Remember, Never to Forget

by

Sinful

Warrior, Bard and Healer

 

Part II

I still feel you in my heart,
That part of you that’s in my soul.
But, it doesn’t stop the constant ache,
Without you here, I don’t feel whole.
I feel so lost and empty,
My life is barely hanging on.
I’ll fight for my survival,
But why ... if you are gone.

 

 

Chapter 9

 

Among the four of them, Ephiny, Jadax, Eponin and a responsible feeling Nazalon, they never left Gabrielle alone. Not that it would have made a difference, she wasn't really there anyway. She was only a shell of her former shelf, a broken, empty shell, void of all emotions and void of all life itself. She never left her room and she never left her bed. For three solid days all she did was cry and mourn the loss of her friend. She didn't talk, she didn't eat and she rarely even slept. Gabrielle just cried as she knew deep down something terrible had happened to Xena and there was nothing anyone could do. They had no idea where to even start.

The rains had poured heavily for days, wiping out any chance of tracking the lost warrior. A dark cloud hung over the village leaving an eerie silence of depression and frustration. There were no sounds of children playing, no noise of a busy community, only a respectable silence. There was little to no activity around the muddy compound. Only a few Amazons could be seen running from one hut to another or to the kitchen through the down pour of rain.

Ephiny was a mess. She didn't know what to do. She had never felt so totally helpless and isolate. Gabrielle had gone into seclusion, Jadax had become withdrawn and angry and Xena had vanished leaving only a bloody saddle and an uncontrollable horse.

Jadax's hostility was being taken out on everyone, but mainly on herself. She took to the solitude of the forest, taking long treks on and off Amazon land. Thankfully Ephiny didn't know anything about. The regent didn't like anyone to leave the safety of their land, never mind the woman she loved. But Jadax was determined to find out what had happened, or at least find Xena's body and bring her home. The warrior princess deserved a decent burial. Jadax talked to no one, she suffered in silence, she was aware Ephiny had her own problems.

The Queen felt her heart tear every time she saw Jadax. Never mind how she felt when she tried to talk to her. It didn't seem to matter what anyone said to Jadax. She was taking full responsibility for having left an injured Xena on her own. Ephiny had tried many times to get her to talk, but the forest scout was stubborn and kept to herself.

Ephiny had been to the healer and the priestess about Gabrielle and Jadax, even though she knew there was nothing they could do. Both had said the same thing. They had to do it themselves. Gabrielle had to find the courage to want to live. Jadax had to come to terms with what had been done and realize she couldn't change it.

The regent was aware of the frustration building in her village. Everyone wanted to know what had happened to Xena. The Queen had many meetings with her council and warriors as to what to do, but the answers were always the same. Without knowing where Xena had gone and with no tracks to follow, there was nothing they could do. Like Gabrielle they wanted to believe the warrior princess could still be alive, but they were starting to lose hope.

On the fourth day since finding Argo, Ephiny knew something had to happen soon. Her morning had started with another fight with Jadax. Something they had never done in the past, but seemed to be doing all the time now. When Ephiny had found her packing a travel bag, the normal passive regent lost it. She stood screaming at her lover that enough was enough. The spirited, stubborn, forest scout had simply looked at her and said, she and only she would say when it was enough. Jadax had thrown her bag over her shoulder and had exited the palace. Leaving Ephiny standing alone, her body shaking out of anger and frustration.

Moments later Donya, the large Amazon stable hand, arrived at the palace. She was unaware of what had just transpired between Ephiny and Jadax.

"What are we supposed to do with Argo? She still won't let anyone near her." Donya went on to explain they had been feeding the wild mare by throwing her food from a distance. No one had been able to get close enough to remove the saddle and the rest of Xena and Gabrielle's things. And now the smell of blood from Argo’s unwashed coat was disturbing the other horses.

The Queen had looked at the stable hand and threw her hands into the air.

"I have no idea either," but Ephiny promised she would have an answer by the afternoon. When Donya had left, she dropped her head into her hands. She couldn't take anything more.

Ephiny was still sitting with her head in her hands, when Eponin and Nazalon arrived at the palace a while later.

"My Queen," Eponin didn't want to disturb her Queen and childhood friend.

"My Queen!" She said louder, not sure if she had been heard.

"Eponin, don't call me that right now. I need a friend, not a loyal warrior," Ephiny removed her hands from her face. She was startled to see Eponin was not alone. But she couldn't be bothered with any of the usual formalities.

"Oh hi, Nazalon. Don't you 'my Queen' me right now either." The tall warrior quickly closed her mouth.

"What can we help with Ephiny?" Eponin knelt down in front of Ephiny, "There has to be something we can do? You can take all this on yourself."

Ephiny looked at Eponin and she knew her friend was right.

"Argo," she said plainly.

"What!?" The two warriors were surprised at the single word she had spoken.

"I need to figure out what to do with Argo."

There was silence for a moment, they were aware of the troubles Xena's wild mare was causing down at the stables.

"Why not ask Gabrielle?" Nazalon said quietly.

They looked over at the tall, dark warrior.

"It should be her decision, right? Besides, it might give her a reason to get out of bed and out of her room."

Ephiny thought for a moment and then looked at Eponin. They both shrugged their shoulders.

"Why not," said Ephiny, "we've got nothing to lose."

Ephiny left them in the common room and headed for Gabrielle's door. She tapped lightly then walked in.

The lack of light in the bedroom darkened the regent's heart. Not even a shade of grey could be seen in the stuffy room. Ephiny had been at her side for the first two days, but she had a village to run, and had stopped in every chance she could. She had thought someone had been with Gabrielle every moment, but by the looks of it, they hadn’t.

She took another step further into the room.

"Gabrielle?" There was no response.

"Gabrielle?!" It was too dark to see if there was anyone even in the room, but Ephiny knew she was there. She could hear her breathing.

"Gabrielle!" Ephiny said in a more determined voice.

"What?" Ephiny wasn't even sure if it was her, the voice had sounded so distant.

She turned to where she thought the voice had come from. The regent could sense the presence of the broken bard. There was no sense in beating around the bush.

"We are having a problem, we hope you might be able to help with."

Again, there was no response.

"Gabrielle."

"Leave me alone."

"No. It's Argo." Ephiny was hoping the name would have an impact. When she heard Gabrielle's intake of air, she knew she had been right. Ephiny closed her eyes and silently thanked Nazalon.

"She won’t let anyone near her."

"I can't help you . . . that horse hates me."

Ephiny took a chance, a big chance.

"Then we have no choice . . . but to destroy her."

"NO!" Gabrielle came out of the shadows and straight at Ephiny. "Don't you dare touch that horse," she said between clenched teeth.

