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.
Warnings: This story contains mature contents and may be offensive to some readers. Caveat emptor.
Author's Note: Details have been changed/added to re. the festival of Mounukhia.
"I don't see why I can't stay with you!"
"You know why, Gabrielle."
"Can't we get the Amazons to help? They're not that far away from here..."
"I'm afraid the villagers can't wait that long, with most of the men having been enlisted and only women and children left."
"But who's going to watch your back?"
"I'll be okay, Gabrielle, it's only a bear. I've killed bigger things."
"Really, Gabrielle, everything will be alright; and I'll see you in Amazonia in a few days."
"Gabrielle, you know you have to be with your Amazon sisters. You're their queen and they expect you to preside over the festival honouring Artemis. You're the goddess' chosen."
"Arrgh! The Amazons have too many festivals!"
"If you ask me, Gabrielle, we Greeks have too many festivals."
"Be careful, okay? Remember your promise..."
"I will, and I do."
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
When the procession began that morning, Gabrielle had noticed immediately the marked difference between this Amazon festival and the last one she attended. While the previous one was spirited and jovial, even almost ribald, thick atmosphere of somberness blanketed this one.
Round cakes, representing the moon, had been offered to the goddess. A group of young girls were then beginning to gather around the ceremonial ground.
Wearing leaf-crowns on their heads and fur tunics, the young girls performed the dance of thanksgiving to the goddess of the hunt. Some of the dancers wielded long bows, some, cross bows, each with a silver-tipped arrow in her other hand. Every move was perfectly timed, every step, consummately choreographed. It was absolutely enchanting.
Instinctively, Gabrielle looked to the spot away from the crowd, Xena's favourite, wanting to share with the warrior her feeling of awe. It took a moment for her to remember that Xena had stayed behind to help the villagers.
Looking around, Gabrielle realized this was the first time she was alone on the dais, and not have Xena somewhere within her sight. A sense of familiarity struck her, and she remembered that there was another time... That fateful day when she took the queen's mask... And the events which went before... *Don't go there, Gabrielle!* She silently chastised herself.
The queen willed her mind to return to watching the dance. But she found her focus ceaselessly drawn back to the empty spot by the trees. Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief when that portion of the rites ended, and the high priestess approached her. She stepped down from the dais to the altar, and handed the priestess the ceremonial dagger.
Swiftly, the priestess slitted the she-goat's throat and caught the blood in a chalice. She added red wine to the container and passed it to her queen. Gabrielle took the requisite sip, somehow managing not to wince when she did so, and then concluded the rituals by pouring the remaining mixture over the altar, and reciting a prayer of devotion and gratitude to Artemis.
The entire Amazon tribe cheered.
. . . . . . .
The greyness of dusk lingered as the Amazons sat around the fire to feast. Gabrielle sighed inwardly, and felt herself greying along with it.
Throughout the evening, many of her sisters went to congratulate her on a job well done; many others wanted the opportunity to talk to their admired and beloved queen. To add to Gabrielle's distraught, Solari kept bombarding her with questions about her and Xena, and about their latest adventures. That eventually led to demands by everyone for an impromptu performance. The bard earnestly could not remember another time when she felt as reluctant to tell stories.
. . . . . . .
Gabrielle had thought the night would never fall, and the festivities, never cease. Finally they did. Ephiny insisted she be escorted back to the royal hut, and she was too tired to argue otherwise. Before she turned in, the queen spent a moment chatting with her guards just as she did every evening since she arrived two nights ago.
She enjoyed getting acquainted with the young women who both had just joined the royal brigade. Of course, normally, there wouldn't have been guards outside her hut or following her around at all. Normally, the Amazon Queen has by her side the best protector anyone could ever wish to have...
At that thought, Gabrielle found her physical exhaustion easier to deal with than the profusion of stray thoughts and concerns that commanded her attention all day.
With much effort, she changed out of the ceremonial garb and into her sleeping clothes. Even though it was late spring, Gabrielle was cold. She swept her hair out of her face, and picked up the robe the Amazons kept for her warrior and wrapped herself tightly in it to fend off the chill.
Standing at the small window, the bard turned to the full moon in the twilight, and whispered a prayer to her goddess, asking her to protect Xena and keep her safe.
Then she turned toward the bed and sighed... She had never noticed how big it was, and how empty...
