Author: Penumbra
Story Title: Divine Boredom
Characters: Xena/Gabrielle
Rating: R
Summary: The mystery warrior, Oberon, returns but all's not well at the Amazon Nation. Amazons and Centaurs are plagued by strange bouts of madness and to top that, Gabrielle is kidnapped. Sequel to Untouchable Face.

Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal/Studios USA and Renaissance Pictures. This story was made for fun, no copyright infringement was meant in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the invention of my sick little mind and may not be used elsewhere without the express prior written consent of the author so get yer filthy paws off 'em! This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.


Explicit content warning: This story features consensual sex between two adult women. All nice and clean, some hanky panky and the word 'nipple', nothing more, 'K? If this kind of love bothers you, get a brain. If it's illegal where you live, move.

Extreme violence warning: Where there's Xena, there's violence. Can't help it. If her batting average gets worse than two cracked skulls per day, she'll get all aggravated and nasty. And we don't want that, right? Right. If violence bothers you, there's a lot of nice stories to be read elsewhere.

History rape warning: Timelines, history and geography are raped in a heavy, if unsystematic way. My fault, entirely. Sorry. All in the name of love and storytelling

British spelling warning: Live with it.

Warning warning: If I have to put another warning up here I'll blow my top.

The haiku is by Matsuo Basho, the doka by, of course, Morihei Ueshiba.

This story is an exercise in voyeurism, mush and friendly banter and a sequel-ish to Untouchable Face. You might want to read that first.

You can find more work by Penumbra at her site u m b r a e

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D i v i n e B o r e d o m
© Penumbra
summer 1998

The night was clear, the stars of the sky shone their gentle light upon the earth unhindered. Though autumn was nearing, it was still warm. Into the indigo sky the earth seeped its warmth, the heat the day had bestowed upon it. The forest was quieting down, the chirps of nesting birds exchanged for the muted hoots of owls.

The small sliver of the waning moon smiled warmly at the sight its eyes rested upon. It was a small clearing and it housed two people. A happy fire was crackling and casting nervous shadows to the surrounding trees, unable to penetrate the darkness that had imbued the forest. But in the small circle of warmth it was cozy and calm and the two enjoyed the calmness and peace, sitting on a thick fur, the bigger of the two embracing the other that leaned her back on the other's broad chest.

The clearing wasn't quiet, though. The smaller one, who had a lively, beautiful face and long blonde hair, almost auburn in the inadequate light, whispered quietly to her companion who replied with just the occasional throaty sound or a few words, pronounced in a low, rich voice. Sometimes, she just conversed by burying her strikingly beautiful face in the smaller woman's silken hair, smiling into the thick mane of cool tresses. At these sparse moments, her own hair, darker than a moonless night sky, would fall on the delicate shoulders before her, brushing the sensitive skin along a collarbone and the fragile curves of a beautiful neck.

The dark head rose from its place of rest and salient blue eyes rested on misty green ones that had turned to meet them. A small infinity passed between the eyes, the universe forgotten. All that was, all that mattered, were the eyes. No words now. They were unnecessary.

"Been a long day."

She more felt than heard the response, a rumble that vibrated in her back. Gods it's nice here. Warm. Fuzzy. So… secure. Gabrielle snuggled a bit deeper into the embrace and was rewarded by a momentary gentle tightening of the powerful arms that encircled her. She gave a small, content puppydog sigh.

"What're you sighing about?" asked the low, full voice she so dearly loved. "Oh, nothing… just that I'm fortunate enough to have you near me," a smirk played on her lips " … Warrior Easy-chair."

"Why you…" the voice laughed. "I'll get you for that…"

"Yeah, right. There's no convenient stream nearby where you could dunk me, nor can you make me ride Argo because it's so late. So, what're gonna do, huh?" the strawberry blonde woman laughed. She knew without looking that a dark eyebrow had arched. The pair of long arms around her shifted before she realized her mistake. Uh oh. Hades. Forgot Rule #4: Don't taunt the warrior. The low, vibrating rumble sounded again. "I have… many skills."

"XenaaaaAAUUGGHHH!" The bard quivered in the warrior's lap, gasping and giggling uncontrollably as the long tanned fingers tickled her sides with knowing efficiency. In a few moments, the blonde woman was a trembling heap, laughing while her chest heaved, trying to catch her breath. "Dear <wheeze> me. Remind me not <wheeze> to compliment your <hack> excellence as furniture ever again."


Gabrielle turned her herself to the warm presence behind her and she just melted. The rare genuine smile that adorned the perfect lips of the sharply planed face and reached the intense azure eyes made the warrior look like a dark incarnation of Aphrodite. They had grown closer in the few moons that had passed since their visit to Poteidaia but not as close as Gabrielle had hoped. The warrior still held back, for some reason. But occasionally, the bard managed to pry out the gentle, playful person behind the stoic mask. And she just loved those moments.

Moments like these.

They sat and stared the flames for a long time, deep in thought. Then, Xena snapped out of it and straightened a bit. "Better get some sleep. We'll reach Amazon territory in two days."

Gabrielle rose reluctantly from her warm nest and stretched her back, yawning. "Still can't figure out why Ephiny sent for us." "Maybe they have a treaty to negotiate and need someone to talk the opposite side to death," the warrior pronounced, a grin twitching at her lips.

"Ha ha."

Gabrielle was trying to come up with a witty retort but was crudely interrupted by a flash of leather and metal and a hand on her back. A hiss near her ear. "Get your staff." The warrior reached for her armour and slid it over her head and fastened it in one smooth move. The sword was unsheathed with a quiet scrape of metal against leather and then she froze, head cocked to a side, listening.

"A horse. Alone, in a hurry. Coming towards us," a whisper and a finger pointing at the dark forest. Now that she mentioned it, Gabrielle could hear the sound, amidst the quiet swish of leaves. The hoofbeats were still far away but nearing in a frantic pace.

Nearer and nearer they came, until from the dark forest, a huge horse burst out. She neighed and reared as she tried to stop at the sight of the tall warrior in her path. The trashing horse managed to dislodge the rider who fell to the ground with a short cry.

"Shhh… good boy," Xena soothed the horse. Her nostrils flared but the smooth voice had a calming effect and she managed to grasp the bridle. The warrior rubbed her fingers against the muzzle and the horse whickered, still breathing heavily from the speedy ride. "It's okay… shhh…" There was something vaguely familiar about the large, noble horse but she couldn't figure out what. She handed the reins to Gabrielle, who smiled at the horse and scratched behind a perfect, tender ear

Xena moved to the prone form of its rider. It was a young man, no more than eighteen solar cycles. His clothing was torn and he had a deep cut in his thigh, clearly the result of a close encounter with whipping branch. He was mumbling and shaking his head, eyes closed tight. When his head cleared a bit, he rose to a half reclining position and opened his eyes.

He started at the sight that greeted him. It was the business end of a very sharp, very big sword, wielded by very professional hands. Very blue eyes penetrated his eyes and a very... charming voice spoke. "Who are you?" "I, uh…" he stammered and gulped. "I was sent to get help." A silence followed, so he continued. "My village is under attack and I was riding to Ghekre to get help. Please, you have to let me g-"

He was interrupted with a voice of authority. "How many?"

The boy looked at the icy blue eyes, not comprehending. "What?" The voice held thinly veiled exasperation now. "How many raiders?" "About twenty. The raiders were a candlemark's journey away when I left. They'll reach the village soon… There is a warrior who was staying at the inn for the night helping us but one skilled fighter can't save the village."

"No, but three can. Hope the other is not someone I know," Xena grimaced and turned to Gabrielle. Shall we? an eyebrow asked and a wink answered, Yes. She turned back to the boy who had now stood up and was shaking his head. "Lead the way."

"Are you sure you can handle them?" A feral grin was his answer and the boy gulped, this warrior woman making his spine tingle with terror.

"You're Xena, aren't you." A statement, not a question. A nod. "Okay," he sighed, suddenly relieved at his fortune. From what he'd heard the Warrior Princess could defeat the twenty men with eyes closed and wielding a toothpick.

He rose to the high saddle gingerly, praying the irascible warhorse would get him home safely. It was the visiting warrior's horse, he had taken it for it was the fastest one around but had regretted his decision many times. The horse was short-tempered and difficult to ride. It took all his strength to stay on top of the speeding, snorting beast and his legs already ached from the strain. The coal-black steed neighed and shook the long, flowing mane from gentle, intelligent eyes. He gripped the pommel as the horse sidestepped nervously.

The warrior had mounted her horse and was helping the smaller woman behind her in the saddle. "Comfortable?" Xena asked. "Very," was the reply and sinuous arms tightened around her middle and patted her leather-clad belly. A small dreamy smile came to her lips as she felt Gabrielle's warm breath and the gentle pressure of a soft cheek on her shoulder. She pushed the warm felling away with great difficulty and concentrated on their mission.

"Let's go."

The boy nodded and carefully guided his horse around and clucked his tongue. The horse reared and shot away, into the woods. The golden mare followed the black lightning bolt with little trouble.

After a short ride in the woods they came upon a road and followed it. A few miles' ride and the road crested to a small hill. Behind the hill came muffled sounds of battle, the cries of men and women and the hiss and clink of metal against metal.

The boy paled. "Oh gods, it's already started…" He urged the horse and cursing, Xena did the same. Gabrielle almost fainted. She hated riding more than anything but it was necessary to travel on Argo sometimes. But most of all, she hated when they were in a hurry. She felt like she was sitting on a log that was entering heavy rapids and clutched the steadying rock that was her partner so hard her knuckles were as white as her nose. They galloped to the top and took in the sight.

It was a small settlement, a couple of roads and few big houses. Three roofs were on fire and loud din was coming from the small square in the middle of the village. From their high vantage point they could see the cluster of haphazardly armed men that was obviously the attacking force gathered around a tall figure dressed in black and glinting armour. The figure was kicking, slashing and twirling like a possessed demigod, keeping the men in bay.

Gabrielle started, "Xena, isn't that…" and was cut off when they sped down the hill in breakneck speed. Xena rode to the edge of the square and they jumped off Argo. She handed the reins to the boy and instructed him to keep away. "Ready?" she asked Gabrielle and the bard favoured her with a smile as she readied her staff in the fighting position.

"Yi-yi-yi-yi-yaaaaaa!!!" The bloodcurdling warcry sounded and the bramble of men on the square stopped and turned towards the new sound. They were plowed by a mass of leather and slashing blade. Xena parried the sword of the first man and kicked him in the groin. He fell to the ground clutching his bits, a gurgle coming from his throat. The next was received with a kick in the shins and a jarring blow of a swift elbow to the jaw. She took a lazy flip over a group of three men, landing behind them, and when they turned, she jumped high and kicked two of them in the face while slamming the hilt of her sword to the third one's forehead.

Meanwhile, Gabrielle was challenged by a leering man whose eyes were red-rimmed and had a slightly mad look in them. "Lokee here, a girl with a twig. Cute." She just smiled a cold smile and took a quick sharp jab at his knee. He howled and bent to cradle the said part but was cut off by a swing to his temple. He was out cold. Another charged her, swinging a heavy mallet. She ducked the swing and as the man stumbled from the momentum of his blow, she swung the staff to collide with his ankles. The man fell with a loud thump and stayed there, unconscious.

The bard slowly advanced to the black mass of flowing black that stood in the midst of the thickest crowd. She clobbered another soldier and was then at the figure's side. A pair of dark indigo eyes widened when they recognized the bard but there was no time for words. Two men rushed towards the tall form. The warrior parried the other one and disarmed him, but the sword got stuck on his mallet and the other took a swing. An arm would've been lost if the arcing sword hadn't been stopped by a staff, held by steady hands. The dark velvety eyes smiled in gratitude and Gabrielle nodded in response. Hearing footsteps and a curse, she turned and was engaged in battle again.

The fight was over soon. Unconscious and dead bodies littered the ground, only a few had survived. Xena re-sheathed her sword and surveyed the site. Something odd about these soldiers. Definitely.

She walked to Gabrielle, relieved that they had survived without much injury. Xena had gotten a hefty nick on her triceps and a bruise from a wayward fist and Gabrielle had a black eye and other bruises and insignificant cuts. She laid a hand on the bard's shoulder. "You OK?" A smile told all. She nodded towards the black figure bending over a prone corpse a few yards away, frowning. "Let's say hello."

As they walked towards, the figure straightened to its full, formidable height. A pair of deep blue eyes was fastened on them and an all-out grin decorated the pale face.

"Well, aren't I glad to see you," the stranger's deep, full voice rasped.

"Hello, Oberon," the bard greeted, the infectious grin spreading on her face as well. Xena nodded at the imposing and ever-smirking woman who winked at her. "C'mere, I want to show you something."

Xena trotted next to the warrior and kneeled at the body she was pointing at. Small, lithe figure wrapped in a cloak. She turned the body around and heard Gabrielle gasp behind her.

The body was that of a woman with dark brown hair and thin face. The cape opened partially to reveal the narrow face of the moon a scant clothing in brown leather and the unmistakable necklace of boars' teeth and gauntlets adorned with feathers. An Amazon.

"It's Iridan!" Gabrielle recognized the youthful woman as one of the regulars on border patrol. "What on earth is she doing here? What's going on?" The warrior checked the Amazon's pulse and surprisingly, it was there, faint but steady. "She's still alive." She lifted a limp eyelid and peeked at the hazel eye. It was bloodshot and gleamed in a very worrisome way, the pupils were but two black pinpricks.

The warrior straightened and folded her hands, thinking. "Something's wrong with the picture here. This could be the reason Ephiny sent for us." "Yeah. We better get there quick." They turned at the loud cough and Oberon raised a questioning eyebrow. "Could somebody please fill me in on what the Hades is going on?"

The bard cleared her throat but was restrained by Xena' hand on her shoulder so she just said, "Long story, I'll tell it to you later. Let's clean this mess up."

In the sparse illumination of the setting moon and the fires still raging, they helped the villagers with their injuries and tied the raiders who had stayed alive and with the help of eager volunteers, carried the dead ones away from the square. The lone Amazon was also tied up and the nasty bruised gash on her temple, courtesy of Oberon's footwork, was bandaged.

After everything, the first rays of the sun were creeping to the sky, the deep blue paling to a light purple. The women were bone tired. They retired to the inn and slumped to the nearest flat surfaces, fast asleep in two breaths.

The morning saw a beautiful sunrise but the sleeping women saw none of it. It was well into day before Xena lifted an eyelid. Splendid. Morning. And I've slept in my armour, on the floor, covered in caked blood. She rested the eye on the equally bloody young woman sleeping in her arms, head braced against her shoulder. Still, can't be all bad… she smirked.

Gabrielle chose that moment to shift in her sleep, burrowing her face into the soft flesh above a sensitive breast and clasping her hand across a leather-clad belly. Xena's pulse jumped at the feel of Gabrielle's hot breath on her skin and the warm cheek that caressed her chest. Oh gods… Her head slumped back to the ground, colliding painfully with the wooden planks. Get a grip, Warrior Mushball. And get up.

She gently pried the hand away from her and sighing, eased her body from underneath the bard's enticing one. Standing up, she grimaced at the pain in her back. "Ouch." She quietly washed and changed into a clean tunic and stepping a few speedy steps, jumped and grabbed a horizontal support beam and swayed there. Relaxing, she could hear as well as feel the vertebrae popping into alignment. She did a few easy chin-ups to get her blood flowing and dropped down, feeling much better.

She sauntered across the expanse of the quiet inn floor, in search of the 'keeper. Oberon glided through the door leading to kitchen, holding a tray laden with food. "Morning. Though I bring you some breakfast, to thank you for saving my scrampy neck." Xena rolled her eyes and earned a chuckle from the pale warrior. She swished past Xena in a quiet rustle of silk and headed towards a table near the window and settled the tray on it.

"This OK?"

Xena nodded and went to Gabrielle. The delicious smell of the food roused the bard quickly enough and they sat to the table, attacking the offerings with fervor. They ate quietly for a while and then Oberon coughed and started. "So, Gabrielle, you promised a long story to me yesterday. One with Amazons and stuff…"

"Yes, krhm…" she hastily gulped down last of the delicious nut pastry, smeared in honey. She told how they had gotten there the previous night, gesturing with one sticky hand. "What about the Amazon then?" Oberon prompted. "Ah, yes, well, there's one thing you should know about me…" She suddenly blushed and Oberon raised an inquisitive eyebrow at Xena.

"She's the Amazon Queen," the warrior said, doing a very poor job at hiding a smile.

"She's… the Queen. Of the Amazons," Oberon voiced slowly, her face decorated by an utter utter look of astonishment. Xena bit the inside of her cheek to stifle a guffaw, so funny the warrior looked. "But only by Right of Caste," Gabrielle hastily added. She gave a brief description of the circumstances that led to her receiving the Mask.

Oberon nodded and gave her best rakish smile. She picked up Gabrielle's hand that rested on the table and brought it to her mouth. "Well, they couldn't have chosen a more charming queen," and kissed the back of the hand, "your majesty." She gave a wicked, brazen look at Xena who couldn't decide whether to crush the pale warrior's skull or laugh her heart out. Like a good warlord, she compromised and exuded a strangled cough and folded her arms.

Ignoring the blush Gabrielle felt creeping up along her neck, she said, unsteadily: "Krhm, anyway… we got an urgent message from Ephiny asking us to come there. That and the Amazon here, the two things have to be linked somehow." Oberon hummed, deep in thought. "Well, only one way to find out," Xena said and rose.

The captured Amazon was in the inn's cellar, tied snugly and the ropes were attached to a sturdy ring in the stone wall. She had no chance of escaping, yet when the trio entered the dimly lit damp room the young woman was wriggling and grunting in a vain attempt to escape her bindings. When she spotted Xena, the first person through the door, she stopped in mid-wriggle and issued a non-intelligible roar at the warrior. Xena stopped in good distance, nonplussed. Gabrielle came to stand next to her and though the warrior seemed to be at ease, the bard could feel the tension in the arm she gently brushed with her shoulder. The sinewy tendons in Xena's neck stood taut and small muscles in her legs twitched and jumped. She was coiled up like a spring.

Understandably. Something's not right here, Gabrielle thought as she studied the young woman before her, bound into a cocoon with heavy ropes. The eyes of the young Amazon were wide and had a slightly insane look in them. Her mouth almost foamed as she cursed in guttural tones at her captors, not recognizing her queen who tried soothing words. She didn't seem to recognize even her own name.

"Let's go." Xena whispered, so low she knew only Gabrielle could hear her. Seeing no hope, she nodded and they left the Amazon to herself.

"She's drugged."

They were back in the table, fresh cups of tea in their hands. Xena had made Gabrielle's with extra honey, trying to cheer up the blonde woman. The bard had smiled a small smile when she had tasted her beverage and shot a grateful glance at Xena who knew that one thing was sure to lift her companion's spirits up, namely indulging her sweet tooth.

Xena had uttered her judgement on the matter and Oberon nodded. "Yeah, her pupils are too small to be normal and she didn't recognize anybody." She gave a lopsided grin. "I kicked her hard all right but in my experience, Amazons have the thickest skulls." Xena bit her lip to stop the smile that threatened to spread on her face and bestowed the pale warrior with a look of gratitude for trying to cheer things up.

"Heyyy!" Gabrielle said, mock hurt in her voice.

"Oooops, sorry…" the alabaster-skinned warrior commented and put her hand on her mouth in a comical expression. "My humblest apologies, Your Highness," she uttered and proceeded to kiss the bard's hand again.

"Stop that. Stop," the blushing bard said and retreated her hand and got a waggling eyebrow in return. Her blush deepened. Xena decided to step in, partially to relieve the bard of any more embarrassment, partially in jealousy at the other warrior's audacity.

"So, what're we going to?"

Gabrielle's forehead wrinkled. "Hmmmm… we better get her to Amazon land… and see if there's anything we can do. This is clearly not Iridan's fault, I don't know her very well but she's a level-headed, reliable scout, not a mad dog." Xena watched in small delight the lovely furrow that made the bard's face seem both funny and wonderful at the same time. Can't tell her that, though. Especially the funny -part.

"Some of the men seemed to have the same symptoms, one guy charged me after I had sliced off half his arm. He just came at me like some rabid beast. He had the same eyes," Oberon commented. "Amazon land it is. I haven't been there before. Should prove to be... nice." A small, enigmatic leer crossed the pale warrior's noble features and it made Gabrielle feel a bit uncomfortable. Geez, let it rest, she mentally reproached herself.

It's just that... it's the same look she had on her face when she and Xena were... on that field... when they... A mental image of the tall, magnificent warriors engaging in their play of passion flashed through her mind but she quickly put a clamp on it. Stop it. Xena said... that I'm her life. It's just Oberon's naughty nature. She laughed inwardly at her choice of words. Besides, at the Amazon's maybe she'll keep her hands off my warrior.

My warrior, eh... Possessive, aren't we, Gabrielle? She peeked a look at Xena who was engaged in a quiet discussion with the said naughty warrior. Her eyes glided over the linen clad body of the bronze-skinned tall woman next to her. The fabric clung to every curve and nook, leaving little to imagination, highlighting every muscle, every womanly curve, every graceful smooth line. Gabrielle purred. Now, welllll... with that kind of object, who wouldn't be?

She reluctantly moved her eyes off the gorgeous form and surveyed the other patrons of the slowly filling tavern/inn, settling down to have breakfast before heading to mend their damaged homes. As usual, they were getting their usual ample share of fascinated looks. Most of the populace had been hiding someplace during the attack but the word of the three had of course travelled around and everyone was curious. Conversation buzzed as people sitting in their tables glanced furtive looks towards their table and gesturing with the occasional surreptitious finger.

She refocused on the two warriors, still conversing quietly, leaning slightly across the table to avoid raising their voices too much.

"... don't have to come there with us," Xena was saying. "I know, but she's my prisoner so I have the responsibility to look after her, in good and in bad," Oberon said, making a sweeping gesture with one long arm. Xena nodded. She didn't mind riding with this woman. They had many differences but their core was made from the same wood. War was their nature, battle was their hunger. The only problem might be with… Gabrielle.

She arced an inquisitive eyebrow at the bard. "Okay with you if she comes with us?" Gabrielle looked at Oberon who favoured her with one of her trademarked infectiously joyous smiles, trying desperately to make the bard feel at ease.

Gabrielle felt a touch of warmth at the fact that Xena had asked her. She could just said no and the woman she wanted to dislike but couldn't help liking would be gone. But she had the Nation to think about, most pressingly a member of it who was lying bound and gagged in the cellar in a frightening state. A sigh. Besides, this trip might give me some closure on the current case of 'Shy Bard, Shyer Ex-Warlord and her Very Un-shy Hopefully-Ex-Lover'.

"Okay," she said and returned Oberon's smile.

The sun was up high and warming Gabrielle's back as she sat on the windowsill. She leaned into the warmth, savoured the feeling as her tensed muscles relaxed. From a bench near her, she could hear the faint sounds of Xena finishing the perpetual task of cleaning her armour. The muted clatter of tableware and the buzz of conversation in the largish room.

