Author: Klancy 7
Story Title: Shadow Shaman
Characters: Xena/Gabrielle, Gabrielle/various f (outcast Amazons)
Rating: NC-17
Summary: It will take more than death to keep Alti from capturing Gabrielle.
This rating is for explicit f/f sex, bdsm, rape and sexual violence.

The characters belong to Studios USA and Renaissance Pictures and were used without permission. No copyright infringement was intended and no money was made.

This story contains explicit, rape, bondage, and considerable violence. If any of those things freak you out, please don't read this. If you're cool with them, enjoy.

You can find more of Klancy7's stories at her web site Klancy7 Fan Fiction and at XENADOM.

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Shadow Shaman
by Klancy 7


Xena brushed the pink rosebud across her partner's sleeping lips, and smiled as her soft snoring hitched, briefly. Gabrielle's body at rest rivaled even the rose in beauty, but the warrior actually found her snore equally endearing. She bestowed a chaste kiss on the bard's forehead, and then lay the rosebud on the pillow between them.

Gabrielle had been chaffing, lately, at Xena's apparent lack of romantic instinct. She had taken to reading love poems aloud as they traveled, verses so purple with passion even Argo blushed to hear them. Finding the rose in the morning was intended to atone for that, in part. Xena eased her way carefully down in the bed, checking to be sure she hadn't disturbed her lover's rest, and then sank herself, gratefully, into deep sleep.

Xena awoke alone.

The rose was still there, curled blushing and perfect on the pillow. Xena opened one eye and peered at it, puzzled. She started to lift her head to look for Gabrielle, when an odd flickering in the flower caught her gaze.

A spider crawled out of the tightly curled bud. A reddish, jointed-legged spider, familiar in a sinister way that chilled Xena's heart. It skittered mindlessly over the pink petals, and then hunched on top of them, quivering. The spider began to feed.

It's tiny, wicked mandibles tore into a tender petal -- and where it tore, a bright red drop of blood brimmed, shimmering. Xena watched the spider rip at the rose in fascinated revulsion, but fear was trying to claim her.

She knew who this was. She knew what it meant.

In a spasm of anger, Xena's fist crashed down on both flower and spider.. She felt a small freshet of blood spurt beneath the heel of her hand as she ground it into the pillow. And, as she had half-known it would, both the spider and the blood were gone when she lifted her hand. All that remained was the tender rosebud, flattened and shredded by the force of her blow.

"Alti," Xena breathed, staring at the ruined rose.

Alti had Gabrielle.


Gabrielle heard voices, and reminded herself to lie still.

She knew better than to open her eyes right away. If she could feign unconsciousness awhile longer, perhaps she could get a handle on who had her this time. The bard felt cold, rough stone beneath her shoulders and hips. Her body was immobilized -- chained, judging by the bite of steel on her wrists, to some flat surface. The stone Gabrielle lay upon seemed inclined; her head was definitely higher than her feet.

"Bitch ain't awake yet?"

"You mixed the cretebane, Keisha. Blame yourself if you put her in a coma."

Women's voices, strained. The first voice held a generic mid-Greece accent, the second the softer brogue of the northlands.

Gabrielle tried to sense her surroundings through the pores of her skin. Her exposed skin, she realized, more skin than her sleeping robe left bare, at any rate. She felt the waistline of a skirt, and hot, humid air over her bare legs. She wore some kind of halter top, though not the comfortable green wool that was her usual apparel. Gabrielle remembered sleeping, in a bed, with Xena, in an inn. She didn't remember being brought here -- wherever here was.

She heard a gruff chuckle above her. Then a cold, metallic point tickling the tops of her thighs, lifting the bottom of her skirt. Gabrielle realized, uneasily, that she was naked underneath it.


"I just want to see if she's gold all over. Look at her eyelids move, Morda, the little slut's listening. If she's still out, I'm a -- "

"You're a dead woman, if you keep on with that."

Gabrielle registered real fear in the second woman's, Morda's, voice, as she warned her comrade off. She felt the bottom of the strange skirt drop back down over her thighs.

"Hey," Keisha barked, tapping Gabrielle's cheek.

Gabrielle opened her eyes at once. "You touch me again," she said, "and I'll bite your hand off."

Both women standing over her straightened, fast. Gabrielle couldn't know the full affect of her flashing green eyes when she was this angry.

"Gabrielle, you're not to struggle." Morda's brogue was harsher now. "That's steel holding you, lass, and it'll cut you if you jerk about."

Gabrielle turned her head on the stone and regarded Morda. "You know me, obviously." She cleared her throat, still trying to shake off the fading remnants of the cretebane.

"Show me an Amazon who hasn't heard of Queen Gabrielle, Xena's lapdog," Keisha snorted.

Gabrielle noted that Morda let the slur stand. Damn. Either she didn't outrank this Keisha person, or she was an Amazon who allowed an insult to the queen of a sister tribe stand unchallenged. Neither boded well in assuming Morda might be an ally.

That both of her captors were Amazon was evident in their dress. The bigger woman, Keisha, wore the colorful drapings of the southern tribes, while her confederate, Morda, was clothed in the more somber earth tones of a colder climate. Looking down at herself, Gabrielle noted that she had been dressed in the full ceremonial regalia of her own faction. The feathered top and skirt were not the attire of a queen, but they were stately enough to come close.

Gabrielle made herself focus on gathering facts. She lay on an inclined stone altar in the middle of a forest grove, her wrists chained on either side of her head. Judging by the angle of the moon, it was hours before sunrise. A large bonfire raged close by, and its shadowy red light illuminated both Gabrielle and the two Amazons guarding her. The one called Keisha had appropriated the bard's staff, and her tension was apparent in the way she kept tossing it from hand to hand.

"About bloody time," Keisha snapped suddenly.

Gabrielle lifted her head, and her heart sank in her chest as she saw Xena thrown bodily into the firelit circle in front of the altar. The warrior hit the ground rolling, and there was a clanking of heavy iron as she rose swiftly to her feet.

The eyes of the woman warrior and the bard met only for one moment -- long enough to ensure they were both alive. Gabrielle caught the wild, tousled hair above Xena's bleeding brow, the bruises emerging along the strong jaw. There was just enough time to see Xena's fierce eyes go soft with relief -- before ten, no, twenty women raced into the grove. They arrowed straight for Xena and threw themselves on her, one by one and then in groups, taking her down. Those who couldn't pile on the heap of thrashing bodies encircled it, screaming encouragement.

"Amazons, stand down!"

Gabrielle's tone rang with authority, and the chaotic group stilled, between one hoarse shout and the next. Few of them looked back at the altar to see the source of the voice; they didn't need to see Gabrielle to recognize the command of an Amazon queen.