Ephiny was horrified by Gabrielle's appearance. She looked almost crazed. Her hair was a mess, her skin was ghastly pale and her eyes were dancing on the edge on insanity.

"Gabrielle...come here, please."

"NO! Get out!" This stranger spatted out at her. Ephiny was well aware of the stages of grief, and anger was definitely one of the worst.

"No, I'm not leaving."

"Get out of here. I don't want you near me." Ephiny ignored the words and listened to the voice. She knew what Gabrielle needed. Ephiny held out her arms to her broken friend.

"Don't touch me. Don't you ever touch me again, Ephiny." The words were still laced with anger but Ephiny could hear the pain and sorrow as well. Gabrielle’s tough persona was starting to crack.

"Why not Gabrielle? I love you."

"NO! Don't say that. I don't deserve your love. Don't you see? It’s me. Everything I touch dies, everyone I have loved has died." The voice, which had started to soften, grew with anger.

"Love. Ha...love is for suckers ... Get out Ephiny."

Ephiny choked back the tears threatening to fall, and she left the room. Closing the door, the regent leaned back against it. She didn't think someone like Gabrielle could become as angry as the woman in there. She closed her eyes and let the tears fall. She didn't hear Eponin's silent footsteps approach, but she felt the care and concern of the hand on her arm.

"Come on Ephiny." Eponin said as she took her Queen by the hand and led her back into the common room. The quiet warrior sat them both down and then put her arms around Ephiny. After a few moments Ephiny sat back with her friend. She was not there as her guard nor as an Amazon warrior, she was just there as an old friend. It felt good just to sit with company. There were no words, no fights, and no tears.

They sat like that for over a candlemark until they both heard a noise. They looked up as Gabrielle's bedroom door opened, and out she walked. Neither commented but both noticed her sickly pale, gaunt appearance. The bard looked at them and then went out the back door. The two Amazons looked at each other and then bolted over to the window. They could see Gabrielle and she was slowly making her way down toward the stables.

"Well I'll be damned," said Ephiny almost under her breath. She smiled over at Eponin, who threw an arm around her shoulder.

"At least it shows she still cares about something," Eponin said.

"Oh no," exclaimed Ephiny. "Is there anyone down at the stables? She shouldn't be down there by herself!"

"Relax. Where do you think Nazalon went? She said she knew with the love Gabrielle and Xena shared, there was no way Gabrielle would let anything happen to Xena's horse."

"It was one hell of a gamble though. It could have backfired and blown up in our faces Eponin."

"Well, let's just hope it still doesn't."

 

 

Chapter 10

 

 

Argo,’ The name hung in Gabrielle's mind. ‘Argo ... Xena's horse.’ The mere thought of the warrior princess would have sent more tears flowing, but there weren't any left. Gabrielle had felt like she had all but dried up, not just of tears, but of everything. She wanted just to will herself to die. Without Xena, she felt lost and empty. She had no direction, no purpose. She no longer felt any love, only anger and hatred. But she didn't know how to hate. Her life had been love, understanding and forgiveness, her life had been Xena.

For three days, just three little days, her life had finally felt complete. She felt whole and she felt connected. Now she only felt a hole, a big, black, empty hole where her heart had once been. She knew Ephiny was trying, so was Jadax and Eponin, and that tall dark haired warrior. ‘What is her name? Nallon, no Naza ... it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.’

Then Ephiny had come into her solitude. She had disturbed peace and insanity. And Ephiny wouldn't leave her alone. ‘What did she say?’ Something Ephiny had said had gotten through the fog of her existence. Gabrielle tried to think, to put her finger on what it was. A name, Ephiny had said a name ... 'Argo.'

That horse had been with Xena longer than she had. She realized then, Argo had to be hurting too. With that thought, Gabrielle walked out of her room and out the back door. She was heading down to the stables. Down to Argo.

 

The home of the livestock and the horses was a large wooden structure, two stories tall. The large double doors of the barn entrance, opened wide enough for two riders to exit on horseback. There were twenty stalls on the main floor, though seldom were they all in use. The main supply of hay was in the loft above, but there were always a few bales below. The rear doors opened out to the collection of pastures were most of the forty or so horses now were.

To the left was a room filled with tack and supplies, as well as feed for the other farm animals. A long walkway down the center of the barn led to the back doors. Each stall was accessible from the breezeway. To the right was a scattering of tools for building and gardening, as well as the ladder leading to the hay loft.

 

Gabrielle stood in front of the doors of the barn for what seemed like an eternity. She steeled herself for what she knew was inside. Taking a big, deep breath, she walked through the doors.

The first thing Gabrielle noticed was the smell, the rotten, iron odor of dried blood. It was something she knew all too well. Her heart skipped a beat as she knew where the smell was coming from. The tears that wouldn't come earlier flowed freely down her face. She turned slightly and was startled for a moment when she realized she wasn't alone. It was Nazalon, who was seated quietly on a bale of hay. It was obvious to Gabrielle she was waiting for someone.

"I thought you might need a hand, my Queen." Nazalon looked up at Gabrielle from her slight attempt at a bow.

"Look. I'm no Queen all right. My name is Gabrielle." She hadn't meant to snap at the warrior, but right now she didn't care. Her face softened when Nazalon nodded and offered a caring smile.

Gabrielle walked slowly over to Argo. The horse began to toss her head as she recognized the little blond woman.

"Hey girl. It's me. How ya doing, huh? I hear you've been giving everyone a bad time." Argo looked around, and then turned back to Gabrielle with a snort.

She opened the door to Argo's stall and walked right in. The war horse side stepped a bit, but other than that, she was fine. Gabrielle tried to ignore the bloody saddle, but she couldn't take her eyes off of Xena's weapons. It was almost like they spoke to her. She dragged her eyes back to the horse. Gabrielle reached up and began to scratch the horse's forehead. She looked deep into the reflecting eyes of Xena's oldest and most sacred friend.

"You saw it all, didn't ya girl." Gabrielle swallowed hard as she said the words out loud. Nazalon, who was standing and watching from a distance, widened her eyes at the statement. Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the only thing left connecting her to Xena. Argo nuzzled the bard's neck, causing Gabrielle to cry even harder. She had never felt so helpless before. Her heart ached for her warrior.

Nazalon continued to watch in amazement. It was as if the horse and the little Queen were comforting each another. ‘Is it possible the horse knew something?’ Nazalon shook her head as Gabrielle began to back Argo out of her stall. She walked the golden mare over and tied her to one of the hitching posts. Nazalon couldn't believe the change in the horse. Argo had been so wild and unmanageable, and now she was calm and attentive.

"Nazalon, could you please find me a big box to put all this stuff in. Then let Ephiny know I would like to see her." Nazalon only nodded and headed out the door. Clearing the barn, the warrior took off at a dead run. Her mind was spinning with everything that had just happened between Argo and Gabrielle. Nazalon knew this was the break Ephiny was looking for.

