And Fair Truth
by: de Bonheur
DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle et. al. belong to MCA/Universal, and are used without intent for commercial profits. The author's copyright does not extend to said characters. NOTICE: The author retains all rights automatically attached to the creation of this work, and any and all independently created characters. WARNINGS: This is an alt. story, contains explicit mature contents and may be offensive to some readers. Please use discretion. AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story picks up where the LONG IS THE WAY series left off. While it is not necessary to read LITW to know what's going on, the Xenaverse would make more sense. This is inspired by Ludovico Ariosto's ORLANDO FURIOSO, one of the greatest work of Italian Renaissance.
Gone were the rainy and blustery days of early Spring. Apollo, pleased with the warming weather, spent ever more time travelling across the sky in his magnificent chariot, drawing little forest animals out to play. In rich fields of green, pale blue flowers lifted their heads demurely, while white and golden blossoms beamed their welcome at the visiting butterflies. Beautiful birds heralded the season with their lovely songs.
It was a glorious time at the Amazon village as well. For the past couple of days, tributaries from allied states have started pouring in. The last envoy of Amazon warriors arrived the day before, bringing lavish gifts obtained from the markets of Athens. By the end of the week, makeshift tents would probably litter the entire surrounding forest. They had already run out of space to store the offerings; and Solari, in charge of record-keeping, fretted over the anticipated need for more room. However, even she decided to overlook her quandary and partake in the festivities.
This day marked the beginning of one of the happiest and most important events the tribe had seen for a too long while. The entire week would be devoted solely to feasting, music and dance. Fragrance of the season's first strawberries mixed with scent of sweet fine wine permeated the air. Drummers kept joyous tempo while groups of leather clad warriors danced before the honoured guests. In the background, lyrical soprano chants harmonised.
Despite the enthralling performance, the celebrants' attention was commanded by an even more enchanting sight. On the dais, the Amazon Queen, in full regalia, stood with her Regent to her left, and the Warrior Princess to her right. The Queen looked resplendent in the gold and russet ensemble which complimented the honey-gold of her hair. Upon her blonde head sat the feathered mask, lifted, revealing dazzling smiles which reached the sparkling jewels of her eyes. Ephiny wore her ceremonial outfit as well. The mask, which usually made her look stern and dangerous, could not hide the jubilant demeanor. Even the normally stoic Warrior beamed, her features brighter than the gleam of her polished weapons and armour.
Behind and towering over the trio, sat the chief priestess, Calandra. She wore a simple white silk tunic belted with a silver sash, and looked almost ethereal. All Amazons knew by her attire that on this very day, Calandra was not merely a channel to Artemis, but she would be the personification of the Goddess herself.
The music ended on a soft, elated note, as if born from the heavens; and the dancers dropped to the ground, prostrate before the dais. The priestess stood and addressed those before her, "Amazons, distinguished guests, we are happy to formally announce that our queen, Gabrielle, has chosen, Xena of Amphipolis, as her consort. The oracle decreed the joining ceremony be held at the end of this quarter cycle. Let the Goddess' will be done!"
"And let the celebrations continue!" Appended the Regent. At that, the entire village cheered; and loud, buoyant music resumed once again.
The brilliant midday light flooded her surroundings with such clarity and colours that Xena wished painting were one of her many skills. Then she would capture and commit the spectacle before her for posterity.
After the announcements, the priestess retired to the temple of Artemis, and the rest of them joined in the celebration. And at the table, sitting beside her was the young woman whose smiles captured and shone in her heart like a beacon, lighting her way. Many people in the warrior's past had helped and taught her, but it was Gabrielle who stuck by her through all the twists and turns, and shown her where the ultimate path led.
The Warrior Princess thought this love was a blessing from the gods, and always she doubted she deserved it, and sometimes even wondered if they would suddenly take it from her. She shook her dark head to chase away that thought, and focused on the bard. Gabrielle chose that moment to snuggle in closer and wrapped her arm about her warrior's waist. Xena made a mental note to have a small portrait done of her partner, one she could keep close to her on the times they had to be apart.
*And what a beautiful picture the two made,* the Regent mused to herself. The Warrior Princess had her arm protectively about Gabrielle, whose adoring gaze beheld her partner. *Gods, if anyone ever looked at me like that, I'll know I'm well loved.*
Ephiny was happy and relieved that Xena returned her Queen's feelings, and Gabrielle, the warrior's, in equal measure. At first she was worried that Xena would be too proud, the bard too shy, and both of them too afraid, to admit their attraction. Then, Ephiny feared how their relationship would endure through the toil and strain. However, looking at the pair, stealing kisses from each other when they thought no one was paying too close attention, their friend knew nothing could tear them asunder.
"Your Majesty," an Amazon approached their table, and bowed deeply to Gabrielle.
"Hello, Iona," the Queen returned the greeting, after taking seconds to recall her name. "Nice seeing you again, and please, call me Gabrielle."
The Warrior Princess remembered the raven-haired Amazon too well though. She was the same one who had blatantly flirted with the bard during their visit to her tribe a few moons ago.
"My queen sends her congratulations, Gabrielle, Xena," Iona held out her hand, and Xena took it in a warrior's clasp. Something passed between the two warriors as blue eyes locked with deep violets. The bard sensed a sudden tension in the body pressed against hers. Although she wasn't sure what the cause was, she leaned in instinctively, and felt the tightness dissipate in response.
"Please relate to your queen our deepest gratitude for her gifts," said Gabrielle to the visiting warrior, "We trust all's been well since our last visit?"
"Yes, Gabrielle, by Artemis' grace, all has been well since our queen's coronation; things could not have been better," Iona answered. Reaching into her top, the Amazon drew out a small satchel. "Please accept this token of my esteem," she presented it to the bard.
A necklace with a green jewel fell out, "Oh, this is exquisite! Thank you, Iona!" Exclaimed the bard. "Isn't this beautiful, Love?" The Warrior Princess smiled her reply.
"It's emerald, your majesty," Iona offered, "For constancy. May I help you put it on?" Without waiting for an answer, she picked up the jewel from Gabrielle's palm. The bard straightened up, while the Amazon moved behind her; she lifted the honey-blonde tresses and swiftly put the necklace on, "There." Stepping around once more, "It becomes you, Gabrielle," she commented appreciatively.
"Thank you," the fair queen blushed graciously, fingering the green bauble, "I love it."
"Well, your majesty, I've taken too much of your time already, I will go rejoin my sisters," Iona bowed to the queen. "Xena," she nodded at the Warrior Princess.
As soon as the Amazon warrior left, Xena drew Gabrielle back into her arms, closing the distance between them. The bard happily relaxed against the strong shoulders, and surrendered her earlobe to her partner's gentle ministrations. And giggled, when she caught several Amazons' envious looks.
"Why is it," she teased her warrior, "that I feel many here would kill to swap places with me, and not because I'm queen?"
"Why is it," Xena observed dryly, "that your admirers are more forward with their affection?"
"Huh? What are you talking about?" Then she realized what the warrior was referring to, "Hey," Gabrielle swung around to face her partner, "You're not jealous, are you?"
The Warrior Princess winked at her bard mischievously.
Leaning up, Gabrielle kissed the warrior softly on her lips, "Don't be, Love. You know I love only you." She whispered, sending a wave of warmth down Xena's spine.
Pulling her partner closer, she nuzzled the fair hair, and breathed in her ear, "Prove it," sending a ripple of shivers through Gabrielle.
"Scoundrel!" The bard chastised her partner weakly, without much conviction.
"Prove it," the warrior insisted, following-up with a slow twirl of her tongue.
"Damn you," Gabrielle muttered, bringing the warrior's lips down to hers.
Ephiny and many other Amazons looked on with much pleasure and amusement.
"You are incorrigible!" Gabrielle admonished her partner as the door to their hut closed after them. Since the next day began at sundown, and Xena had to spend this and the following night and their subsequent mornings going through Amazon purification rituals, they left the celebrations early. It was only mid-afternoon, and her warrior would not be expected at the temple of Artemis for a few more candle marks yet, but to Gabrielle they couldn't be alone soon enough.
"It's not my fault that you're so delectable, my bard," the Warrior Princess answered, capturing her partner in a mock pounce.
Laughter bubbled up her throat, "Beast!" Still chuckling, Gabrielle rested her fair head against her warrior's chest, and began tugging at clasps and laces.
Xena stilled impatient hands and let bits and pieces of armour drop to the floor. She lifted her bard's chin, and said with a slow smile, "Prove it."
Locking gaze with her partner, Gabrielle brought her hand up to caress her sun-kissed cheek. With a soft sigh, she twirled her fingers through dark tresses, closed her eyes, and reached up to the warrior.
Soft, velvety tongue insinuated itself into her mouth to stroke hers. As the kiss deepened, Xena thought she had never known such a wonderful feeling as desire spread through her. Gabrielle loved and needed her, she knew that. Had always known, even when fallen barriers temporarily rebuilt themselves, she knew she could not keep her heart away from the bard. And without fail, their love only became stronger afterwards. Nothing had really changed in the recent past, and she had not expected anything to do so in the near future. But then in a way things would never be the same again in less than seven days, and the warrior admitted with surprise realization that she liked it. With much effort, she broke away from the passionate embrace.
"Xena?" Gabrielle blinked, and tried once more to capture her partner's lips. The warrior gently kept their distance, and Gabrielle protested, "Xena!"
"Sweet," the Warrior Princess nibble behind her bard's ear as she turned them around to face the mirror, her stormy blue eyes captured and beheld Gabrielle's in the reflection.
"Next time, I want to watch them put all these on you," Xena softly declared as she unclasped the shoulder pauldrons and the arm cuffs. She slowly lifted Gabrielle's arms and slipped the gloved vambraces off her fingers, then brought the left palm up to her lips for a lingering kiss, which drew a gasp from the bard.
Looking at the mirror, her attention alternated between her warrior and herself. Gabrielle was mesmerized by the vision before her. Xena had told the bard many times how much she had liked the queen's regalia. She thought the dark russet complimented her colouring, and liked the way the suede hugged her trim compact body. Gabrielle had always maintained that her warrior was the one who was ravishing. However, she had also to agree that the young woman staring back at her was quite beautiful. Gone without a trace was the awkward, insecure little girl from Poteidaia; and she wondered how much of the change had to do with the outfit and adornments. Returning to the warrior's gaze, she realized her happiness probably was the biggest source of her loveliness and confidence. And she reached up to her partner.
Who leaned into the tender caress, and smiled at the reflection. Gabrielle felt her heartbeat quickened as large hands slid up to fondle her round breasts. Curiously and shyly, she watched as the warrior's palms knead her covered flesh, teasing her nipples into aching points straining against the soft suede. She craved to feel the battle-roughened fingers against her bare flesh. As if reading her partner's need from darkening green orbs, Xena made quick work of her top, and to the bard's delight, her skirt as well.
She was torn between closing her eyes to savour the sensation, and watching her partner love her with her hands. Gabrielle sighed deeply, and focused on the deep blues in the reflection, twin oceans she found herself drowning in as strong, gentle hands swept feeling of thick hot honey over her body.
Hand pressed its way down the bard's taut abdomen; then long fingers hovered at red-golden curls. Gabrielle bit her lips with need, raised herself on tiptoes and arched into the caress. The warrior chuckled deeply, while her skilful digits teased the bard. Until she could bear no more and twisted around to face her tormentor.
And captured her partner's lips in a fierce kiss, while her hands tore at laces and leather. Ravenous mouth drifted down tanned throat and clavicle, then seized a tempting nipple as the tunic gave way. Xena felt a tingling sensation raced through her as Gabrielle drew upon her flesh, and refused to release it, as garments puddled onto the floor.
"Gabrielle," she hugged the smaller body close, feeling the swell of her partner's soft breasts pressed against her abdomen. And she reached up to twine her fingers into silken hair, which looked so fiery in the bright afternoon sun that she half expected it to be hot. She cupped the bard's fair cheeks in her palms, and lifted her away from her chest.
A small gurgle of complaint escaped Gabrielle's throat. But opening her eyes, she found the warrior looking at her with a mixture of love, adoration, and desire. She felt her heart fluttered. And the bard shuddered a second time when a long finger traced along her cheek, her lips, her jaw, and down her throat.
With a groan, she dropped her head back in Xena's chest. Then searching, needful mouth travelled downwards, leaving a trail of liquid fire down her partner's stomach, her sides, her hips, and down her thighs until she reached the warrior's boots. Near frantic fingers tugged at the laces until Xena could step out of them.
And when she did, Gabrielle acted as if she were going to take her right then and there. But then Xena reminded her anxious bard that she still had her boots on. So, it was the warrior's turn to kiss down the bard's body, making wet sucking noises as she licked and nibbled on heated flesh. Gabrielle tried hard not to melt into her partner's touch while her bootlaces were being painfully slowly untied.
Finally, Xena retraced her earlier paths, and paused near sensitive breasts. Gabrielle anticipated her partner's warm lips upon her once again.
And was surprised when Xena spoke, "For constancy, huh?" She drew the emerald into her mouth with a swirl of her tongue, and sucked on it, branding it, before she undid the clasp. Gabrielle whimpered when the moist hot jewel hit her skin.
And with an almost anguished grunt, she pushed her partner towards the bed, until they both fell into it. And she pressed against the warrior, feeling the need to surround the larger body with her smaller form.
Xena drew her into her arms, and kissed her with a passion that stole her reason. Their lips remained together, as large hands roamed her backside, kneading, caressing, with an ardour that left her faint.
She struggled to regain her senses, so as to resume her assault on her warrior. And almost screamed her defeat as her partner's muscled thigh pressed between hers.
"Please," she pleaded breathlessly, her pulse beating wildly. "Let me love you."
"Prove it," she demanded huskily.
Gabrielle captured Xena's face between her hands and brought her head down, her mouth consumed hers in a passionate kiss. Then, gasping, she tore her mouth away, flung back her head, then lowered her mouth again, blazing a trail of kisses and lingering in the sensitive hollow of her partner's throat.
Before she could reach her goal, however, Xena rolled them over, pinning her underneath.
"No," she sobbed with frustration.
"Yes, my bard," she lowered her mouth to capture a nipple, "Yes!"
Her hammering heart and the corresponding ache within prevailed, and soon, all that mattered were her warrior's hands caressing her thighs, her buttocks... Her taut nipple pressing against her and getting smeared with her wetness as her partner's lips moved across her body.
Her demanding tongue dipped and twirled around her navel, licked downwards to flick at engorged flesh. Involuntarily, Gabrielle jerked at the contact, and screamed her pleasure when on the return thrust she found herself impaled by her partner. Who loved and teased her until she thought she would go mad with passion.
On the brink of release, she caught her partner's dark head with frantic but insistent fingers and guided her upwards. And shifted until full breasts swayed over her mouth.
"Yes," she breathed, and latched onto one of them, and to her delight, tasted herself. She nursed at the succulent breast as her fingers drove in and out the warrior's body, as the warrior's drove in and out her own.
"I love you, Gabrielle!"
"Yes, my warrior, yes!"
And they cried aloud as waves of deep pleasure crashed through and over them.
Xena woke up from her brief dozing. Sprawling atop her bard, she contemplated the safe and peaceful feeling and the lulling rhythm beneath her ears. And noticed with contentment that once again their breathing and heartbeats were in synch with each others. For a long while the Warrior Princess lay in quiet repose, then, dark head shifted, as lips encircled a pink nipple.
"Mmmm..." Gabrielle murmured sleepily. Her hand began a slow caress of her warrior's shoulders. And gasped loudly when hot mouth began suckling in earnest, setting her blood aboil. Blunt fingernails dug in firm back in reflex, leaving halfmoon-shaped marks.
"Xena, stop," she somehow managed, reluctantly, "We don't have much time." Stopping was the last thing she wanted her warrior to do, but she noticed the already setting sun, and Xena would be expected at the temple soon. Rather than heeding her command, however, hungry mouth only sucked harder, devouring. Dark green eyes flew open, and slammed shut again when long digits slipped into her already throbbing centre, drawing forth a needful, guttural moan from both.
Moments passed before her breathing returned to normal. And Gabrielle drew her partner's head up for a deep, lingering kiss, while beginning a slow exploration of her partner's body. She was about to roll them over when, to her dismay, Xena took hold of her hands and raised them above her head.
"I want you," the bard whispered, her eyes searching. Holding the bard's wrists captive with one hand, fingers dipped within dark curls and brought forth glistening moisture.
"And I want you to want me, Gabrielle," she purred, coating pink lips and allowing her partner to taste her. "But I have to go, Calandra is expecting me."
"But..." Xena silenced the protest with a tender, searching kiss.
"Tomorrow," she kissed the soft lips once again, "I promise."
"You're a wicked beast, you know that?" Gabrielle mumbled after another deep lingering kiss.
"Yeah," the warrior chuckled, "But I'm your wicked beast."
"Yeah," looking into the blue eyes dark against the waning sunlight, "Don't you ever forget that."
"I won't," she responded, in earnest. "I love you, my bard," she said low.
"And I love you, my warrior," she whispered, brushing wisps of dark bangs away. Then pulling her partner to her and kissed her passionately, her tongue tracing her lips, her mouth, as if committing them to memory.
Soon, Xena was dressed in her armour again, and Gabrielle in her sleep-shirt. She had decided against joining the rest of the village for dinner.
"I will see you after midday tomorrow."
"I'll miss you, my warrior."
"I'll miss you, too, my bard. Sweet dreams."
*Oh, boy, easier said that done,* Gabrielle thought to herself as the door closed behind the Warrior Princess. She hugged the large shirt about herself tighter.
They have been away from each other, and not sharing the same bedroll before. And often without the secure knowledge that her warrior was safe, as she would be this night. But no matter how hard she tried, the bard had never gotten used to the feeling of emptiness she inevitably felt without Xena near her. And she knew she would never want to get use to that feeling, or have to do so.
Still, Gabrielle took pleasure in the cause of her temporary anxiety. Not even in her wildest dreams had she thought the Warrior Princess would look at her as anything but a hero-worshipping pissant. And she had spent so many moons worrying at every turn that Xena would leave her, or order her to go home. Then as time passed, she grew up, and their relationship matured, those worries gradually became things of the past. And they finally mutually acknowledged their feelings for each other.
Getting the Warrior Princess to admit to both of them that she loved and needed Gabrielle had not been easy. Especially after all the other things that happened in-between, things the bard would rather not dwell upon or even remember. Even more difficult was to convince Xena that Gabrielle loved and needed her as well, and that she would never make the same mistakes again...
Running her fingers lovingly along the black and gold braid on her wrist, Gabrielle smiled, and whispered a prayer of gratitude to her goddess. Her heart exulted in the knowledge that by the end of quarter moon, they would be joined.
