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SEASONS OF THE GODS 1
SUMMER

©June 1997
By Katrina

Chapter 1
Blood Dancing

Brigid blazed down the highway going much faster than the speed limit. It grated on her nerves to slow down when she was so close. Half way to Missouri. She was reluctant to stop at all, but knew it probably would be better for her to pull into a motel and rest, even if it meant standing up to sleep. She halted her efforts at Louisville, when she reached the point where she couldn't breathe or ground anymore. She flickered into Bernie and limped into the nearest motel.

***

Xena broke the door with one swift kick. She was way beyond outraged. This woman, this Brigid, this person they were stuck with forever, obviously: A. Lacked common sense, B. Lacked compassion, and C. Needed to be taught a lesson she wouldn't forget.

This would have been well and good, if she had been home. The house was roaringly silent.

Gabrielle stated the obvious. "Looks like she's not here." Xena sneered angrily and stomped into the home. Gabrielle set about repairing the door. She turned around quickly at Xena's gasp.

Xena's furor driven exploration halted abruptly when she came to Brigid's practice room. Yellow light filled the room from the windows, warming the wooden floor. There were various weapons placed respectfully on the wall, at a height that even Gabrielle could easily reach. There was a deep serenity that permeated the room. In a far corner there was a curving statue of two female lovers. She recognized herself.

But that wasn't what made her gasp.

It was the bloody footprints on the floor. Like a ghastly piece of art work. The footprints fell in an easy to follow pattern, as if they had been danced into the wood. Some were smudged from being filled over and over again. There was a bloody robe near a small stool.

The rage left Xena's body as if it had never been.

"Gods."

Xena put her hand out. "Where's the number?"

Gabrielle slipped the piece of paper into Xena's palm.

***

She almost couldn't wake up. She really didn't want to, because it was the first comfortable position she had found in a long time. Her eyelids seemed too heavy to move.

But she could hear the cellular buzzing.

There were only four people with that number: Joni, Clarisse, Mom and Dad. It was still dark. There was a chance that it was an emergency, or a big sale.

Brigid forced herself up. The covers were damp and clung to her available skin.

She ignored the sweat and stood up. A shower would take care of the problem. She staggered carefully to her purse and opened it. Each movement was delicate and deliberate. She breathed her way through the notion of blacking out. Answer the phone first, black out later. . .

Her voice was shaky, whether she wanted it to be or not.

"Hello."

The voice on the other side was both gentle and demanding. "Brigid, where are you?"

***

It was a matter of seconds and they were there. A few more seconds and the key to the room and some cash clattered on the counter of a surprised manager. Another few seconds and Xena, her face grim, was carrying a not in any shape to protest Brigid to their bed.

Gabrielle stripped the soaked dress from Brigid's body. She also disappeared the clothes from Xena and herself. Then she crawled onto the bed, wincing at Brigid's cry of discomfort. Xena climbed in the bed on the other side. Gabrielle spooned herself into Brigid, her legs gently forcing Brigid's apart. Xena simply positioned herself so that she could touch Brigid easily. Her heart ached for the woman, but she was still pissed. She pulled Brigid close to her and Brigid flowed into her as if Xena were bread and she was the starving peasant. Xena said, in that gentletough voice, "If You Ever Do This Again. . ." She didn't even have to finish the sentence. Brigid was whimpering and nodding her head.

She needed skin on skin. To absorb and be absorbed. There had been almost immediate relief when Gabrielle smoothed herself against Brigid. Her whole back had sung for joy. And where Xena caressed, scales of pain fell off her psyche. Xena kissed Brigid thoroughly. The ache in her teeth, her tongue, her mouth, disappeared into the bright. Gabrielle's hand found Brigid's furry patch and began to caress Brigid from her belly to her nether regions. Brigid felt small howls of pleasure at the back of her throat. They poured out of her mouth.

Brigid's hands finally felt able to do exploring of their own. Her passivity seeped away from her, as her body remembered to whom it belonged. Her mouth found Xena's breast and she began to suckle, to nip and to kiss the bronze woman anywhere she could reach. Brigid opened her legs to Gabrielle's ministrations, purring with pleasure, when Gabrielle dipped into her wetness. She finally gave voice to the words she didn't know she needed to say. "I was soooo dumb." There was a *you got that right* from behind. Xena just kissed her.

Xena's hand joined Gabrielle's for a moment, then moved past, until her long fingers found Brigid's opening. Brigid moaned with pleasure as she began to thrust her hips. The tightness in her belly deepened. Xena placed her mouth on Brigid's, her blue eyes blazing into brown. She issued a command that brooked no argument and Brigid came so intensely that she saw stars.

***

The handy thing about having a goddess as your lover is that you do not need a U-Haul.

After a few loving discussions, and a few loving sessions, people (namely Xena and Brigid, though Gabrielle had been deeply affected by all of this too) were in their right minds again (so to speak). They decided to keep the house near Brigid's college town, because Brigid did need to finish, and they still wanted to keep track of Joni, but for the summer Brigid was going to stay home in Missouri. When it was time for the fall semester, Xena would go live with Brigid and Gabrielle would "bop" (her choice of words) back and forth as needed (or wanted for that matter.) There was going to be no repeat of this experience, except for the good bits.

Clarisse was still going sell Brigid's artwork, but would have to wait for shipment across the states. Gabrielle wanted things to work as normally as possible.

It was four days later and they still hadn't checked the answering machine.

Chapter 2
Wonder

On the fifth day after the rescue, Brigid resumed her early morning ritual. At first she was afraid that she wouldn't be able to do the katas right; that they might have dissolved from her as the pain had. But she found that her feet automatically placed themselves and her body settled in, as if this was how she had felt all along. Even the energy was there. It just. . .tasted. . sweeter. She was hyper aware of the ridges on the floor against her bare feet. These ridges, which might have been agony before, were now caresses and that felt odd to her. Like a lover who had suddenly changed personalities.

She forgot for a moment that she wasn't in Virginia anymore and she casually summoned her sword. The pommel popped solidly into her hand. She felt disjointed for a moment, and then regained her balance because she realized that her assumptions about how the sword arrived in her hand were incorrect. It didn't float to her, as it had back at her other home. No, it simply was in her hand.

Brigid did some quick mental revision and spent time calling different kinds of weapons from her house to herself. Then she would visualize replacing them, in their appropriate places so far away and the items would be gone, though she could still "feel" where they were.

The potential staggered her. She knelt down and placed her hands in her lap; resting. She looked around the large dojo. This place was meant to have people gathered in it, but it was quiet now and held only her solitary heartbeat. Her eyes tracked the mats against the wall and the stuffed man in the corner. There was the closet door which hid the neat rows of wooden and "real" weapons behind it. She summoned a rattan mock sword from that closet. It lay neatly by her knees, ready for her to pick it up. She sent it back.

Brigid wondered, briefly, what else lent itself to her call and in a moment of cowardice, decided not to pursue that thought. At least, not yet.

Instead, she called her familiar sword. The one who had become her friend during her battle of will. She stood up swiftly, gracefully and began her meditation.

***

Elysian Fields, that camping paradise, was slowly waking up with the dawn.

Brigid noticed that persons of various shapes, weight and enthusiasm straggled into the dojo, but she kept doing her routine. She liked to do them at least three ways. Slow, middling and fast. Sometimes she did them five ways. Ultra slow, slow, middling, fast and Ultra fast. Then there were times that she followed the Ultra slow pattern up to the Ultra fast and then wound back down to Ultra slow. She was right in the middle of that kind of session now, which meant that she was performing her movements so quickly that her audience seemed inhale in one large, collective gasp.

Brigid had no idea how elegant she looked. Her robes snapped with each flick of her wrists or kick or any other quick movement. Occasionally she Kiya'd as part of her practice of moving energy and the people would jerk as if startled. Some would swear, later, that they saw sparks.

Then, as silently as a big cat, Xena moved besides her, sword flashing and stepping in tandem. Her long hair whipped behind her, as her jeans swished with the deliberate and quick movements. It was beauty squared.

And when they finally knelt, after moving in what seemed to be a long slow dance, there was awe and reverence on the faces of the onlookers. (Later, one scrawny woman would become a five times world champion in a powerful, but obscure martial art. She would never feel that she reached the mastery displayed in that moment.) Brigid could not hide the admiration and love she felt when her eyes met Xena's. She stood, smiled shyly and bowed. Xena stood, smiled and bowed in return.

Then she turned to their audience and announced, "People I'd like you to meet our newest instructor. Brigid."

Brigid's head whooshed around to look at Xena, her mouth open.

"Brigid, here are your students." Xena started to walk away.

In a panic, Brigid grabbed the back of Xena's t-shirt, leaned close, "Xena?!"

Xena stopped, looked pointedly at Brigid's hand (the one clenching the shirt). Brigid hastily let her go. Xena smiled in a most unreassuring manner. "You'll do fine." Then she strode out of the dojo into the early morning light.

Brigid stood helplessly for a moment and then turned to her students who were looking at her with a mixture of awe and expectation.

"Um. . .Hi."

***

Meanwhile, Gabrielle finally found time to actually check the answering machine.

Chapter 3
Relatives

Brigid wasn't sure how long the "class" was supposed to go, but she faked it for an hour (she figured that was fair). The first thing she did was demonstrate some basic stretches and stances, then she worked with the students on positioning. There were some students who understood instantly and some needed a year, maybe more. She stressed the importance of repetition and practice. When the hour was done she sent them on their paths, with a sort of *go forth my children* body movement.

She headed back home, with the intent of dressing more appropriately for the day. The camp style, which ranged from studded leather to toplessness, was not really in question, but she didn't feel comfortable being in her practice robes in public. She'd gotten used to the privacy of her own place.

This did not stop Brigid from practically tackling Xena when she saw her. Okay, not tackling, more like gesturing obscenely. Okay not gesturing obscenely, but marching strongly forth, with all intention to have words.

Xena, accompanied by Gwen (one of the camp staff), was conducting an orientation of the newest arrivals when she saw Brigid heading purposefully in her direction. She had Gwen halt the group and stood waiting. Her arms were folded, but there was humor in her eyes.

But when Brigid finally did arrive, in the middle of the road, surrounded by newbies, words failed her. She ended up shaking her finger and making mock threats of throttling with her hands. Xena grinned and shrugged. Brigid spread her arms emphatically and exploded with a "GEEZ!" She looked intently at the unruffled Xena, then she rolled her eyes back, shook her head and began to laugh a little helplessly. The onlookers looked...curious. Brigid gave Xena a crooked grin, then a public hug (which startled Xena, but in a good way) and left.

When Gwen saw Brigid, she began frantically flipping through her notes, looking for Brigid's name. After that display was over she turned to Xena, her face looking confused. She used her pencil to point at Brigid's retreating back. "Where's she bunking?" Xena nodded subtly in the direction of her home. Gwen looked again at Brigid and said, "oh." She made a notation in her files with just the minutest touch of envy.

***

It occurred to Brigid, after changing her clothes (she wore jean cutoffs in honor of the warmth of the weather, a short sleeved shirt and those not as new as a few months ago hiking boots), that she really had nothing to do. No plans. She had spent so much time (okay, four straight days of sex, with a few interruptions, but one couldn't say it was a bad use of time) with Xena and Gabrielle, that she hadn't thought about it.

And she wasn't going to get a chance to think about it today, because Gabrielle whipped into the room. Brigid gave a gasp. Gabby eyed Brigid and said, "Good. You're dressed." Then she grabbed one of Brigid's wrists and tugged her out of the bedroom, with a vocalization of "I need your help."

***

Brigid counted back on her fingers and looked at Gabrielle, "But Saturday was two days ago." She looked unsure of herself and squinted at Gabby. "I think."

Gab nodded her head. "Yep, two days ago. And we're going."

"We." Brigid examined the whorls on the wooden table before her. "But not Xena. Though they will think that I'm her?" She felt an extreme reluctance to be far from either of them. She was too aware of the consequences.

"Something like." Gabrielle paced a bit. "See they don't know Xena. They can't know Xena." She patted her chest where the heart would be. "Too much of a shock." She paused in her movements, looked to her right, and then back at Brigid. "Actually it was unexpected that I meet them at all." There was more pacing. "The Fates pulled a fast one." Then she grinned. "Fortunately Jan came up with her own answers."

Brigid blinked. Gabrielle continued, "Apparently, according to Jan, I'm the long lost daughter of a rakish cousin. Or something like. My family tends to be amorous," Brigid groaned in appreciation, "and prolific."

"So. If they've never met Xena or have seen her in any way, why play Xena? Why not let me be Brigid?"

"Because I named who I was with once. Just Once." Gabrielle's hands flew up in frustration. "Jan has an incredible memory. I couldn't fudge."

"And her story for Xena?"

"A fan."

"A fan?"

Gabrielle nodded. "A fan of the scrolls. The new mythology."

"Oh."

Brigid fidgeted. "And how does Xena feel about this?"

Xena's voice zinged through Brigid's spine. "Xena feels fine about this." Xena sat casually in the wooden chair by the table. She leaned forward, extended her hand toward Brigid and in a sultry voice said, "Come, Brigid."

And Brigid immediately did, with an accompanying shiver through the body. Brigid looked stunned. So did Xena and Gabrielle. Xena looked to the side and up at Gabrielle in wonder. Brigid tried to regain her composure. Xena's tongue ran poked the side of her mouth, her lips curving upwards. She arched her eyebrows when she looked at Brigid. "I'm going to have to remember that." Then she crooked her finger and patted her lap. Brigid rose obediently and settled where she was summoned, letting her arms curve around Xena's lovely shoulders.

Then she spoke softly into Brigid's ears. "Be me for awhile. I don't mind." One arm supported Brigid's back, the other hand traced the outline of her breast. Xena looked seriously into her eyes. "Just don't go razing any villages."

***

An hour later, Brigid the faux Xena and Gabrielle the goddess were toolin down the highway in a Ford Bronco, doing about eighty five. Gab was driving. The sun was starting to turn the sky golden as Apollo prepared to quit for the night. Saturday night. Brigid felt a strange sense of deja vu, but only because she knew that right now she was also in Missouri experiencing a miraculous healing. She sighed and then sat upright as they pulled off the highway and onto a smaller, less traveled road.

Gabrielle had insisted on traveling all the way in the car, the only alteration being the time shift. Brigid wasn't certain when it happened. At one gas station the newspaper headline said Monday, at another it said Saturday. They even stopped for the night and they spent some quality time in each other's arms, with Gabrielle filling Brigid's head full of trivial details that she might need to know. All Brigid knew was that she looked every inch the tired traveler and she could really go for a stretch.

Gab patted her thigh and said, "Not much longer now."

They were somewhere east and south of Missouri. Brigid hadn't really kept track of the states, trusting Gabrielle to know where they were going. She felt like they had to be somewhere close to where Joni's folks lived though. She thought she might bring it up later, and see if Gab was interested in a visit.

The thought of visiting Joni brought something else to mind.

She looked at Gabrielle and asked, "Is Veronica going to be there?" She was proud of the lack of a snarl in her voice.

Gab sighed. "no." She shook her head, and spoke a little stronger, "No, she won't be." She felt Brigid's next question. "We have no idea where she is right now. Apparently, she just up and left." Her hand demonstrated on the steering wheel, then settled back in for the drive.

"Hmmph." Brigid looked out the window and watched the green go by.

***

The sky was starting to turn pinkish orange when they finally arrived, but there was enough light to fill Brigid's vision with the massive straight trees that lined the driveway for what seemed to go on forever.

Brigid said slowly, "And I thought Your driveway was long. . ."

Gabrielle laughed. "Just wait. There's more."

And there was. They rolled up and past a large white structure. A real southern mansion. Brigid turned to watch the house go by as Gabrielle drove to the garage. Even the garage was huge, with multiple doors indicating multiple cars.

Brigid turned to Gabrielle. "Your family is rich."

Gab grinned as she switched the car off. She let the keys dangle in the ignition and turned to face Brigid. She grabbed the lapels of Brigid's shirt and dragged her forward into a long and passionate kiss. Afterwards, they pulled back for a breath. Brigid found herself smiling from ear to ear. Gabrielle simply said, "thanks."

The sound of the car doors shutting echoed dimly as Gabrielle's cowboy boots clicked on the pavement. Brigid glided almost silently besides her, though if she really wanted to make a sound she could have. There were lights on in the house. Gabrielle led them to a side door and knocked.

The door opened almost immediately and there were squeals of happiness. Brigid found herself being pulled in after her lover and embraced by a woman who looked incredibly like Gabrielle, except older and with hennaed hair. "It's about damn time," The woman said.

Brigid grinned and said, "You must be Aunt Jan." and hugged back.

Soon she was enfolded into the arms of a very gentle looking southern woman, whose voice melodiously greeted her with, "We are so very glad to meet you, Xena." Brigid blinked and nodded her return greetings. It felt odd to be called Xena, when the spittin image was before her. Now she understood.

After all the hugs and greetings, Jan directed them into the not so modest kitchen. It was old fashioned and huge. In the corner was a round table with a spread of food that looked and smelled tasty. Every one sat down. Aunt Mel sat to the right of Jan and Gabrielle sat to the left, leaving Brigid somewhere in the middle. Brigid, who was supposed to be Xena, suddenly felt a bit like Bernie again. Jan looked at Brigid and grinned, "So what are you waiting for, Let's tuck in!"

And they did.

Chapter 4
Eyes the Color of the Sky

Later, Brigid found herself helping Mel wash the dishes as Gab caught up with Jan. Mel told Brigid about an outrageous adventure she and Janice had, involving a fishing boat, a tire iron and three dogs. Brigid was experiencing a massive giggling fit as she wiped a plate in the soapy water. She looked up at Mel as she handed her the dish for rinsing and was captured by the blue of her eyes.

There was a pause and a breath. Brigid swallowed slowly and laughed, "You are so amazing." Mel smiled as she pulled the dish out of Brigid's still hand. "So vital." Brigid was feeling a little breathless, "And your eyes are so like. . ." She almost, almost said Xena's, but switched, "the sky on a summer's day." Brigid's eyes drifted along Melinda's soft curves, admiringly. Brigid blew out a breath and turned around, her ears turning a little red. *What am I THINKING* She busied herself with the dishes, clattering them about to cover the noise in her head.

Mel's eyes twinkled as she dried the dish. It was flattering to hear, but she and Janice had been together a long time. And she was forty years older than this child, at least. Still, it did her heart good. It also had the added bonus of turning her on. Janice wouldn't get as much sleep tonight. There was a sensuous smile on Melinda's lips as she put away the dish, which she carefully changed as she turned to receive another plate. To ease the tension, Mel began another story involving mobsters, a stolen scroll and a camel. Soon Brigid was giggling again.

***

Meanwhile Janice was telling Gabrielle about the last time she saw Veronica. Apparently a Veronica had taken up with a young buck, blonde in coloration, sporting a goatee and a snarling attitude. He road an overly loud motorcycle and Janice speculated that he was involved involved in something dangerous since she noticed that he had a gun shaped bulge he kept hidden by a jacket. Veronica had been growing more and more restless in their peaceful house anyway. Sometimes erupting into fits of rudeness, which upset Mel and caused Janice to start practicing with her whip at night. Gabrielle figured that meant that things were much worse than Janice was letting on.

Gabrielle started to apologize for the burden she had placed on Jan, but Jan waved her off with, "Nonsense. You are family. She's the one with the problem." Then Jan led Gabrielle to Victoria's room.

The room looked normal enough with a quick glance, but if one looked long enough, it seemed to take on a kind of shifting darkness. Jan asked Gabrielle if she noticed the oddness of the room. Gab nodded. Then she stepped in and started clapping at the corners. The claps sounded dull at first, as if she were sounding through mud, then as the energy began to dissipate and move around, it sounded sharp and clear. The room felt better.

"Most amazing sight." Jan commented.

Gabrielle smiled and said, "You live long enough, you learn a few things."

Jan barked a laugh, "You got that right."

Gabrielle studied Janice's face, "I'm about to conduct an illegal search, you might want to leave."

Jan raised her eyebrows. "Honey, this is my home, I'm not going anywhere." She waved Gabrielle on, "Conduct your search."

Gabrielle thought a moment and began. It wasn't long before she found what she was looking for. She held up a small package filled with hair and crusted blood. "Looks like Ares has a new admirer." She let the packet fall sloppily to the ground with a sigh.

She turned to Janice. "Jan, I think you and Melinda need to pack."

***

The found Mel and Brigid in the midst of a strong bout of laughter. Brigid was folded over the sink, her arms resting limply on the edge, and laughing so hard there were tears streaming down her face. Mell was leaning back, her smooth stomach shaking silently, while she wiped her eyes.

The laughter was infectious and Jan felt her lip quirking up, despite not knowing what the ruckus was about and the seriousness that she felt. Brigid was struggling to catch a breath and fell into fits of giggles. Neither had seen Gab or Janice in the door yet.

Gabrielle coughed into her fist. That was enough to get Melinda to turn around and Brigid to struggle up from her bent position. Melinda's face dropped at the serious looks she was receiving, and she grabbed hold of Brigid's arm and steered her around to face the ones at the door.

Jan spoke brightly, "Hon, looks like we're going on another adventure."

***

Brigid suggested calling Joni and seeing if they could stop over at her house for the night. Her family had a large house and might be open to receiving unexpected guests. Besides, this would give her a chance to check up on Joni and make sure things were okay.

Jan pointed to the phone hanging in the kitchen.

As Brigid dialed the number, she felt a brief queasiness, but attributed it to all that laughing. She was still wheezing a little bit. The busy signal buzzed annoyingly in her ear. She turned to the group, "Well someone's home. . ."

It eight thirtyish.

They made a decision to head north to Joni's anyway. They could stay the night at a motel, if worse came to worse, and head for Missouri later.

***

The trip itself was uneventful.

They arrived at what should have been Joni's address around eleven. The lights of the firetrucks burned into Brigid's eyes and she leaped out of the truck before it rolled to a complete stop. She pushed her way through the gathered crowd, past a policeman and to the solitary figure that silhouetted against the fiery light. She barely remembered to be Bernie.

She touched her friend's back. "Joni?"

Joni turned around, her brown eyes reflecting the fire, her features taut. She pulled away and snarled, "Don't call me that."

Brigid didn't argue, "Then what should I call you?"

Her friend's eyes grew cold. "Callisto."

Chapter 5
Burning Down the House

Callisto turned to watch the fire and Bernie joined her. Bernie could hardly find her voice, "Was . . .was anyone?"

Callisto's voice was raw and flat. Her fist were clenched in rage. "Everyone."

Gabrielle, Jan and Mel pushed through the crowd. Their faces reflected the firelight that the firemen were finding so hard to battle. Bernie felt the queasiness again and clutched her stomach. Callisto turned to stare at her at she doubled over. Callisto looked up at the people who surrounded her and mockingly said, "Welcome to the party." Gabrielle could see the madness seeping back, slowly, ferociously.

Bernie coughed violently and found her knees on the pavement, one arm around her belly and the other supporting her body. She heard, as if in a distance, laughter. In response her nose flared and she started to growl. She felt herself changing back to Brigid, though she fought it. It happened anyway. Gabrielle dropped to her knees and pulled her up.

The crackle of the fire sounded like thunder to Brigid. The smell was overpowering, a mix of wood, fire, smoke, human sweat, fear, anger, the familiar and the not familiar, and most importantly, the smell of Veronica. Her face grew feral, her canines were a little larger than she remembered, her eye's narrowed. Her body whipped around to view the audience. Brigid let out a startling howl, which separated the crowd and woke everyone from the hypnotic effect of the fire.

Callisto backed away from Brigid hastily, as did Gabrielle, Jan and Melinda. Brigid turned to Callisto, grabbed her shirt and pulled her roughly against her chest. Her eyes burned. "Don't go Away. Don't." She didn't know if she was telling Callisto to stay put or Joni to stay in Callisto. She couldn't continue. She let Callisto go and sniffed the air. She had the scent.

It went straight into the crispy house. She loped easily past the firemen, who were trying to wield the hose and through the flaming door. She didn't feel a thing. She knew the Veronica was near and followed the thin trail through the collapsing building. She found her in a hallway, laughing madly and spewing fire from her mouth. Brigid roared, the sound tearing through her lips. Veronica turned around with a confident smile and blasted Brigid through a fiery wall.

It hurt. But not as much as those weeks in hell. Brigid ignored the pain and drew a smoky breath. She stood up. The wildness was abruptly tamed. She summoned her sword and powered back through the wall. Veronica turned. "You dare?!" She raised her hand as if to summon power. "I am Velaska! The Goddess of Chaos!"

Brigid snarled, "You are Velaska the Fool!" and charged. She was blown back again, but not as far. She felt pain again, and remembered the wall at her house. She grinned ferally. She charged again, this time focusing all her will into the sword.

She swung the sword in a wide swipe and blew Velaska out of the building. Velaska looked like a comet going in the wrong direction. The audience watched as a figure emerged howling from the building, chasing the fiery ball into the night.

***

Callisto stood helplessly in the midst of the wreckage of her home. Melinda held her up as Gabrielle and Janice searched through the black for something, anything that might help Callisto cling to this time. No one commented that Brigid had not returned.

They had searched late into the morning. Melinda had finally led Callisto to the Ford. Janice had surrendered to the need for her battered hat. Gabrielle looked worriedly in the direction that Brigid had gone.

Brigid's appearance at the truck was sudden and startling. She peered into the truck. The doors were wide open. Her face was blackened and her eyes sorrowful. She took Callisto's hands into her sooty ones, and reported, miserably, "I couldn't catch her." Tears started to stream down her cheeks, creating a white path, "I tried. I tried."

Callisto's face was blank for a long time. Much longer than a heartbeat. Then it turned cruel. She started to untangle her hands and looked as if to speak.

"HELP! We need HELP here. NOW!" It was Janice.

Everyone turned in the direction of Janice's voice. Those who were in the truck scrambled out. Callisto turned to Brigid and fiercely said, "This is not over." But she couldn't resist the pull of Jan's cry.

Janice and Gabby were standing near what seemed to be a tic-tac-toe grid. There had been a bit of roof over the grid, but they moved it to see what was under the thing. There was a blanket, or rather a really ugly quilt, that seemed not to have been touched by the fire. There were two bumps under the quilt, and the bumps were moving rhythmically, as if breathing.

Callisto was the first one at the edge of one of the beams. She lifted it in one fine movement. The beam flew to the scorched yard and rolled over until got stopped by the post of the mailbox. Gabrielle took the other beam and did the same. Jan and Mel looked at each other in surprise, but didn't linger there. They both pushed against one of the other beams and rolled it off the edge of the quilt. Brigid removed the other one.

Callisto's hands shook as she peeled back the cover. Underneath were two pint sized humans. Joni's younger sister Jolene (their mom had a preference for J words.) and Wendy's baby, Max. Both were sound asleep, as if nothing untoward happened. Callisto let out a small sob and kissed the quilt. In a flash of intuition, Gabrielle pulled the quilt out of Callisto's hands and off the sleeping children. Then she hurriedly wrapped it around Callisto like a robe.

When the quilt was completely removed, the children began to stir awake. Melinda picked up the Max, Jan picked up Jolene and Brigid picked up Callisto, cradling her lovingly in her arms.

***

The time for secrets was long past and Gabrielle did not dawdle at getting them back to the camp. The transition was subtle but instantaneous. Janice quipped, "One day, you're gonna have to show me how you do that." And that was the only sign she gave that she noticed.

Xena was out of the house when they arrived. Jolene was starting to be wide awake and a little confused. Max was wide awake, wet and hungry. Ordinarily Gabrielle would have sent someone to the General Store, but she "poofed" diapers and baby food into existence, just to spare them from having to do much more. The elder mortals and the demigod were tired, one of the gods was in a state of shock fighting for her sanity and the other wanted Xena home desperately.

Brigid set Callisto carefully down, letting her feet touch the floor before letting go. Callisto, her face drawn, but her eyes normal (as far as that goes), turned to Brigid briefly and said, "We still have to talk." She clutched the quilt about her. She sniffed, "But first you need a bath."

Brigid looked down at herself for the first time since she was out of it. She sniffed and found that she agreed with the assessment. She excused herself.

Jolene made as if to cry a little and reached for the one familiar face she recognized. Callisto pulled the little girl into her arms and looked as if she never wanted to let go. She told the little one something that settled her down, rocking her in her arms a bit. Max got fed by Melinda.

Gabrielle called the Calvary. That is, Gwen and another sweet faced woman. She explained the situation sort of, then Gwen and Lucy, took over the care of the children, while Gabrielle led the tired people upstairs.

She guided Jan and Mel to a good sized bedroom, with a bath. Then she prepared to guide Callisto to another room, but Callisto stopped. She took a breath, and looked through the side at Gabrielle. She kept it simple. "I stay with Bernie."

Gabrielle kept her voice even, "I thought you didn't. . ."

"I STAY with Bernie."

Gabrielle bit her lip. "She's Brigid now."

Callisto gave her a long assessing look. Then spoke slowly, carefully, "I do not give a flying leap who she is. You know who I am talking about. I will stay with her."

