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Love's Test by Wolfsword 

Chapter Sixteen

Kaelin blinked her eyes, as she adjusted to the morning light that shone through into the hut. She wished she could stay where she was, quiet and alone and away from the troubles that awaited her outside. She sighed quietly, knowing she had to face them, one by one. The hut was empty and she looked around the pallet, noticing that Ephiny had risen already. She allowed herself a small smile before her dark thoughts took over again, as she remembered the vision of beauty that she had beheld the previous night. Kaelin kicked the sheets back, careful to minimise the movement of her upper torso as she bent over to retrieve her boots. She swiftly dressed and was about to head out when she spotted her simple wood carved lyre on the table. She spotted a a note underneath it as she absently ran her fingers along the thin strings.

Kaelin, You dropped this at our meeting. outside the Amazon Village. Your music is a flicker of hope where all is dark. I hope to hear the sweet sound again and not remember it only for funerals..
Love, Ephiny.

A wistful look crossed the handsome face as she read the note. She swallowed hard, as she felt her heart ache with longing. Damn it, why did it have to happen? she thought, unable to fight the emotions she knew were true. In her sudden frustration, she screwed the piece of parchment in her hand, gripping it tightly until her knuckles were white, staring at it with fury. After a moment, she released her breath and opened her fist. She smoothed the crumpled paper on the wooden table, sighing as she re-read it again. 

Suddenly, she looked up towards the door, her senses picking up a presence. She saw a dark form silhouetted against the bright light behind and she felt her burden return as she recognised Xena. She stared at the table again as she tapped her fingers gently on the desk, hearing the approaching footfalls of her old friend. Mount Olympus comes to Kaelin, she thought grimly.

"I think Mother would be honoured that you've kept her gift in such good condition these past years," began Xena, softly as she neared the other woman. 

"It's my prized possession. After my blades, of course," replied Kaelin, carrying on with the polite conversation.

"Of course," agreed Xena. There was silence for a few minutes. Eventually, they both turned to speak at the same time.

"I'm sorry," they said together. Each broke into a sad smile, as their eyes met.

"Please, let me..." Xena asked, standing awkwardly. Kaelin rubbed the back of her neck, and then nodded, indicating that they should sit on the pallet. They sat opposite one another, legs crossed. "I'm so sorry, Kaelin. I know that what you.. told me yesterday was difficult for you, and I didn't make it any easier." Kaelin opened her mouth to say something, but Xena quickly held up a hand. "No, let me finish. I... My mind was clouded with the pain, and I just couldn't control myself. I know it's a pathetic excuse for what I did, but I honestly could not prevent my anger sweeping over me. I was... in shock." Xena looked down at her hands. "I never even let you explain and that was very wrong. I know you, and whatever happened ten years ago, I knew in my heart that you would never have let anything harm us intentionally. But my mind wasn't functioning with my body yesterday, and... because of that, I nearly committed an unforgivable sin. I nearly murdered my sister in cold blood." She ran a hand quickly through her hair. "I'm truly sorry, and I'm ready to hear your story."

There was another period of silence as Kaelin collected herself. She couldn't believe that Xena had just apologised to her. After what she had told her yesterday, Xena was now willing to listen and then carry out judgement. Even as a young child, Xena had always been hot-headed and quick to anger. But she had also been very unforgiving towards those that had wronged her. It must be Gabrielle's influence, she decided. She wondered if Xena would have killed her, if it had not been for Gabrielle's intervention. She remembered herself telling Xena to kill her. She had been in shock too, for revealing her heritage to Xena, knowing Xena would probably react violently and resigning herself to her fate. She owed her life to the Amazon Regent and Queen of the Southern Amazons.

"Xena, you must understand that this was not your doing. This whole situation is my fault, and I am prepared to accept whatever retribution you deem necessary."

