For Better or Worse

(October 1997)

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Chapter 7 - Return to Walsas

With Meleager slumped in Xena's arms on Argo and the Gabrielle on Meleager's horse, they rode towards Walsas. The silence between them was extremely uncomfortable for the bard, who was feeling a little guilty for her earlier actions.

"If you want to, we could rest a while," Gabrielle offered glancing over at the warrior, who probably needed a break by now from lugging Meleager around like that.

"No," Xena relayed, her eyes focused forward. "Unless you need to rest," Xena added curtly, the word 'need' grating on the bard's nerves.

"No, I'm fine. But thanks for your concern," Gabrielle said sarcastically. "How's your head?" Gabrielle asked with a thin smile.

"Fine. Thanks for asking," Xena responded flatly.

"Sarah, you are not taking this seriously enough." Sarah's mother trailed behind her daughter with a variety of fabrics. "Would you stand STILL for one moment?!?" She snapped.

"Lila, would you please tell your sister the colour and material of her dress IS important." The mother enlisted the aid of her quiet daughter in the corner, who cringed at being brought into the middle of yet another wedding argument.

"Sarah, the colour and material of your dress is important," Lila repeated in an unenthusiastic drone, making Sarah grin.

"I've always been fond of black," Sarah blurted, studying the fabrics.

"Well black WOULD go with the bridesmaids dresses," Lila relayed, thankful she had to only go through being a bridesmaid in a Traditional wedding once. Of course, she would have been much happier if Sarah had just avoided the Traditional Wedding altogether, like Gabrielle did.

"Lila! Sarah! You two are incorrigible!" The woman scolded her daughters, shaking her head wondering what she did to ever deserve such difficult children.

"Queen Sarah!" A young guard rushed in interrupting them, receiving a cold stare from the older woman and a look of thanks from the two younger women.

"Please excuse the interruption. Lookouts have reported your sister and the Warrior Princess are arriving," he relayed, bringing a big smile to the sister's faces for the reinforcements had finally arrived.

"You invited them?" The older woman asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Why wouldn't...." Sarah's question to her mother was forgotten when she noticed the concerned look on the guard's face and no mention of her soon-to-be-husband. "Isn't Meleager with them?"

"Lookouts report he's been hurt my Queen."

Queen Ephiny paced in her tent as Eponin watched uneasily.

"She still hasn't asked for my decision. She hasn't made any more demands." Ephiny shook her head. Trayla entered the tent.

"Well?" Ephiny asked.

"She's practicing again," Trayla responded.

"I don't suppose she's practicing the sword?" Ephiny asked hopefully, but knowing the answer.

"No my Queen, she is practicing the staff," Trayla relayed with a sigh. "Again."

"Gurda is shrewd, I'll give her that," Ephiny relayed appreciatively. "How is she at the staff?" Ephiny asked Trayla.


Rushing out of the Walsasian castle, Sarah, Lila and their mother saw for themselves what the lookouts reported. The three travelers rode in the front gate.

"My Gods, what happened to him?" Sarah gasped as she rushed to Meleager's side as Xena lower the still unconscious man to two guards.

Gabrielle dismounted, quickly going to Sarah and putting a comforting arm her. "He'll be ok Sarah."

Meleager groggily muttered something as the two men shifted him to get a better hold.

"He's not drunk again is he?" Sarah's mother asked caustically, Sarah gasped, eyeing her mother in disbelief and hurt.

"NO!...He hit his head." Gabrielle snapped, quickly defending him. "He was in a cave trying to get one of the Traditional items," Gabrielle added coldly, watching an upset Sarah leave with the two guards take Meleager into the castle.

Her eyes returned to her mother. "Oh, and don't worry mother...he'll be alright," Gabrielle relayed, her eyes as cold as her voice.

Xena finally dismounted, not even receiving so much as a glance from Gabrielle's mother, not that she wanted one.

"I see," her mother responded, standing rigid, offering no embrace or words of affection for her well-traveled daughter. Xena finally received a glance from the older woman when she stood behind her bard. In it's brief duration, that glance imparted all that the warrior needed to know. Gabrielle's mother despised her.

"Let me guess," Gabrielle eyed her mother with a polite smile. "You didn't ask Meleager to get me to help with the preparations."

"No dear." The woman's admission wiped the bard's polite smile off her face. "I know you have other, more pressing business than to bother with our family and our little Traditions."

The woman's pleasantly spoken words inflicted more damage to the bard's heart than a dagger ever could. Funny how important a mother's words were.

Lila looked at the ground feeling helpless.

Xena inwardly cringed, feeling that she was the cause of this reaction from the bard's mother. And they didn't even tell her about their relationship yet, Xena sighed. Perhaps Gabrielle was right about visiting her mother in Amphipolis, the warrior considered, torn between wanting to make it easier on the bard yet not wanting to leave her side. Xena grew angry with herself for worrying so much about her own feelings and ignoring Gabrielle's.

"Well, I have work to do, if you'll excuse me. Lila?" Her mother looked to Lila, who lifted her head, looking between her sister and mother.

"I'll be right along Mother," Lila offered, amazed that her response seemed to appease her mother, who nodded then left.

"Gods Gabrielle, I swear Sarah and I had no idea she was still so upset," Lila hugged her sister tightly. "You would think..." Lila blurted, interrupted by Gabrielle.

"Lila, I understand why you and Sarah were so desperate for reinforcements." Gabrielle forced a laugh. "But I'm afraid I won't be as much help as you two expected." Gabrielle shrugged. "On the bright side, I'm getting used to being a disappointment." Gabrielle forced a smile.

An uneasy Lila looked at Gabrielle then Xena, who was also disturbed by the bard's comment. "Not to me," Lila responded, hugging her. "Dinner will be in about an hour...amazing how you timed that," Lila joked, trying to lighten the mood. "See you then?" Lila pulled back looking at the two.

"Of course," Gabrielle responded, a polite smile still on her face. Her sister smiled uneasily, then left.

Just as Xena stepped to give the bard a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder, Gabrielle headed towards the castle leaving the warrior to grasp the air. "I should freshen up for dinner," she relayed, turning to the Warrior Princess.

"First I'd better tend to..." Xena automatically began her usual reply, but with the vacant look in the bard's eyes, she realized this was not time for their usual routine. "Uh, the stable boy can tend to Argo and our stuff...lugging Meleager around has made me riper than usual...I wouldn't want anyone to loose their appetite on my account," Xena joked.

Gabrielle nodded silently and headed towards the castle. Xena's eyebrows furrowed with worry as she followed behind the bard.

"We should send messengers right tell Gabrielle to stay away...until you finish up with Gurda," Eponin blurted, concerned for her absent Queen.

"Eponin, I can not "finish up" with Gurda until she challenges me...and I suspect she will choose to be very patient with her challenge to the throne." Ephiny sighed.

"But we can't have Gabrielle walk right into ...." Eponin's argument was cut off by the Acting Queen.

