Disclaimer: Xena:Warrior Princess is a trademark of Renaissance Pictures. Story mine, main characters not. Wine, women, sex, bondage (eek!)... Now children, remember! Gabrielle and her personal warrior Xena are professionals; don't try this at home... wait a sec... children! What are you doing here? Leave at once and shut the door behind you, there's good chaps.
© April 1997 Charmer
This is the second part of a trilogy which began with "Comparing Notes".
'Not fair not fair not fair,' Gabrielle repeated, struggling in the warrior's grasp. 'Damn it this grass is so ticklish too!'
A mere inch above her, something which passed for a throaty chuckle caressed her left ear.
'If you didn't squirm so much you wouldn't slide off the blanket,' her tormentor hissed.
Gabrielle squirmed nevertheless. 'Ha! Like that's not your intention all along!'
'To make you slide off the blanket?'
'To make me squirm, you miserable, despicable, treacherous...' Gabrielle ran out of adjectives before she could come up with a suitable noun to finish off. It didn't happen often.
'Gotcha,' her captor gloated. 'The bard's words fail her.'
Gabrielle cried out in frustration and writhed in the iron-like grip. The warrior's right forearm was pinning her left arm to the ground, while the same hand grasped Gabrielle's other wrist and held it close by above her head. This was the root of her disadvantage, the bard considered ruefully. Xena's superior physical strength was such that she could trap her lover in a single grip while her other hand remained free to tease her.
Torture her, more like.
The bank sloped gently down to her right, and their blanket - so carefully laid out when they began - was now a rumpled heap over a yard away. Beneath Gabrielle's naked shoulders the blades of grass joined in the torment. A thousand little co-conspirators in the power game, they alternately itched and tickled the bard's sensitive skin until she was ready to scream.
Xena's left hand found the backs of Gabrielle's knees, and the nails stroked gently across her tender flesh. Gabrielle responded by stretching over to her left, where her teeth managed to nip at the arm which held her captive. Xena yelped, and Gabrielle grinned at this little triumph, only to be punished by a lick on her nose.
'Ah!' she protested, jerking her face away and squeezing her eyes tightly shut. 'You get meaner!'
'No, I just get better, my love.'
The warrior's long dark hair slipped forward as Xena leant down to kiss her sweetly on the corner of her mouth. The soft tresses caressed Gabrielle's neck and shoulders, and the bard shuddered at the delicious sensation. Turning back to meet Xena's kiss, she changed direction at the last moment and swiped her tongue hard across the woman's left eye. The warrior jerked back and gasped, blinking rapidly. Gabrielle giggled as Xena glared down at her, meeting the accusing blue eyes with defiance.
Xena smirked, and shook her head gently. 'Oh dear,' her voice was soft and lilting.
Gabrielle resisted the urge to swallow and continued to stare back bravely. She had given up on trying to break free from Xena's hold. It did her no good, her companion was too powerful. She resolved to just lie there and love it.
Within minutes Gabrielle was squirming again, begging for Xena to release her, not to release her, to stop touching her, keep touching her, to kiss her, stroke her, to take her damn hands off her and just plain take her, all at once and right away thank you very much. For her part Xena fulfilled some of her bard's desperate pleas, eventually, and released the trembling, satiated woman to gather her into a loving embrace.
As she buried her face against Xena's neck, feeling the warrior's pulse beating fast against her flushed skin, Gabrielle's eyes stared wide over the strong shoulder.
I'm going to have find a way to get her back in kind, she thought with determination. Gods, I didn't even give her an excuse this time...
* * *
And so it was with some nervousness that Gabrielle found herself at a tannery in the next large city they visited. She couldn't remember having occasion to visit such an establishment before, and didn't honestly know what to expect when she got inside. As soon as she opened the door the smell hit her powerfully in the face. She wrinkled her nose instinctively, until she realised that it wasn't that bad an odour despite it's strength.
For his part, the leanly built tanner wasn't accustomed to receiving pretty females in his workshop. Dextrous boot-makers, handsome farmers, gallant horsemen - the odd blacksmith with a square jaw and big oiled muscles - these he was used to. But this exquisite young creature with red-blonde hair was something rather alien to him, and when she wandered in through his door he assumed at first that she had lost her way.
'Are you looking for someone, miss?' he asked, quickly setting aside the large piece of hide he'd just finished scraping.
Gabrielle hesitated, her green eyes darting about precariously. 'Um, I'm looking for some leather.'
The tanner raised his thick eyebrows. Unlike his close cropped hair, which was a uniform grey, they were still as dark as midnight, and quite endearing.
'Well,' he said, wiping strong hands on a clean rag, 'I do leather.' He indicated his wares with a sweeping arc of his dark naked arm. 'As you can see, this is the stuff that's ready for sale.'
The tanner stepped forward and showed her to a display at the front of his workshop. Gabrielle's expression grew quizzical when she saw the array of treated skins piled by the door.
'I see,' she said uncertainly.
The tanner quickly surmised that she didn't have much knowledge of the trade.
'Perhaps I can advise you, if you tell me what you want it for,' he said helpfully.
Gabrielle swallowed. 'What I need,' she began, licking her lips, 'is a strip of leather... about this long,' she stretched her arms out wide, 'er... actually, about twice this long,' she corrected herself, 'and I need two bits.'
The tanner watched her carefully. 'Two strips of leather?' he checked.
'That's right. Two strong strips of leather.'
'Oh, um, about two inches?' Gabrielle dropped her arms, looking up into his face expectantly.
'Right.' The tanner turned away briskly and delved into a crate by the wall. After a few moments he turned back round with a coiled strip of hide in his hands.
'What about this?' he asked, flicking out the strap to its full length so that Gabrielle could examine it. Gabrielle put out her hand and touched it.
'Do you have anything softer?
'Really soft. No harsh edges.'
The tanner frowned, and tossed the strip back into the crate. 'Soft leather costs a lot more,' he warned. 'Is it for a belt... for someone else?' He eyed her slim waist with puzzlement.
'It's for someone else,' Gabrielle confirmed quickly, 'but I'm not making belts,' she added softly. 'That piece was about the right length though. Just like that, but soft.'
The tanner pondered for a moment. He sucked on his teeth as he glanced around his workshop, trying to decide what would be best. Then he reached up to a shelf and pulled down a large box, dropping it onto his workbench with a thud. Gabrielle drew in closer as he began sorting through its contents.
'What about a couple of pieces like this?' he asked hopefully, pulling out another strip.
Gabrielle's eyes lit up, only to fade again when she studied the item more closely.
'Oh, it's not a single piece,' she said with disappointment.
The tanner regarded her studiously. 'Well, no... it's two equal pieces riveted together in the middle,' he explained. 'Animals only grow to a certain length, so their skins come in limited sizes. Two short pieces fastened together like this will keep the cost down. Look...' he tugged hard on the strip, pulling it taut between his fists to demonstrate the strength of the rivets, 'it won't break. This is the same technique used for plough harnesses.'
Gabrielle shook her head. 'I'd rather not risk it.'
The tanner replaced the item and slid the box back on the shelf. 'Well then, it'll have to be the expensive stuff. Follow me.'
Gabrielle stepped after him as he led her towards the back of the workshop. She appreciated the fact that he'd shown her the cheaper alternatives first, but grew steadily apprehensive as she wondered exactly how expensive this was going to be.
The tanner unlocked a door and they entered a small windowless store at the rear of the building. He lit a candle and placed it on a table. Gabrielle smiled at the wonderful leather smell that drifted up her nose, and inhaled deeply.
Wow, she thought. Xena.
The tanner rummaged about for nearly a minute before he found what he was looking for, then produced his prize with a flourish. Gabrielle forgot her bartering skills and couldn't help grinning when she saw the two sturdy bands of soft brown hide. They were perfect. Just what she needed.
'How much?' she asked.
Gabrielle nearly fell over. 'Twenty!' she gasped, recovering quickly. 'I'll give you ten.'
The tanner regarded her sadly with soft dark eyes. 'I told you it would be expensive. I'm sorry, but this is not open to negotiation. Twenty is a fair price.'