Knowing that sleep would likely elude her, the bard gathered her quill and parchments, grabbed a fruit from the tray on the table, and settled down at the desk. As she was seized with a sudden fancy to pen a poem for a certain dark warrior who had so completely captured her heart, body and soul. Besides, there were still stories about their adventures that she had yet to record. Munching on her dinner, the bard set out with her compositions.
"Have you come to praise my enemy to my face?"
"No, my Lord, I did not mean to offend," the proud warrior looked directly at her sovereign, "I was merely telling you what I thought."
"I don't care what you think," the warrior's superior laughed, "It doesn't matter. Tell me, what are you waiting for?"
"My Lord, I was able to get near her only today. Please give me more time," she entreated.
"You don't have much time. I've waited long enough for this. Two more days, you have two more days to bring me what is mine. And I want my revenge."
"But my Lord..."
"Two days, or you are released of all your duties right now. I can find someone more anxious to carry out my hatred, or I can just do it myself."
"Please, no, my Lord," the dark warrior appealed, "I will do as you bid," she pledged.
"Two days, don't forget."
"No, I won't, my Lord."
"Be gone!" With a wave of a hand, and a string of almost manic laughter, the warrior vanished.
Just as Gabrielle expected, she did not get much sleep the night before. She did, however, make some progress in recording their tales. It was not as much as the bard wanted though, as she spent much of the time thinking about the Warrior Princess, and what she might be doing in the temple.
They had been vague about telling her the purification rituals. She only knew that the chosen consorts of all their queens had to go through them, and each had been unlike all others depending on the Goddess' desire. Therefore, Xena's would be different as well. Guess she would just have to find out the details from her warrior.
Meanwhile, the Amazon Queen mused that their visits to the Amazons had truly helped her appreciate why the Warrior Princess preferred to keep to herself. Breakfast at the mess hut was a tiring affair, even with her Regent beside her, helping with much of the cordial conversations. Gabrielle looked forward to after the joining, when she and Xena would be alone again. Maybe they could find another nice deserted cave somewhere...
*If only the bad guys would leave us alone, too,* she smiled, remembering how they now fight side by side, and happy that she could hold her own with the staff. Reflectively, her attention turned to the chestnut-haired Amazon sitting beside Ephiny. Ever so observant, the bard noticed that Eponin had been exceptionally quiet and preoccupied; and she made a mental note to talk to the Amazon privately later.
At the earliest opportunity, the queen excused herself, citing her warrior's anticipated return from the temple. Ephiny flashed her a knowing smile, to which the bard prettily blushed. Upon returning to the hut, she ordered a bath, and allowed only one attendant to help her. Gabrielle soaked happily in the hot, scented water, relaxing, while the Amazon scrubbed her back. A sweet, contented smile came unbidden to her lips as her mind inevitably turned to her partner.
"Gabrielle?" A small voice asked hesitantly.
"Yes, Alethea?" She responded warmly, turning to face the young woman.
"You really love Xena, don't you?"
"Yeah," she revealed, "I really do," her voice betraying a deep tenderness which touched the Amazon.
"And she loves you back," came the certain statement.
"Yes," the queen responded, "she does." Closing her eyes, and allowing that knowledge to warm her.
"How do you know you are in love?"
*How did you know you fell in love, Gabrielle?* The bard asked herself. *Was it the wild palpitations of your heart when she smiled at you, the goose pimples that ran up your body when she touched you?* She flushed. *Or was it the indescribable pain you felt when you thought you lost her for good...* her musing turned inwards.
The queen tilted her face towards the young woman, who had missed the throng of emotions which marched across her queen's features. Alethea was probably two or three summers younger than herself. Gabrielle had first met her during one of their visits a few seasons ago, when she had just joined their tribe from a neighbouring clan. Like the bard, she was smaller than most Amazons, and could have been her own younger sister; and in some ways, Gabrielle viewed her as such.
"I'm not sure how..." she spoke thoughtfully, "But I do know that when you love someone, you're willing to do anything, even give up your life, for them. And when they are not by your side, you think about them, and you miss them."
"What if you think they love someone else?"
"When you love someone, Alethea, you want them to be happy and you want what's best for them. I think you should let them know how you feel about them," *Boy, isn't that the truth. So many times I wished that she had, before...* "But in the end, the decision is theirs to make." *Guess that's what she was doing... and what I was going to do when she had met...* Reining in her thoughts and focusing once more on her young charge, "Why d'you ask, Alethea? Has someone captured your heart?" Gabrielle probed.
"Yeah, I think I fell in love with her the first time I saw her," the young woman replied dreamily, "She's the most beautiful person I've met. She's tall, and strong. Her long hair is dark like midnight. And she has deep mesmerizing eyes like amethysts and most befitting of her name." Alethea gushed. "And I heard she's one of the best warriors, too. Probably not as good as the Warrior Princess though," she added quickly.
Gabrielle looked at the beaming young face, with devotion plainly written all over, and smiled indulgently in response. *Gods, do I look and sound like that? I'm sure I do, probably worse. And more hopeless. Yup.* She encouraged Alethea to further express her feelings and concerns, and listened and advised. Eventually, the two blondes dissolved into bright laughter as they compared their respective warriors, almost like young girls giggling over their first crush.
Soon, time came for the queen to finish her bath. After helping Gabrielle dress, Alethea gave her an impulsive hug, then left with some of the bard's clothes for the wash.
Gabrielle turned to her parchment on the desk, and set about composing a letter to her warrior. The bard had kept letters addressed to the Warrior Princess, they were like journals which spoke of her love, her fears, her desires... And they had remained in her scroll case; maybe someday she would let her partner read them... One day.
It was past midday when the Warrior Princess left the temple. Having fasted all evening and morning, she was famished. However, even food of the gods could not detour her from her goal. She did not like being away from Gabrielle, and had missed the bard desperately. Having done nothing but reflected on their relationship, as she was ordered to, made the longing much worse...
Therefore, *First thing first.* And perhaps Gabrielle would even join her for the midday meal. On the other hand, knowing her bard, food would have been sent for and most likely already awaiting her return.
*Bard, food, bard... Hmmm...* The warrior grinned devilishly as she brisk-walked towards the hut, *Interesting dilemma...*
Her pleasant thoughts were interrupted by a tall figure sauntering towards her.
*Did she just come from our hut?* The Warrior Princess couldn't be sure. She kept her pace and wondered what the Amazon wanted. There was something about the dark warrior that she disliked and distrusted, and it went beyond simple jealousy.
When they passed each other, Iona met her gaze, staring deliberately, her deep violet eyes spoke with volume the message her lips did not, "I want her, too."
The Warrior Princess responded to the challenge as if her rival had declared one aloud. However, instead of flinching at the dangerous ice blue glare like most would, the Amazon simply smirked knowingly.
Suddenly, Xena felt extremely uncomfortable. Cold anger welled up inside her, and she struggled to quell the strong urge to throw the dark Amazon against a nearby tree, run her through with her blade, and gouge out her eyes afterwards. At the same time, a more pressing, more fundamental need drove her away and onwards. Certain that she would be watched, the Warrior Princess managed to keep a steady gait, and even smiled when she nodded at the guards, signalling their dismissal, before entering their hut.
The warrior had half expected the bard to fly into her arms as soon as the door closed; therefore, she was rather surprised to find Gabrielle curled up in bed. Whatever residual annoyance she felt against Iona disappeared then and there. *Poor baby, she must not have gotten much sleep either.*
As Xena predicted, a tray laden with food sat on the table. She picked up a slice of meat, some vegetables, and stuffed them into the bread pocket. Munching on the sandwich, she quietly moved towards the bed.
And was about to brush with gentle fingers stray strands of hair away from the beloved features when the bard set up and enveloped her in a fierce clasp, literally knocking the air out of the warrior's lungs.
"Hey, easy, Love, I missed you, too," the Warrior Princess chuckled and spoke gently against the bard's ear, while rubbing the slim back in a reassuring gesture, "I thought you were sleeping."
And was greatly alarmed when sensitive ears picked up a choked sob emanating from her partner. Lunch was quickly set aside and immediately forgotten.
"Gabrielle? Hey, did you miss me that much?" She asked lightly, keeping the smile in her voice. While trying tenderly to lift the bard's chin, to get green eyes to meet hers. And found herself only able to stroke the fair hair comfortingly in response, when her partner answered her attempt by burrowing deeper into her chest and grasping her harder.
*Damn! Iona had better not been the cause of this,* the warrior's heart clenched at the thought. Never one good at sensitive chats, Xena resigned to holding the bard closer and waiting for the faint tremors to stop.
Moments later, Gabrielle inhaled deeply, and extricated herself from the safe haven. Still misty green eyes captured hers, pulling her in, despite the lingering tightness in her chest. With fierceness and desperation that surprised the warrior, the bard kissed her.
"Gabrielle?" She managed, long breathless instants later. Xena wanted to know; she didn't like it when her bard hurt, no matter what or who was the cause.
"Shut up!" The bard growled in answer, "You promised!"
Insistent, hungry lips and hands swept over her larger form, demanding, exacting... and the warrior surrendered her good sense to their desire.
"Look who's talking?" The bard mumbled from her favourite spot, squeezing the warrior tighter, melding their bodies, and revelling in the warmth of their togetherness.
"Oh, I do believe you're jealous, my bard." Her partner chuckled, kissing the top of Gabrielle's head and running a gentle hand through the fair hair.
"Yes," she burrowed closer still, tucking herself securely within her partner's embrace. "Of every man and woman you've ever been with," she added ruefully.
"But I'm not getting joined with any of them," Xena responded sincerely.
"No, you're not," a small smile began to tug at the bard's lips.
"You haven't had a change of heart about the joining, have you?" She didn't want to ask, didn't really want to give Gabrielle a chance to back out, and hoped against hope that the answer would be negative.
"Of course not!" The bard lifted her head from her partner's shoulder, looked directly at her and responded most vehemently, "How can you think that?" The warrior remembered to breathe again. She inhaled deeply, relieved.
"I don't know," she truthfully replied. "Why don't you tell me what's bothering you?" She appealed, with tenderness and concern.
"Nothing is bothering me, Xena," her partner muttered, returning to her haven and realigning their bodies. "I've already told you that," her voice betraying a hint of frustration.
*Then, why am I not convinced?* "Are you regretting that you haven't had..." The warrior began again.
*WHAT AM I SAYING?!? How did this whole conversation start?* She had only meant to find out why her partner seemed so out of sort this afternoon, she certainly had not envisioned the dialogue to take such a turn. Anyway, the Warrior Princess didn't get to finish her sentence. She didn't need to, as the bard possessed a most uncanny ability to read her mind.
"Xena, if you're joking," she spoke, disbelief and exasperation apparent in her tone, "I'm not laughing."
"Gabrielle," the warrior tipped the fair head upwards with both hands. She articulated, earnestly, from her heart, "You KNOW... I would... never... ever... willingly... share you... EVER..." And punctuated every word with a firm kiss on her beloved's features to emphasized her point.
"Although I'm sure many people wished otherwise, and your dark Amazon friend is one of them," she added, half-jokingly. At the mention of Iona, the bard tensed. And the Warrior Princess knew for certain then who caused the bard's unease; now she'd only have to find out what the Amazon did.
"She was here, wasn't she?" *Damn! I should have gutted her when I first saw her... when she first laid eyes on you, my bard,* the warrior thought, as she held her partner's gaze. A silent fury began to rage.
"Yes, she was," the bard returned Xena's fixed look, "I asked her to come."
"You asked her," the warrior repeated, dumbfounded.
"Yes," Gabrielle kissed her playfully on the nose, "to talk about Alethea."
"Alethea," she echoed, mildly bewildered.
"Yes," she rolled her eyes, "who has a giant crush on her."
"Oh, I see," *Ok, ok, breathe, Xena, breathe.* "She does?"
"Uh-huh," then green eyes narrowed as realisation dawned, "Why, what did you think?"
*I honestly don't know.* "I wasn't sure what to think..." the warrior responded, slightly flustered. A foible which only the bard could pick up, of course.
"Well," she pressed her lips to the warrior's. "Don't think," the tip of her tongue tickling her partner's mouth, luring forth the beginning of a slow smile.
"Sometimes... Warrior Princess... you... think... too... much..." She whispered, in between gentle nibbles, as her hands wandered about her betrothed's body.
Strong hands circled about trim waist and lifted the pliant body atop her own. As her fingers tangled in soft honey-blonde hair, all the warrior thought was how much she loved this beautiful woman who was more important to her than life.
"I love you, Xena," with boundless depth which the bard revealed as stormy greens held captive darkening blues.
"I love you, Gabrielle," the warrior returned, as she let herself fall into the inviting abyss.
In the temple, the Warrior Princess waited as the attendants filled the stone vessel with warm water. When they were finished, Calandra tested the temperature, added to it some dried herbs and a milk-coloured emulsion, then motioned Xena to climb in. The priestess and her assistants left shortly, when they were satisfied that the warrior had everything she needed for the ritual.
Alone in the chamber, as the comfortable warmth of the water slowly penetrated her body, Xena allowed her mind to blank for a few long moments. Her senses then turned to the concoction she was steeping in. It had a peculiar yet delicate and pleasant scent, similar to the mixture they prepared for her the evening before, but different. And despite her knowledge of plants and minerals, the warrior could not figure out its contents. She had asked, but Calandra replied in oracular terms which merely left her more perplexed. Not knowing did not bother the warrior, however; she had accepted that there were things one simply was not meant to know. And she supposed this was one of them.
To Xena, the entire prejoining ritual had been enigmatic. She had expected there be trials, challenges, or at least some sort of atonement rites. Instead, the harshest requirement was fasting, which the warrior met without effort. Like the night before, Calandra provided for her a plain but comfortable robe to don after the relaxing bath, and a soft pallet to sit on. And again, she was to spend the remainder of the time thinking about her bard, and their relationship.
*Whatever Artemis desires, I guess,* the Warrior Princess mused. She would not have abided by the wishes of the gods, of any god, so agreeably.
*But she is the Amazon's and Gabrielle's god. And, therefore, my god as well,* she decided.
*Gabrielle.* At the thought of her bard, the warrior's regard drifted to the fading red marks on her shoulders. A warm, tender smile lit her face as she recalled their lovemaking earlier that afternoon.
The bard had been most fierce and determined in loving her. Soft lips and adept hands slid all over her torso, her hips, her legs, her feet, her buttocks, her back, her arms, her breasts, her face, her hands, leaving no place unkissed, untouched.
Wedging her slim body tightly against Xena's, Gabrielle explored each curve each dip each swell hungrily. Had caressed her passionately, kneading, gently and not-so-gently nipping at her flesh. With a need and an urgency that drove the warrior insane.
Her ardent partner had built up and drawn pleasure from her, over and over, until she thought she would scream. Until her bard's name gushed from her depths in a litany that reverberated outwards. Until she had to dredge up the last of her reserves to roll them over and pin the bard down, did her voracious partner still her assault. The Warrior Princess just about collapsed in exhaustion then.
But now, alone in the chamber, once again she ached for the presence of her bard. Sometimes this need scared her; and she felt helpless against it.
How many moons had it been since she fell in love with Gabrielle, and how many since they had expressed that love, she couldn't remember. The warrior at times thought with chagrin that they were like a couple of sex-crazed adolescents, completely satiated one moment and starved with yearning the very next. But she knew it was not simply about physical intimacy or need.
Part of her feared the power her partner had over her, yet a larger part wanted the bard to have and keep that power. And she rejoiced and delighted in the fact that Gabrielle returned her feelings in every regard.
"Am I who I am or am I who you made me?" The bard had asked, long ago. And Xena told her then that nobody made her who she was, that everything she was was already there.
*And how true it is.* Even now, after all the things that happened, Gabrielle was still Gabrielle, with her willingness to trust, her ability to fearlessly and unconditionally love unchanged.
*Oh, all the rotten things I've put you through, my bard...* Things they never talked about, things her partner never thought to blame her for, but things the warrior's guilty conscience would not let her forget. Time and again she vowed she would never let her pride or stubbornness harm her beloved. And everytime Gabrielle met her failure with gentle understanding and forgiveness.
*Rather than hating me, my bard, you want to spend your entire life with me... What have I done to deserve you?* The warrior chuckled and shook her head in disbelief.
*Guess, lucky for me, you don't hate as fiercely as you love, my bard* she smiled deeply, as her fingers caressed the marks her partner left on her skin.
And remembered that afternoon... Remembered what she saw when she was finally able to open her eyes. Xena was surprised to find her partner's green orbs filled with tears threatening to spill over. And they did, after the bard tenderly kissed where her teeth had nicked her skin.
She thought Gabrielle was feeling remorseful for hurting her, and had made some flippant little comment to brush it off and try to make her smile. But to her alarm and dismay, the bard only hugged her closer and sobbed harder.
It had been a while since the Warrior Princess had seen her partner like that. When they started travelling together, Gabrielle would break into tears over every little thing, leaving her companion impotent and nervous. Finally, one evening, having run out of ideas to make the bard smile, she just hugged the small form against her shoulder, and stroked her back until the tears passed. Somehow, they both felt strangely better afterwards; and it became a habit which the warrior welcomed.
Nevertheless, cradling the weeping girl had taken some getting used to. But that she did; and Xena took solace that she was finally free to hold the woman, free to shelter and comfort her, without needing to hide her caring from anyone. Still, that thought did not help the Warrior Princess from hurting along with the bard. And it was an eternity in Tartarus later when the tortured whimpers finally stopped.
With the warrior's gentle probing, the bard confessed how much she hated not having her partner nearby, how much she had missed her the evening before. And she was distraught over another night alone. Xena had understood that sentiment perfectly, and she wished there were something she could do... She wished they would never have to be apart...
However, as if on cue, Ephiny knocked on their door, and the warrior snarled her response. The Regent meekly explained that she wished to talk to her before she left for the temple.
*Gods, Ephiny, you always have the worst timing,* the Warrior Princess creased her brows in annoyance. *One of these days...* She promised, with a wicked glint. In retrospect, Xena was glad the Regent wanted to talk to her. To tell her how happy she was for them, and that she looked forward to the day the Warrior Princess would rule the Nation beside her Queen. This was certainly not the same hostile, avaricious Amazon warrior they first met. She had been an invaluable friend to both of them, especially to Gabrielle...
Still, Xena had desperately wanted to stay with her bard. But unfortunately, it was not an option: even if she let Ephiny rot outside their door, she would still have to be at the temple shortly. Reluctantly they unclasped each other so that she could dress...