 

"Well it was your doing, Nazalon." Ephiny couldn't believe she was smiling after the morning she had.

"But what if Argo does know something?"

"Then we have to figure out how to find out what she knows. I'm heading down to the stable, you need to go and find a box. I don't want her throwing anything away." She said over her shoulder as she left the palace.

Hurrying down to the stables Ephiny wondered where all of this was going to go. She decided to take a quick detour before going to the barn. The regent turned quickly into the kitchen.

Ephiny opened the barn door and saw Gabrielle with her arm around Argo's neck. It looked to Ephiny like she was crying.

"Gabrielle?" The regent said softly walking toward the two.

Gabrielle and Argo brought their heads up to look at her. Argo snorted loudly, and for a moment Ephiny thought Gabrielle had too.

The red eyed blond looked at Ephiny for a heart beat, then turned back to Argo. She ran her hand over the horse's forehead.

"She knows what happened, Eph. She's the key."

Ephiny took a step closer to the bard.

"Then together, we'll find out what she knows. I promise."

Gabrielle turned again to the Queen and quietly made her request.

"Could you please remove her sword and chakram? I would like them taken to our room ... please." She had dropped her eyes to the ground unable to look at Ephiny. It didn't matter, Ephiny knew the tears were there.

"I would be honored to Gabrielle." She placed a caring hand on the bard's shoulder.

"Just put them under the bed for now. I really don't want to look at them."

Ephiny knew there was still something bothering her friend. It was more than just the appearance of Argo. She looked over at Gabrielle, who was going through a box of brushes and combs. Ephiny suddenly realized what Gabrielle was going to do.

"Are you ok doing this?" Ephiny felt her own body shudder at the thought of Gabrielle brushing off Argo.'All that blood.’

"Yes, I think so...I think I need to."

Ephiny walked over to the saddle and removed Xena's weapons. With the sword and chakram in her hand she turned to go, but stopped and looked at her friend.

"I am still here, Gabrielle. Even if you don't want to talk."

"I know Eph ... I know."

Ephiny left the barn and stood outside waiting for Nazalon to show up. She looked down at the weapons in her hands, Xena's weapons. 'Why hadn't she used them.' With everything that had been going on, she hadn't had time to think about her missing friend. Ephiny didn't want to admit she was certain her friend was gone. Ephiny was going to miss her terribly. The world just didn't feel as safe without its warrior princess. As she continued to look at Xena's weapons, it dawned on her what had felt so strange in the barn. Gabrielle had gone out of her way to avoid even looking at Xena's weapons.

She looked up when she heard Nazalon. The warrior arrived with a large box in her hands.

"How is she? Is she all right?" Nazalon asked as she looked at the warrior's weapons in Ephiny's hands.

"I'm not sure, but you were right. At least it got her out of her room. Eponin's up there right now with a cleaning crew. By the way, the cook should be down shortly with some carrots and apples for Argo. See if you can't get Gabrielle to have a few, anything. I'll even settle for her eating some of the oats."

Nazalon tilted the box she was carrying to reveal the contents inside. The load of carrots and apples rolled to the edge. She looked at Ephiny and smiled.

"Keep an eye on her Nazalon. It could get very rough in there. I don't know if I could do what she is about to do."

"I'll be watching her." Ephiny nodded and watched the warrior duck into the barn.

 

Nazalon put the box on the ground, and looked over at the blond woman. Gabrielle was just standing next to Argo, her eyes focused on the ground. It didn't take a genius to realize she had no intentions of touching Xena's saddle. The warrior walked over and began to undo the buckles, then lifted it off and removed the blood soaked blanket.

"What would you like me to do with these?" she asked.

Gabrielle still hadn't lifted her head. She shrugged her shoulders.

"I don't know. I don't want to see them. You keep 'em." Gabrielle gestured for them just to be taken away.

"I'll take them to my hut ... for now. Just let me know when you would like them back."

Gabrielle reached down for a brush to start working on Argo's coat. She noticed the box with the carrots and apples.

"Thank you. That was thoughtful of you. Argo loves apples."

"It was Ephiny's idea. But Argo is supposed to share, some of those apples are also for you."

"Thanks," she said quietly.

"Could I ask you to give me some privacy? Just wait outside ... and watch the doors."

Nazalon hesitated, she didn't want to leave her alone. But she nodded, hoping Gabrielle wasn't going to do something foolish. Waiting outside the closed doors, she soon realized Gabrielle had no ulterior motives. Just a girl and a horse, both in a need of cleaning, one on the outside, the other on the inside. Nazalon could hear the sounds of crying between the strokes of the brush. Every once in a while she could hear the low mummers of a one-sided conversation, mixed in with the odd horse nicker and snort.

Ephiny had shown up twice, once with Eponin. They had wanted to check on the condition of their friend. No one interrupted her and no one was allowed to bother her. Nazalon had given Gabrielle her word. But in the afternoon, when the warrior hadn't heard any more sounds coming from inside the barn, Nazalon knew she had to look.

She found Gabrielle fast asleep in the pile of hay. Her eyes went to Argo and she couldn't believe what she saw. Gabrielle must have exhausted herself cleaning the golden coat. There were no longer any signs of blood or mud. Her tail and mane were white and her body shined like a sea of honey.

Nazalon slowly approached the horse. Argo showed no signs of her earlier aggression. She let the tall Amazon woman lead her back to her stall. She gratefully accepted an apple and a bucket of oats. Nazalon ran her hand down Argo’s side. 'She is a magnificent animal,' the warrior thought.

Nazalon went back to the sleeping bard and gently lifted her into her arms.

"Just hang on Gabrielle. It will be all right." The warrior whispered. She left the barn with Gabrielle in her arms and headed for the palace.

One of the Royal guards opened the door for Nazalon and their Queen. The moment they entered the common room, Ephiny was on her feet. She looked at the sleeping bard and then at the tall warrior.

"She looks exhausted Nazalon."

"I'm sure she is. I think they are both more at peace now. You should see Argo. She looks like a horse fit for a Queen."

"Princess...warrior princess." Gabrielle muttered not even opening her eyes. Nazalon and Ephiny exchanged a quick smile.

Ephiny knew Gabrielle had taken a big step forward today, her first real step out of her own private hell.

 

 

Chapter 11

 

 

When Gabrielle woke the next morning, the sun was shining, and for a brief moment, she forgot where she was, and what had happened. She turned to look at the empty space beside her and she remembered ... she was alone. The pain of separation and the agony of the unknown tore at her chest. Gabrielle struggled to maintain her control. She sat up in bed when she also recalled she had fallen asleep in the barn. ‘So how did I get back here? Nazalon.’ The name brought back the memory of the barn. She closed her eyes and tried to push away the empty feeling in her soul. The bard opened her eyes and saw the box in the corner of the room. She rose from the bed and went over to it.

