by Kim (KP) Pritekel
Disclaimers: I do not own them, I only like to think I do, but alas, they belong to Ren Pics. But I thank you mister t.v. person for letting them come out and play.
Subtext Stuff: Yup, they are, yup, they do. If you aren't in to that sort of thing, then go away and be straight somewhere else. Otherwise, welcome.
Violence: Just a wee bit. Nothing to run home and tell mom about.
Note: This story takes place around the time 'Sins of the Past' would have happened. In this story, however, Xena never met Hercules, but decided to turn for the better on her own, and left her army via the Gauntlet. Draco still attacked Potedia, and took his slaves to sell.
If you'd like to tell me what a wonderful writer I am , or that I royally suck, you are welcome to at: XenaNut@hotmail.com
I stared into the flames of the small fire I had started, trying to not concentrate on the pain. The light threw eerie dancing shadows upon the cave wall. It was hypnotic. Darphus and his army had done one Tartarus of a job trying to ensure I would not live through the Gauntlet. But I had prevailed. No one was going to keep the Warrior Princess down, and no man would dare kill her. What was I going to do now? With a shrug to my silent question I leaned my upper shoulders back against the large rock behind me. I could not help but wince at the pain. I wondered if any bones were broken. I didn't think so. Who would care if there were? I know I didn't care enough to check right now.
Not for the first time this night I wondered if I had done the right thing by leaving my army in the reckless hands of Darphus. He was crazy, had always been crazy, and would probably end up getting those men killed. It was no longer my problem to worry about now. I had had enough of that life; the life of a feared warlord. Maybe I could just wonder around nameless for awhile. Anonymity sounded real good about now.
I bit my bottom lip to suppress a groan as I stood, still a bit shaky on my feet. I was glad that I had decided to set up camp in this smaller cavern farther back in the cave. Nothing would wonder back this far, and certainly no one who had any sense. I also knew I'd be able to keep warmer in here with a smaller space for the fire to heat. I walked over to the small opening that I had to crouch to get through. One last check of the area directly around the cave, and to make sure my new horse, Argo was okay for the night, then I'd turn in.
My breath caught as the stinging winds caressed my face, the snow swirling around in blinding white gusts. Argo whinnied her protest when she saw me.
"I know, girl. I'm sorry. You're first night with me, and you must already think I'm a real bitch to leave you out here, huh?" I ran my hand down the mare's nose to reassure her. Poor animal. The main cave opening was even too small for her, or I'd put her in there for the night. If the weather was still this bad tomorrow night I'd head into town where I could put Argo in a stable or barn, and out of this blizzard. At least she had the protection from the wind from the ledge that overhung the cave entrance.
After making sure all was quiet I headed back into the cave. I pushed a small boulder in front of the opening of my smaller cave, and wrapped myself in my blankets. Sleep was slow, and painful in coming, but finally I lost contact with reality, and was soaring in the land of Morpheus.
I turned over onto my left shoulder, and bolted upright as searing pain shot through my arm. Maybe I had some broken bones after all. I gritted my teeth as I quickly straightened my arm out, a loud snap following.
"Mmmm, gods." I breathed. I slowly bent my arm experimentally, knowing that the bones had slid into place. It still hurt, but it would be okay. I just had to remember to take it easy on that arm for a couple of days. I was about to lay back when I heard something coming from the outer cave. I sat perfectly still as I listened; there it was again. Moaning. Very faint, but definitely a moan. With a raised brow I moved toward the small opening to this cavern, and moved the boulder aside. I drew my brows at the small form that was curled up into a ball on the cave floor just inside the entrance. The form was shivering violently. I could not tell if it was male or female. Either way, by the size and build they looked young. Great! Just what I needed; someone to take care of. With a resigned sigh I moved toward the prone figure, and knelt beside them. The thin, cotton cloak the person wore was partially caked with snow, while other parts were soaked through. The person had been here for a couple of hours at least, and from the condition of the garment I figured they had probably been traveling through a good part of the night. I grabbed the figure under their limp arms, and drug them back through the small opening, and into the warmer back cave. I laid them gently on an extra blanket I had, and hurried to the outer cave to grab a couple arm loads of firewood that I had gathered and stacked the night before when I had arrived.
The cave quickly warmed as the nearly dead embers burst to life. I hurried over to the still form that still shivered, but not nearly as bad. I quickly untied the ties of the cloak, chunks of ice falling to the floor that had been frozen to the strings. I gasped as I saw the face when I peeled back the sodden material. A young woman. She was deathly pale, her full lips blue from the beginning stages of hypothermia. Quickly I pulled the cloak from her body, and threw it aside. I would hang it to dry later when I had the rest of her clothing removed, and her into something dry and warm. The young girl wore a simple village blouse that had some minor tears in it, and one spot that looked like a blood stain. Her long, brown skirt was slit up one side, and the back was covered with a mud stain. She wore no underwear. I cringed as I could guess what had happened to her. I had seen enough young village girls victims of my own men. I removed her soaked, stained clothes, throwing them onto the growing pile of ruined garments. I removed leather boots with soles too thin for this type of weather. The girl was still unconscious, but instinctively her body curled in on itself to try and preserve any body heat. I gently picked her up, wincing as my left arm protested, and carried her to my own bedroll. Laying her down, I tucked a thick, wool blanket up around her chin, and tucked the sides under her butt and legs, wrapping an additional blanket around her feet.
I moved up by her head and looked down at this strange girl. Her hair, that when dry was probably a golden-reddish color, was dark red, and was plastered to her clammy forehead and cheeks. I brushed away the hair, and looked at the minor wounds on her bottom lip, and a small scratch more likely than not from a tree branch that marked her left cheek. She had the beginnings of a black eye. I sifted through one of Argo's saddle bags that leaned against the wall until I found some herbs and some clean cloth. Returning to the girl's side I grabbed the water skin that I had filled last night, and began to pound some of the herbs in a small bowl, adding some water to make a paste. This would help with the swelling of her eye, and clean the other open wounds. I looked into her face again as I pounded. She looked as though she were probably a very lovely girl when not beat up and bruised, and half frozen. What had brought her out into this storm unprepared for the elements? What, or who was she running from? Why? She looked far too innocent to be running because she was in trouble; unless, that is, trouble had found her. I had seen it before. And the telltale condition of her clothing and body was also a good indication. When I had removed her soggy clothing I had noticed a small bit of blood at the top of one thigh, and a bit more down by her knee. One of her hips had a terrible bruise on it. That would certainly be painful tomorrow. This poor girl was probably nothing more than a simple village girl, unable to defend herself. Her bare survival instincts alone were probably the only reason she was still alive. And free.