"Gabrielle is the Queen, in bad times as well as good, Eponin. For better or WORSE, she will accept her duty, as should you," Ephiny responded forcefully, successfully stopping further discussion on the matter. She sighed, wishing she could "finish up" with Gurda. Gabrielle seemed to keep getting the 'worse' part of the bargain.

When they entered the bard's room, Xena waited for the bard to say something. When they bathed, Xena waited for the bard to say something. When they dried off and dressed, Xena waited for the bard to say something. When the bard sat down and started to brush her hair, Xena waited for the bard to say something.

With each brush stroke, a weary sigh came from the bard, who usually took pleasure in the task.

Moving behind her chair, Xena gently took the brush from the bard's hand and proceeded to untangle the strawberry blond locks. "Gabrielle, do you still want me to go to Amphipolis?" She asked, bracing herself for an unwanted answer.

"No," Gabrielle answered weakly, shaking her head. "Unless..." Gabrielle turned towards the Warrior Princess. " WANT to go."

Xena sighed and knelt down to speak face-to-face with her bard.

"Not alone," Xena responded emphatically. "Bedsides," she grinned. "Who would talk to mother?"

Tears welled up in the bard's eyes.

"Hey..." Xena spoke softly, her strong hand cupping the bard's cheek. When a tear fell, it was carefully wiped away by the warrior's thumb.

Xena felt lost on this emotional minefield. The bard needed to talk and it was up to the Warrior Princess to make that happen. Unfortunately, her most successful method for getting someone to talk was out. Gabrielle would need way more than thirty seconds, Xena considered.

What would Gabrielle do if the situation were reversed, Xena asked herself. Slowly and carefully ease into the discussion. Obviously, the warrior sighed. From her admittedly sparse verbal arsenal, Xena selected an approach that had the benefit of being successful in the past as well as a relatively safe topic.

"Nice weather we're having," Xena blurted. Gabrielle's tear-filled eyes lifted from the floor and looked blankly at her. The bard's head tilted as if she didn't quite catch the last statement from the Warrior Princess.

"Huh?" The bard asked softly, sniffing and wiping away another tear.

"Uh...the weather," Xena stammered, now feeling the pressure of having gotten the bard's undivided attention. "It's nice," Xena added, pointing at the window. Gabrielle stared at the warrior for another long moment. "Don't you think?" Xena asked, nervous at the bard's silence.

Surprising the warrior, the bard leaned towards her and kissed her. "Thank you," Gabrielle whispered, her voice thick with emotion.

"We'll talk later...after dinner...Ok?" Xena asked hopefully. A small smile crept over the bard's face. When she nodded, a dazzling smile appeared on the warrior's face, making the bard chuckle warmly.

The bard's laugh subsided into a loving gaze. "You know how much I love you?" Gabrielle asked the familiar question, tracing her fingers over the warrior's cheek. Xena took the bard's hand from her cheek and kissed her palm.

"I've never questioned how much Gabrielle..." Xena responded, holding the bard's hand against cheek. "...only why," Xena admitted honestly.

The bard drew a sharp breath in for her response. But she slowly exhaled a thoughtful moment, realizing that she couldn't possibly find the words to adequately describe why she loved Xena so much.

After waiting for words that didn't come, Xena's eyes drifted down to the floor. Gabrielle immediately felt horrible for disappointing her warrior.

"Xena, anything I say to describe why I love you so much will be so grossly inadequate, incomplete and just plain lacking, that I have to admit," Gabrielle relayed with a dramatic sigh, "as a bard, I'm ashamed." Her head dropped in feigned disgrace. Peeking up, her theatrics were rewarded with a crooked grin.

"Perhaps," Xena slowly took the bard's hands in hers.

"If we put our heads together," Xena leaned towards her bard so their foreheads touched.

"We could find another way," Xena suggested, pulling back and kissing Gabrielle's forehead.

"For you..." Xena slowly kissed the bard's eyebrow.

"To express yourself..." Xena slowly kissed the bard's other eyebrow.

"Without words." Xena playfully brushed the tip of her nose over the bard's, evoking a small giggle.

"I wouldn't want... " Xena slowly kissed the bard's cheek.

"you to feel...." Xena slowly kissed the bard's other cheek.


"No?" Gabrielle asked innocently, her warrior's lips hovering over her's.

"No," Xena answered, waiting for the bard to better express herself.

"You know what?" Gabrielle relayed, closing the already small distance between them.

"What?" Xena whispered.

"I'm hungry."

"Me too," the warrior agreed, nipping at the bard's lips. The bard grinned.

"I'm talking about dinner," Gabrielle relayed, causing the warrior to pull back and stare at her bard.


Chapter 8 - Good Soup

At the dinner table, two chairs at either end of the table were empty. Sarah decided the recovering Meleager needed her undivided attention.

Only after sitting down, did Lila realize that she was next to her mother and father on one side of the table with Gabrielle and Xena were sitting on the other side.

"Isn't this good soup?" Lila asked, eyeing the uncomfortable group.

"Yes dear, very good soup," their mother responded, with a polite smile and nod.

"Yeah, fabulous soup," Gabrielle added with a sigh.

"Needs salt," Xena relayed honestly.

"Think so?" Gabrielle's father looked up from his soup with genuine interest. Xena looked at the man who's gaze, unlike his wife's, appeared friendly. She nodded. "Me too," He agreed simply.

"Well, now that you mention it, it does need a little salt," Gabrielle's mother agreed quickly glancing at Xena with a nonchalant shrug.

A surprised Xena looked over to Lila, who shrugged, then Gabrielle, who stared at her soup while quietly sliding the salt dish towards her.

"OH...OH," Lila blurted, almost choked on her soup in her excitement.

"Calm down Lila. We've already established the soup is good," Gabrielle responded, making Xena grin as she added some salt to her soup.

"Very funny. I just remembered... you had two Amazon visitors....Sustra and what was ...." Lila tried to remember.

Gabrielle and Xena exchanged concerned glances.

"Solari dear," her mother added.

"Yeah...They had a message for you." Lila relayed.

"What was the message?" Gabrielle asked.

"They wouldn't say." Lila shrugged.

"Not surprising. Amazons are not very open with information," Xena relayed, causing Gabrielle's father to look up from his soup with interest.

"Where are they now?" Gabrielle asked.

"They are in town at Cumae's Inn," Lila explained.

"Why are they at the Inn?" Gabrielle asked, looking at Xena, considering Amazons usually felt more comfortable outdoors.

"Sarah invited them to stay here, but they refused," her mother relayed with irritation. "Rather rude of your little 'subjects' to refuse an invitation like that."

Xena and Lila cringed as Gabrielle looked blankly at her mother who continued.

"Sarah is your sister you know. But I guess if their 'Queen' doesn't think much of her family, why would her subjects?"

Xena eyed the woman, both shocked and angry at her entirely inaccurate and heartless remark. Not wanting to make things worse for Gabrielle, she debated whether or not to say anything. But looking over to bard who stared blankly at her mother's bowl of soup, her decision was made. As Xena opened her mouth to challenge this woman's hurtful words, Gabrielle's mother stood up.

"Dear, your not finished din..." her husband called to her.