She sat cross-legged on the cold, wood floor and pulled out the first thing she saw. Her scrolls. Her eyes misted, but she fought back the tears as she read, 'The Journeys and Adventures of Xena, Warrior Princess'. The memories flooded back: Their first meeting, the dream scape with Morpheus, the Bacchus, Xena fighting an entire army while she watched dying from a poisoned arrow. She shuddered with the thought of Callisto. Of Xena in Callisto's body and Callisto in Xena's. She thought of Solan and Illusia. She closed her eyes and let the tears fall. An ache filled her body when she thought of their first real kiss. It was only days ago, but it felt like a lifetime. Gabrielle's body yearned for the touch of her lover. Just once more to make love to the woman who had meant the world to her.

She sat for a while holding onto the feelings she knew she would never forget. She opened her eyes and looked into the box. Her eyes drifted over what they saw, their cooking supplies, Xena's whet stone and then her eyes caught the sight of Xena's sleeping shift. The thin cotton chemise wasn't worn often by the warrior princess, but it was hers. Something of Xena’s that had been close to her lean body. Gabrielle reached for it and brought it to her tear stained face, and breathed in deeply. The smell of Xena traveled through her body and tugged at her soul. The musky warm scent of the warrior was mixed with the smell of leather. Gabrielle could faintly detect the hint of pine from where they had spent their last night together.

She wasn't aware of the sound coming from her heart. She wasn't aware of the stillness she had broken with her pain. But Ephiny was. The regent sat up in her own bed as she heard the sounds of forced separation. She knew who it was as she climbed from her empty bed and headed for the sound of Gabrielle's breaking heart.

‘It smells like Xena. Her leathers, her body I can even smell a touch of cinnamon and hyacinth.’ Gabrielle held the shift tight to her chest. With her eyes closed and her mind drifting away, it felt like Xena was in her arms.

Ephiny opened the door to see Gabrielle sitting in the middle of the floor, rocking back and forth. She was holding a piece of cloth to her chest and sobbing uncontrollably. Ephiny sat down beside her and gathered her into her arms. She knew what the contents of the box were. She closed her eyes and let Gabrielle cry. Whatever she was holding obviously had belonged to Xena. Ephiny felt her own heart breaking.

"Oh Gabrielle. Two steps forward, and now one step back," she whispered as she kissed the top of the bard's head.

It took awhile, but Gabrielle finally started to collect herself. She lifted her head and tried to smile.

"Thanks," she croaked at Ephiny. Gabrielle looked down at the box, and then pushed it back into the corner. She wasn't ready for it yet, and they both knew it. She stood quiet for a moment, trying to steady her shaking insides. Gabrielle asked if Ephiny had a change of clothes for her.

"Just an Amazon robe Eph ... and a towel." Ephiny smiled and nodded. She left knowing Gabrielle was trying.

Ephiny decided to join Gabrielle in a bath, she gathered up a robe and some towels, then found Eponin at the front door.

"She's doing ok, then?"

"I think so. We’re heading up to the private hot springs and I don't want to be disturbed."

"Sure," said Eponin.

Ephiny knew they would be alone in the regent pool. Only the Queen and her consort were allowed in the private pool. It was one of the only perks to being the Queen.

She stopped by Gabrielle's room, clothing and towels in hand.

"I thought I would join you, if you don't mind."

"I would like that. I really didn't want to be alone."

The two Queens left the palace and headed up the hill to the hot spring. It was a new day, and a new start.

 

 

The lazy slope of the hill wasn't the only reason Ephiny had chosen this area for their new village. The proximity of the hot springs had added a little incentive. There were three natural pools of warm, bubbling, water and the farther up the hill you walked, the smaller they became.

The first spring, tucked behind the temple, was mainly used for cleaning and bathing. It was large enough to fit the entire village, but had many areas separated by large boulders. The steamy spring was open to the trees and could be approached from all angles.

The second spring was about another 100 paces up the hill. It was more for relaxation and recreation. With its abundance of leafy bushes, it was far more secluded and always seemed to be occupied, mainly by active couples looking for some fun.

The third spring was the private pool reserved for the regent and her consort. It was nestled snugly in a thick overgrowth of vines and bushes. A fair distance from the palace, only a small trail led to its existence. The pool itself was not very large. A tall Amazon might have been able to reach from one side to the other. It had many different depths depending on which smooth boulder you were standing on. The rim of the pool had been lined with large, flat slabs of slate with a wide bench just off to one side. Natural sea sponges were scattered around the edge of the pool easily accessible to whomever wanted to use them.

A small pile of clothing was heaped on the bench as the sound of someone entering the pool rippled through the morning air.

'What is it with these warrior women?' Gabrielle thought as she watched a naked Ephiny climb into the hot spring. 'They never seem to be bothered with such trivial things as nudity.'

Quickly doffing her own clothes, the bards slipped under the cover of the water. Neither of them spoke right away. They relaxed and enjoyed the warmth of the water. Trying to let some of their troubles just wash away, but neither was very successful.

"What I'm I going to do now, Ephiny?" Gabrielle said suddenly, breaking the silence.

"What do you want to do?"

"Find a dark corner to crawl into and just curl up and die."

"If that is what you truly want to do my friend, then that is what will be. We will miss you though."

"Oh Ephiny, you know I don't mean it. I just feel so lost, it’s like I'm spinning out of control."

"You need to find a direction Gabrielle. Something to hold on to, something that will anchor you."

"Xena anchors me."

Ephiny knew it was time to push the issue.

"And what if Xena is no longer here," she said softly. Ephiny waited for the explosion of anger and denial. There wasn't one. The bard had only dropped her head to look deeper into the swirling water.

"There is a part of me that doesn't believe she is ... I still feel her, here ... right here." The blond woman tapped her chest.

"I think you always will Gabrielle. But maybe we should be a little more realistic."

"I know ... but ... I still feel her. Xena said when she thought I was dead, she reached inside herself and she knew I was still alive. She said she could hear me ... feel me. We are true soulmates, Ephiny. I still feel her inside me. I don't believe she is dead." Gabrielle finally found the words that had been in her heart and in her head.

Ephiny looked at her with great concern, she knew this was not a good thing. Then she remembered the words of Aphrodite.'They only exist if the other exists, without one the other will die.' She looked closely at Gabrielle. Only then did she realize, Gabrielle had lived through the worst and she was still here. A small flame of hope sparked back to life inside of Ephiny's heart. A small glimmer of hope, of faith in Xena's will began to grow. If Gabrielle was alive, then that could only mean one thing ... so was Xena. By the Gods own words ... Xena must still be alive.

