AMAZON DAWN
by Klancy7@aol.com
(click here for a printable version)


(Disclaimers: The characters appearing in this story are the property of Reniassance Pictures and MCA Universal. The action contains one fairly rough sex scene that begins non-consensually. If any degree of sexual violence disturbs you, this isn't your story.)


"Aaaarrrggghhh!" Gabrielle crumpled the parchment in her fist and shook it. "That’s a myth, a stupid myth!"

"Yeth, what ith?"

Gabrielle gave Xena a dark look. "Go on, chortle at your own wit. Xena, look at this!" She smoothed the lined paper against her flat stomach, then thrust it beneath her partner’s chin, one finger tapping the page rapidly.

"Want me to read it or eat it?" Xena snatched the page and scanned it idly. Then her face brightened. "Gabrielle, hey! This is wonderful! You’re listed as a featured performer at Potadeia’s harvest festival! And they spelled you right, look -- "

"Gabrielle, Our Own Little Bard of Potadeia!" Gabrielle made an unladylike retching noise. "They make me sound like a talking baby lamb! Little Bard, honestly . . . "

Xena wisely resisted the urge to point out that "baby lamb" was redundant. She kept silent, letting Gabrielle stalk a few steps down the trail, muttering to herself. Argo whickered behind them, and the tall warrior threw a cautioning look over her shoulder. The bard had traveled with them long enough to recognize horse laughter.

Gabrielle turned back, waving the flyer at Xena as though it were a hopelessly dented frying pan. "I am not short, Xena, and this is all your fault. The entire civilized world thinks I am a short person, and I am not. I never have been short, I am not now, I do not plan ever to BE short -- "

"Gabrielle, cool off." Xena gave up trying to hide her smile as she drew abreast of her partner. She slung a long arm around the irritated bard’s shoulders and urged her on down the path. "Short of stature doesn’t mean short of intelligence, or competence, or kindness -- "

"Or temper," Gabrielle warned. She ducked out from under Xena’s arm and side-stepped, looking up at the warrior’s height with annoyance. "You try walking beside the Colossus of Amphipolis for four years, they’ll call you a shrimp too."

"I’m certain they will," Xena agreed gravely.

It took a moment, but Gabrielle finally cracked a smile and slapped the wrinkled paper against Xena's thigh. They walked on in a comfortable silence, the kind that appeared and held more often between them as the years passed. Gabrielle’s once endless chatter had given way to lengthening periods of peace, as the bard learned to share Xena’s joy of listening to the world.

They were making good time. They should reach the Amazon village by moonrise. Gabrielle had missed Ephiny fiercely this past season, and though she was less willing to admit it, so had Xena. Gabrielle blended happily, with a sense of relief, into the company of the women she ruled. There was a distance imposed by her rank that all were aware of -- except for a close circle of friends that included Eponin and Solari, few Amazons treated Gabrielle with the relaxed warmth she wanted to share with all her clan. But she’d grown to love her difficult sisters, and relish her brief sojourns among them.

Xena’s anticipation was more ambivalent. She would be happy enough to greet old friends, and she looked forward to trading stories around a nightfire. But the incessant combat drills the Amazons practiced were sure to draw her in. She’d be asked to demonstrate a particular kick, and then spend the rest of the day fending off one playful challenge after another. Amazons had a competitive streak ten layers deep, and a renowned warrior in their midst was too much to resist. Xena knew she’d receive at least one challenge intended to provoke a true match. It was wearing.

"Amazons think I’m short, too," Gabrielle sighed. She may have learned to enjoy silence, but she still shook any topic that interested her in her teeth like a terrier. "Ah gods, you're right, I'm short."

"I never said -- "

"Queens are supposed to be towering and majestic. You’d make a good queen." She looked up at Xena pensively. "How am I supposed to command Amazons I’m squinting up at, it’s just not -- "

"Try glowering up at them, and you’re about to get some practice." Xena stopped Gabrielle with a hand on her arm and nodded up the trail. "Aren’t those two yours?"

Gabrielle saw two women running down the path toward them. They were dressed in the unmistakable feathers of Ephiny’s clan, but her pleased recognition soon gave way to low-grade alarm.

The two Amazons were young, hardly fully adult, and they’d obviously been running for a long time. Both loped with an exhausted, stumbling gait, and even spying Xena and Gabrielle couldn’t galvanize their pace. The warrior and the bard jogged to meet them, Argo trotting behind, and the two women collapsed on the ground and let them come.

They struggled to sit upright as Gabrielle knelt before them, and two fists thudded into two heaving chests, and then extended palm down to the young queen.

"Yeah, yeah," Gabrielle said, patting the hands once each to lower them. "Look, concentrate on breathing, you can revere me later." She looked over her shoulder. "Xena?"

"On my way." The warrior was unlacing a waterskin from Argo’s girthbelt.

"Queen Gabrielle," the red-haired Amazon gasped. She was the taller of the two, and she swept one haphazard arm out to point back up the trail. "Ephiny . . . Pendrites . . . "

"Hold on, you can’t talk unless you can breathe," Gabrielle interrupted. She swept the dark hair back off the second Amazon’s damp brow to see her eyes. They both seemed all right, physically, just spent. To Gabrielle’s surprise, the young Amazon she was touching blushed scarlet.

"I’m Kella, she’s Jesstin," the smaller Amazon got out, before heaving for air. "There’s a band -- of Pendrite -- before nightfall -- "

"Listen to your queen, girl." Xena crouched beside Gabrielle and handed the dripping waterskin to the taller Amazon. Jesstin took it, looking up at Xena with a dazed expression. "You’re both wasting time. Gabrielle needs your message short, concise, and accurate. Now shut up and get your breath back, as she ordered."

The young Amazons had never met Xena, but they were discovering the descriptions of the warrior’s imposing presence were quite accurate. They shut up entirely, studied each other instead, and obediently pulled for breath.