*I promise, I will make it up to you, my bard,* the Warrior Princess reiterated her pledge, as she emerged from the water.
And when she was ready to join Ephiny, they shared a lingering kiss goodbye so soulful that the Regent had to turn away... Then clung onto each other like a couple of lovesick kids... And Xena could still taste the salty moisture which she licked away...
*Gods, what do I do with you, my Love,* the warrior smiled. Then felt a familiar ache in her own chest.
*What do I do with ME!* She shook her head in exasperation.
*Oh, but, my bard, what would I do without you?* Xena sobered, as she slipped on the robe and settled down on the pallet.
Apollo had finished his journey across the Northern sky long ago. And human subjects of the great gods had since retired to their safe shelters, leaving twilight creatures to reign in this dark moonless night. Even they, however, dared not encroach upon the cave so deep in the forest; very few did. And its existence had remained unbeknownst for centuries.
In a columned chamber at the inmost of the cavern, the dark warrior stood as she did the evening before. Her liege sprawled across the throne where a worthless idol once sat; the broken remains of the statue scattered about the floor.
"Bring me my revenge, and you may have what you want..." The potentate spoke coolly, "What's left of it anyway; such a pitiful excuse of a nation."
"But my Lord," the warrior began.
Dark eyebrow rose, challenging her to continue.
"My Lord... I..." She struggled to explain.
"What?" Dark brows furrowed, "Don't tell me you've fallen in love with her, too." Sharp pale eyes surveyed the proud emotionless features, "Oh, my! You have, haven't you?"
"Too bad she doesn't love you back!" The warrior winced internally at the vicious laughter which followed.
"Come now," her Lord sniggered, "You look so precious when you're pained." She only straightened her shoulders, stood taller and stared ahead in response.
Reaching up and running a cold hand through the woman's dark tresses, a malevolent idea struck, "Oh yes, this would be an even better revenge."
"I'm so glad I thought of it," the manic laughter which ensued chilled the warrior to the core. Then fierce mouth pressed upon hers possessively, "Oh yes, I can definitely grow to like this."
"Don't do anything. Just wait for my orders." With a careless toss of the chin, "Dismissed." Once again, the Amazon warrior found herself back in the village, her lips still smarting from the cruel kiss.
Still later that night, in the same village...
"Queen of my heart," the warrior implored, "please hear me out."
"Please, Eponin, I'm no queen," the object of her affection resisted. "Certainly not your heart's."
"I don't think I can live away from your loveliness any longer," the warrior expounded. "Your sparkling eyes are like peridots, and the glow of your fair hair against the firelight shines brighter than the sun to me."
"Surely you must be kidding, Eponin," the young woman suggested. "By the way, how did you come up with such asinine comparisons?"
"Do I sound like I'm kidding, Alethea?" The Amazon tried to hide her stricken look, and made a mental note to kill Solari.
"I'm very sorry Eponin," the blonde responded contritely, finally realising the warrior wasn't playing an awful joke on her, "I'm not for you."
"But I love you," the warrior continued, "I've loved you since the day you joined our tribe."
"Please, Eponin," Alethea explained, "You've been very kind to me, and I like you a lot, but my heart already belongs to another."
"The glow which radiated... I mean, I love you, Alethea." She revealed, "And the yearning will burn in my heart for a long time," using her own words, "Please let me know if you changed your mind."
Then the warrior retreated without giving the young woman a chance to refuse.
Sinking into her own bed, Alethea sighed deeply, and hugged herself close. She knew exactly what the poor warrior was feeling, for her own desires appeared to be unrequited as well. She wished she could return Eponin's love, but she must remain faithful and be true to her heart. Whether or not her constancy was appreciated.
There was nothing she wouldn't do for her beloved, if only she would love her back...
After several brief rituals at dawn, complete with yet another herbal cleansing afterwards, Xena's stay in the temple was finally over. When she next step foot in the structure, it would be with Gabrielle by her side, for their joining. The Warrior Princess looked forward to that day, very much so. But at the moment, she was simply relieved that she could be with her bard again, and be able to just hold her through the coming night.
Before the warrior left the temple, Calandra informed her that Gabrielle was busy with the wedding preparations and had sent word that she would not be waiting for Xena in their hut. Satisfied that the Queen and her Regent were probably fussing over things, the Warrior Princess elected to first take the midday meal. She would decide later whether to join the bard and Ephiny, or see if she could convince her partner to spend the remainder of the afternoon with her. Afterall, the warrior did have a promise to keep.
*That shouldn't be too hard,* Xena grinned to herself as she headed towards the mess hut.
"Fancy running into you, Xena," the Amazon greeted her smugly. The Warrior Princess cursed silently. She was in no mood to deal with Iona, especially not on an empty stomach. The warrior acknowledged her rival with a cold stare, and was going to walk on when the Amazon spoke again.
"I gotta commend you, Warrior Princess, I didn't realise you're the type who shares," she said with a leer, as the warrior passed her. Xena drew her sword, spun around and glowered at the Amazon, unable to hide the incredulous look fighting with fury for dominance on her darkened features.
"Ooops, you mean you didn't know?" Iona asked glibly, feigning shock. The warrior tightened her grip at her sword, ready to plunge it into the offending mouth.
"While you were moiling over there at the temple, I've been receiving queenly favours from Gabrielle, if you know what I mean," the Amazon offered, waggling her eyebrows suggestively. Xena only stared in silence, challenging the warrior to go on, while she tried in vain to think clearly enough to sort out her tumultuous thoughts and emotions.
"Actually, I had my first taste of her when she was in our village. Remember the little tradition our tribe has?" Iona pressed on, apprising the increasingly angry, distressed and confused warrior.
*How could I forget, that stupid, stupid ritual requiring the queens to entertain secret lovers.* But the Warrior Princess worked out a plan so that Gabrielle would be with no one but her. Eponin was supposed to lure the tipsy warriors away with promises of a good time in a certain beautiful and dangerous visiting warrior's hut. And Solari had "entertained" them in her hut while she donned their clothing. The planned had worked perfectly.
*Or did it? That was not possible, was it? Gabrielle would have mentioned something, and she never did...* The warrior searched through her memory and found nothing that would support Iona's allegations. And all her confusion swiftly focused into rage.
"Guess you better keep an eye on your little queen, eh?" The Amazon continued, unmindful of the Warrior Princess' increasingly sharp, cold glare, or her tensing sword arm muscles flexing.
"I wonder how many warriors she's been with. Solari looks like the strong dark silent type, maybe your bard has the hots for her, too..." The woman speculated meaningfully, allowing her rival time to ponder her remark.
*Breathe, Xena, breathe,* the Warrior Princess wondered if she should just skin the Amazon right there, and then explain to everyone later.
*Gabrielle would understand, wouldn't she? I was only defending her honour,* the warrior struggled.
"Hah! An emerald for constancy! I thought she might appreciate the joke," she laughed. That was the last straw and the Amazon found herself slammed hard against a tree. The warrior's death grip pushed her chin upwards, the sharp tip of her long sword pointed against her throat. If Iona had felt fear then, she didn't show it.
"Look, she's just entering my tent, why don't you follow me? I guarantee you'll learn something new about your feisty little queen," with a strangled voice, the Amazon proposed. And motioned with her eyes. The Warrior Princess' blue gaze involuntarily followed the direction of the gesture. Indeed, she was just in time to catch the rear of the bard disappearing into the darkness.
Xena debated. She was almost certain Gabrielle was simply going to talk to Iona again about Alethea. As that would be entirely typical of the bard's caring nature. And she did seem to have taken a special liking towards the young Amazon.
And the warrior had expected Gabrielle to come out upon learning Iona's absence; but she waited uselessly for the tent flap to open again. Dark brows knitted at the implication, as her hold against the Amazon's throat subconsciously loosened.
"She's such a fiery little one, isn't she?" The Amazon pressed her advantage. "Don't you just love it when she plays the aggressor and takes charge? Or are you too proud to let her do that?" She sniggered.
*No, it's not possible...* The Warrior Princess was torn between confusion and disbelief. And for the very first time in her life, she didn't know what her next course of action should be. Xena lowered her sword and let go of the Amazon, who simply dusted herself and walked towards her hut. But not without throwing the Warrior Princess a silent challenge and a leering smile.
Apprehension, dread, distrust, in the end Xena settled on her gut response: her concern for the bard's safety. She swore she would prove Iona wrong. And should the Amazon hurt even a single hair on her bard, it would be excuse enough for the Mighty Ex-Warlord to wipe her off the face of the earth.
*Prepare to die, Amazon!* She vowed.
Xena trailed the Amazon and approached her tent. And stopped dead in her tracks when her sensitive ears picked up Iona's moan.
"Yes, my queen, yes," the Amazon gasped again. The nature of the outburst was unmistakable. The warrior couldn't believe her ears.
*No, no, no!* She shook her head furiously, as if the violent action would drive out memories of the wounding noises. And to her distraught, even the clatter of her own heart shattering couldn't drown the increasing sounds of passion drifted from the tent.
The Warrior Princess turned and raced out of the village and towards the forest. Heedless of curious gazes. Before her blurring vision could slow her escape.
At the edge of the cliff, the Warrior Princess stood looking down. Her breathing still ragged from her flight, her body trembled in its vain effort to find peace. She watched as, responding to the barest movements, red soil cascaded under her feet. As tumbling rocks disappeared into the depths below.
Then, her haunted gaze shifted to the empty space ahead. This was not like the last time. This time the warrior did not anticipate the God of War, or anyone else, to show up to enlighten her. It was not the Furies' wrath she had to save herself from. Indeed, madness was a thousand times more bearable than her current state. And this time, she didn't even dare hope for salvation.
The warrior was unaware that she was being followed or watched. She was beyond caring. Moreover, she still stood on Amazon land; safe, secure. Unfortunate for Xena, none of her enemies would have made it through the border patrol without their presence being known. All the Warrior Princess could do, was tried to maintain a semblance of control over her emotions. She was failing miserably.
No matter how hard Xena willed the offending sounds to go away, the Amazon's throaty moans still echoed in her ears. She didn't want to believe Gabrielle would betray her; but she had to. They had left her no other choice. She just found it too difficult to accept. She and the bard were happy, happy with each other; the warrior was sure.
*Why would she want to be with Iona, who reminded me so much of me?* Xena simply couldn't understand.
*Ephiny, because of her kindness and friendship, yes. Solari or Eponin for their bravery and loyalty, fine.* If the bard were to choose any other Amazon over her, the Warrior Princess would have less trouble comprehending.
*But Iona? That arrogant, ruthless young pup?* The warrior pondered, disbelieving. She was torn between sorrow and rage, and the pain that settled darkly inside, slowly cutting away with its shards.
Staring down the precipice, Xena reminisced the love she and the bard had shared. And felt the sparks, the raging blaze in her veins turned into stark, stark cold. Frozen, deep in a well of aloneness. Yet, hot tears slid down her cheeks, unbidden, unchecked. She just let them fall.
*When was the last time I allowed myself to be like this?* The warrior remembered that all too well. And didn't think then she could ever feel any worse. She was obviously very wrong. Afterall, to be separated by death was inevitable; but in life, in life it would be unbearable...
She closed her eyes and let the imagined final thud of her battered body upon the rocks placate her senses. Forever in Tartarus could not be worse than this sorrow.
*"Make it last," I've asked,* her mind drifted back to a night several moons ago. She had spent that morning fretting over a too close fight the day before. And the bard laboured to assuage the warrior's fear of losing her. No longer able to resist, and against reason, she finally permitted herself to embrace what Gabrielle did long before her. And to follow her into the light.
*"It will", you said. You promised it would. And I believed you, trusted you,* dark head lifted to regard the sun. *What happened?*
Against the bright golden rays, Xena had a vision of the bard's brilliant smiles, which warmed her heart through numerous cold nights. She remembered the look of wonder in her green orbs whenever they met her blues. And recalled the innocence of her naked body, one which the warrior princess admired during so many dawns, watching it glow in the muted light. She could still feel the small soft body tucked against her larger one; curve fitting curve, the feeling so right, so perfect.
And she became painfully aware of the braid hidden underneath her bracer burning a welt about her wrist. But that was a connection to Gabrielle, and she couldn't bear to cut it off. She couldn't make herself, even if she tried. Not yet. Not ever. It became a part of her less than two moons ago, replacing the honey-golden one the bard gave her for Solstice.
*A piece of each of us. The honey-gold and black plaits forever entwined, just like our lives were going to be. As they should be,* the warrior thought dejectedly. In less than a day, everything she believed in had fallen apart, and her world had come to a crumbling halt. Her world... Gabrielle was her world...
*Cruel Fates,* the Warrior Princess lamented. She knew it was too good to be true, that the gods would take it all away from her. She just never imagined it to be so soon, to be like this.
*How ironic that they should rip her away from me right before our joining,* she shook her head in grief.
Even after the warrior and the bard became good friends, many times Xena had wished she could simply walk away. She intended to leave the bard unscathed by the violence that was integral to her existence, to her attempt at redemption. She wanted Gabrielle's innocence unblemished by her dark past.
So many times she had thought about taking the bard back to Poteidaia, and ordering her to stay. Or leaving her with the Amazons after she received Terreis' right of cast. But she couldn't. The persistent girl had insinuated herself into the rampart the warrior built through the years, and became a part of her life. Then the young woman overcame all the defenses and touched her heart. Xena was captivated. Powerless, like a moth driven from the safety of the night.
And she had only completely stopped fighting this connection not too long ago. Had only begun to accept it without fear later still. Yet, just when she had become totally secure with their love, their life, this hit her. Unexpectedly. Abruptly. Hard.
*What does Iona have that I haven't got? Perhaps the difference is in what she doesn't have,* the Warrior Princess mused ruefully.
*Iona is not a used-up old warlord; she's younger. She doesn't have a prize on her head; and has less blood on her hands. And she didn't have gods messing with her life,* the warrior considered. Those and any other insecurities she had ever felt surfaced together at once.
Worst of all, she felt like a loser. Xena was who she was mainly because she hated losing. Even as a child, playing games with her brothers, she strived to win. Defeat was not something she could readily accept. But still worse than that, she felt lost.
When blue eyes closed, she saw the Amazon's lithe body covering her bard's, touching her where Xena thought only she could. She envisioned Gabrielle writhing against her new lover, and responding to their passion... And the Warrior Princess looked to the fierce sun above, hoping it would scorch the images away. She wished she would wake from this dream, this daytime nightmare.
The warrior thought about her injured honour. *What of honour? Isn't it just a fancy name for pride?* She searched inwards. *I don't think I have any left,* the corner of her mouth curled up in a self-mocking smile. Xena realised then she should have given Gabrielle a chance to explain.
*There must be a good explanation for this,* she reasoned. *Maybe Iona had her under a spell. Maybe she was coerced. Or maybe she was curious, maybe she simply succumbed to a moment of passion. Or maybe she wanted one last fling before they joined, even last flings...* The warrior discovered she didn't really care; she just wanted her bard back.
She finally came to understand something, something most important. Although she might not be the best, and maybe not the worthiest, she realised no one could possibly love or cherish Gabrielle more than she did. Nobody would be more ready to lay their life down, more willing to risk or give up anything and everything for her.
And the Warrior Princess wasn't going to let the bard go without a fight. Not this time. Not ever again. They were meant to be together, she just had to convince Gabrielle that. She simply must. And if she couldn't, then Hades would have her.
At that juncture, Xena decided to turn about and head back to the village. Determined. Without fear. As she no longer had anything to lose.
But she never got the chance...
Gabrielle had just finished changing into a fresh set of clothing when the guards announced the arrival of dinner. She had spent the morning and early afternoon with Ephiny going through the final guests list, greeting the newly arrived invitees, and checking on the food menu. Then, she occupied the remainder of her day teaching the cooks how to make those dumplings with the red thing inside that the Warrior Princess so loved. They simply must have those.
*I can't wait to see the smile on her face when she sees them,* the bard thought fondly. The dumplings were only one of the many little surprises she had planned for her warrior. They both took pleasure in doing unexpected things for the other. Mostly trivial things to outsiders, but very deeply appreciated by both.
The priestess had personally stopped by the assembly hut earlier that morning to tell the Queen that her betrothed would be detained for a few more hours. Expecting the warrior to return at sundown, the bard decided to have their evening meal delivered to their hut. Gabrielle promised herself she wouldn't let anything thwart her desire to spend the remainder of the night and much of tomorrow with the warrior. Alone.
*Nothing short of an all out assault by a flock of harpies anyway,* she grinned impishly, remembering the look on Ephiny's face when she told her just that. The bard hadn't meant anything by the statement really, she certainly didn't imply what the Regent thought. She just wanted some uninterrupted quiet time with her partner.
*Afterall, what's good about being Queen if I couldn't ask to be left alone with my consort-to-be,* the bard thought happily, letting the title for the warrior glide over and warm her. As she nibbled on bits of their food. She was going to enjoy introducing Xena as her consort. And she couldn't wait to see Lila's expression. The bard was going to write and tell her little sister, but decided to surprise her with the news in person.
*It would be better that way,* Gabrielle nodded at the thought. She wasn't sure how Lila would take the announcement, as she had only told her family about their relationship several moons ago. But her sister had been very supportive. In any case, the bard knew for sure Cyrene was ecstatic and was happy for them. The warrior's mother had sent them a reply, and promised a big celebration when they stopped back in Amphipolis after their visit to Poteidaia.
*Or "threatened" a celebration,* the bard smiled, when she thought of her partner's exact words. Then blonde brows wrinkled when she realized it was past sundown and there was no sign of her warrior yet.
*I hope they haven't been giving you too hard a time there, My Love,* she thought caringly. Gabrielle hadn't been able to get much information about the pre-joining rituals from her partner. They simply hadn't time. She assured herself she would find out all about it the next day.
*Tonight,* she thought, hugging herself tighter, *Tonight I want only to lose myself in your arms, and remember nothing but us.*
The bard had been feeling a slight unease since the midday meal. She told herself it was simply a case of nervousness and fatigue over the preparations and the other taxing activities. The discomfort had settled at the bottom of her stomach, and she was barely able to ignore it through the day. And now that all the hustle and bustle ceased, the unpleasant feeling hit her again. This only added to her anxiousness for the warrior's return.
*What's keeping you, Xena?* Gabrielle silently asked, looking out the window into the darkened sky. Then, checking the candles, she realised the warrior was almost a whole mark late. Impatient and concerned, she decided to go over to the temple to check and see what was detaining her partner.
"Please calm down, Gabrielle," Ephiny pleaded to her agitated queen. "I'm sure Xena's okay. She's the best warrior there is, and she'll be safe here on Amazon land."