And for the longest time, she tossed and turned, unable to get to sleep. Oh boy, an insomniac Gabrielle! Nobody would believe it! If only her warrior could see her now...
Her mind wandered, as it always did when the Warrior Princess was not around.
And her thoughts drifted to the last time they had made love in this now too big, too empty bed.
How that day Xena had stolen every opportunity to seduce her, had tormented her with suggestive leers and wicked, wicked caresses when she knew Gabrielle was stuck presiding over the festival and could do nothing about it. How by the end of the day, Gabrielle was sure she would die of pure hunger for her warrior.
And Xena had bent on driving her insane that night, when they were finally alone in the royal hut. Her warrior had undressed her painfully slowly and provocatively, forbidding Gabrielle to do anything but be still. And after stroking her already burning desire into a roaring flame, Xena had ordered her to watch the warrior pleasure herself.
Unable to be a passive spectator any longer, Gabrielle had "revolted" and pounced on her warrior, only to have her hands held captive by Xena's strong grip, to have her body held hostage by Xena's firm embrace.
She still remembered how her warrior's breasts felt, nestling into hers. She remembered the strength of warrior's thighs pressed against her own. She felt their slick heat mingled together. She tasted Xena as their mouths ravenously opened to each other, licking and nipping. She heard her own voice pleading for mercy and release. She remembered how her body writhed beneath Xena's, loving the warrior as she was loved. And she still experienced the tremours deep inside her soul.
And that was almost two moons ago, but it was vivid as if it had been yesterday.
Gabrielle clutched at the warrior's robe, squeezing her palms against the fabric, eager to be imprisoned by the person who enslaved her heart, to preserve the warmth she desperately needed wrapped around her.
It was candlemarks later before she finally drifted into fitful sleep.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The night was cloudless. Moonlight shed a sickly white radiance through the tall silhouettes of trees. Faint seething of the wind and insect calls floated in the air. The grass and fallen leaves on the forest floor rustle and crunch as the Warrior Princess tracked her prey.
Xena had been stalking the forest for the fourth night in a roll. Despite the warrior's expert ability, the bear had eluded her. She would have thought it gone, but for the nightly terror it continued to inflict on the villagers.
She didn't know how long she had wandered, checking at suspicious marks on trees limbs, feeling the shift of the wind, for any signs that might lead to the end of her assignment. The warrior looked up at the handful of stars still visible in the faint blue of predawn twilight, and sighed at another night's effort wasted, at another night away from her bard.
She started back to the village. In less than a dozen strides, her sensitive scent picked up a hint of musky odor. Xena came alert when the smell became pungent. Something was near.
Between the tattered dark shapes of foliage, liquid orange gleams glinted at her. She watched the bear for several heartbeats before registering its presence. It was a beautiful creature, shiny black, massive and powerful. The warrior felt almost sorry that she couldn't let it live.
A rush of adrenaline welled up in her. And she banished all thoughts not related to the hunt from her conscious. She stilled her muscles and worked at slowing her heart and breathing, giving her body a semblance of death. Bears enjoy the struggle and the slow ebbing of life when they feed; they don't scavenge.
In a way, the hunter and her prey were very much alike, the warrior mused.
Through narrowed eyes, Xena saw the black bear maneuver toward her, investigating her scent. After a moment it started to circle her, each circle tighter than the one preceding. At the second it reached the perfect striking distance, Xena swung her sword.
Incredibly, the bear dodged the thrust. It had moved with a speed unexpected of its mass. Still the sword managed to inflict a foot long gash to the bear's side. Xena took another bloody swipe at its shoulder on the return swing of her arm.
The injured animal let out a thunderous howl and started a hasty retreat.
The Warrior Princess could not allow that. She catapulted into the air and landed squarely in front of the bear, blocking its path.
The beast was suddenly mad. It reared on its hind legs and lunged at its attacker. The roar and the force shook mountain and earth.
Unaffected, Xena side-stepped the impact, and vaulted again, landing behind the towering bear. With a shrill yell, she pierced the center of the bear's broad back.
The bear swung around, yowling in pain. But its thick pelt and flesh protected it from fatal wounding. Again it pounced at the warrior.
Reflexively, instead of blocking, Xena struck her arm forward and her sword collided with the beast.
