Authors Note:I wrote this epic during season three of Xena: Warrior Princess. It was my take on the possible future of Xena and Gabrielle and why they might end their travels together. Since it is based on Season Three characters, it is AU compared to the final seasons of the show. I will be posting all chapters as time permits over the next few days.

Note On Relationships: I don't write "relationship" stories, so this would be classified as "general".

Disclaimer: I don't own Xena or Gabrielle, or the universe or events this story centers around. The rest of the characters I created for the purpose of telling this story.

Length: Paths Once Taken contains six chapters or "Books". Books 1 through 5 are of about equal length and Book 6 is a shorter epilogue.

Rating: Rated PG13 for scenes intense battle violence in later chaapters.

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PATHS ONCE TAKEN (BOOK 1: REUNIONS)

by OldScout

A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.

--Lau Tzu

I. SHORTCUT

1.THE MAP

"It'll cut more than 8 weeks from our journey. Not to mention the tactical advantage a short cut like this would make." The captain said, indicating his proposed route on a newly acquired map.

"The tactical nature of our mission is not a matter for discussion." His superior whispered. The two men leaned over the large parchment "Don't you find it hard to believe that a road wouldn't already be there if it was that easy?"

The two men knelt on skins they had spread on the ground next to the fire. It was tricky, they needed the fire tall and bright for light to read the map, but a single spark could ruin the fragile document.

"How do you even know this is accurate." The commander asked, waving his hand over the proposed route through the mountains.

"Right here," the other said pulling out a map he had acquired early in their trip. He opened the document drawn to a much smaller scale then the first. "See the mountains on the southern border, where this map ends." He indicated the bottom of the map.

"Yes."

"They match the northern mountains on this map." he pointed to the first map. Then brought the second one forward again. "Even the pass is there, with a road leading up to it."

"What if there is something wrong? Perhaps a bridge is out in the mountains?" The elder man asked. "The scores of people who travel this road wouldn't just ignore such an obvious short cut. If there is a problem, and we have to turn back, we will have lost so much time that it WILL be winter by the time we make the western pass." He studied the first map again.

"Look at this." he indicated the area where the road took its sharp turn to the west, right were it should have continued straight to the proposed pass. "There's a reason nobody takes this trail." He pointed at a drawing of a stylized eagle's head right where the road took its turn. "And what does this mean?"

The captain looked at his commander. "Sire, are you afraid this region is cursed or something?"

Coming from any other, this question would have been taken as extreme insubordination, but every commander needed an adviser and friend who could speak freely. "No, my friend, it's just that I haven't led this regiment through ten different kingdoms, and made some very lucrative trade agreements without being cautious. I left with twenty men, and I intend to return with all twenty, is that clear?"

"Yes, Sire."

"We should approach your route tomorrow, perhaps we'll pass somebody on the road who can tell us why it is not used. Now go see to your men and horses."

A smile crossed the captain's face, a small victory. "Yes, Sire, thank you."

2. THE ROAD.

The route the group of soldiers had been following was a well traveled and rutted dirt road. As indicated by the map, it made a sudden turn to the west. What was not shown on the map, was that the road had originally continued straight into the think forest ahead of them. A large tree stood in the middle of the field where the road turned. A large stylized eagle head had been carved into the trunk, it was a duplicate of the symbol on the map.

The Captain examined the symbol. "It's a territorial marker."

"Looks like somebody lays claim to this region." The commander rode his horse around the tree and looked westward down the road's new path. "And everybody prefers to avoid them." He looked back down the road at his men, they were spread out over quite a distance. 'Discipline is getting too relaxed.' he thought. 'The only way we've been able to avoid trouble is by looking professional and strong.'

"Not everybody." came the voice of one of his men, the captain's second, Lieutenant Julian.

Emerging from the dense woods on the overgrown road was an old wagon drawn to by two old, gray, sway back horses. The wagon's two solid wooden wheels stood higher then its sides. Perched on top of the wagon was a frail looking old man. Just visible on the sides in front of the wheels was painted the same eagle's head as was on the tree and the map.

3. SAMUEL

The old man smiled and waived as he approached. "Greetings!" The commander and his captain rode out to meet the old man. "Greetings, friend." the commander returned.

"I'm Samuel of Amathen." the old man introduced himself.

"I am Commander Triton." The leader of the group replied. Triton looked at the wagon full of skins and fine carvings.

"I'm not familiar with your markings." Samuel said after closely inspecting the group's black leather armor and the red jerkin they wore under it.

"We are from Calatonia, a kingdom far to the north." Commander Triton replied. He sat tall on his lean, black horse.

A whistle escaped the old man's lips. "I've heard of it, you are definitely a long way from home. What are you doing in these parts?"

"We've been negotiating trade agreements with some of your local provinces." Triton replied trying to bring the conversation around to where he wanted. "But now we are headed home."

"You have a long journey ahead of you."

"That's what I wanted to talk to you about." Triton looked to where the old man had come from. "Our maps indicate that there may be a route through this territory that would cut weeks from our journey."

Samuel smiled. "There is." he agreed "Easy terrain too...."

"But?"

"It's closed to all but a few with treaties."

"What manner of people could close their borders so tightly that EVERYBODY would go so far out of their way to avoid them?"

Samuel laughed "You don't know who's territory this is?" He waived his hand at the dense forest. "This is the Amazon nation and only the bravest of the brave enter it uninvited."

References from court bards flashed through Triton's mind, but he couldn't place the Amazons. He turned to Captain Lyons perhaps they knew of these people by another name. "Captain, are you familiar with these 'Amazons'?"

The Captain smiled "From what I've picked up listening to the local folk, the Amazons are a tribe of woman warriors. It's said they would sooner kill a man then talk to him."

Triton laughed, "Ah, perhaps that is where my cousin found his wife." He turned back to the old man. "And how is it that you travel on their land?"

"My wife is an Amazon." Samuel replied, "So are my daughters and grand-daughters." He waived his hand at his full wagon and the symbols painted on its sides. "I trade with them, and they protect me. Around here, the Amazons are more than myth, they are real and respected by everyone." He slowly shook his head "Those who don't respect them, well, they don't get a second chance."

Triton thought for a second "How do we contact them? How do I get their permission to cross their lands?"

"Well, I guess you just cross their borders and proceed respectfully. One of three things will happen, you'll be allowed to pass, you'll be turned back, or you'll never be seen again." Samuel shrugged "That's the only way I know for a stranger to contact the Women."

4. IMPRESSIONS.

Triton thanked the old man and bid him farewell as the wagon rolled westward following the diverted road. He turned back to his men and addressed them. "We have been on this mission for a full turn of seasons. We now have a chance to significantly shorten our journey home. Up to now, we have avoided trouble by showing strength and professionalism. Local rulers have accepted us as visiting dignitaries and roadway scum have all passed us up for easier targets. Not one man has received a single scratch from a confrontation with locals. Now we will treat these Amazons with the same respect we gave a King sitting in his grand castle. Everybody dismount and clean yourselves up. We're entering an unfamiliar court and have to look our best."

The band followed the old road into the thick forest. They rode in two columns of ten with Commander Triton in front and center. No one talked or strayed from the group. All of the soldiers sat tall and proud as if they were parading into a home coming reception. To a man, they had cleaned and polished their armor and weapons, brushed their horses and cleaned themselves as best they could without bathing facilities.

Six hours had passed and no one had said a word or questioned their course of action. The road continued into the woods, the overgrowth was so thick that the sun was nearly blocked out. The long shadows made it feel like it was late in the day. After another turn in the road, they finally saw someone, three figures were standing in the road, waiting for them.

As the group approached, it became apparent that the three were women. The two that stood to either side were taller then the third. They had wild, dark hair braided in intricate designs with feathered ornaments woven in. Their faces were made up with black paint covering their eyes like masks and white streaks across their cheeks. All three women wore brown sleeveless tops that left their mid-rifts bare, and knee length brown leather skirts with high slits up the sides for mobility. The two with painted faces had matching tribal tattoos on their upper arms.