Gabrielle paused, then redirected Callisto to the main bedroom. She opened the door to the wide room, light filtered into the windows, some falling on the very large bed. Callisto's eyes widened a bit. On the opposite wall was a painting with three women embracing and smiling. Callisto knew two of those faces as well as her own, and the other she knew better now.

Gabrielle called, "Brigid, are you in?"

An answering shout came from a far room, with an open door. The door to the shower could be heard. "Yeah! I'm here!"

Gabrielle turned to Callisto, "Are you sure? There is more to this than it appears." Callisto closed her eyes, thinking. Then opened them again.

"What else can I do?"

Gabrielle nodded. "I and Xena will take another room while you are here." Callisto nodded jerkily.

The shower stopped.

Gabrielle called Brigid again, "Brigid?"

"Ayup?"

Gabrielle tried to select her words carefully. "Callisto will be staying in here with you." Brigid's wet head popped out the bathroom door, her expression surprised. "I'm going to find Xena. I think the camp needs to be prepared. I think Callisto needs some comfort. I think you are the one to do it." Brigid nodded slowly.

Gabrielle left the room. Callisto stood covered in the quilt. Brigid stood naked in the bathroom. Brigid wrapped a towel around herself, holding it by the side and stepped into the massive bedroom.

"Callisto?" There was no response. "Joni?" again, no response.

Brigid cautiously stepped toward her friend, until she stood about a foot away. "CallistoJoni?" She leaned forward a little, her expression concerned.

Callisto slapped Brigid hard across the cheek, leaving a red mark. Brigid let go of the towel (so of course it dropped to the floor) to put her hand on the slapped part of her face. She looked at Callisto in shock.

Callisto spoke vehemently, "THAT is for scaring me during spring break."

Chapter 6
No Rest For the Weary

Melinda Pappas, rested her head in the familiar hollow of Janice's shoulder. Mel drew light patterns on Jan's belly. The belly was, at one time, so flat Mel swore she could drop a coin (as if it were a military inspection) and that coin would bounce up off of Jan, spinning and shiny in the air. Now Jan's abdomen was curved with striating scars from an unexpected pregnancy, but it was still smooth and sensuous to the touch. For the longest time Janice, though she never spoke it, had thought Gabrielle was her own. And so had Melinda. Now Gabrielle was a mystery again. Mel let out a soft sigh that blew against Janice's breast.

Janice stilled the roving hand and murmured. "Quit trying to seduce me woman. I'm tired." But Jan's voice sounded awake enough. Melinda smiled. This was going to be easier than she thought.

It wasn't that she wasn't tired too, she was. It had been a long, exciting time. First with the preparation of Gabrielle's meal (and she and Jan shared the same huge appetite for food, which was only a reflection of what their real appetites were she guessed) and then onto the long night and day, and here, miraculously, in Gabrielle's home. No, it was Xena's (though she guessed that Xena wasn't who she said she was) flattering remarks which had stayed and percolated in Mel's brain and body, since yesterday (was it really only yesterday) evening. And then there was her most embarrassing secret, though it wasn't really. She was always horny after an adventure. Always. And it had definitely been awhile.

Why they hadn't even gone out of state in a year. It was time for some stimulation anyway. Jan said it was what kept them youthful.

Melinda decided not to let up. They could sleep later, surely, and who knew but that the adventure wasn't over and they might not have time to, for a while. All very good reasons to whisper seductively into her love's ear. To kiss the side of her throat. Her eyelids. Her mouth. Melinda placed her naked body (they had long ago quit wearing clothes to bed) over Jan's in an easy gliding movement. Her hands covered Jan's breasts and were pressed between their bodies.

Janice open one eyelid slowly and looked at this woman she loved so much. Her voice rumbled through her chest. "I suppose I'll get no rest until I cooperate." She spread her legs under Melinda, so that Mel slid into the crevice. Melinda grinned wickedly when she felt the wet tendrils of Janice's sex against her belly. Janice murmured, "What you do to me. . ." and kissed Melinda hard.

Oh, yes, it was time.

***

Gabrielle found Xena giving Argo of Argo, a thorough wipe down at the stables. Xena was crouching at one of Argo's forelegs, a dark towel in one hand, smoothing in even downward strokes. "Xena."

It must have been in her voice, because Xena didn't even look up at first. She immediately dropped what she was doing and went to embrace her goddess. Her long arms wrapped around the smaller woman. Her body curved protectively. She said nothing, only held.

They stood still for a few moments, then Gabrielle began to weep.

Xena tilted Gabrielle's face upward. Her voice was gentle, "What is it?"

Gabrielle's voice was teary. "Its not going to work. Its not. . ." her voice trailed off. "Velaska knows who and what she is now." She pulled back. Her face was very serious. "She's joined with Ares, I'm convinced. Though I don't know what will come of it, I do know that she deliberately woke Callisto." Xena's face went blank. "I don't know how much Callisto remembers or what she remembers. But she won't go by the name of Joni. She's with Brigid now, but I don't know if she is going to kill her or just maim her and I left, just left, her in our room with *our* Brigid." Gabrielle planted her forehead in the middle of Xena's chest, her eyes looked down at Xena's dirty boots. "And that's the good news."

Xena pushed Gabrielle gently away. "It will be all right."

"Melinda and Janice are at our house."

Xena took a slow breath. "It will still be all right."

"We need to evacuate the camp."

Xena looked thoughtful. Then she really stood away from Gabrielle and started to pace. Her arms were folded about her waist. She wagged a finger and stopped. "Not necessarily." Then she grinned and kicked up a bit of hay.

***

There was a HUGE moment of silence after the slap, like a ringing of a bell, echoing, only reversed. Brigid wiggled her jaw to make sure it still worked. She looked speculatively at CallistoJoni and squinted her eyes. "I would have apologized, eventually. Given the chance."

Callisto dropped the quilt off her shoulders and folded it over her arms. She walked around Brigid towards the bed, her pace even and controlled. She placed the quilt respectfully on the foot end of the bed. Now her back was to Brigid.

Brigid opened her mouth to apologize, but Callisto spoke first.

"I do not want an apology." Her voice brooked no argument. "I want an explanation." She turned around and faced Brigid, but the blonde pointed to the painting on the wall. She scowled at Brigid. "Explain to me why you chose them," and she arrowed in that direction, "over me." Callisto pointed to herself and let her hand drop.

Well, this wasn't a conversation Brigid was expecting. She inhaled. "I. . ." She started nervously. Brigid face held several emotions. "It. . ." She swallowed. *Where to begin* "They. . ."

"Bernie!" Callisto waved in frustration, "Brigid! Whoever the hell you are. Spit it out! Why did you choooose them." Callisto tapped herself on the chest. "You didn't like me?" Her brown eyes were kind of wild and Brigid wondered how close to the edge Callisto really was.

Brigid's face twisted in the kind of agony one gets when one really really loves someone, but they can't explain, or they don't feel safe doing so. She felt a sudden need to halt the conversation before it went down an unnecessary road. She waved her hands in front of her, palms up. Brigid motioned, "Wait. Wait a second. I can explain, but you gotta know." She started to pace. "I like you." Her voice trembled. "I mean I LIKE you." Brigid's arms moved up and down helplessly. She turned to face Callisto, "In fact I loved you first." Her hand flapped in the direction of the painting, "Before them."

She continued. "We've had this discussion before. Kind of. You remember?" Callisto watched her intently, "When we've talked about the nature of love and nurturing and we had that argument about the difference between love and sexual love." Brigid was talking fast, "And you quoted that Guy, that cynical philosopher. You know about reproduction and I said, 'Joni! you're a Dyke. You don't reproduce!'" Brigid felt a little out of breath, so she took a big one. "And I told you I loved you then. Remember. You said the same to me. . ." She looked hopefully at the blonde.

Callisto sat down on the edge of the bed and folded her arms, "Continue." She was trying to distance herself from what she started.

"But I thought, I mean I was, straight, so we stayed friends." Brigid's hands started to fold in on themselves, "Committed friends. Right?" She cast another glance at Callisto, then at the painting. "The point being, and I do have one, the point being that I loved you in more ways than I was telling you, but I didn't have the courage to say it. Because I thought, since you were with someone else then, I thought that I shouldn't. . .so I didn't.

"And then, and then this whole camp thing," Brigid threw her hands up and looked at the ceiling, "it was just so weird." Brigid crossed the room and knelt at Callisto's feet. Brigid pointed to her right shoulder, which was marked forever in the shape of a web, with several colored symbols. "See this. This was, what that second day. The day after we arrived. Hecate. She picked me, because of you." Brigid swallowed and suddenly wished she had a glass of water. Brigid pointed to the bright red heart in the web. "This. This is Aphrodite. She's the one who . . .who gave them," Brigid pointed to the painting, "and me, no other option. I mean there was one, but people would have. . It wouldn't have been right. It was the only thing to do." She held out her hands palm up towards Callisto's face. "Look at it. Look."

Callisto looked at Brigid's face then at desperate woman's hands. She took them in her own and looked closely at the palms. Pink marks formed letters in Brigid's palms: XGB. Brigid said, "That's the brand, the symbol of the bond, unbroken. I tried. I can't live without them. Literally." Brigid pulled her hand's away and folded them into her lap. "That's why I looked so awful towards the end of the semester. I tried to stay away, because I didn't know it was the same for them. It hurt. More than I can tell you." Brigid rolled up and back. "There was no choosing over."

Callisto looked like she was about to speak, but Brigid waved her silent. "There's more. And I think you should know it." Brigid's hand went back to her shoulder. "There is a bear over here, that was Artemis. And an owl. That was Athene." She turned around so that Callisto could see the patterns on the web, "And this whip, that was Nemesis. You see?"

Callisto murmured, "Yes."

"It was one hell of a spring break. They changed me. Took me apart, each of them, and put me back together, the same but different." Brigid turned back, "They did it for you. They did it without asking." Brigid knelt again, "But I would have volunteered.." Brigid took Callisto's hands in hers, "This heart was yours and is yours, but I had to open it up." Brigid caressed Callisto's knuckles. "I don't know how much you know about yourself now. I know a little." She squinted at the face above, "Whatever and whoever you are, I love you. Should you decide that your hands must be covered in my blood, I love you. Gabrielle would probably fetch me back from wherever you send me anyway. And I would still love you. You were my friend when I needed you. I will be your friend when you need me. But I'm not perfect, and I was out of my mind during Spring Break. I'm barely in it now." Brigid's face suddenly looked rueful, "One thing about it though," she grinned lopsidedly, "you were right. I totally forgot about winter."

Chapter 7
Love Love Love

It would have been a pathetic sight, if Brigid had looked pleading when she spoke, in fact, Callisto would have rejected her out of hand. But Brigid didn't look pleading, she looked desperate. There is a fine line of difference and it was just enough.

Callisto knew that she hand been meddled with. It was patently obvious, though she couldn't quite place her finger on how. Though Brigid had given her the who. Now Callisto hung in the balance, between her self as she was ten thousand years ago and her self as she was now. She knew she couldn't keep pushing the showdown of personalities away, but maybe she could stall, for awhile, until she was clear on what she wanted.

She looked at the naked woman kneeling before her. Her older self couldn't decide whether to be amused or deadly; her newer self's heart was racing. Callisto grabbed a hunk of Brigid's brown hair and tilted the woman's head up. Brigid's eyes went wide. Callisto bent her head down, her mouth barely open and whispered as she kissed Brigid, "Madness. Utter Madness."

Callisto let go of Brigid's hair, but not her mouth. Brigid put every ounce of *take me now* feeling she could into her return kiss and pushed Callisto back onto the bed. She reached for the hem of Callisto's shirt and started to pull up. She turned her seduction meter up from simmer to flambe (ie. Brigid started up what Athene called the "loving energy matrix" and let it loose.) Inhibition was not going to be the style for the afternoon. (This would later explain three pregnancies in the camp.)

Callisto had no idea what hit her. One minute she was giving what was supposed to be a sympathy kiss, the next she was having her breast nuzzled as if they were manna and spreading her legs in hungry anticipation. Brigid's stationed one hand in the most obvious place and used her other hand to touch anywhere she could, sometimes sweetly and sometimes roughly and always perfectly.

Brigid's eyes were wild when she looked into Callisto's, but they always held love, just different kinds at different times. She poured love into the skin of Callisto, not just sexual love, though that was so definitely part of what she was doing, but nurturing, comforting, rough and tumble, stick to it forever determined, sensual, fragrant, human, fragile, kiss me now you fool you fool, laughing together, jealous fit, open me, close me, wrap me in your arms and never leave me, I'd bear your children and walk on glass for you, give me space, fill me with your scent, I'll always be there however you need me, even if I'm not your kind, forever and forever love. And that was not even half of what she felt.

When she finally took Callisto into her mouth, Brigid breathed her like a fine wine and tasted her like a flower, letting her lips linger here and there, breath blowing through Callisto's golden field. Her tongue lapped Callisto as if there were no other place for her to be, her every attention was on the taste of the woman she was with. So of course Callisto couldn't keep still (Would you??). Soon Callisto was arching her back in pleasure, her fists clenching the fabric on the bed, her toes curling and her face filled with a ferocious kind of joy. Brigid would later compare Callisto's piercing battle scream with the vocalization that was currently coming out of her mouth and decide that the rough scream of coming was infinitely more satisfying.

Chapter 8
Miniature Buzz

Brigid's intent, when she crawled up the bed, was to kiss Callisto. She made no secret of moving either (an impossible task anyway, since the bed was kind of springy). Brigid's breasts swayed with the movement. Soon, Brigid was looking Callisto in the face, leaning down with a grin and puckering her lips. Callisto let out a blistering yell and pushed Brigid away. Brigid went flying and smacked into a wall.

A normal person would have been left unconscious, but Brigid was far from normal. She was upright before her feet touched the ground. She grinned wickedly. Her head said *what the. . .* Her mouth said, "OH Goody! We get to play conquering warlord!!" Brigid had NO idea where that came from.

Callisto's sat up abruptly. Her voice reeked of hatred, "I'm going to kill you."

Brigid licked her lips and looked Callisto up and down. She let her eyes fill with desire. "Well," she drawled, "my love, you are welcome to try."

Callisto's hand shot up from her waist. She fired a bolt of power at Brigid. Brigid ducked out of the way, and felt the energy skim past her shoulder. The wall she had just been so friendly with disintegrated into dust. Brigid looked admiringly at Callisto. "OOOOH. You are soo sexy when you do that!" Brigid couldn't figure out what was wrong with her mouth. She found herself running at Callisto. "Maybe Gabrielle will like the new look. At least the draft feels good."

Callisto ducked left out of Brigid's way and headed for the door. "Ah ah ah!" Brigid was suddenly at the door, grasping Callisto's hand. Brigid pulled the woman towards her. "Not until I get a kiss."

Callisto stared at the demi goddess and yanked her hand away. Then she made for the hole in the wall. Brigid was there. Brigid tipped her hips seductively, "Oh, you know you want to." Brigid wriggled her eyebrows. "It'll make you happy."

Callisto looked quickly about herself and flipped up and over past the bed on the other side of the room. The one with the desk by the window. She started to clamber up the desk with the idea of getting out the window. Brigid was there. "I want my kiss." *rrrwal*

Callisto let out another yell (mostly in frustration).

Brigid sucked in a breath, as if she were listening to the symphony. "Oh my darling! Your voice is music to my ears!" She leapt off the desk into Callisto's arms. Again Brigid got tossed into the air, past the bed and nigh unto past the open portion of the wall. But she landed feet first, wobbled, and gained her footing. "With a talent like that, we could join the circus!" Brigid spread her arms wide and flipped back to Callisto.

Callisto did a sideswipe kick, but Brigid just jumped over it.

Callisto punched up, Brigid avoided it. Callisto dove under Brigid's legs.

"Now THAT's more like it!" Brigid turned and saw Callisto heading for the door again. "What! Didn't we just do this?" Brigid flipped to the door. "Come into my arms my love." Callisto skidded to a halt. Brigid said soothingly, "You know, if you would just kiss me, we wouldn't be having to deal with all this running about!"

Callisto looked around her again and noticed that there were vases and other knickknacks around the room. Suddenly the area around Brigid was being pelted with items that could shatter. Brigid did a lot of ducking, but was basically unaffected (except for a minor scratch on her arm.) "Aww!" She looked hopefully at the blonde, "will you kiss it and make it better?"

Again Callisto yelled. Brigid found herself opening her mouth and yelling too.

She fanned her chest, "Whoo! That was fun, lets do it again!" She looked crazily at Callisto.

The blonde grimaced in anger. Callisto finally said, "Enough of this!" She marched up to Brigid and placed her palm on the demi goddess' chest. "You are going to die. Now."

Brigid looked down at the hand and looked at the goddess. Brigid bit her lower lip gently, as if making a decision. She shrugged and sighed, "Okay." Then She looked intensely at Callisto, "but I think you should at least kiss me first." Brigid closed her eyes in surrender.

Brigid felt the area near her heart start to heat up. *oooh I am gonna die!* Then she became aware of an angry wuffle coming from the floor. She peeked at Callisto, who was looking down at her feet. Then Brigid looked down too.

Snuggles, the African pigmy hedgehog, was hopping mad. He was making the sound of a miniature buzzsaw that hedgehogs make when they are being attacked or have missed their morning coffee (not that they really drink coffee, but they are amazingly surly when they have been woken abruptly) and jumping his full one inch jump. His spines were spread with all intention of mayhem. His cries were fullbodied (for a hedgehog).

Brigid took Callisto's hands in hers and moved it to the gently to the blonde. "Just a sec." Callisto looked startled. Brigid bent down at the knees, and quieted her mind. She spoke gently. "Hello." She used both hands to scoop up the prickly creature and stood carefully. Snuggles huffed a little then calmed down. "Little man, what's with you? hmm." Brigid checked his spines and body, because she always did. "Did we wake you?" She stroked his furry snout. She held Snuggles in Callisto's direction, "Its okay."

But Snuggles begged to differ and began jumping and wuffling all over again. Brigid said, "Hey! hey." Snuggles gave Callisto whatfor anyway. Callisto stared intently at the little creature, as if she were hearing what the nonfuzzy was telling her. Brigid started to withdraw Snuggles to see if she could calm him again, but Callisto caught her hand.

"Give him to me."

It was a moment of choice. There was every chance that Callisto would toss Snuggles out the windy wall.

Brigid listened to her intuition and delicately handed Snuggles over. She had a sudden fear that the hedgehog would curl over and do his pincushion routine, but he didn't. Instead he started wuffling a little more gently, with an occasional hop or two.

Callisto nodded at the door. "Open it."

It was a timely statement, because there was a knock, and Jan's voice. "HEY! You all right in there?!" Brigid and Callisto looked at each other, then at the open space where a wall had been, then back at each other. Brigid tilted her head and extended her hands for the hedgehog. Callisto dumped Snuggles into the waiting palms and did exactly what Brigid didn't think she would do. The goddess fixed the wall, with a minor addition (one large window.)

Brigid spoke loudly, "We're Fine!" Then she opened the door a crack, and looked through it. "Uhm, we were just, uhm, trying to get this little guy." She held Snuggles forth as the explanation.

"A hedgehog?"

"Yeah." Brigid shrugged, giving Jan a glimpse of lovely shoulder. "He's mine. Uh, He was just making a ruckus."

"A hedgehog?"

Brigid bent as modestly as she could and scooted the creature out the door. Jan got a glimpse of even more flesh. "Uhm, they can be noisier than people think." She cast a glance at Callisto, who was standing out of Jan's eyeview. Callisto just shook her head and closed her eyes.

Jan eyed the hedgehog. "A hedgehog." Then she looked very carefully at Brigid's face. Jan pulled her robe closer. "You sure you're all right?"

Brigid nodded. "Oh. Yeah. Fine. Totally."

Jan looked doubtful. Then she looked at Snuggles. "A hedgehog." She shook her head. And looked like she was about to turn around, then she looked at Brigid again. "One thing."

"yes."

"Next time you decide to chase, uh, hedgehogs around your room, shouting, 'I want my kiss,' could you keep it down? Some of us were actually trying to sleep." Brigid blushed from her head to her toes. Jan stalked off. Brigid shut the door slowly.

***

Brigid turned around and faced Callisto. "You could have gone."

Callisto nodded. "I could have."

"You didn't."

"No."

"Callisto?"

"Yes."

"Why'd you didn't you finish me?"

"You said hello to that spiky rat of yours."

Brigid looked at Callisto blankly. Callisto looked at this woman who had been her friend. Joni's friend. "You said it exactly the way you used to, in high school." Brigid blinked. "Kind of a murmured, spare greeting." Callisto looked down and then up again. She placed her arms across her chest and squeezed herself. "Then I knew it was you Bernie." Brigid blinked again. "You were the only one, for awhile, who would even look at me back then. The only one." Callisto laughed, mocking herself, "And I looked forward to meeting you in the hallway. This little nothing who remembered I was a human being, or at least acted like it."

"Callisto."

"Brigid."

Brigid breathed a sigh. She didn't know what to say or expect. Callisto turned and looked out the new window. Then she drew the new curtains. "Brigid. I don't mean this badly." She turned. "But you are the *worst* liar I have ever met. I'm not sure you could lie to save your life."

Brigid used her hands to express herself and pointed at Callisto. "You notice I didn't even try."

Callisto laughed. She blinked. "You are nuts, you know."

Brigid smiled. "Look who's talking."

Callisto flashed Brigid a wicked grin. Then she held out her hand and said, "I have heard that one should wash one's hands after handling an animal." She nodded towards the bathroom. "What say," she looked Brigid up and down, "we wash our. . .hands." Callisto's lips curved in a smirk.

Brigid linked her palm into her lover's. She waggled a finger, "You know one day, we are going to have to talk about this bathing fixation you have."

Chapter 9
An Immodest Confrontation

Xena and Gabrielle silently walked up the hill to their house. Xena's arm rested comfortingly on Gabrielle's shoulder. Gabrielle's arm circle Xena's waist. Xena stopped abruptly, which caused Gabrielle to stop abruptly. Both of them stared at the large window that now occupied a great deal of space on the upper part of the building.

"Gabrielle. Have you been redecorating again?"

Gabrielle blew a breath. "Nope. Can't say that I have been."

***

Brigid was sound asleep when the door almost crashed open. Callisto was sitting up, her legs and Brigid's body covered by the amalgam quilt. It was she who prevented the door from connecting loudly with the surface of the wall. She ignored the angry gaze of the other pair and held a finger to her lips. Then she very carefully extricated herself from Brigid's sleeping grasp. She settled the quilt more firmly around Brigid's shoulders, then strolled to the open door.

By silent agreement they all backed out of the bedroom and into the foyer. Xena shut the door behind them.

"Callisto." Xena drawled. "I see you've made some changes."

Callisto stood casually and looked up into the warrior's eyes. Her brown eyes cold. Her nostrils flared angrily. "As usual, it is Your fault." Then she turned to Gabrielle, "And yours, you meddling . . ."

"Don't you dare say it." Xena's voice was low, commanding.

Callisto worked her jaw. "Say what. The truth?" Callisto clenched her fists. "I don't know how the hell you folks did this to me. One day I'm my usual bitchy self and the next," she looked at the bedroom door, "I don't even know who I am anymore."

She glared at the warrior princess and the goddess, "I should kill you both for what you've done to Bernie." She leaned forward intensely. "I liked her the way she was. You had no right."

Gabrielle spoke up, "It wasn't our choice." There was no apology.

"I hate you!" Callisto stormed quietly. "How DARE you give me a heart?! I was fine without it!" She poked Xena in the chest. "I was strong!" Her face twisted angrily, "And Now Because you . . .you. Now I've got ANOTHER set of parents dead! Another." Callisto flashed back in memory; the two fiery scenarios overlapping. "Gods. If only it was your fault. I would know who to hate."

"Would you go back? If you could?" Gabrielle stepped closer to Callisto. "Do you really want to exist in that place again. No feeling. Only hate?" Her voice was soft. "Was it all that good? Or was it all that you knew?" Callisto turned to listen. Gabrielle's face was inches from her own.

"It's who I was. You had no right."

"We had every right." Gabrielle spoke strongly. She pointed at Xena. "As long as you blamed her for who you were, we had every right. WE had no choice but to "fix" what was started. Somehow." She backed up. "I'm sorry our method's displeased you." Gabrielle grimaced, "But at least they worked. Sort of." She sighed.

"So now what?"

"It is up to you." Xena spoke softly. "You're free to go back to the way you were, if you want. But Brigid would hound you the rest of your immortal days. Or you can deal with what has been dealt." Xena crossed her arms. "But I won't be to blame anymore."

Callisto smiled evilly, "Oh Xena. You know I'll always blame you." Then she smiled deprecatingly, "But now I won't try and obliterate you from the face of the earth." She looked past Xena and at the bedroom door, "I am damn well sure I don't want Brigid chasing after me all over the known Universe. Your bedroom was quite enough." She shrugged. "Oh well. I guess I'll be a," she gagged, "good guy for awhile." She smirked. "I'll have to see what the job pays."

They turned at the sound of a cough. Janice stood with her arms around Melinda, an unlit cigar in her hand. Jan and Mel's expressions were unreadable. Jan spoke, "I'll tell you this now. The pay sucks, but the benefits are good." Jan nodded to Gabrielle, "Hello cookie." Then she focused on the warrior princess, "Hello Xena."

***

"Now those are some strong minded women." Callisto commented as she lazily stroked Gabrielle's thigh. They were reclining, facing each other, on a bed in one of the spare bedrooms.

Gabrielle blinked, "I'll say." She fingered one of the blonde's nipples.

"Where do you think they dragged Xena to?" Callisto stilled her hand at Gab's waist.

Gabrielle giggled, "They're gonna make her talk."

Callisto snorted. "Good luck."

Gab trailed her finger to Callisto's lips. Callisto grabbed the finger with her teeth. Gabrielle sighed. "If anyone can make Xena talk, Melinda can. And I thought *I* was a good storyteller." Callisto let go of the finger. "Gods, she is so convincing." Gabrielle grinned. "I mean, look at us. If someone had told me this was where I would be. . ."

Callisto grinned in return. Gab leaned conspiratorially, "You should have seen Brigid the other day. I left Melinda and Brigid alone for a few minutes and when I came back Brigid was hysterical with laughter." She shook her head. "If only I hadn't found that packet."

"Thank the gods you did."

Gabrielle was surprised. Callisto grimaced, "Don't look at me like that." This time it was her turn to sigh. She pressed her lean body into Gabrielle's, her expression sad. "If you hadn't found it, then you wouldn't have been on time." She smiled evilly. "I would have been razing, pillaging, whathaveyou." She looked at someplace far away. "I would have been mindless. Careless." She looked at Gabrielle. "I would have lost everything. Again." She stretched. "But." She moved her hand to Gabrielle's breast. "But. Now I am," she quirked her mouth, "sane. . .or saner than I was, and. . .,"she kissed Gabrielle quickly, "I am a Goddess, so I can visit my 'parents' whenever." She growled lowly, "Though I think I'm going to make Hades pay for being such a bastard about it all."

Gabrielle commented, "Well, I'm going to stay directly out of that conflict if you don't mind." She kissed the woman quickly.

"Hmm." Callisto leaned forward and nuzzled Gabrielle's ear. "Meddler." She said it so seductively that Gabrielle shuddered. Callisto nipped the bard's ear. "Such a lovely meddler." She bit Gabrielle's neck, which made the redhead squeal. Callisto smiled and pulled back. She stared down into hazel eyes.

"So tell me. When you were spilling the beans to Dr. Covington, you mentioned a plan. About Velaska. What exactly do you plan? Hmm." Callisto smiled pleasantly, "Don't get me wrong. I intend to erase her from existence, but I want to hear what you intend to do."

Gabrielle sat up and took Callisto's hands. She squinted at her, "Callisto, I think its time I told you a few things." Then she and the blonde one disappeared in a fine mist.

Chapter 10
Leaving

Brigid did not wake when Xena exchanged a blanket for the quilt or when Xena lightly kissed her forehead. Xena tucked the blanket around Brigid's shoulders and smoothed the blanket down the woman's backside. Then Xena left as quietly as she had arrived.

***

Gabrielle took one end of the quilt and Callisto the other. They nodded toward each other and began. The quilt seemed to fill with light and sparked. The quilt divided in half, but the halves just looked like the original. They placed the halves on a table, picked one and repeated the process. This time there was a quilt the size of a hanky and another the size of a baby blanket. Callisto took the smallest one and disappeared it. Her face was serious and she looked a little lost when she turned to Gabrielle.

"I want to say goodbye first."

Gabrielle nodded.

***

Brigid woke up when she felt the bed move. She groggily turned her head to the right. Her eyes rested on silky thighs that disappeared into black leather. She let her gaze travel upward, past the pierced bellybutton, and more black leather into the solemn gaze of beloved brown eyes. She smiled sweetly and stretched herself into a kneeling position.

"Hi Joni."

The blonde placed her index finger at Brigid's lips and shook her head. "Callisto."