Her stomach felt queasy. Because of many things. Of the rabid Amazon, of lack of sleep and of the mixed feelings she was having on this upcoming trip. The latter partially because of the bad, rotten vibrations she was getting on the thought of drugged mad dog soldiers and because she was having a bad case of butterflies in the belly.

She opened her eyes at a new sound. Speak of the Hades… She spotted Oberon coming downstairs, her wide pants swishing quietly. She had put on her armour and it made her look even stranger, if possible. Exotic. Again, the bard felt a pang of envy. She's so beautiful.

And so she was. Like Xena, Oberon was very tall and had impeccable musculature, apparent even with her usual flowing, black clothing and the gleaming, many-faceted, intricate armour she wore. The most notable difference between the two warriors was their skin colour. While Xena's was a beautiful, gold-tinted bronze, Oberon was pale. Not a sickly, unhealthy pale, no… it was like her skin was made of the most expensive of alabasters. She reminded Gabrielle of a perfect statue, albeit a very animated one. Her face was noble and had that same angular, slightly cruel features as Xena's. The shape of her head was exquisitely sensual, clearly defined for she had no hair save a small, gleaming bun of black hair on the top of her skull. She was, in a word, perfect. Jeez, and I'm just this plump village girl. Gabrielle deflated a bit at her self-derogatory realization.

Oberon approached the other warrior who had stood and finished her task and was in the process of putting on her newly cleaned breastplate. She did the buckles quickly and fastened the scabbard to her back. Oberon dropped her saddlebags to the bench unceremoniously and leaned her curiously huge, over eight feet tall longbow on the wall. She rested one booted foot on the bench and spoke in low murmur to the other warrior who absentmindedly fingered her chakram, pondering on something.

Transfixed, Gabrielle followed the long, tanned fingers tracing the pattern on the round object. The callused hands of the warrior caressed the deadly weapon like it was the most delicate of spider webs, stroking the metal surface in a most sensual way. Gabrielle found herself wondering at what wonders those fingers would do if they ran along her heated, sensitive skin… she shook her head, angry at herself. No time for daydreaming. Must be that time of the cycle again.

Her eyes felt drawn to the strong digits of the warrior. They had ceased their travel and now rested on top of the cold metal, slightly curved. Still… if any fingers are to touch me, I'd like those to be the ones. She blushed at her prurient thoughts and her gaze shifted to Oberon's hands, now resting on top of her raised knee, crossed at wrists. Gabrielle was surprised to note that the two warriors had almost identical hands. Oberon's were just as interesting, managing to look strong and sensual at the same time with their straight, even fingers and powerful wrists. The wrists of a swordwielder.

The two warriors were getting many a look from the lunch crowd. Some appreciative, others curious. The villagers were not quite sure what to make of their saviours. The smallest of them looked the most human. She had a kind, friendly air about her and she was easy to look at and she was an expert with the staff.

Her companions then… gorgeous as they were, they made everyone feel a bit uncomfortable. So many stories of the Destroyer of Nations they had heard, most of them not very nice ones. The other of the imposing women was more of an enigma but she looked every bit as incarnate of Ares as the Warrior Princess herself. Nevertheless, they were grateful for without the threesome, their homes would have burnt to cinder and they themselves would probably be dead or worse, in slavery.

They watched the visitors make last of their preparations and saw the dark warrior respond to a question by the strawberry blonde with a surprisingly warm smile and a low chuckle, while the dark-clad stranger sauntered to the 'keeper and paid for their stay in great flourish, refusing to leave without paying. She just flashed a feral, broad smile at the man behind the counter and wrapped his hand around the coins. The they went out and soon enough, the gallop of two horses was heard, retreating.

The day's ride was uneventful. The Amazon prisoner was unconscious most of the time, the aftereffects of the drug she was on, according to Xena. Twice she woke up for a brief second, swayed moaning in her bonds with which she was tied to Oberon's back to keep her from sliding off the horse.

The heat was scorching. A late summer's heat wave had hit the region they were travelling through and the whole countryside shimmered in mirages. Tree limbs hung limply, the leaves yellowed and wrinkled for lack of water and the air had a stale, metallic taste to it. Gabrielle was sweating profusely in her scrimpy clothing and she could feel the clamminess of Xena's skin on her cheek where it rested against a broad shoulder. Those leathers must be driving her crazy, she sympathized. She can't be very comfortable either, she thought as she looked at Oberon, encased in her black mass of cloth.

She really hated riding. Really. She wanted to get off the uncomfortable horse, tear off her clothes and jump into the nearest cold pond. She reached for the waterskin attached to a saddlebag and took a long pull. Ugh. It was lukewarm and didn't help any. A bucket of cold water. Anything for a bucket of cold water. A sigh.

Hurry was a necessity. They needed to get to the bottom of this thing and the keys to an answer were in Amazon land as much as in the Amazon on Oberon's horse. So, she had to endure riding Argo in this godawful heat. This adventure stuff is way overrated.

It was already dark when they entered their final stop before reaching the Amazons. It was a moderately large city called Kalkhas, a half a day's ride from their destination. Curiously enough, there was only one guard at the gate and he was blind drunk, letting them pass with a flourishing wave that almost made him keel over. He also issued an unclear comment about how many pairs of great breast were entering the city, or that's how it sounded to the bard.

They slowly navigated the streets towards the centre of the city, towards the flickering light of torches, music and loud voices cheering, cursing and singing. "Seems there's a festival of some sort going on." She more felt than saw Xena nod.

Despite the festival they managed to get a room at an inn near the central square the festivities were held. "You go on, I'll see to Argo and Awase and take care of out 'guest' here," she said, nodding towards the still unconscious Amazon. Gabrielle nodded with a smile, seeing through the warrior's attempt at disguising her dislike for crowds. "I'll meet you there," was what the raven-haired woman replied to the smile and she was off, carrying the prisoner on one shoulder without much effort.

Oberon caught the misty green eyes when they tore away from the retreating warrior."Let me get some of this gear off my back, OK?" Gabrielle nodded and when Oberon had removed her upper-body armour and extraneous weapons save her swords, they were off, heading towards the pulsating noise.

The small square was packed. Hastily constructed wooden stalls sold everything from clothes to weapons to small sweet snacks. The jugglers were there, as well as hustlers, musicians, arm-wrestlers and fake sorcerers. The square was lit with endless torches that made the sparkling cloth banners that hung from walls shine and glint in rich colours and painted odd shadows on animated faces that laughed in small knots near the ale stalls, or sang in small groups or debated a point over mugs of ale. Everyone was clearly having fun and Gabrielle drank in the sights.

She hadn't been shopping for a long time and so, she launched herself to the cloth merchants and jewelers, admiring their products with well-placed words, making the men and women shine with pride. She bought some necessities, eyed a pair of silver bracelets with regret and as usual, got stuck near the food stalls. She stuffed herself with nut pastries, strawberries dipped in honey and all kinds of sweets.

As usual, they got more attention than necessary. Many a drunken man approached the bard with dirty words and groping hands but the steely look in the steamy green eyes, the wiry muscles visible underneath the tanned skin and most notably, her silent but formidable companion discouraged most would-be suitors.

On one occasion, a huge, lumbering mass of meat of a man wouldn't take no for an answer but proceeded to grad the bard's breast. That earned him a kick in the groin, a mighty punch from Oberon and a brief look in the face of death, in the form of a ghostly pale warrior and the cold steel the imposing warrior expertly wielded. The man fled like the seat of his pants was on fire.

"Gah. I think I over-ate." Gabrielle stuck out her tongue and patted her belly.

"Nooooo…" Oberon mocked, a smile creasing her eyes. They were sitting in an extension of a bar that consisted of a dozen or so tables arranged to an edge of the square, next to a construction that looked suspiciously like a wrestling arena. Actually, more slouching than sitting, at least in Gabrielle's case. "You made that one man who sold the sweet cakes with cinnamon very happy. You must've bought half his stock."

"Ha ha." Gabrielle smiled a genuine smile at her companion who winked. The eyes that regarded were almost black in the torchlight and they had depths to them, layers and layers of soul, rimmed with laughter. I really really should hate her. But… I can't.

Oberon took in the introspective look in the bard's eyes and knew what it meant. OK, brave, fearless warrior. Time to bite the arrowhead. "I'm sorry."

"What?" Gabrielle was startled. "What did you say?"

The pale warrior took a ragged breath. "I said I'm sorry. For everything. For almost messing things up with you two." Gabrielle knew what she was talking about but found no words to express her feelings. In fact, she was unsure as to what exactly her feelings were on the matter.

Despite the silence, Oberon continued. "I… am truly sorry. What you two have is something unique, something precious and what I did... I almost destroyed the possibility of it coming to its full potential. For my own physical cravings." Speechless, Gabrielle fastened her eyes on the dark ones next to her, now filled with anguish. Oberon took in a deep breath and took the bard's hand in her own, larger one, curling warm fingers softly around the trembling palm. She held the green eyes with pure willpower, her dark eyes unblinking and deadly serious.

"Gabrielle." She pronounced the syllables slowly, in a low, commanding yet gentle tone. "Listen to me very carefully." The blonde hair nods fractionally. "What you have, Xena and you, is… strong. Powerful. It's… the essence of the Universe. Don't get anything get between that." She shook her head without her gaze leaving Gabrielle's eyes. "Ever."

Gabrielle gulped. Whoa. "I, uh… why do you say that?"

"Because I see it in you and I see it in her. The light that will save her soul, it's you." She jabbed a finger at the breathless bard. "You just remember that, OK?" She was relieved to see Gabrielle nod and she let go of her hypnotizing gaze.

The smaller woman sat silently for a long time, seeing not the marketplace, feeling not the cooler gusts of night air alternating with warm, smoky air that billowed from the surrounding torches. She just sat, a small ball of warmth and golden light building inside her soul. Could it really be… well, we'll just have to wait and see.

She squeezed the hand that still held hers. She decided to stop hating the pale warrior that had touched her soul, deeper than she realized. The woman had given her hope, for Xena as well as herself. "Thanks. I mean it." The indigo eyes, glowing in an intense shade of purple and reflecting flames, met hers. The eyes saw everything, as if Gabrielle had lain her soul open. She took a deep breath to clear her head. The power Oberon held, it was beyond her comprehension. Something powerful. Dark, yet kind. How odd.

"So, what am I to do about this?" the bard asked. "Let it grow. Things will happen at their own pace. No reason to hurry them."

Gabrielle huffed at the enigmatic comment. "Don't you play the oracle with me…"

"Shhhh… trust me. Don't rush it." The warrior gave a final squeeze and then extracted her hand. "Let's enjoy the entertainment, shall we?" she smiled and nodded towards the wrestling arena.

So deep in thought Gabrielle had been she hadn't noticed the gathering of a crowd next to the raised wooden platform, nor the competitors or the cheer of the mostly male spectators, urging the two grunting men currently entwined to each other, trying their best to win. The taller of the two managed to get a good hold on a shoulder and with the mass of his body behind the throw, made the other man fly unceremoniously to the wooden planks. A cheer came up and bets won and lost were exchanged.

Next up on the stage came the main attraction of the day, the town master wrestler. He was a huge man with arms like tree trunks and a neck almost as thick as Gabrielle's waist. An unkempt tuft of ash-blonde hair adorned his head and small, beady eyes glinted from deep within his head. He flexed his biceps that threatened to rip the sleeves of his shirt. He took off the said piece of clothing, revealing a a mass of chest hair and pecs the size of small pillows. His first contestant was a large man as well but mostly due to flabby rings around his waist. He was quickly defeated, as were the three next men, limping away with a multitude of injuries.

He eyed around with arrogant eyes and threw a challenge to everyone. No-one volunteered to fight him, so he just stood there, leering victoriously at the more or less drunken crowd. His eyes fastened on an unusual sight. A woman, sitting in a table, with no man around. Honey-blonde hair, nice build. His eyes raked over the supple body in admiration.

"Hey, young lady, how about you and me an' some horizontal wrestling," he called out, to the delight of the crown who made wolf-whistles and knowing winks towards the bard, who fumed at the indignant comment. But before she could say anything, she felt a hand on her forearm and a look of warning from Oberon. "Let's not get anyone mad, OK," the warrior hissed.

The warrior stood to her imperious height, bringing herself out of the shadows that had hid her from the leering wrestler and into the light of fluttering torches. The yellow-red light made her skin gleam in an ethereal glow and shadows danced across her sharp features as she negotiated the crowd with ease, as it tended to part before her sure stride. Soon, she was standing next to the platform and took a look back at the bard, who was frantically waving her to get out of there. She gave a confident wink at the young woman and mouthed 'trust me' and turned towards the platform.

The man didn't see her move. While she had stood peacefully next to the edge plank, the next thing he knew she had vaulted over the edge with a lazy flip and landed opposite him, only a few feet away. She was only slightly shorter than he and regarded him with cool, dark eyes.

He watched, spellbound, as the woman slowly removed her loose wraparound tunic, revealing underneath it a finely-honed upper body, covered only in a black sleeveless item. Its front and back were smooth and patternless and it had laces on the sides. The vest-like item clung to her curves and her black tattoo blended perfectly with the dully shining leather, making the tattoo an extension of her clothing as it cascaded down the skin of her arm in rippling, perfect curves, highlighting the supple muscles underneath the pale skin.

"Shall we wrestle or do you just want to stare?" He snapped out of his trance and fixed his gaze on the woman's face. It was beautiful but it had a streak of barely hidden cruelty in it, in the way the dark eyebrows arched. Indigo eyes stared at him, mildly amused. The small smile the mouth held was not warm, it was... barbaric. It made him feel uneasy.

Shrugging off the feeling angrily, he took a stance and turned on his best predatory face. "Yah, let's do it."

The judge stated the rules, which were sparse and said only that no kicking, punching, clawing or biting was allowed and also, all sensitive parts were off-limits. Just wrestling. Match ends when the other admits defeat or otherwise gives up. And then it was on.

The contestants circled around each other, slowly. There was barely a whisper from the crowd, they just stared at the unlikely pair that occupied the center stage. They gauged the other, looking for an opening. Oberon was like a brick wall, expressionless, her eyes revealing noting. The man eyed her suspiciously, unsure of himself.

When he thought he saw a change, he suddenly lunged forward, huge arms outstretched, attempting to grab the annoying woman into a bear hug. His hands grasped thin air as she ducked and at the same time took a hold of the man's arm. Using his own body as leverage, she pushed the arm with moderate force and made the man tumble to the ground in a ball of muscle and limbs.

He got up, slowly, with new rage in his eyes. He was wary, more careful this time. Instead of lunging, he edged closer, making the woman back away and then, suddenly grasped her wrist. He felt a moment's sure elation that turned into astonishment and pain as the woman took a step past him, twisting her arm and making his balance weaken. She then took another step, took the man's hand in hers and twisted it in a simple yet powerful wrist lock. The man had two choices, he could either take a flip or lose the ability to use his hand, ever. He took the former and landed with a painful thump.

This time he had a look that had mixed feelings. He was angry like a wounded bull but couldn't help fearing a bit. This woman, who stood there, looking relaxed, eyes half closed as if she was just playing, was defeating him in his own game. Not with brute force, no, he was the master in that, but with ethereal skill and speed. So, he decided, to save his face, he had to do what had to be done. He had to play dirty

Next time as he approached her, he came even closer. He grabbed an arm and pulled her near so that the crowd couldn't see his other arm. He flashed his uneven, yellow teeth and took a hold of the startled warriors breast and twisted the soft flesh mercilessly. He was rewarded with a grimace of pain and a choked grumble from the woman.

"Give up," he whispered.

The reply came in a language he didn't understand, a low, rumble of a curse and the sudden sensation of steely fingers grabbing his forearm. The hands held strength he thought they weren't capable of. The fingers bored into his flesh like the jaws of a blacksmith's pliers and removed his hand from the enticing flesh. A quick turn, a twist of a wrist and he was held in a painful joint lock that threatened to tear the tendons that held his elbow in place.

Then new pain erupted in his forearm. A technique related to pressure points, Oberon was pressing the hard surface of a knucklebone on her palm to the periosteum of his spokebone, rubbing the sensitive membrane against the hard surface underneath it. This method was subtle yet effective, the pain was exquisite.

He howled in agony but before he could do anything else, she twisted the arm some more, shifted her grip and with the help of the joint lock, some momentum and all the strength she had, she threw the huge man over the edge of the platform in a twisting throw. After briefly spiralling in the air, he landed to the stones a good four feet below the platform with a muffled thump, followed by the nauseating crunch of his skull hitting the hard surface.

"Son of a bacchae," she muttered and reflexively wiped her hands to her flowing, wide pants, disgusted. The crowd was silent and still, staring at her with gaping mouths and eyes wide. She raised a wry eyebrow and spat on the unconscious man, hitting his forehead unerringly from her high vantage point. She rested her forearms on a support pole that held the ropes and leaned on it with casual air.

"Next time, hope he remembers not to play rough with girls," she said mildly. The populace stood frozen for a long moment and then laugher erupted, alleviating the tension. Oberon smiled a relieved smile, retrieved her tunic and jumped off the stage. Without sparing a look at the huge man at her feet, she swaggered back to their table.

While she had been occupied with the match, Xena had come to the table. She cradled a mug of port and a small smile caressed her lips. "She's a showoff," she whispered to Gabrielle, who couldn't resist it.

"No more than you are."

With mock hurt in her eyes, Xena looked at the smirking bard. The warrior's lower lip pouted just so and Gabrielle couldn't help laughing. "Ooo, poor thing… did I hurt your warrior ego?" Xena abstained from replying for she feared she might burst out in helpless giggles and that wouldn't do. Her image would be in tatters. Warriors didn't giggle.

The pale warrior slumped into the free chair with a small grunt and a whiff of the spicy scent of her sweat. She gently massaged her assaulted breast. It was sore but no permanent damage was done. Bruises, yes, but not serious ones. The dull clink of the coins that was her reward for winning provided some healing.

"Great show," Xena nodded. Oberon smiled at her and drawled: "Thanks. Needed a good fight. Shopping makes me edgy." Gabrielle rolled her eyes. Warriors. Give 'em a good fight and a casket of port and they're deliriously happy for the rest of the day.

They retired early for they anticipated the next day would be a long one. The clamour of the festival was muted in their secluded room, of which Gabrielle was thankful for. She stalled with her changing and was the last one up, not wanting to sleep alone. She'd gotten used to sleeping next to the dark warrior on the road and now, the prospect of sleeping in separate beds, as comfortable as they were, was not welcome. She made a small sighing sound.

Oberon was fast asleep, it seemed. So was Xena, her eyes were closed and her breathing even. She looks so young when she's asleep. The small lines of tension that were forever on her face had mellowed fractionally and a lock of raven hair had fallen on her forehead, the end of it tickling her cheek.

Gabrielle blew out the last candle and climbed to her bed. Under the covers, it was fuzzy and soft, but somehow… cold. She sighed again. The pale blue eyes opened and fastened on the young bard. "Are you OK?"

The low whisper made her skin tingle. It was the voice she so much loved, caring and strong. She stood on the threshold of decision for a breath and then decided to take the jump into the unknown.

"I'm cold."

A ridiculous statement, considering the scorching temperatures the day had mercilessly pounded on them. Nevertheless, she heard no protest, only the soft rustle of bedclothes, the quiet patter of bare feet and then the covers on here were lifted and something wonderful slid next to her. Arms slid around her and she could feel the limber biceps flex as the arms pulled her to a warm embrace. She fell asleep with a smile on her lips, the gentle breeze of Xena's breathing caressing her cheek.

If possible, the following day was even hotter. Oberon, whose clothing was meant for colder climates, relented and removed some of her armour, leaving on only her chestplate and shoulderpads. She changed her helmet for a large rectangle of silk, tied around her head and made her look as if she had long, dark blue hair. The sunburnt ground crunched underneath the eight hooves, the steeds sweating as much as their four riders. They had to stop more frequently to drink and let the horses rest in the shade of some convenient tree.

It was well past midday when they took another of such breaks. They sat in the shadow of an ancient willow, its branches limp and immobile in the still air. Their passenger was still unconscious, the only sighs of life were the slow breathing that moved her chest and the occasional low moan. Oberon lifted her off her horse and carried her to the shadow, worried of her prisoner's condition and prolonged aftereffects.

Gabrielle massaged her back, hurting from the ride. Her rump felt like she had taken two dozen lashes from a large whip and her legs felt like watered hay. A warm hand came on her lower back and gently rubbed the stiff muscles, loosening the nubs of anguish. The bard drooped her head forward and let the hand do its magic. She hummed as the other hand joined its companion at the shoulders, kneading with knowing expertise. She felt the gentle brush of something hard on her shoulderpads and knew it to be Xena's breastplate. The gentle touch and the wondrous ministrations of the hands made small shivers travel up and down her back.

This is entirely too nice. I should be worried, craggy and tired, not to mention in a hurry but this feels just so great. She groaned softly as the warrior found a very sore spot in her neck and applied her strong fingers to it. Mmmmm, at least there's one good thing about riding Argo… I get her to do this to me.

"We're near." Gabrielle felt the words as vibrations against her back, so close was the warrior standing. Oberon nodded and put on the rest of her armour. If nothing, she wanted to be prepared for everything. After all, she was riding into a nest of Amazons with one of them as her prisoner, unconscious and tied to her back.

It started as an uncomfortable feeling. Hes sixth sense was trying to tell her something. A few paces later the hair on the nape of her neck prickled and she knew the signs: her well-honed instincts were screaming bloody murder. Someone was watching them.

"Five on the left, three on right and two in the front," she hissed and reined Argo tighter, slowing their pace and then stopping altogether. Gabrielle hopped off the horse and went to front. Oberon fingered the hilt of her sword, her fingers gliding over the geometrical pattern. Her senses were assaulted with the sense of danger as well, making her nervous.

The bard stood in the middle of the quiet road and raised her hand in the familiar peace gesture. As if on cue, all of the ten Amazons appeared, gliding down ropes from the tall trees that made the road a covered passageway. Bows at ready but not drawn, they formed a loose semi-circle around the two horses. One warrior advanced a few steps.

"Hello Solari," Gabrielle smiled.

"Hello my queen," the dark-haired woman replied. Gabrielle sighed in exasperation. "Will you stop that!" "Yes, my queen," was the smiling reply.

The Amazon was still wary. She knew their Queen and the Warrior Princess but the other warrior was an enigma. She wasn't even sure if it was a man or a woman and most disturbingly, there was an apparently lifeless body tied to his/her back. Solari quirked an eyebrow at Gabrielle and nodded minutely towards the stranger.

"Oh. Sorry. Oberon?" The tall figure nodded, face shadowed by the brim of the odd helmet. The stranger untied the binds that held the prisoner, settled the unconscious woman on the saddle so that she wouldn't fall and then two booted feet hit the ground.