The shorter of the three had no face paint, but wore a mask, similar in design to the carving in the tree that marked their territory. The mask didn't really cover her face, but instead protruded out from her head like a beak. The shape and design made if very difficult to make out a lot of detail on the woman's face. Her long, reddish blond hair stood out immediately. Slight wrinkles at the edges of her eyes and a touch of gray in her hair made it obvious she was the elder of the three. None of the three carried any weapons except long fighting staffs.

5. INTRODUCTIONS.

Commander Triton signaled for the column to stop, he and Captain Lyons rode forward. "Greetings, I'm Commander Triton of Calatonia, we seek permission to cross your land on our journey home."

The red head stepped forward and looked up at Commander Triton. "First I must warn you." She said "No matter what is said or done, if any man pulls a weapon, he dies." She watched the second in command trying to hold back a grin at her arrogance. She continued "If you as a group make any kind of move to attack or threaten me, you all die." She looked at Triton. "These are not conditions, just statement of fact and there is nothing I can do about it."

'Was it a tinge of fear that crept into her voice? It was, but not for herself.' Triton thought. She seemed genuinely concerned that his men may do something and get themselves hurt. She definitely knew something he did not. Triton bowed to the woman. "What are your conditions to allow us safe passage? It has been a long journey for us, we do not have much to offer in tribute."

"So far your presentation has kept you alive. You may cross our land if you abide by our rules. We ask for no tribute or bounty." The woman walked back to the other two Amazons. "You may stay on this road, do not leave it. Take nothing, and leave nothing. Do not hunt, or build any fires. The road runs along and crosses many streams, you may take only water from them. Travel swiftly and quietly. Follow these rules and you will never see us again. Break them and you will pay appropriately."

Triton turned toward Captain Lyons and said quietly. "No fires or hunting do we have enough rations to last us?"

"To make it home eight weeks early, we'll do it." Lyons returned just as quietly.

"Agreed." Triton finally said to the Amazon. "You'll see and hear no sign of our passing."

6. LESSON.

"Very good." The woman responded. But a strange look came through her mask. "I regret, though, that we must prove to you that we are able to back up our threats. Please remember our first condition about drawing weapons." She raised her hand and signaled.

There was a whoosh and the sound of one of his men screaming. A young soldier lay quite a distance from his horse with an arrow in his right shoulder. Men where instinctively reaching for their weapons, even Captain Lyons.

"Control yourselves". Triton yelled. "Maintain your ranks." He glared at Lyons who was glaring at the Amazon. He rode back to where his man was laying on his side in the dirt. Two of his comrades, including Lieutenant Julian, had already jumped to the ground to tend him. The arrow was impaled through the young man's armor all the way to its fletching. A fit a rage welled up in Triton as he recognized the boy. Triton galloped back up to the Amazons.

"How do you expect us to travel like you require with an injured man to care for?" He hissed at her.

"We don't." The Amazon replied. "Leave him, we'll care for him and return him to you once he is well and able to travel."

"We will hopefully be well out of your territory by the time he is able to travel."

"We will return him to your country when he is ready to travel again. You may either greet him there, or he can tell your people why he is the only survivor of your expedition." She looked him in the eyes. "Choose now."

7. THE CHOICE.

Triton looked at the Amazons standing confidently in front of him. Then scanned the surrounding woods. How many were out there? That arrow was expertly placed, with so much force it almost went all the way through an armored soldier. He knew in his gut that if he reached for his sword, he would be dead before it cleared the sheath. He had no choice, the boy would stay. Was he trading his son's life for eight weeks off their journey, or to save the lives of the rest of his men?

The expedition continued on. They left the boy, his horse and his equipment. The Amazons said he would need it for his journey home. Triton led the expedition on its way, but looked back just when they were moving. Where there had been three Amazons now there were fifteen, maybe more. The red head had removed her mask and was the first to the boy to offer help. Triton glanced forward to adjust his horse's track then looked back again, all were gone as if none had ever been there.

8. THE MARCH.

The trek through Amazon territory became a forced march. They rode at a steady, swift pace until the sun had nearly set. They tended the horses then slept by the side of the rode. Meals were made up mostly of dried meat and vegetables that would normally be boiled in soups, now they were just soaked until soft. No one complained and few even talked.

The loss of Prince Victor had left everyone in shock. Some said they would see him again, but others believed the Amazons killed the boy. One even speculated they would use him for mating then kill and eat him.

Triton would not tolerate any of the talk. His instinct told him that the red headed Amazon was honorable, and held some authority. He trusted her, why, he didn't know, but he needed to.

At the end of the first week, the party was about ready to stop for another evening when they saw a fire up ahead. Commander Triton feared that the Amazons would blame him for the breach, but he led the group toward the fire all the same. It was a spot in the road that had been widened into a large clearing. A large camp fire burned in the middle, with two well tended cooking fires smoldering to one side. Large kettles simmered on one fire while large portions of a recently killed deer roasted over the other.

Movement brought his attention to the edge of the fire light, his hand reached to his sword, then hesitated. Two Amazons stood at the edge of the clearing waiting until they were sure they had been seen, then they disappeared into the shadows.

"What's the meaning of this?" Captain Lyons asked, not having seen the women.

"Perhaps it's a peace offering." Triton replied, dropping from his horse. He walked around the site inspecting it. To one side were bags of oats and straw for the horses.

"The only peace offering we should accept is the return of Victor, unharmed."

Triton turned to his captain. "Don't you think I know that." he snarled. He looked at his troops sitting nervously, still in formation. "Have the men dismount, it looks like we eat tonight."

"How do we know this food isn't poisoned, or this isn't some kind of trap.?"

"If they wanted us dead, we wouldn't have made it past the first day." Triton looked around at the dense forest all around them as it faded in the quickly falling night. "And we've been riding through a trap for the past week. We're trusting them with our lives with every step we take in this gods forsaken country."

The party ate well that night, and slept better then they had since entering Amazon territory. The next day they found that the camp site was next to a large watering hole, and they found twenty bars of soap stacked near other supplies. The men, ate, washed, then cleaned their gear. Triton had them gather fire wood from the woods between the road and the creek, but gave strict orders not to cross. The wood he used to replenish a stack that they found at the edge of the site. They kept the stew from the kettles in the company's own containers, then cleaned and stowed the kettles near the firewood. The remains of the fire were dowsed and stirred. Any partially burnt wood was returned to the wood pile while the coals were turned into the dirt. To the side of the road, they dug a pit and buried all remains of the deer they were not taking with them. It was much later in the morning then they were used to when they finally got moving, but everyone felt refreshed and the site was neat and spotless.

9. ONE JOURNEY'S END.

During the coming weeks, they found camp sites similarly equipped two more times. Finally, the scenery began to change, the forest became straggly, the air began to thin and temperatures began to fall. They eventually came to a place where the forest ended and the trail headed into the mountains and the pass marked on the map.

A woman met them at the edge of the clearing. She looked like one of the guards they had seen the first day, but it was hard to tell through the face paint. Stacked to the side of the trail were several large packs.

Triton approached the woman. She spoke first.

"You will be out of Amazon territory tomorrow as you make the first high pass." she said, gesturing toward the mountains. "The conditions of your passage end here. You have traveled honorably and will be welcome to pass through again."

"What about the soldier you took?" Triton demanded.

"Your son, Prince Victor, is not yet ready to travel." the woman replied. She produced a sealed letter, giving it to Triton. It was folded in a style unique to the royal house. The wax seal had the imprint of the prince's ring, and was unbroken. The details told him it was an honest and un-coerced document. "He will not be able to travel until after the storms have come to the mountains, he will have to return during the season of renewal."