My herbal mixture was ready. With gentle hands I cleaned the girl's face, and made a small herbal pack for the delicate, bruised skin below her eye. She would be okay. I put the medical supplies aside, and turned back to her. She had begun to shiver again I drew my brows in concern. With no other way to keep her warm, I removed my leathers so all I had on was a simple cotton shift, and slid under the blanket with the girl. I knew my body heat would be more than enough to help warm her own body temperature to a safe, healthy level. I slid an arm under her shoulders, and gently pulled her smaller body into mine. With a small whimper of pain she buried her head into my chest, tucked her hands under her chin, her eyes still tightly closed. I rested my chin atop her head, and sighed. What was I going to do with her? She would need at least a few days to heal physically, maybe even a week. I had no idea what kind of shape she'd be in emotionally. That was not my problem, I reasoned. After her wounds healed, I would take her home, wherever that was, or at least to some safe spot where she could make her own way. I was not responsible for this girl. Yet, somehow I felt protective of her. I had no idea who she was, or why she was here, but I think I needed this distraction from my own situation, and perhaps helping this stranger could help tame some of my own building guilt. In the past I had been the cause for girls just like this one in my arms, to lose their families, their homes, and their very lives as they knew it. Ah, to Tartarus with it! I was not part of whatever happened to this.... kid, so I had no reason to feel compelled to help her beyond what I had already done. She is alive, for the god's sakes!
I felt sleep tugging at me again, making my eyes feel so heavy. I pulled the girl a little closer, and closed my eyes.
I see the line scratched in the dirt just a pace or two in front of me. If I can only reach it, gods, the pain! One more step! I hear a scream, not my own, one more step, another scream, something beating against my chest.......
My eyes shot open as a scream reverberated against the stone walls of the cave, fists beating against my breasts and ribs. The cave was nearly black as the fire had burned down to a few orange embers. I looked at the girl as she screamed again, her hands pushing against me, trying to escape from her dream tormentor.
"Hey, hey," I said, my voice soft and as soothing as I could make it. She pushed against me again, then stopped suddenly, her eyes flew open. She starred at me, her eyes wide and terrified. "Shhh. You're safe." the girl calmed, but scoots away from me. She looked down at herself realizing she was naked, and pulled the blanket to her breasts.
"Where am I? Where are my clothes?" her voice cracked as it tried to pass through her rough, dry throat. I reached over and grabbed the water skin, handed it to her as I began to explain.
"You are in a cave. I found you early this morning curled up, nearly frozen to death. Your clothes are hanging over there to dry," I indicated a dark corner of the cave. "You were in the beginning stages of hypothermia, so I had to get you out of those wet clothes, and warm you up."
"Oh," she said, her voice just above a whisper. She took another long drink before timidly handing the skin back to me. I took a swallow and capped it, setting it aside. "Who, who are you?" I thought for a moment. What should I tell her? What if she has heard of the Warrior Princess, and thinks she's in an even worse situation then that she just ran from? I swallowed, deciding that if I am to put her at ease, then honesty was going to be important.
"My name is Xena." I said quietly. To my surprise a small smile briefly crept across her cracked lips.
"The Warrior Princess." she said, as if to herself.
"Some call me that, but I prefer Xena, plain and simple."
"Okay." she brought her knees up, and tucked the blanket tighter around herself. "It's getting cold in here,...Xena." Instantly I was on my feet, remembering to duck slightly so I would not graze my head against the low ceiling. I threw some wood onto the dying embers, and after a few moments had a nice blaze going again. I heard the girl sigh with pleasure behind me. I still knelt before the fire, but looked over my shoulder at her. "What's your name?"
"Well, Gabrielle, I'm sure you're probably hungry. I know I am." I stood and began to put my leathers back on. "In that saddle bag there nearest you there is a warm shift. Go ahead and put it on. I'm gonna go try and get some dinner." I clipped my chakram at my hip, and grabbed my sword. I was so thankful that I had hidden that store of armor and weapons two winters ago that I used now. You never knew when you would need an emergency supply.
Not waiting for Gabrielle's response I moved the boulder aside, and headed out into the cold, snowy late afternoon. The storm still raged on, though the winds seemed to have cut back a bit.
A candlemark or so later I returned with a slain rabbit in one hand, and a large pouch full of wild grass that I had been able to dig up for Argo in the other. It would not be enough, I knew. I wondered if the mare could be trusted to not run off if I let her loose to go and find her own dinner. Chances were good that she'd have better luck than I did for her.
"Okay, girl. Let's see how you do, huh?" I patted her golden romp, and untied her tether. She whinnied once deep in her throat, then trotted off. I watched her for a moment, then headed back into the cave. Gabrielle was laying on her side, the blanket pulled tightly around her young, shivering body.
"Are you okay?" concern immediately filled my voice. I dropped the rabbit near the fire that was still going strong, and hurried over to the girl. I knelt by her side. Her face was buried in the blanket, and I could hear the muffled sobs that she was trying to get under control. My heart ached. "Hey," I placed a gentle hand on her shoulder; her body twitched slightly at my touch. I quickly removed my hand. She lowered the blanket just enough to reveal her red, swollen, tear-filled eyes. Suddenly she leaned up and threw her heaving body into my arms. I just sat there stunned for a brief moment before my arms encircled her, and brought her to me in a tight embrace. I swallowed several times as I fought to keep my own tears down. "Shhh." I whispered as I gently stroked her hair, her sobs wracking her body hard against mine. "It's okay, Gabrielle. You're safe now. Shhh." after a while her sobs turned into hiccups, and eventually into slow, steady breathing. Her face was buried in my neck, and I could feel the dampness of her tears against my skin.
"Please don't leave again, Xena." she whispered. I closed my eyes and continued to stroke her hair. "I feel so safe with you." I could not help but grin at the irony of this situation. Here this young, defenseless village girl felt safe with me, a killer, a scourge on humanity.
"Okay, Gabrielle. I won't leave." I held her for long moments when both our attention was drawn to her growling stomach. She pulled away from me, an embarrassed grin on her face. I was finally able to get a good look at the girl. I had been right in my assumption; she was beautiful. Her eyes were a clear sea-green, that almost seemed to glow. Though filled with a profound sadness now, were filled with life and intelligence. A constant question seemed to lurk just under the surface to satisfy a quizzical mind.
I skinned the rabbit, and began to put it over the fire to cook when Gabrielle stopped me to show me an even better way to position the meat so it would cook faster, more thoroughly, yet would not burn. I gave her some bread from a pack to nibble on while we waited for the rabbit to cook. She narrowed her eyes as she stared at my face.
"By the gods, Xena. What happened to your face?" Confused for a moment, I didn't answer. Then I remembered my own wounds. In caring for Gabrielle I had forgotten to take care of myself.
"Oh, I got into a fight." Gabrielle must have seen something in my face for her eyes grew soft, and she reached out with the barest touch on my hand.
"Do you want to talk about it?" her voice soft, and gentle.
"I wanted out." I blurted. I stopped myself. Why was I going to tell her anything? In my prolonged silence she spoke again softly, still eyeing my face.
