have let her run," the blonde said guiltily.
Gabrielle snickered, "She would have jumped out of your arms anyway. There was no letting or not letting. Xena makes up her own mind about these things." She smiled gently. "And she made up her mind about you, for whatever reason." Though, she made a mental note, she was going to pry that information out of her warrior as soon as possible. She gazed kindly at them, "Tomorrow we will be joined and I could wish for no others," *What was Xena thinking?* "and tonight the issue will be addressed formally. Be prepared." They both nodded solemnly. Too solemnly, in Gabrielle's opinion, and in that thought she believed she understood.
Gabrielle's smile changed to one of amiable seduction. It caused Kalai to gasp and Arete to blink. The Queen deliberately caressed Kalai's face and leaned forward to kiss her. Her mouth pressed gently. Kalai's eyes opened wide in surprise. Then the Queen stood on her toes and pulled the blonde's face down and did the same. She grinned at both of them and did the little headshake that meant, "look."
The Amazons looked carefully in the direction that she indicated and saw two mothers having heart palpitations (or something really close to it). Arete felt an amused grin starting to over take her face. Kalai's expression lightened considerably. Gabrielle spoke again, her voice still soft, "So, do you think you can be prepared." Arete snuck another glance at the mothers, grinned and nodded. Kalai just looked at Gabrielle with admiration. Gabrielle leaned in and said, "Let's put a joyful face on this. I want the Amazons to be proud," she tightened her hold on the two in her arms, "as they very well should be," then she shot a subtle look at the two mothers, "and I want my mothers to think twice the next time they get the notion to interfere." She had been so mad when they'd practically pounced on her to describe the joining ceremony they had planned. They'd been so confident of Xena's win, they hadn't even waited to see the outcome. Gabrielle suspected she knew what Xena's reasoning was. She squeezed her new consorts tight. "Now this," she spoke very very discreetly, "is going to be rich." Then she turned around and smiled sweetly at her mother and Xena's, all traces of anger gone.
The healers looked at each other in confusion. "That was the most incredible thing I have ever seen." the woman said quietly to her compatriot as they walked out of the room.
"I know. Not a peep." The other healer looked back at the room.
"Not till it was done anyway."
"It had to have hurt. I mean, I know it did," there was a nod.
They both looked at each other, "Then what was she laughing at?" All they could do was shrug.
Meg thought of herself as a strong woman. After all, she had survived the streets on her own for a very long time. But a part of her wept, though she was dry eyed. She knew that because of prompt attention Joxer's injury was not deadly, but it didn't make it any less serious. He shouldn't have been hurt in the first place. She thought of the bastard who wounded Joxer and held back the growl of fury that threatened to overtake her. She clenched her hand in a fist and held it against Toris' warm chest.
Toris held her tightly, but not too firmly, his own face grim. They waited outside the healers' hut, along with everyone else whose loved one had gotten smacked, jabbed or mauled during the competition. Toris whispered soothingly into her ear and stroked her back comfortingly. He closed his own eyes against the rage that threatened to consume him. His sister wasn't the only one with a temper. It was lucky the Amazons had Maphaus jailed or very likely Toris would have finished what Xena started. It was good to have Meg so close. She gave him a reason not to go barreling to the jail creating havoc and something useful to do while they waited on the healer.
One of the healers, a local, called them in next. His voice was reassuring. "He'll be fine," he said as he led them to the wounded man. Joxer smiled, though his face was etched with pain. His shoulder was wrapped securely and his arm was in a sling. He gave a weak wave with his free hand. The adventurer hadn't complained once during the procedure, which the healers hand appreciated, though he had cried out at the worst parts. The healer continued, "We'd rather not move him, but we have to. There are too many others and the hut is getting crowded. If you could take him back to his room," he started.
"He's coming with me," Toris interrupted decisively as he released Meg gently and then wrapped his arm around Joxer to help the man down from the table. Toris' gaze fell on Meg who looked like she felt a little displaced, "Come Meg, let's take him home." Meg's heart lurched at Toris' tone of voice. There was something hovering in the way he said those words, that sent her mind reeling, but she nodded as firmly as he spoke and made the first move towards the door of the hut.
Meg sat on the side of the bed, holding Joxer's free hand and speaking quietly. "It's my turn at the fires, else I'd stay." She wanted to stay, very badly. The thought of leaving him any time soon put a tug in her heart. Joxer smiled wanly.
"It's okay Meg, I'm just glad that you're not mad at me any more."
Meg smiled, "It's hard to stay mad at you Joxer. It always has been." She looked at his long face and caressed his chin. Then she gave him a light kiss. "I'd better go."
The door clicked shut, startling them both. Toris voice was a discreet rumble, "I talked with the head cook. You can stay if you like." Blue eyes met blue eyes for long seconds. Meg nodded.
"I would like that." she breathed.
Toris' solemn expression softened. Then he walked further into his room and laid several items, including Joxer' sword, neatly on top of the dresser. "Joxer, I've moved your stuff. I hope you don't mind." He said carefully.
Joxer spoke, his words sounding loud in his ears. "I don't mind." Toris and Meg jumped a little, "And you don't have to keep whispering." He nodded at his shoulder, "I was hurt in the shoulder, not my head." Xena's brother and look-a-like stared at Joxer. Then Meg started grinning.
"All right then," she said at her normal tone of voice, "remember you asked for it." Joxer grinned. Toris laughed.
It was the most natural thing in the world. Toris had stepped out for a moment to check on his sister. He came back, knowing the outrageous outcome of the race and that Xena was okay, if a little sore, to find Meg curled up against Joxer, her face resting on his chest, her eyes closed, her breathing deep and even. Both of them were asleep. Watching them tapped something responsive in Toris. He found himself climbing onto the bed himself, laying on his side by Meg, his chest pressed against her back so as to avoid hurting Joxer (it would have been hurtful if he had tried laying on the other side of the man), wrapping a strong arm up around the woman's waist and laying a flat palm on Joxer's firm abdomen. It was almost no time before his own eyes closed to their even breathing and he soon joined them in slumber.
Meg's awoke to warmth on her back and warmth on her front. She had a funny sense of deja vu, because she'd been in like circumstances before, though not so pleasant or welcome. Okay, maybe very pleasant and welcome. She couldn't claim in anyway to be a virgin spinster. But this was a different circumstance. She knew she had to do some quick decision making. She also knew that neither individual was awake, though one was aroused.
"Toris!" she whispered. The man mumbled and cuddled closer. Meg pursed her lips and then tried again. She moved her hand and patted his backside, "Toris!" Now his face was in her hair and she had now doubt of what his body wanted. She rolled her eyes and thought. She didn't want to wake Joxer unnecessarily and she didn't want to make a big deal out of this. She decided that maybe by turning around it would make Toris do the same.
But now Toris' eyes were wide open. He started to pull back, embarrassed. "Meg," he began in chagrined apology. That made her decision for her. He knew who she was, even half asleep. Her mouth found his before he could utter another word and she rolled him over, intending to put him flat on his back. They fell off the bed in a noisy lump.