Triton looked at the woman and thought about her words. He opened the envelope. It was not in Victor's normal flowing script, but very tight precise characters. It was, however, unmistakably, the Prince's.

10.THE LETTER.

Father;
They asked me to write and assure you that I am safe and uninjured.
Nearly a full cycle of the moon has passed since last I saw you. I
can not be sure exactly how much time I have been in the Amazon
village, since I was feverish for some of it. Please do not worry
about my safety, for it does not depend on your actions. I do,
however, worry about yours, since it does.

They tell me I will be able to travel soon, but not in time to beat the
weather in the mountains. I will see you after the pass is clear.
Give my regards to Mother and my brothers. I will be home in time
for the spring festival.
Your son,
Victor.

Triton looked at the Amazon "He was feverish?"

"The wound became infected." She replied. "But our queen has many skills, and is a good healer." She smiled. "In his fever, he saw all the women tending to him. He thought he had died and passed into paradise. Imagine his disappointment."

She motioned to the packs. "Take these supplies to get you through the mountains." With that, the messenger disappeared into the forest.

Triton motioned for his men to retrieve the supplies, then rode to Lieutenant Julian, handing him the letter. The young man read it quickly. "Victor, just a boy, living with these primitive Amazons." The lieutenant said quietly.

Triton forced a smile. "Yea, but will he be a man when he returns to us in the spring?"

The somber young Lieutenant looked up at the Commander. "IF he returns to us, Father."

II. HOME FRONT

1. THE COURT.

Court life in Calatonia was in upheaval when the small band returned home. In their absence, King Douglas had died of a long, wasting illness. Triton's eldest son, Alexander, had claimed the crown in his father's name. Triton's younger half-brother, Prince Winston, claimed that Triton was dead, and had died before their father. Therefore, he was unable to claim the crown for his line and it should rightfully pass to Winston. If Triton hadn't taken the shortcut through Amazon territory, he would not have had a Kingdom to return to.

None of this mattered to, now Queen, Katrina. Triton had left her baby with savages. Who knew what unspeakable horrors he was suffering. Even Victor's encouraging letter only slightly tempered Katrina's fury.

Not only did Triton have to deal with the daily anger from his wife over the loss of Victor, he had to deal with evicting now, Lord Winston and his heirs from the palace. Since he was now so far down the chain of successorship to the throne, he could no longer claim the title of Prince. Triton's four sons, and two very young grandsons made Winston's chances at the throne nearly impossible.

2. THE MESSENGER.

Dealing with his brother's intrigues, his Queen's hatred and the general low morel in his court made the cold season pass without notice. One day a strangely dressed woman rode up to the gates of Triton's palace and requested an audience with the King. Whom she first referred to as Prince Triton.

The woman was instantly recognized by the King's guard, many of whom had traveled with him to the lands in the south. They didn't recognize her personally, but it was un-mistakable what she was. From the intricately woven braids and feathers in her hair, to the many weapons she carried, to the primitive leather skirt and top she wore under her flowing robe.

Captain Lyons was brought to the woman at the gate. She was tall for a woman, almost as tall as he was. She wore none of the face paint they had grown accustomed to. He was quite sure that this was the woman who had seen them off the day they left the forest.

"What business do you have here?" he asked. "Is it news of Prince Victor?"

"I have news." she stated. "But am charged with delivering it directly to Prince, er, King Triton."

By now a small crowd had formed around the guard house as people gathered to get a glimpse of the fully armed Amazon warrior. A palace guard pushed his way through the crowd to were Lyons was talking the woman.

"The Queen has heard of her arrival." He said to Lyons. "She wants her brought to the great hall immediately."

"I will have to ask you for your weapons." Captain Lyons said to the Amazon. "We can not let an armed stranger near the royal family."

"Understood." the woman replied. She gave them the bow and quiver of arrows that were strapped to her back, the sword that hung at her side, two long daggers that were sheathed in her tall boots, four belt daggers from the back of her belt and one of two small daggers hidden down the front of her top. She also neglected to remember a knife intricately woven into her hair and the garrote wrapped around her stomach that so effectively connected her top to her skirt. Finally she handed them the tall fighting staff she carried. From the way they looked at the last weapon, it was obvious they had not considered it a real threat.

When she was brought before Queen Katrina, the Amazon immediately went to one knee and bowed her head. "My Queen," she said "I bring greetings from the Amazon nation."

"Enough," Katrina said impatiently. "what news do you bring of my son, Victor?"

"I am sorry," the messenger said. "but I have been charged with delivering this message to King Triton only. Since he is the only one I can identify by sight.

Katrina's face flushed red. "King Triton is on an inspection of the outer villages, he may not be back for days." She took a deep breath to calm herself. "Please, I beg of you, just tell me if my son lives."

The Amazon looked up at the queen and smiled sweetly. "Prince Victor is fine, and in very good health."

The Queen breathed a deep sigh of relief and tears started to stream down her face. She looked over to her brother, Captain Lyons. "Don't just stand there, send messengers out. Find the King and bring him back here as soon as possible." She then turned to her hand maidens. "Take.." she hesitated, "I did not get your name."

"Ipiphany." the Amazon stated with a smile.

"Take Ipiphany," The Queen continued "and give her proper quarters in my apartments. Draw a bath, and find her something to eat. She must be hungry from her long journey." As women scurried about, the Queen stopped one and added. "Get her a proper meal, for a warrior, none of those delicate things you keep pushing on me."

3. THE MESSAGE.

The next day, Ipiphany was brought back into the great hall. It had been the finest night she had ever had. From soaking in a grand bathtub to sleeping in the great bed. She was not a naturally born Amazon, few were, and she knew what riches and luxuries were. Even peasant orphans knew how to fantasize about being rich.

The King and the Queen sat waiting for their guest. The Amazon immediately dropped to one knee and bowed her head. "King Triton and Queen Katrina, I bring greetings from the Amazon nation."

"Please stand before us." the King said immediately. "And tell us this message you bring."

The warrior immediately stood and looked the couple in the eyes. She turned to the King. "Your Majesty," Ipiphany stated. "My message is simple. Prince Victor will arrive home before the moon is full again." The Queen gasped with delight, and the Amazon continued, "He will be accompanied by a small contingent of Amazons with the hopes of negotiating a relationship between our two peoples."

"That's it?" Triton said. "Woman, you had my Queen nervous beyond all explanation with your secret message."

"My apologies to you, my queen." Ipiphany said sincerely. "But I had given my word of duty to my Queen, my people and Prince Victor that I would deliver my message directly and only to King Triton."

Blinking back a tear of joy, Queen Katrina smiled "I am honored that my youngest son is in the care of such honorable people."

4. HOMECOMING.

Ipiphany had gotten strict instructions from her Queen not to become a spectacle in the royal court. "It is not your job to teach these people about us. Practice your weapons in private, wear your robes in public and wait for us. If it is too difficult to find your privacy, then start back and meet us on the road to Calatonia." The young messenger liked the luxury too much, and found ways to do as she was ordered. Her room was huge, so she cleared it and practiced her skills there. She rode far from the palace to do other, more complex weapons drills. It wasn't long, though, before she was wishing for the quick arrival of her sisters.

Two weeks after Ipiphany's arrival, one of King Triton's scouts came riding hard up to the palace. "They are coming!" he announced. "Prince Victor and EIGHT Amazons will be here within hours!"

It was quickly decided that Ipiphany would join Captain Lyons, Prince Julian, and five other expedition members. They would ride out as honor guards and escort Victor and the Amazon contingent to the palace.

The group arrived at the palace late in the day. The grand hall was filled with dignitaries and family waiting to welcome the wayward Prince home. The King's guard were the first to enter, followed by eight fully armed Amazons. Bows, swords, fighting staffs and other weapons adorned the proud warriors.

The King recognized Ipiphany as one of the eight. "With Ipiphany, there should be nine Amazons." he whispered to his wife.