"For always?"

Callisto took Brigid's hand and placed in on her heart. "Joni is here, but I was always Callisto." Brigid swallowed and nodded.

"I guess I was hoping. ."

"Shh."

Callisto leaned forward and placed her soft lips upon Brigid's. Their kiss was slow and deep, but Brigid felt the parting more. "You're leaving?"

"There are things that must be done."

"How long?"

"You will see me soon enough." Brigid felt a chill in her heart.

Brigid's voice cracked. She suddenly felt very clingy, but she resisted the feeling and spoke it instead. "I don't want to let you go."

Callisto pulled Brigid into her arms. They hugged; their bodies close. They separated slowly.

Brigid looked at the woman who had been her friend. "I like the leather. It brings out your eyes."

Callisto shushed her again. Her voice was low, "I'm going to say this now, lest you never hear it." Callisto held Brigid's gaze, "I love you." Brigid felt tears come to her eyes. "I may not remember it, but it is true." Callisto looked around and then back at Brigid. "Remember it for me." Then Callisto leaned forward and kissed Brigid. Brigid's eyes closed.

***

Brigid woke up to the sound of rain on a window pain. She felt disoriented. The bed was rumpled, and there was an indentation on the pillow besides hers. She didn't recognize the room. The room was light and felt old. She scooched herself out of the covers and placed her feet on the rug by the bed. She was wearing a nighty, but couldn't remember when she put it on.

The door to the room opened and Brigid turned. It was Gabrielle. Brigid let out a sigh of relief. Gabrielle smiled, "Hey sleepyhead. Finally awake?" Brigid blinked groggily and sniffed. Her nose felt stuffed up, as if she had been crying or had a cold. She felt a little woozy.

"Yeah, but I feel funny."

Gabrielle looked concerned and closed the distance between them. She pressed her hand against Brigid's face. "I think you still have a fever."

Brigid touched her neck. It was hot. She asked querulously, "I've been sick?"

Gabrielle shook her head, "Totally out of it."

Brigid grabbed at Gabrielle's cool hands and pressed it against her face, it felt comforting. "I had the weirdest dream." Gabrielle smoothed Brigid's brown bangs. Brigid tried to focus, "Where?"

Gabrielle spoke softly, "We're at Jan and Mel's. We've been here since Saturday. Its Monday."

"Again."

"Yes."

Brigid pulled Gabrielle's hands from her face, and looked at the bard's fine fingers. "What happened?"

"You probably caught something, or maybe time travel doesn't agree with you."

"Oh."

Gabrielle pulled her hand from Brigid's grasp. Brigid felt Gabby's arm go around her shoulder. "Feel like standing up?"

Brigid listened to her insides. "Yeah. I think so."

Chapter 11
Unlikely Heroes

The motorcycle roared into the visitor parking lot of Farmington, North Carolina's Lincoln High. There were two riders. One sporting a dark dark mane of hair, sunglasses, studded leather jacket, jeans and a conspicuously absent helmet. The other wore a black helmet with a reddish yellow rose (which matched the color of her hair) and a similar outfit to her partner's. They rolled to a slow stop in front of the school. Most of the students congregating outside (to avoid going inside until the very last minute) ignored their arrival, though a few curious gazes followed the bike (One young man vowed then and there to get a Harley as soon as fiscally possible).

"This the place?" Xena asked. She felt a nod behind her. Xena looked about, tilting her sunglasses for a better view. "Where are they?"

Gabrielle stood up and looked over Xena's shoulders. They scanned the yard in front of the school. Gabrielle spotted a familiar face, though the hair was colored green. She pointed, "There's one. Check out that hair."

Xena spoke softly, "She always has to be the rebel."

"She's just trying to find herself." Gabrielle spoke gently in return, I imagine I would too."

The object of their gaze leaned against the brick wall. Her clothes were deliberately shabby, but not grungy. There were others who were bedecked similarly, but the girl wasn't paying any attention to them. Her focus seemed to be inward, though there was a watchfulness about her.

Gabrielle spotted the other one. Longish brown hair, a little on the chunky side, books clutched to her chest, eyes down, stride anything but confident. She nodded toward the girl, "There's the other."

"HER?!" Xena spat out in surprise.

"Hard to believe, I know. But watch."

The young rebel detached herself from the wall and moved towards the entrance way of the school. Her stride was long, easy. She had no worries or cares and she wouldn't confess any in her walk. Somehow she appeared at the other girl's side, as if she never intended to be there, but look here she was. The other girl looked up, as if this were no surprise, but she ought to be startled. The one who didn't know herself looked as if she said, "Hey." The other spoke softly, almost inaudibly, but looked the rebel in they eye, briefly but intently, "Hello." And that was it. The green haired, ripped clothes girl with an attitude split away and the shy one entered the building, as if she couldn't wait for school to get over with.

"On that rests the hope of the world."

"Yes."

The bell rang and students filed in for another eight hours of education.

"I don't like it." Xena spoke forcefully.

"You'll like what I have to tell you even less." Gabrielle said as she sat back down. She wrapped her arms around her love, "But if it makes you feel any better, it was *your* idea."

Xena twisted around to look disbelievingly at the bard.

"It was."

"Gods."

And with that as the last word hanging between them, Xena gunned the bike and they were out of there.

***

Saturday morning, as soon as Gabrielle and Brigid left to visit Janice and Melinda, Xena called Gwen (say that three times fast and you might start to cough. . .) to the circle. The circle was similar to the gathering place, but located further uphill and out of sight of the main camp. Xena stood by the map, which was a carved marble piece in the center of the circle. The map displayed five points. The Elysian Fields: Camping Paradise was the center point. The rest represented alternate sights at the four corners.

Gwen arrived at a dead run. Her chest was heaving. The neck of her t-shirt was wet with perspiration. "You called?"

Xena was dressed in an outfit similar to her ancient battle armor and leathers. She wore her sword, her chakram and a pistol. She was succinct. "Gather the tribes. I want them *all* assembled by midnight tomorrow, but sooner if possible. I want the generals here by midnight tonight. Tell all to bring their children and families. They are to vacate the cities and bring what they can."

Gwen paused, "It's started then?"

"It's started." Xena turned away, to hide the panicked expression on her face.

She spoke harshly, "Go. Now!"

Gwen was off and running.

***

Everyone was gathered in the sitting room, watching the evening news. Brigid, sheltered by a brightly colored blanket, had her head in Gabrielle's lap. Gab was gently stroking Brigid's hair. The fever still had not broken. Fortunately the couch was large, so Brigid did not have to scrunch up. Her eyes were closed, but she was listening.

Melinda sat in a stuffed chair, her feet perched comfortably on a footstool. She was working on a decorative needlepoint, something for winter solstice. Her hands shook a little, but she worked consistently. Janice was reading another piece of wretchedness written by an underachiever. Her commentary was pointed and vicious. But they were both listening.

Gabrielle's attention was on the television. She analyzed the anchorperson's toothy smile and found it fake (no surprise there). She strove to stay in the present, to be with Brigid. Her hands were not shaking, but only because one was occupied with one motion and the other was resting firmly on the arm of the couch. She could feel it coming.

The minutes ticked by, as the anchorperson covered the minutia of the day. The president was accused of this, the republicans were trying to ban the color purple again, someone's cat got stuck in a tree, the latest greatest treatment for sunburns and finally (almost a relief) a blaringly obnoxious commercial.

Then one of the most annoying sounds to be found on any frequency was blasted, actually interrupting a family's bliss about laundry detergent. (That was new.) Brigid sat up abruptly and sniffled puffily. Jan set down the paperwork. Melinda continued knitting with her shaky hands. Gabrielle leaned forward.

"We bring you this special announcement. . ."

Chapter 12
Hell Breaks Loose

Brigid had to be pulled away from the television. Her agonized scream seemed to echo in Gabrielle's ears. Jan forced Brigid bodily back towards the couch. Brigid twisted in her grasp, trying to get away. Gabrielle was grabbing the sorrowful woman's head even as Melinda said, "Do something!" Soon Brigid was on the floor, eyes closed and mind quiet, but tears continued to leak from her eyes.

Meanwhile, the screen continued to play its terrible news. The Gods were awake and they weren't friendly. Armageddon wasn't a nuclear meltdown.

***

Ares had been preparing his troops for guerrilla warfare, and with Velaska and Callisto's help, the military didn't stand a chance.

He hated the notion of nuclear bombs. Where was the foreplay? Where was the blood? War was an endeavor that required artistry. It shouldn't be too clean. It shouldn't be over too soon. Using a nuclear missile would be like premature ejaculation. He disappeared the nukes.

Then he began messing up the playing field. Some types of guns would work, some wouldn't. Some bombs would go off, some wouldn't. Anything that was too quick, or too painless was out. Lasers. They don't work. A bomb big enough to knock down a city wall is okay. A bomb big enough to knock down a city, it's out. Pistols, Rifles, Bows and Arrows: In. Machine guns. He would think about it, but for now: Out. Weapons with handles: In. Guerrilla warfare: In.

He incited the people. Riots erupted in the cities for no reason. He distracted the military and seduced the angry minded militias with notions of superiority. Velaska created unseasonable storms, made the earth angry and set crackling bristling fires. Callisto called together the bitter insane, the raging, the gangs and thugs, those who shared a like madness. They became the Horde.

***

Xena watched her troops establish themselves around the campsite. The fields were no longer as empty as they used to be. Armor glinted in the sunlight. She knew that similar preparations were happening in The Four Corners. Her generals would be hard at work. There was a noise of vehicles arriving. She stepped into the building she had selected as headquarters. She told the guards to get ready and they snapped to attention. She looked at the golden chair before her and sighed. She thought of the fall of Fort Leonard Wood, and closed her eyes for what she was about to do. Then she sat down and sunk into the softness of the chair. She let her body seem relaxed and unconcerned. She let her eyes harden.

The leaders of their communities were pushed into the room, like so many sheep. The warriors behind them held spears and swords. One held a rifle. Xena could smell the fear in the air. She asked a guard, "Who is here?" and was answered with the names of nearby towns and cities. She nodded approval. Then she spoke to the assembled. "Let us discuss the terms of your surrender."

***

The terms were not as bad as was expected. Fealty to the Amazon Nation, tribute, a good deal of self government, but Xena was in charge. Completely. If they cooperated, the Nation would protect and train them. There would be conscription into service, but only persons of a certain age to a certain age, mostly singles. Cities would be fortified, trade ways would be established Utility services would be protected, as well as communication. A council would be established, most of the constitution, with a few exceptions would be respected. They would be under Xena's military rule.

If they didn't cooperate, Xena would let the Horde have them, then would destroy the Horde and take what was left.

She had someone turn on a video monitor and told the leaders to observe.

Fort Leonard Wood was a military training base. Soldiers from all over had trained there. Everyone knew the story by now. It was the crack of dawn and a surprise attack. Weapons that were supposed to work didn't. Weapons that did work were not reliable. Things went to hand to hand combat. There were too many of the "enemy" and too few soldiers (even though that seemed an impossibility at first.) It was over by nightfall.

What was terrible was that there were families on the base.

This was why Xena called the generals. They planned their attack carefully. The gods had moved on to other playing fields, but left a good number of "men" behind. What Xena and her generals observed were that these supposed soldiers of Ares were unskilled. Street smart, but dumb.

Xena and her troops attacked before dawn, in the blaze of the moonlight. It was a bloodier, but more decisive battle and was over in about two hours. No mercy was shown, except to the families of the fallen.

Xena turned to assembled. "It's your choice."

***

Brigid could feel the wrongness of the situation. It pulsed through her like a venom that she couldn't shake. But her fever was gone, and so was the sluggishness. She was even fairly rational. She helped Jan pack the Ford, loading it with the supplies Jan thought they might need. *Was it her imagination or did Janice and Melinda seem younger?* She didn't hold onto the thought long. It didn't pay to think in that direction.

There was no real reason for them to go. Gabrielle was a Goddess after all and they could hide the location of the mansion for as long as needed. But Jan and Mel wanted to leave and get to the camp. And so did Brigid.

They left early in the morning, hoping to avoid any traffic, though they knew there wouldn't be much. Any evacuation of cities had occurred several days ago. People who were trying to reach their families would be long gone. There were places that were havens. Utah had a strong military/theocracy ruling now. Native American reservations seemed untouched. Las Vegas, New Orleans and Hollywood were still around, and seemed to be safe. (The appealed to the god of war for some reason and they were under the protection of Bacchus. He and Ares arrived at an understanding.) Some states to the north and west had not been reached by the violence yet and were fortifying.

Washington was a mess. No one knew where the President was, but Hillary and her daughter were at one of the Four Corners. Congress had been razed a long time ago. Because of the location of Xena's troops there was a protective ring formed, centering in Missouri and including parts of Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Xena didn't want to push it too far, but did what she could to create a solid boundary and deal with the refugees. She didn't allow refugees unless they could immediately prove kinship (more difficult than it sounds. . . and when Xena said immediate, she meant immediate. Those that wanted in often called relatives to come and get them. Those that didn't have relatives were out of luck (because of this, border towns came into being and became part of the trade routes; what had seemed a bitter experience became a blessing. Eventually the Nation moved in to protect even the border towns).

There were horror stories about the truly big cities (but there were also some good stories of people doing past what was expected and helping each other.) New York had gone to blazes, Los Angeles had a volcano erupt in the middle of it (apparently Velaska liked the movie), St. Louis had refused Xena's protection (a true mistake if ever there was one.) Smaller places were left up to their own devices. Some folks made out real well and others didn't. Some places the constitution was considered in operation (but whose constitution?) and others were places of chaos.

Communication networks, such as the internet seemed to make it past the ruckus and were probably what kept some people sane. Xena took advantage of trade markets that started erupting on the net. She also had her netheads publish survival instructions for those who might need it. She also took advantage of the media (when the newscasters scrabbled to be at the front lines she allowed it. It was interesting how one good bloody battle could inhibit one's desires to be right up at the forefront.) to make the Amazon Nation look strong and powerful. Though now she wasn't sure why they called it the Amazon Nation. . .other than the fact that the women pretty much ruled and there were pockets of completely female populations (but that went the same with some male populations who were called honorary Amazons.)

Eventually some things settled down. There was a huge loss in population. The Horde was still razing, pillaging and doing the awful. Other world powers were busy with similar troubles. Tourism was definitely down. People who were in established cities or settlements helped each other as they could. Some Baptists and other Pentecostal types disappeared (quite a few of them thumbing their noses) and some new temples to pantheistic gods were built (or if not temples, shrines. . .a particularly lovely one was located in Oklahoma, where it was said that Kuan Yin herself had appeared at the site of the first terrorist bombing. Now it was a field of flowers). What was amazing was that this all seemed to happen within the space of a few days.

By the time Gabrielle and company arrived at the border, things were locked down so tight that they spent the night in the border town called Felicity. It was an ugly little place but the people were friendly. There was local law, so the peace was kept. Besides anyone who would generally be interested in thievery or other nastiness was probably pulled in by the deranged magnetism of the Horde. Gabrielle could have whisked them in, but she really did try to keep things as "normal" as possible. She felt it was especially important, in the face of this madness.

They located two small rooms and paid for them with an exchange of some of Mel's strawberry jam. Brigid particularly mourned the loss, but Gabrielle made up for it with some sweet kisses, that led to some comforting moments. Brigid's last thoughts, before succumbing to the yumminess that was definitely coming her way, was *at least we'll be home soon.*

Chapter 13
Borderline

The dining hall was bustling with energy. Brigid stepped cautiously down from the walkway and into the main area. She thought she saw Xena sitting with Gabrielle so she rushed over. It wasn't until she was standing by the table that she realized that it was Jan and Mel. Brigid decided not to stare, but sat down. She ahemed and said, "Well you two look, uhm, good."

Jan snorted. "Hell, if that was all that we looked, I would feel better."

Melinda grinned and poked her lover in the ribs, "At least she's kept her sparkling personality." She pointed to the fruit in the middle of the table, "Have some, its paid for."

Brigid arched her eyebrows, "More Jam?"

Melinda shook her head, "No. Pickles. It seems it's a necessary part of one of their specialties."

Brigid groaned, "Aw Man!" She grabbed an apple, "You've got to quit giving away that stuff. How am I gonna get any?"

Someone spoke up behind her, "I thought you got plenty last night."

Brigid grinned brightly and looked up, "Hey sweetie." She grabbed Gabrielle's hand and pulled the small woman besides her. "So what's the plan babe?"

Gabrielle eyed Brigid. "You seem in a good mood."

Brigid nodded, "I just got over some god whammies." She pointed at Gabrielle with the apple, "I wish you guys would quit putting me to sleep."

"You remember everything?" Gabrielle sounded almost panicked.

Brigid spoke with her mouth full. "No. But I know when I've been whammied." She swallowed. "Remember when you turned me into Bernie again?" Gabrielle nodded. "When I unBernied, if you will, it took me days to get. . .what's a good word. . .sober? together? alert?. . .something like that, you know." She took another bite, "So now, when someone whammies me, I recognize it." She pointed at herself with the apple, "This is me, when I can think. Sort of…"

"Oh." Gabrielle shrugged, "Sorry."

"'s okay. I just wish you folks would stop, is all. I don't like how I feel in the morning when you do that to me." Brigid swallowed again.

Gabrielle leaned forward and took Brigid's face into her hands, "I will try not to 'whammy' you again. But I won't guarantee it." Then she kissed the woman thoroughly. There were a few cheers from around the room.

When she was done, Brigid grinned, "Now *that* I like."

***

The plan, as it stood, was simple. First, talk to the guard and convince them that they belonged in the Nation. Second, if that failed, call Xena and hang around Felicity until someone arrived to escort them. Seemed reasonable.

Jan and Mel decided to go see what they could scrounge in the way of gas. So that left Gabrielle and Brigid to do the convincing. The problems began, when they realized how long the line of entry was. An hour later and they were still waiting to even speak to the guard. When they finally arrived at the gate, the guards were uncooperative and demanding (because they were dealing with uncooperative and demanding people; a vicious cycle.) Gabrielle did her best to convince them who she was and who Brigid was and where they were supposed to be.

One patrol woman put it this way, "Gabrielle who?"

The other patrol woman said, "Even if you were part of the Amazonian tribes," and she assessed Gabrielle's garb as out of Amazonian fashion, "you should have been here days ago and entry now would probably get you whipped. Wait a bit for Xena to cool down. She's been easing some of her strictures, but now's a bad time to be an Amazon and have missed the call." She pointed south. "If you go down that way, there's a tribe of sisters that might take you in."

Gabrielle's expression was one of irritation, but somehow she managed as smile and said, "Okay. okay."

The talkative patrol woman whispered, "If you've any friends inside, you might call them and have them be your kin."

Gabrielle's mouth tightened, "Thank you. We'll try that."

As they walked away, Brigid wrapped her arm around Gabrielle's waist, "What if you and Mel tried? Mel's pretty good at acting tough when she has to. . ."

Gabrielle shook her head, "I'll keep it in mind, but I want to avoid the trouble it might cause."

Brigid looked around, "This isn't trouble?"

Gabrielle looked at the dirty town, "Not yet."

"I could summon the cellular."

"No."

"You're not going to make this easy are you."

They found a phone, but had to wait in line again. Brigid said, "Are you sure that you don't want me to. . ."

"Yes."

"Stubborn."

"Trust me."

"Okay for you."

The home number worked but instead of an answering machine or Xena's sweet voice it was, "Amazon Nation. How may I direct your call?" It started all over again with, "Gabrielle who?" to "No Ma'am, Xena is not accepting any calls." to "No Ma'am General Gwendolyn Eponin is unavailable right now." to "Have you any kin?"

Gabrielle melted the phone receive into black goo, making the sound of operator's voice turn to mush. Brigid quirked her lips, "No luck, huh."

Gabrielle stomped her foot and grunted.

Brigid looked at the people in the line behind her. Their faces looked crushed. She pointed at the gooey mess at Gabrielle's feet. "Gabby honey, you might want to fix that." Then she thumbed past her shoulder, "Folks are staring."

Gabrielle clenched her teeth and summoned the receiver back into being. Then she slammed the receiver into the phone several times. Brigid grabbed the frustrated woman's hands before the last slam. "Hey there. Kind of defeats the purpose, eh." She gently led Gabrielle from the phone, nodding apologetically towards the line, "Excuse us please." She smiled pleasantly.

They found a quiet spot, just a short ways outside of the makeshift town. It was a small grove of trees, shady. The grass was cut. Brigid sat Gabrielle down and then herself. Gabrielle leaned forward in frustration and placed her face in her hands. Brigid placed her palms on the ground and leaned back. She looked speculatively at Gabrielle. She listened to the birds chatter and watched the slow line of cars shimmer in the humid heat.

After a few moments, she asked the question. "Why? Why not use your powers?" She waved her hands, "I mean, when you're not being pissed off or manipulating me." Gabrielle groaned loudly.

"Why do you resist who you are?"

Gabrielle twisted to face Brigid, "This is NOT who I am."

Brigid spoke softly. "Yes. It is." Brigid moved her body forward and wrapped her arms around her knees. "It's been how long? Several millennia. And you still haven't accepted. You're still trying to be what you were, as opposed to who you are." She looked away from Gabrielle.

Gabrielle's voice shook, "I don't want to be like the others."

"The others?"

"The other gods."

Brigid laughed, "Honey, look at me. You already are." She touched her lover's arm, cradling it in the palm of her hand. Brigid nibbled her lip in thought. "Have you ever thought, that maybe, that guy who said that power corrupts, that he must be wrong. That he was looking at the wrong thing." Brigid looked up at the sky. "I think that only happens when we resist what we can really do. When we say, power is a thing and I have to control it or it will control me. Rather than accepting, that power is just another part of us and that its not outside of anyone, unless we give it away."

Brigid shook Gabrielle's arm. "I like you. Oh powerful one. I respect you. You're like the gods and like everyone else. Doing the best you can with what you know. You don't have to act mortal to prove to me that you are a good person. You don't have to act immortal to prove to me you are powerful. If you don't want to whisk us away and give us the easy route. That's cool. But surely its okay for those of us who can, to make things a little better for ourselves. No sin in that?"

Brigid pulled a Kleenex from her jean's pocket, kneeled up and wiped Gabrielle's tears. She continued, "I think you are clever to be subtle. But quit punishing yourself for making a choice. It was a good choice. It brought me to you. I don't regret anything, though I'm still trying to make sense of it all." Brigid disappeared the Kleenex.

The demigoddess smiled at Gabrielle. "I have an idea for how to get a hold of Xena, subtly, if you'll hear it."

Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Brigid and kissed her. "I'll hear it."

Chapter 14
Rescue

Xena jumped a little, when the weight of the sword quit pulling at her hip. She looked around quickly, to see if there was something or someone else in the room. The the sword reappeared in its sheathe as if it had never been gone. Xena, being no dummy, pulled the sword out and found the attached note.

Xena,

We're stuck in Felicity. The patrol won't let us through. I don't

want to use Mel to fake our way in. Can you help?

Gab

PS. WE miss you terribly! *anxious*

 

Xena thought, the feeling is mutual. Xena carefully folded the paper and tucked it in a pouch. Then she called one of her assistants.

***

It was a very noisy arrival. Several Harleys, decked out with colorful flags, signifying different parts of the Nation, stopped just short of the gate. Xena, dressed in civvies, stepped off her bike and strode toward some very surprised patrol women. "I've come to claim my wives," she growled. "Where are they?"

The braver of the two pointed with a shaky finger towards Felicity. "They, uh, might be at the inn."

Xena nodded towards the gate. "Open it."

***

There was a minor ruckus when someone tried to brace Xena for keeping him out of the Nation. He was on his butt and out of the way before anyone could blink. One of Xena's guard's made sure that he stayed exactly where Xena put him.

But Xena didn't get a chance to even enter the inn. The door flew open and Gabrielle connected with Xena's body in a big way. "YOU'RE HERE!"

"So, I guess you're glad to see me?"

***

There was some confusion among the crowd when Melinda and Jan stepped out. But, most (being what they are) assumed, Twins. Brigid stalled going out, because she was enjoying the scene of Xena and Gabby kissing, but Melinda finally grabbed her and pulled her into the full view of everyone. Xena and Gabrielle eventually parted, smiled at each other and then smiled at Brigid. Soon Brigid was being kissed just as intensely as Gabrielle had been moments before. It made her dizzy with desire, but she managed to keep a grip.

The journalist among the crowd took copious notes, most of which never made it to print, but some of which was found useful for later occasions.

It wasn't until later that Brigid realized Melinda and Janice had displayed no reaction to who was who. Apparently they knew who Xena was. She attributed it to the TV.

It was Melinda's wisdom that saved a few Amazonian types from latrine duty. She pointed out that they were doing a marvelous job right where they were. The result was that the patrol women were kept on rotation a little longer than they would have been, but they counted their blessings.

***

Jan drove the Bronco, with Mel tucked serenely at her side. Gabrielle rode on with Xena. Brigid found her arms around a rather tall, buff, skirt wearing male Amazon. It was a breezy way home, but it was fun.

Chapter 15
Meditations

"I want to watch." Brigid shrugged out of Xena's grasp. Her golden eyes were sincere. "Only watch. Not touch, not speak, just see." Her voice pleaded, "Please."

It was late at night. Their room was lit by candles. The only sound to be heard was their breathing. The warrior, still dressed, looked at her bard made golden in the dim light. The goddess was lithe and strong. Xena loved the contours of her body. She worshiped the strawberry blonde's hands. Sometimes the sight of the back of her knees would make Xena ache with desire.

Xena returned her gaze to this new love, who was also still dressed. She was still learning the pathways of Brigid's body. Xena felt reluctant to part so soon, when they were so close, but she saw the urgency in those godmade eyes. Xena ran her fingertips along Brigid's cheek. Brigid closed her eyes in response, her nostrils opened with an inhalation. "As you wish."

Brigid stepped away from Xena's oh too seductive touch. She wasn't sure why she wanted this. Only that she most definitely wanted to see. Perhaps, it was part of her effort to get to know them, as separate from herself. Sometimes she felt so tightly bound to these two women, that when she kissed one of them she feared she might disappear altogether and never come back. And she knew so little about them, their quirks, the habits that could annoy, that habits that endeared. She wanted to know more. She thought maybe by watching them interact with each other, her vocabulary where they were concerned would increase.

Brigid pulled the hardback chair away from the desk. And set it, where she thought she could see best. Then she sat down, back straight, legs folded gracefully, hands resting comfortably on her lap. Then she willed herself into the background, noiseless, observant.

Xena tugged her shirt free from her jeans and lifted it up and over her head. Brigid deliberately deepened her breathing, but she was aroused anyway. This was going to be harder than she thought. Observe. Do nothing. She thought of all those times on the practice floor and couldn't think why this should be different. But watching Xena strip (something she really hadn't had occasion to do) almost took her breath away and sped it up at the same time.

Observe.

Brigid found herself mentally tracing the scars along Xena's body. There were so many it was almost like trying to visually trace a mandala. One would be long, thin and pale, perhaps moving from front to back. Another would be jagged, red, standing vertical like a tree on the surface of Xena. They spoke of events that she could only guess about, things that happened long before her time. Memories carved into flesh.

Gabrielle's hand rested lightly and naturally on Xena's hip. Brigid felt like Xena's skin must act like a magnet, because it seemed to draw touch, while warrior's expression might warn, don't. But there was no resistance to Gabrielle, only a kind of humble submission. Their movements were slow and languid, and they fell into a kind of silent dance. Xena's fine round hips swayed to an inner tempo, their hands would occasionally brush each other, they sought each other out with their lips.

Bronze hands cupped milky white breasts made golden by the light, as tongues cavorted with each other. Xena's eyes were closed, but hazel eyes caught every nuance of delight in her expression, which made rosy lips smile into the warrior's kiss. Hands made to tell stories smoothed their way down Xena's backside, until they rested lightly under her hips. They caressed and ever so gently explored the most sat upon area of the body. Xena was entirely responsive.

Brigid's gaze narrowed, until she seemed almost sleepy. Her mind was in a deep meditative state, but she was completely aware of what was happening in front of her. In a way it was fortunate she was wearing clothing, or the chair would have been wet. She let herself be.

Slowly, slowly they danced to the bed, their vocalizations muted, but powerful. Soft moans and sighs, hungry growls, a small yelp. Xena gentled Gabrielle onto the bed, at the same time inserting a thigh between the bard's legs. "I love you." Who said that? It was spoken so differently, so seductively. "I love you." It was both of them. It had to be. Their voices changing because of desire. The answer would be held in the expressions, but Brigid couldn't see that, only the pivoting of their backsides.

Brigid decided to change her vantage point and stood up silently. She glided to where she felt there was a better view and settled against a wall for support.