Gabrielle's voice brought Ephiny back, "Until we find a body, I am not giving up."

"I don't think you should either. But it still doesn't solve our problem of where to look. We've had our ears out to the far reaches of the known world and we have heard nothing."

They fell back into silence for a while, then Gabrielle quietly asked.

"Ephiny, where is Jadax?"

The lonely regent paused in her reply, not sure how, or what, to say.

"Ephiny, is there trouble between you two?"

"She still blames herself Gabrielle. She thinks she was the one who let Xena go off by herself. She says she knew Xena was injured but she let her go anyhow."

"You and I both know that if Xena wanted to go by herself, no one was going to change her mind. I was there, remember? Jadax offered to send either Nazalon or Plaiertei with Xena, but she flatly declined the offer."

"I know, but Jadax has it in her mind it's still her fault. We've had many arguments over it. She is determined to find out what happened. So, she’s been traveling all over the northern region ... on and off Amazon land."

Gabrielle could hear the concern and fear in Ephiny's voice. She didn't like anyone leaving the protection of their land, especially Jadax.

"She swore to me Gabrielle, when we had our last fight. She will either find Xena for you, one way or another ... or die trying."

They let the words hang in the air, they felt their meanings, more than heard the words.

 

 

After the hot springs the two Queens returned to the palace. Ephiny was pleased Gabrielle had agreed to join her for a meal. She hadn't seen her eat in the last five days and the small bard was beginning to show the signs of it. Her skin looked ghastly pale, almost grey in color. Her blond hair has lost its shine. But it was Gabrielle’s eyes that tore at Ephiny the most, they seemed to be permanently red and bloodshot. They had taken on a lifeless and sunken appearance and Ephiny wondered how long they would be like that.

The two regal women sat in silence, alone in their thoughts at the table. The rows of Amazons had grown very quiet when they spotted the pair entering the hall. The head cook herself had served them and Gabrielle had only muttered a polite ‘thank you’ as the plate of food was put in front of her. Ephiny watched Gabrielle picked at her morning meal. She had eaten only a few mouthfuls of eggs. It was another step, small and shaky, but it was a step.

Once they were finished their meal, Ephiny and Gabrielle parted company just outside of the kitchen. Ephiny had duties as the Queen and Gabrielle wanted to go and see Argo.

Gabrielle lead the golden war horse out of the barn and down to the northern field. She knew they both needed some sun. Argo was a little skiddish at first, Gabrielle figured she missed her owner too. With some soft gentle words the mare settled down and willingly followed the blond woman. The bard sat down next to the grazing mare, and waited. The morning sun climbed higher in the sky, she could feel the heat as summer was just around the corner.

Gabrielle picked at the green grass she was laying on. The Summer solstice was not very far away and she knew the Amazon’s would be celebrating the arrival of summer. She dozed on and off though always keeping her eyes to the trees. Xena was out there somewhere and Gabrielle ached for her lost companion.

Part of her wanted to pack up and start looking, but she knew Ephiny was right. They had no clue where to look. It didn't dull the ache and sorrow in the bard's lonely heart.

She watched the sun turn to noon as it past over the tall trees at the edge of the pasture. The light breeze carrying puffs of cottonwood as they danced in the air to their final unknown destination. The shade of the trees grew long, the shadows of dark fingers reached across the grass as the sun began to descend from the afternoon sky. Gabrielle knew it was getting late when she finally saw whom she had been waiting for.

The little forest scout had spotted Gabrielle before she ever left the cover of the trees. She was happy to see her friend outside in the sun, and with Argo no less. They both looked much better than the last time she had seen them.

As the small woman grew closer, it was easy to see the mirrored looks of pain and separation on her face. The burden of guilt laid heavy on her shoulders.

They said nothing as they held each other in a comforting embrace. The words they spoke were of care and concern. They knew full well their own feelings of remorse.

"It's nice to see you out of your chamber’s Gabrielle."

"It's good to see you back in the village Jadax." The bard felt the scout tense under her embrace.

"Jadax." Gabrielle pulled back to look at the little Amazon's face. As Jadax returned the gaze, she felt her heart tighten when she saw the emptiness in Gabrielle's eyes.

"It's time to stop it." The bard said softly but sternly. "I'm going to make this very clear, and very simple. You offered the help to Xena and she declined it. You offered to have either Plaiertei or Nazalon go with her and she refused. There was nothing else you could have done. I know Xena, and no means no." Jadax's eyes fell to the ground. Gabrielle lifted her chin and looked into her eyes.

"It's not your fault. Xena made the choice herself. We both know there was nothing else you could have done. I don't blame you. Ephiny doesn't blame you and when we find Xena, she won’t blame you either." She saw the tears welling up in Jadax's eyes.

"Now you have a decision to make. You can head back into the forest and continue to look, but where. We have no clues, no idea where she was going. It's like looking for a needle in a very large haystack, when you don't even know which haystack to look in. If I knew where to start, I would be out there."

"Or my other option?"

"You can march right up to the palace and tell Ephiny you’re sorry for putting her through this. Then hold her close and tell her you love her. That's one thing I've learned Jadax. Never put off the love you feel for someone today, because there might not be a tomorrow." Gabrielle's voice had begun to falter. Jadax reached for her and they held each other. Then Jadax whispered in her ear.

"I won’t give up though. I'll still be looking every time I go out. I will bring back your warrior princess, Gabrielle...one way...or another." She placed a small kiss on Gabrielle's wet cheek and headed up the hill to the palace. Gabrielle watched her go.

"I won’t give up either, Jadax." Gabrielle whispered.

 

 

 

Chapter 12

The change was slow and not always steady. Every once in a while the old Gabrielle would emerge for a brief moment, then she would retreat back into herself. The smiles were rare and her laughter was absent. The pain in her heart was still very clear on her face. Gabrielle was trying, but finding any pleasure in life was something she didn't want to do without Xena. There were still many long dark nights when Ephiny had to sooth away the horrifying nightmares. She would rock and cradle the little bard back to sleep. Ephiny noticed, but never mentioned the fact Gabrielle slept with Xena's sleeping shift. She would see it in her arms or tucked under a pillow. Ephiny never knew if it made it better, or made it worse.

The Queen was very thankful to Gabrielle for the return of her consort, both in mind and in body. Her spirit was damp but hopefully that with time they both would forgive themselves. Ephiny knew Jadax still took her little treks, but they didn't seem to be as long, or as often.

Weeks had past and they still had no clues or answers to any of their questions. The summer solstice had come and gone. Gabrielle had elected to stay in her room. Most of the Amazons had felt the same way and it hadn't been much of a celebration. The lack of Xena was felt by one and all.