"Perhaps the messenger miss counted." Prince Alexander said from his father's other side.

Triton looked at his eldest son. "If one of my messengers ever got a detail like that wrong, I'd have him flogged."

The heir to the throne choked back a laugh. He knew his father would never have one of his men flogged, but of course, he would never need to.

Finally Prince Victor entered the Hall. They almost didn't recognize him. When he left, he was still a boy, barely able to fill out his standard issue armor. His face had been round and skin white from the soft life of a sheltered prince.

Now, a man stood before them. Victor wore the same armor he did when last they saw him, but it had been repaired and retailored to properly fit his wide shoulders and thick chest. His face was narrow and tanned dark by the sun. Victor's dark brown hair had been lightened by the sun; it was now shoulder length and was tied back into a tail. Victor was the spitting image of his father from his early days as a great warrior.

"My baby's a man." Queen Katrina exclaimed saddened joy.

"Who's that?" Alexander said to his parents, indicating the young woman walking next to Victor.

She walked close to the young prince, almost touching him. Her hair was braided and woven like the other Amazons, and she carried the same weapons, but her clothes were different. She wore the same style top and skirt, but great care had been taken to decorate the leather with designs and colors to compliment the King's guard designs on Victor's armor.

"That, my son." Triton said. "Is the ninth Amazon. And I'm afraid things are about to get VERY interesting around here."

5. THE NINTH AMAZON.

Prince Victor was beaming. His smile seemed to stretch from ear to ear. He stepped forward and bowed before his parents, and grinned at his older brothers. "Mother, Father." He said. "It is an honor to be greeted so warmly."

"You were lost to us and have come back." The Queen said. "There could be no other reception for a child of mine."

"You look good my son," Triton said "I see a man, were just a few short months ago a boy had stood. Welcome home." He then looked at the young woman who continued to stand proudly next to his son. "It looks like you have an introduction to make, Victor."

Victor's smile broadened even more and he put his hand to the small of the young woman's back, just below her weapons. "This is Terina," he said as introduction. "my wife."

The young Amazon was shorter then Prince Victor, the top of her head didn't reach his shoulder. She had long brown hair decorated with many fine braids woven with strips of leather and bright feathers. The girl's blue green eyes highlighted her narrow face and darkly tanned skinned.

Terina bowed deeply, keeping her eyes on the royal couple. "It is an honor and a pleasure to finally meet you." She said sincerely.

"Your what?" Katrina said through a clenched smile.

"We'll talk about this later." Triton whispered then gripped his Queen's hand and they both stood. He embraced both Victor and Terina.

Victor turned around and held up Terina's hand. The room went wild cheering.

6. FAMILY.

The Royal Family met privately soon after the reception had disbanded from the great hall. By tradition, they met in a small room off the King's business chambers. The King and Queen sat at one end of the room. Also present were Victor's brothers and their wives. No one else, no attendants, scribes, or advisors. This was a family matter and that was all who were invited.

"She is not of royal blood." Triton said, hoping that simple fact would be enough to end the conversation.

"If you look back far enough in any royal family," Victor responded you'll find everybody came from someone 'Not of royal blood'."

His mother sniffed, but his father smiled. They could definitely trace their line back to someone who claimed his throne by force of will, not successorship.

"Look at her." Katrina said. "She's a savage, living in the woods like a barbarian."

"They have a history and traditions that date back long before our kingdom was founded." Victor defended. "They are loyal and honorable, fierce warriors and strong allies."

Julian, Victor's next older bother finally spoke up. He had been at Victor's side when he was shot. "She's the one who shot you."

"What!" the Queen nearly jumped out of her seat.

"I recognized the markings on her arrows." Julian said. "Every warrior's arrows are unique, a signature for their enemies."

Victor was smiling again. "Of course she did, she fell in love with me at first sight from her stand in the trees, and just had to meet me." He grinned smugly at his brothers. The brothers just laughed, their little brother hadn't lost his outrageous sense of humor.

King Triton began to laugh. "It's about time we got some fresh fire in the family. Bring the girl in, the women have a Royal wedding to plan." He turned to his youngest son. "And Victor, it's my guess you have an interesting tale or two to tell your brothers and me about your life with the Amazons and your Amazon wedding."

Terina came in and stood next to Victor, who's broad smile told her of their victory. "If I may," Victor said. "Terina is but a warrior, in training to be a personal guard to the Amazon Queen. She has no experience in helping to plan a state wedding."

"That's okay," Julian's wife said with a great smile "we can take care of everything."

"No." Victor pushed. "If this is going to be a state wedding, then we think the Amazon Queen should be involved in planning it."

Katrina looked at the young girl. "When do you expect your Queen to arrive."

"She's in town now." Terina said. "She didn't want to influence your decision about me. She thought if you knew she came all the way here for the wedding, then you may accept me just to avoid offending her."

"Well, would you send for her?" King Triton asked, "I think it is time we met this elusive leader of yours."

"But father," Victor said "you already have."

7. THE AMAZON QUEEN.

"Fifteen drachmas." the merchant stated.

"Fifteen drachmas!" The woman standing in front of the merchant exclaimed. She was holding up a large piece of finely tanned suede leather. She pushed her reddish blond hair off her shoulders and turned to one of her silent companions. She looked up at the tall young woman wrapped in her simple cloak. "Fifteen drachmas," she whispered "how much is that?"

"Four dinar." the woman responded.

"Fifteen drachmas, for this thing?" she repeated in mock disgust and spread the leather out in front of the merchant. "Look at this, it's got a blemish right in the middle of its largest panel."

"That's why it's only fifteen drachmas." the merchant responded.

"I'll give you, ah, ten drachmas for it." she smiled her best poor peasant girl smile.

"Twelve, no less. It's still a fine piece of leather. Less then that and I'll give it to my wife to make shoes out of."

"Deal." the woman said "I'll give you eleven drachmas."

The Merchant frowned and nodded.

The woman dug into the folds of her long blue skirt and fished out a pouch. She looked in it and frowned. "Oops, I'm out of drachmas."

The man sighed and started gathering up the leather as the woman turned back to her companion. "Do you have any drachmas left?" The woman already had her hand out with the money in it.

"Thanks. Hm, now how much do I owe you, no, never-mind, we'll figure it out later." she paid for the leather and folded it into an already full bag. She wondered off through the market, carrying the bag over her shoulder and leaning on a tall walking stick to help her support the extra weight. Her two companions followed close behind listening as she narrated the wares she wished she had time stop and inspect more closely. "But if we stop and look at everything," she was saying, "we won't have time to find dinner."

The trio ended up at a packed inn with an interesting aroma coming from its kitchen. The leader of the three put her bag and staff by an empty table in the far corner of the inn, one of her companions took a seat at the table, while the other stood against the wall near the main door.

"What is that delicious smell coming from your kitchens?" The leader of the three asked the bartender.

The man smiled with pride. "That, is my wife's fine lamb stew." he replied.

"I'll take 3 portions." the woman said. "And do you have any fresh cider?"

"Lady, we do, but it's very expensive. We have to save the apples through the winter so the cider won't ferment. We supply it for the royal family, it's the Queen's favorite drink. If you want something soft, I've got cold goat's milk."

She turned and discretely gestured to her companion standing near the door then the one sitting at her table. "I'll take one milk, and two waters."

The stew was delicious and the goat's milk refreshing. The three were about to leave when they over-heard a conversation from a nearby table.

"Amazons I tell you." one voice said.

"You mean Prince Victor is marrying an Amazon?" asked another voice. "But I thought they were holding him captive. How could he become involved with savages like that?"

"The gods as my witness." the first voice responded. "My wife works in the palace. She was there when they returned. She said it was magnificent."

"I thought they were just a legend." a third voice stated.

"They're real all right." The second voice replied. "They're just blood thirsty, unsophisticated savages."

