See part 1 for disclaimers.
A few feet from the end of the tree line Xena dropped to her belly and crawled forward. A little more mud and dirt weren’t going to make a difference, she decided. The armour that she had so diligently cleaned that afternoon was now looking pretty shabby again and she doubted she looked much better. After this one, I’ll see if Gabrielle would like a vacation, Xena decided. Days like this even a trip to Tartarus might seem restful.
She pulled herself up a little to peer through the winter withered grass, and looked down the hillside to the sight below. Nestled in the foothills of the northern range of the Pindus Mountains, Neapolis, an old and well-established town, was currently surrounded by a network of soldiers. She felt a wave of surprise at how much the place had grown since she had last been through here. More of a city than a town, now. Maybe that’ll help.
The warrior paused in her musings, hearing something out of place in the forest around her. Long fingers twitched for the chakram as she cocked her head ever so slightly to listen. With a roll of her eyes, her dark head turned and she hissed over her shoulder, "I told you to stay with Argo."
"Nuts." A moment later Gabrielle was crawling gingerly over the dirt and rocks to join the warrior.
Xena brought one large hand down on top of the bard’s head and pressed her further into the earth, ignoring Gabrielle’s moue of distaste at whatever was coming into contact with her bared midriff. "Stay doesn’t not mean ‘follow me at your leisure’. What do you think you’re doing out here?"
"You said I could guard your back. And how did you know it was me? What did I do wrong this time?"
Does she ignore everything I say? "You breathed," Xena informed her, and returned her attention to the scene below.
"You heard me breathing?" Gabrielle’s expression was a curious mix of thinly veiled awe and sceptical disbelief. "No way."
"Yes, now be quiet." If it were brighter I could probably get a read on their numbers.
"Well, I beg your pardon. We mortals have to do that from time to time," Gabrielle responded sarcastically.
"Be glad; it saved your life," Xena pointed out, her eyes still on the camp. Where is the leader’s tent?
"Yeah, well, breathing has that effect."
"No," she answered quietly with far more patience than she thought she possessed. Amazing how her tolerance level had expanded over the last several months. "I recognised it was you."
"By my breathing," Gabrielle clarified.
"Uh huh." Are those horse pickets?
The bard rolled her eyes. "Unbelievable. No, given that it’s you I should know better. So, how?"
"Gabrielle, you’ve been within five feet of me almost every day for most of the past year and a half; sometimes closer. How could I not know what you sound like?" Xena replied with a touch of exasperation in her tone, her attention focused elsewhere.
The bard felt a sudden flush rise in her face. Just what else had Xena noticed? "And if you hadn't?"
"My over-sized bracelet, as you called it, would be sticking out of your chest now."
"Ouch." Gabrielle winced.
"No kidding," Xena agreed dryly. "Now be quiet."
To give the bard credit she stayed silent for the better part of two minutes before sidling closer. "What are we looking at?"
Did she really want to teach Gabrielle about warfare? Would she be any safer not knowing at this point? With a mental shrug, Xena lifted a finger to gesture to the scene below them. "You’re looking at classic siege tactics. See there? The army is back far enough to stay out of arrow range, yet close enough to prevent escape efforts from the town. Over there…" The warrior pointed to a dull gleam of silver wending through the trees along with several milling forms moving in and out of the woods. "They’re controlling one of the streams that probably feeds into the town. If I were them I’d be fouling their water to get them to break faster. The bad water goes downstream while they keep their drinking and cooking water upstream to avoid poisoning themselves. And this one has some brains; they’ve kept their water supplies and latrines separate."
"Wait. How can you tell something like that?"
"The guys going into the wooded section over there are coming out a lot more slowly than they’re going in."
The bard stifled a laugh as Xena continued.
"This group’s very disciplined. See how the tents are laid out. And over there is a group drilling in formation." What looked to be dozens of troops moved about in a well-organised fashion. Xena could well appreciate the abilities of a leader who could keep order in his troops, especially under siege warfare conditions. "Once the initial attack is over, the monotony of a siege can cause boredom, desertions and disruption. But they’re doing everything right; they’re drilling, keeping the camp clean, and maintaining adequate patrols. They’ve even staggered their rotations." The warrior pointed to a spot in the trees and waited for three sets of patrols to pass at irregular intervals to illustrate her point. "If your enemy doesn’t know your pattern, you have less of a chance of being taken by surprise." She paused to glance at the bard who was staring in wide-eyed fascination and growing comprehension.
"You probably didn’t learn all this from a book, did you?" Gabrielle heard a faint snort from her companion. The bard absorbed the lessons quickly and tried to look for other details. Such as the hulking shapes of wood over beyond most of the tents. "Wouldn’t they cut their firewood up smaller?"
"What?" Xena asked and took a look where the bard pointed. She hadn’t seen them yet, masked as they were in the falling darkness. Her eyes took it in, then narrowed as her mind contemplated the possibilities. If they were what she suspected, than Neapolis was in greater danger than they probably realised. Catapults or balista, Xena guessed. She should; she had used them once or twice herself years ago. "It’s not firewood. Whoever this guy is, he’s going to bombard the town with rocks or fire. Those are probably catapults." She reached out and patted Gabrielle on the shoulder. "Good catch."
Gabrielle was flush with the unexpected praise, and felt a warm glow of pride and pleasure in the compliment. "Th-thanks." She mentally smacked herself upside the head and wished she didn’t still sound like the naïve little village girl she was.
Xena looked beyond the enemy camp and tried to get a read on the condition of the town, giving the bard a minute or two to recover her composure instead of teasing Gabrielle as was her first instinct. The blush looks nice on her though. The warrior mentally stumbled on that for a moment before taking a breath and resettling her attention on the walls of the besieged town. Xena regretted now that they had not questioned the farmer closer about the problems going on here. A few dinars was all the help he would accept before he disappeared into the darkness, insistent that a sister-in-law would take him in. A few torches lit the perimeter of the wall, but beyond that, much was shrouded in darkness. Rationing their fuel, Xena surmised. A wise precaution given that the length of the siege could not be calculated. She looked over the scene arrayed below in its entirety, and wondered at the niggling feeling in the back of her mind. Something familiar about this…
Having seen enough for now, Xena eased them back until she felt certain that they would not be seen and then rose to her feet, pulling the bard up with her. Her mind began sorting through the images she had seen as she dusted off her hands and led the way back to camp.
The first order of business, she decided as she lent half an ear to the bard’s excited chattering, would be to infiltrate the camp, perhaps even the town, and find out just what the Hades was going on. But what do I do with Gabrielle? Leaving her alone could leave her at risk to random patrols. But on the other hand, she isn't as skilled in stealth though she did almost get the drop on me earlier. With those injured ribs we’d never be able to sneak past the army and over the wall without risking a lot of fighting. And what about Argo? The pros and cons of this whole venture were beginning to give her a headache.
"-never thought I’d see something like that," Gabrielle was saying to her. "Why do you suppose they’re attacking Neapolis?"
"Hard to guess," Xena replied. "Could be any number of reasons."
And that was enough of a lead-in to fire the bard’s imagination. The warrior listened with fond amusement as the younger woman’s fantastical imagination attempted to list every possible angle. Far from being annoyed, Xena figured that she might actually hit on the answer. Stranger things had happened and, often enough, Xena mused, it happened to them.
"You know, I think the term ‘campsite’ is probably a trifle generous here," Gabrielle said over one shoulder as she wrapped a blanket around her shoulders.
Xena paused in pulling her own blanket loose from Argo’s saddle. "Next time I’ll arrange to have the siege near some palace instead. I just thought you’d appreciate the scenery around here; more inspiring or something."
