The names and titles in this story are the sole property of Renaissance Pictures and Studios USA. I have borrowed them here in an attempt to write fanfiction. No copyright infringement is intended. The story itself, and all aspects of it, other than those listed above, belong to the author, Patricia L. Ennis. This story may not be sold and may only be archived with permission or by those for whom it was written.
XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS "LIFE FROM DEATH" An Original Xena Story
Copyright 1996 by Patricia L. Ennis Jadzia7627@aol.com (DAx =/\=)
This story is intended for mature adults (Over 18) who do not object to graphic (Well, semi graphic, maybe...no, it's graphic.) love scenes between partners of the same sex. If this offends you, or you are under 18, do not continue.
This is my first attempt at Xena fiction, I primarily write DS9 fanfiction, so I would greatly appreciate any comments you might have. Thanks!
This story takes place immediately after the happenings in the Thessalean Temple, from the episode "Is There A Doctor In The House?"
May the Prophets Walk With You!
Jadzia7627 AKA DAx =/\=
Life From Death
by Patricia L. Ennis
It was nearly dark when Xena glanced up at Gabrielle, trying to make out her features in the closing dusk. Taking in the red-golden hair that framed a too-pale face, she pulled on Argo's reins, bringing her to a quick stop.
"Hey!" Gabrielle grabbed onto the saddle horn. "What are you doing?" She tried to regain her balance and ended up with Xena's hand against her side to steady her. She looked at her warrior friend curiously. "I thought we were going to try for Atwir before nightfall."
Xena ignored her as she lead Argo off the road and into a sheltering copse of trees. She had pulled most of their equipment off and was reaching up for Gabrielle before she answered. "You're pale." Her voice was very flat. "You need food, warmth and sleep." She looked around the small clearing, cocking her head to one side to listen to the steadily increasing night sounds. "Atwir isn't going anywhere. We need to make camp and this is as good a place as any." She pointed towards a particularly dark area about 75 feet away. "There's a river through those trees, I want to try to catch some fish tomorrow. Our dried meat is running low."
Gabrielle sighed, but let herself be lifted from the saddle. As Xena helped her down, she smiled reassuringly, a very sweet, but rare, occurrence and Gabrielle found herself fascinated by how gentle the woman could be...when she tried. "You know, Xena," She made a concerted effort to keep her voice steady. "I'm not a child. I can get down from a horse on my own." As she slid to the ground, their eyes met and she wanted to take the words back. For a moment, no more than a second, she thought she saw hurt in those liquid blue eyes, but then Xena's face hardened, and it was gone.
"You're still hurt, Gabrielle. If I don't try to keep you from killing yourself, who will?"
The young bard nodded silently, angry with herself, and went to pick up her bedroll. As she bent down, a hard pain slammed into her abdomen, causing her to double over and fall to her knees.
"Gabrielle!" Xena was at her side instantly, grabbing her shoulders to keep her from slumping to the ground. "Leave it! I said I would get it for you!" She took a deep breath and gentled her voice. "You can't recover from a wound like this in just a couple of days. You nearly died, Gabrielle." She swallowed hard when she remembered that Gabrielle HAD died. "You've got to take it easy." She picked her up gently and carried her over to a fallen tree where she had been planning to build their fire. Leaning her against it, she lifted the bandage that bound the bard's abdomen and pulled out a rag and flask. "You've torn open the wound." She tugged the dagger out of her bodice and placed it between Gabrielle's teeth. "This will hurt, bite down when it does." She pulled the cork from the flask and poured a liberal amount of it's contents into the deep cut in her side, hearing the bard's sharp intake of breath and the sound of her teeth hitting metal. Before the initial pain had even passed, she had pulled out a needle and thread and re-sewed the opening. She cleaned the skin around it, and then turned her attention to the wound on Gabrielle's neck.
Once again, the gentleness of the warrior astounded her. The wound cleanings that the Thessalean Monks had given her had been very thorough, but extremely painful, almost to the point of causing her to pass out. The hands that touched her now were soft, and so very gentle, causing only the briefest moments of pain in the worst parts of the wound.
Xena had thrown her hair to one side, to keep it out of her eyes as she worked, and Gabrielle found herself studying her face. Her skin was dark from years in the sun, but it had a look of softness to it. The dark skin caused her eyes to stand out even more clearly, making them almost as blue as the clearest sapphire she had ever seen. She followed the line of an adorable nose to the red, full lips beneath it. They were parted and moved of their own accord as Xena continued to examine the wounds that marked her body. She wondered briefly what they would feel like, what they might taste like, and then tore her gaze away. "Well" She thought to herself. "These thoughts are certainly new." Shaking her head, she tried to figure out why she felt so nervous. It was just Xena. Right.
"Am I hurting you?"
"What?" She started, feeling slightly guilty, then shook her head quickly when Xena repeated her question. "No, why?"
"You keep shaking your head." She looked at the bard closely. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"Yes...I'm fine." She tried to smile. "Just thinking." She picked up a water skin and took a drink.
Gabrielle choked. Dropping the skin to the ground, she grabbed her side as she coughed violently. The pain was intense and she squeezed her eyes shut against the tears that threatened to run down her cheeks. The warrior thumped her lightly on the back until the coughing subsided. "I'm okay now." She wheezed.
"What happened?" Xena looked at her in concern. "You're not having trouble breathing, are you?" A light fluttering of panic started in the bottom of her stomach as she studied Gabrielle's face.
"No." She sighed. "I just...swallowed wrong." She turned her head away to hide a flush that crept onto her cheeks.
Xena continued to watch her for a few seconds longer, before retrieving the water skin from the ground. She took a long drink, thinking to herself that Gabrielle didn't lie very well. She thought briefly about questioning the bard, but decided to let it go. Enough time for that when she was feeling better. "I'm going to make the fire and set up camp. If you know what's good for you, you'll stay right where you are."
Gabrielle nodded, thinking she had angered her friend enough for one evening. She watched as Xena went about her work, wondering if her lie had been convincing. Somehow, she knew that it hadn't.
There wasn't much to setting up the camp, and what there was, Xena did efficiently. Within an hour, their bedrolls were laid out, the fire was blazing, and a rabbit was cooking on a spit. Xena sighed. With the work done, there was nothing to occupy her mind, which meant that it would go right back to Gabrielle. As much as she didn't want to think about what had happened at the Thestilean Temple, she didn't seem to be able to keep her mind from returning there. She had never felt that helpless in her life, and helplessness was not a feeling that the warrior princess was used to dealing with. But standing there, with her...she paused in her thoughts, wondering what Gabrielle really was to her. 'Best friend' didn't even seem close to covering it. But standing there, with Gabrielle dead in her arms, she had felt her heart break, something she hadn't experienced in a very long time. She glanced over at Gabrielle and thought about all of the times she had tried to leave her behind, telling herself it was for the younger woman's own good. But now, she wondered if she had really been thinking about herself. By removing the one person that she knew could get through her defenses, she would remove the risk of losing her later on.
She studied the bard's face as though she were a statue, watching the firelight flicker in her eyes as Gabrielle watched the flames. There was something so soft about her, so trusting, so...touchable. She realized that she wanted to hold her, to feel her strawberry blonde hair against her skin, and trace the smooth planes of her face. Unbidden, the memories of the Temple rushed in, showing her Gabrielle's face as it had been, white, still...splattered with her own blood. She closed her eyes as a wave of panic ran through her body, ending in a fierce grip around her heart. She waited for the feeling to pass, steeling herself against the sick feeling she knew would follow. Leaning heavily against a nearby tree trunk, she breathed in the night air, trying to slow the pounding of her heart.
Once she had regained her composure, she turned back to the fire and found Gabrielle watching her, concern showing plainly in her expressive blue eyes. "Xena...are you all right? You look kind of pale."
Xena was silent for a moment, wondering what Gabrielle would do if she told her the truth. With a sigh, she headed towards the river. "I'm fine, Gabrielle. I'm going to take a bath."
"But...what about your armor?" Gabrielle called after her.
"I can manage for one night, Gabrielle. I did have to take it off before I met you, you know." The silence that greeted her words made her turn around. The young woman was staring at the ground. No emotions showed on her face, but Xena knew she had hurt her. With a sigh, she walked back to the camp. "You know," She reach behind her back and fumbled intentionally. "These buckles are a lot higher than I remember. Of course, I'm also out of practice. Guess I could use your help after all." She sat cross legged in front of the bard, turning her back before she could see Gabrielle's grin.
At first, it just felt like tugging as Gabrielle loosened the laces and buckles that held her leather tunic together. But as she got further beneath the layers of clothing, she began to feel the bards fingers through the thin fabric of her undergarment. She closed her eyes, savoring the softness of Gabrielle's hands until they hesitantly reached to remove the last of her clothing. "No." Her voice had an edge that she didn't understand. "I mean...I need to wear something down to the river." She was startled when she saw something close to regret flit across Gabrielle's features, but then, she had seen relief as well. Picking up a clean tunic, she stood to go.
She looked back to find Gabrielle holding out her bodice dagger. "Keep it with you." Her voice was low, almost husky and the bard's eyes took on a questioning look. "This area is free of large predators, but I want you to have some sort of weapon, just in case."
"What, Gabrielle?" She was sure her impatience was showing, but she couldn't help it. More than anything, she needed to get away and think. A cold river would do much to cool her blood, which seemed on fire in her veins.
The young bard flinched and looked away, into the trees. "What about me?" She whispered, almost pleading. "I feel so...dirty."
Xena's face took on a much softer expression as she knelt next to Gabrielle and brushed fine hairs off of her forehead. "I'm sorry. I should have realized." She picked up an empty waterskin and slung it over her shoulder. Finding several large rocks, she tossed them into the edge of the fire and smiled. "I'll warm up some water when I get back. All right?"
Gabrielle smiled, "Thank you."
The warrior nodded and headed down to the river.
Gabrielle watched her until she was out of sight, wondering at the pleasure she felt in looking at her friend. It was just as confusing as the thoughts about her lips. Oh, she had watched Xena before, but with a Bard's vision. Taking in the events that she would weave into tales or studying her to learn how to use a staff or throw a Chakram. This felt very different. With a sigh, she closed her eyes and waited.
The water was freezing.
She hadn't checked it before jumping in, and regretted it immediately. She had wanted cold, but not this cold! Oh well. Too late now.
With chattering teeth, she submerged herself, rubbing soap into her hair and over her body, trying to rush as fast as she could. She had hoped that the water would calm her down, but the effect was exactly the opposite. Every inch of her skin felt alive and every nerve ending sang as the water caressed her body. After a few minutes of brisk swimming to tire herself out, she filled the waterskin and pulled her tunic on.
When she reached the camp, Gabrielle was asleep. She kicked the stones out of the fire and laid the skin on top of it. Shaking the bard's shoulder, she grinned. "I thought you wanted a bath."
"I do.." Gabrielle mumbled and began to pull off her shirt.
"Here, let me help." Xena reached down and slowly peeled the shirt away from her skin, being careful of the freshly sown wound in her side, then unlaced her skirt and pulled it away. She folded the clothes and set them aside. Turning back, she gazed at the young woman before her, her breath catching in her throat.
The moon was kind to Gabrielle, or rather, kind to Xena. It was full and shown down brightly, causing her pale skin to almost glow. And Gabrielle was beautiful. Her breasts were full and very firm, her stomach flat, her hips slender. She had seen her this way before, when they would swim together, but somehow, this time it was different.
She cleared her throat and grabbed a rag and soap, pulling the skin from the rocks as she knelt down beside her. She soaked the rag, and rubbed soap into it until it lathered, then looked to Gabrielle. "Tell me if I hurt you." She whispered.
She started with her shoulders, rubbing them gently with the cloth , then moved down to her breasts. When she circled around and then finally over them, she thought she felt Gabrielle shake.
"That's nice." The bard whispered.
"Mmmhmmm." Xena didn't speak, but hummed under her breath. Her attention was entirely on what she was doing, her eyes following the trail of the rag as she ran it over Gabrielle's skin. She finished with the bard's upper body and re-soaked the rag before running it down her stomach, circling around the wound she had already cleaned. As she reached the girl's abdomen, she looked up expectantly, her eyes widening at what she saw.
Gabrielle's head was tilted back, her mouth slightly open, her breath softly ragged. Xena swallowed, she looked so much like a woman would, as you were making love to her. She let her fingers trail up the bard's chest to touch her face, and Gabrielle immediately opened her eyes. "I'm sorry!" She rushed. "The water just felt so good..." She looked at Xena with fear in her eyes.
"I know, Gabrielle." The warrior sighed. "Do you want me to continue, or do you want to do the rest yourself?"
Gabrielle glance down to where Xena's hand rested, against the skin of her abdomen, right above her patch of red-blonde hair. Her heart began to pound as she contemplated her choices. She knew she would never be able to hide the pleasure she was feeling if she allowed Xena to continue her gentle ministrations. But the idea of stopping was not that appealing either. "I...can you?" She turned her face away to hide her flush. "Slowly?"
Xena nodded, astounded that Gabrielle wanted her to continue. She knelt between the bard's legs and let water run down her body from the skin. Trying to be gentle, she washed her calves and thighs, before moving up to the triangle of pale hair between her legs. There she slowed her hand, running the cloth gently over her sensitive areas. When she pulled the rag up to re-soak it again, her fingers accidentally grazed Gabrielle's swollen clitoris, causing a shudder to run through her small frame. Xena pulled away, surprised at the slick warmth that had touched her hand. She looked into Gabrielle's panicked eyes and brought her fingers to her lips. She inhaled their scent deeply and then slipped them into her mouth.
"Xena.." Gabrielle's voice was husky, and she remembered the way Xena's had sounded before she headed to the river. With wild hope, she placed her hand against the warrior's chest. "I think I'm in love with you, and I...I want..."
Xena closed her eyes against the words, but knew it was too late. The little girl she had saved so long ago was gone. She had been replaced by a young woman who had stolen her heart. She couldn't remember exactly when it had happened, she only had the certainty that she had loved Gabrielle for quite a while now. She looked down at the pale skinned hand that ran in circles over her breasts. "Are you sure, Gabrielle? I won't be able to stop, once we begin. I think I've wanted this for too long." She looked into the bard's pale blue eyes. "You can't go back, Gabrielle. Just because I'm not a man, doesn't mean it won't count."
Gabrielle laughed. "I know that, Xena. Why do you think I have waited this long? I wanted it to be you. It's always been you..." A pained look crossed her face and she reached to her side. "But.."
"Don't worry," The warrior's smile was private, her voice soft.. "Women aren't like men, Gabrielle. Everything is gentle...if we want it to be."
With a nod, Gabrielle laid back and took a deep breath. She thought briefly about closing her eyes, but decided against it when Xena pulled her tunic off. She had seen the warrior half naked many times, but never completely so, and never for her.
Xena lowered herself on top of her bard, making sure to stay off of her hurt side. With a slowness that made the young woman crazy, she brought her lips down until they tasted the sweetness of Gabrielle's mouth.
A bolt of desire swept through the bard's body, causing her to push up against the warrior as she opened her mouth to taste her tongue. Their first kiss was slow, long and sweet. She thought she could never get enough of Xena's lips, until the warrior trailed them down her neck and closed them on one of her nipples. It was like nothing she had ever experienced. A deep burning ache started in the pit of her stomach, causing her to raise her arms and twine her fingers in Xena's hair. With strength built from pure passion, she pulled the warriors head against her as she arched her back off the ground. She could feel Xena smile against her skin.