Gabrielle tried to suppress her impatience as she waited for the awkward tumble of women's bodies to lift themselves off of Xena. Finally, they hauled the warrior upright by her arms, then allowed Xena to shake them off so she could stand alone.

"This isn't good," Gabrielle whispered.

Xena couldn't have heard her, but the corner of her mouth lifted as if she had. The warrior knew she'd been beaten, but not badly enough to warrant the bard's expression, surely. Then she blinked blood out of her right eye, and realized how she must look. The blow to her head still bled, a scarlet ribbon trickling slowly down the side of Xena's face, then wending down her damp throat.

"Are you all right?" Gabrielle spoke to Xena as if they were alone. "The same old, inane question I can't seem to stop asking you?"

"Xena could get far bloodier, Gabrielle, if you resist us." Keisha wasn't about to allow private conferences. She held Gabrielle's staff across her throat in a rather unnecessary gesture of menace.

This big one, then, was the ostensible leader of this rag-tag crew. Xena's eyes narrowed as she studied her.

Morda, at Gabrielle's left, scowled at Xena's cuts and bruises. "She didn't say to bloody her, Keisha."

"Didn't say not to," Keisha retorted, grinning.

"You have an enthusiastic army, Keisha," Xena drawled, straightening. "I chased them for three leagues, trying to surrender."

"That's a lie," one of the pursuing party sputtered. "She resisted capture, Keisha! We had to drag her here fighting like a damn tiger half the way -- "

"I resisted the manacles, Clara," Xena corrected dryly. She lifted a hand to sweep her spiked bangs back off her forehead, frowning at the clank of steel around her wrist.

"Something tells me this is not a simple gathering of tribes." Gabrielle tried for a diplomatic tone. Dignity was hard to summon, chained to an altar in front of twenty-five Amazons who seemed jazzed to the point of riot, but she found it. "If one of you would tell us-- "

Suddenly her staff was pressing into her throat.

"You're not to speak unless spoken to, your highness. Didn't that cunt Ephiny teach you any manners?"

Gabrielle saw it as the ruse it was an instant too late. Xena was already moving, so fast she seemed to outrace the ringing of her chains. She was not one to tolerate insults to a queen, not her queen, at any rate, ruse or not. Xena closed the distance separating her from Keisha in a heartbeat.

Keisha whirled and struck with Gabrielle's staff, hitting Xena's brow with a resounding crack. Xena's hand was almost in time to block the blow, but the added weight of the manacles threw her speed off one precious beat. She spun in mid air, and dropped like a stone.


Morda threw herself over Gabrielle to stop her struggles. "What good are you trying to do her?" she hissed. "Don't give Keisha reason, lass, I warn you."

Gabrielle quieted, gritting her teeth with the effort it took. Then she turned her head and watched three Amazons lift Xena and carry her to a space near the base of the altar, between two trees. Her green eyes flashed.. "What do you want from me, Keisha?"

"I have no use for your scrawny butt, Gabrielle." Keisha rested her elbow on the altar at Gabrielle's hip. "But then, I'm not why you're here."

"Do I get to know what's going on, or not," the blond woman snapped, tired of Keisha's sly smile. "If cute riddles are the best you can do, shut up and let me speak to someone in authority."

Morda blinked, and looked up at Keisha.

The bigger woman's smile faded. Suddenly she reached down and clenched Gabrielle's top in her hand, and twisted until the fabric ripped apart.. She slapped the halves of the top wide, baring Gabrielle's full breasts. With her other hand she brought the staff down, lightly, carefully, across the pink nipples. Keisha pressed downward with the staff, and licked her lips as the white flesh bulged prettily around it.

"Our lady wants these, sexy girl," Keisha whispered. "And, lucky me, I get to take them for her. Now, watch what we do with the warrior princess, over there. And every time you disobey me, you earn her a broken bone."

Gabrielle swallowed, hiding the shock still radiating through her since the violent unveiling of her breasts. She forced herself to be silent as Xena was dragged erect between the two trees, and more chains were brought to anchor her arms and legs wide, in a tight, standing X. The warrior was unconscious, or nearly so, her full weight hanging from her cuffed wrists. Or she was resting, Gabrielle thought, gathering her strength. She tried to summon her own, her eyes flickering to the staff caressing her nipples.

Keisha lifted the staff, smiling at the sight of Gabrielle's naked breasts. She tossed the staff casually to a woman nearby. Then she took a dagger from her belt, unsheathed it, and inserted it carefully beneath the waistline of the skirt Gabrielle wore.

"Come on, you lot." The big woman raised her head and jerked her chin at the surrounding Amazons. "You know you're dying to see the Golden Snatch in all her glory."

One by one the women came, of every shape and color, but mostly young, staring avidly down at Gabrielle's bare breasts, whispering to each other, grinning, until the inclined altar was encircled by a crowd.

Keisha finished cutting Gabrielle's skirt off, but left her decently covered. Gabrielle saw Keisha tilt her head, as if she were listening intently. Then the big Amazon shook the dagger at the base of the altar. "Nah, nah, you, move back. Let the warrior dyke see her little whore's body. Xena's supposed to watch."

Four of the Amazons standing between Gabrielle and the trees where Xena stood chained shifted to either side, clearing a pathway between the warrior and the altar.

Xena could see Gabrielle clearly. The bard's naked breasts bobbed gently with her breath, and the green eyes were shadowed. Xena's heart spasmed with anger at her young wife's exposure, and her blue eyes narrowed.

"Sisters," Keisha hissed, her dancing eyes on Xena, her hands clenched in Gabrielle's torn skirt, "may I present our lady's newest trophy of war."

Keisha snatched the skirt off Gabrielle's hips, rocking her against the stone. A hooting cheer went up from the mob surrounding the altar -- the release of suppressed tension, true, but also a sound of rising carnal excitement.

Gabrielle's golden-red mound nestled plump and inviting between her muscled thighs. The surrounding skin of her hips was pale against the dark tan of the bard's arms, midriff and legs. Her body was sleek, but softened into the feminine curves of full breasts and lush hips. Her breasts were constricted by the pull of the manacles on her arms, and they swelled slightly. Gabrielle kept her legs tightly shut, pressed together from ankle to thigh. Keisha seemed to like this, so Gabrielle tried to stop doing it, but found she could not.

Keisha reached out an curious finger and prodded the furred swell of Gabrielle's sex, gently, as if she were testing something dangerous. The surrounding Amazons laughed, but their eyes were bright. Even Morda's gaze, Gabrielle noticed, flushing, was fastened on the juncture between her quivering thighs.