In and out of shadows the figure travelled, walking with quiet power to stand next to the bard. The hands reached for the helmet fastener and swiftly, removed the headwear that barred light from the face.

Solari's heartbeat slowed down and the guarded scowl melted away at the sight. The smiling face of a handsome woman came into view. The grin was infectiously genuine and it twinkled in the incredibly deep blue eyes. Reflexively, Solari smiled back. Xena dismounted and joined the small group. She laid a hand on the bard's shoulder and looked at the Amazons.

"We need to talk to Ephiny."

They walked the remaining half a candlemark's march to the village, Gabrielle chatting with the couple of the patrol guards she knew, getting updated on the latest happenings and gossip of the Nation. Xena and Oberon paced a few feet behind them and a guard was trotting next to the black horse, keeping an eye on the Amazon sprawled on the saddle.

At the entrance to the village Gabrielle was plowed by a familiar woman with blonde hair. "Gabrielle! Great to see you again!" Ephiny laughed. The bard hugged the woman. "Hello to you too, Eph." The regent nodded at Xena and eyed Oberon with curiosity. Introductions were passed all around and Oberon's unconscious prisoner was carried away to a guarded hut, if she decided to wake up from her slumber still enraged.

At the safety of Ephiny's hut, the four women sat on a table. A young Amazon brought them a light lunch and as they devoured the bland but filling offerings, they brought each other up-to-date. Or rather, Gabrielle and Ephiny did. The two tall warriors just looked at each other in exasperation and resigned to their fate.

After lunch, the blonde regent cleared her throat. "Yes, well, you might be wondering why I called you here. And yes, it has something to do with the Amazon you brought here with us." Gabrielle had told the tale of how they came upon the dark-haired woman, how she had attacked a village as a member of an ordinary if strangely fierce raiding gang.

"She's one of the regulars on border patrol on the high ridge, where Amazon land borders with the Centaurs. Last week, she went missing, as well as did a couple of others. No sign of struggle anywhere. It was as if they vanished into thin air. The centaurs report two missing as well, only they were on a hunting party. I can't imagine the circumstances that would make an Amazon leave her people and join a pack of troublemakers, unless…"

"… she was drugged," Xena finished the sentence. "Yes, but that still doesn't explain how she disappeared without a trace."

The women sat in silence, pondering the mystery. It was decided that they should themselves take a look at the general area, to get the feel of the place. But only after a bath, on Gabrielle's insistence.

"I'm willing to bet my immortal soul that I have at least two stones of sweat-clumped road dust inside my skirt," she pronounced and drew a chuckle from the others. Xena's leathers looked dull and gleamless as well and they were adorned with sweatstains on the edges. The bard wouldn't even begin to think how Oberon felt in her all-covering black clothing.

It seemed a number of others had had the same idea. Indeed there wasn't a better place to escape the muggy, heated air than the large, artificial pond that served as bathing area, located near the village on a small clearing in the woods. It was a peaceful glade, the pool was chipped out of sheer stone that rose from the water on one side into a sloping wall. The water was just the right temperature, cool but not too cold.

Amazon clothing was strewn along the edge of the pool and about a dozen women were gathered in small knots, lounging or conversing quietly in the clear blue water. The travellers added their dusty wear to the piles of leather and feather.

At the sight of a naked bard bottom Xena blushed. She fervently hoped the water would be cold. Very cold. Gabrielle turned and raked an appreciative gaze up and down the tall warrior in her birthsuit and a bodacious smirk decorated the beautiful face. Xena felt her cheeks redden a tad more. She sprinted the gap of a few yards between them, grabbed the startled bard in a bear hug and launched them into the pool.

"Ghaaak! <splutter> Xenaaaa!" All of five and a half feet of wet bard in righteous indignation came to the surface and paddled after the chuckling warrior. "You'll pay for this," the bard hissed, catching Xena and grabbing a thick bicep. The dark warrior turned, slid her hands around the slender waist in front of her and brought the blonde woman close to her.

"Oh yeah? Exactly how?" she rasped. She didn't hear the answer (not that it mattered, it was incomprehensible anyway), she was too busy drowning into the sea of green that held her eyes in an adoring captivation. Reluctantly, she expanded her focus outside the lucent face before her and the supple body in her arms, to find curious and knowing looks fastened on them. The eyes skittered away but the grins remained.

Heat creeping uncontrollably up her neck again, she let go of Gabrielle. The bard looked around. At first she was puzzled by the winks and smirks but soon it dawned on her. She leaned to Xena and whispered: "You're so cute when you blush," and was rewarded with a splash of water that drenched her.

Ephiny continued her halted discussion with the bard and Xena drifted next to Oberon who was in a lively talk with Eponin, debating on staff fighting techniques. The three warriors conversed in low voices, their short sentences blending with the hum of other conversation and the slosh of water around the bathing women.

Just before they were about to turn into huge, pink raisins they got out of the pool. Drying off and changing into normal, simple tunics, the travellers felt a whole lot better and cooler. They walked back to Ephiny's hut and while Xena and Oberon dusted off their armour, made a plan.

"… shouldn't take more than a few hours but we'll take a few guards with us, OK?" Xena opened her mouth to protest but Gabrielle was quicker. "Yes, it's fine. No sense risking all royalty with too little security." Oberon's eyebrows edged up her smooth forehead. 'too little security?' she mouthed to Xena, indicating them, two warriors very capable of taking care of themselves and two queens, than you very much. Xena shrugged helplessly.

When they were ready and went outside to the blazing sun, they were joined by three Amazons. Exasperated at the extra company, Xena squinted at the smiling sun that caressed the warrior's face with white hot tendrils gliding down from a cloudless sky. She forced herself calm and managed partially, only a small nagging feeling that something was terribly wrong stubbornly held tight.

The three women that had joined them, she didn't recognize them. Two of them were obviously royal guard, the blue leather they wore straining under the pressure from muscular limbs. The third was a tracker, less a mass of hulking muscle than the other two. She had a bob of gleaming red hair and green eyes that almost rivaled Gabrielle's in their sharpness and intensity. And probably the most perfect nose Xena had ever seen.

The guards were as expressionless as their training told them to be, eyes sweeping the immediate environs. The tracker gawked at all the tall women, intrigued by the legendary Warrior Princess and curious of the wildly gesturing stranger. Her eyes fastened on the perfectly shaped bald head, ascended to smiling, dark eyes. Further down, sensuous lips of an extremely attractive shade of purple curved into a charming grin when the stoic dark-haired warrior next to the stranger muttered something about Amazon Royal Guards and swallowing spears.

Gabrielle and Ephiny came into view behind the stables and Xena's jaw muscles suddenly slackened. Gabrielle had changed into leathers as well for both her green top and cloth skirt were dusty and grimy from the travel. The soft brown hide was perfect on her, the top and short skirt with high clefts showed off both the bard's newly muscular midriff as well as the creamy skin of her thighs, the curves disappearing invitingly under the leather flaps. The shoulder ornament, the mark of her regency was an intricate mass of filigreed metal, attached to her shoulder and to the top of one of the full gauntlets she wore. She had passed on the feathers though, they would be a nuisance in the forest.

"You look... great," Xena whispered and was glad to see the bard blush for a change. "I feel awkward but thanks anyway," she smiled, fingering the lacing of her left gauntlet that just wouldn't settle.

It was a long way to the border and to speed things up, riding was imperative. Gabrielle stubbornly refused to take a horse for herself and insisted on riding with her warrior. The guards gave up their try to persuade the queen, a task Ephiny had doomed an impossible one from the start, and accepted their fate.

On Argo, Xena extended an arm and helped the bard to her usual seat, taking great comfort in the arms that wrapped themselves around her waist. It felt somehow different this time, the creak of leather against leather was new and not entirely unpleasant. The others mounted their horses as well, the guards on two big warhorses and the fiery-haired tracker on a nervous roan and Oberon, of course, on her huge, black mare.

The small party set their pace to as quick as the terrain allowed. In less than three candlemarks they reached their destination. It was a small stream that marked the border, running down the side of a gently sloping hill. They followed the stream through the woods, the ground relatively free of clutter because the ancient trees preventing most of sunlight reaching the ground. It was cool and it was quiet. Too quiet for Xena's liking and the Amazon guards were fingering their bows nervously, anxious for action.

Upon reaching a bend in the stream where the water formed a small, secluded bay in a natural depression of the ground, the tracker halted and turned to the rest of the party. "This is the place. The lookout is stationed…" she lifted one wiry arm and pointed at a thick, enormous ash, on a branch about twenty feet off the ground. "… there." It was a good spot, offering unobstructed view down the hill to Centaur land.

They swept the area for clues but found none. There had been no rain in days so if something had happened, there should be signs. Blood, scuffmarks, arrows, ripped clothing, extra footprints. But there was nothing. No clue as to why the Amazons on this particular lookout had disappeared without a trace, that is until one of them had attacked Oberon and received a roundhouse kick in the temple for that.

They spread to the surrounding shady forest, each regent shadowed by a Guard. Xena went alone, her instincts were at their best like that. She paced quietly, avoiding dry twigs and rustling leaves. A few times she froze, cocking her head to hear better whatever had startled her, eyebrows furrowing when her searching senses found nothing. Her nostrils flared and small facial muscles twitched at the uncanny feeling that something was wrong, wrong, wrong but for the life of her she couldn't figure out what it was. Something familiar in the sensation and then again, not so familiar. A presence she had not felt since... The solution eluded her and the uncertainty made her even edgier than usual.

She emerged back to the small glade near the bubbling stream. She blinked on the heavy sunlight, a stark contrast to the dusky woods. She spotted their sinewy tracker emerging from the opposite side. It was a quiet, peaceful clearing, until…

A slight rustle of dry leaves was their only warning. Xena's sensitive ears picked it up but before she could yell a warning, a huge bear exploded from the darkness of the forest. It was a massive, lumbering beast but it landed gracefully and raised to its full height, a good three feet over Xena's. Cursing, the warrior pounded into run, knowing in her heart she'd never be able to cross the distance before the beast was on the smaller woman. She screamed on top of her lungs to get the attention of the brown mass of fur but failed to do so.

The small tracker managed to turn for a run but then a heavy paw hit her on the shoulder, tearing skin and leather. She was thrown to the ground and as she rolled, she got a look of the huge bear. The massive, wide animal stood near her, towering over her huddled form. Raising its paws, it bellowed out a low grumble and tensed to leap on its hapless prey.

The woman tensed for the coming rush but instead of searing pain, she felt a faint brush of breeze on her body, heard a loud thump and then, a bloodcurdling cry of pain. She peeked with one eye.

The bear was still there, yes, but a new figure stood in front of it. It was the mercurial pale warrior. She had the bear's arm in a loose joint lock but the bear didn't resist much. That was probably because on her other hand, the warrior held a short, curved blade, more a long dagger than a sword. It ran red with blood, the bear's blood that gushed from a wide cut on its throat, the heavy crimson spray landing on the warrior as well as the Amazon.

The bear howled its agony but was cut off when the warrior thrust the blade into the animal's furry chest, twisting sideways. The bear's heart was neatly sliced in two and the huge mass was as good as dead.

Oberon let go of the bear, unable to hold the limp cadaver up. It landed with a rumble, lifting a small gust of sand. Shaking her arm to get rid of the dripping blood, she extended the other to the tracker. The smaller woman was covered in steaming blood, staring at the warrior, the whites of the eyes in stark contrast to her otherwise dark red coating. She grabbed the warm hand, reassured by its strength and gentle grip.

"You OK?" the warrior asked. "Yeah. Just a bit startled." She grimaced at her screaming left shoulder. "Got a scratch." Oberon frowned at the cuts, they weren't very big but deeper than she liked. She bandaged the wound with the cloth she wore under her helmet, after cleaning the cuts with some water from her water skin. Stitches would have to wait until they reached the village.

Xena, who crouched next to the downed bear, gestured her to look at something. Pointing with her breast dagger, she lifted a limp eyelid and indicated the bloodshot eye and the infinitely small pupil, barely visible in the russet expanse of the bear's eye. "It's the same drug," she murmured, more to herself than to the dark form of bloodstained Oberon next to her. "Yeah. But why drug a bear?"

She got no answer but she could see the wheels tuning in the shrewd brain behind the vivid blue eyes. The far-away look brought a glazed surface to them, reminding Oberon of a sight a long ago.

She had visited a far away northern land whose inhabitants were a people of war, living to die in the battle, to be rejoined in the underworld. They were tall, proud and wore long, blonde tresses and beards. Their language was as fierce as their nature, guttural and to the point. They sailed the seas in longboats, decorated with dragonheads and round shields and the sight of the striped sail of one of their boats was a mark of terror and death to the more peaceful inhabitants of the northern shores.

The sea, in the middle of a freezing winter, was encased in ice, had been so for many moons. Then, on an impeccably sunny day, the ice broke and the sea opened and they had sailed for the first time in a long winter. The water was colder than a polar bear's feet and the colour of it… it was the essence of coldness itself. It was the colour of the dark warrior's eyes.

The rest of their party rushed to the square, alerted by Xena's earlier warcry. "What? What's happened," a breathless Gabrielle rushed to her side. "Are you OK?" Xena nodded, still deep in thought. The Guards puffed next to them, bows drawn and agitated looks on their faces. "What's with the dead bear?"

"I objected to the animal having our guide as a snack," Oberon intoned, wiping her shorter sword to the bear's rough pelt. The said snack sat on the ground, still shaky from her close encounter with the beast. She was a tracker, for godssakes. Facing the prey wasn't usually her job. The pain in her shoulder had mellowed to a throbbing ache but she grimaced mentally at the thought of the long, bumpy ride home and how much fun that was going to be with a sore shoulder.

She reassured she was fine to her charming queen, the misty green eyes clouded with concern. Ephiny came to sit next to her as well and the young woman was feeling a bit uncomfortable with this much royal attention. The Royal Guards urged that they leave before any more enraged animals saunter their way and since the search was turning up with naught anyway, it was decided they should head back.

They had left their horses in the shade of a vertical wall of stone but when they got to the place, the horses were nowhere in sight. Xena whistled a low, short tune and it was answered with a loud neigh, strangely muted. They followed the sound and around a bulge in the rock and came to a black opening. It was a cave, the entrance so narrow that Xena suspected the bigger horses had had trouble fitting in there. A familiar golden head stuck out and nuzzled the warrior's shoulder.

"Hello, girl. What are you doing there, huh?" she asked the mare, rubbing the horse behind one honey-coloured ear. She tugged the reins and Argo eased out of the hole, her sides scraping the edges of the opening. The other horses followed, the last one out was the chirpy roan. Marring his beautiful side there was a group of three long gashes. The blood had already coagulated and the rust stains flaked off as the small horse skittered to his rider.

"It's the same bear," the red-haired woman said uncomfortably, fingering her own shoulder after patting the neighing steed's loins. "Has to be."

The other horses had survived with smaller scratches, Awase had one nick on her thick neck that Oberon was worried about. "It must've been very frustrated when they managed to get in the cave. No wonder it was in a bad mood when it attacked you," she said, gently wiping off any extraneous blood from her trusty steed's gleaming black coat and checking the other gash she found in the wide croup, right behind the saddle.

"Well, riding him is clearly out out of the question, the saddlebelt would come on top of the scratches," the Amazon pondered, calming her colourful horse, hugging the skittering animal.

"Ride with me," Oberon volunteered. She neglected the Guards' objections, saying that they had to get back as soon as possible and so, neither of the other Amazons couldn't give their horse to the injured tracker. And her horse was the biggest, end of discussion. The woman would ride with her. She added one of the patented 'don't mess with me' –looks to crown it and the Guards gulped and relented to the brooding woman towering over them in a very disconcerting way.

Gabrielle raised a knowing eyebrow at Xena who raised one humoured dark one back. They could easily see what their friend was up to, in the way she had chatted with the rather nice-looking, wiry tracer the whole trip. Not to mention this offer, which was a dead giveaway. Always the knight in shining armour, eh paleface? Better not try anything nasty with one of my Amazons.

But Oberon had no intention of doing anything rash. Instead, she gently lifted the injured woman to her saddle with little effort and followed her there, wrapping a protective arm around the scout who leaned back against the warrior's broad chest, wriggling headroom between the chestplate and shoulderpads. She found a patch of coarse sunwarmed fabric, and rested her head on it, fiery red tendrils of hair clinging to small armour plates looking as if the warrior's chest was on fire.

"All okay?" she heard the nice warrior ask, a deep rasping voice vibrating in her back. All she could do was to nod. The warmth and the warrior's exotic, musky scent were assaulting her senses to the point of overload. Soon, the powerful rolling gait of the horse and the cuddly nest she was tucked in lulled the young woman to sleep.

As much as Xena detested partying, the Amazon's would hear none of it. Their lovable Queen was on a visit and despite the grim circumstances that brought her there, a celebration was in order. Gabrielle was of course delighted which to Xena meant she'd have to endure all of the festivities as well. Oh Hades. Well, I survived eight days of torture and a near death at the hands of Shazdum when I was captured after I had both destroyed his army and removed one of his eyes. One party shouldn't kill me. I hope.

Unfortunately, for the time before the dinner, they had to separate. Gabrielle had some things concerning the Nation to discuss and Xena took the opportunity to take another bath. The feel, the thought of Gabrielle behind her during the ride. The form-fitting leather outfit that left little to imagination. The hot breath on her skin. The slight brush of silken hair that made shivers cross her back.. She shook her head to clear it. Yes, a bath. A colder one this time.

Dusk came sooner than expected and before Gabrielle realized, it was time for the party start. She had probably missed the moment altogether, so deep in discussion she and Ephiny were, if it wasn't for a knock on door of the Queen's hut. She opened the door and was greeted with a breathtaking sight. Xena.

The warrior had obviously used her free time in polishing her armour so that in the torchlight it glittered and sparkled in warm colours, reflecting the stunned bard in vivid detail and odd angles. The leathers were oiled and brushed so that they gleamed in a rich, dark shade, every brass stud gleamed, rivaling the soft glow of her smooth, bronze skin. Even her hair shone, a huge silken mass of long black tresses cascading down the beautiful shoulders. In a word, the Warrior Princess, standing tall proudly at her door, was magnificent.

At the sight of the madly grinning, speechless bard the most striking part of the dark warrior twinkled. The eyes. The two raging oceans of the purest blue gazed lovingly at the shorter blonde woman, laughter sparkling in them.

"Shall we go, your majesty," the warrior intoned solemnly and offered an arm. The bard opened and closed her mouth a couple of times but no sound came out. The mouth settled on a huge smile and an arm snaked around the steady, tanned one as they headed towards the banquet hall. A smirking Ephiny followed the pair, leaning on an equally flustered Solari who tried unsuccessfully to muffle her laugh. The look on Gabrielle's face was too funny to be true.

The goblet was made of brass. She ran her callused thumb over the bold pattern that decorated the rim, wiping away a droplet of dark wine. She tipped the heavy cup and peeked inside. Yep. Empty. Again. She couldn't remember how many cups she'd already had, which meant entirely too many.

She fidgeted mildly in her chair and refocused her eyes, this time on the woman sitting next to her. Gabrielle. She tasted the syllables, turned them over and then compared them to this wonderful creature sitting in a wooden chair, chatting away with one of the Guards. The name fit the woman perfectly.

Yes, woman. As Xena looked at the bard, she no longer saw a young, frightened village girl but instead, a woman. It had nothing to do with the regalia she wore, though it fit her perfectly, accentuating wiry muscles and making her stature more fitting for her position. Nor did it have anything to do with the company, the women that circled her in adoration of both their Queen and then, more secretly held adoration for a beautiful woman. It was the look in the eyes.

The pools of misty green, it seemed, captured all the light the flickering torches gave and threw it out, magnified thousandfold. The eyes shone the light of wisdom, of knowledge. The shine was not overtly marred with the black shadows of disappointment, pain and the past. Like hers. No, they were bright, knowing and sparkling, showering everyone with joy and happiness.

Suddenly, the eyes fastened on her. She took a deep breath. The look in the amazing eyes made her heart stop and then lurch back to a pace so frantic she thought the organ was going to rip its way through her skin, leathers and armour. The eyes shone with the brilliant light of the universe, the purest essence of the light that was the core of every living being. The blinding light ignited a spark of something equally dazzling inside the deepest reaches of Xena's soul, black from the deeds of the past. The light drowned the darkness effortlessly, making the stunned warrior feel her soul as something warm and comfortable instead of cold and depressing.

The bard gave a warm smile to the warrior who could only nod and return it. The, the moment was broken when Gabrielle turned to another Amazon with a swish of smooth, strawberry blonde hair. Xena gazed the lovely profile with abandon for a long breath. Imagine me, a grumpy ex-warlord, sitting here felling like a teenager girl, all giddy and… twinkly. Rapping her fingers against the hard surface of the goblet, she took another deep breath and scanned the room with a hawk's eye. A young girl filled the shining vessel with the rich wine and Xena nodded absentmindedly.

The party was in full swing. More or less drunken Amazons babbled in loud voices or sang some obscene drinking song. There was an arm-wrestling competition going on in one corner, Eponin against one bleary-eyed Guard. Chants of encouragement were shouted and diverse yells sounded when the weapons master slammed the blue-clad hand to the table.

She spotted Oberon on one long table. Not that it was easy to miss the tall warrior. She wore one of her endless long silk robe-like tunics, this one in rich burgundy with gold embroidery that reminded Xena of the tribal tattoo the woman had. It cascaded in layers and layers of warmly shining fabric, across the bench to the floor, like a dark waterfall. She had escorted the red-haired tracker from the healer's hut to the party and was now deep in conversation with her.

Xena smiled into her drink when the beautiful, sinewy Amazon lifted a finger and traced the few visible tendrils of the tattoo that reached the pale warrior's neck. The delicate digit curved with the black lines, outlining the strong muscles of her neck. Oberon smiled a warm, loving smile that nearly melted the Amazon into a puddle of leather with bits of feather sticking out of it.

"She's certainly getting it on," she heard a humoured whisper. A slight breeze from a body's movement brought a familiar, sweet scent to her. She turned to look at Gabrielle. The look of utter joy decorated the lovely face. Xena's brow furrowed.

"So, you're not mad at her… for… y'know…?" the warrior stammered, either from too much wine or from embarrassment. The bard peeked a mischievous look at the warrior who did her best to avoid the all-seeing green eyes. Gabrielle took mercy on the dark woman.

"No. We… settled the matter." A quick look at the impassive warrior. "If it's okay with you."

Xena released the breath she had been holding. It was okay with her. The issue of her brief fling with the imposing, strange warrior had been chafing at her and their relationship occasionally. She was glad the two had resolved the matter. She smiled a genuine, relaxed smile at Gabrielle.

"I'm glad you… discussed it."

The mischievous look just wouldn't go away. Weather it was from the wine or from her own giddy happiness, she continued: "Yes, we… discussed it. She even gave me some pointers and tips."