"So sweet, Gabrielle." She brought her hand to the bard's other breast, using her fingers to pinch her nipple lightly as her teeth bit gently on the other one. "You have wanted this, haven't you? But not as much as I have.." She ran her free hand up Gabrielle's thigh, bringing it up until it could take the place of her lips on the young woman's chest. Then she slid her mouth down, dipping her tongue into her navel as she went. When she reached the top of her pale, fragrant hair, she laid her cheek against it, inhaling the sweetest scent she had ever known. "Gabrielle..."
"Please..." Was the only word the bard could remember.
With a sigh, she lowered her lips onto Gabrielle, parting her so that her tongue could reach into her depths. Her lips found nothing but softness and warmth, covered in a sweetness that was like nectar against her tongue. She opened her eyes to watch the bard's face as continued to stoke her with her tongue. Gabrielle's eyes had closed, her breath was coming in gasps, punctuated with the whispering of Xena's name. She watched closely as she brought her hand down, circling the opening that led inside her. Slowly, she entered her, being as gentle as she could until the pain left Gabrielle's face and a look of wonder replaced it. The look turned to ecstasy as Xena's speed increased and she matched the strokes of her tongue with the strokes of her hand. It was only a few minutes before Gabrielle's back arched, her hips bucked, and she fell back gasping.
"Xe..Xena....St..stop...I can't take anymore."
The warrior raised herself up to lay by her side, circling her nipples with the wetness on her hand. When she leaned in to kiss her, Gabrielle could smell her scent on Xena's lips and touched them slowly, tentatively, with her tongue. After her first taste, she smiled and looked into Xena's eyes. "What about you?"
"I'm fine, Gabrielle." Xena laughed tiredly. "In fact, I'm perfect." She wrapped her arms around the bard and pulled her close to her chest.
"But, I want to-"
"Shhh." Xena placed her still damp fingers against Gabrielle's lips. "Enough time for that later. I'm not going any where," She tightened her embrace. "And neither are you. Rest, get your strength back." Her smile lit up the darkness. "Trust me, you're going to need it."
Gabrielle let go of sleep slowly, opening her eyes to a sky still dark blue with the receding night. She could smell water on the softly blowing wind, and it helped her to remember where she was. With a long sigh, she ran her fingers through her hair and thought about her dream. Her dream where Xena touched her gently, covering her with the softness of her lips...
It took her a few moments to realize that the coolness she felt was the breeze caressing her naked skin. Her eyes widened slightly and traveled to the pallet she was laying on. Buried beneath a blanket, she saw a few locks of dark chestnut hair falling across a beautiful forehead. Her heart began to pound in her chest as she accepted the fact that her dream had been real. That Xena had bathed her and made love to her in the moonlight.
"I'm not a virgin anymore." She whispered softly, smiling at the absurd pleasure she got in being able to say those words. "You were my first."
With a tenderness born of the love in her heart, she leaned down and briefly touched her lips to Xena's, running a finger across her cheek before rising to throw a log on the fire. She felt a strong rumbling in her stomach and looked at the spit where a black lump was still hanging. With a soft laugh, she threw it into the bushes for the wolves and searched through their packs for food. She found only a few sticks of dried meat and looked at them without enthusiasm. A morning such as this deserved a feast, she thought, not the dried remnants of some animals carcass. Digging further, she found her knife and placed it into the groove she had cut in her staff, tying a leather thong around it to hold it in place. She also found the roots Xena liked to make into tea, and set them in a pan with some water to steep while she was gone.
That done, she pulled on Xena's tunic and headed down to the river, using the same path the warrior had used the night before, now made visible by the pale light. When she reached her destination, she laid down on the riverbank, supporting her body with her elbows so that she could turn her face up to the approaching sun. Closing her eyes, she thought about the tunic she was wearing and the woman who had worn it the night before. When Xena had returned from the river, there had been something in her eyes, something...reachable. And somehow, her body had known it. She'd had no knowledge of sex, or what to expect, but what had happened had exceeded even her dreams. She thought back to the many dreams she had had of her friend, the first few had been images of herself saving the warrior's life, of being useful. The other's had involved them growing closer, and Gabrielle gasped slightly as she realized that her dreams had mirrored her life, only her life had ended up surpassing them, taking Xena as a lover before she had in her sleep.
Her musings carried her way beyond dawn and she felt her fair cheeks begin to heat up in the morning sun. At least, she thought it was the morning sun. It might have been the last few thoughts that had run through her mind about her warrior and finding out what it might be like to make love to her, to touch her, to...taste her.
With a sigh, she stood and stripped off the now-beloved tunic, one she would surely weave a story around some day, and stepped slowly into the river. She was able to ignore the pain in her side until the cold water covered it, then she had to grit her teeth against the hard ache that ran through her body. After it had passed, she raised her staff and stood very still. Waiting a few minutes, she saw dark shapes begin to move around her feet. She let several of the shadows go by, knowing they would not be big enough and that she would probably only have the strength to do this once. She had just started to shiver when a large shape swam between her calves, grazing the skin on one of them with it's gill as it went. With a powerful downward stroke, she slammed the makeshift spear through it's body and into the sand underneath.
She smiled slightly, knowing it wasn't really the way Xena did it, but the result was the same, if you didn't count the hole. She tried to pull her staff up but the pain in her side prevented her. With a frown, she grabbed the fish by the tail and dragged it out of the river with her left hand. Reaching the bank, she laid on the sand and allowed the sun to dry her skin. When most of the moisture was gone, she slipped the tunic over her head and went about cleaning the fish. After removing the skin, bones, and anything that resembled innards, she had two very large filets, which she wrapped in leaves and headed back to camp. Along the way, she found herbs growing wild and picked the ones she would need, being careful to only take the leaves so that the plant itself would continue to flourish.
She was surprised to find Xena still asleep when she reached the fire. Usually by this time the warrior princess was up polishing her armor or drinking her tea. Gabrielle took pride in that, hoping she had some part in her being so tired. She sprinkled the herbs onto the fish and re-wrapped them, setting them in the fire to cook. The green leaves would keep the meat from burning while the herbs gave it flavor. A wonderful aroma filled the air and she had just finished making Xena's tea when the warrior finally awoke.
Gabrielle smiled when Xena looked just as confused as she had felt that morning. She laughed out loud when the warrior looked under the blanket at her own naked body. "It was real." Her look became tender. "It was too wonderful to be a dream."
"I'm glad you think so too." She stretched, as immodest as ever, and Gabrielle felt as though her eyes were unable to move from the soft, tan skin that rippled over the warriors muscles. Xena reached out and flipped Gabrielle's hair, which had come in dangerous proximity to the fire, back over her shoulder. With a grin, she teased, "Let me get dressed before you burn off something we both might miss."
The bard flushed and looked away, a guilty smile playing on her lips. She still watched the warrior out of the corner of her eye as she looked around for her tunic and then realized that Gabrielle had it on. "Well, I don't think I am going to fit in your clothes, Gabrielle."
"Find something, because you're not getting this back."
"Really?" The warrior's eyebrow arched. "How many dinars do you want to bet that I'll be able to wrestle it off of your body?"
Gabrielle swallowed. "I didn't know you could wrestle..."
"I have many skills."
The lecherous look on Xena's face made Gabrielle laugh. "All right, you can try after breakfast. Here, put this on for now." She pulled one of the Warrior's older shirts from her pack and threw it to her.
"Hmph." Xena looked at it for a few moments before smiling and tugging it on. "What smells so good?"
"Fish!" Gabrielle smiled proudly. "I caught it this morning. While YOU were asleep!"
The smile she had expected did not come, instead there was a look of anger. "You went fishing? While I was asleep? Gabrielle, do you have any idea how dangerous that was?"
"It wasn't that dangerous," The bard shook her head. "There isn't anyone around here for miles."
"I'm not worried about people, Gabrielle." The warrior advance on her and Gabrielle sat back on her heels. "What about animals? Snakes? What if you passed out and drowned?" She knelt next to the bard and pulled her tunic up to examine the wound. "What if this gets infected? Have you cleaned it since you went in the river?"
The bard looked at the ground. "No."
Xena sighed softly and stroked the younger woman's drying hair. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle. I know you meant well. But water can carry sickness, especially if gets into an open wound. Let me clean it for you..."
"After breakfast?" She asked hopefully. "I'm really hungry. In case you forgot, neither one of us got to eat last night."
The warrior smiled. "All right. You win. After breakfast."
Gabrielle brightened and pulled her into a sitting position. She poured tea into two mugs from her pack and used the end of her staff to push their meal out of the fire. Opening the leaves carefully, she slid the fish onto a rock and broke a hunk off, holding it up to Xena's mouth. "Try it."
The warrior bent forward and took the morsel, closing her lips around the bard's fingers in the process. Gabrielle held her breath until her fingers were released and then swallowed hard. "G-good?" Her voice shook.
"Very." Xena nodded and fed a piece to Gabrielle. "You've outdone yourself. Thank you." She added after a moments thought.
"You're welcome." She looked at the warrior and smiled. "Anything for you."
Xena looked up quickly but Gabrielle had gone back to eating. She had been unprepared for her reaction to the bard's words. She'd had no time to think. No time alone. She felt a panic start in her stomach and had to stare at the ground to calm herself. The oddest thing was, it was not an altogether unpleasant feeling. She ate the last few pieces of her meal quickly and sat back to sip her tea and watch the younger woman brush her hair.
"Would you like me to brush your hair, Xena?"
"No. I..." She sat her cup down. "Would you like me to brush yours?"
Gabrielle's jaw dropped slightly. "Really?" Her smile was enough to light up all of the dark places in the warriors heart, enough to make her think that maybe, just maybe, she had a chance at being happy. But then, she had been happy for a while now. Ever since she had saved this annoying little bard...
"I'll try it." She moved behind Gabrielle and pulled the brush from her hand. "Tell me if I'm hurting you. I don't have a lot of practice."
Gabrielle sat patiently as Xena began to brush her hair, her heart filling with wonder when she felt those strong hands tremble against her neck. After a few minutes, the brush stilled and she felt Xena's lips against her head.
"Gabrielle..." Her whisper was hoarse, needful.
Turning around she met the warrior's hungry lips with her own, parting them so that Xena's tongue could taste her mouth. She let herself be lowered to the ground, running her hands under Xena's shirt and pulling it over her head. Her own tunic disappeared in the tangle of arms as the warrior caressed her body. Lips touched her cheek, her throat, trailed over her breasts, but did not stop until they reached the place they wanted to be.
Xena's tongue slid over Gabrielle's clit, taking the small nub in her mouth, grazing it very lightly with her teeth. While her mouth worked there, her fingers trailed down and slid inside. There was no pain this time, only a steadily building wave of pleasure that started in her feet and traveled up her body until she thought the top of her head would come off. Her hips moved of their own accord, pushing her harder against Xena's tongue and her fingers, which had curled inside of the bard and found a high, slick spot that threatened to rob her of her senses. Without thought, Gabrielle's hands came up and wound themselves through Xena's hair. Unable to speak, they showed the warrior where and held her there until her vision blackened and her heart felt as though it would stop. An echoing cry broke from her lips and scared the birds from the trees. Panting, she pulled her lover's head away and collapsed back onto the ground.
"That...that was fast." She whispered.
"Well, you're new." Xena smiled as she traveled up the bard's body to lay in her arms.
Gabrielle laughed weakly and kissed her. The taste and scent of her mouth tore through her senses, sending her hand wandering down the warriors side.
Xena caught it in her own and pulled it back up between them. "Time enough for that later." She kissed Gabrielle one last time and then moved away. "It's well beyond morning. We need to clean your wounds and get moving. We'll need some salve from Atwir, to make sure you don't get an infection, and I need to..." She looked at the bard, an unreadable expression on her face. "I'm going to take a bath," She smiled. "I need it. I'll bring back water for you too."
Gabrielle watched her go, confusion apparent on her face. Her heart and mind were warring with each other, one trying to piece together what had just happened, while the other was lost in the feelings and emotions running rampant in her young body. She loved Xena. Xena had to love her too, she felt it whenever the warrior's hands touched her body.
"It's just going to take some time." She said to herself. "Give her some time."
Laying back, she studied the sky and waited, thinking she had been doing a lot of that lately.
An hour later they were on the road. Xena had broken camp quietly, packing everything together and strapping it to Argo without saying a word. She had insisted that Gabrielle ride the horse, to save her strength, and walked beside her, navigating Argo around the many rocks and holes in the road. Gabrielle watched her, wondering what was going on in her mind. Xena had never been the talkative type, but this was too much silence, even for her. "What's wrong?" She felt her heart leap into her throat when Xena's clear blue eyes turned in her direction. She choked back her fear and whispered, "Do you regret it, Xena?"
"No, Gabrielle." The warriors voice seemed very tired. "I don't regret it. I'm just...thinking." She turned her gaze back to the road, but not before Gabrielle had seen the look in her eyes.
She could have sworn it was sadness.
You said you would give her some time remember? Gabrielle chided herself. "How long before we reach Atwir?"
"We'll be there by tonight." She looked up at the bard and sighed. "I was thinking about you, Gabrielle. About when you died."
Gabrielle was speechless for a moment, but that didn't last long. "Hypocrites said that you cried. Is that true?"
Xena laughed quietly. "I don't think 'cried' is exactly the word for what I did." She pulled off her Chakram and tied it to Argo. She didn't really have a reason to, but her hands needed the busy work. They kept trying to reach for the bard. "I raged, Gabrielle. I think I would have destroyed the temple, if you hadn't come back."
"Really?" Gabrielle's eyes were wide.
Xena nodded. "I don't know....I guess I had never thought of you...being gone. I mean really gone. I wasn't ready for that. I don't ever want to be ready for that."
Gabrielle reached down and touched the warriors cheek, feeling her heart ache when Xena closed her eyes and leaned into her palm. She didn't pull back until Argo stumbled slightly. With a sigh, she grabbed onto the saddlehorn as Xena turned her attention back to the road. "I guess we should talk about it later, when we reach Atwir."
The warrior nodded. "I've heard there's a good inn there." She smiled up at her. "They have a performance area. I believe they have a tournament this time of year."
"For bards?" Gabrielle's voice filled with excitement. "Do you think I could...?"
"Well, you're certainly good enough. I won't try to stop you, as long as you promise not to tire yourself out."
"I promise!" Her smile was that of a child. No, Xena corrected herself. Her smile was that of a beautiful young woman, confident of her talent.
Xena laughed and quickened their pace. "We'll see."
The air had just begun to cool with the approaching evening when they entered the Village of Atwir. Gabrielle turned her head from side to side, looking into each of the open storefronts that lined the main pathway and smiled in delight. She looked down and caught Xena watching her, an indulgent grin on her face.
"What's so funny?"
"Nothing...nothing," The warrior looked like she wanted to laugh. Slowing her pace, she moved behind the horse. "I just want to get out of the way in case you decide to ride Argo in to shop."
Gabrielle laughed in spite of herself, "Very funny. But you don't have to worry. All I want right now is a hot bath and a soft pallet."
"That's all, huh?" One of Xena's eyebrows quirked up and a sensual smile played briefly on her lips.
Gabrielle blushed to the roots of her hair, bringing another soft laugh from the warrior. "Sorry." She grabbed onto the saddlehorn with nervous hands. "I guess I'm not used to you looking like that...about me.." Her voice was so filled with gentle wonder that it made Xena's heart ache. Without thinking, she reached up and touched the bard's leg lightly. The smile she earned with that one small touch felt like sunlight after a cloudy day.
A second later, her face went cold and her hand dropped to her side. For a moment, Gabrielle thought she had done something wrong, until she followed Xena's gaze as it passed her and settled on three men coming towards them. They had been looking at the bard with unsettling appreciation, an appreciation that turned businesslike when Argo turned away from them and they caught sight of the warrior.
