Author: Puckster
Story Title: Cerberus' Challenge
Characters: Xena/Gabrielle
Rating: NC-17
Summary: Xena and Gabrielle travel to Sibyl, a priestess of Gaea, who helps them with their feelings for one another.
This rating is for explicit f/f sex.

The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and Argo belong to MCA/Universal/Renaissance They are used without permission or intention of obtaining profit. Thanks to the show's producers for permitting fan fiction and for the queer subtext.

This story contains not only lots of explicit descriptions of consensual sex between two grown up gals, it also tries very hard to develop and enhance some cherished lesbian archetypes. It is written as a very lesbian-positive fiction. If that's not your thing, then for heaven's sake why are you still reading this? If you are under 18, this material is not for you, yet. Even if you are a lesbian. If lesbians are illegal where you are, I think you should quit reading now and leave there quickly and quietly for your own safety.

As with many other Xena stories, I have taken almost unforgivable liberties with ancient Greek history and geography. My apologies are only to Greece and her historians. Thanks to my patient and loving sweetie. Happy 40th birthday!

You can find more of Puckster's stories at The Bard's Corner and at Obsession's Home Page

Polite feedback is welcome at


Cerberus' Challenge
by Puckster

"At the end of all the ages,
a Knight sat on her steed;
her armor red and thin with rust,
her soul from sorrow freed.
She lifted up a visor,
from a face of skin and bone;
and her horse turned head and whinnied,
as the twain stood there, alone.
No bird above that steep of time,
sang of a life-long quest;
no wind breathed,
"Lone for an end!" cried knight to steed,
loosed an eager rein;
charged with her challenge into space,
and quiet did quiet remain."
~ Lord Byron ~
(gender corrected)

Chapter I

Argo stretched out her forelegs as far as they would reach, and labored up the steep slope. Her target was the relative safety of some old ruins that ringed the hilltop, pillars like broken teeth, bright in the moonlight. The unearthly howls echoing behind them for hours had taken on an urgent note, and the sounds of dry brush breaking before a powerful body could now be heard clearly. Gabrielle cast anxious glances behind, trying to catch a glimpse of their pursuer. Entering the perimeter of the walled ruins through a crumbling stone arch, Xena leaped off as Argo skidded to a stop, nickering in fear. As Gabrielle scrambled down onto a boulder, she heard Xena release her chakram and instinctively ducked. The spinning blade drew sparks as it smacked against the stones of the enclosure. Finally, it smashed into the keystone of the arch, which tumbled into a pile of rubble across the entrance.

Catching the chakram, Xena back-flipped impossibly up onto the top of the old stone wall and looked back down the way they had come. In the light of a nearly full moon, she saw an enormous dog break cover and step into the space directly in front of the dusty pile of stones. Well, dog, may not be the best description. It's body moved like a dog, and it barked like a dog, but it had three heads moving like serpents on long necks, and the tail looked more like that of a dragon. All three heads had their long noses to the ground, tracking.

"Can you see it? What does it look like, Xena?" Gabrielle called out from below, walking around looking for weak spots in the defensive walls.

"A whole lot of trouble. I'm not sure in this light, but that thing down there looks like Cerberus, Hades' guard dog." One of the heads lashed up, intent on the sound of their voices.

"Cerberus? Do you know him from somewhere in your nasty past?"

Xena's eyebrows arched. "Actually, from both our nasty pasts, but mine more so than yours. Cerberus guards the entrance of the nether world for Hades. He lets anyone in and stops everyone from getting out." She watched as the writhing, twining heads sniffed the stones around the collapsed arch. "He is definitely hunting us, probably because we've both been dead and come back. His dog brains can't deal with the contradiction and Hades has obviously overlooked explaining us to him."

"Did you say... dog brains?"

"Yeah, he's got three heads. And a dragon's tail. Overkill for maintaining control over a lot of dead people, if you ask me."

Gabrielle shook her head and comforted a trembling, sweating Argo. "No wonder you are in such a lather, girl. Don't you worry; everything's going to be okay. He's not after you anyway, Argo." She called up, "Well, what's the plan gonna be, Xena?"

"I don't know yet." The warrior knew they were running out of time. They couldn't ride on any further without risking Argo, but the monster would soon figure out how to climb over the rubble and attack, and then they would be cornered in what had been their refuge.

Suddenly, she ran out of time for making plans, as Cerberus gathered himself and leaped snarling onto the pile, landing halfway across on a flat stone, tail lashing wickedly. Three heads growled up at Xena on the wall. The deep basso rumblings vibrated the stones at her feet.

...It always comes down to this...she thought...fighting used to be so much fun...stop whining!...The warrior drew her sword with a battle oath, preparing to sell her life dearly for Gabrielle and Argo's escape. Then in a mighty leap, she jumped down from the wall and landed on another stone in the pile.

"Cerberus! Hades let us come back! Shoo! Your daddy's calling! Cerberus, heel!" One of the heads hawked up a hair ball in its excitement, the other two lashed out at each other in agitation. The thing wasn't listening.

Xena and the creature began to dual, testing each other. The basso rumblings became an aria of hisses. She feinted and struck lightly at the moving heads, which had an uncanny ability to dodge her thrusts. Her sword wasn't connecting enough to finish this. The armored tail whipping around behind the creature was going to be a problem, too. She wasn't even sure Cerberus could be killed. She still needed a plan, but she couldn't think. Lately, every time Gabrielle got into danger she had this concentration problem...It was happening again! She was day dreaming right in the middle of a fight! Nauseated, she clenched her jaw and blocked a sudden lunge for her feet by snapping jaws.

Fortunately, back up on the ruined ramparts Gabrielle had not been idle. She saw the monster, knew that Xena would be hard pressed, and developed a plan of her own. Using her staff, she loosened a large building stone from the top of the wall. When she thought she was ready, she called down to her friend. "Xena, get him to move over below me!" The beleaguered warrior nodded and hopped sideways across the jumble of building stones, intensifying her swordplay, more focused on distracting the beast than wounding it. When Xena had him in position, Gabrielle shouted down a warning, "Good! Now get out of the way!"

Voicing her famous battle cry, Xena back-flipped out of danger and up onto the wall. Gabrielle bent her legs, set her staff onto her shoulder, and heaved upward. The stone tipped off the edge of the wall, taking several other stones with it, and cascaded down onto the howling monster. When everything settled, they could see a large boulder had rolled across the dragon-tail, pinning Cerberus to the rubble. Three plaintive whines crescendoed heavenward in a demonic symphony.

Then they saw a shimmering form began to materialize next to the keening beast. When he had solidified, Xena's eyes narrowed as she recognized him. He bent down to the horrible canine and caressed the bobbing faces one by one. "Oh, what's the matter, boy? Huh? How'd you get into this mess Cerby?" The god moved the boulder from Cerberus' tail easily.

"Hades." Xena made his name a statement of fact, rather than a personal address.

Hades spun around, surprised. "You! I had hoped not to lay my eyes on you two again for a while!" His face darkened. "Say, you did this to Cerberus, didn't you?"

"Hades, that stupid spawn of a bitch's been hunting us for the last five hours. Did you explain our circumstances to him, or have you forgotten getting around to that?"

His mouth gaped for a moment, and then he turned back to the fawning beast. "Did you do that? Bad boy! Bad boy, Cerby!" Both beings shimmered and disappeared in a dusty blast of hot sulfuric air. The whole thing was over.

Xena exhaled explosively and turned to Gabrielle. "We'll camp in the ruins tonight. I'll go get dinner and water. You want to take the fire?"

Gabrielle didn't budge; her hands were on her hips, her head nodding sagely. "You are really pissed right now, aren't you?"

Xena's rage vanished momentarily in her surprise. "Well, yes, I was a bit angry..."

"You know, I can really tell." Gabrielle said instructionally. She pointed her finger at the warrior. "You always organize things when you're pissed off."

Finding out she was an easy read was not good news right now for Xena. She could have handled that situation back there better. And the gods were driving her crazy. She needed time. Time to rest and think. She peered down at Gabrielle, who looked quite fit and healthy in the moonlight, and decided the bard needed a rest, as well. Time to visit Sibyl.

She turned away. "Just make the fire and stay put," she barked over her shoulder as she leapfrogged down the pile of rubble and into the forest. "Just make the fire and stay put...just make the fire..." Gabrielle muttered as she set up camp, resentfully doing as she had been so rudely requested to do...with not so much as a thank you for my fabulous plan that saved our butts...

Chapter II

Piercing squeaks were coming from somewhere. Gabrielle scowled, hooked her fingers into Xena's armor straps, and diverted her thoughts back to the tale she had been constructing. It had been born early that morning, on the tendrils of a dream that lingered long into the day's ride. It had been an epic dream of such tenderness and heroic love...yeek! was such a high pitched squeak! Was it coming from the saddle or Xena's armor?

"Damn...damndamndamn." Gabrielle muttered as she detached a hand and reached around Xena's waist toward the saddle's forward cargo harness, her fingers struggling with the taut leather thongs.

Xena started and swatted Gabrielle's hand away from its project. "What are you up to, now?" Xena demanded, reining them into a slow walk.

"I can't believe it's not driving you as crazy as it is me!"

"What?" Xena knew exactly what was driving her crazy. "What?!" Argo snorted and tossed her head as Xena pulled her back from nibbling an especially tender bunch of wild grasses.

"That squeak! Listen to it Xena!" The bard's vocal pitch was plaintive, throbbing with woe.

Xena wasn't buying any today. "Listen Gabrielle, today I've got a lot on my mind. We've got this long ride and, like I said earlier, I'd like to use the time to think some things through...a lot has happened and - "

"I know, a lot, I know, me too...but that squeak!"

"What squeak, Gabrielle?"

The squeak was gone, naturally. Gabrielle said nothing while Xena urged Argo back into a fast walk, but only until then. "Sorry, Xena. The squeak was there before. Isn't that funny how just as soon as I said something it -"

"Gabrielle, please..." Xena's voice held a warning note along with the plea.

"Okay, Xena. I understand you need quiet today. But since we are talking at the moment, there is something I've been meaning to ask you about. You said that we were going to a place we can take a working break?"

"Yes, sort of a break. We need to help out around the place." Xena paused. "Now remember about my request?"

"Oh, there I go again. Sorry."

"Thank you, Gabrielle."

"After all, it's the least I can do after all - "


"Right. Quiet." She and Xena were just on different paths today. Gabrielle sighed and leaned her face momentarily on the scabbard of Xena's sword. Until, as eventually happened, she felt an imprint of the bronze stud that always seemed to be wherever her cheek found a resting-place. She sat up and back, settling the line of her spine, and counter balancing with her fingers once again anchored in the straps of Xena's breastplates. She was much better at these long rides than she used to be, she thought. Almost a professional, really. As long as she didn't look down, that is.

Gabrielle tilted her chin up and returned to her dream...when do dreams become stories?...she thought, not quite ready to stop expressing herself... and are stories really just dreams that we all share?

She drifted on for a time, observing the landscape passing by, getting occasional glimpses of a sunny clearing through the trees. She scrunched up her face trying to see if there were any wildflowers out there. Her mind chattered and was still, then chattered again. She let the movements and motions lull and quiet her, stilling herself as Xena had taught her. She felt herself begin to center. The rolling gate of Argo demanded that she remain lose in the hips and waist, moving with the horse's motion. Moving with Xena. Suddenly, Gabrielle remembered a bit more of the dream and nearly lost her balance as Argo shifted to avoid a large stone.

...there had been the smell of smoke and the sound of deep voices chanting a lament...Xena was in the dream...slowly she walked out of a burning building, back lit by the flames...blasts of wind whipping her hair, the tresses seemingly on fire at their waving tips. Chin lowered, her eyes glowed like an animal's in the strange light as she emerged out of the chaotic swirl. Her arm whipped up and, without breaking her long stride, slammed her sword over her shoulder into its scabbard. Without removing her now dark eyes from Gabrielle's she advanced upon her, mouth opening...

...and then the fragment of her dream splintered. Gabrielle gulped, moistened her lips and drifted on in a light trance, replaying the dream sequence over and over, not letting herself think about what her story was doing, swimming in the sensations it gave her. She let herself savor again the memory of the kiss Xena had given her when Gabrielle had been beyond hope, when she had thought Xena was dead. She remembered the look on Xena's face when she kissed Gabrielle at her wedding. Her wedding, what a disaster...

With no warning, Xena tossed her hair back and caught Gabrielle full in the face with it. Gabrielle was suddenly very hot and uncomfortable. Then she heard the squeak.

"Hey! There it is again!" She blurted, a little too loud.

"Shhh, I know Gabrielle. It's been there for a while. We're almost to the camp I wanted, so I just let it squeak. You sort of dozed off." Xena's voice lowered gently. "Sorry I snapped at you before, Gabs."

"Snapped? Sure...well don't worry about it. You said I fell asleep?"

"Yes. Asleep."

"Did I say anything?"

"No, Gabrielle. Why?"

"No reason. Are we almost there?"

"Another half-candle mark." Another half-candle mark was too damn long for Xena. She kept looking forward so Gabrielle wouldn't see her face. She wasn't really sure what expression she wore. Gabrielle hadn't precisely said anything, but the sounds coming out of her had spoken plenty. It had taken some getting used to the fact that Gabrielle didn't always stop talking when she fell asleep. Many evenings when Xena stayed awake on watch, the bard's sleepy babblings and pronouncements had entertained her. But today, Xena had been intensely aware of the dreaming woman balanced in the saddle behind her, obviously lost in an erotic dream, knees tucked behind Xena's...the pressure of a soft mound pressing and retreating against her. ...You're driving yourself crazy with this silly game, woman!... she'd told herself angrily...These feelings are all wrong. All wrong! It had been about then that she'd inadvertently flipped her hair off her shoulder and into Gabrielle's face.

As the pair rode on, Xena arched an eyebrow and clenched her teeth, brooding on her dilemma. Gabrielle was picking up on a lot more than she used to. Xena knew her companion's emerging bardic talent was rooted in keen perception and curiosity. Her ability to intuitively leap to understandings made her a talented negotiator in village disputes as well as when buying supplies. Not to mention the more than occasional dinar her tale telling brought in. Practically speaking, having a bard around definitely had its benefits. But it also meant living with an incredibly sensuous being who was completely unaware of the effect she was having on Xena. And who occasionally had one of those moments of insight and saw straight into the warrior's guarded heart. As if that wasn't trouble enough, Gabrielle was growing into her full power as a woman and a gifted bard right before Xena's eyes. ...and I'm falling in love with who she is becoming...her stomach dropped.

Xena's dilemma was one reason for her choice of destination. She felt the younger woman needed a time and place to become herself in. That she especially needed the company of someone without the hungry yearnings of a jaded warrior. ...I could use a little help myself... She had been getting very sloppy lately. That thing with Cerberus never should have gotten as bad as it did. She wasn't drilling enough to maintain her conditioning, she let her mind stray unfocused for hours as she thought about her friend. And way too much touching. Kissing her when she got married to Perdicus was okay under the circumstances, but she was lucky Gabrielle didn't remember the kiss they shared when Xena had been in Autolycus' body. Being dead was no excuse for that. Gabrielle wasn't ready to understand or even comprehend the erotic feelings of a woman who had a past like Xena's...she stiffened.

Gabrielle's hand was slipping around Xena's waist, underneath the armored breastplate.

"Let's finish up the ride, shall we?" Xena suggested, her voice even.

"Sure Xe...Whoooahooah!! Oooh Noooo..." Gabrielle whooped as Argo responded to Xena's knee commands to leap and run. They sprang out of the trees and followed a narrow track cut through the tall dry grass. Gabrielle's grip on Xena's leathered waist began to slip, and she grabbed for the more secure anchor of the straps. Xena laughed out loud, feeling the tall grass sweep her booted feet. Feeling in control again, if only for a moment. Gabrielle just gulped air and hung on for dear life.

Argo came to a halt so fast clots of wet mud plastered onto Gabrielle's legs, and she almost pulled Xena's armor off trying to keep from being launched.

"Here's the spring." Xena said instructionally, while Gabrielle was still semi-airborne.

Gabrielle's bottom re-connected with the saddle abruptly. "Ouch! Xena! Do you have to be like that??? Are you trying to make some kind of point, or is this your sick idea of a joke?"

"We'll camp just inside the trees over there." Xena was maintaining her heroic pose.

"Oh, all right! Just let me down for Zeus' sake." Gabrielle hung on the arm Xena offered as she swung her legs down, smearing mud up her thighs. Muttering to herself and untying her quarter staff from its bindings, she didn't see a smile soften the warrior's features as she looked down from her seat high on Argo's back.


Later, after the activities of making camp were over, they relaxed by a fire built up high against the chill of fall, eating their suppers. Tonight they had an inventive but flavorless stew of most of the remaining rations, as Xena had said they would arrive at their destination the following day.

Gabrielle, about to ask again about their destination, groaned instead as she leaned back against a log and stretched out her muscular legs.

"You really ought to try those stretches I showed you, Gabrielle. You wouldn't get so stiff at the end of the day." Xena handed her a cup of tea and an orange.

"I know. But the only time I have to do them is in the morning, and I love to sleep in while you do your sword things."

"Weapons drills. Well, the extra sleep isn't helping you now."

"What I do in the morning is my business, warrior."

"Have it your own way, bard." Xena smiled broadly. She loved it when Gabrielle put her foot down. That was happening a lot lately.

A long moment passed, while Xena smiled into the fire as she peeled her orange. Gabrielle watched her over the rim of the cup, trying to remember what she wanted to ask about. The golden light moved in liquid motion across the relaxed planes and curves of Xena's beautiful face, her fading smile gleaming between dark lips. She watched the strong hands work the orange, her long fingers prying off the peel. Gabrielle sat transfixed, cup held to her mouth without drinking. Her eyes widened as Xena's thumb slowly pushed into the core of the fruit, parting it. Xena pulled off a piece and raised it slowly to her mouth. The wedge of fruit caught the light and became transparent as it slipped between her lips. When Gabrielle saw her mouth close around the fruit and pull it in she thought she would faint right then and there.

...what's going on with me...? Gabrielle wondered silently... she's just eating an orange! What am I supposed to do with all of this?... She decided she needed to think and pee.

"I'll be back in a little bit Xena, you know..."