"I've lost my appetite dear, excuse me," she interrupted him and left.

The bard stood up immediately after her mother's departure.

"Gabrielle..." Lila called to her sister.

"I'm going into town," Gabrielle stated calmly. She turned to leave but stopped and looked to her father. "Excuse me?"

With sadness in his eyes, he nodded weakly and Gabrielle left.

As Xena stood up from the table, she glanced down at the two remaining diners. They looked as lost as Xena felt. Xena shook her head and sighed with annoyance before she left to follow her bard.

Xena caught up to Gabrielle as she left the castle.

"Gabrielle?" She asked uneasily, making Gabrielle stop and turn towards her.

"Xena, I'm not interested in talking about my mother right now," she relayed firmly. "What I am interested in is finding out why the Amazons are here," Gabrielle informed her as she started walking back towards town. Xena sighed and followed.

Entering Cumae's Inn, they were immediately greeted by Xena's old friend.

"Well Hades! Look what the cat drug in!" Cumae's voice boomed happily as she came towards the two, giving Xena a huge bear hug.

Even Gabrielle had to smile at Cumae's greeting. Her smile faded, realizing Cumae was allowed that simple indulgence, yet she wasn't.

"You look good yourself Cumae," Xena responded with a smirk.

"Guess you're here to see the Amazons?" Cumae blurted, now giving Gabrielle a bear hug. Gabrielle nodded as the woman released her hold. "Upstairs, second door on the right," Cumae informed her, noticing the usually talkative bard quietly nodding again.

As Gabrielle left up the stairs, Cumae grabbed Xena's arm and pulled her aside. "What's wrong with her? Cat's got her tongue?" Cumae asked with a chuckle.

"Wrong animal," Xena said bluntly, making Cumae even more curious.

"What's going on Xena?" Cumae asked.

"Don't know yet," Xena relayed, her eyes drawn to the stairs.

Gabrielle knocked on the door in a familiar rhythm. It quickly opened. "Your highness! We heard you had arrived." Sustra smiled broadly, bowing slightly. Gabrielle noticed with concern the sword in Sustra' hand, which the Amazon promptly sheathed.

"Sustra, I just got the message you were here to see me. What is going on?" Gabrielle asked, looking in the room to find Solari coming to the door as she was putting her dagger back in her belt.

"We shouldn't talk here," Solari informed her with an air of mystery as she scanned the hallway, finding it clear. "It is best we leave town," she added.

"Why?" Xena asked, appearing out of nowhere and surprising the Amazons, who didn't like surprises.

"Because these walls have ears," Solari relayed gravely.

As the four women walked through the streets, the people of Walsas warmly greeted Gabrielle and Xena with many hello's, glad you're back's, and genuinely warm smiles.

"They like you very much here." Solari eyed the people as they passed.

"I'd like to think so," Gabrielle responded, her curiosity growing with each step. "They are good people."

"And strong, they fought well together against Grickas," Sustra added, assessing the people as they walked by. Gabrielle thought it odd Sustra would bring up Grickas. The man who murdered Sarah's first husband, the King of Walsas, and unsuccessfully attempted to take over the kingdom.

Gabrielle noticed Xena keeping a suspicious eye on the Amazons.

Finally far enough away to satisfy the Amazons, the group stopped at a clearing. Gabrielle and Xena silently looked at each other, then the Amazons. Finally, Solari explained the troubling situation.

"Queen Ephiny has been formally petitioned by Gurda to claim Walsas as Amazon land," Solari blurted with Sustra nodding in agreement.

Gurda was familiar name to the Warrior Princess, who's eyebrow raised.

"What gives Gurda the right?" Gabrielle asked calmly.

"Amazon Law," Solari informed her with a sigh. "Gurda found an old scroll that establishes the Amazon claim for this land, now called Walsas." She motioned toward the land and town. "According to our law...."

"Gurda can challenge the throne if the Queen refuses to claim the land," Xena interjected gravely, her concern not well hidden.

Gabrielle laughed, surprising the three. "How convenient for her. And just where did she find these scrolls?" The bard challenged.

"A northern tribe in Ratheos, they keep a large collection of Ancient Amazon scrolls," Solari explained.

"Ephiny had them brought to Amazonia after Gurda's discovery. Kinda late now," Sustra interjected with a sigh.

"They are mostly boring historical accounts of land and kingdom management. Without battles, they make for poor fireside stories...and I'm afraid our sisters have not been very interested in reading these scrolls," Solari relayed honestly.

"Until now," Xena noted.

"How do we know they're not fake?" Gabrielle asked, starting to feel as uneasy as Xena.

"Trayla has looked over the scrolls very carefully. She believes them legitimate," Solari relayed with a sigh.

"Oh," Gabrielle spoke weakly, trying to think of a good next step.

"Don't worry Gabrielle, Ephiny has no intention of claiming Walsas." Sustra tried to console her.

"Then she'll be challenged," Gabrielle relayed with concern.

"Ephiny can EASILY take Gurda." Sustra laughed, having great confidence in the Acting Queen's skills.

Xena nodded and smiled, agreeing with Sustra. Ephiny would be able to handle this situation and Gabrielle wouldn't have get involved, Xena sighed with relief.

"Yeah but how many challenges can she take?" Solari relayed, shaking her head. Xena suddenly didn't feel so relieved anymore.

"What do you mean?" Xena blurted with irritation.

"Gurda has many Amazons who are loyal to her, and are just as power hungry. If she fails in her challenge of the throne, I don't expect it will be long before they figure out they have same right to challenge the throne over Walsas," Solari relayed.

"I want to read the scrolls myself. There's got to be something Trayla missed," Gabrielle relayed thoughtfully.

"NO!" Xena blurted vehemently. "Once you step foot on Amazon land Gabrielle, Gurda will challenge YOU."

"Gabrielle, this is not like a personal challenge, Xena won't be able to be your champion for a challenge to the throne," Solari quickly informed her that important detail.

"I KNOW," Gabrielle relayed with irritation, eyeing a very unpleased Warrior Princess.

"Gabrielle, this is EXACTLY what Gurda wants," Xena blurted with frustration. "THINK Gabrielle, why else would she choose to go after Walsas. There's got to be other lands that the Amazons have claim to. But she KNOWS Ephiny won't claim the land, she KNOWS you won't want Ephiny to have to constantly defend your sister's land, she KNOWS you will come and ..."

"And she knows she can easily beat me," Gabrielle calmly interrupted, quickly defusing the Warrior's impassioned argument. Though the bard's voice was calm, the look in Gabrielle's eyes revealed great hurt.

Solari and Sustra looked at each other uneasily. Insulting their Queen like that could mean they would have to try to arrest Xena. Or if Gabrielle was in a really bad mood....they really didn't want to think about that.

"Isn't that right Xena? Tell me," Gabrielle challenged the Warrior Princess, who's heart dropped knowing the bard was questioning Xena's faith in her. "Come on Xena. I want to hear you tell me what you think. That I have no chance of winning a challenge. Say it."

"Gabrielle..." Xena spoke with great pain, in her voice and on her face.