'Twelve,' Gabrielle conceded.
The tanner shook his head slightly. 'I'm not haggling,' he told her gently. 'They're ten each. Twenty for the pair.'
'Fifteen?' Gabrielle succumbed to the temptation to flutter her eyelashes at him. The tanner's expression remained impassive in the candlelight.
Gabrielle sighed. 'Okay.'
She fumbled in her pouch as they withdrew from the store room. The tanner locked the door and proceeded to wrap the leather strips carefully in a clean cloth, tying the package securely with a thong before placing it in her small hand. Gabrielle gave him the money, wondering how the Hades she was going to explain to Xena the sudden disappearance of most of their savings.
She gave the tanner a guilty smile as she left with her precious purchase.
* * *
'You lost a bet!?'
Xena's expression was beyond incredulous. Gabrielle couldn't see it, of course. She couldn't bring herself to look Xena in the eye, keeping her sorry gaze fixed squarely on the warrior's breastplate.
'You lost twenty dinars on a bet?'
Xena was struggling to get her head round this one. She opened her mouth again, but nothing came out. When something finally did, her normally monotone voice was little short of strangled.
'Twenty dinars on a beetle?'
'My beetle lost,' Gabrielle muttered forlornly.
The two women stood silent for several moments, face to face. Beside them the town fountain bubbled merrily, oblivious to the drama unfolding nearby. This was where they had agreed to meet before parting to pursue their individual activities. Taephos was a large and prosperous town, and Xena had gone off to check out the local arms merchants, more to keep up with any new developments than with any notion of buying something. Gabrielle had gone off with their money, saying she wanted to get some parchment and new laces for her boots. She'd returned with no parchment, no new laces, and their savings had mysteriously whittled down to just four dinars. They would get poor lodgings from that - and no wine for me tonight, the warrior thought darkly.
'Tell me once more.' Xena rubbed her temple. She could feel the beginnings of a headache.
'It was a race,' Gabrielle explained again. 'I bet on a beetle but it lost, so I lost...'
'A beetle race?'
Gabrielle still wasn't looking at her properly, Xena realised. The bard's head had drooped further, her face hidden from Xena's piercing gaze.
'Where was it held, Gabrielle? I want you to take me back there. Perhaps it was a fix... your beetle may have been drugged.'
Unseen Gabrielle rolled her eyes. Gods, she thought, if I didn't feel so bad about this it would be hilarious.
She managed to look up at last, exaggerating her squint against the sunlight in an attempt to disguise her emotions.
'I don't think that's likely, Xena.'
'How many beetles were in the race?' Xena pursued the matter.
'And what place did your beetle come?'
Gabrielle swallowed. This lie was quickly bloating up into a monster.
'Third,' she said, desperately hoping that would satisfy Xena's suspicious nature.
Xena couldn't adequately express her disbelief. This was incredible. Gabrielle had done stupid things before - ridiculously stupid things sometimes - but always with a good reason. Her young companion was courageous beyond measure, and it often got her into trouble, but it was one of the many qualities which Xena loved. Sometimes the bard's actions exasperated her, amazed her, and even terrified her. But this was incomprehensible, and infuriating.
'I can't believe you lost twenty dinars on a frigging beetle!' she yelled.
Several passers-by turned to see what had caused the outburst, but quickly hurried on their way when they saw the fire in the big warrior's eyes. Gabrielle flinched from the same inferno.
'Our twenty dinars!' Xena gasped angrily. Suddenly her expression shifted. No, it just couldn't be that simple, the warrior reasoned.
'Gabrielle,' she said urgently, 'is there something else? Something you're not telling me?'
Gabrielle's eyes widened fast. 'No Xena. Nothing! I just lost it... it was incredibly stupid, I know that. I'm really sorry.'
Xena stared at her, trying to gauge the young woman's reaction. Gabrielle seemed worried about something, but perhaps it was simply her regret at her own foolishness. That and the remorse she was obviously feeling for losing something that belonged to both of them. The bard certainly looked guilty enough.
Xena maintained the severity in her voice as she took Gabrielle's arm and started up the street towards a tavern.
'You know, Gabrielle, there was a time when I would have beaten a recruit for pulling a stunt half this stupid.'
Gabrielle raised her eyebrows slightly but said nothing, putting her arm around Xena's waist instead. The warrior let her but remained unresponsive.
Gabrielle wished she could have come up with a better excuse for losing the twenty dinars - such as one that didn't make her look like such a fool.
* * *
By necessity it was a rather cheap tavern and the clientele didn't look very prosperous. Even the corner table which Xena claimed for them was uneven. The warrior snatched a rag from a surprised kitchen boy and jammed it under one of the rickety legs in an attempt to balance it. She was only partly successful, and cursed under her breath as the table continued to rock under the weight of their elbows.
'I'll be fine with just some soup,' Gabrielle volunteered meekly.
'I doubt that, but since you offered...' Xena turned to the lad she'd just accosted. 'Bread, meat and an ale for me; and one soup.'
Gabrielle closed her eyes. She'd walked right into that one.
The boy brought Xena her drink without delay, clearly an observant judge of the patrons' moods. Xena accepted the mug wordlessly and took a swallow, frowning at the blandness. She set it down on the table heavily and leant back against the wall to wait for the food, folding her arms across her chest.
'Can we book a room?' Gabrielle called after the boy as he walked away.
'Haven't got any,' he said over his shoulder.
Gabrielle sighed, and felt Xena's cold eyes upon her. 'What?' she asked her softly.
Xena made a dismissive gesture and turned her sullen gaze elsewhere.
Gabrielle sighed again, louder this time. 'Look Xena, I said I'm sorry. You don't have to- '
'You'd better not be developing a gambling obsession, Gabrielle,' Xena interrupted sharply. 'I used to hate that, you know! Most of my soldiers played a little dice and could handle it, but there were always one or two who...'
Xena's tirade broke off abruptly in frustration and she turned away. Gabrielle took the opportunity to defend herself.
'Xena, I'm not going to-'
'They caused so much trouble!' the warrior cut her off again, the accusation apparent in her tone. 'I used to pay their debts off myself, then give them a thrashing.'
Gabrielle had had enough. Her sense of guilt was rapidly fading under Xena's censorious onslaught. Even if she had really lost the twenty dinars in a one-off wager, Xena's implied suggestion that she was turning into a gambling addict was over the top. As for the meal arrangements...
'Xena,' she said, fixing her companion with a clear stare, 'are you threatening me with a whipping?'
Xena balked. The expression that fired across her face was rewardingly uncomfortable.
'Of course not!' she retorted. After a moment Xena sought to regain some credibility with a little deadpan humour. 'Not unless you want one.'
Gabrielle struggled to keep her face straight as a delightful opportunity presented itself.
'Why on earth would I want one?' she managed seriously.
Xena's uncertain little smile fell somewhat. Gods, what was it with this young bard? She couldn't still be that naive, could she?
The big warrior cleared her throat awkwardly and picked up her ale. 'Well, uh, you know... some people get off on it.'
'Really? Do you?'
A substantial quantity of the cheap ale found a rapid path into Xena's lungs. The rest cascaded down her cleavage, darkening her leather tunic as she heaved into a mighty coughing fit. Several patrons turned their heads in the warrior's direction, momentarily concerned.
Xena stood unsteadily as her choking subsided, flicking the amber droplets from her breastplate with a feverish hand.
'I'm going to check on Argo,' she croaked. 'These city stable-hands are never as conscientious as the rural ones.' With that she strode quickly to the door and left.
Gabrielle broke into a grin and leant back, relaxing her shoulders against the solid tavern wall. Her grin grew even wider when she saw the kitchen boy weaving towards her with Xena's meal.
* * *
The deep orange of the sunset could only be seen on the tallest buildings by the time Gabrielle sat down on a wall by the fountain, resting her staff beside her. Xena had not yet returned to the tavern, and the bard decided that she would rather wait for her outside. The summer evening was warm and there were still plenty of people about. A few townsfolk had lit torches ready for the coming darkness.
The food hadn't been too bad. The boiled chicken lacked seasoning and the bread wasn't quite fresh, but Gabrielle found it reasonable given the meagre price. Having eaten both that and her own share of murky broth, her conscience was returning to pester her.