Xena gave them one, discouraging glance before turning to Gabrielle. "Go on ahead to the inn. Find someone to talk to, preferably someone big, and wait for me." Before the bard could speak, she slapped Argo on the flank, pushing her lightly in the direction of the inn. It was all Gabrielle could do just to hang on.
She didn't watch her go, but instead leveled a steady gaze on the advancing men and shifted her scabbard lower on her back, making it easier to reach her sword. They wore the insignia of some lesser army, but she knew them for what they really were, mercenaries....willing to sell themselves to any cause, as long as they were paid.
When they were within ten feet of her, two of them hung back while the third advanced, an ingratiating smile on his face. She didn't move or flinch as his eyes raked over her in a vulgar display of interest, but something in her eyes went stony, and it caught him dead in his tracks less than three feet away. He cleared his throat and squared his shoulders, whether for her benefit, or the benefit of his men, she didn't know. "Warrior." He inclined his head slightly in greeting, hardly able to lift his eyes above her chest. "I'd like to discuss...business."
"Business?" Xena smiled coldly, one eyebrow arching up into her bangs. "What business would that be?"
"The blonde," The soldier continued, too dumb to have seen the look of warning. But then, he hadn't been watching her face. "How much?"
"How much for what?" The smile left her face and her jaw clenched reflexively.
"A night, a week," His face brightened as he finally looked up. "Unless you're willing to sell her outright. I could offer you a handsome sum."
Xena stared into his eyes as the smile returned to her lips. "I'll tell you what...uhm," She cocked her head to one side. "What did you say your name was?"
"Well, Kyldus, I'll make you a deal." She shifted her body into a fighting stance. "If you can kill me, you can have her."
The mercenary's jaw dropped slightly, then lifted into a feral grin. "All right, girl, if that's the way you want it."
"Wouldn't have it any other way." She stood her ground as he advanced, pulling his sword from its scabbard as he came. They circled each other for a few moments before he shouted and raised the sword above his head for a powerful downward blow that never hit it's mark. He sliced into empty air as Xena launched herself over his head, flipping in midair to come down hard on the back of his neck. She felt bones crunch beneath her boots, then flipped on final time to face the other two men coming towards her. They didn't think before they attacked, they simply ran straight for her, swords outstretched, each hoping to impale the warrior before she could get into the air again.
Xena obliged them, standing with a smile on her face, hands outstretched and beckoning. At the last moment, she jumped straight up, kicking out with both legs in time to catch each of them in the face. They were both face down in the dirt by the time she touched the ground.
"Hmph." She snorted and strode over to their leader. With a quick jab of her fingers, she shoved his vertebrae back into position and slapped him awake. He looked up at her with a mixture of fear and respect, not to mention a good dose of hate. "Now listen to me, little man." She ripped the insignia from his shoulder and held it up in front of his eyes. "The name's Xena," she waited as his eyes went wide. "The girl is not for hire, the girl is not for sale, and you can't win her. So, if I ever see you near her, if I ever even see you look at her from a hundred paces away, I will destroy your lord's entire army, and place the debt on you." She waved the scrap of leather in his face. "Then I'll watch as they flay your carcass." She smiled. "Do we have an understanding?"
Kyldus nodded, wincing as his damaged spine ground against itself.
"Good." Xena tucked the symbol into her bodice. "Now get out of here." She looked at the other men, who were just beginning to stir. "And take your trash with you." She slammed him into the ground and walked away without a backwards glance.
Walking as slowly as she could, Xena willed herself to calm down. Gabrielle hadn't been hurt, but the rage she felt burned as deep as when Marcus had died. She realized with a start that the bard had stolen more than her heart, she had taken her soul as well.
By the time she could see the inn, her heart had ceased it's pounding and she was able to force a smile onto her lips...a smile that quickly died when she caught sight of Gabrielle. The bard's back was turned to her as she conversed with a lovely young woman, a barmaid by the look of her. She tried to swallow the sour taste in her mouth, but felt it strengthen when the woman placed a hand on Gabrielle's arm, laughing and pointing towards the inn. An instant later the maid swallowed hard, having caught sight of Xena and the look on her face. Waving goodbye to Gabrielle, she hurried off.
The bard turned, a confused look on her face, then smiled when she saw the warrior. "Xena!" She called. "I'm glad you're okay. Did you have much trouble?"
"No." She said simply. "I thought I said 'someone big'."
"Yes, well," The bard's smile was bright. "Delphi found me sitting out here. There was no one else around, and since her father owns the inn, I thought I would be pretty safe with her."
Xena snorted and looked at the sign above the tethering post. "Inn of the Three Daughters." She shook her head. "Stupid name for an inn. Did you meet the rest of the daughters?"
Gabrielle looked at her in confusion, unable to understand the hostility in her lover's voice. "No...no. There aren't any other daughters. Delphi said that her father thought Inn of The Daughter was a pretty dumb name, so he did the best he could."
"Oh...Delphi said, did she?" The warrior turned to pull their bags from Argo, knowing she was being unreasonable, but not really caring at the moment.
Gabrielle stared at Xena's forbidding back for a few moments, and then decided on a lighter approach. "She said there are rooms available at the inn." She came around the warrior to smile up into her face. "Should I get one or two?"
Xena looked down at her, her face made of stone. "Whatever we can afford."
The bard's jaw dropped as the warrior went back to tending her horse. Without another word, she headed inside. Once she had gone, Xena's shoulders slumped and she leaned her head against Argo's neck. "What in Hades did I do that for?" Argo snorted in reply. She didn't understand it either. Xena reached down to grab their packs, but another hand beat her to them. She looked up into clear green eyes and had to bite back a hostile remark as Delphi stood, shouldering their supplies.
"My father sent me to get these." Her tone was cool, but nothing more. "I'll send the boy out to stable your horse. We don't expect guests to do those things. Please, follow me." She walked back to the inn without waiting to see if Xena would follow or not. After a few moments, she did.
The mood inside the inn was surprisingly pleasant. It was brightly lit, and looked fairly clean, the benches and tables were flat and smooth from years of polishing, and the fireplace was free of old ashes and the other debris that usually littered the hearth in such places. Xena didn't kid herself though. She recognized several of the faces behind mugs of mead as dangerous men who would attack without provocation. After a final glance into the common area, she looked towards the bar, surprised to find Gabrielle looking down into a flagon of ale. Moving to her side, she touched her lightly on the shoulder and smiled, trying to hide her embarrassment when she turned around. "Gabrielle, I-"
"I could only get one room." The bard lied. They had five rooms open, but she'd be damned if she'd let Xena get away with this. "I'm afraid you'll have to share it with me."
"I'm not afraid of that." The warrior smiled and reached for her hand.
Before she could grab it, Delphi was standing between them. "We've taken your tuck up to your room." She smiled at them both, but Gabrielle in particular. "We're drawing water for your baths and laying clean sheets. If you would like, we will gladly serve you evenmeal while you're waiting."
Xena gave her a look of pure ice but nodded, allowing the barmaid to lead them to a table in the far corner. Putting her back against the wall, Xena stared out into the room as Gabrielle took her seat.
"Will there be bards tonight?" she asked Delphi.
"Unfortunately, no. Our local bard was injured in a riding accident yesterday." She looked Gabrielle up and down with an appreciative eye. "You look like the bardly type. Perhaps you could..."
"Bardly?" Xena whispered to herself. "That's not a real word."
Gabrielle ignored her and smiled. "I am a bard. I'm rather tired though. Maybe tomorrow night."
"Good timing. The competition starts tomorrow."
"Could we get some food?" Xena interrupted.
"Of course." The barmaid grinned. "We have salt pork, mutton, and a nice lamb stew. There are vegetables, fruit, and bread too." She glance at the warrior. "You look like the hungry type. I'll bring a bit of everything." With a lilting laugh, she headed off to the kitchens.
She knows, Xena thought to herself. Damn her.
The warrior dragged her attention to the young woman before her. "What Gabrielle?"
Xena shook her head. "I don't know." She realized what a poor answer that was and quickly looked into the bard's eyes. "You have to be careful, Gabrielle. There are people who will want you...and they won't be nice about it."
"Like those men at the market?" Her eyes sparkled in the candlelight and Xena found it very distracting.
"Exactly like those men in the market. They saw a piece of property they might like to own." She touched the bard's cheek lightly. "I don't want you to get hurt, Gabrielle."
As if on cue, a large, foul smelling man stepped up to their table, draping an arm around the small blonde and breathing rancidly into her face. "Hello girlie. What's say you and me have a good time?"
"I say.." Xena began to rise but was stopped in her tracks when a pan met quite solidly with the back of the ruffian's skull, sending him sprawling over their table. She stared down at him in shock and then up into the Delphi's laughing green eyes.
"Mendices!" The barmaid called to a giant of a man who was lounging in the corner. "Get rid of this dung. And, before he steps foot in this Inn again, make sure he knows the rules."
Mendices nodded and grabbed the would-be Romeo under the arms, dragging him from the inn. After a few moments, she heard the sound of a body landing in a water trough.
"Sorry 'bout that." Delphi reached behind her and took their food from a servant. Setting the platters in front of them, she sent Xena an amused glance before heading off to tend bar. The warrior watched after her for a few moments before starting to pick at her food. After a few bites, she realized she had lost her appetite and settled back to watch Gabrielle eat everything she had been given, and most of what was one her plate as well.
"Aren't you hungry?" She managed between bites of food.
"Not at the moment." Xena drawled. "maybe later."
"In that case..." Gabrielle took the bread and salt pork from her plate, as well as the fruit, and stuffed them into her pouch. "I'll save it for you until you want it."
Xena felt her heart soften with that one small gesture. She had just reached out to touch her again, when Delphi slammed two mugs down between them.
"Can I get you anything else?" She asked sweetly.
"No!" The warrior's tone was firm as she stood and pulled Gabrielle to her feet. "We'd like to go to our room now."
Delphi looked down at the bard, waiting for her to nod her acquiescence before leading them up the stairs and leaving them at their door.
Xena slammed through it and then slammed it behind them. "Go ahead and bathe. I'll wait till your done." She started to unbuckle her breastplate, brushing Gabrielle's hands away when she tried to help.
"What is wrong?" The bard's tone was demanding.
"What's wrong?" Xena repeated, looking down at the back and breastplates in her hands. "What's wrong?" With a laugh that turned into a fierce cry, she hurled the armor at the far wall, shattering a small mirror that had been hanging there.
Gabrielle took a step back, frightened. "Xena?"
The warrior's mouth made a perfect 'O' as she stared at what she had done. "Oh, Gabrielle, I'm sorry." She looked at the bard and felt her heart shrink in her chest, She thinks I'm going to hit her! "Please don't look at me that way. I will never hit you."
Gabrielle relaxed slightly, reaching out to touch her arm. "Can you tell me what's wrong?"
"No." She whispered. "Well, aside from Delphi."
"Delphi?" Gabrielle looked confused. "What about her?"
"I see the way she looks at you Gabrielle. I know how much she...wants you."
"Wants ME?" The bard tried to remember any specific look or words and couldn't. "She's just being friendly."
"Yeah, a little too friendly." Xena sighed. "You just don't see it."
'Well, what if I did? What difference does it make? The way I see it, loyalty would have to do with me, not her. Are you worried that I might..."
"Gabrielle.." She placed a hand on her arm.
"That's it isn't it? You're worried that I'm going to want to be with someone else." She brushed the warrior's hand off as a hurt look crossed her face. Hurt and anger. "Is that how little you think of me?
"Well, I think it is." Gabrielle's face flushed. "For your information, I've had lots of chances to be with people, and still do, but I never have. I wanted to be with you."
Xena's ears heard nothing but that one phrase, 'and still do'. Her eyes squeezed shut as a hand closed around her heart, crushing it within her chest. "You still do, huh? Like Delphi I suppose?"
Gabrielle felt tears form in the corners of her eyes. "Yeah...I guess so..."
"So why are you here?" Xena felt each word like a knife in her heart. Oh well, she thought. Hell and too late to go back now. "Get out of here. Go find someone you can touch. Go on!!" She shoved the bard towards the door.
Gabrielle pressed one hand to her mouth, trying to keep herself from sobbing. With a strangled cry, she threw the door open and fled.
Xena sat very still, waiting for the ache in her heart to pass. When it didn't, she sighed and went about removing her boots. By the time she had removed the second guard, she was regretting everything she had said and done. Throwing them onto the bed behind her, she opened the door and looked down the hallway. Gabrielle's name died on her lips.
At the far end of the hall, she could see them. Delphi had her arm around the bard, trying to talk to her as the blonde's small frame shook with her tears. After a few moments, she placed a small kiss on Gabrielle's brow and led her into a nearby room. Xena was rooted where she stood until she heard the bolt catch, then a frightening anger swept through her. She slammed her armor back on, strapping on her sword and chakram as she slid into her shin guards. Throwing open the window, she dropped onto the ground below, not trusting herself to walk through the riffraff gathered in the common room. She sent one hurt filled glance towards the room Gabrielle had entered, and then went silently into the night, her heart raging as her long legs ate the distance beneath them.
"I...d-don't understand." Gabrielle's voice caught as she paced back and forth, tears streaming from her eyes. Delphi took her by the shoulders and tried to steer her towards the bed, but the bard was too worked up. Feeling the flushed skin of her own face, she walked over to the window and threw it open, wanting to feel the coolness of the night air. Glancing down, she saw the pale oval of a face looking up at her, and the brief look of pain that flashed across it. "Xena!" She yelled, leaning further out. But the warrior was already gone, the softly swaying bushes the only evidence she had been there at all.
Gabrielle felt a surge of panic run through her and started to climb out of the window before she noticed Argo being led into the stables by one of the inn workers. With a sigh, she glanced in the direction that Xena had gone. She didn't like anything that had happened, but at least she knew she'd be back. Wiping her eyes, she turned back to Delphi. "Thanks." She tried to smile. "I really appreciate you listening to me."
"Hey," Delphi touched her gently on the arm and smiled, making Gabrielle wonder if Xena had been right after all. "I just want to help you."
Gabrielle looked up at her with shy eyes. "Is that all?"
"Well," The barmaid sighed and slumped onto the bed. "That wasn't all, not at first. When I saw you outside, you looked so sweet, and so lost. I thought it might have been nice to...well...you know." She ran her hands through her hair, and then pulled at the chain around her throat, rubbing her fingers against the symbols carved into it. "And then I saw your big friend, and well, I thought she had purchased you or had taken you by force. Especially because of the way she was acting. Now I know I was wrong. The way I acted was wrong. I have a husband," She hung her head slightly as though she was ashamed of herself. "I love him very much, but he's away fighting with his lord and I take a lover from time to time. Always women, it's simpler that way. But I never considered that a woman could truly love another woman. I was wrong." She touched Gabrielle's face lightly. "I know all of this is my fault. Tell me how I can help."
Gabrielle smiled at her. "Well, I am flattered." She sniffled. "But I would have said no. I do love her, Delphi."
"I know." she smiled. "I can see it in your eyes...when they're not swollen that is."
"But I don't think it was all your fault. You made her jealous, yes, but..." Gabrielle chewed her lower lip.
The bard stood and began to pace again. "She said something strange. She said for me to go and find someone that I could touch."
"You've never touched her?" Delphi's eyes grew wide in disbelief.
"Oh, well," Gabrielle stammered. "I've touched her...but I guess I haven't ever REALLY touched her. Not like...well, not like that."
"I don't know." She sat down heavily. "Every time I tried, she either told me to rest or...well..." She blushed again.