The usual small group was seated in the common room. They were all there, Ephiny, Jadax, Eponin, Plaiertei, Nazalon and Gabrielle. They were having a slightly heated discussion of what to do next. No one could seem to agree on a direction. Gabrielle had argued many times with all of them, even though she knew they were right. The last big fight between her and Ephiny had almost erupted into a physical confrontation. Wherever Xena had gone, she had left no trail to follow, or anybody to find.

They all stopped talking when the front doors opened with a gust of air. There stood a very pale faced priestess. Her eyes wide open with shock and surprise.

"Artemis is here!"

All six mouths dropped.

"What do you mean, here?" Ephiny asked as she moved closer to the priestess.

"I mean She is here, in the temple ... She has asked to speak to the Queen." She had been the temple keeper all her life and she had never seen, much less spoken, to the Goddess herself.

Ephiny glanced around the room, no one knew what to say. The Goddess had never appeared and made a request before.

Ephiny started for the door, when the priestess stopped her.

"She asked to speak to the Queen," all eyes turned to Gabrielle, "...both of them."

Gabrielle looked at Ephiny and they dashed out of the room.

 

They entered the inner chamber and there by the altar stood Artemis, Goddess of the Moon and Hunt, chosen protector of the Amazons. To her right was Aphrodite and to her left was ...

"Ares," growled Gabrielle, "... you bastard!"

Ephiny's mouth and heart dropped. Had Gabrielle just lost her mind, she just cursed out the God of War himself.

"Relax little girl. We are all here to help. This has nothing to do with the past." Artemis turned and glared at Her brother. He quickly wiped the sneer off of His face.

"Oh would You two like get along. This isn't about family feuds." Aphrodite added as She turned to Gabrielle. "No wonder it took Me so long to get you two in the sack together. These two morons kept pulling you apart."

Gabrielle looked at Artemis, Her face showing Her anger. Artemis was supposed to be her protector and She hadn't been doing Her job lately.

"Is that true?"

"It doesn't matter now Gabrielle. You two got past our bickering a long time ago. Who do you think gave you the courage to kiss Xena?" At the statement, Ares turned and glared at His sister while mumbling obscenities. Xena had been His. His until Gabrielle had come along. He didn't speak to Aphrodite for almost two full seasons when He found out She had a hand in the change that had come over His beloved warrior princess. Aphrodite had just smiled and laughed, She said it was a challenge. Besides that, it had been fun. Xena had been so dark and cold, the Goddess wanted to see if she could still love. Aphrodite had giggled uncontrollably when the dark warrior babe had fallen in love with the little blond.

Ephiny stood speechless. Obviously Gabrielle had a lot of dealings with the Gods. Ephiny on the other hand, had not.

"Artemis, I kissed Xena on my own. But if it was Your doing, why did You wait so long to give me the courage?"

"That's not why We are here Gabrielle."

"Do you know something this time?" Gabrielle's head snapped as she looked over at Ephiny. She had forgotten about the conversation Ephiny had with Aphrodite.

"No." The Goddess of Love said as She wiped away some imaginary wrinkles off Her gown. She didn't want to do this. She hated the thought of asking mortals for any kind of help.

"Gabrielle." Artemis said softly. "We have no answers for you. You keep asking Me where she is ... I can't answer that."

"I've never had a problem finding Xena." Ares tried to show some compassion. "When My sister first came to Me for help, I thought it was a joke, until I realized I couldn't find her either."

"You see Gabrielle, in order for Us to locate a mortal, We just focus on their soul. On who they are and where they are, and then 'poof', we're there."

"Are You saying Xena has lost her soul?" Gabrielle said in disbelief. Without waiting for an answer she asked the one question that shot fear in her heart.

"Has anyone talked to Hades?"

"Yes, and she's not there Gabrielle." Artemis saw the relief on her chosen's face.

The Goddess knew it was the only good thing She could tell her.

"Well, what can I do?" Gabrielle said after a pause.

"You can do what We cannot. Search inside yourself Gabrielle. Look into your heart." Aphrodite continued what Artemis was asking.

"Your love for each other is stronger than even Us. Let your heart go and it will find your true love." A normally light hearted, and light headed, Aphrodite spoke with concern and compassion.

Everyone looked at Gabrielle but she didn't see them. She had her eyes closed as she searched her heart and soul for the woman she loved.

"What do you feel Gabrielle?"

"I feel ... lost, lost and empty," she replied as she opened her eyes and looked straight at Artemis.

"But you do feel inside?" Aphrodite didn't mean to sound uncaring, she just needed to know.

"Yes ... no. I mean I yes, I feel lost and alone."

The three Gods exchanged glances.

"Thank your Gabrielle," said Artemis.

"For what, I didn't do anything ... I don't understand. Tell me what I did," Gabrielle cried out in despair.

"You just told Us all ... the warrior princess is not dead!"

Gabrielle looked at all three of them, uncertain what to believe. Aphrodite answered her, the Goddess of Love couldn't stand the painful look on the bard's face.

"The strength of your love, the love the two of you share. If Xena was dead ... you would know it. You would feel it deep inside. We just have to keep looking for her."

"But where do we look?" Ephiny swallowed as all three Gods turned to look at her.

"We do not know, my Amazon Queen. We do not know!" With a flash of light the three were gone, leaving Ephiny and Gabrielle alone and speechless.

They headed back to the palace where the other four were waiting for them. Ephiny filled them in on what had transpired. When she was finished, she walked over to Gabrielle and knelt down in front of her.

"Here's my thought. We pick a small group, four or five warriors. Single warriors," she said looking at Jadax. "We'll send them out to search the entire country side until they find something."

"They have to be volunteers Ephiny, and yes I agree they have to be single."

A voice spoke up, "I would like to lead the group." Plaiertei said as she stood in front of the Queens.

Gabrielle and Ephiny looked at each other, Ephiny turned back and said, "Yes."

The group was formed the following morning and they left by the afternoon. Ephiny and Plaiertei had worked out a plan of communication to be followed by the change of every moon. Everyone wished them luck, and Gabrielle wished she was going with them.

 

 

 

Chapter 13

 

Gabrielle had started to grow quiet with frustration. It had been almost a month since the two had parted by the river. The lack of information was eating at her soul. Ephiny could see the physical change in Gabrielle, but she knew her mind wasn't improving. The regent noticed the bard's color was starting to return. She was holding her body up straight and true, instead of looking hunched and dejected. But her eyes, her eyes hadn't changed. They were still dark and lifeless. Gabrielle’s body was alive and well but her soul was drifting aimlessly downward.

They had argued heatedly when Gabrielle had wanted to join the group of searchers. She had said she was volunteering and that she was single. None of the five women would back her though, and she had stormed out of the palace. She knew why they wouldn't let her go, but it didn't make it any easier.