Wet. The sounds were wet. The kisses wet. Provocative. Soft, then not. Someone's mouth moved, "in me." The goddess. Xena slid her hand down and into folds made invisible by the tilt of their hips. But their movements said it all. Xena rotated her hips and pressed humidly into her lover's hip & thigh. Gabrielle arched her back so that they could feel the arm thrusting the fingers inside her. Brigid watched in wonder as the lovers began to rock into each other with ever increasing fervor. Sometimes she got the sense that the movements were more than one dimensional, that she was only seeing a part of what must have been occurring. It was so beautiful her heart felt warm and she felt tears form and catch on her eyelids.

The bard climaxed first, giving out several cries that lilted across the room. Xena held still for the briefest of moments, supporting the goddess as she pinnacled and sailed slowly downward. Then Xena let go and lay her other had on the bed to support herself. Gabrielle lifted her thigh for closer contact and smiled at her lover blissfully. She placed her hands on Xena's hips and began to guide her in quickening, deepening circles and thrusts. Or maybe not guide, maybe simply ride with her. Xena's breasts swayed as she moved and Gabrielle caught one nipple sweetly and caressed it with her tongue. Finally Xena let out a delightfully deep moan and her body spasmed in tiny but evocative tremors. They gleamed with sweat, as they stared tenderly into each other's eyes. Then they kissed deeply, reverently.

***

They invited her into the bed, intending for her to undress and join them, but she only shucked off her shoes and socks and crawled to one of the outside spaces. "You've held me for days. Let me hold you." The goddess chose to be in the middle this time. Brigid wrapped her arms around Gabrielle's middle, her shirted breasts rubbing against the naked back. Xena covered Gabrielle's front, and her arm extended to embrace Brigid's hip. Brigid smiled sleepily and closed her eyes.

Oddly, Gabrielle found the whole situation soothing. She feared that the only thing driving the relationship was a god created desire. But this action seemed to prove differently. She looked at Xena and tried to silently communicate her feelings, but really she had no words. Xena looked across Gabrielle at the sleeping figure and wondered.

Chapter 16
Revelation

Brigid had to go far and wide to find a place where there was no one else. Her intent, earlier this morning had been to practice. But these Amazons, though they greeted her with great respect, were everywhere. She found herself crossing the creek several times, before she felt far away enough and private enough that she could do her work. It was a small glade, with enough open space to move around, but not so much that there could be more than one tent (fortunately for her there were no tents or she would have kept trekking). She listened carefully for the sound of human voices, but there was only natures. This was satisfactory.

She centered her awareness and shifted her body into a comfortable stance. Today she would push hands with the wind. This was one of her favorite exercises. Where she tried to feel and direct the flow of the wind against her body. She had opted against wearing her robes. There were to many strangers for her to feel comfortable in practice gear (probably a silly feeling, but it was hers). She also opted not to wear the "in" thing of Amazon leathers and skirts. Jeans suited her perfectly well, thank you very much. She didn't mind being an outsider, since she had been one all of her life. No reason why this should be different.

So she began, feeling the wind against her face, forearms, the open v of her neck and chest, back of her neck and hands. She visualized the air as large balls that she could push against or pull. She let her body's motion carry her and even dared close her eyes. She was aware of the floor of the sandy earth beneath called to her. She grinned at a memory of being without shoes and blessed the thick soles that protected her now.

She felt, more than saw someone enter her small arena. She made the decision to keep moving, but to open her eyes. Her body led her to turn around, so she did. She slowed to a stop when she saw Xena looking solemnly at her.

"Hello."

Xena said nothing in return, but strode closer. She attached her palms to Brigid's. Brigid took this as a signal and began again, this time with Xena, rather than the air.

Push hands is a time when one gets to know the flow of another. You respond to movement by surrendering to it, rather than trying to beat it. It can be incredibly intimate, but not always. In this case it was definitely intimate and exploratory.

It wasn't long before Brigid wasn't practicing anymore.

***

Brigid looked askance at the thin blanket that separated her body from the vunerabilities available on native ground. Her body was pleasantly sated and her mind at peace. Her head rested on the arm with the elbow planted firmly. She looked back at Xena. There was humor in her eyes. "You sure know how to make a practice interesting."

Xena grinned and continued sliding her palm along Brigid's soft hips. Xena pulled the woman in for a juicy kiss, that extended into more touches in private places. There was such pleasure in the contact. Xena was honest, "I intended to have you this morning, but you were up before I was." She gave Brigid such a look, "You don't know how rare that is."

Brigid pursed her lips, "I kind of got used to not sleeping a lot, when I was gone." She smiled, "I kept dreaming of you. I kept dreaming of Gabrielle. At first they were good, and then, the longer I stayed away. . ."

Xena shushed her. "I know." She raised her eyes to Brigid's.

"I have something to tell you."

***

"You're kidding me right?"

"No."

"I don't know if I can. . .What will happen if. . .My God." Brigid was sitting up in almost a hunched over position. "What if you. . ." The blood had drained from her face. "Its so dangerous."

"Should I have told you?"

"Would you have normally?"

"No."

Very formally, very quietly, "thank you."

Xena pulled Brigid close. Brigid closed her eyes and said, "I can't hardly bear the thought of being without you."

"I know."

"Can I follow?"

Vehemently, "NO! You must not. You've got to wait."

". . ."

Brigid turned to Xena and kissed her desperately, trying to absorb her presence into herself. Xena returned the kisses hungrily, her own heart aching. Brigid spoke fiercely, "I won't wait too long this time. I won't."

"I hope to the Gods not."

***

At least this time, when she returned to the camp riding behind Xena, Brigid had some clothes on. But she sure did not look as happy.

Chapter 17
An Objection Raised

"You told her What?!!" Gabrielle stormed. "I can't believe you did that!" Her hands flailed in the air. "Brigid's a nice girl, but she has no sense of . .of. .tact. None! Can't lie worth a hill o' beans either!"

"Now Gabrielle. . ."

"I mean, she told The WHOLE World I was a Goddess, in Felicity, and the only reason nothing happened was that Jan and Mel ignored it."

Xena smirked, "I hear you did too."

"I felt guilty, damn it."

"She was right."

Gabrielle clenched her fists, took a deep breath and sighed. "I know." She looked at Xena, "But Why? Why tell her. She'll spoil everything."

Xena looked thoughtful, she shook her head. "Maybe, but I don't think so."

"I hope not."

Chapter 18
The Right Question

No one really noticed Brigid's newly silent demeanor for days, almost five in fact.

Life had gotten interesting and everyone was involved (save for Brigid for some reason) in forging the new Amazon Nation. Now, it wasn't the silence that people noticed, so much as Brigid's seeming noninvolvement. Amazons started giving her sideways glances as she passed, noting her dress didn't match the current leather outfits that were the rage now, and how she didn't mingle with the Amazons themselves. And although they accorded her the respect due a consort (kind of) there was a developing resentment.

Gabrielle, on the other hand, won their favor immediately and though there seemed to be more and more public spats between the warrior princess and her bard, most took it to mean that life was stressful. But some took it to mean that Brigid was obviously in the way, i.e. causing those troublesome little quibbles that seemed to erupt for no reason.

Even Gabrielle, failed to notice that Brigid wasn't saying much. Perhaps because they spent little time, outside of the bedroom, together. And certainly Xena wasn't noticing, since she was hardly available anymore either.

It wasn't until Brigid happened to be in the kitchen of the main house (the only building which had not been entirely taken over for new nation building) that anyone caught a glimpse of what was going on.

Janice was reading the latest god sighting report to Melinda as they ate sandwiches.

"Ooh ooh, here's an interesting one, Kuan Yin (she's been sighted a lot lately . . .must be in reaction to the god of war. . .) was sighted in Washington, D.C. (what's left of it). Apparently there was some effort to make peace between two factions that hadn't been absorbed by the horde. She seemed to act as mediator and they hammered out some agreement. When she left cherry blossoms were seen floating from the sky."

"Anything about Callisto?" Melinda wiped some crumbs daintily from her lips.

"Mmmm. Lets see. Oh. Here. Mad Goddess. Callisto sighted in Texas, Horde takes over Dallas."

"Boy that woman is thorough."

"You are telling me."

Janice read some more and snorted, "Get this: A goddess sighted in Felicity. Many observed an unnamed goddess trying to use a phone to contact Xena, leader of the Amazon Nation. Goddess was said to have melted phone and then recreate it. Goddess slammed phone into reciever several times, before leaving in a huff. Now I wonder who that could have been?" Jan wriggled her eyebrows.

Melinda smiled and looked up to see Brigid entering the kitchen. "Hello!"

Brigid stopped, smiled and waved. The she started for the refrigerator door.

Melinda stood up. "Join us. I'll make you a sandwich."

Brigid stopped, turned and looked indecisively at Melinda.

"Just tell me what you want."

So, here we have Brigid standing in the middle of the kitchen; Her bare feet on tile floor, sunlight pouring from kitchen windows, her facial expression sending several different messages at once, as she strove to reply to what should have been a simple question. Finally, after about a minute of this fascinating display, she said in a rush of words, "I want ham and cheese on sourdough bread, with lettuce, tomato, pickles and onions, one swipe of Mayo per slice of bread, with chips. If I can not have that I will accept whatever nourishing food you may choose to give me, or I will fix my own. Thank you." She stopped abruptly.

The paper dropped from Janice's hand.

Mel looked very concerned. "Are you okay?"

Again, Brigid took time to think about the question. This time, her eyes seemed to turn inward, as if she were really contemplating beyond the usual "fine" or "okay." She sighed when she looked at *them* again. "There are many aspects to that question I can not answer right now. Could you rephrase, or do you want me to give you a standard answer that tells you nothing?"

Mel looked at Jan in startlement. Jan stood up and kicked the paper away from her feet. She looked intensely at Brigid, "Is there something wrong with you?"

Brigid thought about it for a few seconds, "What do you mean by wrong?"

Jan said, "Oh boy." She tried again, "Is there something out of the ordinary occurring with you?"

Brigid answered immediately, "Yes."

Mel tried, "Are you in trouble?"

Brigid started thinking again. Jan said, "Scratch that." She grabbed Brigid's arm and pulled her to the kitchen table. "Sit." Brigid sat. "Try again Mel."

Mel looked at her lover and then at Brigid. She went to the refrigerator and pulled out a few items. As she did this she asked, very casually, "What is out of the ordinary with you Brigid?"

Brigid thought, but not too long (because she had been thinking about this for days. . .), "I am a different person than I used to be. I must think before I speak. I must tell only what is important for others to know, but nothing about what I know of certain things or relating to certain things. My tongue has felt bound for days. No one has asked the right questions."

Jan looked at Mel, "Well that tells us everything and nothing quite effectively." Mel finished making the sandwich (ham and cheese on wheat, with everything else) and placed it in front of Brigid. Jan continued, "Brigid, can you tell us how this happened."

"Be more specific please."

Jan pursed her lips, then realized that she was staring at Brigid like an interrogator. Janice suddenly realized the wisdom of Mel's diversion and sat down. She picked up the paper on the floor, folded it a few times and placed it carefully on the table. Then she looked at Brigid. Brigid hadn't touched her food. "Go ahead and eat. You can eat and think at the same time, can't you?"

Brigid thought a moment and, rather than verbally answer, began to eat.

Mel asked, "Are you able to tell us who or what caused you to feel that your tongue was bound."

Brigid, looked around the room for a few seconds and then looked startled. "I don't know." She took a bite and swallowed, "Perhaps. There might be a way."

"I'll be direct. What were the circumstances leading up to the change in your behavior." Jan leaned back in her chair, tilting it on two legs. Mel swatted at the adventurer, but Jan ignored her.

Meanwhile Brigid was assessing what she could and could not say against what they might know about her relationship with Xena and Gabrielle against what any consequence that might come from the words that might find a way out of her mouth. She decided that they knew enough that she could say something a little revealing. "I was practicing in a field some distance away. Xena joined me. We made love. She said something that worried me."

"And then?"

Brigid took several bites before she answered again, "Xena required my cooperation."

"Can you explain that?"

More bites. Janice examined her fingernails and decided they need a trim. "Xena was concerned that I might say or do something that would inhibit certain necessary events from occurring. She asked me to do some specific things. She has an odd effect on me. Do you wish an illustration?"

"Yes."

"I am afraid that if she asked me to jump from a cliff, I would."

Jan leaned forward causing the chair to scrape the floor a little. Melinda raised her eyebrows in an "I told you so" manner. Melinda turned to ask Brigid, "Do you think Xena will ask you to jump from a cliff?"

A quick reply, "No."

"But that doesn't really matter does it?"

Brigid shook her head sorrowfully.

Janice looked at the outfits that she and Mel were wearing (on Gabrielle's insistence. . .something about the appearance of unity) and then she looked at Brigid. "Brigid, why aren't you dressed like an Amazon?"

Brigid finished her meal. "For two reasons. Originally, I found it odd. I didn't feel comfortable. But I would have caved eventually." She looked aggrieved.

"And the other reason?"

"Xena told me to stay out of it, until she said otherwise."

"Holy Mackerel."

Mel took Brigid's hand in hers. "Honey, we are going to work on this literal streak of yours. Then we are going to have a long talk."

Chapter 19
Compromise

They talked for hours, moving from one locale in the house to another; ending up sitting on plastic lawnchairs off the porch overlooking the camp. Brigid was animated and exact in conversation, entertaining and astonishing Janice and Melinda. She felt good talking to them, especially now that they had arrived at an understanding. But she would occasionally wane into a silence, sometimes comfortable, sometimes not, that indicated she was thinking deeply or not thinking at all.

Jan pointed out at the lush green around them, meaning to aim the eye at the warrior women occupying the once quiet resort. "What do you make of all this?"

Brigid leaned forward, placed her forearms on her knees and cupped a glass of lemonade in her palms. She looked at the tents and down the field, where there seemed to be a game of soccer going. The sweat of the glass drizzled down her fingers. She squinted and sat back. "Nothing yet. I don't know enough to make anything of it. I feel overwhelmed by the hidden assumptions that seemed to be layered into what people are calling the Amazon Nation. What happened?" She sighed. "My main fear and understanding is that we can never go back." She grinned, "I won't finish that Grad degree at this rate." She raised her glass and took a swig. "But I wonder if I was going to finish in the first place."

Jan nodded. She looked at Mel, who was leaning back in the long chair, her legs uncrossed, absorbing the sun. "Mel, I think the kid has got it." Brigid looked at Jan, who looked younger than she did. She shrugged. These days she couldn't tell how old any one was.

Mel didn't open her eyes, "She had it a long time ago."

Jan slapped her knees gently and sat up straight, "So, Brigid, you want to get you one of these get ups?" Jan pointed at the outfit that she wore, a kilt like skirt, a bare midriff, a simple top, and her battered hat.

Brigid turned her head to the side and then back, "To be truthful, no." Jan raised her eyebrows. "I think it might be better for me to stay this way. I like jeans. I feel comfortable in them. I was never one for skirts, really. Even though that looks fantastic on you." Brigid sat back, "I think it serves a purpose for me not to wear the Amazon gear. We can't go back, but there's no reason not to go forward. Plus, it serves as a distraction." Mel snorted. "It does." Mel cracked open one eye and gazed at Brigid. "It does."

There was a sort of, "Mmhmmm. . ." as if Mel were saying, "and that is?"

"Its keeps them," Brigid indicated the members of the camp and the world, "distracted. So they can't see what's really going on, with Xena and Gabrielle. It gives them something alternative to think about."

Mel issued forth an, "Mmmm. . ." as if saying, "you may have something there."

Jan eyed the baking Mel. "Speaking of alternative. Sweetie, you better turn over." There was a bit of rustle as Mel rolled onto her belly. Jan resisted the urge to pat Mel's butt.

Then she addressed Brigid, "The only problem I see with that, is it keeps you distant. And there might come a time you need to be part of the group. If only for a little while." She examined Brigid's medium frame, taking in indications of muscle, hidden by cloth. "*I* think they can't see you for who you are." She studied the contour of Brigid's body, "Maybe there's a compromise."

***

The compromise consisted of two parts.

First: Brigid continued to wear her jeans, but the tops were midriff revealing and short sleeved. It seemed as if she developed cleavage overnight. She wore feathered earrings (which made her feel silly, but Mel was adamant). She didn't have to give up her boots, but was now sporting a few weapons (which made her feel like a walking armory): a knife, sword and a whip. She looked buff and tough. She felt ridiculous.

Second: Brigid started going to Xena's war council. There she stood as silent witness to the genius of her beloved. She felt a genuine awe for the amount of thought and experience that Xena brought to discussion. She also felt a genuine fear for Xena. There was a darkness, a wildness creeping in Xena's eyes. It was there, almost all the time now. She didn't think Xena even noticed when she was there. Though Xena was very aware when Gabrielle was attended the meetings, and not always in a good way. Brigid only hoped they stole away and made up at other times.

***

The results of the changes were mixed. She was surprised that the Amazon's respected her need for individuality, and even more surprised when she some of the others adopting a similar outfit to her own. There was more friendliness in the people's gaze, though it may have been because she spoke a little more freely now, but never with the same quick thoughtless intensity that she used to. After a few weeks, some individuals would seek her out and ask for her opinion or help, because she listened to what they said verbally and nonverbally and she practiced what Jan called, "flexibility" in her thinking.

She learned to become untraceable because some Amazons followed her everywhere. It took her awhile to appreciate that they were supposed to do that, since she was officially one of Xena's consorts. Still she would disappear into the woods once in awhile, just for privacy. She would glide out of camp and into camp, unnoticed. It was unnerving to the Amazons, but they respected her for it.

They also respected her for her proficiency. It wasn't long after she started wearing the weapons that a powerful looking woman challenged Brigid to a first blood fight. She issued the challenge in such a way that Brigid had to think about her reply. Brigid had finally come to the conclusion that she would bow out, when the woman tried to slap her.

A slap from Xena would have been a caress, but a slap from a stranger was sheer rudeness, so Brigid didn't let it happened. She caught that hand and let the momentum of the slap carry the woman to the ground. Then golden eyed demigoddess pulled her sword.

It was an incredibly short fight. Not even time for a crowd to be drawn. One second the challenging warrior was preparing to swing her sword, the next the sword was swinging in the breeze towards some trees and she had a small cut on her face. The jaw couldn't hang low enough.

Brigid kept her voice calm. "I might have killed you. Don't let there be a next time."

After that she never had any privacy during her early morning practice time. If not for Gabrielle's intervention, she would have pulled her disappearing act. But a short talk led to a simple agreement, wherein she took over some training for the Amazon equivalent of the special forces. Fortunately for Brigid she now seemed inscrutable and wise. Fortunately for the students she really was tough, but kind. Teaching, despite Brigid's reservations, seemed to come naturally to her. Eventually, there was a solid group of people who would follow Brigid to the ends of the earth.

***

A month went by, quicker than expected. Xena never acknowledge her presence in the council room, but Brigid kept going (she wasn't sure why, but it felt right.) She listened to some good and bad ideas but kept her own council. She noticed how Xena filtered information from her generals and how much the Amazon nation had expanded past what was originally planned.

One day Xena showed up at one of the training sessions. She watched for a time and then left. A little while later, Xena called a gathering. Brigid was summoned, along with those who were training under her. She was given a rank and a command over the very students she had been teaching. They came to be known as the Bear Corp.

Now she was part of the Nation, whether she had intended to be or not.

Chapter 20
Conquering Warlord

Brigid thought it was stress causing the nausea, so she never mentioned it. She didn't feel like anyone needed to know. And no one figured it out. she was long since past an expert at disguising her own pain. It did occur to her to go to a doctor, but she figured people would notice if she went to the healer's. She decided against it and just learned to swallow, a lot. If her face was a little sterner, the people of the nation attributed it to her new responsibilities as a leader and saw it as a good sign.

She continued to train her troop and to attend the council meetings. Xena even looked up at her every now and then, sometimes with a fractional smile. Brigid would return a similar smile and simply feel grateful. That smile usually meant that Xena planned on being home that night, as opposed to playing conquering warlord at some obscure end of the Nation.

Today the council room was full. Brigid picked her usual corner and leaned against the wall. Gabrielle stood by Xena as the warrior princess began to lay out a new kind of plan. Soon Brigid was standing straight up in astonishment. She wasn't the only one. Xena's eyes glowed with a kind of madness. Her voice was full of charismatic fervor. Brigid looked around and noticed that some of the generals were swaying to the sound of Xena's voice.

Gabrielle spoke out. She grabbed Xena's arm. "You can't do this!" Xena ripped her arm free and glared at Gabrielle.

"Oh." Her voice chilled Brigid to the bone. "And how are you going to stop me!" She sneered and looked Gabrielle up and down. "There's nothing more you can say to me." She turned away from the goddess and toward her military staff. "We can do this." Xena pointed at the map. "We must secure the perimeters beyond here and here! Callisto has already taken Dallas and Denver. We must Not let her any closer. We will sacrifice these cities." They were clearly marked on the map. Brigid shuddered to think of the number of people that this meant.

Gabrielle tried again. This time the argument went full fledged, almost to physical. Brigid stepped in between them. She took the full brunt of Xena's stare. Xena raised her eyebrows. "So. You side with her. You prefer her company to mine, maybe?" Brigid blinked in surprise and felt a twisting in her stomach. This was not going well. Xena spat out, "Fine! You can have her!" Brigid's mind worked around an answer, as fast as it could.

"Beloved."

Xena growled. "Don't you beloved me. You think I don't see the looks. You think I don't know! You would betray me given the chance!"

Brigid felt the muteness come again, but fought it. "No. Never." She swallowed. "I love you. I love her. I love both. No betrayal. Ever." She spoke fast. "But Gabrielle's right. You can't do this. But not for the reasons you think! For different reasons!"

Xena stepped so close that Brigid felt her breath graze along her face. The scent of her breath was actually soothing, though the eyes bespoke anger. "And what, pray tell, are those reasons."

Brigid thought, quickly, precisely. "If your aim is to protect the Nation, then the procedure you have outlined will not succeed. If your aim is to increase the Nation's size, it will succeed, but only until the Nation is faced with the unwanted attention of the Horde. We only have so much. . .," Brigid sought for a word, "so many troops and resources. We are stretched now. We would be worn away. All that you have created, all that you hold dear would be as dust. Don't do this. There is an alternative."

Xena leaned so close Brigid thought she was going to get kissed. "Describe."

"If your concern is the Horde, perhaps you should. . .," Brigid staggered that these words were about to come out of her mouth, "should face them. Now. While they are sleepy."

"Sleepy?"

"They are lulled by success. They have conquered many cities. The equivalent of many lands. They haven't rampaged in two weeks and it may be awhile before they rampage again. They haven't increased in numbers. They haven't approached our lands. Perhaps you need to take the fight outside the Nation, rather than bring the Horde here. You could pick troops. . ." Brigid's voice wound down. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. Xena's eyes gleamed. Gabrielle looked stunned.

Brigid grasped Xena's forearms, pulled her close and whispered, "What ever you decide to do, don't leave with out spending some time with us. You should be at your best. I'll come after you if you don't."

Xena whispered, "well, you could try." Her words were kisses enough.

Xena pulled back. She turned to face the warrior types gathered in the room. She asked, without looking, "Gabrielle, is Brigid's plan acceptable to you."

Gabrielle almost didn't answer, but said, "Yes."

Xena spoke to the assembled, "And you. How can we improve Brigid's plan."

Several spoke at once.

Chapter 21
No Goodbyes

A very private meeting:

"Gwen."

"Yes Xena."

"You know what you have to do."

"Yes."

". . . You won't be coming out of this alive."

"I know."

"Have you selected your people?"

"We have fifty two good women."

"They understand what is to happen."

"Yes."

"Now is the time to back out. There can't be any failure in this."

"No one will back out, my liege."

". . .You've been. . ."

"No need to say it. I understand."

*whispered* "That will be all general."

"Thank you, Xena, for trusting me."

"Always. Always."

***

Xena left without saying goodbye. She was accompanied by over five hundred members of her forces. Arrangements for the leadership of the Amazon Nation were handled long before she left. It was decided there would be two main leaders, one for the military and one for the more social aspects of the Nation, another of Brigid's timely suggestions. If Xena returned, then the duties of the two leaders would be to act as co-council, if Xena desired it. Brigid narrowly escaped being called into one of the roles, simply because she became amazingly unavailable, though her name came up several times. Eventually, one of the generals, Noora Strongberg, was selected as the main military leader and the leader of the main council, Phaedra Billings, was called as the other. Both felt inadequate for the job.

***

Now the Horde consisted of more than five hundred people, but Xena's show of force was mostly symbolic. The intent was to get the gods' attention, not really fight the Horde. Xena started simply enough, she began by attacking the smaller acquisitions of the Horde and by integrating the survivors into her army. Those that wouldn't cooperate were killed. Simple, but deadly.

She cut a bloody pathway straight to Dallas.

The Amazon Nation formally and publicly disowned Xena and denied any knowledge, understanding or cooperation with what she was doing. Gabrielle disappeared from the camp. Brigid stayed on and continued to captain her troop and attend the war council. Brigid conscripted Janice and Melinda into her troops (okay, conscripted may be a strong word, actually she begged. . .) as her lieutenant's. This was a smart move on her part.

***

One fine day, well into Brigid's second month as a respected member of the Amazon Nation and about ten days after the disavowal of Xena, Brigid was having a not so fine moment with the gods of the toilet bowl. She thought she left the door closed, but apparently not. She felt, rather than saw someone enter the bathroom, turn on the faucet and place a wet cloth against her neck.

Melinda's voice was soft, "How long?"

Brigid shook her head, but found herself answering, "One and a halfish, almost two months."

"I can help."

Brigid wept.

***

Xena and what had become a very large army finally arrived at Dallas.

Chapter 22
Dealing With the Devil

Xena was prepared to carry out a full blown attack on the decimated city of Dallas/Ft. Worth. But she wanted to talk first. She rode Argo out a little beyond the camp and called the gods who had been terrorizing the what was left of the states. Her voice was strong and carried in the wind, back to the camp.

Gwen watched Xena through a pair of binoculars. When Ares and Callisto appeared in front of Xena she set the binoculars down and summoned her captain.

***

Ares, his muscular arms folded, said, "Well, well. If it isn't the Warrior Princess." He bowed mockingly. "Long time no see. . ." Callisto grinned evilly.

"Hello, Ares." Xena hopped off her horse, her feet thumping in the ground with a little puff of dust. She kept the reigns in her hands. She stood casually.

Callisto spoke, "What do you want here. You plan on taking that puny mob against my great force?" She indicated the city. Her voice sing songed, "You'll lose!"

Xena smirked. "You mistake me. We've come to join you."

Callisto's jaw dropped. "Join us?!" She looked to Ares and back at Xena, "Impossible. Its a trick."

Xena said, "Its no trick. I mean what I say. I don't take kindly to betrayal."

"Funny you should speak those words Xena." Ares scanned the encampment.

Xena looked at him, her eyes grew cold. "Fine. Have it your way." She tilted her head towards Callisto, "See you at the battlefield."

"Whoa, whoa there. Don't be so hasty." Ares eyed Xena, "I almost believe you." He indicated the world, "But how can we believe what you say."

"You'll just have to take my word for it."

Ares looked at his nails, "So tell me, who betrayed you."

Xena's face took on a look of agony. Her nostrils flared. She spoke bitterly, "Why don't you guess." Her face turned stony, "She couldn't take it. She has no stomach for what must be done to win. No understanding. And then that damnable Aphrodite had to step in and ruin everything."

Ares drew many assumptions from that statement, all of which he liked. He turned to the blonde goddess. "Callisto, perhaps we should. . ."

There was a shout and a rider could be seen careening towards them, "XENA!"

The rider stopped just short of Argo. She cast a sidelong glance at the two gods and then turned her attention to Xena. "We've got them my liege. We found all of them! All of the deserters. General Wakefield sent me to tell you. What would you have us do."

Xena quickly jumped on her horse, and as she turned Argo back to the camp, "Sorry Ares, We'll have to take this up another time. I have some traitors to take care of. . ." Then she galloped away.

Ares turned to Callisto and extended a hand, "My dear, what say we watch, hmm."

Callisto smiled winningly, "I've always admired. . .Xena's discipline." She laughed evilly as they faded into the sky.

***

They were surrounded by surly and aggressive soldiers. They stood shackled like slaves, but their bearing was proud. They were bruised and disheveled, their armor looking the worse for wear. There were fifty three.

Xena rode Argo straight into camp. The onlookers parted before her hasty arrival. When she reached the group before her, she jumped off her horse and pulled her sword. Her voice was sharp and clear. "Who was your leader."

A tallish woman stood out, lanky but not gawky. Despite the chains on her wrists and feet she managed to look graceful. Her brown hair seemed to shine golden in the sun. She held her head up. "It was I."

Xena strode forward and delivered a great slap. "I should have known."

She said bitterly. She turned to the shackled group, "Only one of you has to die. Declare your allegiance to me now and you will be set free. No harm, no foul."

The leader spoke, "There is no one among us who will support you in this, Xena." Xena delivered a backhanded slap. The proud leader sailed into the bodies of the prisoners.

She spoke coldly, "I don't believe I was speaking to You."

Another of the captured spoke, loudly, "We will not join!" There were shouts of agreement from the captured Amazons.