"You're the same as her." Keisha spoke quietly to Gabrielle, as if they were alone together. She perched one hip on the side of the altar, crossed her arms, and lifted her chin toward Xena. "Your body's like Xena's, just smaller. Nah, I've never seen your warrior puta naked," Keisha grinned, "but I've run with women who have, in her old days, who like to talk. Strong arms and legs, flat belly." Keisha's eyes moved over Gabrielle's body. "Womanly tits, in spite of the muscle. Your set's a bit bigger, of course." She reached over and flicked Gabrielle's right nipple with a dirty fingernail, and the surrounding Amazons hooted softly.

"Can we touch her, Keisha?" A strained young voice from the rear of the crowd. There was laughter, but it was shushed quickly; they wanted to hear the answer.

"Hold your water," Keisha sighed, smiling down at Gabrielle as if she'd share her exasperation at the rashness of the unruly.

"Keisha, you're Amazon," the young queen said quietly. "Even if I'm not of your tribe, I'm your sister. Leading other Amazons to this," Gabrielle nodded down at her naked body, "would be a crime so grave not even Artemis could forgive you."

"Artemis has forgotten us," Keisha retorted, all gentleness fled. "Our so-called sisters have thrown us away, Gabrielle, every one of us." The women around them stirred, in uneasy agreement. "Our home tribes didn't have the guts to execute us, and they should have. Because Amazons abandoned will find each other, and perhaps a new deity, as well."

"It seems Alti has found a new herd of sheep, Gabrielle."

Xena's quiet voice drew Gabrielle's eyes toward her. The bard looked at her silently for a moment, drawing strength from the blue light of her eyes, and then her own widened. In spite of Gabrielle's current distractions, there was no suppressing the quick intelligence in those lovely features.

"Alti?" Gabrielle whispered. "The Amazon witch? The DEAD Amazon witch?"

"You were told to hold your tongue, young slut." One of the woman who had bungled Xena's capture shoved her way to the altar. She was silver-haired but just approaching middle age, and tall, wiry with muscle. Her hand darted down and latched onto Gabrielle's left nipple, and began to squeeze.

"Keisha," Morda protested softly, but Keisha waved her away, watching.

Gabrielle refused to arch her back in spite of the pain. She stared up into the angry woman's face. "Hello, Bethany," she breathed.

"Ephiny herself should be here, you know." The older woman's smile was cruel as she rolled Gabrielle's nipple in her long fingers. "Your regent would love seeing her precious young queen spread out like this. But I'll relish this time with you myself, Gabrielle. You didn't stop Ephiny from banishing me, did you?"

"No, she made the right decision," Gabrielle said calmly. "You're a bully and a thief, Bethany, and no tribe can tolerate that."

Gabrielle closed her eyes abruptly as the Amazon gave her a vicious pinch before letting go. Her aching nipple felt enormous, swelling in the warm air under so many eyes.

Gabrielle spoke without scorn, her gaze moving over the faces of the women around her. "They wear the insignia of a dozen tribes, Xena, mine among them. They're exiles."

"Criminals and outcasts," Xena corrected blandly. "Yes, Alti could only attract the dregs of the Amazons, even when she had a pulse."

Keisha kept her eyes on Gabrielle. "Bethany, go kick that banshee as many times as it takes to break a rib."

Gabrielle cursed, her eyes closing. "Xena, will you shut up," she hissed.
Bethany stalked over to Xena, smiled at her, and took aim. She kicked Xena's unprotected side, hard.

Gabrielle let out an explosive breath. "Tell me what to do to stop this, Keisha!"

Keisha stood up and held out her arms, as though relieved that Gabrielle had finally thought to ask. "Spread your legs for us, sugar-girl."

Gabrielle's heels were already moving, sliding apart.

Keisha lifted a hand. "Hold, Bethany."

Gabrielle opened her legs as widely as possible, bending her knees to spread them further when Keisha tapped on one.

"Chain her ankles," Keisha droned. Then she turned and walked away, her stride long and measured. Her space was quickly filled by the Amazons pushing to have a better look at Gabrielle's open vagina as her legs were manacled into their new position.

"Xena?" Gabrielle craned her neck, trying to see her lover over the avid stares.

"I'm all right, Gabrielle," Xena gasped, finally balancing her weight on both feet again. "Don't worry about me, Alti wants me alive." She tried to spit, but her throat was too dry. "She's gathered this coven of misfits for this little rite of revenge, and she won't let them kill off her audience."

"Gods, the ego of warriors!" Keisha plunged her head into a barrel of water kept near the fire lest the flames try to escape, then straightened, slinging ropes of silver drops from her braids. She bent and dug one hand into an open burlap bag beside the barrel. "This isn't about you, Xena, it's about your luscious little sex slave, over there. You know by proud experience what our Lady Alti can do with the blood of an Amazon queen."

Xena did. That knowledge was what had bolted her back to this haunted grove like lightning. Gabrielle was only now making the connection, and it chilled her to the bone. "Alti wants my blood?" the bard said faintly, looking at Xena.

Xena nodded, her carefully controlled fear concealed in the grim set of her jaw. "The witch used the blood of another Amazon queen, Cyane, to strengthen her powers a decade ago, Gabrielle. In this very grove." She waited, letting Gabrielle remember the terrible story that had only emerged from Xena in fits and starts, when the lovers were reunited. She saw the bard's throat move as she swallowed.

Bethany snarled the fabric at Xena's throat in one fist and hissed in her face. "Our lady Alti is no witch, freak!"

"Bethany's right." Keisha slung her dripping braids over her shoulder and strolled back toward the altar. "Our mistress is no white light-loving herb mixer, that's true. She exudes a darker essence than most witches I've known. And far more power." The big Amazon rested her hands on the altar, her gaze crawling from Gabrielle's face to her manacled ankles.

"Then why aren't I dead?" Gabrielle's question sounded purely practical, so she must be successfully quelling the dread that tightened her throat. "Not that I'm complaining. But all these florid dramatics seem a bit much for a simple blood sacri - "

"Anguish spiced Cyane's blood."

Gabrielle fell silent, and Xena's head lifted. That had not been Keisha's voice. A harsh, guttural growl emerged from the hulking woman, whose eyes had gone fixed and blank. It was Alti.

"I had you slaughter Cyane's sisters in front of her, before you impaled the bitch, Xena, don't you remember?"

Some of the other Amazons took a half-step back. Most of them had never seen Alti in the flesh, but they recognized this voice; any Amazon would have.

"May Artemis shrivel your womb," Xena said dully. It was the only Amazon curse she could remember at the moment, but it sounded good, though Gabrielle caught her eye in warning.

"The bitch-queen Cyane died full of despair, and that enriched her blood thoroughly. Her suffering drove my power to heights even I hadn't imagined." The whiskey-hoarseness of Alti's mortal voice purred from the motionless Amazon. "Do you think holding a third of Amazon Nation captive in the afterlife is child's play?"