"No, Kaelin." Xena sighed, looking into the swirling depths of Kaelin's eyes. "You must understand that you are your harshest judge of your actions. Take it from me, I know that. The truth is, I had no right to react as I did. Cortese, what he did to our village, was nothing compared to the scale of some of my violence. I left fathers and mothers holding their dead children in their arms and visa versa. I left thousands dying in my army's wake, and through all of it, I knew what I was doing. No amount of excuses could cover it up. I had become the very essence of which I hated. It was a stark fact and I knew I could never forgive myself. And if I couldn't do that, how could I expect anyone else to? That was how I thought, and as a result, I believed that since there was no hope for me anyway, I may as well carry on down the path that I had chosen. All that changed when I met Hercules and later, Gabrielle taught me how to free myself. Even though she never knew, she had found a way to my soul and slowly, hope rekindled itself. Now, the burden is still there, but I bear it with strength I never had before. I live for my own redemption for my own deeds. So, whatever it is, that you think you have done, tell me now, and you'll see that you don't have to keep hating yourself."

Kaelin swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat and took a steadying breath, looking deep into her friend's eyes. Slowly, she began to explain again, all that she knew about her past. She went further than she had told Ephiny, since it was now the time for the whole truth, as far as she knew it.

"I don't know why he kept me, and just didn't kill me. I was kept apart from the others, in the dungeons. I never knew what became of the Amazons that had been taken with me from the village. I guess.. they never made it back. Once every month or so, I was hauled out and placed in an iron cage. Always, I was bathed in the honey-liquid before, so my tattoo would show. A woman dressed in rags would be let into the room to look at me. The first time, I thought she was going to take me away from the horror, but I knew it wasn't the case. She used to come in, walk around me in a circle, then depart just as briefly. I often wondered why this happened, and I came to the conclusion that someone wanted proof that I was alive for some reason. Sometimes, I was taken out and made to work. They said, that I couldn't die of idleness, so they forced me to do the labour. I learnt of the conditions that the servant children were working in, and they were almost as bad as the cells themselves. I planned an escape, with sixteen others but that's another story. It worked, and we created panic throughout the town, so we could disappear. I didn't realise the fire that we had started would get so out of hand. I remembered thinking, well, maybe some of the fairytale that Temiah had spun me as a child would come true. My father would be killed in a raging inferno and to be honest, I was glad. 

We had no idea where we would go, but started off on a track, which eventually led to you and Amphipolis. We made a pact, never to say anything about where, or why we had left in case we were found out. We made up a believable story, the burning village and the warlord one, which we told you." Kaelin looked back to Xena. "Seven years later, I don't know how, but Cortese must have found out where we had gone. I guess you know the rest," she said, sadly. "So you see, Cortese would never have come to Amphipolis had it not been for me. I took off after the battle, after I was sure that Cortese would not win. I couldn't face you or your mother, knowing what I knew. I was a coward, and I couldn't deal with the guilt of Lyceus' death." The tears were pricking at her eyes, but she held them back. "There's nothing I can do to bring him back," she whispered, forlornly.

"Shh, it's okay." Xena moved to hug the woman. "I understand now, I understand. Lyceus knows the truth, and he will know that you are just as much a victim in this as he was. The dead can hear your thoughts, a wise woman told me that yesterday." She smiled sadly at Kaelin, knowing that they were talking about Gabrielle. "A wise woman that I love with all that I am."

"I know, Xena. You were meant to be together. Anyone could see that from day one."

"Not just anyone, my friend. Gabrielle and I were talking a lot about our feelings for one another. And you know what, one name kept popping up. Yours. It took a Tartarus of encouragement from you to make us see what you had seen when you first met us. I guess love really is blind." Xena smiled genuinely, her love for Gabrielle shining through.

Kaelin couldn't help but return it. "I'm just glad you found each other." They looked at each other for a moment, feeling their bond tightening again.

"That reminds me, you never told me what had ruffled your feathers yesterday morning," commented Xena. Kaelin looked uncomfortable and Xena decided to make it easy on her friend. "Did it have anything to do with a certain Southern Amazon Regent?." Xena raised an eyebrow when Kaelin still didn't answer. "Kae... did something happen with you two?"

Kaelin sighed and thought she might as well kill two hares with one arrow. She needed to tell someone, and the obvious choice was her old friend Xena. She had thought about just avoiding the whole situation and dealing with other matters, but she thought she could use a second opinion.