They looked at each other in shocked surprise and then Meg did a quick look see, raising her tousled head above the bed. Joxer was still asleep. She leaned back down, her hips straddling his waist and grinned at an abashed, but not too much so, Toris. She let her hands caress his chest as her lips made electric contact with his again. Then she sat up, grabbed the hem of her blouse and lifted it over her head in one easy, seductive motion.
Her smile was dazzling. Toris stared at her in awe. His wide hands moved up to cup her warm full breasts. "Meg," he whispered worshipfully, "you are beautiful." He waited, not knowing quite what to do, yet knowing it couldn't be much different than what he already knew. But he was aware that each experience was unique. And he'd never been with a woman before for reasons too subtle for him to understand or even want to think about hard. He bit his lip and looked at Meg hesitantly, wondering that it should be this woman who could lay claim to him, just as Joxer had. Meg's pale blue eye's widened in acute understanding. She cast one more look at the wounded soul sleeping blissfully, the pain fading from his face, then she looked back down. "Here," she spoke compassionately as she guided Toris' hands, "let me show you."
Joxer awoke to the warm leggy embrace of a tranquil-eyed Meg who was being cuddled from behind by a serene Toris, both of whom were wearing a whole lot of nothing and smelled remarkably like each other. He couldn't help grinning, despite the pain of his shoulder. Cherise had been right. He was a very lucky man.
The healers told them that Xena, while she needed rest, could be safely moved and could attend the dance, so long as she didn't stand up and boogie on a leg that didn't support her. The warrior princess had no problem with that. Arete would have carried her out of the hut, but Xena declined gracefully. She left the hut under her own power. On crutches, but by herself.
Now that Xena was officially, up to a certain point, one of her consorts, Gabrielle decided there was no more sleeping alone. She asked the warrior which would be easier, Xena in her room or her in Xena's room. The raven haired beauty grinned and shrugged. It didn't matter to her as long as they could be together. Arete suggested that they check the height of the beds before deciding, since Xena would have to deal with the way her hip moved. Kalai suggested that privy location might also be a consideration. Xena couldn't believe she was discussing this with them, yet it made perfect sense. It was, after all, part of their duty now. It ended up being a moot point, since none of them stayed in their previously arranged rooms. The Amazons had been busy.
They ended up being directed by serious faced Amazons to two rooms with adjoining doors. Cyrene designed the room for the larger families who very occasionally traveled through their town (you know for family reunions and the like). All of women's belongings had been moved. Arete's and Kalai's into one good sized room and Gabrielle and Xena's into the other. Arete helped Xena settle onto the very roomy bed. Her eyes sparkled with good humor.
Kalai played with the door that connected their rooms and noted that it locked on either side. For some reason, this gave her the giggles. Gabrielle stared at the room arrangements and shook her head. "Well, seems they have this all figured out for us, doesn't it." A funny noise came from Xena's direction. At first Gabrielle didn't know what it was, then she realized that the warrior was laughing so hard she couldn't vocalize. In fact her whole body was crunched up, save for her one leg and tears were rolling down her face.
Gabrielle got worried and rushed to the warrior's side, "Xena?" She laid her hand gently on the prone leg, "Xena?!"
Xena kept trying to catch her breath, her eyes full of merriment. "They're keeping us decent." She was finally able to say. "Socially acceptable. They put us in the Family Room!" Xena fell into another fit of chortles. "Gods the looks on their faces when we crossed the line!" Xena gave out a full belly laugh.
Gabrielle looked astonished! "You Knew!"
Xena grabbed her love's hand, "I saw Cherise showing you the book and figured it out while Arete was carrying me. They set us up. I figured I'd give them something to stew about. See how they would handle it."
Gabrielle looked at Kalai and Arete and they grinned at each other. "There's something you should know Xena." Gabrielle began to explain.
The dance was better attended than one would have expected. Of course a few of the attendees were injured, but most were not and the party seemed to be in full swing by the time the Queen and her consorts arrived. Xena had refused the crutch and walked with the support of Gabrielle's arm, though it looked like it was actually the other way around. The beautiful Kalai was escorted by an elegant Arete. They were all dressed in high Amazon fashion, save for Xena, who wore her newly repaired leather and armor. Of course they looked magnificent.
Things slowed for their entrance, but Gabrielle was quick to start up the festivities again. She sat, once again upon a dais, but this time there was a chair by hers and two others just down and to the side. The guards stood to the sides of those two chairs. Gabrielle leaned over to Xena, "Do you ever wonder how they do this so quickly." Xena shrugged and grinned.
"I never worry about it as long as it works," she said as she settled herself into a comfortable position. Her expression was very minutely pained and only someone who knew her very well would know that she suffered.
Gabrielle looked concerned. She knew that expression meant that Xena hurt a lot. "Would you like some port love?" Xena smiled gratefully and Gabrielle made the signal.
Xena sipped her drink and gazed over the dance with watchful eyes. She grinned into her cup when she saw what she was looking for. She waited for Gabrielle to finish what she was saying to Kalai before inserting a few simple words. "They're here."
Gabrielle grinned over at Xena and gave her a wink. Then she nodded to Kalai. "You ready?"
The wiry Amazon grinned, "very." The queen and her consort stepped off the dais and entered the dance.
The music was fast and held a sensuous beat that Gabrielle and Kalai took full advantage of. Xena watched with amused eyes the mother's expressions went through several alterations from astonishment to scandalized. Then she signaled the blonde Amazon when she thought the rhythm was taking a new turn. "Show 'em your stuff Arete." The strong Amazon practically hopped off the dais to add her own body to the hypnotic mixture. Soon Gabrielle was part of what seemed to be a very erotic sandwich that happened to be part of a dance.
Meanwhile the warrior princess looked like she was the aristocratic voyeur who enjoyed watching her lover play. But, from Xena's point of view she was only keeping her goals simple. She was going to sip her port and try not burst out laughing.
The music changed to something slow and heartwarming. The three stayed out on the dance floor, dancing close together in what was almost simply a moving group hug, again with Gabrielle quite apparently in the middle. They seemed to be talking and laughing up a storm. At one point Arete broke away, allowing Gabrielle to turn and pull Kalai into a dance embrace. She made her way to the dais. Her green eyes were warm, "Xena, Gabrielle says that the dance is slow enough, if you feel up to it. She would like very much to dance with you."
Xena thought about it, set her port on the arm rest and accepted Arete's extended grasp. The warrior walked Xena slowly to the where Gabrielle danced with Kalai and then they blended into the dance, so that it seemed, at first that all four of them danced together, then they partnered off. Xena danced with Gabrielle, their bodies moving in slow voluptuous movements. The warrior princess took the time to whisper something teasing into her love's ear, something that lit up her face like a lantern. Then they switched partners in that same slow motion, with Kalai ending up in Xena's arms and Gabrielle in Arete's. Again there were the simple movements that spoke of heightened senses and erotic pleasure. Again Xena whispered something that seemed to light up the face of her partner (in this case it was a sort of, "You done good," phrase.) Then they switched again and Xena was faced with the tall, gentle Arete who simply offered her body as a support. The final moments of the dance were much easier on Xena's body. This time the only thing Xena whispered was, "Thank you Arete."