"You're too easy, Gabrielle." Delphi laughed. "You'd never last a minute working in a tavern! But you are right about one thing, there's more to this than jealousy." She put her arm around the bard and squeezed with friendly affection. "Still, there's nothing you can do until she decides to tell you what is going on. No sense in making yourself sick about it."
"What else am I going to do?" She smiled half-heartedly.
The barmaid got an evil gleam in her eye. "I have an idea..." She grabbed Gabrielle by the hand and pulled her up.
"Uh...Delphi?" A timid half smile played on her lips. "Whatever it is, it's not going to make Xena angrier...is it?"
"Well," Delphi said matter of factly. "That depends on how she feels about sharing you."
She laughed out loud at Gabrielle's look of horror as she dragged her out of the room.
Everything was out of focus, the forest, the ground. Everything seemed darker as well, although she knew that was just a trick her eyes were playing on her. No wonder, there wasn't a drop of moisture left in them. She had been running for almost an hour, crying softly the whole way. With a bone rattling sigh, she pulled up short beside a huge oak tree. Laying her hands against it's trunk, Xena tilted her head back and screamed her rage at the now-full moon. It did nothing to ease the ache in her chest, only serving in making her throat hurt as well. She tried to tell herself that most of the ache was over exertion, but she knew better. That kind of ache had a peace to it. This ache was the worst she had ever known.
Running her hands over her face, she shoved them into her thick, chestnut hair, yanking it back severely and tying it into a ponytail with a piece of rawhide. When she pulled her hands away, she studied them in the moonlight, remembering how they had looked against Gabrielle's fair skin., how they had had trembled beneath the bard's gentle gaze. With a small cry, she slid down the tree to sit in the dirt, her knees drawn up, her chin atop them. She had been a beast, she knew that. She had treated Gabrielle as though everything was her fault when, in fact, none of it was.
She turned her face up to the moon and thought about her options. She could leave, take Gabrielle back to Poteidaia, or better yet, Athens, and continue on alone. Not an appealing idea. Or, she could keep Gabrielle with her and just take their relationship back they way they had come. They could go back to being friends. She snorted. Yeah, right. There was one thing she had to do, no matter what else followed. She had to tell her the truth. She would wait a little longer, until she was done....with whatever. The thought of what the 'whatever' might be sent a bolt of pain through her chest. She closed her eyes to allow it to pass and felt a searing pain shoot through her arm, accompanied by an angry grunt.
She was on her feet in an instant, senses alert, eyes aware of her surroundings. There was nothing but the wind and the nightbirds. With a grimace of pain, she twisted to examine her arm. There was a long gash above her left elbow. It wasn't very deep, but it bled well. She was reaching for a needle from her pouch when the grunting came again and something slammed into her legs, knocking them from beneath her. Flat on her stomach, she looked up to see the creature that had attacked her.
It was an enormous boar, with tusks well over a foot long, standing at least four hands tall. It looked at her with wild, feral eyes and charged again. She reach up quickly and grabbed it by the tusks, struggling to rise to her knees as the animal squealed and twisted in her grip. Something about the animal brought out her rage again, and she fought back with a strength that surprised her. She felt no remorse for her anger, as the animal was trying to kill her. Even when she had pushed his head back to the point of breaking it, he tried to lunge at her, gauging one of her hands with the tip of his tusk. With a final surge of strength, she pushed back all the way, hearing bone snap beneath her hands. She sat like that for a few moments, trying to calm the pounding in her heart, then released the creature, watching as it's head slumped onto the ground.
Xena stood slowly, wiping her hands on her leathers as she pulled the sword from her back. She ran a finger down the blade, testing it's sharpness as an idea formed in her mind. Raising her nose to the air, she inhaled deeply, smiling at the scent of water.
"Well," She whispered to the animal. "At least you won't have died in vain," She flexed her arms and began to slash at the fallen boar, cutting through fat and muscle to reach the organs beneath. She wrapped her prize in a piece of leather and wiped her blade on the animal's hide before sliding it into it's scabbard. "Thank you."
Tucking the package into her pouch, she ran towards the water. As she did, she felt her rage begin to resurface. But this time the rage was not directed at Gabrielle, nor was it directed at herself. This rage was for the Gods alone.
And one God in particular.
"Are you sure this is a good idea, Delphi?" Gabrielle asked skeptically.
The barmaid put an arm around her shoulders. "I think it is a wonderful idea." She started to pull her along and Gabrielle gave up struggling. After all, it was something that she wanted too.
Delphi didn't release her until they had reached the stage, then she deserted her, leaving her trying to smile down at a group of people who looked every bit as rough as any she had ever seen. She knew her worry showed plainly on her face and she didn't think she would be able to come up with a story when her heart was out in the darkness with Xena. She had just opened her mouth to apologize when a mocking voice came out of the crowd.
"Come on! Get the little girl off the stage, so a real bard can get up there." The man stood when several of his comrades started laughing. "Everyone knows girls can't be bards! All they want to talk about is flowers and love."
There was more laughter and Gabrielle steeled herself against it as a story surfaced in her mind. "Oh, you think so, do you?" She smiled. "Well, let me tell you a story that I not only know, it's a story that I lived as well." She waited until the room had quieted somewhat. "The forest was filled with a fine smoke, that smelled of burning wood and destroyed lives, as Xena and I made our way through the woods that make up the border between Thessaly and Mitoa-"
"Wait a minute!" The same man cut in. "Xena? The Warrior Princess? You must be joking! Everyone knows she's just a myth!"
"No, I'm not joking." Gabrielle stood as straight as she could. "And she's no myth. I was going to tell you how she saved a temple full of soldiers and stopped the Mitoan-Thessalean war, but if you don't want to hear it..." She started to leave the stage.
Her heckler was immediately grabbed by one of his friends and slammed down into his seat. "Be quiet, 'Tires. I want to hear this story." He looked up at Gabrielle with a smile. "I've wanted to hear it for a while now. I am Dophycles. My brother was in that temple. He said there was an incredible woman there, who saved his life. He also said that she traveled with a small blonde bard named Gabrielle. He tried to tell me what happened, but he was always a few apples short of a bushel, and the knock he took in that battle shook most of what sense he had left right out of him. Please, tell it."
She turned her head to the side to consider his request, then smiled when the rest of his group joined in the encouragement. "All right. But you have to listen." She looked pointedly at the heckler. "Otherwise you might miss something."
She almost laughed when they nodded in agreement. How very much like boys these men were. But then again, it was rare that she had met a man who did not act like a child in one way or another. "Okay, where was I? Oh, yes...that's right." She crouched slightly, extending her hands in front of her. "The air was filled with a fine, mist-like smoke that smelled of burning wood and destroyed lives. Xena and I were trying to make our way through the forest that separates Mitoa and Thessaly. The southern route would have been safer, but much longer. And, as you all know, Xena feels no fear. We had just outsmarted a group of ravenous Thessalean soldiers when we heard a moan off to our left..."
Delphi smiled as Gabrielle got into the story. The young bard was an incredible story teller, and an incredible woman. She sighed, pushing away her regret, and began to refill glasses.
Xena's rage carried her beyond the river and into a glade flanked by a row of tall trees. Her eyes darted from one side to the other until she found what she was looking for. With a dark grin, she headed towards the grove.
Her eyes had almost passed over it, only catching on the slight glimmer of the moons reflection on it's surface. "Give me water, grass and Trees," She mumbled under her breath. "And I'll find you an altar." She forced herself to slow to a walk, holding the precious bundle in her hands carefully.
The altar had been long forgotten, she could tell that much by the length of the grass. Another sign of it's abandonment was the irregularity of the blood marks. The grooves made by the athames had long ago been sanded down, by time or wind, or both, and the bloodstains had settled deep, creating an almost marbled appearance in the moonlight.
She brushed the leaves and dust away, and cut down the grass with her sword. Afterwards, she laid the sword lengthwise along the altar's top and opened the leather she had wrapped around the still-warm heart of the boar. She slid the bloodied mess along the blade of her weapon, and then set the heart down beside it. Xena frowned as she worked. She had always hated this foolishness, but the God's demanded what the God's demanded.
That done, she threw her head back and howled towards the waning moon, her voice taking on the eerie note of a dying wolf as it trailed into nothingness. Crossing her arms, she waited.
She didn't have to wait long.
A golden shimmer appeared behind the altar, strengthening until she was unable to look directly at it. She turned her head to the side until the flame was gone. When she could see again, a beautiful dark-haired woman stood before her.
"Well, well, well." The woman moved gracefully from behind the altar. "Xena, the Warrior Princess....whatever can I do for you?"
Her note of playful ignorance angered Xena, who curled her fingers into fists and tried not to lose her temper. "You know damn well what I want, Athena."
"Do I?" The God walked around her slowly, clucking as she took in the warrior's appearance. "Is it possible?" She laughed, a light, silvery sound. "That you are actually MORE attractive than the last time we met? When was that, Xena? How long ago?"
"Seven years." Xena's voice was flat, she didn't want to betray anything that she was thinking. "It's been seven years, Athena. It's been long enough."
"Has it?" The Goddess lost her playful tone as her anger got the best of her. "Do you think so?" She turned back towards the altar. "I don't."
"Wait!" The warrior grabbed her lightly by the arm, then pulled her hand back quickly at the jolt of power that stung her fingertips. "'I...I'm..."
"Don't tell me that you are trying to apologize!" Her lips quirked into a sneer. "Not you! Not the 'Warrior Princess'!" Her eyes narrowed in interest. "What's happened, Xena...have you gone and fallen in love?"
Xena knew she had flinched, her eyes had betrayed her. She steeled herself against the anger she expected to come.
But the goddess only laughed. "How fitting." Once again, she turned to go.
"You don't understand!"
The look in her eyes would have killed Xena, had it been a sword. "I don't understand?" The goddess advanced on her. "Wait..." Her eyes took on a faraway look and her tone got slightly sarcastic. "I remember the story you told me that night....after I had found you, after I had healed you." Her jaw tightened. "After I had allowed you to make love to me and lay spent in your arms, wanting only to touch you in return. You wouldn't let me, but instead told me this wonderful little story. About a girl...oh, what was her name? Anenome? Persephonon?"
"Asephony." Xena's voice was very low. "'Seph."
"Ah, yes." Athena grinned. "Asephony." She walked over to the altar and lifted Xena's sword, her hand absorbing the blood as she ran it along the blade. She looked at it thoughtfully before picking up the heart, which vanished in a tendril of smoke as she smiled thinly. "You cheated, Xena. That was not a wolf's heart."
"I know." She was getting tired of the goddess' banter. "I couldn't see wasting a perfectly good wolf."
"But a boar is fine?"
Xena shrugged. "It attacked me."
Athena nodded and, after taking a final look at the sword, threw it to Xena. "It's nice to see that you're still using it."
"My father did give it to me, Athena."
"Yes, but I blessed it. As did Ares." She laughed ruefully. "Poor Ares, he is so enchanted with you....and you...you would reject all the gods wouldn't you? But, that is not the point we are trying to get at, is it? Where were we? Ah yes, Asephony." She unstrapped her shield and let it fall to the ground, where the Gorgan's head that adorned it shined clearly in the moonlight. "I don't have to dress for this do I?" She didn't wait for Xena's answer. "So there I was, laying in your arms, my heart open to you," She pulled a silver thunderbolt from it's quiver on her back and threw it into the ground, causing the earth to shake. "And what did you do?" She shook her head. "You rejected me. And all because of some little human."
"She was not just some little human!" Bitterness crept into Xena's voice. "She was-"
Athena held up her hand. "Spare me," She threw her helm onto the ground. "You already told me. She was your light, she was your dream....she was your life..." She waved her hand in the air. "And she was enough to make you turn down the love of a goddess. Even though she was dead."
The warrior clenched her hands into fists again, feeling her short nails cut into the toughened skin, trying to steel her heart against the memories.
"She died because of you, didn't she?" The goddess smiled sweetly. "And even with all your skills and all your powers, you couldn't fix that...could you?" She waited until Xena shook her head. "Her family killed her....because she loved an unclean woman. There she was, all set to marry a prince, and then you come along, the dreaded warlord, stealing her heart and taking her virginity. What's a family to do?"
"Enough!" She placed the back of her hand against her mouth, trying to stave off the lump she could feel growing in her throat.
"But, Xena," The goddess touched her lightly on the cheek. "You're asking for my help. I need to make sure I remember everything...clearly." She slinked back to sit atop the altar. "You said you could never allow yourself to be loved by another woman, isn't that true?"
"Yes." She raised her eyes to meet the God's. "But that was a long time ago. Let me go."
"All I did was give you what you wanted." She smiled. "The enchantment doesn't even affect you, Xena. Only the woman who would dare go where a goddess was denied. None may live who attempt such a thing!"
"And I have lived by that," Xena said fiercely. "I have lived my life, content with the love of men even though it was never enough, knowing I could never love another woman the way I loved Asephony." She swallowed. "But I was wrong. "
"So," The goddess' face contorted into something between rage and laughter. "I was right. You have fallen in love." She placed a hand upon her chin. "Whoever could it be? That mousy little bard perhaps?" She laughed at the warrior's surprise. "Did you really think I would ever forget about you? I have watched you ever since that day, in one form or another. Did you think it coincidence that all you have loved, fell by the sword? Gabrielle will be no different." She waved a hand at her armor and it disappeared. "Goodbye, Xena."
"Wait!!" The warrior rushed forward. "Haven't you forgotten something?"
The goddess turned to look into Xena's smiling face, a frown upon her own. "What?"
"I called you and you came, I gave you sacrifice. You owe me an answer."
"You did not follow the rules, Xena." Athena protested. "That was not a wolf's heart."
"It doesn't matter," Xena smirked. "You accepted it. You came, even if it was just to gloat. By your own law, Athena, you owe me an answer."
The goddess growled, wondering where Xena had learned of the sacrificial oaths she had made to her favored subjects and that, whether she was angry with her or not, Xena was one of them. "Ask your question, insolent woman."
"How can I free myself from your curse?"
Athena laughed. "You cannot."
"Come on, 'Thena." She used the pet name that had always grated on the goddess, even when she had been in favor. "Every curse has a condition. Something that makes it work," She smiled, realizing her mistake. "Or not work. I will rephrase my question. How can I be freed?"
The goddess' face contorted in rage as she picked up her thunderbolt. With a snarl, she flung it into the trees, catching one dead center, causing it to burst into flames. "A pox on you, Warrior!" Her voice was malevolent.
"Answer the question."
Athena glowered, whispering through gritted teeth, "You would try to outsmart me? The goddess Athena? I sprang full grown and armored from my father's brow. I am the virgin goddess of war!"
Xena's left eyebrow lifted slightly at the mention of the word 'virgin' and Athena slammed her fist onto the altar, cracking it into two pieces.
"You..." She raised her fist, then dropped it slowly, knowing she could not kill her. Ares would not be happy, which, in turn, would anger Aphrodite. She cared little for Ares...his disdain for women did not make him a favorite. But Aphrodite...to anger the beautiful goddess was something she would not do. "All right." She turned her back to try and handle her anger. A mortal should not have this affect on a god.
When she had herself under control, she glanced back to Xena and smiled sweetly. "You must take what you do not want, from the one who would give you everything."
Xena's forehead furrowed in confusion. "What I do not want? I don't understand."
"That is not my concern, mortal." Athena began to fade. "I have given you your answer. The rest is yours to solve." She smiled. "Remember, Xena, I am a god. One day you will have to pay for your insolence."
It only took her a moment to fade away, leaving only the echo of her voice as proof she had been there at all. Xena found herself staring at the shattered altar. She looked briefly at her sword before putting it away and was surprised to find words etched along the blade where the goddess' hand had touched. It was in a language she did not know. She slid it into it's scabbard and headed back towards the inn.