"Do you have any thomweed?" I nodded, impressed that she would know to use that for abrasions. She crawled over to my packs and searched for the herb. Coming back to me with a bowl, water skin, cloth in hand she sat infront of me again. "Continue." she said softly as she began to gently clean the cuts and bruises that lined my cheek bones, and temples. I winced as the rough edge of the cloth scraped against a particularly open, painful cut on my chin. "I'm sorry."
"Uh, so anyway, the only way a warrior can leave..." my voice trailed off as once again I saw my army in two lines facing each other, a narrow alley of pain and death between them.
"Is through the Gauntlet. Right?"
"Oh, Xena. That must have been awful. I'm so sorry." she continued to clean and treat my wounds, her touch so gentle, so careful.
"It happens. I'm just glad to be out." I looked into her eyes that were filled with so much compassion as she tried to be careful not to hurt me. "How do you know about the Gauntlet?" she smiled.
"Well once a traveling bard came through my village, and he told me about it." her eyes suddenly became very sad, and very moist. She placed the now stained cloth in the bowl, and set it aside. "I'd better check on dinner." she whispered, turning her back to me as she fumbled with the rabbit on its spit. I stared at her back, her smaller body lost in my shift. She was looking into the flames, her shoulders slumped. I didn't know what to do, lacking the soft, compassionate touch that Gabrielle had. Finally electing to rest a hand on her shoulder, hopefully offering comfort. "Three days ago my village was attacked, and all the women were rounded up to be sold." her voice was so soft I had to strain to hear her words.
"You escaped?" I guessed. She nodded.
"Yes. I escaped. But not before...." her voice broke. She took a calming breath. "Not before I got... hurt." I continued to watch her, waiting for more words that never came. She stared into the flames for a moment when a visible shiver passed through her. She turned and grabbed the water skin and one of the rags. "I'll be back. I just need to do... something." she gritted her teeth at the strain of moving the boulder aside, and she disappeared into the darkness of the outer cave. With a sigh I looked back to the fire. I knew she felt dirty and unclean. I had pondered the idea of cleaning the blood from her sex when I had removed her wet clothing, but I knew getting her warm had been much more important. Besides, that was something that Gabrielle would have to deal with on her own. Maybe if she could be in control of removing the physical evidence, then she would feel more empowered to remove the psychological evidence as well. My own shiver passed down my spine as I remembered when Cortese's men had attacked my own village. It had been awful. I had been a young girl, not much younger than Gabrielle was now. There had just been too many of them. I knew exactly how Gabrielle felt.
I didn't look up as I heard the boulder being moved back into place. Gabrielle was quiet, her eyes swollen and red. She threw the water skin to the floor; the cloth was nowhere in sight. My guess was she had pitched it out the cave entrance. A vivid reminder in living color. She sat in her same place in front of the fire, her back to me. She was shivering. I know she had to have been freezing out there.
"Were you torn, Gabrielle?" I asked softly, my hand on her shoulder. She shook her head "Come 'ere." I said, to my surprise. She looked over her shoulder at my open arms, and warm smile. She scooted herself back and nestled between my legs sideways, her knees pulled up to her chest, and leaned against me. I wrapped my arms loosely around her small body. To my surprise she put her small hands over my arms, and pulled them around her tighter. I obliged.
"Why did you want out, Xena?" she asked softly.
"Because," I paused as I thought of how to explain. "I had been hurting people for so long because I was filled with so much anger, and I finally got tired of it. I guess my own inner fury finally died."
"Hmm." she said, her voice soft and wistful. "Why were you angry?"
"Many years ago my own village was also attacked. But the people who attacked us weren't after slaves. They wanted lives." Gabrielle pulled away just enough so she could look up into my face.
I sighed. "Well, my younger brother, Lyceus and I fought back. We won, and the raiding party left. But Lyceus was killed. I think my spirit died that day." Why was I telling her all of this? I was beginning to realize that this young girl had a strange affect on me. Yesterday I was a killer, and commander of a lethal army. Today words and memories are pouring out of me like water from a waterfall! The craziest part was that I didn't mind sharing these things with her. I felt her lay her head against my chest again, her body snuggling a little closer. I fought back the shiver that ran down my spine at the contact of her body against mine..
"Were you and Lyceus close?"
" Yes. Very."
"I have a younger sister, Lila."
"Was she captured, too?" I asked, afraid to hear the answer.
"No, thank the gods. She was visiting our uncle in a neighboring village. I just pray that they don't get hit next."
"So what did you used to do? Are you married? Kids?" Gabrielle laughed softly.
"No. My parents tried. In fact I'm engaged. That's about as much as they could get me to commit to." I chuckled.
"Do you love him?"
"As a brother!" she raised her head again and smiled at me. "Perdicus is very sweet, and I've known him since we were kids, but eww!" she was quiet for a moment. "I don't want to get married."
"What do you want to do?"
"I want to travel. See the world. See, I'm a bard. My parents never took me seriously when I told them that that's what I wanted to do; not get married and reproduce." again I couldn't stifle a chuckle.
"There aren't many female bards you know, Gabrielle."
"Exactly!" she pulled completely away from me and turned to face me, her eyes lit up with excitement. Apparently we had hit on a passionate topic. "That is why it's even more important for me to explore my bardic talent, and show old men in white robes that I can out tell any man."
We both turned to the fire as the smell of burning rabbit assaulted our noses.
"I hope you like your meat well done, Xena." she smiled. I smiled back. She should smile more. Her entire face lights up, her eyes dance. Stop it! She's just a young girl, no more than seventeen seasons, inexperienced in life, certainly in love. Besides, what in Tartarus would she want with me? An ex-warlord, and a woman to boot! She'd run screaming out of this cave at the mere thought. But then again, she is so touchy with me. Stop! She's probably just an affectionate person by nature, and with what she has just been through of course she needs human contact right now, and probably feels safer with a woman.
I have had many lovers in my time, both men and women. Generally if I were to get involved with a man it was because it was either a way to control him, or get something I wanted from him, say his army. But when it came to matters of the heart, it was women that enticed me. I had never had any feelings for any man beyond physical, but I had loved women.
"Hello? Come in, Xena." I shook my head to clear it. Gabrielle was handing me a plate with some meat and bread on it. She was smiling again. "Where did you go?"
"Nowhere. Sorry. Thanks." I took the plate from her.
We ate in mostly silence. Gabrielle talked a little about some of her stories she had written, but I think we both found the silence comforting, knowing that the other person was there. In a way I felt like this girl had been my traveling companion for years. I felt connected to her somehow, like we were supposed to meet for some reason. I made a mental decision though that as soon as she was healed and the storm broke I was going to take her home. She belonged with her family, and that young fiancée of hers. Sure, she said that she didn't love him as a husband, but she was young, and would probably grow out of that wonder lust. But then I had to smile at my own theory. Had I ever grown out of my own wonder lust? Nope. Probably never would, either.
When we had finished eating, I went out to check to see if Argo had returned. As soon as I walked out of the cave she nodded her head and whinnied. A wide smile spread across my face.