"SAY IT!" Gabrielle commanded, finally disclosing her anger and hurt.

With each word, she had managed to injure the woman she loved. Xena's heart ached knowing her next words would be no different. Yet, she had to utter them. She had to convince Gabrielle it was foolish to even risk a fight with Gurda.

"Gurda is a better fighter Gabrielle," Xena admitted with cold honesty.

Solari and Sustra tensed, disturbed by the Warrior Princess' admission.

Gabrielle looked at the ground, drawing in a long breath. She nodded slightly as she exhaled slowly. "I have no desire to fight, Xena." The bard spoke quietly as her eyes lifted to meet Xena's. "But I have no intention of letting Walsas remain a constant thorn in Ephiny's or my side." Gabrielle informed her. "I need to go to Amazonia and review the scrolls myself," Gabrielle explained with unnerving calm and confidence. "I will tell Sarah what's going on. We'll leave in the morning."

"Uh ...Your majesty..." Solari started to question the Queen's wisdom to tell her sister but Gabrielle's piercing gaze immediately silenced the Amazon, who slightly bowed in acquiescence.

"Shall we meet you in the morning at the castle gates?" Sustra interjected, causing Gabrielle to nod before leaving for the castle.

The Amazons stood awkwardly, waiting for the Warrior Princess to explain how this really wasn't such a bad plan. Xena closed her eyes and exhaled. It was a long moment before she opened her eyes again.

"Uh, Xena?" Sustra dared to bother the warrior when she opened her eyes. "What should we do?"

Xena abruptly drew her sword, making the Amazons nervously jump back.

Xena eyed them coldly. "Care to practice?"

Chapter 9 - Pretty in Pink

Finding her sister in the kitchen putting together a tray of food for Meleager, Gabrielle sighed not knowing where or how to begin. "How's Meleager?" Gabrielle asked.

"There you are," Sarah looked up with relief. "Oh, he's up and very hungry," she relayed with a smile which faded seeing the concern on her sister's face. "I heard about mother at dinner Gabrielle. She had no right to say ...."

"We have to talk." Gabrielle relayed gravely.

"Yes, I know," Sarah agreed reluctantly. "I really had no idea mother still so upset with you. I guess I should have known by how obsessed she is with my Traditional wedding." Sarah relayed with a weary sigh. "She's just wrong to...."

"There you are!" Lila interrupted Sarah, coming in the kitchen. "You know mother was dead wrong to treat you like..."

"Great, she's wrong," Gabrielle interrupted, rolling her eyes. "Now listen, I just found out what the Amazons wanted to tell me," Gabrielle relayed with urgency. "Uh might want to sit down."

The three sat in silence around the kitchen table, staring at their plates of nutbread after Gabrielle explained the situation.

"WOW," Lila finally blurted in amazement, breaking the silence. "You know, one day you'll both look back on this and laugh and laugh and la..." Lila realized her humor was not exactly going over well, from the glares from her sisters and sighed. "Don't worry, you'll figure something out," Lila encouraged her sisters, stuffing her mouth with nutbread.

"I'm not sure what I can do, but ...." Gabrielle relayed with a sigh.

"You'll do your best," Sarah rubbed her temples. "That Gurda sounds pretty dangerous," she relayed with concern.

"Yeah. I'm hoping for a peaceful solution," Gabrielle relayed, picking at the nutbread on her plate. She suspected her continued good health depended on it.

"If not, Sarah could make her a bride's maid," Lila suggested with her mouth full, munching on another piece.

"Huh?" Her older sisters blurted in confusion as Lila slowly sipped her water to wash down the treat.

"Yeah, mother could nag her to death," Lila explained, successfully evoking giggles from her older sisters.

"Yeah, sick mother on her!" Sarah readily agreed, laughing harder as Lila threateningly wagged her motherly finger of reprimand at them.

"She'd nag her to death or at least die trying," Lila added.

"I don't think I hate her THAT much," Gabrielle blurted.

"Gurda or Mother?" Sarah asked seriously. All three howled.

"Well, it would be a toss up on what would kill Gurda first...mother's nagging or the embarrassment of wearing that hideous pink bridesmaid dress!" Lila burst out laughing, making Sarah laugh even louder and almost fall off her chair.

Gabrielle wasn't laughing. "Pink?" Gabrielle questioned her.

Sarah looked up at her sister and took a deep breath as she wiped the tears from her eyes, trying to calm herself long enough to answer her sister. Lila coughed, also trying to regain her composure. Looking at the upset face of their middle sister proved very sobering.

"Uh," Sarah uttered uneasily, then looked at Lila, who's eyes grew wide just before they burst out laughing again.

"You're making me wear PINK?!?" Gabrielle was not amused.

"'s not so bad...really. Lila looks great actually," Sarah added nervously, with an unconvincing smile thrown in.

"Lila...doesn't...have...RED...HAIR!!" Gabrielle blurted slowly, making her sisters giggle more.

"How could you do this???" The upset bard abruptly stood from her chair, knocking into the table and causing the plates of nutbread to violently lurch.

"Now Gabrielle...stay calm," Sarah held her hands out as if they could deflect her sister's temper. Lila rolled her eyes and sighed, grabbing her plate back.

"You of ALL people, a fellow RED head! How could you!!" Gabrielle snapped. "PINK!!" She blurted as she slapped her hand down on the table punctuating her displeasure with the colour, which happened to hit the edge of her plate of her uneaten nutbread. While nutbread normally doesn't fly, it did take flight long enough to cross the table, hit Sarah square on her chest, and fall down snugly between her ... attributes.

Gabrielle's mouth dropped as Lila coughed on her nutbread. Sarah sighed, looking down at the nutbread. Lila made no effort to contain her amusement. She grabbed her stomach and let out an obnoxious belly laugh that drew stares from her older sisters which stopped her abruptly.

"Now wait just a damn minute!" Lila protested angrily, seeing a familiar conspiratorial gaze exchanged between her older sisters. "What did I do??" Lila quickly got up from the table, realizing if she wanted a chance to escape, now would be the prudent time. With incredible speed, Lila fled from the kitchen.

"Oooff," blurted the fleeing Lila as she barreled into the Warrior Princess.

"What's wrong?" Xena asked, pealing Gabrielle's youngest sister off her.

Lila looked back. "They're plotting again. If you know what's good for'll stay clear of the kitchen," Lila warned, looking over her shoulder at the kitchen. "Don't say I didn't warn you."

Xena sighed and shook her head as Lila proceeded with her escape.

"Boy, Lila is FAST." Gabrielle laughed.

"And awfully nervous...did you notice?" Sarah relayed with feigned concern then chuckled. She sighed when she sat down, eyeing her the nutbread lodged between her attributes, then her sister.

"Uh...sorry," Gabrielle responded with a guilty grimace.

With a unconvinced smirk, the Queen of Walsas proceeded to extract the nutbread. Succeeding in generating a lot of crumbs, she shuddered. "Ugh...where's Meleager when you really need him," Sarah relayed with a smirk at her crumby predicament, making Gabrielle howl.