'Xena shouldn't have made those jibes...' she whispered to herself defensively.
The shadows darkened and Xena still didn't return. Gabrielle watched the entrance to the tavern, and began to wonder where they were going to sleep tonight. Perhaps Xena had bedded down in the stable. Unlikely, Gabrielle reasoned. Despite Xena's fondness for Argo, it wouldn't be much fun in a cramped city stable with dozens of other horses. She'd just gone off in a huff and would be back to collect her. But then where would they go?
'I need to earn some dinars,' Gabrielle mused out loud. She swung her bag from her shoulder and rested it on her lap, peering inside to look at the small cloth package that had cost her so much. She frowned. She certainly needed to earn a lot more dinars if she was going to put anything like her tentative plan into action, and that would take considerable time.
Better not try the plan for a while yet anyway, she considered. The mood she's in, it could seriously backfire.
A raucous shout from a nearby building broke her train of thought. Gabrielle turned to look, listening to the deep laughter that drifted from across the street. She re-shouldered her bag and stood up, picking up her staff to wander over to the source of the merriment. Peering in through a small open window she saw a large crowd of patrons in a torch-lit hall. They were all men as far as she could tell, drinking and joking. Some were playing dice and other games around circular tables. They were loud, but seemed good-humoured enough.
Gabrielle thought for a moment, then smiled. It was worth a try.
* * *
'You realise you'll be the only woman in there?' the proprietor warned. The stout man hadn't really believed it when his son sought him out at the back of the hall and told him a very pretty bard was at the door offering her services.
'You're sure she means bardic services?' he checked.
'Yes, stories. That's all.'
'Absolutely. She made sure I was clear on that bit.'
The stout man shrugged and headed towards the front door. It took all sorts.
He looked Gabrielle up and down and sighed wistfully. 'Sweetheart, if you want to try it, you're welcome.' He didn't sound very hopeful. 'Anything you make you can keep,' he added. He admired the girl's courage.
'Thank you.' Gabrielle nodded confidently and followed the proprietor inside. The man's lanky son walked at her heels.
'Can I take that for you?' he asked eagerly, indicating her Amazon staff.
'Er, no thanks... I'll be needing it as a prop.'
'Not that kind of prop.'
The proprietor led the way between densely packed chairs and tables to the centre of the hall, where he clapped loudly for attention. Gabrielle stuck close behind, eliciting a few surprised glances and several unsubtle comments from the nearest customers. She put on her best nonchalant smirk in response to the more direct remarks.
'Patrons!' the stout man announced, repeating himself a few times to gain the quiet he wanted. 'I present Gabrielle of... of...'
'Poteidaia,' she hissed as she stepped up onto a vacant chair.
'Gabrielle of Poteidaia!'
Whistles and bawdy cheers greeted the announcement, but she was encouraged to hear no derisive heckling so far.
'She gonna dance?' a man piped up loudly. More hoots and cheers. Gabrielle smiled and waited.
'She gonna do more than dance?' another voice called out. Louder cheers. Gabrielle raised her eyebrows patiently.
The proprietor held out his chubby arms and patted the air in a calming motion.
'No, boys, no! Now settle down. Miss Gabrielle has kindly agreed to tell us all some bedtime stories...' He added a suggestive tone to his voice.
That raised a good-natured laugh. Gabrielle was impressed, and thanked him with a broad smile as he gestured for her to take over. She straightened her posture, gripped her staff firmly, and took a deep breath...
'Take 'em off!' a lewd young voice yelled from the back.
Gabrielle pursed her lips and waited out most of the ensuing laughter. She carefully located the heckler and raised her best Xena-like eyebrow at him.
'If I did,' she said loudly, 'you'd put them on and I'd never get them back!'
The hall erupted into guffaws. Gabrielle grinned at the young heckler's surprise, and watched it turn into a sheepish smile as his older neighbours teased him and slapped him on the back. This wasn't going to be that difficult after all. She only had to keep the stories coming thick and fast, one leading into the next, and she'd be home and dry. She took another deep breath as the hall's mirth settled down again, and began with confidence.
'I sing of Bella, a woman of our village, and a lady of the night...'
* * *
The stout man's hall erupted many times during the course of the evening, so much so that he began to wonder if the rafters could take it. The place was in an uproar by the time Gabrielle took a grinning bow and climbed unsteadily off her chair. She was deafened by the noise of mugs pounding onto wood in appreciation, and gratefully took the hand which the proprietor's son held out as she stepped down. The lanky youth was grinning at her from ear to ear.
'The best one was the one about the furry thing!' he yelled above the din.
'The one about your friend and the furry thing!' he shouted into her ear, pointing up at the skin which decorated the top of Gabrielle's Amazon staff.
'Oh right! Thank you!' she yelled back, clutching a handful of coins as they were thrust into her palm. Inwardly she grimaced. She hadn't mentioned Xena by name, of course, but if the warrior ever found out what the bard had done with that indecent little escapade, there'd be worse than Tartarus to pay.
As Gabrielle manoeuvred her way to the door she was bombarded with cheers, congratulations, and a pile of coins from each table. Thanking her audience, she clutched the money precariously against her midriff, and found the proprietor waiting for her at the front.
'Here...' She struggled to hand over some of the money as she reached him. 'I know what you said before, but I'm dropping half of this, and you did help with that introduction.'
The proprietor accepted the gift graciously and held the door open for her.
'You did well, Gabrielle of Poteidaia.' His eyes sparkled. 'Where did you learn such things?'
Gabrielle blushed for the first time that night. 'Oh well, you know... I travel around a lot.'
As the door closed and the noise lessened behind her, she stepped out into the torch-lit street and breathed deeply of the cool night air. The sudden chill was refreshing. She hadn't realised how hot it had grown inside the crowded hall.
Gabrielle leant her staff against the wall while she retrieved the pouch from her bag. She marvelled as she roughly counted the coins into the pouch. Wow, over thirty dinars...
A tall shadow crossed in front of her.
'How the Hades did you get all that?' Xena asked in amazement.
Gabrielle looked up at her friend, and grinned with excitement as she tied the pouch shut.
'I got it in there!' She gestured behind her with her thumb.
Xena glanced at the large building suspiciously, then back at Gabrielle's delight. She stepped sideways and peered in through the small window. Her eyes narrowed when she saw the patrons inside. Many of them had resumed their gaming at the circular tables. She turned back to Gabrielle and eyed the bulging bag of coins. She glared at the bard.
'Give me that!' Xena snatched the pouch from her and jammed it down her own cleavage.
Gabrielle opened her mouth in surprise, and noticed the angry line of Xena's lips. A light dawned.
'Oh no, Xena, I wasn't-'
Gabrielle cried out when the warrior seized her abruptly and hauled her over her shoulder. The world span giddily as Xena whirled to grab the staff with her free hand and started to march wordlessly up the street.
'Xena, you don't understand!' Gabrielle protested, thumping a fist into the warrior's unresponsive back.
Xena quickened her pace silently.
'Oh for the love of Zeus...'
Golden morning light flooded the room and warmed Xena's face. She lay on her back with her eyes closed, letting the sun glow red through her eyelids, cherishing the unusual softness of the feather pillow behind her head.
A cool breath lifted the hair from her forehead briefly. She didn't move.
Gabrielle blew in Xena's face a second time.
'Again, please,' Gabrielle said clearly.
Xena gave a low whimper. She felt the bard's body move sensuously against her own. Gabrielle was lying directly on top of her, face to face, skin to skin.
'Come on, Xena,' Gabrielle insisted.
'Uh... let me rest for a bit,' Xena murmured.
'You already have. Come on!'
The bard displayed a fearsome appetite. Four times last night and already twice this morning, Xena counted hazily as she felt the young woman's hands trace a tingling path down her sides. Sweet Aphrodite, one day she's going to kill me...
'Gab...' Xena protested meekly.
'You owe me,' Gabrielle warned, using her knee to gently push aside Xena's left leg in order to gain more access for her hands.