"I... like her." Xena waited for more, as Kaelin sighed again. "No, I think I lo..." She stopped as she felt another presence in the doorway. They both looked and saw a sheepish Gabrielle standing there. "Come in, Gabrielle." Kaelin motioned for her to enter. The Amazon Queen walked over to them.

"I'm really sorry about this," she began, knowing she had interrupted what looked like an important discussion. "I waited as long as I could, but there's a problem. A group of Northern Amazons have just arrived in our village. Erm.. they had a message. Two actually. The first was from the messenger sent a few days ago. They are having a hard time believing the story and they wanted proof."

"By Artemis, I signed the scroll didn't I?" cried Kaelin, her frustration showing.

"Yes, but after the bit about one of their own faking Melosa's signature, they are very skeptical."

Kaelin blew a sharp breath out, causing Gabrielle to glance at Xena for the okay to proceed. "Erm, that's not all. I was told that Raska's elder sister, Riyola was left behind to control the defence of the village should we attack them." Grey eyes narrowed dangerously. "Well, it seems that she has declared that if you show yourself at Caledon, with proof that what the message says was true, then she will be obliged to challenge your Right to Rule. She will avenge her sister's death, that could have been prevented had you not stopped the army from advancing. She and a number of Amazons are against the suggestion of peace."

"I expected that," replied Kaelin in an even voice. "But the challenge? That's nothing to do with avenging her sister. She always wanted control, and went against the Ruling Family whenever she could. Now she sees this as a chance to win the Queen's Mask. Is there any indication as to how many followers she has?"

"The messenger said that they were in the minority, however, support is growing and it is urgent that a party be sent there to smooth everything out as soon as possible. Most are confused and just need it explained to them carefully. There are some hardcore supporters of Riyola, about fifteen or so."

"Are they out there now? Who are they?"

"Yes, they just arrive half a candlemark ago. There's an Elder, two supporters of Riyola, and the other seems to be representing the uncertain majority who want to know what is happening. Kalla and Milika have been wanting to come in here for some time. They're waiting in the Meeting Hut, next to the Strategy Hut for us with our visitors. Ephiny, Solari and Eponin said they'd join you later because they had another matter to attend to. You'd better get there quick. When I last saw them, your Captains were just about ready to kill Riyola's followers."

Kaelin uncurled her long legs and slipped off the bed, heading quickly towards the door, a stone mask on her face. Gabrielle looked at Xena, who shrugged. Politics were never her strong point and she didn't care to get involved either. Unless it came down to fighting a challenge for Gabrielle's Right to Rule, she was happy to stay out of the business. Gabrielle came over to hug the dark warrior who was now seated on the edge of the bed. 

"How did it go?" breathed Gabrielle into the top of Xena's head.

"Good, I guess. She told me the whole story and despite what she thinks, it wasn't her fault," Xena said, quickly filling in her love on Kaelin's newly revealed background. She sighed as she felt Gabrielle's fingers running through her hair. "You know, I think there may be more to Kaelin and Ephiny's relationship than we first thought." She felt Gabrielle step away slightly to look in her eyes. The question was plain on her face. Xena jerked her head towards the table, where she had seen the note that Ephiny had left for her friend. The blonde Amazon Queen went over to the table to read it for herself.

"I see what you mean," said Gabrielle, carefully.

"What's wrong? You don't agree?" asked Xena, noting the hesitation in her love's voice. Gabrielle picked up the lyre, still with her back to Xena. 

"Not exactly. I guessed they were attracted to each other..." Gabrielle trailed off as she plucked a string. Xena immediately went to stand behind Gabrielle, anxious to know what was bothering her lover.

"What is it, love?" she asked gently.

Gabrielle leaned back against the strong body. "Ephiny's a close friend of mine, Xena. I've only known Kaelin for a short while, barely four days it seems. Eph's only known her for two." 

It dawned on Xena that Gabrielle was concerned for the blonde Regent's welfare. "I don't think we have anything to worry about, Ri. They're grown women, and they know what they're doing."