"I'll be here." Xena replied, smiling again. She was enjoying the orange and thinking naughty thoughts. She watched Gabrielle's form as it faded into the surrounding darkness.

Away from the campfire light, Gabrielle found that the moon had begun to rise. She made her way to the edge of the meadow near the spring, a place where the trees thinned enough to see the full orb drifting almost above the dark line of branches. She found the kind of spot she needed, and removed her under-cloth. Planting her feet far apart she lifted up her kilt, crouched down and braced her bottom against a mossy rock. From this position, she released a stream of pee as she looked up at the full moon rising, now fully over the treetops. She sighed in both relief and awe. The moon was so big; it seemed to fill the sky. After she was done she lingered, unable to draw her gaze away.

"Aphrodite, if you can hear me, please help me through this. I think I have been in love with Xena since the first moment I saw her, and the truth is I want to love her with my body, too." From the stillness, a breeze rolled sighing through the trees around her, hissing through the reeds down by the spring.

Gabrielle's hands were moving from their rest on her knees and flattening out on her stomach, caressing. One slipped up into her halter and gently fingered her breast. It was as if they were another's hands.

"She accepts me now. It took so long to work my way into her life, to make myself useful. So she wouldn't leave me behind. And I am so much more with her than I was before. And she trusts me. Now, even when she's tired or angry, she trusts me. How could I risk this?" Gabrielle's chin trembled and her eyes brimmed, two small moons reflecting light from the larger. Her prayer finished in a whisper. "Aphrodite, in all the heavens, what can I do?"

The hand on her belly turned and began a direct slide down to the center of the fire that burned in Gabrielle's body. She felt fingers slide softly over her sweet button of feeling and down deep into darkness. She gasped for air as her hips tilted forward and the hand on her breast joined the other between her legs. She was open, the moonlight bathing her, the hands glistening and wet. She half thought she could hear the sounds of a woman's laughter, or were those cries of ecstasy? In her ears, she felt the drumbeats of her own panting breaths and pulse. The hands upon her body moved faster, in and out of her, over her, robbing her of all remaining thoughts except fleeting images of Xena's face and eyes. Gabrielle's face tilted up and back, her heavily lidded eyes dark and locked onto the moon. Somewhere beyond thought and feeling, she released, and felt herself stretch out and lift on a sparkling swell of emotion and sensation.

...Aphrodite was well pleased as she lifted the climaxing young woman in her invisible arms. As she arched back, the goddess bent her shining face down to Gabrielle's ear and whispered: "Xena..."

Back at the campfire, Xena finally began to unclench from the spasms that had shaken her. Still surprised, she adjusted her tunic and pulled a blanket up over her waist. She had only meant to give herself a small bit of pleasure, unsure how long it would be before Gabrielle returned. But from the instant her fingers found their mark, she had been driven to find freedom from the strain of her longing for her friend. She felt sad and spent, though only a few minutes had past. She reached for her mug and took a long draught of cooled mint tea just as Gabrielle stumbled yawning into the ring of campfire light.

"Hey, I'm bushed. Mind if I just turn in?"

"Really?" Xena's eyebrow arched in surprise. Usually this was when Gabrielle began her nightly campaign to tell a new story she had heard or made up. "You don't have a story for me? Are you coming down with something?"

"No, I'm fine, just sleepy."

"Well, me too...really." Now it was Gabrielle who was surprised. They lay down in their blankets by the fire, Xena on the outside.

Drifting off to sleep, Gabrielle murmured, "Oh...remind me in the morning to ask you where we are going."

If a warrior smiles tenderly in a forest at the bard she loves, but only the trees are awake to see it, has she ever smiled at all? "Okay, Gabs. Now go to sleep."



"I do have a beautiful story to tell you some day..." Gabrielle's voice trailed wistfully away. Then, curled up on her side, she slept, nestled between the warmth of the fire and Xena's still burning body.

This was one of the treasures of Xena's days with Gabrielle. She knew the young woman slept deeply, and she could now look openly at her. Xena listened as Gabrielle's breathing deepened into sighs. She pulled herself up on one elbow and noticed how, with tiny movements of her eyes, Gabrielle's soft dark eyelashes brushed her cheeks in the fading firelight. She watched the heart shaped mouth relax and drop open. She saw the moist tongue move inside. She scented the musk of a woman's sex, and thought it must be her own. Xena took a shaky breath and cupped her hand to the gentle curve of a hip, then snaked her arm around her slim waist. Gabrielle's breath caught and released in a soft moan.

"Bad, girl," Xena whispered, bad, bad, bad."

For a moment she didn't move, feeling the muscles cramp in her back as she maintained her position. Then, greatly daring, her hand glided up the other woman's rib cage to cradle the weight of a tender young breast in her trembling palm. Xena gasped helplessly into the flame lit hair as her hips surged forward to press against a soft bottom. Gabrielle, still asleep, sighed and snuggled deeper into Xena's embrace. Frightened she had gone so far, Xena clenched her teeth and willed her breathing to slow down, her heart to soften it's beats. Xena held her breath as she felt a smaller hand cover her own. Gabrielle breathed, "Xeeeenaaah."

Xena's head jerked up. She couldn't seem to think. She tried to think about extracting herself, about how sick and stupid this was. In a way, this was much worse than the depravity of her past. She really had to get up...But she just laid her head back down and hid her face in Gabrielle's hair. She never knew how quickly sleep stole in upon her...

Aphrodite thanked Morpheus for his help and gazed down and the small forms of the women, nested in her palm like sleeping cubs. "Tsk-tsk." She thought, "What a mess!" On a golden clipboard suspended in the air beside her, she ticked a pink-plumed quill down the list of times these two had missed their chance, and added another one to the bottom. Far too many near misses. She tucked the sleeping women into a pocket, still tsking. "These two are at risk of destiny separation because of these silly fears. Big Things were supposed to have been happening by now, if you listen to Daddy." Gabrielle's prayer tonight had been all the invitation she needed to help get things moving along. Aphrodite's nose wrinkled minutely. She was always surprised how often people prayed while they were peeing. "Mortals! Anyway, I'm just going to have to push a little harder here, with Daddy being such a relentless nag about the delays in this tricky pairing. His temper gets worse each time the subject of these two comes up!" The pressure she had to work with! Aphrodite sighed, nudging the dreams of the sleeping women toward one another, and drifted on about her night's other business...

...As the great starry firmament swept across the world, Xena and Gabrielle both slept unaware, their spirits suspended together in the folds of Aphrodite's gown of gossamer dreams and moonlight.

Chapter III

Xena woke early with her usual sense of imminent danger, but restricted her reaction to opening her eyes wide and a sharp intake of breath. It had taken her years of army life to learn that. Army life, however, had done nothing to prepare her for the dangerous arm draped across her chest, or the deadly hand knotted in her hair. Prepared her not at all for the full lips parted in sleep so close to her own. Grimacing, she picked out Gabrielle's fingers one by one, casting furtive glances at her sleeping face. Then, mouth tightening, she held the arm up and moved out from beneath it, gently placing it atop a bundle of blankets. She lingered, fascinated, as she watched the sleeping fingers slowly flex and dig into the fabric.

Backing away as if from a snake about to strike, Xena made a plan. She could tell Gabrielle would sleep for hours yet if left undisturbed. Time for some complete and exhausting weapons drills. She had been thinking way too much lately. She bent down and picked up her armor and weapons, careful not to make noise. Then, on silent feet she stole out of the camp, untethering Argo to forage as she left. As the first light of dawn first etched the eastern clouds blood red, she reached the meadow and found an open area of turf. She raised her hilt high, offering a soldier's salute to a new day. Or, it might have been a prayer. She needed all the help she could get. Xena took a deep breath and began to stretch.

Bundled in her blankets, Gabrielle was dreaming again...she was having a hard time packing. Just when she thought she had everything she needed, she would forget where she put the bag and then have to start all over and Xena was waiting and she was going to leave without her but it would only take another minute and she would be done. Then Xena walked up to her and started actually pushing her along...

Opening her eyes ready to blast a warning to Xena, Gabrielle found herself confronted with Argo. The horse's nose gave another nudge to a bundle under the blanket she had been clutching while she slept. It turned out to be a saddlebag with some apples in it. Gabrielle remembered putting it by the bed in case she needed a midnight snack.

"Fetch, Argo!" She said, as she tossed an apple away from the bedding. Argo grumbled and headed toward the apple. Gabrielle grumbled and looked for Xena, who was nowhere to be seen. Gabrielle sat up and scanned the campsite. "Xena?" She called out softly. Then she stood and did a full circle. Still no Xena.

"No problem. This is not a problem. I wake up and she's gone. That is not an emergency. Yet." She kept calm. Before she teamed up with the warrior, this would have been an overreaction. Now it was just self-preservation. She picked up her staff and whirled it a couple of times to wake up her hands. Then, allowing her eyes to unfocus, she extended her other senses, breathing in short calm intervals. In a few moments...there she is... she had located Xena, drilling out in the meadow.

Taking a deep breath, she relaxed and let herself appreciate the beauty of their campsite. The morning sun angled in shafts through the trees, striking mossy patches of ground and releasing wisps of warm, curling mist. Dragging her blanket up around her shoulders, she sat down next to the embers of the last night's fire, and began to feed twigs and dry moss to the coals. Argo watched over her shoulder, covertly looking for the apple bag.

...the embers of last night's fire... she thought ...what happened last night, anyway?...She tried to remember details, the moon, her hands...she realized she had experienced her first orgasm.

"How nice," she said out loud, "I have a new skill." Argo snorted.

"Well, that ought to help me get over Xena, right girl?" Gabrielle turned and looked up into the big brown eyes. Argo nosed her shoulder and gently wuffled her hair. "What do you know about it, you're stuck on her too, aren't you girl?" She patted the soft nose until Argo tossed her head and plodded over to a new patch of grass just lit and steaming in the morning sun.

With the fire going and water in a pot balanced on rocks near the flames, Gabrielle began to walk out to the meadow with the blanket still around her. She picked up her staff just in case Xena forced her into defending herself during her insane drilling. Xena had made it clear that she didn't think Gabrielle drilled often enough. Gabrielle was pleased that the quarter staff came so easily to her, but she knew the warrior was right. The way they lived anything could and did happen. But sure as the Styx Ferry she hated being bossed around by that woman sometimes. With her staff clutched in front where her hands held the blanket closed, she worked her way over to the last line of trees. She looked out at the meadow and stopped.

That bossy woman was a vision of pure power, feinting and striking, her blade flashing the morning sun and into Gabrielle's eyes. Suddenly weak-kneed, Gabrielle sank down onto a log and watched. Xena was finishing the fourth level of the Serpent's Way, a twisting, complicated sword drill she had learned from eastern visitors to Caesar's court. She was working hard now and grunting out the calls. "...slide...breath-breath...coil...strike! Haaah!" She threw her ringing sword high into the air, caught it and whirled it in her signature figure eight around her head.

She was radiant, she was unbelievable, she was adorable! Suddenly, Gabrielle had to pee.

Xena noticed the other woman just as she slammed her sword into its scabbard. "Hey, get you and your staff over here!"

"Not now, Xena, gotta go, you know..."

"Aww, jeeze Gabrielle, its always going to be something with you, isn't it? C'mon out here, I'm hot this morning!" She gave up at the sight of the bard's retreating back.


A short time later, four shapely legs were kicking dirt into the fire pit. Xena mounted Argo and held an arm down for Gabrielle. The younger woman fixed Xena with a defiant glare and said flatly, "I'll walk today, I think."

"Gabrielle," Xena spoke the bard's name like a warning. "We've got a long way to go today."

"To go where, Xena? You haven't been exactly descriptive."

"Oh, sorry. It's the home of a friend. She's alone most of the time, and I like to give her a hand around the place in the fall. And I think you'd like her. She's kind of a bard."

"Kind of a bard? What does that mean, kind of a bard?" Gabrielle's voice pricked at Xena.

Xena measured her words out evenly. "Don't read anything into it. She's a storyteller. She tells the old stories from way back. She knows a lot about everything. You would like her."

"I'm sure we'll get along fine. Let's go." She took a step.

"Gabrielle," Xena moved Argo into Gabrielle's path. "You're still not on the horse."

Gabrielle slammed her staff into the ground in frustration. "By the seven hells of Hades, no! I will not let you put me through what you did yesterday! You have been in some kind of mood lately and I'm not letting you have all the control again and that's that!" Gabrielle was the very essence of indignation, her sturdy legs braced, her staff crooked in crossed arms, her jaw set and her brows knit. Green fire snapped from her eyes.

Xena, somewhat taken aback, maintained her haughty posture, her face immobile. Gabrielle's new habit of putting her foot down was less than endearing this morning. The warrior sat back, braced a hand on the pommel of the saddle, and looked down at the bristling bard.

"The wind has changed and the weather may turn. We have to ride through to get there tonight. She is an excellent cook and dinner is at about six. If you want control, you can ride in front."

Gabrielle suddenly remembered they had eaten all the rations. The idea of another spitted fish or rabbit didn't hold much sway with her, after a long summer on the road. "I hold the reins?"

"Right, you take the reins. I'll just give directions. Okay?"

"Okay. Let's get going." Xena got down, gave Gabrielle a leg up, and then vaulted into position behind her. Instantly, both women felt that getting Argo moving was a Priority. Gabrielle flapped the reins ineffectively, so Xena gave the horse a gently poke with her toes. It was not the signal Argo was used to, but it got things going, thank the gods...

Chapter IV

Later on that same day, on a stony hillside and under a darkening sky, the loud voices of the women could be heard carrying on the wind just before they came out around a boulder, arguing at full volume.

Xena: "Well, if you would just listen to my instructions we wouldn't have to keep stopping!"

Gabrielle: "We are not stopping! Argo just twirls a couple of times and then she goes on!"

Xena: "She's a war-horse! She's trained to spin and rear in combat, not twirl on a trail! You're confusing her! And have you noticed there's a storm building?"

Argo discharged her nose violently.

Gabrielle: "Oh, here comes the biting sarcasm, the know-it-all trail scout crap, the - Blast it!" Argo was twirling again. Gabrielle slumped. "I give up. Just let me down, Xena. I'll catch up eventually."

Now Xena was sorry. Really, they had been making time. ...if I could just get Gabrielle to understand the trick of guiding Argo with her knees... She reached around the other woman's body, reins and all, and gave her a quick hug and an apology. Xena took special notice of how quickly the bard gentled when she touched her.

"Look, let me show you something. This is how I was taught." She lifted her legs up alongside Gabrielle's and squeezed in at the knees. Argo straightened and picked right up to a fast walk. Another squeeze and they trotted, a third and they were cantering. Finally moving together, they rode on as Argo's body bunched and surged beneath them. Xena wrapped an arm tightly around Gabrielle's waist and with her other hand she took the reins. She felt a union of their bodies through the horse's movements. Keeping her face close to Gabrielle's, she watched as she closed her eyes and let her head fall back slightly onto Xena's shoulder. The wind picked up their streaming hair and wove it, mahogany and amber. When they came out onto the top of the ridge, Argo slowed down gently, sensing no direction at all coming from either passenger, reins, knees, heels or toes. Entranced, Xena dropped the reins and moved her hand over onto Gabrielle's thigh.

Gabrielle didn't want to risk breaking the spell, but her face had turned into Xena's neck before she could stop it. Then she didn't want to move at all, Xena's pulse beat against her lips. Xena pulled the other woman in closer and froze, unable to bring herself to do more. Argo was moving in slow circles, giving a panoramic view, as if anyone was noticing. But the two women just rotated slowly around together, each only aware of the other.

After an eternity, Gabrielle pulled back and locked her eyes with Xena's. Green met blue; earth met sky, all stormy with desire. Gabrielle breathed, "Kiss me, Xena...before I die of wanting you..." Her soft lips waited. Xena's hand on Gabrielle's thigh came up and went round her waist as the other reached up to cradle her upturned face. She felt the touch of a tongue as her thumb brushed the darkening lips. Gabrielle's hand ran up her neck and into her hair, grabbing a fistful and pulling down. In that instant, the world spun out of control for the warrior, her cynicism and anger shattering into a crystal rain of hope and joy. Xena's vision narrowed down to the sweet mouth framed in her fingers. She tilted Gabrielle's face up a little more and brought her own down, sealing their mouths together. As their lips merged, Gabrielle cried out as a concussion rocked both women. They held still for a heartbeat or two, and then lips and tongues touched and tasted, sweetly kissing, each eating mouthfuls of the other, feasting on the soft exchange so long delayed.

Xena saw the first raindrop hit Gabrielle's chin, where it mixed with other, sweeter juices. The second drop splashed Xena's nose.

"Uh, oh..." Xena tore herself away from observing the condition of Gabrielle's chin and, looking up, got a drop in her eye. The black rain clouds looked low enough to grab. Alarmed, Xena realized they were standing on high ground. Argo stamped her feet and tossed her head in her impatience to get going. Big raindrops were falling all around them now. Xena noted they were at the entrance of the high mountain valley she was seeking. Grazing sheep were being herded together by a pair of darting and nipping dogs.

"Gabrielle, its going to rain hard, but we've come to the boundary of her lands. We're almost there." She looked down at her companion with a tender grin and a flash of alarm that had nothing to do with the weather. ...thank the gods for this weather... She found Gabrielle gazing up at her with a silly expression. "Did you hear me?" Xena's hand, still wrapped around Gabrielle's face, shook it gently. "Gabs?"

Gabrielle just wanted to remember this moment, everything about this first kiss...right down to the thunder rolling through the hills around them...

"What I mean is we have to ride. Now! Haaaaw!"

Xena's knees came up around Gabrielle's again and gave Argo the command to leap and run. They plunged down the path as Gabrielle's eyes flew wide open, "Aww...Xena! Waaait...!"


Back in the spot where all the kissing and twirling had been going on, two disembodied voices were holding an animated conversation:

Aphrodite: "Daddy, how many times do I have to tell you not to bug me when I'm working! Did you see what your storm did to that kiss? Do you know how hard I had to work to get them that far?"

Zeus: "I'm sorry, Dite. I have the hardest time remembering to cancel that storm signature when I travel privately. I wanted to check your progress, it does look like you are finally getting somewhere."

Aphrodite: "No thanks to you, now stop interfering! Every time you come around and pressure them, they just get into a big funk and then its up to me to quiet things back down. And don't talk to me about bringing in Artemis, she's worse than you are. These two need my professional touch, not her battle tactics! So move along, Daddy, and let me do my job right, or you can just go make yourself another love goddess!"