"Give the poor guy a break, he was just attacked by a Furry Wegget," Gabrielle relayed, wiping tears from her eyes.

"I hope he comes through on the items," Sarah sighed. "Or that will be something else Mother will hang over our heads until we are all visiting Hades." Sarah sighed and giggled her shoulders again, trying to get more crumbs to fall through.

"She wouldn't let death stop her," Gabrielle joked wearily.

"I really am sorry for bringing you here so early. I had no idea," Sarah apologized holding her sister's hand.

"Funny thing is, I was kind of glad to hear she wanted me here, in a masochistic sorta way," Gabrielle joked sadly. "I never meant to hurt her...." Gabrielle relayed with a sigh, wearily rubbing her eyes.

"Gabrielle, you should never have to apologize for living your life. She should have been quite pleased you got back with Perdicus, if you remember how happy she was announcing your betrothal at cousin Huestis' rehearsal dinner," Sarah relayed. "A lot happier than you, as I recall."

"I was EIGHT, Sarah. I hadn't even kissed a boy yet and mother already had my life with Perdicus planned out," Gabrielle complained, shaking her head at the unpleasant memory.

" was always mother's goal in life to marry off her three daughters. You know, I was thinking of inviting cousin Huestis to the wedding," Sarah relayed. "Do you think he'll come?"

Gabrielle let out a laugh and shook her head no. "I think he's probably had enough of mother and her Traditional weddings for a lifetime," she relayed making Sarah nod. "Promise me one thing," Gabrielle asked her. "You won't let mother keep you and Meleager from going through with it. I still have nightmares from poor Huestis' fiasco," she sighed and sat back.

"Well, you know what they say, 'For better or worse'...and poor Iphigenia couldn't take the 'worse' part," Sarah remembered.

"Yeah...but the worse is supposed to come after the wedding not during the wedding," Gabrielle relayed grimly. "I would have strangled her if it was my wedding."

"Is that why you didn't want a Traditional Wedding?" Sarah asked with surprise.

"Well, killing your mother, even if justified, would still constitute loss of blood innocence," Gabrielle joked. Sarah sighed and sat back waiting for a serious answer. Sarah's patient gaze caused Gabrielle to shift uncomfortably and look at the table.

"You know," Gabrielle spoke softly, picking through a plate of nutbread crumbs. "Your wedding day is supposed to be a celebration."

Gabrielle looked at her sister and smiled warmly. "Two people... publically declaring their love for each other, in front of the Gods, their family and friends," Gabrielle softly preached her romantic vision. "It's not supposed to be a trial," Gabrielle sighed. "Our village has made the most sacred and wonderful ritual into a painful ordeal. Well, at least mother has seen to it it turns out that way."

Sarah nodded knowingly, quietly listening.

"I don't think I...I don't think we...." Gabrielle stumbled over her words as her eyes filled with tears. She paused and took a deep breath. "I loved him," she added as if needing to convince her sister. "but..." Gabrielle sighed and stared at her empty plate of nutbread. "...if I had to go through all that, to justify my love my family...friends...." Gabrielle sighed and shook her head, leaving many thoughts unspoken.

"Perhaps this Traditional Wedding stuff has its place after all." Sarah smiled with new understanding. "And maybe you'll have one yet," Sarah suggested with a mischievous grin, causing Gabrielle to laugh softly.

"Not likely," Gabrielle laughed, sitting back in her chair and shook her head with an amused smile. "Besides the obvious of not being very traditional, you'd have to call that a public display of affection," Gabrielle informed her sister. "We agreed that public displays of affection were out," Gabrielle added with a sigh.

"NO public displays of affection?" Sarah repeated in amazement.

Gabrielle sighed unhappily and shook her head no.

"None?" Sarah asked.

Gabrielle shook her head no.

"Not even hugging?" Sarah asked, incredulously.

Gabrielle sighed heavily and shook her head no.

"No casual touches?" Sarah asked, almost in shock.

"Xena doesn't want me to be a no public disp.." Gabrielle explained.

"That's the most ridic...." Sarah interrupted.

"Sarah," Gabrielle blurted with irritation.

"And you're HAPPY with that?" Sarah related incredulously.

"I promised," Gabrielle snapped. As Sarah opened her mouth again, Gabrielle quickly stopped any further discussion on that topic. "Drop it," the bard blurted with a warning glare.

Xena heard footsteps approaching. Maneuvering behind the unsuspecting man, she placed her hand over his mouth. "No you don't," Xena spoke quietly in Meleager's ear. Before he knew it, he was no longer entering the kitchen but the library across the hall. When she released him in the library, she curiously eyed the confused man with a raised eyebrow.

"Nice pajamas." Xena smirked, still eyeing his silky yellow pajamas with a big black M embroidered on the right breast pajama pocket.

"Think so?" He looked down and inspected his big M and smiled warmly. "Sarah actually had this made....Hey! Why in Hade's name did you yank me away from the kitchen? I'm starving! I haven't eaten all day." Meleager whined.

"Sarah and Gabrielle are talking." Xena informed him.


Chapter 10 - Inspiration

Gabrielle stood apprehensively at Xena's bedroom door, not sure how she could face Xena after her earlier angry outburst. Xena was just being honest with her, the bard sighed. Placing her hand on the door knob, the bard took a deep breath...then another. Finally, she opened the door and quickly entered the room, ready to face whatever there was to face. Her heart dropped when she saw she only faced an empty room.

With a heavy sigh, she walked over to a pile of their things the stable boy apparently brought in. She considered she could pass the time productively and sort out what they would need for their short stay in Amazonia. She considered she wouldn't need much for she was going to a well supplied Amazon camp - as Queen after all. She smiled, shaking her head at that still unbelievable fate that befell her. She hoped she would always make Melosa proud.

She started to pack the bare essentials. Though she knew she wouldn't be needing their cooking supplies, she eyed the frying pan with a smirk. If push came to shove with Gurda, she might stand a chance with a frying pan. Xena HAD proven it a dangerous weapon on numerous occasions. And it was likely she had more experience with a frying pan than Gurda. Nah, better not bring it along, Gabrielle decided, concluding it would be too embarrassing for the Amazon Queen to be beaten up with a frying pan.

She sighed as she picked up her bag of writing supplies and unfinished work. They had quills and parchment in Amazonia, no need to bring that with her she considered. Her work? No need to bring that either, she concluded, anticipating being plenty busy with those Amazon scrolls. Besides, if something should happen, her work was safe in Walsas. "Come on Gabrielle, you haven't been beaten yet!" she scolded herself, determined to find a peaceful way out of this problem.

She sat down and pulled out some blank parchment. Writing always helped to calm her. Yawning as she reached for her quill, she quickly concluded she really didn't need anymore calming and was in no condition to write. If she tried, she knew she would fall asleep before Xena got back. She had to stay awake and talk to her.

Yawning again, Gabrielle neatly placed her quill next to her parchment and ink.

Meleager sighed as Xena suddenly walked over to some scrolls in the Library's poetry section. "What are you doing?"