"I've seen Kaelin in action, remember. At the Tavern with the waitress and I saw the way she treated Jorana. Do you know what she said to me about the redhead when I told her that Jorana had said that she was falling in love with the warrior? She told me that it didn't matter, and that she was just another lover in a long line of many. Now, I know she's a long time friend of yours, and she's proved that she can be trusted with people's lives. But can she be trusted with someone's heart, Xena?" Gabrielle turned around and looked deep into the pale eyes staring back at her. 

Xena couldn't hold the gaze for long, and looked away. "I don't know," she said, softly, shaking her head.

"That's the problem. See, I don't know whether to warn Ephiny about it, although I don't think it would do much good. But at least I would have given her a chance to..."

"To what?" interrupted Xena, raising an eyebrow. "To prevent herself falling in love?" Xena snorted. "No, my Queen. There would have been nothing on this earth that anyone could have told me, that would have made me ignore the love I have for you."

"Nor I, you," admitted Gabrielle.

"So, what makes you think it would be any different for Ephiny?" 

Gabrielle's shoulder slumped in defeat. "I don't want to see her hurt, Xe. She was there for me when you... you know, died on me."

"I know, I know," replied Xena, pulling the smaller woman into a tight hug, rubbing small circles on her back. "I was just about to brooch the topic with Kaelin when you came in. You have to understand, just like I'm beginning to, that even as a child, she never knew the love of her parents. It must have been a difficult thing for her to trust, let alone love anyone. Kaelin does it so she can keep her barriers up from the world, so she can live in her own peace." Xena spoke as if from experience. "Do you know if they've...?"

"Solari told me this morning that they came in rather late last night. They shared her bed, you know, but they didn't do anything because her ribs were broken," Gabrielle said, indicating Ephiny's pallet. "Please, Xe. Find out whether Kaelin is planning on breaking Ephiny's heart. Before it's too late."

Xena sighed and nodded. "I'll talk to her, okay?" Xena's head shot up as she heard shouts coming from the direction of the Meeting Hut. "I think we might be needed as peacekeepers, don't you?"

"Come on, you." Gabrielle playfully tugged on Xena's hands, pulling her towards the door. Xena made a show of trying to hold back, but in reality, she was just as eager to find out what was going on between the Northern Amazons.

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"You lying, harlot!" screamed a furious green-eyed Amazon, standing up from her seat around the large table as Kaelin finished explaining. "You've planned this from the beginning!"

"Don't you talk to your Queen in that manner!" shouted Milika, standing as well to defend her liege.

"She's not Queen until she's had the Queen's Ceremony! You dishonour the memory of our past Queens! " ranted the Amazon, slamming her fist on the table.

"Sit down, Grysa," ordered the Northern Amazon Queen, firmly accentuating each word. Her steely eyes bore into the angry warrior's, who did as she commanded. "You can ask any Amazon in this village now, whether I speak the truth or not. They will all tell you the same thing, because Tanva openly admitted it in front of all of them. Our own Riders were present when Raska directly disobeyed her Captain's orders and rode out to follow Tanva with thirty other renegades. They knew full well that no others would follow them, and even so, their only intention was to murder mere teenagers. Yes, that's right. The young Amazons and Elders left behind in the village, defenceless. So great was their hatred for them, that they would resort to that." Kaelin paused as she remembered the aftermath with a foul taste in her mouth. "Twenty seven, noble and valiant, young Amazons gave their lives to protect the others. It was needless bloodshed, prompted by Tanva. And Ranin, Captain of the Guard, was cut down by her own traitorous warriors as she tried to prevent the inexperienced teenagers from being totally massacred by our own Amazons. Now, you tell me, who dishonoured the tribe that day?" Kaelin's voice had been growing steadily louder, and she was virtually shouting as she finished, pointing a finger at Grysa. 

The Northern Amazon was stunned at the ferocity of the new Queen, unable to look at her accusing gaze. All fell silent in the room as they took in what Kaelin had said. Then the Amazon sitting next to the still bristling Grysa spoke.