Zeus: "All right, all right, Dite. I'm sorry. You don't have to threaten. You know how I get with delays. I just don't understand why these two have hung themselves up in this, of all things! But you do know what's best for love, pumpkin, that's why I made you. Besides, Artemis is busy with her temple in Athens. Now one more thing, they are awfully near Gaea's for my comfort, be sure to let me know if they go in there."

Aphrodite: "Really, Daddy. I don't know why you worry about her so much. She's a harmless old goddess, that's all."

Zeus: "Don't ever underestimate her, Dite. I'm serious. She can be a lot of trouble when she wants to be. Okeydokey, I'll just be on my way...keep me posted. Bye bye, Dear!" A crack of lightening and a peal of thunder marked Zeus' departure.

Aphrodite: "Oooo, I hate it when he does that! He could go in and out with a choir, or trumpets, or even a little tag-along herald. But no! Thunder and lightening, wherever he goes! Pompous old bag of wind! Omnipotent, hah! He couldn't bring together two cats in season. Administrators are all alike, no manners, no sensitivity, just plans, plans, plans, and no idea at all how to get anything actually done!"

...Argo's tail switched behind her as she carried the women, one of them yelling at the top of her lungs, off the ridge and up into the high valley. The rain began to fall in torrents, and the dogs pushed the sheep up the valley behind the riders.

Chapter V

Gabrielle's mind tumbled with images and sensations rather than thoughts. The sun was setting. The rain was coming down so hard she could hardly breathe or see. Xena drove Argo hard, and the land around them flew by. But Gabrielle was hanging on and grinning from ear to ear, ready to go anywhere anyhow once again with Xena.

Blinking, she caught glimpses of pasture behind a low stone wall and once a gate flashed by. She felt the warrior giving Argo urgent commands and then they were all leaping over the wall. Now in open pasture and gathering speed, they raced upward to a group of buildings built into the side of a hill. Thunderclaps competed with the drumbeat of pounding hooves. Echoing across the little valley, Xena voiced her battle cry as she drove Argo splashing through a small creek. They pounded up an orchard path that Gabrielle suspected was meant for slower traffic and, finally, they climbed the approach to the high arching entrance of the home itself. Beneath the ample space of the sheltered entrance, Xena bellowed her command to halt. Gabrielle tilted way back with Xena as Argo's forelegs straightened and her hindquarters buckled. Dirt and stones flew everywhere as almost miraculously, they came to a stop. Argo could not resist a small buck as she righted herself.

A woman standing in the doorway smiled and observed Xena and her companion as they landed on the front porch. the middle of a very suspicious thunderstorm... Argo's complete lack of composure was very unusual. She opened her mouth, intending to mock Xena's weakness for grand entrances, but she caught herself, noticing a fading trace of soft pink aura around both women ...Aphrodite's put her touch on them...oh my stars... She watched the strawberry blond, who was practically sitting in Xena's lap, pry her hands one by one from off the pommel. Then she twisted in the saddle so she could look up at Xena.

Xena, face flat as a board, pointed with her lips and said, "Gabrielle, your manners."

The woman in the doorway stepped up and spoke, in a honey-rasped voice, "Hello, I'm Sibyl. Welcome to Gaea's house, which is my, Xena's and many other's home of choice. You are two days ride southwest of Patrai, near the coast. In case Xena hasn't told you yet." Gabrielle twisted back around and Sibyl got a full blast of the young woman's beauty and personality. "Which by the look of your face I'd say she hasn't."

"I'm Gabrielle." She looked at the woman curiously. "It's nice to meet you."

Barely containing her mirth, Sibyl watched as Xena jumped off Argo, helped Gabrielle down, and shot Sibyl a look of such wide-eyed desperation that she had to cover her laughter by taking action. She took Argo's reins and dropped them by the front door. "You cool down around here for just a minute girl, I'll be right back for you. Xena, it's been two years since I've seen you, though I've heard plenty." ...too damn much to sleep well after..."As usual you have arrived with no warning just before dinnertime, but somehow there's plenty of food." Sibyl nodded at Gabrielle's curious look. "There's bit more time before we eat. You are both wet"...good joke, bad timing..."and your gear will have to dry. Xena, before you change, will you go out to the shed and fetch some wood for the central hearth?" ...not that there's any cut wood actually left out in the wood shed... "Gabrielle and I will take care of getting your rooms ready."

Flabbergasted, Gabrielle's watched as Xena bent down to the older woman's hands, kissed the palms, and went off on her errand without a word. Gabrielle watched Xena go and turned back to the woman, wanting to get a better look at her. It was hard to guess her age. She stood nearly as tall as Xena and was quite lean. Her rich, dark skin warmed her smile in the lamplight from the doorway. Gabrielle swept her gaze up over the curves and angles of Sibyl's intelligent face, into eyes that caught and held her easily. The eyes of the woman were different from each other; one dark brown and the other a startling blue ...The ancient mark of a priestess of Gaea... Gabrielle wondered at her fortune, if this was indeed someone who knew of the Old Gods. Sibyl's silver hair grew out of her head like a hundred twigs from a living tree stump. When lightening flashed, her face seemed for an instant framed by spun silver rays. She wore lots of clinking bracelets, baggy leggings and a simple tunic under a leather vest full of pockets.

When she spoke, her strong white teeth punctuated her words as they flashed. "You know, you look like you could use a chair. Would you like to come inside?" Sibyl's braceleted arm wound itself around Gabrielle's shoulders and turned her toward the light spilling out of the darkening doorway. Gabrielle appreciated the support as she walked unsteadily into a large room with an enormous fireplace set into the opposite wall. Two cats sat erect and observant upon the mantle stone.

"Wow. Oh... wow..." Gabrielle forgot her weariness and went over to the marvelous hearth, big enough to step into. The cats regarded her as if they were ornamental sculptures, one a silver and black striped tabby with big green eyes, the other a long-haired gray cat with a strange, tiny flat face that made him look very sullen. When she looked the strange cat in the eye, he returned the greeting with a resounding "Meeoowoowoow!!" that was so startling she looked away in embarrassment.

The mantle stone itself was a single block of sanded marble with a frieze of human figures etched along its length. Gabrielle couldn't resist running her fingers across the smooth carvings, noticing they were all of female figures in a variety of scenes. Paving stones set into the floor in front of the hearth were slabs of limestone worn smooth from countless years of use. "This is the work of ancient stone masons from the quarries of Mount Pentelikon, isn't it?" She turned to Sybil with a look of wonder.

"Yes indeed it is. You have taken advantage of some opportunities to educate yourself, hmmm? Very ancient, as are many other aspects of this house. This fireplace is also very big. I don't use this hearth unless there are guests. Come." Sybil turned down a hallway that ended in a much smaller, much warmer room full of the smells of a wood fire and food. Gabrielle's active nose found the food simmering in a pot on top of a big clay stove in a corner of the room. A window looked out behind the house and up the hill, now darkening in the stormy twilight. Gabrielle noted that Sibyl had not altered the landscape at all behind the house, in the old style of making a favorite window's view a living meditation. She found herself completely taken in by this woman and this house. And it kept her mind off that kiss. Though she still could feel it.

Sibyl was talking. " this is where I spend much of my time when I am alone. It's much easier to heat. Sit down and I'll be right back." Gabrielle looked all around the wonderful room, which was a feast of details, from the dried herbs bundled and hanging from the ceiling, to the fine workmanship of its various odd implements. Leaving her quarterstaff by the door, she pulled a chair up to the stove and sank down gratefully, suddenly feeling a chill. The grumpy-looking gray cat marched into the kitchen trumpeting his arrival with high-pitched drawn out meows. Sibyl followed with a clean towel, a dry shift and a thick robe.

She put a teapot on and said, "That's the General there. I'm going to take care of Argo and a few other things. Please go ahead and change; get warm by the oven. When the water's ready, why don't you make tea for three? And there's a bowl of candied figs on the table, to hold you till dinner. When I get back we can talk some if you like."

"I'd like that very much, thanks." Gabrielle's fingers were pulling out the tangles in her hair. She felt like she could breathe again. "I think I needed this".

"I think so too, dear. Be right back." Smiling, Sibyl left the house by a side door and went to take care of Argo and Xena.


When Xena arrived in the woodshed still breathless from her ride with Gabrielle, she just sat on a stump and dropped her head into her hands. For a long time she didn't move while her breathing got under control. Then suddenly she leaped to her feet, grabbed an ax and started splitting stumps, grunting angrily. Segments of firewood and small chips flew everywhere. She paused only long enough to position the next piece before the ax swung again. Her grunts became words:

"Stupid.. mrrf! lech...nnnnah! Reformed...hah!" Xena's last chop sent a chunk of wood flying through the door. She stopped chopping, but remained in motion. She sat down on the stump, she slumped, she sat up straight, and she slumped again. She groaned. Then she then heard a discrete cough, and looked up to see Sibyl just inside the door, holding the formerly flying firewood.

"I think you dropped this, princess."

"You look well, Sibyl. You're getting fat." Xena said, after a moment.

"Oh, thank you dear, I know you meant well by that. I wish I could say the same for you. Though you'll probably scrub up fine. But that won't take care of the trouble you and Gabrielle are in, will it?" Sibyl moved over to stand in front of the bedraggled warrior princess.

Xena froze for a heartbeat and then shrugged. "I knew you would see it right away, but you always surprise me when you do that. Gabrielle is an empath too, though she may not know it yet."

"Really? How awkward. I mean, you...being...with an empath." The older woman remarked, "What are the other reasons?

"Well...she's really growing into a very interesting person."

"Mmmm, hmmm." Sibyl intoned.

"She needs guidance right now, beyond what I can do, or should do."

"You will have to stop making decisions for her while she is here, you do know that?"

Xena's eyebrow was way up. "Like bringing her here? I know."

"You love her?" A simple question.

Xena flinched; then her mouth drew into a frown. "You know who I am. Better than most living." Xena almost snarled. "I was a warlord. I kept and used pleasure slaves for myself and for those I favored. Like a private stable. I was monstrous. She can't know." She quieted, shrugged. "She doesn't comprehend women's desires for other women."

"You didn't answer my question." Sibyl held Xena with her eyes.

For a long moment, there was only the sound of the rain on the tiled roof of the wood shed. Then the warrior sighed, closed her eyes and said, "She is all things I treasure in a single perfect being. She may be my one hope for redemption, and I...fear...loosing her." A single tear fell when her eyes opened. Xena picked it up with a fingertip and shook it off. The small muscles moved under the skin of her chin. "It's come so close so many times. I've had to keep on fighting, but with much less protection than I had with an army. I wake up every day wondering if this will be the day I die, again. Or worse, the day I will watch Gabrielle die, again. You wouldn't believe what we've been through. And today, after all that, when we were almost here and was I who endangered her."

Sibyl, sounding a little worried asked, "What happened?"

"I kissed her." Xena said, her voice a funeral dirge.

Sibyl turned her face away and rolled her eyes. "Oh. I was afraid you meant your riding." She turned back to Xena with a firm expression, crossing her arms. "Well. It doesn't take an empath to see you are absolutely exhausted from being terrified all the time."

Xena quickly drew herself up, only to let her shoulders sag once again. "You know what, you really push the line sometimes."

"You're the one to talk Xena: Warrior Princess." Sibyl's expression softened as she looked at the strong fighter slumped on her stump, callused hands gripping her hair. "But even you don't know the whole story about this business yet. The gods are involved."

"Xena's face came up frozen. "The gods?" Her eyes became chips of ice. "Who?"

Sibyl put her hands up, "It's all right Xena!", my but she can look nasty...where'd she learn that? " Now remember you are safe here from deity intrusion. But both you and Gabrielle still wore the sign of Aphrodite's touch when you...arrived... this evening. And something about that thunder tonight makes me wonder if Zeus is in the neighborhood."

Xena pounded her fist against the stump, yelped and started pulling splinters out of her hand. "Blast them! Why can't they leave me alone?" she stormed, glaring at her bleeding hand.

"Well, you know my theory about that." Sibyl absently took Xena's hand in her own strong, brown ones. "They are jealous because Gaea claimed you long ago. They try to possess you for themselves, by keeping you embroiled in their intrigues. Just as Ares managed to do when you went through your warlord phase." On Sibyl's face an expression of quieting came and went, then she said, "But this time, there is something else. Your...partnership with Gabrielle, if it comes to pass, changes both of your destinies, sort of enhances them unexpectedly. Together, the two of you make a force powerful enough to shape worlds yet to be born. They cannot resist speculating on the possibilities. They are children with a toy. But Gaea has always known, that's why you are hers." She released Xena's hand, who didn't notice the tiny splinter wounds were gone.

Xena looked dubious. "I know, I know. But I never could see it that way. Gaea has never revealed herself to me or given me any kind of sign. What you call the lesser gods are popping up all the time. The only connection I've ever had with Gaea is this house. Which I'm grateful for no doubt of that."

"This house is all the connection to Gaea you've ever needed, dear. She isn't as demanding as the lesser gods. Now, what to do with you two? For now, you and Gabrielle will stay in the house or on the lands inside the pasture fences, where the lesser gods can't bother you. Here you will find what is in your own hearts for each other. But for now, the two of you will slow things down a bit. Catch your breath. Xena, you will practice meditation and weapons drills twice daily. Each." She added to Xena's surprised expression. "When you are not meditating or drilling, the fruit orchard needs pruning, and the pasture fence wall repairing. Gabrielle will study and learn. You will see each other, but not be constantly together the way you have been. Every other day, you will be Gabrielle's sparing partner with the quarterstaff. And you two will sleep and bathe separately. This is for your own good and possibly only for a short time. Do you agree?"

"Yes, Sibyl" Xena smiled sheepishly. "Thank you."

"Argo is all settled for the night and says she doesn't care to see you until tomorrow." Sibyl gestured to the pile of firewood. "Carry and stack it by the fireplace and start a fire big enough to heat the great room. There'll be towels and dry clothes in your old room when you're done. I need to explain things to Gabrielle. Then we'll all be able to get comfortable in front of the fire."

"Looks like I'm home." Xena was still smiling.

"It does look that way, dear." Sibyl pulled her hood up over her head as she left to walk back to the house in the rain.

Chapter VI

Sibyl found Gabrielle curled up in the chair with both cats, sipping her tea and reading a scroll of recipes. Rain fell streaming against the kitchen window.

"Hello, Sibyl" she chirped, "is Xena back yet?"

"Not yet. She's got just a bit more stacking. Let's go get the rooms ready so that's all done and we can relax."

Gabrielle happily trailed along with Sibyl, eager to see more of the house.

Grabbing her staff as she left, she followed the older woman back down the hallway to the great room, through a stone arch flanked by marble pillars, and down another hall. The walls and floor seemed to be a single piece of smoothed stone, and Gabrielle realized they were walking through a tunnel of beautiful solid rock. The stone was of a swirling reddish color, and seemed highly reflective in the light from oil lamps set into recesses. She touched the stone and was surprised to find it was warm. Woolen rugs softened the floor. They passed several closed doors.

Sibyl began to speak again. "All of the sleeping rooms are off of this hall, which bores into the hill. The bath is on a lower level from here, we will see that shortly. This will be your room." Sibyl swung the heavy oak door inward and stepped aside for Gabrielle, wide-eyed, to enter.

The chamber was, like the hallway, carved out of the same marvelous stone. Talented masons had given the room a vaulted ceiling with carved arches and scrollwork. An alcove with a window was set back from the wall, the stone window casing alone a masterpiece of artisan skill. Gabrielle gaze wandered from one marvel to another. An ample bed filled half of the large room, with a wooden chest resting at its foot. Woven grass mats and sheepskins covered the stone floor. To Gabrielle's delight, the alcove held a small desk with writing tools and a large ceramic oil lamp.

Gabrielle expelled the breath she had been holding and turned to her hostess in wonder. "I've never stayed in a room this grand." She looked at the writing desk, "Or this perfect."

Sibyl walked over to the bed and took a stack of sheets and blankets out of the chest and looked up at Gabrielle. "I'm glad you like this room. This used to be mine when I visited." The two women shared the task of shaking out sheets and tucking them in under the soft mattress.

"You mean you haven't always lived here?" Gabrielle asked, ready for almost any answer.

Sibyl began feeding the young bard information she knew Gabrielle was by now craving. "No, actually I'm from Egypt, originally. But I used to travel more and preferred to stay here when I was in the area. I've lived here in residence here at the house for about ten years." She paused, interested in what Gabrielle's next question would be.

"Who lived here before you, then? Does this house belong to someone else? You called it Gaea's house when you greeted me?"

Sybil smiled, pleased. "Yes, this house belongs to ancient Gaea, who is much older than the lesser Olympic deities. I am her priestess, though that mostly means I tend her sheep and keep her house. This is the last sanctuary for her worshippers, but it is also a place of learning. We have some other parts of the house yet to visit. Shall we move on with our errand?"

Gabrielle let the other woman walk ahead of her so she could wipe her face with her hand and shake her head. She left her quarterstaff by the door with a relieved thump. This day...this day was beginning to read like an epic. Waking up in that grove by the meadow after such a sweet night, to find Xena in some kind of snit, to being taken into Xena's arms and receiving her passionate kisses, that ride to this house and to this was all getting to be too much.

They went out in the hall, passed several more doors, and then turned into the last one. Stepping inside, Gabrielle saw a room similar to her own, with the bed located in the alcove by the window. Several large chests and a racked collection of shining knives and swords occupied the larger space in the room.

"This is Xena's room, when she is here. Which hasn't been much since she allowed herself to change. Her new path pleases me, but I have missed her very much." The priestess turned to Gabrielle and took her hands, "Thank you for your tender care of Xena, Gabrielle. She couldn't have found a better companion. Or you a more devoted."

"Xena came here when she was a warlord?" Gabrielle couldn't picture it.

"Only to visit, and never with any of her army. Only she and Argo." Sibyl saw the bard studying her. "Oh, I knew what Xena was doing out there. But she is of Gaea; she has been since her birth. Not as I am, as a priestess, but as a fighter. And Gaea's patience is infinite when it comes to Xena. Don't ever tell her I told you that."