The bard wrapped the blanket tighter around her body and sat down on a half-buried rock. "You already owe me an inn, Xena. Besides, I have all the inspiration I need." She shivered as a sudden chill wind invaded the tiny clearing. A low rustling filled the air as the leaves moved reluctantly in the breeze. Drawing the blanket closer seemed to accomplish little, and Gabrielle resigned herself to a cold and probably restless night of sleep.
Xena felt her skin tingle a little with the dropping temperatures and decided that they both needed the most comfortable night of rest possible given the task the lay ahead. It wasn’t a difficult decision as such were measured in her world, but it did give her a moment’s pause; a comfortable night meant sleeping close to her friend, and if she were honest, she felt an unsettling, yet not unpleasant, sensation in the pit of her stomach. She bowed her head, considering the implications, and felt uneasy about drawing any conclusions. The bard having a crush on her was understandable and could be chalked up to a sense of overzealous hero-worship. Her own feelings on the other hand… How do you get yourself into these things? she asked of herself.
With no answer forthcoming, Xena joined Gabrielle near the rock and with a hand on the younger woman’s shoulder, gestured for her to slide down. "Scoot forward," the warrior instructed. Confused, but obedient, Gabrielle did as asked. Xena could feel Gabrielle start in surprise as she dropped down behind the bard and completely enveloped her in the cocoon of her blanket, body and arms.
The bard’s response was immediate. "Oh, Gods, yes." Gabrielle closed her eyes and momentarily abandoned herself to a giddy feeling of warm, languid happiness as she leaned back. "You’re better than a summer’s day."
She heard Xena let out a snort behind her. "After what we’ve been through lately, you have the energy to be poetic?"
"That was hardly poetic, but," Gabrielle wiggled back against Xena's breastplate, attempting to find a more comfortable position against the unyielding metal, "it is easier when one has access to such dramatic inspiration as I have."
Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle to still her movements against her chest, and to lend a bit more warmth to the still chilly bard. "Are you saying that I'm inspiring?"
"You’re my source of inspiration," Gabrielle said quietly. "Whether you’re immersed in the thick of battle, moving with awesome strength and grace, or simply sitting in quiet solitude on the other side of the fire from me. You’re incredible."
"Still?" Xena joked wanly. And here I’d hoped that the past year and a half had knocked some of the shine off that image you have of me.
"Always," came the immediate, fervent reply. "I want you to teach me everything you know; I still can’t believe you knew it was me just from the way I breathed. Wow… that could have been nasty otherwise."
"No kidding," Xena agreed dryly. "Don’t feel bad; you would have fooled most everyone else. What were you doing following me anyway? You were supposed to be taking care of those ribs."
She felt Gabrielle shrug in her arms. "I thought that if there were any more of those raiders around I might spot them before they got too close, and warn you."
"So, in other words, you were going to ignore what I told you to do," Xena re-interpreted in some annoyance.
Gabrielle shrugged again. "You said I could watch your back, and I wasn’t going to leave you with no back up." She replied as if that countered any possible argument Xena could raise to criticise her actions. "Now, what about the town?" Gabrielle deliberately tried to re-direct the conversation onto another path. They come too far today to take a step back into petty fights. Her right hand absently fiddled with the lower edge of the bandage covering Xena’s stitches.
"I’ve been giving it some thought," Xena answered as she moved her hand down Gabrielle’s arm until it rested on the bard’s hand, stilling it. She thought the bard would withdraw, but she was surprised when Gabrielle tangled their fingers together and gently held them in her own instead. Xena raised an unseen eyebrow in her direction at the odd behaviour, but continued on. "The hard part will be getting past the army and into the town if this is what I think it is. Both sides will be a danger to us since neither knows who we belong to."
"Where are you leaving me this time?" Gabrielle asked in a resigned voice.
The cool night breeze lifted and brushed the bard’s hair against the warrior’s face, the soft stands tickling her chin. She breathed in the unique scent of Gabrielle, and let out an audible sigh. "There’s no place remotely safe around here. You’ll have to come with me." Unless I just decide not risk you… walk away from this situation. But, I can’t. After what I did, I just can’t. And you’d never let me, would you? Not over a few cracked ribs. Damn. "Besides," she added. "I've never liked leaving you behind anyway." She felt Gabrielle start in her arms. Surprised you, didn't I? Maybe I'm starting to get the hang of this heart-to-heart thing.
"Oh," Gabrielle whispered. She raised her head to look at Xena with a smile that, even in the darkness, felt like sunlight to the warrior. "Are we going tonight? Are we sneaking in? Do you have any ideas? Can I help? What will-"
Xena let out a laugh, and slapped a palm over Gabrielle's mouth to put a halt to the happy flood of questions. "Lessee; no, sort of, yes, and probably." She shook her head, a lop-sided grin on her face. "Whatever was I thinking to let a bard follow me around?"
She felt a smile tickle the underside of her hand. Gabrielle grabbed at the offending limb and pulled back. "Whatever made you think you had a choice?"
Xena opened her mouth to retort, but nothing came out. It was true… Given the other woman's stubborn persistence, even if Xena had succeeded in sending Gabrielle home in those early days, she just had this feeling that she'd wake up one morning to the bard sitting somewhere near her camp. Gabrielle had attached herself first to the warrior's side, and then her heart. With no sign of letting go of either.
Seeing that Xena wasn't going to come back with anything, the bard let out a triumphant laugh. "My gods! No comeback?"
"Isn’t it your bedtime yet?" Xena said gruffly as she raised an eyebrow. Unfortunately, the darkness lessened its overall impact. Not that it had that much effect on the other woman anymore. Hope word of that doesn't get out.
With a sizeable yawn and a careful stretch that almost bumped the warrior's nose, Gabrielle concurred. "It's early, but we might as well. Not much else to do, really," the bard noted. "Not without a fire, anyway."
Xena pulled the blankets back and exposed them to the cold night air. "Come on, then. Get up a second and we'll get the blankets set up."
With the chilling temperature and brisk wind as a motivator, they quickly made up their abbreviated camp. Bedrolls and cloaks would provide them with greater protection against the night air since, from the feel of it, warmer weather was a long ways off yet. Gabrielle was under the covers almost before Xena had finished straightening out the cloaks over top.
"Hey!" Xena warned. "It’s bad enough you don’t stay on your side of the blankets. Don't you go hogging all the covers again, as well."
"What are you gonna do about it, Warrior Princess?" Gabrielle taunted her from beneath the safety of the covers.
Xena stood, arms crossed, looking down at her friend. Even with the darkness, she could still make out the shape of Gabrielle’s face, framed as it was by the reddish gold hair. The blankets were pulled up right under her chin, giving her the appearance of a wayward child. "Do you have any idea of just how young and cute you look?"
"That was low." Gabrielle's brows dropped and she gave back one of Xena's classic icy looks. It was a definite mixed blessing to possess such a youthful appearance. The warrior smirked back at her and reached under her right arm for the buckle on her breastplate. Seeing that Xena was going to take her armour off for the evening, Gabrielle moved to pull back the blankets in order to help.
"No," Xena waved her off. "Stay warm. I'll be done in a minute." With practised ease, she removed her breastplate and bracers, and set them next to her weapons, all within easy reach should she need them. She moved her long form to the makeshift pallet and slid under the covers that Gabrielle held open for her. The bard rolled to her good side, attempting to give the taller woman a bit more space. Small movements and shifting between the two resulted in their lying back to front with the warrior's right arm cradling the bard's head, while the other lay loosely over her hip. The blankets were snugly drawn up around them to ward off the cold, their closeness preserving the warmth between them.