'Do you know how humiliating it is to be carted through a town on someone's shoulder?'
Gabrielle's breasts felt so delicious against her skin...
'You realise everyone thought I was drunk?'
Gabrielle's hair felt so soft against her neck...
'Did you hear the comments from those two "street-walkers"!'
Gabrielle's fingers felt so light against her thigh...
'So you'd just better find some stamina, princess, or I'll-'
Xena spun Gabrielle onto her back and captured the woman's sweet lips with her own.
It was an odd kind of surrender.
Some time later they sat opposite each other on the bed, cross-legged in clean linen tunics, devouring a fine breakfast of fresh bread and fruit. Gabrielle's newly acquired wealth had guaranteed them the best room in a luxurious inn, and all traces of the previous day's hostility had been vanquished through the night's passion and tenderness.
'So what are your plans for today, my clever little bard?' Xena asked with uncharacteristic brightness.
Gabrielle picked up a grape and took slow aim at Xena's mouth. Xena opened her jaw dutifully.
'There's a rather exotic bazaar on the far side of town,' said Gabrielle, tossing the grape towards Xena's mouth. She missed, and the warrior retrieved the grape from the sheets and swallowed it. 'I'm going to have a look round,' Gabrielle added through a mouthful of bread. 'Do you want to come with me?'
Xena shook her head and bit into a juicy pear. 'Nope. Don't like bazaars.'
'Really?' Gabrielle picked another grape and took aim again. Xena swallowed her mouthful of pear and parted her lips. 'Why not?' the bard asked.
Xena shrugged as the grape bounced off her chin. 'Too fussy,' she explained, ripping apart a fresh loaf.
Gabrielle smirked. 'Yeah, I know your problem. Too many ribbons and trinkets. Not enough good honest trading.'
'Hmm.' Xena chewed thoroughly.
'So what will you do then?' Gabrielle held up a third grape and closed one eye.
'I'll take Argo to the blacksmith. Get her hooves trimmed.' Xena flinched as the grape collided with her eyebrow and rolled onto the floor.
'Then what?' Gabrielle tucked into a plate of fresh figs. 'There must be something here in town that interests you. It's not often we get to spend time in a place this size.'
'Well...' Xena began slowly.
Gabrielle looked up expectantly. 'What?' she prompted.
'Well, since you earned so many dinars last night...'
'Yes?' The bard's eyes widened with anticipation.
'And since you might give me some of them for being so good this morning...'
'Yes?' Gabrielle giggled.
'I did see a good tannery where I could get all my leathers treated.' Xena smiled.
Gabrielle swallowed a chunk of fig which was just a bit too large. 'Oh great,' she gulped.
'My turn,' Xena announced.
'Open up, my love.'
Gabrielle obeyed, and Xena's well aimed grape landed straight in her mouth.
* * *
Gabrielle bought a small jar of scented oil, and struggled against the urge to buy up a dozen other charming items at the densely packed bazaar. There were countless stalls laid out with exotic cloths and jewellery, and a number of souks whose wares she hardly recognised. After several hours of dreamlike wandering she finally decided to be strict with herself and turn back. Just as she was emerging into the open street again, she caught a faintly syrupy trace in the air.
Turning, she noticed a table laid out with brightly coloured treats.
'A sweet delicacy for a sweet lady?' a thin man with a large gold ear-ring enquired in a well-oiled voice.
Gabrielle approached slowly. Without realising she licked her lips as her eyes scanned the table's offerings. The vendor noticed, and smiled with lips that were practised in hiding the gaps in his teeth.
'Here, try one of these,' he suggested, offering her a piece of something pale and squishy.
Gabrielle reached for the unfamiliar sample, but looked up into the man's dark features with uncertainty.
'It's superb,' he reassured her, stroking his pointed black beard, 'just taste it and see.'
Gabrielle raised the small cube to her mouth and bit tentatively. Her eyes widened, then melted at the exquisite sweetness.
'What is it?' she moaned.
'I call it "Delight",' the vendor whispered seductively. 'Just two dinars for a box.'
'Done,' Gabrielle agreed, and handed over the money.
She meandered back towards the inn with the box tucked safely out of reach in her bag. This, like the scented oil, she wanted to save for Xena; for the plan. As she approached the familiar fountain she paused to rest her tired feet, sitting down on a low wall in the shade of an olive tree. It was noon and the sun was high, and she closed her eyes to the sounds and smells of the city.
'You'll never manage it, you know.'
Gabrielle's eyes snapped open, and she blinked in surprise as the tanner dropped down on the wall beside her.
The grey haired man with the magnificent eyebrows shook his head, his eyes locked on the splashing fountain.
'I saw her carrying you last night, and she came into my workshop this morning. You'll never do it.'
Gabrielle stared at him in amazement.
'Unless she lets you, of course. But I don't think she will. Not openly, at any rate.'
'What are you talking about?' Gabrielle demanded.
The tanner turned to her and grinned. 'The straps you bought,' he whispered conspiratorially, 'I know what they're for.'
Gabrielle turned the deepest shade of crimson she had ever managed in her entire life.
The tanner giggled in a most endearing fashion and put an arm around her waist. Gabrielle stiffened, but relaxed slightly as the gesture proved unusually platonic.
'I'd offer to help, but I don't think that I'd be safe, would I?' he said.
Gabrielle broke into a sheepish grin. 'I suppose not.'
'Do you have a plan?'
'Well, sort of. I'm going to arrange an evening in one of the bath-houses.'
'Ooh, you must have a bit of money.'
'I came into some yesterday...' Her glance flickered involuntarily at the hall across the street.
The tanner's eyes made an equally unwitting trip towards the top of her staff, and twinkled.
'I heard.' He seemed to struggle for a moment. 'Well it's not a bad start,' he resumed. 'What else? A skin of wine?'
'Yes, I did think of that.'
'I can recommend an excellent one. Just go to Atrius down the road and ask for his Gaulish best. You won't go wrong with that.'
The tanner sighed and frowned. 'I don't think it'll be enough, though. I mean, don't misunderstand me, I'm sure you have your talents, but...' he whistled softly, 'having met her... well, it'll be quite a feat.'
Gabrielle looked down at her boots. 'I know.' She bit her lip, then turned to face him again. 'Do you have any suggestions?'
The man inhaled deeply, obviously thinking about it. Gabrielle found herself wondering whether he got asked for such advice very often.
'What you need to do is get her really relaxed,' he said.
'I know that.'
'No, I mean really relaxed. I might be able to help you with that.'
He reached into his pocket and produced a small object. Peeling away a layer of tight wrapping, he broke off a minute piece of something soft and dark and placed it gently in her palm with his finger and thumb.
'Get her to swallow that,' he told her.
Gabrielle inspected the small dark matter with suspicion. It wasn't much bigger than a piece of grit, and smelled fragrantly musty.
'I don't know about this. Is it dangerous?'
'Believe me,' the tanner reassured her, 'the wine is more potent than this little bit of plant extract. Give it half an hour to kick in, and it won't last long. Just mellow her out a little and give you your best chance.'
Still undecided, Gabrielle folded the tiny gift in a cloth for safe-keeping and stowed it in her bag.
'Well,' the tanner announced, slapping his knees and rising to his feet, 'I've got to get back to my workshop. Good bye... and good luck.'
Gabrielle watched him striding back down the street. She shook her head slowly, and stood up to head back to the inn.
'Are you sure you don't want the massage?'
Gabrielle smiled patiently at the rotund woman yet again.
'No thanks. We'll take care of ourselves.'
'It's all in with the price,' the rosy faced woman added.
'That's okay. We don't want to be disturbed.'
The woman shrugged, and gestured to the boy and girl behind her to leave. The two adolescents disappeared again, taking their cloths and oils with them.
'The place is your's for the rest of the evening,' the mistress of the bath-house announced, as though she were conferring a regal honour upon some noble personage. 'I'll instruct them to keep the furnace tended outside until you're finished.'
Turning nimbly on her heel, the large woman stepped out and closed the door, hearing the bolt being shot firmly behind her. She rolled her eyes. Another private session. Well, they were certainly lucrative.
Inside, Gabrielle turned her back to the locked door and faced the warrior.