"Your Highness, may we speak with Tanva?"

Kaelin looked up at the smaller woman. She saw the intelligence there in her eyes, knowing that there was a sharp mind behind them. "As you wish, Phila. A meeting will be arranged after we have finished our discussions, under supervision of course."

"Of course, your Highness," replied Phila, sweetly. Kaelin had the immediate feeling that she had to keep a close eye on this hawk-faced Amazon.

There was a knock that broke the uneasy quiet that had descended on the group. "Come," called Kaelin. The leaders of the Southern Amazons filed in quietly, taking their places on the other side of the round table. Xena glanced briefly at Kaelin, seeing the hidden exasperation in her face. Gabrielle remained standing to her left, at a silent request from the grey-eyed warrior and as the others sat, Kaelin rose. She looked around the table, coming to rest her gaze on Gabrielle.

"Northern Amazons, allow me to introduce to you, Gabrielle, Queen of the Southern Tribe of Amazons." All of them bowed their heads in acknowledgement, even Grysa and Phila. Kaelin motioned for Gabrielle take her seat. One by one, she went around the meeting table clockwise, naming each Amazon and their position. 

"Xena, Warrior Princess and Consort of Queen Gabrielle." There was a slight murmur of disquiet from all the Northern Amazons present, but there were no outbursts.

"Ephiny, Regent of the Southern Amazons. Eponin, Weapons Master to the Southern Amazons. Solari, Captain of the Guard of the Southern Amazons." Kaelin turned her attention to the Northern Amazons, starting to the right of herself. "Milika, Weapons Master to the Northern Amazons. Kalla, Captain of the Guard of the Northern Amazons. Petra, Leader of the Council of Elders. Lykana, Representative for all Northern Amazon Warriors. Phila, Chief Ambassador for the Northern Amazons. Grysa, Head Hunter of the Northern Amazons."

There was a short pause as each member of each tribe studied the other. Suddenly, the oldest Amazon among them spoke in a gruff voice. "Where is your Elder?" 

"We have no Council of Elders, ancient one. We will consult them as a group on matters we need their guidance upon, but otherwise, they see no need to impose on the younger generation of leaders," explained Ephiny.

"Hm," was all that was heard from the aged warrior. Although the older warriors in the Southern tribe were highly respected since they managed to survive their battle years, they understood that they only hindered the process of leadership. They tutored them as best they could, and left their apprentices after, trusting to their capabilities. However, in dark times, they were always there as a source of experience to be called upon, should they be needed. This was just one of many slight differences between the Northern and Southern tribes. In the North, the Council of Elders actually had the power to override a Queen's decision, if there was a unanimous vote. This was, however seen by some as undermining the Ruling Family and usually caused unrest within the tribe itself since it looked like their Sovereign was incapable of making the right choice. Kaelin knew it was something they would have to discuss further, should the merge go ahead.

"I understand that Riyola, Raska's sister, has challenged my Right to Rule." Kaelin looked over the faces of her members of her tribe.

"That is correct. Should your story be confirmed, she will fight you on our home ground in Caledon," stated Phila.

Gabrielle saw Kaelin's jaw twitch in the corner of her eye. Obviously the warrior had a growing dislike for the dark brown eyed diplomat. "I believe it is my right as the Challenged to choose the place," responded Kaelin, evenly.

Phila spread her hands in acceptance. "We had assumed that it was the place where you would choose, your Highness. Forgive me," she said smoothly. Gabrielle had to admit, that the woman looked as slimy as a water snake. 

"You assumed wrongly. The contest, should there still be a challenge, will take place in this village," said Kaelin, certainly.

"As you wish," replied Phila, a hint of her dark eyes flashing.

"This is absurd," erupted Grysa, who had been unusually quiet. "You should never have been given the Rite of Caste in the first place, let alone rule our tribe. I don't know what Kilda ever saw in you, but she made a grave mistake in making you an Amazon Princess!"

"Someone made a grave mistake in giving birth to you!" An irate voice floated across the table in Kaelin's defence. "You call yourself an Amazon? Yet you attack your dead Princess' memory, and you insult your Queen," Ephiny snapped.