"It'll be our secret. Listen, Sibyl. Xena and I travel together all the time, and we are a little more used to sharing our sleeping space. You know, it's like we are really used to each other and -"

"You want to share Xena's bed?" Gabrielle started, but said nothing, her green eyes wide. "Gabrielle, I have something to tell you. You and Xena are linking to each other. You are forming strong ties with the trials you have survived through. You are both coming into a great love for each other." Gabrielle nodded. "Today, you think everything became clear, when you and Xena kissed?"

"You know?" Gabrielle gasped. Then her chin came up and she said, "Yes, for me today everything did become clear."

"As it should be to you, bard. But what does this clarity mean?"

"It means that Xena loves me too, and I can stop trying to hide how I feel for her."

"Ahhh. Child, this is the part your sweet heart will struggle with. It is not nearly as clear for Xena as it is for you."

"What do you mean? She loves me! I felt it clearly. She's been hiding it, just like I have. It explains everything!"

"What does it explain, child?" Sibyl directed Gabrielle to Xena's bed and put down the fresh sheets.

"Well, why she's been so cranky, for one. All right! I can't resist. What don't I understand yet?"

"Oh, you are going to be very, very good, young woman. Put your mind to this puzzle." And she began to explain Xena's dilemma to Gabrielle as they finished making the bed.

After some minutes had passed, they left Xena's room, still chatting furiously. They walked further down the hall, which ended in a wide spiraling staircase cut down into the stone in smooth, graceful curves. In an alcove in the wall above the staircase were marble statues of three women. At first, Gabrielle mistook them for the three Graces, until she looked closer. One statue showed a woman preparing to bathe, the other a woman reading a scroll, and the third was of a woman in a posture of meditation. Gabrielle followed Sibyl down the stairs asking question after question:

" Sibyl, back to Xena. You were saying that she's afraid? I was reading it as anger."

"Well, basically, yes." Sibyl replied. "Afraid of hurting you with her own violence, or failing to protect you from someone else's. Though she's touchy about admitting that. She is a warrior. Fear kills people like Xena sometimes." The older woman paused thoughtfully; "There's something else you need to know. Aphrodite has been following the two of you around..." she nodded at Gabrielle's startled expression. "...though I think Zeus put her up to it. Not only that, I have picked up on Artemis prowling around the property boundaries, which is pretty damn nervy of her. While you are in the house or on the property, you are safe from them. They can see you here, but they cannot cross the boundary line."

Gabrielle thought back to the last night in the grove by the meadow. "The moon..."

"I should say so, the moon. Though Artemis presumes when she calls herself moon goddess. But, better her than some horse's ass like Zeus."

Gabrielle was processing all the information. Sibyl could see her thoughts wiggling all over her animate face. "What interest would the gods have in Xena and I as a couple?"

Sibyl smiled as she led the way down the stairway, toying with her bracelets as she walked. "She is a woman of power, you are a weaver of legends. As a pair, you can shape things to come. The lesser gods are not the only ones concerned with the two of you. Gaea knows of your value to women who are yet to live."

"Though you may not realize it, we are in a time of great change. The oldest gods and goddesses see that very soon new and powerful religious civilizations will emerge and struggle for domination." Sibyl paused and took a deep breath. "For millennia, they will struggle. The new gods of these religious civilizations will deny one another, and they will be exclusively male, Zeus is just the beginning of this trend. These changes have been set in motions by the heavens themselves." Gabrielle shivered visibly. "Even we..." Sybil cleared her throat, "even the gods, greater and lesser, are flotsam and jetsam on these celestial currents."

"That sounds like a terrible future." Gabrielle said. She had caught the slip, but never even blinked.

"Then there will follow a time of the great flowering of human kind in many ways. And it has been seen by the most powerful seers to visit Gaea's house, that in this distant future, women's power will eventually return to them, greatly amplified by the advances in all aspects of civilization. If the two of you pair your lives together, the legends of you both will live to that time. In the twenty-first century, your stories will be just as important as today."

Gabrielle frowned. "The twenty-first century. When is that?"

"Timelines will be restarted based upon the emergence of the new religions I mentioned."

"Oh, I see." She didn't know what to think of Sibyl's impossible familiarity with the distant future. "But what about the...the lesser gods?" That felt very satisfying to say; she could understand why Sibyl said it so often. "That can't be a reason for them to get so involved."

"True. I haven't figured out their motives yet either. Though I suspect it has to do with petty struggles among themselves." The two women paused before a magnificent door of African mahogany, carved with a single woman reading a scroll.

Sibyl wrapped her long fingers around Gabrielle's shoulders and looked into her face intently, her magical eyes glittering with mystery. "Gabrielle, you and Xena both need time to think and rest. Xena will balance out after she's had enough time here, she always does. You have barely had time to eat and sleep, much less fall in love. You have been surviving, but that's all. And of great importance, you have not had the leisure or the opportunity to study topics of interest to you. You are young, but also with all the markings of a great bardic talent. You are an empath, child, as well. Yes indeedy." She smiled at the look on the young woman's face. She turned to the door and began to open it inward. "When women come here, it is time to do more than just survive. Here you breathe and live and learn. In Gaea's house, women thrive." Sibyl gestured through the open door.

Gabrielle walked through the doorway ahead of Sibyl and found herself in a huge library. "Ohhh...oh my." The bard wandered down a wall of shelves piled neatly with tightly rolled scrolls and stacks of papyri. "Oh my, Oh my, my, my..." she babbled. She even found a collection of ancient clay tablets. And a comfortable couch and low table surrounded by oil lamps. Heaven on earth. She spun around to face the other woman, her eyes begging, "May I -"

"Don't even ask. Of course you can. You've got to have something to do while you wait for Xena to snap out of it. I think you will find writings on any subject you are interested in here. No matter how obscure you may think it is. The original collections were from private hoards in Athens and Cairo. But it has grown over the centuries to what you see now. It is organized well, I think. But if you have anything you can't find, I will be happy to help."

Gabrielle suddenly realized she was very hungry. But she had caught the seemingly casual reference. "Did you say, centuries? How old is this house?"

Sibyl looked down at the bard with the beginnings of affection, this young woman whose curiosity was not overcome by the audible growling in her stomach. "This lower part of the house is old beyond remembering. It is an ancient place of worship. The house was built six hundred years ago to hide and protect the inner sanctuary. There is one more place to see, and then we can check on dinner."

Gabrielle trailed along, more and more feeling herself imprint upon this woman. Sibyl, in spite of her relaxed manner, felt more like a high priestess to Gabrielle than any temple priest she had ever met. What ever happened while Gabrielle stayed at Gaea's house, she thought she was going to like it very much. And the truth was, even though part of her wanted to follow up on that kiss with Xena, she had no idea how to. There was only so much information she could get from one shy night with Perdicus. And though she was worried about the warrior, she knew they were both safe here. And Xena had been just a little...exhausting to be around lately. She decided separate rooms were all right for a short time. Inside, Gabrielle felt herself settle into a comfortable space, except for her stomach.

As they walked down the corridor, the air became warm and slightly moist. They entered through another door, carved with a bathing woman, into a small red-marbled chamber with a steaming pool in its center. Gabrielle already had a question she had been saving since she learned the bath was on a lower level. "Does the bath drain down here? How does the water remain pure?" she asked eagerly.

"Beneath the marble flag stones, a warm stream of volcan-heated water forces itself through porous bedrock. The bath was simply cut right into that rock filter, so the water flows in and out through the stone itself. It is perpetually clean and warm. Some of the water is forced up through ducts in the upper levels of the house, heating the stone walls and floors, as well as providing hot water for washing and cooking." Sibyl put her hands on her hips. "Now for the rules. You and Xena will only bathe here alone for now. Not together." Sibyl definitely saw a trace of regret in the young woman's face. "Always keep the door to the bath closed to keep the moisture out of other rooms on the lower levels, like the library. And know too that this bath is also Gaea's Entrance. It is the original sanctuary, and that should always be remembered when here. This is as powerful a place you will find in the world. Be aware."

Casting a longing look at the steaming pool behind her, Gabrielle followed her growling stomach back down the corridor. Sibyl gestured to three doors they passed by and said, "These are meditation rooms. You can visit them another day. You and Xena need some dinner. Let's go back."

In the great room, they found a pile of firewood stacked nearly over Gabrielle's head and a huge fire just starting to catch. A bang and a crash behind them turned their attention around in time to see Xena, her arms loaded with firewood, kick the door open with her foot, which was being nipped and lunged at by a pair of small dogs that looked almost like long-haired silver foxes. As Xena moved across the floor with her load, the dogs circled and bounced around her, eyes wild, making playful yips and yelps.

"I don't remember two of these. Which one was here before?" Xena gestured with her toe at the whirling dogs.

"Neither one. You remember their mother; she's gone now. These two littered from her. I just call them the Twins. Now, I need the two of you to get some comfortable chairs for each of us by the fire while I get our dinner. Be right back." She left smiling secretively, whistling the dogs to heel.

Xena and Gabrielle moved as one toward the chairs against the wall without once making eye contact with each other. Finally Xena stopped and turned. Looking somehow both fierce and tender, she made as if to speak, but was stopped by the shock of Gabrielle's fingers against her mouth. The bard lingered for a moment close to her; openly letting her gaze and fingers trace the sensuous curves of Xena's lips.

The bard's voice was thick and intimate. "Ssh, Xena. I understand. Well, we did come here to slow down." Waves of intense emotion rolled out of Xena and washed over the bard. ...the empathy!... In her heart, she imaged a radiant heat of love and reassurance, which she sent washing back over the warrior's cold swells of fear. She relaxed perceptibly. ...this empathy stuff has got some potential; it's just like writing a story...she almost missed what Xena said next.

"Gabrielle, are you going to be all right here? "

Sweet warrior, finally I can see your tender heart clearly, behind all that armor...and I can be trusted with it... "Yes. I am fine, really. You were right, I adore Sibyl. And this house! How come you never told me about this place before? Never mind that, how are you?"

Xena looked down into the sweet upturned face of Gabrielle and murmured, "Better."

Then they heard a call from the kitchen, "Okay you two, get some trays set up next to the chairs by the fire. Dinner's coming!"

Chapter VII

Over the next few weeks, both women settled into the routines that Sibyl had set out for them. Gabrielle had never seen Xena so easily directed by another person. The longer they respected the discipline of the schedule, the more their trust deepened for one another and they were able to relax. Not to say there weren't moments when Xena's face softened at the sight of the bard, or Gabrielle didn't notice. Their sparring sessions were perfectly electric.

Sibyl was delighted to get these last chores done before winter. Firewood had been a priority, and Xena had cut two cords by the end of the first week alone. It had been an insane frenzy, but it kept her hands busy. And now she was occasionally letting herself rest when she had the time, which Sibyl made sure there was plenty of. Keeping a careful eye on the warrior without seeming to, Sibyl watched as Xena's desperate energy dissipated, and then focused clearly once more.

Gabrielle, of course, nearly lived in the library, sometimes only coming out for meals. She would talk about things she had learned all through the meal, managing to avoid looking at Xena very much as she did. Xena enjoyed the meal times with the bard, though she looked more than she listened and ate. She knew as soon as the younger woman's meal was finished, she'd be gone again, down to the library on the lower level of the house.

In this inner sanctum, the young bard steeped herself in a strong tea of knowledge. Occasionally, Sibyl poked her head in after a soft rap on the door, usually escorted by one or both of the Twins, and the two would share a cup of tea and trade stories. Increasingly, her only company was Pothos, the tabby with big green eyes. He kept her company, sleeping on the piles of parchment or nibbling on the quill she took notes with. The table beside the couch was piled with layers of scrolls, lamps, tapers, dirty dishes and tea mugs. A small iron stove with a chimney pipe that bored through the rock wall gave excellent heat with small chunks of hard wood Xena had cut special. She would curl up in the couch with a fine wool blanket and read for hours.

She had begun with Greek philosophers and poets, just refreshing herself with some of her favorite passages. These led her to discover texts about Uranus and Gaea, the original gods. She learned the two most ancient gods preferred to exist on the earthly plane partly through the persons of their priests and priestesses, in voluntary relationships that sometimes lasted lifetimes. ...that explains Sibyl...thought the awed bard... Gaea honors her... she began to understand the importance of Sibyl's interest in she and Xena's well being. ...wait till Xena hears about this!...

She learned that Gaea had always been an powerful allay of the Amazon Nation during key points in it's history, and that Gaea's house had often been the gathering place of powerful Amazon queens and warriors. Atalanta, a great mortal huntress who it was said had been raised by a she-bear, had stayed frequently at Gaea's.

She read translations from distant lands which worshipped different gods. She waded through complex astronomical writings that explained the world was round rather than flat; one sphere among countless others spinning through the heavens. She read works of such power and significance that the way she saw the world was never the same again.

She even found some chilling but informative scrolls describing Xena's rise to power as a warlord. The chronicles of Xena all ended at the point of her conversion to good, nothing short of a personal challenge to the young bard. She began to assemble a collection of her own writings of her adventures with Xena. It was an offering back to the library in return for her own education there.

The works of Sappho, and many other female writers were the real eye openers. For the first time, Gabrielle read whole volumes of original works by other women. She felt a profound reverence for these old writings, as if these long dead women were reaching out through time to teach a favorite student. She learned that throughout history women, sapphists, had been lovers of other women, and that the heart connection between she and Xena was of that same nature.

This relatively small piece of information rocked Gabrielle to the core. She suddenly realized, with an intense pang of guilt, that her feelings for Perdicus had been a dim ghost of what she had felt for Xena all along. From that point, it was easy to put together that Xena had always known about love between women, perhaps had even experienced it. But, in all their time together, she had refrained from attempting to seduce Gabrielle. It was all probably due to her own contradictory behavior, pursuing Xena and then impulsively running off with Perdicus. She even reached a place where she began to blame herself for his death, but pulled back from that brink. She was too busy learning to get bogged down.

Tucked away in her warm burrow, all those events seemed to fade into the past, remote and harmless. Gabrielle didn't notice as the season outside turned cold and blustery. They began to do quarterstaff drills inside, in the great room. As the days passed and Gabrielle studied, a feeling of anticipation began to grow inside of her. Her readings began to branch into some especially interesting texts that gave some detail about human anatomy and arousal techniques. And young Gabrielle began to make plans of her own.


...Way up on Mount Olympus, Zeus' tunic was in a major wad. "Now dear, be reasonable. If we can't effect what's going on in that damn house, how am I to know when they will be ready to get going? No, I'm sorry, but this is not as good a situation as you are making it sound! Gaea is obviously up to something. Just because she's old doesn't mean she can't be a pain in the ass! Now... you're just going to have to put up with a little extra help."

Aphrodite: "What do you mean by help? Like your thunderstorm that broke up their kiss? Is that the kind of help you mean?"

Zeus: "Now, just hush. We've all been trying this quality management stuff and I really think it can work, but you've got to become more of a team player! I've asked Artemis to join you."

Aphrodite: "Her?! You've got to be kidding, Daddy. She'd probably prefer to have them both sacrificed to her, rather than help along a love match!"

Zeus: "She's also the goddess of the moon, which I think is what really gets Gabrielle's wheels turning. Try to make it work, dear. No more arguments, my decision is final." A single peal of thunder growled in the distance as Zeus blasted off.

Aphrodite: "Hmph. Should have made ME the goddess of the moon! She's more like the goddess of mood disorder!"

So, for a time the two women lived in one house and two separate worlds as the fall days shortened and winter's cloak was pulled across the land...Until the moon began to swell once again.

Chapter VIII

The air had a way of pinching the skin when it was this cold. Sibyl felt it on her face as she peered out the front door...hmm, extra blankets tonight...she made a mental note as she closed the door and returned to her seat before the central hearth, grateful for the roaring fire.

Shortly, the front door blew open and Xena stomped in, escorted by the dancing and spinning Twins. "Feels like snow," she announced. Shrugging off her fur leggings and cape, she took a chair next to Sibyl's by the warmth. "You know, the pasture fence wall seems to be in excellent repair." She said casually.

"Oh, are you sure? Maybe you'd better check again." The older woman suggested.

"I did check. The Twins and I walked the line twice. I wanted to be sure Artemis wasn't testing the perimeter. Not a stone out of place, Sibyl."

"Well then, very good. Let's see, the orchard-"

"Pruned weeks ago."

"Yes, how nice! And the garden -"

"Turned over." A grin drifted across the warriors beautiful face. She was enjoying the moment of careless intimacy with her old friend and mentor.

"I don't suppose the firewood situation needs any more help from you. I believe the wood shed is full. Well, then. What has all this effort brought to you?"

"You mean what has it brought to you, don't you?" Xena joked lightly. "Actually, I feel much more at ease, though I don't have any new ideas. I guess I just haven't been thinking about it. But...I'm still pretty stirred up, all the damn time."

"Then you are fine, dear princess."

"But I still don't know what to do."

"You know, there may be a problem with the roof..." Sibyl mused.

"Okay, okay. I get the point. It's time I cleared the air with Gabrielle. Is that what you want me to say?"

"Actually, you could use a bath."

Xena didn't see the other woman's face break into a broad grin at her retreating back.

A short while later, Xena padded in robe and slippers down the long hallway and stairs to the bath. Knowledge about the divine power of the place had often led her to avoiding it altogether. She bathed in a pond down in the pasture more than she bathed in 'Gaea's Entrance'. It also meant passing the door to the library, where Gabrielle almost always was. But on this cold night she needed to feel warm down to her bones before she could meditate. With the grace of familiar motions, she knotted her hair up on her head and folded the robe into a pillow, which she placed along the edge of the bath. Slowly, she lowered her long frame into the steaming water inch by inch, breathing deeply. She let herself sink down until her nose was just above the water level, then she put her head on the makeshift pillow. She began a simple meditation, counting one hundred breaths. She didn't feel the sleep come somewhere around sixty. It was a clean slumber, free of Morpheus, nightmares, and obnoxious visits from dead enemies.

Gabrielle was finishing up a scroll from one of the pleasure houses of Athens that gave explicit details about sex. All kinds of sex, sex between men and women, men and men, women and women, multiple partners, sex with those of the third and fourth genders, and self pleasuring. And then among any of these combinations there were apparently infinite ways of combining bodies together. She was especially interested in references to the pleasures of touching one's mouth to the body of one's lover. But unfortunately the writers never spelled out what one's mouth did, or where it was done. Still, it was very interesting...