There were two purposes for the way they danced. One was to send a message to their parents and the matchmaker. The other was to send a message demonstrating unity. It worked. Those who payed attention saw that they were amiable partners (and some even speculated that they were more than just amiable) and so they took that to mean that all was well and worries about potential trouble and political rifts were effectively nipped.
After the display, Xena settled back to watch and didn't worry about dancing. As the dance progressed she was joined by a weary Amazon compatriot or her sweetheart when they were ready to rest. Always she greeted them with smiles and friendly words. After a certain point, Xena could not keep the grin off of her face. She had kept careful watch to see that those for whom the message was intended received it. And they had, loud and clear. There was one other thing that Xena noticed. Joxer, Meg and Toris never showed up.
Cherise waited for her moment. The dance was finally winding down and it was time to make the announcement. She looked elegant. Her red hair was piled attractively on her head. She wore a simple green dress that complimented her eyes and skin that seemed to wrap itself around her like a lover. Her jewelry seemed to catch the fire and hold it. This was usually the time she loved, though this time she felt quite ambivalent. She looked at Iolaus, who waved her on cheerfully, then she took the stand.
First she thanked everyone for participating in the dance, then she thanked all of the candidates for their fine performances, and then finally she made the announcement of the winners. Her face remained calm and pleasant. Then she made the next announcement. "The joining will occur tomorrow evening in the temple. The high priestess will conduct the ceremony." Gabrielle looked at Xena. Xena squeezed her hand reassuringly and looked thoughtful. Then Cherise smile brightly, " Anyone who attends is to wear formal attire. Afterwards we will celebrate." Cheers erupted from the crowd. Cherise stepped smartly down from the stage and nodded at the instrumentalists to continue.
With the formal announcement made, Gabrielle and Xena felt free to leave a little early. Arete and Kalai were still having a fine time at the dance so they stayed and partied. They gave hugs and bid each other good night.
"Talk about complicated," Gabrielle said as she helped her lover undress. "I kept waiting for Cherise to tell us all that there was going to have to be another contest or something. I mean that would have made sense. Though you couldn't have competed," Gabrielle's voice trailed off, "and I guess I would have been upset." Xena raised her eyebrows, but her face remained neutral. Gabrielle lifted the leather shift off carefully and watched how Xena's supple muscles moved. Gods she loved this part of the day. She'd really missed it. "Now there really is going to be a joining ceremony." The bard bit her lower lip, her hazel eyes concerned. "What are we going to do?"
Xena patted the bed besides her. "Come here."
"But, I'm not done with your boots," bard said as she began unlacing.
"Gabrielle." Xena's voice was a low purr that caused the red head to tingle all over. Gabrielle looked up and was caught in the snare of Xena's gaze. "Come sit by me."
Gabrielle set Xena's foot down and scrambled to the spot indicated. Xena smiled indulgently and when the bard was settled down she took hold of Gabrielle's hand. "Are you really that worried?" she asked as she gazed into hazel eyes that were fast changing colors. Xena leaned forward and covered the bard's mouth with her own. "If you are really that concerned," she started, her voice causing Gabrielle's lips to vibrate, "I'm sure we can. . .work. . something out." Her mouth did things to Gabrielle's mouth that had the bard closing her eyes and moaning within seconds. Xena pulled back, her gaze was still even. Her voice was soft, "Maybe you need to do your bard thing Gabrielle."
Gabrielle was still in erotic heaven and didn't quite register what Xena said, "bard thing?" she mumbled.
Xena grinned, "mmhmm. You know, listing out advantages and disadvantages. Then," Xena laid back against some available pillows, "you can tell me what your concerns are, if any, and we can make some decisions. I will offer this observation." Xena stroked the bard's arm softly, "both Arete and Kalai seem very clear on one thing."
Gabrielle's expression was finally unfogging. She blinked back into the world, "What's that?"
Xena grinned as she deliberately leaned up and kissed Gabrielle again, this time feeling one of Gabrielle's breasts with her hand. "whatever happens, they *know* you are mine." Gabrielle's response was a mixture of aroused pleasure and understanding.
A few minutes later, Xena was in a clean shift, sitting upright on the bed, comfortably settled against some pillows. Gabrielle was likewise dressed, except she was comfortably settled against Xena, her quill tapping against her chin as she thought. Her tongue stuck out at the side of her mouth through closed lips in that expression that spoke of intense concentration. Xena simply held her and listened as she talked out loud.
It was turning into a very uneven list, with the pros of the relationship far outweighing the cons. As queen she had to take into consideration the political implications of having three consorts, but she also knew that it actually would e solidify her position. Only the wealthy and the powerful could maintain three lovers at the same time. That would be the silent message people would get anyway. It's just that, unlike certain statesmen and kings she could name, hers would be acknowledged and legal. It gave her leverage. Of course there would be detractors. That could be bad. But Amazons already had plenty of those. There might even be those who objected within the Amazonian ranks. That would have to be addressed.
But she wouldn't even be in this quandary if it weren't for an outdated law, which meant she could maybe put this experience to good use and demonstrate that maybe it was time to reevaluate some of those antiquated laws and ideas and change them (Xena groaned at this one, envisioning a long stay at the Amazon capitol. Gabrielle just grinned and said, "Hey, you started it.")
Other benefits included having trustworthy people to help Ephiny while she was away and they were astute observers and thinkers. That was good. She'd found their discussion very enlightening last night. Also, they had a good sense of humor. Xena's smile broadened, "compatible. Definitely compatible." The pro part of the list kept getting longer and longer as Gabrielle listed out the various good qualities of Kalai and Arete. They were smart, quick, honest, intelligent, capable, nonthreatening. .
"Nonthreatening? Did you happen to see Arete lift that bench Gabrielle."
"Yeah, but she picked up Joxer really gently. She uses her strength wisely."
. . .compassionate "Kalai was really upset you were hurt Xena. I think she'd have rather it'd been her."
"I like her."
"Put that on the list."
. .we like them. . .savvy . . .
"They caught on quick."
"Ah." . . .genuine. . .
They were Amazons. That was always a plus.
Gabrielle decided to tease Xena. "Sexy. Their kisses are sweet."
Xena closed her eyes and squeezed Gabrielle's shoulder, "mmhmm."
Now that wasn't the reaction she was expecting. Gabrielle turned around, "You mean you've kissed them? I thought only I," she started
"Arete kissed me the other day."
Gabrielle blinked, "She did?"
Xena nodded and opened her eyes. They held a smoky passion. "Oh yes and it was sweet."
"It was?" Gabrielle's mouth went dry.
"It was very nice." Xena's deliberately shifted her gaze to rosy lips. "Different than yours."
"Different," the bard felt caught again. She licked her lips.
They were in that moment when the heart beats a little faster and the breathing moves to catch up. Xena slowly removed the quill and the scroll from limp fingers. Gabrielle swallowed as she tried to gain a sense of self control, "Xena you are supposed to be resting. It's not like we do this every day or we have to, I mean. You're hurt for Zeus' sake."