"Good girl, Argo. You are one smart horse, aren't ya, girl?" I rubbed her nose and under her chin. Just to be on the safe side, I re-tethered her, and checked the perimeter of the cave, and relieved myself in the trees.
Gabrielle had put away the extra meat in one of the packs and had put it just outside of the small opening to our cave so it would not spoil from the heat of the fire. She had rinsed off the plates, and put everything away. I was impressed.
"You didn't have to do all this, Gabrielle." I grinned as I began to add more wood to the fire for the night. She grinned sheepishly as she settled the blankets out.
"Well, I figured that you were kind enough to save my life, so the least I could do was clean up."
"Well, thank you anyway."
"You're welcome anyway."
"Looks like the storm is letting up a bit." I said as I began to remove my armor. I unhooked the left shoulder, but as I reached over to unhook the right with my left arm, I winced as the weakened arm screamed out at me. Gabrielle was on her feet and at my side.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah. I hurt it in the fight. I forgot.""Here, let me help you." she reached up for the clasp.
"No, I'm fine." I tried to bat her hand away.
"Stop being a baby, and let me help you." she gently scolded. With a resigned sigh I let her unhook my armor. Her fingertips brushed my bare shoulder as she removed the metal, the soft touch sending chills down my spine, and ending somewhere south of that. I gritted my teeth, my jaw muscles clenching as she unhooked the leather straps of my battle dress. Come on, Xena. Get your body under control. Breath in, breath out, breath in,-
"Okay, ready for bed?"
I slowly exhaled and nodded. It's been too long.
People are running in every direction, many headed up the hill to hide in the woods. I can see Lyceus just ahead of me, sword drawn, young body covered in sweat. His curly, dark blond hair is plastered to his head as he charges, mouth open in a silent scream of victory.
. Where did that soldier come from? Suddenly a man wearing the mask of Cortese runs out of a doorway, sword drawn. He has spied my brother, and is heading in that direction. Lyceus! Lyceus, watch out! I can't speak. The words ring in my own head, but I can't say them. No! The soldier is getting closer. NO! Lyceus clamps his eyes shut, his teeth bared as the blade is pushed through his young body. His arms fly up, his own sword still held forever in a tight death grip. He falls to the ground.
"Xena! Wake up!"
My eyes flew open and I became aware that Gabrielle was leaning over me. I was breathing fast; quick intakes of air through my open mouth. I closed my mouth as I attempted to slow my breathing and my racing heart. I felt gentle fingers on the side of my face, brushing away damp hair, and caressing my cheek. Feather touches. Inwardly I cringed as I felt hot tears stinging behind my eyes. A soft whimper escapes my lips as a picture of my brother, dead flashed before my eyes again.
"Shhh. It's okay, Xena. Shhh." strong arms cradled my head, feather light kisses on my forehead. I felt the gentle swell of Gabrielle's breasts through the thin material of the shift against my right cheek. I leaned into their softness, the fullness comforting. "It's okay. It was just a bad dream." I stared up into her face as her soft words soothed me. The flickering light of the flames caressed her golden hair, her green eyes turned dark in the jumping shadows of the partially dark cave. I got lost in that face, the look of concern touching my very soul. She stared into my eyes for a moment before she leaned down and kissed my forehead again; a lingering kiss. I closed my eyes as warm sensations slowly ran down my body, her soft hair tickled my face.
Gabrielle laid down, pulling me with her. My cheek still rested on her breast. I could hear her heartbeat; fast, but steady. She placed her hand on the side of my head, gently ran her fingers through my hair, the other hand reached down to pull the blanket up around my shoulder. Not entirely sure what I should do with my arm, I laid it across her stomach.
I stared into the flames as I realized that I had never been comforted by a woman like that before, certainly not rendering myself vulnerable enough to lay in her arms. I always saw that as a sign of weakness, the weaker needing to be held. But now as this young girl, on the verge of womanhood held me to her in a comforting gesture of understood pain, I feel at peace.
Gabrielle's fingers stilled in my hair, her palm coming to rest just behind my ear. Her breathing had become slow, steady. She had drifted off to sleep. With a small sigh, I closed my eyes.
My eyes open, and for a moment I am not sure where I am. Then I remember as my body moans in recognition of the dark cave, and the bruises that litter my body. They are always at their worst on the third day. I feel warmth against the front of my body, when I also realize that I have a bundle of bard in my arms. At some point in the night we changed positions so that we both lay on our sides, my body curled around Gabrielle's back.
I close my eyes again as I try and force myself to disentangle my body from Gabrielle's soft warmth and actually do something productive with my day. She moans softly in her sleep as I take my arm from her grasp and bring it back across her ribs, and over her waist. I stare down at this amazing little bard, remembering her soft kisses on my forehead, her fingers roaming over my face as she spoke words of comfort and encouragement the night before. I lean forward a bit so I can look into her face, and notice a strand of reddish-gold hair that has fallen onto her forehead, and over a closed eye. With gentle fingers I push the locke aside, and place it behind her ear. She brings out such tenderness in me. I stop the smile that is trying to spread across my face for a moment, but then let it come. Is it possible to be strong yet soft at the same time? My old mentor, Lao Ma thought so. I feel a wave of desire wash through me, and I know it's time to get some distance away from the bard, and get my gear, and myself together. Today we will head out from the cave, and get Gabrielle back where she belongs.
I stand outside the cave in the early morning hush. It is still cold, but the snow and wind have stopped. The storm is over, and things are calming. I grin as Argo nudges me in the shoulder.
"Okay, okay, girl. I'll brush you." the fluid strokes through my mare's mane lull me back into thought. Where am I going to go now? I know in my heart that I could never stay in one place, or settle down as they call it. I'm not the settling down type, and I know it to always be true. They also say that home is where the heart is, but I have no idea where my heart lies now. At one time it had lain with vengeance, killing, stealing. Greed. But not anymore. I don't know if I am ready to go home. What will mother say? I know that when Lyceus had been killed, she had nearly died, too. Can I face her disapproval? Her disappointment?
I can sense Gabrielle's presence before I hear her. She steps up beside me, her hand absently running down Argo's flank.
"So the storm finally broke." she said.
She's quiet for a moment as she studies her hand on the horse.
"Were you, were you going to leave me here?" her voice is quiet, pained. I draw my brows and look down at her.
"Well," she says nervously, her eyes staring off into the white wonderland before us. "You are already all dressed, and everything is packed up. You didn't wake me, so I thought," A small smile creeps across my lips.
"No, Gabrielle, I wasn't going to leave you here. You've had a rough couple of days, so I wanted to give you a chance to sleep in a bit. You're body needs the time to heal."
"Oh." she smiles, relief obvious in her sparkling green eyes. Out here in the light of day they are even more beautiful. She pulls the blanket closer around her shoulders, a small shiver passing through her body. "So where are we going?"
"Well, I'm taking you home."