Xena sighed and prodded at the saddlebag she was using for a pillow and found a more comfortable spot. Her eyes lifted to the treetops to where the scudding clouds were beginning to obscure the starry night sky. The weather would be turning before morning, she could tell, which could invite all number of problems… Her musings on the morrow were interrupted when the bard wiggled a little moving her smaller form closer against hers. Xena let her eyes fall to the curve of an ear, over the soft slanting cheek to the outline of eyelashes barely visible from this angle, taking it in with a tender look on her face. For all the evil she had done, for all the pain and suffering that she had caused, it was difficult for Xena to allow herself to enjoy any happiness without also feeling guilt and remorse about it. It had been a rough couple of weeks though, and with all the upheaval and uncertainty in their lives, the woman lying peaceably in her arms was the only calm consistency she knew. Here, her soul was safe. Here, she was home.
Still, Xena couldn't understand what it was that Gabrielle saw in her, or understand how her companion could put so much faith and hope in her. But when the physical discomforts, and the emotional weariness were such to make her road of redemption seem an impossible task, she was grateful for these moments that made it seem worthwhile. And, in a rare moment of humility, Xena gave silent thanks to the Gods for the bard's tenacious and headstrong nature, for her goodness and her indomitable spirit, and most of all, for her willingness to stay day after day with a dark, brooding, cantankerous, beat-up, mostly reformed ex-warlord. She hugged Gabrielle to her and tucked herself around her friend as if to keep safe this precious gift she’d been given. She wondered, not for the first time, what she had ever done to deserve this.
Gabrielle felt Xena tighten her hold, and sensed a sort of desperation in the way her friend buried her face against her hair. It didn’t bother her. Far from it. She had always needed and wanted contact with others herself, and any displays of affection from Xena, rare as they were, were always treasured. Especially with the way things had been between them for the last couple of months. But she was a little surprised, and concerned, at this sudden need in the normally aloof warrior. "Are you alright?"
Xena cleared her throat. "Um, yeah. I’m fine. Sorry," she muttered. The warrior pulled away to give the bard a little more space, embarrassed and nervous at having, perhaps, gone too far. Gabrielle put a halt to the woman’s sudden retreat by lacing the fingers of her left hand with Xena’s and held it against her waist.
"Don’t go. Please?" Gabrielle intentionally let the sound of need colour her voice. "I’ll be cold," she added quietly. Which may or may not have been true, but the bard’s first concern was for Xena’s emotional state. Giving indirect comfort was the only sure way Gabrielle knew how to help without the risk of being rebuffed. Knowing Xena’s intense need to watch over her, the request for her to stay near served a greater purpose than to merely keep them warm through the night. It was a chance for Xena to seek comfort without appearing to do so, to maintain some sense of strength even in her vulnerability.
"I’m here," Xena responded to her plea, and repositioned herself against Gabrielle again. They touched all along the length of their bodies, and neither could refrain from breathing a quiet sigh of contentment. "Good night, Gabrielle."
Falling quickly into the shadowy world of dreams, Gabrielle snuggled deeper into her friend's protective embrace, and murmured her reply. "G'night."
Xena lay still, trying to stave off her need for sleep as she took in the sounds in the darkness. She remained watchful, her awareness stretched to its limits to anticipate possible danger. And long into the night did she defy the pull of sleep, giving her time to think and to listen to the gentle breathing of her slumbering friend.
Gabrielle was roused from sleep by an insistent hand shaking her. "What?" she muttered through the blanket covering her head.
"Time to go," she heard Xena tell her. Rarely a happy riser in the morning, Gabrielle groaned aloud, and rolled over from her front onto her injured side by accident.
"Ouch, dammit!" She rolled quickly onto her back and finally found the gumption to pull the blanket down from over her face. A cold grey sky was barely visible through the treetops, and a brisk wind cut through their campsite causing the bard to shiver. An unexpected plink of moisture against her forehead told her all she wanted to know. "It figures…" Gabrielle moaned as she tried to pull the covers back up.
"Oh, no, you don’t." As usual, the warrior had risen long before her companion and was dressed and cloaked against the inclement weather. "Don’t you even think about crawling back under those covers. Besides," she took a deep breath, smelling the wind, "there’s a heavy rain coming. You’d still be cold and wet, and somehow I doubt that even you could sleep through that."
"Please, let me try?" Gabrielle asked pitifully.
"Up." Xena’s tone brooked no more nonsense. "Now."
Resistance was futile; she knew that Xena would just end up hauling her out bodily from the bed, which would irritate the both of them to no end. She grabbed her cloak off the top of the covers as she sat up, and dragged the heavy woollen material around her shoulders trying not to feel the painful stiffness of her ribs. A chuckle from behind her made her turn around.
"What?" Gabrielle demanded, still digging sleep out of the corners of her eyes.
"Nothing." Xena sat on the log with her dark cloak pulled closed, her lips twitching in barely suppressed humour. "Want some breakfast?" she asked, the innocent expression not quite making it.
"What is it? It must be pretty damn funny to make you crack a smile," Gabrielle commented acidly.
The half smile broke through and Xena grinned openly. "Your hair. You look as though you met the business end of one of Zeus’ lightening bolts." The image in Xena’s mind must have been a vivid one, Gabrielle thought as she watched the other woman tried to hide her amusement.
"Thanks," she responded dryly over the sound of an indelicate guffaw from the warrior as she made efforts to rectify the situation. The bard raked her fingers through the stubborn locks and glared, unready for so much abuse already. "That’s a great boost to my self-esteem."
Still laughing, Xena held out a peace offering; the nature of which was the only thing that could possibly mollify Gabrielle at this point. "Here, have some breakfast. I should know better than to tease you this early in the morning. You’re barely even conscious yet."
"Ha ha." Gabrielle took her portion of the trail rations from Xena’s hand. She bit ravenously into the sticky conglomeration of honey, oats, nuts, and dried fruit; one of the few things that Xena could be trusted not to ruin. Licking the fingers of one hand she pulled the edges of her cloak closer around her trim body, and tried not to think about the intermittent drops of rain slowly soaking all of their worldly possessions.
They broke camp quickly with little conversation between them, and by the time they finished, the rain was falling in earnest. It was a cold rain that chapped the skin, and reminded the travellers that, even though it was spring, winter was barely over yet. Hooded against the weather, they made their way for the edge of the woods, still wary of the possibility of random patrols.
Xena led Argo as she walked beside Gabrielle as she explained her idea to the bard. "You’re going to have to follow my lead on this one. And," she paused, a tinge of concern in her voice, "you’re probably going to find my behaviour pretty offensive, so I’m going to apologise in advance if I have to be… unpleasant."
"That sounds like it could be colourful," Gabrielle observed. "What did you have in mind?"
And Xena told her.
The guards on sentry called out a warning as two travellers on horseback approached the lines. Swords and pikes were brought to bear as the horse drew near. One man, heavyset and wary, separated himself from the rest and peered mistrustfully through the pouring rain. An expression of irritation crossed his face at his inability to make out the riders’ shadowed features beneath their hoods.
"Stand and announce yourself!" he demanded as he brought he pike into a threatening position next to the horse. The animal nickered and scraped a hoof against the wet mud. For a moment the only sound was the heavy fall of rain.
"I want to meet your general." The voice was dark and rich, and he was surprised to find it belonging to a woman. The man looked her over, noticing that the sword attached to the saddle had a used, but well-cared for look to it. He tried to glance at the rider’s companion, but the deep grey wool gave away no secrets.
"Tell me who you are," he began in a stern tone. "And why I should bother."
Before he had a chance to blink, his pike had been kicked from his hand and the blade of the well cared for sword was resting lightly against his exposed throat.
"Because he should know what incompetent asses he has working for him," the rider responded coolly. The other soldiers, taken off-guard, now raised their weapons and closed in. The captain felt the bite of the blade in his neck, and the rider leaned down to grab his collar, almost pulling him off his feet. The ice blue eyes that blazed from the depths of the hood caught and held his gaze. "Call them off if you want to live. Now."