"Something's wrong, I just knew it," the bard replied, fighting back tears. When she went to the temple, Calandra wasn't there. Gabrielle then went to the attendants' chamber only to be told that the rituals were finished as originally scheduled and that the Warrior Princess left at midday.
"Has anyone found Calandra yet?" The Regent asked when the reporting scout entered the hut, and received a negative reply. Responding to the shake of curly blonde locks, the scout left again immediately to resume her search.
"Where could the priestess be?" Gabrielle asked worriedly. "This doesn't make sense, she told me earlier today that Xena would be detained. You were there, Ephiny, you saw her."
"I know, Gabrielle, and I heard her as well. I don't know what's going on either," she replied earnestly. "Maybe this is part of the rituals. Yeah, that's probably it, you know how priestesses are, especially the ancient ones like Calandra. They are always so cryptic," the Regent tried to rationalise the mystery. A spark of hope flashed in the bard's sad green eyes. Briefly.
"You know? They are probably on their way back now. Anyway, I swear to you we'll get to the bottom of this. And I promise Xena will be alright," the Regent added.
*Artemis, my goddess, please help me keep this promise,* Ephiny implored, then sent a silence prayer to all the other gods who were listening. And she returned her focus to consoling her distraught and near frantic friend.
*Stupid, stupid, stupid,* the bard chastised herself. She wasn't at all reassured or convinced by Ephiny's rationalization. *I should have paid attention to that terrible ache; it felt so much like the last time,* she recollected, burying her face in her hands. Recalling that time many moons ago, when her partner was gravely injured while trying to rid a village of its bear problems. It was a very similar sinking feeling she had then.
Tried as she might to forget, Gabrielle still remembered too well the sight of the warrior's pale and battered form at the healer's hut. She could still see the gashes on her partner's body, and could feel her own veins bleeding along with them.
*Please, please, please, be okay, Love,* she beseeched. *Please, I need you, I know I can't...* She couldn't even continue the thought. Her heart throbbed painfully as she tried hard to keep her most dreaded fears at bay. And her breathing her pulse stopped when the door flew opened and a wild-eyed frazzled Eponin appeared.
*No, no, NO!* The bard silently screamed. She had been there before. Her worst nightmare was about to repeat itself again, she feared.
"Eponin," the Regent spoke, "Where have you been?"
"I was in the forest, Ephiny," the warrior gasped, in between laboured breathing. She had obviously run a great distance to hurry back to the village. "Can I talk to you? Outside? Now?"
"Eponin..." The Regent hesitated, concerned about leaving her friend's side. Gabrielle nodded her consent, green eyes betraying their fright.
"Please Ephiny, outside," the warrior reiterated her request.
"I'll be right back, Gabrielle," she reassured her queen, and gave the trembling shoulders a gentle rub. "Don't worry, my friend; everything will be fine, I'm sure."
*IT HAS TO BE!* The bard plead. Tears streamed unbidden down her fair features, no longer willing to heed their owner's command...
The Amazon warrior wasn't sure how to handle the situation in front of Gabrielle because of the
queen's perceived role in the crisis. Further, she thought Ephiny would know how best to deal
with the whole predicament. So, once outside the hut, Eponin drew the Regent aside and told
her everything she saw that afternoon...
The warrior had chance upon the altercation between the Warrior Princess and the visiting
Amazon. At the time, she was too far away to hear what Xena and Iona were talking about. But
seeing the Warrior Princess' drawn sword and her physically hostile behaviour towards the
Amazon, Eponin was concerned. She was about to make her presence known when, following
her friend's gaze, the warrior too was just in time to witness Gabrielle disappearing into the
Xena released Iona who challenged the Warrior Princess before walking away. And Eponin
could recognise an Amazon's dare anywhere; fearing what might happen next, she trailed her
friend to the Amazon's tent. To Eponin's immense surprise, Xena didn't seem to notice her
pursuit at all. But she was even more shocked to see the Warrior Princess frozen near the
structure, turned about and raced out of the village. She swore she had never seen the former
destroyer of nations shaken like that. It was extremely unnerving for the Amazon. And it didn't
take an oracle to figure out what was going on inside the tent.
Without a second thought, Eponin ran after her. She was concerned for the devastated warrior
who she considered a friend. She could sympathise with and understand too well the feeling of
a lover scorned.
Soon the Warrior Princess, who was a more superior runner, disappeared from the Amazon's
vision. But Eponin was able to follow the unhidden tracks, which led to the cliff. The Amazon
saw Xena standing at the edge of the precipice, and was about to call out to the warrior. But
before dark eyes could blink, the Warrior Princess was gone. Eponin tore to the edge, took a
deep breath and gathered her courage to look down. To her astonishment, there was no trace
of her friend.
"You don't think she jumped, do you?" Solari chimed in after Eponin finished her narrative. The
dark Amazon warrior had joined them earlier and caught most of the account.
"There was no trace of anyone having fallen down the cliff," Eponin replied, while casting
worried glances at her Regent who appeared to be racking her brain, struggling to sort out the
"She wouldn't jump, would she?" It was Eponin's turn to ask.
"Well, Sappho did," Solari replied.
"Xena is a warrior, not a poet," Eponin countered; and just then remembering to properly "thank"
her dark friend for the inane courtship advises.
"But she's a warrior in love and Gabrielle is definitely more worthy," the dark warrior ruminated.
"Shut up Solari!" The Regent barked, shaking her head, still trying to figure out how to tell
Gabrielle this latest turn of events.
"Although I'm not sure if that's true now..." The Amazon continued, thinking aloud.
"Solari! I will not have you faulting the Queen without good cause! She was with me most of
the day!" Ephiny huffed, spun around and marched back into the hut. Both Amazons stood,
dumbfounded at the latest revelation.
As gently as possible, the Regent related to the bard the gist of what she just heard from
Eponin. (She didn't think she should burden the younger woman with yet another mystery
regarding the scene in the tent.) The increasing desolation in the green eyes haunted her, and
Ephiny found herself only able to stare at Gabrielle's quivering lips, by the time she finished
retelling the events. She couldn't meet the bard's gaze.
Then, without warning, Gabrielle picked up her staff and started beating at the walls with it.
"Gabrielle?" The Regent started, concerned about her friend, and quietly thanking the Goddess
that the hut had stone columns as support.
*Damn you!* The bard silently swore, every time the wood smacked against the stone. The
impact smarted her palms and stung her upper body muscles, but she didn't care. Gabrielle
She wasn't upset with Iona. She had already got passed that. The Amazon had forcibly kissed
her the afternoon before, when the bard asked for her to talk about Alethea. It had felt wrong,
and Gabrielle was sickened. She had gathered all her strength to disengage the embrace and
gave Iona a good sock in the stomach. That halted the Amazon's groping efforts, and the queen
ordered her out.
Gabrielle was distressed then; she debated telling her partner. But she also couldn't bear for the
warrior to know another person had kissed her, so viciously ripped from her unwilling lips.
Instead, she kept it to herself, allowing her warrior's loving kiss and touch to erase that
unpleasant residual feeling.
*Damn you!* Another nonstop series of hard smacks. The bard was angry with herself then.
She was angry that she had been so oblivious towards the Amazon's advances. She shouldn't
have been as friendly with her. She shouldn't have invited her to chat. She should have been
more mindful of her partner's feelings.
*Damn you, Xena, damn you!* The assault continued, its pace and force increased. *How
could you? How could you even for a moment thought I would betray you? Thought I could
betray our love?* Her anger shifted towards her warrior. *Have you so little faith in me, in us, in
yourself? How could you?!*
*She couldn't possibly think... There weren't worst things she could think... Oh, gods!* As
suddenly as they began, the beating stilled; the staff fell out of limp exhausted hands. Ephiny,
alert and aware, flew to the bard's side to prevent the slight body from hitting the ground.
"She couldn't possibly think...?" Gabrielle reiterated, tear-filled eyes searching her friend's for
support. Ephiny looked at her sadly, and willed her own heart to stay intact. She wrapped her
arm compassionately about the quavering shoulders.
"How could she...?" The bard choked. Unable to hide her despair and long beyond caring what
her Regent might think.
*I didn't just want to be with you for the rest of my life, Xena,* thinking back to what the warrior
had said to her when they decided to be joined. *I want to be yours. For keeps,* her heart cried
out to her partner. *I thought you understood that! What could I have done to make you
understand that?* Blonde head shook desolately as tears of sorrow flowed.
*Please, Gods, please give me another chance to convince her that!* Green eyes squeeze tight
in a desperate prayer.
"She couldn't have jumped, could she?" The bard asked aloud, imploring. "If she..." She
swallowed the rest of the sentence, "I would know, I would feel it, wouldn't I?" Like she did the
*I don't think I could go on...* She wasn't even going to try this time.
*Will I ever hear your lilting voice so lovingly call my name again?* Gabrielle winced at the bare
feel of a hand reaching into her chest and cruelly twisted her heart loose from her veins, tearing
at her lifelines.
*Will I again feel the loving warmth, the comforting strength of your embrace?* She
remembered the warrior's arms, her protective strong arms. Her head cradled against her
partner's shoulders, so safe. Nestled against her soft chest, so sheltered.
She craved to wrap her own arms about the warrior's broad back. Longed to press her ear to
her partner's breast, letting the strong pulsing of her heart calm and reassure her. An "I love
you" for each beat.
*Don't you know how much I need you?* Gabrielle gripped her shirt, the warrior's shirt, close to
her body tightly with both hands. Trying to gather strength from the woven threads.
*Wretched, wretched!* The Regent swore. *You'd better still be alive Warrior Princess, or I'd
personally come and kill you over again,* she pledged.
Ephiny watched, helplessly, brokenhearted as she listened to the bard's shattered breathing. As
the young queen wept through most of the night.
When the bard finally drifted off in exhausted, fitful sleep, Ephiny went and ordered Solari and
Eponin to keep an eye on Iona and to quietly detain her if necessary. She reluctantly suspended
the search for both the warrior and the priestess, as it would be dangerous and futile in the deep
of the night. After receiving totally unconstructive reports from the scouts, the Regent returned to
the Queen's hut.
"Tomorrow, Gabrielle, we will find your Warrior Princess tomorrow," she promised, as her
fingers gently eased the crease between the young brows. Ephiny then pulled up a chair and
prepared to hold vigil over her friend.
Gabrielle rolled over, hugging the pillow beside her, inhaling her partner's scent, feeling warm,
safe. She just had the most wonderful dream. In it, she and her warrior were spending a quiet
evening alone out in the forest, looking at the stars.
They both savoured nights like that, even though the relative danger of being out in the open
prevented them from expressing their love in a more physical way. A cocoon of warmth and
quiet joy surrounded the pair as they explain to the other the shapes and magical beings each
saw in the heavens above. As each woman share with the other stories of her past and her
hopes for their future.
Sometimes they would lie silently holding each other, simply relishing their togetherness. The
bard especially loved resting her head on the warrior's shoulder, her face pillowed against the
soft swell. And allowing her partner's steady heartbeat and gentle stroking to soothe her
And in the dream, it was precisely such a night. They had decided to spend some time away
from the village, as an escape for Gabrielle from a day of arduous negotiations and meetings
with council elders.
*The Amazons!* The young queen was suddenly jolted out of her half-sleep state, as she
remembered where she was at the moment.
*Oh, gods, Xena!* And immediately became conscious of the lifeless bundle in her arms,
recalling why it wasn't her warrior in her embrace. Her awareness of the too large too empty
bed intensely painful. Morning had come too soon then.
As Gabrielle replayed the events that transpired the night before, hot tears threatened to spill
again. With great efforts, she willed them back.
*Hope,* she reminded herself. She must have hope that they would find her warrior, and that
she would be all right.
Slowly, the bard opened her eyes and tried to sit up. Assailed by a wave of dizziness, she lay
back down, breathing deeply, slowly, letting the twin blue oceans in her mind's eye wash over
her. When she had calmed sufficiently, green eyes scanned the room, and rested on the empty
chair beside her bed.
*Oh, Ephiny...* Unwelcomed memories flooded her consciousness again, assaulting her
*Breathe, Gabrielle, breathe,* she concentrated on nothing else for a long while. Until her
thought had drifted to her Regent, her friend. Who had been extraordinarily kind to her, and who
must have stayed with her through the night. She wondered what the Amazon was doing at the
moment, and if she had received any news of the search.
Lying there staring up at the ceiling, her mind finally clearer than the evening before, Gabrielle
somehow managed to keep a handle on all the anger and grief. The bard realised she couldn't
really blame her partner for believing in whatever it was that Iona had said to her. She was
indeed acting strangely and out of sort, as her partner observed the afternoon before that.
*I should have just told Xena about the kiss,* she thought, in retrospect.
*How many times had things like this happened, when I would keep things to myself and hoped
that they would go away and that everything would be all right? And how many times had those
same things blown up in my face? Our faces?* She sighed deeply. But it has always been like
that for the bard. Even when she was growing up, she preferred hiding from her family things
that really, really troubled her, choosing to keep the hurt to herself.
*But things are more complicated than the loss of a pony now...* Fair head shook ruefully.
Realising not for the first time just how much she and her warrior were alike when dealing with
certain emotional issues. Contrary to what her partner thought, she wasn't fearless. Far from
that, in fact. She just refused to let her fears stop her.
Like now, Gabrielle resisted the urge to lose herself once again in grief. She was certain then
that the warrior was all right. She could feel it, the nagging ache in her stomach had gone, and
was replaced by a sure sense of their connection. At least so the bard told herself, lest she fell
to pieces. She wasn't convinced all the paste in the known world could hold the bits together.
To the young woman's relief, the door chose that instant to open, providing a welcomed
interruption to her musing. Very quiety and carefully, Ephiny backed into the hut with the
breakfast tray. She didn't know if the bard was up yet, but she thought the younger woman
would appreciate not having to face the inquiring world.
The Regent had left the queen's hut shortly after dawn; Gabrielle seemed to be sleeping
peacefully then. Indeed, Ephiny thought she saw a small smile hovering over the pink lips; and
she thanked the Goddess for that. Before going about her errands, she summoned Solari to
replace one of the guards at the door, just in case. And she knew Gabrielle trusted the dark
In the assembly hut, Ephiny was pleased to find the scouts already prepared and ready to
resume their task. The bard had a way of capturing people's hearts, and her Amazons had
grown to admire and adore their young queen very much. Knowing how worried she must have
been feeling, they were eager and anxious to locate the Warrior Princess and the priestess.
After briefing and dispersing the warriors, the Regent went over to the mess hut. She knew
Gabrielle had a tendency to forget food when she was distraught, and she wanted to make sure
the bard ate something. The still full tray on the table from the night before told Ephiny her
queen already skipped dinner. While at the hut, she listened to the murmured questions and
speculations about the latest activities, and she wondered how long it would be before the
rumours and gossips got out of control.
She also considered how she would explain to her friend the mysterious presence in Iona's tent,
and what must have happened there at the time. She knew she eventually would have to. But
for now, she worried more about convincing the bard to stay in the village and not join the
"'Morning, Ephiny," the bard managed quietly, swinging her legs over the side of the bed and
attempted to stand again.
"'Morning, Gabrielle," concerned gaze met green ones, followed by a cautious hesitant quirk of
otherwise severe lips. She moved to help her friend but was motioned to stay back. Moments
later, the young queen met her Regent at the table.
"Any news from last night?" The bard didn't think so, but she just had to ask. And the look on
her friend's face confirmed her suspicion. She sighed.
*Oh, Hades, I might as well get this over with,* the Amazon decided there was no sense in
delaying the inevitable.
"Listen, Gabrielle," the Regent began, as she placed a bowl of warm cereal before the bard, and
a spoon in her unwilling hand. "I've already sent out the scouts," the bard knew where she was
heading with the conversation, and was about to protest, but Ephiny silenced her and continued.
"I think you should stay here and wait for the reports. It'll be better; and if there's any news, you'll
get it as soon as the messenger returns. The Amazons won't have to trek all over the forest
trying to find you, too."
She watched as Gabrielle struggled between the logic of her argument and the bard's own
desire to be out there, looking. Ephiny understood that need well, as she herself wanted to lead
the search. But the Amazon resisted that calling by reasoning that her queen needed a friend by
her side, which was very true. The pale face appeared so haggard that she feared the bard
would faint without warning. And the warrior released a held breath when Gabrielle finally
nodded in acquiescent.
Fidgeting with the spoon and stirring the slightly sweetened grains, the bard wished there were
something she could do. She didn't want to stay behind, and was not going to. But she had to
admit Ephiny had a point. If they found Xena, she would want to know that instant. She wished
it weren't her Regent sitting across from her. She wished she were wrapped comfortably in her
partner's embrace, that her warrior were there to warm away the chill she felt.
Inhaling deeply, and letting out a soft sigh, Gabrielle began to work at her breakfast. She really
didn't feel like eating, but the chore would occupy her mind. At least for a little while.
Casual chitchats weren't appropriate under the circumstances, and finding nothing else to talk
about, the two women finished their meal in strained silence. Afterwards, the bard decided that
she would try to go back to sleep. At least in slumber she didn't have to remember what she
was trying so desperately avoid. And maybe she could find temporary peace in dreams like the
one she had earlier.
Knowing her friend had not slept at all, Gabrielle demanded Ephiny to do likewise. The Amazon
didn't feel comfortable leaving the young woman alone, but she also had to admit, albeit
reluctantly, that she needed the rest. After ordering Solari to ensure the bard wasn't to be
disturbed, and instructing her warriors to apprise her immediately of any new information, the
Regent retired to her own hut.
"Clang... clang... clang..."
"Clang... clang... CLANG..."
"Whatcha doing, Love?" She asked her warrior, while chewing at the end of her quill.
"CLANG... CLANG... CLANG..."
"Will you please stop that racket, Xena?" She requested, still not looking up.
"Please, it's driving me crazy and I can't write!" She complained frustratedly.
*What the...?* The bard sat up, blinking fuzzily. The repetitive pounding had since increased in pace and sounded agitated.
"COME IN!" She called out immediately. And was surprised when Solari bursted in. She jumped off the bed without delay and rushed towards the door.
"Got news?" She hurried, not bothering using a complete sentence.
"Yes... and no..., Gabrielle," the dark Amazon hesitated, a stark contrast to her earlier conduct. Solari wasn't anxious to be the bearer of the latest information to begin with, and now that she got her queen up, she wasn't sure how to tell her.
At that, blonde brows furrowed. She waited, holding her breath and her emotions at bay, not at all prepared for the worst.
Seeing the younger woman's reaction, the warrior added hastily, "No, no, my Queen, Xena is alive. One of the Amazons saw her this morning, and the Warrior Princess even helped her."