She may not be able to read it, but Gabrielle surely could.
"...And so Marmax sent his men to stop the attack and take word to the Thessaleans that he would speak to them at last." Gabrielle finished the story with such passion that the room erupted in cheers. She blushed slightly and mumbled, "Thank you."
She started to leave the stage, accepting their praise with a smile, when Dophycles stood and blocked her way. "Wait." He took her hand and led her back to the center of the platform. "You left something out."
He nodded slowly. His voice was soft, but carried easily over the now still room behind him. "Your story matches what I could piece together from my brother's babbling, so I know you are telling the truth. But you left out one part of the story. The only part my brother could remember with any clarity, because it affected him so profoundly." He released her hand and sat down. "You died, Gabrielle. Isn't that where the story really ends?"
Every head in the room turned to Gabrielle, accompanied by the sound of breaking pottery as a mug slid from Delphi's hand. The barmaid gave up any pretense of cleaning up the shards and came around the bar to watch the Bard intently. "You died?" The words were flat, unbelieving.
Gabrielle studied their faces for a few moments before nodding and turning her attention to the floor. It was a long time before she looked up again. "Yes, I died. I left the temple to try and help a boy that had been left behind during a battle," Her face was red and Delphi thought her heart would break to look at this courageous woman, who would sing the praises of another, but never one about herself. "I was attacked by a Mitoan, I guess he thought I was the enemy, and I was wounded, here," She stretched to show the wound she had been hiding beneath the top of her skirt. "And here." She pointed to an angry red line at the base of her neck. "I died right after Marmax declared the war over, and sent his men to stop the killing." She looked out above their heads, staring at nothing. "I went to a place," Her eyes filled with wonder. "It was incredible. Every loved one I had ever lost to death, was waiting there for me. The sky was blue, the air was warm, and the smell of hyacinth was everywhere. They pulled me to them, and held me close,...and I knew the joy of the Elysian Fields." The memory receded and she looked at their faces. "It was beautiful."
"Why did you come back?" The voice belonged to Delphi. "How did you come back? Hades would never let you go."
Gabrielle laughed softly. "There are those on earth that even the immortals owe in one way or another." Her smile became private. "Through all the joy of the Elysian Fields, I heard something that touched my heart. I heard something more beautiful than the heaven I was standing in."
"What was it" Dophycles asked when the bard fell silent for a few moments.
"A voice." Gabrielle swallowed hard as her heart began to ache. "It was her voice. Screaming out for me not to go. And it was almost like...like.." She clenched her fist as she tried find the right words. "It was almost like I could hear her heart break," She looked up, but didn't see the tavern. Instead, her eyes saw Xena's face as it had come to her in the fields. "She was crying...for me to wake up." Her expression took on a far away look as memories that she shouldn't have had finally came to light. 'Don't you leave me! Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!'. She came back to the present and realized that she had said those words out loud. Every eye was one her. Every breath was held. "And then I was awake. My chest hurt horribly, lungs burning on the inside from lack of air, and body aching on the outside from her rage."
The crowd was silent, completely spellbound. Except for one. The one who hadn't believed her in the first place. 'Tires stood up. "You want us to believe that you left the Elysian Fields? To come here?" He looked around in disgust, his tone mocking. "Why would anyone do that?"
"Because," Gabrielle smiled down at him, her eyes soft. "She is the sun on my face after a long, cold night. She is the truth in my stories, the courage in my heart, and the hero in my dreams. She is my warrior, strong as ten men, who can hold me more gently than anything I have ever known. She is everything to me. The Elysian Fields paled next to that." Gabrielle took a deep breath. "And finally I knew. She cried for me. She raged for me....she needs me."
"The WARRIOR?" He laughed. "You're talking about Xena, aren't you?" He turned to his men and pointed at Gabrielle. "This worthless little bard would have us believe that the Warrior Princess needs her." His eyes swung back to her, full of contempt and a hatred that she didn't understand. "Why would a warrior need you?" He sneered. "Why would Xena cry for a useless thing like you?"
"Because she loves her." Came a voice from the back of the tavern.
All eyes turned to Delphi, who shook her head quickly and gestured to the area beneath the stairs, where the torch light didn't reach. A figure sat there, back against the wall, a slightly darker shape amidst the indistinct shadows.
The figure rose in silence, getting to it's feet without making the slightest sound. Every breath in the room was held as she stepped into the light.
There was no mistaking the thick, black mane, no denying the sky blue eyes. "Xena." She heard her name travel the room on the breath of a whisper, recognition striking fear and awe in even the most stalwart of the those present. She ignored their stares and headed to the stage where the bard still stood, quiet and unmoving. Her only thought was to reach her and take her somewhere private, somewhere they could talk.
Gabrielle watched her come, unable to move, paralyzed by the words she had just heard Xena say. At least, she thought the warrior had said them.
Xena had almost reached the platform when the idiot who had been taunting Gabrielle stepped out in front of her, blocking her path.
"The mighty Xena," He snickered. "Gone soft, eh? I heard you had become a do-gooder. Well, don't worry, I'll put you out of your misery...and then I'll see what's so...special...about your girl."
She didn't even blink as her fist slammed out, connecting with the side of his head before he could think to block it. His body crumpled without a word.
She moved her eyes to rest on Dophycles, some part of her wondering what he would do, but he merely smiled, nodding to himself in approval. "He's had it coming for a while now, Xena. I will not fight for a fool."
She nodded almost imperceptibly and dismissed him as harmless, and brought her attention back to Gabrielle. She reached the stage, looking up at pale blue eyes and strawberry hair. Without speaking, she held out her hand.
"What did you say?" The bard whispered.
Xena looked behind her, discomfort playing largely on her features. With a resigned sigh, she opened her mouth to speak, only to have Gabrielle still her lips with a finger against them.
"Don't." She smiled gently, understanding Xena's reticence. The Warrior Princess was not supposed to have emotions., to show them in public would be considered a weakness. "Later."
The warrior's relief was apparent in her eyes. "Please, Gabrielle. Come with me. We need to talk."
She nodded and Xena reached up, placing large, gentle hands around her waist, lifting her off the stage and to the floor. They left the tavern quietly.
Dophycles watched them go and then stood over his fallen comrade. He waved two others forward. "Dump him in the horse trough. Make sure he knows that he is no longer welcome to travel with us."
He waved to Delphi for another drink and sat down to think about Gabrielle's story.
Gabrielle studied Xena intently. They had been sitting like this, across from each other on the bed, but not touching, for the better part of an hour. The warrior had started to speak several times, only to shake her head in frustration and turn her eyes away. "What is it? Tell me."
The gentleness in her tone brought a smile to Xena's lips. Reaching out, she took the bard's hand and looked into her eyes. "I'm so sorry, Gabrielle. The things I said, they weren't fair. None of this is your fault." She pulled off her armbands and Gabrielle noticed the stitches near her elbow.
"What happened?" She leaned forward and saw blood hiding in the creases of her breastplate. "Xena, what happened to you?"
"I'm all right, Gabrielle. Just hear me out." She pulled off the breastplate, dropping it to the floor beside the bed with a quiet promise to herself that she would polish it as soon as she could. Her eyes followed it as she began. "Seven years ago, I was leading raids against the villages that lined the southern coast. We were working our way towards central Greece, destroying anything in our path." She untied her hair and brushed her fingers through it. "We came across a village there, nothing large, about the size of Poteidaia. It's name was Krylos."
Gabrielle looked confused. "I've studied a lot of maps, but I've never heard of that one."
Xena looked at the floor, the walls, anywhere but Gabrielle's eyes. "That's because it doesn't exist anymore."
The bard shivered involuntarily, and knew by the slight slump of her shoulders that Xena had scene her. The warrior didn't mention it though. She simply continued.
"I went ahead to scout the land, to find out if they had any defenses." She gave a short laugh. "They didn't even have doors on most of their buildings. But a village was a village." She swallowed, a look of pain on her face. "On my way out, I saw a young woman with a large pack stealing quietly down the back road, away from the town. I thought maybe she had seen my army and was running to get help, so I grabbed her and dragged her into the woods. By the time I stopped, she was shivering and crying. I don't know what came over me, but I actually felt bad for her. I started a fire and gave her some food. After she had eaten, she told me who she was, and what she was doing." She sighed. "Her name was Asephony. She was a beautiful girl, barely seventeen. Green eyes, red hair. Skin so fair it looked like fresh cream. She was small, a little smaller than you. And she was running away. It seems that her parents had promised her to a wealthy merchant in Athens, a man who had ties to royal blood. They called him a prince, a great exaggeration. I found out that he was the bastard child of a King's heir. Twice removed and barely recognized, but her parents believed his promises of wealth and prosperity. He was almost thirty years older, and had four other wives, all of whom had met a painful death when their replacement was found."
"That's horrible." Whispered the bard, caught up in the story. "Her parents wanted to send her into that?"
"People can do horrible things, Gabrielle, thinking that they have good intentions at heart." She touched her pale cheek with the tips of her fingers. "Asephony wouldn't have it. She was going to see the world..." Her words trailed off.
"I watched her talk, watched her smile and reached out to squeeze her arm. Before I knew what I was doing, I had taken her in my arms and kissed her. She fought me at first, but only for a moment. Then I heard her sigh and she gave herself to me willingly. We made love under the moon, and by morning she had my heart." Xena looked up quickly, frowning at the sadness in Gabrielle's eyes. She hadn't paid attention to what she was saying. "It was a long time ago, Gabrielle."
The bard nodded, not trusting her voice to speak.
"I took her back to her village, told her to tell everyone that the Warlord Xena was coming to destroy their lives unless I was given a tribute. And that the tribute I wanted, was her. The next day, I rode in, my entire army at my back. I went straight to her home and saw her leaning against a tree." Something changed in her as she spoke, as though angry thunderclouds were rolling across the sky blue of her eyes. "Only she wasn't leaning. She was tied there. Her eyes were wide open, staring at nothing, the blood on her dress still fresh. They had given me my tribute." She swallowed, her face closing down, lost in memory. "All I remember after that...is darkness, and blood. I razed the village, burned down every house, every barn, killed every man that was moving, and both of her parents. The rest of them, I sold to the mines. When we left that valley, the only sign that a village had ever been there, was a long, black trail of soot. It wasn't until that night, when my senses came back to me, that I realized I had been wounded. Someone had gotten a knife between my ribs, and it felt as though a piece of it was still in there. I went into the woods, and found the spot where I had known her, leaned against a tree and waited there to die. That was were Athena found me."
"Athena?" Gabrielle's eyes were wide. "THE Athena??"
"Yes," Xena pulled out her sword. "She is the Goddess of War, Gabrielle. She had followed my army for quite a while, it seems. She came with the face of Asephony, healing me while I made love to her. When my confusion cleared, I realized what she had done, and refused to let her touch me. It was then that she cursed me."
"Cursed you? How?"
"None may go where a goddess was denied. On penalty of death."
"So that's why...Why didn't you tell me?"
"It seemed so unfair," She took Gabrielle's face in her hands. "But when you died, I knew how much I loved you, and I do, Gabrielle. I love you. And I couldn't let you out of my life without showing you how much." She leaned forward and kissed her, a kiss of love and barely restrained passion.
When the broke apart, it took Gabrielle a moment to clear her head. "But, what happened to you tonight?"
"I went in search of Athena."
The bard's jaw dropped. "YOU called a god?"
"Yes." She laughed at her look of surprise. "Just because I don't think them wonderful, doesn't mean I deny their existence. She cursed me. She can release me."
"And?" She asked hopefully.
She laid her sword across Gabrielle's knees. "She gave me the answer. But it doesn't make sense. Can you read this, Gabrielle?"
The bard studied it for a moment, then nodded. "Part of it, anyway. 'You must take-'"
"I know that part," She interrupted.
"The rest is vaguely familiar, but there's something odd about it." She sighed in frustration. "I can't read it."
"It's all right, Gabrielle." She reached for the sword but the bard curled her fingers around it.
"It's my life, isn't it?"
Xena stopped cold. "Forget it Gabrielle." She warned.
"No, I won't forget it." She touched the first set of words. "'You must take what you do not want, from the one who would give you everything.' It's my life. Isn't it?"
"Gabrielle," Xena pulled the sword from her grasp and set it aside. "What does it matter? I won't do it. I won't let you do it. If all we can have, is what we have now...isn't it better than the alternative?"
"NO!" She felt panic rising in her throat and fought to keep control of it. "Come here."
Gabrielle moved into her arms, feeling warm breath against her neck as Xena's lips found the place where her pulse beat in time with her heart. She laughed softly as teeth nipped at her skin, and felt the marks rising that would claim her as Xena's. Once, she would have fought against any man who would try to own her in such a way. But she possessed Xena as well, she knew that every time she looked into her eyes.
She cried out softly as Xena trailed her lips down her chest, taking a nipple into her mouth through the thin fabric of her shirt. Pushing the warrior away, she pulled her clothing off and laid across the bed, her thighs parting slowly as blue eyes trailed over her fair skin.
Never moving her eyes from Gabrielle's, Xena untied her leathers and let them drop to the floor. The need she saw on Gabrielle's face was enough to make her knees go weak. She knelt over the smaller woman's body, straddling her hips until she could feel soft hair against her labia. Closing her eyes, she began to rock, pushing against the body beneath her., as small sounds escaped her lips.
Gabrielle watched Xena in wonder, her own breath coming in gasps at the feel of the woman on top of her. She could feel exquisite softness and delightful pressure each time Xena moved against her, and her hands reached up instinctively, only to be grabbed tightly when they were an inch from the warrior's breasts. She whimpered in frustration as she felt them being pulled back and pinned behind her head in one strong hand as Xena brought her lips down against her body.
Xena could feel Gabrielle's passion building and increased the speed of her hips. She could feel the pounding of the girl's heart, could hear her name on those sweet lips, and it pushed her over the edge. Her release flooded through her, causing spots to dance before her eyes as she cried out Gabrielle's name. Beneath her, her lover's body shook and finally lay still as well. She collapsed into loving arms, and was asleep in seconds, mumbling 'I love you' before sliding into darkness.
Gabrielle held her, her eyes overflowing with the love she could not contain. She felt as though this woman was her heart, and without her, she would cease to be.
How could she let her suffer?
She waited nearly an hour, until Xena's body had completely relaxed, and then slipped out from beneath her. She pulled on her skirt and top, then stood, looking down at her lover for a few moments.
"I love you, Xena." She whispered softly. Grabbing her lover's sword, she headed out the door.
Gabrielle looked up and down the hallway. Finding it empty, she slipped out of their room and closed the door behind her. The cold boards against her feet reminded her that she had forgotten her boots and she thought briefly about going back for them. With a shake of her head, she continued down the hallway, listening at each door. She heard Delphi's voice in the very last room. Taking a deep breath, she knocked softly and tried not to laugh when she heard panicked footsteps from within.
After a few moments, the door opened a crack to reveal one of Delphi's clear green eyes. It widened slightly and then narrowed as the door opened completely.
"Gabrielle!" She admonished. "You scared the wits out of me." She looked behind the bard, confusion apparent on her face. "What are you doing here?"
"I need to talk to you."
"Well, uh..." The barmaid looked behind her, into the darkness of the room.
"Please, Delphi." Gabrielle grabbed her arm. "It's important."
She studied Gabrielle for a few moments and then sighed. "All right, all right. Give me a minute."