"Do it!" From the corner of one wide eye, the unfortunate captain saw his men reluctantly stand their ground. The almost inaudible sound of a crossbow firing reached his ears, and he grinned in anticipation of getting rid of this troublesome wench. The hand holding him was suddenly gone, and like magic, the crossbow bolt was in her left fist. With a casual flexing of her fingers the bolt snapped in two and was allowed to fall to the dark, wet earth. His eyes widened, and sick fear rose like bile in his throat. "Who are you?" he gasped.
The hand that had caught the bolt reached up and drew back the hood just enough to reveal sharp, cold features framed by straight, raven hair. Her eyes bore into him, and he felt suddenly and irrationally as though he were naked before her. "My name is Xena."
Whispers from behind his back floated to him, " –took Calmai… burned Corinth… she destroyed Messini… Kerkira… the Warrior Princess…" The blade resting against his throat suddenly seemed a littler sharper, and his heart raced faster in his armoured chest; armour that seemed to provide too little protection at this point.
"I’m getting impatient." If possible, the eyes became even more brittle.
He tried to regain his composure, and nodded. "I’ll escort you myself. Akins and Visilios, you’re with me," he said as Xena pulled the sword away from his neck.
"If another attempt is made on my life," she told him, "you'll only be the first to die."
It was stated with such cold factuality that he shivered. There was no room for doubt. He gave a nod of understanding and led the way through the organised maze of tents as the other two soldiers fell in behind them.
Behind Xena, Gabrielle kept still and silent, closely observing the set up of the enemy camp, its armaments, the crests and designs of the troops moving past them. They seemed confident and sure, a sign of good morale, though she could sense an odd undercurrent of tension. But from the look of things, she speculated, they must feel that the war is going in their favour. Her eyes took in the sight and compared it to her admittedly limited, and certainly unpleasant, experiences with armies and warfare. While she couldn’t pin down exactly what bothered her, Gabrielle was forced to conclude that, from what she saw here, there was really nothing about it that was out of the ordinary. Except Xena.
The woman sitting in front of her was virtually a stranger. Though Xena always sat straight and tall in the saddle, she seemed to appear larger than her already towering six feet. The warrior projected an aura of menace and power, and Gabrielle, even knowing the reasons for this, couldn’t help but feel a little uncomfortable… even threatened, maybe. Was she ever wrong when she had thought that it didn't work on her anymore. It was as if she sat near a banked fire that had suddenly flared up and become dangerous in its heat and intensity. Xena had pulled loose the chains meant to hold back the nightmare of her past, and wore the evil that she had been like the cloak that hung about her shoulders. Though intimidated, however, Gabrielle still felt the draw of her powerful charisma, and glancing around, she noticed she was not alone. Grizzled men and barely bearded boys alike stared in fearful awe as the Warrior Princess rode past.
They were led quickly through the camp, and eventually the captain stopped before a grander structure than any they had previously seen. Braziers smoked in the wet weather, giving off minimal warmth to the soldiers standing guard over the entrance. The guards glared suspiciously at the two riders until the captain motioned them to request audience with their leader.
Xena lifted one long leg over Argo's neck and gracefully dismounted, hindered by neither her cloak nor the rain. She turned and gestured to Gabrielle to do the same. When the bard joined her she pressed the reins into the smaller woman's hand and indicated with her eyes that she would stay outside. By that time, the other soldier had returned to draw back the tent flap and wave them in. Xena immediately stepped forward, preceding the captain into the command tent.
She stopped just inside, her eyes flicking back and forth, taking in the arrangement of the room. A large table surrounded by chairs dominated one side, covered in maps and scrolls. Cushions and small tables littered the other side, placed as if from recent use. A cloth doorway opposite the tent opening revealed what appeared to be a bedroom, and from what was visible, it was richly appointed. Weapons of various types were in evidence around the room; whether the show of strength and skill was real or not remained to be seen.
A tinkle of laughter from the other room drew her attention. A couple appeared in the doorway and paused to kiss in the poor light from the bedroom before entering the main chamber. The woman, with her long hair in disarray, put her hand on the muscled chest visible through the open robe and whispered something that brought a smile to her companion's face. He raised the woman's hand to his lips and laid a kiss against her palm before patting her on the backside and sending her towards the door. The man's lover levelled a glare at Xena as she passed, and strode roughly past her and into the rain. Xena ignored her.
His dark eyes followed the woman's swaying hips as she left the tent, before even sparing Xena a glance. If Xena were being fair, she would admit that he was rather handsome, and unlike most warlords, this one was cleaner and better dressed than most. He was tall, though not quite her height, and heavily muscled. Beneath the robe he wore tight fitting trousers that left little to the imagination, but no weapons that she could detect. He brushed a finger through his goatee and stared at her through narrowed, dark brown eyes.
"So, you're Xena." His voice was light and he gave her a sudden boyish smile. "This is rather an unexpected surprise. What brings you to our little corner of backwater?" He motioned for the captain to leave, and then gestured to the cushions on the other side of the room, inviting Xena to sit. He folded himself against the pillows, one arm resting on an upraised knee.
Xena pulled the hood down completely and threw back the edges of the cloak, but decided to stay standing for the moment. "Given how often I’ve been attacked in the past week, I got curious."
"Curious?" the man asked lazily as he reclined further on the cushion. There was no trace of concern in his voice, only interest. "About what?"
"About who was running an operation with such sorry, pathetic excuses for men. I must have trounced close to thirty of your so-called soldiers all by myself in the past week. If all it takes is a couple of women to knock your boys around, then I have serious doubts about your ability to win this siege."
"Ah, how kind of you to offer your professional opinion," he murmured. "Some of the men you haven’t left littered by the roadside did mention having an encounter with a warrior woman. I should have made the connection sooner. But, I can’t see you coming all this way just to tell me my men are incompetent. So I ask again; what, exactly, are you doing here?"
Xena made a show of removing her cloak and gave him a slow, seductive smile. "I’m wondering what the party’s all about. And I’m wondering if my services might be… appreciated." Xena watched, with some disgust, as his eyes travelled appreciatively over the length of her body as she moved to sit near him, reclineing against one elbow. It was an old game, this. One that she had hoped she wouldn’t have to play anymore. Still, it was good to see that she hadn’t lost her touch.
"Is that so? I’ve heard stories about you, Xena." He reached out to snag a decanter from a side table. He carefully poured them both a drink, and then offered her a goblet before taking a sip from his own. "Some bard has been spreading stories that say you fight for the side of right and justice. Some kind of atonement issues, I gather? Don’t frown now; it spoils your loveliness. "
"Do you believe everything you hear?" She took a sip of the amber liquid, her lips quirking.
"Rarely," he admitted easily.
"Good," she purred as she trailed one finger around the rim of the cup. "I didn’t think you looked like a fool." She leaned a little closer to him and gazed into his eyes, allowing her own to take on a darker light. "Fighting for right and justice is all fine and dandy, but I’m tired of slogging through the rain and sleeping on the ground for weeks at a time. I’d like a change of pace, and your enterprising group just might be what I’m looking for." She raised a suggestive eyebrow and licked a drop of wine from her finger. "Care to tell me about it?"
"It’s simple really," he said, a tiny smile growing on his face. "I’m merely looking to restore some stolen property to its rightful owner. I’m just a little more determined about it than most people might be."
"That explains the raiders you hired to discourage anyone from poking their noses in while supplying your troops with whatever goods they can pick up from the locals."
He raised his goblet in salute. "You’re as perceptive as you are beautiful."
She acknowledged the compliment with a nod and took another sip of wine. "And what is it that Neapolis won’t give up?"
"The Spear of Mercy."
