"How do you do it?" Epinon looked at Xena with a forlorn expression. The dark haired warrior shrugged her shoulders and tried her best to look innocent.
"I have many-"
"Please don't, say it. I am not in the mood. You out rode me and then out hunted me. I'm a broken woman." Xena sniggered at Epinon's pathetic tone and turned her attention back to the path. There was a stillness in the forest broken only by the rhythmical noise of the horses hooves.
Epinon reached into her pack and drew out a water skin. She took a long drink and then shook it to get Xena's attention. Xena nodded and Epinon threw it across to her.
"How disappointed is Gabrielle not to be taking part in the Prima?" asked Epinon.
Xena swallowed and stared at the water skin for several moments contemplating her answer. "More than she's let on. Even if she wasn't pregnant I doubt she could compete. Her hand isn't up to it."
Epinon looked away sharply. Suddenly, the atmosphere cooled and memories of using a staff on the defenceless bard overwhelmed her for a moment. She blinked away the tears that had formed in her eyes. Xena looked up at her friend's face and saw the same look of pain and guilt that she had worn so many times and knew there was nothing she could say to comfort her.
Epinon turned back to look at Xena and gave her a weak smile. Xena gave her a reassuring one in return. She took a deep breath and said brightly, "She's just disappointed she can't show off her staff skills. She'd give you a run for your money."
Epinon grinned genuinely this time, the warmth suddenly flooded back into the day. "I don't doubt it. How about you? As Queen's champion are you entering an event or two?"
Xena wiggled her eyebrows and said nothing, but turned forward and shook the reins, shouting "yar." Argo started to gallop and Epinon seeing Xena race ahead gave her horse a gentle slap and she galloped after her.
They settled their horses in the stables and then headed towards the kitchen with their booty. They laughed at the cooks muttering about having recipes for the numbers of rabbits they had brought back and then they made their way to council chambers. Seeing the rooms empty, Xena grabbed hold of one of the Amazons outside. "Do you know where Queen Gabrielle and Queen Ephiny are?" The girl smiled and pointed to the north.
"They went for a walk to the clearing." The girl reddened and stammered but looked delighted that she could tell her friends that the great Xena actually spoke to her. "Solari is with them," she added for Epinon's benefit. While Epinon rolled her eyes in amusement and was amazed the girl even noticed she was there, Xena said thanks and they started to walk out of the village.
"She did not, Pony."
"She did so. Swooned, stammered and-"
"I can't think of another word that starts with S that is appropriate, Xena." Epinon looked sideways at her friend. They were hurrying towards a clearing they knew Gabrielle loved to walk to; especially as she was getting her strength back.
The clearing was becoming one of Gabrielle's favourite spots within Amazon lands. It was a twenty minute walk from the village so it was far enough to get away from the bustling place but close enough not to feel isolated. The clearing was large, and was surrounded on each side by forest. Only a few minutes walk in one direction were the caves, used to hide from Valasca and in the other direction was a stream.
Gabrielle, Solari and Ephiny found a nice spot and the two amazons sank to the ground. Solari took a swig from the waterskin but Ephiny stared at Gabrielle who was twirling her staff slowly. The bard looked at Ephiny was beseeching eyes.
"Please. Gentle I promise. I can't manage much else." Gabrielle gave a rueful smile.
Solari and Ephiny exchanged a concerned glance. They both had expected it when Gabrielle had asked to go on the walk and appeared carrying two staffs.
"A couple of minutes, Eph. Please. I just want to do it away from prying eyes and there are always crowds …" her voice tailed off and she looked away. She knew that any appearance on the practice ground attracted hordes of watchers; both her supporters and detractors.
Ephiny stood up and reached down to pick up her staff. She could never refuse Gabrielle and they both knew that. Gabrielle flashed a smile that would melt a heart harder than Ephiny and started to warm up slowly.
Solari lay on the ground whilst Ephiny quickly did a couple of exercises herself. She did them so she wouldn't appear too arrogant in front of Gabrielle but they all knew that the sparring would be short and gentle. Gabrielle nodded that she was ready and they begun. Ephiny let Gabrielle do all the attacking and merely defended herself. She was pleased to see more intricate moves being attempted by the bard. The pace was slow and the hits much softer than usual but all three women were enjoying it. Gabrielle grinned happily at Solari who was watching with interest, but then she felt a weariness wash over her and her hand started to cramp up.
Gabrielle stepped back slowly and dropped her staff and gripped her left hand with her right hand. She fell to one knee still holding her left hand as Solari scrambled up. Ephiny dropped her staff but stayed rooted to the spot. Her mouth was ajar in horror as she watched Solari crouch by the green looking bard who had her eyes closed and was breathing heavily. "It's alright Eph, no harm done." The bard said shakily. At this Ephiny regained her senses and rushed to join Solari at Gabrielle's side. "My hand," she continued through gritted teeth. Solari scrambled up and fetched the waterskin and on her return took Gabrielle's hand in her own and poured the cold water over it. That seemed to ease Gabrielle's discomfort slightly.