Gabrielle sat back on her heels and quirked a bemused eyebrow at her lover. "You know, I have to admit there’s some advantage in having a queen’s champion who’s taller than your average sapling."

"Don’t call me that, Gabrielle, you know I hate that," Xena sighed. She watched Jesstin hand the waterskin to Kella instead of drinking first herself, and figured there was a champion-wannabe in their midst.

"I didn’t make up the title." But Gabrielle's smile faded as she turned to her two subjects. Their mission was obviously urgent, and another flicker of disquiet sounded in her belly. "Are you guys coherent, now?"

The one named Jesstin nodded, contrite, as she scrubbed water from her lips. "Finally, Lady." She straightened her back, and looked directly into Gabrielle’s green eyes. "There’s a band of Pendrite sorcerers advancing on our camp. Pendrites swore vengeance on all Amazons after one of our exiled warriors knifed the king’s son -- "

"It’s a long story and we already know it, that’s okay, go on," Gabrielle coaxed gently.

"Ephiny thinks they want Amazons for slaves." Jesstin's brown eyes flashed. "Kella and I were with the war party she led to intercept them. But Gabrielle, there are hundreds!"

"She sent us to find you." Kella, the small, dark-haired Amazon took up the report. "Ephiny wants you to organize our main camp for battle." She looked a little frightened. "I don’t think we can avoid this one, Lady."

"You might be right, Kella." Gabrielle let out a long breath, staring over the two women’s heads. Silently, she blessed Ephiny for sending these two out of harm's way. They were doubtless the youngest, and least seasoned, of her regent's patrol. She touched both Amazons’ shoulders. "All right. Xena and I will ride for the camp. We can make it before dusk if we push."

Xena rose, and jumped lightly onto Argo’s back. This was Amazon business, and she would follow her partner's lead. "We might not meet Ephiny on the trail, but we can make the village before they're attacked."

Gabrielle nodded agreement without turning her head. "You two follow us as quickly as you can, but don’t kill yourselves getting there. Save your strength, you might walk in on a fight. Are we clear?"

"Yes, Gabrielle."

The two voices spoke in ceremonial tandem, and Gabrielle blinked at them, then grinned and ruffled Kella’s dark hair before rising. "Good."

Xena held one wrist down for Gabrielle’s grasp. The young queen swung easily up behind her, the movement as natural as breathing, and clasped the dark warrior’s waist. "Get something to eat on the trail," she called down to her subjects, sounding like a stern mother, "and watch your backs."

The two Amazons thumped and saluted again, and Argo skipped into a fast gallop, pelting them with gritty dust.

_____ *** _____


It was a bitter battle, and hellishly long for an impulsive clash, but the small number of lethal casualties inflicted was nigh onto miraculous. Few Amazons fell because Ephiny and Eponin had trained them hard and long for combat, and most of their clan were seasoned fighters. More were saved because Gabrielle was wise enough to rely on the counsel of her most trusted advisers, Xena chief among them, and the Amazons’ battle strategies proved effective.

There’d been no time for greetings. Ephiny fought far from the warrior and the bard, and it wasn’t until the Pendrites were in full retreat that the separate cadres gathered in the center of the Amazon village.

Gabrielle was exhausted, and covered with grime. A shallow cut above her left elbow still bled, sluggishly -- a dagger-swipe that had been too fast to evade -- but that was her only injury. Xena had been equally lucky, and now she helped Gabrielle patch up the most dangerous wounds others had earned in the fray. Gabrielle was bringing fresh water when Ephiny finally caught her.

"Gabrielle, we need you." Ephiny’s expression was grim, and the tired pleasure that lit Gabrielle’s green eyes at the sight of her regent turned to concern.

"Hey." She touched Ephiny’s arm. "Are you all right?"

"It’s not me." Ephiny gestured toward the far side of the camp, and nodded for Gabrielle to follow her. She lowered her voice as they walked, so her words were heard only by the young bard. "I don’t think you’ve ever done this before, Gabrielle, but follow your instincts. You remember the Queen’s Blessing?"

"Ah, gods." Gabrielle’s voice lowered with dread. "Who is it, Ephiny?"

"One of my scouting patrol." Grief was heavy in the beautiful regent’s voice. "We can’t save her, Gabrielle. Ease her passage if you can."

"I’ll do my -- " Then Gabrielle stopped short, dismay sweeping through her in a sick fog. "Ah, sweet Artemis, no."

Jesstin lay sprawled in Kella’s arms in the sparse grass. A horrific gash in her chest had stopped bleeding, but only because a woman’s body couldn’t possibly hold more blood than that which saturated both young warriors. Kella was rocking her, crooning a comforting chant in a voice that was high and thin.

"Ephiny, get Xena," Gabrielle said quietly. She knelt in front of the two young women, and her green eyes were bleak. "Kella, are you wounded?"

Kella shook her head. "She took that sword strike for me, Lady." She looked at Gabrielle pleadingly as she rocked Jesstin. "Please, we can’t let her die."

Jesstin’s eyes were closed, and her face was shockingly white. Her dark brows drew together as she fought the agony of an injury that would surely prove mortal. She lay still in Kella’s embrace, but her entire body shook, and Gabrielle’s throat constricted with helplessness.

The bard looked up as long fingers brushed the top of her shoulder. Xena stood behind her, her blue eyes anguished. The warrior's gaze measured Jesstin, and then she glanced down at Gabrielle and shook her head. Gabrielle just nodded -- one look had told her the girl was past help.

Xena crouched, and quickly jabbed two fingers into the joints of Jesstin's shoulders. The dazed warrior cried out, but then seemed to relax. Her trembling lessened, as stunned nerves shut off the flow of pain. Xena stood again, and her knees warmed Gabrielle's back.

"I’m sorry, Kella." The queen bent over Jesstin, and her fingers sifted through Kella’s damp hair, as they had when they first met. "Jesstin's injuries are beyond our ability to heal. We can’t keep her with us. We should honor her by letting her pass on, peacefully."