Dark eyebrows shot dangerously high. "What!?!?"

As if on cue, the music started. "Gotta go," the bard quipped and bounced to the dance floor before Xena could react. The dark warrior detested dancing so she sat back to her seat. Good thing too, her knees would've given out anyway. She didn't know weather to laugh or blush so she settled on a grimace and a long pull of the sweet wine.

Even though the first rays of dawn were creeping across the horizon, the Amazons just wouldn't stop. Xena sat in her chair, itching for some action. A fight. Anything. The music had mellowed down to soft, lilting tunes and several pairs were swaying to it with unsteady feet. Many a courageous Amazon had approached the tall, dark warrior for a dance but she had declined in a decreasingly polite manner. If someone didn't take no for an answer, a steely look of green fire was shot at her, courtesy of the Queen whose feet had tired some time ago.

Oberon, on the other hand, had danced with abandon. Even now, she was holding the smaller Amazon in her arms. The fiery-haired woman was smiling a broad, happy smile, lost in the two pools of dark velvet above her. The eyes were wrapping her in a comfortable blanket of indigo warmth, making her wish she could just spend the rest of the night drowning in their smooth softness.

"Can we leave now?" Xena whispered to a dainty ear. The soft breath tickled the bard's orifice, drawing flushed giggles from the woman.

"Yeah. I think I've had too much wine already. Let's go."

The words were music to the warrior's ear. Swiftly she rose and bowed gracefully to Gabrielle. "Your majesty, may I escort you to your quarters?" Gabrielle smiled and took the offered hand, hauling herself up. "Yes, you may." Xena winked and started to plow their way through the withering mass of Amazons blocking their way.

Gabrielle waved goodbye to Ephiny, who was deeply engaged in a conversation with Solari, punctuating her words with gestures of her hand that unfortunately had a goblet in it. Wine sploshed on the floor on each sway but the regent paid no attention. She waved back, a little too cheerfully. Gabrielle hazily anticipated she wouldn't be the only one having a hangover come the next day.

A fight broke out on the dance floor. Punches were traded but none too serious, the women's aim was rather off due to intoxication. One hit found its mark in the jaw of a stocky brunette and she stumbled backwards, to hit her head on something hard and metallic. She staggered around, holding her head and her eyes focused on a very pretty swirly pattern. Her eyes bobbed up, to be captured by a pair of beautiful blue eyes, a look of inquisitive humour in them.

"Uhhhh, sorry," she blurted. She peered a closer look. "My, you're gorgeous! Wanna dance?"

She was mystified by the response. The tall, remarkable woman blushed and somewhere behind her, someone giggled. The dark warrior gulped down her laugh and squeezed the small wrist she was holding. "No, I don't want to dance. Please move."

Her drunken brain processed the look of mild annoyance on her face and the tone of her voice and she stepped aside. As the dazzling warrior moved past her, the source of the giggles came into view, fuzzy green eyes sparkling.

"Omph, sorry… didn't mean to hit on your woman," the brunette apologized her Queen. "No harm done," the regent smiled. My woman… yeah. Right. I wish.

The night air was at its coolest, the sun of a new day had not yet started to warm it. It was going to be another scorching day, not a single cloud marred the pink light of the newborn sun. It was quiet as well, a welcome change to the loud din of the banquet hall. Shivering in her scant clothing, Gabrielle leaned to Xena, who wrapped an arm around the shorter woman's slender shoulders. The grateful bard returned the gesture, grabbing the warrior midwaist.

She rubbed her fingers against the smooth leather in small circles, breathing in the scent of the warrior. It was a mix of sweet wine, the faint aroma of smoking torches and on top of all, what Gabrielle loved the best, the unmistakable scent of Xena, mixed with the warm smell of leather that was an ever-present part of her companion.

They reached the Queen's hut and stopped near the sturdy wooden door. The Guards stationed there were discreetly on the side, staying wisely beyond the range of their hearing. Xena disentangled herself from the bard and turned to look at her. She took in the gentle smile, the silken blonde hair that swayed in the gentle wind and the glow, the warmth, that radiated from the eyes. She shuddered a breath and turned to leave and to return to the empty visitors' cot that was assigned to her.

"Don't go. Please."

She turned back, to the gently pleading woman she would cross Tartarus to help. Gabrielle held her hand and her eyes captive, in her own, perfect way, melting the stone-cold heart of the ex-warlord with negligent ease. She followed the woman inside and in the light of one single candle, changed into their nightshirts.

Gabrielle slipped between the cool sheets of the soft bed and patted the empty space her.


The voice was husky. Xena didn't know why, probably from too much wine and shouting or... Her throat convulsed, suddenly bone dry. She approached the smiling woman and climbed to lay next to her. Gabrielle burrowed her head to the broad shoulder, nuzzling the herb-scented fabric. "Mmmmm," she murmured sleepily. Draping an arm across the warrior's stomach and pressing her legs to one warm, smooth thigh, she wriggled as close as possible to the warrior. A spot of warmth came to her lower back, a large palm pressing there.

The feel of the soft woman writhing against her almost made Xena lose the last shreds of self control she had. She could feel her body responding to the tantalizing thought of holding Gabrielle so close to her, the coral lips only inches away from her burning mouth… a wave of hot energy coursed through her and fought it down with all her enormous willpower. She barely beat the urge to rip off the scant clothing between them and ravish the very desirable Queen right then and there. Breathe, Xena. Breathe.

Bad mistake. She inhaled deeply the scent of the strawberry blonde silk that rested on her shoulder and it almost made her vision dim. She quietly balled her free hand into a fist, the cords and tendons straining against taut skin in the forearm. She buried her head to the caressing tresses, rubbing her lips to the warm skin and hair. Gabrielle murmured in her sleep and twisted ever so slightly, bringing one creamy thigh on top of the warrior's legs. The said warrior groaned silently at the new contact. I'm not going to get much sleep tonight, that's for sure.

The blonde woman raked her fingers through her tangled curls. The hand shook slightly but she didn't notice, mostly because the rest of her wasn't feeling too steady either.

"Sunny morning t'ya, Eph!" A mighty thump on her back that almost made her stumble.

"Pony. Don't. Yell. So. Loud. Got it?" she gritted through clenched teeth, glaring between sharp, colourful stripes that threatened to block her vision. The loud voice and the gentle pat on her back had rattled the sore insides of her fragile head and the headache had increased threefold.

"Sorry," the grinning woman whispered. "Hangover?" "No, I just like to start my mornings by hitting my head on nearest table and then eat some raw squid." She gave another shuddering glare at the weapons master. "Of course I have a hangover!"

"Oh." The grin didn't flinch an inch. "Wanna go wake up the Queen? We have a staff lesson this morning."

Ephiny fought down the bout of nausea that came at the thought of such an exercise in her condition. "She's bound to feel even worse than me. She chugged lots last night," Ephiny grated. The sun was entirely too bright for her liking.

"Well, nothing a few hours of exercise wouldn't exorcise," the broad-shouldered brunette chirped. The blonde woman groaned. How could anyone be so cheery on a detestable morning like this. Even the birds were against her. Didn't they realize that screaming wasn't attractive.

They reached the Queen's hut and knocked on the door. And again. Nothing. Raising a questioning eyebrow at Ephiny the Amazon grabbed the handle. The regent nodded, the small move of the head making her grimace again.

The door opened soundlessly and the two women entered the shadowy hut. When their eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, the first thing that grabbed their attention was a regal posterior. A beautiful one, admittedly, attached to an equally lovable body. During the night, Gabrielle had kicked back the covers and crawled her way to lay on top of the snoozing warrior, her nightshift hiking up to her shoulder blades in the process. So, an expanse of lovely, muscled back was revealed, held in a loving embrace by strong, tanned arms. The palm of one hand was resting just above the swell of the buttocks, pinky finger grazing the delicate skin where the cleft of her behind ended and her back begun.

A strangled choke sounded from the stock-still weapons master. At the small sound, one ice blue eye came into view, peeking over a mass of red-gold hair. The eyebrow above the eye curved wickedly. The dark Amazon approached carefully. She had trouble keeping her eyes off the creamy mounds of the behind on display so she stared at the glinting baby blue eye, slightly marred by a ruptured vein.

"Krhm. We… um… Gabrielle had a staff lesson scheduled for… the morning so… um…" she came to a halt, unable to to think of anything else to say.

"I'll tell her when she wakes up," a low whisper replied. The eyebrow arched suggestively at the women and the eye flickered to the door .

"Ah… so, we'll be going…" The Amazons retreated swiftly, closing the door silently behind them. Xena could hear muted sounds of frenzied conversation through the door and then, retreating footsteps. She smiled. The Amazons obviously decided that their Queen should be allowed to sleep in.

Now, this is the way to wake up on a hangoverish morning. She stretched her neck to look beyond the delicate shoulder before her and realized why the Amazons had acted so strange. Slowly raising her hands, she brought the shift down to cover the exposed skin. Ares' balls. Are we going to hear about this or what. A sigh. If one Amazon knew something, it was soon general knowledge of the entire tribe. So, my dear, it seems we're marked as an item.

She kissed the smooth forehead resting on her cheek. "No hurry. Let's sleep some more." And with that, the lid came over the one alert eye and all was quiet again.

The sun had hitched at least dozen degrees higher on the clear sky when the blue eye opened again. Time to get up. The rumours would be wild enough without them spending the entire day in bed. Not that the warrior wouldn't mind doing exactly that, no, on the contrary. But…

She gently shook the relaxed arm that was draped across hers. "Gabrielle… Gabrielle. Wake up." She shook harder. A dry-mouthed groan came from somewhere behind the tousle of blonde hair.

"Urrggghhhh… whose cat peed in my mouth?" the voice rasped. Xena chuckled and reached for a waterskin that she had sensibly hung from the bedpost. She took a long pull before offering the mouthpiece to Gabrielle. The blonde head had slumped back to the broad, warm chest of the warrior, snuggling back to sleep.

"C'mon sleepyhead. We have to get up." A murmur of refusal grumbled and the bard snuggled some more. Seeing that no other action was going to be able to rouse the bard, the warrior sighed and grabbed the waterskin hard, sprouting a gush of water on the bard.

"Yaaaagaahhhh!" The woman was instantly awake, spluttering the excess water, shaking her head to dislodge the wet hair clinging to her face. Bleary green eyes fastened on the madly grinning warrior below her. The delicate mouth curved into a broad, white grin. "Ooops."

"Xenaaa…" The bard's voice sang low and dangerous. "I'm gonna have to hurt you for that."

Blue eyes rounded in mock fear. "Oooo, I'm so scared. Please spare me…"

The bard's hand snaked to grab the waterskin but Xena was quicker, moving the skin away. The bard rolled to reach better but that exposed one very ticklish side to Xena's prowling fingers. Gabrielle screamed again as the digits swiftly danced on the very sensitive ribs. She replied with a tickling attempt of her own, failing miserably.

After a few moments of screaming and wriggling, the two contestants stopped. Gabrielle couldn't breathe from too much giggling and Xena was at the same time howling with laughter and mentally grimacing from the pain in her head. "Truce," she said after catching her breath. The blonde head nodded, a bit unsteadily.

"C'mon. Let's get some breakfast." As soon as the words were out of her mouth she felt her stomach protesting the idea by turning itself upside down. She gulped down the nauseating feeling. "Or then again, maybe not."

They had eventually found their way into the mess hall. Xena had wandered into the kitchen, borrowed a pot of hot water and was mixing herbs in two cups. She then poured the hot water over the crushed leaves and offered the other cup to Gabrielle. The bard's eyes sounded a silent thank you.

The tea had a mild tangy taste from the extra hangover cures Xena had added to it but the pale Queen gulped it down in mere moments. The soothing liquid was like manna to her uneasy stomach.

Conversation was much more muted this morning than it had been last night. No heavy shouts or loud singing. The Amazons, in varying shades of white and green face, murmured quietly and nursed their headaches away on herb tea and prune juice. The only cheerful one was Eponin who took the most out of her advantage, clapping everyone on the back so that the hapless victim's teeth rattled, or laughing in a loud voice. The big, imposing Amazon's stamina in the art of drinking was legendary, rivaling even Xena's.

Nursing her head, Gabrielle groaned when the weapons master spotted her and headed straight towards their table. "Morning, my Queen. You up to some practice?" A green eye glowered at the cheerful woman. "Do I look like it?" "Why, there's no better cure for a headache than some fresh air."

Xena couldn't help smiling at the exchange of words. Her own head was in much better condition than the blonde woman's, she hadn't drunk nearly as much as Gabrielle and she was much bigger. Gabrielle eyed the distastefully jolly Amazon with all her diminished strength.

"All right all right. After lunch, ok? Maybe my head'll clear till then."

"Great! I'll see you after lunch then," the Amazon replied and thumped the bard on a slumping shoulder before sauntering back to annoy the small clump of red-eyed hunters some more.

"I'm going to wipe her ass with my staff," Gabrielle grated. Xena regained her composure, almost. "Are you feeling any better?" "Yah. The herbs are working." In fact, save for some queasiness in her stomach and the remnants of a pounding headache, Gabrielle was feeling much like herself again. Still, the idea of actually eating anything solid made her nose whiten.

After their liquid breakfast Xena headed to spare some attention to the sorely neglected Argo and check if she could get a new shoe for the mare to replace the worn out one in her left rear foot. Gabrielle, deciding that she didn't need to spend any more time in a dank stable than necessary, went for a walk.

There was a hayfield a half a candlemark's walk away and since a quiet, sunny spot to lay in looking at clouds seemed like a plan, she retrieved her staff and started on the path.

The chirping of the birds was still a bit too loud for her taste but otherwise the walk in a cool, silent forest was perfect. Lost in thought, she was almost to the field when quiet sounds of two people talking somewhere near invaded her mind. She readied her staff, just in case, and tiptoed closer. The other voice was that of a woman, full of laughter and warmth. The other was a more deep one, the words short and muted, pronounced with a vibrating, purring sound. Ah. That voice.

She straightened and emerged from the woods. Only a few yards away, a pair of women were leaning against a tree and against each other.

"Hello, young couple," the bard called, a good dollop of mirth in her voice. Two pools of liquid velvet fastened to her and the low, rasping voice greeted her, echoed by the cheery, higher one.

"Gabrielle." "Morning, your majesty!"

The bard sat in front of the pair. Oberon was reclining against the old sap, the red-haired tracker whose name Gabrielle still didn't remember enveloped in one long arm, leaning on a broad shoulder covered in sky blue silk and a pattern of hummingbirds. The bard gazed the young Amazon with exasperation. "I wish you'd stop calling me that. My name's Gabrielle. Use it," she said with a stern voice, her smiling eyes taking the edge off the command. The Amazon nodded. "Yes, your highness." Gabrielle rolled her eyes and Oberon shook with laughter.

"So, what brings you to this neck of woods?" the pale warrior intoned. "Oh, looking for some peace and quiet. As were you, I gather."

The warrior's eyes narrowed slightly and she chuckled again. "Yes, well, you were in no danger of walking into something... embarrassing," she rumbled, casting a not very well veiled look of mischief to the young woman in her embrace.

The look was answered in kind and a dangerous smile edged to the tracker's face. She took Oberon's free hand in her own and inserted one long, strong warrior finger deep into her mouth. As Oberon's dark eyebrows shot skywards, she sucked on it for a second and then extracted it, slowly, dragging her lips along the shaft. "I wouldn't count on it." She peeked a look at Gabrielle who sat frozen, her jaw hanging slack. The sparkling green eyes of the small tracker glinted as she held Oberon a prisoner of her gaze. "I can still taste myself on you," she whispered to the stunned warrior.

Silence hung in the air for a brief second and then, the wicked look was mirrored in the indigo eyes. "Why you…" She buried the smaller woman in an avalanche of tight muscle, hot lips and cascading silk, kissing her passionately and then got back up.

"I'll get you for that," the warrior glared. The green eyes shot a brazen look. "I'm counting on it."

The warrior huffed good-humouredly. Women. Amazon women, to top that. Figures.

"Look, I have to get back to let the healer rewrap the wound. I'll see you at lunch." The tracker rose, gave the smiling lips a quick peck and disappeared silently to the woods. Oberon kept her eyes on the forest for a long time, then tore her gaze off and fastened it to the young Queen.

"You were saying?" she voiced, a small smile playing on her lips.

"Ummm, ah… well." The bard collected her thoughts.

"I know. She's even more audacious than me," Oberon interjected. "In many ways." She was rewarded with another gust of blush to the bard's cheeks. She chuckled at the reddened Queen, who soon joined her, overcoming her modesty. Their laughter ringed across the gently rippling hayfield.

Gabrielle wiped her eyes and got herself together again. "So, what are you doing?" she asked, noting for the first time the odd contraptions on Oberon's lap, half-hidden by the folds of her luxurious, all-enveloping robe. She recognized a brush and the rolls of the odd, thin parchment the warrior called 'paper' but the rest of the objects were foreign to her.

"I'm practicing the art of war," was the surprising answer.

"War? But you're just sitting here, doing nothing," Gabrielle blurted.

The warrior gave a low laugh. "By painting."

At this statement, Gabrielle was even more puzzled. The wise indigo eyes turned to her. "You are a warrior of soul, Gabrielle. You see it in yourself. The reason of battle is not to kill but to show the enemy the futility of attack. To guide, not to massacre. Misjudgement leads to injury and death."

The captivating calm eyes turned to the gently swaying field. "Calmness is the still surface of a lake reflecting alike the moon and the flying bird." "Huh?" the bard asked, understanding nothing. "Will you stop with the oracle impressions…"

The eyes were back on her and Oberon smiled. "What I'm saying is that a warrior fights not with her sword but with her spirit. The true nature of a warrior is not to kill, maim and slaughter in a mass of stiff muscle and clenched teeth. It is to be in a state of calmness and clear awareness. Painting is as much part of my necessary skills to survive than the ability to wield a sword. Helps me relax."

She took out a scroll of delicate mauve paper from the folds of her robe, gently unrolled it and gave it to Gabrielle. She took in a deep breath. "Oberon, this is beautiful!" Indeed it was. A simple ink drawing of a side of a mountain and a jagged pine. Detail was exquisite, the atmosphere perfect. The picture was balanced with two columns of the same odd writing Gabrielle had seen before as the handiwork of the pale warrior, stretching on the left side of the paper.

"The image is from where I lived. The poem, haiku, is one of my favourites." The warrior closed her eyes and intoned quietly:

Into an old pond, Jumps a frog. Sound of water!

How quiet the sound of the shrill cicada, After it penetrates the rock.

Opening her eyes, she saw she had captivated the Amazon Queen. "The haiku celebrates the sameness that is the diversity of calmness and movement. The art of fighting." A smile.

"Well…" was all that the bard could say. "You certainly revealed a new side of you."

"People aren't always what you take them to be," the warrior replied pointedly. Another smile.

Gabrielle sat still for a long time. Then something snapped and she shook out of her reverie. "So, um, is the writing we got a poem too?" she asked, referring to the slight piece of fawn paper they had received in a very unusual manner at their last parting.

"Yes, a doka of mine." She recited from memory:

The Way of the Kami

Give in to the life of the Universe of

Heaven and Earth.

Thus draw nearer and nearer

To a spirit who serves the Godhead.

"Omph. I have stiff competition here, it seems," Gabrielle breathed, nudging the warrior.

"Nahhhh. You're the storyteller. A natural talent, which I'm not." Gabrielle tried to argue to the contrary but to no avail.

The sun was high and it was time to return for lunch, so Oberon rolled up her stuff and the objects disappeared into the folds of her ample robe. The walk back was a leisurely one, the two women conversing quietly, all past tension between them resolved.

"Oog. I'm stuffed."

Gabrielle stuck out her tongue, leaned back on her chair and patted her belly. A low chuckle sounded next to her. The bard shot a mock glare of contempt at the smirking warrior next to her who tried her best not to make any snide comments, failing miserably.

"Big surprise there. You ate enough to feed two horses and Titan…"

"Ha ha."

"… for two weeks."

The bard backhanded the leather-clad belly next to her. The warrior didn't even flinch but the bard's knuckles were rattled against the stone-hard nubs of muscle under the dark hide. "Ouch…" She shook her hand and sighed. "I better find Pony and get the staff lesson going before I fall asleep here."

The lesson drew quite a crowd around the hard-packed earthen square that was used as training ground. The weapons master started slowly, unsure of how much the Queen could handle but after receiving a jab in the ribs and a fairly painful blow to one shoulder, she started to fight all-out. After a candlemark of swishing staffs, the women were breathing hard and a sheen of sweat glistened on their skin.

Gabrielle found that her hands were starting to shake. Weather it was from the exertion or residue from last night's bout of drinking, she didn't know but decided that enough's enough. "Tie?"

The relieved Amazon huffed her acquiescence, thankful of the much-needed break.

"You're getting extremely good," Eponin offered. Gabrielle wiped off the sweat on her forehead to an offered linen towel and patted the arm that had produced the cloth. "Thanks. I have a very good teacher." The arm shook slightly as the towering Warrior Princess laughed silently.

"Ah. Yes. That would be the key to this," Eponin agreed, flashing an appreciative smile at the warrior, appraising the sleek, feral form with a professional eye. She pinched a bulging bicep, marvelling at the beautiful muscle. "She seems to have the makings of an excellent teacher."

Xena and Gabrielle changed a look that spoke volumes.

"Now, how about you an' me?" Xena purred, flashing her best disarming smile, even white teeth gleaming in the sun. She wriggled an eyebrow at the flustered Amazon who furiously fished for an excuse to back away from the challenge. "…or do I smell chicken?"

The Amazon snorted. "No… I'm just tired, and…"

"Cluck. Cluck cluck…." The warrior smiled dangerously, eyes half closed. A new shade of the colour red found it's way to the stout weapons master's cheeks at the clucking.

"All right. No-one calls me chicken and lives another day. You're on, baby eyes."

A victorious smile curved the dark warrior's lips and she flexed her arms, loosening the muscles on the wide shoulders. Gabrielle tsked at the exchange and fought the urge to roll her eyes. Warriors. Egos in inverse proportion to brains. Sweet Artemis.

Not really into seeing her formidable companion beat the daylights out of the dark Amazon- Not that I don't love to see her in action, she admitted - , Gabrielle decided to take a small stroll. The forest was much cooler and quieter than the dusty village and she knew a small stream that meandered nearby. A dunk in the cool water would feel soooo good.

Lost in thought, she whistled an old drinking song while negotiating through the foliage. A nagging feeling strated on her forehead. Something was wrong.

She stopped to investigate the feeling. No extraneous noise. No shouts, scruffing of feet or whispering. In fact, no sound at all. Not even the sound of birds was to be heard. That's odd. Why would the birds be quie-

A thunder of hoofbeats behind her interrupted her train of thought and her head snapped up. She felt a jarring blow connect with her skull and then there was only darkness.