"You haven't finished your poem," Xena stated as she looked over a few scrolls and pulled out a promising couple that might just provide Meleager the inspiration he needed.

"You're not entirely accurate," Meleager replied smugly, causing Xena to eye him skeptically.

"Let me see it," she challenged.

"I haven't even STARTED it!!" He blurted triumphantly, then groaned, realizing there was no reason to be happy about that.

"Meleager, you need to write a poem."

"I know, I know....but I HAVE a couple weeks," He explained. "Gabrielle said inspiration could come at the most unexpected times." He shrugged, sort of believing it might. "I was waiting for inspiration to hit me."

"You don't have time for inspiration," Xena informed him bluntly, setting down a couple of scrolls on the table with a thunk. She grabbed his shoulders and pushed him into a chair.

"Read," she ordered him, pointing to the scrolls.

"What?!? Are you suggesting I copy one?" He asked in shock.

"BRILLIANT!" He blurted happily. "I should have thought of that!" He added with relieved grin.

"Meleager, you'll need to...." Xena paused, deciding how to delicately put it.

"Make sure I don't copy one...exactly." He quickly caught on, correctly finishing her thought. Xena nodded.

With Meleager in search of inspiration, Xena figured it was now time to face her determined bard. Walking past the kitchen, Xena found it empty, concluding she must be in her room.

Reaching for the doorknob, she paused a moment wondering what she would possibly say to her, remembering the hurt look she brought to the bard's eyes. Taking a deep breath, Xena quickly entered to face whatever there was to face. Her heart dropped finding she faced an empty room. Perhaps she was still with her sister, Xena considered, reluctantly leaving Gabrielle's room.

When entering her room, the warrior grinned. Her eyes were immediately drawn to the bard. Gabrielle sat on the bed, waiting for her, leaning on the corner post...sound asleep.

She quietly closed the door behind her. Though she knew Gabrielle was a pretty sound sleeper, Xena was still careful not to make noise while taking her weapons, armor and boots off. She set them down by her saddle bag on a chair, within easy reach from the bed. Moving to the end of the bed, she studied Gabrielle's tranquil face a long, indulgent moment before lifting the bard up in her arms. Gabrielle shifted, instinctively wrapping her arms around the warrior. "Xena?" Gabrielle spoke groggily.

"Shhhh...we should get some sleep. We have a busy day tomorrow," Xena said softly, laying the bard down on the bed. She started to take the bard's boots off.

"Xena?" The bard asked again with a yawn, hearing a boot hit the floor.

"Hmmmm?" Xena responded, tossing the second boot to the floor.

"I'm sorry."

"Me too," Xena relayed, climbing into bed and pulling Gabrielle into her arms.

The bard shifted, melting into the warrior's embrace. "Hmmmm..."

"I know we should talk Gabrielle, but right now, we both need to get some sleep," Xena suggested, then heard Gabrielle sigh heavily.

Xena's eyes rolled.

"Unless you want to talk now," Xena offered reluctantly.

The bard sighed again, making the warrior sigh with exasperation.

"Gabrielle, do you or don't you want...." Xena's irritation was interrupted by the low rumbling against her chest. The bard began to snore. She smiled and kissed Gabrielle's forehead.

"Pleasant dreams Gabrielle," Xena whispered, shutting her eyes. For the moment at least, all that mattered and all she needed was sleeping safely in her arms. For the moment at least, sleep visited the warrior.

Gabrielle rolled over with a muffled yawn, groggily reaching out over the bed. Feeling only cold sheets, Gabrielle's eyes abruptly opened. She squinted in the morning light. "Xena?" she blurted, a little disoriented as she rubbed her eyes.

"Good morning," Xena softly greeted her from across the room. Gabrielle yawned and tried to focus on the warrior who put away some things and got up from the table.

"So far, its a wonderful morning," Gabrielle relayed, eyeing the warrior as she came towards her and sat on her bed. Xena grinned, gently brushing the hair out of the bard's face. She followed up her morning greeting with a quick hello to the bard's soft lips.

When their lips were finished saying hello, the bard and warrior silently looked at each other for an uneasy moment. The Warrior Princess knew the stubborn bard would not change her mind about going to Amazonia and the bard knew the Warrior Princess desperately wanted her to.

"How about breakfast?" Gabrielle broke the silence, making the warrior chuckle and shake her head. "What?" Gabrielle asked, narrowing her eyes in feigned warning.

"Nothing," Xena responded with a odd smile.

Gabrielle's breath caught when she felt the warrior's strong hand slip behind her head. Without hesitation, she pulled the bard in for a longer hello. When she pulled back from the pleasant but all too short visit, the look of longing in the bard's eyes made her regret what she had to do next.

"I'll see to Argo and meet you for breakfast," Xena relayed with obvious reluctance as she got up from the bed.

Gabrielle smiled at her warrior, who proceeded to pick up the saddle bags and walk towards the table to collect the bard's bag of writing supplies.

"Oh, you can leave that Xena," Gabrielle told her, drawing a surprised look from the warrior. "I won't have time for writing," Gabrielle got out of bed. Xena eyed the bag then the bard with a curious look.

"I thought I would pack light for a change," Gabrielle grinned. "And besides, we are not going to be gone that long," Gabrielle explained confidently. Xena looked at the bag then the bard again. She nodded and sighed, hoping the bard was right.

In the dining room, Sarah, Lila and their parents sat around the table being served breakfast. Sarah and Lila agreed with Gabrielle that their mother didn't need to know about the trouble with the Amazons. She already had enough to nag about. Sarah attempted to casually mention that Gabrielle was going to Amazonia.

"She's leaving?!?" Her mother blurted indignantly. Stopping in the doorway, Gabrielle cringed at the outburst of displeasure. Gabrielle contemplated an about-face and a quick escape, but it was too late...she was already spotted.

"Gabrielle!" Her mother uttered in a commanding tone, making Gabrielle feel eight again. "Are you really leaving?" Her mother asked.

Gabrielle took a deep breath and nodded.

"You just got here!" Gabrielle's mother blurted her complaint, getting out of her seat.

It was expected that her mother would not pleased, but Gabrielle felt an unexpected twinge of guilt when her father's sad eyes met hers.

"I know mother," Gabrielle said wearily, dragging herself towards her family.

"She just needs to straighten some things out with the Amazons," Sarah explained casually, causing her mother's eyebrows to furrow.

"Don't worry, we've got the wedding under control here mother, Gabrielle really needs to get to Amazonia," Lila added helpfully.

"Yeah," Meleager added with a half laugh as he entered the room behind Gabrielle. "Or else we might be getting a lot more wedding guests than we planned for," he joked as he sat down at the table across from his future father-in-law. He noticed he was being glared at by the four Poteidaian women. "What?!?" He asked defensively.

Gabrielle's father shook his head and quietly ate his porridge.

"More guests?" Their mother blurted with concern. "Sarah, what's this about more guests? You know we have only so much room in the grand hall. We can barely fit our family and friends that we've invited already." The older woman worried the wedding would turn into a fiasco.