"I think it's history," Gabrielle answered before Xena could speak. "Xena helped our sisters break your spell, Alti, and Cyane has long since passed to the Fields." Gabrielle's voice assumed the formal cadences of high office, and Xena stared at her partner. Impossible that this young woman, tied naked and spread on a stone altar, could summon such calm authority simply through speech, but Xena was looking at it. "And you were the one impaled, if I remember correctly, by the time Xena was finished with you."

"Nothing's finished, little girl." Keisha's hand encircled Gabrielle's slender throat, her eyes glowing with an alien hate.

Gabrielle didn't drop a beat. "You don't need to kill my sisters to fill my blood with anguish, Alti." Her voice was quiet, now, and absolutely sincere. "Slit my throat. Knowing I'm going to leave Xena behind, and knowing what seeing me die will do to her, will accomplish your purposes. I'll be content with your promise to let Xena live. But be warned, witch." Gabrielle's green eyes glowed as fiercely as Keisha's. "Xena will avenge me. She'll follow you from this world to the next if she has to."

"I wouldn't let you sacrifice yourself, even if your blood could poison this she-creep and finish her, Gabrielle." Xena had heard every word, and she was angry, and her side was killing her. "Don't even consider compromise, not this time. If Alti regains her human form, she'll build an army of these renegade Amazons to ride against your Nation. If we don't stop her here, Gabrielle, we're going to lose innocent lives."

Gabrielle whispered a curse, rested her head on the stone altar, and closed her eyes. Ephiny's loved face filled her mind, and Solari's. Thousands of women, equally well loved by thousands of others. Gabrielle couldn't risk it, even if it meant both their lives.

Gabrielle was suddenly afraid of Alti's techniques for filling an Amazon queen with anguish. Slaughtering her lover before her eyes would do the trick. The bard struggled through a wave of nausea.

"Don't worry, little queen," Alti murmured through Keisha's lips, her dry palm smoothing Gabrielle's damp hair off her forehead. "I'm not going to kill Xena, not tonight. She's going to be tortured, certainly, but mostly after your death. Then I'll let her go. Your loss will hurt Xena far more than I could, Gabrielle, I've known that since the night you appeared in our vision. I'll let her wander the earth broken in body and spirit for a few years, insane with grief, before I kill her."

"Xena was right," Gabrielle whispered, trying to think. "You are the queen of camp, Alti. Your prose is melodramatic enough to make the tackiest bard blush -- "

Keisha's possessed hand slid again around Gabrielle's throat. "There won't be one scratch on you before you die, little harlot. You'll be fully awake and aware for the next hour. Because you're not the seasoned ruler Cyane was, you're a green girl who's never nursed her tribe through a war. You're capable of great grief, Gabrielle, but a randy young queen's sexual energy will revive me much more pleasantly. For all concerned."

Xena closed her eyes, but Gabrielle kept hers on Keisha.

"Your climax will begin my rebirth," Alti whispered through Keisha, and then released Gabrielle abruptly. She turned and lifted a blue candle, as thick and long as her arm, and it was Keisha, again. "Bring your torches, Amazons. It's time to melt a golden queen."

Another ragged cheer went up. Then another, as the pack of women scrambled for the burlap sack, passing out candles. Keisha smiled down at Gabrielle, then nodded to Xena before she turned to walk toward the bonfire to light hers.

"Xena," Gabrielle called. She looked across the grove to her lover.

"It won't matter, Gabrielle," Xena answered, and her low tone was kind. "Don't try to stop it, whatever happens. But -- are you listening?" Xena's alto grew as intense as her gaze. "Seek out your pleasure wisely, Bri."

"Wh-what?" Gabrielle's brow furrowed; she was puzzled now as well as terrified, as she tried to make sense of Xena's last words. But Xena couldn't provide clarification, the Amazons were assembling again around the altar.

The tall candles they carried glowed with flame. Twenty small tongues of light formed a rough, three-sided curve around the altar, illuminating Gabrielle's nakedness in a red, flickering glow. Morda shifted, moving higher, not wanting to be within Gabrielle's range of vision -- but not lifting her gaze from the bard's body, her brown eyes wide and staring.. Morda's tongue snaked out to brush over dry lips.

Keisha moved to the head of the altar, above Gabrielle, and facing Xena. She looked down on Gabrielle's still form for a long moment. Then she lifted her candle, signaling a general call to attention. The murmuring Amazons fell quiet. It was an ugly silence, pregnant with greed.

"Now, this Queen Gabrielle will dance the veils open between worlds," Keisha announced, "and welcome our lady and mistress back to the mortal plane." The large dark eyes dropped, and the big woman smiled down at Gabrielle. "That means you've got to writhe, Gabrielle."

"What," Gabrielle asked tonelessly.

"Dance for us." Keisha nodded, gesturing at Gabrielle's restrained body. "Push your breasts up, jut open your crotch. All that. You're going to refuse, right?"

Gabrielle opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She felt fastened to the stone, the candle flames and shining eyes around her blurring in her confusion. But her mind cleared as she sensed a threat to Xena, and Gabrielle looked toward her just as Keisha signaled Bethany.

Xena steeled herself to absorb the blow, but she still felt wide open when Bethany's fist impacted below her right eye. She thought for a moment that the socket had crumbled, but no, it just hurt badly enough to rate that damage as her head snapped to the left. Her knees still felt shaky from the prior pummeling, and to Xena's disgust she fogged out again for a moment. She sagged, blood seeping from the new cut beneath her eye, and swayed by her cuffed wrists.

"Dance," Keisha whispered, staring down at Gabrielle.

Gabrielle began to move. The bard could not move without grace, so her slow twisting was more sensual than she would have wanted. Her body undulated gently against the rough stone, her full breasts surging, then lowering, her hips churning in slow circles, her furred mound rising between her wide-spread legs.

But Gabrielle's face was totally impassive, looking up at Keisha. She was following orders; there could be no complaint with her compliance so far. Then, cursing silently, Gabrielle felt a small thrill of warmth in her vagina, pulled open and beginning to glisten beneath so many staring eyes.

"Sweet Hera," one of the watching Amazons murmured. The women were silenced by the beauty of this forced ballet, hypnotized by it.

"Don't be fooled, you drooling dunces," Keisha chuckled. "That's no dance; she's mechanical as hell." She reached into her own cleavage and pulled out a small, sparkling silver chain. Each end was capped by a gleaming metal dragon's head, with long snouts. Keisha smiled, and fixed her fingers around the base of the dragon's heads. She pressed, and the jaws opened to reveal twin rows of jagged, but blunted teeth.

Keisha leaned over and clipped them onto Gabrielle's large nipples.