Gabrielle stood up from the couch and stretched, finding the area between her legs moistened. She slipped her hand through the overlap in her kilt and felt herself again. Her hand had explored there a lot recently. One day in the library, she had brought herself to climax so many times she lost count. She felt her clothes sticking to her, and decided she needed a bath.

Chapter IX

Arriving at the bath, Gabrielle was surprised and delighted to find Xena half suspended in the pool and fast asleep. She was slick, buoyant, relaxed, and best of all, completely nude. Gabrielle let her hungry eyes devour the sight of this woman so displayed; they trailed down her long neck, they licked her bare shoulders. They ate up her breasts, bobbing unencumbered. They mingled with the jet-black hair floating around the beautiful face. Gabrielle licked her lips and gave some thought to her promise to Sibyl. She decided to stay, but bathing with Xena would have to be completely out of the question. The young woman sat so her legs curled around Xena's pillowed head. With her free hand she gently moved a wet strand of hair from across her brow. Xena's head made a tiny movement and her lids parted slightly. The light in her eyes shined through her dark lashes in luminous blue crescents.

"Gabrielle?" She simply gazed up into the loving face of the bard. Then she realized she was naked. She allowed her body to sink beneath the surface, and then she backed and turned to face Gabrielle, having put the length of the pool between them.

The bard spoke quickly to reassure the edgy warrior. "It's okay Xena, there's nothing to worry about. But you are a beautiful woman and I do notice."

"Hand me my robe, Gabrielle." Trying to keep her face under control, Xena pulled herself up and out of the bath, and caught the bundle as it was tossed to her. As she put on the robe, Xena noticed that Gabrielle was removing her boots. "How are your studies going?" She asked, hoping to trigger a long and distracting monologue.

"Very well. I have learned quite a few interesting things. You know, you are the subject of more than one epic tale, Xena." Gabrielle shook off her boots and began to work the laces of her top loose.

"Really?" Xena unknotted her wet hair and draped a towel over her head.

"Oh, yes. You are notorious." Xena didn't see as Gabrielle's top came off. "You had more time for...pleasure... than I would have thought, being a warlord and all." Gabrielle's hands loosened the fastenings of her kilt.

Xena's yanked the towel off her head, about to speak, only to have her breath taken away by the sight of the now partially naked woman. Gabrielle's hands were flat against her belly and slipping down into the waistband of her kilt. "You were actually quite active in arranging for your own pleasure." Xena's eyes watched the waistband slip with exquisite slowness down around the young woman's hips. "You know, you have changed so much. It's hard for me to imagine you that way now. What do they call it...a dominatrix?" The waistband had reached the fiery curls of Gabrielle's pubic hair. Fear and desire warred within Xena, but she remained rooted to the floor. She couldn't believe the transformation that had taken place in the bard, who was watching her now with a predator's eyes.

Gabrielle was fascinated by the look on Xena's face. ...this was definitely worth the risk..."But that's not really who you are now, is it, Xena? You learned to surrender power." The bard's voice pitched dangerously low. "But have you learned to surrender your heart?"

The kilt finished it's decent by dropping to the floor abruptly. Xena felt herself take a sharp breath, and had to smile...she's got me in the palm of her hand...

Gabrielle decided to finish her teasing with a bard's flourish. She sat on the edge of the pool. With her eyes locked onto Xena's, she let her hand reach down into the folds of her sex to rub herself lightly. "I've learned that my desire for you can make me climax when I do this to myself. It's not hard." She tilted her head back and regarded Xena with hooded eyes, her heart-shaped lips slightly parted, her strawberry hair cascading down her back. Her hand movements intensified. "Would you like to watch me climax, Xena?"

The tall strong woman could barely stand; her legs were shaking so badly. It was time to go. "Gabrielle, we made a promise...I've got to go." She turned away though it hurt terribly to do so. She passed by the doorways to the meditation rooms, that was out of the question, now. As she reached the other end of the hall, she felt a light touch on her arm and found Gabrielle beside her, a towel wrapped around her body and her eyes brimming.

"Oh, Xena! I'm so sorry. Please forgive me. I know we made a promise, but we didn't bathe together and I thought there was a little wiggle room. Please don't be - oooh!"

She suddenly found herself pushed up against a wooden door by the powerful body of the former warlord. Xena's bathrobe had fallen open. Her long-muscled thigh forced itself between Gabrielle's legs and lifted her up off the floor. Through the towel, Xena began to move against her sex, using the hard sinews in her own groin to rock against Gabrielle's clitoris. The warrior's movements were experienced and accurate; strong hands grasped her bottom and pulled her higher. In a matter of moments, a very surprised Gabrielle was very close to climaxing. Xena growled, "There is a little wiggle room, Gabrielle." A warm tongue caressed the blushing whorls of her ear. Then, very deliberately, the warrior slowed down her assault on the bard's body, until finally both women just stood there, quivering in each other's arms.

"But not like this. Soon. Go ahead and bathe." Xena released Gabrielle tenderly and, brushing her lips against a dark eyebrow, backed away. Then she was gone, leaving wet footprints behind on the flagstones.

Now it was Gabrielle who was rooted to the floor. She was in shock from the intensity of Xena's passion. ...well, I guess I deserved that...she thought wryly. She turned back and regarded Gaea's entrance with a new aware indeed...


Sibyl looked up from her thoughts by the fire. Xena was back, barefoot and wet in a wrinkled bathrobe. When she got closer Sibyl saw there was more than one fire burning in the room. She decided to wait the other woman out, and settled back into her chair with a patient grin.

Xena took her seat and stared at the flames. Pothos, appeared at her feet. More accurately, on her feet. Something about Xena's feet always drove Pothos wild; he would happily spend all day rubbing, licking, and playfully nipping at Xena's bare toes. Normally, she would try to tolerate a little of the play because it was so endearing, but tonight she was too distracted to appreciate the cat's frenzy of affection.

Squirming, Xena finally spoke up. "You set me up, Sibyl."

"And you know a better way?"

Xena let that one go, moving her feet away from Pothos, who chirped back at her. "So what kind of scrolls do you have in that library of yours?"

"Gaea's library - "

"Like I said." Xena chanced a glare. Gabrielle had told her about Sibyl's relationship with Gaea. She was still a little miffed that she hadn't figured it out on her own. Not that it changed anything.

"Have you ever noticed how extraordinarily concise some of our conversations are? You know, the poetry of Sappho was valued for the beauty of its extreme simplicity of form and message. It is a type of meditation to write such poetry. As are our little chats. Do you not find it so?"

Xena stared down at her feet, one of which Pothos had captured with all four striped paws. Carefully, as the giddy feline eyed her with an open mouth and dilated eyes, she extracted her cringing foot. "I don't think of my conversations with you as particularly brief. You romanticize." Xena countered. Then she braced her feet on the floor and said, "I've got two choices. Go to bed right now and look at the roof tomorrow morning, or go back there and make love to Gabrielle."

"Well, it's always nice to have your choices laid out clearly before you. What are the cons? I already know what the pros are."

Xena thought about it and said seriously, "I will die if I try to hold this line. I am not able to control myself any more. Eventually we will have to leave here and something or someone will catch me dreaming."

The priestess got up and walked over to kneel at the feet of the robed fighter. Taking Xena's hands into her own, bracelets jingling as they slid down her upraised arms; speaking in a honey-rasped voice that reached deep into Xena's heart. "Then go. Go, Warrior Princess."

Without a word, Xena kissed the palms of the priestess' hands, and she went.


Back in the bath, Gabrielle had settled in for a good long soak. She drifted, savoring the memory of Xena's hands on her body, replaying the intimate moment like a favorite song. Suddenly, she heard a rumble and a snort right beside her head. Turning, she saw General Grumpy, as she had come to call the enormous gray cat. He was sort of purring, slurping air in and snorting it out. Then, with two huge feet, he reached up onto her bare shoulder and began to make what Sibyl called 'happy paws'. His eyes closed with feline pleasure, making his little face almost disappear. He raised his chin to the ceiling, as his slurping and snorting actually got louder.

Gabrielle looked up at the unexpected sound of soft laughter. Xena was leaning against the doorway to the room. Then, seriously, she said, "I'm back."

The General looked up from his work and belted out a Meowoowooow, his pink mouth gaping. The tall warrior walked across the floor toward the bath, light and shadow running on her face as she passed in and out of the lamplight. Her eyes never left Gabrielle's. As she paused on the opposite side of the bath, General Grumpy flounced away, stubby ears flat and fluffy tail twitching.

Xena stood for a moment longer, savoring it all before taking the leap of her life. Gabrielle stood up, water sheeting down her body. She then held her position in the water, leaving her thoughts unsaid, but Xena could see her eyes were dark wells of desire, waiting.

Gabrielle could feel the elemental powers of the universe gathering around them, bouncing between them like shooting stars. Perhaps destinies uncounted hung in the balance, but right now they only knew of their own. Two lifelines stretched out before them, strong and twining.

Xena dropped her robe and stepped into the mirrored surface of the still water, speaking softly, her face lit from within. "Gabrielle. I need you to know that if we make love it will be my first time of the heart. If we make love I will give myself to you, and I have never done that. Ever. You will be the only one for me. Ever."

"I'm so ready for you, woman. I've waited for you..." Her words faded in the blaze of her beloved's crystal eyes.

"I commit myself to you, bard."

Gabrielle didn't hesitate an instant, "And I to you, warrior."

The two women leaned into one another. To Xena, Gabrielle was now a shining being of light, light in her hair, light on her wet skin, and light deep in her loving eyes. She allowed waves of passion to sweep through her, warming and chilling her. Gabrielle was very still except for her eyes, which danced over Xena's chest, shoulders and face.

Things were becoming very hot. The air around them was sticky, and their short breaths came in gasps. The tips of their heaving breasts touched with the smallest of movements. Xena dropped her mouth to within an inch or two of Gabrielle's and said in a low throaty voice, "Turn around, Gabs. Let's take it slow." Gabrielle turned without protest; she wanted to ride this wave for as long as she could.

Xena took a soapy sponge and rubbed Gabrielle with it lightly, spreading the soap all over her back and neck. Then, she set the sponge aside and brought the flats of her callused hands in contact with the other woman's warm slick skin. Xena smiled as she felt a shiver. So many baths they had taken together, both of them secretly longing for these softer touches, both covering up the longing with talk and play.

Even though she moved hardly at all, Gabrielle seemed to be in motion beneath Xena's fingers. She knelt and her hands worked down in a rolling motion to the tail of the bard's spine. At the base, she found two sensitive dimples and pressed them softly with her thumbs. Gabrielle gasped as she felt a cord of ecstatic energy pull tightly from her groin up into her chest. She hung balanced on the balls of her feet, holding her breath. Xena lipped the tender skin of the firm bottom, smiling with pleasure at the younger woman's sensitivity. ...she... is exquisite...The more she aroused her beloved's passion, the more her own sense of power and focus returned to her. After all the problems with concentration, now her only purpose was to pleasure Gabrielle and feed upon her ecstasy. Xena stood and wrapped one strong arm around the other's waist, steadying her, watching her, pulling her closer. They both began to sway.

Gabrielle could hardly believe it was finally happening. Some part of her worried that this was a delusional dream following a head injury, or a trick of the gods, or something someone slipped into her nut bread. Every one of those things, and more had happened, after all. But the truth of Xena's love anchored her. The bard could feel Xena's heat, could feel it radiating into her back, through the touch of Xena's breasts soft against her shoulder blades. Then, Xena's hand was sliding up her stomach; was cradling and lifting her breast; was rubbing her palm around and around a buttoned up nipple...Gabrielle couldn't wait any longer... She turned her head and reached up with her questing mouth to join them both together...

When true desire has been checked for too long, and then is suddenly given the language of physical love, enormous forces are released into the world. In that instant, an uncultivated hillside in what would someday be called South America, collapsed in a mud slide. But also in that very same instant, there were hundreds of miraculous recoveries, several million original ideas, and a record hatching of monarch butterflies. You just never know what love will do.

...Though no one was there to hear it, the cacophony of noise (celebration and panic) from Mount Olympus was deafening. At Gaea's, before her well-banked fire, Sibyl only smiled sleepily. Then she rose, slippers flapping across the floor as she took herself off to bed...

Without their lips breaking contact, Gabrielle turned around in the circle of Xena's arms, wrapping her hands up around Xena's neck, arching her body into the taller woman's. Each called out to the other; their mouths and hands searching with abandon. Their breasts fit, Xena's on top of Gabrielle's, like a pair of puzzle pieces.

Xena squeezed tightly and dunked them both into the water to rinse off the soap. When they came back up Gabrielle's legs were wrapped around the warrior's hips, clinging to her. She walked them over to the side of the pool and sat Gabrielle on its edge, Gabrielle's hands mapping her body frantically. Each woman was a little crazed by with the other's nearness; they moaned and swayed, their arms grasped and caressed, their lips rubbed, and tongues twined thick and warm.

Both of them faint with excitement, they lay back onto the warm marble, Gabrielle below Xena's powerful body. The sensation of being pressed firmly into the floor by Xena's passion shot through the bard, whose hips began their first, tentative movements. Over and over, Xena would pull back just far enough to look into Gabrielle's eyes and caress her face. Over and over Gabrielle would bring her warrior back down to her hungry young mouth and thrusting tongue.

Then Xena backed up and retreated away from the bed of her lover's body. "Lay back, Gabrielle." She instructed in a husky whisper. Gabrielle laid back. Xena pushed a pile of folded towels behind her lover's head "I want you to watch me love you." Gabrielle watched. Then Xena disappeared beneath the water's surface. A moment later, she rose up unblinking between Gabrielle's knees, water sheeting down her face, her eyes two stunning bolts of power.

The younger woman began to tremble violently. "Xena...please, whatever it is, for goddess sake will you please just do it!?"

But Xena was in no hurry. There was lost time to make up for. Watching, she lowered her shining wet face down to the goose-bumpy skin of Gabrielle's stomach and breathed wickedly into her navel. Xena watched the bard's every move, listened to her every sound.

"Are you watching me, bard?" Xena whispered.

"Yeeeesss, Xena...." The green eyes were glassy and fixed on Xena's face.

Deliberately, so that Gabrielle could see the length of her tongue, she opened her lips and let it slide thickly down along the line of muscle and sinew that angled up the side of Gabrielle's sculpted belly. The sounds that Gabrielle was making were becoming frantic. Xena let her tongue snake out again and twist the dark amber curls with its tip, her eyes watching. Gabrielle began to guess what Xena was up to, and the thought it made her wild. Her hips moved pleadingly, reaching for Xena, and her face became very serious. Xena's hands joined in the dance as they slid up Gabrielle's thighs and wrapped around her glistening sex. She gasped and groaned when she felt Xena gently pull her apart. She felt hot breath on her netherlips, stirring through her hair. For a moment, things got very dim and her eyes closed.

"Gabrielle...Gabrielle, watch me now." She looked down, whimpering, and saw Xena's open mouth lower onto her clitoris, ringing it inside her warm wet lips. She cried out in a convulsion of ecstasy at the most intimate touch she had ever known. Her body took over, wiping out all remaining thoughts. The whole of her being was condensed down to that one throbbing point. Then, deep inside her mouth, the tip of Xena's tongue flicked and circled the swollen bud of Gabrielle's desire. The body of the young woman jumped and vibrated like a lyre string plucked too hard. Xena smiled into Gabrielle's sex, flicking her again and again, devouring the sight of her lover's passion. Xena's own desire was building in her like a storm. Hungrily, she sucked the hard knob in and out, causing a whole new crisis for the bard to cope with.

Gabrielle never had experienced such an intensity of passion. She looked down again and almost fainted at the sight of the face of this ravishing woman joined to her sex in such an intimate touch. Those was far more than she could bear. Just when she thought she couldn't take it any more, Xena intensified the sucking, pulling her in harder. She held on much longer than she thought she could, then she felt a great helpless surrender raise her hips for an instant of stillness, and an explosive rapture shook her arching body in spasm after spasm. She reached desperately for Xena's head, weeping.

Xena let Gabrielle pull her up to mouth a tight breast, as one of her hands reached back between her legs. As her body began to quiet from the climax, a strong lean finger circled Gabrielle's wet entrance, leaving a trail of heat where it had passed. Xena's soft face nuzzled her breast; white teeth toyed gently with her stiff nipple.

Gabrielle knew then that Xena wasn't going to stop. Knees wide, her pelvis tilted sharply upward, Gabrielle begged for more. She felt Xena enter her with a single burning finger. Astonished at the intensity of sensation, she was not prepared for a second finger. The warrior was doing such surprising things with her hands and body. A thumb rubbed against her clit, as strong fingers reached deep inside her.

Xena reared up high over her beloved's sprawled body. Gabrielle watched the muscles move in the warrior's arm as it pumped into her. A look of purest desire came over Xena's face, and then her other hand moved down into her own throbbing center. Gabrielle's whole body rocked on Xena's arm, captivated by the erotic vision of her lover pleasuring herself. Xena's fingers slid quickly up and down with expert movements. Their searching eyes locked on each other again, the passion circling between them.

Gabrielle saw when Xena's climax began; her blue eyes widened and she threw her head back, but no sound at all came from her clenched teeth. Even as she shook and bucked with the convulsions, Xena had the presence of mind to push deep into Gabrielle and then hook her fingers. Then Gabrielle groaned something incoherent and seized again, releasing floods of her honey into Xena's hand.

Still aflame, Xena lowered herself onto the body of her lover. Between the kisses she gave, she asked a question that a day ago would have been unthinkable. "Gabrielle, I need you once more...your mouth...can you love me with your mouth?"

In answer, the bard licked her lips and said, "Anything, Xena, anything at all for you...oh, yes let me taste you..."

Xena smiled, "Here, I'll make it easy for you." She took the pile of towels and, leaving two as a cushion for Gabrielle's head, also put one on either side. Then, almost shyly, Xena put a knee on each pad, straddling Gabrielle's face. Gabrielle was able to reach Xena's turgid nether lips easily with her mouth and tongue. She breathed deeply and lightly kissed, then nuzzled and tasted Xena's dark opening. She let her tongue slip inside where it was wet, then ran it up and down the sweet opening, getting a true taste of her lover's sweetest passion.