*YES! She's okay! I knew it!* Gabrielle felt the weight of Mt. Olympus lifted from her heart and she could breathe again.
"Well? Where is she?" She wanted, needed to know.
"Still... in... the forest..." The warrior faltered, "We think."
*How am I going to tell her? AgGGH! I'm gonna get you for this Eponin!* Solari agonised over her task.
"You think?!? What do you mean by that?" Gabrielle was beyond impatient. She wanted to know what was going on, and here was Solari, so uncharacteristically unsure she was almost stuttering. It was wreaking havoc on her nerves.
"Umm... Why don't you wait here? I'll go get Ephiny." The Amazon decided a retreat was in order.
"Solari!?!!" She screeched.
"Gabrielle, I'm not sure how to explain this. It's really best that you talk to the Regent," the warrior managed, wincing internally.
"All right, fine! Let's go!" The bard threw a cloak over her shirt and headed towards the door.
"Ah... The healer's hut, Gabri..." the warrior provided as the determined queen breezed past her.
Without looking back, Gabrielle raced ahead, leaving a cloud of dust for the warrior to follow.
"Ephiny?" Four pairs of eyes looked up when the door to the healer's hut swung open. The
Regent stilled her pacing, her gentle gaze at her queen transformed into a glare at the dark
warrior after reading the Amazon's silent signals. Eponin followed suit. While the healer
nodded at her sovereign, then left the room silently; she had just finished checking up on her
patient and had given her a clean bill of physical health. Her already red-eyed patient, however,
broke into a racking sob.
"What's going on, Ephiny?" Gabrielle began again, already anxious, and now confused by the
young Amazon's presence and reaction.
"I'm so sorry, my Queen!" The young woman wailed, "I'm so, SO SORRY!"
"Alethea?" Gabrielle approached the Amazon and stroked her hair compassionately. She only
"Gabrielle," the Regent stepped next to her queen and articulated, "The scouts found Alethea
wandering about the forest earlier this afternoon and brought her back. She said she didn't
remember why she left the village and how she ended up in the forest. But she maintained she
saw Xena." The bard looked at Ephiny expectantly, impatient for her to proceed.
"She explained that she was fleeing from a wild boar when the Warrior Princess appeared, and
that Xena had pursued and killed the beast," the blonde warrior continued. "The Amazons found
the carcass, and the animal did appear to have died of a chakram wound to the neck." She
"And? Where is Xena now?" The queen asked, her consternation growing by each passing
"We don't know, the scouts haven't found her yet." After a moment of hesitation, she carried on,
"Alethea said Xena left and disappeared into the forest almost immediately after helping her get
"Did she talk to her? Did Xena say anything?" Gabrielle wanted to shake the answers out of her
regent. Somebody. Anybody.
"Out with it, Ephiny! What are you not telling me?" She demanded when the Amazon faltered
and the young woman wept harder.
"Gabrielle...," the Regent hesitated, then rushed to finish her sentence, "She doesn't remember
"What...?" The bard reeled. Once again, her friend held her up, and Solari rushed to pull up a
chair for her.
*Upset? Furious? Fine, I could understand and accept that. But how could she forget me?*
She asked in silent anguish and buried her face in her hands. *How could she?*
"And she claimed to hate all Amazons," Ephiny added hoarsely. Gabrielle looked up at her in
"Hate all Amazons? Nothing is making sense. What's happened to her?" Her brain turned
furiously, desperate to find an answer. The bard tried to stay rational, while struggling to
maintain emotional control. It was one thing for her to break down in front of her friend, but
before the other warriors... She inhaled deeply and held her breath until the mist in her eyes
"Gabrielle," her friend squeezed her shoulder lightly, "There's something else you should know."
Her heart constricted just as invisible hands rushed to build a barrier around it. But the bard
stopped them. And braced herself for whatever it was to come. Her warrior was alive, that
knowledge alone was enough to carry her. At least through this. For now.
"I was in Iona's tent and Xena thought it was you," Alethea blurted before the Regent could
continue. Gabrielle looked at the young Amazon and then at her friend, confusion apparent in
her paling green eyes.
Ephiny proceeded to tell her queen what Eponin related to her the day before, filling in with
details the young Amazon had earlier provided.
Apparently, taking advantage of the young woman professed love, Iona had convinced Alethea
to meet her in her tent dressed in Gabrielle's clothes. The warrior was honest with her about her
desire for the queen. And Iona pleaded with the young Amazon to pretend to be her sovereign,
so she could make believed for an afternoon that she was with Gabrielle. She promised the
young blonde she could and would love her in return afterwards. Wanting only to please the
woman she adored, Alethea obliged without question nor reluctance.
And it was Alethea that Xena and Eponin saw disappearing into Iona's tent. It was their sounds
of passion that the Warrior Princess heard, that had the Warrior Princess believed that Gabrielle
had taken the Amazon as a lover.
"Can you ever forgive me?" The young woman collapsed before her queen when the Regent
finished retelling the account.
Looking at the slight Amazon kneeling at her feet, and thinking back to their conversation the
other day, her heart went out to the young woman. Gabrielle decided she couldn't lay blame on
the misguided young Amazon. She reached out to stroke the pale face tenderly, wiping some of
the tears away, and smiled.
Then she transferred her stormy gaze to Ephiny, "I'm going back to my hut, let me know if you
hear anything. Otherwise, I'll see you in the morning." The Amazons were surprised by the
calm in her voice; they didn't know how their queen would react, but this certainly wasn't what
"Let me escort you," Solari instantly offered; and Gabrielle nodded her acceptance. After
hugging Alethea reassuringly, and telling her to take care, the bard tipped her head at the two
warriors. She hurried out of the healer's hut, once again with the dark Amazon trailing behind
Eponin and the Regent looked at each other, then the chestnut-haired warrior shrugged. She
decided she would leave Ephiny to her brooding, and accompany Alethea back to her hut.
"Ephiny, if I may," she was going to work on slowly gaining the young woman's trust and
friendship first. At her own paces, in her own thoughtful ways. Something told her they had all
the time in the world.
The blonde warrior gave her silent consent, and followed the pair out of the structure. Needing
quiet and privacy to sort out the latest turn of events and to determine her next course of action,
Ephiny headed towards the temple.
The door to the hut closed not soon enough for the bard. And it was only by divine providence that she resisted the urge to simply slide down the wooden structure and curl up into a ball. Instead, she made it to the desk, and sat before it. Dropping her head in her palms. She watched as droplets of moisture fell unbidden onto the sheet of parchment below. Blurring the words of a letter to her warrior, which she started before all of this.
*How could she forget me?* Her mind returning again and again to this query, unbelieving. *Could she have so easily forgotten the love we shared? All the things we've been through? How could she?* Her trembling hand frustratedly wiped away the now completely smeared ink.
Gabrielle was convinced by then that a god, or even several gods, must be at work here. She could think of at least one who would stop at nothing to get the Warrior Princess back into his fold. And perhaps there were others who wanted to destroy their happiness, for whatever reasons. Unless Xena was somehow hurt and had lost her memory because of the trauma, she couldn't conjure another satisfactory explanation for her warrior's behaviour.
*But she had swiftly killed a wild boar, and Alethea said she seemed perfectly all right,* the bard reasoned. She was very happy to know that Xena was alive and well. That was utmost important in the bard's mind.
The belief that the Warrior Princess was under the influence of the Gods didn't allay any of her concerns, however. They had successfully dealt with the immortals before, even though sometimes Gabrielle wondered if they would always be so lucky... But together they had always managed to come up with something...
*Where are you, My Love?* Green eyes regarded the flickering stars, *I so wish you were here, if only you were here...* She knew her partner often agonised over the gods interfering with their lives, and wished for the bard's sake that it weren't the case. But Gabrielle really didn't mind these encounters that much, since some of them were harmless enough and most made very good stories. And the bard had faith that they would prevail over the immortals' powers. If only they were not apart...
Of course there was also the possibility that her partner was so completely devastated over Iona's deceit that she simply blocked out any memory of the bard's existent. But if Gabrielle accepted this theory, she would then have to deal with the barrage of related issues... Some of which would surely destroy her at that instant...
*Oh gods! She really thought I betrayed her!* The bard comprehended, mortified. Eyelids squeezed tight in torment, *It all makes perfect sense now...!*
Part of her was upset that her Regent didn't tell her about what Xena thought she saw. She wished she had known... But then she was also grateful that Ephiny had left it out the night before. No matter how much it pained and angered her because of Xena's doubt, it would hurt her much, much more to know what her partner must have been feeling. And she wasn't sure how she could have handled all of it then.
*I'm so sorry I got mad at you,* she felt guilty for her anger at her partner. And she still blamed herself for not being honest with Xena, and for not suspecting the Amazon's ploy. No matter who the true culprit was, Gabrielle knew she would never forgive herself if anything had happened to her warrior.
Nevertheless, in a strange way, she was pleased that Xena had reacted so strongly, as the Warrior Princess never seemed to care too much about anything or anyone. Sometimes Gabrielle wondered if some of the things she did in the earlier part of their relationship weren't partially to see how much the warrior cared...
*I just wish I were there to convince you it was all a lie,* she sighed, thinking back what Alethea had told her, remembering how distraught the young woman was at her disloyalty towards the queen, and her own betrayal by Iona.
*Poor girl...* Somehow Gabrielle couldn't help but felt responsible for the young woman's suffering, and she wished she had given her better advices. But the bard had meant what she told Alethea, and she still believed in what she said.
*I would have done anything for you, Xena. Would have done anything to get you to love me, and to keep your love for me,* she thought, recalling the days when she was unsure of her warrior's affection. Remembering her own insecurities about her inexperience, her ignorance... There were times when Gabrielle still wondered what the worldly Warrior Princess saw in her. But she tried not to dwell on those thoughts anymore.
*I'm just glad she loved me as I do her.* The corner of her lips curled up fondly as she remembered their many fireside chats, and the exasperated lift of her warrior's eyebrows at some of her sillier questions. *Gods, it seemed only yesterday that we declared our love for each other...*
*Please Artemis, please help me get her back,* she beseeched her god, mindful her current plight. It was only just the day before that her partner disappeared, but to the bard, the separation was longer than an eternity.
*Please, my goddess, if you will hear me,* Gabrielle continued, *Please protect Xena, and keep her safe. Please help us. Help me.* She prayed, looking through blurred vision at where the moon would have been.
Gazing at the darkened sky, lit only by starlights, Gabrielle remembered the night of the last Solstice. That was the very first time the Warrior Princess truly allowed herself to believe that the bard really did love her and intended to stay by her. Without doubts, without hesitation. And the bard recalled how very much like the stars she thought her partner's blue eyes were, as she looked up to them. As the brilliant orbs shone down upon her as they made love on the terrace outside their room at the inn.
The warrior' love, their love, had warmed her in that cold night. And Gabrielle allowed an echo of that warmth envelop her like a shroud, as pale green eyes finally ran out of tears. As she drifted off to Hypnos' realm, still feeling the golden links about her wrist wrapped firmly around her heart.
Ephiny looked up to the bright, cloudless sky, the position of the sun above told her they had been wandering around the forest for at least half a morning. Wiping the sweat and fatigue off her brows with the back of her hand, she wondered for the umpteenth time how Gabrielle could seem so energetic still.
*Must have been all that running about with the Warrior Princess,* the Regent mused. *Or maybe I'm just getting old.* She shook her head, while maintaining the same pace with her queen, and keeping up.
Gabrielle had shown up at her hut before dawn, in her travelling clothes, with her staff in hand and their food packed in her saddle bag. Ephiny was more than surprised, and she had considered talking the bard out of joining the search. However, the determined look on the young face told her any such attempts would be futile.
Moreover, by then, most in the village knew the warrior and the priestess had disappeared. And the council of elders had requested a special meeting be held at midday and had required the Queen's attendance. Much to Ephiny's astonishment and dismay, Gabrielle simply left word that she would not be there.
"Protocols be damned," Gabrielle had countered. "You can stay and attend the meeting for me if you like, but I'm going to go find my warrior," she had said. There was no way the Regent would stay behind, and she fought her consternation for her friend's safety. Finally, Ephiny rationalised that the bard would look very bad if she simply stuck around, when her betrothed had disappeared. That was especially true, as rumours had begun spreading as to the reason behind the warrior's disappearance. And wanting to protect Alethea's privacy, Gabrielle had requested Iona's scheme be kept undisclosed.
*For now, anyway,* Ephiny decided. *It's absurd, but I'm almost glad the priestess had disappeared as well, so officially, this whole thing was just a prejoining ritual gone awry,* she secretly thought, hoping things would turn out all right. The Regent was also relieved that Alethea could be a witness to the visiting warrior's treachery if necessary. Otherwise, there was no telling what kind of wrath would befall the Queen, if the Amazons believed in her faithlessness.
While the rest of the scouts focused on other unsearched areas of the forest, Gabrielle insisted on returning to where the young Amazon was found the day before. Just as Ephiny had expected, they hadn't made any new discovery yet; she didn't think they would, as her warriors were thorough in their investigation.
"Hey, Ephiny, what's this?" The bard called out, interrupting her thoughts. The blonde Amazon went over to where her friend was crouching.
"Well, I'll be!" They were small indentations which looked like Amazon arrow marks, except they were near the bottom of the tree truck. Their placements were peculiar, *What was the hunter trying to shoot? Squirrels climbing up a tree? No Amazon is such a bad shot.* It was also strange that the scouts didn't see them when they were here, as the nicks looked quite aged. *Or maybe they did and decided it wasn't a clue; afterall, we should be looking for new marks.* The Regent was about to mention just that when the bard called again.
"Hey, Ephiny, here's another group," Gabrielle motioned for her friend to join her at another tree about twenty paces away. It was another cluster of arrow marks, placed similarly, except somehow it seemed to point at a direction which would lead them deeper into the forest.
*That can't be,* the Regent shook her head. Upon a second look, the dents appeared random once more. But then the bard captured her attention again; the younger woman had discovered yet another marker paces away, where the tree growth increased.
"Gabrielle!!" She called out, suddenly seized by a stark sense of foreboding. "STOP! Wait up!!" The queen paused for a split instant, then continued on. Ephiny followed. At first, she stooped to check out each sign, but soon she focused only on keeping up with her friend. Her advice about the markers being old and not very useful in solving their current problem went unheeded.
It must have been almost a candle mark later when they stopped, the Amazon couldn't tell, as the sun was no longer visible overhead. Only a scattering of bright rays filtered through the tall trees. Directly before them, enclosed by wild vegetation was a small indentation which appeared to be the opening of a cave.
*This is strange, I don't remember anything about a cave here... Although I'm not sure when's the last time anybody visited these parts,* the Regent thought. Her Amazons preferred to hunt closer to the village, unless games were scarce. They opted leaving much uninhabited areas of their land to the Goddess' creatures.
"Gabrielle, I think we should head back, I don't think anyone's been here for ages," Ephiny advised. *At least until we can come back with reinforcements,* she thought. *This place gives me the creeps.*
The Queen was about to answer when a quiet rustle arrested her attention. She turned around at the sound of her friend's small gasp, and froze at the sight before her.
Ephiny was pressed up against a tall dark figure, with the blade of a long sword at her throat. A trickle of blood oozed from the thin slash on her neck below the jaw bone. The fright in her friend's eyes reminded Gabrielle of a trapped doe. And the bard would have staggered in horror had she not been paralysed by her own raging emotions.
The wild dark hair, the leather vambraces, the calf length boots and the sharp sword were the only things that told Gabrielle the menacing form before her was her partner. Gone were the warrior's armour and battle dress, instead she had on a pair of smooth black leather pants and a matching vest which looked masculine and vaguely familiar. Underneath, she wore a deep blue laced up shirt which brought out the colour of her eyes. Except, the familiar love and adoration in the bright blues orbs had been replaced by rancour and fierce cruelty.
The bard had never seen the Warrior Princess like this. The look of cold calculation on Xena when they were fighting the Horde had scared Gabrielle. That was possibly the only time she had a true glimpse of the former Destroyer of Nations in action. Part of her feared for their safety then, but she was more frightened that her friend would return to the darkness.
*But this Xena...,* Gabrielle observed, her heart pumping. *Gods!* For the very first time, the bard was fearful of her warrior. Terrified of what she might do to them.
"Amazon," came the dangerous low growl. "Today's your lucky day, my Lord wants you alive. For now," she added, with a feral chortle.
"Come, Little Girl," the warrior motioned for Gabrielle to walk ahead of them. "Don't try anything, or your friend here dies," and gave Ephiny a rough jostle to prove her purpose. The Regent inhaled audibly as the sharp blade cut further into her throat. "I'm sure my Lord would gladly indulge my folly of skinning the Amazon sooner," the dark woman sneered.
Afraid for their safety, the bard obliged and led their way deeper into the cavern.
As the trio moved steadily further into the grotto, Gabrielle noticed the various ancient carvings on the walls on either side. She pondered briefly about the cave's original function, and decided that it must have been a temple.
*A temple on Amazon land? I wonder...* She didn't dwell too much on that, however, as her thoughts were focused mainly on the Warrior Princess... her best friend, her partner, her betrothed...
For a fleeting moment, the bard considered the idea that Xena was simply pretending, merely trying to convince this "Lord" of her loyalty and waiting for the perfect moment to escape. However, recalling the warrior's cruel gaze and listening to Ephiny's tortured gasps behind her, Gabrielle gave up any hope for that. And she wondered if Xena's distress over losing her had once again brought the Warrior Princess back in Ares' dominion. It certainly appeared that way to the bard.
*Oh, gods, I'm so, so sorry, Love,* she berated herself again over her role in her partner's reversion. And she questioned how she could remove the warrior from the God of War's influence, *Gods, I'm no Son of Zeus here...*
*And how do I get us out of this?* Gabrielle worried. *I shouldn't have let Ephiny come with me, should have ordered her to stay,* she regretted asking her friend, even though she knew Ephiny would have insisted on accompanying her. It wasn't her own safety the Queen was concerned about, she had nothing more to lose and she didn't care; but she felt responsible for getting her friend into their present predicament.
The bard had awoken that morning with an intense feeling that she should return to the place where Alethea was found the day before. She couldn't explain it, but she knew that was where she should look. Similarly, she had heard the Regent's advice about the aged markings, and even agreed with the Amazon. However, her intuition told her that those markers were clues to her warrior. And indeed they were, just not to what she had expected.
*Oh, Xena, how do I get you back?* Gabrielle was disheartened that the warrior had obviously no memory of her at all, *Please don't let me find you only to lose you again.* She implored. But then she realised they had one thing that Hercules or any other person didn't: their love. The same connection which brought the Warrior Princess back from Tartarus to her side. The same one which joined them beyond death.