If it were possible, Xena's face became even more cold and distant. She turned away from the prisoners and stalked toward her horse. Then she faced them again. "General Wakefield."

A man strode up, his bearing proud and haughty.

Xena spoke loud enough for everyone to hear. "This is what you will do. You will take that one," and she pointed at the woman who claimed to be leader, "and separate her from them. Then you will take them all out to a clear field. You will make her watch as you execute these traitors, one at a time. You will let the bodies pile up. When you have finished that assignment, you will flog that one, "again she pointed at the leader, "fifty times. If she is not dead by then, you will behead her. You will leave their bodies to rot. Do you understand?"

The general paled, "But, But, surely. . ." The general was impaled on Xena's sword before he could complete his sentence.

"I don't have time for this. Colonel!"

A woman ran up and saluted, "yes, my liege."

"You have just gone up a rank. Can you do as I have commanded?"

"Yes my liege."

Someone snickered. Xena eyed the group and spotted the culprit. One of the leftover horde. She stalked over, grabbed the man by the collar and threw him with the prisoners. She shouted to the group. "Does anyone else think this is funny?"

There was a deathly silence, except for the whimpering new victim.

"Good."

Xena turned to the new general. "I want to see you when it is done." Then Xena took Argo's reigns and walked away to her tent.

***

Ares and Callisto solemnly watched the punishment occur. Bodies piled up in a bloody heap. They had expected screams. They had expected resistance. There was none. A bullet would be fired, the individual might wince, but there were no cries. There were, however, tears. It was difficult, even for the god of war to watch.

There was only one individual who gave out an agonized cry; the one who laughed.

When it finally came to Gwen, who cried until there were no more tears to offer, she submitted quietly. Again there were no screams, though they could see that she ached to do so. She died somewhere between the forty third and the forty forth lash, willingly surrendering to Hades.

Callisto was the first to speak, "Seems like today is a pretty poor day to tick off Xena." She turned to look directly into the god of war's eyes. "What say we let her join our party."

Ares eyed Callisto, "I thought you hated Xena."

"Oh." She responded, "I do." Then she grinned evilly, "But I won't let that get in my way. We have a world to conquer."

Ares kissed Callisto's hand. "That we do." He smiled coldly, "They will worship us. The new pantheon." His smile turned toothy, "Lets go tell Xena her price for joining. Then we'll see how serious she is."

Chapter 23
Cutting Losses

The digital display said 12:43 a.m. Brigid sat up and wondered what had startled her so. She sensed around the room and felt nothing untoward. She turned on the light and saw only the lonely room. She listened for a bit and heard only the sounds of the night. With a sigh she scooched the covers off of her body and set herself on the edge of the bed. She padded to the bathroom and switched the lights on. Nothing here either. She flicked the lights off and headed back to the bed, thinking, "Odd. I thought sure I . . ."

Then she felt a wrenching in her chest like she had never felt before, as if a part of her soul were being pulled right through her nose. She didn't even have enough air to breathe out a scream. There was a searing sensation, unbearably located in her palms. It made her wish that her arms had been pulled off instead. She brought the palms up, so that she could see them. The markings were still there. But she felt a deep deep sense of loss and she couldn't place why. She writhed in agony and then suddenly stopped, when the pain seemed to pass. Her heart felt as if it were in a million tiny pieces. How would she ever find them all?

The digital display said 01:45 a.m. Brigid was found by Jan and Mel in fetal position, crying as if everything she was had been lost.

***

Xena stared in wonder at her smooth palms. The flow of power through her blood made her feel a little high. Her eyes were white.

Ares laughed deeply, "Welcome to Godhood Xena. Enjoy your stay."

***

Morning was only slightly better for Brigid, but that was only because she and pain had long ago become intimate friends. At least she didn't feel like . . .Oh wait, she did feel nausea. She grabbed the saltine cracker, downed it and then took a big gulp of water from the glass on the stand by the bed. Then she did it again. Mel was right. It did help.

She stood up carefully and thought.

After a few minutes she called Jan into the bedroom and gave her lieutenant some instructions.

***

Callisto cornered Xena in the new goddess' tent. "I can't believe you are staying here. You could have anyplace. You could Make anyplace." Callisto took a swipe at some papers on a makeshift desk.

Xena spoke softly, dangerously, "I suggest you don't do that."

Callisto placed a finger on her cheek, "Oh, so sorry." She summoned the paperwork back onto the desk, "that better?" Xena grimaced. Callisto tsked. "We shouldn't be fighting. We're on the same team now." Callisto jumped up on the table. "If I can get along with Velaska, I certainly can get along with you."

"I don't see Velaska anywhere."

Callisto squatted, "Well you see, I don't really get along with her." A knife appeared in her hand. She sent it flying at Xena's head. Xena caught it and sent the knife back. Callisto grinned when she pulled the knife from the air. "I could just do this with you all day."

Xena shrugged, then asked, in a bored tone, "Where is Velaska anyway?"

"Oh she's with some new fling, raising havoc on the west coast. Ares decided he didn't like us . . and I quote, "tormenting" each other." Callisto jumped off the table, "Now I ask, is that fair? Do I look like someone who would torment anyone?" She fluttered her eyelids.

Xena hmmphed.

Callisto smiled wickedly, "I still think we could be friends."

"Do you?"

"Oh yes, since we're so alike." Callisto was suddenly besides the raven haired warrior. She wrapped her arms around Xena. "I could teach you things." She whispered. She laid one of her hands flat against Xena's belly and let it smooth its way up to the tall woman's breast. Callisto's eyes filled with desire. "We could have so much fun." Xena's newly white eyes connected solidly with Callisto's. "I'd love to do more than. . .torment you."

Xena's answer was simple. She leaned down and kissed the blonde goddess.

Callisto pulled back, "Do you do that with your lips all the time?"

Xena raised her eyebrows.

Callisto grinned, "Oh, you *are* good, Xena."

Chapter 24
Dream Time

The five women gathered in the temple. Brigid summoned them into one of the smaller rooms. Phaedra Billings, one of the new queens, lit the candles as everyone settled in. Brigid tucked a pillow under her and sat crosslegged. Janice and Melinda did something similar. The Queen General, Noora Strongberg, sat with her knees up and her arms around her knees. She kept her face neutral, but everyone knew how stressful it had been lately; especially after hearing what had happened to Gwen and her supporters. They knew that attacks on their lands would begins soon. It was bound to happen. Xena would be taking over. Which was why Brigid had called them together.

After Queen Phaedra sat down by Queen Noora, Brigid began. Her voice was soft, hardly there at all, but it gained strength as she went on. "I had a dream the other night. I think I know what will happen, what could happen and what should happen. I want to share it with you. Then I want to tell you what I think we should do about it."

"You called us here for a dream?" asked the queen general.

"I called you here for the Nation. That is, if there is to be one, when all is finished."

The queen general sighed and nodded her head.

"Here's how it goes. My dream began with this. . ."

***

Ares could not believe his luck.

It was pure good timing on his part, to walk in on the two goddesses, right in the middle of what looked to be a truly remarkable evening. They had noticed him right away, of course. His entrance had not exactly been silent. (That, "OH My Gods!" gave him away rather abruptly.) He had meant to see if he could seduce Xena that night. A little dinner (in the way only a god could provide), an evening's entertainment and then a simple seduction scenario. He hadn't planned on what happened next at all. Especially since that fiasco with Velaska and Callisto was still on his mind. (The plan should have worked, damn it, but the animosity between the two would not quit. . .To have been so close to a sandwich and to have missed. . .Oh well, one at a time was good enough.)

So he was kind of surprised when he saw the blonde and the brunette exploring each other's bodies, passionately. *blink* When they noticed him, they separated slowly from each other. Xena rolled onto her back, her palm pulling away from a warmer and wetter location to rest on her belly, one of her knees up and the other flat. She gazed at him with hooded eyes. Callisto on the other hand sat up and tucked one foot under her thigh. She let her hands fall comfortably into her lap. Her gaze was not so seductive.

"Can we help you with something?"

Ares stuttered for the first time in his life, "Uh, n. .no. I was just going to, uh," His hands lifted into a helpless point, "see if Xena was comfortable."

Callisto turned her head to look at Xena. "Are you comfortable."

Xena grinned wickedly, "Oh, Very."

Callisto returned her even gaze to the god of war, "She's comfortable." Then she let her gaze travel downward, and grinned, "But you don't look to. . comfortable."

Ares followed her gaze and realized that he was giving Priapus a run for his money. There was no way to look cool at this moment. . .

Callisto looked at Xena again, "We should let him suffer."

Xena's eyes became even more hooded, "We should."

"It would serve him right for interrupting."

"True." Xena's gaze turned even and assessing. She sat up seductively, her dark hair a bit ruffled. Her skin beckoned for touch.

"And its not like we Need him for anything."

"True again."

Callisto grinned and then looked back at the god, who was starting to look a bit out of place. The goldentressed one, placed one of her strong hands on Xena's thigh and started to caress the woman casually. It only made Ares condition worse. Callisto tisked, "He seems so forlorn."

Xena lifted an eyebrow. "I'm not sure I would agree. It's not like he'll die from it. . "

Callisto slapped Xena's leg gently. "Oh, you."

Xena grabbed Callisto's hand and kissed it briefly. "I suppose we could find," she looked back at the Ares, "uses for him. . ." She sighed lustily, "I seemed to have developed an. . .appetite."

Callisto grinned, "Well, only if he asks nicely." She stretched languorously, "So, Ares. How nice are you?"

***

The queen general started rearranging her forces, bringing many back to the original dimensions of the nation, but not entirely leaving the newer areas defenseless. The queen of the social realm called her counselors and had them pass on some particular messages to the people. The Bear troop prepared to leave for a certain least defended part of the Nation. There were only one hundred members, including Brigid, Janice and Melinda.

Brigid's body began to ache in a familiar way. It was a little earlier than she expected (after all it was only a few weeks ago that Xena left) but she knew it had something to do with that terrible night. She blended with the pain and rode in the Bronco in silence, with Melinda holding her hand and giving it a reassuring squeeze now and then. They were saving the horses for the days ahead.

Brigid closed her eyes for what she thought was a brief moment. She dreamt of a terrible fire that raged and of seeing Callisto, before she was Callisto. Or was that after? She dreamt of the quilt she'd made for Joni spiraling until it split into pieces. But she couldn't quite make out how many. She thought maybe there were two. The The she saw two treasure chests, which were covered by the blankets. She needed to get those treasures. They needed to be in the Nation. She woke up with a start.

***

Ares, the god of war, was in no condition to do more than breathe. He was exhausted. A very unnatural state for a god. But that's what you get when you take on two most formidable goddesses.

He was happier than he'd been in eons.

Meanwhile, with seemingly insatiable energy, the two goddess' were at it again and their vocalizations were so intriguing. He would have loved to watch, but he couldn't even prop his head up. He let out a very contented sigh.

Chapter 25
Strategy

Now this is how it should have been with Velaska, thought Ares. He watched Xena and Callisto hammer out an agreement about the cultivation, training, and discipline of the Horde. He felt proud to be the God of War. Soon, the Horde, under the supervision of the Goddesses would be taking over those last bastions of civilization. He growled at the thought of the impertinent Amazon Nation. Conquering that would be the best of all. He was in supreme good humor.

He sat in a large thronelike chair, his legs crossed casually, his head resting thoughtfully in one of his palms. He was sincerely enjoying the . . .scenery. (Both of the goddesses were still naked. Ares was still pondering where Callisto had picked up that silver barbell, but Callisto wouldn't tell him and she was who she was. . .)

He didn't keep track of where Velaska was anymore. Oh she was somewhere out west, but Velaska, as a goddess of chaos was harder to control than he expected. Callisto on the other hand, her madness could be directed, and although she would sometimes act in very unexpected ways (for example: Last Night) there always seemed to be a method. He could work with that. And now with Xena. He chuckled into his chest. Marvelous Xena. He would rule supreme. He clenched his fist in triumph.

The only thing he could see that might trip up his plans would be that pesky goddess Gabrielle. But there was no evidence that she was even on the earth plain now. . Why she. . .

As is sometimes the case, when you think of something hard enough, and Ares was thinking very hard, though probably not with the head that he ought to have been, she who was being thought about glimmered into view.

Her hair shimmered with golden red highlights. Her hazel eyes sparkled. Her expression was serious. She held her staff, as if she had been walking. She wore cutoff jeans and a halter top. Her abdomen was flat and trim.

Callisto and Xena stopped talking. Ares stepped down out of the chair.

Gabrielle looked around. Her eyes thoughtful. "I wondered if I would find you here." She sniffed and nodded towards Ares, "Your decor could use some improvement."

Xena said, "What do you want Gabrielle."

"You."

Ares smirked and stalked towards the small woman, "Too late. She's mine now."

Gabrielle looked at the god of war as if he were an ant. "She is not someone anyone owns." She looked past him to the map of the states suspended in the air, "She never was."

Before Ares could respond, Callisto spoke, "Perhaps." Her voice was cold, "But she has aligned with us. There's no going back."

"I don't expect her to go back." Gabrielle looked directly at Xena, "I don't expect you to go back." She grimaced, "You were doing what you thought was right. I was wrong to. . .to . . .try and control you." Her expression changed to one of pleading. "I can't be without you."

"But can you be with me?" Xena's hand made a sweeping motion. "I have set in motion a course. I don't intend to quit, just because you've shown up." Her eyes, which were still whitish from the change, shone.

"Where you go, I go." Gabrielle's voice was humble.

Ares saw Xena's expression begin to waver and spoke up, "Hey, wait a minute. You can't just waltz in here and expect everything to be all right. This isn't a movie." He reached to grab Gabrielle's wrist. Instead he felt Xena's hand take his.

"Wait."

Gabrielle spoke quickly. "Ares can you think of a time when I have not followed Xena?"

"Perdicus."

Gabrielle grimaced, "That was the folly of youth. But you know the truth. If this. . .this is Xena's course, If this is what she wants, then I will stay with her."

"You BETRAYED Xena."

"I was wrong."

"Wrong? You admit to being wrong."

"I would rather admit it, than be without Xena."

He smiled evilly, "She's slept with me."

"Fortunately, I'm not the jealous type."

"Liar."

"Well as Long as I don't have to sleep with you. . .you sanctimonious piece of. . ."

"Gabrielle." Xena spoke softly, "I forgive you."

Ares' body twisted in Xena's direction, "What!"

Xena grinned at Ares, "I forgive you too."

Ares' face turned a bit red. He looked like he was about to vent forth with a spew of words.

Xena raised a finger, "Ah ah ah. Do you want to conquer the world or not."

Ares deflated. . .a bit. "How do you mean?"

"Gabrielle is one of the finest strategist I know."

Ares turned to look at the redhead, "What?"

"You haven't been paying attention have you?" Xena spoke softly.

Ares blinked.

Xena beckoned Gabrielle, "Come here. Show Ares your stuff."

"Xena I don't know. . ."

"Are you with her or not?" Callisto asked, her arms folded.

Gabrielle looked coldly at the blonde. She disappeared her staff and suddenly looked very determined. "What have you got so far?"

Ares was about to go off again when Xena spoke, her expression sincere, "Ares, trust me. You are about to see a wonder."

***

Ares was duly impressed. What was surprising to him was how interesting she became, once she started planning a course of action. Soon he and Gabrielle were conversing as if they were old war buddies, plotting the overthrow of a government. It was exhilarating and that doubled when Xena pitched in an idea or three and tripled when Callisto began offering suggestions. He was amazed at how devious Gabrielle was, how thorough Xena was and how clever Callisto was. He had a brief vision of gratitude, when he thought of what it might be like if they were working together and weren't on his side. It made him feel a little cold.

They planned well into the night.

***

Xena's tent had long ago become too crowded, so they set up the war room in the dining hall of a large, and now vacant, hotel. This was convenient because it gave them the choice of any room in the building for other "amusements." Sometime after the planning stopped, Xena took Gabrielle away, to kiss and make up.

Callisto vanished soon after and promised to be back in a flash.

Ares decided, if he wasn't getting any, to implement one of the plans. "Strife!"

***

Ares stood outside, looking at the stars. His mind was a whirl of thoughts, but he couldn't quite keep track of where they were going. Mostly he felt left out. He kicked a stray can out into an empty street.

He heard a voice besides his ear and felt an arm wrap around his waist, pulling him close to a warm and feminine body, "Ares." Her breath smelled of mint and a touch of something else fragrant. "Surely you didn't think I would abandon you?"

Ares grinned in relief, "Xena."

Chapter 26
Anticipation

The valley was huge and bowl like. "This is it?" Janice asked. It was also very green, very weedy and slightly rocky.

Brigid nodded, "This is place number one." She pointed across the ridge. "We'll line up here. All one hundred of us. They'll line up there, all couple hundred thousand of 'em. . ." Brigid grinned limply.

"I always said I liked a challenge." Janice kicked at a stone until it uprooted from the ground. She bent down at the knees and grasped the dirty rock in her hand. She gave it a good toss into the valley.

Brigid shielded her eyes from the sun. "Well I guess you could call it that. As opposed to say, a massacre."

"But you say it won't be."

"I said I hoped it wouldn't be."

Jan licked her lips. "It won't be."

"It'll suck if it is."

Janice laughed.

***

The encampment was farther away from the bowl of the valley and closer to a water source. Janice and Melinda found a private spot to bathe, though they supposed others would find it soon. Janice kicked at the water, her calves partially submerged. Melinda finished washing up, water trickling quickly down her back after she rinsed. Janice took in a breath, and held it in wonder. All these years and that woman could still cause a buzz. Jan smiled. She had every intention of living through this, if only so she could enjoy another fifty years with Melinda. The redhead brutally pushed away any thought of life without the gentle woman before her. If that were the case. . .no, better to think of life *with* Melinda. . .Infinitely better. Janice dove into the water.

***

Brigid sat in the chair, a kind of director's chair deal with cloth swung across two boards. She leaned back, her hand on her belly. One thing about the valley, the view was gorgeous. She breathed in the evening air. She contemplated the changes she knew were occurring in her body. She couldn't quite place how it had happened. She only knew it was so. At least she wasn't showing, or the queen general would never have allowed her to be here.

They had a few days to prepare, a few days to practice. A few days to think. Brigid held a prayer in her heart, though it was to no specific divinity. That would come later.

When the sky became dark, and the encampment was lighted by fire, Brigid went to bed and nursed a dreamless and lonely sleep.

***

The warriors were startled, when they finally removed the last of the charred beams, to find two bundles exactly where Brigid said they would be located. They followed the orders not to uncover the gently moving packages, but picked them out of the wreckage and cautiously, oh so cautiously, snuck them away from the dangerous vicinity.

They were well on their way before dawn.

Chapter 27
The First Battle of the Valley

Dawn's early light actually came up kind of gray that morning. Brigid's troop prepared for the events of the day by strapping on armor and weapons; getting in the cups of coffee while they still could. They could hear the noise of the approaching army grinding its way towards them. If people were nervous, they didn't show it, although maybe it was evidenced by the fits of laughter that erupted now and then.

Brigid wore her usual outfit, but with a little more armor. She looked dubiously at the horse before her. A small (comparatively speaking) chestnut mare. It still seemed pretty large. And this would be like the third time she'd ever been on one alone. At least she knew how to approach the creature.

By the time she was settled, Janice and Mel came out of their tent. Jan looked like Indiana Jones, except smaller and tougher. Melinda looked like the priestess of a really really old time religion, frothy toga robes and a ritual blade sheathed at her hip. There was some "hubba hubba" from the soldiers, but it wasn't too rude. Brigid guided the mare over to the lieutenants. Her smile hid her fear. "You two ready for the show?"

Janice pulled the unlit cigar from her mouth and fingered her whip. "Oh yeah." Melinda looked regal for a moment and then grinned.

***

Meanwhile, all around the outskirts of the Nation, there were battles. The Horde army, with more discipline than had ever been seen in the Horde, were making headway. It was difficult and challenging with the Amazons who held the border fighting every step of the way. Ares grinned. What they didn't know was that they weren't even fighting half of the dread army. NO, that other half was preparing to swarm in from the least protected part of the Nation. He thought to himself, *this is what glee feels like.* He watched the carnage for awhile and then hastened to the preplanned site.

***

The sun finally peeked through the clouds, throwing light onto the assembled Amazons. The timing was perfect, because this meant that the first thing that horde saw was the reflection of light off of very few defenders of the Nation. Ares grinned from ear to ear. He looked at Xena, who was seated on her warhorse. She was smirking and shaking her head. He watched Callisto, her blonde hair gleaming in the sun and she had almost the same look. He looked at Gabrielle, who seemed somber and a little worried, but he expected that. Then he turned his gaze back to the Amazons across the valley.

He noted their tight formation, with foot soldiers first and Calvary behind. He saw their leader up front on a chestnut horse, obviously giving her soldiers a pep talk. He nodded approvingly. It looked like they were going to die warriors. He had to give that to the Nation. They always went out swinging, even if they were about to be trampled into the earth.

***

Brigid *was* giving the troops a pep talk, and when she finished the warriors were silent. She turned her mare towards Melinda. "Okay Mel, it looks like its time. Let's put on the fireworks."

***

It was the noise that got their attention. The gods had turned their backs to the Amazons in order to give orders and whatnot, but they whirled around real quick when the sounds of one hundred shields being drummed reached them.

It was the shape of the valley that made it so potent, sending the reverberating beats across. Then the Amazons started shouting.

It went something like this: The Amazons would shout something then bang the shields twice, then they would move in almost a dance like pattern, then start over again. It took a few moments for the gods to realize that the Amazons were shouting the names of goddesses.

They were shouting the names of the goddesses of magic and healing (at least that's what Gabrielle realized later, when they figured out what happened), and they didn't limit it just to the Greek goddesses either. No it went way beyond that, from Airmed, a diety of Ireland, to Isis, to Hecate and on. Brigid was surprised to hear her own name listed (She'd thought she had come up with that name on her own). She wasn't surprised to hear Velaska's name included. Velaska's name had been deliberately added to the list. However, Callisto, Xena, and Gabrielle were surprised. Ares was stupefied.

When the Amazons completed the first round, they started all over again. This time when they shouted Velaska's name, Velaska appeared in front of the Horde, naked, disconcerted and out of sorts. "What the. . ." She oriented on the shouts and turned to see the shiny Amazons finish and start again.

She looked in alarm at the other gods. Xena simply watched the proceedings; her expression interested, but not frightened. Gabrielle was leaning forward to hear the names. Callisto looked back at Velaska and stuck out her tongue. Ares looked like he couldn't believe what he was seeing. None of the Horde had noticed Velaska yet.

She felt a sense of displacement, again, at the third and final call and found herself standing in the valley, within a group of other goddesses. They were in various states of disarray. She saw a familiar and now beloved face; a naked woman, like herself, youthful body, hair white, eyes the color of the moon. It was the first time that she noticed the markings like a web tattoo running across her lover's body. The woman grabbed her hands before she could react, and pulled her close.

"Listen well love, you have a choice. Cooperate and and it will go well. I will help you. Don't and you'll be sicker than a poisoned dog. Trust me and don't resist. I'll explain everything later." Velaska looked at the woman in wonder.

When the words were done, and the dance was done, the Amazons very silently and solemnly drew the sharp edges of their blades (everyone) across their palms. They let the blood drip freely into the ground.

Melinda stood forth and shouted across the valley, "By three we have called you, By blood we have bound you. Now you are ours and we are yours. Defend our Way!"

The Amazons grasped their swords in bloodied hands and banged their shields in a simple repetitive rhythm.

***

Ares jaw dropped. He couldn't believe what he had just seen. A blood rite. Shit! He should have known! He should have seen it coming. But who would have thought. He had a brief feeling of betrayal and turned to look at the three goddesses. They looked confused, not happy.

Gabrielle was speaking, "What just happened there?"

Xena shook her head, "I don't know."

Callisto folded her arms across her chest, "We should attack."

Xena nodded, "Yes. We should. But not all at once. I didn't like the way those last words sounded. Call the troops!"

***

When it looked like the Horde was about to attack, Brigid took the initiative and sounded a battle cry. She led her women straight down the hill and into the Valley. Their voices screamed down the hill. When Xena saw the Amazons descend, she sent more than triple of the Amazon's number in.

It was mayhem, pure bloody mayhem. Where the Amazons struck their blades were always true. Where the Horde struck their blades would come apart at the seams or simply rust or disappear. Where the Amazons stood their ground, they would feel as if a million hands supported them. Where the Horde stood their ground, the earth would give way and weeds would catch their feet. Even the air was an enemy to the Amazon's enemy.

The Amazons should have been killed, everyone, but they lost only one proud woman to a fateful bullet. It took the good portion of the morning. Xena didn't try and send any more troops. There was no point to it.

When the battle was done, Brigid had Janice send up a truce flag. Xena headed down the slope and onto the bloody field. She reigned in Argo besides the chestnut mare. "Hello Brigid." She looked around the field at the standing survivors. "That was quite the welcoming committee."

Brigid ached to touch Xena, but refrained. She looked around the valley. "There's more where that came from."

Xena arched an eyebrow. "It was very clever. Totally unexpected."

"We wish to negotiate some agreements, since we believe we will be here awhile."

"Really?"

Brigid looked Xena square in the eye. "I know you intend to take that. . . that mob through this valley." Brigid indicated her troops. "We are all that stands in your way." Brigid's voice was even. "We believe you are an honorable warrior." She looked across the valley, "though, I don't approve of who you are associating with."

"I don't recall asking for your approval. . ."

"I'm sure you do not need it. But I digress." Brigid took a deep breath. "Will you and your . . .partners, agree to the old code. No attacking before dawn. Breaking the fight off at sunset (unless it ceases before hand). Honoring the truce flag?"

"If we weren't going to honor the truce flag, you would be dead now."

There was a chill up Brigid's spine.

"Will you?"

Xena looked back at her vast army and then at the Amazons. "How long can you keep this up."

Brigid eyed the sky, then squinted at Xena. "Pride would say as long as it took. But, we will only be able to keep you at bay for four more days. That is, if you agree to the terms."

"And if I don't?"

"Then you will be fighting some very tired and poorly fed Amazons and it will still take a total of five days. We'd manage. Though maybe none of us would survive."

"I told you not to follow."

"I didn't. I simply showed up."

"You've been taking too many of Janice's lessons. Now I may have to kill you."

Brigid smiled weakly. "You certainly can try."

Xena made a decision. "Ares is very much of the old school. We will honor the terms. I look forward to seeing what you have planned next." Then she rode away.

"So do I, Xena, so do I." Brigid wearily turned her horse about and leaned to help Janice up.

"You going to be okay?"

Brigid quirked her lips. "Define okay."

Chapter 28
Results

That evening there were be reports within the camp of weapons "talking" with their owners as they were being cleaned. (Very much shocking those Amazons who had participated in the battle.) These same weapons, sanctified and awakened by the blood of their wielders, would prove otherwise miraculous when defending a righteous cause and would later be handed down, in a very formal ceremony, from warrior mother to warrior daughter or chosen, for the defense and protection of the good and the Nation. As the wielders took their calling seriously, Wo be to those who encountered one who handled one of those blades.

Even the weapon of the only fallen Amazon, Moira, was awake (and in its own case, grieving). Brigid, unsure of how to soothe the weapon, which had started keening as only a beloved weapon can, ordered the sword to be given to Moira's eldest daughter (who had just turned fourteen). It was immediately transported, along with Moira's body, to one of the four corners. The daughter, Dunca, solemnly accepted the blade, which immediately stopped its crying (and relieved the minds of the deliverers). Later, Dunca would compete for a position in the Bear corps and win.

***

After cleaning up, Janice, Mel and Brigid met for a council. Brigid was already in the tent when the redhead and brunette arrived. She was sitting in one of those hammock like chairs with her hands covering her eyes. She looked up when they arrived and smiled weakly. "Well that didn't go exactly as planned."

Jan sighed into a seat nearby. Melinda did something similar. Brigid continued, her voice exasperated, "You know, I totally expected all of them to come pounding down around us. To see thunder and lightening. But No! Xena holds Back! Damn it!" She pounded the arm of the chair, though it wasn†t its fault. "I couldn†t believe it. Did you see the total? Only three hundred and fifty of their men. Three hundred and fifty."

"Yeah, but you bluffed well."

"Hrmph."

Melinda spoke up. "The problem is that they probably won't let us do something like that ceremony again. So we can't continue as previously planned."

"But we need the help. There's only ninety nine of us left. And I don't know how long those Goddesses out in the Valley will support us."

A voice spoke, "I believe you said four more days. Did you not?"

Brigid raised her eyes and almost leapt out of her chair. "Hecate!" Brigid could not recall being happier to see anyone in her life, well okay, she could, but that was totally different. This was now.

Hecate smiled pleasantly, "Hello child."

Brigid rushed forward and fervently hugged the Goddess. Then she burst into tears. Hecate looked down at the woman she had chosen and wrapped her arms around Brigid. After a few shaky moments the demigoddess pulled away and apologized.