"Excuse me." came a woman's voice. The three saw the smiling face of the red headed woman who had been sitting at the table next to them. "I'm sorry I couldn't help overhearing your conversation about the Amazons." She pulled out a chair and sat down at the table with them. "Have any of you ever actually met an Amazon?"

The three working class men just looked at the woman. One of them replied "Of course not, have you?"

She smiled. "Well, you know, I'm a traveling bard, and I've seen and heard a lot of things."

"Well then, tell us a story about the Amazons." another at the table demanded.

8. THE BARD.

"OK.." she had barely said the word when the occupants of the table were turning to other tables and telling them they had a bard who was going share a tale about the Amazons.

Before she knew it, the room was quiet except for the clanging of dishes as people continued to eat and drink. "Well." she began, suddenly caught off guard. "Your right, the Amazons do live in a primitive society, compared to your fine city, but their goals in life are simpler, and steeped in tradition. Their culture dates back hundreds of years to a time when most places looked on women as nothing more then property. They were bought and sold like slaves, nothing more.

"Many of these women were too independent to allow themselves to be treated so poorly, so they escaped and eventually joined together and formed the Amazon nation. Over the years, they have developed their legends and mythos, traditions and laws that have kept them a strong society. Like all societies, they have evolved from one generation to the next. The Amazons that live today are similar but different from the Amazons of even fifty years ago."

The woman looked around. All eyes were on her, with that introduction, what story should she tell. Of course, it should be the one they would least believe. "Did you know," she started. "that the Amazons are so rigid about their traditions that they even accepted a peasant girl from Potadaia as their Queen?" She modestly gestured toward herself. "You see this story is particularly inspirational to someone like myself because the girl who, through a sad twist of fate, became the Queen of the Amazons was also a bard." she smiled. "Well, at the time, lets just say she was a 'want to be' bard."

The woman launched into a story of how the girl and her friend came upon an Amazon hunting party under an archer's attack from an unseen foe. How the girl tried to shield one of the fallen Amazons from a second barrage of arrows with her own body. Then, in her dying breaths, the Amazon warrior passed on her "Right Of Caste" to her would be protector. The warrior, in her final moments, recognized the selfless act and purity of heart the girl had shown in trying to protect a complete stranger.

It turned out the dying Amazon warrior was actually an Amazon Princess, next in line to the throne of the nation. By tradition, an Amazon could pass on her "Right of Caste" or "claim to the throne", to whom ever she wished, and the Nation was bound to recognize it.

"So they just accepted this young peasant girl as their future Queen, no questions asked." one of the listeners asked when the woman had finished.

"Well not exactly, there was a challenge to ritual combat. But tradition allowed the girl to appoint a champion. The champion won and from that day forward the young bard was an amazon princess." the woman smiled "And, is now their Queen."

Someone in the middle of the room began to laugh. "You expect us to believe that the Queen of the Amazons is a bard from Potadia."

"Sir," she replied "I expect you to believe nothing. I was asked tell a story of the Amazons and that is one of my favorites."

The man laughed again, when the door to the inn opened. Framed in the sudden light was a tall woman with a sword hanging to her side, bow and quiver on her back and fighting staff in her had. She looked passed everybody, directly at the bard.

"They have accepted Terina." Ipiphany said over the suddenly quiet inn. "They have sent for you."

The bard jumped to her feet. "Wonderful!" she exclaimed. At the same time, the bard's companion sitting at her neighboring table stood and handed the bard her bag. She slung it over her shoulder then turned back just in time to catch her staff.

One of the men sitting at the table the woman had joined spoke up. "You're the Queen of the Amazons?" he asked in disbelief.

A smile crossed the woman's face and she winked at him. "You know, I never could figure a good way to get out of it."

9. THE INVITATION.

Outside the inn, Ipiphany had her tall black horse, along with the ones she had fetched from the stables for her Queen and the Queen's guard.

"Do you have the invitation?" the Queen asked as she exited the inn?

"As you required." Ipiphany replied and handed the woman a small scroll.

She opened it and read the fine script. "Three weeks!" she exclaimed as she signed it and handed it back. "Do you think you can find her in time so she can make it?"

Ipiphany returned the scroll to a pouch sewn into her skirt. "I can deliver it on time." She replied confidently.

"OK, I'll see you back here for the wedding."

10. THE KITCHEN

The Amazons wanted their Queen to have a chance to change into proper attire before meeting the Royal Family. Her peasant bard outfit just wasn't appropriate for an occasion of state. They took her into the palace through the servant's entrance, but lost control of her as soon as she entered the kitchen.

Nobody in the kitchen knew who this woman was with the Amazons. Her faded blue skirt and white blouse off set her red-blond hair. She moved from cook station to cook station, tasting the food and asking about ingredients. Every dish she tasted, she praised and thanked the cooks for their hospitality.

"You there!" came an authoritative voice from across the kitchen. "What are you doing." A large woman approached the stranger.

"Me?" the woman in the blue skirt asked looking up at her challenger, wooden spoon of some sauce half-way to her mouth. "Oh, I'm the Amazon's, ah...., food taster. Yea that's it. Got'ta protect their Queen, you know." She looked up at her companions who had rushed to her side. Both were trying desperately to stifle laughs.

The woman was too insulted to spot the humor. She looked at the two Amazons. "How dare you insult your hosts this way. The King shall hear of this!"

"Come," they said to the 'food taster' "it is time to go." With that they hustled her out of the kitchen.

11. MEETING.

The Royals were gathering in the meeting hall for their introduction to the Amazons' Queen. Julian's wife, Princess Elexis, came in with a strange look on her face. "I've just been to Terina's apartment. There were two new Amazons there, and a strange woman I've never seen before."

"Strange how?" The King asked trying not to show a suspicious grin.

"Well, she was dressed like a peasant, and was fluttering around the room like she owned it." the woman looked at the rest of her family. "She had a bag of stuff she was showing to the Amazons. I guess she just went shopping."

King Triton started laughing, he couldn't help with his daughter's final, irrelevant observation. "Tell me, dear, did she have red hair?"

"It was more blond then red." the woman replied not knowing what was so funny. "With some gray in it."

"Marie, the kitchen matron, has reported a great insult from the Amazons." the King said trying to sound serious. "She said they have brought in a food taster to protect their Queen."

"Well! I've never heard of such a thing." Katrina exclaimed. "I knew these women would be trouble."

"My dears." Triton said soothingly "I believe Elexis and our kitchen matron have met the same person."

"Who?" Elexis and Katrina said at the same time.

Triton motioned the women to lean toward him and said very softly "Why, their Queen."

"Their Queen is a peasant food taster?!" Elexis exclaimed

The court guard appeared, ending the conversation and initiating the meeting. It was a semi-informal meeting, with just King's advisors, main guard and family. After the guard and advisors entered, Prince Victor and Terina walked in together. They both wore the same outfits they wore at their original reception, this time, however, Terina only carried her sword.

The Amazons were next, wearing the same leather outfits they had worn at the reception. But unlike Terina, they where fully armed. To all but the Amazons, the carrying of weapons was ceremonial. To the Amazons, they were presenting their Queen to a strange court and were ready to defend her if the need arose.

Finally, three women appeared, and approached the Royal family. The shorter of the three led with the other two a step behind and side by side. The two were obviously body guards. All three wore elaborate masks shaped like bird's heads, the guards' were dark and sinister looking while the leader's was bright and authoritative. The body guards carried no weapons except fighting staffs.

As they approached, Prince Victor stepped forward and said. "King Triton, Queen Katrina, honored family, I present Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons."

Gabrielle stepped forward and bowed deeply, like Terina had done before her, never taking her eyes off the King. She straightened up and removed her mask allowing her long reddish blond hair to fall about her shoulders. "Greetings Queen Katrina." she said first then turned to the King. "King Triton, I am glad we could meet again under much pleasanter circumstances."