The bard refused then to believe that Xena could so easily forget what they meant to each other. And she promised she would make her partner remember, or at least die trying, *I won't give up on you Xena; and I won't give up on us. I won't.*
"Hey, you, keep walking," the dark warrior's deep snarl halted her steps. Gabrielle swung about just in time to see her Regent took another shove and a blow to her back.
"Xena?" The bard stammered.
"Be silent!" The warrior barked coldly in response, "Turn around and keep going." Gabrielle winced at the frosty tone, and had to remind herself that this was not her Xena, not the same person who loved her. She did as the Warrior Princess bid, and kept a steady gait. After going through a particularly narrow stretch of tunnel, and reaching the end, the bard was surprised to find herself in a columned chamber.
Ephiny blinked. She recalled at that moment the legend she heard when she was young, about an abandoned temple of Artemis deep in the forest. It wasn't intentionally deserted, but that, for whatever reason, the goddess had made it impossible for her people to find it. Through the ages, Amazons would attempt to locate the structure; but no matter how skilled or worthy or otherwise prepared they were, none would make it back.
*This must be the temple,* she thought, wishing she could tell Gabrielle her discovery. *Why are we led here? And what is the Goddess doing with Xena? Did Artemis change her? Is this part of the prejoining trials? And what's my part in this?* The Regent wondered, as multitude of questions came tumbling forth. Her wildest imagination would not have prepared her for the answer.
She grasped her neck wound instinctively as the Warrior Princess gave her hard push, propelling her further into the room. Her Queen was instantly upon her, preventing her from completely crashing onto the marbled floor. Before either of them could regain their composure, an all too familiar manic laughter assailed their ears.
*No, it can't be,* the two fair women looked up to the source of the harrowing sound. "Velasca!" They exclaimed in unison.
"Shut up! How dare you address my Lord by her name," Xena growled, brandishing her swords before them. "Remain on your knees," she ordered, kicking Ephiny at the shin, causing her to stumble forward.
Gabrielle was frantic as she knelt by her friend, helping the warrior regain her balance. She had expected Ares, and was prepared to somehow reason with him. She didn't expect Velasca; she had hoped the mad-Amazon-turned-god would stay in the lava pit.
"Hello, Gabrielle," the god drawled. "How kind of you to visit me. Ephiny, did you have a nice trip?" She asked, with wicked glee, enjoying the joke at the Regent's expense.
The bard was overwrought when, responding to Velasca's silent command, the Warrior Princess approached where the deity was lounging and sat by her side like a docile puppy.
"Oh, Gabrielle, how do you like the new Xena?" She asked, running her fingers through the warrior's dark hair, "She is beautiful, isn't she? And yummy." Velasca reached out to cup the warrior's head, bringing her in. Dark brows furrowed for the briefest instant, the Warrior Princess then eased into the kiss.
The bard squeezed shut her eyelids, unable to watch the exchange before her. She wanted to rush up to the throne and wrench the two apart, but her reason kept her from acting. Gabrielle didn't think she had any tears left from the night before, as green orbs mist over again. But she willed them back, unwilling to show weakness before her enemy. Another string of manic laughter brought her eyes opened once more.
"As they say, revenge is sweet," Velasca continued, stroking the warrior possessively. "This certainly is the sweetest."
*No, no, no! This is not happening!* Gabrielle tried desperately to hold her heart together, to wipe the offending image from her mind. And she wished that Zeus' lightning bolt would strike her deaf so she wouldn't have to listen to the mad god's mirth.
Before the bard could regain her equilibrium, her rival spoke again, "Xena, my pet, lock them up, will you? I have plans for them later."
"Yes, my Lord," the Warrior Princess responded, jumping off her perch and marching over to where her prisoners were. With a sword pointed at Gabrielle, she directed them away from the chamber.
As they walked down another corridor, the bard could feel her Regent trembling with rage beside her. And she wished again that this were all part of a bad dream, and that she would wake up and find herself nestled in the loving warmth of her warrior's arms. Soon.
"Don't you recognise me, Xena?" The bard asked, as soon as they reached the inner sanctuary, where they were to be locked up. The place was dark, lit only by a few torches. The amber light cast an eery glow upon the crevices and shadows, and the room looked to Ephiny like a sacrificial chamber.
"You are Gabrielle, my Lord's enemy," grey blue eyes narrowed, and the Warrior Princess answered coolly.
"Look at me, Xena," she pleaded, daring to take hold of the warrior's arm. "I'm Gabrielle, your bard, your best friend..."
"Mine? You must be joking," she scoffed, wiping off the bard's hand as if the contact was revolting. "My allegiance is with my Lord.
"But Xena..." The younger woman bit back tears and attempted to continue. The Warrior Princess sheathed her sword in displeasure, the scrape of sharp metal against the scabbard hanging at her waist grated on the Amazons' nerves.
"Look, Little Girl," she spoke low, hooking her finger cruelly under the tender chin. "You're annoying me."
"I'm not a little girl," the bard asserted with spirit. "I'm the Queen of the Amazons!"
"You? Queen of the Amazons?" The warrior mocked, incredulous. "Don't make me laugh, Little Girl."
"Xena, I am their queen and you are my betrothed!" She declared, grabbing the warrior by the collar and pulling her forward. The Warrior Princess, incensed, gripped the slight woman by her shoulders and jerked her off the ground.
"How dare you suggest such an insult?" She threatened dangerously, "Me, engaged to an Amazon? I despise Amazons!"
"No, Xena!" Before Gabrielle could act to defend herself, Ephiny stepped up and interfered. The Regent was afraid of what the irate Warrior Princess might do to her queen. The warrior released her handle on the bard, who dropped to the marble floor in a heap.
"You are my Lord's nemesis, Amazon," she turned, and glowered at the blonde warrior. "And I hate you, all of you!" The indignant Regent moved to attack the dark form, and received a fierce jab at the solar plexus for her trouble. Ephiny quickly straightened up and readied for another strike.
"You want more, Amazon?" Without waiting for a reply, the Warrior Princess back fisted Ephiny across the face, added quick punches to the already bruised ribs, and followed with a series of hard knee kicks to the abdomen. Finally, with a side sweep and quick pull, the Regent went flying half across the room like an abused rag doll. Before the "thud" which resounded throughout the grotto subsided, the dark warrior was already towering over the fallen figure, ready to continue her assault.
"No, please, Xena, STOP!" Gabrielle threw herself in front of her friend's prone form, prepared to take any ensuing blows.
The warrior stilled, surprised by the small woman's move.
Gazing into her partner's eyes, those cold blue eyes, the bard remembered it was only a few days ago that they had captured her with such deep passions. Had, with such a wondrous look, told Gabrielle that the same flame of mutual love burnt in her as well. She stifled her sighs, not daring to ask for the warrior's pity.
"I haven't committed any crime," the bard began to quietly speak, as the Warrior Princess remained motionless. "Don't condemn me, Xena, just because I love you."
Encouraged by her partner's silence, she continued, holding out her wrists, "Look, Xena, this is from you, and this is a part of each of us, binding us together." The warrior simply stared impassively.
"But if you still don't believe me, if you want," she took hold of the warrior's hand and pressed it to her chest. "Here, cut open my heart, and you'll have the proof that I adore you. I can see the hatred in your eyes, but at least tell me with your lips. Tell me, and I promise I won't ask for anything more."
"I... I...!" Xena started, snatching her hand back. She extended her palm, as if ready to strike.
Gabrielle closed her eyes tight, and prepared herself for the blow to come, for the impact which would no doubt send her sailing across the chamber.
But it never came.
Instead, Xena retracted the motion. A slight look of confusion fleeted past blue eyes as she pushed back her dark hair. For whatever reason, she couldn't bring herself to hit the woman.
"You're raving, Amazon whore," she spat roughly, then spun on her heels and left, slamming the door shut behind her.
*Gods, she has fled from me in disdain!* To Gabrielle, the warrior's words struck just as brutally as any physical blow would. *What have I ever done to deserve this scorn? I thought when I saw her again, I would die of love and happiness, but now grief is the only thing that's killing me.* She wiped off the moisture on her face with her hand, inhaled deeply and swallowed, "But my heart will always be true to you, Xena, no matter what." She pledged.
The bard had only managed to help her friend into a sitting position against the wall, when a small huddled form at the far corner of the room spoke.
"You, it's all your fault!" The woman accused.
"I'm sorry?" The bard replied, puzzled. She hadn't noticed that there was anyone else in the room with them until then. Green eyes regarded the figure, who, in the dimmed light, appeared to be about her age. And the young woman's attire told Gabrielle she was an Amazon.
"It's all your fault, I hate you!" The Amazon repeated.
"What have I done to you?" The bard asked. "I'm afraid I don't recall meeting you," and explained sincerely.
"You've stolen from me my bond mate! If it's not for you, I won't be locked up like this!" The young woman ranted. "I don't know where she is. I've been here for over a week, and my hopes are fading," she continued, almost hysterical. "Who will restore my warrior to me?"
"What's your name?" The queen asked gently, realisation beginning to dawn on her.
"What's it to you?" Came the terse retort.
With Ephiny's consent, Gabrielle moved over to the corner where the young woman was, and spoke to her softly, "Come on, you saw what just happened. I know exactly the anguish you feel. It's despair, but it's also love, which makes your heart ache. I suffer from it too."
"Zoe," the young Amazon responded, after a brief moment of hesitation.
"Tell me your story, Zoe?" The bard encouraged, while bracing herself for a tale which she suspected she didn't want to know. One she hoped, but beginning to lose faith, that there be a happy ending.
"She grew distant since you visited us," the young woman began, in a small voice. "She said she likes you and that you'd provide with her what she needs." Looking down and avoiding Gabrielle's gaze, the Amazon explained, "She's always had a lot of ambition, and she thought if she captured your heart, she'd rule your tribe here in Thessaly. She wants to reunite the Nation someday, even if it means conquering the other tribes."
*That's what Velasca wanted too, before she became a god,* Gabrielle reflected. She touched the woman's arm gently, and urged her to continue.
"I pleaded with her, reminded her of what we had. But she only grew colder each passing day," Zoe wept. "Then she started disappearing at night. And I followed her, but I never saw anything except that she just vanished into thin air," the woman looked up, questioning with her hazel eyes. The young queen shrugged. She didn't want to distress the Amazon further then by telling her of the immortal's involvement.
"Then our Queen sent us to attend your joining... Actually, she sent me. And Iona volunteered, and pretended she wanted to come to be with me. I even believed her..." She shook her head ruefully.
"Anyway, one night, during our travel, I just suddenly found myself here. She came to see me once, and told me to her Lord is going to help her get what she wanted... She said I'd never leave here again..." Hazel gaze captured green ones, forlorn, "You know what's so stupid about all of this? I still love her! Still wish she'd change her mind and come back to me!" The Amazon declared wistfully, and broke into racking sobs.
Gabrielle tried her best to console the young woman, while struggling to keep back her own tears, *How many hearts must break because of a power hungry warrior? How many people will suffer because of a mad God's lust for revenge? And how many Amazons will lose their lives if they succeeded?*
*Artemis, if you'll please listen... I don't care what happens to me, but please grant me the strength to set things right for the Amazons?* She prayed.
*Xena, I hope someday you'll see me as your love again,* she spoke to her warrior, still unwilling to give up, but preparing for the worst. *You'll always have my heart and my soul, no matter where you go. Please know that I don't blame you for what you had done, and I forgive you for whatever you might do.*
Halfway down the corridor, the Warrior Princess stood silently against the wall, confused. Ever since she found the young blonde and her friend at the entrance to the temple, she had not been at peace. Her soul had felt utterly unsatisfied; it was as if there were an empty pit at her stomach gnawing at her. And she couldn't for the love of her Lord figured out why.
*Then there is Velasca, my Lord, my God.* Xena had believed this woman was her liege in every way, and that she had belonged to her Lord for a very long time. But when the woman kissed her earlier, the warrior became cognizant that she had no memory of the lips upon hers nor the cold hand against her cheek. She was more than shocked.
*Who is this fair woman who claims to love me?* Xena wondered, thinking back to events which just transpired, trying to determine if they had known each other from the past, *Who had seemed so willing to die under my hands?*
The young woman's presence had unnerved the Warrior Princess since the very beginning, even though she would never admit it. And the profound sadness which dulled the green orbs had somehow touched the dark warrior deeply. Even now, she found herself imagining those beautiful eyes smiling, bright with joy and laughter. And she longed to have a chance to see them that way.
Xena also admired the blonde's quiet strength, and her boldness. As she realised not too many people would dare stand up to the Warrior Princess. The ones that did knew they would never live to see another day. Yet this woman did just that, fearlessly sacrificing herself for her friend.
*I wish I had such a friend...* She mused regrettingly, painfully aware that even her family had disowned her. The warrior didn't blame them, however, as she doubted anyone would want to have anything to do with the Destroyer of Nations.
*Why couldn't I bring myself to strike her when I had so easily beaten up the Amazon?* Xena questioned. This was one mystery which baffled her the most, *Why? And why don't I feel any enjoyment in pulverizing the warrior? I'm supposed to hate Amazons, yet I can't even feel the usual exhilaration from a fight...*
The Warrior Princess hung her dark head and pondered her queries, while trying to still her tumultuous thoughts. She was completely taken by surprise when a figure appeared before her, the woman's approach undetected by her sharp senses.
"Hello, Xena," the sage drawled.
"You! I thought..." The Warrior Princess somehow managed.
"Heaven and earth last forever, Xena, because they are unborn," the woman replied, smiling kindly at the warrior.
Overjoyed by her friend's presence, Xena stepped forward, intending to embrace her. But the woman thrust the taller form effortlessly away, with an energy force created by a casual wave of the arm.
"You've been dishonest with yourself, Xena," she spoke sternly, as if reprimanding a rebellious child. "Have you forgotten everything I taught you?"
"Duty..." Dark brows furrowed, nevertheless, the warrior continued, "Love..."
"What else?" The woman asked, patiently awaiting her reply.
"Compassion... Selflessness..." Xena muttered.
"You're hesitating, stop trying so hard," she guided gently.
"Virtue..." The voice dropped, and faltered. "Humiliation..." The dark warrior added, and stiffened. Smiling compassionately once again, the woman reached into her sleeve and drew out a dagger. It had an elaborately decorated hilt which looked vaguely familiar to the warrior.
She held it out and spoke, "Take this weapon of truth, Xena, and if you still don't remember your lessons..."
Recollection and realisation hit the Warrior Princess the instant she held the dagger in her hand. At the same time, the sage from her past transformed into the old priestess.
"Calandra!" The warrior exclaimed in astonishment, and asked, "Where is she? Where is my teacher?"
"Since you had no memory of the Amazons, I had to assume her form to set you free," the priestess answered, for once in plain language.
"How did you...?" Xena thought better, and dismissed her question with a shake of the head. There were more pressing concerns demanding her attention.
"Gabrielle!" She remembered her altercation with the visiting Amazon, and the incident at the tent. She recalled what Alethea was trying to tell her the morning before, after she got the young woman away from the wild boar, that her partner was faultless. And could recollect too vividly what she had just said and done to the bard.
*Oh, Gabrielle,* the warrior lamented. *Would you ever forgive me? How could I even dare ask for your forgiveness?* The sad green eyes which disturbed her only moments ago haunted her now. And the warrior's heart constricted with the pain that her bard had felt. She wished she could wipe away that sorrow, and take back everything she did.
*Oh, gods!* Visions of Ephiny's battered body flashed before her. And Xena looked at her hands guiltily, seeing her friend's blood on them. Part of her wanted to flee from all of this, another part urged her to return to the chamber. She turned around and was about to take off when the priestess stopped her.
"Xena, go find Velasca," Calandra ordered. "You can only harm her with this," she advised, indicating the dagger still in the warrior's hand.
"No, I need to go back, I must talk to Gabrielle," the warrior protested.
"No, Xena, there's no time," the priestess insisted, "I'll go gather Gabrielle and Ephiny, and make sure they're safe. And I'll explain to them that you're yourself again. Then I'll come help you." Very reluctantly, the warrior obliged.
A series of somersaults through the air, and a string of shrill yells, the Warrior Princess landed in front of the mad god, one hand wielding her dagger and the other her long sword. Like a flash of lightning, sharp blade reached out and swiped at the Amazon.
Who averted the blow with a wave of her hand. And the warrior had to struggle to hold on to her weapon. She did, and stabbed at her target relentlessly.
"Xena, I see you got your memory back," Velasca taunted menacingly. "Too bad. I was going to keep you. Now, I'll have to kill you," she laughed evilly, while deflecting the warrior's quick strikes. "Oh, don't worry, I'll make sure your Gabrielle joins you."
Darting one way and quickly reversing her move, the warrior managed to distract Velasca enough to cut her in the side. Just like it was with Callisto, as Xena had expected, the sword wound completely disappeared as soon as she withdrew the blade.
But that move had enraged the god, who stopped toying with the Warrior Princess. And she extended a force of energy which sent the tall form sailing across the room.
Xena picked herself up, vaulted past the distance, and charged at Velasca again. She wished she had her chakram, it might let her quarter the Amazon without needing the proximity of a sword.
"Why do you waste your time fighting me?" She mocked, while hitting the warrior with another burst of power, "You can't kill a god."
Undeterred, Xena lunged forward, only to be swept away again, this time losing her long blade.
Scrambling to her feet, and grasping the shorter weapon tighter, Xena noticed the hilt felt differently in her palm. She looked down briefly, and saw a new pearl coloured stone inlaid right above the Amazon insignia. Understanding hit the warrior, and with all her might, she threw the dagger at her enemy.
The weapon soared in the air, true to its course, despite the god's efforts to alter its path. The sharp metal hit its mark, and embedded itself in its target. Velasca gripped her abdomen and howled in pain.
"Ahhhh! What have you done?" She shrieked, pale eyes awashed with panic. She tried to pull the weapon out, only to recoil from the metal as if it burnt her hands.
The Warrior Princess had less than an instant to decide what her next course of action ought to be, when the priestess came running. Her speed and agility uncharacteristical of an old woman.
"Xena, leave now," she said, as she passed the warrior. "I'll take it from here," she called back.
Xena ran for the exit, looking back only once, just in time to see the priestess transformed again.
"YOU!" Velasca growled, gaping at the much younger form clad in golden suede, standing before her.
"I thought I'd keep you out of trouble by imprisoning you here," she said.
"Guess you underestimated my powers," the mad Amazon retorted haughtily.
"You'll trouble my children no more, Velasca," the goddess warned. "This is it!"