Hecate brushed away the left over tears. "It has been a troubling time. There is no need to apologize." Then she spoke to Melinda, "Priestess you did a magnificent job. Very thorough."

Melinda blinked. She'd never been called priestess before. "Uhm, thank you, though I'm not really a. . ."

"You are now."

"Oh."

"You should expect some visitations from more than myself, Melinda, there are many who wish to claim you as their own priestess. But I am of a mind that you should continue as a. . .what's a good word. . .generalist?. . .generalist. Though you may wish to choose a few special to yourself. I will not interfere with that choice."

Her gaze fell on Janice. "Adventurous one, you also did well and your council has well served my chosen. I thank you for your wisdom and your discretion. Now you will have the duty of supporting a priestess. Can you handle it? Will you?"

Jan looked at her like, How could you doubt?

Hecate grinned, "Of course, it was a mere formality." Then she held out her hand. "I would like you to meet my consort. She has a few things that she would like to say to you." Velaska shimmered into being, her bearing regal and haughty (you expected less? . .this is a woman who KNOWs she's a Goddess.), her hand folded into her lover's palm. Hecate gave her a sweet smile and that smile was returned, shyly.

Brigid started, then settled back into an easy stance. She felt around in herself and noticed none of her earlier animosity. She looked at Hecate and figured an explanation would be coming soon.

Velaska turned to them, her face brave, her voice soft. "I am aligned with your cause now. I apologize for any previous. . .encounters. . .we may have had. I do not expect your forgiveness and I do not need it. But as allies we must be able to work together. Can you accept that?"

Brigid, who's main animosity had been driven by Hecate herself, could only nod her head. Janice stepped up to the goddess who had caused so much trouble. "Don't expect me to believe that you†ve all the sudden turned good."

"I don't ask you to, because I haven't. As a goddess of chaos, I can only be what I am, neither good nor bad. It is how you choose to work with me that will make the difference. Before I was under my own direction, which is a way of saying none, but now I am bound to Hecate and she is your ally." She nodded towards Melinda. "You must learn to think. . .in different terms. More, unlimited. You are in a world of magic now. You must adapt." She turned toward Hecate. "And that is why we are here."

Chapter 29
The Second Battle

It was hot the next day. Not hot hot. Humid hot. Miserable, wet, you might as well be swimming, hot. But the Amazons weren't swimming, oh no, they were battling the Horde. Sweat drizzled down and across Brigid's body, soaking through her outfit, a simple jeans and t-shirt affair. She knew that if she were feeling the effects of the drawn out battle, then surely her warriors must be. Still they labored on in the intensity of the day, waiting for Melinda's signal.

Xena would have preferred to be out in the battle herself, but since she knew how long the fight would last, she instead found herself simply watching the progress of her troops, or lack thereof. She was impressed with the skill displayed by the Amazonian warriors. It seemed as if they had improved in ability overnight. Still, her intent was to wear Brigid and her corps down, and it seemed to be working. If Brigid (that damn stubborn woman) wanted to fight until sunset, so be it.

The night after the first battle, Gabrielle and Callisto divided the Horde into three parts: the part that would push through on the final day, the part that would keep the Amazons in the Valley busy, and the part that would simply go back and around to fight at the other border sites. Ares himself went to oversee the border battles and to make any changes that might need to be made. There was no physical evidence that the Goddesses who helped the Amazons the previous day still lingered, but just in case, Callisto and Gabrielle stayed with Xena.

It was sometime into the late afternoon. Brigid had long ago lost track of time and was now simply into the rhythm of killing. She had no idea how many she had fought today. Her mind was numb and her heart had yet to respond to the blood on her hands. She found that those katas she had kept working on caused her to flow naturally from one grim step to the next. She also noticed that her sword would, sometimes, act on its own. Again, she flowed with the movements.

***

Melinda, like Xena, watched the battle from a distance. Janice, who would have loved to be down there with Brigid stood besides the priestess, as guard and champion. Just because one of the enemy had not managed to get past the Amazonian forces so far, didn't mean it couldn't happen.

Mel started. A voice, sounding much like Velaska said, *It is time.* Mel nodded to Janice and then stepped out and away from the Amazon camp. Soon they were at the ridge of the hill, where anyone could see them.

The individuals down in the bowl of the valley failed to notice them, but Xena saw, as well as the other two goddesses. Gabrielle started to speak, "What do you think. . ."

Melinda's action was simple. Once they were positioned, she clapped. The clap, however, thundered down the ridge and through the valley. It screamed through the bodies of the Horde troops (both alive and dead) ripping flesh from bone and making bones to dust. That energy whirled around the Amazons with frightening intensity, like a shrieking bloody whirlwind, but not one of the Amazons were harmed. This was their their signal to stop. The Amazons fought through the wind, back up to their side of the hill.

Brigid, however, remained where she was. Now it was her turn to act. She began by focusing on her breathing, to calm her mind. She made gentle contact with the presence that was forming within her and sent reassurances and protection. When she felt calm enough, she began to envision a small small portion around her as calm and serene. And it was. She became the eye of the storm. Then she began to sway, to an inner tempo. Her voice, already ragged from shouting in battle, began to scratch out a simple repetitive naming song. She named the beautiful goddesses, the seducers, the lovers, and the wantons. Then she began to strip.

***

Brigid was lost in the song. Her body swayed seductively. Her energy combined with the force of the wind. Her fingers traced the webbed markings provocatively along her body. The markings, which only the day before had been limited to her shoulder, now ran, in a kind of spiraling pattern down her back and front, through her pubic hairs and down portions of her thighs. It was hard not to notice the change.

The more she sang, the stronger her voice became. Then she traced the outline of the heart and things really started moving. Literally. The web markings started to move along and around her body, like it was alive. Golden pink light started to flash around her. She felt the energy build in herself. She thought of the ones she loved. She thought of how much she wanted them. She thought of what she would do when she finally had them. She thought so powerfully and so lustily, that she could feel the wetness of her body. She could smell herself, and it only turned her on more. Soon, she wasn't even singing anymore, though there was music in the air, like a siren song.

***

The members of the Horde, being mortal had no power to resist. It began as a simple curiosity and then burst into necessity. They had to have her. They had to have her. They had to have her. Huge numbers of them swarmed down the hill to a painfully quick death and even if they noticed that their compatriots were simply disappearing, they couldn't help themselves. They had to have her.

The goddesses had their own problems. Brigid sent wave after wave of crashing desire in their direction. That and a small calling, ‹You are mine! I will not let you go!Ê Her thoughts were powerful and certain. ‹You are mine! I will fight for you!Ê Intermixed with those thoughts of need was mixed, ‹I love you! I love you! I love you! I love you! I love you!Ê over and over again until it cushioned them, surrounded them like a warm blanket on a frigid day. They struggled to resist, but the struggling only made Brigid firmer in her advocation. It got so that they craved to be out there on the valley grounds with her, but they couldn't move, so firmly did she (and her allies) hold their minds and bodies with her thoughts.

She did it for their own protection. The winds would not have spared even the goddesses. And though she may have wished Ares had been there, he would have known to how to stop this. Brigid took the advantage while she could. There would be time to take on Ares later. She grinned a vindictive and deadly grin.

Chapter 30
The Challenge

It was over so quickly, ever so quickly. Brigid lay on her back on the bare ground. There was no grass cover anymore, no badly trampled weeds; only dark dark moist dirt. Brigid trembled under the weight of what she had done. She couldn't even begin to justify it, only accept responsibility and it weighed more than anyone could ever know. Right now, if she were to be given the option, she would have been part of the ground too. She heaved a great shudder. There weren't even tears enough.

***

Melinda ordered four warriors to the ground to fetch Brigid. She knew the woman probably couldn't even move and that Brigid needed to be out of the Valley before the god of war returned, or his goddesses woke up. Brigid had bought the Amazons time, but at such a cost. Who knew where this would all end up.

The Amazons raced down the hill as fast as they could go. Their rested bodies moving easily and gracefully. There were no words for how they felt, moving between grateful and awestruck and frightened. They had no intention of being down in the valley any longer than they had to.

***

Brigid sensed the Amazon's descent and rolled to a sitting position. By the time they arrived she was standing; wobbly, but standing. A couple reached to grab her arms.

"DON'T TOUCH ME!"

The warriors backpedaled.

Brigid shook her head, then whispered, "Don't touch me. Your hands are clean and I am dripping with blood."

The Amazons looked at each other, their eyes wide. They saw no blood.

"Lady. . ." a tall blonde began.

Brigid laughed, "Hardly. Hardly at all. In fact, not at all. No more." She grinned painfully.

"Captain." Another tried.

Brigid turned her glowing eyes onto the Amazon. "Yes. That I am. That I can still be. For a little while. Just a few days more. A Captain." She forced herself to straighten out from her semicrouched position. "You go." She indicated the way back up the hill. "I'll follow."

The Amazons looked doubtful.

Brigid growled, "Go!"

The Amazons began by backing away and then turning. Brigid walked slowly, painfully behind.

***

Ares arrive to a scene of. . .something very wrong. The camp looked as if a storm had torn through it and worse, it was quiet. The only sound seemed to be metal grinding on metal and the wind rustling serenely through some nearby trees. He felt around for someone, anyone. When he felt Them, he felt something he never felt before as a god; fear for another.

The goddesses had managed to crawl together in a final effort to thwart Brigid's assault, which had been both tender and brutal. They held onto each other for dear life, mentally, physically and emotionally. Now they were curled into each other, almost fetal, most definitely unconscious, their faces still twisted in a bizarre mixture of pain and serenity. There was no telling when they would wake up.

Ares roared with grief, another emotion he'd never felt before, his hands raised in anger. His eyes flashed. "I will punish! I will make whoever did this PAY!"

***

Brigid fell to her knees at the foot of the hill. She stood up slowly, not bothering to brush away the soil that stuck to her. She licked her teeth and felt the hard edges of enlarged canines. She heard him coming. Oh there is going to be trouble. She giggled and whipped around when she felt the god's proximity.

His face was twisted in rage as he backhanded her. She let her body fly loosely away and to the side, then landed in a crouch. Her voice was cold, "I'm sorry. Do we have a problem?"

"You! You!" He didn't have any words. Instead he screamed and came at her.

Brigid jumped, all the weariness in her body seemed to evaporate. They met somewhere in the air and grappled for a few seconds and then broke away from each other. "Oh that was fun." Her voice was mocking. "I never knew you were such a poor loser!"

The god screamed, "You HURT them!"

Brigid forced her face into an icy smile, "Yes. I did. Imagine that." Ares threw himself at her. She ducked out of his way and gave him a solid kick to the abdomen. Then she let her hands fly out in a clawing motion. Her nails caught the god's skin and raked down his face. "I can hurt you too."

Ares staggered back in shock and put a hand to his face. He was bleeding. He looked at Brigid in amazement.

Brigid grinned again. She leaned toward him, "Don't worry, you're still a God. But, and this is very important, so you'd better listen. But, our," Brigid's hands waved in a line between herself and the god, "playing field has just been evened. You can kill me. I can kill you." Her smile turned ferocious, "Doesn't that sound fun!" Ares' eyes widened.

She put a hand to her cheek. She looked up. "Now, let's assess how things Are. Shall we?" She started ticking her fingers, "First, it's almost sunset. We have an agreement to stop fighting. So, I won't kill you today." She shrugged in an "oh well" kind of movement. "Second, your host has been," she snickered, "toasted. That means it'll just be us for awhile. I'll order my Amazons to stand down, just to be fair and all." She looked up at Ares' decimated camp. She nearly choked on what she was about to say, "Third, your goddesses will wake up tonite. They're probably going to be very very upset with me. . ." She looked like she didn't care at all. "They can play too. We'll have a nice little game tomorrow."

She waved her hand and a map appeared. "I'll describe. Tomorrow there will be a hunt. I'll let you choose the place, since. . ." Her eyes scanned the Valley, "this will no longer serve." She threw the map at him. "You can tell me in the morning." She crouched. "I'll be the hunted, first. IF you catch me, then you can do what you want with me, and the Amazons will bend to your will." Then she grinned evilly, "If you don't catch me, by, oh, lets say around, two p.m., then it will be -MY- turn." She threw a snarl at him. The god flinched. "Truth be told, I don't care if you all hunt, or one of you or whatever." Her nostrils flared and then she sighed heavily, "I don't care at all."

Then she grinned. "So there you go. Our plans for tomorrow."

"And if I don't agree?"

"I'll hunt you down and tear out your godlike throat," She licked her lips. "I've a score to settle with you. If they won't have me, I'm certainly not going to let them have -you-." She sneered.

Ares touched his cheek. "You're bluffing. No one can kill a god. Especially not a demigoddess."

Brigid knelt and picked up a bit of the wet ground. She let it sift through her fingers. "Don't be so sure Ares." She looked at the dark god cooly. "Don't be so sure."

Chapter 31
Thorny Roses

Brigid wearily dragged herself to bed. Everything ached. Her head, her body, her heart. Mostly her heart. She tried not to think about what happened that day, but it kept filtering through her brain. She looked at her body. It was probably good that Janice wouldn't let her bathe by herself. She probably would have scrubbed her skin right off. If Jan hadn't been there. . .

No. Better think of something else.

Ares.

She couldn't believe that she'd threatened to kill Ares. And challenged him. She groaned loudly. "Stupid, stupid, stupid."

She closed her eyes and placed her hands over them. She felt someone sit besides her and sat up abruptly, letting her arms support her. She found herself staring into gorgeous eyes belonging to the lovely blonde goddess in a hide nothing at all gown. The blonde goddess looked at her sadly, and lifted a hand to Brigid's cheek. "Hey sweetness. Bummer Day."

The goddess' simple words started a flow of tears for Brigid. Aphrodite pulled the demigoddess close. "You got to know. . .we wanted to tell you before, but there wasn't time. . .You didn't have a choice in it. It was a God thing. You are not responsible for what happened out there."

Brigid only sobbed harder, "But I called. I called. It was me. . ."

Aphrodite pushed the poor woman away, but only so the blonde could see the tearful face, "You can't take the responsibility here. It was a shared thing. We made the decision. You acted it out. We were the one's who. . .who. . ." Now the goddess began to cry, which set Brigid to bawling.

There was another glowing and suddenly a burly dark man appeared. His face was scarred. He limped. Haphaestus. He quietly sat behind his beloved and put his arms around her waist, pulling the mourning goddess into his lap. Then he extended his arm to Brigid and pulled her close.

Then he began to speak, his voice rumbling softly through the air. "No one was alone in this. No One. It had to be done. That Horde would have torn through, no matter how many or how few, " He shook his head at their audacity, " Amazons tried to stop them. We knew that. We had to stop them."

Brigid pulled away and looked at the god. "We?"

Haphaestus squeezed his beautiful wife. "I couldn't let her do this alone." Aphrodite looked like she was about to protest, "Not that I ever doubted her abilities. Ever." He sighed, "But, this was a heavy thing. I wanted her to know that I. .supported. . .her. . .and her causes." He wiped his wife's tears away with his fingers.

Aphrodite sniffled, but for a different reason than a few moments ago. She even managed one of her dazzling smiles. Brigid looked solemn and shook her head. She wasn't quite convinced.

Brigid looked away from the gods. "But I still acted a part in it. I still was the one who called. I still used my blade to kill. I still. . ."

Aphrodite put her finger to Brigid's lips. "Did the best you could." The love goddess spoke gently, "There was no way for you to know the results. I know. Hecate only told you what to do. She didn't say what would happen. That was done for a reason. Well, two actually. We weren't sure who might be listening and we didn't want you to bear the sole burden."

"But."

"No."

"But."

"I did what had to be done. Even roses have thorns."

Brigid inhaled slowly and nodded her head. Her lower lip quivered. "I still feel awful."

Aphrodite whispered, "Me too." She placed her palm against Brigid's face. "But there is no reason we can't comfort each other."

"But what about. . ."

"They'll understand, someday. Besides, they should talk?"

Then Brigid thought of Jan and Mel. She wasn't the only one who'd. . .

"Hecate is handling that."

"Oh."

"So, you gonna kiss me, or am I gonna have to drag. . .mmmmmhhhmmm"

Haphaestus smiled. Things were going to be fine.

***

Aphrodite caressed the rim of Brigid's navel. "Have you told them?"

Brigid pulled her attention from Haphaestus, trying to form a semicoherent answer. "Uhm no. Haven't had time."

Haphaestus chuckled, "Well, at least they can't blame me."

Brigid grimaced, "Well, I'd love to know who to blame."

Aphrodite blinked. "How do you mean? You mean you don't know who?"

"Or when."

". . ."

"I kept getting God whammied. One day, I'm fine. I know who I am. The next, they play with my mind. I have no clue. So, I figure, I'm not going to panic. Yet. 'Cause, who knows. I could have agreed to it. Maybe. Or, something. All I know, is that I don't know. But I'm pretty sure its got to be within the group of goddesses that I slept with."

Haphaestus looked a little stunned. Brigid turned to him. "Is there a problem?"

Haphaestus pursed his lips. "How many?"

"Uhm. . .Lets see. I can only be sure of some. Athena." Haphaestus nodded. "Artemis." Another nod. "Nemesis." Haphaestus blinked. Brigid pointed at Aphrodite and the blonde goddess grinned. "Gabrielle." Brigid squinted, "and I feel like there was someone else, but I can't remember who. . .Plus. Plus, I'm not sure how fast God babies gestate, so. . ."

Haphaestus spoke, "It varies."

"Figures."

"So, I don't know who, or when, or even for that matter, why. I just know," and this time Brigid looked lovingly at her own belly, "that whoever's forming in there, has the sweetest temperament. Purely benign. And so I keep thinking that it had to be done out of. . ."

"Love." Aphrodite finished for Brigid and the demigoddess nodded.

***

Brigid rested comfortably on one side of the forge god, while Aphrodite took the other. Aphrodite posed one last question, before the demigoddess finally fell asleep. "What do you plan on doing tomorrow."

"I plan to cheat."

Chapter 32
Hide and Seek

The day opened up gingerly, with tenuous fingers of light breaking through the clouds. Brigid turned her back from the sight of the sun waking to look at the other side of the valley. The gods she'd been fighting had cleaned up the mess. She could see Gabrielle, her robes flowing, staff in hand, looking back at her. Brigid resisted the urge to wave and turned back to her camp. She walked slowly, still feeling some pain from the day before. At least this morning she wasn't suicidal.

Brigid walked to Jan and Mel's tent and knocked the courtesy stick against the metal pole of their "door." She waited for their invitation.

Mel opened the flap, and smiled tiredly, "Come on in."

Brigid scuffed the tip of her boots. "Uhm, actually, I just wanted to say something to Jan. I don't have to. . ."

Mel grasped the brunette's arm gently and pulled. "Come in."

Janice was sitting in the shadow side of the tent. She stood up and into the lighter side when Brigid entered. "Hey girl," Jan said. Brigid winced when she saw the shapely adventurer. The demigoddess looked uncomfortably at the floor and then back at the strawberry blonde. The shiner had taken on a definite purplish hue. Brigid felt an agony of apology take over.

"Jan, I'm so. . ."

Jan waved her off and grinned, "Don't worry about it. You weren't yourself." Brigid looked uncomfortable. Jan tisked, "Well, hell. If you're feelin' that bad about it, let's kiss and make up." Gabrielle's lookalike held her arms wide for the lonely, uncomfortable woman.

***

Janice and Melinda escorted Brigid to the center of the Valley. Melinda held a scroll. It was some additions to the rules that Brigid had set forth when making the challenge to Ares. Now they waited, the wind blew coolly and the scent of the valley was that of a thoroughly plowed field. The soil was still moist from the day before (or so Brigid assumed).

Soon, the gods appeared. Brigid kept her face up and stood still, even as she noticed that the gods had changed. There were no signs of gentleness in any of their expressions. Xena, if possible, looked scarier than usual. Brigid realized, suddenly, that the gods looked like. . Gods. Gabrielle was in robes. Ares wore leather armor and a fierce looking sword. Xena was in a short leather outfit, similar but different from the one she'd worn in the Amazon camp. Joni/Callisto wore an outfit almost identical to Xena's, but Xena's was black, while Callisto's was white. Callisto held a powerful looking bow. Brigid knew she was in for a world of hurt if the gods succeeded in catching her. She eyed the weapons the gods carried warily.

She really felt out of place in her compromise Amazon outfit.

Melinda spoke first. "Welcome."

The gods focused their stern attention on the priestess.

Melinda nodded to the map that Gabrielle was holding and extended the scroll. They exchanged the items and examined them. Melinda let out a low whistle, then passed the map to Brigid. It took a moment for Brigid to realize that she knew the outline of the playing field. "The camp?"

Xena spoke harshly, "The camp."

"Uhm, there are people there."

"Not where you'll be going."

Brigid grimaced. Who knew that going to the Elysian Fields could be such hell?

Gabrielle passed the scroll along to Callisto, who glanced at them briefly and then passed them along to Ares. Xena waved them off entirely. Gabrielle spoke. There was such coldness in her voice that Brigid felt her throat constrict. "WE accept the terms." Gabrielle lifted her arms as if to whisk them away.

Jan spoke up, "Hey, Cookie, wait a sec."

The bard goddess blinked and let her arms down.

"Brigid."

"Yeah Jan?"

"You've got a place. You know?"

Brigid lifted her eyes from the ground and whispered, "Thanks Jan." Tears threatened, "Take care, eh."

"Yeah."

Brigid inhaled.

"Brigid?"

"Yeah?"

"Don't forget to duck."

Brigid grinned helplessly. "'kay."

Then Brigid and the gods disappeared from the valley.

***

The demigoddess felt a little disoriented by the trip and slightly queasy. She did a quick check on her little one (who was feeling fine and dandy and was perfectly oblivious to any tension because Brigid very intentionally kept sending warm and soothing feelings its way). Brigid swallowed and tried to focus.

Xena summoned a time piece, which looked like a giant stop watch that hung in the air. She spoke, "You have fifteen minutes." Now Brigid knew she was in trouble. The goddesses were using their powers.

"But. it was supposed to be. . .

"Fourteen minutes and 45 seconds."

Brigid took off into the green hills.

***

It was a good thing Brigid planned her strategy beforehand, because the brown haired, golden eyed, webworked demigoddess was in a state of genuine panic. She could only guesstimate how much time she'd been running, but she figured it was about ten minutes. She crashed into the water noisily, and didn't try to avoid making a trail across the sandy rocky beach of the creek.

She let the water carry her for a bit and then moved into the green again, this time walking so carefully that there were no marks, even in the wet sand. The only thing that might give it away was the wet trail marks along the dry sand further up from the water, but that would dry soon enough. It was her intention to disappear into the forest, partly using the tricks she'd used in the past to elude the Amazons, partly using her gifts.

Finally she found what she was looking for. The tree was old, but not so old. It was wide though and that was good. Brigid knocked her fist against its worn bark and asked permission for what she was about to do. She started to feel a little antsy, but knew she was on tree time, so she kept her thoughts as still as possible. When she felt the being open up, she turned around and leaned back into the rough outside surface and began to breathe herself into the rhythm of the live wood. Soon she felt herself enfolded and covered by the bark. She let her mind rest in the nowness and her body blend with the and pull into the tree's shape. She opened her mind's eye and waited. Little one found treeness fascinating. Treeness found Little one even more fascinating.

***

It's hard to explain why the goddesses were so angry. Perhaps it was because she had pierced them to the very core and had made them so vulnerable. Perhaps it was because Brigid had nearly blown their plans. Perhaps it was because they suffered a psychic overload from Brigid's loving assault. Probably, it was because they were constantly inside each other's heads. In any case, they had no intention of letting the demigoddess go unfound and unpunished.

For the first time, Xena was entirely serious about killing the woman. Ares paced back and forth and watched the clock with an angry glare. Callisto looked bored, but she was seething with as much anger as Xena. Gabrielle watched the woods and listened to Brigid splash through the water.

"She made it to the creek."

Xena nodded. "She's quick. I'll give her that." She fingered her chakram.

Callisto spoke, "Beheading would be too good for her."

Xena grimaced and pulled her hand away. This whole blending thing was taking some getting used to. She looked at her palm, sighed and then closed her fist tightly. At least she didn't *feel* the markings move, but when she looked at them, she always felt a little disoriented. Callisto laid a soft hand on Xena's forearm. Xena moved her arm to the bitch goddess' waist and gave a gentle hug. "When you're right. You're right." The dark warrior goddess grinned ferally. "I only hope she doesn't make it too easy."

Gabrielle moved close and wrapped her own arm around Xena. "She won't." The goddess sniffed the air, "I've lost the trail."

"Good."

***

Brigid was lost in treetime. It was actually very healing. She listened, if you can call what she was doing listening, to the dialog Little one and Treeness established and at some point she joined in. Treeness was the first one aware of godpresence. It could feel them in its roots. Brigid would have sunk into groundness, but Treeness bade her to wait. Godpresence had split into two places. Treeness communicated with other Treeness for details of the godpresences. Ares and Gabrielle hunted in one direction. Xena and Callisto hunted in another. None were close by, yet. Brigid praised Treeness' wisdom and surrendered again to the now. If godpresence was not here yet, now was not the time to worry.

***

Melinda called on the goddesses of the hunt and of the wild to aid Brigid. The only problem was that the goddesses couldn't even find her. It wasn't until Gaia herself spoke that they knew the demigoddess was fine. Artemis decided to wait and see what the chosen would do. If things got ugly, then the hunt goddesses would help.

***

There came a time, when Callisto and Xena wandered close to where Brigid hid. They examined everything. Callisto looked around in frustration, "I can feel her watching, but I can't *feel* her anywhere."

Xena nodded. Her eyes took in every detail. She saw something. A very small something. "Look." It was a dangling thread that seemed to be hooked to a tree. "She was here." Xena's fingers brushed against the bark as she pulled it off.

Brigid felt a swell of relief at the touch, which made Treeness feel good. It rustled soothingly. Xena squinted up at the leaves, but couldn't mark the direction of the breeze. Little One wanted to understand, but Brigid only smiled within. Another time, another time.

Eventually the goddesses moved on and away, in search of another clue. When Treeness indicated that they were almost to the other side of camp, Brigid stepped out. For the first time, in a long time, she felt a sense of wholeness, her mind truly at peace. She began, traillessly, to head in the opposite direction of the gods, back across the creek.

She summoned a watch. 10 am. Only four more hours to go. Maybe she'd try something mineral this time. She looked along the creek and noticed there seemed to be an overhang of rock. She began to grin.

***

Little one liked rock too. The feeling of rock was completely different of course, but it was curious about the biologicals that resided in it. The biologicals liked the warmth of the sun, it noticed (If you could call how it sensed, noticing). Rock was a faster "thinker" than Brigid expected. But in a way, it only made sense. Rock was attached to everything. Incredibly, when the demigoddess thought of the godpresences, she found herself in two places, or so it seemed. Little one thought it was a joy ride. It seemed to Brigid that Rock knew every language on earth, and because rock knew it, Brigid knew it. Brigid strove to focus. Rock found this an interesting concept and strove to focus too. It felt marvelous. Rock would focus, hold one idea for an eternity (which was a few seconds) thoroughly explore that idea, and then let go back into the stream of things. Marvelous. Rock felt that Brigid had given it a gift. So rock gave Brigid a gift, though Brigid didn't know what it was at the time.

Brigid caught the next thought back up from the ground. Little one thought that was fun and wanted to do it again. Brigid wavered when she realized that she was standing right behind Gabrielle and Ares. She most carefully did not breathe. She looked around for some sort of cover and prayed that they didn't turn around. There was nothing. Then she caught a subtle movement in the grass and flashed on an idea when she caught sight of a silken furry paw.

Chapter 33
Cheating Heart

Brigid hopped very carefully through the grass, trying not to pull any more attention to herself than a furry creature would normally. The sounds of the gods were almost deafening to her. Little one *purred* happily. Brigid wrinkled a newly pink nose and sniffed. If she went that way, then possibly she might. . .

"How cute!"

Brigid looked up. The grass above her was parted by large human hands. Brigid's little rabbit heart beat fiercely. Man, and with only three more hours to go! Brigid let out a rabbity sigh and tried to hop away.

The hands reached down and grabbed the brown furred bunny at the belly. Brigid fidgetted her back paws pedaling to get some sort of surface to jump off of. "Whoa there. I won't hurt you. . .See. . . ." Gabrielle's voice was soothing. She began to stroke the rabbit. Brigid suddenly felt really really good, each touch removing a layer of pain that the demigoddess had been keeping hidden. This time the rabbity sigh was one of pleasure, and she settled into the goddess' hands.

Ares poked his face near the rabbit, which caused the rabbit to back into Gabrielle belly. Brigid didn't scream, though she felt like it. Suddenly she was back to shivering. Ares growled, "We are not here to hunt," his face squinched, "bunnies so that we can pick them up. . ."

"Ares you are no fun." Gabrielle deposited Brigid onto the ground, who then began streaking for the trees as fast as her rabbity legs could carry her. The goddess continued, "Did I tell you that Brigid would disappear for hours on end?" Gabrielle scanned the area again, searching for any sense of the woman. She could feel her, but she couldn't feel her. "She may actually win this round."