"You are very right. We don't have to, and we don't do this every day. But that doesn't mean we can't when we want to and besides," Xena grinned wickedly, "I'm not that hurt." She tapped the bard's chin, "Besides, you are better than any medicine they could come up with." Gabrielle looked doubtful. "Don't worry, I don't expect you to do anything to me. I can be good that way." the bard looked a little disappointed, "But, they never said you couldn't be," Xena's expression turned amorous and she licked her lips, "my sweet,"
"Sweet?" Gabrielle's eyes went wide and her skin flushed.
"Very sweet." Xena affirmed. She licked Gabrielle's lovely face in such a way that the bard moaned, "dessert." She trailed kisses across the line of Gabrielle's jaw and up to her earlobe, "I want to taste you," Xena breathed hotly against the bard's sensitized skin. "I love the way you taste." Gabrielle felt her center grow warm and moist.
"Are you sure?" she whispered, not quite coherently.
"Oh," Xena purred as she liberated the bard from the chemise, "I am very sure."
After a certain amount of time in which kisses and touches had been exchanged with tender fervor, Xena while still in an almost prone position, was relishing the sweet elixir of her lover with restrained abandon. Gabrielle, who straddled Xena in such a way as to allow for really easy access, on the other hand experienced almost no restraint at all in her head long rush to orgasmic release, which thrilled her warrior no end. It was probably a good thing the band was so loud.
Later, the bard, being the clever and talented woman she was, figured out a way for Xena to also experience that joy, only a little more carefully. But that was just the fun part. The best part was afterwards when they could cuddle and for the first night in several they actually got some real sleep.
Arete's arm was wrapped comfortably around Kalai's waist as they walked, escorted by a member of the Queen's guard, back to their room. Vera, who was guarding Xena and Gabrielle's room nodded pleasantly at one of the newer Amazon arrivals who'd been picked for duty. Solari had this niggling worry, so she'd made some quick executive decisions. She knew that Arete and Kalai were very capable Amazons, but she also knew that their status had changed and while she might not have the guard placed as tightly around them as she did the queen, she wanted to be sure that at least the formalities were followed. Especially at this awkward time. As they entered their room, the guard bowed and then left. One Amazon at the doors should be sufficient for the night.
Kalai stepped out of Arete's embrace and grinned up at the ceiling. "Oh Artemis! That was fun." She could still feel the rhythm of the drums in her blood. *boom boom du boom, boom boom du boom* She turned, grinned at Arete and pointed, "and who knew you could dance! I've never seen you do that." Kalai did a body motion that she'd seen the blonde perform.
Arete smiled patiently, her eyes glinting with humor, "you just were never able to stay up that late before." she said as she made her way to the water pitcher. Her hands shook a little and she turned her body so the younger Amazon couldn't see. For some reason she felt very thirsty, though she'd had little in the way of spirits to drink.
Kalai's mouth dropped and she laughed, "Oh! Oh! Hey, I am *not* that young." She pointed at her chest, "My rite was held several years ago I'll have you know. Just because I'm not as tall as you doesn't mean that I haven't had a bit of experience under my belt."
Arete kept her attention on pouring the water into her cup. "I will keep that in mind Kalai." She spoke gently. The brown eyed Amazon continued to grin behind the blonde's back.
Kalai's attention wandered the room and settled on the bed. "Hey Arete?"
"Yes?" she said as she turned around while sipping from her cup.
"I get the left side." Arete swallowed wrong and coughed out the water. The brunette stared at the strong Amazon in perplexed amazement. "Are you all right." Arete coughed some more and did that distracted I'm suffering but I'm fine hand wave. Kalai went over and thumped the Amazon on the back until Arete was able to stand upright again. Arete blinked back cough tears and decided she needed to sit down.
"Where's a chair when you need one?"
Kalai snorted, "I guess they figured the bed was plenty large enough."
Arete grinned wryly at the young woman. "I guess so." She was grateful she hadn't been sipping water again. The blonde sat down carefully, holding her cup in two hands. She looked thoughtfully at the young woman who had so suddenly come into her life. "Kalai?"
Kalai had been looking at the drapes, thinking that the color matched Arete's eyes. She turned around, "Yeah?"
"You think you can tolerate me for a year?" Kalai stood open mouthed for a few seconds. Then she paced to the bed and sat down besides the warrior. She looked at Arete with a new kind of understanding.
"You know, I hadn't even thought about it. I didn't expect,"
"Cherise to announce it?"
"yeah, I thought she'd call council or something. I mean, I figured she was just being nice and letting people have a dance and then tomorrow, you know the joke would be over."
An idea formed in her head, "Do you think Gabrielle will," Kalai blushed, "I mean, how seriously do you think she,"
If Kalai had been the one holding the cup, it would have been all over the floor. "What?"
"They share. I mean," Arete's eyes were very sincere, so Kalai knew she wasn't lying, "They are definitely," She demonstrated with her hands, "one. You know. They belong to each other and there is NO doubt and I wouldn't want to challenge Xena about Gabrielle in any way," Arete's face did a funny little movement, "but, they share."
Kalai sat back down on the bed, her mind reeling. "I thought," she hesitated, "she was playing around. I mean joking, with her mother."
"But, I just thought you ought to know, the possibility. just in case, though probably they won't, but," Arete looked carefully at the young warrior, "You know, so you wouldn't be surprised or judge or,"
"Hey, I would never," Kalai spoke indignantly, "judge. Not the Queen. I mean, they never approached anyone at the village, that I know of. Have you heard?" Arete shook her head in the negative, "So they must be very careful. Selective." Arete looked thoughtful and wondered about that, but then she considered again and nodded, "and it's not like Gabrielle had a choice in this."
Kalai went silent then spoke softly, "and they are so," her voice caught, "so,"
"In their own ways, differently."
"And Xena." Just the way she said the warrior's name said it all.
Arete exhaled a breathe and nodded sincerely. Her own voice added worshipfully, "Gabrielle." Kalai nodded
"I would like it if," Kalai found herself admitting.
Arete looked seriously at the young one, "Me too."
They stared at each other for long seconds, then back at the floor. Then Kalai began to chuckle.
"What?" "Gods, you know, when they say you better watch what you ask for?"
"yeah?" Arete answered carefully.
"Damn if they don't mean it." Arete looked startled, then she began to giggle and soon they were both guffawing and holding on to each other through some serious chortles. And when they calmed down they found themselves gazing through misty eyes at each other.
Arete's hand gently stroked Kalai's cheek. Her green eyes shined. "I think you are beautiful," she said softly. Kalai blushed but didn't move her gaze. "I like the way you think and how you make me laugh," the blonde continued. "Kalai?"
"I just wanted you to know."
"I don't think you are too young at all." Arete, who was not that much older, waited as her heart beat slammed in her ears. Then her mind rested at the answering flicker in Kalai's brown pools of light and she felt her face being dragged by warm hands into a lingering kiss so dazzling sweet that it rolled like liquid fire through both of them. They pulled away from each other with gently shocked expressions playing on their faces. There was an instant, mutual decision to experiment with that kiss again. Lips touched against lips and that gushing spark thrilled through them again.
