By Trisha Von Doss AKA Xenamour
Please see Part I for Disclaimers
They pitched camp against a large rock formation, the base of which had been carved out by a nearby stream. Here in the transitional foothills, monoliths of solid stone jutted up here and there amongst the trees, risen from the colliding surfaces of the shifting earth's crust centuries before.
During the spring and early summer months, when the run off from the melting snow made it swell to capacity, the stream ran up against the stones surface, etching out the face of it a bit at a time, over the course of many years. Now, at the end of a dry fall season, the waterway barely tinkled its existence. What was left of it ran far enough away from the rock base that they could camp next to its curved underside, and be sheltered from both behind and above.
Xena tethered Argo to a small bush, and pulled the saddle bags
and their bedrolls from the mare's back. She carried them over to the camp site
where Gabrielle could easily access them, then returned and began removing the
horse's tack in preparation for her ritual nightly rubdown.
She was so distracted by her earlier mental efforts at damping the Bard's emoted senses, that she completely forgot about their prisoner, who was still tied by rope to the metal ring embedded on the side of the saddle, opposite her. Argo nickered at her a few times, and although the mare's warning registered on some reflexive level, consciously, Xena ignored it.
Practiced hands loosed the front quarter and belly cinches, checking to make sure they swung free, before she began to remove the large piece of tack. Working her hands underneath the saddle and saddle blanket on either end, Xena gave them a pull, expecting them to slide from Argo's back and into her arms.
When the saddle moved, but didn't easily come free, she gave small, slightly frustrated shrug, and rotely motored through a recheck of its assorted mooring straps.
Gabrielle, who had been busy gathering firewood, stopped when she heard the War Horse signal her concern, and now stood watching this entire scene unfold in rather stunned silence, her eyebrows creeping slowly skyward.
In all their years of traveling together, she'd never seen Xena even remotely this distracted, especially with a prisoner in tow. The Warrior's senses were usually in a constant state of alertness; so finely tuned that she could often identify impending danger long before it was a reality. The fact that she seemed to have entirely forgotten their captive's existence, and was ignoring the indicators both from Argo and the saddle's resistance that something was amiss was just... plain... bizarre.
Gabrielle's eyes trailed the rope to their prisoner. He had apparently decided that questioning the Warrior's inattention would not be in his best interest, and looked on in silence, an expression of growing apprehension on his face.
He is smarter than he looks, Gabrielle absorbed absently, before returning her attention to her partner. Having found no fault with the cinches, Xena was renewing her grip on the saddle.
Suddenly realizing that her partner wasn't going to snap out of this little mental holiday on her own, Gabrielle took a step forward and opened her mouth just as Xena gave the saddle another, significantly harder, tug.
At which point the tack...as well as its attached baggage, hit the ground in near synchrony, resulting in a louder than usual thud, followed by a pained, if muffled, "Ooomph".
Which finally got the Warrior's attention.
As well as that of several nearby forest animals.
Xena, still bent at the waist with her hands on the saddle, slowly rolled her head and her eyes, ever so slightly, toward the origin of the noise.
Gabrielle, mouth still agape, followed Xena's subtle line of sight to the fallen thug.
Who subsequently lifted his dust covered face, opened his eyes, starkly prominent in their clean contrast, and expectorated a mouth full of dirt.
The Bard nearly swallowed her tongue in an effort to choke back a laugh. Unsuccessfully. She covered her mouth with her free hand, just as the initial giggle escaped.
Xena straightened, scowled, and overtly shifted a narrow glare from Gabrielle, to the thug, and back again, attempting to express to her partner the importance of maintaining the intimidation factor.
Unfortunately for Xena, that was the Bard's undoing; within moments she was doubled over in a full-on fit of laughter, leaning against a nearby tree for support, firewood scattered at her feet.
Their prisoner, still prone, bounced visually from one to the other of his captors, wearing a look of utter disbelief, and decided that he, and the little blond, were probably going to die.
But Gabrielle's loss of control was infectious. Despite her best efforts, Xena's shoulders began to shake gently, as chuckle slowly rumbled its way from her belly up into her throat. She took one more look at her companion, now on her knees, holding her sides, tears rolling liberally from her eyes, and finally surrendered herself to laughter.
A few moments more and their captive, out of sheer relief at the Warrior's reaction, began laughing too.
Nearly a quarter-candle mark later, the Bard, still chuckling, walked over to the prone man and helped him up. "Let me wet a rag and we'll get you cleaned off a bit." A thoughtful pause as she considered his face. "My name is Gabrielle, by the way."
The prisoner quieted and studied her cautiously for a moment. When the blond's soft green eyes held his evenly, he made his decision. "Amil."
Gabrielle nodded. "I wish I could say it was nice to meet you Amil. Getting ambushed isn't my preferred choice of introductions."
Amil lowered his eyes and shifted his feet uncomfortably. "Yes ma'm," he responded politely, much to his own surprise.
Gabrielle regarded him a moment longer before turning to pull a small square of linen from the saddle bag. "I'll be right back."