Kella moaned, and lowered her forehead to Jesstin’s shoulder.

Jesstin’s eyes opened, and she focused blearily on Gabrielle’s green ones, which were filling with tears. "Lady?"

Gabrielle lifted the dying Amazon’s hand and cradled it in her lap. "Yes, Jess, it's me."

"I’m glad I got to meet you." Jesstin smiled with the shy delight of a child, and tears rose in the eyes of all the Amazons who circled them, watching.

Ephiny and Xena rarely allowed themselves to touch each other. Their attraction was mutual, and had been since the day they met, but it would never be voiced. Both women gifted their primary loyalty to the young queen who knelt at their feet. But as Jesstin struggled to breathe, Ephiny let her head rest back against Xena’s supporting shoulder, and closed her eyes.

"I'm glad we met too, Jesstin." Gabrielle found she could still speak, and she hoped Jesstin heard the genuine love in her voice. It wasn’t the affection two young women might form for each other at first meeting -- it was the mature love of an Amazon queen for a warrior fallen in her service. "Are you ready, little sister? It’s time to go."

Jesstin’s eyes dimmed, and she tried to lift her head to see Kella. "I’m sorry, Kel," she gasped, and then she had to lower her head into her lap again. "I really love you. I’ll wait for you at the next bend. Okay?"

Kella had to hitch in a long breath before she could answer, but when she did, her eyes were rich with love as well as tears. "At the next bend, Jess." She bent and rested her lips against Jesstin’s forehead.

"Good girl," Gabrielle murmured, and smiled through her tears. She looked down at the bloody hand she still clasped, and felt it growing cold.

Gabrielle had heard one Queen’s Blessing; Ephiny had given hers to an older Amazon who died of pneumonia during one of their visits. Every Blessing was different, and Gabrielle’s for Jesstin was simple and beautiful and uniquely the bard’s.

"Your sisters are right here, Jesstin, to tell you goodbye. And to thank you -- you fought bravely and well for your clan. You can pass over now. You’ll find no pain on the other side, and you’ll be strong again there. Your older sisters are waiting for you, around a huge nightfire. There’s venison and mead, and they know many stories of our mothers. You’ll see us again. We’ll join you there, someday. Good night, Jesstin, we love you so much."

Rocked in her lover’s arms, surrounded by grieving friends, the young Amazon died between one breath and the next.

Sometime later, Gabrielle felt Xena’s hands on her shoulders, and she nodded silently and got to her feet. Two Amazons lifted their hands to volunteer -- one to offer Kella what comfort she could accept, the other to take the body away when Kella was ready. The rest of the Amazons drifted quietly from the dark young woman, and the dead warrior she still cradled, sobbing.

_____ *** _____

"That was lovely, Bri." Xena’s low voice was warm as she led Gabrielle to their tent, her arm draped over the bard’s slumped shoulders. "You gave the girl a worthy Blessing. Your first, and after a night like this. I’m proud of you."

Ordinarily those words would have sounded a deep chord in Gabrielle, but tonight she was too deep in despair to feel it. And numb with exhaustion, after organizing the care of the wounded, the burial ceremonies of the six dead, and seeing to it that everyone fed and rested. It was nearly dawn.

She let Xena lift the flap of their open-air tent and push her gently inside. Their shelter was a quickly-built but efficient one, consisting largely of four long blankets erected as walls in a square surrounding them. Gabrielle sat cross-legged on the cool grass, while the warrior built a small fire to warm their sleep. There was no conversation as they ate the stew one of the older Amazons brought, but the silence felt soothing. Neither of them needed words to request what came next -- they were both drained, but they craved physical comfort more than sleep.

Gabrielle lay back in Xena’s arms, and rested her head on the strong swell of her shoulder. They were naked, a rare indulgence when they were among the Amazons, but skin to skin contact was clearly needed that night.

Xena stared up at the deep blue blanket of stars above them. Her long fingers sifted through Gabrielle’s short, soft hair. "None of this was your fault, Gabrielle."

"I know that." Gabrielle's hand ran lightly across Xena’s lean side. "I didn’t start this stupid vendetta."

"Doesn’t matter," Xena sighed, and shifted stiffly beneath the bard's sweet weight. "A leader always shoulders the pain of a battle, the loss of her warriors. I know I did. An Amazon queen feels guilt for every single death, because her women die for the clan. And the queen is the clan."

Gabrielle said nothing for a moment, tickling a circle on Xena’s warm skin. "You know, Jesstin was probably two years younger than me," she murmured finally. "And I’ve been Kella, so many times. In my head, mostly. A couple of times I’ve really held you like that, though, when you’ve been hurt."

Xena shifted again. "Those times were just as hard for me, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle closed her eyes. "I doubt it."

"Well, I’ve been on the other side of things, too. I’m not the one who leap-frogged into a lava pit -- "

"Xena, I’m terrified that I’m going to watch you die right in front of me, someday."

"Oh, please." Xena’s blue eyes glittered in the darkness. "That doesn’t even bear talking about. We’ve both done it, okay, we’ve both lived through it."

Gabrielle was silent.

New images, very different ones, were rising behind the bard’s closed eyelids, and they unsettled her.

Gabrielle wanted blood. She despised the Pendrites who murdered her sisters. She was going to gut every last one of them, personally. She planned to enjoy it. In the dark, Gabrielle’s smile turned feral. Then she shuddered, hard.

Xena opened one eye and peered down at the blond head, puzzled. She reached out and pulled the thick fur up over Gabrielle’s bare shoulder, wondering if she was chilled. The warrior rested her lips in the lush hair, still trying to get used to it's shaggy length.

"Try to sleep, Bri. Dawn comes early."

But Xena was wrong, for once. Dawn didn’t come at all.