Ares swore. Gabrielle patted him on the back. "Don't worry. I have a plan."

***

When Brigid got to the green she switched to squirrel and ran up a tree to find a place where she could catch her breath. That was too close.

Brigid decided not to fool around too much and began putting distance between herself and the gods again. She thought about being fish for a bit and then ruled against it. That would take her out of the boundaries, which would forfeit the whole thing.

There had to be another way.

***

Actually, it was Jan who gave her the idea. Duck. She'd never tried a fowl before and she wasn't going to try it now, but it got her thinking in the right direction. She paddled through the water happily. She could be a beaver though, and not worry about mooking with her little one. Of course, she might be the only beaver in the world with weblike striations along her tail, but it would have to do. She took advantage of an empty beaver shelter. Now all she had to do was get to the meeting ground safely, by two o'clock.

***

She knew the gods were out there, waiting. They could be at the center instantaneously, but she couldn't, quite. If she tried to be rock again, she might lose track and wander out of bounds. She couldn't chance it. She was going to have to sneak in. This time she chose the form of a cat. Small enough to move subtly, quick enough to get away (hopefully) if she needed to. She checked on Little one who was happily playing with its babygod toes. She gave it a mental kiss.

She made her way quickly, hardly disturbing the tall grass at all. Almost there. Almost. She switched to human form, stood up to look around and heard, "There she is!" The gods raced to surround her. Brigid checked her watch. "Shit!" Two minutes to go. She began to run.

She made a quick look and saw Callisto pause and draw back her bow. Then she turned and realized she was heading straight for Gabrielle. Brigid ducked to the ground and switched to deer form. She started running to the side. She heard a shout, turned her deer head and saw Ares jumping in front of Gabrielle with a desperate look on his face. Brigid had a sudden flash of understanding. She pumped up her size and ran as fast as she could. Leaped in front of the Ares and Gabrielle, knocking them over and felt the arrow slam into her hind thigh. She let loose a terrible scream. Her legs were moving funny, but she was able to move. She ran to the woods, with her the parts that were working. She only hoped no one would follow and that no one had noticed her changing from one creature to the next.

A minute later found her sitting on a rock, breathing in a strange and painful way. The arrow had punched through her leg, with the tip almost touching the inner thigh of the other. She was bloody lucky she handn't been hit in both. She took a deep breath, gritted her teeth and bent the arrow off the shaft. Then she did the same for the feathers and pushed the wood through. Somehow she managed not to scream.

Her leg was a bloody bloody mess. She summoned some something clothlike to wrap the leg, but knew it couldn't be permanent. Besides, she had a meeting to keep. She began to focus, breathing with the pain, until she was able to stand and step normally. Then she started visioning. The gods would see nothing out of the ordinary. Just the woman who annoyed them. She started heading back for the field, taking a route that would make it look like she'd gone in a different direction than the deer. It was past two o'clock. She'd won.

***

Xena wanted to hunt after the deer and put it out of its misery. There was no way it would survive. It would probably bleed to death. But they had to wait for the victor to arrive. Xena shuddered. If that deer hadn't shown up. . .That arrow was meant to penetrate the heart of even a god. Xena looked at Ares, who'd been (for the first time she could ever think of) willing to take the arrow himself. Something about him had changed.

***

Brigid came cattycorner from where the deer had disappeared. She walked casually, as if she had all the time in the world. Xena seethed.

When she finally showed up, Brigid, looked at Callisto, grinned and said, "HA! Ya missed me." She shifted her body into a classical pose, taking the most of her weight and putting it on one side of her body. Callisto glowered. Brigid turned her attention to the other gods. "Do you concede I won fair and square?"

Gabrielle spoke. "We didn't catch you before the time is up. You won."

"So now its my turn?"

Gabrielle, Xena, and Callisto moved to stand protectively in front of Ares.

Brigid's expression changed to something unreadable. "So now its my turn?"

"Yes."

Brigid exhaled. "Good. I'm tired. Let's go back. We'll do something different tomorrow."

The gods stared at her.

Brigid grimaced and looked around herself, "What?! Do you have a problem with that? You chase me all over the known creation. I have to dodge and hide. I'm tired. I don't want to play no more! We'll take up tomorrow. Okay?"

The goddesses looked at each other. Ares moved Xena carefully to the side and stepped forward. He looked at Brigid suspiciously, "You saying you don't want to kill me?"

"Is my logic that confusing? I'm tired and I want to go home. Get some lunch. Unlike you, I am not a god. I can't just go on and on forever." Brigid hid the desperation from her voice. "I'll kill you tomorrow or whatever." She felt as if her life were draining away, but somehow managed not to show it.

The goddesses finished conferring silently. "Ares." Gabrielle said, then held out her hand. Ares placed his meaty palm in her delicate one. Brigid felt pangs of jealousy slide all the way through her body. What had she been thinking? Gabrielle spoke again, "Brigid we accept. We'll go to the Valley now. We will meet again in the morning. Fair?"

"Fair."

They shimmered away, leaving a glistening pool of blood in a silent field.

***

They arrived in a Valley full of flowers. Blood red flowers, Bone white flowers, in shapes that had never been seen before. The smell was sweet and distinctive. Kuan Yin had been here. This comforted Brigid no end. The tall flowers filled the bowl and ran up the rims of the Valley. It brought tears to the demigoddess' eyes because they were so beautiful. They all looked around in wonder.

Gabrielle was the first to notice that there was only one tent on Brigid's side. "They left."

Brigid nodded. "I told them to. I didn't expect to be back and they weren't supposed to interfere."

"Oh."

Brigid looked at the gods. "Well, I'll be seeing you." She started sauntering away. When she felt them stop watching her back, she turned to make a quick look. They were gone. Completely. She let out an almost silent sob and sunk to the ground. Her tent seemed impossibly far away, since she wasn't even at the rim of the hill. She lowered herself to the ground and rolled on her back. Now this was a position she knew well. She flung her arms to the side and felt the flowers rustle around her. Bless you Kuan Yin. I should have called you first, She thought. I'll just rest. Then I'll try to climb. There will be a first aid kit. I'll choose to live. But now I'll rest. She patted her belly and thought of Little one, who was dozing too. Yes. Rest. The lids of her eyes felt heavy and she closed them.

When she quit holding onto the illusion of "perfectly fine" her appearance changed to one of pallor. The makeshift wrap and her jeans were soaked through with blood. The flowers stared up into the sky, seeing nothing.

Chapter 34
Caught

If anyone had been watching, but no one was, not even the flowers, they would have seen a unique sight (a lot of those had been happening lately). The dirt moved, wrapping around the still woman's form. It seemed as if Brigid sank into the ground. Gaia pulled the demigoddess into herself and called for Artemis.

***

While Gabrielle and Ares saw to the troops around the Amazon Nation (and the Horde had made some frightening headway through the far borders and was encroaching on the original boundaries of the Nation) Xena and Callisto went to look for the arrow. They figured the deer was long dead, but the arrow wasn't something to be left around for some mortal to find. They picked up the trail at the edge of the forest. They followed the blood spattered prints until they arrived in a small glade. Both were impressed with the distance the creature had made, especially considering its injury. It had taken much longer to find than they expected, dusk had descended. Callisto thought to Xena *that would have been one worthy hunt. . .* Xena nodded as she examined the area. Then she knelt by a low, flat rock, which was covered in blood. At the foot of the rock were the broken pieces of the arrow. Xena felt a constriction in the area of her heart and picked up the tip. Then she saw the bootprint.

They followed that trail at a run. The trail circled past and around the original meeting place for a ways, and then went back in on itself. It looked like whoever it was had been running and then slowed down. Xena had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. Its funny how the mind can change when you have enough information.

The blood had trickled into the grass. They found the spot where Brigid had stood bleeding a puddle. The soil still smelled salty. Callisto's eyes were wide as she watched the soil pour out of Xena's hands.

***

Artemis gently grasped the semiconscious woman's face in her hands. "Brigid. Brigid. Wake up honey." The huntress goddess' hands showed dark in the moonlight. Her bare breasts brushed against the prone demigoddess, as she lifted the woman out of the ground.

Brigid's eyes opened and she stared blankly for a few seconds. She finally focused and smiled weakly. "Hi."

Artemis squoze her in an embrace, "What are we gonna do with you? This is what. . .the second time you got hit at a hunt. . ."

Brigid laughed a little, "Yeah, but this time I meant to . . ."

The dark goddess looked up at Brigid's tent. "I can't do much. The injury, it's godmade. . ."

"I know. I've read the myths." Brigid's voice was soft, "Do what you can."

Artemis nodded and lifted Brigid up. Then she zapped to into the suddenly lightened tent. She undressed Brigid and groaned when she saw the wound; angry, red and open. It was a miracle the chosen wasn't dead. She laid Brigid on a the cot. She placed her hands on Brigid's body, summoning energy. It would buy some time.. She gasped when she realized that Brigid was not the only one being affected by the injury. "Gods!" Artemis was prepared to act, but Brigid grasped her hands.

"Don't. We're fine. We will be fine. I'm tougher than I look. So's my little one. Bind my wound." She realized suddenly she was giving orders to a Goddess. "Please."

Artemis nodded and summoned some wrapping. If she couldn't cure it, she could delay the worst.

Brigid closed her eyes against the light and sighed into a deep, unconscious sleep.

***

They found the spot where Brigid fell and looked up to the lit tent. As one they teleported into the structure.

Brigid was out of it, so she missed the brief altercation between the goddesses. (But she saw the results later, the major piece of evidence being the total lack of a tent and items in general that had been strewn about). Artemis was determined, but Xena and Callisto were more so. It ended up with Artemis being pinned to the ground by Xena and Callisto running (not walking) to Brigid's cot.

Callisto pulled the demigoddess into her arms. *I've got her.*

Xena grinned down at the hunter goddess and arched her eyebrow, "We'll have to do this again sometime." Then she, Callisto and the unconscious woman disappeared.

***

Brigid woke to the sound of her name being called, again. Her eyelids felt heavy and so did the rest of her, as if she were being held down by soft pillows. The voice was sweet. She almost recognized it. She did a quick check on her innards. Little one was playing with fingers today. This caused Brigid to smile sweetly. Somehow she managed to open her eyes and found herself looking into familiar brown eyes. Brigid's voice was low and calm, "Hello."

Callisto startled back, inhaling as if she'd been slapped. Brigid would have responded but she was still caught in warm fuzzy world. Her eyes started drifting shut.

Callisto recovered quickly, her eyes suddenly brighter. She faced Xena, "When things went to Hades, you should have told me. . ."

Xena shrugged, "Who had the time?"

The blonde goddess put her hands on Brigid's face, "Ah ah ah. . .no sleeping. You have to be awake for this." Brigid struggled awake.

"You got any toothpicks," the demigoddess quipped.

"Well," said Xena, "At least your mouth still works."

"Mmmhmmm. . ." Brigid suddenly felt a presence behind her, pushing her into a sitting position. Xena's long arms wrapped around her waist.

"You better take care of this quick, while you can. I can feel her slipping."

Callisto nodded. Then she placed her hands on either side of the injured thigh. Light flashed form her hands and through Brigid's leg. Brigid was suddenly wide awake and screaming into the night.

But she felt MUCH better afterward.

Chapter 35
More Good News

Brigid looked at the sides of her thigh. She noticed that the webmarkings seemed to wrap around the puncture scars as if showing them off. She traced one scar with her fingertip. It tickled. She looked at the blonde goddess before her. She didn't even get a chance to say thanks.

"What WERE you THINKING!" Callisto shouted. "YOU Could have been KILLED!"

Brigid's lips moved up and down, as she tried to pick which point she should address. The trouble was, once the whole thing started she could have been killed at any time and the thinking part, well. . . nowadays she was always thinking. . . Finally she gave up trying to respond to the question. and answered with her own, "Which time are you talking about?"

"EXcuse Me?" The blonde goddess looked disbelievingly at Brigid.

"Which Time Are You Talking About?" Brigid shrugged. "Over the course of these. . .what day is it? . . .the battle, the yukkiness, the hunt. . Well, that makes at least three days of many times of having been nearly killed. I could identify what I was thinking better if you were more specific. Please."

Callisto's jaw dropped. Xena started to snicker. Callisto gave her a look, which only made Xena guffaw. "Oh stop." Callisto took Brigid's hand and pulled her up from the surface of a bed. "Look you. That arrow was meant to kill you. Dead. Forever."

Brigid looked down and squinched her face. "Yeah, but."

Callisto grabbed the demigoddess' face and directed Brigid's attention. "I would have lost you without remembering you. And that damn fool stunt of not letting us know it was you. . .Oh my Gods!" Callisto abruptly pulled Brigid into a hug and closed her eyes against the vision of what could have happened.

Brigid wrapped her arms around Callisto and hugged the goddess comfortingly, "Yeah, but I didn't think it would make a difference. You guys were positively hacked at me. I didn't think I could take the risk."

Xena put her hand on the demigoddess' shoulder and pulled her gently out of the embrace. "Why'd you do it?"

"Jump?"

"Yes."

"His face changed. He meant to do what he was doing. . .that's not clear. He meant to save Gabrielle. His . . body. . .said he loved Gabrielle. Gabrielle's body said something similar. . .close to. . .I love Gabrielle. If Gabrielle. .(grk) . . loves him. . .and He loves her enough to well, jump in front of the arrow I couldn't let them. . him. I couldn't. . .and then I couldn't let you know, because, you all were so angry with me already and I knew I couldn't survive being chased again. . .so. . ."

"Its okay, We understand."

Brigid realized that she might not have another opportunity to ask a very important question, "Callisto, I have a question for you, and I think it's probably one that's gonna get me yelled at again, but I just got to ask. . .Okay, maybe not ask. ." Brigid grabbed one of Callisto's hands. The demigoddess pressed the palm against her belly. . ."Feel. . .Did I say yes to this?"

Callisto felt the happy sentience blithely experiencing womblife "OH MY GODS!" Callisto looked at Brigid in disbelief and sudden remembrance, "BRIGID!!"

"Damn. I knew you'd yell . . ."

Needless to say, Xena was stunned, just stunned.

Chapter 36
Convince Me

Ares was talking to Gabrielle about something relating to the map of the Amazon Nation, which was dangling in midair in that disconcerting god fashion. So far, with the exception of the events in the Valley and with that oh so annoying Brigid person, everything was going as planned. Gabrielle was an effective strategist, not to mention, sneaky and devious. Plus, she was all business when it came to strategy. She allowed no distractions. These were qualities he had grown to admire.

Gabrielle pointed to the next area they would be focusing on. If they won, (and they would) they would have an almost direct path to the North (now a burgeoning city/fortification) and this would give them a powerful access point to the heart of the Nation. Ares grinned in happy anticipation. Now Gabrielle was saying something pertinent about the numbers they would need to overcome the Amazons that were patrolling the territory, when she stopped in midsentence with a gasp.

Ares turned to look at the short goddess. Her mouth hung open in surprise and her face looked like she'd heard the most shocking news. He was about to ask what was going on, when she turned to speak. "I'm sorry Ares, but we are going to have to continue this at another time. They found the arrow." She gave Ares an absent minded peck on the cheek, which distracted him, pleasantly enough, from asking what the heck she was talking about. Then she disappeared in a flash of light.

Ares touched the place where her lips had contacted his skin. It still felt warm and a little moist to his fingers, but what was remarkable, was how cozy it made him feel. This was more than she'd ever given him (since she barely deigned to touch him at all). It felt good. Very good. His smile bemusedly. . .

***

This was the scene that Gabrielle appeared to:

Callisto was in the midst of one of most colorful, pointed, lyrical tirades anyone had ever heard before. Her whole body was saying, *What the Hell were you thinking?* and *Oh my God I almost lost you* and *This is the point I am trying to make* at the same time as her mouth was moving in a kind of high speed shouting pitch. Brigid's main consolation during the whole thing, was that in the bad old days, Callisto wouldn't have bothered with the vocabulary and would have gone straight to the murder. Things could have been worse.

Meanwhile, Brigid wasn't even trying to defend herself, but was paying attention to every single word that Callisto was saying, as well as having this new environment seared into her brain in one of those *unforgettable moments* snapshots. In the part of her mind that wasn't busy, she took note that she seemed to be in a room of large proportions, with a marbleized floor and decor, colorful accents (such as really big flowers in really big vases), and (aside from Callisto's yelling) a vast sense of comfort.

When Gabrielle arrived, prepared to add her own statements of incredulity to Callisto's, the dark warrior placed a damper. Xena watched the whole thing with bemusement, not quite sure whether to share in Callisto's anger, which the newest goddess could feel vibrating through her own scull, or whether to laugh outright at Brigid's incredible cleverness. A hart equals a heart. . . Brigid had known what she was doing. Still, maybe Brigid needed to be convinced that she didn't need to be taking those kinds of risks. . .But Xena wasn't one to talk, she remembered her own choices when she was pregnant with Solon.

Brigid waited for Callisto to wind down and for the color in the goddess' cheeks to recede a little, before responding. She was very careful with her choice of words and knew she was being deliberately incendiary. Brigid adopted a casual pose, crossing her arms and spreading her legs to imply a kind of openness and support. "That's all well and good, but I think you should trust me. I won't even argue the point right now, though I disagree with your notion that I behaved in an inappropriate way. What I want to know, is why are you avoiding the question?"

It took a moment for Callisto to register Brigid's words. Actually it took them all a moment. But when Callisto did catch the meaning she scanned the demigoddess with a look so dangerous, that the golden eyed woman thought she might puddle into the floor. But Brigid held her ground. "In case you've forgotten, in your effort to chastise me about things I had almost no control over, the question was: Did I agree to this? Or more importantly, When."

Callisto looked like she was about to answer with another volley of strong words, but Brigid raised her hand. "Wait a minute, before you leap into another tangent about your assumptions about my assumptions. . .I literally mean what I'm asking. I can tell you that I believe I agreed to it. . .I just don't remember doing so and I can't place the timing of it at all. . and this is your fault." Brigid pointed at all of them. "You keep playing with my mind and then you wonder why I get kind of out of it."

Callisto bit back on the words she was about to say. Her look changed, but it was still dangerous, just sensuously so. . .Her voice smoothed into a low purr, "So, you want to know when." The blonde goddess chuckled. "All right, I think we can manage that." She moved towards the demigoddess with a fluid grace and spoke in a kind of throaty command, "Brigid. . .come."

Brigid blinked helplessly as her whole body convulsed in a delicious shudder which made her instantly wet and regretful of the particular posture she currently held, especially since it caused her arms to unfold and angle loosely at her sides, and gave Callisto instant access to one of life's most wonderful places. Brigid gasped when she felt the blonde goddess' hand place itself over her warm and now wet vulva. She didn't even get a chance to shoot Xena a glaring look, but she did have a moment of intuitive prophesy; a vision of herself standing in a grocery store line, with Callisto behind her, whispering the demigoddess into an aroused state in that most public place.

Callisto's moist lips captured Brigid's in one simple motion as the the goddess disappeared the white leather from her own body. The pressure of Callisto's skin on Brigid's caused a wet kind of fire to spread through the demigoddess' body, tingling down and through the web-worked markings like a streak of liquid lightning.

Suddenly, Brigid's calves connected with the surface of the bed. Brigid found herself tumbling back and reaching, but Callisto stepped away from her grasp and stood, not quite glaring down at this woman who had captured her heart so long ago. Brigid's own eyes were hungry and she absorbed the sight of her lover's body, noting the color of the blonde's lips matched the color of her nipples and she had a sudden flash of deja vu, as if she'd noticed that before and had found it equally pleasing.

Brigid wasn't the only one gazing at her lover. Xena and Gabrielle found themselves watching, a bit voyeuristically (Not that they could have avoided knowing what was going on anyway, considering how inside each other's minds they were. . .) Gabrielle made a comical mental comment about needing popcorn and finding a good seat, which caused Callisto to send her a sharp, but good humored look. She then then *told* them, that if they were gonna watch they should at least find a place to be, other than standing around. How was she supposed to seduce anyone with someone standing over her. At which point Xena grinned, stripped, and hopped onto the large bed, causing it to bounce a bit. Xena then extended her arms invitingly to Gabrielle, who did something similar, except without the hopping and the bouncing.

Not that Brigid noticed. By the time of all the hopping and bouncing, Callisto had bent into the demigoddess, spreading Brigid's legs with one knee and leaning forward to kiss Brigid so thoroughly that there was no way the demigoddess would have noticed an earthquake let alone a little bouncing of the bed. By now Brigid was whimpering with desire.

Callisto began moving her lips over Brigid¼s face, and her body settled comfortably onto the demigoddess'. The blonde began to speak in a throaty whisper, as she kissed her way from chin to cheek to ear and then back around again. "Be prepared little lover, I'm going to have you for lunch and remind you, then I'm going to remind you again, and then one more time. . ." and by this Brigid was moaning with need, "Until the only thing I ever have to remind you of, is how much I," and Callisto growled the word into the curve of Brigid's ear, "love you. . ."

Brigid's body arced in orgasm again.

 Chapter 37: One Mind

Brigid wasn't quite sure when she started to feel the echo of their minds in hers. She was positive however, that it wasn't intentional. She got the feeling that they didn't really mean for her to know the effects of her attack. But being rock and tree and all the other for awhile made her mind flexible and so she was less subject to the inhibitions that the gods might place on her, that is if they thought of it. As it was, there was a moment, in yet another state of total orgasm, that she was as aware of them as if they were part of herself. This is when rock's gift came into play, for she didn't lose her sense of self at all, but was able to integrate and then let go of the who that they were as if drawing a curtain across her soul. This she did so subtly that they never knew (except maybe subconsciously and briefly) that they had been to visit her mind. But she knew all. And it broke her heart.

***

They, that is the goddesses were a bundled mess of personality that was still in the process of working itself slowly slowly out, as if untangling a knotted ball of yarn. The goddesses at first relied on known distinguishing features, Gabrielle was born in Potedia and had no plans to sleep with Ares ever (though the group mind had sort of punched a hole in that idea because if one person slept with Ares, all of them did sort of, kind of). Xena was the dark warrior with dark past and whose libido, which had previously been set on stun, was now on kill (or the equivalent), And Callisto was the one, who went mad because her house kept getting burned down.

The saving feature of the combined personality was that they all seemed to have combined the best of their quirky sense of humor and they all had an incredible amount of tenaciousness. As time passed (and there hadn't been a whole lot of it) they began sifting through the memories and thoughts and deliberately healing whatever trauma they could for each other. What hurt one, hurt them all. . .even if they didn't show it. Perhaps the reason none of them went mad, was that there was one who so thoroughly knew what it meant to *be* mad, that when given the opportunity (and this was as good an opportunity as any) she chose differently and Xena and Gabrielle operated within that choice. It was easy, now that they understood the whole of it. There were some parts of the self that did not get shared between them, but only accidentally. If someone thought it, they knew it. If someone didn't think it, no one thought it. They were operating as a functioning multiple mind though they were finally, carefully individualizing again.

They had tried to split apart the hard way, deliberately wrenching what they thought of as themselves away from the whole, but all that had done was send piercing agony through themselves. There was the real threat of death. And by that time they were so bound to each other, that the emotions of love (and hate) had blended and surged, with love being the predominant factor in their relationship (You can't say that ten thousand years of mutual love won't beat a couple of thousand years of hate. . .)

And if love bound them, so did blood. There was no one, save maybe Gabrielle, in this particular configuration who hadn't shed blood for the worst reasons and Gabrielle simply would not allow the burden to fall without taking some of it herself. So she chose and so it was. If Xena had killed with the sword, then it was Gabrielle who had done so (never mind the illogic. What affected one, affected all) If Callisto gathered the Horde to take down the Amazon Nation, then it was Xena who had done so (never mind that Xena had been trying to save the Nation, for if Xena had tried to save the Nation, then it was Callisto who had done so. What one did, they all did) The effect was tripled if one or two of them set out together to do something. For instance, if all of them made love to each other, well the results were indescribably joyful, but at the same time alarming . . because they would sometimes forget, very briefly, who was who. That was why, in this case, it was only Callisto touching Brigid, as Xena and Gabrielle looked on (though Callisto was very aware of watching herself make love.)

***

Brigid's mind, which they could not yet feel, was working at an incredible speed. She did several tasks at once, made sure that Little one was shielded (though Little one was being most pleasantly affected by the endorphins rushing through Brigid's body, so Little one was in as great a state of Bliss as one can be, just about), made sure that she was shielded and then set her body on automatic response (easy enough to do, since body was thoroughly enjoying itself) while she thought and thought and thought. Soon she had a glimmer of a working plan, then she had the complete idea. Her first intention, was to simply do it. But then she flashed that to do so would simply continue the pattern. She knew she had to ask. But the question was how to do so, without revealing that she knew the extent of the damage (and the courage. . .she was truly in awe of the women who were loving her right now). She began to think, again.

***

At some point Brigid's body said, *enough already.* She fell into what appeared to be a deep sleep; at least her body did. Her mind on the other hand was listening on what could only be called a broad band. This was how she heard her true loves discussing what to do next. None of the options seemed to include her. . .except in the sense that they intended to keep her busy. Very busy. And while under different circumstances she would have loved to be kept as busy as they were proposing, she knew that to do so would endanger them as well as herself and place them at the mercy of a certain god of war. Everlasting seduction was not an option.

She forced herself awake. But only to say, "Two more days. I've got two more days. You owe . . ." Then she really did fall into a weary sleep.

It was a life saving statement, actually. Oh, Brigid would have been fine, because they really did love her too much to wear her out, but it was the Amazons who would have suffered and it reminded the goddesses that they were in the midst of playing a very dangerous hand (if you want to compare what they were doing to a card game. . .though I suppose it could also be said that this was no game at all, but deadly serious) and things had to be as close to what was "expected" by Ares, as possible.

But they were goddesses, and there was no rush. Brigid would have her two days (since she insisted) and they would proceed, with a few mental adjustments, with their plans. They were all in agreement about one specific thing, this time no one was going to play with Brigid's head. They had their own to worry about.

Chapter 38
This is a Battle?

Brigid arrived on Amazon hill sans Goddesses, but with some clothes on, in that moment of twilight just before the sun rises. The goddesses had no idea what she was going to do, but she kept emphasizing that they needed to trust her, and wasn't she still alive and hadn't it all worked out and if they weren't going to trust her, then they might as well just start over with someone else and give her back her life (even if it meant that she become some pregnant amnesiac; at least she would be able to graduate). It was a purposefully obfuscated piece of logic, deliberately designed to be confusing and manipulative. They gave in, but they weren't quite sure why. So they sent her ahead, with the promise that she would be careful (and she made darn sure that something on her body was crossed at that moment, because careful would not win the war, as it were.)

She needed the occasion of privacy in order to make a few important decisions, as well as drink in the sight of total havoc. She could only hope that Mel and Jan hadn't come back in the middle of the night and thought the worst. She found a blanket, well. . . a part of a blanket, picked it up and strode to the edge of the slope of the hill. Then she placed the gray cover on the ground and sat upon it, crossing her legs, palms up on her thighs, back straight. She drew a new breath.

***

The gods showed up with as soon as the sun began to peek over Brigid's shoulder. They looked lovely in the early morning light in a field of flowers. Okay, the goddesses looked lovely. Ares looked like. . .Ares, and Brigid spent a moment ignoring him to drink in the sight of her loves. Then took the time to really observe the god. She forced down a deep grin. This might go better than anyone had thought. Then again, it could go worse. Brigid stood up in one simple movement and headed down the hill. She was ready.

The goddesses formed what looked to be a protective semicircle around Ares. Their faces were stern, their manner hostile. Brigid's body on the other hand indicated a kind of amiable comfort. She nodded greetings. "Hello all." She turned her face to the sky and smiled, then she looked back at the group. "Beautiful day, isn't it."

Ares drew his sword and crouched, "Cut the small talk, let's get on with it."

The demigoddess' eyebrows went up a notch. Her face turned serious. "Okay. Let's do get on with it." The goddesses pulled back as one. The god of war began to circle. Brigid folded her arms over her chest and scuffed the ground with the toe of her boot. "You won't need the sword Ares." The god stopped circling and gave Brigid a questioning look. Brigid waved at the blade, "You might as well put it away and I won't start until you do."

"Excuse me?"

"No sword."

"You expect me not to defend myself?"

"Oh no, I expect you to go kicking and screaming. Its just that you won't need your sword and I refuse to start until you put it away." Ares looked cautiously at the goddesses, who were now facing him. Gabrielle stared intensely at Brigid and the demigoddess felt a small visitation occur. Brigid kept her mind centered and let nothing drift that might give a clue. *TRUST me.*

Gabrielle/the goddesses were a little startled, but they all nodded to Ares that it was safe. Ares, methodically sheathed his blade. Then held his arms out to demonstrate that he was unarmed. He was a God for Zeus' sake. What was he so worried about? But this slip of a woman scared him as no other.

Brigid smiled, then stepped forward. Ares stepped back. Brigid let her face go slack and quieted her mind even more. The she held out both her hands and waited.