One afternoon in the barn Gabrielle came up with a new idea, a venture the regent was none too keen on.

"You’re not going Gabrielle!"

"Are you going to stop me Ephiny?" The two were locked into another heated battle of wills.

"No, I wouldn't do that. I'm just strongly suggesting, that you not go!"

"Well I am. I can't sit here any longer. I have to try something and this is the only thing I could come up with. I'm taking Argo and I'll be leaving at first light tomorrow. Argo was the last one to see Xena, and I want to give her a chance to find her."

"As your friend, I'm pleading with you ... don't go. By the powers of Artemis, please ... you don't know what is out there."

"I've spent the last three years living out there Ephiny. I know what is out there. Xena is out there ... somewhere. I want to go and look for myself." The green eyes were alive for the first time since she had arrived in the village. Ephiny knew that it was only out of anger.

"But it’s different now Gabrielle."

"Why? Why is it different? I can handle myself," the bard shot back at the Queen, their faces were red with anger.

"But you had Xena before, now you’re alone!" Ephiny’s words hung in the thick air. Gabrielle’s face showed the shock of what Ephiny had said.

Eponin had heard enough. She had been patiently waiting for the argument to die down, but when she heard the words Ephiny had hollered at Gabrielle, she barged into the room.

"That's enough Ephiny!" Eponin said sternly to the Queen. The warrior stood between them now, but her eyes held sternly on her Queen.

"How about if I go with Gabrielle? We'll leave at dawn and will be back before it's dark." Eponin waited for a response. She knew she had stepped out of line with her tone and words, but they had been friends since birth. She also knew she couldn't leave without Ephiny's approval. Stopping an argument was one thing, leaving Amazon land against the Queen's wishes was another.

Ephiny stared at Gabrielle. Without looking at Eponin, she nodded, then left the room. She couldn't believe what she had just said to Gabrielle. She was ashamed of herself. Gabrielle had come along way, but she still had a long way to go. Now, at the first sign of life in her eyes, Ephiny had slapped her down. The verbal strike had been physically felt by both of them. She had seen the look on Gabrielle's face when she had spoken those words. It didn't matter now, that they had been spoken out of fear and concern. All that mattered is they had been said and the pain they had caused. No one knew what had happened to Xena, so there was nothing to stop it from happening to someone else. That fear weighed heavy on the regent's mind.

It was later that night when Ephiny went to Gabrielle's room, Jadax had all but pushed her there.

"You can't let her leave with bad feelings between you two. Go tell her how you really feel, Ephiny, before it's too late."

Ephiny squared her shoulders and knocked on the door. When Gabrielle opened the door all Ephiny could say was, "I'm scared"

They talked for over a candlemark, reassuring each other it was going to be ok. Gabrielle had promised to be careful, and that at the first sign of anything they would high tail it back.

 

Eponin and Gabrielle left the next morning before light had even started to brighten the sky. Eponin was on horseback Gabrielle was on foot. Argo was leading the way.

 

 

Chapter 14

 

 

'The village is quieter this morning,' thought Nazalon. 'Everyone seems to be a bit subdued.' Nazalon had headed down to the training grounds in hopes of finding someone to spar with. The grounds were empty and quiet. She was bored. Breakfast had been eaten, weapons had been sharpened, she had even lounged in the hot springs to kill some time. She found herself with nothing to do. She normally hung out with either Eponin or Plaiertei, but they were gone. Jadax was with Ephiny and Gabrielle had left with Eponin this morning.

Reluctantly, she headed back to her hut in hopes of finding something to occupy her mind. She stood in the doorway, and looked around. There had to be something. Her eyes went around her hut. It was definitely the home of a single warrior. One small cot was pushed up against the back wall. A pile of blankets and furs were heaped in the middle. Her table and chair were outside in front of her hut, making for plenty of room for her weapons. It wasn't a place to entertain, only a roof to sleep under, and a spot to store her few personal possessions.

Her eyes fell on the bloody saddle and blanket tucked into the other corner. 'Why not? They should be cleaned anyhow. Gabrielle may want them one day, and she definitely wouldn't want them looking like this.'

Her mind wandered back to Gabrielle as she went back outside, saddle and blanket in hand. She sat down with a cleaning and polishing rag, then began the ominous task of cleaning up the saddle, she knew she couldn't salvage the blanket. Working away methodically, her mind was free to roam.

She liked Gabrielle, and she had liked Xena too. Nazalon had heard so many stories about the warrior princess and her Amazon Queen she felt like she knew them before she had ever met them. She had never seemed to be in the village when they had been there. It had been exciting to finally be introduced. Nazalon could still recall the look the warrior princess had given her. Not big on showing emotions or weakness, the Amazon had hidden her delight at passing the approval of the other tall warrior.

When the disappearance of Xena had been discovered, she too had been effected. She had seen the love the two had shared. It was in their eyes. Even for the brief moment she had been with them together. Her heart had gone out to Gabrielle. They had become friends, and Nazalon enjoyed doing things for her. Just for the simple pleasure and thrill she got when Gabrielle gave away one of those few smiles. Nazalon had never had a true love, but she had her share of lovers. After all, she was one of the most sought after eligible warriors in the village. No one had yet to capture her heart.

Nazalon looked down at the saddle. One side was now cleaned and oiled and it looked good. Turning the saddle around, she began on the other side. Her mind began to drift again.

She had volunteered for the search party, but Ephiny had pulled her aside and asked her to withdraw.

'Gabrielle trusts you, and I think she would rather have you around. She talks to you.'

Nazalon had agreed and removed her name from the list. It was true Gabrielle didn't talk much to anyone anymore. When she did, she seemed to seek out Nazalon. They went to the training grounds together on many occasions, Nazalon had been surprised at Gabrielle's abilities. They had even shared the odd meal together, but Gabrielle didn't seem to eat much these days. She had grown quite thin, which with the emptiness of her eyes, made her look gaunt.

Nazalon smiled with pride as she looked down at the saddle, it looked like new again. Heavily worn, but no longer was there any traces of dirt or blood. Scanning it closely to make sure she hadn't missed anything, her mind questioned her thoughts. 'Had it been Xena's blood?' No one had openly said it was, but in turn, no one had decided it wasn't.

She inspected the fine craftsmanship of the leather. She could just make out the faint outline of a pattern on both sides of the saddle. It was the same as Xena's chakram. Never would there be a doubt as to whom it belonged to. Nazalon flipped the saddle over to clean the under side. Her finger caught on something and it fell to the ground. She realized something had been tied underneath the saddle in the hollow. She knelt to the ground to see what had fallen. Nazalon spotted something and reached to pick it up. Her heart dropped when she realized what she was holding.