There was no going back after that. Mouths and tongues and hands and bodies had to explore and be explored. Arete was gentle, fearing that her strength might hurt her new love. But that was only right up until Kalai demanded more by demonstrating that she was stronger than she looked. Then they made love with passionate and responsive surrender to each other's needs. Kalai found while she may have had some experience under her belt, that Arete was an affectionate teacher of a few things that she might have missed. Arete found Kalai's vigor to be stimulating beyond expectation and their first time proved not to be the last at all.
They finally, some point deep into the very early dark of the morning, crested into a deep cuddlesome sleep. By that time, Kalai didn't care what side of the bed she was on, as long as it was with Arete.
The man called Maphaus had never been so angry and offended in his life. He raged against being captured by Amazons. He glared at the chains on his feet as if that would somehow make them disappear. Then he banged his body against the wall in a fit. That was a mistake. It jarred his wrist, which though supported by a splint, felt the effects of his body movement. He winced in pain.
So close. They had been so close. It had been such a perfect plan. He and Drakaus, with the aid of a few others, had taken the persona of some invited candidates. Too bad those men had to sacrifice their lives, but it was for a good cause. All he and his cohort had to do was gain the ear of the queen and it would have solved everything. Either he (through his intelligence) or Drakaus (through his body) would have charmed that girl queen or else cowed her into submission. Then, they would have been able to remove those pesky Amazons from off their land. For two hundred years his people had had to make do with less fertile ground and with being neighbors to those. . he couldn't pick the right word there were so many invectives flying through his head. He stomped his feet in frustration, making the chain rattle and his wrist scream in pain (funny how one little hurt part could affect the whole body).
Maphaus had his own ideas about the natural operations of life. It had galled him to think that he had been beaten by a woman (and he just knew that women should not being carrying swords or have a swagger or live on their own (unless they were elderly widowed) or be (he nearly gagged) married to each other or . . oh he could go on and on). And now, and now, this outrageous unnatural tie. Gods they were all unnatural. His mind drifted to orgiastic hedonism as he visualized the women together, skin against skin, putting the very worst spin possible on the idea. His whole body twisted into knots at the thought of four women being joined. They shouldn't be allowed. It was wrong.
Now if Gabrielle had been a man, he might have understood it. It would have given him a bit of emotional leverage and supported his idea of men being better formed, more true to the image of the gods; the old men that is, the ones before Zeus meddled and created Pandora. (Despite evidence that women had been around as long as men, he totally believed that Zeus created Pandora to punish men and put misery on the earth. He lived by that belief.) Plus the women would have been in their place, the natural order of life would be followed. Or if he had been part of the tie, then maybe it wouldn't have been quite so unnatural. Oh surely the gods didn't, wouldn't approve of this. Maphaus, grew more and more determined that he was correct, based on his vision of what was natural (based on his mythology), what was right (since he figured he knew), how he would feel if he were a woman (and there were a boatload of assumptions he held) and how he felt as a man (we won't even go there). In fact, the more sure he became the more holy he felt, until he was caught up in a vision of godly retribution (especially for that Xena woman) with himself at the center.
All he had to do was escape.
Rumors and opinions flew and it was only the next morning.
They were sleeping together. They were just really close friends. They hardly knew each other. They were trying to fake out their mothers. They weren't going to be joined. They were going to be joined. The gods wouldn't allow it. The gods would be for it. It was unnatural (funny how that word kept coming up). It was very natural. Four women! Two couples. One group? Sex. Oooh Sex. Oh Gods, not Sex. . Gross. Jealousy. Hers. Independent woman in her own right. How could they? Possessive. Sluts. Good people. Consorts. Power. Stamina? Mind outta the gutter. What's wrong with the gutter? Did you see them at the dance? Ah, they were joking. Didn't look like a joke to me. Man, do you even have eyes in your head. Made for each other. Wonder what it would be like and on and on and on. Everyone had an opinion, especially the Amazons.
By the time Gabrielle stepped out of the room, with her armed escort there were several Amazon types who made their presence known and demanded her attention (because they were right and they knew it). Eponin barked at them and made them back up. Gabrielle took a deep breath, because this was one of the things she'd anticipated and she told them, not very sweetly, that if they were bound and determined to get her attention in the morning then they were going to have to wait till after breakfast. Then she told them, in very Queenly terms, to buzz off. Some got offended, but she was the Queen, and by darn, they would get over it.
Xena had been up for some time already, had given Argo a good run and had talked with her very concerned and apologetic mother. "They're talking about you. You know?"
Xena's mouth had quirked, "They have always talked about me."
"But Gabrielle," her mother tried.
"Is a strong woman who has also been talked about before."
"She has. Not everyone was thrilled that she was made Queen."
"But this will be fuel for the fire."
Xena smiled, "or it may make the Amazons stronger." She finished unsaddling Argo, "The Amazons have some choices to make don't they. They can abide by their own laws or not. They can learn from this or not. They can choose not to ask and believe whatever rumors are flying about town. They can believe the worst or the best. They can do whatever the tartarus they want." She began brushing Argo down. "But they can not change the fact that I love Gabrielle. Nor can they change the fact that she loves me. Nor can they change the fact that the race was a tie and Gabrielle is bound by their laws to honor it." She took a breath and spoke carefully, neutrally, "Nor can they change the fact that Kalai and Arete, who happen to be two very outstanding Amazons, are to be her consorts, by *their* law. They will just have to deal." Xena sighed and stopped brushing, "As will I." There was a pause, then she turned to look at her mother, her face sparkling with humor, "so, tell me. Did *you* enjoy the dance?"
Arete and Kalai joined the Queen for breakfast, and that was the saving grace, because they entered the room so proudly, so happily that people could just feel the energy vibrating off of the new couple. They bowed to their queen, very respectfully. Gabrielle greeted them with smiles and hugs and a couple of kisses to the cheeks and bade them sit. Arete gallantly guided Kalai to her seat, then settled down herself. Then they began to talk and laugh and plan and discuss and motivate and kid and simply enjoy each others company. And seeing the genial and (mostly) dignified display of the two Amazons and their Queen, those who had been waiting around to tell Gabrielle how wrong and terrible this all was suddenly remembered courtesy and were kind of humbled because the only fault they could find was their own.
Gabrielle was true to her word, when they were finished eating, she said she was ready to have audience with those who wished to address her. Eponin suggested that they move some tables around and a few chairs, so that people could get comfortable and so Kalai and Arete could sit on the right and left of her. (Kalai leaned back on her chair and caught Arete's gaze and whispered, "They didn't tell me I'd have to stay for the boring stuff." Gabrielle grinned because she heard Arete's response, "Who says it's gonna be boring." She didn't think it was going to be either.
Just as they were getting ready to get settled, there was a cry from the kitchen entrance to wait a second. Gabrielle looked up to see Meg bringing out a basket of something that smelled delicious. She winked saucily at Arete as she passed by, then smiled benignly at Kalai. Then she set the basket softly on the small table besides the Queen. "Thought you might need a snack later."
Gabrielle's expression softened to wonder, "Nutbread." She opened the cloth to look at the still warm concoctions, "Oh Meg! You are the Best!" Gabrielle stood up and embraced the cook enthusiastically.