"What happened?" said Ephiny finally finding her voice.
"Cramps though my hand. Not had that for a while." Gabrielle's breathing was evening out and her colour was returning to normal. "And I suddenly felt I had fought a Cyclops all day. So tired," she whispered.
Ephiny smiled nervously and the ever practical Solari said, "Let's take a walk to the stream and you can soak your hand. Do you feel up to it?" Gabrielle nodded and allowed herself to be helped up. Ephiny picked up their staffs and waterskin and they walked the short distance to the stream. Gabrielle sat by the stream and dangled her hand in the cold water and after several moments gave a broad smile. "That's better," she sighed and closed her eyes. "Eph don't worry please." The regent still wore a concerned look on her face.
"It's tall and deadly I'm worried about now," said Ephiny but with a hint of laughter in her tone.
"She'll be so mad at me, believe me, she won't give you a second thought. "What were you thinking of Gabrielle? You should have waited for me! Don't run before you can walk Gabrielle?"" The bard made her voice deeper and frowned making the two amazons laugh. They sat there for several moments enjoying listening to the birds and the rustling of the trees.
"I can understand why you love it here so much Gabrielle," said Ephiny.
"It's so peaceful and unspoilt, perfect to get away from a bunch of cycling warriors." The three of them giggled and spotted the two figures in the distance. Gabrielle gingerly lifted her hand out of the water and put it on her lap. "I really don't know why I'm bothering, she'll sense straight away."
""I have many skills,"" said Solari in her best Xena voice. They all laughed again and watched as the two figures came nearer.
"Tomorrow, I was going to do some practicing for the Prima, so I figured you can have a quiet day." Ephiny stopped and looked embarrassed by what she said. "Gods Gab; I didn't mean that how it sounded. I'm sorry." The regent looked deeply troubled. Gabrielle gave a laugh, but to her friends it sounded hollow.
"I know what you meant Eph, relax." The regent lost some of her frown but her eyes still radiated concern. "I can hardly help the juniors with drilling, and my shooting skills aren't up to much at the moment. I'll leave it to you to maintain the queen's honour. I'll look glowing and radiant while you'll be sweaty and smelly." They all laughed the tension broken.
"Apart from the swollen feet, aching legs, back ache, inability to sleep and indigestion," said Ephiny laughing and Gabrielle poked her tongue out.
"What's that?" asked Epinon and her and Xena slunk down next to the little group on the ground. Xena had positioned herself next to Gabrielle and immediately picked her hand up from her lap and gently held it. "What happened?" she said in a stern voice.
"How did you know?" asked Solari.
"I have many skills," said Xena seriously and Gabrielle, Solari and Ephiny struggled to keep their quivering lips from bursting out laughing.
"It just got very painful during sparring," Gabrielle managed to get out and then shut her mouth tight. Epinon and Xena viewed the three through suspicious eyes.
"Sparring." Xena looked at Gabrielle sternly and then at Ephiny and Solari. "I hope you didn't over extend yourself. You should have waited for me, Gabrielle. Don't try to run before you can walk." At those words Gabrielle, Solari and Ephiny burst out laughing and literally had to lie on the floor holding their sides. The other two looked on in amazement as the tears rolled down their faces. After several minutes the three regained their composure and under the watchful and stern eyes of Epinon and Xena sat up and grinned at them.
"Have you been at the wine?" asked Xena sniffing the waterskin. Gabrielle moved closer and Xena put one arm around her and the other gently held the bard's left hand, rubbing her thumb up and down the palm. She could feel the muscles twitch and the tension that the bard held it with. She wanted to get back and have a good look at it; she knew that the bard wouldn't admit how much it hurt her in front of anyone even her closest friends.
"Nah, just ignore us, too much sunshine," said Solari wiping her eyes. "We were discussing the Prima. Last chance for practice. "
Xena nodded and felt the bard stiffen slightly. She wanted to get off the subject of the Prima, as she knew despite Gabrielle's protestations she was upset by her lack of participation. The Prima Valour was held to celebrate the Amazons first victory. At one time the queen used to pick combatants to fight to the death and men were kidnapped to take part in the festivities as gladiators the victors allowed to procreate before being murdered. Times had changed and now it was a showcase of sparring, weapons and drills. It was the first chance for many juniors to show what they had learned. For the older and experienced amazons there were various events to take part in.