"So am I." the King replied.

"Gabrielle," Queen Katrina spoke up. "I hear you've been in our kingdom for a few days now, how do you like it?"

A smile lit Gabrielle's face. "It is wonderful. I've gotten so much shopping done. I just have to get used to the exchange rate, it makes bartering a little difficult at times."

The word shopping seemed to wake up Elexis "I know some of the best gold suques. Perhaps we could look for something for the wedding?"

Katrina glared at her daughter, then looked back to Gabrielle. "I was curious, why have you taken such an interest in this girl's wedding."

"She's my daughter." the Amazon declared proudly.

"So she's going to be Queen one day?" Katrina asked with a sudden smile. "Or does she have older sisters?"

"Oh, no." Gabrielle replied. "I chose my heir long before I adopted Terina, or even became Queen myself. But that's a whole different story."

King Triton finally spoke up. "It will be an honor to welcome your daughter to my family and call her my own." he proclaimed.

Gabrielle bowed slightly and said "It too will be an honor to welcome you and your family as a family of the Amazon Nation."

With that, the formalities of the first meeting were over and the party retired to a private banquette hall for a formal, informal dinner.

III. JUDGMENTS.

1. THE GUEST.

During the weeks that followed, the Amazons took up residence in and around the castle. Queen Gabrielle was given the apartment originally given to Ipiphany. The messenger had never returned, but Gabrielle knew her journey would be a long one. Several training areas were set aside for the Amazons to practice so as not to draw too much of a crowd from the castle guard, the regular army or the civilian population.

Differences of opinion soon started to erupt between the Princesses and the Amazon Queen. Gabrielle thought it essential to dress Terina in a gown and accessories bought locally from the many merchants in town. The Princesses insisted in having the finest clothes and adornments imported from far away countries. In the end, since it was her daughter and the Amazon Queen was "absolutely the most stubborn woman any of them had ever met", Gabrielle won.

The wedding was just days away when a disturbance arose at the palace gates. Captain Lyons was the first official to reach the gate. His stomach jumped to his throat when he came face to face with the Queen of Catatona and eight of her guard.

Catatona was the other half of what was once a much larger country. Calatonia and Catatona were the two provinces of a country now split by a hundred year truce that had ended the fighting, not the war.

Since the arrival of this Queen, Catatona had been steadily reshaping its army into a powerful force. Her influence on Catatona had been a major reason for the heir to the throne of Calatonia to take his year long journey to the south to make allies of his distant neighbors. If war were to ever resume, already established trade agreements could become very useful. Now, the short cut through Amazon territory would be invaluable. Was the Queen of Catatona here to stop the wedding? There was no way that could be allowed.

Lyons had never actually seen this woman before, but the descriptions made her unmistakable. She sat tall on her pale horse, wide shoulders, dressed all in black with a great sword strapped to her back. She had long, raven black hair sprinkled with gray. But the two features that identified her beyond a doubt were her ice blue eyes and a thin scar that ran up the side of her face and ended with a shock of pure white hair that swept back from her right temple.

"Well, little man." she said quietly to Lyons "are you going to have me announced or not?"

She handed him a scroll he recognized. It was an invitation to the wedding. He opened the document to see who it was originally intended for and who had issued it. To his dismay, it was addressed very formally to the Queen of Catatona and was signed very simply and informally by Gabrielle.

The scroll was handed to a courier and sent to the King. Lyons signaled for stable hands to collect the mounts, but not one of her guard had moved. The Queen swung around and looked at her troops. "Where is she?" The woman asked her captain.

He looked around too, and talked to his lieutenant. Then reported. "She is with the Amazon."

"Fetch her."

The Queen of Catatona watched the lieutenant pull his horse out of formation and head toward the back of the palace. No one moved, or even talked. The remaining seven sat stiffly, surveying the grounds while the Queen leaned forward, petting and cooing to her horse.

Finally, the lieutenant returned riding with a teenage girl who sat on spirited brown horse. The girl looked no more then fifteen summers, she had long brown hair and mother's ice blue eyes.

"Did you see Ipiphany off okay." The Queen asked softly as the girl rode up.

"Yes." the girl returned with a smile. "The others were so glad to see her, but I didn't recognize anyone."

"That's okay, it's been an awfully long time." The Queen sat up straight and turned her horse toward her troops, all softness gone from her face. She raised a hand, then dropped it. The eight man guard dismounted as one. She spoke to her captain. "I will not need you here." she said. "All are off duty until after the wedding."

"But Ma'am." the Captain began "This is..."

A glare from the woman shut him up. "All rules of behavior apply, any infractions will be dealt with severely."

The man snapped a hand to his chest in a sharp salute. "Understood."

The woman dropped from her horse and held out her hand for the girl to join her. The two faced Captain Lyons. "My men will require quarters, I would suggest separated from your own, we don't need any misunderstandings to ruin this wonderful event."

"It will be taken care of." Lyons said and signaled to one of his lieutenants. Turning back to the woman he said "Ma'am, I apologize for the delay while preparations are made for you. We were not informed that you had been invited to the ceremony."

A genuine smile crossed the woman's face. "Just like Gabrielle." she laughed. "Take care of all the little details and forget a major one."

2. THE MEETING.

King Triton was about to request the Amazon Queen's presence when he saw her rushing down the corridor with three guard on her heals. Three?

"Queen Gabrielle." he called out just loud enough for the woman to hear. She immediately turned and entered his office.

Gabrielle approached him, while her guard took places along the wall, on either side of the door. Triton immediately knew why there were three, Ipiphany had returned. Now it made sense, the Amazon messenger had been sent to deliver the invitation to the Queen of Catatona. But why, what business did these Amazons have with the Queen of Catatona. A thought reoccurred to him. 'She was an Amazon.' Not possible, she was nothing like these women, steeped in their traditions, essentially shunning the outside world. What then?

The scroll was held out for Gabrielle to inspect. "Did you send this?"

"Of course I did." Gabrielle returned with a bright smile, "That's where I'm going now."

"Why?"

"What?"

"Why did you invite one or my greatest enemies to this wedding?" Triton spoke softly, without emotion, he just wanted to know. There was nothing he could do about it now.

Gabrielle walked around the table and sat down next to him. "Do you know her daughter's name?" she asked the King.

He contemplated. "I believe it is Ella?"

"Short for.."

"Gabrielle." he finished. He hung his head. This could not be good. What kind of influence did Catatona have with the Amazon nation.

"Listen." Gabrielle said trying to smooth things over. "I really didn't know there was this kind of tension between your two countries when I invited her. It's been ten years since I've seen or heard from her. I took the opportunity for a reunion with my old and dearest friend."

The presence of the Queen of Catatona just emphasized the need for this union with the Amazons. "Very well, but we do this properly. We are receiving a head of state. I will make arrangements and we will greet her in front of the great hall."

It took nearly twenty minutes for the King's men to round up the proper dignitaries to greet the visiting Queen.(Record time by court standards.)

When word got out that the King planned an official greeting for the Queen of Catatona, her guard were called back to duty to escort her to the meeting. It was a loosely formal occasion, King Triton and his guard, were joined by Queen Gabrielle and the Amazons, the King's advisors and a few others were all part of the official delegation. They met the Queen of Catatona in the court yard outside the Great Hall.

The woman marched in at the head of her guard, a young teenage girl at her side. It was a formidable showing, causing quite a stir in the palace. Most knew the woman by reputation only, and only one or two besides the Amazons had ever seen her before.

Gabrielle examined her old friend, fighting the urge to rush to her. She looked good, her shoulders appeared wider then ever, her hair was showing gray, and the white streak had become very pronounced. The incident when she picked up that scar flashed through Gabrielle's mind, but was immediately pushed away. The woman wore thick robes against the north's cold spring air. Gone was her trade mark dark brown leather and bronze armor. She was no longer a rogue warrior, but a Warrior Queen and had to dress appropriately.