'I would've liked a massage,' Xena pouted.
'Oh yeah? Which one? The boy or the girl?'
'Come on.' Gabrielle's eyes danced about the luxurious room, taking in the steaming hot pool, the cold plunge, and a solid stone table piled high with clean absorbent cloths. 'Get your kit off and get in.'
Xena raised an eyebrow, then started to unbuckle her armour.
Gabrielle laid her bag carefully on the smooth table and opened it. She withdrew the two linen tunics which she had folded earlier and laid them to one side. Finding the jar of oil, the box of "Delight", and the wineskin she had bought from Atrius, she placed the luxuries on the stone floor within easy reach of the hot pool. The rest of its contents she quickly resealed inside, and put the bag neatly under the table with her boots.
As she stood up again she felt something warm press against her back.
'I got my kit off,' Xena said huskily in her ear, placing strong bare arms around her ribs and pulling her in close. Gabrielle smiled as she felt the warrior's naked hips mould against her waist.
'That was quick.'
'Much as I like you helping me to undress, I can manage it myself if necessary.'
'Good. You can undress me then.'
Xena's hands moved obediently up to Gabrielle's chest and deftly unlaced her shirt. Gabrielle stood still, her chin held high, as the garment was slipped from her shoulders. When Xena began to unwrap her skirt she remained aloof, like a dignitary waiting for a servant to complete a task. As the rest of her clothing fell away she turned round smoothly, and gave a little frown as something caught her eye below. She looked Xena squarely in the face.
'And what's the meaning of this, soldier?' she asked sternly.
Gabrielle reached onto the table behind her for one of the cloths. She grasped the towel by one corner and snapped it sharply against Xena's shin.
Xena looked down at her own boots and greaves. 'Oh yeh...' she gave a near child-like grin, as though neglecting to remove them had been a mere aberration.
'Cheat,' Gabrielle declared.
'Well, you know warriors. We like to do it with our boots on.'
'Don't you think you're getting any before you've had a bath!' Gabrielle's green eyes flashed while she struggled to maintain her poise. Xena looked incredibly good in just those boots and knee-high greaves.
'Move it, woman,' the bard laughed. 'Tub time!'
Xena bent over slightly to take off her boots. As she tugged at the laces Gabrielle sidled around her and stroked her fingertips across the woman's rear. She smiled when she saw Xena tremble.
'What are doing with my butt?' Xena growled.
'Just checking. I have a vested interest in this butt. Hurry up.'
'I could do this faster if you didn't distract me.'
Gabrielle gave her a light pinch.
'Quiet,' Gabrielle admonished.
Xena lay her boots down and straightened. 'My, you are getting forthright,' she teased, drawing up close so that she towered over the bard.
Just you wait, Gabrielle promised silently. She stared up into Xena's beautiful blue eyes.
'In,' was all she said.
Xena allowed herself to be pushed towards the sunken bath. The air was growing steamy, and she trod carefully towards the stone-tiled edge before dropping to her knees to test the heat with her hand.
'How is it?'
'Could be hotter.'
Gabrielle crouched beside her and dipped her hand in the pool beside Xena's. It was plenty hot enough, she decided.
'If the temperature gets too high we won't be good for anything,' she reasoned.
Xena grinned at her. 'We're going to do something, Gabrielle?'
'You bet, princess. I brought supplies.'
Xena noticed the small pile of goodies at the edge of the pool. The wineskin instantly grabbed her attention, and she reached towards it. Gabrielle slapped her hand.
'I'll tell you when,' she cautioned with a smile.
Xena laughed. 'You think you can keep that from me? Think again, my Amazon treasure,' and she seized the wineskin and unsealed it. Passing it under her nose, her eyes widened in pleasant surprise. 'Oh, Gabrielle, this is fine stuff. Where did you get it?'
Gabrielle did her best not to show her delight at Xena's appreciation. She silently thanked the tanner for his recommendation, and put on a little pout.
'Atrius the wine merchant. You're supposed to wait, Xena.'
'Until you're lying relaxed in the pool and I say you can have it.'
Xena quickly cupped Gabrielle's chin in her hand and placed a tender kiss on the bard's lips. As she broke away she lifted the wineskin to her mouth and took a drink.
'Mmm, lovely.' She licked a stray drop from her lips and kissed Gabrielle a second time. Drawing back again Xena frowned and glanced from one to the other. 'I'm not sure which I prefer.'
Gabrielle snatched the wineskin out of her hand and shoved Xena over the edge. The warrior landed in the water with a mighty splash, totally submerged for a few seconds. She surfaced from the chest up, hurled back her soaked hair and growled.
Gabrielle giggled and carefully set the wineskin on the ledge so as not to spill any. She knew there would be an instant price to pay. Xena's arm shot out and a strong hand gripped her ankle. Gabrielle braced herself for the powerful tug which would bring her down into the pool, but it didn't come. Instead Xena's other hand came out and began to tickle her bare foot mercilessly.
Gabrielle shrieked and writhed at the water's edge.
'No! Xena, please!' she begged as the torment quickly consumed her. Xena didn't stop, and began to drag the struggling woman slowly towards her, feral delight on her glistening features. Gabrielle desperately tried to wrench her ankle free, but Xena's grip was like iron while her fingers played as light as a feather on the sensitive arch of Gabrielle's sole.
It seemed to last forever as inch by inch Gabrielle was pulled into the warm water, squirming and pleading, until at last Xena released her foot to duck her once under the surface. Gabrielle came up spluttering and feebly splashed at Xena's mischievous grin.
Xena sucked in harshly through pursed lips at the insult, but her eyes smiled and her eyebrows danced. Gabrielle recovered, then pushed through the water towards Xena and sat astride her thighs. She pressed the woman back against the stone tiles and reached for the wineskin.
'Here. Have it.'
Xena stroked Gabrielle's leg with one hand while she accepted the wineskin with the other. She took a long sip. 'You want some?' she asked.
'No, it's for you.'
'It's very good.'
It's also very potent, thought Gabrielle. Atrius had been pleased to tell her all about his best import, and Gabrielle soon concluded that the tanner had recommended it to her for more than just its taste. She smiled when she saw Xena tilting the wineskin for another long drink, and stretched out her arm for the box of "Delight".
The clear water lapped at her breasts as she balanced the box in one palm and lifted its wooden lid. She placed a soft cube between her teeth and leaned forwards. As Xena lowered the wineskin Gabrielle kissed the delicacy against the other woman's mouth, pushing it between the startled lips with her tongue.
Xena moaned through the unexpected gift, and chewed the sweet morsel slowly.
'That's pretty good too,' she acknowledged.
Gabrielle's tongue darted out to flick against the warrior's mouth, tasting the honeyed flavour on the other woman's full lips. She caught a trace of the heady wine, and it gave her an idea.
Gabrielle lifted the wineskin from Xena's grasp and poured as much as she could into her own mouth. Kneeling up above the warrior, she pushed the dark head back and pressed her lips firmly on Xena's, pushing her mouth open so that the rich fluid flowed in. Xena moaned again, and swallowed deeply.
Xena's eyes fell shut as Gabrielle repeated the luscious process, and kept on repeating it, until at last the warrior clasped her hard against her breasts and refused to release her mouth. Xena's tongue demanded entry and quickly got it, swirling in a fit of fierce possession.
Gabrielle eventually tore herself away to breathe, laughing. 'Ooh, you're a hungry one. I'd better feed you again before I suffocate.'
She reached for the box on the ledge and pushed another piece of "Delight" between Xena's teeth.
'Hm-mm,' Xena agreed with her mouth full, 'if you're going to keep a soldier for your own private use, you'd better keep her fed... in every way.'
'I think I know how to treat my soldiers properly.'
Xena arched an eyebrow. 'You have more than one?'
'Only if one doesn't prove enough. So far she's been keeping up reasonably well.'
Xena swallowed and narrowed her gaze. 'I see.'
The warrior moved to grab her again, but Gabrielle was too quick for her. She slipped her sleek body through Xena's arms and escaped to the side, where she exchanged the wineskin for the jar of oil.