Ares wasn't sure what the demigoddess was playing. He couldn't get a sense of any purpose of harm in her, yet this was the one who had threatened his very life. She knew she looked prepared to stand forever and she thought, very briefly, that it might be the case at this rate, so she started to speak, gently, soothingly. She put everything she knew about handling prickly personalities into her voice and words, which she kept simple , placating and unoffensive. "I won't harm you. Take my hands. We have things to talk about. My intentions are simple. We need to talk. If we must fight, we will do it later. Now, let's talk. Please. Take my hands. We'll take a little walk, get to know each other." Brigid took another step forward, keeping her voice low and hypnotic. Ares watched her, not quite understanding his reaction, but his defenses were starting to crumble. Patiently she moved forward, staying in the now, letting the minutes float away, until finally she held the god of war's hands in her own.

Ares noted absentmindedly that his hands looked dark against the pale pink of her own. Her voice had ceased to weave its simple spell, but now he found that he was captured in her presence and that he wasn't willing to leave. She didn't smile, but she didn't frown. Her hands were warm and dry against his own. She squeezed for just a second, then let go of one of his hands. He had a disoriented feeling of loss. She placed herself at his side, wrapped her fingers through his, then faced the goddesses. "You should find something else to do for awhile." They looked to give her guff. "I won't kill him. Go somewhere else. We need some privacy."

It was fascinating to watch the group mind think, for a variety of reactions crossed their faces in a disconcerting manner. They eventually assented and faded away and somewhere else.

Brigid started walking through the flowers pulling gently against Ares hand, which caused him to follow. She altered her pace and let him catch up. It took him a bit to catch the rhythm of her step, because it was unhurried and her stride was a little shorter than his. He found that every time he tried to lead Brigid would stop and let her arm extend, but not let go of his hand. And if he fell behind she would stop again, and let him catch up. The only time they would consistently walk was if they were walking together.

Occasionally she would indicate a direction, using her free hand to point the way. He wondered briefly what she would do if he pointed differently and then tried it. She stopped for a moment, looked in the direction that he pointed, as if she were reading a map in her mind or simply breathing the air (he couldn't tell). Then her lips came together in a small pursing movement and she nodded her head. Soon they were walking the way he'd indicated. Then, she indicated another path that also lay in the general direction they were headed, just a little to the north. Soon they were well away from the Valley and in a dense wood.

She didn't really have a planned destination in mind. She was buying time. She could feel the presence of the goddesses following (which caused her to grin a bit) but she determined to out wait them. She had all day and she intended to use it, for once. At some point they came to a very small bluff by a sizable creek. She looked around. This looked as good a place as any. There seemed to be a way down and she indicated that they should go that way. Again, when Ares tried to lead, she held back (though she contemplated letting him go first, then she changed her mind.) The path was a little rocky, but she maneuvered her way carefully, never letting go of the god, but not forcing him anywhere either.

There was a large rock overhanging (with what seemed like room enough for two) the creek. Brigid made her way there and sat down. She began unlacing her boots, one handed. She looked to the side at Ares, who didn't seem quite sure what to do. She pulled the shoe off and set it to the side, then started on the other. She tugged on Ares' hand. "You might as well get comfortable," she said, "I intend to let my feet dangle." There was a bit of awkwardness as he stood up on the rock himself, but she scooted over and let him walk around her, never quite letting go of him. She patted the place where he was to settle. He let his legs fold under him. She took off her other shoe and let her feet plop into the cool sweet water. She leaned against his shoulder.

"Are they still following us?"

Ares looked startled, then nodded his head.

"Tell them I'll keep dragging you around the woods if they keep following. You can call them later if you need them." Ares grimaced and sent the message. She smiled when she felt the other goddesses remove themselves.

Chapter 39
Confessions

Brigid and the god sat in silence, listening to the burbling of the creek and the splashes that the demigoddess made every now and again with her feet. Brigid listened to Ares' breathing, waiting for the right moment to speak. She watched how the water moved around her legs and how her feet changed size every time she lifted them out of the water. Currently it was both warm enough for the water to feel good and cool enough that she didn't fear getting toasted on the rock.

At some point, Ares took off his boots in a similar one handed motion to Brigid's earlier attempts. The demigoddess hid her smile when his feet slipped into the water besides hers. She noticed that the hair on his legs drifted with the water and suppressed a giggle. Soon his breathing deepened and slowed.

She spoke so as to avoid startling him. "Ares?"

"Mmmh." She gave him a sidelong glance and noticed that he was leaning back on his free hand and looking across the creek at the green grass. His eyes were half closed, his face relaxed and she wondered if he liked what he was looking at.

She looked across the creek too. "I wanted to apologize."

He sat up quickly. His expression shocked. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. "What?"

So much for that, she thought. Brigid cleared her throat. "I, uhm, wanted to apologize." Ares blinked. "Uhm, you see. I acted badly towards you. I, uh, was still kind of high from the, uh, blood lust and I was feeling. . .extremely, guilty, and I was feeling terrible about what I did to my. . .our. . .loves. And you were there. And it was safe to blame you because, it's always your fault, at least that is the way it always plays out, though now I wonder how much of it ever really is _Your_ fault. But it wasn't your fault this time, though I did blame you and though you did have a part in it and I was wrong to . . .to. . . threaten you like I did. And I am sorry."

Brigid chanced a look at the god. He looked astonished. There was good reason for it. It was the first ever freely offered apology he'd ever received and it thoroughly undid whatever smarmy remark he would have made under different circumstances. Brigid pulled one of her legs out of the water and turned to face him more fully.

The golden eyed demigoddess gave a sigh, "You probably weren't expecting that were you." Ares gave a funny looking nod slash head shaking thing. "I wouldn't have been either, if I'd have been in your circumstances. It's hard to be the scapegoat." There was real compassion in her eyes. "Especially when it's always you all the time."

She looked a little past him. "I've been doing a lot of thinking," she gave a little laugh, "and if you knew me, you would know that means that I mean a lot of thinking. About you. And about your role in this situation. And Me. And Xena, Callisto and Gabrielle and of Course the Whole Amazon Nation/Horde thing that we've got going. Plus a bunch of other things." She felt a little teary.

"I really hurt them, Ares. More than I knew." There was a slight trickle of salt water down her cheek. She realized suddenly that she was meaning every word she was saying. It scared her, because now she didn't know where she was going with all of this. "I didn't realize How badly. . .," she caught the sob before it escaped totally, ". . badly." She clenched her lips and drew a couple of breaths through her nose. "You were right to be mad. I would have been hysterical. I would have been. . .murderous. If it had been you I . .I. ." Her nostrils flared. "Anyway, I understand what you were doing and why. . .You want to know the sad thing?"

He couldn't quite find his voice and could only look at her. She took that as a yes, though it could have meant anything, "I was only bluffing. But you knew that. You want to know the other sad thing?" More silence. "It was no bluff." This time she really sobbed. "I really can, could. .I really. . .Oh my god." She looked down and blinked the tears back, but there was no holding back. "I could have killed them. . .I could have . . Even though I was trying not to. . .It could have. . ." She made an abrupt jerky sobbing sound and was suddenly weeping. She let go of his hand and brought both of her own to her face. Her other leg pulled of the water and she buried her face in her arms.

Ares didn't know what to do. Any intent to punish seemed to vanish with each sound of sorrow that she made. And his usual arrogant manner had no place to go right now. He touched her shoulder, but that only seemed to make her cry more. But now there seemed to be words coming from her mouth. He couldn't quite make them out. He found his voice, "I can't understand what you are saying, damn it."

There was a small hiccup in response. And then another and another, until she lifted her head and he realized that she was laughing (a little hysterically). And then she cut off the noise. Just like that. Her expression was suddenly serious.

Chapter 40
Tangent

"I know how to help them. I can't undo it, but I can fix it. There's a hitch though. A big hitch. It requires you, and you won't be the same afterwards. You may not even be god of war, but you'll be more." She looked at him seriously.

"But then, despite the propaganda you were fed and we were given, you were always more than that weren't you." He couldn't believe what he was hearing, "Oh yes, I know. I know who let you out. I know why. And I know I can't say the name or I'll draw unwanted attention, so you can just rest your mind." She looked past his shoulder, her eyes seeming to turn inward. "Always you wanted to be the good guy, despite everything bad you did. . . Because there was a reason for it." She spoke passionately, her hands moving expressively.

"Gods, how they manipulated you. And I know who they were too. . .(When they were working together back then. . .but things are different now, aren't they. Not everyone is the same after several thousand years.) Still, they addicted you. Addicted you to the blood lust. Made it a substitute for honest worship, which would have made you powerful, maybe even kind, because you would have been doing what you should have been doing; the other side of the sword." She nodded, "Yes, I know about that too. . .the job that No one thinks to ask you to do. . . But blood lust made you easier to control and it kept up appearances, the kind they wanted. No one, not the mortals, really worshiped you. Oh you were called on when there was a war and someone wanted to win. But there was no Worship. No Appreciation. And the mortals didn't respect your calling, because they didn't really understand it or know it. Nor for that matter did anyone understand or know you.

"And they didn't have to. Why? Because you were satisfied with blood energy and the blood sacrifices. You knew what they were and how it made you feel and it feels wonderful. I should know. I felt it in the field. It's a real kick in the head. No wonder you were never consistent and you were always so arbitrary. No wonder you kept starting up skirmishes and wars for no reason. No wonder you could never really do your job. But those gods who shall remain nameless, they didn't want you to really do your job, did they. They didn't want a God of War or even a God of Warriors. They wanted a Bully.

"And then they convinced you that everything you were was in that sword and by that sword, when it should have been here." She tapped his chest with her hand. "Here. But, it's always easier to control someone, if one convinces them that they are in little pieces and that they could lose it all." She drew a breath, and leaned towards Ares. Her eyes were bright, "Did he threaten you with loss? Tell you that if you quit or with out your sword you would die. . .or the equivalent I guess. . .lose your birthright, your godhood?" Her gaze was speculative. "I bet he did. Much safer. And there must have been that illusion. A way of making it seem real to you. I'll bet you've lost your sword before. I wonder how that made you feel. It must have been a perfect way to convince you. Mmhmm." Her expression was grim.

"What did he offer you, when he freed you? It couldn't be love. He doesn't have much to give, never did, did he. A new place in the order, but you know he'll renege" Ares face flashed recognition and Brigid nodded, "It's too convenient to have you be the bad guy, stirring up trouble. Keeping the attention off the real cause of the problems and giving him the glory of solving it. . and he got to you, because all the other gods were satisfied with their lives. Happy. And there was no way for you to know how things were because you were locked away, or so Janice told me. And he, that Rat Bastard," Her voice was full of venom. Ares drew in a breath and looked quickly around, but there was no evidence of trouble. He wanted to shush her, but he wanted to hear her more. It was the first time someone understood, really understood. He needed to hear it.

". . .wanted it all back. All of it. Yes. . .And you took that duty because You really are old school. Can't let out the family secret. No. But then, his father was an asshole too. . .Oh I know who did this to you. Him and his family patterns. Too afraid to let you choose your own way because you might do to him what he did to his old man, hmm. . ." Again her eyes were filled with compassion when she looked at him. It gave him an odd, but not bad, sensation in his chest. She waggled a finger at the god. "Moreover, I know you are more than your sword, or else they," and he knew she meant the three goddesses, "wouldn't love you. And they do. Which is so funny because they never meant to. But see they never expected that maybe you might not be such a bad person. . . Just someone with a bad reputation and an obligation to keep it, not to mention an insatiable drive for power. What were you going to do when you got everything conquered?" His face went blank.

Her expression changed and she smacked her forehead. "Oh, it's not what you were going to do, is it?" She laughed. "No, once won, it would have been taken away from you. Or actually, you would have given the whole world away." She stood up, her bare feet rounding over the warming rock.

"See What I've done for you?" She spoke in a mock quote, holding her arms out, "I've taken all of this and I give it to you. I prove my loyalty. See, I am NOT YOU or Your father. . .I'm different than you think. I am worthy of your love. I'm worthy of respect." She went back to her normal voice. "Yes. . Yes. You would have been happy with a few skirmishes here and there. Just enough to feed the addict. Probably a gang war or two would have been sufficient to keep your interests. But this isn't about you." She shook her head in sudden awareness, "Geez."

She growled angrily and then turned and jumped off the rock onto the sandy blink. Then she turned to face him. Her jaw clenched and unclenched. His face was a mask. She had no idea what he was thinking. She only knew she had to convince him to help.

"Sorry, I drifted there. I guess I just wanted you to know that someone understood. Someone knew. So, you wouldn't be afraid to. . .help me. . .to help the ones we love. Because if you choose to help, they'll know everything about you and you'll know everything about them. Everything. But. . .and this is the truth. . .It will be okay. They will also have themselves and you will still be you. Whoever that is. And then maybe Xena, Callisto and Gabrielle could help you. Really help you. In the way you need it. As opposed to dealing with. . ." She snarled, "Him."

She shook her head to clear out the anger, which threatened to overtake her. She needed to finish what she was going to say. "It's an easy enough process. All you have to do is let me kiss you. Then you kiss them. Though you may want to tell them what you are about to do. You maybe ought to ask if this is what they want, because they might be used to being the way they are now. . .They might like it. But this would give them and you a little privacy, if they choose to let you help them. . . A little room to work with." She wrung her hands and then let them go.

She licked her lips, "You should know, before you accept or reject, there is a chance of failure. There always is, in something like this." Her eyes seemed to glaze over and then snapped to brightness. "The good news is, that if it succeeds, one of us, that is you, gets lucky forever. If it doesn't, well. . .madness isn't such a bad state once you get used to it. . ." She looked at him carefully. "How 'bout it Ares? Want to be the good guy for once?"

She looked at her palms, the markings were still there, but if Ares took her up on the offer, they wouldn't be. If he took the offer, they probably wouldn't remember her. She would just be another captain in the Amazon army. She wrapped her arms around herself and watched him think.

Chapter 41
Gift Giving

The dark muscular god stared at Brigid for a good five minutes. Or at least it felt like five minutes (Brigid didn't have a watch on and wouldn't have looked if she did). Brigid tried not to fidget, but to wait patiently. His expression kept changing, like he was having an inner dialog (some of which went her way, some of which she knew was saying, *kill the girl and take the treasure*). It was an awkward set of moments.

When he turned away from her, Brigid's face fell. She'd banked everything on honesty. She began visioning and sent a protection around Little one. She pulled her palms out, preparing to call her sword.

Ares turned back abruptly, his voice deep, "Why me?" He jumped off the rock and onto the sandy beach, so that he was only a few short feet away from the demigoddess. "Why not you?"

Brigid's hands went limp to her sides, "Because they love you and you love them. Because I am not a god. I only have the answer and the key. The plan requires a Godtype and," she pointed at his chest, "You are it."

"You would do anything for them, wouldn't you."

She gave him a lopsided grin, "So would you." She tapped her temple, "It comes from knowing one particular thing. A perspective, if you will. There is no owning them. I tried. It nearly killed them. They aren't . . .mine. And they aren't . . yours. But we are most definitely theirs," She chuckled and he nodded. "Though I suspect, we can't truly be owned either. hmm." Her grin turned full bodied.

"I'll do it."

Her expression was one of total relief, but she asked, "Are you sure?"

"I'm sure."

"The cost is high, either way. Win or Lose. Very high."

"I'll do it."

She felt fear in her belly. "You are braver than people know Ares."

"You are," his head did a funny little shake thing, "more persuasive than you know."

"Persuasive? Hell, I'm just truthful. There's no persuading in that. Just the knowing."

The stood still for a few seconds. Their gazes connnected. Brigid finally spoke, "You ready?"

"Yes."

"Good."

Her feet sifted the sand as she moved forward. She rested her hands on the collar of his shirt and pulled his head down for the kiss. She put everything into it; her love for Xena, her love for Gabrielle, her love for Callisto, her gift to them and to Ares, and a little extra something, to guarantee that this worked, that it would have a chance of working. Just a small little nothing, they would hardly notice it. But it was as necessary for them as breathing would be (at least for a little while). They needed the space, one less thing to worry about in the transition. Yes, she put it all in that kiss and the effect on Ares was almost instantaneous. She could tell, because his knees gave out and now she was supporting him with that same collar hold she'd used to bring him in.

She pulled back from the kiss reluctantly, severing her ties. Ares face was slack and he tried to catch his breath and talk at the same time. She helped him stand back up. He began to shake his head again, his hair moving as if he were a lion shaking its mane. He turned to look at her, with a question in his eyes. She smiled gently.

"Who. . .who are you?"

"I'm nothing you have to worry about, sir. I'm just a captain in an army." She spoke kindly, her gaze even, "Do you remember what you have to do?"

It took him awhile to tag the response, but he nodded his head, "I need to help my consorts. I'll ask them, and then," He grinned, "kiss them."

"Something one should do anyhow, I guess." More smiling, a bit of distance.

He looked at her with a little confusion, "Are you sure, I don't know you?"

"I just found you here, sir. We dangled our feet in the water for a bit."

She pointed at her toes. The god of war snorted, "Hmmph. I can't recall ever doing that before."

"Love becomes you sir."

He grinned, "Ah, yes. Love. It does do strange things for one, doesn't it." He tapped his chest with the palm of his hands. Then bowed to the demigoddess. "Well, I'm off. I have some rescuing to do."

"Good luck sir."

"Call me Ares."

"Yes, si. . .Ares."

The god of war smiled, then vanished and then his boots vanished.

Brigid wavered then slumped to the ground, exhausted beyond words. She felt numb all over. She pulled her hands into her lap and stared at her palms. Soon, soon, it would be over. She bit her lower lip and then let it go. "That was a hard thing to watch."

Brigid turned and stood abruptly causing the sand to whip off of her body. Nemesis stood before her. Brigid smiled limply. "It was a hard thing to do."

"Your judgement was very clear. It was not something. . .any of us. .realized before. WE should have realized." Nemesis shook her head ruefully.

"Mel called you?"

"As she should. Yes."

"You helped then."

Nemesis shook her head, "No, it was your call. You did it." She tilted Brigid's head up, for a good look. "It was very brave. No one else would have thought to talk to him about it. They would have fought. . . and died. But you. . .you may just wish you had died. Hmm."

Brigid blinked back the tears. "Well, it had to be done, you know." Nemesis slicked Brigid's unruly hair back. "I needed to make up for what I'd done and there was no other way, or I would have. . .thought of it."

"Too smart for your own good."

"Unfortunately."

"Do you know the consequences?"

"Some, not all. It's probably too high a price, but it has to be paid." Brigid snorted, "That is if. . if the war is to be stopped. .if the Nation is to be spared. . if the gods are to be gods. . .Many ifs. Many reasons. Not one will be good enough I fear. But, I'll carry on." She sighed. "Now it's just the waiting."

"I will help."

"Will you?"

"It is my duty."

Brigid smiled. "I better get my shoes, hmm."

Chapter 42
Calling All Gods

Nemesis and Brigid walked back in the direction of the the shattered Amazon camp, taking a shorter path in return. Brigid kept her breathing even and walked as one with the woods, gliding silently (even more silently than the goddess), as if her boots were simply another part of the earth. The sun was beginning its setting. Though none of her movements were sudden, every now and again the demigoddess would come to a halt and gaze around herself, as if knowing this might be her last moment.

At one of these stops Brigid actually spoke, "You'll have to tell them, I mean Xena and the others, that there won't be another battle at the valley. They should spend their time at the borders. Of course, they may figure it out, but . . "

"They will be disoriented. Feeling a loss they don't understand."

Brigid's lower lip quivered, but she pulled it in. "Yeah."

"They'll remember someday."

"Maybe."

Brigid felt a strong hand grip her shoulder. "You should have more faith." The demigoddess nodded and licked her teeth, then she started walking again.

***

They weren't even halfway to the camp when the change happened. It was sudden, bitter, intense. Brigid's body vibrated off of the ground and she screamed with no voice until she couldn't scream anymore. It was mercifully short. Nemesis caught the woman in her arms and cradled her against the setting of the sun.

***

Brigid woke up, her eyes as golden as the sun. She unwrapped herself from the covers and stood naked, her body tan and strong, marked with the sign of Hecate and the other goddesses. She climbed into her Amazon captain's outfit and strapped on her sword. She ignored the terrible dark emptiness that gnawed at her. She was at purpose with what had to be accomplished for the day.

She joined the others, Janice, Mel, Noora and Phaedra, and gave a small greeting. Mel shivered when she looked into Brigid's eyes, which, while not cold, were simply void of any telling emotion. Brigid discussed the choices of the day, which they already knew and asked if there were any changes that needed to be made. There were no indications. She smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes, "Then my friends, let us do what we must."

***

They were approximately at the center of the Amazon Nation, standing on a quiet hill, in the center of an engraved circle. Mel spoke in her southern gentlewoman's voice, "Take your places everyone." Then she began her chant, which at first was a summoning of those goddesses, whose duties it were to guard hearth and home, and whose claim to fame was wisdom. The call was answered by Athene, who came before them with her spear and owl.

"We are prepared." She spoke, "We are pleased. We will be with you." Then the goddess vanished.

Mel felt the power she was raising increase. Then began the tricky part. She began a different summoning, her voice deepening in the call, which she kept simple, using only the known names.

 

"Xena, Callisto, Gabrielle, Ares.

Hear us. We call thee."

 

Mel chanted the names over and over and over again, until her eyes closed and her mouth quit moving, but her voice was still carrying.

It seemed to Jan as if a warm wind blew through the circle with each syllable and every sound. It was a good thing she wore her hat. Dirt and twigs kicked around their ankles. Brigid looked composed in her amazon gear and armor. The general queen looked commanding. The social queen looked regal as her long skirts whipped in the wind. Jan sighed and tried to look. . .tough (not a hard thing for her to do, considering. . .)

It seemed like forever.

It was forever.

And then they were there, each at a corner, facing one of the mortals. The gods spoke as one. "WE ARE HERE. WHY HAVE YOU SUMMONED US?" The winds settled upon their entrance.

The military queen spoke first. "Mighty Ares, Peacekeeper. I am Noora Strongberg, Amazon Queen General. We are calling upon you, to ask your aid, if you deem our reasons fit." Then Noora's counterpart spoke. "Powerful Callisto, Merciful. I am Phaedra Billings, Amazon Queen Social. We are calling upon you, to ask your aid, if you deem our reasons fit." Then the adventurer speaking bravely "Gentle Gabrielle, Healer. I am Janice Covington, Priestess' Guard. We are calling upon you, to ask your aid, if you deem our reasons fit Cookie."

The mortals shot Jan a look. She seemed unperturbed. Mel thought she saw a twinkle in Gabrielle's eyes. The southerner was suddenly grateful that she'd convinced Janice Not to bring the cigar, or else she was sure the adventurer would be waving it around now. . .

Finally, the demigoddess in flat, even tones, "Mighty Xena, Warrior. I am Brigid, Captain of the Amazon Elite. We are calling upon you, to ask your aid, if you deem our reasons fit."

The only way to describe what happened next is to say that there was a silent and intense bit of conferring between the four gods. When the discussions were completed (in a reasonably quick time) Gabrielle acted as spokesperson. "We will hear your reasons."

Mel began to talk, in long, boring, escruciating detail about the Amazons, the battles, the wounds, the needs of the people, the history of the war, why the people were fighting (you know, to protect hearth and home and honor and hope) about the Amazons' warrior codes, how the Amazon's had reacted to the Horde threat in providing saftey for the people. And on and on and on. Reason after reason for their need, from suffering to success. She managed in it all, not to lay any blame on the gods themselves, but described instead, again in long, boring escruciating detail the plans that they had to defend the country, to right the wrongs, to preserve the people, to care for the wounded.

Somehow, Mel's voice remained strong throughout. It also remained respectful and worshipful, laden with the promise of if not reward, then deep appreciation; the granting of a place within the people's heart, if the Gods' accepted their plea. Meanwhile, everything was phrased, not as a demand, but as a humble request for aid, if the they were deserving and if not, then a surrender to the gods' will.

Then she wound to a close with the simple offering of a red blood flower, from the Valley.

There was a sense of astonishment, though none of the gods' expression revealed that as the truth. But Janice could see that Gabrielle was impressed, because she recognized the look. The mortals continued to wait, though by now their legs and backs were tired. They had been standing a long time.

The gods conferred again, when they were finished, Gabrielle spoke, "We will think on it." They disappeared from sight, but so did the flower. Jan walked to Melinda and pulled the woman in a tight embrace, kissing her face. The queens conducted a similar action. Brigid stared into space and curled her legs under herself.

***

After a bit, Melinda summoned Pallas Athene and made a request for Brigid and the Queen General. Soon Brigid and Janice were with the Elite at the north border and the Queen General was in a similar space towards the west. Brigid called her troops and began to put a plan into effect.

Chapter 43
Winning the War

The battle was difficult. There was no real way to defend the whole border, since it was wide open and the sheer number of the opposing force should have simply washed over the Amazons. But this was the elite (and their names were remembered in song and story ever after) and they knew how to deal with the impossible (okay, maybe they were just faking it, but you know what I mean. . .They had what it took). They cheated.

Later, when people would laud her for her strategy, Brigid would tell people that she was no strategist, she was desperate. The Amazons didn't wait for the horde to attack. No, in classic trojan method, they snuck in at night, and attacked when most folk would be decently asleep. She counted 4:00 am as dawn.

It was bloody, very bloody and the bear corps lost some members, but the horde lost many many more. Around the middle of the morning, when things were starting to look desperate for the Amazons (they were tiring and some wounds ran very deep), there was a cry from the heavens.

"Yiyiyiyiyiyiyi"

A ravenhaired warrior landed firmly on the ground, her smile wild, her eyes bright. She stood before the demigoddess, who looked at the goddess wearily and prepared to raise her sword in a futile gesture. Xena grinned, "Mind if I join the party?" Brigid bowed and waved the goddess on. Xena turned and shouted, "Come on troops!" The Amazons got their second wind.

***

Meanwhile, throughout the Nation, in various hospitals and first aid zones, another Goddess was said to appear. One who had red highlights in her hair and a gentle smile. Later stories would claim that all she had to do was walk into a building or room and all within were healed. (Though maybe that was a bit of exaggeration, but then again maybe not.)

And there was another, for those who had truly grown weary of the war or who had lost more than could ever be restored, who appeared and consoled. Dunca, Moira's daughter, would later say that it was the first time that she felt that anyone truly understood her sense of loss and need. (Although there were actually many who did understand. . .but that's the way it always is. We feel alone until we find out differently.) There were many words of praise and thankful hearts for the blonde goddess.

In the west, witnesses said that Ares stood in front of the Amazon army and summoned the leaders of the Horde and simply told them to go away or suffer the consequences. Unfortunately most of those leaders, though not all, chose to ignor him. When the Horde tried to charge, Ares personally led the Amazon force. You can guess the consequences from there.

***

After the gods changed sides, the horde simply fell in on itself, as it reverted into the sole care of old gang leaders and other malcontents. This started a bad case of infighting, which led to small war parties. The smaller groupings were easier to fend off than a gigantic army. Plus, there were those who simply chose to fight no longer, and became honorable citizens. . . somewhere.

When the war was over (and yes, it was that quick) there was a huge celebration within the Nation. There were feasts and feats in honor of all of the gods who had aided in the time of need. It lasted about a week and became a yearly celebration in the Nation (and in other places also). It was an exciting time for everyone, because the gods walked peacefully among them (sometimes in ways that no one recognized.) But things wound down, as they always do, and life started getting back to normal. . sort of.

***

It was during the time of celebration, that Brigid handed in her resignation to the Queen General and suggested an alternative captain for the elite. Brigid's face was expressionless, but her eyes (which she'd covered with sunglasses, until the queen made her remove them) were bleak. "I do not want to be captain anymore," was the only reason Brigid would give. The queen chose not to force the matter and accepted both the resignation and the suggestion.

The queen offered, "May the gods be with you."

Brigid laughed bitterly and left the queens hall.

***

Ares basked in the new sensation of being wanted, of being respected. He Liked it. And he liked who he was with. He touched his loves mentally with a most gentle caress and it was returned, from the various places that they were. This was some celebration. He smiled knowingly, when he realized that Xena and Gabrielle were. . . Ah, wait, there was that Brigid woman. The captain.

He appeared before her. "Well met captain."

Brigid looked at him through dark glasses. She let her lips turn up in a friendly gesture. "Well met sir."

"You have much to be proud of."

"Do I?" She kept her voice even.

"Your care and strategy won the war. That is pleasing to me."

"Thank you."

"Are you joining the celebration."

"I thought I might. . ."

He clapped a hand on her back. "Good. You deserve to celebrate."

"Yes."

"May you keep the peace."

"Thank you sir."

The god smiled benignly and disappeared.

***

Brigid left a note with one of Mel's new priestesses. "See that you give it to them."

"Sure. Will do."

The note said, "Watch the treasure. I'll call later."

Then, as was her habit, Brigid disappeared without a trace.

Seasons of the Gods

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