"Athena’s spear?" What are they doing with it in the first place? "That’s quite a piece of property."
"It would be, but they only have the spear point of it. The other half is kept in Kozani. I gather they think it protects the town or something. I’ve been commissioned to get it back, and I intend to do so. It’s quite kind of you to express interest, but this party, as you put it, is a private one of sorts. Perhaps next time though?"
Xena’s fingers idly traced the ornate designs on the wine cup. "What if I can solve your problem for you?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"From the looks of things, you’ve been entrenched here for quite a while. Sieges are expensive, and the farmers around here are either going to run out of supplies or go find some help in driving off your raiders. I saw some unhappy faces in your men out there, and I think it has more to do with finances and impatience than the nasty weather they’re working in. I’m guessing you’ll have desertions soon, if you haven’t already. What if I can solve it for you? Would that be worth the price of admission?"
There was a moment of silence as he considered her words. "I’m trying to come up with a reason as to why I should trust you. Would you like an opportunity to persuade me on that matter?"
"No," Xena said simply, and felt satisfaction in taking him off guard. She put her goblet aside and made to stand. "I don’t care if you trust me or not. If you’re not in need of my services, I’ll just be on my way."
"With my army surrounding you?" His eyebrows raised at her temerity.
The warrior laughed at him as she rose to her full height. "I’m not particularly worried." Xena, though outwardly relaxed, was already spinning through plan after plan of possible escapes. She could see the growing tension along his frame and knew that he would prove to be no easy opponent. Killing him outright would likely be suicide, but she might be able to subdue him and use him as a captive to win their freedom. It would be messy and high risk though with trying to manage him and protect Gabrielle both. In full knowledge of her danger, Xena still smiled at him, daring him to turn her down.
He gained his feet in a fluid motion that reminded her of a lion she had once seen in her travels. All massive strength and power, appearing relaxed and lazy, but ready to strike at a moment’s notice. But even lions were pussycats at heart. Here kitty, kitty, kitty. She watched him watching her, his brown eyes taking in her casual pose, and she felt the tension between them grow in leaps and bounds as he closed the distance with her. He lifted a hand, reaching out towards her and Xena employed all her considerable control to remain still as his fingers caressed the angle of her jaw, the column of her neck. His eyes never left hers as he traced the lines of muscle along her shoulder.
"Alas for me," he began in a low rumble. "You’ve read the situation accurately. There are mutterings of… unhappiness, shall we say? I would prefer to avoid killing my own men just to restore discipline, though I will if I must. However, I’m smart enough to realise what your addition to this venture would mean, and the injection of morale would be a boost right now. Obviously I can’t promise you the weapon, but any of the spoils we find after suppressing the resistance could be yours if you’re interested in… joining with me."
Xena felt herself respond to the charm of his small, quirky smile, and mentally applauded him for giving back as good as he got. The sense of tension in the room dissipated as she nodded. "It sounds like an interesting challenge. What are your plans for the moment?"
"Come see." He gestured for Xena to follow as he strode smoothly to the table on the other side of the room. He indicated a map of the area already spread out over most of the surface of the table. "When we first attacked we had the advantage of surprise and actually made into the outer bailey. But, their damn militia was better than the reports we had received, and they pushed us back and managed to close the gate. It’s been two months of Tartarus trying to hold them in there while keeping up discipline. But," He made a deferential bow to her, "I imagine, with your experience, you already know what I’m talking about." He watched the woman’s nod, her eyes never leaving the table’s surface.
He pointed to another section with a manicured finger, and ran the tip over the surface of the map. "Our informant has revealed to us the presence of a sewer line here. It’s older, and still active, but the weather, and the new sewage ducts should give us relatively easy passage to the city grating which is," he trailed the finger over the city wall and into a section of the town, "right over here near the warehouses and storage areas."
Xena listened to his detailed explanation with intense interest while her eyes took in the details in a matter of moments. The warlord’s plan would eventually succeed, she noted. If what he said was true, the tunnel would afford them a safe route into the town, virtually undetected. "You said ‘should’. Who’s the informant?" She was suspicious of anything that appeared too easy.
"Ah, ah, ah." He waved a friendly finger at her and smiled. "I can’t reveal all of my secrets, now can I?"
Smart, Xena conceded. She was never one to tell anyone the whole plan either. And from the looks of things, this man valued control of situations just as much as she did. He had hired a mix of professional mercenaries and common riffraff to obtain his objectives. As she had already concluded, the brigands had been sent out to the surrounding cottages and villages to loot the necessary foodstuffs to support a siege this size, see his supply trains through, and deter any intervention from outside. All the while, the mercenaries maintained the true discipline she had already seen at work. And the catapults, the last puzzle in his plan, were on the verge of completion.
It was only a matter of time before Neapolis fell.
"We could speed this up," Xena’s tone was cold and business-like; a complete change from her earlier seductive play.
"How?" He drew out the word, his curiosity plain. He had heard the stories. Some of the most brutal accounts he had ever heard in his life were from eyewitnesses within his service. Ares’ Chosen was a living legend. And, given that fact, he do much worse than to listen to her counsel.
"Arrange to send decoys over the walls tonight. Preferably the dispensable, clumsy, and stupid. I want them to be as obvious as possible. I’ll take a handful of men and scale another section at the same time. Once inside, we’ll secure the main gate and let your army in."
"I’ve tried something like that already," he informed her. "Their town militia cut them to pieces."
"Then you have little to lose except some idiots, a few of your men, and me." Xena replied with a shrug.
"How in Hades are you going to do it?"
"I have many skills." She gave him a slow smile.
He stared at her silently for a moment, weighing the risk against his objectives. The decision was not long in the making and he let out a laugh. "I’ll bet you do!" He held out an arm to clasp with her, warrior-style. "I’m Stephicles."
"I know," she said, wishing that she did. It might have given her a clue as to what else was on his agenda. Xena took the proffered arm, running her fingers along his forearm as she did so. "Pick four of your soldiers to come with me."
"I will," Stephicles replied and lifted her hand to his lips. "I’ll also order a tent prepared for you, and food will be sent as soon as I can arrange for it. We’ll go over the finer details once you’ve had some time to settle in."
"That will do nicely." Xena gave him another smile, full of promise. "And, perhaps later-" Shouting outside and the sound of something falling in the mud interrupted her in mid-sentence. Without another word, Xena threw on her cloak and strode out of the tent.
Stephicles watched her leave the tent, his smile fading to a grim line, rendering his handsome good looks stern and cold.
"Yeah, she’s quite a woman, ain’t she?" the softly intimate voice said from over his shoulder.
Crossing his arms, the man gritted his teeth, completely unfazed by the sudden presence behind him. "If you’d get your mind out of your pants, Ares, you’d see that she’s not worthy of your consideration any longer."
Mild laughter. "Do I sense some jealously?"
"You’d better be right about this. I won’t fail because of you," Stephicles sneered, and followed the Warrior Princess from the tent.
Stepping between the guards Xena saw Gabrielle standing in the pouring rain, staff raised as if expecting an attack. The bard’s body was tense and alert and the cloak, thrown back, revealed a face angry, but determined. The rain had slicked her hair down, but that and her bared teeth only enhanced Xena's sudden impression of her. Gods, she's changed came the ghost of a thought from the back of her mind as she moved to a place behind the bard. Groaning in the mud were three of Stephicles' soldiers; one holding a knee, the other his nose, and the third was face down, unconscious, in the mud. Four more were eyeing the bard with a new found respect and were in the midst of trying a concerted effort to overwhelm her when Xena arrived.