"Who are you to talk to me that way?" growled Grysa. "You Southern shit. One of a hundred harpies, mistaken for Amazons!"

Ephiny's nostrils flared and her eyes narrowed, as her hand flew to the hilt of her dagger at her hip.

"Ephiny!" The curly blonde snapped her head to Gabrielle and Kaelin's commanding voice. At the unspoken word, she released her tight grip on her weapon and placed her hands on the table, glaring at the smug looking Hunter.

"Grysa! One more foul word, and you'll find yourself out of this hut, and out of this tribe," warned Kaelin, menacingly. Grysa stared at her, and realised that Kaelin would go through with her words. Reluctantly, she nodded her head in concession. 

"Queen Kaelin is quite right. We should not be fighting amongst ourselves. If we are to have any chance at all of this working, we have to set an example to the tribes," said Gabrielle in a clear voice.

Immediately, four sets of curious eyes were upon her. She glanced quickly at Kaelin, to see her looking down at the table top. "What does she mean, your Highness?" asked Lykana, her blue eyes full of concern.

"They didn't know?" asked Gabrielle, worriedly. 

"It's okay, Gabrielle. I was going to tell them now anyway." Kaelin smiled at the young Queen, then turned her attention to the waiting Amazons. "Queen Gabrielle is talking about an idea that could solve our problems. We will become one tribe, united in one village, in one thought. The Amazon Nation." She looked hard at Grysa. "Your views on this matter will be acknowledged at the Decision in two weeks time. You will have you chance to argue against the move, but know this. It will be a majority vote, by all Amazon warriors, Northern and Southern, whether to merge the tribes. If the result comes back with more than three-quarters of the total number of Amazons voting in favour, then plans for the move will be discussed. The details will be organised by a mixed council of both tribes." All Amazons in the room looked at Kaelin in surprise apart from Xena, who was nodding her head in agreement. It was exactly how she would have done it. "You should also know, that a suggestion of unity of the tribes was put forth already and was received with open arms and open minds. None of the warriors out there want to see a repeat of the occurrences a few days ago," finished Kaelin.

"Yes and where would you locate this... new tribe?" asked Petra, her grey locks falling over her shoulder as she leaned forward, switching her intense gaze between the two Queens.

"I wouldn't call it a new tribe, Petra. Rather an old one, reunited," said Kaelin. "As to the location, we have given it some thought. I know, some of you will not like it, but the most logical and practical choice would be to shift the Caledonians to Amazonia." 

Smart talking, Kae, thought Xena approvingly. In her simple statement, Kaelin had shown that Amazons had originated from the South since the woodland surrounding them were named after them.

"Hm, so you are willing to bow to these Amazons wishes and uproot generations that have lived in Caledon for centuries?"

"I am not bowing to their wishes. This was my suggestion, and they had no part in shaping my decision. It is simply the best option and should you have any questions, I suggest you ask Regent Ephiny. Her knowledge of this land far outweighs mine, since she has grown up here." Kaelin's words left no room for further argument. 

Eponin studied Kaelin as one after another, questions from her tribe were fired at her. To each she replied as best she could, showing no outwards emotion. Sometimes, Gabrielle would answer the questions, giving Kaelin some respite and the others chipped in whenever was necessary. Slowly, the stream of queries trickled down, and everybody was clear on exactly what was being planned for the two tribes. The topic began to change to the events of the previous two days and the vast hidden truth of five years. Unanswered questions were now cleared up, as Lykana recalled that Raska would disappear for a few days in a fortnight. The days coincided with the days that Tanva would leave the Southern Amazon village and they came to the conclusion that Raska had been the inside rat, that Tanva was allied with. Through Raska, she would have known when the messenger for help was sent and intercept her. She would have been able to set up the landslide in the Volaril Valley in advance, waiting until the scouts had returned back to the village. Throughout, the Northern Amazons listened without interruption, as all their beliefs about their past misfortunes were suddenly and plainly dashed in front of them. It was a harsh reality, that they had to face the fact that their failure to detect a spy was the cause of the bloodshed and not the Southern Amazons. Suddenly, they had no one to blame but themselves.