Outside the cavern, a mad bloodcurdling scream was heard. Then the earth began to shake violently, and the hill collapsed. Caught in the tremor, the warrior held the bard and shielded her from the flying rocks, while Ephiny and Zoe took shelter under a tree further away.
When the commotion stilled and things settled, any hint of the cave had completely disappeared. The ground looked like a normal stretch of the forest.
"You alright, Gabrielle?" Xena asked the woman in her arms, hesitant, awkward. They didn't have a chance to talk in the haste of clearing out.
*I am now,* the bard thought, seeing the warm love shining in the blue eyes once more, against a furore of emotions. She nodded.
There was so much that needed to be said, but so little time at the moment. So the pair reassured each other the only way they could then...
"I love you, Xena."
"Love you, too, Gabrielle."
Long after the night had fallen, the warrior and the bard found themselves alone in a cave in the Amazon forest. Unlike the other, this one was safe. One which they had previously spent many quiet, contented evenings in, when either one or both of them desired an escape from village life.
Within a candlemark after they left Artemis' temple, Solari found them. The warrior, then suspecting foul play, had grown concerned when her queen and regent were several marks over due. Leaving Eponin to deal with a council of incensed and not very tolerant elders, Solari picked a small trusted group of Amazons and left for the forest. They were prepared to spend the night outdoors and not return to the village until their sovereigns were found.
The warriors and their queen had consumed their dinner of rabbits and trail mix in relative silence. Afterwards, Gabrielle, finally ready, told her Amazons an abbreviated version of what happened. For Solari, there were still many unanswered questions, but she decided she could wait.
During the bard's narrative, Xena motioned Ephiny aside and attempted to apologize. The warrior was not very surprised to see her friend completely healed when she exited the cavern; she had expected that much. But she still felt guilty over her acts of violence against the Amazon. Yet, Ephiny simply dismissed them, saying that it was Velasca's and not Xena's fault. She even quipped that she had had worse sparring with Eponin, but Xena knew better. Nevertheless, she was glad she had such a good friend and trusted ally in the blonde warrior.
A short time later, Solari approached their tree with a cloak in her hands, and ordered the Regent to bed. Ephiny rolled her eyes in response, but her otherwise obliging reaction caused a dark brow to rise in amusement. Meanwhile, Gabrielle suggested that they all stay in the cavern. But the Amazons insisted that they set up camp outside, lest they suffocated in the small enclosure. Bidding the pair goodnight, their friend cast a meaningful look at the queen and her betrothed, which made the younger woman blush.
"So here we are," the bard spoke quietly after they set up the fire and laid out their blankets. Green eyes following the crisscrossing laces on Xena's shirt, not quite meeting Xena's blues.
"Yes, my love, here we are," the warrior responded, gently, somewhat hesitant. This was the first time they had been alone since all that had happened. Here, in a place vibrant with happy, loving memories, the events of the recent past stood out starkly. Both of them were feeling guilty over their actions. Xena, for having so little faith in the bard and their love over Iona's deceit, for betraying her by siding with Velasca, forgetting her, and treating her brutally. Gabrielle, for not being completely honest with her partner, for getting angry, having doubts, and for the vengeful god's influence over the warrior.
"I'm sorry you lost all your weapons and stuff back there," she offered, hesitantly, feeling responsible for their loss, too.
A look of regret fleeted past the warrior's features, "S'okay, they are just things..." And she meant what she said.
"Velasca has pretty good tastes," the bard half-joked, plucking at the ends of the laces with her fingers, attempting to lighten the mood, struggling to still her nerves. And she chuckled lightly to hide her discomfort when her partner said nothing.
Gabrielle was about to say something else similarly inconsequential, when gentle fingers touching her face silenced her. Emboldened, the palm moved to cup her fair cheek. She closed her eyes and eased into the caress. Stilled moments later, gathering her courage, and looking up, the bard was met with stormy blue eyes which spoke of fear, concern, adoration, love... Her own orbs reflecting those same feelings which were as vast as the skies and as deep as the seas.
Eyes closing once more, they reached for each other blindly. Kissing and tasting the other's tender lips, as if for the very first time. Very slowly, hands worked to remove each other's clothing, touching and reacquainting with soft skin and faint scars as they became exposed. Carefully unwrapping the other like the precious gift that she was.
When all the barriers, both emotional and physical, were removed, the warrior and the bard trembled in each other's arms, both feeling naked and vulnerable. And for a very long time, they simply clung onto each other, and took solace in their togetherness.
The warrior slid down the bard's body, to kneel on the ground before her. She pressed her head to the fair firm torso, and listened to the bard's breathing, letting the steady rhythm soothe her. Enjoying the security of the bard's arm wrapped firmly about her shoulders, her other hand stroked the sun-kissed face tenderly, and running gentle fingers through her hair.
Xena wished she could stay like that, in her partner's arms. Feeling cared for and protected. The bard being the only person alive who knew her, knew how vulnerable the Warrior Princess really was under the hard, stoic exterior.
Lowering onto her heels, she kept her face in contact with Gabrielle's soft skin, feeling her muscles twitch in the firm thighs, which had grown strong after their years of travelling together. Memories of those moons flashed through the warrior's mind as she thought about how much they had been through, and what each had come to be for the other.
Reaching up, she circled her large hands about the bard's trim waist, slowly guiding the small body downwards, supporting her partner's weight. She kept the descent slow and gradual, ensuring that her partner would not fall. *Never, I will never let you fall. I promise.*
Wrapping around the bard's back with a strong arm, and reaching below with the other to create a seat for the slight body, Xena shifted so that she sat on the blanket with her legs stretched out. With Gabrielle's legs astride her torso.
The warrior lowered her partner further and onto her thighs, until they sat belly-to-belly. And Gabrielle increased the contact by wrapping her legs about her betrothed's hips, pulling them closer together.
She could feel her bard's growing arousal against her skin, as large hands wandered about the slim back, memorizing each muscle. Remembering their time spent sparring with each other, silently proud of how well a fighter her partner had become. Then she ducked her dark head to listen to the heartbeats which were the most beautiful sounds to her ears.
Gabrielle held her warrior firmly by the broad shoulders, drinking in the comforting warmth which surrounded her. To the bard, this was the safest place in the world. In her partner's arms, like this, she felt strong, yet at the same time sheltered and protected. She knew her warrior would defend her with her life, although she hoped it would never come to that. She had envisioned them growing old together, and taking care of each other.
Looking up, Xena met her partner's brilliant green eyes which shone with love. Mesmerized, she tilted her head up further, her lips falling open a little. Taking the gesture as an invitation, a plea, Gabrielle cupped the back of the warrior's head. Bending down, she brought their mouths together, joining, in a slow deep soulful kiss.
When they finally broke apart for air, Gabrielle moved lower to nibble on her partner's ears, whispering in them words of love and devotion. And heard the warrior's murmurs expressing similar sweet sentiments. The deep sound vibrated in her person, touching her core.
Bringing one of her hands to the front, Xena ran it firmly along the bard's body, letting her fingers follow and caress the soft curves and firm muscles. Until the bard threw her head back, and arched against the fiery touch. Strong arm supported her securely, so that she wouldn't fall too far backwards.
Bending forward, the warrior's mouth found one of Gabrielle's breasts. She kissed and licked the firm flesh, and buried her nose in the underside. Before her lips closed upon an erect nipple. As her partner suckled and licked the tender point, the bard regretted that she wasn't able to provide more for her betrothed. She wanted her warrior to taste and to have everything her love had to offer.
Lifting the bard slightly and supporting their weight on her other arm, Xena shifted to lie between her partner's legs. Soon after they settled, Gabrielle clasped the larger body closer by raising and twining her legs around the warrior's back. And pulled her forward so that they were once again face to face.
She reached up to bring the dark head down for a lingering kiss. While large hands roamed her body, as if they were committing it to memory. Xena was certain she could sculpt her partner's figure out of soft clay, simply by closing her eyes and imagining the feel of muscles and curves against her hands.
Long digits drifted downwards to touch sensitive flesh, and the bard pressed further into the caress, moaning into her warrior's mouth as the fingers slipped deep within her. Gabrielle relished the sensation of her partner's battle roughened fingers touching her, making her acutely aware of their presence. The gentleness with which Xena was capable of when loving her had surprised the bard the first time they came together. And it never ceased to amaze her since.
Soon Gabrielle stilled the rocking of her hips, she didn't want to climax - not yet, not like that. Reluctantly breaking off the kiss, she breathed her request into her partner's ear. Twirling her tongue against the warrior's earlobes, before moving back to her lips again.
Another series of soul searing lingering kisses later, Xena sat up and began slowly folding their discarded clothing. While keeping eye contact with the bard, smiling lovingly, warmly.
Lifting Gabrielle's hips, she tucked the pile underneath. Then, keeping the fair buttocks raised, the warrior straddled her partner's thigh. She reached forward and cradled the bard under her neck, while her other hand moved back to grasp her partner's ankle. Gabrielle loved it when they loved each other that way. She adored the feeling of being trapped in a safe cocoon full of warmth and joy and love. It was one that she would be contented to stay in forever.
And they moved against each other slowly, feeling slick heat against skin. Unhurried. Cherishing the sensation.
Despite her own aching points crying for attention, she reached up to the warrior's slightly twisted body. One hand fondled her partner's swaying breasts, the other cradled the chiselled cheek. Then fingers twined with long dark tresses, before moving down the muscular arm, and onwards to stroke her side and stomach. Their eyes never leaving each other's.
Gradually, their passion built and increased, reaching a mutual pinnacle, the warrior removed her hand from her partner's neck. Briefly, Gabrielle missed the contact, until it was replaced by another. As Xena leaned back on her hands, so that they could feel each other fully.
Green eyes moved upwards to rest on their connection. She loved the look and feel of the warrior's dark blending with her honey-gold. Very aware of her partner's hair tickling, her hot passion bathing her most sensitive places. Her gaze travelled further, in time to watch her warrior's dark head thrown back in rapture.
She sucked in a quick breath, closed her eyes and stilled. Her centre pressed tight against her betrothed's. Feeling their fierce beatings against each other, bonding their heated flesh.
And she imagined she could feel her partner's essence trickling within her own body, as she gasped aloud her love for the warrior. As they folded into each other, wrapped securely in their lasting mutual love.
In the twilight hours, Gabrielle watched the flickering flames, the fire which roared once again, after they had added more wood. She lay, curled up on her side, with Xena's larger body tucked up behind hers, fitting, hugging, enveloping. Neither of them was particularly tired. Or perhaps they wanted to stay awake and be with each other longer...
Sometimes, the warrior and the bard would stay up until the small hours of the night, talking. Joking lightly at times, sharing romantic sentiments always, and revealing their thoughts and reassuring each other occasionally. But the only sounds coming from the pair this night were their breathing, and faint contented sighs as they stretched their bodies and arched into each other.
They were off in their own little Elysium, were timelessly enveloped in an intense feeling of contentment. Savouring. Clinging. Completely unaware of the outside world, only conscious of their connection vibrant between them.
The trials and tribulations of the past couple of days had not been forgotten, but both women knew that, like before, they would work out the difficulties. Which would in turn bring the two even closer together. This night, the pair would only focus on the healing, cleansing, on their feeling of being reborn and of a deeper union.
As it often happened, gentle stroking gradually developed into something more sensual. Soon the lovers were wrapped once more in a spiral of passion.
Gabrielle turned around in Xena's arms, and kissed her partner deeply. Cupping her breasts, kneading them, while her other arm reached over to gently scratch her partners broad back with her smooth finger nails. As always, the warrior was certain that if she were a cat, she would be purring loudly.
Her low murmur of pleasures was interrupted when the bard tickled her mischivously with the slightest possible touch. Right below her ribs. Gabrielle found the spot accidentally while washing her partner's back, long ago, when they were just friends.
*Who would have guessed the Warrior Princess has a ticklish spot.* She smiled, thinking back to the water fight which followed that afternoon. And how she had choked, and ended up in the concerned warrior's arms. How she had suddenly realised that water in her lungs wasn't what took her breath away...
Gabrielle's musing was brought back to the present, when the warrior, chuckling, holding her bard tight, began to roll onto her back. She brought her partner's body to rest on top of her own. And moaned deeply when her fair beloved extended the length of her body sensually along her larger one, allowing full skin to skin contact.
Xena ran her hands across the slim back, exploring. Then reaching down, she cupped and squeezed the bard's firm globes, spreading them. Her hands gliding along the muscled thighs, guiding, so that her outstretched legs became trapped between Gabrielle's.
She could feel the beginning of the bard's passion against her stomach, as her hand ran up and down the bard's thighs and sides. As they kissed. As Gabrielle's hands pressed between their bodies to cup the warrior's breasts, kneading the flesh and teasing the nipples into hard points.
It was an eternity later when the bard broke off their kiss, to sweep her tongue and lips across the sensitive spot behind her ears, her jaw, her throat, the valley of her breasts. Kissing a trail down her partner's body until she sat back. As she reached forward, Xena's hands darted up in their own accord to fondle the swaying breasts. And Gabrielle stilled her movements to savour the caress.
Very reluctantly, she moved away from the tantalizing touches, and resumed her original course. She reached around to put extra clothing underneath the warrior, to raise her head and support her shoulders. So that they could maintain eye contact.
The bard then went back for another slow deep kiss, tasting her partner's mouth. Gabrielle decided long ago that there was nothing more sensuous than kissing her warrior, whether it was a light feathery kiss or a full searching one like this one.
While exploring her partner's mouth, she extended her arms along the blanket beside Xena's head, so that their breasts touched and pressed upon each other's. She loved the soft fullness of the warrior's globes against hers, the feel of her darker nipples pushing against her own fair skin. The bard had had the warrior convinced that their vast physical differences complemented each other like nothing else would. And she knew she was right.
Eventually, Gabrielle moved down her betrothed's body, fondling, kissing. The bard made sure her partner felt on her skin what their loving was doing to her. And Xena moaned loudly in her knowledge.
Moving to the foot of the blanket, she ran the tip of her tongue sensuously along the centre of the warrior's soles, slightly tickling. Gabrielle watched as a smile expanded deeply on her partner's features. Her heart palpitated, unfailingly as always, in response to the endearing crooked smile.
Slowly, her lips moved up the insides of the warrior's toned legs, nipping on her calves, licking the inside of her knees, kissing tanned thighs. She blew gently at the apex, lightly ruffling the dark curls. Then skipped up to the navel, twirling her tongue around the small cavity, half expecting a frustrated groan that was not forthcoming.
Slow, they both wanted it slow.
And very slowly, she kissed a fiery path up Xena's body, communicating her deep love for the warrior through each contact. Reaching her partner's full breasts, Gabrielle took a moment to revel in the feeling of being safe and secure with her face buried between the soft haven. With the warrior's strong arms wrapped about her body.
She didn't always do that, but this night, the bard made sure both her partner's breasts received lavish attention from her mouth. To show their owner how much she appreciated them. She sucked and nibbled on the firm flesh and tugged at the puckered points with her lips, her fingers.
Until the warrior brought her upwards for a kiss. Continuing its active exploration, her tongue probed her partner's mouth. Then the warrior's twined with hers, and insinuated itself into the bard's willing lips. She sucked at her partner's tongue and bottom lips, feeling the warrior's smile against her mouth. As her heart skipped a few more beats.
Coming up for air and looking down, Gabrielle read the warrior's need in the darkened blue orbs. Tenderly, she moved her kisses once again downwards, arching back, shifting, until she sat with her calves against her buttocks. Her soft honey-gold curls teasing her beloved's thigh.
Xena curled up slightly on her side, and the bard moved in to kneel between her thighs. Feeling the warrior's outstretched leg gliding against her centre and the lower valley of her cheeks. She pressed down, drawing another low moan from her partner. Before lifting her partner's upper leg around to wrap around her lower back. Gabrielle relished the feeling of being held by the strong muscles.
Holding onto the warrior's waist for support, the bard moved voluptuously against her partner, centre-to-centre. She remained sensitive to what Xena was experiencing, as she pressed tight against her partner's slick heat, wanting to meld their bodies together. For the warrior's part, she simply hung onto Gabrielle's arms, running a firm hand up and down the smooth limbs. Feeling the muscles beneath tensed as her bard thrust against her.
Their eyes never left each other's. As they both craved the profound intimacy of gazing into each other's eyes, blue blending with green. Sharing and heightening the loving feelings, as they witnessed the passion built within each other.
Dimly, Xena was aware of her abandoned control. In her prone state, she had little choice but to lean back and enjoy what the bard was doing to her. She revelled in the feeling of utter surrender and helplessness in moments like this. With the bard, like with no other, the warrior didn't feel she needed to dominate. Instead, she gladly and completely gave her body, her heart, her soul up to Gabrielle. As she had already done.
Moving, Gabrielle pressed forward, and bent over. While Xena curved her leg tighter against the bard's back. The pressure increased. And at the crest, they both stilled. Feeling the pulsations within each expanding outwards, and reaching inside the other.
As their breathing slowed, the warrior removed her hands which circled firmly about the bard's wrists through the tremors. And Gabrielle eased backwards to allow room for her partner to slowly unwind.
When the warrior was reclining fully on her back again, the bard dove between her legs, scooping her arms below and up about the warrior's hips. She tasted their joined essence, and took her partner through another tidal wave of passion. Until the syllables of her name reverberated in a guttural moan through the cavern.
She loved the music of the warrior's voice. Loved how her warrior called her name, in passion or otherwise. It was as if the sound simply reached through her ears and straight to her heart. Then expanding outwards to warm her.
Slowly, she crawled up her partner's body, until they were once again face to face. They kissed each other deeply. Sharing. Affirming. Expressing their undying devotion and love.
Gabrielle then settled into the warrior's body as if it were a large pallet, her legs between her partner's, her breasts against taut abdomen. She pressed her ear to the strong beating of the warrior's heart, and let it set a rhythm for her own.
Xena reached over and pulled a blanket over them. She kept her arms about the bard's back, gently stroking, assuring. Until her own breathing caught on to the bard's deep steady pace.
Before joining her partner in Morpheus' realm, she sent silent a prayer of gratitude to whichever deity that sent the bard to her, and for their chance to love one another.
And the pair slept peacefully, tucked safely in each other's love and trust. Where no mortals or gods could touch them. At least not for the night.
The blonde warrior didn't know which was worse, having a blanket thrown in her face in the morning, or dealing with one snippy bard. It was an honest mistake. The cave was so quiet, and since nobody answered when she called that she just thought her friends were asleep. And she was going to wake them up for the morning meal. A wicked smile crept up the Amazon's lips when she recalled the scene she saw, and she wondered how many dinars the bard would pay her to keep mum.