'Now don't you go getting ahead of yourself,' she teased. 'You need careful grooming if you're to stay in tip top condition.'
She guided the reluctant warrior back to the edge of the pool and made her lean back against the tiles again. Gabrielle noted that the table was behind Xena now, with the bag still underneath it. She climbed out of the water and sat on the ledge behind the woman's head, her calves dangling in the water on either side of the powerful shoulders. She uncorked the jar and held it up to her nose, testing the gentle scent before pouring a small quantity into her hand. Putting the jar down, she spread the oil into both palms, and began to massage it into Xena's hair.
Xena visibly relaxed as Gabrielle's hands glided back from her forehead. The bard's fingers smoothed the sweet-smelling oil into every strand of Xena's dark wet hair, from the root to the tip, all the while caressing against the warrior's skin. Xena groaned as Gabrielle's quiet ministrations and the potency of the wine began to take effect. Gabrielle smiled to herself. She was getting there.
After a few minutes, during which Xena almost seemed to fall asleep, Gabrielle rose silently and retrieved one of the linen tunics. Her body had dried while she had been sat on the edge of the pool, and she quickly tied the single cloth belt that kept the robe wrapped in place at her waist.
'Xena,' she said softly, crouching down to the water again, 'this oil is great for the skin as well. Come out and I'll give you that massage you wanted.'
Xena took the offered hand and climbed out, unsteady for a moment as the swift change in position took a brief toll. She quickly blinked and straightened.
She's so magnificent, Gabrielle thought with fresh admiration, watching the rivulets of water glide down the statuesque form. If I manage to capture that it'll be a miracle.
'Here.' She guided the warrior to the table and held up the other short-sleeved tunic for her to slip into. 'The surface will be a bit chilly without some protection.'
The table was made up of a solid marble slab, polished smooth, resting firmly on a central stone plinth. It was almost square in shape and about waist high, and it did indeed feel cold to the touch. Gabrielle indicated that Xena should sit up on one end, while she carefully spread more cloths out for extra layers of insulation and folded another into a makeshift pillow.
Xena's legs dangled over the edge as Gabrielle smoothed some more oil onto her hands and began to massage it into the warrior's feet.
'Lie down,' she told her, 'I'm going to start down here and work my way up. Later you can turn over.'
Xena smiled down at the young woman pampering her, and gently caught Gabrielle's chin to kiss her.
'I'll do this for you afterwards,' she murmured, 'don't let me fall asleep.'
'I won't,' Gabrielle promised with a wink, 'it's not really that kind of a massage.'
Xena chuckled and kissed her again, caressing her neck. 'I was hoping you'd say that.'
'You have to be good, though, and lie down when I tell you.'
Xena grinned and lay back, finding the pillow and adjusting it under her head. 'Shall I undo the robe?' she asked, her voice dreamy.
'No, I'll deal with it when I get there.'
'Okay. A little more wine?'
Gabrielle gave a playful sigh and retrieved the wineskin. She placed it in her friend's hand, and watched with a wry smile as Xena closed her eyes and took another long swallow. A dark red trickle escaped from the corner of her mouth, and Gabrielle leant forward impulsively to lick it away.
'Ooh, this wine is getting better all the time,' Xena said thickly.
Gabrielle moved back to the foot of the table and took Xena's right heel in her hand, leaning under the slab to draw her concealed bag closer. She opened the bag quickly with her free hand before returning the attention of both to the slow massage. After a few moments she bent to place feathery kisses along the inside of Xena's knee, hearing the warrior sigh in response. Slowly she traced her lips up and down Xena's bare shin, all the while rubbing the oil into her toes, and stretched out a hand to pick up one of the coiled lengths of leather.
Gabrielle noticed the other small cloth package lying in the bottom of the bag, and remembered the tanner's little gift. After a moment's thought she decided to leave it where it was. Despite his reassurances she didn't really know what the strange substance would do, and she preferred not to take any chances.
As if she wasn't about to take a huge chance right now, she considered dryly.
Moving her hand up to massage a firm calf, Gabrielle began to loop the soft leather carefully around Xena's right thigh, just above the knee where her leg extended beyond the table's edge. The hem of Xena's robe provided a sensory barrier for her tricky work, being a little longer than knee-length itself, and Gabrielle's tender kisses moving up the woman's leg helped to mask the delicate movements.
Satisfied that this section was ready for now, Gabrielle drew the strap out carefully to the edge of the table and looped it around the corner.
A quick glance underneath located a large iron loop screwed into the underside of the marble slab at each end. Gabrielle guessed they had once been put there as an aid to transportation and long since forgotten. The metal had rusted a little in the steamy atmosphere of the bath-house, but the one nearest to her looked secure. She fed the leather through the iron loop with her free hand, taking care not to draw the strap taut, or to falter in her attention to Xena's massage as she worked.
Movement above caught her eye and she held her breath abruptly, until she saw that Xena was simply taking another sip from the wineskin. The warrior didn't alter her position on the surface, and Gabrielle quickly moved to her right to pick up the end of the leather on the other side of the table. Shifting her attention to Xena's left leg, she began to knead the other foot and loop the strap above the warrior's left knee.
'Now just lie still while I join you,' Gabrielle breathed as she climbed onto the table, the jar of oil and the second coil of leather hidden at her side. Xena opened her eyes and smiled as the bard lightly straddled her hips.
'I thought you were going to work your way up,' she almost slurred.
'I know, but now I think it's better to work my way in.'
Xena laughed gently and closed her eyes again to the smaller woman's careful ministrations.
Xena still held the wineskin loosely in her right hand, so Gabrielle began working on her left one. Her pulse quickened as she realised that this was going to be much more difficult. Relaxed or not, Xena couldn't help but notice the strong strap being tied around her naked limb. Gabrielle resolved that she would just have to go for it and hope for the best.
She lay Xena's arm out to the side and began running gentle kisses up and down the smooth skin. Xena whimpered softly at the exquisite sensation, turning her head away to her right. Gabrielle tried to calm her own breathing, and as she continued her mouth's caresses she swiftly tied one end of the strap around Xena's left wrist.
It had to be a secure bind from the start, and Xena soon reacted. Not, to Gabrielle's instant relief, by flailing off the table, but by turning a quizzical gaze in the bard's direction.
'What's that?' Xena whispered.
'Just part of the massage,' Gabrielle said casually. The second iron loop was too far up the table to use, and she doubted she had the time to risk on it anyway. Leaning to her right she covertly swung the length of leather under the table towards the far side. The strap skirted the central plinth, but her throw was too weak and the other end fell to the floor.
Unaware of what was happening beneath her, Xena smirked up at the bard. Letting the wineskin rest on the marble surface, she lifted her right hand and lightly pinched Gabrielle's breast.
'You think you can capture me, as well as captivate me?' she teased, the threat of rapid retaliation clear in her expression.
Gabrielle's heart skipped a beat. Xena obviously didn't think so, and she wasn't at all sure herself. She gave the strap a second sharp swing under the table, harder this time, and the other end appeared on her left. She leant hard over and caught it quickly before it could drop again.
It's now or never, she thought grimly.
Gabrielle hurled herself onto Xena's free arm and pinned it out flat to the stone surface, hauling on the strap at the same time to draw it taut under the slab. Xena's left arm was dragged hard against the table as Gabrielle raced to wrap the leather around the other wrist. Taken by surprise, Xena's attempt to jerk free came too late; by the time she realised what had happened the knot was secure.
As the warrior pulled instinctively against the sudden bonds on her arms, Gabrielle leapt to the foot of the table. She snatched the hem of Xena's tunic out of the way and tugged hard on the loops which circled her thighs, instantly drawing those knots tight too. The sudden pull forced the warrior's knees apart and fast to the table edge, pinning her body firmly against the marble slab.
Gabrielle drew back, her chest heaving, and wiped a lock of damp hair out of her eyes.
Gods on Olympus, she shuddered, if these don't hold I'm really going to be for it.
Xena inhaled sharply, then hurled herself against the restraints. She didn't get very far.
'Gabrielle!' she yelled, 'What in Tartarus is this?'