Gabrielle's gasping brought Xena around, fast, but her chains held her in spite of her strength. The tall warrior stood transfixed, unable to act, and watched her young lover writhe in earnest in response to the pinching sizzle in her nipples. Gabrielle had surrendered control, briefly, as she knew she would again if this night involved much pain.

Gabrielle had never seen Xena out-and-out tortured, thank the gods, but she imagined her lover would be stoic even under the lash. Gabrielle, more practical by nature, preferred to save her energies for planning escape, not pretending she wasn't hurting.

This pain wasn't much, and it was fading, finally, but the scalding embarrassment of its placement made it worse. Gabrielle didn't have to see her nipples to know they were red and swelling fast in the dragons' jaws.


"It's all right, Xena," Gabrielle stammered, her eyes opening, "it just surprised me, I'm not hurt."

"Your moves have improved, though," Keisha pointed out. "Keep it up, Gabrielle, just like that."

Gabrielle managed to reach some compromise between the rote pattern she'd followed at first and the lewd squirming she'd done unwillingly. She twisted slowly on the stone. She could feel more moisture gathering at the base of her netherlips, and a maddening tickle set in. She longed to flex her buttocks to press that itching spot, but couldn't allow that proof of arousal, not in this hostile grove. She couldn't look at her lover, but she felt the warrior's heated gaze on her surging breasts..

"I anoint Amazon royalty with the midnight blue of our lady's eyes," Keisha began, holding her long, lit taper above Gabrielle's naked body.

"Better that than the urine yellow of your lady's teeth," Xena interjected from her chained stance yards distant.

Gabrielle almost sobbed when she heard Bethany's fist thud solidly against Xena's chest -- time such a blow carefully enough, the bard knew, and it could kill. She renewed the seductive force of her writhing, the green eyes on Keisha's face showing the first signs of fear. She had to keep the big Amazon's focus off Xena, or she'd have the warrior beaten until she couldn't stand.

Bethany hadn't had the courtesy to knock Xena out. She snapped her sweaty, dark hair out of her eyes and watched as Keisha tipped her candle over Gabrielle's bare belly, and a small drop of melted wax crested over the candle's edge. The hot liquid fell precisely onto Gabrielle's pale skin, and the bard gasped.

Xena didn't know whether the candles were beeswax or not, but they seemed to melt at a low temperature. Pain, some, but only briefly, as the wax cooled quickly. That was good. Xena herself had played this game with candles designed to evoke slow suffering. She couldn't have watched that happen to Gabrielle. Xena realized that she felt nauseous, in spite of all this reassurance. She might have to batter herself unconscious to keep from coming, if Gabrielle's green eyes kept drilling into her own like that.

The blue coin of wax on Gabrielle's stomach had cooled and hardened, but her navel still dipped and rose as she drew quick, unguarded breaths, trying to control her pulse. Xena had shown her how to regulate her body's systems to some degree, and the bard had grown good at it, but the instruction hadn't included doing it naked and nipple-clipped. Gabrielle had to bite back a half-hysterical burst of laughter.

"I anoint the breasts all our lady's women will offer on demand," Keisha continued, a small smile playing again around her lips. Other Amazons smiled, too, at the direction Keisha's candle was moving. It hovered an inch above Gabrielle's right nipple, and then dipped.

Two drops of hot wax splashed onto the turgid clipped nub, and Gabrielle gasped again, her back arching so tightly her ribs swelled. She shook her shoulders, trying to dislodge the searing liquid pleasure at the tip of one breast. Her breasts flopped wetly together, making a slapping sound..

Xena's knees almost buckled at the sight. She followed the advice she'd given her wife, and made no effort to suppress her growing arousal. The moment was soon coming when Xena would need all her sexual sensibilities, alive and receptive. She could only pray Gabrielle caught on to Xena's last message before she suffered too much shame -- watching the bard humiliated was almost more painful for the warrior than a beating would have been.

Apparently Xena wasn't alone in her rising desire, and her broad shoulders tensed. One of the Amazons at the base of the altar suddenly scrambled up on top of it, and threw her skinny body over Gabrielle's chained one, snarling like someone insane.

Keisha bellowed, dropped her candle, and latched on to the woman's cloak. The Amazon's lips were fastened over Gabrielle's other clamped nipple, chewing it around the metal of the dragon's teeth. Keisha dragged her off the stone surface, and then hurled the cursing Amazon three yards through the air.

"Hold ranks! Hold!" Keisha shouted. Her command held more petulance than authority, but her volume alone quieted the mob, for the time being. "You'll get your chance at her, every one of you -- but in Alti's time! Jaddin. You and Pia -- do her breasts."

Keisha waved vaguely over Gabrielle's chest, and the two sanctioned Amazons moved eagerly into place. A trilling war cry rose as two candles hovered above the captive queen's nipples, then crested as the hot wax splashed down again.

"Keisha, we're hurting her!" Morda's unexpected voice was strident as she pushed up beside Keisha. She looked down at Gabrielle's contorted face, at her head turning back and forth against the stone as the blue wax dotted her breasts, then gripped Keisha's thick arm with icy fingers. "I didn't agree to this, torturing an Amazon -- "

"You've been enjoying it up till now." Without looking at Morda, Keisha reached down and thrust her hand between the woman's legs. "Sister."

Morda cried out and bent over, backing away quickly.

"If you don't have the stomach for this, Morda, wait for me in our tent . . ." with blue from the continuing splashes of molten wax.

"Take off your clothes and cuff yourself to the beam," she called over her shoulder to Morda. "I'll deal with you shortly." The white swells of her prisoner's breasts were flushing pink, and the blond woman was writhing uncontrollably, now, magnificently. It was the most beautiful sight Keisha had ever seen, and she hardly noticed when Morda ran out of the grove.

"Kaz, bring the phallus." Keisha smiled as Gabrielle's gaze flew to her face. Her eyes moved to the darkness between Gabrielle's spread legs, and saw the wetness there. Her smile broadened. "Why, you're starting to enjoy yourself, Gabrielle," she whispered.

In a manner of speaking, Gabrielle admitted silently, but they could cut her tongue out before she'd say it out loud. This was living horror, but at the same time, she would challenge any healthy woman to stay composed when she's about to be gang-raped by a bunch of rowdy Amazons, in front of her butch lover who was chained between two aspen trees . . .

Gabrielle was trying very hard to remember that if she allowed herself to reach climax, she might release upon the world that crazy sorceress, Alti. And if Gabrielle's movements goaded Xena into protesting her treatment again, Xena would be beaten some more. Yes, all wise strategy pointed to not letting these women bring her to orgasm. The hot liquid wax splashed again against both clipped nipples. Artemis herself couldn't long resist such relentless arousal.