Hmmm, not a hundred percent Thug after all, eh Amil? Gabrielle mused as she made her way toward the water.
Amil watched the green-eyed woman as she walked away, and chastised himself sarcastically, "Yes mam." Jeez Amil, some bandit you make.
Then again, he was more than a little impressed. She'd shown a lot of nerve... laughing openly at the Menacing One like that. Still, he realized, it wasn't fear or even awe that had made him respond like a scolded tot. Something about this pale-haired woman's manner made him feel reprimanded and cared for all at the same time.
He sensed, rather than saw, the piercing eyes of the Warrior on him as he watched the blond move toward the stream. He was slowly drawn, in spite of himself, to the intensity of her gaze. She was kneeling next to the saddle, unfastening the rope from its securing ring. Their eyes met. The dark energy she radiated made him shiver involuntarily.
Xena had been assessing him visually as he interacted with Gabrielle. She saw no malice or ill will in his eyes. And she felt no uneasiness emanating from the Bard. Still....it didn't pay to take chances.
When he nervously turned to meet her gaze, she let the Warlord emerge momentarily... long enough to insinuate and unstated threat. Touch her and you die. She watched a small shudder make its way up the man's spine, and congratulated herself. Her dark side still had its uses. Besides, she grinned wickedly to herself, as she locked that feral part of her back inside its cage, she'd be damned if they were going to be the only ones going without sleep tonight.
Gabrielle knelt at the stream's edge and wet the rag she'd retrieved to clean their captive's face. As she leaned over the water she caught a glimpse of her own reflection, and a set of neat white teeth grinning back at her. She watched as her own hand reached slowly up and touched the tensed muscles of her cheek, verifying that she had, indeed, been smiling so hard it hurt. And then shook her head at the reason for it. What in the world has gotten into Xena?
She stood and turned back toward the campsite as she wrung out the rag, watching Xena use the long length of rope that had tied Amil to the saddle, to secure him to a tree. She seemed all right now, fully focused on her task, the rigid set of her carriage communicating the intimidation Gabrielle knew would instinctively keep the man from trying to escape, in the unlikely event he could free himself from Xena's formidable knots. Even trapped animals recognize when it's safer inside the cage, she mused.
As she walked back up the bank she reprimanded herself. He's a man, not an animal, Gabrielle. Ok...not a very nice man, but a man just the same. She considered the quickly subdued look of surprise in his eyes when she had offered her name, and the fleeting moment of trust that had allowed him to give his own. And she remembered what seemed like another, distant life...one in which she would have believed that those small signs were the promise of a good soul, buried beneath a bad history. A time when she saw life in two distinct hues, light and dark. Now...now everything was gray, and she really wasn't sure what she believed in anymore.
Well now that was a mood killer, wasn't it? She shoved such heavy thoughts aside and focused instead on recovering her earlier good humor. All it took was one look at their prisoner's face who, thanks to the painted mask of dirt ringed around his eyes, at the moment quite resembled a raccoon. She smiled again as she knelt to wash his face. He returned her smile hesitantly and she laughed. "I'll get you a drink of water when I'm done." When he looked at her curiously she added, "You've still got a lot of dirt between your teeth."
Xena made one more check of their prisoners bindings before she prepared to leave camp and hunt for dinner. She knew it was silly, he wasn't terribly dangerous to either one of them, even if he did get free, and it was the third time she'd done it since she'd first secured him to the tree. She didn't know why but she couldn't seem to help herself. She would have put it down to a year of fighting for their lives, but the reality was, looking over her shoulder for enemies was nothing new. She briefly wondered if her increasing sensitivity to the Bard's vivid inner life wasn't making her paranoid.
She made her way back over to the saddle bags and pulled a small bow and a quill of short arrows from inside. She found the store of cat gut she used to string the bow and leaned, one leg crossed over the other, with her back against the wall of their rock faced shelter while she worked. She idly watched Gabrielle set out their bed rolls as she threaded one end of the bow, knotted off the cat gut, and wound the remainder tightly over the knot to secure it further.
A finger of waning sunlight threaded its way through the trees and into her eyes, reminding her that the night was on its way. She chided herself for wasting so much time over their prisoner. Hunting in the dark wasn't her favorite pastime, and the idea of leaving Gabrielle alone after sundown really bothered her. Some warrior you are, you're acting like a worried old woman Xena. Gabrielle is more than capable of taking care of herself. She hurried her efforts just the same.
Gabrielle finished rolling out the sleeping furs and their blankets and turned to put another stick of wood on the fire. She had made a point of collecting extra wood this afternoon, aware the weather was getting colder, and the days shorter, and they'd need more fuel to keep the fire going through the night. She rubbed her shoulders briskly to ward off a chill, and looked up to see Amil staring idly at the fire. He was going to get awfully cold, as far away as he was from the only source of heat. She looked reluctantly at their few blankets and decided she'd rather do without than stay awake wondering if she was going to find him frozen to death by morning. Besides, she grinned momentarily to herself, as she moved their sleeping furs a little closer together, Xena's body emanated a natural heat.