The bear crumbled in pain. Its weight threatening to drag Xena down. She let go of the sword still embedded in its target. And hurled herself backward to put some distance away from the stunned creature.
In less than a heartbeat, the bear, anger piercing the hunter's eyes with its gaze, rushed forward, as if driven by the Furies.
Xena somersaulted again, and threw her chakram at the animal as she landed. The fire in the mad eyes was promptly doused. Completely uncaring and driven solely by primal rage, the beast charged at the warrior.
It was no match for the warrior before, and was even less of one as the chakram had blinded its sight. Xena deliberately provoked the creature with her sharp war cries, inviting it to strike.
And when it did, the Warrior Princess flipped onto a boulder behind her. The next moment, the rock shook with such force that Xena had to work to maintain her balance. A sickening crash sounded into the forest. Then silence followed.
The warrior leapt off the boulder, and onto the rumpled form in front. The shattered skull cracked under her boot.
The fight had lasted mere minutes. But to the warrior, it had seemed hours. She was relieved that the hunt was finally over.
She bent and with effort, pulled out her sword deeply lodged in the bloody mass. She wiped the blade clean on the heavy fur, and straightened up. And was in mid-motion of re-sheathing the sword when she froze.
Her back prickled and her heart stopped. Xena spun around just in time to see another massive form lunge at her. In a whirl of motion, she recognised her attacker.
It was another bear: dark, husky, although smaller than the one she had just killed, but much more savage and much more fierce. Its lithe form and its speed reminded the warrior of a panther. It was beautiful. And deadly. It intended to avenge its mate.
The Warrior Princess repressed a trickle of fear, leapt high into the air, twisting and turning, trying to get away from the bear's mad swipes.
The creature was relentless. Xena tried but could not put enough distance between them for her to slow the attack with her chakram. And she was tiring rapidly.
She made a quick decision and used the last of her reserves in a series of offensive strikes. She managed to slice the bear's paws and sides. It fell back.
Two pairs of eyes marked each other warily, each waiting for the other's next move. Xena wiped the sweat from her eyes and swallowed.
And the bear snarled, the sound slit through the hush of the forest. It had scented the warrior's fear. It sprang to its feet and renewed its ruthless attack.
Xena ducked and blocked the bloody paws which swatted at her head and chest. Before she could return the attack, vicious claws connected with her side, and she went flying.
The warrior landed on her back with a resounding thud. Her wound throbbed fiercely. Biting down the pain, she scrambled to her feet. And she had a scarce moment to grasp the hilt of her sword before plush red throat and gleaming teeth descended.
The warrior screamed.
It was not a scream, in actuality, just the memory of a sound.
. . . . . . .
For an instant the warrior didn't know where she was. Then one by one pieces of memory returned to her. She became aware of the dead weight crushing her and attempted to open her eyes.
The brightness of the morning sun caused them to slam shut again. *How long have I been out?*
She tried again to open her eyes and this time managed to lift her head a little. A wave of dizziness washed through her.
By chance more than design, the Warrior Princess had managed to pierce the bear in the heart with her sword when its jaw closed upon her shoulder, missing her jugular barely. The beast had died instantaneously, and Xena collapsed under its full weight and her exhaustion.
Pouring the last of her strength into one huge effort, she shifted her shoulder and extricated it from the sharp teeth. Again she reeled but hung on.
She could feel the deep gashes along her sides, and red force throbbing outward as her heart weakly pulsed. She pictured the wounds opening and closing as she took each shallow breath.
But aside from the lightheadedness, and the accompanying nausea which signaled broken bones, a peculiar numbness was all she felt. Nothing else, no pain, nothing. *This is not good.*
She knew then that her body was shutting down, and a fear gripped her. A mind-crimping, heart-stopping sort of fear.
She would never get to her bard, never again hold her in her arms, tell her she loved her, see her. All the anguish, pain, loss, welled up in the fading blue eyes.
She hadn't even a chance to say goodbye...
Xena felt herself slipping into the darkness... *No! Not yet.*
Then she remembered...
She remembered the numerous time when she was wounded, how her bard would bite back tears as she tend to her injuries. How she would sit by the far side and cried, when she thought her warrior couldn't hear; cried for her as the only person in the world who ever did.