Ella had grown into a fine young woman, she had her mother's eyes and height. The beauty was all there, and just starting to blossom.

The Catatonan Queen stepped forward. "Your Majesty," She said to Triton. "I bring greetings from the people of Catatona and our best wishes for a long and happy union of your family with the Amazon Nation."

An ability to read people was something Triton had always taken pride in. The woman now had him puzzled, from all he could tell, she was being sincere and honest. Could she possibly be happy about this union. Surely she knew of this passage through the Amazon territory, and could see the strategic importance of the treaties he had negotiated.

One of the Catatonan guards had approached carrying a large, ornate, flat wooden box. Triton watched the Amazons as the woman turned toward them. To a person, they all looked thrilled to see her. The happiest looked to be Queen Gabrielle, pure joy radiated from the woman's face.

"Gabrielle." The woman said to the Amazon "It's been an awfully long time, my friend."

"Too long." was Gabrielle's simple reply.

"Congratulations, Terina has found a fine husband."

"Yes, she has."

The two women's eyes locked for an instant. 'There seems to be so much more that needs said'. Triton thought to himself. 'What kind of history do these two women have together?'

Finally, the Catatonan turned to Prince Victor and Terina. Her man opened the box so they could see its contents. Two matching swords filled the box. Their dual edges dazzled in the sunlight, fine intricate designs on the blades caught the eye.

"My wedding gift to you." she said. "The finest blades any craftsman has ever produced in Catatona."

Terina's eyes lit up in delight while Victor looked confused. A pair of swords was not a traditional or even a considered gift for a Calatonian wedding.

"Their wonderful!" the young Amazon exclaimed. "Oh, thank you."

"I'm sorry I missed your Amazon wedding, they would have been much more appropriate then." She turned back to her host. "I was told my chambers were being made available."

Gabrielle spoke up. "If I may, your chambers are next to mine and Ella's across the hall." She turned to the King. "We would be honored to escort her to her rooms."

This new development caught the King off guard, the Amazons were living in Queen Katrina's wing of the palace, she couldn't know of this yet. "Very good." he said. He signaled for some of his guards to accompany them. As they left, he sent for Queen Katrina. She would not be happy.

3. CHAMBERS.

"She did what!!" Katrina yelled at the King. "And you let her!"

"It was announced before I was made aware of their plans."

"That little savage had us fooled all the time." Katrina growled. "The Amazons are in league with Catatona."

"It's not that way, my dear." Triton said firmly. "The two women are old friends from long before either of them ever heard of Catatona."

"So they have their own agendas. What kind of treachery are these two women planning against us?"

"Stop it." Triton ordered. "The Catatonan Queen has old ties to the Amazons, they are non-political from years ago. We will continue to treat all of our guests as honored friends."

"Well, I'm going to move my chambers into your wing until after the wedding."

"You will do no such thing." Triton replied. "You may, of course, spend the nights. But you will continue to conduct all of your business as usual. I will not have you insult either of these two women."

Katrina stormed out of the room.

4. REUNION.

Gabrielle led the way into the chambers, leaving Triton's guards in the hall. The Amazons suddenly surrounded their old friend, hugging her and embracing Ella.

Finally Gabrielle pushed the others aside and was able to talk. "Xena," she started. "It's been so long."

The black haired warrior smiled. "Yes it has, we can't allow ourselves to be apart for that long again."

The two spoke for awhile, recalling their last parting, after Xena had brought the young Ella to meet the tribe. "There's one thing I've been wondering though." Gabrielle finally said. "Through out that whole greeting ceremony, not one person said your name. Why is that?"

Xena smiled. "Most don't know it."

"What?"

"It's a very old Catatonan custom, they want their people to follow the King or Queen, not the person. So when I married the King of Catatona, I became the Queen of Catatona. It suited me just fine though. It's made those pesky stories about my colorful past a lot less likely to taint the royal house."

Gabrielle grinned. "You mean they don't know anything about you? How could that be?"

"Oh, I didn't say that. But without the general population knowing or constantly hearing my name, the rumors don't hold as much water. Besides, even those who hear the stories, mostly hear our stories. They were the only ones written down. The earlier stuff is all just word of mouth, they tell tales of such a different person that nobody would believe it is the same one. Besides," Xena whispered. "they would never believe the truth. Even the tales of the old Xena have to be watered down to make them believable. People just can't believe anybody could have been like that."

"I never thought you would hide from your past."

"I didn't plan it that way, but when Ella came along and I became more involved with keeping my family intact, it helped." Xena looked around. "Come, there is more important matters we must discuss, but not here."

"What do you have to say that you can't say in front of my people?"

Xena leaned forward and brushed Gabrielle's hair from the side of her face then whispered. "It's not the Amazons. The walls have ears and we need privacy."

5. AUDITION.

"But Ma'am" The Captain of the Catatonan Guard was saying. "Duty demands that at least I accompany you when traveling."

The Queen of Catatona glared at her Captain. "Which syllable did you not understand?"

The man stuttered but didn't say anything.

She spoke again trying to placate him. "The Amazon Queen's guard are sufficient for the short ride we are taking."

Gabrielle, her two personal guards and Ipiphany were already mounted and waiting for Xena to deal with her loyal captain.

"No offense, but if you run into trouble you can't handle, you really should have trained guards with you, not these skinny women."

It was all Xena could do not to laugh aloud, she turned toward Gabrielle and smiled. "Perhaps one of your skinny women would care to audition for my fine captain." she looked at Ipiphany. "How about the messenger?"

"No, not Ipiphany." Gabrielle replied and motioned to one of her guards. The woman immediately jumped to the ground. The only weapons Gabrielle's personal guards ever carried were their long fighting staffs. Their swords and bows were packed on their saddles. "Have you trained your men to use staffs?"

"My men are proficient with all weapons." the Queen of Catatona declared.

The captain smiled and picked a staff for himself. The group moved out of the stable and into the exercise yard.

The Amazon stretched with her staff for a second and spun it around to loosen up. A ritual repeated by the Catatonan. The two faced each other, the man trying to look mean, the woman stone faced. He made the first move, a simple swing to test her reflexes. She ducked, then attacked with such fury that he couldn't even think about his next move. All he could do was block her swings or backup and duck to avoid getting hit. A smile played across the Amazon's face with every step of ground he gave up. Finally his staff was forced from his hands and went flying across the compound. With a yell the Amazon thrust her staff directly at his face. The strike stopped a hair's width from the bridge of his nose. A killing blow if she had followed through.

The Queen of Catatona rode her pale horse up to her Captain. "Never underestimate the skill of an unknown opponent." She advised. The tone to her voice sent a chill down his spine. She hadn't been able to do that to him in years.

6. THE RIDE.

Five women rode away from the palace. Xena and Gabrielle in front with the three Amazons trailing at a respectful distance. Finally Xena signaled them to stop and turned to face Gabrielle. The other three maintained their distance.

"Just curious." Xena started out. "Why didn't you want Ipiphany to spar with my man?"

Gabrielle's horse danced around a bit as she considered her answer. "She's my messenger." she replied, "She's not allowed to spar but with a select few; even then, only if they wear protection."

A smile crossed Xena's lips. "So, is she an assassin who's a messenger, or a messenger who's an assassin?"

Some of the color drained from Gabrielle's face. "She is not an assassin. You know I wouldn't engage in, or condone that kind of activity."

It was hard for Xena not to laugh at what she saw as her friend's lies. "Come now, I know an assassin when I see one. Assassins have been political tools since politics were invented."

"Ipiphany has been trained to get her message through. She's been trained by everybody I could think of, from Ioulus to Autolycus and others."

"And an assassin's skills can help get her through enemy lines at night." Xena finished her own train of thought. "My friend, sometimes you surprise even me."