Keisha waited until Kaz returned with the long, hard leather phallus her band had broken in around one memorably sweaty campfire. "Let's get this party rolling." Keisha crossed her forearms on the altar beside Gabrielle's head, and jerked her chin at the two Amazons who still shook candles above her breasts. They backed off, reluctantly, content with watching the splotches of dark blue wax harden on the creamy swells.

"Bethany, stay close to Xena. The rest of you, act only on my word," Keisha called. She did have leadership in her, now, when she needed it most.. And she knew exactly what her lady Alti wanted next.

"Kaz." Keisha's voice was the essence of calm. "Shove it in her, slowly. "Pia, open her thighs and use your mouth on her."

"Pia already got to hurt her breasts," a voice from the back protested.

"This is only the first wave," Keisha barked in irritation. "Maybe you'll get lucky, and we'll have flipped the little bitch over by the time it's your turn. Hold, Amazons, I haven't signaled!"

Keisha waited until the throng around her stilled again. "Bente, Marian, keep the queen's tits busy. Scratch that wax off -- don't break the skin, but get it off -- and suck her nipples, hard."

"An Amazon's work is never done," Bente murmured, and winked at Gabrielle, who ignored her.

"Keisha, think," Gabrielle said softly. "There's no turning back, once your command is given." The lovely green eyes held no real hope.

"Not for either of us, Gabrielle." The big woman cradled Gabrielle's face in her hand, almost tenderly. "Amazons, attack."

The four women swarmed over Gabrielle's splayed body, goaded on by the ragged cheers of the others.

She was aware first of her thighs being pressed further open, and then a smacking hot tongue plunging through the lips of her vagina and reaming straight up into her. Gabrielle screamed.

Two other Amazons descended on her breasts, plucking off the clamps, and Gabrielle drew in a gasping breath. Their strong fingers pinched the huddling swells, slapping off the hardened blue wax, until the full globes quivered whitely again beneath their hands, the nipples huge and red and begging for teeth. Bente sucked hers; Marian began to chew.

"Ah gods," Gabrielle groaned, her chin lifting slowly as her eyes drifted closed. Keisha stared down the delicate lattice-work of blue veins in the white throat, and she ran her tongue across her lips. Xena's gaze was pinned on the same soft spot, just below Gabrielle's clenched jaw. The warrior felt her mouth fill with saliva.

"Any last words, Gabrielle, while you can still talk?" Keisha asked.

"I'll find you, Keisha, no matter how far you run," Gabrielle said clearly. Tears rose in her mist-green eyes as her arousal surged higher. The Amazon tonguing her clit had begun to suck it.

"Don't get greedy, Pia." The Amazon named Kaz was spreading Gabrielle's knees further apart. She was careful to stand to one side of the altar, so as not to block Xena's view. Kaz knew of the warrior princess, of course, and she loved knowing Xena had to watch her be the first to rape her Golden Snatch.

The Amazon nudged Pia's bobbing head aside. Pia went back to tonguing Gabrielle's clit, to clear the way for Kaz's probing leather phallus. The stiff braided rod skittered in the copious liquid coating Gabrielle's hairy outer lips, teasing her.

"Since when do you know anything about foreplay, Kaz," Keisha snapped. "The bitch is wet enough, just fuck her."

"With pleasure," Kaz breathed, and Gabrielle's hips spasmed as the long phallus plunged between her helplessly spread legs. It was so thick it had to root up inside her in stages, but Kaz pushed steadily. Once it was fully inserted, Kaz began to grind the phallus, slowly, in circles, twisting the rod in her fist.

Gabrielle was suppressing another scream. She came close to biting through her lower lip in her effort to remain silent. Searing pleasure was pumping through her, now, swirling from the tip of her clit and down the valley between the bound bard's scarlet nipples -- the two women were still chewing them, frantically, making obscene smacking sounds with their mouths.

Keisha supervised with satisfaction. The queen was being soundly and roughly fucked. The phallus skewering her was ridged, and squelching noises began to sound against its thrusting blackness.

Gabrielle felt Keisha's fingers snarl in her long thick hair, and her head was jerked up so she could see Xena. "She's watching you being raped, Gabrielle. She's watching Alti dig up into you, watching you shimmy your crotch around like the slut you are. Xena's watching Alti make you come, little -- "

"Not Alti, Gabrielle." Xena spoke the words quietly, but Gabrielle could read her lips.

Slowly, Gabrielle's taut body relaxed against the stone altar. Mentally, she slowed the rush of heat inside her, but it took great effort. Mouths still sucked her nipples and her clit, leather still engorged her cunt, but the young queen lay still.

One by one, the women touching Gabrielle realized their victim had stopped responding, and they stepped back from the altar in confusion. Kaz left the phallus half-inserted between the young woman's legs, and took a stumbling step from the altar when she saw Xena's eyes.

Gabrielle waited for Xena to speak again. No one touching her now, her flushed, chained body fully exposed to her lover's pitiless gaze.

Xena gauged the precise extent of her young lover's arousal. She took in Gabrielle's voluptuous curves, the turgid, red clit, twitching with the need for release. She saw the blushing color rising on Gabrielle's cheeks, and to the tops of her full breasts. Her gleaming eyes dropped to the end of the bobbing leather phallus.

In that moment, Gabrielle had the exquisite features, the hooded expression, and the heavy-lidded eyes of a mature Amazon queen in thrall to an irresistible lover. She arched her back. Her image of Xena was framed by her heaving breasts, and she watched her own nipples swell in offering. They were the only women in the grove.

"That's my whip in you, girl." Xena's beloved voice was cool, dark satin, swirling around Gabrielle's trembling body. "That's the leather of my bullwhip digging up into you, twisting through your greased channels."

Xena saw Bethany swing and tried to ignore her, but her breath whooshed out of her as the Amazon's fist pounded into her stomach.

"Xe - Xena," Gabrielle called softly, her eyes widening.

"Listen to me, Gabrielle," Xena snapped, and managed to stand straight again. She flicked an annoyed glance at Bethany, who was coming for her throat. Xena's forehead shot forward and connected with Bethany's brow.. The charging Amazon actually spun in a circle before she dropped unconscious to the wet grass.

"Ouch," Xena added unnecessarily, as blood from the newest split on her forehead trickled into her left eye. She winced it out as well as she could.

"Those are my lips sucking nectar from the tip of your clit, Gabrielle," Xena continued, her low voice raspier now. "Those are my teeth scraping back and forth over the tender tip of you. And -- well, you remember how hard I can bite."

Not one finger was touching her, but Gabrielle felt paralyzed by the cleansing bolts of pressurized pleasure suddenly building in her groin. Xena's voice alone could make the bard wet; it had, on a number of inconvenient occasions. But now Gabrielle was not just aroused, she was cresting, and she couldn't have stopped it if she tried.