"Hurry," The bard blushed. "I don't want-"
"Yeah, I know. You don't want Xena to wake up and find you lounging outside my door. One second." She closed the door and Gabrielle could hear heated words from the inside of the room. A moment later, the door flew open and a young woman stormed out, the surprise on her face matching Gabrielle's expression as she saw her in the hallway. Strawberry blonde, pale blue eyes, fairly athletic body. Gabrielle tried not to smile as she stormed away, throwing back a few hard words at the barmaid chasing after her.
"It's not like that, Ari! She's just a friend!" Delphi's shoulders slumped when she realized her lover was out of earshot. "Thanks a lot, Gabrielle."
"Sorry." She couldn't keep herself from smiling. "But I need your help."
Delphi noticed the sword she was holding and did a double take. "What's going on?" She grabbed Gabrielle's arm and pulled her into the room, closing the door softly behind her. "Tell me."
"I need to ask you a question." Gabrielle reached out, her hand going to the top of Delphi's breasts. The barmaid sighed when her fingers only curled around her necklace. "This symbol...what is it?"
Delphi looked down, thinking that the bard had lovely hands. She shook her head quickly and retrieved her charm from Gabrielle's grasp. "It's an old prayer stone." She turned it so she could study it. "My grandfather belonged to The Ursa."
Delphi nodded. "It was an ancient clan that worshipped Athena and Artemis. At one time, everyone in this valley was part of The Ursa."
"What happened?" Gabrielle leaned closer to study the amulet again. "I've never heard of them."
The barmaid smiled sadly. "The usual happened. There was an argument between two of the priests, one who favored Artemis, and one who favored Athena. As can be expected, the clan split in two, each side hating the other, even though they were the same people they had pledged to love and protect." She poured herself a glass of port and sat down on the bed. After a few sips, she continued, her voice soft. "They went to war, each side fighting for the honor of their God. A lot of people died, both men and women. In the end, the clan was so weakened that it couldn't survive. All that's left is the Temple that Artemis and Athena shared at one time. We still care for it, clean it and keep the torches lit. But no one goes to worship, no one goes to pray. To most of us, it's as dead as the clan."
"Who did your grandfather follow?"
"My grandfather was one of the few who did not choose sides. He tried to unify the clan, and was banned for his trouble. He spent the last ten years of his life trying to make people understand why the clan had failed.. He made me understand. He gave me this necklace. It is the symbol for peace in the Ursan prayer language."
Gabrielle laid Xena's sword in her lap. "Is this the same language?"
Delphi pulled the sword into the candlelight and ran her fingers across the blade. She turned questioning eyes up at Gabrielle. "Where did you get this?"
"The sword is Xena's. Athena placed the writing there. I was able to decipher the first part, it's just an odd version of ancient Greek." She pointed to the first verse. "'You must take what you do not want from the one who would give you everything.' But the rest-"
"That's not what it says." Delphi corrected her. "This word is not 'take'. It's actually 'accept'."
` "You must accept what you do not want from the one who would give you everything?" Gabrielle sighed in understanding. "She wanted Xena to think that she had to do it."
"Take my life."
Delphi stood quickly, the sword sliding to the floor with a clang. "What?!?"
Gabrielle tried to decide how much she should tell her. "Athena is angry with Xena. She cursed her. The only way to lift the enchantment is-."
"For her to take your life??" Delphi grabbed the sword from the floor. "I'll kill her myself."
"No!" Gabrielle twisted it out of her grasp. "Xena doesn't want to do it. She won't even think about doing it. And apparently, she doesn't have to. She just has to accept it."
"Gabrielle, listen to yourself. We're talking about your life here."
She shrugged. "I was hoping the rest of the inscription...can you read it?"
Delphi nodded and held out her hand with a sigh. She studied the last set of characters for a long time before looking up at Gabrielle with something of a smile. "Well, I don't know how much help it is..."
"What?" The bard stepped closer.
"'No light is brighter than the moon, on love and life in shadows.'" She smiled.
"What?" Gabrielle repeated, frowning in confusion. "What does that mean?"
"It means the moon may be an answer." She set the sword down and drank the rest of her port. "Artemis and Athena are not fond of each other, but it seems they are still playing by the rules."
"What?" Her voice was getting higher and she was getting very tired of that word.
"In this valley, two gods are in power, still to this day, even though the Ursa are long gone. What Athena does, Artemis must endure, and vice versa. My grandfather used to tell me stories about the games they would play. One would set a course, the other would do her best to deter it. Sometimes it was in fun, sometimes in anger, but they were always trying to prove who was more powerful." She held up the sword. "It's a taunt. Athena placed these words here to proclaim her course as set. Which means that Artemis-"
"Could deter it..." Gabrielle's mind worked furiously. "Artemis could be made to stand in her way."
"Perhaps." Delphi frowned. "But first you have to get her attention. That is the tricky part. It would require sacrifice."
Gabrielle swallowed. "Sacrifice? Delphi, I can't kill anything."
"Well, I don't know of any other way."
She looked thoughtful for a few moments. "Maybe I do." She picked up the sword. "Where is the temple?"
"It's a long walk, Gabrielle. And not through the safest territory."
"Let me worry about that. Where is the temple?"
"I know I am going to regret this." She frowned. With a sigh, she told the bard what she wanted to know.
Gabrielle glanced up at the glowing moon and tried to pull her cloak tighter around her body. It was no good, the breastplate just got in the way. She frowned when she thought about Delphi's reaction to her plan. First, she had laughed to see the bard garbed in Xena's armor, then she had all but broken down their door to try and wake Xena to stop her. But, being the bard that she was, she was finally able to persuade her to let her go.
Now she wasn't so sure it had been a good idea.
It was very late at night, or very early morning, depending on how one wanted to look at it, and there wasn't another soul on the grown over path she was following, but somehow, she felt as though there were eyes on her, making her skin crawl against the leather covering it.
Well, if someone was out there, they weren't attacking her, so maybe her idea was working. She flashed a little more armor and let Xena's sword stick out from beneath her cloak. Maybe she had been right in thinking that any passersby would see a warrior and let her alone. Whatever, it didn't matter. She could see the temple up ahead., Delphi's directions had been very accurate, as had her descriptions.
The Temple of The Ursa looked as though it had been grown instead of built. Trees lined every inch of the walls with their branches and vines threading between the stones and mortar. There were no windows, only small slits cut through wood and brick to allow the moonlight in. She couldn't make out a roof, only densely grown leaves and protective overhangs that looked as though they could withstand the fury of Zeus himself.
The truth of another of Delphi's statements hit her instantly. This place was empty, deserted. Oh, there was not a spot of dirt on any wall, not a lone leaf littering those alabaster stairs, and light flickered from within, but she knew to her bones that no earthly creature was inside. She didn't know how she knew, she just knew.
Somehow, the thought of being so alone became more frightening than the feel of eyes from the wood, and she faltered in her steps. After a few deep breaths and several thoughts of Xena, she climbed the stairs and stood outside the door.
She tried to focus on what she had to do, but that only terrified her more. She had never spoken to a God, not even Ares when he came for Xena, and the idea of it was very unsettling. Then she thought of her Warrior Princess, sleeping alone back at Delphi's inn. Sleeping so soundly that she didn't even hear her lover leave. It wasn't often that Xena gave in to that kind of exhaustion. Whatever she had done that night, she had done for her. How could she turn back now?
With renewed will, she pushed against the door and found it opened easily, swinging on well oiled hinges to reveal the chamber within. The room was long, long enough to hold a hundred men, with rows of benches leading up to the altar. A fire burned with disturbing energy at the very back, behind the dais itself, and once again, she found everything clean and well cared for. The idea that people would care so fastidiously for a place they didn't even use was unsettling. With a shiver, she pushed the door shut and slid the bolt that locked it from within.
She moved towards the altar slowly, trying to form the words she would say in her mind. It was odd that words should desert her now. They never had in the past.
"Nothing was ever this important in the past." She whispered to herself.
Shrugging out of the cloak, she laid it over a nearby bench and resumed her walk up to the dais Her breastplate reflected the firelight and cast eerie shadows across the floor as she made her way.
The altar was beautiful, as altars went anyway. It was hewn from white stone and inlaid with symbols of pure gold. Flowers and fruit lined the floor, covering every space except a narrow path that led around it and down the center of the room. A ten foot statue of a woman looked down from it's pedestal above the hearth with two emerald eyes, each set in their own half of two different faces. There was no blood, no athame, in fact no sign of either anywhere.
Gabrielle stopped in front of it and looked down to see a red pillow lining the step before her. She sank slowly to her knees, knowing this would be the last test of whatever faith she had. Remembering Delphi's instructions, she tilted her head back and stared straight up, into the gemstone eyes of the stone goddess that presided over this temple. "Artemis," Her throat felt sore, her voice sounded dusty, almost as though it was afraid to speak. "Patron Goddess of The Moon and Maidens. I beg your counsel."
Nothing but silence.
With a sigh, she reached into her bodice and pulled out a small bundle she had been able to fit in between her breasts and the leather. She reminded herself to be depressed later about just how much she *could* fit in there.
Unwrapping the leather, she held up it's contents. "I offer these to you, Artemis. One was made by my own hands," She laid a tiny circle of braided thistle upon the altar. "The other...was made by love." She glanced one final time at the hoop of silver in her fingers. It had been a gift from her sister for the last birthday she had spent at home. She closed her eyes and squeezed it tightly in her palm before setting it within the garland. "Hunter Goddess, I beg your forgiveness for my lack of proper sacrifice, but I am unable..." She thought about that for a moment. "...unwilling...to kill." She corrected. "I beg you, for love's sake...give me counsel."
The silence that greeted her ears was deafening. Swallowing her bitter disappointment, she turned to leave, forcing herself not to reach back for her ring. Delphi's warning had been quite clear: Never take back a gift given to the Gods, even if it seems they do not want it.
Trying not to cry, she walked down the aisle to the bench where she had left her cloak. As she pulled it on, she heard a noise behind her. It was like the leaves on a late autumn day, followed by a low, throaty laugh. She spun towards the altar and saw a handsome, if not beautiful, dark-haired woman standing behind it. She watched as the Goddess picked up her ring. With a smile, she slid it onto her finger.
"Gabrielle." Artemis laughed softly, gesturing to the armor the bard wore. "A sheep in wolf's clothing."
Gabrielle looked down at herself and flushed as the ethereal voice echoed in her ears. "It was the only way to make sure I got here alive, Goddess."
Artemis snorted. "You're lucky I am a God, and as such, can hear your thoughts. Otherwise I might have killed you for this seeming impertinence."
"I did not mean it as such, Goddess."
"I know that, girl." She reached for a vine of grapes, slipping each fruit into her mouth slowly as she studied the young woman before her. "And stop calling me Goddess. I have a name. I give you permission to speak it."
"Artemis," Gabrielle walked forward a few paces. "I need your help, please."
The God came around the altar and leaned against it. "Why should I grant you my help, Gabrielle. You're not exactly a maiden anymore."
The bard's cursed in frustration. She had forgotten that. Her mind raced furiously, trying to think of something, anything, and settle on the Goddess' distaste for men. Looking directly into powerful, bright green eyes she said, "But I'm not exactly...'experienced' either."
Artemis looked interested. "Explain that."
"Well," Gabrielle felt herself warm up to her task. "A maiden, by definition, is a girl not yet claimed by a man. I have never...been claimed by a man. If you look into my heart, you'll know I am telling you the truth." She smiled as endearingly as she could. "Like you, I prefer to keep company with women...well, one woman, actually."
Artemis gazed at her with an intensity that was unnerving. "You're telling the truth." She said finally. "Why are you here? The night is not a safe place for maidens."
"No...no it's not. But I had to come here. Because of this." She came up the aisle to stand in front of the Goddess. Pulling out Xena's sword, she extended it, hilt first, towards her. She watched as Artemis read the words along the blade, her face growing cold and stone-like. When the Goddess returned her gaze, there was an anger in her eyes that would have frightened an army of warlords.
"So..." She laid the sword on the altar top. "Athena still challenges me, in my own valley." She stared into the fire, her expression unreadable to the bard.
"Will you help?" Her voice was small.
Artemis didn't seem to hear her as she twisted Gabrielle's ring with her fingers. Holding her hand up, she looked at the simple, smooth band of silver, then turned to face her. "What does this mean to you?"
Gabrielle looked at her ring, resting on the hand of a goddess. "I carried the love of my family in that ring. It was a piece of my home."
The Goddess nodded. "What was the curse?"
"None may go where a Goddess was denied." Gabrielle mumbled, then explained in detail. When she was done, Artemis looked at her skeptically.
"You would do all this, for a simple act of pleasure?"
"No. I would do all this, to be able to love her. Without a god damning her for it."
Artemis considered her words carefully before speaking. "She is fortunate."
Gabrielle only shrugged, her cheeks reddening. "Not as fortunate as I am."
The Goddess took her face in her hands and whispered, "Watch then...listen...learn."
When she released her a few minutes later, Gabrielle stumbled slightly, grabbing the God's arm for support before she realized what she was doing. She pulled her hands back quickly. "I understand."
"Do you?" Artemis crossed her arms, her hands covering the places that the bard's skin had touched. "Do you understand, Gabrielle, that if she fails, you will die. And Hades will not let you go twice."
"I understand," She said quietly. "that if I don't do this, I will have failed her."
Artemis nodded and handed her the sword, new words etched along the blade. "Go then. Even now, it begins."
Gabrielle nodded. "Thank you." She grabbed her cloak and fled from the temple.
Outside, the night air felt charged with something she couldn't identify. It felt dangerous, deadly, as though Athena herself would try and block her way back. She glanced back once and saw no light from the temple. She whispered 'Thank you." again and ran towards the Inn.
She hadn't gone more than 30 yards when a figure leapt from behind a tree and threw her to the ground. She scrambled backwards, and he stepped into the moonlight, grinning down at her like a cat with a nice little mouse.
"'Tires?" She questioned. "What are you doing?"
"Your story was a fool's tale." He started to unfasten his belt. "Now, I will teach you the way the world really is."
She kicked up with her leg, catching him hard in the groin with the tip of her booted foot. He doubled over in pain and Gabrielle shot to her feet, moving to run past him. Before she could, his arm shot out, tangling in her hair and yanking her painfully back to face him. He leaned in close and she could smell his sour breath and the nauseating stench of his unwashed body. With one hand still clutching her hair, he reach around with the other and pressed her up against him. "You'll pay for that. Oh yes, you'll pay." He freed her hair and grabbed the top of her bodice to hold her still. Pulling back his arm, he slapped her, hard, across the face, knocking her to the ground. "Think you're smart doncha?" He swaggered around her, taunting her.
Gabrielle knew her only hope was to kill him, something she didn't know if she could do. She felt Xena's breast dagger against her skin and worked her hand slowly from her face to the top of her tunic.
"You think," 'Tires continued. "that uppity bitch of yours is the Warrior Princess? Well, maybe she is and maybe she isn't. It doesn't matter. By this time tomorrow, you'll be tied to my horse like any other slave girl, watching as I beat her to death." He stared down at her, a smug grin on his lips. "My army's comin', little bard. And there ain't nothing that can save her."
"Your army?" Gabrielle's nature got the best of her. "What are you talking about?"
"Seems your well muscled friend ruffed up a few soldiers over you. Took a crest from one of 'em." His face grew dark. "Well, he wants it back, he wants her dead...and he wants you. He's gotta hundred men, ready to march on Atwir in the morning. When he's done with you, you'll think I was a gentleman." He started to take off his shirt. When he had stripped down to what passed for his underclothes, he loomed over her and spat, "Where's your Warrior now, harlot?"
He turned to see a fist speeding towards his face. When he was able to stand, he looked at her and laughed. "Well, that's some get up."
Xena rolled her eyes and looked at Gabrielle pointedly. All she had on was her shift and her boots.