A vision of their first night together after the entombment came unbidden with the thought of her lover's temperate skin. A long, passionate, intense night of lovemaking in which each had physically reclaimed the other as their own. Gabrielle felt a blush color her face with the memory. The connection had been tactile...primal....with few words beyond those first uttered apologies and endearments. And few words since, she realized, at least about what had come between them. Another vision...of her lover's body tangled in her own... sent a rolling wave of longing through her center. They had communicated their love and their need for each other that night by touch alone, and it had been promise enough for the Bard, that the rest would come, in time.
The rest would come, in time; it was a familiar mantra. She looked down at the thin wool blankets in her hands and remembered why she was holding them. And you're worried about Xena zoning out. She folded two of the blankets in half, draped them over her left arm as she rose, and moved to take them to their captive.
Only to find her path blocked by a rather tall, attractive, leather clad woman, with a bow.
Xena had been on her way out of the campsite when the small wave of sensual energy hit her, making her knees go slightly weak. She steadied herself against a tree for a moment before she regained her composure and sorted out the sensation. She felt her head. No fever. Her stomach. No...no naseau...but she did feel a little queasy. She focused on that, since it was the one thing she could identify, and suddenly recognized the flutter there, and the flush she felt washing over her body, for what they were. She shook her head... Nah...couldn't be.
But she turned her gaze back toward the campsite anyway... just in time to see her companion move their sleeping furs practically on top of one another, a familiar blush creeping into her cheeks, and a small smile playing at the corners of her mouth. Wow. Well, that's new. Another small wave. Groan.
Oh yeah... This is gonna be really safe. How am I gonna explain it when I come back from hunting with an arrow in my foot?
She closed her eyes and tried to get control of her senses. And was rewarded with another, more intense sensation, accompanied by several images of Gabrielle's body tangled passionately with hers. Her eyes shot open wide. Nope, not helping. Just when she thought she was going to lose control completely, the wave subsided. She took a few deep breathes to steady herself and decided she'd probably ought to get going while she still had her feet under her. But as she saw the Bard fold the blankets and move to stand, she changed her mind, and impulsively headed back toward the campsite.
"And just where do you think you're going with my blankets?" Xena growled, aware of the slight hoarseness in her voice. She held the bow in one hand and slid the fingertips of the other along its stringed surface in an unconscious movement, laced with subconscious suggestion.
Gabrielle started a bit both at the sudden appearance of her companion and at the unmistakable edge of sensual energy in both her voice and body language. Gods she's got a gift for timing. "Our blankets," Gabrielle corrected, working hard to keep her own voice even. "They're our blankets and I am going to give them to the man you've got tied to that tree over there so he doesn't die of frostbite tonight." She sidestepped and attempted continue on her way, making every pretense of ignoring her lover's tease.
Only to be thwarted as Xena stepped in front of her again, wearing a decidedly seductive smile. "And what if I get cold tonight?" Her voice fell an octave lower.
Sending an involuntary shiver tingling along every surface of Gabrielle's skin as her body, already somewhat aroused by her own musings, reflexively responded to its caress. She glanced at the blankets draped over her arm and was remotely glad, once again, for her partner's size, and the view she knew it had prevented their prisoner from having, of the torrid flush she felt spreading across her face. Although there was a part of her at this point, that wasn't sure she would have cared either way.
Her libido silently screamed. Oh... Xena this is so Not fair. They both new pursuing this flirtation further was an impossibility out here, on the open road, especially with a prisoner in tow. Suddenly slightly irritated at that awareness, she decided it was time to remind someone else of the painfully frustrating reality of those rules. Two can play at this game, lover.
Gabrielle raised a suggestive eyebrow and took a step forward, moving Xena's hands, and the bow they held, out of her way as she did. She leaned into a leather clad stomach, making sure skin met skin wherever possible. Hooded green eyes, their pupils fully dilated, looked invitingly into a pair of extremely blue ones.
Lifting her free hand she traced a pattern, from Xena's chin, toward the angle of her jaw, down her neck and over her chest toward the cleft in her armor, with her first two fingers, and felt the catch in Xena's breathing, and the ripple of the muscles under her touch, as she did. Leaning closer, she gently increased the pressure of her contact where her own body met her lover's center, and purred into a waiting ear, "Does that answer your question?"
Xena, having suddenly lost control of nearly all but the muscles keeping her upright, only nodded mutely in response.
Gabrielle pulled back a little and surveyed her quarry, and allowed herself a little self-satisfied smile. She pulled Xena's hands together to remind her that she still held the bow. "Now...if you don't get out of here soon, and find us something for dinner, you're gonna have to find another way to satisfy my appetite."
Taking a step back she made her way around Xena, intent on finishing her initial task. She stopped a few feet away and turned back toward the still immobile warrior. "Oh... And Xena..." A pointed pause. "I am really, really, hungry."
Xena dropped the bow.
Gabrielle took a mental victory lap. I win.
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