"Last year." Gabrielle seemed to need to offer further explanation. "She was sparring with one of our senior warriors and the warrior was injured." A sad look crossed Gabrielle's face. "She died the next day."

"The skills of a good assassin make her quick and deadly." Xena stated, continuing to goad her friend. "A long fight, or a living opponent are both to be avoided."

"She's a messenger." Gabrielle insisted. "To get the message through, she needs to stay alive."

"What ever you say, my friend." Xena looked around the great fields they had stopped on. "I have other more important things to tell you." Her eyes stopped on a lone figure sitting on a distant rise. She stared at him long enough so he knew he'd been spotted.

"Who.." Gabrielle started to ask.

Xena grinned. "The Captain of my guard. He knows his duty well."

7. PROBLEMS.

Xena swung around so she was beside Gabrielle, and both of their backs were to their shadow. "Did you know that this wedding of yours has these two countries closer to war then they have been for nearly a hundred years?"

The Amazon Queen was without words for the first time in a very long time. "What are you talking about." she finally pushed out after closing her dropped jaw.

It didn't take long for Xena to point out the strategic importance of the route through Amazon territory.

"So Triton's whole mission was to form allies against Catatona?" Gabrielle asked in disbelief.

"I don't know. All I do know is that established trading partners are more likely to be allies, or at least suppliers during a conflict. A war can be very lucrative to those who provide provisions."

"Argh!!" Gabrielle screamed, causing the three Amazons to push forward a bit. "I can't believe he played me for a fool like that."

"Relax, I really don't think this whole wedding is the culmination of an ingenious deception. Everything just fell into place to Triton's favor. Sometimes the Fates just weave their threads to have things turn out a certain way."

"I'd never let Amazon territory be crossed to take supplies to help a war effort." Gabrielle turned and looked at her companions. "Besides, there's some things I can't control. The council would never permit it."

"What about Terina being in the middle of it. Would you allow supplies through to help her?"

"I'd recall her first."

"How? Once war erupts, a country's borders become very tight, and dangerous. They wouldn't just let her leave, a royal princess, now considered a daughter of the royal family, and a pawn to a strategic supply route."

"I'd send..." Gabrielle stopped and her face flushed.

"You'd send Ipiphany." Xena's wicked smile flashed across her face. "Your 'messenger' is a lot better then you want to admit. Did she tell you how she got the invitation to me?"

Gabrielle looked at her friend and shook her head.

"She crossed our border, entered the city and the palace, stabled her horse in the royal stables, entered the palace and waited for me in my chambers without ANYBODY seeing her."

A smile crossed Gabrielle's lips and she looked back at the young woman doing her best to keep her spirited stallion to stand still.

"You know, the only thing that kept me from killing her the second I entered my chambers was that I didn't want to kill anybody that good without talking to them first. Once I realized who she was, I was glad I controlled myself."

"Why would she take such a chance?" Gabrielle thought aloud.

"It was a challenge. Once she saw how tight our security is she had to test it. It's a way to keep her skills sharp."

"But her job is to get the message through. If she gets herself killed taking needless chances then she failed."

"My dear friend, you are truly a real leader."

Gabrielle turned from her friend's gaze. "There's more, isn't there?"

"The problems in Catatona are a lot deeper then concern about the Amazon trade route." Xena finally continued. "King Riduron died last year."

Xena saw a conciliatory look come over her friend's face. She held up her hand. "Don't worry," Xena replied. "I'm OK with it now. We need to concentrate on this matter."

Gabrielle nodded, trying not to show a tear of compassion that was running down her face.

"Anyway," Xena continued "my step-son, Prince Orian, will come of age in a few months. Once that happens, there could be civil war." Xena sighed at the admission and shifted her stance.

"By the gods, Xena what is going on?"

"I have the throne only until the proper heir comes of age, then it's theirs. Orian is surrounded by the King's advisors, and ones from his mother's side of the family. Their feelings towards me are mixed; I've given them the strong army they want, but many are loyal to me. If Orian takes the throne and casts me out of the palace, it will tear his infrastructure apart. But that is exactly what he plans to do. Orian hates me, he sees me as a threat. Ella is the next in line if something happens to him before he sires any children. He's afraid I may hasten his trip down the Styx to grab the throne for Ella."

"How does this wedding fit in?"

"Some of the King's oldest advisors know that turning on me would split their country apart. For some reason, those people love their tough, no-nonsense Warrior Queen. I've made them strong and proud; they're seeing prosperity they haven't seen in a long time.

"What I've been able to piece together is that they're trying to use this wedding to re-ignite the war with Calatonia. If they're able to get the country united in battle, then I can be martyred without an uprising."

"How do they plan to do that." Gabrielle asked still trying to grasp the complexity of these politics.

"I don't know, I think you actually scuttled their plans by inviting me. By coming here and endorsing this relationship, I'm telling my people that they have nothing to fear from Calatonia's alliance with the Amazons."

"I had no idea things were this complex." Gabrielle whispered.

"There's one more thing I want to ask of you." Xena finally said.

"Anything."

"When you leave after the wedding, I want you to take Ella with you."

"Why?" Gabrielle asked with astonishment.

"I need her protected, and I want her to learn your ways."

"You want her to become an Amazon?"

"No." Xena replied and looked deeply at her dearest friend. "I want her to learn YOUR ways."

A new tear ran down the Amazon Queen's face. "Of course, you know you can depend on me."

Xena turned away, "Let's finish this ride, it's too beautiful a day to sit here gossiping."

8. THE WEDDING.

The wedding was unlike anything ever seen in Calatonia. The Amazon influence permeated everything. As was tradition, the groom's sisters, in this case his brother's wives, stood as attendants to the Bride. With them stood three Amazons, including Terina's adopted sister, Ipiphany.

By Calatonian tradition, the bride's attendants dressed in her native dress. This gave the brothers of the groom great delight not only to see their wives dress in Amazon leathers, but wear the ceremonial face and body paint. The final touch, was all six women were armed to the teeth. By the time they were dressed, the royal wives had no idea how many weapons were tied, hidden, and woven on to their persons.

Since the bride didn't have any brothers or male relatives to stand with the groom, they used three of the King's guard who had been on the expedition to the south. Normally, the groom's men would wear clothes suitable for a fancy state function. But in this case, they wore the dress uniforms of the King's Guard. This was still appropriate, since all brother's had served time in the guard and still held rank in it.

Even before anybody saw the bride, she was a hit. Word had gotten out that the Queen of the Amazons had personally bought the material and accessories for the gown from the local merchants. Nobody actually recalled selling anything to the Amazon Queen, they would remember that. Except one leather merchant, he swore she bought his finest piece of suede leather.

Terina did not dress in her traditional Amazon garb, she wore a long gown made of material Gabrielle and the Elexis had bought from local merchants. It was turquoise colored with gold accents and multi color scarves around her waist. Over all, a very stunning outfit.

There were two Amazon touches, one the gathering could see, the other they couldn't. Most obvious was the great sword that hung at her side, a direct match for the one worn by the groom. It was widely known that these swords were a gift from the Queen of Catatona. Many people thought this was a sign of warming relations between the two countries and welcomed the chance for peace. The other Amazon touch that most did not notice, where the beautiful, high suede boots the bride proudly wore, a gift made by the bride's mother.

After the wedding, two events were held. A great banquet for the royal family and invited guests, and an open festival for everyone else. When the banquet turned into a wild celebration in its own right, the three King's Guard who were groom's men along with the three Amazons, apprehended the new couple and spirited them away.

It was a Calatonian tradition for the Groom's men to escort him and his bride to a remote palace to spend their first week together in privacy. Of course the Amazons loved the idea and insisted on joining the honor guard to escort the new couple to the western palace. Nobody ever considered denying the Amazons the right to join the honor guard.

Continued In Book 2: SEARCHERS.