"Don't worry mother," Gabrielle sighed, walking over to the table and grabbing two apples from the bowl of fruit. "The Amazons are not interested in Sarah's wedding." Gabrielle looked at Sarah apologetically.

"You're not even going to have a decent breakfast before rushing off to be with your little friends?" The older woman blurted making her three daughters sigh.

Meleager kept quiet, realizing a little late that that was what he should have done before.

"Before you abandon your family for your IMPORTANT Amazon business, you should at least..."

"Gabrielle," Xena called out, intrepidly interrupting the bard's mother as she barely entered the dining room. "We should get going."

Xena's voice was music to the bard's ears and cacophony to her unhappy mother's.

"Before you take my daughter away...again," she curtly responded to the warrior woman by the door, then turned to Gabrielle. " should a least stay a moment and have a decent meal," Gabrielle's mother urged the bard, not about to give up.

Gabrielle shook her head, feeling a headache coming on.

"Both of you," the magnanimous older woman quickly added with a polite smile.

Gabrielle eyed Xena, very interested in how she was going to respond.

In addition to the bard and her mother, Xena found four other pairs of eyes fixed on her, also very interested in how she was going to respond.

Xena sighed and slowly crossed the room towards Gabrielle. Reaching her destination she stopped and raised her eyebrow questioningly, looking at the two apples in the bard's hands.

Gabrielle gave her warrior an apple and a warm smile.

"This will be fine," Xena responded, reluctantly braking her gaze from her bard and looked at the older woman.

The four pairs of eyes shifted to the irritated older woman.

With an exceedingly polite tone, Gabrielle's mother replied, "Really? I thought that besides murder and mayhem, one of the many things the Warrior Princess was infamous for was her voracious appetite."

The four pairs of eyes gasped. Gabrielle's mother gazed coldly at the warrior, who held her tongue, not wanting to make things worse for her bard.

However, finally fed up now that her mother's caustic comments were no longer subtextually subtle but directly catapulted at her warrior, Gabrielle was unable to hold her tongue any longer.

"Oh, her appetite IS voracious mother," Gabrielle confirmed with a thin smile, then lifted her own apple to her lips and took a bite.

Her mother stiffened and eyed her daughter, who wiped the juice from her mouth and swallowed. "Almost as voracious as mine," she added. "But don't worry, we do our best to never go to bed hungry."

The four pairs of eyes widened in concert with four jaws dropping.

Thanks to years of practice, the warrior's mask was firmly in place, keeping Xena's surprise hidden. However, the Warrior Princess considered it a good thing she was not eating her apple, or she might have choked.

"Well...I can't say that I'm surprised," the older woman relayed with disappointment, no longer looking at either the warrior or bard.

She briskly turned and walked towards the table to join her husband for breakfast.

The four pairs of eyes and Xena looked at Gabrielle, who sighed and shook her head.

"We're wasting daylight," Gabrielle spoke softly to Xena who nodded.

As they turned to leave, Xena looked back at Gabrielle's mother, who was the only one eating her breakfast. She refused to acknowledge her daughter's departure. However, Xena found Gabrielle's father watching them. He looked at them with a sad gaze and returned his attention to his bowl.

Chapter 11 - Return to Amazonia

As they rode away from Walsas, Gabrielle felt oddly calm despite facing her mother's cold shoulder of disappointment. The bard was where she wanted to be, with the one she loved. A small smile came to her face when she felt a reassuring squeeze around her waist.

"You ok?" Xena asked softly.

"You know..." Gabrielle started but paused, staring at the two Amazons on horseback in front of them. After a few moments of silence, the warrior's curiosity grew too great to wait for the bard.

"Know what?" Xena asked softly in the bard's ear.

"That didn't go so well," Gabrielle observed bluntly.

"Hmmm...and here I thought things went rather smoothly," the warrior noted, making the bard giggle and the warrior smile with relief.

"Gods," Gabrielle sighed heavily. "I wonder if I'll ever be able to talk with my mother."

"You're not the first person to ask that, and I'm sure you won't be the last," Xena relayed thoughtfully.

"But I'm a bard," Gabrielle lamented. "I'm supposed to be good with words."

"You are, Gabrielle. But as a certain bard reminded me a few hundred times, it takes two people to have a conversation," Xena relayed, feeling the bard's hand gently squeeze her arm in thanks.

"I owe you an apology...." Gabrielle sighed. "I didn't mean to embarrass you, but somehow... this appetite thing just popped out before I could...."

"Uh huh." The warrior grinned.

"Xena, I had this very tactful and heartfelt speech planned but when she...." Gabrielle tried to explain.

"Uh huh," Xena interjected, still grinning.

Gabrielle shook her head, knowing there were times with the warrior it was best just to drop a subject. Now was one of those times. She sighed and remained quiet.

"Well, you may not be good at talking with your mother," Xena spoke quietly in the bard's ear. "But you certainly communicated TO her... loud and clear." Xena relayed with a quick peck to the bard's ear.

Later that day, the Amazon camp was abuzz with excitement at the report their Queen and the Warrior Princess had crossed into Amazon territory.

At the edge of Amazon territory, six Amazons gracefully descended from the trees to greet and honor their Queen. Solari and Sustra smiled approvingly at the spectacle. Gabrielle watched with fascination as they lowered themselves down long vines in full costume. The masks, beads, feathers, ornately carved bows, ceremonial swords and daggers that adorned these strong women, made them both terrifying and beautiful.

Once on the ground, the Amazons drew their ceremonial swords and saluted their queen. Good thing they were on her side, Gabrielle thought with a smile. Or were they? Xena felt Gabrielle tense.

"Don't worry Gabrielle, I won't let anything happen to you," Xena whispered to her bard, feeling her relax a little. However, relaxation was something the Warrior Princess suspected neither of them was going to enjoy during this visit to Amazonia.

When the Queen and her ceremonial guard entered the village, Eponin entered the Queen's hut.

"Queen Gabrielle has arrived," Eponin relayed uneasily.

Ephiny nodded and followed Eponin out her hut. Ephiny found a large, buoyant crowd waiting to greet their absent Queen.

The Amazons murmured with excitement over the celebrations and the news and stories their bard Queen would share. Ephiny scanned over the crowd with a smile, until she spotted the two eldest Amazons, Frea and Roeya, eyeing her to remind her of her task. Ephiny's eyes rolled, not needing to be reminded and not happy about the task. Seeing Gurda and Raiz among the crowd with pleased smiles didn't help to brighten Ephiny's mood.

Though not thrilled with the reason that brought them to Amazonia, or the large and suffocating crowd around them, Xena still managed to find pleasure watching the bard greet practically every Amazon by name as they slowly progressed through the village. Everyone was made to feel special, Xena noted with appreciation, knowing that to Gabrielle, everyone was.

"Ephiny!" Gabrielle spotted her friend by the hut and quickly dismounted. The bard gave her a hug which was gladly returned.

The Warrior Princess scanned the crowd and took her time dismounting.

"Gabrielle, welcome home," Ephiny responded, making the bard grin. "Xena," Ephiny greeted the stoic warrior. Xena nodded. "Solari has informed you of the situation I gather," Ephiny spoke with a sad smile.