He lunged at her, pulling a dagger while her attention was on Gabrielle. She flipped over his head and landed behind him.
"Yiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi!" Her cry echoed in his ears as she launched herself into his chest, her boots burying themselves in his ample gut. He fell backwards as the air left his lungs and Xena stomped on his hand until he dropped the knife. She kicked it away, into the trees, and then knelt, one knee on his neck. "Well," She smiled. "Looks like you lost...again."
He struggled and she pushed harder, hearing his neck creak under her weight. "Just tell me what I want to know, and I'll get up. Then we can finish this like men." She said sarcastically. "Or, I can just kill you now, like a snake crushed under my boot heel." He shook his head in panic. "What time are they attacking?"
"First light." He croaked, taking huge gulps of air the moment she was off his throat.
"All right." Xena looked at him coldly. "There are two ways we can do this. You can run now and hope I never see your ugly face again, or you can attack me and I can kill you, saving some other warrior the trouble." She sighed when he charged her. "That's what I thought." She stepped out of his way, kicking him in the ass as he sailed past her.
When he came at her again, he held a thin spike, something he had pulled from his boot. He gripped it's handle and lunged, only to have her knee connect solidly with his groin, and then her fist with the back of his head. He crumpled to the ground, his own hand shoving the spike up into his heart. She flipped him over with her foot and shook her head.
"Who do they have to be so stupid?" She asked, to nobody in particular, and then turned her attention to Gabrielle. "Are you all right?"
Gabrielle saw the worry in her eyes and immediately felt like a child. "I'm okay."
Xena helped her up and then inspected every inch of her.
"I said I was okay!" Gabrielle protested, anger creeping into her voice.
"Oh, I'm not worried about you," Xena remarked. "This is my favorite armor." She laughed quietly.
"What are you doing out here, anyway? In my armor?"
"I thought maybe I could find a way to help you," She saw the steel in Xena's eyes and rushed to continue. "But I was wrong. You were right." She hated lying to her, but it was the only way.
The warrior studied her for a few moments and then nodded, whistling for Argo as she pulled her sword from Gabrielle's back. She hooked it onto the saddle horn with her chakram and then vaulted into the saddle, pulling the bard up behind her. "We have to hurry, so hang on. We have to warn the villagers while there is still time for them to do something." She spurred Argo into a full gallop back towards Atwir.
When they reached the town, everything was quiet. The quiet of peace loving farmers and merchants with no idea they were about to be attacked. Xena recognized it, she had destroyed it often enough.
"Not this time." She whispered. "Gabrielle, go get Delphi. Tell her to wake everyone and have them meet us in the tavern. Hurry."
Thirty minutes later she was staring into incredulous faces. "You can't be serious!" One man shouted. Why would raiders come here?"
"Raiders go where they will," She snapped, losing her patience. "They don't care who they destroy."
"If they are coming here, then they are coming for you!" A woman cried out. "You've brought them down upon us!"
Xena was speechless in the face of their accusations. She had come to help them and was receiving their anger instead of their support. She was close to leaving when Dophycles forced his way to the front of the crowd.
"You are all being fools!" He shouted over the noise. "This woman is offering her aid in saving your village. She is a noble warrior. If you turn her away, you deserve what you get."
The villagers stared at him, all of them surprised into silence. Dophycles turned and clasped Xena's arm. "If you stay, I will help you."
"As will I!" Delphi agreed from the back of the room.
Within a matter of minutes, she had twenty volunteers, all the men she could use. She sent the rest home and gave instructions to her 'army' before releasing them to tend to their families. "Remember, be in position well before dawn. Warlords can be unpredictable." They nodded and filed out, leaving Gabrielle and Xena alone by the bar.
Xena looked down at her lover and smirked. "Could I get dressed? Please?"
Gabrielle smiled. "Lead the way, Warrior." She followed Xena up to their room, her feet moving automatically as she went over her own plans in her head. With a sigh, she realized that she was betting her life on the woman in front of her. She hoped to the God's she was right.
Xena didn't know what to think. Silence was something unusual for Gabrielle...very unusual. And yet, silence is what she got as she led the bard up to their room. She desperately wanted to believe her, that she had given up on trying to 'save' her. She wanted to believe that. But something in the way the bard looked right then, kept her from doing it. "What's wrong?"
Gabrielle glanced up, forcing a smile. "Nothing. I was just thinking about tomorrow. About how we can stop them from hurting these people."
"We?" Xena shook her head. "No, Gabrielle. There is no 'we' in this. You're staying here."
"Staying here?" Anger showed clearly in her pale blue eyes. "Xena, I can help you. I know what I'm doing with a staff. I'm not a child anymore."
"I never thought you were." She filled a bowl with water and splashed it on her face.
"Because Athena is angry with me." She dried herself with a towel before taking the bard's shoulders in her hands. "and you're no match for a God."
Gabrielle nodded slowly. Everything depended on her being on that battlefield tomorrow, arguing would only make it that much harder. "You're right."
Xena blinked. "What's going on , Gabrielle?" she whispered, her eyes narrowing.
"Mmmhmm." She grabbed the bard gently by the chin, tilting her head up to meet her eyes. "Don't even think about it."
Gabrielle smiled and leaned into her, feeling the warmth of her body through the thin fabric of her shift. Her hands moved in small circles across the warrior's back until she heard Xena swallow.
"We don't really have time for this." Xena whispered, her voice hesitant.
"Shh." Gabrielle bowed her head, running her lips above a swollen nipple.
"Gabrielle, I don't know what the rules are. I don't know how much you can do..."
Gabrielle reached up and unsnapped her breastplate, letting it fall to the floor between them. "I know how much you can do."
Xena's arms were around her instantly, pulling at the laces that held the leather closed. When it finally slid from her hips, Gabrielle moved to the side of the bed. Moonlight streamed through the window and reflected off of her pale skin, bathing her in a glow that made her look unreal. "Come here." She whispered, holding out her hand.
Xena didn't hesitate. All thoughts of time forgotten, she pushed Gabrielle back onto the bed and parted her thighs with a hand, eyes closing at the wetness that met her fingers, a small moan escaping from her lips. The urgency of Gabrielle's need astounded her. There was no shyness, no pause, just a demanding hunger that burned deep in her lovers eyes. She lowered her head and bit softly on one nipple, running her tongue around it in circles, keeping time with her hand as her fingers grazed Gabrielle's center.
"Please..." The bard's voice was no more than a ragged whisper.
"What do you want me to do?" The words were light, almost teasing, and Xena smiled as she said them, but her heart nearly hammered it's way out of her chest when she felt Gabrielle's palm against the top of her head. The bard pushed her down gently, moving her hips up to meet soft lips as Xena buried them in pale, fragrant hair. She lifted Gabrielle's thighs onto her shoulders, sliding two fingers deep inside as her tongue parted her and flickered lightly against her clit. She went as slow as she could, exploring every fold, every soft, satin ridge with her tongue as her fingers curled inside, reaching deep to find the spot that always stripped away Gabrielle's senses.
When she had it beneath the tip of her finger, she increased her speed, pushing harder with her tongue as her hand moved in and out of Gabrielle's sweetness. She felt the bard's ecstasy in her own body as Gabrielle began to buck beneath her, her hips shuddering wildly against the roughness of her palm.
"Xena!" Gabrielle's cry ripped through her like a blade and she felt her own thighs begin to tremble against the sheets beneath them.
"By the God's, Gabrielle..." Her voice was weak, her hands trembling. When she felt the bard's back arch, she let go of her self control, allowing herself to slide into release, pulled by the force of Gabrielle's climax. When they fell back to earth, they lay shuddering together, gasping for air.
"I love you." Gabrielle pressed her face into Xena's neck and the warrior could feel the warmth of tears.
"It's all right, Gabrielle." She stroked her hair and let her cry, holding her for as long as she could. She was surprised when the tears stopped almost immediately.
"I guess you need to go." The bard sniffed. "Go on, before I hold you down and never let you out of my sight."
Xena kissed her softly and rose from the bed. She washed in the same basin she had used for her face, wiping away the traces of their love with a cloth before pulling on her leathers. Gabrielle got up and helped her buckle on her armor, kissing her soundly before sliding her sword into the scabbard on her back.
"You'll be okay." She whispered. "I know it."
Xena hugged her tightly. "I'll see you soon."
"Yes. Yes, you will."
She locked the door behind her, and went quickly to the window. Looking down, her eyes followed her lover until she was out of sight.
Gabrielle sighed deeply, wishing she had more time, but a quick glance to the east told her all she needed to know. She pulled her clothes on quickly and grabbed her staff from the saddlebags, assembling it as she watched the sky lighten above the mountains.
Xena moved like a shadow, slipping from one attack point to the next with the agility of a cat. She had ordered them to stagger themselves in groups of four, creating five small defense parties spread across a field outside of town. She inspected each group, finding them satisfactory, until she reached the last one.
There, she found Delphi, armor strapped around her chest and a sword in her hand. Her skirts were gone, replaced by the rough breeches that the townsmen wore and her hair was braided tightly against her head.
"What do you think you're doing?" Her voice was harsh, there wasn't time for reason.
"I'm defending my people," Delphi shot back. "And save your breath, I'm not going anywhere."
Xena cursed under her breath. "Do you even know how to use that thing?"
The barmaid smiled. "I run a tavern."
With a curt nod, Xena moved on, only stopping when Dophycles grabbed her by the arm. "How do you know they'll come through this field?"
She looked from him to the horizon and then back again. "Because I would." She pulled her arm free. "Now get ready."
She left him to move into position and strode to her own spot on the battlefield, right in the front, with no cover. Everyone else was backup...just in case. If they wanted Gabrielle, they'd have to get through her first. She turned her head and listened, smiling darkly when she heard the whispers of the enemy, carried softly to her on the wind. A few moments later, she saw them.
Not a hundred men, but fairly close. She estimated about seventy five.
Every one of them stopped when they saw her, her armor flashing in the newly rising sun. "This is your only chance," She yelled. "Throw down your weapons and go home to your wives...before I make them widows!"
A few men shuffled nervously, the one's that believe the legends about her. Most of them just laughed. They parted ranks to let a lone man through and Xena spat when she recognized him..
"Xena," He tucked his hands into his belt and smiled. "How nice to see you again. I've come for what is mine."
She pulled out his patch of leather and released it to the wind.
"Nice try," He sneered. "But this town is mine, the girl is mine...and you are mine." He pulled his sword and charged, his men fast on his heels.
Xena grabbed her chakram and threw it to her right, watching as it arced back to cut it's way through the nine separate swords. The men stared down at their weapons in surprise before throwing them to the ground.
Xena caught the chakram neatly and held it up for them to see. "Next time it will be your heads." She called, smiling when they scattered into the nearby woods. "Nine down, sixty-six to go." She drew her sword and met the attack, the blood singing in her veins as she bulled her way through the men around her.
Somewhere deep inside, she knew this was the real reason she didn't want Gabrielle here. She didn't want her to have to watch...to see what she might have to become, to save them and this village.
She clamped down firmly on those thoughts, and shoved them to the back of her mind, letting her body react on it's own. She couldn't tell how long she'd been fighting, but the men were down to coming one at a time and she dispatched each of them quickly, satisfied they would live to show the scars that she had given them.
When she reached Kyldus, Xena smiled and began to circle around him, her sword cutting the air as it danced at her fingertips.
The soldier took one look at her and swallowed hard. In her eyes, he saw death, dark and very gleeful.
She raised her arm to cut him down and heard a scream from behind her.
Xena turned her head and saw Gabrielle slam her staff into a soldiers legs. He had been five feet behind her, stealing up quietly, a dagger in his hand. She opened her mouth to speak and felt a foot against her back. Stumbling slightly, she regained her balance only to lose it when a gloved fist slammed into the side of her head.
"Oh, Xena." Kyldus laughed. "I guess you're not as good as everyone says you are. You're not paying attention." He kicked the sword out of her hand, sending it spinning in the dust to be grabbed up by the soldier Gabrielle had just knocked into the dirt. He stood and began to circle the bard, pushing her to the edge of the field, backing her into the trees.
Xena waited until Kyldus stood over her and then flipped herself up and back, catching him under the chin with both of her feet. He staggered backwards, giving her time to grab a sword that had been abandoned on the field. "That's the problem with your kind, Kyldus." She grinned and twirled the sword between her fingers. "You always have to gloat."
Kyldus snarled in rage and rushed at her, pulling out a dagger as he went. When he was two feet away, she jumped to the right, bringing her arm around in a sweeping motion, the blade flat against the back of his head. With a low, painfilled moan, he crumpled and lay still.
Turning to check on Gabrielle, she felt her heart slip into her throat. The soldier had managed to knock Gabrielle's staff away and now held her by the front of her shirt, readying the sword at his side.
Xena whipped her arm back, dagger ready at her fingertips, and had it grabbed from behind. It only took her a moment to crush her attacker's windpipe, but a moment was too long. The dagger left her hand a full two seconds after the soldier began his thrust, impaling Gabrielle through the chest before it could rip through his shoulder and pin him to a tree.
She watched as Gabrielle's hands closed around the blade. The bard's lips moved, but no sound came out. And then she fell, toppling backwards onto the ground.
Xena stared, trying to will that gentle chest to rise and fall, but it didn't. It lay as still as the bard herself.
Her vision went black along the edges as she took one step and felt her legs give out, driving her to her knees in the dirt. A sound came from her lips that would haunt all those present until the day they drew their final breath. It began as a low wail, rose to a roar, and ended with the feral note of an injured animal, enraged and unstoppable in it's fury. "NO!"
In that one moment, the soldiers glimpsed what she had been....and ran in fear of their souls.
Xena did not hear them go, and wouldn't have cared if they hadn't. Her cry ended as she pitched forward into the dust, the sword sliding out of her hand as her fingers dug convulsively into the earth.
That's when she felt it coming.
The black rage and unstoppable hatred that had driven her as a warlord, began to escape from the places where she had locked it away. The darkness traveled from her mind, down along her spine, stiffening it as it went. She could feel it as it threaded it's way through her soul, never ceasing in it's struggle to reach her heart
The madness began to take over and she reached out for a sword, any sword. As her fingers brushed over a hilt, her body racked in a pain so intense that she bit down on her lip, bringing the taste of blood and soil to her mouth. She focused on that as words struggled up out of her memory, struggled up out of her soul. She listened, her heart aching, as Gabrielle spoke from within her:
NO! No, look, you promise me...if something happens to me, you will not become a monster. There's only one way to end this cycle of hatred, and it's through love...and forgiveness.
Xena felt some small part of herself fight it's way through the hatred. She felt it grow as she heard her heartbeat through each of Gabrielle's words.
No...No, you promise me!
Somewhere in those words, she heard her own voice. Not the voice of the warlord, or the voice of the hero, but the voice of the young woman Cortese had left behind. It spoke only two words, but those words repeated through her heart and mind, driving out the darkness wherever they touched.
Two words whispered to a friend...what seemed like ages go. But as the last strands of them echoed in her mind, she felt her trembling cease. Her vision did not clear, but lightened instead, relieving the pressure in her temples. Reaching out, she grabbed the sword and pulled it to her, using it as a cane to help her rise to her feet. Her gaze was fixed on the figure before her, barely more than a boy, struggling to free himself from between the dagger and the tree. She raised her sword above her head and ran straight for him.
"Yiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiyiy!" Xena saw his eyes widen as she brought her sword down in a devastating arc. Mid-swing, she changed her grip and slammed the pommel into his head. He slumped, unconscious, his body still pinned by her dagger. She grabbed it and tugged it free, letting him fall to the ground unaided.
Dropping both sword and knife, she went on her knees beside Gabrielle.