Breathing hard, Gabrielle decided to keep quiet and monitor the situation. Xena's head came up and her eyes quickly found the bard. There didn't seem to be much trace of the alcohol or the warm bath evident in her steely glare. Gabrielle watched her carefully, looking for anger in her lover's face. What she found was closer to astonishment.
Xena tore her gaze away and looked rapidly from side to side at the bindings on her outstretched arms. The knots themselves were secure and well placed, tight at the backs of the warrior's wrists where her expert fingers could not reach them. The single leather strap held her flat against the table with no leeway to speak of. Xena tugged fiercely, but simply found herself struggling against the strength of her own arms. She peered down and tried to get some leverage with her legs, but with the same result. She snarled in frustration.
Gabrielle moved round the table to stand at Xena's waist, her eyes searching the captured warrior's face cautiously. She realised how vital it was to judge her companion's reaction correctly now.
'You didn't think I could do it, did you?' she said softly.
Xena's attention snapped towards her, and she seemed about to hurl a mouthful of expletives at her friend, but suddenly faltered. Perhaps it was the steady concern visible on Gabrielle's face which stopped her. She stared up at her for several moments, a range of emotions crossing her features, before looking away again and swallowing hard.
'Have I done it?' Gabrielle asked gently. 'Have I made you my prisoner?'
Xena didn't answer. She screwed her eyes tight and gritted her teeth, and started to pull hard and steadily on her bonds.
Gabrielle stepped back without realising. She watched as Xena's biceps bunched, and the strong forearms struggled to curl in and up off the surface. The muscles in the woman's shoulders rippled and her tendons corded, and Gabrielle's jaw dropped as she saw the edges of the strap curl inward under the tremendous strain. Xena's shoulders lifted half an inch off the table. The leather creaked. Gabrielle held her breath.
With a gasp Xena fell back against the table, still captured. Her chest heaved from the exertion and fresh perspiration glistened at her temples. She blinked and passed her tongue over her lips.
'Yes,' she sighed eventually, in defeat.
Gabrielle let out the breath she had been keeping in and caught the edge of the slab for balance. She thanked all the gods on Olympus that she had insisted on the best quality leather. She seriously believed that her mighty lover would have broken free from anything less.
'I've done it,' she whispered to herself, awe-struck. 'I've actually done it...'
Xena turned to look at her captor, her expression difficult to read. 'Yes you have,' she admitted, in a voice that shook slightly. 'Mind telling me why?'
Gabrielle almost laughed, but contented herself with a slow smile as she began to relax.
'Can't you guess, princess?'
A muscle twitched in the warrior's cheek. 'Untie me,' she said, without a trace of humour.
Gabrielle shook her head slowly, her smile widening.
'Untie me!' Xena repeated.
'Now that would hardly be fair, would it, Xena? After I went to so much trouble to bind you.'
Xena tugged again on the straps, but feebly. 'You've made your point now.'
'I won't hurt you.'
'I don't like this, Gabrielle.'
Gabrielle studied her prisoner closely. There was a hint of something hunted in Xena's face and she tried to gauge what it was. It was hard to believe of the warrior she knew, but she thought it might actually be fear. She frowned slightly into blue eyes darkened by dilated pupils - and it hit Gabrielle abruptly: that wasn't fear, that was arousal.
Gabrielle caught her breath. She put her hand between the folds of Xena's robe below her waist and gently pressed two fingers to the apex of the woman's parted thighs. Xena shuddered, and Gabrielle's eyes widened at the wetness she found there.
'Oh! I think you do like it,' she said, with a touch of wonder.
The muscles in Xena's jaw tightened and a beautiful flush rose up her throat to her face.
Gabrielle deliberately injected a stern tone into her voice. 'Don't try to lie to me.'
A gush of warm dampness fell against her still fingers in response. Gabrielle's lips parted at the rewarding sensation and she felt a heat building in her own loins. This was what she had secretly hoped for, she finally admitted to herself, and she found it overwhelming.
She noticed movement against her fingertips and realised that Xena had stirred against her. Gabrielle quickly withdrew her hand.
'No no,' she cooed. 'That was just a taster before we start, to remind you where everything is. Remember how that feels, Xena. We won't be going there again for quite some time.'
Xena cried out at that and struggled anew.
Getting control of herself, Gabrielle moved round the table and picked up the wineskin.
'I think I'll have a little of this now,' she continued, raising the skin to her lips and taking a shallow draught.
Xena watched, her chest rising and falling. 'Gabrielle,' she said, with renewed calmness, 'I'm going to make you pay for this.'
Gabrielle smirked as she swallowed and leaned in with sweetly scented breath.
'I know that, my love. I'm not a fool. But the point is...' She brushed Xena's ear with her lips, 'you can't do anything about it right now.'
Xena closed her eyes and groaned.
'And deep down, I think you want it. How else do you explain my success in tying you down? I think you let me.'
'I did not!'
Gabrielle considered, and stroked Xena's cheek. 'Okay, maybe you didn't. Perhaps I'm not giving myself enough credit. But if it had been anyone else... You should have stopped me when you had the chance, instead of teasing me.'
Xena sighed. 'What are you planning to do with me?'
Gabrielle frowned at the fake boredom in her captive's voice. That wouldn't do at all. She wasn't about to let Xena go through this on her own terms. She straightened silently and set aside the wineskin. With an agile little jump she leapt up onto the table, landing beside Xena's hip. She moved over the bound woman slowly, settling herself comfortably across Xena's pinned thighs, and just gazed down at her.
After about a minute Xena began to shift slightly in her bonds. Gabrielle said nothing, but extended her hand and began to undo the cloth belt that held Xena's robe closed. As the slender tie fell away, Gabrielle took hold of the edges of the robe and gently separated them.
Xena's breath came harder as the soft linen moved against her flesh. Gabrielle spread the tunic wide, exposing some of the dark curls below Xena's waist - but she wasn't interested in those yet. She pushed the short sleeves back on Xena's upper arms, and feasted her eyes on the sight before her.
Xena's skin was the smoothest, most exquisite bronze imaginable. Gabrielle had seen her many times before, but never like this. Never so at her own leisure, never at her complete mercy. She was beautiful against the pale creaminess of the linen that framed her body, her abdomen tight, her breasts full, her arms taut. Gabrielle marvelled at the muscles and curves, and felt herself melt inside.
My warrior, she thought. My lover. My captive.
She focused on the many small scars which only enhanced the vision beneath her. Bending down, Gabrielle began to trace the tip of her tongue along each one. Some were new, others bore the fade of time. The bard made sure she didn't miss a single one, covering each mark lightly with an elegant sheen.
She heard a low moan, and watched as Xena twisted her head from one side to the other. A surge of warmth shot through Gabrielle's body, and she felt suddenly light-headed with the power she possessed. She gazed down at the stunning creature rendered helpless before her, and sensed her own arousal building rapidly in her centre. Her pulse beat hard between her legs.
Then something dawned on her. Why not yet? Xena wasn't going anywhere.
Sitting up straight, Gabrielle put her hand down between her own thighs, and ran her fingers along the wetness she knew she would find there. She gave herself over to her needs with practised caresses, lightly slipping her fingertips up to lubricate herself with her own fluids. Her eyes grew hooded as she set herself a quick rhythm, and she rocked her hips above Xena's waist as her strokes grew more intense.
She came quickly, her breath short and hard as the spasms took over. She slipped back against Xena's thighs and put out her free arm to support herself, finding a stable grip on Xena's knee and trembling against it. Afterwards she leant forward again, and saw Xena staring up at her.
Desire was written all over the woman's face.
Gabrielle smiled as she got her breath back. She brought her hand out from beneath her tunic and held her fingers close to Xena's mouth. The warrior tried to get up, inhaling the erotic scent and desperate to taste the glistening fingers. Gabrielle didn't let her. Instead she leaned down and took Xena's lips in a long, slow kiss, holding back just enough so that Xena couldn't take control. Xena complained noisily as Gabrielle eventually pulled away.
'Shh,' Gabrielle chided.
'Like Hades!' Xena hissed.
Gabrielle frowned and leaned back. She tugged Xena's tunic aside and slapped her on the outer thigh.