As expected, Xena had won Eponin hands down with the staff and was now sitting on the side, cooling down. Miffed at her loss, the dark Amazon had made another mistake, challenged Oberon for unarmed combat, fooled by the tall, pale warrior's relaxed air and calm demeanour. Bad mistake. Bad.

Xena watched with quiet amusement as Oberon smiled a small, enigmatic smile at the Amazon, stood up with unnatural fluidness and slowly, removed her long robe. She reached for her loose wraparound tunic and undid it as well, leaving only the tight black leather bodice to cover her upper body. A murmur of appreciation sounded around the crowd at the perfectly shaped, muscular warrior. Xena spotted a young Amazon with a wicked look nudging and winking to the red-haired tracker who promptly blushed.

The pale warrior extended one long, tattoo-enhanced arm. "Please. You first."

The smart Amazon circled around her prey, unsure of what to make of the other woman. The alabaster-skinned woman just stood there, in a loose stance, relaxed as if she was daydreaming. Oh well. Seems so easy… The Amazon made a lunge and managed to grab both wrists. Her moment of elation soon disappeared as the relaxed form sprang to action, twisted in an uncanny way and the Amazon found herself flying through the air.

The earth was hard enough to make her more careful. This time, she did a false attack, turned at the last possible moment and captured the other woman, wringing her wrist. Her escape was spectacular, involving one flip, a bounce and a low sweep. The Amazon's back hit the ground again.

The tribe followed the mismatched mock fight with enthusiasm. Another candlemark passed and the weapons master had to admit defeat. Her breath was coming in ragged gasps now and she was sweating heavily. "Whooo… where does the Queen find you, warriors of infinite stamina," she wheezed.

Oberon laughed and slapped the flustered Amazon on the back. "Make no mistake, Amazon, you are a powerful, good fighter. I just have a different philosophy of fighting, not to mention a significant height advantage."

"Well, I can always say that you've got Ares' blood in you as well." The tall woman flinched but when Eponin raised a curious eyebrow, she just shrugged and mumbled something about a bad ankle.

The two women joined Xena who was surrounded by a small knot of younger Amazons, trying to pry answers from her, to everything from her fitness programme to what it was like travelling with their young Queen. Oberon took mercy on her and swished to the middle, grabbed the warrior's hand and tugged her away, apologizing by making vague remarks about having to do some warrior-to-warrior talk.

"Thanks." Xena's peripheral vision saw the young slender Amazons whispering and giggling to themselves. "I can't imagine why they do that."

Oberon put a pondering hand on her mouth, partially to disguise her grin and appeared to think about the question. Her eyes raked over the bronze, taut form, the strong, sleek muscles, the beautiful features, all the way to the long, perfect fingers. "Hum. Have you recently looked into a mirror?"

The puzzled look drew a hearty laughter out of the foreign warrior. "Aw, c'mon Xena! My, krhm, promiscuity was once legendary so I should know what I'm talking about… and I'd say you're my best catch by far." The dark warrior blushed and shot a warning look. Oberon backed away. "Hey, all I'm saying that Gabrielle is officially the envy of the tribe and the Warrior Princess Fan Club over there-" she jagged a thumb at the cluster of Amazonettes "-exists for a reason." The infectious, ever-so-annoying trademark smirk was back on the pale features and a velvety eye winked.

The blushing Warrior Princess coughed and eyed her fan club nervously. "Uh… speaking of Gabrielle, have you seen her for a while?"

"No. Why?"

"She disappeared when I started with Pony and that was over three candlemarks ago."

"She probably went for a walk. Let's get something cold to drink, you and me," Oberon said, guiding the worried warrior towards the food hut.

It had been over seven candlemarks since anyone had seen Gabrielle and Xena was more than worried now. She fidgeted constantly, unsure of what to do. She was quite sure Gabrielle would be OK, after all, this was the heartland of Amazon territory, no-one in their right mind would try to attack there. But, she could've tripped and sprained her ankle or…

Her hands flexed convulsively into fists and then relaxed. But. If she would chase after Gabrielle for no reason, the bard would just accuse her of over-protectiveness and remind the warrior that she was no longer a child but a woman, something the warrior was painfully aware of.

She sighed and tossed a mental coin. Tails. Time to go. But let's keep it small, for now.

Abruptly, startling the woman sitting next to her on the low bench, she rose and walked with long, purposeful steps to a blonde, lithe Amazon who was having a quiet drink with her friends at the food hut.

"You're Shelanna, aren't you?" The warrior prompted. A nod. "Good. Gab- the Queen has been missing for too long. Please help me find her." The blonde head nodded again.

"Let's go."

Xena was an exceptional tracker with an impeccable night vision but Amazon land wasn't her usual roaming grounds. That is why she had, the slender, young woman with her. Shelanna was by far the best tracker and guide to have with in this part of the area, her usual patrolling ground.

The huge form of the warrior shadowed the silent tracker with uncanny stealth, sword drawn. They followed Gabrielle's path easily even in the darkening dusk, the heavy growth had enough clues to make their journey fluent, without having to retrace too many times.

It didn't take them long to reach the right spot. A three-year-old with a blindfold could have told the signs for what they were. Two sets of hoofbeats exploding from a hideout, pittering around the place where Gabrielle's small footprints ended and taking off towards the border. Xena felt cold when she retrieved a very familiar staff from the bushes, where it had been carelessly thrown. She had been taken by force or else, she would've taken her weapon with her. The hoofbeats disappeared when they reached a rocky plateau.

With her heart in her throat, Xena ran back to the village as fast as she could. She went through her reservoir of curses, prayers and ways to make whoever took her Gabrielle suffer. She had reached flaying and stir-fry when she reached the compound, heading straight for the cluster of huts that houses the royalty, to Ephiny.

The blonde regent was ripped out of a mediocre dream by pounding on her door. The sturdy wooden panel shook with the strength of the fist, threatening to crack into a million pieces. "What? What?" Ephiny murmured and went to the door that revealed a frantic Xena, eyes round and big like two plates. The warrior gave Ephiny the short version and when she finished, the regent was all woken up, running towards the food hut.

"Sound the alarm!" she yelled while trying to fasten an obnoxious shoulder clasp. "Someone has kidnapped the Queen!" That got the warriors' attention and soon, horns were blaring, coaxing Amazons out of sleep.

Within a quarter of a candlemark, there was a large crowd of Amazons gathered in the village square. Xena gave a quick explanation, the blonde tracker nodding by her side and a plan was laid to search the woods. It would be difficult and slow work but necessary. They had to find the tracks again. Had to.

It proved to be a long night. A sea of torches fluttered in the forest, in the hands of worried Amazons and one possessed Warrior Princess, searching for their beloved Queen. The dawn was only a candlemark away when they managed to find the hoof marks again, this time crossing the border and continuing on a road leading northwest.

Satisfied that they had found the right heading but almost keeling over with exhaustion and heartache, Xena allowed herself to be dragged back to the village. The Amazons headed to take a few hours' nap before a new course of action was to be decided. Xena was bone tired but she felt sleep was not coming for her. She quietly wandered to a small cliff right outside the gates. She expected to find no-one there but there was one woman, kneeling on the high crest towards the rising sun.

The figure clapped her hands and raised her palms towards the newborn sun. She barked a few sentences in her own, flowing tongue, bowed to the sun and rose.

"Hello, Xena."

"Hello, Oberon," the dark warrior replied mutedly. "What're doing?"

The pale warrior's gaze flickered towards the spot she had knelt in. "I'm praying Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, to guide my way to safety."

"You're leaving?" Xena continued absentmindedly.

"Yes. With you."

A dark head snapped up at that and piercing ice blue eyes fastened on hooded indigo ones. "No, you're not." "Yes, I am." "No, you're not. This is my business," the dark warrior finished and turned to leave.

An iron grip on her upper arm stopped her and her reflexive yank and swing were gently blocked. "What do you mean, you business? I know you're the most important person in her life but, she's the Queen of the Amazons. She's their business. And she saved my life once. She's my business as well. Now, you can't take the whole Amazon nation with you but you've got to admit that two heads is better than one."

Xena opened her mouth to object but nothing came out. She recognized the infinitely stubborn look in the dark blue eyes, the set jaw and straight shoulders and recognized the stance for what it was. The issue was non-negotiable. A sigh.

"Fine. We leave in five candlemarks."

Oberon clapped the slumping warrior on the shoulder and led her down to the village to get a few hours of much-needed sleep.

Xena fought her rising temper with quickly waning willpower. A need was pounding in her head, the need to get to Gabrielle. Now. Because she felt that something was deadly wrong. She tried to mask her uneasiness by brushing Argo's mane until it resembled a stream of honey, glittering and smooth as silk. She harrumphed and turned to see what kept the other warrior.

Oberon was standing next to Ephiny and a small tracker. The women were talking in quiet tones. Oberon's brows were knitted, she was obviously concerned about something but only shook her head and bowed goodbye to the Regent. She stopped to embrace the fiery-haired tracker that was her chosen, kissing her on a smooth forehead. For a long moment they were still, the Amazon resting her head on the smooth, patterned silvery cuirass, the tall warrior's jaw on top of the cascades of silken fire. The moment went and Oberon strode to Xena's side, mounting her black beast with easy fluidity.

A last glance, a quiet command from Xena and a few barked syllables from Oberon and the two warhorses shot away, kicking up a stiff cloud of dust in their wake. They took the road to be able to ride but that meant a detour so the better part of the day would be gone before they would cross the border.

They rode in silence, the stuffy hot air filling with only the thunder of powerful hoofbeats and the snorting of the two horses. At the border they slowed down to the benefit of the guards. A messenger was sent to the village when the riders were lost to the horizon, signalling that the rescuers were on their way.

It was nearly dusk when the stopped. The riders could have continued, on pure willpower, but the horses suffered from the heat and the humidity so much more. A secluded glade half a candlemark away from the road they were following was to be their site for a camp.

They gave the sweaty steeds a brush and guided them to a stream. Oberon made a small fire, unneeded in the warm weather for warmth but necessary to cook food, and rolled her sleeping roll next to it.

"Do you want to cook or shall I," the pale warrior intoned. The rhythmical whiff of a sharpening stone on an impeccably conditioned heavy sword paused for a fleeting moment and then continued.

"You do it. I usually manage to ruin even tea."

Oberon grunted appreciatively at the dark warrior's attempt at levity and sighed. "Me too. But…" she rose and stretched her saddle-sore limbs. "I fancy some rabbit."

Oberon fastened her quiver to her back and took her enormous longbow, designed primarily to be used on horseback but good enough for other uses as well. She glided soundlessly to the forest, blending with the shadows, leaving the Warrior Princess to her equally gloomy thoughts.

It seemed only a moment had passed when the wraithlike form of the warrior emerged from the forest, carrying her catch. Xena still sat silently, staring into the flickering flames with unseeing eyes, the only sign of life the hypnotic circular motion of her hand against the sword. Oberon prepared the large rabbit quickly and set it to roast.

"Y'know…" the full voice said, dragging Xena's mind out of whatever cesspool she had wandered into. "…there was something that Ephiny said that makes me nervous." An impeccable eyebrow arched and blue eyes prompted.

The indigo eyes opposite them seemed almost black in the low lighting. "She said that there's a good chance the hoofbeats were not of ordinary riders but instead," A deep breath. "… Centaur."

The stone stopped again, sending one last shower of sparks to the dry ground.

"She didn't want to announce it publicly to avoid any unnecessary bad air between the two nations. The War was long enough."

Xena re-sheathed her sword with calm precision. Well. This certainly puts a new twist to things. "The tracks don't lead to Centaurs, though."


"… and as far as I know, the Centaurs are even more fiercely independent than the Amazons, and as reluctant to start another war."

"Mmmm-hmmm. Quite the puzzle, eh?" the pale warrior said, smiling a feral smile. "I love a good mystery."

Xena nodded, the feeling was very familiar. "… but not at the expense of Gabrielle."

The bald warrior sobered and rose to sit next to Xena. She rested a forearm on one tanned shoulder and leaned her chin to it. Xena flinched at the first contact but forced her muscles to relax. Jeez, she's like Gabrielle. Always touching people.

Guessing the object of the warrior's thoughts if not their content, Oberon smiled a small, warm smile. "Relax. I'm not hitting on you." A wry eyebrow quirked. "I don't want to risk the wrath of the Amazon Queen. My suicidal tendencies aren't that strong." Despite the insufficient illumination, she was rewarded with the sight of a small blush on the high, noble cheekbones of the warrior.

Oberon shifted minutely.

"Look, I'm not exceptionally good at this talking thing but… I'd like to apologize." The shoulder underneath her arm jerked violently and she felt the piercing icy blue eyes bore on her forehead. Before Xena could utter a word, Oberon continued.

"I apologize for almost ruining things between you two." The blue eyes were like two serving plates, huge and round. The pale warrior flashed one of her white smiles, canines and all. She couldn't help bringing some of her usual mischievousness into her voice. "I don't regret what I did. As I said, you're one of my best catches -" A pale finger traced a taut vein straining against a tanned bulging bicep, the voice smoothed to a low, silken caress. "- and I'm glad for what little time I had with you."

The dark blue pools of velvet caught the paler ones in a mesmerizing whirlpool of a gaze. "But I regret the repercussions of my actions. I almost caused you to lose Gabrielle and Gabrielle to lose you. For that, I can never forgive myself. She has forgiven me. And you." The long, graceful digit moved to stroke the underside of Xena's jaw, tracing the line of the bone. "Now, you just need to forgive yourself. You can't afford to lose her. And she needs you as much as you need her."

The jaw jerked away from the finger as if she had burnt herself. She wanted to brush off the warrior but found unable to do so. A small voice deep within whispered her that this was a kindred spirit, someone who understood exactly what was in her mind. She found the idea both frightening and comforting. Funny. Never thought I was the comfort type. Must be Gabrielle rubbing off on me.

They sat for a while, Xena fingering her forgotten whetstone, Oberon carving something out of a piece of wood with a curious knife. Xena's eye caught the knife and the professional part of her was pegged. "Strange knife."

Oberon stopped her carving and raised the said object. It was curious indeed. About a foot long, the blade widened towards the tip and was curved inwards, forming a smooth, wide V. "This was a gift to me from a friend. He visited a far-away southern land and the natives use a knife like this in hunt. It serves the same purpose as this," she said, brushing her fingers against the chakram still on Xena's belt. "It returns to you after you've thrown it." She handed the knife to the other warrior who weighed it, found it well balanced and well-kept, the flames reflecting off the shiny surface in clear detail.

"Well, we must have a competition sometime." A grin came to the dark warrior. The feel of the weapon was comfortable. Familiar. She stroked the cool, hard, deadly surface with knowing fingers. This was her trade, the air she breathed. She twirled the knife in her hand. The weapon was tip-heavy to compensate the weight of the grip. Just like she preferred them. Better momentum.

They curled to their bedrolls to sleep. Oberon was out like a candle, breathing even and slow. The lines on her face smoothened and she looked so young. Xena realized that the pale warrior couldn't be much older than Gabrielle, certainly younger than the Warrior Princess. She's about the age that I was… at my worst. The brazen, headlong single mindedness behind but the ferociousness and cruelty of youth still there. Focused. The Destroyer of Nations at her peak. She shook her head as if the dark memories could be purged by physically shaking them off her mind. But of course, they wouldn't go.

She dozed off much later but her sleep was not easy. All possible scenarios of what could possibly be wrong with Gabrielle plagued her and she tossed and turned throughout the night, the bard mixing with her own deeds of a time not so long ago, twisting into a dark maze of death and suffering. Now and again, across the fire a dark eye opened, cast a worried look at the writhing warrior and closed again. They were Xena's demons and she had to deal with them on her own. Unfortunately.

The road travelled through the countryside companionless. Only small paths were spawned from it so the two warriors had no trouble following the trace. It meandered between fields, across streams and the edges of forests, offering little or no respite from the merciless pounding of the sun's rays.

Around midday the riders came to a battlefield. It was no more than two days old, the corpses or what remained of them still intact and the smell wasn't too bad. Yet. Xena suspected that in another two days, even scavengers would shy away from the site.

The road was littered with bodies, at least eight of them, the remains of a highway raiding gang. Bad armour was torn, dull swords lay on the blood-soaked ground next to severed limbs and gore. The men were not much as killed as shredded to little pieces, trampled on and hacked until not one intact body remained.

"Someone had fun," Oberon marked. Xena kneeled to inspect one severed head, eyes bulging and mouth twisted to a scream that never had the chance. She peered at the unseeing dulled eyes and turned her head to the pale warrior standing next to her.

"Your morbid humour is greatly appreciated," Xena replied dryly. She dropped the head back to the pool of blood she found it in and stood, brushing her hands to her thighs. The eyes sharper than a hawk circled the carnage and zeroed on a piece of wood sticking underneath what seemed to be an armless and headless torso of a man. Xena tugged the piece of wood from its gory bind and turned it in her hands, pondering.

"This is a Centaur longbow." Indeed it was, massive in size and the shape familiar, even though this one was broken in two places. "And some of these men were kicked and treaded to death."

Oberon got to her side again, carefully avoiding brushing her wide trouser/skirt to any bloodied surface. "Seems we're on the right track."

Xena nodded, eyes squinting to look into the sun. "Hmmm, yes… I have a bad feeling about this." She stood there for a time, searching for the right casket f memories, where she had buried one of the many unpleasant moments of her past life. The sound of Oberon clearing her throat brought her back to the sunny field of death.

An eyebrow had hitched halfway to a bald head. "Care to elaborate?"

A mirthless laugh from the dark warrior. "If I'm right, our destination is the one place I'd swear to be Tartarus on earth." She pursed her lips on a sort of a facial equivalent of a shrug. "I survived last time but then I was... not the person I'm now. And I had nothing on stake, except myself and during that time… I didn't care about myself that much."

Oberon clasped one stiff shoulder and nodded with her chin towards their prancing mounts, the thick smell of blood making the experienced warhorses skitter with the anticipation of a battle. "Let's not get too gloom until we know more. C'mon."

The tracks were easier to follow, now. The other Centaur/horse had lost a shoe in the fight, wedged between two sturdy ribs of a hapless raider and the other was bleeding minutely, a small droplet of rusty blood scattered here and there on the road. If the two women were riding hard, the fleeing aggressors were downright frantic, evidenced in their disregard of the wound and the shoe.

But despite the speed, the distance was big. It took the warriors another two days to reach the outskirts of their destination and as Xena had feared, it was a place familiar to her.

"We'll stop here for the night." She pulled Argo's reins and before Oberon could object, she had turned to a small path leading off the road. Cursing a short but sharp expletive, she reined her horse and followed the golden mare to the darkening woods.

She found Xena sitting on a fallen log on a much-used campsite, scratching Argo's sensitive chin. Dismounting, the pale warrior strode to her companion and stood before the silent form, pattering the ground with one boot-clad set of toes. "Mind telling me what's going on?"

It seemed to take Xena almost a physical effort to refocus on the present moment. Something hard, cold and very old flashed in the luminous eyes, before they resumed to their normal state. She stood, scratching nervously the back of her left hand. Xena. Nervous. Uh-oh. Oberon suddenly felt the cold hand of fear brush her spine.

"I…. the place is a city, quite large at that."

Oberon frowned. Her eyes were excellent and Xena knew that. The huge, brooding walls and the even more brooding castle were easily spotted at the end of the road from miles away.

The raven-haired warrior took a shuddering breath. "The city-state is called Udark and it's ruled by a man called Shirak. We have a… history."

"A history," Oberon deadpanned.

"Yes, a history." The tone forewarned that further inquiries about this thread would be answered in cold steel. "Shirak is mad. Utterly, truly mad. He's also a coward and there's nothing more dangerous than a mad coward. He is merciless and cunning. He has no compassion, no kindness in his heart." the warrior's voice tuned down to a hushed whisper. " We were… very alike back then. I beat him because I had the courage he doesn't have in him." Another shuddering breath.

"If that is indeed where Gabrielle is, there is no way to sneak in. I saw to that myself, some four solar cycles ago. We have to march in through the front gate."

Oberon's lips twisted into one of the feral grins she seemed to sport all the time. "Sounds like my kind of plan."

Xena shot a mock exasperated look at the younger, brazen warrior. She's so much like me. World's going to Hades in a handbasket if more keeps popping up. "Anyway. The city is a rather secluded one so there's a good chance Shirak hasn't heard of me mending my ways. If that's true I'll probably manage to scare the necessary information out of him."

"We will," the pale warrior corrected. Before Xena could protest, Oberon wagged one strong finger in front of the warrior. "Now now, even the unbeatable Warrior Princess has to have a… body guard. Or something."

"Fine. Fine. You can be my second-in-command. Or something."

The matter settled, the women laid down to sleep although the excitement of the coming day barred them of complete relaxation. The small muscles in Xena's forearm twitched through the night, a hair's breath away from springing into action and grabbing the longsword that lay next to the hand. Clouds of coming thunder were gathering on the sky above the dark city, the heatwave finally bringing what it had promised.

Argo waded her way in the thick mist that had settled on the ground. It reached her to mid-calf and the cold, wet swirls that tugged at her legs made it seem as if they were swimming in white hay instead of riding on an ordinary road. On top of the mare, Xena rolled her head to loosen the kinks in her neck. Great. Cold, gloomy and too early. Just the way I like 'em.

It was still early, the sun hadn't been up long. She thought. The yellow orb was hidden behind layers of grey clouds that grew darker as they neared their destination. It was near now, but they had one more business to take care of.

"We need to make a slight detour," she gruffed at her companion and once again, turned abruptly on a smaller path. Oberon knew better than to ask questions and just followed her.

In under two candlemarks they came upon a small cottage. Judging from the abundance of cobwebs and the decay of the structure, no-one had been there for years. Unsurprising in itself, because the spot was a secluded one, shielded by a huge cliff and thick trees all around. Without hesitation, Xena dismounted and went in, the puzzled warrior in tow.

The dim light illuminated an endless array of dancing dust particles, swirling and settling on the few objects of furniture in the small room. A narrow pallet, a large, sturdy wooden table and a tall, heavy chair. On the chair lay draped what seemed to be an armour but the lines were too blurred to be sure, layers and layers of dust and grime clinging to every surface.

Xena padded quietly to the chair and laid a hand on the backrest of the chair. A cloud of dust shot to the air before settling back on the hand. "This used to be my hideout in this part of the land. The last time I was here... it was a difficult time. Betrayal and blood. Not all mine." She gently lifted the bits and pieces from the chair, managing to avoid disturbing the dust and strode outside.

A few shakes and an armour started to take shape. Eyeing a bracer with a cool gaze, Xena spoke more to herself than her silent companion. "This'll add the necessary final touch…" At Oberon's non-verbal prompting, she continued: "This's the armour I wore back then. The way Shirak hopefully remembers me."

She fished her armour cleaning kit from the saddlebags and sat on the rotting porch to clean the souvenir of time gone by.