_____ *** _____


Xena stirred, and then came awake with the adrenalin-fueled abruptness that sometimes gave her bedmate cardiac arrest. It might have been Gabrielle's absence that alerted the warrior -- she hadn't heard the bard leave, which was unusual in itself -- but the sky unsettled Xena far more.

It was just before dawn. The forest was filled with the pleasant blue light that heralded the rising of the sun, still an hour away. The air was fresh, and slightly cold. Ordinarily this was Xena's favorite time of day, but not this odd morning.

Xena knew her body, and she knew she'd slept a good seven hours -- she was fully rested. It should be cresting noon, at least. The warrior's blue eyes widened as she stared up at the canopy of faint stars above her, and she struggled against a surge of superstitious dread. Where was the sun?

She needed to see Gabrielle. It felt that way, sometimes, for both of them, their eyes thirsted for the sight of the other.

Xena dressed quickly and ducked out of the tent. She straightened, and was struck by the stillness of the village. Nightfires still burned, or at least their coals still smoldered. The cooking fires had not yet been lit. Exhausted by the battle the night before, few Amazons were stirring. Only the women standing watch were commendably alert, pacing the perimeters of the camp.

Xena turned and ran smack into Ephiny, whose brown eyes were shooting sparks.

"Do you always sleep through your wife's periodic lapses of sanity, Xena?"

Xena scanned the camp for Gabrielle. "What are you talking about?"

"She's not here. She's taken Kella, and gone after the Pendrites."

Xena stared at the regent. "What?"

Ephiny nodded. "The watch says the two of them rode out hours ago. To slaughter the cowards who murdered Jesstin."


"Slaughter . . . "

"The queen's word, not mine." Ephiny perched her hands on her hips, her anger masking real worry. "Gabrielle's snapped, Xena, I mean it. She forbade Corday to alert either of us. Corday has covered nightwatch for years, and she said she's never seen an Amazon more hell-bent on vengeance. She was afraid of her."

"Of Gabrielle." The warrior's tone dripped disbelief. She stalked off toward the stables, Ephiny on her heels.

"Yes, of Gabrielle!" The regent grabbed Xena's arm and spun her back around -- not the most prudent way to get the warrior's attention, but she let it pass. "Xena! Haven't you noticed we seem to be under a -- sun hex, or something, here? Time has stopped."

"I've noticed." Xena moved on toward the stables.

"Any theories?"

"Just one." Xena waited until Ephiny caught up with her. "Pendrite sorcerers led the attack against us last night, right? Sorcerers, that's what Jesstin told us."

"Right."

Xena nodded toward the pre-dawn sky. "This look like sorcerer's work to you?"

Ephiny followed her gaze, and frowned. "It might, yes."

"Well, Gabrielle suddenly screaming for blood certainly does." Xena let loose a piercing whistle, and a moment later Argo came loping out of the stable. Then the warrior winced as Ephiny whistled, equally sharply, and petulantly close to Xena's ear. The regent's mount, a small bay, trotted out behind Argo.

Xena vaulted aboard her towering horse. "When are Amazons going to stop riding sheep?"

"The day they can't run your elephant into the ground." Ephiny clicked at her mare, all the instruction an Amazon-trained mount needed, and the two horses cantered out of the sleeping village.


_____ *** _____


It took longer than it should have for two skilled trackers to trace the path of the Amazon queen. Gabrielle had learned much from Xena, and she obviously did not want to be found. They trailed her to a distant grove on the border of Pendria by what should have been dusk, but everything in nature still insisted it was an hour before dawn.

The warrior and the regent quit their horses a safe distance from the circle of trees, and made their way silently toward it. Ephiny peered cautiously between two stunted maples, and she saw Gabrielle first. She stared, and then leaned back against one of the rough-barked trunks.

"Ephiny?" Xena whispered.

"It's bad, Xena. Something's got them both."

Xena scowled to cover her fear, and then crouched to look between the two trees. Her sea-blue eyes widened.

Gabrielle was naked, and she was torturing a female prisoner. Kella was naked too, and she was helping her.

An Amazon ceremony was being held in the grove, but not one Xena had ever witnessed, or even heard described. A bonfire roared high, illuminating the macabre scene with gold light. A crude scaffold had been erected -- two tall posts, laced together into a X shape, the ends pounded deep into the earth. A Pendrite warrior was roped to this rack, her arms tied behind the upper posts, her ankles lashed to the base of the lower ones. She had been stripped -- her tattered uniform lay on the grass to one side. The woman was middle-aged and powerful, with silver dusting the dark wings of hair framing her face.

Xena steeled herself as they crept nearer to the sinister arena. Gabrielle's nudity was distracting her in a crude, carnal way that had never stabbed at the dark woman so sharply. The sight of the bard at that moment struck far too close to Xena's most private fantasies.

Ephiny motioned Xena down, and they crouched side by side in the brush. "They're making an offering to Artemis," she murmured.

"Artemis is a huntress," Xena protested. "She doesn't accept blood sacrifice."

"Tell Gabrielle that."

Tendrils of blond hair clung to Gabrielle's throat as she stalked back and forth in front of her prisoner. Her green eyes pulsed with a greedy light, and her lips were pulled back from her white teeth in a rictus of hatred. She carried a leather bullwhip -- Xena's bullwhip -- and cracked it every few steps, with ominous skill.

Gabrielle wore nothing but the ornate wolf-claw necklace an Amazon queen donned only for high rituals. She was waiting, Xena realized, for the bound woman to recover from the lashes already administered -- the Pendrite's small breasts were marked with vivid red stripes. Xena shivered. Her gentle wife was exhibiting the horrific patience of an experienced torturer.

Xena spied Kella, crouching at the prisoner's feet, and her heart sank. The young Amazon seemed possessed by the same fury that infested her queen, and she was venting it with equal fervor. Kella's lovely face contorted with a cruel smile as she reached up between the tied woman's spread legs, and punched one finger abruptly into her vagina. Three more fingers followed in quick succession, and then Kella drove her entire hand up into the woman, with a chilling snarl. The prisoner jerked at the rough invasion, groaning.