"Yes, I wanted to read these long lost scrolls for myself," Gabrielle responded casually with a smile.

Ephiny nodded. Gabrielle looked around at the crowd intently listening to their every word.

"But first, I believe we have some celebrating to do." Gabrielle's voice boomed, ensuring the Amazon's in the back would hear. Her comment met with crowd's approval as they burst into cheers and war cries. Gabrielle eyed Xena, who raised an eyebrow. Gabrielle shrugged.

"If you'll come with me, your highness," Ephiny grinned approvingly, sweeping her arm out to formally show the way. As she escorted Gabrielle to the Queen's hut, they chatted about happier Amazon news while they passed many curious ears.

Xena followed the women, eyeing the crowd of happy onlookers as they started to disburse. It didn't take long for Xena to find the enemy.

After the crowd was gone, an Amazon remained, wanting to be seen. Across the village, she stood tall and proud and unaffected by the Warrior Princess' cold stare. Xena stopped walking and slowly faced the threat, continuing to icy stare and assess. With her height, Gurda had a much greater reach than her bard.

Although she considered Gabrielle would be capable of compensating for Gurda's reach, there was one thing Gabrielle would not be able to compensate for - the killer instinct. An instinct so innate to Gurda yet, so foreign to Gabrielle, it made Xena both thankful and terrified. There was no way the Warrior Princess could allow this fight. Xena's mind raced for options.

As if sensing the Warrior Princess' dilemma, a broad smile emerged on Gurda's face before she turned to leave. The Amazon could feel the threatening stare on her back as she met up with another, much more nervous Amazon, Raiz. Raiz glanced back to the Warrior Princess, then quickly returned her gaze forward unable to meet those icy eyes.

The two Amazons turned into their hut, allowing Raiz to breath again. Gurda sat down and started to brush her hair happily.

"Are you CRAZY?" Raiz blurted and plopped down on her cot, shaking her head.

"What do you mean?"

"Why are you taunting Xena?" Raiz asked, getting up to pace, unable to sit still.

"Because I can," Gurda relayed, putting her brush down and turning towards Raiz with a satisfied smile. Raiz exhaled with frustration and plopped back on the cot.

"There they are Gabrielle, all the scrolls from Ratheos," Ephiny relayed with a sigh, looking to Trayla.

Gabrielle walked over to the large pile of scrolls, immediately noticing four were set aside.

"Those four scrolls discuss Walsas," Ephiny explained. "Trayla has looked at them and believes we have a legitimate claim to the land."

"No disrespect to Trayla's abilities, but I want to read them, all of them, myself," Gabrielle relayed looking at Trayla who nodded in understanding.

The bard Queen smiled warmly at Xena when she entered the tent. For an instant, Ephiny observed the warrior's stoic face soften.

"It will take you quite a while to get through all of them," Trayla relayed.

"And I plan to read every one. Starting tonight," Gabrielle relayed, eyeing the scrolls again. "After the celebration, of course." Gabrielle grinned.

Xena stared at the scrolls. At least there was some time to think of a plan, the Warrior Princess considered.

That evening, the music and dancing began shortly after a feast that was enough even to satisfy the bard's voracious appetite. Sitting between Ephiny and Xena, Gabrielle smiled appreciatively as she watched the athletic women circle the fire, dancing with seemingly limitless energy.

On the other side of the fire, Gurda and Raiz chatted with four other Amazons. Ephiny and Xena kept glancing over to their table.

"Look Raiz, our Acting Queen and the Warrior Princess find us more entertaining than the dancers," Gurda called out and laughed, lifting her mug of wine to the two women to salute them, then continued her conversation with her dinner partners.

Raiz gulped her wine nervously.

"Gods she's cocky," Ephiny blurted, averting her eyes and sipping her wine.

Xena exhaled in agreement and bit into an apple, still eyeing the enemy. Xena was not concerned with being polite.

"You two are not very subtle," Gabrielle shook her head as she sipped her water, continuing to focus on the dancers.

The two warriors flanking her turned and stared at the bard curiously.

"Gurda is enjoying your attention and you two keep giving it to her," the Amazon bard scolded them as she continued to watch the dancers.

"Sure she does have a commanding presence," Gabrielle admitted. "She's tall, I'd say a little over six feet...right Xena?" Gabrielle asked, smiling and continuing to watch the dancer that performing in front of them.

"Uh," Xena blurted and eyed Gurda, surprised at the bard's observation. "Yes," the Warrior Princess responded as small grin crept over her face. "A little over six feet."

"With that scar over her left forearm and right thigh, I'd say she's had more than her share of sword fights. Prefers a sword to a staff...right Ephiny?" Gabrielle asked as she clapped with the crowd for the dancing exhibition that just ended.

"Uh," Ephiny blurted, surprised at the observation, then smiled slightly. "Yes Gabrielle. She does prefer the sword."

"Well, I certainly hope you two are not as rude to the next performer as you were to those poor dancers by gawking at Gurda throughout the entire performance," Gabrielle warned them, standing up and turning to the two warriors.

Xena and Ephiny glanced at each other with amused grins.

"Besides, I'll wager the next performer will be much more entertaining than that boring ol' warrior over there," Gabrielle relayed.

As predicted, the next performer was more entertaining. As the bard began to spin her tale, she easily captured the attention of her two dinner partners, as well as the rest of the Amazons.

Now able to indulge in the pleasure of blatantly gazing upon her bard, Xena indulged. Though, her thoughts wandered far from the bard's story.

Watching the story teller move gracefully around the fire, Xena reflected with great pride at how much the amazing young woman had learned. Yet, not nearly enough to do battle with someone like Gurda, Xena considered.

Damn Amazon laws, Xena cursed silently. She wanted desperately to be the bard's champion. She wanted Gurda to know what it was like to go against someone who didn't have to compensate for a reach advantage...someone who would not hesitate responding to that killer instinct with her cold, swift steel.

Xena took a long, calming breath and a sip of wine. Then her eyes met the bard's. For a moment, Ephiny noticed the Warrior Princess' stoic face slightly smile.

Pleased to find the warrior's eyes on her, the bard smiled brightly and returned her gaze to others in the audience.

Fighting Gurda as the bard's champion was not an option. Xena also knew the bard would not tolerate her provoking a fight with Gurda and killing her...or even maiming her badly...or maybe not so badly, but enough to give Gabrielle an edge. The Warrior Princess sighed heavily at all the limitations.

Xena looked thoughtfully down at her goblet, swirling the wine in it. Possible alternatives to a satisfying direct approach began to fill the warrior's mind.

A poisonous herb slipped in Gurda's wine, she considered, glancing over at the Amazon. Or perhaps an unfortunate and, of course, painful accident, Xena mused as she sipped her dizzy wine.

It would be so easy, the Warrior Princess considered. It would be so obvious, she rolled her eyes. It would be murder, Xena sighed with a furrowed brow. The 'obvious' part was the biggest drawback. Gabrielle would never forgive her...and leave her. There had to be another way. Xena's mind raced.


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