 

Gabrielle and Eponin had long since passed the Amazon border. Now and then Argo had stopped, as if to look around, then she would soon start back up again. Eponin kept a close eye on Gabrielle when they came to the clearing where they had spent their last night together. Gabrielle had been quiet all morning, but somehow she had become even quieter. She urged the golden mare on when the pain in her chest had become unbearable. Gabrielle could still see the indent in the pine needles where Xena had laid. The familiar smells brought back all the pain.

They had continued on, Eponin knew Gabrielle was crying, but the warrior said nothing. She felt it was better just to let her cry. Tears or not, she hadn't slowed Argo's pace or her own.

Suddenly Argo made a sharp right turn almost sending Gabrielle into a tree. Both women searched for the reason for the sharp turn. The thick underbrush showed no sign of a break. All Gabrielle could see was the odd birch or poplar tree climbing to the sky.

"Do you see a trail or path Eponin?" The warrior only shook her head. Gabrielle looked at Argo.

"You want to go in there girl?" The horse turned back to look at her. Gabrielle turned to look at Eponin. The warrior shrugged and Gabrielle turned back to Argo.

"Ok, but if you bolt on me, I'm not chasing you." Argo only snorted. Gabrielle dropped the reins. Her heart was pounding madly. The palomino pushed her way through the bushes as Eponin held her hand out to Gabrielle.

"Climb up. Let’s see where she takes us." Eponin watched Gabrielle closely, noting the change in skin color. The bard climbed up reluctantly behind the warrior, and they followed Argo as she smashed through the bushes. Nothing was said as the two horses made their own path. Words wouldn’t have been heard over the snapping of branches anyhow. The golden mare picked her way through trees and underbrush, it was as if she really did know where she was going.

Suddenly Eponin wondered if this could have been a devastating mistake. ‘Where is Argo taking us?’ She felt a shiver come from Gabrielle's body. They needed to stop soon, but she knew now it would never happen. The sounds of bushwhacking ceased when they finally came to a trail, it was only an animal trail, but it was a trail. Argo’s pace increased now that they were free of the thick undergrowth. The golden mare followed the path until they came to a large fork. Argo came to a stop. There was more than enough room for Eponin to slide up behind the war horse. Eponin reined in her horse as Gabrielle slid off the back. The bard looked around and then back at the horse.

"What is it girl?" Argo turned around, her eyes were wide and she began to stamp her feet. Eponin climbed down and joined Gabrielle. Argo turned again and nuzzled into the little blond's shoulder.

"There's nothing here Eponin," she tried not to show her disappointment.

"I don't think that's it. I think Argo wants you." With the mention of her name Argo, pushed against Gabrielle's shoulder again.

"I think ..." Eponin stopped when she realized she was talking about a horse. Yes, it was Xena's horse, but it still was just a horse.

"What, you were thinking what?"

"I was thinking ... it's like she's scared or nervous. I think she wants your company ... on her back." Gabrielle turned to look at Argo. She didn't like heights and she didn't like to ride, especially bareback.

"You want me on your back?" Argo's ears twitched. Gabrielle took a deep breath, and with a hand from Eponin climbed onto the Argo's back. The horse immediately turned left and was off again.

 

Nazalon ran as fast as her Amazon legs would carry her. She knew she had the answer to where Xena had gone. She had it in her hand. The first real clue, the only clue they had. Nazalon now knew what had taken the warrior princess away from the Amazon land. She ran straight up the stairs leading into the palace, before she realized there were no royal guards.

"Oh for the love of Artemis!" she said out loud. No guards meant no Queen. She opened the front doors and called for Jadax. There was no answer.

"Great, they're both not here." She went back down the stairs and looked around the village. She was guessing in her mind as to which direction she should head in. 'Start at the bottom, and work my way up.' she thought and headed down to the stables.

When she opened the doors to the barn, she was greeted by one of the stable hands.

"Do you know where Jadax or the Queen is?"

"No idea, they haven't been down here," said Donya.

"Thanks." She closed the barn doors and headed to the next hut, the kitchen. She asked every Amazon that she saw, but none of them had seen the Queen or her consort. She tried two more places, but still only got negative responses. Finally, out of frustration, she stopped and hollered.

"Does anyone know where Jadax and Ephiny are?"

"They’re up at the royal hot springs."

Nazalon was off and running before she even knew who had answered her question. She cursed herself as she passed the palace. If she had gone up instead of going down, the royal hot springs would have been her first stop. As she came over the crest of the hill, she spotted the colors of the royal guards. She didn't even slow down as she approached still running.

"I have to see the Queen." One of the guards stepped in front of her, bringing the warrior to a halt.

"They're not to be disturbed Nazalon."

"I know that, but this is very important, believe me." The royal guard looked at the slightly flushed warrior.

"Let your presence be known, Amazon." Nazalon let loose her call, the shrill of a wounded raven. She was quickly answered by Jadax's own personal bird call. The guard moved aside and nodded for Nazalon to pass. She quickly headed up to the private hot springs. Breaking through the bushes surrounding the springs, she found Jadax and Ephiny quickly dressing.

"What is it Nazalon? What happened?" Ephiny questioned. They had climbed out of the spring when they had heard Nazalon's call. Ephiny was very concerned with both search parties off of their land. It had stressed out the normally relaxed Queen to the point that Jadax had suggested the hot springs. The afternoon of love making had been Ephiny's idea.

"What's happened?" Ephiny asked again.

"This! ," Nazalon said as she dropped the small item into Ephiny's hand.

"I know where Xena went when she left us that morning." Nazalon stopped when she saw the look come over her Queen's face. A concerned Jadax went to her side and placed a caring hand on the small of her back.

"Eph.?" The scout asked gently.

The regent opened up her hand to the little scout. Jadax could hear her own small intake of air. Nazalon knew by their faces, and the tears in Ephiny's eyes, that she had been right. Without a doubt they all knew what Ephiny held in her hand.

The Queen folded her fingers around the item and closed her eyes as she brought it to her chest. Ephiny felt an emptiness stir in her heart an ache of despair for her missing friend. Xena had obviously made a decision and it may have cost her ... her life. Ephiny opened her eyes and looked down at her own lover. They exchanged a knowing smile that was mixed with tears. For they knew the warrior princess and her bard, had finally found their love, but now they were afraid it was lost. It was no real surprise, but it was still a shock. Ephiny had always known how the warrior princess had felt for Gabrielle. The answer was nestled in Ephiny's tight gripped hand, and it had Xena written all over it.

It was a small, delicate gold ring, finely crafted in a wrap around shape of an " X ". Simple, but elegant, designed by a princess and fit for a Queen. They knew it was to have been ... Gabrielle's wedding ring.

Continued - Part 2b