Gabrielle looked on her subject's efforts with approval, snapping the bullwhip again with relish as she paced and watched. "Remember that it was this woman's hand that spilled Jesstin's blood, Kella." Her voice was a snarling parody of Gabrielle's melodious tone. "Dig into her . . . possess her utterly, and avenge your lifemate."

"Damn you to the darkest pit of Tartarus, bitch," Kella hissed, and began pumping in and out of the woman's shuddering cunt.

Gabrielle smiled down at Kella with maternal pride, and raised the bullwhip again. Xena commanded her frozen muscles to move, but she was transfixed. The firelight licked redly over Gabrielle's strong curves, the muscles in her forearm flexing as she hurled the whip forward. She found the young queen's nakedness impossibly seductive, and Xena felt heat course through her groin. She shook herself and launched into the air, but the whip cracked across the prisoner's bare breasts before she reached Gabrielle.

"That's enough!" Xena tackled her partner with a force that brought them both to the ground. The whip dropped from Gabrielle's hand, but she fought Xena's restraining arms with immediate rage, spitting and twisting in grass wet with dew. "Gabrielle! Stop it, now!"

Xena felt Kella leap onto her back in defense of her queen, and her fists pummeled Xena's bare shoulders. Two thrashing, raving Amazons were a handful even for the warrior princess, burdened as she was by the desire not to hurt either of them. With relief, she felt Ephiny haul Kella off her back, and she concentrated on subduing her crazed wife.

"Get your cursed hands off me," Gabrielle cried. Her green eyes flashed up at Xena with a scathing light, but virtually no recognition -- the bard obviously didn't know her. "You don't wear the girdle of Artemis, woman!"

"Amazon or not, Gabrielle, I'm not going to let you brutalize a helpless captive." Xena struggled to still the girl's flailing arms.

"Forgive me, Kella," Ephiny gasped.

Xena couldn't see the regent or the Amazon she grappled with, but she heard the hilt of Ephiny's sword thud against a skull. There was a sighing sound, and then the rustle of a body slumping into the grass.

"You have no right to stop this, warrior," Gabrielle panted. "Amazon justice won't be denied -- "

"This isn't justice, Gabrielle, it's revenge." Xena finally had Gabrielle's back pinned against her chest. "Snap out of this, Bri! This isn't you -- you would never abuse anyone -- "

Except her lover, perhaps. Gabrielle's elbow pounded hard into Xena's stomach, and the breath rushed out of the warrior. With a remorseful oath, Xena stiffened her forefingers and twisted them into the base of Gabrielle's neck. The blond woman sagged against her, her eyelids fluttering as consciousness faded.

Xena cradled Gabrielle in the eerie blue light. She looked down at the nude body sprawled in her arms -- the wolf-claw necklace, the full breasts flushed and heaving, the sculpted plane of the flat belly, the curves of her thighs, the red-gold triangle quivering between them. Xena grit her teeth and closed her eyes, tightly.

Ephiny was tending Kella, crossing the young woman's hands over her waist. She looked up, worried at the lasting silence. "Xena, is Gabrielle all right?"

"Of course she's not," Xena spat. Her voice was tight with tears. "She's a rabid maniac, Ephiny. What's happened to her, to both of them? What turned the most gentle soul I've ever known into this -- "

"Her soul is more than gentle, warrior, and she is more than your wife."

Xena felt an iron hand grip the scruff of her neck, and suddenly she was flying across the grove. She smacked hard into thick shrubbery and slid, half-dazed, to the grass, fumbling for her chakram. Her wild blue eyes darted to the woman standing calmly beside Gabrielle's crumpled form. Xena heard Ephiny make a soft sound.

It was the Pendrite prisoner. Xena's gaze flew to the empty scaffold, then back to the woman's serene eyes, watching her. She snatched her chakram from her belt and held it ready. "Get away from her, Pendrite, or -- "

"Yes?" The woman smiled pleasantly, folding her arms over her welted breasts.

"Xena!" Ephiny hissed. Loudly. Xena darted a glance her way, and was amazed to see the beautiful regent on one knee, her eyes lowered, her closed fist resting on her heart. "Xena, stand down! It's Artemis!"

Xena blinked. She saw the woman lift an eyebrow, as expressively as Xena did on occassion. The prisoner's small, compact figure, the dark hair sprinkled with gray, were the same -- but then her image wavered, shimmering. When the lines of her body solidified again, the woman was dressed in trim, practical hunter's garb of green and brown, a beautiful cherrywood bow across her back. Her dark eyes were large and deep, and they carried the unmistakable gleam of divinity.

"Get up, daughter." Artemis went to Ephiny as she rose. "I'm not Ares, my ego doesn't require groveling."

The goddess touched her lips fondly to Ephiny's forehead. She had to stand on her toes to do it, but it was a graceful gesture nonetheless. Ephiny's face flooded with color.

Xena, never known for her reverence toward immortals, climbed out of the shrubbery and stalked back to the unconscious bard. "What did you mean, Artemis -- that Gabrielle's soul is more than gentle?"

Artemis turned to her. "Your wife may be young, Xena of Amphipolis, but she's no child."

Xena stared at Gabrielle's lush body on the grass at her feet. "That much is obvious," she muttered.

"Not to you," Artemis countered. "Not always."

The goddess looked down at the motionless blond woman, and Xena saw her face soften. It was a good face, Xena noted randomly -- sun-weathered and lined, not particularly attractive by Greek goddess standards -- but an unexpectedly kind face.

"Gabrielle is my daughter, Xena, just as Ephiny is." Artemis strolled to the warrior's side. "And in one way, I know her better than you do. I know the Amazon queen."

"Then tell me how to help her, Artemis." Xena's throat tightened as she looked at the goddess. "Please."