The armour was much heavier than her usual one and unsymmetrical. She kept tugging on one breastplate buckle that just wouldn't settle. Damn. It'll take a while to get used to this old thing again. The dirt and grime had been removed easily, thanks to the thick layer of armour oil she had remembered to put on when she had abandoned the outfit. The metal shone brightly even in the misty light of the mid-morning.

Her eyes flickered to Oberon. The pale warrior had also put on extra armour, flexible thigh guards with the same filigreed pattern as her chestplate, and attached the disturbing-looking scalp with long black hair, previously of her Master's killer, to a ceremonial-looking shoulderplate extension. She had dug out one last weapon and was attaching the wooden pieces to each other and to the blade, transforming the bits to a dangerously deadly-looking weapon that reminded Xena of a thin, curved sword attached to a long spear shaft.

Finishing assembling the sword-spear, she leaned it against Awase and rested one forearm against the black mare's side. The huge steed gently nuzzled her owner's back who patted the heavily muscular horse. The dark indigo eyes raked over the tall, dark form that was Xena.

"Well. Dressed to kill, we are."

Xena smiled a small, sad smile. The heavy armour brought back entirely too many bad memories. In her mind's eye she saw glimpses of herself, riding, slashing, screaming, hacking, laughing… black and crimson were the colours of the memories, dark as her wear.

The armour was much more extensive than the bronze one she usually wore. The metal shone in colours of cold steel and muted black. The breastplate and the bracer on her left forearm had the same swirly pattern. The right arm, her sword arm, had much heavier hardware, encasing the whole arm and shoulder in glinting metal and black leather, the protective, heavy shoulderplate that extended to her shoulder blades forcing her to carry her sword on the side. The skirt was there but in black, thigh protection and lastly, the boots. The shin armour was entirely smoked black metal, the heavy black boots outshining it. To crown it all, something she never wore nowadays, the small glint on her feet that were a pair of sharp spurs.

Fighting back the memories and the darkness that beckoned her, she fastened the heavy, burgundy cape on her shoulders. Oberon disappeared inside for a moment and came out with a piece of cloth the size of a scarf. She fanned it out to reveal a very familiar pattern. Xena swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry.

"Your crest, I assume. Can I borrow this?" The dark head nodded.

Oberon attached the twin serpent flag to her lance. She decided not to prod the warrior about the bloodstains on the cloth. "OK, all set?" No sound from the dark warrior. The raven head was bent down, chin resting on smooth steel. When the head came up, there was a new gleam to the eyes. A sneer. The warrior stood straight, head up proud. The heavy cape billowed in the slight breeze and even Oberon felt a bit queasy at the magnificent sight of this six feet of cold, hard menace encased in black leather, steel and an impregnable air of discontent and... pure rage. Ares' chosen.

They mounted their prancing horses. The sensitive animals were tuned to their riders in a deep way and could easily sense the change. They traced the path back to the road and shot off in gallop. Oberon sat straight, the long lance with the wicked blade upright so that the small flag snapped and fluttered in the draft. She rode about one horselength behind Xena, on the left side. Like a good guard, she smiled. She kept her eyes on the broad back of the tall woman on top of the golden horse, the tendrils of jet black hair brushing the jagged metal edges of armour plates.

In less than a mark they were on the city gates. Two guards and their captain stood on either side of the massive wooden doors in a poor imitation of an attention. The racing horses had been two specks of black and a cloud, slowly growing bigger. The specs had solidified into two riders, urging their massive steeds on a steady pace. The mounts screeched to a halt and as the cloud dissipated, the guard captain was greeted with two very blue, very cold pools of blue drilling into him beneath a mass of black hair and above a billowing cape. He cleared his throat.

"State your business," he said, his voice cracking in the end. The female warrior in front smiled a small smile that never thawed nor reached the icy eyes.

"Tell that oaf of a king of yours that an old… friend would like to have a word with him."

The smirk and the words enraged the guard. His eyes darkened. "You have no business here, bitch. King Shirak'll have your head for that insult."

Xena folded her arms and leaned back in her saddle, the smile never leaving her mouth. She pondered weather to kick the man in his family jewels or to gouge his eyes out with her breast dagger but she just flicked her eyes on the silent warrior behind her. A minute nod of a helmeted head was the reply.

Oberon nudged her horse into a low canter, moving the horse between Xena and the guards. Without a sound she jumped, took a few swift steps and before the guard captain had time to even flinch, the pale warrior towered over him, holding the wicked curved knife to his throat.

The young guard that rushed to aid his superior was disposed of with a kick and an elbow lock that broke his arm. A quick jab behind is ear stopped his howling. The other was much easier, a roundhouse kick to his temple silenced him instantly. Oberon refocused on the stiff man she held on daggerpoint. She allowed a slow, feral smile to cross her face, baring her prominent canines.

"Now, be nice to my mistress." Xena's lip twitched at the word 'mistress', threatening to break out in a laugh. Oberon scratched the sharp blade under his chin, drawing blood. "I hate it when earthworms like you insult her. You'll address her as 'madam'-" Xena's lip twitched again and she had to bite down on it. "- or 'Warrior Princess'" The man's eyes widened at the last name, his eyes darting between the dark, brooding form on the golden horse and the dagger that scraped his cheek.

"Open the gate. Now," the pale warrior said. He cranked his head to look in the dark mirthless eyes. "Or I'll carve her name on your face." The guard gulped and backed away from the woman. Eyes locked in hers, his fear increased twofold when the odd, pale bodyguard lifted the nasty knife on her lips and slowly licked his blood off the impeccably sharp blade. A pink tongue retrieved the last droplets off her purple lips and she made a small, satisfied grin.

The Destroyer of Nations barked a syllable and the pale warrior turned to the mounted warlord and bowed to the nonchalant warrior. A sharp nod and the woman remounted her coal black warhorse. A raised eyebrow made the man remember his mission and he scrambled head over heels to open the thick oak panels.

They strode through, not sparing the hapless guard captain another look. Once inside the gates and away from the man, Xena turned in her saddle and regarded her following companion with mirth in the twinkling eyes. "You're bad."

The infectious smile was back. "This I get from the Warrior Princess of Intimidation," she teased the tall warrior. "The man just wasn't worth your trouble, oh my grand exalted mistress."

"Will you stop calling me that!"

"No way, my beloved mistress. Even if it kills me… from laughter."

A chuckle escaped Xena's lips before she managed to get her smirk under control. "Do you realize now that people think you drink blood as well?"

A wink of an impish dark blue eye. "Gotta keep my reputation up to par with yours, my mistress."

Xena had time to only roll her eyes at the ever-jesting warrior before they rounded another corner and other people came into view. She summoned her best grim-and-grumpy look, calling some of that old wolf to surface. They rode slowly. No hurry. Townsfolk scrambled away, whispering behind closed doors and huddled in small clusters as far as possible from their path. She let her piercing gaze sweep the street and her lip curved as if in disgust. No eyes would meet hers and even the biggest of men bowed their heads in her passing. She allowed herself a morbid mental chuckle. That still works. Huh.. Yessir, indeed.

She was often puzzled and perplexed of the effect she had on people. She understood very well why people paled in fear when her name was mentioned, her recent past had seen to that. But in person, she seemed to be so mush more intimidating. She knew the power she wielded, the dark charisma that enchanted and scared people witless, often at the same time. People took to her as if they were playing with Tartarus' fire, deadly but strangely mesmerizing. The mood, the feeling, the air oozed out of her very being, coating people all around her in a cold, wet blanket of fear and respect. It was insanely deadly and extremely… sexy.

She could sense the same dark spirit in Oberon as well. Not as carefully hidden as hers was and slightly different, more… exotic. Mysterious. While Xena was clearly death incarnated, Oberon was somewhat more vague. It promised a lot but revealed not the methods. While the air around Xena crackled with energy, promising pain and suffering beyond imagination, the pale warrior was just, simply, scary. Very scary. The blood and carnage were there but not in such vivid colours as in her.

This gift of hers, it could be used very easily to her advantage. She just couldn't let it take control. Tightly reined, it bucked and begged to be released but in vain. Power was nothing if it wasn't controlled. Used to its full potential. The darkness would surely consume her if she ever let go her hold on it. But she could allow everyone to take a peek at it. The power she held.

So, the two tall black-clad warriors rode unhindered in a leisurely pace. They got in the castle easily, the name 'Xena' and a Look was enough. While the women dismounted and made sure their horses would be taken care of, the guards fretted around them. Xena wrinkled her nose at the smell of the inner courtyard, the stench of unwashed bodies combined with the smell of foul ale, rotting hay and excrement. Ew. Forgot I hate places like this.


A young man with a puff of blonde hair sticking underneath jumped at the rough bark of a voice and gulped when he found a finger pointing at him.

"Take us to Shirak."

"He… eh… his highness is having his midday nap… he shouldn't be disturbed…" his voice trailed off when a low grumble of impatience sounded from the imposing warrior. The dark head nodded and lowered to rest on her chestplate, as she studied her fingernails in relaxed silence. At the nod the other warrior had moved and grabbed the man's tunic, smoothly lifting him off his feet so that his eyes were at level with the pair opposite him, dark and deep as velvet.

"You will not question my mistress. Ever." A flash of the primal energy behind the eyes shone through and the soldier flinched in the iron grasp. "Now. Do as she said." She let go of the man and lowered him to the ground. The man took a shuddering breath and smoothed his crumpled tunic. Gesturing to a door, he took off, anxious to get this task done, despite his king's possible wrath.

The women followed the young soldier to a dimly lit high hallway. Oberon edged closer to Xena and bent to whisper into her ear. "Do we have to scare everything out of these people?" Xena turned her head to whisper back. "They're not used to obey without question. Good for us perhaps, definitely bad for Shirak."

The man stopped at anther door, this one had carvings in it. The figures were obviously human, engaged in questionable activities that occasionally defied the laws of nature. Xena's lip curled in disgust and she nodded to the cowering soldier to alert the king. The man swallowed reflexively and knocked on the door. No answer from inside, so he gathered his courage and opened the door, peeking inside.

"He's asleep," he whispered.

"Good," Xena grunted and pushed the guard aside. True to his words, in a huge bed that was the only furniture in the room save a few chairs, a man slept. The bed was a huge contraption in itself, big as a small lake and decorated with heavy red drapes and satin ropes. The man between the red satin sheets was in his forties, a big, strapping hulk of flesh. It was clear he used to be handsome but his features were marred by a long scar running across his face from left temple to right side of his jaw. Shoulderlength blonde hair and a not so small paunch belly were obvious, as well as the young woman sleeping next to him. Her eyes were red and puffy, probably from crying and her skin had a sickly pale hue.

Xena strode to stand next to the snoring man, picked up a half-filled goblet from a small bedside table and promptly emptied its contents to the man's face. The guard nearly blacked out. Shirak shot to a sitting position, coughing the wine from his nose and lungs.

A demure voice near him drawled. "Hello Shirak. Long time no see." He lifted his head and an undescribable look flashed in his eyes.


"That's right. Atta boy."

He scrambled up from the bed and put on a robe. "What do you want?" He asked gruffly.

Xena's small cruel smile didn't flinch a hair. "What, an old friend can't visit without a reason?"

"You always had a reason," the man said, eyeing her from the corner of his eyes. Xena just folded her arms and resting her weight on one leg, leaned against the stone wall, looking very smug and sultry.

"Fine. We'll discuss over dinner. Gerone!" At his shout a young man-servant came and bowed. "Take her to the guest room in the west tower."

Xena ambled herself off the wall and picked up a bundle of grapes from a bowl near her. Extracting one, she threw it in the air and caught it in her mouth. She smiled while chewing. "Dinner it is."

Their gear had been delivered to the room by the same man-servant a moment after they had first entered the room and now, they had the space all to themselves. Oberon rested her exotic-looking pike against the mural-covered wall and sat on a cushioned bench. Puffing out a long breath she leaned against the wall and turned a curious eye towards the slowly pacing warrior.

"Geez, where do you get all the energy? This intimidation stuff is hard." Xena smiled a knowing , genuine smile and continued her pacing, the twist of lips still there. "You enjoy it," Oberon stated. That stopped the dark warrior.

Xena opened her mouth to object but thought better of it. She closed the orifice, thought for a moment and then opened it again. "A bit. A lot more if I didn't worry about Gabrielle." She frowned at herself. "Odd, but true. I enjoy it."

"Power tempts, eh."

Xena smiled again at the pale warrior, wise beyond her years. "Yeah. It's a big part of what makes me the person I am." She quirked a mischievous eyebrow at the sitting woman. Funny how she always manages to make me relax. We're certainly on the same wavelength. That helps. "B'sides, now I got someone almost as intimidating to do my dirty work," she drawled.

An equally beautiful eyebrow arched in the alabaster face. "Almost as intimidating? Now really, Warrior Pruneface…"

"Oooo, don't you dare to taunt me, palehide…," Xena hissed, her grin reaching the glinting eyes. She threw a grape at the other warrior who deftly caught it and popped into her mouth. Chewing the small fruit, she rose and stretched to her full height.

"Well, nothing we can do before dinner, so let's get some rest." At these words, Oberon started the laborious task of unbuckling her armour, setting the shining pieces in neat order on one of the plush chairs in the room.

Xena sighed. She itched to find the bard but she knew Oberon was right. The castle was huge, it had a maze of dank dungeons, endless corridors of cells forming a catacomb for the living and soon-be-dead. Despite the fact that Xena had been there before, they needed an exact location, or at least a clue, and the warlord had made it clear none was forthcoming until dinner. Nevertheless, Xena's mind screamed for action. She issued a strangled gurgle and grabbed the bed's headboard to avoid wringing her hands.

"You'll break the thing if you keep doing that."

She snapped out of it, focusing on the present. "Huh?"

"I said that poor piece of oak will snap if you don't let go."

Xena's eyes homed in on her hands, white-knuckled and grasping the wrist-thick wood so tight small cracks were forming. "Oh." She let go of the furniture. "I'm just…"

Oberon rose with feline grace from the bench and came to the distraught warrior's side. "I know. But you gotta relax. You'll do no good for Gabrielle if you can't control yourself." She patted a slumping broad shoulder. "She'll be fine. C'mon, let's get you polished."

Another gurgle from Xena, a rolled eye from Oberon and they sat down to get off the dust from the journey off their gear. On Oberon's prodding and despite Xena's dour glances, the pale warrior managed to get the brief recital on the 'history' of Xena and Shirak."… so, I decided to give him something to remember me by. Couldn't kill him, would've done him a favour. Had this habit back then…" the voice trailed away. Oberon's eyebrow rose. The dark head shook.

"I… if I wanted to warn someone off, I gave him or her one diagonal slash on the face. If the person decided to cross me again, I'd give him a second one. And then I'd kill him." A brief flash of Shirak's mutilated face flashed in Oberon's mind. A dry, mirthless laugh from the ex-warlord. "X marks the spot, right? I always did sign my… handiwork."

The slight hiss of cloth on metal stopped. Xena was afraid to meet the alabaster warrior's eyes, the dark blue chips of flint she could feel boring on her forehead. Afraid of how her companion would feel about the primal, cruel part that was the wolf inside the distraught Warrior Princess. She focused on one nook in her gauntlet, a clump of mud stuck in the swirly pattern of steel and leather. Her fingernail scraped the caked substance off.


Damn mud. She turned the gauntlet, focusing on a small pebble jammed between the metal and the black hide. Can't imagine how this got stuck here. Must be when Argo took that detour to avoid the hedgehog…

"Xena. Look at me."

Reluctantly, the warrior lifted her head. Her eyes met two seas of indigo, the velvet surface shining with strength and… understanding? "It's OK. No, really," the pale warrior hastened at the hurt look in the baby blues. "You are not that person anymore. Understand?"

"It's just… I… as if I don't…" A lump in her throat prevented Xena finishing the sentence.

A small, sad smile played on purple lips. The dark eyes were hooded, pale lids only halfway open. "Ah. Gabrielle. Again."

The pale warrior kneeled behind the sitting Xena and wrapped two long, warm arms around the warrior, resting her chin on the silky ink black tresses of her hair. "Now look here, Warrior Martyr. Don't you for one second think you don't deserve Gabrielle. You do. And she deserves you." She twisted to a side so she could look into the anguish-filled eyes of the dark warrior. "You are the light of her life as much as she is yours. Like the stars of the sky need the night to exist, she needs you. So don't get any valiant ideas about 'doing what's best for her'. She needs to do the decision herself." Oberon sat on the floor and smiled at the disturbed warrior who turned away her eyes.

"And I have a pretty good idea of what she wants. You." The last word was pronounced with unearthly softness, the delicate syllable left wafting in the air like a substanceless faerie.

Xena unclasped her cramping jaw muscles to ridicule the silly woman-warrior but a delicate finger on her mouth stopped her. "Shhh. Just ask her. Please." Sensing that the easiest way to get out of this conversation was to bow to the stubborn warrior's wish, Xena nodded. Oberon gave her bicep a mild squeeze. "Good. Now, let's stop moping around and go scare some dinner guests. I need more practice on that."

The hallway was wide and high, the ceiling only a dark ghost in the light of a line of torches strewn along the wall. The air was dank from smoke and lack of breeze, the walls smooth and silky from centuries of wear. It was clear the castle was very old, styles ranging from the dawn of time to very recent additions. The page that was sent to guide them skittered ahead, rather unnecessary since Xena knew the location of the main banquet hall well enough, having sat there many a drunken, bawdy night. The boy was nervous, rightly so, since the tall warrior oozed with menace, the chilly atmosphere and her anxiousness over Gabrielle making her edgy. And an edgy Xena was not someone you would like to dawdle with. Ever.

They reached a pair of huge wooden doors. The young page turned and swallowed. "The dinner hall, my princess."

Xena waved the boy away impatiently, wanting to get this thing over with. As the two guards on on opposite sides of the doors struggled to open the massive doors, she fingered one shiny gauntlet, the lacing impeccably done. Her fingers brushed over the cool, soothing surface of the chakram and she took a deep breath, her face transforming into her best menacing warlord sneer. She knew without looking that Oberon was just behind her, standing clear of her sword arm but close enough for Xena to feel the impeccably solid presence behind her, like an echo of herself. A cruel grin rose to her lips as she straightened her shoulders. You're gonna get it, Shirak the Smutbrain.

The doors were as ancient as the rest of the decor. They opened slowly, creaking mildly now and then. Xena waited until they were fully open and only then did she stride in. A hush came over the crowd. The blonde warlord rose from his seat behind a long table on a raised dais and saluted the steadily approaching woman with a golden goblet. "Xena!" The name brought another hush over the assembly, the name reverberating amongst whispers that held words like Warrior Princess, Conqueror, murderer, Ares and slaughter. Words so familiar to the dark warrior that calmly walked around the long table to a seat next to the disfigured warlord.

She plopped into the seat with a swirl of a cape. Oberon retreated to stand behind her next to the stone wall only a few feet away. She was close enough to be at her side in a heartbeat but far enough to let the dark warrior fight freely, if it came to that. She took off her helmet and hung it on her belt, clasped her hands around the shaft of her sword/spear, fastened her eyes on a colourful tapestry on the wall across the huge hall and became a statue. The stilled tinkle of voices and the lilting tunes produced by a small group of musicians in one corner continued.

"Evening, Shirak." She took a swig from her goblet. "Lovely evening."

"Yah," he said uneasily, not sure of what to make of the neutral warrior. "You look good," he finally uttered, raking his gaze over the tall woman reclining in the chair next to him. "Came here to freshen some memories, perhaps? I could do that for you-" he smiled a lascivious leer, "in all the ways we used to."

Xena gripped her goblet and pondered briefly on smashing the grinning man's once handsome face with it. She gave a tight smile instead. "No thanks. The last time led me to lose some blood and you to lose your face. Literally." The man's hand went reflexively to brush the long scar decorating his face. "And I have… new interests."

He pondered that for a moment, until his eyes came to rest on the statuesque, improbably tall alabaster-skinned warrior standing in shadow behind them. A white, even smile flashed on the angular but beautiful face of the strange warrior, an eyebrow rose towards a gleaming bald head. Shirak shifted his gaze back to the nonchalant Warrior Princess. He nodded towards the other woman. "Freak of nature here?" Xena didn't say anything, she just raised the goblet back to her lips. The light of the torches reflected from the red wine to her eyes, making them flicker with dark light.

He shrugged. "Whatever rolls down your sandals. Since you're not here for some hard man-flesh - " Oberon rolled her mental eyes and Xena's grip on the cup tightened again. " - why are you really here? Where's your army? You're not thinking of attacking Udark, are you?"

"Nope. What would I do with this piece of filth-ridden viper's nest anyway? No."

His prodding was interrupted with the arrival of food. They ate in silence, Shirak's mind going through all the possibilities as to why the enigmatic warrior had shown up here, and particularly at this time. He's heard of the tales of Xena becoming this do-gooder but her hadn't believed any of it. The sight of the Warrior Princess in all her glory next to him chased away any doubt he might have held. This was Xena. The Conqueror of Greece, sitting calmly at his table, nibbling on roasted lamb, slicing away with her breast dagger in perfect precision.

Xena's nostrils twitched. The air in the huge hall was becoming stale and imbued with the smell of wine and ale, making the air itself intoxicating. Alcohol flowed freely and most of the sixty or so dinner guests, a haphazard assortment of military men, merchants, noble ladies and the occasional body slave at their masters' feet, had drunk too much. Especially the portly man who had came in after her and sat next to her.

He smelled of garlic and sausages and sweat, making Xena's sensitive nose crinkle. He had had too much of the mediocre port and encouraged by his state of intoxication and the noncommittal silence of the woman next to him, he was having amorous thoughts. He was a merchant man, having sailed here from far away. He didn't recognize the woman playing a warrior but surely, a woman was good for only two things: the art of love and cooking. He was so drunk her failed to recognize the waves of hostility emanating from the dark woman, taking the silence as timidness. From the sultry looks the King was giving to the woman, he figured that she must be one of the entertainments of the night.

"So, young lady, how do you like the king's court?" Xena remained frozen, knowing that if she moved she'd probably rip the arms off the foul-smelling man. He nudged the plate of dessert sweets towards the woman. "Have a shweet, m'girl… and I'll see if you'll give me shumthin' sweet as well…" He wriggled his eyebrows. When the raven-haired woman made no move, he reached out. "Come now, drrling - "

He almost lost his fingers. A hair's breath away from his digits flew something sharp, so close he felt the brush of air on his fingertips. A blade embedded itself into the table with a muted thunk and he froze, one hand extended towards the dark woman. He stared at the shiny curved weapon that had sliced through the sweets and the golden plate they were on with no effort. His eyes followed the blade to the black shaft to the strong hands holding it and all the way to to dark, glinting eyes that regarded him with barely veiled contempt.

"Oberon. Away."

The two quiet words of command came, surprisingly, from the sitting woman. The tall, pale warrior extracted her weapon from the table with one yank and bowed to the dark-haired woman.

"My mistress. I apologize."