Meg whispered, "Keep your chin up." Then she grinned and Gabrielle could feel it. "Don't let them fool you Gabs, you're a lucky gal. That blonde goddess is a diamond, though I don't know about the other."
Gabrielle whispered back, "She is too." Meg squeezed her friend a good one. Then departed with a fluff of her gown and a quick grin to the blonde Amazon who was now sitting slack jawed.
Kalai leaned back again, "Hey, love!" she whispered intensely, capturing the strong warriors attention, "You're catching flies." Arete's mouth snapped shut.
She looked back at the kitchen exit and then at Kalai, "I have to tell you something later." She whispered. Kalai gave her the okay sign. Then the impromptu Queen's court began.
Xena walked in somewhere in the middle and settled at a distance where she could watch. She was impressed. The conversation had turned heated periodically, but Gabrielle remained calm with the adroit assistance of Kalai and the sanguine comments of Arete. The topic, which had started out as "this should not be happening," had developed into a political evaluation of the necessity for addressing changes in the law and tradition of the Amazon nation. The range of the conversation, for that is what it became, addressed most of the points on Gabrielle's list (except for the personal assessments because that would have been inappropriate) and by the time they were done, Gabrielle had won most of the Amazons who were in Amphipolis to her point of view. Which in this case was simple. They would abide by the current law. They would evaluate and change antiquated laws and ideas. It was of political benefit for her to have three consorts at this time (and Kalai's racy interjections seemed to let off a great deal of the emotional steam in the room) because it demonstrated the power and wealth of the nation to those who thought they were just a group of little villages with nothing to say. By the time things wound down, the nutbread had been passed around and someone was showing Gabrielle how to make a love knot.
Then it was time to get ready.
It was warm outside, made warmer still by the press of the bodies of those who had not been able to enter the temple for lack of room. Again there was the atmosphere of festival and frolic among the people gathered. The shade and silence of the temple, however, were refreshing and cool. The women who were to be joined had long ago parted ways for the day, each being taken to a different place for preparation. It was Gabrielle's belief that the preparations had not been all that different. She imagined that Xena had been bathed, oiled and dried by willing hands, much as she had been. There was no doubt that Arete and Kalai had received similar. Now she stood in modest elegance waiting in the wings of a great hall, wearing a flowing green gown, her feet in golden sandals, and her hair brushed to a gold and red shine. There was no other adornment on her body, save the sweet smell of delicate perfume.
There were not many in the hall. Just those they loved and the Amazons. Toris, with a twinkle in his eye, stood by his mother. Joxer and Meg stood in the back, but he could feel their presence as if they stood besides him also. Lila and Herodotus, who had finally arrived that morning, waited gracefully with Gabrielle's mother, who despite everything was truly glad for her wandering daughter. Iolaus stood in front with Cherise. The Amazons took various positions in the back.
There were six doors, one leading out of the temple, one leading farther in and four not quite, but almost at the corners. The priests started filing in quietly from the interior of the temple, until they lined the far wall. There was a gasp from the audience as a lone Amazon wearing the Queen's mask followed the priests and stood in front of the priests, but not blocking the door. There was no doubt that it was Ephiny, though none had heard of her arrival. Then there was another gasp as the Amazon's own high priestess stepped into the room with Amphipolous' high priest. His aged features remained neutral and calm, as did her youthful expression. They both held the staves of their rank, which, when they arrived at a certain point they laid down end to end. There was another gasp as the audience watched the staves link themselves in such a way that there was no break between them and it had become on long pole. Then, a small child, carrying a red satin pillow with four small objects upon it, entered the room and stood between the high priests.
Then the high priests clapped their hands four times and spoke in unison, "Where is the Queen of the Amazon nation?"
Ephiny strode forward, her hips swaying to the powerful cadence of her walk. She walked to the front of the high priests, but not in front of the staff and turned her back on them. Then she paced herself a little bit aways from the high priest and stood in the middle of the presentation space. Her shoulders were back and she stood proudly, as an Amazon should.
Again the priests spoke "Why do you turn your back to us?"
Ephiny knelt on one knee and removed the mask, placing it on the ground in front of her, "I am but the watcher in the Queen's place. I rule, but she reigns."
"Stand up Queen regent and call the four corners."
Ephiny stood up in one swift supple movement. This time she and the high priests clapped their hands four times and Ephiny's voice rang through the hall. "Come East, Come West, Come North, Come South."
It was like a dream, watching them file out. The differences and similarities of the women were striking to behold. Kalai wore a gown similar to Gabrielle's except it was a deep shiny blue (she might have looked uncomfortable in it, except she kept forgetting to feel that way once the ceremony started). Xena wore black leather and golden armor. Arete wore white leather with silver armor. They all looked beyond breathtaking. Somehow they ended up facing each other, with Ephiny in the middle.
Ephiny backed out from between them, but not so far that she stepped over the pole. The priest spoke, "Queen regent, these are they who are to be joined by your law, now is the time of your intercession. Have you any objections?" Ephiny looked at the faces of her friends, whose expressions were not quite neutral, but not revelatory either. She looked out at the audience.
"Are there any here who would speak."
Cherise gulped a little. Her stomach was a nervous flutter. Iolaus gave her a reassuring nod, then she stood forward, "I am the master of the race, I have ought to say."
There was a ripple of noise through the audience. The four women looked a little startled, but not too much so. Ephiny didn't even blink. "Say your piece."
"There is one among them who should be disqualified."
"Who is it?"
"North." Xena looked unnerved. Her hands clenched to her sides and her expression darkened. Surely, she thought as the words she'd uttered in the temple to Gabrielle came flooding back to her in swift memory, the God's would not have counted that morning's occupation. It had been meant to be a private experience, not some public display. She had a moment of fear that she'd really hacked Artemis off.
"Why is it?"
"She brought two treasures to the temple and offered two sacrifices. She broke the rules of the game."
Xena looked like she was about to erupt. Gabrielle looked about equally furious and was blushing. Kalai's eyes went wide and though she looked like she might burst into tears her face held the expression of, you had better not mess with this. Arete started to look a bit menacing herself. But Iolaus spoke fast. Really fast, "HOLD."
"I am the arbiter of the race, I have ought to say."
"Say your piece."
"The gods have made their choice and have ruled. The first offering they have accepted as the true and of the spirit, the other they have rejected and have discounted. They have declared this joining fair." The air around Xena's head, which seemed to be crackling now seemed to gentle into something less fearsome.
"How know you this?"
A slightly balding man stood away from the line of priests, "It was so ruled by the Gods. I have heard." A young priestess also stood away from the line of priests and repeated the same phrase.
"Two witnesses are sufficient," intoned the Queen's regent. "The joining is fair. Are there any more words?" The bodies of the four women seemed to relax.
"I stand down, your majesty." Cherise spoke, glad the whole thing was over. Her heart resumed its normal rate as she took position by Iolaus again. He gave her hand a quick squeeze and she looked down at him gratefully.
Ephiny turned around to face the high priests. Her face was quite serious. " Then so let it be. I have no objections to the joining of the corners." The the Amazon Queen regent did a military turn and marched out of the way. When she had a chance she breathed a sigh of relief gave Solari a wink.