"What’s going on here?" she asked coolly from behind the bard's shoulder. The sight of the Warrior Princess behind the smaller woman cooled their ardour faster than the cold rain ever could. "Stephicles, if they've damaged my property, you'll only wish you were dead," Xena said over her shoulder as the warlord emerged from his tent. She ignored the men lying at her feet and walked in front of Gabrielle. Her expressionless face looked the bard clinically up and down, searching for injuries. Finding none, she met Gabrielle's eyes, looking for confirmation that everything was okay. The bard gave the slightest nod of her head, a movement noticeable to no one but the warrior.
Xena pulled the other woman to her with one hand and snaked the other arm around her waist. She looked over at the soldiers still standing nearby, and made certain they could see her hand as it caressed the wet skin of Gabrielle's well-toned abdomen. Her other hand continued to grip the bard's upper arm as she lowered her face next to Gabrielle's, all the while keeping her eyes on the men around them.
Gabrielle shivered as she felt those long fingers move up from her belly to play with the edge of her top... felt Xena's thumb slip under the material to tease the flesh hidden beneath it. She lowered her eyes, conscious of the pounding of her heart in her inner ear and nearly panicked until she recalled Xena’s earlier explanation and warning, but it in no way dispersed the confusing swirl of emotions rushing through her. Nor could she prevent a sudden intake of breath when she felt Xena's teeth catch the upper flange of her left ear, and the hot rush of Xena’s breath on her skin. When the warrior's lips brushed her neck, she could not repress a tremble, as the heat between them became more palpable where Xena pressed against her.
"You can like what you see, but if you touch her I'll cut off more than just your hands," Xena growled her warning at the soldiers who, affected by the openly erotic display, had started towards them. At the threat in her glittering eyes, however; their retreat was immediate. The look on the slave's face was perceived as fear, her bruise as abuse, and her shaking as terror of her owner. The message was perfectly clear; this one meant what she said.
Stephicles was trying to regain control, shouting at his men for their impertinence. At his gesture the soldiers who had assaulted Gabrielle were cut down. Gabrielle breathed hard, struggling to keep from making a sound as the disembowelled men screamed and thrashed, dying in slow agony in the mud. The sight of men trying vainly to stuff their innards back in nearly undid her, but Xena’s grip on her arm held her steady. His orders to find accommodations for the two guests were carried out with alacrity as the troops studiously ignored the sight and sound of an ignoble death being played out before them. The bard glanced at Xena, only to find her watching the spectacle with an air of vague interest.
"This will not happen again, Xena," Stephicles assured her. He grabbed the nearest guard. "She has been instated as a commander in this army and her orders will be obeyed like those of any other with like authority. Pass the message to the others. Give her accommodations near Orius. Move. Now." The soldier saluted, fist to chest, and set to work.
"So help me, if I find even a single mark on her, I will help the Neapolitans send you and your army straight to Tartarus," Xena said, glaring at Stephicles. Without another word, she turned and made to follow the soldier leading the way to her tent. She allowed Argo to be taken to the stables, and then gestured to her companion to follow.
Gabrielle walked a step behind and to Xena's left, keeping a deferential distance until they arrived at their tent, hardly believing the barbarity of what she had witnessed so far, so soon. The soldiers acting as escort carefully kept their eyes averted from her, she noticed, as she followed Xena inside.
Seeing that the guards were going to take up positions at the entrance, Xena turned back and confronted them. "I hardly need a baby-sitter. Report back to your superior for your next detail," she ordered.
"But, we've been ordered to-"
"I'm countermanding those orders. If your superior has a problem, he can see me directly." She dismissed them without a further glance as she strode back into the tent, having expected, and correctly so, that she would be obeyed.
Xena stopped just inside the doorway, a feeling of bitter self-disgust twisting her guts. Her eyes sought Gabrielle, who stood with her back to the warrior as she slowly inspected the room. That she had warned the bard that this might happen did in no way make the reality any easier to bear. She yanked off her own cloak and absently hung it from a nearby peg before walking slowly over to the bard, only to stop a few feet away. For a moment the only sound was of the rain muted against the thick tarpaulin of the tent’s surface. "Gabrielle?" she asked finally in a quiet voice. "Gabrielle, I'm so sor-"
The storyteller whirled around and pressed cold fingers to her lips, not allowing her to say anything further. Gabrielle's wide green eyes sought Xena's and held her gaze. She watched as the mask of the warlord fell away, leaving only the woman behind. Concern and regret were imprinted so clearly on her face that Gabrielle immediately wrapped her arms around Xena and held her tight. "You had to. You already explained." Gabrielle tried to give whatever reassurance she could just by being near her.
Xena leaned back from the embrace to look into her friend's eyes. She had felt every shake and every tremble as she put her tainted hands on her best friend's body, had felt the hard pound of Gabrielle’s pulse against her lips. I terrified her. Hades, she felt sickened. "I would have spared you that if I could. How can you even… after what I did?"
"Xena, we do what we must to help these people. For the greater good, remember? And I like being near you, believe me." Uh oh, was that a little too strong there? She wondered as she saw a strange look pass over Xena’s eyes. Gabrielle let her serious expression change to a grin, and her eyes take on a definite twinkle. "Besides, compared to this, your cooking is still much scarier."
The warrior let out a reluctant smile and shook her head. "How do you do that? How do you always know what to say to make me feel better?" She raised a hand to touch the fair woman's cheek, but stopped halfway, hesitant, her smile fading. Gabrielle saw the movement and captured the hand in one of her own, helping her complete the journey. At the feel of the warm, callused hand against her cheek she closed her eyes and leaned into the sensation taking comfort from the contact.
For her part, Xena stood in wonder at the complete trust this simple gesture exemplified. No matter what I do, or the danger I drag her into, this has never changed. Maybe… maybe someday I'll earn the right to be worthy of it. Hope was still so new to her.
She slowly pulled her hand back, but not before she felt the bard shiver again. "Here, let's get you out of these wet things before you freeze to death." She reached for the clasps on Gabrielle's cloak and quickly divested her of the sodden garment. Their belongings had been brought with them to the tent, and Xena retrieved their spare clothes and bedrolls for the bard while Gabrielle pulled off her current outfit to dry it by the fire. Feeling confident about the overall situation, Xena removed her armour and weapons, but kept them close, out of habit.
After settling the bard on a pile of cushions near a brazier, she used the edge of a blanket to quickly rub some warmth back into the smaller woman’s cold, chapped skin, and then started drying her hair while Gabrielle shared her observations about the camp. Then, at the bard’s prompting, Xena related her conversation with Stephicles with her usual lack of detail.
"Given that they put us in a tent nearly as large as his, I figured you’d convinced him," Gabrielle said. "What’s he like?"
"Intelligent. Clever. Ambitious. Handsome. He’s also clean and well-spoken. He’s after a religious treasure that the Neapolitans have, and from the plans I’ve seen, if we don’t do something, he’s going to get it. Going to be the first serious challenge I’ve had in a long time." She paused, remembering their conversation. "There’s something about this that stinks though," Xena added as she drew a comb through red-gold strands.
Gabrielle settled more comfortably between her friend’s knees, enjoying the tingle that Xena’s touch inspired. "What doesn’t feel right?" She turned to look up at the warrior.
"Turn around or we’ll never get this done," Xena instructed. "I can’t quite put my finger on it. Feels like it’s on the tip of my tongue." She raised the comb to continue.
"I know how you feel! I get that sometimes." Gabrielle spun around again, curious as to what was nagging the warrior.
"This way, please." She planted a hand on top of the bard’s head and turned it to face forward.
"Alright, alright." Gabrielle finally settled down, allowing the warrior to finish her self-appointed task. "So, he’s handsome, eh? Is he going to be another one of your bad boys?"
"Another of my what?" Xena stopped her brushing and stared at Gabrielle as the other woman leaned back in order to look up at her.