She remembered she had vowed each time that she would not cause Gabrielle such pain ever again. *Damn you.*
She remembered the desolation and grief in Gabrielle's voice when she was tied to the cross in Tartarus. She relived the eternity she spent listening to Gabrielle sob until her own heart shattered.
She remembered the promise to Gabrielle which she couldn't possibly keep. *Damn you. Damn you!*
And she knew leaving her bard this time would be much, much worse...
In her mind, she reached out like a child, and cried out as the most precious thing was being wrenched from her.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The Amazon Queen looked old this morning. Dark circles plagued her eyes and lines creased her face. She looked up from her tea briefly to acknowledge Ephiny when her Regent joined her at the lunch table.
Gabrielle continued staring into her cup.
"When's the last time you slept or ate?"
The queen shrugged.
"Listen, I know you're worried about Xena. But you've got to take care of yourself."
"I'm sure she's okay. She's either on her way here. Or the scouts we sent out yesterday would have found her, and they'll help with the hunt."
"Here, let's go get you something to eat. When Xena sees you like this, you know she'll have my head."
Gabrielle got up. The next moment, Ephiny was holding her by the shoulders. The bard blinked, suddenly feeling off balanced.
"I'm okay, just got dizzy for a second there."
"Sit down, you haven't been eating well since the festival, have you?"
Gabrielle didn't even bother to deny it. She just let Ephiny fuss over her. And when her friend left to get her something to eat, she closed her eyes and hugged herself tightly.
Food wasn't what she needed at the moment. What she needed Ephiny couldn't get for her. *One more day.* She had promised her Regent, she would wait one more day. Tomorrow she would go search for her warrior herself.
Ephiny came back with bread and light broth for her queen, as she had promised. At the sight of the tray before her, Gabrielle's stomach twisted. For a moment, she thought she was going to be sick.
But that was the least of the queen's worries...
An Amazon dashed into the mess hut.
She froze. Maybe it was the wild-eye frazzled look of the Amazon, or maybe it was the gnawing at the pit of her stomach since she woke up in a cold sweat early this morning. One thought, one word came to her mind.
"The healer's hut, my Queen."
. . . . . . .
Gabrielle came hurtling into the healer's hut, her face contorted with fear. She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw the pale and battered form of her warrior on the table.
Neither the healer nor her assistants acknowledge their queen's presence. Their fingers continued to fly over the warrior's body, cleaning wounds, stitching gashes and rubbing salve on bruises.
Her feet, her body refused to carry her any further, so Gabrielle just stood and watched, everything in slow-motion.
Finally, the healer stilled and looked up. Choosing not to say anything, she just nodded, giving Gabrielle's muscles permission to move. Gabrielle approached the table.
"Xena?" She whispered. Her hands shook as she reached out to touch the warrior, her entire body was one gigantic heartbeat.
Recognising the soft touch even in her unconscious state, Xena turned her cheek into her bard's caress. The room held its collective breath.
Long moments later, Xena's eyelids fluttered. And when she opened her eyes, Gabrielle did all she could to not fling herself around her warrior.
"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry." Came the hoarse whisper.
The bard closed her eyes and swallowed. She was chilled all over, and trembling. She couldn't trust herself to respond, lest she falls apart.
Instead, Gabrielle pressed her palm firmer against her warrior's cheek, wishing the tingle would take the hurt away.
"I'm so sorry, my bard. I didn't know..." The warrior choked. Her eyes imploring, vulnerable.
*Say something, Gabrielle! Tell her that she's here now, that you'll be okay.* But she couldn't.
"Please, please, please don't take this away from me. You're strong. You'll be okay. Please, I need you." Gabrielle pleaded, all the sorrow, the fear, the want streaming down unbidden.
And the warrior, with all her strength, lifted her hand to cover her bard's. And with all her will, she pressed her answer through the contact.
Put out my eyes, and I can see you still;
slam my ears to, and I can hear you yet;
and without any feet can go to you;
and tongueless, I can conjure you at will.
Break off my arms, I shall take hold of you
and grasp you with my heart as with a hand;
arrest my heart, my brain will beat as true;
and if you set this brain of mine afire,
then on my blood I yet will carry you.
- Rainer Maria Rilke, from "The Book of Hours", translated by Babette Deutsch
One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: That word is love. - Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus.
alt fic index <> homepage