As Queens Gabrielle and Ephiny were expected to take part but due to Gabrielle's injury and pregnancy she nominated Xena, her champion. This had brought back feelings of being weak and useless, something Xena was eager to reassure the bard at every opportunity.
Xena held out a hand to be bard and hauled her up and the other three also jumped to their feet gathering all their items. They slowly walked towards the village discussing village affairs. Xena kept her arm around Gabrielle and was concerned not only by the lack of banter from the usually chatty bard but the amount of support she needed.
"Coming for dinner?" asked Epinon as they entered the village.
"I think I'll freshen up first," said Gabrielle. Xena gave the amazons a look which translated to mean don't expect us. They bade their goodbyes and as the amazons headed towards the dining hut Xena and Gabrielle walked slowly to their hut.
As they entered their hut, Xena steered Gabrielle to the bed. When she looked at the bard it was obvious to her that she was in considerable pain and very weary. Her eyes were shut, her face was tense and pale and her right hand was clenched tightly.
Xena went to her healer's kit and rooted around in the bag, becoming frustrated as she was unable to find what she was looking for.
Xena finally found it and then went to the shelf to pick up the jar of massage oil. She put that on the table with a crash and went to get a jug of water. Gabrielle opened her eyes and watched her with concern.
"Xe, Xena, please," said Gabrielle to Xena's back. Xena drew a deep breath in and turned round staring at Gabrielle. She could see Xena's jaw was set tight and the muscle in her neck was pulsing, sure signs that the warrior was fighting to keep her emotions at bay. "Don't be mad, please."
"I'm not mad," said Xena angrily then closed her eyes. "I am mad, but not at you Bri." She crossed the distance between them and pulled a chair next to Gabrielle. "I hate the fact you can't spar properly, that your hand isn't improving as fast we want, that you're in so much discomfort." Her voice became a whisper and she lent her head forwards so their foreheads were touching. They remained like that for a few heartbeats and then both moved away. Xena mixed some powder in a mug with some water and handed it to Gabrielle. She swallowed it down with her customary grimace. Then Xena started to rub her fingers over the hand. "What happened?"
"I was feeling really good and suddenly I got cramps here," Gabrielle pointed with her fingers where she had felt the pains. "I also felt so weary. I guess a short walk and gentle sparring is it for me now. At least it showed me I really can't compete in the prima."
Xena said nothing and continued to gently press Gabrielle's hand. She watched as Gabrielle emitted a long sigh and failed to fight back the tears. Xena poured some oil into her palm and then rubbed both hands together. She then started to work the bard's hand. "Thanks," whispered Gabrielle and closed her eyes and relaxed, bard's hand. "Thanks," whispered Gabrielle and closed her eyes and relaxed, emitting the odd whimper. Xena gave a slight smile and said, "Don't be upset. Besides it's only a load of women showing how bad and mean they can be."
"Thanks Xena next time I need a précis of each festival I'll ask you."
"You know what I mean, oh that's tight, and it's really only an excuse for a party."
"Aaah. I know that but I would have liked to have shown them how much I've improved with my staff."
"They know believe me."
"And I wanted to make you proud." Xena stopped her massage and kissed Gabrielle on her forehead.
"You don't need to prove anything to me. You know that."
Gabrielle opened her eyes and cupped Xena's face with her right hand. "I love you," she said.
Xena took Gabrielle's hand in hers and brought it to her lips. Their eyes met for an instant and then Gabrielle looked away slightly embarrassed. Xena knew what the bard's concern was. They had yet to be intimate since her torture and rape.
They both wanted to return to all levels of their relationship but were as frightened as each other; Xena of hurting Gabrielle and Gabrielle of reliving the past.
There was an uncomfortable silence. Then Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena. She put her head on the smaller woman's shoulder and basked in the embrace. When they pulled away, Gabrielle's weariness was apparent. Xena stood up and started to help Gabrielle undress. Within minutes the bard was tucked up in bed, and Xena continued to gently massage her hand until she fell asleep.
Xena watched the bard sleep lost in her own thoughts. She was a master of controlling her emotions; especially guilt. After all she had plenty of practice. She took part in the deaths and destruction of villages and the horrific torture of Gabrielle and Iolaus. She may have been infected by darkness caused by drinking from the Challis of Hectate and not able to control the dark urges she felt, but she still felt responsible. Despite the fact Gabrielle had reassured her continually and she had been forgiven by Iolaus and most of the Amazons; Xena still felt the weight of guilt at times and was unable to forgive herself.
She shook her head. The bouts of her guilt were becoming less frequent as were Gabrielle's nightmares. Time was healing their wounds both physical and emotional. She got up and poured herself a drink and smiled smugly as her thoughts drifted to the prima. She hoped she would make Gabrielle proud and Epinon mad. Now that would be a good day.