"C’mon, I know you have a soft spot for them. They’re like baklava; you know they’re bad for you, but you just can’t resist having one more. "
"Gab-ri-elle!" Xena watched as the bard failed to stifle a laugh, and fell back into the warrior’s lap. Her eyebrows buried themselves in her bangs. She stared down, somewhat shocked, at the woman sprawled against her. She shook her head, causing her long hair to brush against the bard’s face. Where had the naïve, innocent little peasant girl gone?
"What?!" Gabrielle began to laugh again at the expression on her friend’s face. She lifted a hand to swat at the hair tickling her nose.
"I’ve been such a terrible influence on you," Xena intoned mournfully.
For some reason this caused Gabrielle to laugh harder. She had to hold her ribs from the self-inflicted discomfort.
"What is so damn funny?" Xena demanded, her confusion breeding annoyance.
The blanket Xena had wrapped her in had fallen around her waist revealing the threadbare, over-sized shift she was wearing. It was one of Xena’s, and the only thing left that wasn’t damp from the rain. In the soft light of the fire, the other woman’s expression seemed to hold a profound mix of youth and maturity, innocence and wisdom, to a greater degree than Xena felt that she could ever hope to achieve in herself. It was if all the death and suffering and despair the bard had ever paid witness to had been filtered through her remarkable soul, refining her, but never marking her with its darkness.
The moment touched Xena, then. The fact they were in the midst of an enemy camp plotting its demise was of no matter. The sound of the rain, the soft glow of the fire, and the golden ring of her friend’s joyous laugh in her ears… the rest of the world could cease to exist beyond the confines of the tent, for all that it mattered to her. She had all she needed to survive right here. There was such an unusually powerful and clean feeling rising in her that she could barely recognised it for what it was: happiness. Xena regarded the other woman warmly as the laughter finally died down.
Gabrielle hooked some of her still damp hair behind one ear and gave the warrior her most radiant smile. "You didn’t corrupt me, Xena," she finally answered, laughter still colouring her voice. "Everybody else we’ve met along the way did that." She started to chuckle again. "But never you. Nope."
"Come here," Xena whispered and drew the woman to her. They sat as they had last night out in the open, with Gabrielle resting against Xena’s chest, her arms around the bard. To anyone walking in, it would appear that Xena was making use of her ‘slave’, or at least that was the excuse Xena used to justify the closeness to herself. So, they sat quietly for a long while, staring into the flames, and enjoying the moment of peace in the middle of a war they had chosen to join.
"We’ll scale the wall tonight," Xena finally broke the silence. "You, me, and four others." She lowered her voice and leaned closer until her lips were next to Gabrielle’s left ear. She didn’t want to chance that anyone passing near the tent might overhear their plans. "We’ll take them out the moment it’s possible, and hand them over to the Neapolitan militia as proof of our intentions, and then, hopefully, we'll be allowed to talk with the town council. He's claiming that its stolen property, but I doubt that. We'll get their side of the story and then figure out the next step from there."
"How dangerous will it be going over the wall?" Gabrielle whispered back, her fingers idly stroking the sleekly muscled arm around her waist, taking hidden pleasure from the unexpected closeness.
"I’ve arranged for several diversions. We’ll start over the wall right after they do. But, it’ll still be dangerous. I won’t lie to you about that."
"I know you wouldn’t. I’m just worried about you. That’s all." She expected a joke, or a gentle rebuff, but instead…
"I know," Xena said, hesitated, then... "You know I feel the same." Gabrielle turned her head left to look her in the eye, and smiled, pleasantly surprised by the admission. The firelight reflected in her eyes cast them in a deeper shade of cerulean, and the bard could only stare, enchanted by the unusual colouring. It was that moment she noticed the faintest narrowing of Xena’s eyes as they stared into her own and felt the warrior’s hand softly against her cheek as Xena's lips descended to the line of her jaw. Gentle as sunlight on grass, Gabrielle knew the whispery warmth of Xena’s mouth as it moved across her skin. Her heart quickened again, and she was unable to slow her pulse when she felt Xena lay claim to her lips.
The bard’s focus narrowed to that one point of contact, amazed at the unexpected softness of the other’s mouth as it caressed her own. Her eyes fluttered shut, the better to concentrate on what Xena was doing to her…what Xena was… what… Oh, Gods, her mind reeled, feeling the gentle kiss deepen. Despite the shock, she could not prevent her body’s response. Seemingly of their own accord, the fingers of her right hand reached up to bury themselves in long, dark hair, delighting in its softness even as they pulled the warrior closer. And as her lower lip was captured and tugged upon lightly, her fragmented thoughts included these slightly more coherent than the rest: Was she liking this? Did she dare?
The clearing of a deep male throat startled Gabrielle away, and Xena spared her an unreadable glance before slowly raising her head to glare icily at the intrusion, the mask of the warlord firmly in place. "what do you want, Stephicles?"
"I wanted to make certain that you were comfortable." He gave her a bit of a smirk. "But, I see that you are. I wanted to discuss the specifics of tonight’s assault."
"I’m busy," Xena told him, her voice cool and uninterested, while she played with a few strands of Gabrielle’s hair, more than a little aware that the bard was trying casually to catch her breath. "Come back later."
"I don’t take kindly to being dismissed in my own camp. Make time. Now." As he spoke, he moved further into the room, the firelight playing off the rugged angles of his facing and cutting them into sharper relief. His eyes were fiercely intent as he approached them.
"Leave," Xena commanded. Her tone stopped him in mid-step. Stephicles sensed the increased level of edgy menace radiating from her. "Or I will make you leave."
There was silence as these two strong wills battled with one another. Gabrielle’s eyes snapped back and forth between the two of them, almost breathless with the weight of the tension between the two.
"Don’t try my patience, woman," Stephicles growled in an angry, low voice. "You continue to exist on my sufferance, so I’d watch my step if I were you." He waved a negligent hand in her direction. "Go on; play with your toy. Perhaps if you get laid, you’ll be in better humour later." With that he left the two of them and stalked out into the rain.
The women in the tent remained still after he left, waiting to make certain that there would be no reappearance.
"Wow," Gabrielle whispered at last, her head still spinning. Between the hostile confrontation and the profound effect of that gentle, yet intense kiss, the bard found her heart fluttering erratically in her chest. The expression on the warrior's face, or rather lack of it, at Stephicles’ interruption and parting comment worried her, and glancing up at Xena now, she was concerned to see the Warlord still present and glaring at the empty doorway.
For herself, Gabrielle was both thankful and annoyed at the interruption. She knew that things had been rough between them for a little while, but never in her wildest dreams had she ever thought that Xena would ever… and with her. Of all people. When Xena could have anyone she wanted why would she… Wait a second. Why? Why now? What just happened here? Quickly replaying the moment in her head, she realised what it was. The whole thing suddenly made sense to her. Xena knew. That’s the only reason. She must have heard him before he came in, and that’s why she… It was a strange mix of relief and disappointment that filled her as she guessed at the cause of her friend’s behaviour. Glancing back up, she only grew more concerned at the tight and hardened look on the warrior’s face.
"Xena," Gabrielle called quietly. "Hello? Anybody in there?" She waved a small hand in front of Xena’s eyes. The motion pulled Xena back to awareness, and she grasped the hand in her own and pulled it down. But, she still wouldn’t look at Gabrielle. Which worried the storyteller to no end. "Xena? Hey, come back to me here."
A sigh was the only indication that her friend was still listening to her. A frown growing on her face, the bard sat up and reached out to touch Xena’s cheek, when the sneer in the silky voice stopped her cold.
"Don’t. Touch. Me."
The mask was still there. She couldn’t believe that after all this time Xena would resort to this to keep her away. Gabrielle stared at the other woman for a moment, contemplating the situation. Her intended move was a calculated risk, but she couldn’t think of another quick way to get the warrior’s attention. "Xena, sometimes you can be such a coward," she said finally with a shake of her head and made to rise to her feet. The hand that still held her own tightened and pulled her roughly back down into Xena’s lap.