His eyes bulged. The guard - a woman as well, the merchant noted with surprise - blended with the shadows as she retreated. He shifted his gaze again, a bit unsteadily, to the woman sitting next to him. A small whimper escaped his lips at the look in a pair of eyes that were the most pure white-hot pale blue he had ever seen. Absolute darkness simmered in the searing icy light they gave out.

Xena drummed her fingers on the worn wooden surface. The room had quieted again at the flash of steel on the main table. The steady thrum sounded like the thunder of berserk warhorses. The man gulped nervously. "Now, lokee here, my girl…" His voice died away when the blue eyes narrowed ever so slightly, the corner of the left one twitching. Peeking over her shoulder, the merchant was startled to see the King smile in delight. Delight at the free entertainment of the Warrior Princess in action.

The woman shifted in her seat, coming to face him fully. Her cloak parted and two things grabbed his attention. The longsword that hung to her side and the evil-looking circular piece of metal fastened to her belt.

No, three things. This woman was the genuine article. Many a scar decorating tanned skin straining to cover supple muscles, all this encased in black leather and in no-nonsense armour.

The round killing thingy was extracted from its holder. He watched in morbid fascination as long, powerful fingers brushed the metal in an almost erotic moves, caressing the pattern on the shining surface. The hand began to twirl the weapon on one finger, producing a whisper of a high-pitched raw scream that tore at his ears. The other hand still drummed the table as the female warrior gazed at him.

"Now, what am I to do with you then…" The voice had a low, full timbre, the tone neutral at the rhetorical question. Out of the corner of one eye, she could see that the small cruel play of theirs was the centre of attention. Ah. A spectacle seems to be in order. Bread and circus for the crowd.

"Skin him!" A high, uneven voice shouted across the hall. A flick of a wrist and the raw sound the weapon produced intensified, broken only with a loud wail as one of the torches lining the walls was cut in half, the fiery end dropping on the drunken shouter's head. His hair incinerated and he screamed in pain and terror until somebody was clever enough to put out the fire with a mug of ale. Xena caught the careening chakram without looking and continued twirling it. The message was clear, the hall became quiet.

"Skinning would be fitting but…" Xena raked her eyes over the plump, sweating trader. "You'd make an ugly rug." The crowd snickered and whispered at the insult, enjoying the spectacle of a raptor and her transfixed prey.

"But…" Xena leaned in close, her scent wafting to the quivering man's nose, making him more confused than before. Musk, leather and death. That was the scent he caught. The warrior sniffed theatrically. The man smelled of acrid fear. "But you need a bath." His eyes bulged at the unexpected comment. "And a haircut," Xena added, almost an afterthought. The man was sweating like the pig he was.

Xena leaned away from him, protecting her delicate sense of smell. Ugh. Repulsing. Only her iron control on her senses kept her from throwing the smelly man out of the window. Don't wanna get my hands dirty though… Wouldn't be… she smiled a feral smile and the man's pallor intensified. … proper.

"Oberon." A quiet command. In a beat the wraith of a warrior was behind her.

"My mistress." A husky whisper.

"The barrel," was the only words Xena said, nodding minutely towards the entrance. The huge barrels of wine that were needed to quench the guests' thirst were housed there, next to the huge doors. Oberon bowed.

Xena was still the epitome of relaxation, even when Oberon grabbed the merchant by his hair and lifted. The man issued a high-pitched wail but rose. Dragging the huge bulk of the man from his hair and collar, Oberon descended the stone steps from the dais to the floor and walked across the hall, oblivious to the man's sobbing pleads and gurgles. She stopped at the barrels, cart wheeled the man around and grabbed his ankles and with no obvious effort, lifted the trader into air. His wails were abruptly silenced as the pale warrior dipped him, head first, into one of the barrels, still almost full of the rich red liquid.

The lower end of the man trashed in the iron grip, until the stoic warrior relented and lifted him out of his crimson bath. No respite for the coughing merchant though, he was slammed into the wooden door with a loud thud, the pinchers that were the long delicate fingers of Oberon squeezing his windpipe just so. Oberon shifted so he was at Xena's line of sight.

The dead calm dark warrior was still twirling the chakram. No hurry. Great people never hurry.

Suddenly, the weapon stopped and she resumed to drum her fingers to the table. Each beat was torture to the trader. His heart lurched and threatened to stop altogether when the round discus left the skillful hand and he knew his end was at hand.

But instead of pain and blood, the weapon embedded itself a fraction of a finger's width from the top of his skull, neatly making him bald. Two daggers followed the more exotic weapon, pinning him to the wooden panel from the shoulders of his clothing. The fingers on his throat eased and he was left hanging on the door, his feet dangling a good two feet above the ground. Like a pinned moth with a metal halo, set out to dry. He swayed quietly, he had fainted at the chakram.

Her job done, the alabaster warrior returned to her post. The King leaned to the slouching dark warrior. "Lovely. You haven't lost your artistic touch." Xena just raised an eyebrow at him and took a sweet from the shattered golden plate. She extended a very pink tongue and with deliberately slow moves, placed the honeyed morsel on it. The tongue retreated only to appear a moment later to lick away the excessive sweetener. The blonde warlord-king watched in fascination, old desires stirring in him. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

Xena could feel the hot eyes on her and she both cringed and elated inwardly. Got him wrapped good, she thought and had a surreal image of the large man coiled around her pinky. She shook her head. Fun's over. Time to get down to business.


The name made her anger resurface. This was a man who had betrayed her and now held the one person who had captured her heart.

"I hear you've captured Amazons."

The king spluttered on his wine at this sudden turn in conversation. His beady eyes narrowed. "Where did you hear that? What's your interest? Why do you ask?" Xena gazed him blandly, showing no apparent interest. I've forgotten how much I hate serial questions. Especially by him.

"Around. None. Conversation." She took a sip, peripherally aware of the mild tension in Oberon.

A beat.

"Yeah, well, no sense in denying. I got the women and guess what." Xena raised an eyebrow in mild interest. "One of the bitches is their Queen." Xena's jaw cramped, making the wiry muscles stand out in bronze relief. She managed to get herself under control. Barely. Calm down. That's hook…

"Last solar cycle was bad. The harvest was poor and the city's populace starved in the winter. I need more land." Xena still made no sound at the king's monologue. He sighed and continued. "I need to take care of my people. The forest women are weak, they have no men to defend them, so an expansion to their lands should be no problem." An idea flashed in his head. "Hey... you're still the best strategist around. Want in on it?" Line…

Xena fought the sudden urge to slam the annoyingly stupid warlord's face to the table and just made a neutral shrug. A plan started to form in her highly intelligent mind.

"I might. What's the plan?"

The wine had mellowed Shirak considerably, so much that he didn't notice the dangerously confident glint in the blue eyes. "I, uh, have still been unable to extract the necessary information from the wench. She's being overly stubborn."

Xena made a noncommittal grunt. "I could find new ways to… motivate her." A sip. A shrewd gaze from the king. "Ah. I bet you could."

And sinker. A new kind of smile caressed the ruby lips. Gabrielle. I'm here.

"I'm bored. Shall we go now?"

Momentarily flustered at the polite request, more a command really, the king coughed at his wine. "Uhhh… Now?" He was very comfortable here, the heavy buzz, the result of a bit too much wine, humming disorientedly in his head. His gaze flicked to the woman coiled in the high-backed wooden chair, the smile on the lips redder than the strong wine on them a sexy, diabolical one. As sure as the wheel was round, this female next to him could get the information out of the slip of an Amazon. It would be great fun.

At the king's smile Xena relaxed a bit. The blood in her veins pounded in her urgency to get to Gabrielle. Now. Not tomorrow, today. Now. But the moment was coming. Her fingers flexed, the thick cords of her forearm muscles straining against the gauntlets of ink black leather. The leather strings that laced the hide around the limb protested against the tension with faint groans. Her senses were hypersensitized, the twitching perfect ears catching the rustle of her cloak against the smoothened wood of the chair, the muted hiss of the metal plates of her arm guard chafing against their leather binds, the scrape of her blunt fingernails on the soft gold surface of her goblet. Through her long lashes she spied the king whispering to a servant to let the rowdying and more and more louder dinner to continue even in his absence.



The guard wiped the offending matter off his eye. The sneering blonde woman had immaculate aim and had hit the stout man right on target, depositing a blob of blood-streaked spit in his dullish eye. The man had recoiled from the woman, his hand a mere inch away from a swaying breast.

"You'll pay for that…," the sour guard grumbled, lifting his arm, poised to strike the impertinent Amazon on one bloody and sweat-covered cheek. The footfalls that signalled approaching visitors stopped his hand and the heavy door, strengthened with metal stripes, flew open, admitting his king.

"Stop." The king barked the word and obediently, the guard backed to his position next to the door, bowing. He was out of line, he understood, he had been instructed to keep his hands off the prisoner but what kind of a man could resist the wench that hung right before his eyes?

Hung, indeed. The blonde woman was attached to two huge wooden beams that formed a gigantic X. Thick hemp ropes secured her hands high above her head, so high that she had to stretch to the limits of her body to touch the floor with her toes, the rough rope binding her ankles to the coarse wood. The small body of the Amazon, though muscular, looked sick, multiple cuts and lash marks littering the once perfect skin, bruises, dirt and dried blood decorating the creamy expanse of naked warm surface between them. But fire burned in the hazel green eyes beneath the clinging greasy strands of reddish blonde hair and compact muscles contracted at the sight of the ruddy-faced king. The man stepped inside, carefully avoiding the clumps of dirty hay and excrement that littered the floor of the dank cell, deep underneath the castle, at the end of endless corridors.

The king's steps were ever so slightly unsure. He raked his gaze over the Amazon and stepped aside to stand a few feet away from the cross, eyes riveted to the naked woman. He was rewarded with a sharp intake of breath and the green eyes widened when the next person stepped into the small, foul-smelling room. He made a small smile at the reaction, the right one but made for entirely different reasons that he thought.

"Xena…," the battered figure whispered in a hoarse voice.

Xena closed the distance, her gait languid and slow, fluid. Her spurs clinked on the stone floor when they hit a spot not covered by the rotten hay. When she stilled, standing mere inches away from the hapless prisoner, there was silence. She made sure her face could not be seen by either the guards or the hiccuping king, she let the cold, steely look on her face mellow for a fraction of a breath and made a small wink, both to reassure her friend and also, to warn her for saying anything else lest she blow her cover.

The mask fell on the planed features again and she turned, throwing an amused look at the king. "An Amazon? This one," she purred, casually indicating Gabrielle with a flick of a wrist. "Really, Shirak. Your interrogator must be a bumbling ass not to have broken her will." She gave a small chuckle at the stiff posture of one of the men in the room, the said bumbling ass. She turned back around and grabbed Gabrielle's jaw in a tight grip. "But me, my lovely, I am much more... persuasive." A slow, feral grin spread on Xena's lips as she lifted the other hand, one long finger to brush along the taut jawline.

Gabrielle gulped at the sensation. For days she had endured the torture, the sting of the whip and the hot, searing touch of the blade. The interrogator had taken it slow, first attempting to scare the information out of her. When that had not worked, he thought to tire the small woman. Neither that had worked so just this morning he had graduated to a more physical approach. But the touch on her face, the caress, made all her pains ebb away. It was perfect, making it seem that the tall woman was threatening the Amazon but Gabrielle felt it in an entirely different way, as a comfort.

As if by magic, a small but nevertheless a very lethal-looking dagger appeared in the raven-haired warlord's armoured hand. She twirled the blade around in her fingers, the movement throwing the torchlight in a nervous pattern on the cell walls. Standing slightly to a side so that everyone could clearly see what was happening, she let the blade descend gently on one collarbone. Still clutching the jaw in on one hand, Xena trailed a leisurely path along the protruding bone with the razor-sharp knife. The gleaming weapon continued up one arm and down again, tracing the jittering muscles on a straining, taut ribcage, curving across the belly to rest momentarily on the navel, stretched into a vertical line by the extended position of its owner. Then, the journey continued, agonizingly slow, tracing the slight mounds of stomach muscles up, up to a perfect, round breast.

Every man in the room was hypnotized by the sensuous moves of the weapon, designed to kill but utilized in a brazenly provocative way. Unconsciously, they had all moved closer to see better, clustered next to the tall warlord who wielded the blade so expertly. Her words, pronounced in a low, purring voice, heightened the mental arousal of the men even more.

"My favourite method of persuasion begins… like this," she crooned, the last two words no more than a husky whisper while she lowered her head and captured the bard's trembling lips in a kiss.

She had intended the kiss as a distraction, to make the men move even closer but it soon proved to be a dangerous miscalculation. She herself was distracted by the exquisite softness of the bard's lips, their silken texture and the heat inside. As a possessive gesture she thrust her tongue inside the heated crevice, nearly fainting at the sensation of her probing organ enveloped in the velvety fire of Gabrielle's mouth, burning like a furnace and threatening to envelop her in flames of passion. The kiss was much more arousing than she had planned to be, lasting a small eternity as she felt herself drown in the sensations, floating in the patch of Elysian Fields found in the bard's mouth.

Reluctantly she tore her mind away from the kiss, planting her feet firmly on the floor and locking her knees when they threatened to give out. Unconsciously, she had twirled the impeccably sharp dagger along the woman's left aureola, the nipple standing taut, reaching up, desperate to be touched. Continuing to keep her mouth on Gabrielle's but avoiding her eyes, she extended her sixth sense to take in the other occupants of the room. As expected, the men stood in stunned silence, gathered in a huddle as close as possible to the spectacular display. Just as she wanted them.

They had no time to react. Before they could retrieve their consciousness from whatever fantasy they had retreated to, two of the guards were unconscious and the thin interrogator had the hilt of the dagger sticking out of his throat, the blade jammed so deep it protruded from the back of his neck. One guard was then disposed of with a scissor kick and the last of them with a sharp jab behind one ear, the astonished and aroused look frozen on his face. Then there was just the king and the ex-warlord. The prey and the hunter.

Another dagger materialized. "My sword is too good for your foul blood, Shirak," she hissed, nearing the awestruck king in silent steps, so much like a lioness. He shook off the last of his drunkenness and produced his sword from his waist.

"Xena! Whatever on earth...?!" He gulped, small beads of sweat on his forehead pooling into larger drops. The switch left him slightly dazed, her ally now his enemy, the transformation done in a blink. "Why?"

She smiled her trademark ferocious smile. "You made a grave mistake when you decided to kidnap her," she growled, indicating Gabrielle. She circled closer, twirling the dagger. "You see, I don't take it too lightly when half-witted scumbags like you kidnap my best friends."

Then he said no more, just grunted in rage, drew his sword and charged Xena. The wine still affected his reflexes so she just sidestepped him and he stumbled. Xena clucked his tongue. "Tsk, my dear Shirak. Not very good."

Enraged, he charged again and Xena blocked his blow with the reinforced hand guard on her right arm and at the same time, flicked the dagger from one hand to the other and sticking the evil-looking thin blade between two ribs. The heavy sword fell from his hands with a loud clang and he grabbed his middle. Sinking slowly to his knees, he coughed up a gust of blood, mimicked a beat later by his chest wound when Xena pulled out the dagger from his torso. A punctured lung, she assessed automatically. Not lethal if treated quickly.

Air wheezed from the gaping hole as he struggled to breathe and cover the wound. Before he mustered enough strength to call additional guards, Xena pushed the panting man flat on the floor and sat on his chest, effectively pinning his arms to his side. Blood trickled from a corner of his mouth and his eyes bulged. He coughed up some more blood, the crimson droplets raining on her spotless armour. I could probably spend a century washing this armour and still couldn't get all the blood off it, she though, wincing inwardly. She shook her head once and concentrated on the convulsing man underneath her.

"Double-crossing <wheeze> wench!" he managed to splutter between coughs. The feel of the hard steel blade on his lips, warmed by his own essence of life that had bathed the cold surface in a sticky coating silenced him, as well as the look in the blue eyes, colder than the north wind.

"I warned you once, Shirak," Xena hissed, tracing the scar marring his features with the dagger, leaving a slight red trail on the old memento. The dagger lifted and became to rest on the unscarred half of his temple, now shining with a thin sheet of cold sweat. "You didn't hear me." Slowly, the sharp blade began its journey across his face, opening the skin where it touched. He winced at the pain but was surprised when it didn't hurt more. His brain felt sluggish as he tried to deduct why. Unbeknownst to him, the cut on his side had severed an artery and the blood in his veins was becoming scarce. Death was not far.

The blade finished its journey, completing a crimson cross. A perfect X.

"And so, you pay the price," the ex-warlord growled, pale blue eyes blazing. She poised the dagger above his head. He took one last breath and gasped out a few last words. "I'll see you in Tartarus," he dragged. A feral smile was his only answer, ruby lips curling back to reveal perfect, even teeth.

"Say hello to Hades for me. We're old friends."

And with that, she embedded the dagger deep into the king's right eye.

Gabrielle was close to passing out. She hadn't eaten nor slept for days, her body ravaged from the torture, the need to have a gulp of water more pressing that the pain from her numerous injuries. She was on the edge, nerves tingling and when Xena, in all her dark glory, had stepped into the room that was her private piece of Tartarus, she had thought she was hallucinating.

But it was real. Her presence, albeit in an outfit the bard had never seen, the armour accentuating the unusually deep darkness in her companion, she was real. Gabrielle had been convinced thoroughly when the dark warrior had first touched and then, kissed her. Oh my, had she kissed...

In her days of pain and ache, the kiss had been an oasis. The nectar of gods. She had never imagined how sweet, how perfect it would feel, to kiss Xena, even in these odd circumstances. It had started out as a more or less friendly gesture but had deepened into something more, a glimpse into her partner's passionate soul, the want and lust that lurked beneath the stoic exterior. It was raw, it was intense and it had turned her on like nothing else.

Abruptly, the perfect moment had ended and after a moan of protest, she had opened her eyes. The sight that greeted her weary eyes was so different and violent that she experienced a moment of disorientation. Men lay in haphazard poses on the floor, some bleeding, some not. The woman of her dreams, poised above a trembling man so much like an avenging god. And the hand of her friend, driving a blood-streaked blade into the man's eye. No scream came from the man, he just twitched a few erratic spasms and then, all was quiet.

It was too much. The switch from extreme pleasure to the visual horror show before her eyes, the mistreatment of past few days, all summed up to a head rush and promptly, Gabrielle blacked out. The misty green eyes, marred by a ruptured vein or two, rolled up and darkness enveloped her mind. Her limbs sagged and she hung limp from the ropes, the hemp chafing her mostly coagulated wounds and making a fresh batch of blood gush down her numb arms.

The tendrils of red rage vaporized from Xena's eyes ever so slowly, receding to the background. The thrumming of blood in her ears toned down and her mind ascended from whatever depths it had fallen into. As life drained away from the king her battle fever quieted down, the vision of the battered Gabrielle to be replaced by the minutiae of the escape plan. Xena's head snapped up at a low moan and she jumped to the unconscious Gabrielle. Making sure she was just out and not in immediate mortal danger, she cut the ropes and with infinite gentleness she didn't think she was capable of, cradled the naked woman in her arms. It was a dangerous position for she couldn't use her sword but if she was any judge of character, Oberon was well capable of fulfilling her part of the plan.

Glad to be out of the small room that stank of death, Xena ran with ethereal quietness down the corridor. Shirak had gathered all the guards along their way, in the intent of giving them a lesson of fine interrogation methods, something Xena was famous for. So, she met no-one until she came back to a small mess hall for the dungeon keepers to laugh and drink cheap ale in. She tiptoed to stand next to the last corner before the hall and peeked around.Only one man was seen, sitting on a wooden bench and nursing his ale, muttering curses while carving nonsense patterns in the table's surface. She disposed of the man with a flip to the table and a quick kick, the bulk of the man hitting the stone wall behind it with a crunch.

She ran onwards, encountering a few more guards but thankfully, they were all disposed of. Xena recognized Oberon's style and weaponry, the surgical cuts and strategically placed bruises a sure sign of the other woman and her inhuman precision in these matters. At the end of the hall her steps faltered when she came upon another felled body but this time, it was not human. It was Centaur.

The huge creature had fought hard and in rage, his face contorted in an expression of pure hate and madness. Multiple cuts and bruises were seen, as well as lots of blood, not all of it his own. Cause of death was clear, he was disemboweled, cut nearly in half. His blood pooled in a huge lake across the passageway, the heat of the gore that littered the walls and floor giving off the foul stench of death… and something else. Xena squinted. That nagging feeling of familiarity was back with a vengeance. As if she'd been here before… no, not quite that. Something.

She bent down and as expected, the Centaur's eyes were red and puffy, pupils mere pinpricks. The wheels of her brain worked furiously while she struggled with the heavy oak door, juggling Gabrielle to one arm and pulling with the other. The huge panel moved and like a wraith, she slipped into the cool night air. Slinking around the courtyard she avoided the men there with relative ease, their senses dulled with inactivity and the late, or rather, early hour. Xena noted that none of the guards had been alerted to the slaughter inside. Grudgingly, she admitted to herself she was pleased she had taken Oberon with her.

An ululating bird call sounded and the dark warrior headed towards it. As expected, when she ducked under the low opening that was a side door to the stables, there was Oberon with their horses, saddled up and ready to go. A nod was exchanged and they mounted their prancing steeds. When they eased out of the dark stable, Xena noted that as a last precaution, Oberon had wrapped the horses' hooves in thick cloth, effectively silencing the clatter of horseshoes on stone as they paced towards the gate.

The gate guards were dead as well, though positioned so that it looked as if they were standing. Xena caught a glimpse of a spear that disappeared somewhere behind the man, holding him upright. No, it disappeared inside the man. Xena shuddered and instinctively, her eyes flashed to the black ghost riding next to her. Undulating with her horse, Oberon seemed nonchalant, not distressed by the carnage she had caused. Her eyes flickered around systematically, gauging for problems, ears twitching for that first shout of alarm that was bound to come soon. She's even closer to that fine line of necessary violence and violence just for the sake of it that I am, Xena realized. When on earth did that happen? On a moment of sudden clarity, she realized that it was not Oberon that had moved closer to the invisible line, it was she who had moved away from it. And the reason for that was bundled up in her lap, whimpering and shuddering despite the cloak the ex-warlord had wrapped around the lithe woman.

They negotiated the quiet city with ease, the few people that were up and about in the wee hours stepping aside for the two cloaked figures on horseback that seemed to glide past them. When they neared the city gate, a new problem arose.

"Uh oh. That's a Centaur." The huge creature was clearly seen, silhouetted by torchlight, standing guard at the gate. "Hope it's not someone I know," Xena muttered.

Alas, Fortuna was no longer with them. The Warrior Princess is a figure you don't easily forget if you've seen it once and the Centaur recognized them. "Xena," he hissed. His eyes darted wildly from one woman to another to the small figure the dark warrior cradled. Even in the miserable light it was clear his mind was not his own. "You wish to leave?" he asked.