As if disconnected from herself, she watched her hand touch that pale cheek, watched it brush re-golden hair away from a smooth forehead.
There was no blood on that hand.
With that one realization, all the hatred left her soul. All the blackness she had hidden away drained out of her, leaving her weak and shaken as she stared down at that beautiful face, wanting more than anything to have one more moment, one more chance to tell her...
"I love you, Gabrielle." She whispered, tears stinging her eyes. "And I kept my promise...I kept my promise." She chanted the words over and over, as though they were a mantra that would wake her from this nightmare. Cradling the bard's head in her lap, she rocked back and forth as the anguish tore through her heart. When it became too much for her to bear, she threw her head back and screamed her rage up to an uncaring sky.
After what seemed like hours, the pain finally receded to a dull, throbbing ache and she gently laid Gabrielle's head back against the earth. Willing her hand to be steady, Xena reached out for the sword still trapped within her chest.
'My sword.' She choked, trying to swallow the bitter taste in her mouth.
Steeling herself, she grabbed the hilt and felt her fingers close around...nothing.
Her hands began to shake as she watched the sword disappear, followed by the wound, which went much more slowly. A few minutes later, all that was left was an angry red line against Gabrielle's once flawless skin and the blood that had soaked into her clothes. A moment more and the bard's hand moved, going instinctively to the sore spot above her right breast.
Turning towards Xena, Gabrielle frowned, "You didn't tell me it was going to hurt."
The warrior had opened her mouth to reply before she realized that Gabrielle was not speaking to her, but rather, over her shoulder. She looked behind her and saw the young soldier climbing slowly to his feet. Her shock increased when his mouth opened to emit the fair tones of a woman. "Well, I told you, you had to REALLY die. What? Did you think it would be pleasant?" The man-child slowly melted away to reveal the fair, dark-haired woman beneath.
Xena didn't even blink. "Artemis."
The Goddess smiled down at her, reaching out to stroke her cheek gently. "I understand now why Athena was so angry," She looked over at Gabrielle. "And why you were willing to die." She knelt beside Xena and leaned in close, her word's for the warrior alone. "She would have died for you. A part of you died for her. No stories or legends from any bard could ever equal that."
Xena nodded, trying to force her heart to start beating. "Thank you."
"Don't thank me, Warrior Princess." Artemis pressed something into her hand. "Just make sure you never let her go. Because if you do, I'll be there. And I guarantee...you will never get her back." She stood and began to go.
Xena's eyes narrowed as she realized what the goddess meant. Rising slowly to her feet, she kept her face carefully neutral. "Then why?"
Artemis looked over at Gabrielle, who was inspecting the damage to her favorite shirt. With a gentle smile, she whispered, "Even a God can have a heart."
Xena watched her fade away with a mixture of gratitude and mistrust. Shaking her head, she accepted that there was no point in worrying about it. She could compete against any mortal, but a God? She had to trust that Artemis would keep her word.
Opening her hand, Xena looked to see what the Goddess had given her. It was a ring of hammered silver, one she had seen before. Her heart aching, she remembered that it was Gabrielle's. A gift she had received from her sister before leaving Poteidaia. So special to her that she didn't even wear it, just kept it tied about her neck with a leather thong.
Xena looked closer and saw something etched along the inside of the band. She tried to read it, but a wind came up, blowing her hair across her eyes. On that wind, she heard a bitter whisper:
Go then. You are free....
The symbols forgotten, she tucked the ring into her pouch and gathered Gabrielle in her arms. Xena held her tightly, lifting her from the ground. "You didn't have to do that." She whispered.
"Yes I did." Gabrielle broke free and stared into her eyes. "I love you."
"You could have died, Gabrielle."
"I had faith in you." She tried to walk and stumbled, still weak from her loss of blood. Xena placed an arm firmly around her waist and helped her, guiding her back towards the village.
"I almost didn't deserve your faith. I can't tell you how appealing it was, to let go, to bury myself in the hate again. I thought it was all I had left."
Gabrielle stopped and pulled her close. "You'll always have me. No matter what. There isn't a god that could keep me from you."
Xena smiled and ruffled her hair affectionately. "Getting kind of cocky aren't you? You cheat death twice and you think you're invincible or something."
They kissed gently, Xena well aware of the pain Gabrielle was in. She was just about to suggest carrying her, when Delphi ran up and grabbed Gabrielle's other arm. Pulling it over her shoulder, she took the rest of the bard's weight.
Xena stared at her.
"I just want to help," Delphi smiled. "That's all."
The warrior finally nodded and they resumed their pace back to the inn.
Two days later, Xena was sitting at the bar, talking with Delphi while Gabrielle convalesced upstairs. The anger between them gone, both barmaid and warrior found they liked each other quite a lot. Dophycles had taken charge of the fallen army, those he could catch anyway. He had left that morning, with several of the village men, a long line of prisoners behind them, headed for the mines.
As Delphi waited on another customer, Xena reached into her pouch for a coin, coming up with Gabrielle's ring instead. She turned it sideways for another try at reading the inscription, but her vision blurred, running the symbols against one another.
When Delphi returned, she held it out to her. "Can you read what's written on the inside? Whatever language this is, it makes my head hurt."
The barmaid shrugged and plucked the ring from her fingers, holding it up to the torch behind her. "It's Ursan." She smiled. "No wonder your head hurts. See this part?" She indicated a series of eight different symbols. "This is a prophecy. It says, 'Two Hearts, One Destiny'." She flipped the ring over and pointed to the other side. "This....this is a warning."
"What does it say?" Xena could barely see the long, ornate symbol scratched into the silver.
"It says 'Remember...'" Delphi laughed quietly, shaking her head in amusement. "Artemis?"
Xena nodded. "She apparently took quite a liking to Gabrielle."
The barmaid handed the ring back with a long sigh. "The Gods never learn. They still think they decide the destiny of man."
Xena looked at her oddly.
But Delphi only shook her head and slid another port in front of the warrior, raising a hand against her protests. "On the house."
"Delphi," Xena growled. "If you keep giving me drinks on the house, you're going to go out of business."
"Oh, I think I can handle it."
"Yeah, but what would your father say?"
The barmaid leaned in close, beckoning with one finger for her to lean in too. "Want to know a secret?"
"My father never says much of anything. He's too far away for that." She whispered. "In fact, I haven't heard from him in over forty years."
"Forty years?" Xena laughed. "Come on! You can't be much older than Gabrielle."
Delphi brought her chin up and leveled her gaze at the warrior. "Looks can be deceiving."
Somewhere in her bright green eyes, Xena saw something she couldn't quite put her finger on. She opened her mouth to speak, but Delphi interrupted her.
"Speaking of swords..." She leaned down to look under the bar.
"We weren't." Xena frowned.
"One of the field hands brought this in this morning," The barmaid continued as though Xena hadn't spoken. "It's yours, I believe."
She laid Xena's sword down on the counter. It was clean, not a drop of blood on it, and the blade held nothing but scratches and nicks.
"The symbols are gone..." She drew the sword to her and ran her hand down the length of it.
"I don't think they were ever there."
"I saw them, Delphi."
"You saw a sword with symbols along the blade. This one had been lying in the dew for days, in the old abandoned orchard out by the riverbed. The smithy had to really work to get all the rust off of it."
"So it wasn't my sword..." She smiled and slid the weapon home, adjusting it in the scabbard on her back.
"Thank you, Delphi. For everything."
"Hey, 'Chesis!" An old soldier called from the doorway. "Bet you never thought you'd see me again, huh?"
" 'Chesis?" Xena questioned.
"Just a nickname." She smiled. "Something my father used to call me. Excuse me." She went and threw her arms around the old man. "Actually, Griga," She shouted. " You're too damn mean to die! I knew you'd be back!"
Xena laughed and sipped her port, a smile coming to her lips when she heard soft footsteps behind her. She put on her sternest look and turned to face Gabrielle. "What are you doing out of bed?"
"Looking for you!" Gabrielle snapped. "I told you, I'm fine. It's boring up there."
"I don't care, you're not well. Go get back in bed."
The bard crossed her arms and stood her ground. "Not unless you're coming with me."
Xena felt every eye in the bar come to rest on her. She could hear them all snickering, waiting to see who would win this battle. With a sigh, she held out her hand and allowed herself to be led upstairs.
The laughter and applause followed them as they went
"Are you happy now?" Xena whispered, feigning anger. "Now word will get around that I'm soft on bards. Guess you'll just have to get used to being one of the many."
"I don't think so." Gabrielle's voice was low, almost husky and it took Xena by surprise. She looked at the bard and swallowed.
"What are you doing?"
Gabrielle began to circle her, a dangerous look in her eyes, as Xena backed up to the bed.
Her eyes widened as the bard flew at her. She stumbled backwards onto the bed and laughed when Gabrielle came down straddling her hips. "Gabrielle!" She tried to slap at hands that were quickly unfastening her armor. "Stop that. You're not well."
"Excuse me, Princess." Gabrielle said sarcastically. "But if you can't see what's really ailing me, then you're the one that isn't well." Her voice became husky again. "Just do what I tell you and no one will get hurt."
Xena laughed into a pillow and let Gabrielle undress her, fully intending to take control of the situation as soon as she was done.
Gabrielle, however, had different plans. She finished pulling the leathers off and felt Xena's hands go to her waist. She knew what the warrior intended to do, and slapped her hands away. Grabbing the bottom of her own shirt, she pulled it up over her head, exposing perfect breasts to the woman laying below her.
Xena hesitated, telling herself that she should make her rest. With a small grin, she shrugged and crawled her fingers up over Gabrielle's ribs, only bringing them to a stop when her palms covered hardened nipples. She squeezed gently and heard a small moan from Gabrielle. Xena was surprised when small hands covered her own, pulling them away.
"Patience." Gabrielle smiled. "You've already had your turn." She laid her palm against Xena's neck and brought her lips down, kissing the warrior with a passion that startled her. When her lips trailed down to touch the hollow of her throat, Xena jumped slightly.
"Shhhh." Gabrielle managed, her lips moving lower over soft, tan skin. She kissed her way up the swell of one breast, stopping when her lips were a hairs breadth away from Xena's nipple. She blew on it softly before capturing it with her teeth, her tongue and lips sucking lightly. A soft sound came from the back of her throat as all her inhibitions slid away. These were the breasts she had always thought perfect, always admired. And she knew with utter certainty, that her hands had ached to hold them, her lips had gone dry with the thought of kissing them, long before she had admitted it to herself. Laying here now, with her face pressed against them, she breathed in Xena's scent and thought she would never get her fill.
Xena's eyes had closed instantly, her back arching beneath her. She ran her hand up Gabrielle's spine to cup her head gently, holding her lips right where they were. It had been so long.... "Yes..." She whispered, her fingers curling softly in Gabrielle's hair. A moment later she felt a warm wetness against her stomach as the bard's hips pushed into her. Sliding her fingers down a smooth hip, she ran them across her abdomen and then brought them to her mouth.
Gabrielle trembled as she watched Xena lick her fingers, her lips closing firmly over each one. With a small cry, she began to kiss the warrior's stomach. Sliding down her thighs, she shrugged away the hands that tried to stop her.
"You don't have to do that, Gabrielle." Xena stroked her face gently.
"Try and stop me." Her throat was hoarse, emotion stretching her ability to speak. She laid her face against dark, curly down, breathing in a scent so sweet that it made her head spin. With tentative lips, she kissed each thigh before nuzzling her face into Xena's hair. For a moment, she only breathed, wanting the scent in her lungs, in her blood. Then, she slowly flicked out her tongue, parting the warrior's labia, barely grazing the clit beneath.
Xena went completely rigid at the feel of that shy tongue against her flesh. She felt her breath ripping through her lungs in short, aching gasps and tried to slow the beating of her heart. There was nothing...no one, that had ever affected her this way. The way Gabrielle was affecting her with the small, short strokes of her fluidly soft tongue.
The slowness died away as Gabrielle found that she loved the taste of her. At that moment, she knew the power of what they were doing, and why Athena would try and hurt them both by taking it away. Never had she felt this close to anyone, never had she shared anything that felt this intimate. The knowledge of the power she had swept through her, causing her tongue to move more rapidly, pressing harder against Xena's swollen flesh. At the same time, she needed more. Needed to possess this woman more completely, the way she herself was owned. She pressed two fingers against her and felt her body spasm around them when she slid them in. The warmth that surrounded her hand felt like pure silk, the convulsive tightening like the beat of her heart. Her mouth never hesitated as she found the rhythm of Xena's hips, sliding her fingers as she slid her tongue.
Through all of it, she kept her eyes open, locked on the woman above her. She knew every move of that well muscled body, knew every whisper that left her lips. Her eyes traveled over every inch of glistening skin, noticing when the muscles in her stomach clenched, noticing when her back arched slightly higher. Xena called out once, whispered her name, and then came to rest, her hands pulling the bard away from her sensitive flesh, drawing her up and into her arms.
Xena brushed damp hair out of Gabrielle's eyes before bringing her lips down to taste the bard's mouth.
With a gentle laugh, Gabrielle pushed her away and ran her tongue across her own lips. "Mine." She whispered fiercely, her fingers touching the warrior softly on the cheek.
Her mind screamed a warning, telling her to run, as far and as fast as she could. But Xena only smiled. Her heart had already won this battle. She took Gabrielle's hand and placed it on her chest. "Yours."
She watched as pale blue eyes widened, then closed, only to open again with tears running from them. She tried to kiss the tears away, but Gabrielle pushed her back once more, taking Xena's hand and laying it above her softly pounding heart. "Yours...always." Gabrielle whispered. "From the first day that I met you."
Xena felt tears begin in her own eyes. She kissed the bard quickly and turned her around to slip an arm across her stomach, snugging up behind her as close as she could get. "Go to sleep." She coughed to hide a sniffle. "We're leaving in the morning."
Xena closed her eyes and pretended not to hear Gabrielle's soft laugh.
By midday they had only reached the mouth of the valley. Xena helping Gabrielle over every rocky area, demanding they go slow until the bard was completely well. When they crested the last small hill before the mountains, they both turned to look back at the sleepy homes and small town that had come to mean so much.
"I think I'll remember this place for a long, long time." Gabrielle leaned into Xena, turning her face up to receive a soft kiss. She watched as the warrior reached into her pouch. She withdrew something and laid it in the bard's palm, closing her fingers around it. Standing back, she smiled as Gabrielle examined her gift, loving the way her face lit up, taking on the qualities of a child.
"My ring." She threw herself into Xena's waiting arms. "Thank you." She whispered. "Goddess....I love you."
Xena held her tightly. "There's something written on the inside. Delphi translated it for me, but I didn't put it there." She turned the ring so Gabrielle could see the inscription.
"What does it say?"
Xena tightened her grip, resting her chin on the top of the bard's head. "Two hearts, one destiny."
Gabrielle smiled. "Thank you, Artemis." She whispered. Looking back at Delphi's inn, she nodded in satisfaction. "It's kind of fitting, actually."
"What is?" Xena took her arm and began to help her down the hill.
"Inn of The Three Daughters." Gabrielle laughed. "Fate, destiny...great idea for a story, huh?"
Xena felt a chill run up her spine and she spun around quickly, her gaze resting on the Inn.
An old woman stood outside, waving to them as she watched.
Xena looked down and then back again, but the woman was gone. All she saw was Delphi's backside as it disappeared into the inn. Something played at the edges of her mind and she tried to grab at it, feeling it shift and flutter just out of her reach...
"What's wrong?" Gabrielle asked.
With that, it was gone.
Xena shook her head and smiled, "I still think it's a dumb name for an inn."
The End...Finally, eh?