"To begin with," Artemis sighed, "you were correct in assuming that sorcery is behind this."

Ephiny spoke with deference. "You mean this strange dawn, Lady, that never comes?"

"Well, no." Artemis dimpled. "Actually, that's my doing. When you defeated the Pendrites, Ephiny, the sorcerers who led them cast a curse on your village. They swore that the sun would never rise again on free Amazons. They hoped to use dark magic to drive your sisters mad, and then enslave the clan like beasts."

"And the queen is the clan," Xena murmured.

"Yes. Gabrielle was the first to suffer the effects of the sorcerers' spell. I couldn't prevent that." There was genuine regret in Artemis's tone. "But, I could delay dawn, to give the two of you time to find your queen, and unravel the curse." The goddess smiled. "Helios owes me more than one favor, so convincing him to hold his chariot was easy enough."

"And then you allowed Gabrielle and Kella to capture you?" Ephiny asked.

Artemis nodded. "Knowing Gabrielle's nature, I thought it best to spare her the memory of torturing a mortal body. Neither of these women will remember me at all -- if you succeed."

"Lady, what about Kella?" Ephiny looked toward the fallen girl.

"Ah, Kella." The goddess walked over to the young Amazon, who still lay stunned in the grass. "Your little sister is maddened by grief alone, Ephiny. Grief can be more powerful than any curse, if the love that causes it is strong enough."

Xena rested her hand on Gabrielle's hair. "And can love, itself, overpower a curse? If it's strong enough?"

"It can, warrior." Artemis looked at Xena, not without compassion. "But remember who you love. Not a child. Not a maiden. Your lifemate is Amazon, and the High Queen of strong, passionate -- at times brutal -- women. And she is capable of all of those things, in defense of her clan. Tell me. Do you want Gabrielle back?"

"Yes," Xena whispered.

"Then take her."

Xena shivered.

"Shed one drop of her blood, and I'll annihilate you, of course," Artemis added sweetly. "Ephiny. Remember, your queen is not in her right mind. Help this warrior do what she must to save her."

Ephiny placed her fist over her heart. "Your will, Lady."

"Artemis, wait." Xena got to her feet. Warrior princess and goddess of Amazons studied each other. The corner of Xena's mouth lifted. "The legends are wrong about you, Artemis. They call you distant and cold, like the moon you rule."

"Well." Artemis smiled, and the corners of her eyes crinkled. "They also call me the Virgin Goddess. Care for my daughter well, Xena."

Artemis dropped Ephiny a wink, and vanished.

Gabrielle stirred sluggishly, and Ephiny knelt at the blond woman's head. Then the regent met Xena's gaze, and a rush of disquiet hit her belly.

The tall warrior was looking down at Gabrielle, and the color of her eyes was changing. Gabrielle had confided to Ephiny, seasons ago, that her lover's eyes had this ability. Ephiny had dismissed the notion as sweet, but unlikely -- now she was watching it happen. The sky blue of Xena's eyes was deepening, and filling with storm.

Xena unbuckled her breastplate and dropped it to the grass. Then she unlaced her leathers, her strange eyes still on the queen. "You understand what will happen now, Ephiny?"

Ephiny swallowed. "Yes, I understand."

Xena nodded, and peeled the leather off her broad shoulders. She stripped completely, then stepped free of the garments tangled at her feet, and stood naked in the light of the bonfire.

Ephiny stared at the warrior openly. She had seen Xena's body before -- modesty wasn't a common feature in any Amazon camp -- but she had never seen her queen's champion in a context so blatantly sexual. Gold light glinted off the muscular swells of the tall woman's arms and legs. Her black hair was touseled and wild around her face. A flush of color suffused her firm breasts, and the nipples were erect and hard. Ephiny felt her own quicken and rise beneath her vest.

Xena walked toward them, her step as silent and feline as a dark panther stalking prey. She stopped at Gabrielle's feet, and her eyes crawled slowly over the queen's nakedness. Almost as if she felt her gaze, Gabrielle stirred again, and her eyelids fluttered.

"Pin her hands," Xena ordered softly. "At either side of her head."

Ephiny obeyed at once. Her goddess had commanded her compliance with this act, and in spite of the complicated history all three women shared, Ephiny trusted Xena. She held Gabrielle's wrists against the grass.

"She's stronger than she looks." Xena's tongue brushed across her lower lip. "Hold her tightly."

Ephiny gripped Gabrielle's wrists harder, and the girl seemed to react to the change in pressure. The green eyes opened slowly, and focused, dazed, on Ephiny's face above her. Then Gabrielle's gaze moved to Xena, and madness filled her again, almost visibly. The bard snarled in Ephiny's grasp, and kicked viciously at Xena, who stood just beyond her reach. Ephiny wasn't sure whether she was dealing with one madwoman, or two, but she held on.

Xena threw herself full-length on top of Gabrielle. She slapped her hands under the young woman's knees, and wrestled them up against her flat belly. The warrior's groin ground against the spread lips of the bard's vagina in small, digging circles, as her long fingers clapped down hard over each full breast. Gabrielle screamed, and her back arched as she fought futiley to free her pinned hands.

"They can't have you," Xena growled, her sparking eyes fixed on Gabrielle's white face. "Sorcerer, Pentrite, Amazon -- I will destroy anyone who touches you, girl. You belong to no one but me." Her strong hands clenched the taut globes of Gabrielle's breasts cruelly, and the creamy flesh bulged between her fingers.

"I forbid this," Gabrielle gasped. She shook her hair out of her eyes with a furious snap, and then clenched her teeth as the lewd scrubbing between her wide-spread legs intensified. "The touch of any woman not full Amazon is vile to me -- "

"Oh, it's going to get viler," Xena breathed, staring at Gabrielle's exposed throat, the tendons in the smooth flesh standing out as the young woman struggled. Xena's hands slid off the huddling breasts and clasped the trim waist. Then her dark head plunged, and her lips opened to suck in the exquisitely sensitive tip of Gabrielle's left breast. Xena began to feed like a beast, with groans of enjoyment.