She began writhing again, as she never had before, not even when they were truly alone. Gabrielle moved sometimes like this, for Xena, because the warrior liked it. Liked watching her struggle while she tied her wrists with soft rawhide, and ripped her clothes open. And some of Gabrielle's private dances could steal Xena's breath away, days later, simply when she remembered them.

"Alti's not making you come, Gabrielle, I am," Xena purred, one corner of her mouth curling.

"Alti who?" Gabrielle gasped, and then she came, so explosively her body smacked down hard against the stone altar and she nearly knocked herself senseless. The phallus spurted out of her with the strength of the next orgasmic contraction, and slipped wetly over the edge of the altar.

The bard was swept up in the most excruciating pleasure she had ever known. She wanted to open her mouth and wail with it, and her jaw did drop, but no sound emerged. Gabrielle lifted her chin and ground the top of her head into the stone, the cords in her slender neck standing out, paralyzed by the criminal bolts of heat shooting from her open crotch as she climaxed.

"No," Keisha said dully, straightening beside the altar, looking down at Gabrielle's wildly undulating body. "It can't happen this way. We're not even touching her." Keisha looked wildly around at the stunned women. "Alti's not forcing her over, it's Xena . . . " the Amazon's eyes trailed to the chained warrior. She pushed two women aside, and started for her.

"Xe . . Xena." Gabrielle forced herself to focus, in spite of the waves of pleasure still drowning her.

"I see her," Xena muttered. She was staring at Keisha.

Who might have just taken an arrow in the spine, so stunned was her expression. But Keisha's back bore no mark Xena could see, after the big woman spun around and faced the altar again. Keisha had nearly reached Xena, but now seemed oblivious to her.

"She's coming," Keisha whispered. She obviously didn't mean Gabrielle. This point was driven home when thunder exploded above the trees with such a theatrical but deafening roar that a few in the throng screamed.

Then lots of things happened at the same time.

Keisha dropped to the ground and began to convulse.

A hot windstorm broke over the grove. A huge gust whipped the bonfire into many small fires, and the dry grass below their feet began to smoke. Several of the more practical Amazons began stomping flames.

Keisha's skin began to split, beginning with her skull. Gabrielle stopped watching her at that point.

The trees outside the grove rang with the calls of the northern Amazons, the young tribe Xena spoke of with such fondness -- and Gabrielle yelled aloud in sheer joy to hear them.

Xena recognized those war cries, too, and her knees went weak with relief. But the warrior also kept one wary eye on Keisha, who was splitting apart down the back now.

"Gods, can't you ever just come for a visit?" Otere snapped, popping up at Xena's right side. Her dark eyes were characteristically serious as she reached high above her to fiddle keys into the cuff binding Xena's wrist.

"What took you so long?" Xena was delighted to see the young Amazon again. "Have you no patrols?"

Yakut came up under Xena's other arm, her own sliding protectively around the warrior's waist. "Hi, Xena."

"Hello, Yakut," Xena grinned.

"Are you all right? You're even prettier without the horns." The young shamaness rose up on her toes to kiss Xena's bruised cheek. "Sheesh," she added, frowning sympathetically as Xena winced.

Otere finally freed Xena's right wrist, and turned to stare wide-eyed at the naked blonde still manacled to the altar. "Wow, is that Gabrielle?"

"Keep your eyes to yourself, kid," Xena warned, only half joking.

"Yes, mother," Otere muttered, working on Xena's left wrist. "An Amazon called Morda found our hunting camp. She wouldn't come back with us, she's leagues upwind by now -- "

"Xena, we've got company."

Xena looked up instantly -- Gabrielle's voice was deadly quiet. She followed the bard's gaze to Keisha's unrecognizable body, split in half, no organs apparent, and little blood. But a huge, sinewy black shape was rising from the cavity of the empty corpse. It was a black panther.

"Alti, meet Gabrielle," Xena breathed, trying to rub sensation back into her bleeding but numb wrists. Yakut took one look at the panther, and started rubbing Xena's shoulders to restore her circulation. So did Otere. "Gabrielle, this is Alti."

Gabrielle saw another member of Otere's tribe standing right beside her, holding a set of keys, and staring open-mouthed at the huge black cat. "Get me off of here as fast as you possibly can," she ordered quietly.

The Amazon turned immediately to work on the manacles around Gabrielle's wrists, not wasting a moment, Xena noted, even to acknowledge the command. "You've trained your women well for crisis, Otere."

Otere nodded. "What now?"

"It's up to Gabrielle." Xena's blue eyes were concerned, but she nodded at the bard, who was still half-manacled to the altar. "This was an Amazon rite, and she's the ranking Amazon here. Follow her command."

"No Amazons we know would have done this to a defenseless woman," Yakut grumbled, clearly incensed on the blond bard's behalf.

Xena sighed, sadly. "You're so young."

Gabrielle, braced on her elbows, was studying the woods around them, and she was satisfied with the progress of the battle. The grove was nearly empty, and the surrounding trees were filled with the sounds of pursuit, not combat. Keisha's troops were bolting for the hills, and it sounded as if her northern sisters knew enough to be content with a very long chase.

Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief, that turned into a prayer that no Amazon would shed blood before the sun rose.

"Gabrielle," Xena warned.

"Present company included," Gabrielle finished her prayer, staring at the panther crouching in front of her.

Gods, how had it moved there so swiftly, Gabrielle thought, letting out a long breath as the woman working to free her of her chains looked up. "Get back," Gabrielle said softly. The Amazon looked at her, questioning, and Gabrielle nodded. "It's all right. Get out of harm's way, right now."

The woman obeyed, leaving Gabrielle alone on the altar, her ankles still chained to it. The panther's eyes were fixed on her, and glowing.

"Gabrielle," Xena growled again, impatiently. Her hands were twitching at her sides in response to the flexing muscle that rippled the panther's black hide.

Gabrielle had measured the risks, and she spoke with an assurance that made Otere and Yakut exchange respectful glances. "She can reach me in about three strides, Xena. I can't get completely off of this thing, even if I could move fast enough, which I probably couldn't. Got your chakram?"

"Nope," Xena murmured, eyeing the panther with steely restraint.

"Got a knife?" Gabrielle asked.

Both Otere and Yakut whipped daggers from their belts and held them up for Xena's inspection. Xena didn't even look at the twin blades. "The panther's blood will be poisonous, Gabrielle. Remember your legends."

"You're right." Gabrielle's cool was half hysteria, but she didn't show it. Watching the panther's cruel talons tear through the grass as the paws flexed made Gabrielle feel more naked and vulnerable than she had all night. Her green eyes flicked up to Xena's face. "Well, what are you thinking, stud?"