She pushed Xena up a few inches to get a quick look up, and reaching up with her hand she exposed a large and erect clitoris. It was Gabrielle's very first glimpse of a woman's sex. She lightly pulled the hood back, exposing the sensitive skin of Xena's clitoris, and rubbed it gently with a fingertip. Xena's moan sounded like a wild animal's. Smiling she pulled Xena down onto her opening mouth and sucked the node inside. The view up the warrior's taut body was incredible. Breasts swayed and abdominal muscles clenched; muscled arms reached down to tangle demanding hands into her hair.

Xena tossed her hair back and rocked herself gently into her lover's mouth, seeking. Looking down, she worshipped the sweet face pressed into her, and the luminous green eyes gazing up. The bard's tongue was telling a wonderful new story. Her face froze in an expression of agony or ecstasy, as she felt teeth grip the shaft of her clitoris and delicately scrape it, up and down. Then the teeth anchored at her base, and Gabrielle's warm tongue began to slowly swirl around Xena's stranded and pulsing clit. She held herself in suspension for several heartbeats, then threw up her powerful arms, fists clenched, and voiced a single, desperate cry. Her magnificent body clenched over and over, soundless once again.

She slumped forward over the body of her lover, pivoted around, and gathered a grinning Gabrielle up in her arms. Their lips were reunited after having traveled far; they tasted themselves in the sweet musk. Again, the passion arose in them, relentless. The warrior pulled Gabrielle hard up against her and eased them back into the warm bath water. Using Gabrielle's natural buoyancy, and under an assault of her salty kisses, Xena turned her around so she face away again, her bottom nested into Xena's lap, her body within easy reach. One hand ran gently over Gabrielle's clit, the other reached from behind and buried itself inside her opening. Slow movements inevitably became faster ones. The bard's hands reached up and behind Xena's head. The warrior lifted her slightly and rotated her sideways so she could grind her own sex into Gabrielle's rounded hip, while working her vagina and clit with both hands. Her even white teeth held a bite full of her shoulder. Gabrielle felt dizzy with the unabated passion and conflicting sensations Xena was producing from her body. This time, it was first Gabrielle whose eyes opened wide, and whose soulful cries brought her lover to release as well. Both women blacked out momentarily, then came back clasped together, checking each other, touching noses and brows. Xena was still pressed tightly into Gabrielle's leg, pumping softly.

Xena withdrew her hands and sighed. She pulled Gabrielle close, wrapping her arms and legs around her. With her head resting forward and Gabrielle's leaning back, they rested in symmetry, their mouths turned in and occasionally seeking a reassuring touch of the other. In this way, they fell fast asleep in the warm water.

...Gaea added tiny wavelets to rock the spent lovers tenderly... I do love these two... she thought, deciding to indulge herself. The women never saw the watery form of the priestess Sibyl rise up out of the pool to anoint each sleeping cheek with a shining kiss, silver for Xena and gold for Gabrielle. "Silver for consciousness and gold for slumber." Her honey-rasped whisper was unmistakable. Then she sank back down again. ..."Someday they will save the world"...

Chapter XI

Xena awoke without her usual start, her cheek tingling. She was still wrapped around the smaller woman, as if her own strong arms and legs were old tree roots and Gabrielle's body the earth below. Power moved in her again, resounding in her soul. Xena tucked in her chin so she could look down into Gabrielle's sleeping face. With a small sound of wonder and delight, she tightened her hold a little bit. Gabrielle made slurping sounds and murmured something that sounded like ..."More wine, pleeese."

"Gabrielle..." Xena called softly.

"Mmmm? Ooooo...Xenaaah..." Gabrielle nuzzled into her neck. Abruptly, Gabrielle sat bolt upright and turned sideways in Xena's lap. Without opening her eyes, she said, "Be sure to get some baklava!" Then she slumped back onto the pillow of Xena's shoulder and, in a couple of breaths, was snoring lightly. Gabrielle snored the way the General purred, with a charming collection of slurps and snorts.

Xena thought the whole thing was pretty amazing. She thought everything about Gabrielle was pretty amazing. She smiled and thought of other amazing things that Gabrielle might be likely to do soon. It was time for a plan. There was no way of telling what time of day or night it was, down in the bath. And Xena didn't want to be parted even for an instant from her lover. It was time to go upstairs. Xena simply picked the sleeping woman up in her arms and walked up and out of the bath. Rather than deal with robes and towels, she kept right on going down the hall and up the stairs with the peacefully snoring Gabrielle nestled and dripping against her skin.

Xena got to her own door and managed the latch with her knee. But she hadn't cleaned her room lately, and the obstacles on the path to her bed were yet to be numbered fully. Actually, Xena's room was perpetually a mess whenever she was in residence at Gaea's. Aside from maintaining the immaculate condition of her tackle, saddle, trip gear, armor and weapons, Xena had little interest in belongings. Not to say she didn't acquire belongings, she just had little interest in them. Most of that variety of Xena's belongings resided in this room in huge trunks. When Xena stayed at the house, a great deal of stuff came out of those trunks and then remained out. Many people who heard of her poor housekeeping were surprised, having seen her professional care of her gear on the road. But, getting to know her better, they realized it was consistent with her character, after all.

...well, how was I to know a thing like this would happen tonight?... Xena's feet, having kicked open the door, now went to work shoving baskets of leather scraps and harness hardware out of the way. Gabrielle's snores were sounding more disrupted, and Xena began to regret her "flair for the dramatic" as Sibyl called it. She edged around an open trunk lid, and kicked a tangle of old boots and a dressing gown under the bed. ...I've got to do something about this room...But first she had to put Gabrielle down on the bed. With a start, she realized that the turned-back bed had been made fresh with scented sheets, with one of Sibyl's little bundles of herbs on each pillow. Beside the bed was a small tray with a lamp, chilled wine, cheese, fruit, several vials of oils, and some of Sibyl's candied dates. An island of beauty in a sea of chaos. ...I'm going to have to thank her for this, whether she's smug about it or not...Most important to the still wet women were the two fresh towels folded neatly on the coverlet. Xena sat on one towel, cradling Gabrielle in her lap. Gabrielle who was holding on to her sleep even more stubbornly than usual, snuggled close, smacked her lips and murmured, "...baklava..."

Xena smiled and took up the second towel, carefully drying her lover's body. She looked at Gabrielle with a renewed curiosity and interest. She found a mole just to the right of midline on her abdomen. She traced a few fading scars with the corner of the towel, and remembered where each had come from, each bandage they had required. But Gabrielle had survived all the odds against her, and looked stronger and healthier than ever before. Xena's towel dried a well-muscled thigh. Actually, she was in excellent physical condition. For the first time Xena realized that the young woman was thriving in her company, despite the almost constant danger. together has worked so far for us, why not more? Maybe it really is meant to be, like Sibyl says...But Xena had to clean her room. She laid the bard back and pulled up the soft cotton and wool covers. Gabrielle settled and sighed and was off dreaming again.

Xena was a woman with many skills. She had a talent for cleaning a room very quickly. But only when it really mattered. The trunks were the key to the whole thing. They were deep bodied, heavy lidded trunks that could take anything, even flying horseshoes. She quickly and quietly put her things into baskets and then the baskets went into the gaping trunks. Pothos had to be evicted from one of the baskets and put out the door. When the trunk lids were closed, the room was clean. She eyed the trunks warily. There would be a fine puzzle waiting for her to undo on some rainy day. Which is how the room got to the shape it was in to start with, naturally. Xena hated having extra stuff she didn't need or want, but couldn't throw something potentially useful away. She was happiest out on the trail with her few possessions under strict control. Once a long time ago, Sibyl told her the trunks would always be waiting here for her. Xena had interpreted that remark as a personal threat. Which is exactly what it was.

She took one of the bundles of garden herbs, held it over the lamp's flame, and then dropped it smoking into a clay bowl on top of one of the trunks. The aroma it released cleared the room of the odors of wet leather and steel. It also seemed to have a rousing effect on Gabrielle. Xena stood by the bed and watched Gabrielle writhe and stretch beneath the covers. She looked up to the window in the alcove above her bed and noticed it was still dark outside. The full moon lit up the landscape outside, revealing that it was snowing lightly.

Xena didn't need to think twice about her options; lifting the covers she slid into bed next to Gabrielle's warmth. Delighted, she found that touching Gabrielle's dry body was a completely different experience than touching Gabrielle's wet one. She drew back the heavy blankets; leaving Gabrielle covered with only a soft sheet. She found herself revisiting the long months of erotic tension between them, while staring at the now thin barrier between she and Gabrielle. She thought back to the cold nights they had shared blankets many of those nights was Gabrielle really sleeping?...Memories of the longing, once desperate, now enflamed her.

Xena began to slowly caress her beloved through the fabric with long, sweeping strokes of her callused sword hand, watching the cloth glide over the curves of Gabrielle's hips and waist. She sat up, reached out to Gabrielle's silken shoulders and drew her hands down across the white skin of her chest, below the tan line of her clothes. Soft sounds rose up from her caresses, her callused palm rasping against the cloth, which hissed in its turn against Gabrielle's skin. Effortlessly, she touched the body she had only imagined touching countless nights before, watching the bard recite a love poem or tell a story. Watching her own sun-darkened hands on the white skin, she let them gather the fabric as they passed over Gabrielle's breasts, exposing their young nakedness. Xena felt the heat rise in full strength with the rhythm of these simple movements. She felt nipples draw hot lines across her palms, as her hands moved downward. Xena's face became very serious. It was time for her lover to wake...

Chapter XII

Gabrielle had been dreaming about a marvelous feast. It went on and on, and she never got full. Course after course of exotic and tasty dishes appeared and disappeared. The best part was the baklava, more than she could eat or stuff into her pockets. It dripped in honey, and the crust was better than her mother's.

Abruptly, the dream shifted. There, a little ways out was an old, old woman, standing in the fog. Gabrielle realized she was in a doorway and the woman was outside. "Please come in"... Gabrielle gestured.

"Thank you, sweet Gabrielle. You are always the picture of hospitality, even in your dreams." The woman's head barely came up to Gabrielle's shoulders, and she leaned on an ancient caduceus staff: two entwined snakes surmounted by golden wings an ancient symbol of healing. Her dark face was deeply coweled, but Gabrielle could see two sharp eyes peering up at her through the gloom.

"You seem very familiar with me, but I don't know who you are."

"You are guest in my house, yet you don't know me?" Gabrielle jumped, about to speak. Gaea chuckled and took the bard's hands in her own. "Don't worry, child, I usually prefer things that way. Tonight, I wish you to know me. Gabrielle, I have seen you ever steer the ship of your destiny away from it's charted rout, unerringly bringing it into an course to intercept with Xena's. I don not know why, but you and she are for each other.

But know this: she comes out of a past that cannot be erased; reliving it is her greatest weakness; resisting it is her greatest strength. She is a Warrior. It is her battle alone and you may not share it. But you can help her live when she's not fighting it." The goddess let go of her hands and stepped back. "Help her live when she's not fighting, Gabrielle..." As Gaea's form dissolved into the fog thickening around them, she bent forward and touched her staff to Gabrielle's forehead. "Awake and help her live..."

Gabrielle's transition from dreams to waking was seamless. Without opening her eyes, she became aware she was in a bed with Xena in a full state of arousal beside her. She felt burning hands on the sheet over her body, and then laid out upon her bare chest. As the fiery touches rolled over her breasts she felt a stab of longing in her belly that was almost painful, and her eyes opened directly into Xena's.

Gaea's words still rang in the bard's ears as she looked up into the face of her beloved. She had caught her face in the most extraordinary expression of profound yearning. Her sad eyes looked like a wounded child's. She reached up and cupped her hand to her dark lover's cheek.

Demanding hands slipped lower on Gabrielle's body, blistering her with their heat. "Wait, Xena, hold on." Gabrielle had other ideas. "Please wait, Xena. I'm not ready" she fibbed. Xena drew her hand back with such speed that Gabrielle almost regretted her choice in tactics, but she had a hunch about how to help the warrior live. "I need you to help me take it slow, Xena. Let me give you a back rub. Would you turn over for me?"

That brought Xena back from wherever she had gone after recoiling, and she rolled over willingly. Gabrielle got up on her knees and began to prowl around the edges of Xena's body. She urged the compliant woman high enough to place a couple of pillows beneath her hips. The moment was transcendent, this beautiful, powerful being of her deepest desires laid out thus before her, this warrior disarmed.

Noticing the tray by the bed, she poured some oil into her palm to warm. With the other hand, she popped a couple of grapes in her mouth and poured two cups of wine. Remembering the orange, she took a grape and rubbed it against Xena's lips, which opened obediently to pull it in. Gabrielle grinned wickedly, her hunch about Xena had been dead right. She fed the warrior again, who accepted the next grape cradled in her tongue.

Taking the warmed oil, she spread it thickly across both palms. Then she put her hands down like a pair of wings at the small of Xena's powerful back, and drew them upward. A groan escaped from deep within Xena. Gabrielle's strong thumbs traced two firm paths along either side of Xena's spine as her stroke lengthened and spread to end finally at the rounds of her wide shoulders. With practiced hands, Gabrielle worked out the tension in her warrior's neck and shoulders, feeling the muscles loosen and tendons become supple. She found the old injuries and places where the pain always gathered in knots, and carefully worked them free. Then she picked up a big pinch of warm flesh, and rolled the skin up in her clever fingers all the way down Xena's spine to her lower back. She used her knuckles to reach deep into the powerful muscles. Xena was groaning regularly now, in a way that satisfied Gabrielle very much.

Refreshing the oil in her hands, she placed her spread hands across Xena's buttocks, an area she had less experience with, though not for lack of wanting to. Gabrielle thought Xena's bottom was magnificent; had savored any opportunity to view it unobserved when they bathed. It was very developed, joining the powerful thighs to her lean body. It was more than Gabrielle's small hands could handle. In a stroke she had only read about, she used an oiled elbow to push into the strong muscles and then loosen them in small circles. She was rewarded by the sound of Xena's gasp and the sight of her hips grinding into the pillows beneath.

Gabrielle felt another bolt of passion race through her body and into her warming sex. She sat back, knees spread. The erotic energy between her legs hummed like a beehive. One hand left Xena momentarily to dip into herself, and found honey. Leaning forward, Gabrielle's hand with its exotic tincture returned to trail a glistening finger around Xena's open mouth. Xena closed her eyes as her lips wrapped themselves around it and sucked it in gently...oooh that is soo nice... Gabrielle felt some of her self control loosen, and forced herself to remove the finger from Xena's mouth and return it to the task of kneading Xena's bottom. Xena's whole body was shining with the oil and deeply relaxed, yet she was still the picture of tension.

Xena was trying very hard not to turn over and ravish Gabrielle. The massage she was receiving was so far beyond any other she had ever been given, was so blatant in it's sensuality she felt an instinctual desire to respond. But she held herself still, remembering Gabrielle's words of caution.

Gabrielle spoke as she reached over for another vial of oil from the bedside, "That's it, Xena. Try to let yourself relax while I pleasure you." Gabrielle's moving hands circled each around a muscular cheek, then gently parted Xena's bottom. Holding her open, Gabrielle dipped a finger into the vial and dripped the oil into her lover's blushing sex. The finger moved up and down the length of Xena's vulva, leaving a slick trail behind, the long stroke ending in a tiny bump. Gabrielle purred, "Then, when I am done, I will be more than ready for what you want to do with me." She removed her hand from Xena, who arched back; head turned to the side, raven hair falling down her back, blue eyes watching her out of the corners. Gabrielle bent down and breathed into Xena's opening, warming the oil and activating it.

The oil Gabrielle had used began to burn lightly. Gently, she urged the warrior up to her knees. Xena's head drooped momentarily, awed at how easily sex came to Gabrielle. She was beginning to breathe quickly, in small gasps. When she felt Gabrielle position herself between her spreading legs she tossed her head back, tilting her burning sex upward, reaching, demanding. "Gabrielle!" she growled through clenched white teeth. "Do it!"

Gabrielle held herself still, her empathic senses fully extended. She held on for several more heartbeats, then she casually turned and took a long sip from a cup of wine on the bedside. In shock, Xena started to rear up, only to impale herself upon Gabrielle's fingers that punched deeply into her throbbing sex. Xena actually screamed.

Gabrielle was very pleased. Deep inside of Xena, she hooked her fingers; just outside of Xena, her thumb pressed into her clitoris. Then, to Xena's despair, Gabrielle stopped moving her hand. Gabrielle's other hand put down the wine and reached down into her own wet and swollen sex and entered. She sagged, her head lolling, flame colored hair washing across her face, for an instant overcome. But she took a deep breath and raised her chin, her eyes smoky with passion, and waited for Xena. She held still and waited not long before the motion in Xena's hips began, stroking her fingers. She pumped into herself with Xena's beats, and felt the pulse in her ears add to the rhythm in her hands. She began to reward Xena's hard work with strong strokes of her own, forming her hand into a javelin shape to reach deeper. The warrior growled and yelped as she struggled to take what she needed from the bard, their sex beginning to resemble a battle.

"Work it Xena, work it..." Gabrielle whispered hoarsely. Then she heard Xena's low growls become throaty roars. Her face in a grimace that made the cords stand out in her neck, Xena peaked, tossing her head in wave after wave of ecstasy. She rocked back and up onto her knees to receive the full impact of the spasms, her own hands now rubbing her sex violently, demanding a climax from her swollen clit. Gabrielle removed her fingers from inside herself, and bent low to attend to the needs of Xena's new position of choice. She never stopped the beat of the thrusts into the warrior, so it was with joy and wonder that she felt the band of muscles inside of Xena's passage clamp tightly around her over and over as Xena's body shook again with the orgasmic blows.

The warrior collapsed forward into the bed, seemingly spent, her hips heaving on the pillows. Gabrielle lay herself down over the warrior's wide back, carefully positioning her sex so that it nestled deeply into Xena's wonderful bottom. With her cheek against Xena's muscled back, the happy young woman rested, very pleased with herself, completely unaware of the volcano building beneath her.

Xena felt the arms and hands of her lover cover her own, completing the contact of their bodies. It was a delicious sensation. But Xena was far from spent. The warrior had never felt so...alive...before. Grabbing Gabrielle's arms and pushing off, she swung her leg out and back, and then flipped them both over in a wrestling move she'd learned from an Olympian athlete. It worked very effectively. Gabrielle found herself mashed face first into the pillows, then she was all alone as Xena bounced whooping off the bed.