Lykana, who stood for all the Amazons that were not there, looked at the faces of her bitter enemies with a new light. She realised that she had judged without finding the facts out for herself and only believed what one side of the story had told her. She looked within herself and found guilt, at the loss of the lives of the children and of her sisters. Her hatred for Tanva grew as she learnt that she had been the cause of the Caledon Wars and the massacre of her people.

Even the hard nosed Elder, couldn't help feeling ashamed for her rash behaviour. Tanva had come to the Council of Elders, pleading her case that the Southern Amazons deserved to be punished for the deaths of all but two of the Ruling Family and the countless number of Amazons who had perished in the Wars with the Beldan and Gekkim. Tanva had been a convincing speaker, and by the end of it, the Elders had all been moved to tears, as memories of the battles and sisters lost came back to them. In the heat of the moment, they had agreed in unison to attack the Southern Amazons. Petra herself, had gone to Queen Litala and spoke to her of the Council's judgement. It was the final push that sent Litala into assault mode. Kaelin and Gabrielle had earned the respect of the old warrior today.

Quiet settled in the Hut, as each warrior dealt with her own thoughts. Then there was a soft rap on the door frame. "Come," said Xena, as she saw Kaelin and Gabrielle were worn out. Tamzin entered, looking around slightly nervously in the presence of such highly ranked Warriors. "What is it, kid?" 

"Erm, Captains Tila and Kristal told me to tell everyone that Dinner is being served right now. It's being done in shifts to accommodate the extra Amazons and yours is about to begin."

"Thank you, Tamzin. Tell them that we will be there shortly."

"Consort." Tamzin saluted, fist over heart before she departed. 

Xena shook her head at the title. They hadn't even declared it openly yet, and already they were calling her Consort. She stood, looking at the weary faces around the table. They had been in the Hut for over six candlemarks, talking without a break. "I think we've more or less covered everything today. If there is anything else, it can wait for tomorrow. If you would like some food, we will escort you to the Food Hut," she said, courteously to the Northern Amazons. 

Everyone got up from their seats and began filing out of the dim hut. Xena waited until all had left, watching as Ephiny walked behind Kaelin and brushed a comforting hand over her shoulder as she went past, before she helped Gabrielle up and followed the Regent out. As she got to the door, she turned to look at Kaelin, still sitting at the table in deep thought.

"Kae?" 

The dark head shot up, then nodded at the quiet question. "I'll be there soon. Go on," she replied, absently.

"Alright, but you better be," Xena warned, knowing that the warrior hadn't eaten a proper meal in a long time. 

She also knew that the recently proclaimed Queen had many problems to sort out in her head. Xena didn't doubt that her friend was up to the task and responsibility of the role, but it was a lot to deal with in a few days. Given time, she would slide into the leadership position with ease, commanding the respect of many Amazons. It was getting over the first hurdle that was the difficult part. Xena had watched, through Autolocus' eyes, as Gabrielle had slowly gained the admiration of her people when Velasca had threatened to split the village apart. Now Kaelin faced the same challenge. Not for the first time, did Xena wonder about what sort of hierarchy would evolve from the merging of the two dissimilar tribes. There was no doubt that there would be a Queen, but the question was who? Kaelin? Gabrielle? Someone else? Having one of the present Queens would immediately cause a lot of problems, as each Queen would be seen to favour their own tribes. Gabrielle had no right over the Northern Amazons and neither did Kaelin have any claim over the Southern. It would be the main question hanging over everyone's head, should they come to that point. Xena sighed as they walked over to the Food Hut, half dreading the weeks that were to come. It was sure to be full of politics and Xena resigned herself to her fate. As Gabrielle's Champion and soon to be Consort, she would be obliged to sit in on the discussions.

"What are you thinking about?" came Gabrielle's worried voice through her thoughts.

"Oh, nothing important," she said, reassuringly, pulling the bard close as they walked. "Just... wondering about Amazon traditions, that's all."

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Continued... Chapter Seventeen

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