"I think Alti took things a little too far," Xena said, shaking out her tingling hands. Her eyes were narrowed, and Gabrielle shook her head.

"No macha heroics, Xena, not now," Gabrielle said quickly.

"No macha," Xena promised, lifting her hands and taking a careful step forward.

"Queen Gabrielle, should we tackle her?" Otere's question was both respectful and overly optimistic, in Xena's opinion.

"Stand by, little sister," Gabrielle murmured. Her own eyes narrowed as Xena took another step. "Stop, Xena, please." The panther snarled at Gabrielle's strained voice, and Xena froze in place.

"Don't speak, Gabrielle," Xena hissed. All three Amazons could see the warrior was serious as hemlock. She was clearly afraid she might not reach the panther before it sprang its four hundred taloned pounds on top of her very naked, still-exposed young wife.

"Just listen," Xena said. "I meant it, Alti took things too far. She's lost rational control. She can't reason like a woman when she's in animal form. All she's got is instinct, and that's targeted on you, Gabrielle. She doesn't even smell me. No crass comments, children."

"Don't joke, Xena," Yakut whispered, crossing her arms uneasily as Xena moved another step forward.

"Xena," Gabrielle pleaded. "No." Whisper or not, it was the direct command of an Amazon queen.

"Gabrielle, if you open your mouth again, I'm going to leave you chained up there until the spring thaw."

They were out of time. The panther was hunched, preparing to spring. Xena bent her knees, her hands loose and relaxed at her sides. She looked like a jungle cat herself.

"Xena," Otere yelled, "You're not armed!"

"Neither's Gabrielle," Xena replied, and her muscled legs pistoned into the ground, launching her through the air like a well-aimed spear.

The panther leaped, it's front claws extended, straining for Gabrielle's flat belly. The bard threw herself back, violently, and lifted an arm to protect her eyes. The talons were an inch from her pale skin when Xena's body hit the cat's side. It's scream blended with Xena's as they rolled, clutched together in a blur of white skin and ebony fur.

The northern Amazon was instantly back at Gabrielle's feet, working furiously to remove the manacles. Gabrielle sat braced on her elbows, her green eyes locked on an apparently mortal combat. Between a spectral jungle animal rarely seen on this continent, and one much-beaten and very human woman, who apparently planned to choke the beast to death with her bare hands.

Xena was behind the panther, now, on top of her, one powerful arm wound around its throat. Gabrielle could see that her lover was taking her share of punishment in this fight -- the bare shoulder slung across the cat's neck was striped with three claw marks. Gabrielle turned her head and looked away, but only for a moment, when Xena's teeth flashed in a grimace of pain.

The manacles fell from Gabrielle's chaffed ankles at last, and clattered onto the stone altar. Gabrielle bounded off the slanted platform, and fell promptly on her face in the grass; her long-restrained limbs were far too numb and bloodless to support her sudden weight. Gabrielle gasped out a few choice curses and slapped her thighs, hard.

Something in Gabrielle's voice again galvanized the panther, and it jerked and lunged in Xena's arms, trying to break free. Otere ran to help Xena, and Yakut headed instinctively for the queen, intending to shield her -- the young shaman would be Gabrielle's last defense, if the unthinkable happened.

With a snarl of rage, Xena wrestled the thrashing cat onto it's back, and then bucked it's twisting mass into the glowing embers of the bonfire. The roaring beast landed, and then felt the burning agony in it's back. It snap-rolled erect. Yellow eyes sought out Gabrielle's white face, and the panther screamed with an almost human hatred. Then it bounded off into the forest, it's harrowing snarls fading among the trees.

Xena was sprawled full-length on the grass, but she lifted her head immediately to see Gabrielle. Gabrielle's eyes hadn't left Xena since she'd thrown herself at the panther.

"Hey. Hoo. You all right?" Otere was stammering as she bent to clutch Xena's arm.

"Gabrielle," Yakut said nervously, "I don't think you should get up yet -- "

Both of the young Amazons were ignored. Gabrielle was up and running, with as much speed as her still-tingling legs could generate. Xena was up and moving too, though she wasn't much steadier than her partner.

The collision in the center of the grove was damn near poetic. The warrior and the bard clutched each other before they collapsed, but it was a near thing. Gabrielle caught Xena as she fell, and cradled her against her breasts, shaking so badly she had to put off speech again for the moment. Xena's eyes closed as soon as her weight settled into the grass, content to feel Gabrielle's warmth against her back, and her strong arms supporting her shoulders.

"I ordered you to stand down, Xena," Gabrielle gasped, finally, brushing the warrior's sweat-soaked raven hair off her bleeding forehead. "I've pledged my heart to a lunatic, I swear."

"No, you just didn't pledge it to an Amazon, Gabrielle," Xena reminded her, smiling up at Gabrielle like a young child. She looked more than a little smug.

Gabrielle couldn't smile, yet. "I think I'm going to throw up."

"You still do, sometimes, after a close call," Xena sighed. "At least lean away from me for once, please."

Gabrielle lifted Xena, trying to see her battered face. "You're not secretly bleeding to death, right, somewhere I can't see?"


The bard rested her forehead on Xena's bare shoulder and closed her eyes in relief.

"Gabrielle," Xena struggled to sit up as the two Amazons approached them, still looking worried. "This is Otere, leader of the northern tribe, and this is her shaman, Yakut."

"Pleased," Gabrielle said, and threw up all over Otere's boots.

"That's okay," Otere said kindly, shaking off one boot. She tried to hide her shy smile, but couldn't, as she clasped her hands behind her back and bobbed on her toes. "Wow. Gabrielle. You look pretty much like we expected, real beautiful. I never imagined you naked, of course." It was more than Otere usually said in a month, and she was lying anyway.

"Excuse me, Queen Gabrielle." Yakut stopped glaring at Otere, and gently brushed a tendril of Gabrielle's hair off her face, a maternal gesture that almost made the bard cry again. "But you're still buck naked, and Xena's hurt, and I'm not sure that weird panther is gone for good, so can we make tracks, soon?"

Gabrielle pressed Xena's shoulders, carefully. "Did you train these two?"

"Nope. They came this way."

Gabrielle spat into the dirt, and then smiled at the two young Amazons. "Bring me a blanket, or something, Yakut, please. The panther won't be back. Lay camp outside this grove, Otere, but close to it. Find whatever healing herbs you brought with you, or can gather. Boil water, tear cloth for bandages, and post a watch. Then come get us, we'll be right here." She sighed and rested her lips in Xena's dark hair.

"Sounds good," Xena murmured.

Both warrior and bard looked up as Otere and Yakut tapped their chests with their closed fists, then extended their hands, palms down, to Gabrielle.

The queen nodded, accepting the tribute as her due.


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