In two leaps off of a couple of trunks, she had reached the weapons rack and drawn her sword ringing out of its scabbard. Voicing her battle cry, she whipped the blade back and forth around her head and body. Then she paused. For an instant of stillness, her hair settled around her shoulders and breasts like thunderclouds descending into the hills. Then, centering the point on Gabrielle, she held forth the blade in two fists and advanced upon her. Gabrielle knelt on the bed with a sheet snatched up around her full breasts, eyes huge. The tip of the blade was just level with the wide-open pupil of Xena's left eye.

In a very quiet voice that said the stakes might be high, Xena said, "Now it's my advantage, bard. You made a promise, fair and square." Gabrielle just nodded in agreement, not trusting her voice. "Now, I have some instructions for you. Will my instructions be acceptable to you, bard?" Xena's face was sublime, eyebrow arched provocatively. Gabrielle nodded again, now completely speechless. Xena lowered her sword point. "Good. I thought you might say that. You are apparently aware that I in my past was a dominatrix. Did you learn what that meant, Gabrielle?" She moved closer to the bed.

"Yes." She sort of fibbed again.

"Do you understand that it is, for you and I, a consensual act? That if at any point or for any reason you want me to stop, you must simply say 'mercy'. You understand that? Hmm?"

"Yes." Gabrielle whispered.

"Do you consent, Gabrielle?"

"Oh, yes Xena..." she breathed.

"I thought you would say that, too." The sword point came up again, followed by a command. "Kneel on the bed before me, my bard...a little wider," the flat of her blade slapped between the young woman's thighs, separating them wider. Gabrielle did as she was told. "Don't move, Gabrielle. I mean it." She flicked the hilt and suddenly the tip of her sword was at the base of Gabrielle's neck. Gabrielle was paralyzed but unafraid, her truth-sense telling her she was being loved intimately. The cold line of steel traveled down between her breasts and stopped under each one, lifting it on the side of the blade. "Watch, bard." Xena commanded, as it reached further down over the smooth skin of her belly. With another flick, the razor edge shaved off a small bit of Gabrielle's nether hair, which drifted slowly to the ground. The young woman was shaking with the desire. Xena's teasing alone had taken her to a new level of erotic experience. "Breath, Gabrielle." Xena ordered. She realized she had stopped and took two refreshing breaths. Then the very tip of Xena's blade descended between her cringing thighs and pressed the flat against her wet sex. Xena slid the chilly steel over her ever so slightly... Gabrielle thrilled to the danger until her trembling threatened disaster. Xena removed the blade tip quickly and safely. "Turn and face the window, bard. Remain kneeling."

Gabrielle turned and faced the window over Xena's bed. A cup of wine was pressed to her mouth, which she drank from thirstily. Then the warrior's hands were back with food, with strips of cheese, figs and grapes, all fed into Gabrielle's open mouth. Gabrielle ate it all with the warrior's breasts brushing her back. She had lost all sense of the story line of her life, except for the infinite world of this bed. She had become a story for someone else to write about. She allowed herself to be fed, and even arched sensuously into the morsels, using lips and tongue, to show Xena her willingness. She nibbled and sucked Xena's lean fingertips only when they were offered.

"Move back to the edge of the bed and bend over it." Xena instructed. Her voice betrayed nothing. Gabrielle's heart leaped as she quickly positioned herself. "Offer yourself, bard." Gabrielle arched into the new position, appreciating why Xena had loved it so much. She felt completely revealed to her lover. It was delicious.

Xena's burning hands started on her ankles, setting her skin afire as they moved up past her knees and thighs to sweep across her bottom. They grabbed fistfuls of the creamy flesh, kneading. The thumbs reached closer to her opening, spreading her moisture, widening the entrance. Then the hands withdrew and she felt nothing. "Xe-?" She whimpered, waiting, feeling her exposure. Then gratefully, she felt a push, as slowly Xena entered her. The warrior seemed to fill her unexpectedly, and she felt herself tighten around the pressure.

Then, to Gabrielle's utter shock, Xena brought both hands down onto her rear end...both hands...then what- Gabrielle's questions blew away into nothingness, as she caught the reflection of them both in the glass of the window. There was Xena behind her, hips moving gently against her, midnight hair in a tangled mane around her ardent face, stomach clenching with each soft push. Gabrielle had no idea how this could be happening, and didn't care. The feelings in the deepest part of her belly didn't care.

She began to goad Xena on with her hips, calling out to her with an urgent voice. Xena gripped tightly into the crease between hip and thigh and pulled the smaller woman into her thrusts, their bodies slapping together. For long moments their drums beat on. She felt herself soften as the thrusts reached deeper. Somewhere in the frenzy, Gabrielle felt her whole body clench and hold. Her vision blurred, and then she came violently, drenching Xena behind her.

Something about the softer sounds Gabrielle made as she climaxed echoed unexpectedly into the depths of Xena's own soul. She felt a great welling up in her chest. Unbuckling the leather covered wooden phallus and its harness, she turned Gabrielle around and gathered her in tightly to her body, dropping all pretense and pride. Resting her cheek against the top of the other woman's head, she let her tears of gratitude fall freely into the amber hair.

Then she reached back and pulled the heavy covers up, drawing Gabrielle down to lay beside her. There was still no sign of light dawning through the window. In her arms, Gabrielle lay shuddering, tears streaking her face, as well. Xena kissed her face clean and then each trembling eyelid. Finally, she tasted the sweet lips she found raised to her.

Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked up at her passionate lover and felt the love Xena had for her swelling inside. She snuggled close, put her head on a broad shoulder, her leg across a long thigh, and flattened her hand over Xena's pounding heart. She felt the beats, once racing, slow; the strong body soften, finally satiated.

Gabrielle yawned. "I've got to sleep again, my love..." she pleaded.

"Yes, rest. I'll have to let you off easy just this once." She was half-asleep herself.

...This time there were no gods or goddesses were around to guide the lover's slumber. Not even a tiny elemental sprite bothered with them at this hour. They made due with only each other, and the island world of their wonderful bed.

Chapter XIII

Xena's first waking thought was not about Gabrielle and their long night of passion, but of her toes. Something was chewing on her toes. She squinted in the bright light pouring through the window and saw Pothos sitting beside her exposed foot, nibbling like he was snacking on catnip and butter. She pulled her foot under the covers, then noticed a slurping sound coming from the bed beside her. She turned and found the General sitting like a stone lion on Gabrielle's chest, looking intently down into her face, stubby ears pricked forward. As Xena watched, he meowed directly into the sleeping face and began to make "happy paws" violently into Gabrielle's neck. Before Xena could reach him, Gabrielle's hand came up and scooped him expertly off.

She grinned sleepily and said, "Every morning we've been here." Then she paused and smiled up at Xena, remembering. "Good morning, Xena."

"Good morning, Gabrielle." The warrior grabbed the bard and pinned her to the bed. "It's the morning after. Any regrets?"

Gabrielle smiled sweetly, her green eyes warm and intimate. She reached up to tangle her hands in Xena's dark hair. "No regrets. A request, perhaps." She pulled Xena down on top of her, reaching for her lover with her whole body. The musk from their night of lovemaking hung over the bed in the morning sun, draping around their small world of soft movements and whispered endearments. They kissed slowly, joyfully, with passion building in their mouths and in their bellies. "Let me, let me." Gabrielle moaned and pushed against Xena, who rolled off of her willingly. Gabrielle knelt, drew the sheet back and looked at Xena in the light of morning. The fighting woman put a muscled arm behind her head and looked back lazily from her pillows like a goddess out of an erotic dream. She bent and kissed a small mark on Xena's right breast, the one she had once looked at so covertly. She pulled in a mouthful of the sweet flesh and rolled it around. Then, bracing a leg between both of Xena's, she lay herself down onto the stunning body of her lover, pressing and pushing with her hips.

Xena was enjoying Gabrielle's first sexual experiments. The feeling of the young woman learning about arousal in this way drew the jaded warrior into an experience of rediscovery. She smiled and pushed back in small movements, gently encouraging the exploration.

Gabrielle growled softly as she picked up the sensations from Xena's hips. A deep throb began to beat in her sex, her belly, and her ears. She pushed blindly with her pubic mound, looking for a place to anchor. Then Xena brought up her knee, covering her hungry opening. Gabrielle groaned and intensified her hip's movements, feeling her sex slide against Xena's thigh.

Grinding against Xena with increasing abandon, she pulled up onto her elbows and searched with her knees for purchase in the smooth sheets. Then she closed her eyes as she felt Xena's hands, one behind and one in front of her. They held her steady, entered and caressed her. The hands pushed her up into a kneeling position, and she hung there suspended, straddling Xena's body. Gabrielle's own hands came up to squeeze and cup her breasts, one traveled even to her mouth. She sucked her finger and opened her eyes to look directly into Xena's.

Xena found herself once again sailing away on the thick wind of Gabrielle's maturing sexual intensity. She watched her lover's climax build slowly in stages until, like a damn breaking, she came in shuddering jerks, hips bucking with each spasm.

Long before Xena would have thought she was ready, Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked down at her, a smile on her face. "You are so tricky. Now, let me!"

She turned Xena over onto her face, wanting to see her beautiful bottom in the golden light. It still shone from the sex and the oil of the night before. She took in big handfuls of it, kneading it, pulling it apart. She looked at Xena's tiny wrinkled anus thoughtfully, remembering the euphoric stories of anal sex between men she had read about. She bent down her head and touched the tip of her warm tongue to the wrinkled opening, delighted to feel it pulse and to hear Xena's breathing become ragged. Reaching over to the bedside, she dipped a finger into the pot of oil and brought it back to massage Xena's quivering sphincter.

Xena groaned miserably; her hips pushed futilely into the bed. Desperately, her hands reached down between her body and the bed to touch her swelling clitoris. Gabrielle waited idly, momentarily fondling herself as well. Then, the finger with it's coating of oil dropped down onto Xena's nether opening, and gently, slowly passed through the ring of muscle. Xena's body froze statuesquely at the peak of her arch, only her fingers moving between her legs.

Pulling her hand out of her own dripping sex, she brought it to Xena's entrance, and found it also wet and warm. Quickly, her hand entered through the dark curls and pushed deeply into the warrior. She could feel the fingers of each hand through the delicate membranes of Xena's body. They rubbed lightly against one another, driving Xena into a fury. She pushed in deeper, feeling the effects of Xena's arousal as muscles tightened around her loving movements. She sent a wave of her adoration for Xena into each thrust, playing the empath's wild card.

Xena let the sensations wash through her, luxuriating in the lavishness of sex with Gabrielle. Her life had taken a wonderful and unexpected turn. then she couldn't afford to let her thoughts wander. She had to concentrate on the ecstasy.

Gabrielle felt the climax with both hands and a sense of wonder. When the clenching stopped, she delicately withdrew her hands, letting the oil seal the openings behind her. Laying out on Xena's back in what was fast becoming a favorite position for her, she pulled the sheets up and over them.

Just then, the bedroom door banged open and Sibyl came through it with the Twins bouncing around her feet. The dogs got a running start and launched themselves in a blur of motion up onto the bed, scattering the cats. They leaped and twirled, tangling themselves in the blankets. Even Xena eventually laughed at the joyful antics of the little shepherds.

"Good morning, my sweets. Are we all right this morning? All better, now?" Both women demurred, meaninglessly. They knew she damn well knew damn near everything. "Well, good. Now, are you up for a bit of a job?"

Xena rolled the two of them onto their sides and looked up at Sibyl sat on the edge of the bed. "What's up?"

"The Twins brought the flock in last night before the first snow flake hit the ground." Gabrielle's head spun around to the window to glimpse the snow for herself. "But somehow a big portion of the flock didn't make it in. I need you to ride out with the Twins and look for the missing sheep. And, just to warn you, Artemis is around."

Xena sat up, took Gabrielle's head in her hands and began to purposefully comb tangles out of the strawberry blond hair with her fingers. "Where is she?" Xena's was quickly making two braids from Gabrielle's temples.

"I can't say, you'll just have to keep an eye out."

Xena tied off the braids with some leather thong. "Mmm, I'll need more than an eye out. Full armor for this ride."

"I'm going, too," announced Gabrielle firmly, noticing Xena set her jaw. "No, I don't even want to discuss it. I'll go get my furs on," she said, drawing a blanket around her body. Xena moved quickly to capture her in her arms, and Gabrielle playfully tried to wiggle out.

"Now hold on, here. You've both got some time for a quick, and I emphasize quick bath and breakfast. Go through the kitchen on your way out and I'll have something fixed up you. I'll get Argo saddled, too."

Xena regarded her old friend. "Sibyl, since when did you become such a hostess?"

"Since you started traveling with someone who could appreciate my flair for the finer comforts." She said coyly, nodding to Gabrielle.

Gabrielle beamed at Xena, triumphant. Xena turned back to Sibyl and said "So, that's how it's going to be, isn't it? The two of you making plans together?"

Chuckling, the priestess directed her words to the bard, "Kind of levels the battle field, doesn't it Gabrielle?"

"I'll say it does." She agreed heartily.

Xena smiled and conceded. But her eyes glittered as she anticipated her excellent chances of getting even.

Chapter XIV

The war-horse's shining hooves slashed through the mounded snow, sending it to spray sparking in all directions around the riders. Gabrielle was grateful for the furry leggings she was wearing. The air was cold, but the sky was a deep, clean blue. They cantered along a path next to the pasture wall. Gabrielle was once again in front, Xena's arm around her, a little tighter than necessary. It felt so good to be outside again, after her long confinement in the library. She found herself looking forward to life on the road again. With Xena ...Gods, life will never be the same again... she thought, imagining all the new experiences she and her warrior could find waiting for them. She felt strong and ready, all the confusion and the longing put behind her.

Argo seemed in high spirits today, prancing whenever she got the chance, lifting her hooves high and tossing her mane about. The dry snow squeaked each time she pushed a hoof into it. Xena thought it was odd, Argo wasn't prone to the temptations of vanity. She and Argo had long made amends for the various offenses from the day of their arrival at Gaea's. Xena had spent the better part of a day just grooming the horse till she was wobbly in the knees. And Sibyl had given her so many treats she was showing a bit of belly. Argo had enjoyed a nice rest, but Xena had never seen anything like prancing until today. Xena suspected it had something to do with the Twins. They were ecstatic in the powdery clean snow, clots of it forming in their fur as they plowed through the little drifts along the path. They circled Argo continuously while the horse pretended not to notice.

They rode along happily enough for a while. Then Xena slowed Argo to a walk and made a suggestion, using the opportunity to touch her lips to Gabrielle's hair behind her ear. "Why don't you tell me a story, bard?"

Gabrielle thought what she'd really like to do was lay a big warm fur down in the snow with Xena naked on top of it. Instead, she tried to remember one of the more interesting tales she had collected in Gaea's library. "How about one I learned that has a little about Gaea? It's interesting, historically, and is very different from the traditional texts."

"Sounds great. Go ahead." Gabrielle didn't see the nasty smile forming on Xena's face.

"Well let's see, the tale begins after the opening of Pandora's box. I have to recite it in the old form, because I haven't had time to reformat it for entertainment purposes. It might be a little dry."

"Perfect." The warrior leered into the back of the bard's head. "Now, the story?"

"Okay, here it is." She cleared her throat theatrically. "People grew very wicked, owing to the evils in Pandora's box, and Zeus resolved to drown them all with a flood. But Prometheus, knowing of it beforehand, told his mortal son Deucalion to build a ship and store it with all sorts of food."

Xena gathered the reins into her left hand, freeing her right.

"In the ship, Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha floated about for nine days till all other humans had drowned. Then as the waters went down, the ship rested on Mount Parnassus."

Xena's right hand found the ties of the waistband to Gabrielle's leggings, and began loosening them while the bard talked on, unaware.

"Deucalion and Pyrrha came out of the ship and offered sacrifices to Zeus. He was appeased, and sent Mercury down to ask what he should grant them. Their prayer was that the earth might be filled again with people, upon which the god bade them walk up the hill and throw behind them the bones of their grandmother. Yikes!"

Xena's hand, cold from the winter's bite, had slipped into Gabrielle's furry leggings, and cupped around her sex. "The bones of their grandmother. Yes, and then what happened?"

Gabrielle seemed at a loss for words.

"Bard, your story?" Xena's teased.

Xena's hand seemed to be happy where it was and held still. The story line came back. "Xena, you are so naughty, did you know that? If you want to hear the story finish, don't move your hand, not a bit."

"Deal. My hand was just so cold."

"No kidding." She said dryly, then cleared her throat again. "Now Gaea was said to be the mother of the gods and mortals." She felt Xena's fingers move ever so slightly. ".So they figured the bones of their grandmother were the rocks of the earth." She gasped as the curved fingertips reached into her opening, but she was too near the end of her story to stop.

"No fair!" She groaned. "...So as they went, they picked up stones and threw them over their shoulders. All those that Deucalion threw rose up as men, and all those that Pyrrha threw became women, and thus the earth was alive again with human beings. That's it." She ended in a rush because she needed some air. It was amazing how fast her passion ignited for this incredible woman. She braced her hands on the pommel and began to move on Xena's hand. Xena's armor pressed into her back.

Then, improbably, her eye caught something wrong in the landscape. There was a patch of snow on the other side of the pasture fence that was the wrong color. Gyrating a little to enhance Xena's ministrations, she squinted and then almost jumped right off of Xena's fingers when she realized she was looking at one of the missing sheep.

"Xena! Look!" Gabrielle pointed.

Reining in Argo she looked. Her sky-blue eyes narrowed when she saw three more sheep walking straight for the pasture wall from the other side. They didn't slow their steps as they approached it, and then to the women's astonishment, the sheep walked straight through the fieldstone wall as if it wasn't there. The Twins spotted the sheep immediately and bolted to attend them.

"Hmph." Xena offered, removing her hand from Gabrielle's crotch. She walked Argo over within a stone's throw of the place in the wall the sheep had walked through. Here, the wall had been built to incorporate a pile of limestone boulders. There were no gaps that either woman could see in what appeared to be a simple field stone wall.

"That wasn't right, was it?" Gabrielle was sure that was all wrong. "Ok, so maybe it's a spell. But why would someone want to disguise a hole in a pasture fence? Why go to all that trouble to steel sheep?"