There were four more claps from the high priests, then they commanded the four women to join hands. In this way they formed a circle, with the queens mask in the middle. It was at that time that the audience noticed that there were four different kinds of dark and light between them. Arete's fair hair, Kalai's brown, Gabrielle's red gold and Xena's raven locks. The Amazons in the room began to clue that maybe there was more to this than they had realized.
"Here are the words of the Gods." The old high priest intoned, "the bond once formed can not be broken. The circle is to remain intact, for it is one of power. If one corner is felled it must be filled or the bond will break. Now is the time to change your minds, before the circle is even created." There were wide eyes all around. Xena sighed and looked at her Gabrielle. Kalai looked to Arete. Silent nods were given, thought this was a damn sight more than any of them had expected (you know, they expected a priest to say okay you're together for a year, enjoy life, or something. Certainly not this whole serious thing where they couldn't even tell where it was leading).
"Then," his voice was almost gentle, "so let it be."
The high priestess spoke, "Hear oh Amazons! Hear oh Amazons! These *are* the four corners of the nation. These are the four parts of our being. Hear oh Amazons! These who are bound together by our need will gather us to their hearts, commit us to their spirits, guide us with their minds and liberate us by their deeds. Can there be any who object to the will of the Gods?" There was a huge silence in the temple.
"Then," she spoke very quietly, "so let it be."
Then the high priests spoke their names, "Xena, Gabrielle, Arete, Kalai. North, East, South and West, will you fulfill your duties and obligations to the Amazons forever being faithful and true. Will you accept the call of Artemis and the Gods. Will you accept the bond of joining and its consequences?"
Somehow their voices combined as one solemn invocation of, "yes."
"Then," the high priests spoke, "so let it be."
There was a sudden rumbling on the ground and it shook and shivered and knocked a few about (and this was odd because Amphipolous had not had a recorded earthquake), but the ones joined in the circle moved not at all. As suddenly as it started it stopped and a fearsome wind blew forcing many to move, but those joined in the circle didn't even notice it.. The wind died down and now there was fire, swirling about them, dancing around them and it should have burned them or at least singed them, but those joined in the circle only felt the warmth of their hands joined together. And when the fire surrendered, rain and hail and sleet pelted against them, but where they stood it was dry. And they glowed. They glowed as if the sun's own energy was running through their bodies. Finally when the elements were done, the high priests spoke again.
"This is the power of the circle unbroken."
The mask itself began to glow and it began to rock and tilt and dance until it floated and turned in slow circles within their circle.
"This is the reason for the circle unbroken."
Then the mask reversed its motion and danced its way back down to the floor. The energy around the four seemed to curl its way into their bodies and then faded from normal sight. The four women were taken aback by the sensations they felt, but there was nothing for them to do, but surrender to the moment. Gabrielle cast a quavering look at Xena who smiled reassuringly. They all squeezed each other's hands once or twice. It took a moment for them to hear the high priests' voices again. But when they did, they were being instructed to part and to come stand before the pole.
It followed naturally, from the way they were positioned, that they met at the pole in this formation. Xena, the warrior princess stood by Gabrielle's side, who was next to Arete who stood by Kalai. Xena and Gabrielle stood in front of Amphipolous' high priest. Arete and Kalai were in front of the Amazons' high priestess.
The elderly priest leaned forward and grinned, "Now comes the fun part," he whispered to their astonishment. Then he spoke loudly and gazed out at the crowd, even as he addressed the warrior princess and the bard. "Xena, Gabrielle," he began, "the gods have witnessed your deep devotion and," he turned a couple of shades of red and coughed, "the delight, with which you hold each other in your hearts." He got himself together. "Therefore you are here to declare that devotion in a public ceremony, which none may deny." He stared into Gabrielle's eyes with such intensity that would have backed up if not for Xena's hand at her waist, "Will you, Gabrielle, take Xena to be your mate to meet the the obligations and experience the joys thereof?"
Gabrielle took about half a second to make that decision. "Yes."
Then his piercing gaze turned on the warrior princess, "Will you, Xena, take Gabrielle to be your mate to meet the the obligations and experience the joys thereof?"
The priest could tell there was no doubt in the those blue blue eyes, "Yes."
He smiled widely, "Then step over into your new life as partners in this world." Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other, almost shyly, and as one, stepped over the pole.
Then the Amazon priestess spoke, her voice was soft, her expression one of deep affection. She also could be heard quite clearly, "Arete and Kalai, your love is new and fresh and the Gods would put no demands on it, other than that you take joy in each other, but at this time, if you should so choose, your love may also be publicly recognized." Everyone in the temple watched as the two young lovers made silent communication with each other, their expressions changing rapidly between surprise to one of surety. They turned back to the priestess with knowledge in their eyes. The high priestess smiled, "It is well." She turned to brown eyed Amazon. "Will you, Kalai, take Arete to be your mate to meet the obligations and joys thereof?"
Kalai nodded mutely, swallowed and vocalized, "Yes."
"Will you, Arete, take Kalai to be your mate, to meet the obligations and joys thereof?"
Arete looked happy and proud and spoke firmly, even as she clasped her hand in Kalai's, Her answer was a form of worship. "Yes."
"Then step over into your new life as partners in this world." Kalai found herself grinning at Arete as they stepped over the pole in tandem.
"Now," said the elder priest, catching their attention, "we have here symbols of your joining. These rings will be your emblems and none other may wear it until you pass on to the next life and another must be called. Your left hands please." The priest bent down and picked up one of the rings from the pillow. His hand was a little shaky.
The ring looked to small to fit on anyone's hand, let alone Xena's, but to her surprise, it slipped onto her pinky as easy as you please and felt quite comfortable. She watched as the priest placed the ring's partner on Gabrielle's finger. And then the high priestess conducted the same exercise with Arete and Kalai. The young one was then quietly dismissed and all watched as she exited into the depth of the temple.
The high priests stepped back when they were finished and clapped their hands four times. Ephiny strode forth and retrieved the mask and placed it under her arm, then she went and stood where the acolyte had been.
She spoke articulately, "Queen Gabrielle, it is the tradition of the Amazons that our Queens should have consorts and these consorts should be worthy. These three," and she pointed to all three of them, "have proven themselves worthy in mind, heart, spirit and body. Will you listen to them in wisdom, honor them in love? Will you accept them as your consorts for the next four seasons?"
"Xena, Arete, Kalai. You have won the right to be Queen Gabrielle's consorts for the next four seasons. She will hear your wisdom. She will honor you in love. Will you accept your part as her consorts?"
All three of the leaders spoke in chorus, "Then so let it be."
And that was that.
Things got a little riotous after the joining. There were lots of hugs and kisses that went around and while there was some confusion as to exactly what that joining ceremony meant, everyone was in a party kind of mood and nothing was going to dilute it. The balding priest pulled Xena and Gabrielle aside at an opportune moment, feeling that he needed their attention. He guided them back into the temple, with the intent of just seeing them for the moment.