"What!" she exclaims, her eyes wide. I look down at her. "I can't go home. Xena, please."
"Gabrielle, if you don't go home, then just where do you think you're going to go?"
"With you." I shake my head as I walk away from her, starting to saddle Argo. My mind is in turmoil. There is no way I can subject Gabrielle to the kind of life on the road that I am sure to lead, but at the same time she had spoken the words that deep down I had hoped she would. "Xena, I can't go home. I won't stay. I don't belong there." she follows me around as I ready my horse to leave. "I am not the little girl my parents wanted me to be, Xena. Not like Lila. I am different. It's like I told you last night. I want to travel the world, see things, and write about them."
"Fine. Maybe when you marry Perdicus you can take a trip across Greece on your honeymoon, and write about it." I kneel down as I buckle the saddle bags into place, making sure that the weight is even.
"Xena, that isn't fair." Gabrielle's voice is low. I have hurt her. I stopped my preparation, and look at her, my arms crossed over my chest. "I told you how I felt about the engagement, and please don't tell me that I am young, and will eventually grow to realize how lucky I am to have someone like Perdicus, and that I'll be very happy." she looked down at her fidgeting hands. "I'm tired of hearing that." with a sigh I place a hand on her shoulder. She does not look up.
"Gabrielle, look at me." her eyes slowly meet mine. I can see a pain in her eyes that is years deep. I know that pain. I've had it my entire life. "It's not easy proving you're a different person, is it?" she shakes her head, I smile. "I'm sorry I said that, and you're right, it wasn't fair. What you need to understand is that I don't know where I'm headed, but I do know that it will be very dangerous. Gabrielle, I was not a nice person for a long time, and there are many, many people out there who want to see me dead and hurt me. What better way to hurt me then by hurting those I care about."
"I understand that, Xena, and I accept that. But don't you think that it would be so much easier if you didn't have to go alone?" Yes it would.
"Okay." I said simply.
"Okay?" She asked, her brows raised in surprise.
"Okay." I repeat, not able to hide the smile that pours forth.
We set off from the cave around mid-morning headed to Potidus, the sister village to Gabrielle's Potidea, where her sister Lila had gone to stay with their uncle. We were lucky that neither village was very far. Not even a full day's ride.
"Gods, please let Lila be okay." Gabrielle said over and over again.
"I'm sure she's fine." I said for the tenth time. I looked down from atop Argo as Gabrielle walked beside us. "Are you sure you don't want to ride, Gabrielle?" she looked up at me and scrunched her nose.
"Not until they make those things closer to the ground. Besides, walking is keeping me warm." Gabrielle had put her own clothes back on, as well as one of the thick, wool blankets was wrapped around her shoulders. We were both quiet for a while until something occurred to me.
"When I told you who I was you weren't scared?" I asked, curiosity getting the best of me.
"No." Gabrielle said simply.
"Well, remember that traveling bard I told you about?" nod "Well, he also told me about the great Warrior Princess. I guess he had run across you quite a few years back in Corinth."
"In Corinth?" I cringed inwardly. That had been the sight of one of the bloodies battles I've ever been involved in. "And he was still alive to tell you about me?" Gabrielle looked up at me with raised brows and a smile.
"Well, apparently. He thought you were quite a sight, and I'd have to say he was right. Hey, I rhyme. Got a dime?"
"What's a dime?"
"I don't know. It just sounded good."
I rolled my eyes, but could not help but grin.
"Anyway, he told us what an awesome fighter you were, and how amazing it was to watch you." she smiled shyly. "To be honest, Xena, since then I've dreamed of meeting you. To know someone with so much power, so much freedom."
We were both silent for a long time. I kept a careful eye on the thick forests on either side of the narrow road we were traveling. It would be very easy for an enemy to hide in the dense foliage for a surprise, or sniper attack. My eyes turned to the bard who walked down the path just slightly in front of Argo. She was humming some unknown tune. She is such a beautiful young girl, I thought, for not the first time in the last quarter candlemark. I was ripped from my reverie when I heard her now familiar voice cut through the cold, winter late afternoon, again.
"Xena, why didn't you ever get married? Or did you?" she slowed her pace down until Argo and I caught up to her. She looked up at me with quizzitive green eyes.
"Nope, never did. I didn't want to be controlled. I was engaged, though."
"Really? I cannot imagine you, the great Xena, Warrior Princess, engaged." I grinned.
"You'd be surprised about a lot of things, Gabrielle."
"Yeah? Well, I wish to know everything." I stared into her serious expression. Her eyes never left mine when she said, "You know, maybe I will ride up there with you. I'm getting tired." I smiled. I stopped Argo and pulled her up to sit in front of me in the saddle. I know it probably would have been a little more comfortable for her to ride behind, but in truth I wanted to feel her in my arms again. I made a mental note to be careful how much I touched her in the future. I could not allow my own long neglected desires to be pushed on to her.
"You should probably be careful what you wish for, Gabrielle." I said, my voice quiet and serious. I reached around her and grabbed Argo's reigns again, and urged her into a walk.
"Because sometimes you get it."
"But, Xena, don't you see, that's the point? For example. A few moons back I stayed up one night after Lila had already gone to sleep, and I made a wish." Gabrielle said, her voice growing soft and wistful. I brought my lips next to her ear to be heard above the growing winds that moaned through the trees. ..
"What did you wish for, Gabrielle?" I was surprised to feel a shiver run through her body. "Are you cold?" she shook her head.
"No." her voice was small. Then, "I wished for something to happen. Someone to come into my life, and bring adventure, excitement. Someone I could learn from and teach in turn. A force. And here you are." she answered, turning her head somewhat in the direction of my voice.
"You shouldn't want to learn from me. I am not good for you, Gabrielle. You will learn that soon enough."
"No, Xena that's where you're wrong! Please don't say things like that. Xena, yes I realize I don't know much about your past, or who you were. But look at you now. The Xena of the past, the Xena of last week would not have saved me the way you did." she turned in the saddle to look at as much of my troubled face as her neck would allow. "Stop the horse."
"Why? Are you okay?" she smiled.
"Just stop the horse."
"Whoa, Argo." I pulled on the reigns, and my mare stopped with an annoyed snort. Gabrielle shifted in the saddle until she was almost sitting side-saddle. She looked me fully in the face now.
"Xena, I have heard of many tales of the Warrior Princess, and I don't know how much of what I heard is true, but I do know that when I look in your eyes I see such a troubled soul. Troubled, but trying to find peace. I want to help you find that peace."
"Why?" I asked, my voice a shaky whisper. She placed her palm on the side of my face and smiled so sweetly that I could have cried.
"Because I see all the good in you. Never doubt that." She smiled at the look of surprise on my face when she placed a soft, chaste kiss upon my lips. Gabrielle turned herself around to face the road ahead. My mind in a daze, I got us moving again.