To escape her queen's wrath, Ephiny hung back with Solari. At least her intense stolid friend would be more companionable. To the Regent's supreme bewilderment, she was told that her hair 'shone brighter than the morning sun,' and that her eyes were like 'chips of amber in the golden haze of Apollo's glory.' *What's with her?* She wondered, utterly perplexed. *But that was kind of sweet, in a queer, nauseating sort of way,* the warrior decided.
Xena was in a cheerful mood. Indeed, if one didn't know better, one would think she was almost gleeful. Artemis popped in just after dawn, and dropped off her weapons and her armour, which she left in the goddess' temple in her haste to escape. The warrior was simply glad to be in her own clothes again. She wasn't sure if her bard hated or liked her outfit that much, as she had trouble keeping it on since they woke up, although she was not complaining. But she did wonder if Ephiny got her timing from her goddess.
*Too bad the flying blanket trick doesn't work on a god,* she mused, as she remembered how Artemis had merely turned the cloth roll around in mid air, and they had to duck to avoid getting hit. Still, she was sure nothing could spoil her bright spirit.
*Nope, there's nothing more a warrior could ask for,* she thought, aware of the familiar feel of her leathers against her body, the weight of the sword on her back, and the gentle smack of her chakram against her thigh as she walked. *Most definitely,* Xena confirmed, shifting the travel bag on her shoulder and causing the dagger within to bounce. And blue eyes dazzled as she gazed down at the woman she loved walking beside her. She gave the small hand in her grasp a firm squeeze.
And the Warrior Princess had trouble keeping the corner of her lips from curling up, as she thought back to Gabrielle's shocked but happy reaction when she took her by the hand. When she made her intention to keep their connection through the entire journey back to the village evident to the bard. And she decided once more that her bard looked awfully cute when she blushed. Such display was probably inappropriate for an Amazon Queen, and uncharacteristic of the Warrior Princess, but she realised she didn't care.
Meanwhile, the bard was beginning to feel contrite about taking out her frustration on her Regent. *I'll apologize to her later,* she planned, colouring a little when she recalled the compromising position Ephiny caught them in. *Gods, my head trapped in her shirt, with her still in it,* Gabrielle shook her head. *I wonder if Ephiny will ever let me live this down.* Nevertheless, the fair woman promised she would make sure her partner wear loose-fitting laced up shirts more often, *Beats burying my face in hard armour. Yup.*
Actually, some things went all right that morning. Artemis, during her short visit, had ordered that nothing involving Velasca be revealed to anyone else. And that was just fine by the bard. Her warrior was feeling bad enough without all Amazons' eyes upon her; and the whole affair was really just between Xena, Ephiny and herself. Truthfully, Gabrielle would rather be putting the whole event behind her. And she knew the warriors escorting them could be trusted with the secret.
Moreover, the goddess also told them the whereabouts of the real Calandra. Acting on Artemis' wishes, she had merely retreated to the secret inner sanctum of the temple, fasting and preparing for the upcoming joining. The Queen was quite relieved that the old priestess was unharmed. She was afraid that Velasca had something to do with Calandra's disappearance as well. Gabrielle had many other questions she wanted to ask, but the immortal stopped her before she could begin, with a promise to return later.
The young queen's thoughts were also occupied by her concern for the visiting Amazon travelling with them. Zoe was afraid for Iona, wondering what sort of punishment would be in store for her bond mate's treachery against the queen and her betrothed. The bard had told Xena the Amazon's story as they lay curled in each other's arms earlier. While the warrior had misgivings about letting Iona go unpenalised, the bard could be extremely persuasive, especially when it came to convincing her partner. And Gabrielle had repeatedly reassured the young woman that she and her warrior had no intention to press charges.
However, she also worried about how Iona was going to react when she saw Zoe. The Amazon seemed to remain completely devoted to her mate; and she would be devastated if the warrior rejected her. According to the young woman, they had only been bonded for one season before Gabrielle's visit to their tribe. The bard didn't realise then that Iona was flirting with her, nor did she think to ask the warrior whether she was joined.
*Not that it would have mattered, I guess,* she sighed, thinking back to the events of the past few days. *I wonder how she found Velasca... Or how Velasca found her,* Gabrielle questioned. *S'pose we'll never find out,* she conceded, knowing Iona would never tell. She was glad though that Velasca was put away for good.
In any case, the bard hoped that there would a happy ending for the young Amazon. *Maybe her patience and devotion could change Iona,* Gabrielle reasoned, believing in the strength of love. Looking up to the tall form, her heart fluttered at the brilliant smile that greeted her, and she gently rubbed the back of the large hand holding hers.
The group approached the village around midday, after travelling non-stop for several candlemarks. Gabrielle and Ephiny were both anxious to return, especially after what Solari had told them. The elders were definitely not amused that both the Queen and the Regent left for the search. And they were particularly irate that Gabrielle did not appear at the meeting. The bard only hoped the return of her warrior and the reappearance of the priestess would appease the council.
Scouts from the village had spotted the group earlier and had raced ahead to herald their return. And they could feel the buzz of excitement in the air as they approached. However, rather than the joyous welcome they had expected, an ominous feeling greeted them. The Warrior Princess bristled when she spotted Iona standing arrogantly with the group of elders.
*Uh oh,* the pair thought simultaneously, as green eyes met blue ones. Xena let go of Gabrielle's hand, and wrapped her arm about the slim shoulders to draw them closer. Without stopping or being stopped, they marched towards the wrathful group.
*Oh gods, not again,* the young queen almost reeled when she heard the dark Amazon's
allegations and saw the proof that she offered. *She must have rifled through my stuff while we
were gone,* Gabrielle realised, as she worriedly watched her partner's reaction.
Xena's dark brows creased as she read what was written on the scroll. The distinctive flourish
staring back at her was definitely Gabrielle's. And the date of the letter coincided with their visit
to the Amazon tribe near Athens. But if she were the warrior whom the desirous prose was
addressed to, she wondered why she had never seen it, and how it had come to be in Iona's
After she finished reading, the warrior folded the parchment carefully and handed it back to her
bard. Who remembered to breathe again when her partner smiled. She was surprised when
Xena bent down and gathered her in a passionate kiss, and felt the heat travelled upwards when
growing murmurs around them reminded her of their audience.
The smile turned feral when the Warrior Princess let go of the bard, unsheathed her sword and
turned to face the offending Amazon. Regardless of whom the letter was written to, there was
no way she would refuse the challenge. If she didn't, it would mean that she too believed in the
Queen's perfidy. And Gabrielle would then have to choose to defend her own honour by suicide, or be joined with her alleged lover and stripped of her title as Queen.
*What kind of stupid choice is that?* the warrior groused while she and Iona stalked in a circle,
each waiting for the other's first move. Xena agreed that sovereigns should be subjected to a
more rigorous standard, but this was ridiculous.
*What if I didn't make it back in time?* The warrior shook her head to flip her hair back and to
chase away the thought. She had no doubt which option her bard would choose, just as she
was certain of Gabrielle's love for her. Tired of waiting, Xena struck first, and a rapid
succession of clangs of metal against metal ensued.
Iona had not expected the Warrior Princess to be back. All she needed to do was to issue the
challenge. Because it was against Xena's honour, only she could defend it. With the warrior in
Velasca's fold, she thought she would get Gabrielle and the tribe without a fight.
*Or at the very least the fair bard,* the Amazon believed, after she learnt of this tribe's tradition.
She didn't think Gabrielle would choose to die. An evil chuckle escaped her lips when her
sword almost grazed her rival's arm.
As the Warrior Princess moved between offensive and defensive stances, as the Amazon
deflected her powerful blows, and returned with equally vicious strikes, she realized Iona was
indeed a very good fighter. Almost as good as herself. Xena knew then that given time, the
Amazon would have challenged her own sovereign for the right to rule, and if she won, the
peace of the entire Nation would be at stake. And it was up to the Warrior Princess to make
sure it would never happen.
Blue eyes narrowed as the Amazon's sharp blade managed another swipe at her. She barely
dodged the move. Jumped to the right. And with lightning speed moved in, her thrust aimed at
her enemy's chest.
Iona blocked the sword. And lunged forward. Xena sidestepped the impact. And catapulted
into the air. Letting out a loud war cry. The point of her sword pierced the stunned Amazon as
Blood gushed from the wound at her shoulder. And the dark warrior growled in pain. Motivated
by anger and fear. She swung around. And charged at her rival.
Two swords collided. The sharp sound slit through the hush of the village.
Followed by a scream which stilled Gabrielle's heart.
She closed her eyes, unable to watch as the dark form hurled itself at the disarmed warrior.
Xena lowered her sword at the last possible moment as she rushed towards Iona. Using the
momentum, she propelled forward, and slammed the Amazon against a tree.
The loud crash brought green eyes open again.
The Warrior Princess glared at her rival. Whose fierce violet eyes shone with contempt and
defiance. Every cell in her body screamed for her to run her sword through the Amazon. Her
pores yearned to bathe in the warm red life.
But then in her mind's eye, she saw her bard. She saw Zoe; and imagined... And realised she
couldn't kill the Amazon. She didn't want to.
Instead her fist collided with her rival's sword arm. Shattering the bones. Making sure Iona
would never hold a blade again. She dropped the defeated form onto the ground.
Xena nodded gently at Zoe, who was rushing to gather her bond mate. And walked away.
"Hmmm..." The bard murmured contentedly against her partner's ear as she lay, sprawled on
her personal warm pallet-with-limbs. Shifting, and relishing the sensation of skin against skin,
Gabrielle decided it felt millions times better than the smoothest silk from Chin. It was perfectly
"Oh, yes..." She lifted her head from her warrior's shoulder and gasped, when strong skilful
fingers reached a particular spot that ached for attention. And she melted further into her
"Like that, huh, my bard?" Xena's chuckle rumbled underneath her, sending up a nice vibration.
Gabrielle sighed happily in response as the large hands swept across her back, massaging and
easing knots and kinks.
"I think you're spoiling me," the bard halfheartedly protested. *But don't stop,* she added
silently. Her warrior simply smiled and kissed the top of her fair head. The firm gentle
ministrations continued without pause.
It had been a long day for both Xena and Gabrielle. The travelling, the fight, and everything else
all took their toll on the pair. And they retreated to their hut at the earliest possible moment, after
taking their evening meal in the mess hut. The two would prefer dining in private, but the
Amazons were excited about the Queen's successful search and her betrothed's triumph, and
many of the warriors wanted a chance to congratulate them.
*At least I didn't have to deal with a bunch of angry elders,* the warrior let out a deep mental
breath. The council called a meeting immediately after the challenge. Not only did the
Amazons give their Queen and her Regent a hard time about their failure to attend the previous
ones, they were also not happy with Gabrielle's decision to not prosecute Iona for her deceit.
There were moments when the warrior's protective instincts almost succeeded in taking over,
but she knew her bard would prefer to handle the situation by herself.
But that knowledge didn't prevent the Warrior Princess from fantasizing the same stuffy
Amazons with their rank insignia and masks sticking out of various body cavities. And a slight
chuckle escaped as she revisited the image, as her fingers worked the cruel knots at the back of
her bard's neck.
"What's so funny, love?" Gabrielle dreamily mumbled, engaged in her own fantasies. Except
those involved only she and her partner.
"Oh, nothing, just thinking about re-outfitting the Amazons," Xena deadpanned. *Well, it wasn't
"Huh??" Belatedly, after her mind registered the reply. Blonde head bopped up, surprised,
curious. When the warrior didn't respond, she raised herself up on her elbows to look at her
And found herself breathless, dazzled by the brilliant smile that greeted her. For an endless
moment, she gazed at the ocean blue eyes. Allowing herself to be captured, to drown in their
depths, although she didn't think she had a choice.
Unable to help herself, she bent down and joined her lips with her partners. Tasting, exploring,
with a soft warm tenderness that spoke volumes. She traced the warrior's smile with her
tongue, dipping into the moist velvet, gradually deepening their pleasure, fuelling their desire.
As she drank the sweetness from the gentle mouth, the warrior was certain her bard had
brought the top of Mt. Olympus to them. This was Bliss, she was sure. And the beating of her
heart skidded, then resumed merrily at the thought of a lifetime, an eternity, spent with this
woman she loved much more than anyone, anything, on earth or anywhere else.
"I love you, my bard," she spoke low, as Gabrielle finally pulled back for air. Gentle fingers
reaching up to caress the fair features. Locking gazes with her partner, blending blues with the
"I love you, my warrior," she breathed, her voice hoarse with emotion. A fine mist blurred her
vision as she basked in the warm glow of their union. And the bard bonded her lips once more
with her beloved's. Silently, tenderly, they expressed their joy of finding, of having each other.
Eventually, large hands moved between their bodies, reaching up, cupping, kneading. She
whimpered at the touch of the warrior's palms against her breasts, and surrendered to their
"Ahem!" Out of nowhere came a familiar throat clearing.
Blue eyes flew open. And after a whirl of motions, the bard found herself tucked under her
warrior's body, sheltered and protected. They both looked towards the source of the offending
"Hi, Artemis," Xena drawled, remaining in her position, covering her partner's body with her own.
The goddess, noticing the gesture, smiled with approval, but otherwise looked at the pair
nonchalantly. While Gabrielle wished there were some small place she could crawl into.
"I wouldn't go there, if I were you, my Chosen," the goddess advised, straight-faced.
"Whoa?" The smaller woman spluttered, surprised, and also dying of embarrassment.
Reading her unvoiced question, the immortal explained, "Gabrielle, I can read mortals' minds
and know what they're thinking."
"Well, then read my mind, Artemis," Xena growled. "What are you doing here?" She continued.
"Tsk, tsk, Warrior," the goddess answered good-naturedly. "I promised you answers to your
questions. So here I am."
"Umm... Okay. Will you give us a moment?" Gabrielle asked. "Please?" She added when the
immortal made no effort to stop watching them. Artemis obliged and turned around. The instant
the pair set up, together wrapped in a blanket, she spun about. And grinned in response to one
of Xena's strayed thoughts, earning a glare.
"Okay, about that mind-reading..." the bard started.
"Yes, I knew all about Iona's scheme," the goddess answered, without waiting for her queen to
finish. "I let her go through with it without warning you because I thought Xena needed to realise
for herself that she's meant for you," she carried on as questions formed in her subjects' minds.
"And I'm happy you did, Warrior." The immortal paused for a moment, and considered her next
"In some instances, I can even influence mortals' actions," the goddess began again. "With tiny
suggestions. Just like I did to get Alethea to wander off into the forest, and then directed the
scouts to find her," she elaborated. "I did the same with you as well, inspiring you to look at the
tree trunks and providing the signs to the cavern."
Xena looked down at her hands clenched into a fist, *So that's why I couldn't slap her.* She
thought, angry with herself. Gabrielle, knowing exactly what her partner was thinking, hugged
the warrior tighter. She let their closeness convey her understanding and forgiveness. Still, the
dark brooding continued.
"No, Xena, that was your own," Artemis scolded. "I couldn't influence you in any way when you
were under Velasca's control. Your love for your bard is stronger than the powers of the gods,
even if you didn't know it." The bard was happy to feel her partner's tension dissipate in relief,
and gave her partner a firm squeeze in acknowledgement.
"I wish you could have told me," Gabrielle blurted without thinking.
"Well, I did too, Little One," her goddess responded with unmistakable sincerity. "But I wasn't
sure if Velasca has the same power to read minds. Evidently she does, since that was how she
Choosing not to comment on their reaction on her choice of words, Artemis continued,
"However, I did try to make things a little better. I came to you as Calandra in the Assembly Hut
as soon as I found out what Velasca was going to do. So you worried several candlemarks
"No, there was nothing you could have done. With or without Iona's involvement," the immortal
chastened, shaking her head in exasperation at the bard's reaction. "Velasca was going to try to
get her revenge regardless."
"And the challenge?" The warrior snarled when she remembered the potential perils for her
bard. The goddess looked at her tolerantly, secretly glad that her Queen had such a fierce,
"Well, don't forget I knew you were coming back. Otherwise, I would never have let it happen,"
Artemis justified. "Besides, you both learnt a couple of lessons yourselves, did you not?" The
pair turned inwards to reflect. When greens met blues again, a new awareness and certainty
glistened. Powerless to resist, each reached for the other, drinking in the union of their heart,
their soul. To the goddess' intense delight.
"Ahem," the immortal looked on, entertained, as the warrior tried to regain her cool composure,
while the bard flushed sheepishly.
"There's the matter of your joining gift," Artemis offered, pausing for effect. "I needed to be
completely certain of your bond before I gave it to you," she stopped once again, and noticed
two pairs of brows knitting simultaneously. "Great Zeus! You two think so much alike it's
"Of course I have faith in your bond," the goddess continued. "Otherwise I wouldn't have asked
Calandra to prepare you for it," She stalled again, pleased when wheels began to turn furiously
in her children's heads. "Xena, you couldn't figure out what those herbs were because they
were not of the realm of the mortals."
"Well, what's the gift?" The warrior asked, having run out of patience, earning a mock glare from
her partner and an indulgent glance from her god.
"I'll let Gabrielle tell you, I believe she already knows," Artemis smiled her affirmation when the
bard gaped at the goddess uncertainly.
The young queen coloured deeply and beamed. While the warrior looked at her partner,
expectantly. Leaning over, the bard whispered the news to her betrothed. Whose eyebrows
promptly disappeared into the dark bangs, before a brilliant smile split her face. They turned to
face their god, too overcome with emotions to voice their gratitude.
"It's my pleasure, my Chosens," the immortal heard them anyway. "Destiny awaits you and
yours, and know that I'll always make sure you're well prepared."
"Now, why don't you carry on with what you were doing?" Dark brows waggled in agreement,
while fair features flushed once more. "And Xena, try not to kill my Regent for her timing, okay?"
The goddess winked at the warrior before she disappeared in a golden shimmer. The bard
looked at her partner in amused shock.
The expression promptly changed when she met blue eyes sparkling with devoted love and
heartfelt happiness. When her beloved's lips quirked into a crooked smile. The warrior ran her
hands over her partner's body, gently, with a new sense of reverence and awe. Equally deep but
very different from the old.
Once again, they fell into each other, letting their love take them to a domain where joy forever
Tomorrow the Amazon Queen and the Warrior Princess would affirm in public their devotion and
commitment to each other. But this night, this night the Lovers would celebrate in private a new
life, a new beginning and a love that would defy time and place.
And the goddess made sure there were no more interruptions that night.
And after all their tribulations long
See golden days, fruitful of golden deeds,
With Joy and Love triumphing, and Fair Truth.
- John Milton, PARADISE LOST, Book iii, Line 336
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