Gabrielle's green eyes flashed. She slapped the woman again, hard. The impact stung her own palm, and a pinkish, vaguely hand-shaped mark appeared at the top of Xena's leg.
'I suggest you pay attention,' she rebuked gently.
Xena trembled noticeably. 'You can torment me, but you can't make me keep quiet about it,' the warrior challenged.
Gabrielle placed her hands flat on the table either side of Xena's head. She raised an eyebrow at her. 'I can keep you a lot quieter, if I choose,' she threatened with a smile, and stroked her finger from one corner of Xena's mouth to the other.
Xena caught her meaning. 'Don't,' she said softly. Her eyes were sincere.
Gabrielle appeared to consider the request. 'It's easier to kiss you like this,' she admitted, and lowered herself to her captive's lips again.
The kiss was deeper this time, and Gabrielle let Xena's tongue find her own, circling and invading the bard's mouth. Gabrielle sighed into the superb taste, revelling in the little nips which Xena's teeth made on her lip, until one little nip lasted longer than the others, and grew harder.
Gabrielle tore herself free before Xena's teeth could get a secure grip. She looked down at her lover, who's mouth twitched a little at this latest near miss. Xena raised an eyebrow at her.
Gabrielle smirked back. 'That will have to be paid for,' she whispered.
And it was.
Gabrielle removed her own tunic and began a slow, lazy teasing of Xena's defenceless body. Her hands and mouth roamed everywhere, caressing every inch of her skin, biting tenderly, tickling her most sensitive areas - except the one place where Xena wanted her most. As the minutes passed by and Gabrielle showed no sign of giving her any release, Xena began to struggle in the straps again, no longer able to resist the urge to fight the leather binding her.
'Uh... please...' she began.
Gabrielle smiled against Xena's breast and took a nipple into her mouth. She sucked on it sweetly, twirling the tip of her tongue against it's hardness.
Xena squirmed beneath her control, trying to gain some friction against her loins, but Gabrielle was careful to keep her distance from the centre of Xena's desire. She fluttered her fingernails against the sensitive skin beneath the sleeves on Xena's upper arms and moved across to torment the other breast.
'Please... I'll kill you... please...'
Gabrielle giggled at the incongruous sentiments, but showed no mercy. The times Xena had held her helpless and made such tortuous love to her flooded the young woman's memory, and she played out every trick she could remember.
'Please... you'll kill me...'
Gabrielle growled. 'Any more insolence like that and I'll have to take a whip to you.'
'Oh gods...' Xena writhed on the edge of delirium, her mind and body both consumed by Gabrielle's words and touch. The blood pounded in her arteries and her nerves screamed, seeming to stretch each fibre of her body like a bowstring. Her every effort was geared to fighting for fulfilment, knowing that she couldn't achieve it for herself, and that knowledge only made her need yet more desperate.
'Gabrielle..' she begged, barely able to get the word out.
Gabrielle moved down her lover's body and stroked her hands against the warrior's inner thighs. Xena shook and gasped at the nearness of her touch, and her fingers clawed the air helplessly. Gabrielle traced little circular patterns against the glistening skin, moving upwards with incredible slowness, prolonging the delicate motions for what seemed like an eternity.
At last she reached the dark curls around the centre of Xena's vulnerability, and she placed a careful finger at the edge of the silky opening. Xena cried out and moved against her, trying to get more of her touch. Gabrielle waited, blowing soft kisses against the warm thighs. She smiled at Xena's desperate, shuddering gasps. The warrior could no longer even speak.
Gabrielle pushed her finger inside once, sliding out and upwards to skim the surface of the tingling nerves above. Xena convulsed.
'Oh, there we are,' Gabrielle breathed with a grin.
She lowered herself between Xena's knees, pushing against imprisoned thighs, and brought her mouth to the intimate flesh between them. Her thumbs and then her fingers found Xena's entrance again, while her tongue attended to the focus of the warrior's swollen desire, giving it the hard little strokes which had been denied for so long.
Gabrielle heard Xena's almost immediate change in breathing and accelerated the pace quickly. She felt the woman's legs flex against her shoulders and held on tight as Xena's climax tumbled over her.
Xena jerked repeatedly and expelled a cry that sounded little more than a struggle for air. Gabrielle kept her fingers and tongue still against her for a few moments, sensing Xena's aftershocks, then gently started to move them again as before. Xena gulped and went rigid as another flow of spasms was wrenched from her depths, before finally going limp against the table.
Gabrielle smiled and withdrew, climbing up her warrior and clinging to her, pressing baby-soft kisses against her cheeks.
Eventually Xena managed a whimper and turned to look up into her bard's eyes. She found the gentle lips with her own and tasted her briefly before falling back against the pillow, utterly spent.
Gabrielle held onto her for some minutes, her face buried against the warrior's neck, while their breathing steadied and the warm silence of the bath-house folded around them like a blanket. Eventually she heard Xena speak, hushed.
'Are you going to give me that massage, then?'
Gabrielle sat up, smiling. 'Maybe.'
Xena tugged meekly on the leather, questioning. Gabrielle pondered.
'Hmm, I don't know...' The bard curled her fingers into Xena's scented hair.
'What do you mean, you don't know?'
'I mean, I don't know if it's safe to give you your freedom yet. Besides...' A mischievous grin lit up her face.
'Besides what?' Xena prompted darkly.
Gabrielle's eyes sparkled.
'I think I want another ride...'
Birdsong greeted the two travellers as they made their way down towards the city walls. Fields appeared beyond the open gates, and between them a wide track leading up into the woods, fresh and vibrant in the early sunshine. Already farmers and merchants were leading their carts into town, laden with wares for the morning markets.
'Did you get your parchment in the end?' Xena asked, looking down from her skittish mount. Argo seemed eager to be out of the big noisy city and into the more familiar countryside.
'No,' Gabrielle said brightly, marching along beside the horse with her staff.
'What about your boot-laces?'
Gabrielle shook her head. 'They can wait.'
Xena pursed her lips at the effervescent bard, and guided Argo carefully between the milling pedestrians.
'Well, I got all my leathers treated,' she said. 'The tanner was very helpful.'
Gabrielle skipped ahead, Xena's cool eyes following her as she approached the Taephos city gates.
Two youths sat by the road, chewing on grasses and watching the general to and fro. The lankier of the pair appeared to recognise Gabrielle as she drew near.
Gabrielle returned his greeting with a happy smile. 'Hey.'
'Yep. Still plenty of world to see.'
'And still plenty of stories to collect, huh?'
Gabrielle coughed and looked at her feet self-consciously. 'Yeah.' She looked up as Xena drew alongside. 'Are we off then?'
'Yes, Gabrielle,' Xena's voice was low.
Gabrielle said a fleeting goodbye to the two youths and marched on quickly.
Xena manoeuvred Argo through the gates more slowly. As she did so, she heard the two youths whispering beside her. She looked at them curiously.
The youths almost ducked as her eyes met theirs, and they giggled covertly. Xena frowned, and listened.
'That's her,' the lanky one was saying.
'Yes! That's the one she was talking about!'
The boys peered up at the warrior, trying not to be too obvious but failing completely. The shorter one leaned forward to look after Gabrielle. 'And that's the thing?' he asked.
Xena scowled down at them. 'What?' she demanded.
The two lads burst into a fit of giggles.
'...furry thing?' one of them whispered to the other.
'Yes!' the other one hissed, '...staff... with her you-know-what. She told us!'
They broke into another bout of gasps and giggles.
Xena stared at them, annoyed. It was clear she wasn't going to get much sense out of these youngsters so she started to move on.
As she passed through the gates, their boyish laughter behind her, a stroke of recognition fell across her features. Her eyes widened suddenly, and she spun back in her saddle.
The two lads were collapsed on the roadside, quivering helplessly.
Xena gaped at them, horror and incredulity plastered across her face.
'Gabrielle!' she yelled.
She spun forward again, eyes burning furiously ahead.
But Gabrielle was already a hundred yards away, running up the track as fast as her lovely Amazon legs would carry her.
This story is continued in "Winning Smiles"
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