"What?" Xena growled. "What did you call me?!"
Well, you wanted her attention, thought Gabrielle, wincing at the pain in her ribs as she sat back on her knees, face to face with Xena. The world knew her to be expressionless… unfeeling… cruel, and Gabrielle could see all of that in the lift of one dark brow, in the faint curl of her lip that suggested contempt and rage held barely in check, in the almost total lack of emotion on that beautiful face. But, Gabrielle had learned to see more, more than a world that believed only what it chose to about this woman; The Destroyer of Nations. The eyes, she had long since discovered, often told her more than any words ever could. The bard leaned in close and looked into the other’s icy eyes with her own warmer green tinged gaze. There was hurt there, and pain, and an anguished self-loathing that Gabrielle had, sorrowfully, seen far too often. "Let me in," Gabrielle pleaded. "Please." She put a hand on Xena’s shoulder and shook her gently. "You are so strong, Xena. Don’t be afraid to let me in."
Xena pulled away and climbed gracelessly to her feet. She made her way to a support pole on the far side of the tent, and once there, leaned heavily against it, bowing her head. Her long, dark hair hid her face from the concerned eyes of her friend. "I can’t do this. I can’t do this to you."
Gabrielle came to her side at the sound of ragged defeat in her voice. "You can’t do what?" She put a hand on Xena’s arm, and tried to turn the woman to face her. "We’ve been over this; you told me what to expect. You said that they’d think I belonged to you and wouldn’t bother me. You were only trying to protect me... to protect us. Xena," Gabrielle reached out to grasp Xena’s hands in her own, "you did nothing wrong. I’m not angry with you."
"You should be," Xena told her, bitter anger in her tone. "I took advantage. When I heard him coming… when he came in…It was all I could think of," she finished, feeling the explanation lame and completely insufficient. "I’m sorry."
"Don’t be. How else could you have told him to get lost without him becoming suspicious? And it’s not like you’ve never kissed me before," Gabrielle added. "Well, maybe not like that, but still…" The bard fought to keep the blush from her cheeks even as Xena gave out a groan. She watched as Xena slid from her grasp to sit against the pole, her elbows on her upraised knees and her face hidden by her hands.
"I can’t believe I did that," came the muffled response, heavy with regret.
Gabrielle knelt down next to the aggrieved warrior, and tried to pull one of her hands down. "You know, if you keep going on about this my self-esteem is going be shredded. I didn’t realise I was that bad at it," she said, taking a chance by trying to lighten things up a bit.
"What?" Xena looked at her in bewilderment. The moment replayed itself in vivid clarity. The sound of Stephicles’ voice hailing some passing soldier in the distance as he made his way to the outskirts of their tent had alerted her almost too late. The was no real time to warn Gabrielle without the chance of him noticing something out of place, and with the bard being so close already… it had seemed the ideal solution. Except, she hadn’t counted on either of their reactions. Gabrielle's warm response had been more than she bargained for, and quite without her conscious consent she had found herself drawing it out, loath to end the delicious contact. Just the memory of it… "No, it was good-" She stopped abruptly to wince and close her eyes at the way that sounded, at the bard's sudden grin. Oh, damn. "I meant-"
"Oh. Well, that’s nice to know."
Gods, Gabrielle, you’re going to drive me crazy. Can't you understand? "I should never have brought you with me. What I did was wrong. I used you. You shouldn’t be made to go through this; it isn’t… it’s just wrong." She believed it inevitable that she would be the one responsible for destroying the young woman's innocent spirit. And the thought made her own sin-blackened soul writhe in grief-filled agony. How could she have done that to her friend? Her best friend?
Gabrielle watched the distressed warrior fight a losing battle with herself, knowing from experience that this was only going to be added to the guilt-wracked nightmares she already suffered.
Xena looked away, unable to meet her friend's eyes. "I never… I had hoped that you would never see me like this. Not here... like this." A vague hand gesture encompassed more than the tent, and the army outside that surrounded them. It enclosed all that was a constant reminder of another, earlier life. Xena felt certain that this would be it; that this would be the moment that she would lose her friend.
Gabrielle could only wonder what kind of temptations plucked at her like a siren song, calling her back to all that she once knew. "Stop it." Gabrielle reached out and shook her forcefully. "I chose to come with you. Even after you explained everything to me, I still chose to come with you. I knew the risks going in. I have an idea of what you once were. But, more importantly, I know what you are now. That's all that matters to me. It's the present that’s important. And the efforts you’ve made to atone for your past. You try so hard." She put out a hand to turn the warrior's unhappy face towards hers and gave those over bright eyes a small smile. "So, just get over it, okay? You said it yourself, ‘I won’t leave you, Gabrielle,’ " her voice took on an eerie likeness of Xena’s inflections. "‘Once maybe… but, now… You’ll leave me only if you choose to go.’ Remember?" Gabrielle’s voice was her own again. "So, you’re stuck with me. Because I’m not going anywhere. Get used to it."
"You’re can be so irritating, you know that?" Xena said with a weak smile. But, the strain was leaching out of her features, and she took a moment to swipe at the moisture gathering in her eyes.
"Sweet talking me will get you nowhere," Gabrielle retorted flippantly and helped the woman by brushing away a tear or two herself. "Come on. You’ve had to fight pretty hard the last few days and I know you’re tired. Why don’t you lay down for a while and get some rest. If my stomach’s any indication, it’s not even noon yet."
At the mention of sleep, Xena began to feel the heaviness growing in her eyes, but didn't want to give in. With a weary effort of will she buried the unwanted emotions, leaving an expressionless mask in their place. "I'm fine."
Gabrielle gave her a look. "You're ready to drop, so don’t you start that."
Xena watched the look of pure Poteidaian stubbornness take hold of her friend's beautiful features and knew that she was unlikely to win without a huge, loud, and verbose argument. Enemy camp be damned. Unless, of course, she simply ignored the bard. Which would only serve to hurt the smaller woman, especially given their talk yesterday. No way I’m doing that again anytime soon. And the cushions did look rather comfortable…
What was most amazing was that Gabrielle was just about the only one who could argue with her, or would, for that matter. Everyone else was too terrified of her to risk instant death by trying. Maybe that was why it seemed easier and easier of late to simply give in, just to see the bard happy and to know that she was the one who had made her so. And not getting her own way all the time, while annoying, actually made her feel something akin to normal. "Oh, alright," she said at last.
Between the two of them they settled Xena back against the pile of multicoloured pillows, and covered her with a blanket from their saddlebags. Gabrielle sat by her side, seeing – really seeing - the fatigue and pain etched in the other woman’s face, and she felt a little guilty for not having noticed it sooner. Sparing Xena the unending litany of her chatter, she simply propped herself up on one elbow and used her other hand to gently stroke the dark tresses away from Xena’s face.
"Just rest for a while. I’ll wake you if anything happens," Gabrielle promised her. "Assuming you don’t already know before I do," she finished with a knowing smile.
Xena smiled in return, and turned her head a little to give the bard hand easier access to her hair. It was soothing, and Xena allowed herself this small indulgence. "Gabrielle?"
"No more mushy stuff for a while, alright? It really wears me out." She wriggled her shoulders a little against the pillows, getting more comfortable. "I feel like I’ve been trampled by centaurs," Xena muttered under her breath.
Gabrielle pretended not to hear. "Sure. Get some sleep. I’ll keep an eye on things."
Reassured, the warrior let her eyes close. She only intended to rest for a short time, but her body’s need overrode any ideas of a catnap. Sleep beckoned her and she was helpless to resist.
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