When they arrived at a fairly secluded spot, considering revelers seemed to be everywhere, even inside the temple, he addressed them. He kept his voice and attitude casual, "So, Xena," he began and he watched as the eyebrows lifted themselves and he felt her penetrating stare. He took a breath and continued, "what did you think of our prissy little ceremony huh?" He had expected to shock her, but instead his volley was returned with a feral smile.
"Oh, I thought it was fine," she purred, "right up until I thought I was going to have to kill somebody."
If the priest had been wearing a robe with a neck, he'd have been tugging on it to loosen it, however he didn't so all he could do was that nervous laugh, "heh." He ahemed, "Well, anyway, uh," he gave her a nervous smile, "the, uh, Gods left several messages for you." He pulled a scroll from his robe and began to read.
"Hey babes! Loved the bracelet! If you keep making me offerings like that you can come see me anytime. Have fun on your honeymoon! -The Ditester" He blushed and said the obvious, "that was from Aphrodite." Gabrielle was smiling widely and hugged her warrior's waist. He continued, "Xena, I still want you, but now I understand what you see in that wench of yours. Now I want you both. You'll see me sometime, but not soon. Enjoy the time off--Ares." Xena blinked, well this was a mixed blessing. Finally the priest got to the part Xena was dreading. "Beloveds," This boded well, "the next time you decide to use my room as a love nest, I want a bracelet like Aphrodite's." Gabrielle turned many shades of red. "You may trust that you may call on me at anytime if you need my aid, my children. Take care of each other--Artemis" The warrior princess and the bard turned to look at each other and grinned. There was a hint of relief in Xena's eyes.
"Oh," said the priest, "I almost forgot." He made a grab for Gabrielle's hand and got it slapped. "Ow." He looked a little indignant. "I was just going to show you something. In case you hadn't noticed yet." Gabrielle gave Xena a humorous look and lifted her hand. The priest very carefully took hold of her hand and showed them the ring. "They're all the same, but you should know that Haphaestus made them." Xena had kind of already figured that out, but didn't say anything. "You will note the four stones embedded in the rings, the see through brown is for earth, the clear deep blue is for air, the ruby red is fire and the opalescent green is for water. So you know. Plus, you see these entwined blue, green strands that are wrapped in silver?" The women nodded, "that represents you. I think. If I understand what Aphrodite was saying. She said to tell you she was sorry you didn't get to pick out the rings and that was her way of making it up to you." They looked at each other and nodded in understanding. The humble man bit his lower lip, "We don't know if these rings actually *do* anything. They're probably just symbolic, but whatever you do, don't lose them."
Xena quirked her mouth as Gabrielle withdrew her hand from the priests so she could examine the ring a little more closely, "Oh, we won't." Gabrielle decided that even if they hadn't been able to pick them out themselves, they were unobtrusively beautiful and she liked them. Xena wrapped an arm around her bard and nodded farewell to the priest, "Come on Gabrielle, let's go." The pretty woman looked up at Xena with a peaceful expression and they left in each others arms.
The party was still going on strong when Xena and Gabrielle retired for the night. Arete and Kalai stayed a little longer then found their way to the family rooms. It was a very sweet night for all of them.
In the morning, after some discussion about what the future held, it was decided that Arete and Kalai would go back with the Amazons to their capitol village . They would act as counselors to Ephiny as needed. There was to be a festival in two months and Xena and Gabrielle would arrive then. First they intended to make a few stops along the way, for Xena felt she had some promises to keep.
Toris introduced Meg and Joxer to his mother (not that she hadn't already met them, but he was introducing them in a different way). Somehow, after watching the events unfold with Xena and Gabrielle, she was able to take his revelation in stride. Especially the part where he said he was moving away from Amphipolous to be at Meg's side. She thought she saw another joining in the making, but she had committed herself to staying out of that particular arena of her children's lives. She didn't trust the outcome if she added any input. So she smiled and welcomed Meg, who looked stunningly like her daughter, and Joxer, who seemed like a nice guy, into her family. When Xena found out, she just laughed and said it was about time. She was glad someone had decided to take the poor man on.
Cherise wrote up the number of successful unions (some more official than others) in her notebooks and determined to keep track of them. She was especially proud of the one with Cynthia and Talus. That had been a stroke of genius. She began thinking about the joining ceremony and wasn't sure what to think. She wasn't sure if the joining meant that they were all married to each other, or if there were two distinct couples or what, but it seemed like they had worked it out themselves. And Joxer. Now that had worked out beyond her plans too. But that happened sometimes. At least he was with the ones he loved. That counted for something. She scanned down the list and crossed out a few names and began sorting through some of her cards looking for some more likely matches for the ones that missed. You couldn't get a hundred percent all the time.
Maphaus escaped, through no effort of his own, during the party. He and a group of nogoodniks beat a hasty exit from Amphipolous and were long gone by the time Apollo began his rounds. On any other occassion Xena would have sped after him, but everyone, especially a very determined Gabrielle convinced her that it was time for a vacation. Maphaus could wait. Of course he plotted revenge and later he would try to take it, but that is a story for another day.
A group of them journeyed back to Potedia, including Gabrielle's nuclear family and Cherise (she just happened to be heading in that direction). She pulled up next to the wagon so she could talk with the Hecuba and they chatted amiably about the wedding events. Hecuba felt she'd learned a real lesson from it and Cherise nodded her head. She had too. They commiserated in a plan that worked to well and then they laughed at each other in a good way. At some point, Hecuba jumped down from the cart so she could stretch her legs and Cherise decided to do the same (though she didn't really need it). "That was some party," the matchmaker said.
"Oh it was incredible. All that food." Hecuba's eyes glowed in fond memory.
"Yes." Cherise nodded as her long legs carried her along the worn path. "And the dancing."
Hecuba flushed in memory of one particular dance, but then slid to thoughts about dancing in general. It had been so romantic when Herodotus had invited her into his arms last night. Why they had even. . .her thoughts started on a tangent.
"Your daughter dances very well."
Hecuba looked up in surprise, "Gabrielle?"
Cherise laughed and it tinkled in the air, "Oh no. She's okay, don't get me wrong, but I wasn't speaking of her. I was talking about Lila. She's very," Cherise tried to find the right word, "supple."
"Oh." Hecuba gave her a pleased and flattered smile. It was always nice to hear good things about your daughters.
"Yep, Lila danced like a nymph. Light and lovely."
"And she is sweet like one too." More pleasant smiles.
Cherise gave Hecuba a nice warm shoulder hug. "Well she seems quite wonderful."
"Oh she is. She's good at almost everything she sets her mind to do."
Hecuba nodded, as her feet made tracks in the ground and her eyes watched the green around her. Her face was animated as she gave Cherise a list of all the wonderful qualities her daughter possessed. It was quite a list.
"Why that is most impressive. Her husband must be thrilled."
Hecuba shook her head, "Oh she's not married yet."
"Oh well," Hecuba began blithely, "there's not a whole lot to pick from in Potedia. Why the last good one we had decided he liked life as a performer better. Why you could say it was as if he couldn't leave fast enough." Hecuba's voice carried through the forest, but it didn't reach Gabrielle and Xena's ears because they were far away in the other direction. Which was a good thing.