Ephiny's eyes were fixed and staring, and tears rose in them slowly as she watched. The tension roiling in her grew as the warrior began to mouth the bulging globe, sucking in small sections and swirling her tongue over them, her teeth working gently but busily.

The regent felt no contrition; instinctively, she recognized Gabrielle's squirmings beginning to change, transforming from genuine resistance to voluptuous pleasure. But Ephiny was seeing two women she loved -- in very different ways -- enter extremities of passion she herself had not experienced in years. As Xena turned her crude attentions to the other breast, and as Gabrielle screamed hoarsely again in her grip, Ephiny began to tremble.

Nor was the regent's pulse quieted by what followed next. After Xena had fed thoroughly on both of Gabrielle's wet globes, she reached up suddenly and snatched Ephiny's vest open, the thong holding it shredding with one yank. The Amazon's small breasts were exposed, bouncing in the firelight, and Ephiny drew in a sharp breath.

Xena's eyes held for a moment on the regent's large, quivering nipples, and then moved to Ephiny's face. They exchanged a look so fleeting, but so rich with simple lust, that neither ever forgot it.

"Bite her nipples," Xena rasped. She slithered down Gabrielle's twitching body, pulling the muscular legs down with her, and then she sat up and spread them widely, exposing Gabrielle's glistening cunt.

"Two pieces of you," Xena panted, staring at the oozing slit, "are the parts I call mine. Your heart is one, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle lifted her head, her lips trembling as she met Xena's eyes. She followed the warrior's gaze back down to the shuddering, furred mound between her achingly spread legs.

"This is the other," Xena whispered. Then she looked at Ephiny, and snapped a curt nod.

Ephiny bent over Gabrielle at once, and fastened her teeth over the tip of her right breast. She chewed, gently but firmly, struggling to hold her queen's wrists flat as she gasped for breath beneath her. The regent's naked breasts brushed over Gabrielle's face repeatedly, and finally the young queen's tongue snaked out and swirled around one nipple.

Xena made herself remain motionless as she watched Ephiny work feverishly over Gabrielle. She knew she was dangerously close to losing control. The twisting body before her was no restorative of sanity, so she clenched her eyes shut.

One part of Xena remained distant and calm, however; the part that was able to pull the poisoned arrow from Gabrielle's shoulder long ago, without screaming herself. Her bard was fully a woman, Xena would never question that again -- but she would never be a large woman. The warrior checked her smooth nails, and then tightened her long fingers carefully into a narrow skewer.

"Don't stop, Ephiny."

At calmer times, Xena strummed Gabrielle like a harp when they reached this phase, plying and plucking her clit until the girl nearly swooned with arousal. But the warrior hadn't the control left for such pleasantries, and her supposed victim had no need for them -- Gabrielle was floodingly wet. Xena's four fingers edged between her nether lips, and then wormed through the ridged, circular opening of her cunt. Gabrielle's hips bucked up in both shock and welcome.

Xena hissed out a long, hot breath as she leaned forward, pushing her narrowed hand further into Gabrielle's wet cavern. Gabrielle emitted a gutteral groan, which sent a surge of fire through Xena, and she plunged deeper.

Ephiny rested her forearms on Gabrielle's bare shoulders to hold her down; she needed the leverage to continue ravishing the plump breasts with her mouth. She raked the edges of her teeth across each nipple in turn, hearing her queen's breathless cries, her own need rising higher.

"Come back to me." Xena's voice was husky now, as she pulled her hand and wrist partially out of the dripping, straining opening, and then surged forward, drilling in deeply again. "I'll make you come back, Gabrielle."

The warrior kept fucking the young woman in a pattern so tireless and relentless Aphrodite herself could have designed it. The walls of Gabrielle's inner reaches had allowed Xena full entry, and now they snugged closely around her wrist as it pistoned in and out of her. A fiery heat swirled through the queen's loins, igniting in burning concentration at the tip of her clit.

Xena bent her head, and closed her teeth over the twitching, nerve-rich bud in a gentle, wiggling bite.

Gabrielle had no voice left. When the crest hit her, she slammed the back of her head into the grass and arched her back with grinding force. Her mouth dropped open, but no sound emerged. Both Ephiny and Xena cried out at that moment, their own needs unsatisfied, but joining Gabrielle in a paroxym of bone-deep pleasure as she exploded.

When it was finished, the grove was still for a long time, save for the crackling of the bonfire. Then the three woman all stilled at a sound that, at first, seemed more common than portentious -- the distant crowing of a rooster, greeting the dawn.

"Let go of me, Ephiny."

Ephiny looked warily at Gabrielle. Calm green eyes gazed up at her, and the full lips smiled. They both realized that Gabrielle was Ephiny's queen again, in full command of her senses, and she expected her regent's obedience. Ephiny smiled back, and released Gabrielle's wrists.

Gabrielle sat up smoothly, and folded Xena at once in her arms. She held the warrior tightly, her eyes closed, and every line in her naked body relaxed. She rested her touseled head on the swell of Xena's shoulder, and whispered, "Thank you."

"My pleasure," Xena murmured, her hand gentle on the back of Gabrielle's neck, her tired arm against the small of her back. They rocked each other, and then Gabrielle sat back and looked up into Xena's eyes. She smiled, and the corners of her green eyes crinkled in a way that reminded Xena warmly of Artemis.

Xena got her hand halfway up to touch Gabrielle's face, but then the bard took the initiative. She took Xena's damp face in her hands, and drew her head forward -- slowly, but insistently. The bard's lips were tender, though, full and soft against the warrior's mouth. Xena's eyes closed in stages. Memories swirled.