Xena opened her mouth to dismiss the Centaur with some curt reply but before she could utter a word, a deep bass rumble of horns blared from the castle. On cue, three guards rushed to the gate and the Centaur edged closer. "What is that you're carrying?" he asked, curiosity battling with malice in his voice. He extended his hand to grab the precious bundle and waited for his answer.

The answer came in a long, sharp package, hitting him on the side of his head. He yodeled something unintelligible and turned to where the hit had originated. It was Oberon, she had hit him with her sword-spear. "Hey, horse-man, wanna play?" A feral smile flashed to the purple lips and her eyes literally shone with glee. She leisurely twirled the long weapon, nudging Awase closer. The flying blade screamed in a whining, even tone.

He snorted and growled, a deep rumble deep down his throat. Unsheathing an enormous two-hand sword from his back he extended two long arms and advanced towards the smirking woman. A strike, Oberon sidestepped. Another. The Centaur swung the sword like a gigantic scythe, sweeping air left and right. Oberon retreated from this assault calmly, backing away to give Xena room to fight with the guards that had armed themselves and were approaching the brooding dark warrior that sat silently on the golden mare.

The Centaur grunted out his rage and took another swing, missing again. Oberon could hear the faint clatter and shouts of reinforcements from the castle. Time to end this charade. At another lunge and curse, Oberon nudged Awase to a swift turn, surprising the Centaur. She kicked the sword that rushed past her in an audible whoosh, making the creature overbalance. His side was thus exposed and Oberon's pike came down like an executioner's axe, severing limb from torso, bone from flesh. The arm holding the sword dropped to the ground, drowned by a cascade of blood gushing from his side, or what was left of it. The creature screamed an insane yell of rage and pain and fell to the ground, all six limbs twitching. Oberon took mercy on him. She swirled her weapon around so that the sharp end pointed downwards. A quick thrust and a small twist was all it took.

"Let's go." Xena had rendered the men unconscious or worse and now tugged at Oberon who was retrieving the Centaur's sword from the severed arm. The pale warrior nodded, attached the sword to her saddlebags. Flicking her spear to disengage any loose blood she pressed her heels to the black warhorse's side. It was about time, at the last moment before they were out Xena glanced backwards. First of the pursuers rounded the last corner, brandishing their weapons. But too late. The road stretched before them and not one land creature in the world could outrun the two horses and their dark mistresses.

The oppressing weather finally fulfilled its promise and the sky opened up. The rain was first a warm drizzle that soon escalated into an all-out barrage of water. It washed away the blood on their armour, a good thing, but it also made the outfits wet and itchy. Definitely bad. Xena was more than anxious to get rid of the old armour she wore. She was finding the feel of the thing as well as the memories depressing and strange, a life she thought she had left safely behind her. A part of the old Xena had surfaced at the dinner hall when he had toyed with the obese merchant but she had reined herself in at the last possible moment, the chakram severing hair from scalp instead of head from torso.

And again, at the dungeon when she had extracted her particular brand of justice on Shirak.

She shuddered, part from cold, part from exhaustion. And of self-loathe. The act had been pure cruelty, serving no purpose. None, besides satiating her hunger for blood. She had drank the man's fear, the pain and the dark essence of revenge in large gulps, like a measure of good heady wine. The liquid vengeance had ran in her veins, raced from her stomach straight to her heart, settling there and forming a cold lump.

She gave the still unconscious bard a little squeeze and set her haw, grim determination shining in the blue of her eyes. Never. Never again will I subject her to my... old self. She almost replaced the last two words with 'true self' but clamped down on that. Don't go there. Not now.

The rain fit her mood.

The sad, small fire flickered and flared momentarily, only to be doused back by a gush of water. There was not enough room for three women and their horses and a fire under the small ledge. It was a curious formation, spawned by some ancient ground disturbance. They sat under sixty feet of rock, huddled as close as possible to each other in the small cave that looked as if some Titan had taken a gigantic axe to the rock, forming a horizontal slit.

Xena grunted at the fire and gave up her futile attempts to rouse it. She threw one last damp stick for the guttering flames and sat back, resting her back on damp rock. Her leathers made a low squishing sound on every move and water ran on the gleaming armour plates. A sigh. There was nothing more annoying than having to sleep in damp leathers. They itched and were cold.

She eyed the blonde woman next to her. Gabrielle's wounds had been dressed as well as circumstances permitted and she was clothed in one of Xena's spare tunics. It was three sizes to big, the shoulder seams extending to the smaller woman's elbows but it was dry. Her hair was damp though and she shivered.

"C'mere." Xena waved a hand and misty green eyes met hers. A wan smile. "I'm okay," the bard lied, the tremor in her voice betraying her.

"No you're not. You're cold and wet and you've been thru Tartarus. So c'mere, your majesty. That's an order," Xena berated her with a stern voice, a small smile taking the sting off the words.

Gabrielle obeyed and scooted closer to the warrior. Xena wasn't satisfied on that though and she went on lifting the smaller woman into her lap and folding a spare blanket that was just damp instead of soaking wet around Gabrielle. She completed the package by wrapping two armoured arms around the blanketed woman and drawing her nearer. Gabrielle rested her head on Xena's chest and murmured something incomprehensible. Nuzzling the slightly clammy skin she mumbled her thanks. Her fingers accidentally brushed the cold metal on her chest and she made a brrring sound.

"Do you have to have this on?" a slightly muffled sound asked, breathing a small buff of hot air on Xena's skin as she rapped her knuckles on the plates on Xena's sword arm.

"Yeah, well, if I got up to get it off you'd have to get up too."

"Good point. Leave 'em on," Gabrielle said in a tired voice. She craned her neck to look at Xena who was staring into nothingness.


With that, the warrior's head dipped down and Gabrielle was bathed in the light of two blue eyes, one eyebrow lifted in a wordless question. It was the memory of those eyes and her impregnable trust in the brain behind them that had kept her sane and defiant during the long hours of interrogation. She just couldn't help it, a smile spread on her face and her aches and tiredness faded away.

"I, uh...," The bard who lost her tongue, she berated herself. "Thanks. Again."

A grin edged itself on Xena's face, breaking the gloomy countenance. Sooner than necessary, the smile turned into a sad one. "Anytime," she said, deep in thought. Her musings ground to a sudden halt when Gabrielle straightened herself and the soft if cold lips came to rest on hers. It was a chaste kiss but still held something more than just a friendly gesture would. It hinted at something more tangible, intimate and… passionate. Xena was shocked.

She ended the kiss with reluctance. "Get some sleep," she said, gruffer than necessary, closed her eyes and rested her head on the cold wall. The rejected look on Gabrielle's face went unnoticed.

Solari was miffed.

She was supposed to have one of the finest eyesights in the Amazon Nation but it had been Livia who had spotted the riders first. The dark-haired slim woman sighed. I must be getting old, she thought wryly.

The hard pelting rain had been the extent of the weather for two days. It was muggy and humid and the early autumn sun beat the soggy ground. The village had been flooded with mud but most of the tepid avalanche had been cleared. Everyone was sweating and cursing profusely at the sticky, smelly mix of earth and water. Solari hoped that their Queen was all right and in one piece. Amazons were volatile at their best and now people were definitely not in their best mood.

They were on the outermost lookout, on a high cliff near the slender pass that everyone had to traverse through in order to get to the Nation. Despite some fog the two riders had been sighted miles before they would reach the pass. A candlemark passed and the impatient onlookers could discern some details of the incoming travellers.

As far as they could tell, the leftmost of the two riders was Oberon, her black horse and bright armour were unmistakable. On the right, the familiar honey-gold horse had to be Argo. The rider was Xena, her black hair flickering and undulating in the slight breeze like dark flames. In front of the dark rider sat a smaller figure, their Queen. A collective sigh of relief shot through the warriors on the lookout.

Since it was only midday when they delivered Gabrielle to the healer, Oberon managed to convince Xena that visiting the site of the disappearances was worth the trouble. They had nothing better to do, Gabrielle was again unconscious from fatigue and pain and the fiery-haired tracker that Oberon so cherished was away with a pack of hunters.

Xena changed into her normal leathers and bronze armour. Taking off the black hide and steel was a huge relief. More than the extra weight of the more expensive armour was lifted off her shoulders when she almost hurled the bits and pieces from her past to a distant corner in the Queen's hut. The familiar feel of the well-worn leather dissipated some of her dour mood. The scent of the herb soap she now used and the brush of the skirt on her thighs, the unrestricted moves, the knowledge that Gabrielle was finally safe, all the things almost made her smile.

Argo and Awase got a thorough brushdown from eager Amazonettes and the two tall warriors took new horses, leaving their own trusty and dusty rides to enjoy some peace and quiet. In a couple of candlemarks they reached the hilltop and the ominous pond.

The bear's carcass they had left there the last time was but a pile of bones now. Scavengers and small animals had devoured all that was edible and left the rest to rot and eventually blend with the forest floor. It was strangely peaceful, like a calm before a storm. Birds fed on the ground, bobbing their heads up when the pair arrived and back down, judging the humans and their steeds to be too far away to be of any danger.

"What is it with this pond…" Xena muttered, kneeling at the shore of the small lake. The water was ethereal clear, the sandy bottom waving under the slightly rippling surface. She ran her fingers through the water, making circles that edged out, interfered and eventually faded into nothingness. She brought the fingers to her nose.

The water's scent, it was… familiar. Sulphur, musk and an unmistakable coppery tang. The blue eyes squeezed shut as Xena probed her memory. It was at the fringes of her mind, just there…

"Hello, horsebreath."

The blue eyes flew open at Oberon's voice. She knew now and the knowledge made her hackles stand up.

"Paleface," a new voice sneered. It was dark and seductive at best but now it projected just hate and frustration. Xena rose, a cruel smile edging on her lips and turned to greet the new arrival. She knew now who the water smelled of.


Nodding, the God of War acknowledged the address. He was leaning against a nearby tree, trimming his fingernails with a dagger. His eyes were not fastened on his fingers though, they were staring past Xena, at… Xena turned, following the gaze. At Oberon. If Xena's eyebrows had risen any higher they would've reached her hairline.

"Had to be your trick, Ares. So unsophisticated and random," the pale warrior was said, her hand resting relaxedly on the hilt of her sword. The indigo eyes were gleaming with a curious mixture of hate and mirth.

Ares extracted himself from the tree and paced a few steps closer, pointing at Oberon with the dagger. His eyes were blazing. "Now you, shut up. This had nothing to do with you!"

"Oh yeah?"

"Yes, I-" He was interrupted with a loud cough and they both turned, to face an irate Warrior Princess who had folded her arms on her chest, tapping one foot.

"Wanna let me in on the conversation? How do you know her?" she said, pointing at the foreign warrior.

At this, the God moved closer and clapped his hand on Xena's shoulder. He disregarded the icy gaze from the dark warrior and started to pick his teeth with the dagger, staring into nothingness as he faked to reflect.

"Now, honey, let me tell you a small secret." Xena shrugged the hand from her shoulder and Ares stood to face her, smiling and waving the dagger at her. "Now now…"

"You were saying…" Xena prompted.

"Ah, yes. The thing is, you were not my first choice as the Conqueror. She was."

Stunned, Xena glanced at Oberon who just shrugged and gave the Warrior Princess a small grimace.

"…so," He continued, "I wanted her to rule the world. Yeah, she had the power and the skill but she was otherwise… unsuitable."

"Meaning, I preferred the company of women to his," Oberon quipped.

Ares cleared his throat. "Yes, well, anyway… she was unsuitable. Too hedonistic. But you were the perfect candidate," He said as he turned his piercing gaze back on Xena. "Life is so boring with you having these delusions of do-goodiness. So, I have to invent little action now and then. Nothing like a good psychopath to lighten up the day," He finished with a flashy smile.

"So this was just… recreational?" Xena asked, pointing at the pond incredulously.

He nodded, cleaning his pristine fingernails with the small dagger again. He checked the result and buffed the nails to his chest. "The things I have to invent to keep my mind occupied, you wouldn't believe."

"Are we finished playing?" Xena grated, barely restraining herself from hitting the annoying, pesky God.

"Yeah, we are. You figured out the game, no use in drawing it out." He waved his hand. "The curse is off."

"Now, get out of here or I'll tell Artemis," Oberon said, leaning against a tree and mirroring the fingernail-picking action of the God with her wicked, curved dagger.

"Yeah, yeah, whatever," he yawned and vanished in a puff of smoke and a massive rumble of thunder.

"Showoff," Xena muttered.

"Too hedonistic, eh?"

A brilliant smile. "If preferring sword practices to his wooing is the definition of hedonism, yeah."

"So, I guess we have one more thing in common, right?" Xena smiled a small, knowing smile that was echoed by the pale warrior riding besides her.


Should've sensed it earlier. She was too much like me for it to be a coincidence. She ventured a glance at the pale warrior riding proudly besides her and hummed. Yeah. Now that you mention it… she's got the aura. Another soundless laugh. He seems to have a thing for tall, odd and dangerous.

The rest of the journey back to the village was traversed in comfortable silence. The low huts of the Amazons came into view shortly before dusk, the drums calling to dinner. The village glowed faintly in red, the torches spluttering heavy smoke into the moist air. It felt welcoming and comfortable. Oberon obeyed the growling command of her stomach while Xena headed for the healer's.

The hut was cast in a hazy light, the torches outside squeezing their light in through the straw mat window coverings. On the sole occupied pallet, all that was visible was a halo of blonde hair sprawled on the pillow, the rest of the figure covered in a thick blanket despite the summerlike temperatures. The faint squares of light conformed to the sloping surfaces of the solitary figure standing at the doorway, the face in deep shadows save for the blue eyes that seemed to have an inner light source of their own.

The tall figure paced silently to the pallet and kneeled. A tentative hand reached out and the strong, tanned fingers of the hand gently smoothed the tousled strawberry blonde hair. Light, lovingly caressing strokes on the masses of fair silk were the only movement in the room. The hand shook a little and when the shaking became too pronounced, retreated to rest on the blue eyes.

Xena felt like crying. Once again, her past had caught up with her and caused havoc, mayhem, death and almost cost her the one person she… loved. Yeah. Confess, Warrior Schmuck. Love. It was the moment when she had seen Gabrielle hanging on the gigantic X. Until that, her old self had provided a shell in which she could exist without anyone being able to penetrate the outer defenses. But just the sight of the bard, hanging there, had brought the shell down. And released the beast inside.

Love was dangerous, Xena knew that much. She had been hurt by love and she had killed and maimed in the name of love, weather be it for her home village or for some person. But always she had ended up with the short stick, love had betrayed her. And here she was again, the sweet ache in her heart and her only thought the object of her affection. Gabrielle.

Could she risk falling in love again? It was dangerous. She became more volatile, like a wolf mother protecting her cubs. If something ever happened to Gabrielle, would she resort to her old ways again, bathe the land in blood to alleviate her own pain? She had done so in the past. Was love worth the risk, worth the pain?

She opened her swollen eyes and focused on the figure on the pallet. She found hazel-green eyes there, staring at her intently.

"You OK?" Worry echoed in Gabrielle's voice. Xena never cried but now, the sharp bronze cheeks were stained in salty water.

Xena wiped an errant drop away. "Yeah."

"No, you're not."

The warrior started to get up. "I better let you sleep. I'll bring some-"

A slender hand curved around her wrist and hung tight. The green eyes were soft from fatigue and stress. "No, stay with me. I… need you."

A faint smile and Xena re-kneeled. "No, no," Gabrielle protested. "In here," she cleared and tugged feebly at the arm she held. Xena hesitated for a while, tossed a mental coin and thought, whattahell… She took off her armour and climbed in with the smaller woman. Gabrielle made a small humming noise, like a kitten purring, as she settled half on top of Xena and rested her head on the leather-clad chest.

"Gods, I love this scent," she murmured sleepily, scratching at the rich dark-brown surface and then, her breathing evened to the pace of deep sleep. Xena smiled and pulled the cover up to the neck of the bard. Wrapping her arms around the lithe figure on top of her, she took a deep breath of satisfaction. It felt entirely too nice, like the bard belonged there. Sleep soon claimed the warrior as well and the hut was still again save for the two chests rising and falling in sync.



A green eye rolled into view and gazed at the baby blue ones that were mere inches away. The blonde brow above the green eye furrowed. "How do you manage to be cheery the first thing in the morning?" The eye disappeared and Gabrielle rolled her head an inch. Her neck creaked in complaint. "Ooof," she repeated and the green eye rolled up.

Xena tightened her hold and chuckled at the sight of the morning-grumpy bard. The jolts of laughter shook the smaller woman, tickling her ear, and a small giggle escaped her. The laughter died and the warrior and the bard gazed into each other's eyes, smiling. Gabrielle crossed her mental fingers and suddenly lunged forward, her lips landing on the stunned Xena's. Before she could utter a word, however, the bard retreated, mischief in the green eyes.

"Uhh… what was that for?"

"Thank you for saving my neck," the bard said and delighted for rattling Xena's senses, tweaked the nose in the tanned face. Xena's eyes slitted, a strong smoky look in the expanse of sky blue. A very pink tongue appeared to lick the lips Gabrielle had just kissed and the bard's heart jumped to her throat.

"Oh yeah?" Xena rasped, an octave lower than usual.

"Yeah…" Gabrielle managed and unable to resist the pull of the improbably fetching red lips any more, brought hers closer. She felt Xena's hot breath on her lips and goosebumps rose on her back as Xena's hand travelled up to her head, the slender fingers tangling in the golden locks. A small nudge was all it took and their mouths met again.

It was not playful this time. No, it was hot beyond belief. Fireworks exploded inside Gabrielle's eyelids at the feel of the warrior's soft lips, the smooth texture in them brushing against her skin. Without breaking contact, Xena flipped them over so that she was half resting on top of Gabrielle. A calloused fighter's hand brushed the bard's heated cheek, continuing on to her neck and resting there, the thumb caressing the sensitive skin under her ear.

When they had to break to catch some air, Gabrielle was breathing hard, her cheeks flushed in faint red. The blush looked absolutely endearing on the bard and Xena smiled a smile she had little control over.

The words were on her lips but the warrior couldn't bring herself to say it. Just three words but she felt like she would betray Gabrielle if she said it. Was love worth the risk? Did Gabrielle want this?

As if she had read her thoughts, Gabrielle reached up and brushed a dark eyebrow with her forefinger and smiled a divine smile. "Yes. I want you."

"Are you sure?"

"I've never been more sure on anything," she replied and pulled the warrior into another kiss. And then and there, to Xena it became clear that yes, love conquers all. And yes, love is worth the risk.


"So, you're getting ready to go?"

"Yeah," Xena replied.

It had taken Gabrielle some time to regain her health but with a steady diet and lots of rest, she was back to her cheery self. Now, she was chatting excitedly with Ephiny at the village square, arms flailing wildly. Xena smiled a warm smile and resumed brushing Argo.

It was nice in the cool shade of the stables. Autumn was coming, the leaves already losing their colour but the air was still warm. With strong, sure strokes perfected in thousands of repeats, the warrior worked her faithful steed's honey-gold coat into a fine shine. Oberon was at the same task, brushing Awase and at the same time talking to the mare softly, in quiet soothing words. The black horse nickered softly and turned her ears to her mistress' voice, the delicate head bobbing up and down.

Xena felt giddy with joy. The past weeks had been truly divine. Now that the secret was in the open, it felt as if a massive boulder had been lifted from her soul. She felt like singing out her happiness, jumping up and down laughing. But since her image would be in tatters after that, she resorted to smiling like crazy whenever no-one was looking. And loving her bard, hard.

Oberon paused her work and grabbed two apples from a nearby basket. She fed the other to Awase and took a bite herself from the other. She turned to the Warrior Princess and upon seeing the mile-wide smile on her face, shook her head, bemused.

"Which one of you was the courageous one?"

"Excuse me?" Xena asked. She had been focused on the lithe figure at the other side of the square.

"I said, which one had the courage to confess?"

"Confess what?"

Oberon rolled her eyes. "Confess that you're head over heels, completely bonkers about one other, of course."

Xena let her gaze traverse from the pale warrior to the bard who was now heading to the stables. The smile came back as well. "It was sort of mutual."

Oberon harrumphed and threw her half-eaten apple at Xena who deftly caught it and took a bite. The pale warrior folded her arms. "Since it was obvious from a mile away, I could've told you ages ago."

"Ah, you know the warrior types," a new voice joined the conversation. "They hafta pretend they're stone inside out."

Gabrielle stepped into the semi-light of the stables and smiling wickedly, ambled towards Xena. "But I know better, right?" And on tiptoes, kissed the warrior.

It was supposed to be a light peck but two arms snaked around her body and Gabrielle was pulled into a tight, warm embrace. The world faded out, her world was the cocoon of leather, spicy scent of soap and all the other things she so loved about the warrior that encircled her. The twin blue pools were all she saw and she felt herself drowning into the fair, bright colour in them. The spell was broken when Oberon cleared her throat loudly. Gabrielle broke the embrace reluctantly.

"We better get going," she said and Xena nodded. She swiftly saddled Argo and loaded their gear. She led the mare outside, squinting in the bright sunlight of mid-morning. The warrior mounted her horse and waited for Gabrielle to hug her last goodbyes.

The bard was in fact hugged by half a tribe, or that's how much it felt. At last she came to Oberon who grabbed her in a bear hug. Gabrielle squealed as the tall warrior lifted her off the ground.

"You two take care," the contralto voice of the warrior vibrated and she let the bard down.

"What're you going to do now?" Gabrielle queried Oberon. The pale warrior reached out to her side and pulled the short, fiery-haired tracker to a loose embrace.

"I found my place," she said softly, gazing down at the Amazon.

Gabrielle smiled. The warrior looked happy, more balanced than the happy-go-lucky suicidal person she had been when they had first met. The tracker smiled up at the warrior and then focused on her Queen.

"I wish you the best of luck."

Gabrielle grabbed the offered hand and held it warmly. "Yes, you too." A pause. "I never caught your name, y'know."


"Dana. That's a lovely name." The bard squeezed her hand once more and let go. She patted the tracker's shoulder and said, "You take good care of Oberon."

The Amazon smiled and promised to do so.

The midday sun had taken its toll on the still recuperating bard and they had stopped for lunch early on. Xena had found a lovely secluded glade, a small pond with an even smaller clearing. They had munched on travel rations and fruits they had taken when they left the village and now, Gabrielle was feeling pleasantly stuffed as she leaned against the broad chest of the Warrior Princess who in turn leaned against a tree.

"I'm not too heavy, am I?" the bard asked.

The warrior hummed in negative and embracing the woman on her lap, closed her eyes and rested her head against the tree. The sun was on her face, visible through her eyelids as a faint red circle.

"No, you're just fine."

"You sure?"

"Yeah. Everything is perfect."

-- The End --

That's all, folks. Didja figure out whose alter ego the red-haired tracker was (if you didn't, here's a hint: A key word starts with an X. Still no? Jeez. Get a life.)?

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