Gabrielle leaned farther back into me as the day began to turn cold again. I was glad that this night would be spent in an inn rather than a sub-zero cave. I knew Argo would sure welcome the change.
I slowed Argo from a fast trot to a slow walk as we neared the small village. Potidus looked like any other village; small, prosperous. Small homes were off to the side of the main part of town that was slightly larger buildings that served as a tavern and inn, and a blacksmith, grocer and feed store, and a cloth store that also sold other miscellaneous materials.
Gabrielle's face lit up when she saw that the village stood untouched.
"Gabriellllllle!" a voice screamed. I jerked Argo to a halt as Gabrielle jumped from the horse, nearly stumbling as she hit the ground at a dead run. A pretty young girl had run out of one of the shops, and was running toward the bard. They met half-way, and wrapped each other in a tight embrace, both girls crying.
"I guess that's Lila, girl." I muttered to Argo. She snorted in reply. Gabrielle's sister looked nothing like her. She was a bit taller than Gabrielle's slight size, and had long dark hair, and bright blue-gray eyes. I jumped from Argo's back and began to walk the horse farther into the village.
"Stop where you are, warrior." a voice off to my left demanded. I turned in that direction to see one of the village men standing with his large feet planted, a sharp pitchfork in hand, and pointed at me. I raised a brow. "We don't want your kind here. You go and kidnap that poor girl-"
"I didn't-" I tried to explain, but was cut off by another villager. This one was a bit braver as he walked toward me with a sword in his hand.
"I protect this village from scum like you, so you get back on that horse, and keep on going. We know who you are, Xena." the other villagers began to gather behind the two men, the more brave shouted threats and warnings. The group began to close in on me.
"You don't want to do this." I said, my voice soft, but the intent was obvious. "I mean you no harm."
"Get out and leave us alone!"
"No!" I looked to the center of the crowd where whispering was following the commotion through the group when Gabrielle burst between two armed men to stand protectively in front of me. "Stop!"
"Get out of the way, young woman! We don't want her kind here. She-"
"Has done nothing wrong. She saved me from freezing to death." again a wave of whispering wove its way through the crowd.
"Do you know who this is?" asked the second man with the sword.
"Yes, I do. This is Xena. My friend. Now back off!" the villagers looked at each other, not sure what to do.
"What's going on here?" a man pushed himself through the crowd until he, too was in our little circle of three.
"Uncle Thadius!" Gabrielle smiled as she almost plowed the graying man over with her hug. He hugged her in return all the while keeping curious eyes on me. Gabrielle was the spitting image of her uncle. He had the same dancing green eyes as his niece. He pulled away from her.
"Uncle Thadius, this is my friend, Xena."
"Xena." he said, extending his hand to me. "What seems to be the problem here?" I opened my mouth to speak when Gabrielle placed her hand on my arm to silence me.
"You know how they are, Uncle. Anyone new comes here, and automatically the town is in a tizzy."
"Thadius, that is the Warrior Princess!" one of the villagers said, his finger pointed at me, his eyes wide with fear. I cringed.
"No, that is my niece's friend, Xena. You got a problem with that, Balmar? Do any of you?" Thadius' voice boomed above the bustle of the crowd. He looked into every set of eyes, his own narrowed in disapproval. "Now go home, the lot of you so my niece and her friend can come on in and relax in peace. Go!" with uncertain mumbles, the crowd began to disperse. I let out a slow sigh. I did not want to have to hurt any of these people. They were only doing what they thought was right. I felt my shame and guilt crash down around my shoulders with a powerful force.
"Xena?" I looked down into concerned green eyes. "Are you okay? You're shaking."
"I'm sorry, Gabrielle."
"Don't be. They are simple farmers who don't know any better. Now come on. I want you to meet Lila."
I found Lila to be a sweet girl with her wide-eyed innocence. I don't think she quite knew what to make of an intimidating warrior, so I tried to stay clear of her. After talking to Gabrielle's uncle for a bit, I had the feeling that he, too had his own demons to deal with. Thadius was the town blacksmith, and I was glad because Argo needed to be re-shod. The man I had bought her from had not taken proper care of her at all.
"Of course, Xena. I would be glad to shod her. She'll be done by morning." he said as he took a drink of his port. Gabrielle had dragged us all into the small tavern for dinner, and some port for me and her uncle, cider for the sisters. It was getting late, and I was getting tired, though mostly tired of being around so many people.
"Well," I said scooting my chair back from the table. "I think I'll turn in."
"My place is the last one if you take a right once out of the tavern." I smiled down at Thadius.
"Thanks, but I think I'll get a room here tonight."
"No, Xena-" Gabrielle began to protest, but Thadius put his hand up to stop her. He nodded.
"Okay, Xena. If that's what you want."
Yup. Thadius definitely had a skeleton or two in his closet. He understood the warrior code, and need for privacy too much. I nodded at everyone, then headed toward the bar to get me a room. As I waited for the barmaid to get my key I leaned back on my elbows on the long plank that served as the bar, and looked at Gabrielle. She was engrossed in an animated conversation with Lila. I raised a speculative brow as I thought of what would truly be the best thing for the girl. She and Lila were obviously close, and shared that special bond that you can only have with a sibling. With a nod I decided that this is where Gabrielle belonged.
"Here you go." I turned back to the woman and took the key from her hand.
"Thanks. You got a bath here?"
"I can have some hot water and a tub brought up to your room. Provide your own soap, though."
"Great." I said with a nod, and walked up the narrow, creaky wooden stairs to a decent sized room with one window, a medium sized bed, and a single table in the corner with a pitcher for washing. I dropped Argo's saddle bags against the wall, and began to remove my sword and sheath when a knock sounded. I opened the door to see two young boys; one had three buckets of steaming water at his feet, the other was dragging the wooden tub. I motioned for them to enter, and they did. Soon enough they were gone, having had made one more trip downstairs to fetch three more buckets of hot water. I dug out a bar of soap from a saddle bag, and found the last little bit of hair lather in a small, chipped clay pitcher that I had picked up a while back.
I laid back in the steaming water, and closed my eyes. My bruised, road weary body grew stiff for a moment before the hot water was able to penetrate the tight muscles, and my whole body fell against the back of the tub like jelly.
I laid in the tub until the water became cold, then got out, my legs shaky from the heat. I laid out on the bed still naked and stared up at the ceiling, my arms back over my head. I saw Gabrielle before my mind's eye. I wondered what she was doing right now. Was she and Lila still up talking even at this late hour? I know me and Lyceus would have been. Lyceus. I closed my eyes to block out the newly resurfaced pain. I knew that soon I would have to face mother. I had shut out that long ago experience from my mind for a long time. Maybe it was healthy that I should have to deal with it. I shifted my thoughts away from my family and stared out the small window at the black sky. The sky was clear which was a good sign. That meant that the weather would probably hold out tomorrow, and Argo and I could head out. Gabrielle. I saw her face again, her emerald eyes smiling at me. Then I saw her stretched out next to me on the bed, her naked skin glowing in the candle light. I closed my eyes and ran my hand down over my stomach, and up to just under my breasts. I could actually almost feel her. She sighs as I kiss her neck, her eyes closed, fingers running through my hair. She whispers my name as I move down to her breasts. I clench my jaw, my eyes tightly shut.