As if in answer, two amazing things happened at nearly exactly the same time. The first was a hissing sound coming at them very fast; the second was the blur of Xena's fist, that very same hand that had been so otherwise occupied only moments ago, solidifying with the shaft of an arrow clasped tightly in it.

The warrior held up the arrow for Gabrielle to see. A pink-fleched affair, with a bit of gold lame trim. The rose crystal point actually was embossed with curly cues. Ghastly. She flung it to the ground just as a woman stepped out from behind a boulder into the now visible gap in the wall, the illusion vanishing.

"Ask her," Xena said aside to Gabrielle. Much louder and much colder, she addressed the woman, "Artemis. I can't believe you are shooting at me with an arrow like that." She gestured at the arrow on the ground, which Argo then stepped on firmly.

Artemis stood looking at them, the picture of ambivalence. She shrugged and said, "Well, I got it from Cupid, stupid. What do you expect from him?" She was dressed as the Great Huntress today, bronze and ruby tiara, leather-riding cape trimmed in red fox the exact same color as her casually arranged auburn hair. Her hand absently checked the delicate curls around her temples.

"And you are shooting at us with one of Cupid's arrows because.?" Gabrielle asked, helpfully.

Artemis' hand dropped, "Zeus is tired of waiting for you to get together."

"And.?" Gabrielle's interview skills were working just fine. Xena kept her mouth shut.

"And I get a renovation budget for my temple in Athens if I hurry you up. Gabrielle didn't come outside to see the full moon, so I borrowed one of Cupid's arrows. Then I let the sheep out, and waited for you to come and get them. I didn't expect both of you. " To Xena's surprise, Artemis stepped through the gap in the wall, onto Gaea's protected land. "But now that I've missed you with the arrow, I'm going to have to improvise."

Xena glared at Artemis. Then, taking Gabrielle's right leg in her hand, she swung it over the pommel. With her other arm around Gabrielle's waist, Xena bent over sideways and eased her down. Gabrielle was standing on the ground before she knew it, watching Xena ride away. She began to follow, preparing a blistering tantrum for later, when the waistband of her loosened leggings slipped down to her ankles, pitching her face first into the snow. She landed in the dry snow with a terrific squeaking thud. Her muffled curses did not distract Xena's attention from Artemis.

Xena commanded Argo to ride in a posture of confrontation. When they stopped before Artemis, she began playing with a dagger that suddenly materialized in her hands. "You're being a little vague, Artemis. Why don't you help me to understand? How did you make a hole in Gaea's protection?"

"It was one of the hardest things I've ever done! Gaea attached the protection spell to the stones of the fence. It was necessary for me to remove the stones with my hands." She held them up for the warrior to see. "My hands! Will you look at them? Ruined!" Artemis sniffed and looked back at Gabrielle, who was pulling herself out of the hole her body had so suddenly made in the snow, her face covered with snow pie. The goddess just shook her head. "What's wrong with you? She's gorgeous. Why don't you just take her? She wants you, you know. Everyone knows she wants you. Zeus thought for sure that you would have bedded her by now. You need some help? Hmm?"

Xena had suddenly heard about enough of what Artemis had to say. She jumped off of Argo, marched up to the Goddess and looked her straight in the eye. The goddess' eyes widened at the look on Xena's face. "My, my, Xena. You are in deep, aren't you?"

Just when Xena thought she might have to see if pressure points worked on a goddess, Argo reared up behind her and whinnied to the sky. She looked up and saw a white form spiraling down out of the sky above. A moment later, Gabrielle bumped into her side breathlessly; brushing off snow dust that still clung to her, head to foot. The glance she threw Xena spoke for trouble later and then she also looked up. Gradually they could all see a winged horse bearing a rider. Argo began to run in small circles, trumpeting.

"Pegasus!" Gabrielle cried.

The angle of the great steed's descent flattened out over a field outside the pasture wall. Just above the ground, the horse's legs began to run, and as his hooves touched the ground, his wings snapped back and down, braking. Then they folded neatly back around his rider, as Pegasus slowed to a trot.

As they approached the gap in the wall where Artemis was standing, Gabrielle developed a stutter. "Ahh, X-Xena is that XX-, I mean ZZ-?"

"Zeus. Yeah. Big Trouble. Shh."

The god looked tired. Winking first at Gabrielle and Xena, he smiled patiently down at Artemis. "It's time to go home, Arte. You've been very helpful, and I'm so grateful, but this problem has already been taken care of, so you can just go on and get started on your temple."

"I still get the renovation budget? Thanks, pops!" She drew back her bow, shot an arrow in the direction of Athens, and dissolved into a streak of red sparks that followed the arrow's flight up and outwards. A few sparks remained which winked out with the bleats of tiny hunting horns.

"Nice exit." Zeus commented. "Not too garish, not too plain."

Xena continued to stand firm between Zeus and Gabrielle. She didn't move or make a sound; she just waited and watched Zeus through her lashes.

Zeus, in the meantime, had his hands full. The Twins were dancing in and out of Pegasus' mighty hooves, which were delicately trying to avoid them. And Argo was making her apparently amorous intentions very clear to Pegasus. So the winged horse was very distracted. To top it off, Zeus had canceled his thunder-and-lightening signature. This was turning out to be one of his worse entries. But no harm, he was here to apologize. He could work with it.

"Xena. Gabrielle. We have been so busy up on the hill. You can't imagine the trouble that the news of you two has set into motion, up top. A lot of speculative politics, you might say. Ares is very upset right now. You really should stay clear of him."

"Why are you helping us?" Xena used her flattest of voices, reaching back to make sure she knew where Gabrielle was.

"Because I feel so bad. I forgot to tell Artemis that you two had already gotten together."

"Not again! Don't you folks ever communicate with each other up there? First Cerberus, then Artemis..." Her eyes narrowed. "And Aphrodite, too. You sent her to make us fall in love, didn't you?" She felt Gabrielle's fingers wiggle in hers for a brief moment.

"Who told you that? Did Gaea tell you that? You know, she talks to damn much sometimes. That's just the kind of thing I can't tell Hera about, or she comes unglued." He calmed down, stroking his beard, remembering his purpose. "Well, yes Aphrodite, too. But I sent her home a long time back. She had completely lost all sense of perspective. In the end, you both managed on your own, after all. Who would have thought?"

"You don't make any more sense than she did, Zeus. But I don't care why you gods do what you do. Why don't you just leave us alone and let us live our lives in peace?"

"Of course, dear. I can certainly understand how you might feel that way. But you two are just irresistible! Well, I'll be going. I'll leave Pegasus here to play for a few hours. He'll be happy to give you a lift home, if you like."

"Who's going to fix the fence?" Xena demanded. "It had better not be me."

"Oh, right." He lifted a finger, and the fence shimmered and solidified whole.

"What about Argo? She can't fly along." Gabrielle pointed out, stalling. She didn't like heights, and a ride on Pegasus would be mighty high.

"Oh. Should I? Well maybe for just a few hours." Zeus flickered and then was gone from Pegasus' back, with a sound more like flatulence than thunder.

"You know, I think his entrance was much better than his exit." Xena said, lips pursed.

Just then, a very strange sound came out of Argo. They turned and saw the mare had been given golden wings, which she spread out coyly behind her like a feathered cape. She was prancing again, which finally seemed appropriate.

"Her saddle had just better be waiting for her in the stable." Xena muttered, after noticing Argo's gear was gone.

Pegasus blew Argo a kiss and then offered his back to the women on lowered forelegs. Another very strange sound was heard, this time out of the bard, who recognized an irresistible chance for a tale of her magical ride on Pegasus. She allowed Xena to lead her to their winged mount, with a face of stone.

When they had climbed aboard the magnificent white animal, he reared slightly and took straight up off the ground. They could see the magic sparkle in his wings as they moved. Xena felt the powerful muscles of the shoulder and wing against the back of her knees. Wrapping both arms around Gabrielle's body, she looked back to see Argo launch easily from the ground with no apparent effort or strain. They simply glided peacefully, the wing flaps doing no more than stirring the air lightly around them. Ghosting over the sheep, being herded by the Twins further up the little valley, they passed over unnoticed.

Chapter XV

From within Xena's embrace, Gabrielle began to relax a little, allowing herself to look down at the world below. The details of the land were fascinating when seen from above. The white snowfall had neatly traced in white the outlines of every branch of every tree. She turned her face up to Xena's and asked, "Oh, Xena, do you think he'd take us up to see the mountains?"

Pegasus, who of course understood everything they were saying, nickered and led Argo in an upward spiral on the warmer currents that rose up the valley and gathered against the great divide of the mountains. They soared over the end of the high valley, over the toy-sized buildings of the house and the tiny orchard. From above, Gabrielle could see the hillside the old house was built into was actually at the root of the range itself. Rusty-colored stone peeked through the white dusting of snow. Higher and higher the magical horses climbed above the escarpment, the red-stone cliffs and crags looming ahead. Finally, they spiraled up near the very crest. With a light adjustment in his wing strokes, Pegasus held them all still for a long moment, allowing them a good look at the top of the world.

Gabrielle spoke reverently, "This is a place where heaven and earth touch one another."

"Yes, Gabrielle, it is." The deep female voice was not Xena's. No one was more surprised than Pegasus, as they watched the tip of one of the red-stone peaks blur and reform into the cloaked and hooded torso of an old woman. Detaching arms from her sides with an odd sound of gently scraping stone, she raised her arms to the flyers before her. Gabrielle watched small stones fall from the massive arms, and followed them down to where they smacked against the cliff side hundreds of feet below. She jerked her head back up and felt Xena tighten her hold around her waist.

"You needed a sign from me, Xena?" Gaea asked.

"Well, I didn't say I needed one, I just meant I hadn't seen one, yet." Xena countered, not about to abandon a lifetime of irreverence.

"You are awfully demanding for a mortal, you know that?" The red-stone arms dropped to rest on her hips, stony elbows jutting out. "You always missed the more subtle signs, Xena. Have you ever wondered why you are so unusually strong? Or why you're so lucky with your chakram?" Xena's face showed momentary surprise. The elbows came down again, as the old face deep within the hood seemed to smile. "The difference between the lesser gods and I, is how we work with destiny. They try to manufacture destinies. I simply appreciate and enhance them, if I can, and watch where they go. Your destiny has always been along the knife-edge between life and death, the sacred and the profane. You are a Warrior.

"Gabrielle." The goddess' regard shifted somewhat.

The bard blinked at the abrupt personal address. "Yes, Gaea?"

"This is our second meeting, you and I. Your destiny was to grow up in a village and marry a farm boy. At this very moment, however, you are chatting familiarly with a goddess, hovering over the great divide on a mythical winged beast. What do you suppose happened?"

In a low voice, Gabrielle asked Xena, "Was that a rhetorical question, do you think?"

"I don't think even she knows the answer, Gabs." Xena said quietly back.

Gaea lifted her hand, "Never mind, Gabrielle. I just wonder. Unexpected events are always the most fascinating. But you are gifted, bard, with talent and circumstance. Now, enough of this. Forming myself out of stone is wearisome. I much prefer my mortal mediums. And Gabrielle, you are always welcome at my home. I look forward to reading your additions to my library. Oh, and one more thing." With the soft sounds of scraping stone, she reached up and pulled back the hood from her face. The face they beheld was one of infinite age, beauty and wisdom. It was the face of their hostess and friend, Sibyl, rendered in red-stone. Her hair was a stone forest of spikes. "When you get back to the house, listen to what Sibyl has to say about your new path. It's important. Happy trails, my sweetings. Don't look for any more signs, because this is all you get, Xena." As Xena's name was pronounced the shape of Gaea/Sibyl blurred again and reformed into the mountaintop.

As if on cue, both horses brought themselves around to begin their descent back between the arms of the mountain, into the little valley below. They could see some of the coast, out at the extreme end of the valley where the stream let out into the sea. The sun hung low and red in the sky over the ocean, igniting some gathering western clouds. As they banked for home, Xena looked again at Argo, who had pulled abreast of Pegasus, and grinned broadly ...this is a very good day for Argo...Then she looked at Gabrielle, her face tightening in the wind of their descent. Her shining hair swept back from her face like the corona of a golden crown; her reflective emerald eyes caught fiery glints of red and gold from the sun. In that moment, there was no other goddess in the world for Xena, than Gabrielle. She reached down for Gabrielle's sweet lips with her own hungry mouth and felt the warmth of their combined desire and love grow around her heart.

Gabrielle pulled away slightly and said, "We really should have asked for a bed with wings."

Xena began to laugh softly. At first she chucked, but she couldn't stop and she soon let her chuckles become howls, brazen and clear. She laughed and laughed, almost sobbing. Gabrielle, surprised and delighted, laughed along, until soon both were laughing for laughter's sake, for the simple freedom to be found in joy.

...So together they flew, Xena whole and proud like never before. The sense of goodness within her becoming more defined with each passing day in the company of her magical lover. Gabrielle found herself in a transcendent moment out of a romantic tale, flying into the sunset on the winged steed of the gods, in the arms of the ravishing Warrior Princess. Xena brought her face down next to Gabrielle's, unknowingly matching them together in profile and symmetry, framed by the reddened and cloudy skies, their hair tossed and mingled by the gentle wing beats of Pegasus...


Sibyl watched them fly in, this time from behind the stable, where she had been trying to get Argo's saddle out of the rain barrel. Apparently Zeus had simply dropped it from the sky above, rather than risk encountering any of her protections. She shielded her eyes from the sun and got a better look at the sideshow on wings coming down from the mountain. Then she trotted back up to the house, just in time to catch the end of their landing.

They had all just barely fit under sheltered doorway. Xena helped a wobbly-kneed Gabrielle down, then both women waved the winged beasts away. They trumpeted and lifted off effortlessly, Argo clearly ready to go anywhere anyhow once again with Pegasus.

"Your entrances are improving, Xena." Sibyl remarked.

"Thanks, Sibyl." She snorted, "You should have seen yours."

"Whatever are you talking about, Xena?"

Xena shrugged and smiled, saying nothing.

"Gabrielle, why don't you give me the skinny? Don't make me fish it out of Xena"

Gabrielle's head was still spinning. "We don't know why the lesser gods were interested in me and Xena, I mean Xena and I, but they were. Are, I should say, still. But that doesn't matter, because they are so caught up in their own problems that they aren't interested in us directly. Today, that is. Then we saw Gaea up in the mountain, and she is happy with us, pretty much, but she doesn't understand me, and then she was you..."

"I see. Try to work on your delivery a bit, dear. Better yet, why don't you just go in there and sit down?" Gabrielle didn't budge, arms locked around Xena's waist. "Never mind. Now Xena, you mentioned Zeus?"

"He's sorry." Xena struggled to keep her face straight.

"Do you say he said he's sorry, or do you think he just thinks he is?"

Xena's face fell as she concentrated.

"Sure he is. He let us ride Pegasus." Gabrielle pitched in helpfully.

Xena looked like it might take her the rest of the day to unravel that one.

"I find myself speechless." Sibyl twirled a lock of silver hair absently.

"We found the sheep, the Twins are bringing them up right now." Xena offered.

"The Twins are bringing them up? Zeus couldn't give them all tiny golden wings?" Sometimes Sibyl obsessed on Zeus' behavior. "That guy is up to something, I can just feel it! He's never this conciliatory unless he's plotting something! But I forget myself." She clapped her hands, bracelets jingling. "We should be celebrating a happy ending. Come in, come in, I've got a whale of a fire going in the great room, roasted mutton, a pot of veggie stew and some fresh bread." She took them each by the arm and pulled them through the door and across the room to waiting chairs by the fire. "You two have come through this rather well, all told."


After a delicious meal by the fire, the three women lounged in favorite chairs, listening to Gabrielle tell her new story. The sunset's last colors poured through the deep window casings and painted the white limed walls of the great room in magenta and gold. Xena sat close enough to touch Gabrielle occasionally. The Twins were finishing off leftovers in bowls on the floor, and Argo was back in her stable, exhausted and ravenously hungry. The saddle was steaming by the fire, over an extra chair.

Gabrielle finished the story; framed as two mortal lover's chance ride on a divine steed. Sibyl's honey-rasped voice spoke up into the silence that followed. "Very good, Gabrielle. You kept open the possibility that the characters are both women." Taking a bundle of dried herbs from a pocket and crushing it carefully in her long brown fingers, she tossed it into the fire. "It's time to talk about what is next for you two. Your dilemmas are solved, dear ones, and now you are both ready for your greatest of destinies. The stories of your strength and love will become a beacon to women down through the dark ages that lie ahead. Once you leave here, your first steps together will be upon a new path. So, tonight we will talk about this path. But first, I'm going to make some more tea, anything you two want from the kitchen? I've got fresh baklava."

The roars of Xena's laughter echoed through the stone hallways of the old house.


Hours later and travel plans made, Sybil excused herself and went off to bed. All that was left of the baklava were smears of honey on their fingers. The dogs had both found nests in a blanket spilled onto the floor. Two sets of cat paws poked out from the edge of the high mantle stone.

They would be leaving in the morning, after breakfast.

"So, it's down to the southern coast?" Gabrielle asked absently.

"I'd like to change the world somewhere I don't have to wear furry clothing to do it." Xena wasn't joking; she detested the mountains in winter. "And I need to be around real people again, not gods. With the exception of whatever Sibyl is."

Yawning, Gabrielle echoed, "Right. Whatever she is."

With glassy eyes, they looked into the flames. The fire was very colorful, with true reds, greens, lavenders. Xena smiled. The flames were definitely forming into human figures entwined. She shot a look at Gabrielle and said gruffly, "C'mere, you."

Gabrielle nodded seriously and stood up, dragging a wool blanket with her, and curled up in a ball on her lover's lap. Xena's arms opened wide to bundle her close. It was a quiet, perfect moment of utter peace. Outside, they could hear the wind howling through the eaves of the great house, as if to remind them of the dangers still awaiting them. "Let's go to bed, Xena. I want to lie next to you again." Gabrielle whispered huskily.

Xena agreed and then, because she knew of the effect it would have on Gabrielle, she stood with the young woman in her arms and headed for the hall to the bedrooms. And, as easily as that, they were off to a night in each other's embrace. To their last night in a real bed for what could be a long, long time. Or until their next visit to Gaea's.

The End

Continue on to the sequel Empathy's Cost

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