_____ *** _____

Gabrielle loved to lay fully on top of her, after they quieted for the night. She drew the fur up over her sleek back and lay down again, her damp body draped lazily over the firm, panting one beneath her.

"Oof."

"You should thank me," Gabrielle whispered, then lifted her head from Xena's shoulder to spit a strand of hair out of her mouth.

"I thought I just did," Xena panted.

"We hit a new longevity record tonight. Not that I'm counting. I'm keeping you young, Xena."

Xena lifted her head, and then let it drop weakly. "Or making me old before my time, Gabrielle."

_____ *** _____


This afterglow followed very different circumstances, and held no privacy, but they both relished it. Gabrielle's hands moved gently over Xena's face as they kissed, her fingers softly exploring her cheeks and forehead. Xena finally ended it, because she was slightly more breathless than her partner. She'd had far more physical labor, after all.

Ephiny began to motion to them, but then Xena and Gabrielle heard it, too -- Kella's muffled moan. They looked toward the young woman who lay on her side in the grass. Kella's arms were wrapped around her waist as she sobbed, harsh, biting tears of loss.

Xena looked at the girl, stricken. She felt Gabrielle's touch on her shoulder, and she turned her head and nodded.

Gabrielle got up, leaning for a moment on Ephiny's shoulder for support. She walked unevenly over to Kella, and knelt in the grass beside her. She bent and slid her arms around the Amazon's limp body, and pulled her into her lap. Her kind green eyes studied the girl's tear-ravaged face. Gabrielle tightened her arms around Kella as she began to struggle.

Kella cried out, a despairing howl that tore at their hearts, and then she was fighting the bard in earnest, twisting and snarling in her embrace. As Xena had noted, Gabrielle was stronger than she looked, and she held her grip on the thrashing Amazon.

"You have to let her go, Kella." Gabrielle's voice was firm, because nothing else would reach the girl, but it was loving as well. "Jesstin is gone, and there's nothing you can do to bring her back. She died saving you, so your life is her gift to you. And if we could ask her now, I swear to you, little sister, Jess would take that strike again. She loved you that much. You have to accept the choice she made."

Kella was quiet for a moment, and then she released a wrenching sob that, ultimately, proved as cathartic and cleansing as Gabrielle's climax had been. Gabrielle let her body absorb the force of that last spasm, her sorrowing eyes on Kella's face. Then she held the young warrior as she wept -- copious tears, but less scalding ones now.

Xena watched the queen comfort her warrior, and her vision blurred for a moment. It could have been Lila she cradled, her much-loved younger sister, who she still missed fiercely. Gabrielle was more than her wife, indeed. Queen, bard, partner, sister, lover, friend -- Gabrielle was all women to Xena, and always would be.

Finally, Kella slumped, spent, in Gabrielle's arms. The sun chose that moment to rise over a distant ridge, and the naked Amazon queen and the young warrior she embraced were bathed in the sweet light of first dawn. Theatrical it might have been -- but if a certain Italian sculptor of another age had happened to witness it, the Pieta would have turned out very differently.

Gabrielle stroked Kella's bare back with maternal affection, and looked up at Xena and Ephiny. She seemed puzzled at their rapt expressions, and then she smiled, as she realized she was gloriously illuminated.

"Good morning," Gabrielle called softly.


_____ *** _____


"Let’s go, Your Highness. Time to move on."

"Don’t call me that, Xena," Gabrielle sighed, "you know I hate that."

The bard was walking backwards, waving a last time to Ephiny before she turned and caught up to Xena.

They had told Gabrielle everything, of course. She deserved to know, and she accepted her actions in the grove with an equanimity that surprised all but the queen's champion and her regent.

Gabrielle sighed again, and kicked a pebble from their path. The warrior reached out and ruffled the her short hair, and Gabrielle ducked. "Cut that out, already, I’m starting to feel like a poodle."

"Geeze, you’re crabby today."

"I know." Gabrielle scuffed her feet again. "I just can’t believe you got to meet her, and I didn’t."

"Artemis?"

"Yeah."

"Or Artsie, as she asked me to call her." Xena ignored her young wife's glare. "I’m sure you’ll meet her someday, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle snorted. "Well, I just hope I’m not buck-naked, sex-crazed and raging with bloodlust at the time."

Xena grinned, and tugged the reins to distract Argo from a clump of grass. The big mare whickered, and clopped contentedly behind them. They walked silently for awhile, enjoying the morning and each other’s company. Then Gabrielle’s eyes grew somber, and Xena knew she was remembering.

"You think she’ll be all right?" Gabrielle asked.

"Kella?"

"Yeah."

"Not for awhile," Xena said quietly. "Maybe not for a long time. You helped her, Gabrielle, but Kella has to endure a kind of grief I don’t think I could survive."

"Don’t say that, Xe," Gabrielle murmured. She wound her arm through Xena’s, and rubbed the warrior’s forearm with her free hand. "I appreciate the sentiment, but I'd rather you survive, at all costs."

"Kella has Ephiny, and two hundred other Amazons, vying to take care of her." Xena nudged the bard gently with her shoulder. "She’s strong, she’ll heal."

"I hope so."

"Hey," Xena said. "There’s something I’ve been waiting to tell you about Artemis."

Gabrielle smiled conspiratorily, her green eyes sparkling as she looked up at her tall wife. "What’s that?"

"Artsie’s a shrimp, Gabrielle."

"What?"

"She’s short. Shorter than you."

"I love you," Gabrielle laughed, and hugged her.

"No, I mean it," Xena protested. "She’s really short."

"Right, Xena, the Goddess of the Amazons is a pipsqueak." Gabrielle giggled again. "You can be so sweet, you know that?"

"Gabrielle, I am not sw -- look, ask Ephiny, Artemis is -- "

"Yeah, yeah." Gabrielle reached up and ruffled Xena's dark hair, as if she was a poodle. "You cutie."

Xena sighed, and they moved on.


--- End --

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