"No! After tomorrow you will never see her again." I stood from the bed and threw a shift over my head, and jerked it down over my body, and climbed into bed.
My eyes slowly fluttered open as I heard a soft knock at my door followed by my name. My name again. Gabrielle? I sat up and tried to think of what to do. Ignore it? Pretend I don't hear her? No. Maybe there is some trouble. I padded over to the door and unlocked it. Gabrielle stood in the dimly lit hallway. She looked at me with a shy grin.
"Hi." I said with a raised brow, clearly wanting to know what she was doing here in the middle of the night. I looked down at her boots and made my way up to realize that she wore only a sleep shift with a heavy cloak over it. "Are you trying to get sick, or do you just like to walk around in your sleep clothes?"
"Oh, uh, yeah. Well, I, well there's not much room at my uncle's place, and I just wondered if maybe-"
"Xena, please? I had another bad dream, and I feel so safe with you, and-"
"Okay. Come in before you get us both kicked out of here." Gods, I could never refuse her.
I climbed back into bed, and watched her as she removed her boots and cloak, then turned the sheet and blanket back so she could slip beneath them. I laid down on my back with my hands behind my head, and closed my eyes. To my surprise I felt Gabrielle's head rest on my shoulder, her arm wrapped around my torso. Within seconds I could tell she was asleep. With a sigh I wrapped my arm around her shoulder, and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
My eyes opened to once again find Gabrielle in my arms, my front pressed to her back, hand resting on her stomach, Gabrielle's hand on top of mine. I looked over the golden head in front of me and glanced out the window. By the looks of the sky it was still very early morning. I laid my head down again. I could smell the clean scent of Gabrielle's freshly washed hair and skin. I readjusted my head slightly as a strand tickled my nose. Then I froze as I felt Gabrielle stir. She slowly ran her hand over my forearm, and then just barely brushed the back of my hand and fingers with her fingertips sending a shiver down my spine. Trying not to wake me, though she had no idea I was already very much awake, she slowly lifted my hand from her stomach and took it in both of hers. She studied my palm.
"Scars." she whispered to herself as she followed the barely puckered lines with a finger. I held my breath as I tried to push down the waves of desire that had began to assault my body the moment she had touched my arm. I felt the heat of her hand as she placed her palm against mine. She gasped slightly as I spread my fingers. She curled hers between, entwining them together. She brought our joined hands to her mouth, and kissed my fingers one at a time.
"Xena?" she whispered.
"Put your hands on me." she took her hand from mine, and placed my palm on her breast. I leaned up slightly.
"Are you sure?" I whispered in her ear, then ran my tongue along the edge.
"Yes," she breathed. She moaned as I squeezed her breast slightly, feeling the weight and fullness. She pressed her body farther into me. I kissed the side of her neck, just below her ear, playing with the skin with my tongue, nipping and sucking slightly. I began to slowly grind into her bottom as my thumb passed over a quickly hardening nipple. She breathed my name into the still morning as her hips began to match my rhythm, our bodies slowly moving together in a very sensual dance.
I slid my hand from her breast, and down her clad torso until I reached the hem of her shift, and glided my hand back up the hot skin of her hip, over her ribs, and covered her breast once more. She moaned again as I took the hardened tip between my thumb and index finger, and rolled it lightly, ever so slightly pulling. Her hips jerked against mine at the sensation.
She turned in my arms until she was facing me. I put my hand on her bottom pushing her closer, placing my thigh between hers. She gasped at the contact. I continued to caress her breast as my lips found hers. The kiss started of soft, gentle, then I touched my tongue to her lips, running it across first her top lip then sucking on the bottom before she opened for me. Her tongue was soft, tentative as it caressed mine. Her hands ran up and down my back, blunt nails running over the side of my thigh sending delicious chills to my center that was pulsing. Then to my surprise she pulled away from me and took off her shift, then helped me with mine. She gently pushed me to my back, and sat astride my hips. She closed her eyes and sucked in her breath as our mounds touched, and pressed together. She was incredible. The dying moonlight was giving way to the birth of the sun, it's golden rays washing over her body. I pushed myself into her. Gabrielle's head flew back, eyes tightly closed as she began to move with me, her movements fluid, and very erotic. I ran my hands up her thighs, cupped her bottom, then ran them back around to her breasts. I sat up and brought my mouth to the pink tips. Gabrielle moaned my name as she continued her slow rhythm, her hands lost in my hair. I ran my tongue all around the hardened nub, then took as much of the soft flesh into my mouth as I could and sucked gently.
"Ooooh, Xena." she breathed. With a flick of my tongue I moved to the other breast and did the same to it. Finally Gabrielle brought my face up to hers and kissed me deep, and passionate. She took my breath away. She pushed me back onto the bed and laid on top of me, our hips still moving together, the bed adjusting under us with every thrust. She kissed and licked my neck, her hands massaging my breasts. She broke from my neck and laid her cheek against mine for a moment, her breathy moans in my ear were driving me crazy. I cradled her bottom and pressed her deeper into me as I began to thrust up into her faster, Gabrielle meeting my every move. Her breathing was increasing, her moans coming faster, and higher pitched. I could feel that wonderful ball of heat building between my legs, ready to explode.
"Mmm... gods... gods... Xena..." Gabrielle breathed into my ear before with a guttural cry, we both exploded. Gabrielle clung to me as her body convulsed against mine. She laid her head down on my shoulder as she tried to get her breathing under control. I wrapped my arms around her back, holding her tightly to me. She snuggled in closer to my body.
"Xena." she whispered over and over again. I smiled and kissed the top of her head.
I had been with countless women before, but nothing had ever rocked me to the core like Gabrielle had. She had taken more than my body just now; she had taken my heart and soul as well. And it scared me.
I reached down and brought the blanket up over our sweat-covered bodies as the cool, early morning air sent a chill through the room. Gabrielle was dozing peacefully, I wrapped my arms tighter around her body that still lay on top of my own, and closed my eyes.
A few candlemarks later I awoke to kisses on my neck and face. A wide smile broke out across my lips seconds before my eyes opened. Gabrielle still lay on top of me, but rested her upper body on her elbows. When she saw I was awake she smiled.
"Good morning." she drawled.
"Good morning." she kissed me fully on the lips, a very tender, very sweet kiss. I felt my body begin to come to life again.
"Soooo," she said into the hollow of my throat. "Do you think we should get dressed and face the day?" her reddish-golden head was moving farther down my body making it more and more impossible for me to come up with an intelligent answer. "Hmmm?" she muttered into my skin when I didn't answer.
"At some point," I gasped as she left a wet trail around my belly button. By the gods! Where did she learn to do this? I could feel her smile against my inner thigh.....
Nearly two candlemarks later we were outside the tavern. Gabrielle had her long cloak wrapped tightly around her as we headed out. I was going to go to Thadius' shop and pick up Argo from being shod, then get her ready to go while Gabrielle went on to her uncle's place and gathered her meager belongings, and said good-bye to Lila and Thadius, then we'd meet at the tavern for a quick breakfast, then off we would go.
We walked together talking about where we wanted to go when a man stepped in front of us, sword drawn. One look at him, and I knew that he was affiliated with Darphus.
"So. Here you are, the great Xena." I took in his defensive stance, itchy sword hand, and hate-filled eyes.
"Ricon. What a surprise. I'm flattered that you've come all this way, but I'm just not in the mood this morning. Sorry." the dirty warrior took a step toward us.
"Too bad, Xena. 'Cause today you're gonna die. You and that little slut. That is, unless I decide to take her back with me." I could feel my blood begin to boil. Maybe he would have lived if he'd just been after me. But to talk about Gabrielle that way...
"Bad move, Ricon. You should have stayed put." with a menacing glare I drew my sword. I heard Gabrielle's quick intake of breath beside me. Without looking at her I gently pushed her aside, and walked the few paces to stand directly in front of Ricon. He smiled, his rotten, half eaten teeth showing that he was pleased that I had taken the bait. Our swords clashed, and the deadly dance began. Ricon was a decent swordsman, but was no match for me, and soon I had him on the ground, his sword laying just beyond his reach. I squatted down next to him, and with two quick jabs had cut off the flow of blood to his brain.
"You know the drill, Ricon, so don't waste time making me explain it. Why are you here? Did Darphus send you?" The man tried to take a breath as the thick veins in his neck began to stand on end, his beady black eyes bulging.
"No," he gasped. "I, I came on my own. Gods, undo this, Xena!"
"I'll make the demands. So why are you here?"
"Because, because I wanted to kill you so Darphus would let me back in the army." he coughed, a thin trickle of blood began to run from his left nostril. I could hear the gasps of some of the onlookers.
"So he finally kicked you out, huh?" I laughed softly. "I had wanted to do that for years." with two more jabs I undid the pinch, and Ricon grabbed at his throbbing neck, coughing, the release having put him on all fours. I stood and began to walk toward a very pale Gabrielle.
"Xena, look out!" Gabrielle cried. I twirled my sword around my hand before tucking it under my arm, blade pointing back just in time for Ricon to impale himself on it. I shoved him off with my shoulder, his body sliding just as cleanly off as he had slid on. I turned to look at his dead, surprised eyes as he lay sprawled, a dagger still clutched in his hand. I turned to Gabrielle again. She was staring at the corpse, looking as if she'd be sick.
"Gabrielle? Gabrielle look at me." I placed my hands on her shoulders. Finally with a shiver she looked up into my eyes, then fell into my arms. "I'm so sorry you had to see that." I whispered. She only shuddered before pulling away. She took a deep breath then smiled nervously.
"I'm going to go on to my uncle's house. Meet you back here in a bit." she gathered her cloak around her a bit tighter, then with one more glance at the dead man walked away. I went back into the tavern and walked up to the barmaid.
"Excuse me, do you have any parchment, and a quill?" A quarter candlemark later I read what I had written for probably the fifth time. Satisfied that my lack of bardic talent would have to do, I headed toward Thadius' house. Lila was out in the front hanging some laundry. With a quick thanks to the gods I walked up to her.
"Good morning, Lila." she smiled nervously at me.
"Hello, Xena. Beautiful day isn't it?"
"Yes. I suppose it could be. Listen, I need you to do me a favor." her brows drew in curiosity.
"Okay." I handed her the rolled piece of parchment.
"I need you to give this to Gabrielle." she looked down at it curiously, but nodded.
"Alright. If you want to wait a second I'll give it to her now-"
"No." I placed a hand on her shoulder to stop her as she began to turn toward the house. She looked at me strangely. "No. Just give it to her, okay?"
I made my way back to the tavern with a heavy heart, but firmly believing that I had done the right thing. I had Argo's saddle bags on the bed re-packing them for the trip ahead. I started as the door to the room was slammed open. I drew my sword and turned on the intruder. I almost wish it had been another of Darphus' men rather than having to face the look on Gabrielle's face now. She extended her hand out, a crumpled piece of parchment clutched in her fingers.
"What is this?" she demanded.
"I'd have to say it's a note."
"A note?" she spat the words out, her fury barely in check. "Let me ask you a question, Xena." she threw the parchment to the floor, her hands now on her hips. I stood with my legs spread, my arms crossed over my chest. "Did this morning mean nothing to you?
"What?" I was surprised by the question.
"Did this morning mean nothing to you, Xena, Warrior Princess."
"Of course it didn't mean nothing."
"Well, I'm sure glad to know that it didn't mean nothing to you, so now I have to wonder did it mean something? Because I have to be honest here, Xena and tell you that to me it meant everything. Do you think that that's something I do with anyone?"
"No." I whispered.
"Good. Now we're getting somewhere. Why are you doing this, Xena?" I could see the pain in her eyes, and I felt so much guilt that I wanted to cry for being the cause of that pain.
"It meant everything to me, too." Gabrielle took a step toward me, her eyes losing their anger, but kept the pain.
"Then why, Xena? Why are you going to leave me here? You said it was because it was the best thing for me? Well, who are you to say what is the best thing for me? What if you are the best thing for me? Did that ever cross that warrior mind of yours?"
"I don't want to make you afraid, Gabrielle. This morning when Ricon attacked me, you were so upset-"
"Of course I was upset!" she threw her hands up in the air in exasperation. "Do you think it's every day that I see someone killed? Even you had a time when you saw someone die for the first time, and I doubt that you were all that stoic, either. Right?" I didn't answer. She took another step forward, now only an arm's length from me. "Right?"
"Yes." she closed the distance between us and cupped my face. I looked down into her beautiful green eyes, so full of life, intelligence, and incredible wisdom for her young age. "Don't leave me behind, Xena. Let me give you what you deserve."
"What?" I whispered brokenly.
"A life. A life full of companionship, adventure, fun, good talks, and most importantly, love." she stood on tip toe so her lips were mere inches from mine. "Let me love you, Xena. Please." I opened my mouth to protest, but she placed her fingers against my lips. "Shh. I know what you're thinking, and you're wrong. I don't care what your past is, Xena. You deserve it, and are very worthy of love. Of my love." with that I pulled her to me in a crushing hug and took her lips in a greedy, passionate kiss. Long moments later we pulled apart, both trembling and breathless. "Wow." she breathed. I grinned. She placed her hand on my chest and pushed me toward the bed. "Now that we've got that settled, I think you have some serious making up to do, don't you?" she pushed me down onto the bed, and crawled up my body to lay on top of me.
"Whatever you say."
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